Kevin Myers: Why I wrote about my adolescent homosexuality
My attempt to convince readers I am telling the truth is with stories about myself that are deeply unflattering and uncomfortable to relate
Kevin Myers: “that cringe-making account of my brief and tragically unrewarded foray into adolescent homosexuality is my way of affirming: listen, I am telling you the truth here as best I can.” Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Kevin Myers with Michael O’Leary of Ryanair who launched A Single Headstrong Heart at The Little Museum of Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The memoir’s key is my father’s profound melancholy, his premature death, and the devastating impact of both on me
All memoir-writing is a branch of fiction – but then so too is all writing. Hieroglyphs are mental triggers, and each response in each mind is different, being a unique and original creative work. E=MC2 is as much a work of fiction as Hamlet. One day it will be disproved, as all theories are, but meanwhile it has no authentic existence outside the minds of those people who understand it, or who think they do.
At even the most mundane level, no word ever manages even the briefly non-negotiable status of a number. The word “tree” might stimulate your creative juices around your notions of something with roots, boughs, branches, leaves, twigs and birds? But your tree is yours. “Tree” for an Eskimo is not the same as it is for an Ethiopian. Any word only serves as the launch-code for the reader’s imagination.
And frankly, a memoir is no more than an autobiographical fabrication involving real people and events written by a participant who undertakes to give a true rendition of his or her memory. However, since there are as many immediate accounts of any event as there are witnesses, and twice as many the next day as memory fades, intensifies or creates, and an exponential number of accounts emerging thereafter, a memoir is notionally as reliable as the length of a piece of string.
It comes down to this. Is the memoirist genuinely trying to be truthful? Do his motives ring true? Do you get that vital sense of honesty from his words? These are the only useful tests of a narrative that otherwise doesn’t obviously lie or deceive (for then no further tests are needed).
The waywardness of that disreputable swagman memory in any autobiography usually means that those characters enslaved within the chain-gang of his narrative wil1l no doubt hot1y dispute the accuracy of its contents. For Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, was not the prince a posturing and irritating distraction from the real play about them?
And likewise me, as I revisited my childhood for my memoir, A Single Headstrong Heart: would any of the other participants pressganged into this account confirm its factual authenticity? Probably not. Moreover, how could I possibly remember conversations a lifetime ago, when down the years that followed as as a reporter I could barely remember what had just been said moments before?
One usual way round such fundamental contradictions within any memoir is to insist that it conveys either a larger truth or a metaphorical one. This is either pretentious or deceitful. I cannot proclaim that my memoir possesses either a momentous inner gravity or constitutes some condign allegory. It is what it is: merely a creatively-written fabrication based on my memory of events in which there were many participants, for whom I have written merely walk-on parts (if even that). This will probably not be confirmed in any way by the narratives created by their own memories, in which I have a mere walk-on part (if even that).
My own attempt to convince readers that I am telling the truth is with stories about myself that are deeply unflattering and equally uncomfortable for me relate. I am not the hero of this tale, merely its author, and certainly as flawed as, or even more flawed than, most of my dramatis personae. Since the trajectory of this story – the key to which is my father’s death when I was 15 – must take me through the excruciating travails of adolescence, there is no honest way of evading the arrival of that shambling, baying, Palaeolithic monster, sexuality.
So, I admit to a pitifully unsuccessful attempt to seduce another boy at my boarding school – although “seduce” does not come close to describing my woeful attempts to satisfy my tumultuous carnal desires. Anyway, that cringe-making account of my brief and tragically unrewarded foray into adolescent homosexuality is my way of affirming: listen, I am telling you the truth here as best I can.
The memoir’s key is my father’s profound melancholy, his premature death, and the devastating impact of both on me. It is a memoir, not an autobiography, which by definition is more holistic and wide-ranging. Thus my mother – who really was by the more significant parent – is relatively and indeed unjustly absent. Had Dad not died when I was a teenager, had he survived to my own adulthood, had I ever had a chance to have a pint with him, I’m sure my life would have been completely different. The person that I now am would not exist, there would be no memoir, and nor would you reading this. The gravitational pull of distant, hitherto unknown events can be ineluctable and irresistible: see how my father’s death all those decades ago is now minutely but irreversibly changing your life? No man is an island.
Shaping the events of every life are the raging Cs of existence: contingency, confluence, chance, and perhaps the greatest life-force of all, cowardice. Had a certain Dublin brewer not invited Wallis Simpson onto his yacht where she met the Duke of Windsor, the latter’s niece Elizabeth might today be a relatively unknown old dowager, the childless widow of an American millionaire named Fred Trump.
As a memorialist, I am both hindered and aided by a memory that has always been unable to remember what I have just set out to do, yet which nonetheless recalls vast amount of detail from the deep space of my life. My problem is not recollection, but selection. Moreover, I am a journalist, not an artist, so cannot encompass all the remembered details of my life in a satisfyingly constructed parabola. So the crude marble of my recollections has been chiselled and emery-papered into a smoothish narrative, leaving more chippings on the floor than dolomite on the plinth. What has been discarded might well be better than what stands: but no matter – for what remains is an honest tribute to my beloved father, the co-owner of that single headstrong heart.
A Single Headstrong Heart is published by Lilliput Pres, at €20. Carlo Gebler reviews it in The Irish Times on December 24th