Memory Pieces by Maurice Gee (Victoria University Press, 2018), 336pp., $35
The title Memory Pieces in its starkness is ambiguous, suggesting both an offering of autobiographical fragments and an active process of piecing (or being pieced) together. Gee states on the first page: ‘In writing these pieces I’ve relied on memory, mine and other people’s, rather than research. Where the two conflict I’ve usually gone with memory.’ Memories can be raw and unchanging, but mostly are evolving and unreliable, necessary material for the stories that individuals and families feel compelled to make of their lives.
Gee evokes both the emotional landscape of the first half of his life and significant social landscapes of mid-twentieth century New Zealand. The first section, ‘Double Unit’, written in the third person, centres on his mother. There is a sudden jolt of focus to first person in the second section, ‘Blind Road’, as he plots the geometry of his relationships with school mates, the vectors of streets and creeks and buildings, the permutations of his family and other peoples’ families, and a deeper analysis of his mother and her dominant shaping influence upon him. The third section, ‘Running on the Stairs’, deals with his long-time marriage to Margareta Garden.
The reader is plunged at the start into a stranger’s genealogy, the begat begat litany of ‘Henry Gough came from Gloucestershire and his wife, born Mary Froome, from Middlesex … fell in love with a young plumber “in a brown corduroy jacket”.’ This is the stuff of innumerable family rambles, an exemplar of a currently popular genre. Unexpectedly, Gee interpolates thirty-six pages of an unpublished autobiographical text entitled ‘The Change’ by his mother, Lyndahl, about her early years. (Ironically, the son contains the mother.) This text comprises some of her youthful reminiscences strung together by ‘and’ and ‘and’, a naïve memoir in contrast with the son’s subtle writing skills. Gee, in following chapters, investigates his mother’s text and refers to others she wrote in which she ‘gives a sharper account, sees a different reality standing beside the one portrayed’ in ‘The Change’. He provides evidence of her promise as a writer and her occasional bitter insights:
Who I am has never crossed their minds in all the years of my service as a wife and mother … I think I began hating the opposite sex early in my life because my mother always catered for their needs first.
After relatively happy early years with her young family during the 1930s, Gee’s mother experienced ‘events beyond her strength to combat’ which ‘crushed her’; she ‘lost the voice she had worked for, and could only make thin cries’. Also, ‘over the war years Len [Gee’s father] lost his sure sense of himself’. Towards the end of ‘Blind Road’, Gee states in a kind of summation: ‘I belonged to her and she to me … I don’t know whether I was a naturally sensitive child or whether she created “sensitivity” in me.’ He describes his relationship with his father as affectionate but less empathetic.
Gee’s prose is relatively plain and sinewy. He describes how, in adolescence, ‘I took a looping track into poetry and was relieved when I came out. I had found Dostoevsky to go with Dickens and I wanted to be like them.’ He can be dismissive of figurative language: ‘There are plenty of similes and metaphors: puberty struck me like a hammer, it sucked me down in a swamp, it split me in two, it dragged me out in an undertow … That will do.’ He then immediately reverts to plain words: ‘There were times when I believed I was diseased and mad and dirty’.
Notwithstanding his prose virtues, Gee adroitly employs poetic aspects of language, with a penchant for connotation-rich headings. ‘Double Unit’ in a metaphoric spiral at once references his parents, the title of his mother’s most well-known published story, his father’s later career as a house builder and speculator, the parents’ retirement to a double-unit apartment, his relationship with his mother – and there are perhaps other nuances. ‘Blind Road’ and ‘Running on the Stairs’ are similarly rich phrases that suggest several meanings. He also regularly investigates words for their social resonance: his mother and her family considered ‘[t]he words for pee and poo were a problem’; her family name Chapple ‘has the sound of a cracked bell. It rang through my childhood’; the term for the 1930s Depression, Slump, ‘seemed to me like a slow heavy creature snuffling outside the back door in the night’.
At the beginning of ‘Blind Road’, Gee brilliantly describes the viscerality of memory and its sometimes puzzling randomness. He ponders that while he has various memories up until the age of three, few are of his parents. In his earliest memories, ‘things stand out like pictures lit by a candle in a dark room’. When the family moves to another house, where he lives until the age of sixteen, he experiences ‘too many memories. Everything is sharply defined as if the sun strikes down from straight overhead, leaving no shadows; and when I allow shadows they have sharp edges too.’ Overall, he skilfully illustrates how his memory is supplemented, importantly by other peoples’ memories and the stories they construct from them:
There’s memory and there’s story, which takes me back to times before I was born. My parents shared the telling, my mother in a narrative … my father, with fewer words, remembering events pleasing to boys –
Gee does not spare himself when he relates embarrassing incidents such as a sexual attack he experienced as a boy (‘I’ve never known any horror like it’), various indignities of puberty, and his participation in vandalising the local Catholic school. When he states that his ‘twisted view of right behaviour would have appalled [his mother]’, his self-abnegnation seems abstract and excessive, although an understandable product of a puritanical upbringing.
Gee can be judgemental, for example of his grandfather James Chapple (generally considered the model for the character Plumb in Gee’s most famous novel of the same name – although he does not mention this, nor many of his other books). He says of his grandfather that ‘while he was right about some things, he was wrong, deluded, about many more’. When Gee beat his grandfather at draughts the old man claimed that he had let him:
I knew he was lying. I was smart enough to work out that if he’d let me win it would have been to please me but telling me took my pleasure away … Beaten by a child – it was a step in aging too big for him to take.
The short section ‘Running on the Stairs’ is mainly a portrait of Gee’s long-time wife, Margareta, and their years together during which he matured as a writer. He fleetingly refers to the prior period when he ‘found a partner in Hera Smith’:
Our son Nigel was born. Rachel Barrowman has told the story of the sad and bitter, and sometimes ugly, years that followed in the biography Maurice Gee. There’s no need for me to tell it again.
It is not clear why he withholds a significant ‘piece’ of autobiography, but maybe these deliberate avoidances are testament to the author’s natural reserve and his sequestering of his most personal material as raw material for his art. Gee’s published autobiographical writing has been very sparing: a 1976 essay in the literary journal Islands, and in 2013 some earlier versions of material in Memory Pieces appeared in a booklet entitled Creeks and Kitchens (Bridget Williams Books).
This final section reads as a coda to the previous two, which are artistically bold in the use of the mother’s text, and satisfying in the way they complement each other. Gee quotes in the final section from some autobiographical texts by Margareta, but does not forensically analyse them in the way he does his mother’s texts. He constructs a portrait of blended destinies, of a happy marriage, concluding, ‘I sometimes say, over-dramatically, that Margareta saved my life.’ He alludes to the provisional, slightly scrappy nature of ‘Running on the Stairs’ when he says, ‘Perhaps I’ll write about that another time, but I’ll finish now with some comments culled from letters.’
In the first two sections especially, Gee effectively draws together details of his formative years to portray a social landscape in which he is equally bit player and central character. Notably, he avoids point-scoring at the expense of other people, in contrast to at least one other recent autobiographical book by a New Zealand literary male éminence grise. Memory Pieces is more than its understated title suggests: it is a masterly work of pieces that coalesce into a vividly realised memoir based on the carefully scrutinised workings of memory.
DENIS HAROLD lives near Dunedin.