Damian Barr Posts

Elton John’s “Me”

I read Elton John’s autobiography Me that has been written with the assistance of journalist Alexis Petridis. It is so full of enjoyable trivia about the music scene. There is not much about the business of music except for passing references to his hunt for a reliable manager or how he founded his own company, Rocket, and discovered new talent. He readily admits he was good at discovering talent and not necessarily nurturing new talent. He talks about his upbringing and never once is his family left out of the narrative. They are always present in his story. It is not as if stardom went to his mind and he forgot his roots.

It is also a memoir that documents his coming out as gay and then his stratospheric rise as a performer. Outrageous acts that helped him become more of the man he was. It also points out that gayness and being gay was not fashionable then as it is now and yet when he came out to his friends or dressed flamboyantly, the circles he moved in did not bat an eyelid. Interestingly he was always so astonished at his meteoric fame that when he began to hobnob with the rich and famous, he could not get over the excitement. A memorable line in the book is about the door of his green room opening and musicians of The Band trooping in. He was astonished. He says it was as if the record sleeves of his music collection had come to life. There are so many instances like this. All along it is so obvious that he simply had the talent to play the piano and he had no qualms catering to the masses as long as it made Bernie Taupin and him money. Even so, they were very critical of some of their very commercially successful songs and albums.

What I find extraordinary is the confident voice. Also he has no problem damning people. I do not know if it is that he has been more than fifty years at the top of his profession that he really could not care less about what others think of him. He has a very refreshing way of talking except that after a while it begins to pall and you begin to wonder when will the showman be done with this gig. Even his arguments with his mother and her bad behaviour on the day of his civil partnership with David Furnish is so much domestic drama detail. Quite unnecessary. It is of course delightful to come across anecdotes of Elton John doing drugs with John Lennon in a hotel in USA when there is a knock on the door. It is Andy Warhol which astounds Elton John who is still very starry eyed about the business but John Lennon does not allow Elton John to open the door as Warhol is known to always carry a camera and Lennon did not want a picture of two rock stars doing drugs becoming known publicly. There is another delightful one of Elton John and his then partner sitting by their swimming pool in their London home when they spotted an old lady cycle up their driveway. They thought she looked very much like Katherine Hepburn. And lo and behold, it was her. She had been told by a neighbour, whose guest she was, go across to Elton John’s home where you can use his swimming pool. 🙂

I wish there had been an interview or an essay by the Guardian journalist who helped ghost write this book. He has captured Elton John’s voice marvellously well. But there are so many questions I would like to know for instance, how on earth did Elton John remember so many details over the past decades? How much of this is really accurate? Did he research this for a while as a passing reference to his being awarded a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame is available on YouTube? How long was this book in the making? How many interview sessions and how many hours of tape were recorded? How many pages of transcript were there? This is the kind of autobiography that Richard Holmes is not exactly fond of the step-by-step account of a person’s life but I suppose a super star’s life cannot be hid. It is so much gossip and at the same time I get the feeling that much of the gossipy sections of the book are mainly about those who are long dead and gone and cannot really speak up for themselves.

On the other hand, compare this autobiography with that of Karan Johar. Both are showmen. Both had their autobiographies ghost written. These books were created after innumerable interview sessions. But Elton John’s maybe frivolous and champagne chatter but it is definitely not insipidly thin as Karan Johar’s book is. I also liked the fact that Elton John is respects himself tremendously — as it should be. In his first live-in relationship, his partner was violent and was known to have a bad temper. Elton John tolerated him because he was in love. But the day the partner hit Elton in their own home and Elton John’s nose was bleeding and face was scratched, Elton John swore he would not remain in an abusive relationship. The self-realisation of a DV victim is so critical irrespective of genders.

I would think an ideal book launch or a panel discussion should be between The Boss and Elton John. Both of them have written autobiographies that seem to ring true. Bruce Springsteen’s biography is stupendous especially his account of his childhood. Both musicians come from tough backgrounds, the Boss more than Elton John. Yet they were astounding successes and it would be fascinating to hear them in conversation with each other about deciding on how much of their life should they make public, what is the best balance to strike, is less more or do you give your fan base more or less how you perform on stage etc. It could be moderated by another book man who comes from as impoverished circumstances as Bruce Springsteen, Damian Barr, and he too has written a tremendous memoir.

Regrettably except for a stray reference and that was because the paper dedicated a section to “celebrity memoirs”, Me has been overlooked in most year-end recommended reading lists. Sad. Nevertheless, read it for yourself. It is a rollicking read!

6 Dec 2019

Garth Greenwell, “What Belongs to You”

Garth Greenwell…more and more I took refuge in books, not serious or significant books but books that offered an escape from myself, and it was these books, or rather our shared love for them, that bound me to the few friends I had… 

Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You is about a nameless American schoolteacher who is based in Bulgaria. Funnily enough even though the narrator remains nameless the two cultural landscapes that influence him are very much fixed in a period —the Republican conservative homophobic Kansas and Bulgaria emerging from the Soviet era, detritus of which are still visible in the dilapidated buildings and in the attitude of the people. The novel is divided into three parts — Mitko, A Grave and Pox. In fact “Mitko” won the Miami University Press Novella Prize. What Belongs to You begins with the narrator looking to have sex and comes across Mitko in a public bathroom and from then on they forge a curious relationship. The second section is about the narrator receiving news about his father’s hospitalisation and the flood of memories it unleashes. The final section is about his mother’s arrival in Bulgaria and due to a concatenation of events primarily the fleeting return of Mitko in the narrator’s life, there is a sudden unyoking of himself from his past–immediate and childhood. It is an epiphany that liberates him paradoxically leaving him in despair too. It seems to happen subconsciously while recalling his experience of a severe earthquake.

…the first time I had known that absolute disorientation and helplessness, the first time I had felt in that incontrovertible way the minuteness of my will, so that underlying my fear, or coming just an instant after it, was total abandon, a feeling that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, a kind of weightlessness. 

At Jaipur Literature Festival 2016, Colm Toibin said while researching for The Master, his novel/tribute on/to Henry James, he realised gay fiction was a 21st century phenomenon. He also observed that “fiction contains many mansions” a comment apt for Garth Greenwell’s debut novel. What Belongs to You is much more than a fine example of gay fiction with its extraordinarily bold voice; it is a Künstlerroman, a narrative about the artist’s growth to maturity. What Belongs to You is in the same category as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or even Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home. It is evident in the experimentation of form in “A Grave” such as the long unbroken paragraphs sometimes running on for pages and pages that fit snugly with the literary device of interior monologue. The lyrical prose of “A Grave” is structured as magnificently as Isabel Archer’s reflection in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.  In both novels the interior monologues by the central characters are pivotal not only to the structure of the plot but also to the radical transformation they wrought in the narrator and Isabel and to the chain of events to follow.

At one level What Belongs to You is reading a story about a young man living in a new land and yet it is also recognising what belongs to you are who you are, what you make yourself. This could be by rejection such as the narrator’s complicated relationship with his father or by accepting new influences as the narrator says by “thinking it half in Bulgarian and half in my own language, which I returned to as if stepping onto more solid ground.”

One of the best interviews published so far with Garth Greenwell has been with Paul McVeigh. “The world according to Garth Greenwell” (The Irish Times, 25 April 2016. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-world-according-to-garth-greenwell-1.2623753)

Garth Greenwell is a boldly confident youthful writer who writes extraordinarily beautiful prose with panache. Hopefully one day the following writers will be together on a panel discussing the art of blending truth and fiction, writing a memoir-novel: Damian Barr, Paul McVeigh, Sandip Roy, Roxane Gay, Garth Greenwell and Alison Bechdel.

What Belongs to You is a debut that will be talked about for a long time to come!

Garth Greenwell What Belongs To You Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 196. Rs 550

18 May 2016

 

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Literati: Memoirs (5 October 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 4 October 2014 and in print on 5 October 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6471249.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

Memoir is specifically an individual remembering their life as well as a period. It does not have a single narrative nor is it a teleological narrative as an epic is—it is episodic and a collection of personal anecdotes that the memoirist chooses to recall and share publicly. Ian Jack wrote in the Guardian ( 2003): “Writing one’s own personal history used to be called autobiography, Now, more and more, it is called memoir. The two words are often used interchangeably and the boundary between the two forms is fuzzy, but there are differences. An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment. … The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks – the tricks of the novel, of fiction – because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good.”

Some of the notable memoirs, each representative of a distinctive subject, in recent months have been Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister, Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, Naseeruddin Shah’s And One Day, Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives; Pamela Timms’s Korma, Kheer & Kismet: Five Seasons in Delhi, Malala Yousafzai with Patrick McCormackMalala, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18, David Omissi (editor), Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, by the singer’s security guards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, with Tanner Colby. The popularity of this genre has had an effect on contemporary writing in that they are in the oral form of storytelling and are dependent upon personal histories. For instance, journalist Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee is about the “story of Mill’s friendship with the Lee sisters”, but the author’s note states it is a “work of nonfiction”. A similar book is Veena Venugopal’s brilliant and disturbing The Mother-in-Law, it consists of experiences of daughters-in-law profiling their mothers-in-law to Veena over a series of interviews.

Many novels rely upon autobiographical experiences to create a story but as Akhil Sharma points out, “I think nonfiction requires an absolute commitment to the truth. In non-fiction I need to include things to present the situation and characters in a rounded way. I don’t know if I do that in my novel. Family Life is so completely a story that many boring but very important things were left out. All fiction draws on life but that does not mean all fiction should be viewed as managed non-fiction.”

The fact is memoirs sell at a brisk pace for traditional publishers and constitutes a large chunk of self-published books. On digital platforms too— Facebook status updates, longreads and blogs— posts that are read and discussed animatedly are those written from a personal point of view. For instance Sudhanva Deshpande’s moving tributes uploaded on to his Facebook wall as he watched his father, the noted Marathi playwright, G. P. Deshpande, lie in a coma or Vandana Singh’s blog post “Some musings on diversity in SF” about travel writing and scifi.  In fact, Andrew Stauffer of Book Traces (a crowd sourced web project to find drawings, marginalia, photos and anything else in copies of 19th and early 20th century books) says “It’s certainly true that readers used the margins of their books for a kind of journaling and memoir-writing, in the quasi-private, quasi-public space of the domestic book. I don’t know if that obviates the desire for long-form memoirs. You might think about our current digital culture of commenting and liking online, and how that incremental curation of a persona is a stand-in for autobiography.”

This raises the question of how do we classify biographies such as A.N. Wilson’s splendid Queen Victoria that draws heavily upon the Queen’s personal correspondence and diaries, making her at times speak in her own words—is it a memoir as well? But as Diana Athill, legendary editor who wrote an essay in the Guardian recently about death, while reflecting upon an incident from her childhood involving her mother says, “It was a shock to come up so suddenly against the fact that what to me was history, to her was just something from the day before yesterday.” For me this is the prime objective of a memoir—making the past accessible through a personal account.

6 October 2014

Podcasts

Podcasts

Razia Iqbal with Fiona Shaw, 2 May 2014, Testament of MaryTwo fabulous websites for podcasts on books.

The first is BBC Radio4 podcasts on book, literature, film, music, visual arts, performance, media and more.  Razia Iqbal is one of the presenters. Here is a link to the Front Row Daily podcasts from 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qsq5/podcasts

The second one is a collection of podcasts from Damian Barr’s Literary Salon, programmed Damian Barrand recorded at Shoreditch House, London. The few I have heard are utterly delightful. Worth listening to! According to the blurb on the website: “Damian Barr’s Literary Salon lures the world’s best writers to London to read exclusively from their latest greatest works. Star guests have included Brett Easton Ellis, David Nicholls, John Waters, Helen Fielding and Diana Athill OBE. It’s all in front of a live audience at London’s Shoreditch House with suave salonniere Damian Barr as host. Don’t worry it’s not a book club – there’s no homework.Salon Selective! Produced by Russell Finch”

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-literary-salon/id495583876?mt=2Maggie & MeMaggie and Meis Damian’s autobiographical tale about growing up gay on a tough Scotland estate in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s. From what I gather ( I have as yet not been able to get hold of the book in India) Damian Barr uses quotes from the former prime minister throughout and marks his story by the key events of her premiership. The book was listed as Book of the Year by several publications in UK including The Sunday Times, New Statesman, Evening Standard, The Independent and The Observer. He was awarded Writer of the Year at the Stonewall Awards. He also won the Political Humour and Satire Book of the Year award for at the Paddy Power Political Book Awards 2014.

6 May 2014