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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by


John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »


A Library Without Books, and Other News

August 25, 2014 | by


Florida Polytechnic University's new library is bookless. Photo: Rocket Science Photography / Florida Polytechnic University, via the Los Angeles Times

  • We’d all like to believe in untranslatable words. It’s such a romantic thought: that there exist out there, like undiscovered desert islands, ideas we have never even conceived of…” Alas, it isn’t so. Ostensibly untranslatable terms like hyggelig (Danish) or saudade (Portuguese) have plenty of serviceable equivalents.
  • Today in the sad obsolescence of print (or, depending on whom you ask, the ineluctable march of progress): a new library with no books. At a center of higher education, no less.
  • And today in seemingly unobjectionable advice that’s actually terrible, vacuous, entitled, meaningless advice: “Do What You Love” is “the unofficial work mantra of our time … [a] secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.”
  • On the literature of Alzheimer’s: “Because the full, internal experience of Alzheimer’s is an account that fiction alone can deliver, it’s no surprise that the go-to book for caretakers and early-stage sufferers is a novel.”
  • “For me, there’s a sure sign I’ll be able to muster the maturity to it takes to make art out of my life: When I’m finally able to laugh at a younger version of myself.”


Joyce Recommends the Red, and Other News

August 20, 2014 | by


“There is jollity.” (Jollity not pictured.)

  • Social media has warped the way we think of “sharing our stories,” but the status update hasn’t obviated the need for memoir. “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details … for the work of memoir itself. I can’t tell you how many times people have thanked me for ‘sharing my story,’ as if the books I’ve written are not chiseled and honed out of the hard and unforgiving material of a life but, rather, have been dashed off … I haven’t unburdened myself, or softly and earnestly confessed. Quite the opposite.”
  • A bit of searing on-the-ground reporting from James Joyce’s birthday party, 1931: “The waiter brings a special wine which Joyce recommends to us very earnestly though he does not drink it himself as it is red. It is Clos Saint Patrice, 1920 … ‘He is the only saint whom a man can get drunk in honor of,’ Joyce says, praising Patrick in this way. We laugh, but he insists that this is high praise … In the apartment to which we return there is jollity. George Joyce sings; Sullivan sings; James Joyce sings.”
  • And while we’re on Joyce: “I started illustrating Finnegans Wake in 2009 because no one convinced me not to,” writes a man who has illustrated Finnegans Wake because no one told him not to.
  • The third novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series is out this month, and Ferrante—a pseudonym—has granted a rare interview. Is this why she guards her identity? “‘My desk mate, with whom I had a great friendship, suggested we write a novel together,’ she explains. Together, they came up with a story, and the friend wrote the first chapter. Ferrante didn’t like it, and so she wrote the entire story herself, from beginning to end, telling her friend she wasn’t up to the project.”
  • Don Pardo, the distinctive, stentorian announcer for Saturday Night Live, died this week; he got his start in game shows. “Staff announcer was such a prestigious job that members of the profession, in another holdover from radio, typically wore tuxedos while on the job, even though the audience hardly ever saw them and they were mainly confined to an ‘announce booth’ in or near the studio. Even simple station breaks—‘This is the National Broadcasting Company’—were done live from those close quarters.”


A Downward Glissando

February 5, 2014 | by

dental x-ray

Photo: Cory Doctorow, via Flickr

Fat little dog trotting contentedly along the sidewalk, right at his master’s side, with a plastic steak in his mouth.

Neil Young sounds like a lonely alley cat, I thought, most poignant when slightly out of tune.

Whenever I got on the subway, I looked around for someone cute to glance at, and if there wasn’t anyone I resigned myself to boredom.

Old queen in the locker room: “When you’re the prettiest one in the steam room, it’s time to go home.”

At forty-three I was no longer in my heyday.

The name of the medication printed in a half circle and the “100 mg” made a smiley face on my new, blue pills.

On the L train, a poem called “Hunger” spoke of walking home “through a forest that covers the world.”

I’d had the same part-time public-relations job since November 1985. It was now February 2001 and counting.

I was drawn to Neil Young not by the specific content of the lyrics (too hetero) but by the overall tone of longing, which I defined as a kind of sadness that had hope.

On the L platform, a diminutive Chinese man playing “Send in the Clowns” on a harmonica, with flowery recorded accompaniment.

I write this in the hope that aphorism-like statements, when added one to another, might accrue to make some larger statement that will placate despair. Read More »


Completely Without Dignity: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard

December 26, 2013 | by


All this week, we are bringing you some of your favorite posts from 2013. Happy holidays!

Of the two people who have written books called My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard is the less notorious. In Scandinavia, where the tradition of memoiristic writing is less prevalent and self-exposing than it is in America, he wrote, for three years, twenty pages a day about himself, his friends, his wife, and his kids. When the first of the six books was published, reporters called everyone he’d ever met. It sold half a million copies.

But unlike most literary controversies, this one’s less interesting than the work that provoked it. Knausgaard has written one of those books so aesthetically forceful as to be revolutionary. Before, there was no My Struggle; now there is, and things are different. The digressiveness of Sebald or Proust is transposed into direct, unmetaphorical language, pushing the novel almost to the edge of unreadability, where it turns out to be addictive and hypnotic. A man has written a book in which a man stays at home with his kids, and his home life isn’t trivialized or diminished but studied and appreciated, resisted and embraced. An almost Christian feeling of spiritual urgency makes even the slowest pages about squeezing lemon on a lobster into a hymn about trying to be good.

Book One ends with that impossible thing: an original metaphor for death. The last sentence of this interview may do the same for writing. Read More »


Filling the Silence: An Interview with Marie Chaix

February 25, 2013 | by

xChaixTo call Marie Chaix’s work autobiographical would be incomplete, though most of her books tell and retell the stories of her life. Her writing is porous and breathes memory, attesting to memory’s transience and the impressions it leaves on the body.

At the age of twenty-six, Chaix read the notebooks her father had kept during his ten years in prison following World War II. Unbeknownst to her family, he’d been the right-hand man of pro-German Fascist collaborator Jacques Doriot and had fought in the Wehrmacht beside him. This was a shock and became the topic of Chaix’s first book, The Laurels of Lake Constance. Like many of Chaix’s works, it hovers somewhere between memoir and fiction. In June, Dalkey Archive Press will publish The Summer of the Elder Tree, translated by Chaix’s husband, Harry Mathews. It concerns her ten-year hiatus from writing following the death of her editor and reincorporates many of the places she visited in The Laurels of Lake Constance and in her second book, Silences, or a Woman’s Life, which Dalkey published late last year.

Chaix spoke to me on the phone from her home in Key West.
As someone who writes a lot of autobiography, do you believe that a story is preexisting—that a writer’s job is to find it, retrieve it, and record it—or is there some invention in autobiography?

Well, I didn’t realize it before writing, but in general I discovered that, even if you have characters that you know very well—even if you write about yourself, about your “life,” your memories—the result is exactly the same as if it was fiction. I think that readers know that it’s autobiographical because writers care when it’s autobiographical, but they read it and think about themselves, which is what happened to me.

But I think writing doesn’t work like that, you know? Of course, you have a motive, you have yourself, you have your family. But they become completely—and even yourself—you become completely part of a larger world, a larger story. Read More »