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Inexhaustability: drink it up

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In "Snow," Louis MacNeice wrote of "the drunkenness of things being various," but I also enjoy a drunkenness of things being synonymous.  Take, for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard's experience of a painting of clouds by John Constable, recounted in his memoir, My Struggle:

[S]uddenly he is in tears, arrested by "an oil sketch of a cloud formation from September 6, 1822," and unable to explain his reaction.  What is he feeling?  "The feeling of inexhaustibility.  The feeling of beauty.  The feeling of presence."  He has always been unsettled by paintings, but he has never found it easy to describe his experience of them -- "because of what they possessed, the core of their being, was inexhaustibility and what that wrought in me was a kind of desire.  I can't explain it any better than that.  A desire to be inside the inexhaustibility."

This passage from James Woods' The New Yorker review of My Struggle stayed with me because I did not understand Knausgaard's use of "inexhaustibility."  An avid devotee of visual art myself, I did not identify with the quality that Knausgaard found so salient. 

Poussin_Rinaldo_Armida_small.jpgAnd then, as chance provided, I read Louis MacNeice's poem, "Poussin," and I understood.  In "Poussin," MacNeice describes the experience of gazing upon "that Poussin" in which "the clouds are like golden tea" and "cupids' blue feathers beat musically."  The motion in the painting he characterizes as "still as when one walks and the moon / Walks parallel but relations remain the same":

And thus we never reach the dregs of the cup,
Though we drink it up and drink it up and drink it up
Yes, exactly: the experience is inexhaustible.  Return always and be nourished again.  Our only counterbalance to mortality: drink it up while we can.

Image of John Constable's "Cloud Study: evening," from the National Gallery of Australia; image of Nicolas Poussin's "Rinaldo and Armida" from WikiPaintings.

If only all the memoirs were about pleasure...

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Much as I enjoyed Neil Genzlinger's hit piece on memoirs in this week's NYT Book Review, I humbly protest that I think he's misdiagnosed the problem. 

Genzlinger complains about "oversharing" in a culture where people have been encouraged to "grade inflate" their lives - to think their experiences A+'s, when they're really somewhere in the C- range.  As a result, people without anything to say are writing memoirs.

While Genzlinger no doubt has his finger on a live pulse in current American society, I don't think the issue is the authors: I think it's the publishers.  (See also the opening of Joyce Carol Oate's recent review of Paul Auster's novel, Sunset Park, in The New York Review of Books, in which she rhapsodizes about "the highly individualized, often short, lyric memoir of crises" that has burgeoned in the past few decades.)

Publishers want to invest in books that sell, and memoirs have an audience.  (I discuss why I think memoirs have such a robust audience base here.) 

However, as Genzlinger's annoyance attests, publishers don't seem to have a terribly refined notion of which memoirs will find an appreciative audience, and which will incur the public ire of prominent critics. 

At least part of this failing seems to be the Internet.  Publishers by now are accustomed to watching their profits sidle over to Internet-provided content, and they appear to have decided to try to move some of that content back into the print arena.  As Genzlinger observed, much of one of the memoirs he reviewed (Dis­aster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky) would do better on a blog.

Similarly, publishers are investing in topics that garner extensive coverage online, with websites, bulletin boards, Facebook pages, etc., devoted to them.  Hence, we have the phenomenon Genzlinger decries of piles of memoirs being released on the same topic (e.g., autism, cancer, addiction, etc.).

This approach of Internet-driven decision-making about publishing content is misguided.  I'm going to go out on a limb with a totally untested, anecdotal observation here, but people don't necessarily want to find the same content on every platform.  I have friends who won't respond to an e-mail, but who are lightning fast on Facebook.  Among my ex-es is one who thinks text messaging appropriate for all manner of intense declarations that I might channel into an in-person or (at worst) a phone conversation.  And plenty of people will join a group, leave a comment, become a "fan" or otherwise evince interest in some topic online about which they do not want to read a book.

In broad strokes: books are deep; the Internet's superficial.  Content appropriate to one doesn't necessarily translate well.  Publishers should cultivate more sophistication about doing - and marketing - well what they do best, and leave the Internet to its own thing.

Of course, there is one content area in which book publishers shouldn't be shy about following Internet trends.  It's an area with a well-established pedigree in Western literature, and it nicely overlaps with the genre of memoirs.  The Internet may be for porn, but the book publishing industry is for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

(Image of Phoebe showing Fanny how, from John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, from the University of Michigan site)

A voice of her own

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Visiting the Karen Blixen Museum today in Rungstedlund, Denmark, I took advantage of the opportunity to listen to a 27-minute recording of Karen Blixen reciting her story, "A Letter from a King," in English, before an audience.

I had known, from Judith Thurman's biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, that Karen Blixen intended her stories to be read aloud and listened to.  Hearing Karen Blixen tell her own story in her creaky-resonant voice with her old-lady inflection, I understood why.  The story on the page was two dimensions to the oral form's three.

Karen Blixen had a sense of humor, but - unlike Rabelais - it wasn't primarily scatological, physical or premised on misunderstandings.  These types of humor are sturdy vehicles that can survive the abuses of time and transmutations into different formats. 

Karen Blixen's sense of humor, on the other hand, is a fragile tone, easily lost in the migration of form and context.  On the page, I could understand why Karen Blixen might be thought to have been funny.  Hearing her tell her story, it was funny.  She earned her laughs from the audience. 

Moreover, in the oral form of the story, I realized that she was poking fun at herself with her account of how her friends in Denmark thought she was a snob for sending a lion skin to King Christian X; her self-deprecation - obvious in the oral form, muted on the page - made her likable.  Listening to Karen Blixen's tale, I was transported to a younger time, when I sat at my grandmother's kitchen table, listening to her tell stories with gentle punch lines.  (For this reason, I selected a photo of Karen Blixen, above, that reminds me of my grandmother.)
  
Beyond the restored humor, however, the oral form of the story took on a completely different meaning.  "A Letter from a King" begins by recounting an event that Karen Blixen describes in Out of Africa: a New Year's Day outing that ends with Karen shooting a lion perched on the carcass of a giraffe.  When they see the lion, Denys Finch-Hatton hands Karen his rifle and tells her to shoot it.  She doesn't like to use his gun; it's too big.  But, she says, the shot is for love, so shouldn't it use the largest caliber weapon?

The anecdote is a significant one to Blixenania lore.  Karen Blixen herself repeats it in both Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass.  Errol Trzebinksi begins her biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Silence Will Speak, with a retelling of the episode.  Judith Thurman interprets the shot of love as being for Denys Finch-Hatton. 

But when Karen Blixen tells the story, the love is unquestionably for the lion.  Hunting, she insists, is like a love affair.  Usually, she admits, the passion is one-sided.  The hunter is in love; the prey, not so much.  But with lions, she insists, it's different: they want to kill her as much as she wants to shoot them.

This meaning (and its attendant humor) were largely lost on me when I read Shadows on the Grass and Out of Africa.  I was busy focusing on where the text betrayed clues of her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (who she refers to as her "friend" in "A Letter from a King"). 

But this subtextual obsession is exactly what Karen Blixen's oral performance obviates.  Reading from the page, I capitulated to the temptation to wander from her path, to sniff - like a pig hunting truffles - for buried treasure, to read with my own agenda.  Listening to Karen Blixen tell her tale, however, I was led where she wanted me to go, directed to the treasure before my eyes, engaged by her story in her voice.

For whatever reason - whether the clamor of her personal life has deafened readers to her literary voice, or whether English is too foreign a vehicle for her voice to carry on the page, or whether she's simply a storyteller in the ancient model of epic poet, and her tales work better orally - Karen Blixen's storytelling voice only emerged fully for me when I heard the recording.

It's a voice worth hearing.

The Karen Blixen Museum would do well to make her oeuvre available, where possible, in podcast.

(Photograph of Karen Blixen by Hugo Hellsten, taken at Rungstedlund, in 1957, on Kulturplakaten)

Warriors women

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Maya_Hanley.jpgOver the last couple of days I've been corresponding with Maya Hanley, the daughter of Gerald Hanley, who wrote Warriors, about which I've blogged at this post and this post

Maya Hanley is currently at work on a memoir - spectacularly titled Silence and the Black Wolf.  In the course of researching her memoir, she came across my blog posts.  She has thoughtfully written some responses to the posts, and about corresponding with one of her father's readers (me), on her blog, The Sound of the Night, here.

Maya's father, Gerald, wrote Warriors many years before it found a publisher, and now the original book in which it appeared, Warriors and Strangers, is shamefully out of print.  In her correspondence with me, Maya Hanley expressed a desire to see her father's books return to print - a sentiment with which I could not agree more fully. 

But conversations about books are also a means of honoring the author, his or her text, the book's story and its ideas; dialogue is nothing short of keeping alive a book - or a person - liable to slip from our grasp.  In writing about Warriors, I was invigorated to participate in that process; in dialogue with Maya Hanley, that "keeping alive" function seems (to me) to have deepened considerably - one of the most moving rewards I've yet experienced from blogging.

Best of luck to Maya Hanley with her memoir.  May the conversation about her work - and her father's - continue, and may many voices join! 

(Image of Maya Hanley from Twitter)

Ready for the shovel

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Somalia.jpgI wonder if anyone else has the experience of wanting to visit a place in exact proportion to the awfulness of its description.  I no sooner hear that a location is subject to such severe flooding that it can only be accessed on alternate Thursdays from October 1-12, and that, upon arrival, the locals will serve me a dish of fermented yak intestines, and I think: I have to go!  I can't hazard a guess as to how and when I drank from the tainted well from which this peculiar response springs, but I can attest to the pain it causes those who care about my well being.  For those of you thinking of describing your hells on earth to me, you'll do my mom a favor if you shade your account along the following lines: "Oh, Brazilian favelas?  They're lovely.  Quiet places where people sit outside on cleanly swept streets, drinking tap water and playing wholesome card games, like Go Fish."

Gerald Hanley's Warriors pushed my "must go to hell on earth" buttons.  Warriors is a memoir of Hanley's experience being posted in a variety of remote areas in Somalia during World War II.  The isolation was extreme, and he suffered many deprivations of food, intellectual stimulation, companionship, pay, etc.  His colleagues were committing suicide with a frequency that would have been impressive in a looney bin that'd run low on its meds.  So searing was his experience, that the first paragraph of his book asserts that,

it is in solitude that one can best understand that there is no solution, except to try and do as little harm as possible while we are here, that there is no losing and no winning, no real end to greed or lust, because the human appetite for novelty can only be fully satisfied by death.
(p. 7.)  Yet, despite his success in conveying viscerally the reality of his misery, I can't resist being charmed.  He makes the insanity he confronted sound so appealing:  

After the Somali troops under his command mutinied for the third time (they hadn't been paid in almost half a year), he gave an order that they could only mutiny on Fridays.  "They took it seriously," he reports (p. 13).  More on his troops:

Like white troops without cigarettes, they talked about ghee all day and night, but unlike white troops, held conferences about it, drew up statements, compiled measurements of the ghee they had not had, and must expect from me when the time of ghee came again, and some of them would come trembling with fury to me about the ghee, after having worked each other up over the camp-fire.
(p. 156-57.)  Then there was the case of the sleepwalking girl, staggering across the village in the dark hours, past curfew, because the elders had summoned her by means of magic.  "I gave [the matter] meticulous examination and was satisfied it was magic," says Hanley.  "I had to tell the askaris [the soldiers] to let this girl walk in her sleep whenever she was called, until the end of the curfew."  (p. 113.)    

Or the case of one of his colleagues who was trying to broker a peace between rival chiefs ready to send their tribes to war.  Beaten down by fruitless negotiations that rehearsed decades-old arguments that had been as useless then as they were now, and watching the chiefs depart to summon their warriors, the colleague said,

"'Remember that it is the elephant asleep in the long grass which defeats the greatest men."  He had no idea what he meant . . . and told me he had said it cynically, out of weariness, exhausted anger, but the chiefs stared at him, exchanged glances with each other, and nodded, went on nodding, and sat down, saying, "let us thrash this matter out again.  That is a splendid thing you have said."
(p. 154.)  And, speaking of saying splendid things, how about this "genealogy" insult hurled by Hanley's cook at his servant:  "'Son of a sick hyena, grandson of a noseless thief, descendant of vultures, father to be of a hermaphrodite baboon, filth and refuse untouchable, animal without religion' - and so on."  (p. 168.)

I love it!  I want to go!  Sadly, the Somalia of World War II doesn't exist anymore, and the one that currently occupies the horn of Africa is so explosive that breathing next to it is a hazard.  But never mind the impossibility: Hanley's hell is on my list of places to visit.

Why?  Undoubtedly, Hanley's storytelling skill and compelling authorial voice is part of the reason.  A good storyteller draws in the audience, even as he or she is saying, "Go away."  Go away, forsooth!  I want to know why I should, tell me more . . .

But even crap storytellers inspire my wanderlust: I've heard perfectly foul storytellers recount information about Senegal, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand - half the globe, really - and I still want to go.  Hanley would understand.  As he says towards the end of Warriors:

There is an enormous difference between the man who emerges from a safely ensconced segment of society, and the one who is flung into a world in which the shovel is waiting for him.  I recommend the latter to all as a far more exciting world to be thrown into.
(p. 201.)

(Map of Somalia from the UN website)  

Of wisdom and imperial ambivalence

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Gerald_Hanley_by_John_Huston.pngGerald Hanley's Warriors is an extraordinary book for many reasons, including the ambivalence it expresses about colonialism.  

Warriors was published in 1971.  To get a feel for the sentiments about colonialism in that era, consider a statement by Charles Miller, in his author's note to The Lunatic Express, a book about the construction of the Uganda Railway across Kenya, also published in 1971:

[I]t is hardly possible not to have an opinion about the British Empire. . . . For the record, I think that the British Empire, with all its horrendous failings, was on balance a good thing.  I mourned its passing.
(p. viii.)  On the other side of the issue, here's James Beauttah, a leader of the Kikuyu Central Association, quoted in Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham's book, The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya, published in 1966:

"Our society had [been] broken down [by colonialism] and the unity that we had in our old structure had been replaced by everyone fighting for himself, everyone on his own against all the troubles that had been brought to us.  There was a fundamental growing disunity that was our weakness. . . . [W]e had had so many wishes and ambitions awakened in us and then always the door slammed in our face.  This is worse than never having the ambitions wakened in the first place, far, far, worse."  
(p. 243.)  Now here's Hanley, distilling his observations about colonialism, gathered during his military service in Somalia during World War II:

[T]here is nothing fine or noble about savagery and illiteracy and superstition, no matter how splendid looking the warriors and the women.  After a good long dose of savagery it is interesting how much one has learned to prefer the gentle and the sophisticated.  Primitivism is a very much overrated way of life, and is merely pitiful in essence, no matter how fascinating the carvings and the masks and the quiet zoomorphic ravings on stone and wood, those endless circles in which the tribe has wandered and lost itself, waiting for the stranger to come with the message, even when it leads to the atom bomb.
. . . .
After the enormous orgy of torture and massacre in Europe and Asia [during WWII], I felt it was impossible for any white man to preach again, self-righteously, about goodness and peace, to any non-white man.  And that shame may have been the reason, bigger than African and Eastern restlessness, which caused the white man to pack his kit and go home after the second world war.  We must have all felt something of that shame, I think, and acted upon it without really knowing why.
. . . .
Yet ironically enough, while the conquered everywhere resented losing their country and their freedom, they nearly always took advantage of the policed peace forced upon them, nearly always relaxed, their swords left at home, yet they wanted their country back for themselves, while enjoying the "peace of the grave," as Pandit Nehru once called it, in which they now toiled under aliens. . . . [T]ime is always on the side of the original owners, if they can only survive.
(p. 73-74, 86.)  Later, Hanley quotes a Somali chief:

"We are lending you the labourers," he told me.  "But only because you are living with us here on the river, and because you have spoken well, and not because we recognise this new government which has replaced the Italians.  We do not want to be ruled by any strangers anymore.  They beat us with cannon, but ever inch of this land is ours.  Ours.  It can never belong to any strangers.  Men cannot live under strangers who have taken their lands.  Never.  If I had a spear and you had nothing and I came and took your house from you, and made you work in your own garden for me, you would not like that.  That is what they have done, these governments.  And it must come to an end now.  You can tell them that, for that is what we all feel."
Hanley was moved by the chief's speech.  "I agreed with every word he said," Hanley admits, concluding, "All these people everywhere would have to be let free, left alone, lectured to no more, or this war would be as useless as the last one."  (p. 91.)

Taken together, these excerpts from Hanley reveal a multi-faceted understanding of colonialism that glitters with accuracy.  Eschewing both the "on balance" opinion-drawing of Miller and the focused accusations of Beauttah, Hanley sees: (1) opportunities for a modern life, in contrast to traditional, pre-modern living, as being a good thing, despite the risks, (2) colonized peoples enjoying the benefits of those opportunities, despite resenting having these benefits and risks forced upon them, (3) white men as having no legitimacy to press those opportunities and risks upon non-whites, and (4) the inevitability of white men having to give up trying.  In essence, Hanley achieves the same understanding as Tayeb Salih, who - writing about colonialism in the Sudan in his masterpiece novel Season of Migration to the North - typically offered his insight with more poetry and concision: "[T]he [British] coming too was not the tragedy as we imagine, nor yet a blessing as they imagine."  (p. 60.)

The conflict inherent in this position - I cannot bestow benefits without costs too high; I cannot receive benefits without losses too great - is wrenching.    A mere glance at the current states of constant war in Somalia and the Sudan, and the abysmal governance in Kenya - and at the thousands of refugees, impoverished, starving and violence-traumatized people  in these countries - confirms that, had a resolution to this fundamental conflict been possible, people on both sides of the colonial equation would have been better off.

But to say that is a little like saying (I don't want to push the analogy too far) that, had Communism been able to work out its kinks, the world would have been a better place.  On balance, colonialism wasn't (and isn't) a blessing, any more than Communism was (and is) a blessing.  They are both systems that can be shown viable in abstract form, but the models can't be applied in practice.

The reason is that this basic conflict of being unable either to convey or receive benefits without costs and losses being unacceptable is a dynamic that pervasively poses obstacles to human engagement.  It's not merely the fly in the ointment of colonialism; it's a feature common to all aspects of the the human landscape, be they familial, professional, economic, sexual, creative, political or ecological.  Negotiating this conflict is an integral part of human engagement with "others" - be they our parents, our neighbors, our employers, our creditors, our lovers, our collaborators, our politicians or our environmental resources.

And negotiations notoriously end, neither in victory nor defeat, but in compromise: neither tragedies, nor blessings, they are simple enablers to living.  Hanley's wisdom comes in accepting this fact with ambivalence.

(Drawing of Gerald Hanley by John Huston, 1970s, from Warriors)    
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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Memoir category.

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