Great Neglected Memoirs

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For me, nothing is as fascinating as the mystery of how another person shapes his or her life. These five books — all long out of print — have everything you could ask for in a great memoir: fine writing, original perspectives, and compelling life experiences.

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    The Story of a Life
    by Konstantin Paustovsky

    The first US edition of The Story of a Life featured Konstantin Paustovsky’s grim portrait on the cover, which probably scared off most readers. Nearly seven hundred pages of a life battered by war, revolution, purges, cold, cruelty, and suffering. The remarkable thing about how Paustovsky tells his story, however, is that with all the events that history would record around him, his attention is inevitably drawn from the great to the small. Deep in a forest in the Ukraine, he comes across a group of elderly monks, disoriented and frightened in the new secular world of the revolution: “We really don’t know any longer,” the monk told me, “whether we should ring it or not. It’s dangerous. It seems there is some insult in it for those who are in power now. So we just ring it gently. A crow sometimes sits of the bell and he doesn’t even fly away when we ring it so softly.” One of the finest Russian autobiographies of the 20th century and perhaps the sunniest Russian book ever written.

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    Journey Around My Room, The Autobiography of Louise Bogan
    by Ruth Limmer

    The poet Louise Bogan didn’t write her autobiography. Or rather, she didn’t write this book. Always an intensely private person, she rarely risked putting details about her life in print, preferring to confide in her own diaries and journals and, occasionally, in letters to a few friends. “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself,” she once wrote. “Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.” Journey Around My Room was assembled some years after Bogan’s death in 1970 by her literary executor, Ruth Limmer. Yet the scraps she left and the mosaic that Limmer assembled from them are breathtaking in its power, truth, and beauty. Like Paustovsky, Bogan was far more absorbed by the texture and meaning of experience than with the events giving rise to them. The result is one of the most powerful accounts of life as it is felt, rather than as it happens.

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    The Seventh Gate
    by Peter Greave

    Greave’s childhood was spattered with troubles and sudden moves due to his father’s grifts and sexual addiction. He wound up in a dismal boarding school near Kolkata, from which he escaped, making his way by luck and wiles to Assam, where he worked his way into the good graces of an American couple he barely knew. By the time he's a young man, he is hopping from one job to another, indulging great bouts of drinking, gambling, and whoring, and barely managing to exist on the fringes of Anglo-Indian society. Diagnosed with leprosy, he spends 7 years holed up in a tiny, squalid room in a boarding house. Yet he had an astonishing capacity for taking in the simplest of pleasures, and The Seventh Gate is filled with scenes of color and vitality. That this book and its sequel, The Second Miracle, about Greave's treatment and recovery in England, are out of print and unknown is inexcusable. Stunningly good writing.

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    Under Gemini: A Memoir
    by Isabel Bolton

    Mary Britton Miller, who wrote under the pen name Isabel Bolton, was born one of identical twin girls. She, her sister Grace and their three siblings lost their parents to pneumonia when just four. Resented by their wealthy guardians, they were placed in care of an elderly spinster utterly unequipped to take charge of herself, let alone five willful children. In response, Mary and Grace sought their primary comfort in each other's company. "It was never I but always we. It was never you or I but both of us. Never mine or yours but always ours." When the girls were fourteen, Mary watched, helpless, as Grace drowned in Long Island Sound. The tragedy seems to have scarred Mary for life -- but as Under Gemini also shows, she had experienced a deeper, closer connection with Grace than she would ever share with another human being, one still alive to her when she wrote this book at the age of 83.

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    Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey
    by Julia Strachey

    Frances Partridge knew Julia Strachey for seventy years, at their best and worst of times. Both women had the capacity to write with about their experiences with honesty, intelligence, and more than a little humor. After Strachey's death in 1979, Partridge assembled this book from autobiographical fragments, letters, and both their diaries. As Partridge put it, Julia had “a vision of herself as entangled in a web of intransigent practical circumstances created by what she liked to think of as a hostile Cosmos.” And there is plenty of evidence here and in Partridge’s diaries that Julia suffered from a form of manic depression herself. Despite their long history together, Frances struggled as the disease took its toll on Julia: “What is my responsibility towards her, as her oldest friend?" It seems unlikely that there will ever be another book like Julia in its portrait of such a long, intimate, and turbulent friendship between two women

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