Annie Dillard–An American Childhood
Patricia Hampl–A Romantic Education
One of the magical moments in a writer’s life is the moment when you read something with a sense of recognition--I can do that too!! Seamus Heaney describes his unpleasant adventures with frog spawn and tadpoles in a poem called “The Death of a Naturalist.” –the naturalist he now knows he will never be.
However, the converse is also true. Anne Sexton writes about how she heard John Berryman read his poems aloud when she was 28, and how she realized in that moment that she was a writer. Marc Chagall tells how he discovered his artistic vocation while watching a fellow student draw. “How do you do that? ” he asked.” It’s easy, you blockhead,” the student replied. (Chagall, a working-class Jew, studied in a school for Russian children because his mother had bribed the headmaster). “Get a book from the library, and copy the pictures.” The library? Chagall persevered, and, well, became Marc Chagall.
One of my own moments of recognition–of reading something which came very close to my own experience, and what I thought were my abilities to render it happened when I read A Romantic Education by Patrica Hampl. The Catholic family united around enormous meals, with food a shorthand for love, power, competition… The childish sense of snugness in such a family. I still remember phrases several years later, “Come Eat,” the cri du couer of middle Europe. Falling asleep watching the talismanic figure of a wizard on a coffee tin.
Trish describes her Catholic upbringing in a convent school, her love of beauty, her attempts at writing poetry, and then a trip to Czechoslakia, where her grandmother, who worked in Minneapolis as a housekeeper was originally from. She renders golden Praha beautifully– I made a mental note to go there one day, and well, I am writing this from Prague.
However, the Iron Curtain has blown away since she wrote her book, and it is a different, plusher Prague. Poverty is not good for the human spirit, and I am glad the genteel older man who picked us up at the airport and drove us to our hotel no longer suffers from it. The Prague Trish describes with women offering to exchange rings with her as a token of friendship–exchanging worthless trash for her grandmother’s garnet ring; women squeezing favours out of her in exchange for promised sausage (which never appears)– has apparently gone with the wind, and good riddance.
SARA SULERI, MEATLESS DAYS:
An engaging post-colonial memoir
I have read this memoir twice, and really enjoyed it.
Sara grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, the daughter of a gentle Welshwoman, and an irascible Pakistani father (who had left his first wife, and first cousin, to marry her).
Her mother taught English, and presumably Sara grew up immersed in literature. I like her style, and twisted, contorted, almost Shakespearean diction.
Her memoir is elegiac, and imbued with sadness. Her beautiful and beloved sister Ifat was murdered (rumour said she was run over by her husband), her mother was also run over and killed. Her father was imprisoned. Tragedy stalked the family much as it did the Bhuttos.
But, through it all, runs vivid memories of a vivid childhood, her camera lovingly focusing on gol-guppas, the long wait to see the first sliver of moon at Ramadan, or the obscenities of Pakistani cuisine–she discovers a favourite dish is actually the balls of goats!! Her father, gently mocked, rebelled against, but loved and admired is the most vivid figure in the book.
Her memoir loving renders a third world childhood in a prose of her own, which owes much to the stylists of the English Renaissance, Thomas Browne, John Donne, and Mr. Shakespeare, of course. It is not an easy read, since she deliberately opts for a strange, pretzel like style–but it is a delicious and rewarding read. It is one of my favourite subcontinental memoirs.
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The Magical Moment in Which You Realize that You Are, or Will Be a Writer
Anne Sexton said she realized that she was a poet (I suppose she meant that she had the capacity to be a poet) while watching John Berryman read on TV.
It really a magical moment, the sort of moment in fairy tales when Snow White or Sleeping Beauty discover that they really are princesses.
My own moment came in two installments. In my early twenties I started writing poetry in a rush. And it was like,”Okay, I love this, I can do it. Not as well as Keats, okay, but well enough to give me, and perhaps some others, pleasure.”
My next moment happened several years later. I was reading a description of a family united around the consumption of gargantuan meals in Patricia Hampl’s “A Romantic Education,” and thought “Yes, that’s like my family. I can do this too.” Around that time, I read Annie Dillard’s “An American Childhood” about a bookish and privileged childhood in a steel town much like Jamshedpur, India, where I grew up, each chapter about a different passion or obsession, and I thought, “Yes, I can do this. And this is how.”
Life intervened in the form of two children, health issues, the need to work to pay for the girls’ private school education, but now I am back to writing happily, hoping to complete my memoir, and my slender volume of poetry.
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I am in the second or third draft of my own memoir, and have finally solved the problem of structure, I believe.
However, when you come across a memoir whose structure is sheer genius what can your jaw do but drop?
I have loved Cider with Rosie for well over a decade. Laurie Lee’s writing in patches is so exquisite, so perfect, it almost makes me want to cry with pleasure. He writes of his mother, of her invincible childlike gaiety and good nature, a kind, noble soul, betrayed and abandoned by the husband who was the love of her life, whose sudden death tilted her over into dementia, “
If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” Lee’s
Nabokov’s prose is so beautiful, that all one can do is sigh. My copy has vanished somewhere in my piles of books in the course of many moves, but when I find it, I will type some sentences out.
Nabokov wrote his book in English, of course, but he was trilingual (Russian, French and English) from an early age, and his English has the sort of contorted, pretzel-like strangeness one frequently finds in the (perfectly correct) English prose of the bi-lingual–I think of the prose of Sara Suleri and Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy.
Nabokov describes, as one of his chapter titles puts it, a “Past Perfect,” a happy Russian boyhood, with books, and governesses, and wealth, and adoration, and time to pursue his many interests–butterflies, chess, books.
He was brilliant, and more importantly, blessed with a relatively easy-going temperament that enabled him to take the massive reverses of the Russian Revolution in his stride without bitterness, but with a philosophic, even amused, equanimity. That same essential stability of temperament enabled a happy and nourishing marriage amid all the vicissitudes of the emigre’s life.
If anything, being forced to produce literature to keep afloat sharpened the saw, but to his credit, did not blunt the oddness in him that gave him the courage to produce that most odd but stylistically and linguistically beautiful and heartbreaking book, “Lolita.”
A wonderful portrait of a vanished world! Full of sunlight and butterfly filled fields, and books and love!
And here, across the Atlantic is a similar childhood, Thomas Merton’s in The Seven Storey Mountain!
For a decade or two, I preferred reading memoirs to fiction. The best are as well-written, and with as much craft. But they are “true”.
V.S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door is memorable. His father was a petty tyrant, schemer, dreamer, manipulator. He was inexcusably selfish. He plunged his family into poverty, while indulging himself in petty luxuries–oysters, clothes, lace, pianos.
He perpetually skirted financial disaster, and there was always “A Cab at the Door” as the title says, for yet another move under duress.
There are memorable vignettes. His father lolling in an armchair, legs splayed out, while his mother kneels before him, trying to get off his tight boots. His father eating oysters, while they watched. His father spending lavishly on himself, and niggardly on them.
The marriage, he memorably says, was ” a marriage of the rich and the poor.”
I remember reading that much later, Pritchett discovered that his father had another family, who were provided for in an even more niggardly manner. His half-sister has written a book about her childhood, farmed out to an old woman who would have her massage her nipples for hours at a time!! The Pritchetts had no idea of this family’s existence.
I conclude with an except from Thomas Lask’s New York Times Review, “Through it all, Mr. Pritchett’s mind and spirit grew, though it was squeezed and stifled in an environment hostile to art and learning. Irregularly educated and never in contact either through print or person with anything that could show him the possibilities of a life he desired, he had to live with his undisclosed and inchoate yearning. He did not know where to turn. He describes with painful recollection the humiliation he had to undergo as his father read with scorn a piece of schoolboy writing. He could not live at home, but there was so little independence in the family that he could not break away either. When he left at 20, he did it with subterfuge. He said he was going on a holiday to France, but he knew he would never return.
A novelist, short story writer, author of superb travel books, and also a critic, he has provided an engrossing document and a first-hand look at England in the first two decades of the century. It reads so quickly and is so engaging that the reader finds himself becoming unconsciously partisan, as impatient and restless as the young hero for the great day when he will be on his own.”