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The flood of memory

Things I Didn't Know A Memoir Robert Hughes Alfred A. Knopf: 400 pp., $27.95

October 01, 2006|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, former book critic of The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

SOME memoirs convey the past, others struggle with it, and sometimes against it. Some evoke, others judge. That is grossly simplistic, of course, since no memoir could possibly do entirely one or the other. "Things I Didn't Know" by Robert Hughes tends to fall into the struggle-and-judge category. Certainly it does its share of narrating as it covers his Australian upbringing and his career there and in Britain as a freelance writer, ending in 1970 just after he moved to the United States, where he became a celebrated art critic for Time magazine. But the story is told in combatant mode, sometimes to rail and sometimes to discern his values within a culture that makes him angry: moral relativism, populist aesthetics, truckling to fashion -- stop me or I'll be writing his book.

In its high moments, the narrative is splendid. Hughes' eyewitness account of the apocalyptic ravaging of Florence's treasures by the floods of 1966 is a great work of reportage, tragic yet laced with human comedy. His memories of Jesuit boarding school are painful but oddly exultant. His days as a BBC cultural reporter and commentator are tender and captivating, uncharacteristically so because Hughes' strengths are fiery. He doesn't captivate so much as take captive, sometimes brutally. In him, introspection is civil war, not reconciliation.

This civil war subsides into irascibility over some tediously detailed stretches. Hughes tries for anecdote and portraiture, but he lacks the supreme memoirist's faculty of finding the world in a grain of sand. He is more apt to find the grain of sand in a world. Between the high points, what he gives us is not so much memory itself as its display.

His portrayal of the figures and feuds of the Australian art scene in the late 1950s is a dutiful squeezing out of a past. Even more inert is his joyless account of druggy self-indulgence in London's counterculture a year or two later.

Hughes' family made its fortune importing mustard from England, the Australian mutton diet (overcooked) being in particular need. His grandfather was lord mayor of Sydney; his father, a World War I fighter pilot, became a prosperous lawyer. Hughes writes of family and childhood with chilly, faintly aggrieved detachment.

Sparks flared at the Jesuit school. The teacher-priests beat regularly, if without pleasure; many also had an infectious zeal for their subjects. The headmaster slipped Robert, a prize pupil, a James Joyce anthology, Molly Bloom soliloquy and all. Another took the boys to a contemporary art show. Young Hughes opined that a Miro isn't art.

"All right, Robert," the priest replied, "... why don't you tell me what art is." The critic was conceived -- if still far from being born -- even as the Catholic departed. (The beatings seem to have gone with him. For some years, he writes, he would tie up willing girlfriends to enhance mutual satisfaction with a few light strokes.)

It was a roundabout birth. Hughes drew cartoons for a local paper; the editor appointed him critic, having no one else. He reviewed what he could, but he hadn't studied and there was little to learn from besides Australian painting. ("A sheep between two gum trees, or else a gum tree between two sheep," a Hungarian friend remarked.)

There was no future for him to learn or write in Australia. Alan Moorehead, the Australian-born author of "Gallipoli," visited from England, befriended him, offered London introductions, the use of a house in Italy and an awful warning: "If you stay ... Australia will still be a very interesting place. But you will have become a bore, a village explainer."

Then came London, a bad marriage bitterly recounted and two years in Italy, where, he tells us, his real art education was acquired. Back in London, he worked happily for the BBC, which sent him to the Florence floods.

Among the terrible sights: the Ghiberti doors on the Baptistry bursting open before the flood waters. Among the splendidly human ones: a priest at the church of Santa Croce paddling a rubber raft across the piazza and, once inside, using a net to scoop up the floating lumps of colored gesso that had been the face of Cimabue's crucified Christ.

Then more chance and roundabouts. An obscure art book he'd written caught the eye of Time's book editor, who passed it upward. The magazine needed an art critic, summoned Hughes to New York (with some difficulty; his phone had been disconnected for nonpayment), and the rest followed, though not in this book, which ends here. It's not clear whether there will be a sequel, but given Hughes' dislike of the recent course of art and of Time, perhaps not.

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