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To Read Between The Lines Essay Writer

Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. By Claudia Roth Pierpont. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 368 pages; $27. Buy from Amazon.com

The Kraus Project. By Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 318 pages; $27. Fourth Estate; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

“IF THIS book were a conventional biography,” Claudia Roth Pierpont states in her wise and captivating analysis of the work of Philip Roth, “there would be names and dates; that will come along, in time.” This, clearly, is not a conventional biography but a chronicle of the man through the “life of his art”. Mr Roth’s fiction willingly lends itself to such an approach, given the hefty dose of autobiography that runs throughout. But Ms Pierpont is always mindful of the gaps between the author and his creations: “The facts, as Roth has explained time after time, exist to be eviscerated by the imagination.”

From the moment Mr Roth entered the literary scene with “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959, he was seen as a troublemaker. But it was ten years later with his angry, sexy “Portnoy’s Complaint”—“one of the signal subversive acts of a subversive age”—that he became an enfant terrible. Certain sections of Jewish America viewed his raucous portrayal of Jewish life as a betrayal. Confronting these objections, Ms Pierpont argues that Mr Roth is no more bound to defend “his people” than John Updike was to defend his. As Mr Roth wrote in a 1963 essay, plainly titled “Writing about Jews”, the act of “putting on a good face” was a subtle part of persecution: a persecution he bluntly rejected.

A long-time staff writer for the New Yorker, Ms Pierpont has known Mr Roth for the past decade. Her book has the sympathy of friendship, but she does not hesitate to be critical of the author’s lesser work. The five books Mr Roth published between “Portnoy” and “The Ghost Writer” in 1979 caused many to question whether his youthful promise had dissipated; Ms Pierpont does not demur. She can also be unsparing with some of his acclaimed later work. Of “I Married A Communist” (1998) she remarks that “I don’t believe there is a book by Roth in which the voices are dimmer or less engaging.”

This book, however, is a celebration. Some may quibble that Ms Pierpont neglects accusations of misogyny in Mr Roth’s fiction. But it is hard to argue with her conclusion that “Not since Henry James … has an American novelist worked at such a sustained pitch of concentration and achievement.” This book is an illuminating companion to Mr Roth’s work. Perhaps it offers some consolation to the author himself, now 80, retired and once again overlooked for the Nobel prize.

Similarly unconventional but considerably less successful is “The Kraus Project”, Jonathan Franzen’s peculiar attempt to introduce a 21st-century English-speaking audience to the work of Karl Kraus, a 19th-century Austrian critic and satirist. The “project” is his translation and annotation of five of Kraus’s essays—a savaging of the poetry of Heinrich Heine, a hymn to the plays of Johann Nestroy—which first transfixed the young Mr Franzen when he lived in Berlin in his early 20s. But there is no getting around the fact that Kraus’s work is rebarbative today. Even Mr Franzen admits that Kraus’s “texts and controversies… grow ever more antiquated and inaccessible”. He also slides away from crucial aspects of Kraus, such as his complicated relationship with his own Judaism. Kraus could be unsparing in his criticism of fellow German-Jewish writers, complaining of the “rootlessness” of Heine’s wit and the “flood of filth” swamping German culture—a phrase Mr Franzen admires for its “raw sincerity”.

Mr Franzen’s analysis (and that of his co-authors, Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann) is presented as footnotes, some of them pages long. The book also includes Kraus’s essays in the original German. All of this feels impractical and unwieldy. More frustrating still is the way Mr Franzen peppers the text with his simplistic gripes about modern technology. For example, he laments that Salman Rushdie—“a novelist who I believe ought to have known better”—succumbs to Twitter. Readers are probably less interested than he imagines in why he finally relinquished his AOL account. Anyone curious about Karl Kraus is advised to head elsewhere.

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When I was about ten, I received a five-​year diary for Christmas. It was a small green leather-like book with a little lock and key. My grandmother, who had briefly kept a minimalist diary, insisted that I record the weather. In her diary she wrote things like “Wind in the north. Went down and helped Mrs. Hixon with her hog killing a while.”

In high school, the habit of chronicling my life history seized me, probably at about the same time I was seized by a teenaged self-​importance. Jottings from early 1957:

Memorize 12 quotations from Emerson’s “Self-​Reliance”

“30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary”

Geometry theorems. Make 12-​pointed star.

Read “Oliver Twist”

Tab Hunter on Steve Allen Show

Elvis Presley “All Shook Up”

“The Report on UFOs,” E. J. Ruppelt

I’m still doing this. Since high school, I have kept a calendar diary, a brief account of each day. It is not a planner, where a schedule is set forth. And it is not a journal, for it is not really intimate. I’ve recorded only things I thought I wouldn’t be embarrassed by—​books, movies, trips, places, work. 

The desk diaries are almost always visually appealing calendars, from museums perhaps. In recent years I have relied on the New Yorker desk diaries, because they offer more writing space and a pleasing format. The aesthetics of these notebooks is very important. They may be the only objects in my life that I treat with any specialness and reverence.

In high school, the little books were plain and I wrote sparely. The notation “5–​8:30” simply meant that I worked at my regular job as a soda jerk at the drugstore during those hours. I didn’t have to explain that to myself. In time, I scribbled more elaborate notes, yet never offered much clarity for a reader.

These notes were meant to trigger memories, but when I look back now I discover that many of the memories have vanished. For instance, during my second year in college I seem to have spent a lot of time hanging out with George Clooney’s parents, but I hardly remember this. I knew some local DJs, including Nick Clooney. I remember Nick’s fiancée, Nina, and I remember riding in Nick’s red Corvette, which apparently now belongs to George. All I can say is that Nick was cuter than George is. 

And I’m astonished to realize that I saw Miles Davis play at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966. I like knowing that this happened, but how could I have forgotten even a moment of this?

I look back at these little daybooks rarely. But lately I have been perusing the annals of high school and college. I’m mortified! Most people have a grip on their past through memory and souvenirs—​photos, home movies. My past is recorded in outline form. Normally we can fashion a narrative of our lives out of our murky memories, blocking out our callow youth, but I have evidence—​record books—​of it.

What stands out, ludicrously, is the ongoing list of movies I saw, sometimes juxtaposed improbably with my current reading. 

June 5, 1961
Jerry Lewis, “Ladies Man” 
Sartre, “Age of Reason” 

July 14, 1961
“The Parent Trap,” Hayley Mills
Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist”

Looking back at all the TV shows and movies, I cringe. Here is proof of my shallowness, misdirection, foolishness, vapid pastimes. There’s more.

Some of the books I read in 1958, my last semester of high school and first semester of college: The Hills Beyond, Ape and Essence, Brave New World, All the King’s Men, Mandingo, Gidget, Animal Farm, Forever Amber, Les Misérables, Crime and Punishment, On the Beach, and A Certain Smile. Books I bought just before high-​school graduation: Philosophy Made Simple, Nineteen Eighty-​Four, The Short Reign of Pippin IV, The Universe and Dr. Einstein, The Varieties of Religious Experience,and Teacher’s Pet.

I’m a product of a poor (criminally skimpy) grade-​school education. For the first eight years I attended a country school in Cuba, Kentucky, a small school with no art, no languages, no music. There was no library! My mother bought me the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew series books, and in sixth grade I discovered a copy of LittleWomen.

I remember now how hungry I was to learn, grasping for knowledge. What I wanted was an intense, intricate experience—​like weaving a tapestry. Or reading novels! My mind was active, but I had few examples or role models. And no creative glimmer of possibility—​only workbook rules. Not a scrap of creative encouragement. For art we colored outlined pumpkins and Santas. I was absorbed in coloring books and paint-​by-​numbers. I tried to write my own Nancy Drew-​style mysteries.

By the time I got to high school, I was rebellious, headstrong. It was too late for guidance or role models. My artistic and intellectual development was stunted. My main outlet was music on the radio. No wonder I was drawn to DJs and kept tabs on Pat Boone’s hit songs. The radio was my guide to the world. I plunged into an alternative life, ruled by the radio, and I spent my high-​school years running the national fan club for a popular music group, the Hilltoppers. Pen pals, mail, and promotion projects filled my days.

I should have discovered language and literature, but it wasn’t there for me.

My high school was good in science, math, and grammar, but literature was stuffy and remote. There was no art, music, or language except for Latin.

I was told that Latin was boring and dead, but secretly I loved it and only in retrospect do I realize it was my favorite subject. Miss Tossie Thorpe, the teacher, was a frail old woman, a little wren, making bird noises. Latin was purely strange, an adventure into the unknown, with cryptic clues (words that seemed like English) along the path.

I had no example of what you could do with learning—​except for shorthand and typing (which I took, dutifully, forgoing the third and fourth years of Latin.) Any idiot can learn to type, and I’ve had no call for shorthand, but Latin has been my most useful subject, I see now, and I regret quitting halfway through.

I’m afraid to review my twenties and thirties. Will I discover that my whole life has been frittered away in jejune pastimes? Should I continue filling these little books? In my old age will I need to keep it up? Do I want anyone to read these little albums someday? My life is not a page-​turner, please. I suppose that ultimately then the desk diary has an ending. I don’t look forward to it. Will I be there to record it?

Although rereading my youth is embarrassing, I recognize that its limits turned out to hold some of my most precious resources, the details I would eventually draw on for fiction. They weren’t the ones I wrote down then. But eventually the particulars of my country background, the vitality of farm people, and the language they spoke energized and defined the stories I began to write.

Floundering and misdirection are the basic methods of writing fiction. It is all done from scratch, without a pattern. Keeping a desk diary is a way of imposing a simple order on the stream of the day, but fiction demands something different—​an openness to possibility, to what matters. It needs a fierce sense of urgency.

My mother kept a sort of journal during the last several years of her life. She wrote in notebooks and filled up the margins, so as not to waste any space. Like me, she attended to the main events of the day, but with a big difference: She made sentences. She used verbs! I can hear her voice, her laughter. She describes taking her dog, Oscar, out for a walk one cold day:

He took me sailing down the hill, was about to mess. After he done that he was ready to come back home. It wasn’t very windy but would cut you to the bone.

She was entertaining the events of the day, living a day fully enough to remark upon it, to feel it again through recollection. Ultimately, I learned the essentials from my mother. Life is process. Writing is process. With words we defy oblivion. I ponder my grandmother’s little diary and a boxful of my mother’s notebooks, and it thrills me beyond words that I have been able to bring their stories out to the world. For all three of us, writing has been a response to a world that is rich in material even though bounded by farm fences.

I can imagine that in my last days I will still be writing down what happened. Maybe I will be studying Latin.

Wind in the north. In ventum aquilonis?

Tempus fugit.

Bobbie Ann Mason

Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of eight books of fiction and a memoir, Clear Springs (Random House, 1999), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her first collection of short fiction, Shiloh & Other Stories (Harper & Row, 1982), won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her most recent novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret (Random House, 2011), won the Kentucky Book Award.