A Radical Romance: A Memoir of Love, Grief and Consolation by Alison Light; Self-Portrait by Celia Paul - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

The All-Seeing I

A Radical Romance: A Memoir of Love, Grief and Consolation


Fig Tree 229pp £20



Jonathan Cape 212pp £20

The ego-flood of memoir is very strange: I did, I was, I felt, I had, I wanted – I, I, I. But who is this loquacious ‘I’? The I of the present sees their past I in their mind’s eye. Bataille, who knew a lot about eyes and Is, proposed that we are ‘discontinuous beings’ and that therefore our past selves have gone forever. Also, whether discontinued or not, our former selves never lived in the pages of a book. So the memoirist is either an artist or a liar, or – in some really lamentable cases – both.

Alison Light and Celia Paul have written fascinating books about all of the above. Alison Light is a writer and academic; Celia Paul is a painter. Both are celebrated in their fields and both had relationships with celebrated men: Light with Raphael Samuel and Paul with Lucian Freud. These relationships form the ostensible foci of their books. But they also write about the trouble with memoir, about art and life, about how weird it is to be a mortal and to love other mortals, to know them and yet not know them at the same time. The art critic Peter Schjeldahl once said that Freud’s paintings look like shepherd’s pie, but Paul is far more generous than this. Freud was her artistic mentor and she is grateful to him, if also powerfully ambivalent. Light’s is an equally powerful but completely different work of loving commemoration, and she is more expansive about the unnerving protocols of memoir and reality in general.

For Light, memoir is ‘a happy invention’ and this is its strength. Faced with the ‘awful, actual formlessness of a life’, the memoirist can only ‘hold its themes and repetitions up to the light, create a pattern from them’. Yet she doesn’t want to be like ‘an elderly

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