Have I encountered a hitherto unknown literary genre? The memoir manqué? Displaced autobiography? Why don't I just write about it and let you dream up the moniker. In addition to the three books that I'm going to discuss here, Diane Johnson's Into a Paris Quartier counts as an extended essay about something external to the author that spools out plenty of self-disclosure along the way. How long has this been going on? Ms Johnson's book is about the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris - and it's about Ms Johnson, too. It would be hard to say which strain of the book is the more interesting. That's also true of the following, which I list in the order in which I read them:
- Jane Smiley: A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck (Knopf, 2004)
- Orhan Pamuk: İstanbul: Memories of the City (Knopf, 2004)
- Geoffrey O'Brien: Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears (Counterpoint, 2004)
These books, which have so little in common as regards style and subject matter, nevertheless argue a common premise. The wall, once so assiduously policed, between author and subject, has come tumbling down. (Autobiographies and memoirs are the obvious exceptions.) Now, instead of transcribing observations, the writer transcribes the act of observation. The pretense of objectivity is seen as not only false but distracting. We readers are happily complicit. Don't tell us about horse racing, Istanbul, or American pop music. We probably don't care about any of those things - or else we know plenty and we're tired of them. Tell us, rather, of the impact that they have had upon your life. And tell us as much about your life as your ostensible topic requires.
I was already meditating this page when I encountered Mr O'Brien's book a few weeks ago. What suggested a connection between A Year at the Races and Istanbul was the inclusion in both of personal, black-and-white photographs inserted alongside the text. It is difficult to express, now that both books have become familiar to me, the shock of seeing illustrated text in fine books. It just or wasn't done. Writers as justly celebrated as Ms Smiley and Mr Pamuk were not supposed to use the crutch of illustration. They were supposed to bring images to us via the magic of verbal mastery. And they weren't supposed to talk too much about themselves.
Perhaps I'm just revealing myself as a weird curio who just got in from 1950. But I don't recollect seeing books like these before. (That's an extended "before." I shivered a few months ago over the photographs in Ms Johnson's book.) Mr O'Brien's Sonata happens to be un-illustrated, but like the other two its author is known for other work. Ms Smiley and Mr Pamuk are both novelists, and Mr O'Brien is a gifted poet and critic who is also the general editor of the Library of America series. To some extent, each writer is imposing upon a measure of celebrity earned in other fields to "sell" a personal account that nevertheless falls far short of comprehensive autobiography. There's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with any of this! But it used to be forbidden and even unheard-of.
Nobody who has read Barn Blind or Horse Heaven will be surprised to learn that Jane Smiley owns horses. The surprise is all in learning how long she went without them. Horses are very expensive, of course, and not to be looked for among authors who haven't done very well. Ms Smiley had actually owned a horse, briefly, as a girl, but when she went off to college she left riding behind. It was only in 1993, in her mid-forties, that she climbed back into a saddle. Two weeks later, she owned a horse. And she learned, or acknowledged, a fundamental truth. It comes at the end of the following passage. Writing of her trainer, Alexis, Ms Smiley notes the similarities shared by the two women.
We are nearly the same age - her horse-obsessed adolescence in the Oakland Hills above Berkeley, California, pretty much overlapped my horse-obsessed adolescence in St. Louis, Missouri. Our self-assigned job was to ride as much as we could manage and envy the girls whose parents were horsey themselves or who had the money and inclination to fully support their daughters' passions. My parents, like hers, thought I would get over it. Our parents should have been right, but they were wrong. Someday, we would have boyfriends, husbands, children careers - that's what the horses are a substitute for, according to adult theorists. But what truly horsey girls discover in the end is that boyfriends, husbands, children and careers are the substitute - for horses.
That's a pretty bold confession, coming from a wife, mother, and acclaimed novelist. It is a key to the book, which might be read by someone compulsively skeptical as a romance between Jane Smiley and a barn full of horses. When Ms Smiley starts talking about Hali, the "animal communicator," you have to make a decision: are you going to go with this? I went with it. I put on my novel-reading hat and believed every single word about Hali's ability to converse with horses just by visualizing them. Time and again, Hali turns out to know things that correspond to distant horses' situations, and if you're not going to shut the book in a fury of skepticism, you've got to swallow Hali. A Year at the Races is in fact permeated by mystery and magic. It becomes a view of how the world would look like if horses ran it.
But wait, perhaps they do run it. They are certainly incomparable animals. Of the "big five" animals that, according to Jared Diamond, have been domesticated by man, horses are the only ones enlisted to work. While the others are so much prospective food, horses are working partners, and they have been more or less carefully bred by human beings to cooperate. Each young horse has to learn a number of things that dwarfs what anyone expects of dogs. They live more like human beings than any other animals; they are housed in barns and fed regular meals. One of the funniest lines in this often amusing book is Ms Smiley's observation that no human being - not even one of the Nobel laureates - is so well-paid for a shot of semen. We've been working with horses for a long time - since the Third Millennium BCE, or five thousand years. It's really not too hard to imagine that we have manipulated the equine gene pool in ways that make horses appear to possess human characteristics. Ms Smiley is not to be charged with anthropomorphizing her horses, however. She is quite careful to avoid the projection of interior states of mind upon her animals, and she sticks zealously to the observable - Hali notwithstanding. If anything, Ms Smiley hippomorphizes humans, pointing out what we share with horses as mammals.
The structure of A Year at the Races reminded me, of all things, of The Devils of Loudun. Chapters recounting Ms Smiley's experience as an owner alternate with essays about horses in general. In chapters such as "Ambition," "IQ" and "Neurosis," Ms Smiley offers a theory of horses for the common reader. That's to say that if you're actually going to live with horses yourself, you're going to need to know a lot more than what Ms Smiley imparts (and maybe you ought to save her lessons for last). But for the rest of us, A Year at the Races amounts to a treatise. Ms Smiley starts with theories about what she calls "the limbic brain," common to all mammals, in which attachments are formed. Upsets in the development of the limbic system can be catastrophic for horses and humans alike. This explains why orphaned horses often have difficult careers. And it explains why horses appear to register affection. Horses are high-strung, noticing animals; it's hard to pull anything over on them; like other hoofed animals, they were prey before human beings took an interest in them (and, again, unlike the other beasts, they ceased to be prey in any primary sense thereafter.) Horses are engaged.
(To see how Ms Smiley inspired me to redefine ambition, click here.)
In the other chapters, we follow the careers of Hornblower (a horse who prefers to be called "Wowie," according to Hali) and Waterwheel, a small filly with a long stride. At the end of the book, neither horse has won a race. Wowie earns some money by coming in third or fourth, but eventually his handlers realize that he can go only so fast and no faster. Waterwheel starts off more promisingly, but her racing career comes to an abrupt end when she fractures an ankle. But fear not; Ms Smiley is meditating a second volume, in which Darlin' Corey may provide the Seabiscuit finale. I certainly hope so, because, by the end of A Year at the Races, I was dying to know how Ms Smiley would take a big win. There are hints:
Wowie ran again ten days after the filly, and he predicted, through Hali, that he would come in third. Yes, I was already counting the proceeds, which for the race he was in, a twenty-two-thousand dollar starter allowance, would be a nice two grand or so, a good sum for getting through the month. AJ [the author's son] was home sick, so I did not feel comfortable winning the bad-mom-of-the-day award by driving two hours to the track, leaving him to the kindness of strangers, in the form of the housekeeper. I went to the simulcast at the fairgrounds. I was already counting the proceeds in my head and applying them to the horses' feed bills. But he ran fifth, pretty much blocked by the front-runners until he lost his rhythm and couldn't find it again until too late to make a difference.
Why I should find this such a cause for discouragement was a mystery to me, but on the twenty-minute drive home, I began planning for his new career as a beautiful show hunter, all dappled gray and elegant and, of course, a gelding.
Ms Smiley has written that the happiest she has ever been as a writer was during the writing of Horse Heaven. A good deal of the generosity that characterizes that novel is evident here as well. But there is very little about Ms Smiley herself that does not involve horses. Mr T, her first horse, conveys via Hali the news that he did everything in his power to drive the author's first husband away, and that is all we hear about that relationship. There are still plenty of beans for Ms Smiley to spill, should she ever want to, although by her own account she has been a Good Girl, attending to her family and her career and avoiding demon rum. Still, she has her vanity - er, pride.
The first new thing I acquired after the horse was a new set of associates - riding instructors. They seemed necessary to mere survival, and so I signed up for many lessons in which I was told over and over to put my heels down, look up, go forward, sit up straight, square my shoulders, lift my hands, turn my thumbs up, close my fingers on the reins, loosen my elbows, and relax. Being told what to do was a sudden and shocking change for me, since I was a novelist, a teacher, a parent, and a taxpayer. I was used to telling others what to do. I probably hadn't been told what to do, except in the friendliest, most respectful manner, in twenty years.
Orhan Pamuk, born in 1952, has only recently surfaced as an important presence on the literary scene in this country. With My Name Is Red, Mr Pamuk crossed the frontier between interesting writers whose work makes its first appearance in paperback and what might as well be called Knopfitude. His most recent novel, Snow, is a big novel in the way that Russian novels of the nineteenth century are big novels, and, like them, it is of no small political interest. A poet, who calls himself Ka, gets stuck by snow ("kar" in Turkish) in a remote town called Kars, where his personal fate crosses that of an uncertainly-modernized Turkey. The book is narrated by one Orhan Pamuk, who actually appears in the story toward the end. In a strange way, İstanbul is a sequel to Snow. I suspect that the author insinuated himself into Snow as a way of insisting to readers that he and Ka are two different persons. That may be, but they are both peas in a pod, marinated in the same intense melancholy.
Ever since visiting Istanbul earlier this year, I have heard a number of people declare it to be a lovely city, a beautiful city, almost a resort of a city. Because I was reading Snow while I was there, however, I thought otherwise. İstanbul is not a book for hearty Americans who had a great time in the former capital, and certainly not for any Americans who are considering a trip there. İstanbul is possibly the most un-American book that I have ever read. It is wholly lacking in cheerfulness. The tenth chapter (out of thirty-seven) is, in fact, entitled "Hüzün" - the Turkish word for melancholy, and in it, Mr Pamuk posits it as the bond between İstanbullus and their city.
No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner - the little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques - inflict heartache on all who live among them.
These are nothing like the remains of great empires to be seen in the western cities, preserved like museums of history and proudly displayed. The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amid the ruins. Many western writers and travelers find this charming. But for the city's more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, which dirt, dust and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I saw burn down one by one.
The great wound, all but unspoken, is Atatürk's removal of the capital of the new Turkish state to Ankara, a hill-bound town miles from Turkey's shores. The move may have been provisional, undertaken at a time when Istanbul was occupied by Western powers, but once formalized by "the good Stalin," it signified a rejection of the great city's immense sophistication. Istanbul, like Alexandria in Egypt, had been an international town. The suburb of Pera (now broken up into many neighborhoods, of which Beyoğlu is the best-known) was more or less created by the Genoese who built the famous Galata Tower that gives the great mosques on the other side of the Golden Horn some competition. Robert College, a Presbyterian secondary school for the elite, was of sufficient importance as a missionary foundation to keep the United States from declaring war on Turkey when it finally came in on the Allied side. The new government would insidiously encourage mob action against ethnic minorities, and as the flavor drained from Istanbul's once-cosmopolitan mix, neglect set it. Much like St Petersburg after the Soviet Revolution, Istanbul was something of an embarrassment to the Turkish regime, the symbol of a corrupt past. The metropolitan area spreads on both sides of the Bosphorus, but Istanbul itself is in Europe, not Anatolia.
Mr Pamuk is the second of two sons of a charming, unfaithful businessman who contrived, with his brother, to lose a considerable family fortune. Life chez Pamuk appears always to have been comfortable, but eventually Gündüz Pamuk, to whom the book is dedicated, had to get a job. The gradual dissipation of wealth naturally puts Mr Pamuk in tune with the decline of his beloved city. Happy as a child, he seems to have suffered some sort of crisis during puberty that has kept him familiar with feelings of regret and disappointment ever since. It almost seems that, once he was no longer shielded from the world by the Pamuk Apartments (which he rarely left as a small child), he was overwhelmed by Istanbul's precarious state, with its old wooden yalıs burning one by one along the Bosphorus and its melancholy Galata Bridge stretching across the Golden Horn, crowded with defeated men.
İstanbul is largely the portrait of the artist as a member of the jeunesse révolté, the disaffected European youth of postwar Europe who, once they'd got past 1968 in the West, could settle down to marriage and careers. Political repression in Turkey produced a different outcome for young Turks, however, sending many into exile or prison. Mr Pamuk floundered. A good deal of the latter quarter of the book shows him in an unflattering light. He seems to be coasting, his paintings are mere pastiches, and his first romance ends in humiliation.
Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, part of me longed, like a radical Westerner, for the city to become entirely European. I held the same hope for myself. But another part of me yearned to belong to the Istanbul I had grown to love, by instinct, by habit, and by memory. When I was a child, I was able to keep these two wishes apart (a child has no qualms about dreaming in the same moment of becoming a vagabond and a great scientist), but, as time wore on, this ability faded. At the same time, the melancholy to which the city bows its head - and at the same time claims with pride - began to seep into my soul.
Mr Pamuk thus presents himself, tacitly, as a symbol of Turkey's ambivalence about modernity and the West, at least as it is felt in European Istanbul. The dilemma - whether to assimilate to Europe or to resist it - is in some very real ways a false one. It supposes as a matter of course that Europe itself is clear about its own identity, or its constituent identities, when this is anything but the case. Even the United States is unsure of itself, as more and more Americans are disgusted by what it has done in Iraq. Identity problems are the order of the day almost everywhere (except for China, which has resumed its traditional brash confidence). This is not to deny, however, that the tug-of-war between conflicting forces isn't arguably sharper in Turkey than it is anywhere else in the developed world. As the country grows richer and more productive, voices cautioning against secularism grow louder. Having to decide which comes first, church or state, is a question that faces many constituencies today, but nowhere, perhaps, so problematically as it does in Turkey. Mr Pamuk manages to feel, and to make the reader feel, the tension between past and future to the fullest extent possible for a nonbeliever.
Far from a guidebook to Istanbul, İstanbul is a meditation on melancholy, a state that we ought no longer to confuse, except in vulgar error, with clinical depression or just plain feeling blue. Unlike depression, melancholy can be pleasant. Musing on the imperfection of everything on this planet brings a certain comfort to some people, and they owe it to themselves to rebut the charges of self-indulgence that more their upbeat neighbors bring against them. And, as with any pleasant thing, melancholiacs must learn not to overindulge. Had he not become a writer, I sense that Orhan Pamuk would have wasted away in an uninterruptible feedback of melancholy. Writing enables him to objectify his predisposition, to explain it to the unconvinced. In his fiction, melancholy is woven into the texture of the narrative but rarely mentioned. İstanbul, in contrast, celebrates it, and does so very much in terms of writing. In chapters about local writers whom he has admired, Mr Pamuk zeroes in on the Istanbul Encyclopedia of Reşat Ekram Koçu. Born in 1905,
Koçu was one of those hüzün-drenched souls who helped create an image of twentieth-century Istanbul as a half-finished city afflicted with melancholy. Hüzün defines his life, gives his work its hidden logic, and sets him on the lonely course that can only be his final defeat, but - as with other writers working in a similar vein - he did [not?] see it as central and certainly did not give it much thought. Indeed, Reşat Ekram Koçu, far from seeing his melancholy as proceeding from his history, his family, or his city, regarded his hüzün as innate. As for the attendant withdrawal from life and the conviction that life entailed accepting defeat from the start - he did not think of these as Istanbul's legacy. On the contrary, Istanbul was his consolation.
Koçu was a journalist who sought to "Westernize" Istanbul by studying and cataloguing its characteristics, which were, of course, not "Western." Neither were his methods, in the end. Some things caught his attention more quickly than others - there are far more comely youths in his pages than ladies of any type - and he made little distinction between stories and facts. He soon had a large collection of what in our day might have become Web log entries. Instead, they were gathered as entries in an impossible miscellany that had only reached the letter "G" by the time of Koçu's death in 1973.
Book lovers of my generation greet any mention of the Istanbul Encyclopedia with the same affectionate smile. Because there is a half a century between us, because we like to think of ourselves as more "western" and "modern," there is a certain curling of the lip when we utter the word encyclopedia. But there is also compassion and understanding for the innocent optimism of a man who thought he could take a form that took centuries to develop in Europe and, in his own haphazard fashion, master it in one fell swoop. Behind that gentle condescension is the secret pride we take in seeing a book from an Istanbul writer caught between modernity and Ottoman culture, one that refuses to classify or in any way discipline the anarchic strangeness. Especially a book in twelve huge volumes, all of them out of print!
Happy or sad? It's hard to decide, and ultimately irrelevant. It's hüzün - melancholy. Nor is there much point to trying to decide whether İstanbul is a personal memoir or a family history. Many members of Mr Pamuk's family make appearances, but the kind of summed-up character portrait that most writers would provide are missing, and so the author's brother and his parents remain fragmentary. This is not a failing. (As an exception, there is a "study" of his paternal grandmother.) In a book about his childhood and youth, Mr Pamuk refuses to apply much fifty year-old judgment, making the most, instead, of intimacies that he remembers and reports of what his parents were said to be doing. The blurred distancing, anchored in family photographs, reflects the fact that children usually know very little about things that don't affect them directly, and it comports with the spirit of the book. Mr Pamuk remains free to write a second memoir, from the perspective of middle age or later. The present book ends with Mr Pamuk's decision to give up painting and architecture, and to become a writer.
Some of the photographs in İstanbul are Mr Pamuk's, but most are the work of Ara Güler, a professional photographer who has been shooting since 1950, and they convey the same weary Balkan tristesse that Saul Steinberg's drawings of Bucharest project. These views would seem black-and-white even if they were in color. The weather is usually bad, rainy or foggy. The look of things is that of Europe between the wars, with plenty of streetcars but few automobiles. I think it's all incredibly romantic, but I don't suppose that more sanguine types will. More than one reader, I'm sure, is going to put down İstanbul with the complaint that it's depressing. The rest of us will pull down Keats from the shelf. From the "Ode on Melancholy":
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
The discovery of Geoffrey O'Brien, a writer my own age who publishes very regularly in The New York Review of Books, has disturbed me greatly. How have I missed him up to now? What troll made my eyes glaze over, so that I never saw his work? His essays on Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy and the work of Preston Sturges, which I've just encountered online, are simply great, and Lord knows I'm interested in both topics. It is true that Mr O'Brien's core curriculum appears to involve poetry and poetry criticism, two areas that get less and less of my attention as I get older, and find that I much prefer lyrical but intelligible prose to unmetrical mystification. Mr O'Brien's prose is certainly lyrical, and it is usually quite clear. If Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears isn't quite as comprehensive as its title suggests, that's of a piece with this structural nonpareil - which an unkind critic could dismiss as a collection of previously-published essays and recollections. Mr O'Brien's familiarity with music is not limited to the pop and popular jazz that illustrates, as it were, this not-quite autobiography, either. But deft organization makes Sonata cohere.
Kathleen knew the name of Joe O'Brien, sometime WMCA Morning Man, right away; she could even imitate his voice (how well I've no way of knowing). Much of the curiosity of Geoffrey O'Brien's story is the result of growing up as the son of a self-made radio personality and a stage actress with two older brothers. Joe O'Brien was out of the house at dawn or earlier every day, and he was out many evenings, too, but not very late, and no evidence of bad fathering is advanced in these pages. The author's mother comes together for a moment in an extended passage about a period of transition in which she abandoned the stage for homemaking - home-decorating, to be precise. One has the impression of a reasonably happy and loving family leading independent but not detached lives. It is only an impression, however. As with the other two books under discussion, Sonata deploys appearances by family members only as needed. The substance of the book is not portraiture but the experience of music by an individual ego in a family setting. Details not relating to this experience are omitted. Where Mr O'Brien went to college, for example.
After an essay on the career of Burt Bacharach - both the career and the essay are much more interesting than you might think - that serves as an introduction to the writer's sensibility, Mr O'Brien begins at the beginning, with the music that he heard at home as a child. There was plenty of it, and plenty of variety, too.
That there is music that cannot be tolerated I've learned from hearing my father and brothers, as they sit around a table at the latter end of a suburban afternoon, arguing the merits of Crosby versus Sinatra, written music versus improvised, Lester Young versus Benny Goodman, opera versus rhythm and blues, Johann Strauss versus Mahler, bog versus Dixieland. "I need the machine, I'm taping Parsifal." "As punishment for what?" There are sounds that some people cannot bear to hear: "That's not music, that's Chinese water torture." There are sounds in whose defense people will shout passionately even if it disturbs what was to have been a quiet Sunday.
Each of these records could stand by itself for a climate, a history, a state of being. Each is so big, so isolated, like Greenland or Australia, Later there will be sixty songs, six hundred, six thousand. But for the moment imagine that there are only six records in the world: "900 Miles," and "I Cover the Waterfront" and "Streets of Glory" and "The Peat Bog Soldiers" and "Mr Christopher Columbus" and the Haitian voodoo song. They have to substitute for everything else, and they can, because each is immense. The disks themselves - at once heavy and fragile, and freighted with an extra layer of surface noise, suggest a past surviving against heavy odds. It must be given special attention because its traces - carved into those thick grooves and extracted from them with a thick obsolete needle as crude as a barnyard nail - are so easily smashed. The past is retrieved, but just barely, and it is forever in danger of being smashed beyond recapturing: I learned that the day "The Viper's Drag" slipped from between my fingers. But whatever might be lost or broken or forgotten is nothing compared to the miraculous rebirth that occurs every time the needle hits the groove. Here is Fats Waller himself, not dead but present, so present that he overwhelms the well-ordered precincts of the living room. The sound sprawls. What vibrates here has more life than any room. In ecstasy Fats slams the keys to lay down the unending groove of "Lulu's Back in Town."
The prose reminds me of Sleepless Nights, the recently republished Elizabeth Hardwick novel to which Mr O'Brien wrote an introduction. It hovers between fiction and non-; it seems to dream. But it is always about the music. Even the chapters that are not particularly autobiographical, such as the one centered on Harry Smith's legendary Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), or the one entitled "Along the Great Divide," about the genesis of rock - even these are written from a spot that is much closer to the sound of music than it is to any kind of research. Such facts and figures as are presented in Sonata for Jukebox seem immemorially known to the author. They have lost the interest that attaches to novelty and become as familiar as the steps of a dance learned in childhood.
Two bands are treated to their own chapters. "Seven Fat Years" is about the Beatles, and insofar as it is not so much about the music as about the Beatles themselves, about Beatlemania, and about the strange careers that followed the Beatles's eruption on the American scene in late 1963 (on the radio) and early 1964 (live), its tenor differs slightly from that of the others. But only slightly.
Finally the Beatles were in no better position than anyone else to get a clear view of their own career. "The moral of the story," said George, "is that if you accept the high points you're going to have to go through the lows ... so, basically, it's all good." They knew what it was like to have been a Beatle, but not really - or only by inference - what it looked like to everybody else. This led to odd distortions in tone, as if after all they had not really grasped the singularity of their fate. From inside the rocket was not necessarily the best vantage point for charting its trajectory.
The far more tortured story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys underlies "The Lonely Sea," written, ostensibly, as a letter to an old friend, perhaps an old flame, named Rhonda, with whom as a young man he watched the Beach Boys turn from a shiny and somewhat simpleminded California glee club to the house organ of a lost man.
The music had passed out of range like a lost radio signal. In time even the thought of it was lost: it was an ellipsis signifying "no point in going there again." Some time in there - was it before or after the release of Carl and the Passions, that most disappointing of Beach Boys disappointments? - we began living in separate apartments, and consequently whatever music we had shared underwent a sea-change. What had denoted the future denoted the past; the symbol of opening became an emblematic padlock. Whatever rumors circulated about Brian - his collapse, his vanishing into his bedroom for years at a time - served as a terrifying reminder of how badly the most splendid hopes could fail. We were losing him; we had lost him.
This is music appreciation carried out on an exalted and intimate plane. It grasps supposedly disposable entertainment with an authority that is yet too personal, and too comfortable, to seem "serious." There are only a few moments when a reader might feel a strain beneath one of Mr O'Brien's poised stretches, but because he never condescends to argue the importance of what he's talking about, his book is as natural as breathing - breathing with occasional excitement, perhaps, but involuntary. And that, finally, is what persuades. The author's total faith in the music that he writes about here puts his book in a class with Donald Francis Tovey's essays about classical music - music that is more widely accorded the descriptor "serious."
As sources of information about their authors, these three books would be disappointments. Notwithstanding the frequent references to family members and personal experiences, none offers the kind of neatly packaged self-portrait that allows readers to indulge in the comfortable illusion that they "know" the author once they've consumed it. Similarly, as books "about" different topics - thoroughbreds, Istanbul, pop music - none would make good introductions to its material. Each one presumes, consciously or not, a pre-existing familiarity with its subject-matter. Why, then, are we not to dismiss them as failures? Because, I believe, they represent a new and successful manner of representing experience. The sense of lived experience is so strong in all three books precisely because the people who wrote them resist informative summation, which, however useful, is always dead, at least in the way that hair is dead. They hew instead to the rhythms of memory, which are almost always on the edge of incoherence.
None of these books, I daresay, would have been published in its actual form had its writer not already carried a certain reputation, the kind of reputation that will inspire admiring readers to follow him into new territory - to buy, that is, pigs in pokes. Mr O'Brien, as I say, came to me as a surprise in the middle of last week, but I acquired the other two writers' books because they have established themselves in my mind as Major Writers. I suppose it didn't hurt that I learned how to ride when I was a boy (although I didn't stick with it), or that I was in Istanbul for the first time last January, or that, like almost everyone my age (and Mr O'Brien's), I know the songs of the Sixties. Perhaps these books were interesting because they were really about - me. (August 2005)
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press