Passage A by Vivian Gornick
Once, in Texas, I gave a reading from my memoir
Fierce Attachments. No sooner had I finished speaking
than a woman in the audience asked a question: "If I
come to New York, can I take a walk with your mama?"
I told her that, actually, she wouldn't want to take a
walk with my mother, it was the woman in the book she
wanted to walk with. They were not exactly the same
Shortly afterwards, I attended a party in New York
where, an hour into the evening, one of the guests
blurted out in a voice filled with disappointment, "Why
you're nothing like the woman who wrote Fierce
Attachments!" At the end of the evening she cocked her
head at me and said, "Well, you're something like her."
I understood perfectly. She had come expecting to have
dinner with the narrator of the book, not with me;
again, not exactly the same.
On both occasions, what was desired was the pres-
ence of two people who existed only between the pages
of a book.In our actual persons ,neither Mama nor I
could give satisfaction. we ourselves were just a rough
draft of the written characters. Moreover, these charac-
ters could not live independent of the story which had
called them into life, as they existed for the sole pur-
pose of serving that story.In the flesh,neither Mama
nor I were serving anything but the unaesthetic spill of
everyday thought and feeling that routinely floods us
all, only a select part of which, in this case, invoked the
principals in a tale of psychological embroilment that
had as its protagonist neither me nor my mother but
rather our "fierce attachment."
At the heart of my memoir lay a revelation: I could
not leave my mother because I had become my mother.
This complicated insight was my bit of wisdom, the
history I wanted badly to trace out. The context in
which the book is set--our life in the Bronx in the
1950s, alternating with walks taken in Manhattan in the
1980s-was the situation; the story was the insight.
What mattered most to me was not the literalness of the
situation but the emotional truth of the story. What
actually happened is only raw material; what matters is
what the memoirist makes of what happened.
Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not
of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a
memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same
record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper
reporting or historical narrative. What is owed the
reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is
trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of
the tale at hand.
Passage B by Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin
The dividing line between fiction and autobiogra-
phy is often a very fine and shaky one, and Ernest
Hemingway's autobiography of the artist as a young
man is Hemingway's a case in point. As nearly all readers know,
Hemingway's fiction contains numerous autobiographi-
cal elements, and his protagonists are often conscious
projections anq explorations of the self . At the same
time,Hemingway's openly autobiographical writings,
Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast,are barely
more autobiographical than his fiction,and in many
ways, just as fictional.
A Moveable Feast is particularly complex because
Hemingway was clearly conscious that it would be his
literary testament. Thus, in writing it, he dealt with
issues which had been important to him and he settled
old scores. Among the reasons which motivated his por-
trayal of self and others were the need to justify him-
self for he felt that he had been unfairly portrayed by
some of his contemporaries, the desire to present his
own version of personal relationships as well as the
desire to get back at people against whorm he held a
grudge,the need to relive his youth in an idealized
fashion,and the wish to leave to the world a flattering
self-portrait. Thus, A Moveable Feast could hardly be
an objective portrayal of its author and his contempo-
raries,and the accuracy of the anecdotes becomes an
issue that can never be entirely resolved.
While it is impossible to verify everything
Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, one might con-
clude that he invented and lied relatively seldom about
pure facts. When he did so, it was usually in order to
reinforce the pattern he had created-i.e.,a negative
portrayal of literary competitors and an idealized self-
portrayal. He clearly overlooked a great deal of mate-
rial,distorted some, and generally selected the episodes.
so that they would show him as innocent,honest,dedi-
cated,and thoroughly enjoying life.A Moveable Feast,
in fact, appears as a fascinating composite of relative
factual accuracy and clear dishonesty of intent.