Neil Genzlinger, a staff editor at The Times, warns the would-be memoirist, “If you must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it. That is basically what Johanna Adorján has done in An Exclusive Love (translated by Anthea Bell), her spare, beautiful exploration of why her grandparents killed themselves.”
Adorján, a journalist in Berlin, artfully “tells the story of Vera and Istvan, Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust, fled during the 1956 uprising in Budapest to Denmark and in 1991 in Copenhagen took their own lives. They were found in their bed, hand in hand. It is the story of an unusual love. The story of my grandparents.” [direct quote from Johanna Adorján]
Although Adorján is part of the story, she wisely keeps herself on its edges, occasionally noting personality traits or mementos she inherited from her grandparents, but mostly bringing the two of them to life through her recollections and the memories of contemporaries she interviews.
“We all felt the force of her thrift,” she writes of her grandmother. “Her presents were always received apprehensively: what were we not going to be pleased to get this time? I remember T-shirts much too small for me, and you knew from the smell of them that they had been in my grandparents’ house for a long time (in fact they smelled as if they had been stored in an ashtray). A book that looked as if it had been read. A bottle not quite full of bath foam.”
This fascinating couple, who had survived the Holocaust and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, come slowly into focus for the author and the reader simultaneously, or so Adorjan makes it seem. That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.
Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.
Read entire New York Times article here.
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