Friday, April 29, 2011

Conroy's Reading Life

Our good friend Edie gave me My Reading Life by Pat Conroy when I recently entered the hospital, which was supposed to be for a more routine visit than it turned out to be. She knows I love good writing, and she thinks of me as a writer as well. It was a very thoughtful gift. Yes, I write, and I enjoy it, but to be a real writer means to forsake just about everything and dedicate yourself to the craft. It also helps to have an abundance of talent, an omniscient eye and an encyclopedic memory.

I cannot think of any great writer who is not obsessive compulsive about writing. In many ways, I wish I could roll back time and make that choice, but it would have been to the detriment of a publishing career I loved and other avocations such as the piano, studying the machinations of economic markets, politics, and a bunch of other things. Although I started Conroy's work in the hospital, I had difficulty concentrating on it or anything else after undergoing such major surgery. My recovery left me unable to do much but change channels watching awful TV which I can only describe as crap, and if that is emblematic of where American "culture" has migrated, there is no hope for our society.

Once I returned home, I picked up the book again. Conroy achingly cries out in poetic terms for an understanding as to why he writes, why he found refuge as a child in literature, first as a means of connecting with his mother (no, worshiping her) and as a means of escaping his father. I have a particular empathy for literature as a means to understand family, as I wrote in an earlier piece: "What draws me to these writers is families, or more specifically, dysfunctional families. Strong mothers or weak fathers or weak mothers and strong fathers with borderline “crazy” behavior, dark humor and the unpredictable maturation of children from those families. Of course if art mirrors life, it may be that “dysfunctional” is merely normalcy in today’s world."

It was heartbreaking, though, to read Conroy's dedication page. My Reading Life begins with: "This book is dedicated to my lost daughter, Susannah Ansley Conroy. Know this: I love you with my heart and always will. Your return to my life would be one of the happiest moments I could imagine."

So, as in my family, succeeding generations are affected by the tribulations fostered by previous generations. I naturally tried to discover more, and found his comments about the dedication page in an NPR review: Apparently he has been estranged from his daughter since divorcing her mother in 1995: "She has a perfect right not to see me. She's 28 now. But I thought this [dedication] was going to be a last cry of the heart. I would at least try to get her attention and see if I could get her to come back. It has been one of the most soul-killing things to ever happen to me." [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Maybe his daughter will reconnect with her father if she has the opportunity to read this book and understand the undertow of Conroy's maturation as a man and as a writer. He covers a wide range of influences on his writing, first and foremost his mother, who became immersed in Gone With the Wind, continuously reading passages from the novel to her son, beginning when he was five years old. "I owe a personal debt to this novel that I find almost beyond reckoning. I became a novelist because of Gone with the Wind, or more precisely, my mother raised me up to be a "Southern" novelist, with a strong emphasis on the word "Southern," because Gone with the Wind set my mother's imagination ablaze when she was a young girl in Atlanta, and it was the one fire of her bruised, fragmented youth that never went out....It was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world."

Then there were the teachers, in particular Gene Norris's English class, and the "anti-teachers" in particular his father, Donald Conroy, the Marine who beat his family. Conroy bore much of this. "From an early age, I knew I didn't want to be anything like the man he was....I was on a lifelong search for the different kind of man. I wanted to attach my own moon of solitude to the strong attraction of a good man's gravitational pull." Gene Norris was that man and he became a lifelong friend and mentor to Conroy and introduced Conroy to a wide range of classic literature.

Then there were people in his life who could have been negative influences, the librarian, Miss Hunter, at Beaufort High School, Cliff Grabart, the proprietor of the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, and the cantankerous, but lover of literature, a book representative, Norman Berg, who I met on several occasions at book conventions. Conroy even went out on sales calls with Berg. That was the foundation of the publishing business then.

From each of these people Conroy took away something and bonded with them in his own way. In fact, Conroy was sponge-like in his dealings with people and the literature he read, recording everything, the eyes and ears of a writer on duty at all times. This is what separates mediocre writers from great ones.

He did the ex-pat "thing" in Paris in the late 1970s. "Parisians... relish the xenophobic sport of stereotyping and love to offer an infinite variety of theories on the nature of Americans. To them, we as a people are shallow, criminally naive, reactionary, decadent, over-the-hill, uncultured, uneducable, and friendly to a fault....Whenever Parisians heard my execrable attempts at French, they would cover their ears with their hands and moan over the violation and butchery of their sweet tongue." My own visits to France taught me a similar lesson, my high school French had to be left behind and I sometimes pretended to be Canadian. But maybe the French are on to something, given my captivity by the mindless TV programming during my hospital stay.

Conroy was finishing The Lords of Discipline in Paris, staying at a hotel where he encountered a wide range of travelers, including other artists. As my son is an inveterate traveler, I was fascinated by Conroy's exquisite explanation as to what it is to be an ex-pat, meeting other people on similar journeys: "Because we were strangers who would know one another on this planet for a very short time, we could trade those essential secrets of our lives that defined us in absolute terms. Voyagers can remove the masks and those sinuous, intricate disguises we wear at home in the dangerous equilibrium of our common lives. The men and women I met at the Grand Hotel des Balcons traveled to change themselves, to trust their bright impulse with the hope they would receive the gift of the sublime, life-changing encounter somewhere on the road. There is no voyage without a spiritual, even religious impulse. Each of us had met by accident, our lives touched briefly, fragilely -- then we continued on our own private journeys, and those intense encounters left a fragrant pollen on the sills and eaves of memory."

But to this point, My Reading Life is merely a warm up for what is the main event and influence on Conroy's writing and he appropriately entitles the chapter "A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe."
It was Gene Norris who gave him Wolfe's classic Look Homeward, Angel in 1961 as a Christmas present. "The book's impact on me was visceral that I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life....The beauty of the language, shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, brought me to my knees with pleasure....I was under the illusion that Thomas Wolfe had written his book solely because he knew that I would one day read it, that a boy in South Carolina would enter his house of art with his arms wide open, ready and waiting for everything that Thomas Wolfe could throw at him."

I felt the same awe when I read the novel in college, probably at about the same time as Conroy. Never before had I felt that way when reading fiction. The only way to describe his writing is as being concurrently prodigious and poetic, an uncommon combination. And the novel was even larger before publication and luckily for Wolfe his editor was none other than the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's who also was Ernest Hemingway's and F. Scott Fitzgerald's. Wolfe was in good company.

The publication of Look Homeward, Angel, had, at its heart, detailed autobiographical elements, the same sort of autobiographical elements in which Conroy's own The Great Santini is grounded. Wolfe's work caused an uproar in his hometown, beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. For a while he was banished from the town, but he did return later to write You Can't Go Home Again.

Conroy has made the pilgrimage to Asheville, first with his teacher, Gene Morris, to visit Wolfe's "Old Kentucky Home," the boarding house maintained by Wolfe's mother. Conroy rocked on the chairs where the boarders gathered on the porch. He toured the home which has been so lovingly restored. I wonder whether Conroy has seen the wonderful play about Wolfe's return to Asheville, Return of an Angel which we were lucky enough to experience during one of our visits to Asheville. It brought Wolfe's return to Asheville alive.

We have been to the Wolfe home in Asheville twice and came away with the same feeling of time having been stopped during those years, before Wolfe's untimely death at the age of only 37. Imagine the great works he would have written if he had lived. As Conroy says, "I think the novels of his fifties and sixties would have been masterpieces. Time itself is a shaping, transfiguring force in any writer's life. Wolfe's best novels sleep in secret on a hillside in Asheville -- beside him forever, or at least, this is what I believe." I agree, Pat, and thank you for reminding me of Wolfe's passion, an invitation to reread his work.

Conroy's concluding chapter, "Why I Write" is probably one of the best I've ever read on the subject, setting the serious writer apart from the potboilers that weigh down today's best seller lists. "Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself...Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear."

Also in that chapter, he returns to the overarching theme of literature and family, the role of literature explaining who we are and where we came from: "I've always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable. but I soon discovered that I've been writing voluptuous hymns to that boy my whole life, because somewhere along the line -- in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that's a home place for the beaten child -- I fell in love with that kid." And I too fell in love, as much with Conroy's nonfiction as his novels, particularly with My Reading Life, as well as My Losing Season. Such truthfulness and beautiful writing. One can only hope his honesty will lead to a reconciliation with his daughter. It would be just.