Two Hitlers and a Marilyn by Adam Andrusier critique – memoir of a trained autograph hunter | Autobiography and memory

TThe obsession – downright goosebumps – of the collector is playfully skewered in this sad self-centered memoir. In the 1980s, long before selfies, autographs were the accepted way to steal a celebrity’s soul, and hunters were rarely more tenacious than young Adam Andrusier. A nice Jewish boy from Pinner, he first smells the scent of his habit upon learning that his best friend’s neighbor is Ronnie Barker. Knocking on his door, a lady responds to them pushing them away, although Adam spots the man himself in the hallway before the door closes: “He didn’t look famous at all.”

He is luckier when, on vacation in France, he sees Big Daddy in the hotel pool; after careful stalking, he catches his prey with paper and pen: what if the wrestler’s real name is Shirley Crabtree? “I had succeeded in making a hole between our universe and the parallel one where all the celebrities lived.” From that moment, nothing stops him. In a way, he was born there. His father, Adrian, sold life insurance, but his passions were collecting Holocaust books and rare postcards from lost synagogues. He takes Adam to his very first Merchant’s Fair, where a jaded old pro tells the boy that most of his current collection is “secretarial,” meaning not signed by the stars. themselves. A tough lesson for the beginning collector, but he does learn from it and by the time he trades autographs professionally he has an eye for spotting counterfeits (“if the writing was too slow, if it looked flat or without life ”).

Andrusier with Monica Lewinsky in 1999. Photography: Adam Andrusier

The strange and elusive world of the collection is the engine of Two Hitler and a Marilyn, but its mystery plot takes place elsewhere and revolves around the figure of the author’s father. A strong personality but a weak character, Adrian lives Thursday nights with his pals, the highlight of his year, a six-day festival of Jewish folk dances at Hatfield Polytechnic – and an embarrassing nightmare for his wife and children who suffer for a long time. Gradually, the seeming innocence of his other gregarious life turns into something stealthy and suspicious. There is also the puzzle of his obsession with the Holocaust, as it was his wife’s grandparents who perished in the camps, while Adrian’s family was safe in England during the war. , “Avoiding conscription”. Gradually the antagonism between father and son becomes impossible to ignore, a conflict based not on faith – Adrian is not a pious observer and Adam is not Edmund Gosse – but on the more marshy ground of the truth. The discovery of an incriminating letter in his father’s briefcase smolders for pages.

A message from Dr Seuss
A message from Dr Seuss. Photography: Adam Andrusier

Of course, Adam is smart enough to realize that he is, in part, a chip from the old block. Just as his obsession-dominated father – always intrusive with his camera, always ready with an old joke – Adam pursues his autograph career with determined intensity, traveling to fairs around the world, glued to lists and catalogs. of its resellers. The suspicion that he might have “gone a little bit” sometimes surfaces, such as when he hears that Salman Rushdie, then under the fatwa, is making a signature at Waterstones: “It crossed my mind that a signed copy of Satanic verses could be worth real money, especially if someone was successful in taking Rushdie down. There is compassion for you! Almost out of the corner of our eye, we see his “normal” life going on. He not only has a girlfriend, but he turns out to be a pianist worthy of a place at King’s College Cambridge. His love of jazz and its mavericks (Miles Davis, Bill Evans) is the source of some of his best writing. But to eclipse even happy times is an unstable temper. The thin walls separating talent from mania begin to waver when he gives a public recital of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in the college chapel and all the terror and resentment that flowed in him erupts halfway through: he watches. his hands “playing the play, all by themselves. I did nothing other than observe. It was an amazing sight. A spectacular ending follows.

The final account with his father occurs in a chapter titled, without any slight irony, “Hitler”. After circling a signed volume of Mein Kampf for sale, Adam finally breaks the taboo and buys it, acknowledging the purchase in part as an act of aggression. He knows his father – and everyone – will be appalled, the thought of owning him is horrible but “electrifying”. It takes a conversation with your therapist to make him understand what is going on. As his girlfriend puts it, more succinctly: “If you want to upset your dad, why don’t you just buy a German car?”

I wonder if the book settles another account. On her cover, Zadie Smith provides a puff (“a comedic and poignant memoir”), which may have been demanded by the author as a prize for her using her story in her 2002 novel. The autograph man. Was his permission sought at the time, or did Smith just do what most writers would and make it his own? Either way, Adam Andrusier put his own spin on this chronicle of filial dysfunction and compulsive collecting. I wonder if I can get my copy sign?

Two Hitler and a Marilyn by Adam Andrusier is published by Hodder Headline (£ 16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy on Delivery charges may apply

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