I’ve just finished The Go Between, by L.P. Hartley, which begins with the timeless: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ It’s a line that has been endlessly appropriated, reworked and plagiarised over the years, and the perfect start to a book, so perfect that it carries the book for another 180 pages of a rather turgid study in English manners.
I have this theory that if you start strong and finish strong, you can get away with almost anything. The world forgets Tom Buchannan but will never forget Gatsby’s green light. With ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-Leeta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps…’ Nabokov launches us into the dismal soul of Humbert Humbert, and by ‘I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita,’ you almost feel sorry for the horny old ghost.
I had barely started writing my memoir when I realised that, no matter how fiercely I exaggerated, how fiercely I tugged at the truth like a demented child with a recalcitrant toy, I was not nearly interesting enough to justify a book about myself. Normally when I’m stuck on a story I can use my inherent dishonesty to salvage a narrative (fun fact, I’m the reason The Lifted Brow now employs fact checkers), or at least plagiarise my way out of it.
To try and help that I’ve been reading every bit of memoir I can get my hands on. I’ve been through the masterpieces, like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which is just so masterfully baroque that you’re like; well, fuck, no help there. Then there’s Michael Ondaatje’s Running In The Family, which is some next level shit. Normally I don’t fangirl for Ondaatje, whose work swings between mawkish sentimentality and annoying jags into magical realism (magical realism is never OK. If you need a general who speaks through a parrot with tin wings to tell your story, consider the theatre), but with this memoir he strikes the perfect balance between the two.
Then there’s the memoir-industrial complex of neurotic New Yorkers, the standouts being the Davids; Sedaris and Rakoff. Both Davids have their perks. When Sedaris is at his best, his autobiographical essays are gentle, funny meditations on melancholy and family. Too much of the time, he lazily throws together a bag of dick jokes and sends it to The New Yorker, sublime dick-jokes though they are.
Rakoff comes from the same school of essays; he writes about personal mortification, but takes it to another level. Each piece is scaffolded by embarrassing anecdotes which he weaves around a central truism which he builds hidden in the subtext and whips out in the closing lines like a magic trick. Rakoff’s writing stands out from his contemporaries; he’s a little more disappointed, a little less satisfied with his own humour, a little angrier. There’s a white heat to his prose that leaves his subject matter: capitalism, homophobia, off-broadway musicals, the cancer which killed him, and the way we think about them, scorched and laid bare. He only got a few books out in his lifetime, but I inhaled Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty in one fevered night, as though they were crushed up on my coffee table.
These are the good eggs. There’s an awful lot of terrible memoir, which is why I never read much of it growing up. It seemed lazy to me, a cheat; to me memoirists (what an awful term. Can’t you imagine Lena Dunham working that concept over with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch?) were scabs, writers who were too lazy to go down the coalface of their minds and get on with making stuff up. Now, as an old man, I’ve started to appreciate the craft, the alloys of fact and fiction, narcissism and narrative, the reappropriation of ego and it’s fabrication into words.
I like the stories that clearly didn’t do what their authors intended. Take My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Milan, the Afrikaaner intellectual exile who returned to South Africa after Apartheid to write a book about the evil of white rule, only to determine that black people are just as bad—a minor key We Are The World, only with grisly racially profiled murders, instead of Sheila E.
As part of this misguided ‘research’ I’ve dipped into biography including Sylvie Simmons’ work, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. It’s an immaculate work of research, but at times borders on adulation, with every good line bookended by lines cribbed from Cohen’s songs and poems, which are ham-fisted and intrusive. Despite that, it’s an honest, searching work documenting a great artist, with his highs and extraordinary lows. I’d never realised just how much time the great poet spent fucking about and took great nourishment from reading about his many failed projects, wasted years and abandoned dreams, all of which are painted by Simmons, clearly a fan, in a loving light.
And in the opposite corner to Simmons’ hagiography lurks David Marr with his gilded hatchet. I’ve just re-read his Political Animal. It’s a bit of a cheeky release, being a beefed up re-issue of his Quarterly Essay, but it’s incredible powerful. Marr’s prose is Euclidian, powerful, sparse and just a little bitchy; it draws you in and calmly illustrates in a fair and balanced way how an Abbott administration is likely to be a nightmare for everyone. Reading it is like a scene in a movie where a fixer tries to recruit someone to their cause by laying out cash on a table, one note at a time until the protagonist has no choice by to acquiesce, only instead of cash, it’s fact after fact that demonstrates why putting Abbott in charge of the country will end in tears before bedtime.
And speaking of tears before bedtime, I keep breaking from all this non-fiction to savour a few pages of Steeplechase, the first novel from Krissy Kneen. It’s a hell of a book, a sticky work of Australian gothica that threads longing and suspense together into a delicious hanging tree. It’s so good that reading it—as a lesser writer—fills me with a jealousy that is so visceral and well-realised it’s almost like I’m a character from the work itself, working my way across the pages, oblivious as I’m tossed about by her prose and sweeping understanding of the human condition.
Liam Pieper is a freelance writer whose recent credits include The Lifted Brow, Going Down Swinging and The Sleepers Almanac. His first book, a memoir, will be published through Penguin Australia in 2014. You can find him on Twitter: @liampieper or on the Internet Proper, liampieper.com