Singing Historian: A Memoir
Canterbury University Press, $30.00,
Sarah Vaughan Is not my Mother: A Memoir of Madness
Awa Press, $35.00,
Where the Rainbow Fell Down: A New Zealand Memoir
B J and L M Coker Family Trust, $30.00,
What’s the difference between memoir and autobiography? These days everyone writes the former – when did you last read a recently published autobiography? Even Eve Claxton, editor of The Book of Life, can’t make her mind up: its subtitle is “A Compendium of the Best Autobiographical and Memoir Writing”. According to Claxton, “memoir” migrated from French into English in the 16th century and “autobiography” appeared later in 1797 when a certain William Taylor of Norwich objected to Isaac D’Israeli’s Miscellanies or Literary Recreations as “self-biography”. This term, said Taylor, was a Saxon-Greek hybrid: far better to go for the full Greek autobiography.
Claxton decides that autobiography recounts a life, whereas memoirs are often its fragments. This will do, but within that chronological scaffold lies the messy, solipsistic world of the self whose beginnings may arguably be found in St Augustine’s Confessions: his zig-zag journey to God by way of theft, lust and examination of conscience. Life-writing, therefore, may often describe an arc towards self-acceptance.
But to write a convincing work in which the writer is the main character requires more than just an interesting life. She or he must be able to create a persona who is self-aware, honest, can write an elegant sentence and, with luck, surprise us so that the life revealed enriches our own. We do not want to read anything that smacks of therapy, of emotion not recollected in tranquillity. “Trust me,” says essayist and memoirist Robert Dessaix, “I’m telling you stories.” This crafty request seems to me to encapsulate the essence of a good memoir – we all love stories, and a “true” story may be all the more convincing because of the writer’s ability to use the conventions of fiction: pace, setting, characterisation, conversation, to burnish the facts.
Edmund Bohan’s Singing Historian, Maryjane Thomson’s Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother and Lynette Robinson’s Where the Rainbow Fell Down are three recent memoirs whose writers tell their tales with varying degrees of success and conformity to these suggestions.
Singing Historian, despite its subtitle (“A Memoir”), could easily be called an autobiography: a rich chronicle of a long life. It begins with Bohan’s birth on a hot Saturday Christchurch afternoon in 1935, and his name: “I was named Edmund after my paternal grandfather … and known inside and outside the family as Ned, as was he.” There is something musical and Victorian about Bohan’s prose – that inversion suggests not just an ease with a delicate archaism; he’s a performer who knows instinctively how to make the last word of a phrase the strongest. Even the cover of his book conveys this: Bohan in full voice, a brocaded waistcoat, cravat, and white gloves. He’s holding a letter perhaps, and one hand rests on a cane – he might be the Modern Major General. Over 47 years he has sung many roles; indeed he is a self-declared “general practitioner”: of oratorios, particularly the Saint Matthew Passion, opera, and English music. He is also a respected historian and novelist whose work has always investigated 19th-century New Zealand with biographies of Sir Edward Stafford, James Edward FitzGerald and Sir George Grey, as well as a series of murder mysteries centred on a character named O’Rorke.
Singing Historian is a beguiling and informative read. Cheerfulness and humour suffuse Bohan’s account of growing up in Christchurch, his sojourn in Australia before moving to England to sing, and his return to New Zealand in 1985. Its pages are crowded with names – friendship is one of Bohan’s enduring qualities – and opinions: the pettiness of academic rivalry, the state of opera, the orchestra, New Zealand’s literary life, the pleasure of writing after a rich singing life. Personal information is discreet, and there is little direct conversation – engagement with Bohan comes from his energetic forthrightness: “As I grow older, I read fewer and fewer purely ‘literary’ or ‘serious’ novels. Life is simply too short.” Music continues to sustain him, particularly the St Matthew Passion, and, unsurprisingly, he never tires of Gilbert and Sullivan. These disparate musical strands perhaps encompass Bohan himself: a man with a sense of the sacred, and a delight in swashbuckling word-play that circles the 19th century.
Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother: A Memoir of Madness is Maryjane Thomson’s first publication – I nearly wrote novel, because her writing has many of the qualities of fiction. It is an account of time in Wellington Hospital’s psychiatric ward, following a diagnosis of bi-polarism when she was 19 – she is now nearly 30. She slips in and out of her story, is a character in and commentator on the depressing routines of the ward where patients survive by making their own rituals or trying as best they can to make tiny spots of beauty or meaning. She describes the deadening effect of “meds” on her own attempts to make sense of the voices she hears, to counter overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, and at the same time befriends and comforts others: Fiona who misses her children, Lester the gentle DJ druggie. Her story is devoid of self-pity; in fact, it’s often blackly funny. When Lester praises her wacko clothes, she writes: “His compliment reassures me that he gets my outfit and I am not dressed like some wannabe gangster.”
Voices tell her she is the daughter of Sarah Vaughan or the moon, or that she has AIDS, and at times their malevolent insistence pushes her to the brink of endurance. She loves music and describes the benefits of the hearing aid that enabled her to sing:
When I could harmonise with … voices and instruments … I thought I had found heaven. When I’m singing long low vowel sounds, I’m trying to relive the feeling I had when I first heard my own voice, just as other people hear their own voices.
“The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and be loved,” writes Augustine in his Confessions, and you feel the same yearning in Thomson’s memoir. The difference is that she’s describing the effects of a serious mental condition on a sensitive drug-deranged mind and that she writes in a secular age where redemption is self-redemption. Her story is not an arc towards faith in God, but a groping towards a personal autonomy tested not only by her recidivist habits, but also by the inexorability of institutions (although Waris, the ever-loving African nurse, is a transcendent character). The memoir ends with a kind of rescue: she’s on the streets of Wellington, “completely lonely and living in my psychosis”, picked up by the police and returned to hospital. An epilogue tells us that she eventually recovered and the voice(s) stopped. Today she sees that the “simplest things – getting your concentration back, being able to read, talk to your friends … can give you a great sense of happiness … Just to live well is a simple gift.”
Lynette Robinson’s Where the Rainbow Fell Down continues in the confessional tradition: the story of a life which begins unhappily, gets worse, but is retrieved by sturdy determination and a happy second marriage. Robinson is also a first-time author but whereas Thomson’s memoir is nuanced, and her persona painfully self-aware, this story slithers through its writer’s fingers because she is too anxious to get it onto the page. She has also published her book, and many of its problems would not exist had an external editor pared back her material, tightened her sentences and introduced her to the elusive importance of tone. Cliché abounds:
“Oh my God … a rainbow! … Perhaps it’s the archway to our future,” I sighed.
“Or an optical illusion,” he said, but seeing me wince added quickly, “There will be a pot of gold waiting for us at each end, my love.”
“He” is Brian her husband, a former priest, and his life at the Holy Name Seminary at Mosgiel in the 1960s where misogynous Jesuits shackled the seminarians to perpetual adolescence with a regime of games and pettiness is deeply disturbing. Robinson’s story is an indictment of institutionalised Catholic hypocrisy, but often told so crudely its horror is numbed rather than heightened: “Brian tried to keep priest number two engaged in small talk and dodged the hooks he threw out, until finally the priest asked, ‘Are you aware that if you have a son, he will be barred from ever joining the priesthood?’ ”The best that can be said of it is that it’s “family history I am hoping to record for our children one day”.
Catharina van Bohemen is an Auckland writer and teacher.