Sentences — January 2, 2009, 10:16 am

New Year’s Read: A Whole Variegated Chorus of Yells

With all the dark talk this week about the falsity and mediocrity of memoir, it seems only fair to celebrate three bright examples of memoir at its best. Neither of the longer suggestions is available in full online, but both can be started that way (and by beginning to read them, I suspect that you’ll quickly find yourself arranging to finish them, one way or another).

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London contains the single finest piece of writing about the astonishingly degrading (and delightful) experience of working in a restaurant that I know. What, in Anthony Bourdin, becomes broad comedy of some charm but little depth, Orwell treats of with Dante’s deep attention to and empathy for the sinners stuck in his hell. Orwell’s Parisian recollections begin like this:

The Rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning. A succession of furious, choking yells from the street. Madame Monce, who kept the little hotel opposite mine, had come out on to the pavement to address a lodger on the third floor. Her bare feet were stuck into sabots and her grey hair was streaming down.

Madame Monce: ‘Sacrée salope! How many times have I told you not to squash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you’ve bought the hotel, eh? Why can’t you throw them out of the window like everyone else? Espèce de traînée!

The woman on the third floor: ‘Va donc, eh! vieille vache!’

Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows were flung open on every side and half the street joined in the quarrel. They shut up abruptly ten minutes later, when a squadron of cavalry rode past and people stopped shouting to look at them.

Robert Graves’s Goodbye to all That is my favorite full length memoir. Its author’s candor, not to say the fine peculiarity of his mind, should be examples to anyone who would think to examine his or her lived life in print. Graves begins, fittingly and frankly, this way:

The objects of this autobiography, written at the age of thirty-three, are simple enough: an opportunity for a formal good-bye to you and to you and to you and to me and to all that; forgetfulness, because once all this has been settled in my mind and written down and published it need never be thought about again; money.’

Finally, I’d suggest you read or reread my favorite short memoir, Leonard Michaels’s “My Father,” which begins:

Six days a week he rose early, dressed, ate breakfast alone, put on his hat, and walked to his barbershop at 207 Henry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, about half a mile from our apartment. He returned after dark. The family ate dinner together on Sundays and Jewish holidays. Mainly he ate alone. I don’t remember him staying home from work because of illness or bad weather. He took few vacations. Once we spent a week in Miami and he tried to enjoy himself, wading into the ocean, being brave, stepping inch by inch into the warm blue unpredictable immensity. Then he slipped. In water no higher than his pupik, he came up thrashing, struggling back up the beach on skinny white legs. “I nearly drowned,” he said, very exhilarated. He never went into the water again. He preferred his barbershop to the natural world; retiring, after thirty-five years, only when his hands trembled too much for scissors and razors, and angina made it impossible for him to stand for hours at a time. Then he took walks in the neighborhood, carrying a vial of whiskey in his shirt pocket. When pain stopped him in the street, he’d stand very still and sip his whiskey. A few times I stood beside him, as still as he, waiting for the pain to end, both of us speechless and frightened.

And so, as you make your resolutions regarding the kind of person you would try to be this year, enjoy these considered efforts by three writers who tried, honestly and successfully, to document the kind of people they (and those they knew) were. You can read the continuation of the Orwell here (or here), the Graves here, and the Michaels here,).

And a very happy—by the way—new year.

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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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