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A New Kind of Memoir (?)

Have I encountered a hitherto unknown literary genre? The memoir manqué? Displaced autobiography? Why don't I just write about it and let you dream up the moniker. In addition to the three books that I'm going to discuss here, Diane Johnson's Into a Paris Quartier counts as an extended essay about something external to the author that spools out plenty of self-disclosure along the way. How long has this been going on? Ms Johnson's book is about the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris - and it's about Ms Johnson, too. It would be hard to say which strain of the book is the more interesting. That's also true of the following, which I list in the order in which I read them:

  • Jane Smiley: A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (Knopf, 2004)
  • Orhan Pamuk: İstanbul: Memories of the City (Knopf, 2004)
  • Geoffrey O'Brien: Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears (Counterpoint, 2004)

These books, which have so little in common as regards style and subject matter, nevertheless argue a common premise. The wall, once so assiduously policed, between author and subject has come tumbling down. (Autobiographies and memoirs are the obvious exceptions.) Now, instead of transcribing observations, the writer transcribes the act of observation. The pretense of objectivity is seen as not only false but distracting. We readers are happily complicit. Don't tell us about horse racing, Istanbul, or American pop music. We probably don't care about any of those things - or else we know plenty and we're tired of them. Tell us, rather, of the impact that they have had upon your life. And tell us as much about your life as your ostensible topic requires.

I was already meditating this page when I encountered Mr O'Brien's book a few weeks ago. What suggested a connection between A Year at the Races and Istanbul was...

Continue reading about a new kind of memoir at Portico.


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I finally picked up Into a Paris Quartier at Village Voice on Monday...I will let you know what I think. (I've read bits and pieces and have already decided I MUST JOIN the Mazarine library!)

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