Hi Norman, do you feel like we are meeting at a ball? I thought your piece was good fun, and it brought back too many memories. I think because I was roughly the same age as you described: I remember being eight or nine, living in England in a house that looked out from the back over a row of neighbours. One of the neighbours – two in effect – used to have sex with their curtains open. I remember she was a redhead. My brother and I would watch from his bedroom, at first with more incredulity than stealth, but we got a sense after a while that they had noticed us so we made a periscope out of a box of tinfoil (two opposite-angled mirrors at either end) and fought over taking turns with it. The neighbours were close enough that they must have seen the Reynolds box and mirror shaking in the sun. They came over one day and complained to my parents that we had been spying on them, and my stepmother – normally a violent woman who loved to punish us – laughed when the neighbours had left. I remember the woman made a point thereafter of standing naked in front of the window and closing the curtains on her pleasure. As I read your piece I thought about shame on a species level. Do you think it’s unique to humans? I think of chimps I’ve known or read about who, for example, see attractive females and want to lure them over but hide their hard-ons with their hands when the alpha is nearby. Perhaps that’s similar – if you think of shame as being part of that awareness of others in a group, which seems to govern primate lives so powerfully. Bonobos show little or no sexual shame. Porn stars? I suppose our shame varies depending on the type of power we seek. Do you feel better having made your confessions? Do you ever feel discomfort writing memoirs, worry about how people you mention will react? Thanks for your story. Looking forward to chatting.
Well, let’s dance. Your email – and your sharp and melancholy ‘Please Tim Tickle Lana’ in Granta – provoked a clutch of thoughts and memories in me. Herewith:
1. Your account changed my view of the simian part of the animal world. You show how your time hanging out with chimpanzees affected your larger view of our own kind. But here’s where I’m coming from with regard to this matter: my time in Africa, 1978–83, was a period of only intermittent interactions with monkeys, baboons mainly –it imbued me with not only the feeling of fear you describe, but also loathing. They were an affliction, both in the bush and on the outskirts of towns. They shat on visitors to bungalows whose rooftops they’d camp on. They were definitely clever. The Batswana described them as thieves – they took all sorts of things, was the complaint. Not only food, but items like a hairbrush and a pillow and light bulbs from a storage closet. They bit people who startled them. They tiresomely insisted on flashing their gaudy genitals flat up against window panes, if there were panes, as diners in roadside eateries were at their meals. They rolled boulders down at passing cars from their haunts in the Koppies along the way, this last in the rough border country between Botswana and South Africa. Of course I’m well aware that humans do much worse, but still, the simians did make rather a bad impression. I’m also coming from the experience of watching the image of the Chimpanzee worsen over the years as their more brutal internecine practices came to light. In short, your piece brought me to a fairer and tenderer feeling about these animals. Nos semblables, nos frères.
2. Shame. I have mixed feelings about memoir writing. This may relate to the shame question you raised. Contemplating my life, I become acutely aware of how many parts of it there are not to be proud of. My confessions in ‘Nudity’ didn’t make me feel better. In a metaphysical way, though, I suppose they constitute an effort at restitution.
Who should write memoirs? I have the not-entirely-serious and absurdly restrictive idea that only morally extraordinary people, say like Paul Farmer, could write them honestly without much shame. Memoir material appears in my work as it does in the work of all fiction writers. Colin, I think, as I read this, that I’m really talking, as a Brit might say, cod. Who wants to read only the life reviews of moral heroes, in fact? Not I. Maybe I was thinking that if I were a certified moral hero, I’d quite enjoy writing myself up.
3. Here’s a question. Whose memoir that will never be written would you most like to read? For me, for starters, it’s Guy Davenport, or Buenaventura Durruti (hero of the best lost cause, Spanish anarchism), or H.P. Lovecraft. I could go on. How about you? Not counting picks like Jesus or Edward de Vere.
Hi Norman. I think even chimpanzees would agree that baboons are assholes. I like thinking about the contrast of a baboon pressing her swelling against a restaurant window and two human males feeling guilty about voyeurism. When you talk about things in your life that you’re not proud of, I do want to dance – or buy you a drink and not talk publicly. I feel like I’m increasingly defined by guilt. I know that one thing I find moving about other apes is their need for forgiveness. To see a chimp or bonobo reach out a hand after fighting, or after doing something reprehensible to a group, is familiar. What’s appealing to me about chimps and others is that it happens right away – the hand comes out very soon after the guilty act. With us the hand often comes out too late, if ever, or the hand of the forgiver is equally tardy. I wouldn’t say that forgiveness always happens among chimps, but the need for it is always obvious. I hate watching Mixed Martial Arts, but I remember seeing a fight while I was writing the chimp novel and I was struck by how quickly the fighters hugged after the bout, after beating the shit out of each other, it seemed an almost inhuman reversal of animosity, but it made sense to me as an ape. I was going through the prolonged, nibbling torture of divorce at the time and I was thinking, if only we could actually come to blows, the resolution would come quicker. We like the long way around, perhaps because we are comfortably acculturated to using words instead of fists. Maybe memoirs are hands reaching out. I’ve only written a few explicitly self-centred pieces – but like you say, memoir creeps in everywhere. Sometimes I think that novels and any sort of writing really do amount to the long way around. I’ve read that your latest novel is your first set outside of Africa. Did the change of setting have any effect on the way memoir crept in? More or less liberating? And, not meaning to overwhelm you, I’m curious about how novel writing looks to you now in terms of what you want to say or how you face the page. Are there things you find yourself focusing on or avoiding – anything from subject matter to the demands of publicity – that look different to you now from other stages in your career? To answer your question, I think one person I’d like to hear more from is the painter Pontormo. I don’t know why. Those eyes. I know he was a recluse, I think I’d like to hear more about what went on when he closed his attic door, find out what made him paint those haunting eyes. Although, I’m not sure I really do want to know. I can’t say I’m drawn to finding heroes. Sorry to be windy. I’m avoiding my work.
To continue . . .
I want to talk about guilt, and I will below, but first I want to take up some of your more direct questions. I’ve now looked at reproductions on the net of Pontormo’s work and he does seem to be haunted by something that he projected onto many of his sitters.
Still putting off the subject of guilt . . . you ask how novel writing looks to me at this stage of the game, so to say. Setting my book outside of Africa didn’t make any real difference in the way memoir subjects came into the story. And I actively enjoyed writing about a very green and wet part of the US after writing so many parched African scenes. And on the memoir front, it was a return to a locale from my life just post-college, and that gave writing about it a kind of weird energy.
Now, about guilt/ the memoir. Our conversation has made me realize that I’ve had stronger and more complex feelings about all this than I knew. For example, I’m culling my library, trying to reduce it drastically to a manageable size, and discover that I have no memoirs on my shelves. Lots of biography, especially literary biography. I seem to have only two full-dress autobiographies (Lincoln Steffens, Henry Adams). No memoirs at all. Strange. This may relate to an assumption I didn’t know I was making that all writers of memoirs are subject to the same temptation to avoid guilt-inducing subjects as I no doubt would be. I wonder if people who’ve been in analysis would be less inhibited in this respect.
Looking back at my fiction, I can trace out many, let’s call them, confessional patterns. They would only be obvious to me or to someone who knew my life in detail. For example, I often treated my younger brother, Robert, four years younger, very badly when we were growing up. It was war between us, mostly. There are echoes of this in my work. Some non-echoes, but literally rendered incidents. I think there is a kind of compulsive confessional aspect in most serious novels. I was surprised when making use of childhood incidents I thought were innocently funny, and thought my brother would agree were so, elicited anger on his part, and then aroused guilt on my part.
I have to say that the companion memoir pieces in Granta 126 are making me feel narrow in my attitude toward this business. They’re very illuminating and bold. I may have to admit that my vaguely biased notion about memoir writing being a kind of purfling has been dumb. And there are no memoirs in my library, not even Augustine’s. To be clear, I’m using ‘memoir’ to mean the partial and selective presentation of one’s life story.
A last trailing thought on guilt. It’s everywhere, of course. I remember being struck by this when I read Walter Burkert’s Homo Necans, in which he argues that the roots of urreligion go back to human guilt about the practice of killing animals for food.
Reducing my book collection to its essentials is an interesting process. I have lots of nice things I want to give away but realize that the project of building personal libraries is not as common as it once was. I’m trying to get down to the votive core of my library. I’m thinking maybe a hundred. In the literary segment of my intended five-foot shelf will be the Nonesuch Blake, Yeats, G.M. Hopkins, Woolf (To the Lighthouse), the Modern Library Complete Shakespeare, Joyce (Ulysses, Dubliners), The Tales of D.H. Lawrence, Bovary . . . You’re too young to be thinking along these lines, I guess, but if you have any thoughts about what your choices might be, I’d love to hear them. The idea is to go for absolute bedrock.
You know what, Norman? Now that I have your email address I’m not going to stop writing.
Funny you should mention bookshelves. I’ve attached photos of one I made last weekend, a fourteen-foot pine box, a lidless coffin for things that have somehow shaped my thoughts, which I’ve now suspended nine feet above me in my study. The friends you mention are there, plus some sad old Thomas Hardy and other favourites, and a fair amount of crap. I’ve lost a lot of beloved books through travel. I don’t know what the bedrock would be, quite honestly, my tastes change. Right now I love Cormac McCarthy and the poet Philip Levine – I turn to them for music – but that might change.
I think you’re right, that library-building isn’t done so much anymore – displaying books as self-expression. Is that how you’ve thought of it at times? I’d love to see your collection. Any photos? And why the cull?
What if I say that books are our alphas, those presences we defer to whether they are awake or not? You’d think I was a man with one idea. I often write thinking of what so-and-so would do. Woolf, let’s say. Trying to adjust my world according to how she coloured part of it, questioning her approach and trying to establish my own. That’s good ape stuff, it seems to me. And I think as much as influence can’t be denied, it’s the effort towards individuality that makes a book stand out. Those writers you’re gathering on your ideal shelf were all profoundly conscious of forebears and tradition, but they ended up creating works that are unique, honest products of individual lives. Perhaps memoir is everywhere on your shelves, just undercover. And perhaps, unlikely though it may look, books represent the constant struggle for power that defines ape life.
I have a library in my head. Somewhere. And I’m conscious of tradition. But I try to stay out of the closet and not base my books on other books. One consequence is that the more I’ve written the less I’ve read. And part of doing this for a living and trying to support a family on it means that I sometimes despise books, as competitors and tyrants. More ape stuff. And I think chimpanzees have made me a complete fuckin’ bore. I read a long interview you did with the Paris Review, so I have some small sense of your life; but before we sign off I want to know what you do for fun. This is true confessional time now. Don’t say ‘I read’ or ‘I write’.
I’ve now read A Beautiful Truth. You’re an amazing writer. I thought it was a little bold of me to write across gender lines here and there, but you have spoken in the chimpanzee voice. I was totally unprepared. It’s a real feat of the imagination and it leads me to a confession, a subject we’ve prodded at. It’s the kind of thing that would be unlikely to get into a memoir, but should. When I was in college, I read a story, I believe by James Agee, from the POV of a cow slated for the slaughter house. It moved me greatly, so I induced my girlfriend – Elsa – to give up meat for the summer when we would be apart. She assumed we were on a moral venture together, but in fact she was my proxy. When the summer was over and we got back to school, I was of course following the same diet I always had, which included meat. She was angry at me, naturally. We had a big fight. That’s the kind of shameful person I was then, Colin, face it. A few more thoughts on your remarkable book. The succinct presentation/summaries of American lives is masterful. And the sense of foreboding that overhangs the first half of the book is so strong, so Gothic.
Books and bookshelves: Your woodworking skills are impressive. Many of my books are, for want of enough wall space, in storage or stacked on the floor. When we lived at 71 Second Avenue on the Lower East Side, I was accumulating my personal library as well as building up stock for my years-long exertion as an antiquarian bookseller. No shop, just catalogues. My shelving was original (orange crates, bricks, mostly found lumber) but unreliable. There were a couple of avalanche collapses. You ask why I’m culling my library. It’s because I’ve been collecting books I thought I was going to need for projects I’d work on in an infinite future and I find myself suddenly eighty. I’m happy that my nephew, Jameson, a history major at U.C. Santa Cruz, showed eagerness to take my holdings in European radical history off my hands and that my niece, Gillian, an anthropology major at U.C. Berkeley, is interested in my variegated collection of books about mostly the anthropology of religion. It’s not only books for projects that are turning out to be unfeasible, it’s cartons of periodicals and papers, too. I no longer plan to write a deconstruction of the Lyndon LaRouche movement. Fortunately, others got there first. Any interest in a carton or two of ancient issues of their paper, New Solidarity? Or how about a nearly complete back file of Dinge der Zeit, a dissident Marxist periodical from the 1960s? The choice is yours!
Free-associating now, and on the sub-subject of my core library. I’ve made a little progress in consolidating it. You mention Cormac McCarthy. I love his work, especially the early expressionist novels. The Orchard Keeper is going in with Blake, Joyce and Wallace Stevens. If that’s the one that contains the magnificent description of a rotting mattress being pulled out of a shed. I’m not kidding when I say magnificent. Can’t check because so many books and papers, including that one, are in Haverstraw, in storage. There are outlier literary works I’ve decided to cling to. Maybe you’ve read this one – All About H. Hatterr, by G.V. Desani.
I have your email address, too, and shall enjoy writing to you whenever I feel like it!
Norman – Thank you so much for reading the book and being kind. I’m sure many of my publishers will jump all over that and twist your words for future covers. It means a lot to me, personally. Thank you.
I’ve now obliquely met Elsa through other correspondence, and if there are other confessions you want to make to her I’ll be happy to stand as intermediary. I think that’s such a funny, novelist’s trick to engage a loved one in a moral experiment and stand back and watch. The subject of meat is on my mind lately – I was poisoned by a bad Beef Wellington last week and have been paying the consequences. Let’s say I was paying your penance.
It’s been a real pleasure getting to know you a little, Norman. I’ll pass on your offer of periodicals, but settle for a meeting in person one of these days. If I’m near you I’ll send a ping, and you are warmly welcome here in Toronto.
You have my great respect, and best wishes for everything: novels, family, libraries and confessions.
Images courtesy of Colin McAdam and Wyatt Mason