Sunday, July 17, 2011


The St. John's Wort, in full bloom this week, boils with bees. I can hear them buzz thirty feet away, bumbles of varying sizes intensely focused on the pollen-laden stamens in the bright yellow flowers. It's a miracle how big the two plants have grown this summer. After the mourning doves make their quick visit to the birdbath, the blue jays take over the yard, squawking as they dart from the maple to the oak to the birch and back again. Saturday mornings before eight are the quietest times of the week up here -- most folks work long hours at thankless jobs and relish being able to sleep in. Occasionally a small private plane will make noise overhead -- the Sussex County Airport isn't far -- or I'll hear the slap of a runner's sneakers on Lakeshore Road. The cardinal is especially talkative today but the rest of the birds ignore him.

I've been thinking of four men and their autobiographies. Or should I say "memoirs?" Memoirs are baggier than autobiographies; their subject need not be restricted to the writer's own life, they can be about anything or anyone an author has experienced or known directly. Which makes "autobiography" a narrow subset of "memoir." I prefer reading well-written, serious autobiographies rather than memoirs: it comforts me to see another human being trying to come to grips with this life, the strangeness and waywardness of it, to give it some shape and find meaning beyond mere biological existence. As I struggle to do the same, I take heart in the company of those who have written unflinchingly about themselves. I think,
maybe it is possible to be honest. Maybe there is some value to self-consciousness. Maybe all is not lost.

The four men whose autobiographies continue to haunt me so are Vladimir Nabokov (
Speak, Memory), Stanisław Lem (Highcastle), Luis Buñuel (My Last Sigh), and Ingmar Bergman (The Magic Lantern). Two writers, two filmmakers, all four European, all exiles (for different reasons and for different lengths of time), all supremely accomplished in their fields. All intellectuals, although Buñuel and Bergman less so than Nabokov and Lem. All sensualists, fabulists, pessimists, and atheists. Their four autobiographies are, to my mind, among the finest books written in the last century. Each is a rebuke to the half-assed notion that great art can be explained by recounting the simple facts of an artist's life. It takes genius to transform experience into art. Nevertheless, these four lives too are compelling, in and of themselves. You read them with a shock of recognition: my god, these men are just like me! The same joys and fears, the same complicated familial relationships, the same estrangements and passions. Except, of course, that they are not the same at all.

Part of my love and admiration for these autobiographies comes from my partial identification with the men who wrote them. Their works were held out to me, first by my father, then my teachers, as exceptional and exemplary. Even if I was not able to emulate their work, I was encouraged to acknowledge the truth of their vision and strive to make something beautiful out of life's shit, just as they had done. Nabokov the Russian émigré who wrote magnificent English prose, Lem the Polish science fiction writer who disdained the genre and philosophized, Buñuel the Spanish surrealist who savaged the Church and bourgeois morality, and Bergman the Swedish dream-maker whose unforgettable films were discussed at the dinner table.
Wild Strawberries, anyone?

I remember my introduction to each one.

I was fifteen, filled with the big cloudy emotions of adolescence, eating poetry like watermelon pickles, listening to Dylan,
Die Dreigroschenoper, and Miles, having all that shite conflate in me the way it did in a million other middle class white kids back in the 1960s. As Quist used to say, that there's some serious enjambment goin on, poot. My old man was a defeated intellectual, done in by his own obviousness, blaming it on his upbringing. But he never stopped reading. I used to rifle through the contents of his briefcase: banded stacks of punch cards, a slide rule, a flow chart template, his date book, a couple of three-ring binders filled with instructional manuals -- FORTRAN, COBOL, the IBM 360 -- a tobacco pouch and then, of course, the books. One day I found a paperback in there called Despair. A pocket book. It had a blue cover with two photographic images of a man's profile from the shoulders up, the smaller superimposed on the larger, an unremarkable though nearly recognizable man. A cousin? An uncle? The author was Vladimir Nabokov. I asked my old man if I could read it when he'd finished. Why? Because my father was reading it. Because he told me how difficult it was thereby making it a challenge. Because Nabokov had an exotic name and a reputation for being risqué. Lolita was in the air back then. Because it was there.

I think it was the cover that attracted me. The head inside the head.
Despair is a relatively short book and quite accessible. The story couldn't be more simple -- Hermann, a businessman with writerly pretensions, stumbles upon a tramp who looks just like him. He conceives a plan to commit a perfect murder -- he will kill the tramp, collect the insurance money for his own 'death,' and free himself to live a new life. But there's a catch. In reality, the tramp -- supposedly Hermann's doppelgänger -- looks nothing like him. The resemblance is all in his head. A perfect story for a sensitive teenager trying to establish his own identity, overly concerned with appearances, matching likeness to likeness, a prince of similes. A boy also seduced by the idea of starting everything over, from scratch, on his side of the mountain.

And then the most arresting thought of all -- if I were to meet my double, of course I'd want to kill him, insurance payoff or not. Just as there could only be one Hermann, despite his deluded efforts to convince the world that there were two, there could only be one me. I certainly wouldn't want
my doppelgänger walking around! To construct a double life, that's art, if not Art. You can only go so far before you're found out.

When the kids read Nabokov today, most likely in school, they talk about
Lolita, Pale Fire, the lectures on literature, perhaps Ada. They rarely ever mention Despair. I fell under its spell when I was fifteen and still remember the experience of being inside Hermann's (Nabokov's) head and mistaking his thoughts -- his aestheticism -- for my own. Cripes, it's still hard for me to separate the things I've experienced directly from those that others have experienced for me...

Years later, I found myself at the old Carnegie Hall Cinema, in the space that has since become Zankel Hall. I think it was summertime -- I know I was feeling a bit "off." The movie was, of course, Fassbinder's version of
Despair, starring Dirk Bogarde. It wasn't a bad adaptation, perhaps slightly gay, the predominating color brown. A muddy film. Whereas Nabokov was never muddy. I had the eerie feeling I was being watched by somebody in the audience behind me. The air was close.

When the movie was over, I sat in my chair for a while and let the theater empty. I felt flushed. Maybe there was something wrong with the air-conditioning. After a few uncomfortable minutes, I got up and exited through the fire doors which let out onto 56th Street. There was the dirty city, filled with others just like me.

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