Damaged by my education

Lynn Barber sums up the life lessons she gained from her ill-fated affair:

What did I get from Simon? An education – the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Simon. I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford – I could read a menu, I could recognise a fingerbowl, I could follow an opera, I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank.

But there were other lessons Simon taught me that I regret learning. I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of "living a lie". I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving. I was damaged by my education.

carey_mulligan_and_peter_sarsgaard_an_education_movie_imageBy the way, these memoirs served as the material for the excellent British film, The Education. If you plan to watch the film,  you should watch the film first and read the essay later. If reading the essay makes you want to watch the film, too bad. (Carey Mulligan did an excellent job; she’s a marvelous actress; I saw her in the amazing Dr. Who episode Blink).

The essay explains one thing about the film which struck me as implausible: why would a man propose to a young girl when he was already married? I think every person’s romantic history must seem bizarre and implausible to random strangers  and a source of hilarity to people decades later.  Was it a joke? Was he really intending to divorce his wife? Was he just being sadistic? In the movie you  can’t just chalk it up to the character being a villain.

In the movie there is a horrifying discovery scene near the end which was a masterpiece of understatement.  Also, there were several set pieces in Paris, nightclubs, racetracks. (The film enjoys these little side adventures more than it needs to; alas, such is the nature of the cinematic medium).   Looking at Wikipedia, I see that the movie was inspired by an essay Barber wrote for Granta which appeared in her book An Education. Barber never intended to make it into a movie, but screenplay writer Nick Hornsby discovered the story and wrote a dazzling screenplay for it.  The result was excellent, but that avoids the obvious question: what medium would have the best one for telling this story?

The film has a sensuality and a single-minded focus on the affair (and incidental details arise from this primary plot). But Barber admits in the prose piece that she didn’t feel any great enthusiasm about the affair – and maybe having more enthusiasm for  the life lesson learned.  But the cinema genre focuses too much on the visual and sensual (even though the film ostensibly tries to warn against such seductions). It is fun to watch – to see the adults squirm, to see Miss Naiveté learn her lesson. But a prose version could convey some of the episodes with more detail and reflection. When we see the film, we are led to believe that the affair was catastrophic for her, but in the book it is just one episode on the road to knowledge. A prose version can convey longer conversations, intellectual banter, jokes and the emotions flowing her before, during and after the affair. It can also convey the interweaving of events. This woman was not just being romanced by an older man; she was reading Camus and studying her Latin and presumably gossiping with her female friends.

The act of writing is a conceit; very few would take the time to document their experiences. The decision to write about something means you are editing the narrative, selecting details which read well, focusing on narrative flow, throwing in a few tragicomic moments. When a person keeps a diary, it is possible to estimate the relative importance of an event by space devoted to it. But merely because you waste a lot of words on a topic doesn’t mean it’s that important. For example, I spend an awful lot of time blogging about climate change, Bush and yes –even blogging. But none of this is important (or it is not particularly important to me).  A reader would learn next to nothing about me by my blogging about climate change (except that I am tenacious, progressive and unafraid of arguments). Books are important to me….vitally important; yet I spend very little on my blog talking about books or authors or even literature. This may have to do with the casual nature of blogging; I don’t have casual remarks to make about literature; my remarks on literature  have to be profound or remarkable or witty or else I will not bother to speak about them here.

A blog is not a confessional; if I killed somebody or had my heart broken or felt unbelievable sorrow or joy about something, I would never mention it here. (I did mention the recent death of my dad, but that is a different story). The more words you spill on a web page, the more you avoid saying.  I do not consider myself an academic type, but the few times  that I write a long critical or research essay, I feel as though I have invested my heart and soul in getting it perfect. If I wrote an essay or memoir like Barber’s The Education, it would not and could not be chatty or casual.  On the other hand, I am not always serious; I love a good joke, a good TV show, a good meal. But would I blog about this?

Is it better to write about important feelings and events or unimportant ones? I remember a photograph from high school of an old high school girlfriend Susan E. She was a lovely girl  and lots of fun. The photograph I found recently was taken at Galveston beach. We are with her friends who are wearing bathing suits. Susan is laughing with her friends. It is a lovely moment in time – but unimportant to me except for the fact that it became a photograph. But one detail about the photo really stirs up nostalgia – my car! It is a 1979 Toyota Celica, imageand when I saw it again, it triggered lots of random memories – misadventures with friends,  Susan, family. Amazingly, I was walking on a Corpus Christi street and stumbled upon the same Celica model on the street. I don’t think the car was drivable – it was basically a billboard for some small business, but I felt an awe towards this icon for my past (even though I am not really a fan of cars anymore – the CO2 they emit are bringing the earth closer to a state of damnation!)

There are reasons not to like the  literary memoir; it doesn’t really involve the imagination, and it doesn’t really try to escape; all it tries to do is to be faithful to a person’s remembrance and insightful about it. All worthy goals, but structurally unsound: why base an art form on one person’s memory? Isn’t it an exercise in egotism? What if everyone did the same thing? Isn’t it better that most people keep their private thoughts and feelings to themselves? Would I like it if  my mom or sister were drafting memoirs about some family incidents involving me?  I know they would be kind and discreet, but what if I preferred these memories not to reach public ears? What if my high school sweetheart preferred not being a subject of a blogpost (Oops, I think I already did one).

Fiction, if you stop to think about it, is  amazing. You are just making things up – and adding characters and poetry.  The stories I write don’t normally fall too far outside my circle of experience, but I don’t feel the need to limit my writing to things I have direct experience with.  Recently, I have started writing fiction about places I have never been before: Venice, Chicago, Berlin. Obviously, I’d like to do more traveling (well, eco-friendly traveling!), but I rather enjoy trying to fake it. Could I write a story which could fool people into thinking I actually knew what I was talking about?

But actually writing fiction  isn’t something I can do all the time. Most of my writing is about more mundane things, and that is how it should be. If I wrote nothing but essays about literature, then I would be conveying the impression that literature is the only thing in my life. Of course it is important – probably the most important thing. But I don’t spend a lot of time pondering literature; I spend much more time contemplating life’s absurdities, the financial and professional challenges, the random things I think about on the bus,  random thoughts about politics. As it stands, now, my random observations about pop culture are going to Facebook more often than to this blog, but even so, a blog is a good way to capture the random reflections.   Every so often I like browsing through my archives – not so much to see instances of great essay writing or to find typos, but simply to remember what was going through my mind at a certain period of time.

In a Jack Matthews book I edited for publication, Matthews makes the point that instead of writing confessional diaries, authors need  a journal to keep track of artistic fragments which they later can pull into stories. Maybe for some authors, it is a good technique and I do a little bit of that – not much – but most of these are simply handwritten notes on random pieces of paper, keywords,  story outlines with significant details.

A blog fulfills a similar purpose. Not so much for recording story ideas, but for cataloguing articles and random observations about life. As much as I admire bloggers who blog daily or two or three times a day, many of these blogs would be practically unreadable 5 years later. Who cares about the transportation bill or some international scandal or predictions about who will win some election? The blog posts that will seem important 5 years later will be about birthdays, personal milestones, extreme weather, mild annoyances, etc.   A blog is most useful for cataloguing  minutiae of life and juxtaposing it with reflections like this one.

About the film 49 Up, I once wrote that the audience never finds out what is really going on in the interviewee’s life until the next episode filmed 7 years later. Apparently 7 years is a long enough time period for someone to talk about a life event with detachment and lack of shame or self-consciousness. Let me see, 7 years ago I was recovering from a nasty long distance relationship; after a long hiatus from fiction writing, I had finally  started publishing stories  under a pseudonym for a fiction project;  In Spring 2004 or so during a trip to Baltimore, I had conceived the idea for a major collection of stories (which I put aside for a while, but will pick up in the next few years).  I was bored at my job and dreaming about video projects. Yet if you looked at my blog, you would see that most of my posts were about audio recording, Thai emoticons, George W. Bush, referrer spam, lusting after a haircut and python programming.

I guess none of those posts were important aside from the fact that they marked time.

Update: Apparently Barber learned a awful lot about passion at Oxford.



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