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The Writing Life: Margaret Drabble

The Writing Life: Margaret Drabble

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Marie Arana interviews Margaret Drabble. Audio by The Washington Post, photo by Ruth Corney

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By Margaret Drabble
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Writers of a certain age are tempted by the art of memoir. Memoir, or life-writing, is a seductive genre. We all have had a life, of sorts, so we all think we have a story to tell. But the difficulties have always seemed to me to outweigh the advantages. It's the problem of all those other people -- those husbands, wives, siblings, children, grandchildren, rivals, enemies, friends. (Parents, by this stage, are almost invariably dead, although that does not mean that they are quiet in their graves.) The living have their own version, their own secrets, and the dead have a right to privacy. Considering these issues, I decided it would be unwise to write a memoir. I had written a novel ("The Peppered Moth") in which I had lightly fictionalized my mother's life, and that had caused trouble enough. So I decided: no memoir and, for the time being, no more fiction.

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Searching around for a manageable subject, I thought a little nonfiction topic would suit me nicely, and hit on what seemed at the time a clever notion: I decided to write a history of the jigsaw puzzle. It would be quite unlike anything I had ever attempted before. There were one or two books on puzzles, but nothing for the general reader, and the more research I did, the more my interest was aroused. I could digress into neighboring territory: the history of children's games, of educational theory, of the concept of childhood itself. I could include some personal anecdotes, but not too many. That was my plan.

It went wrong, as writers' plans so often do. The more I delved into memories of the first jigsaws I had done as a child, with my aunt, the more I found myself wandering into the forbidden past. My project was mutating. But I also realized that the realms I was now entering seemed much less threatening than the areas I had explored in the novel about my mother. I had been happy staying with my aunt in her house in the country and happy when she stayed with me in old age in my house in the country. Maybe I could write some kind of memoir after all.

On the other hand, I was extremely reluctant to waste all the work I had done tracing dissected maps and puzzles and games through the works of David Hume, Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and the French experimental novelist Georges Perec, who published in 1978 the greatest jigsaw novel ever written, called "Life: A User's Manual." I loved this diverse and colorful material, gathered from a great variety of sources, and I knew that others would too. So I began to weave a new pattern, in which snippets of jigsaw lore were entwined with recollections of my aunt, my grandmother and the bed and breakfast they ran on the Great North Road in Middle England.

As I stitched these bits of patchwork together, I found that I was creating what I proudly consider a wholly original form of memoir -- not as original as Perec's famous work "The Void" (1969), in which he entirely avoids using the letter "e" -- but original nevertheless, in its English way. It traces my childhood, through moments from my first village school through seaside holidays and board games and card games and jigsaws, but it also tracks the history of childhood, which, as we are now told, not wholly convincingly, is a construct dating back only to the Enlightenment. This approach allowed me (as acute readers will note) to avoid material that would have disturbed the mood, but it also permitted me moments of what I would call "controlled disclosure" -- moments when a patch of black or of violent scarlet drips into the narrative, and then is safely surrounded by more friendly, less distressing colors.

My controlling metaphor in the book is the jigsaw puzzle, as it was for Perec, but I note that I have also invoked (as he does not) metaphors drawn from the half-arts (as Goethe called them) of needlework and crafts. Writing and stitching have something in common, to me, and this is not because I am a good needlewoman (I am not) but because the patient assembling and incremental growth of a piece of text, as of a piece of tapestry, offer similar satisfactions. Writing offers terrors that stitching mercifully lacks: hopeless failure, self-disgust, existential despair. You don't suffer those emotions when working on a needlepoint cushion.

The pattern of "The Pattern in the Carpet" thus reveals itself to involve a deliberate avoidance of pain, a motive that may not play well to those who seek from memoir a confessional outpouring. From this aspect, it may present itself -- like the jigsaw puzzle -- as a very English undertaking. I had hazarded, before I embarked on my research, that the jigsaw was an English invention, and so it proved to be. The earliest jigsaws (not then known by this name) are attributed to a cartographer, John Spilsbury, who in 1766 began to produce dissected maps for use in the upper class schoolroom. These elegant, hand-tinted, thin mahogany maps were educational aids to teach children geography: One of the earliest literary references to them is in Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park," where Julia and Maria Bertram make fun of their cousin Fanny Price because she does not know how to assemble a dissected map of Europe. What could be more English than the schoolroom at Mansfield Park, complete as it was with fine distinctions of rank and of class?

My family is peculiarly and particularly English, and no delving into my genealogy or my DNA has yet revealed any exciting foreign blood. Debates about "Englishness" and "Britishness" are very much in fashion in Britain today, and we are often urged (for political reasons) to think of ourselves as British rather than English. But I can't say that I do. I am not Welsh, or Scottish, or Irish. My family come from the very middle of England, and their surnames are very closely attached to the counties where they had their origins.

Last year, as I neared the end of my memoir, I was given an extraordinarily evocative wooden jigsaw of 375 not-quite-interlocking pieces, issued in 1930, portraying the Vikings landing at St. Ives. It appears to have been published as a tourist advertisement by the Great Western Railway. The woman who presented me with this work is an exceptionally gifted novelist named Julia Blackburn, who recently won the Ackerley Prize for autobiography for her extremely frank and confessional (and therefore un-English) work "The Three of Us," which recounts the sexual triangle in which she, her mother and various lovers found themselves. It is a fascinating, exhilarating work. I wish I could write like that, with such color, such panache. But we must all do what we can, and do our best to try to make the pieces fit together.


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