I try very hard when writing reviews to avoid clichés and superlatives, like, say, “achingly beautiful” or “masterful”. But I think I’m going to use one for Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning debut novel A girl is a half-formed thing when I describe it as “searing”. I can’t think of a more apposite word. Yet I fear it too has been over-used to the point of meaninglessness. So, let’s try something else …
Once again I’m coming late to the read, and once again this is partly because it was scheduled by my reading group. All I can say is, wow. I’m not sure I’d go so far as Eleanor Catton’s “read it and be changed” commendation on the front of my edition, but I do agree with her “virtuosic” and “subversive”. It’s a gut-wrenching read.
The plot itself is simple enough. It’s the story of a family – a pious one-could-say-religiously-fanatical mother, a son who survived a serious brain tumour as a toddler, and the younger daughter. The tumour leaves the son somewhat brain-damaged and, of course, it returns. This tumour, the trauma of it, shapes their behaviour and defines their relationships. The story, which spans around 20 years, is told through the daughter and could, in one sense, be seen as coming-of-age. But. This. Tells. You. Nothing. Because …
This is not your typical first-person voice. Instead, we are in the head of the unnamed “girl”. We are there in her conscious unconsciousness (or, is it her semi-consciousness?) in which we hear what she’s experiencing in language that is – here’s another cliché – raw. By this I mean that the language is stripped of the mediation of a formalising narrator’s intellect. Instead it captures the immediate emotional truth of the girl’s experience as she grapples to make sense of her world. This is a book in which the style conveys the meaning as much as the words do.
How does McBride do this you are probably wondering (unless, of course, you’ve already read the book). Well, mostly by breaking, consistently, the rules of grammar and syntax. We are in the girl’s head, a place where, I believe McBride is saying, we rarely think in coherently formed sentences but in what I would call “impressions”. Take, for example, this description, on the first page, of the brother before his diagnosis:
I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feel the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.
To orient you, “she” is Mammy, “he” is the father who disappears two pages later, and “you” are the little boy, the girl’s brother. Most of the novel is addressed to him (that is “you”). One of the challenges of reading this book, and it is a challenge to read, is its pronouns. Once you’ve got a handle on them, and once you realise that they are all from the perspective of the girl, you are half way there.
Anyhow, there is easier syntax than the above when life is relatively calm but, when our “girl” is distressed such as when the truth of her brother’s situation can no longer be avoided, it collapses almost completely:
I walk the street. City. Running through my mouth. Running in my teeth the. My eyes are. All the things. The said the done what there what’s all this? That stuff. I could do. My. I walk the street. Who’s him there having a look at me he. Look at my. Tits. Ssss. Fuck word. No don’t. Fuck that. No. Will. Not that. Not. That. But. If I want to then I can do.
This is not the most extreme example – I don’t want to spoil too much – but it should demonstrate what I mean by the language mirroring/enacting/even being her state of mind.
In addition to the idiosyncratic syntax, McBride draws on wide range of literary techniques to keep us focused on, grounded in the emotions of the here and now. The imagery is visceral, returning again and again to “muck”, “dirt”, “blood”, and “puke”. She alters her rhythms to match the tone, not only through the syntax as evident in the examples above, but through allusions to and repetitions of prayers and hymns, lines from children’s games, literary works and sayings. She makes up new words (“I trup trup off behind her”), mangles existing words (“swoll” for “swollen”), and twists common expressions (“There’s a foul there’s a wind where’s the air”). McBride was inspired by Joyce she says, but her fresh, fearless, urgent language reminded me too at times of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The novel is clearly set in Ireland and there are odd references to 1980s technology like Game Boys, but overall place and time are unspecified, and none of the characters are named. All this keeps the focus squarely on the emotional core of a family in pain, and the girl in particular. She is abused by her uncle at the age of thirteen and begins a strange love-hate, violent-tender, but sick, relationship with him. Sex becomes for her a weapon, a tool and a punishment. But the book is not about this, that is, it’s not yet another book about abuse. It is about the girl’s inability to handle her emotional pain, and her family’s inability to see her need, it’s about growing up unsupported. She is complicit in her own degradation because for her physical pain is better than the emotional. Like those who self-harm, she seeks out abuse again and again because
… what’s wrong here is me me me. Me the thing but I. Think I know. Is that the reason for what’s happened? Me? The thing. Wrong.
I know this all sounds unremittingly bleak and it largely is, but there are light touches – blackly comic scenes, surprising word plays, and chuckle-inducing descriptions (like her mother’s friends, “they polyester tight-packed womanhood aflower in pink and blue”).
A girl is a half-formed thing is hard to read style-wise and painful to read content-wise. But it is a book that, if you let it, reaches deep into your core and makes you understand the lives of others in a way that only the best literature can. I’m so very glad I read it.
John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante also liked it.
A girl is a half-formed thing
London: Faber and Faber, 2014
Did the title of this post grab your attention? It grabbed mine so dramatically when I came across it that I immediately abandoned my plans for today’s post – they can wait – to tell you about it.
The first thing to say about it is that it’s not what you think, if indeed like me you immediately thought of Patrick White’s Voss. I was impressed. We have prizes named for authors and sponsors but I hadn’t come across one named for a literary work. Have you? Well, as it turns out, I still haven’t because this award was named for its benefactor, Vivian Robert La Vaux Voss, who conceived it in 1955 – two years before Patrick White’s Voss was published. Hmmm … 1955 and I’ve only heard of it now? This is where the story becomes even more interesting.
I read about this award in one of my favourite on-line journals, The Conversation. The author, and one of the prize’s judges, Anthony Uhlmann, describes its genesis. Vivian Voss, according to Uhlmann, had a “an early career of brilliant promise”. He apparently won many prizes at the University of Sydney and the University of Rome but died in 1963, when he was just 33 years old. His grandfather, Frances Henry Vivian Voss, and mother, Harriette Martha Voss, were both medical practitioners and both appear in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) for their medical and community work. According to ADB, his grandfather “indulged his love of literature in his fine private library”. The family was wealthy, which must be why Vivian Voss was able to create the Voss Litrary Prize in the will he wrote in 1955. In this will, he envisaged the prize being overseen “by five professors at his alma mater, the University of Sydney: the Professor of Latin, the Professor of English, the Professor of French, the Professor of Italian, the Professor German”. They were to grant the prize to the best novel, “published or unpublished”, in the world! He clearly wasn’t thinking small!
Uhlmann says that the prize was offered to several major universities, all of whom turned it down. It was then offered to the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL), but they already had a literary award*. So, it was offered to the “newly formed Australian University Heads of English” (AUHE) who “gratefully accepted it”. Uhlmann doesn’t explain over which time period all this occurred, but it sounds like this last offer was made fairly recently. And, in fact, an AUHE press release seems to explain the timing, stating that “a life tenant in Vivian’s Estate received estate income until his death in 2012″. Ah, so the money, it seems, was tied up, which is why the first award is only now being made. The prize in 2014, this same press release says, will be $6,500.
There is now a website for the award, which describes it as:
a new award dedicated to the memory of Vivian Robert Le Vaux Voss (1930-1963), an historian and lover of literature from Emu Park in Central Queensland who studied History and Latin at the University of Sydney and modern languages at the University of Rome.
As far as I can tell, the award seems to be now limited to Australian publications.
Now to the first awarding of the prize. Uhlmann names his co-judges: Brenda Walker (novelist whose Poe’s cat languishes in my TBR, University of Western Australia), Philip Butterss (whose An unsentimental bloke I recently reviewed, University of Adelaide), Brigitta Olubas (University of New South Wales), and Amanda Nettlebeck (University of Western Sydney). They shortlisted the following novels:
- Hannah Kent’s Burial rites (my review)
- Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest
- Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (my review)
- Tim Winton’s Eyrie
- Alexis Wright’s The swan book
(You can see the longlist on their site).
And the winner, announced on Wednesday November 19, 2014, at the annual meeting of the AUHE, is Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest. I have had this novel on my radar since I saw the first reviews start to come through for it at the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. I now have it in my possession – and just need to find time to read it.
I have spent quite a bit of time, I know, on this award – but I thought it was an interesting story and hoped you would think so too. It will be an interesting one to follow – but, I know I will always do a double-take when I see its name!
* The ALS Gold Medal, which was awarded this year to Alexis Wright’s The swan book.
I’m pushing it really with my heading, as for many the literary aspect of the National Portrait Gallery’s In the Flesh exhibition would be a passingly noticed sideline, but for me it added significantly to my enjoyment. It helped of course that I found the following in the first room:
It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days more than enough for others. (Jane Austen, Sense and sensibility)
I like it when exhibition curators draw parallels between different art forms or, perhaps more accurately in this case, use evidence from one art form (in this case literature) to comment or elucidate another (here, figurative art).
Exhibition curator Penelope Grist describes* the exhibition as being about “humanness – the experience of a mind enfleshed in a body”. She goes on to say that “relationships between the human mind, flesh and lifespan underpin the nature of portraiture”. But wait … are these portraits? Technically not, I think, not if we understand “portrait” to mean the depiction of a specific person. While individuals may have modelled for works in this exhibition, they are not, with an exception or two, identified. Given the subject matter of the works, I don’t see this as a problem. Categories are sometimes best left fluid.
This exhibition looks at the idea of “humanness” through ten themes – Intimacy, Empathy, Transience, Transition, Vulnerability, Alienation, Restlessness, Reflection, Mortality and Acceptance – which are, in themselves, interesting. I can imagine the fun the curators had in deciding these ten themes. They are an eclectic bunch, but they make sense. The works exhibited vary in form and come from ten contemporary figurative artists: Natasha Bieniek, Robin Eley, Yanni Floros, Juan Ford, Petrina Hicks, Sam Jinks, Ron Mueck, Jan Nelson, Michael Peck and Patricia Piccinini. I like art but keep up with it erratically, so was really only familiar with two of these: Ron Mueck and Patricia Piccinini.
So, where does the literature come in? Well, as you’ve probably guessed already, each of the themes is introduced with a quote. Jane Austen’s introduces the theme of Intimacy. In her article, Grist explains that:
The contemporary art of In the Flesh takes the weight of the thousands of years that human minds have expressed in art their struggle to comprehend the existence, transformation and demise of the human body. The ten quotations from Shakespeare to The Doors that accompany each theme reference this legacy.
I’m not sure why she limits her comment here to “the human body”, unless she doesn’t mean it literally, because the quotations themselves refer more widely to the condition of being human. And the rest of her article encompasses a broader concept of “humanness”.
I’m not going to discuss the ten themes in detail, and I’m not going to include a lot of images**. Instead, I’m going to briefly discuss my responses to two of the works to exemplify how one can enjoy this exhibition.
The first room is devoted to Intimacy, and it contains works by sculptor Sam Jinks, one being “Unsettled Dogs”. I was captivated by this. It’s tender, fragile. They look paradoxically trusting and vulnerable (another of the themes) as well as intimate. But it’s also disconcerting, because of the dog-heads. Grist explains this: “the dog-headed cynocephalus of ancient and medieval imagination reminding of the human capacity for destructive irrationality within intimate relationships”. I have always seen dogs as benign not destructive creatures, but the sculpture does indeed capture the tension contained in this classical concept. Perhaps it’s also because the dog heads are fox-like which we Aussies definitely equate with destruction.
Another work in which a cultural context affected my “reading” is Juan Ford’s painting, “The Reorientalist” (2013). It is in the Reflection theme, and is a large, arresting, powerful piece. Grist talks about the “motif of the play-weapon” confronting “the notion of the natural self”. She says the works displayed in this section are not about glorifying war but questioning why we are interested in war as children, raising ideas of “innocence and experience”. The curator at the Dianne Tanzer Gallery says of this work:
Standing strong, grasping staff-like branches as if to communicate his allegiance to nature’s side of the war. Bound in industrial detritus, this figure wears a tribal outfit that might be conjured from a Mad Max film, like a lone-warrior of both painting and the wild – and a caricature of himself as the artist. The title itself suggests a challenge to the colonialist tendencies of the painting traditions he seeks to subvert, redirecting their Orientalist imperatives into the wilderness; an exorcism performed by an Absurdist shaman.
I can see the tension between children, play and weapons, and I appreciate Ford’s wanting to subvert colonialist traditions. However, in the current environment of concern about the radicalisation of young Australian men, this work had another layer for me. Am I over-thinking it? It certainly made me ponder how art can take on different meanings according to circumstance.
These are just two of the 63 works in the exhibition, most of which made me stop and think. If you are in Canberra over the next few months, I recommend you make time to visit this exhibition. Meanwhile, I will close on the literary reference used for the theme of Transience, partly because it’s by William Cowper who was one of Jane Austen’s favourite poets:
The lapse of time and rivers is the same,
Both speed their journey with a restless stream;
The silent pace, with which they steal away,
No wealth can bribe, nor prayers persuade to stay …
(William Cowper, “A comparison”)
The ultimate description of our “humanness”!
* “In the Flesh: an exhibition of humanness in ten themes” in NPG’s magazine Portrait #47 (Spring/Summer 2014). Currently for sale but will, I believe, be available online on the magazine’s site down the track. The article includes excellent images from the exhibition.
** I’m not totally sure of copyright issues, and I don’t want to detract from the exhibition itself, so I’ve just included a couple of my poor quality iPad images of works that the NPG has used on its website. You can click on the images to see them bigger, though not necessarily better! I am assuming that my use here is covered by fair dealing for criticism or review.
Hands up if you’re an Aussie and didn’t read Ethel Turner’s Seven little Australians in your childhood. Surely no hands have gone up? Seven little Australians, her first novel, was published in 1894 when she was 24, and was an instant hit, eventually becoming a classic. According to Wikipedia, it was, in 1994 (and may still be), “the only book by an Australian author to have been continuously in print for 100 years”. It seemed only right then that I should choose Ethel Turner‘s Tales from the “Parthenon” for my third foray into the bundle of juvenilia books I bought back in April from Juvenilia Press.
Like Juvenilia Press’ other publications that I’ve read to date, Tales from the “Parthenon” contains a wealth of supporting material besides the actual juvenilia, including an in-depth introduction, notes on the text, endnotes and footnotes, an appendix, and a list of references.
Ethel Turner (1870-1958) and Mary Grant Bruce (1878 – 1958), whose juvenilia was the first I wrote on, were contemporaries, and, according to the Introduction, “dominated the market for children’s fiction in Australia”. However, while Bruce focused on the bush, and the national character as exemplified by bush living, Turner, whose career started earlier, had, says the Introduction, “already moved away from that tradition and firmly established her fiction in suburban Sydney”. The Introduction also tells us a little about Turner’s early writing career, at school and then immediately post-school. At school she and her sister, Lilian, established a magazine Iris when the school’s newspaper, Gazette, which was edited by another Australian writer-in-training, Louise Mack, rejected Ethel’s contributions!
Turner left school in 1888, and in 1889 she and her sister established another magazine, the Parthenon, which ran from 1 January 1889 to 4 April 1892. An impressive effort methinks for two young women. As you will have now gathered from the title of this volume, it is from this magazine that Pamela Nutt and her team have chosen works to represent Turner’s youthful writing.
While the focus on urban/suburban life and settings is one point of interest in Turner’s writing, another is her awareness of gender issues (though she wouldn’t of course have used such language). This is made clear in the Parthenon’s first issue in which they identified their goals. They wrote that their great grandmothers had learnt to write and spell, and their grandmothers had added “French, the harp and pianoforte, and the use of globes”, but
now the desire for knowledge in rapidly growing: deeper and deeper, woman goes into the mazy labyrinth, untrodden before by any but men’s footsteps,—culling the flowers of knowledge,—yes, and enjoying them, and appreciating them even as much as men do.
Ethel Turner was active during the first wave of feminism in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. While this early wave didn’t reject women’s domestic role and function, it did argue for women’s rights and recognition of intellectual equality. Turner fits within this paradigm. The Introduction suggests that her novel Miss Bobbie, of which an earlier serialised version appeared in Parthenon, promotes “vigour and independence” in young women but situates this within a world still framed by “patriarchal expectations”.
The Introduction mentions a third way in which Turner contributes to Australia’s literary tradition: incorporating Australian elements into traditional English fantasy. The pieces in this volume have been well-chosen to reflect all these aspects of her writing. They are all children’s pieces – “Gladys and the fairies” (in 2 chapters), “A dreadful pickle” (in 3 chapters), both published in 1889, and chapter 3 of “Bobbie” from 1890. And all feature spirited if not naughty girls. Jane Gleeson-White, in her Australian classics: 50 great writers and their celebrated works, quotes Turner’s opening to Seven little Australians:
Before you fairly start this story, I should give you just a word of warning. If you think you are going to read of model children, with perhaps a naughtily inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately … Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.
Gleeson-White’s point is that Turner may have been called Australia’s Louisa May Alcott, but her children are very different. And these juvenilia pieces show her moving down that path. Gladys is “dreadfully spoilt” and behaves tyrannically. However, time in Shadowland and Fairyland, forces her to rethink her ways, though not before she collapses in a typical Victorian faint! It is here we find English fairies in a new environment. Turner’s fairy queen rides in a chariot comprising “part of an emu’s egg, wondrously carved” with elfs* following, “dressed in yellow and riding locusts”.
Midge, the protagonist of “A dreadful pickle”, is also spoilt, and, like Gladys, treats her governess badly. However, she has a kind heart along with her independent spirit, and “wants to help poor people like those in London”. The story takes a Dickensian turn when Midge finds herself out of her depth and alone with some of these poor people. There’s some fun wordplay in this story – and I was intrigued by the note on the word “pallor” telling us that Turner used the American spelling that was popular in Australia at the time. The things you learn!
Then there’s Bobbie. We only have one chapter of her story. Bobbie, like Gladys and Midge, is in a household of boys, but in her case she’s been left there by her father who is travelling in Europe with his new wife. From the little excerpt we have, she seems to be a more developed character than Gladys and Midge, that is, less the typical spoilt child, but she too gets in a pickle when her perverse behaviour brings on teasing from one of the boys, with disastrous results. The notes on this story point out that Turner and Mary Grant Bruce “created strong female characters who challenged the Victorian stereotype of the submissive female”.
So, once again, I’ve enjoyed reading a well-known writer’s juvenilia, not just for evidence of the writer to come, but also for the insight provided into Turner’s times and the role her work plays in the development of Australian literature. These may be stories for children, written by girls, but the value of material like this for students of literature shouldn’t be underestimated.
(ed. Pamela Nutt, with students from Year 11, the Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney)
Tales from the “Parthenon”
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2014
* Turner’s plural form, not mine!
A couple of weeks ago, while I was having coffee with Australian Women Writers’ Challenge team member, Yvonne (of Stumbling Through the Past), she mentioned a project at the AustLit website, World War 1 in Australian Literary Culture. Given this year is the centenary – have you heard?! – of the start of the First World War, and given I’ve done nothing to date to recognise this, I thought I could salve my conscience by telling you about this project.
Coincidentally, author Annabel Smith (whose book, The ark, I reviewed recently), wrote a post just last week on war novels. War, she wrote, is one of the topics she tends to avoid reading, though she names a few war novels she does admire. My response was that I don’t avoid war books. Indeed, I’m often drawn to them – not to war genre adventure stories but to, I suppose, “literary war”. My reason is that in wars we can see the very best and very worst of people, and everything in between. Good writers can do so much with this. Then, on the weekend, I read a beautiful essay by Tim Winton in The Guardian about hospitals. I related to his comment that:
Wars and hospitals*; it’s a surprise we write about anything else. Hospitals make rich fictional settings because from the inside they are such chillingly plausible worlds unto themselves …
I like his reasoning, and would argue that wars too represent “chillingly plausible worlds unto themselves”.
So, back to AustLit. They introduce this part of their site by saying that it is
an AustLit research project expanding our coverage of the way the 1914-1918 war has appeared in literature, film, and other forms of storytelling from the conflict’s beginning to the present.
They have been working on it since 2012, and now have 5,000 records in the project encompassing a wide range of forms including “poetry, short stories, novels, plays, films, popular songs, children’s literature, biographies and personal accounts …” The main way they present these is through “curated exhibitions”, which are located in the sidebar as a randomly organised rather eclectic list of topics for exploration, such as Anzac Field Theatres, Sumner Locke: War Romances, Indigenous Diggers, Soldier and Nurse Writers, and Women Writing Women’s Roles. These pages provide links to further pages related to that topic. The site says that more of these “curated collections of data” will be added.
Through these “curated exhibitions” I discovered Sumner Locke, mother of well-known Australian writer, Sumner Locke Elliott, and unbeknownst to me, a prolific writer herself. She wrote plays, short stories and novels – with most of her output being “contemporary romance”, including war romances. AustLit tells us that:
When World War I broke out, Locke’s stories changed sharply.
She still wrote bright, fashionable romances and stories of selection life–but from November 1914, they were war stories and they were, more often than not, about women: wives coercing their husbands to enlist, wives convincing their husbands not to enlist, mothers struggling with the enlistments of their sons, women keeping rural communities running in the absence of men, sweethearts convincing their wounded lovers to marry them even in the absence of limbs or sight.
In all of them, Locke’s ironic tone shines through.
Sounds intriguing! And worth checking out methinks. Some stories can be found in Trove, either via the AustLit page or a search in Trove itself.
Now if, like me, you want to find a list of war novels, the way to do it is not apparently obvious, but I got there by clicking on another link in the sidebar titled Search and Explore the Data. This page provides a link to three “lists” (generated via pre-set search parameters so presumably the results list will grow as records are added to the database):
- Women Writers and the War
- Gallipoli Poetry
- Novels of World War 1
Clicking on links in the above pages should take you to a list of relevant works, but unfortunately there’s a bug which I’d hoped would be fixed by now**. Parts of the AustLit site is only accessible by subscribers. However, I believe this project is supposed to be accessible to all, so, if you are interested and can’t access it via a subscribing organisation, just keep trying.
If (or when) you can click the Novels link you will find a list of over 200 novels. You can sort it by various parameters, including date, reverse date, author. I was surprised to find that David Malouf’s Fly away Peter does not appear in the Novels of World War 1 because it is a novella. The novella is a unique form – and I love the fact that they specifically index that – but I think that most people looking at a list of novels about the First World War would expect to find Malouf there.
However, it is an excellent resource, providing a comprehensive survey of a centenary of First World War literature. If you hover your mouse over a title, an abstract may pop up, though this is not universal. On the admittedly rare occasion where AustLit has located an online version of a novel – such as in Trove or Project Gutenberg – they provide a link. One example is Scottish writer RW Campbell’s The Kangaroo Marines, published in 1915. Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 2:
Sam Killem, Commanding Officer of the Kangaroo Marines, sat in his Recruiting Office chewing a cigar in the usual Australian style. Now and again he looked at his recruiting figures and smiled. “Five hundred men in three days,” he mused. “Not bad for you, Sam; and good stuff at that”–for Sam was a judge of men. He was a squatter and as rich as Croesus. His big, bony frame spoke of strength, while his eye and face told the tale of shrewdness and resource. He was forty, and successful. Three hundred miles of land was chartered as his own. His sheep were counted in thousands, and his brand as familiar as a postage stamp. Yet, in all his struggles for success, Sam had found time to be a patriot. He had served as a Tommy in the African War, and since then had commanded a corps of mounted men in the back of beyond. He was the fairest yet fiercest, the most faithful and fearless man in the force. A man who disobeyed his orders always received a knock-out blow, for Sam boxed like a pro, and hit like a hammer.
Hmm … “the fairest yet fiercest, the most faithful and fearless man in the force”. There’s some alliteration run amok! Campbell says in his preface that he wanted “to write deep in the annals of our literature and military history this supreme devotion, this noble heroism” of the ANZACS. It’s not an official history, but his attempt to picture the war. “The cloak of fiction”, he says, “has here and there been wound round temperamental things as well as around some glorious facts.”
Even if I don’t read more of this book, I love that AustLit has enabled me to dip into it. I do hope they keep producing projects like this and BlackWords (on which I’ve posted before).
* You never know, but you may see a post in the future on Australian hospital literature!
** I notified “the bug” over a week ago.
When I read a memoir, particularly one by an unknown person like Jill Sanguinetti’s School days of a Methodist lady, my first question is why was this memoir written? Sally Morgan’s My place, for example, explores how she discovered her indigenous origins and why her family had kept this hidden, while Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes chronicles the extreme poverty of his childhood. Not surprisingly, many memoirs, like these two, examine the writer’s childhood – that formative time in our lives – and Jill Sanguinetti’s is no exception.
So, why did Sanguinetti write her memoir? In her opening letter to the reader she says she’s written it for the MLC community, for young people “struggling to grow through life’s complexities”, and for herself to air “a dark and musty corner of my soul”. This breadth is a bit of a shame because it means the memoir doesn’t have a core purpose that propels it along like, say, Morgan’s and McCourt’s. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book, mainly because of its subject, Sanguinetti’s school days. The main focus is her four years as a boarder at Melbourne’s prestigious MLC (Methodist Ladies College), but it starts with her childhood in the small country town of Kyabram in northern Victoria.
Now, I wasn’t a boarder and I didn’t attend a prestigious private school, but I am a baby-boomer, as is Sanguinetti. This means that, although I went to government schools in two Queensland towns and then Sydney, and although I’m a later baby-boomer, we shared a similar world, and I enjoyed wandering down memory lane with her. I remember the freer childhood of a 1960s country town, and singing hymns with my sister after church. I remember the Billy Graham Crusades (though unlike Sanguinetti, I didn’t attend one). Elvis was well established by the time I was a teen, so my rock ‘n roll memories are of the Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival and the Stones, but our ways of enjoying them through our radios was similar. And I remember the formality of schools in those post-war decades. Sanguinetti tells all this with a simple, straightforward clarity.
What helped keep my interest, too, was the memoir’s structure. While it is roughly chronological, starting with the family’s move to Kyabram in 1951 when she was 6, and ending with her leaving MLC in 1961, most of the chapters in between are thematic allowing her to explore these aspects of her life in more depth. And so there’s a chapter on church (“My family at church”), and one on friendships (“The gift of girlfriends”), a chapter on school discipline (“Discipline and resistance”), and another on boys (“The embarrassing problem of boys”). And so on. I particularly enjoyed her chapter on four inspirational teachers (“Matriculation: Four Great Teachers”). Don’t we all have them? This departing from a formal chronological structure, yet still moving the time on, enables the book to function as a meaningful social history of the time within the broader narrative.
I started my post with “my first question”, but I do have others about memoir-writing, a major one being how writers manage to remember so much. My memory of my childhood is woeful, patchy at best. I appreciate that when you get down to it memories come, but still … Well, Sanguinetti covers this issue both directly and indirectly in her book – within the main text and in her Acknowledgements. Her own memory is of course critical, but she was lucky that her parents kept the letters she (and her sister) wrote home while at boarding school. How useful for a childhood memoir, methinks, to have gone to boarding school! There is a trap in this, though, because your memory can be swayed by what you wrote in your letters. Indeed, Sanguinetti quotes, from one of her letters, an experience from her schooldays, and then writes:
I have no recollection of the dormitory prayer circle and doubt that it lasted long.
What significance, then, should we grant this experience in her memoir? How often, I wonder, does this happen in memoirs without our knowing? The significance depends a bit on the intention of the memoir. If it is intended to be a social history of a place or time, or a nostalgia piece, then it’s probably just as significant as events more clearly remembered, but if the memoir’s focus is the experiences that formed the writer, does something not remembered carry equal weight as one consciously remembered? (Hmm … let’s not answer that lest we become mired in psychological theory!) I should add here that Sanguinetti had other sources – written and oral – for her work. Some are mentioned in her Acknowledgements, and others in her useful, well worth reading, Chapter Notes.
Now, let’s return to my original question: why did Sanguinetti write this memoir? Throughout the book she hints at or foreshadows something darker, and we gradually realise it is depression of some sort. Around the middle of the book (“Angst”), she says that “I believe today that it was the sustained stress that harmed me in the long term, rather than separation from home or the privations of boarding”. This chapter ends with:
I was up and down like a yo-yo, revelling in the buzz and stimulation of school life one moment, and languishing in anxiety, regulation and grey ordinariness the next. I knew that other girls whose marks were not brilliant did not tackle their work with the same intensity as I did, nor did they get in a muddle, or be all up and down as I was. And why was I blighted with ever-stiffening fingers and crazy handwriting. What was it about me?
While she suggests misery, and mentions that her sister “too, started to show signs of depression”, she doesn’t develop this or make us “feel” her pain, which makes it easy for us to dismiss it as “typical” adolescent ups and downs. However, from a reference, in the post-school concluding chapters, to a breakdown, it was clearly more than that. For her, she says, the memoir “would free myself from that particular set of ghosts” left from her MLC experience, but for us it is a well-written, analytical, and yes, interesting story about Australian school and society in the 1950s to early 1960s.
Thinking about all this, I was reminded of Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a woman’s life in which she worries that in autobiographies “nostalgia, particularly for childhood, is likely to be a mask for anger”. This is not a nostalgia piece, though – it’s too real in her evocation of boarding-school hunger, cold and lack of freedom to be that – but it does feel as though she throttled back. Indeed, she says as much through her choice of epigraph:
Perhaps the only point about autobiography is to remember a world which, by the time of writing, has changed so much as almost to vanish, and to record the succession of changes … How to look back, not in anger, but in reflection, is a problem I had to solve. For the small, enclosed world I began in had its concealments and anguishes as well as joys. (Judith Wright)
Sanguinetti, I realise, headed me off at the pass, before she began. She’s done what she intended – and done it well. Still, a little anger mightn’t have gone astray.
(Review copy courtesy Wild Dingo Press)
This post is not quite on my usual topic. It’s about a little linguistic issue that’s been bothering me of late – though it’s been around for a little while now. It’s this …
When you order food at a restaurant or cafe, what do you say? “May I have a long black please” or “I’d like the steak, medium rare, thanks”? Both of these sound reasonable to me, with the former being more formally correct. I did a little Google search, as you do, and I found English lessons for ordering in restaurants. At maltalingua.com, the recommendation is “I’d like the …” or, perhaps, “I’ll have the …”. Another site, elementalenglish.com, also suggests “I’ll have the …”. A third site, speakenglish.co.uk, suggests “I’ll have the …” too. “I’ll have the …” sounds a fair enough response when a server asks you what you’d like from a menu, though I’d prefer “I’d like the …”. But …
Where do the expressions that I seem to be hearing frequently now come from? The expressions I’m talking about are “Can I get …”, “Can I grab …”, or, less common, “I’ll take …”. Who is going to do the “getting”, “grabbing”, and “taking”? The customers? No, they are going to be sitting at the table or standing at the counter waiting for the staff to bring the items to them. So, why this form of ordering? It sounds less polite to me (though tone of voice can modify this). Does it matter? Am I being too pedantic?