Simple fact or subtle fiction? William Broughton

The Quick World, Autobiography Volume 3
Lauris Edmond,
Bridget Williams Books, $29.95

The Quick World completes Lauris Edmond’s promised autobiographical trilogy, and documents the most recent 15 or so years of her life. I find that I have come more and more to admire both the writing and the character that is revealed as I have read the successive volumes.

Hot October was a classic recollection of childhood and youth; the letters of the young student in Wellington at the end of the war suggested a treasure trove for the social historian, though I had some difficulty in digesting the many pages of rather arch and sometimes undiscriminating prose of self-revelation that those letters offered. I wanted much more selecting from within those letters, and a lot more commentary to give me a contemporary perspective on the people and the events. Volume 2, Bonfires in the Rain, introduced me to the young family woman and the incipient writer, a poignantly recognisable figure from within the world of middle New Zealand of the 50s and 60s. Her story of a slow and very often painful movement towards confidence in herself, with the inevitable emergence of dissatisfaction with central aspects of her life, is an experience shared, I think, by a whole generation of New Zealand women. Bonfires in the Rain should be the central document in any consideration of the trilogy as a record of feminist self-discovery. Now The Quick World tells of her recent emergence as a major figure in contemporary New Zealand poetry.

Lauris Edmond became a writer, or rather emerged as a major writer, in the mid-70s, gaining both status and popularity from that. At the end of volume 2, it was interesting to muse on the idea that it didn’t really matter what art or craft she might have chosen to pursue or excel in. The most important discovery that book tells us about was the discovery of the woman herself. In volume 3, however, it does matter, because The Quick World, though continuing a narrative of personal and private change and growth, is also the story of one woman’s involvement in the world of literature.

We discover her first on an overseas trip, one of many recorded in the book, where a visit to some of her now-widespread adult family can be combined with travel for literary research and contact. As the story progresses we are continually made aware that Edmond is involving herself deeply in literary politics. Her writing remains central, and the scholarships and fellowships, followed by the publications and the accolades, attest to this. But there is also now the world of committees, tribunals and lobbies, together with the accompanying sense of community (or coterie) of writers and academics whose sometimes gleeful friendships counterpoint the essentially solitary life of the writer.

That necessarily selfish choice of a solitary life, with its moments of excruciating loneliness, is bravely documented here. The writing and the achievements, and the gossip from behind the scenes, are all finally matters of public or semi-public record. But it is the record of intensely private moments, of anger and grief, delight and sympathy, that is the most unexpected and the most compelling. The poems used throughout the book are part of the record, and the autobiography offers a context to many of them, enriching our reading of them while not suggesting that as poems they cannot stand alone. Although the book has many intensely personal moments from the author’s life, described with the subjectivity that must accompany such a narrative, it does not seem to invite the reader to take sides or feel judgemental as the painful and long-drawn-out end of her marriage is related. Whatever the distress to those involved, in anatomising the process the author herself has felt ready to accept the consequences of revelation.

At the same time there is strong possibility in any writer’s autobiography that readers will find themselves reading a work of subtle fiction rather than simple fact. Parts of The Quick World strike me in this way. Given a strong suspicion that on occasion the story’s timeline has been reorganised and that some of the supposedly factual details like names and places have been altered, there is sometimes the instinctive uncertainty that comes when one is reading a work whose claim to veracity is not clear-cut. The usual justification for this is discretion, and I have no particular quarrel with the technique, but it opens up the whole question of how autobiography might be composed. Is The Quick World really best accepted as a carefully constructed quasi-novel which uses many of the techniques of fiction, chief among them the selection and reordering of the elements of the narrative, in order to tell its story in the first person? If that is a fair description (and I suspect that it is), it does not diminish my admiration for the book, but it, may on occasion lead me to reserve my judgement as to the work’s documentary status.

Yet there is, of course, far more ‘truth’ than ‘fiction’ in this book. The art of autobiography is by nature egotistical; the writer of any memoir must be convinced that the story she tells is of sufficient intrinsic interest that those readers who are strangers, whose lives have never touched hers, may nevertheless be interested. This is particularly true when the narrative touches upon matters that we habitually think of as private or personal. The narrator risks involving us in the details of her life and the lives of those around her in a way that may feel intrusive, leaving us perhaps embarrassed at being told what we might rather have wished not to know. The Quick World appears to acknowledge this risk, and refuses to be compromised by it.

 

William Broughton teaches English at Massey University.

 

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction and Review
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