Memoir and Credibility

In his marvelous essay, "Levels of Reality in Literature," found in the collection of essays entitled The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino writes about the "I" who writes. "The preliminary condition of any work of literature is that the person who is writing has to invent that first character, who is the author of the work." (111) And this is no simple process. This first character, the "author," may be a "projection of a real part of the author or the projections of a fictitious 'I'--a mask, in short." (111)

The writer creates the author in the same way an actor on stage creates a character: by entering into a role and identifying "[her]self with that projection of [her]self at the moment of writing." (111) The stage on which this writer acting as an author moves is the structure of the work; the language, voice and setting of the work are like its costuming, lighting, and scenery. In other words, what frames this "I" of the author is the structure and style in which the story is told. And there is nothing arbitrary or accidental about this framework, which is, in turn, framed by "the outside world in the age when it was created and the age when we received it."(103)

Thinking about the creation of this "I" in the context of memoir calls attention to the many levels of reality that even this form, declaratively standing on empirical ground, always also operates. In other words, the experiences, memories, dreams, fantasies, scenes, settings, characters, persons, both living and dead, that populate memoir should never be understood as merely written records of what actually happened. "Different levels of reality always exist in literature; in fact literature...would be unthinkable without an awareness of this distinction." (101)

What then of the"reality" test applied to memoir writing? We expect the author to be credible. But what exactly do we believe in when we believe the author to be telling the truth about her life? What truth?

Calvino reminds us of the truth we seek in literature: Not historical fact, or religious revelation, but the "kind of credibility peculiar to the literary text...matched on the reader's part by an attitude Coleridge defined as 'suspension of disbelief.' Every literary text depends on this suspension, "even if it is admittedly within the realm of the fabulous and incredible." (105, emphasis added).

Even in memoir, a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader must occur for the sake of the story's credibility. Could it be, then, that even telling a story the author made up about a life (think of James Frey) nevertheless tells something more truthful about both the writer and the life narrated than any mere recitation of facts, even dressed up in literary garb, could achieve? Or has this violated the implicit code of ethics between reader and writer than suspension of disbelief requires?

In other words, if memoir, like fiction, is a form of literature that depends on disbelief's suspension, are there (perhaps unstated) specific rules or codes that exist to govern its operations?

Calvino offers the reader of any written work a caution: "You who are reading are obliged to believe only one thng: that what you are reading is something that at some previous time someone has written; what you are reading takes place in one particular world, that of the written word." (104) Cold comfort?

Discussing how authors recast original mythical or traditional tales, Calvino explains that even an apocryphal attribution, a turning upside down of what another author said "in order to obtain a particular literary effect" is done in the interest of "communicat[ing] something new, while still remaining faithful to the image of the original...draw[ing] material from the collective imagination." (107) If we think of memoirs as tales modeled on traditional stories--whether the hero or heroine's quest, or the social transformation narratives with happy endings found in many fairy tales (see Calvino's "The Odyssey Within the Odyssey", same collection, p. 139) are we on the same territory, bound by the same rules?

Certainly food for thought as I continue to write memoir.