The False Memoir

James Frey, author of
James Frey, author of "A Million Little Pieces," with Oprah Winfrey (Jan. 26) (George Burns/harpo Productions Via Ap)
By Nancy Milford
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Almost from the beginnings of prose writing in English, but surely since the 18th century, there's been an uneasiness about the conflict between the true story, based on verifiable facts, carefully ordered, in which you could believe and therefore trust, and one that was made-up, invented, a pack of lies and therefore untrustworthy -- a fiction. (The word "fiction" comes from the Latin fictio , which means the act of making or counterfeiting.) Since fiction in those days was considered a somewhat slippery genre and untrustworthy, the earliest novelists presented their work as nonfiction. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe as an autobiography.

A good 10 years ago, I noticed that memoir seemed to be replacing fiction -- readers seemed to want their stories to be about "true" people -- and I invented a course that I called "The False Memoir." Since then I've taught it in universities and colleges across the country, and only once did the chair of an English department ask me what I meant by "false." "Not entirely true?" I offered. But no one asked what I meant by "memoir," which has become the honeypot of our time. Tales of redemption and recovery sell in part because they are believed to be true. And if they are not? Publishers and reporters and television hosts cry out for blood. Oprah Winfrey, who has been such a boon to the selling of books, is outraged that James Frey's A Million Little Pieces is a lie. She thinks she has been betrayed. Her imprimatur has been sullied.

Didn't Casanova sleep with all those women? And what fact-checker on earth would dare try to validate St. Augustine as he confesses and confesses?

In autobiography and memoir, fiction and essays, writers have often altered their pasts to suit their own purposes. They don't simply cloak and encode the details of their lives -- they invent, falsify and fictionalize the "facts" of their lives in what is, I believe, a life-saving prose strategy. Think of Lillian Hellman: No longer writing plays, she turned to memoirs, which were enormously successful -- first An Unfinished Woman , then Pentimento . In 1979, in her mid-seventies, she was famously accused by Mary McCarthy of being a liar. "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the,' " McCarthy said on the Dick Cavett Show. Lillian Hellman was watching. As was everyone else: Cavett was the Oprah of the age. Hellman sued McCarthy, Cavett and WNET for libel for $2.5 million. Only death stopped her.

But who was McCarthy to call Hellman a liar? Both women were distinguished writers, both had movies made of their work, both had written memoirs. At the beginning of McCarthy's wonderful Memories of a Catholic Girlhood , she has a note "To the Reader" in which she asks, "Can it be that the public takes for granted that anything written by a professional writer is eo ipso untrue?" She asks the question because several of McCarthy's readers could not believe she really had a Jewish grandmother and a mean uncle; they thought her memoir was a hoax.

Let me suggest another reason for those readers' confusion: the carelessness of the time. I recently learned from a retired editor at the New Yorker, where McCarthy's pieces were first published between the late '40s and 1957, that the magazine did not in those days make a distinction between memoir and fiction when the pieces came in. I think she said, "We just edited them." Certainly that's no longer true. But even when it was, McCarthy makes a point of warning us, "I remember we heard a nightingale together, on the boulevard, near the Sacred Heart convent. But there are no nightingales in North America." And by way of explanation she adds: "My father was a romancer, and most of my memories of him are colored, I fear, by an untruthfulness that I must have caught from him, like one of the colds that ran round the family." After each chapter she adds another few pages, in italics, to explain any inconsistencies, to discover those pesky untruths she has unwittingly committed as if to do so were an inherited trait; the book becomes a literary confessional.

But none of this is remarkable when you see memoir as a life-saving prose strategy. Ernest Hemingway wrote this preface to A Moveable Feast in Cuba in 1960, the year before his death: "For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were well known by everyone and everyone has written about them and will doubtless write more. . . . If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact."

Hemingway's book seems to me the most terrific memoir of the first half of the 20th century, whose voice in so many ways Hemingway helped to create. Mary Hemingway, his widow, tells us that it concerns the years 1921-26 in Paris. It concerns a good deal more than that. Hemingway's anger is extraordinary and oddly bracing because it offers fresh insights into the complicated and competitive friendships of some of the most gifted American writers who came to be known, in Gertrude Stein's phrase, as the Lost Generation.

If it is a memoir and not a fiction, it is Hemingway's story of how he lived and worked to become a writer. It doesn't matter that some of it is questionable or even untrue, for it tells us what we need to know about Hemingway. It's as tender and as brutal as he was. When he describes himself as under the charm of the rich for whom he becomes "as trusting and as stupid as a bird dog," it's painful to read. When he shifts the blame and the responsibility from himself to his wife for the breakup of his first marriage, because he fell in love with her wealthy and unmarried girlfriend, it smarts, even 40 years later.

I went to New Hampshire in 1964 to talk to his first wife, Hadley. She said Hemingway had called her often during the last years of his life, and while his calls seemed to amuse her a little, they also suggested that she had become patient with him over the course of time. Although her relationship with Hemingway in the memoir is an idyll of their life together in Paris, of skiing in Switzerland and of taking care of their young son, Bumby, and his cat, F. Puss, the reality must have been very different. I remember Hadley throwing back her thick curly head of hair, which was no longer the bright red Hemingway had described but the color of cinnamon sugar, and laughing, "If Ernest took care of Bumby more than once or twice . . . " and then she stopped. "You must understand he was then the kind of man to whom men, women, children, and dogs were attracted. It was something ."

Her comment was subtle, but it had a powerful message. Hemingway's memoir was the way he wanted to remember his past -- decent and heroic, his marriage ruined not due to his unfaithfulness, but because he was led astray by the rich and their lovely women.

In the end, maybe a memoir is no more about redemption than it is about the tricks of memory, the self-deceptions of age and the urgency a writer feels to say: This is the way I need to remember, this is how I wish I'd behaved, this is my false memoir as best I can write it. ยท

Nancy Milford is the author of "Zelda: A Biography" and "Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay." She has taught at Brown, Princeton and the University of Michigan. She is currently a professor at Hunter College in New York.

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