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Post on Gandhi and Memoir Writing
Created by John Eipper on 08/10/17 6:54 AM

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on Gandhi and Memoir Writing (Robert Whealey, USA, 08/10/17 6:54 am)

I am a great fan of Mahatma Gandhi. I read his Autobiography in graduate school. I used one of his readings to teach students about peace and the American racial dilemmas.

I am now writing my memoirs.

JE comments: Aren't we all fans of Gandhi? (Perhaps not: Eugenio Battaglia "dissed" him a bit in his latest WAIS post.  In true Bastian Contrario fashion, Eugenio has also criticized Churchill--who was, admittedly, an alcoholic with racist tendencies.)

Let's open up a discussion on memoir writing.  Our own Ronald Hilton left his, and several WAISers have followed his path--Siegfried Ramler, Tim Brown, Richard Hancock, David Duggan (theologically speaking) and certainly others.  What advice do you have for Robert Whealey?  How honest should you be?  I would say "very," unless you want your memoirs to ring superficial and self-serving.

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  • Memoir Writing; The Ronald Hilton Memoirs (John Heelan, UK 08/11/17 6:45 AM)
    Regarding memoir writing, John E asked on August 10th: "What advice do you have for Robert Whealey? How honest should you be? I would say 'very,' unless you want your memoirs to ring superficial and self-serving."

    I would hesitate to recommend anything on writing memoirs to Prof Whealey, and agree with JE's comment about being honest. Regrettably--and I realise that my next comment might well constitute anathema in WAIS circles--I personally found that Ronald Hilton's memoirs on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War occasionally fell into the description of "superficial and name-droppingly self-serving."

    For example I found it difficult when comparing timelines of RH and "Lorca and his ilk," whom he hated and blamed for the Spanish Civil War, to place both in La Resi (Residencia Estudiantil, Madrid) at the same time. Moreover, I did not receive an answer from RH when I questioned him on the lacuna when chasing down the few people still extant who has actually met Lorca.

    JE comments: This is a delicate topic, especially because Ronald Hilton is not here to respond.  Prof. H's stay in the Residencia de Estudiantes was in 1936 (he was there when the Civil War broke out).  RH'a From Monarchy to Civil War does not claim that Lorca and Hilton were at the Resi at the same time, only that "Lorca lived in the Residencia de Estudiantes as I did."  (More dramatically, Robert Frost and I both studied at Dartmouth, but not together.)  John:  Wasn't Lorca at the Residencia in the 1920s?  Lorca had already been murdered by August '36.

    RH's memoirs are no autobiography.  They could better be thought of as an intellectual history of the Hispanists and other thinkers he encountered Oxford, Madrid, and elsewhere.  RH preferred to talk of others more than himself, and readers searching for "what makes this man tick" will be disappointed.  Moreover, except for a brief epilogue, his narrative ends in 1936, when he was only 25 years old.

    (From Monarchy to Civil War can be accessed in full in the "Publications" section of the WAISworld homepage.)


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    • Federico Garcia Lorca, Ronald Hilton, and Madrid's Residencia de Estudiantes (John Heelan, UK 08/14/17 4:14 AM)
      Reviewing my research notes for the Hilton/Lorca timelines (hidden away in our attic), I now find it appears that Ronald Hilton graduated in 1936 arriving at La Resi (Madrid) by the end of that year; however Lorca had left for South America in September 1933, returning to Granada in May 1934. They could have coincided between November 1934 and May 1935 when it seems both were in Madrid with RH about to leave for his tour of Italy and North Africa arriving back in Spain in January 1936.

      JE asked if Lorca was at La Resi in the 1920s. He was briefly in May 1919 thanks to a letter of recommendation from de los Ríos to La Resi's director but then Lorca was grounded in Granada by his father in Granada to complete his law degree, which he did despite being a remarkably poor student (some suspect the degree was thanks to his law professor friend of his father's, de los Ríos again).

      Lorca returned to La Resi in February 1923. So it appears there were few opportunities for RH "to know Lorca at La Resi." I have failed to find any evidence of such a meeting in Lorca's letters or the many biographies I have read about him. I still think that RH's antipathy to "Lorca and his ilk" stemmed from a difference in ideologies and RH having been snubbed by an arrogant Lorca. Pity--I would have loved to have been able to discuss Lorca with RH.

      JE comments:  Lorca was also 13 years older than RH, and was already a superstar in literary circles.  The omission of an RH encounter (if there was one) in FGLl's letters is therefore not surprising.  Nor did the martyred poet have much time left to reflect on anything.  He was dead by August of '36.

      John Heelan forgot to mention what I consider the most significant outcome of contacting Prof. H in his Lorca research:  WAIS gained a friend and a prolific correspondent.  (That would be 1313 postings and counting, just since 2010--you're the superstar, John!)

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  • Honesty and Memoir Writing (Robert Whealey, USA 08/12/17 7:09 AM)
    As a historian I am 100% honest in all of the draft chapters of my memoirs, except my chapter on Michael Dukakis whom I know personally. In this draft chapter I use pseudonyms for five or six people whom we both know.

    I could begin by sending a three-page table of contents. People on the WAIS Forum can reply to me chapter by chapter. Or delete the table of contents, if they are not interested in history or my opinions.

    JE comments: It's hard to argue with that logic, Robert! But WAISers will certainly be interested in the chapters of your life; please send.  What a challenging exercise:  structuring your life into a table of contents.

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    • Memoir Writing: "KGB's Poison Factory Ten Years On" (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 08/13/17 7:40 AM)

      Regarding memoir writing--I am finishing a book under a working title Assassins: The KGB's Poison Factory Ten Year On, hopefully to be published in London in November 2018. Partly, these are memoirs of my meetings and contacts with many known people including Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Maya Plisetskaya, Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Litvinenko, Nikolai Khokhlov, Oleg Gordievsky and others. I believe in his or her memoirs one must by all means be honest though still remembering the old adage "truth, nothing but the truth but not the whole truth."

      There's one more element that I believe is absolutely essential--good memoirs must be well written. At the moment I finish reading memoirs of my favourite British writer Frederick Forsyth, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (2015). After 17 novels--all of them international bestsellers--and two non-fiction books, Forsyth claims it is his last. I absolutely believe The Outsider is his true memoir and it is written as brilliantly as all his novels. As the Spectator reviewer has put it, "He has an almost mesmeric ability to compel the reader to keep turning the pages."  Forsyth indeed is a magnificent storyteller and if a person is writing or contemplating to write memoirs and is not a historical figure like, for example, Mahatma Gandhi or Winston Churchill, to my mind his memoirs must be interesting to read in order for them to survive the writer.

      In my field of professional research I have read memoirs of rather many Soviet defectors written at different times and in different countries, and must say that all of them without exception are self-serving, full of lies, exaggerations and propaganda. Not to mention they are usually written by ghost-writers provided by Western services. One such ghost-writer has recently called me checking details of a well-known defector who is still alive but whose obituary he has already been commissioned to prepare. There's of course a Latin phrase De mortuis nihil nisi bonum ("Of the dead, nothing unless good") coined by Chilon of Sparta circa 600 BC, but in this particular case I preferred a different approach. Ironically, obituaries are often based on memoirs...

      JE comments:  There's a paradox here.  Can the memoirist be both honest and entertaining? Most of our lives are so mundane that we need to spice things up to make our stories page-turning.  (Boris Volodarsky is an exception of course.) 

      Best of luck in your latest writing endeavor, Boris!  Please keep us updated as the publication date nears.

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      • Truth and Memoir-Writing: Harper Lee and Truman Capote; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 08/16/17 2:38 AM)

        Gary Moore writes:

        My thanks to Boris Volodarsky (August 13) for his insistence on honesty in writing memoirs,
        while pointing out that discretion, not mendacity, should provide the wiggle room
        that protects confidences ("not the whole truth," as Boris mused). Nobody ever tells the
        whole truth, since selectivity is the essence of perception. But obviously, the omission process
        can become mendacious, too. The difference is in an imponderable: the writer's will to truth.

        It would seem that to say memoirs have special exemption for tall tales is to cheapen the
        genre--and to cheapen discourse generally. If you say it's true and you know it's not, then
        the biggest message is that you're a liar, overtowering your overt messages, and raising
        the question of how much any of it should be believed. But to me a larger mystery is
        in Boris's further note about author Frederick Forsyth, and his "almost mesmeric ability
        to compel the reader to keep turning the pages." Here I beg to differ a bit, as to whether
        the page-turning magic is necessarily a sign of good writing. Without doubt it often is.
        But just as many times the hot page-turners seem to display unfortunate writing--in
        terms of syntax, logic, sloppiness, redundancy, or what have you. It would seem that
        the mystery is one of connecting with the audience--even if the connector despises the
        audience and is cynically manipulating them. Who can characterize this magic? Is it a gift,
        like perfect pitch? Is it often a mere matter of mechanical formula? I don't think it's exactly
        passion--but perhaps is the effective appearance of passion, and the knowledge of what
        engenders passion.

        Take a look at To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the blockbusters of its century--in large part because it so perfectly compressed the passions of its age. Its page-turning magic
        seems almost like a liquid presence, and--to return to my original theme--this quality remains as
        the largest suggestion that the master page-turner himself, and not Harper Lee, had an unseen
        part in the book's gestation.

        Mendacity seems never to have been much of an issue for Truman Capote, as he rode so
        deeply immersed in the intoxicating magic of being able to connect. Mendacity--or well-meaning
        sentiment--also distorted the real nature of the real-world events in south Alabama that were
        ostensibly enshrined in To Kill a Mockingbird's fiction. But the resulting message was perfectly
        attuned to nagging questions deep within a waiting audience, providing answers and images
        they perhaps didn't even know they yearned for. The overall evidence says that, yes, Nelle Harper
        Lee of Monroeville, Alabama ("Maycomb" in the book) really did write this masterpiece of childhood
        memoir (few fans thought of it as fiction), and that it was not written by her childhood friend, later
        colleague and sometime manipulator Truman Capote (Lee reportedly thought she was going to get
        a collaborator credit on In Cold Blood). But whoever was behind it, the intoxicating magic was distilled
        in full force--by its very power deepening the mystery.


        (Careful, this reference too, turns out to be a descent into fiction--fenced off from mendacity only by sentiment.)

        JE comments:  The NYT classifies Greg Neri's fictional account of the Lee-Capote childhood bond, Tru & Nelle, as "middle grade."  Talk about faint praise.  Has anyone in WAISworld read it?  What a coincidence that two of the South's absolute greatest authors would hail from the same small Alabama town.

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