A Life in Literature

By Laura Wells
Wendy Fairey Mary Edith Mardis

Wendy Fairey
Arcade Publishing, $25.99

A blurb for Wendy Fairey’s new book might read as follows: “Bookmarked” is about a professor who remains endlessly passionate about her reading of English literature and who skillfully shows how her thoughtfully lived literary life is surprisingly the stuff of novels.

But in the beginning of this book Ms. Fairey talks about her struggle finding the backbone for this work. In 1992 she’d published a memoir, “One of the Family.” (More about that in a moment.) The book helped her move into full professorship at Brooklyn College. In 2002 she’d published a collection of linked short stories, “Full House.” All of her life she’d written a great many academic treatises. In this book she wanted to write about her love of reading. The only problem was the plot was eluding her because she didn’t want to go back to “repurposing” the material from her first memoir.

She started off focusing “on my genealogy of fictional prime movers — the orphan, the new woman, the artist, and the immigrant — still interested in the ways these figures are both marginal and representative and create a historical line. But impersonality, it turned out, was not the best mode for me. As I went along, I found keeping to it hard — it seemed too dry, and perhaps I wasn’t done yet with my own story. The personal seeped back into my project and transformed it to ‘an odd mixture.’ ”

As she goes on to write: “My idea became to write a memoir of a life of reading. This would still be a study of literature, but it would document something intensely personal as well. It would be nonfiction about fiction. . . .”

But here were the nonfictional aspects over which she was lightly treading. Her mother was the renowned Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who’d had a long-term affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had created a “College of One” for Graham. The books he chose for her included history, art, music, economics, and certainly poetry and novels. Ms. Fairey grew up amidst Thackeray, Henry James, Dickens. Fitzgerald loved talking with Graham about these works as she, an orphan and an immigrant, made her way through them. He died of a heart attack in her living room just before Christmas 1940.

All of this happened before Wendy was born, yet the stories shaped her entire life. In Southern California she endlessly read the books from the “Fitzgerald College.” After Fitzgerald died, Graham flew to England to become a war correspondent, which led to terrible nightmares. But while there Graham became pregnant with Wendy — during an affair with a married man. Graham convinced another man it was his baby, married him, and he never knew he wasn’t Wendy’s father. It was only decades later that Ms. Fairey learned the identity of her true father.

Ms. Fairey’s great caution about not overusing her stories was a result not only of her sensibilities as a student of literature, but also because her mother used the stories frequently in her own books. Sheilah Graham wrote nine books, three based in part on her relationship with Fitzgerald, and another book on “embellished” sexual exploits.

But as Ms. Fairey writes: “Living through all the interesting decades of my life from the forties to the turn of the twenty-first century, I have been, in an important sense, elsewhere.” Marilyn Monroe attended parties at the house — Wendy wasn’t fazed. Hopalong Cassidy seemed to be a bit more interesting. He “posed with my younger brother and me, all of us in black Hoppy outfits, six shooters drawn, under our Christmas tree.” Ms. Fairey, however, found Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding to Nicky Hilton slightly tedious. When she was 13, rather than meet Elvis Presley, she insisted on staying home to listen to a record of “Madama Butterfly.”

But at one point her mother married the tyrannical “Bow Wow,” who Ms. Fairey says hated her. He once kicked the family dog. Something Mr. Murdstone might have done in “David Copperfield”?

In this volume she discusses “the curtailing of licentious male energy,” “extraordinary salutary powers” — yet the observations here are extremely down-to-earth. For example: “Virginia Woolf understands how you might love one person a great deal and yet have good reasons for choosing to be with someone else.”

As I read “Bookmarked” I kept thinking about the “David Copperfield” quote: “My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.” And an earnest approach is precisely what defines this book.

Wendy Fairey looks unblinkingly at her own life, analyzing, admitting, parsing. “If this volume is intended as an experiment in autobiography, both inner and outer, it’s also envisioned as an exercise in a freer, more personal kind of literary criticism than I was schooled in.”

And herein is the crux of this book. It is memoir. It is an unusual take on literary criticism. But most important of all, it is a book about a person who is an extraordinary educator. She brings every volume alive for us. Only the very best literature teachers and professors are capable of finding newness every time they teach a book. (Of course the same can be said for teachers in other fields.) But the Academy needs the prescient, purpose-creating guiding spirit evinced in this book. This is a teacher who cares. Deeply. Fitzgerald may have created a “College of One” for her mother. Ms. Fairey has created a “College of One” for each of us.

There is the wonderful concept that each time we pick up a book we are different people and the reading experience of that book is different. After reading this book one cannot go back to Becky Sharp, Isabel Archer, Tess of the d’Urbervilles without thinking about oneself and the parallel themes in our lives. The classroom discussions we can have with ourselves once we’ve delved back into “Howards End,” “Daniel Deronda,” “To the Lighthouse,” and “A Passage to India” and allowed ourselves to spend time truly connecting to these works — those are priceless times, moments of revelation. Ms. Fairey gives us the tools to discover the themes within our own lives.

(One small note: A typo that will certainly be corrected in future editions. Early in “Bookmarked” Ms. Fairey, in figuring out where to start her manuscript, decides that the best initial subject would be the Victorian orphan. She discusses David Copperfield, Jo from “Bleak House,” and Jude from Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure.” But alas the proofreader missed the 1985 typo for year of publication of Hardy’s great novel.)

Ms. Fairey’s two moving postscripts underscore the very nature of this literary review cum memoir cum teaching guide: The first is when her two granddaughters, cousins who are both 14, come to visit from France. Each of whom is reading the novels that so intensely captivated Ms. Fairey in the first place — Zoé is reading Austen’s “Emma” in English. Salomé is reading “Jane Eyre,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Wuthering Heights” in translation. “Eeetcliff,” she calls him.

“I draw closer to Salomé than I’ve felt before in that each of us has been intimate with the same novel. She, too, has paused in the world of the Heights and the Grange, Heathcliff and the two Cathys. Lockwood and Nellie.” How delighted Ms. Fairey is to encounter the passion for these great works in her own flesh and blood.

And then there is the very end note in “Bookmarked.” Wendy and her partner, Mary Edith, were married in East Hampton in 2011. “It’s the marriage plot ending, after all!” Ms. Fairey acknowledges. As literature has always permeated her life, she writes: “Thank you, ‘Jane Eyre,’ for accompanying me to the last paragraphs of this journey.” And, yes, as of the last penning of this book, Mary Edith, already a great reader, was deep into “David Copperfield.”

Laura Wells, a regular book reviewer for The Star, lives in Sag Harbor.

Wendy Fairey lives in New York and East Hampton.