Sunday, July 28, 2013

Unwritten Memoirs

Memoirs make a wonderful read. You don’t have to be famous or even outrageous to produce a fascinating book of recollections. Even the humblest persons may have had enough of a roller coaster ride through life for an absorbing account. Of course, being a famous writer can make for spellbinding memoirs—think Gombrowicz, for instance—but most great writers have not bothered. They were probably saving up the good stuff for their fictions. Certainly the most celebrated British memorialists, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, were quite ordinary enough.

I myself never considered writing a memoir—at least until now, when I realize that not having kept a diary disqualifies one as a memorialist. Memory alone is not—to use a Borges word—memorious enough. And yet already a good many years ago, the worthy E. L. Doctorow, then working for a reputable publishing house, took me to lunch and tried to persuade me to write a memoir. It was only one of several suggestions, including a book about mathematics, for which I was about as qualified as piloting a space capsule.

But memoirs, would they have been as impossible? I am not a particularly modest person, but at that time I felt significantly qualified only for turning down such an undertaking. Yet perhaps it should have been a sufficient incentive to be prodded by so distinguished a person as Doctorow, even though he had not yet written Ragtime, to get up from that lunch and start keeping a journal.

Now I do wish I had kept one. To those who still (more rarely) propose my doing so, I reply, “Look at the opportunities I let slip by unrecorded and without which a memoir would be pointless.” Quite a few of them involve writers or future writers. Digging back into early days, I come up with watching a Harvard dance from the sidelines alongside of William Gaddis and hearing him jeer “Vive le sport!” as well as say some other things which I now regret not writing down.

Even more regretfully, I recall a much later lunch with Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite writers, and his then translator, Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, after having written some glowing blurbs for his books. All I remember about that enchanting occasion is how beautiful Borges’s English was. Another time, I arranged for the near-blind Borges and his sighted companion to be put up in a friend’s large apartment free of charge during their New York stay. That time I did not even approach him, not wishing to make him feel obligated to reward me with a meeting.

I spent some time with the French poet Pierre Emmanuel, but all I recall is his love of women with heavy legs and thick ankles. I spent more time with a greater poet, Yves Bonnefoy, when I was writing my Harvard Ph. D. thesis about the prose poem as art form. All I remember from his conversation is his disapproving of my imputing in my thesis deliberate ambiguity to Rimbaud, something Bonnefoy claimed entered French literature only much later, with Paul Valery. I still wonder whether he was right.

There was a brief but stimulating relationship with two important German Swiss writers, Max Frisch and Friedrich Durrenmatt. To the former, I lost a girlfriend he memorialized in Montauk; the latter invited me to come visit him in Switzerland, I don’t know how seriously. I was also friendly and shared a girlfriend with, Hans Egon Holthusen, a then noted German poet, critic, and prose writer, now rather forgotten. Of our many conversations, I remember only two. One, about how I should wear more pointy shoes, the kind he favored. Another about how in attacking other writers I should use such safely unactionable terms as ass or asshole.

In Budapest, I got to know some Hungarian writers, notably the splendid Ferenc Santa, whose terrific short story “Nazis” I translated for my anthology Fourteen for Now. I now recall nothing of our lively conversation, at the end of which he gave me one of his novels that, to my shame, I still haven’t read. A perhaps even greater writer, Gyula Illyes, a poem of whose I had translated in verse, I unfortunately did not get to meet.

I also got to know a good many well-known Americans, as well as a lot of film people, but they would require a whole separate blog entry. Here let me record only my missed memoirs of some famous women. There was, first, the talented and beautiful French Canadian movie star, Genevieve Bujold. She had met me briefly at a film party, and, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a press agent that she would be in New York on such and such an evening on which I was to take her out. It was her imperious command.

Well, I took her to a delightful play by Alan Ayckbourn, which we both enjoyed. During intermission, the conversation somehow turned to feet. She declared that hers were very pretty, and promptly shed a shoe for confirmation. She was right. After the show, we drove around in a cab from restaurant to restaurant, all of which regretted, but their kitchen was closed. Not even my favorite French restaurant relented, though I told them that Mlle. Bujold was in a taxi outside, waiting and hungry.

We ended up in a then popular Hunanese restaurant, where, however, the specialties were not the dishes that she, a vegetarian, ordered. When I delivered her to her hotel, and hoped to get to see more of her than her foot, all I got was a chaste goodnight kiss and the enthusiastic suggestion to come visit her in Hollywood, where I would especially enjoy talking to her brilliant son. He was then eight or nine years old.

I did like the ladies of the ballet. I had had a lovely relationship with June Morris during my Paris Fulbright. However, a poem I wrote about us, she said, would shock her mother. A poem I wrote about and sent to Melissa (“Millie”) Hayden, a superbly down-to-earth broad, she repudiated as incomprehensible. Patricia Wilde was also a platonic friend.

I had a date with the Royal Ballet’s great Lynn Seymour, the recent subject of a rapturous tribute from the New York Times’s chief dance critic. Like Alastair Macaulay, but for a different ballet, I fell under the spell of the magnificent Miss Seymour. I took her to the City Ballet for Balanchine’s dance tribute to England, “Union Jack,” which I thought particularly appropriate. But Lynn was unimpressed, and made some unfavorable comments I wish I had recorded. Of our conversation, I remember only how earthy, tough and profane she was, deliciously so, but not at all the creature I had admired onstage. At that time, I found this disappointing; now I would have delighted in it.

My other, closer nexus, was with one of the greatest and loveliest ballerinas of all time, Suzanne Farrell. She had liked a piece I wrote about her and George Balanchine. And I remember how touched I was when, quite a bit later, I came upon her surrounded in talk with a group of admirers. She promptly left them, coming toward me to warmly greet me. This led to several lunches at the restaurant Santa Fe, near where she then lived. And to fine, unrecorded conversations.

I recall a couple of dates with her. One was to a performance of Horvath’s “Don Juan Returns from the War,” which we both liked. As we walked up Eighth Avenue, she joyously remarked, “This makes me understand something important about Mr. B.” as the ballet people called the glorious George. But what was that something?

Another time I took her to a drama critics’ award party. I had hoped to impress my colleagues with my date, the great and gorgeous Suzanne Farrell. Well, they weren’t in the least impressed, most of them not even knowing who she was. To her credit be it said that she was nowise affected by remaining unrecognized and unadulated. I now think it might even have come as a relief. But what did she say?

One last great lady, this time of opera, and one that I did not date, but had a very long, jolly phone conversation with. The film critics were awarding Diane Keaton for her role in “Annie Hall.” Because Annie is much concerned with wanting to be a singer, I thought the presenter could aptly be Beverly Sills. However, in an utterly charming and modest way, “Pinky” kept declining my most persuasive, affectionate arguments. I wish I had recorded her gracious and amusing objections, as spirited as they were witty. Still, in the end she yielded, and proved the most winning presenter. What were her words?

Selfishly I do recall her telling me, years later, that whenever she got a new issue of New York magazine, she turned first to my column rather than to the worthy music critic’s one. But I was not supposed to tell him that. If he reads this blog, which I very much doubt, he will surely no longer mind. If he does, though, let me say that I usually read his column before checking out mine.


  1. Impresario Jacques Leiser is writing his memoirs,
    He'll publish them via e-book---
    He used to accompany A.B. Michelangeli
    On tours---should be worth a look---

    And he claims that in his years managing A.B.M.,
    The pianist never canceled a concert! Hot d--n.

  2. Simon is going about this all wrong. Most people don't care about memoirs about the little details of someone's life... unless that person is really famous and slept with a lot of sexy people. I doubt if Simon was 007.

    But Simon can write an interesting memoir around certain major themes as surely so much changed in the arts, culture, and society--and thoughts, theories, and values related to them--during his lifetime. Surely, he noticed the changes at Harvard over the yrs, from the 50s to the 60s to the 70s to the 90s and etc.
    Surely, he was part of the film culture debate with MacDonald, Sarris, Kael, and the rest. Surely, he remembers the times when he became notorious in some circles.
    Surely, there's something to be said about him writing for National Review and New Criterion, two politically conservative journals at which John Simon was only a cultural conservative, as many of his political views tend to be Liberal.
    Surely, he has witnessed a sea change in European culture, with so much Europe becoming Americanized. And surely he had certain feelings about Yugoslavia during the Cold War and when it went up in flames after the Cold War. Ironically, end of cold war led to hot war there.

    So, instead of bothering about with whom Simon had lunch or dinner when or where, Simon should write a memoir revolving around certain broad themes that defined his own life and views in relation to the larger world. In what ways did the world change but not him? In what ways did he change but maybe not the world so much?

    A good model for this kind of memoir is William Friedkin's recent book THE FRIEDKIN CONNECTION: A MEMOIR. Though there is much that Friedkin doesn't remember and much that he passes over, he recounts the things that really mattered in his life and maybe the world, at least the movie world. Thus, Friedkin gives us a sense of broad sweep of his life with emphasis on certain high points.

    Simon could do the same. He should ask himself: what were the basic themes and goals of my life? What are my main convictions, passions, loves, and hatred? When did I feel most successful and happy, most certain that I meant something in the world of culture? Why did some things go right, why did some thing go wrong in my life and the world of culture? Who deserves the credit, who deserves blame? When was I right, when was I wrong looking back? Which of my students became famous people? Who were the teachers and inspirations that led me to the life of a critic?

    If he thinks along such lines, he can write an interesting memoir. But if he's gonna idly remember various personalities he had lunch with, I mean who cares?

  3. An excerpt from a kind of memoir
    That through the years goes coursin'---
    Hank Jaglom dishing dirt at lunch
    With Welles; from 'My Lunches with Orson':

    Henry Jaglom (HJ): It’s like in Israel, where there’s no art now. All these Jews, they thought they were gonna have a renaissance, and suddenly, they’re producing a great air force, but no artists. All those incredible virtues of the centuries—

    Orson Welles (OW): They left all that in Europe. Who needs it? They get to Israel, and they sort of go into retirement.

    HJ: Their theater is boring; their film is boring. Painting and sculpture—

    OW: Boring. You know, the only time they make good music is when Zubin Mehta, a Hindu, comes to conduct.

    HJ: It’s amazing. When the Jews were in Poland, every pianist in the world—

    OW: Every fiddler who ever lived was Jewish. It was a total Russian-Jewish, Polish-Jewish monopoly. Now they’re all Japanese and Orientals. [Arthur] Rubinstein is gone.

    HJ: Last year.

    OW: I knew Rubinstein for forty years, very well. I told you his greatest line. I was with him at a concert in Albert Hall, and I had no seat, so I listened to the concert sitting in the wings. He finished. Wild applause. And as he walked into the wings to mop his face off, he said to me, “You know, they applauded just as loudly last Thursday, when I played well.”

    HJ: Dying at ninety-five is not bad. He had a full life.

    OW: Did he ever.

    HJ: It’s true, all that, then? That he fucked everybody?

    OW: He was the greatest cocksman of the nineteenth century. Of the twentieth century. The greatest charmer, linguist, socialite, raconteur. Never practiced. He always used to say, “You know, I’m not nearly as good a pianist technically, as many of my rivals, because I am too lazy to practice. I just don’t like to. [Vladimir] Horowitz can do more than I can. He sits there and works. I like to enjoy life. I play clinkers all the time.” But, he says, “I play it better with the clinkers.”

    HJ: And Horowitz hates his life, and for fifteen years hasn’t been able to play or even move.

    OW: Rubinstein walked through life as though it was one big party.

    HJ: And then ended it with this young girl. Didn’t he leave his wife after forty-five years when he was ninety to run off with a thirty-one-year-old woman?

    OW: Like Casals. Who suddenly, at the age of eighty-seven or something, came up with a Lolita.

  4. I think I disagree with noochinator's prescriptive recommendation for Mr. Simon. It's not so much a matter of a broad sweep of history and culture that matters in a memoir (and frankly it sounds rather boring), as it is whether the memoirist has had an eye for noticing, and a knack for recalling, quintessential moments.

    Kurt Vonnegut's Wampeters, Foma, and Gonfalons, for example, has a remembered moment when he was at a writer conference and the question of how many instances of "And so it goes" appeared in his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, came up. Vonnegut reports that during a break in the conference, John Simon, one of the attendees, was nowhere to be found -- and when a few minutes later he returned to rejoin the conference, he told Vonnegut exactly how many instances of that phrase were in his book. I.e., he had apparently gone off to count them all. Vonnegut found this remarkable enough to memorialize (and wisely and wryly left it as is without any commentary).

    1. I meant to add to my above comment that Mr. Simon's foot anecdote about Geneviève Bujold is exactly what I'm talking about.