Memoir

Book Review – Notes on Andre Gide by Roger Martin du Gard

Andre Gide dedicated his first novel, The Counterfeiters, to Roger Martin du Gard. The later repaid this act of kindness by publishing Notes on Andre Gide as an encomium to his friend and mentor. What a book! It’s not just one Nobel Laureate in Literature’s biographical sketch of another Nobel Laureate in Literature, it’s a record of some serious conversations between two of the greatest authors of the twentieth century. The author’s powers of description made me feel like I was in the room listening to his subject’s ruminations. I could visualize Gide telling me, “Whenever I have the chance to enjoy myself, I do it.” (Page 11)

I’m a huge fan of both men’s work. Du Gard’s decision to publish his memoirs on Gide elated me. For those more familiar with music, imagine Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page struck up a friendship. Years later one of them released recordings of their jam sessions. Notes on Andre Gide is in the same category for fans of great writing.

Emulating Ben Franklin, du Gard presented his thoughts on Gide “warts and all.” Literally.

The light falls on Gide’s fine head. His whole face is alive with pleasure. He puts on the tortoiseshell spectacles (which sit now above, now below, the wart on his nose, according to whether it is me or the transcript that he is looking at.) (Page 13)

Du Gard delivered a very balanced view of his subject. I didn’t expect the level of explicitness. Even when critical he still strove for fairness. Here’s an excerpt dated 1928.

Gide is being spoiled by the complaisance of his entourage. He no longer pays the least attention to the preoccupations, the desires, the troubles, or the tastes of anyone but himself. He can hardly conceive that somebody should not, at any given moment, be free. And by ‘free’ he means: ready to give up everything in order to put one’s self entirely at his disposition; ready, not only to visit him, but to share, for the inside of a day, his life, his work, his pleasures, and his meals; ready to enter into the most trifling of his anxieties; ready to speak of the subjects which preoccupy him, to the exclusion of all others; ready to laugh, if he is in the mood to be amused; or wax indignant, if he has some pretext for annoyance or chagrin; ready to sit patiently with a newspaper or a magazine while he has his siesta; ready to read the letters he has just received, and to discuss with him the answers he has prepared; ready to read on with him the book he has already begun; ready to go out, if he takes it into his head to go to an exhibition or a cinema, or to call on a colleague… (Page 59)

That’s a long passage and du Gard had a few other issues to add at the end. I included it to show the author’s eloquence and command of detail. It certainly presented an unfavorable view of Gide. The author followed it up with the very next paragraph.

(How unjust I am! And how shameful of me to give way to that moment of bad temper! Have I ever spent an hour with him, and not been the richer for it? Even on his most tyrannical days he finds an opportunity twenty times over, of giving more than he gets. He gives fresh life to everything he touches. He talks as the sower sows; and the seeds that he scatters all around him ask only to be allowed to take root, and to flower.) (Page 59)

I’ve read many biographies and memoirs. I cannot recollect an instance where the author attempted, let alone achieved, this level of objectivity.

In a previous post, I reviewed Gide’s Corydon. I wanted to get insights from this book about just why he published something so controversial. Du Gard objected to the choice, but offered an explanation.

The idea of a public confession is infectious; like the hero of a Russian novel, Gide is burning to affront Society and invite its punishment; outrage, opprobrium, the pillory—those are the things to which he aspires…He has such a strange inspired smile when he disposes of my objections! When he thinks of being misunderstood, shunned and despised—the expiatory victim of a sublime sincerity—I believe he feels enlarged and exalted. (Pages 26 – 27)

I wonder if the Chinese curse about getting what one wishes for had been around in Gide’s time.

At any rate, for his myriad contributions to the field of letters the Nobel Prize Committee honored him with the award for literature in 1947. Du Gard included the following except from the citation.

Gide has often been accused of corrupting young people and leading them astray; the great influence which none can deny him is regarded by many as an influence for evil. That is the ancient accusation which has been laid against all the emancipators of the human spirit. Protests are superfluous, however; we need only consider the worth of those who are his real disciples…It is doubtless this, as much as, or more than, his literary work which has made him well worthy of the signal honor which Sweden has just accorded him. (Pages 94 -95)

Gide once wrote, “Believe those who seek the truth. Doubt those who find it.” If he’d had the opportunity to read du Gard’s Notes, even he just may have reconsidered.

Book Review – On Writing by Stephen King

There’s nothing scarier than when somebody who’s successful at something writes a book to explain why. I felt a bit of a chill as I opened this offering from “The Master of Horror”, Stephen King. As I read on my fear subsided. Mr. King presented an excellent work that served as part memoir and part guide to proper writing techniques. I give him tremendous credit. Of all the books I’ve read regarding the craft On Writing was the only one I couldn’t put down. Most works on the subject tend to be rather dry and clinical. Mr. King penned a very witty and entertaining take on the subject. That alone showed me this author earned the right to write a how-to on the topic.

King established dual theses in this book. He explained that good writing entails mastering the fundamentals of the craft (such as vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style) and stocking one’s “toolbox” with the right equipment. He also emphasized how it is possible to turn a “competent” writer into a “good” one. (Page 142) While he didn’t consider it one of the major goals of the book he referenced that writing solid fiction entails telling the truth. (Page 158) It may sound counterintuitive, but his explanation made it sound lucid. All writers, regardless of genre, should write about what they know.

King presented many great ideas in the book, some of which, I felt happy to read, as I do them myself. I thought his suggestion of writing in a room “with the door closed” fantastic. (Page 155) It sends a message to others, and especially to the person writing, that it’s work time. This is something I practice, and agreed with him. I also liked his suggestion to “write the first draft with the door closed and the second with the door open.” He meant that only the author should see the first draft. Several beta readers should read the second and comment on it. I haven’t done this personally, but King got me thinking. I may need to re-evaluate my current process.

Ironically, the best piece of advice on writing in the book wasn’t one of King’s original ideas. He cited a comment he received on a rejection letter. I’ve heard other writers tell me the same thing, as well. I thought it interesting that a writer presented it in the form of an equation. King wrote, “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” (Page 222) As I’m familiar with the way many writers choose to hash out their first drafts, I took this as very sound guidance.

King provided many prudent observations on grammar and craft that writers at any level would be foolish to ignore. After all, he made his living as a high school English teacher before writing novels full time. I thought his witty asides served as the true highlight of the book, though. They made it much more understandable and fun to read. If I had to select a most memorable one, I’d cite the following thoughts on back story.

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying. (Page 227)

King’s candid acknowledgment of his own challenges as a writer impressed me most about this book. He reached the absolute pinnacle of his field and even he’s faced tremendous obstacles. He explained how he struggled to complete On Writing following the accident that nearly ended his life. In the memoir section of the book he detailed his battles with drug and alcohol addiction while a working novelist. He wrote Cujo during this period, but couldn’t remember doing so. (Page 99) I thought it remarkable that someone with these kinds of issues could still have the discipline to write every day, let alone end up successful at it.

I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that On Writing is the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I found it surprising that someone famous for writing horror novels could have such trenchant observations regarding the craft. He pointed out that to be a writer one must read a lot and write a lot. (Page 145) I’ll be taking that advice and adding some of King’s works of fiction to my reading list.