Thoughts for Thursday - Anna Akhmatova

Memory of Sun

Memory of sun seeps from the heart.
Grass grows yellower.
Faintly if at all the early snowflakes
Hover, hover.

Water becoming ice is slowing in
The narrow channels.
Nothing at all will happen here again,
Will ever happen.

Against the sky the willow spreads a fan
The silk's torn off.
Maybe it's better I did not become
Your wife.

Memory of sun seeps from the heart.
What is it? -- Dark?
Perhaps! Winter will have occupied us
In the night.

Anna Akhmatova


Memoir, autobiography, fact fiction: What's the diff?

I ran across this article, which raises some interesting literary questions.

How do we differentiate between:

Autobiographical fiction
Roman a clef
Nonfiction novels

…and do we need to?

Frankly, I don’t care which genre a work falls into, but it is vitally important to me to have a work presented in a “truthful” light, in terms of the relationship between the author and the content. This ties in with the concept of plagiarism: When authors present their work as one genre when it really is another, they are being fraudulent.

To take a recent example: James Frey and his Million Little Pieces was presented by him (and his publisher) as fact; we now know he took wholesale liberties with the truth. Thus, the book cannot be called a memoir. And it is a fraudulent presentation to the readership. His story, with his sad little embellishments (come on, did anyone really believe a dentist would administer root canal treatment with no sedation? Really!) would not have been as compelling if presented as fiction. But I do think his story without the pathetic dramatization would have been just fine as a memoir.

The lines are fine, but they are lines nevertheless. We need to differentiate between memoir (a particularized focus on memories, feelings and recollections) and autobiography (recalling one’s own life and times), between a roman a clef (telling the tale the way the author would have liked it to have gone) and autobiographical fiction (a novel based on the life of the author). Readers and writers need to be able to make the distinction between “fact” and “remembered fact”, “fiction” and “fictionalized biography.” Maybe some books straddle the line (is The Bell Jar autobiographical fiction, roman a clef, or both?), but even these books should be measured against some sort of literary parameters.

For some reason (perhaps the high premium we place on entertainment?), we are a society that tolerates the stretching of truth, misinformation, straw-man arguments, and plain old flying in the face of scientific fact – particularly in the guises of verbal arguments. Maybe we simply don’t have the critical faculty to be able to separate wheat from chaff. The James Frey affair, among other recent literary brouhahas, makes me think we still hold the printed word to a higher standard than we accept from our politicians or corporate executives. I think that’s a good sign. It’s a starting place, anyway.


More on My Uncle Napoleon

I feel behind in everything lately. Think I am going through another mid-life crisis. Does anyone have any recommended reading (no Gail Sheehy, please!) to remedy such matters? I know men go out and buy motorcycles and have affairs with young women...what are women supposed to do?

Anyway, despite the machinations of aging, I am making progress on My Uncle Napoleon -- only a hundred more pages to go! According to the Kirkus Review, the book is about an "extended family, living within and around a walled enclave in Tehran in the early 1940s---and specifically of said family's domination by its Dear Uncle Napoleon (the portentous rubric by which its fussbudget megalomaniac despot is addressed) as observed and recorded by Uncle's unnamed nephew, whose idealistic love for his beautiful cousin Layli forms one of the two major plotlines here. The other is Uncle's paranoid conviction that all evil flows from his country's ill-advised friendliness with foreign nations, especially Great Britain (the story is set at a time when England and Russia separately schemed to control Iran's oil resources, and preferential trade status was granted the hated British by an impoverished national treasury)."

It is an interesting book, which I first found very humorous and now slightly less so. It is a marvel of plot and dialogue...here is just a sample of a scene to give you an idea, with more to come when I finish:

Mash Qasem had picked the ladder up from its place before Dear Uncle's order was given. Those present didn't for a moment take their eyes off the form of Dustali Khan, which was shaking on the roof like a nocturnal phantom. Mash Qasem leaned the ladder against the wall, and went up it a few rungs to help Dustali Khan come down.

A few moments later Dustali Khan put his feet on the ground and fainted in Mash Qasem's arms.

They more or less dragged him over to the carpets and laid him down. Everyone started discussing what had happened and offering opinions as to what it meant.

Dear Uncle Napoleon kept lightly slapping him on the face with the palm of his hand and asking,

"Dustali Khan, what is it? What happened?"

But Dustali Khan, with his dishevelled hair, in his shirt and white, mud-stained longjohns, lay there motionless, with only his lips trembling. We were all gathered in a circle around him.
Mash Qasem, who was massaging Dustali Khan's feet, said, "It's like a snake's bit him some place."

Dear Uncle threw an angry look at him, "You're talking rubbish again!"

"Well sir, why should I lie? There was a man in our town who . . ."

"The hell with you and the man in your town. Will you let me see what's happened?" And then
once again he gently slapped Dustali across the face.

Dustali Khan opened his eyes. Suddenly he seemed to come back to himself and looked from one side to the other. With a nervous movement he clasped both hands to his groin and shouted,

"Cut . . . it's been cut . . ."

"Who's cut? What's been cut?"

Dustali Khan didn't answer Dear Uncle's question but in the same terrified voice repeated, "Cut . . . she wanted to cut it . . . with a knife . . . with a kitchen knife . . . she was going to cut . . ."

"Who cut? Who wanted to cut?"

"Aziz . . . that rotten bitch Aziz . . . my wife . . . that witch of a woman . . . that unnatural bitch of a murderer . . ."

Asadollah Mirza, who had pricked up his ears, came forward, holding back his laughter with some difficulty. "Moment . . . moment . . . wait . . . wait, let me see . . . God forbid, Mrs. Aziz al-Saltaneh didn't want to cut off your . . ."

"Yes, yes . . . that witch, if I'd jumped a moment later she'd have cut it off."
Asadollah Mirza burst out with a loud guffaw of laughter and said, "Right from the bottom?"

As everyone laughed Dear Uncle Napoleon suddenly remembered that there were women and children present. He stood up and, stretching out his arms wide on each side and so making a curtain with his cloak between Dustali Khan and the children, he shouted, "Women and children over there!"

Now, in my view, that is a funny and well-handled scene in dialogue. In a few short paragraphs, even the casual reader glimpses the various characters: feckless Dustali Khan, imperious Uncle Napoleon, naive Mash Qasem, sophisticated Asadollah Mirza and the shrewish wife, Aziz al-Saltaneh. The author keeps this up throughout the novel, scene after scene, thickening the plot as he goes along. However, about 3/4 of the way in, I find that the scenes are starting to be more repetitive, versus enlightening or deepening, and therefore less engaging.

There are also some cultural differences that affect my reading; for example, Dustali Khan is the apparent father of his stepdaughter's future child, a fact that is treated satirically in the novel and which doesn't seem terribly funny to me, in any shape or form. I hope to write more about this aspect, but I do want to finish the novel and also think through specifics. So, onward!