The Past Is Another Country

I’ve been reading some great memoirs lately. Too lazy here to do proper reviews, but here are two extracts.

From Alfred and Emily by Doris Lessing

‘I hated my mother. I can remember that emotion from the start, which is easy to date by the birth of my brother. Those bundling, rough, unkind, impatient hands: I was afraid of them and of her, but more of her unconscious strengths.

I was six when I ran away for the first time. Running away in the middle of the bush is not like some escape in a big city or a village. I ran in the middle of the night down the track to the bigger track to the station. There were animals in the bush, leopards and kopjes, and snakes. I was crying and noisy with fury. I had no money. I knew that when – if – I got to the station, they would not allow me on to a train. I was afraid and went meekly back home and into bed without anyone knowing. I did it again. This was a cry for help, like cutting one’s wrists or taking an overdose. My mother’s way of dealing with it was to ring up the neighbours and, with fond laughter, tell them of my exploits. ‘She got as far as the Matthews turn-off. What a silly child.’

It would never have occurred to her to think that she might be at fault. And this brings me to a really vast subject, not, I think, much acknowledged. There has been a change, an enormous one, in medicine, drugs, but a greater one in popular consciousness of ordinary psychology. The words ‘a cry for help’ are part of ordinary knowledge in parent-child interaction. I am sure they had ‘problem children’ always, even problem parents, but not understood in the way of ordinary advice in newspapers, or how any run-of-the-mill parent is judged.’

From The Gatekeeper by Terry Eagleton

‘Some of them seemed as immune to physical pain as a stove-pipe. They could endure any amount of punching and caning, not least at the hands of a teacher known as Miss Arseole, whose real name I can now retrospectively reconstruct as Miss Horsehall. You could have crushed their testicles in a vice and they would not have whimpered, but they howled inconsolably if they ripped their shirts in a fight, since this meant confronting the wrath of parents who had no money to replace their clothes. I was the only child who wore a coat to school, on account of my delicate health, which marked me out as sinisterly as if I had arrived at school in a Bentley with a caviar lunch tucked under my elbow. The coat made me a target for violence as surely as flaunting some obscenely taunting slogan on my chest, though it also signaled that I was a kind of moral cripple, and so inhibited the aggression it provoked. It was like a wolf offering his throat to a rival in the course of a fight. There was no cloakroom in the school, since there were no coats apart from my own. The playground lavatory was a stinking, festering affair that a Bombay beggar would have thought twice before using. Even if you did use it, there was nowhere in the school to wash your hands afterwards. Hygiene was as alien to us as Heidegger. For holidays some of the boys went off to what was known as the bread-and-jam camp, since that was the only food they got there, and to warm their beds in winter they used a brick heated in the oven. We were one of the few families to have a bath, though it was too rusty to use.

It was the kind of school where most of the pupils probably never encountered more than three trees at a time until they were well into their twenties. Even then, we had the conviction that once you had seen one tree or flower you’d seen the lot. Most of my relatives found real flowers something of a come-down after artificial ones. There was not much Nature in the city. There was a river, but not even canned fish could survive in it. News of Nature, of a world not fashioned of blackened brick, filtered through to us from time to time, but it seemed as remote as Sussex or Jupiter. It was hard to say what Nature was for. Even if it had jumped into our laps we would not have known what to do with it. On the whole it seemed a bit of a waste. You could spend ages waiting for it to do something.’

11 thoughts on “The Past Is Another Country

  1. How well these excerpts illustrate the “otherness” of others, Litlove. Oddly, for me, Eagleton’s schoolboys seem more “other” to me than the leopards and kopjes of the Lessing. Perhaps it’s the universality of the simple references of the latter as compared to the overly particular caviar and Bentleys of the former. Whatever the reason, I found myself more readily in the bush, headed for the station. See you next week!

  2. Both of these look wonderful, I’ve been wanting to read the Lessing for quite some time. Did not even have the Eagleton on my radar. Maybe I’ll start a memoir project in January when I’ve finished my year of Gordimer, otherwise I don’t see how I’ll find the time to fit these in…sigh, couldn’t someone start paying me to read? There’s a dream come true.

  3. Dear David – I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I can see what you mean! Have you read much Doris Lessing? I like her a lot. You might find ‘The Sweetest Dream’ interesting, but I hesitate to put her case forward strongly. There’s that profound feminist dimension to her works that doesn’t always appeal, although I know you to be a renaissance man. And have a wonderful weekend away – I did think for a moment you might be intending to pop over for a cup of tea! Verbivore – Terry Eagleton is one of the more famous English critics, along with the likes of Frank Kermode and George Steiner. He is fab, I think. I’m finding memoir to be a very rich vein indeed and will probably be able to draw up a list soon of recommendations. I know just how it feels to wish there were more reading hours in a day! Stefanie – yes, if only one could be paid to read! I think I got near to it as an academic, only there was all that business of teaching and admin too that did tend to get in the way. Getting review copies through the post is pretty good, however, when it happens!

  4. Something I realised the other day was just how little Doris Lessing I’ve read. In fact, I’m not certain I’ve read anything other than ‘The Fifth Child’ which scared me rigid. Maybe that’s why I haven’t tried anything else; I don’t really like being scared – never a great horror reader. I know you’re supposed to read ‘The Goden Notebook’ as a young woman. Any point in reading it now?

  5. I was planning to read the Lessing but you’re now got me hooked on the Eagleton as well. It’s so interesting to read his personal stuff after his literary analyses. I hope the publshers have you on their freebie list – since you are about the best book-pusher I know.

  6. I haven’t read Doris Lessing in years, but I did hear her interviewed on NPR about this book and before I even realized it was her being interviewed, I was captivated by her discussion of the book. As someone working on a memoir, especially relationships with parents, this review compels me to add it to my Amazon cart (sorry, no small bookstores around here to support). I love when the voice of the memoirist comes through so strongly as an analyzing adult yet so clearly also describes the past through the eyes of the child. I was in the car when listening to the interview and I thought she said something about this being her last book. Or maybe her next book will be her last book. But that saddened me, the sense that such a prolific writer would have that it is time to put down her pen (or laptop, though I sense she writes with a pen.)

  7. Ann – The Golden Notebook is wonderful at any time and I would certainly recommend it. Although, as I know you to be a theatre type, you might also enjoy Love, Again which is set in the theatre world. I adored the book. I have to say I haven’t read The Fifth Child and if it scared you, then maybe I won’t… Dorothy – Eagleton is a wonderful literary critic too, and if you have a chance try his introduction to modern literary theory or his book Sweet Violence on tragedy. I loved both. Pete – I wish!! Hardly any publishers send to me, but that’s okay. I do have quite a stash of unread books to get through. Would love to know what you make of either book if you get the chance to read them. Querulous Squirrel – I think you would be extremely interested in the Lessing. The structure is so unusual: the first half is a fictional novella in which she imagines her parents lives if the First World War hadn’t happened and wrecked them. The second part is a series of vignettes from her life. It really makes you pause to consider how to look at the past and her writing is remarkably lucid and effective. I would love to know what you think of it if you do read it. Gentle Reader – I so nearly ordered Martha Quest the other day! I’m sure I won’t hold out on that book forever, particularly given that it’s a novel based on her adolescent experiences with her mother. It should be most intriguing. I’d certainly like to read more of her work now.

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