Writers and Readers 2012
Time and Memory (and Place)
Reviewed by Lynn Davidson
We were only a couple of minutes into the session with Kate Grenville and Alan Hollinghurst when the chair, Linda Olsson, suggested that if time is up for discussion, then place needs to be there too. She was right of course – ‘Nothing happens nowhere’ as Elizabeth Bowen famously said. Both Grenville and Hollinghurst write novels that draw the past onto the page. Both resisted the rather stodgy description ‘historical fiction’. Hollinghurst said, ‘I actually rather hate research’. He said what he finds most effective for getting inside the past is to find an historical detail that is suggestive of the time he is writing about, and he went on give an example of a wonderful elaborate phonograph player he had come across with little doors you could open and look inside, and as he described some of this with his hands you could see him opening the little doors and stepping into the past. Isn’t this the greatest thing that these Writers & Readers Week events offer: to see the writer disappear inside their work and their process. What a gift.
Grenville said emphatically that she didn’t like her work to be called historical fiction. Rather that she writes fiction that happens to be set in the past (small pause) as is all fiction. She feels a need to explore the dilemmas the past has given us and in her work she goes back to look at these dilemmas. In The Secret River Grenville writes about the convict settlement of her native New South Wales. She talks about the ‘gaps’ that are, unconsciously or consciously, left out of our stories, how fallible memory is and how we shape and select what we remember and that one of the things that fiction can do is walk into those gaps, ‘but very carefully’. She speaks about memory being a screen as much as a revelation.
Hollinghurst is very interested in how fallible memory is, and how memory may open up ‘areas of recollection’ and that each of his books is an opening of the ‘huge incoherent storehouse’ that is memory. And how this recollection may start off as ‘true’ but will become the trigger for invention. He finds it harder to write about times he has a memory of, for example the 1967 section of The Stranger’s Child, where he became overwhelmed by his own memories and prey to his process of selection. Then there were the literary ghosts to contend with when writing the 1913 section set in North London where he had to ‘purge the Forster from the work’. He talked about how our pictures of the past are ‘irreducibly literary’. Grenville speaks of the difficulty of finding a picture of the 19th century women she was writing about, those first Australian-born white women, who were nothing like the Jane Austen 19th Century literary stereotype. She eventually found glimpses of them through letters that the gentry would write home, making the odd ‘scornful aside’ about dirty women sitting on doorsteps with pipes in their mouths. There, in those asides, Grenville said, they had ‘shown me my Great Great Grandmother’.
Grenville went to the Hawkesbury River, to the house her ancestor built, hoping to meet the ghost of her Great Great Grandmother. What she found was a house that opened to the river, but on the other three sides was windowless. A fortress. ‘Why would a man want to build a fortress’ she asked herself, and thus the trilogy began. Hollinghurst talked about seeing the house where his novel The Line of Beauty would take place. Place, time, memory. Hard to untangle them really. Both writers gave wonderful readings. I could have sat there for another hour.