Personal identity, according to Locke, is a creation of memory. The American writer Tobias Wolff has already published one volume of memoirs. Now, at the age of 49, he has produced a second. Who can blame him? His father was a conman and impostor: Arthur Samuels Wolff, aka Arthur Saunders Wolff III, aka Saunders Answell-Wolff III, the ‘Duke’ of Tobias’s brother Geoffrey’s memoir, The Duke of Deception (1979).
As the memoirs of both Wolff brothers show, the father spent his life shedding past selves and conceiving new ones – as Unitarian, then Episcopalian, as Groton schoolboy, Yale man (in Skull and Bones), Royal Air Force fighter pilot, OSS officer (in Yugoslavia with the Partisans), sapper in the French Resistance. Each was a lie. The ‘Duke’ was in fact a Jew from an affluent middle-class family: he had been kicked out of a series of decreasingly respectable prep schools (none of them Groton), flunked out of the University of Miami (not Yale, not even Dartmouth) and never served in the military at all. Bluff, good-looking, immaculately and expensively dressed, full of charm, he spent his life bilking shopkeepers, sponging off friends, drinking, running up bad debts, lying about his past and his qualifications. Family life is remembered by the sons as a series of abrupt shifts of circumstance, mysterious exits, evictions, repossessions. The father’s heavy gold signet ring bore the inscription ‘nulla vestigium retrorsit,’ which he translated for his sons as ‘Don’t look back.’
In This Boy’s Life (1989) Tobias Wolff looks back to the late Fifties and early Sixties, to his childhood and adolescence, a period of separation from the father. This period, though, was hardly settled, with mother and son constantly on the move (when the parents divorced, the older brother, Geoffrey, stayed with the father), wandering from Florida to Arizona to the Pacific North-West. The first memoir ends with the delinquent Tobias, or Jack, as he called himself, forging high school transcripts and letters of reference and winning a scholarship to the Hill School in Pennsylvania.
‘I wrote without heat or hyperbole,’ Wolff recalls, ‘in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself. These were their letters. And on the boy who lived in their letters, the splendid phantom who carried all my hopes, it seemed to me I saw, at last, my own face.’ Not surprisingly, Wolff flunked out of Hill (after an undistinguished career at Concrete High in Concrete, Washington, smack in the heart of Raymond Carver country). On the penultimate page of the book, he enlists in the Army, eager to embrace ‘the clear life of uniforms and ranks and weapons. It seemed to me when I got there that this was where I had been going all along, and where I might still redeem myself. All I needed was a war.’
The Vietnam War? It is a telling feature of the new memoir that though it is set in the mid-Sixties, political controversy barely figures, or figures only implicitly, either in Wolff’s decision to enlist (and become an officer in the Special Forces), or in his account of his experiences during the war itself. Though the memoir has a right-on title, and offers first-hand accounts of battle, including the 1967 Tet Offensive, as well as assorted close shaves, military brutalities and stupidities, it bears little resemblance to earlier Vietnam narratives, with their high-octane intensities. Often funny and observant about others, it is nonetheless mostly introspective, deliberative, low-key. ‘I had been shot at,’ Wolff tells us. ‘More accurately, shots had been fired in my direction from afar, without effect on me or the men I was with.’ ‘It was one of those paternal gestures that excited my scorn except when they fell on me.’ ‘Isn’t it just like an American boy, to want you to admire his sorrow at tearing other people’s houses apart?’
There is something of Raymond Carver, a friend and acknowledged influence, in this knowing, non-judgmental realism (rightly distinguished from ‘clinical, deadpan exposition’, which Wolff calls ‘a lie, also a bore’). America’s participation in the war is indicted, but only incidentally, in part because Wolff’s search for self is always centre-stage, in part because he identifies with Carver’s milieu, writes from the perspective of a grunt, to whose limited expectations he is loyal (unlike, say, Brecht, who also depicted war from a grunt’s perspective, but found its limitations enraging). Yet Wolff was no grunt, but an officer in Vietnam, from the Hill School as well as Concrete High, which is part of his problem. When he is discharged and visits his father, the old man’s pretensions cease to embarrass him, because of his own uncertain and assumed identities: ‘there could no longer be any question of judgment between my father and me. He’d lost his claim to the high ground, and so had I.’ The son recognises his kinship to the father, and sees beyond it – at which point, we are to understand, the knowing narrator, Tobias Wolff the mature writer, is born.
In Pharaoh’s Army consists of 13 anecdotal episodes, in the manner of the earlier memoir. The most vivid and artful of these episodes concerns a dashing foreign service operative named Pete Landon, with whom Wolff meets up in Saigon. Landon introduces Wolff to a circle of ‘smart, casually elegant guys from the same world as Pete’ (that is, Groton, Harvard), and Wolff is seduced ‘through an old trick of longing by which I managed to believe myself one of them’. Pete, though, wastes lives (almost wastes Wolff’s life) for effect, his accomplishments and sophistication serve a dangerous, ignoble self-absorption: ‘the perfect Vietnamese, the compulsion to excite native awe, the insouciant gamble of life, the porcelain collection, the Swedish fucking K rifle. It was about cutting a figure’ – a phrase Keats applies to Byron, and with something of the same distaste. Wolff may be in search of his identity, but he’s had his fill of figure-cutting, which is why he concludes the episode by refusing a dramatically appropriate gesture of revenge, the destruction of Landon’s prize porcelain bowl. In the title of this episode, ‘Old China’, it is hard not to detect an allusion to Keats’s least Byronic of friends, Charles Lamb, whose own essay of the same name also mixes memory, modesty and knowing or chastened realism.
Luck, caution and embarrassment help Wolff to survive the war, a combination which makes him feel guilty. ‘I simply ceased to inhabit my pose,’ is how he describes his instant and self-preserving disillusionment. ‘I was at a distance, watching this outrageous fraud play the invisible bushman, the adept with knives, the black-faced assassin.’ ‘My own intention,’ he explains of his time in the Mekong Delta, ‘was to live not as a Vietnamese among Vietnamese but as an American among Vietnamese’, a position which leaves him feeling ‘benevolent, generous, protective’. Even his cowardice involves inauthenticity. When exposed to sniper fire, Wolff carefully composes the expression on his face to look ‘well-meaning and slightly apologetic, like a very nice person’. Wolff’s writing is full of such sly, often comical self-deprecation. ‘I’m a conscientious man, a responsible man,’ declares the narrator of his novella The Barracks Thief. ‘But I’m also a careful man, addicted to comfort, with an eye to the safe course.’
In ‘Civilian’, the penultimate episode in the memoir, Wolff’s life takes an improbable turn, as it did towards the end of This Boy’s Life. After discharge from the Army, he visits England with friends, decides he wants to go to Oxford, hires tutors to prepare him for the entrance examinations and ends up reading English at Hertford College, ‘where Jonathan Swift and Evelyn Waugh had once been students’. ‘I seldom speak of it,’ he confesses, ‘because to say “When I was at Oxford ...” sounds suspect even to me, like the opening of one of my father’s bullshit stories.’ At Oxford, Wolff has a moment of revelation while translating the final verses of the Old English version of the Sermon on the Mount. The verses ‘told the story of the wise man who built his house upon a rock and the foolish man who built his house upon the sand’, and the translation came to Wolff, who had been struggling with it, ‘all at once, blooming in my head’, accompanied by ‘a feeling of strangeness to myself and everything around me’. The result is a resolution of sorts, one whose careful qualification the memoir teaches us to see as the authentic voice towards which all Wolff’s writing works: ‘I copied out my translation in plain English, and thought that, yes, I would do well to build my house upon a rock, whatever that meant.’
Frederic Tuten, also an American writer, shares Wolff’s obsession with absent fathers, though his concern with memory and personal identity is comparatively abstract and philosophical. Tallien: A Brief Romance, Tuten’s second novel, was first published in 1988, 16 years after The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, in which Mao is transformed into an art critic and performance artist. It has now been reissued in paperback, hard on the heels of the critical and commercial success of Tuten’s third novel, Tintin in the New World. Like the other two novels, Tallien has a tricksy premise. The bulk of the book tells the story of Jean Lambert Tallien (1772-1820), an actual historical figure whose involvement in the French Revolution brought him to the heart of the Terror. This story is framed by the unnamed narrator’s account of his dying father, Rex, also a ‘revolutionary’, a union activist who organised restaurant workers in New York in the Thirties (as did Tuten’s own father, also named Rex). Like ‘Duke’ Wolff, Rex was charming and feckless, abandoning his family when the narrator was ten. The main historical narrative is meant as a cautionary tale, also as a way both of freeing the son from the father and of honouring the father’s memory.
Tallien’s story is full of true-life incident. Through the intervention of his father’s employer, the Marquis de Bercy, he was educated above his station and rose to positions of influence and eminence in the Revolution. He became an extreme Jacobin and ally of Robespierre, then helped engineer Robespierre’s downfall, outshouting the astonished Incorruptible from the Convention floor and likening him to Cromwell. Tuten marches briskly through Tallien’s story, pausing only over his hopeless infatuation with Thérèse de Fontenay (née Cabarrus), a wealthy Spanish widow and socialite, whose husband, the Comte de Fontaney, ‘had recently gone under the blade’. Though Thérèse owed Tallien her liberty, she used him, manipulating and moderating his radical zeal, and dropped him as soon as the Revolutionary laws allowed. She was beautiful, intelligent, seductive and immensely influential, having secured the release from prison of her great friend Joséphine de Beauharnais, the future wife of Napoleon. Tuten depicts Thérèse spinning Tallien ‘into a giddy darkness’, disabling him with her exquisite thighs, ‘the luscious, tight preserve of her class’. Which is to say: ‘while revolution storms and ideas flood the field, the tide of your psychic destiny pulls you more strongly than the pull of ideas, and pulls you alone out to the open sea.’
This image of personal dissolution recalls the magical ending of Tintin in the New World, in which Tintin, now grown up, stares deep into the waters of the Amazon, eventually seeing ‘all the microscopic cells and their molecules of water and its atoms, the two of hydrogen and the one circuit of oxygen,’ and determines to join them, immersing his naked body in the water, streaming away ‘into the ribboned darkness and light’. In Tintin and Tallien desire betrays, in both senses, the fabricated will and the identity that would wield it. The controlling self, the radical activist immune to sentiment or desire, is a fiction. Tuten employs a variety of ‘irrealist’ devices to dramatise this disillusioning realism. His characters in Tallien are deliberately flat, their thoughts and language frankly anachronistic. Danton gets ‘beaucoup heat’ for the actions of the mob; a wounding letter is ‘a real killer’; Tallien is described ‘dry-humping the courtroom with his eloquence’.
The double narrative also highlights fictionality, as does the (dialogically correct) interpolation of snippets from plays, bits of a German Romantic novel, bibliographical entries. Though erudite historical details stud the narrative, the setting is like something out of South American fiction or Wallace Stevens – rich, exotic, decorated, dandyish. A book is admired for ‘the hand stitching of the spine, the wonderful filleting of the gathered leaves, the green morocco cover, embossed with tiny silver stars’.
For all the novel’s modish hijinks, its hero’s predicament gradually takes hold of the reader, suffusing the narrative with melancholy. Tallien’s ideals are exposed as an illusion, he has achieved nothing, Thérèse leaves him ‘emptier than the spaces between the stars’, the world moves on, powered by instinct alone, amoral energy. These conclusions are meant, presumably, to be applied to the misguided activism and familial neglect of the narrator’s father, but the connections between the two men are obscure and garbled. The novel’s ending, in which Rex’s death is recalled and the universal application of Tallien’s story is suggested, feels rushed, its anger at the father unequal to the complex of feelings evoked by the main historical narrative.
The rock upon which Max Apple builds his life in Roommates: My Grandfather’s Story is Herman ‘Rocky’ Goodstein, as whole and undismayable a self as ever lived. ‘Rocky’, Apple’s maternal grandfather, was born in Lithuania in 1876, emigrated to America in 1914, worked sixteen-hour days as a baker to bring his wife and two children over from Europe (while learning English at night school), settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working to support his extended family for over fifty years in a cramped ‘triplex’ conversion, then, at the age of 100, moved to Houston with Apple’s own family, where he lived until 1982, dying at the age of 106. The bond between grandson and grandfather was forged early: at seven, Apple moved into Rocky’s bedroom, in the course of mediating one of the grandparents’ frequent arguments. Later, after the deaths of Apple’s father and grandmother in 1965, Rocky again becomes a roommate, at the age of 93, sharing an off-campus apartment in Ann Arbor while Apple works as a graduate student. This peculiar arrangement is made for the benefit both of Apple’s mother and of Rocky; Apple’s needs, typically, are not an issue. When Rocky is 103, living a block from his grandson’s house in Houston, he once more, in effect, moves in: Apple’s wife contracts multiple sclerosis and is quickly hospitalised, the grandfather takes over, shoring up the family, running the disintegrating household – taking out the garbage, babysitting, attending parent conferences at school, polishing shoes, baking cakes and cinnamon rolls.
At five foot and 110 pounds, Rocky is a giant, but he’s also a monster: rigid, combative, ignorant, disdainful, irascible, raging against his ‘enemy wife’ or the ‘bastids’ at the union. Apple loves him with a patience as indomitable as the old man’s will, tenderly bathing him every Friday in preparation for the Sabbath, dutifully unwrapping and eating the pickled herring and hard-boiled eggs Rocky packs him for lunch. When Rocky inexplicably takes against the hippy girlfriend who becomes Apple’s wife – throwing her possessions out the door, spitting at her, boycotting the wedding (was she Jewish?) – the grandson is beside himself with rage and humiliation, but makes all the gestures of reconciliation. When the wife suggests buying Rocky a riding mower (the old man’s body ‘still ached to ache’, and Apple had trouble keeping him from lawn work, even in the Houston heat), his response is typical: ‘He wasn’t nearly as excited as Debby and I were. He got on and steered it around the lawn. Then he shook his head. “You use this,” he said. “I’d rather push.” ’
Apple puts up with this and everything else. He is almost always understanding, admirable in the face of tragedy, uncomplicatedly filial and loving, equal to all forms of dutifulness and compromise. Such goodness, one feels, is a drag. As the wife’s condition deteriorates (she will never recover or return to the family), the children become withdrawn; teachers, Brownie leaders and child psychologists loom. Rocky, predictably, has no time for any of them. Yet their advice is invariably sound, tactful, considerate. Apple gives us their names; they are friends of his and his family, like ‘good-hearted neighbours in movies, the ones who come over after the fire and, without asking, begin to help you rebuild the barn’. Even the wife’s doctors are feeling types, as supportive as the faculty at Apple’s university. Only the mother-in-law draws criticism; but then her daughter is dying, and she, too, needs understanding.
American reviewers have made much of the memoir’s hard-headedness, and Rocky does, just, escape sentimentalisation. Not so Apple’s children, whose quickness is familiar from earlier fiction (they appear under their own names in the most recent collection of Apple’s short stories, Free Agents). No doubt the daughter is as charming and self-possessed in real life as she is in these pages, but too often she (or her brother, or Rocky, or Apple himself, or the dog) perfectly rounds out or caps a given chapter or exchange. What the memoir lacks is the instability and anger of, say, Philip Roth’s Patrimony, a comparable study of filial feeling and Jewish indomitability. Though not at all dogmatic or irascible, Apple is in some ways quite like his grandfather: a strong person, clear and unembarrassed about his identity. The precise literary benefits of so thorough and unproblematic a sense of self are uncertain.