A Memoir or a Novel – or both?

the-pimlico-kid-209The wind is howling down my chimney. Yesterday we drove back from visiting friends in York through light snow – the first this winter. Tonight I’m driving a carload of friends into the countryside to the only member of our book group who lives out of town. Let’s hope it doesn’t snow!

This evening there’ll be a discussion of The Pimlico Kid by Barry Walsh. Mary chose it as, she said, a light relief from some of the recent challenging works like Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (my favourite), The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers and Magnus by George Mackay Brown (I want to read it again).

She is probably right, but it gives plenty of food for thought. I found it difficult at first to get involved in what was happening. It’s a great chance to enter into the mental and physical worlds of 12 and 13 year-old children in a poor part of London in the Sixties, when there still were bomb sites. Billy, the narrator, gave such clipped descriptions of his family and friends that it wasn’t easy to build up the picture of either people or surroundings.

The trouble is that I can’t manage to ‘highlight’ passages on my Kindle, so I it’s difficult to find the words to quote, such as the one I think referred to a bomb site, and others. I should have noted them down. I do remember the fuss over Madge’s tits – Mrs Madge Smith sunbathed in her garden and the boys could look over the wall. The interlocking events became more intriguing as I read on. It was good to see how Josie, limping because she had had polio and was born with a purple birthmark on her face, had a loyal friend in Sarah who was kind, as well as pretty. Sex was becoming a defining part of identity, and so was love. Did Rooksy love Billy, ‘his best mate’, though Billy loved Sarah? What’s the meaning of a kiss? The day in the countryside defined relationships between all of them. I felt the tenderness and the violence in the community beneath the adult appearance of motherly women, some physically fascinating, and male violence and vulnerability. As the book progressed it involved and moved me.

Up to then I had read it as a Memoir. I assumed that it was one from what my friend said. He had recommended it. Then I thought – why is the writer called Barry Walsh and the narrator, presumably himself, called Billy Driscoll? Here I have to admit why I’m particularly interested. Last year I published A Memoir of one momentous summer, and I honestly wrote about myself. A memoir. More than one reader did call it a ‘novel’, and I wondered why. Did Barry Walsh take liberties with his material? We begin with the wonder of Madge’s tits in Rooks’ imagination and, at the end, she is blackmailed to undress and show them, in a humiliating episode, to the two teenager mates because they had witnessed her husband in incriminating circumstances. The story is shaped like a novel. The ending reminds me of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, when the Italian soldier returns after the end of the war and sees her with a child in her arms. He assumes it is hers and, too late, finds out it is an orphaned one that she has taken to care for as her own. If I remember correctly, he turns away without speaking to her. Would it be called a ‘rite of passage’ novel, like Alain Fournier’s L Grand Meaulnes or D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, not to mention Catcher in the Rye?

I detest the use of ‘fiction’ as ‘made up, so not true’, whatever one means by ‘true’. It’s true because in fiction one can get inside the people, feel their emotions, their fears, their motivation, hate, love and the whole gamut of an interior existence that a Memoir would only do for one person. A novel leads on beyond the prison of one’s own body.

I have written all this before looking up the book online. I’m sure the others will do this, so I’ll follow them.

I have. It IS a novel. But one that has the stamp of personal experiences remembered with insight and love.

Tomorrow I want to look at why Gregor von Rezzori called his provocative Memoir of an Anti-Semite a novel when it is so clearly a fragmented memoir.


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