I grew up among people whose most-oft-voiced concern was whether they would get their book, or next book, written. Without the book, the life-worth dwindled down to a small pile of ash, as my child’s mind pictured it.
It was an attitude I could never understand. Getting a book into existence seemed to me a second-hand aim. Without real adventures, books would have nothing to tell. As I saw it, they piggy-backed on real life. The ambition to become the author of one or more, looked like Plan B. The first thing was to get real.
At a certain point, however, I became an intellectual. Was it at Hilltop where we spent summers, when Chuck caught my ten-year-old wrists in his twelve-year-old hands and I realized: oh! When a boy gets older, it’s no contest. I better find some games to play where I’ll have a chance at winning.
Or had it been latent all along, when I listened, uncomprehending, to my father’s and Leo Bronstein’s conversations and thought those the most wonderful sounds in the world?
Or was it when the conflicting messages and double-binds of a strong and imperfect family life forced me to look for understanding at some level “above the battle”?
Who knew? Anyway, real life forced it on me, this writing modality, and I make it a principle not to quarrel with real life.
My early philosophic articles did not fit neatly into the established genres. Typically, I would get a publication if and only if the editor sent me the referee’s report along with his rejection letter. That allowed me to send a reply bristling with counter-arguments.
A Good Look at Evil, my first book, traveled the same road. Thanks to a sympathetic acquisitions editor (Jane Cullen, beloved of many) – but also thanks to my rejoinder to at least one of the referees – it saw daylight as a book. After that, the efforts to get into print went more smoothly.
That is, until I got to Conversions: A Philosophic Memoir. It tells the story of some years of my life that I didn’t talk about. The only people who knew were those who had been friends at the time of the events in the book. Its concern is with years when the decisive things that happened to me were secret. I had got into the habit of a life where only the tip of the iceberg showed.
Conversions had a real-life purpose all right. Its author needed to find out how she had gotten into a jam that bad. The first year after, the events were still fresh in mind and could be poured onto paper in meticulous detail. The project of understanding took many more years, as I tried one hypothesis after another, till I found the sole explanation able to connect all the links in the narrative chain.
Bringing the book out was meant to bring to fruition my purposes in writing it. First and last, to make a strange sequence of events and acts comprehensible – for the sake of truth and whomever, meeting similar hazards, might be helped. Second, to raise up out of the deep, the rest of the iceberg: my story – what for Abigail had been real life.
A few people (but very few) told me it helped them. One philosopher, an atheist and materialist whom I held in the highest regard, grasped immediately the story’s Jewish, theistic essence and compared it to the classic confessions of Augustine and Rousseau, asking: has any woman done this? (If I were ever to bring it out again, I might change the subtitle to “A Philosophic Confession.”) A writer whose judgment is worth gold to me said it would inevitably find its place in the permanent ranks of the genre of Bildungsroman (coming-of-age books).
But by far the commonest reactions were condescending. There were questions. What did I think my most telling psychological weakness must be? Did I concede that I was no memoirist? Or that I had “almost brought it off”?
The then-ailing university press did almost nothing with it, so there were virtually no reviews. But those it got actually urged potential readers not to buy it! Goodness! Why had those reviewers cared how strangers spent their money? Why urge them to shun the expense?
Today, that publishing experience brings to mind the musing question, asked and answered aloud by a Russian student at the café “Chez Maurice” on the rue de Tournon, so many years ago.
What is love?
To love … is to suffer.
Abigail, you are a delight! And an entertaining memoirist as well!
It makes me very happy, Brian, to know that you are enjoying these columns.