Standing at the crossroads of fiction, history, and autobiography, literary memoir is a genre that has become hugely popular in the English-speaking world over the past few decades. It has also been a genre whose aims and methods have been debated everywhere from Oprah Winfrey’s sofa to highly regarded academic journals. As Menachem Kaiser writes in the Atlantic Monthly, “Good literature makes artistic demands, flexes and contorts narratives, resists limpid morality, compromises reality’s details.” To what extent can or should literary memoir do the same?
This is just one of the questions we will explore in the seminar through the study of three memoirs written by three 20th-century novelists: George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, and William Styron. Orwell documents how his experience as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War changed his political convictions; Nabokov paints us a many-layered sensory picture of his life in Europe before World War II; and Styron takes us on a journey of his near-fatal depression in a work that is both an intensely personal essay and a commentary on a disease that has affected many writers and artists. Each author must rely on Nabokov’s “tremulous prism” of memory, a prism that can both clarify and distort. Throughout the week we will try to understand how each writer uses this prism to achieve his stated goals, and we will discuss our own conceptions of how truth, fact, memory, perception, and imagination coexist in memoir.
“I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.”
– Vladimir Nabokov