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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mysterious manuscrpts, vol. 3: Riverside relics

My Barnard classmate, Lily Koppel, published a book this spring called The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life through the Pages of a Lost Journal. I've only met Lily once, at the English majors reception at graduation, but I was surprised to find out in the preface to this book that, for our first apartments after college, we both rented rooms from eccentric older women on Riverside Drive. She lived at Riverside and 82nd in a fabulous old building famed for its literary occupants. Her elderly roommate greeted her with Brie, crackers, and grapes, which she served with silver Victorian grape scissors. I had no idea such things ever existed until I read the book yesterday--now I can't think of any kitchen utensil I want more in the entire world. And don't need. One day, she walked out of the marble lobby of the building to find that the building was throwing out several old steamer trunks which had been left in storage for many years. She opened the trunks to find old flapper dresses, men's hats, delicate antique purses, and other amazing items. She retrieved an old diary from the trunks and began to investigate the life of its author, a young woman who had recorded all the important details of her life as a teenager and young adult in 1930s New York. The Red Leather Diary is part detective story of how Koppel tracked down the author, Florence Wolfson, but it is mostly a retelling of the entries in the diary with details added in to make a biography of Florence's early life.

I'm kind of jealous. The only things ever harvested from the trash at my apartment building on Riverside and 137th were the wine bottles and other large glass containers that my elderly landlady collected, cleaned, and filled with boiling water every single day. She stockpiled them in the living room. She killed mice by pouring boiling water on them. She collected clown dolls. She had a crush on Howard Hughes (they had the same birthday and a shared obsession with cleaning, not that pouring water and bleach on every surface every day is a good method...) and Muammar al-Qaddafi ("he's a very handsome man").

Oh, those 82nd Street Victorian grape scissors. It's not impossible that Alba had such a thing amid the clutter of old bottles and clowns. Koppel has a nice eye not only for saving wonderful relics from the trash, but also for writing about them. I was especially taken with the description of the "tangerine boucle coat with a flared skirt and single Bakelite button. 'Bergdorf Goodman on the Plaza' read the label sewn into its iridescent lining." She sends the coat to the cleaners and wears it out to 21st-century society events she attends as a gossip writer for the New York Times. She notes wryly that she and the diary's author are not so far apart in wearing the same items to the same sorts of parties seventy years apart.

Nevertheless, Koppel's ability to pick out these evocative small details isn't always matched with a consistently sure narrative mode and tone. Florence's diary is a catalog of a young woman's social calendar and emotional "firsts"--crushes, obsessions, disappointments, desires--told in wonderfully dashed out sentence fragments. Koppel quotes from the diary extensively, but she surrounds them with narrative descriptions of those events. Sometimes these scenes feel more like summaries of events than compelling stories about them, as though the diary were expanded but not selectively edited. The result is that the narration is like a video on fast-forward of all the events of a particular season, but then it's occasionally paused at a particular moment, and sometimes it seems like the pauses are chosen less for the necessity of illuminating a telling moment and more because that's where she has the most information.

The seams show when she has to integrate individual memories of events with contextualizing details. Florence's salon with New York literati sounds amazing: as a graduate student at Columbia, she hung out with Mark Van Doren, Delmore Schwartz, and various other writers, playwrights, and essayists. But the description of the evenings doesn't do a good job of moving between narration, description, and context:
As Florence bent to light the fire in the fireplace, she unpinned her long hair and let it cascade seductively onto her shoulders as her guests pondered Aristotle's Art of Poetry and the life of Sir Thomas Aquinas.
...
The twenty-one year-old poet Delmore Schwartz was the golden boy of the circle. Gesturing wildly in front of the fireplace, his dark blond hair damp with perspiration, Delmore preached the relevance of the classical philosophers to their own lives. Equally at home with baseball stats and the canon, he was the group's orator. Florence leaned against the mantel, mesmerized by his torrent of words. Looking around the room, sketching her friends in her mind, Florence wondered about each one's fate.

In paragraphs like these, the biographical conventions of telling about someone's life doesn't mix very well with a narration of imagining a particular scene (hence the cliched language of hair cascading and sketching her friends in her mind), which in turn doesn't mix well with biographical information about Delmore Schwartz.

This problem interests me more than it bothers me. These seams are where you see the writing problem of working in multiple forms of storytelling. The Red Leather Diary becomes an interesting example of an attempt to work in the self-conscious style of contemporary personal memoir (of Koppel's investigation and work at the New York Times) while at the same time deploying some of the conventions (often in cliched language) of traditional biographies which are less self-conscious about the author's relationship with source materials and explaining research methods. I kept thinking of Paul Collins' book The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine because he does a delightful job of moving between descriptions of historical events and contemporary discussions of why he's obsessed with the subject, the books he's reading to help him find out about side projects semi-related to the subject, the problems he runs into as he's working out the narration or the research. The book is a compelling set of digressions about the nature of historical research itself. Collins noted this problem of narrating source material on his blog:
This actually goes to the heart of the reductionism and the deterministic interpretation of source material -- this is the material I have, therefore this is what my subject must have been like -- that I fear in biographical writing. (And not least, I might add, in my own.) ... The longer I write biography, the more hesitant I become to use standard bio segues like "He was a broken man now." Broken to who?... To you? ... To him? Is he broken every minute of the day? The formulation is a specious one.

The other thing I wanted to do when I read The Red Leather Diary was to imagine what the stories would look like if they were cast as fiction by Francesca Lia Block. I've written before that I suffer from some combination of candy-stomachache and nostalgia when I read her books now (you can get a sense of this feeling with the Statistically Improbable Phrases from the books: witch baby, slinkster dog, niƱa bruja, lanky lizards, goat pants, tilty eyes, goat guys, toenail scissors, curly toes, fur pants, globe lamp, witch babies, witch child, genie lamp). I'm sure Block would love the details about the tangerine boucle coat, the pink flapper dress Koppel wears to a top-secret Matthew Barney Cremaster party, and the crumbling diary's sentence fragment lists of obsessions, purchases, and emotions. It's like a mixture of Weetzie Bat's fashion sense and Witch Baby's obsession with archives--set in New York, not LA, but Block switched coasts well in Missing Angel Juan.

I think Block actually addressed the candy-stomachache-nostalgia problem in her 2006 book Necklace of Kisses, in which Weetzie Bat takes stock of her life and wonders if all her passions have been worthwhile; the book is genuinely sad in many parts as she tries to do all the things that would have worked in previous books (go shopping, kiss a mermaid, eat umeboshi plums, kiss a drag queen...) only to find that they don't work anymore. One of the last chapters is a wonderful history of fashion, according to Weetzie Bat, about all the Vivienne Westwood and Pucci and Salvation Army and home-sewn clothes she's ever worn. I think Block is really in her element in lists of items like these, and she manages to imbue this particular list with a moving sense of belatedness, nostalgia, and forward-looking creativity.

I wonder what the Block treatment could do for Koppel's narration when the sense of belatedness sets in and she uses too many cliches of nostalgic writing:
A diary is about change. Florence's New York and mine couldn't be more night and day. Florence's metropolis was a vast theater, like one of the lost wonders of the world. It was alive with writers, painters, playwrights, and jazz. Ideas and art mattered. People rushed to the city because the mere thought of it burned a hole in their souls. My New York seemed out of tune, on its way to becoming a strip mall filled with Paris Hilton lookalikes.

The island of Manhattan sinks a foot every thousand years. We are sinking now. Who will one day swim through the Washington Square Arch and around the silver Chrysler Building? What will they think as they circle the Empire State Building, that once fearful mass of steel and hard-edged stone weathered to blond? Our colossal spires are no longer seen as great lighthouses for the triumph of the human spirit but as dusty old stage sets, the backdrop of chain stores.

Maybe this is self-conscious excess, but it doesn't work for me--especially if it's self-conscious because that would be a cheap trick. I think Koppel corrects herself when she discusses all the amazing stories she reported for the New York Times about mysterious Manhattan literary societies, the zine library at Barnard, an antique typewriter store, and so on (many of which are right up Collins' alley). Clearly there are plenty of ways to exercise the mind in New York, so are there ways to write about nostalgia or belatedness that don't look so hoary? It's another mixed-genre problem, perhaps, of moving between biography of Florence and personal memoir. That's why I think a shot of Block would be interesting as an alternative style that would work well with (forgive me, one last time) those amazing silver Victorian grape scissors and that coat with an iridescent lining.

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Blogger Adela on Sat May 31, 12:25:00 PM:
Hm! I remember reading about her discovery of the journal in a NYT article from about four years ago (don't remember the exact date but I know it was early in grad school). There some videos, I think, in the online version of her talking to the owner of the diary, no? Or is she dead. Anyways, I love your review of the book. Although now I don't know what to do at first you made me want to read it. Now, I'm not so sure. It seems like it might be better to imagine what kind of book it could've been.
 
Blogger Alice on Sat May 31, 02:29:00 PM:
Yes, she did write an article about the journal in 2006, and there's a video of their conversation linked to the article.
 
Blogger Wendy on Wed Jun 11, 04:09:00 PM:
Your most revealing comment in this turgid rant, "I'm kind of jealous."