Saturday, April 30, 2016

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

When the film came out, an old friend from Connecticut gushed to me that I simply must see it -- she'd been engrossed, thinking of me the whole time. I was already familiar with the story of Chris McCandless, and I sat back in my chair and stared at her email. Great. She sees a movie about a reckless, feckless young man who meets his death of unpreparedness in Alaska, and all she can think of is me.  Years later, I got around to reading the book by Jon Krakauer, which he'd expanded from his initial article on McCandless' misadventures in Outside magazine (1993).

I admire Jon Krakauer as a writer, and with Into the Wild, as with his other books I've read, I find his research meticulous and his perspective balanced and fair. What's intriguing about this story in particular is the amount of fervor it's kicked up. People's reactions to it seem to run from one extreme to the other with precious little in the grey zone.
A surprising number of people have been affected by the story of Chris McCandless's life and death. In the weeks and months following the publication of the article in Outside, it generated more mail than any other article in the magazine's history. This correspondence, as one might expect, reflected sharply divergent points of view: Some readers admired the boy immensely for his courage and noble ideals; others fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity -- and was undeserving of the considerable media attention he received.
Krakauer opens with the two years after his college graduation that Chris McCandless (who had renamed himself Alexander Supertramp) spent tramping around the western US. He interviews people who had encountered and befriended the young man. Invariably, he touched them. They did not describe him as a foolhardy, wild-eyed dreamer. He seemed to them thoughtful, intense, principled and well-read. He appeared to be competent.

In 1992, Alex/Chris decided to move farther from society by heading into the back of beyond, Alaska. An Alaskan electrician, Jim Gallien, picked up the young hitchhiker and, on their drive to the trail head Alex was seeking, Gallien tried to convince him that he was woefully ill-prepared.
Still, Gallien was concerned. Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. Alex's cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated. His rifle was only .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals like moose and caribou, which he would have to eat if he hoped to remain very long in the country. He had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered state road map he'd scrounged at a gas station.
(Keep that roadmap in mind; it turned out to be significant.) As I read the passage above, my own alarm systems were going off. I've had enough experience in the New England forests in winter to know that this young man was not equipped for the environment. That was his ignorance. When Gallien questioned him about emergency contacts, his arrogance came out.
Alex answered calmly that no, nobody knew of his plans, that in fact he hadn't spoken to his family in nearly two years. "I'm absolutely positive," he assured Gallien,"I won't run into anything I can't deal with on my own." 
Like so many of us who have gone on big, far, fantastic journeys of one sort or another, McCandless was inspired by books. The works of Jack London, in particular, drew him to Alaska. Krakauer, an outdoorsy adventurer himself, reminds us how important it is to separate the romance from the realities. London may not have been the inspiration McCandless was really looking for.
He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London's romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he'd died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print.
How many of us have survived one challenge in the outdoors only to extrapolate foolishly that we're now ready to survive another in a completely different environment? I managed to trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back, so summiting Annapurna should be no problem, right? Wrong.
As he trudged expectantly down the trail in a fake-fur parka, his rifle slung over one shoulder, the only food McCandless carried was a ten-pound bag of long-grained rice -- and the two sandwiches and bag of corn chips that Gallien had contributed. A year earlier he'd subsisted for more than a month beside the Gulf of California on five pounds of rice and a bounty of fish caught with a cheap rod and reel, an experience that made him confident he could harvest enough food to survive an extended stay in the Alaska wilderness, too.
But even as many readers are about to write McCandless off as a fool, Krakauer draws us back to his sympathetic qualities, the things that even his most virulent critics will probably relate to -- even the Alaskans who were most vocal about the fiasco. They, too, probably mourn the days when Thoreau could get away from it all by retreating to a cabin on Walden Pond, which is now in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, all too accessible.
Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless's friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris "was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today's society gives people." In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map -- not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.
In the end, of course, Alexander Supertramp died in Alaska, starving to death after a failed attempt to cross a rain-swollen river to get out. The irony? If he'd had a topographical map and a compass, rather than that tattered roadmap from a gas station, he'd have seen a place to safely cross the river just a bit farther downstream from where he was. I've had some near misses in the outdoors, and I cringe when I look back on them. But for a friend's mini-mag flashlight with which we'd signalled for help, I'd have been a casualty, too. (Note, she had the flashlight. I didn't.) I lived to learn from my mistakes, and Chris McCandless didn't. That may be the biggest difference between us, and so I, like Jon Krakauer, find it very difficult to damn him. Or to idolise him.  

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr

When I finished The Art of Memoir, there was more text highlighted than not. It strikes me as a book that would charm readers who have no especial interest in memoirs. It's simply a great read. Full stop. For anyone who's even toying with writing anything autobiographical, it's required reading.

Karr begins by asking the essential question:  Should you even try to write memoir? Maybe it's simply not your metier. The autobiographer, she maintains, is of a different species than the novelist.
I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them...
Unless you're a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen. That's the quality I've found most consistently in those life-story writers I've met. Truth is not their enemy. It's the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs...
"Writing is easy. You just sit down at your typewriter and open a vein."  That quote (and variations upon it) have been attributed to several writers. Karr suggests that memoir is an especially torturous and bloody exercise.
But nobody I know who's written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest. Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there's suffering involved. When I'm trying to edit or coach somebody through one, I usually wind up feeling like the mean sergeant played by Tom Berenger in Platoon. He's leaning over a screaming soldier whose guts are extruding, and in a husky whisper, Berenger says through gritted teeth, "Take the pain," till the guy shuts up and mechanically starts stuffing his guts back in.
As a skilled procrastinator in the names of research and perfectionism, I read this bit of insight as kick in the teeth. And the language with which Karr launched it -- fabulous writing!
You can do "research," i.e. postponing writing, till Jesus dons a nightie. But your memoir's real enemy is blinking back at you from the shaving glass when you floss at night -- your ignorant ego and its myriad masks.
I found this quote insightful, poignant. Somewhat depressing.
We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory. -- Louise Glück, "Nostos"
Karr dedicates one chapter to the concept of honesty, truthfulness when writing memoir, or any other form of ostensible non-fiction. Full disclosure is critical, she maintains. At least let readers know where things stand.
Novelist Pam Houston claimed her novels are 82 percent true and ascribes that same percentage to her nonfiction -- fair enough.
I marvelled at In Cold Blood, sensing intuitively that it wasn't 100% factual. I was willing to accept, though, that it might well be 100% true.
You can always hide behind the fiction label, as Truman Capote did (perhaps first) in 1966 with his "nonfiction novel," In Cold Blood; or as Philip Roth did in 1993 with his roman-à-clef Operation Shylock, which he published as fiction, while claiming it was God's own truth.
When it comes to memoir, however, Mary Karr has little tolerance for even colouring the truth, never mind embroidering it.
It's as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, "I put just a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn't notice it at all." To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.
Memory is, of course, imperfect and untrustworthy. One way to address this is to admit it freely, to write with a certain lack of authority.
Maxine Hong Kingston and Michael Herr don't manufacture authoritative, third-person, I-am-a-camera views. Their books don't masquerade as fact. They let you in on how their own prejudices mold memory's sifter. By transcribing the mind so its edges show, a writer constantly reminds the reader that he's not watching crisp external events played from a digital archive. It's the speaker's truth alone. In this way, the form constantly disavows the rigors of objective truth.
Most memoirists (like most writers of all kinds) get stuck. They get stuck on how to tell something, or even whether to tell it. Here is some of Karr's excellent advice on getting over this particular species of writer's block, getting the memoirist back on a productive and honest track.
And here are some questions that might nudge you along. What were you trying to get, and how? Which ways worked? Which didn't? If it's a particularly awful memory for your character, you have to be sure not to make it more awful than it was. Many of us disassociate or check out during awful times, so maybe you want to convey that to the reader. The memoirist's job is not to add explosive whammies on every page, but to help the average person come in. Otherwise, the reader will gawk at you like somebody on Springer, or she'll pity you -- in both cases, you lose some authority. The book becomes too much about your feeling and not enough about the reader's. Finally, put it aside. Put it out of your head at least a week. You want it to set up like jello. And when you pick it back up, ask yourself, What haven't I said? How might someone else involved have seen it differently? And most of all, how am I afraid of appearing? Go beyond looking bad or good. Is there posturing or self-consciousness you could cut or correct or confess and make use of?
Ouch. Part of the deal is revealing one's shadow side.
You'll need both sides of yourself -- the beautiful and the beastly -- to hold a reader's attention. Sadly, without a writer's dark side on view -- the pettiness and vanity and schemes -- pages give off the whiff of bullshit. People may like you because you're warm, but you can also be quick to anger or too intense. Your gift for charm and confidence hides a gift for scheming and deceit. You're withdrawn and deep but also slightly scornful of others. A memoirist must cop to it all, which means routing out the natural ways you try to masquerade as somebody else -- nicer, smarter, faster, funnier. All the good lines can't be the memoirist's ... We can accept anything from a memoirist but deceit, which is -- almost always -- a shallow person's lack of self-knowledge.
Blind spots? Me? What blind spots?
Trying to help students diagnose their own blind spots, I often ask the following questions: 1.What do people usually like and dislike about you? You should reflect both aspects in your pages. 2. How do you want to be perceived, and in what ways have you ever been false or posed as other than who you are? (Lovers/family yelling at you when they're mad have answered this one for you, btw.) 3. Is there any verbal signpost you can look for that suggests you're posturing? One kid I know started bringing in references to metal bands to show how cool he was. I might start yakking about philosophy.
Of course reality differs, both individually and regionally...
In Garcia Marquez, a dead man's dentures sprout yellow flowers in his toothglass, and butterflies appear in the presence of a great beauty. "Surreal?" Garcia Marquez once quipped. "That's how life is in South America."
Mary Karr seems to have an enviable font of material for memoir.
Still, our household had been the site of some flaming jackpots. Asked once how a bullet hole landed in a kitchen tile, Mother said, succinctly, "He moved." And that wasn't the only firearm incident. My sister once quipped to Mother as the tile guy fingered a bullet hole, "Isn't that where you shot at Daddy?" and Mother came back, "No, that's where I shot at Larry. Over there's where I shot at your daddy." (Which also tells you why memoir suited me. With characters this good, why make shit up?)
What about writing about others in your memoir? This is a terrific list of rules, regs and hints, number 6 especially -- "Give information in the form you received it."
For the record, here are my rules for dealing with others: 1.Notify subjects way in advance, detailing parts that might make them wince. So far, no one has ever winced. 2.On pain of death, don't show pages to anybody mid-process. You want them to see your best work, polished. 3.As Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, "If you're writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love." 4.Related to the above: I never speak with authority about how people feel or what their motives were. I may guess at it, but I always let the reader know that's speculative. I keep the focus on my own innards. 5.If somebody's opinion of what happened wholly opposes mine, I mention it in passing without feeling obliged to represent it. 6. Don't use jargon to describe people. It's both disrespectful and bad writing. I never called my parents alcoholics; I showed myself pouring vodka down the sink. Give information in the form you received it. 7.Let your friends choose their pseudonyms. 8.Try to consider the whole time you're working how your views -- especially the harsh ones -- may be wrong. Correct as needed. 9. With your closest compadres and touchy material, you might sit with them (same house or town, maybe not same room) while they read pages that may be painful for them. 10. I'd cut anything that someone just flat-out denies. Then again, in my family, all the worst stuff was long confessed to before I started writing the first tome. 11. Let the reader know how subjective your point of view is. This is in some way a form of respect to your subjects, who might disagree.
Speaking of mining your own history, don't forget the colloquialisms! It's a memoir, not a doctoral thesis.
The talk of my barroom aficionado daddy ran rich with figurative language. If a woman had an ample backside, he might say, "She had a butt like two bulldogs fighting in a bag," which -- believe it or not -- was a positive attribute. Instead of milking this current running naturally through my head, I'd tried in my novel to sound like some fluffy, ruffly Little Bo Peep.
But how to write about emotional trauma, especially that of childhood? Here, too, Karr returns to the show-don't-tell formula. Feel it in your body, not your brain.
If you trust that what you felt deeply warrants your emotional response, try to honor your past by writing it that way. Sometimes true agony is not even discernible to the human eye. As a kid, when I saw my mother's mouth become a straight line and heard her speak in a Yankee accent as her posture went super straight, I knew she was tanked. The rat scrabble this set off in my head, as I tried to figure out how to stop the chaos approaching us like a runaway train, was torment. Rendering a small external stimulus inside a child's impotent body can provide a moving experience for a reader.
This image is pure gold.
In memoir the heart is the brain. It's the Geiger counter you run over memory's landscape looking for precious metals to light up.
It sounds like it should be so easy, such a straightforward project. You start at the beginning and write till its done. Then you start writing...
You think you know the story so well. It's a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I've ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it's like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.
Then comes the question of what are you required to reveal, and what may you hide? That to some extent may be subjective. I appreciate Karr's opinion in the example below, especially her acceptance of "drawing a curtain" across certain events "without seeming coy".  I think every memoirist will have to decide what is "too private". For Elizabeth Gilbert, clearly, talking openly about her finances was more comfortable than revealing the dissolution of her marriage.
Another divorce failure, I think, occurs in Elizabeth Gilbert's much-adored Eat, Pray, Love, which otherwise displays a nice mix of circumspection and candor. She overtly blames herself for the demise of her marriage, for instance, and for not wanting to have a baby. She claims the reasons for the divorce are too private -- drawing a curtain I respect across those events without seeming coy. But right after, she mulls over at considerable length the dickering details of her husband's settlement. Is that not too private? She first offers to sell everything, and then to split it fifty-fifty. "What if he took all the assets and I took all the blame? [He] was also asking for things I never even considered (a stake in the royalties of books I'd written during the marriage, a cut of possible future movie rights to my work, a share of my retirement accounts). . . . It would cost me dearly, but a fight in the courts would be infinitely more expensive and time-consuming, not to mention soul-corroding..."
Mary Karr asserts that one is temperamentally a novelist or a non-fiction writer. One or the other.
So for those who think a writer can flip a switch and go from nonfiction to novel based on social convenience, I've got some bad news. Your psychological proclivity determines which better fits your story. That decision grows from the nature of your character. Autonomy in such choices is a fairy tale.
A real novelist tells the greater truth with a mask on. I once suggested to Don DeLillo that he write a memoir, and he recoiled.
One of the most controversial memoirs in recent times was Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, which received both raves and brickbats. (It told the story of her four-year incestuous relationship with her father.) Her experience begs the question, why do this? Why write this memoir?
So many reviewers deemed her motives venal, but if you deduct the cost of mandatory therapy to get through the story in her heart before undertaking the book's writing, she'd have made more money working a deep-fat fryer, which might have also been more fun. But with such personal reasons for writing, why publish it at all? To understand, you'd have to marshal some empathy for any rape or incest survivor. It's through shame and silence that a perpetrator seeks to capture someone else's soul, sentencing her to lifetime collusion with him. "On top of everything else," Harrison told me, "I was supposed to keep my mouth shut forever." Either she published her story or remained complicit with her seducer, which meant actually being allied with him against herself. Publishing the book was a way to reclaim "what was left of me."
Karr shares plenty of her own experience drafting her own memoir(s), as well, and she's as unsparing with herself as she is with any other writer.
For Lit, I spent maybe two years writing about short stints in California and Mexico and the UK and some old boyfriends before I realized that those stories -- by then hundreds of pages -- lacked emotional gravitas. They were youthful years of drinking and frittering time away -- shallow, easy, sparkly, rather than the more tormented phases in my life, which were less glisteny on the surface and, ergo, harder to rout out. Plus they had zip to do with my mother, whom I'd vowed not to write about anymore. But -- surprise! -- that was exactly what I needed to write about -- how making peace with her legacy was something I had to do to become a mother myself. Still, those early pages I threw away were somehow necessary, even if I wrote past them. They were way stations I needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

I stumbled across this book when I began focusing on memoirs. I'd just read Mary Karr's brilliant The
Art of Memoir, in which she talks about credibility and authenticity, why we believe one memoirist, and another sounds pompous and insincere. From beginning to end, Edmund de Waal won me with his insecurities. Given the man's history and pedigree, I might have expected a more name-dropping account of his family history.  The names dropped, but always in a casual way. I was deeply moved by his angst about how to write this story, using a set of inherited Japanese netsuke as the vehicle to describe a vast, international, multi-generational family history. I loved the ways he addressed his readers when he got stuck, wondering how to approach the whole thing.
And what there is to go on -- the number of manservants and the slightly stock story of the gift of a coin -- seems held in a sort of melancholic penumbra, though I quite like the detail of the Russian flag. I know that my family were Jewish, of course, and I know they were staggeringly rich, but I really don't want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss. And I certainly don't want to turn Iggie into an old great-uncle in his study, a figure like Bruce Chatwin's Utz, handing over the family story, telling me: Go, be careful. It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient-Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin. And I'm not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago. And I am not interested in thin. I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers -- hard and tricky and Japanese -- and where it has been. 
I struggle to say why the following passage affected me. I suppose I like the contrast of the vagueness of melancholy with the Japanese precision of the netsuke. Melancholy is a fog. I wonder if the people who carved or wore these netsuke pondered them as an antidote to this emotional muck.
Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return. 
I'll write soon about The Art of Memoir, but in it, Mary Karr says she knows she's gone pretentious when she hears herself spouting philosophy. Edmund de Waal also catches himself going off-track, and I love passages like this that violate the fourth wall but reveal so much about the writing process.
One evening I find myself at a dinner telling some academics what I know of the story, and feel slightly sickened by how poised it sounds. I hear myself entertaining them, and the story echoes back in their reactions. It isn't just getting smoother, it is getting thinner. I must sort it out now or it will disappear.
Another example, but a very evocative one.
I get particularly hooked by the listings of wedding-presents at society marriages, telling myself that this is all good research on cultures of gift-giving, and waste an embarrassing amount of time trying to work out who is being over-generous, who a cheapskate and who is just dull. My great-great-grandmother gives a set of golden serving dishes shaped as cockle shells at a society wedding in 1874. Vulgar, I think, with nothing to back this up.
I do love any book that boosts my vocabulary.
He is a mondain art historian with a secretary. 
1. a man who moves in fashionable society
2. characteristic of fashionable society; worldly

And again, the use of exactly the right word. Oh, to have a word like 'flâneur' at my fingertips. But somehow it fits someone who loafs at the opera so much better than 21st-century slackers.
Charles might be a flâneur, might take his time in the salons, be seen at the races and the Opera, but his 'vagabonding' is done with real intensity.
1. an idler or loafer

de Waal travels to Paris to investigate the ancestor who first began to collect the netsuke, Charles Ephrussi. Charles collected art avidly, and he had catholic tastes. Edmund admits to trying to create order in the narrative, to create a pattern where none exists.
I make the familiar trip to Paris and stand beneath Baudry's ceilings in the Opera and then rush over to the Musee d'Orsay to look at Charles's single asparagus stem by Manet and the pair of Moreau pictures they now own, to see if it all coheres, if it all sings, if I can see what his eye saw. And, of course, I cannot, for the simple reason that Charles buys what he likes. He is not buying art for the sake of coherence, or to fill gaps in his collection. He is buying pictures from his friends, with all the
complexities that brings with it. Charles has many friendships...
Edmund had imagined a somewhat precise itinerary around Europe, gathering data and impressions about this ancestor and then that one but quickly discovers that this sort of research takes on a life and a pace of its own.
I wonder if I should take my white netsuke of the hare with amber eyes in my pocket to reunite object and image. For the span of a cup of coffee I mull this over as a real possibility, a way of keeping moving. My timetable has disappeared.
The Ephrussi were originally a family of Jewish grain merchants from Odessa. The patriarch's sons migrated to Europe, Charles to France. As sentiments changed in Europe, of course, their vast wealth, opulent homes and extensive art collections drew unwelcome attention.
Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper, acted as the marshaller of opinion into print. He told the French how to spot a Jew -- one hand is larger than another -- and how to counter the threat that this race posed to France. His La France Juive sold 100,000 copies in its first year of publication in 1880. By 1914 it had gone into 200 editions. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic, felt they owed nothing to the State.
I force myself to read this stuff: Drumont's books, newspaper, the endless pamphlets in numerous editions, the English versions. Someone has annotated a book on the Jews of Paris in my London library. Written very carefully and approvingly next to Ephrussi is the word venal pencilled in capitals.
As Jews fell out of popular fashion in France, so too did Japonisme, the attraction to Japanese art and style, such as, for example, Charles' collection of netsuke.
"Everything," said Alexandre Dumas in 1887,"is Japanese now." Zola's house outside Paris, awash with Japanese objets, was considered slightly risible.
This memoir is a treasure trove of architectural and decorative vocabulary: a series of enfilade roomsgarnitures of Sèvres and Meissen porcelain, Charles replaces his lit de parade with an Empire bed; it is a lit à la polonaise hung with silks...

enfilade:A suite of rooms with doorways in line with each other
garniture: A set of decorative accessories, in particular vases
lit de parade: Four-poster bed
lit à la polonaise:

(Ah, so that's what they call those things.)

Charles, however, had a reason for redecorating in an undeniably French style.
It was also a claim on an essential Frenchness, on belonging somewhere properly. And perhaps a way of putting more space between those first, jostlingly heterodox rooms and his authoritative life as an arbiter of taste. Empire is not le gout Rothschild, not Jewish. It is patrician, French. 
de Waal's vocabulary often catches the reader's eye, much like that yellow armchair.
His rooms in the rue de Monceau had not "learnt their optical catechism"; they were cut through by the note of the yellow armchair. They were congeries of different things to pick up and handle.
congeries:  a collection of items or parts in one mass; assemblage; aggregation; heap:

Charles Ephrussi, the collector of the netsuke, gave the collection to his nephew Viktor in Vienna as a wedding gift. There, too, anti-Semitism was bubbling.
In 1899, the year that the netsuke arrived in Vienna, it was possible for a Deputy in the Reichsrat to make speeches calling for Schussgeld -- bounties -- for shooting Jews. In Vienna the most outrageous statements were met with a feeling from the assimilated Jews that it was probably best not to make too much fuss.
Throughout the memoir, de Waal frets that the netsuke are an unreliable vehicle for his story. He catches himself meandering off-track (but not too soon, thankfully for those of us who relish his tangents). He makes me realise that non sequiturs can be charming if carefully chosen and handled. I love his self-awareness. Unlike Casaubon, I trust that he'll finish his book, and it will be a winner.
I realise at this point that I am beginning to obsess hopelessly about what is fast becoming my very special subject, the vitrines of the fin de siècle. On Freud's desk is a netsuke in the form of a shishi, a lion. My time-management skills are seriously awry.
I keep hoping that the netsuke will be a key that unlocks the whole of Viennese intellectual life. I worry that I am becoming a Casaubon, and will spend my life writing lists and notes.
The hare with the amber eyes is a trinket that made its way through the family homes of a wealthy, historic European family alongside many other things both more glorious and more mundane. When the people are declared worthless (or worse yet, vermin), though, it all falls into a new category: stuff.
And it not just their art, not just the bibelots, all the gilded stuff from tables and mantelpieces, but their clothes, Emmy's winter coats, a crate of domestic china, a lamp, a bundle of umbrellas and walking-sticks. Everything that has taken decades to come into this house, settling in drawers and chests and vitrines and trunks, wedding-presents and birthday-presents and souvenirs, is now being carried out again. This is the strange undoing of a collection, of a house and of a family. It is the moment of fissure when grand things are taken and when family objects, known and handled and loved, become stuff.
I  am one person, not multiple generations of a family, and certainly not of a family along the lines of the Ephrussis, but I left my native country twelve years ago and haven't returned. At this point it's unlikely I ever will. I will probably spend the rest of my days in southeast Asia, moving from one country to the next when the visa requirements change or political shifts demand. I can't for a moment compare my circumstances to those of the Ephrussi -- it's not genocidal hatred driving me from one home to the next. I do, however, relate powerfully to this sentiment, my passport to hand, keeping much private.
It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means. Charles died a Russian in Paris. Viktor called it wrong and was a Russian in Vienna for fifty years, then Austrian, then a citizen of the Reich, and then stateless. Elisabeth kept Dutch citizenship in England for fifty years. And Iggie was Austrian, then American, then an Austrian living in Japan. You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport to hand. You keep something private.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Foreign Correspondence, by Geraldine Brooks

I've been paying special attention to memoirs lately, and I just read Mary Karr's superb Art of the Memoir, in which she opines that writers are constitutionally suited for fiction or memoir, but almost never both. I think Foreign Correspondence may be proof positive that Geraldine Brooks is an exception to this rule. Brooks is very gifted with historical fiction if March, her novel about the absent father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, off fighting in the US Civil War, is anything to go by, and this memoir is superb.

In Foreign Correspondence, Brooks recalls her 1960s childhood in Sydney, which she found stultifying, wishing to be somewhere, anywhere more exciting. She formed long-standing penpal friendships with kids in faraway places -- Joannie in the United States, Mishal in Israel and others. In her middle age, she decided to track down and meet in person those who were still alive. I loved the premise and structure of the book, and I think she pulled it off brilliantly. I especially loved the early pages, on which her images of that Australian childhood are all but palpable. I felt nostalgia for her childhood creeping over me.
On Sundays, our neighborhood quieted as if someone had thrown a blanket over it. It was a stillness different in kind from the weekday lull of the lonely afternoons. This was a peopled silence, like the self-conscious hush of a crowd in a library. Sunday's sounds were the sputtering fat of the lamb leg roasting in the oven, the thud of my mother's knife on the chopping board as she prepared a mountain of vegetables, and the rustle of the thick Sunday papers as my father turned the pages. In the street outside, the neighbors passed by on their way to Mass, their Sunday high heels clip-clipping on the concrete footpath.
As a girl, she shared my love for the distant, the romantic, the exotic -- anything but the local and mundane.  She also shares William F. Buckley's dismay with the changes that Vatican II wrought on the Catholic Mass. He groused about the new "Catholic calisthenics", which had parishioners standing, sitting and kneeling as if for aerobic exercise, and they both decried the change from Latin to the vernacular.
But within this idolaters' extravaganza the service itself had become as banal as the bingo games held in the adjacent church hall. I could just remember the Latin Mass of my early childhood; the murmured words, the priest with his back turned, doing his sacred work at the altar, the bells, the incense, the atmosphere of a divine mystery from which ordinary people were excluded. Words like mea culpa and agnus dei and spiritus sanctus had sounded like a magician's chant; hocus-pocus, abracadabra. There was no such magic in the lawyerly English liturgy, muttered with the sigh of weary housewives and restless children longing to be outdoors. The Lord be with you. AND ALSO WITH YOU. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. IT IS RIGHT AND FITTING TO DO SO.
I learned more about Australian culture in the past few decades from this book than from anything else I've read. Brooks writes pointedly about Australia's national inferiority complex.
When a visiting Noel Coward remarked, "I like Australia and I love those wonderful oysters." Campbell took him to task. "Though he meant it kindly," Campbell wrote, "Mr. Coward lined himself up with many other visitors who have bestowed praise on the animals here rather than the people. No people have played second fiddle to their own fauna so much as Australians." It was bad enough, wrote Campbell, to be upstaged by koalas and kangaroos, but by oysters! "After all, when we go to other countries we take an interest in the people. We don't say: 'I liked Scotland. It has such wonderful cows.'"
There was an eight-year age gap between Geraldine Brooks and her older sister, Darleen, whom she portrays as the more elegant girl, having been a child model. The dynamic between them will never change -- it was set when they were small, and even when they're elderly, she suggests, she'll still be the klutz. In a metaphor that I love, she says they are "trapped in the aspic of our age gap."

American media and television began to invade Oz as it had the rest of the world.
Most Australians saw nothing wrong with the new influences. We called Americans "Septics" -- in rhyming slang, septic tank equals Yank. But there was no malice in the name. Americans, in most Australians' view, were a bit like golden retriever puppies -- well-intentioned, good-humored, but a little thick. 
Brooks mentions the sexism in 1950s and 60s Oz, citing Jill Ker Conway as one of the country's first feminists to suggest that women might be good for something besides being wives and mothers. Her description of the blatant racism also stunned me, though perhaps it shouldn't have. (Why did I think it was an American phenomenon?)
I was too young to give the changes much thought. But to people of Edna's generation the sudden diversity was shocking in a country built on racist exclusion. Migrants were supposed to be British, or Europeans who could pass for British. Australia feared Jews, blacks and especially the "Yellow Peril" from nearby Asia. For years, the nation's best weekly magazine, the Bulletin, had carried the slogan "Australia for the White Man" under its masthead. The atmosphere had been so racist that the immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, could summarize his opposition to Asian migrants with quips such as "Two Wongs don't make a white." . . .
But by wartime there weren't enough British or Irish migrants to satisfy the labor needs of the growing country, and so a few more exotic people began to slip through the net. Immigration officers were told to select those who were "sixty percent European in appearance and outlook" -- whatever that meant. We called these first non-Anglo-Celtic migrants "Balts" no matter where in northern or eastern Europe they actually came from. Blond, blue-eyed, they were easy enough to get used to, once one got over the annoyance of their funny accents. The "Eye-Ties" -- the large wave of Italians, Greeks and other southern European immigrants that followed the Balts -- were more conspicuous with their dark complexions and pungent foods, and were met with more racism. It wasn't until 1965 that the "White Australia" policy was abandoned. Most Australians came to accept, sometimes grudgingly, that diversity was actually making the place more interesting. Now, racism expresses itself in debates over the number of immigrants wanted, rather than what color they should be.
One of young Geraldine's pen pals visited London and raves about the ethic diversity and the current craze for "great floppy felt hats" in Piccadilly Circus before asking about the latest fashion in Australia.
"What's up in Australia?" What was up, for me, was a pair of black faux-satin flared pants that I'd asked the Greek seamstress who lived across the road to make up for me. The pants were so wide around the ankles that the excess fabric flapped in the breeze like a deflated spinnaker. The top half of the outfit consisted of a serape my mother had helped me make out of a square of upholstery brocade with a piece of fringe sewn all around. When I put my head through the hole in the center, I looked like I'd been throttled by a sofa.
Her American penpal, a girl of the same age, struggles with mental illness and nervous disorders, especially in her later high school years, when college application time is approaching. Geraldine struggles with Joannie's accounts of her various treatments and hospitalisations -- in Australia, she feels, people would find Joannie self-indulgent or weak and would tell her to simply pull herself together. Still, she does her best to sympathise.
And I was having a hard time reading this outpouring of painful emotion. Until now, Joannie had written to me after she had climbed out of her depressions. As a result, I hadn't felt the full force of her despair. I'd let myself believe that Joannie was going through a bad phase that would eventually pass. It had seemed impossible to me that her intelligence wouldn't somehow lead her out of the emotional thicket in which she was temporarily lost.
Years later, Geraldine goes to the United States to pursue a Masters at Columbia University, and she looks forward to meeting Joannie in person for the first time. A week or two before she leaves Sydney, she hears from Joannie's mother that Joannie is dead. After years of battling debilitating anorexia nervosa, she finally suffered heart failure. Geraldine declines her friend's mother's invitation to come visit anyway (at least initially) and goes instead straight to NYC, where she soon discovers that Joannie's problems were not malingering.
That autumn at Columbia University, I began to glimpse for the first time the sources of Joannie's despair. Growing up had been so easy in Sydney, where childhood passed at its own leisurely pace, with no rush into adulthood. At Columbia, I came to see the different way achievement was measured for my American classmates. For them, graduate school wasn't the surprising and luxurious blessing it was for me. Instead, it was just another hurdle on a track determined for them at birth. And for many of them, the bar was always set just a hair beyond the point that they could comfortably reach. I'd been spared the pressure that my American contemporaries felt, some of them since preschool. For me, with parents who'd never had a chance to go to college, any academic achievement was treated as a small miracle. If my grade in a subject was a credit or a distinction, that was great and we celebrated. No one asked me why I hadn't got a high distinction.
As a child, Brooks had been enamored of Judaism and so sought an Israeli penpal, who she promptly idealised. When she meets Mishal in person years later, she finds not a heroic rebel or an iconoclast, but a middle-aged man who wants to go to work, support his family and come home again. It's as if she, now a professional journalist -- a foreign correspondent -- suddenly sees the value of the mundane.
Reporters look for the quotable people, the articulate. Unsurprisingly, those people turn out to be the hotheads, the passionately committed. Meanwhile, real life is happening elsewhere, in the middle, among the Mishals and the Cohens, who care more about their families and jobs than ideology. These people are elusive to journalists precisely because they aren't out wielding a placard or writing an op-ed or even all that ready with a fully formed opinion if stopped on a street corner.
I think part of being a romantic is that happiness is the carrot that remains at the end of the stick. The grass is always greener, more nutritious, more interesting, more enticing on the other side of the immigration check-point.  I thank Geraldine Brooks for reminding me of the fallacy in this world-view.
Scientists have discovered that all human beings have a "happiness set point” -- that just as our bodies have a preset weight to which they will tend to return after diet or binge, our minds are preprogrammed at a certain level of contentment. Thus, the mood-altering effects of winning a Pulitzer or losing a spouse will rarely endure. Within a year, most people are again either the happy or morose persons they always were. Therefore, the researchers suggest, the pursuit of happiness may be more successful if we give up hoping for triumphs and instead sprinkle our lives with whatever small gratification -- working in the garden, eating a favorite food -- give us day-to-day pleasure. A writer named Steven Lewis puts this eloquently in his book Zen and the Art of Fatherhood. It is, he writes, between the bread and the butter that the great moments of life are lived. Lewis also observes that children are naturally Zenlike in their games, living entirely in the here and now. But I was not a Zenlike child. My games were never of here, always of elsewhere. My pen pals were extensions of those childhood games.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary, by Frederick Buechner

Someone in my former church recommended Frederick Buechner's novel The Son of Laughter, his
fictionalised version of the story of Jacob. As I was browsing his books, though, I came upon this one, and seeing that my own inclination is toward doubt, I grabbed it.

The woman who directed me to Buechner is as implacable as the Old Testament patriarchs she adores, so I was surprised to find his voice folksy and down-to-earth. Not a whiff of brimstone.  He is not, however, without spine. His entry on born-again Christians is wry and scathing.

Some of those who specifically refer to themselves as "Born Again Christians", however, seem to use the term in a different sense. You get the feeling that to them it means Super Christians. They are apt to have the relentless cheerfulness of car salesmen. They tend to be a little too friendly a little too soon and the women to wear more make-up than they need. You can't imagine any of them ever having had a bad moment or a lascivious thought or used a nasty word when they bumped their head getting out of the car. They speak a great deal about "the Lord" as if they have him in their hip pocket and seem to feel that it's no harder to figure out what he wants them to do in any given situation than to look up in Fanny Farmer how to make brownies. The whole shadow side of human existence -- the suffering, the doubt, the frustration, the ambiguity -- appears as absent from their view of things as litter from the streets of Disneyland. To hear them speak of God, he seems about as elusive and mysterious as a Billy Graham rally at Madison Square Garden, and on their lips the Born Again experience often sounds like something we can all make happen any time we want to, like fudge, if only we follow their recipe. It is not for anybody to judge the authenticity of the Born Again's spiritual rebirth or anybody else's, but my guess is that by the style and substance of their witnessing to it, the souls they turn on to Christ are apt to be fewer in number than the ones they turn off.

His meditation on dying is brilliant, veering far from the "Christians should have no fear" pablum that I might have expected. I pray he's got it right.

The airport is crowded, noisy, frenetic. There are yowling babies, people being paged, the usual ruckus. Outside, a mixture of snow and sleet is coming down. The runways show signs of icing. Flight delays and cancellations are called out over the PA system together with the repeated warning that in view of recent events any luggage left unattended will be immediately impounded. There are more people than usual smoking at the various gates. The air is blue with it. Once aboard you peer through the windows for traces of ice on the wings and search the pancaked faces of the stewardesses for anything like the knot of anxiety you feel in your own stomach as they run through the customary emergency procedures. The great craft lumbers its way to the take-off position, the jets shrill. Picking up speed, you count the seconds till you feel lift-off. More than so many, you've heard, means trouble. Once airborne, you can hardly see the wings at all through the grey turbulence scudding by. The steep climb is rough as a Ford pick-up. Gradually it starts to even out. The clouds thin a little. Here and there you see tatters of clear air among them. The pilot levels off slightly. Nobody is talking. The calm and quiet of it are almost palpable. Suddenly, in a rush of light, you break out of the weather. Beneath you the clouds are a furrowed pasture. Above, no sky in creation was ever bluer. Possibly the last take-off of all is something like that. When the time finally comes, you're scared stiff to be sure, but maybe by then you're just as glad to leave the whole show behind and get going. In a matter of moments, everything that seemed to matter stops mattering. The slow climb is all there is. The stillness. The clouds. Then the miracle of flight as from fathom upon fathom down you surface suddenly into open sky. The dazzling sun.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

And Then You Die, by Michael Dibdin

I'd been moaning (again, still) about never having travelled in Italy and regretting it. My ever so sensible friend Markku suggested I start shopping for airline tickets and just plan the damned trip already, but where would I begin? There's just too much to see and do and eat. "Well then," he said, "just stay home and read Michael Dibdin."

Michael Dibdin is the English author of the Aurelio Zen mystery novels, all set in Italy, and Markku promised no better armchair travel could be had.  Dubious, I downloaded the 12 books. Although I like to read series in order, whether or not they're stand-alone, I somehow managed to start with And Then You Die, which is number eight. The advice to stay home and read Dibdin is up there with "don't forget Florence" or "check out the Vatican".

Early in the book, Zen stretches himself out on a lounger at a beach, which Dibdin describes as "the dense expanse of tan granules".  That phrase alone is better than the best gelato I can imagine, and I savoured it for minutes. As Zen scans his surroundings, he notices that "what men there were had a decidedly supernumerary air about them..."  I had to look that one up:  "in excess of the normal or requisite number; not wanted or needed; redundant".  Is it too much? No, it strikes me as just the right word for the job, not the almost right word that Mark Twain fretted about.  ("The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.")

Zen is reclining on the lounger belonging to the villa in which he's hiding out after a failed attempt to kill him. He's assumed the identity of the villa owner's long absent brother. He's really not in a position to woo a woman, but she is eye-catching...
The majority of the bikinis in Versilia were being worn by women who didn't seem to realize or care that they had reached a point in life when any men around were more likely to be mentally dressing them than the reverse. The exception was Gemma, if that was indeed her name. There was no reason to suppose that it wasn't, but ever since I'incidente Zen had been living in a world where people's names, assuming they bothered to offer one, were at best generic flags of convenience, polite formulae designed to ease social contacts, of no significance or substance in themselves. But of course Gemma belonged not to that world...
As he's a critical witness in their case against the criminal thugs, Aurelio's bosses decide he should be sent out of Italy for safekeeping, but he is resolutely opposed to the idea. When he hears that they're shipping him to the United States, he goes apoplectic.
Il bel paese could offer the traveller every conceivable variety of landscape, climate, natural beauties and cultural treasures. Why waste a lot of time going to some foreign country where they used funny money, spoke some barbaric dialect, and couldn't be relied upon to make a decent cup of coffee, still less know how to cook pasta properly? It was-a stupid idea, however you looked at it. And if the foreign country in question was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, it became quite literally insane.
Zen's rule of thumb in these matters was very simple. In theory, at least, he was prepared to at least consider going to any country which had formed part of the Roman Empire. If it had also been part of the political or trading empire of the Venetian Republic, so much the better. Egypt, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, the Balkans, Austria, Bavaria, France, Iberia, North Africa - even England, at a pinch - he could contemplate as a hypothetical destination. Beyond those limits, he just didn't see the point. The Romans had been brutal bastards, but they were no fools. If they hadn't bothered to conquer Sweden or Poland; there was probably a good reason. And they certainly hadn't been to America. Maybe they didn't know it was there. Or perhaps they'd heard rumours, but just didn't care enough to investigate further. Either way, Zen was inclined to trust their judgement.
He is outnumbered and outranked, however, so once on the jet, he tries to see the bright side of the situation.
He flipped through the magazine, pausing to skim an article about the city he was bound for. Apparently it had originally impenetrable mysteries, double-dealing, back-stabbing and underhand intrigues been settled by the Spanish, who named it El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. There was a translation in Italian, 'The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels', and photographs of an old stone monastery gleaming white in the sunlight. Maybe Los Angeles wouldn't be so bad after all, he thought. It sounded like a pleasant, old-fashioned sort of place, and at least the people would all be Catholics. Although by no means a committed believer, Zen preferred to be surrounded by his own sort. Protestants were an enigma to him, all high ideals one minute and ruthless expediency the next. You knew where you were in a Catholic culture: up to your neck in lies, evasions, of every kind. With which comforting thought he lowered the blind again and dozed off.
Eventually back in Italy, he finally arranges a dinner date at Gemma's villa, but before she can serve the antipasto, the bad guy arrives. She and Zen prevail, and he ends up dead on the dining room floor. They concoct a plan to dispose of the body over a glass or two of wine, and then she whips up some penne, because they certainly can't be carting a corpse about on empty stomachs.

Most excellent armchair travel material, this book, but also blithe and elegant. Thanks, Markku!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

This novel's been on my radar ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009.
Woman and the Sea,
by Will Barnet

As I looked at its entry on Goodreads, I noticed that reader reviews were almost entirely at the opposite ends of the spectrum -- one-star ("If I could use one word to describe this book, it would probably be boring. Awkward is a close runner-up. I think Elizabeth Strout must be the type of person who is less of the entertainment school of writing and more of the vitamins school of writing...") or five-star ("... this book gives us a new female heroine. Not meant to be liked, not meant to be revered, not meant to fit in, but totally and absolutely real.")  

When Carolyn Chute published her all too realistic and none too flattering novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine in 1985, it received similar love-hate responses. My father felt it was painfully realistic but had no redemptive value.

I wonder how many of the adverse reactions come from people who feel defensive of a state that they cherish as a summer holiday destination -- crystal clear skies, rugged coastlines, steamed lobster! They may well be reluctant to consider the Maine of a dismal February, when elderly people die in their living rooms of hypothermia because they can't afford enough heating oil, or a Maine with skyrocketing addiction to prescription painkillers thanks to all the workplace injuries among fishermen, loggers and other blue-collar workers. Maine has always had a dark, grim aspect. One artist that captures both its beauty and somberness is Will Barnet. His lithograph, "Woman and the Sea", is hanging in my living room now. It hung for many years in my mother's living room before that, and it drew much the same responses from our friends, who have found it either serene or morbidly depressing.  I think it's both.  It is fundamentally Maine. Exactly like Olive Kitteridge and the other characters that weave in and out of Elizabeth Strout's 13 interconnected short stories. 

Olive is the thread that connects them; she's central to some, peripheral to others. When her husband hires a young woman to work in his pharmacy, Olive shares her opinion, which is, as always, deadly blunt.
"Mousy," his wife said, when he hired the new girl. "Looks just like a mouse." Denise Thibodeau had round cheeks, and small eyes that peeped through her brown-framed glasses.
"But a nice mouse," Henry said. "A cute one."
"No one's cute who can't stand up straight," Olive said.

In another story, Angie has decided that she can no longer carry on with her married lover. After two decades.
She went to the phone and dialed Malcolm's number. Not once, in twenty-two years, had she called him at home, although she had memorized his number long ago. Twenty-two years, she thought, as she listened to the buzz of the ring, would be considered a very long time by most people, but for Angie time was as big and round as the sky, and to try to make sense of it was like trying to make sense of music and God and why the ocean was deep. Long ago Angie had known not to try to make sense of these things, the way other people tried to do. Malcolm answered the phone.
It was a curious thing -- she didn't like the sound of his voice. "Malcolm," she said softly. "I can't see you anymore. I'm so terribly sorry, but I can't do this anymore." Silence. His wife was probably right there. "Bye, now," she said. 
She phoned Malcolm from the pay phone in the lounge where she played piano.  After hanging up the phone, she returns to work.
She drank, with one hand, all the Irish coffee. And then she played all sorts of songs. She didn't know what she played, couldn't have said, but she was inside the music, and the lights on the Christmas tree were bright and seemed far away. Inside the music like this, she understood many things. She understood that Simon was a disappointed man if he needed, at this age, to tell her he had pitied her for years. She understood that as he drove his car back down the coast toward Boston, toward his wife with whom he had raised three children, that something in him would be satisfied to have witnessed her the way he had tonight, and she understood that this form of comfort was true for many people, as it made Malcolm feel better to call Walter Dalton a pathetic fairy, but it was thin milk, this form of nourishment; it could not change that you had wanted to be a concert pianist and ended up a real estate lawyer, that you had married a woman and stayed married to her for thirty years, when she did not ever find you lovely in bed. The lounge was mostly empty now. And warmer, since the door wasn't being opened all the time. She played "We Shall Overcome" she played it twice, slowly, grandly, and looked over at the bar to where Walter was smiling at her. He raised a fist into the air.
"Want a ride, there, Angie?" Joe asked as she closed the top of the piano, went and gathered her coat and pocketbook.
"No, thank you, dear," she said as Walter helped her into her white fake fur coat. "The walk will do me good." Clutching her little blue pocketbook, she picked her way over the snowbank ...
Mainers tend to be loners; some by choice, others less so. The weather is harsh.
Bessie Davis, the town's old maid, stood and talked for a long time while she bought a new dustpan. She spoke of her hip problems, her bursitis. She spoke of her sister's thyroid condition. "Hate this time of year," she said, shaking her head. Harmon felt a rush of anxiety as she left. Some skin that had stood between himself and the world seemed to have been ripped away, and everything was close, and frightening. Bessie Davis had always talked on, but now he saw her loneliness as a lesion on her face. The words Not me, not me crossed over his mind.