Archives for posts with tag: autobiography

The Lover book cover, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

The Lover is a small book composed of what initially appear to be almost fragmentary recollections and miniature story scenes, but the overall effect results in a dazzling love story. In this translation, ably provided by Barbara Bray, Marguerite Duras weaves together a variety of tenses, voices,  and points of view to piece together a shifty portrait of the way that memory creates distance just as it recreates intimacies.

The story seems to begin with a simple enough narrative goal: an old woman addresses the reader and begins to describe an important event in her life, her first love. At first, Duras interweaves changes in voice, tempo and tense with a deft, barely noticeable subtlety, but by the middle of the novel, the height of the reverie, these changes are rapid and wildly intense, mirroring the trauma and overwhelming delight of her adolescent love affair with a much older man. The story is set in Saigon (Vietnam), during the French occupation. The nameless heroine, reportedly modeled on Duras herself, is a poor fifteen year old French girl stranded with her mother and two brothers after her family makes a bad investment in the wake of her father’s death.  The lover is a man of nearly thirty, a Chinese millionaire who is overwhelmed by the forbidden desire he feels for the young woman. Their relations are, of course, complex, and often incredibly steamy. They celebrate each other, bodies coming together in private, and their secret pleasures become wrapped up in the violence of the time and of the young woman’s heartbreaking home life. Of course, there is for each of them no small measure of shame: she is so young, he’s from another, wealthier world, and miscegenation was, of course, extremely out of fashion at the time. And yet. And yet Duras pokes holes in her own memories, recalls and recoils from a painful past, destabilizes the experience,  and allows that first love to continue to grow even well past its functional end.

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David Sheilds, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

A little while ago I was telling a friend about my mother. I love my mom, and I love to talk about  my mom, and I’m fascinated to no end by not only her person but our relationship. She embodies my origin story, in that I was once a part of her body, and she raised me to become whoever it is that I am. Her influence over my life is pervasive, moving forward through our shared genes and backwards through our family history. My friend and I began to see that one of the reasons we talk about our parents is that it provides a way, in some senses, to talk about ourselves.

David Shields is on to this; The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead is a work of both cultural and personal memoir on what it means to live, to be given life, and describes Shields’ fascination with his father’s apparent deafness to the ever tolling bell. Let me say plainly that I adore David Shields’ work, especially here. He writes with his own words, and (as you may have heard) with those that came from many others. The Thing About Life is, like life itself, a collage. Relying on quotations from artists, musicians, poets, and thinkers, Shields  also uses biology to describe the way our bodies run their course. He includes other physiological metrics to describe the life of that strange animal we call a human being. At 10 years old, we are physically in our prime; Every year after our 25th, our brains get a little smaller; “[b]y age 35, nearly everyone shows some signs of aging, such as graying hair, wrinkles, less strength, less speed, stiffening in the walls of the central arteries, degeneration of elevated blood pressure.”

Sheilds’ dad is obsessed with preserving his vitality. He eats, perhaps even enjoys,  a sparse and fibrous diet and exercises fanatically. When this book was released, in 2008, he was 98 years old. And still swimming every day. He had a heart attack on the tennis court and played the set through. Shields, at the time of writing, was 51 years old, living day to day with chronic back pain. Watching his father’s body, his own body, decay gradually, Shields confronts death head on, without a trace of romance, or even angst.  His investigation into his own origins, and his fascination with our common fate, becomes a surprising celebration of life itself. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll be Dead takes the guts out of you, but manages to keep giving you a reason breathe.

The Chairs, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

The best thing about The Chairs Are Where the People Go is the way that Misha Glouberman talks about his frustrations. The book’s forward, written by Sheila Heti, describes the text that follows as the product of morning meetings, where Glouberman would talk to her about “everything he knows.” As it turns, out, he knows a lot about negotiation, about managing expectations, and about how people communicate with each other. That’s why, I guess, he also seems to know so much about frustration.

The book is arranged into little meditations of various lengths that are centered on a specific idea, observation, or experience. A lot of them are about the games that Glouberman teaches as part of his Charades classes (–Yeah, he teaches classes on how to be good at playing charades–) : “Get Louder or Quit”, “The Gibberish Game”, “The Conducting Game”, “Fighting Games”, and, naturally enough, “How to Play Charades”. (There’s also one called “These Projects Don’t Make Money”.) There are sections on conferencing, on neighborhoods, on why getting piss drunk is only fun when you’re still really young, and on quitting smoking and wearing a suit. But a lot of them are about living in a city and remembering a lot of almost obvious things that I, for one, often forget: For instance, one section is called “Doing One Thing Doesn’t Mean You’re Against Something  Else”, which uses a few examples from Glouberman’s work with Trampoline Hall and his experimental noise classes to illustrate his point, being that choosing to set some perimeters on whatever you’re doing or making doesn’t automatically mean you oppose everything outside of those perimeters (“Like, if you write a book about Paris, it’s not a statement that no book should ever take place in New York.”). This is helpful advice, and the book has a lot of similarly simple ideas that are sometimes not put so simply in our day to day lives.

In fact, The Chairs, with Glouberman’s casual and friendly tone fueling an abundance of good advice, is arguably a self help book. But before I read it, I didn’t realize just how badly I needed the help.

1. Sheila Heti lives in my neighborhood, well kinda. She’s a youngish white woman in Toronto worried about what art should be like, and what people should be like.

2. How Should a Person Be? is like an incredibly localized map of the neighborhood of these concerns, and Heti’s cartographic co-adventurer is her invariable friend and painter Margaux.  I definitely definitely felt like this book was a map for me, specifically, in a lot of really good ways.

3. But not an official map, more like the kind of sweetly personalized map that a friend will draw of where the good croissants are and how to get back to their house when you visit them in the city that they live in, where you don’t live and only go because you want to see them.

4. But better than that kind of map because I’ve never worried, not deeply, about where to find great croissants, but I have worried about betrayal, and lonliness, and fame, and friends, and whether or not I’m good enough at blow jobs, and what it means to be accomplished at something, like painting or cutting hair or imagining grilled cheese sandwiches. And I’ve also felt that maybe I’m not important, in a lot of ways, and I’ve agonized over my own equivocal enjoyment of that feeling too.

5. That whole business of ‘recognition’ is only part of the reason I liked this book, though. In addition to filling in a little bit of my life by way of reading about hers, this book was also funny and sad and sweet.

6. I read this book because one of my pals said the second time I met him that Sheila Heti is one of his favorite writers. He’s also a Torontonian, and he likes Trampoline Hall and other little things that make Toronto a place worth living and really local and lovable. He said that that he likes her, but is kind of wierded out by the degree of that like because she’s not only ‘from around here, but she’s from around here.‘ Which I took to mean that she’s like us, more so than other people are like us, because not only does she go to the same bars and concerts and pop-up venues that we do, but somehow she’s even more like us, in the ‘we, all of us, are having a moment’ kind of way.

7. And, not to spoil anything, but I kind of felt like that moment, the one we are all having, and by ‘we all’ I mean a very small number, in the long run, but still, that moment is kind of the answer to “How should a person be?”

8.  So I guess a person should be themselves, but throwing their hands in the air, and making a go of it, having a moment.

9. If only we could all make a go of it with the grace and humor and deceptively light touch that Sheila Heti does in How Shoud a Person Be?.

My Cousin, My Gastroenternologist by Mark Leyner book cover

So, I think that maybe you had to be there when it comes to My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. This guy, Mark Leyner, was a giant of new American fiction when this book exploded onto the scene. He was a muscle-man among gladiators; he was standing shoulder to shoulder with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. That’s actually why I wanted to read him.  And don’t get me wrong, it was pretty damn good stuff… mostly.

There were moments of real intrigue and delight! It’s billed as fiction, but there’s a picture of Leyner himself on the cover, and it reads like a gonzo memoir. Leyner even says right in the first section that it’s “An autobiography written wearing wrist weights.” And his real life wife, Arleen, to whom this book is dedicated, is a person-cum-character in this sparkplug story.

I think that part of Leyner’s project here may have been to showcase the way that corporations, commercialization, television, etc., have in some respects limited our abilities to communicate with each other. I’m not so sure that he nailed it. His much lauded prose was delivered with the shimmering delight of an over-medicated, over-caffeinated, and over-educated psychoanalyst. And I totally laughed, literally out loud, at many of his glorious one-twos. But, ultimately, there was no single punch that I couldn’t just roll with. The book lacked the heft of flesh, had no sticking power, and for all of it’s bravado didn’t make contact, and didn’t leave a bruise.

David Shields‘ autobiographical account of autobiography and everything else that may have happened to him sometime between then and now: Enough About You: Notes Toward The New Autobiography.

David Shield’s talks about Proust and I reflect on the fashion of loving Proust, not just A Remembrance of Things Past, but the man and his words.

Shields loves him for being a fiction within his fiction-he is at once the author and the character. Maybe, in a deconstructed world, we go back to Proust, who goes back into himself, because when our reality is in question, we realize that the answer is always ME.

The common thread to all of life in the global village is the self.

I like writing, fiction or otherwise, that dances on this border between authority proper and this other thing, this ‘reality’  that is a construct deconstructed, that is fated and is built up the moment prior to your experience of it.

The way Shields describes (with authority) the project of other autobiographers, other artists, when he really acknowledges that his authority is only over the Kingdom of himself. The ol’ Sartrean etc. We live for others, but others live for us. Or at least before us. Or in front of us?

Identity, reality and other ditties. Writing and reviewing are clichés of culture, and we try our damnedest to revive these clichés. My grandest failure is that I doubt my own authority. I can’t name the projects of others with resounding resoluteness because I am unable to really and truly discern or determine the course of my own life.

“Are these my questions, or my parent’s questions?”

David Shields in Enough About You

This is the reason I constantly talk about my Mother. Her life is mine as a pre-parable, and I have seen her from both the in- and the outside. Identity. She is a mirror that I can see my before and after in. Stuttering. Adolescence.

David Shields talks about himself as an invitation for representation, for what may only amount to his experience as experienced for others, his book born for the empathetic imagination. He says he liked John Donne in College, and I get it, because the bell tolls so loudly. That’s the best part of autobiography.