Looking between the veils at life after 40
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