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'Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir' by David Thomson
Try to Tell the Story
Alfred A. Knopf: 214 pp., $23.95
"One thing about that lad," David Thomson's grandmother once announced, "you can always take him to see a picture. Then he's happy for a couple of hours." The young Thomson, who discovered cinema at the movie palaces of Streatham, a middle-class suburb that he describes as "a bit of London's infinity," grew up to be a film critic. He's perhaps best known for "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," an unusual reference book that's both factually comprehensive and unapologetically opinionated. Last year's companion volume, "Have You Seen ...?," is another grand gesture, a hulking collection of one-page reviews of 1,000 films.
As a critic, Thomson is passionate in his loves and hates and not a little high-handed, bucking received wisdom with a hint of self-satisfaction. Any intrepid reader of his works should be prepared to see favorites taken down a peg. (I'll never forgive him for the "Dictionary's" entry on Julie Christie: "obvious in her efforts, lacking in either gaiety or insight . . . gauche, limited, and overextended.") But there are few film critics who are as stringent or as observant -- who can pick out, for example, that Miss Havisham's table in David Lean's "Great Expectations" is on the same diagonal as the one in "La Belle et la Bête," made the same year. He's also, among contemporary film writers, our greatest stylist, with a voice that is arch, witty, playful and surprising.
A few months after the appearance of "Have You Seen ...?" Thomson's publisher has released the comparatively quieter "Try to Tell the Story," a slender memoir of growing up in wartime and postwar Britain. Thomson was born in 1941, and his earliest recollections are of a country exhausted and depleted. In a comic book, he sees a banana and asks his grandmother to identify the unfamiliar object. "And then she cried out to a world at war, 'Heavens, he doesn't know what a banana is!' " (The boy suggests that bananas had been banned by Churchill so that people wouldn't slip on the skins; "It was the beginning of my reputation as a solemn humorist," Thomson writes.) England was "a dodgy place until the late 1950s," populated by men and women "who found that the whole dream had broken in pieces." But there are bomb sites to explore; Thomson's own home was damaged by explosives three times. He is an only child, but invents an imaginary sister, Sally, who is teasing, saucy and prematurely sexual.
"There were all manner of lies in the house," Thomson writes. Upon his son's birth, Kenneth Thomson left his family and set up housekeeping with another woman on the other side of London. He visited his wife and child two weekends out of three, and David didn't learn the truth about the arrangement until he was in his teens. Kenneth was handsome and athletic, a natural entertainer, a sometime actor, a teller of jokes and tales who introduced his son to pantomime and sports. One Christmas, when David was 10, Kenneth wrote out an adaptation of "Macbeth" for the pair to perform for the family, complete with costumes and props. "He did this for me. He thought of it. He worked it out. Do you see how much I loved him?"
At heart, Thomson's memoir is an attempt to reckon with his father's semi-abandonment, and underneath its conversational, sometimes terse voice, there is a choking anguish. "I am still, years after his death, bewildered and pained by my father," Thomson writes, "and trying to love him -- or find his love for me." After David learns of his father's second home, their relationship turns conflicted and, at times, physically brutal. The father inexplicably punches his son in the stomach as they wait in line for a bus after a cricket match. Decades later, Thomson's rage flashes from the page: His father said his mother's "close physical rearing would soften me, spoil me, and so forth -- and so from this distance I spit in his eye as a softie."
Thomson sometimes strays away from his story's emotional core in a handful of chapters in which he recounts various and sundry sporting matches, team histories and scores. "All my life," he writes, "I have practiced keeping team lists," and he's all too willing to share this hobby with us, also spieling off the rosters of theater production casts and jazz concert lineups. The book sometimes feels as though it were written in haste; every so often, a sentence will stumble: "To this day, though I haven't heard the radio serial 'The Archers' for years, I know that Ysanne Churchman was Grace Archer [who] was killed on a shocking night to rival the crash of the Manchester United plane in 1958."
When Thomson describes his discovery of movies, however, he is on point, as when he evokes the allure of the grand local theaters. "Their heavy glass doors turned at midday, but at nine or ten the places that did nocturnal trade were 'resting,' sleeping in late, while servants cleared away the night's garbage and freshened the air with scented sprays." In his favorite movies, he finds reflections of his own life -- "Meet Me in St. Louis," about a family whose father gives up a career opportunity to please his family, and "Red River," with its father-son rivalry between rancher John Wayne and hotshot Montgomery Clift. ("They're so alike it hurts them to look at each other," says the imaginary Sally.)
The book ends with Thomson turning down an Oxford education for the much less prestigious London School of Film Technique in Brixton -- "They would have enrolled Puss in Boots if he had had a hundred quid." Looking over what he's written, the memoirist realizes that his emotionally solid, long-suffering mother is "not quite there, not like she was in life. . . . That is the final mark of Dad's influence. That he left us was a gesture that claimed our story as being lived in his shadow."
Terzian is the editor of "Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives," forthcoming in July.