Persona and the Memoir

March 18, 2012 § 2 Comments


Few observers of contemporary creative nonfiction offer up such excellent close reading and intelligent consideration of nonfiction craft as Richard Gilbert does regularly on his blog Narrative.  This week, Gilbert (pictured here) reconsiders three memoirs of childhood, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Harry Crews’s A Childhood, and Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.

“As in the other two memoirs, An American Childhood pivots on the father,” Gilbert notes. “Neither deranged and grandiose like Walls’s, nor a haunting absence like Crews’s, Dillard’s wistful father was the dreamboat of her young life and the authority against whom she would rebel. She opens her book with him and ends each act with him.”

“He was, probably, the reason she dated all those oddball boys. Lucky them.”

Gilbert argues that for the “impossible” subject of Dillard’s memoir—the nature and growth of consciousness—she needed a distanced, adult persona and that a similar persona enriched Crews’s’ memoir. Gilbert contrasts this with the childhood perspective in The Glass Castle.

Here’s a brief excerpt of Gilbert’s post:

Francine Prose is a bit vague in her ultimately damning review of The Glass Castle, but I presume that she’s faulting Walls for a weak narrative persona. Prose seems to be making Vivian Gornick’s famous distinction in The Situation and the Story between the events of a life, the mere “situation,” and its “story,” the meaning one has extracted and the truth one has come to tell.

I think Walls and her legion of pleased readers would say that she embeds meaning in her scenes themselves. And of course Prose criticizes the very thing that has made The Glass Castle a bestseller, its headlong event-driven narrative and its lack of musing. I share Prose’s view at least to this extent: I will not feel compelled to reread The Glass Castle to unlock its secrets, whereas I’ve returned several times to Tobias Wolff’s two equally scenic memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which feature a sparingly reflective persona.

The richness of a narrative persona has become important to me, and much of its merit has to do with a writer’s ability to achieve a dual perspective. Increasingly the memoirs I enjoy most somehow convey at once the view of the writer at her desk and that of her younger self experiencing the life being portrayed. Norman Mailer said in Advertisements for Myself that the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view, and I’m starting to believe that’s true also for memoir. As Gornick asked, Who is telling this story? Persona, she said, is  ‘the instrument of illumination.’

To read the entire post: http://richardgilbert.me/2012/03/18/the-leverage-of-persona-in-memoir/

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