Two very different openings to two very different memoirs. First, consider Richard Wollheim’s Germs: A Memoir of Childhood (New York Review Books, $18.95, 336 pp.). Originally published in 2004 and recently reissued, Germs charts the growth of a self and a sensibility—for the late Wollheim, a philosopher and art critic, the two terms are interchangeable—via a series of crystalline set pieces. We learn of his sickly childhood (like Proust, he “loved the condition of being delicate”), of his growing passion for painting and books, of his horror at disorder. “I was something of a stickler for rectitude,” he writes.
Wollheim begins his account with a long paragraph that stretches and strains as it goes:
It is early. The hall is dark. Light rims the front door. The panes of violet glass sparkle. The front door has been left open. Now I am standing outside in the sun. I can smell the flowers and the warmed air. I hear the bees as they sway above the lavender. The morning advances, a startled bird runs fast across the dew. Its breast quivers, in, out, and its song scratches on my ear. Lifting my eyes, I see that the garden, and everything in it, moves. The flowers move, and the lavender moves, and the tree above me is moving. I am standing in the sun, my body is tipped forward, and I am walking. Walking I shall trip, and, if I trip, trip without a helping hand, I shall fall. I look above me, and I feel behind me, searching for the hand that is always there. There is no hand, and therefore, if I trip, or when I trip, and now at long last, the waiting is over, and I have tripped, and I am, am I not? I am falling, falling—and was it then, in that very moment when magically I was suspended in the early light, when the soft smells and sounds seeping out of the flowers and the insects and the birds appeared to be doing for me for a moment what the hand that was not there could not do, or was it, not then, but in the next moment, by which time the magic had failed, and the path was racing towards me, that I did what I was to do on many later occasions, on the occasion of many many later falls, and I stretched out my hands rigid in front of me so that my fingers formed a fan, not so much to break my fall, or to make things better for me when I hit the ground, but rather to pretend, to pretend also to myself, that things were not so bad as they seemed, or disaster so imminent, and that this was not a fall but a facile descent through the air, which would leave me in the same physical state, clean, ungrazed, uninjured, that I was in before I tripped, and that the urine would not, out of sheer nervousness, pour out of me?
By contrast, consider Bette Howland’s W-3 (A Public Space Books, $26.00, 224 pp.), first published in 1974 and reissued in January. At the age of thirty-one, Howland was staying at her friend Saul Bellow’s apartment in Chicago. She wanted to be a writer; she had the talent, the eye and the ear, to be one. But life—marriage and a divorce, her duties as a mother, her work as a librarian—kept getting in the way. “For a long time,” she writes, “it had seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way.... At last it had dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. I was always rolling these stones from my grave.”
And so, suffering from insomnia and tormented by visions when she drifted off, Howland decided to kill herself. As W-3 opens, she wakes in the hospital:
In the intensive care unit there was a woman who had undergone open-heart surgery. A monitor was implanted in her heart; it beeped every second of the day and night, a persistent tempo, never racing or slowing down as a human heart seems to, unaccountable times on the most ordinary days of our lives. If it had, the nurses would have been there on the double, their brisk white heels disappearing behind the swaying curtains. The woman was unconscious, she had never come out of it; her life was just a mechanism—its regular pace audible all through the ward.
I must have been hearing this beeping sound for a long time before I knew it.
These two passages and the books in which they appear seem to occupy different formal and stylistic universes. Wollheim writes in present tense while Howland uses past tense. Wollheim offers us nature and the human sensorium that perceives it—sight (glass sparkling), smell (flowers emanating), sound (birds singing), and touch (air warming)—while Howland focuses on the hospital noises to which she has become unknowingly habituated. Wollheim’s prose is, in the best sense, mannered. Perfectly composed, it draws attention to itself. We note its surprising diction (“warmed” rather than “warm” air), its grammatical shifts (the flowers move, the lavender moves, the tree is moving), and its intricate rhythms. (Did you notice that the first sentence has three words, the second four, the third five, the fourth six?) Howland’s sentences, by contrast, are precise and balanced. No pride or showing-off here; the craft lies in restraint, in what T. S. Eliot calls “a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
In his passage, Wollheim is a child and everything—the Edenic world around him and the fall (Fall?) he is about to experience—seems new. By contrast, Howland is an adult and everything seems old: she knows what hearts are supposed to do and how nurses respond when they don’t. Life, for Howland and her fellow patient, is “just a mechanism.”