cover image When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography

When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography

Jill Ker Conway, Author Alfred A. Knopf $24 (192p) ISBN 978-0-679-44593-7

Memoirs often include events and thoughts that reveal the author's perception of how they see themselves, frequently excluding known aspects of their lives. Omissions, or a narrow focus, lead Conway (True North; The Road from Coorain) to state that autobiographical writing ""is the most popular form of fiction for modern readers."" To illustrate the selectivity of memory, Conway considers the literature of the genre in its multiple guises. She examines distant memoirs (St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass) with great sensitivity for the cultural climates in which they were written. In these and in the broad-ranging excerpts from more recent autobiographies (Lee Iacocca, Ellen Glasgow, Gloria Steinem, Frank McCourt, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Kathryn Harrison), Conway shows a particular interest in discovering how these books reflect the views of their eras, thereby giving a historical perspective on our own. She notes that, overall, women--even the most publicly assertive--demur when writing their lives, rarely expressing accomplishments, decisions, even agency for their actions, although historically, men do. ""Few of us,"" notes Conway, ""give close attention to the forms and tropes of the culture through which we report ourselves to ourselves."" Conway's small gem is a landmark in eliciting fresh contemplation of the inchoate complexity of memory's manifold voices. (Mar.)