Why is this interesting? The Memoirs in Progress Edition

On memory, organization, and architecting the past

Emanuel Derman (ED) wrote the excellent Being Foreign, Japan, and E Pluribus Unum Editions. He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and came to Columbia University in New York to study for a PhD in physics. Since then he’s lived mostly in Manhattan. His memoir is My Life As A Quant. - Colin (CJN)

Emanuel here. Being of sound mind, I nevertheless succumbed a few weeks ago to the urge to try to write a memoir of growing up in Cape Town where I lived from birth to age twenty-one.

It originated with my wanting to write something, anything really. But what? Then one day my niece in Cape Town asked me about our family background, questions that, by virtue of survival, only I have some of the answers to. I began to write a long reply to her. I have a good memory and things came flooding back faster than I could transcribe.

I put together fifteen dense pages in chronological order, about my parents and their origins, about my very early real or imagined memories, about our large extended immigrant family. I dug up and labeled photos of people and places—all my relatives in a giant group photo at my Bar Mitzvah for example—to help her match faces she once met to names I knew.

Why is this Interesting?

Everyone has a history. As I compiled it I began to imagine that I could write an actual book about that time, that place, those people, myself, my life before America, and how I perceived that life as it happened. I began to rewrite everything I’d written. I told a friend of mine and he cautioned me severely not to rewrite and edit, not to do a Lot’s wife until I reached the end. Only then would I begin to recognize the theme of my book. I scoffed. I’d written books before and seemed to recall that I knew what I was doing as I did it. So I did begin again, removed the photos, and tried to write in a more literary style an unknown reader rather than my niece. I put in chapter headings and sections, and wrote about twenty-five pages in the continuous present, to report through the eyes of the child that prevailed at each instant. 

Something went wrong. I began to write about an uncle I had never known who was interned by the British in a jail in Acre in the 1920s and eventually died in the Holocaust. I wrote about an aunt I liked whose romantic lifestyle generated family disapproval I learned about later. But the style of these stories jarred with the rest. They could be told only by looking back; the rest was written through the child's eyes.

So I began again by rewriting everything I had as a series of interconnected short tales about people, inspired by Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. And in doing so I began to recognize that some current bugs in my character were actually features, already there in the very early years. Perhaps my friend was right—those bugs might be the larger theme.

Meanwhile, I reread a few memoirs, despite worrying that their style might affect me. Stop Time by Frank Conroy looks back from adulthood at a peripatetic neglected childhood in Florida and New York. My life wasn’t like that and I wasn’t tempted. Stronger influences were Boyhood and Youth, the first two books of  J.M. Coetzee’s trilogy Scenes from Provincial Life, which I have reread every few years, partly because of my familiarity with the world he writes about. The books are the pseudo- or quasi-memoirs of an ambitious self-aware unhappy young protagonist who is continually trying to master the confusion, conflict, and mystery of his maturing life as it happens. The books’ protagonist is “John Coetzee” but the real John Coetzee markets them as novels. This sounds like a Nabokovian or Borgesian stunt, but in fact, there is nothing postmodern about them. The “John Coetzee” in the book writes in the present continuous tense, describing events and thoughts at each successive time in the book as though they are happening now. He is never ostensibly looking back at his youth from maturity, though of course, that is in practice exactly what John Coetzee is doing by writing about an earlier time.  Though it’s clear that the books are autobiographical—I recognize the names of some of the actual people in Cape Town and London—one cannot know how much is true. His approach attracts me. I would like to write a book about growing up, filled with the larger-than-life immigrant parents and sisters and uncles and aunts and teachers and cousins and friends and friends’ parents, some of them genuine magical-realist swindlers and liars and a small few of them noble. I would like to write about their happy and tragic peculiarities which seemed then so quotidian and unexceptional and blow them up beyond life-size like the characters in Fellini’s Amarcord.

That’s my ambition, but I find this particular effort more of a struggle than anything I’ve tried to write before, and often give up. As “John Coetzee” observes in Youth about his attempts to write:

Of course in his heart he knows destiny will not visit him unless he makes her do so. He has to sit down and write, that is the only way. But he cannot begin writing until the moment is right, and no matter how scrupulously he prepares himself, wiping the table clean, positioning the lamp, ruling a margin down the side of the blank page, sitting with his eyes shut, emptying his mind in readiness -- in spite of all this, the words will not come to him. Or rather, many words will come, but not the right words, the sentence he will recognize at once, from its weight, from its poise and balance, as the destined one. He hates these confrontations with the blank page, hates them to the extent of beginning to avoid them. He cannot bear the weight of despair that descends at the end of each fruitless session, the realization that again he has failed. Better not to wound oneself in this way, over and over. One might cease to be able to respond to the call when it comes, might become too weak, too abject.

What I thought was going to be straightforward hasn’t been. Every approach to reconstructing the past for someone else has turned out to have its limitations.  If I can continue, there are choices to be made. Write in the continuous present or reflect on the past? Organize by time or by theme? And, temptingly, can I, like Coetzee, feel free enough to fictionalize my past, taking my recollection of reality as a foundation and then allowing my real characters to do things they never did, but might have? (ED)

Startup of the day: Ipsa

Ipsa is a frozen foods company founded by friend of WITI Josh Brau. They launched in February 2020, with a line of frozen, locally-sourced meals that could be popped in the oven at dinnertime. Predictably they had a lot of interest during the lockdown, and the nascent brand surged in popularity. It was helped by a nice New Yorker review which described “[Ipsa’s] soups, stews, and casseroles … are the sort your friend who is an exceptional home cook might drop off when you’re under the weather,” the magazines Food Critic Hannah Goldfield wrote. Go read a longer interview with Josh here and you can buy it on their website.

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Emanuel (ED)

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