The sensations of a mind and body, in finite time, moving through a physical universe: if this is one definition of the self, it perhaps becomes more recognisable if we add desires, fears, and, in some cases, prayers for its everlasting salvation. These attributes link each of us to a culture, so that we learn to desire, fear and speak to each other only as we belong to groups of people sharing customs, values and beliefs. The self still remains a neurological mystery, however—in so far as how it can inhabit that cluster of cells somewhere inside the lobes of the brain, how it recognises itself through memory, links up experiences into a story. First memories, first evidence of such linking, are what we think of when it comes to that fascinating question: 'Who am I?' Personal narrative comprises, for many writers, a first acquaintance with images, voices, stories and worlds significant to that act of self-recognition. But the other important attribute of this form is that we can write as we speak. Personal narrative can be like conversation. In the passages below, I particularly admire the way John Berger opens up a discussion with his readers. The subject of his first paragraph is a familiar one:
Every time I went to bed—and in this I am sure I was like millions of other children—the fear that one or both of my parents might die in the night touched the nape of my neck with its finger Such a fear has, I believe, little to do with a particular psychological climate and a great deal to do with nightfall. Yet since it was impossible to say 'You won't die in the night, will you?' (when Grandmother died, I was told she had gone to have a rest, or—this was from my uncle who was more outspoken—that she had passed over), since I couldn't ask the real question and I sought a reassurance, I invented—like millions before me—the euphemism See you in the morning! To which either my father or mother who had come to turn out the light in my bedroom would reply, See you in the morning, John.
After their footsteps had died away, I would try for as long as possible not to lift my head from the pillow so that the last words spoken remained, trapped like a fish in a rock pool at low tide, between my pillow and my ear The implicit promise of the words was also a protection against the dark. The words promised that I would not (yet) be alone.
Autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. It is an orphan form. Yet I have no wish to do so. All that interests me about my past life are the common moments. The moments—which if I relate them well enough—will join countless others lived by people I do not personally know.
Berger writes with honesty, an approach that carries a sense of risk. He seems wary of the autobiographical, embarrassed by it, preferring to establish links with readers rather than occupy a vacuum: 'This is about me but about you too—all of us.' Maybe readers read personal narrative to find out what they can about that person in the spotlight—the person achieving excellence, standing alone. If so, John Berger's approach gently discourages such an expectation.
Each of the excerpts I have chosen to illustrate the subject of this chapter succeed in ways that have nothing to do with fame or reputation. The writers claim our attention simply because of the way they evoke worlds, capture moments, dig deep into the meanings that made their experiences real to them. The autobiographical no longer needs to associate itself with celebrity and the building of self-image for a public. More broadly it includes memoir or life writing, each of which, as forms of personal narrative, can draw us into particular episodes in the writer's experience, explore their meanings, develop shared insight. Memoir, as the word suggests, means memory, a form of the autobiographical. Autobiography as such may contain information not remembered yet equally vital. An event may indeed have influenced your life, even though you have no memory of it.
Berger's insight into his own purpose—which is to be inclusive, to communicate— allows him to speak directly to his audience and from memory, as if he were in a conversation with his readers. It is this quality which makes memoir so valuable as a form. The writer can narrate, explain, reflect, as well as evoke and illustrate. The writer is thinking through an experience—close to it—not from some far off remote point where what was real now seems easy to map. When a sense of perspective does emerge, it happens because the attention to detail has been accurate, the feeling of engage-ment— with the experience, with the reader—open and equal. The writer sets out with the aim of making some large or small discov-eries, not because they are in place beforehand. The writer needs to bring us these discoveries as they happen, as if the writing were in the act of producing them before us—which indeed it is. While autobiography covers a whole lifetime up to the place and moment of writing, memoir offers a sense of close-upness, of the specific, the episodic. It may concentrate on one or more linked episodes. The most important quality, however, is tone. You need to bring the experience to your reader as you would in a real conversation.
Berger's memoir, entitled, 'Mother', was written quite soon after her death. Here is how it continues:
Six weeks ago my mother asked me to come and see her; it would be the last time, she said. A few days later; on the morning of my birthday, she believed she was dying. Open the curtains, she said to my brother, so I can see the trees. In fact, she died the following week.
On my birthdays as a child, it was my father rather than she who gave me memorable presents. She was too thrifty. Her moments of generosity were at the table, offering what she had bought and prepared and cooked and served to whoever came into the house. Otherwise she was thrifty. Nor did she ever explain. She was secretive, she kept things to herself.
Not for her own pleasure, but because the world would not forgive spontaneity, the world was mean. I must make that clearer She didn't believe life was mean—it was generous—but she had learnt from her own childhood that survival was hard. She was the opposite of quixotic—for she was not born a knight and her father was a warehouse foreman in Lambeth. She pursed her lips together; knitted her brows, as she calculated and thought things out and carried on with an unspoken determina-tion. She never asked favours of anyone. Nothing shocked her From whatever she saw, she just drew the necessary conclu-sions so as to survive and to be dependent on nobody.
When I was in my thirties, she told me for the first time that ever since I was born she had hoped I would be a writer.. a writer was a person familiar with the secrets. Perhaps in the end she didn't read my books so that they should remain more secret.
If her hopes of my becoming a writer—and she said they began on the night after I was delivered—were eventually realised, it was not because there were many books in our house (there were few) but because there was so much that was unsaid, so much that I had to discover the existence of on my own at an early age: death, poverty pain (in others), sexuality.
These things were there to be discovered within the house or from its windows—until I left for good, more or less prepared for the outside world, at the age of eight My mother never spoke of these things. She didn't hide the fact that she was aware of them. For her, however; they were wrapped secrets, to be lived with but never to be mentioned or opened. Superficially, this was a question of gentility, but profoundly, of a respect, a secret loyalty to the enigmatic. My rough and ready preparation for the world did not include a single explanation—it simply consisted of the principle that events carried more weight than the self.
Thus, she taught me very little—at least in the usual sense of the term; she a teacher about life, I a learner By imitating her gestures I learnt how to roast meat in the oven, how to clean celery, how to cook rice, how to choose vegetables in a market. As a young woman she had been a vegetarian. Then she gave it up because she did not want to influence us children. Why were you a vegetarian? I once asked her, eating my Sunday roast, much later when I was first working as a journalist Because I'm against killing. She would say no more. Either I understood or I didn't There was nothing more to be said.
Mixed in with Berger's conversational tone is another note: 'don't expect me to tell you everything', which seems to have been learned from his mother, and, like her, he has no explanation for this natural reserve. The word 'secret' occurs at least nine times in the whole memoir. It's a matter of temperament. He is asking serious questions of himself about the role of writer, his chosen profession, just as he is of autobiography itself: 'a sense of being alone'. But if that's where it starts, it does not end there but with contacts, openings: 'the moments—which if I relate them well enough—will join countless others lived by people I do not personally know.' His aim, therefore, is to find those moments. But before he can do this he has to acknowledge, and perhaps therefore overcome, his natural reserve, especially when the subject here is so intimate. It was a reserve his mother herself would have understood. Is the writer's job to reveal secrets, or keep them? He doesn't know. Maybe the answer is both:
The last, the largest and most personally prepared wrapped secret was her own death.. She lay in her bed, propped up by pillows, her head fallen forward, as if asleep.
On her bedside table was a tin of hand cream. I started to massage her left hand.
'Do you remember a photograph I once took of your hands? Working hands, you said.'
'Would you like some more photos on your table?' Katya, her granddaughter, asked her.
She smiled at Katya and shook her head, her voice very slightly broken by a laugh. It would be so difficult, so difficult, wouldn't it, to choose.
She turned towards me. 'What exactly are you doing?'
'I'm massaging your hand. It's meant to be pleasurable.'
'To tell you the truth dear it doesn't make much difference. Which plane are you taking back?'
I mumbled, took her other hand.
'You are all worried,' she said, 'especially when there are several of you. I'm not. Maureen asked me the other day whether I wanted to be cremated or buried. Doesn't make one iota of difference to me. How could it?' She shut her eyes to think.
For the first time in her life and mine, she could openly place the wrapped enigma between us. She didn't watch me watching it, for we had the habits of a lifetime. Openly, she knew that in that moment her faith in a secret was bound to be stronger than any faith of mine in facts. With her eyes still shut, she fingered the Arab necklace I'd attached round her neck with a charm against the evil eye. I'd given her the necklace a few hours before. Perhaps for the first time I had offered her a secret and now her hand kept looking for it.
She opened her eyes. 'What time is it?'
'Quarter to four'
'It's not very interesting talking to me, you know. I don't have any ideas any more. I've had a good life. Why don't you take a walk?'
When you are very old,' she told Katya confidentially, 'there's one thing that's very, very difficult—it's very difficult to persuade other people that you're happy.'
She let her head go back on the pillow. As I came back in, she smiled.
In her right hand she held a crumpled paper handkerchief. With it she dabbed from time to time the corner of her mouth when she felt there was the slightest excess of spittle there. The gesture was reminiscent of one with which, many years before, she used to wipe her mouth after drinking Earl Grey tea and eating watercress sandwiches. Meanwhile, with her left hand she fingered the necklace, cushioned on her forgotten bosom.
Love, my mother had the habit of saying, is the only thing that counts in this world. Real love, she would add, to avoid any factitious misunderstanding. But apart from that simple adjective, she never added anything more.
Although we might think of this memoir as a portrait, it contains almost no physical description. How then does Berger succeed in bringing his mother's presence alive to us on the page? His method is to work with ideas: childhood, aloneness, contact, secrecy, love, and with illustrative speech, dialogue, voices. Through these, the ideas in his memoir spring to life. We experience his sense of his mother's reserve, its powerful attractions for him, the respect he gives her because of it. We hear those footsteps receding, and, when it comes to the death of a parent, the profound difference between a child's perspective and that of an adult. We also hear about things that lie at the centre of Berger's experience of his mother—her hands, the way she wipes her mouth, and these vivid physical details in the piece also help to balance and illuminate its ideas. It would be quite hard to imagine a memoir that did not deal with physical detail, with dialogue, with moments in close-up, with ideas. All are necessary to the delivery of this form of conversational drama.
Another interesting point is Katya's position. This is her grandmother. Unusual for a young person—she may be in her late teens or early twenties—to be present at what amounts to a deathbed scene. Many young people of her age choose to write about their experience of losing an elderly relative, though few witness the event at close quarters. John Berger's own record above begins with a reference to his grandmother. His detached account of the death of his mother, unsentimental, expressing reflection and insight rather than the obvious cliché emotions, could hold clues about how to handle the experience of bereavement in memoir form. As with all successful writing, we need to feel that the writer has taken us into a new space, allowing us to glimpse its secret reality.
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