George Hunka reflects on the appeal of personal memoirs
|Justin Mortimer, 'Harold Pinter' (1992)|
Lady Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter is unlikely to change the course of Pinter studies, however revealing it may be about the dramatist’s day-to-day life. It’s not biography but memoir, and its primary source therefore is that most unreliable of authorities, memory. The same can be said for Anne Atik’s How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a similar journal-like narrative of Beckett’s tabletalk: no replacement for Knowlson’s biography (as Lady Antonia’s book is no replacement for Billington’s biography of Pinter).
Neither of these books precisely qualifies as gossip either, even if Pinter’s second marriage was in the headlines for some time following his difficult separation from Vivian Merchant in the mid-1970s. But what we do have — and what we lack in the more formal life studies from their biographers — is a more intimate glance at these two writers, their social peccadilloes, their conversational tics. They’re away from their work and public lives and, with close friends and lovers, their guard is down. Both Atik and Lady Antonia are writers, of course, and can be expected to have some kind of affinities with their subjects. After that, what is left?
The curiosity we have about the personal lives of writers, especially those whose work we admire, whose work touches us somehow, can’t be chalked up to celebrity culture — not if we’ve been getting writers’ biographies and their acquaintances’ memoirs since John Aubrey’s Brief Lives of the late 17th century and Samuel Johnson’s 1779-81 Lives of the Poets. It’s more likely that if we feel we recognize something of ourselves in their work, we’d recognize something of ourselves in their daily lives as well. This may be a wholly inadequate basis for criticism or interpretation, but isn’t necessarily untrue or unhelpful for that reason.
What we do get, perhaps, is a chance to see how they moved about in social situations similar to ours, and perhaps also to guess how they might transform these situations into a universalizing vision. Or else, and perhaps more to the point, to see how they could live day to day as they bore this vision within them. In the case of both the Pinter and the Beckett memoirs, the curtain between the vision and the life remains fairly opaque: neither Atik nor Fraser is possessed of a pair of X-ray psychological spectacles. But as they discuss the bouts of melancholy, the rather quick wit, the intellectual and less-than-intellectual chit-chat of their subjects, they reveal something else: an example of personal, provisional eudemonics, a way of passing through the world with some happiness and satisfaction in spite of all. [Read More]
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