When in 1997, Jeanette Winterson published her first novel, Oranges Are not The Only Fruit, she found her inspiration in her childhood, portraying under a thin veil of fiction her Pentecostal mother terrifying both daughter and husband in a house where rules led often to abuse. And the fierce Mrs W. – as the mother is most often referred to- was not fooled. In a strange phone call – “I went to a phone box – I had no phone. She went to a phone box – she had no phone.” – the estranged mother explained that for the first time in her life she had to order something under a false name, and that her reading confirmed her doubts: “… if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?” she asked her daughter. And she continued, “it’s not true”.
“Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? the photographer frames the shot; writers frames their world.”
Writes Jeanette Winterson fifteen years later as she has now decided to reframe her story, and abandons the illusion of fiction. But if Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a memoir of an adoption, of a botch childhood, of abuse and misery inflicted by a fundamentalist christian mother and a self-effacing father, it is also – and that’s personally my favorite part – the story of a young girl becoming a reader and then a writer.
The only books allowed in the Winterson household were the Bible, a few commentaries and Jane Eyre, six books altogether. Four year old Jeanette learned to read in Genesis, and from there devoured whatever written page she could put her hands on. While her mother had a system – every night she would read the sacred text aloud to her daughter and husband, and when she was done with Apocalypse, she would leave them a week to reflect on what they had heard before starting again at the beginning – Jeanette early on also devised her own stategies for her secret readings. Since she did not know where to start and had no one to advise her, she simply decided to read from the “A” shelves in the local library and work her way through Z, limiting herself at first to prose and fiction. Years of reading and discoveries ensued – with in the end some help from the librarians that were intrigued by this strange and resilient reader – and when around thirteen she got a job – a few hours after school and on Saturdays – she used the money to buy books eager to own words and start building her personal library:
“Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.
There is a warmth there too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep.”
But one day her mother noticed that her mattress was strangely raised and found underneath paperbacks she had been hiding. Thrown outside, set on fire, the stash disappeared in a blaze under Jeanette’s eyes. Who the next day realized that there was a way for her to keep the words, not matter what: “‘Fuck it’ I thought, ‘I can write my own’.”
A writer was born.
Breaks are made (in part) to catch up with reading, specifically those books for which there is no possible work – research related justification… The ones you read only out of curiosity, pleasure. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir on widowhood – simply titled A Widow’s Story - is one of them. I found it in the piles at my parents house, and taking advantage of the wee hours of jetlag, devoured the first hundred and fifty pages in the middle of the night. As usual with Oates, it reads well, it’s griping, and one turns pages without even noticing.. Until, after another hundred it starts to get a bit too long, at which point I have to admit I skip paragraphs, and even pages. A journal of the weeks, months following the death of Oates husband of “forty-seven years and twenty-five days”, this memoir retains its original diaristic form, and as a consequence is sometimes repetitive. I feel guilty writing «repetitive» as what I have in mind here are the emotions of the writer, who, sure enough, as might be expected, experiences day after day a similar range of emotions, contemplating her life turned upside down in a less than a week (Raymond Smith was taken ill with pneumonia to the nearest emergency room, and as everybody thought he was coming home, he died in a few hours from an infection acquired at the hospital), her sudden solitude, and how much of her life was woven into his life and vice-versa. So in its repetitions, the text seems to be therapeutic for its author, but at times tedious for the reader… Personally, I can forgive Oates, if only because her prose fascinates me, mesmerizes me to a point of oblivion.. and forgiveness… And who could not forgive a woman who has lost the love of her life, the person she’s been with since her student’s years, the man who accompanied her through her literary rise?
Though, before the year was over – and within the period covered by the journal – Oates had met another man, who she married just a month after Smith’s death first anniversary. A controversy ensued the publication: why is the reader not made aware of the encounter, the growing romance and in the end, the wedding? In the last few pages, she gives the reader a hint – too subtle for me, I did not get it…- though the memoir never varies from its mournful, self-interrogating tone. So the question many raised was why the omission? and how would the revelation change our reading of the book?
Again I read this memoir just as if it had been another of her novels, hypnotized by the words, cradled by the rhythm, and interested by the feelings explored. But this twist in the narrative poses questions about what memoirs are, what they should “do”, how we can “trust” their narrator – and frankly what “trust” means in this context. I read an increasingly number of memoirs – out of taste and of professional necessity – and these few sentences excerpted from Oates’ answer to her detractors gave me food for thought:
A memoir is most helpful when it focuses upon immediate experience, not a clinical, subsequent summation from what would be the “future” of the individual in the throes of an unpredictable and uncontrollable experience; certainly another memoir might focus upon the recovery and the (temporary?) “after-life.” It is not a charge against grief that it can’t last as pure, raw grief for very long—as one who is tortured, but survives, has not been less tortured because she has survived. To elide the two experiences would violate the actual, literal, “existential” experience of having had cancer, for instance, for the ontological predicament of not-knowing-the-future is inextricable from the experience itself. If one knew beforehand that she would be cancer-free within a year, that would yield a very different sort of perspective.
Last Spring there was a raging debate in the US over the notion of «memoir», of what a memoir could/should be, how it should be written, etc. The debate is still on, and when this week a blog post announced the publication of the English translation of Emmanuel Carrère’s book, Lives other than my own, I wondered if it would bring a new perspective to the discussion. In France memoirs do not constitute a genre of its own, with a separate spot on the shelves of bookstores. Usually found within «Literature», it is a genre that is rarely singled out (in the same way, political memoirs will be found with books on current events & politics, and so forth). This Fall, a traditionally very busy season in French publishing, there are a number of memoirs, or books that would be seen as such in the US, coming out . But again they are rarely labelled that way, maybe because authors and publishers prefer to entertain the blur between fiction and non-fiction and promote the idea that in the end it is all literature. Books appears under the same often austere jackets (some of the most prestigious «maisons» – publishing houses – established their image through pictureless covers, the colors or paper texture being their trademark, almost a sign of nobility…Think the creamy off-white of Gallimard, the yellow of Grasset, or in Carrère’s case the textured white covers of P.O.L)
Before leaving Paris, I had a conversation with a friend, – editor and writer herself – with whom we always marvelled at the American mastery of this «thing» called Creative non-fiction. And we came to discuss Carrère’s book, finding that it certainly stands closest to the American notion of memoir. Because the book is a memoir built in a diptych. In the first part the author remembers the day of and days after the 2004 Tsunami in Tangalle, Sri Lanka, where he was vacationing with his girlfriend and their repective sons, and how they took a role in another family’s tragedy, a young couple losing a child to the Big Wave. Equally overshadowed by death the second part retraces the life and death of his sister-in-law, a young judge, mother of three, who dies when the the cancer that has plagued her since youth recurs. In order to better understand Juliette’s professional and personal life, Carrere leads his own investigation, and as a result paints a fascinating portray of the quotidian of this magistrate, her battles, her challenges and successes. Closer to US creative non-fiction and memoirs – a mix of personal experience with a more general view of the context – that part of the book was for me the most successful.
In memoirs, the authority of the narrator is often discussed, how credible he/she is, how she deals with erratic memories, how he expresses – or better, shows – emotions, what can render the story if not universal – I do not like the notion – at least relevant for most. Carrere is not gentle with his readers: he assumes his position of voyeur – if he is touched, even grieved at some point, it is always over dramas he witnesses without being directly emotionally involved. And in the distance he exhibits, there is discomfort, source of anger, frustration for the reader. But somehow he kept me under a spell: the writing? certainly. The story? true for part 2. The enigma that this unclassifiable work represent? yes, up to the last line.
Very curious now to see what will be the reactions in the US creative non-fiction community…
* photo: moss on a wall of the Château de Chambord
Reading yesterday a blog post / interview about and with William Giraldi, my attention was caught by his statement about reading : “I don’t enjoy writing,” Giraldi said. “I enjoy reading.”, and he shared with his audience his concern about so many wanna-be writers who do not consider that reading as part of the writer’s life, who have not and do not read… Before MFAs and other workshops, the only training a writer would refer to was the reading school: read as much as one can possibly do, and find in those reading the very substance essential to the art of writing. And unfortunately, I have to agree with Giraldi, being like him struck by the number of writers or apprentices who do not read and do not see this as a paradox.
Earlier in the summer I read The Summing up, where Somerset Maugham attempted to «give a coherent picture of [his] feelings and opinions» as a writer, as a thinker. Not a memoir in the conventional sense of the term, The Summing up is an exploration of the life of the mind, of the material that – literally – built the writer in him. And, as one can expect, reading is at the heart of his experience. Here are few of his thoughts on the matter, some of the ones I keep now on my desk…
“To me reading is a rest as to other people conversation or a game of cards. It is more than that; it is a necessity, and if I am deprived of it for a little while I find myself as irritable as the addict deprived of his drug. I would sooner read a time-table or a catalogue than nothing at all.”
“The writer can only be fertile if he renews himself and he can only renew himself if his soul is constantly enriched by fresh experience. There is no more fruitful source of this than the enchanting exploration of the great literatures of the past.”
“No reading is worth while unless you enjoy it”
And this one for the writers among us:
“Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do. We do not write because we want to; we write because we must.”
“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” writes Juliet Ashton, the main narrator, in one of her early letters to Dawsey Adams, the man who arises her interest for the island and its history.
I’m close to believing in this homing instinct myself, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an “accidental read,” as I mentioned in my preceding post. Accidental not only in its circumstances but also in its language: I read it in the French edition I was given. Thought it is not uncommon for me to read some originally published in English works in French (most of the time for work purposes, i.e. a need for quoting in French), it’s not that often, and several times during the reading I could feel in transparency the rhythm of the English original and missed it. When done with it, realizing I wanted to quote from it (reverse proposition from what I explained earlier), I ended up getting a copy in English… (This is kind of typical of my mixed-up life in between two languages… More about this in another post). But to come back to the homing proposition, I was struck by the expression which not only reflected what I often found in my own reading wanderings but also fitted so well this very experience and how I came to read this very book. A gift rediscovered in dangerously high piles (see picture)… In any case it was difficult to put it down, and I was sad to let it go. One of the reasons again is its everyday nature, the fact that it is grounded in the daily rhythm of life. As such it could go on forever.. and in my mind will. Though it would be nice if somebody would pick up the pen where Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows put it down, and continue to write those letters in the voice of Juliet, Sophie, Sydney, Dawsey, and so many others. And one day, Kit would be old enough to have her own voice too…