Mark Twain once said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Such can be said about the perils of memoir-writing. Is the work a series of facts and events over a lifetime retold as they had actually occurred, or had they been diluted, polished, aggrandized in some way to allow the author to invent a better account of herself, which effectively turns it into a work of fiction?

Three“, a collection of memoirs by Lillian Hellman, comprises three volumes: “An Unfinished Woman” about her childhood and early years as playwright; “Pentimento”, a series of portraits of the people who made a significant impact in her personal and professional life; and “Scoundrel Time”, an account of her persecution during the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950’s.

Much has been written about Hellman’s life and works that doesn’t bear repeating here. A playwright who came to fame in her mid-20’s, Hellman was a belligerent character in the American literary scene from the 1930’s until the time of her death in 1984. Hellman’s writing style is straigtforward, matter-of-fact — so much that her confident tone imposes a certain veracity on her stories. Yet when they were published in the 1970’s, along with the acclaims were sharp criticisms of some assertions she made, notably the “Julia” character in “Pentimento” that Hellman portrayed as a childhood friend and political activist who died in World War II, a personage who was probably in reality a living figure who had considered a lawsuit against her for this breach.

But perhaps the most telling memoir that Hellman wrote was not in this collection, but in a slim volume called “Maybe” which she wrote near the end of her life in 1980. In it, she recounts in a firm yet doubtful voice people and events that appeared and disappeared and then reappeared in her life in different forms and with different histories. Infirm and near blind at this time, Hellman disserts in an internal monologue, questioning her own memory about what had actually transpired. In it she said, “In the three memoir books I wrote, I tried very hard for the truth. I did try, but here I don’t know much of what really happened and never tried to find out. In addition to the ordinary deceptions that you and others make in your life, time itself makes time fuzzy and meshes truth with half truth.”

I’m not a particular fan of Hellman’s works but the period in which she lived, the individuals she frequented – Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dashell Hammett, and her other friends and enemies all made entertaining reading. So whether truth or fiction, Lillian Hellman is definitely a lively and intriguing figure to explore.

Three” 726 pages
Maybe” 102 pages
by Lillian Hellman

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“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

This sentence is the preface to “A Moveable Feast”, a slim volume of Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of his beginning years as a young writer in Paris between 1921 and 1925 and published in 1964 after his death.

In keeping with his renowned brevity, the vignettes and anecdotes in this work capture the environment and mood of American writers in Paris between the two world wars, or the “lost generation” as Gertrude Stein termed them. This famous phrase, which was subsequently taken up to describe the expatriate literary circle, was a remark Stein made in a conversation about the repair troubles she had with her Ford Model T. The garage shop owner had berated his mechanic, who had served in the war, as being incompetent and said to him, “You are all a genération perdue.”

“That’s all you are. That’s what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really?” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.”
“Was the young mechanic drunk?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
“The boy’s patron was probably drunk by 11 o’clock in the the morning,” I said. That’s why he makes such lovely phrases.”
“Don’t argue with me Hemingway,” Miss Stein said. “You’re all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.”
Then as I was getting up to the Closerie des Lilas with the light on my old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out and the shadows of the trees behind him and what a fiasco he’d made of Waterloo, I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been.
I thought of what a warm and affectionate friend Miss Stein had been and will always do my best to serve her. But the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the dirty, easy labels. When I got home, I said to my wife, “Gertrude is nice, anyway.”

“But she does talk a lot of rot sometimes.”

Thus the phrase made its inelegant entrance into the lore of American literature and stayed. But Gertrude Stein did not always talk rot. The most valuable instruction she gave to Hemingway was not to write anything that is inaccrochable (unhangable). “That means it is like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.”

Hemingway imbibed copiously, wrote with great discipline and went to the race track as assiduously when money was flush. He was friends with Ezra Pound, whom he deemed a noble and generous and disinterested writer who admitted to have never read the “Rooshians” (Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoi) and advised Hemingway to stick with the French. “You’ve got a lot to learn from the French.” Hemingway thought that until he read Stendahl’s “The Chartreuse de Parme,” he had never read of war except in Tolstoi, and that wonderful account on Waterloo was an accidental piece in a very dull book. Tolstoi’s “War and Peace,” on the other hand, “made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles.”

For a student of literature, it is sometimes vindicating to hear the greats’ criticisms of each other’s works. Gertrude Stein thought Aldous Huxley’s writing was “inflated trash, written by a dead, dead man.” Hemingway himself couldn’t read D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” even though he liked “Sons and Lovers”. Stein dismissed Lawrence with contempt: “He’s impossible. He’s pathetic and preposterous. He writes like a sick man.”

Hemingway recalls in detail the streets and places and watering holes and eateries he frequented as well as his impressions of his contemporaries. Ford Maddox Ford who was unkempt and had bad breath, the poor poet Evan Shipman who didn’t dress warmly enough for late fall. F. Scott Fitzgerald was between handsome and pretty, in love with Zelda and discombobulated by her. She once asked Hemingway, “Ernest, don’t you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?” It was then that everyone realized that [Fitzgerald] would not write anything more that was good (after The Great Gatsby) until after he knew that Zelda was insane.

For a mere 126 pages, this work is a gem of fond recollections of people and places that Hemingway assembles like actors on a stage and gives readers front row seats.

“There was never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed… Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
126 pages

When you think about it, most people at the age of 35 are still building their life experience, not writing about it. But Barack Obama isn’t just an ordinary individual. He would eventually become America’s first black President and succeed in reforming national health care, an elusive challenge since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His “memoirs”, or more accurately “inner journey”, were written in 1995  by a man pausing and taking stock of his life. Obama was raised by his mother and grandparents in Hawaii where he was born, and then for a few years in Indonesia where his stepfather lived. He met his Kenyan father only once, when he was 10 years old. Then when he was 20, his father died.

His memoirs start off a bit awkwardly, as if he doesn’t know where to start, so why not at the beginning? He draws us into the world of a small black child with a white mother and grandparents, an average dysfunctional family without the financial fortune  to coddle or spoil its children. His loneliness as an only child, his solitude as a black student in a white school. The questions he asks himself about his place in the world, whether he is white or black, who he is and what he aims to achieve in life recur on every page. It’s a sad and difficult narrative but Obama doesn’t give in to sentimentality or self-pity. He states the facts, poses the problems, and goes in search for the answers. His writing gathers momentum progressively, as his eloquence.

But his words are far from just rhetoric. Obama wasn’t a dreamer chasing grandiloquent illusions about a father he hadn’t known and idealized. His issues are down to earth, about coming to terms with being both black and white living in America. And what he can do to bring together divergent communities, if not toward harmony, then at least self-sufficiency?

Obama had a college diploma in pocket and the key to a promising future. Yet he chose to work as an “organizer” in Chicago’s south side to provide basic needs to poor inner city residents against a tide of exodus to the suburbs. His efforts were like that of a lonely man out in the desert clamoring into the wind and all that came back were dry dust and tumbleweeds. Yet he persevered for several years and obtained tidy results. Obama didn’t just pull himself up from the bootstraps, he pulled up entire communities through hard work and sheer will.

Before embarking on law school at Harvard, Obama visited Kenya to put together the puzzle of his life and reconcile himself with the spirit of his dead father. Going back to the patriarch’s roots, he pieced together the story of  a man who had great dreams of doing good for his country but somehow failed himself and his family. He speaks without condescension, judgment, or resentment. Again, he just states the facts and the lessons learned.

And one of  those lessons was that small and great things can be achieved not through miracles or wishful thinking or grand acts of valor, but simply with “honest, decent men and women who have attainable ambitions and the determination to see them through.”

“Dreams from my Father” is commendable work of grace, elegance, and thoughtfulness from such a young man of great potential. Barack Obama didn’t know then that he would one day become President of the United States.

Dreams from my Father
Barack Obama
480 pages

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