Jan 7 2010 4:11pm

The whole notion of autobiography: Samuel Delany's The Motion of Light in Water

The first time I read The Motion of Light in Water, Delany had been one of my favourite writers for at least ten years, but in that time I had known almost nothing about him. I remember going “Wow” a lot the first time through. I was expecting an autobiography that covered 1960-1965 to talk about how he wrote the spectacular early novels, and it does, and wow. But also wow, he’s black, wow, he’s gay, wow, he’s dyslexic and most of all, wow, in writing an autobiography he’s examining the entire concept of what it’s possible to remember and retell. This isn’t a memoir like Pohl’s The Way the Future Was which is essentially a charming retelling of fascinating anecdotes. This is a memoir that questions the very possibility of memoir, a memoir that makes you feel as if you’ve been turned upside-down and the contents of your brain and your pockets have all fallen out and been rearranged in different places. It questions the concept of memory and the way we remember and rearrange and reassess, and the way we make our own lives into stories.

Reading it now, I’m still impressed with how candid it is. It’s not that Delany talks about the details of sex, though he does, so much as that he talks about the nuances of how he felt about his sexuality, of his disintegrating relationship with poet Marilyn Hacker, of his chagrin at having his self-deprecating boasts repeated. This is a book about learning to write and learning to be grown up. It’s about negotiating the world, and it’s about being Delany in a much more internal way than most memoirs are about being their authors.

The subtitle is “East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing 1960-1965.”

As with all Delany the prose is wonderful, coming out in characteristic rushes and hesitations and very specific details. I’m always especially conscious of it here because this is where he talks about learning to do that—suddenly, between one page and another how he caught the underlying rhythm of the way it goes, so that he could play with and against that, play harmonies and glissandos with it. If you like Delany’s early fiction—the last book he talks about writing here is Babel 17—there’s a lot here about how he came to write it, where the ideas came from and how he wove them into science fiction. This is absolutely fascinating. There’s a lot here about how he developed his style, how he read science fiction and other things, how he began to take his writing seriously, how he almost fell into publication. These days his first novel would still have been waiting in the slush in the timespan that, for him, he’d written and published three more. If he hadn’t had that early success he’d probably have done something other than write SF—he was also singing in coffee houses and still thinking he’d be a scientist. There are a lot of directions his life could have gone, so it’s wonderful that Wollheim bought The Jewels of Aptor and kick started his career.

The bits about writing science fiction are all bound up in the rest of it, becoming independent in New York, the burgeoning sixties, his sex life, his emotional life—meeting Auden and worrying that he’d like him more than he liked Marilyn, how Marilyn lost her fluency and could only speak to him with a stutter, and how they both discovered that men’s jeans have bigger pockets than women’s jeans. 

The sex stuff is very explicit, and can be hard to take not because it’s gay sex but because of the incredible level of promiscuity available in those pre-AIDS days in New York. He also talks about a lover who used to break into houses and rape old women, and while he’s disapproving he’s not half as horrified as I am. My general reaction to his descriptions of all this is a combination of envy (I don’t think this sort of thing would work for me, but it’s never been available to me to find out) disbelief (I have no problem with it in fiction, but for reality it’s hard to suspend my disbelief) and general bemusement. At least it’s never boring.

There’s not all that much about Delany’s family or his experience of race—he touches on it but doesn’t go into it all that much here, it’s a long way from the focus of the book. What there is is very interesting, but I’m sorry there isn’t more. Delany’s passage here about the way he views definitions of identity and the space between them is wonderful. There’s also a description of how he went with a cousin to a Happening, one of the first Happenings of the sixties, and they were certainly the only two non-white people present and probably the only two who didn’t know the artists. That Happening is central to the book, because he talks about it questioning the whole notion of art and identity as he is questioning the whole notion of autobiography and identity.

Re-reading this book after twenty years, it’s still thought provoking, still fascinating, and still not like anything else.

(I wish Delany would write more science fiction. I know I always say that at the end of posts about his books, but that’s because that’s when my yearning for more Delany science fiction is strongest. I have no economic leverage because I’ll buy whatever he writes, so all I can do is express my longing to the ether.)

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Liza .
1. aedifica
I read a large chunk out of the middle of someone else's copy of this, and have always vaguely intended to read the rest. Part of the section I read was about his marriage, and ever since then I've looked differently at the poems in his books: what must it be like to write poems attributed to a character who is said to be an excellent poet, when you live with an award-winning poet?
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
At least for The Jewels of Aptor he asked her to write the poems. But yes.
3. daharyn
Having read this a number of times... I think that what really sticks for me is the way in which the sexual exploration is also a way in which Delany manages to simultaneously navigate/challenge US race/class structure. It isn't the last text in which sexuality becomes a magnifying glass for that kind of thing, but it is one of the best. That said, as a book written during the AIDS crisis about a pre-AIDS social state, there's a level of nostalgia in the text that I find occasionally difficult to handle--I do think there are myopic moments, in a text that sort of claims to be free of myopia. (I do chalk up the lack-of-squick with regards to the rapes perpetrated by a lover to the limitations of the backward-looking lens.)

I feel like the depth here is really missing from _Bread & Wine_. Do you agree?

The juiciest thing about this particular text is that it intervenes in so many other (thematic; chronological; etc) bodies of contemporary literature--but I suppose that could be said about much of Delany's work.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Daharyn: I haven't read Bread and Wine. I must, even if it doesn't have the depth of this.
5. Rush-That-Speaks
I still remember reading this book for the first time, my first year of college, and feeling like a totally unread and uncultured person because he would reference writers and artists and so on and I had never heard of any of them.

Then I spent the intervening time reading frantically in many, many fields, and many of them fairly obscure, and re-reading this every so often, and lo and behold, as of this year I have still never independently run into any of the writers and artists he mentions. It's not that I'm unread or uncultured, it's that he has a deep knowledge base in the amazingly obscure. Someday I need to go through and look up all the writers he mentions who aren't sff and see what he's on about.

My copy of this book is probably unique in that it is signed by both Delany and Hacker (on different occasions). I got them both to sign this and the volume of her poems where the ones about him are; I was afraid of it being rude of me to ask but both of them seemed happily nostalgic and told me a few anecdotes and were glad I liked the other one's work.
David Goldfarb
6. David_Goldfarb
Bread and Wine is a tiny fraction of the length; naturally it won't have the same depth.

It's comics. I wonder whether Jo's aversion to comics will be greater or stronger than her desire to read more Delany memoirs. (BTW, Jo, have you read Heavenly Breakfast?)
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
David: Oh, it's a comic? That explains why I haven't read it. And while my aversion to comics is stronger not than my desire to read more Delany memoir -- I wouldn't be reading more memoir, I'd be trying to figure out a comic, which I have zero desire to do. So thanks for warning me.

Yes, I have read, and even own, Heavenly Breakfast.

Rush-That-Speaks: If you haven't read Auden, I will read you some. I tried seeking out some of the things he references that I didn't know, which was and is a fairly normal kind of thing for me to do, and Djuna Barnes Nightwood struck me as the next thing to incomprehensible.
Vicki Rosenzweig
8. vicki
I think I need to reread this. One of the things that resonates for me is the fallibility of memory, on the checkable bits (ages and dates when things happened), never mind emotion and intent and "did I really say X?"

And one moment, out of a different era: the noon siren and the bright light, and Delany's momentary certainty that the world had ended.
Ursula L
9. Ursula
He also talks about a lover who used to break into houses and rape old women, and while he’s disapproving he’s not half as horrified as I am.

How exactly can this work? Autobiography relies on a certain amount of sympathy for the autobiographer. Yet the thought of someone knowing that their acquaintance/friend/lover was a rapist would destroy any sympathy for them, unless they turned the rapist in to the police or otherwise acted to stop the rapist.

Certainly it would seem to make the narrator unreliable, leaving a reader questioning every subsequent event based on the knowledge that this is someone who knows a repeat rapist, and is doing nothing to stop him. Yet your review doesn't seem to pick up this unreliability.

Or was this addressed and you just didn't mention it?
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Ursula: I felt no reason to question his reliability, though it is indeed hard to maintain sympathy. He seems to think of it in terms of the guy's tastes, as if the women in question didn't have a point of view or a right of refusal.

He says he knew the guy briefly in 1963, and the book was written in 1988, so it's a bit late to call the police.
Douglas Merrill
11. merrilld
Very belatedly, this -- "These days his first novel would still have been waiting in the slush in the timespan that, for him, he’d written and published three more" -- seems the crucial sentence of the piece.

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