What I’m reading is George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones: all five books, back to back, in an attempt to keep up with my students, avid and intelligent readers of the series’ relentless sexism and violence. Things were going okay until part way through Book Four, A Feast for Crows, when I found myself eagerly eyeing the ‘Recommended for You’ section of my kindle for some relief from Martin’s prodigious imagination. In the company of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, Ali Smith’s Autumn, and Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia (all of which I promptly added to my mental wish list if not to my virtual bedside) I found I’m supposed to protect you from all this, a memoir, by Nadja Spiegelman. The title alone is apposite enough for a reader seeking refuge from the persistent human tragedy of GoT. But it was the author’s name that caught my attention: a quick google search confirmed that Nadja was the daughter of Françoise Mouly, long time art editor of the New Yorker, and Art Spiegelman, artist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II memoir, Maus. I had met Nadja’s formidable French mother, Françoise, ten years ago when I lived in an apartment she owned in Paris while completing my PhD in medieval studies.
I’m supposed to protect you from all this is a meta-memoir. It is a book about the versions of the past and present that are reconstructed, rewritten, and revised across four generations of women and over two continents. Reprising to a certain extent her father’s methodology in Maus, Spiegelman interviews her mother and her grandmother about their lives, interleaving their memories with her own. The note on the blurb – ‘readers will recognise themselves […] in this powerful and moving search for the truth’ – was certainly true for me, at least in that I recognised the flat in Paris, as well as Nadja’s impulse to move all the mismatched sheets and towels to the top of the cupboard (I had done the same thing). In me Spiegelman’s writing stirred up a mixture of my own memories about that Paris flat, including my brief meeting with Françoise and that time of my life in general; but also about my own conversations with my mother, about her mother, and my grandmother’s conversations with me. In these conversations, ‘the search for the truth’ was nearly always impossible: that’s not how it happened, it wasn’t then, you weren’t there, she didn’t say that.
Even if Spiegelman’s coming-of-age and coming out stories tick familiar boxes, her upbringing was clearly extraordinary: early in the memoir she recalls a dinner (one of many similar meals throughout her childhood) with writers Siri Husvedt and Paul Auster. She describes Siri’s recollection of a personal anecdote, misremembered and recounted by Paul, and finally reducible only to one essential piece of information: the heron was seen. Spiegelman’s memoir often looks to uncover these kernels of historical truth within layers of narrative, exploring the idea that an experience may be both shared and made sense of in the various ways it might be told and interpreted: ‘My mother told me once that her life felt like literature to her. It was filled with resonances and symbolism. I had always felt similarly, and I wondered now if everyone did. The acts of omission and inclusion we made in our memories were creative acts, through which we authored our lives.’ The memoir begins by layering Nadja’s memories of her own childhood with those of her mother, before incorporating those of her Paris-based grandmother, Josée, as well, back-tracing Mouly’s own voyage from Paris to New York in the 1970s.
It is surely no more than a coincidence that the book ends as all three women return from a holiday on Ischia, the same Italian island on which parts of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels were set (another brilliant piece of writing about women’s relationships with and to each other). Like those books, Spiegelman’s memoir is clever, compelling and intimate, at times deeply unsettling in its ‘truths’, and often beautifully written; a reflection on growing up as a woman (‘my body was whispering to the adults around me in a language I did not understand’), as well as growing old (‘this letter, with its manic present tense, reduced that journey to its smallest unit: a single step’). The French ‘pas’ Spiegelman observes, means ‘step’ and is itself the etymological root of the word ‘past’. The final line of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, a novel which she refers to in passing as symbolising the search for meaning – whether individual or narrative – resonates with Spiegelman’s own writing project. I’m supposed to protect you from all this is, by the author’s admission, necessarily a kind of fiction, which bears her back, ceaselessly, into both her own and her family’s versions of the past.
The memories themselves, like their textual forms (letter, diary, transcription) or the languages into which they are translated back and forth, suggest a restless perpetuity. But end it did. Tonight I’ll take up A Feast for Crows again – revived, if not rested – and with renewed attention to the narrative voices of its mothers and daughters.
Stephanie Downes is a researcher and lecturer in medieval literature at the University of Melbourne.