Review: ‘The Art of Time in Memoir’

Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts. Graywolf. 194 pages

What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir? The question isn’t as dumb as it may appear. A novel can be autobiographical, drawn completely from life remembered; a memoir is of course made of memory shaped and dramatized. Both forms are completely subjective, that’s their point, and draw upon memory, which is by nature imaginative.

The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts posits that memoir is defined and distinguished by its dual perspective: the writer now looking back, trying to understand a past version of herself or himself. The glory of the genre, Birkerts says, is in the writer’s search for patterns and connections; in using the “vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”

This manipulation of the double vantage point is the memoirist’s single most powerful and adaptable technique, allowing for a complex temporal access. The writer deploys the time frame as needed—sparingly, as we will see in certain works—in order to achieve greater immersion in a particular period (generally the more distant past); or else, in some cases, with more regular alternation. The purpose decides the process. To stay in one vantage point is to foreground the fictional illusionism; to play the hindsight perspective against it is to undercut the illusionism by emphasizing the revision of perspectives and the incorporation of relativism. The later counteracts the coma-inducing logic of, “If I just tell what happened . . .” and promotes the dramatizing of the process of realization, which is the real point.

So Birkerts focuses on reflection, on how different writers successfully assemble “the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.” Mostly he picks work in which this is very subtle; in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Annie John—which he chooses to read as a memoir—there’s no overt musing but he argues that the book is crafted so that emblematic situations “carry reflective weight.”

The Art of Time in Memoir addresses types of memoirs, including: lyrical (evocations of a paradise lost, usually in childhood); coming-of-age sagas; tales of fathers and sons (invariably by sons coping with distant, damaged, or absent fathers); books by daughters about mothers (usually overly dominating ones); and accounts of trauma. He discusses two or three books in depth in each category.

I put down The Art of Time in Memoir twice to read acclaimed memoirs it discusses. Richard Hoffman’s 1995 Half the House is about the death of his two brothers from muscular dystrophy, his molestation by a coach, and his father’s complicit silence. Hoffman, a poet, tells a distressing story that achieves an equally compelling second act when he confronts, as a suffering adult, his father, who is by then ailing and widowed. Maureen Howard’s 1978 Facts of Life, which won a National Book Critics Circle award, is about her Irish Catholic parents and milieu. I found Howard’s view of her parents horribly depressing—they are just so sad, in her skillful rendering—but her nontraditional approach was interesting, and I’m now reading with enjoyment her portrait of Audubon’s lonely wife in her novel Big as Life.

I also enjoyed Birkerts’s discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past.” Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and dominated by her stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. At the start, Birkerts notes, Woolf asserts memoir’s dual imperative with her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

He admires how Woolf deploys her earliest memory, of her mother’s dress, and how she stages it, acknowledging that the event probably occurred in London but admitting her desire to have it happen at the beach house she would immortalize in To the Lighthouse. (I think she’s also acknowledging the way memory conflates and at the same time winning the reader’s trust: how easy it would have been to fictionalize there, but she chooses to engage the reader in a more complex and collaborative way.) Birkerts:

We note, too, Woolf’s archly reflective aside—“it is more convenient artistically to suppose that we were going to St. Ives, for that will lead to my other memory”—which reminds us, lest we ever forget, that a memoir is, whatever its pretenses to the contrary, a narrative conceit; it creates a structure that is the life shaped and disciplined to serve the pattern, the hindsight recognition that is deemed to be the larger, more important truth. Woolf is, in those phrases, asserting her artistic license, even as she is en route to netting all of those early perceptions in their concrete . .  . particularity.

The Art of Time in Memoir is a sophisticated explication of a genre that is itself an art form. Birkerts shows that good memoirs, far from being defined by the easy charges of navel gazing or score settling, are serious devotions to understanding and to finding meaning. Through memoir’s “careful manipulation of vantage point,” Birkerts writes, “it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life.”

(For fiction writers there’s a companion book in the Graywolf Press “Art of” series, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes, by Joan Silber.)

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Review: ‘The Art of Time in Memoir’

  1. Daiva Markelis

    It’s interesting that Birkert’s own memoir, My Sky Blue Trades, doesn’t fit into any of the categories he discusses. It’s a fine memoir, though somewhat disjointed–Birkerts writes about his Latvian parents and growing up in Michigan, then switches to time spent working in the very first bookstore owned by the Borders brothers. He spends much of the memoir writing about love. The book is well-written, though very different in tone from his more formal nonfiction.
    What do you think of the categories Birkerts chooses?
    Daiva

  2. Daiva,

    His categories seemed okay to me, but categories always can feel arbitrary. He calls Dillard’s An American Childhood a lyric, which is interesting, but it could also be a coming of age story–a happy one–and he said himself that Karr’s could have been in the mothers-daughters slot but her mother’s mental illness kicked it into trauma.

    Richard

  3. Theresa Kishkan

    This sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful review.

  4. The most valuable take-away nugget for me in this Birkert’s book was on page 8. Starting on page 7, he lists a number of memoirs and their authors and writes a few paragraphs about what they have in common. The three sentences that continue to be helpful to my thinking about memoir are these:

    “Apart from whatever painful or disturbing events they recount, their deeper ulterior purpose is to discover the nonsequential connections that allow those experiences to make larger sense; they are about circumstance becoming meaningful when seen from a certain remove. They all, to greater or lesser degree, use the vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past. Each is in its own way an account of detection, a realized effort to assemble the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.”

  5. I just bought this one, and I’m looking forward to reading.

    I’ve enjoyed catching up with your posts, Richard.