I am pondering who we are and want to be in memoir.
Maybe we have no choice. But writing takes time and revision and so, in fact, we always do.
Reading Joan Didion’s BLUE NIGHTS made me sad: for her daughter, for sure, but also for Didion herself, who has not entered old age with resilience or any care for wisdom. She’s frail, she tells us again and again. But she’s also Joan Didion and a killer writer still, though she claims not and relies more than may be wise on the repetition of key phrases. All through the book — a book about her daughter’s death — you keep wondering, what happened? What several things (for there seem to be several things) went wrong? It’s not that kind of memoir. Didion will not go there.
Francisco Goldman’s SAY HER NAME, which I thought wonderful and gripping, sent me on this memoir binge.
As well, of course, as my own writing. I am processing. I’ll say more. Recent ones I’m missing?
“Those are traditional Italian cookies, you know,” the clerk said — a young man I would judge, on the basis of accent, to be Russian. ”I know,” I said. “And I miss the big traditional butter cookies you used to have, the ones that were plain or half covered in chocolate,” I added, going a step too far.
I was purchasing the cookies for my last day of class, wanting my students to have the taste. For reasons unclear to me, I had scoped through a series of Italian bakeries in the Village the day before, noting each time things missing that should have been there: pignolis fully covered in nuts; fig cookies as the Christmas season moves on, those large butter cookies which tended to be eaten after the fancier ones were gone, being simple, but simply delicious. My reasons must have had to do with some desire to regain my past, Proust-like, in the taste of a cookie.
When the Russian young man confided in me that the simpler biscuits I’d purchased were “traditional Italian cookies,” a whole lot came together. The Italians who used to bake the cookies are gone now — to colleges and engineering jobs and to firms on Wall Street. The desire for the authentic Italian cookie or hero can drive us to frenzy — as anyone who has visited Torrisi Brothers or Little Italy on a weekend will know. But traditional Italian cookies? More often than not, they’re gone now too or mingled with a Spanish or Russian twist.
Okay… like most of us, I read the paper online as well as in print. It’s been sad to see stories I read on the net appear days later in the NY TIMES. It’s like a confession that print journalism is not just on the ropes but down for what is likely to be a permanent count.
That said, I am away from my NY TIMES and want to sing an ode to hard copies.
For one thing, there is the physical pleasure of holding the page and flipping back and forth at will. For another. there is the surround: what appears next to what on page one. Which ads appear in which context. And then there is the matter of attention. I don’t read every word in print but am far less likely to do so on the screen. Am I unusual? Miss you NY TIMES and look forward to having you back.
When Peter Jackson’s KING KONG opened in 2005, I realized that I was a thrill seeker at the movies and, in fact, always had been. Epics from GONE WITH THE WIND to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to GANDHI thrilled my soul. I saw some of these epics on tv by necessity — they were before my time — but epic is always BIG and even better on the wide screen. KING KONG was a thrill maker, an adventurers’ adventure. I’d forgotten the dinosaurs (there in the 1933 original). And Adrian Brody isn’t much of a hero. But what this version of the movie got right was species thinking. Thinking between species. Or, of that’s too much, the kinds of feelings between species that any pet owner knows exists. Or any fans of KING KONG. The 2005 Ann loves King Kong and sees (as 1933’s Fay Wray did not) that he wants to protect her and, like her, loves beauty. He wants to take her far away from the 1930s crowd, always vulgar in the film. I’m thinking about KONG because I am teaching it this week. But it’s part of who we are too.
I was around eleven or twelve when I became infatuated with Joan of Arc, reading biographies of her and loving the idea of a maiden warrior for France unfurling her flag and taking the field for God and King. That was the Joan who came to me, I suspect via a book aimed at pre-teens. She was feisty and strong and above all not hemmed in by a conventional sense of what women can or cannot do.
The Carl Dreyer film shows a rather different Joan. His Joan has lost her last battle and is on trial for heresy, with the penalty for a wrong answer potential burning at the stake. His THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is a 1928 silent film that uses intense close-ups to convey its moods. The movie alternates tensely between closeups of Joan and closeups of her accusers and the one priest well-disposed to her case. Coming out, as it did, a year after talkies, the film was always out of sync with its times. I saw it this weekend in the director’s cut, accompanied by an original and quite stirring score that enhanced the mood.
The film is an idiosyncratic masterpiece about a truly unique and stirring figure in world history. The director reconstructed a medieval city which is shown only in tiny patches, showing an obsessive quality suitable to his subject, Joan. For anyone who watches the film knows that Joan’s over-the-top quality will surface in the end and doom her to the witch’s death she so rightly fears. Obsession. Compulsion. The heeding of inner voices. Saints did it. Artists do it all the time.