Book Review

Ushant by Conrad Aiken

a sub-mediocre memoir

I’ve been looking for Ushant for many years, in second hand bookstores on multiple continents. After trawling several in New York a couple of months ago, I decided to take to the internet instead and – using abebooks – found a physical bookshop who had a copy only a short journey across the city from where I sleep in Toronto. Back from America, I quickly went and collected it.

What is Ushant? Who is Conrad Aiken? Why did I – Scott Manley Hadley – want to read this book so much? I’ll answer those questions now.

Ushant is a pretentious literary memoir. It is written in the third person using a cod Modernist form. Conrad Aiken was a third rate writer and here he indiscriminately writes about his encounters with first, second, third and unquantifiable-rate writers, one of whom is Malcolm Lowry.

I sought out Ushant to learn more about Lowry, and also knowing that other literary figures would appear too. I had no direct interest in Aiken and I still don’t. TS Eliot is mentioned quite a bit and Ezra Pound pops up more than  once, but everyone else who recurs is a nobody. Tbh Aiken is a nobody: I have only encountered his name in works by and about Lowry.

///

Conrad Aiken was Malcolm Lowry’s undergraduate idol, an American writer who, when approached by Lowry’s affluent parents, agreed to take Lowry on as a mentee for a Summer.

Aiken took on this job of [basically] babysitting because he, like Lowry, was a shiftless alcoholic waster who didn’t think through his actions. Lowry, of course, would become a much better writer and certainly the only one of the pair to have any lasting reputation, but he continued to idolise Aiken throughout his life. Quite the opposite of Hemingway’s treatment of his mentors.

I asked myself as I read this dull memoir: Would I have grown out of my undergraduate heroes if I’d met them and they’d been nice to me?

If – let’s give examples – Bret Easton Ellis and/or Martin Amis had befriended me when I was 20, would I still be reading and praising their work despite having grown up psychologically and creatively? It’s difficult to say, but I fear Lowry suggests a yes…

///

There is nothing about Ushant that makes me want to read anything by Aiken again. Certainly, his reputation as it is rests on his mentorship of Lowry, an arrangement that seemed to bounce between mutually destructive, mutually ambivalent and – maybe just once or twice – mutually beneficial. By 1952, the year Ushant was first published, Lowry was already a name, an acclaimed and best-selling tragic alcoholic. Aiken – in his sixties already – was trading off his relationship with Lowry by publishing this autobiography while the literary world waited for a follow-up to Under The Volcano

Aiken uses pseudonyms for most people whose lives intersect with his, but these are rendered fucking pointless by a glossary included at the front of the book, announcing who everyone actually is/was. (Maybe this was only added to later editions, I realise in hindsight.)

Aiken’s prose is dense without being poetic or revelatory; he is open without having much of interest to say about himself. Yes, he was a bit of a philanderer until he settled down with his third wife, but he doesn’t offer any characterisation of his lovers and barely any for people he didn’t fuck. I know a little more about Aiken for having read this, but not much and nothing more about Lowry, which was the only reason why I read it.

But but but, at the end of the book – after the text finishes – there’s the standard little author bio blurby bullshit, and I discover that Aiken was a critically acclaimed writer who won like ALL the major American literary prizes. Which then, instead, made me reflect on the capriciousness of the canon, the emptiness of success. Aiken’s writing – which maybe this is a bad example of but I doubt it – is boring. Aiken doesn’t matter. I’ve read this book slowly because it’s boring and not one person who’s seen me reading it has known who he was. You can have everything, and two or three generations after your death you are merely a footnote in someone else’s literary biography. Lol.

This offers, though, a second, more generous, reading: Aiken wasn’t arrogant. In his memoir, it is his sex life and his travels and the metatextual discussion of his intentions for Ushant that are described in detail, there is nothing about any successes he had. One could argue that this redeems him as a person, though perhaps damned him as a literary figure. Aiken didn’t have the swagger. He didn’t sell himself to posterity. If you can’t big yourself up in your memoir, where can you? [Social media?]

Obvs, a third person memoir that gestures towards anonymity is self-indulgent, but it isn’t inherently self-important. And maybe if Aiken had written about how he was fucking brilliant he might have conned me into believing he was. 

They say never meet your heroes. Lowry did and his life ended messily. They don’t say never meet your heroes’ heroes, but if Ushant is anything to go by, the latter is equally as damaging.

Not recommended.


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