October 1, 2007

Angela’s Ashes

Category: Literature :: Permalink

I picked up a copy of Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes some time ago and have had it sitting on the shelf until recently.  I’m about twenty pages from the end right now, and I’m sorting through what I think about it.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize in memoirs and received high praise from a lot of people, and I can see why.  McCourt writes fairly well, there’s a lot of humor in the book, and the story he tells is interesting.  It’s largely the account of his childhood in Limerick in the 1930s and ’40s as the son of a man from Northern Ireland who was given more to drinking his pint or twenty than to bringing home the wages and caring for his family.  The second and third paragraphs sum the book up fairly well:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all.  It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and wimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years (p. 11).

There are passages that are heartbreaking, and throughout you have McCourt’s distinctively Irish voice.  He writes so that you can hear the accent.

And yet I wonder….

My own memories of my childhood are sparse, perhaps unusually so.  I remember certain events vividly, but there aren’t many of those memories.  Some of my memories are a bit warped because I’m an adult rememberin things that happened when I was a child.  For instance, I remember walking through bookcases in the adult section of the library when I was about five years old and the bookcases towered over my head.  In my memory, those bookcases must be fifteen feet tall but that’s because I’m six feet tall now and I imagine them towering over my grown-up head.  In reality, they were likely about seven feet tell and I was only three feet tall.  Similarly, the intervenous needle that I got when I was eight or so has grown in length because I remember the length of it by looking at my hand and my hand has grown considerably since then.

I remember some things that I’m pretty sure didn’t happen and were probably only dreams (e.g., the backyard covered with candy wrappers that my sister and a friend had thrown there when they were pigging out on candy).  In some cases, I’m sure I remember what I’ve been told about things I did or said: I remember the story; I don’t remember actually doing or saying those things.

Of many other events, I remember bits and pieces: being six years old in the winter and freezing my hands as I scrambled up a snow-covered hill on my way home from school, having forgotten my mittens at school, for instance.  I remember that part, and I remember my mother having me run lukewarm water over my hands.  But that’s it.  I don’t remember if it was sunny or overcast; I don’t remember whether we ever found those mittens again.   I have only parts of those memories left, and if I were to write a memoir about my childhood it would either be very brief, full of scattered pieces of memories, or I would have to embellish it significantly.

And now I come back to Angela’s Ashes.  All the way through this memoir, I kept wondering how McCourt, who was in his sixties when he wrote the book, could possibly remember all the details he records.  He reports on whole conversations that took place when he was three years old, for instance.  He describes buildings and people and their accents and the way he felt and so forth.  Now perhaps, as my memory of childhood may be unusually sparse, his was unusually good.  Perhaps some of the stories he tells were ones that his parents told him about his chlidhood, so that he’s remembering their account rather than the actual events.  Maybe.

But I kept suspecting that McCourt was embellishing the stories he told, that he wasn’t simply reporting on what he remembered or even what others told him but that he was making things up in order to make the stories more interesting.  We all probably do some of that when we’re telling stories about things that happened to us, just as the fish that got away seems larger than it probably really was.  Most of us are probably wittier and have better comebacks in our stories than we do in real life.  And I suspect that McCourt has told these stories often in one form or another — and especially in this play — that they’ve gradually grown in the telling, especially as he found that people chuckled at the things he was saying.

In his review, Orrin Judd raises similar questions:

What then are we to make of the recent torrent of memoirs wherein authors recall entire conversations including tones and nuances, scents, sounds, shadows and so forth from when they were mere children?  Obviously we just can not accept them as non-fiction.  There was a time when every young writer was expected to start his career with a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, then, having gotten that out of his system, he could move on to writing genuine fiction, coming back in his dotage to retell the story of his early life in a memoir that was understood to be so far removed from the time of the events that it was inherently untrustworthy.  No one took these memories seriously, but the aged author had earned the right to put his own gloss on the misty past; only petty minds demanded total accuracy from these literary lions.  Now, however, everyone who picks up a pen writes a memoir of some kind or another, recreating their callow youths with such exacting specificity that it is impossible to believe a word they’ve written.  The only reason for this trend would seem to be the truly frightening level of voyeurism we’ve sunk to in recent years.  Like the glut of “reality” TV shows, the craze for memoirs appears to be based on the assumption that a story is more interesting if we think it’s true.  One would hope that this is not necessarily the case and that in due time authors will return to writing coming of age novels which may leave us guessing what is fact and what is fiction, but have the honesty and the decency not to pretend that fiction is fact.

None of this means that Angela’s Ashes isn’t worth reading, but it would probably be better to approach it as if you were sitting in a crowd listening to a gifted storyteller spinning yarns about his youth in order to make you laugh and sometimes cry.  You don’t necessarily believe everything he says, but you can still enjoy the stories.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:45 am | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Angela’s Ashes

  1. Dennis A Bratcher Says:

    I’ve read ‘Tis and Angela’s Ashes and probably will read Teacher Man. At the time I simply took them as historical-biographical accounts. But in comments by others one does wonder at the unrelenting stretch of ‘bad luck’ and the near-permanent status as victim.

  2. Jamie Says:

    Some folks do have an enormous capacity for recall of detailed and obscure memories from way back in their babyhood. My oldest daughter, for instance, can remember lots of stuff from when she was two, and some from when she was one, whereas I hardly remember a thing before I was five or six. I have been telling her for years that she needs to be a writer…

  3. Charles Chambers Says:

    Good observations John and thank you. I notice you said “Most of us are probably wittier and have better comebacks in our stories than we do in real life.” Whereas I might fit the bill as an occassional embellisher, your comebacks (which I think you tame down for the occassion) don’t need any embellishment whatsoever, in my opinion.

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