18 October 2012

On Memoir, continuing

The phone says it should be raining (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) but the early morning stars are clearly visible. Outside the black cat has eaten breakfast and stares interestedly into the cabin. I suspect should the temperature drop a few dozen degrees (it is now 50 degrees) the cat will enter the warm room as if it owned the place and I were the interloper. I’ll go running in a bit.
I’ve been immersed in book-reading over the past several months. I move from text to text, novel to novel with relative ease and comfort. It is a guilty pleasure to enter into the world of the books, to leave this world behind and enjoy adventuring in another place.  Though I think at times that this activity occurs with one foot in the book and the other in this world. And a pencil in my hand. In Nabokov’s Speak Memory, I read that he kept hundreds of well-sharpened pencils about him for his writing. I have a pencil sharpener at each of the desks at which I work.
And I find that right now I can’t stop reading Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir recounting his life and focusing in detail on the twelve years he lived under the fatwa for having written and published The Satanic Verses. I don’t know that I am avoiding anything else: I purchased the book because it is a memoir and I am fascinated my memoirs. I keep asking, Who are these people that I should know their lives? Who are these people that they tell their lives? I understand (I think) the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin that is meant to portray the exemplary American life that should be practiced by everyone; I almost understand the autobiography of Augustine, whose path to faith should be the model for a similar route for the rest of humanity; and I believe that The Education of Henry Adams means to portray the (radical) times through the critical eyes of the historian and cultural seer.  But I have been reading memoirs and autobiographies for some time (I teach a class in autobiography) and I can only understand them as exemplars of narrative style, an emphasis that transforms the memoir into a work of fiction. A good memoir might be a great novel. Zuckerman tells Roth about the autobiography the author has sent to him for evaluation: “Even if it’s no more than one percent that you’ve edited out, that’s the one percent that countsthe one percent that’s saved for your imagination and that changes everything . . . With autobiography there’s always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented.” I agree. And I think that that countertext is always a novel. So it must be, too, with The Education of Henry Adams, the Confessions of Augustine, and all the other autobiographies and memoirs I have read and will continue to read. Some of the novels are better than others.
Joseph Anton is a novel about a man who actually wrote a novel that was condemned as blasphemous fact, and the author of that novel was cruelly condemned to violent death as a result. The story recounts his descent into absence, invisibility, rage and madness. The story concerns freedom, a subject in which I have some interest, and the right to air ideas in the world without danger. Joseph Anton is a novel about the pusillanimity of too many of the world’s leaders when confronted with unreason, a subject I daily experience; Joseph Anton is the story of the frightening consequences religious fanaticism has on the world and on the individual, a subject reported almost daily in the newspapers; Joseph Anton is the story of great friendship and loyalty, and also of human cravenness and greed. Actually, Joseph Anton is an autobiography that in its 600 pages leaves out at least one percent of the life lived but that covers life fascinating and wonderful detail. I think Joseph Anton is a wonderful novel very important to an understanding (even an appreciation!) of our age. 
The book requires attention than I give it here, but I want to get back to the book, even though I know how it ends. I am not reading it to get to the end; I am reading to enjoy the narration.


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