Although Birkerts focusses exclusively on memoir writing, the crux of his book is the distance between the narrator and the subject...and that distance is as applicable to an older self recalling a younger self in memoir as it is to an older narrator animating his younger self in fiction. Birkerts introduces his book by exploring a few classic masters of the art: Nabokov (Speak, Memory) and Virginia Woolf's "A Sketch of the Past," he devotes most of his exploration to works by authors who published in the latter half of the twentieth century all the while teasing out the question, Why is memoir such a dominent form in our contemporary era. Along the way he articulates, time and again, the purpose of that all important distance between narrator and subject, and his rearticulation goes a long way toward making clear a concept so crucial and so ephemerally glimpsed (at least for me: I think this stuff is like that which one perceives peripherally and loses when full gaze is turned upon). Herewith some eloquent observations by Birkerts, who has thought long and hard and successfully about this gorgeous, elusive subject:
The memoirist needs "to give the reader both the unprocessed feeling of the world as [he] saw it then and a reflective vantage point that incorporates or suggests that these events made a different kind of sense over time. This is the transformation that, if well done, absolves a memoiristic reflection from the charge of self-involved navel-gazing. What makes the difference is not only the fact of reflective self-awareness, but the conversion of private into public by way of a narrative compelling the interest and engagement of the reader."
"The act of storytelling--even if the story is an account of psychological self-realization--is by its very nature an attempt at universalizing the specific; it assumes there is a shared ground between the teller and the audience. Storytelling fails when the narrative cannot coax sympathetic resonance from the listener."
Quoting V. Woolf: "One of the reasons why so many meoirs are failures: They leave out the person to whom things have happened." "They say, 'This is what happened', but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened."
"The memoirist's 'I' must be an inhabited character."
(Birkerts on Anne Dillard): "The collision of original perception and highsight realization: the revision fo the then by the now."
(Birkerts on Ondaatje): "The scope is variable and determined b the object of the author's private search. The point of the work...is to discover through memory the linkages that give resonance to what would otherwise be the chaos of life."
(Birkerts on Gornick): "It's hardly a surprise that the memoirist looking deep into the past should find herself constantly moving between experience tasted and experience digested." (!!!)