PATTI MILLER Ransacking Paris: A year with Montaigne and friends. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
This memoir provides a multi-dimensional and complex picture of the author.
Patti Miller introduces her memoir of a year spent writing in Paris with a quote from Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), here translated as: ‘Bees ransack flowers here and flowers there, but then they make a honey which is entirely theirs; it is no longer thyme nor marjoram honey.’
The quotation is striking, with fragrance and sweetness in jarring contrast to the violence suggested by ‘ransack’. Montaigne is saying that the bees’ theft is justified by their creation of something new, ‘entirely theirs’. Miller writes that she is uncomfortable thinking of her work as ‘theft’; after all, her previous prize-winning book The Mind of a Thief considers the colonial dispossession of the Wiradjuri people, among other things. But, like the bees, she does make something that is fiercely her own. Here is her memoir, her examination of her own consciousness, for which she collected together people, events, memories, and other writers’ words.
Although she now teaches regularly in Paris, this was her first visit. Her husband Anthony travelled with her but, as he was often away on business, she was frequently alone as she walked and cycled and caught the Metro. But she always had her ‘book companions’: the French philosophers, essayists and memoirists whose works she devoured, ransacking Montaigne here and de Beauvoir, Rousseau and de Sévigné there.
Exactly when this Parisian year happened is not spelled out, but the manuscript on which she was then working was published in 2003. So, in this current memoir, Miller recounts experiences over ten years old, presenting them in chapters named after the successive months of her stay. That neatly divided structure doesn’t stop her from swirling together different time frames: the memories of that year interlace with explorations of childhood, marriage and motherhood. She even slides now and then into events from the years after that French sojourn. Then there are multiple layers of French history and culture specific to each locale, mainly in Paris but occasionally further afield.
Her literary companions – Montaigne et al – overlay Paris with extra levels of significance as Miller learns her way around in this new environment:
I wanted them to show me what they saw, what they heard, what they learned … I wanted to see the light and shade of their worlds and feel the press and weave of their minds over mine.
In fact, Miller includes a whimsical ‘café meeting’ with each of her ‘friends’. She ‘meets’ Montaigne at Café Kooka Boora on rue des Martyrs, a place with good coffee made by a barista from Australia. It’s a little strange to hear that Montaigne, dead for over four centuries, ‘loves the internet’ and that he and Miller ‘exchange email addresses and decide to stay in contact’. However, not all these ‘coffee dates’ end on such friendly terms. For example, when she and Jean-Jacques Rousseau bid adieu, Miller says, ‘We part with no arrangement to meet again. I suspect we don’t like each other that much …’
There is also evidence of non-French inspiration. Miller mentions a ‘water bug that sucks the insides out of its victims’, surely a nod to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by American Annie Dillard. Miller’s use of frequent references to philosophers and thinkers, her weaving their ideas into her own impressions, certainly resembles Dillard’s erudite approach. But where Dillard focuses on nature, Miller traverses an urban environment. And where Dillard presents herself as a reclusive figure in a landscape, Miller is much more social – and in writing about her social context, she also reveals much more of herself.
Miller makes new friends, her emotional bonds growing as her facility with French improves. She joins a choir; she arranges regular conversation sessions; her networks organically expand. She misses one choir session and is gratified that her companions notice her absence: ‘I realised that now there was a small space in Paris where I was expected to be.’
Miller confesses late in the book that her memories of this Paris experience are in an ‘impressionist mode … in soft focus and aglow with warm light’. But she is at times brutally honest. She describes her violent emotional reaction to a gypsy beggar woman with two blank-eyed, possibly sedated, children, and recounts a shame-filled conversation with a friend who experienced a similar response. This exploration is excruciating and she seems to have forced herself to look at the events – and herself – when she would much rather have turned away. She doesn’t flinch from the gruesome realities of farm life when telling the stories of her childhood. (These memories echo Dillard’s acknowledgement of nature’s savagery.)
And just when I was having an imaginary quarrel with Miller about the sketchiness of her portrait of husband Anthony, she confesses: ‘I’m a secretive person, at least about love …’ But, having forced herself to explore this area, she nevertheless manages – to a large extent – to protect Anthony’s privacy at the same time that she writes of sex and ‘how much my emotions are shaped by physical pleasure’.
And always there are bees, a charming theme that, just sometimes, felt a little overworked. The references range from her shy bee-keeping great-uncle’s ‘battered drum of honey’, to a sting on her finger at a primary school water bubbler, to a pale Parisian boy busker playing ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’. She buys honeycomb and honey at a market, sees beehives in the Luxembourg Gardens, and writes of ancient stories about bees and honey and the afterlife.
One aspect of the memoir that charmed me less was the discussion of the manuscript on which Miller worked during that Paris year. She is writing about a friend, Dina, who died too young, victim of a brain aneurysm. During Dina’s illness and after her death, Miller becomes a ‘second mother’ to Theo, Dina’s son. That Paris manuscript has already been published as Whatever the Gods Do.
When Miller now writes about her original Paris sojourn, the tone is one of nostalgic joy – that ‘impressionist mode’. Theo’s sadness is remembered; Dina’s wild loveliness is recalled; nevertheless, the wrenching emotions surely associated with writing about a lost friend are absent. Instead, there is a more insistent sense of loss connected to Miller’s own ageing process, which struck me as … I don’t know, just a little insensitive.
I then ask myself whether Miller could write about her year spent writing in Paris without referring to the project on which she was then working. No, it’s impossible. I ask myself if maybe the rawness of those emotions has already been fully expressed in Whatever the Gods Do. Yes, that’s possible.
As I struggle with this, I realise my thoughts take the form of a conversation with the author – which makes me think that, in this memoir, Patti Miller has created a version of herself that is real for the reader – multi-dimensional, complex, a living being whose consciousness shimmers with life.
Patti Miller Ransacking Paris: A year with Montaigne and friends UQP 2015 PB 288pp $29.95
Jeannette Delamoir is an ex-Queenslander and former academic. She combines her passions for writing, reading, culture and food by teaching at WEA Sydney.
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