April 14, 2011

John Burnside: A Lie About My Father

Posted in Burnside John at 8:00 am by John Self

When I became a dad two years ago, in my usual way of interpreting existence through literature, I had the urge to read books about fatherhood. I had already done Philip Roth’s superb Patrimony, and stocked up on titles such as Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and this, John Burnside’s first memoir (he has since published a sequel, Waking Up in Toytown). Burnside has been a busy literary practitioner anyway, with eleven collections of poetry and half a dozen novels in just over 20 years. Although I enjoyed his debut novel The Dumb House (“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins,” it brashly begins), I found his next The Mercy Boys to be grim and depressing without providing much balancing literary thrill, and his third The Locust Room to be mostly dull (an achievement for a book about the Cambridge Rapist). For that reason I stopped reading him, until the clamour of praise for his more recent stuff became too insistent to ignore.

A Lie About My Father (2006) has the cover appearance almost of a misery memoir (an impression not aided by the additional blurb between title and author on my copy: A moving, unforgettable memoir of two lost men: a father and his child). What saves it is that title: odd, rhythmic – a marker of the author as a poet – perhaps like a hardened version of John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father. Misery memoirs, by contrast, have a sometimes comical aspect to them. Their lurid titles, like those of TV shows in the age of on-screen guides, must grab and describe immediately. Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes. God’s Lapdancer. Daddy’s Tomato Ketchup. Burnside’s title, by contrast, has multiple meanings. The book begins with him travelling in America and picking up garrulous hitchhiker, Mike, who talks about his father, Martin, and then asks about Burnside’s. Burnside reflects on all he could have said, and for three pages gives us what turns out to be the most sustained depiction in the book of his father’s conduct. “I could have added that, before my father died, I hadn’t seen him in years, but I hadn’t been able to relax, quite, as long as he was still alive.”

Finally, however, and with some misgivings, I abandoned that idea and, as Mike wanted me to do, not just because his head was full of beautiful, simple scripts, but also because he was a certain kind of son, and because Martin was a certain kind of man, I told him a lie about my father.

What Burnside does next is unexpected. Rather than wade through more details of his father’s shortcomings, he softens the reader toward him by explaining his father’s early life. “He really was a nobody: a foundling, a throwaway,” abandoned by his biological mother as a young baby and taken in by – well, that was the problem. Not only did Burnside’s father not know who his ‘real’ parents were, he didn’t even know who had taken care of him at first. He “wasn’t chosen so much as passed on.” He had “no history he could talk about with others. Nobody reminisced with him about the old days.” No wonder then that he turned out as he did, and no wonder that his account of his origins, told in later life, varied depending on the occasion: “all that mattered was that he was somebody’s son.” The reader might think that the least he could do when he had children of his own was not to pass on his own dread, uncertainty and sense of loss. To do so would have required a strength of character that was, perhaps inevitably, beyond him.

Nonetheless, Burnside is kind to his father at this stage. “Nobody I have ever known was there to witness his abandonment, so I can imagine it as I like.” A cold day, “wet and windy, the blanket sodden”? No: “my father wouldn’t have liked that image.” Instead, “what I choose to imagine is a summer’s morning.” In this smallest act of kindness, creating an infinitesimally better start in life, Burnside might also be wondering how his father might have changed, and how his family’s life been improved, with such seemingly unimportant alterations to its beginning. And if we needed any reminder that man hands on misery to man, it is in Burnside’s reflections when he looks at his parents’ wedding photographs (“Did they really not have the least inkling of what was to come?”).

Every time I see a wedding, I wonder what the bride and groom expect from it all, and why none of the others there, the old ones, the long-married, do not step up and warn them about the enterprise.

The reader expecting vivid tales of violence and sexual abuse will (thankfully) be disappointed. Burnside’s father’s speciality was psychological abuse, “persistently eating away at my confidence, questioning my right even to occupy space in his world.” But the nagging had a perverse good intention to it. “What he wanted was to warn me against hope, against any expectation of someone from my background being treated as a human being in the big hard world. He wanted to kill off my finer – and so, weaker – self. Art. Music. Books. Imagination. Signs of weakness, all. A man was defined, in my father’s circles, by what he could bear, the pain he could shrug off, the warmth or comfort he could deny himself.”

Burnside’s father was a drinker (not to him and his ilk, felt Burnside, a pleasure or a vice, but “an act of self-abnegation”) and a gambler. He was “irrational,” and kept his family under a passive-aggressive control. His petty acts of vindictiveness continue to haunt Burnside’s dreams, forty years on. He was a product too of his time and place, “99 per cent act,” veiling his emotions so thoroughly that he himself no longer knew they were there, and “like most of the other men I encountered, seemed to like nothing at all.” Burnside’s mother was frustrated, thinking of a better life, but loyal and with a Scottish Catholic’s mid-20th century aversion to divorce. Ultimately, Burnside in his teens turned to LSD and other drugs, deciding not to fit in to a society that offered him nothing.

A Lie About My Father is like a closely argued essay, where the narrative moves unnoticeably from one subject to the next. It could be mistaken for one of those books which consists of one long sentence; or one long exhalation. When Burnside is at his most self-critical, we see a second meaning for the book’s title. He spends pages analysing and explaining his father. “I’m sure my father felt these things – but these are my words, and this is the real lie about my father. I cannot talk about him without talking about myself, just as I can never look at myself in the mirror without seeing his face.” Of course, Burnside does talk directly about himself too, at greater and greater length as the book goes on (“What a great pleasure it is to be lost“), and some of the scenes, had he known then that he would write a sequel, might have been better off there.

Near the beginning of the book, one of the things Burnside contemplates saying to hitcher Mike is “that I’d come to believe that, when a man becomes a father, he is – or he ought to be – transformed into something other than the man he had been until that moment. Every life is a more or less secret narrative, but when a man becomes a father, the story is lived, not for, but in the constant awareness of another, or others.” The problem for Burnside’s father was a failure to be transformed. “He was only really happy when he was alone.” The raw material with which he had to work was not well suited to happiness, or its propagation in others (“Happiness is hard work”), but he tried anyway, doomed as the effort was. What he created, apart from good raw material for his son’s literary work (and now I know where the depressing milieu of The Mercy Boys came from) was a murky whirlpool of hope, boredom, and fear – you know, all that traditional family stuff.

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28 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    It sounds very intriguing and the examples suggest as much, and yet…Burnside is a strange one. I’ve stop-started various things that were superbly drawn but that were enthusiasm-fatiguing. I must try again.

  2. Trevor said,

    Well, you certainly interested me enough to look for its availability here in the U.S. I don’t want any stones cast my way, but there it was, new, for $2.63 . . . on Amazon. Yes. I did.

  3. Well, you know I’m an avowed fan of Burnside and I found this memoir fascinating, particularly because of those blurred lines between truth and remembered truth and the way the book was about both Burnside and his father. A top notch review as always, Sir. I read this book quite close to another memoir which also explored the idea of ‘memoir as fiction’, that in fact being the subtitle of A Frieze of Girls by Allan Seager. It couldn’t be much further away from this book in content though – ‘a coming-of-age potboiler in which his youth is presented as a series of comic trials whose hero is a sort of American Candide’ as Charles Baxter puts it in his introduction, a very funny book that also has hidden depth and a great introduction to a neglected and yet very talented writer.

  4. [...] Asylum – John Self’s Shelves by John Self – “John Burnside: A Lie About My Father“ [...]

  5. I struggle rather to see why I should care about his family. It’s obvious why this should matter to him, but why should it matter to readers beyond morbid curiosity?

    Put another way, what lifts this (if anything) above mere memoir?

    Also, in the end isn’t this a misery memoir, albeit a well written one?

  6. John Self said,

    Well, the answer to various aspects of your questions, Max, is that it is so beautifully written – by which I don’t mean poetic but meaty, searching, clear-eyed and apt – that its artful qualities send the subject matter down to second rank. It is also an act of imagination, as Burnside acknowledges in his meditations on the ‘lie’ of the title – as with Georges Perec (or even Greg Baxter), this is a memoir which knows the limitations of the form (as Will suggests above).

    Like Lee, I’ve had difficulty with some of Burnside’s stuff in the past – detailed in the opening paragraph above – but this book seem not just valuable in itself, but important in unlocking some of the sources of his material. We think of the poet and novelist as a literary figure (by definition), capable and in control, but this book shows just how much mess and misery went to make the artist, and how those elements are essential to his work. And I have Burnside’s other memoir, Waking Up In Toytown and his last two novels The Devil’s Footprints and Glister on my shelves (all of which I bought before I read this book), so I am looking forward to reading more of him. It’s interesting that his recent novels seemingly move toward mythical or fantastical elements, unlike the grim real-world settings of The Mercy Boys and The Locust Room. He also has a new novel out this summer, which I can guarantee Will will be reviewing long before I do.

  7. You’re damn right I will. I’m amazed I’ve been disciplined enough to leave it on the shelf as long as I have, waiting for the publication date to get a bit nearer.

  8. I don’t read memoirs, but confess to avidlyreading reviews (and comments) from those who do — especially when I respect the reviewer’s tastes. So this has told me all I need to know about this book and my thanks for that.

    I’m new to Burnside (Glister) but liked that. Not enough to explore the back catalogue yet, but if Will likes the new one that will be next and then I’ll head back into the shelves for previous work.

  9. Rik Rawling said,

    First off – thanks for such a great blog that has consistently provided me with reliable cues on what books to look out for.
    Onto Burnside. His writing hit my life like a meteor in late 2008. His poem ‘Scalpel’ featured in George Shaw’s exhibition catalogue What I Did This Summer and I knew I’d found another writer I’d be reading for the rest of my life. His early novels can seem hard-going but I’d suggest all those approaching his fiction star with A Lie About My Father, and then everything thereafter starts to make sense. He puts so much of his life experience into his fiction and after reading his memoir you recognise so much of it in his novels that every incident, every observation takes on added meaning. I personally really like The Locust Room (though has there ever been a novel published with less dialogue in it?) but it’s Glister that stands out as the novel for which he will be measured by in years to come. This memoir though contains some exquisite passages, and they often come out of nowhere to completely jolt the reader into a moment of revelation. Like this:

    The shadows, the trees, the wide lawns – it was all as it should be, but it was too still, too heavy, waiting for the day when the dead would return, coming through rain, coming through the wind, seeking out the angles and corners they knew, the faces they could name, the bodies that were flesh of their flesh.

    He has such an unusual take on the world around us and conveys it in prose that’s crisp, clean and loaded. I recommend his fiction and his poetry to anyone who cares about language.

  10. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comment, Rik, and your kind words. “Crisp, clean and loaded” is just right for describing the prose. I must admit though that I have never taken an interest in Burnside’s poetry – room for improvement there clearly. I do have Glister so I will make that my next one.

    Also, thinking further on Max’s question – why should this [Burnside's father and upbringing] matter to readers? – I would bat the question back and ask why any fictional characters or situations should matter to readers either. If a book is worth reading, it’s not because of the subject matter but what it does with the subject matter. That applies to Kevin’s observation too that he doesn’t read memoirs. Kevin! Why?

  11. Quite right to ask the question, John, and I will attempt an answer.

    About three decades ago, I wrote a weekly book column for the Calgary Herald — the nature of the beast meant that more than half the time that involved interviewing an author on a promotional tour. Some interviews were wonderful (Margaret Atwood extended 30 minutes into two hours and my pen was put away after the first 15 minutes — the book was Surfacing if anyone cares), some were okay, most were terrible.

    From that experience, I decided that I would prefer to appreciate works on their own — once they were published, much like a work of art, they stood as something independent. Nice people write quite dreadful novels, not nice people write some wonderful ones. I read books, I don’t read authors.

    So I also avoid memoirs. I acknowledge that that makes me an incomplete reader in many respects (which is why I read blogs and reviews of memoirs). Certainly it would disqualify me as an academic critic and I certainly respect the work they do in exploring what produces an author’s oeuvre (even if I don’t read their critical books either). And I will admit that very, very occasionally I do break the rule (when I finish reading McGahern’s fiction, he may become an example of that).

    In conclusion, I find that restricting myself to the fictional output is rewarding. I don’t criticize those who read memoirs — indeed, I often appreciate the lens that they provide (as you have here). On the down side, I would observe that some who do read memoirs come to view all the individual’s work through the lens of the memoir — and that is not something that I would like to do.

    If all of that reads like a totally inadequate apologia, I could not dispute the conclusion. Consider it a pecadillo if you must.

  12. Sufficient talent justifies any form, which seems to be the case here. If it’s beautifully written the rest is in a sense mere detail.

    More generally though Kevin puts it well. I read books, I don’t read authors.

    I don’t personally tend to see that as a lacuna. A novel should not require knowledge of the author to persuade. If it does it’s flawed. Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time may have been (was in fact) heavily influenced by events in his life but at the end of the day it either works as fiction or it doesn’t. Knowing that Trapnel is based on Maclaren-Ross is idly interesting but it has no bearing on the success of Trapnel as a character within the book or on how well he’s written.

    As a genre memoirs are in most cases essentially a form of self-aggrandising gossip. There are exceptions. Zweig’s appears to have interesting things to say about a world he knew was passing/passed for example (I haven’t read it yet) and it looks like this is another exception, but in most cases it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened to someone and I simply don’t care. At its worst, the misery memoir, it’s wallowing in suffering for entertainment and I think that’s diminishing to everyone involved including the reader.

    Of course I loved Paul Morand’s memoirs. I’m nothing if not inconsistent. Sufficient quality overrides pretty much anything else as I started this comment saying. Morand could write. Where that’s true the rest of my comment can pretty much be ignored.

  13. John Self said,

    As a genre memoirs are in most cases essentially a form of self-aggrandising gossip. There are exceptions.

    Well, 90% of memoirs are crap, sure, but Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. In any form (is memoir a ‘genre’?), one would hope only to read the exceptions.

    And while I buy Kevin’s persuasive argument, I do balk when you extend it, Max, by saying, “I read books, I don’t read authors.” Any memoir worth reading is as much about the book as about the author, just as any novel is as much about the author as about the book. While I entirely agree that a work of art stands on its own, I don’t think it’s “idly interesting” to know that Trapnel was based on Maclaren-Ross – rather, it adds another dimension or layer not only to that book (though the book can still be appreciated without that layer) but also to Maclaren-Ross’s books (and life!). The interconnection of lives and books is, to me, dizzying and not distracting.

    Also Kurt Vonnegut makes the following point in his last novel (which, appropriately for our discussion, was as much non-fiction as fiction) Timequake:

    If you really want to know whether your pictures are, as you say, art or not, you must display them in a public place somewhere, and see if strangers like to look at them. That is the way the game is played. Let me know what happens. People capable of liking some paintings or prints or whatever can rarely do so without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking to you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for religiosity, for suffering, for concupiscence, for rebellion, for sincerity, for jokes? There are virtually no respected paintings made by persons about whom we know zilch. We can even surmise quite a bit about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caverns underneath Lascaux, France. I dare to suggest that no picture can attract serious attention without a particular sort of human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. If you are unwilling to claim credit for your pictures, and to say why you hoped others might find them worth examining, there goes the ball game.

    I am ashamed, Max, to admit that I don’t know Paul Morand at all. The only bell his name rings in my mind is that he wrote something about Chanel which was published by Pushkin…?

  14. Hm, I’m not sure I agree with Vonnegut, much as I love him. There’s an artist known as the master of the candle who painted candlelit scenes usually with a single candle present within the canvas. He’s well regarded, but we know nothing of him beyond his work. I’m not sure I buy the Lascaux arguments either. We know nothing of the artists, we can make the broadest of comments about the culture they were part of.

    Vonnegut confuses I think cause and effect. There are virtually no respected paintings by artists we know nothing of because we research the past of those paintings we most admire. We don’t admire Rembrandt’s art because of what we know about Rembrandt and what we know of him does not improve his art. Were Rembrandt unknown the art would remain as powerful. Besides, galleries are full of extraordinary works of Medieval art where we know near nothing about the artists.

    To an extent of course interest or the lack of it is always irrational. I’m a big Maclaren-Ross fan but the Trapnel connection didn’t really illuminate much for me. Writers always have sources. At the end of the day for me either it’s become part of the work or it hasn’t. Trapnel has a real-life source, but he’s not that source. He’s a fictional character and must stand or fall on his own.

    I agree with Sturgeon’s Law, but I suspect the percentage on memoirs is higher. They’re generally an act of vanity saying much about the writer (often inadvertently) but little about the human condition (whatever that may be). 90% for me there feels an underestimate, but I’m open to counterexamples of course…

    It is a conversation, but a conversation held in the dark. What we know of a writer is partial, perhaps partly untrue or inaccurate, in the end what they have to say is on the page. The mouth it issues from is obscure. Even if the writer were a personal friend we would still know only that version of them which was them-with-us.

    Re Morand I wrote about his memoirs here: http://tinyurl.com/3yf2hxc
    and Kevin wrote about one of his novels here: http://tinyurl.com/3ea37mn. I think you’d like him.

  15. leroyhunter said,

    I’m with John on this debate, although it’s interesting to see other views.

    I think both Kevin and Max made the point “books, not authors”…but inevitably you find there are specific writers whose work is sufficiently sympathetic to you as a reader that it’s worth finding out why that might be? – which question will have roots in the experiences, approach etc of the writer. That’s where I think quality memoir has value.

    It’s also important to distinguish between autobiography and memoir – I have personally little interest in the former but avidly read good examples of the latter. What’s the difference? Well, to me memoir is discursive, ruminative, possibly even tangential…rather then a chronological account of “main life events” which autobio generally is (there are weaknesses in these definitions of course, but they work for me).

    So when I think memoir, I think Wolff’s In Pharoah’s Army, I think Saint-Exupery, I think Raban, I think Kapuscinski, some Dyer, Primo Levi, McGahern and so on. Zweig is clearly another example, unread as yet. And of course I think of the single irrefutable argument in support of memoir as a worthwhile read: Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.

    It’s down to how we are as readers, isn’t it? The example is John & Max’s different views on the X Trapnel example – you’re either interested in what’s behind it or not, but both approaches are defensible. Personally I like the layers, the tangents, the new directions that can be uncovered.

  16. John Self said,

    Thanks for the Morand links Max (your comment was held in moderation because of the links) – yes, of course I remember seeing Hecate and Her Dogs also.

    You make a good point about Vonnegut’s argument and which comes first. Perhaps our investigations into the personality behind the art was a mere forerunner of the celebrity culture we now wallow in, where we see “how far fame has come adrift from real achievement – of how personality has replaced output as the measure of fame” (Gordon Burn). The life now comes before the work, so much so that there needn’t be any work other than the life and its perpetual presentation in the media.

  17. Leroy makes a good distinction between auto-biography and the memoir. My objection is more to the former than the latter (though many works called memoirs are really mere auto-biography).

    Leroy also, unhelpfully for my argument, mentions Saint-Exupery whose memoirs I’ve blogged about and thought marvellous on any reckoning.

    Then too there’s Casanova, the Duc de Saint-Simon, the list goes on. What they have in common is they’re about something other than the author. It’s not a mere introspective (mere, my word of the day).

    Venices is silky in its prose John. Admittedly he rather glosses over the second world war and his part in it, but let’s not cavil.

  18. Lee Monks said,

    I suppose all these interesting arguments depend upon whether or not you see any meaningful distinction between ‘real’ life and art. If you can (and want to) compartmentalise the two and use one against the other to form a coalescent whole, there’s that. But if you consider the truest form of expression a purely fictitious one, why would you bother reading them? (Though of course, the memories sifted and reappropriated in most memoirs are surely and unavoidably partly fictional in themselves etc.) Part of my hope when reading is that I may find an interesting and insightful way of looking at something that hadn’t occured and possibly understand it in more depth, differently, more succesfully: I don’t see that either memoir or fiction has any inherent advantage there. Speak, Memory is the perfect example. I wouldn’t read that and then look at Lolita any differently; but each work may take on a more interesting afterlife, and each could only illuminate the other, as opposed to negatively influence. Van Gogh’s letters – though slightly off-genre – enrich his work for me; hearing the voice contained in those correspondences prompts a more powerful response when looking again at those masterpieces.

  19. Trevor said,

    I’m sympathetic to Max and Kevin’s views and even allow similar thoughts to direct me away from memoirs and from meet and greets with contemporary authors. I often (but not always) don’t like how knowing the author, whether personally or through memoir, affects my views of their work. I certainly think Vonnegut’s too broad in his statement. Perhaps I’m reading it too simplistically, but how many times have I walked through a photograph exhibit by some unknown artist — perhaps uknown only to me — and still felt touched on an artistic and personal level by the subject itself? Surely I’d appreciate some if I knew the artist’s background, but that’s not a prerequisite. One could say that to a degree the artist is there in the presentation of the subject and the perspective, and we latch on to that; but even that is, in a sense, part of the artist’s art, the creating of some creator that may or may not have anything to do with the artist. I think this works with fiction as much as with memoirs; to me it’s more about the presentation of the subject, which can be the artist’s life as much as some life the artist has made up.

    If the artist can succeed in presenting his or her own life in some way that speaks to me artistically to the same degree as a work of fiction, excellent! Recently I’ve read and reviewed on my blog a number of memoirs that I can still take as something separate from the author’s real life, which, in and of itself holds no real interest for me but which, if presented well, certainly does. I’m thinking of Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life (and, though to a lesser extent for me, In Pharaoh’s Army), Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence, J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (which I know Kevin likes), B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Imre Kertész’s quasi-fiction, and, beginning with a post on Boyhood yesterday, Coetzee’s three.

  20. I probably should amend my original statement to say that I am very selective about reading memoirs — as Trevor points out I do like An American Childhood and thought highly of Summertime (although not so much that I went back to the previous two works in Coetzee’s trilogy). And I have enjoyed Geoff Dyer, who seems to occupy a space that is almost equally fiction and version of incidents from his life. And as one who collects art I would disagree with Vonnegut’s statement — for me a painting or sculpture stands on its own and I don’t need to know anything about who created it (although, obviously I often do).

    So at the bottom end would be the misery or celebrity memoir, which I am inclined to regard as self-serving claptrap which mainly produces a response tending to anger on my part (Leo Benedictus inserting himself into The Afterparty qualifies there). Then there is a less annoying middle ground where the memoir simply doesn’t have value for me — I’d put this Burnside volume in that group, although I did find both John’s rationale for reading it and his response had value (so his experience interests me, even if the book doesn’t). And then there is that slim percentage that does have appeal — I think I would agree with Trevor’s sentiment that these would be books that stand on their own artistically. I liked Annie Dillard’s book mainly because of the picture she painted of Pittsburgh, not what it told me about her.

    What probably gets my back up more than anything else is the sometimes-stated notion that “you can’t understand X’s fiction unless you read her memoir”.

  21. Kevin reminds me of one additional point which is that like him there’s books which I enjoy reading reviews of even if I’m unlikely to read the books themselves.

    Kevin and Trevor both have, naturally enough, a greater interest in contemporary North American fiction than I do. That means they cover a fair few works I’m unlikely to follow up on, but it’s still very interesting to read about them (and when I do follow up it’s usually rewarding).

    Memoirs are similar. There are some that interest me, but generally I’m happy enough reading the views of others on them. I have so much competing for my reading time that sometimes I have to effectively say “this may be an excellent and well written work, but even so I’m not going to read it”. After all, there are a great many excellent and well written works and ultimately we all have to prioritise some areas of interest over others – even though inevitably it means missing out.

  22. Trevor said,

    I have so much competing for my reading time that sometimes I have to effectively say “this may be an excellent and well written work, but even so I’m not going to read it”.

    I desparately need to learn how to say that more often!

  23. Lee Monks said,

    On the issue of enjoying reviews of books one has no inclination to read, absolutely. I certainly enjoyed the recent reviews of the Yann Martel and James Frey novels, and I’d rather eat moss than crack either spine!

    Whilst I predictably find all the collective arguments against the memoir and authorial chiaroscuro potentially aiding and abetting a work of fiction, I have to disagree. Certainly, it’s the case that it may be preferable to read a work stand-alone for many reasons, and you don’t need to ‘read through’ an author, but for me I can only find Cheever’s stuff even more intriguing after reading the journals etc. And as I’m in the midst of The Pale King, which professes, with an authorial intervention 70-odd pages in, to be, to a large extent, ‘memoir’, and in light of Greg Baxter’s Preparation For Death clouding the issue expertly, I’d say the issue was as happily muddy as ever.

    Misery memoirs, though, or books that selectively catalogue ‘laudatory’ moments, form a clear nadir.

    • Lee Monks said,

      Doh! That should’ve said: Whilst I predictably find all the collective arguments against the memoir and authorial chiaroscuro potentially aiding and abetting a work of fiction COMPELLING….sigh…early morning rant-slipshoddy.

  24. John Self said,

    Lee, Geoff Dyer in his intro to Cheever’s Journals makes a good case for saying that they are actually his best work.

  25. [...] was an interesting comment stream on John Self’s recent review of John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father, a memoir.  Is there a greater proportion of [...]

  26. [...] also fits neatly into my recent interest in books about fatherhood – here, the point of view is predominantly not that of the father but of the son. Dr Andrés [...]


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