Autobiographies are a strange business. I’m never sure whether we, the readers, want to experience exactly what the writer has experienced, or if we’re looking for more – a level of extrapolation, of objectivity, hoping that the writer can point out their highs and lows and say, “This is where it all went right, and this is where it didn’t.” Are we trying to live a little bit of a different person’s life, or learn from it?
Or maybe there’s a simpler option, and we just like reading about famous people. If that’s the case, then Anjelica Huston’s memoir, A Story Lately Told, is a very good read. Her father, the film director John Huston, gave her an childhood filled with trips abroad, movie sets, actors and writers and singers that are names we all know, to the point where they become a bit faceless. By the final third of the book she describes meeting Marlon Brando and says he’s a “tanned, even-featured man in a maroon velour sweatshirt” which dissipates any magic we might have felt at the encounter, and suggests she certainly didn’t feel any either. Marlon Brando, reduced to a velour sweatshirt. The stars, the paintings by Monet and Picasso, the priceless figurines, the thoroughbred horses and the fur coats inhabit the large Irish estate where Huston grew up, and I began to wonder what point of reference I could possibly share with her, so luxurious and rarefied did her upbringing seem.
Well, that’s where this book gets interesting. The truth is we’ve all got some things in common, and how we feel about our parents and our siblings throughout our childhood is one of those things. John Huston as a character dominates this book, and Anjelica’s life. She describes him as set apart from normal people, God-like and benevolent at times, and sometimes very scary. He demands her total obedience when he deigns to notice her, and so beyond the money and the parties and the celebrity we begin to see a figure who never quite feels that she is secure – a feeling that grows as her parents split up and she is moved to London, and on to a succession of schools, friends, and jobs, that never quite sate her desire to be successful on her own terms. She’s often not taken seriously, and is manipulated by people in power in scenes that can make for difficult reading, although they seem to not quite bother her. Perhaps she got very good, with such a father figure, at thinking that her thoughts and feelings weren’t quite as important as everyone else’s.
The writing is quite beautiful at times, and Huston has a great way of bringing the details of old conversations and happenings to life, but I think her greatest strength lies in describing places. She captures London and New York and exotic destinations all over the world with precise care, none more so than the final moments in this first volume of her autobiography where her relationship with photographer Bob Richardson crumbles while on holiday in La Paz. You can feel the heat coming off the pages. Richardson was in his forties and she was in her early twenties, and there are some obvious thoughts here about trying to find a father figure who would give her the attention she craved, but Huston doesn’t get stuck into that area with great abandon. This isn’t the kind of memoir where wallowing takes place in old emotions; instead she moves on crisply to the next section. I’m still not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad one. It’s not that I want her (as a writer) to wallow so much as that I want to learn what she thinks about these events, and these choices. Sometimes I think A Story Lately Told doesn’t give us enough personal insight, and sometimes I think Huston was wise to avoid falling into that trap.
Whether the book falls on the right side of reminiscence or regret for you might well depend on how you feel about celebrity autobiographies. Do you want innermost thoughts and feelings, or an acceptance of an unchangeable past? Whichever you prefer, I do think that the book could have done with a few more photographs and pictures, to help us envisage her as a child, a model, an actress. Also, it’s the kind of book that leaves you wanting more. How does she develop from this young woman who still hasn’t yet managed to stand her ground? When I think of Anjelica Huston nowadays I certainly don’t think of this almost silent figure who haunts the pages of this book, afraid of her father and the older men she meets; I’m keen to see how she develops, and where life takes her next. Perhaps, by the end of all her memoirs, she’ll have learned from what she lived through – and so will we.
A Story Lately Told was published by Simon & Schuster in 2013. Have you read it, or do you have any thoughts about the book? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below, or on Twitter.
At the beginning of next month Kaci will be reading and discussing The Martian by Andy Weir.
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