Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters & the Moral Cowardice of Critics

Bloggers are reading and loving this.
Stuck-in-a-Book, an energetic blogger who has written about and revived interest in many neglected women's classics, is a fan of Viragos, Dodie Smith, Barbara Comyns, and Muriel Spark.  Since I am old enough to be his mother, and may well be older than his mother, I read many of these wonderful books long ago.  Nonetheless, I am pleased to see a new generation of bloggers engaged by such excellent novels, especially since, according to a few eminent literary critics and newspapermen, hordes of barbarian bloggers have ruined literary criticism and even literature. 

 In fact it would seem that book bloggers have revived interest in little-known classics, out-of-print books, and reprints.  We read Stefan Zweig after reading A Common Reader, Elizabeth Taylor's Collected Short Stories after reading Dovegreyreader, and Mrs. Oliphant's Hester after reading Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too. 

It is a pleasure to read intelligent short pieces about lost books ignored by the "mainstream" newspaper criticism/journalism cartel, whose focus is naturally on new books.  Bloggers live in an alternate world, where they can rave about the old as well as the new.   Recently the influential Stuck-in-a-Book created a craze for Diana Tutton's out-of-print novel,  Guard Your Daughters, after he compared it to Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. 

If you google Guard Your Daughters,  you will see at least six other bloggers have read this novel since Stuck-in-a-Book's recommendation, and who knows how many dozens of readers have enjoyed it?  Bravo, Stuck-in-a-Book!

I finished this charming novel yesterday. Stuck-in-a-Book is right about the influence of I Capture the Castle.   The Harvey sisters in Guard Your Daughters are very much like the Mortmains in Smith's I Capture the Castle and the Bennets in Austen's Pride and Prejudice:  the girls know no men, live in isolation in the country, and what on earth are they going to do with themselves?  But in Guard Your Daughters, the narrator, Morgan Harvey, and her sisters, Thisbe, Cressida, and Teresa have an even harder time than their Smith/Austen counteparts: their mad mother wants them to stay home and practically has a mini-breakdown at the thought of any of them marrying, or at Thisbe's going to London to visit their only married sister, Pandora.  Their self-absorbed father, a successful mystery writer, is so devoted to their mother that he ignores their interests.  So this is I Capture the Castle and Pride and Prejudice with a dark side.  

Here is the bad news, insofar as it is bad news. I am not enthusiastic about Guard Your Daughers.  I think it reads like a good children's book based on I Capture the Castle.  Not that it is a bad thing to be a good children's boook. Tutton's style is blunter than Smith's, and her narrator, Morgan, lacks Cassandra's gift for witty dialogue, shaping dramatic scenes, and portraying believable eccentric characters. But Tuttle obviously has a great time turning Smith's material upside down. For instance, in both books, the fathers are writers:  Morgan's father is a successful mystery writer, and Cassandra's is a blocked literary writer who reads mysteries all day.  And it is for Tutton's fun that we read this.  

Guard Your Daughters is an entertaining novel.  It enlightens us about trends in women's novels in the '40s and '50s, so it is an excellent thing that Stuck-in-a-Book discovered it for posterity.  You can even see the threads connecting it back to Little Women

And, honestly, most people seem to have loved it.   I liked it, just not as much.
THE MORAL COWARDICE OF CRITICS. Surely newspaper critics are not serious when they say book bloggers have ruined Literary Criticism and The Book? Most have stopped fulminating about it--it was a thing of the moment perhaps-- but Robert McCrum in The Guardian/Observer may have mentioned bloggers in an unfavorable light again the other day.  I can't say for sure, because I immediately left the website.

I must say that I think it moral cowardice for critics to blame powerless bloggers for the end of criticism when in fact the corporations that employ them are to blame for cutting back the number of pages for reviews.  Of course if critics blame their employers, they will get fired.  But why dink around attacking bloggers?

The two conglomerates that own Random House and Penguin are merging to form Random Penguin House, or is it Ranguin Pendom?  According to NPR, Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson (one of the conglomerates), said the merger will allow the companies "to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers," she said.

That's gobbledygook.  

Can't blame that on bloggers.  

It is not the first time this kind of publishing caper has been plotted--wasn't this going on all the time in the  late '90s?--but it is something to be very concerned about. We need more people in publishing making different decisions, not fewer making the same.    
What can be done?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Literature in Literature: Sherman Alexie's Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories & Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time

Sherman Alexie's stories are always a delight. I spent a day engrossed in Alexie's brilliant new book, Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories

Alexie, a Native American writer of fiction, poetry, and screenplays, has won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Award.   In these transcendent stories, he writes about lost cats, marriage, racism, growing up on the Spokane reservation, growing up Native American in the city without the Spokane traditions, shopping at the 7-11, cancer, alcoholism, absent fathers, obituaries, and playing basketball at midnight. His lyricism illuminates difficult moments in the difficult lives of his Native American characters, but he also deftly balances their sorrow with humor.

In the first story, "Cry Cry Cry," Alexie's narrator inserts witty observations into his sad account of his cousin Junior's desolate life . Junior, a meth addict, dealer, and a war dancer,  was chosen as Head Man Dancer at the powwow "because he was charming and popular.  Powwow is like high school, except with more feather and beads." But Junior is a criminal, charged with possession after he stops dealing on the reservation and branches out to a white farming community.  When he gets out of prison, the narrator watches him go down again.

In "War Dances,"a bold, comical story divided into short chapters, interviews, and lists, the narrator goes deaf in one ear while he is caring for his sons and his wife is away.  Terrified of the health care system, he remembers the experiences of his late father in the hospital.  The narrator had trouble getting the attention of a nurse when his father needed an extra blanket; finally he was given a too-thin hospital blanket. A comical encounter with an affable Native American family in the hospital provides the warmth the nurse will not.  Alexie's sharp, realistic descriptions of family and the health care system sometimes made me laugh, sometimes gave me chills.

In my favorite story, "The Search Engine," a college student, Corliss, who grew up on the Spokane Reservation, discovers the poetry of Harlan Atwater, a Native American.  It is the first literature she has ever seen by a member of the Spokane tribe.  When she takes it to the check-out desk, the librarian says it has never been checked out, and Corliss, who loves books, wonders if it can be called a book if no one reads it.  

She loves the library, and many of you will identify with the following passage:

"The huge number of books confirmed how much magic she'd been denied for most of her life, and now she hungrily wanted to read every book on every shelf.  An impossible task, to be sure, Herculean in its exaggeration, but Corliss wanted to read herself to death.  She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks."

(Are you putting asterisks and exclamation points next to it?)

When Corliss tracks down Harlan Atwater, he is fat, old, and unromantic.  But she gets to hear the story of his brief life as a poet, his self-publication of his poems, and his brief career as a rock star among local poets at readings. 

This book is a delight overall: most of these stories are powerful.  The only one I didn't care for was "Idolatry," a sort of prose poem about American Idol.  And it is pretty good, too.

HOWARD JACOBSON'S ZOO TIME.  I recently read and enjoyed Howard Jacobson's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question.  He is an exuberant comic writer, and possibly a great writer, as he points out humorously in those English newspaper literary-gossip interviews which make almost everybody sound terrible.  I decided to read Zoo Time not because of the interview, but because I perused the first chapter in a bookstore and thought it funny.  The hero, Guy Ableman, a novelist, is furious about the state of publishing:  book groups don't approve of him, his books aren't suitable for "three-for-twos," and his publisher commits suicide because he is supposed to tell his writers to "twit" and "blag."

"Do you know what I am expected to require of you?" he suddenly looked me in the eyes and said.  "That you twit."
"Twit, tweet, I don't know."

Then he wants to know if Guy "blags."

"Blog?  No."
"The blog's the end of everything," [Merton] said.

But Guy wants to tell Merton "the blog is yesterday," and that the blame lies on "myBlank and shitFace and whatever else was persuading the unRead to believe everybody had a right to his opinion."

The blog is yesterday! Yes.  I agree.  I hope that all will realize we are not the barbarians plundering publishing.  Our readers have gone to"myBlank and shitFace," though I don't have a clear idea of what those are.

 Guy also implies that marketers are tracking social media to discover what people like in books--vampires and the Tudors--and that is atrocious, if true, but not our fault.

And by the way, there is much more to Jacobson's book.  Guy is in love with his mother-in-law, and he's writing a novel about Little Gid, who is in love his mother-in-law.  I'll write more about this mother-in-law another time.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

If Only I'd Never Read That Poem

After years of escaping filial duties, I moved back to the Midwest and reconciled with my dysfunctional family. They are old and ill, they don't grasp why I'm here, and they don't find me particularly entertainingWhat they don't understand is that I got my values from Virgil's Aeneid, and I visit strictly from pietas: duty to the gods, country, and family. 

If only I'd never read that poem.

We went to visit a relative.  We found him in a chilly bar with his sweatshirt zipped and hood up, coughing dismally. Once we brought him home, I tried to get him to sit on the couch, because he was just out of the hospital.  A nice Saturday afternoon in front of the TV, and the guys could talk about football, basketball, whatever they talk about while I cleaned. I got him a glass of juice, because he won't drink water, and he needs to drink a lot of liquids, because he has walking pneumonia among other diseases.

We lined up the meds for him.

Then he gave us the he-doesn't-want-to-be-kept-alive-on-meds talk. He's not THAT sick, we tell him.  Then there's the he-doesn't-want-to go-into-a-nursing home talk.  We assured him he does not need to go into a nursing home. 

He got on his treadmill.  

"That's enough!" I said.

I am not experienced with this commanding stuff because I am not a mother.

"I hoped they would keep me in the hospital a couple of days," he said distantly.  

So I'm trying to decide if I have to stay and look after him for a few days when the insults begin.

There is the talk about how I am not getting any of his money.  "You don't want my money, and I don't want to leave it to so-and-so, either, so I'm going to spend it all."  I assure him that's fine, I am just concerned about his health, and anyway he already told me years ago he had "blown my inheritance."  We get to have this charming talk every time I see him. 

Then he told me querulously that his roommate in the hospital had visitors because they think they are going to inherit $20 million in land.  We pointed out that we had planned to visit him in the hospital, but they discharged him before we got there. 

He didn't want to watch TV or eat takeout. He insisted that we go to a restaurant.  

"Are you sure?  You should rest."

"I want to be where people are."

We thought we were people, but as I say, we can't keep him home.  We were boring him.

Creusa,  a Detail from Barocci's Aeneas' Flight form Troy, 1598
At the restaurant he didn't know anybody and he was unhappy.  So he told me how terrible I looked, and I started to feel very annoyed, because frankly, like most women, I looked good when I was young, and now I don't.  I had put on my buttoned-up sweater with ruffles, and I wouldn't have bothered if I'd known I would have to sit through a lecture on my looks.  Like most women of my age, I have been through a lot, and I can't erase it.  PROUD OF MY LINED, WEATHERED FACE.  Oh, yeah.

So we took him home, we told him about his pills again, and poured him more juice.  He has something to read by Zane Grey or  Robert Parker, and I realize it is large-print, so he has probably been refusing all books we've tried to give him because he can't read regular-sized print anymore.

So I feel sorry for him, but I can't possibly stay and look after him unless I take a triple dose of Prozac, or Ativan, both probably unobtainable.  Since my body chemistry has never responded well to drugs, I decide to go home.

I have some St. John's Wort somewhere. I think I'll sleep for maybe 20 hours.

And I must say that I understand completely why Creusa got lost in Troy.  Friggin' Aeneas.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Jean Rhys's Tigers Are Better-Looking

Jean Rhys's fiction is deceptively simple.  Her post-colonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre about Mr. Rochester's wife, won the W. H. Smith Award in 1967.  Known for her stark style, Rhys wrote four shattering novels in the 1930s portraying impoverished, drifting women on the verge of breakdown.

My favorites are her 1930s novels, but I recently turned to her short stories. In Tigers Are Better-Looking, a collection of short stories published in 1968 (and my volume includes some of the stories from The Left Bank, her first collection), her fragile, self-destructive heroines are so listless as almost to disappear.  They are attractive and presentable, but cannot cope with the world.  Some work as mannequins for little money; others are drunk and impecunious in rented rooms. They insult landladies or neighbors.  Men leave them. Life is exhausting.

These stories are uneven, but compelling.
Jean Rhys

In "Outside the Machine," Rhys echoes  D. H. Lawrence's views on the mechanization of human beings (Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover, etc.).   The heroine, Inez, is waiting for surgery in a clinic in Versailles because her "inside" has given out.  In a ward of 15 women, the English characters are the least sympathetic:  the respectable blondes look at Inez with scorn, and Pat, the narcissistic actress, has little tolerance for people who don't fit in. The clinic seems like a machine to Inez, with the nurses and patients running smoothly as cogs and wheels.

"She lay very still, so that nobody knew she was afraid.  Because she was not part of the machine they might come along any time with a pair of huge iron tongs  and pick her up and leave her on the rubbish heap, and there she would lie and rot.  'Useless, this one,' they would say; and throw her away before she could explain."
But when the suicidal Mrs. Murphy is taunted and tormented by the mob of women in the ward, Inez stands up for her, proving she is not part of the machine.  And an older woman, Madame Tavernier, who had "left England as a child and never been back, "is able to help Inez.  The women who are not part of the machine discover each other.

In "The Lotus," Ronnie invites Lotus, the resident of the basement apartment, to visit him and his young wife, Christine, in the apartment upstairs.  Lotus, plump and middle-aged, stands in the middle of the room to recite her poetry, while beautiful Christine shrieks insults and laughs .  They are all very drunk, but Christine's ridicule precipitates Lotus's breakdown after she goes downstairs and is unable to find more drink.

Many of Rhys's heroines have trouble sleeping.  Some depend on Valerian, an herbal remedy prescribed since the second century.  In "Hunger" (originally published in The Left Bank in 1928), Rhys begins dramatically:  "Last night I took an enormous dose of Valerian to make me sleep.  I have awakened this morning very calm and rested, but with shaky hands."

We are more worried about tablets.  In "A Solid House," after a night in the basement during an air raid, Teresa considers telling her landlady, Miss Spearman, about the nature of her illness.  Rhys shifts from third to first person, and Teresa's memories are disturbingly vivid. 

"...then it was afternoon--a hot afternoon.  You know, there does come an afternoon when you think, 'I want a rest; I want a good long sleep.' So I took two tablets, and then another two.  Then I drank some whisky and it seemed quite clear.  Now, my lass, now Hope, the vulture, will have to go and feed on somebody else.  I thought, 'I must wear my pretty dress for this.'  So I went on and put on my blue dress and powdered my face."
She recovers from her suicide attempt miraculously.  Now, still looking for sleep in Miss Spearman's house, she must resist the landlady's attempts to sell her secondhand clothes, exhortation to take a walk in the area bombed last night, and an invitation  to a seance.  Teresa finds herself wanting to take a little doze.

Rhys is a natural writer about helpless women.  Her work, according to Diana Athill's introduction to The Complete Novels (Norton),  is autobiographical.  She was discovered in Paris by Ford Madox Ford in 1924, with whom she had an affair while her first husband was in jail.  She was a chorus girl, a model, and often somebody's mistress.  After publishing a collection of short stories and four novels in the '30s, she dropped out of sight. 

Athill writes:

"In a novel the smallest touch of autobiographical special pleading, whether it takes the form of self-pity or exhibibionis, will destroy the reader's confidence.  To avoid such touches the writer must be able to stand back from the experience far enough to see the whole of it and must concentrate with a self-purging intensity on the process of reproducing it in words.  Jean Rhys could stand back..."

We are fascinated by Rhys's world. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Biblioholic Turns Shopaholic

Members of Biblioholics Anonymous?
I am a biblioholic. 

Yesterday I bought seven books, three notebooks, a box of pencils made from recycled newspaper, and a sugar-free mocha. 

 It is so hard to get that bookish high anymore.  The nearest independent bookstore is in Omaha.

At Barnes and Noble, the culture is quieter than it was at the late Borders.  A person who reads Jonathan Lethem, the flamboyant SF-loving booksellers at Borders used to tell me, might prefer Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood to Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone. (Actually I like  both.)   They would allow me to buy any literary fiction, since it was out of their realm of expertise, but would have mocked me for Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey.   

I haven't the faintest idea what anybody reads at B&N. That's okay with me. 

I picked up a plastic basket and meandered through the new fiction, the genre books, the best-selling rock biographies (Mick or Neil?), the art books, and then spilled my mocha on my shirt.  

LAUNDRY TIP:  when you get home,  throw the shirt into the washer on hot immediately.  

I sat down to ascertain if I wanted Tom Wolfe's Back to Blood, among other books.   It looks like Twilight without vampires.  I bought it.

The cashier and I were astonished by my spending, and I do remember babbling something about Christmas (in October).  But I hadn't been to B&N in a month, so I bought all the books I might have bought on weekly visits otherwise.   I stuffed two shopping bags into my bike pannier, slung my purse over my shoulder, and on my ride home anxiously stopped several times to adjust the hooks on my bike rack.

Lucy and Ethel
Shopping for books is a little like I Love Lucy.  There's the manic gal with the bicycle helmet, her best friend Ethel, the "Nook trader" (just like Wall Street), his/her best friend Ethel, the employees pushing dollies of books in their personal hell of Dante's Inferno, their best friend Ethel, and nobody in the fiction section.

At home I snuck in my two shopping bags.  Then I did laundry, vacuumed the living room, and made chicken soup.

So much of life is about shopping.

But, yes, I am a perfect housewife. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Catching up on the Booker Prize: Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question

If Jacobson lived here, he'd order from Amazon.
Today at Barnes and Noble, I perused a chapter of Howard Jacobson's Zoo Time.  According to The Guardian, it is "a "400-page tantrum against book groups, Amazon, the Kindle,...vampire books," etc. I hardly think Jacobson would approve of my blogging, but I did enjoy The Finkler Question.  We do what we have to do to support our book habit (this isn't London or New York), and that includes reading Ann Patchett's  State of Wonder, i.e.,  Conrad for Girls, for book groups; shopping at Amazon; reading e-books on apparati, as Gary Sheyngart calls them; and, yes, it's the end of civilization.

Jacobson's The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize in 2010.  It is a comedy, everyone said.  I was expecting Lucky Jim, or possibly Portnoy's Complaint.

I did not expect a novel about Jewish identity. I am Catholic, and though that is another religion with strange rites, vestments, a penchant for foreign language (Latin till Vatican 2), and titanic amounts of guilt,  I have alienated so many Catholics with my criticisms that I am leery of talking about  The Finkler Question.    I am sure there is a great Catholic novel that parses Catholicism in the same way The Finkler Question parses Jewishness, but I am not familiar with it.  The closest I have come to analyzing  great Catholic literature is probably Flannery O'Connor's short story, "Parker's Back," and that is symbolic, mostly about Christ and tattoos.

Although the characters in The Finkler Question are comical, Jacobson somberly analzyes Jewish ethnicity, religion, stereotypes, anti-Semites, Israel, Palestine, Nazis, sex, and death.  One of the main characters, Julian Treslove, a gentile ex-BBC producer who works as a movie star lookalike, is envious of his smart Jewish friends.  He refers to Jews as Finklers, because his friend, Sam Finkler, the famous Jewish author of philosophy-cum-self-help books with titles like The Socratic Flirt:  How to Reason Your Way to a Better Sex Life, is annoyingly brillaint and successful, as Jews are supposed to be. Libor, their former teacher, who spent time in Hollywood, is also a Jew. And after Julian is mugged by a woman--he fantasizes first that she called him "You Ju" for Julian, and then that she called him a Jew--he decides to be Jewish.

The early chapters about Julian are acridly funny:  he is a romantic, never marries, and is the indifferent father of two sons by  girlfriends who left him when they were pregnant.  

But the humor isn't light.

"Though it wasn't Kristallnacht, the unprovoked attack on him for being a Jew had become in Treslove's imagination little short of an atrocity.  He admitted to himself that he was overexcited.  The night with Kimberley, her misattribution of Jewish characteristics to him, as a consequence of which, he was bound to consider, he might just have had--at forty-nine!--the best sex of his life (well, at least they had both smiled during it), and the sense of history swirling around him, all made him an unreliable witness to his own life."

Finkler and Libor are new widowers, and when they spend time together alone, they talk about being Jewish.
"Oh, here we go, here we go.  Any Jew who isn't your kind of Jew is an anti-Semite.  It's a nonsense, Libor, to talk of Jewish anti-Semites.  It's more than a nonsense, it's a wickedness."
Finkler is narcissistic:  he founds Ashamed, a group of Jews ashamed of Israel's involvement with Palestine.

Libor is the saddest of the three, the one to whom being Jewish means the most, and the one who finds it hardest to adjust without his wife.

One of our questions throughout the book is:  will Julian remain Jewish?

It is an exuberant, beautifully-written, sometimes rambunctiously entertaining novel with undertones of gloom.  I look forward to reading some of his earlier fiction, like the novel that won the P. G. Wodehouse Award.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Bad Housewife, Episode 7: Knitting Bookmarks & Knitters in Literature

Many of you have inquired about my knitted bookmarks.  I said last week I would make some.

My annual crafts urge occurs well before Christmas and is a Little Women kind of thing:  hemming handkerchiefs for Marmee, or making a tea cozy.  I got the idea for making bookmarks because we have a lot of books, and I vaguely know how to knit. We have accumulated free bookmarks from all around the country, some autographed by famous authors, but they tend to disappear into books on the bottom of the nightstand, or those we decide not to finish I have a nice bookmark somewhere with a quote from Cicero.  But there is no doubt about it:  bookstores are closing and fewer are giving bookmarks away. 

So why not knit them?

The inspiration for many crafts projects.
The problem with knitting is that I couldn't remember how to cast on.

One week later...

I figured out the longtail cast-on from a video online.  I knitted several rows, some a bit holey.  I purl every time I make an error.  Don't ask me why:  I thought it would help, but it doesn't.  I don't know how to fix dropped stitches, so I'm knitting straight through them. I will have to watch another video about fixing errors.

The next bookmark will be knitted on BIG needles, because the yarn slips off these small ones. 
It is moderately fun. You can knit in front of the debate, or while listening to the two Bob Dylan albums you listen to each week in an attempt to catch up

I have multi-colored yarn, but the bookmark is going to be pink because there are very long strands of pink before you get to the yellow.  

I don't think I'll photograph the bookmarks because it doesn't look as though I'm going into the bookmark business.  They will work, though.

Here is a list of knitters in literature.

Madame Defarge
1.  Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities.

2.  Jane Fairfax in Emma.

3.  Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.

4.  Jo in Little Women.

5.  Miss Marple in Agatha Christie's books.

6.  Mary in Ann Hood's The Knitting Circle.

7.  Kelly Flynn in Maggie Sefton's Knitting Mystery Series

8.  Georgia Walker in Kate Jacobs' Friday Night Knitting Club.

I need two more to make 10!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Everyman Memoirs & Did Lillian Hellman Lie?

A cheap notebook and you're off!

Everybody in my family writes memoirs.  They dash them off and self-publish them at Kinko's.  

My aunt, a brilliant woman who retired to the Midwest after years of political and administrative work, wrote gracefully but edited out anything emotional or distressing.  She wrote a vivid account of her rise from feed-sack dresses in the Depression to earning her Ph.D. in the '50s to wearing designer dresses as a consumer economist in Washington.  She did not, however, share details of her divorce, or what it was like to break the glass ceiling, and some of her best writing didn't make the final edit.  In her original "book" there is a dazzling description of her struggles to cure her son's nightmares:  she held up a mirror so he could see that no spiders were crawling inside his mouth.  

Hers is a book that could have been published.

I haven't reached the memoirs stage of life.  How to explain that seeing a radical English teacher heckle Betty Friedan in the early '70s led me to move from left to left-of-center Democrat, earn a degree in classics, and take a long-distance bicycle trip?

"If you don't remember something, make it up," a memoirist told a group of us at a conference. 

 Memoirists are held to a stern standard.  We read memoirs for truth, or the approximation of truth. We read them to learn about the writer's way of life, or our own way of life.  

When we learn someone has fictionalized memoirs, we are shocked.  

Lillian Hellman
Lillian Hellman was accused of that.  In her beautifully-written essay, "Julia," in Pentimento, which is surely an American classic, she writes dramatically of smuggling funds into Berlin in the 1930s so her childhood friend, Julia, can buy the freedom of 500 people from the Nazis in Austria.  Hellman's spare style underscores the drama, and this is one of her most moving, eloquent stories. 

According to her biographer, Alice Kessler-Harris,  it is probable that Hellman based Julia's story on the Resistance work in Austria of Muriel Gardner, an Amerian psychiatrist whom Hellman never met.  Mary McCarthy, Martha Gellhorn, and many others called Hellman a liar, not just for her portrait of Julia, but for her account of the McCarthy hearings in Scoundrel Time. It is, however, a complicated story.  McCarthy and Gellhorn hated Hellman, Hellman was suing McCarthy for calling her a liar on The Dick Cavett Show, and Gellhorn, not known for her honesty, was researching Hellman's life for McCarthy.

Hellman wrote often about her terrible memory. She said she felt truth was more important than facts. And in her introduction in 1978 to  
Three:  An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time (in one volume), she said;

"What a word is truth.  Slippery, tricky, unreliable.  I tried in these books to tell the truth.  I did not stick to facts.  But, of course, that is a shallow definition of the truth. "

The sad thing is that everything she wrote--even her well-researched Scoundrel Time--was called into question by her enemies.

Alice Kessler-Harris's biography, A Difficult Woman:  The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, is fascinating, and doubtless I will think more about Hellman as I continue to read it.