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The Reluctant Memoirist
by Cary Fagan

In 1994 I spent seven months researching a biography of John Irving. Once during that time, John and I emerged from a restaurant in Toronto's Forest Hill Village. I had gone out the door first and he had to take a sprint or two to catch up. In the restaurant we had been talking about his mother; he had given me permission to speak to her. Now as he reached me on the sidewalk he slapped me heartily on the back. I was so taken by surprise that I almost fell to my knees.

Later I analysed that slap. It was, in part, a spontaneous gesture of male friendship that pleased me even as I lamented that a biographer and his subject could not be simply friends. At the same time I wondered whether there was a slight edge to it, an underlining of the point he was about to make. There were certain things, I should understand, that a son did not want repeated to his mother.

A short time after that I began to exercise regularly for the first time in years. As is well known from published profiles and interviews, John is an impressive amateur athlete who works out at the end of every writing day and who, like Garp, was a wrestler in school. (Wrestling also figures in his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage.) Sometimes during those seven months I lay in bed and imagined with a certain terror that he might invite me to try a little friendly wrestling. A moment later I would be in the air and then, thwack, flat on my back. I thought that no-one who hoped to write his biography could be as out of shape as I was and so I started running. Some might suggest that I was trying to run away from him, or the biography, or myself. Though I did abandon the book, I still exercise, for which I have him to thank.

He was not, at first, an eager subject for a biography. He does not consider his life to have been especially dramatic, and he is largely right. (This doesn't mean, of course, that it isn't full of interest.) It was his wife, Janet Turnbull Irving, who convinced him that he ought not to stand in the way of another writer's project. (It also occurred to me that he might hope that a biography would improve his critical reputation, which does not match his popularity. Did he see me as a kind of Donald Whitcomb, the fawning biographer of Garp? I could only hope not.) Once he agreed to be friendly, he wished to be helpful; he provided me with introductions and telephone numbers of childhood friends, teachers, relatives. He never tried to influence my thinking or asked to see the manuscript before publication.

Those seven months of work were exciting, and yet each day my misgivings grew. Not about the subject, but about myself as author, for it seemed that I did not have the traits and instincts of a biographer. Good biographers are possessed by their subjects and are driven on by an urge to uncover secrets, while I found myself acutely embarrassed about asking people personal questions about John. On the phone an agent relayed to me a bit of gossip about his life between his first and second marriages and said that the publisher would naturally want to know if it was true. They would? Surely it was none of my business. As well, I realized that the best biographers express themselves most fully when writing about other lives, whereas for better or worse I found myself frustrated by not having any time to work on my own fiction.

It took me two days to compose a letter telling him that I was abandoning the project and would donate my research materials to the archives at his old prep-school, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. I sent it to him by fax and within ten minutes the telephone rang. It was John, who wanted to reassure me that he understood, was not upset, and in fact would prefer that no biography be written during his lifetime. A gentleman to the end.

I am not surprised to discover that he is a rather reluctant memoirist. As he explains in an author's note, he would not have written The Imaginary Girlfriend if a shoulder injury, requiring hours of physical therapy a day, had not prevented him from working on a novel. Nevertheless this small book, consisting of twenty brief chapters, is elegantly written, generous in its sentiments, and a pleasure for readers of his novels.

"Not only did Ted Seabrooke teach me how to wrestle; more important, he forewarned me that I would never be better than `halfway decent' as a wrestler-because of my limitations as an athlete. He also impressed upon me how I could compensate for my shortcomings: I had to be especially dedicated-a thorough student of the sport-if I wished to overcome my lack of any observable ability. `Talent is overrated,' Ted told me. `That you're not very talented needn't be the end of it.' "

Ted Seabrooke was John's first wrestling coach at Exeter, which he was allowed to attend (he would not have been accepted on the basis of his academic ability) because his stepfather was a teacher there. The author's notes mention that the original title for this book was Mentors, and I knew from my research that John had been guided early on by a series of older males. (Father figures? the biographer had wondered. Substitutes for the never-known birth father?) But the mentors that John and I had talked about were all related to his writing: George Bennett, the Exeter English instructor who read John's first attempts at fiction; John Yount and Thomas Williams, who taught creative writing at the University of New Hampshire; and Kurt Vonnegut, who was a teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It was through Vonnegut that Random House bought John's first novel, Setting Free the Bears, for a very decent advance, and before it was even finished-an unlikely occurrence today, John notes with sympathy for young writers. (In a casual aside, he mentions having a "brawl in a pool hall" with another Iowa student who made disparaging remarks about Vonnegut. A brawl? Physical violence over a literary opinion? It seems that he has since learned to channel this sort of anger into his writing.) While all of these men are mentioned with affection and gratitude in The Imaginary Girlfriend, they are not the mentors that he seems to consider most important. Instead, he writes about his wrestling coaches.

Not once in our several hours of conversation did John and I talk at any length about wrestling. Knowing nothing about the sport, I downplayed its importance. But the memoir is largely about his wrestling career, the sport of wrestling itself, and the wisdom of his coaches. It is to his credit as a writer that he makes the subject interesting, which he does in part by giving precise details-that a headlock must also enclose an arm, that if a wrestler picks his opponent up then he is responsible for returning him safely to the mat, that wrestlers are as obsessive about their weight as jockeys or runway models. Only when he describes the wrestling accomplishments of his sons does this proud father begin to grow tedious.

In his fiction John has always been a moralist, although The Cider House Rules, his most Dickensian, is his only novel with an obvious message (that women have a right to an abortion if they want one). Yet he never forgets the other requirements of memorable fiction; the advice of Horace to instruct and delight has never seemed dated to him. The wrestling anecdotes are meant not only to entertain, but to provide a small lesson: personal weakness can be overcome by persistence, discipline, and desire. It is a lesson well taught, making this a good book for young people. However, anyone who would like to imagine John as his or her mentor ought to be warned that he does not accept excuses for not making something of oneself. "Most self-destructive behaviour is simply ridiculous-never mind how complexly compelled by personal demons." There is a puritan tone in that "never mind" that reveals at least some limits to his elaborate imagination.

That a writer should use precise details (as John does in his wrestling descriptions) is a common piece of advice given by instructors to their students. The memoir is also a defence of creative writing courses as a way to begin a career and as an honourable means of livelihood. John was first a student and then, until Garp made him financially independent, a teacher, and he separates himself here from those successful authors who look down on writers who need "real" jobs in order to pay the rent and feed the kids. He recounts a telling moment at Iowa when his teacher Kurt Vonnegut told him, "I think capitalism is going to treat you okay." But it doesn't treat all writers okay and teaching is better than most other ways of surviving. Creative writing courses can't teach anyone to write, John admits, but it can provide encouragement and save a young writer some time:
"I'm talking about technical blunders, the perpetration of sheer boredom, point-of-view problems, the different qualities of first-person and third-person voice, the deadening effect of exposition in dialogue, the crippling limitations of the present tense, the intrusions upon narrative momentum caused by puerile and pointless experimentation-and on and on."

Skipping through his own chronology, he stops briefly for a chapter on his student year abroad. This formidable period for him-he went to Vienna in the late sixties-was of great interest to me during my months of research and I had a fascinating conversation with one of his close American friends, David Warren, who was also studying there. (Warren was inspired by John to write and in 1973 he published a slim novel called The World According to Two-Feathers, the title of which John adapted three years later.) Warren told me (and I recorded on tape) some eye-opening stories of their student days which I will leave to a future successful biographer to recount, but John tells one here that I didn't know. His other best friend in Vienna was Eric Ross, an American who was Jewish, but it was Irving who was sometimes mistaken for a Jew. When Ross, whose German was better than John's, detected a slur from a shopkeeper or Austrian student he would say to John, "You're being treated like a Jew again." John would then point to Ross and say, "Er ist der Jude, Du Idiot." "He's the Jew, you idiot."

Unlike his ambitious novels, the aspirations of this memoir are modest. Still, I think I would rather have it than the biography I never wrote. Not having made my fortune from that book, I have recently begun to teach the occasional creative writing workshop. There is a quotation from this book that I plan to give to my students:
"I used to say this to my students in Creative Writing: the wonderful and terrifying thing about the first page of paper that awaits the first sentence of your next book is that this clean piece of paper is completely unimpressed by your reputation, or lack thereof; that blank page has not read your previous work-it is neither comparing you to its favourite among your earlier novels nor is it sneering in memory of your past failures. That is the absolutely exhilarating and totally frightening thing about beginning-I mean each and every new beginning. That is when even the most experienced teacher becomes a student again and again."

Cary Fagan is the author of two story collections and a novel. His next work of fiction, The Doctor's House, is being published this spring.


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