23 October 2012


It is thundering outside and despite the hour (almost 7:00 am) the sky remains dark. I won’t run today. When I was younger I could not be deterred from my daily run; I arose sometimes at 4:00 am to maintain my training for some event or because I was suffering some neurotic episode. I ran through rain and snowstorms, ran in the heat and the cold, the light and the dark, alone and in company. Once in Colorado I set out on a brisk cold morning in only my shorts and t-shirt because I thought the weather in that Western state might be warmer than in Wisconsin. I caught a serious cold. One hot, muggy afternoon in New York City I set out on a ten-mile run through Central Park because . . . well, because I could do so. I experienced heat exhaustion. But as I’ve aged the sense of mortality too readily impinges on my consciousness, I sometimes look for an excuse not to run, and the thunderstorm today in this late October offers me that respite.
I have finished Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, as part of a larger project studying memoirs and autobiographies. Roth calls the genre the “most manipulative of all literary forms.” I have come around to that opinion myself. Not that I do not read memoirs and autobiographies for I do, I do! The voyeur in me longs either for some window onto revealed truth, or a revelation of some scandalous insight; or a graphic depiction of a salacious scene. Alas, thus far, nothing! Actually, I teach a course centered in autobiographybut I have come to appreciate the genre better when understood as fiction than as fact. I have come to read these memoirs and autobiographies as novels: looking for narrative choice, for character, for plot and literary tropes. Then the potential for some insight into my living increases exponentially. Naming himself Joseph Anton, Rushdie says, “turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well.” I felt sanctioned in my reading of his memoir as a novel, though in fact I didn’t need his approval. Later in the book Rushdie says, “Writers had always worked close to the bull, like matadors, had played complex games with autobiography, and yet their creations were more interesting than themselves.” I’ve come around to that opinion myself. It has been much more interesting to read Joseph Anton (and all of the other memoirs accumulating on my shelf) as novels rather than as autobiographies. And I must say I have read a number of poor novels of late.
Ultimately, I don’t know why I read these memoirs/autobiographies in the first place: who cares? What is Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her? I am skeptical of most everything I read in these memoirs: even good old Ben Franklin had ulterior motives that served as his editor in this most quintessential American autobiography. As Zuckerman says, “what’s on the page is like a code for something missing.” One writes an autobiography not to report a life but to invent one! It is all fiction in the end. Mrs. Zuckerman comments on Roth’s autobiography: “He’s making everything signify something, when in life I don’t believe it does.” I agree with her. There is a great deal in Joseph Anton (like the seemingly interminable dropping of the names of the rich and famous with whom Joseph Anton socializes) that just has no significance except as a trope by which the reader (read me) characterizes the narrator. And though the circumstances of Rushdie’s story interests me somewhat and offers me insight into the world and times in which we all live, the character of the narrator narrated becomes the story told. Joseph Anton is a novel about someone I would not care to know. But as a novel I employ other critical tools in my reading and I found too much for which I did not care.
I have learned to read novels listening for what is left unsaid, and now I have learned to read autobiographies similarly and question what truths I expect to discover in them. Zuckerman says that we judge the author of a novel aesthetically, by how well he or she tells the story, but that we judge the author of the autobiography ethically: to what extent we believe s/he tells the truth! But since no one can narrate fully the story of his or her life, then what is recorded is always selected with some motive, exactly the technique of the novelist. Understanding that motive and its organizing imperative becomes the interest of the reading and the ‘life’ written becomes only plot. In the autobiography as novel I am concerned with the question to which the book is an answer—and I try to reconstruct from the answer the question. The autobiographer is the pretense and not the subject.
Reading is an ethical enterprise: it is I who makes meaning and I must take responsibility for that meaning. But reading also engages me in ethics: when I read I consider who does the author think I am, and I wonder who does the author want me to be or even to become? In the autobiography the narrator has an audience in mind: how have I been positioned as that audience? How might the author intend in my reading that I be transformed? The author of the autobiography writes immersed in a particular life-world; when I read I wonder into what world does the author invite me, and then I consider whether I want to go into that world? If I read in this way then the author of the novel and the author of the autobiography are conflated as types and I may appreciate either genre similarly. In this reading I feel less like a voyeur and more like an intellectual. 


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