December 21, 1985

Mirrors of Memory

Filed under: Archive,Books

12 Edmondstone Street
By David Malouf
Chatto & Windus

David Malouf’s latest book, 12 Edmondstone Street is an interesting combination of memoir and personal history because it seeks to draw a distinction between the two. As memoir it recalls Malouf’s childhood in Brisbane as a second generation Australian of Lebanese descent growing up in the 1940s when a war had brought Australia face to face with the imperatives of identity and cultural and political choice. As personal history the book is Malouf’s attempt to define himself geographically and ethically in his home in a peasant village in Tuscany, in the case of one essay, and as a traveller in India in another.

The book consists of four prose pieces – the title work which constitutes half the book, plus two reprints which first appeared in The National Times – “A Place in Tuscany” and “A Foot in the Stream” (on India) – and it concludes with a wartime memoir, ”The Kyogle Line”. The unity is a subtle one and effortless. This is no ragbag of occasionals.

Needless to say of David Malouf, these essays are splendidly written. The prose is as plain as sunlight; confident in its wit and control. It is the kind of writing one is tempted to call pellucid, not just in the hope of being quoted on the cover of the paperback edition, but because the transparency of the prose warrants it.

In “A Place in Tuscany”, Malouf unobtrusively and vividly sketches his friend Agatina:

“When I acquired Agatina’s house (as it is still called in the village) I also acquired Agatina, her husband, Ugo, eighty two, and her sister, Celeste, who died lastmonth at eighty six. I go to Sunday lunch and sometimes in the late afternoon as well, to sit in the kitchen with the women; drinking . sweet tea; watching them do needlework and listening to Agatina’s stories . . . ‘Australia’, Agatina says as she might say Saturn or Paradise. It is a continent she has now acquired, in the sense in which I have acquired her family history; she locates it in some empty area of her experience between Poland, where Papa Woytila comes from, and New York, where a grand-niece recently spent the summer. It is the place I exist in, in her thoughts, when I am not fifty metres away in ‘her’ house. Time is too continuous, too present, too large to be thought about, and space too small. Such are the conditions of this world!”

This is prose which tempts any reviewer beyond fair dealing in quotation. The second part of the Tuscany piece is less focused as Malouf describes the arrival of a film documentary team led, as it happens, by Adelaide Writer Richard Tipping. This piece is intended to highlight the technological intrusion of the team and the curious inauthenticity when in front of a camera, rather than as one is, even when doing identical tasks but the writer is a shade more pleased and fascinated about being the subject of a documentary than the poise of his writing can manage. The film makers are invasive and no amount of metaphysical prose can redeem that. The fact is, that we devour filmed material endlessly but give no sanction finally to the process which produces it.

“A Foot in the Stream” is in some ways a Forsterian attempt to describe the Indian experience:

“The fear of India. It comes in many forms. Fear of dirt, fear of illness, fear of people; fear of the unavoidable presence of misery; fear of a phenomenon so dense and plural that it might, in its teeming inclusiveness, swamp the soul and destroy our certainty that the world is there to be read but is also readable.”

Malouf gets more purchase describing Mr G, a sickly guide with a Master of Arts and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian place names, who argues bitterly with the driver that a kingfisher is actually a jay:

“Poor Mr G. His sallow face and thin shoulders, his inability to approach the shrine, his lesser share, our odd course round the sights as we follow the sun – all this will stay with me longer, I suspect, than the wonders he has to show us, impressive as they undoubtedly are. He will always haunt the place, like his opposing spirit, the flashy blue-winged kingfisher that would not, for all his naming and renaming of it, become a jay.”

“12 Edmondstone St” and “The Kyogle Line” are like bookends embracing the other more urbane and culturally expansive accounts of the author’s adult life. The title piece is literally a room by room recollection of Malouf’s childhood home in Brisbane and like Joyce in Portrait, he recalls the smells, shapes, terrors and curiosities that the house held for him. It is not an exercise in brand name nostalgia nor does it presume an idyllic viewpoint.

Rather, it seeks to settle on the concrete and the actual in an unsurprised and unsurprising way. The result is a fascinating vividness and evocation of a past interesting in. itself and not because Malouf is insisting that it is so.

“12 Edmondstone St” is a profusion of domestic particulars and dotty rituals. Malouf recalls how he used to sift among the odds and ends stored in a brass jardiniere and itemize and recall them:

“I try to memorise what the jardinière contains, to keep all this rubbish in my head, so that if, in poking about the house, or under it, or out in the back yard, I should come across ‘the other one’, I can restore both objects to use. I refuse to accept that this mortuary of lost couples is really the end. I dedicate myself. I imagine going through life with the jardiniere invisibly in my arms, a heavy burden; which is why I have begun the long business of committing its contents to memory.

It is the achievement of good writing to call attention to the many meanings in our ordinary experience and Malouf does that. The details he so meticulously reconstructs represent a descent into childhood memory that is unsettling because our past is both ours and not ours:

“Memory is deeper than we are and has longer views. When it pricked and set us on, it was the future it had in mind, and the door our fingertips were seeking was not there because we were looking in the wrong place; it was not that door we were meant to go through. The door was in us. Our actual body is the wall our fingertips come to. We have only to dare one last little blaze of magic to pass through.

“Mirrors of Memory”, The Adelaide Review, December, 1985, p.?

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