Well, well, well, I got to the end of Morris Lurie’s quirky last novel (if that’s what it is), Hergesheimer in the present tense, and laughed. The final paragraph, which seemed to come out of left field, concerns Dostoyevsky’s contract with a “scurrilous publisher” to deliver a novel – The gambler – on an impossible schedule. It resulted in his hiring the stenographer Anna Snitkina, whom he later married. I laughed because my reading group’s next book is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and punishment (the book published immediately prior to The gambler) and because this little anecdote about Dostoevsky manages to bring together in one paragraph the main themes of the book – the writer’s life, relationships with publishers, and finding love.
Where to start? Perhaps with my little aside in that first sentence regarding the form of this “novel”. This book has a very plain cover. In fact, it simply comprises some text on plain white, as you can see from the book cover image. And this text is right: I don’t think I have ever read anything quite like this before. But, I did enjoy it, because this sort of challenge to my reading brain appeals to me, particularly when the challenge involves a writer writing about the writer’s life. Delicious. When I say, though, that the book is about “the writer’s life”, I mean that in its broadest sense. It’s about life lived by the writer – his growing up, his women, his children, as well as the specific challenges of being a writer. This brings me back to the main challenge, its form: 30 little vignettes that criss-cross time within and between each other. There is probably an over-riding chronological arc to the narrative, though this is not particularly obvious, partly due to flashbacks within the chapters and partly because there’s not really a plot. The voice is third person, with the occasional lapse (is it a lapse?) into first or even second person.
This is not Lurie’s first book about Hergesheimer. The first was Hergesheimer hangs in, which comprises 26 chapters and was published in 2011. My curiosity sparked, I found a review of it in the Australian Book Review and discovered that there was a “real” Hergesheimer, who, Lurie writes, was
an American writer of great popularity who fell from favour, couldn’t understand it, didn’t know why, bellyached about it endlessly to his pal Mencken, refused to go gently, if you like, into that good night, is quite forgotten now. I appropriated his name to pass unnoticed, as it were, among you. (Hergesheimer hangs in)
Even Wikipedia knows about him! Him, the “real” Hergesheimer, I mean. We don’t need to know this allusion, of course, to understand the book, but it adds a playful layer to understanding our Hergesheimer, because he too is a writer who has had his successes but who is now struggling to be appreciated, to be recognised in the long-term.
As soon as I finished the book, I checked Lurie’s bibliography and discovered what I was expecting: his twenty or so books were published by around ten different publishers. No wonder Hergesheimer, the fictional one I mean, is generally unhappy with publishers*. It starts in the first story, “Hergesheimer slaps leather”, in which he and another writer discuss publishers – publishers not entering their books for prizes, publishers not promoting their books, and so on. This story, told in Lurie’s linguistically playful and rhythmic style, got me right in. Here is the opening paragraph:
Hergesheimer, found suddenly footloose in the city this sunny midmorning, hears called out from nowhere his name. To stop. To turn. To scan. To see. To spot, waving and weaving in rapid approach through the intervening traffic, McCall, an acquaintance at best, if even exactly that, certainly not bosomy, nothing buddyish, warmth to warmth, heart to heart, nevertheless, as Hergesheimer also, similarly in or of the writing trade.
‘Tom’, greets him Hergesheimer, the safety of pavement by McCall now achieved.
I love such writing – active, compelling, demanding the reader’s full attention. And I found it particularly interesting to read so soon after Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing with her broken syntax and run-along sentences. Very different writers, very different concerns, but both subverting the “rules” to create honest, unforgettable characters.
Anyhow, the stories/chapters continue. We see Hergesheimer giving writer’s talks in schools, attending conferences, being interviewed, winning a prize, finding a new publisher, and so on. Life is never simple, and rarely are his experiences unequivocally triumphant. His dreams of great success (accompanied by wealth and acclaim) don’t come to fruition. In “Hergesheimer prompts the essential question” a schoolchild doesn’t believe he’s a real writer because “Stories are supposed to have love in them … Where’s the love in yours?” And in the title story, he discovers that prizes don’t always mean what you think they do. Some stories are laugh-out-loud funny, such as his battle to save his typewriter in an increasingly electronic world (“Hergesheimer embraces the new technology”). But mostly the levity has a self-deprecating, often sardonic edge, because, as we know, concerns about publishing, editing, prizes, promotion, plagiarism, are real. Lurie gives them flesh in the form of an experienced but now mostly defeated writer, “a lumbering dinosaur, defeated, out of step with the modern world”, a world where, for example, plagiarism can be explained away as “collage”, “montage”, or “homage”!
Hergesheimer, though, is not only a writer. He’s a son, father, failed husband, lover and friend, so we see him, for example, facing the death of his daughter (“The gift of strength”), being sick, dealing with a landlord, and trying to maintain a shaky relationship with a new woman, the indefatigable Valerie. There’s pathos here, like in his writing life, as he shambles from experience to experience.
Because of its disjointed (though not disconnected) form, you can read this book quickly or slowly. With most chapters running to around five pages, it’s a perfect book for busy times, like now, when reading opportunities have to be snatched amongst the Christmas madness. Lurie, sadly, died within weeks of its publication. Reading it now would be the perfect way to honour his memory – but reading it only for that reason would be selling it short. Far better to read it for its verbal gymnastics, self-deprecating humour and, most of all, for its awareness of the absurdity of life’s endeavours.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers also read and enjoyed this book.
Hergesheimer in the present tense
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)
* It reminded me of poet-novelist Alan Gould, who came to my book group and spoke specifically about the difficulty of finding publishers.