Several years ago I read Zweig’s biography of Balzac and it remains one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Balzac led an impassioned, rigorous and tragically bumbling life that is great fun to read about. But what was so gripping about this book was the tension between Zweig who was evidently a writer of high ideals and his subject Balzac who was a brilliantly gifted writer with frivolous values. Zweig was a man dedicated to art and a freedom of spirit. Balzac desired status and fortune and only wrote so prolifically to get himself out of the enormous debts he accrued through get-rich-quick schemes. Thus reading Zweig’s intense frustration at Balzac’s indifference to his obvious talent and foolish striving for material goods and pretentious society is incredibly compelling to read about. Zweig is a thoroughly subjective biographer who makes his opinions known in a way that works so well more than a biographer trying to present an objective portrait of a life. He sticks to the facts, but focuses on aspects of his subject’s personal history and the statements their work made which he deems important to our culture and that have the most relevance to where he was in his own life.

“Montaigne” is a biography which is almost more compelling for what it says about Zweig than it does about his subject. Translator Will Stone gives a thorough and intelligent introduction to this brief book which is more a sketch of Montaigne’s life than a comprehensive account. (His biography of Balzac was much more extensive.) Normally I get impatient with such introductions and want to get to the real text of the book I’ve bought. But Stone’s account gives vital information about where Zweig was in his life when he wrote about Montaigne and why he was so drawn to this subject at this point in his life. Zweig famously retreated to a house in Brazil to escape the increasing influence of Hitler’s rise to power and the authoritarian forces threatening Europe. Despairing about the state of the world, he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.

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    “What Montaigne seeks is his interior self… which Goethe labelled the ‘citadel’, where all access is prohibited… This citadel, which for Goethe was only symbolic, Montaigne erects with real stones, a lock and a key… the famous tower of Montaigne.”

“What Montaigne seeks is his interior self… which Goethe labelled the ‘citadel’, where all access is prohibited… This citadel, which for Goethe was only symbolic, Montaigne erects with real stones, a lock and a key… the famous tower of Montaigne.”

This biography was written in the crucial year before this act and the psychological cracks show in the text. The first section of the biography is an impassioned account of Montaigne’s high ideals. The values which he believed Montaigne exhibited are ones which felt so crucially relevant to Zweig’s own life that he seized upon him as a subject for the highest reverence. Zweig feverishly states: “Only he whose soul is in turmoil, forced to live in an epoch where war, violence and ideological tyranny threaten the life of every individual, and the most precious substance in that life, the freedom of the soul, can know how much courage, sincerity and resolve are required to remain faithful to his inner self in these times of the herd’s rampancy.” It’s as if he’s leapt upon Montaigne as a life raft in a time where he felt hemmed in by the ideological forces of his time which threatened the civilization Zweig valued so highly.

Zweig focuses on only the most crucial facts of Montaigne’s life, those which are relevant to him, and skips over huge chunks. What he seizes upon is gold and wholly engaging. No doubt if Zweig had lived longer he would have written much more extensively about this famous essayist. I can feel very sympathetic to Montaigne’s abrupt removal from his family and public life in his late thirties since it’s the same age I’m at now. Montaigne retreated to a tower to study, read and write while blocking out the everyday distracting realties of the world as much as possible. As a great reader Montaigne felt “Books are my kingdom. And here I seek to reign as absolute lord.” It’s interesting the way that Montaigne’s life played out – because, of course, however much we try to completely retreat into books the world draws us back into it. Montaigne’s reading tastes suited Zweig perfectly as he remarks “Concerning Montaigne’s judgement on books I am 100 per cent in accordance.” Thus Zweig found in Montaigne an intellectual kinship across centuries and found strength to stand against the tyranny of his own time. More disturbingly, it’s possible that Montaigne’s reasoning might have heavily influenced Zweig’s own decision to end his own life. This can be intimated in the line: “the last freedom: in the face of death. Life hangs on the will of others, but death on our own will.”

This is such a fascinating book for what it says about both its biographer Stefan Zweig and its subject of Montaigne. I’m now inspired to go out and read more by both of these fascinating authors.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesStefan Zweig

Do you think of your life as a narrative? Casting your mind back do you hit upon “landmark” moments that set you on a course to becoming the person you are now? Last year I started spending more time with an acquaintance who I’d casually known for years. Increasingly we discussed books and went to events together although we didn’t really know all that much about each other. So one evening while we were having dinner he suddenly looked up at me and asked “Who are you?” I had to mentally scramble around quite quickly picking up and arranging all those introductory phrases and things you say at social gatherings to present a coherent answer to this. We’re accustomed to constructing narratives, forever tweaking and refining them, to make sense of our lives. It’s not that we necessarily try to fictionalize elements of the past, but that we attempt to make our lives into a complete comprehensible story rather than a series of slapdash experiences dependent upon chance and sporadic bursts of willpower which is the existence of most people. As Lively writes, “Most of us settle for the disconcerting muddle of what we intended and what came along, and try to see it as some kind of whole.” The trouble is that giving an approximate linear shape to our lives doesn’t really convey the experience as it was lived or how that experience has been translated into the memories inside our heads. Penelope Lively is very aware of this problem. Our lives don’t play through like a grand fictional narrative on a movie screen starting at birth and ending in death. Life exists in the sensory moment and in the scattered fragments of memory flitting through our minds throughout every day. 

Lively has previously given us her fictional representation of this in her lauded novel ‘Moon Tiger’. Here a life is presented in an impressionistic way. The story doesn’t move from start to finish but leaps around settling here and there upon episodes through a variety of narrative points of view. ‘Ammonites and Flying Fish’ which Lively admits is not a traditional memoir uses a similar tactic when trying to present a picture of her own life now that she’s over eighty years old. She muses upon what old age means now and how it’s transformed her personality: “We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation.” In many ways Lively feels like the same person she was when she was younger, but now she has a lot of memories to mull through. “We are the same, but different, and equipped now with a comet trail of completed time, the memory trail.” She finds old age has its challenges and also its freedoms and pleasures. There are physical problems, but she’s liberated by the fact that she doesn’t feel obligated to do anything that she doesn’t want to do. Lively muses upon the social impact of people living longer and how society reacts and is transformed by this new aging portion of the population.

Memory is a troublesome issue for Lively – both the process and the way memories are used to give coherence to our lives. Throughout the book she refers back to the strange phenomenon of memory loss when it comes to names. It’s a common problem and one that is often cited by writers and psychologists, but nobody can ever answer why it is that being unable to recall the name of someone you met last week would be more difficult than remembering the capital of Indonesia. It annoys her that no one has an answer and the problem annoys me too as it’s a difficulty I’m prone to though I’m less than half Lively’s age. In addition to losing the ability to recall names as easily, Lively finds herself unable to look forward to the future so much as continuously circling back through thoughts of the past. “What is at issue, it seems to me, is a new and disturbing relationship with time.” And so she casts her mind back and tries to construct a portrait of her life.

ammonites.jpg

Hilariously, Lively remarks that “we old talk too much about the past.” In the chapter which immediately proceeds this that is exactly what she does: goes on for a hundred or so pages talking about the past in an engaging way. Personally I love hearing interesting older people talk about the past and Lively is an incredibly fascinating individual. When she describes the beginning of her life she juxtaposes her personal memories of growing up in Egypt with general historical knowledge of social and political upheaval of the time whether that be the Suez Crisis or the nuclear attack threat of the Cold War. She also supplements this knowledge with documents including her personal writing or articles and books from the time. This connection to history is very important to her. “If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as a part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time.”

Lively has a preoccupation with time and a desire to define the meaning of time which eerily reflects Ali Smith in her book ‘Artful’ which I read recently. Lively remarks that “linguistically, we are positively cavalier about it – we make it, we spend it, we have it, we find it, we serve it, we mark it. Last time, next time, in time, half-time – one of the most flexible words going, one of the most reached for, a concept for all purposes.” Smith also notes this flexibility and ponders our relationship with it: “Time means. Time will tell. It’s consequence, suspense, morality, mortality. Boxers fight in bouts between bells ringing time. Prisoners do time. Time’s just ‘one damn thing after another,’ Margaret Atwood says. That sounds like conventional narrative plot. And at the end of our allotted time, we’ll end up in one of those, a conventional plot I mean, unless we stipulate otherwise in our wills.” Time is the map we use to locate ourselves within whether that be recalling when we first kissed someone, arriving at work or planning to retire. We exist in time and we wouldn’t have any conception of our place in the world without it.

Lively notes some grand changes in society since the time she was young remarking specifically upon the advancement of equality for women and acceptance of homosexuality. Then she changes tact, giving an impression of her life by recounting a series of seemingly random memories and sensations. Next she presents a group of objects in her house and the personal significance of each item. Objects for her are all artefacts of the past, in some ways more reliable for recounting history than anyone’s subjective account. “It is objects, things like these scraps of pottery, that have most keenly conjured up all those elsewheres – inaccessible but eerily available to the imagination.” Finally, she ends discussing the meaning books and writing have had upon her life.

Penelope Lively discusses reading, history, fiction and nonfiction at Yale University in 2009.

Lively is someone who is passionate about literature. For her, “books are not acquisitions, they are necessities.” She feels her life is not just informed from what she has read, but literally is a part of her past and who she is: “What we have read makes us what we are – quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience.” The books we read allow us to experience lives we can never lead bound as we are in our own particular circumstances of our own particular time period. She has found this in both fiction and non-fiction. Her dedication to literature and illuminating thoughts on what books mean to us struck an emotional chord with me. Lively is someone dedicated to not just telling stories, but constantly pushing the boundaries of narrative itself and finding new radiant ways of writing. She has a wonderful quip which is a play upon a famous TS Eliot line: “I can measure out my life in books.” This book shows a new way of measuring one individual’s life. One that is honest, artful and enlightening.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPenelope Lively

Getting under the covers with Gore Vidal is a terrifying prospect when thinking about the last time I saw him appear live on television. It was when David Dimbleby interviewed Vidal after Obama’s election in 2008. The elderly Vidal was haughty, argumentative and made no sense. Since he was such a vocal and frequent presence on television throughout his life, Tim Teeman references this incident in the book as the nadir of Vidal’s many public appearances due to his evident mental and physical decline. The appearance was particularly embarrassing in relation to thinking about a time when I’d seen him several years before give a reading at a PEN event in London. After the event people were mingling in the corridor chatting away when Vidal’s long-term partner Howard came bursting through clearing a path with a walking stick and grumbling “Make way! Make way!” as Vidal followed behind him strutting with his nose held high like an imperial statesman while everyone looked upon him with awe. People surrounding him practically bowed in respect. Looking past his status and accomplishments, consider portraits of the tall masculine intellectual stud in his heyday and the prospect of slipping in bed with Vidal is much more enticing. I was ambiguous about wanting to go there, but now that I’ve read this insightful, entertaining and admirable biography I’m glad that I did. In this book Teeman disentangles Vidal’s complicated position on sexuality while constructing a history of his erotic life. In doing so he creates an important portrait of one of recent gay history’s most controversial figures. 'In Bed with Gore Vidal' prompts us to challenge our assumptions and ask vital questions about how we define sexuality on a personal, social and political level.

Teeman makes clear at the beginning: “This is a book with sexuality at its heart; it is neither a general biography nor evaluation of Vidal’s writing career.” Through rigorous research and clear analysis Teeman manages to compile a collage of opinions both about Vidal’s sexuality and what sexuality means for an individual in relation to society. Drawing on an impressive range of resources, Teeman’s references draw upon Vidal’s books, letters between Vidal and his friends, interviews with a huge variety of people Vidal knew intimately, an important unpublished interview the publisher Don Weise conducted with Vidal in 1999, research material for an unfinished biography by Walter Clemons which was largely destroyed and an interview Teeman conducted with Vidal himself a few years prior to his death. Like a review of the last century’s most influential figures names of prominent politicians, writers and Hollywood actors are listed as having not only been acquainted with Vidal but close personal friends: Jackie and JFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, Princess Margaret, Rudolf Nureyev, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Paul Bowles, Muriel Spark, Anais Nin, Christopher Isherwood, Edmund White, Rock Hudson, Greta Garbo, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and many others. Naturally all these opinions and viewpoints about Vidal are sometimes in conflict with one another and present a series of contradictions.

Even just by scratching the surface of Vidal’s life a huge variety of questions arise about what the writer did in bed especially when considering Vidal’s ability to “embellish” the facts and present a carefully monitored public persona. Did Vidal really have sexual relations with the long-dead Jimmie Trimble who Vidal always considered his great lost love and masculine ideal? Did he ever have a cock in his mouth or was he only into mutual masturbation? Was Vidal indifferent about the AIDS crisis or deeply moved by it? Was he a great lover of women or was his close relationships with them only platonic? Did he really suck off and fuck Jack Kerouac in the Chelsea Hotel? Did he ever have sex with Howard, his partner of over 50 years, or (as he claimed in interviews) never have sex with him? Can Vidal, with all these questions swirling around him, legitimately claim not to be gay?

A small part of a 2008 interview with Gore Vidal speaking about sexuality at his home in Hollywood.

By presenting these queries with an even-handed array of references and offering his own diligent clear-sighted commentary Teeman constructs what feels like an accurate reconciliation between how Vidal presented himself as someone who claimed “There is no such thing as a homosexual person” and a man who lived with another man for over fifty years while having countless sexual encounters with male prostitutes. In some ways it all seems to come down to semantics as Teeman notes: “Vidal thought ‘gay’ referred to a sexual act, rather than a sexual identity.” Since Vidal saw sexual identity as always being fluid, people can’t ever be defined as either homosexual or heterosexual in his mind. 

There is a niggling sense throughout the book that his position on sexuality is largely founded on Vidal’s own fear of having his public image diminished by being labelled as gay: “He knew his political destiny would be betrayed by his gay sexuality – this taint.” That a public image could be diminished by a queer label was something he learned well after the reception of his ground-breaking novel ‘The City and The Pillar’ upon publication in 1948. On multiple occasions Vidal tried to be elected into government and harboured a longstanding daydream wish to one day become president. With these ambitions for power and overall public approval, it’s not surprising that, as Teeman observes, “his mind never allowed that ‘gay’ could mean firm wrists, men of all kinds having sex with, and loving, one another and being open about it; even realizing the potency of its political appropriation, or something to reveal, rather than hide.” Vidal had his definition and he stuck to it without considering how it might reflect on his personal longstanding relationship with Howard or the way it might be interpreted by society as self-denial.

Vidal always became very disgruntled if anyone tried to fix these labels on him. It’s humorous to think how the author, so deeply concerned about his self image, would have hated that this book exists. Now that Vidal is dead riffling around the sacred bed to discover his dirty underclothes gives the reader a giddy feeling of transgression – like when Colm Tóibín depicted the inner life of the deeply private Henry James in his novel 'The Master'. Such audacity can seemingly only occur after the subject’s passing. Vidal reveals himself as a hypocrite when he affixed the label of homosexual on Henry James even though this is something no one can know for sure. Teeman points out the “irony in Vidal freely casting James as a homosexual and homosexual writer, whereas he strenuously resisted any such definitions being applied to himself.” This is another indication of Vidal’s tremendous arrogance, but also what made him so enthralling to listen to as he was clearly a great gossip. He knew almost everyone worth knowing so could either recite accounts based on experience or spin believable fables to suit his purpose.

This is the well known incident between William Buckley and Gore Vidal that occurred during ABC's coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

This resistance to embrace terms like “homosexual” and “gay” in relation to himself often led to feelings of animosity between the gay community and Vidal – something Vidal was never that bothered about as he felt “There is no fellow feeling particularly.” In addition, as can be seen in many recorded interviews with Vidal, he enjoyed a good scrap and enjoyed stirring heated debate. However, Teeman records how through some clear-intentioned writing, sporadic acts of charity and support for gay activism Vidal backed his claim when he once said to someone “I am on your team. After all, I’ve been there all along.” Maybe he didn’t do everything he could, but he played a part. Perhaps even by standing alone with his radical opinions he progressed ideas in society in ways that aren’t so clear-cut. As Teeman wryly notes: “He was a renegade, not a crusader.” And, after all, this raises one of the questions central to the heart of this book: was Vidal a sexual pioneer creating a level playing field or an old-fashioned relic who was too worried what people would think? There is no clear answer to this question or any of the other many questions raised by the fascinating and frustrating figure of Vidal. The fact that we’re forced to question and challenge our own beliefs and assumptions when considering him is what makes him so interesting to study. For that reason, Tim Teeman has produced a valuable biography and study that takes sex seriously while also providing a fantastically titillating read.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTim Teeman