Up until recently I've always been a strictly-fiction girl. But after a brief dry spell of creativity and reading inspiration, I decided to ask the powers that be what to read next (read: The Daily Beast). And lucky for me, Liesl Shillinger wrote about Anne Roiphe's most recent memoir, Art and Madness:
Reading Anne Roiphe’s riveting memoir of her tumultuous twenties, Art and Madness, written in a tone of Didion-like detachment, but saffroned with her distinctive, pungent regrets and her curious humility, I marveled at her depiction of George Plimpton’s Paris Review parties in the early 1960s, on the Upper East Side, near Manhattan’s East River. Thirty years later, I had gone to those parties, in those same rooms, when I was the age she was then. They did not resemble the bacchanals she remembers. For a while, I almost envied her. She describes “the heavy air of flirtation, the perfume of illicit sex that wafted through the book-filled rooms of George’s apartment,” and the power games played by the male guests, “the famous men or the would-be-famous men flexing their skills, strutting their stuff, talking of agents and publishers and rights to this or that.”After reading Roiphe's enthralling account, I felt the same way.
One of the downsides to memoirs like Roiphe's are the poor schmucks like myself who read it and romanticize the Golden Age of writing. I've been doing the same thing as I read Raymond Carver's biography by Carol Sklenicka; naively overlooking the depths of alcoholism, adultery, and poverty to wish that I could live in an era where creative writers - creative minds - could be as adored and sexualized as in the olden days.
But Roiphe is steadfast in her seeming quest to quell any of those romantic ideas. She is brutal. Her past relationships and decisions are far from pretty; they are neither justified nor justifiable. She does not make excuses, instead she admits to giving up on her own writing in pursuit of her first husband's success. It's a frightening tale to read, as a writer myself, especially as a writer who has been struggling lately with the balance of life and the pursuit of a writing career. Roiphe remembers a time when she forgot herself: "I had to learn that muses can be fired or dismissed but writers either do or don't write without permission or encouragement from anyone."
The way she talks about her daughter, her affairs, and how she struggled with love and sex and growing up show life in its messiest of states, the sandpaper underbelly of the creative life.
Art and Madness by Anne Roiphe
While it's difficult to judge the "story" of someone's life, the tales Roiphe tells are intriguing and revelatory. There is not one wasted sentence. From walking through the snow carrying her husband's typewriter even after her water breaks (yes, that water) to multiple affairs including with the founder of The Paris Review, there aren't many dull moments. Even for those not interested in romanticizing the old world of writers, Roiphe has come out surprisingly whole after a difficult road, an inspiring story for anyone trying to recognize themselves again.
Shillinger compares Roiphe's style to Joan Didion in her review of the book, and I would have to agree. Roiphe is succinct without being exclusive; she tells you the whole story with a detachment that strips the sometimes heartbreaking parts of distracting emotion. She gets right to the point of the realities of her situation and their consequences. There are lessons without imposed morals.
While my reasons for reading this memoir may seem a little sick - exploiting another woman's journey in the world of writers to substitute my own lack of revelry - the experience was very different than I intended. Roiphe glares at her past and, thus, so does the reader. Aside from the scandalous moments, the heart of her story is about a woman, a writer, who gave up her passion for writing and lived a difficult period of time for it. No one will fight for what you want, especially if you give it up so easily.
I'd say this is a must-read for aspiring writers everywhere, or anyone who's given up something they felt defined them. Roiphe gives a great description for the feeling of being undefined.