“The Paper Trail”
By Dorothea Straus (Moyer Bell, 240 pp. $22.95)
As the millennium approaches, the memoir has become the trendiest of literary forms. Everybody and their dog is writing a memoir, from Generation X-ers to tortured youth to octogenarians of equally tortured longevity. Into that heralding trumpet blast comes Dorothea Straus’ collection, “The Paper Trail.”
Closer to octogenarians than to Gen-Xers, Straus has led the sort of intriguing life attendant to immense privilege; reading these reminiscences captivates. Straus is well traveled and well educated in the manner of a different era, not merely in the classics, but in literature, history, art, music, architecture and tchotchkes. That copious knowledge imbues and infuses her collection.
These are vignettes from a remarkable life most people would envy. Straus comes from an extraordinary background and has been married for more than 50 years to Roger Straus, publisher at arguably the most prestigious literary house in New York, if not the world. As a consequence of this alliance and the milieu it engendered (as well as her own considerable personal charm), Straus met and befriended some of the most important literary voices of the last six decades.
“The Paper Trail” recollects some of those legends, among them Lillian Hellman, Alberto Moravia, Edmund Wilson, Marguerite Yourcenar, Mary McCarthy, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jerzy Kosinski. Some of the names interwoven through these pieces - more than half of which have been culled from other books by Straus - have faded with time, but most still resonate.
Straus’ style evokes a bygone era, her language lyric, her ruminations bittersweet and poetic.
She details the thunderous depression of Philip Rahv, founder of the Partisan Review, the tedious acerbity of T.S. Eliot, the queer attachment of foreign correspondent James Vincent Sheean to the Countess Tolstoy, the novelist’s emigre daughter. It’s powerful stuff (the Rahv piece is the best in the book, alone worth the hefty price).
A fascinating and sometimes annoying book (Straus rarely mentions dates, and many readers will be left confused by her segues), “The Paper Trail” details a time gone by, when the likes of McCarthy, Rahv and other literary lights engaged in literary debates that became the stuff of history. Straus conveys the drama of those times - the myriad broken marriages, phenomenal drunkenness, bitter political battles - while invoking her own stark nostalgia.