Backlist Musings: Rogue Confessions

Confessing Just a Bit about Confessions

It started when the Boomers in the family–who were a few years ahead of you–moved out from your mid-twentieth century house, the kind with air conditioning in the downstairs only. The upstairs window fan succeeded in circulating warm air. You went to and fro on the creaky floors with a moist towel around your neck. Since you were roughly aged twelve, no one from the forty and up crowd–except for your World War II era uncle–could be called upon to set you up with a martini, or at least a glass of the bubbly. A Hershey bar would have melted. Furthermore, friends who sniffed glue were quite simply on their own.

In such a summertime, that left hanging out in the sultry upstairs with various books that your aforementioned siblings had abandoned. One afternoon, you sat in the bean bag with an ice cold glass of lemonade and a sixty cent Washington Square Press paperback copy of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, and you have never looked back. From time to time ever since, you’ve cultivated the confessions of those who have gotten themselves into jams and emerged with a voice and a pen.

Good Old Benvenuto was a Trip, but There Have Been Others

Casanova came along a couple of centuries later. Whereas Cellini had been justifiably wary of marauders when traveling from Florence to Venice, Casanova’s era was more leisurely, though he did face the prospect of running afoul of the local version of the Inquisition. His crimes were apparently difficult enough to define that the persons tasked with locking him up (in the prison above the Doge’s palace, no less) threw in the towel altogether on writing any sort of legal brief. They confiscated his book collection, however, and saw fit to put him in his new digs. The famous Venetian therefore concluded–to the extent that champagne, caviar, air conditioning, and Wifi were now in short supply–that the authority’s plan to stash him in a poorly lit and smelly section of his native city required a bit of modification: he would escape or die trying.

In the memoir/confession category, you might be able to find more riveting reading than Casanova’s tale about his escape, but it won’t be a cinch. Casanova had mostly failed in his previous literary endeavors, but his memoirs are quite good. Here was a cat who, by the time he sat down to write this story late in life, had been in more than a few minor jams. The relatively recently issued Everyman’s Library edition nicely captures the heart of the work, which reveals the quintessential 18th century rogue to be a con man, book collector, philosopher, student of Kabbalah, world traveler, spy, and… you know the rest.

Renaissance Artists and Enlightenment Rakes are Tough to Top, but…

Good writers just keep being born. Contemporary memoir abounds with the descendants of these rakes and rogues; poet Mary Karr pens some of the best. Her evocation of a hardscrabble Texas childhood in The Liar’s Club provides readers with a thirst for wickedly funny rabble rousing some memorable characters in the form of her hard-drinking daddy, her fast-talking sister, and her serial-marrying mother. The equally satisfying Cherry follows up with an account of Karr’s adolescence in which she can be found thumbing her nose at authority in myriad forms — defying the dress code, dropping acid, and eventually making her own escape from a town “too ugly not to love.” Finally, Lit finds Karr drinking on par with her parents as she disappears into the abyss of alcoholism, takes on parenting, and eventually finds her way to joy and faith through her conversion to Catholicism. The rogue reforms, but the journey of this self-described “blackbelt sinner” never stints on entertaining even as it enlightens.

Finally, if you prefer your rogues pure and unreformed, there’s always The Wolf of Wall Street

Team Whatnot

The collected team effort of what we talk about when we sit around and talk about books... and whatnot. @BooksandWhatnot