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Sins and Sacraments: Ann Patchett’s candid memoirs

My review appears in this month’s edition of Australian Book Review

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This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett             Bloomsbury, $29.99

In 2006, novelist Ann Patchett found herself in the midst of intense controversy. Truth and Beauty, an account of her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy, had been allocated as a text for freshmen at Clemson University, South Carolina. One parent objected because the book depicted an intense affection between two women, discussed premarital sex, and ‘encouraged (students) to find themselves sexually’. Clemson banned Patchett’s book, branding it ‘pornographic’. Her 2007 Atlantic Monthly essay, reprinted in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is an eye-opening account of her confrontation with American academic fundamentalism. Written with unflagging dry wit, her subsequent address to the Clemson University student body is a courageous, blazing defence of intellectual, academic, and artistic freedom.

Part memoir, part retrospective, the twenty-two essays in this collection build up a composite portrait of Patchett as writer, friend, granddaughter, wife, and investigative journalist. ‘I was always going to be a writer. I’ve known this for as long as I’ve known anything,’ she recalls. Selling her first short story to the Paris Review when she was twenty, she published her début novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), seven years later. Since then she has written six more novels and three works of non-fiction, winning the Orange Prize for Bel Canto (2001).

For many years she combined novel writing with journalism for publications as diverse as the New York Times and Vogue. The discipline of writing precisely and to word limits is evident in her fiction. She generally underwrites, preferring taut to florid, banishing the unnecessary phrase.

Take her personal response to anti-police riots in Los Angeles,  The Wall, sealed with her own memories of growing up the daughter of an LAPD cop. She takes the gruelling Academy entrance exams because ‘I want to tell a story about people who do hard work. I want to explain that living beneath the weight of all those three-ringed binders filled with the neighbourhood dead takes its toll … that being the one to discover children entombed in cement wears you down … To show what’s good. But good, like the police, turns out to be complicated.’

These essays confirm that Patchett’s initial premise for writing is frequently turned on its head by the force of experience. She sets off for a camping holiday in a Winnebago, ‘to expose it for the gas-guzzling, fitness-eschewing underbelly my editor knows it to be’. After discovering the vast open spaces of America, she recognises ‘the Winnebago has set me free. It has made me swim in cold rivers and eat pancakes with strangers and turn down obscure roads with no worry about where I have to be or when.’

Her revisionism is particularly evident regarding her personal life, and here Patchett is unabashedly candid. There’s her hopeless, short-lived first marriage, an eventual rewarding second marriage to a Tennessee physician, and several mistakes in between.  The Sacrament of Divorce and the title story reveal much about her, but these essays also celebrate common links between women who fail at relationships, dust themselves off, and start over. ‘I was as grateful for divorce as I was for my own life, but it had done me in … I saw a much simpler path: if I never married again I would never again be divorced. In short, I had found a way to beat the system. I was free.’

Free – that word again. Free to cock a snook at political correctness and write, blithely childless and content with her dog in her lap, ‘I wonder if there are people out there who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog?’ Patchett’s enthusiasm for new passions discovered in adulthood (including dogs and opera) is infectious.

Some of the most illuminating essays concern her attitude to her craft. Nothing if not practical, casual jobs and an apprenticeship at Seventeen magazine allowed her to pay the bills as she wrestled with her early fiction (proudly, she notes that she was the first to get a perfect score in the T.G.I. Friday’s waitress test).

A former student of Allan Gurganus, Grace Paley, and Russell Banks, Patchett sets out a road map for wannabe writers: challenge yourself and write what you don’t know; be consistent; ‘writer’s block’ is just an excuse for procrastination. Amusingly, she banishes forever the notion that everyone has a book within them. ‘Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them? … One algebraic proof? … One Hail Mary pass? One five minute mile?’

As editor of The Best American Short Stories 2006, Patchett in her introduction uncovers an admiration for a form she visits only rarely herself. ‘The stories offered me their companionship, each one a complete experience in a limited amount of space,’ she writes. The same could be said of this book. Dive in and savour the essays at random, although in a recent interview Patchett suggests reading them sequentially.

Two years ago, Patchett opened Parnassus Books in her home town, after the last bookstore in Nashville closed. Her journey from writer to successful entrepreneur is recounted in her Atlantic Monthly essay, The Bookstore Strikes Back. It sums up her unflagging energy and optimism. ‘Maybe we just got lucky. But my luck has made me believe that changing the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions … If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore … This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.’

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Settling old scores: Saul Bellow’s Heart

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Pictured – Greg Bellow as a toddler in his father’s arms

Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow    Bloomsbury    $26.99

Greg Bellow first heard of his father, Saul Bellow’s, death on the car radio. The media were informed before the family. At Saul Bellow’s funeral, the eulogies were given by luminaries such as author Martin Amis, Bellow’s literary “son”, but none of his own three sons were asked to contribute. Over the ensuing weeks, tributes flowed incessantly from writers, such as Philip Roth, who had been mentored by Bellow and by his many friends. So orchestrated were these testaments of public grief, that Greg Bellow wondered: “What is it with all these filial narratives? After all, he was my father! Did they all have such lousy fathers that they needed to co-opt mine?”

Greg Bellow’s memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart is a poignant cri de coeur of what it was like growing up in the shadow of that huge literary presence, and monumental ego. It’s a commonplace that just because you may be a great writer, you are not necessarily a great human being. Greg Bellow’s warts-and-all account of his father is refreshingly honest. Life was not easy with a man who was affectionate and easy to love but who expected much and often gave little in return. Greg Bellow recounts the many hours he spent as a child waiting for his father to finish writing in his locked study after being promised an outing that never eventuated. Saul’s Bellow’s gravestone simply states he was a “Writer”, not that he was also a “father”. Reading between the lines, it’s clear Greg Bellow ruefully understands where Saul’s priorities lay.

For a long time, Greg Bellow tried to separate his father’s public and private personae. This was partly out of respect for Saul’s privacy but also his own peace of mind. The older son of Saul Bellow’s first marriage, Greg’s early years were spent out of the spotlight, as his father struggled to write. But after the publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, Saul Bellow’s star rose. By the time Herzog was published in 1964, he was not only world-famous but hailed by Time magazine as an icon of American literature. As Martin Amis wrote in The Atlantic Monthly: “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further.” Bellow’s Nobel Prize win in 1976 cemented his greatness.

For Greg, Saul’s rise to international prominence saw him change from the “young Saul” – warm, left-leaning, bohemian, tolerant – to “old Saul” – grumpy, conservative, arrogant and reactionary. It was the time of anger and recrimination. Greg, who had absorbed tolerance and liberalism in his childhood from both parents, could not accept “old Saul’s” right-wing views and the two were estranged for a time. Greg was also furious that Saul did not attend the marriage of his own granddaughter, Greg’s daughter Juliet. It was only later that he realised Saul was trying to cover up the muddle-headness that was besetting him in old age and did not wish to make a public appearance. Though reconciled at the end, their relationship was frequently a bumpy one.

This is also a memoir of justification – Greg is very keen to point out his own financial independence (he was a successful psychotherapist for over 40 years).  This is particularly relevant in view of his complex family history: Saul Bellow married five times. There were sons from the first three marriages, and a daughter with his last wife, Janis, forty years his junior. Janis became the executor of Saul’s estate after his death in 2005 and unpleasant family feuds and legal battles ensued amongst the siblings. Greg makes it clear he wanted no part in this and that he loved his father for himself alone. Part of the rationale for writing this book was to put forward his own personal view of a brilliant and difficult man.

There are many anecdotes in this memoir that shed light on Bellow’s personality: crying in the car after yet another row with his own father; the spirited, extended family dinners with everyone speaking Yiddish and talking at once; even the amusing snapshot of Saul’s sister falling asleep during the Nobel Prize ceremony, so interminably long were the speeches. Yet Greg Bellow never reconciles himself to the fact that as a public figure, his father was shared by many others, and this memoir quivers frequently on the verge of resentment.

This, then, is his final judgement of his father: “He was a man who lived for a singular creative purpose; a man who struggled with his deepest emotions; an author touched with literary genius; an authority with wisdom to impart; a father recently passed away; a father largely absent but emotionally present; and a man, father, and husband who promised more than he could deliver. And I was his little boy: a boy who felt deeply cared about; a grown son deeply influenced by the kind of love he received; and a man wrestling with the challenges of relating to a difficult father who walked away from shared family ideals.”