Sunday, October 25, 2015

Two memoirists of passion (Books - Love is Where it Falls by Simon Callow & On the Move by Oliver Sacks)

In the last several months I read the memoirs of two fascinating, beloved, gay, British-born public figures.  One was published recently, the other 15 years ago.  One works in one of my areas of expertise - the arts - and the other in the other - the science of the brain.  The authors were actor Simon Callow and Dr. Oliver Sacks.  Their books are Love is Where it Falls (Penguin Books, 2000) and On the Move: A Life (Knopf, 2015).  Their books are forthright and generous, the authors deeply giving of themselves, and they are crack writers.  Knowing them now, as I do, it is fitting that these copies are signed.

She had, she said, been walking down Piccadilly, musing on the fact that it was Moliere's birthday and that not a single actor in England would know, much less care.  Musing on this sad reality, it had suddenly struck her that, yes, there was an actor in England who would know and care: me.  And so she had gone into Fortnum's and ordered the wine and had it sent to me, to celebrate, with my actor friends, the great playwright's birthday.  
So begins an unlikely romance between a fierce, 70-year old theatrical literary agent, Peggy Ramsay, and 30-year-old actor Simon Callow.  I find myself wanting less to write about the merits of this book than to quote from it.  These two live passionately and are attracted to each other so relentlessly, because their taste in art is not so much an aesthetic about life's decor as a deeply held principle about the way to live it.
We must feel, that is everything. We must feel as a brute beast, filled with nerves, feels, and knows that it has felt, and knows that each feeling shakes it like an earthquake. 
I do so passionately believe that the only meaning of life is life, that to live is the deepest obligation we have, and that to help other people live is the greatest achievement. It's in that light that I see acting, and that alone.

Oliver Sacks has written so humanely and observantly of his patients' lives (for instance here and here), and so openly of his peculiar fascinations, that this memoir, and this is the third of his books that might be classified as such, was a welcome departure.  Here, finally, Sacks scrutinized as deeply and wrote as openly about his own life - particularly his inner life. This was welcome not only in knowing more about so great a man and storyteller, but also because one read it in the context of his impending death (about which he wrote so beautifully here and here) and because one could feel in the narrative drive this desire to share it all before it was too late.

Early in Sacks's writing career, the great poet W. H. Auden said to Sacks
You're going to have to go beyond the clinical... Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.
This is really where Sacks's writing succeeds so magnificently in combining what is true with what feels true in a story. I cherish his writing and hope to celebrate his life in a live program in the coming year.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Impressions of Napoli and Ferrara (Books - Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante & How to Be Both by Ali Smith)

A number of years ago, I switched from writing reading-to-reading impressions, posted as I read, to fully composed reviews after having finished a book.  I recently began a new job running a cultural center in NYC, so, although I have been reading, I haven't had the brain space to write full fledged reviews.  I'm going to try doing some capsule reviews as well as doing more of the the impressions while reading model for a while and see how that goes. I hope some of you will be along for the journey. 

Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan quartet, composed of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and, The Story of the Lost Child, is a stunning portrait of the friendship between two women and particularly how the life of a great friend can become subsumed in one's own.  It is a literary page-turner and arriving at the end of some 1,700 pages I experienced how masterfully structured it was. Ferrante's narrator is herself a writer and the quartet, especially the final volume, reflects on the process and consequences of writing.  She manages to be smartly self-aware without becoming overly explanatory.  Her mastery of craft is made plain to me when I think of the broad cast of some 40 characters with whom I had become familiar.  The scene writing, as in the wedding reception that closes the first volume, brings the huge cast into spectacularly vivid focus, even while creating a tone that feels so of its period (late 50s/early 60s) that my mind's eye sees it in the Technicolor palate.  I cannot recommend these enough.

I feared that Ali Smith's How to be Both might become twee because of its concept, but I should have known better. Smith has constructed a pair of interrelated tales, one set in renaissance Italy based on the life of fresco painter Francesco del Cossa and the other set in modern day Britain concerning a daughter mourning the death of her mother, an activist. The plots are cleverly referential of one another but don't yield their secrets easily.  The concept, such as it is: these stories can be read with either as the first.  In the order I read them (15th century first) the narrative keeps the reader working to understand what Smith's narrator sees.  Without giving away too much, she/he sees aspects of the other narrative. In fact, each story's art making protagonist has a window into the other, and the effect for the reader is something like an infinity mirror. Smith's literary time travel is a puzzle of sorts, offering some intellectual smiles and even thrills at hearing the 'click' as a detail falls into place. I am a rabid fan of Smith's Artful and her themes of identity, loss, and the uses of art are visited here again but in a different guise.  Smith loves to play with form, and to let you know it.  If Artful was an argument (a narrative about the composition of a lecture on art), How to be Both is a more traditional immersive narrative experience, but one that plays with the tension between then and now, between life and death, between art and audience, and between visual and narrative form. You know those 'which writer would you invite to lunch questions?'  Ali Smith would be one of my guests.

Still to come, capsules  of Simon Callows' Love is Where it Falls, Olver Sacks's On the Move, and Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life and while-I-read impressions of Hiding in Plain Sight and Lunar Men.