Morrissey's autobiography: charmless sniping and quasi-erotic raptures

The book issues a clarification of his sexuality – his two-year live-in relationship with the photographer Jake Walters – so obscure that it needed a clarification of its own after the book was published.

Autobiography
Morrissey
Penguin Classics, 480pp, £8.99

Two days after Morrissey’s Autobiography came out, I went to see Johnny Marr play at the Roundhouse in London. In what is no longer a surprise but is still a treat, he performed a handful of Smiths tunes, the divebombing drama and release of “Panic” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” demonstrating how this band towered over not just the atrophied pop of the mid-1980s but the timid independent rock, too.

Beer and elbows flew, my glasses got broken and there were tears on adult faces when Marr broke into “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”, the Smiths at their most deliciously melancholy. What everyone misses now – but was obvious at the time – is that the Smiths were not simply the wallowers in sadness they have been caricatured as but also bitterly funny and exuberant. The music that they played said everything to us about our lives.

“It is the song of the unresolved heart,” is how the singer-lyricist describes his musical ideal in Autobiography. “[It] is so disconnected with sorrow that the sorrow turns in on itself and becomes triumph.”

That heroic spirit and inverted lust for life are hard to find in Morrissey’s memoir, a dense, witty but self-serving work released – presumably because publishers are the last people left for Morrissey to upset – as a Penguin Classic. Nobody should be surprised at this, as he issues his records on antique labels such as HMV and Decca. Just be glad that he didn’t demand to be published by Virago, Target or Left Book Club.

Autobiography relates Steven Patrick Morrissey’s struggle through “the schoolmasterly dullness of detestable poverty” in “Victorian knife-plunging Manchester” to epiphany through punk rock and the discovery of his (a)sexuality and self-actualisation with Marr and the Smiths. Then come the fallings-out – uniformly portrayed by Morrissey as “betrayals” – followed by an ugly court case over the Smiths’ royalties and the singer’s evolution from the droll and provocative two-up-two-down Oscar Wilde of The Queen Is Dead into today’s curmudgeonly figure.

The first third is incredibly funny, a Les Dawson-goes-Gormenghast vision of northern purgatory, with a belly laugh on every page. Young Steven’s teachers are presented as vengeful monsters who read newspapers as pupils attempt to hang themselves and salvation is only to be found on TV – “Could there be hope? Animal Magic offers none at all” – or black vinyl.

When one of his favourite records is played to his classmates, their “nits sway in rhythm”. The story of how he and the guitarist Marr find one another is told with a great warmth that sadly soon evaporates. Though the language is heavily over-egged with some vegan substitute or other, this is surely part of the whole Moz package. He would never write, “Coronation Street asked me to write a script,” if he can write instead: “The weekly crawl through northern morals needed a new knight of the pen.”

Yet his prose is also obfuscatory, as is his approach to facts. While he lionises his materfamilias, Nannie Dwyer, and his mother, Elizabeth, we learn more about Trafford Park Baths than we do about Morrissey’s father, a fist-handy ducker and diver who sounds rather fascinating but remains unnamed throughout.

Any autobiography surely has a duty to inform but evidently not this one. It skims over the career of the Smiths, neglects swaths of Morrissey’s solo work, has nothing to say about the core of his art (his lyrics) and issues a clarification of his sexuality – his two-year live-in relationship with the photographer Jake Walters – so obscure that it needed a clarification of its own after the book was published. In place of the detail that would have entertained fans and made Morrissey’s case to the unconverted, there is only charmless sniping against old enemies (Factory Records’ Tony Wilson, Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, various traitors and malefactors) and a rising tone of self-pity. At times, one is put in mind of Father Ted Crilly’s lengthy scoresettling acceptance speech for the Priest of the Year award.

This self-indulgence reaches its limit in the yawning tedium of 50 pages on the court case in 1996 in which the Smiths’ drummer, Mike Joyce, retrospectively sued Morrissey and Marr for 25 per cent of the band’s earnings and Judge John Weeks found in his favour. “How can someone who is not creative pass judgement on someone who is?” writes Morrissey and it is this adolescent silliness that fatally holes Autobiography’s claim to be a Penguin Classic – or anyone’s classic.

The book fades out with a focusless travelogue of shows played and countries visited. Here, Morrissey enters quasi-erotic raptures over the bad-lad fans and tough-girl followers who constitute his final uncritical fan base. He has run out of things to say and can only be. This is fine if you are a Morrissey votary; less so for the general reader, who will perhaps best enjoy Autobiography as A Confederacy of Dunces with Ignatious J Reilly as the narrator instead of the subject: the citizen of a better world condemned to live among the gruesome likes of you and me, blind to the comedy of existence. Morrissey is a narcissist by confession and this book, initially entertaining but ultimately dispiriting, is his autohagiography.

Andrew Harrison is a cultural critic and former magazine editor

Blood on the tracks: Morrissey's memoir is predictably narcissistic and self-indulgent. Image: Frank Bauer/Countour/Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era