Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Lorna Sage's Bad Blood

A friend called me a few weeks back to talk about a memoir that she was reading. She liked it, but was having some issues with it at the same time. No one could recall memories from when they were five years old in such detail, she complained. And all that direct dialogue! Surely no one could remember the exact words spoken from that stage of their life. Had I believed all this when I read it?

And all I could muster was an Eh, it's all just a marketing decision now, whether a book is classified as fiction or a memoir. You just have to accept it as a story, appreciate the writing if you can, rather than getting yourself worked up over whether everything in the book actually happened. There's a lot of seepage these days.

Well, now that I've read Lorna Sage's Bad Blood, the 2001 Whitbread Prize-winning memoir, I get to eat my words. This is a clear-cut memoir, free of the fictiony trappings I've grown so accustomed to in the genre over the years.

Literary critic, author, and professor Lorna Sage, who did not allow a teenage pregnancy and early marriage to keep her from obtaining an education and embarking on a career as the norms of the times would have had it, traces her own "bad blood" to that of her maternal grandfather. A Welsh vicar with well-documented vices (he kept a diary of his affairs with which his wife periodically blackmailed him), he taught Lorna to read at the age of four and took her on his round of bars: "I was the perfect alibi, since neither my mother nor my grandmother had any idea that there were pubs so low and lawless that they would turn a blind eye to children." She saw herself as being on her grandfather's side so she never told on him.

Because the grandmother! Many women of her generation found themselves married to philandering men taken to drink. "What made their marriage more than a run-of-the-mill case of domestic estrangement was her refusal to accept her lot," Sage writes. "She stayed furious all the days of her life -- so sure of her ground, so successfully spoiled, that she was impervious to the social pressures and propaganda that made most women settle down to play the part of wife. Sex, genteel poverty, the responsibilities of motherhood, let alone the duties of the vicar's helpmeet, she refused any part of. They were in her view stinking offences, devilish male plots to degrade her. When he took to booze and other women (which he might well have done anyway, although she provided him with a kind of excuse by making the vicarage hearth so hostile) her loathing for him was perfected. He was the one who had conned her into leaving her real home, her girlhood, the shop where you never had to pay for anything, the endless tea party. It was as though he'd invented sex and pain and want and exposure. She turned patriarchal attitudes inside out: he was God to her. That is, he was making it up as he went along, to spite her and with no higher Authority to back him up."

Needless to say, being raised by such a brawling pair worked a number on Sage's mother. Used as a household drudge during the War years when she and the young Lorna lived with them in the filthy vicarage, she never managed to throw off her early influences: she couldn't cook, keep her modern council-house clean, "she had a kind of genius for travesty when it came to domestic science." Her husband willingly takes on the role of realist protector to her inept dreamer when he returns at the war's end and Sage observes: "in truth they were more than one flesh, they had formed and sustained each other, they had one story between them and it wasn't at all easy for me or my brother to inhabit it. I regularly cast myself in the part of the clever, unwanted child who's sent out to lose herself in the forest, but manages nonetheless to find her own way, being secretive, untruthful, disobedient, and so on and on, as they never ceased to complain. The children of violently unhappy marriages, like my mother, are often hamstrung for life, but the children of happier marriages have problems too -- all the worse, perhaps, because they don't have virtue on their side."

But the memoirs of those raised in happier marriages are often hamstrung as well. The most interesting characters in Bad Blood are certainly the grandparents, whose stories are told at the beginning. As the dysfunction dissipates in Sage's family, despite Sage's claims of virtuelessness, the lives of the characters become less compelling to read about. The story becomes more one of growing up at that particular time, in that particular environment. Sage and her husband may have broken the rules and gotten away with it, and their daughter may well have been the future, but the bad blood they're predisposed to seems to have been less influential than that of the changing environment. That's a loss for non-fictionalized memoir writing, but heartening news for reality.


litlove said...

SFP - I really like your ending here. It's true that the bad blood dissipates and a more liveable, likeable life remains. And that does tell us something about the material required for storytelling.

I also agree with what you say at the start - that this is not a fictionalised memoir, written as if it were a novel, and that does make for a different feel. Sage carries it off, I think, because she brings her characters to life so well, and I appreciated that.

Stefanie said...

I too liked that this wasn't fictionalized memoir, it was a pleasant surprise. But you are right, it made some things a bit less compelling in the telling. That was ok though I thought, much better to have it true, honest and less compelling than sensationalized fiction.

Eileen said...

As the dysfunction dissipates in Sage's family, . . . the lives of the characters become less compelling to read about. The story becomes more one of growing up at that particular time, in that particular environment.

That's pretty much why I ended up abandoning it after Part 1. The timeless Hanmer setting and the grandparents' dysfunction (diary and all!) was so much more interesting than the ordinary family in the suburbs.

Regarding marketing and memoirs - I've actually read that Elie Wiesel's Night, though based on his own experiences, was originally published as fiction (he actually left a lot of stuff out). It's actually the first part of a trilogy, the second two books of which are novels. So is it a fictionalized memoir? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? There definitely are a lot of questions to be raised about truth and narrative.

Hannah Stoneham said...

You have really captured the distinctive feel of this book.
Excellent piece - thanks for sharing