Chimes of conviction, David Hill

How Does it Hurt?
Stephanie de Montalk
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864739698

What Lies Beneath: A Memoir
Elspeth Sandys
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877578892

Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile
Helena Wiśniewska Brow
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780864739681

Somebody once wrote ponderously that some of the best fiction s/he’d read came in the form of memoirs. Actually, I think it was me. And I’m reminded of the anecdote about Jonathan Raban and Paul Theroux, after they met up while travelling around the United Kingdom gathering material. When Raban’s travel journal Coasting subsequently appeared, Theroux commented that every page gleamed with authenticity, except for Raban’s account of the afternoon they’d spent together. Theroux didn’t recognise that at all.

Okay, memoirists discovered the Unreliable Narrator long before fiction writers. American columnist Donal Henahan suggested that, after writers of real estate ads, autobiographers are the most suspect of prose artists. Change real estate ads to financial investment prospectuses, and it’s still a relevant enough barb. But who of us is capable of recounting without rearranging? And in the case of memoir, how much does it matter? There’s aesthetic truth as well as the factual variety to consider. “Imaginative biography” is a buzz – make that “drone” – phrase at the moment, and each of these three books is intensely imaginative. How could they be otherwise? They conjecture, they’re subjective and inevitably selective, they take us inside imaginative minds. It’s one of the factors in their success.

All three have their genesis in a dislocation, a trauma of some sort. In How Does It Hurt?, that dislocation is specific and relentlessly physical. Just over a decade ago, Stephanie de Montalk fell heavily on the floor of a hotel bathroom in Warsaw, where she was researching a novel. Acute distress turned “first into the severe chronic pain of an obscure nerve entrapment and then into the intractable neurasthenic pain of nerve damage”. This book, which started as the PhD thesis she wrote mostly lying on her back, is a history of the 10 years that followed.

De Montalk’s physical misery hasn’t – ever – gone away. The discomfort, distress, agony (there are times when no word seems adequate for what the author has faced) led her to an exploration of medical and societal attitudes towards chronic pain. That research and her own interminable ordeal are the core of this stoic narrative. Her research is prodigious. Functional MRI scans and intravenous ketamine infusions are here, along with ischial tendonitis, buprenorphine patches and “wound dehiscence”. So, as de Montalk seeks comparisons, metaphors, the need for a narrative, even a language to express something so “terrible, abnormal, pathological”, are authors galore. The text is packed – crammed, just occasionally – with them.

Emily Dickinson is quoted. Milton, Montaigne, Homer, Byron, Ovid, Rilke pass by. There’s a study of Harriet Martineau, who wrote through nearly four decades of torment, and a conversation with Alphonse Daudet, who would shout to his family “Long live life!” as pain tore at him. There’s a compelling account of  Polish writer and stroke victim Aleksander Wat’s battle to comprehend and make comprehensible such a condition, which “no-one understands”.

Chronic pain is shown here as an affliction with all the distress of a terminal illness, but none of the latter’s “heroism”. It contains its own cruel paradox: sufferers who speak of their torment wear out others’ sympathy, are often regarded as hypochondriacs, need to get a life. Those who do struggle to get that infinitely desirable life, and who hide their agonies, are assumed to have recovered and are treated with corresponding casualness. It’s perhaps the loneliest of all physical miseries. Surgery, constant medication, travel, time as Victoria University of Wellington’s Writer in Residence where she worked at a standing desk, debilitation and exhaustion, medical optimism, ingenuity and helplessness, the seductions of ending it all: de Montalk takes us clearly and concisely through her maze with its despairing blank turnings.

She’s a sophisticated, attentive narrator. Her renderings of the pain are direct and unyielding. “It dragged … burned … drilled … radiated out and pressed down”. A few times she lurches into opacity: “it referenced the causative instrument and its simultaneous definition of the received sensation”. I’m sure it did. A few other times, her images get away from her; you may wish to see the backyard macrocarpa lose a few branches a little earlier.

De Montalk’s pain still “insistently defines” her. Yet she recognises that as a writer, “suited to loneliness”, it’s something she explores as well as endures. Like Martineau, she “must write on for every day of my life”. It’s fatuous and perhaps condescending for me to say how much I admired her gallantry and that of her husband after reading this book. But I do.

What Lies Beneath also starts from mid-life distress and dislocation. For Elspeth Sandys, it was psychic rather than physical; what she calls an “ancestral darkness” that she felt rising around her as her personal well-being began to disintegrate. Though all memoirists necessarily sit at or near the centre of their accounts, both de Montalk and Sandys present themselves with a restraint that mean they’re in your focus but not in your face. I’ve written elsewhere how the clarity and reserve which appear in the latter’s fiction also distinguish this book.

The illegitimate child of a Brief Encounter – I put that in capitals because her birth father seems like something from a 40s melodrama: dashing, debonair, colossally conceited and irresponsible – she was adopted when just a few months old. In some ways, she was almost expunged, with her birth name and certificate both altered. She was taken into a prominent Dunedin family, with an affectionate adoptive father and an emotionally vulnerable adoptive mother whose decline runs darkly and affectingly through the story, a woman whose “eyes, nose, mouth are in prison, unable to move”. What Lies Beneath travels from Wanaka to Taranaki to Europe, but much of it is set above Anderson’s Bay, in stately(ish) Lauriston with its window seats, goldfish pond, English gardens, high ceilings and high standards.

While de Montalk is rigorously factual about her experiences, Sandys overtly fuses fact and imaginative conjecture. Where she doesn’t know, she reconfigures, while staying as close to the emotional and aesthetic truth as possible. As I’ve also mentioned, the result has much of the immediacy and intimacy of good fiction. It’s a book of pleasing mixtures: a maximum of watching with a minimum of judging; close-ups and long shots; the personal set against the public. The narrator’s childhood and early adolescence are counterpointed by WWII, blithe official indifference to most things Māori, the primitive invasiveness of sanctioned medical treatment.

This is another record of authors and titles, from Sue Barton Student Nurse to John Ruskin. Young Elspeth is a child obsessed with words and stories, reading them, writing them on paper or in her mind. They offer cadences, echoes, revelations for both narrator and reader. Just as de Montalk ends with her narrative poem “White Train”, Sandys closes with “Chiaroscuro”, one of her most widely published stories. Its motifs of death, endurance, redefinition make it a cameo of this work as a whole. People intrigue Sandys, as they should any author. There’s a mélange of aunts and a predatory uncle; her stoic, proud birth mother; her risk-taking adoptive brother; a grandfather with Old Testament beard, body and world-view; teachers supportive and teachers sadistic. They mean a multiplicity of narrators, some more trustworthy and convincing than others, but all contributing to a sense of truth and memory as many-faceted beasts.

The dislocation in Helena Wisniewska Brow’s “Memoir of Family and Exile”, another volume from the continuing cornucopia of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters, is a geographical and cultural one.

New Zealand YA writer Melinda Szymanik has written impressively about the plight of displaced Polish children in A Winter’s Day in 1939. Her young protagonist Adam is based on the experiences of her father during WWII. It’s the same in Brow’s notable first book, but more directly so. Stefan Wisniewski was among the 700-plus children who endured deportation, fear, hunger and maltreatment before their eventual, improbable arrival in New Zealand and the Pahiatua children’s camp. Stefan lived in that part of eastern Poland snatched by the Soviet Union in one of the war’s most tawdry deals between enemies. During the three years 1941-44, he and his family were sent to Siberia, then on a multi-thousand-kilometre trek south to present-day Kyrgystan and Tashkent, then west past Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, across the Caspian Sea, and down into Iran, where his mother died. They crawled in trains, cargo ships, on foot, even behind camels, through countries in chaos.

So this is – partly – a travelogue that includes Wellington and its “seediness that didn’t seem accidental” as well as the surrealism and “puzzling affliction” of living in post-war Whakatane. It includes Brow’s own journeys, with and without her father, as she eventually returns to his home village (now in Belarus), “retracing roads that he remembers and people whom he mourns”. The physical and psychological travels are shuffled like a card deck. Past and present, near and far are juxtaposed, emphasising the narrative’s pervasive motif of alienation.

There’s an extended family where every branch carries wounds. A contemporary of Stefan describes him as “the saddest person I’ve ever met”.  The Jewish-Crimean ancestry of Brow’s mother held its own hauntings. Aunt Hela survived the wartime ordeals along with the younger brother whom she protected and sustained, only to dwindle in psychiatric hospitals. Many of the other Polish immigrants “were not coping at all”. Mortality and mutability darken the book.

Poetry (including de Montalk’s Aleksander Wat) and literary prose feature here, too, mostly as epigraphs. Brow impresses as a careful, precise writer, both with words and details. She’s admirably honest as well: about the shifting, awkward alterations between parent and child; the rearrangements of grown-up siblings; the chastening, growing-up realisations that your parents do actually know a fair bit. “I wish I could say I’d been a better daughter,” she concedes at one point. And, of course, one of the consolations of writing is that it enables daughters and sons to be so vicariously – generously, also, in this case. The small, neat, numerous photographs deserve mention. So does one of the most affecting cover images you’ll see this year. It’s most satisfying, too, that a story of so many sunderings and separations should end with a reunion.

Each of these three books has the chime of conviction. I can’t judge whether the authors are being true to their facts, but they all seem commendably true to themselves.

David Hill is a New Plymouth writer. His YA novel The Deadly Sky is reviewed on p18.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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