“In order to have a second marriage you can believe in,” begins Rick Moody in The Long Accomplishment, “you may have to fail at your first marriage. I failed spectacularly at mine.” In this, his second memoir, Moody comes clean about his resistance to monogamy and an adult life marked by sexual compulsivity, self-destructiveness, and “a long list of regrets.” But something shifts in him around the time he meets visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and when they decide to get married, he is prepared to commit to the vows of marriage with someone he deeply loves.
As soon as their marriage begins there are troubles, but this time the nature of the troubles is external to his marriage: the ongoing “contaminating” legal matters of his divorce; deaths and health crises of loved ones; some terrible situations involving his homes; and a long, soul-crushing struggle with infertility. How much can early marriage withstand, and how can hardship teach of the strength that marriage offers? The Long Accomplishment offers an answer to this question: It is a raw and candid account of the power of committed love to combat life’s sorrows.
I spoke with Rick Moody about marriage, artistic collaboration, infertility, and how he approached the structure of memoir when writing The Long Accomplishment.
The Millions: The basic structure of The Long Accomplishment is the first year of your second marriage, told in chronological order, each chapter organized by a month in this year. Beyond this framework, what thought did you give to structure as you embarked upon this project?
Rick Moody: With my prior memoir, The Black Veil, I had a lot of thoughts about the nonfiction novel, the way, e.g., that Mailer tried to structure certain nonfiction works as though they were novels, and about the whole theory of formal hybridizing between and among the genres, between fiction and nonfiction. These were really rewarding ways to think about memoir writing for me, but in the case of The Long Accomplishment I didn’t want to overthink or to labor for an idea of form. I wanted to tell the story, because the story was most of what I was thinking about in 2015 to 2016, when I first really started bearing down on the manuscript. I didn’t want to have a structure that called undue attention to itself. I have done that a lot in the past, preoccupying myself with forms, but I have sort of been repenting of it lately, trying to locate near at hand forms that are more organic. So in this case, beyond the chronological, there weren’t really many ideas about form, though it was a sort of solidifying and emulsifying thought that a solid year was the form chosen by a certain 19th-century transcendentalist for his memoir. In my case, the calendar year was also a valid form because I really was talking about a year, from my wedding day to the dark events of exactly one year later. The form was natural, at hand, and pretty obvious, and that seemed valid enough to me.
TM: The Long Accomplishment is a memoir about a marriage. Of course, any memoir is primarily about the experience of the person writing the book, but in this case, you are also telling the story about your partner, Laurel, and her experience of your first married year. Can you talk about approach to the main point of view of the memoir? Was it your experience as an individual in a marriage, your marriage as the primary persona, you and Laurel as two separate individuals with a common life vision, or something else?
RM: Perhaps the perfect way to write the book would have been to write it with Laurel, dividing the labor evenly, had Laurel been the kind of person who does such a thing. I talk in the book a little bit about the overlap between our creative lives, and it may be, yet, and according to the stealth influence that exists between her and me, that Laurel recasts some of these themes in visual art somehow, and then her point of view will be more exactly rendered than it is in the refracted version of her in my book. In the absence of her full participation, however, it could not, from my point of view, have been a perfect portrait of her there, because it is my portrait of her, and though I spend more time with her than anyone else does now, she is her own person, and even in marriage there are spaces that one inhabits alone. I am, I think, perhaps marginally more gifted at this than the average guy in rendering a woman on the page, and I believe in the attempt, but neither am I perfect. The Laurel in the memoir is the result of all these collisions of form, history, the politics of gender, which make her other than the actual Laurel, and that is interesting, and it is the truth of the matter. I am the writer in the family, most of the time, and it is, therefore, a portrait of myself in marriage, and, I hope a portrait of one’s vulnerabilities in marriage, one’s failures, one’s aspirations, and the way that marriage rises to meet the participants where they are, if they really want to be married. I hope I pretty well captured Laurel and myself together, at least in the moments of crisis, which make up a fair amount of the plot.
TM: What part did Laurel play in the revising of the book?
RM: She did read the galleys very closely, and had a lot of opinions, and thus in a late stage, she actually did help quite a bit with the text. We have a tradition of staying out of each other’s creativities, by and large. I don’t tell her what to do with her photographs, and she doesn’t tell me what to do with my writing. But she did have to be involved, this time, for all the memoir reasons: She is in the book, her family is in the book, our life together is in the book, and so she had to read it pretty closely when I had a finished manuscript. I think she read it twice before we got to the fifth pass, which was when I started to feel good about the whole.
TM: In a discussion with the LA Review of Books in 2015, you told the interviewer: “I like novels best when they have nothing at all in common with the tradition of the American realistic novel. I like when they don’t really seem like novels all that much.” Do you have any similar feelings about the memoir genre?
RM: I’m sort of bored of myself and my passionately held opinions, of which this is one example. These days, what I want from a book is simply to care deeply about it, in whatever condition it is to be found. And mostly I care about things that thoughtfully observe, and which note what there is to say about human emotions and human consciousness, about the great convolution and mystery of consciousness and being. It doesn’t really matter, anymore, what the shape is. Whether it is revolutionizing the form or not. It doesn’t matter what genre it is in. (Though it is also true that there are non-fiction and memoiristic books I love that are expansionist with respect to genre: Cheever’s Journals, Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Nelson’s Argonauts, Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts, Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, etc.) I have made some attempts to revolutionize, in my way, and I’m glad for my attempts, but how many books do I have left now? Six or seven? I don’t know. I want to make something lasting and meaningful, and I’m tired of aesthetics and aestheticizing all the time, I’m tired of debate, a sort of artistic fiddling while Rome burns, and I’m tired of the sort of self-regard that goes with my own interviews. What does the heart want in a story? Something like the truth. I am trying to head there now, where the human emotions find their genuine evocation, however complicated.
TM: You sometimes offer your services as Rick Moody, Life Coach. Now that you’ve “failed spectacularly” at your first marriage, as you write in the opening of The Long Accomplishment, and written a meditation on how a strong marriage (in your case, your second) can weather all kinds of storm, what “life coach” advice can you offer people about how to enter into marriage? Is it about where you are in your life? About what kind of partner you choose? Luck? All of these things?
RM: The book is probably a terrible primer on marriage. I am not holding myself up as any kind of model. (Indeed, my position on why I am a good life coach is because I have failed so badly at so many things. I have broad-based and intensive experience at failure, especially interpersonal failure.) In so many ways, in life, I am sort of hanging by a thread. That said, I believe in being honest about marriage, that is at the heart of the book, and I simply wasn’t any good at it, and wasn’t going to be any good at it, until there was a person, a time, and an age of life, when I really wanted to be here doing it, being in a marriage. I never thought I was commitment-phobic, really, it bears mentioning, I was just intensely interested in my work and didn’t want anyone in the way of it. But then the middle of life’s journey comes, and one sees how little time might be remaining, and the poignancy of attempting to love and be loved, accepting love, these all become things that seem rather precious. I counsel people to avoid marriage if it is in the least a result of normative pressure, or because your parents want you to, or because you think it is what heterosexual couples do, or because now you can marry because it is now permitted for people of the LGBTQ community to do so, or howsoever. Marry only because you want what marriage offers, which is a crash course in intimacy and support and responsibility and community. When you want those things, for uncontaminated reasons, and you believe you have found a person with whom that seems feasible, then of course go for it. But if you aren’t there yet, there is every reason to wait. There is no shame in waiting. All things are possible in time’s fullness, and according to the mysterious road forward.
TM: You describe the emotional toll of assisted reproductive technology in detail in this book, which is something a great number of people experience when trying to have a baby later in life, but which male partners in particular don’t frequently talk or write about. What did you learn about IVF, fertility, pregnancy, etc. that you think people should know more about? (There is a movement to encourage young women who want to be parents in the not-near future to seek fertility testing, educate themselves on fertility and age, and potentially freeze their young eggs, which I personally think is an idea that should spread, having gone through IVF myself.)
RM: Really Laurel should answer this question, as she was the more educated of the two of us on the fine print. There was a period in which she had a lot of acronyms at her command, and I was frequently having to look up these acronyms so that I was sure I knew what we were discussing. I know that she believes strongly in freezing (eggs and embryos, where relevant), as I do, too, and she has counseled people of our acquaintance who might need what we needed to freeze. Obviously, she might have done so herself earlier, had she known sooner what we were up against. We sort of blundered into the whole world of assisted reproductive technology, adjusting to our difficult circumstances as they got more difficult, and we would spare some others the floundering, if we could, which is one reason for the book. The percentage of people who experience infertility is extremely high, of course. I think the CDC says 10 percent of women experience infertility, and I believe the number is trending up, for reasons that are not yet a matter of settled science.
The part of the saga of assisted reproduction that I would want to reiterate here for the lay people in the audience is the idea of infertility as a “silent disease.” So-called, because those in its grip don’t often talk about it. It’s pretty obvious, if you dig in, think about it a little bit, why it doesn’t get talked about, but if you do think about it, attend to it, the affliction is more sad, more harrowing, the more you learn. Our story, in comparison to friends we met along the way, is not that bad. We know well people who had to terminate pregnancies very late, so-called stillbirths, we know people with twice as many losses as we had, and worse. In every case, these stories involve women and men who then went back to work and pretended it was all fine. Who lost children, not potential children, mind you, but actual children, and then went back to work—since few, if any, employers, give time off for miscarriage. They discussed their grief, mainly, with other people going through it. Not with friends and family. Their strength and dignity, it seems to me, is a thing to be revered. Their sorrows should be our sorrows.
That men discuss this even less frequently than women do is in some ways not surprising: first, it is women who disproportionately do the work, and thus who perhaps have a greater share in the way the story might be told; second, where the men themselves are afflicted with infertility, it is in a way that men are often particularly sensitive about; third, there is the politics of men talking about a subject that has in large measure to do with women’s bodies. I am obviously acutely aware of all these problems, these traditions of male silence. But just as one has seen men, in recent years, coming to feel that they have a role in the discussion of choice, a voice in support of women, so do men have a voice, it seems to me, in a discussion of infertility. Let me describe the nature of my support. Laurel was not alone in her struggle, and I too wanted to have a child. I didn’t want to have a child so that Laurel could go through it and do all the work. I wanted to have a child because I love children and love being a father, no matter how ridiculously hard it is, and I wanted to do it with Laurel and to share in it with her, at every step. That means the story, in some impossible-to-quantify portion, is also mine. I too had feelings about it, had, for example, feelings about the twin boys we lost (and by saying this I am not overlooking the daughter we lost, but am just not belaboring the discussion). My feelings, and the biological root of these feelings, cannot possibly be identical with Laurel’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean that I have no part. And, since I am the writer in the family, it is logical that I could try to tell this tale. If we can help one other couple not feel alone, if I can help one other guy not feel alone, if I can help a few more people who don’t know about the real, tumultuous grief of infertility to see how intense is the suffering of those who are afflicted with it, and in many cases how immense are the sacrifices that people make in the world of assisted reproductive technology (we are a very privileged couple, it bears mentioning, and we couldn’t even get close to being able—as citizens of New York State, where there is no coverage for IVF—to being able to pay the fees), then it is worth it. (And: I know you know about this too so I hope it’s obvious I’m not saying it to you, but with you, I think.)
TM: What was the most surprising or important thing you learned about yourself during the writing of this memoir?
RM: In a way, a lot of my thinking lately has been about gender, and about a sense of myself in near constant conflict in the matter of my own gender. I don’t mean in the sense of traditionally dysphoric, as in I don’t have the right body, but rather simply I am terribly conflicted about what it means psychically, ontologically, to be a man. On the one hand, I am satisfied with the idea of difference within masculinity, and I am happy saying: I am not conventional at being a man, at least according to popular preconceptions, and that is fine, because my saying so, that I am unconventional, helps others who have the same experience, who might not identify with masculinity (though I would probably use stronger terms for my inner feeling). But at the same time there is for me an insurmountable interrogation of self that has accrued to me, that has been internalized, for my lack of ability to conform, psychically, ontologically. It was the basis of my depression in the ’80s, or one of its bases, and was a not infrequent topic in my earlier memoir, The Black Veil. But my intense discomfort about one chapter in The Long Accomplishment (I will keep to myself which, for now, as I don’t want to skew the reading experience), my discomfort about my own conduct, has stuck with me, and my feeling about the book, sometimes, about this one portion, is of shame. I think I am enough self-aware to know that this is who I am now, I am a person who has these issues, and the goal is acceptance and appreciation of and respect for the soul in discomfort, with an eye on wholeness, at the end of my journey. But in the meantime, the work, again, has indicated some of the ways that I am not whole, am, in fact, rather injured, and I bring this injured self into my marriage. And though to many people I look, act, and have all the privilege of being a certain kind of man, a white straight guy, inside I have a rather stark dislike of this kind of masculinity, and can’t seem to let it go, nor to avoid feeling accountable for it. It’s like having been burned in one spot, and still having the sensation of the burn, the burn being called forth, as it were, on every sunny day. And I know this is a sort of heavy answer, Alden Jones, but you asked, and because the subject is this book, a nonfiction book, I am honor bound to tell the truth.
Alden Jones is the author of the forthcoming bibliomemoir, The Wanting Was a Wilderness, and the previous books The Blind Masseuse and Unaccompanied Minors. She teaches creative writing and cultural studies at Emerson College and is core faculty in the Newport MFA program.
Al Alvarez, Joyce Carol Oates, John Cheever, and others remember Philip Roth, the creator of iconic characters Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman.
[University of Chicago English professor Joan Bennett] invited us to tea to meet one of her students; it was Philip Roth and the stories he was working on in Joan’s class became Goodbye, Columbus. He was very intense and had pronounced views on the department; his wife seemed rather silent. (Chicago, mid-1950s)
—From First Generation: An Autobiography, by Ernest Sirluck (University of Toronto Press, 1996)
2. Prince to My Pauper
On the first day of a course on Henry James [at the University of Chicago] in the fall of 1957, I found myself sitting next to…a dark debonair fellow in a jacket and tie who…looked like he had strayed into class from the business school…Phil Roth. With the antenna of New York/New Jersey Jews, we quickly tuned into each other. …
Phil wore GI khaki gloves inside his leather ones, but otherwise dressed like the junior faculty member that he also was, having been given a job in the College that the rest of us Ph.D. students would have killed for. …
Around the second week of class, one of the students was going on about the religious allegory that underlay Daisy Miller. [Professor Napier] Wilt asked me what I thought of this interpretation. I said that it was idiotic to read James as though he were Hawthorne. Then Phil jumped in and proceeded to show how eschewing the concrete for the symbolic “turned the story inside out,” that Daisy had to be established as an American girl of a certain class and disposition before she became of any interest as a sacrificial figure. Like two players early in the season who find they can work together, Phil and I passed the ball back and forth, running up the score of good sense. …
The one time he came to our flat, he sat there like a social worker on the edge of a couch over which I had nailed an old shag rug to cover the holes. Though we both came from the same hard-pressed Jewish middle class, his clothes, his place in the College, and the money he made from writing cast us in adult prince and pauper roles. …
During our humor binges, Phil would suddenly slip the moorings of his gifts of precise mimicry, timing, suspense, and imagery and get carried away—or better, swept away—into a wild dark sea of vulgarity and obscenity, as far out and obsessed as Lenny Bruce himself.
—From First Loves: A Memoir, by Ted Solotaroff (Seven Stories Press, 2003)
3. Meticulous Invigilator
When Philip Roth was living in London, I went to the little apartment where he worked to collect him for lunch. While he was putting on his coat, I glanced at a page of manuscript lying beside his typewriter. Philip has one of the strongest voices of any novelist alive, effortless and apparently unhesitating, yet the page was black with tiny corrections.
“Who’s going to notice the difference?” I asked.
“You are,” he answered. “I am.”
Meticulousness is just one of the obsessions Philip and I share. When we first met 40 years ago [circa 1960] we were both angry young men with bad marriages, troublesome parents and a yearning for shiksas and literature. We had both been good students, full of high seriousness, and even now when we talk about books it’s usually about the masterworks we were taught to admire back in the fifties when we were at college—Kafka, [Nikolai] Gogol, [Henry] James. Since then I have written three novels, yet whenever I am with Philip I realize I lack the novelist’s temperament. A real novelist is an invigilator, constantly on the watch, listening, making mental notes, using whatever happens to happen and weaving it into stories. Maybe that was what James meant by “loose and baggy monsters”: the novel can accommodate everything.
—From Where Did It All Go Right? A Memoir, by Al Alvarez (Morrow/HarperCollins, 1999)
4. Boys’ Talk
I have a drink, go to meet Philip Roth at the station with the two dogs on leads. He is unmistakable, and I give him an Army whoop from the top of the stairs. Young, supple, gifted, intelligent, he has the young man’s air of regarding most things as if they generated an intolerable heat. I don’t mean fastidiousness, but he holds his head back from his plate of roast beef as if it were a conflagration. He is divorced from a girl I thought delectable. “She won’t even give me back my ice skates.” The conversation hews to a sexual line—cock and balls, [Jean] Genet, [John] Rechy—but he speaks, I think, with grace, subtlety, wit. (Ossining, N.Y., 1963)
—From The Journals of John Cheever, by John Cheever (Knopf, 1990)
5. Vigilant Spectator and Critic
July 28, 1965 [Yaddo writers retreat, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.]. In the evening, to see the William Wyler film The Collector. Afterwards the Yaddo boys [and two girls] sat around in the Colonial and dissected the film, Roth as usual giving the lead…Roth is a sharp, logical analyst of character and motivation in whatever he sees and reads. I remember that in discussing Herzog he spotted all sorts of illogicalities; when he discussed The Collector, he took it apart, spotting every possible implausibility and moral confusion. He is always outside, vigilantly himself as the spectator and critic and judge. Everything is consciously sized up all day long. This extraordinary conscious intactness!
—From Alfred Kazin’s Journals, selected and edited by Richard M. Cook (Yale University Press, 2011)
6. Tall and Handsome
We had first met in East Hampton, Long Island, in 1966. Rod [Steiger] and I had taken a house for the summer months, and we had a good time there…bicycle-riding, swimming, performing a host of healthy summer activities. Neighbors invited us over for a drink; one of their houseguests was Philip. Already a highly acclaimed young writer—the author of Goodbye, Columbus, a fine volume of short stories—I recognized his tense, intellectually alert face immediately from photographs. Tanned, tall, and lean, he was unusually handsome; he also seemed to be well aware of his startling effect on women. I was immediately attracted to him, and he would tell me years later that he also had felt the same toward me…
—From Leaving a Doll’s House, by Claire Bloom (Little, Brown, 1996)
I was talking to Philip Roth for the [Toronto Telegram]. He spoke in the tapered tone of a man who wanted to convey a casual intelligence and amiability, a man deft with an idea. Slender, a little balding, wearing a pullover V-neck sweater and a shirt open at the neck, he paced back and forth on the burgundy plank floors in his flat, and then sat at his writing desk—heavy oak, somewhat awkward to sit at—a gray metal elbow lamp clamped to the desk top, jutting into the air, it angled back over his typewriter. (New York, late 1960s)
—From Barrelhouse Kings: A Memoir, by Barry Callaghan (McArthur & Company, 1998)
8. Swarthy Glory
As JH [companion James Holmes] and I were finishing our chowder at The Tavern, toying with the notion of leaving next day, stopping our ears against an aggressive accordion and trying to compare notes on our mutual loathing of the local Catholic dishwater-blond fauna, and exclaiming, My God, there’s not one Jew in this town, much less anyone we’d ever want to know! Who should enter in all his swarthy glory but Philip Roth, and Barbara. So they sat and chatted a while, cheered us up some (we’d seen no humans hitherto), and we made a date for Wednesday, but didn’t keep it because we fled instead. (Siasconset, Mass., 1972)
—From The Later Diaries: 1961-1972, by Ned Rorem (North Point Press, 1983)
9. Completely Likeable Person
May 15, 1974…Met Philip Roth. We went to his apartment, then out to lunch. Attractive, funny, warm, gracious: a completely likeable person. We talked about books, movies, other writers, New York City, Philip’s fame (and its amusing consequences), his experiences in Czechoslovakia meeting with writers. Ray [Smith, husband] and I liked him very much. His apartment on 81st St. is large and attractive, near the Met. Art gallery. He has another house (and another life, one gathers) in Connecticut. My Life as a Man irresistibly engaging. But one wonders at Philip’s pretense that it isn’t autobiographical.
—From The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982, by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2007)
10. Handshakes Received and Avoided
Philip Roth came with Claire Bloom to [film and stage producer] Patrick Garland’s wedding to [actress] Alexandra Bastedo in the Chichester Cathedral and to the reception afterwards in Bishop Kemp’s quarters in the cathedral grounds. Edward Kemp, the youngest teenage son of the bishop approached him. “Mr. Roth,” he asked, “may I shake you by the hand?” After his wish had been granted and he slipped away (to become in time an excellent writer/director), Philip Roth whispered, “Women at literary luncheons across America have run a mile rather than shake the hand of the man who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint. (West Sussex, England, mid-1970s)
—From Ned Sherrin: The Autobiography, by Ned Sherrin (Little Brown, 2005)
11. Inward-Looking Self-Explorer
A feeling of authentic French provençal with faded ochre walls and pine tables where you can sit as long as you like…Thompsons, as this modest establishment on the corner of Portobello Mews and next to a new dry-cleaner’s, soon becomes known. …
Today Philip Roth is sitting at the back of Thompsons in the gloom. Like an ant-eater’s, his long snout and bright eyes are trained downwards, on the food he consumes. A book is held up close to his face; Roth most definitely does not wish to be disturbed. I’ve heard this most inward-looking and remarkable of self-explorers has a room where he writes in Stanley Gardens, up the hill. I know, despite the fact of his apparent great distance from the talk or excitements around him, that every word one says goes into the long, this head, shaped like a quill with its tufty feathers of black hair, and lies waiting to be inscribed in stone. …
The other day, Roth went so far as to invite me to join him in the dark recesses of the restaurant. We talked of nothing much, except Roth’s first wife and the novel, My Life as a Man, that he’d written about her violent and untimely death. My sympathy was brushed aside; Roth declared himself unperturbed by the outcome of his spouse’s tragic accident…
After lunch, Roth suggests I “see” his Stanley Gardens workplace. I go up the hill with him, and then up three floors to the minute flat where he sits over his desk, deep in Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego. There is hardly any space, between desk, armchair and wall, to stand in; but somehow Roth his fitted a rubber mat, green with a swirly pattern, in this tight space, and I find myself—there is nowhere else to go—standing on it. “For my exercises,” Roth says. A silence falls, and I leave, suddenly aware I don’t want to be here at all. Whatever the “exercises” are, I definitely do not want to be a part of them. (London, 1976)
—From Burnt Diaries, by Emma Tennant (Canongate Books, 1999)
12. Monk’s Cell With a Great View
Roth’s face is lined now, his mouth has tightened and his springy hair has turned grey, but he still looks like an athlete—tall, lean, with broad shoulders and a small head. Until recently, when surgery on his back and arthritis in the shoulder laid him low, he worked out and swam regularly, though always, it seemed, for a purpose—not for the animal pleasure of physical exercise, but to stay fit for the long hours he puts in at his writing. He works standing up, paces around while he’s thinking and has said he walks half a mile for every page he writes. Even now, when his joints are beginning to creak and fail, energy still comes off him like a heat haze, but it all driven by the intellect. It comes out as argument, mimicry, wild comic riffs on whatever happens to turn up in the conversation. His concentration is fierce, and the sharp black eyes under their thick brows miss nothing. The pleasure of his company is immense, but you need to be at your best not to disappoint him. …
The New York studio…where me met to talk…is on the 12th floor, a single large room with a kitchen area, a little bathroom and a glass wall looking south across Manhattan’s gothic landscape to the Empire State Building, with a wisp of cloud around its top.
The lectern at which Roth works is at right angles to the view, presumably to avoid distraction…There is a bed with a neat white counterpane against the wall, an easy chair in the center of the room, with a graceful standing lamp beside it, all of it leather and steel and glass, discreetly modern. It is a place strictly for work, spare and chaste, a monk’s cell with a great view. (2004)
—From “The Long Road Home,” by Al Alvarez, The Guardian (Sept. 23, 2004)
13. Missed Opportunity
I went to hear Hermione Lee, an Oxford University English professor, speak at Columbia University this evening about her just published biography [of Edith Wharton]…
I arrived early at Low Library and took a seat in the third row of the nearly empty rotunda. Soon afterwards, a professorial man in a tweedy brown jacket sat down in the seat right next to me, which struck me as odd, considering that he might have been expected to leave an empty seat between us in such uncrowded circumstances.
I glanced at him, thought he looked vaguely familiar, couldn’t place him, and went back to working on some writing. (I now blush to think he might have been looking at the page.) Fifteen minutes later, along came my husband, who sat down in the seat on my left. The “professor” soon moved one seat over, laying his coat across the seat between us.
When Hermione Lee took her seat onstage, I noticed her nod in greeting to the man on my right. Then, the person who introduced her mentioned that she had once written an essay on Philip Roth.
And then, of course, I knew.
I cast a sidelong glance at “the professor,” and realized the person I had studiously ignored while I continued my own scribbling was arguably our country’s most famous living literary novelist…
I had just missed the opportunity to have a 15-minute tête-à-tête with the perpetrator of Portnoy. After the Wharton talk concluded, I lamely inquired if he was Philip Roth and told him it was nice to see him. He returned the pleasantry and was off to commune with the academic types up front. (New York City, 2007)
—From “Philip Roth: Another Missed Opportunity,” by Lee Rosenbaum, Arts Journal’s CultureGrrl blog (April 12, 2007)
Image credit: Flickr/hye tyde
While working as a newspaper reporter in Norfolk, Va., in the fall of 1988, I got a dream assignment. My editor told me to drive up to the College of William & Mary and interview a professor named Scott Donaldson, who had just published a biography of John Cheever. I was ecstatic. It isn’t every day a newspaper reporter gets to brush up against someone who has brushed up against a literary god.
I found Scott Donaldson in his cozy attic office on campus and we spent a long afternoon talking. Or rather, Donaldson talked while I took notes. He told me he had met Cheever just once, in the summer of 1976 on Nantucket. Donaldson drank gin and tonic while Cheever, newly rid of a life-long addiction to alcohol, drank water and tea as he talked for hours about his brother, his journals, and his many love affairs — with men and women. That one unforgettable meeting — along with the power of Cheever’s writings — spurred Donaldson to undertake a biography after Cheever died in 1982 at the age of 70. Donaldson, as I would write in my newspaper article, “seemed to enjoy having the mirror turned on him for a change. It was his turn to do the talking, and he, like John Cheever a dozen summers ago on Nantucket, had plenty to say.”
Donaldson is now 83 and retired from teaching, but he’s still writing and he still has plenty to say — about writers, the writing life, and the maddening difficulty of writing biography. Donaldson, who has produced biographies and critical studies of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Winfield Townley Scott, has just published his 18th book, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story, which blends memoir with biography. Donaldson recounts taking Fenton’s Daily Themes class at Yale in 1949, then falling under the spell of this charismatic teacher who would go on to write an acclaimed book about Hemingway’s apprenticeship and a biography of Stephen Vincent Benet. At the age of 41, while at work on a book about the Spanish Civil War and seemingly at the peak of his powers, Fenton jumped to his death from the roof of the Washington Duke Hotel in Durham, N.C. In Death of a Rebel, Donaldson notes that writing literary biographies “is a profession Charlie Fenton had more or less handed down to me.” An excerpt from the book, “Bomber Boy,” will appear in this summer’s issue of The Sewanee Review.
Donaldson spoke with us recently by telephone from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The Millions: Before we talk about your new Charlie Fenton book, I’d like to go back to that time we met in Virginia in 1988. I dug out a clip of that article I wrote —
Scott Donaldson: Yeah, I still have a clip of it too.
TM: Really? I just re-read it, and the thing that jumped out at me was when you told the story about how after you’d finished writing a draft of your Cheever biography, his son Ben was in the process of editing a volume of his father’s letters. And you wound up getting caught in a crossfire, sitting in a room with your editor and a lawyer for a month, cutting out chunks of Cheever’s letters. Then you had to rewrite the draft. You said you were “frustrated,” but I’ve got to imagine you were going out of your mind. That wasn’t a lot of fun, was it?
SD: No, no, no. And I’ve written about that in my forthcoming book on the writing of biography. There’s a long section on my struggle with the Cheever family. This happens. I’m by no means distinctive among biographers in having run across this kind of problem. I can see mistakes I made now, as I could not have seen them in 1988.
TM: Such as?
SD: Well, I presented myself as knowing too much when I got to know the kids. And it was the children that were the problem, not Cheever’s widow so much as Susan and Ben. They’re literary folks, and they saw me as an invasive presence. I understand that, but I never really saw that there had to be any conflict between what I was doing and what they were doing. But they sure did… I’m thinking back to a lunch I had with Susan Cheever at which I made the mistake of knowing too much. This is a terrible mistake for a biographer to make when he’s interviewing or trying to get along with anybody who’s related to or was a close friend of the subject. Because they know. They have their own ideas. And whatever I know, it’s been through secondary sources. I wasn’t there at the time. Anyway, at that lunch Susan had just finished her memoir about her father, which was very, very good–
TM: Home Before Dark?
SD: Yes, excellent book. I was unhappy that she did it before my book came out (laughs) because it covered some of the same ground. So I spoke to her about the issue of quotations, and I said there’s fair use, and I know that the best writing in my book will be that of your father — thereby implying that the best writing in her book was by her father. I’m not sure she was pleased by that. But I think it’s true. One of the advantages of being a literary biographer is that to the extent you can quote and paraphrase and borrow from the work of a great writer, it sure as hell helps your book.
TM: You also mentioned, when we talked, that you felt that the cuts you had to make and the rewriting you had to do made your book a better book. Do you still feel that way?
SD: I do, I do. You lose something. You lose the flavor of a great writer, because even when they’re dashing off a letter or putting something in a journal, they’re still a great writer. I was allowed to quote up to ten words from any given passage (of Cheever’s writings) — and that isn’t much. I did it in my editor’s office with the chief lawyer from Random House, and I was slapping myself on the wrist every time I got up to thirteen words instead of ten.
TM: You mention Cheever’s journals. Back in the 1990s I wound up on a panel with the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card. Somebody in the audience asked us what we were reading at the moment, and I piped up and said, “I’m reading The Journals of John Cheever and they’re fantastic!” Then Card snapped that he hated that kind of self-indulgent, self-pitying crap — that all these writers writing about how hard it is to be a writer ought to shut up and go home. I don’t know if you saw where Geoff Dyer recently praised The Journals as Cheever’s “greatest achievement”–
SD: Really? I hadn’t seen that.
TM: Yeah, Dyer said the book was Cheever’s “principal claim to literary survival.” Who do you think is right, Card or Dyer?
SD: I think it’s somewhere in between. The Journals are certainly wonderful reading, in parts, but I can understand Orson Scott Card’s attitude. I mean, Cheever is using these journals to excoriate himself a great deal — for drinking, for sexual infidelities, for all kinds of things. It’s as if he’s purchasing leave to pursue those bad habits. But there’s also terrific writing in there. He would invent these characters – he couldn’t help it. The first time I ever saw him was at a Modern Language Association meeting, of all places, and he was one of three writers who came to do a brief talk before academics. The other two spoke about what it was like to be a novelist, but Cheever told a story. He couldn’t help it. I can’t think of any other writer who had the storytelling instinct so ingrained in his personality as Cheever.
TM: Your new book is Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story. You open it with the first time you met Fenton at Yale in 1949, and you go on to say you admired him as a teacher “unreservedly.” I’m wondering, was this book an attempt to resuscitate a reputation that you felt maybe had fallen into neglect unfairly?
SD: There’s some of that, but this is not intended as a resurrection, though I hope it does that. I got a wonderful letter from Paul Hendrickson, who recently wrote Hemingway’s Boat, and he said, “You restored a life.” Which is wonderful to have somebody say that to you. But I just wanted to know what happened to Charlie.
TM: Are you speaking about his suicide?
SD: The suicide to begin with, but I didn’t really know what I was going to do when I started. The first thing I did was talk to his widow briefly, and she said a couple of provocative things that got me wondering what kind of life he did have. That got me going. And once a biographer decides he has to start pursuing something, it’s very hard for him to stop until he arrives at some sort of probable answer.
TM: Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, used to say that writing a biography is a little like falling in love. Would you agree with that?
SD: That’s a dodgy issue. If you fall in love with your subject, you can so identify with your subject that you lose something of your own self to it. The first two biographers of Malcolm Lowry, who was a suicide, they both killed themselves. Maybe they had that inclination to begin with. But there is this sense of falling out of one’s own personality into someone else’s. That can happen.
TM: There are also cases where the biographer comes to loathe the subject.
TM: Look at Geoffrey Wolff writing about John O’Hara. That was a dark book. I saw Wolff give a talk in New York once, and he said he came to a point where he despised the man.
SD: I hadn’t heard that about Geoffrey, that’s interesting. Another case like that would be Jonathan Yardley writing a biography of Frederick Exley, and ending up hating the guy. There wasn’t much to like about him as a person, but he did some wonderful writing.
TM: I love that story you tell in your new book, about Charlie Fenton and Peter Matthiessen getting drunk and going spelunking in the New Haven sewer system. Stories like that — and the drama of Fenton’s war service, going AWOL — those are great stories. But they reminded me of what I’ve got to believe is an obstacle when writing about writers. With a few notable exceptions, they’re basically people who sit in a room all day by themselves. Is it difficult to generate drama when writing about writers?
SD: It’s certainly true that they spend a lot of time away from other people. They have to lock themselves in a room and do their work. But they come out of that room (laughs) and they have fairly vivid, not always comfortable, lives. You can think of alcoholism as a practically universal disease among twentieth-century American writers, male and female. The fact that they must do their work alone makes them different, I suppose, from someone who goes to an office. There’s some kind of small satanic kink – this is Melville — that seems to affect most writers. It seems to me they have something that makes them slightly unaccommodated to existence. I suppose there are happy writers.
TM: I’d like to meet one.
SD: (Laughs) They have difficult lives, and you try to understand the difficulty and be sympathetic with it. I’ve never had an Exley experience or a John O’Hara experience. I’ve always wound up liking as well as admiring my subjects.
TM: That makes you a lucky biographer.
SD: Well, it’s a matter of selection, too. Probably the person I knew least about was Archie MacLeish, but I came away understanding the kind of person he was. Archie didn’t hide his light under a bushel.
TM: Are there certain literary biographies you look at as masterpieces? Maybe the work of Boswell, Leon Edel, Justin Kaplan?
SD: It’s interesting that you mention Kaplan because he’s someone who’s been very helpful to me, and I really do admire his books — wonderful books on Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Edel knew what he was doing, though I’m somewhat resentful toward him because he pretty much closed the door on anyone else doing work on James while he was alive. It’s understandable — it’s my territory, right? And there are people in the Hemingway-Fitzgerald world I’ve encountered who thought it was their territory, too, and it mustn’t be invaded by others.
TM: People get territorial, don’t they?
SD: They do. And this can happen with biographers and critics as well as anybody else.
TM: Flipping that coin over, Joyce Carol Oates has talked about “pathography.” I wonder if there are biographies of writers that repelled you?
SD: I think the most biased book I know of, almost viciously biased against the subject, was Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost. But Frost did not do the convenient thing. Thompson took on the job of being Frost’s biographer something like forty years before Frost died, and he was not allowed to publish the book until Frost was gone. That was their agreement. If Frost had died at sixty or seventy, instead of ninety, that would have been much nicer for Thompson. So there’s that side of it. And Frost had some pretty unpleasant characteristics, along with tremendous charm. Thompson simply got turned off by him. There was a relationship with a woman that involved both of them — they were rivals — there’s nothing about that in the book, of course. Thompson ends by attributing the worst possible motives to anything Frost did. It’s painful to read.
TM: I’m curious how you feel about the state of the art of literary biography today.
SD: I think there’s a lot of good stuff coming out. Robert Richardson has done books on Emerson and Thoreau that are just excellent. There are many good biographers at work today, and I even like the memoirs. My Fenton book is halfway between a memoir and a biography — I put myself in the book at the beginning, then try to be as dispassionate and disinterested a researcher as possible, then I sneak back into the book at the end. I think about a memoir like Alexandra Styron’s book about her father that was just wonderful. She writes very well, and that’s kind of important. But even poorly written biographies can be useful. If there’s a reasonable command of the material and an objectivity and an intelligence — even if that isn’t expressed well, those books can still be very valuable.
TM: Blake Bailey recently came out with well received biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, (we wrote in a follow-up e-mail). What did you think?
SD: Rather than maunder along about Bailey and his biography (Donaldson replied by e-mail), I’m attaching an account on that subject. I haven’t published it anywhere in order to save it for (my next) book, but you’re welcome to lift whatever interests you.
(Here is an excerpt from a chapter called “The Next Biography”):
I first heard of Blake Bailey in April 2004. He e-mailed me with word that he’d contracted with Knopf for a new biography of John Cheever … (and he) wondered if I still had the tapes/transcripts/notes from my Cheever book, and if I’d be willing to share them.
It is always somewhat daunting to find out that one’s work is going to be superseded, especially when the after-comer will be granted access to materials you were denied. But with the passage of time, such things happen. So I replied, certainly, and directed Bailey to Swem Library at William & Mary, where my papers for the Cheever and other biographies were located… It was no more than any early biographer should do for a later one, as I’d learned through the generosity of Carlos Baker, who let me examine the Hemingway papers in his office at Princeton, and of Arthur Mizener and Henry Dan Piper, who allowed me to pore over their Fitzgerald documents at Cornell and Southern Illinois, respectively. Besides, I’d gone on to other subjects…
For a few months thereafter, Blake Bailey and I communicated regularly … (then) wished each other good luck and drifted out of touch. Before doing so, however, Bailey sent me a copy of the April 9, 2004 Westchester Journal News article announcing “A New Cheever Biography Planned” …Ben Cheever went on to take several sidelong swipes at my book. In others’ writing about his father, he observed, he’d always felt that “the pathology (took) up all the room.” And, more specifically, “my father used to say that to have a bad biographer was to be stuck with a bad roommate for eternity. I like the idea of him getting a good roommate at last.” That annoyed me, for I knew I hadn’t concentrated on John Cheever’s pathological problems. On the contrary, I ended with admiration for him not only as a brilliant writer whose work was indispensable to understanding the United States in the middle of the twentieth century but as a human being with the courage to take charge of his life.
When Bailey’s biography was nearing publication five years later, the family comments dismissing my previous book adopted an apologetic tone… And Bailey himself, post-publication, in The Wall Street Journal:
“I think to be fair to Scott Donaldson, he pounced before the corpse was cold and at that time Susan (and Ben) had this more propriety (sic) attitude toward their father. Enough time has passed that they wanted the definitive treatment.” On the whole, I’d just as soon do without such defenders.
Bailey’s biography achieved notable critical success, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize… But Bailey fell into the trap — as I had done in my Cheever biography — of putting in too much of what he had found out… Only after turning off the switch on my ego have I finally been able to accept Bailey’s darker version of Cheever’s life as closer to the truth than my kinder, gentler account. I presented Cheever as “a man divided against himself,” the division in his spirit taking “its toll on the man even as it invigorated his work.” That still seems to me a viable approach. But it may well be that I took too sunny a view of his final years, when I portrayed him as finding renewal through his escape from alcohol… (In) Bailey’s book it becomes clear that conquering the demon of drink day by day did not substantially change Cheever’s personality or improve the acrid atmosphere at the house on Cedar Lane.
Probably I should have known better… (but) lost in admiration for his fiction, I wanted him to be a better man, I wanted him to achieve a final victory…
Perhaps no life ends happily, but I depicted Cheever — as I had Fitzgerald, a man he resembled in many ways — as heroic for overcoming addiction and soldiering on. In doing so, I may well have traveled from unjustified fault-finding to unwarranted praise.
TM: You’ve written eight literary biographies now. I know this is like asking about your favorite child, but does one of those books stand out as something that gave you particularly great satisfaction, or pride, or fulfillment?
SD: Well, I guess one way of answering is to say that the best writing I ever did, I think, was in a book called Fool for Love, about Fitzgerald. And I still think that. Maybe I was the right age or had the right sense of identification with the subject. I wrote several chapters of that book up at the MacDowell Colony, which is a wonderful place to work. You get breakfast, then you go off to your cabin in the woods and they bring you lunch and knock on the door and leave the food outside. You just work all day long. I got some great writing done on that book up there.
TM: Tell me more about what you’re working on now. You mentioned you’re calling it The Impossible Craft — I love that title. Is it a look at the craft of writing literary biography?
SD: There are three parts to this book. Part One will be a brief recounting of my own experiences as a biographer. It deals a good deal with editing, and how lucky I was to come along in the early 1960s.
TM: Why, because there were good editors around?
SD: Yeah, and editing was still done. I had Malcolm Cowley work with me on my book on Hemingway. I have wonderful letters from him. I would send him a chapter or two, and in the next mail I’d get three or four pages of commentary. This sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. I had Peter Davison on MacLeish and I had Bob Loomis on Cheever — these are wonderful editors.
TM: Why the impossible craft?
SD: Well, because if you try to construct the ideal figure for a biographer, you realize he or she has to be so many different kinds of things that no human being could possibly achieve. You’ve got to be a detective, you’ve got to be a drudge, tracking down every possible fact you can; at the same time you’ve got to be insightful as hell, you have to be psychologically acute, you have to take an objective view of things without losing sympathy for your subject. You don’t have to be unnecessarily tough. There’s a blurb from Peter Matthiessen on the back of my Fenton book that says I was tough where I needed to be. And that’s good. You want to be honest and tell the whole story, you don’t want it to be wrapped in any more concealments than are necessary, if any are. And let’s say that the most important reason of all it’s an impossible craft is that you cannot know what someone else’s life was like. You can try to come close. Charlie Fenton’s brother said to me recently that he thinks I caught Charlie. Well, that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. That’s what you want to do.
Photo courtesy Scott Donaldson
There were many books I admired this year, books I read and reread and recommended. Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is. And there were groundbreaking narrative nonfiction books about India: Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (out in Feb. 2012) are works of profound witness, kinship, artistic achievement, and moral necessity.
But only one book left me breathless.
I didn’t read — I succumbed — to The Journals of John Cheever. I picked it up one evening after the guests had gone, after the ashtrays had been emptied and the dog walked. I was lightly drunk and working on getting more seriously drunk (the Cheevering hour?); I idly opened the book — and let it have its way with me all weekend in the spare room.
It’s a disheveling, debauching book. Even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate — even embrace — your corruption. These journals, posthumously edited by Cheever’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, are a 40-year chronicle of wanting health but plotting, ardently, self-destruction. Of struggling with alcoholism and bisexuality. Of wanting very much to love one’s wife and only one’s wife — but falling gratefully into the arms of any stranger who will have you. Of the soul as irredeemably “venereal, forlorn, and uprooted.”
Cheever had a brain and body so responsive — “touchy like a triggered rattrap” — everything he sees turns him on, makes him cry, turns him rhapsodic. Desire stains everything. And it isn’t airy, “Chopinesque longing,” no — it’s itchy and inconvenient, “as coarse and real as the hair on my belly,” he writes. “In the public urinal I am solicited by the man on my right. I do not dare turn my head. But I wonder what he looks like. No better or no worse, I guess than the rest of us in such throes.”
I love this Cheever, so lust-worn, fatigued, wise. The Cheever who observes, “I prayed for some degree of sexual continence, although the very nature of sexuality is incontinence.” But I love him more when he’s cross, crass, and ornery. When he’s querulous and moaning for “a more muscular vocabulary,” his face on a postage stamp, a more reliable erection. When he carps about his contemporaries (Calvino: “cute,” Nabokov: “all those sugared violets”). But Cheever the ecstatic, who merges with the mountain air and streams, who finds in writing and sex a bridge between the sacred and the profane and is as spontaneous and easy as a child — he is indispensable.
“Today gloomy and humid. I walk the dogs in a heavy rain. Water lilies grow at the edge of the pond. I want to pick some and take them home to Mary. I decide that this is foolish. I am a substantial man of fifty-eight, and I will walk past the lilies in a dignified manner. Having made this decision, I strip off my clothes, dive into the pond and pick a lily. I will be dignified tomorrow.”
The days are short and few. Stay up late with John Cheever. Contemplate your corruption with cheer. Be dignified tomorrow. Remember: “The morning light is gold as money and pours in the eastern windows. But it is the shadow that is exciting.”
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I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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