Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Miranda Doyle – A Book of Untruths: A Memoir (Faber & Faber 2017)

Miranda Doyle’s ‘A Book of Untruths’ is subtitled ‘A Memoir’. In many ways, it shares key characteristics with this familiar genre – it begins in childhood and progresses through school and early adulthood (Doyle’s accounts of her miserable schooldays, by themselves, make a valuable contribution to a body of work on the privations of boarding school; one of the most notable comparisons it invites for me is Roald Dahl’s classic memoir ‘Boy’).

It explores fractious family relationships and issues such as adoption, infidelity, illness, grief and divorce, alongside bigger issues of gender, power, identity and class. It questions the role of institutions such as the church, schools and marriage in our lives, and the place of social mores and prejudices in perpetuating their more negative elements.

It takes skill to craft something new and relevant out of familiar and universal experiences such as these, but Doyle’s memoir had me hooked from start to finish.

Her family – like all families – is dysfunctional in its own unique way, but Doyle’s words place us there, in her memories and experiences. Powerful emotional responses to fear, indignity and injustice resonate through the pages, still as strongly felt as decades ago when they occurred. Richly observed period details of 1960s and 1970s Britain, together with family photographs, further serve to bring Doyle’s words to life.

Where ‘A Book of Untruths’ diverges from the conventional memoir is in recurrent sections analysing what it means to tell our life story, incorporating aspects of psychology, science, social research and history, which punctuate and illuminate the main narrative.

Doyle raises questions about what it means to tell the truth about ourselves, our past, and our relationships with those in it – truths which, we are reminded, often depend on who is doing the telling, and who is listening. In writing her perspective on these events, it seems like Doyle is seeking to understand the motivations of those people who surround and influence us from an early age, those relationships and experiences that shape us and turn us into who we are, and how our thoughts and actions live on through others’ perceptions and memoires of us once we are gone.

Of course, the book isn’t just a memoir of Doyle; it tells the stories of her parents and her siblings, too (or Doyle’s version of them) – how could it not?

One of the aspects of the book that both gave me a jolt, and resonated with me the most, was Doyle’s matter-of-fact, unflinching descriptions of sexual assault, the positions of influence held by the men who perpetrated them, and the situations in which they came to take place.

I read ‘A Book of Untruths’ some months ago, yet in these times, when the population is only just beginning to wake up to the prevalence of harassment and abuse as part of women’s everyday lives, Doyle’s experiences, and the ways in which she has told, contextualised and reacted to them, have often returned to my thoughts.

‘A Book of Untruths’ shows that there is scope yet for the rediscovery and development of an old form, the memoir. For those whose interest is piqued as much as mine was, there is also a dedicated website (www.bookofuntruths.com) to further explore the series of ‘lies’ around which the book is structured.

– Natalie Bradbury


Chasing a New Life

John Calder – Pursuit (Alma Books)

John Calder’s memoirs contain one of the best opening lines of any biography, Jeff Nuttall’s Performance Art Memoirs excepted, although even that was published by Calder. He writes:

‘I inherited genes that, once in my body, rebelled against those of my forebears and somehow became twisted out of all recognition of their sources.’

He describes his family and their wealth, the way they were part of The Establishment and wanted only to penetrate that establishment further:

‘Both sides of my family going two generations back, contained patriarchs and staunch conservatives, unthinking in their political views (which were those that stood to their greatest advantage) and in their religious ones (which consisted of a Roman Catholicism of total orthodoxy).’

He writes about growing up with a French cook and a Governess. He goes to prep school. In between the usual lines about smashing windows with cricket balls and a treasured Labrador puppy, there are astonishing historical glimpses:

‘Nearly all the Masters were monks. I only remember one lay teacher, a member of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, who taught arithmetic and was constantly saying in class that Britain’s natural enemy was France and natural friend Germany. I believe he was interned at the outbreak of war.’

Calder broke away from all this, although his idea of active politics was standing on a Liberal ticket in Scotland (sadly, he lost to the Tories).

But Calder was the last of a momentary historical flash: The upper class rebel who had the largesse and complete lack of risk aversion to support what he believed was good art.

Calder is frank, but likeable. He seems kind and even mildly sentimental. He is very far from an austere high priest of modernity. The Dedication is troubled and full of guilt: Calder is very much a human being, a mensch. The index tells you a lot. In the B’s we get:

Beuys, Joseph (artist)
Bila (dog)
Billiére, General Peter de la (army general)
Birtwhistle, Harrison (composer)
Black, Mr (tailor)

This is a weird but perfectly representative identity parade. The early passages show Calder’s direct links to the British elite, stretching back to the seventeenth century. He describes the strange political intrigues and fiefdoms of the whisky producing dynasties, the relatives of Dukes. This material is arcane, blueblood stuff. The middle of the book displays some wonderful photos of various lords and sirs, and portraits of Calder, who seems to have always worn the same slightly baggy, Churchillian face.

But we turn a page and there are Burroughs, Trocchi and Henry Miller. Calder published Beckett, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (a biggie for me) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, for which he endured an obscenity trial with his business partner Marion Boyars.

Just as scientists such as Rutherford, Cockroft and Walton took us into the nuclear age, figures such as Calder ushered in the cultural revolutions of the post-war period, those often encoded in shorthand as ‘the sixties’.

One snapshot late in the book sees Calder having drinks with Theodor Adorno, who was staying at the same hotel. The day after, Burroughs and Ginsberg drifted in and Calder ‘agreed to’ have dinner with them.

This astonishing single day in his life can be read as a metaphor for the man: Adorno refused to believe in the counterculture and held on to the high modern avant-gardes. Only Marcuse of the Frankfurt School put in his lot with the soixante-huitards. Calder did both, in a way, he spent most of his time and money pursuing opera, while backing the artists that blasted the polite literary scene out of the water. Who will do that in our time?

Another scene catches him between his roots and the future he helped to create: He takes a stroll in Berlin with Luigi Nono, whose wife was also Schoenberg’s daughter. Nono Asks Calder what he is doing that evening. Calder tells him that he’s going to see Karajan direct the Philharmonic, Beethoven and Brahms. ‘Can you still listen to all that?’ Nono asks, ‘I’d rather stand here in the street and listen to the traffic, it’s much more interesting.’

This book is essential for modernist literary scholars wishing to indulge their passion. They won’t gain any rare insights into Beckett, but then Beckett scholars know not to go looking for them.

But this is not just a book for culture vultures. It has a rare quality, being both readable and long (at 636 pages). It is never, ever boring, nor do I imagine that Calder was ever bored, not even for a nanosecond.

This is a book about a man, but it is also a book about the culture that he helped to bring into being: The history of a life and that life in history become indistinguishable; this is ultimately a book about the final shift from the ancien regime to our era of western individualism. Calder’s genes, mutating out of shape, mirror those processes exactly.

I’m the Doctor

A.J. Lees – Mentored by a Madman (Notting Hill Editions)

There have been some cracking books this year, but for the sheer unexpectedness of it I’d have to say that Mentored by a Madman is the one I’ve recommended the most.

It was at the European Beat Studies Network conference in Manchester’s Welcome Inn – a place dizzy with incense and laughing yoga – where I first met Professor Lees. He wore a pristine suit and spoke with a careful, measured and attentive voice. His eyes were very still. In the midst of the paranoid scholars and itchy artists he seemed unnervingly calm, standing out but very much at home. Oliver Harris, one of the world’s greatest living experts on Burroughs, introduced him as a colleague of the late Olivier Sacks, a renowned neurosurgeon and an ‘unexpected disciple of another man who made a habit of wearing suits in company like this’.

The book, which I picked up that day on the strength of Lees’ talk, is a memoir which – like all great memoirs – relegates the protagonist to a secondary character. Lees is shaped by early run-ins with Beat culture, the Dickensian stringency of elite medical schools, the humanity of the Parkinson’s sufferers he treated with L-Dopa and, alongside all of it, the ‘madman’ of the title: William S. Burroughs.

Burroughs crosses the text like a Buddhist Lama, appearing with unexpected insights from him texts in incongruous situations and proving – like all we Burroughs-lovers have always known – that what appears on first reading as mania or obscenity can become, in time, priceless and humanistic insights that span time.

Of particular interest is Lees’ own adventurous spirit when it comes to the limits of standard clinical procedure. A good physician, he believes, should be willing to try the medicines he or she prescribes in order to truly understand their effect upon the subjectively experienced organism.

How else, other than sharing their urges, could Lees have discovered the psychosomatic and potentially addictive qualities of his treatments which had been deemed safe under lab conditions?

Lees praises botany as another lost art of the physician. Some of the millions spent synthesising trademarkable drugs in labs could surely be spared to search the rainforests where evolution has very likely already provided cures in abundance. The Yage Letters are an influence here.

Lees points out that Burroughs was the first Western explorer to realise that yage was a product of two vines, not one; a secret which official medicine would take another half-century to uncover. Exotic botany and self-medication eventually combine towards the close of the text as Lees’ describes to us one hell of a retirement party.

The key message of the work, and one Lees’ appears to have embodied throughout his successful career, are the benefits of what academics now call ‘interdisciplinarity’ but are much better described as having varied interests.

Burroughs, though he dropped out of medical school after one semester, continued to hold a broadly scientific outlook. The knowledge he gained from a lifetime’s autodidactic medical reading allowed him to become a worthy proponent of the apomorphine cure for opiate addiction.

It was Lees’ openness to literary and aesthetic insights which introduced him, through Burroughs, to this same apomorphine. The dopamine-regulating qualities that Burroughs praised for reducing opiate need proved a great breakthrough when utilised alongside L-Dopa in the treatment of Parkinsons. Lees credits Burroughs with these insights, but it is clear to us who the truly great physician here is.

Most importantly, Mentored by a Madman is well written, compulsively readable, compact and balances sentiment and humour perfectly. It’s chock full of great anecdotes and carries a life-affirming message, especially but not exclusively for those interested either in Burroughs or the neurosciences. Buy that shit!

– Joe Darlington