HELENA WIŚNIEWSKA BROW
Excerpt from a Reading Journal, 2013
An experience in the present
Classes have started in earnest and I’m underway with the writing. I’ve also been dipping into Czesław Miłosz’s New and Collected Poems, bought on a whim at a stall at the Polish Fair last weekend in Lower Hutt. I like the Polish-ness of the poetry and the sense of loss, the pain of exile; it’s getting me prepared for the huge task ahead. It also makes me wonder if that’s what my father might feel but lacks the words to describe. One poem in the almost 800-page long volume catches my imagination, Encounter, for both those elements, and its sheer simplicity and power:
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn
A red wing rose in the darkness.
I mark it in the book.
So I’m blown away by the coincidence when we are given a reading packet for Karen Solie’s visit and there, among the Canadian poet’s own work, is Miłosz’s Encounter. Solie talks to us about the poet’s (writer’s?) role to ‘give something’: to give the reader ‘an experience in the present’. She likes particulars — the idea of ‘precise excess’ — rather than vagueness, which is conventional and ‘leaves no room for possibilities… it doesn’t take any risks’. So what does she see in Miłosz’s poem? She reads it to us and then comes back to the lines that stop her every time:
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
Solie extends her arm and points, gets us to think about why the addition of the words ‘with his hand’ make all the difference. The image is 100 per cent clear: an empty hand extending into space, like the finger of Michelangelo’s God in The Creation of Adam.
That was long ago.
Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but of wonder.
A brief moment in time is immortalised in the poet’s recollection of a single extended hand. So that’s precise excess.
The act of saying I
It’s my turn — first one up — to lead the reading programme for the class. The topic I choose, ‘The Act of Saying I’, is a line I steal from Joan Didion, who says in Why I Write:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act.
Maybe writing is an imposition of self, and maybe especially so for the particularly self-absorbed genre of memoir. But ‘saying I’ is inescapable. My questions to the class focus on this idea. Is creative non-fiction inhabited by self or self-centered? What’s the difference? And then should that writer self be a passive, clear ‘lens’ (Wallace Stegner) or a carefully created persona (Vivian Gornick)?
I’ve been re-reading Vivian Gornick’s Situation and the Story and I’m a little obsessed about her thesis that a narrating persona, an authorial voice, has to be created in order to get to the ‘organised piece of experience’, something that’s going to be of value to the disinterested reader. The other light bulb moment comes when she distinguishes so clearly between the ‘situation’ of a chosen work (in my case, perhaps, my father’s journey) and the ‘story’ that arises from this situation (which I’m beginning to think is the emotional experience of that and my pre-occupation with it). And then she links both these ideas together: ‘Without detachment there can be no story.’ When class discussion moves to how you define your own narrating persona, things get complicated: am I, for example, writing as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a first-generation immigrant or a suburban housewife? Or am I a combination of these things? (When discussion gets bogged down in this, Chris helpfully warns us not to over-think it, just to get writing.)
Another piece the class enjoys: George Orwell’s essay, The Hanging, where the narrator and the reader follow a doomed man across a prison courtyard in Burma to the gallows. The situation is clear and made powerfully so by Orwell’s attention to detail, the slowing of time; but what we are really interested in is the story, Orwell’s own experience of the event, his complicity (self implication again?) in the execution. So we hear about the playful dog that interrupts the slow death march (‘its yaps echoed from the jail walls’), the prisoner side-stepping a puddle (‘…till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man’), and even the narrator’s shameful urge to laugh with the others when the execution is over (‘one felt an impulse to sing, to break into a run, to snigger’).
Interviewed in Paris Review, The Art of Memoir No 1, Mary Karr seems to agree with Vivian Gornick: the ‘story’ is not the ‘situation’.
With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept…
How it’s written counts for something…
A book is never about what I think going in…
The memoir’s antagonist has to be some part of the self, and the self has to be different at the end of the book than it was at the beginning.
We discuss Phillip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, in which he lists the endless and admirable qualities required in the narrating voice of the essayist (and, I assume, also the memoirist): intimacy, honesty, reliability, sincerity, vulnerability, self-belittlement, humour, egotism (to a degree). But in terms of the writing self in non-fiction, Lopate gets to the crux of the issue:
They [personal essayists] follow the clue of their ignorance through the maze. Intrigued with their limitations, both physical and mental, they are attracted to the cul-de-sac: what one doesn’t understand, or can’t do, is as good a place as any to start investigating the borders of self.
Lauren Slater’s essay Three Spheres, in which the narrator, a psychiatrist, reveals her own history as a mental health patient, becomes a discussion on the non-negotiable requirement for truth in non-fiction — and for the reader to be able to trust that the narrator is being truthful. (I’m disappointed. I’d been hoping they’d be as impressed as I was with the way Slater swoops and dives between her current, narrating self — her created persona — the sane adult woman, the writer — and her past self, ‘that girl is no longer me’.)
Eliot Weinberger says about essay writing: ‘I start with one rule: all the information is verifiable, nothing is made up. Then I see where it goes…’ We discuss his essay, Naked Mole Rats, which doesn’t feature the word ‘I’ once. But we decide the narrator’s power in this piece lies in what the ‘I’ does, rather than says: the picking and choosing of the facts, deciding the opening line which sets up the voice of the piece, creating the essay’s personality, it themes, its metaphors. This is a great example of what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola mean when they write in Tell it Slant:
The self inhabits the prose of creative non-fiction whether or not you write directly about your own experiences.
It appears that even if you don’t say the word, it’s there anyway. The ‘I’ in non-fiction is inescapable, powerful and omnipotent. The secret, it seems, is not to let it get to your head.
The cradle rocks above an abyss
I’m not going to offer my opinion; what’s the point? To say Nabokov’s prose and his thinking are astonishing wouldn’t add anything; it’s been said before and in far more clever ways by more learned people than me. But it’s a book that sends me everywhere. Here’s an example, from the book’s opening lines (a quote which I note also featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1999, Nabokov’s centenary):
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
Right away I think of the Leonard Cohen song, Anthem, with its memorable chorus line: ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ A quick internet search and I read an interview Cohen did in Portugal in 1994 where he discusses his lyrics for that song:
The idea that there is a staircase of gold and marble, which leads to knowledge is seductive, but seems to me that the idea of something needing to get broken before we can learn anything is a more true idea. It is my experience, maybe you can escape it, but I doubt it. Unless the heart breaks, we will never know anything about love. As long as our objective universe doesn’t collapse, we’ll never know anything about the world.
And then I start thinking about that idea in terms of the story I want to write, about my father’s experience, and file it away. Has his experience allowed him an insight into life — its precariousness, its value, its joys — that those of us who have lived blessed and easy lives will never be able to appreciate? (More echoes. Persian poet Saadi wrote hundreds of years ago: ‘A man is insensible to the relish of prosperity until he has tasted adversity.’)
So that’s just the first paragraph of Speak Memory. It’s a big, intimidating, read. I’m struck not only by the virtuosity of the writing or the big concepts of memory, time or beauty. Nabokov articulates very subtle human experiences, exposing them for what feels like the first time. For example, on discovering some truths later in life about his former childhood tutors, he writes:
When I learned these later developments, I experienced a queer shock; it was as if my life had impinged upon my creative rights by wriggling on beyond the subjective limits so elegantly and economically set by childhood memories that I thought I had signed and sealed.
Who doesn’t recognize that strange sensation of having a childhood recollection shattered or altered in some way by an adult truth and new understanding? Then I keep coming across more passages that echo of my father’s own history in that country twenty years later, familiar not only because of their common Slavic settings. Nabokov recalls his return to Russia, age six, from a European holiday, adding a fresh adult perspective:
That particular return to Russia, my first conscious return, seems to me now, sixty years later, a rehearsal — not of the grand homecoming that will never take place, but of its constant dream in my long years of exile.
And, for ‘the particular idiot’ who has lost a fortune in some crash, and who therefore thinks he ‘understands’ Nabokov’s exile:
The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.
Is this circular and impossible vortex of exile my father’s own experience? His returns to Poland since the war have been, on one level at least, a pointless exercise in nostalgia: there’s nothing recognizable there for him, less and less as time passes. The idyll of his childhood disappeared forever in 1942, the moment his cattle wagon pulled out of Brześć railway station.
Mostly, though, I’m curious about the way Speak, Memory is structured. In his foreword, Nabokov describes the book as a ‘systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections’; the chapters were written as individual essays, the first of them corresponding to what is now chapter five, about his teacher, Mademoiselle O. They are complete and self-contained, each adding seamlessly to the whole, presented roughly chronologically.
But it isn’t the action — idyllic childhood, followed by revolution, followed by exile — that drives the narrative as much as the author’s developing sense of self. Butterflies and chess problems, the eccentricities of his teachers and parents, first loves, European gardens and parks: all are explored and become more than what they are, the springboards for Nabokov’s own process of ‘self-investigation’.
Okay, I give in. Here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth: masterful and inspiring.
To keep the dead alive
The Polish poets don’t have the last word on loss. I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and its slow dissection of her grief after her husband’s sudden death. This book was her attempt, she says, to:
…make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.
It’s a huge and emotional brief — but Didion applies all her talents for exactness to the task. ‘I know why we try to keep the dead alive,’ she concludes, one year to the day after the tragic event. ‘We try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.’ But Didion’s also clear about the ultimate pointlessness of the exercise, even for someone who has been a writer all her life, someone for whom meaning is ‘resident in the rhythm of words and sentences and paragraphs’.
This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.
It makes me think about my father’s response when I ask him questions about the tragedies of his early life. But how did he really feel? I ask. ‘Terrible, ‘ he says, ‘awful.’ He knows even as he replies how weak and inadequate these words are. He can’t pin it down — and he was there. I’m feeling overwhelmed, now, by how difficult the task ahead is going to be. If it’s too tough for a writer with Didion’s skill to articulate the meaning in loss, what makes me think I can do it?
I’m reassured when I revisit Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. I read this very early in the year and was, I think, a little bamboozled by Ondaatje’s fragmented approach. The book uses memory, anecdote, poetry and dream in an attempt to capture the colourful mystery of the author’s exotic and sometimes tragic Sri Lankan past:
During certain hours, at certain years in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from the earlier generations that were destroyed. So our job becomes to keep peace with the enemy camps, eliminate the chaos at the end of Jacobean tragedies, and with ‘the mercy of distance’ write the histories… I think all of our lives have been terribly shaped by what went before us.
It’s a wonderful articulation, I realise now, of what I may also be trying to do. But Ondaatje, like Didion, also struggles to ‘eliminate the chaos’; there are no neat and tidy answers to offer the reader. Towards the end of the book, after his alcoholic father’s death, the author throws his hands in the air and gives up.
‘You must get this book right,’ my brother tells me. ‘You can only write it once.’ But the book again is incomplete. In the end all your children move among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues.
It’s reassuring to know that this un-knowing may, in the end, be all there is.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helena Wiśniewska Brow is a Wellington writer with a weakness for non-fiction. She completed her MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2013 with a memoir on the impact of her father’s childhood deportation from Poland during World War II. The piece published here is an extract from Give Us This Day, for which she won the Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing.