Adventures in Reading and Writing, Part 12 – Richard Brautigan (2)
The work of Richard Brautigan was first brought to my attention by a friend at University who marched me into the library one afternoon and forced me at gunpoint to withdraw a copy of ‘The Hawkline Monster’. He was also a short story writer, one who was completely in thrall to Brautigan and who later grew a moustache in the style of his favourite author, a look which kind of worked due to the fact that he was similarly fair and tall. Though we lost touch after leaving University, his recommendation that I read ‘The Hawkline Monster’ (and my subsequent investigations which lead to the discovery of ‘Sombrero Fallout’, ‘A Confederate General To Big Sur’ and then a whole cache of other wonderful novels) has clearly had a lasting effect.
Once I had read all the writing by Brautigan I could find, I bought a copy of ‘Listening To Richard Brautigan’, a record the author made in 1973, because it seemed like an interesting curio. The stories and poems he reads on it are all published works and then there are a few tracks which are recordings of him going about his day-to-day business (on the first track we hear a phone ringing followed by one side of a conversation in which Brautigan discusses the equipment the recording engineers have set up in his house. I love the sound of wonder and enthusiasm in his voice and the way he sounds sad and amused, and for a while I used this track as an introduction on all the mixtapes I made).
Up until then I had seen pictures of Richard Brautigan and read the words he set down on the page, but hearing his voice – a little dopey, friendly, cautious – really brought him to life. It is not unusual to discuss a writer’s authorial voice, but is it strange that hearing a writer’s actual voice might change the way a reader/ listener interprets his work?
Reading ‘You Can’t Catch Death’ by Ianthe Brautigan, Richard’s only daughter, went some way to building a more complete picture of my favourite author. As a personal memoir which draws on a lot of childhood memories it inevitably offers a warm, romanticised portrait of Brautigan. There are parts which almost read like one of her father’s own novels, in particular her description of the road trip she took to meet her grandmother (Brautigan’s mother) for the first time has a whimsical-yet-heartbreaking quality that is reminiscent of parts of his novel ‘An Unfortunate Woman’.
And recently I finished reading a rather comprehensive biography.
William Hjortsberg’s epic ‘Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life And Times Of Richard Brautigan’ is not one for the mildly curious. Then again, I suppose it is true that it may be a good idea to have more than a passing interest in any public figure before embarking on an 800 page account of his life. Whilst the level of detail the author includes can be a little overbearing it does show that an impressive amount of work has gone in to its research (evidence of which is in the list of interviews conducted, which suggests Hjortsberg has spoken to pretty much everyone who ever knew Brautigan). From conflicting accounts there emerges a dense personal history of which the biographer does his best to make sense and, whilst in places the text descends into tale after tale of drinking, shooting and sleeping around, these do at least accumulate to build a picture of how sudden fame affected Brautigan and how it may have accelerated his demise.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book are those where Brautigan’s life and writing overlap, when I find myself reading about something that happened to him and realising that it corresponds to one of his stories. As a short story writer, I also find it interesting to read about the writing process, how/ where/ when he came to write these stories, as well as how proud he was of his work, albeit defensive to the point of alienating those around him.
And there are some beautiful little pieces of writing uncovered in Jubilee Hitchhiker, such as this line from an early piece of correspondence with a prospective publisher:
Making paper flowers out of love and death is a disease, but how beautiful it is.
I’m not sure how to follow that line in summing up my thoughts. Because, whilst I wanted to find out what he was like as a person (after all, that is what we do when we admire the things people create), the Richard Brautigan I feel that I have come to know over the last nine years is the one written into the pages of his work and not the one defined elsewhere by his actions.