Monthly Archives: September 2012

Salman Rushdie’s new memoir

Joseph Anton is a splendid book, the finest new memoir to cross my desk in many a year.—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Salman Rushdie is in the news again. Not because he’s living under a new Muslim sentence of death, which sent him into hiding for a decade after the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, but because he’s written a memoir about the period. With the fatwa now almost fifteen years behind him, Rushdie has perspective from which to assess and portray. The New Yorker has published a long excerpt of Joseph Anton: A Memoir—Joe Anton being his self-bestowed code name, taken from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, that British cops used when he was in hiding. The excerpt is available for now on line.

It’s always thrilling when a great novelist writes a memoir: John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, reviewed on this blog (see the Favorite Memoirs page), is one of my favorites, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (also with links on that page), reviewed here once negatively and once positively, is nothing if not interesting for how he follows his aesthetic star. What you first notice in Rushdie’s long New Yorker excerpt, “The Disappeared,” is that his memoir is written in the third person. That’s an interesting and, to me, exciting choice; the third-person, though uncommon in memoir, maybe because writers fear editors will think their work is fictionalized, offers memoirists a different and perhaps keener perspective on themselves: third person in nonfiction is a distancing perspective.

The second thing you notice in Rushdie’s excerpt is that it’s non-chronological: the fatwa was issued in February 1989, and his essay procedes under these headings: 1989, at the imposition of the death decree, a section which is dramatic and scenic; 1966, when he learned about the “Satanic Verses” while studying history at Cambridge; 1984, when he began writing the novel, which took four years; 1988, when The Satanic Verses was published and began to ignite rage among Muslim extremists; and 1989 again, a long closing section that returns to the fatwa and to Rushdie’s life in hiding.

The third thing you notice after all this innovation is that he uses any memoirist’s tools: scene and exposition, seamlessly in the dramatized bits, and in the purely expository, smooth summary and reflection. Yes, he’s a good writer. Here’s the essay’s first two paragraphs, dramatic and straightforward, that set the scene and convey deftly an incredible amount of backstory:

1989

Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.

 

It was Valentine’s Day, but he hadn’t been getting along with his wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins. Five days earlier, she had told him that she was unhappy in the marriage, that she “didn’t feel good around him anymore.” Although they had been married for only a year, he, too, already knew that it had been a mistake. Now she was staring at him as he moved nervously around the house, drawing curtains, checking window bolts, his body galvanized by the news, as if an electric current were passing through it, and he had to explain to her what was happening. She reacted well and began to discuss what they should do. She used the word “we.” That was courageous.

Later that morning, after Rushdie and his wife attend a memorial service for a friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin, the police tell him he can’t go home. Too dangerous, Rushdie writes. “Although he did not know it then—so the moment of leaving his home did not feel unusually freighted with meaning—he would not return to that house, at 41 St. Peter’s Street, which had been his home for half a decade, until three years later, by which time it would no longer be his.”

Whisked to CBS’s offices in London for an interview, Rushdie depicts his disorientation: “But he also knew that his old self’s habits were of no use anymore. He was the person in the eye of the storm, no longer the Salman his friends knew but the Rushdie who was author of ‘Satanic Verses,’ a title that had been subtly distorted by the omission of the initial ‘The.’ ‘The Satanic Verses’ was a novel. ‘Satanic Verses’ were verses that were satanic, and he was their satanic author.”

In the next section “1966,” Rushdie flashes back to his second year at Cambridge, when he was studying Islamic history, along with Indian colonial history and the first 100 years of American history. His supervisor, a medievalist named Arthur Hibbert, whom he calls a genius, told him never to write history “until you can hear the people speak”; this turned out to be great advice for a novelist as well, for speech reveals origin, class, temperament, and “beneath their temperament, their true nature, intellectual or earthy, plainspoken or devious, and, yes, good or bad.”

In this purely expository section, Rushdie explains Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Koran in such an elegantly clear and simple way that anyone can understand it—and see his respect for one of the world’s great religions. In a nutshell: “The ethos of the Koran, the value system it endorses, was, in essence, the vanishing code of nomadic Arabs, the matriarchal, more caring society that did not leave orphans out in the cold, orphans like Muhammad, whose success as a merchant, he believed, should have earned him a place in the city’s ruling body, and who was denied such preferment because he didn’t have a powerful family to fight for him.”

Ensconced for the first time in cities, the early Arabs became patriarchal, and were worshippers primarily of three deities, goddesses who specialized in different realms, with Allah an unpopular fourth deity. Muhammad, a successful and spiritual merchant, rescued Allah from obscurity and elevated him over all, deposing the goddesses, who were economically important to Mecca’s elite, since offerings (taxes, in effect) were collected at their shrines. Their ouster threatened the city’s rulers. The “Satanic Verses” stemmed from a vision of Muhammad’s that restored the goddesses, and which he later recanted.

“After that,” Rushdie writes, “the monotheism of Islam remained unwavering and strong, through persecution, exile, and war, and before long the Prophet had achieved victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.”

It was a good story, the young Rushdie saw, but it would be years before he wrote it. After that digression into history, “The Disappeared” explains the novel’s composition, its earth-shaking reception by extremists who misunderstood it, and depicts Rushdie’s underground life. I found the scenic end of the first section, with Rushdie and his wife on the run for the first time, touching and powerful:

     The night in Lonsdale Square was cold, dark, and clear. There were two policemen in the square. When he got out of his car, they pretended not to notice him. They were on short patrol, watching the street near the flat for a hundred yards in each direction, and he could hear their footsteps even when he was indoors. He realized, in that footstep-haunted space, that he no longer understood his life, or what it might become, and he thought, for the second time that day, that there might not be very much more of life to understand.

 

Marianne went to bed early. He got into bed beside his wife and she turned toward him and they embraced, rigidly, like the unhappily married couple they were. Then, separately, lying with their own thoughts, they failed to sleep.

Those paragraphs provoke as much as any my fellow-feeling for Rushdie’s human plight and, admittedly, my admiration of his heroic response to the mob, which he’d just denounced in his first TV interview. As well, throughout this fine essay and concentrated here, I identified, as a memoirist myself, with this fellow writer, albeit brilliant and of historic attainment, as yet another scribe laboring with the humble tools of his craft—scene, summary, and reflection (all working here in service of more than one story being told)—to show how it was, how it looked and felt and seemed.

Just another soul, after all, suffering more than most here, who lately has patiently made art from life’s dusty remains, which he retrieved from one very lonely valley of existence.

Next: Salman Rushdie on the craft of memoir.

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Filed under craft, technique, memoir, NOTED, politics, religion & spirituality, scene, structure

Memoir, meet reportage

Brendan O’Meara on taking a reporter’s tack in memoir.

Guest Post by Brendan O’Meara

Twitter: @BrendanOMeara

Brendan O’Meara’s first book

Somebody at a book signing for Six Weeks in Saratoga asked me what I was working on next (this seems to always be a question when you’re selling your current book. What are you working on now?). I said I was writing a memoir about my father and baseball. Instead of the usual response, which is some measure of eyebrow-raising admiration, praise, and ego-stoking ovations, I got this:

“When Borders went out of business the only books left behind were Spanish books and memoirs.”

%&#!

Maybe if we were at the rim of the Grand Canyon I would have nudged her. But I thanked her for her input. I don’t think she bought a book. I felt ever-emboldened because when you feel strongly and passionately for your story, those words levitate off the page. The reader senses that energy and hopefully tells other reader friends about it. This is my hope.

So, yes, I too am writing a memoir, but I come at it from the blind side. I’m a reporter and I see memoir as no different than any other form of narrative nonfiction: the names are real, the events are verifiably true, and the writer did some—get this—reporting. The only difference is the story is closer to the marrow. The questions you pose to characters (which happen to be family/friends who acted never knowing they’d one day be told it was all on the record) ring awkward and, in some ways, judgmental.

My memoir, tentatively titled The Last Championship: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball is a hybrid of narrative journalism and memoir. It takes place at a senior slow-pitch softball tournament where I, the son, watch the father play ball. It illustrates the changing of roles as we age, how the children become caretakers of their parents, and how the young become old and the old become young again.

His team won the tournament and I thread the personal narrative around the seven-games. I’m profiling a handful of key players, ala David Halberstam, so the reader cares about the game action—narrative journalism. With the tournament as the backbone, I explore where my father comes from, who he is, what baseball means to him, and how he becomes the father I know, yet still know little about—memoir, personal exploration, the beating heart, etc.

It shows how sport, and specifically baseball, is the common tongue between fathers and sons, certainly between Dad and me. Watching those old guys play ball allowed me to reconcile the bitter end of my baseball career too. I then picked up the gear and played one more summer at age 30 to find the fun—10 years since I last played—and maybe one last championship.

Taking a reporter’s tack is best for the story and best for maintaining the readers’ trust.

Thanks, Jonah.

Thanks, Stephen.

Thanks, Jason.

Thanks, James.

Thanks, Janet.

Even when my memory is strong on an event from my childhood, I ask all the parties involved. I ask my sister if I really said what I said. I ask my Dad what he was thinking. Or I say, “Mom, what happened when you and Dad split up?” These questions are uncomfortable to ask. When it’s family, it’s hard. It avoids senseless naval gazing. You’re getting the important characters in your story to speak for themselves, not just what you thought and how you feel. A certain measure of detachment makes for a better product.

I try not to sound judgmental. I say, “What was that like? How tough was that for you?”

Or, as I told Dad at the beginning of this whole project, “I want to get to know my dad before too long. I want to know who your parents were (they died in a car accident when I was two). I want to learn where you came from.”

This puts a different tint on the lens. It softens the focus. My dad did some awful shit. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to shy from writing about it, but that’s the mosaic. Readers will come away liking him more because of the ugly stuff. Because that’s human, dammit!

A character in the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet said, “Memory is tricks and strangeness.”

It sure is.

It doesn’t have to be with some reporting.

Brendan O’Meara’s blog, Hash Tag for Writing, is at his website. He is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, immersion, journalism, memoir

Richard Ford’s novel ‘Canada’

A retrospective narrator gives Ford’s fiction the feel of memoir.

Canada by Richard Ford. HarperCollins, 420 pp.

The hand of a master storyteller . . .

. . . “Canada” is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure — a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.—Andre Dubus III in his Times review

I’m reading two memoirs now, one an immersion and the other postmodern, but the book that’s riveting me is Richard Ford’s acclaimed new novel, Canada. I’m about halfway through and eagerly return to its world. I say about halfway because it’s in two big acts, and I’ve finished Part One; but there’s a tiny Part Three, maybe one more short chapter. Meaning, in other words, it’s really an epilogue, and it annoys me, when writers do that, call an epilogue an act. But that’s my problem, I guess, and may only mean I want to do it myself and annoy some irritable someone. I’ll find out, when I get there, whether Ford earns his designation. Which I doubt, fervently, in advance. Yet maybe, after all, an epilogue would make this great novel seem too much like a memoir, and act could be the correct literary term here.

That’s what struck me right off, how much like a memoir Canada is in its presentation of story. Along with Ford’s pleasing sentences, of course: their balance and his deft dashes, employed the way his narrator would use them—the classic parenthetical, sure, but also how he jogs with them at the end of sentences—and the way the man who tells the tale misuses “who” for “whom” and uses “only” in place of but. (The latter feels so true and colloquial, or at least individual and believably and unconsciously idiosyncratic.)

The narrator is a middle-aged schoolteacher, Dell Parsons, whose parents robbed a bank in North Dakota when he and his twin sister were fifteen. Ford exploits the dual narrator (Dell then, a young fifteen, and now, when he’s about sixty) to great effect. Mostly the story is told through the boy’s eyes. Ford smoothly explains how Dell knows some things by having Dell tell us his mother wrote a memoir in prison. A big difference between this novel and a memoir, so far, is we don’t get any wailing by the adult Dell of how his parents and their crime messed up his life. It’s clear it would, and did, to a point, but that’s implied. And worlds reside in that phrase “to a point,” for Dell is an individual and individuals are, in good fiction as in life, unpredictable.

What really hooked me at the start was the way Ford-as-Dell depicts and describes his parents. They are ordinary middle-class postwar people: only they are not so ordinary, like anyone when looked at closely. And Ford manages to set them in motion in your mind’s eye so you feel like you know them—or, rather, don’t know them in the same way we know-and-don’t-know anyone we meet. How we place and then imagine a person by appearance, countenance, dress, and voice. How we notice in an instant and largely unconsciously their shoes, complexion, smell. Ford has looked closely and he’s thought carefully; you feel yourself, for so many reasons, in the hands of a master.

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Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, fiction, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, punctuation, REVIEW, syntax

Q&A: Aldrich on order & randomness

Marcia Aldrich reflects on her Companion to An Untold Story.

On her book trailer, Aldrich reads from “what was mine to tell.” After my recent review of her memoir, she gave the e-mail interview below to Narrative:

How did you decide upon the “companion” form for your memoir?

A prior version of the book was organized chronologically and told a fuller, more conventional story about Joel. There was, for example, a much longer discussion of his relationship with his brother. At one point I thought I was writing a literary biography of a suicide under the mistaken assumption that if I put together a biography it would provide me with answers as to why he killed himself and what my role in his story was. But each account led me farther away from my subject. This earlier form implied that I had confidently grasped Joel’s life and death, whereas I was haunted by questions. What I discovered at nearly every turn was an inexplicable gap between the gifted man I knew and the man who suffered so many disappointments. Why do some people with modest gifts succeed, while others blessed with ability struggle to survive? Why can you help one person, while another person turns away your help? There are mysteries in this life, and I needed to find a form that allowed me to reveal them in this man, a truer picture of the aftermath of his death, the little pieces that I tried to assemble. What was my experience, my role? I needed to find a way to puzzle through my own unruly and mixed feelings.

There is the story of Joel’s actions and there is the companion story of my actions in response to what his suicide set into motion.  These are not neat strands running in parallel formation, but narratives that cross, tangle, knot, and break.

This fragmentation and entanglement is reflected in the book’s form. It is modeled on an adult’s reference tool and guide to something already known called a “companion” (one of the books my friend gave us, for example, is the Oxford Companion to English Literature). The alphabetical approach imposes a kind of order, but an order that contains randomness within it, an order that undoes order. One thing I have learned is that suicide imposes a narrative on a life. The alphabetical form goes some way in counteracting that narrative inevitability. It is the reader’s task to assemble a story by means of the elements provided in my companion to it. I have also chosen the “companion” form to imply that the story it accompanies has weight, and the subject merits the treatment I give it, as much as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman insists that his subject’s death is worth presentation as a tragedy.

You resist filling in all the blanks, letting some facts emerge but making no attempt at a complete narrative or exhaustive portrait. Was this decision hard to keep to, or natural for you?

What was hard was composing the early versions of the book in which I attempted an exhaustive account of Joel’s life, writing against the grain of what was essentially characterized by gaps, holes, incompleteness. My initial approach was at odds with the shape of Joel’s life. Once I found the right structure and realized what was mine to tell, everything got much easier.

How did you decide what got what treatment, a sentence instead of a page?

In some cases an aphorism came to me that struck a strong spark and seemed complete. Sometimes I worked against what I thought would be the reader’s expectation of a long discussion. Although in my remarks here I’ve emphasized the incompleteness of the story, the reader does need some background to make sense of things, and in some cases the material needed a longer, narrative form—for example, Joel’s history as a student. The fact that I had done the labor of producing a more complete book allowed me the freedom to carve a more nuanced and surprising book out of the material.

I also wanted uncertainty, a variety of tones and lengths, to keep the reader’s ears pricked.

Did you wonder as you worked what Joel would make of your efforts to depict his life, his death, and your relationship?

Over a period of months Joel gave away or disposed of everything he owned. His apartment was empty when he died. I interpret his behavior to mean that he didn’t want to leave any record of himself behind. On that point I am defying his last wishes. I refuse to erase Joel from the records of the living, from love’s ledger, as I put in the Companion. We may not be able to save people from disaster, but we can remember and honor them—that is the intention behind my writing.

I hope he would not say, were he to look over the book, that I’ve badly misrepresented him.

What did you learn in the writing process?

That writing isn’t emotionally cathartic! At least, I’m not a great success story for the therapeutic model. I can still go to pieces talking about Joel’s death. Recording the voice-over for the book trailer was pure misery. I was stepping back into the tangled mess of my emotions once again. I’ve learned that you don’t get to the end of any powerful experience and are done with it. Part of the reason I employed a system of cross reference in the book—a forward sweep that is simultaneously looping backwards, is to suggest there’s always another ripple in this dying business, in this business of feeling.  Thus, even the final entry returns the reader back to the beginning through its cross references.

I have, nonetheless, over the years achieved a measure of acceptance, even admiration, of what Joel did.

What works inspired you?

Marcia Aldrich’s “holy book”

In writing I found myself returning to my modernist training. I thought about the great quoting poems of modernism: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, and Marianne Moore. Samuel Beckett is never far from my mind. I read Krapp’s Last Tape every year.

Closer to my time and within the field of memoir I have learned from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir—a holy book to me.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, structure

An alphabetical memoir

Marcia Aldrich employs an unusual structure to explore a suicide.

Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich. University of Georgia Press, 262 pp.

 It’s a gorgeously written, geniusly structured tale about a friend of Aldrich’s who committed suicide. I loved it.—Cheryl Strayed, in an interview

A straight-ahead chronology may seem the natural way to tell a tale. To convey experience by showing it unfold. But as many a memoirist learns—and many a novelist, for all I know—chronology is a hard mistress. Time’s weight traps the writer and bogs down his story. This happened and then this and then . . . Tempted to include too much, because it happened and was so interesting, the memoirist finds his narrative plodding. He wonders, Where in all this stuff is the story?

Marcia Aldrich, a creative writing teacher at Michigan State and former editor of Fourth Genre, avoids this in Companion to an Untold Story but takes another risk. She tells the story of a friend, his suicide, and the aftershocks by using an unconventional structure, that of an alphabetical reference book called a companion. Scenes, narrative summary, and reflection are organized in alphabetical entries. Some consist of a few words; some run a couple pages. Her first entry lays out the stark story and teaches the reader how Aldrich will proceed:

 Age at death. In obituaries, a proxy for the worth and fullness of

the life. Joel was born May 23, 1949, and died, according to the

official determination, on November 20, 1995, at age forty-six.

Brilliant and introspective, in youth a poet, Joel spent most of his working life as an underpaid substitute teacher near San Francisco. The marginal job barely supported his meager existence in a tiny apartment. A diabetic since childhood, he suffered from seizures and blackouts, even though he injected himself with insulin each morning. As he aged he developed excruciating pain from nerve degeneration. He struggled to pay for medicine and for repairs to keep his beater cars running. His clothes were threadbare. He was alone.

Aldrich becomes his companion in Companion to an Untold Story. He’d been her husband’s boyhood friend and remained his best friend. She inherited him. And she and her husband adopted him in the way that many a young couple gathers the odd person as a third wheel, a companion and witness to their abundance. Over the years, some friends fall away; but for Aldrich and her husband, Joel didn’t. He gave them their marital bed, having space himself only for a couch, and befriended their children. Yet when he left billboard-sized clues of his plan to kill himself, they missed them. He was crafty, to be sure. His cover story: paring down his life. He boldly drove cross-country, on bad tires, ferrying to them in his Ford Escort wagon the bulk of his modest worldly treasure.

Too late they entertained their unspoken fears when a box containing his last possessions came by mail, delivered more quickly than Joel had foreseen. Aldrich’s husband called, and they ascertain that Joel listened to the message on his answering machine in his empty apartment. By then he had mailed the police his suicide note and keys. Next he went in his bathroom and put a .38 revolver to his head. Aldrich feels guilty and, as a writer, compelled to make sense of what happened. How, she wonders, could she have failed to admit what she saw? When she uses the binoculars he gave her, she feels herself looking through her dead friend’s eyes.

How natural and revealing the book’s structure is—entwined glimpses of a man’s life, his violent death, and the memories Aldrich lives with. Yet how clearly imposed and partial it is. Incompleteness is one point: a complete narrative is never possible and efforts to make one are tedious. We know early that Joel scraped by as a substitute; late in the book we’re informed that in his twenties he worked for a time as a salesman and was good at it. The years closed behind a different path.

In “Higher education” we learn of Joel’s struggles in education, including never receiving a high school diploma; after attending several colleges he earned an undergraduate degree at Cal-Berkeley. While working on a master’s, he turned down a permanent berth in a school and then was unable to complete the degree. In a letter, entered under “Spin the bottle,” he reflects on teaching’s appeal for him. Subjected to psychiatry as a youth when “I should have been playing spin-the-bottle” he’s also angry because he feels his father abdicated his  responsibilities to teachers. Yet Joel chose a life “emulating and building upon” his own father surrogates and implies that teaching was a way for him to act in a father’s role himself.

Mostly this memoir isn’t “reported” or “researched”—though it uses effectively the available evidence, including Joel’s sardonic letters and a former girlfriend’s e-mails to Aldrich. Companion to an Untold Story, winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, is ultimately a meditation on memory and mystery. Released from event sequence, its approach searching but indirect, like poetry, Aldrich’s memoir is compulsively readable and surprisingly moving.

Next: An interview with Marcia Aldrich.

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Filed under memoir, narrative, REVIEW, structure