Academic journal article Hecate

Writing Secrets: Vera's Violin Case

Academic journal article Hecate

Writing Secrets: Vera's Violin Case

Article excerpt

This essay is about Elizabeth Jolley's Vera trilogy: the novels My Father's Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges' Wife. These novels, seen as the most autobiographical of Jolley's works, were published in 1989, 1990, and 1993 respectively, but they were written, at least in part and in early draft, much earlier. Jolley's unusual publishing trajectory means that her work did not appear in the order of its writing, and there remains a lack of clarity as to what that order actually is. Further, she drafted and re-drafted her writing, with phrases, scenes, motifs, images, events, and characters or character-types appearing and re-appearing across various works, of different forms and genres. This gives a post-modernist cast to her writing and publishing history, as well as the recognisably postmodern elements in the style and preoccupations of the writing itself. It is pertinent for Jolley that post-modernism can be understood as signifying a moment in late modernism while indicating a rupture or break with modernism, for Jolley drew on modernism and, at times, engaged in active dialogue with modernist writers, as she tried to write "the truth" or what was true in her works. Jolley's writing of truth--truth for her characters, emotional truth, artistic truth--questions what this truth might be, and questions, in a more philosophical sense, what truth is, as well. Truth for Jolley is the province of art and poetics, so that art, or literature and writing--which do not have to be factual-paradoxically may display the most profound truths, or perhaps the most desired truths, of the characters, the text, the narrator, and, maybe, even of the author. In Jolley, truth is hard to get at, partly because it is often told elusively, through secrets. But art provides the key to unlocking secrets, a modernist impulse even if, in postmodernist style, the secrets themselves are elliptical and ambivalent.

Elizabeth Jolley wrote about secrets: these frequently form part of her plots. But there is much that is encoded as secret at a more structural level in her writing, in literary form and language, and these secrets are less immediately evident to a reader searching for meanings. One such secret, of special interest to this discussion, is observed by J.M. Coetzee in his introduction to the Vera novels on the occasion of their reissue by Penguin in 2008:

    In memoirs and other occasional pieces Jolley was in the habit of
   presenting herself as a self-taught writer who had done ordinary
   and indeed menial jobs most of her life. But this was just
   protective coloration. In truth Jolley was steeped in literature,
   particularly English and German poetry. From the Modernist
   novelists of the generation before hers, Ford Madox Ford and
   Virginia Woolf in particular, as well as from their forebear
   Laurence Steme, she absorbed the essentials of the narrative method
   so strikingly deployed in the trilogy. They also confirmed in her
   her sense of the self as the shifting and evanescent issue of a
   dialectic between memory and the fabulating intelligence. (xxxi) 

Coetzee also speaks of how Jolley's narratives are, or can be, constructed by association, rather as, in music, a new chord can signal a new phase in a piece, a change in mood or key (xxv).

Jolley, as author-figure, hid the extent of her reading culture or experience from her audience, always assuming that readers believed her habitual writing-self presentation, which, like Coetzee, they may not have done. However, she also mutes or hides, or disguises, her reading or the subject of reading, or even writing, in her novels as well, so that the Vera trilogy can be understood as a semi-disguised Kunstlerinroman, and not just the older Vera Wright's attempt to understand herself in a private autobiography.

Coetzee's phrase, "protective coloration," is telling, both from this writer and for Jolley. Suggestive of attempts to fit in, of camouflage and vulnerability, it also suggests a desire to hide one's true powers and abilities, and intentions, from easy view. …

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