Monday, February 27, 2012

"Trying to take one day at a time": Margaret Sartor's diaries

"I remember my mother claiming, loudly and usually while surveying my room from my doorway (in blatant violation of the 'do not disturb or die' sign which no one seemed to take seriously and I was powerless to enforce), that my bedroom smelled, and I suppose it did," Margaret Sartor writes in her introduction to Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets, and Growing Up in the 1970s. "The faint odors of oiled leather tack, potpourri, paints, candy bars, skin lotion, dog hair, and dirty clothes were all of my own making, and I thought my room was an OK place to be." She adds, "On reflection,
I think the sediment of memory must resemble that room, and in my initial reading of the diaries there were times that I became aware of those long undistributed layers of sensory information, images I didn't know I could conjure, feelings I didn't know I still felt. Reading an entry, such as, "Went skiing on the bayou. Mitch kept flirting with me and I kept liking it." and an entire afternoon's experience would suddenly be revealed to me in full: the appalling heat, the relief of the breeze when the boat was in motion, Mitch's extremely short cutoffs and the fact that he wore no underwear. Scratch the surface and the past was there. Heartaches mostly. And the buried hurts and the humiliations that hurt and humiliated me all over again.
Sartor's first diary
The diary to which Sartor refers is the (mostly) daily record she kept while in junior and high schools in the early- and mid-1970s, and which makes up the bulk of Miss American Pie, published in 2006. I loved this book for Sartor's affecting, searching teen voice, for its evocative details and its open window on a lost era, in Sartor's case, life in the town of Monroe, Louisiana, where Sartor was born and raised. As a voice-driven, coming-of-age narrative, the book's a great read; as autobiography, it troubles me, or at least has me thinking. Sartor culled material from her letters and notebooks as well as her private diaries, and claims that her only authorial shaping was changing names and rearranging "some sequences and details...not in an attempt to obscure the facts, but to better reveal them." I read Miss American Pie in the wake of the John D'Agata controversy, and Sartor's comments interest me. Moving around things—details, events, facts—can divulge rather than disguise, Sartor claims. She leaves it at that (this statement appears in a brief note at the start of the book) but I wish she'd explored it a little more. As it is, her book reads simply as a reproduced diary, brief, often single-sentence entries chronologically moving from 1972 to 1977. Sartor's writing captures beautifully the chaos and melodrama of teenagedom, when things can spiral uncontrollably—body, mind, and emotions—and today's end-of-the-world crises feel silly in the face of tomorrow's. The world ends at the end of a teenager's arm, and Sartor's no less self-absorbed than any of us were, which she admits to candidly in her closing essay, shyly nodding along with George Orwell, who said that "Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful." (Though Sartor's transgressions are less disgraceful than unfortunate.). But her religious and spiritual questing is genuine, and her attempts to struggle piety and seriousness with a sixteen year-old's narcissism and growing, confounding anxieties are moving. And the world beyond Margaret and her family and friends forces itself into her consciousness at times, resulting in the book's humorous moments, as external and internal affairs do battle:
January 10: I saw so many people die in a movie tonight (The Towering Inferno) that I started crying & praying for them. Mary called to say she is getting married and she wants me and Stella to be bridesmaids.
January 12: Watched the Super Bowl with Tommy and Jackson. The strong attraction to Jackson is still there, but feeling so much love can't be a bad thing.
August 8: President Nixon resigned. Made appointment to get my haircut.
Because teen years are often defined by clashing priorities and emotional needs, many of Sartor's entries possess whiplash observations in the same sentence: family to God to losing weight to Prom! to solemn horse riding. It's very effective, and at times gripping writing. What I'm wondering about is this: a diary is autobiographical, but is it autobiography? Sartor opens and closes her book with essays that put her diaries in historical context, and she writes about recovering them and present-day meetings she had with figures from her past, but she doesn't explore quite enough for me the implications of the self as subject, its possibilities and limits. There's a heft that seems to be missing from Miss American Pie, something I noticed the day after I finished reading it, when its resonances were less than I thought they would've been. Details alone do not make autobiography; those details need to be circled, opened, entered, doubted, accepted or denied. Interrogated, anyway. Oscar Wilde said that "Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us," but it isn't, because a diary is selective remembering. This is what I'm going to say now, not that. The not—what we elide, ignore, willfully or otherwise—matters as much as the this, perhaps more so.


Sartor seems to recognizes this. In her closing essay she writes, "We do not know ourselves,"
This is what I have learned. Having read through my diaries, my private past has taken on qualities it did not have before. For one thing, it's no longer private. Autobiography is necessarily limited by the mind's locked drawers and the author's skewed perspective, but putting it plainly, the girl in my story would have been nicer and wiser were it not for the misfortune of written evidence. The lives described in my diaries, including my own, are depicted only in part, imperfectly, and seen only through my adolescent eyes. What I chose to record begs the question, to me as much as anyone, of what I left out, and why. A question I can't fully answer. But to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, until the perfect comes, the parts will have to do.
Good stuff. I'd only quibble with this: the locked drawers aren't really locked, are they? If they are, writers can—must?—pick them.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jackie Gleason's Lover's Portfolio (1962)

I love this time capsule relic. Jackie Gleason's Lovers' Portfolio is a sophisticated, Kennedy era seduction kit, two records of decent to strong big band jazz and orchestral standards (I May Be Wrong; I Can't Give You Anything But Love; I Could Have Danced All Night; C'est Magnifique; I Concentrate On You; It All Depends On You; The Party's Over; etc.) packaged in a faux leather slipcase complete with a how-to manual and period-perfect illustrations. "Dear Lovers," a Capital Record promo man—I mean, Gleason—writes on the back. "Inside this portfolio you will find 41 of my favorite melodies pertinent to the perfect evening with someone special. I have also included a special booklet with helpful suggestions for sippin', listenin', dancin' and lovin'. Your friend, j.g." ("Good luck!!" he adds in a hopeful P.S.)

If you've been hooked and have brought this James Bond-like amatory attache back home with you, The Great One confides more intimately in the inside booklet:
During the past few years, all of my albums have been carefully designed to create a special mood. And not infrequently, a thoroughly contented individual assures me my music has provided the background inspiration for a romantic interlude. This always gives me a decided, if somewhat vicarious, thrill. After all, one of life’s more satisfying roles is that of Dan Cupid.
   But this album goes a step further than my previous efforts. Here we've assembled additional ingredients for an evening of romance.
   Of course, music is basic to romance. Music, the gentle soother…subtle evoker of many spells. So we include a considerable variety of music to create the several moods necessary for a memorable evening.
   The meticulous handling of the refreshments is vital to romance. So we include advice on preparing the more elegant beverages.
   As a stimulant to motivating subtle conversation, we intersperse some classical poetry which deals with romance to meet the mood.
   Naturally your choice of drink and drinking partner is strictly a matter of individual taste and discrimination.
  What we have done is to assemble the literary components into chronological steps, from the evening's beginning to its end, each containing pertinent comments by yours truly.
WARNING: What follows is merely an aid to help you over those conversational lulls that might arise during any evening. It is designed to stimulate your imagination and creative instincts. For after all, the real key to delightful romance is inspired improvisation.
   Here, then, is my “Lovers’ Portfolio.”
Great stuff. The drink suggestions range from tasteful wines and champagnes to Panama Paradise and Gleason's Delight (Cognac, gin, Creme de Menthe, powdered sugar on a tissue onto which is dipped "the lightly-moistened lips of a tall, very thin, frosted glass." Chic!), plus nitecaps (if you get that far). As for the "classical poetry"? Fill in the awkward silences with can't-miss verse of public domain Shakespeare: What is love? 'tis not hereafter; / Present mirth hath present laughter. If you're lucky enough to reach side four (Music for Lovin') and your girl's still around, whisper some Beilby Porteus in her ear: Love is something so divine, / Description would but make it less; / 'Tis what I feel, but can't define, / 'Tis what I know, but can't express. Ladies, who can resist, am I right? Fella, when you've got Jackie G. pulling the strings for you, it's a sure score.


Lower the lights...


I snagged Lovers' Portfolio in a thrift shop years ago and I've always wondered on its blend of earnestness and cynicism. Capital Records was mining Gleason's popularity (the album reached a disappointing 130 on Billboard) and certainly the set is of its era. But is the corniness back-dated? Am I looking at this with a jaded eye? Imagining more smarminess than was intended? Probably not. Was there any skinny young guy, urban or otherwise, who actually believed the promises this set makes, or who took the concerted "chronological steps" in trying to bed his secretary or the girl next door? When I look at the manual and illustrations I'm at pains to import myself into 1962, a pre-Irony era where Madison Avenue was as smart and cynical as ever (witness Mad Men) yet where a certain innocence prevailed, where Middle Class aspiring and weekend sophistication made items like Lovers' Portfolio possible for homes where Art, in the form of copies of the Masters purchased in sets-of-twelve from MOMA or the National Gallery, still hung on the paneled walls of dens and bedrooms. The carpe diem thrust of the manual's heavy-panting, however suavely presented, is nothing new, of course—every generation since the first has been sippin', listenin', dancin' and lovin'—but the pre-Beatles, guile-free hopefulness and faux worldliness embodied in this set never fail to charm me, even as I smirk.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Old Time Shimmy: Remembering The Milkshakes

Thee Milkshakes, ca. 1984
Sometime in the mid 1980s I was in 45 annex store of Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville, MD, when an employee played me a single from the U.K.. Within the opening moments of "It's You"—with it cheap guitars, crude barre chords, raw, hoarse vocals, stomping rhythm—I knew I was going to love this song. I'd been driving around town for months looking for a copy of the Kinks' "I Need You" 45, and here was a something that sounded nearly as good, by a contemporary band no less. I assumed that they were contemporary, anyway. The single read "1982" on the back sleeve, but everything else signaled "1962"—the front photo was a grainy black and white of the band members holding vintage gear, posing stiffly alongside a river; I was certain that post-War bomb craters, unfilled, would come to dominate the image if the photographer panned out. The font and graphic design were retro, the music and Derek Taylor-styled text decidedly so. No matter. I spun the record to death, soon annoying my girlfriend and my patient buddies, one whom dismissed the band as sounding as if someone gave the early Beatles a hundred bucks to try and play harDCore. Meanwhile, I set out to buy everything I could by the Milkshakes. An unwitting education in authenticity commenced.


The Milkshakes formed in 1980 in Chatham, Kent, England, after Billy Childish's band Pop Rivets disbanded. Childish teamed up with local former roadie Mickey Hampshire, who'd been fronting Mickey and the Milkshakes, and as the Milkshakes the two set out, while enduring shifting rhythm sections, to write, record, and release as many records as was humanly possible. By the time I'd caught up to them in late 1984 they'd already issued seven albums and a few singles, over three years. In addition to their humor, and basic, rocking synthesis of Bo Diddley, Link Wray, and early Kinks, what intrigued me about the band was their other-ness—not simply as an obscurity from the U.K. but as a band that would never set foot in the U.S. (In '85 or so I heard a rumor, unfounded, that they'd played a one-off gig at the World in New York City.) Their inaccessibility only deepened my hunger to find everything they released; given their retro sound and vintage look, I felt as if I was chasing cobwebs in a time machine, which only added to the fun. I'd scour the newly-arrived bins at Yesterday and Today for a new Milkshakes album: I never knew when one would come in, but the odds were always good. This was the record-shopping era well before the Internet, when news and gossip about your favorite under-the-radar bands moved slowly, arriving sparingly in fanzines and major trade magazines, the latter monthly, the former sporadically. If you were lucky, you had a friend or a friend of a friend in England who could buy and ship records, or at least slide you news before it "broke" weeks later in Rolling Stone or SPIN. I worked in the undergraduate library while a student at the University of Maryland, and on slow nights I'd run downstairs to the periodicals floor and raid the stacks of months-old New Musical Express and Melody Maker issues, getting off on ads for clubs and record stores with pound signs, and absorbing commentary on the UK, and often the U.S., scenes.

But news about the Milkshakes was hard to come by. Who were they? What and where is "Medway"? (And is there really a "Medway Sound"?) How can the band release so many records? Does the band even exist? When I scored a copy of the live album Stomping at the Klub Foot, which featured the Milkshakes and other Medway bands, it was odd to see pictures of the Milkshakes onstage: oh, they're real men who actually live now. It felt at times as if the Milkshakes were a toy band, or a fake group. They seemed unrealistic to me in their Beatle-Hamburg-era dress code and U.K. provinciality, and yet the records would keep coming: Talking 'Bout...Milkshakes; Fourteen Rhythm & Beat Greats; After School Sessions; The Milkshakes IV—The Men with Golden Guitars; The Milkshakes Sing and Play 20 Rock & Roll Hits of the 50's & 60's; The Milkshakes in Germany; Nothing Can Stop These Men; Showcase; They Came They Saw They Conquered; Thee Knights of Trashe...all released within three years, including five in 1984 alone. Around the time I first heard of them, they'd changed their name to Thee Milkshakes, a funny send-up of the Roman Era ethos they played with, mock-serious and timeless, all togas and guitars and laurel crowns. They were over by 1985. Billy Childish was off to form Thee Mighty Caesars and chase an insanely productive, manic solo career—in and out of different bands, and as a writer and a painter. Hampshire was off into obscurity.

Mickey Hampshire was the reason I loved, and the reason I still love, the Milkshakes. For all of the band's retro posturing and locked-in-time songwriting, Hampshire was a fantastic, expressive rock & roll singer, underrated to this day. He rocked hard but also wrote desperate, mid-tempo ballads that contrasted with Childish's lo-fi stomping and Link Wray idolatry, and a handful of these tunes—"Don't Love Another," "You Did Her Wrong," "Thinking 'Bout That Girl," and "Despite The Danger"—are affecting stuff, melodramatic and worshipful, yeah, but Hampshire's singing—his howling, really—always felt sincere to me, well past derivative into emotionally sound. He sang "you" as "you-wuh," an inexplicable UK-ism that I loved, and while I dug Childish's workmanlike khakis and sport-coat look, Hampshire was responsible for the sartorial style I tried doggedly, if mostly unsuccessfully, to cultivate while in college (he's on the far right in the above photo, from the back of Thee Knights of Trashe). He sang with a half-grin. And he was a great screamer, too (listen to "Brand New Cadillac.") He always sounded drunk. I had a non-sexual crush on the guy.


"It's You" (single, 1982)

"Seven Days" (Fourteen Rhythm & Beat Greats, 1982)

"Thinking 'Bout That Girl" (They Came They Saw They Conquered, 1984)

"Bo Diddilus" (They Came They Saw They Conquered, 1984) 

"I'm The One For You" (Nothing Can Stop These Men, 1984)


I followed Childish's bands into the late 1980s—Thee Mighty Caesars and Thee Headcoats had some great moments—then turned away; he grew a bit too strident, Emo-ish, and lo-fi/Crypt for me. At times his painful autobiographical songs were gripping, and three cheers for going to work every day, but I was never a great fan of his "untutored" voice. He missed Hampshire's flair, I thought. I'd hear from U.K. friends that Hampshire had retired, then unretired, and was doing occasional shows in various outfits. He formed the Masonics in the late 1990s, and has released several albums with them. The Milkshakes have reformed once or twice, cut an album, done some shows, re-released several of their albums on Childish's Hangman Books and Records imprint as well a best-of compilation in 1990 on Big Beat. It's interesting to me that I really never went away from the Milkshakes. Nearly thirty years after first hearing them, they pop up on my iPod's random play to my delight, and I'll still have intense bursts of sessions listening to them, much as I did in college, when I'd spend days driving around Maryland and D.C. listening to nothing but the Milkshakes. Their intense commitment to writing, recording, and releasing records during their brief career always signaled something beyond derivation; like the best rock & roll, when the Milkshakes were good, they got into the music namelessly, unburdened by categories, and worked their way out, laughing.

How much can one really say about a retro band? Just this: they were a blast, they loved what they did, and their authenticity was born not out of slavishly copying, but of hard work. I'd only see rare black and white photographs of them throughout 1980s—good-looking guys playing rock & roll. Because I'd never see them in person, it didn't matter, finally, if they existed in the present or the past. Their songs are with me now.

Friday, February 17, 2012


The rain came straight down and I saw my friend through the window.

I remember when the rain came straight down and I saw my friend through the window.


What distance between the sentences. In the first: story. In the second: memory. In the first: a scene. In the second: a recreation. In the first: a street. In the second: a stage. In the first: a movie. In the second: the cutting room floor. In the first: memoir. In the second: essay. In the first: knowledge. In the second: skepticism. In the first: after the curtains part. In the second: fingers on the curtain cord. In the first: intimacy. In the second: distance. In the first: certainty. In the second: doubt. In the first, others. In the second: self. In the first: then. In the second: again. In the first: lifting. In the second: covering. In the first: reveal. In the second: transparencies. In the first: action! In the second: re-shoot! In the first: makeup on. In the second: makeup off. In the first: close-up. In the second: wide-angle. In the first: see. In the second: think. In the first: toward. In the second: away. In the first: moment: In the second: years. In the first: story: In the second: fable. In the first: detail. In the second: myth. In the first: .. In the second: .... In the first: .. In the second: ;. In the first: clarity: In the second: blur. In the first: touch: In the second: see. In the first: Polaroid. In the second: 8mm. In the first: personal: In the second: private. In the first: story: In the second: plot. In the first: what. In the second: why? In the first: fresh. In the second: frayed. In the first: yesterday. In the second: tomorrow. In the first: opportunity. In the second: regret. In the first: beginning. In the second: continuing. In the first: fact. In the second: interpretation. In the first: stating. In the second: essaying. In the first: best-dress. In the second: drafts. In the first: Andy. In the second: "Andy." In the first: outside. In the second: inside. In the first: major chord. In the second: minor. In the first: press play: In the second: press rewind. In the first: it did. In the second: did it? In the first: straight: In the second: circle. In the first: interrogate. In the second: self-interrogate. In the first: move forward. In the second: back. In the first: nature. In the second: nature. In the first: finish. In the second: begin.

First image via IdiotsBooks

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Brain Is Wider Than The Sky (D'Agata and the Essay)

At this point I will refrain from adding much more to the D'Agata/Fingal debate: we're beginning to repeat ourselves, and anyway we're probably too close to the book's appearance to judge its worth. I will say this: The Lifespan of a Fact is a tremendous book about the tyranny of genres and the murderous intent of categories. Jim Fingal's fact-checking becomes willfully absurd fairly early in the book. Once John D'Agata makes his argument that what he's creating is art, not journalism, that he's writing an essay, not a nonfiction account—and he makes this argument early in their correspondence—then Fingal's insistent, sometimes niggling checking and queries to D'Agata (many of which have been aired online) look silly, forced, and winkingly self-aware. That is: both men appear to be in on the game, Fingal playing the dutiful character, D'Agata the frustrated one. I don't know what kind of collaborative deal outside of this book the two men struck, but it feels a bit like a game from the outset, a theatrics of absurdity for which both men have memorized their well-written lines.

That's not to say that The Lifespan of a Fact isn't funny, smart, or, finally, a great read. There are two books, really: the text itself, which gets too cute too soon, and could have been trimmed, and the issues the text raises, which are endlessly interesting and profound. Pages 107 to 112 and the run-up to the final moment in the book are beautiful, edgy, best of all intelligent and mature: a discussion between Fingal and D'Agata wherein the stage clothes and snarky asides and jibes fall away and what we have is the real occasion of the book. D'Agata's passionate defense of art and essays is supremely valuable, and Fingal wisely cedes the stage, commenting as devil's advocate throughout and letting D'Agata argue against genre, category, and narrow ways of experiencing and representing the world, arguing for—as an artist's native response—the blend of memory, imagination, and the intellect that the essay prizes. I kept hearing Huxley in the back of my mind while I read this book: the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.

Near the end of the book, Fingal—in one of many such pleas—begs D'Agata to classify his piece as fiction, not history. D'Agata replies, smartly:
Jim, have you ever stopped to consider that maybe those aren't the only two options available? That maybe there is a third (or even a fourth or fifth or sixth) alternative? That our understanding of the world can't be categorized into either "fictional" or "historical" slots—with nothing in between? We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance.
What The Lifespan of a Fact insists on in its back-and-forth is a new way of describing things. That's all, and that's everything. Above all else, The Lifespan of a Fact is a book about the essay, its possibilities, its limitations, its history, its value, its necessity. The book is not about nonfiction or biography or history. What D'Agata's asking us to do is to consider the multiple (endless) variation of imaginative expression without having to consign that expression to genre. And ultimately I think that that's a good thing, artistically, emotionally, culturally, politically, etc.. I think that D'Agata sees essaying as the world filtered through self. Wallace Stevens said that poetry must originate in the real world, a world composed of facts—and impressions after facts. What D'Agata is doing with the lyric essay, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, is closer to Impressionism and Expressionism in painting than anything else. (And if you're not crazy about Impressionism, there are more representational work in another wing.)

"The brain is wider than the sky," wrote Emily Dickinson. Far wider than what genre distinctions and categories can pretend to contain. Fingal seems to recognize this in the powerful final moments of the book, when he takes his fact-checking to consciously absurd lengths, exposing both the value and the futility of insisting on objective truths within the chaos of our lives.



"Truth exists. Only lies are invented." Georges Braque

"Nothing is true and everything is permitted." William S. Burroughs

"Truth disappears with the telling of it." Lawrence Durrell


If I were blessed/burdened with someone who fact-checked the many autobiographical essays I've written about growing up in Wheaton, Maryland, I'd likely be horrified at what she discovered. I'm certain that there are many instances where facts collide with my memories of them, because once something is a fact it doesn't stay a fact: we sympathize with it, quarrel with it, flee from it, embrace it, filter it through all manner of retelling, coveting it for what it—now covered with our fingertips, breathed upon with our panting—now stands for, now says. Young Levi Presley, as D'Agata says in The Lifespan of a Fact, is less a fact than a symbol for what D'Agata sees and feels when D'Agata essays Las Vegas. Let's call his essay that, and not anything else.

Here's an interesting interview with D'Agata and Fingal at the Kenyon Review blog, and a conversation with D'Agata at NPR's Morning Edition.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Conversations With Greil Marcus

Conversations with Greil Marcus is coming out in the fall with University Press of Mississippi. From the introduction:
Marcus is interviewed often, usually on the occasion of a new book. In choosing the fourteen pieces included here I selected among interviews ranging from 1980 to 2011. A conversation with Marcus is marked by a complex and lively engagement with issues that, given its origins in popular culture, never strays into rarefied ether. “Real ideas,” he argued to Thom Jurek, “are exchanged in plain language.” Marcus has been blessed with smart, well-prepared interviewers; his answers are erudite and carefully composed, conversational and meaty. It’s helpful to the reader that Marcus speaks in paragraphs, and that he’s well versed in the vernacular: his answers are driven by a voice that’s inquiring, intelligent, and never condescending. He’s funny, too.

In conversation, Marcus might discus a current book or column as well as his critical methodology and broad approach to his material, signaled by a generosity of spirit leavened with aggressive critical standards. “I try and write as if the distinctions that are always being thrown in our faces between high culture and popular culture, fine art and pop art, are meaningless,” he told Brent Brambury, “because I don’t hear them, I don’t see them.” To Mark Kitchell: “My role as a critic is to intensify the experience other people might have with a given incident or object.” To John King, in an early interview: “I can’t write about music in a purely aesthetic manner. It doesn’t intrigue me.” He was quick to insist to Fafoglia several years later that, “The last thing I want to do is lead someone not to enjoy something they in fact already do enjoy.”

In editing Conversations with Greil Marcus I strove to maintain balance among decades, books, and well-known and obscure subjects, to select interviews that moved between a book under discussion and expansive, interrelated issues, and to minimize the inevitable repetitions that occur over decades. There are radio interviews here as well as print and online interviews, and I’ve blended recognizable sources with the less well-known, conventional formats with the unconventional. It’s interesting to watch Marcus react in real time to hot-button issues of the era (i.e., federal funding for the arts, censorship, “We Are the World,” Reagan/Bush), name and honor his influences and contemporaries, wrestle with his ambivalence with rap and hip-hop, and defend his steadfast and frankly surprising dismissal of the New York punk scene of the late-1970s, an unorthodox position that places him at odds with many cultural observers.
 The full list of Literary Conversations Series titles at University Press of Mississippi is here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"At Best I Am Able To Capture..."

Peter Handke's long essay A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is an elegy for his mother, a quarrel with memory, and a complaint against language. Handke wrote the piece in two months in early 1972 following the suicide of his mother, in a compulsive attempt to understand a woman he'd largely ignored as an adult, and to wrestle with the implications of rendering a life, another's as well his own, in language. (The book was originally published in 1972 as Wunschloses Unglück, and reissued in English in 2002 by New York Review Books Classics with an introduction by Jeffrey Eugenides, who knows a thing or two about grief and language.)

Handke pits "facts"—biographical details of his mother's life before and after his birth, culled chiefly from conversation and letters—against "formulations," versions of and guesses about his mother enacted against the broad emotional terrain of memory and desire: "[I]sn't all formulation, even of things that have really happened, more or less a fiction?" he asks. "Less, if we content ourselves with a mere record of events; more, if we try to formulate in depth? And the more fiction we put into a narrative, the more likely it is to interest others, because people identify more readily with formulation than with recorded facts. Does this explain the need for poetry?"

As in many works of autobiography, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams masquerades as a biography, and the true drama takes place more in the composing, in the wrestling of a writer's materials, than in the life being described. Strewn throughout his essay are laments of language's difficulties. In a fantastic four-page parenthetical near the middle of the book, Handke writes (I'm excerpting):
"(Of course what is written here about a particular person is rather general; but only such generalisations, in explicit disregard of my mother as a possibly unique protagonist in a possibly unique story, can be of interest to anyone but myself. Merely to relate the vicissitudes of a life that came to a sudden end would be pure presumption.

These two dangers – the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences – have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming and there is hardly anything to think out.
Consequently I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways of formulating them. But I soon noticed that in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach – starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience. From my mother’s life, I sifted out the elements that were already foreseen in these formulas, for only with the help of a ready-made public language was it possible to single out from among all the irrelevant facts of this life the few that cried out to be made public.


In stories we often read that something or other is “unnameable” or “indescribable”; ordinarily this strikes me as a cheap excuse. This story, however, is really about the nameless, about speechless moments of terror. It is about moments when the mind boggles with horror, states of fear so brief that speech always comes too late; about dream happenings so gruesome that the mind perceives them physically as worms. The blood curdles, the breath catches, “a cold chill crept up my back, my hair stood on end” – states experiences while listening to a ghost story, while turning on a water tap that you can quickly turn off again; on the street in the evening with a beer bottle in one hand; in short, it is a record of states, not a well-rounded story with an anticipated, hence, comforting, end.
At best I am able to capture my mother’s story for brief moments in dreams, because then her feelings become so palpable that I experience them as doubles and am identical with them; but these are precisely the moments I have already mentioned, in which extreme need to communicate coincides with extreme speechlessness. That is why I affect the usual biographical pattern and write: “At that time… later”, “Because … although”, “was … became nothing”, hoping in this way to dominate the horror. That, perhaps, is the comical part of my story.)
Handke's grim, Eastern European humor is evident in that last sentence, but his essay is not humorous but bleak, and tremendously sad. And beautiful, packed with telling, evocative details of post-War Germany and Austria, a cinematic re-telling of a period even as that period—and the woman living in it—remain frustratingly unknowable. Near the end he writes, in an oft-quoted passage, "It is not true that writing has helped me. In my weeks of preoccupation with the story, the story has not ceased to preoccupy me. Writing has not, as I at first supposed, been a remembering of a concluded period in my life, but merely a constant pretense at remembering, in the form of sentences that only lay claim to detachment."


I read Handke's book as I was in the middle of Nathalie Sarraute's Childhood, written when the French author was in her 80s, and published in 1984. Both books struggle with the burden of remembering, of recognizing the sometimes enormous, unbridgeable distance between the rememberer and the writer. Where Handke attempts a measured, somewhat objective perspective of his troubled mother, tumbling occasionally into emotional moments of affection and grief, Sarraute invites us to overhear her most intimate of recollections as those memories are batted around by competing voices in her imagination. If personal essaying is the shape of thinking on the page, than Childhood is one of the most idiosyncratically shaped memoirs of recent times, nothing short of a conversation between Sarraute and herself(selves): "You really believe that?", "But what could it have been?", "Why, I wonder...", "Where did that come from, all of a sudden," "Be careful, or you'll be getting pretentious...": all of the moments of doubt and self-interrogations left on the essayist's cutting-room floor here become the text itself. David Lazar in "Occasional Desire" (in the strong collection he edited, Truth in Nonfiction) describes the back and forth between these inner voices as "a meditation on memory, a theory of memory by necessity incomplete." Childhood is essentially chronological but, as in any autobiographical chronology, the movement forward is fraught with stops and starts, u-turns, and prized moments or shards of moments glinting brightly against the broad, calendar-driven background.

There are many remarkable passages in Childhood, many of them originating in Sarraute's memories of childhood and her fraught relationship with her mother. In one passage, Sarraute essays an intensely melancholy period where she was beginning to reckon with the power of the imagination and language to conspire against her. "Ideas" begin to plague her, ideas being young Nathalie's word for uninvited thoughts invading her growing, fertile mind, specifically the thought that her doll was more beautiful than her mother, an awful, transgressive thing to have to believe and accept. Excerpts:
How beautiful she is... I can’t tear myself away from her, I hold Mama’s hand more tightly, I keep her back so that we can stay there just a few more instants, so than I can go on looking in the window at that face... contemplating it...
—It’s difficult to see in retrospect what was so fascinating about that doll.

—I can’t really manage to understand. All I can see is her rather vague face, smooth and pink... luminous... as if lit from within... and also the proud curve of her nostrils, her lips, with their corners upturned... The thing I especially recall is my wonderment... everything about her was beautiful. Beauty—was that. That was what it was—to be beautiful.
   I suddenly feel something like embarrassment, slight distress... it’s as if somewhere inside me I have bumped into something, something has come and knocked into me... it takes shape, it acquires a form... a very precise form: “She is more beautiful than Mama.”

—Where did that come from, all of a sudden?

—For a long time it was enough, when I happened to think back to that moment...


Now that this idea has entrenched itself in me, it is not just a matter of willpower for me to dislodge it. I can force myself to uproot it, to put another idea in its place, but only for a time... it’s still there, crouching in a corner, ready to get up at any moment, to push everything else out of its way, to occupy the whole space... It seems that trying to keep it down, to suppress it, only increases its growth. It is the proof, the sign of what I am: a child who doesn’t love its mother. A child who bears the stigma of something that separates it, that outlaws it from other children... the light-hearted, carefree children I see laughing, shouting, chasing one another, swinging in the garden, in the square... and I am on my own. Alone with that something, which no one knows about and which no one, if told about it, would be able to believe.
   I give up trying to struggle, trying to conjure up once again the face in the window and to place it side by side with Mama’s face... for that, I know, will only entrench the idea more firmly...
   And in any case, the doll has vanished of her own accord, carrying with her the idea I had fixed on her... But its place has immediately been taken... another, similar idea has come to replace it. Perhaps it is even this new idea that has dislodged it...

  Something that used to be in me has gone, something that is in all the other children, the real children... those rapid, limpid, running waters, like mountain streams, torrents, they have turned into the stagnant, muddy, polluted waters of ponds... the waters that attract mosquitoes. You don’t need to tell me again that I wasn’t capable of conjuring up these images... what is certain is that they convey the exact sensation produced in me by my pitiable stare,
  Ideas arrive at any moment, they sting, ah, here’s one...and the tiny barb digs in, it hurts... “Mama’s skin is like a monkey’s.”
  That’s how they are now, these ideas, they take all sorts of liberties. I look at Mama’s décolletage, her golden, suntanned arms, and all of a sudden a little devil in me, a malicious little sprite, like the “domovoi"’ that play all sorts of tricks in houses, splashes that idea up at me: “Mama’s skin is like a monkey’s.” I try to wipe it off, to rub it out... it isn’t true, I don’t believe it... I didn’t think that. But there is nothing to be done, the furry coat of a monkey glimpsed in a cage in the zoo came, I don’t know how, and alighted on Mama’s neck, on her arms, and here is the idea... it hurts me...
   I call Mama to the rescue, she must make it better... “You know, Mama, I have another idea now..." She immediately looks annoyed... “Now what is it?" “Well, I think... that your... skin is like a monkey’s...” she will look to see what I have there, what has grown in me, against my will, we’ll look at it together... it’s so ridiculous, grotesque... we can only scoff at it, she will go off into one of her gales of laughter, which always make me laugh with her, we shall both laugh at it, and the idea will go back where it came from...where it was born... somewhere outside me, in a place I don’t know... Or else, Mama will say: “Well, I’m delighted. You remember how sweet those little monkeys were.”
—A reply that you are imagining now...
Later, Sarraute overhears her maid complain that Sarraute's mother is stingy with the help staff, and Nathalie can't bear the thought of having a mean mother. To her great relief, at dinner she watches her mother serve the maid a portion of meat equal to the mother's, but later her mother will serve the maid a smaller, less generous portion. The obsessive way that Sarraute dreads the evidence of her mother's unfairness is translated powerfully, and it's sad to read, for what Sarraute is really dealing with here is her coming-of-age, not only as a growing daughter who's confronted with seeing her mother in an unflattering light, but as a nascent writer burdened with remembering, and naming, it all, and with the unfortunate detachment from the world required of independent thought. Decades later, her memories still pulse as dialogue between the accepting and the unaccepting Nathalie.


I recently flew from New York City to Chicago. Nasty weather required that we fly considerably further north than planned, so when the plane approached Chicago it did so flying due south, heading down Lake Michigan, parallel to the Illinois shore. The lake is breathtakingly large, larger than I imagined or pretended to know from maps. We approached Chicago at dusk, in a misty fog. The skyline came into view as a collection of hulking, brown-gray shapes; I recognized the buildings, but there was an otherness to the city for which I was unprepared. Uncanny, the city's gradual appearance. I wish I'd had my camera. What struck me was the inevitable difficulty and disappointment I knew I'd experience later trying to describe the sight. The cityscape was there, I knew it, recognized it, yet it was filtered through something that seemed to affect its very shape, leaving it only half-recognizable. What do I do with that? How does language make sense of a fact that changes outline and color?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Essayistically, Dreamily

An essay, a dream: in each, it’s not necessary to maintain forward momentum. Thinking essayistically: interrupting the flow, allowing in tangents, making u-turns.   

Or: an essay moves forward by moving sideways.

"Sound paradoxical? Welcome to the essay." David Lazar 


Among the reoccurring dreams I have is seeing a band play at a club. Invariably, in the dream—which is narrative, not surreal, it feels like the world I wake to, see out the window—the band never gets past the first song. They stop playing of their own accord, or because something distracting happens in the crowd or outside the venue. Eventually, the band members leave the stage and, sometimes carrying their guitars, sometimes not, become part of a different story, usually involving me. The crowd looks on, puzzled. I'm aware of the disconnect: a loud venue now filling with the murmurs of a crowd of confused and annoyed people—what happened to the show?—as the band members and I enact some side story. Eventually the crowd disperses, stagehands pack up the band's onstage gear, the show's over after one song. We never do get back.



"Writing is not, as I first supposed, been a remembering of a concluded period in my life, but merely a constant pretense at remembering, in the form of sentences that only lay claim to detachment." Peter Handke

"The person who interrupts instead of unquestioningly accepting and categorizing is slapped with the charge of intellectualizing as with a yellow star; his misled and decadent intelligence is said to subtilize and project meaning where there is nothing to interpret. Technician or dreamer, those are the alternatives." T.W. Adorno

"...memoir is an assaying of ideas, images, and feelings. It is, in its best sense, an impulsive exploration. It is not storytelling. It is not moralizing. It is not knowing, learning, nor even theorizing. Etymologically at the core of every memoir are anxiety and wonder and doubt." John D'Agata 

"We build the corral as we reinvent the horse." Stephen Dunn


Later in the dream I'm looking for that place on the wall where you push gently and the hidden room is revealed. When I wake I think that the best word in any essay is "but."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sweat stuff

Camion Blanc, my publisher in France, will be releasing a  French-language edition of Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band in mid-March. They hope to have copies to sell at the Fleshtones' show in Bordeaux on March 15. Lisez tous au sujet de la roche superbe!

And to celebrate the 36th year of The Fleshtones existence, Continuum is offering copies of Sweat at 50% off until February 10th when you use the promo code BLUEWHALE at checkout on the Continuum website. (U.S. sales only)

Raise a Blue Whale here.


"Joe Bonomo has written a fine book: a book not only about a band or times passed, but also about the rare virtue of endurance." (Nick Tosches)

"This great book by Joe Bonomo really gets to the heart of who the Fleshtones are, and the price they paid. Now it's up to you to check out the Fleshtones when they hit your town. And in my own defense, that fire that Keith and I started in France was really a very small fire. Not worth mentioning at all. Please." (Peter Buck)

"Bonomo’s beautifully written band assisted account is both hilarious and tragic. There’s heroic excess, dogged obsession, personal tragedy and slapstick situations, and even if the Hall of Fame never beckons, The Fleshtones can at least count their name on one of the great music biographies.” Mojo (UK)

I'm seein' quintuple...