Tag Archives: The Memory Trap

IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING

I have always been captivated by the idea of memory. While it has been a theme in all my novels it was THE theme in The Memory Trap. In this novel, memory in all its forms – personal biographical memory, national collective memory, memory and obsession, mementoes and memorials – was explored through the lives of the characters.

ABR coverThe American writer and film-maker, David Rieff, has made memory the subject of his past two books. I have reviewed his latest for ABR and reproduce it below

This month’s ABR has a stunning cover to accompany the announcement of the 2016 Calibre essay prize to Michael Winkler. Check out the issue at

http://www.australianbookreview.com.au

 

 

 

IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING
David Rieff
Yale University Press, $36.95 hb, 145pp.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18279-8

Over the past three decades, and particularly since the prime ministership of John Howard, there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of young Australians making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli. Most of these people have no ancestors among the ‘fallen’, but rather are following what has become a rite of passage for patriotic young Australians.

Lest we forget, they intone. But what exactly is being remembered? And to what purpose is it being used? After all, until recently, few young people visited the site of this appalling military failure in which Australians were used as cannon fodder by their colonial masters. For that matter, until recently, flag-waving nationalism and loud-mouthed patriotism played little part in any aspect of Australian life.

Memory and its more structured form as remembrance are considered to be positive and desirable attributes. Personal memory is thought to be the primary vehicle by which individuals define themselves, while collective memory helps define a nation. Collective memories, like Gallipoli, act as the struts and foundations of nationalism, uniting poor and rich, urban and rural populations alike. As for history and memory, they are regarded – if thought about at all – as almost exactly the same, rather like identical twins.

In his excellent new book, In Praise of Forgetting*, David Rieff questions the commonly unquestioned: namely the purposes and effects of collective memory. He shows how easily history can fall prey to morally contingent, proprietorial and emotive memory. Ranging across the Irish troubles, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Israel and Palestine, Stalin’s Russia, and the Balkans’ internecine battles Rieff reveals how collective memory invariably follows a political and ideological agenda, which is itself underpinned by specific moral imperatives. He makes clear that structured, state-sanctioned memorialising is in thrall to contemporary goals and aspirations and not the past it is purporting to preserve. As well, he points out ‘that exercises in collective historical remembrance far more closely resemble myth on one side and political propaganda on the other [more] than they do history.’ Rieff will always see the elephant in the room.

In advancing his arguments, Rieff draws on a wealth of work about memory and remembrance including that of the great Russian neurologist A.R. Luria, the Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz, Theodor Adorno’s classic Minima Moralia, and most particularly the Israeli political philosopher Avishai Margalit (The Ethics of Memory) and the social philosopher Tzvetan Todorov (Hope and Memory and Memory as a Remedy of Evil). Rieff sets up a dialogue of sorts with these latter two luminaries in which there is acknowledgement and agreement, as well as argument and disagreement; crucially Rieff extends the analysis of both men. As a thinker, Rieff is fearless and devoid of sentimentality. To take on those you admire is a difficult task, but if done well, as it is in this book, it yields far richer and nuanced arguments than if you were to pit yourself against a thinker with a diametrically opposing view.

Individual memory degrades very quickly while official memorialising is a tool in service to ideological and cultural currents. Rieff refers to Shelley’s pithy ‘Ozymandias’, as well as David Cannadine’s memoir ‘Where Statues Go to Die’ about the ‘inglorious fate’ of colonial monuments in India. My favourite monument story concerns the Bremen Elephant. This ten foot high red brick elephant was erected in 1932 to celebrate Germany’s colonial conquests, especially in Namibia. By the 1980s this particularly brutal colonisation had become a matter of shame; the monument was an embarrassment and there were calls to pull it down. In 1990, when Namibia gained its independence, the Bremen Elephant was re-dedicated as an anti-colonial monument, and in 2009 a new monument was built adjacent to the old to commemorate the lives of those Namibians who perished in the colonisation. Rather than an enduring truth about the past, monuments rise and fall depending on prevailing political and social concerns.

Official remembrance is big business these days. New monuments, memorial gardens, entire museums are popping up all the time. Rieff is rightfully critical of a number of these, including the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, where the atrocities portrayed have been book-ended in kitsch. (For an excellent book on kitsch in memorialising see Marita Sturken’s Tourists of History, 2007.) My complaint with the U.S. Holocaust Museum is in its use of experiential exhibits. The underlying premise of this fashionable trend in museum practice is that by promoting a personal involvement in the (long-past) events being portrayed, visitors will be motivated towards a better understanding. So it happens that on entering the U.S. Holocaust Museum visitors are issued with an identity card of a real person who existed during the Holocaust. As you walk past the displays of horror, as you watch the videos, as you linger in the (real) cattle car, you clutch your identity card wondering if your person – your surrogate self, after all – has survived. You have been inserted into these horrendous events. As for the imagination as a means of understanding, it has fallen out of fashion. What this might mean for memory in general, given that memories involve an imagining of past events, is anyone’s guess.

Rieff, in highlighting past atrocities and the way they have influenced current conflicts, recommends forgetting as a means of facilitating individuals to move on. Many Holocaust survivors did exactly this. They had survived and it was incumbent on them to live fully – not only for themselves but the millions who were denied a future. They did not consult counsellors or psychiatrists, rather they drew on their own resilience and determination to separate from their terrible experiences and steer themselves into the future. In many instances, It was their children and grandchildren who insisted on dragging them back to Auschwitz. It seems that the parents’ very productive forgetting interfered with the children’s demands for remembrance – a peculiarly narcissistic remembrance. The therapeutic has indeed triumphed as the author’s father, the sociologist Philip Rieff, predicted in 1966.

Rieff sees more value in forgiveness than do I. I am of the belief that some acts and the policies that allow them to occur are unforgivable, such as the atrocities under apartheid, those committed by the Nazis, and the slaughter being carried out by ISIS now. Nelson Mandela recognised this when he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not a Truth and Forgiveness Commission. There can be understanding and reconciliation, there can be a future where past enemies live together in peace, and this can occur without having to forgive the unforgivable (and thereby act in bad faith).

In Praise of Forgetting explores the powerful and often brutal effects of the seemingly benign and beneficent processes of memory and remembrance. It forces scrutiny of what has long been complacently accepted. Over the past half century or so, there has been a sacralising of memory both at the personal and collective levels. For the former it has often lead to a life of victimhood, for the latter entrenched hatreds and shocking brutality. If remembering truly were so therapeutic then such undesirable outcomes would not occur with such distressing regularity.

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*In Praise of Forgetting grew out of an earlier monograph Against Remembrance (MUP, 2011). I am hoping Rieff is planning a third volume titled ‘Against Forgiveness’.

 

 

IRIS MURDOCH

August has been Festival month here in Australia.

I returned from the Galapagos Islands and almost immediately flew up to northern NSW for the Byron Bay literary festival directed by Jeni Caffin. This is a wonderful festival held under canvas on a grassy promontory bordering the Pacific Ocean. Then the following weekend was the Bendigo Writers’ Festival – only in its second year but already starting to define itself. Making the most of beautiful Bendigo this festival will go from strength to strength. Then the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and two terrific gigs: the first with Andrew Ford broadcasting for The Music Show live from the festival on 31/8/13, during which he focussed on the musical aspects of The Memory Trap, the other a panel with historians Henry Reynolds and Tim Lycett, titled, In Memoriam,  exploring memory and memorialisation, in particular what we remember, the need to remember, and the distortions of memory and forgetting. After the session, I was whisked away to a waiting car that sped me to the airport to catch the midday plane to Sydney for an in-conversation with Caroline Baum at the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival. It was a thoughtful and wide-ranging interview that made the interstate dash absolutely worthwhile.

I really enjoy festivals, both the sessions in which I’m involved and the mingling with readers and other writers, but I would never want month after month of the performance circuit, and indeed, halfway through August I found myself in need of something to ameliorate the effects of so public a life. Thus it happened that I found myself reaching for familiar books, a sort of comfort reading akin to comfort food. Somerset Maugham was perfect, and Nabokov’s Speak Memory, and — Iris Murdoch.

Slipped inside the cover of one of my Iris’s was a copy of the article that forms the bulk of this posting, an article I wrote back in 2003 for a series published in the Australian Newspaper on INSPIRATIONS. Ten years on, I’m as grateful to Iris Murdoch as I’ve ever been.

INSPIRATIONS: IRIS MURDOCH

It’s December 1965 and I’m not having a great time. I’m surrounded by friends and family but I’m convinced I’m alone. I write copious poems of the obscure pathetic variety which do little to placate my adolescent furies. All rush and throb, I feel that at any time I might break through my skin. Of course I tell no one: life is hard enough without people knowing there’s an alien in their midst.

Then one Saturday morning with the house to myself, I take from my mother’s book-case Iris Murdoch’s Flight from the Enchanter and I begin to read. Page after page, and gradually my alien skins slip away. Page by page, and I am immersed ever more deeply in a world I didn’t even know I was searching for. By the halfway mark I’m struck with wonder that someone, this Iris Murdoch, can tramp through my mind leaving behind a trail of sense.

Murdoch’s first novel was published in 1954, so by the time I discovered her I was well in arrears. After Flight from the Enchanter I read her first novel, Under the Net, followed quickly by her third, The Bell. I decided that if I were heading for the insane asylum, Iris Murdoch and all her characters were coming with me. Iris showed me there was more to life than being slimmer than I was, more to life than pretending an interest in football, and much more to love than the flirtations on the tram I rode to and from school. She taught me there was no shame in preferring the workings of my imagination to my left-footed attempts at compulsory sport. Iris Murdoch revealed to me a world where my private yearnings found a home –  including my secret desire to be a novelist.

Her books were full of wondrous people, strange and seductive people, people heavy with knowledge about a world well beyond the reach of an Australian teenager. These were amazingly literate people who had conversations the likes of which never happened in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. They rarely had children, and if a child did enter a Murdoch novel he or she was like no child who travelled to school with me on the 69 tram. Indeed families were largely absent in her novels. There were no warring siblings or white-faced parents, no fighting over the front seat in the car or pinching your mother’s lipstick because she wouldn’t let you have your own. Most of her characters never married, they had affairs instead. And there were homosexuals in her novels – an extraordinary thing given homosexuals did not officially exist in Australia at that time.

Childhood, in my experience, was never as happy and carefree as it was supposed up to be, and adolescence was proving to be nothing more than a rocky outpost on the way to somewhere better –  particularly in the 1960s when there was so much happening and I was too young to join in. Iris Murdoch provided me with an escape from a life and times, and a geography too, that was so constricting.

I loved her characters. Tuan, Chloe, Sebastian, Tristan, Mischa, Clement, Rainborough, with not a whiff of a Lynette or a Maureen or a Bruce. And along with the exotic names came exotic lives. Murdoch’s characters were writers and artists, scholars and philosophers who lived in London or Oxford or on a windswept cliff. And they lived so passionately, so at a pitch, hurtling from exhilaration to despair in a half page of narrative. And risks, they took such risks. They would fall in love wonderfully but disastrously, or cause someone else’s ruin while they blindly pursued their own artistic goals. And these all-too-human people were never ashamed of admitting their flaws –  a quality unknown in the adults I knew. For a bookish teenager in 1960s Australia, paradise was being inside an Iris Murdoch novel.

Each year at the end of the final exams, I would treat myself to a new Iris Murdoch. And there always was a new one, either one published that year or an old one I’d not yet read. In my twenties I started to read her philosophy too, and from there I spiralled out to other philosophers and thinkers. By this time I had started to write in earnest: not the dreadful angst-ridden poetry of my adolescence, but fiction at last.

Iris Murdoch’s novels did for me what good fiction has always done: they hooked  hard and fast into my imagination and transported me to places and people and ideas I longed to know. Iris (I’ve long been on such familiar terms with her) taught me the power of fiction. I loved her books – rich, fleshy novels of characterisation and ideas, the sort of fiction I wanted to write myself.

I continued to read her books as soon as they appeared. And then, in 1995, came Jackson’s Dilemma, her 26th novel. I read it within days of its being published, approaching it with the same excitement and sense of impending wonder I had brought to all her work. By this stage I was well aware of the typical faults in an Iris Murdoch’s novel – the talking heads’ dialogue, the almost surreal characters that seemed parodies of Murdochian characters,  the over-abundance of inexplicable fallings in love – but the faults with Jackson’s Dilemma were of quite a different order. This novel had no centre, much less one that would hold. Jackson’s Dilemma wasn’t simply ‘not one of her best’ – and Iris has written a number of these – it was a mess, and for this Iris devotee, distressing to read. Three months after the novel was published, it was announced that Iris Murdoch had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. In February 1999 she died.

I loved Iris Murdoch’s work, and I suppose I had come to love her. In the two years following her death when, as the subject of of John Bayley’s memoirs and a mainstream film, Iris Murdoch became widely known as a once-famous woman with Alzheimers, I was appalled at what was being done to her. She had inspired me to trust my imagination, she had inspired me as a reader and she had provided much of the early fuel for my desire to be a novelist. I was ready to mount the ramparts to defend her genius. And in fact I did. I lashed out at Bayley’s books in coffee shops and bars, in writing classes and lectures, once even to strangers on a city tram.

My anger has cooled now that Vintage has re-published so many of her novels. I know there are people reading her work for the first time, even some who are reading her as the inspiration and lifeline so familiar to me.

Descartes named wonder as the first of the passions. That breath-stealing rush when confronted with something new and strange and totally captivating. Fiction is infused with wonder. Fiction has the power to take you to places and times and into the hearts and minds of people who are not yourself but have the power to illuminate your life. As a teenager growing up in suburban Melbourne, it was Iris Murdoch above all who gave me the experience of wonder. She gave meaning to my secret life and yearnings, she gave me solace, she gave me a future, and she revealed to me the pleasures of the text, both as a reader and a writer.

Postscript: and she still does.

STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN

My seventh novel, The Memory Trap, was published last week, although my work on the book finished some months ago. It was then that I corrected the third proof pages and sent them back to my publisher. Four years of work completed, four years of life passed. I should have settled back and savoured the moment, instead I was assaulted by a battery of not-unfamiliar questions. Will I ever write another novel? Do I want to write another novel? And if I don’t write another novel, how then to make the days pass? I felt emptied out, not a spark of an idea. Not a spark. So terrified was I of the void, I found myself in a panicky riffling through the piles of unread books which had mounted up in the previous four years. I needed to fill up, I needed to know there’d be another novel.

I began with a biography of the poet Rilke and then moved on to the memoirs of the remarkable Lou Andreas-Salomé, writer, psychologist, lover of Rilke and Nietzsche, close friend of Freud. At this filling-up stage when a novel is finished, I select books on the slightest provocation and never reflect much on the process; I assume that some logic will emerge which will help shape the next novel. So when I found myself in a frantic searching for every possible translation of one of Rilke’s love poems to Lou, ‘Blot out My Eyes and I’ll still See You’, I plunged ahead without question. I was rummaging around in passionate territory. Perhaps my next novel would centre around a big, unconventional love – or several loves. I reached for my pen, scribbled a couple of sentences, but the ideas were drivel and I put the notebook down. Far too soon for sensible words of my own.

I read Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder, a marvellous idiosyncratic plunge into the hearts and minds of 19th century scientists, those romantics geniuses who were captivated by the new worlds they were in the process of revealing. I read about William Herschel’s telescopes and his discovery of Uranus, and Caroline Herschel’s extraordinary mapping of the distant skies. Then to the early balloonists for whom discovery was far more powerful than danger, and Mungo Parks, the deeply humane adventurer and explorer into deepest darkest Africa. Holmes, who knows more than most about the romantic novelists and poets, explores the new mechanical age through Mary Shelley’s profound and poignant novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. I love Richard Holmes’s book. Descartes named wonder as the first of the passions; I am filled with wonder as I read about these men and women who, inspired by wonder pushed against the boundaries of knowledge and understanding. Such lives they enjoyed.

As for my own life, despite having received the advance copies of The Memory Trap, things were pretty drab. There’s the foreboding about reviews, and the quiet niggle of a book before the publicity has taken hold, and of course the bruising absence of my beloved. I long for the conversations of the past. I plan topics for discussion, I rehearse ideas and arguments, I talk aloud in the empty rooms. All of it is cruelly unsatisfying. Better, I think, to confine the discussion to my imagination. I make side-trips to Yehudi Amichai’s blood-boiling poetry and to a couple of early Iris Murdoch novels. I curse Peter Conradi yet again for being so bloody coy and disingenuous in his biography about her. And I reach for Jane Austen as I have done before in extremis: Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility are entirely satisfying.

On May 1st, the official publication date of The Memory Trap, I open After the Victorians by A.N. Wilson, a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for years. (Incidentally, I far prefer Wilson’s messy book about Iris Murdoch to Conradi’s smug production.) Like The Age of Wonder, A.N. Wilson’s After the Victorians is another idiosyncratic history, and like the Holmes, it revels in art and literature. Wilson’s book stops in the early fifties, the period when my own life began.

And suddenly it all comes rushing back. Those taut years of childhood and the books which laid down tracks in the nervy terrain of my mind. Books which inspired a secret, parallel life to that expected of a middle-class, Jewish girl growing up in suburban Melbourne, books which provided me with passions far removed from the soppy intrigues of the playground. Indeed, I was still in primary school when it first occurred to me that all the interesting people were either dead or existed only in novels.

There were three books that were particular childhood favourites. Firstly, a grey hardcover volume of Lives of Famous Scientists, a chapter per famous scientist, each headed up by a glossy, black and white photograph. I loved those scientists; so much more reliable and interesting than my friends, they provided me with a satisfying brew of stimulation and solace. My favourite was Marie Curie, the only woman in the collection, so passionate and tragic. At the age of nine, I wanted to be her – although would prefer to swap Pierre with Ricky Nelson, my favourite singer at the time. I spent hours, years, trying to work out what I could discover which had not yet been discovered. It was when I was becoming quite discouraged – after all, if I could think of something to be discovered, clearly it already had been – that I found on my mother’s bookshelves Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian and other Writings.

In a Jewish household, the answer to Russell’s title was perfectly obvious, but the curiosity about a book premised on such an enquiry was overwhelming. Included in the book was a debate between Russell and a churchman, and it was here that I came upon what I regarded as Russell’s tour de force: If God made the world, who made God? I was delighted with the simplicity of his argument, the indisputable proof, as it seemed to my now 12-year-old self, and with lives of famous scientists in easy reach, I decided that whatever existed could be understood, and whatever could be understood must in some way exist. The world suddenly became less threatening and I stopped believing in God.

The third childhood favourite, also from my mother’s bookshelves and also discovered at the age of twelve, was Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Not for imagined worlds, and certainly not for a group of children with whom I might have identified, but for the marvellous, lyrical language. I would leap from one italicised section to the next for the sheer delight of those words. How they drowned out the mundane utterances of the real world.

Now decades later, sitting in my study with Rilke, Lou, Holmes, and the whole of Virginia Woolf within easy reach, I am struck by the similarities between the 60+ novelist and the 12-year-old child. Both depend on books to fill up, to feel alive, to kick start an imagination which for various reasons is tired out. Both use books to fly into an imagined world when the real world is too hard, or too dull, or just too empty. And through books both find people to talk to, to argue with, people who provide sanctuary to both and start-up fuel for the novelist.

As I read Wilson’s book about the figures and events in Britain of the first half of the twentieth century questions spring unbidden to mind: Is it possible to be good? How much should one risk in experiencing all that life has to offer? What extent of compromise is acceptable to do the work one is driven to do? Is passion always its own defence? And war: is it ever justified? And the press: its power and its responsibilities. I linger in Wilson’s section on Northcliffe, Beaverbrook and Rothermere and the rise of the popular press in England. It is fascinating and I’m surprised to find it so fascinating. And the 1950s, the point where Wilson finishes his book, I find myself thinking of that time, the layers of secrets that supported so many lives, women’s lives in particular.

Henry James went into society and found his stories. I enter the absences of my life, spice them with other people’s words and feel my own imagination begin to stir. All novels are autobiographical in one respect only, not in the storyline nor the characters, but in why the author wrote that particular novel at that particular time.

Therein lies a truth.

And as ideas open before me – the press, the 1950s, secrets – I am gaining confidence there will be another novel.

IMAGINATION SOUP. How novels begin.

It was 2009, a bright day in early spring, when I took the afternoon off work and made my way to Heidi Gallery and gardens. The gardens were in bud, there was a shadow of brilliant green on the deciduous trees, the river seemed less brown than usual in the sharp white light. And the birds! A rowdy party of magpies, peewees, and rainbow lorikeets flapped through the still air. I meandered around until the lengthening shadows made it uncomfortably cool and then made my way to the gallery itself. There I found an exhibition of the work of Kathy Temin. I’d never neard of her, knew nothing of her art or her background, so I entered the long room of the main exhibit with no expectations. I found myself in a forest of white trees constructed out of white fake fur and soft stuffing. Some trees were stocky, others were slender; there were trees formed from squashed soft spheres piled one on top of the other, there were cone-shaped trees and slender cylindrical ones; some trees were not much more than a metre tall, others stretched to two or three metres.

Kathy Temin. My Monument: White Forest

As I moved among these soft white structures, I was simultaneously silenced by them, dwarfed by them and swaddled by them. I couldn’t have left if I wanted to. For reasons I could not explain, nor at the time did I want to explain, being immersed in Kathy Temin’s sculptural landscape had transported me back to Auschwitz. It was not Auschwitz 1, so nicely spruced up for the visitors with its famous gates and infamous words, Arbeit macht frei, but Auschwitz 2, Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its equally famous peaked gatehouse under which the trains entered the camp, stopping a moment later at the long platform where a clipped Teutonic nod decided who would die and who would live a little longer.

Kathy Temin’s white fake fur trees took me back to Auschwitz.

In November, 1999, Dot and I spent an afternoon walking the paths and woodlands of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s a huge area and apart from a few locals taking a short-cut via the old death camp and a small group of bored Polish schoolboys, we were alone. We wandered the pretty woodlands still rosy with late autumn colour where over half a century earlier Jews were amassed at the peak times, waiting their turn for the gas chambers. We stood silently in the ruins of Crematoria 2, 3, 4 and 5 where hundreds of thousands of murdered men, women and children were reduced to ash. We wandered the umpteen columns and rows of wooden huts. We stood in front of those tiered bunk benches each about 3 metres wide where as many as 12 Jews were crammed in together, the sick, the dying, and the steadfastly-surviving.

At the end of the railway tracks and situated between the ruins of Crematoria 2 and 3 is the International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz. Built in 1967 in Soviet brutalism style, it consists of huge cement blocks in a geometric pile with plaques set in the brick work under foot. It’s big this monument, but it had no effect on me. The place, this Auschwitz-Birkenau, was monument enough.

Kathy Temin’s sculpture was called My Monument: White Forest. I did not learn the title until I was back home reading the exhibition catalogue. Sue Cramer, one of the curators of the exhibition wrote: ‘If not for the title of Kathy Temin’s sculptural environment My Monument: White Forest, we might not at first recognise this maze-like arrangement of furry white, oddly shaped trees as a monument.’

I knew it immediately.

Cramer continued: ‘Temin describes the work as a “memorial garden, an attempt to translate the feeling I had when visiting memorial sites in Eastern Europe.”’

Touché.

Monuments are an art form designed to convey people, places and events from the past, as well as abstract qualities of courage, goodness, freedom – even memory itself.

At the time of Temin’s exhibition I had only vague thoughts about the novel that would become The Memory Trap. I saw My Monument: White Forest and soon after, emerging from the imagination’s soup, came the character of Nina Jameson, an international consultant on memorial projects. And so the novel began – nothing about Auschwitz, nothing about the horrors of war (the loose-limbed imagination doesn’t work that way), rather four main characters with a shared childhood in seventies Melbourne, four people whose hopes and yearnings, whose loves and obsessions, whose uses and abuses of memory have all shaped the course of their adult lives. There are monuments in The Memory Trap, but as well there’s music and marriage and a swag of very human mistakes.

I’m fascinated by the imagination, I’m gripped by its loiterings and lurchings, but most important of all, I am grateful for it.

NOTHING LIKE CHILDBIRTH


It is nothing like childbirth. Joyce Carol Oates has done it more than twenty times, so too, did Iris Murdoch. Patrick White notched up around a dozen, as has John Coetzee. Childless the lot of them.

I am, of course, speaking about books: writing and publishing books.

I’ve published 7 novels. With each one I have been asked by otherwise sensible people if it’s like a birth, or perhaps the grown child leaving home. The answer is a simple, obdurate: NO.

— No messy communion with another in order to get the project started.

— No incessant consultation with another as the project progresses.

— No constant negotiation with the object itself for the next twenty or thirty years.

THIS IS HOW IT IS.

There are the delights of lolling around in your imagination for two or three or four years, until you’ve got the project into perfect shape.

There’s the pleasure of solitude, of working in isolation, of reading and writing – just you and the emerging project and the best minds that have ever put pen to paper.

There are the regular frustrations and irritations and challenges that serve to remind you that being human is all about the necessity – and the discomforts – of change.

There’s the knowledge that eventually you’ll hone this mess of ideas and characters into a form that makes sense to other people, a form that’s sufficiently elegant to meet your own hard-to-satisfy standards.

Writers can be sloppy in every aspect of human existence except writing. As Cynthia Ozick wrote in her essay, ‘The Seam of the Snail’ (Metaphor and Memory, 1989):

I attend to crabbed minutiae and am self-trammeled through taking pains. I am a kind of human snail, locked in and condemned by my own nature. The ancients believed that the moist track left by the snail as it crept was the snail’s own essence, depleting its body little by little; the farther the snail toiled, the smaller it became, until it finally rubbed itself out. That is how we perfectionists are. Say to us Excellence, and we will show you how we use up our substance and wear ourselves away, while making scarcely any progress at all. The fact that I am a perfectionist in a narrow strait only, and nowhere else, is hardly to the point, since nothing matters to me so much as a comely and muscular sentence. It is my narrow strait, this snail’s road; the track of the sentence I am writing now; and when I have eked out the wet substance, ink or blood, that is its mark, I will begin the next sentence. Only in treading out sentences am I perfectionist; but then there is nothing else I know how to do, or take much interest in.

Not the sort of approach recommended in the raising of a child.

You write, you read, you revise, you read and write some more, you shape and reshape, you lop off the juts and bumps, you sand the rough surfaces, you send it to your agent who sends it to your publisher, there’s more work to be done (but she loves it, you tell yourself, my publisher says she loves it) and then it goes into production. There are proofs and more proofs and cover roughs, then the novel is with the printer and there is nothing more to be done.

***********

Two days ago a delivery man arrives with a box from HarperCollins. My delighted surprise must have been writ unambiguously across my face (I’d not expected this parcel for another week). The young man asks about the contents of the box. Advance copies of my new novel, I say. Now he is looking pretty excited too. Are you a reader? I ask. It turns out he is, so I invite him to share my joy.

Picture it, the two of us on my narrow porch opening the box, burying through the padding, and then the book in my hand, the two of us poring over that very first copy. He agrees it looks splendid, that there is mystery in the cover. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘I’d want to read it.’ He particularly likes the rainbow lorikeet flying among the pillars of the neoclassical building depicted on the front. We flip through to make sure the pages aren’t blank (one of the writer’s nightmares). All is well. When the young man turns to leave, he addresses me by name: ‘Goodbye, Andrea,’ he says, ‘and congratulations.’ It is a lovely and unexpected connection.

I carry the box inside. My dog, a literary canine in the tradition of Flush, recognises the significance of the occasion. In the living room I withdraw each book one by one. No matter how many times this happens – the arrival of first copies – the magic never diminishes. Nor the excitement, nor the pleasure. The thing, fully formed, bearing the authority of print, the public cladding of a cover, your own name written on the front – not that that strikes you, or at least not me: the book is a thing in itself, not simply mine any more.

This household was for a many years a two-writer household. The same ritual was observed every time advance copies arrived. I now prop the books side by side, covers facing out, on the shelf above the TV and l study them. I see how the light plays on the print – how the letters shine against the matt finish of the cover image – how the title, THE MEMORY TRAP, large and silvered in certain light actually seems to lure the observer in. I focus on the image itself that could well be the colonnade of the British Museum, and the flash of a rainbow lorikeet between the columns; the orange on the parrot’s breast is the same colour as the umbrella carried by the woman walking down the colonnade. And there in the colonnade’s shadows is a man in a suit.

I had minimal involvement with the creation of the cover, I can, therefore, admire it whole-heartedly. It is, I decide, perfect.

The Memory Trap. First copies

I take down a copy – as one would in a bookshop – there’s another rainbow lorikeet on the spine – and then to the back. I’m oddly nervous about reading the blurb even though I wrote it myself, even though I’ve read it about three thousand times. It’s as if its placement in situ might somehow disrupt the flow of words. I force myself to read it. No alchemy has occurred. And Rai’s generous words – in gold, the same colour they’ve used for the author name on the front. I like that.

I open the book. There are surprises here – good surprises – but I cannot read the text, not yet. If I find mistakes, if I find sentences that fall over there’s nothing I can do about them now. Later, I’ll read it. For the moment I’ll just enjoy the object.

It’s nothing like a birth. My work is done. And until the reviews begin, I can indulge myself in the pleasure of the thing itself and the wonder that fiction inspires.

STITCHING TIME

Jenny Diski, in a recent LRB blog, writes about her discovery of the pleasures of knitting. She’s a novice knitter, and there are holes – three – in the striped rug she is making for her soon-to-arrive grandson. But she doesn’t care, she’s far too wrapped up in the joys of knitting – and of hearing too, but that’s another blog.

(It suddenly occurs to me that JD and I have much in common. We are of similar age, Jewish, both of us are writers, have been to Antarctica, we each have a hearing loss modified by judicious use of very expensive hearing aids, and we both like knitting.)

Unlike Diski, I’ve been knitting most of my life. Knitting is one of the few constructive occupations that allows you, simultaneously, to do something else equally constructive. Last winter for example, I knitted a poncho-cloak affair (in a beautiful maroon wool that felt like cashmere) while working my way through a few of the several thousand requiems that have been written in the past four hundred years. A vest for a friend took me through much of Schubert’s piano music. I caught up on a couple of years of podcasts from the CBC’s Big Ideas programme while knitting a perfect little jacket for the two-year-old daughter of Dot’s nephew. I have knitted through classic movies that I don’t want ever to forget, and TV series like Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad – both of which I dumped after the first couple of series: too much blood and too little character for me. Dexter, incidentally, did not produce the same reaction. I knitted through the five seasons of Madmen – very useful given my next novel will be set in the 1950s and sixties, all of West Wing (it was the best way of surviving the Howard years), and more recently Aaron Sorkin’s latest, Newsroom, which, at a time when I increasingly avoid newspapers and TV news and current affairs, reminded me how truly valuable good media can be.

And I have knitted to make life more bearable. When times are tough you just want to get through the hours. Like Margaret Drabble (see her recent book The Pattern in the Carpet) I have turned to jigsaws during bleak periods. But as well, Hollywood romantic schlock like Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle and The Way We Were have proved extremely useful; two or three of these movies and I can cross off another evening and head for bed. But there’s a self-esteem issue with this sort of entertainment: how to justify such a terrible waste of time when there are books to be read and articles to be written?

Knitting has saved me from self-castigation. I watch the romantic drivel and I knit. There’s a completed sleeve to show for the hours during which Richard Gere and Julia Roberts do their Pygmalion, rags-to-riches thing, and if I take into account all the old Meg Ryan movies I’ve watched there’s probably a whole jumper to show for them. Time which might otherwise be crazed with anxiety passes while I knit in front of the screen. And in the process friends and family receive regular gifts of woollies. (One of these friends, when I presented her with a sleeveless cardigan many years ago, said that wearing a hand-knitted gift shows that someone cares about you.)

The Memory Trap will be published in May. Bound proofs are already circulating in the world. The first review – in Bookseller and Publisher and fortunately a good one – has appeared. Instead of squirming in pre-publication anxiety I am knitting a very fetching rug. It’s a log cabin pattern, visually startling and very easy. The squares grow in number, the nights pass, by the time the book comes out I will have a finished rug. I should also be quite sane.

log cabin rug

POSTSCRIPT:

The rug is finished, and perfect timing too. Autumn is here bringing cool, rug-suitable nights. And The Memory Trap will be in the shops next week.

photo

BIOGRAPHICAL PLEASURINGS

In my youth I was in thrall to a lover who derided biography as a form of prurience. This was a long time ago when I was extremely impressionable –  particularly when it came to those whom I believed had serious intellectual clout. My lover, I was convinced, had the most serious of intellectual clout; I agreed with everything he said – the nonsense about biography was just the start of it. He was particularly scathing about those who would read the biography of a significant writer without having bothered to read the actual works. (This was during the major VirginiaWoolf-and-her-world excavations, when the Bloomsbury lives were devoured far more eagerly than the Bloomsbury writings.)  As far as I can remember – and like many people, I demonstrate a dedicated forgetfulness when it concerns times that reveal me as a fool – he made no mention of the biographies of major non-literary figures: kings and queens, nurses and judges, revolutionary leaders and explorers who never held a pen for long.

‘Prurience,’ he said. And of course he’s right. Where he was wrong and where I was so stupid, was believing there was anything wrong with this.

I have, this very week, finished proofing the pages of my new novel The Memory Trap. The next time I see the novel it will be a book. Between covers – and rather fetching covers I should add, thanks to the art department at HarperCollins. One of the main characters in The Memory Trap is the American, Elliot Wood, a biographer of ‘big women’; Elizabeth Hardwick, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Rhys have been his subjects. At one point in the novel he describes biography as ‘the ultimate peering into closets not your own,’ and at another he reveals the intrinsic satisfactions of the biographer, in particular, the privilege of exploring a whole life intimately. And it’s a very particular intimacy, he says, in that it does not demand that he, Elliot, change and compromise like, for example, the intimacy in his far-from-happy marriage. He loves his big woman of the moment, he can’t get enough of her.

I’m fascinated by people: why they behave as they do, how they come to be as they are. I’m particularly interested in the flaws and frailties of people, including the illusions and delusions that pock-mark any life. But there’s only so much poking into the lives of real people – friends, family, acquaintances – that is acceptable.

Herein lies the great satisfaction of fiction that you can plunge into the thick of the characters’ loves and frailties, their strengths and burdens, their mistakes and delusions, and no one is the least concerned about your prying, or your voracious curiosity. This is the case for all good fiction, both for readers and writers alike. And, in fact, fiction is particularly drawn to characters with deep flaws. It is not by chance that the great figures in fiction include the likes of Macbeth, Faust, Medea – not such a wholesome lot, but brilliant to read about, fascinating to know.

And it’s the case, too, with good biography. I have just finished reading Ray Monk’s biography of Robert J. Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, is often referred to as ‘the father of the bomb’. I’ve read a few biographies about him – I’ve long been drawn to the early nuclear physicists of the first half of the twentieth century, particularly the theorists, of which Oppenheimer was one. While most of these biographies are good, Monk’s is in a category of its own. Monk is interested in the complexities of the man, the seemingly contradictory actions that scored Oppenheimer’s life, and far more interested in these than, say, who he slept with. And Monk is also captivated by the science. This is the peak period of nuclear physics, when discoveries came so thick and fast, that it took the likes of an Oppenheimer to keep pace.

I first read Monk back in 1994. Dot gave me his biography of Wittgenstein as a birthday present. She had inscribed it ‘For A – Who doesn’t read biography, but who I’m hoping will make an exception for this one!!’ I was, at the time, still burdened with a few mad habits from old lovers. This gift for my birthday marked my conversion moment. I read Monk’s Wittgenstein, I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated by the portrayal of this complex man, in the same way as I would be caught by a complex character in a novel. When Monk’s Bertrand Russell came out a few years later – two wonderful volumes on another great and flawed man, I was similarly enthralled.

And now with his Oppenheimer.

What these three subjects have in common is their greatness, their uniqueness in fact, coupled with fundamental human frailties that in the end affected their work and the quality of life itself. Oppenheimer’s great flaw was his desire for acceptance and acknowledgement. This is a common enough desire, but it was its particularly American flavourings in Oppenheimer that unseated him. Oppenheimer’s desire was doused in patriotism – a deeply ironic quality given that the FBI dogged him for more than a decade convinced he was a Russian spy, and the AEC  (Atomic Energy Commission) finally withdrew his security clearance because of doubts of his loyalty. But in fact it was his loyalty and love for America that lead to his telling the lies that eventually were his undoing.

Oppenheimer is a fascinating man: great and flawed. And like Russell and Wittgenstein, he was an original thinker. This is another pleasure of Monk: he shows such a vigorous enjoyment in the technicalities of these men’s work, and he shares his joys and understandings with us.

Monk’s Oppenheimer, in fact all of his biographies, have started me thinking about great people, people who are at the very top of their profession, who do something they do not need to do – Oppenheimer’s lie about his friend Haakon Chevalier, Lance Armstrong’s taking of performance-enhancing drugs – and I am wondering how this behaviour would be manifest in a woman. What might her work be? Her family circumstances? The lover she has on the side? When and where might she live? I am feeling a strange pull to the 1950s.

I am, I realise, thinking about the next novel.

Ah, the freedom of it all.