(aka another attempt to get off the sidelines)
My last post here (on George Santanaya) was a year ago, so it’s probably fitting I start to try again with this blog. Over the last year, my reading list has grown eclectically and my original “Five Foot Shelf” has grown along with it, though not always in an organised way.
To give some examples, last night I read the whole of David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim, along with Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost. Thinking about it, probably not two people who would have a whole lot to agree on.
The Sedaris book was a nice light read, cycincal and understated, just the way I like to think of myself writing. A lot of personal experience goes into everything he writes,
Putting yourself into a piece of writing is fine, but the problem is it’s impossible to stop at yourself. I talk to other people, I interact with other people, most of the things worth writing about involve other people, and the best people of all to observe unfiltered are those who trust me the most: family.
And writing about family can cause problems:
In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and here, but my family’s started to see things a little differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up and they’re sick of it.
(Repeat After Me – David Sedaris)
Not that a little thing like that would stop any true writer, and Sedaris is no exception. He writes a lot about roles people fall into in a family and the way that defines them in later life. He believes they expect him to betray them and doesn’t stint in living up to that role.
Of course, and here is where fiction comes in again, life doesn’t always go the way it’s planned. Some things would be funnier, more apt, (more literary?) with just a few tweaks. And this is where a sort of salvation lies, because the reader can never be sure exacctly how much is true and how much is adapted for effect.
In a similar vein, Hemingway’s life is full of myth, and when attempting a biography of someone who has had so much written about him, Paul Hendrickson uses Hemingway’s boat Pilar as a hook to hang his story.
But with a book this size, it mostly reads like someone who doesn’t want to file any research notes they have put together, so they put everything in the book, with a huge number of asides and segways away from the boat. great for the reader who wants everything, but harder when the reader wants a narrative.
There is also hint of the obsessive in repeated askings of the reader to look at a photo and imagine things the author thinks might have happened or be going on in them.
But all of what I’ve said this far has little to do with the real reason I’ve asked you to turn back and gaze again at the image at the start of the previous chapter. What I wanted to dwell upon is the terrifying and unwitting but no less destructive influence of a man’s unconscious on those whom he deeply loved. that’s an idea, not possible to prove …
Though to be fair, this approach is explained in the beginning of the book. If you survive the first few pages, you have a good idea of what’s coming over the next 600.
So in the two books I’ve picked up are two very different accounts, but with a lot of similarities. The use of biography and exaggeration; taking family events (your own or someone you are obsessed with) and turning them into, something that is closer to art or a story or what the author would like them to be.
With Sedaris, Hendrickson and Hemingway, a good case can be made for not trusting them, but their personal lives impinge on everything they write. Take away the auther and there’s no story.
It does leave the thought of whether the reader has to like the author to like the book. None of the three are especially likeable. Sedaris is softened with humour, Hemingway is softened perhaps by genius and Hendrickson by sympathy for his obsession.
Meanwhile I’m going back to writing about books rather than my life, and hoping for a fraction of the successs these guys have had in their various ways.