Irish Writer’s Centre, Dublin, Ireland
Dublin: Tramp Press, 2018. 180 pp.
Emilie Pine’s collection of essays was published in 2018 and warmly welcomed by the general reading public, the media, and the critics. It was in the best-seller lists in Ireland for months, has won more than one literary award and has been translated to several languages. Typical of the response of reviewers in Ireland was that of Martina Evans, in the Irish Times “I’ve never read anything quite like these essays… It’s the kind of book you want to give to everyone, especially young women and men” (Irish Times, 21 July, 2018).
The essay which has received most attention, at least in the initial days and in the media, is the first, about her father’s illness. The opening line is sensational and shocking, and it is a harbinger of what is to come, namely a collection of pieces about emotional and physical vulnerability. While the frailty of her father is the focus of the opening piece, it is the fragility of the writer’s own body and life that forms the central theme of the bulk of the collection: the chance which governs the human condition, the vagaries of the body, and her inability to control it. And as she is brutally honest about her father, so is she about herself – at least as honest as any writer, or human being, can be.
The feminism of the book received less attention in the popular media than its sometimes harrowing content. From start to finish the writer’s feminist view of the world colours both her immediate responses to events, and her analysis of them. It even affects her selection of themes: the essay on “bleeding and other crimes” refers to the universal pressure on women to be beautiful, clean, and fragrant, at any cost. A recurring idea is that girls and women are conditioned to be eager to please, to be liked, which often means being accommodating to the demands of others, especially to men. Women are also disadvantaged by a society which is governed by mores, and sometimes by legislation, which serves patriarchy, rendering them silent or afraid to speak out, or put down when they do speak out. She provides more than one example of such “put downs”.
The book contains six essays: “Notes on Intemperance”, “From the Baby Years”, “Speaking/Not Speaking”, “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes”, “Something About Me”, and “This is Not the Exam”. The opening essay is a raw account of the challenges of helping an ill older parent, exceptionally challenging in this instance because the parent suffers from alcoholism, and also happens to live abroad in a country where the public medical services are even worse than in Ireland. Public discussion of this piece has focused on the alcoholism aspect. This is undoubtedly significant, in that it gives rise to emotions – blame, guilt, anger – which would not be an issue, or be less of an issue, if the parent were ill as a result of having been knocked down by a bus, say. “It’s your own fault!” is an inevitable subtext in this essay. “If only. . . ” But the problems – the unexpected phone call, the moral obligation to drop everything and rush to the ill parent, the struggle with the hospital staff – will resonate with any adult child who is the ICE of a parent. Actually, I would love to have Emilie on my side and at my side if I were ill in a terrible hospital anywhere! Although there is no self-aggrandizement in the essay, she comes across as an able defender of her father, very sick in a chronically short-staffed, underfunded, unhygienic hospital. She has the quick wit, initiative and courage to do exactly the right thing in this emergency. Although she is critical of the pressure on girls and women to be subservient and eager to please, in this account she herself comes across as someone who has overcome that condition: she is forceful, assertive, and not at all worried about telling people in authority what to do. For instance, she buys a box of plastic gloves as soon as she arrives in the hospital shop. Not only that, she forces the nurses to put them on when they are nursing her father. Indeed, one could surmise that it is thanks to her and her sister, V., who travelled with her to Corfu, that her father survived his illness.
“Speaking, Not Speaking” describes, with some humour, the bizarre but painful experience of being the child of a marriage which ended in a separation which was far from amicable. The break-up happened when Emilie was five, and her parents did not speak to one another for decades: she became a go-between. Starvation, denial, compulsive lying, were some of the strategies she used as a child to cope with this difficult life. “Something About Me”, perhaps the most striking and powerful essay in the book, deals with her teenage years. She lived with her mother and sister in London, fell into very bad company and put herself in dangerous situations. This is a terrifying chapter, if you are a parent or grandparent, or aunt or uncle; Emilie engaged in seriously risky behaviour, involving drugs, sex, and what was more or less casual prostitution, and – extraordinarily – managed to hide it completely from her mother – at least for a time. She survived and overcame these obstacles and has been very successful in her chosen career. But it is a career not without its difficulties, as explored in the final essay. And although some aspects of her life have turned out well, as she acknowledges, she has experienced as an adult the grief of miscarriage, the pain of “trying for a baby”, and the heart-breaking disappointment of childlessness. That is the subject of the searing chapter, “The Baby Years”, which will resonate with anyone who has been through that dreadful experience.
The trauma and tragedy at the core of the book, are balanced by joys – Emilie’s love of her little nephew, of her sister V., and of her partner, R., and her mother, who could, I think, enjoy greater prominence in the memoir given that one suspects she played the major role in enabling Emilie to be strong, independent, and well-educated. Perhaps there is a reason for the omission, but still, I can’t help but recall that I had the same feeling, much magnified, on reading Barack Obama’s memoir, all about his absent father, with hardly a mention of his present mother.
Notes to Self is a sort of “Min Kamp” to use Karl Ove Knausgård’s title for his autobiographical writings. Knausgård, whose work owes a debt to Proust, is certainly one of the main inspirations for what is indisputably the current trend for memoir and autobiography, for what used to be called, dismissively, confessional writing. It is a trend which I welcome and which I believe denotes something very positive about our present literary scene, a trend which provides stands in stark and interesting contrast with the current negative forces regarding the abuse and degradation of language – especially the English language – in many spheres of public life. Knausgård writes his life in great detail and at great length in six volumes, 3600 pages of autobiographical works, published between 2009-2011 – an exploration of “self”, of identity and self-realisation. Who am I? Emilie Pine is necessarily much more selective than Knausgård in her choice of themes for this single volume. Her selection is thematic, but nevertheless it has a chronological spine and it is all about struggle, about dealing with the obstacles to self-realisation and happiness that life throws at one, and about strategies for finding contentment and fulfilment in spite of these difficulties. “The Baby Years”, for instance, ends with her realization that motherhood is not the only path to happiness. She adores her nephew, spends time with him regularly, but also understands (not as a result of babysitting!) that there are advantages to a child-free life with a loving partner. The closing scene in this essay is a hymn to joy: “I see a life ahead of us, a shared life. A great life”. And the closing lines of the book are “I am afraid. But I am doing it anyway”.
While the essays are an exploration of self, a questioning of self, and a search for self, the personal experience is brilliantly contextualized – thanks to her feminist perspective. Emilie Pine’s experiences are also the experiences of many women in western society. Her book has innumerable great qualities which make it readable, engrossing, compelling. It feels like an essential book. And it is the clear message, that her personal “struggle” is a universal one that makes it most essential.
And the writing? It is perfect. The register is informal but not patronizing, the tone intimate: “Let me take another step sideways here and let me tell you something I learned about myself this past year or so. Are you ready? I don’t care about your feelings. I don’t even know you, but I don’t care how you’re feeling, what you’re feeling, or even if you have any feelings at all. Because, apparently, I lack empathy” (188).
The style mirrors the frankness of the content. But there is nothing haphazard about the composition. These are shapely well-wrought essays. Emilie Pine’s academic field is drama, so it is perhaps not surprising that she knows how to create a dramatic effect. Her every opening line is arresting –
“I pee on sticks and into sample cups”
“My parents separated when I was five and my sister was a baby”.
“I’m not here. That is what I’m thinking as his hands are on me, his hands and mouth and the rest of him . . .”
“Famously, the trick of good writing is bleeding onto the page”.
These first lines all have an element of surprise, or shock, but also a concrete physical image, indeed a concrete anatomical image, appropriately for a book which is much concerned with the body – pee, baby, hands, blood. In the body of the essays narrative and description are balanced by commentary and analysis: the permission to reflect, at length, is an advantage the essay has by contrast with fiction. Emilie Pine has said in an interview that she never considered fictionalising her material – and it would be good raw material for novels or short stories – because its power resides in its factualness, its immediate connection to reality. This is true; memoir has a power different from that even of fiction with an autobiographical basis. And it is the power of powerlessness, ironically: the writer is unprotected – or hardly protected – by the veil or armour of fiction, and readers clearly appreciate this. Words like “honesty”, “frankness”, “openness” are frequently used terms of admiration, in discussions of this book.
But the great advantage of the essay is that, as well as facilitating the impression that the narrative is closely connected to the real, it invites the author to reflect and comment, to ask questions. This can be done in fiction, but fiction will not, in general, tolerate too much authorial thought or commentary, and drama even less so. The fiction writer, like the playwright, has to rely much more on implication, and leave most of the commentary and interpretation to the reader.
In Notes to Self, Emilie Pine has dived into deep waters, and bravely and selflessly shared her experiences and her thoughts on key aspects of her life with us. She has used her chosen literary form, the essay, cleverly. She writes with dramatic skill, and as vividly and entertainingly as a novelist or short story writer, while analysing her material with the scintillating intelligence of a critic of literature and society.
“Tell the truth, and tell it slant”, Emily Dickinson advises. The art of telling the truth in code is not to be underestimated, because that is the art of the storyteller, the novelist, the poet and the dramatist. But perhaps, in this era of outrageous and bizarre mendaciousness, the time has come to tell the truth straight. That is what Emile Pine has done, insofar as it is humanly possible, in this intense, brilliant, and feminist book.
Notes to Self is an intense, brilliant, and feminist book.