It was only to be expected that the author of the ground-breaking Poppy would confound expectations of the form of her own memoir. The memoir of her mother was experimental in form, filling gaps in the historical record with questions and imaginative reconstructions that treated her mother’s life with respect. In Second Half First, Modjeska subverts chronology and focusses as much on place and on literature as she does on people. It’s very interesting to read.
Beginning the memoir at a pivotal moment in her life – turning 40, breaking up with a long-term partner just as she was entertaining tentative thoughts about a child with him, Modjeska explores without self-pity the twists and turns of her life. She is one of that generation of women who were role models for women like me: a little older; and a good deal more high profile in terms of career; and forging through the stuffy conservatism of post war Australia to make it a more exciting place. Modjeska didn’t need a #ReadWomen hashtag to get reviewed in the major dailies: her books were part of mainstream conversations from the moment they were in print. But in middle age, she had to confront the tangle of her personal life. Her mother had died and she had hoped that a child could assuage her grief. It was not to be, and feminism had not prepared her for the emotional cost of some of the choices she had made.
Scraping back the layers of her life with disarming honesty, she tells us how The House on the Corner was more than just a place to live. It was interesting to see the disdain with which Modjeska describes suburban living and the concept of the family home, because her concept of communal living as a supportive home base is so different to mine. Simultaneously reading Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police I understand why some feminists think that we need to reinvent family life in the suburbs, but I have found a great sense of community in my patch of the suburbs. As an incorrigible introvert, I would find the idea of communal living to be a sustained form of torture.
But it seems to have suited Modjeska. Other women came to live with her: writer Helen Garner and biographer Hazel Rowley, and a friend called Sophie. And though these people came and went, the house remained a support that enabled both friendship and a place to write. Together they read Christina Stead, Simone de Beauvoir, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing. Her MS was read by publisher Hilary McPhee (who founded McPhee Gribble with Di Gribble and brought Australian women wonderful books we’d never encountered before).
A long, discursive memoir, this book will offer different things to different people, who will take from it what they will. I found the chapters about books and authors more interesting than the section about her time in New Guinea, which seemed a bit long-winded. (Perhaps this because I’d already read Modjeska’s wonderful novel The Mountain. See my review.) What interested me most was her meditation on the question of authors respecting people’s privacy. Or not…
I myself don’t have a firm opinion on this issue. I don’t have a consistent attitude to it. I am ambivalent about it. For me, it depends partly on the form that’s used: biography; memoir, or fiction, and whether permission has or could have been sought and given. It depends whether the person whose secrets have been revealed is alive, dead or within the living memory of people who might be troubled by it. For me, a lot depends on the reasons why the subject might object, what the private issue is, and whether they have a role in public life. For example, I think – in general – that a politician who sprouts racist or sexist ideas when inebriated is fair game for any journalist able to make use of it, because it’s in the public interest to know about such attitudes in their leaders. OTOH I don’t think it’s in the public interest to know if politicians are gay if they haven’t outed themselves, I don’t think their religion is anybody’s business but their own, and perhaps because I don’t give a hoot about the personal morality of public figures, I don’t think the public has any right to know about marital infidelity or affairs. I think that the marital infidelity of the Royals is only in the public interest if you think that The Royal Pedigree matters. If like me you don’t care if the King of the Brits could be secretly descended from a dustman, then the secrets of the Royal Bedroom are not in the public interest at all. And – again, in general – I think standards ought to be even higher for people not in public life, and I don’t think that being a friend, relation or lover of an author propels anyone into public life. Mostly, I think it is bad form for authors, just as it is for anyone else, to reveal private matters between lovers past or present, or about children. But I am not consistent about this, I know I’m not.
But when memoir crosses that meandering invisible line – as I think Second Half First does – it makes me feel uncomfortable to read it.
On page 127 of Second Half First the reader sees Modjeska discussing feminism with her father Patrick, now deceased. She talked with him about what a relationship between a man and a woman might look like if the woman was, truly, independent. And she expresses doubts about making such thoughts public…
‘You should write about it,’ he said.
‘What!’ I said. ‘You’d have me write all that in public?’
‘No, no,’ my father said. ‘It could be a novel. I’ve often wondered why you don’t write novels. You told such good stories when you were little.’
On page 192, after discussing the problematic case of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s brutally frank tell-all books, she concedes that she too is making the private public in this very memoir:
What is the pact of love? Of family? Of friendship? Bad luck if there’s a writer in the mix. Many of us do it, and I’m in no position to speak; here I am doing it right now. ‘Don’t write about this,’ Helen [Garner] and I used to say in mid-story over the table at the house on the corner. We’d laugh, make a joke of it, and meet each other’s eye; we were serious. Sometimes a detail or moment would make it onto the page, more or less disguised, and years later I breached a line that wasn’t articulated, but I knew was there, and she was angry, hurt, and it was some time before we were at ease again, our boats nudging up to each other once more. And when I’ve found myself on someone else’s page, I’ve felt the stab of betrayal, no matter how well I was disguised, even if I shouldn’t, given what I’ve done myself. In such matters we are nothing if not contradictory and inconsistent. As the years have gone by and I’ve got older, with each passing year valuing family and friends, that ground my life, I look back on this younger self unsurprised at the upsets, the falling out, the repair work I’ve had to do. Friendship does not rest on a pact of intimacy; its spontaneity, its depth, its radiance depends on the unspoken as much as the agreed.
Is it even ok to write that Garner was ‘hurt’? (You might think that I would judge that Garner is in no position to object either, given my dislike of her writing because of her modus operandi, but you would be wrong. The more badly people behave, I think, the more important it is to treat them with respect).
On page 194, Modjeska tells us that she was taken to task by her mother’s father’s third wife, Elky, for what she had written about her grandfather in Poppy, her memoir of her mother.
If you don’t know what you’re talking about, she said, you should keep quiet. She’d loved my Tory grandfather and knew he was not the stock character old-style blimp of a father I’d drawn. She was right; I hadn’t thought to talk to her about him before I wrote the book. Did I think she’d congratulate me now? I tried to explain: Doris Lessing, the history of the memoir, the importance of making the personal political, and so forth.
‘He was a literary device,’ I said.
‘Then write a novel,’ she said.
‘Well, it is a novel, sort of,’ I said. ‘I changed the names.’
‘That doesn’t mean anything.’
‘Well, it protects you.’
‘No, it doesn’t, not from the people who know who you are, and who knew your grandfather. They know well enough. The name isn’t even a fig leaf.’
‘I say in the acknowledgements that nothing should be taken literally.’
She wasn’t having it.
Like me, Modjeska isn’t entirely clear about where she stands, though (unlike me) as an author she has to make decisions that I don’t.
Write memoir and call it fiction? Or write fiction and call it memoir? With Knausgaard, have the two become one? And if they have, does it matter? And if it matters, to whom? To us? To his readers? To his family? It’s a story people want to read, so maybe I have my nose too tight against the windowpane of history to see clearly. (p.195)
What are the ethics of writing a memoir about past love love affairs and still respecting the ex-lover’s privacy? On p245, after recounting in veiled terms some problems that arose with her lover’s (not-named) son, and in return for the man’s support for her writing, loyalties switched as we did what needed to be done. She tells how she then supported him to deal with the son in practical ways and with the lover’s mental health issues, and concludes with – admittedly in the context of exploring how man-woman relationships seem to have different standards for supporting each other – this revealing anecdote:
For the first time in my writing life I was late for a deadline, a small piece of writing, and I had to ring up and apologise, the fee gone, and I was never asked to write again for that editor.
Mornings. I said to [the man. She names him, I won’t]. That’s all I ask, uninterrupted mornings. For him it was another abandonment.
Despite her ambivalence, it’s hard not to conclude that for her, it was another betrayal.
There is more about this man, and how they were not there for each other when there was crisis in both their lives. I really didn’t like reading it, it felt intrusive to be complicit in it.
And what about the implied breach of cultural protocols by a woman from New Guinea? This is a tricky one. Sexist prohibitions against menstruating women have often been used to limit women’s participation outside the home, and most feminists would probably feel that there is nothing wrong in flouting them, privately or publicly. But who has the right to disclose it if the flouting is discreet?
The next day Pauline declared her period over and we returned to the gallery and the filming – to no ill effect. The only person who knew what was in the bag she carried was me: that day I was indeed sister-friend. (p.286).
Yes, there is much to think about in this memoir…
Author: Drusilla Modjeska
Title: Second Half First
Publisher: Random House, 2015
Source: Kingston Library