Book review: Memoirs by Hanif Kureishi, Jules Feiffer and Frederic Mitterrand

By Michael Lindgren
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

One of the rewards of reading a memoir, that heavily burdened bugbear of contemporary letters, is observing how often the books end up revealing truths their authors never intended. No matter how cagey or tightly controlled the writer, secrets have a way of squirming out from under the authorial thumb. In the course of dealing with such intractable inner raw material, perceptions become distorted in the telling, betraying uncertainties where none would seem to exist. These three memoirs are written by men whose achievements would seem to put them well beyond the realm of self-doubt, yet uncertainty and dismay often end up peeking through.

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Jules Feiffer's account of his multifaceted career will delight that generation of readers for whom his whimsical, sardonic and often politically barbed Village Voice cartoons were a cultural touchstone. Those whose understanding of Feiffer's achievements is not enhanced by the warm glow of nostalgia, however, may have less patience with this shambling, highly episodic book. Backing Into Forward (Doubleday, $30) starts with the author's account of growing up urban and Jewish, complete with a domineering mother and raging adolescent hormones. This back story has the ill fortune of sounding remarkably similar to that of Feiffer's friend Philip Roth: not a face-off that Feiffer -- or anyone else -- is likely to win. Feiffer is an energetic storyteller, but structurally the book is so haphazard that it's often hard to keep track of where we are in the arc of the artist's career. Feiffer wins points, though, for the acuity of his insights on the craft of cartooning. He's also remarkably modest. He repeatedly speaks of encounters with Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, George Plimpton and many others with a fan's sense of awe and good fortune.

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Feiffer's is not the only memoir to contain a winning element of the outsider humbled by sudden proximity to celebrity. Despite every conceivable advantage -- a famous and powerful family, immense wealth, an upbringing in the loftiest precincts of Parisian sophistication -- Frédéric Mitterand's life, at least in this account, is tinged with a haunting sense of otherness. The Bad Life (Soft Skull; paperback, $16.95; translated by Jesse Browner) is an elegant and pensive meditation, largely centering on Mitterand's many friendships, including those with a doomed young aristocrat, an AIDS-stricken American cinephile and the great Catherine Deneuve. There is something ineffably Gallic about Mitterand's attitude toward the events of his own life: a combination of fatalism, philosophical resignation, unapologetic love of the finer things and a penchant for introspection. This attitude also extends to the notorious section in the book where he describes his patronage of young male prostitutes in Bangkok -- a cause for bitter controversy last year, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy was called upon to defend his minister of culture from right-wing attacks. Politics aside, it is hard to square Mitterand's subsequent public condemnation of "sex tourism" with his own participation in what he admits is "abhorrent from a moral point of view." Whether one chooses to view the whole episode as evidence of typical French permissiveness or as an indefensible act of exploitation will, for better or worse, affect how one regards "The Bad Life."

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A different kind of identity consciousness is the purview of British novelist and filmmaker Hanif Kureishi, whose work often chronicles the vicissitudes of growing up half-Pakistani in post-colonial England. The genesis of My Ear at His Heart (Scribner, $24) was Kureishi's discovery of several of his deceased father's unpublished novels. Opening them with muted reluctance, he gradually comes to experience his father's identity as a prism for understanding his own development as a writer, father and man. The result is "a kind of improvisation" that ranges freely over discussions of writers and thinkers that Kureishi admires (Mill, Chekhov, Naipaul, Roth), the nature of contemporary Islam in England and the role of psychoanalysis in the development of the writer's craft. At times Kureishi feels his material slipping away, admitting that "I don't know what sort of book I am making here. . . . It feels more like a pot into which I am stirring almost everything that occurs to me." Although the result is both diffuse and somewhat slight, Kureishi does manage to perceive that the "one thing you do see, though it takes a lifetime to understand it, is that a human being -- your parents and then yourself -- is profoundly unknowable." Despite the substantial differences in temperament and nationality, all three of these authors would undoubtedly agree.

Lindgren is a writer and musician who divides his time between New York City and Pennsylvania.

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