For all their claims towards authenticity, memoirs and autobiographies nonetheless often present to the reader little more than a smokescreen, more so indeed than fiction. As Charles Fernyhough, author of Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory, has elsewhere noted: 'Memory's a fiction...hashed together from bits of knowledge, sensory impressions, all stitched together in a hurry...the brain has to impose order on whatever information it has available. That information gets lost, overwritten, degraded...your cortex has only got a part-time interest in the truth. For the rest of the time it's a deceitful egotist...wanting to suit its own needs.' Moreover, according to Fernyhough in his novel A Box of Birds, selfhood, upon which memoirs/autobiographies place a high premium, arises via 'a ragtag collection of self-obsessed processors, each of which is mostly blissfully unaware of what the others are doing. We think we're steering this thing, but we're not. There's no one in control. There's not even a centre of consciousness. Half of the time you don't need consciousness. You'd get along fine without it...there's no "me" to do the thinking. I'm an illusion. The confection of a restless, pattern-seeking brain...there are just fragments,' concluding: 'Even this brief glimpse of consciousness is out of date, and I'm already someone else.'
How, then, is the 'true life' genre of memoir to proceed if the rug has been pulled out from under its feet, as it were, and its root system been exposed as artifice? Written in non-linear, hallucinatory fragments, Coma, Pierre Guyotat's account of his total collapse, provides one example of a way in which this can be achieved. Cured Meat by the pseudonymous Polly Trope, in which memory is treated poetically, almost as a form of myth, rather than literally, is yet one more.
Far from invoking a symbol of self-discovery, the tiresome subject of many memoirs, the choice of penname by contrast adds further layers of camouflage, thus causing the margin between self and other to become murky; 'Poly-,' of course, meaning many, and Trope coming from the Greek tropos, which can be translated as style or manner (the narrator of the book, we're informed, is a talented student of ancient Greek drama). Just as it's said that neither Homer nor Lao Tzu actually existed, but were instead a succession of different scribes living decades removed from one another, so it seems 'Polly Trope' is a convenient mask for the manifold sensations, all competing and contradictory, that give her form. ('There are long, complicated, inexorable struggles,' the Spanish philosopher George Santayana reflected; 'until death removes the combatants without assuring peace for their successors. The world is therefore at every moment in a state of insecure equilibrium; for the many impulses that vivify it are fundamentally many...and it is only by a precious interlocking of many elementary tropes that any organism holds together...')
A decade-long odyssey into the underworld, the episodes described in Cured Meat blur into one another at tangents, yet few of them cohere. Characters appear, speak, petition the Gods, and are just as quickly pounded into dust by Time. Herein lies the book's strength, however, for if any rigid order or structure were imposed upon it, it would lose all semblance of the urgency which yields its towering force; life, after all, is ungraspable, and the motives of the human organism itself shall always be closed off to scrutiny. One is reminded of Heraclitus' famous proclamation about not stepping into the same river twice. In the case of Cured Meat, the river is snared with rapids and vortices, the currents suck you under and break your bones; even the moments of calm are deceptive, for round the corner awaits a cataract, and below the surface of the water there are strewn jagged rocks.
Scattered throughout the book, and distilled in concise, notebook-like entries, the author lays bare her intentions for how the work is to be crafted: 'Liszt is my piano hero,' she writes. 'I want to be able to do what he could do with music, with writing. The way he cross-weaves themes, flies over them, underscores them, the way he works with repetition, the refinement and lightness, this sound that surrounds itself with a thin layer of glass, round and perfect as a crystal sphere, a world within a world, polished, dark and glossy, but clear-cut, but sharp, geometric, infinitesimal, and flickering like a thousand small shards.' In a later mood, this is expanded to become: 'A poetic and surreal garden, a dreamscape that I knew I had within me but that needed moulding and chiselling out of their formless depths.'
The reader follows 'Polly' from her school years in Berlin to university life in London and on to institutionalisation in New York, then back to London where, under the tutelage of an Albanian pimp, she becomes an escort. Throughout the course of these travels, the narrator appears to be in a state of perpetual motion sickness, as if trying to outpace the poems of Apollinaire - a vast trip around Europe is glossed over in a single paragraph. Indeed, the remote landscapes that flash by through train windows are juxtaposed against one another like a surrealist painting, in which rather than mesh, the opposing elements seek to reveal a kind of heightened reality where one might come to inhabit the imagination more fiercely; filtered through the author's drugged nervous system, Soho is given to resemble a scene from Catallus' Rome, while the harrowing account of her institutionalisation is depicted with the raw pathos and menace that Aeschylus invested in his plays ('Zyprexa, Rsiperdal, Lithium, Abilify...a rosary of curses,' she recites in a dark hymn, while around her the doctors and nurses assemble like harpies: 'Harsh discourse and perverse persuasion techniques alternate freely...they are putting ideas in my head. I keep hearing the echoes of this voice..."any suicidal thoughts perhaps?")
Yet even the imagination ultimately fails to provide a safe haven away from the brutish and cold reality of struggle that en route to oblivion all living things are engaged in: 'Fluorescent grass, dying winter grass that was bending gently in a mild wet wind, which with its gentle breeze, reminded me of home, brought me back in my mind to the cold of Berlin, when the winter mellows, and stones sing with the thaw drops of snow and ice...Then they dissolved themselves, as glitter dropping off a canvas, a curtain falling back before a final scene, and then, I understood that it was all just stone. The stones were just stones, and nothing meant anything at all.'
Precipitated to some extent by this stark discovery, alongside the many accidents and chances of Fate, the psychological breakdown of the author serves almost as an axis around which the rest of the book orbits, or rather spirals, as the threat of 'going crazy again' looms now closely, now distantly. Of course, from John Clare and Friedrich Holderlin, to Sylvia Plath and Anna Kavan, the doors to the madhouse have always been open to artists. In a particularly vivid passage that echoes Kavan's terrifying Asylum Piece (surely one of the neglected classics of 20th Century fiction), Polly once more delineates the cruel interstice between imagination and reality: 'The other shore, I imagined it to be gleaming and paradisiac, marvellous, a land of sugar and icing from the fairy tales, all dew and fresh water, a golden Elysium for dreaming daemons...Once arrived at death's doorstep, the gate is anguishing, the country dark, the path thorny and sorrowful'
'What had hit me the day I came back from Auschwitz,' Polly mentions during one of her whirlwind continental excursions, 'this poignant question of how and why technical advancement and civilized humanity, humanism, could become so estranged from each other.' The tragedy, as the English philosopher John Gray points out in Straw Dogs, isn't so much that the humanist project could go so awry as to create a spectacle as monstrous as Auschwitz, but rather Auschwitz and similar monuments to 'technical advancement and civilized humanity' are in fact the result of blind faith in humanist creeds.
Functioning under the killing-hand of good intentions, the institute to which the narrator is committed has itself qualities of an extermination camp. The conditions described by the author aren't dissimilar to those which Stefan Zweig in his novella Chess attributes to an Austrian gentleman on a cruise ship, as he explains one of the 'exquisitely refined' techniques employed by Nazis during WWII to extract information from those whom they believed to be hiding money or other valuables from them. 'A room of your own in a hotel - it sounds very humane, doesn't it?' Zweig writes. 'However, you may believe me if I tell you that when we "prominent people" were not crammed into an icy hut twenty at a time, but accommodated in reasonably well-heated private hotel rooms, they had in store for us a method which was not at all more humane, just more sophisticated...the method was the most exquisitely refined isolation...we were simply placed in a complete void, and everyone knows that nothing on earth exerts such pressure on the human soul as a void...a room hermetically cut off from the outside world, was intended to create pressure not from without, through violence and the cold, but from within...there was nothing to do, nothing to hear, nothing to see, you were surrounded everywhere, all the time, by the void, that entirely spaceless, timeless vacuum. You walked up and down, and your thoughts went up and down with you, up and down, again and again. But even thoughts, insubstantial as they may seem, need something to fix on, or they begin to rotate and circle aimlessly around themselves; they can't tolerate a vacuum either. You kept waiting for something from morning to evening, and nothing happened. You waited again, and yet again. Nothing happened. You waited, waited, waited, you thought, you thought, you thought until your head was aching. Nothing happened. You were left alone. Alone. Alone.'
Still, reprieves are to be found, brief though they may be. One of the most tender passages in Cured Meat evokes an impression of the narrator's childhood in Italy: 'It had taken me all the way back to my four year old self hearing church bells in my grandma's home village, with its cypress trees, its dry river in the summer, children playing with horses and riding bareback, and familial cemeteries in fields of brown grass, there, far away underneath the Alps, in the Italian North.'
At length, a resignation to Fate, with the strength and courage required of such a stance, is established, a point from which the narrator seems released from her past so as to meet on equal terms the chaos of events, upon which we are tossed and thrown until death forever eclipses us: 'I started slowly: trainee curator in a museum. The work was new to me, but made me very happy. I had to polish exhibits, create catalogues, investigate missing labels, dust boxes in the basement and unpack collections that had been slumbering for decades, digitize card catalogues, research the history of things, much as I was learning simply by reading label after label, card after card. Those hours spent in a glass cupboarded room full of mystifying jars, arched over handwritten catalogue cards from the 1960s, were an almost spiritual experience, as they restored quiet and focus, and let the madness of life and the time whirl around itself, with the leaves in the wind outside.'
It's a beautiful image, and one we might cherish, as like the last pollen and dust of summer, we're swept away, and the world goes on without us. But who's to say we must despair of this condition? If a lesson can be drawn from the author's varied experience, it might be this: in facing the darkness that lies ahead, it'd be wrong to ignore the patch of sunlight on which we tenuously and provisionally stand. Yes, the path we're drawn inexorably along is 'thorny and sorrowful,' but it's also 'flickering like a thousand small shards.'
Christopher Brownsword is the author of two collections of poetry, 'Icarus was Right!' (Shearsman Books 2010) & 'Rise Like Leviathan and Rejoice!' (Oneiros Books 2014), a novella, 'Blind-Worm Cycle' (Oneiros Books 2013), and a novel, 'The Scorched Highway' (Oneiros Books 2013). His latest work 'Throw Away the Lights' comprises a novel and a novella and will be published soon by Oneiros Books. His most recent book reviews have appeared in 3 A.M. Magazine and Word Riot.