Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Happy Birthday

I'm a bit late with this one, but I am currently reading Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, published in 1998. I've always been a fan of the poet, since reading Pike at school: I love his unsentimental, 'red in tooth and claw' depiction of nature.

This book - and this is not news - is a reflection on and a dedicated remembrance of his first wife, Sylvia Plath. Any stalker would be proud of the 200 pages or so of poetry he wrote/collected in the last year of his life. The poems follow their first meeting, marriage, honeymoon and life together and form a very readable narrative. The poems are in free verse, seemingly loosely structured, but the imagery - as you would always expect from Hughes - is as powerful and as thought-provoking as ever.

Sylvia Plath emerges from these snapshots in a number of ways: sharply intelligent as she recites Chaucer's Wyf of Bath to a field of interested cows; timid and alone as she awaits her first teaching day (I think) in The Blue Flannel Suit; sweet and in love in Paris. Throughout the poems, and often sneaking in to the final lines (like a shiver down the spine or the realisation of the truth when one awakes from sweet sleepy dreams) comes the memory which mostly inspired this epitaph, Plath's suicide. References to the dead eyes, seemingly still bright as they were in life, references to her cool porcelain skin in death...pervade the poems. The book is not, as some have rather simplisticly claimed, an apologia: deathbed confession, a last request for forgiveness - what rubbish.

Throughout his life, Hughes was fiercely quiet in the face of intense criticism of his 'treatment' of Plath. A relationship, however, is not something that can be picked apart and understood by outsiders. Literary types, psychologists, journalists, biographers and so on have all tried to claim an answer and therefore ownership over the famous marriage and of Plath. The simple truth to all of this is, however, that they never could. Plath will only ever be owned and known by those who knew her. Her daughter, Freida, in an interview told the story of visiting her mother's grave in Heptonstall recently. A well-meaning stranger, without asking, immediately directed her to its place, mistaking Freida for yet another fan or tourist. Freida Hughes explains the annoyance she felt at this, and who can blame her?

Hughes was a haunted man, clearly, and the book feels like an exorcism of sorts. Not a Catholic one - all gargoylic symbols and garbled Latin - but instead twisting, turning memories, stopping here and there at small but significant points in time, trying to figure it all out, like a complicated maths equation. The stories are funny: Yellowstone Park is a long but very lively account of the young couple's encounter with a hungry bear; the stories are rich and inciteful: Wuthering Heights shows Plath's fannish side as they hunt for Emily Bronte on the wild, tourist-trodden moors. Hughes distaste for the USA is clear, as is Plath's for Britain (she called it a place of nursing homes and graveyards).

Reading Birthday Letters feels like a privileged look into a private world. But it is also more than that. The subject is first and foremost one woman, but as one reads, one's own life and experiences began to feel significant. The events described are not the lofty pursuits of great dead poets, speaking in archaic tongue and acting out melodramatic scenes. Rather they are ordinary, everyday experiences: Hughes nurses Plath through a bout of food poisoning in Fever; Plath takes a picture of her husband on a beach in Black Coat...ordinary moments which have developed important significance retrospectively. Hughes invites us into his world and his memories but, at the same time, leaves plenty space for us to consider our own.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Heaven Knows We're Miserable Now

Herman Rosenblat and his Angel Girl.

Oprah Winfrey called it 'the greatest love story ever told', but this month, Herman Rosenblat recanted his Love-Against-All-Odds Holocaust story and the publisher has cancelled its publication. What motivates someone to write and publish a fake memoir - and why are they never cheerful?

What makes someone construct a fictional past for themselves? A need to escape? A wish for a better life? Gatsby did it and it filled his pockets with money. All thanks to a cooler name and a scattering of impressive biographical details - Oxford graduate, war hero, correct parentage. One thing he didn't yearn for as far as I know, however, was a book deal.

Yet another agent and publishing company has fallen for a remarkable, hope-conquers-all-tale-of-a -love-with-no-boundaries-and-the-evil-that-men-do. Publisher Berkeley Books, part of the Penguin Group, has cancelled the forthcoming Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived by Herman Rosenblat. The terrible title alone, no doubt chosen by the publisher - overblown, histrionic and sickingly sentimental - makes me immediately suspicious of the facts. Then there's the premise. This is the story of a man who survives the atrocious conditions of a concentration camp, thanks to food gifts given in secret over the fence by a beautiful young girl. Okay, plausible so far and moving. Then the author moves to America, where he meets that same girl and they fall in love, get married and have been married for 50 years. Er. Even allowing for coincidence, surely this story screams fiction. And, forgive my harshness, terrible fiction at that.

Angel at the Fence does follow in a not-so-noble (and not necessarily recent) tradition of fake autobiographical tales. Modern misery-peddlar Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It has been criticised, though not entirely outed, as meddling with the truth. Then followed a barrage of terrible tales of battered and bashed childhoods. Of course there's nothing wrong with the publication of these books. It's the popularity of the books I find weird. Frank McCourt's misery fest of nae-food-dad's-spent-it-all-the-money-at-the-pub Angelas's Ashes was lapped up. Pelzer's subsequent releases, detailing yet more abuses, have hit best-seller lists (Non-Fiction section, of course) both in Britain and the US. Morbid curiosity? Curtain twitching mentality? I'm no psychologist but I suppose a significant percentage of us have always enjoyed melodrama.

Defoe's tales of the abuses of poor Moll Flanders 'Her Fortunes and Misfortunes' dates back to the 18th century, but was always known as fiction. Then there was the Penny Dreadfuls and, hey, I've just realised, Dickens in the 19th century. What cruelties were wraught! Penny Dreadfuls told of nuns forced to have sexual relations with priests, graceful ladies forced into white slavery and countless injustices done to poor nieces by evil uncles. And, by Dickens! Of course! His own miserable childhood laid the scene for many of the evils detailed in his stories: David Copperfield (beaten, neglected, abused), Oliver Twist (abondoned, beaten, neglected). And who can forget the neglect and death of Little Nell? Contemporary accounts of public reaction show the wealth of feeling which swelled for the poor, martyrish Nell. Dickens was inundated with letters letters begging him to spare her, and he himself felt "the anguish unspeakable" at her inevitable death (a bit like Hardy, when he killed off poor Tess).

Though perhaps based on stories which Dickens had heard (and of course the industrial Victorian age was a nightmarish place and time for impoverished children), the fact remains that these tales are just that. Tales. Stories. Made up. Fiction. Yes, to manipulate our feelings. Yes, to make us buy the stories. Yes, to make the author a living wage. And yes, especially in the case of Dickens, with a message for readers: something about kindness and humanity and the importance of love.

So, some would argue, true stories of misery and hardship also have a message: I did it, despite all odds, and so can you! Countless American self-help books chronicling every disease/condition/aspiration imaginable were tossed out and over the Atlantic in the Eighties, often based on the author's triumph-over-adversity experiences. American TV movies did likewise: The Story of X or Y, who couldn't have a baby, who was stolen as a baby, who had children taken away from her/him, who had to kill her husband as he kept trying to set her on fire... The message varies only a little: power over adversity, the power of one (hey, that's a good title!), let's change that crap law...You can think of more, I'm sure.

True Made-for-Tv Movie
Fiction... I'm sorry, non-fiction has followed suit. Stories of terrible mothers and drunken fathers weigh heavy on the shelves and it's a section I've always avoided. Not because I'm squeamish or uncaring - please don't write about me! But because these novels are largely badly written, poorly edited and, it now transpires, often untrue. History doesn't always offer us facts - everything is seen and written from a point of view - but I wouldn't want to read, for example, David Pelzer's account of the Battle of Agincourt, even if he built a time machine and witnessed it. I'm sure (ah, suspicious mind) he would feel the need to chronicle Henry's emotional abuse of his wife and doomed love for a fellow soldier*. Suddenly history jumps to life with soap-like melodrama and conversations we can imagine thanks to Eastenders Christmas Specials. 'I want a divorce, Catherine of Valois. Merry Christmas, darling'.

Not that I want to piously condemn these fake or embellished memoirs. James Frey's A Million Tiny Pieces was famously outed by Smoking Gun as being a partly fictionalised account of the author's fight against drug and alcohol addiction. Oprah Winfrey - a powerful force in the world of popular publishing - slapped the mawkish story on her book club reading list, catapulting the author, his publisher and agent into the monetary stratosphere. Following Smoking Gun's expose, Frey (big fibber!) appeared on Oprah again, like a pupil before a disapproving headmistress, explaining that the book still held 'the essential truth of [his] life" (liar, lair!) and further explained (bum's on fire!) that the same "demons" that had made him turn to alcohol and drugs had also driven him to make up important sections of his memoir. Oprah (who also interviewed Rosenblat about his fence-angel on her show) lost all faith in Frey and said that he had 'betrayed millions of readers'. His publisher agreed and offered a refund to anyone who felt they had been duped.

James Frey faces his public execution.

Frey has gone on to publish fiction very successfully. Perhaps he has learned his lesson and will stay away from the non-fiction market? Or perhaps his experiences will lead to another non-fiction best-seller Please Believe Me. The beating that he took and the public outrage that he faced for an overly-active imagination has perhaps influenced his choice of subject for his next foray into publishing. Does the publicly-lambasted Frey feel a touch of matrydom? His next work is apparently about Jesus, living in modern New York. Will Jesus face the same persecution which Frey faced?

Other fibbers include Margaret Seltzer's (surely the surname is a giveaway!) Love and Consequences (girl fostered by black family in LA, forced to sell drugs for a gang), Norma Khouri's Forbidden Love (a tale of, ahem, forbidden love in the Middle East between... oh, you figure it out). God, there are loads more, but I'm beginning to feel tortured just writing out the synopses. Look them up yourself. They are as torrid as you might expect: HIV-suffering, holocaust-surviving, wolf-pack running, murdering, drug-running and of course, the inevitably abused-as-a-child stories offer us open wounds of graphic description. But the author surely shoots themself in the foot with the added extras. Rosenblat survived the Holocaust and incarceration in a concentration camp, for god's sake. Isn't that inspiring enough?

Often memoirs recount the terrible deeds done by people now dead. However, recently in the UK, Constance Briscoe's mother sued for libel over the publication of the misery memoir Ugly. The jury was asked to go away and read key passages of Briscoe's autobiography, which details the physical and emotional abuse the author suffered as a child. Briscoe won the case over her mother, proving her story to be a true one, but the question still remains: what has she really gained from this victory? The public outing of a bully? The genre has been labelled 'misery lit' or 'misery memoir', but perhaps 'revenge literature' is more apt?

Anecdotal stories always have added arms and legs. It's noble, oral tradition which surely dates back to the beginnings of language and stories themselves. Just the other day, don't you know, I caught a fish 'this big'.

And I am forever scarred by a story my mother used to tell to me and my little brothers:
She was shopping in Woolworths during her lunchbreak (all very plausible and imaginable to our young minds given our frequent trips to Woolies - RIP). She wandered round the store, just browsing and sort of lost track of the time. Suddenly she realised she would be late back for work and hurried towards the door. Just then a security guard said 'Excuse me, madam, what do you have in your bag?'
Me and my twin brothers looked at my mother at this point in the story in horror. How dare they accuse our mother - good to the core - of shoplifing! How dare he!
Mum told the guard she had to hurry, she was late for work. She kept walking and suddenly the guard grabbed hold of her.
?! we all yelled, outraged, and despite being only ten years old I reached for the yellow pages, ready to phone Citizens Advice, Legal Aid, LA Law... How dare he manhandle my mum!
Mum said she was shouting for him to get off, but he held on to her, hurting her. He then started pulling her back into the shop. By this time she had been wrestled to the floor, a crowd had gathered and he was pulling, pulling her leg...
'Just like I am pulling yours,' she finished with a grin.


I am honestly still shaken (twenty-odd years on) by this story, mother, and I will be detailing it in my up and coming memoir, A Mother's Lies, or something better. Mum's embellishment of the story made it more real, increased our idignance and whipped our sense of injustice into a frenzy. Had she just told us she had been quietly and discreetly stopped at the door (even this was not true), we certainly would not have felt so appalled and entranced. Arms and legs, the gory details: the extra potions we relish and feed on.

And of course everyone lies: to be nice, to be kind, to make friends, to influence, to make money... which leads me back to Gatsby. Gatsby lied to make money. But that wasn't the utlimate aim in fictionalising his past. His quest was a romantic one, all in the name of an idealised love.

And so, I conclude with two questions: Why do people do it? And is there any harm in it? Frey, it seems to me, must have seen the dollar signs flash ever time he thought of a juicy detail (he had been living and working in California and in La La land itself, Hollywood. He had even written a couple of films. Surely Hollywood has a profound effect on everyone's moral compass?)

Rosenblat hasn't made much money - all proceeds had to be returned by author and agent to the publisher, but the movie is still is post-production. The producer has been quoted as forgiving the story as 'loose and fictionalised'. Rosenblat said he 'brought hope to a lot of people. [His]motivation was to make good in this world.' There was even a children's version of the story (Angel Girl). Looking at his picture - yes, my evidence is this flimsy - I kind of believe him. He's probably been telling the boy's own story of how he escaped the Nazis and met his great love for years. No harm done, surely. But why not just publish it as a fiction? As mentioned, Dickens wrote stories with a message: to make the world a little better. None of us believed the characters were real, but we got the point. Fictional literature has always inspired the good in people and brought good things into our lives. Why does it suddenly have to be a true story for people to be moved by it? The answer to this no doubt lies in some complicated market research conducted by huge publishing companies who have found that facts (and finger-pointing) sell (proved beyond any doubt by Pelzer's books).

Is the scramble to make money, to make best-sellers, creating sloppy agents and copy-editors, less inclined to check the facts? Rosenblat's agent seems confused by the debacle: 'I question why I never questioned it,' she said. Did some romantic sensibilty block her powers of evaluation, of common sense? I believed my mum's Woolworth's story with every fibre of my being - but I was a child. I've never thought of cynicism as an attractive trait but a healthy dose of scepticism is surely a prerequisite to every educated adult. Grow up, publishers!

In answering my own questions: some people want to make money, some people genuinely have horror stories to tell. And there will always be stories which tread a fine line between fact and fiction. They say everyone has a story to tell. And if you don't, you can always just make one up.

*I have based this on no facts. None.