Review: Meeting the Devil: A Book of Memoir from the London Review of Books

Trauma, illness and grim remembrance comprise this memoir collection – and that’s not to mention the genital warts

In his introduction to this curious gallimaufry of essays from the London Review of Books, Alan Bennett assures the reader that “the variety and oddity of the contributions make it an adult version of the annuals one was happy to find in one’s stocking as a child.” I’m not sure anyone’s Christmas morning would be greatly cheered by the 29 pieces in Meeting the Devil.

Death, graveyards and funerals feature highly. Illnesses are present in livid profusion, among them leukemia, colorectal cancer and necrotising fasciitis. Physical trauma, hallucinations, genital warts and the menopause all make appearances, along with child abuse and nervous breakdowns. Clearly, it’s not all beer and skittles down in LRB Land.

No editor is credited with the selection of items, but the jacket promises that they amount to “a study in the art of the self-portrait,” which is poppycock: there are poems here, essays about work, portraits of other people, complaints about inept psychoanalysis, thoughts on online dating and Google Maps.  There are flashes of personal involvement, but little self-portraiture.

 Several pieces are familiar: Julian Barnes’s reflections on the Booker Prize as “posh bingo”, Lorna Sage’s gothic evocation of her horrible grandparents from her book Bad Blood, Andrew O’Hagan’s chilling essay on James Bulger, in which he recalls his routine daily torturing of a fragile schoolboy. Tony Harrison’s graffiti-in-the-churchyard poem V is on the school syllabus. Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van was re-cast years ago as a West End play. Readers may feel these have been included to ballast some pretty ropey material, including (surprisingly) the  LRB’s distinguished editor  Mary-Kay Wilmers’s tentative and unengaged review of Germaine Greer’s The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause, and other  queasy examples of what was once called “Ill Literacy.”

It is, of course, possible to bring energy and wit to descriptions of illness, and some pieces here zing with imaginative recall. In the title essay, Hilary Mantel evokes the hallucinative aftermath of a major operation with metaphorical zeal: “Our inside is outside, the body’s sewer pipes and vaults exposed to view, as if in a woodcut of our own martyrdom.” RW Johnson, by contrast, chronicles his run-in with flesh-eating bacteria with prosaic flatness, veering bathetically into a discussion of South African health insurance. When not swimming in blood, tubes, germs and cells, several pieces offer a note of genteel hopelessness. Keith Thomas, the eminent historian, surveys his lifelong research methods, his years of note-taking, card-indexing and box-filing, and concludes, “The sad truth is that much of what has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning.”  Paul Myerscough, an LRB editor, charts his career as a not-very-good poker player, noting that, after gambling £25,000 over two years, his net gain has been £500. “If this were a job,” he groans, “it would be a stressful way to earn slave wages.” Eighty pages later we’re told what real slave wages and really stressful work is like, in Joe Kenyon’s harrowing memory of working in a Barnsley coal mine in 1936.

Standing out like beacons of joy amid the encircling gloom are two fine studies of literary monsters. John Henry Jones’s piece on the poet and critic William Empson begins with gush but shades into gleeful bitching at his friend’s eccentric gait, his fascination with toads, his unspeakable soup… While Terry Castle’s memoir of Susan Sontag begins in complaint and ends by describing her as a paradigm of “what mental life could be.” Along the way are some terrific stories, as when she and a friend call on Sontag in mid-afternoon. After half an hour, the intellectual titan emerges “blowsily” from a back room and Castle timidly hopes they haven’t disturbed her nap.  Sontag is furious. “It was as if I’d accused her of never having read Proust, or of watching soap operas all day.” It’s a welcome breeze of ironical humanity in this fetid hothouse of grim remembrance.

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