March 26, 2012

Memory in memoir and fiction

Why do we remember some things and not others? How come different people (especially siblings) remember the same past events so differently? Is it true that we unconsciously distort our memories to fit our view of ourselves?

It’s everywhere in literature, this consciousness of the vagaries of memory, the elusiveness of truth regarding the past, whether personal or historic in the larger sense. Who was Shakespeare? Was it me or my sister who dropped the bus money home down a drain, given we each remember it as the other? Probably the most famous and most quoted novel about memory is Proust’s but it’s an ever-recurring theme.

When I write fiction I draw on anecdotes and memories from my past, use as settings places I have visited, and create characters from everyone I have ever known. Some of this is conscious, some is not, but my fiction is never ‘about’ me, I am never telling my story, I am making up a story. When I write about myself, as I do in this blog, it is obvious that is what I am doing.

At the moment I am working on a collection of pieces that may well be called Stones Gathered Together. This collection includes short stories that are completely made up as far as I can tell and pieces that are clearly about myself and pieces where It’s not obviously either. Everything I write, I think has something to say about my world view, at times through being in opposition to it. I’m always trying to ‘say’ something in my writing, something that matters. Whether or not the reader sees this is not the point, the point is that it matters to me, it’s why I write. Which is not to say there is always something deep and meaningful there, rather that I had a reason for writing it, it’s never just an exercise. I might be playing with an idea, or with some language, but there’s some internal idea or intent driving me.

Following this are two pieces that might make it into Stones Gathered Together. The first is about me, the second is entirely made up.

A Rosier By Any Other Name
I was offered the chance to buy a book about Rosiers once. While it purported to be “a history of the name” it was really a cheap compilation of odd bits of information and lists in a hard cover volume at a price I could not afford, and I didn’t buy it.

No family stories went back beyond my grandfather, Henry (Harry) Rosier, a failed farmer who subsequently worked, the story went, on the scenic road through Auckland’s Waitakeres and found a Maori stone adze. The adze ended up with me, and I no longer have it. I think I remember giving it to the Auckland Museum. I hope I did. I knew him as an old man with whom I would walk to watch bowls at the local club when my grandparents came to stay. He would buy us an ice-cream at the dairy on our way home. I liked him better than my grandmother, who cheated when she played cribbage with me. (I learned to cheat back.)

Later, after both had died, I realised he had been a disapproving, critical husband and father, which did not alter the fondness of my memories.
Henry (Harry) Rosier in his garden, 1940s.

I was a Rosier child, and got all the expected jokes, mostly from adults who thought they were being funny or clever and weren’t either. For some fifteen years, while I was married, I used my husband's surname. Returning to my birth name was a pleasure, the only down side being that I then had a different surname from my children.

Occasionally I get a phone call from a Rosier wondering if our families are connected; I have never found it to be so. My grandfather had a brother, but if he has descendents I never knew them or heard from them. Grandad had two sons, one of whom died in his teens before he had children. Two daughters took their husbands’ names. My father had two daughters, none of whose children carry the name Rosier, and no sons.

I’ve never tried tracing my ancestors, not the Rosiers nor my mother’s “Donalds of the Isles.” The Rosier name is, I gather from the internet, originally recorded in provinces of Languedoc, Forenze and Auvergne, in France. Probably, the name was given to growers of roses; rose petals were widely used in medieval times for medicines as well as perfume and textile dyes. (Surnames became necessary with the introduction of personal taxation.)

My grandfather Henry came to New Zealand as a child or young man from England. Rosier was a 17th Century Huguenot Protestant refugee surname in British Isles, from the time of Roman Catholic persecution of protestants in Europe. Many of the refugees were skilled artisans. Early recorded examples of the name in England include Bartholemew Rosier at the church of St Martin Pomeroy in the city of London, April 14 1638 and James Roszier at St Dunstans Stepney on August 19 1804.

In 2008 when I was in Paris—the only time I have been in France—I had my partner take my photo under the Rue des Rosiers sign. I liked the street a lot. One end is Jewish, the other full of gay men, I gather. It’s narrow, with lots of falafel shops, in one of which we had a good lunch.

When my death is noted at the appropriate registry that will be the end of the record of a branch of Rosiers. This does not strike me as in any way tragic. It just is, and I am pleased that Rosier as a name was around long enough for me to have it for a while.

Long Distance Travel
Caitlin first noticed her at check-in. The woman was wearing matching trousers and jacket in navy blue with a white shirt, a high neckline covering whatever was on the end of the silver chain. The resulting prim look was not reflected in her brisk, assured actions as she lifted her bag up for weighing and produced her passport and electronic ticket.

A window seat meant that Caitlin would be able to pull her bag out from under the seat in front as a footrest and curl up against the side of the cabin for some sleep during the twelve long hours of the flight from London to Los Angeles. The woman in navy took the neighbouring seat. That had to be a laptop bag going under the seat in front of her. She put a small book in the pocket below the folded up tray table without Caitlin being able to see the title.

The woman closed her eyes, breathing evenly, her hands lying in her lap, while the plane finished loading. She stayed like that, motionless, until takeoff and the safety announcement, which she followed closely. At it’s end Caitlin said, ‘Hello, I’m Caitlin. Don’t you hate this long flight?’

‘I have never taken it before.’ Her voice was light, firm, clear, English. ‘Is it really very bad?’

‘Very bad, very long, and another one to follow, if you are going to New Zealand. Which I am,’ said Caitlin. ‘Sister’s wedding,’ she added, ‘I’m a bridesmaid.’ And she pulled a face that she hoped was rueful but not critical. ‘For the third time. One more to go. You see, I’m one of five girls and I’m a lesbian, and don’t believe in marriage. Or civil unions for that matter. But I can hardly refuse to be a bridesmaid when my sister asks me, and this sister is my favourite. I’m the youngest and she’s the one who would tell me things. Sorry, I’m rattling on.’

The woman held out a hand. ‘I’m pleased to meet you,’ she said. ‘I’m Jane Eyre.’ Her hand was cool, soft, dry. Caitlin made sure she didn’t shake it for more than a second in case she gave the wrong idea. Why did she still come out to every stranger in the first two minutes?

‘You could say,’ Jane went on, her hands back in her lap, neatly folded, perhaps a little tightly clasped, ‘that I’m running away from a wedding. He has a wife.’
‘Oh?’ Caitlin wanted her to continue. She wouldn’t mind at all if Jane cried, she had tissues handy for the runny nose the air conditioning usually brought on.

‘I am going,’ Jane went on, ‘to High Grove school for girls in Hamilton. Do you know it?’

‘Only by reputation,’ said Caitlin. Snobby rich bitches, she didn’t say.

‘I had hoped,’ and here Jane sighed, a deep, tired sigh, ‘to never teach in a girls’ school again But such, I fear, is my fate.’

March 16, 2012

Remembrance of Things Past

If there was a theme to the 2012 Wellington’s Writers' and Readers' Week, part of the biennual International Arts Festival, then it is encapsulated in the title of Proust’s magnum opus, which I have cheekily used as the heading of this blog entry.

Kate Grenville, I discover, wrote 23 drafts of Sarah Thornhill, which I have yet to read, though I have read the earlier, A River Runs Deep. “Books about the present,” she says, “sit in the past” and she has been engaged with writing novels drawing on her family’s Australian history. “Sorry business,” she tells us, “when spoken by Aborigines, refers to what you do when some-one dies, to mourning.” So, saying “sorry” has a particular meaning in that context, one not obvious to a New Zealander. She talks, too, about her words being precious to her, taking them seriously, wanting to get her writing, “more than right enough.” Her first draft is random, drawing on sources, without necessarily an actual story line and it’s subsequent drafts that meld it into shape.

Alan Hollinghurst, however, writes his first draft slowly and doesn’t do much rewriting. “The Stranger’s Child", he says, “is about time and its workings and memory and its failings.” He also says, “Books creep up on me in little pieces.” Later, we look up Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam,” because he talks about it.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s East German beginnings seem relevant to her concerns about “who is the ‘me’ in me, how am I built up?’ and how ‘our stories of ourselves can be broken,’ for example, if we grow up in a family and later discover our birth origins lie elsewhere.
(Jenny E may be my new-author-discovery for this W & R) She spoke of writing about characters who “turn in on themselves” and how part of everyone is kept internal, for their own self. Her book Visitation, which I am yet to read, focuses on a particular house, drawing on one that was important to her as a child, but not about her.

Jean Gabriel Vásquez left his homeland, Colombia, for Paris, because, “books happen there.” He talks about how the USA’s “war on drugs” created the mafia in Colombia, and how history and politics “invade a private life” and shape an individual morally. He sees a role for novelists in working to make it hard for the forces of forgetfulness at large in the world, referring to Colombia as an “amnesiac country” where people try to forget difficult times in its history. (He and Kate Grenville would have made a good panel pairing.)

There were others, of course: Patrick Evans regretting the lack of “consequential writing” in New Zealand. (Writing, I think he said, about those things which must not be spoken of.); Germaine Greer, making the case for Shakespeare’s Wife as a tour de force in Stratford; Michael Hulse writing poetry from a place of asking questions; Kim Scott, searching on the inside to illuminate what is happening outside; Denise Mina, charming everyone and offering her set of bullet points about how to write comics (which she does, along with an impressive range of crime fiction). And more, always more.

The to-be-read pile has grown, but not by as much as some years, and I figure I’ll be back in 2014.

March 1, 2012

And the reading continues

This publishing business does chew up the hours, but reading has been going on.

August by Bernard Beckett is a discussion about free will in a novel. Two people in some undisclosed future time are having this conversation while stuck upside down in a crashed vehicle. Flashbacks elucidate the discussion. It appealed to the part of me that likes any discussion of ideas, although the story was somewhat overwhelmed by the weight of the ideas. The need of two of the characters—in-the-flashbacks to outdo each other was interesting, too.

Emma Donohue’s Room was compelling. Hood, (1995) an earlier novel, a coming out story, not so much. On the evidence of the newer novel being more succesful, for me, than the earlier one, I’ll certainly read her next.

Stella Duffy’s Mouths of Babes (2005) is a good read about lesbian detective Saz, her partner and their baby and a promise that is inevitably broken. The most interesting aspect of the book for me is how the person to whom the promise is made reacts when it is broken. (To say more would ruin the plot.)

Other books I have read I will be writing about in other places, to which I’ll refer in a later blog entry.

With Writers and Readers Week in Wellington on the horizon I am looking forward to discovering a new author or two, as well as hearing from some favourites like Kate Grenville.