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Reviewed: The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

Splintered self.

The Book of My Lives
Aleksandar Hemon
Picador, 224pp, £20

To write about a life, you need a life to write about. Or you used to, anyway. Aleksandar Hemon, as his book’s title implies, has a surfeit. His are the multiple lives of the uprooted: the remembered life of his upbringing in Bosnia, the transposed life of the new immigrant to Chicago and the present life of the author, husband, father.

Hemon’s fiction also navigates displacement – his most recent novel, The Lazarus Project, flips between two stories of immigrants in Chicago, a century apart – but here, Hemon mines his own ruptured state. His mode is memoir or near-memoir. The Book of My Lives is composed of 15 stand-alone essays, all but one previously published in various magazines. A note at the back says the essays have been re-edited for the book but there are still overlaps and repetitions, odd clashes of tone.

In the first piece, “The Lives of Others”, there’s a strangely alienating (and alienated) analysis of immigrant psychology: “The funny thing is that the need for collective selflegitimisation fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn.”

It’s an interesting point but expressed in terms that make an admirer of his fiction anxious. “Self-legitimisation” is not a word you find often in the lithe, wired language of his novels. Nor would you find it in the more human accounts in this book. Much later, in “The Lives of Grandmasters”, he devastatingly describes his chess opponent Peter, “in whose throat the bone of displacement was forever stuck”. It’s a different context but also a different writer – we’ve switched from the remote jargon of the analyst to the poetry of the artist. The first essay was written in 2007, the second for this collection six years later: his writerly consciousness and mode of expression has changed. The book, then, is not the result of a singular effort but a collage of multiple effects and its inconsistencies are at times jarringly present.

Hemon’s chronology is loose, often swerving from present to past, his life divided – and multiplied – by the year 1992, when he left a threatened Bosnia just before the siege of Sarajevo, his home city. Much of the early part takes us back to his childhood, to the family borscht feasts and youthful antics, including a startling account of an ironic Nazi-themed cocktail party held in 1986 that resulted in Hemon and many of his friends being publicly shamed. The tale (the book is worth reading for this alone) offers an early sign of Hemon’s multiple personalities: as the after-effects of the misjudged theme became apparent, he felt he was “reading a novel in which one of the characters – a feckless nihilistic prick – had my name. His and my life intersected, indeed dramatically overlapped. At some point I started doubting the truth of my being.”

Not many memoirists are so harsh with their subjects but Hemon never lets himself off the hook. He mocks his deluded, youthful self, hung up on theory and cowardly irony, distracted by frivolous attempts to provoke the establishment. His self-directed viciousness is perhaps the residue of anxiety and depression he says he suffered in his twenties, which he interpreted as a “depletion of my interiority” (another self endangered) and treated by going alone to the mountain home of his parents to read in marathon stretches. His writing has the brutal edge of a brain accustomed to turning on itself.

Sometimes, the bullying is accompanied by a blackened wit. Hemon describes returning to Sarajevo in 1997, walking down a street and instinctively turning to look over his shoulder at a building. He can’t work out why he’s stopped, until he remembers that it once housed a cinema and he used to check the posters to see what was on.

His body, he writes, “had been trained to react to urban stimulation in the form of a new movie poster, and it still remembered, the fucker, the way it remembered how to swim when thrown in deep water”. As an anecdote, it is a poignant demonstration of how memories live on in the body, even when the mind has re-homed itself elsewhere. Yet it’s the “fucker” that sings. The surprise of it, the quick drop in tone. In Hemon’s flexible hands, it’s not just a swear word but a style.

Hemon is most frequently, lazily, compared to Vladimir Nabokov. The link is a compliment – they share an impressive, gymnastic facility with a language that wasn’t their first. However, this is no Speak, Memory. Nabokov’s memoir was conceived as a whole, a mammoth feat of recollection and execution written much later in life. Hemon’s has been gathered together and you can feel the draughts between the fragments. He also doesn’t have the firepower of Nabokov on the page (who does?) but he compensates with a sensitivity, honesty and open heart that is sometimes lost amid the high style of the Russian.

This is most evident in the final essay, “The Aquarium”, about the death of his baby daughter Isabel from a rare form of brain tumour. If his first essay suffered, in parts, from academic distance, then this is the counterpoint – Hemon recounts the harrowing events leading to Isabel’s final breaths with agonising immediacy. His questions still have the rawness of a living pain: “How do you leave your dead child behind and return to the vacant routines of whatever you might call your life?”

Hemon tries to work out what to call his life throughout these essays. He doesn’t come up with an answer. “The Aquarium” is the last piece in the book and ends in the suspended ache of loss. But loss, of all kinds, is Hemon’s subject. There can be no neat endings here.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide