SORT OF A MEMOIR

A wall of bookshelves, sun slanting across them, with a bicycle.

 

3 January 2014

Stendhal uses three different memoir-writing strategies: in media res, placing the reader at some middle point in the life from which the years that led up to it are recounted; starting from childhood, which Stendhal characteristically uses to show a certain authorial self-consistency; and the coming-of-age recapitulation that gets the hero from mere youth to the beginning of maturity. The first two can be found in his Memories of Egotism and Henri Brulard, and the third in the opening chapter of his great last novel, The Charterhouse of Parma.

Stendhal wrote Memories of Egotism 10 years after meeting the object of fixation it depicts. She dies in between, he eventually reveals, but his obsession with her persists. I can understand this. The book closes with an account of an assignation that he and a friend have with two English prostitutes. Bringing a repast of food and wine along, they make a party of it and the women are charmed—their English clients are not as thoughtful. Stendhal praises their chestnut hair, his spirits momentarily recovered. The impression he leaves us with is of a man who is haunted by his great love and yet clearly and observantly in the world. And despite his faithfully rendered day-to-day activities and distractions, we never doubt his single-minded devotion to her.

4 January 2014

The year after I got my BA, I worked at the oldest private library west of the Mississippi, as it styled itself. My colleagues were older women, like characters from a Tennessee Williams play, I thought at the time. The men among the coupon-clipping old-money patrons were often drunk after lunch, smelling of onions and alcohol. I couldn’t help but take these things in. Cautionary tales are useful when you’re young, showing you what to avoid. I remember thinking this later when, having lunch with colleague, I saw two old businessmen sitting near us, both veritable rhinoceroses in appearance owing to decades of eating the same fare we were consuming.

The most beneficial work I did between undergraduate and graduate school was as a term-paper ghostwriter. To make a decent hourly rate, I had to write every paper in six hours or less, so I developed a method and also honed my writing to the bone. In one case, I had to write five papers on different topics for the same class, so I varied my tone. Every paper got an A from whoever was grading them at Stanford. When, six weeks into the job, I was offered work at an architecture firm, I quit. It turned out I was the ghostwriting shop’s only writer, and they closed down after I left. The benefit for me was that I lost my awe of academia, or whatever you call it, and gained the ability to write quickly on any topic handed me. That’s served me well ever since.

My method was straightforward. I found a general source that gave me the basic plot. Volumes of the 1920s-era Encyclopedia Britannica, on which Wikipedia is supposedly based, were great for this. Then I would find two or three plausible current sources, quickly absorb their theses and grab some quotes and added references—sometimes found near them in the stacks, which is not something that could happen easily today. Then I would write. It helped that I’m a fast and accurate typist. I never polished the papers too thoroughly, which lent them authenticity.

The term-paper mill’s one sop to ethics was to make the students propose their own theses. This was a mistake—they were often completely wrong and I would have to argue in the negative, since I couldn’t change the thesis. This I did with evident success: on-the-job rhetoric.

Later

To want to live parallel lives is in keeping with our human sense of self. We embody different roles without much difficulty, navigating life’s predictable contexts in a manner that more or less meets each one’s expectations, so it seems reasonable to push this idea further. One problem we encounter is the inelastic nature of time. It’s true that time slows down in certain situations, but this is not the same as having more of it at your disposal.

We often push the idea further because we want our lives to be bigger or fuller than they seem. The opportunities to do so arise with what appears to be uncannily good timing. If they didn’t, they would be easier to resist. My own experience suggests that our ability to lead parallel lives is limited. What we really want is separate lives—a life here, a life there, with time and space between them. That would really be ideal, not to say convenient. Some reputedly arrange their lives in this manner, but I’ve never been able to pull it off. If we’re honest about it, what we really want is a life that’s both fluid and frictionless. We want the usual boundaries to come down. It’s a child’s view of things, I think, in which “choosing sides” is all part of the game. To a child, the point of living is to play, alone or with others. We go to school, of course, and clean our rooms, but our hearts long to make up stories or get a scene going. And this persists.

Some cafe tables beside a sunny creek

Separately

My daughter came over this evening after writing me a long note in answer to a question about the impact of travel that I’d posed the night before: How does it affect her? We talked a bit more about it. I said that place to me is a totality—conveyed in talk and writing, as well as experienced directly—of how specific things look and feel, and are cherished, neglected, or reshaped, and how people are (or were), as we experience (or experienced) them there.

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen a great many places, uniquely themselves in a way that felt intrinsic, become “like the rest.” As business and tourism continue to search for still-distinctive places, I imagine they are as endangered now as the elephants that roam the African plain.

5 January 2014

While an element of bossiness floats through life, mandatory is a broad, resistible category for me, taking in other people’s ideas of how I should spend my time and even the consequences of my earlier, positive decisions to attend parties, openings, concerts, dinners, and other events. Travel also creates a sense of dread as the date of departure looms, not out of any fear of traveling, but from a countervailing desire to stay home. Knowing that I will invariably resist, I try to will myself through it. I think this resistance, this sense of dread, relates to the desire to lead parallel lives: events seem appealing in prospect, and are of course the source of all that we draw on in retrospect, but we have to live through them, experience them, to gain it. Despite their allure, there are times when we’d prefer that someone else went and did the living for us. (I believe V.S. Pritchett made this same point about writers in general—their bifurcated lives.)

At the urging of a colleague, I once took the Meyers-Briggs personality test, learning that I’m an INFJ, the least numerous of its types. One trait was familiar: craves company and then flees it unexpectedly. That’s not resistance, I thought when I read it; it’s self-preservation.
As a child in Singapore, I used to move through the adult-filled garden of my parents’ parties. I was small for my age and my vantage point was low enough that the adults’ legs were like tree trunks, their upper torsos like spreading branches. Their attention meanwhile was at eye level.

(When I think of these parties, I think of the women in their long dresses, the men in their white suits and uniforms, and the Chinese lanterns aglow, strung across the garden. Once I talked an intoxicated RAF pilot into giving me his wings. To my dismay, he came sheepishly back the next day to reclaim them. I think my mother explained to me that he couldn’t fly without them.)

Nowadays at parties I try to float in and out, departing as quietly (and quickly) as possible. This is in no way a comment on the parties themselves, which are perfectly fine.

Separately

Each person’s nature is distinct from every other’s, yet we generalize constantly about how people fall into categories and how the categories differ. These generalizations are both true and false. Since we chalk a lot of behavior up to them, believing in their truth must be part of our social-navigating apparatus, a heuristic that keeps us from stopping every five minutes to figure out what just happened.

To me (and also to Borges, I read recently), distinctiveness is all, especially in the closer relationships. The beloved one has these specific qualities of self, and every time I catch a glimpse of her, I’m reminded of every other time these qualities were evident. The thread of her distinctiveness is visible whenever it appears. I see it and remember, “You aren’t like anyone else.” The best gift of self that we can give each other is our distinctiveness.

Later

I read—V.S. Pritchett via Russell Banks—that death is a mark of seriousness in literature. It is the “great matter” according to the Buddhists. I believe they’re talking about our coming to grips with mortality, a dance that began for me when I first realized that I would die. I was 14—pretty far along, that is, before the “terror of our situation,” as Gurdjieff put it, became real for me. How one contends with death—that is, with the unavoidable fact of it—varies with one’s age. At my age, the imagined perils of getting older are more dreaded than death itself, which can start to look like a relief. (Borges notes this, saying that the old get impatient for it. Recently, I stood and watched an aged neighbor hobbling—there’s no other word for it—to her front door, a task that for her has become Herculean, like climbing the Alps. I wanted to rush over, but sensed that this would be unwelcome, that each one has her Alps to climb, that climbing them is the point.)

Uchimaya Kishio, a 20th-century commentator on the Soto Zen of Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253 ad) explained what mind means in Zen. Our world, Uchimaya wrote, lives and dies with us. Mind is everything that ever existed for us, accumulated across our lifetime. No one else can experience it as we did, so reading it written out is like encountering the residue of the spray on a sea-facing window in some cottage we happen to visit. You can get a sense of the pounding waves or the way the sea smells at a certain distance, but how it was, beyond these images, and what it meant to someone else, is limited by the medium, the intent, and the impenetrable boundary between the other’s world and yours. A memoir, like poetry, tries to bridge this distance.

Is love not also a mark of seriousness? Love involves play, but play takes in death as well, long before we understand that death applies to us. From the start, love is a serious game: our life depends on it. It exposes us to the perils of misunderstanding and the limits of our ability to shape events to suit our desires. It plunges us into unhappiness, almost from the outset.

Still later

It’s characteristic of me to play the same music again and again. Right now, it’s Angela Hewitt’s version of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, especially the second half of notebook one. Before that, my favorite was Keith Jarrett’s recording of some of Handel’s harpsichord suites. My life is organized in a habitual way, so that even my variants from habit soon become habitual.

Friends occasionally express amazement at the way I cram culture into short trips, but this too is a habit. I pack my days with activity because otherwise I’d get depressed. When this happens, I become lethargic—when I’m really depressed, I hardly stir, which is difficult to pull off when traveling, as everyone wants you to circulate and of course you have to get up and go out to eat.

A close-up photo of a loom with a partly completed weaving project.

My life was organized for me very early on. Whenever a structure is provided, I fall right in with it. Where it isn’t, I have to create one—a slow, trial-and-error process. Weaving, which I do on most Saturday mornings, is an example of success in this arena. I have to extend it, I tell myself, thinking of everything that isn’t getting done, isn’t habitual, and needs to be—an old, old story.

One characteristic of contemporary life is that its disruptions erode my habits. Bookstores where I used to go have vanished. Music arrives in ways I can’t fully fathom (and most of it isn’t the music I want). I have to decide and decide again which parts of “the new” really pertain—and learn and relearn how to navigate the subtle ways the everyday is altered over time.

Return

François, duc de la Rochefoucauld is another great French commentator on intimate life between men and women. His own experience of women was one disaster after another, but then he finally met one smart enough to make a friend of him, not a lover—or not purely one.

If lovemaking is a kind of conversation (between two souls, Borges asserts, quoting another poet), why does it always blow up? Is there a way to sustain it? These are the questions that arise. It should be simpler, but both parties have to see it that way first.

The one psychic I know told me that relationships between men and women have children as their trajectory when fecundity is in the picture. Children are where it wants to go, whatever the conscious feelings of the participants may be. I think there’s some truth to this, based on my own experience. Getting older is therefore potentially liberating, freeing relationships to take other directions. (When I look back at them, I wish they’d been friendships solely, and I don’t. What I really wish is for friendships to emerge that preserve their intimacy in new forms. Later in life, possibly, something like this can be regained, but I don’t know yet. What I do know is that love can emerge within friendship, and sometimes does. The reverse surely takes time and commitment—you each have to become someone else to the other, yet still close. Then a true friendship may finally emerge. Whether it’s materially different than it might have been had you never become lovers is a question that can’t be resolved. It’s one of love’s questions, however.)

Separately

When I read Claudio Naranjo’s Enneagram Structures, I saw that my enneagram number is seven. I thought I was a five or a nine, but he showed me that I’m a seven through and through. The flaws of this character type—my character type—are to want to live anywhere but in the present (and especially to live in the future), to be dependent on personal charm to dodge the bullets of interpersonal relationships, and (a related trait) to avoid anything remotely painful.

(I told a friend recently that Naranjo and A.H. Almaas have written the most useful books on the enneagram—complementary books that reflect their respective involvement with Oscar Ichazo, with whom Naranjo studied at Arica, Chile when Ichazo expounded on the enneagram. The book of the Jesuit Don Riso is good if you know your type, but less helpful if you don’t. The several books of Helen Palmer are useless although people have said that her workshops were good.)

6 January 2014

Some time ago, I dreamt I was walking in the middle of a curving, residential London street, the kind that’s lined with shade trees and row houses. There was no traffic. Looking down, I saw a thin gold ribbon embedded in the pavement. I picked it up. In dark-blue letters against the gold, it read, “You are an editor.” I didn’t argue. It also made me realize that I’m a writer of a specific type. I write well, and this ability has served me my whole career, but I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything longer than a chapter, and most of what I write is much shorter. When I look at what I’ve written, I see a miniaturist, a belletrist. This means that I have to treat many topics as fragments, if I can treat them at all, while others are perfectly suited to their small frame.

The diary form of this “Sort of a Memoir” exemplifies how I drag content onto the page. It reflects my lifelong tendency to plunge in without much if any prior design beyond an intuition of what might emerge. (Fiction is much harder, perhaps because I don’t really believe in it. The fiction I enjoy clearly emerges from life experience, projected on to the subject, as with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. The book is about Novalis, but with a sensibility honed by her own life—a sensibility with which Novalis resonated. She depicts the poet as a human being whose Bildungsroman falters on the rocks of fate, time, circumstance—all that conspires to keep the things life seems to promise him from happening. For Fitzgerald, the big event—the lucky break—was to live on to write, to live out and fulfill her destiny. It’s no small thing, shared with Lampedusa, although he died without knowing it, and Stendhal, writing on despite every indication of a failed life. Borges’ modesty, his superstitious wariness of hubris, reflects his knowledge that luck is luck, but that in the end, we have to write, “just write”—and keep on writing, because, as with fishing, something good may eventually strike. It’s the only way.)

John Parman reading in a dim room under a lamp.

(In the photo above, taken by my daughter, I’m reading for the first time and with astonishment the poems of Wallace Stevens, in the house of Simone and John Opalak, 30 minutes by car from Bayonne, France—the house where I started “The Barn Partitas,” the sonnet series collected in Common Place 6. The poem that particularly caught my eye was “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” On that same trip, at Daunt’s in London, I believe, I bought a copy of Sylvia Plath’s original edit of Ariel, with its remarkable opening poem, the first line of which made me wonder at the depth of her suicidal depression, the terrible grip of ego and narcissistic grief and rage, which I’ve also experienced in a greatly reduced form, sufficient to understand it and eventually get through it, see it for what it is—for which thanks especially to A.H. Almaas, whose book The Point of Existence, while coy about his patented path to enlightenment, is very clear about the territory of ego and narcissistic grief, how it appears to be the real and telling thing, but is not.)

While I occasionally have ideas for stories, I can’t see where a story should go next. And where it usually goes is a blind alley, which is frustrating. I feel that my story has been hijacked, that its protagonists wouldn’t go there, and yet clearly I took them in that direction. It takes more work, in other words, than I’ve been prepared to give, so hats off to the real writers of fiction!

Separately

What are my actual topics? They probably begin and end with me. As Christopher Isherwood put it, “I am a Camera,” but the camera is holographic. My topics are meaningful to me, resonant. This doesn’t mean that other topics don’t figure, but how to work them in? When I think of another’s distinctiveness, I could cite the most specific details. In fiction, this might be useful, but in other kinds of writing, even poetry, it feels gratuitous and indiscreet. Some of my photo-collages get into this territory. Art and fiction blur identity or subsume it to make a different point: not her but this. A fictional narrative could be useful, but my version of reality has been challenged often enough to make me wonder, with Hayden White, if every narrative isn’t fictive? Certainly every narrative is subjective. (As White notes, none of them are “true.”)

Also separately

In 2005, a Sephardic friend in Tokyo suggested that my father’s family was Sephardic. I don’t know if it’s true, but certain things argue for it. My surname derives from a city, which is how the Sephardim named themselves. (An artist friend in San Francisco also noted this, but I didn’t know the history of Jewish migrations in Europe well enough to take her remark to heart.) Parma had a large Sephardic community, granted the freedom of the city but then attacked invidiously, enviously, by others. History suggests that my family, who were bookbinders, part of the burgeoning printer trade that swept north and south in Europe, left Parma in the 1560s, traveling first to Germany and then splitting up, some going to Denmark and Norway, and others to Finland. The family bible records that “they were bookbinders, arriving in Odense in 1620.” Everyone after them is named. My sister and I always thought this was strange. I read an essay by Peter Drucker, written toward the end of his life, on the history of printing, a 200-year trajectory. My family headed north because the jobs were there—the technology was taking hold, far from major printing centers like Parma. They came as experts. When they got there, I imagine they said, “Hello, we’re Italian. You’re Lutheran? What a coincidence. So are we.” When I look at my family in Norway, some look entirely Nordic, but others look like the portraits of Modigliani—faces that could be from Italy or Andalusia, elongated by Nordic intermarriage.

My daughter lived for almost three years in the Alpujarra, the region of mountain towns and valleys that extends south from the Sierra Nevada Mountains behind Granada. When I visited her there, I had an impulse to settle. I love Madrid, a more likely destination, but something about the place felt like home. If true, this must be a genetic memory. Is that possible?

12 January 2014

A friend posted a short essay asserting that a memoir isn’t really an autobiography. Her real point was that you shouldn’t expect accuracy from a memoir. Nabokov also made this point, revising Speak, Memory after his sisters complained about certain “facts.” (“We were too in Nice,” they complained.) Reviewers often complain that memoirs are “unreliable,” that other evidence contradicts them. But life happens in real time. No one sees things the same way.

19 January 2014

One morning I visited a close friend of longstanding who’s being treated for a serious illness. It took a toll on him, from which he’s gradually recovering. Observing that his life has become more bounded, he said he wanted to find things to do that fit this new reality. (Almost a year later, I’m happy to report that he’s back on the circuit. Habits of a lifetime are hard to break.) Weaving, which I’ve done for several years, is an example of what he meant. I understood—many of the things I do are essentially domestic arts. (My character is phlegmatic, although leavened with sanguinity. This—the temperaments—is yet another means of characterizing our species, the third I’ve mentioned here. I wrote a sonnet about mine in “The Barn Partitas,” mocking my tendency to wait passively and contemplate life more than live it. This is true and not true, of course—a phlegmatic temperament tolerates contemplation more readily than other types, producing insights that are mixed with a healthy dose of blankness. Yet there’s something crocodile-like about my type, springing into action when inspiration finally strikes.)

Later

I read an article in the Financial Times about long-lived Japanese men and women, and the doctors who tend to them. The goal is a good quality of life, said one. They cited a term that roughly translates to “live life to the fullest and then die fast.” One person’s full is not another’s, I thought. When I sum mine up at the end of the year, there’s an illusion of activity, but it reflects my way of being here and there, trying to maintain it. It’s a comical process, especially in company. Owing to its repetitiveness, the everyday is supposed to have less resonance for us than unusual events, yet I crave the everyday. Perhaps its resonance for me is a deeper one.

Postscript

The original version of “Sort of a Memoir,” written a year ago, ended on the note of ambiguity above. In editing it, I’ve added some parenthetic thoughts that arose as I went through it. Soon I’ll be 68—reaching the end of my 68th year, as someone else reckons age, and beginning the final year of this transitional decade, the sixties, which is arguably the vestibule of true old age. In Conversations, edited by Osvaldo Ferrari (Seagull, 2014), Borges says that what separates us from other living things is our foreknowledge of death. I’m not sure I agree. Late in 2001, I saw a menagerie shared by several fish restaurants on an island in Hong Kong Bay. It was immediately clear that all captive life there, even the shrimp, were aware of their doom. What’s terrible about capital punishment is the terror that attaches to it. Death within life has its terrors, but it’s different, I think, part of life’s warp and weft, the last part that we reach at the other end, inevitable and in some sense welcome, especially in the case of a long life well lived.

When you’re my age, you’re more aware that your existence is no longer assured. The Zen idea of “getting breakfast on the table” becomes more useful as a prod to go on living, to contribute. “Who else would do it?” the old monk asked Dōgen when he, a young student at a Chinese monastery, asked if the man wasn’t too old to be gathering firewood on a hot day. This is what I do, the old man said—these are my roles in life, my purposes, how I pay for my upbringing. This discipline took hold in me early on, yet I still accuse myself of laziness. It seems best to write a memoir along the way, I think, even if the plot has further twists and turns. One can add to it episodically, if there’s more to get down, but meanwhile there’s a marker: “Made it to here.”

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