Journal-keeping and memoirs

This comment from a friend of mine, who wrote in a recent letter to me: “I’ve been reading Christopher Pratt’s memoir titled Ordinary Things. It’s very good. Apparently he kept journals and diaries throughout his life and he has put the best of them together in this engaging book. I dream of doing the same sort of thing myself since I, too, have kept journals for nearly 50 years.”

I’ve included below  a  link to a review in The Chronicle Herald, at the top of the year. This, along with my friend’s recommendation, makes me want to read Ordinary Things.

Was the first serious graphic narrative a memoir?

George Elliot Clarke, Nova-Scotian born author, poet and academic, who now teaches literature at the University of Toronto, wrote about graphic novels (narratives) in his March 21st column in The NovaScotian (The Sunday Herald). He describes these narratives as “…illustrations that are themselves stories, plus plot-and-character-developing words that spell out what the pictures alone cannot….”  I’ve only seen a few of these graphic novels, and that was recently, too. Didn’t know they existed before January of this year! I love the idea of them – while mostly  seem to be impervious to their popular charms.

That said, I am interested in the book that Clarke mentions, Maus (1986), by Art Spiegelman, “a Pulitzer-prize winning memoir of the author’s parents’ survival of Nazi Europe….” Clarke says this memoir “is often considered the first serious graphic narrative.” But in fact, he continues, “there was an earlier work: Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip…a bizarre concoction…[and] Essentially a rewrite of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice…[where] we see Orfi – a rock star – descend into the subterranean hell of Milan, in search of Eura, his beloved. They meet but just as the myth insists, they also part.” Etcetera! Not so sure about this one, but the Speigelmen memoir, definitely.

Running with Scissors – Augusten Burroughs

Augusten Burroughs, some critics like to say, “goes where other memoirists fear to tread.”

I am not sure if this is exactly true – but god knows he is a brave writer. I just finished reading Running with Scissors, which I made myself read from a psychological distance – because otherwise, I might have vomited, and any number of times.

From Buroughs’ website: “Augusten’s second book [Running with Scissors] was a memoir. It was also a publishing phenomenon that helped to ignite a kind of memoir fever in America and abroad. Running with Scissors was released in 2001 to virtually unanimous critical acclaim. The memoir would ultimately remain on the New York Times bestseller list for over four consecutive years, eight months of which were spent in the #1 position….”

This is wonderful achievement. And if even half of what Burroughs writes is true (I believe it is: it had “the ring”), I say god bless him and long may his success last. But beyond this, I find it hard to write about him in a sustained manner. As directed, I’ve read the book and today, all I really want to do is push that experience and all its yucky lingering feelings away from me, as far as possible.  I agree that his sense of humour is original and keen. I also think his memoir(s) is a culmination of the “horror memoirs” that might have begun with Christina Crawford’s memoir, Mummy Dearest. (Not really sure when these “tell-alls” by adult children of famous parents began; must check.)  I think Burroughs is a fine writer and he needed these memoirs of his the way we all need air. And water, shelter and love. How some people survive and then defy their childhoods, remains a mystery to me….

So again, this latest reading venture is over and done with, and perhaps I can discuss the book more critically and in depth, another time.

One last interesting note: Burroughs counts among his dear friends the author Haven Kimmel, who wrote A Girl Named Zippy. Now that memoir I enjoyed, for all that it was odd and occasionally gut-dicing. I wonder how Kimmel and Burroughs came to be friends?

The Yearling – enduring lit or horror show?

All right, you’ve caught me.  I took a short break from memoirs to read a novel.  Reading fiction helps me to come back to memoirs with fresh eyes. Fiction or non-fiction, the reader wants a gripping story and fine writing. And so I like to dip into the “classics” now and again, to see why some books endure.

The Yearling, by American writer Marjorie (great name) Kinnan Rawlings, was published in 1938. It is considered a resonant work of literature, along the lines of Black Beauty or The Grapes of Wrath.  I choose these two books deliberately, because one illustrates the unspeakable cruelty man visits upon beast, and the other, the unspeakable cruelty poverty visits upon man. The Yearling speaks to both these subjects.

And more. Set in the woods of inland Florida, the novel is a tender song to the untender wilds of the southern state. The protagonist is Jody Baxter, who lives with his family, father Penny Baxter and mother, Ora Baxter. The Baxters  share their lives with working and farm animals – hunting dogs, a horse, a cow – and spend their lives killing animals:  panthers, bears, wolves, squirrels, deer, possums, rattlesnakes, alligators and more. They do this primarily to eat, though their nearest neighbours, the Forrestors, kill animals as much for pleasure as sustenance or safety.

Dispatchings aside, Penny respects animals and teaches his son to respect them too. Jody’s respect, however, tips over into love. A lonely only child, Jody longs for companionship beyond the parental circle. And so he adopts, with his father’s permission, an orphan fawn. Flag the fawn becomes the centre of his life.

In truth, I was uneasy from that moment on. How could there possibly be a happy ending when a wild creature shares its life with those who, among other incompatibilities, regularly kill its brethren? Add to this the propensity for deer to eat anything a gardener might grow, and you can already hear Ora Baxter screaming as she chases Flag out of their life-sustaining acreage.

I loved Kinnan Rawlings’ writing and I loved the use of dialogue to make a particular people and a particular time and place real. I also loved the experience of reading about a people, time and place I knew little to nothing about. How wonderful to have that experience as a 51-year-old, inveterate reader!

But by the end, I felt oddly betrayed by the book and, of course, its creator. I felt betrayed because I wanted to believe that at heart, the novel was a love story between a man and his son. And yes, there is a generous love shared between the two males. Penny Baxter,  a small, decent man, who “studies” (thinks on) the natural world, understands many of its complex movements, and retains a life-long fascination for the equally complex world of wild animals.   Jody Baxter, his much-loved boy, who is learning the way of men – or at least the way of hard-scrabble country men, who live to hunt and hunt to live.  But the harshness of survival makes puny and irrelevant the love father and son give one another.

The moment of betrayal comes in the form of a father asking a son to kill the almost-equivalent of a flesh-and-blood sibling, Jody’s beloved fawn Flag. I could barely believe the words I read. No, I thought, this is out of character, he wouldn’t ask Jody to do this. Then it gets worse, in how exactly the fawn does meet his death. I’ll spare you details. I actually choked on my tears. The betrayal was epic.

In fairness, Kinnan Rawlings leaves not one loose end. The reader comes to understand Penny’s behaviour in a profound, if still deeply sad, way. The reader also comes to understand that the betrayal actually occurred the second Penny gave his approval for Jody to adopt the fawn, not when he asks him to shoot it. Penny Baxter knew better.

And yet the desire to bring pleasure to a loved one is irresistible:

[Penny said:} “I’ve wanted life to be easy for you. Easier’n ’twas for me. A man’s heart aches, seein’ his young uns face the world. Knowin’ they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then? What’s he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.”

Take it for his share and go on. Killer book. Enduring literature or horror show? For me, both. Not everyone has the connection to animals that I do, though. All the same, I like to think that any sensitive reader would be moved by this honest and layered story of a family who loves, loses, and goes on, as all families must.

originality versus authenticity; and, goodbye to the novel

The following quote is from The Globe and Mail’s book section, February 27, 2010. Novelist Catherine Bush reviews David Shield’ new book, Reality Hunger, A Manifesto.

“There’s a new movement afoot, [Shields] declares, that favours the deliberately unarty and yanks in larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ – yet, crucially, remains conscious of and up-front about what it’s up to. Shield’s ideal literature must stay ‘true,’ you might say, to the problems of representing anything. Maybe he’d also echo the words of Germany’s new writing sensation, Helene Hegemann, who, when caught lifting whole pages from another [writer] in her bestselling, possibly autobiographical, novel, shrugged off the controversy by declaring, ‘There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.’ As in: If it feels authentic, then it is?”

In the same article, Bush writes: “While [Shields] acknowledges the history of reinvention inherent in the novel’s name and form, he would really like to shove the novel aside in favour of the essay, and make ‘essay,’ from the French essai, with all its connotations of searching and striving, the go-to term to describe all hybrid and formally inventive work, even as he particularly favours work rooted in a first-person, subjective exploration of world and self.”