Review: Fiona Wrighton bibliomemoirs

To Me They Were Treasures

I remember clearly the first time I heard the term ‘bibliomemoir’. I was sitting in on a workshop for a creative writing subject at UTS, where I was a writer-in-residence, and feeling more than a little embarrassed about the fact that I’d never actually studied Creative Writing, had no formal training in any the subjects that the students I was there, in part, to mentor were enrolled in. My first book of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance had been in the world for about eighteen months, and I was still reeling, a little, in the wake of it, this book that I’d written quietly, out of necessity, in an attempt to understand just what had happened to me. I’d turned to books to do so, re-reading all the Australian books I’d ever encountered with a character who hungers, trying, I think, to see myself within their pages. The word clicked something into place. Bibliomemoir: it was books that had helped me to do this, because I didn’t know any other way to do this.

I didn’t think there was anything remarkable about this way of writing the self while I was doing it: it seemed self-evident, inevitable that books would help me think about myself. Reading is my way of thinking, my way of understanding the world, of finding company, or solace. It was only much more recently that I realised not everybody feels this way – after I read a book that fascinated me for the way in which its main protagonist lived with, tried to come to terms with, some of the same things that my girlfriend does. It’s hard to find a word for exactly what it was I think I took from it – insight feels too strong, perspective not strong enough – but I felt that I learnt something, or felt something, about that impenetrable interiority of this other person. And so when I finished reading, I offered the book to her.

What’s it about, she asked, and I told her.

God no, she replied, I don’t want to read about that.

Because I don’t know any other way of making sense of the world, it hadn’t occurred to me that other people might have other means or approaches, might not want to lend imaginative space to what already occupies their literal, physical lives.

The word ‘bibliomemoir’ appears on the covers of both Debra Adelaide’s The Innocent Reader (which is described as ‘part-bibliomemoir, part how-to guide’) and Jane Sullivan’s Storytime (‘a bibliomemoir that lures us deep into the literary world’ – I’m not quite sure that sentence isn’t tautological). The practice, the genre, these things aren’t new, but this more common usage of the term is – as recently as 2014, Joyce Carol Oates felt the need to define it in a New York Times review. Oates referred to the bibliomemoir as ‘a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography’; perhaps its rise, I can’t help but think, is connected with the recent resurgence of intimate, personal writing, especially by women and other kinds of marginalised writers. It is, in a way, a personal story told through the lens of other people’s stories, a means of using these existing stories to connect the self and its experiences to the wider world. And it’s one that seems to invite a particular kind of identification, a particular kind of intimacy, based on a sense of shared history or shared experience: I too read, and loved, that book. I too was shaped or changed by it.

For Adelaide, books are important because they offer a way in to thinking and writing about other, bigger stories – stories about grief, about social class, parenting, illness – because reading happens alongside life, and is utterly inseparable from life. Sullivan, on the other hand, is interested in revisiting the books that were important to her as a child, to look for clues about who she was, and who she has become. Books here serve as aids to memory, but they are also important for the stories and instructions they contain that might help shape a worldview, a sense of self, a life.

One of the things that’s most interesting about Storytime is the way in which reading opens up, for the author, different temporalities which then come to coexist with the present. This is because Sullivan’s project is one of re-reading, and each act of picking up a book anew is also an encounter with all of the past selves and lives that have also pored over its pages. ‘I am experiencing my own life, my own reactions, in two timeframes,’ Sullivan writes, when discussing The Wind in the Willows (where she also realises, delightfully, that so many of the men she has fallen for are Ratty types, ‘raffishly cheerful, devil-may-care chap[s]’). She is simultaneously remembering, that is, her childhood impressions, and making note of her adult responses, and both are coloured by changes in the self, as well as the society she exists in. Elsewhere, this becomes even more complicated, where the books Sullivan examines were written long before she first came to read them – usually in the late nineteenth century – and so carry the mores and manners (and gender roles) of an even older world forward, into the 1950s and ’60s of Sullivan’s childhood and then on to the present day.

With each book, Sullivan attempts to come up with a hypothesis to explain what it was that made that book important to her younger self, why it gave her such comfort or excitement or enchantment (‘Because I didn’t just want to read them,’ she writes, ‘I needed to read them.’) The list grows to include strong characters, animals, heroes, magic, catharsis, deep fears – and to become a kind of register of the emotional complexity of childhood, with the intense longings and anxieties that are so often forgotten by the adults that we become. Interwoven with this is an examination of the lives of each of the authors of these talismanic books, many of which were marked by tragedy, at worst, or ambivalent relationships with their own parents or children, at best, much in the way that other proponents of the genre (such as Olivia Laing in The Trip to Echo Spring, or Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk) also draw upon the biographical details of particular authors to understand their own creative processes or writerly selves. There’s an implicit questioning here of why childhood matters to these authors, or what it was in them that allowed them to communicate so directly to children. Writing about Edith Nesbit, the author of The Enchanted Castle, for example, Sullivan quotes Gore Vidal:

With extraordinary perceptiveness, [Nesbit] realised that each grown up must kill the child he was before he himself can live. Nesbit’s vow to survive somehow in the enemy’s consciousness became, finally, her art – when this you see remember me – and the child within continued to the end of the adult’s life.

Sullivan’s project is like this too, an attempt to rediscover what of the child survives within the adult’s consciousness – when this you read remember me.

The books that Storytime centres on are, by and large, very English – which is unsurprising, given that Sullivan grew up in London, before coming to Australia in her late twenties. Their landscapes are full of woodlands (including A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood), rivers, ruined castles and rolling meadows. There are three exceptions here: Finnish author Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, set in Massachusetts ­– and Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, which Sullivan was given by her Australian relatives (as part of an extensive collection of Australian children’s books), which meant that her first physical experience of Australian bushland gave her ‘a strong sense of déjà vu’.

Sullivan is aware that many Australians experience this ‘the other way round’. I certainly grew up reading stories set in the English countryside – my particular favourites were Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and Cherrytree Farm series (Sullivan also discusses Blyton’s Adventure books in Storytime), which bequeathed me a childhood vocabulary of phrases like ‘fly off the handle’ and ‘stick-in-the-mud’ – this did not make me popular in south-west Sydney – as well as a keen interest in midnight feasts, for which I never succeeded in staying awake, and a propensity towards naming the characters in any story I wrote Fanny or Dick or Joan. On a holiday in England last year, the first time I had visited that country, I bewildered my (English-born) girlfriend by continually exclaiming, oh that’s a foxglove! That’s a hollyhock! That’s a buttercup, a nettle, a chestnut, a red-breasted robin! All of these things I knew intimately, in abstract, now suddenly present before me. My excitement was childlike, because it was the child in me that was excited.

Where Storytime is at its most touching is where Sullivan does get glimpses of her child-self: a painfully awkward and lonely child, with ‘a hole in [her] self-esteem’, and, above all else, a sense of longing. Sullivan writes that C.S. Lewis considered longing one of the engines of his work, a kind of ‘spiritual exercise’ that ‘stirs and troubles’ children with ‘the dim sense of something beyond [their] reach’, something that gives the real world ‘a new dimension of depth’ that will stay with them for life. Perhaps it is this that Sullivan is tracing in Storytime, this sense of wonder, of magic, of enchantment, desire that hums across an imaginative person’s childhood and is so often depleted by the adult’s world.

Debra Adelaide’s The Innocent Reader is also concerned with the role that books played in her childhood, on the other side of the world to Sullivan’s (in suburban Sylvania, in Sydney’s much-maligned Sutherland Shire) and the best part of a decade later. Unlike Sullivan, whose parents were artists, Adelaide grew up in a household where ‘books were rare’, and culture was something that happened ‘somewhere else’, among people who ‘went to the opera and ballet…watched the ABC and subscribed to the theatre.’ This is important, because the first essay in Adelaide’s collection is concerned with her parents’ collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (‘four novels to a volume’) which were the staple of her early reading. Adelaide is unequivocal about what her younger self needed when she read, stating that she needed ‘to escape myself and my world completely’. But this is really an essay about class – about realising that the books that had been so important to Adelaide as a child were seen as ‘a shameful, amateurish kind of thing’ by the people she met at university (from ‘classes I honestly did not know existed until I was an adult’), were owned ‘only by people with pretensions to learning’, rather than people who grew up so completely surrounded by books that they were able to take them for granted.

Essays like this are important. Class is still a topic that this country doesn’t like to talk about – it took me a full decade to realise that so much of the confusion and bewilderment I felt when I first went to university was because I too was meeting people like this, from classes I did not know existed, for the very first time, and was as little able to understand them as they were to apprehend me. I grew up sixteen kilometres south-west of Adelaide’s Sylvania. The people I met at university once asked if my family kept cows. But one thing that reading sometimes does is put a person on a path towards class mobility – Adelaide is now, she says, one of those people with ‘great wobbling piles’ of books around her (and so, of course, am I), but she is determined to honour those thoroughly déclassé books that were the ‘doorways into important other worlds that saved me’ as a child. ‘[T]o me they were treasures too, and have become so again.’

Adelaide’s main interest in The Innocent Reader is not childhood – although discussion of her adolescence does recur across the collection – but the ways in which books and reading continue to have this kind of importance in her adult life, as well as what it means to be a person who lives, in part at least, through books. Some of the best essays in the book work by examining the interwoven threads of reading (or writing) life and physical life. The piece ‘no endings no endings no’, which takes its title from the final line of Thea Astley’s Drylands, charts Adelaide’s reaction to news of Astley’s death (Astley is, she states, both her favourite author and the subject of her proposed postgraduate critical and biographical study, the rejection of which was the death knell of her ‘original ambitions’ towards ‘conventional academic work’), alongside the almost simultaneous diagnoses of Adelaide’s two sons with serious illnesses, one physical and one mental.

It is an essay about grief, certainly, but also about how books can help both contain and escape this: the news of Astley’s death makes Adelaide feel ‘an immediate urge to take [her] books down and start re-reading them’, despite knowing that Astley is not ‘the sort of author you’d turn to for something comforting, or reassuring’; and the story of each child’s illness is bound up with the story of The Lord of the Rings – one of the books Adelaide loved most as a teenager – which she reads, cover to cover, out loud to her youngest child, during the course of his treatment, and which gave the name Rivendell to the facility in which her older son’s psychiatrist is housed. ‘I told people I coped because I had to,’ Adelaide writes, ‘…but there was another reason I could cope… I coped because I read.’ Not for solace, not exactly, but because reading too can be a kind of suffering – but it’s a kind of suffering that Adelaide says ‘ate my heart alive but never destroyed it’, that offers a kind of catharsis, perhaps, but that is also a durational, ‘a process’, and thereby a means to endure.

The Innocent Reader is also about teaching, about writing, and about reviewing – one essay, about unexpectedly becoming a teacher, draws on Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and discusses the misconceptions (and occasional arrogances) that many creative writing students arrive in class with. An essay about opening sentences, and another about the process of writing The Women’s Pages, Adelaide’s 2015 novel, both draw on Wuthering Heights; and the essays about criticism and reviewing ask what it means to be a professional reader, and well as questioning exactly what the role and responsibilities of a reviewer should be. Another essay discusses a number of primary school reading assistance programs, where service dogs are brought into classrooms to ‘enabl[e] slow readers or children with learning difficulties to develop reading skills in a non-threatening way’. These essays, that is, are wide-ranging; they are also wry, and often spirited (‘I can see’ Adelaide writes in the introduction, ‘that some of these views are strong and my observations acerbic’). But it is reading that always comes first, that is always the driving force of these essays. Early on in The Innocent Reader, Adelaide writes:

All my life, I could imagine myself as a reader because it made perfect sense: I was a reader, I read, and I could keep reading, because it seemed like I always had. But no one I knew was a writer, and… it took many years to imagine for myself the life of one.

This leap, from knowing oneself to be a reader to imagining being a writer, is significant, and not an easy one to make for people who share Adelaide’s (and my) social background. And passionate reading, I think, starts earlier for most people than the desire to write, to create books rather than just experience them; but the former is certainly not possible without the latter. To make a life in books, Adelaide seems to be arguing, is to make a life of reading, to enter into conversation, again and again, with other people (authors and characters alike) and other worlds, other ways of being that inevitably become intertwined with one’s own.

Both Sullivan and Adelaide are interested in the metaphors that are attached to reading, and what they suggest about the experience, as well as about the person who finds pleasure in books. Transportation is a common metaphor to both authors, as well as escape. Sullivan discusses ‘watery metaphors’ of reading, being ‘swept away, immersed, engulfed’, being subject to forces that are elemental in their power, that demand a ‘voluptuous sense of surrender.’ For Adelaide, the dominant metaphors are bodily, either ‘gastronomical’ (‘fast readers devour books, they are hungry for more’, the text is ‘an ever-present feast…always there to be consumed’) or sexual. The final essay in The Innocent Reader, ‘In Bed With Flaubert’, draws on an extended metaphor of the book as a lover (‘both familiar and imaginative, comforting and wildly inventive’), where anticipating the evening’s reading during the day is ‘a shudder…that you feel it deep inside… in some crux of your body that is powerful and mysterious and inaccessible’, and where the event itself is ‘a sensual one, an all-encompassing, holistic engagement of mind, flesh, soul and spirit that stimulates every cell in your body and every feather of your imagination.’ This is over-the-top, but delightfully so, especially because the act of reading in bed, for Adelaide, is also linked to insomnia, and as such, offers another kind of escape, from the frustrations and privations of the physical body. These metaphors of reading are both physical and metaphysical, instinctual (sex, hunger) and other-worldly. Whatever reading is, they suggest, is complicated, involves our bodies and our minds, our lives and our dreams, but somehow, all at once, transcends them.

Published February 11, 2020
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic. Her book of essays Small Acts...

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