Category: Memoir

‘Immediate Family’

Hilton Als on Maggie Nelson for the New Yorker
maggie-nelson

Writing for the New Yorker, Hilton Als paints an intimate profile of Maggie Nelson — “the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale” — and the bodies closest to her:

May 5, 2015: that was when Maggie Nelson’s ninth book, “The Argonauts,” came out. Published two months after the author turned forty-two, the slim, intense volume, which tells the philosophical, sometimes comic tale of Nelson’s ever-developing consciousness, combines—like a number of other masterpieces of American autobiography—memoir, literary analysis, humor, and reporting with vivid instances of both the familiar and the strange. Central to “The Argonauts” is the story of Nelson’s great love for Harry Dodge, a West Coast sculptor, writer, and video artist who is fluidly gendered. As Nelson embarks on her intellectual and emotional journey, Harry also goes on various excursions in order to become the person he is now, whom Nelson describes, quoting a character from Harry’s 2001 film, “By Hook or By Crook,” as neither male nor female but “a special—a two for one.”

Sara Marcus, in an elegant and concise review of “The Argonauts,” for the Los Angeles Times, notes the way that Nelson circles “away and back again to central questions about deviance and normalcy, family-making and love.” What Nelson is asking, throughout the book, Marcus says, is “How does anyone decide what’s normal and what’s radical? What kinds of experience do we close ourselves off to when we think we already know?” Last month, the book won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, but long before that it was passed around and praised by any number of readers who knew nothing, or next to nothing, about Nelson’s interest in queerness, let alone lives like the ones her memoir grew out of and embodies. What those fans responded to most viscerally, perhaps, was the fact that it’s a book about becoming, both mentally and physically—about what it takes to shape a self, in all its completeness and disarray.

In “The Argonauts,” at the time that Harry is taking testosterone and having a double mastectomy, Maggie is pregnant with their son, Iggy, who is now four. It’s one of the rare moments in modern literature where the pregnant woman does not stand alone, wondering what will become of her or her child; Papa’s going through some fairly significant shit, too. But before the reader can settle into any kind of cozy acceptance of all that, Nelson shifts course again, asking what family can mean when the body is no longer a body but dust and then a memory. Is memory the tie that binds? Is love?

When Harry talks about his life—as he did, with great affability, one evening last August, at a corner table in a dark Los Angeles restaurant—the diminutive, auburn-haired Nelson listens with quiet seriousness. Her pale face turns nearly as red as her hair when Harry says something about their connection, or when she interrupts him to interject an idea or a detail about his own life which he may have forgotten. Afterward, Nelson may blush again or quickly smooth down her hair or say, even more quickly, “Right, right, right,” as a way of marking time, before continuing on with, or going deeper into, whatever she was talking about.

Speaking freely but thoughtfully is important to Nelson, in part because as a kid she was teased for being a “Chatty Cathy,” and in part because she finds ideas irrepressible and exciting to explore. Not surprisingly, Nelson has a very precise relationship to language—and to the vicissitudes of personal history, including the self-mythologizing that goes into making a transformed self. She has published four volumes of accomplished verse, but it’s her prose works, which cover an array of intellectual and social issues, that have brought her a wider readership: the devastating “The Red Parts” (published in 2007 and reissued this month, by Graywolf), for instance, focusses on the aftermath of the 1969 murder of Nelson’s aunt and the trial, thirty-six years later, of a suspect in the case; in “The Art of Cruelty” (2011), Nelson explores the role of the body in an age of extremity; and in “The Argonauts” she questions what it means to be a lover, a parent, someone’s child—“heteronormative” roles—when you don’t feel heteronormative, let alone comfortable with such traditional labels as “gay,” “straight,” “female,” and “male.”

In all of her books, Nelson picks at the underbelly of certainty and finds scabs—the white-male-patriarchy scab, the smug-female-thinker scab, the academic scab—and yet she gives these voices a place in her work, because, as her friend the novelist Rachel Kushner put it, “she knows exactly what kind of language, at this moment, what kind of views, are important, but she also understands that people are vulnerable and they get things wrong, not through malicious intent. Sometimes it’s just a misstep, or they’re too far from the other person’s subjectivity.” Matthew Barney, an artist known for his high-risk, epic exploration of American masculinity, told me that, for him, “The Art of Cruelty” was “the missing piece of a puzzle,” in terms of analyzing a world saturated with pornography and torture. “Maggie’s voice had a certain level of doubt and a self-reflective vibe that made me trust her, even when she was criticizing stuff that I really love.”

It’s Nelson’s articulation of her many selves—the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale, in which the protagonist goes from darkness to light, and then falls in love with a singular knight—that makes her readers feel hopeful. Her universe is “queer,” fluid, as is Harry’s (tattooed on the fingers of his left and right hands, respectively, are the words “flow” and “form”), but this sense of flux has little to do with the kind of sentimental hippiedom that emerged, say, in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of Maggie and Harry’s home town in the sixties. Nelson is just as critical of the politics of inclusion as of exclusion. What you find in her writing, rather, is a certain ruefulness—an understanding that life is a crapshoot that’s been rigged, but to whose advantage?

[…]

‘Doris and Me’ (The Jenny Diski Memoir, Part V)

In the London Review of Books
disk01_3619_01

Parts III & IV are behind the paywall, and you should consider subscribing to the LRB if you don’t already to be able to read them. Here’s part V:

I don’t remember the exact date when I went to live in Doris Lessing’s house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross. I think of it as being just a few weeks after Sylvia Plath killed herself in early February 1963. The suicide was still very raw and much discussed by Doris’s friends. So at the earliest towards the end of February. In any case it was before Easter, which fell in April that year, because at long last, released from my father’s prohibitions, I went on the Aldermaston March. (‘Ignorant, unwashed mob. You can’t go, you’ll be raped, and that’s that.’ Which was curiously whatever is the opposite of prescient; I’d actually been raped the previous Easter when he’d refused to let me go.) I was quite heavily chaperoned by the responsible, 25-year-old son of Doris’s best friend, Joan Rodker. He kept a watchful eye on me against the CND hordes, and more particularly against one of his womanising friends who, not long after the march, became the first boyfriend to test out the virginal, patiently waiting Dutch cap.

Doris hadn’t liked Sylvia very much; after some friends who had been rerunning the details of her life and death had gone home one evening, she told me she thought Sylvia too ‘pushy’ (‘networking’ we’d call it now) and hadn’t liked what she said were Sylvia’s excessive overtures of friendship. She refused to join in the soul-searching and excited chatter about why the tragedy of Sylvia and her two children had come about. For the first time I heard that moral qualifier Doris used almost automatically and almost always for a man: ‘Poor Ted.’ Over the years the name changed, ‘Poor Roger’ (my first husband), ‘Poor Peter’ (her son), ‘Poor Martin’ (or any other man who she thought had been treated badly by a woman). But as far as I was concerned the death of Sylvia was before my time, if only by weeks, in the same way that the end of the Second World War was before my time at my birth in 1947. The two events marked seminal moments in my life, but, for all that I was surrounded by people intimately involved in both affairs, Sylvia’s suicide and the Second World War felt less real to me than historical events that had taken place centuries earlier. I think it’s a way of avoiding the intolerable fact that the world and the people in it got on, well or otherwise, in the years and days without my presence, as indeed it and they will in my next and final absence.

It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down). London was cold, too. But Charrington Street was warm. Doris was particularly proud that she had had central heating installed in her new house, which had been bought, I imagine, with the proceeds of The Golden Notebook, published the year before. In the first week or two, friends came and sat around the kitchen table for lunch and supper, for me to meet and for them to meet me, Doris said. We went to movies, first to see Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty with Joan, who had been a staunch friend and fellow Communist Party member, and in whose house Doris had lived, and been looked after, for several years when she got to England with her small son, Peter. Writers, poets and theatre people came to supper, Alan Sillitoe and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Naomi Mitchison. Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue (whose recording of poetry and jazz, Red Bird, I’d bought with my pocket money at St Christopher’s), Lindsay Anderson, Fenella Fielding. A Portuguese couple, described to me as ‘a poet in exile and his glamorous wife’, would remain friends of Doris, about the only ones who did, until her death. R.D. Laing was a guest a couple of times. I watched amazed as his wife (the first, I think) actually closed her eyes and dropped into sleep every time he started to speak.

I was thrilled to meet people whose work I’d read or heard of. I’d read all of Sillitoe and taken part in play-readings of Wesker’s work at school. At Doris’s I read Laing’s The Divided Self and The Self and Others, and found a good deal in them that chimed with my experience of a mad nuclear-family life. I was aware of being on show, and was very cautious. I took the opportunity my novelty gave me to find out how to behave among these strangers. Doris made stews, boeuf Stroganoff, salads, trifles, and we drank wine, Algerian red and Portuguese rosé. I sat, watched and listened. On one occasion, Doris took me to lunch with the Sillitoes, around whose table were some visiting Russian literary types, and Robert Graves. I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Graves’s grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember. I was mortified that he failed to address a single word to me, although I would have stuttered into sawdust if he had. The following day, Alan told Doris that Graves had asked who that attractive young Russian girl was, and what a pity it was that she spoke no English.

For weeks I listened intently to the table-talk, not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily. We left cinemas and theatres, Doris and her friends and me tagging along, and before we were out in the street, they were sharing their judgments of what they’d seen. It was a matter of whether things ‘worked’, how exactly they had failed or succeeded. Nothing was expected to be perfect, so the conversation was about the way in which things worked and didn’t and a judgment was made on the balance. Details of mise-en-scène and dialogue were picked out and weighed. On the other hand, Brando was preposterous as Fletcher Christian and wrecked whatever chance there was of it being a good film. How did they know such things? How did they make so many different angles relevant to their final analysis? And how were they so expert and so sure? We went several times in those early weeks to the beloved Academy Cinema on Oxford Street. Memorably, I saw Les Enfants du Paradis for the first of many viewings. Doris and her friends had already seen it, but rhapsodised for my benefit, picking out telling scenes or shots (Vous êtes toute seule, madame?), laughing at the way they’d been made to cry by such sentimental froth. But Les Enfants was too marvellous to be seriously criticised. It was certainly marvellous to me, and I listened to the talk after the viewing trying to find out why, along with The Seventh Seal, Le Mépris, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, it was considered a marvel, and why Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, charming though it was, failed because it was self-indulgent. Self-indulgence was very often the reason for a film or play to fail in the eyes of Doris and her friends. It seemed to be a trap waiting for every maker of every art, and I couldn’t understand how they didn’t manage to avoid such an obvious pitfall, when it was so clear to the viewers. Although I relied heavily on others for instances of brilliance or ruination, surely the makers and artists knew what was good and what wasn’t? Everything was talked about, judged, argued over. None of Doris’s friends just went to the movies or the theatre for fun, however much they enjoyed it. Enjoyment wasn’t enough. You needed to know how what you were seeing and hearing ‘worked’ or didn’t, which sometimes was quite separate from how enjoyable it was. A film or a play was an event that only began with the experience of it. They were the basis for opinions, for conversations and for arguments that went on sometimes late into the night, over red wine, or occasionally a joint of the marijuana that, as an experiment, Doris had grown from seed in the garden the previous summer and which she dried in the airing cupboard with the towels.

Freud, Marx, Foucault, Canetti, Martin D’Arcy, Derrida, the anti-psychiatrists, even the behaviourism of Desmond Morris and Konrad Lorenz were to different extents the background to the chat for some, while others, Doris among them, relied on a belief in their own grasp of the effects of heart and mind on individual or crowd behaviour. But at that time, of all the ways of seeing in the world, understanding unconscious psychological motivation was everything, told you everything, i.e. the truth, while surfaces, behaviour, the overt story were so much gaudy wrapping – false reasoning, self-deceit.

I listened furiously, trying to take all this in and find out how it was done. To start with, I couldn’t understand how it was so easy for them to have a point of view, to know how and why things ‘worked’. ‘Working’, the pivotal valuation, was never defined. There seemed to be too much to learn. I picked up quickly that having opinions wasn’t enough and that it was necessary to have a basis – from reading, from study, from hard conscious thought – from which the opinions were formed. But more important than all the theory, behind and beyond it, there was some ineffable taste or intuitive understanding implicitly agreed on by these talking, always talking, people. I couldn’t imagine ever acquiring the all-important taste. Did you have it or not, from birth? Could you acquire it with diligent study? Many people were dismissed as stupid, especially academics, who apparently lacked good judgment, yet who seemed at least as learned as Doris and her friends. How could they be stupid? At 15, I felt it was already too late. I hadn’t read enough, seen enough, been to enough places, talked to enough people. I felt that nothing of interest had happened to me, not understanding that every life is ordinary to its owner, that looking for interesting events was to search in the wrong direction for something that isn’t absent because it isn’t the point. I felt that I was burdened with a lifetime’s weight of unfinished homework. I would never catch up. Never read enough. See all the movies and plays. Never learn how to think. These people all seemed so finished, so confident. And they wrote and were read, and by doing so they were deities to me, the hopeless unfledged writer whose sentences were never buoyed with confidence.

I stayed shtum. I listened. But I’d always been verbal. When I was researching for my book Skating to Antarctica, I visited an old couple who had lived in the flat next door to ours when I was a child. ‘You never let anyone get the better of you,’ she said. ‘They were all older than you. You were only three but you kept up and answered back.’ Already, when I was three. Protected. Armoured. Using words to get the better of bigger, older children. I learned soon enough around Doris’s table the rudiments of conversation, even if I hadn’t the faintest underlying faith in what I was saying. I knew I couldn’t stay silent for too long, that silence wouldn’t earn me a place round the table at which I was the only one who wasn’t there thanks to their entertainment value, what they did, or how they thought. I gradually stepped into the conversation, like the three-year-old keeping up with the bigger children. First with questions and queries, occasionally with comments and interventions. I set myself to learn, and asking questions didn’t seem to annoy people. Listening carefully, I showed myself, offered myself to them as a young person who was eager and quick to learn. They were happy to teach me. So I learned to speak, rather than sing, for my supper. But I never, at any time, had any confidence in what I said or thought. Like a Calvinist, always already one of the elect or doomed, I couldn’t think of myself as having that elusive and essentialtaste or understanding.

(…)

RB and me: an education

Brian Dillon in the Dublin Review
Young Roland

Brian Dillon on ‘growing up’ with Roland Barthes, in the Dublin Review:

 1992

For a long time I sincerely believed I could not love a woman who was not well acquainted with Barthes’s writing. If this seems a bizarre criterion to apply to a prospective lover – all the more eccentric given my dismal prospects to start with – I think I can see now what I was hoping for. Theory in general, and my specific ambitions, had become a way of keeping the world at bay, an intellectual apparatus by which I thought to defuse potentially explosive emotional situations, or more accurately damp the slow-burning grief and general misery that I was unable to express. That much is obvious. What’s perhaps less clear is how much of desire and love and longing I’d also cathected into this stuff by my early twenties. It’s not that I simply wanted a lover who was super-smart and culturally cynical and much better read than I was; I wanted somebody infinitely sensitive and self-scrutinizing, also just as passive and debilitated as I was before the enigma of the Other. And this ideal relationship was obscurely related to central concepts or turns of thought and phrase in Barthes – a kind of abstracted perversity, lurid but nonviolent; a languid refusal of the role of sexual protagonist; a drifting between word and body, sex and Art, ideas and desire. I’d started to read Barthes as if his books, these works of ‘literary theory’, actually described a psychosexual utopia that was just out of reach. (It may be that this is exactly what they do describe.)

Such fantasies did not stop me from falling in love with people who had strictly no knowledge of or interest in the kind of books I was reading. And the ones who did had by no means taken things so much to heart. But like many an inarticulate young lover, I thought for a time that seduction was a matter of giving the right book to the right woman. In my case it was Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: a meditation on Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther that catalogues the melancholic lover’s prized ‘image repertoire’ – the scene of waiting, the feeling of being dissolved in the presence of the loved being, the attraction of suicide – and thinly veils the author’s own life as a middle-aged gay man in Paris in the 1970s. This gift was always a prelude to disaster. The first time, the girl in question – she was a French waitress, of all things – left the country within days and never returned. The second, I found the book a month later under the girl’s bed, bearing the distinct imprint of a Doc Marten boot. The unlucky third time, the book was my idea of a Valentine’s Day present, and we split up weeks later. We split up again two years after that, by which time she’d got round to reading A Lover’s Discourse and wishing she’d never met me. Advice to the young: this book is brilliant and cursed.

Emmanuel Carrère on writing Limonov

In the Paris Review
Eduard Limonov

Emmanuel Carrère is a writer who doesn’t get enough attention. He is one of France’s best, a kind of Geoff Dyer-figure who blends fiction and non-fiction to great effect (although he is less comically inclined). The Adversary, in which the author recounts his attempts to write the true story of a pathological liar who ends up murdering his entire family to cover up his lies, is a good place to start. Limonov, his latest book published in English about the Russian dissident writer Eduard Limonov (pictured above), is also an excellent book. Carrère’s Paris Review interview, published last autumn, provides a good introduction to his work:

INTERVIEWER

We come to your last book, Limonov, which is again nonfiction. Who is Limonov?

CARRÈRE

Eduard Limonov is a Russian writer who is about seventy. I knew him in the eighties in Paris. The Soviet-era writers at the time were mostly dissidents with huge beards. Limonov was more of a punk. He was an underground prodigy under Brezhnev in Moscow. He had emigrated to the United States, been a bum and then a billionaire’s butler. He had a kind of Jack London life, which he wrote about in autobiographies that are actually very good, very simple and direct.

Then came the fall of the Soviet empire and things got strange. He went off to the Balkans and started fighting with the Serbs. He became a kind of crypto-fascist. It was a little like finding out a friend from high school had joined al-Qaeda. But time went by and I didn’t give it much thought. Then the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, and I went to cover it. I was amazed to discover that in the little world of liberal democrats around Politkovskaya, Limonov was considered a fantastic guy. It was as if Bernard-Henri Lévy and Bernard Kouchner suddenly said, Marine Le Pen, now she’s great. I was so intrigued that, in 2007, I decided to go see Limonov. I spent two weeks with him trying to understand this strange political and personal trajectory.

INTERVIEWER

The mystery of fascism? Was that what intrigued you?

CARRÈRE

I remember the exact moment I decided to go from reporting to writing a book. Limonov had spent three years in a labor camp in the Volga, a kind of model prison, very modern, which is shown to visitors as a shining example of how penitentiaries have improved in Russia. Limonov told me that the sinks were the same ones he had seen in a super-hip hotel in New York, designed by Philippe Starck. He said to me, Nobody in that prison could possibly know that hotel in New York. And none of the hotel’s clients could possibly have any idea what this prison was like. How many people in the world have had such radically different experiences? He was really proud of that, and I don’t blame him. My socioeconomic experience is relatively narrow. I went from an intellectual bourgeois family in the 16th arrondissement to become a bourgeois bohemian in the 10th. So these trajectories of the little boy in the African village who becomes the UN secretary-general or the little girl from east bumfuck in Russia who becomes an international supermodel fill me with wonder. I have to admire that amplitude of experience, the ability to integrate completely different values and ways of thinking. Limonov’s story, from that point of view, is fabulous. It’s a picaresque novel that also allowed me to cover fifty years of history, the end of the Soviet era, and the mess that followed. I’m surprised that the book has received the unanimously warm reception of the last one.

Nobody’s Protest Novel

A critical perspective on Tao Lin's literary career thus far
Tao Lin

This is quite possibly the most in-depth critical analysis of Tao Lin’s work that exists. Written by Frank Guan for n+1‘s latest issue, it covers everything he’s ever written. Also, typically for an n+1 essay, it blends memoir with criticism:

Under pal, fluorescent lighting, I encountered “Tao Lin” for the first time in the computer lab of Potter Hall, the dormitory I was registered to live in for my senior year of college in Northern California, lasting from September 2008 to June 2009. I can’t be more precise than that about the time: it wasn’t an especially profound engagement, and the lab, unscheduled, open all the time to anyone who had a key, seemed as immemorial as the climate outside, just past the windows, not to mention I was reading an ephemeral source of news.

The Gawker article was half bemused and half dismissive; it was probably the one by Moe Tkacik posted on August 22, 2008, but read sometime later than that date. The point was that I learned of the existence of Tao Lin, a novelist selling shares of his not yet published—Gawker claimed it hadn’t yet been written—novel. I thought something neutrally along the lines of “Asian” and “Andy Warhol,” and didn’t hear or think about him for about the next five years.

It was a strange last year of school, a period of partial disembodiment and general, even multitracked, confusion; I spent most of my time on or near a futon in a graduate housing residence where my friend Ben Wang, pursuing a master’s in chemical engineering, and his girlfriend, Mariko Kotani, occupied a bedroom. I had known them since our freshman year, but they had graduated on time. Helplessly grateful for their hospitality, I failed to say so to them as often as I should have. I just hoped they understood, silently. Ben lent me his old laptop, a Dell, I think; I used it to watch Koreans expend enormous energies playing, live, professionally, and on competing teams, a real-time strategy computer game called Starcraft: Brood War. I also played Civilization III and, when Ben and Mariko were awake and interested, the World Tour version of Guitar Hero. I was in some classes, but none of the reading material, aside fromFrankenstein and certain lines by several marginal Victorian poets (“So far between my pleasures are and few”), was especially memorable.

Given my time at college, grad school seemed preposterous. The job market for my kind was laughable. In every way, I was exhausted. New York, perhaps? But media sometimes have overarching messages, and Gawker’s seemed to be, Don’t go to New York, ever; to hold out hope, I creatively misread this as, Don’t go to New York with nothing. I decided to finish my translations into English of a notorious French poet, then go to New York, where I would, “somehow,” I thought, get them published.

And I went home to my family’s countryside estate. It was almost like an old Eurasian novel—except by “countryside estate” I mean the cheapest house in the “estates” section of a subdivision of a white-flight suburb roughly fifteen miles northeast of Louisville, a house whose installments the family had only just paid off, its first one ever in America. Still, why not treat it like a novel, if only, like The Idiot, to skip time without explaining? Three years passed; I flew from Louisville to LaGuardia, with a changeover at Baltimore, in August 2012; if the Baudelaire had been published, don’t you think that I’d be telling you about it?

I met Tao Lin in person this past summer at a spacious Dumbo bookstore called the Powerhouse Arena, where an event to celebrate the launch of his new novel was being held. I hadn’t come because I’d heard more about him. A close friend of a new friend (they had both been interns at the same publishing house) of a friend (they had both attended Yale) had become an editor, edited Taipei: it was his event, his victory as well. I debated buying a copy and decided, curiously, that I would. When I offered Tao a black ballpoint pen to sign, he held up, in a wordless and, I thought, amusing way, the black marker he’d been using.

Five days later I referred to myself, in an email to a friend, as being “absurdly grateful” for the book. I told her that I planned to write about it. I typed that I was absolutely sure that no one could explain Taipei more thoroughly than me. The book possessed a firm and eerie tone, a tone predicated on a lucid knowledge of the difficulty of its own transmission, and there was warmth to it as well, albeit tenuous—warmth engaged in a quiet, violent struggle to emerge from lukewarmth. The book was difficult—not ostentatiously so, but in a necessary manner: it was, unmistakably, I felt, created by a human being not because he could afford to show it off to others, but because, in relation to himself, he couldn’t afford not to comprehend or to express: powerfully, elaborately, and succinctly, without vanity or malice, it said the things he had to, and it left.

Jenny Diski’s Diagnosis

A memoir in the London Review of Books
NPG x131610; Jenny Diski by Michael Bennett

Jenny Diski, one of Britain’s finest critics and writers, has been diagnosed with cancer. She’s decided to write about it, after overcoming the initial embarrassment at having to play a role in which ‘no novel responses are possible’. Is this not a novel response? 

We’d hardly got home before I said: ‘Well, I suppose I’m going to write a cancer diary.’ The only other thing I might have said was: ‘Well, I’m not going to write a cancer diary.’ Right there: a choice? I’m a writer, have been since I was small, and have earned my living at it for thirty years. I write fiction and non-fiction, but it’s almost always personal. I start with me, and often enough end with me. I’ve never been apologetic about that, or had a sense that my writing is ‘confessional’. What else am I going to write about but how I know and don’t know the world? I may not make things up in fiction, or tell the truth in non-fiction, but documentary or invented, it’s always been me at the centre of the will to put descriptions out into the world. I lie like all writers but I use my truths as I know them in order to do so.

‘I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?’ I used this quote from Malone Dies as the epigraph to my non-fiction so-called travel book Skating to Antarctica, though it would have been apt, to my mind, at the front of any book I’ve written, fiction or non-fiction, memoir or travel, history or fantasy. Skating concerned a voyage I took around the Antarctic peninsula and the story of my rather brief, rackety relationship with my mother. ‘You know,’ I’d say gayly to people who asked what it was about. ‘Icebergs, mothers. That sort of thing.’ I couldn’t even describe the most extraordinary landscape on the planet without reference to myself and my life outside the Antarctic cruise. I can’t use my eyes to see things without my eyes knowing that what they see is conditioned by what I’ve known and what I’ve been. Ditto my mind to think things. So be it. I’m a writer. I’ve got cancer. Am I going to write about it? How am I not? I pretended for a moment that I might not, but knew I had to, because writing is what I do and now cancer is what I do, too.

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