keskiviikko 26. marraskuuta 2008

Mary McCarthy: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood

This is an example of 'story-telling'; I arranged actual events so as to make 'a good story' out of them. It is hard to overcome this temptation if you are in the habit of writing fiction; one does it almost automatically.

The most interesting thing about Mary McCarthy's autobiographical work, in my opinion, is not her tragic orphanhood and unhappy childhood among oppressingly religious relatives and grandparents, but rather her method of writing. The novel includes short stories and collections of anecdotes from McCarthy's early years and each one is followed by a brief commentary, analysing her writing methods and the process of remembering: the unreliability of memory and the fictionalisation of certain sections for the sake of filling gaps or dramatising.

Personally, I find it fascinating that an autobiographer (and especially someone who is also an author of fiction and a well-known novelist) is willing to elaborate and explain her personal writing technique so openly. She readily confesses that she does not remember everything and is not always sure what really happened, who is telling the truth and so on. She also reveals which parts in her autobiographical sections are fictional or simply events that "could have happened, but didn't really".

While some readers may find that this explicit, detailed honesty ruins their reading experience, it also reminds us that autobiographies cannot generally be treated in the same way as fictional novels. Usually they aim for a more-or-less realistic, historically accurate depiction of what really happened - a task which is obviously made more difficult by the subjective, selective and unreliable nature of memory, the impossibility of recalling, let alone telling "everything".

In Mary McCarthy's case, the problems of memory and reconstructing the past are even more concrete: both her parents died within days of each other when she was very young and her grandparents and relatives rarely spoke of them (or anything related to personal history for that matter). McCarthy attempts to wade her way through her childhood atmosphere of secrecy and silence to find out as much as she can about a past that she feels she doesn't truly possess and an identity with no concrete origins.

A fascinating book; anyone interested in autobiographies (reading or writing them) should read this! 

Mary McCarthy: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Penguin Books. 1957.

NY Times/Charles Poore: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
Authors' calendar: Mary McCarthy

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