Edward Short’s review of Mary Karr’s Lit (which I also reviewed here), contains a few paragraphs very relevant to all memoir writers. I invite you to read the complete review here. Short’s insights are brilliant.
Here are the four most relevant paragraphs to our concerns as we seek to understand the power of memoir to go beyond the telling of the events of a single life:
“There are many brilliant memoirists with Karr’s mordant comedic gifts — one thinks of Ford Madox Ford, Osbert Sitwell, Gwen Raverat, and Lorna Sage — but there is only one who has Karr’s profound sense of sin, charged with an even greater understanding of love, and that is the granddaddy of all memoirists, the man who invented the genre: St. Augustine.
‘Rest in [God] and you will be at rest,’ St. Augustine says in the Confessions in a passage that describes the arduous mission of the Catholic autobiographer.
Where are you going to along rough paths? What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet. Otherwise it will justly become bitter; for that comes from him is unjustly loved if he has been abandoned. With that end in view do you again and again walk along difficult and laborious paths (Wisdom 5:7)? There is no rest where you seek for it . . . .
These are the paths that Karr has mapped out with a cartographer’s precision, and what makes the latest installment of her memoirs so powerful is that it incorporates her discovery of what St. Augustine discovered in Milan in the fourth century, with the help of St. Ambrose. ‘He who for us is life itself descended here and endured death and slew it by the abundance of his life. In a thunderstorm voice he called us to return to him, at that secret place where he came forth to us.’ Karr’s latest memoir can be read as a kind of listening to this voice. Like T. S. Eliot, she attends very closely to what the thunder said.”
Memoir readers: What role does sin and confession play in the memoir today? If you have read Lit, do you agree with Short’s reading?
Memoir writers: T or F: Acknowledging sin helps the writer avoid two problems with voice– the whiny victim or the smug satisfaction of the proud achiever.