Saturday, January 26, 2013

Diary: A Visit to Key West

On the day after my birthday I flew to Miami and then drove to Key West. The old town, where I stayed, reminded me a bit of Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, as if that Yankee outpost (as I once knew it) had been transplanted to the semitropics. The Keys stretch out, forming a curve around a bay that's bordered on the north by the Everglades. Visible along the way are the ruins of the railroad that ran from Miami to Key West, meeting a P&O boat with daily service to Cuba, 90 miles away.

My purpose, along with thawing out, was to attend the second half of the Key West Literary Seminar, now in its 31st year. The theme was "Writers on Writers" - literary biography. The speakers, including Lyndall Gordon and Colm Toibin, attracted me. They were joined by many others, a richer fare than I'd expected: Alexandra Styron, Paul Mariani, Blake Bailey, Edmund White, Claire Harman, Geoff Dyer, Ann Napolitano, Brenda Wineapple, Brad Gooch, Kate Moses, Joyce Johnson, D.T. Max, Jennie Fields, Paul Alexander, Robert Richardson, and Billy Collins.

Colm Toibin.
The opening "John Hersey Memorial Address" by Colm Toibin, "On Grief and Reason: Reading Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn," included a quote from Joseph Brodsky: "Grief and reason are poison for each other." Bishop and Gunn, both of whom lost their mothers to madness or death in childhood, became friends during the time when Bishop lived in San Francisco. Her proposed epitaph, Toibin said, was, "Awful, but cheerful." She didn't have much feeling for San Francisco poets, he recounted, but the English-born Gunn was the exception. One thing they shared was their grief, which they both wrote about in a characteristically plain way, unadorned by the kind of flamboyance that death sometimes attracts.

This was on Thursday evening, 17 January. The next three days consisted of talks and panels. Blake Bailey, biographer of John Cheever, Charles Jackson, and Richard Yates, talked about the phenomenon of the depressed, alcoholic, or drug-addicted writer. This found an echo of sorts in D.T. Max's talk about David Foster Wallace and Alexandra Styron's on her father, William Styron. Ann Napolitano and Brad Gooch both discussed Flannery O'Connor, while Kate Moses and Paul Alexander paired up on Sylvia Plath. In each case, the women wrote novels about their subjects, while the men wrote biographies. (Geoff Dyer, uniquely, wrote a memoir about attempting to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence - a book that's said to be quite good on him. Dyer said later that he feels Lawrence is a far better travel writer, essayist, and critic than novelist. This could also be said of Lawrence Durrell.)

O'Connor is interesting for having led a life defined and constricted by illness - she had lupus, which caused her to retreat to her family's farm - yet also transcending it. She and Plath seemed aware of their powers and accomplishments, but Plath willed her destruction. O'Connor also resembles Emily Dickinson, as described by Lyndall Gordon in a talk that quoted her as saying that "you know a poem is good if it blows your head off." (Several people talked about Dickinson, so someone else may have quoted her.) Along with Plath, they exhibited "will" (in a Schopenhauer sense) in the face of obstacle or limitation, coupled with an abiding confidence in their work.

In her "writer's biography" of Virginia Woolf, Gordon asks what Woolf might have done next had she lived. It's a question that arises with Plath, too, whose early death in the wake of a self-seen masterpiece reminded me of the precocious photographer and suicide, Francesca Woodman. Woolf and O'Connor resemble each other in their remarkable self-discipline as writers, but Plath has this, too. The men fared worse. "An alcoholic," D.T. Max said, quoting someone from AA, "is a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex."

Max focused on Wallace's stint at Walden House, a halfway house to which Harvard remanded him after he said he might kill himself. (It was, Max said, partly a ploy to leave the philosophy department "with honor.") Wallace grew to appreciate the lives of the other residents and the plainspoken self-help advice offered by those ministering to them. Much of this found its way into the novel that was his breakthrough. (I remember reading a deeply negative review of his last, unfinished novel that wondered more or less openly if he died in the attempt to make it work. That was a definitely a theme with the men: their struggles and defeats, and the role or place of alcohol and drugs in this process. Malcolm Lowry, I once read, was only really lucid while writing, but that lucidity - for him and others - was tragically episodic.)

One of the questions raised continually in these sessions was how close, really, biography gets at the truth of the life. The novelists, the memoirists, and the biographers talked about their relationships to letters, journals, and the accounts of the writers' families and friends. The 50th anniversary of Plath's "Ariel" and her death was marked by argument among the proponents of Plath and her late husband, Ted Hughes. I learned that the "Ariel" that made Plath's name was not the manuscript she left, but an edit of it made by Hughes. He was her literary executor and heir. The "Ariel" that she left was only published in 2005. Her two missing journals may in fact be in a locked box in her archive, not yet authorized to be opened.

Someone, perhaps Claire Harman, said that biographers end up knowing their subjects better than they know themselves. But of course even the full trajectory of a life, as revealed by its traces, is a subjective journey for the biographer. Blake Bailey, commenting on a previous life of Cheever, said that the worst possibility is a biographer with a theory, intent on shaping the facts to fit the case and ignoring whatever fails to apply. He also mentioned how "the facts" vary, depending on the source, with objective evidence sometimes contradicting people's memories and those memories often in conflict. This is true in life, too, of course - how a person strikes others is immensely varied, contingent as it is, and our sense of self is equally so. Memoir is a dodgy thing, as Nabokov acknowledged (citing his sisters' presence in Nice, which he'd overlooked in the first edition of his memoir)

Alexandra Styron wrote a memoir of her father grounded partly in her own experience of him and partly in her immersion in his archive at Duke University. She said in passing that "everyone should have the opportunity to get to know their parents after they're gone." What she meant was the we need a corrective to our received opinions, whether it's acquired through time and reflection or by other means. Writing her memoir gave her back her father: like Nathaniel Kahn's film, "My Architect," a journey not so much of discovery as recovery.

Blake Bailey and Alexandra Styron.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Diary: The Quick and the Dead

13 January 2013

Late yesterday morning, a group of us convoyed to a cemetery near Berkeley for an improvised graveside tribute to the matriarch of the family and her husband. She died a year ago New Year's Day; he died more than two decades before. Poems by Blake and Yeats were read, and a piper played an Irish song and then a medley of them. Tears were shed.

The grave sits on a bluff that looks out at San Francisco Bay - a beautiful spot, actually. I was last there when my father-in-law was interred. Since that visit, many others have joined him. His immediate neighbor, Albert Gunnar Jacobson - I studied his gravestone during the Irish medley - lived to be 102, I noticed. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names dot the landscape. These are flat gravestones, closely set. On the surrounding hillside are more conventional gravestones and the odd mausoleum.

Being there made me think of another graveyard. Three of my cousins, one of their sons, and their father are buried in the churchyard near my family's old summerhouse in Nesodden, a peninsula across from Oslo. I visit their graves whenever I stay with my family there. I like the idea of the living and the dead sharing a place. In the churchyard, a new marker - a rock, really - is added when someone in the family dies. The gravestones we visited yesterday are lined up in an orderly fashion that precludes their gathering. Perhaps especially for Irish families, this seems unfortunate. That the gravestones are close together in Nesodden may be an accident - one cousin died young, and then others followed, prematurely, but there's something about grief that wants solidarity, even among the dead.

One of my family's houses in Nesodden is situated so that the guest room at the corner coincides with a ley line. I thought that ley lines were related to electromagnetic fields, but (a visit to Wikipedia reveals) they mark a trajectory that's both topographical and spiritual. Given the location of the house, I would guess that this one aligns with the church, which in its current form dates from the 11th century, I was told. One night, sleeping in this room, I was visited by my dead cousin. I knew this in retrospect, waking with the thought that he'd left a message about his daughter for me to convey to his father. I did so, and learned from his father that I was the third person who'd approached him with a similar story, the message differing in each case. He then mentioned the ley lines, but the others weren't sleeping in the room or even in the house.

What was odd about this experience was that for a while I had a kind of clairvoyance - I don't know what else to call it. I went to visit my dead cousins in their resting place and could see at once that the cousin who had visited me was still around - his gravestone was "alive" in a way that I could see, while his brother was long gone. I guessed that his concern for his daughter, his one survivor - her older brother having died in a car crash, like her father's brother at almost the same age, kept him tied to that place.

Now that cousin's daughter is married and has two daughters - a good marriage. His widow, too, is remarried and happy. So has he moved on, finally released? I'm not sure. I slept in the same house two springs ago, but in a different room.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


6 January 2013

Yesterday, at the eye clinic at UC Berkeley, the clinician told me that I have a hereditary eye disease that will in time occlude my vision. Its effects can be mitigated, he said, and if gets too bad, it's possible to have new tissue transplanted. Seven years ago, after arranging for my first biopsy, I told a friend that I felt that I was standing in the vestibule of old age. Leaving the eye clinic, it was clear that I've moved further in, somewhere in the parlor now as opposed to those more dire rooms in the back.

Henri Cartier-Bresson later in life.
In nine days, I'll be 66. People have started asking me if I'm still working. Most of them are older than me - younger people don't think to ask. Yes, I tell them, I enjoy my work. I like being part of a studio, working on projects that stretch us and remind me why teams matter. In my own work, like this diary, I do think about the possible audience, but the real motive is self-expression. I would place polemics in this category, also, since they grow out of a personal dislike of how things went or might go. Polemics are about redress.

Virtually everything I do on my own account moves much more slowly than the work I do for others. This is a luxury I grant myself, in the way that I.M. Pei decided, at age 70, only to do what interested him. There's a gray zone between work that's purely mine and work that's nominally personal, but actually taken on owing to ties to others. That work is more like work for others, but with less clarity, sometimes, about who does what and when it's due or finished. One of my resolutions for the New Year is to avoid it. Either it truly interests me or it doesn't.

Samuel Johnson's dictum about the desirability of writing for money is true for me up to a point. That point is repetition and boredom. "Why bother?" is a legitimate question, since prospective readers are equally aware, if they're paying any attention at all, that you've said it before.

Someone posted a "heed time's flight" warning a few days ago, attributing it to the Buddha. I questioned the attribution. "Well, if he didn't, he should have," came the reply, but this seems like a misunderstanding. The Buddha is the great master of the oxymoron. Transcience is how it is, and we unfold along with everything else. Our lives are finite, time is running out, but the context in which we live is vast and interconnected. Every moment has its value, however much we might disparage it.

As I've written elsewhere, I admire the maxim of E.M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood, "Work as if immortal," which I take as closely related to Fritz Perls' admonition, "Don't push the river." It could be laziness, of course, which is where the idea of practice comes in - practice in the Buddhist sense of regularly engaging with it. Having lived almost my entire life on someone else's schedule, practice doesn't come naturally to me. This is another New Year's resolution, to acquire more of that ability.