Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Memories and Memoirs

Not to give them a swelled head or anything, but The New York Review of Books' NYRB Classics imprint is pretty consistently stunning – I feel greedy just surveying the list, of which I have a dozen or so.

One of their more modest publications is John Williams' Stoner, an almost unbearably sad story of a mid-Western academic, a professor of literature at a fictionalized version of the University of Missouri at Columbia who lives through the first 2/3rds of the 20th century. Raised by dirt-poor farmers who never appear to understand his pursuit of literature, he only manages intermittently to communicate his transforming love for it to anyone else, his career itself largely running aground on the shoals of academic politics. He marries badly and the marriage in turn generates a sole unhappy child. His deathbed scene where he fails to reconnect with his now alcoholic grown daughter is particularly devastating and I turned from this to Point To Point Navigation, the second volume of Gore Vidal's memoirs, hoping for a bit of wit and uplift, only to find the first 80 pages of that almost exclusively describing (and who can blame him?) the relatively recent death of his partner of 50 years, Howard Austen. Yet Vidal certainly doesn't regret a thing and John Williams asks us to think twice or three times about what constitutes a successful or unsuccessful life. Happiness, if you needed reminding, seems to come at best in flashes.

If you are going to read Vidal's memoirs (and you should certainly consider it), start with Palimpsest, the earlier volume, which follows a more conventional autobiographical chronology and structure through the first 39 years of his life. Picking up thereafter, Point To Point Navigation is rather loose and rambling and repeats a lot from the earlier book. The death of Howard Austen is in many ways its focus, but I didn't come away feeling that I knew him at all ("knowing" only in the sense that one can know anyone solely through reading someone else's description, of course). In addition to the recursive narration, hardly any chapter is more than three pages long, a device that mostly suits the fragmentary nature of the memoirs, yet seems even odder towards the end where a more sustained sequence (which is actually mostly long quotes from other people's biographical writings about Gore) is broken up arbitrarily by the chapter divisions. I'm plainly not selling this book too hard; read the collected essays United States (1952-1992), then Palimpsest then borrow this from someone and get through it quickly, wishing Vidal himself enough years for a third volume.

In Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (first mentioned yesterday), he discusses the error of people who believe memoirs to be absolutely factual retellings of some ostensibly raw experience, unmediated by literary shape. There's no reason to believe Nabokov, the master of the unreliable narrator, would make such a mistake and, as such, his Speak, Memory scarcely needs to be approached differently than any of his fiction. It's a quick read and anyone looking to extend the experience might consider the two-part autobiography of Anthony Burgess Little Wilson and Big God and You've Had Your Time, Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess.

I suppose anyone who lives long enough to write two volumes of memoirs is likely to experience enough of the slings and arrows of time passing to make it hard to avoid a few sad stories. British playwright Alan Bennett's two largely autobiographical volumes, Writing Home and Untold Stories, came out when he was 60 and 71 respectively. In the interval he had time to be diagnosed with and recover from cancer, the recounting of which slightly sobers the tone of the second volume, though he manages to be characteristically funny nonetheless. Writing Home is a frequently hilarious and at times brilliant collection of essays, literary criticism, diary excerpts and other short writing. One of its most moving and fascinating segments is a series of entries recounting the story of a more or less insane old woman who had nowhere to live but a small van type of automobile (one that didn't actually run) whom Bennett, through a combination of charity and inertia that I suspect we can all recognize, allowed to have her vehicle towed into his tiny London front garden, and live there for the last 15 years of her life.

My delight in Bennett's writing also served to make me embarrassed that I'd scarcely heard of him, though I recognize film titles like The Madness of King George and The Secret Policeman's Ball. Most recently, his play The History Boys ran on Broadway for half of 2006 to considerable acclaim, forcing me (though I did not see it) to reconsider my rule that no play called "Anything Boys" is worth seeing - perhaps I can still hold the line at the spelling "Boyz". Other "firmly in the zeitgeist" sightings include his early 60s satirical revue "Beyond the Fringe" being mentioned in Stephen Davis's history of The Rolling Stones, Old Gods Almost Dead, as a cultural event of parallel significance to Muddy Waters' 1958 tour of the UK with the Chris Barber jazz band.

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