Learning to See: Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard Is True

What I think I’m doing here: Can’t stop thinking about this book. The post below will hopefully give you a taste, without giving too much away (it’s a book that rewards going in a little bit blind).

“Do you have any coffee? I’ve been driving for three days. I’m dead. And can you clear this stuff off the table? There are some things I need to show you. We have work to do.” Work? I remember thinking then, What work? But he was already pushing my papers aside and unpacking his woolen bag, woven with symbols and animals, among them an openmouthed wildcat about to pounce.

The story begins and ends in two American living rooms. The first room, in a 1970s townhouse in California, is occupied by a day-bed and a red papier-mâché horse. It’s bare, a place where a young poet and her roommate eat Chinese takeout and grade college papers. The second living room, years later, is in Washington D.C., “a rented stucco house on a leafy street.” It is a family room, its floor covered with Lego, marked by a purposeful domesticity, a photo of Oscar Romero on the wall. Both living rooms are visited by strangers from El Salvador. Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, a book I have not been able to stop thinking about, describes the journey from one living room to the other.

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The Elusive Tom Stoppard

Even after reading 800+ pages of biography there remains a hidden core to Tom Stoppard. That a person is not entirely captured on paper is true of any biography, the map is not the territory and all that, but the reader feels it especially keenly with Hermione Lee’s exploration of Stoppard’s life and work (I really enjoyed her previous biography of Penelope Fitzgerald). Part of it is that formidable page count, which at times feels slightly padded out with lists of the celebrity attendees at Stoppard’s annual parties and descriptions of home decorating choices. It seems that part of the way Lee chose to address her subject’s reticence was to aim for an exhaustive comprehensiveness, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the book might have been improved if she had adopted some of Stoppard’s own love of speed and concision. The exhaustiveness can become exhausting.

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Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo

I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci as an audiobook (I knew little of Leonardo outside of the sort of standard popular culture stuff that everyone seems to know, so caveat lector for what follows). In many ways it is an ideal audiobook: packed full of interesting facts, an interesting subject (but one that’s not a person or area of particular interest for me), written in a clear “journalistic” style, well narrated by Alfred Molina, accompanied by a detailed .pdf document, etc.

I felt like I received a good introduction to Leonardo, and a list of additional sources I could explore if I wanted to pursue his work and life further, but there was something in Isaacson’s presentation that I found irritating at times. Especially in the introduction and conclusion of the book, there was a certain “You too, can be like Leonardo” emphasis. Not that Isaacson is saying Leonardo wasn’t a genius, and that anyone with a certain set of techniques is able to paint the Mona Lisa. But, he emphasizes a number of times that Leonardo’s genius isn’t due some sort of off-the-charts intellectual horsepower (à la Isaac Newton), but grounded in things a regular person can imitate in her own small way (i.e. curiosity, a child-like sense of wonder, indulging in fantasy etc.).

It’s not that the lessons for creativity that Isaacson draws from Leonardo’s life are bad – in fact, they’re all pretty good advice – everyone could do with a little more wonder. And I don’t think it’s even the sort of “self-helpy”  tone that bothers me (after all, “Every book is self-help”) – it wouldn’t be the route I’d go, but whatever. I think my complaint is more that in his attempts to make Leonardo accessible, Isaacson misses or downplays some of the strangeness of Leonardo. While much of Leondardo’s life and personality remains mysterious (and Isaacson admirably resists the urge to speculate), what we do know makes him seem (to me) deeply strange and eccentric. In the desire to avoid perpetuating the Romantic myths of the “tortured genius” Isaacson perhaps downplays Leonardo’s “otherness” (and perhaps also the “otherness” of Leonardo’s context) too much.

I think many of Isaacson’s readers will think this is a feature rather than a bug. When reading about a historical figure and period, many readers want them to be made accessible, and want to know how the people of the past are “just like us.” Whereas, I’m always suspicious of this sort of equation – I’m always more curious about all the things I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand about a historical figure or time period: an emphasis on the differences rather than the similarities.

Life will not conform

The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.

Penelope Fitzgerald, at the end of her life, quoted in Hermione Lee’s biography. “Life will not conform” summarizes Fitzgerald’s own struggles in many ways, and is a fundamental theme of her fiction (“life makes its own corrections” as a sledge driver says in The Beginning of Spring). They should probably just stamp it on the back of the books, I’m sure it would boost sales.

(As an aside: Lee is very good at arranging her material. She places this quote just prior to Fitzgerald starting to write and publish, in her late 50s. In another wise decision she discusses the books not in order of publication, but in relation to the parts of Fitzgerald’s life to which they seem most connected – although something like this was inevitable, I suppose, given how late in life Fitzgerald started writing/publishing).