Thursday, 6 August 2009

AUTOBIOGRAPHY - FACT AND FACTION


Just finished Alice Munro's The View from Castle Rock. This is very different from her previous short story collections because it's rooted in her family history and the memories of her own childhood and more recent past. In the introduction Alice Munro underlines the way we shape the narratives of our lives into stories when we're reminiscing, editing and embellishing them, obedient to the templates of story-telling we absorb as children. She writes about the process of researching her family's origins and writing about her ancestors; 'I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.' She traces her family history from the bleak austerities of eighteenth century Scotland to twenty first century Canada in a series of thoughtful explorations of the conflicts between landscape and character, individual and circumstance. But in the end what she writes is not fact but fable - 'These are stories' she insists, adding, 'You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does.'





Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast: the Restored Version
I didn't realise that the version published in the 60s after Hemingway committed suicide had been significantly edited by his publisher and his fourth wife. Now Hemingway's grandson has found the original manuscript and published it as it stands. That doesn't mean it's how Hemingway would have published it, but at least it's how it was written.

There's a steamy, glowering photograph of Hemingway on the cover and it looks satisfyingly retro. It's a memoir of the author's early years in Paris in the nineteen twenties with his first wife. He talks about his relationship with James Joyce, Ezra Pound, (who kept a supply of opium for a friend), F. Scott Fitzgerald (usually drunk), Ford Madox Ford (who had halitosis), the terrifying Gertrude Stein, and the proprietor of the Shakespeare bookshop, Sylvia Beach. There's even a glimpse of Aleister Crowley striding past in the street, and Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda gets a minor role - mad and bad at Juan les Pins. In between these encounters we are treated to Hemingway's thoughts on underwear, sex, boxing, racing, french food and french toilets, and the way a writer converts experience into copy - input and output.

Even more interesting than the vignettes is the way Hemingway writes about the process of writing - or rather, becoming a writer. One of the sections that his wife originally deleted is a musing on the pitfalls of writing in the 1st person. This is fascinating because big chunks of the memoir were deliberately written by H in the second person 'you' and that was altered by his wife, who converted the whole manuscript back to the first person. He spent quite a lot of time writing in caf├Ęs, partly to get out of the small flat he shared with his wife and baby, and partly because he found the atmosphere conducive to writing. They were 'transitional places' and he found it easier in one place, to write about another. He watched people and listened to their conversations . He had particular working rules 'I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.' He would then go and do something completely different; 'I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything.'

There's always a perspective in memoir. This is an old man writing about a young man's life with the disadvantage of knowing how it all turned out in the end. The Hemingway who wrote this was a wounded animal, though he was scarcely into his sixties. His painful references to the failure of his memory (after Electric Shock Treatment) and loss of confidence in his own ability to continue writing, were excised in the original version by his wife and publisher - here they are given as they were written. The result is a more chaotic account of his years in Paris, more confessional than you'd expect from Hemingway, but also - perhaps - just a little closer to how that period of his life was actually lived.

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