Under the Steinway

Jenny Diski

  • BuyThe Scientists: A Family Romance by Marco Roth
    Union Books, 196 pp, £14.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 908526 19 9

I have a tendency when reading biographies and autobiographies about elderly or dead people of great accomplishment to want to skip through the early part, especially the childhood. The residue of psychoanalytic theory and Just-So psychology is spread thick on most retrospective accounts of individual origins. Received assumptions and teleology come too easily. Both writers and readers are inclined to make the childhood emblematic of the already known adult achievement, either as something to overcome – poverty, abuse, no education – or as a period of unwitting training for whatever they came to do so well or so badly later on. I really want to know about the adult’s life and mind when she or he was producing the work or leading the troops or discovering whatever was waiting to be discovered. It’s harder, however, to avoid reading about the childhood and youth of those who write autobiography in the middle or even early stages of their careers. Skipping or coming back to the early pages later doesn’t work. There isn’t very much for them to write about except the way their lives began and the people who made their world. A wary reader has to hope for ability in the writer or an eventful early life. The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct. If you were born, you’re in there with a story. Look what Sterne made of it. It’s true that after the beginning, you need a certain amount of middle, but you don’t have to know the end. Or rather, all stories end the same way, but no narrative, fictional or non-fictional, is required to finish with a detailed account of the death of all the protagonists. Still, it would take a foolhardy or epically narcissistic individual to set out to write an autobiography without any degree of drama or achievement, if they weren’t sure they had the writing ability to bring it off. The placid, contented childhood and the quotidian life generally require a decidedly non-quotidian author.

In the past two decades or so, unhappy, impoverished and abused childhoods have become the popular thing. It’s known as misery lit, but these are really survival memoirs. A Child Called ‘It’ by Dave Pelzer, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans initiated the genre in the 1990s. They were largely read for sentimental and/or sadomasochistic reasons, for their account of hardship overcome, regardless of their literary merit (Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius played with and on the genre). Dickens’s stories of humble beginnings, struggle and eventual triumph might have been read that way, had he not possessed the skill to override, as Wilde said, the hilarity of Little Nell’s death. It is important that they are factual accounts, which is why, when some of them were discovered to be at least partly fictional (A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story by ‘Anthony Godby Johnson’, The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things by ‘J.T. LeRoy’, Kathy’s Story by Kathy O’Beirne), people felt aggrieved. They didn’t want imagined misery: no matter the quality of the imagination, they wanted experienced misery as recounted by the one who had experienced it. People felt they had been cheated and emotionally manipulated, which is an interesting, and perhaps honest, definition of the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Presumably the same books found on the fiction shelves would not have had the same impact or popularity. Jane Eyre written as autobiography would fit perfectly into the category of misery lit and readers and literary critics would have received it quite differently. At the peak of the genre, Waterstone’s introduced a new section labelled ‘Painful Lives’ and W.H. Smith offered the category ‘Tragic Life Stories’. The passion for true-life unhappiness was partly responsible for fiction being seen as concealed autobiography. When I wrote a novel in 1989 narrated by an infant without a brain telling the story of its mother I was congratulated at a reading for overcoming my terrible experience of giving birth to such a child by writing the novel. When I said I hadn’t had that experience, I had made it up, the speaker, and several other people, glared at me furiously for the rest of the session, as though I had tricked them. Which depending on how you define ‘fiction’ and ‘trickery’, I had.

In fiction too, poverty or privation has been a vital ingredient. But the wealthy have their niche. The poor little rich girl has been familiar in cinema since Mary Pickford’s 1917 movie, and many of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s are based on the emotional blankness of untutored heiresses with neglectful families who need a working-class (or faux working-class) man to teach and love them properly. Spoiled, colonial, orphaned Mary Lennox is taught by the simultaneously earthy and ethereal working-class Dickon to be a proper human being in The Secret Garden. In real life we lap up the unhappy rich as gossip and life lesson, with Marilyn (who straddles the impoverished child and poor rich girl genres) and Princess Diana as their apotheosis. Biographies of unhappy and tragic heiresses such as Barbara Hutton, from the Woolworth family, and Christina Onassis, have been huge popular hits.

There are wealthy hapless males, too – John Paul Getty III, for example, or Hans Rausing – who never find contentment. And Hamlet can stand for all the privileged sons born into misery at the centre of intrigues of familiar wealth and power. There is a double edge to our attention to the unhappy rich. We are reassured to know that money doesn’t guarantee love and fulfilment; on the contrary, there is a sense that the proper trajectory for the unhappy rich is downward and tragic. Jane Eyre’s spirited overcoming of difficulty is not to be expected of them. It takes some steadying of the mind to recollect that unhappiness is unhappiness, just as pain is pain whoever experiences it, and being unloved or in difficulty feels just as wretched and frightening to a child or adolescent whatever the size of his parents’ bank account.

My own image of unhappy children in the midst of wealth was set by Jane Eyre, who on the first page climbs onto a window seat with a book, and by drawing ‘the red moreen curtain’, encloses herself behind ‘folds of scarlet drapery’. When Scarlett O’Hara needs to look like a wealthy woman in the post-bellum ruins of her luxurious family home, she tears down the last sign of childhood wealth, the green velvet curtains, to make a dress. In my memory, Maisie in Henry James’s novel scarcely leaves the lush Victorian interiors whichever adult she finds herself with. Colin, the son of the dour Yorkshire house in The Secret Garden, is mysteriously and miserably bedridden in a room of overpoweringly ornate bedspreads, curtains and rugs. Pip, with his expectations, and the adopted Estella wander through the grand decay of Miss Havisham’s crumbling mansion. Billy Kramer, in the movie named after his parents, lives in divorce-torn modern comfort in the family’s New York apartment. Soft furnishings are an essential component of one kind of childhood unhappiness. In my imagination, lonely, miserable rich kids hang out behind drapery, drift silently through thick carpeted corridors, sit under tables on parquet floors or in the middle of an oak-panelled room stranded on fine Oriental rugs. When the venue isn’t Victorian fiction, it is firmly set, in my mind’s eye, in well turned-out residences in uptown Manhattan.

Marco Roth’s autobiography doesn’t, on the whole, disappoint, not in the writing, the story or the setting. The story he has to tell at the age of 38 is of a childhood on Central Park West, overshadowed by his emotionally withholding and sadistic scientist father contracting Aids from a needle stick accident and further burdened by the secret he has to keep, and of his later growing doubts about the true genesis of his father’s illness. I hardly had to wait at all before he confirmed my rich child/interior decoration prejudices –

When no one was around, the living room was a lost continent, an America I could enter only by swimming across an expanse of open parquet until I’d reached a small kilim at the centre

– and even added to them:

I’d lie on the carpet underneath my mother’s Steinway B. It was a warm place. If my mother came in to play a Scarlatti sonata, for instance … I’d listen while feeling the vibrations of chords and the thump of pedals push through me. Cadences and phrases flowed and mingled somehow with the patterns of the carpets.

Behind the dramatic story of the father dying of Aids is the battle of second and third-generation Americans, a narrative of expectation and disappointment, involving much verbal cruelty and the problem of growing up clever and cocky (or as Roth puts it, ‘precocious’) but insecure and awkward. It is a sort of normal Western, urban, nuclear, family romance, as the book is subtitled, with added Aids, kilims and inheritance threats. Eugene Roth, who ran a sickle-cell anaemia clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital, was the son of a man who married for money and to get on, and he suffered as a child would under those circumstances. He called himself and his family ‘middle class’, which included the notion of being cultured: rejecting the ‘Americanisation’ his own father had wanted for him, being a considerable cut above the ‘philistines’ who watched sport on TV, didn’t listen to classical music and had no interest in art or literature. He was a chilly, contrived character, warning his eight-year-old son about life’s realities over a game of chess: ‘You will hate me just as I hated my father.’ He weighed the boy down with his constant reminders that Marco was ‘a person’, that he was free to be himself. The real meaning of this is clear in Roth’s description of trying to learn baseball by watching the Yankees play on television: ‘My father is watching with me, for at least two minutes, a look of disgust on his face, like someone watching an alien mating ritual. He asks me to switch it off. I refuse, because I am a person, that is, until I notice his tone is pleading, not angry, and his face seems actually pained.’ His mother, barely in the narrative at the start, plays the piano beautifully and hosts concerts for selected people at their house. She is also evasive, unfulfilled and unavailable.

Into every unhappy childhood, a great black cloud must come. By the time Marco was 14, Eugene had full-blown Aids. He explained the situation to his son, who was told above all to keep it secret – no one at all was to be told – because, although it was an accident, ‘I could lose my lab … Is that what you want? … You have no idea what people will say. Think about your mother: all her friends watching her suffer, calling up to see how we’re doing, but really to make themselves feel better. They don’t need to know.’ Of course, Marco tells his best and only friend, and suffers – perhaps continues to suffer – guilt and fear at the betrayal of a terrifying secret he couldn’t possibly have been expected to keep to himself. He drags himself unconsolably and clumsily through adolescence until he stages a small rebellion by deciding to go, not to Columbia, but to Oberlin, a liberal arts college in Ohio. ‘You’ll be disappointed,’ his father said, and he was. The rebellion wavered. He applied for a transfer to Columbia and got it. He wavered again and this time, as Marco remembers it, his father announced to him, who miserably was not decisively being his own person, that he should do as he wished: ‘I could return to Oberlin, if I wanted to, I was my own person after all, but, if I did, I would forfeit my inheritance.’ Trapped in the parental pincer movement of staying and proving himself mercenary or abandoning his dying father and grieving mother, he decided to surrender ‘conditionally’ by going to Columbia (he also had a girlfriend there) but never again to speak to his father. He was now more disappointed with himself than his father could ever be.

Finally, when Marco was 19, Eugene became too sick to want to carry on, and killed himself in his library with sodium cyanide. Marco was summoned beforehand and in a final act of cruelty his father told him what he was going to do once his son left the room (so that he wouldn’t be liable to legal action):

Sodium cyanide … can take you one of two ways. When it enters the heart it causes almost immediate cardiac arrest, a heart attack. Everything stops. If your heart muscle is relaxed, then it’s a very peaceful death; they say painless. If your heart is pumping blood out and contracted, then the body goes into a seizure. It’s a fifty-fifty chance.

When Marco returned to the library it was clear that his father’s heart was contracted when the cyanide hit. The father’s last words to his son were: ‘I miss my mother every day.’

Nothing in The Scientists shakes my previous sense of the unhappy child deprived of everything but wealth. It plays out like King Lear, as the literate and literary Marco Roth (a founder and editor of the excellent n+1 magazine) sees quite clearly: failed love, money, power, death and a tattered posterity. It is almost too awful for the awfulness to impinge. Then his aunt, the writer Anne Roiphe, wrote a memoir of her own childhood, in which she suggested that Eugene didn’t get Aids through a needle stick accident, but in the more usual manner, being all the while a closeted gay man. It isn’t often that people’s understanding of their past life can be changed by a single sentence, but most of Marco Roth’s childhood would be a lie if his aunt’s claims proved to be the case. His mother denied it, while his aunt affirmed it. Suddenly, there is more than a story, there’s a mystery to be solved, and the autobiography takes on the taint of a policier as it swerves into solving it. It turns out to be true. The lies and betrayals double up as his mother acknowledges that she knew all along of her husband’s homosexuality. They also provide the literary son who has not fulfilled either his father’s or his own dreams by becoming a scientist or a published writer, with a book of multiple dramatic dimensions. Only the postgraduate’s philosophical and literary adventures with Theory may be one dimension too many, not doing much to further an understanding of Hegel, Marx, Foucault and Adorno, or of Marco Roth.

Eugene was an emotional monster of a father, but he did at least point his son to The Way of All Flesh, Fathers and Sons, Oblomov, Tonio Kröger. You will see where this was and is heading. The bad father who encouraged his son to read might be a man who has that to his credit, or a device that provides the son’s narrative with a literary angle from which to figure things out. The latter part of Roth’s book considers his family life and youth in the light of the books his father showed him. Of course he’s Tonio Kröger, the artist, the outsider, the dysfunctional one – actually, all Jewish adolescents of the diaspora are Tonio Kröger if they read the story. Naturally, Oblomov, pointing directly to will-less existentialism, is emblematic of both himself and his father. Turgenev provided Eugene with his shadow, Evgeny Bazarov, the doctor scientist and nihilist who accidentally contracts typhus from a patient, and Eugene, Marco now sees, offered the story of Evgeny to his son. But the chunks of literary analysis that make up much of the final part of the book hardly amount to more than the simple outline of the meaning of their storylines for Eugene and Marco. He imagines his wiser cousin telling him: ‘Western literature is about so much more than You or Him.’ He should have listened. The great 19th-century novels here become self-help books to guide a worried young man around the world of emotions and family. We all start off reading books as if they contained the secrets of our life, and later come to see that their greatness lies in the fact that they do no such thing. It’s hard to know what to do with literature, and it’s an interesting question, but perhaps that is another book for another day. Roth does have an air of grand drama about him – don’t all children of melodramatic families? He speaks of ‘my own sufferings’ and of himself as ‘the child of this denial’, and both statements are true, but somewhat over-narrated. Sometimes it seems that his own terrible story is too much for him. It’s probably too much to ask for a degree of hilarity in such a story, but ideally, I would.