This gathering of autobiographical essays focuses on different experiences and periods of the author’s life and hybrid identity: a childhood spent in Austria, teenage years in an American school and then a lycèe in France, coming to the U.S. as a young adult and attending college, studying in England for two years, and then settling permanently in the U.S. into an academic career. The word “essay” in the title is meant in its original or French sense, as an attempt or trial. The twenty-four items in this gathering are a kaleidoscopic collection of such attempts at different modes of self-reflexivity. They are arranged not so much in the chronological order of their composition as by way of loosely assembled thematic clusters. “True lies” suggests that by transforming lived experiences into language--by way of memory, imagination, and reflection--and often years and decades later, we inevitably alter them as we write them down. But we also re-experience them, and in so doing shift them into another register. These recollections cover a wide range of experiences: Stelzig’s early years, his absurd encounter with a barber in Salzburg, his mysterious Buddha experience in Hong Kong, his travel misadventure in Spain, his career as an aspiring poet, his commitment to teaching Shakespeare’s plays, his love of dogs and of tennis, and the death of a nineteen-year old Austrian au pair girl. True Lies is divided into three parts. “Austrian Roots” addresses Stelzig’s early years, including his relationship with his Austrian parents. “Adult Branchings” focuses on his American adult life and identity. The final section, “Falling Leaves,” is for the most part a set of reflections on the later stages of life and the sense of mortality and of time running out—the challenge of “being in time” and the question of “what remains.”
Eugene Stelzig is Emeritus Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY Geneseo.
Part I: Austrian Roots
Chapter 1: True Lies: The Barber of Salzburg
Chapter 2: Viktor
Chapter 3: Bipolar: Mater Melancholia
Chapter 4: Tennis Lessons
Chapter 5: Scrip
Chapter 6: Remembering Dieta
Part II: Adult Branchings
Chapter 7: What Goes Around, or My Suitcase Fiasco in Spain
Chapter 8: My Buddha Experience
Chapter 9: Loving and Losing Dogs
Chapter 10: My Obscure Career as an Aspiring Poet
Chapter 11: Archetypal Dreams
Chapter 12: Vespa Dreams
Chapter 13: Rereading Old Books
Chapter 14: Reflections on Visiting Weimar and Buchenwald
Chapter 15: Suicide on the Mind: My Life Preserver
III: Falling Leaves and What Remains
Chapter 16: Timepieces
Chapter 17: Being in Time
Chapter 18: Autumn Leaves
Chapter 19: Time’s Relativity
Chapter 20: The Inevitable Tipping Point of Mortality
Chapter 21: Reading Obituaries
Chapter 22: What Remains: Paying Rent on the Dead
Chapter 23: “Shakespeare and No End”: My Long, Imaginative Relationship with the Stratford Bard
Chapter 24: Reading Letters from College Friends in These Pandemic Times
About the Author
A self-described ‘rather private person’, Eugene Stelzig here shares some extraordinary personal experiences. Informed by a long and distinguished career analysing the life writing of others, in these essays he puts aside the expert's voice, and reflects on what different encounters throughout his life may (or may not) have meant. He brings an unusually multilingual perspective to his life narrative, having grown up partly in Austria, partly in France, and attended both American and French schools there before moving to the U.S. to study literature. The breadth of his cultural understanding and the generosity of his scholarship are evident in every essay.
True Lies and Short Takes is a rich collection of autobiographical essays about diverse topics including childhood, schooling, travel, love, reading, ageing, and death. Eugene Stelzig, a recognized scholar of autobiography and Romantic literature, shows in this book his gifts at life writing. One feels in the company of a wise older friend, exploring together not only his own past, but also the ways in which memory and imagination can transform the raw material of experience into 'true lies': the meaning and significance that may come with a long perspective and what Stelzig calls 'protracted self-reflexivity.'
It is one thing to have lived in interesting times, and quite another to conjure those times as vividly as Eugene Stelzig does in True Lies and Short Takes. Whether writing of the immigrant’s sense of being “both at home and not at home,” the love of a good dog, or the challenges and rewards of a literary life, Stelzig does so with insight and compassion. Wide ranging and deeply introspective, these essays reward with pleasure too numerous to count.
Not least among the fascinations of this collection is the renowned life-writing scholar’s use of first-person templates--Montaigne’s reflective essay, the emotional registers of Romantic autobiography, the pellucid prose of incidental personal recollection--to fashion a multi-faceted self-portrait. One facet is the experience of reading itself, a lifelong passion crowned by Shakespeare, which has fueled Stelzig's devotion to truth-telling and his nuanced understanding of the lie. This is truly a book to savour.