Then Again: a Memoir

Then Again: a Memoir
Diane Keaton
Fourth Estate, 304pp, £18.99

“I've decided to let that family of yours make me rich!" writes Woody Allen in a note to Diane Keaton in 1975. The result was his great American comedy Annie Hall. But despite his certainty, Allen's film was not an instance of art imitating life, but of art imitating art. In the case of this book, il miglior fabbro is Dorothy Hall Keaton, a thwarted creative whose family - God help them - was her life.

In her new memoir, Then Again, Diane Keaton attempts to weave her mother's story with her own. Keaton's words are interspersed with excerpts from Dorothy's journals and high-pitched to-do-lists: "Travel . . . mentally grow - expand," notes one. For the most part, the book is concerned with their shared theme: the gap between appearance and reality, and what happens when you fall down it. Keaton's bulimia is a case in point. Consuming "20,000 calories a day", she caused her boyfriend Woody to puzzle: such a slim gal sure could "pack it away". In her journal, Dorothy writes, "Jack got home from work and the pretence began - fake actions and words . . ." When Diane was nine, her mother was crowned Mrs Los Angeles. "She wasn't home much, and when she was, she was busy baking the same German chocolate cake with walnuts over and over, in hopes she would be crowned Mrs California."

Despite Keaton's pep and kooky magnetism, it is possible to fault her prose. "Mom, the brain fed you an overload of negative data, which you held on to for dear life" is one of many troubled metaphors. And the rhythmic motif: "When Warren called me on Christmas Eve, it wasn't about a job", new paragraph, "And he kept calling", is muzak not jazz. But this is an anecdote about her future boyfriend Warren Beatty, so who cares? In the company of these solecisms, the classiest lines seem to have emerged unconsciously. As her father dies of a brain tumour: "We ate lunch on the terrace while Dad faced the ocean without his Johnny Walker Red Label."

As you might expect of a talented photographer, Keaton's gift is for collage. Take the narrative juxtaposition of her own youthful self, “I made sure I didn't know what was going on. I had other more important things on my mind," with her ageing mother " . . .this house is so quiet . . . I speak to the cats, one at a time, or together." Overall, there is a persistent sense of appearance winning out over reality. This is not to the book's detriment - it's one of its charms. Autobiographies are a flagrant attempt to manipulate self-image, just like any work of art. That this effort of control is at play in Then Again is revealed not so much via its measured surrender - "Poor Al, he never wanted [marriage]. Poor me, I never stopped insisting" - but via its lapses. When Keaton's father was subject to "family feelings", a phrase whose dire meaning is left to the reader's imagination, he consulted his child as a mock-authority he named "Perkin". When he felt "estranged", he called her "Dorothy" - his wife's name.

Keaton offers no response to this, as if on the matter of paternal anguish, her pluck fails. And while she admits to "dozens of break-ups" from her boyfriend Al Pacino, she's - "oh gee" - too cute to be the opposing force in a bust-up. With the exception of her old breakfast order, "a dozen buttered corn muffins . . . three orders of fried eggs . . . and a side of pancakes topped off with four glasses of chocolate milk" and the fact she now refers to friends who come for dinner as "Team Keaton", there's scant evidence of the monstrous drive it takes to be a film star.

Most revealing, by design and accident, is her section on bulimia. While extravagantly candid, it's confined to 15 pages and cordoned off with a complete cure. This is a controlled truth-binge. But Keaton's weirdly particular and emphatic respect for Beatty makes sense. He was the only person to ask if her spectacles in Manhattan were prescription or fakes. Getting busted was plainly a relief.

When required, Keaton's sense of humour serves as a fine alternative to a sense of prose style. Having portrayed a dazzling win at the Oscars, she quotes her sagacious grandmother, Grammy Hall: "That Woody Allen must be awfully broad-minded to think of all that crap he thinks of." This sense of humour preserves Then Again from moralising and elevates what could have been mere conclusions to the dizzy heights of the absurd.

Talitha Stevenson's most recent novel is "Disappear" (Virago,£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral