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Post Road Magazine #32

J.R. Ackerley's My Father and Myself

Dave Madden

I might never write a memoir. Looking into the murk of one's past and seeing in there a story to tell has always seemed a kind of magic to me, like the Wicked Queen's conjuring from her mirror on the wall a soothsayer to tell her, for certain, what's what. I grew up white and middle-class in the suburbs to parents who worked jobs and are still together. I had no accent, no noteworthy heritage, no local cuisine, no troubled siblings, no friends who died. I got good grades and did extracurriculars. I went to college and then I went to graduate school.

Even I'm not interested in this story; no amount of craft could make it palatable to a stranger.

Trouble, growing up, happened to other people, and when I became a writer and made writer friends, memoir is what other writers got to work on. I'd be an asshole if I wrote here that I envied them their troubles, their lives that they survived and then wrote into to try to understand just how that survival happened. Everybody works from the material they have. But I hope not to be an asshole when I write that I envied them the gifts of attention their memoir projects granted. It's a cliché (also wrong) to say that writing memoir is like therapy, but I've been in therapy long enough now to see how a sustained inquiry into who I've been could only help in my task to understand who I am.

I thought it was something left for other people until I read J.R. Ackerley's My Father and Myself last Christmas. Here's its opening:

I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919. Nearly a quarter of a century may seem rather procrastinatory for making up one's mind, but I expect that the longer such rites are postponed the less indispensable they appear and that, as the years rolled by, my parents gradually forgot the anomaly of their situation.

You can hear the voice. Fussy, prudent. Who says "rather procrastinatory" or "the anomaly of their situation"? Who but a queer would lean so pansily on such Latinate constructions?

This queer. I raise my hand and place myself among those writers who struggle to keep things Anglo-Saxon, the way Ernest Hemingway learned to from Sherwood Anderson, and the way I learned to from reading angry George Orwell in graduate school. I also struggle with Henry James's scenic method, taught as gospel everywhere ever since the Iowa Writers' Workshop opened its doors. My nature is to tell, not show, because the world has always presented itself to be as a problem to be solved through rumination and analysis, not a pageantry of sensory data to be channeled onto the page.

Here, too, I found in Ackerley a fellow traveler. The almost Teutonic literalness of its title gives you an idea of the memoir's focus: Ackerley spends eighteen chapters (plus appendix) looking at his own life and what he knows of the life of his father, to understand not just the nature of their relationship but the nature of their selves. How am I a part of whoever the man my father was? is a central question. Ackerley fought in the Battle of the Somme, and seems among the members of his battalion to've been one of the few survivors. Here's how that gets rendered in chapter seven:

Many of the officers in my battalion were struck down the moment they emerged into view. My company commander was shot through the heart before he had advanced a step. Neville, the battalion buffoon ... was also instantly killed, and so was fat Bobby Soames, my best friend. I had spent the previous evening with him and he had said to me quietly, without emotion, "I am going to be killed tomorrow. I don't know how I know it but I do."

Despite what it says, it's itself not without emotion, the passage. What it is without is an interest in manufacturing emotion by using the tools of narrative. We're given no scene of Bobby and J.R. talking on the eve of battle, no image of his best friend's face looming adumbratively at the end of a chapter. The detail is told at the exact moment, so it feels, it arrives in Ackerley's sorting brain, and in doing this for more than 200 pages, My Father and Myself is the most nonfictive memoir I've ever read.

A memoir that's like a novel except true is no better than a mirror on the wall that won't rank your beauty. That only reflects back to you the face you show to it. If I ever wrote a memoir, I'd want it to tell me something, not show me what it is I can remember. I'm afraid, probably, of narrative. Every time I turn myself into a literary character, with arcs and demonstrable desires, that self becomes even more alien to me. Any idiot can see that writing a memoir is an act of great courage. Keeping myself an essaying narrator has always felt like cowardice. And then I read Ackerley. I might still be a coward, but now I don't feel as lonely.

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