A few months ago I spent some time in the archives of Elzbieta Ettinger, author of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, a book about the intimate relationship between Arendt, a Jewish woman who wrote about totalitarianism and the Holocaust, and Heidegger, who had once been her teacher and who later became a member of the Nazi party. When it was published, Ettinger’s book caused a scandal in the world of Arendt scholars and set off a debate almost as heated as the affair itself had created when it first became publicly known. How could Arendt have become involved with such a man? More to the point, how could she have rekindled a friendship with him long after the war had ended?
Since I have been working on a memoir (Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt) that tracks Arendt’s influence in my own life and thinking, taking up, among other subjects, the meaning this affair had in Arendt’s life, and what it has made me think about my own life, I was familiar with, and critical of, Ettinger’s interpretation of the event. I also knew that Ettinger had intended to write a fuller biography of Arendt. But, for various reasons, she had separated out the Arendt/Heidegger story, publishing it in a short book. She never completed the longer biography. So when I learned of the availability of Ettinger’s archives I wondered whether anything else she might have discovered in her research would prove valuable for the book on which I was still working.
It turns out that the trip I made this past fall to the Schlesinger Library of Harvard University, where the Ettinger archives are housed, was both a boon and a burden. What I uncovered in the archives is invaluable to my work. Interviews, letters, and other materials Ettinger gathered from those who knew Arendt will help me craft a more fully realized portrait of the person Hannah Arendt, who assumes the role of interlocutor in my memoir. But such bounty also proves a burden.
A few months earlier, thinking I was near the end of the revision process, I had determined to pursue self-publishing the manuscript in its then current form. But the wealth of materials I have just added to my ever-expanding research files has forced me to confront the difficult question of how these new documents might reshape my manuscript.
Part of the joy of writing is what you discover about what you really want to say in the process of revision. Searching for exactly the right phrase and precisely the correct shape for a paragraph you begin to uncover what you have been trying to say all along. My immersion of the Ettinger archives has brought me face to face with this process in the work of another.
Reading through several drafts of her unpublished work, and comparing these drafts with the research materials she used to create her work, I could literally see the author’s formation of her subject, watch her confront her resistance to an interpretation of her subject at odds with her own, and discover the places where she resolved to draw her own conclusions.
So, I am taking a deep breath and diving back into my manuscript again, convinced that the changes I will make will add depth to my story without fundamentally altering its shape. And since the story I am trying to tell is about the thinking relationship I have had for nearly thirty years now with Hannah Arendt, a woman long dead but one who has become even more alive to me now as a provocative, yet irksome, companion, whose life and work continue to make me think and rethink, write and revise my own, revising my manuscript one more time seems fitting. I do hope, though, it will be the last!
Over a month ago, a group of writers, San Diego Writing Women, hosted a public reading of our works at a local salon. The event reminded me of the European salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, particularly in Paris, where artists and other intellectuals gathered to discuss the events of the day, as well as literary and philosophical matters. Ours, like many of those, was hosted by women. But in our salon, women’s writing was also the focus of attention.
We met at a venue in Normal Heights, San Diego called Hairdrezzers on Fire, the space generously donated for the night by its owner, Sonny Zizzo (who coincidentally is also my “stylist”). We provided wine, cheese and other snacks. But the centerpiece of the night’s event was two series of readings by nine women writers who live and work in San Diego.
Caitlin Rother, well-known author of “true crime” stories, kicked off the readings, with an excerpt from her latest work, Dead Reckoning. Then, each of the remaining members of the group followed with five minute readings from their oeuvre. Kathi Diamant, Georgeanne Irvine, Jennifer Coburn, Divina Infusino, Sharon Vanderlip, Judith Liu, and Laurel Corona. Laurel introduced my book with some very kind words, and then it was my turn to read to the group.
The rest of the evening was taken up discussing writing with various folks who came by to chat at the tables where we had set up our books. I had some wonderful conversations with women interested in the art and craft of writing.
But what, for me, was perhaps most exciting was a conversation with a friend who told me that Eveoke, a local dance theatre company whose mission is to “cultivate compassionate social action through arts education and evocative performance,” was creating a new dance piece, Refuge, and wanted to involve me and my writing in the creative process.
Refuge is a work-in-progress by two local choreographers, Becky Hurt and Myriam Lucas, that aims to “tackle issues of gender, sexuality, cycles of violence, and personal power through hip hop dance and spoken word.” I am thrilled to be working with this exciting company to make a difference in the lives of those in San Diego and beyond who have been affected by the “cycle of violence.” Working with Eveoke is an outgrowth of my lifelong commitment to social action that aims to improve our lives and achieve real equality for all. And it reflects my experience and belief in the role of the arts to provoke the public’s conscience to take action on the burning issues with which we all grapple.
The arts are essential to the fabric and quality of our public life. Please continue to support public funding of the arts. Now, off to watch a rehearsal and discuss our emerging collaboration….
Read and loved Emily Fox Gordon’s Mockingbird Years. But I take issue with the statement, noted in the NYT Book Review of her latest collection of essays, that there is an inherent dishonesty in memoir. Gordon may feel she was dishonest; but this statement by the reviewer seems fundamentally flawed:
“The dishonesty inherent in memoir, [Gordon] argues, is that an entire life cannot be contained in one book, and so the writer is forced to follow only one story line.” But that is, after all the point of memoir–to track a story line in a life.
Although frequently confused with it, memoir is not autobiography. Memoir aims to explore a theme, what the memoirist Vivian Gornick calls “the story”–one among possibly many–that form “the situation,” which is an event or series of events in a life.
Gordon’s reviewer, Alex Kuczynski, doesn’t get it. I wonder if Gordon does? I thought so when I read Mockingbird Years. Will have to read this new book of her essays to help me decide.
In this new and wonderfully resourceful blog by memoirist Amalia Pistilli Conrad, you will find astute comments and links to other writers working on memoir.
In his marvelous essay, “Levels of Reality in Literature,” found in the collection of essays entitled The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino writes about the “I” who writes. “The preliminary condition of any work of literature is that the person who is writing has to invent that first character, who is the author of the work.” (111) And this is no simple process. This first character, the “author,” may be a “projection of a real part of the author or the projections of a fictitious ‘I’–a mask, in short.” (111)
The writer creates the author in the same way an actor on stage creates a character: by entering into a role and identifying “[her]self with that projection of [her]self at the moment of writing.” (111) The stage on which this writer acting as an author moves is the structure of the work; the language, voice and setting of the work are like its costuming, lighting, and scenery. In other words, what frames this “I” of the author is the structure and style in which the story is told. And there is nothing arbitrary or accidental about this framework, which is, in turn, framed by “the outside world in the age when it was created and the age when we received it.”(103)
Thinking about the creation of this “I” in the context of memoir calls attention to the many levels of reality that even this form, declaratively standing on empirical ground, always also operates. In other words, the experiences, memories, dreams, fantasies, scenes, settings, characters, persons, both living and dead, that populate memoir should never be understood as merely written records of what actually happened. “Different levels of reality always exist in literature; in fact literature…would be unthinkable without an awareness of this distinction.” (101)
What then of the”reality” test applied to memoir writing? We expect the author to be credible. But what exactly do we believe in when we believe the author to be telling the truth about her life? What truth?
Calvino reminds us of the truth we seek in literature: Not historical fact, or religious revelation, but the “kind of credibility peculiar to the literary text…matched on the reader’s part by an attitude Coleridge defined as ‘suspension of disbelief.’ Every literary text depends on this suspension, “even if it is admittedly within the realm of the fabulous and incredible.” (105, emphasis added).
Even in memoir, a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader must occur for the sake of the story’s credibility. Could it be, then, that even telling a story the author made up about a life (think of James Frey) nevertheless tells something more truthful about both the writer and the life narrated than any mere recitation of facts, even dressed up in literary garb, could achieve? Or has this violated the implicit code of ethics between reader and writer than suspension of disbelief requires?
In other words, if memoir, like fiction, is a form of literature that depends on disbelief’s suspension, are there (perhaps unstated) specific rules or codes that exist to govern its operations?
Calvino offers the reader of any written work a caution: “You who are reading are obliged to believe only one thng: that what you are reading is something that at some previous time someone has written; what you are reading takes place in one particular world, that of the written word.” (104) Cold comfort?
Discussing how authors recast original mythical or traditional tales, Calvino explains that even an apocryphal attribution, a turning upside down of what another author said “in order to obtain a particular literary effect” is done in the interest of “communicat[ing] something new, while still remaining faithful to the image of the original…draw[ing] material from the collective imagination.” (107) If we think of memoirs as tales modeled on traditional stories–whether the hero or heroine’s quest, or the social transformation narratives with happy endings found in many fairy tales (see Calvino’s “The Odyssey Within the Odyssey”, same collection, p. 139) are we on the same territory, bound by the same rules?
Certainly food for thought as I continue to write memoir.
Seduction, Loss and Forgiveness…A Review of Eunice Lipton’s French Seduction: An American’s Encounter with France, Her Father, and the Holocaust
Ilsa: What about us?
Rick: We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have it, we’d lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
These lines from Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, a powerful and beautiful film about the complexities and contradictions surrounding France’s role in World War II, evoke a nostalgic view of the past. In the midst of all the horror and loss, at least we´ll have Paris. Yet, between these lines other questions lurk —Who will always have Paris? And which Paris will they always have?
Eunice Lipton‘s disturbingly delicious book, French Seduction, brings such questions to the surface through a story about her own equivocal love affair with France. A meditation on seduction, betrayal, and loss, Lipton takes the reader on an aesthetic and emotional odyssey in a book that is part memoir, part travelogue, part art history, and part ethnography. Descending into the caverns of memory, Lipton explores the desires, tactile pleasures and rich sensualities that make her love of places and people and things at once compelling and frightening.
“Darling go to Paris. You’ll be happy there, you’ll see,” her father says, setting young Eunice’s fantasy in motion. Already smitten with her father, an opinionated, arrogant man given to unpredictable rages, whose own fantasies about Paris began, at fifteen, when he left Riga, Latvia for America a decade before other Eastern European Jews disappeared into what Hannah Arendt once called “holes of oblivion”–the concentration camps of the Holocaust’s Final Solution—Lipton takes up his suggestion. “My Dad loved conversation and nice clothes and Paris, and I loved him. So when I am nineteen, I save my money and board a student ship to France.” And so begins a journey of many decades, a ronda of an affair with France that circles and repeats and descends and circles again until, almost from exhaustion, it reaches a moment of bittersweet reconciliation.
She puts Paris in her mouth with the first flaky croissant she consumes “in a room near the Boulevard St. Michel” and devours Paris with her eyes, gazing with forbidden pleasure at the stained glass windows of Notre Dame. With each bite and sly look she begins to possess something longed for, without quite knowing yet what to call it. “My father hates churches. `Anti-Semitin,’ he spits out. But Notre Dame is one of the great sights of Paris. I can’t not go in…France, as something of my very own, begins in the sweet beauty of this church.”
Yet France is also a place laced with memories of betrayal, at first personal—a boyfriend has an affair while Lipton is away in Provence on a research trip one year; the first time her father visits her in Paris, “the first time he’s ever been to Paris,” he is disgusted by the hotel Lipton has chosen for him—and then more political. Lipton discovers, or, more precisely, remembers: anti-Semitism, anti-Arab, anti-African, anti-immigrant, anti-homosexual sentiments are abundant in the past and present of France. “I am haunted by my own Otherness in France.”
Nonetheless, in 1999, Lipton and her husband, the artist Ken Aptekar (some of whose iconoclastic paintings become motifs in Lipton’s narrative) decide to move to Paris. “The reader will certainly laugh, or pity me, when I say that my experience, in Provence and then in Paris afterward, probably cinched my decision to move to France…Seduction and betrayal, I’m afraid is a trajectory I call home.” Why does she decide to live in France? What is she looking for? The four middle chapters of the book explore in compellingly evocative, sensual prose several answers to this question, some more deeply probed than others.
On one level her desire for Paris is fundamentally sensual, animal appetite. Walking the streets she observes being “ravished by the loveliness in the city, entranced by the tracery of balconies, the proud slope of mansard roofs, the winding streets…the balletic leap of bridges across rivers and canals.” In contrast to the color-drenched but tasteless landscape of food in America, in French markets, “indoors and out, peaches, pears, apples, roasting chickens, barbecuing pork, silver, white, red, and blue fish from all the rivers and seas of France heave themselves at you.” As do people. “My social life is lived across my body in a way I could never have imagined.”
An art historian who appreciates rich visual detail, Lipton uses her acuity of sight to mine language for words that can make you hear and smell and want to touch and taste a place, be among its things and people, as well as see them. At the same time, Lipton wonders, and wants the reader to wonder, what all this pleasure is all about. For Lipton, the answer is primordial: “France is that invitation to live. Maybe even, finally, to have my mother.” To have her mother, perhaps. Without becoming her. Or her father.
If there is an implicit voyeurism and watchful attentiveness that all writers engage, this narrator manages, for the most part, to implicate herself in these observations. Punctuating her own pleasure in viewing with acknowledgments that a certain `blindness´ has sometimes gotten her into trouble, or imaginatively putting herself into the scene, Lipton explores the dangers of pleasure. For the most part.
In a chapter entitled “Tease,” Lipton confesses to an unconventional weakness for the eighteenth century Rococo paintings of François Boucher. “I take a long deep dive into these unruffled summer days and linger where Boucher’s girls leap into one another…” Even the excesses in Boucher’s portraits of Madame de Pompadour entice her. “The Marquise is anchored in a sea of turquoise taffeta studded with pink roses and bundles of wide satin ribbons. She pokes her pink shod feet out from under her petticoats. The fingers of one hand push into thick folds of fabric…”
And yet, all is not well; there is a trap door in the middle of the eighteenth century. “But the effort of the display, the fierceness with which Pompadour carves a place for herself at court, feels sad to me…She is not herself…she is a display.” Instead of the “a subversive world of sexual egalitarianism” women’s power in the eighteenth century seems to be what one historian called an “optical illusion.” “There it is,” Lipton observes. “I was tricked. Or I tricked myself.”
And there is a trick also at the heart of this narrative, one that Lipton largely controls, but which sometimes controls her. “How can one live with both feelings, loving a culture and knowing that it doesn’t love you?” she asks and again, for the most part, plumbs deeply for answers.
In two chapters at the book’s literal center, Lipton rereads the canvasses and historical tracts recording the cultural and political history of France’s aesthetic and political identity. As she does, shadows protrude onto the landscape, darkening all that sunshine and dulling all glory and complicating Lipton’s love affair with France: there is a horror almost too awful to imagine underneath and behind all that beauty and national honor.
Beneath the surface happiness of Impressionism’s “glorious, carefree paintings” lurked the “disturbing circumstances that produced them.” Lipton traces a line from them to the virulent anti-Semitism that fanned French collaboration in World War II and continues it into late twentieth century Paris, where the “dangerous classes” exiled outside the city “are now becoming dangerous and for good reason.”
In Renoir’s and Degas’s anti-Semitism she discovers elements of treachery that recur in the interstices of the gloriously “Roaring 20s” indicating “something already in the French that could take them to bed with the Germans.” Ruined by the World War I, in which “every family lost someone,” Lipton claims that their depth of loss led the French into a dangerous nostalgia and shifted the national mood to one “xenophobic and hostile to outside influences.” And so Lipton asks again: “Does France love me? Or will she betray me again, as she did in 1940?”
At this point, the story shifts almost completely to indict France as a country whose image has been tarnished. No longer the cultural capital of art, riddled by a moribund economy and incoherent politics, Lipton thinks the French are confused and frightened by the multicultural society they have become (always were?) and are unable to take responsibility for their history. “The French are sick in their soul, and that is why their culture is dying. Their lying history is strangling them to death.” Some Parisians have yet to have Paris.
Still, Lipton chooses to stay. And just when the reader shouts “Why?” Lipton returns to the question of her father. “I know why I came here,” she says in the last paragraph of the book. “I wanted to forgive my father.” The answer is too glib, unsatisfying. Lipton’s nuanced writing makes us want more.
Beneath the surface beauty of her prose lies an unsettling, subterranean trick. Her clever weaving of history, art criticism, and memoir makes the reader question the question of betrayal that Lipton has said is at the heart of the book: what betrayal motivates her quest? Her father’s betrayal of his brother by failing to give their parents the letters he wrote from Spain while fighting in the Spanish Civil War? Or his betrayal of Lipton herself? “How can one live with both feelings, loving a culture and knowing that it doesn’t love you?” The same question can be asked about one’s parents. In the end, it’s not one with which Lipton has fully grappled.