Friday, June 25, 2010

Ruthless Self-examination



So I’ve only ever been to Australia that once, those ten days in 2006. A close high school friend who had immigrated to the Perth area was getting married. After being apart for three years, I flew to Australia just before Christmas to be her maid of honor. Little did I know that very close by, Elizabeth Jolley, the famous Anglo-Australian writer, was about to die. She died in February 2007, but for ten days we overlapped geographically. We may have passed each other on the street. (Unlikely, as she had dementia. But I'd like to imagine.)

Ah, the pleasure of making my way through a whole book. It’s been a while. Elizabeth Jolley’s autobiographical trilogy was both beautiful written and quietly innovative. Where many writers journey through memory and explore the past, Jolley is one of the first I’ve read to actually recreate the way memories work. Though distinctive, she is not a true stream-of-conscious writer; nor is she especially avant-garde. “Dotty,” her obituary in the Guardian said. But as Jonathan Franzen in his essay on Alzheimer’s “My Father’s Brain” (which I’ve been listening to on cassette in my CD-less car) writes (paraphrased), we remember what we remember precisely because we have remembered it before; that memories are like little pegs we stake in the brain. We remember things not because they are more significant but because we have gone over them in our minds and traced their patterns. Those patterns remain, engraved, on the surface of our brains. “These memories that I do retain,” writes Franzen, “I tend to revisit and, thereby, strengthen.” Jolley revisits her memories, the same loop of memories, numerous times in the three books that make up the Vera Wright trilogy (My Father’s Moon; Cabin Fever; The Georges’ Wife).

These memories create a very circular narrative. Whether Vera is in the hospital as a child, working as a nurse through the blackouts in wartime London, cradling her baby, suffering from TB, or doctoring in Western Australia, she remembers her father’s habit of walking to see her off at the train station, remembers his belief that they share the same moon, re-experiences her mother’s disapproval of the children she bears out of wedlock, remembers her fascination for Staff Nurse Ramsden who reads Rilke in German and plays the cello, and she remembers her lovers, male and female. The first time Jolley repeated a scene word-for-word I had the nagging sense that I had been there before. The scene fit in the context of its first use, and it fit in the context of its second use. But where did it come chronologically? And does that matter?

“Ruthless self-examination,” is a phrase Vera uses to describe her approach towards life, and it is the phrase that Karen Russell (a writer appearing in this week’s New Yorker on the list of 20 writers to watch under 40) repeats in her praise of the book. Vera is both devious and hapless; she falls into difficult situations and she finds her way through them, not through strength of character or lucky circumstance, but a combination of helplessness, manipulation and tenacity. Vera is neither likable nor reprehensible, but Jolley’s prose is reflective, melancholic, quietly watchful and occasionally startling.

I’m eager to read her other work. She only began to be published in her 50s and I prefer (conceptually, at least) late-flowering authors to virtuosic freakishly young prodigies. Ironic, as I'm now reading Martin Amis. I have The Sugar Mother (from “Surrogate Mother”) on the shelf. Now if only for enough time…

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