July 29, 2010 § Leave a comment
J.W. Diehl Photos
Recent articles and discussions about the dangers of Internet candor are making me feel a little anxious, defensive, though as a writer I’m always revealing myself, and even when I wrote only fiction, half my readers assumed it was autobiography. They responded to my modest denials with a wink. Don’t people know one writes fiction for the same reason one reads it—to escape what really happened? Certainly, you put in bits of real stuff, like a bird making a nest, some tinfoil from the pill bottle, the razored-out spot on the blue dress, the love note your sister’s boyfriend wrote which you stole from her bedside table (an example I just invented, sis); but the nest becomes a nest, a small nest, a bird’s nest; it’s not a life.
Writing a memoir fulfilled a promise I made to myself when I was ten—a promise that shaped my life so profoundly that not to make good on it would have been just…wasteful…but it wasn’t fun. Memoirs are not histories or double-blind studies; you accept the skewed perspective of a deeply implicated actor; but still, one wrangles with truth. You want your fiction to be true (when you’re not just praying for it to be over) but in a much more expanded sense. That gives more room for play, for hours of sheer fun. Blogging is also fun; it has qualities of those conversations I hold with myself, crafting my argument minutely, pretending I’m rehearsing to speak to a certain person, who would of course be bored by my intricate weave of thus and so and because and then, all concerning some trifling event.
It’s like that and also like reading a novel where a grand old bore (resembling an ancient toad, a barbered ape or a warthog in shabby tweeds) is holding forth, and the writer describes the majestic, unrelenting waves of speech; the pop-up peregrinations; and most of all the magic circle the victim cannot leave, feet glued to the floor as she pales, flushes, sweats, endures, hears the hissing of serpents from a long-forgotten childhood dream of Hell—and you wonder how can a bore be boring when a description of boredom can be so exquisite? (Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis offers a classic example of this.) It’s like what Jerry Seinfeld said: Let’s make a show about nothing, and make it the best sitcom of all time. Not that he anticipated that perhaps, and not that my or anyone’s blogging has reached that level; still and all, I like blogging best when it starts out being about nothing and only gradually acquires shape.
This is the way writers think. If some HR person reads this and decides I can’t be trusted with children or CEOs, they’d be wrong. But I’m okay with it.
Anybody Can Write A Poem
I am arguing with an idiot online.
He says anybody can write a poem.
I say some people are afraid to speak.
I say some people are ashamed to speak.
If they said the pronoun “I”
they would find themselves floating
in the black Atlantic
and a woman would swim by, completely
dry, in a rose chiffon shirt,
until the ashamed person says her name
and the woman becomes wet and drowns
and her face turns to flayed ragged pulp,
white in the black water.
He says that he’d still write
even if someone cut off both his hands.
As if it were the hands that make a poem,
I say. I say what if someone cut out
whatever brain or gut or loin or heart
that lets you say hey, over here, listen,
I have something to tell you all,
As an example I mention my mother
who loved that I write poems
and am such a wonderful genius.
And then I delete the comment
because my mother wanted no part of this or any
argument, because “Who am I
to say whatever?”
Once on a grade school form
I entered her job as hairwasher.
She saw the form and was embarrassed and mad.
“You should have put receptionist.”
But she didn’t change it.
The last word she ever said was No.
And now here she is in my poem,
so proud of her idiot son,
who presumes to speak for a woman
who wants to tell him to shut up, but can’t.
November 20, 2009 § Leave a comment
Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis
I was just reading a Huffington Post column about The National Book award, which also mentions the scandalous Publisher’s Weekly “best books of 2009” list that includes no women writers. I can’t comment on that, not having read many new books this year, and none of the winners. But the column goes on to revisit past award missteps, including Kingley Amis’s The Old Devils having been chosen over Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale bored me and I never finished it; The Old Devils is a great book. The characters are a bunch of aging Welsh alcoholics getting ready for a visit from an old friend who’s made it big in the literary world—a sort of modern Dylan Thomas, but less self-destructive. The ones left behind are the ones falling apart.
The humor is dark and relentless; the depiction of drinking is enough to make you weep with laughter. The men drink gin and whisky in the pub, while the women drink white wine at home (all day). Everyone smokes. The horrors of aging and the horrors of hangovers blend in a way that makes more sense the older I get; I’ve long suspected hangovers are merely bulletins from the front.
Amis’s characters are right wing cranks with romantic underbellies, and he spares them nothing. You don’t have to think you could spend five minutes with one of these people in real life to adore them on the page. They’re hobbled and half deaf, forgetful and losing their teeth, selfish, resentful, envious, and deeply nostalgic for youth. They still have desire, and will behave foolishly for it, and they tell you more about dystopia—the dystopia of everyday life—than Atwood will ever know.
Kingsley Amis famously couldn’t finish any of his son’s books. I’ve liked some of Martin’s Amis’s stuff, but I have more patience than Kingsely. It’s always seemed to me that what the father couldn’t stomach was Amis fils’ pretentiousness. It’s not a killing pretentiousness—Martin Amis has a lot of virtues as a writer—but you can’t ignore it. And there’s nothing a K. Amis books skewers more viciously than pretentiousness.
Of course, being an alcoholic keeps you on the defensive your whole life, no matter how famous you become. When you’re prone to humiliating yourself any night of the week, only a gargantuan sense of humor and an ingrained resistance to human vanity can keep you going.
You do look a little ill.
But we can do something about that, now.
The fact is you’re a shocking wreck.
Do you hear me.
You aren’t all alone.
And you could use some help today, packing in the
dark, boarding buses north, putting the seat back and
grinning with terror flowing over your legs through
your fingers and hair . . .
I was always waiting, always here.
Know anyone else who can say that.
My advice to you is think of her for what she is:
one more name cut in the scar of your tongue.
What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than
harm, is not abject.”
Can we be leaving now.
We like bus trips, remember. Together
we could watch these winter fields slip past, and
never care again,
think of it.
I don’t have to be anywhere.
January 29, 2009 § 4 Comments
Philip and I were talking about John Updike’s obit in the Times by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Philip said, “Isn’t Christopher Lehmann-Haupt dead? I thought he was dead.” I suggested maybe it was written years ago—and we went on like that, Philip grumbling while I said why shouldn’t the dead criticize the dead? (In fact, Lehmann-Haupt is not dead. He lives in Riverdale.)
I know the Times writes its obits—of the well-known elderly— in advance because my friend Annie was friends with philanthropist Steward Mott, and a year or two before his death he had to come to New York to be interviewed for his. There was a flurry of emails back and forth with the newspaper staff about how much vodka he needed to get through the conversation.
I prefer the idea of the dead interviewing their own. Too much congress between the afterlife and our earthly existence would ruin the mystery, the fear, the je ne sais quoi of human hope springing eternal, but perhaps if one email could get through just to say, “It’s pleasure to have Updike with us. His descriptive powers are stimulating all our sexual memories—which is painful for those who don’t have sexual memories, but what can you do? He’s brought his characters. Rabbit is relieved to be really dead at last and the Eastwick witches are enjoying our multitude of devils. John tells us you’ve really been fucking things up in the world. Not that we care especially, but… we don’t want you arriving en masse. Somebody has to dust the purgatorial chambers. PS—be kinder to your writers. Without books, there wouldn’t even be an afterlife, and believe me, you wouldn’t like it. Those of us from the really old days can attest to how stultifyingly boring it was.”
My favorite book of Updike’s is “Roger’s Version.” My favorite Kingsley Amis is “The Old Devils.” Muriel Spark: “Memento Mori.” A little spite goes a long way to give fiction crackle.
Kingsley Amis and Muriel Spark