Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Joyce Johnson, Tracey Thorn, and More
- On the Cusp: Days of ’62—David Kynaston
- Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir—Joyce Johnson
- My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend—Tracey Thorn
- Secrets of Happiness—Joan Silber
- Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World—Philip Hoare
- Light Perpetual—Francis Spufford
- Mike Nichols: A Life—Mark Harris
- Suppose a Sentence—Brian Dillon
- A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life—George Saunders
- Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise—Scott Eyman
I have said it before, probably irritatingly, and I will say it again several more times: one of the most remarkable literary projects of this century is being undertaken right now, as we speak, by the social historian David Kynaston. Since 2007 he has been publishing a series of books about Britain between the years 1945 and 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power. There have been three so far: Austerity Britain: 1945–51, Family Britain: 1951–57, and Modernity Britain: 1957–1962—roughly 2,300 pages, or 135 pages per year. If you are going to treat a country as a person, full of personality, development, joy, tragedy, regression, and contradictions—and that is what Kynaston does—then an allocation of 135 per year is actually pretty disciplined. (If, in the year 2070, someone embarks on a similar project, then the year 2020 will demand several hundred thousand words of its own.) These wonderful books deal with politics and town planning, sport and literature, music and movies, cities and the countryside, and a rather gripping narrative somehow emerges, in the same way that improvising jazz soloists find melodies.
Anyway, luckily for me, Kynaston has decided that 1962 deserves more than its fair share of attention, and the result is On the Cusp. What were we on the cusp of? The most obvious answer to that question is that the 1960s, or what we later came to think of as the 1960s, were about to be born—and not all over the world, but in England, of all places. The Beatles released their first single; a band called the Rollin’ Stones (no g, and, for the moment, no Charlie Watts or Bill Wyman) played their first show.
But in the meantime, this is what our radio sounded like, a description provided by an unhappy contributor to the letters page of Melody Maker, who had been confined to his sickbed: “After three minutes, I turned off Sandy MacPherson. The Metropolitan Police Band sounded like the British police. Left with ‘The Dales’ [a genteel radio soap opera], Scottish dance music and the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, I picked up my book again.” There was nothing else in Britain for young people at the time. We had two TV channels, both broadcasting in black and white; you couldn’t buy a drink after eleven o’clock; hardly anyone had central heating; many people had an outside toilet and electricity provided by coin-operated meters. If you had gone to your bookmaker in 1962 to ask for the odds on this dark, wet, grumpy country becoming the center of the pop-culture universe within three years, you might have decided to put your money on something more likely, such as Mister Ed becoming the first talking-horse president of the US.
But there were other things about to happen, apart from the Beatles and Mary Quant. The liberal left was on the rise, and there were signs that the influence of the old, reflexively snobbish Britain was beginning to fade. (A ludicrously posh cricket correspondent—yes, we even had posh sports writers—was once described as “so snobbish that he wouldn’t travel with his own chauffeur.”) And, incredibly, with the country just beginning to think about joining the Common Market, later the EU, there was another way of dividing up the country: into those who believed that our future lay with continental Europe, and those who regarded anyone who didn’t speak English with deep suspicion. In other words, we were having exactly the same fucking argument as the one that tore the country down the middle in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The big problem then, as now, was that the division was not conventionally political, and certainly could not be characterized as the conservatives versus the left. The leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, finally came down on the side of those who distrusted any kind of federalist project; the conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was pro-European. Mollie Panter-Downes—The New Yorker’s London correspondent, whose clever, perceptive columns have provided Kynaston with plenty of valuable insights over the course of his sequence—thought the battle lines had been drawn thus:
The young, by and large, appear to be in favor, with an instinctive feeling for the big new moment in history and the wider chance, and so are the businessmen, eager to get going in the great new market, plus a majority slice—one could perhaps risk guessing—of educated, thoughtful opinion. The various anti-Market meetings that have been held in different parts of the country have drawn many retired service people, maybe disturbed by the thought of a still further dwindling of the British influence that they helped, in their time, to impose around the world.
She would have written nearly exactly the same about the mood in 2016, which rather begs the question: What happened to the young? Because it was the old who voted for Brexit, and yet they were not old in 1962, if I may point out the bleedingly obvious. Perhaps what happened to the young people then is what always happens to young people. How many in the US, one wonders, voted for Carter and Trump? That’s the great thing about great books. There’s always something in them that makes you want to hang yourself, whatever they’re purportedly about.
Five years before the Beatles released their first single, Jack Kerouac published On the Road, although he had written it quite a long time before that, in April 1951. I don’t think I had quite understood this fact before reading Joyce Johnson’s lovely memoir, Minor Characters, and it made me look at the book slightly differently. I had always understood it to be of the moment, but I now see it was of quite another moment altogether. Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, came out in 1950; there followed seven long years of writing and traveling and bumming around, and many of the books that saw the light of day (The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax, Tristessa, Maggie Cassidy, as well as several posthumously published works) were written long before his overnight success. It doesn’t matter, of course. On the Road turned out to be enormously influential, but it influenced a generation who would have been too young to dig it if it had been published a few months after Kerouac had completed it. Perhaps it came out at the perfect time. America was introduced to that bebop prose at a time when bebop had been given plenty of time to bed in: Kerouac’s voice was fresh but not scary, and pointed the way toward the American 1960s, just around the corner.
Minor Characters, first published in 1983, fourteen years after Kerouac’s death, is a beautiful book about the people he knew in New York. Joyce Johnson was his girlfriend of sorts, although there were others, and almost by definition he wasn’t around that much, anyway. The title is wry, but there is a truth to it, at least as far as Kerouac and his fellow travelers were concerned. At the beginning of her book, Johnson describes the fate that befell Joan Vollmer, the wife of William Burroughs. Vollmer, as you probably know, dear, smart Believer reader, was killed by her husband while he was playing a drunken game of William Tell with a .38. “Joan Vollmer Burroughs’s death is much more famous than she is,” notes Johnson, and the observation introduces us to the world she chooses to portray here, a world populated partly by admiring, overlooked, patient, and disappointed women. But Johnson was there with Jack on the night he read the life-changing review of On the Road in The New York Times, a review that would never have achieved the same effect if the crusty old fiction reviewer for the Times hadn’t been on holiday, replaced for the week by a younger, more sympathetic critic: “We returned to the apartment to go back to sleep. Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him the next morning and he was famous.” Minor Characters is about a lot of things—being a young woman in the 1950s, bohemia, art, fame, friendship—and I have to say I had a better time reading it than I have ever had reading Johnson’s more famous ex-boyfriend.
Here is a terrifying and shameful list. And, by the way, I’m talking about my lifetime here, not this month:
Books I have read about Henry VIII, Queen Victoria, or any British king or queen: 0 (that I can remember)
Books I have read about the natural world, especially plants and trees: 0
Books I have read about chemistry: 0
Books I have read about computing, et cetera: 0
Books I have read about the history of just about any country: 0
Books I have read that are in part about the relationship between Lindy Morrison and Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens: 2
You don’t need me to tell you this isn’t good enough, really. There is a decent chance you haven’t come across the Go-Betweens, an underappreciated Australian indie-rock band, now deceased, who made records beloved by music nerds and the French. I am not French, as you may have begun to suspect, but I suppose I am a music nerd. The Go-Betweens’ records are beloved by me, predictably, and when Robert Forster wrote a book about his relationship with his friend and the band’s cofounder, Grant McLennan, who died in 2006 at age forty-eight, I was there. One of the factors that affected the relationship between McLellan and Forster was the relationship between Forster and the drummer Lindy Morrison, so I was already up to speed; Tracey Thorn’s My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend is about her relationship with Morrison, so we get to see the Forster-Morrison relationship from a new angle. I won’t apologize for being riveted. Regular readers of this column will know I have read books about other relationships, some of which were invented by their authors, but there is something about the world of the Go-Betweens—their commitment to their music, their charm, their bad luck, the way they always seemed destined to appeal to a tiny band of devoted fans—that speaks to many parts of me. And, in any case, My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend is about the relationship between two women, one shy and successful (Thorn was the singer in Everything But the Girl and has made several well-received solo records), the other loud and fierce. “As much as I’m drawn to her outrageousness and loudness,” Thorn writes, “I’m drawn to her positivity. She is constantly upbeat, which is also in my nature. We are both full of a curious, almost gauche enthusiasm about the world. We are cheerer-uppers, bounce-backers, irrepressible, determined—me in a quiet way, her in a noisy way.” Who wouldn’t want to read a book by a cheerer-upper in times like these? And Thorn is not an unreflective cheerer-upper, either. This book is thoughtful, perceptive, occasionally raw, and eye-wateringly honest. I may have read too many books about the Go-Betweens, but there aren’t too many memoirs about contemporary female friendship.
Joan Silber wasn’t in the Go-Betweens—how smooth a bridge from one para to the next was that?—but she is one of the people I read who makes up relationships, densely complicated connections between people, as a way of thinking about the world. That’s probably just a clunky way of saying she writes fiction, but her new book, Secrets of Happiness, like its predecessors Fools and Improvement, is a different kind of fiction. The stories are interlinked, but not interlinked in the Olive Kitteridge sense, through one character or place. The opening story, “Ethan,” is about a young man who discovers that his father has a secret family; the next, “Joe,” is about one of the kids from that secret family; and the next, “Veronica,” is about Joe’s ex-girlfriend. Silber leaps across continents and decades, characters age and screw up and die, but the astonishing detail of her imagination keeps any of it from seeming glib. We end up back with Ethan, now a single, middle-aged man nevertheless entangled with the sister and adopted daughter of an ex-lover’s deceased partner. Sometimes the dexterity and plenitude of Silber’s plotting take your breath away, or make you want to laugh. Why isn’t there more fiction like this? I don’t mean, you know, why isn’t there more fiction in which a minor character in one story becomes a major character in the next. (Although why isn’t there more of that too? It’s a really cool way of writing.) I mean, why isn’t there more fiction that’s such a pleasure to read, simply because of its clarity, wisdom, heart, and elegance? Secrets of Happiness feels like a benchmark, a guiding star, a minimum height requirement; I’d like to say I will never again settle for fiction that’s not as good as this, but I know I will have to.