Elegies are for the dead, and that's the first odd thing about John Bayley's "Elegy for Iris" in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Iris Murdoch, England's greatest postwar novelist, is still alive.
Murdoch was the most private of writers, Bayley acknowledges. "In the old days, she went on secretly and quietly doing her work, never wishing to talk about it." The irony of saying this while simultaneously suggesting she smells a little ripe because she can no longer bathe herself seems to have escaped him.
Bayley didn't just write about Murdoch; he permitted her to be photographed for his article as well. Her face is impassive, trusting. She has no clue what is going on. She's the famous one, but her voice has been stilled. Bayley's the only writer in the family now. He's the authority.
In the old days, a memoirist lavished his energies on unmasking the person he knew and loved best: himself. In the great memoir boom a few years back, a nadir of sorts was reached when poet Michael Ryan devoted a chapter to how he had sex with his dog, Topsy. But such nakedness is no longer the ultimate. Much better to expose someone else. For one thing, it pays more both in cash and an even more elusive commodity, attention.
The New Yorker and Vanity Fair are always interested in sensational excerpts, and the big newspapers and magazines follow up by reviewing the books prominently and promptly. Paul Theroux's book about his former good friend V.S. Naipaul, stuffed with decades of private conversations that the acclaimed novelist never suspected would see print, provoked two lengthy features and two op-ed denunciations in the New York Times before it was even published.
Failing such charges, a dollop of unlikely sex is always a plus. So we have Lillian Ross revealing that after 40 years of dalliance with New Yorker Editor William Shawn so reserved that even longtime employees called him "Mr. Shawn" "our love-making had the same passion, the same energies (alarming to me, at first, in our early weeks together), the same tenderness, the same inventiveness, the same humor, the same textures as it had in the beginning." At this point, Shawn is in his mid-eighties.
When all else fails, just be vicious. So we have Rosemary Mahoney, who spent a few unhappy months working for Lillian Hellman in 1978, describing how ugly the playwright was, with a face like "cake batter running down the side of a mixing bowl." Spying on the skinny-dipping Hellman, Mahoney sees "a skeletal figure with two pendulous bosoms dangling from her rib cage like white leather wineskins two-thirds empty."
The amount of aggression displayed by these writers sometimes, as with Bayley and Ross, under a veneer of solicitude is astonishing. "Sometimes my rage spills out of my mouth like slimy toads," novelist Catherine Texier writes in "Breakup," about the end of her marriage. There seems to be a lot of that going around.
Not that the writers ever admit it. "It's not a betrayal, it's the truth," insists Theroux about his portrait of his 30-year friendship with Naipaul. "No one has to apologize for writing truthfully."
Still, even Theroux admits there's something a little squirrelly about writers.
"There's this idea that it's a virtuous business carried on by saints and flagellants," the novelist says. "Not by dysfunctional and troubled and lonely and desperate people who have more flaws than average."
In other words, writers like the scorpion who stings the frog that is carrying him across the stream, causing them both to drown can't help themselves. Spouses, lovers, friends, even children: Is everyone fair game?
Of course not, protests Joyce Maynard.
"If you're trying to wreak revenge, titillate, settle scores, then no, you shouldn't do it," she says. "But if you're telling a story to get to a central truth about who you are as a human being, and if not writing it really compromises your own essential self, then I say you get to tell it. To do otherwise is to tell a painter there are certain colors he cannot paint with."
In other words, as long as they're remaining true to their inner selves, writers can betray anyone they want. Joan Didion said it all 30 years ago: "Writers are always selling somebody out." The difference is, now they're intimate with their victims first.
A Question of Codes
Their friendship started when they were both teaching in the mid-'60s in Uganda Theroux just starting as a writer, Naipaul respected but little-known. Three years ago, it dissolved in acrimony. Theroux says he tried to understand, to patch things up; Naipaul spurned him. "Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents" is being seen as Theroux's revenge by everyone but the author.
Theroux shows Naipaul as a hypocrite, making fun of knighthoods and then eagerly accepting one. He quotes him: "I was a big prostitute man at one time." He shows him as cheap, sticking Theroux with his (invariably high) restaurant bills. He shows him making fun of everyone. ("The Dutch. Potato eaters.") He shows him being abusive toward defenseless people working for him and, even worse, toward his first wife. He quotes letters Naipaul wrote him about the death of that wife.
The accuracy of all this isn't much in dispute; Theroux merely deepens the known portrait of Naipaul, a great writer but no one's idea of a great man. But Theroux also stresses what good friends they once were, which is where his own ethical problem emerges. The only difference between Paul Theroux and Linda Tripp, his critics say, is that the writer's memory is so good he had no need of a tape recorder.
"I resist these words revenge and betrayal," says Theroux, the author of numerous novels and the travel classic "The Great Railway Bazaar." He admits, though, that Naipaul wouldn't have wanted him to do the book. "He wouldn't welcome any book about him that he didn't have control over."
Theroux argues that he wasn't being hostile toward his former friend. "People believe that in writing about the negative aspects of Naipaul's personality I am being disloyal to him. But the only way you can understand a writer is in his completeness, or his incompleteness."
Meaning he had a higher goal here: the truth.
Furthermore, he points out, Naipaul has turned his own unsparing eye on friends. "He's done nothing but write about people he's known who've loved him, traveled with him. Why should I be any different? There's no code."
Meaning: Betrayal is okay if your subject did it, too.
Anyway, Theroux says, "writers write about their nearest and dearest. We have nothing else to work from. Your own life is your material."
Meaning: He can't help himself.
Naipaul's second wife asked Theroux not to write about the couple. "When someone says, 'Don't write about this,' my immediate reaction is to write about it."
Meaning: They were asking for it.
Theroux concedes only one point: that it's not a great idea to share secrets with someone who earns a living by his pen.
"Writers have the last word," he says. "If someone does something to them, it's a wonderful story."
The Past as Repast
In the published version of the book, the phrase is gone. Uncertainty can't be admitted, even for a moment. Mahoney effortlessly recalls idle conversations, fleeting emotions, minute descriptions of what people looked like. She was only 17. Maybe she kept a world-class diary.
We'll never know for sure, because a memoir is nearly impossible to refute. Former Labor secretary Robert Reich was caught revising history in his memoirs because there was a record of his speeches and meetings. Most writers aren't so unlucky. There's an extra layer of protection if they're writing about someone who's dead or reclusive or who just doesn't want to start a battle in the media that will sell books.
Despite editing one of the most influential magazines in the country for 35 years, Shawn was a mysterious autocrat nearly as elusive as his star writer Salinger. Even his staff barely knew him. His magazine had no masthead; he wanted to be invisible to readers and, for that matter, everyone else. Appearing in a gossip column would have been as distasteful as walking naked down Fifth Avenue at noon.
But Ross, another star writer who was Shawn's lover, sharply revises the previous portrait of a shy workaholic. She says he was deeply depressed, practically suicidal, before she came along. "He could do nothing to help himself," she writes. "He wanted someone to know and believe there was more to him; he was desperate to feel alive. And that responsibility was somehow, mysteriously, becoming mine."
Apparently, then, she was not just Shawn's mistress but his muse and his passion. "Almost every night, at some point, Bill would leave his home, stand across the street from the fifth-floor apartment where I lived at the time, and stare up at my lighted window," Ross writes in one typical passage. "Then he would call me from a pay phone to say he was standing there. . . . We would talk and laugh over the telephone for a long time."
This wasn't one of those once-a-week affairs. Ross writes that she was as much Shawn's wife as was his legal one, Cecille. They ate dinner together, went to the theater, the movies. He had a private phone line installed so they could talk first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Critics have wondered how he had any time left to edit the New Yorker, let alone raise three children with his wife. And they've also slagged Ross who says she began and then abandoned "Here But Not Here" as a novel for violating her dead lover's cherished privacy.
"Violating privacy," she repeats. "What in the world does that mean, violating privacy? You're talking about my life, and it's up to me to decide what I should write and what I should not write."
Yet it's also the life of Cecille Shawn, who's had exposed to the world the claim that her husband was deeply in love with another woman and that her marriage was a fraud.
"I wasn't writing about her marriage," says Ross. "I was writing about my love story." She refuses to use the word "affair."
Ross believes that writers write whatever they want, and the product reveals their inner natures. She knows that some old-time New Yorker sources are saying that, with her most enduring work, "Picture," nearly half a century behind her, she is trying both to account for her long absence and write herself into literary history as the figure behind one of the century's great editors.
One source, who wishes to be nameless to avoid picking a public fight with the elderly Ross, calls the book "somewhere between offensive and sad," adding: "With books like this, you have to ask if what the author says serves her interests. In the case of Ross, it absolutely does. It makes her out to be the savior of the magazine." Another source says that the relationship was less a love story than a morass that Shawn, who famously had trouble ending things, couldn't get out of.
Ross dismisses such criticisms as the product of bitterness and envy. "There were times when Bill Shawn hated his job. He felt he had to carry some of the writers as his burden. And they don't like it that I quote him as saying that."
Shawn wanted her to write this book, she says, an assertion that must be taken on faith, just like the conversations from decades past. (It doesn't help her book's credibility, however, that Ross makes a point of giving the exact date Tina Brown was offered the editorship of the New Yorker, and then gets it wrong by two months.) A review by Charles McGrath, a former New Yorker editor who's now editor of the New York Times Book Review, described other mistakes.
But then, anyone like McGrath who challenges this love story merely draws Ross's scorn. "He writes that if I'm 'to be believed' well, he doesn't know. He never knew anything." Her critics, she says, are limited by "their own obviously arid experiences with love."
Oddly, the figure besides Shawn that Ross seems to revere most is Shawn's good friend J.D. Salinger. That means she's no fan of Joyce Maynard, despite the fact that they've both written books about their love affairs with very private luminaries.
"Joyce Maynard and 10,000 other crappy people on the make can publish whatever they say or want, but Salinger does as a writer what he wants to say and do, and nobody can take that away from him. Nobody. Nobody," says Ross. "No more than anybody can touch my life of love with Bill Shawn or diminish it or change it."
Everything Is Material
Thus did J.D. Salinger render a verdict 17 years ago on the literary skills as well as the soul of his onetime true love, Joyce Maynard. While Salinger may be America's most famous recluse, a cranky genius who eats frozen peas for breakfast, on this point he's solidly in the mainstream. There's something about Maynard that really bugs people.
"One-trick pony." "Obsessive whiner." "Uses the letter 'I' as if there were no other vowels on her keyboard." "When my friends and I learned her perfect life had blown apart, we were relieved."
Reviewers, journalists and even some readers have been saying these things and many others like them ever since Maynard debuted on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1972, telling the story of her life and generation at the tender age of 18. It is, possibly, the most famous Times Magazine cover ever, if only because every writer in her forties can remember how envious she felt when she saw it.
This year, Maynard, who for years wrote a syndicated column about her life, moved from being famous for her narcissism to being notorious for her perfidy. She told the story she said she never would about her nine-month affair with Salinger, a liaison prompted by and immediately following the appearance of the magazine story.
"The obvious question is why Joyce Maynard has unlocked this drawer again after all these years, and the obvious answer to that is that ours is a culture addicted to exposure, to 'outing' ourselves and others," reviewer Daphne Merkin wrote in the New Yorker, making clear she disapproved of the whole enterprise.
This is a strange attitude for Merkin to take, since her most famous article, also in the New Yorker, outed herself as liking to be spanked. Indeed, under Tina Brown's editorship the magazine reveled in outing. It was so hot to write about Maynard that Merkin wrote her review, according to the book's publisher, from a purloined manuscript.
Maybe Maynard has a point when she says people who claim to be disgusted by her, like Merkin, might merely be jealous. Maynard's the grande dame of outing, the standard-setter. "At Home in the World" is the quintessential modern memoir, just like everyone else's but more so.
She settles scores while denying she's settling scores. She invades the privacy of the famous (Salinger), the unknown (her ex-husband) and the powerless (her children). If you end up in her life, it's a good bet she'll run you through her typewriter. She learned her lesson early, the same one every autobiographical writer learns, but with her it went much deeper: "Whatever happens in my life, I can look at it as material."
Take her first novel, "Baby Love," which appeared in 1981. The central character is Ann, a young woman who has recently been given the boot by Rupert, who is old enough to be her father, during a vacation they took with Rupert's daughter Trina in Daytona, Fla. The heartsick Ann buys an old house in New Hampshire with a fully outfitted old picnic basket and a waterfall within earshot. Mostly, she mopes around, binging and purging, moaning over Rupert, listening to George Jones, and worrying about the bats in the attic.
All this really happened to Maynard, right down to the Bird's Eye Tender Tiny Peas that "Rupert" eats because that's what Salinger ate. No wonder Salinger labeled the novel "tawdry"; he recognized her source of inspiration. Her most recent novel, "Where Love Goes," also stuck close to home: It's about a single divorced mother pushing 40 and looking for love in New England, all of which Maynard was in 1995.
Nothing must have happened to Maynard recently that was worth fictionalizing, because she's started from the beginning of her life again, this time without pseudonyms. She doesn't spare herself, and doesn't spare much of anyone else, either.
Take an incident from 1980. Maynard is married to a hopeful artist named Steve. (He was the source of much material: He's recognizable in both novels.) She is pregnant with their second child, not counting the one she says Steve forced her to abort. One night in their rural New Hampshire house, she realizes she is starting to give birth. There is no way the midwife will arrive in time. Maynard begins to scream.
"I'll be right back," Steve says. "I need to go outside and have a smoke."
"Don't leave me!" she says.
He keeps going. "You're losing control, Joyce. I just need to collect my thoughts."
By this point, Maynard is on the floor, trying to grab at her husband's boot. He shakes her off. She crawls after him as he goes outside. Watching him puff his cigarette in the driveway, she is still screaming.
Does the child born that night, Charlie, really need to know that Mom says Dad more or less kicked her as she was giving birth, and that Mom feels the marriage died that night? And even if the child should know, is this material that should be publicly revealed so all the world knows it, too? Doesn't it invade the boy's privacy forever as well as smear Maynard's ex-husband with a rather horrifying charge that the reader can't independently verify?
Maynard thinks not. "If there's a story about the birth of my son that deeply explains who I am, how I got to where I am, what happens afterwards, I think I have the right to tell that story."
Her father was an alcoholic, a subject that was never brought up when she was a girl. From a childhood where everything was a secret, she's switched to believing there shouldn't be any at all.
As for the tale of her time with Salinger, she says she followed certain self-imposed rules. "I was scrupulously careful not to interpret Salinger or draw conclusions about him. There's a kind of starkness in the writing."
Perhaps she was thinking of passages like this, which starts with the couple in bed: "His hands reach for my shoulders. He strokes my hair. He takes hold of my head then, with surprising firmness, and guides me under the covers."
You know what happens next. "Tears are streaming down my cheeks. Still, I don't stop. So long as I keep doing this, I know he will love me."
This makes Salinger out to be a cad who is interested only in being serviced, and it's certainly a catchy way to conclude a chapter. The only trouble is, Salinger throws her out anyway.
Loaded language like this comes naturally to Maynard. She drops lots of hints about how much Salinger likes young women, but never confronts the point directly. "I didn't set out to write a book unveiling J.D. Salinger as a sexual predator," she protests. It just happened that way.
With accusations like this, one hopes the writer is unfailingly accurate in her depiction of long-ago events. Lillian Ross, as it happens, says Maynard is not. She plays a bit part in "At Home in the World," in a scene where Maynard and Salinger have lunch with Shawn and Ross at the Algonquin Hotel in New York.
Except, Ross says, "Maynard gets it all wrong. It wasn't at the Algonquin and it wasn't lunch. It was at La Caravelle and it was dinner. And the conversation as she reports it never took place."
Maynard stands by what she wrote. "I say this with enormous respect for Lillian Ross's reportorial skills: it was at the Algonquin and it was lunch."
The person who could clear this up is Salinger, but he's not talking. (The fact that he hasn't sued, Maynard says, is proof that her descriptions and accusations are accurate.) He knows he's lost this battle. When Ian Hamilton tried to write his biography, Salinger fought all the way to the Supreme Court, winning his case for copyright infringement. A second biographer, Paul Alexander, had little better luck: Doubleday canceled his contract earlier this year.
Fortress Salinger withstood these attacks from the outside. Now Salinger has been laid low by someone he invited in because he was infatuated with her.
"What do you make of the fact," Maynard asks, "that of all the 18-year-old girls he might have invited into his life, the one he selected was one who had already identified herself not only as a scrupulous observer, but as a person who wrote and published her observations?"
She makes this of it: Salinger wanted her to write about him. Once again, the victim was asking for it. This sort of defense is no longer used in rape cases, but it's apparently pretty standard among memoirists.
The Whole Truth, From My Point of View
And Catherine Texier does score some points off her ex in "Breakup: The End of a Love Story." "Unfaithful bastard, cheater, liar, cold, punitive, withholding . . . you have screwed me and betrayed me and lied to me for more than a year," she rages, unmoored after 18 years of happiness are abruptly ended.
She portrays him as an opportunist: "You said [your new lover] was the passport to a world you wanted very much, a world of parties and glitter that you weren't sure you could get without her." She describes how he keeps his toe fungus medication on the night table. "I wonder how romantic that will be on hers?"
Asked if she's out for revenge, Texier pauses, starts to talk, stops. "I could own up to fighting back. My motivations could be ambiguous. I will admit to that."
In the old days, Texier would have written "Breakup" as a novel. Those who recognized her husband unnamed in the text, but known to a certain segment of the publishing world as novelist Joel Rose would have appreciated the true-life aspects. Everyone else would have to evaluate it as a self-contained work, as literature. This was the method used by everyone from Robert Penn Warren in "All the King's Men" (about Louisiana governor Huey Long) to Nora Ephron in "Heartburn" (real life identity of the philandering husband: Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein).
Texier didn't want to do it that way. "Fiction puts veils between the writer and the reader, and there's clearly a need for writers now to take the veils down. It creates a very raw, very alive writing that gets closer to life."
A memoir, she argues, "is an artistic construction, and by that token it is not the truth. It's the illusion of honesty manipulative in the sense we're choosing all the details, the director, actors, everything. We know as writers that we have enormous power to shed a certain light on a character."
This seems nothing more than self-evident, but it's the sort of admission that most memoir writers are loath to make. So is Texier's comment that "I could very easily write another book presenting the narrator in a different light, using the same so-called facts."
"Words lie," Texier writes in "Breakup." "They are as treacherous as feelings." And as easily manipulated. She's now working on a story about someone she was briefly involved with. She says it will be issued as fiction.
The once-sharp border between fiction and nonfiction has, for all practical purposes, disappeared. "There is a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and it's what I say it is," says Paul Theroux, which only underlines how subjective it all is.
Meanwhile, the publishers of "Breakup" in Texier's native France want to issue it as a novel. They're positively retro over there. Calling it fiction, they told the author, will allow readers to respond in a purer way.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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