Tag Archives: Autobiography

An Insatiable Craving for Books

“One unquenchable longing has the mastery of me, which hitherto I neither would nor could repress; ’tis an insatiable craving for books, although, perhaps I have more than I ought.” —Francesco Petrarch

I had the chance today to visit one of my favorite bookstores in New England.  Located in a small, shoreline community, it actually has five different locations spread throughout the town.  I only managed to visit two of the five locations today and even that took me a few hours.  The main store is a large, old farmhouse with a series of barns on the property, all filled from floor to ceiling with books.  None of the barns are heated so it was a bit rough going on this cold, wet day.  But, in the end, (even though I was cold and drenched and looked like a wet poodle) it was totally worth the trip.  Here is my haul:

Poetry:

I’ve become quite fond of collecting the Library of America editions—they look rather handsome on one’s shelves. I have been making a concerted effort to read more American authors, so this LOA edition of 17th and 18th century poetry was a great find. I was also pleased to add more Michael Hamburger, Marianne Moore and C.P. Cavafy to my poetry collection. The “Diaries of Exile,” translated from the Modern Greek and published by Archipelago Books, was also a pleasant find.

Essays:

I was so thrilled to find another George Steiner collection of essays that I don’t own, as well as another volume of Joseph Epstein essays.  The J.M. Coetzee essays look intriguing—topics include Cees Nooteboom, Translating Kafka, Robert Musil’s Diaries, Dostoevsky and the essays of Joseph Brodsky, just to name a few.  I already owned the paperback version of Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets, and I was excited to upgrade to this hard copy edition that is in perfect condition.  Lord’s The Singer of Tales is a nice addition to my classics library as it deals with the orality of Homeric poetry.  And finally, the Hamburger and Colin Wilson essays will be a nice additions (or editions)  to my shelves.

Autobiography and Letters:

I am especially excited about this stack.  I’ve already started reading John Cowper Powys’s novels and I upgraded to this hard copy edition of his Autobiography.  My Powys reading project will take me into 2019.  I am also planning an Anthony Powell reading project for the new year and was exited to find this first volume of his autobiography.  I own a copy of the first volume of Flaubert Letters which is in tatters, so not only did I get a copy in perfect condition but I also found a copy of the second volume.  Finally, I found a wonderful early, hard copy edition (Yale Press, 1933, collected by Thomas J. Wise) of Robert Browning’s Letters.

Fiction:

Finally, I did manage to buy some fiction as well.  I want to read Anita Brookner in the new year.  I already have one of her books sitting on my shelves so these two will be nice additions.

Bonus: Today’s Book Mail

I’ve also become captivated by Andre Gide’s writing and these two gems arrived today in the mail.  (I thought my family was going to have a fit when I arrived home with all of these books and there were also more books waiting for me in the post!)  I am planning to explore Gide in the new year and I am also awaiting a copy of his Journals which I have already sampled and am eager to dive into.

As Petrarch says, perhaps I have more than I ought?

It doesn’t matter, I will still collect books and read them anyway.

(For what it’s worth I did cull three large bags of books from my shelves today so, overall, I broke even.)

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Classics, Essay, Letters, Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

String of Beginnings: Michael Hamburger’s Autobiography

String of beginnings, a lifetime long,
So thin, so strong, it’s outlasted the bulk it bound,
Whenever light out of haze lifted
Scarred masonry, marred wood
As a mother her child from the cot,
To strip, to wash, to dress again,
And the cities even were innocent…
—Michael Hamburger

Of all the autobiographies I’ve read this year, Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings has been the most intriguing to me.  Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, “It was the month of the year when Kafka left Berlin to die. It was the day, March 22nd, of Goethe’s death and his cry for more light.  The year, 1924, was one of relative stabilization after the failure of a Hitler-Ludendorff ‘putsch’ and the success of Schacht’s measures against an inflation so extreme that it had turned most Germans into undernourished millionaires.”  Hamburger describes the autobiography, however, as “intermittent” since it only covers the years of his life between 1924 and 1954.

Originally published in 1973 under a different title, A Mug’s Game, and reissued in 1991 as String of Beginnings, Hamburger discusses in an interview with Peter Dale his reasons for limiting the scope of this second edition of his autobiography and for not publishing a sequel:

At one time I had planned a continuation, but my publisher didn’t want another volume, not having done well with the first.  Also, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write a second book on the same lines, as a factual and chronological account.  I then planned an altogether different sort of book, organized by theme, rather than documentary sequence, and with more freedom of movement and association than the chronological presentation had given me.  It had also become clear to me that it is virtually impossible to write truthfully about living relatives and friends in a non-fiction book—or about one’s own life, for that matter.

In the first chapter of String of Beginnings, he also elaborates on his very strict approach to writing autobiography.  Hamburger feels that too many autobiographies read more like novels because of an author’s tendency to embellish the truth.  He says of this genre, “Neither the chronicler’s nor the novelist’s way is adequate, because too much of one’s life is beyond recall, and the experience that made us what we are lies neither in moments nor in recurrences, but in a fusion of both far too subtle to be retracted.”  Much of the text of his autobiography contains direct quotes from letters to friends, family and acquaintances or paraphrasing from diaries that he kept.  Hamburger never veers from his strict writing standards.

Despite the “chronological presentation” of  his autobiography there are three “strings” that he highlights throughout the book which, he implies, affect him for the rest of his life: writing his own poetry, interacting with other poets and traveling.  Although Hamburger is best know for his translations, especially those of Holderlin which he started work on at the age of fifteen, it is the composition of his own, original poems that occupies his mind more than anything else.  The original title of the book,  A Mug’s Game, was taken from a comment made to Hamburger by T.S. Eliot who was reflecting on the, oftentimes futile, life and career of a poet, “‘A mug’s game,’ T.S. Eliot called it, aware of the risk he shared with those whose persistence was a blind obstinacy, a waste of themselves and others.  Or wasn’t it—even at the worst?  Where even the best is for ever being reexamined and re-assessed, where any new development could be a falling-off or a final defeat, mightn’t it be enough to go on trying?”

And go on trying Hamburger did.  Before he enrolls in the army, he spends a few terms at Oxford where he kept writing poetry and subjecting himself to the feedback of other famous poets.  He knows that his biggest flow is that his verse is too mechanical and he is not really seeing enough of life will translate into good poetry: “Though I published early, and had made literary connections even at this time, without being award of looking for them, the only success I wanted was to write good poems…”  Furthermore, he admits that the influence of poets he worshipped, like T.S. Eliot, was too great on him and he had trouble finding his own voice: “It is easy enough in retrospect to see why it took me so long to write my own poems, good or bad.  All my responses were exaggerated, inwardly over-dramatized, as it were, and utterly unstable, because I was trying out one stance, one identity, after another.”

The number of  poets—famous, infamous and obscure—that he meets during his time at Oxford is astounding.  Hamburger argues, “To write about oneself is to write about other people…” and the “other people” whom he discusses most in his autobiography are poets.  He meets Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, David Gascoyne and Peter Hofler, just to name a few.  The  most intriguing writer of them all for me, however, was a close friend whom he simply refers to as “X.”  X is about ten years older than Hamburger and is an academic; they had a falling out over the publication of Hamburger’s autobiography so Hamburger keeps X’s identity a secret throughout the book.  But X’s impact on Hamburger’s career and life as a poet is inescapable and the entire autobiography would fall apart with the exclusion of this friend and fellow author.   (I’m still curious to know the identity of X and I’m sure that someone has figured it out.  So if you know his identity please leave me a comment!)

The final “string” that one follows through the thirty years of Hamburger’s life is that of traveling.  Even though he and his family emigrate from Berlin to London in 1933, he gets his first real experience of Europe when he is a soldier in the British army during World War II.  He is stationed in both Italy and Austria and his favorite activities in those places are those which take him away from tourist areas and off the beaten path.  After his first visit to Paris he decides that big cities are places he would rather avoid: “If I have no business in a large city, and no close friends, all I find there is ghosts—‘the soul of all those who have lived there.’ absorbed by walls.”  One of my favorite, amusing stories in the book is when he is traveling in Austria, after being released from the army, and he moves from one small town to the next.  In one of these backwater places he stays at a rather strange little hotel which he eventually realizes, after many days, is a brothel.   Italy becomes one of his favorite places to visit, especially the countryside around Florence and Fiesole: “What really captivated me about Italy was the least palpable of phenomena—the mere smells on the banks of the Arno, the precise colour of olive trees, silver-white-green-blue-grey, something about the landscape at Fiesole that I couldn’t describe. ‘Self-sufficiency of the landscape, architecture, people,’ I noted. ‘No need for transcendence.  How the sun melts the written word.'”

Michael Hamburger lived until the age of 83 and I am so sad that there is no autobiographical account of the years between 1955 and 2007.  How did his life evolve in his last forty years?  What other poets did he meet?  How did he view the development of his poetry?  To what other places in the world did he enjoy traveling?  And in his interview with Peter Dale he alludes to his marriage with poet Ann Beresford and some of the troubles they had over the years which I would also have been interested to learn more about.  Maybe some day there will be a thorough biography of Michael Hamburger which will continue with his string of beginnings.

For the extra curious, these are the editions of the books I’ve discussed in my post:

A Mug’s Game by Michael Hamburger. Carcanet Press, 1973.

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger. Skoob Books, 1991.

Michael Hamburger, A Reader.  Declan O’Driscoll, ed. Carcanet Press, 2017.

Michael Hamburger in conversation with Peter Dale. Between the Lines, 1998.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, German Literature, Nonfiction

Satisfying my Craving for Details: Autobiography, Auto-Fiction, and Letters

On one of our daily walks this week, my dear friend was telling me about a cousin she had lost touch with but through a series of different circumstances she had the opportunity recently to meet and reconnect with her family member.  My friend and her cousin had been close as children but in the last ten years had not spoken for a variety of reasons.  I was fascinated by what many would consider an ordinary story and, as is my habit, I asked my friend a plethora of detailed questions, some of which she could not answer.  She likes to tease me that I ask intricate details about a story, a character, a life, that “no one ever thinks of except you, Melissa”   I like to have a complete picture, I like to get lost in the details, I like to know what it is about life and fate that brings people together and drives them apart.  I think that my habit of incessant questioning, seeking out the minutiae, is what has drawn me to reading quite of bit of autobiography, auto-fiction and letters in the past year.

I read Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place and The Possession early in the year and had mixed feelings about both.  There are narrow details about specific events in these brief autobiographical novellas.  A Man’s Place, for instance, describes Ernaux’s relationship with her father and the particulars of his painful illness and death.  But the scope of the story was too narrow for me; I wanted to know more about the aftermath of her parent’s death and how it was situated in the broader context of her life.  In The Possession, Ernaux recounts a relationship she has with a man after her divorce.  Even though she is the one to break off the love affair, she becomes obsessed with him after she learns that he is living with another woman.  Once again, I wanted to know how the circumstances of this affair came about—how did he compare to her ex-husband, her father, and to subsequent intimacies in her life.  Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, which I read over the summer, felt similar in approach to Ernaux’s shorter autobiographical works.  Levy describes a very specific period in her life, the aftermath of her divorce and the adjustment to a new life but, once again, the narrow approach of her subject matter left me wanting more.

I was excited that Ernaux’s longer autobiography, The Years, was finally being translated and published in English because it might give me some of these answers I sought after reading her previous books.   The Years, told in the third person, sometimes third singular, sometimes third plural, is more of a social history than a traditional autobiography.  Ernaux describes the years between the end of World War II and the 2000’s within the broader context of what was happening in the world.  There are a lot of lists and the writing has more of a journalist tone than a personal narrative: “With the abbreviated memory one needs at sixteen simply to act and exist, she sees her childhood as a sort of silent film in colour.  Images of tanks and rubble appear and blur with others of old people who have died, handmade Mother’s Day cards, the Becassine albums, the First Communion retreat, games of sixes played against a wall.  Nor does she care to remember the more recent years, all awkwardness and shame—the time she dressed up as a music-hall dancer, the curly perms, the ankle socks.”  While I appreciate her unique approach to autobiography, I was unsatisfied for lack of personal details.  The lists, the detached narrative, became, at times, too generic and therefore uninteresting.

The recent trend towards auto-fiction feels like an attempt to turn what could be an mundane autobiography into a more engaging narrative that appeals to a wider audience.  Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction, for instance, have gained a lot of attention in the literary press and have been included on many a “best of” list.  I read the fourth book of Knausgaard’s autobiographical fiction and was captivated by his details, but, for some reason, I haven’t been drawn back to read any more of his books in the My Struggle series since.   I read the first two books in Cusk’s trilogy last year and enjoyed immensely the style of her writing as well as her storytelling.  But in the spring, as I read Kudos, the final book in the series, I realized that her approach to autobiography is difficult to sustain in multiple works.  There are, in my opinion, much better examples of aut0-fiction in other languages that have not gotten the same attention as Cusk or Knausgaard. Per Olov Enquist’s The Parable Book, Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and Friederike Mayrocker’s Requiem for Ernst are all linguistically interesting and satisfied my need for details.

Since reading Kafka, I have been obsessed with the personal letters and correspondence of authors which are uniquely autobiographical.  Kafka’s letter to Felice, for instance,  that painstakingly describes their first meeting at Max Brod’s house could easily have been incorporated into an autobiography.  Kierkegaard’s surprisingly tender letters to Regine would have made a fascinating few chapters in his autobiography. Simone de Beauvoir’s letter to Nelsen Algren in which she describes her encounters with the sculptor Giacometti is the stuff of fascinating autobiographical material.  One of the first collections of personal letters that I ever read were those of Cicero which I was forced to translate during my first year of university.  I thought they were boring, self-centered and self-righteous and I haven’t given them very much attention since then.  But perhaps with my new appreciation for the autobiographical details contained in personal letters I ought to give poor Cicero another try.

Finally, this week I have begun reading Simone de Beauvoir’s three volume autobiography and I have been immediately captivated by the rich details of her childhood that she includes in the first book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  Maybe I am just a traditionalist, or maybe it’s my penchant for loose, baggy monsters, but of all the autobiography, auto-fiction, and letters I have read over the past year, Beauvoir’s work is by far the most satisfying, even at only 60 pages into the first volume.  Her writing is honest, straightforward and charming: “It doesn’t take much for a child to become the sedulous ape; I had always been willing to show off: but I refused to play the parts expected of me in false situations concocted by adults for their own amusement,” she writes.  A strong foreshadowing, I suspect, of how her character and strong personality develop throughout the course of her life.

On one final note (I promise), I bought Journey Into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch that was just reissued by NYRB Classics.  The introduction, written by Georgia de Chamberet describes this autobiography as an untraditional one: “the non-fiction novel” she calls it.  I’m interested to see where this fits into the genre of “auto” books I’ve described here.

What are your favorite autobiographies, auto-fiction, letters, and non-fiction novels?  Let me know in the comments!

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Filed under Essay, Nonfiction