Friday, January 08, 2010

Book Two: McMurtry's Literary Life

Larry McMurtry's Literary Life is a delightful, but imperfect, book. Yet it is its very imperfections that make it such a delightful book to read.

Literary Life is subtitled A Second Memoir. In reading it, we discover that it is the second of three memoirs McMurtry has planned. The first, Books, was about his life as a book dealer. (Considering that McMurtry has at least four buildings in Archer City, Texas, filled with books I don't think we can characterize him as a rare book dealer.) Literary Life is about his life has a writer and the third will be about Hollywood and his life as a screenwriter.

Literary Life might strictly be considered mere ruminations on writing and the writing the life, rather than a memoir. Strike the word mere, because it is this relaxed, ruminative quality that makes the memoir both imperfect and delightful. McMurtry is not writing a history or biography, and thus, not overly concerned with dates or details. He thinking back on his past and telling stories. Consequently, he can be squishy on the facts.

But facts can get in the way of a good story and McMurtry is, at heart, a great storyteller. This book is as close as most of us will every get to sitting with him over a cup of coffee or a beer and hearing him talk about his art and spinning a few yarns about the literary life.And in Literary Life, McMurtry illuminates the writer's life.

Consider this passage about Horseman, Pass By, his first book:

"I had expected to be thrilled when I received my first copy of my first book, but when I opened the package and held the first copy in my hand, I found that I just felt sort of flat. There it was. I had made it into the ranks of the published, as I was to do about forty more time. But I felt no great surge of satisfaction. I learned then and have relearned many times since, that the best part of a writer's life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank page, creating scenes that readers in distant places might connect to. The thrill lies in the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life."

Later, near the book's end, he writes:

"At the beginning of my career I was much concerned about prose style . . . I soon realized I could not write lyrical prose in my fiction, and, after a bit, I ceased to want to. I developed a tiny theory, which is that a writer's prose should be congruent with the landscape he is peopling. It made sense that Faulkner, from the deeply forested South, would write a dense and complex prose, whereas, say, Willa Cather, a plains state author, would write more sparely, as, in fact, I do myself."

I have read most of McMurtry's non-fiction work, but not one of his novels. This brings us, writer and reader, into an odd agreement. "And there are days," McMurtry writes, "when I think my own nonfiction will outlive my novels, mostly."

Mostly, I can't agree, not having read those novels. But I can agree that his non-fiction books, Literary Life among them, make a satisfying legacy.

1. My Father Is A Book, Janna Malamud Smith. Memoir
2. Literary Life, Larry McMurtry. Memoir

Next up:
Give My Poor Heart Ease, Voices of the Mississippi Blues by William Ferris

1 comment:

  1. My dad had a copy of "Lonsome Dove" next to his bed for almost a year. In fact, I think I might have bought it for him for Christmas on the advice of my mother.

    When he was done reading it he gave it to me -- all worn edges and cracke bindings -- with the idea that I should read it, and I was stunned by it. At 13 reading the the thick paperback was an insanely daunting idea. I wonder if I still have the book somewhere.