Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir
by David Thomson
Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Book World
David Thomson, the historian and critic whose New Biographical Dictionary of Film is to my way of thinking the one essential reference book about the movies, was born in London in February 1941. I was born in Pittsburgh in October 1939, which, depending on how one chooses to interpret it, gives him a leg up of almost two and a half years on the Grim Reaper or gives me more experience of life's vicissitudes. All of which probably is neither here nor there, except that the rough similarity of our ages turns out to be only the beginning of our parallel paths, stripping me of almost all objectivity as a reviewer of his memoir, Try to Tell the Story.
It was as an ardent admirer of the New Biographical Dictionary that I came to this book, curious to know more about this gifted writer who apparently never has formed an opinion he is hesitant to express. When he calls David Lean's A Passage to India a "sad hash," my hackles rise, and when he praises the musicals of Stanley Donen I cheer along with him, but, agree with him or not, I love his lively prose, his bottomless enthusiasm for the movies coupled with his refusal to over-intellectualize them, and his eagerness to take mighty whacks at sacred cows. For me the New Biographical Dictionary is a bag of exceptionally tasty nuts, on which I can contentedly nibble for hours, hoping only that the bag has no bottom.
What a surprise it is, then, to find that our young lives were in so many respects so much alike, that we lived 1950s adolescences at once typical and atypical of the time. Thomson's family life was more unsettled than mine, but each of us was sent off at a very early age -- he was 10, I was 11 -- as a scholarship boy to a school for the wealthy and privileged. The first movie to make a deep impression on each of us was Laurence Olivier's Henry V, and each of us early on became an ardent devotee of jazz generally and Louis Armstrong specifically. Before we were teenagers each of us had become "very fond," as Thomson puts it, of the Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester, and later each of us fell under the spell of William Faulkner. When James Dean was killed in September 1955, each of us was devastated, I to the extent of collecting morbid fanzines about his life and hiding them under my bed, away from the eyes of my disapproving parents.
Et cetera. Enough. You get the point. Reading Try to Tell the Story, I found myself unexpectedly confronted with personal connections as well as literary considerations, and I can't absolutely swear that the former have nothing to do with my judgment of the book, which I find honest, observant and at times moving. Thomson grew up in a part of London called Streatham, SW 16, on "a nice, quiet road" where kids could play safely in the streets. Like all Londoners, he was very much aware of the war, the bombings and the devastation, but the family's house -- owned by his paternal grandmother, who lived with him and his mother -- survived comparatively unscathed. His parents' marriage, though, was another matter altogether:
"Why did my father, Kenneth, marry my mother, Norah? They were both attractive -- my father not very tall, but an athletic powerhouse, dark, boyish, and apparently a source of laughter. He told jokes. My mother was his height, slim, dark, very pretty -- I know, that's how I saw it, but there are pictures that back me up. She had a touch of Celia Johnson [co-star of Brief Encounter]. They had met at a tennis club. My father was a very good club player and he had rather picked her as a partner. She told me she had loved him at the time, and it is the only possible explanation for a marriage between two people so ill-suited."
Norah wanted children, Kenneth did not. When she got pregnant in 1940 -- " 'I tricked him,' my mother told me years later" -- and told him the news, "he said he wasn't having any of it." When she asked what he meant, he said, "I'll leave," which is exactly what he did. He set himself up not far away with another woman and came back to Norah and David only on weekends. It was a thoroughly strange arrangement that had, not surprisingly, a lasting effect on the author: "I am trying to tell you the truth -- but I don't think I know the truth. I am still, years after his death, bewildered and pained by my father, and trying to love him -- or find his love for me. But he lived in true shadow, and even if he was vivid in telling a story or playing a part, he sometimes left the impression that there was nothing else there. I think I'm reaching out for the idea that, having written a lot about actors, I realize how far my father raised me to it. And I have very mixed feelings about actors."
Yet what comes through more strongly than just about anything else except Thomson's deep, abiding love for his mother is his yearning for his father's love. Kenneth Thomson never told his son that he loved him, though come to think of it I don't recall my own father ever saying those words to me, either; those were different times, and emotional reticence was widely regarded as a manly virtue. Still, in his way Kenneth Thomson gave important things to his son: "Granted, it was just a few weekends, but my father gave himself to me in the years from when I went from five to eleven. And Mum stood back to let it happen. . . . And whatever Dad had planned when he left us, he was still prepared to give us two weekends in three and to live a life of pretending that he had not really left. I suppose he picked sports as our main shared activity, but he must have seen that I was ready for it."
It is here that most American readers are likely to feel themselves cast out to sea. Much of Thomson's youth was spent playing cricket, that sublimely incomprehensible sport, and significant amounts of space herein are given over to cricket matches, cricket terms and famous cricket players. My eyes glazed over during these passages, and yours probably will too, but that is a small price to pay for being witness to the ways in which Kenneth Thomson was able to reach out to his son and to express, however clumsily, the love that surely he felt for him.
To fill the void left by his father, Thomson had an imaginary older sister named Sally, with whom he had imaginary conversations, but mainly he had his mother. She "was there all the time," she was "the weather, or the number of steps from my bedroom door to the bathroom so I could count the way in the dark," she was "scent itself, or breathing." She was deliciously practical, forthright and humorous, as when she tried taking David to the countryside to escape Hitler. He hated the privy and said so. He wanted to go back to the city. To which his mother said: "You know what? Even if one of Mr. Hitler's specials came through the window, I'd rather be sitting on a nice lavatory than in that privy. This war is being fought for civilization, and if a proper bathroom doesn't count as part of that, then I don't know what does." So "we made our way back to that depraved London, where people gambled with bombs for a few moments of scented comfort."
Of course, there's much more to Thomson's story than his mother's love and his father's absences: England after the war, when there were "many people . . . who weren't right or quite well"; his discovery of reading and the radio, both of which put his imagination to work; his introduction to the movies and his discovery of the intimacy of "movie talk"; the speech therapy that brought his stuttering under control and enabled him to take full advantage of Dulwich, the demanding school where he had won a scholarship; his decision to attend film school rather than university, setting him on a path toward the United States, where he has lived, taught and written for many years.
Try to Tell the Story is a fine book, modest and self-effacing but also forthright and uncompromising. Yes, I'm prejudiced, though I hadn't set out to be, and in the end it really has little if anything to do with my admiration for the book. All that cricket does get in the way a bit, but not enough to turn anyone away.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.