March 31, 2012

Speak, Memoir title!

Considerations on those of Nabokov, Violet Trefusis, and Sarah Bernhardt's leading man

"It has been rated the greatest of autobiographies, but since such judgements depend so much on the criteria we bring to them, I will call it only the most artistic of autobiographies... it fuses truth to detail with perfection of form, the exact with the evocative, an acute awareness of time with intimations of timelessness."

I encountered this heady description of Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography in Stalking Nabokov, Brian Boyd's new book about the forty years he has spent pursuing, as a passionate reader and as the world's foremost Nabokov scholar, the great lepidopterist and author of Lolita, Pale Fire and AdaWhy did I never read this book, I was immediately asking myself.

I ordered myself in a copy -- it turned out to be the Everyman's Library centenary edition of 1999 with Brian Boyd's introduction -- and as I picked it up, I remembered. It was the title which had put me off! Speak, Memory. So stilted, so bloodless.

But look at that! There was Nabokov in his foreword telling us that Speak, Memory was not the title he had chosen. He had wanted Speak, Mnemosyne, an invocation to the goddess of memory and inventor of language and words. Now this is a phrase which resonates. I loved it! But the publishers did not, on the grounds, Nabokov says, that 'little old ladies would not want to ask for a book whose title they could not pronounce.'

What? Little old ladies? On the authority of having inherited the Classical Greek textbook which my great-grandmother (who would have been in her seventies during the period in question) had used during her grammar school days, I figure that in the 1950s little old ladies were probably one of the very few population-types who would have known to pronounce Mnemosyne.

Coming up with a good memoir title is evidently not as easy as it looks. Humourists do well: I love Jules Feiffer's Backing into Forward, and SJ Perelman's The Hindsight Saga, which I'm not sure if he used or just quipped that he ought to, is up there too. Actually all Perelman's books have great titles, another favourite of mine being Under the Spreading Atrophy. The painter Jacqueline Fahey told me that this American humourist, whom Bill Maher called "the greatest wordsmith America ever produced", will play a key role in the upcoming Part Two of her memoirs. Part One, by the way, was Something for the birds, quite a good title as well, especially if you have ever seen her thickly-forested Hansel and Gretel home in Grey Lynn.

Memoir titles have also been the inspiration for some memorable wisecracks after the fact. Here are two of my favourites, from a couple of famously witty women.

1. Women have been kind ... of dumb 
When the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt left for her second “farewell tour” of America, aged sixty-six, she took with her a new leading man, who was also her new lover, twenty-seven-year-old Lou Tellegen. The son of a Dutch general and a Greek dancer, Tellegen had left home at 15, supposedly with his father's mistress in tow, and subsequently been a prize fighter, trapeze artist, champion fencer, murderer (so he said), gambler and gigolo, before trying acting -- or at any rate leading-manship -- with Bernhardt, after a brief apprenticeship with the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse. He was famed for having the body of a Greek god, and had posed for a number of sculptors, including Rodin, who used him for his statue Eternel printemps.

Tellegen arrived on the scene in time to star opposite Bernhardt in her two silent films, Camille and Queen Elizabeth, in which he played Essex to her Elizabeth (the age difference was just about the same as the real-life love story). Here's a clip of the film from youtube, in which Bernhardt emotes fantastically as Tellegen, as her executed lover, lies perfectly still, Greek profile well on view. Keep in mind that the film was made one hundred years ago (1912) and you can love it.

After a taste of the roar of the crowd in America, Tellegen left Bernhardt in order to follow his own star to Hollywood, where he became a silent film actor with the nickname "The Great Lover". He also became the lover, and then husband, of the great opera diva Geraldine Ferrar, and when that story ended, of a movie actress or two. Not uncoincidentally, things began to falter for him. The arrival of sound ruined his career as a film star, and age, drink and drugs his personal career as a lover. He wrote a memoir and called it Women have been kind. In her review of it in Vanity Fair, Dorothy Parker said the title should have been Women have been kind... of dumb.

One day shortly before his 50th birthday, he shaved, touched up his face with a bit of powder, and put an end to it all by stabbing himself seven times with a pair of golden scissors (engraved with his name, yet), surrounded by newspaper clippings of his career. I’m not sure if any of the tabloids which reported these details saw fit to note Lou Tellegen's prescient star turn, years before in London, in a theatrical version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray he produced himself.
2. Here lies Mrs. Trefusis
I spent many years in Florence as a member by marriage of a large Italian, sorry, Florentine, family, most particularly large in there being a great number of uncles. One of them, my husband's favourite, was a handsome and witty man who had earned himself a place in high society through these attributes, as well as from being a good hand at cards and a passable tennis player. He married an American heiress who had previously been married to a Neapolitan aristocrat, if I remember correctly a Count, and I used to love looking through the pages of their old guest book, where names like Cyrus Sulzberger and Hamish Hamilton rubbed shoulders with the names of various posh Florentine families.

I don't remember ever seeing the name of Violet Trefusis, who lived out her old age in Florence as the chatelaine of Villa L'Ombrellino, but I do remember that there was a family saying which would be delivered with gusto when, for instance, you'd just agreed to a third helping of food, "Like Mrs. Trefusis, who never refuses".

What Mrs Trefusis never refused was passion. You can read about her great love story with Vita Sackville-West (famed for having been immortalised by Virginia Woolf in Orlando) in the book Vita's son Nigel Nicolson wrote about his parents called Portrait of a marriage. It lasted from 1918 to 1921, three exalted years during which the lovers had no scruples about exhibiting their affair, going dining and dancing in London and Paris, Vita dressed as a soldier named "Julian" and Violet as Julian's girlfriend "Lushka". Later there were other lovers, such as Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune and wife of the homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac, who introduced Violet to the Parisian beau-monde.

Mrs. Trefusis called her memoirs, which were published in 1952, Don't look round. The Times Literary Supplement called the book "unreliable"; while on her part, Nancy Mitford, who had run with the same London-Paris-Florence crowd, suggested a better title would have been Here lies Mrs. Trefusis.


You can read Brian Boyd's introduction to Speak, Memory on the Random House website

March 16, 2012

Roger Ebert on going gently

The memoir which came out at the end of last year from Roger Ebert, the American film critic who was half of the classic Siskel-Ebert "Two thumbs up!" TV duo, and which I've just recently read, is full of humourous (but never simplistic) and intelligent (but always just discursive enough) stories about his life and, you know, about Life itself. I wouldn't have expected less; no one could not be fond of Roger Ebert, either back when he was "the fat one" of the famous duo, or now, when he pours his gift for communication into his blog, having lost his ability to speak after a series of operations for cancer of the thyroid, and then of the salivary glands.

If you're not interested in movies, or American life of the last half-century or so, or don't like memoirs, it might not be the book you want to pick up. But there are a number of passages which would speak to any human heart, and none more directly or wondrously than the one I am about to let you read.

It comes in a chapter at the end of the book called "Going gently". Ebert is sixty-nine and has had cancer; as he says, he doesn't expect to die anytime soon, but knowing that he could, and in fact is more likely to than most of the readers of his book, has led him to the contemplation of death, "the distinguished thing", as he quotes Henry James calling it on his deathbed.

What follows is one of the most affecting takes on death, and early death in particular, I've ever encountered. I've read it several times now, including once out loud to someone close to me who was recently brought by illness to a contemplation of death, as Ebert was, and the mix of feelings is as electrifying every time.

Ebert writes:


... I correspond with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. in 2010 he came very close to dying before receiving a liver transplant. In 1988 he made a documentary named "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh". Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself "a simple worshiper of the external Buddha." Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:

     Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.     To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

That is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably take the celestial locomotive. Or, as his little dog, Milou, says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, "Not by foot, I hope!"

Life itself: a memoir by Roger Ebert

March 01, 2012

Just my type

Two clever video clips for Simon Garfield's book on the allure of fonts
How do you feel about getting to the end of a book and finding a stagy sort of note on the last page about what font the book you just read was set in? Although the tempation is there to be snide about the "toff" aspects of these About the type notes -- for one, they only appear in certain books (besides two W.G. Sebald novels which upon finishing last year I was advised were set in Perpetua, a quick look through some of my shelves to find a few other examples provided only two: Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking and a new translation of The song of songs, both set in Bodoni), all in all, I find this presumption on the part of the publisher of the reader's total love affair with the book endearing. In the end, I am won over by the pure bookishness, in all its quirky and somewhat stodgy particularity, of the thing.

For anyone who hasn't come across one yet, the note from the W.G. Sebald books will give you a good idea what I'm talking about:

About the type

This book was set in Perpetua, a typeface designed by the English artist Eric Gill and cut by the Monotype corporation between 1928 and 1930. Perpetua is a contemporary face of original design, without any direct historical antecedents. The shapes of the roman letters are derived from the techniques of stonecutting. The larger display sizes are extremely elegant and form a most distinguished series of inscriptional letters.

I ask you, how could anyone read this and not think that the Perpetua font truly is "W.G. Sebald's type"? And Bodoni, elegied for its crisp contrast between thicks and thins, is it not truly "Joan Didion's type?"

If, like me, you have a soft spot for fonts (and if you don't - who are you?), watch these two clever video clips from Penguin Books, inspired by Simon Garfield's book Just my type, "a hugely entertaining and revealing guide to the history of type that asks, What does your favorite font say about you?" according to Penguin. I've ordered the book in, not because I want to dig into this aspect (having been a bit put off by seeing one of my favourites, Garamond, described on as a family of “usable typefaces with a slight air of conscious refinement”) (I wouldn't have minded a "conscious air of slight refinement"), but because I might just learn the answer to a question which has always bothered me, and which I gleefully see one of the people in the video asking as well:

What is the point of wingdings?

The fonts star in the first clip, in the second it's people unashamedly liking Garamond and even, gulp, Comic sans!

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