Memoir Was the Rage
Recently, in working on a long nonfiction project of my own, I sought inspiration and insight by re-reading three books I remember loving: Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy, Kafka Was the Rage, by Anatole Broyard, and The Devil Finds Work, by James Baldwin. Each is a memoir (with the arguable exception of Baldwin’s book), and together they illustrate how many different kinds of works the word “memoir” can emcompass.
Published in 1967, Stop-Time has the most traditional form of the three, covering Conroy’s life from early childhood to the age of eighteen, a period he spent alternately in the Northeast and Florida with his mother and his amiable ne’er-do-well of a stepfather. Maybe for that reason it is the most hermetic of the three, focusing on Conroy’s life rather than his times; and, paradoxically, for that reason it is the most universal, too, as it concerns something everybody has one of – childhood, in all its aimlessness, terror (there is one passage that, as a father, I found terrifying), and wonder:
“Is it the mindlessness of childhood that opens up the world? Today nothing happens in a gas station. I’m eager to leave, to get where I’m going, and the station, like some huge paper cutout, or a Hollywood set, is simply a façade. But at thirteen, sitting with my back against the wall, it was a marvelous place to be. The delicious smell of gasoline, the cars coming and going, the free air hose, the half-heard voices buzzing in the background – these things hung musically in the air, filling me with a sense of well-being. In ten minutes my psyche would be topped up like the tanks of the automobiles.”
By contrast, Kafka Was the Rage provides both vignettes from Broyard’s life and snapshots of a different era – the late 1940s,when Broyard was in his twenties and trying to find his footing among the intellectuals and lost souls of Greenwich Village. Broyard was to become a book critic for the New York Times. He was also, as absolutely nothing in his memoir indicates, black – a fact he went to fantastic lengths to hide in his personal life as well, at least partly because he wanted to be a writer and not a “black writer.” (His badly kept secret inspired both a New Yorker piece by Henry Louis Gates and Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, and it grandfathered, you might say, the film based on the novel. Once, at a writers’ and artists’ salon organized by the redoubtable Martha Southgate, I found myself talking to Broyard’s daughter Bliss. The conversation turned to books, and without thinking, I mentioned one I had enjoyed recently: The Human Stain. “Did you like that?” she asked. “Yes!” I said, “I – um . . . uh . . .”)
But as for the memoir itself: for someone who loves good writing, Kafka Was the Rage is like a box of chocolates. Broyard’s live-in girlfriend in the late 1940s, he wrote, had “something striking about her. She was a preview of things to come, an invention that was not quite perfected but that would turn out to be important, a forerunner or harbinger, like the shattering of the object in Cubism or atonality in music. When I came to know her better, I thought of her as a new disease.”
Your memory plays tricks on you, which is why I remembered The Devil Finds Work as being devoted equally to Baldwin’s life and his takes on movies. After a while, and somewhat regrettably, Baldwin stops writing about himself and focuses purely on films. That said, his analyses are compelling. For the most part he sees the movies as sad reflections of the American state of mind. There is, for example, his conclusion about The Exorcist: “The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks – many, many others, including white children – can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”
Another trick played by my memory: I had forgotten the way that Kafka Was the Rage doesn’t so much end as stop. That was because Broyard became ill when he was writing it, began work on another book that was about his illness, and never returned to Kafka (hence its brevity), which was later published anyway.
But then maybe Kafka has something in common with all autobiographical writing. Once, talking to a Cineaste editor, I mentioned a draft of a novel I had written. “What’s it about?” the editor asked. “It’s sort of autobiographical,” I said. “Then,” he replied, “it’s not finished.”