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A Life Stripped Bare

A FLY IN THE SOUP Memoirs; By Charles Simic; University of Michigan Press: 144 pp., $29.95

April 01, 2001|MEGHAN O' ROURKE | Meghan O'Rourke is an editor at The Tthe New Yorker

Writers' memoirs are a mixed bag: Often, it's less interesting (and less informative) to hear a writer talk about his work than it is to read the work itself, and sometimes we find ourselves reading as much for gossip as for insight.

But "A Fly in the Soup" by Charles Simic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic, is more than a writer's account of his own formation; it is also the story of a man shaped by extremes of history, a story of displacement, war and exile-a central story of the last century and one that Simic, who never let horror deprive him of aesthetic and sensual pleasure, tells vividly.

Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938, and his childhood was shaped by World War II; as a boy, he played with live ammunition and scavenged soldiers' uniforms. Bombed by the Nazis in 1941 and then by the Allies in 1944, Belgrade was a city of shifting alliances, which might explain Simic's later sensitivity to ambiguity and and his attention to unsettling details: a dead soldier's helmet crawling with lice, muffled sobs in an abandoned hotel.

Yet war is unreal to the very young, and when the Americans and British abegan bombing ttacked BBelgrade, Simic recalls that he was being more frightened by the sound of a neighbor slapping her son than by the bombs.

During the war, Simic's father fled Belgrade to escape the Communists, and it was 10 years before Simic saw him again. Simic, his mother and his brother were jailed while trying to flee Yugoslavia; when they did make it out of the country they were detained in France, and Simic was placed in a remedial school, which embodied all things unpleasant about both pedantry and the French. Wisely, he skipped class to window-shop and educate himself at the go to the movies, where he fell in love with the elegant, mysterious Gene Tierney in "Laura," only to have his heart broken when he encountered her as a jealous murderess in "Leave Her to Heaven."

Amidst poverty and pain, Simic willed into being a life of the interior, rich in absurdity and oddities glimpsed from the corner of one's eye-a girl who's so flexible she seems to have no bones, a cat who appears to play chess in the dark. At the center of his story is an impulsive father who lives from paycheck to paycheck and tells such outrageous stories that even members of the Gestapo are charmed by him. This father is nearly a stranger to Simic by the time they are reunited in New York City (Simic emigrates to America with his family in 1954), but this very distance allows father and son to form an unusually strong relationship, visiting jazz clubs and restaurants-an education of the senses and the mind. One evening, the two spend a month's rent on dinner at a New York restaurant, where they fall so deeply into conversation that they fail to enjoy their food. Impulsively they call for "the whole thing, once again'; the second time, they savor it.

If Simic's father taught him the importance of devouring experience, Simic nonetheless intuited an artist's need to leave things behind. For Simic, finding his voice as a poet meant eschewing early literary pretensions-tweed jackets and existentialism-for a plainspoken idiom drawn from his Eastern European roots and his experiences during the war. In 1962, while Simic is serving in the U.S. Army, he destroys all the poetry he'd written, an impulse that allows him to exchange youthful misconceptions of linguistic puissance for a more nuanced verse.

Simic is a natural storyteller, with an innate distaste for pallid truths, and his memoir is one of those books in which a life is so well-evoked that we recognize ourselves in experiences we've never had. We seem to know what it feels like to read all night long in the cavern of an apartment Simic lived in as a young man in Chicago, how it felt to ride the El to work at midnight, worrying about falling asleep, all the while constructing a life inside the mind that was never impoverished by the hardships of the outer world.

"Mine is an old, familiar story by now," Simic writes at the beginning of "A Fly in the Soup," but he makes it new again-or, as he might put it, he gives us the whole thing, once again, in the best possible sense.

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