Memoir: When the Story's too Good to Make up

What is the purpose of memoir? To lead us down the dimly lit corridors of your past and let us peek through the keyholes of the greasy rooms in which your story was made, undone, and remade? When does the family album become a work of art?

I stood on shaky ground with memoir until I fell into Anglo-Irish novelist
Elizabeth Bowen's memoir of her early childhood in Dublin, Seven Winters and After-thoughts. The after-thoughts are Bowen's thoughts on the art of writing.

Bowen recreates her past and explores it as a source of insight and wisdom and art. She doesn't fictionalize it--it is truly her perception of her past--but lays it before us as the glorious raw material of art.

Recalling the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War when she was a very little girl, Bowen describes war as it's understood with the intellectual and experiential resources of a small child. Describing war in this way is as poignant as it is surreal:
It had been made known to me that war had, that year, escaped from the locked strong-room of history into the present--though this was happening, as it could only happen, at the unsafe other side of the world. I knew of Russians as fur-clad people who drove in sledges pursued by wolves; I knew the Japanese as the prototype of my Aunt Laura's tonsured, lackadaisical doll that had a sash gummed to its middle and sleeves of paper gummed to its flapping arms. From Japan came the crinkled lanterns, the parasols, and the little miracle discs, as small as pills, that in water uncurled into lovely blooms. For me, the Japanese had made these, with the smiles of artists and patient hands. How sure it was, in those days, that still unnamed propaganda of prettiness! In common with most of England and Anglo-Ireland, I was pro-Japanese.

She then describes both growing up and the creative process that transforms life into art: Hearing the clock strike, one morning, with more meaning than usual, I stopped halfway up a grandstand to realize that time held war. The hour was more than my hour; within it people were fighting, the fur and the paper people grimaced with hate at each other and let off guns....This was my first vision--I mean, the first moment in which I conceived of reality as being elsewhere than in me....Twelve having struck, my governess looked round. It was time for me (again) to go home and rest.

Turning to the art of writing, Bowen says later in the book, "The writer, unlike his non-writing adult friend, has no predisposed outlook; he seldom observes deliberately. He sees what he did not intend to see; he remembers what does not seem wholly possible. An inattentive learner in the schoolroom of life, he keeps some faculty free to veer and wander. His is the roving eye."

This is not confessional smut or the illicit discovery of the inner life of one's elders upon opening some secret dresser drawer. No confidences are broken, though she reveals everything about the secret life of a child's mind. It's decent. It's also beautiful.

here for more on Elizabeth Bowen.