I’m hesitant to offer a review of two memoirs by people I know but these books, which I’ve read over the summer, are so very good that I want to recommend them to all.
There’s a book by George Perec called An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’) in which he observes, makes lists and otherwise attempts an exhaustive account of one small corner of Paris. Of course, it’s not exhaustive; apart from anything else the place is in motion and continually changing – even the present moment cannot be captured.
There’s a sense in which both Graham Caveney’s The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness (Picador, £14.99) and Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations (Little, Brown, £14.99) are similarly attempts at what is termed in French an épuisement in that they are both attempts to understand distressing and traumatic events by investigating them in a multitude of aspects. One of the ways they do this by placing them in the broader settings of life before and after. But both also acknowledge that the subjects they address will never be fully understood or accommodated; what has happened has to be borne and managed, and the attempt to understand will continue long after the books are written and published.
The two traumatic events – the death by suicide of Joanne Limburg’s brilliant younger brother and the sexual abuse perpetrated on the teenage Graham Caveney by his charismatic headmaster – are very different. However both lead to a consideration of the effect of trauma on family relationships, social position and relationship to religion (Joanne was raised in the Jewish faith while Graham’s family background is Catholic). Both also occupy a kind of outsider status. In Joanne’s book this is most clearly articulated in her encounter with the mostly kind and well-meaning Americans in the place she calls Plainsville where her brother and his Japanese wife settled. Graham explores the distance between working-class Accrington with its loving but limited home life and his desire for something beyond, suggested by the works of Beckett and Kafka, by music, by the visits to the theatre and abroad which his headmaster, a Catholic priest, holds out as tempting treats. and both cannot help at times asking the question we all ask ourselves after grief and trauma: “Was it something I did or said? Was it all my fault?” However much logic tells us this is not the case, it is usual to be burdened at times, solipsistically, with a sense of guilt.
But there’s more than this that the books have in common. Both are also structured adventurously – and perhaps this is essential when the experience at the centre of each will never cease to have its effects. While both memoirs have a sense of direction, they are compelled to move backwards and forwards in time – something which any writer knows is hard to achieve while maintaining the momentum of the book. Yet both are written in such a way that I read them avidly. In Joanne Limburg’s book, this meant I had to move through a series of vessels rather than chapters. In the tradition of the Kabbalah there were ten aspects of of the divine contained in vessels which almost immediately fractured, scattering the contents through the universe and mixing them up with the material world with its evils and suffering. And each of the vessels in Joanne’s book includes fragments of the divine – of goodness, of love – as well as the anguish of loss and the difficulty of accommodating a mourning self in a changed world.
Graham’s book is even more urgent with almost every section headed ‘Next’. It articulates the question which may be implicit in Joanne’s book: what would I have been if this had not happened? That, of course, is the unknowable. It is plain that Graham has suffered damage from the assaults he experienced and that his pathway has been different as a result of his singling out by the headmaster. The results are not even entirely regretted since the headmaster offered, in place of sweets or temporary goodies, the treat of a knowledge of culture which cannot be entirely dismissed or rejected – although Graham’s choice to specialise in American literature was conceived as a rejection of what the headmaster stood for.
Despite the clear focus of each memoir, both build the sense of a wider world. In Small Pieces there are pictures of family life with all its complexities as well as meditations on the author’s relation both to her Jewish identity and the Jewish religion. She comes from a family of tough women, sometimes overset by events beyond their control, and the memories she recounts of her childhood show the kind of relationship between older sister and younger brother that is founded on familial closeness and love. At times it called to mind my relationship with my own younger brother, who I love dearly – there are the same childhood squabbles and jostling for power and love as well as alternating times of communication and times when conversation is less frequent (my brother also lives in North America). While the references to Judaism were largely unfamiliar to me, I read them – as I often read – for greater knowledge and understanding, and also because they were integral to the story being told.
In some ways, Graham’s story seemed closer to my own life, although my working-class parents in London were consumers of culture and my mother in particular was avid to devour the culture of which she felt deprived after leaving school at thirteen to work in a factory. His lists of the tastes of childhood set me to conjure up the tastes I recalled from that time. I also shared his sense of the need to protect my parents – in my case from an acutely unhappy boarding-school experience having been sent away from home on a scholarship at 9-years-old. I knew this involved sacrifices made by my parents, that they were happy and proud of some of my achievements, and that they couldn’t understand why their happy child had such difficult teenage years. And, like Graham, I don’t know how much was the separation from my parents and how much the normal pains of adolescence. But I also know that I was lucky not to endure the appalling betrayal he endured of being abused by someone in a position of power. Of course he couldn’t have told someone at the time. Who could he have told? Who would have believed a working-class teenager’s word rather than that of a headmaster and a priest? Later, when the climate of public opinion and knowledge had changed Graham was able to report the abuse to the church. His position as the author of two books probably gave him credibility and the headmaster admitted what he had done.
These books don’t have happy endings – what could those be? Yet they don’t have entirely unhappy endings either. Life is a movement forward in which we learn to live with seemingly impossible loss and trauma. Both Joanna and Graham are part of our world and have written books from which we can learn, if only by being aware of the grief of others and bringing our own intelligence and experience of life to bear on the problems that caused it. Both books reach towards understanding. They invite the reader to play a part in that important work.