Look­ing be­tween the veils at life af­ter 40

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett is po­etry editor at UQP.

Felic­ity Plun­kett Sec­ond Half First By Drusilla Mod­jeska Knopf, 400pp, $39.99 (HB)

In 2003, Drusilla Mod­jeska spent a year watch­ing Syd­ney artist Janet Lau­rence work on a se­ries of large, veiled glass works. Inspired by Vir­ginia Woolf’s The Waves, Lau­rence ex­per­i­mented, Mod­jeska writes, with ‘‘washy veils: washes of paint, like waves, partly ob­scur­ing, partly re­veal­ing’’.

The artist wanted to get away from ‘‘the clar­ity with which we think we see: not to be rid of clar­ity but to chal­lenge us into another way of see­ing’’. What do we see, won­ders Mod­jeska, “if the lay­ers open and we step be­tween the veils into the hid­den, or partly hid­den places?’’

Mod­jeska’s memoir Sec­ond Half First of­fers a di­aphanous and nu­anced vi­sion of the lay­ers of a life, and of life writ­ing. Its mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tive por­trait re­veals Mod­jeska’s life as part of those it in­ter­sects with, in­clud­ing the women writ­ers she lives with and reads.

When Mod­jeska and He­len Garner share a house, they snap a tea towel at the in­ner critic who ac­cuses them of writ­ing that is ‘‘no good’’, has ‘‘gone too far, or said too much’’. She reads Christina Stead, Si­mone de Beau­voir and Woolf, not­ing that ‘‘one way of think­ing about who I be­came in the years af­ter forty’’ — the sub­ject of this book — ‘‘could be a history of my read­ing’’.

This alone would be in­spir­ing. Yet Mod­jeska’s writ­ing has long queried the cen­tral­ity of a non­fic­tional ‘‘I’’. In The Or­chard (1994) she de- scribes “the first per­son pro­noun … lodged like a fish bone in my throat’’, and here it is: ‘‘I,I, I, I, the sledge­ham­mer of the con­trol­ling po­lice­man, or colonist, or con­duc­tor.’’

In­stead, she com­bines an en­com­pass­ing em­pa­thetic eye with an hon­est ‘‘I’’ to en­vis­age the lives of women, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of rad­i­cal re­la­tion­ships, es­pe­cially be­tween women and men, and prac­ti­cal, philo­soph­i­cal and emo­tional di­men­sions of ‘‘the ques­tion of how we were to live’’.

Rainer Maria Rilke’s lines ex­press­ing the ‘‘an­cient en­mity be­tween our daily life and the great work’’, used as an epi­graph to her 1999 book Stravin­sky’s Lunch, re­main cru­cial to Mod­jeska’s ex­plo­ration.

And although her fo­cus is on her own gen­er­a­tion — “our lives turned by fem­i­nism, the Pill, univer­sity ed­u­ca­tions, rooms and in­comes of our own” — there is a gen­er­ous and hope­ful cel­e­bra­tion of the free­doms of younger women.

Mod­jeska is cen­tral to ‘‘a gen­er­a­tion that was re­fram­ing the way we write the lives of women’’. Sec­ond Half First con­tin­ues the work of three rad­i­cal books on the sub­ject, each of which won the Dou­glas Stewart Prize for non­fic­tion in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. The pref­ace to The Or­chard de­scribes its hy­brid form in terms of the metaphor of the ve­randa’s lim­i­nal space, hes­i­tantly call­ing the sec­tions es­says. With their ‘‘nudge to­wards fic­tion’’, these lyri­cal pieces move with the ‘‘spread­ing move­ment, hor­i­zon­tal and me­an­der­ing, that the es­say — a por­ous, con­ver­sa­tional, some­times moody crea­ture — makes its own’’. The work’s fo­cus is ‘‘the shape of a woman’s life … that jour­ney to­wards the cen­tre of her own life”.

Like Poppy (1990), a fic­tive bi­og­ra­phy of

Mod­jeska’s mother, Sec­ond Half First ex­plores the na­ture and for­mal pos­si­bil­i­ties of memoir. And like her study of artists Stella Bowen and Grace Coss­ing­ton-Smith in Stravin­sky’s Lunch, and of women’s ur­ban ex­pe­ri­ences in In­ner Cit

ies (1989), it cen­tres on the ways re­shap­ing so­cial struc­tures may en­able women artists greater free­dom to cre­ate, and women greater free­dom gen­er­ally.

Sec­ond Half First starts with events in Mod­jeska’s life, from the time of her 40th birth­day. Dur­ing this time of grief, be­tween the deaths of her par­ents, she is ‘‘a sleep­walker in the grip of long­ing’’, hop­ing for a child and ‘‘book-broody’’, con­nected with a wan­der­ing man while crav­ing free­dom and love. Why, ‘‘with Vir­ginia Woolf’s con­di­tions for in­de­pen­dence in place’’, this ‘‘mess in our re­la­tion­ships with men?’’

In writ­ing women’s lives, Mod­jeska won­ders, might there not be a way of hon­our­ing rather than con­demn­ing or ex­cus­ing ‘‘the in­con­sis­ten­cies, the con­fu­sions … wa­ver­ing, criss­cross­ing de­sires’’? How might we think be­yond the ar­chi­tec­ture of the ‘‘stan­dard-shaped fam­ily: lounge, din­ing and kitchen, two beds or three, a bed­room up­stairs if you were do­ing well?’’ In writ­ing memoir, how might ab­sence and pres­ence be re­vealed, the va­garies of mem­ory coun­te­nanced, one’s own life ex­plored truth­fully with­out ‘‘ex­pos­ing what was not mine to ex­pose’’ or fall­ing into nar­cis­sism?

Mod­jeska con­sid­ers these ques­tions as she reads Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s ‘‘vast mem­oirnovel’’ My Strug­gle. While she is ‘‘swept along’’ by the energy and au­dac­ity of the work, she finds ‘‘some­thing galling about a man be­com­ing an in­ter­na­tional sen­sa­tion for writ­ing the fine de­tail of fam­ily life and its con­straints on his writ­ing’’. Think­ing of Sylvia Plath’s writ­ing in ‘‘the still dark hour be­fore the baby’s cry’’, Mod­jeska re­mem­bers she and Garner say­ing to one another ‘‘Don’t write about this’’ in the midst of a con­ver­sa­tion. Read­ing Paris Re­view editor Lorin Stein’s sug­ges­tion that Knaus­gaard has ‘‘solved a big prob­lem of the con­tem­po­rary novel’’, Mod­jeska con­sid­ers whether memoir has ‘‘pushed the way through its for­mal con­straints, into fic­tion?’’

This set of for­mal and eth­i­cal ques­tions re­curs through­out Mod­jeska’s work, and takes on another di­men­sion in her writ­ing about Pa­pua New Guinea, where she lived in the 1960s with then hus­band, an­thro­pol­o­gist Ni­cholas Mod­jeska, and to which she has re­turned in re­cent years, for re­search and to co-found Sus­tain Ed­u­ca­tion Art Me­lane­sia. Women’s lives and lit­er­acy re­main cen­tral as she ar­gues for the im­por­tance of ed­u­ca­tion, and the ques­tion of gen­eros­ity, cen­tral to her work, deep­ens in the con­text of ad­di­tional lay­ers of power and pow­er­less­ness.

At the end of this lu­mi­nous and cap­ti­vat­ing work, Mod­jeska re­turns to Rilke. In his Letters

to a Young Poet he ad­vises his cor­re­spon­dent to ‘‘try to love the ques­tions them­selves’’. Here, in the lim­i­nal space be­tween forms, where memoir and lyri­cal es­say merge and flower, Mod­jeska’s ques­tions bil­low, as she steps be­tween the veils to watch the hid­den and partly hid­den re­veal it­self in light as lay­ered and mo­bile as Lau­rence’s.

Women’s lives and lit­er­acy are im­por­tant to Drusilla Mod­jeska

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.