Tag Archives: Miranda Richmond Mouillot

The War’s Not Over Yet: instalment 1

Seventy years after World War 2 ended, there continues to be a flood of literary works about it. Many are novels, but there are also beautifully written memoirs and biographies. In recent months I’ve been reading several books set mostly or wholly in that wartime period, and I’ll share a few of my thoughts about them here.


Most of the authors were born quite a while after those years of global conflict. An exception is Mary Wesley. This remarkable writer was already 71 when her first novel appeared in 1983, half a dozen more being published subsequently. The action of The Camomile Lawn centres on the late 1930s and early 40s in southern England. It’s clear from a biography of Wesley (Wild Mary, by Patrick Marnham) that this novel draws on her own experiences as a promiscuous young woman during those years, and perhaps it’s significant that the story she tells doesn’t get submerged in suffering, unlike so many books written about the war by those who weren’t there (and perhaps feel guilty about being belated). Mainly ironic in tone, and even comic at times, The Camomile Lawn is a startlingly frank portrait of an upper-middle-class English family and their sexual antics against a muffled background of international conflict. Especially noteworthy is the pace of the writing: I admire Wesley’s cleverly economical use of dialogue to depict character and move the story along.

The other books I want to mention (some here, some in a sequel post) are darker in tone, and come from a later generation than Mary Wesley’s. All have been produced in the last few years. Often the authors are retrieving and pondering the traumatic experiences of parents, grandparents or other older relatives, even when the genre is notionally fictional. Their writing seems driven by a desire to expiate or exorcise – or simply to ensure that some family memories are not forgotten. Marianne Hirsch has coined the word “postmemory” to describe “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before – to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.” The following narratives are products of this “generation after.”

FAR TO GO_HB.inddAlison Pick’s novel Far to Go, long-listed for the Booker in 2011, evokes the increasingly tense atmosphere in Czechoslovakia as the Nazis moved into Sudetenland, with betrayals disrupting civilian life. Although there were a few striking passages, I didn’t find it particularly impressive as a shaped work of fiction; some laboriously contrived imagery was a distraction, the layered method of telling the story struck me as unconvincing, and the characterisation seemed sketchy. What seemed to be  the intended high point – the “Kindertransport” whereby thousands of Jewish children were rescued and taken to Britain just before and after the outbreak of war – lacked imaginative insight, coming across as an anti-climax. Far to Go has already begun to fade from my mind, in contrast to another novel set in the same place and time, Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room – which I read some years ago but still remember clearly, though I know it’s one of those books that readers tend either to love or to hate. Returning to Pick’s novel: the framing material indicates that this is a fictionalised version of things that the author’s grandparents experienced. The impulse to produce a kind of family testimony is understandable, but that in itself doesn’t make it successful as a work of fiction.

9780804140645Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s memoir A Fifty-Year Silence is, for me, much more satisfying than Alison Pick’s novel. Despite their generic differences the two books have enough in common to invite comparison: Mouillot’s story is about her Jewish grandparents and their efforts to escape the Nazis – in this case from occupied France. But more than that, it’s about the author’s attempts to piece together the elusive tale of what really happened to them at that time and why their relationship subsequently fractured, resulting in a long and bitter estrangement. Also interwoven through that narrative of patient detection is Mouillot’s account of her own latter-day return to France, through which she eventually redeems what her grandparents almost lost. It’s written with a deceptively light touch, but I found it perceptive and moving. Both grandparents emerge vividly as flawed yet in some ways admirable figures, whose painful divergence is rendered with affection and empathetic respect.

During her session at the recent Perth Writers Festival, Mouillot mentioned that she had initially tried to cast the story as fiction – and there are still several passages in which she imagines details of scene setting and interaction. This brings to mind Marianne Hirsch’s remark that “postmemory’s connection to the past is actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.” But the focus of A Fifty-Year Silence is scrupulously factual: Mouillot resists the temptation to turn the untidiness of actual events into the beguiling shapes of romance. Her book shows convincingly that if a writer wants to bear witness to the wartime tribulations of family elders, it may be best to keep the truth in an unvarnished condition.

Unknown Nicholas Shakespeare’s Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France is another absorbing stranger-than-fiction family story from that period. Priscilla was the author’s aunt – a somewhat aloof figure in her declining years, holding her secrets tight. This fascinating biography takes great pains to uncover her astonishingly chequered career, and in the process paints a sombre picture of urban and rural life during the Vichy regime, from the privations of foreigners held in detention camps to the nefarious activities of the black market. Shakespeare’s persistence and skill (along with some good luck) in researching his aunt’s numerous relationships has produced many insights into the moral climate of the time; I was reminded at times of Wesley’s characters in The Camomile Lawn. The author makes this memorable comment on the process of delving into past events:

So much of research involves combing for wayward threads. Most of the time you pluck and what comes away is fluff. Just occasionally, as in fishing, the line goes taut and you feel a tug like a submerged handshake.

In a sequel to this post, I’ll comment next time on three recent wartime novels, all highly acclaimed (though only one appealed strongly to me), none of which could have been written without extensive research: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People.


What’s in a name?

Aspiring to literary stardom? Look at the program for next month’s Perth Writers Festival, and you may well feel an envious twinge when you see what a head start some writers seem to have in attracting attention: their radiant surnames are a publicist’s dream.


In a couple of cases there’s an aura of inherited prestige. How wonderfully lucky, for instance, to be able to put ‘Nicholas Shakespeare’ on the cover of one’s books! Although his illustrious namesake’s character Juliet asks rhetorically ‘What’s in a name?’ and declares that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, Nicholas S. must be well aware that his fragrant patronymic is something to conjure with. Fortunate fellow! Yet he has also earned a stellar reputation in his own right.

A recurrent theme in this latter-day Shakespeare’s work is the intersection of passion with politics. His best-known novels are probably Snowleg and The Dancer Upstairs, where the action takes place in (respectively) cold-war Germany and 1980s Peru, but three of his books have an Australian setting. The latest of these is a novella called Oddfellows.


It’s based on a bizarre incident that occurred in Broken Hill exactly a century ago, when two local Muslims, raising a homemade Ottoman flag above their ice-cream cart, gunned down several picnickers before being killed themselves. Critics are likely to ask whether Shakespeare’s imagined version of an already well-documented tragic-comic episode adds much insight to what can readily be gleaned from the historical record. It’s a question any of us who write historical fiction should expect to face, accentuated in this case by the fact that Oddfellows is a very short book, less complex than this author’s fully-fledged novels in its plotting and characterisation.

Few literary names approach the luminosity of Shakespeare’s. One such is Wordsworth, partly because its assonantal syllables join language with value in a way that invites incantatory repetition. (How much less evocative is the name of the village, Wadsworth, from which the famous poet’s family line derived!)


Alas, no Wordsworths figure on the program for next month’s PWF event, but among those scheduled to appear is John Marsden, one of Australia’s leading writers of fiction for adolescents, and the origins of his latest novel – his first for adult readers – surely have something to do with his resonant surname. The main character in South of Darkness, narrating his own story, is transported to Botany Bay as a young convict, and the author’s family tree includes a great-great-great-great uncle well known to colonial historians. Rev Samuel Marsden arrived in New South Wales as a passenger on a convict ship at about the same time as John Marden’s fictional character. It’s said that this notoriously harsh clergyman sentenced people to death on Friday, gave them communion at church on Sunday, and supervised their execution on Monday. Part of the impulse behind South of Darkness, I’d wager, is an authorial inquiry into – and exorcism of – that murky period in his family’s past, a bit like a fictionalised episode of the TV program Who Do You Think You Are?

If you don’t happen to inherit a notable name, it’s possible to invent a pseudonym. One of this year’s Festival guests, an expatriate Australian, devised for himself a quirky brand, a brand-new name: ‘DBC Pierre’ is more eye-catching than his given label, Peter Finlay. Or, like another writer featured on the Perth program (a virtual visitor, to appear by videolink), you can adopt a moniker from someone you know: Hilary Thompson chose to replace her unremarkable surname with something more distinctive, cloaking herself in the Mantel of her unofficial stepfather. Pierre’s most recent books are Petit Mal, a strange glossy-format jumble of fictional and nonfictional pieces along with cartoons and photographs, and a creepy novella called Breakfast with the Borgias. Mantel is best known for her whopping historical novels, but her latest book is a short-story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, its title piece being inspired by what the author calls her ‘boiling detestation’ of the former British PM. As that title reminds us, certain names on book covers and in other cultural productions can be arresting even when they don’t belong to an author. Margaret Thatcher’s ghost wanders across the titles of various books, plays, songs and television dramas, and references to her are continuing to haunt dozens more.


On the list of writers coming to Perth are other Big Names from overseas along with a number of Australian writers making a name for themselves internationally.

This latter group includes the best-selling crime writer Michael Robotham, whose latest release is the thriller Life or Death. It also includes Rohan Wilson, who won The Australian-Vogel award for his first novel, set in early 19th-century Tasmania, and has now produced a sequel, To Name Those Lost, in  which the squalid, brutish world of Launceston and its surrounding district in the 1870s bristles with menace.


And of course there are also New Names, such as the euphonious Miranda Richmond Mouillot, whose A Fifty-Year Silence relates how the author’s grandparents escaped from Nazi-occupied France but later came to grief, and reveals their story by tracing the author’s own quest to uncover the elusive truth of it.

Yet literary festivals, after all, are much more than celebrations of ‘name’ writers. As my former colleague Wenche Ommundsen observed some years ago in one of the few serious analyses of Australian literary festivals, what they really celebrate is a set of symbiotic relationships: between writing and reading, between aesthetic and commercial ways of framing literature, between the privacy of creative effort and the spotlight of public performance, between the culture of refined criticism and the arena of popular consumption.

The readers who attend in droves may be nameless, but they are not homogeneous. To each session they bring diverse tastes and motives. Some of them may be future writers; some may remain mute inglorious Miltons. But in any case there could be no literary events of this kind without them. As the chair for two of the sessions in Perth next month (one featuring Nicholas Shakespeare and Miranda Richmond Mouillot, the other John Marsden and Rohan Wilson), I’ll be keeping in mind the simple fact that it’s as much a Readers Festival as a Writers Festival.