Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Katharine Smyth's "All the Lives We Ever Lived"

Katharine Smyth is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. After graduating magna cum laude from Brown University, she worked as an editorial assistant and researcher at The Paris Review and Radar Magazine. In 2010, she received her MFA in nonfiction from Columbia, where she was awarded a Dean’s Fellowship, the university’s highest merit-based award. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Paris Review, Literary Hub, The Point, DuJour, Poets & Writers, and Domino, among other publications. In October 2014, her essay “Prey” was selected as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2014.

Smyth applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, and reported the following:
I should be honest about the tiny stab of disappointment I felt on first opening my book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, to page 99 to find the tail end of one of my parents’ most vicious fights. The page also includes my response to that fight, which was to distance myself from my beloved, alcoholic father more deliberately than ever before, and concludes with a nighttime scene in which he approaches me shyly, hoping to discuss an essay I was writing on Antonioni—whom he had loved when he was younger—and I banish him downstairs. The page’s final words, “And yet,” gesture toward the pain of doing so: as I write on page 100, “how badly it hurt to send him away like that, evening after evening, terrified, terrified, that we didn’t have much time together, that he would soon be gone.”

It’s not necessarily that the page doesn’t reveal the quality of the book as a whole—though I did revise again and again the moment at which I comfort my mother, worried it was too sentimental (as Virginia Woolf worried of To the Lighthouse)—but rather that my father’s worst acts no longer hold for me the currency they did; that, as I conclude in the following pages, both my loathing and my absolution “feel like stories attached to someone else.” Indeed, page 99 marks a turning point, the moment in the book at which I bid goodbye to the narrative of my parents’ discord and focus instead on more Woolfian themes—loss, grief, homecoming, and the limitations of knowledge, to name a few. And while the scenes that convey my family’s intermittent unhappiness were necessary to the story that I sought to tell—one in which my father, a minor god to me when I was younger, is revealed to be deeply fallible—I far prefer the passages in which I got to write about him as the father I knew best: a man gentle, loving, and kind.
Visit Katharine Smyth's website.

--Marshal Zeringue