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PostMemoirs and Memory at Odds (Angel Vinas, Belgium, 08/16/17 1:49 pm)
I have been in Berlin on holidays remembering old times. I have kept abreast of the many WAIS posts exchanged in the last few weeks thanks to my mobile. The ones concerning Mussolini´s Italy and the difficulties in writing memoirs have attracted my attention. Regarding the latter, I think that my personal experience may be opportune.
I wrote a big book on my work at the EU and the changes I perceived in this organisation over fifteen years. My intention was to provide the reader with an insight of how the EU worked in the areas I had a direct knowledge of. I began writing one month after leaving the EU and wrote in flashback from the end of my activities toward the starting point. My memory being not that bad, I thought I could truthfully reconstruct the high points of my most recent experiences. I worked for three months on my last two EU years. I was relatively happy and self-assured. However, as a historian I immediately confronted my writing with the primary evidence (my personal files contained in 40 or 50 big boxes which I had taken with me--this was permitted at that time) and the comparison left me aghast.
Episodes which I believed to have written truthfully turned out not to be as I had described then. Conclusion? From then on I wrote on the basis of direct evidence which I deposited several years later with the EU Archives in Florence. Any reader interested in contrasting my account can therefore check it with the primary evidence. The files description is available on line. I simply kept my old diary because it contained personal details I did not want to exhibit.
What does this mean? As a historian I have developed a hearty dislike of memoirs as historical sources unless supported by corroborative evidence. In particular if the memoirs have been written from memory. Memory plays tricks. Needless to say, I had to fight the temptation to put myself in a glamorous light. I avoided it to the extent possible by having recourse to Brecht´s concept of Verfremdung highlighting the need to keep of critical distance to the Darstellung (the written text). I didn´t lie except on one occasion and only to protect a source following legal advice. However, I didn't tell the whole truth or what I thought was the truth for lack of evidence.
I think that memoirs are indelibly personal affairs to be taken with a grain (occasionally with a ton) of salt. They should take a secondary role and only to be used in connection with available evidence. I, however, acknowledge that this is not always possible. In my next book I´ll be addressing without compassion some memoirs which historians have taken at face value.
JE comments: Yes, there would be no such thing as memory if there were no forgetting. Not that Ángel Viñas would do such a thing, but consider the "Brian Williams Syndrome," where you enhance a personal experience to the point that it becomes pure fiction. Might we call it involuntary mendacity?
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