- Borrowed Finery—Paula Fox
- Making Oscar Wilde—Michèle Mendelssohn
- Normal People—Sally Rooney
- The Friend—Sigrid Nunez
- Boom Town—Sam Anderson
- The Perfect Stranger—P. J. Kavanagh
- Borrowed Finery—Paula Fox
- What’s Your Type? The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing—Merve Emre
- Little—Edward Carey
- Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad—M. T. Anderson.
“My father was a gambler down in Georgia,” the Allman Brothers sing, “and he wound up on the wrong end of a gun. / And I was born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus, / rollin’ down Highway 41.” When I first heard those words as a teenager, I thought I got the gist: they were a romanticization of the outlaw spirit. Those unsympathetic to the modus operandi of 1970s Southern rock might even argue that they were unwittingly parodying this spirit, but either way, the lines were not to be taken seriously.
However, between then and now I have read enough American literary memoirs to know that the Allmans’ story was almost certainly true, and almost certainly applied not just to both Allman brothers but to the rest of the band as well. Being born in the backseat of a bus before (or after) the death by shooting of a ramblin’, gamblin’ father, in fact, is a story that would barely hold the interest of Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life), or Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City), or Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club), or Mikal Gilmore (Shot in the Heart, perhaps the most remarkable of them all). American lives, it seems to us here in the UK, are almost always enviably improbable. My own memoir, Fever Pitch, by sorry comparison, consists of me going to watch football matches, sometimes with my father, over four decades.
Given my insatiable appetite for improbable American literary lives, Paula Fox’s Borrowed Finery had somehow passed me by. But not only is it a classic of the genre, its improbability is almost off the scale. In brief: Fox’s parents, unsuccessful screenwriters whose fecklessness takes one’s breath away at the beginning of the book and then builds steadily from there, put her in a Manhattan foundling home a few days after her birth, apparently because having a baby was a real drag. Her grandmother, back on a brief trip from Cuba, found out where she was and rescued her, but passed her on to a friend of the family, who in turn passed her on to a kindly preacher who lived just outside Poughkeepsie. Her mother and father reemerged and she was packed off to Hollywood—on her own, of course—where she had to deal with their drinking, and affairs, and where occasionally they both forgot to come home for the night. In other words, young Paula was still an encumbrance, so her grandmother took her to Long Island and then to Cuba. After that, things got really complicated, with stops in Florida (parents, then father, then some kind of housekeeper) and New York City and Montreal (boarding school). I have missed some steps, but she frequently seems to land in the house of someone to whom she is not related in any way.
It’s a remarkable and remarkably twisty story—as twisty as anything in Dickens, including Oliver of that ilk, but it’s told with a complete lack of self-pity or anger, and without judgment. The sudden leaps across the country are described with a kind of matter-of-fact, don’t-ask-me shrug and extraordinary concision; the book is probably sixty thousand words long, but it could have come in at a Dickensian third of a million (David Copperfield, at 357,489 words, is his longest, if you must know), and the narrative alone would have justified the length. Tiny moments—the creak of an elderly knee, the hardness of porcelain when you’re sleeping in a bathtub, the shrieks and moans of unhappy uncles having nightmares—carry an awful lot of the weight. It was perhaps predictable that Fox would make her name as a children’s writer. She of all people knew the comfort that books could provide, and just how much comfort was needed in extreme cases. It was perhaps less predictable that she would give up her own daughter, whose father may or may not have been Marlon Brando, for adoption, or that she would later become the grandmother of Courtney Love.
I chose to read Borrowed Finery because I have been recommending memoirs to a friend, and I started googling to see what I might have missed or forgotten. In doing so, I also found very strong online recommendations for P. J. Kavanagh’s The Perfect Stranger, published in 1966, a book I had never heard of, and that I have now bought but not yet read. In the previous column, I wrote at length about the brilliant Rosamond Lehmann; P. J. Kavanagh turns out to be her son-in-law, and his book is about his marriage to Lehmann’s daughter, whose tragic early death pushed Lehmann toward spiritualism and effectively closed down her career. I love coincidences like this, if only because they completely justify useless hours spent fiddling around on the internet instead of working. Before I start the next paragraph, I am going to watch Arsenal’s 6–1 thrashing of West Ham in 1976, now winking at me seductively from YouTube, on the grounds that I will almost certainly learn something about nineteenth-century epistolary novels.
Michèle Mendelssohn’s Making Oscar Wilde is in its own way just as complicated as Borrowed Finery, and certainly covers as many miles. It’s a scarcely believable but impeccably researched account of Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour of the US, a trip that Mendelssohn argues gave him the tools to become the writer, wit, and chat-show fixture we know and love.
OK, so this tour… Some of you, I suspect, have been out on the road to promote a book, a film, maybe even an album, perhaps even all three. (That’s how I imagine you all, as creative and glamorous and insanely successful. But you’re probably just one grumpy old man who never makes anything or goes anywhere.) It’s hell, right? You start out fresh and determined on Monday, and by Friday you hate people, travel, food, books, signings, and hotels, and you want to cry most of the time. Well, Wilde toured from January to August, and traveled across the entire continent of North America. He appeared in something like one hundred US cities, some of which were still under construction when he got there. He spoke in Mobile, Alabama, and Brantford, Ontario, and Topeka, Kansas, and Stockton, California. True, airport security was almost nonexistent in 1882, but even so, the travel alone would have killed any of us. And he had yet to write any of the work that made his name. The reason people turned up, and what they made of him when they did, is weird, occasionally troubling, and says a lot about all sorts of things that you might not have expected to pop up here, particularly race, of all things.
When Wilde was asked by D’Oyly Carte, the theatrical company behind Gilbert and Sullivan’s wildly successful operettas, to talk to the American people, he was famous in London, but only as the most visible face of the aesthete movement. If you imagine that someone had somehow managed to embody the Brooklyn hipster, and then, more unlikely still, that the rest of America was desperate both to hear what the Brooklyn hipster had to say and to pay decent money to hear him say it, then you come close to Wilde’s role at the beginning of the 1880s. He was parodied and mocked in London, and he’d written one play and one book of poetry, neither of which had been well received. He was in no position to turn down the offer of work. He seems to have been offered it because the longer D’Oyly Carte had a real-life aesthete out on the road, the better it could promote Patience, a hit Gilbert and Sullivan work that poked merciless fun at the movement.
As the tour dragged on, however, Wilde’s significance changed. It was his Irishness that came to dominate, and because he was Irish, the argument seemed to go, he was more or less black as well. At this point you could be forgiven for suspecting Mendelssohn of taking academic liberties by imposing an interpretation that rests on extremely wobbly legs, and that is suspiciously contemporary in its relevance. But the images the author provides, photographs of contemporary cartoons and advertisements portraying Oscar as an African American, or a savage, leave one in no doubt that this actually went on. “How far is it from this… to this?” asked The Washington Post, illustrating the question with a picture of the Wild Man of Borneo followed by a picture of Wilde. Meanwhile, Oscar spoke every night—on the English Renaissance, or “the house beautiful,” or “the decorative arts,” but as far as the media was concerned, he might as well have been grunting and beating his chest. It turns out to be nineteenth-century Americans, rather than Michèle Mendelssohn, who were prone to the creation of fanciful and baffling deconstructions. Meanwhile, Wilde is frequently profiled by journalists in the nascent magazine industry, and the more he’s profiled, the sharper his one-liners become. They would be put to good use when he got home. I didn’t know I wanted to read a whole book about Oscar Wilde, but Making Oscar Wilde turns out to be a book about an awful lot of things.
We praised Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends, in these pages recently. I did, anyway. I have no idea whether the Black Mountain Mob, the group of gangsters who beat The Believer in a card game a couple of years ago, are interested in contemporary British fiction or not, although I know which way I’d bet if they made me, as they frequently do. (Contributors now get free bets instead of a fee, which is exciting but which has been, I have to confess, unrewarding to date.) Anyway, her second book, Normal People, builds on the promise of the first so successfully and with such élan that if you belong to an older generation of writers and you are intimidated by the accomplishments of the young (which I am not, thankfully), then you’d want to shout, OK, Sally. You can stop building now. Nobody will like you if you get any better than this. Plus, the thing you are building will start wobbling and fall over and some old writers will laugh. Sally Rooney was born in 1991.
Normal People takes place over four years, but those four years constitute a significant percentage of the lives of its young characters. They’re significant years that Rooney is writing about, too—the years between what you would call high school and the end of university. Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family, and even though they go to the same school in a small town in Ireland, it’s the cleaning job that pulls Connell into Marianne’s orbit. Connell is a footballer, one of the boys, smart but maybe not as smart as Marianne; Marianne is a prickly loner. When they start sleeping together, Connell doesn’t want anyone to know, and he takes someone else to the end-of-school dance. His betrayal of her, and his subsequent guilt and shame, sits inside their subsequent relationship like a fossil in stone. At college in Dublin, they date other people, sleepwalk into dark and frightening places, but each remains dizzyingly, confusingly bright in the imagination and soul of the other. Every page feels real. At the moment, I can’t imagine not wanting to read everything Rooney writes. It will happen one day, I guess, but I know I’ll devour the next one as soon as it comes out.
Earlier in the life of this column, I used to bring in details from my personal life, mostly because it seemed relevant to how and when I was reading, and, sometimes, to the kinds of things I was reading about. I had two children under the age of two when I began contributing to The Believer, for example, and that made a difference to my internal life. However, since roughly 2004, literally nothing has happened to me, and so I was able to focus on the books themselves. But this year, I became a dog owner, a state of affairs so profoundly shocking to me after decades of dog hating that I have yet to fully process it. If anyone had ever asked me to tell them all about myself, I’d have said, “Well, my name is Nick, and I don’t like dogs, and that’s all I got.” Not only am I a dog owner, but I actually like the little bastard, a cocker spaniel called George Michael (named, as you probably realized, after the Michael Cera character in Arrested Development, although, yes, there has been some confusion, which is irritating).
George Michael is relevant to these pages because (a) he has eaten several of the books I intended to read, and (b) Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend is about a dog, among other things, and I would never have even looked at it during any other period of my life. There is even a dog on the cover, for god’s sake. The narrator of The Friend is a cat lover who inherits a massive Great Dane after the suicide of a charismatic, much-loved friend; the dog, too, is approaching the end of its life.
And I am glad that The Friend and its subject matter are no longer a closed book to me. It’s a lovely, sad book, full of percipient observations on the nature of grief, and friendship, and there’s lots about the profession and purpose of writing; I may even be on a trajectory where I complain, in a few years’ time, that there simply isn’t enough dog in the book. I’m glad I’m not there yet. Right now I’m glad that George Michael has broadened my reading. I’m off to read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet now, because Rilke comes up a lot in The Friend, so one could argue that George Michael has introduced me to Rilke. I’m sure he will make me stupid in the end, but right now he’s making me smarter.