Posts Tagged ‘memoir’
When you head out to the bookstore this month, keep your eye out for these new paperback titles and you won’t be disappointed.
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.
Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel by Philip Gura
From the acclaimed cultural historian Philip F. Gura comes Truth’s Ragged Edge, a comprehensive and original history of the American novel’s first century. Grounded in Gura’s extensive consideration of the diverse range of important early novels, not just those that remain widely read today, this book recovers many long-neglected but influential writers—such as the escaped slave Harriet Jacobs, the free black Philadelphian Frank J. Webb, and the irrepressible John Neal—to paint a complete and authoritative portrait of the era. Gura also gives us the key to understanding what sets the early novel apart, arguing that it is distinguished by its roots in “the fundamental religiosity of American life.” Our nation’s pioneering novelists, it turns out, wrote less in the service of art than of morality.
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an isolated blue-collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-old June and Val take a pink plastic raft out onto the bay.
But on the water, in the humid night, the girls disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore, bruised and unconscious, in the weeds. The shocking event will echo through a group of unforgettable characters, including Fadi, an ambitious Lebanese bodega owner; Cree, a lost teenager who unwittingly makes himself the cops’ chief suspect; Jonathan, Julliard drop-out, barfly, and struggling high school teacher; and Val, the grieving girl who must contend with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she holds deep inside.
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely follows a cult leader, his ex-wife, and the four people he takes hostage. It’s about loneliness in America, North Korea, espionage, a city underneath Cincinnati, cloud seeding, and eavesdropping. It’s also a big, sweeping love story.
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
For generations, we have focused on the individual drivers of success: passion, hard work, talent, and luck. But in today’s dramatically reconfigured world, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. InGive and Take, Adam Grant, an award-winning researcher and Wharon’s highest-rated professor, examines the surprising forces that shape why some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others sink to the bottom. Praised by social scientists, business theorists, and corporate leaders, Give and Take opens up an approach to work, interactions, and productivity that is nothing short of revolutionary.
Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias
When Rayya Elias was seven, her family fled their native Syria to settle in Detroit. Bullied in school and rebelling against her traditional home-life, Rayya turned her sights to fashion and music. She became a hairdresser and started a band that played the club scene in the early 1980s before she moved to New York at age twenty-three to further her musical career. She lived on the Lower East Side at the height of the punk movement and had passionate affairs with both sexes, but her casual drug use turned to addiction and Rayya was often homeless—between her visits to jail. Yet, her passion for life always saved her.
The best books elicit emotions from its readers. Truly great books give rise to conflicted feelings. My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel by Derf Backderf, falls firmly within that second category.
Backderf grew up in Richfield, Ohio, attending Eastview Junior High and Revere High School in the 70s, which would all seem innocuous enough had it not been for a certain classmate, convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Dahmer went largely unnoticed — even when he was drinking heavily throughout the school, reeking of alcohol — but Backderf and his group befriended the odd character, laughing at his impressions of a physically challenged interior decorator and egging him on for public disturbances. Throughout this time, Backderf drew sketches of Dahmer, recording his antics, both humorous and disturbing — all of which aided his memory when recalling details for the book.
From time to time the group was privy to the darker side of Dahmer’s antisocial behavior — his taxidermy experiments with roadkill (he liked to dissolve already dead animals in acid) and his aforementioned drinking problem (pounding a six pack in the back of a car in under 10 minutes). Once, while picking him up at home, they met his mentally ill mother (who ultimately left Dahmer alone in his childhood home when his life was in the most danger of going off the rails).
Most people will remember, if not the details, the horror they felt when they learned of Dahmer’s arrest — a young serial killer who not only murdered his victims but ate them as well. It was the first time I’d heard of an actual cannibal living among us — not just some desperate exploratory group in a history book.
The copy of My Friend Dahmer that we see on shelves today grew out of Backderf’s self-published comic, first drawn and written after Dahmer’s death in 1994. With his R. Crumb-like stylings, detailed and at times grotesque, Backderf went back and fleshed out his story using not only his memory and interviews with former classmates, but also interviews Dahmer conducted after his arrest, legal documents, news accounts, and Dahmer’s father’s memoir; all of which is well documented in the back of the book.
Backderf makes it very clear that he loses all sympathy for Dahmer as soon as he kills his first human but, at the same time, he does a great job of showing what a tragedy this was, not just for Dahmer’s victims but for Dahmer as well. At times in the book it seems as if Dahmer knew he was deeply troubled and had few resources to cope with his urges. The reader, now having seen the teenage life of a future serial killer, is left wondering, like Backderf, if all of this could have turned out differently. Had the school acknowledged his alcoholism, had his parents not been dysfunctional, had his taxidermy experiments been brought to light, would Dahmer’s murderous tendencies have manifested or could they have been controlled? This is where the inner conflict kicks into overdrive.
My Friend Dahmer is an engrossing read, one that lingers in your bones, and will make you think twice about talking to strangers.
Ring in the New Year with these new paperbacks.
Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap
Rosie Schaap has always loved bars: the wood and brass and jukeboxes, the knowing bartenders, and especially the sometimes surprising but always comforting company of regulars. Starting with her misspent youth in the bar car of a regional railroad, where at fifteen she told commuters’ fortunes in exchange for beer, and continuing today as she slings cocktails at a neighborhood joint in Brooklyn, Schaap has learned her way around both sides of a bar and come to realize how powerful the fellowship among regular patrons can be.
In Drinking with Men, Schaap shares her unending quest for the perfect local haunt, which takes her from a dive outside Los Angeles to a Dublin pub full of poets, and from small-town New England taverns to a character-filled bar in Manhattan’s TriBeCa. Drinking alongside artists and expats, ironworkers and soccer fanatics, she finds these places offer a safe haven, a respite, and a place to feel most like herself. In rich, colorful prose, Schaap brings to life these seedy, warm, and wonderful rooms. Drinking with Men is a love letter to the bars, pubs, and taverns that have been Schaap’s refuge, and a celebration of the uniquely civilizing source of community that is bar culture at its best.
The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life by Luc Ferry
A fascinating new journey through Greek mythology that explains the myths’ timeless lessons and meaning.
Heroes, gods, and mortals. The Greek myths are the founding narratives of Western civilization: to understand them is to know the origins of philosophy, literature, art, science, law, and more. Indeed, as Luc Ferry shows in this masterful book, they remain a great store of wisdom, as relevant to our lives today as ever before. No mere legends or cliches (“Herculean task,” “Pandora’s box,” “Achilles heel,” etc.), these classic stories offer profound and manifold lessons, providing the first sustained attempt to answer fundamental human questions concerning “the good life,” the burden of mortality, and how to find one’s place in the world. Vividly retelling the great tales of mythology and illuminating fresh new ways of understanding them, The Wisdom of the Myths will enlighten readers of all ages.
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor
In the not-too-distant future, competing giant fast food factions rule the world. Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, in a lonely but highly surveilled home office, answering calls on his complaints hotline. It’s a boring job, but he likes it—there’s a set answer for every scenario, and he never has to leave the house. Except then he starts getting calls from Marco, who claims to be a thirteenth-century explorer just returned from Cathay. And what do you say to a caller like that? Plus, Neetsa Pizza doesn’t like it when you go off script.
Meanwhile, Leonard’s sister keeps disappearing on secret missions with her “book club,” leaving him to take care of his nephew, which means Leonard has to go outside. And outside is where the trouble starts.
A dazzling debut novel wherein medieval Kabbalists, rare book librarians, and Latter-Day Baconians skirmish for control over secret mystical knowledge, and one Neetsa Pizza employee discovers that you can’t save the world with pizza coupons.
Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips
All of us lead two parallel lives: the one we are actively living, and the one we feel we should have had or might yet have. As hard as we try to exist in the moment, the unlived life is an inescapable presence, a shadow at our heels. And this itself can become the story of our lives: an elegy to unmet needs and sacrificed desires. We become haunted by the myth of our own potential, of what we have in ourselves to be or to do. And this can make of our lives a perpetual game of falling short.
But what happens if we remove the idea of failure from the equation? With his flair for graceful paradox, the acclaimed psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests that if we accept frustration as a way of outlining what we really want, satisfaction suddenly becomes possible. To crave a life without frustration is to crave a life without the potential to identify and accomplish our desires.
In Missing Out, an elegant, compassionate, and absorbing book, Phillips draws deeply on his own clinical experience as well as on the works of Shakespeare and Freud, of D. W. Winnicott and William James, to suggest that frustration, not getting it, and getting away with it are all chapters in our unlived lives—and may be essential to the one fully lived.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
No fictional character is more renowned for his powers of thought and observation than Sherlock Holmes. But is his extraordinary intellect merely a gift of fiction, or can we learn to cultivate these abilities ourselves, to improve our lives at work and at home?
We can, says psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova, and in Mastermind she shows us how. Beginning with the “brain attic”—Holmes’s metaphor for how we store information and organize knowledge—Konnikova unpacks the mental strategies that lead to clearer thinking and deeper insights. Drawing on twenty-first-century neuroscience and psychology, Mastermind explores Holmes’s unique methods of ever-present mindfulness, astute observation, and logical deduction. In doing so, it shows how each of us, with some self-awareness and a little practice, can employ these same methods to sharpen our perceptions, solve difficult problems, and enhance our creative powers. For Holmes aficionados and casual readers alike, Konnikova reveals how the world’s most keen-eyed detective can serve as an unparalleled guide to upgrading the mind.
Here are just a few paperback releases coming out this month that have caught my eye.
Black Is the Color by Julia Gfrorer
Black is the Color begins with a 17th-century sailor abandoned at sea by his shipmates, and as it progresses he endures, and eventually succumbs to, both his lingering death sentence and the advances of a cruel and amorous mermaid. The narrative also explores the experiences of the loved ones he leaves behind, on his ship and at home on land, as well as of the mermaids who jadedly witness his destruction. At the heart of the story lie the dubious value of maintaining dignity to the detriment of intimacy, and the erotic potential of the worst-case scenario. Julie Gfrorer’s delicate drawing style perfectly complements the period era of Black is the Color, bringing the lyricism and romanticism of Gfrorer’s prose to the fore. Black is the Color is a book as seductive as the sirens it depicts.
To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others by Daniel Pink
To Sell Is Human offers a fresh look at the art and science of selling. As he did in Drive and A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink draws on a rich trove of social science for his counterintuitive insights. He reveals the new ABCs of moving others (it’s no longer “Always Be Closing”), explains why extraverts don’t make the best salespeople, and shows how giving people an “off-ramp” for their actions can matter more than actually changing their minds.
Along the way, Pink describes the six successors to the elevator pitch, the three rules for understanding another’s perspective, the five frames that can make your message clearer and more persuasive, and much more. The result is a perceptive and practical book–one that will change how you see the world and transform what you do at work, at school, and at home.
Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor
The lore of the early days of hip hop has become the stuff of myth, so what better way to document this fascinating, epic true story than in another great American mythological medium — the comic book? From exciting young talent and self-proclaimed hip hop nerd Ed Piskor, acclaimed for his hacker graphic novel Wizzywig, comes this explosively entertaining, encyclopedic history of the formative years of the music genre that changed global culture. Originally serialized on the hugely popular website Boing Boing, The Hip Hop Family Tree is now collected in a single volume cleverly presented and packaged in a style mimicking the Marvel comics of the same era. Piskor’s exuberant yet controlled cartooning takes you from the parks and rec rooms of the South Bronx to the night clubs, recording studios, and radio stations where the scene started to boom, capturing the flavor of late-1970s New York City in panels bursting with obsessively authentic detail. With a painstaking, vigorous and engaging Ken Burns meets- Stan Lee approach, the battles and rivalries, the technical innovations, the triumphs and failures are all thoroughly researched and lovingly depicted. plus the charismatic players behind the scenes like Russell Simmons, Sylvia Robinson and then-punker Rick Rubin. Piskor also traces graffiti master Fab 5 Freddy’s rise in the art world, and Debbie Harry, Keith Haring, The Clash, and other luminaries make cameos as the music and culture begin to penetrate downtown Manhattan and the mainstream at large. Like the acclaimed hip hop documentaries Style Wars and Scratch, The Hip Hop Family Tree is an exciting and essential cultural chronicle and a must for hip hop fans, pop-culture addicts, and anyone who wants to know how it went down back in the day.
The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays by Martin Heidegger
The advent of machine technology has given rise to some of the deepest problems of modern thought. Featuring the celebrated essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” this prescient volume contains Martin Heidegger’s groundbreaking investigation into the pervasive “enframing” character of our understanding of ourselves and the world. As relevant now as ever before, this collection is an essential landmark in the philosophy of science from “one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century” (New York Times).
The Guy Under the Sheets: The Unauthorized Autobiography by Chris Elliott
Is Chris Elliott a highly successful and beloved comedian—or a slightly dim-witted notalent from a celebrity family who managed to convince a generation of disillusioned youth that he was funny? From a ghastly childhood on the posh Upper East Side to his first job entertaining mobsters with his Judy Garland impersonation, The Guy Under the Sheets is packed with countless episodes from the life of a mediocre artist who somehow faked his way to the top—of semi-moderate fame and fortune. Woven throughout thectional fun in Elliott’s memoir are wonderful real-life anecdotes that will delight many new readers and loyal fans alike.
Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013 by Trina Robbins
With the 1896 publication of Rose O’Neill’s comic strip The Old Subscriber Calls, in Truth Magazine, American women entered the field of comics, and they never left it. But, you might not know that reading most of the comics histories out there. Trina Robbins has spent the last thirty years recording the accomplishments of a century of women cartoonists, and Pretty in Ink is her ultimate book, a revised, updated and rewritten history of women cartoonists, with more color illustrations than ever before, and with some startling new discoveries (such as a Native American woman cartoonist from the 1940s who was also a Corporal in the women’s army, and the revelation that a cartoonist included in all of Robbins’s previous histories was a man ) In the pages of Pretty in Ink you’ll find new photos and correspondence from cartoonists Ethel Hays and Edwina Dumm, and the true story of Golden Age comic book star Lily Renee, as intriguing as the comics she drew. Although the comics profession was dominated by men, there were far more women working in the profession throughout the 20th century than other histories indicate, and they have flourished in the 21st. Robbins not only documents the increasing relevance of women throughout the 20th century, with mainstream creators such as Ramona Fradon and Dale Messick and alternative cartoonists such as Lynda Barry, Carol Tyler, and Phoebe Gloeckner, but the latest generation of women cartoonists–Megan Kelso, Cathy Malkasian, Linda Medley, and Lilli Carre, among many others. Robbins is the preeminent historian of women comic artists; forget her previous histories: Pretty in Ink is her most comprehensive volume to date.
Born in London in 1889, legendary comic actor Charlie Chaplin grew up poor. He was the son of a singer who often found herself out of work due to poor health. Together with his older brother, Sydney, he found ways to make ends meet by following in the family’s entertaining footsteps. The two Chaplins were successful both on stage and on screen, each signing million dollar contracts at some point in their career.
Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, simply titled My Autobiography, recently published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library series, is a fascinating life story. Not only is it a portrait of the film industry from the early 1920s to the 60s, it’s a look at how a mixture of luck, talent, and business savvy created one of the era’s top performers.
Around 1910, Chaplin landed in New York for the first time. Here is his first impression:
At ten o’clock on a Sunday morning we at last arrived in New York. When we got off the street-car at Times Square, it was somewhat of a let-down. Newspapers were blowing about the road and pavement, and Broadway looked seedy, like a slovenly woman just out of bed. …
However, this was New York, adventurous, bewildering, a little frightening. Paris, on the other hand, had been friendlier. Even though I could not speak the language, Paris had welcomed me on every street corner with its bistros and outside cafes. But New York was essentially a place of big business. The tall skyscrapers seemd ruthlessly arrogant and to care little for the convenience of ordinary people; even the saloon bars had no place for the customers to sit, only a long brass rail to rest a foot on, and the popular eating places, though clean and done in white marble, looked cold and clinical.
I took a back room in one of the brownstone houses off Forty-third Street, where the Times building now stands. It was dismal and dirty and made me homesick for London and our little flat. In the basement was a cleaning and pressing establishment and during the week the fetid odour of clothes being pressed and steam wafted up and added to my discomfort.
That first day I felt quite inadequate. It was an ordeal to go into a restaurant and order something because of my English accent — and the fact that I spoke slowly. So many spoke in a rapid, clipped way that I felt uncomfortable for fear I might stutter and waste their time.
I was alien to the slick tempo. In New York even the owner of the smallest enterprise acts with alacrity. The shoe-black flips his polishing rag with alacrity, the bartender serves beer with alacrity, sliding it up to you along the polished surface of the bar. The soda clerk, when serving egg malted milk, performs like a hopped-up juggler. In a fury of speed he snatches up a glass, attacking everything he puts into it, vanilla flavour, blob of ice cream, two spoonfuls of malt, a raw egg which he deposits with one crack, then adding milk, all of which he shakes in a container and delivers in less than a minute.
On the Avenue that first day many looked as I felt, lone and isolated; others swaggered along as though they owned the place. The behaviour of many people seemed dour and metallic as if to be agreeable or polite would prove a weakness. But in the evening as I walked along Broadway with the crowd dressed in their summer clothes, I became reassured. We had left England in the middle of a bitter cold September and arrived in New York in an Indian summer with a temperature of eighty degrees; and as I walked along Broadway it began to light up with myriads of coloured electric bulbs and sparkled like a brilliant jewel. And in the warm night my attitude changed and the meaning of America came to me: the tall skyscrapers, the brilliant, gay lights, the thrilling display of advertisements stirred me with hope and a sense of adventure. ‘That is it!’ I said to myself. ‘This is where I belong!’
This post originally ran on Longreads, where I now contribute a monthly podcast roundup.
For a while now we’ve been hearing about the rise of television, how shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones have surpassed the film industry when people think of quality viewing experiences. Gone are the days where writers and actors dreamed of making it big in pictures, now talent is flocking to small screen.
Here are some recent interviews that will be of interest to those who like to dig deeper.
A recent panel discussion on WBUR’s On Point featured Lynda Obst, a film and television producer whose credits include “Sleepless in Seattle” and whose recent book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, chronicles the recent changes in the movie industry—big blockbusters becoming more common with smaller films barely being made. Alongside Obst, sometimes arguing, sometimes agreeing, was Sharon Waxman, CEO and EIC of TheWrap.com, a site that covers Hollywood and film industry.
Still making small films, however, is Sofia Coppola. This summer she’s back with The Bling Ring, a film based on the real life events of a group of California teenagers obsessed with celebrities; so much so that they break into stars’ homes. Sofia spoke with host Elvis Mitchell about making a true crime film and her filmmaking career so far.
Mad Men just wrapped up its sixth season and has one more to go before it’s off the air for good. Terry Gross spoke with Elisabeth Moss, better known as Peggy, about the evolution of her character, how she came to be an actress, and how much she knows about the show’s direction before shooting an episode.
Another excellent show currently on television is Sons of Anarchy, the story of a biker gang in California’s Central Valley, running drugs, guns, and their small town. “Jax” Teller, one of the heads of the club is played by Charlie Hunnam who, in real life, turns out to be British. In this interview with Chris Hardwick he talks about being approached by real bikers, his life growing up in a working-class town in North East England, and what it’s like to play a character for so many years.
Something that’s starting to get a lot of attention these days are web shows. One show that’s doing particularly well is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which, according the series’ site, “is a modernized adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice” with the story told primarily through the lead character Lizzie Bennet‘s video diary entries.
Nerdist Writer’s Panel host Ben Blacker sat down with co-creator Bernie Su, writers Margaret Dunlap, Rachel Kiley, and Kate Rorick, and writer/transmedia guy Jay Bushman to talk about the impetus for the series and how it gets made.
Bonus: Orange is the New Black
I’ve started watching the new Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, a show based on author Piper Kerman’s memoir by the same name which tells the story about the 15 months she spent in prison for a small part she played in a drug smuggling ring. Orange stars Terry Schilling as Piper; Jason Biggs as her fiancée; Laura Prepon of That 70s Show as Alex Vause, Piper’s ex-girlfriend who introduced her to smuggling; and Natasha Lyonne of Slums of Beverly Hills, But I’m a Cheerleader, and American Pie as the ex-junkie inmate who knows how to get along on the inside.
You can read an excerpt from Kerman’s book on Salon, an interview with her on The Los Angeles Times about having her book made into a show, and an interview from 2012 about the book on The Rumpus. Piper even learned a few tips that you can apply to your worklife and shared them with Fast Company. Then, check out the two books Natasha Lyonne believes capture prison life.
Jean Cocteau, who died at the age of 74 in 1963, was a man of many talents—a poet, a novelist, a filmmaker, and an artist. He wrote the libretto for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and was best known for his 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles and the 1946 film adaptation Beauty and the Beast. After his death, in 1965, he was named the Honorary President of the Cannes Film Festival.
I once read that if you’re in a rut, creative or otherwise, you should read a biography of someone who did great things. Benjamin Franklin comes to mind, as does any social movement leader, but when I saw The Difficulty of Being, Cocteau’s collection of biographical essays—written in 1947— I was curious to know what this polymath had thought about life. As I thumbed through the copy in the bookstore, I noticed that the chapter headings read like Montaigue: “On conversation,” “On my style,” “On friendship,” “On death,” and “On beauty” are just a few.
In his introduction to Melville House’s Neversink Library edition, Geoffrey O’Brien, a critic and the Editor-in-Chief of the Library of America, notes that the book is written in “a mood of detached self-examination” and that Cocteau “makes himself his own portraitist … determined to work out some basic definitions.” He goes on to say, “It is most fundamentally a work of criticism, in which by paying close attention to his own writing process he creates a different kind of writing, opaque and deliberate.”
From my own reading, I found a poignancy in many of the questions Cocteau seeks to answer and the observations he puts on the page. Here is a very small selection of what is a great read—whether you choose to go from cover to cover or open at will.
I cannot read or write. And when the census form asks me this question, I am tempted to say no.
Who knows how to write? It is to battle with ink to try to make oneself understood.
Either one takes too much care over one’s work or one does not take enough. Seldom does one find the happy mean that limps with grace. Reading is another matter. I read. I think I am reading. Each time I re-read, I perceive that I have not read. That is the trouble with a letter. One finds in it what one looks for. One is satisfied. One puts it aside. If one finds it again, on re-reading one reads into it another which one had not read.
Books play the same trick. If they do not suit our present mood we do not consider them good. If they disturb us we criticize them, and this criticism is superimposed upon them and prevents us from reading them fairly.
What the reader wants is to read himself. When he reads what he approves of he thinks he could have written it. He may even have a grudge against the book for taking his place, for saying what he did not know how to say, and which according to him he would have said better.
The more a book means to us the less well we read it. Our substance slips into it and thinks it round to our own outlook. That is why if I want to read and convince myself that I can read. I read books into which my substance does not penetrate. In the hospitals in which I spent long periods, I used to read what the nurse brought me or what fell into my hands by chance. … you often hear a tubercular patient say of Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain: ‘That is a book one couldn’t understand if one hadn’t been tubercular.’ In fact Thomas Mann wrote it without being this and for the very purpose of making those who had not experienced tuberculosis understand it.
We are all ill and only know how to read book which deal with our malady. This is why books dealing with love are so successful, since everyone believes that he is the only one to experience it. He thinks: ‘This book is addressed to me. What can anyone else see in it?’
On the Rule of the Soul
We cannot run from place to place without losing something, suddenly move all our goods from one place to another and change our work all in a moment just as we please. Nothing takes so long over its journey as the soul, and it is slowly, if it detaches itself, that it rejoins the body. Hence those who think themselves speedy are thrown into confusion, badly reassembled, since the soul, joining them little by little and having rejoined them when they departed, is found by them to perform the same exercise in reverse. IN the end they come to believe they are, and are no longer.
The same thing applies to the discomfort of passing from one work to another, since the finished work goes on living in us and only leaves a very confused place for the new work. It is important, in regard to a journey, to wait for the body to reassemble itself and not to rely on an appearance in which only those who do not know us well can have any faith.
In regard to one’s works, it is important to wait after each one, and let the body free itself of the vapours which remain in it and which may take a long time to disperse. … In my estimation it takes a month, after a work or a journey, to regain control of one’s individuality. Until then it is in limbo. … Each time I find myself in this intermediate state, I wonder if it is permanent. It upsets me to the point of making me exaggerate the void it creates and convinces me that it will never be filled.
Here I am then between two rhythms, unbalanced, weak in body and lame in mind. Woe to him who rebels against this. An attempt to bypass it would only make things worse. … What is one to do against this fear of emptiness? It dries me up. One must forget it. I practise doing so. I go to the point of reading children’s books. I avoid any contact which might make me aware of the passing of time. I vegetate. I talk to dogs.
I attach no importance to what people call style and by which they flatter themselves that they can recognize an author. I want to be recognized by my ideas, or better still, by the results of them. All I attempt is to make myself understood as succinctly as possible. I have noticed that when a story does not grip the mind, it has shown a tendency to read too quickly, to grease its own slope. That is why, in this book, I turn my writing around, which prevents it from sliding into a straight line, makes one revise it twice over and reread the sentences so as not to lose the thread.
Whenever I read a book, I marvel at the number of words I meet in it and I long to use them. I make a note of them. When I am at work this is impossible for me. I restrict myself to my own vocabulary. I cannot get away from it, and it is so limited that the work becomes a brain-twister.
I wonder, at every line, if I can go any further, if the combination of these words that I use, always the same ones, will not end by seizing up and compelling me to hold my peace. This would be a blessing for everyone, but it is with words as with numbers, or with the letters of the alphabet. They have the faculty of rearranging themselves differently and perpetually at the end of the kaleidoscope.
Reprinted from The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau; English translation ©1966 Elizabeth Sprigge; Published by Melville House