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A Memoir

by James Merrill

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-43217-6
Publisher: Knopf

The still-tender gay identity of his early adulthood is the overarching theme of poet Merrill's memoir of a postwar European sojourn—30 months, beginning in 1950, during which he tried (impossibly) to keep his parents from too full a knowledge of his homosexuality while immersing himself in the high aesthetics common to Italy and to the group of gay expatriate exquisites he surrounded himself with. Using his psychoanalysis with a Roman psychiatrist as the armature, Merrill remembers the gradual enlightenments of the era: the liaisons; the divergence from his straight boyhood friend, the novelist Frederick Buechner; the relatively modest and unsure place that his glittering poetic talent played in Merrill's own inner makeup. How to love and be loved—to be attractive to those who are attractive—takes up much more of his waking thoughts (he once even spurns meeting the great poet Montale because Merrill doesn't care for Montale's looks). Using two lenses—sections of the book are written in a looking-back mode as well as in an as-it-happens, chronicling one—Merrill is pleasingly frank all the time, often funny, never afraid to make himself seem less serious that others think him as being, never defensive about a period of his life, before his art truly took him over, when he could be a butterfly supported by the gentle winds of his family's fortune (his father was, as most everyone knows, a founding partner in the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm). Still, the book never quite satisfies: the prose is too precious and wobbly, the episodes undramatic, the portraiture indefinite. It seems to capture neither time nor place nor man with anything but an approximating diffidence. Readers of Merrill will be naturally curious, but also probably at a bit of a loss. (Four pages of photographs)