Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
Lauris Edmond: Selected Poems 1975-2000
ed K O Arvidson
Bridget Williams Books, $39.95,
There’s only one issue to be resolved with autobiography, and that is the Truth Problem. Unfortunately it’s harder than it looks. “What is Truth?” said jesting Pilate with an indulgent smile, putting down his pen and reshuffling the pack for another hand of Solitaire.
The Modernist autobiographer takes the Truth Problem by the scruff of the neck and plants an authorial fist firmly on its jaw. Biff! “It’s my story, and I’ll tell it my way.” There’s a lot to be said for this approach. It keeps the author in the driving seat at all times. It assists with some of the other problems the literary author might confront: the inherent messiness of life; its sad lack of shape; its anticlimactic plot; its repetitive dialogue; its bathetic lurches and draggy longueurs. If you tell it your way, you can make it pacy, racy, happy, and snappy; you can crackle with wit and nobly suffer inexpressible torments by turns. As the old song goes, “They can’t take that away from me.”
Trouble is, we know better these days. PoMo complexity has us by the balls. We know – even Lawrence Durrell knew – that “my story” is simply one construction that can be placed on the facts, whatever the facts may be. (“What are facts?” said jesting Schrödinger.) Tomorrow or next week it may all seem rather different. That man you called “the great love of my life” in one decade could turn out to be a sad, shabby, embarrassing old memory in the next.
Rule 1 of the New Era must be: “Don’t commit anything to paper too soon or too simply.” Everyone you know (and quite a few people you don’t) will have their own view. The upside: when you’re the author you can call it the way you see it. The downside: they may feel sufficiently moved to write their own book. It happened to Lauris Edmond, as we shall see, even though she timed the writing of her autobiography perfectly – not too soon (looks like egomania) or too late (risk of becoming forgotten or irrelevant).
In the Postmodern Era, Truth in Autobiography is the name for a slightly more permanent way of construing the flow of incoming data we call life. That’s as good as it gets, folks. It’s easier for biographers. Everyone knows biographers are sleuths, forensic scientists, and novelists rolled into one, collecting “facts”, taking them up and weighing them, preferring this construction over that one, making a case, pushing a line of argument. Autobiographers are no different, except they are subject to huge and incorrigible bias, by virtue of having been there at the time. Objectivity? Bah! And they must rely on unreliable memory for their data; indeed, without memory, there can be no autobiography. Edmond had “a phenomenal memory” (she tells us so in the essay “Only Connect”, of which more below) but even she was troubled by the curious act of remembering.
And so it is here. I seem to recall that Lauris Edmond was rather concerned with the question of point-of-view. Less so when she wrote the book she called “Vol 1”, but more and more as time passed, and as the people she loved responded to what she was writing or had written about them. I “know” this, because I “recall” it as a topic that came up in our conversation at various times. (Pardon the inverted commas, but my memory is unreliable.) We talked about it without heat or anxiety, because I was her poetry publisher during the years she was writing Vols 1-3. I was called upon to listen and reflect as a friend and professional, but not as the handmaiden of her intention. That role fell to her other publisher, Bridget Williams, and she executed it with great loyalty and style.
This present volume stands at two removes from the original volumes of autobiography. It is the second edition of the single-volume edition (condensation) of Vols 1-3, first published in 1994; the individual volumes having been published as singletons in 1989, 1991, and 1992. The second, posthumous edition includes a note from the publisher and an essay by the author on writing autobiography, called “Only Connect”, reprinted from the literary journal Landfall. Both publisher’s note and essay make reference to the rise of what has been called the “women’s movement” and the emblematic quality that Edmond’s life seems to have had for thousands of New Zealand women who married and raised children in the 1950s and 1960s, only to come to “consciousness” as it was known in the 1960s and 1970s, and who by the late 1980s had become a sizeable audience.
All of which seems to deal with the Truth Problem. This is autobiography as women’s studies text, one that has “a resonance” for readers “hungry for books by and about women” (as the publisher’s note has it), the story of a life that “seemed” a “dramatic example of” a “phenomenon of my generation” (as the author’s essay puts it). Such an autobiography explicitly claims to belong to a genre that I shall call Feminine Mystique literature, after US feminist Betty Friedan’s famous treatise of the 1950s, a book Edmond read and which she says affected her. The Feminine Mystique plot is similar in outline to the familiar stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel: the kitchen drudge gets to go to the ball after all, thanks to Aunt Betty, her fairy godmother (it’s not too late!); the sleeping woman is awakened from her suburban slumber and brought out through the thorny picket fence to a fuller experience of life.
As in myth, so here. After a time, Edmond came to say, in public and often, that her autobiography was written to explain (to herself and others) how she had come to live two such different lives, though I seem to recall that her original intention was much more personal. Life 1 she spent as wife and mother, raising her six children in a succession of country towns, focusing on Kinder and Küche while her husband concentrated on his teaching career; in Life 2, she was a successful poet and literary person, nationally known and internationally acclaimed, living an intellectual life with flair. Cinder-Beauty wakes up in time to have a ball, leaving the housework behind her for good. (You may think I’m banging on a bit about the housework, but it was a key theme of 1970s feminism, delineated in Ann Oakley’s definitive Housewife and expressed most succinctly in the slogan: “Make policy not tea”.)
But what of the handsome prince? In the Feminine Mystique myth, there is no prince, just ugly Aunt Betty, whose magical insights restored the sight of the blind and set the prisoner free. The heroine’s new life in the world, the self-aware, independent life, is reward in itself. Eyes open, scales fall, bonds break. Who needs princes? And so it was for Edmond, as she tells the story. Life 1 was dominated by her husband Trevor and the children: Lauris, the efficient, loving wife and mother, was entirely subordinate to their claims on her. The moment of realisation occurred one day on holiday as she watched the family playing cricket, and “saw with blinding clarity” that while they were the “dearest people in all the world”,
not one of them thought there was a single thing to be done for me, in my turn. I didn’t have a turn. I didn’t exist, except as I helped them to exist …. And nobody, not even I, thought this unbalanced or wrong.
So far, so Friedan. Once the princess stirs in her fretful sleep, at the beginning of Life 2, the myth starts playing out. But where is Aunt Betty now? Not here. Instead, enter a succession of princes-as-awakeners, beginning with Arthur Sewell, Professor of English at Waikato University, who teaches her to read, lends her books, stimulates her mind (“I could not get enough of his delectable, fastidious talk”) and eventually makes a pass at her. Lauris Edmond was launched. She finished her degree, left teaching, and got a job as editor of the PPTA Journal. Prince Arthur was succeeded in turn by C E Beeby (“Beeb”), the distinguished architect of the New Zealand school system, and a few years later by one who rejoices in the nom de guerre “Ted Green”, and became the great love of Life 2: “This was being in love on a different scale from any I’d known”.
Autobiography as women’s studies text? But this is not Feminine Mystique Myth; this is unreconstructed Grimm. It is not Ugly Aunt Betty we see clambering through the spikes or climbing up the tower to defeat the wicked witch (Trevor) holding poor Lauris prisoner, but a succession of intellectual, successful men, men whom Edmond specifically thought of as “powerful”.
How do I know this? Well, partly the evidence of her own writing, in and beyond An Autobiography. Look at “The Third Person”, a poem about Beeb, if you don’t believe me. And partly, dear reader, because I was there. As Lauris Edmond’s poetry publisher for more than a decade, I met her for working lunches, received dozens of letters from her and spoke to her often on the phone. Edmond was a successful poet whose books sold well, so there was much business to discuss. And as Edmond’s young literary friend (about the same age as her daughter Rachel), I discussed in detail my own mainly unsatisfactory dealings with blokes. Lauris was a generous conversationalist, and she offered as much as she received. It was beautifully constructed, thoughtful talk, and it seemed at the time to be wholly frank and open. In conversation with Lauris, important matters were discussed, understood, re-sized, and put in their proper place. Afterwards, one felt restored to balance.
Like many others, I thought I knew her well, and found I did not. The extent of my error is only mildly interesting. In An Autobiography, I play a tiny role, as her editor and publisher; in the Selected Poems, I am the dedicatee of one poem. It was worse for those who were important characters in her story and disliked the way she depicted them, even as they sheltered behind their pseudonyms. Much worse for certain of her children, who resisted strongly the things she wrote, about their father in particular. One of them, Martin, responded by writing An Autobiography of My Father to put his side of the story. Another quarrelled very badly with her. According to her autobiography, Edmond was hurt and baffled by both – sufficiently so, I recall, for me to feel that even reading Martin’s book would be disloyal. So I did not.
While one theme of An Autobiography is the ostensibly feminist story of how Lauris Edmond lived two lives, one after another, there is a second theme in counterpoint: the story of her life in the family. The thematic structure of the life as told in these pages is probably pretty close to sonata form. (Yes, Lauris was a pianist; she knew what a sonata was.) The A theme is the self-discovery theme, and it is dominant in the early years (the bildungsroman of Vol 1, Hot October), restated with variations in related keys in Vol 2, Bonfires in the Rain, and reaches its climax in Vol 3, The Quick World. The B theme is family life, first stated towards the end of Vol 1 in a major key with marriage, restated in Vol 2 in the major with the birth of the first baby and developed further as the other children come, modulating into a related minor key (marital disharmony, the death of Rachel). It is ultimately recapitulated in the minor in Vol 3, with separation, discord, and finally the death of Trevor. The sonata finishes with international literary success, a triumphant restatement of the A theme, while the coda, a poem called “Family Group”, uses material from Theme B now in the major, with most of the dissonance resolved, and the haunting Rachel motif given to solo oboe.
The problem is: life is not art. The problem is, as I put it at the beginning, the Truth Problem.
The B theme, family life with Trevor, is the main subject of Bonfires in the Rain. In that book, Edmond is grappling with the problem of her marriage. It is simultaneously fascinating and harrowing to read, even for someone who knew Trevor only as a weary, bored, rather gruff voice on the telephone, who never indulged in small-talk or gave any indication he knew more of Lauris’ life than a lodger would: “No, she’s not here. No, I’ve no idea when she’ll be back. Yes, I can leave her a note.”
One puzzle: why did this marriage take so long to die? The first signs of discord in the marriage were apparent, according to our (un)reliable narrator, back in the Ohakune years, when Lauris felt herself in competition with Trevor’s teaching career; building ten years later to a climax of misery in Heretaunga where he was principal; and continuing, unbelievably, after Rachel’s suicide and the move to the house they shared in Grass Street (where Trevor eventually lived downstairs, Lauris upstairs). The quarrels made everyone unhappy. Why did it continue? The marriage didn’t finish, according to An Autobiography, until Trevor’s death, several years after he had moved to Greytown, and some 14 years after the move to Grass Street.
Did they stay together because of what that represented: the official triumph of good feelings over bad, of unity over discord, of pleasantness over nastiness, of family values over “sin”? (In speculating here, I am risking the charge of filial disloyalty. Lauris was not only old enough to be my mother; she mothered me after my mother died.) But it must be admitted: Themes A and B were not merely in counterpoint, they were at war.
And yet, and yet. In Experience, the novelist Martin Amis writes a Postmodern auto/biography, at once an account of his father’s life, and of his own coming to understand both it and himself. It is a brilliant book, thoughtful, complex, multi-layered, in places profound. More than one of Amis’ friends has disliked the picture of themselves they find in its pages, as Amis tells us; yet it is hard to blame someone who is so scrupulous about the layeredness, the complexity of things, the unreliability of memory, the shifting understanding of what happened and what it all means. Lauris Edmond died in 2000, just before Amis’ book was published. I wonder what she would have made of it.
Anne French is a Wellington publisher and poet.