MEMORY AND NARRATIVE by James Olney

MEMORY AND NARRATIVE

The Weave of Life-Writing
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KIRKUS REVIEW

In his monumental study of the European tradition of life-writing, Olney traces the dialectic of autobiography from the early Middle Ages through the Enlightenment to postmodernism, focusing on St. Augustine, Rouseau, and Beckett and drawing on a range of personalities including Montaigne, Vico, Stein, Kafka, and Giacometti. As the first autobiographical writing in the West, St. Augustine’s Confessions and Trinity established a long-lasting literary canon that would be challenged only 13 centuries later by Rousseau’s trilogy: Confessions, Dialogues, and Reveries. While St. Augustine adopted past events as his subject matter, Rousseau tended to recount feelings about events rather than the events themselves. St. Augustine used the story of his long journey to God to present an exposition of Christian doctrine, while Rousseau intended to teach others self-knowledge by communicating his own vulnerabilities and emotions and inviting the reader to feel the same. In featuring himself as a model, Rousseau indulged in self-praise, transforming St. Augustine’s confession into apologia. Another cardinal shift effected by Rousseau and passed along to latter-day writers was fragmentation of the “I” and skepsis about the adequacy of language for life-writing. A prominent inheritor of the autobiographical tradition, Beckett declared the whole enterprise impossible, based on a postmodern doubt of reason, cohesive narrative, and the unified voice. In Krapp’s Last Tape, The Unnamable, and other works, Beckett wrote specifically on the life-writer’s failure to account for the past in any objective way. Mixing the first and third person, Beckett’s narrators reminisce about their prior acts of memory, incapable either of pinning down the original event or completing their narrative. Detached from reality and trapped in incessant self-referentiality, the memory of postmodern writers signs a death sentence to the genre of autobiography. Olney’s study is full of insights. It is regrettable, however, that it takes great effort to cut through the author’s dry academic style and convoluted syntax to reap the benefits of his solid research and excellent analysis.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-226-62816-7
Page count: 422pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1998