February 2016

Noted

‘Second Half First’ by Drusilla Modjeska

By Brenda Walker
‘Second Half First’ by Drusilla Modjeska
Knopf; $39.99

As a historian, novelist, art lover, biographer and memoirist, Drusilla Modjeska has continuously provided a point of engagement and affirmation, particularly for female readers. Like her earlier work, Modjeska’s memoir Second Half First is warm, intelligent and open-hearted, and provides a rarely captured perspective.

Modjeska begins at a pivotal moment in 1986: she is 40 and at the end of a relationship in which she was unable to conceive a child whom she hoped would ease the grief following the death of her mother, Poppy (the namesake of Modjeska’s 1990 memoir). Looking back, Modjeska makes it clear that there were no easy answers to the situation of educated, mobile, relatively financially secure young women in the liberal-minded ’70s. She had discovered that “we weren’t alone in our humiliations, our longings, our crisscrossing, aberrant desires”, and the approved social foundation of romantic love and motherhood had become particularly unsteady.

Like Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, Modjeska takes the reader to the close grain of an older woman’s life: to friendships that restore perspective on shared experiences; to tenuous financial decisions; to a vibrant late love affair that erodes under the pressure of family anxieties; to a father whose dying process must be negotiated with an unsympathetic stepmother; to cancer. Also examined are the complexities of the literary form, including those of the memoir.

Literature is central to Modjeska’s memoir: she writes about Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and many others. Clearly, reading is at the heart of her self-revelation: “one way of thinking about who I became in the years after forty could be a history of my reading”. So is art, and Modjeska travels to villages of Papua New Guinea that produce traditional women’s bark-cloth painting, which she describes as “modest, simple, encompassing the complex meanings of clan history and daily existence”. Not unlike memoir itself. This journey to Papua New Guinea provides some of the most politically charged material in the memoir, as art travels from village to city, and as Modjeska works to maintain support for the local women.

Drawing from further afield, the book ends with a postscript about Saloua Raouda Choucair. The Lebanese artist makes small segmented sculptures that she calls poems, with each segment resembling a stanza. Such a sculpture is an emblem, Modjeska suggests, for her memoir: organic like the wood, with pieces that can be arranged to fit together in affiliated ways.

Brenda Walker

Brenda Walker is an Australian writer and a Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight, was published in 2010.

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