Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Writing a memoir

I've never had any urge to write a memoir or autobiography, but I've read a good many. Most of them leave something to be desired, often because the author succumbs to the temptation to write in a self-serving way. But there are some good ones around, including Time to be in Earnest, by P.D. James, which is (of course) very readable indeed. And I quite liked Agatha Christie's autobiography. Even there, though, one wonders about what has been left out, for instance because the author found it too difficult to write about.

Memoirs of showbiz stars and politicians are especially dodgy. I am a huge fan of Dionne Warwick, whose voice at its best was almost unequalled in its power, range and sensitivity. Yet her memoirs were very disappointing as far as I was concerned. I learned little of interest and felt that she was too anxious to present herself positively.

Accordingly, I approached the brand new autobiography of Burt Bacharach, Anyone Who Had a Heart: my life and music (published by Atlantic Books in the UK) with trepidation. I admire the composer enormously, but I've heard all his anecdotes before. Or so I thought. I wasn't prepared for a book that was far from an exercise in self-justification. Bizarrely, it's more like an exercise in self-flagellation. There's a great deal about his failed marriages and other relationships (he was the perfect choice to write a movie song called Wives and Lovers, that's for sure) and a huge amount about the tragic life and eventual suicide of his daughter Nikki, If I had three ex-wives, I am fairly sure I wouldn't have the courage to invite them to express their views about me in my autobiography, but that's what we have in this book, and it sometimes makes for very bleak reading.

The ghost writer is Robert Greenfield, a long-time journalist for Rolling Stone, and in many ways he has done a very good job. It's an extremely readable book, with many witty and unexpected stories (I specially liked the one about Elizabeth Taylor's dining habits). More importantly, it casts light on what it is like to be an obsessive, someone so ferociously devoted to perfectionism in his craft that he allows other things to happen in his life that are a long way short of perfect. It's an extraordinarily human, warts and all portrait. For a novelist like me, this makes riveting reading, and it would do even if I had not loved the man's music for as long as I can remember.

I do, however, think that Greenfield could have produced an even better book with a bit more work. There's not enough analysis of the people, the fascinating world that Bacharach has moved in, or of the music. It's very interesting and entertaining, there's plenty of scope to read between the lines, and it must be one of the best showbiz memoirs for many a long year. But  I still wish Greenfield had shown some of the perfectionsm of his subject. Had he done so, he'd have contributed to an even better book.


Anonymous said...

I would like to read this memoir. I enjoy autobiographies if they're not too self-serving. Patricia Neal wrote a good one; and the first ones by Shelley Winters and Lauren Bacall were very good (their subsequent volumes suffered in comparison).

Burt's daughter Nikki (whose mother was actress Angie Dickinson) suffered from a form of high-functioning autism called Asperger's Syndrome, I believe. My oldest daughter is an "Aspie" and their social interactions have to be carefully monitored to ensure they're not getting overwhelmed or conversely too isolated. My heart goes out to Burt and Angie for their loss.


Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Deb. I was just today talking to a friend who has two sons with Asperger's and telling her about this book and about Rubbernecker. It's a challenging condition and though I'm no expert, I think that the more it is sensibly discussed and debated, the better. You will find Burt's memoir poignant, I think, especially concerning the serious mistakes he made, although with good intentions.

Rich said...

I'm always wary reading memoirs. I remember reading Barbara Windsor's about ten years ago and at the end of it, not liking her very much.