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Andre Gerrard -- Night Table Recommendations

Friday, Dec 02, 2011 at 11:14am

The concept of father memoirs is a fascinating one. Confronting fathers directly and publicly is not, and never has been, easy: the patriarch should judge and not be judged. To write about the father is to sit in judgement upon him, and for most cultures this was a taboo too strong to be overcome. The Greeks, despite their searingly perceptive stories about father child interactions, did not attempt to do so-nor did the Romans, the Italians of the Renaissance, the Elizabethans, or even the Romantics. Paradoxically--but not surprisingly, given the rigid paternalism of the age and the attendant psychological pressures--personal father writing, like radical feminism, is a product of the Victorian era.

In 1907, six years after the death of Queen Victoria, Edmund Gosse published Father and Son. Once the taboo was broken, writers were quick to take advantage of the new possibilities. The 20th century saw a steady increase in the number of father memoirs, and, now that the boomers are aging and seeking to immortalize themselves, such memoirs are becoming as ubiquitous as tattoos. And, as with tattoos, some are visceral works of art. The six books described below give an idea of how poignant, rich and rewarding father memoirs can be.

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Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) by Alison Bechdel

As Art Spiegelman proved with Maus, father memoirs can take graphic narrative form. Courageously original and lovingly honest, Fun Home is a coming of age story - a story of lesbian self-discovery - which also outs the father posthumously as a closeted gay man and a possible suicide. In intertwining her father's story with her own, Bechdel is conscious of being as ruthless as her father was in "his monomaniacal restoration of our old house." She, too, is a Daedalus, who answers "not to the laws of society, but to those of [her] craft." Profoundly personal, Fun Home is also mythic. From the opening page onward, it is a rich affirmation of Stephen Daedalus's closing words in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead." This affirmation is triumphantly validated by "the tricky reverse narration" of Fun Home's final panels, in which Bechdel's artistically resurrected, epic father is there to catch and save her child self.

The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1993) by Mary Gordon.

The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father sketches a passionate portrait of a deeply flawed man, a shabby pornographer with literary pretensions, a convert to Christianity who was so ashamed of his immigrant and Jewish origins that he hid his past and became a nasty anti-Semite and a writer of speeches for Joe McCarthy. In the course of investigating her father's life and of reflecting on the motives for her search, Mary Gordon also had her father's bones dug up and reburied. The intensity of her obsession with her father, a father who died when she was only seven, is terrifying, yet readily understandable. The father of her childhood, after all, was not a real human being. He was a fairytale father, an Angela Carter father, a "magic uncle," a Pied Piper strewing candy and trailing kids. In trying to find her "real" father, in trying to come to terms with the lies her father told her, Gordon confesses that "I have done things to my father. I have remembered him, researched him, investigated him, exposed him, invented him." The one thing she cannot do is exorcise him. Gordon is a spiritual sister to Sylvia Plath--Plath who lost her father when she was eight--and despite her ironies, her literary inventiveness, her distancing techniques, she cannot escape the curse of victimhood which her father's early death bequeathed her.

Father and Son (1907) by Edmund Gosse.

The first of all father memoirs, this is still one of the best. Interestingly, Edmund Gosse's first attempt to write about his father took the form of an official biography. Written shortly after his father's death on August 23rd 1888, the Life of Philip Henry Gosse was admired by Henry James as "a singularly clever, skilful, vivid, well-done biography of his father, the fanatic and naturalist...very happy in proportion, tact and talent." Luckily, at least two other readers - John Addington Symons and George Moore - suggested Gosse should be more autobiographical and explore the father son relationship. Almost twenty years later, Gosse unburdened himself of Father and Son. Though the book was an immediate success and the reviews were largely enthusiastic, the reviewer of the Academy had reservations about the "close anatomisation by a son of a father," and the Times Literary Supplement raised the question of "how far in the interests of popular edification or amusement it is legitimate to expose the weaknesses and inconsistencies of a good man who is also one's father." Perhaps not always fortunately, subsequent writers, far more frank and confessional, showed far fewer qualms in writing about their fathers.

There is a Season (McClelland & Stewart, 2004) by Patrick Lane.

"I circle my father's death for a means to get close. I remember my Uncle Jack pushing my head into my father's coffin. The taste of lipstick and powder will stay on my lips forever. Kiss him, he cried, Kiss your father goodbye." So Patrick Lane in There is a Season. There is a cruel courage in how Lane dwells on the memory of his murdered father and voices pain and grief. In the breathtaking, breath giving tradition of Derek Jarman's Modern Nature, There is a Season turns to nature and gardens for healing from the hurtful, painful wonder of life. With this savage, soothing book, Lane, fulfilling a promise he made in an early father poem, 'Fathers and Sons,' reaches "down into the heavy earth" and sings his father "back into the day," and himself free of the poisons of drugs and alcohol. There is a Season is a lyrical masterpiece to be treasured by all recovering alcoholics, avid gardeners, and passionate lovers of Annie Dillard and Thoreau.

Patrimony: A True Story (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1991) by Philip Roth.

While Patrimony's title hints at a postmodern game, there is nothing playful about the clear-eyed, plain-spoken integrity with which Roth observes his father's dying and remembers his father's life. The father lives on in the "modest no-frills style," and the book is remarkable as a strong tribute paid by a strong son to a strong father. Despite simplicity of style, Patrimony is an epic, with Roth as a Hercules labouring on his father's behalf. In fierce, moving, often comic vignettes he takes on a ghoulish, hate-filled neighbour, a psychotic cab driver, denial of anti-Semitism by Metropolitan Life, a pornographic Holocaust survivor, a quintuple bypass, his father's shit, and, repeatedly, his father himself. In a previous book, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography, Roth had said of his father that "narrative is the form his knowledge takes." In Patrimony: A True Story, he links his father's narrative gifts to memory: "You mustn't forget anything--that's the inscription on his coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory--to him if a man's not made of memory, he's made of nothing." Memory and narrative, along with the shit of "nothing less or more than lived reality" are Roth's patrimony... a patrimony which he transmutes into this profound and heartfelt testament. Book, son and father merge into "the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and pointblank, with all the vernacular's glaring limitations, and all its durable force."

Swing Low: A Life (Knopf Canada, 2000) by Miriam Toews.

While many father memoirs are remarkable for their inventive excellence, few are as original and as powerful as Swing Low. In Swing Low: A Life, Miriam Toews imagines herself into her father's head, and brings him back to life as a narrative "I." Her imaginative accomplishment is all the more remarkable in that her father suffered from bipolar disease throughout his life, and eventually his depression became so deep and his mind so confused that that he committed suicide by stepping in front of a train. Such a story would be horrific and depressing, if it weren't for the calmness of the narrative voice. Toews' father was a Mennonite living and teaching in a small Manitoba town, and in her rendering of her father's interior life Toews also explores the tensions between self and community and teases out "the complicated kindness" which makes those tensions almost bearable. Despite the father's mental illness and suicide, Swing Low is a wonderfully sane and life affirming book.

Further reading might include Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude, Jim Axelrod's In the Long Run: A Father, a Son, and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness, Clarke Blaise's I Had a Father: A Post-Modern Autobiography (1993), Bernard Cooper's The Bill From My Father, Michael Frayn's My Father's Fortune (2010), Judy Golding's The Children of Lovers: a Memoir of William Golding (2011), Jennifer Grant's Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant (2011), Gary Imlach's My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes (2005), Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father (1993), and Geoffrey Wolff's The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father (1979).


Andre Gerard lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has recently published Fathers: A Literary Anthology, a collection of close to fifty essays and poems by such writers as Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, Alison Bechdel, Angela Carter, Bruce Chatwin, Winston Churchill, Franz Kafka, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, and Philip Roth.

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- Andre J D Gerard

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Fathers: A Literary Anthology is a collection of 49 essays and poems focusing on fathers. With personal essays and poems by 5 Nobel laureates, 7 Pulitzer winners, and writers such as Angela Carter, Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka. Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje and Virginia Woolf, the anthology is full of wit, wisdom and insight. To read authors such as James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Doris Lessing, Sharon Olds, and Philip Roth as they explore aspects of their fathers is to open maps of possibility.