Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only the swallows were free (Review)

Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only swallows were free

Courtesy: Hybrid Publishers

Do you differentiate memoir from autobiography? I do. For me, a memoir, such as Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, deals with a specific aspect of a person’s life, such as a sportsman writing about his career when he retires from it or a person writing about her growing up, like, say, Alice Pung‘s Unpolished gem. An autobiography, on the other hand, I see as something more holistic, something written near the end of one’s life and summing up its entirety. What do you think?

Gabrielle Gouch was born in Transylvania, Romania to parents who’d both fled anti-Semitic Hungary. She moved elsewhere in Romania with her family before they emigrated to Israel, without her older half-brother, when she was around 20. A few years later, she emigrated on her own to Australia which has remained her home ever since. This is the basic chronology of her life, but Gouch is not really interested in telling us this story chronologically – and in fact, she’s not really interested in telling us the story of her life. What interests her is the brother, Tom, left behind. She wants to know about his life during and post communism in Romania. She also wants to know about the gaps in her knowledge of the family.

Gouch therefore doesn’t tell the story in a simple chronology. While she clearly signposts where you are as you read, I found it a little disconcerting to start with, until I felt familiar with the places and people she was writing about. This, however, could be due to other things going on in my life as I started this book. The memoir starts in 1990 with her first return to Transylvania after “the collapse of communism. The eternal and invincible communism”. A return that took place 25 years after she had left. As the book progresses, she visits Cluj several times, catching up with her brother, learning about her family. It’s a sad story – not surprisingly. Tom’s mother, the much beloved, vivacious Hella, died in childbirth. His – and eventually Gabrielle’s – father, Stefan, married the nanny, refugee Roza, hired in to look after the physically handicapped Tom. (As far as I can tell, his condition is hemiplegia, probably caused by the forceps birth). Roza and Stefan went on to have two children – Gabrielle and, somewhat later, Yossi – but country girl Roza was never accepted by Stefan’s well-to-do family.

The book proper starts in 1962 with the family expecting permission to migrate to Israel to arrive any minute. Of course, it doesn’t – and it is not until some 40 or so pages and three years later that they are finally able to leave. They leave without Tom, now well into his twenties, but exactly why this is so is not understood by Gouch. During the course of the book she finds out why – and she finds out what Tom’s life was like under the communist regime. It’s a very interesting story, and once you master the time shifts across the book’s seven parts, it’s a very readable one. The very short Part 2, for example, returns to the opening of the book, her return in 1990. Then Part 3 jumps to 2002 and another trip of hers “home”. From then on the focus is her time with Tom and the stories she gradually pieces together.

Gouch is a good writer. Her language is expressive, but not over-done. That is, she has some lovely turns of phrase that capture moments and people well. Here, for example, she describes her family’s reaction when her mother says something surprising:

We looked at her as if she had made her way into our home by the back door somehow, a woman we had never met before.

And I like this simple description of children:

Well, children are like shares, you never know how they will turn out.

There are two main threads in the book, one being life under communism, as experienced by Tom, and the other being the life of the emigrant, as experienced by her family. The book is enlightening for people interested in either of these topics, but I’m going to highlight the second, the emigrant’s life, because she explains it beautifully – from the tough life her parents experienced in Israel to her own experience of dislocation from culture. She writes, as she starts to reconnect with her brother:

Noone ever told me that you cannot turn physical distance into emotional one, you cannot forget your native country, you cannot give up your mother tongue. It deadens you inside.

She gives one of the best descriptions of the relationship of language to culture that I have read. She meets an old professor who had chosen to stay living under the repressive regime because, he said, “This is my native land, my language. I belong here.” She writes:

His words lingered. ‘My native land, my language.’ For most people, the sound of Hungarian is awkward; for me it is poetry and delight. When I say ‘flower’ in English I refer to a plant with petals and colours. But the word in Hungarian, virág, sounds to me melodious and joyful. Yes, you can learn to speak a language, you can even learn to think in a language but will you feel the same joy and sadness at the sound of those words? Feel the black desperation or be uplifted by hope? Will the word love evoke the same tenderness and ardour? I don’t think so.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeGouch also writes about “history”, about the impact on people of living through some of history’s trickiest times, as her family had. Her description of her father’s life – a loving father who had worked hard – is heart-rending:

A man who was a Jew but not Jewish enough, an Israeli but not quite, a Hungarian Jew among Romanians and a Jew among Hungarians. Finally he left this world with its divisive nationalisms, ideologies and religions which had marred most of his life. He was just another man on whom history had inflicted its painful and murderous pursuits: Nazism, the Second World War, the communist dictatorship, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli religiosity. History had match-made him, history had controlled his life. It was over. He joined the infinite Universe.

I’ve possibly quoted too much, but Gouch’s words are powerful and worth sharing.

“Knowledge”, Gouch’s father once told her, “is your only possession”. Once, only the swallows were free is a story of discovery for Gouch, but for us, it provides a window into a particular place, time and experience that most of us know little about. The knowledge, the understanding, we gain from reading it is a precious thing.

Gabrielle Gouch
Once, only the swallows were free: A memoir
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2013
ISBN: 9781921665998

(Review copy supplied by Hybrid Publishers)

24 thoughts on “Gabrielle Gouch, Once, only the swallows were free (Review)

  1. Sounds like a beautiful book.

    I see a difference between memoir and autobiography too. I see autobiography as something more formal, and like you say, spanning the whole life. Memoir is less formal, can even be chatty, and seems to me to be more experiential and limited in scope.

  2. Sounds like a very interesting and moving book, Sue. I’m interested too in the time shifts. People seem to find them difficult to get into, but once the rhythm takes hold it makes the book that much more involving, at least for me. I take as my model Arthur Miller’s wonderful Time Bends – a full-fledged autobiography – but autobiography, shmautobiography, memoir, shmemoir. Yes there’s a difference but what does it matter? And Gouch’s father’s telling her ‘Knowledge is your only possession’. That is such a Jewish thing – my mother’s version was ‘They can never take away what you have in your head’ – but it would apply to anyone who emigrates, any refugee, anyone who makes her home outside her native land.

    • Thanks Sara. No I don’t really think it matters either, but I’ve seen it raised around the traps recently so I thought I’d give my definition, because I think the terms are being used differently. In the end though, what matters is whether you’re interested in that person or topic and whether it is well-written, isn’t it. I haven’t heard of Arthur Miller’s. Sounds like something I’d like.

      I hadn’t thought about her father’s comment in those terms, but as soon as you mentioned it, I realised of course, knowledge, education too, are Jewish things. I love Jewish culture, says she sweepingly! The idea would apply to all emigrants and the like as you say, but not all would express it that way.

  3. You question whether or not you have quoted too much but it was your final quote about the father which tipped the scales for me and made me say that now i DO want to read that book.”He was just another man on whom history had inflicted its painful and murderous pursuit” That creates such a picture in my mind.

    • Well, thank you lazy coffees. As the post writer, I appreciate your letting me know – and I’m sure the author will be thrilled that it’s inspired you to read her book. It’s a wonderful – and heartfelt – line isn’t it?

  4. For me, autobiography is the chronicling of the events of a life, while a memoir is an investigation, a “story of discovery” as you describe Gouch’s book. Autobiography uses a straight time line from beginning to end, whereas memoir portrays life as it is reconstituted by memory, using a double vantage point – then and now – so that time is used in non-chronological ways. A good memoir requires art as well as memory, and your quotes demonstrate the quality of Gouch’s memoir. I find memoirs much more interesting than autobiography, but some are disappointing. Neil Genzlingers’ rule for memoir writers is: “If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.” Thanks for your spirited review.

    • Ah, nicely said Bryce – you’ve reflected pretty much as I see it. Sara says, autobiography doesn’t have to be straight linear, and I take her point. It never does to have rules, but the distinction you make is how I think it generally plays out. I understand what you mean about memoirs being more interesting – though of course that’s a generalisation too isn’t it. Some of those just-retired-sportsperson (or other celebrity) “memoirs” can be pretty ordinary chronicling of events and achievements without a lot of reflection.

      BTW I would say though that autobiography is also reconstructed from memory?

      • Yes, whenever we categorise we run into trouble because the categories grade into each other. Both autobiography and memoir are reconstructed from memory but memoir often reflects the process of recollecting. Perhaps a better way of putting it: a good memoir deals more with themes, while many autobiographies focus on events.

        • Thanks for expanding your definition Bryce … it makes sense as a generalisation about the difference and I think generalisation is the best we can do isn’t it? I’d certainly agree that memoirs as I see them tend to be more thematic.

  5. I think I can find memoir more interesting than biography – sometimes, when it is “a story of discovery”. The Gouch book sounds very interesting and I must look it up. Australia must have produced some particularly fascinating emigrant accounts in its literature.

    • Thanks Ian … and yes, good point. I suspect that being a pretty new country made up largely of immigrants, we probably do have a relatively higher proportion of emigrant accounts in our literature than in the old world – some autobiography/memoir, some biography, and some fiction.

  6. I agree with your def. of autobiography and memoir. And this sounds like a very interesting book. I’m curious about how people adapt to a new land, a new language. But here as you said, is maybe more about the ‘left behind’ brother. And that’s interesting too… as a ‘control group’. 😉

    • yes, good comment Arti … I’m interested in that too, but while she talks generally about the challenges of emigration she doesn’t really talk about how she did it. I wonder if she might do a second book on that?

  7. Whispering gums, you wonder whether I will do a book on emigration. Probably not. But elements of my emigration to Australia will find their way into the fiction I am currently trying to write.

    I think most emigration stories are about the schism between dream and reality and how people overcome it. In this book I did recount what it was like when my dream of eight years -nourished by total lack of knowledge – met the reality of Israel.

    I also showed what emigration did to the older migrants and to my parents.
    However this is my brother’s story, the man left behind the Iron Curtain. But it is also the story of how politics & history affect people’s lives. War, communism, state imposed religiosity. Maybe about too many things.
    Thank you all for your interest in the book. Merry Christmas.

    Gabrielle Gouch

    • Thanks Gabrielle for visiting us and answering my question. I’ll be interested in what you have to say about emigration, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Your comment about emigration and dream versus reality makes great sense.

      I did particularly enjoy the perspective you provide on the impact of history on people’s lives. To paraphrase that famous writer, everyone is affected by history but some are more affected than others?

      Anyhow, I will happily read your fiction whenever it comes out! Happy writing!

  8. Very interesting review here. There is no way I would have read about this person unless you had written about her! I particularly liked your last quotation about the death of her father. We are like road-maps at the end of our lives aren’t we.

    Please forgive my neglect of your blog in recent months. I’ve been doing other things this year but hope to return to book reviewing next year. In the meantime I wish you a very happy Christmas.

  9. Your review came while I was away but I’m glad that I have found this on my return. Thankyou for sparking an interesting conversation about memoir vs autobiography. I don’t have a particular opinion on the matter but I have gained something from reading the comments.

    The book sounds like an absorbing read. Sadly my TBR is stacked too high to add another one!

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