by Norman Podhoretz, with an introduction by Terry Teachout
Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It was almost universally disliked when it came out in 1967. It struck a chord of hostility in the mid-twentieth-century literary world that was out of all proportion to the literary sins it may or may not have committed. The reviews were not just negative, but mean. Even before the book was published it was an object of derision. Podhoretz’s friends urged him not to publish it, and his publisher shrank from it after reading the manuscript. Another publisher gamely took the book, but his gamble did not pay off. Word had spread throughout literary Manhattan about the god-awfulness of what Podhoretz had wrought. This and the reviews sealed the book’s fate. It was a total humiliating failure.
From its first issue in 1963, Robert Silvers was either co-editor with Barbara Epstein or, after her death in 2006, editor of The New York Review. Bob worked almost to the very end of his life, which would be no surprise to those who knew him well, including those who have written these brief memoirs.
A sort of asteroid has hit the safe world of Russian literature in English translation. A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English.
In his introduction to Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, Jonathan Bate offers a “cardinal rule” of literary biography: “The work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected. The life is invoked in order to illuminate the work; the biographical impulse must be at one with the literary-critical.” But these fine words—are just fine words.
Last winter, I came into possession of the papers of an émigré psychiatrist who practiced in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s. The archive included a collection of manila envelopes, around six by ten inches, stuffed with folded sheets of thin paper covered with single-spaced typing: the notes the psychiatrist made after seeing patients (many of them fellow émigrés) in his office. As I studied the sheets with their inky typewriting and 60-year-old paper clips holding them together and leaving rust marks on the surface, my collagist’s imagination began to stir. I began to “see” some version of the collages on view here.
On October 31, Peter Clothier, a seventy-four-year-old author and retired professor, posted an entry on his blog, called The Buddha Diaries, about the wonderful day he and his wife Ellie had spent at the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on October 30 at the Mall in Washington, D.C., between noon and 3 PM. “We stood there trapped for a good two hours, surrounded by people who, like us, had showed up. We saw nothing, heard nothing of what was happening on the stage. It was great!” Clothier writes.
Republica Portuguesa, a collage by Janet Malcolm, 6¼ x 17 in., 2003 (Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art)
I have been aware, as I write this autobiography, of a feeling of boredom with the project. My efforts to make what I write interesting seem pitiful. My hands are tied, I feel. I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist. To these people I have been a kind of amanuensis: they have dictated their stories to me and I have retold them. They have posed for me and I have drawn their portraits. No one is dictating to me or posing for me now.