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Jane Broxguide for those aspiring to write their [own narrative] . . . [goes] a long way toward sorting out . . . what the genre is.
— The Boston Sunday Globe
A guide to the art of personal writing, by the author of Fierce Attachments and The End of the Novel of Love
All narrative writing must pull from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver a bit of wisdom. In a story or a novel the "I" who tells this tale can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator but in nonfiction the reader must always be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth.
How does one ...
A guide to the art of personal writing, by the author of Fierce Attachments and The End of the Novel of Love
All narrative writing must pull from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver a bit of wisdom. In a story or a novel the "I" who tells this tale can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator but in nonfiction the reader must always be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth.
How does one pull from one's own boring, agitated self the truth-speaker who will tell the story a personal narrative needs to tell? That is the question The Situation and the Story asks—and answers. Taking us on a reading tour of some of the best memoirs and essays of the past hundred years, Gornick traces the changing idea of self that has dominated the century, and demonstrates the enduring truth-speaker to be found in the work of writers as diverse as Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, or Marguerite Duras.
This book, which grew out of fifteen years teaching in MFA programs, is itself a model of the lucid inteligence that has made Gornick one of our most admired writers of ninfiction. In it, she teaches us to write by teaching us how to read: how to recognize truth when we hear it in the writing of others and in our own.
The Situation and the Story
If William Hazlitt hadn't awakened each morning crawling inside his own skin, he could not have written "On the Pleasure of Hating." If Virginia Woolf didn't have difficulty attaching herself to life, she would not have written "The Death of the Moth." If James Baldwin wasn't in perpetual violent struggle to bring the black and the white inside himself under control, there would be no "Notes of a Native Son." These pieces are the work of writers engaged at the deepest level with the essay. The form itself has released them into purposeful innerliness. Here the writing does not wander about on the page accumulating description for its own sake, or developing images independent of thought, or musing lyrically. The point of view originates in the nervous system and concentratesitself in the person of a narrator who causes the essay to move steadily forward, driven by an internal impetus that the reader can spot on page one: the obligation is to use the narrating self only to shape those associations that will provide drive and lead on to inner resolution. These writers might not "know" themselves—that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us—but in each case—and this is crucial—they know who they are at the moment of writing. They know they are there to clarify in relation to the subject in hand—and on this obligation they deliver.
When writers remain ignorant of who they are at the moment of writing—that is, when they are pulled around in the essay by motives they can neither identify accurately nor struggle to resolve—the work, more often than not, will prove either false or severely limited. D. H. Lawrence's essay "Do Women Change?" is a case in point. Ostensibly a meditation on the cyclical recurrence throughout history of the modern, the piece in actuality is a denunciation of 1920s feminists. It fails, in my view, not because of its opinions but because Lawrence himself does not know what he is about. It is the writer's unknowingness that sinks the piece.
"They say the modern woman is a new type," he begins, on a note of sarcasm that never abates. "But is she? I expect, in fact I am sure, there have been lots of women like ours in the past ... Women are women. They only have phases. In Rome, in Syracuse, in Athens, in Thebes,more than two or three thousand years ago, there was the bob-haired, painted, perfumed Miss and Mrs. of today ... Modernity or modernism isn't something we've just invented. It's something that comes at the end of civilizations. Just as leaves in autumn are yellow, so the women at the end of every known civilization—Roman, Greek, Egyptian, etc.—have been modern ...
"I saw a joke in a German paper—a modern young man and a modern young woman leaning on an hotel balcony at night, overlooking the sea. He: 'See the stars sinking down over the dark restless ocean!' She: 'Cut it out! My room number is 32!'
"That is supposed to be very modern: the very modern woman. But I believe women in Capri under Tiberias said 'Cut it out' to their Roman and Campanian lovers in just the same way. And women in Alexandria in Cleopatra's time ... They were smart, they were chic, they said ... 'Oh, cut it out, boy! ... My room number's thirty-two! Come to the point!'
"But the point, when you come to it, is a very bare little place, a very meager little affair. It's extraordinary how meager the point is once you've come to it ... A lead pencil has a point, an argument may have a point, remarks may be pointed ... But where is the point to life?
"Now, women used to understand this better than men ... used to know that life is ... not a question of points, but a question of flow. It's the flow that matters ... And only the flow."
The language is strong, the feeling vivid, and the perspective coherent, but from start to finish the piece strikes a single unvarying note of blame and accusation that never advances, never diminishes. The ills and dissatisfactions of contemporary life are steadily traced to the mean, shallow willfulness of "emancipated" women, whose behavior is seen as an emanation from something profoundly "other." There is not a single moment in the piece—not a paragraph or a sentence—when the narrator sympathizes with his subject; that is, when he sees the modern woman as she might see herself, finds in himself that which would allow him to understand why she is as she is. It is this sympathy that creates a dynamic in writing, the one necessary to stimulate internal movement. In his novels Lawrence extends it to some of his most hated characters—most famously, the brutish father in Sons and Lovers—but in this essay we are presented steadily with the contemplation of a world in decay because of the women who remain relentlessly "other."
It is interesting to compare Lawrence with Hazlitt, a writer who also could have written "Do Women Change?" But if Hazlitt had written it, he would have been implicating himself continuously throughout his own rant. Repeatedly, we'd be given the line, the sentence, the image that would reveal Hazlitt's own anxieties about women. He would let us see the fear behind the anger, and this would make all the difference. We'd realize the writer is struggling to make sense of feelings whose complexityhe acknowledges. The struggle alone would have made the subject vital.
In Hazlitt the head may be filled with blood, but the writing won't be. Neurotic as Hazlitt is, when he is writing his essays he owns his anger, and therefore he owns the material. Lawrence, on the other hand, is here possessed by his rage: it fills his head and his writing with blood; a thing that does not happen in his novels, where the engagement with women is equally visceral and equally antagonistic, yet is so imaginatively entered into that he cannot help but make the situation, and everyone in it, humanly understandable. In Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover there are repeated rants about modern women—the ones who want to be men, the strong-willed ones, the ones who deny the primacy of the blood—but these rants do not dominate the work; they are in fact necessary for Lawrence to travel deeper into his subject: the struggle of men and women together. In the end, his characters share the situation, and we feel its power all the more because everyone is enmeshed. Fiction is the genre that lets Lawrence expand within himself: the proof that he is a born novelist but only on occasion an essayist. Here, in "Do Women Change?" he cannot manage it. Women remain an undynamic "them." It's the absence of dynamism that keeps the essay static, stifles its growth from within.
There is another writer who demonstrates repeatedly—and in exactly the same way as Lawrence—that heis an inspired writer of novels but not of nonfiction. V. S. Naipaul's vision of life is fundamentally cold, devoid in some important way of human warmth. Nevertheless, in his novels the coldness is made to burn. The viewpoint remains bleak, but the work opens out like some poisonous bloom; a mysterious empathy is in operation; the situation compels and the characters tell a story. In the nonfiction, however, the absence of sympathy is startling—and fatal. A perfect example of this striking differential is to be found in reading Naipaul's novel Guerrillas together with his essay "The Killings in Trinidad." Both are derived from the same newspaper story about a madman who became a self-styled black radical leader and ended up performing ritual murder on a number of his followers, including an upper-class Englishwoman who'd fallen under his spell. The novel is mysteriously injected with a power of dread that is so penetrating it endows the work with visionary properties: the situation becomes metaphoric. In the essay the principals—all of them, victims and victimizer alike—are presented like bugs under glass: shrunken, pinned, diminished. Naipaul's skin crawls with an untransformed disgust for his own subject. Disgust makes him shrink back. The shrinking attenuates the performance. In the end, the reader registers only the nastiness of the writer's feelings. He is standing too far back to achieve the right distance: the one necessary for engagement.
In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject isnecessary not because it is the politically correct or morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the "other" as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing. When someone writes a Mommie Dearest memoir—where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster—the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.
In fiction, a cast of characters is put to work that will cover all the bases: some will speak the author's inclination, some the opposition—that is, some represent an idea of self, some the agonistic other; allow them all their say, and the writer moves into a dynamic. In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension. Here, it is self-implication that is required. To see one'sown part in the situation—that is, one's own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part—is to create the dynamic.
Three essays that demonstrate wonderfully the way self-implication can visibly shape a piece of nonfiction writing are Joan Didion's "In Bed," Harry Crews's "Why I Live Where I Live," and Edward Hoagland's "The Courage of Turtles." In each case, the piece begins in a tone of voice—one elegant, one swaggering, one reasonable—that announces a position. As the essay progresses this tone modulates—it softens, it inquires, it invites speculation. Modulation causes the narrator's position to alter. That process of alteration is at once the conduit for the story being told and, in some important way, the story itself. We are in the presence, in each instance, of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows—moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge. The act of clarifying on the page is an intimate part of the metaphor.
For Joan Didion, ordinary, everyday anxiety is an organizing principle. Out of it she has created a depressed, quivering persona that serves her talent wonderfully, and has achieved at least one enduring novel (Play It As It Lays), as well as some of the finest essays in American literature. In her novels the anxiety is always in danger of becoming the story rather than serving the story, but in the essays, where a subject beyond the self must be intersectedwith—migraine headache, the Black Panthers, California and the American Dream—Didion's gorgeous nerves are brought under brilliant control. It is here, in this form, that her existential nervousness is developed with such artistry that insight transforms, and literature is made through the naked use of the writer's emotional disability. "In Bed," a famous piece on migraine headache, seems to me one of her small masterpieces.
Here's how the essay opens:
"Three, four, sometimes five times a month, I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me. Almost every day of every month, between these attacks, I feel the sudden irrational irritation and the flush of blood into the cerebral arteries which tell me that migraine is on its way, and I take certain drugs to avert its arrival. If I did not take the drugs, I would be able to function perhaps one day in four. The physiological error called migraine is, in brief, central to the given of my life. When I was 15, 16, even 25, I used to think that I could rid myself of this error by simply denying it, character over chemistry. 'Do you have headaches sometimes? frequently? never?' the application forms would demand. 'Check one.' Wary of the trap, wanting whatever it was that the successful circumnavigation of that particular form could bring (a job, a scholarship, the respect of mankind and the grace of God), I would check one. 'Sometimes,' I would lie. That in fact I spent one or two days a week almost unconscious with pain seemed a shameful secret, evidence not merely of some chemical inferioritybut of all my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, wrongthink ... For I had no brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure, nothing wrong with me at all: I simply had migraine headaches, and migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary."
The paragraph is clearly designed to forestall the suspicion that the narrator is a psychological malingerer, as those who suffer with migraine headache are commonly thought to be. Didion's elaborate syntax and elegant vocabulary demonstrate an intelligence that encourages the idea of self-command. The sentences are not only educated and the tone confident. How could anyone who uses phrases like the "physiological error called migraine" or "the sudden irrational irritation and the flush of blood into the cerebral arteries" be guilty of bringing on a hysterical headache?
This mentally well-heeled narrator goes on to tell us that migraine sufferers are genetically disposed, then gives us a medically sophisticated explanation of how it works and a detailed paragraph of description of what it feels like inside a migraine aura, again with an elegance of syntax and vocabulary that is its own claim to authority:
"The chemistry of migraine ... seems to have some connection with the nerve hormone named serotonin, which is naturally present in the brain. The amount of serotonin in the blood falls sharply at the onset of migraine, and one [drug alone] seems to have some effect on serotonin ...
"Once an attack is under way, however, no drug touches it ... When I am in a migraine aura ... I will drive through red lights, lose the house keys, spill whatever I am holding, lose the ability to focus my eyes or frame coherent sentences ... The actual headache, when it comes, brings with it chills, sweating, nausea, a debility that seems to stretch the very limits of endurance. That no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing."
In other words: Forces are at work well beyond the narrator's control.
Suddenly, in the middle of a paragraph about two-thirds of the way through the piece, we have a pair of sentences that indicate—ever so slightly—a shift in perspective: "All of us who have migraine suffer not only from the attacks themselves but from this common conviction that we are perversely refusing to cure ourselves by taking a couple of aspirin, that we are making ourselves sick, that we 'bring it on ourselves.' And in the most immediate sense, the sense of why we have a headache this Tuesday and not last Thursday, of course we often do." What's this? The merest hint of complication.
Swiftly the hint accumulates into a strong suspicion: "And I have learned now to live with it, learned when to expect it, how to outwit it, even how to regard it, when it does come, as more friend than lodger." More friend than lodger? Now where are we going?
The arrival of migraine, it seems, is not as random amatter as we've been led to believe. There is, it appears, a pattern. One connected not to events of great disturbance but rather to the ordinary frustrations of everyday life. The ones that set off existential alarm and drive some people to drink, some to overeat, and some ... well, to migraine: "Tell me that my house is burned down, my husband has left me, that there is gunfighting in the streets and panic in the banks, and I will not respond by getting a headache. It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work done and the wind is coming up. On days like that my friend comes uninvited."
Now the narrator's relation to migraine deepens rapidly. We see that for her, paradoxically, migraine is a painkiller. True, the painkiller itself is a horror. But when the need for relief is upon her, she is willing to induce one kind of anguish to rid herself of another: that of ordinary daily life.
The situation grows even richer. Not only is the narrator willing to make a holocaust in her brain, she now tells us, she actually quite likes the holocaust. In fact, it suits her right down to the ground: "Once it comes ... I no longer fight it. I lie down and let it happen. At first every small apprehension is magnified, every anxiety a pounding terror. Then the pain comes, and I concentrate only onthat. Right there is the usefulness of migraine, there in that imposed yoga, the concentration on the pain."
The headache is a purge. When the purge has spent itself, the world seems made anew, the narrator feels reborn: "For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties. The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings."
These final sentences are as simple as the opening ones are complex. They mimic both the exhausted peace that follows the migraine itself and the narrator's act of slowing down internally to take in the undefended meaning of what it is she has really come to say.
Didion's "essay" into herself tells us a thing we all know to be true: that the power of everyday anxiety is ruthless: it makes us act against our own well-being, sometimes it even makes us court perversity, a thing we are ashamed of, can hardly bear to look at. Didion knows this bit of truth down to the bone. Shame is her quivering persona's middle name—shame leading on to confession and the need for punishment ("Right there is the usefulness of migraine ..."). In this piece, she applies skillfully to a situation that seems born to contain it her signature piece of understanding by taking the reader on ajourney of attitudes—from lofty remove to guarded self-deception to reluctant admission—that disentangles a knot of emotion as familiar as the back of any age-spotted hand.
Harry Crews, a violently self-mythicizing Southerner, writes novels and stories set in the Georgia swamp culture from which he emerged. Here, in this essay, "Why I Live Where I Live," using his own unsurrogated self to speak again of his miserably divided feelings about "home," Crews also investigates a monumental sore spot in the shared psyche. Again, the essay opens with a vivid declaration of self:
"I can leave the place where I live a couple of hours before daylight and be on a deserted little strip of sand called Crescent Beach in time to throw a piece of meat on a fire and then, in a few minutes, lie back sucking on a vodka bottle and chewing on a hunk of bloody beef while the sun lifts out of the Atlantic Ocean (somewhat unnerving but also mystically beautiful to a man who never saw a body of water bigger than a pond until he was grown) and while the sun rises lie on a blanket, brain singing from vodka and a bellyful of beef, while the beautiful bikinied children from the University of Florida drift down the beach, their smooth bodies sweating baby oil and the purest kind of innocent lust (which of course is the rankest sort) into the bright air. If all that starts to pall—and what doesn't start to pall?—I can leave the beach and be out atthe end of a dock, sitting in the Captain's Table eating hearts-of-palm salad and hot boiled shrimp and sipping on a tall, icy glass of beer while the sun I saw lift out of the Atlantic that morning sinks into the warm, waveless Gulf of Mexico. It makes for a hell of a day. But that isn't really why I live in the north-central Florida town of Gainesville."
The paragraph is a marvelous piece of aggressive swagger. The aggression lies in its rhythm (powerful and prolonged), an in-your-face description of appetite that announces, "This is who I am, take it or leave it," and ends on a note of rhetorical tease. Immediately the reader feels the note of challenge in the writer's posture—and is puzzled. Why is it there? What can it mean? Only one thing.
Insecurity dominates half the piece in the form of provocative observations, embarrassed ironies, self-conscious asides. For the next few paragraphs the sound of Crews's voice remains that of the challenging tease. He tells us that he uses the university library not as a scholar but as a seeker of odd bits of information (such as the car capacity of drive-in theaters in Bakersfield, California, in 1950); that it's a twenty-minute walk to his favorite bars (which saves him from "that abomination before the Lord, the car") and less than that to the house of a young woman who has been hypnotizing him for six years. But none of this—at the dismissive end of each paragraph—is why he lives in Gainesville.
We are in the presence of a man whose uncertainty isannounced repeatedly in phrases that alternate between the brash ("Some people get analyzed, I get hypnotized") and the hesitant ("Or, said another way: anyone other than I may find that the explanation does not satisfy"). Either way, the tone reveals the defensive posture of a man who clearly must rev himself up—in order to get down to it.
Then, unexpectedly and in the direct middle of the piece, halfway through a paragraph, he does. Telling us that he lives right in town on three acres of land thick with pines, oak, wild plum trees, and all manner of tangled, unidentifiable brush and that the only cleared space is the very narrow road leading down to the house because there are many things he absolutely refuses to do in this world, but the three things leading the list are wash his car, shine his shoes, and mow a lawn, he then tells us that the back wall of the room he works in at the rear of the house is glass, and "When I raise my eyes from the typewriter I look past an enormous bull bay tree through a thin stand of reeds into a tiny creek the banks of which are thick with the greenest fern God ever made. In my imagination I can follow that little creek upstream to the place where, after a long, circuitous passage, it joins the Suwannee River, and then follow the dark waters of the Suwannee upriver to the place where it rises in the nearly impenetrable fastness of the Okefenokee Swamp. Okefenokee: Creek Indian word for Land of the Trembling Earth, because most of the islands in the swamp—some of them holding hundreds of huge trees growing sothick that their roots are matted and woven as closely as a blanket—actually float on the water, and when a black bear crashes across one of them, the whole thing trembles."
Now the sentences open out—grave, direct, unbroken—from this long, lyrical passage I've always thought a metaphor for birth, leading directly into undefended memory. The narrator enters his own thought fully. No more ironies, no more asides. The need for self-protection has abated. He no longer fears the reader, because he has forgotten the reader. Now he will say what he has come to say: "Living here in North Florida, I am a little more than a hundred miles from where I was born and raised to manhood. I am just far enough away from the only place that was ever mine to still see it, close enough to the only people to whom I was ever kin in ways deeper than blood."
From this moment on the tone shifts permanently—and so does the balance between the writer's embarrassment and the undefended expanse of his reflection. What happens now is the really interesting development. The gravity and the insecurity change places. One takes over from the other. The insecurity is not vanquished, only subordinated. Embarrassment returns, and so does defensiveness, but these asides are now immensely reduced. The writer is so intent on his insight that he stands unprotected before the simple and profound thing it has taken all his life to understand: "I've tried to work—that is, to write—in Georgia, but I could not. Even under the best of circumstances, at my mama's farm, for instance, it was alltoo much for me. I was too deep in it, too close to it to use it, to make anything out of it. My memory doesn't even seem to work when I'm writing in Georgia. I can't seem to hold a story in my head. I write a page, and five pages later what I wrote earlier has begun to slide out of focus. If this is all symptomatic of some more profound malaise, I don't want to know about it and I certainly don't want to understand it.
"Living here in Gainesville seems to give me a kind of geographic and emotional distance I need to write. I can't write if I get too far away. I tried to work on a novel in Tennessee once and after a ruined two months gave it up in despair. I once spent four months near Lake Placid in a beautiful house lent to me by a friend—perfect place to write—and I didn't do a damn thing but eat my guts and look out the window at the mountains."
In other words: If you don't leave home you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen.
The essay becomes an exercise in the meaning and value of watching a writer conquer his own sense of threat to deliver himself of his wisdom. Only slowly—as in life itself—has Crews been able to come to it. By making the essay mirror the difficulty he has in facing the thing he is embarrassed by, and frightened of admitting to, Crews gradually leads us to a deeper insight: the unwillingness with which we—all of us—arrive at self-understanding. It is here, in the imitation of that reluctance, that we locate the metaphoric value of the piece. Again, the way the narratorwrites himself is the thing being written about. One echoes the other.
The most absorbing instance among the three of how nonfiction makes use of the "other" in oneself is to be found in Edward Hoagland's "The Courage of Turtles," a self-investigating piece disguised as a nature essay. As a rule, I don't read nature writing, because I hardly ever get it. The metaphor always feels strained and the sensibility foreign—that hushed, saintly "quiet" in the narrating voice. "The Courage of Turtles," however, is the work of the most urban naturalist in America. By the end of this piece Hoagland's "quiet" comes to seem distinctly disquieting.
The narrator of this essay, a man in his forties or fifties, grew up in the country and watched his beloved woods turn into a suburban development. He remembers how the world around him grew as he grew—from a two-acre pond across the road to a larger one a mile away to a lake-sized one up in the mountains—and then imploded:
"For a long while the developers stayed away, until the drought of the mid-1960s ... convinced the local water company that [Mud Pond] really wasn't a necessity as a catch basin ...; so they bulldozed a hole in the earthen dam, bulldozed the banks to fill in the bottom, and landscaped the flow of water that remained to wind like an English brook and provide a domestic view for the houseswhich were planned. Most of the painted turtles of Mud Pond, who had been inaccessible as they sunned on their rocks, wound up in boxes in boys' closets within a matter of days. Their footsteps in the dry leaves gave them away as they wandered forlornly. The snappers and the little musk turtles, neither of whom leave the water except once a year to lay their eggs, dug into the drying mud for another siege of hot weather, which they were accustomed to doing whenever the pond got low. But this time it was low for good; the mud baked over them and slowly entombed them."
So begins an essay whose calm neutrality of voice is its most striking quality. Never once will the sound of this voice vary—not from its leisurely beginning to its startling last line—moving smoothly along, accumulating beneath a surface so uninflected as very nearly to persuade the reader that the narrator is detached to a point of indifference. But then we learn that when he moved to the city, he decided to make turtles stand in for all the animals he'd never again have in his life on a daily basis. Here's why turtles:
"Turtles cough, burp, whistle, grunt and hiss, and produce social judgments. They put their heads together amicably enough, but then one drives the other back with the suddenness of two dogs who have been conversing in tones too low for an onlooker to hear. They pee in fear when they're first caught, but exercise both pluck and optimism in trying to escape, walking for hundreds of yards within the confines of their pen, carrying the weight ofthat cumbersome box on legs which are cruelly positioned for walking. They don't feel that the contest is unfair; they keep plugging, rolling like sailorly souls—a bobbing, infirm gait, a brave, sea-legged momentum—stopping occasionally to study the lay of the land. For me, anyway, they manage to contain the rest of the animal world. They can stretch out their necks like a giraffe ... loom ... like [a] hippo ... browse ... like a cow ... They have a penguin's alertness, combined with a build like a brontosaurus when they rise up on tiptoe. Then they hunch and ponderously lunge like a grizzly going forward."
The pleasures of baby turtles are particularly great—they often die young, but while they live are "like puppies ... a puzzle in geometrics ... self-directed building blocks, propping themselves on one another in different arrangements, before upending the tower"—as are those of Hoagland's own sculptured wood turtle, who gazes at the passing ground with a hawk's eyes and mouth, strikes like a mongoose, and climbs on his lap to eat bread or boiled eggs.
These descriptions—written against the sound of Hoagland's remarkably distant voice—are a joy to read. The intentness with which the narrator observes the turtles persuades us that, oh yes—what a relief!—after all, he does have feeling, he's just more comfortable speaking in a voice free of emotion (you know how it is with some men), but certainly, he's attached to the turtles, they are his connection.
So the piece ambles along, and somehow time—in thecity, in the narrator—passes. At last the disquisition on Hoagland and the turtles winds down; concludes itself, so to speak; and we come to the final sequence:
"I was walking on First Avenue when I noticed a basket of living turtles in front of a fish store ... I looked and was touched to discover that they appeared to be wood turtles, my favorites, so I bought one. In my apartment I looked closer and realized that in fact this was a diamondback terrapin, which was bad news ... He drank thirstily but would not eat and had none of the hearty, accepting qualities of wood turtles. He was morose, paler in color, sleeker and more Oriental ... Though I felt sorry for him, finally I found his unrelenting presence exasperating. I carried him, struggling in a paper bag, across town to the Morton Street Pier on the Hudson River ... He was very surprised when I tossed him in; for the first time in our association, I think, he was afraid. He looked afraid as he bobbed about on top of the water, looking up at me from ten feet below ... I recognized that I must have done the wrong thing ... [T]he river was salty, but it was also bottomless; the waves were too rough for him, and the tide was coming in, bumping him against the pilings underneath the pier. Too late, I realized that he wouldn't be able to swim to a peaceful inlet in New Jersey, even if he could figure out which way to swim. But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away."
That's it. There is no more. The piece has arrived.
The first time I read this essay I stared at the final lineand thought, This is really about Hoagland and women: "I picked her up on the street. She was just my type. Took her home. Oh. Made a mistake. Wrong one. Let her bob around somewhere else in the world. Oh. Made another mistake. She can't swim. Too bad. But, hey. What could I do?"
The second time I read it I thought, This is about the loss of feeling in all of us as the presence of nature becomes more attenuated.
The third time I read it I thought, It's about both.
Once that final line is absorbed, it echoes back throughout the piece. The reader realizes that the man who's using turtles as a stand-in for human intimacy has been there from the very beginning. He tells us clearly enough: He had grown up loving all the animals, expecting to live in peace with his fellow creatures. But the developers had just kept coming. And the creature within had become entombed in the mud. Yet he, like the turtle, had survived: cold, quiet, alert. Containing within himself not multitudes but a sufficiency of response just large enough to avoid the charge of unnatural.
It is Hoagland's complexity—the intentness of his observation coupled with the elegance of his withdrawal—that gives this essay its inner life. His mixed feelings provide the texture, and the drama. Patiently and "quietly," they lead us into the starkness of solipsism. The turtles have taught the narrator that nothing outside himself is quite real to him.
The metaphor is worthy of Thoreau, another coldly brilliant self-examiner traveling to and from the pond, also barely escaping the charge of unnatural.
Sometimes in an essay the simple presentation of a fractured self becomes a thesis by virtue of the writer's talented insistence that confession alone has an existential claim on our attention. Seymour Krim is an ardent practitioner of such writing.
Krim is a Jewish Joan Didion. His work personifies the joys and pitfalls of writing that turns openly on the organization of the writer's own anxiety. In a headnote on him that can't be improved upon, Phillip Lopate observed that in the 1950s Krim developed an essay-writing persona—"that of the quintessential New Yorker: street-smart, neurotic, ambitious, self-mocking, manic yet depressed or downbeat"—and through this persona he made an identity out of his breakdowns, his hungers, and his envy of those who had achieved worldly success—very much in the style of the great nineteenth-century English eccentrics in essay writing (Lamb, Hazlitt, etc.) who also developed ardent, ailing, self-involved voices speaking to us at vivid and voluble length. The ability of these voices to compose themselves into monologues that entertain and instruct rather than weary and exhaust is an extraordinary achievement.
At the time that Krim was writing—in the 1950s, the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the Beat Generation—his was a voice imbued at once with the bohemian longing to break free of middle-class constraint and with the psychological distress that precludes resolution of will. At his best he could make the division within seem emblematic of some fatal split in America itself. Failure—both his own and that of the national dream—became a major theme of Krim's through the simple expedient of his endlessly crying out on the page his own depressed, daydreaming self. In too many pieces, the noble complaint runs away with him, and the writing is reduced to a disheveled rant: tiresome and pathetic. But when he brings it under control, Krim's work becomes a dazzling example of what American writing in particular can do with the personal essay. In "For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" he pulls it together with rare power.
Here is the essay in part:
"At 51, believe it or not, or believe it and pity me if you are young and swift, I still don't know truly 'what I want to be.' I've published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who's Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I'm as open to every wild possibility as I was at 13, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat ...
"That's because I come from America, which has to be the classic, ultimate, then-they-broke-the-mold incubatorof not knowing who you are until you find out. I have never really found out and I expect what remains of my life to be one long search party for the final me. I don't kid myself that I'm alone in this, hardly, and I don't really think that the great day will ever come when I hold a finished me in my fist and say here you are, congratulations. I'm talking primarily about the expression of that me in the world, the shape it takes, the profile it zings out, the 'work' it does.
"You may sometimes think everyone lives in the crotch of the pleasure principle these days except you, but you have company, friend. I live under the same pressures you do. It is still your work or role that finally gives you your definition in our society, and the thousands upon thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls. Many never will. I think what I have to say here will speak for some of their secret life and for that other sad America you don't hear too much about. This isn't presumption so much as a voice of scars and stars talking. I've lived it and will probably go on living it until they take away my hotdog.
" ... America was my carnival at an earlier age than most and I wanted to be everything in it that turned me on ... Democracy means democracy of the fantasy life, too, there are no cops crouching in the corridors of the brain ... Yet those of us who have never really nailed it down, who have charged through life from enthusiasm to enthusiasm, from new project to new project, even frompersonality-revolution to personality-revolution, have a secret also ...
"Our secret is that we still have an epic longing to be more than what we are, to multiply ourselves, to integrate all the identities and action-fantasies we have experienced, above all to keep experimenting with our lives all the way to Forest Lawn ... Let me say it plainly: Our true projects have finally been ourselves. It's as if we had taken literally the old cornball Land of Opportunity slogan and incorporated it into the pit of the being instead of the space around us; and fallen so much in love with the ongoing excitement of becoming, even the illusion of becoming, that our pants often fall down and reveal our dirty skivvies and skinny legs. The laughter hurts, believe me, but it doesn't stop us for very long. We were hooked early.
" ... What unites [me and all those like me] is that we never knew except in bits and pieces how to find a total expression, appreciated by our peers, in which we could deliver ourselves of all the huge and contradictory desires we felt within. The country was too rich and confusing for us to want to be one thing at the expense of another. We were the victims of our enormous appreciation of it all.
" ... [I]t was a beautiful, breathless eagerness for all the life we could hold inside, packed layer on layer like a bulging quart container of ice cream ... That's what this democracy was for us, a huge supermarket of mass man where we could take a piece here and a piece there to make our personalities for ourselves instead of putting up with what was given at the beginning.
"But this lovely idea became for some of us a tragedy, or at least a terrible confusion that wasn't counted on at the beginning ...
"I was living in Europe at the time ... when the dirty American word 'failure' winged its way across the water and hit me where it hurts ... Maybe I never had a choice, and would have been an uncertain performer at whatever I did, but my decision to aim at the stars had been a conscious one and this was the way it was being weighed on the common man's do-it-or-shut-up scale ...
"But if you are a proud, searching 'failure' in this society, and we can take ironic comfort in the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of us, then it is smart and honorable to know what you attempted and why you are now vulnerable to the body blows of those who once saw you robed in the glow of your vision and now only see an unmade bed and a few unwashed cups on the bare wooden table of a gray day."
The pleasure of the piece (and the profit as well) lies in the rich, sure speed of its language; language that is riding the fast-forward movement of American idiom, its street-smart, slangy intelligence mimicking the whole preoccupation with youth: both Krim's and America's. Idiomatic language always feels young—in any language it makes the adrenaline shoot right up—but none more so than the American. The sheer sound of it is young. And no one knows how to work that sound better than Krim. Just listen to his beautiful use of it:
that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine
in the crotch of the pleasure principle
the riot in their souls
a voice of scars and stars
until they take away my hotdog
there are no cops crouching in the corridors of the brain
all the way to Forest Lawn
all the life we could hold ... packed layer on layer like a bulging quart container of ice cream
the dirty American word "failure" winged its way across the water and hit me where it hurts
being weighed on the common man's do-it-or-shut-up scale
[those who now see my life as] only ... an unmade bed and a few unwashed cups on the bare wooden table of a gray day
A middle-aged writer of American prose is crying out in a voice forever young, "I'm no longer young!"
Inscribed in the essay—in the rhythm and structure of its idiomatic insight—is all the deep downward movement of Krim's yearning, and the sweet sad stoppage of his arrest.He is the man who sees it all, understands it all—has been over it, under it, around it, times without number—but still he fails to take in his own experience. Like America itself, he is besotted with "self-creation." For both the man and the culture, this translates into an adolescent longing that life remain filled with untested promise. As Americans, Krim insists, we are nostalgic for promise even while we are young: as though we are born with romantic regret for beginning again. Our literature is indeed saturated with it—from Walt Whitman to Raymond Carver. And here is Seymour Krim—as though lit from within—his essay-writing persona a rich embodiment of the condition itself. Through his speaking voice the extraordinary energy of "failure American-style" surrounds and enters us, moving swiftly and with exhilaration straight to the heart.
While I was reading "For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business," I happened on the work of Jean Amery, a European journalist who in the 1960s wrote a remarkable series of essays on aging. Améry was a Holocaust survivor who settled in Belgium after the war intending to write books. He went to work as a journalist—just for a while, he thought—and, somehow, twenty years passed with him doing work he despised. Then, in his fifties, he wrote a successful wartime memoir and gave up journalism to write as he had always wanted to write. Now, however, he found age weighing fearfullyon his soul. Growing old, he concluded, was worse than Auschwitz. The terror of the concentration camp, he said, was "less filled with internal horror and anguish than the experience of aging." The horror and the anguish became his subject.
In these essays Amery sets out to describe with an absence of sentiment that borders on the nihilistic exactly what he is experiencing. The idea is to look with an unblinking eye on every major aspect of a condition that can be understood by no one not actually living through it. Améry, however, will be our Marco Polo, returned from a foreign land to which all must journey to report on what awaits us. The report is one of unredeeming loss.
To begin with, he tells us, there is the matter of time. When we are young we stand in the middle of both space and time, but as we grow older our sense of space disappears and time alone crowds in on us, becomes in fact a characteristic of daily existence; we think about time all the time.
Then we become strangers to ourselves. We look in the mirror and are startled, if not shocked, by the face that looks back at us. This is a shock from which we never recover; it, too, is with us day after day (the irony here being that it is only now that we actually see ourselves with any clarity).
The natural world becomes alien as well: who wants to look at a mountain that one can no longer climb? or swim in water that denies us the exactly right temperature?
Worse yet is what Amery calls cultural aging. We no longer feel at one with the world around us. New developments in art, politics, and fashion puzzle, anger, or discomfort us. We cannot see our own experience reflected back in them.
On and on Améry goes. Relentlessly he argues a repetitious and unsparing view of age as a punishment from the gods:
"A. [stares into the mirror each morning, unable to make her peace with the face that stares back at her]: what she witnesses in her morning ritual [the changed face in the mirror] has nothing or little to do with ... her earlier self and even later better days ... Perhaps the strongest component of weariness is just this alienation from herself, this discrepancy between the young self she has brought along with her through the years and the self of the aging woman in the mirror. But in the same breath and in the same tick of time it becomes obvious to her, if she just perseveres in front of the mirror and does not turn away from the glass ... that she ... is closer to herself, with all her weariness and intimate familiarity than ever before, and that in front of her mirror image, now a stranger to her, she is condemned to become more and more oppressively herself ... [T]his discovery of the clasping together of alienation from oneself and an increased sense of self ... is the fundamental experience of all those aging persons who simply have the patience to persevere in front of the mirror, who can summon up the courage not to let themselves be chased away ... who do not internalizethe conventional judgment of others and submit to it ... It is the ambiguity of aging that A. is discovering and in which she is establishing herself ...
"We are constantly in the clutches of the ambiguity of alienation from, and familiarity with, ourselves, of self-weariness and self-seeking. The former always drowns out the latter initially at the point where thought turns into speech: That's supposed to be who I am? they ask, those sick with aging and sick of it as well, whenever they look into the mirror or realize again and again while walking, running, or climbing that the world is becoming their adversary, that their body, which has carried them and their selves, is becoming a corpus that weighs upon them within and is itself a weight outside ... in aging the body becomes more and more mass and less and less energy. This mass ... stands in resistance to the old self, which has been preserved by time and has been constituting itself in time, as the hostile new ego, foreign and, in the exact meaning of the word, odious ...
"[A]ging is not a 'normal condition' for the aging person ... Actually, it is quite definitely a sickness, indeed a form of suffering from which there is no hope of recovery ... Aging is an incurable sickness, and because it is a form of suffering it is subject to the same phenomenal laws as any other acute hardship that afflicts us at some particular stage of life ...
"The ambiguity of alienation from oneself and familiarity with oneself in aging—by which we must not forget for one minute that aging is a form of suffering and thatwe experience it as such—this ambiguity consists not only in the fact that we feel our body as a mortal shell while at the same time this shell is taking root in us more and more; it also becomes manifest in our social ego's contradiction of everything else that is formed from our suffering body, of the body-ego that is both our clothing and what we clothe ...
"Alienation from oneself becomes alienation from being, no matter how faithfully we still attend to the day, fill out our tax declaration, go to the dentist. Were we saying that in aging the world becomes our denial ...
"For a few years A. has been disturbed by the cooling off of what he once called his feeling for landscape ... Specifically, he became conscious in nature more than in the city of how the world, which he still had possessed as a part of his person, had become the denial of this person ... the others climbed the mountain, swam in the lakes, strolled about in the valleys: he was expelled and thrown back on himself ... The hostility of the landscape ... was only conscious to A. now as the contradiction of his person. He began to avoid nature. Now he has become thoroughly alienated from it and withdraws to where the challenge of a world that has come to be his denial no longer humiliates him every hour: to his room ...
"We could just as easily have said that we are already about to be the negation of our self. Day and night cancel each other out in twilight ...
"In the life of every human being there is a point in time ... where each discovers that one is only what one is.All at once we realize that the world no longer concedes us credit for our future, it no longer wants to entertain seeing us in terms of what we could be ... We find ourselves ... to be creatures without potential. No one asks us any longer, 'What do you want to do?' ... The aging, whose accomplishments were already counted and weighed, have been condemned. They have lost even if they've won, that is, even if their social existence ... is assessed at a high market value. Break-ups and upheavals no longer lie on their horizon."
A man of wide reading and philosophical bent, Améry brings to bear on these textured pieces the concreteness of journalism, the insight of literature, the analysis of history. The voice is dry, patient, reasonable, and very European. It is a voice—from Montaigne to Céline—that we have been hearing for half a millennium: a voice of egocentric "realism," the kind that shades easily into the surreal.
There is much to quarrel with in these essays. For some they read like warmed-over existentialism; for others the truth they deliver is very partial. I myself remain unpersuaded on many scores. I am older now than Amery was when he was writing, and I share none of his conclusions. Yet for me, these essays are an essence of persona. The negativism embodied in them is so intense, so insistent that I for one feel penetrated by the strength of its vision. Améry's focus, like acid on zinc, bites deep into the grain of his experience. He is a scientist at the microscope staring into a cell slide he can make no sense of with a killer epidemic raging at his back. He stands where I thinkI will never stand. Yet I feel, powerfully, him standing there, him looking into the void. It is the depth of his concentration under duress that compels. More than compels, exhilarates. The exhilaration is startling; draws me up short; makes me understand better why I am being drawn.
While Améry was intoning his measured European "we's," I kept hearing Seymour Krim calling out his exclamation point "I's." Something vital united this unlikely pair. Despite the inner tumult native to the American and the dramatic history inflicted on the European, each man, as he entered middle age, seemed overcome by the realization that he had not done the work necessary to attain inner freedom (that, of course, is what is driving Améry's obsession with age), the work Lawrence was referring to when he said, "Man is free only when he is doing what the deepest self likes, and knowing what the deepest self likes, ah! that takes some diving." Central to both Krim and Améry was that each one considered himself a failure because neither—by his own lights—had engaged with his own deepest self. Here was a pair of men widely separated by culture, geography, and focus—yet both haunted by the inability to have faced down their own youthful anxieties, to have made themselves dive.
It struck me then how each of them had made this common sorrow transmute into essays of great particularity by making out of himself a persona absolutely at one with the deeper "idiom" of his own culture—Krim's youthful preoccupation with success so American, Amery's Proustian exercise in loss equally European. Eachhad paid strict attention to the actuality of his own experience, at the same time framing that experience in the formative mind-set of the culture in which he had come of age.
Shortly after reading Krim and Améry, I read a pair of essays on marriage—again, one by an American and one by a European—that struck a similar chord. Each of these essays has a narrator who speaks strictly for herself and, at the same time, out of an inner environment clearly at one with the culture into which the writer had been born. These elements combined, it seemed to me, to form a rich compound that provided the basis for yet one more evocative example of how inventive an exercise the art of self-implication could be.
What follows is simply the flavor of both essays.
FOR BETTER AND WORSE
by Lynn Darling
"I was married ten years ago, on a brazenly warm day in January, from my father's house, in a dress my mother made, with the same blithe blindness that sends a bungee jumper off a bridge.
"I was thirty-four—not a young bride but about right for my narrow slice of the world: baby boomer, middle-class professional, exquisitely self-referential. My kind didn't marry young. In our twenties, marriage was about as hip as Tupperware parties ...
"I married the man I married because I liked his version of myself better than my own. I married him because I loved him, because I felt more real with him than I had felt with anyone else ... I married him because he loved Ford Madox Ford, because he made the perfect martini, because we could fight and the walls did not fall down, because he was more at home with being a man than any man I knew, because he shouldered responsibility with deceptive ease, and because his eyes welled up with tears elicited by the everyday grace of ordinary people.
"They were no better and no worse, as reasons go, than any others I've heard for getting married: Such decisions hinge on a trick of the light, a tick of the clock, the urgent call of an errant and unreliable heart ...
"The first Valentine's Day after we were married, my husband gave me bath towels. They were red towels, what are called 'seconds'—the kind with snagged threads and other flaws that consign them to the bargain shelves. There was a bow on the shopping bag by way of gift wrapping.
"I remember that I cried when I unfolded them. I was furious; the towels were a metaphor that blotted out the sun, shrieked across the reassuring hum of a gradually gathering dailiness. It was a romantic high noon, an emotional and historic accounting in which my husband was found sadly wanting. Now I would say that we were not really married then; we were still in teen-romance mode—he loves me, he loves me not—still riveted by thehigh drama and pitched emotion of courtship and passion, in which a passing glance can detonate a sudden emotional danger.
"What I can't remember any more is why I was so angry. The reasoning must have been something like this: I have staked everything on this man, and he is not what I thought; he is not the man who cries when he reads Ford Madox Ford. I have defined myself in terms of this choice, this man, and this is the kind of man he is, the Kind Who Gives Towels.
"I smile now when I remember this story, set back in the phase when marriage is still a mirror, reflecting back only one's carefully constructed, easily shattered conceit. Now my husband gives me bath towels every Valentine's Day, and every Valentine's Day I laugh. It has become part of our mythology. But the laughter is its own edgy commentary on how things have changed, how we have changed each other, how the two people who smile at this joke are indelibly stained with each other's expectations and disappointments, how who we are is a composite of who we might have been refracted through the lens of whom we married. The laughter is a counterpane, covering the lumps we've dealt each other, the scars left from the various surgeries we've performed on each other, the enthusiasms dampened so that a couple might emerge ...
"When I was single, I equated marriage with drowning: Your identity disappeared, your privacy wasinvaded, your self submerged. After I married, I found out that I was right; what I hadn't known was how much of an amphibian I could be ...
"All marriages are mended garments. In marriage, you don't make it all better; you get over it. By marrying, Robert Louis Stevenson warned, 'you have willfully introduced a witness into your life ... and can no longer close the mind's eye upon uncomely passages, but must stand up straight and put a name upon your actions.' Because if you don't, she will ...
" ... There is a depth of intimacy to domesticated love-making that nothing can equal; yet there are times when the idea of making love to just one person for the rest of your life can make your head hurt. So where does that leave us, apart from staring at the ceiling at three o'clock in the morning or at each other over the remnants of the tiramisu? I don't know. Marriage, when it works, is a mystery made up of such a complicated ebb and flow of affection, admiration, fury, ritual, and gradually unfolding understanding that with the right person it's not a bad way to live a life. But if it means giving up fire and first kisses, then it seems like more than a little death. So one is left with a simple choice: self-denial or betrayal, contentment or ecstasy, earth or fire, the lady or the tramp.
"Most of us choose not to take the risk while leaving open the loophole, in much the same way that I continue not to smoke only because I pretend that I haven't smoked my last cigarette ...
"But then it is a Sunday afternoon. My husband and I are playing Monopoly Junior with our daughter. Chet Baker's trumpet fills the room. I hated jazz when I was single, but now our marriage is steeped in this music, in the ways I have changed and the things I've come to know, in exasperation and elegance, in the poetry of dailiness, in the solace of each other's company. I see the ways my husband saved me, the ways I saved him. There is still pain in the phantom limbs lost in the making of this marriage, but in that moment the loss seems a manageable part of the trade. I see only the courage and kindness that marriage elicits, not the cost, and it seems to me that it gives us our only chance to be heroes. I want the song Baker is playing never to end."
HE AND I
by Natalia Ginzburg
"He always feels hot, I always feel cold. In the summer when it really is hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper on in the evening.
"He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well ...
"He has an excellent sense of direction, I have none at all ...
"He loves the theatre, painting, music, especially music. I do not understand music at all, painting doesn'tmean much to me and I get bored at the theatre. I love and understand one thing in the world and that is poetry ...
"He loves travelling, unfamiliar foreign cities, restaurants. I would like to stay at home all the time and never move.
"All the same I follow him on his many journeys. I follow him to museums, to churches, to the opera. I even follow him to concerts, where I fall asleep ...
"He is not shy; I am shy. Occasionally however I have seen him be shy. With the police when they come over to the car armed with a notebook and pencil. Then he is shy, thinking he is in the wrong.
"And even when he doesn't think he is in the wrong. I think he has a respect for established authority. I am afraid of established authority, but he isn't. He respects it. There is a difference. When I see a policeman coming to fine me I immediately think he is going to haul me off to prison. He doesn't think about prison; but, out of respect, he becomes shy and polite ...
"He likes tagliatelle, lamb, cherries, red wine. I like minestrone, bread soup, omelettes, green vegetables.
"He often says I don't understand anything about food, that I am like a great strong fat friar—one of those friars who devour soup made from greens in the darkness of their monasteries; but he, oh he is refined and has a sensitive palate ...
"Everything I do is done laboriously, with greatdifficulty and uncertainty. I am very lazy, and if I want to finish anything it is absolutely essential that I spend hours stretched out on the sofa. He is never idle, and is always doing something; when he goes to lie down in the afternoons he takes proofs to correct or a book full of notes; he wants us to go to the cinema, then to a reception, then to the theatre—all on the same day. In one day he succeeds in doing, and in making me do, a mass of different things, and in meeting extremely diverse kinds of people. If I am alone and try to act as he does I get nothing at all done, because I get stuck all afternoon somewhere I had meant to stay for half an hour, or because I get lost and cannot find the right street, or because the most boring person and the one I least wanted to meet drags me off to the place I least wanted to go to.
"If I tell him how my afternoon has turned out he says it is a completely wasted afternoon and is amused and makes fun of me and loses his temper; and he says that without him I am good for nothing.
"I don't know how to manage my time; he does ...
"I don't know how to dance and he does.
"I don't know how to type and he does ...
"I am very untidy. But as I have got older I have come to miss tidiness, and I sometimes furiously tidy up all the cupboards ... My tidiness and untidiness are full of complicated feelings of regret and sadness. His untidiness is triumphant. He has decided that it is properand legitimate for a studious person like himself to have an untidy desk.
"He does not help me get over my indecisiveness, or the way I hesitate before doing anything, or my sense of guilt ... Sometimes he does the shopping to show me how quickly he can do it ...
"And so—more than ever—I feel I do everything inadequately or mistakenly. But if I once find out that he has made a mistake I tell him so over and over again until he is exasperated. I can be very annoying at times.
"His rages are unpredictable, and bubble over like the head on beer. My rages are unpredictable too, but his quickly disappear whereas mine leave a noisy nagging trail behind them which must be very annoying—like the complaining yowl of a cat.
"Sometimes in the midst of his rage I start to cry, and instead of quietening him down and making him feel sorry for me this infuriates him all the more. He says my tears are just play-acting, and perhaps he is right. Because in the middle of my tears and his rage I am completely calm.
"I never cry when I am really unhappy ...
"When he was a young man he was slim, handsome and finely built; he did not have a beard but long, soft moustaches instead, and he looked like the actor Robert Donat. He was like that about twenty years ago when I first knew him, and I remember that he used to wear anelegant kind of Scottish flannel shirt. I remember that one evening he walked me back to the pensione where I was living; we walked together along the Via Nazionale. I already felt that I was very old and had been through a great deal and had made many mistakes, and he seemed a boy to me, light years away from me. I don't remember what we talked about on that evening walking along the Via Nazionale; nothing important, I suppose, and the idea that we would become husband and wife was light years away from me. Then we lost sight of each other, and when we met again he no longer looked like Robert Donat, but more like Balzac. When we met again he still wore his Scottish shirts but on him now they looked like garments for a polar expedition; now he had his beard and on his head he wore his ridiculous crumpled woollen hat; everything about him put you in mind of an imminent departure for the North Pole. Because, although he always feels hot, he has the habit of dressing as if he were surrounded by snow, ice and polar bears; or he dresses like a Brazilian coffee-planter, but he always dresses differently from everyone else.
"If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale, two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; twofriends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street."
What divides these essays is easily described. The American's is the work of a journalist interweaving social observation and personal testimony, claiming the experience of marriage for herself and her contemporaries, the voice one of urban sophistication riddled through with longing for the what might have been, its tone both ironic and lyrical; the Italian's that of a novelist producing a bill of particulars (her case rests on "he does this, I do that"), the voice all uninflected minimalism, its tone forthright and seemingly without judgment (deep into the is-ness of what is). But beneath the irony and the smart-ass nostalgia, Darling's essay mounts with singular gravity; and beneath the pose of bare-bones matter-of-factness, Ginzburg moves steadily toward an ending that leaves the reader staring into space. We see in her final paragraphs a pair of strangers, etched in memory, having little or nothing to do with the people that "he and I" have become: strangers who fell randomly together when they could just as easily have fallen randomly apart but didn't; and so the randomness got cemented into history and became marriage.
In each case the writer is discovering the mysterious inthe familiar. Looking hard at an experience on which everyone in the world has an opinion, she sees that she is a principal in a beloved situation about which she has serious misgivings. As a principal, she also sees that she is complicitous. It's the complicitousness that, again in each case, holds the writer's attention, makes her keep digging. The more she digs, the more surprised she becomes. Fixed even. Stunned, in fact. Stunned by what it actually means: being married. In both essays, the stun is central to the action of the piece. How extraordinary, when one comes to think of it, this compelling need to bend ourselves out of shape, rationalize a trade-off, endure an intermingling of gratitude and antagonism that will never separate out—all in order that we might mate. Our own eyes begin to widen as the starkness of the double bind sinks in.
It's the randomness, we now realize, that in both essays is the line of influence running strongly beneath the surface of the prose—the shock of it, the struggle over a lifetime to justify, account for, make sense of: why him? why not the one who came before, or the one after? And beneath the randomness—at the heart of the appraising "I" in each essay—a faint but distinct irritation in the voice permeating the very air that each piece breathes. This irritation flavors every nuance, every inflection, every slight tonal change. In it the reader hears the barely conscious, primal expectation—still alive in the amazement beneath the sophistication—that two should have been as one. It is an essence of persona in these pieces, that irritation;and the anxiety it speaks to, of whether or not to go it alone.
It was reading the essays together that had done it. If I hadn't read Darling first, then Ginzburg, then Darling again, I don't think I would have seen the depth and complexity of feeling that drives both pieces forward. As with Krim and Améry, the persona of each writer clarified, for me, each in relation to the other.
I realized that I was experiencing a familiar pleasure in an unfamiliar setting: the pleasure of reading in literary context: what one feels routinely when reading poems or novels but is hardly ever aware of, I think, with essays. Open a work of fiction or of poetry, and immediately a landscape of literature comes up on the inner screen of a reader's mind. Writers large and small take their place on that landscape, many of them connected with a signature piece of experience: Colette and erotic love, Stendhal and worldly longing, Willa Cather and the unlived life. Read a book dominated by passion or politics or quiet desperation, and—whether one is conscious of it or not—behind the reading moment—or rather inside it, under it, over it—floats, hovers, intrudes Colette, Stendhal, Cather. Their company is the context within which our present read is invariably made richer.
When I read Amery and heard Krim echoing in my ears, I now realized, I was beginning to see that essays could be read the way poems or novels are read, inside the same kind of context, the one that enlarges the relation between life and literature. Tolstoy, Flaubert, andH. G. Wells notwithstanding, I will not again think of marriage without flashing on both Lynn Darling and Natalia Ginzburg.
"He and I" is an essay rather than a memoir because the writer is using her persona to explore a subject other than herself: in this case, marriage. If it had been a memoir, the focus would have been reversed. Ginzburg would have been using marriage precisely to explore—illuminate, define—herself. That would have been her intention. Her simple intention, I might add.
A perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir is James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," a piece in which the writer takes a deep breath, inhaling the experience of himself in the world, then expels it through a viewpoint of such complex intentionality that the intersection between the self and the world becomes one of nearly perfect equality: neither being served at the expense of the other so that at one and the same time a subject is explored and self-definition is pursued. The opening paragraphs of Baldwin's famous essay demonstrate perfectly what I mean:
"On the 29th of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A fewhours after my father's funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker's chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the 3rd of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass ...
"I had not known [him] very well. We had got on badly, partly because we shared, in our different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride ... He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit and it frightened me, as we drove him to the graveyard through those unquiet, ruined streets, to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness now was mine."
What we have here is a narrator who is going to give us the history of the morning of August 3, 1943—Harlem in the middle of the Second World War—exactly as it entered into him, creating a composite portrait that will lend equal weight to his childhood landscape of black America and to the particular figures standing on it. He will lay this intricacy out so well that we will stand behind his eyes: see and feel it as he then saw and felt it; understand it as he now understands it. To achieve this doubleness of viewpoint—that of his very own self, that of his very shared blackness—he must plot a story, one that begins with the man in the coffin, the grim preacher father, who, we are told, was handsome:
"Handsome, proud, and ingrown, 'like a toe-nail,' somebody said ... He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainlythe most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else in him, buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful ... [All this] sometimes showed in his face when he tried, never to my knowledge with any success, to establish contact with any of us ... I do not remember, in all those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home."
The isolation inside the father is extended to the world: "He spent great energy and achieved, to our chagrin, no small amount of success in keeping us away from the people who surrounded us, people who had all-night rent parties to which we listened when we should have been sleeping, people who cursed and drank and flashed razor blades on Lenox Avenue ... [As for whites, needless to say, they] would do anything to keep a Negro down ... The best thing was to have as little to do with them as possible."
Baldwin had hated and resented the raging loneliness of the father, thought him deluded about the world (it couldn't be that bad), and had determined to experience himself in a place free of his deforming influence. The summer he was eighteen he'd left Harlem for the first time, gone to work in a war plant in New Jersey, and then, to his horror, had experienced the white world much as had his father before him:
"That year ... lives in my mind as though it were the year during which ... I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once this disease is contracted, one can never be really carefree again, for the fever, without an instant's warning, can recur at any moment. It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.
" ... I saw nothing very clearly [that year] but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart."
As the summer of 1943 draws on, the Baldwin family settles down to a period of awful waiting: the father's imminent death, the mother's last confinement. The narrator sees that the world around him is also settling down:
"All of Harlem, indeed, seemed to be infected by waiting. I had never before known it to be so violently still ... I had never before been so aware of policemen ... everywhere ... Nor had I ever been so aware of small knots of people. They were on stoops and on corners and in doorways, and what was striking about them, I think, was that they did not seem to be talking ... Another thing that was striking was the unexpected diversity of the people who made up these groups ... large, respectable,churchly matrons standing on the stoops or the corners with their hair tied up, together with a girl in sleazy satin whose face bore the marks of gin and the razor, or heavyset, abrupt, no-nonsense older men, in company with the most disreputable and fanatical 'race' men, or these same 'race' men with the sharpies, or these sharpies with the churchly women ... [S]omething heavy in their stance seemed to indicate that they had all, incredibly, seen a common vision, and on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow."
What they had all seen was the suffering they'd been hearing about in letters coming back to Harlem from friends and relatives in the army who'd been sent to training camps in the South. And what everyone on the street was now feeling was a great powerlessness, coupled with "that panic which can scarcely be suppressed when one knows that a human being one loves is beyond one's reach, and in danger." So bad was this feeling (about the black soldiers in Southern camps) that most people, that summer on Lenox Avenue, experienced "a peculiar kind of relief when they knew that their boys were being shipped out of the south, to do battle overseas ... [as though] the most dangerous part of a dangerous journey had been passed and ... now, even if death should come, it would come with honor and without the complicity of their countrymen. Such a death would be, in short, a fact with which one could hope to live."
The very next paragraph begins:
"It was on the 28th of July, which I believe was aWednesday, that I visited my father for the first time during his illness and for the last time in his life. The moment I saw him I knew why I had put off this visit so long. I had told my mother that I did not want to see him because I hated him. But this was not true. It was only that I had hated him and I wanted to hold on to this hatred."
The essay's singular insight is established: they hate us, we hate ourselves. The letters coming back from the training camps in the South, the riot in Detroit, the gatherings on the corners, the narrator's father dying alone in that "intolerable bitterness of spirit." We understand in our nerve endings: it is all one; they define one another.
So where does this leave the narrator? Hating whites and wishing them all dead? Of course not. "In order really to hate white people," he now observes, "one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and self-destructive pose. But this does not mean, on the other hand, that love comes easily: the white world is too powerful, too complacent, too ready with gratuitous humiliation, and, above all, too ignorant and too innocent for that. One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one's own reactions are always canceling each other out. It is this, really, which has driven so many people mad, both white and black."
At this point we feel keenly the derangement inherent in racism, and see clearly that our narrator has no intention of losing his mind. On the contrary, he has been writingto clear it: to make it function; to make it count. Interwoven throughout this impassioned piece of testament laced through with a novelist's sense of event is the long argument with himself that Baldwin at his best was to conduct in print for years to come:
"It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are ... [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now."
It was an ingenious dynamic that Baldwin was devising in "Notes of a Native Son," a back-and-forth between "us" and "them," between the white and the black in himself, that got worked into the large building blocks of his thought, and then into his very sentence structure. Inside the elastic tension of that sentence Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time. Not for our sake, for his own.
At the end of "Notes of a Native Son" when Baldwinsays he's stuck with having to keep two opposing ideas in his head at the same time, we realize that what he's talking about is the burden of civilization: of being civilized. We also realize that this is the real preoccupation of the essay, one that is reflected in the writing: in its remarkable steadiness of voice, its tight control over rhetoric, its freedom from emotionalism. As he writes, the narrator is becoming the very thing he is writing about: he is civilizing himself. It is his tone of voice that carries the message: more than carries it: becomes it. The narrator's tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.
Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" and Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" have a powerful commonality. Both turn on race, both continuously interweave the personal with the political, and both are dominated by a murderous truth-speaking voice: the narrator using himself to demonstrate that none are exempt from the dehumanizing effects of racism. At the same time, in neither case is the writing pulled around by the emotions that actually drive the essay. Orwell, too—composing paragraph after paragraph of measured narrative, analysis, and commentary so that the writing itself is continually bringing the heat of reaction under control—is holding it all together through the hard, clear, civilizing voice he was making distinctively his own; "civilizing" being the operative word.
The story here, as in other personal essays, is the large sense that the writer is making of his own participation in the situation. But in these pieces the balance between the world and the self has more than equalized, and sent thenarrator shifting downward and inward. In both "Notes of a Native Son" and "Shooting an Elephant" a rare depth of inquiry into the self suffuses the prose. It's the depth of inquiry that guides the personal narrative from essay into memoir.
Copyright © 2001 by Vivian Gornick