OUTSIDE PASSAGE: A Memoir of an Alaskan Childhood; By Julia Scully; (Random House: 224 pp., $23)
Beautifully written, wisely understated, “Outside Passage” is important for how little it tells, for trusting the image and knowing the eloquence of the picture that lives beyond the frame. More than a story of an Alaskan childhood, “Outside Passage” is about something far more difficult to describe--memory and the delicate skein it weaves within us and across the separations of life.
SPLIT: A Counterculture Childhood; By Lisa Michaels; (Houghton Mifflin: 308 pp., $23)
Lisa Michael’s life was marked by her father’s belief that in his crusade to make the world a better place for families, his own family got in the way. His struggle to love his daughter and save the world at the same time, and her struggle to accept his ambivalence, are the painful subtexts of this story. “When my father and I quarreled, I saw two choices before me,” she writes, “fury or sadness. It always paid to take the second path. I used to tell myself there was something honorable in this--to say, in the middle of the fray, you hurt me. But somewhere along the line I got stuck in that pose.” The intersection of intimate, personal, day-to-day lives with the cataclysmic events of recent history gives this book tremendous power.
THROUGH ANOTHER LENS: My Years With Edward Weston; By Charis Wilson and Wendy Madar; (North Point Press / Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 376 pp., $35)
Here is an unexpected delight, “Through Another Lens” by Charis Wilson, who in her mid-80s has completed a touching and evocative memoir of her time as Edward Weston’s most famous model, one of his wives and muses and the bearer of recollection without grudge. How refreshing, how beguiling. She tells about more than the great photographer and herself; she has achieved a cool-eyed and richly suggestive portrait of many free spirits enslaved by the ambitions of genius in a certain time and place--the West Coast from the Depression to the war years. The book provides a rich store of answers and further questions about the nature of love, art, fidelity, persistence; it is also a tribute to a grand survival.
MY GERMAN QUESTION: Growing up in Nazi Berlin; By Peter Gay; (Yale University Press: 208 pp., $22.50)
Like the protagonist of Mr. Gay’s memoir, I was a Jewish boy in Mitteleuropa, whose pubescence was a troubled mix of women’s legs and “Heil Hitler!” shouts; who escaped with his family to the New World; who lost his accent together with his original name; who came of age intellectually in the English language to become, eventually, an American by-line.
All this, on the outside. Inside, of course, Peter Frohlich haunts Peter Gay just as Fritz Mandelbaum ghosts on in Frederic Morton. And Peter Gay recollecting Peter Frohlich’s Berlin, as well as Frederic Morton looking back on Fritz Mandelbaum’s Vienna, are faced by the problems: can we forgive our native cities for turning our youth into a season in hell? This book shows that, yes, Germany was vile to German Jewry, but (pace, Mr. Goldhagen) a number of Germans were guardian angels to a number of Jews. Mr. Gay dedicates his pages to Emil Busse, an Aryan business associate of his father’s, who helped the Frohlichs during several scary moments, at considerable risk to himself.
Here is a complexity that perplexes. Had Germany been uniformly monstrous, exile from it would have been easier. But then exile is always a precarious estate. Often it is spiritually irreversible even after the cause forcing it has vanished. As for the exile’s landfall elsewhere, the heart is not easily naturalized. Gratitude toward one’s haven cannot be equated with the native’s sense of belonging.
During his refugee years in New York, the Viennese essayist Alfred Polgar wrote: Ein Emigrant verliert seine Heimat und erhalt dafur zwei Fremde. An emigrant loses his homeland and gains instead two foreign countries. Not estrangement but strangerness simmers in many a line of Mr. Gay’s story. So does the plaint of the Polish poet whose name escapes me but whose line I’ll never forget: “Only he who has lost his fatherland will truly love it.”
That Mr. Gay can explore such paradoxes in the soul is remarkable. He is neither a poet nor a novelist but an eminent historian. True, part of his oeuvre has significantly engaged Freud’s impact on our times; he is no babe in the psyche’s darker woods. Still, his style leans to the formal side, obviously more at home in tracing the dynamics of an epoch than in evoking intimate nuances. Yet he often manages to do both here, sometimes with an engaging awkwardness reminiscent of Edward Gibbon’s autobiography. By revealing personality he lights up history--the historic spasm, in particular, which ambushed, stained, formed him and which also ambushed, stained, formed me. Peter Frohlich, Fritz Mandelbaum salutes you.
WALKING WITH THE WIND: A Memoir of the Movement; By John Lewis with Michael D’Orso; (Simon & Schuster: 496 pp., $26)
John Lewis was the first protester to disembark from a Freedom Ride bus in Montgomery, Ala., on May 20, 1960, to face hundreds of angry whites armed with baseball bats, bricks, pipes, tire irons and other weapons. They ran at the bus from all directions, screaming, “Get the niggers, get the niggers.” Lewis was knocked cold by a burly white man swinging a wooden Coca-Cola crate.
During the 1960s’ demonstrations, Lewis was arrested at least 40 times and was beaten so often he lost count. No other civil rights leader suffered so much abuse over such a long period of time. And none of them--not even his idol, Martin Luther King Jr.--remained more dedicated to the principles of nonviolent protest against injustice. A shy, humble man of deep convictions, Lewis lacked the charisma of such civil rights figures as King, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond and Stokely Carmichael. Yet his compelling autobiography, “Walking With the Wind,” helps us understand how this son of poor Alabama sharecroppers not only survived the turbulent ‘60s but rose to become a heroic figure and an influential member of Congress. “Walking With the Wind” offers an astute first-hand account of events that could be supplied only by a key player. It is destined to become a classic in civil rights literature.
NO MORE / C’EST TOUT; By Marguerite Duras; Translated from the French by Richard Howard; (Seven Stories: 204 pp., $17.95)
Marguerite Duras, author of, among other things, “The Lover,” wrote this operatic chronicle of her dying in the year before her death, in part as a goodbye to her lover, Yann Andrea Steiner. Strange; it is at once pure artifice, a literary mind in its death throes, and also the rawest thing she’s ever written. For all her French sex-kitten affectations, Duras was a micro-manager-author, and here she orchestrates even her own annihilation, a bonfire of self-loathing using lovers, past and present, as kindling. Much of the book resembles King Lear’s rant in the wilderness (“It’s over. End the page. There’s nothing”), but here is one of the few sweet passages from the aging succubus: “Your kisses,” she writes to Yann seven months before her death in February 1996, “I’ll believe in them to the end of my life.”
SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS
WILL THIS DO? The First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh; By Auberon Waugh; (Carroll & Graf: 288 pp., $24)
It’s a shame that it took so long to get this gorgeously entertaining, witty, outlandish, shrewd, wise and bitchy book published in America. Kudos to Carroll & Graf and shame on the big publishing houses for missing the chance to introduce Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, to these shores. He has written some 15 books since 1960, including novels, nonfiction, collections of journalism and his famous Private Eye diaries, but “Will This Do?” is the book he was, literally, born to write.
MOMMY DRESSING: A Love Story, After a Fashion; By Lois Gould; (Anchor Books: 262 pp., $22.95)
We all think about clothes every day. Or each morning, at least, when we cover our nakedness. But what sort of person would choose to think of clothing all day? Someone shallow and cold, a person disproportionately concerned with appearances. It is a credit to Lois Gould’s fine, lively memoir that the portrait sketched of her fashion designer mother, Jo Copeland, both fulfills a stereotype and goes way beyond it. Gould offers a child’s-eye view of Copeland’s glamorous life that is less a panorama than a series of sharply focused snapshots. Together, they form a picture of a forgotten era, when women traveled by steamer to Europe, packing their entire wardrobes in trunks, and if they lived on Park Avenue, they were careful to give the impression that they worked because it was great fun, not because they needed income.
As in the best melodramas, there is a dark family secret at the heart of Gould’s story. She understands it, then explains it without resorting to bathos. Clothes, she realizes, were Copeland’s shield from unpleasant reality: “Clothes were her refuge from the facts of life--and therefore death.” As a novelist, essayist and now memoirist, Gould brilliantly reverse-patterned, as the biologists would say. As much as she acknowledges her mother’s uncommon ability to create a striking facade, she is adept at illuminating what lies beneath the surface.
NOBODY KNOWS THE TRUFFLES I’VE SEEN; By Georg Lang; (Alfred A. Knopf: 386 pp., $28.95)
Georg Lang’s reminiscences transcend narrow categorization: Gastronomy is certainly one of his themes, but so are persecution, survival, ingenuity, courage, curiosity and business acumen. Ultimately what is on display here is a vividly conducted life, a personality as bold as it has been brave. The story of Lang’s immigration to America and his rise through Manhattan’s restaurant and hotel worlds is often delightful and captivating. It reads at times like “Martin Dressler"--as though rendered with the puff pastry touch of Ferenc Molnar.
SOMETHING TO DECLARE; By Julia Alvarez; (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 300 pp., $20.95)
“Something to Declare” is an extended response to all those questions every writer must field after giving a reading; metaphorically, it is a response to the custom official’s inquiry, “Do you have anything to declare?” Julia Alvarez does; she has suitcases full of history (public and private), trunks full of insights into what it means to be a Latina in the United States, bags full of literary wisdom. “Something to Declare” has much to teach. Here is an American writer, a Vermonter no less, of the highest caliber, almost all of whose work reflects her Caribbean heritage, yet who is firmly rooted on the mainland. This is the American Dream in its purest state. It is an excellent book for aspiring writers to ponder, a deeply honest rumination on the writing life in America.