Lives on show
A flood of memoirs signals summer, writes Deborah Jones
Of this year’s Australian award winners,
The Time We Have Taken ( Miles Franklin award) can certainly be read independently, but if you do have the time and want to calm down with a backward look at our suburban history, do read all three of Carroll’s linked novels, starting with The Art of the Engine Driver , then moving on to The Gift of Speed and finishing with The Time We Have Taken .
The Complete Stories are a
being treat ( and the good news is we’re promised a new novel early next year). The Spare Room is intriguingly tart.
Diary of a Bad Year is magnificently provocative, strong proof that the rumours about the death of the novel are just that: rumours.
Equally unforgettable is The Road , which is still going strong two years after publication, gathering reluctant fans with the beautiful inevitability of a mushroom cloud.
Do not go there if you are feeling despondent about the state of the planet. Turn, instead, to
The Boat , the little book of short stories that launched that young man on to the international stage.
The winner of this year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize, Someone Knows My Name, will appeal to those who like their novels to reward them with little-known history. It’s a grand saga about the trafficking of slaves told from the viewpoint of a woman who survived and eventually prospered.
Or try Netherland , which is about a man caught up in a wild scheme to set up a first-class cricket club in New York. O’Neill has taken this unlikely scenario and turned it into a satire, a social history, a critique on banks ( but will anyone really decide enough is enough) and a thriller to boot.
Burning In has been on too many prize lists to be ignored, and Giramondo Publishing has been going so well for the past couple of years it behoves any half-serious literature lover to stay up with its publications. Burning In is about a photographer, daughter of a Holocaust survivor, whose own daughter goes missing in New York’s Central Park.
Home is rich, deep and wide, pretty much perfect for a perceptive reading group because it is so teasingly uncompromising in the way it lays out characters for us to examine without itself judging.
And, of course, any work is a publishing event, even though a batch of his enormous output, the little books about lust, are self-indulgent swagger. Indignation follows what Roth has said is his final Zuckerman, Exit Ghost . The man is a marvel and proof, if it were needed, that the ability to write brilliantly does not necessarily translate into a life lived well. Rosemary Sorensen writes The Overflow column for these pages.
WE live in the age of autobiography. The more people there are on the planet the greater the clamour from individuals to be heard and attention paid.
Soul-baring on reality television is one way; publishing a memoir is another. The first has the virtue of not requiring any actual writing but it’s hard to get past the auditions. The second is pretty much open to anyone with a story to tell, given the ready availability of ghostwriters, if necessary, and the fast-food approach to so much publishing.
The final ingredient is the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for intimate revelation. At any moment the shelves of bookshops groan with the lives of pop stars and footballers scarcely out of their teens, of politicians hoping for greater pulling power out of office than they showed in it, of criminals seeking expiation and victims wanting understanding.
Christmas brings a deluge of such books, the show-biz memoir being a particular seasonal favourite. Such books rarely give much insight into the art of performance or the true character of the subject but they throw a sprinkling of stardust into the holiday air, and so serve a purpose.
Of the present crop, Tony Curtis ’s American Prince: My Autobiography ( Virgin, $ 34.95) is the most shameless. Written with Peter Golenbock, it is a love note to the beauty, talent and sexual allure of Tony Curtis. The absence of modesty is almost charming.
Curtis’s impoverished early life as Bernie Schwartz gives him a hunger for success and its trappings that never leaves him. He adores the attention and cuts a swath through the ladies. He sprints through affair after affair, only slightly hampered by frequent marriages. He gets upset if his wives are unfaithful, of course. ‘‘ But I was discreet,’’ he bleats. He was very good-looking, one must admit.
Curtis comes across as shallow and supremely confident. The far more thoughtful Cliff Richard is defensive, and with reason. He has been a star for 50 years, since his late teens, and while loved by his fans he has been something of a figure of fun for the press. His Christianity and his failure to marry are grievous counts against him, it seems.
My Life, My Way ( Headline Review, $ 35) is Richard’s riposte. ‘‘ I am fed up with being portrayed by people who assume they know what I feel,’’ he says in the preface. ‘‘ If you want to know what I really feel about things, this is the book to read.’’
Well, not really. Richard says people don’t know him, then keeps it that way. ‘‘ I’m an enigma — and loving it,’’ is his answer to questions about his sexuality. Let people speculate, he says in prose that tends to the leaden.
Richard’s need to insist on his achievements rather than let them speak for themselves strikes a sombre note. He has had a No 1 hit in every decade of his career but not the respect his success and his charity work should have delivered.
He did get a knighthood, though, in recognition of his generosity, as did Roger Moore. Moore is clearly rather more comfortable in his skin than is Richard, and in My Word is My Bond ( HarperCollins, $ 50) he gives an efficient, entertaining star turn in the conventional mode: poor childhood, falls into film, has early struggles, gets some big breaks, marries a few times. He seems a nice man who understands how fortunate he has been, generous in his words about one-time James Bond star George Lazenby and heavily committed to work with UNICEF.
With Dear Fatty ( Century, $ 34.95) Dawn French tries something a bit different, to her credit, but doesn’t quite pull it off. She writes her memoir as a series of letters to family members — including her dead father — friends including her French and Saunders co-star Jennifer Saunders, and her husband, comedian Lenny Henry. The tone veers between toe-curlingly soppy and not-very-funny comic. The style is confessional and tells you much, much more than you will ever want to know about the French bosom but less about the career than you would wish.
Michael Parkinson’s Parky, My Autobiography ( Hodder & Stoughton, $ 50) and Richard Attenborough’s Entirely up to You, Darling ( Hutchinson, $ 34.95) do a better job of taking the reader into their worlds. Parkinson writes with professional ease and has a vast amount of material at his disposal. Attenborough, writing in alternating segments with his long-time friend and producer Diana Hawkins, is instructive on the obstacle course that is filmmaking.
Sheila Hancock has written the only book among these likely to be read again. Unlike most celebrity autobiographies, Just Me ( Bloomsbury, $ 35) has ideas and discoveries, not just names, dates and emotions.
Hancock’s husband, Inspector Morse star John Thaw, died the day before her 69th birthday. Two years later, still grieving deeply, she went to the house in Provence where they had been so happy, and decided to sell it. She imagined Thaw challenging her not to be a depressed widow, ‘‘ boring the arse off everyone’’. She needed to move on.
From this point Just Me travels in unexpected directions, propelled by Hancock’s tenacity and curiosity and buoyed by her ability to write simply and with character. She goes to new places not just to fill the time but to challenge her knowledge and beliefs. She finds enrichment in having prejudices overturned or at least shaken.
She learns about her family history; she is cast in a new production of Cabaret and finds the crippling stage fright that had always afflicted her is almost entirely gone; she works with a charity that helps dispossessed children; her relationship with her own children improves.
Hancock writes that her book is mostly about overcoming fear. It’s also a picture of a gallant, inquiring woman who understands that she can go under or go on. Hancock is now 75 and an example to us all. Particularly those contemplating a slim volume of autobiography. Deborah Jones is a senior editor on The Australian.