Saturday, July 17, 2010

Judith Merril

Autobiographies are tricky. How much to tell, how much to skip over lightly, how much is remembered accurately? The autobiography of Judith Merril, BETTER TO HAVE LOVED, is even trickier than most because the subject was dead when most of it got written. Judith Merril had written a few chapters of it, and after she died her grand-daughter, Emily Pohl-Weary, wrote the bulk of the book by using transcripts of interviews she had conducted on tape, by inserting essays Judy had written, and then by putting down Pohl-Weary's recollections of what Judy had told her -- but still in the first person. The result is an odd document, uneven in execution and wildly jumpy in content. Chronology is practically non-existent. Some things for which there are copious letters, such as Judy's relationship with Ted Sturgeon, rate a lengthy chapter. On the other hand, one entire marriage is represented by the caption under a single picture. But despite these oddities, the book is fascinating.

I met Judith Merril in the late 1970's. She came to read and lecture at the college where I was a graduate student and I was assigned by the English Department to drive her around. I received this assignment because I had published a few SF stories and because Judy, as an SF writer, was not of much interest to most of the department. (When Isaac Bashevis Singer came to campus, the Dean drove him around.) Judy was fun, gracious, and very kind to a star-struck young wannabe. But when the subject of ex-husband Frederik Pohl's autobiography, THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS, came up, she grew incensed.

"He sanitized everything!" she said. "I'm going to write those years the way they really happened!"

She didn't finish that project, but her grand-daughter has. Judith Merril was one of a kind -- brash, opinionated, highly political, a force of nature -- and her personality comes through strongly in BETTER TO HAVE LOVED. I have no idea how accurate her recollections are of Sturgeon, Pohl, Knight, Kidd, Kornbluth, McLean, Wollheim, and the other SF figures of that era, but they certainly make for absorbing reading. With nothing sanitized at all.

2 comments:

Russell Letson said...

This posthumous-autobiography approach is strange and interesting. In The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Elijah Wald completed what started as a collaborative project with Dave Van Ronk--a "personal history" of the Great Folk Scare--and wound up presented as a memoir, fleshed out with taped interviews and Wald's recollections of decades of mentoring and friendship. The result is (for this reader at least) a seamless first-person account that comes across as a single voice.

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