By Mark Roosevelt, President
I enjoy certain books and creative nonfiction that are part memoir, part social commentary, that I call a “look back.” They are not chronological accounts of a full life but consist instead of a more poetic compellation of regrets, nostalgia, and reflections on the passing of time. Written late in life, they have a bittersweet feel and are full of thoughts that only come together when the author has had ample time to reflect. They exist in a very different universe from bestsellers such as A Million Little Pieces and the many other sensationalist, ballistic memoirs that are an unhappy and untrustworthy cross between fact and fiction.
If there is one abiding emotion or thought associated with this “look back” it is regret. As the poet Hayden Carruth wrote, “Regret, acknowledged or not, is the inevitable and in some sense necessary context—the bedrock—of all human thought and activity. Intellectually speaking, it is the ground we stand on.”
Of course there are many different forms of regret, and not all of them are negative, even though all have to do with a form of sadness. Perhaps the most common form of regret as we age is that time is running out, which implies, rather happily, that you would rather it did not. And of course coming to terms with death and its proximity is often a large part of the enterprise. Note here Julian Barnes compelling memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which contains a beautiful line, which summarizes my own spiritual state—“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”
Most authors writing in this vein have gotten to the point where what there is seems inferior to what there was, to what has passed. Also essential to the success of such books is that the author is to a considerable degree past affectation and pretense. There can be no “puffing up” of the self—it is too late for that, and besides it doesn’t really matter, does it?
My favorite writer in this realm is Doris Grumbach. Her work is difficult to classify. She has written seven novels and six memoirs that are in this amorphous area of diary, commonplace book, cultural criticism and spiritual exploration. Her own long life is complex. Born in 1918, she married Leonard Grumbach in 1941. They raised four daughters before their divorce in 1971. The rest of her years have been spent with her “life partner,” Sybil Pike. Grumbach has taught literature at American University, written columns for The New York Times Book Review and The New Republic, run two used bookstores, and has been a commentator for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Now 93, she resides in Sargentville, Maine, an area of five square miles with a year-round population of about 75.
Most critics do not know what to make of her. Her books are not large sellers and are not widely reviewed, yet she must have a devoted following, as most are still in print. In bookstores you can find her books in fiction, religion, memoir, or in another amorphous “category”—gay and lesbian writers.
Whatever category she belongs in, she is good company. And her work, fiction and nonfiction, takes a close look at the particulars of individual lives, usually from the perspective of “looking back.” In the main, she allows her readers to draw the larger conclusions.
Her novels are mostly re-imaginings of the lives of real people—Sylvia Plath (The Magician’s Girl, 1987), Marilyn Monroe (The Missing Person, 1981) and Edward and Marian MacDowell (Chamber Music, 1979). In Chamber Music, Caroline Maclaren “looks back” from 90 at a life spent in a conventional, loveless marriage. The critic John Leonard wrote of the novel that “it is as if Willa Cather decided to tell the whole truth.” In depicting the costs of such arrangements, Grumbach is never strident, although some of the revelations of her characters’ pasts are gruesome. Lives spent in the wrong pairing are usually painful, and Caroline is allowed only a brief glimmer of what life could have been. She shares love with her husband’s caregiver, Anna, but it is only a brief respite. She has been a nearly life-long prisoner in a cage made by other hands. As one reviewer has observed, Grumbach may not be a political novelist, but her stories bring to life why politics matters.
It is her memoirs that appeal most to me: Coming into the End Zone (1991), Extra Innings (1993), Fifty Days of Solitude (1994), Life in a Day (1996), The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and Epiphany (1998), and The Pleasure of Their Company (2001). A recent essay, “The View from 90,” published in the Spring 2011 edition of The American Scholar, is reported to be part of a larger memoir to be titled Downhill Almost All the Way.
If you are interested in Grumbach’s writing, I suggest starting with Fifty Days of Solitude; it is a short book and contains all the hallmarks of Grumbach’s nonfiction. But you could also start with “The View from 90,” which you can download.
In “The View from 90,” she provides wonderful, telling anecdotes to illustrate her points, as well as her usual handful of magnificent quotations. She must keep great notes from her reading as her writing is full of spot-on quotes that always cause me to reach for pen and paper.
Here, a decade after her last memoir, she is even more eager to repudiate the sentimental view of aging characterized by that misleading expression “the golden years.” She notes how her youthful writings are sprinkled with exclamation points and that with age that form of punctuation went out, as did the fervor. “The old are pessimists,” she states, “because they cannot conjure up the energy for optimism.” She tells the story of Somerset Maugham, who, when asked to lecture on the virtues of being old, rose “to the podium, stared at the audience for a few seconds, said ‘I cannot think of one,’ and left the platform.”
She does not sentimentalize the past either, referring to her childhood as having been lived in “those wretched years” between the two world wars. But she misses a great deal that is no more and provides many examples to do with writing—fountain pens, airmail paper, lined pads, and manual typewriters. She bemoans the fact that “the lovely Blackwing 602 soft-lead pencil with a removable and reversible eraser is nowhere to be found.” (I remember that pencil well, as it was my mother’s favorite.)
She notes her disdain for malls and her fond memories of butcher shops, dry goods stores, greengrocers, and hatters. She expresses her affection for Brownie cameras and that she prefers black and white photographs to colored ones, which “have a kind of violence, an excess, what I see as overemphasis.” She notes that “Goethe called color ‘the suffering of light.’ ” Lovely, that sentiment and quotation.
She wants to face things—squarely, no delusions. Solitude, “frequent journeys into her interior self,” the time to think deeply about the important questions, these are her primary tools. About friendships, she quotes Proust saying they are “a lie that seeks to make us believe that we are not irredeemably alone.” In her interior quest she is not looking for the easy out, believing, for example, that faith in a life after death is “a sloppy consolation.”
So once you reject such sloppy consolations, what is left?
Grumbach finds solace in ruins. “Why is this so? Ruins are not in themselves always beautiful. But like us they are the remains of what was once a more perfect whole. They have withstood the destructive forces of time. There is certain rightness, an inevitability, about their decline. They are my fellow structures, my companions over time.”
And there is much to be said for just keeping on, knowing what is asked of us. At the end of The Presence of Absence, she quotes these words from the Talmud:
You are not expected to complete the task
Neither are you permitted to lay it down.”
If you are not looking for more than is on offer, more than can satisfy an honest, probing mind, then there is also great solace in Andre Comte-Sponville’s quotation from The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality: “We are already in the kingdom. Eternity is now.”