John B. Breslin

Memoirists rule the literary roosts these days, but sometimes with a bad conscience. Shouldn’t they be writing poetry, or at least novels, if they are serious writers? Isn’t this retailing of their personal lives a knock-off item or maybe even a cheat, a pretense of authenticity undercut by the inevitable presence of artifice? On the other hand, isn’t Saul Bellow’s latest novel, Ravelstein, about a famous novelist (Bellow a k a Chic) psyching himself up to write a memoir of his dying friend (Alan Bloom a k a Ravelstein) a similar pretense in reverse? Where draw the line?

One of Patricia Hampl’s novelist friends is happy to oblige. After a successful reading, she mentions to Hampl that one much admired scene came straight out of her girlhood memories.

Did you ever think of writing it as a memoir?’ I said. It was an idle question, but it caught her off guard. Oh no, I wouldn’t write it as a memoir,’ she said, obviously repelled. I want to tell the truth.’

That anecdote comes late in this finely tuned collection of essays, but the issue it raises permeates the whole book. Hampl (Regents’ Professor at the University of Minnesota) might be described as an apologist for the memoir, a role she executes by filling the role superbly herself, as readers of Virgin Time will recall. But she casts her net more widely here, including essays on other memoirists of very different times and sensibilities.

Her introduction to a recent translation of Augustine’s Confessions, for example, catches the seminal character of that book, which concludes with a passionate, but often unread, meditation on the book of Genesis. For Augustine, the memory work of autobiography creates a self as the right instrument to seek meaning. Or, even more poignantly, Longing is the only sure knowledge, that core of human instinct which unfurls its song of praise.

From Augustine to Sylvia Plath may seem a stretch indeed, and not just in centuries. But in her longest essay Hampl pulls off a startling imaginative feat: She twins the Plath of the final Ariel poems with the French mystic and martyr/suicide Simone Weil. It is Weil’s notion of affliction, an ultimate form of suffering encompassing physical pain, distress of soul, and social degradation, that links these representative 20th-century souls. For Weil affliction is finally a religious term, a fitting description of Christ’s Passion. Hampl argues convincingly that Plath’s final tragedy was not so much her actual suicide but her high-strung esthetic sensibility’s failure to pick up on the profound religious wavelength her poetic antennae were striving for.

Quite a different memoirist is Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel poet laureate, a political exile, a man of two cultures. What Hampl prizes in his writing is precisely its disinterest in the narrowly psychological in favor of the historical, the representative. As she comments, for him the family business is history. One should appreciate, after all, Milosz argues, the advantages of one’s origins. Its worth lies in the power it gives one to detach oneself from the present moment. Those impersonal ones’ are no accident.

Hampl sees this distance as the measure of the difference between American notions of autobiography (the therapeutic exploration of self and family) and the European fascination with place and time as the context for the individual life: Geography is the first self. It is also what links memoir to poetry for Milosz. In Hampl’s words: To be personal and impersonal all at once is the goal of both. To be witness rather than story-teller. The essential human utterance, proper to lyric poetry, comes from the personal voice, the first person. And that same voice, not the particular nature of its story, is also what distinguishes the memoir.

Two other European memoirists complement, in a tragic vein, Milosz’s finessing of the public-private disjunction. Anne Frank and Edith Stein were both victims of the Holocaust, chosen for death simply because of their ancestry. What Hampl finds moving in each of their accounts is their sanity in a world gone mad with hatred. Though a convert, Stein risked everything to write the story of her Jewish upbringing as a testimony against Nazi propaganda. In the end, she was the unwitting victim of her new faith’s condemnation of the Nazi pogrom in Holland.

In retaliation, Jewish converts, including Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, were rounded up and dispatched to the transfer camp at Westerbork where Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum would also be interned. To defy the liars, Sister Teresa, from her monastic cell, simply described the truth of her Jewish past; for the same purpose Anne Frank wrote her pellucid account of a young girl’s cruelly cloistered present. Each survived her martyrdom to give hope to millions they would never know.

And what of Patricia Hampl? Lacking the drama of her heroines or the historical rootedness of her heroes, she gives us instead the interplay of family and art that has shaped and deepened her own sensibility. Her best story turns, characteristically, on herself, for true memoir shuns self-promotion like the incubus it is. The first poem, Mother/Daughter Dance, in her first collection of poetry seemingly of its own volition, reached out of its complacent obscurity to filch a plain and serviceable factmy mother’s epilepsy. There it was the grand mal seizure as the finishing touch, a personal fact that morphed into a symbol, opening the poem, I knew, wide, wide, wide. Reading the manuscript, her mother is shocked and tells Patricia she can’t use the poem. This, of course, angers and horrifies her. Taking a gamble, she tells her mother she’ll cut the poem, if she really insists, but ends the conversation with this zinger: It really is the best poem in the book.

The mother folds and the poet convinces herself she has done her a favor, liberating her from her shame. Years later, after telling her version of the story at countless readings, she guiltily calls to check and discovers that it was done simply because I loved you. All the theorizing about the artist’s precarious balancing act between art and life falls away before those four simple words. And they belong, quintessentially, to the honest memoirist whose very art is compounded of memory and imagination, but whose ultimate allegiance is to the truth, however elusive it may seem or painful to admit.

John Breslin, S.J., a former literary editor of America, teaches contemporary Irish literature at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.