Novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s first book of nonfiction in English, The Book of My Lives, begins and ends with an infant girl. In the first instance the child in question is the four-year-old Hemon’s newborn sister, Kristina. “One spring day, Mother stepped out of the kitchen to pick up the phone and left her along with me…I watched the little creature, her unreadable face, her absolute absence of thought or personality, her manifest insubstantiality, her unearned presence. So I started choking her, my thumbs against her windpipe, as seen on television.”
Lest one take this attempted sorocide and conclude that The Book of My Lives is a personal confession—the very thing Hemon has, in the past, so unsubtly expressed distaste for (saying, in an interview with the Guardian, that memoir amounts to “a crisis of the imagination”)—the author is quick to point out that it does not constitute a change of heart. “Memoir has come to mean confessional memoir, and the whole crypto-moral aspect of that is what really bothers me,” he says by phone from his home in Chicago. “It requires a public confession, and then public judgment and forgiveness, and the pleasure is this ritual—it’s puritanical.” So what, then, makes The Book of My Lives—which, while it bills itself “not really a memoir,” recounts Hemon’s experience in a non-fictionalized form very much as memoirs do—different? “I don’t have that much to confess,” Hemon says, with a verbal shrug. One might choose to disagree—aside from Kristina, there is the small matter of the “Nazi cocktail party” to be dealt with. But Hemon isn’t after exculpation, at least not outside the process of writing itself. His motivations, again, are more straightforward than that: “If one has an interesting life and that life contains stories, then tell those stories,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with memoir like that at all.”
Hemon’s book is, indeed, less a memoir per se than a collection of stories—the personal essays comprising its chapters were all previously published, in The New Yorker, Granta and elsewhere—edited into a structure that more or less follows the contours of Hemon’s life. “I didn’t want it to be a collection of B-sides,” he says, of the decision not to publish it as an essay collection. Still, as with some of his books, in which Hemon has been reluctant to distinguish between the long and collected-short form, Lives hovers between the whole and the collection of parts. And while the chapters contain the odd reintroduction of previously mentioned fact—they are not, strictly, chronological—which shakes one into an awareness of their piecemeal nature, the book does have a clear and deliberate arc.
Lives is divided, roughly, into two parts, the first dealing with Hemon’s youth in Sarajevo, and the other with his life after emigrating. A bridge of a kind is formed in the middle by a story of family dogs. From his sister Kristina, the narrative meanders through Hemon’s experiences as a member of a rag-tag playground gang, a conscript in the Yugoslav People’s Army, and on to the emergence of Serbian nationalism and war. From there, chapters cover Hemon’s adjustment to life in Chicago, his family, his discovery of fiction, and arrive, finally, at the illness and death of his own infant daughter, Isabel.
Throughout, Hemon plays with themes of difference and otherness, collectivity and the individual, truth and fabrication. One chapter describes his invention, as a young man, of the historical figure Alphonse Kauders. In a writer known for making forays, in his novels, into non-fictional registers—the investigative "journalism" of the Lazarus Project, for instance—it may not be a great surprise to see Hemon exploring questions of memory as a creative act, though he says he approaches truth straightforwardly. “To me the overarching category or concept is story,” he tells me. “And there are many ways to tell stories. Every story has its own limits, and the limits of those stories was that they had to be true.”
The idea of interiority, how it is organized—by writing, for one, but also by chess and soccer—and its separation from the exterior world plays over the entire book. What one can share between and beyond the boundaries of self is a question that seems especially important to Hemon here—and is involved too in his criticisms of memoir. In the last chapter of the book, “The Aquarium” (which ran in the New Yorker under the same title in June, 2011), Hemon confronts something that, as he admits, cannot be shared: “I could not write a story that would help me comprehend what was happening. Isabel’s illness overrode any kind of imaginative involvement.” The boundary between self and other has grown rigid, as has that between self and its extension into narrative. How, then, to write about this especially violent form of heartbreak without turning toward the confessional or cliché? Hemon, as he does again and again in this book, turns to others—in this case to his daughter, Ella, and her imaginary friend, which opens the essay into the possibility of meaning, a possibility the experience at its heart can’t possess.
For any kind of writer, of course, a textual self is always both self and character, just as every character is both self and not. And Hemon says that he sees this book—a book of “Lives,” after all, rather than “A Life”—as being not about himself so much as it is about others, and therefore (once again) something besides memoir. In fact, this reliance on others is part of the way Hemon successfully avoids the label of “confessional” or “self-indulgent.” Stating a belief that’s not surprising in a novelist, he tells me, “We are constructed of other people, and we live by engaging with other people. The personal is never just personal, it’s always communal. In that way, everyone is a Siamese twin.”
Perhaps this is why, throughout, one gets the sense that Hemon is trying to draw himself, not just as a series of characters in various essays (“I have the sense of my life as several parallel acts,” he says), but as a character whose memories, pulled together and edited, have the same kind of intrinsic artifice as the narrative of a novel. In one passage, Hemon compares his life to an apparition of Mary that only those who expect it can see. This book seems like a way of learning to see that apparition, of cultivating the proper creative expectance. Life as a coherent entity being, like a memoir or a Virgin in the frozen peas, only really visible to the believer.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and the Paris Review Daily, among other places.