Issue 39 of Areté starts with the words “MEMOIR ISSUE” on the front cover. It is dedicated to writing which remembers its author. Hence we get essays on Proust; Art Spiegelman’s MAUS; Nabokov’s Speak, Memory; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Salman Rushdie’s 2012 memoir Joseph Anton; and a terrific account of the monomania of bored US soldiers in Iraq, by an ex-US airborne ranger, among others.
Craig Raine – Areté’s founder and editor – disguises his editorial line artfully. On p42 Candia McWilliam asks the question: ‘What have biography and fiction to give one another?’ Questions like this occur throughout Areté. They serve to frame Raine’s long, crux essay on Salman Rushdie and his memoir – Joseph Anton – around which the magazine feels constructed. Then, on p96, Raine finally lets us have straight what he has only hinted up to this point. ‘Fiction is franker than reminiscence,’ he concludes. In other words: If you want the surgical bollock-wrenching truth, buy an author’s novels, not their memoirs.
Raine sets out to prove his hypothesis, by praising Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and eliding his memoir Joseph Anton. Hence, Raine’s first three pages riff on the ebullient hyper-accuracy of The Satanic Verses. We get literature as pure hedonism. The MDMA of vocabulary.
Here, for example, we microscope down into the scene where a tired Salahuddin shaves his dying father:
‘Changez’s skin hung off his face in soft, leathery jowls, and his hair (when Salahuddin emptied the machine) looked like ashes. Salahuddin could not remember when he had last touched his father’s face this way, gently drawing the skin tight as the cordless shaver moved across it, and then stroking it to make sure it felt smooth. When he had finished he continued for a moment to run his fingers along Changez’s cheeks… Then all of a sudden Changez Chamchawalla left his face; he was still alive, but he had gone somewhere else…’
This is a famous Satanic Verses scene, and justly quoted in defence of fiction’s frankness. But, it is also semi-autobiographical, and based on Rushdie’s personal memories of his father’s death-bed. These appear in Joseph Anton, we are told. However, we don’t get to see these passages side by side, because Raine prefers the fictional account to the reminiscence. In terms of sheer writing, the memoir is ‘invariably a weaker, summary account,’ he judges. We must take his word for it, since Joseph Anton isn’t quoted.
I could go on. There are other examples. You feel like asking: If fiction really *does* trump memoir, why is Areté Issue 39 largely a collection of essays, interviews, and book reviews? Where’s the bloody fiction? Fittingly perhaps, Raine’s best proof of his argument – and what electrifies the whole volume – comes in his masterful inclusion (as editor) of a short story about the Iraq conflict: Living Among The Dead. This was written by United States ex-serviceman Steven McGregor, and it is franker and better than everything else in the book. It is also the only piece of fiction. For this piece alone, I urge you to subscribe to Areté.
Here is McGregor on Basic Training:
‘It was with boots on all the time, rifle ranges, road marches, chanting ‘B is for Born to Die’. We were on mile five of eight and my feet were sliding in my boots from the blood, my toes going up against the toe-cap and my heel slipping back when I lifted up. The road was red clay like it was dyed that way from the soles of our feet. Men were pissing as we walked so as not to fall behind, their clear urine arcing out to the side of the formation, a machine purging itself as it lumbers forward.’ [my bold]
Or, here is a later scene, when a junior Chaplain’s Assistant is confronted with a YouTube video of a captured US soldier being beheaded:
‘When he came back to me there was a different video playing: a soldier from the waist up, someone else’s hands smoothing his uniform top so his nametape was clearly seen, Dimitru. The picture zoomed closer to his face and one eye was black and swollen and his nose had bled all down his lantern jaw. He tried sitting up but someone had a fist of his hair and kept him down against a concrete floor. Then the knife came and his eyes saw it, even the one swollen. “Where’d you get this?” I said.
There was Arabic and then the knife was held against his neck and it was so dull it just made a dent for a moment. Dimitru held a permanent yawn. He seemed to help them by lifting his chin away from where they were working. The knife was held by someone off screen, like the hand was detached, ungloved, naked. No one sounded frustrated or impatient. It was steady. Incredibly red-black.’ [my bold]
Writing like this defeats ignorance. It is not just the accretion of realism (the tiny hyper-accurate descriptions of surprising detail) that elevate the story. It is also the historical context in which it appears. The second Gulf War is something widely discussed but little understood. First-hand accounts are often mired in political partisanship, crap writing, or are couched in general bureaucratic terms, which are of little use to the Armchair Explorer. Living Among The Dead may be fictional, but it feels franker than most saccharine CNN reports, and it is a comfort to anyone who believes that the detailed reality of life near the Euphrates in the past decade may be worth preserving. So, kudos to Craig Raine for publishing it. Let us hope McGregor sticks to fiction.
Lesley Fabian is not on Twitter.
Areté is an arts magazine, published three times a year. You can buy Issue 39 through its website.
Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.