DRUSILLA MODJESKA Second Half First. Reviewed by Shelley McInnis
Interiority and double vision make Drusilla Modjeska’s memoir compelling reading.
How wonderful it must have been, living in the house on the corner that features in Second Half First. In that house at an undisclosed location in Enmore, Sydney, there were, admittedly, some difficult moments: the memoir begins with Modjeska being dumped on her 40th birthday by a man who wasn’t very good at ‘transitions’. For a while she mooched around the house on the corner like ‘a sleepwalker in the grip of longing’, but soon she would feel freer in her mind than ever before – and wonderfully, marvellously, alive. For it was at that house, surrounded by the likes of Helen Garner and Hazel Rowley, that she found her voice as a writer and began to understand ‘how to work the pliability of words’:
Yes, we wrote them one by one, an exacting art, but change the image to a thread rather than a road, and then words bend and weave, sentences and paragraphs gathering in stories, digressing and doubling back, making a pattern that may not be able to be apprehended as an embodied work to walk around, but can reveal its shape in the mind of a reader, a compatriot, a stranger.
At the house on the corner there were heady conversations about women and literature and the books that people were writing. In Modjeska’s case it was Poppy; in Helen Garner’s it was The Children’s Bach. Hazel Rowley was working on Christina Stead. They were productive days, but there was always plenty of time for parties, not to mention the next tempestuous liaison with a man of infuriating ‘Greenwich Mean Time’ certainties. Why, Modjeska wonders, did her generation of women, who had been given so much, make such a hash of it with men? Why, indeed? Elsewhere she has admitted that she can rather go on about things, ‘chewing away for the understanding to be got from the bone’, but in Second Half First the hand-wringing about men is perfectly calibrated to the zeitgeist of those times.
Modjeska’s treatment of the male subjects in Second Half First is even-handed, as befits a woman who has, according to one astrologer, too many planets in Libra. The only nasty note is reserved for Modjeska’s stepmother Betty, with whom she clashes when she returns to England (in the early 1990s) to spend time with her dying father, Patrick. In the section of the book entitled ‘Making Shapes Square Up’, those of us who had only ever known him as the man who abandoned Poppy are introduced to a reforming judge with an interest in books and writing and, as it happens, the poetry of Tennyson. When Patrick asks her to read him Tennyson’s poem, ‘Ulysses’, Modjeska realises that, like the old king of the poem, her father knows that the end is near. At the conclusion of her reading Patrick says to his daughter that he will miss her. She knows he doesn’t mean when she returns to Australia, but still she can’t stop herself from donning what she calls the ‘mask of Englishness’:
My response was not to say that I would miss him and maybe always had; instead, as the tide of grief rose in me, I found an excuse – the classic, English excuse – for leaving the room. It’s time for tea, I said.
The psychoanalysis that Modjeska had been undergoing may not have enabled her to resist the temptation of the mask on that occasion, but she credits it with helping her to deal not only with the death of her father, but with all of the other losses that occur in the second half of her life. In ‘Making Shapes Square Up’ she describes the psychoanalytic process as ‘strangely cerebral’. It involved driving to a house in Sydney three times a week for several years, and unleashing upon a quiet, thin, psychiatrist ‘a torrent of words, words, words as if to remake the world, my world, in language, and banish uncertainty’. The result has been not so much happiness, as the development of an ability to reframe experience:
Maybe shedding the history of our tears isn’t so much about rewriting, or righting, a narrative that has gone awry, getting over obstacles, as about changing the angle of vision, rearranging the shapes, the fragments, into other patterns.
The steadiness bequeathed by psychoanalysis is evident in the last 10 years of Modjeska’s life when, as she relates in the final sections of her book, she embarks on an arts bisnis in PNG, a long-term relationship breaks down, her writing stalls, she develops breast cancer, and the mainstay in the arts business dies. She assumes more and more responsibility for the Sustained Education Art Melanesia Fund (SEAM), even as her partner of nearly 20 years becomes more depressed and later dies. The tone of these final sections, especially ‘A Dangerous Road’, is different: rich in descriptive detail, but not as rich in the interiority and double vision that make the other sections of the memoir so much more compelling. Perhaps not enough time had elapsed for the angle of her vision to change, for other shapes to reveal themselves to her.
The only other quibble I have with the book is that, from time to time, I got lost as to where we were in the time-space continuum. In Poppy, Modjeska says that she wanted to capture in writing the sort of ‘spreading, weaving talk that happens with an intimate friend’. This style, so popular with Poppy, has been reproduced here. However, if you are not on intimate terms with Modjeska, or with her oeuvre, you might find yourself wondering occasionally where you are. Her memoir ends with a scene on an Australian beach, where a young English relative is drawing a picture in the sand to show everyone where they are:
How young it starts, this need to know where we are, and where we are going. And how long it lasts.
Drusilla Modjeska Second Half First Knopf 2015 HB $39.99
Shelley McInnis is a Canberra-based memoirist and book reviewer who once worked as a journalist, lecturer and health policy analyst.
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