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  • Blowback 1
  • David Hoddeson

“What a necropolis the human heart is.”


Family Romances

Beginning to write, I sighed. Heavily. And sighing, wrote.

After a while I noticed the sounds, but I did not investigate them. I was (so I thought) happily at work.

The man I was writing about had led a covert life behind his insatiably public life, and I was engaged in multiple acts of detection as much as any biographer I knew of. So without deciding I found I had decided: I would sequence my biography as a detective fiction. Which is to say, first the violent death, then clouds and confusions, speculations and flashbacks that the reader would try to re-assemble from the multiple points-of-view of the witnesses—a fragmented, contradictory, apparently unknowable history that we would, nonetheless, come to know.

If, that is, I could find it out.

From the beginning I remained steadfastly blind to the shadows in my own history. There had been violent death in my immediate family and there were enough secrets there for anybody; I only knew I was curiously at home here, with my subject and his double life.

And that formal mimicry is easier than fresh invention. My heart felt light as I began to reconstruct the murder:

A shadow passed his doorway. Max Ananius 2 looked up.

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

The first shot, fired pointblank, shattered a window [End Page 215] three feet to Ananius’ right. Even with practice aiming a Colt .45—a heavy handgun with a big kick—is not easy. The second shot struck high on the left shoulder. With the impact he turned in his chair and fell.

It was very late at night when I opened my first attempt at biography in this way, and it was almost quiet in my studio; the traffic coursing down the avenue twenty floors below sluiced by like a distant waterfall. In that hush I heard my sighs, but it would be years before I would come to understand that they were signalling the moment of my re-entry into my own history by refraction—that through the door of biography I had embarked on a passionate displacement. I had never explored my father’s life or death. I would instead labor to write the life and death of a man I had never met.

I was then living on 48th Street and Second Avenue, a Manhattan block so filled with writers and publishers and agents and literary/theatrical lawyers that the New York Times called it Writers Block. About six months before I had begun dating a book editor who had just turned author’s agent, and on the threshold of her new career she was actively looking for more trade. Which is doubtless why, at lunch one day, she remembered what I often was pleased to forget, my long-ago career in finance, and asked me if I knew who Max Ananius was.

I remembered enough to say, the shipping mogul, the one who kept claiming he had learned to be an entrepreneur in the CIA and got murdered. Had they found out why?

Not exactly. But would I do something? Would I talk to the son and the widow? They wanted someone to do a biography.

The next week—just divorced, recently tenured, altogether untethered, with too little money for the Manhattan of the flaunting eighties and a quite decent advance dangling—I took the train to Greenwich. The son conducted the interview. I would have exclusive access to the family archives. The family would comment, as I wrote, on the manuscript.

I was one paragraph into writing the proposal when my phone rang. It was a stockbroker I had not spoken to in twenty years. He already knew about the book. Ananius had been his great friend. Come up for the weekend, we could talk. If I played tennis, bring a racket. [End Page 216]

Whereupon I exited one world and entered another. It is not merely that I saw less of my own friends and began to live more and more among strangers. There was a seismic shift.

In “Family Romances,” Sigmund Freud...

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pp. 215-233
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