Victoria University Press, $35.00,
Anyone who has taken even a passing interest in Maurice Gee’s long career must be aware that his childhood has been the ongoing imaginative source of his fiction, and that he was unlikely to ever report on it in a memoir. Now, here comes his three-part Memory Pieces.
We all, to a greater or lesser extent, cherish a personal mythology. It’s what people mean, I think, when they say everyone has a novel inside them. In fact, they don’t. This fond belief ignores the art in fiction- (and memoir-) making by assuming it’s “life written down”. Gee’s published fiction, the short but significant non-fiction piece “Creeks and Kitchens” (2013), and Rachel Barrowman’s excellent biography (2015), make crystal clear that this isn’t so. The echoes from his past can be heard in his novels and stories, but through them he transmutes the base metal of life into gold.
Gee is now in his early 80s, and ageing tends to prompt memoir into being. Perhaps because early memories loom large over the muddle and rush of the decades between. Perhaps because those we once sought to protect are no longer with us to feel betrayed. Whatever the case here, Memory Pieces is dedicated to the memory of his parents, Lyndahl and Len, and his brother Aynsley, and to his wife Margareta and three children. And what shines through most strongly is love.
I first met Gee in the mid-1980s, when I visited him at home in Nelson to profile him for New Zealand Woman’s Weekly (NZWW). I had, of course, read his Plumb trilogy, as well as other novels of his. But I wasn’t just an admirer, I was a wannabe writer, and still at the stage where I half-hoped the magic might rub off. (It’s worth noting that NZWW was then under the editorship of Michal Louise McKay, when a stringer 500 miles from base camp didn’t find it difficult to justify why this or that author would interest its wide general readership. Other writers I sidled up to at that time were Marilyn Duckworth, Craig Harrison, Tony Simpson and Peter Hooper. Even, to my lasting shame, at a book awards do, bailing up a desperate-to-flee Janet Frame.)
The intro to the NZWW piece read thus:
George Plumb, a reviewer once said, would stride through the annals of New Zealand literature, and one simply expects his creator to be striding alongside him. Deep in conversation they will be, giving shape to a now unfashionable moral world in dignified 19th-century phrases. Oblivious to domestic detail …. (22 September 1986)
The piece went on to show that this was not the man I met that day. Gee answered my undoubtedly naïve questions patiently, but did not become expansive. He was friendly, but reserved. He told me he wrote every morning five days a week, but not in the weekend – “I have a family and they don’t come second to writing.” Then, at some point, our conversation was interrupted by an incident involving one of his teenage daughters, of whom he was temporarily in sole charge. He left the room to sort it out and, when he returned, said, “Please don’t write about it. She would be mortified.” And I didn’t, though of course I wanted to.
I left his house still an admirer, but queasily suspecting my questions had limited his answers, and wondering what the better questions might have been. It’s clear to me, 30 years on, that it’s the questions he asks himself that matter, and that his fiction explores the answers.
What was also clear was his devotion to his family, and this presumably lay behind his assertions over the years that he would never expose them in a published memoir. So, what of this latest development? Does it answer a hundred interviewers’ questions, and respond to thousands of readers’ curiosity? Yes and no. Only the middle section, “Blind Road”, reads as directly told memoir. It deals with Gee’s recollections of his life up to the age of 18, and is written in first person. The first, and longest, “Double Unit”, concerns his parents, in which Gee speaks of himself throughout in the third person. The final, shortest section, “Running on the Stairs”, is his wife Margareta Garden’s story, in which he is again first person.
We begin with his parents, and particularly his beloved mother. Many readers will know the bare bones of Lyndahl’s story. As he explained in Plumb’s afterword, her father, Unitarian and imprisoned pacifist James Chapple, was the jumping-off point for the character and history of George Plumb. Lyndahl adored and admired her father, and her stories of him fixed themselves in her son’s imagination. Gee acknowledges in his prologue to Memory Pieces that he has relied on memory rather than research, and “where the two conflict I’ve usually gone with memory.” Certain things might not have actually happened, “but they happened to me”. This approach might dismay an historian, but that’s not what Gee is. So, for instance, the story of his parents’ “moonlight flit” from a Taranaki cottage because they couldn’t pay the rent is as real to him as if he experienced it.
As the young mother of three sons, Lindahl was energetic, loving and outgoing, but her later life was much less happy. Gee also pays attention to his father Len, a handsome “man’s man” and a builder and boxer who, to his sons’ glee, had knocked men out. He, too, was energetic and loving. But it’s Gee’s mother who dominated his childhood, and who dominates “Double Units”.
This first part of the book includes a long section penned by Lyndahl herself about her life. She was a nascent writer, keeping dairies, writing stories – several of which were published, one included in an anthology edited by Frank Sargeson – publishing a children’s novel and working on others.
In 1977, Gee wrote that:
When her day’s work was done and her husband and children in bed she sat with her feet in the range oven and wrote stories and poems in exercise books. She had natural gifts, but her circumstances were wrong. She needed to write hard, she needed practice. There was never sufficient time. She could not discover what it was she wanted to say … . (Islands)
Kathryn Walls has written in this journal (NZB Summer 2006) that “he has always stopped short of praising her work.” And she notes details from his mother’s writing that Gee – what? was influenced by? unconsciously mimicked? stole? – in his children’s O trilogy. Writers, like gardeners, are perhaps always thieves. But if Gee is guilty as charged, this section of his memoir repays his mother what’s owed. Beneath her son’s account runs sadness that mid-life losses, a breakdown and alcohol prevented her from fully blooming. She lacked, in the widest sense of the phrase, “a room of her own”. It’s a credit to both of them that this virtually lost writer is published here.
I was startled by the first few mentions of himself in his parents’ story as “Maurice” and “he”. It felt contrived. But, by the end, I felt he had adopted this style in order to keep his parents – and particularly his mother – centre-stage. He is saying that, precious son though he was, he could still be only a part-player in his mother’s life. And this technique ultimately intensifies the elegiac melancholy of her story.
Next, we come to his own childhood, in which Gee becomes “I”. His “creek and kitchen” theme will be familiar to many readers – the power of these nouns to plunge him back into his early years and out again into his fiction. Kitchen meant love and safety; creek represented adventure and danger. It was here his mother saved him from drowning, where he and she glimpsed a swagman soaping himself down, and where he and a mate watched a foolhardy diver break his neck.
At one point, he describes his older brother and himself building canoes, encouraged, but not interfered with, by their father. They set out after Sunday lunch, promising to be home for tea. That afternoon, he writes, “became one of the great journeys of my life, fixing ‘creek’ as a place in my mind.” They paddled to the swimming hole in order to show off to the other kids, then carried on, soon letting go of the question of getting back: “The thing was to get as far as we could.” They saw eels and a pig corpse, paddled past the backs of familiar gardens and buildings, and on through mangroves until the creek widened to harbour. There, stuck in the mud, they abandoned the canoes and legged it home.
The magic of that journey touches the reader. And, accompanying it, the sense of how parenting has changed. The Gee boys had no life jackets or mobile phones – they were truly on their own. Sure, they were told off when they got back, but their parents were “pleased with their adventure”. How much have we – and our kids – lost in our determination to keep kids safe? Is it only when we stop hovering that children’s imaginations take flight?
Gee takes us through his schooldays, with its strap-wielding teachers, mates and antagonists, onto a painful adolescence that was saved by reading, particularly Dickens and other classics. We leave him at the age of 18:
I was eager and adventurous but grew up hedged about with moral choices. I don’t blame my mother. She was filled with love, she overflowed with concern. I was the one who constructed places that must and must not be gone into. I found things to believe in and things I must not think.
His fiction has gone far beyond those tight boundaries, but perhaps they were as essential to it as his specific memories.
Margareta’s early life stands in stark contrast to Gee’s localised Henderson years. She was born in pro-German Sweden during the war. While still a baby, she and her mother left to join her father in a safer New Zealand. Their carefully planned journey across a war-torn world was via Riga, Moscow, Baku, Tehran, Basra, Karachi, Calcutta, Sydney, to be flown to this country by Margareta’s pilot father, Oscar Garden.
She was a robust, outgoing, adventurous child and did not lose these attributes in adulthood. She and Gee met when he was 38 and she a few years younger, at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, where they were both working. Gee gives her as much credit as he does his mother:
I sometimes say, over-dramatically, that Margareta saved my life. I was sliding when I met her and I don’t think I would have survived as a functioning person or a writer without her. Nine-tenths of my writing has been done since we began living together in 1968, when I was thirty-seven.
He acknowledges that her willingness to be the family income-earner was crucial to becoming a fulltime writer in his mid-40s.
The book’s title encapsulates my one reservation – “pieces”. There are points in the first section in which the pieces threaten to overwhelm the whole: a record of extended family names and incident names that left me wishing for a family tree to refer to, as well as wondering about its value for the non-family reader.
Memoirist and critic Vivian Gornick has written compellingly on the distinction between “situation” and “story” in memoir writing (The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, 2001). “Situation” is the events, characters, raw material; “story” is what the narrator makes of these – “what they have come to say”. But, although at a few points I wondered what exactly Gee had come to say to the general reader, in the end, his memoir remains with me as a deeply felt thank you – and that is enough.
Jane Westaway is a Wellington writer and reviewer.