Report on Myself
Mariner Books: 148 pp., $13.95 paper
Gregoire Bouillier's first memoir, "The Mystery Guest," is the story of how his heart was broken when his lover upped and left him, no explanation, no note, nothing. Years later, she calls to invite him to a friend's birthday party. On the same day, the French literary critic Michel Leiris, well-known for his belief that all literary activity is an effort to better understand oneself and communicate one's feelings to others, dies. In this memoir, Bouillier begins and ends with his mother's attempts at suicide. He describes his conception during a threesome and his parents' sexual escapades throughout his early years. Born in Algeria in 1960, Bouillier grew up in Paris: "What's left for me from the circumstances of my birth is the feeling of being a child of a war, which, like so many other conflicts, never revealed its true purpose."
He lost his sense of smell after a staphylococcus infection when he was 4 and spent much of his life pretending to smell things he could only imagine. His childhood is littered with trauma, his adolescence with violence. His memory pivots on half-remembered events, like the day he left the home of his bourgeois friend Fabruce (this was 1969, Bouillier was 9) and was caught up in the student riots. "One event follows on the heels of another, with no apparent link, no meaning that I can fathom. But I know that my own story has just been radically altered. The world isn't nine years old like I thought it was: This is 1969 and I'm not the center of anything. I'm nothing. Alone. "
It is Bouillier's failure, in this and in "The Mystery Guest," to locate himself concretely in the world, no matter how hard he tries, that makes him at once delightful and important to read. He's lost. He believes he can find a way out but only tunnels deeper. Bouillier means "small birch forest." "I know what kind of fiber I'm made of," he writes, "which not everyone can say."
W.W. Norton: 184 pp., $24.95
"One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving . . .": Diana Athill, at 91, writes with soothing equanimity (not to be confused with complacency!) about the ups and downs of a life well-lived. A respected literary editor in London, Athill has worked with Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, V.S. Naipaul, Simone de Beauvoir, to name a few. She described her 50 years in publishing in the memoir "Stet."
"Somewhere Towards the End" is a gentler, more useful book. The author generously describes her mistakes with no trace of bitterness -- this alone makes the book a great gift to us. The possibility of leaving anger behind, of forgiving oneself for doing one's best, eases fears of old age. She writes about sexuality and how it fades; about revitalizing affairs in her 60s; about her preference in middle age for black men over white. She writes about caring for her aging mother and looking death in the face. "It is not as though I was never impatient at having only one life at my disposal. A great deal of my reading has been done for the pleasure of feeling my way into other lives, and quite a number of my love affairs were undertaken for the same reason," she writes. "There are two major regrets, after all: that nub of coldness at the centre, and laziness." For these we forgive her: This is a warm, inspiring book -- not the work of a cold and lazy person.