A Review of Timepieces by Drusilla Modjeska

For readers not intimately familiar with Modjeska’s work, Australian art and literature, or interested in the problems of creating a work of art/literature as an artist/writer, the book will be hard to identify with and overly intellectual. Nevertheless, the essays are all well written and articulate, and while I don’t agree with all of Modjeska’s opinions (especially those on the state of modern fiction), the book is full of interesting and thoughtful questions, which will leave the involved reader pondering, long after the book is finished.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Timepieces
by Drusilla Modjeska
Picador
Sept 2002, Softcover
ISBN 033036727

Drusilla Modjeska is one of Australia’s most respected non-fiction authors. Her last book Stravinsky’s Lunch won the NSW Premier Prize for non-fiction, the Nita B Kibble Award and The Bookseller’s Choice Award. Her other books have also been multi award winners, traversing a fine line between art, fiction, biography and memoir. Modjeska’s latest book, Timepieces is a series of essays on disperse topics, from an examination of her past work through a brief examination of the affair which ultimately led her to Australia, the place where she does her writing, the art of memoir, a meditative retreat for women at a Zen Buddistry, Art and the relationship between the work of an artists and an artists biography, literary criticism and the perilous state of modern fiction. Despite their varied topics, all of the pieces are, in one way or another, about writing – what it means to be a writer and the nature of producing a piece of written work. Many of the pieces have been previously published and date back to 1995. Much of the book is self-referential, which makes it fascinating if you are already a Modjeska fan, and harder to read if you are not familiar with her work or the works about which she writes.

The first essay, “Apprentice Piece” makes an equation between a cabinet makers final creation as a novice – a gift for his master, and Modjeska’s first book Exiles at Home published in 1981. In effect, this essay is a kind of tribute to her masters, the classic women writers and artists she refers to throughout this piece, and indeed throughout all of Timepieces. Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark (creator, among other things, of the Varuna Centre for writers in the Blue Mountains), Marjorie Barnard, Dora Russell and Dorothy Green, all dealt with in Exiles at Home, and later, Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein. While the essay centres on Modjeska’s first novel, and hints at her second, Poppy, it also explores the importance and influence of good mentors.

The second essay, “The Australian” is a look at Modjeska’s first love, an Australian with whom she dances, and whose descriptions of Australia were perhaps the catalyst for her emigration. In “Working Room”, Modjeska writes of her desk, and the nature of the writing process: “The real room where I work is in my head. I carry it around with me.” “Writing Poppy” looks at the making of her second book in some detail, exploring the boundaries between fiction and memoir, while “The Travellers Husk” takes place inside a Zen retreat which is juxtaposed with the death of her friend and mentor Dorothy (Green?). “On Not Owning a Grace Cossington Smith” touches on Modjeska’s most recent book, the well received Stravinsky’s Lunch and her thwarted desire to own her own painting by the artist who forms the subject of the book. Like the essay which precedes it, “Framing Clarice Beckett” is also a well handled combination of art history, biography and personal reflection, originally published in the Australian Review of Books. “The Englishness Problem: Two Anecdotes and Review” looks again at the relationship between biography and fiction, and specifically analyses Elizabeth Jolley’s The George’s Wife and Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. The English problem is a fear of “losing control over classifications that define, even at a moment of desire to step behind them.” In “Memoir Australia” Modjeska again looks at the process of creating memoir:

If we think of memoir as the mapping of a mind rather than (or as well as) the recreation of experience, then what we are responding to is the way the voice encompasses the material it works with: fact, fiction, memory, speculation, invention, testimony, fabrication, retrieval.

In the final piece, “The Present in Fiction”, Modjeska looks at the current state of the novel, and is critical (calls it a “crisis in fiction”) of fiction writers, suggesting that non-fiction may be more relevant. Considering her own predilection towards non-fiction, in this instance Modjeska may be a somewhat biased. Although she doesn’t mention the books she refers to by title, it is clear that Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish are the books she is specifically thinking of when she criticises historical novels: “These might be novels of literary merit, and some are, but they don’t necessarily have much to do with or much to say to the Australia we live in.” Her example of a novel which she does feel speaks to the modern reader is Franzen’s The Corrections, which is pale indeed in comparison to both Carey and Flanagan’s monumental works, both of which have enormously modern (even post-modern, especially in Flanagan’s case) and universal themes regardless of their “quaint” historical context (in Flanagan’s case, calling the book a historical novel is probably a misreading.). Her criticisms also ignore many other novels which are not historical in their setting, including Tim Winton’s award winning Dirt Music, which is very much an ordinary contemporary novel, dealing with issues as common as those of The Corrections including drug, alcohol and Internet addiction, modern music, ennui and plenty of modern familial and relationship disfunction.

At first glace Modjeska’s essays seem rather unrelated, some written specifically for this collection and others gathered from a range of previous publications. Certainly their appeal will be much more limited than, say, Helen Garner’sThe Feel of Steel which is much less literary and more focused on the human condition and “life”, than on art, which is Modjeska’s subject. For readers not intimately familiar with Modjeska’s work, Australian art and literature, or interested in the problems of creating a work of art/literature as an artist/writer, the book will be hard to identify with and overly intellectual. Nevertheless, the essays are all well written and articulate, and while I don’t agree with all of Modjeska’s opinions (especially those on the state of modern fiction), the book is full of interesting and thoughtful questions, which will leave the involved reader pondering, long after the book is finished.

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