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Kill Your Darlings

Is writing a memoir like murdering your family?

Henny Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images

The archive, indispensable to the historian, may prove an unreliable ally of the memoirist. This is the case in Alexander Stille’s sprawling effort to comprehend, catalog, and memorialize three generations—including his own—of his family. The author of Benevolence and Betrayal, the most readable comprehensive history of Italy’s Jews under fascism, as well as three other books, and numerous writings on the discontents of present day Italy, Stille here sets out “to regard my parents and their closest relations a bit like figures I had encountered in the archives doing historical research.” The method implies and requires a certain distance, as though he must first forget that these “figures” were an intensely intimate part of his daily life and developing mind years before they took on “historical” meaning through the documents they left behind.

In many respects, Stille’s family made this paradoxical effort of estrangement too easy for him. They preserved letters, photographs, libraries, collections of furniture, published articles, and, in the case, of his father’s sister, Stille’s Aunt Lally, an entire apartment entirely given over to the indiscriminately accumulated materials of a nearly seventy-year polyglot and refugee existence—from a letter penned on behalf of Stille’s Latvian-born, Jewish grandfather by the Italian fascist author Gabriele D’Annunzio to her Korean grocery store receipts—all piled in what Stille, who still seems overwhelmed as he recalls it, redundantly refers to as “a labyrinthine maze” of junk.

Stille’s mother, Elizabeth Bogert, a descendant of Anglo-German WASPs, was more orderly, a collector more than a hoarder, of men, mainly, but also Marcel Breuer design, contemporary art, and experience, generally. He unearths, in their Berkshire country house attic, a trove of letters she sent to her parents along with letters from her various former boyfriends, even a copy of a private investigator report on her first husband. (The report was commissioned prior to their marriage by her law professor father.) This archive is further enhanced by his parents’ love letters during their whirlwind courtship, reprinted here almost in their entirety, and then an epistolary record of their often fractious, even violent marriage. These are supplemented by what Stille calls “interviews” conducted with his mother as she was dying from a brain tumor in 1992. Faced with these riches of embarrassment, what historian or journalist could resist publishing them, and what loving son, grandson, and nephew could avoid feeling guilty, or ashamed for having done so.

Stille has some awareness of this dilemma, and he’s attempted to resolve it by writing in two different narrative voices. Sometimes they share paragraphs and chapters, but more often and for long stretches, like his parents, they end up in separate beds. In one mode, he aims for a straightforward bourgeois biography, somewhat in the manner of Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives, of both “the boring old Midwestern Wasp half,” as his mother puts it, and what she also calls “the exotic Italian-Jewish.” In the other, more memoiristic mode, he haltingly becomes aware that his archive fever is a particular inheritance of his family’s varied urges to collect and contain.1

It is easy to see why this indefatigable journalist was drawn to the story of his own family. His father, born Michael Kamenetzki, in Moscow, grew up in Rome, where his parents emigrated after the Bolshevik Revolution. The whole family managed to escape to America, via Lisbon, in 1941, defeating U.S. immigration quotas imposed on Polish and Russian Jews by claiming Latvian ancestry. After serving as a propagandist and “psy-ops” officer in the U.S. Army, Michael resumed his career as journalist for various Italian newspapers. He wrote under the pen name Ugo Stille, “Hugo Silence,” originally a portmanteau byline shared with a friend killed while participating in anti-Fascist resistance. Later he would adopt the “Stille” as his legal name after marrying Elizabeth, in part because it smoothed over both their ambivalences about his Ashkenazi Jewishness. Based in New York as a foreign correspondent, Michael Stille became part of a Europhile, intellectual milieu that included the Partisan Review crowd: Mary McCarthy, MacDonald, Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow, and fellow émigrés like Nicolo Chiaromonte and the artists Saul Steinberg and Arshile Gorky. This was how he came to be at a party where he met the married but available Elizabeth and they initiated what his son calls “a marrying—or clash—of civilizations.”

The story of Stille’s parents, at this level, is a familiar one about a period when America came to shelter a number, though not enough, of those persecuted by European totalitarianism, and how Americans themselves came to be changed by their encounters with transplanted European ideas: psychoanalysis, existentialism, Austrian economics, and Franco-German hermeneutics and philology. It’s also a story of mid-twentieth century New York and the West Village in particular. The neighborhood now known for “Sex and the City” tours to the Magnolia bakery, Marc Jacobs stores, and walkup one-bedroom’s for $3000 dollars per month, was once a place where Stille and his sister could grow up in a whole brownstone, the rent covered by a single journalist’s income; playing with the children of artists, policemen, and cabdrivers; a time when a young mother could nurse her child while smoking in the presence of her lover, and then go off to her psychiatrist.

Stille’s tone, for much of the biographical sections, is largely detached, almost reserved—a scene of potentially incestuous intent between grandfather and mother is both extensively documented and euphemistically glossed as “inappropriate interest.” He also laces his descriptions with occasional moments of unexamined snobbery. Few personages appear unaccompanied by a resumé-like list of their career accomplishments. In a typical instance, his mother’s lover, Saul Steinberg, is introduced as “like my father … brilliant, charming … and even more professionally acclaimed.” In straight historical writing, such descriptions might go down as more or less objective aura-burnishing, but in a memoir it can seem too much like kvelling.

Aside from vagaries of prose, Stille likes to depict his parents as representatives rather than paragons of their times, and, to a lesser extent, their different class aspirations. This is one meaning of the book’s title phrase, which Stille inherits from his father and renders into English, “La forza delle cose.” In Italian, cose connotes more than just material objects, something closer to “causes” or “events,” but the implications behind the passive bent of the expression go unexamined. The book’s occasional evocations of the zeitgeist—that dread phrase of a once popularized Hegelianism that now only seems to survive among journalists—impose a strange frame of serenity or detachment that often serves to blunt the emotional force of the specific family traumas he tells us about: affairs, insult-laden arguments, trial separations, and general sense of a shared domestic life founded on a deep distrust of domesticity.

Struggling to emerge from all this dutiful historicizing is the subject of a more properly memoiristic first-person drama, one that deals with the literal meaning of The Force of Things, and recounts Stille’s ambivalent relationship to his family’s legacy of accumulation, the fragments they shored against various ruins. The Stille-Bogert family really was living proof that emotions could be bottled up in objects. Their objects didn’t just have histories, they were themselves allegories of entire relationships. His mother’s affair with Steinberg wasn’t directly recorded, but Stille informs us that he has a collection of the artist’s drawings from that period, dedicated to his infant self. (They were later the cause of some confusion on his part about the identity of his father.) We also glimpse Sandro, as his parents called him, witnessing his father’s torrid harangues amid the breakfast table settings, hiding in the clutter of his maternal grandparents’ Midwestern farmhouse, helping his girlfriend purloin a volume of Edith Wharton from his father’s seemingly unorganized library to see if he notices. (He does.) With a comic matter-of-factness, he relates his ultimately futile attempts to find a place in his apartment for his father’s custom-made, enormous revolving bookcase and his relief when he finally gives it up.

Most evocatively, there’s Aunt Lally herself, still going strong, who appears in the last chapter to contest her nephew’s descriptions—not of her rat’s nest of an apartment, but of her parents, whom she clearly still adores, and of her own life. “The person you describe,” she tells him, “is not someone a person could love—only pity. And I don’t want to be pitied by you or by anyone else!” Such awkward confrontations between surviving family members and memoirist have become somewhat de rigeur in contemporary autobiographical non-fiction—part of the memoirist’s continual efforts to establish an identity as honest broker, which, in current terms, means someone who understands the perpetually disputed nature of the past rather than the past itself. The authority of memoirists increasingly comes from their ability to acknowledge that they are engaged in an unfolding process of investigation and recollection. Publication puts a provisional stop to that process, but, in becoming a book, memory turns into a thing with its own force.

 Non-fiction is a genre that has always suffered from being defined by what it isn’t, and for the memoir, the awkwardness of its fluid boundaries is perhaps the starkest. Maybe because of the aura of immediacy created by their sketchbook styles, the comic book memoirs of Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel make these discomfiting moments of meta-memoirizing seem natural. In prose-only family dramas, however, this gesture is harder because it requires, ironically, a novelist’s skill at scene-making. Stille’s late embrace (both in life and in the book) of this new style of awkwardness comes across as endearingly awkward, perhaps because he doesn’t signal his awareness of it as a style. Given the scenes and objects at his disposal, he might have written a tightly organized autobiographical study of his relationships to objects and archives, looser in tone though more stringent in organization, rather than the narrative biography promised by the subtitle, “A Marriage in War and Peace.” Although he has the self-consciousness to acknowledge that including his aunt’s objections doesn’t really solve the problems she raises—she’s destined to remain a tragi-comic character in his version of events—neither can he envision a way out for himself.

In another meta-memoir gesture, Stille recounts a dream he has after turning in the manuscript: He’s in a strange hotel room with a dismembered corpse, thinking “I didn’t kill this person but everyone will think I did.” (The section was recently excerpted by The New York Times.) As Stille later understands it, the memoirist, historian, or novelist are all equally guilty of symbolic murder or, in his words, “kill[ing] off the people we write about to turn them into characters in a book.” Accepting his guilt, however, and publishing it, too, allows him not to think harder about the identity of the corpse. An earlier sentence leads us to believe it’s his father, but “the man under the rug,” as he calls the body, could just as easily be the author.2 All Stille’s earlier efforts at matter-of-factness make the late breast-beating feel misplaced, unless he’s been beating himself up all along. No one reading The Force of Things would mistake it for a revenge memoir like Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors, neither, however, do we feel that writing this book was his only ticket to freedom and self-knowledge within an oppressive family atmosphere. One gets the sense that Stille has scattered his divided self among his family’s effects, and his book is the closest he comes to gathering the pieces in one place. Having chosen to become the custodian of the family archive, he gives the impression that he remains, despite his efforts, encased by it.

Marco Roth is the author of The Scientists: A Family Romance and a founding co-editor of n+1.  

  1. Further Reading: Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression by Jaques Derrida.

  2. This evokes Henry James’s classic short story, “The Figure in the Carpet.” Aunt Lally is more akin to the spinsters in “The Aspern Papers.”