The other day as I sat on one of those high stools in the glassed off alcove in Mario’s coffee house talking to a friend about my crisis of confidence, I found myself yet again re-evaluating my thesis in my head.
‘Why do you bother looking at Helen Garner?’ my friend said. ‘She is not so self-reflexive as certain other Australian writers. Writers like…’
He hesitated, scanning his mind, ‘…like Drusilla Modjeska.’
Ping went my mind. Back to Modjeska.
‘But she lives in Sydney,’ I said, and my friend laughed.
‘You have to have access to her?’
I have asked myself this question many times over: why do I feel this need to mix the writer with the text?
Why can I not stand up like any self respecting critic and simply analyse the text? Why do I find it so unsatisfying, simply to pull apart someone else’s story on the page?
Why am I always trying to get myself inside the story, to get inside the story of the back-story by way of any connection I might form with the actual writer?
The writer and the text are not the same, I know that. But often times I find I am more interested in the writer, than in the text, and yet the text leads me to the writer.
Halfway up the Burke Road hill in Camberwell, just before the railway station there was once a bookshop known as The Little Book Room. It was unusual for its careful selection of books, as if the owners had handpicked each book with great and loving care. The shop had the feel of a personal library. It was like roaming through someone’s store of books in an overcrowded house. The books even lined the steps and at times appeared in what seemed like no particular order at all.
It was in this shop that I first came across Drusilla Modjeska’s, biography of her mother, Poppy. The cover drew me in, the sepia toned photo of a mother and her baby, the words transcribed from the text, Modjeska’s words, so familiar to me now, a mother urging her baby to look into the mirror.
‘There, see there. Look it’s you.’ That moment of recognition, between mother and baby, that moment of connection.
I bought the book and read it over the next weeks. The story and the writing gave me hope, the greatest hope of all that someday I too might be able to write like this.
Modjeska became my initial point of reference for my own attempts at writing. When my writing teacher in the novel writing class I joined in 1997 criticised my narrator as drowning the energy from my story, I listened only with one ear, one eye. I wanted too much to be like Modjeska. She could get away with it. Why ever could I not join her , imitate her style?
Now I recognise the need to find my own voice, even as it echoes back in my ears, tinny and self serving, with none of the gentle cadences and rhythms of Modjeska’s words, but I must trust myself, otherwise I will plunge back into that empty space of my childhood where I seemed able only to copy the greats.
Poppy’s story impacted on me, the thin veneer of criticism against Modjeska’s father who could not understand or show compassion towards his troubled and sensitive wife, Modjeska’s grandmother, China, who bore Poppy into the world, China who seemed so cold and unyielding.
I read Poppy with an eye to the words. Their meanings did not envelop me until later. I was so entranced by the sheer lyricism of Modjeska’s prose that initially I did not take in too much of the story. The childhood memories of Modjeska’s mother, her mother’s depression, all these images washed over me. I found I was more concerned with the narrator, than with the one whose biography she records.
In an essay about the process of writing Poppy, Modjeska writes: ‘To write as an act of remembrance, is to be like a lover, a perfect lover who can enter but not possess…’
I have been in the wars of late over issues to do with the business of ownership. Who owns the story? – the person who writes the story? the person written about? None of us or all of us?
I ask you.