Guenter Grass “The Box”

Guenter Grass "The Box"After the revelations that Guenter Grass (sorry for the lack of umlaut. I  can’t figure out how to get the thing in there) participated in the Waffen SS, I was among those, angry and betrayed who swore I wouldn’t read him again.  That lasted all of five years.

I couldn’t help myself when I saw The Box: Tales from the Darkroom at my library.  I haven’t finished the book yet, and I’m already looking forward to reading it again.  The author imagines his eight children gathering at various times and in different grouping to discuss him, his presence and his absence in their lives. The discussions rarely stray far from family friend Maria and her mysterious Agfa box camera.  The adult children debate the merits of the camera and Maria’s darkroom work, but all agree Maria’s camera showed them worlds and wishes normally hidden.

The imaginative premise blurs the line between reality and fiction. An old-fashioned camera is a perfect metaphor. We tend to think of true and false, real and fiction as absolutes as stark as black and white.  However, anyone who ever dabbled in black and white photography knows, the artistry reveals itself in the grays.

On Memoirs Part I

Lately, memoirs have been both in the news and on my mind. They are not a genre I eagerly seek out, and yet, I read them on a regular basis. I have not read the book at the heart of the latest controversy, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, nor have I read the infamous James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s is somewhere in my “To Be Read” stack, but it’s not a high priority read for me.  What interests me is not the content of these books, but rather the shock and outrage following the “revelation” that some of the “facts” are not actually “factual.”

Memoirs are classified as and treated as works of non-fiction. They are not. Nor are they works of fiction, at least not entirely. they exist on a plane somewhere in between. unfortunately, many readers seem to approach a memoir with the same mentality as they would a work of history or journalism. To misappropriate Ranke, too many readers expect the memoir to tell the story of a person’s life “as it actually was.”

The problem is that human beings are inherently flawed, particularly our memories.  Consider how often you misplace your keys, or have that nagging feeling you are forgetting something important. Today I found a camera I misplaced for over a month.  Our minds take a lot of short cuts to remember day-to-day moments.

We also use these short cuts when we tell people stories. We are all story tellers, verbally constructing a memoir of sorts as we relate the events of our day or week to an interested party. We leave out the details we find unimportant or uninteresting, compressing the story to become a more coherent listening experience. If someone included all these factual events in their memoir, we would be bored silly.

Part of the memoir problem, I suspect, comes when one goes back later to fill in those details with an eye to what would make the story better, more inspiring, more powerful and ultimately allow the author to sell the book first to a publisher and later to the reading public.  What the author considers embellishment or perhaps even clarification, can be considered lies or at the very least misleading statements. When the author is caught amending what purports to be a true life story, no wonder we get mad. We’ve been deceived. The story is not as ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ as promised.

The issue of veracity in memoirs is one of the many reasons that the next memoir I intend to read is actually a novel.  The Entertainment Weekly review of Francisco Goldman’s Say her Name suggests the pressure and expectations implicit in the word “Truth” led Goldman to reject the traditional memoir category in his ode to his wife.

I have plenty more to say on memoirs and anticipate future blogs on this subject, but for now, let me know what you think.