Both sides now, Peter Wells

The World Regained
Dennis McEldowney
Auckland University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1869402537

From the Wisteria Bush
Vanya Lowry
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869402561

The nature of memoir is an act of resurrection, exploration, delineation. It is both a wreath placed by the still smouldering ashes of the past, and a life-line back to some personal crisis that both nurtures and terrifies. Terribilità is nearly always just beneath the surface, and it is this quality I’ll look at in this review.

Terribilità – a terrifying emotional intensity – seems singularly absent in McEldowney’s The World Regained. It is a graceful record of an operation that changed his life. In 1950, at the age of 24, he ceased being a bed-bound individual and, in effect, rejoined the human race. This memoir, originally published in 1957, is irradiated by his return. It has a quality of what I can only call “grace”. The author has fallen in love with the world and wishes to share his knowledge with us.

It is beautifully nuanced, and, in some senses, has closer correspondence with a religious text than with a contemporary memoir. It was only on finishing the book that I turned to the introduction and found a clue to its particular quality. Parts of the book were delivered over the radio, and most of the book was written “for the ear”, rather than the eye.

This instantly explained, to this reader, the somewhat glassy style of the book. I felt intrigued, moved and yet distanced by the author’s calm style. At one point, he says of himself, “I was inhibited by good manners”, and I wondered whether this sense of inhibition explained the strange separation I felt from the narrator.

I was fascinated by the complete absence of the two great contemporary indices: sex and money. We only learn about the narrator’s parents’ status at a distanced second hand: they have a gardener; they live in a two-storey house. When the narrator ends up in an Auckland public ward, a nurse identifies him as being either “Christchurch or English”. The very absence of discussion of money as a determinant points to its presence.

There is an unsettling miasma of “taste” lingering over this book: “taste” as an inhibitor. Partly, this was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was delivered over the national radio at a time when a high brow was as much a part of perceived national culture as an arched finger attached to a bone china teacup. (McEldowney, indeed, makes a fine comedy of the difficulties attached to the ritual of a high afternoon tea.) As for sex, it is completely absent. Almost as an afterthought, right at the end of the text, the narrator mentions, “my vile body and its vile reactions”. This comes so far out of left field that the reader is almost arrested in their tracks. What vile body? Which vile reactions? The narrator has up to this point, over 129 pages, presented himself as nothing more than a radiant cloud of unknowing, illuminating the ordinary substance known as existence.

This quality, which probably would be seen as a weak point in contemporary memoir, is yet the best point of this strange, individual, almost classic of a book. In McEldowney’s rapt descriptions of returning to the human race, one experiences something close to an ongoing epiphany. He is perceptive, generous, original, modest. I am striving here not to make these virtues seem negative. Perhaps it is a comment on the nature of contemporary society that a quality of grace can seem to possess such dim wattage. Yet in many ways, it is what makes this whited sepulchre of a book unique in NZ writing. Does it matter that it lacks terribilità? Or is it a relief? Would it have been a more “real” book if we had known, for example, what the bedbound narrator did for sexual relief?

Or was he so attenuated – exhausted – that the thought never occurred? It’s an interesting, not unimportant, point.

2

McEldowney, in the foreword, talks of the 1950s having undeserved “bad press”. Certainly, if you are looking at intellectual life in NZ, it was a period of modernist renaissance. Yet “the damage done” could almost be a précis for Vanya Lowry’s memoir of the same period, somewhat strangely titled From the Wisteria Bush. It is only for the exigency of this review that two such unlikely companions would be brought together.

At the heart of Lowry’s memoir is, of course, her father, Bob Lowry: the man who, more than any other, established modernist typography in NZ. Before him, typography was dominated by a Victorian sense of comfort arising out of mass. Yet so talented was Lowry that even the slightest sample, like an invitation to a party, has a gorgeous serenity of balance, a chastity of design. Chastity seems an odd virtue to ascribe to someone who was clearly a wild colonial boy. He enjoyed the naughtiness of épater le bourgeois. His wife Irene shared the same bohemian tastes. Together they produced what might, I suppose, pass for an antipodean salon: somewhat ruthlessly heterosexual in the unthinking style of the day. Yet it was one that was clearly desperately needed. People fought to go to their parties, and the lax promiscuity of the famous bedrooms must have seemed like a glimpse of freedom in a period so tightly corseted, shaped into the unreal uplift of a Maidenform bra.

So what did it seem like to a child living under “the wisteria bush”? Or more correctly, to an adult writing in recollection? Lowry’s book builds up a composite picture of a time and a place. Initially seeming somewhat chaotic in its organisation, with odd jumps in tone – moving rather breathlessly from long-ago rhapsodic diary entries, recipes offered without explanation, poems and memories of people involved with the Lowry ménage – Wisteria Bush possesses a certain hypnotic power. Partly, this is through the tone of Vanya Lowry’s voice, which is lightly accepting, ironical and yet plangent. An example is a childhood episode where the narrator is picked up by a stranger in a car, who drives along the road forcing his finger into her “crack”, as Lowry says. We are not given room to think about how this may have influenced her later life. It is just a given (and probably closer to the curiously prosaic perspective of childhood). A similarly flat exposition is given to her childhood inspection of couples having sex during those famous parties.

The other powerful determinant in her book is the sad arc of her parent’s lives: two talented people whose promise was prematurely ended, the father by suicide, the mother by drink. It is not difficult to pose this as compelling evidence for what McEldowney begrudgingly calls the “bad press” of the 1950s. The Lowrys with their lifestyle seemed both to look back to the gypsy-like vagaries of Augustus John in the 1920s, and forward to the hippie generations of the 1970s, with their wild, untutored children. I felt shocked at the birth dates of Lowry and his wife – both were born in the Edwardian age and married in 1936. In this sense, they were very much forerunners and as such took the brunt of all this implies (emotional, spiritual and economic exhaustion).

3

Terribilità seems to exist, in spades, in From The Wisteria Bush. Does it matter that this quality is lacking in McEldowney’s exemplary work? Or is it a relief not to participate in what might be called, in a much broader sense, a pornography of confession? Both these books advance quite different views of the 1950s, even though they share the same cast at points. Ironically, Lowry, the younger person by far, has the view of a survivor, a somewhat baleful eyewitness. Maybe the key difference comes down to the fact that McEldowney was helped by one of the positive aspects of the period – scientific and medical advances – while Lowry’s life was changed forever by the clobbering which came from the same morally claustrophobic Cold War period. Together, however, they both offer poignant comment on questions larger than the period.

 

Peter Wells is the inaugural holder of the Randell Cottage Residency. His memoir Long Loop Home was reviewed in our October 2001 issue.

 

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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