Cover image for Memory & narrative : the weave of life-writing
Memory & narrative : the weave of life-writing
Olney, James.
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Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Physical Description:
xvi, 430 pages ; 24 cm
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CT25 .O43 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Memory and Narrative presents an elegant, authoritative account of how life-writing has changed over time to arrive at its present form. James Olney, one of the most distinguished scholars of autobiography, tells the story of an evolving literary form that originated in the autobiographical writings of St. Augustine, underwent profound changes in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's life-writing trilogy, and found a momentary conclusion in the work of Samuel Beckett.

"This is an elegant work of scholarship." --Jason Berry, Chicago Tribune

"Examines how the fascinating, reciprocal relationship between memory and narrative has evolved over the course of 17 centuries. . . . Olney's work is a valuable companion to his subjects' primary texts." -- Booklist

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Olney, editor of the Southern Review, examines how the fascinating, reciprocal relationship between memory and narrative has evolved over the course of 17 centuries. Most autobiographers--Olney calls them "life writers" --begin with an unremembered event (birth), then recollect, imagine, and construct from facts a useful life story. Addressing content, language, structure, motive, and the always complex relationship of author to narrator, Olney considers modes of this form by studying the work of three paradigmatic practitioners: St. Augustine, Rousseau, and Samuel Beckett--the first two in light of Giambattista Vico's theories, the last in the context of Beckett's contemporaries, e.g., Ronald Fraser, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wright, and Christa Wolf, who likewise have grappled with issues of narration and the tricky use of "I" in life writing. Rousseau's section is most compelling, especially the passages that document the amusing logic for dispatching his five newborns to the foundling hospital. Supplemented with helpful footnotes, Olney's work is a valuable companion to his subjects' primary texts and will be of particular interest to serious students of creative nonfiction. --James Klise

Library Journal Review

These studies of autobiographical writing approach the topic from different angles. Bjorklund, a social scientist, analyzes the genre from the perspectives of psychology, sociology, and ethnic studies. She has selected five representative titles from each decade starting from 1800 and examines them from in terms of how the concept of self has changed in U.S. history and society. She divides the book into four sections: religious autobiographies, the works of business or "self-made" individuals, the psychological aspects of life-writing, and ways in which society and the environment have molded lives. Bjorklund studies both famous and obscure writers, and her clear prose style and copious quotations provide insight into the many aspects of the changing American self. Olney is a professor of literature (Louisiana State Univ.) and is therefore more interested in how certain authors have made narrative out of memory. He focuses on three landmark autobiographers: St. Augustine, one of the first life-writers, who used his life to illustrate religious doctrines; Rousseau, who was only interested in how his own feelings and thoughts made an impact on society; and Samuel Beckett, who invested his novels and plays with his own, ultimately hopeless quest to understand his life story. Olney's analyses are complex, but his exhaustive readings of these three main authors illuminate their methods and struggles. Bjorklund's study is appropriate for undergraduate collections, while Olney's is geared for graduate studies.¬ĎMorris Hounion, NYC Technical Coll. Lib., Brooklyn, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Having worked on personal writing and autobiography since 1973, Olney (Louisana State Univ.) completes his interest in this genre with this study concentrating on St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who between them established the conventions of autobiographical fiction, and on the personal writing of Samuel Beckett. Taking as his thesis the dualistic and symbiotic relationship between memory and narrative, Olney presents a series of free-standing essays shaped by his understanding of history and tradition. The author is scrupulous about deriving his theory from the texts he examines in terms historically appropriate to the time of their writing. He avoids transporting recent discussions of memory, for example, back on St. Augustine. Olney argues that the shift in the nature of life-writing or autobiography derives from a change in focus from "bios" (the course of a lifetime) to "autos" (the self writing). In the second half of this book, the author applies 20th-century contexts to Beckett's life and work but also includes other modern memoirists--among them Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Maxine Hong Kingston. With its informative footnotes, this scholarly study complements Olney's famous Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (CH, Mar'73). Highly recommended for upper-division undergraduate and graduate collections and for specialists in the genre of personal writing. S. A. Parker Hiram College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Prelude
1 Memory and the Narrative Imperative First Interlude
2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Crisis of Narrative Memory Second Interlude
3 Not I
4 Narrative
5 Memory Postlude