There are, loosely speaking, two kinds of memoirs: those that reveal too much and those that reveal too little. The line between fascinating self-disclosure and glazed self-involvement is a hard one to hew to, as is the line between an elegant reticence and a compulsive opacity. American writers tend to the former, British writers to the latter. The fewest memoirists manage the sort of balancing act that characterizes Claire Tomalin’s “A Life of My Own,” which navigates artfully between tantalizing revelations and unobtrusive elisions. I read the memoir twice in an effort to deconstruct how Ms. Tomalin does it, leading us into her nooks and crannies and then firmly closing the curtain at some point, but literary ingenuity of this caliber is always hard to pin down. Ms. Tomalin, who, as a prolific biographer of Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others, has had much practice in the art of shaping a narrative, explains what she is after in an introductory note: “One of my aims in writing was to insist on the seamlessness of life—something I saw presented by Pepys in his diaries, in which he gives the texture of the days as he lived them, work and play mixed together, never pretending that he felt as he should, or behaved better than he did.”
Although Ms. Tomalin describes herself, somewhat misleadingly, in that same introductory note as “a European girl,” she amends the description three pages later, noting: “I am a Londoner, born here and settled here.” (I can only suppose what she means is that her sensibility was shaped by Continental influences, especially the rigor of her French-bred father’s intellectual inquiry.) She was born in 1933, the second daughter of a young marriage that had already soured. “While the conception of a child is often a random event,” she observes, “mine seems to have been very much against the odds, my mother’s strong intention pitted against my father’s hatred.” Her father, Émile, was researching his thesis on D.H. Lawrence for the École Normale Supérieure and teaching part-time; her mother, Muriel, composed songs and taught music. “All her life,” Ms. Tomalin writes, “she sat at the piano as though this was the most natural place for her to be, with perfect command when she played and sang.” She recalls her mother offering her the supreme gift of “unconditional love,” while she had a more difficult time of it with her unaffectionate and exacting father. In 1941 her father left her mother for his secretary at the BBC and initiated divorce proceedings, claiming that his wife was insane.
Sobriety Art, The New Republic | August 28, 2018.