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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Allen Shawn: lost soul swimming in a fishbowl

In February, the wonderful Janet Malcolm reviewed Allen Shawn's memoir, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life:
When Allen Shawn writes of what he calls his father's "additional partner", he is letting out no family secret. The secret was let out by the partner herself, Lillian Ross, in 1998, when she published a memoir, Here but Not Here. The book came as a shock to many people who had known Wiliam Shawn. Shawn guarded his privacy as if it were his most precious possession, and Ross's heedless chronicle of their forty-year-long affair (with photographs to buttress her words in case anyone doubted them) seemed an especially brutal violation of trust. Today, fourteen years after Shawn's death, the book reads differently.
Writing of the double life, Allen pauses to quietly remark, "It was only double viewed from the outside, of course. To him it was just his life." This capacity for entering into the subjectivity of another (the word "empathy" doesn't convey the difficulty and generosity) separates Wish I Could Be There from the usual accusatory memoir of troubled childhood. Allen Shawn writes of his father not as the callous agent of his sufferings but as a fellow sufferer, to be no less tenderly treated by the attending narrator-physician than he treats himself. He writes of his father's adultery not as a transgression but as an attempt to cure a loneliness so extreme that no one woman could fill it.
Note the similarity in Allen Shawn's title and his father's mistress's. Malcolm highlights this excerpt:
Before I left for music camp at thirteen, my father told me that I might encounter an activity called masturbation while I was there, but he looked as if he might be about to commit suicide after our conversation... I know now that he must have been afraid of handling it the wrong way and scarring me for life. He was incapable of saying, "I have done this myself"; it had to be "we" or "it" or "one" ("It's perfectly normal...") In an effort to be tactful, he managed to imply that the concept of masturbation was sure to be new to me. This reinforced my shame about pleasures already taken.
(That's all I could transcribe, as the article isn't free. As with most media outlets, the NYRB charges far more for a single article than makes any business sense. Who would be foolish enough to be a frequent purchaser of individual articles, if they are $3 a pop? No drug dealer would set the barrier to entry so relatively high.)


Blogger Jenny Davidson on Thu Aug 02, 08:00:00 AM:
My frustration with the NYRB on this count is that the electronic subscription isn't included with the paper one. I can't see my way to paying an additional fee on top of the regular subscription fee, even for the sake of being able to blog articles more easily. Nowadays I can get the full version through the Columbia site, but it took a lot of irritable e-mails from me for the library to work out its electronic subscription also. I have occasionally amused myself by wondering how many people they have found to purchase the electronic subscription on top of the other--10? 25? 30?!? It would be interesting to find out!
Blogger Ben on Thu Aug 02, 09:19:00 AM:
Probably about as many as have purchased an individual NY Times article... though it looks like TimesSelect is pulling in $10 million a year now.
Blogger Jenny Davidson on Thu Aug 02, 11:37:00 AM:
I have now and again purchased an individual NYT article in the heat of the moment. Usually something I read a few weeks earlier and belatedly want to e-mail to someone else.