Lives on show

A flood of mem­oirs sig­nals sum­mer, writes Deborah Jones

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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