Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly publication about things I’ve read

“I never call it a memoir”: Mind and body in Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self

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The book I’d like to look at this time, Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self (2018), is rather different from my usual subject matter. For a start it’s nonfiction, though to say so immediately raises a question as to what kind of nonfiction it is. Author and two sets of publishers all describe it as a collection of essays. The back of the Tramp Press paperback claims that the book “breaks new ground in the field of personal essays”, which is true enough, partly because these essays are “personal” in an unusual sense. They deal with topics that include the author’s complex relationship with her alcoholic father, the years she spent fruitlessly “trying” for a child, some of the ways in which having a female body can give rise to misplaced shame (over such things as menstruation and body hair), her teenage years in London as a “wild child” (that’s one way of “being young, vulnerable and female”, p. 153) and her continuing tendancy to work too hard/long and to make exacting demands of herself. There’s another piece just before the centre point of the collection, “Speaking/Not Speaking”, which is about the long separation of her parents, who parted in 1982, soon completely stopped speaking to each other and had still not divorced 36 years later.

In an interview with Five Dials, Pine explains that she didn’t structure the collection around the theme of the body, though that might be how the finished work appears. She wrote the first essay first, without any intention of publishing it, but eventually sent it to Tramp Press, knowing that they generally only publish fiction. When they asked if she had a book, she sketched out 5 more themes which became the other essays in the book. That first piece is about her father’s near-death in a drastically under-resourced hospital on Corfu from liver failure and other effects of his “four decades of alcoholism” (p. 14). In the opening sentence, Pine and her younger sister find him in the hospital where “he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours” (p. 5).

Earlier the same day (or perhaps the day before) I read this essay for the first time, I had coincidentally read a review in The Irish Times by Richard Pine of a book about the composer Brian Boydell. Apart from making it clear from the start that Richard Pine had survived his stay in Corfu General Hospital, this circumstance also had the effect of making his daughter’s story seem more immediate, somehow closer to home.

The essay reveals Pine herself to be determined, steely and formidable: insisting that the overworked doctor come to see her father who is on a floor of the hospital “dubbed ‘the dying ward’” (p. 6) — the sisters learn that their father is known as “the corpse”; and persuading the nurses who are not supplied with any disposable products but have to buy all their own to change their surgical gloves before attending him. It seems overwhelmingly unlikely that, without Pine’s courage and willpower, her father could have emerged from hospital alive.

The second essay, “From the Baby Years”, is the longest in the collection and recounts the author’s attempts (over several years as the title suggests) to become a mother. During that time, she had at least one miscarriage. Her sister gave birth to a daughter who had already died in the womb, but soon afterwards conceived again and had a little boy, the author’s beloved nephew. Ultimately, Pine and her partner decided not to subject themselves to the anxiety, expense and uncertainty of IVF. I was surprised to learn that the “success” rate of IVF is so low.

In the final essay, Pine returns to the topic of her childlessness and its effect on her life:

Why did I become a workaholic? … When I could not get pregnant again after my miscarriage, I told myself that I had failed at having children. I said it over and over, as if conception were an exam that I could have studied harder for. Unable to be a mother, I decided that I would define myself through my job instead. I can see in hindsight that this was a mistake, as instead of grieving I threw myself more and more into my work. (p. 174)

She has overcome the feelings of shame and failure that came from having an unruly female body, from her “wild” teenage years, from not being a mother. Now she will free herself from the compulsion to take on extra work, apply for more funding, manage additional projects. But even at that she still finds new ways to be hard on herself, to feel deserving of punishment.

When she gives a guest lecture at a university in another country, she fails to object when a senior male academic, the Faculty Chair, makes a comment that is both patronising and sexist. In the lecture, she talked about “several plays in which women testify about their experience of being raped” (p. 165). The Faculty Chair finds an incongruity between her difficult subject matter and her “cute” appearance. She answers the man’s question “dutifully”. A little later, she feels angry:

… at being judged on what I looked like, not on what I said. But then, as my anger died, a new emotion replaced it: shame. I had not objected. (p. 166)

More shame, but now from a new source. It is, perhaps, easier to persuade herself that not having children does not make her a “failure” than it is to believe that silence in the face of academic sexism does so. The reader is left in little doubt that Pine will continue to find ways to demand more from herself.

She responded to the Five Dials interviewer’s question about the centrality of the body in these essays by acknowledging some initial misgivings:

I started out quite reluctant because I’m an academic. I’ve spent twenty years trying to be uber-rational. The cultural message was that in order to be intellectual, you have to deny your body. So it felt dangerous for me to write about my body, suggesting I’m an embodied person as opposed to an intellectual person.
It was through the writing I realized those don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s not a binary: body/mind. The process of writing is like a debate on the page, and a very self-conscious one about my body and its relation to the way I live my life.

I suspect that this combination of an analytical, intellectual mindset with the deeply intimate subject matter that makes this collection stand apart from other memoirs and personal essays, though I don’t read enough of that particular type of nonfiction to be confident that that suspicion is right. Also in the Five Dials interview, Pine says that she never calls this book a memoir, while tacitly accepting that it is one: “I associate memoirs with being written at the end. And it’s so not”.

Finally, I’d like to return to the essay that is least about the body, and that occupies a not-quite-central position in the volume. It’s “Speaking/Not Speaking”, largely about her parents’ long, silent separation. By the time she wrote that essay, they had been living apart for 36 years without getting divorced. For the first 14 years or so, divorce wasn’t a possibility as it was forbidden by the Irish Constitution. (Her father, though not an Irish citizen, was arguably domiciled here, even though he was a long-term resident of Corfu.) After the first year of separation, they never spoke to each other. When they eventually met at the funeral of their granddaughter, Elena Jane, they were complete strangers:

When it was over, I walked Mum to her car. She said she was shocked by how much he’d changed. She said she did not recognise his voice, but then again, it was so long since she had heard it. Later that evening, my sister told me that as Mum and I left the room, Dad had turned to her and said, “Are you sure that was your mother?” (p. 92)

Edition: I’ve used the Tramp Press paperback, 2018; all ellipses added.

Sorry, I’m afraid that this post is shorter and more lightweight than usual. That’s partly because I was without my reading glasses for a week: I needed new lenses but wanted to keep the old frames, so I had to send the frames away. For the next post I’ll be returning to fiction, and to Salman Rushdie. I want to write about his 1995 novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh. Till then.