• Email
  • Print

The Knife by the Handle at Last’

The Sum of Our Days

by Isabel Allende, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
Harper, 301 pp., $26.95

The family memoir gives structure to old emotion and scattered recollection, allowing its author to take control of the past. Perhaps particularly for women writers, it offers the opportunity to turn the tables on oppressive patriarchal hierarchy. At some point, all five books under review portray male presumption as fragility, not strength, and celebrate the erstwhile victim’s authorial power: to write the story is to have the knife by the handle at last.

The genre presents its authors with a major conundrum and, not unrelated, a serious obstacle. What kind of truth can come out of only one participant in the family drama? How far is it permissible to modify events for dramatic effect? When Doris Lessing purports to remember in the most minute detail the moth-eaten party dresses she pulled, aged thirteen, from her mother’s trunk, inviting us to marvel that anyone could have supposed these fancy garments might be appropriate for a Rhodesian farmer’s wife, the memoir loses conviction. A novelist’s creativity can be counterproductive when writing nonfiction.

Then there’s the question of privacy: self-revelation is every author’s right, but revealing intimate details of others’ lives may be a matter for the courts, or at the very least may cause distress. Miranda Seymour’s account of her father’s life and Marie Brenner’s portrayal of her brother seem possible only because the two men are dead, but as we approach the final pages of Rachel Sontag’s book and see no sign of her father’s having died, the mind boggles at the thought of his reaction. When Isabel Allende tells us, at the end of her memoir, that on showing the typescript to those concerned, a stepson insisted that all references to him be removed, this reader felt a certain satisfaction that at least one member of the family had resisted her condescending charm.

Lessing’s Alfred and Emily distinguishes itself for the nature of its anger and political engagement. The burden of her memoir is that she never knew her father “as he really was,” or her mother “as she really was.” “The First World War did them both in,” she tells us brusquely:

Shrapnel shattered my father’s leg, and thereafter he had to wear a wooden one. He never recovered from the trenches. He died at sixty-two, an old man. On the death certificate should have been written, as cause of death, the Great War. My mother’s great love, a doctor, drowned in the Channel. She did not recover from that loss.

To underline this impression of not having known her parents before they were irretrievably damaged, Lessing dedicates the first half of her book to a novella in which she imagines the happier lives they might have enjoyed had the war never happened. In this alternative history, the cricket-loving Alfred prefers work as a farmhand to his parents’ more middle-class ambitions and marries not Emily but a plump, jolly nursing companion of hers.

As for Emily, having lost her mother early on, she defies her authoritarian father to take up nursing rather than go to university. Starved of affection, she seeks a surrogate mother in a friend of Albert’s parents and a surrogate father in a doctor whom she marries before realizing that he is a cold-hearted tyrant. Her good luck is that he is soon carried off by a heart attack, allowing her to spend his considerable fortune on philanthropic ventures: schools for poor children, refuges for unmarried mothers. The activity puts her in productive touch with Alfred, who is involving himself in a school for the children of his own village.

Presented as traditional fiction, the tale is so contrived and perfunctory, takes such easy swipes at such long-pulverized targets as the English class system and bourgeois moral hypocrisy, that many readers will be tempted to skip to the real story in the second half of the book. In particular, it’s interesting that for Lessing, happier lives for her parents means lives whose political and social commitments she can feel happy with. The second part of Alfred and Emily immediately comes to life with bitterness, anger, regret. Having lost his leg in the war, Alfred married a woman who nursed him, took her to Persia, where Lessing was born, then moved to Rhodesia, hoping to make a quick fortune farming maize in order to return to England in style. It didn’t happen and the couple found themselves marooned in a place they had never planned should be home. Struggling with his wooden leg, afflicted now with diabetes, Alfred never ceased to evoke the nightmare of the trenches, endlessly repeating his horror stories to Lessing and her brother. Disappointed with her African life, the once energetic Emily often took to her bed in self-pity or, again and again, recalled for her children in obsessive detail the sufferings of the soldiers she once cared for: > And the worst, you see, the worst was when they were calling for their mothers. They were just boys, that’s all. I remember one little lad, he was sixteen, he had pretended to be eighteen, but he was just…. He died calling for his mother, and I….

The reader is made to feel the burden that this constant rehearsal of harrowing memories becomes. “I think my father’s rage at the Trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me,” Lessing writes. “Do children feel their parents’ emotions? Yes, we do and it is a legacy I could have done without. What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is in my own memory, my own consciousness.”

The “use of it” is evident enough. It has inspired Lessing to write many strong antiwar pages, some of them toward the end of this book when she talks about the civil war in Zimbabwe. But her insistence that her damaged parents were no longer their “real” selves and hence beyond criticism is troubling. Defending the position, Lessing grows shrill:

So there was this load of suffering deep inside my mother, as there was inside my father, and please don’t tell me that this kind of pain, borne for years, doesn’t take its dreadful toll.

Frequently chided for his or her supposed superficiality, the reader is not invited to reflect that it may have been precisely this isolation in Rhodesia and the failure of the farming project that prompted Alfred and Emily to dwell so destructively on the past. Rather, Lessing insists on factors beyond their control: artificial legs were not as “clever” as they are now; insulin “was managed with none of the subtlety they use now”; there was not the same awareness of clinical depression or the drugs to treat it. The word “clever” occurs frequently, suggesting at once Lessing’s admiration for technical progress and her anger that it was unavailable to her parents:

These days she would not have suffered as she did. I keep coming back to the same thing: now, the clever medicine we have would have seen her through.

Away from the dogmatic statements, however, when we read of Alfred’s enthusiasm for the African sky at night and for bushmen’s rock paintings, or of the generous medical care that Emily gave to the local community, it’s hard to accept that these people were so helpless. In any event, the consequence of Lessing’s approach is clear enough: her anger—“To this day I can feel the outrage”—is shifted away from her parents and toward an antiwar passion that all modern readers can be expected to admire. The downside is that two complex personalities engaged in a difficult relationship are reduced to victims of circumstance. Any notion that antidepressants and clever medicines are on the way to eliminating family trauma is dispelled on reading Marie Brenner’s Apples and Oranges or Rachel Sontag’s House Rules. Brenner, a successful journalist in her fifties, had started to research her quarrelsome Texan Jewish family for a study of sibling relationships over several generations when her hostile brother Carl wrote to tell her he had a life-threatening cancer. The book she writes is the story of her attempt to get close to Carl during his illness, their reconciliation giving dramatic focus to the sibling study. Brenner’s intriguing account of her family suggests a milieu where members are prompted to assume extreme positions over divisive issues, each generation throwing up examples of the liberal, permissive, artistic, urban mentality in fierce and mutually defining conflict with the conservative, anal-retentive, bureaucratic, provincial mindset. Brought up to be the clone and hunting partner of his moral istic, businessman father, the frighteningly reactionary, control- obsessed Carl eventually broke away from the family and a career in law to become an apple farmer in Washington State, all his ferocious attention to detail and impatience with anything but slavish obedience now being directed to his orchards and workers.

Brenner is the orange to his apple, the “flighty and rebellious younger sister” to his “dominating older brother.” He loathes her liberal values, easy emotion, left-wing friends, and know-all, journalistic self-regard; she considers him a control freak and a dinosaur of right-wing Southern intolerance. Under threat of death, however, the two try to direct their aggression away from each other and toward the common enemy of cancer. Marie in particular goes to extraordinary lengths to show a sympathetic interest in her brother’s orchards and the crisis-bound fruit market, burdening the reader with the history of apple farming in the United States and speculating on family precedents that may have prompted Carl to take it up. But Carl remains suspicious; when his sister casually tells him that a friend of hers “sends his love,” he typically retorts:

WHY DO YOU ALWAYS EXAGGERATE EVERYTHING?”

I did not exaggerate. He sent you his love.”

I want it plain. I don’t want all this New York bullshit. He might have said send him my best or tell him hello, but he sure did not send me his love. Why are you always so filled with hyperbole? You are such a phony.” Then he slams the phone down.

Is Carl right?

Is Carl wrong?

Why is this such a terrible thing?

I could not say what I really feel. That I am desperate and afraid.

With his “fuck the cancer, fuck dying” attitude Carl embarks on a quest for cures, or rather anti-cancer weapons; it’s a battle. All life is a battle for Carl. Brenner follows him as far as Beijing and a dubious herb treatment, always taking copious notes. Convinced by a born-again evangelist that Jesus can cure him, Carl turns fundamentalist Christian. There is much showy grief and ambitious overwriting. Seeing the end nigh, Carl destroys all the belongings and papers his sister might have used for her research, then, warrior to the last, shoots himself to deny the cancer victory. However, the most disquieting sentence of the book comes with the last line of Brenner’s closing acknowledgments. “My most profound gratitude,” she writes, “is, of course, reserved for my brother Carl, whose courage, resilience, and discipline as he fought the battle for his life have shown me the way to be.” This reader for one had not interpreted Carl’s behavior in such a positive light. “Children should not be sent away from home aged seven,” Lessing tells us, recalling the moment she was packed off to boarding school. Readers of House Rules will not be so sure. Rachel Sontag tells the story of a girl singled out by her father, again Jewish, this time a hospital doctor, for a manic form of persecution and control. Her dress, hair, fingernail length, table manners, body language, and study habits are all closely monitored. There are elaborate rules for everything. Forgetting your house key may lead to being left outside for hours while the rest of the family watches television; trying to sneak a certain toy into a suitcase causes a holiday to be abruptly canceled. Late nights are forbidden. Makeup is forbidden. Duct tape fixes the stereo tuner to National Public Radio. “There’s a girl who really hates herself,” the father announces when he spies a trace of lipstick. His daughter is made to write letters of apology. She is made to write that she is selfish, a “rotten, worthless brat,” “a snake,…scum.” “I wish you were never born,” she is told. She yearns to leave. But it is the deeply disturbing tone of her father’s voice and with it the method behind his madness that Sontag, now in her thirties, captures so convincingly in this powerful book. Here he is, anxious that Rachel has been speaking badly of him while visiting her sick grandmother:

You talked about me, Rachel.”

No. I didn’t.”

To my own mother?”

We didn’t talk about you, Dad….”

She could die,” he said.

I get that.”

Mom looked exhausted. “I think what Dad’s saying is that what happens between us as a family is private business.”

Is that what I’m saying Ellen?”

What we’re saying,” she said.

I didn’t talk to Grandma about you.”

Then why is she getting worse?” he asked.

Is she getting worse?”

The question seemed to irritate him.

She’s gotten worse since you went to see her. You don’t get it, Rachel. You’re going to kill her with the things you say.”

This is crazy,” I said, appealing to Mom.

Mom shook her head. “Steve, I think she understands.”

She’s sick and weak. Are you trying to kill her?”

C’mon, Dad.”

I hold you responsible, Rachel.”

So it goes on. Rachel is responsible for every calamity. When the mother asks for a divorce it must be because Rachel put her up to it. The mother backs down. The father tapes Rachel’s phone conversations. To discredit her, he plays the tapes to her schoolteacher. When concerned social services impose family therapy, he makes Rachel pay for the therapist. The problem is hers. In particular, he reacts dangerously to any manifestation of her sexuality.

However unwelcome, this obsessive attention gives Rachel an inflated opinion of herself. Her behavior is important. Meanwhile, her younger sister and inadequate mother are completely ignored, abject, phantasmal observers of two monstrous drama queens. Sontag is excellent at getting across her growing awareness of the extent to which the problem involved and damaged all four participants; the portrayal of her mother’s descent into hysteria is riveting.

It must have been tempting to close this claustrophobic tale with an account of triumphant escape, but Sontag chooses instead to describe her disorientation after leaving home for university. Nothing seems real beside the battle with her father. Confused, she seeks out extreme experiences, partly to impress him, partly to be free from him. She tries to turn him into a comic figure of party anecdote. Only after many years and recurrent clashes does she appreciate that he will never accept a relationship that doesn’t involve her complete subjugation. More reflective in these pages but always sharply focused, House Rules leaves the reader wondering whether its publication amounts to a final burning of bridges between daughter and father or whether, paradoxically, it mightn’t be a last bid for her opponent’s respect. There are more paternal rules but a quite different house and even stranger father in Miranda Seymour’s Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House (the English edition’s more effective title is simply In My Father’s House ). If Sontag’s work is an extraordinary debut, Seymour’s is the masterpiece for which her previous novels and biographies have prepared the way. A writer who has grown up being forced to hide her natural hair under long blonde wigs and led to believe she had to make it past three ghosts to reach the bathroom at night might well have concentrated on the drama of coming to consciousness in bizarre circumstances and her struggle with the father who imposed them. Instead she leads us into the story more gently, using her experience as a biographer—of Robert Graves and Mary Shelley, among others—and the wealth of diaries and correspondence her father left behind to give us a portrait of George FitzRoy Seymour from birth to dramatic death, and above all an account of his relationship with the house that dominated his existence. Born into a family with tenuous pretensions to blue blood (an ancestor was an illegitimate child of Charles II), George Seymour’s fate was sealed early when his diplomat father was posted to La Paz. Worried that the Bolivian climate would not be suitable for a delicate toddler, his mother left George with her older sister, who had recently married an elderly clergyman, descendant of Lord Byron and owner of the rambling, run-down Thrumpton Hall, an isolated Jacobean manor house in south Nottinghamshire.

It was 1924. There was no electricity. Hardly wanted, George was banished to the otherwise abandoned, supposedly haunted, definitely chilly upper floor. Lonely and frightened, he nevertheless fell in love with the huge building and its idyllic grounds. “How old do you have to be to form a passion that will endure for a lifetime?” Seymour asks. “The answer in my father’s case seems clear. Abandoned at the age of two, he had given his heart to Thrumpton. No human love would ever displace it.”

By age eleven a priggish George was writing in his diary: “I want to live at Thrumpton and care for the village.” The fact that he was now with his parents again in London made no difference. Unpopular at school, he attached all his self-esteem to the magnificent estate where he spent his summer holidays, never telling other boys what his real circumstances were.

Wryly, Seymour balances her father’s chronic insecurity and lifelong snobbery against his genuine passion for Thrumpton and the paternal traditions it enshrined. “As I grow older the House exerts an ever greater hold on me,” he wrote in his early twenties. It was wartime; many other such houses were falling into disrepair or burning down.

Dear Thrumpton. The moon was full last night. I went for a walk by the lake and spent an hour down by the willows looking at the House. I pray no harm will come to it.

Meantime, his uncle couldn’t decide whether Thrumpton should be left to his own nephews or to George. The nephews died. Unable to pay for the property’s maintenance, the uncle decided to sell. “This shall not be,” George wrote in his diary. Given one year to find a solution to the financial problems, in which case he could inherit, George, having no history of success with women, contrived to marry, at twenty-three, one of the country’s richest heiresses. Two years later Miranda was born, a byproduct it seems of her father’s passion for Thrumpton. One of the finest aspects of Seymour’s book is the back and forth between the story itself and the delicate discussions with her mother as she sets out to tell it, and in particular to show how her father’s psychology changed when he entered into ownership, how his pretensions turned to tyranny and obsession. Less than a year after the wedding, the heiress was discovered not to be an heiress after all. The wealth had been lost. George clung to Thrumpton anyway, enforcing aristocratic etiquette, reintroducing old traditions, dictating what could be worn and when, what eaten, what said, growing hysterical when he was not appreciated and obeyed. Wine glasses must be perfectly polished, women’s hair must not be cut short, they must wear contact lenses, not glasses, curtains must be drawn and undrawn at the appropriate times, collars must be properly starched. Then there are the right gloves, the right veiled hat, the right cutlery, the right form of address for a duchess, and quite another for a countess. An extraordinary, ugly scene develops when Miranda’s mother appears at one important occasion wearing a sequinned dress that her father judges inappropriate.

There is much fascinating anecdote here and a finely skeptical portrayal of what it means to grow up amid “the buttery chat of those who are bred to sound bored.” However, the real drama of Seymour’s tale begins when, in middle age, now a respectable magistrate, George Seymour fell in love with motorbikes. Having forced his exhausted family into straitjackets of outdated decorum, he now started to bring unkempt young men into the house, dressing up in leather with them to ride hundreds of miles through the night on his powerful Ducati (what could such a man call his bike if not the Duke?).

Baffled by the serenity of her mother in the face of this development, Seymour describes her own complex mix of anger, jealousy, and disbelief as her father bikes down to Greece where, in her late twenties now, she is spending the spring and insists on sharing a bedroom with the young man who has accompanied him as his “mechanic.” She comments:

The saddest part of my father’s love for the House was that his longing for it always to be perfect…had created instead a sense of tormented strain…. Away from it [he] was enjoying his new, more youthful life; when he returned, he was more insistent than ever on the maintenance of order, etiquette and routine.

Making surreal attempts to reconcile the two sides of his life, Seymour is pictured sitting in the manor grounds trying to teach a pathetic young man to read with stories from Winnie the Pooh. The biker is nicknamed Tigger. George is Christopher Robin. But the boy is fragile and the relationship unsustainable. Nevertheless, and for all the preparatory hints that Seymour has dropped throughout, the concluding drama is savage and startling. And as with Sontag’s book, it is the convincing portrayal of a number of complex personalities altering in intense and precarious relation to each other that makes her memoir so moving. Seymour begins and ends her story with her father’s ghost, her difficulty, despite his death, in feeling she is free from him. Isabel Allende’s The Sum of Our Days likewise features a ghost, but a child’s rather than a parent’s and one she is eager to cling to, not exorcise. The entire book is addressed as a letter to her daughter, Paula, who died in 1992. Its declared purpose is to inform the dead girl of everything that has happened to the family since. At the same time, Allende speaks of her daughter as the family’s protector, a spirit who answers prayer and offers constant help. How Paula can do this yet still need a three-hundred-page letter to discover what is going on is not clear. Since this memoir does not recount the author’s emergence from her family of origin but the construction of her own family, or “tribe,” there is no question of conflict with an oppressive parent. Rather Allende herself is the dominant figure, a matriarch as eager to hang on to her children as Sontag and Seymour were to escape from their parents.

With a large cast of characters and soap opera structure, The Sum of Our Days has no direction but the drift of chronology and authorial whim. The main strands are Allende’s ups and downs with her second husband, Willie; the vicissitudes of his drug addict daughter, Jennifer, her frail child, Sabrina, and the lesbian women (one a Buddhist priestess) who take custody of her; the two marriages of Allende’s son, Nico, first to a dogmatic Venezuelan who bears him three children before herself turning lesbian, then to an older woman (chosen by Allende) who remains unhappily childless.

There is Jason, Willie’s son, whose girlfriend Sarah runs off with the Venezuelan. There is Ernesto, Paula’s widower, for whom a new wife must be found (here the ghost gives a hand). And there are various woman friends, all remarkable if not “magical,” forming a mutual support group known as “The Sisters of Perpetual Disorder,” who specialize in quasi-mystical rituals for freeing themselves from depression. When these spells are ineffective, a therapist is always on hand.

Despite the heterogeneous content, a strong pattern emerges. Allende is committed to controlling everyone and letting no one, her daughter’s ghost included, out of her grasp. She is determined that they live close to her and buys them property so that they will. When they are unemployed, she employs them (both her son’s wives work as her secretary). Occasionally someone finds the courage to complain about her constant interference; Nico is particularly upset when Allende tries to keep his ex-wife and girlfriend inside “the tribe.” At such moments the writer complacently recognizes her failings but decides it’s unlikely she’ll change; never was self-criticism more comfortable.

The word “magical” is used a great deal together with a disarmingly naive tone (sometimes heightened by poor translation from the Spanish), at once conservative and New Age in the wisdom it purports to offer (“Birth and death, Paula, are so similar…sacred and mysterious moments”). Much is made of the need for “many women of my generation” to abandon oppressive patriarchal religions and “invent a spirituality that fits us.” “I like the idea of an inclusive and maternal divinity,” Allende insists. When invited to imagine “the face of God” she comes up with a sixty-year-old woman who looks at her in the same way she looks at her son: in short, herself.

At this point, the reader realizes that the whole of Allende’s writing project, her unrelenting charm, the interminable author tours to which she interminably refers, are an attempt to include us in her tribe and its ceremonies, to bring us under her spell. “Writing is like magic tricks,” she tells us. Certainly, putting this book down I am bound to reflect that far stranger than any of the mystical experiences Allende loves to describe is the very deep mystery of her current popularity.

  • Email
  • Print