Women’s memoirs month

This month I’ve decided to focus on memoirs (factual or slighly fictionalised) by women writers. The first two that I read were Motherwell by Deborah Orr and Splithead by Julya Rabinowich (translated by Tess Lewis).

Deborah Orr: Motherwell

Although Motherwell is the name of the place where Deborah Orr was born and grew up, it is a felicitous play on words, because her relationship with her mother was going anything but ‘well’ and because it is a story of origin, such as the fountain/ well that gave her inspiration and values for the rest of her life (even if she chose to rebel against them).

Motherwell is – or was – a working-class coal and steel town on the Clyde Valley. The stripping back of its industry had already started when Orr was a child, the town lost its purpose and the people lost their identity. Orr hated the town and longed to escape – which she did, as soon as she left school – but this is a more nuanced revisiting of the place at the removal of several decades, a brutally honest look at what was both good and bad about it. There are moments of real lyricism, childhood friendships revisited (and the division between Catholics and Protestants stated all too clearly), and Orr’s love of nature becomes apparent. Both the child and the grown-up Deborah appreciate the landscape around her home town, the great river Clyde on their doorstep, the woods and marshlands. What she notices in the present-day, however, is that more attention is being given to the historical background of the area, which used to be a royal hunting forest in the Middle Ages.

There’s a sign by the tree now, telling people this stuff…. But none of this was there when Motherwell was a place with a future. The heritage industry moves in when people don’t know who they are any more and have to focus on who they were instead.

This is the story of a certain time and place, but it’s also a personal family history. Orr is sometimes a little too harsh on her parents, but she also tries to understand how their hard and unsatisfactory lives shaped them, and why this might have made them less-than-perfect and rather unsupportive parents. Having a difficult relationship with my mother myself, I could relate to many of the instances she describes.

It makes me grieve for the lost Win, the bright, talented girl who could have got so much more out of her life, if all of her life hadn’t been squashed into the tiny space of husband, home and children. My mother’s whole existence… was ordered by the choices of men. Their attention, their validation – that was everything to Win. She didn’t even think about it, was not really aware of it. Being in the good graces of men, attracting them, keeping the one you chose… these were the only important ways in which to gauge the worth of a woman. Win’s forty -year marriage to my father had been the great achievement of her life. Getting married, being married, staying married. These were things my mothers was violently, indefatigably in favour of.

My mother slagged off women, women she didn’t feel superior to who were different to her in a way that made her doubt herself, because she was so invested in the perfection of her womanhood, so proud of it.

Yet I can accept her unsentimental critique of her parents, because I can imagine she was just as hard on herself. Nevertheless, as she rummages after her mother’s death through her bureau, where she kept all of her paperwork and valuables, she finds keepsakes of many of her achievements as a child and a collection of clippings of her articles after she moved to London and became a journalist. Her parents were proud of her after all – they just weren’t the generation or perhaps the personalities who could comfortably articulate that.

I’d read a few articles by Deborah Orr, but I really became aware of her on Twitter in the last few months before her premature death, when she was describing in painful detail her nasty divorce. (You can imagine why I could relate to that). She does not shy away from painful details in this book either, and I do wish she could have lived longer to write the next volume of her memoirs.

Julya Rabinowich: Splithead

Julya Rabinowich emigrated from Russia to Austria in 1977, when she was just seven. She is now considered one of the most interesting German language writers of her generation (she is also a translator, playwright and painter). Both her parents were artists and this ‘novel’ is a very lightly fictionalised account of her own move to Austria. It tells the story of Mischka, born in St Petersburg into an extended Jewish family. She moves to Vienna with her parents and grandmother, and her story of trying to fit into the Viennese schools and society is interspersed with memories of their life in Russia, as recounted by Spaltkopf (“Splithead”), a Russian fairy-tale monster who feeds off the emotions of his victims. It’s a quirky experimental style, quite different from the more straightforward account by Deborah Orr. While I generally like experimental fiction, I have to admit that I found this style annoying at times, too jerky and bitty, swerving from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next, to Russian folk tales or imaginary friends or other influences.

Although I enjoyed the scenes of life in a block of flats in St Petersburg, the descriptions of neighbours and scenes of naughtiness, the oppressive atmosphere that they had to learn to navigate, I felt that the life in exile section was not as detailed as I’d have liked. I much preferred the descriptions of life as an immigrant in Switzerland by Irena Brežná or Julia Franck’s description of life in a refugee camp in West. There were some scenes such as the one below, but far too few of them for my liking.

We wait in a long queue with other emigrants for allocation by the organization responsible for us… Our goal is the shabby desk of the official who will interview us… An endless wave of complaints washes over the man facing us with his questionnaires. There is no alphabet in the world that can capture this despair. Whatever gets set down on the form is not what makes up the person. Our Noah’s Ark, which we’ve lined up by twos to enter, doesn’t have enough room for us all; at least, that is the rumour.

As for Mischka herself, she is a bit of a manipulative brat (the description of what she does to her mother at some pointm for no good reason at all just broke my heart) and she gets even worse when she grows up. However, there are little gems of insight scattered throughout the book, which kept me reading on. Of course, means of communication have moved on since the 1970s, but perhaps it’s still not easy to get past censorship in the ‘mother country’.

Emigration tears people apart. They learn about high points and personal disasters in letters and phone calls. Closer contact is impossible. As if they had landed on another planet, breathing is difficult in the spacesuits that they don’t dare take off for fear there won’t be enough air in the new atmosphere. Their chests rise and fall with difficulty.Their lungs hurt. The voices of the other settlers croak through the microphones in their helmet.

7 thoughts on “Women’s memoirs month”

  1. Motherwell is such a powerful, heartbreaking book. I found the combination of Orr’s reflections on her parents and the broader social history incredibly affecting…

    1. I’m not a huge memoir reader either, and many of them do seem so self-absorbed and full of self justification. But this one manages to also be a portrait of a community and perhaps even a whole generation.

  2. I’m another who doesn’t usually do a lot of memoir reading, Marina Sofia. But these do sound interesting, especially Motherwell. It’s not easy to have anything like a balanced look at one’s growing up, one’s parents, and so on, so it’s good to know that we see a little of that balance here. And I do like the idea of having a look at the time and place.

    1. I think I got put off memoirs when a lot of them were about overcoming addiction or celebrity name-dropping or things like that. There are some good ones in that genre (Carrie Fisher, for instance), but they do often sound self-absorbed and vacuous. I thought by bringing the wider issues of class, education, geography, work, as well as family, this one had a wider canvas than usual.

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