We are able to find everything in our memory, which is like a dispensary or chemical laboratory in which chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison. Marcel Proust.
I have long thought of the Memoirs project under this title. The longer I live the more I realise how true it is. I have always been just outside the inside, at the edge of worlds which others seem to inhabit so naturally and comfortably. Sometimes it is a drawing, with the edge of a figure just inside it, the rest suspended just beyond, unable to enter. I wrote a little poem about it many years ago:
Spangled Ann was an also ran
In the great cartoon of life
Always a little outside the frame
She stayed in the picture just the same
Till the Great illustrator
Took his eraser
And cruelly rubbed her out.
These days I guess it would be a matter of pressing the “Delete” button.
Volume 1 of the Memoirs is written but needs editing. It covers things up to when I was about to start at Sydney University, at the age of seventeen. My son Daniel and my granddaughter Lily read it. Dan suggested some corrections. Lily liked it. I sent her a printout with a photo of my seventeen year old self on the cover. I still don’t have a title.
I haven’t been able to start on the second volume which is by far the scariest since it takes me back to almost unthinkable days of the 1960s when everyone was young, everything was new, and I began the deluded existence, so full of confidence and joie-de-vivre, which led me ultimately to the straits of desolation.
There is another volume of the Memoirs, one which belongs temporally near the end but is likely to be published second. It’s called A Dying Year, 2008, the year both my mother and my ex-husband died. Joan Didion’s 2005 book about her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking was deeply affecting (her recent book on ageing, Blue Nights, is another unforgettable work).
I’m so glad I didn’t publish my memoir then, because the passage of the next nine years has served to bring the awfulness of my own behaviour into ever more powerful focus and when I come to re-edit that part of the story it will be even more – what? – vivid? scary? cringeworthy? – than it is now. It won’t be the final volume, though – unless I pass on in the meantime of course – because what came after that is even more scarifying, and who knows maybe even that won’t be the end because if we aren’t dead we just go on living and as long as we are alive more stuff keeps on happening and if you can’t help being a writer then you can’t help writing about it. Or at least I can’t.
The Memoirs project is currently inspired by the writings of two recent authors. While I still haven’t managed to read the whole of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus My Struggle (Volume Six still isn’t published in English anyway and some of them I just haven’t been able to get through) the way he wrote and published has been an inspiration.
I really appreciated the way he didn’t feel obliged to follow the temporal sequence of his existence, but came out with things in what seemed to be almost episodically random order. The first published in English was A Death in the Family and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing of that kind to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things like most of us do, but she was nothing like the kind of horror he described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I still thought I had to excel in my career. I still thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.
Like most English readers I was gripped by Knausgard’s second volume, A Man in Love, about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a woman’s story, now by a man.Well, apart from the lusting after the teacher bit, although I suppose even that can happen in these denormative times.
His other books had less to say to me, and I haven’t finished them all. Still, they are there on my Kindle and I dip in and out of them every once in a while. For all the sense of alienation and irritation Knausgard is able to stir in me, I like the way he is trying to grapple with himself and come to terms with what a shit he was most of the time.
The second memoirist I must mention is the insanely popular Elena Ferrante (not. All the hoo-haa about who she “really” is has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary activity). On the other hand, though, there might be something to it because everything she has written seems to me completely fake. I really and truly cannot read it. I have tried, started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and honestly I have to say I just don’t get it.
One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century, Ferrante is the feminine counterpart. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, now largely ignored, it would seem that Ferrante works from the classic masochistic feminine position which a great many women still seem to find compelling and truthful for them.
Knausgaard on the other hand seems to me to exemplify the masochistic hysterical masculinism which our times have produced. This is not the place to conduct a forensic analysis of these writings, which whom loom so large over the recent “serious” reading scene. But it has been the experience of tangling with them both which has sharpened up so powerfully my sense of what Memoirs can, or maybe cannot, do. So thanks to them both!