The effect of Tirra Lirra by the River
First, a confession. I am not coming to this novel fresh, as an adult reader with some kind of firm, if hard-won sense of self from which to survey the world. I read Tirra Lirra by the River at school 30 years ago and it entered my blood in such a way that I cannot remember a ‘self’ before this book was part of it. To come back to this book now is to prod—possibly to dislodge—a small but crucial foundation stone in the rickety edifice of me.
From the vantage point of my now 47 years, it seems that the years between the ages of 13 and 23 constitute a dangerous decade. We form our tastes, especially literary and sexual, by what we come across—or what comes across us—then. This decade is dangerous in a duckling kind of way, for the retaining of impressions, the unknown setting of patterns, that are then, apparently instinctively, followed. Anderson’s narrator Nora Porteous has a startling moment when she recognises this. In mid-life she chooses, apparently freely, a shipboard lover—a squat-bodied, concave-toothed man—but then recognises that he is, in fact, an uncanny physical echo of a teenager with whom she had played an inchoate sexual game during her own dangerous, duckling decade.
And though this decade can seem like a time of unbounded possibility—most of life, after all, being still to come—these are also years in which some of the imprinting is of limits to our sense of what is possible.
Tirra Lirra by the River is a novel that examines in brutally, beautifully honest detail the patterns etched on a soul at this formative time. And it shows how, late in life—however well, or less well, you might think that has turned out—there may be some satisfaction to be had in recognising these patterns, and what they have made of us. Nora is an old woman who has come home to Australia and she is looking for what it was that made her here, and trying to account for what she then made of herself. These are confronting questions to unravel, and ones that the novel, in some small way, also poses for me.
In the mid 1980s Tirra Lirra by the River was a set text for secondary school students in Melbourne, along with Christina Stead’s masterpiece The Man who Loved Children and Carson McCullers’ sublime The Member of the Wedding. All three books are about extraordinary teenage misfits. Stead’s is the genius Louie; McCullers’ is the ‘freak’ Frankie. And Anderson’s is Nora, who harbours creative instincts she cannot identify, and which, finding no outlet, come to feel instead like a generalised dissatisfaction. These books have stayed with me all my life in a way so deep that I cannot unravel them from the writer, or the woman, I have become.
When I re-read them now I see that they are a trifecta of high art and terror and truth almost too powerful to give to teenagers, which is to say exactly what they crave and need (as opposed to ‘relevant’ books my teenage daughters sometimes read, about ‘issues’ that are ‘resolved’ in candyfloss epiphanies and ‘growth and change moments’). I spoke about terror and truth with Anderson’s daughter, the eminent screenwriter Laura Jones (Oscar and Lucinda, The Portrait of a Lady, An Angel at My Table). Jones told me her mother’s own belief was that truly terrible subjects become bearable to us in art, because the art itself—the beauty of form—offers a kind of consolation.
Still, a small part of me—perhaps the part that is now mother to girls—wonders if this stunning, toxic cocktail that formed me was not too strong. Did it feed a monster? Comfort or encourage something that should have been put in a sack and sunk? Who knows: life, especially a single life, is both the control and the experiment. What did they think would happen to us, back in a suburban girls school in the lost, pre-grunge, hair-gelled 1980s?
I’ve no idea what I would have been like without these books, except more lost. But why did this novel mean so much? After all, it was about the struggles of a woman to live a life in which she could create works of art, fully 70 years earlier. Hadn’t the world changed radically for the better by the time it was published in 1978? We’d had another wave of feminism in the Western world and in Australia the extraordinary Whitlam Labor government’s social reforms: universal free health care, free university education, no-fault divorce, the single mother’s pension, the establishment of the Australia Council for the Arts and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, anti-discrimination laws, multicultural policy and so on. Even as a gormless teenager I realised I was a beneficiary of this new, just, well-funded world. I could get sick, educated, divorced, raise my children alone and have all my future novels (in which I could out myself without recrimination as whatever I liked) funded on the public purse. Except, as it turns out, for two eternal, essential difficulties: sex and art—the very difficulties that Tirra Lirra by the River is about.
• • •
‘When my worst expectations are met,’ Nora Porteous confides in the first pages, ‘I frequently find alleviation in detaching myself from the action, as it were, the better to appreciate the pattern of doom, or comedy, or whatever you like to call it.’
What if we liked to call ‘the pattern of doom, or comedy or whatever’ a novel? Indeed, this novel? Tirra Lirra by the River is an intricate tissue of reminiscence woven by an old woman as she examines her life, pulling threads through it and tying loose ends to their long ago beginnings. Nora is someone compelled to make things, embroideries mostly—beautiful, useless things. Because the making of them is absolutely necessary to her, her struggles are the struggles of an artist. There are two of them. First, to find some form of life that allows her to work and have a personal, sexual life (not easy for anyone, especially a woman, and most especially a woman of Nora’s time). And then there’s the struggle involved in the act of making itself—of imposing form on her material; finding ‘the pattern of doom, or comedy, or whatever’ in it.
Looked at this way, Anderson’s novel is an enactment of what it is about as, more obviously, Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement is the act of atonement for its narrator. Or, perhaps, in the self-referentially startling way that an Escher drawing is a drawing of the hand that made the drawing, in the act of making it. We are in the narrator Nora’s mind as she makes her work and we discern, or imagine we do, the Escher-like hand of Jessica Anderson enacting her own, much more successful struggle, and producing this book. The satisfactions—or consolations—of art, in Tirra Lirra by the River, are profound. Possibly, they are so profound that they can distract us from the story itself, a story that, on one reading at least, is a tragedy of ‘vile wastage, vile wastage’: the waste of an artist’s talent. I did not know it at 16, but this was what terrified me most. It terrifies me still.
When I was searching for how to describe the novel to myself I could only think of something small and made of material denser than we usually find—like a rock of previously unknown qualities from another planet. Or perhaps a Leonardo painting, in which behind the mysteriously smiling girl there is a landscape with a castle, in the window of which is an artist painting a smiling girl in a landscape with a castle behind her, in the window of which and so on. There is so much surreptitiously packed into these 141 pages. And yet, on its surface, it achieves the apparent simplicity its narrator recognises as the hard-won achievement of a great artist.
Anderson was in her early sixties when Tirra Lirra by the River came out. It was rapturously received in Australia, and won the nation’s most prestigious prize for fiction, the Miles Franklin. Readers loved it, no doubt responding to all kinds of truths in it, to the point where they assumed events it described to be literally true. Laura Jones told me that, when interviewed, her mother would pronounce the book not to be autobiographical because, ‘Nora was born at the turn of the century. (Pause.) I was born in 1916 …’ ‘As if’, Jones said with a smile, ‘that settled it.’
When a reader assumes the literal veracity of fiction it gives you a double-edged feeling. It is a kind of compliment: they have found this art to ring true. But at the same time to presume a one-to-one correspondence to the writer’s life is to doubt the artist’s powers to invent. Worse, it is to assume an open window, even an invitation, to climb in and rummage about the writer’s private life, looking for evidence to tie her to the deed. Jones says her mother reacted testily, as well one might, to the assumption of exact parallels with Nora. ‘See?’ Anderson would say, lifting her hair back off her face, ‘no scars. No facelift.’ In one swift, unexpected gesture she defended both her private self and the primacy of her imagination.
• • •
Nora has come home to Brisbane after escaping its ‘rawness and weak gentility, its innocence and deep deceptions’ for marriage and Sydney, and then both of those for some 40 years in London. She has come back in an almost unwilled way, which is how she feels she has made many of the major decisions in her life, suddenly—she would say recklessly—out of need or unrecognised compulsion. Now, Nora is old. As she enters her childhood home, left to her after the death of her sister Grace, she sees ‘a shape pass’ in the hallway mirror.
It is the shape of an old woman who began to call herself old before she really was, partly to get in first and partly out of a fastidiousness about the word ‘elderly’, but who is now really old. She has allowed her shoulders to slump. I press back my shoulders and make first for the living room.
From the first pages it is clear that we are in the hands, or the mind, of someone of great, humorous self-consciousness, who can see herself from almost every angle, 360 degrees around: ‘she’ and ‘I’ at close quarters.
Nora enters the living room, a room of which she has strange expectations—of exaltation, mysterious bliss—that she fully expects to be dashed. ‘Things are turning out so badly,’ she thinks, ‘that I am filled again with my perverse contentment.’ Writing this in New York, I recognise this ‘perverse contentment’ in a deep way from home. I associate it, possibly irrationally, with the Irish-Australian heritage Anderson and I, in part, share. It is the foretelling of misfortune as the underdog’s pale triumph. At least, the thinking goes, if the worst does come to pass, you’ll have the grim satisfaction of having been proved right: the universe might disappoint you, but it could not prove you wrong. I associate it with my mother and her downtrodden forebears; a mindset bent on pulling wry, self-righteous satisfaction from oppression or mishap. (It works, in my observation, until the end really is nigh, when the fact that you predicted it turns out to be no consolation whatsoever.) But Nora is looking for something important.
Suddenly, she finds it. It is the picture made by the distortion in the ‘cheap thick glass’ in the living-room window, ‘a miniature landscape of mountains and valleys with a tiny castle, weird and ruined, set on one slope’. Nora remembers that long ago she had been ‘deeply engrossed by those miniature landscapes, green, wet, romantic, with silver serpentine rivulets, and flashing lakes, and castles moulded out of any old stick or stone. I believe they enchanted me.’ Later, in her teen years, when she reads Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’, she ceases to look at the real world:
I already had my Camelot. I no longer looked through the glass. I no longer needed to. In fact, to do so would have broken rather than sustained the spell, because that landscape had become a region of my mind, where infinite expansion was possible, and where no obtrusion, such as the discomfort of knees imprinted by the cane of a chair, or a magpie alighting on the grass and shattering the miniature scale, could prevent the emergence of Sir Lancelot.
And then he comes:
‘From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra,’ by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.’
The book was one of my father’s.
In Tennyson’s poem the Lady sits in her tower. Like Nora, she makes weavings, and like Nora she is under some kind of spell that keeps her apart from life. Though ‘She knows not what the curse may be’, the Lady must stay put, looking only in the mirror ‘that hangs before her all the year’ in which the ‘shadows of the world appear’. So, she sits out her life making her work. The Lady must not break the spell by leaving her tower to try to get to Camelot. But isolation, even if it is necessary for artistic work, cannot be sustained against the need for love and the real world. When
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
The Lady of Shalott.
If the verse Nora remembers reflects her desire for Lancelot—as lover, or father—it is the magnificent next verse of Tennyson’s poem (not in the novel) which seems to encompass its action:
She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me!’ cried
The Lady of Shallot.
The Lady is cursed when she dares abandon passivity and go after life and love. She gets in a boat and simply expires, floating down to Camelot. The curse is twofold. It is the specific curse of the artist, who must remain apart from the world in order to represent it. And it is the general one in which a woman who abandons passivity for action must be punished by fatally renewed passivity. And so a tragedy—operatic or poetic or novelistic—can be made of her fated succumbing. (If it were Lancelot who left the tower, lay down in a boat and died there would be no poem, because there is simply no action.) For some unfathomable reason—hoary and old and unfathomable as patriarchy—large tracts of Western art are founded on women’s fantasised tragic passivity.
Nora is cursed by wanting life and art both; desires that in Brisbane in the early twentieth century could not speak their name, and that are probably pretty difficult to reconcile, without a lot of collateral damage, in any life. Indeed as I write this, in time bought from a babysitter, bargained from my husband and stolen from my children, the risk of collateral damage feels closer than I’d like. And yet, though I have read my Tennyson and my Anderson and know the risks, what I find myself most wanting right now is a nice, high tower all of my own.
• • •
Nora’s father died when she was six, and she lives with her sister and her mother, who, as she says with admirable, now anachronistic lack of self-pity, ‘didn’t like me much’ (‘Our natures were antipathetic. It happens more often than is admitted.’). A brother dies in the First World War. Young Nora suffers from the longing to be elsewhere, somewhere she imagines ‘real life’ is possible.
Nora’s foils—those examples of alternative fates—are two other young women. Olive Partridge is a literary girl. She will have £300 a year when she turns 25 and, as she quips, ‘that very minute I’m off’. Dorothy Irey is beautiful and quiet and seems too aesthetic for this place. As she and Nora cross paths on their obsessive, frustrated, ‘lonely walking’ of the streets and paths of Brisbane, Nora notices Dorothy’s fingers ‘nibbling together’. At home, Nora talks about Dorothy with her sister: ‘“Why does Dorothy Irey stay here?” I asked Grace. But Grace turned on me in a fury. “We don’t all think we’re too good for this place, Lady Muck.”’
Grace, like Nora’s mother and, later, her hideous mother-in-law Una Porteous, is a self-appointed policewoman of other women’s legitimate desires.
While she waits for her life to take shape, Nora makes embroidered wall hangings with her energies and time. Dorothy Irey gets married and stops walking. She is busy, Nora presumes, with house and babies.
‘Grace answered my enquiries by saying with the old anger that of course she was happy.
‘Why wouldn’t she be? She has all any reasonable person could want.’
The question of what one might reasonably want, the curtailing of desire within socially acceptable limits, runs through the book as it runs through all our lives. And those limits are policed with a question: ‘Who does she think she is?’ This is a question of multipurpose violence, which can be applied with equal ease to artistic ambition and to sexual desire. It is, one might say, how the curse of feminine passivity is kept alive.
This is how it works with sex. When Nora is in her teens, a group of boys—polite when alone, rapacious as a group—try to grope the girls, who are varying degrees of willing:
if they could entice or trick one of us away from the others, they would grab us and throw us to the ground. They would try to pull down our pants one minute and abjectly beg the next. As we made our escape they would vilify us horribly.
Nobody was raped. Escape was optional, and for me, in spite of my sexual excitement, imperative. I hated being pulled about and roughly handled. It made me bored and grieved and angry.
‘What did you come for then?’
I saw sense in the question, and stopped going. Those girls who continued to go began to treat me with enmity, and for the first time I took note of an ominous growled-out question.
‘Who does she think she is?’
I’m disturbed by the extent to which Nora’s girlhood 70 years earlier resonated with us, as we grew up in 1980s Australia. We are led to believe that sex had been ‘liberated’ fully a generation earlier in the 1960s but, like all regime change, the results of the sexual revolution were more uneven than advertised. In the 1930s Nora’s husband at first calls her ‘frigid’ and then, when she starts to get pleasure from sex, a ‘whore’. I remember similar kinds of sexual shunning applied to girls, when the slippery slope from ‘frigid’ to ‘cocktease’ to ‘slut’ was vertiginous and absolute, and you could be shunted from one category to another without, for your trouble, having had any fun at all. And I remember the policing question too, muttered most often by other girls, not directly to you but deliberately within your hearing, ‘Who does she think she is?’ The question was so brutal and basic that it could be asked without any words at all, just by a look.
At Olive Partridge’s going away party, Nora stumbles into her Lancelot. He is a dark, thin man, not young, ‘the look in his eyes like a caught breath’. She runs into a room to catch her own breath. When she comes back to find him he’s gone, replaced by a pale imitation, his nephew, Colin Porteous.
‘I knew it was him you came back to find,’ said Colin Porteous. ‘I could tell by the way you looked at him.’
‘How do you know how I looked at him?’ I asked furiously.
‘Because I was standing here beside him.’
The man she wanted is gone. ‘I couldn’t speak. He came a step nearer and looked closely into my face. “Well, well, well. My, oh, my.”’ The stand-in is able to humiliate her, simply because he witnessed her desire.
Nevertheless Nora marries this substitute Lancelot, so making her escape to Sydney, which, ‘with what little common sense I had’, has become a stand-in for Camelot. The couple live in a flat in Bomera, a dilapidated mansion on Sydney Harbour at Potts Point (still gloriously there, and worth a google). And it is at Bomera, for the first time, that Nora makes friends with other artists. As the horror of her marriage unfolds she realises she is more comfortable in their company than her husband’s. ‘All I wanted in the world was to be left alone in my beautiful room, close to people who never asked, audibly or otherwise, who I thought I was, but who nevertheless were interested in the answer to that question.’
When the Depression comes the couple move in with Colin’s mother Una (a true grotesque), whose house is in a ‘big flat chequerboard suburb predominantly iron grey’. Whether they really need to do this, or whether Colin just wants to be closer to his mother, is not clear. Nora’s entrapment and misery there is profound and lasts for years. It is the shocking poverty and dependence of a wife who must steal pennies from her husband’s or mother-in-law’s purse taking care not to let the coins chink, and whose yearning for freedom is reduced, once again, to desperate walking. These were the things—utterly beyond my experience in every way—that stuck fastest to the teenage flypaper mind. Why?
We read Henry James or Edith Wharton or Tolstoy not because the social conditions and mores are the same, but because the human condition of ducking and weaving around them, of conformity and rebellion—and their price—are the same. What is the price to be paid for straining at the socially acceptable edges of happiness? A novel—this novel—might show you.
When I was a teenager, powerless myself and trapped in a maze of strict expectations, spoken and unspoken, it was Nora’s entrapment I noticed most. But now what shocks me more is the corrosive effect of her passivity and the way, as she says, that ‘much of my life can be apportioned into periods of waiting’. This passivity, along with the persistent underestimating of her own talents, combines to concoct a trope so perniciously feminine that to write of it even now feels like naming a curse.
Nora’s marriage ends and she goes to London. On the ship she has a relationship that reveals to her a reality of love ‘that far surpassed the theory’. She recalls, ‘At last, I thought I knew how freedom could be reconciled with appeasement.’ But that affair leads to an abortion by a misogynist sadist without anaesthetic, scenes that are hard to read. And tragically, she decides to end her sex life.
Which leaves Nora’s artistic life as the one remaining to her. But whether she is consciously aware of being an artist is a major question of the novel. Anderson described Nora to an interviewer as
a woman … who was actually a born artist, but was in a place where artists, although they were known to exist, were supposed to exist elsewhere. She was born among that kind of people, and she herself doesn’t know that she’s an artist. She struggles through, trying to arrive at her art and never succeeding …
When asked if the backbone of the novel was, to her, ‘the plight of the unrecognised artist’ Anderson described a plight more fundamental:
Not an unrecognised artist, but a person who is an artist but doesn’t succeed even in being conscious of being an artist. She had a kind of buried talent, buried in herself. The sewing, the tapestries, had to be something acceptable to her society. She wasn’t a strongly original person. Not many of us are.
To be a strongly original person takes acres of secret confidence, endogenous or achieved. The vicious, kneecapping question, ‘Who do you think you are?’ seems to have entered Nora’s consciousness so early and so profoundly that it was simply not possible for her to imagine herself as an artist.
How much of this is to do with being a woman of her time and place and economic circumstance, and how much (if any) is particularly Australian is hard to tell. Certainly artists and intellectuals of Nora’s generation, such as Christina Stead, often felt they had to leave Australia, as did the generation after hers (among them Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Peter Porter and Jeffrey Smart). I sometimes think that the justly vaunted egalitarianism of Australia, the ‘fair go’ that had its apotheosis in the Whitlam 1970s, had a darker flipside. Just as the fairness of Australian institutions goes back over a century in no small measure to an Irish Catholic tradition of social justice that set limits on (often English) power, I imagine too, that the Irish Catholic underdog thinking came with it, as its shadow. Possibly this is best explained in an old (and not very funny) joke. An American, an Englishman and an Australian are digging a ditch. The boss drives past in a Rolls Royce. The Englishman: ‘Nice car.’ The American: ‘One day, folks, that’s gonna be me up there.’ The Australian: ‘One day that bastard’s going to be back down here with the rest of us where he belongs.’ The flipside of egalitarianism is a pernicious levelling and an inability to admire.
But escape is possible. Nora’s friend Olive Partridge, who has money, gets to London. There, she is able to express her artistic ambition. Olive says, ‘I want to be simple, utterly simple. Like water.’ Nora tells her, ‘No chance. You’ll never be simple, and neither shall I. We had to start disguising ourselves too early.’ Olive is then struck by Nora’s intelligence, which Nora laughs off, in that compulsorily modest way women do, thereby damaging themselves. But old Nora can say, ‘Of course, I underestimated Olive. If she did not arrive at simplicity in her person, she did so in her later books, whereas I never have, in anything.’ A judgement Nora must later, fortunately, modify.
If you are a born artist, can you survive if you cannot make anything? The making of things is necessary for artists of any medium to find their way to be in the world. There is no other way to understand it, nor to redeem our voucher for time on earth. If Nora is not making something, she is not really alive, much as a writer who is not writing is miserable. If you step outside your tower and stop work, you feel dead.
Or you feel like killing someone. Nora’s childhood friend and fellow walker Dorothy Rainbow, née Irey, is a creative soul trapped in a life of marriage and babies. Dorothy meets an end of almost unspeakable violence and tragedy. (One of the most moving things in the novel is the magnificent restraint of Nora’s interactions with Gordon Rainbow, Dorothy’s only surviving child.) At a very low point of her own, Nora remembers her old acquaintance. ‘I ask myself why Dorothy Rainbow did not hang on, provisionally, and why nothing was offered to appease the remnants of that need that once drove her to walk.’
But Nora must know why. Dorothy, trapped in Brisbane within the confines of what she could ‘reasonably want’, had no chance. Whereas Nora, in London, found solace among a second community of creative people, making costumes for the theatre. ‘Before a week was out,’ she remembers, ‘it was clear that I had fallen among people who would accept me for what I was, whatever I was …’ Even though being among them has saved her life, Nora persists in not daring to name herself an artist of any kind.
And yet, when old Nora is presented on three separate occasions with embroideries she made all those years ago her tone changes radically. Gone is the diffident underdog, replaced with the confident, gimlet eye of an artist critically evaluating her work. Each time the tone shift is so radical it feels as though the fabric of the novel tears a little, revealing, Escher-like, the hand of the artist behind it.
When presented with the first embroidery Nora is ‘so astonished by the excellence of the design and the beauty of the colour’ she cannot speak. The work is of an orange tree with eight little birds, ‘all fabulous yet touchingly domestic’, which ‘strut or peck beneath it’. She declares to herself that ‘They are in danger of giving it a spotty effect, and yet they don’t and that risk, taken and surmounted, is its merit and distinction.’ The second is of a magpie thrusting its head through the leaves of a jacaranda tree. It is a disappointment. Nora suspects the orange tree was a fluke. Her carer Betty Cust offers words of comfort, ‘You would think that maggie was real.’ Nora’s next thought gets a paragraph of its own:
‘The criteria of even the most trivial art are not those of virtue.’
When Betty brings in the third work, a design of swirling suns, moon and stars, Nora is floored by it. Its excellence ‘disturbs as well as amazes’ her and prompts her to ask aloud in Betty’s presence what she was running from all those years.
‘I wonder what would have happened if I had never left this place.’
‘Haven’t you ever wondered before?’
‘Never. Never once. I always believed it was imperative. But this shows I had begun to do something here after all. I have never done anything of this quality since. Who knows what else I may have drawn …’
I stop myself in time. The words in my mind were ‘drawn out of the compression of a secret life’.
The possibility of regret for an artistic life unlived is unspoken and terrible. But at the same time this is Nora’s victory; she pulls something out of what looked like nothing. Though, in typical fashion, it is a silent victory. Nora cannot utter the words even to kind, perceptive Betty Cust, because to do so would be to admit to having had an ambition, like the Lady of Shallot, to be both in the world and in the artist’s tower, using the world as material. Then, as now, this is to court psychological and financial danger and it may also still be to bring a curse down on your head. Probably, whether you are cursed or not will depend on what you find yourself able, in your own time and place, to draw ‘out of the compression of a secret life’.
• • •
I didn’t consciously think about this book for 30 years. But, as Nora says, ‘I did not know that such infections can enter the blood, and that a tertiary stage is possible.’ I wrote a novel with a wry old narrator who deals with her Australian carer in the present tense, while re-examining and reassembling the puzzle of her past. There are words, scenes, and a whole tone of caustic hope-hedging that I can see now are shocking echoes of the pattern it imprinted on me.
Which leaves me experiencing an impulse like an alcoholic at AA who must go back through all their acquaintance, hunt them down on Facebook or in life and apologise for what they did when they were drinking, even if they can’t remember what it was. Is it even possible to go back through all your reading and acknowledge what you took, though you didn’t know you were taking it? If I am honest I have secretly long considered myself at the same time a skinny misfit Frankie Addams fallen off the known world, and a fat lugubrious Louie Pollitt, plotting her escape from it.
Possibly my old woman narrator, Ruth, puts it better than I can. ‘Some memories may not even be my own,’ she says. ‘I heard the stories so often I took them into me, burnished and smothered them as an oyster a piece of grit, and now, mine or not, they are my shiniest self.’
The oyster no more chooses the grit that gets into its shell than we choose which books get under our skin. Nor, I suppose, can I be any more accountable than a bicuspid for the shape and colour of what I might, years later, cough up. And it is in this way that I feel that though I did not steal anything and I cannot give it back, what I can do is acknowledge, in gratitude and awe, what I owe. Or, as Nora has it, ‘Imagination is only memory at one, two, or twenty removes—and to know that is to repudiate those moves.’
*A version of this essay was published as the Afterword to Tirra Lirra by the River published by Melville House, New York, 2015