BOOKS & THE CULTURE From an Early Graves BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship By John Graves Alfred A. Knopf 256 pages, $24. I\(IP \(IP write wro t e Ger t r ud e e for myself an f St e i n. dstrang Is there anyone else? Aren’t we all strangers, to others as well as ourselves? John Graves borrows Stein’s line, from the beginning of a chapter in The Making of Americans, and adapts it as the title for his memoir. Concentrating on the years 1951-1956, when Graves, who was born in Fort Worth in 1920, was abroad and adrift, Myself and Strangers offers contrasting perspectives on a man estranged from his country and himself. He alternates between entries from a contemporaneous journal and the current perspective of a seasoned octogenarian. Somewhat the way, in his final novel sequence, Mercy of a Rude Stream, the narrative voice of 89-yearold Henry Roth comments on an earlier version of himself, Graves inserts bracketed remarks in which wise “Old John” chides callow “Young John:’ After transcribing a diary entry that proclaims: “I will go to Madrid and will write a book and it will be good,” Old John notes: “All this sad optimism turned out to be quite premature. You hadn’t made it yet, kid.” Graves made it into the canon of Texas literature with Goodbye to a River, his majestic account of a final solo canoe trip down the Brazos River. Published in 1960, the book is a Lone Star Walden, in which one stubborn man’s encounter with nature serves as pretext for rich meditations on the self and the world. Though Myself and Strangers concludes with a brief description of how he came to write Goodbye to a River and thereby end the literary apprenticeship referred to in the book’s subtitle, for most of the period that the memoir covers, Graves is still unknown and unaccomplished. He spends these years in Europe, primarily in parts of Spain. “Texas is not my territory any more Graves presumes, not knowing that in just a few years he would be settling down on 400 acres of Hill Country hardscrabble. To anyone aware of Graves’ work after his European Wanderjahren, Old John’s attempt to set the record straight is unnecessary: “This was a very major misapprehension, as things turned out, for in the long run Texas was the main territory I did have:’ After a relatively privileged childhood in Fort Worth, Graves attended college at Rice. Following graduation, he joined the Fourth Marine Division and was shipped out to the Pacific in January, 1944. His combat career was cut short in June, when, on Saipan in the Marianas, a Japanese grenade blinded his left eye. He spent an interlude in rural Mexico and then used the G.I. Bill to study at Columbia University, writing a master’s thesis on William Faulkner that the Mississippian’s editor, Saxe Commins, urged him, unsuccessfully, to expand into a book. Armed with a new M.A., Graves moved with his wife, Bryan, to Austin, where he taught in the English Department at the University of Texas. After rejecting the academic life and dissolving his marriage, he made his way to Spain, shifting about among Madrid, Mallorca, and Tenerife. Todo hombre fuera de su pais es un poco nitio, quotes Graves in what had become fluent Spanish Outside his country every man is a little bit of a boy. Myself and Strangers is a reminiscence of the writer’s second childhood. The ghost of Ernest Hemingway haunts this book, which is a kind of lowcarb Moveable Feast. Graves even finds himself in Pamplona on July 7, 1953, during the annual fiesta of San Fermin that is the setting for a famous section of The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway himself is there, his first time back in Spain in 15 years, and, though Graves observes him holding court at a sidewalk table on the main square, he cannot bring himself to join the queue of admirers paying their respects to the great man. Nor does he introduce himself a month later when he sees Hemingway again, at Harry’s New York Bar in Venice. “I had not yet proved myself a writer, a real one he explains, “and until I managed that I didn’t feel I had a right to impose myself on established authors, however much I might admire their work.” But Graves participates in many of the same activities as Hemingway and his charactersdrinking, fishing, attending bullfights, and, above all, trying to write. Three decades after the Lost Generation converged in Paris, Graves too seeks literary inspiration in expatriation. His ambitions as a writer define him to himself, and throughout most of his sojourn in Spain, Graves is struggling with a novel called A Speckled Horse. But the steed never gets to the starting gate. Despite several years of effort, the book was never published because an agent’s negative reaction discouraged its author from submitting it anywhere. However, writing is the reason Graves gives himself for being both sociable and solitary. Driven by “a joy in being alive in a time when there were still so many good people to know, so many meaningful books to read, so many fine things to do,” he falls in and out of love and finds caf companionship with a variety of Spaniards and fellow foreigners. One senses that he is seeking literary material more than human contact, and when he wearies of the hard-drinking idlers, primarily the Americans, Britons, and Scandinavians he hangs out with in Palma, he secretly migrates to another part of the island to 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 6/4/04
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