Tag Archives: Letters

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

Thou Sun Amongst Women: Kierkegaard’s Letters to Regine

Reading Kierkegaard’s letters, selections from his journals and a short biography of this Danish philosopher and author was a rabbit hole I tumbled down while making my way through Kafka and Stach’s biography of Kafka.  Kierkegaard comes up numerous times in Kafka’s life, but no so much for his philosophy as for the details about his personal life and his broken engagement.  A twenty-four-year old Kierkegaard meets the fifteen-year old Regine Olsen at a mutual friend’s house in 1837 and he is immediately smitten with her.  He wisely waits, however, until she is eighteen to begin writing her love letters and courting her.  I was surprised, delighted and, at times,  just slayed by the tender, caring, erudite and loving messages that Kierkegaard composes for her.  The intelligence combined with sincere, true expressions of love are what impressed me most about these letters.   He would oftentimes visit Regine more than once a day and hand deliver these letters (letter undated-translated by Henrik Rosenmeier):

Yesterday your brother scolded me for always speaking of my cobbler, my fruit dealer, my grocer, my coachman, etc., etc., etc.  By this means he seems to have accused me of a predominant use of the first-person possessive pronoun.  Only you know of your faithful friend that I am not extensively but intensively much more given to the use of the second-person possessive pronoun.  Indeed, how could he know that, how could any person at all—as I am only yours.

On another occasion, he remembers the details of a conversation on one of their daily visits and thoughtfully sends her a gift (letter undated, trans. Rosenmeier):

The other day when you came to see me you told me that when you were confirmed your father had presented you with a bottle of lily of the valley.  Perhaps you thought that I did not hear this, or perhaps you thought that it had slipped by my ear like so much else that finds no response within.  But not at all!  But as that flower conceals itself so prettily within its big leaf, so I first allowed the plan of sending you the enclosed to conceal itself in the half-transparent veil of oblivion so that, freed from every external consideration, even the most illusive, rejuvenated to a new life in comparison with which its first existence was but an earthly life, it might now exude that fragrance for which longing and memory (‘from the spring of my youth’) are rivals.  However, it was nearly impossible for me to obtain this essence in Copenhagen.  Yet in this respect there is also a providence, and the blind god of love always finds a way.  You happen to receive it at this very moment (just before you leave the house), because I know that you, too, know the infinity of the moment.  I only hope it will not be too late.  Hasten, my messenger, hasten my thought, and you, my Regine, pause for an instant, for only a moment stand still.

My impression of him before reading this letter was that of a taciturn, melancholy, selfish man but he was clearly capable of being thoughtful, tender and even happy.  It shows a lot about his character that he went to some trouble to get this scent for Regine!

And this gift was not a one-time occurrence.  He loved to send her all sorts of thoughtful gifts—paintings, a scarf, a handkerchief, and drawings he did himself.  He would also include in his letters translations of poems or poetry he composed himself based on famous verses.  For example, on Wednesday, the 28th of October, 1840 he writes to Regine and quotes Joachim von Eichendorff:  “In the stillness of midnight, for the day does begin at midnight, and at midnight I awoke and the hours grew long for me, for what is as swift as love?  Love is the swiftest of all, swifter than itself: Two musicians journeyed thither/From the woods so far away./One of them is deeply in love,/The other would like to be so.”

Much like Kafka, Kierkegaard struggles with making a full commitment to marriage and family life.  In the end he decides that he cannot go through with it, but Regine puts up a good fight.  There is a hint, I think, in some of the letters of Kierkegaard’s anguish between wanting to be alone and wanting to marry Regine.  This passage, from an undated letter, is one of my favorites (trans. Rosenmeier):

In truth, I come, I write, I think, I speak and falter and sigh, and my room resounds with my monologues, and in you alone, my sole confidante, dare I confide what it is that now boisterously wells up in me and then again is lost in silent reverie—in you alone dare I confide—what you have confided in me.  For know that every time you repeat that you love me from the deepest recesses of your soul, it is as though I heard it for the first time, and just as a man who owned the whole world would need a lifetime to survey his splendors, so I also seem to need a lifetime to contemplate all the riches contained in your love.  Know that every time you thus solemnly assure me that you always love me equally well, both when I am happy and when I am sad, most when I am sad—most when I am sad—because you know that sorrow is divine nostalgia and that everything good in man is sorrow’s child—know that then you are rescuing a soul from Purgatory.

He ends the letter with a tender postscript: “Whenever you catch a breath of that heliotrope at home, which is still fresh, please think of me, for truly my mind and my soul are turned towards this sun, and I have a deep longing for you, thou sun amongst women.”  Although he breaks off their engagement, he loves her and thinks of her for the rest of his short life. He never courts another woman and his diaries continue to mention her and so does his will.  In an entry of his journal in 1848, a full seven years after their broken engagement,  he writes, “The few scattered days I have been, humanely speaking, really happy, I always have longed indescribably for her, her whom I have loved so dearly and who also with her pleading moved me so deeply.”  When he dies he leaves all of his money and possessions to Regine:  “What I wish to express,” he writes, “is that for me the engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage.”

I am planning on reading Kierkegaard’s work Either/Or and his Works of Love.  Please leave me other Kierkegaard reading suggestions in the comments!

 

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Filed under Letters, Nonfiction

The Worst Kind of Irreligion: George Eliot on the Reception of Daniel Deronda

I am reading George Eliot’s journals and letters alongside her novel Daniel Deronda.  In a letter dated the 29th of October, 1876, she describes to her friend Mrs. H.B. Stowe her surprise that Daniel Deronda has not met with more resistance because of its Jewish subject matter.  She describes the shameful racism and bigotry she witnesses among her own class:

As to the Jewish element in ‘Deronda,’ I expected from first to last, in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance, and even repulsion, than it has actually met with.  But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as to my nature and knowledge could attain to.  Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us.  There is nothing I could care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs.  But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment.  Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting?  They hardly know that Christ was a Jew.  And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek.  To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion.  The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity —which is still the average mark of our culture.

The U.K., of course,  is not the only country in which racism, bigotry and xenophobia are a persistent, national problem .  Eliot’s words are just as relevant today, unfortunately, for the culture of racism that the current leadership in the U.S. has incited which is horrifying, shameful and disgusting to witness.  I am glad that Eliot does not mince words and calls it what it is—ignorance and stupidity.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Letters

The Soul One Must Learn to Know: Tolstoi’s Love Letters

In 1923 The Hogarth Press published a translation of series of love letters that Tolstoi wrote to his first fiancé, Valeria Arsenev.   In the introduction to this collection of missives,  Paul Biryukov explains that, although Tolstoi didn’t mind having these letters published, his wife Sophia objected to having them read by other people until after she died.  Biryukov respectfully and gladly followed Sophia’s wishes.

The letters were written between 1856 and 1857 when Tolstoi was twenty-eight years old and engaged to the daughter of one of his neighbors.  There seems to have been a case of love at first sight between them and many parts of the letters show the author’s deep affection for Valeria.  In a letter dated Nov. 2nd, 1856 he writes:

I already love in you your beauty, but I am only beginning to love in you that which is eternal and ever precious—your heart, your soul.  Beauty one could get to know and fall in love with in one hour and cease to love it as speedily; but the soul one must learn to know.  Believe me, nothing on earth is given without labour, even love, the most beautiful and natural of feelings.  Forgive me this silly comparison: to love as the silly man does is to play a sonata without keeping time, without accents, always with the pedal down, with emotion, thereby giving neither oneself nor others true pleasure.  But in order to give oneself up to the emotion of music, one must first check oneself, labour, work, and, believe me, there is not a delight in life that can be had without work.   But the more difficult the labour and hardship, the higher the reward.  And there is a great work ahead of us—to understand one another and to preserve each other’s love and respect.

Tolstoi decides that he needs to put their love to the test, so he goes off to Petersburg for several months and hopes that, through their letters, they will get to know each other better.   In the same letter he writes:

I guard my feeling as a treasure, because it alone is capable of uniting us firmly in all our views of life, and without this there is no love. I expect our correspondence to do a great deal towards this.  We shall discuss calmly; I shall try to fathom each word of yours, and you will do the same, and I don’t doubt that we shall understand one another.  All the conditions are favourable, and there is feeling and honesty on both sides.  Argue with me, explain, teach me, seek explanations.

This separation is a calculated risk that ultimately fails in part, I think, because his personality is such that he cannot carry on a relationship merely through letters.  He fails miserably at discussing anything “calmly.”  When he doesn’t receive letters back from her he begs her to write and becomes an emotional mess.  He begins to get jealous because of a rumor of her flirting with another man.  In additional he is prone to lecturing her in his letters which she really doesn’t seem to appreciate, to say the least.  And finally he becomes cold and indifferent, or at least feigns these emotions,  because of his anger.  He repeatedly has to apologize for his bad behavior towards her in his letters.  It’s comforting, somehow,  to see that even a great genius like Tolstoi is not immune to Cupid’s arrows.  One of his last letters to her reads:  “You know my nasty, suspicious, changeable character, and God knows if there is anything that could alter it.  Perhaps, strong love which I have never felt and in which I do not believe.  Among all the women whom I have known, I loved and love you best of all, but all this is yet not enough.”

The book credits S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf as the translators; although she didn’t know Russian, Woolf spent a great deal of time working with the letters to make them accessible to an English speaking audience.  As a result of learning this about Woolf, not only have I been side tracked by reading her essays about Russian literature but I have also been thinking about what a translator’s job entails. Although she was not familiar with Tolstoi’s original language, Woolf’s work with this text justifies her credit as its co-translator.

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Filed under Hogarth Press, Letters, Russian Literature

The Heart Will Know How to Live: The Correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan

I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century.  There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with digital communication.  When I was reading the letters, post cards, notes, telegrams and poems sent between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan I felt like I was eavesdropping or spying on the unfolding of an intense, passionate and, at times tortured, love affair.  I wondered what this correspondence would look like in the 21st century and it occurred to me that texts, direct messages, emails and video chats would not have the same underlying tone of intimacy that one feels while reading the Bachmann and Celan letters.

In May of 1948, Ingeborg Bachmann writes a letter to her parents describing her first few meetings with Paul Celan.  She tells them that Celan has “fallen in love with me, which adds a little spice to my dreary work.”  The letters between Bachmann and Celan throughout the rest of 1948 and 1949 are full of passionate longing, a strong desire to see one another again and misunderstandings that are inevitable with written correspondence.  They make plans to meet many times, but for a variety reasons they don’t get the opportunity to see one another very often for the next twenty years.  Their careers, geography, and other relationships all serve as obstacles that keep them apart.  Celan writes to Bachmann in April 1949:

My dear, you,

I am so glad this letter came—and now I have kept you waiting for so long too, quite unintentionally and without a single unkind thought.  You know well enough that this happens sometimes.  One does not know why.  Two or three times I wrote you a letter, and then left it unsent after all.  But what does that really mean, when we are thinking of each other and will, perhaps, do so for a very long time yet?

And in late May/early June Bachmann responds:

Paul, dear Paul,

I long for you and for our fairy tale.  What shall I do?  You are so far away from me, and the cards you send, which satisfied me until recently, are no longer enough for me.

The excerpts from these two letters are typical of the feelings of absence and yearning that the authors feel for one another.  Stolen moments on brief trips to Paris, telegrams, and letters are not enough to satisfy either one of them.  But as the years progress and they continue with their letters, a deep sense of trust, friendship, love and mutual understanding is sustained between them.  Bachmann becomes for Celan a champion of his work and a mortal and emotional support.  In the early years of their communication she is constantly receiving his poems, giving him feedback and trying to get his work published in various literary magazines.  When the Goll plagiarism scandal happens, she writes to him and encourages him to put that incident behind him.  I also found it sweet and endearing that they continue for many years to exchange books as gifts on one another’s birthdays and at Christmas.

It is touching and selfless that even when they reconnect in 1957 and rekindle their romance, Bachmann encourages Celan to stay with his wife Gisele for the sake of their son.  Bachman also struggles to make the decision on whether or not to live with Max Frisch in early 1958.  As the years go by and it is evident that fate has conspired against them to ever live together, they still maintain an emotional dependence on one another.  Celan’s words dated October 31st—November 1st, 1957 sums up what their relationship evolves into:

Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be.

Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so.  To be—be there for another.

Even if it is only a few words, all breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Nonfiction, Seagull Books