by Edith Pearlman
The Reminiscence is a short essay written in the first person. It begins with, or includes, an event or events in the writer’s life, and from that event draws a conclusion. This kind of piece if published in a literary journal is labeled personal history; if in a travel rag, an essay (as opposed to an article); if in a newspaper, an op-ed; if in a mass magazine, a back page. It is often humorous, though sometimes not. It is usually light, though on the back page of the New York Times Magazine it can become quite dark. It is not fact-based reporting, to be used as reliable history by future generations. But it aims at fidelity.
I write these things. I write them because I love to read them; and also because they are brief, and it’s my quixotic pleasure to devote a lot of time to a few paragraphs; and because they are publishable, and I like seeing my work in print; and because they add variety to my writing life, which is devoted mostly to short fiction. To be frank, I don’t draw a fine distinction between short fiction and short non-fiction. Each has, or at least tries to have: shape, tension, resolution, coda, and some insight. Each needs a protagonist. In a story the protagonist may be written about and referred to by name, or may do the narration herself and be called “I”. The protagonist of a reminiscence is always called I, though in my work she is not exactly me. In the essay “Borges and I’, the great Argentinian says of his alter ego: “Little by little I am giving everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.” So it is with all of us who try to get life onto paper: we falsify, magnify, diminish, distort, compress, expand, misrepresent … and misremember.
A few sentences ago I used the phrase “to be frank”. But it is not really frankness that we are aiming for. “Frank” according to the dictionary, means “free of shyness or secretiveness or evasiveness.” In order to interest the reader in our little life stories we must be shy, secretive and evasive. We withhold: we delay the twist or reversal. We compress and select. We let the part represent the whole. To make our tale point somewhere we often reduce the number of participants, invert the chronology, add an incident snatched from another part of our history, even create a clever or moving line of dialogue and then give it to ourselves to say.
These are the methods a writer of reminiscences uses to try to tell you the truth as she sees it. Their hint of unscrupulosity I would call, self-servingly, artistic license. Some might call it lying. There is a long continuum in prose non-fiction, running from researched historical narratives to the writings of poor James Frye who got caught faking an autobiography a few years ago, victim of the current craze for the sordid memoir. I fall somewhere on that continuum.
The best practitioners of the specialty include Sylvia Townsend Warner in her scenes from childhood, Jan Morris in her travel essays, Colette in her detailed, sensuous observations, Charles Lamb in his elaborated fantasies. Memory – recall of the compelling incident – inspires the work, and may even survive the first few drafts. After that …
Memory is famously unreliable – just look at those studies of eyewitness accounts: what a mess they are. Every writer has at least one personal anecdote about her own untrustworthy mind. Here’s mine. In Israel there is a fine old Talmudic tradition of sharing cabs to the airport with seven or eight other travelers. A cab company, Nesher, arranges this communal ferrying. I wrote a piece called “Neshering” for the Atlantic Monthly. In it I described a ride from my apartment in Jerusalem to the airport, and another ride some weeks later from the airport back to Jerusalem. My hope was to recreate for the reader the sense of danger that accompanies night-time travel in that part of the world; and the shadowy courtyards and winding roads that are part of the journey; the necessity to put your trust in the rough-spoken Nesher cabbie. All this was drawn as faithfully as possible, though my own many Nesherings were necessarily collapsed into two. I wanted also to capture the experience of strangers forced into proximity with one another for nearly an hour, so I sketched some characters and invented some dialogue – true to life, though not to fact.
Late one afternoon, in Boston, a few months before the piece was to come out, the Atlantic fact checker called me. “This fleet of taxis – you say they’re black,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“I just spoke to Nesher,” she said. It would have been about nine in the evening in Jerusalem, the time when customers call up to scream that they’ve been standing in front of their apartments for five minutes, already. The man who answered the Nesher telephone must have been ecstatic to hear from the fact checker in Massachusetts. “Nesher tells me all its vehicles are white,” she told me.
“ … I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll just change black to white,” she said, with Orwellian majesty.
I was appalled at the trick memory had played on me. And yet, even when corrected, I remembered the cabs as black. I still do.
At the end of the piece I wanted to convey the weariness of passengers just off the plane, wilting in front of Ben Gurion airport; the confusion of people who are not used to shared taxis and the impatience of people who are; and the sense of melancholy remembrance that seizes you willy nilly in that dusty place — whatever your religion, whatever your previous state of disaffection. I wrote:
Nesher drivers sometimes perform a rough triage on the passengers according to their destinations, sometimes take us as we come. One afternoon my mates included a finicky visitor just arrived from Manhattan. While we waited in the cab for a final passenger to appear (Nesherdisapproves of empty seats), my new American friend, unhappy with thehugger-mugger tossing of his luggage, got out of the taxi and climbed intoits rear to arrange things better. Meanwhile the last passenger got in. The driver, thinking all his charges safe, started the vehicle – and there was the New Yorker squatting among the suitcases, one leg bent under him, theother extended, as if he had been summoned to the Holy Land expressly to dance the Kazatski in the back of a cab.
Did that happen? As I’ve said, I enjoy taking the time to be brief — I worked on the paragraph for a while. Some event like the one I describe did occur, I think, and in revision it was no doubt changed, perhaps changed beyond any claims of accuracy. But a visitor compelled by circumstance to perform the village dance of his Russian ancestor in the country of that ancestor’s ancestor – that is a reflection of truth, an example of what the land does to you. Anyway, I wrote it that way, and by now I remember the man as if he were my brother, I remember his plunge into the baggage as if he’d taken it yesterday, I remember him trying to keep his balance in the back of a taxi … a black taxi.