An Education

My mother is an Anglophile, and I grew up with a kind of baseline admiration for all things British as a result. English accents alone cause my ears to perk up expectantly, even when (as is so often the case) the content falls short of my expectations. Soldiers marching into soft boiled eggs, cucumber sandwiches, proper tea sets... these and other accoutrements were part of my childhood.

Ben picked up a Nick Hornby directed movie for me, set in Britain, and the movie led me to Lynn Barber's memoir An Education, on which the film was based. It is the story of Barber's life from schoolgirl to unwitting mistress to an older man, on to read English at Oxford, and then to work at Penthouse (as a writer, not as a "Pet"). Others have criticized her writing for being abrupt, and it is. Barber herself is sympathetic at times, not likeable at others. The movie focuses extensively on her teen years and her involvement with a much older man, who was later discovered to be already married. In the memoir, the story is, of course, a bit different. The older man, Simon, played his part in acculturating her to finer things, and the schoolgirl Barber played her part in being petulant and resistant to his plying. He deceived her, no doubt, but there's some question at to whether she ever liked him or just liked the status he conferred. She did see clues, of course, about his deception and she came away from the relationship with a sense of how "ultimately unknowable" other people are. She also makes a very apt description of the self-delusion that allows dishonest people to perpetrate deceptions: "I suspect this is always the way with conmen: they don't even have to construct a whole story, their victims fill in the gaps, reconcile the irreconcilables--their victims do most of the work. Simon hardly had to con me at all, because I was so busy conning myself." (p. 32)

I found the descriptions of working at Penthouse in the early days to be intriguing, as everyone there felt that they were on the cusp of something very new. And they were, in those early days of the sexual revolution. Barber never experienced sexual discrimination or harassment in that setting, but she did in later years in more traditional journalistic settings. Beyond the Penthouse chapters, the rest of her career is less intriguing to follow.

Overall, I would recommend the memoir to memoir fans only, in that Barber has an unusually unsentimental voice. This means that the final chapters, in which her husband is dying, are especially jarring to read, as sentiment and even at times compassion are far flung from the pragmatic sorts of redirection she does from the tender subject of death. It's a stark picture of love, but one has the sense that Barber is exactingly honest with herself. So, if you really like memoirs, this is one to read for its unflinching look at life by a woman who is, admittedly, self-centered, and doesn't hesitate to show that on the page.


And now for something completely different... here's a brief but intriguing excerpt from a poem by Sarton, about the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali:

It is time for the invocation, to atone
For what we fear most and have not dared to face:
Kali, the destroyer, cannot be overthrown;
We must stay, open-eyed, in the terrible place.

--May Sarton