Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom.

“You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp.

From the book's cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

From the book’s cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers. For memoirists, Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.

Richard Russo’s focus is on his mother, who, wherever she was, wanted to be elsewhere. She most especially didn’t want to be stuck in Gloversville, New York, a depressed mill town where she’d grown up and where her son was born and grew up. If that meant following him off to college in Arizona when he graduated high school in 1967, so be it. She suffered from “nerves,” as people called it in that bygone era. When Rick Russo was young, his divorced mother was stubborn, demanding, and resentful. She worsens with age, and gradually one comes to see that this isn’t garden-variety “nerves,” or mere ego, but a shaky defense. She’s barely able to control her anxiety so she tries to control what she can.

Although Elsewhere is largely chronological, there are retrospective explanations and huge narrative leaps in which years and even decades vanish in a scant line. A writer unrolling a story this way for the first time might wonder—Can I do this? Is this possible?—but it works surprisingly well to jump ahead. Readers are hooked on the heart of the story, not on every last daily event, and most surely appreciate confident summary. Russo tells the story very much from “now,” as an adult looking back. We’re in his head more than in the experience of his younger self who lived it. The first true scene doesn’t appear until page twenty-five. The writer’s stance in the present and his reliance on voice as much as on dramatized action have a distancing effect. This made the book less emotionally involving for me even as its appealing sadder-but-wiser narrator lured me onward.

Elsewhere does have a surprising narrative pull. Somehow Russo generates suspense, probably because although we know from the start the book ends with his mother’s death, we crave the story’s particulars. Details tell the world what it lost. Though I can barely remember his mother’s name, Jean—mentioned in stray quotes by family members referring to her—his mother interests because she’s made unique and her suffering and the problems she causes made palpable. Would that Elsewhere’s elusive lessons were as simple as bringing one troubled woman to life. Legions of memoirists and novelists get their work rejected each year for lack of drama, for being boring, while they burn with their stories about difficult parents, divorces, and deaths. “It’s full of details and events!” they cry.

Yeah, but . . .

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It’s safe to presume that Russo, the author of eight novels and the winner of a Pulitzer prize, knows what he’s doing. While he chooses a rather talky approach—like some other prominent novelists who’ve turned to memoir, he uses it to tell more than to show—he controls all elements of the narrative. And he’s telling an iconic and resonant American story of place and people. From the start, we feel we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what he has to say and where he wants to take us. Those readers who don’t close his memoir in boredom with Jean Russo will follow him. Ultimately they will be impressed by his candor, by the truly hard-earned wisdom of a dutiful, long-suffering, and humanly flawed son. The book becomes moving as Russo becomes more self-protective and then aware of it. Too late he realizes, or finally admits consciously, that his mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed mental illness her whole life.

Aside from his stature, all those other books and that big prize, why does Russo get to tell his story, and rather successfully per his strategy? First, despite memoir’s popularity it’s not unusual to hear people disdain the genre. In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours? Agents and publishers who feel this way, but who must scout new memoirs to sell, will read five to fifty pages to see if a writer can overcome their innate reluctance if not repugnance. Is this narcissistic or boring? A writer must do many things right, but there’s no formula—neither the purely scenic approach of many bestsellers nor the tweedy mastery of literary memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s and John Updike’s. And of course a manuscript’s reception is influenced by the market, by the author’s stature, and by the reader’s preferences.

Finally the proof is in the reading. The thing must transcend its elements; it must get airborne; it must become art. Elsewhere meets that test.

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Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Beachroom x

Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.

Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.

One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.

The first edition's cover.

The first edition’s cover.

Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.

So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”

I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.

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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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On hating a memoirist

Bill Roorbach readin’ and lovin’ Wild up in Maine. Despite its bestsellerdom, or because of it, some hate the book and its author.

Another nonfiction issue: judging a book by its author?

 I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.—William Gass

As my previous three posts indicate, I admire Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I devoured it as a reader and also loved how I could raid her techniques for my own memoir. So I was surprised to read some reactions to Bill Roorbach’s laudatory review of Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Margaret Benbow, a poet, wrote:

. . . Why do I feel that I understand her, and what she’s about, better than you? Because I’m a woman. I intensely enjoy her writing. No question that she has the chops. The problem comes with your faith in her “honesty”. I see most of her unbuttoned, hairy, sweaty sexual recollections as calculating. They get the reader’s attention, right? She glories in her own screw-ups, rubs her (and our) face in them time and again. She SETS UP screw-ups on the trail. Who in her right mind would prepare so inadequately for such a demanding physical crucible as the Pacific Trail? Why has she chosen brand new unbroken-in too-small boots? She endlessly whines about the poor rags of her feet–whose tattered condition was absolutely inevitable, given her contempt for the most basic preparation. She has mailed packages to herself with food and money at halting-places on the trial. They are often missed, inadequate.

Strayed has a kink in herself which demands constant life crises…and for readers to see them, deplore them, be excited by them, root for her to overcome them. She’s extremely good at being an exhibitionistic screw-up performance artist. In general, I like and admire her book. But I don’t like that calculating glimmer in the back of her eye.

Hmmm. Well. I found surprising and interesting this peevish reaction and Bill’s irritated reply and her rejoinder and another reader’s also weighing in coolly toward Strayed. Personally I had no problems with Strayed’s sensuous but rather mild depiction of a sexual incident on the trail. And I felt her preparation, a mix of intense focus and amateurish oversight, totally believable (and she only screwed up once mailing stuff to herself).

Something deeper was at work in my acceptance. I admired her courage for taking a 1,100 mile hike alone—and for her entire under-employed young artist journey. When I was young I always wanted to do something like her backpacking adventure, which she undertook, I think, in her role as a young writer as much as she did for its healing properties. Instead, I worked. My equivalent post-college adventure was traveling to New York for the first time and taking classes at a famous method-acting school; I’d never been outside the south or in a big city, and New York scared me—it scared a lot of people in the late 1970s, so much crime and hostility on the street. I remember reading The World According to Garp on July 4, 1978, sprawled beneath an air conditioner—it was 104 degrees outside—in my sublet at 113th Street and Broadway.

Cheryl Strayed: don’t worry, be happy?

At the age Strayed lit out for the trail, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, I’d worked for several newspapers and had just accepted a Kiplinger fellowship to Ohio State, where I spent a year reading history, philosophy, religion, and literature. Then I went back to newspapers, married, settled down, had kids. I also wrote short stories, but about the time I wrote one that had promise, I got busy (or something) and quit, not returning to creative or deeply personal writing for several years. So I was awed by Strayed’s belief in herself or in her writing dream, which she had very little to show for coming off the trail as thirty loomed ahead.

But I did have to overcome my own doubts about Strayed, I realized. For me, it was her blaming her self-destructive meltdown—her affairs and drug use and divorce that led her to the trail—on the depth of her derangement after her mother’s death. Gradually I accepted her explanation of being derailed by grief, not because I’ve ever shared it to that extent but because of other life experiences I brought to Wild.

Strayed, the middle of three children, was six when her mother divorced her abusive father; she carries scarring memories of seeing her mother hurt, punched or dragged down a sidewalk by her hair, and of being threatened herself with her daddy’s knuckle sandwiches. Strayed and her sister grew up as not very close siblings, and her sister puzzles Strayed by staying away when their mother lies dying. Maybe she just couldn’t take the pain of it. But this woman, a couple years older than Strayed, by definition took the first blow, so to speak, from their father and his dysfunctional household—the first born takes the first blow and gets the first benefit from parents—and she surely suffered more than Strayed. Maybe she had more bitterness toward their submissive mother or just more distance. Maybe she was angry at Strayed, so tough and questing, for displacing her in the sibling hierarchy. Perhaps for all of that.

In any case Strayed ascended over her more damaged sister (in my reckoning) as leader of the sibling pack and glommed onto their mother so fiercely as a child and young adult—which she depicts—that I don’t see how her older sister could have had anything but a secondary relationship,  in comparison, with the woman. That wouldn’t have affected their brother, baby to all in the family dynamic. But it would have, as we said in the South, cheesed her big sister’s grits.

Am I what Bill Roorbach accuses Margaret Benbow above of being, an armchair psychologist?

Absolutely.

But aren’t we all?

I hope I don’t explain everything in life, as a middle child myself, in terms of birth order. But my own experience of its significance is why I despised Vladimir Nabokov’s self-portrait in Speak, Memory, reviewed here. And my reaction was in part a perverse rebellion against the literary establishment and canon—more middle child stuff?—for endlessly praising his memoir. Briefly, Nabokov admits to cruelly dominating his younger brother as they grew up and then judges him a hapless fool for sticking around Germany too long and getting killed by the Nazis. Guess which one of the brothers I identified with?

Regardless of the validity of my or Margaret Benbow’s visceral reactions to authors, isn’t this yet another nonfiction issue? Judging a book by its author? I’m always ashamed when I do, feeling it’s an invalid way to assess a work of literature, and at the same time secretly convinced of the truth of my perception. To me Nabokov was a cold fish and a cruel human being, whose art—or at least whose nonfiction—should be suspect. (Some milder critics merely find Speak, Memory boring since, following his aesthetic star, Nabokov wrote about his toy soldiers and butterfly collection rather than his assassinated father and his aristocratic family’s traumatic exile from Russia.)

And yet I give Nabokov a pass in his fictional worlds and works. We all do, pretty much. Relatively few blame him for Humbert Humbert in Lolita. No, quite the contrary. We praise an author of fiction for using bits of himself—his socially unacceptable feelings, his misdeeds, his psychic warps—to animate various characters. There seems to be two reasons why some fiction writers cannot countenance memoir: such a waste of good material; and using oneself overtly, in such an unguarded way, only invites others’ disdain.

An acquaintance, a scholar and editor, who read a chapter of my memoir praised my courage. I’m not sure what he meant, unless it’s the exposure of my family’s particular trauma and that general risk of backlash that memoir writers face. My twentysomething son said the problem with my memoir is that it doesn’t show how strange I am. On the one hand, such a classic kid’s response to his parent. On the other, he had a point. Am I protecting myself too much, fearing rejection? I upped the strangeness quotient. But one should construct a persona that serves the particular book, no? Reveal one’s weirdness artfully, not all at once?

But regardless of what you do, brace yourself, Effie. Because some people are going to think—and say—terrible things about you and your modest attempt to offer to the world a gift.

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The 100 best nonfiction books?

The Modern Library on its website lists the100 best” English-language books in fiction and nonfiction. Alongside each are the best according to an online poll—and the readers’ choices consist of much trash: the top three slots of each list, fiction and nonfiction, are filled by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard.

Modern Library’s own considered nonfiction list is fascinating because it’s wildly diverse, reflecting the genre’s diversity, no doubt. It mixes histories and works of philosophy that have had social or intellectual impact with essays and memoirs. Virginia Woolf’s pioneering feminist essay A Room of One’s Own is ranked 4th,, while Vladimir Nabokov’s classic literary memoir Speak, Memory—panned and lauded on this very blog—is 8th and Richard Wright’s heartfelt memoir  Black Boy is 13th. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, the title essay of which I’ve previously declared America’s greatest, ranks 19th,  while Gertrude Stein’s genre-bending The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ranks a solid 20th.

The Library’s number one greatest nonfiction book ever published in English is officially an autobiography, memoir’s staid precursor, The Education of Henry Adams. I read it so many years ago I can’t remember it, but do recall that it was recommended to me then because of its introspective impulse, which today we’d call memoiristic—a meditation on Henry Adams’s intellectual life—rather than being the usual dry recitation of a politician’s public deeds.

 

It helps to be named Woolf, Wolfe, or Wolff

Seeing Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in 52nd place confirmed my recent hunch that it would be a great book to teach—it’s a monument to immersion reporting and to narrative nonfiction storytelling. Wolfe penetrated the world of military test pilots and rocketed away with their immortal tough-guy phrase—“the right stuff”—as an overarching metaphor. He showed how those steely fighter jocks bent the U.S. space program to their will, wresting a degree of flight control from pocket-protected missile scientists and coffee-breathed NASA bureaucrats.

I was gratified that one of my favorite memoirs, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, made the list (86th) and nodded when I saw Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at 96th. Without apparent irony, in 97th place is Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, an expose of the pitfalls of the kind of empathetic immersion with criminals that Capote practiced. Malcolm generalizes the issue of some crime writers’ duplicity toward killers to all journalists—the way they act friendly and then sell sources out.

Having recently reread and written here about the excesses of The Journalist and the Murderer, I wonder what its placement says about the status of journalism. Even as narrative nonfiction dominates publishing and bookselling, people don’t fully trust it, or at least are wary of what they sense are inherent flaws. Maybe that’s simply wise—most people call any narrative book a novel, after all.

But I can think of several books, equally slim in size, that are better than Malcolm’s narrow screed. Offhand, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, reviewed here, is far larger in its ambition, its achievement, and its relevance for civilians.

 

The Modern Library’s top 100 nonfiction list . . .

1. THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by Henry Adams

2. THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE by William James

3. UP FROM SLAVERY by Booker T. Washington

4. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN by Virginia Woolf

5. SILENT SPRING by Rachel Carson

6. SELECTED ESSAYS, 1917-1932 by T. S. Eliot

7. THE DOUBLE HELIX by James D. Watson

8. SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov

9. THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE by H. L. Mencken

10. THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST, AND MONEY by John Maynard Keynes

11. THE LIVES OF A CELL by Lewis Thomas

12. THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY by Frederick Jackson Turner

13. BLACK BOY by Richard Wright

14. ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL by E. M. Forster

15. THE CIVIL WAR by Shelby Foote

16. THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara Tuchman

17. THE PROPER STUDY OF MANKIND by Isaiah Berlin

18. THE NATURE AND DESTINY OF MAN by Reinhold Niebuhr

19. NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin

20. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS by Gertrude Stein

21. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk and E. B. White

22. AN AMERICAN DILEMMA by Gunnar Myrdal

23. PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell

24. THE MISMEASURE OF MAN by Stephen Jay Gould

25. THE MIRROR AND THE LAMP by Meyer Howard Abrams

26. THE ART OF THE SOLUBLE by Peter B. Medawar

27. THE ANTS by Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson

28. A THEORY OF JUSTICE by John Rawls

29. ART AND ILLUSION by Ernest H. Gombrich

30. THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS by E. P. Thompson

31. THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK by W.E.B. Du Bois

32. PRINCIPIA ETHICA by G. E. Moore

33. PHILOSOPHY AND CIVILIZATION by John Dewey

34. ON GROWTH AND FORM by D’Arcy Thompson

35. IDEAS AND OPINIONS by Albert Einstein

36. THE AGE OF JACKSON, Arthur Schlesinger by Jr.

37. THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB by Richard Rhodes

38. BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON by Rebecca West

39. AUTOBIOGRAPHIES by W. B. Yeats

40. SCIENCE AND CIVILIZATION IN CHINA by Joseph Needham

41. GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves

42. HOMAGE TO CATALONIA by George Orwell

43. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN by Mark Twain

44. CHILDREN OF CRISIS by Robert Coles

45. A STUDY OF HISTORY by Arnold J. Toynbee

46. THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY by John Kenneth Galbraith

47. PRESENT AT THE CREATION by Dean Acheson

48. THE GREAT BRIDGE by David McCullough

49. PATRIOTIC GORE by Edmund Wilson

50. SAMUEL JOHNSON by Walter Jackson Bate

51. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X

52. THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe

53. EMINENT VICTORIANS by Lytton Strachey

54. WORKING by Studs Terkel

55. DARKNESS VISIBLE by William Styron

56. THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION by Lionel Trilling

57. THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Winston Churchill

58. OUT OF AFRICA by Isak Dinesen

59. JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME by Dumas Malone

60. IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN by William Carlos Williams

61. CADILLAC DESERT by Marc Reisner

62. THE HOUSE OF MORGAN by Ron Chernow

63. THE SWEET SCIENCE by A. J. Liebling

64. THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES by Karl Popper

65. THE ART OF MEMORY by Frances A. Yates

66. RELIGION AND THE RISE OF CAPITALISM by R. H. Tawney

67. A PREFACE TO MORALS by Walter Lippmann

68. THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE by Jonathan D. Spence

69. THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS by Thomas S. Kuhn

70. THE STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW by C. Vann Woodward

71. THE RISE OF THE WEST by William H. McNeill

72. THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS by Elaine Pagels

73. JAMES JOYCE by Richard Ellmann

74. FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by Cecil Woodham-Smith

75. THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY by Paul Fussell

76. THE CITY IN HISTORY by Lewis Mumford

77. BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM by James M. McPherson

78. WHY WE CAN’T WAIT by Martin Luther King by Jr.

79. THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT by Edmund Morris

80. STUDIES IN ICONOLOGY by Erwin Panofsky

81. THE FACE OF BATTLE by John Keegan

82. THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND by George Dangerfield

83. VERMEER by Lawrence Gowing

84. A BRIGHT SHINING LIE by Neil Sheehan

85. WEST WITH THE NIGHT by Beryl Markham

86. THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff

87. A MATHEMATICIAN’S APOLOGY by G. H. Hardy

88. SIX EASY PIECES by Richard P. Feynman

89. PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard

90. THE GOLDEN BOUGH by James George Frazer

91. SHADOW AND ACT by Ralph Ellison

92. THE POWER BROKER by Robert A. Caro

93. THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION by Richard Hofstadter

94. THE CONTOURS OF AMERICAN HISTORY by William Appleman Williams

95. THE PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE by Herbert Croly

96. IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

97. THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER by Janet Malcolm

98. THE TAMING OF CHANCE by Ian Hacking

99. OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS by Anne Lamott

100. MELBOURNE by Lord David Cecil

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, teaching, education

Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’

From it all I gathered one obstinate and enduring conception. That nothing is to be so much dreaded as egotism. Nothing so cruelly hurts the person himself; nothing so wounds those who are forced into contact with it.—Virginia Woolf, writing about her relationship with her father in “A Sketch of the Past

Having posted so much lately on scenic narrative, I do penance by featuring Virginia Woolf, a most reflective writer. Toward her I feel a kinship, which for some time struck me as odd. Then I realized that, in her deep art, her delicate nature, and her spiritual sensibility, she had replaced my boyhood idol Ernest Hemingway. What bookends to have as literary heroes! He, killed by his egotism and his rage, she killed by her sensitivity and her pain.

I admire his courage and his artistry as a young writer; I lament the shameful boor he became. I write that feeling like a son striking against his father, because when I was a lonely and pained adolescent his stoic myth gave me hope and his stories artistic delight. As a teen I read everything I could by and about him, and first saw the link between outlook and art. As an adult I feel that his efforts to grow as an artist, and perhaps to deepen his tragic view of life, were doomed by the prison of image he’d constructed.

Barely having dipped into Woolf to the same extent, I nonetheless find the depth of her artistry breathtaking, and am in awe of the resonant hints of spirituality I find in her work, especially in her concept of “moments of being” that she discusses in “A Sketch of the Past,” collected in Moments of Being. Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how dominated she was by her father, how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and bullied by her cretinous stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. In it Woolf makes her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

Here she is on her parents’ dysfunction:

Every afternoon we ‘went for a walk’. Later these walks became a penance. Father must have one of us go out with him, Mother insisted. Too much obsessed with his health, with his pleasures, she was too willing, as I think now, to sacrifice us to him. It was thus that she left us the legacy of his dependence, which after her death became so harsh an imposition. It would have [been] better for our relationship if she had left him to fend for himself. But for many years she made a fetish of his health; and so—leaving the effect on us out of the reckoning—she wore herself out and died at forty-nine; while he lived on, and found it very difficult, so healthy was he, to die of cancer at the age of seventy-two. But, though I slip in, still venting an old grievance, that parenthesis, St. Ives gave us all that same ‘pure delight’ which is before my eyes at this very moment. The lemon-colored leaves on the elm tree; the apples in the orchard; the murmur and rustle of the leaves makes me pause here, and think how many other than human forces are always at work on us. While I write this the light glows; an apple becomes a vivid green; I respond all through me; but how? Then a little owl chatters under my window. Again, I respond.

Here she writes on the early blows of losing her mother and then a sister to death:

My mother’s death had been a latent sorrow—at thirteen one could not master it, envisage it, deal with it. But Stella’s death two years later fell on a different substance; a mind . . . extraordinarily unprotected, unformed, unshielded, apprehensive, receptive, anticipatory. That must always hold good of minds and bodies at fifteen. But beneath the surface of this particular mind and body lay sunk the other death. Even if I were not fully conscious of what my mother’s death meant, I had for two years been unconsciously absorbing it through Stella’s silent grief; through my father’s demonstrative grief; again through all the things that changed and stopped; the ending of society; of gaiety; of the giving up of St. Ives; the black clothes; the suppressions; the locked door of her bedroom. All this had toned my mind and made it apprehensive; made it I suppose unnaturally responsive to Stella’s happiness, and the promise it held for her and for us of escape from that gloom; when once more unbelievably—incredibly—as if one had been violently cheated of some promise; more than that, brutally told not to be such a fool as to hope for things; I remember saying to myself after she died: ‘But this is impossible; things aren’t, can’t be, like this—the blow, the second blow of death, stuck on me; tremulous, filmy eyed as I was, with my wings still creased, sitting there on the edge of my broken chrysalis.

On how she gained insight into foreign pleasures and strangers:

Once, after we had hung about, tacking, and hauling in gunard after gunard, dab after dab, father said to me: ‘Next time if you are going to fish I shan’t come; I don’t like to see fish caught but you can go if you like.’ It was a perfect lesson. It was not a rebuke; not forbidding; simply a statement of his own feeling, about which I could think and decide for myself. Though my passion for the thrill and the tug had been perhaps the most acute I then knew, his words slowly extinguished it; leaving no grudge, I ceased to wish to catch fish. But from the memory of my own passion I am still able to construct an idea of the sporting passion. It is one of those invaluable seeds, from which, since it is impossible to have every experience fully, one can grow something that represents other people’s experiences. Often one has to make do with seeds; the germs of what might have been, had one’s life been different. I pigeonhole ‘fishing’ thus with other momentary glimpses; like those rapid glances, for example, that I cast into basements when I walk in London streets.

On how fiction and memoir feed upon and devour memories:

Further, just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of [my father’s] memory there too. Yet he obsessed me for years. Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him; how deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud. They are still some of them sayable; when [Woolf’s sister] Nessa for instance revives the memory of Wednesday and its weekly [bank account] books, I still feel come over me that old frustrated fury.

But in me, though not in her, rage alternated with love. . . . ‘You must think me,’ he said to me after one of these rages—I think the word he used was ‘foolish’. I was silent. I did not think him foolish. I thought him brutal. . . .

Woolf died by her own hand before she made of this memoir a literary work equal to her fiction. It feels like a draft still searching for its structure, and ends abruptly. But what a memoir, and the very model for those who believe memoir must, as they say, “interrogate memory.” “A Sketch of the Past” is better for my money than another classic memoir, the gorgeously written Speak, Memory, since, lamentably, I find Vladimir Nabokov’s cold-fish persona in it repulsive. Woolf, in contrast to the guys, seemingly stands naked before her readers, a wounded creature working to understand her life, and life itself, with true courage and great artistry.

Next: Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” from “A Sketch of the Past.”

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Filed under emotion, memoir, NOTED, religion & spirituality

Nabokov’s ‘Speak, Memory,’ ver. 2.0

Olga Khotiashova responded to my review of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory by posting as a comment a lovely essay, which I have also featured as a guest post, below; it unites her personal history with her reading of the book and with literary and political analysis. A mathematician by education, she now lives in Houston.

Reflections on Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory

by a Russian native speaker recently immigrated to the USA

By Olga Khotiashova

I read the famous Lolita by V. Nabokov in mid-1980s. The book, a Russian translation copied from the original printed in the West and hand-bound, was secretly given to me by a friend with a comment, “If anybody asks you where you got it, answer that you found it in a dumpster.” I’m not sure if the original was smuggled through the Iron Curtain, probably the friend just wanted to heat my interest. Anyway, although it was mid-1980s, not mid-1930s, it was safer not to ask too many questions about the book: “The less you know, the better you sleep,” as the Russian saying says. I read Lolita quickly, liked it partially because of the romantic flavor of forbidden reading, and forgot about Nabokov for years.

The next encounter with the writer happened ten years later when the works by Nabokov were widely published in the former Soviet Union. I liked his novels especially those written in Russian a lot, and Drugie Berega (Other Shores) has become one of my favorite books. No wonder that having moved to the US, I was interested in the English version of the book—Speak, Memory.

Well, it appeared to be not an easy reading. Nabokov’s vocabulary is enormous and peculiar. I had to read sitting at my desk and checking up to 10 words per page in the dictionary, and some of the words needed even a deeper research. I even wrote down the new words first but gave up shortly as it became clear that I would unlikely ever use them. For me, with my freshly learned English, Nabokov’s prose seemed kind of staged: stylish and exquisite as his unique Russian but a little tied up in the limits of English grammar.

While reading Speak, Memory, I tried to answer two questions: 1) What may an American reader like about the book? 2) What does the book mean for me in comparison with its Russian vis-à-vis?

No doubt, Speak, Memory may be interesting to an American reader as an exotic butterfly for its unusual and mysterious beauty. But is there anything more? I borrowed the book in the library, and it had some notes and a library receipt which told me about the previous reader. The pencil notes on the margins affirmed that the reader looked for the connections with everything American, was interested in Russian cultural traditions, and was confused by Nabokov’s playing with words. It was funny that sometimes, when the American reader put a bold question mark having not found the word in the dictionary, I could easily guess the meaning based on the rules of word building in Russian. The receipt included two books: Nabokov’s memoir and the biography of Ernest Hemingway, and a DVD with the movie The Night of the Iguana based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Interesting! The choice itself may become the topic of a research. Anyway, I would join the same book club as that unknown reader and we would definitely find what to speak about despite obvious cultural difference.

I can imagine Speak, Memory in the reading list of a scholar specializing in 20th century literature. But it arguably may be interesting to a casual reader as well.
The book gives a private and subtle look at Russian life at the beginning of the 20th century. Nabokov shows the best part of Russian society: educated, broadminded, bearing rich cultural traditions. Most of these features were swept away by the October Revolution and were replaced by the fierce image of a hostile Russian which became a cliché. Nabokov reveals his vision of Russia and makes a reader avoid stereotypes and develop his or her own view.

Nature, landscapes have always been essential for both Russians and Americans. Russian landscapes, as Nabokov pictures them, give a key to the Russian spirituality. The book produces the strongest feeling of home and loving family—the values which cannot be overestimated. Viewed from the point of a boy raised by loving parents in close connection with nature and art, with great respect for the family history going through ages, and admiration of both native and foreign cultures, the picture of “perfect childhood” drawn by Nabokov may appeal to a reader as the source of first-hand information and particular spirituality.

As for my personal impression of the memoir, it hasn’t changed a lot after reading the English version. It just became more refined as I looked at Russia from the same shore the author did. Only looking from far away one may cherish the native language as the most valuable possession. Only living abroad one may feel the overwhelming beauty of the native land.

It was also a thrilling experience to observe Nabokov’s famous alliterations and decipher his allusions. “The spiral is a spiritualized circle” sounds like a poem in English. I wonder how Nabokov said it in Russian; no doubt he found some singing equivalent. Unfortunately, my Russian version of the book was left on the bookshelf in my St. Petersburg apartment. I know exactly where it is: on the right side, between Dostoevsky and Brodsky. The search for the adequate translation haunted me even in a night dream where I could easily reach the book, turn the pages quickly but still could not find the corresponding page. Alas, it was just a dream.

Writing in English, Nabokov preserved grace and magic epitomized in his Russian prose. Speak, Memory works as a magic lantern switching the reader from the narration to his or her own or even ancestral reminiscences. While reading the book, I caught myself several times feeling as if I was looking through the eyes of my great-grandmother whose namesake I am and whose youth coincided with the beginning of 20th century. I never met her. But due to Nabokov’s prose, the stories told me thousand times by my grandmother and stacked somewhere in the depth of the memory miraculously got alive and transformed into the vivid pictures of a sunlit apple orchard, Cossacks suppressing a students’ rally, train tours to the Crimea. I expect even more miracles.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote his memoir approximately the same time he was working on Lolita. He counted on the former to help him make living but it was the latter which turned out to be a great commercial success.  Well, the life is all about unexpected things. As for me, I’ll probably never return to Lolita and will definitely reread both Speak, Memory and Drugie Berega, which connect distant shores and times and serve as bookmarks in the memory pinpointing treasured places and images.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, memoir, politics, religion & spirituality, REVIEW