Thirty Days: A Journey to the End of Love By Mark Raphael Baker Text, 243pp, $32.99 Also discussed The Fiftieth Gate: A Journey Through Memory Twentieth anniversary edition By Mark Raphael Baker Text, 368pp, $34.99
Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking begins: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” After the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, she examines grief the way a writer examines anything: “In times of trouble … read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.”
Mark Raphael Baker, director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation and associate professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Monash University, began writing Thirty Days after the death of his wife, Kerryn Baker. Like Didion’s, his work is framed by a motif of magic and the quest for a kind of cognitive trick that might turn back loss.
Didion finds that, however acutely she understands her experience, ‘‘It still didn’t bring him back.’’ Arch and sharp, with switches of her glorious but self-lacerating wit, she notes that “bringing him back” remains the focus of this magical thinking. She knows it to be illusory, noting she is capable of “seeing this clearly”, but adding that “‘Seeing it clearly’ did not allow me to give away the clothes he would need.”
Baker opens his memoir with a description of his childhood obsession with magic tricks bought from Bernard’s Magic Store in Melbourne. “Assiduous practice”, he comes to understand, is the key to mastering ever-moreadvanced skills, from sleight-of-hand card tricks to the creation of illusions. Thorough study of Enid Blyton’s oeuvre leads to the conjuring-up of domestic mysteries, from cigarette butts in the garden to the number tattooed on his father’s forearm.
The childhood mystery of this number is the starting point of Baker’s work as a historian and as the author of The Fiftieth Gate (1997), a work bearing witness to his parents’ experiences of the Shoah. In a new introduction to that book, reissued to coincide with the publication of Thirty Days and for its own 20th anniversary, Baker describes the work as part of “a burgeoning culture of testimony”. It is a luminous work of postmemory, a word coined by Marianne Hirsch in a review of Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning Maus (1980-91) to describe the relationships of following generations to the personal and collective trauma experienced by their forebears.
One ethical question associated with the experience of postmemory concerns the right to represent others’ memories. In the new introduction, Baker considers this, aware of the dangers of “skewing [his mother’s] life by refracting
THIS IS A MEMOIR ABOUT LIVING, AS MUCH AS IT IS ABOUT DYING
Mark Raphael Baker and wife Kerryn