A review of Alice Oswald’s Memorial and Laura Bloom’s In The Mood
Memorial is a version of the Iliad, and the best book of poetry I’ve read in the past year. Oswald calls it “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story.” By stripping away seven-eighths of the story, Oswald has created something like lacework – she allows light and space to percolate through the text. It is deft, beautiful, restrained, and spare. I particularly like that in this version the deaths of Patroclus and Hector receive the same amount of attention as the death of every other solider. There are no heroes and every death is given weight.
While I love the classics and feel the resonance of the primal stories they tell, on the whole classicists can seem a bit smug in their Oxbridge world. It looks like a lovely world, but it has to have very strict rules about membership to retain that cosy feel. Usually, when I read an introduction to any one of the translations of the Iliad or the Odyssey, the authorial voice reminds me of Tibby Schlegel from E.M. Forster’s Howards End: cosseted, solipsistic and really only interested in what’s for afternoon tea.
Alice Oswald takes the Iliad away from that world and plonks it right in the middle of a small town on the day of a returning soldier’s funeral: death, grief, mud and guts. And a terrible straining for meaning: to understand what has happened and why.
In her introductory note to the book Oswald writes:
“There are accounts of a Greek lament in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. When a corpse was layed out, a professional poet (someone like Homer) led the mourning and was antiphonally answered by women offering personal accounts of the deceased. I like to think that the stories of individual soldiers recorded in the Iliad might be recollections of these laments, woven into the narrative by poets who regularly performed both high epic and choral lyric poetry,”
Here is a sample:
ILIONEUS an only child ran out of luck
He always wore that well-off look
His parents had a sheep farm
They didn’t think he would die
But a spear stuck through his eye
He sat down backwards
Trying to snatch back the light
With stretched out hands (pages 52 – 53)
I found it very difficult to choose an illustrative quotation from the book as much of its power comes from the momentum of the relentless invocation of the dead. Layers and layers of names, lives, losses. On and on. Like waves in a storm. And now I’m writing in simile. It is very difficult to speak of so many dead, and so much tragedy, without the assistance of simile. And Oswald is so utterly in command of the similes she deploys, each answering the call of each individual biography:
Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip (page 19)
Oswald’s eyes are wide open, which is, I think, what happens when a woman is given the keys to the canon (and the gun cabinet) and allowed to write about war. A startlingly different point of view emerges. What a gift. I’m not saying Memorial couldn’t have been written by a man or that there is something inherently feminine about Oswald’s version, only that now that more women are writing about war (and serving in the armed forces) previously unimaginable new perspectives will continue to be given to the world.
This is also evident in Laura Bloom’s brilliant and highly original novel about the Second World War: In The Mood. This is one of my all-time favourite Australian novels, and it’s just been reissued by The Author People. The writing is glorious and intelligent, and the characters shine with individuality. Catherine is the first female protagonist of a war novel that I have been able to understand: so often women in war stories are either saintly nurses, equally martyred on the home front, or ‘good time girls’ whatever that could possibly mean in the context of war. Instead, Catherine is sharp, vulnerable and smart, all at once. Like a real person.
“ The day was coming soon when people would want to build houses again, and when they did she would be ready, the ideas she’d had in the thirties distilled and streamlined now, ready for the family of the future.
But that would all be ending soon, Catherine had to remind herself. Working, houses. Her mother hadn’t wanted children. She’d had big dreams but in the end had settled for a family and that had made her happy, she said. Catherine had been sceptical, and still she wondered if it could be true. Generation after generation of women, putting off their dreams for the next. Stop it, she told herself. Stop it. It was too late now.”
Bloom’s vivid characters are far removed from the usual stereotypes that populate some Australian war novels. I refer you to a justifiably critical review of a recent prize-winner about the same war: – a book full of clichés, and nowhere near as good as In The Mood. The women characters are particularly dire – ornamental and clangingly symbolic – and I just couldn’t keep reading it.
Instead, In The Mood candidly explores a time of great horror, social upheaval and opportunity without sentimentalising or flattening any of the complexities. Robert is just home from the war in New Guinea. Like many returning soldiers, he has seen and done things he finds impossible to integrate into life at home. He and his wife Catherine both studied to be architects and they are both ambitious in a way that might be seen as being incompatible with so-called ‘Australian values’. While her husband was fighting in New Guinea, Catherine was permitted to return to work and filled his job. For the first time, she was able to practise as an architect, rather than working in the less skilled and lower paid role of draughtsman. She meets Lewis, a Jewish American soldier stationed in Australia who works in public relations on General Macarthur’s staff. These are such original characters, and, as with Oswald’s version of the Iliad, there is no false wall put up between the public and the private realm.
In The Mood weaves the stories of Catherine and Robert together to explore the battles and compromises of survival and intimacy, the different kinds of warfare engaged in by women and men, and what it means to be building a home and a future, together.
As Laura Bloom said in a recent post on her blog:
“Women’s and men’s experience of life does not occur either in a public space or a private one, either; in a subjective world or an objective one, but inside our own skins, all wrapped up together, inside ourselves, our bodies, through which we have to navigate life. The consequences of our actions are borne out in our how our lives unfold, and what happens in our relationships, in our minds, and in our feelings. In my writing I am attempting to push these artificial, damaging divisions away, and get at the whole.”
In The Mood and Memorial are hugely successful in pushing these artificial and damaging divisions away, and exploring the whole of our human experience of war and its consequences. I highly recommend both books.