Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Bad Blood

Most stories do something satisfying with the mess of tedium and violence that is living; they give it focus and form, tone it up, calm it down, shape it tidily, fluff it or primp it or tame its wilder edges, until you have something sleek and purring in your hands, rather than the slightly unkempt beast that life usually resembles, with a tendency to charge at you out of dark places. So what is at stake, then, in the case of a memoir? A story about life itself, as it has been lived, for one individual? When a memoir writer sets out to transform life into a story, what is the guiding principle or higher intention? What kind of order is being carved out of the chaos?

In Lorna Sage’s exemplary memoir, Bad Blood, the main thrust of the narrative seems to be to show how we are composite characters, made up of pieces of the people who raise us. But the memoir also suggests that what we do with those pieces may well be quirky or downright subversive. For half of the narrative, Sage herself stands aside, in literature as in her life, to let center stage be dominated by her colorful cast of family members. It’s only towards the latter stages of the book that she makes the reader gasp herself, by nearly succumbing to her family’s demons and then magically rising above them.

What I loved most about this book were the character portraits, as Sage has a genius for taking ostensibly repulsive people and making them human in a blackly amusing way. Her grandfather offers the first, prime example in the book. A womanizer, a drinker and a dreamer, not to mention the vicar of the middle-of-nowhere parish of Hanmer, a small town lost between England and Wales, and more importantly lost still in the 19th century, he manages to behave like a criminal while feeling like a victim. He was a showman in the pulpit and a libidinous cad with other women, but at home he was ostracized with a mixture of fear and contempt. He had a ‘violently unhappy’ marriage to Sage’s grandmother, a woman who had grown up living above a grocer’s store and could never get used to the fact that she no longer had access to unearned plenty. She was a rabid man-hater, a principle she had derived from her particular experience of marriage. Much as her husband’s adulterous pursuits gave her good reason for injury, she was far from blameless, having loathed him and shown it since their earliest days together. She gave as good as she got; having found his private diaries in which he documented his extramarital relationships, she blackmailed him for a chunk of his salary to keep her in sponge cake and trips to the cinema. Sage’s mother grew up sidelined and overlooked by the violence of emotions in the household. Worse still, one of her school friends became the mistress who would cause the greatest domestic disharmony. When Lorna was a small child, her family lived at the vicarage while her father was away at war. When he returned, so imprinted by his experiences of battle that he continued to be a martinet and a belligerent disciplinarian despite the peace, her mother was finally obliged to run a household of her own, and the madness of vicarage life rushed to the surface in a series of phobias. Food, in particular, was a nightmare, as she had a terror of anything natural: joints incinerated in the oven, vegetables were set on the stove first thing in the morning and cooked to a paste. She longed to be able to feed her family with pills. But the 1950s were in some respects a perfect age for her. Processed food was starting to make its way onto the average dining table, and fish fingers represented her ideal triumph over bones, scales, and other distasteful relics of real life.

I think it was Tolstoy who said that happy families all resemble one another. But it struck me, reading Bad Blood, that unhappy families are not so very dissimilar. There are, after all, only a few elements of ordinary disorder that find themselves arranged in different permutations. There are families in which bad emotions and bad actions rule, dominating daily life; there are families in which the older generation refuse to take responsibility for themselves; and there are families who resist change, who insist to their children that nothing can improve or fade away with the mere passage of time. It was just Sage’s bad luck to be in a family that demonstrated all of these characteristics. But what Sage makes of it is never mournful or depressing. Her voice is firm, concise, appraising, elegant but down to earth. She may have lived her childhood forced to put up with other people’s madness, but her own way of keeping even is to have seen her family members without illusion, to hold herself apart in order to get some honest perspective. The lifeline that allowed her to do this was provided by books. A voracious reader and an insomniac, Sage was given license to indulge both by the local doctor, thwarting her family who felt vicarious pride in her intelligence, but also feared it as bad blood in a new incarnation. In fact, it would be her ticket out of small town hopelessness as she was to become a distinguished professor of English literature, but not before nearly ruining it all for herself in a moment of careless ignorance.

I loved this book purely for the strength of the writing, which is vivid and fierce. It is also a beautiful study in the power of repetitions and obstacles in family life. And it is a hymn to books and their ability to provide mental and emotional space in situations that are dominated by claustrophobia. Warmly recommended for anyone who enjoys memoir.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

I do admire how Sage managed to tell about all the nelgect and dysfunction and have it not be sad or depressing. The book could have been a real downer even with the happy ending she managed for herself. But at the same time she didn't mock or ridicule her family either which would have been so easy. I really appreciate what must have been a hard balance to find.