Writers and the Women They Worship

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times April 17, 2013

These three delightfully deranging books offer alternatives to your staid biographies. They’re a bit dangerous, a bit rude — free from the tyranny of good taste. The authors, first-rate obsessives, riff on the women who’ve consumed them — bearing out Frank Bidart’s line, “What you love is your fate,” with mischief, feeling and a rare frankness. That’s the thing about obsession. It can’t be faked.

17jackie-articleInlineWayne Koestenbaum has written frequently and fondly about his favorite heroines, but there’s a Wildean clip and glimmer that distinguishes “Jackie Under My Skin” (1995), his take on Jackie Kennedy. “Writing about Jackie, I enter a terrain of embarrassment, error, excess. When I speak about Jackie, who do I become? A weirdo? A stalker? A fan?” He concedes that “the quest for self-realization via Jackie contemplation isn’t a standard male route,” but when he thinks about her, he’s at his “most collective and communal.”

Mr. Koestenbaum zeroes in on his subject with an unhinged intensity, Humbert Humbert fresh from a course on semiotics. “I am so hermetically contained by the perimeters of Jackie contemplation that I can only point to Jackie, and interpret her, from within the circle of terms that originate with her,” he writes.

Everything she touched becomes swollen with significance. Her laddered stockings. Her pink maternity shift. He practically swoons when he notices “the faint blond hair along her arm” in a photo. He mines the many meanings of her unpolished fingernails, her eyebrows that never looked “effortfully plucked,” her slimness. We feel his shiver of pleasure at Jackie’s memo to her staff requesting the curtain braid in the Blue Room be turned lest it be further sunburned.

And who else could shake out such a wealth of interpretations from Jackie’s shellacked bouffant? “From the hairdo we learn that she is composed and contained; like an armadillo or a turtle, she carries built-in protection,” he writes. “Her hairdos remind me of the bubbletop over the presidential convertible — the bubbletop that should have been lowered in Dallas.”

As a young man in the 1970s, the novelist David Plante had a talent for ingratiating himself with famous older women. “Difficult Women” (1983), his account of squiring around Sonia Orwell (wife of George), Jean Rhys and Germaine Greer, makes for fascinating if squeamish reading. Scenes of an elderly Rhys falling drunkenly into a toilet and getting stuck, or Ms. Greer accidentally flashing the author, are so uncharitable they make Truman Capote’s “Answered Prayers” look like hagiography. But there’s tenderness here, too. Mr. Plante is frank about what drew him to these women — their fame excited him, yes — but it was their misery that he fed on. “I was in love with the unhappiness in her, and yet reassured that, no matter what I did, what I felt it my duty to do, to lessen that unhappiness, I couldn’t,” he writes of Orwell. “I had been drawn to her darkness because she, who commanded a place in the world, was justified in her darkness, and justified mine.”

Continue reading

The Wayward Essay: ‘The Fun Stuff,’ by James Wood, and More


In its quality of attention and faith in the salvific power of the right words in the right order, the essay resembles nothing so much as a secular prayer. That, at least, was the original point. The essay has proved wayward, which has been the great secret to its longevity.

Invented in France by Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century’s great oversharer; perfected in England by Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt; the essay found America very agreeable: “The United States itself — and even its name, according to some sources — is partly the outcome of the essayistic brilliance of the radical English artisan Thomas Paine,” Christopher Hitchens, one of its finest modern practitioners, wrote. Its health, however, has never been guaranteed.

Virginia Woolf had to reassure the public in 1922: “Oh, yes dear reader: the essay is alive. There is no reason to despair,” even as journalists crowed over the death of “that lavender-scented little old lady of literature.” “Everybody is forever saying that the essay is dead,” John Leonard observed in 1982. “This is always said in essays.”

Read more

The Power of Books


By Parul Sehgal, The National Endowment for the Arts, Sept. 19, 2012

We are not supposed to be in the study. The books live in the study. The study is dim and fragrant and forbidden. The books are forbidden. We are not supposed to be in the study.

We are always in the study. We do our best reading in those years when the books are forbidden and my mother sleeps. A sensible woman, she warned us early and often that Novels are a waste of time and Some books are dangerous if read too early and don’t you have homework to do?

She says this while maintaining a wonderfully idiosyncratic library full of dangerous books. She’d been a professor of political science back in Delhi; so naturally, Plato, Mill, Marx, and Hegel are well represented. But so are Sartre and Gide, D.H. Lawrence, Muriel Spark, Graham Greene. So are Sue Miller, Ira Levin, Irving Wallace, Irving Stone, and lots of grisly true crime. And all the staples of the Indian bookshelf: Freedom at Midnight. R.K. Narayanan, Ruskin Bond, Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, mountains of moldering Penguin paperbacks.

We had no system; we were governed only by access and appetite. Jeanette Winterson describes reading her way from A to Z through a local library in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. How charming, how fastidious. My sister and I, first generation immigrants, temperate in all things save our book lust, grabbed what we could; we gobbled and glutted. We’d pick up books at random and as long as we could understand the first few sentences, we’d begin, always with a hope that this was the book we’d been warned about. One especially desultory month when I was nine and she eight, we worked our way through Oscar Wilde’s plays, Lee Iacocca’s memoir, The World of Suzy Wong, a rereading of In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (mainly for the photos of a young Imelda Marcos), and Machiavelli’s The Prince (not quite the historical romance we had hoped).

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “Why I Write.” Joan Didion took it a step further in an essay with same title. She argued that very act of “setting words on paper” is “an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” Both establish as the reader as passive, even as the victim. Both are wrong. Some of us read rapaciously and with mysterious agendas of our own. And I’d hazard that the more we—or our communities—have been disenfranchised or humiliated, the harder we’ll read when we come to books. Because we’re not just reading, are we? We’re spying. We’re reading ourselves into societies and narratives that have excluded us. We’re trying to get inside your head.

Breaking into my mother’s library was just the beginning. Books are all about trespass; they deliver what romantic love and citizenship only promise. They let you enter other consciousnesses, cultures, conversations. Would my sister and I have read the way we did if we hadn’t felt our difference so keenly, if our experience of smallness, femaleness, foreignness hadn’t been so painful? I’m not sure. The racism we encountered was imaginative and energetic. But the study smelled like vanilla. So much was explained and restored to us in that dim room. W.E.B. DuBois put it best: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas…I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”

No scorn, no condescension. We read first for distraction then consolation then for company. And finally to be worthy of the company we kept.

A Year in Reading: Parul Sehgal

Parul Sehgal, The Millions, December 16, 2011

There were many books I admired this year, books I read and reread and recommended. Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is. And there were groundbreaking narrative nonfiction books about India: Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (out in Feb. 2012) are works of profound witness, kinship, artistic achievement, and moral necessity.

But only one book left me breathless.

I didn’t read — I succumbed – to The Journals of John Cheever. I picked it up one evening after the guests had gone, after the ashtrays had been emptied and the dog walked. I was lightly drunk and working on getting more seriously drunk (the Cheevering hour?); I idly opened the book — and let it have its way with me all weekend in the spare room.

It’s a disheveling, debauching book. Even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate — even embrace — your corruption. These journals, posthumously edited by Cheever’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, are a 40-year chronicle of wanting health but plotting, ardently, self-destruction. Of struggling with alcoholism and bisexuality. Of wanting very much to love one’s wife and only one’s wife — but falling gratefully into the arms of any stranger who will have you. Of the soul as irredeemably “venereal, forlorn, and uprooted.”

Cheever had a brain and body so responsive — “touchy like a triggered rattrap” — everything he sees turns him on, makes him cry, turns him rhapsodic. Desire stains everything. And it isn’t airy, “Chopinesque longing,” no — it’s itchy and inconvenient, “as coarse and real as the hair on my belly,” he writes. “In the public urinal I am solicited by the man on my right. I do not dare turn my head. But I wonder what he looks like. No better or no worse, I guess than the rest of us in such throes.”

Continue reading