Both Dorothy and Jen were enthusiastic about this book. Its author is the Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so its focus is on the business of teaching people to write.
SPOILER ALERT!! One of the main reasons I write about books is so that I can remember whatever odd bit or important point that strikes me. So, be forewarned.
The initial setting in the book is an exclusive (fictional) graduate program for writers in Michigan in 1986. A famous poet named Miranda teaches a seminar where she alternately “bludgeons” students for their work and displays an indifference to them. Three students of interest emerge: Roman, ambitious, sure of himself, and a bit older, having been a banker; Bernard, penniless, devoted to writing for its own sake, with good-hearted scruples on display; Lucy, talented and not ambitious.
As the semester was ending, Roman began an affair with Miranda that lasted through the next semester, Roman’s last. Miranda was generous with the help she gave Roman with his poetry and he received a fellowship; his failure to tell her about it until the day before he left tells you much about Roman. A few years later he received an important poetry prize and it was from Bernard he learned that the chair of the committee awarding the prize was Miranda. When he returned to the school to read from his newly published book, he had an angry conversation with Miranda, accusing her of using the prize to summon him.
One question to consider is which of Miranda’s actions was least appealing: her disdainful demeanor in class, her “bludgeoning” of students’ work, her foolish affair with Roman, her thinking others won’t know about the affair, or her giving a prize to a former student/lover? It’s a tough choice. Her reputation does suffer consequences for giving him the prize. The larger question the book poses is how (and whether) a creative process can be taught, and of course I’m out of my depth here. I do recall reading Tim Winton’s appreciation for what he learned (and the limits of that) from the author Elizabeth Jolley when he was in college; the chapter in his book of essays is a lovely complement to the author’s “here are some ways this can go wrong.” I plan to do a separate post summarizing that chapter.
In the second part of the book Roman and Lucy married, Roman got a job teaching at the University of Nebraska, and they had a son. Bernard moved to New York City as planned and lived for the long poem that he worked on over the years. The interactions of the three over the years revealed a needy Roman who never quite believed he’s a poet, Bernard who had almost nothing in his life but poetry, and Lucy whose talent is eventually expressed. After Roman won the Pulitzer Prize, his life is even more removed from poetry and involved such activities as traveling for readings and fund-raising. A contract for Bernard’s great poem arrived in the mail from the publisher shortly after Bernard’s death; Roman and Lucy were named his literary executors. This section of the book takes up the question of the lives of those talented people: the variety of paths they take and how they support or fail to support each other.
The book has the same name as Bernard’s long poem. In an early description of Bernard we learn, “For more than a year, he had been working doggedly on his poem, ‘All is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost,’ told from the point of view of Louis Joliet, the French fur trapper, who along with Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, had paddled and portaged through the wetlands of his home state.” Joliet does not feature in this book, beyond this mention, and the little I know does not explain the title. Here’s my guess at the meaning of the title: While our lives may be forgotten, all the bits of our lives are not lost, but live on in some form. Not sure that’s what the author had in mind, but I like the idea.
One last personal matter: early in the book the poet John Ciardi is mentioned and one character told another he translated Dante’s Divine Comedy which that character had read in college. I was familiar with him both from having studied the “Inferno” (in high school) and perhaps his column in The Saturday Review or his network TV show from the 1960s. I was happy to remember my remarkable high school English teacher and his unusual choices for his students.
Lan Samantha Chang, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, W.W. Norton and Company, 2010, 205 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.