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Biography 23.1 (2000) 251-254



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James Olney. Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. 496 pp. ISBN 0-226-62816-7, $35.00.

James Olney's new book focuses mainly on "three principals," who "stand like colossi each fully capable of giving his name to the age in which he lived and wrote: Augustine, presiding spirit of the Catholic Middle Ages; Rousseau, child of the Enlightenment yet prime mover of Romantic attitudes; Beckett, comic genius of a world in ruins." From these points of reference, Olney graphs the entire history of Western life-writing: "the three taken together establish a tradition of writing, founded by Augustine, radically altered by Rousseau, concluding (for the moment) in Beckett, that is the ground against which, during sixteen centuries, innumerable figures and transformations have played themselves out like variations on a theme" (xi). His underlying argument, made explicit only in the conclusion, is "that memory and narrative, together and alike, are the two major epiphenomena of consciousness, the dual defining conditions of our being human and not something else" (417). Olney's choice of his principals reflects the self-consciousness and energy with which they acted on what Olney sees as a deep and universal human impulse, what one might call "the autobiographical imperative." Indeed, he is drawn to these three in part because life-writing was virtually their life work. Olney is primarily interested, then, in meta- and mega-autobiography. [End Page 251]

Some will question the inclusion of Beckett, on the grounds that his medium was not autobiography, strictly speaking. But Olney argues for an inclusive definition of life-writing, preferring the terms "autography" and "periautography" (to denote writing about the self rather than the life), and he contends that Beckett's career was decisively shaped by his recognition that he had only memory and himself for subjects. (There's a sense, too, in which Olney's trinitarian schema requires Beckett to complete it.)

In any event, more than half the book concerns Beckett. And in view of the fact that Olney sees Rousseau as a modernist or even a postmodernist avant la lettre, over three quarters of the book is devoted to the predicament of the modern(ist) life-writer, who feels the autobiographical imperative very intensely--in direct proportion, one might say, to his awareness of the futility of the enterprise. On one level, then, much of the book is a paean to a kind of existentialist hero (my term, not Olney's), the autobiographer as Sisyphus. This is clear in a remark about Beckett, Kafka, and Giacometti: "In advance, they were altogether clear eyed about the impossibility of the task they entered upon, yet they chose the impossible and not once but over and over again" (282).

Within the limits of his donnée (to which I will return), Olney has written a remarkable and masterful book. As a study of his principals, it is impressive both in its extensiveness and its intensiveness. Olney does not limit himself to the obvious, familiar works, like Rousseau's and Augustine's Confessions, but rather explores a range of works across their oeuvres: Augustine's City of God and The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Rousseau's Dialogues and Reveries, and Beckett texts too numerous to mention (dramatic as well as narrative). Olney's contribution to the criticism on these figures reflects careful scholarship and resourceful contextual and intertextual reading. And he takes advantage of his narrow focus to do a good deal of close reading, dwelling on key phrases or considering alternative translations. The book is clearly a labor of love, the product of long years of immersion in and reflection on its central figures, and it is elegantly written. Without showing off, Olney has accomplished a tour de force of criticism, producing an exemplary work of literary, biographical, and philosophical analysis. To read it is to tune in on the thinking of a very intelligent and learned reader as he pores over a series of challenging texts.

Like the texts it analyzes, Memory and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 251-254
Launched on MUSE
1999-12-01
Open Access
No
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