from Father and Son: A Lifetime
This is a story of two people, though I’m the only one telling it. My father wouldn’t tell it. My father kept almost everything to himself.
Sometimes the responsibility frightens me. I try to strip away all embellishment, set down the memories exactly as they come into my head, but obviously I can’t avoid making some decisions.
Up until now I’d never written in my own voice. I had written fictionally about my reality, as everyone does, but it wasn’t my reality and I wasn’t the one narrating. It’s a new and confusing feeling. With fiction, you can say anything. In your own voice, either you’re tempted to leave things out, or you miss being able to make things up. I’ve passed through both states in previous pages.
Really, though, one of my fears is not having anything to add to what I’ve written in other books. Books that were fiction and that were about other people who weren’t me, but into which I poured myself.
I don’t include my first book. In my first book I wasn’t even conscious that I was writing about reality. I had read, or been warned by someone—an older writer, maybe my own grandfather—that it isn’t a good idea to make one’s first novel a self-portrait, that it blocks the imagination and creates vices that are hard to shake, and so convinced was I of this that in the book’s stories I shunned personal experience and only borrowed some unimportant traits of mine—poor eyesight, for example, or certain habits—to distinguish the different narrators. To none of them did I give anything that was truly mine.
It wasn’t until my first novel that I equipped myself with a spelunker’s helmet to climb down into known depths. And even when I did, it wasn’t intentional. I wanted to write about the insecurities of childhood, and as usual, my desire to write preceded the invention of a story. I remember being paralyzed, unable to come up with anything, until without realizing it the childhood that I was trying to elaborate began to take on elements of my own. The narrator, an adult narrator looking back on his childhood, was an only child, and the epicenter of his family was his mother, with whom he lived and shared the ambivalent memory of an absent father. I lent him the feelings of dread and the thoughts that I had at the time, but that was all I took from my own experiences. Or at least so I thought while I was writing it.
My father, however, saw it differently.
Just recently I found out that he was very upset by it, and though the person who told me this isn’t especially trustworthy, in this case the information is credible, because I’d previously gotten the same impression. This was very early on, the same day that he’d told me he was reading the book. One more piece of the sea of information that flowed between us without need of words.
* * *
“When you’re an only child, when you don’t have the mirror of siblings, any insecurity about who you are must seem greater than it would if you’d had them, if you’d grown up alongside someone who was shaped by the same influences, who had the same parents and yet was still sharply different from them and—of course—from you. When there are no siblings to turn to, parents are all we have, our only reference, our only vantage point. Everything begins and ends in us, and phenomena like betrayal, love, admiration, or duty are felt with greater intensity. Bonds are stronger or leave more of a mark, and very often it’s hard to distinguish between what’s particular to us and what’s inherited. We have no one to compare ourselves to; loneliness chokes us. Who do we share things with or unburden ourselves to? Who do we go to with questions, answers, accusations? How do we get a measure of distance? How do we construct a balanced account from memory when all we have is a single gaze, and that gaze is shaded—slanted, too—by our own unique selves? When you don’t have siblings everything seems designed especially for you. The danger is that we tend to magnify things, and that from each word spoken to us, each look or slight, each occurrence witnessed (or sensed or reported or even just imagined) we draw infinite conclusions. The result is that we’re bound even tighter and we’re wrong more often too. It may be that we place too much importance on our parents, that the necessary break is harder for us, and it may be that sometimes we don’t value them as much as they deserve. Everything is likely to cause us more pain, and most of all our own singular selves. We’re alone.”
* * *
This is the only fragment of the whole novel that I would subscribe to in talking about myself: the acknowledgment of my excesses. Otherwise, neither the character of the mother (despite certain vague echoes) nor of the father (an amalgam of bits borrowed from a number of models) resembles my mother or my father, nor was my childhood as claustrophobic as the one described in the book.
I never thought that any kind of connection could be drawn, but clearly I was wrong, since no matter what the characters are like and no matter how different the story is from ours, in some way it portrayed us.
I hadn’t sketched from life. But it had the same effect on my father as if I had.
And I wasn’t unhappy about it.
I discovered that I had a weapon and I used it.
The first time that I consciously availed myself of our problem was in a long story that I wrote for a contest. Under pressure to make the deadline, and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get a handle on someone else’s story in time, I resorted to a subject that I could identify with immediately: a father, a young son, and the triangulation of feelings when there’s dissatisfaction on both sides and one slight leads to another. I chose an isolated and oppressive setting, drastically shortened the time in which the story takes place to ratchet up the intensity, made the narrator take the boy’s side, devised an ending that was theatrical, violent, and unmistakable in its implications, and threw myself gleefully into the writing, swept away by an unfamiliar fury that even led me to scatter clues through the story that my father and his circle would recognize without much effort.
Naturally there were consequences. A while after it was published and my father had read it, when he called one day and in response to his question about how the new book was going, I confessed that I was stuck, his answer was: “Stuck? Nonsense. Write about a cruel father and his miserable son.”
What heightened rather more than briefly the guilt that this ironic commentary intended to spark was that—though he didn’t know it—the novel that I was writing at the time had grown out of that story, and was therefore destined to touch on the same subject.
The novel, of course, was more complex than the story, less reliant on insinuation and the careful employment of verb tenses and more open to digression and to a full exploration of the themes. It, too, alternated between two timelines: a recent past that constituted the novel’s present, and a distant, remembered past that functioned as a traumatic explication of the former.
The unresolved conflict that cast a shadow over my narrator’s present was a drama along the same lines as the one that I’d presented in the story, an anticipated tragedy that when it arrives exposes the guilty parties. The victim was once again a boy, and those responsible for his fate were once again members of his own family: a father unable to act the part and deflect the looming threat, and the father’s wife, trigger of the danger, the instigator. The narrator, like the narrator of the story, participates in the events as an observer, but unlike the narrator of the story, where the action takes place over the course of a weekend, he might have intervened if he chose, which makes his moral position more ambiguous. The reasons he doesn’t intervene—his extenuating circumstances—are his youth at the time of the remembered events and his close relationship to the other three protagonists (son of the instigator, son of the passive father, and half-brother of the victim of the injustice described). The simple decision to make the narrator the half-brother of the victim allowed me to cast him as a judge of the sins of their common father, much sterner and less prey to charges of manichaeism than he might have been had he served directly as the victim
The novel’s other storyline, the present-day plot, touched on subjects as varied as love, betrayal, and the resistance to assume the responsibilities of adulthood, and there’s no need to summarize it here; suffice it to say that some of its trappings coincided with those of my own life: the narrator’s age, place of origin, social class, and schooling were similar to mine. Also, I scattered so many private references and secret winks for the benefit of those who, like my father, were inclined to unearth them, that before I sent the final version to the publisher I was attacked by remorse and spent a few days deleting or softening the most costly, the crudest, those clothed in the weakest metaphors, those that most transparently betrayed their autobiographical roots, those that gave me the most pleasure to write.
And yet it’s not entirely true, as I suggest in the lines that I quote on the first page of this book, that in the novel I killed my father. In the course of the writing, I made the father of the protagonist die for structural reasons, but he wasn’t my father; he didn’t even resemble him. Any connection had to be sought elsewhere. Once the plot was established, I loaned the fictional character some traits of my father’s through which I sought to direct his attention to the conflict of loyalties played out in the novel, and to the extent that this really was a distorted version of the conflict between us, my intent was to show him something like an image projected on a river, a shadow distorted by ripples of water in motion, an image that hints but doesn’t dictate and could therefore be of anyone. Not a portrait or a true mirror able to return to him a clear image of himself, but rather a cluster of echoes that harkened back not only to our story but also to the story of my mother and her father, so similar in many ways to ours that it may have fed my fears, leading to errors of judgment and unfair comparisons that caused me to be too hard on him.
Triangulation, concealment, exaggeration, cross-contamination . . . The fact is that I used my father. The substance of the book grew out of our deepest misunderstandings; I had him in mind in many passages; and I’d hate it if my memory of him should be tainted now in unjust retribution.
Fiction, even when it’s inspired by reality, obeys its own rules. It alters reality by pursuing different ends than those of fidelity to the truth. The fathers in my novels weren’t mine, and I want the father I write about here to be who he was to me.
I want to strip him of accretions.
I gave my two novels everything I had, I poured myself into them, and I’m still feeling the consequences today; I write against it.
Did he know it?
He must have known, I’m sure, that the intensity of what we shared at the end of his life would inspire me. When—on our last trip, chasing a hope that we knew was remote—I accompanied him on consecutive afternoons to the derelict hospital of an African island, he allowed himself to direct my gaze to our surroundings and even to give me an idea or two. He was already seeing himself from the outside, a dying hero from a Conrad novel. Take a good look at all of this, he advised me, because later you’ll be able to use it.
He probably knew that I would want to make up for the times when I had used him for my own ends.
But did he guess that there would be no masks, that it wouldn’t be fiction I would write this time?
In his excessive reserve, he would have recoiled at the idea, but as I’ve said, he changed so much toward the end that I can’t be sure. I suppose that when you face death a new kind of logic takes over. The performance has ended. Your immortality is in the hands of others and almost anything can be forgiven.
It’s odd, in any case, that in my previous books I was able to explore in depth thoughts that he inspired, and that now, face to face with him, I miss fiction.