Before I started reading Drusilla Modjeska’s Second Half First, my father-in-law asked me what it was about, and I couldn’t give a good answer about what I expected. Modjeska herself has some trouble with this when she meets her old lover late in the book and explains it isn’t just about him, even though he’d triggered it, “It’s about a whole lot of other things, my mother, psychoanalysis, reading, writing, New Guinea, living away from where I was born.” (332) It’s a digressive book, rhizomatic, I suppose; tellingly, at one point Modjeska objects to another biographer who has “everything hammered into place.”
I think the first section, “The House on the Corner,” is the strongest, a long reflection on love, freedom, and men & women based around her years sharing the eponymous house with a number of other women, including Helen Garner and Hazel Rowley. It was uncanny how closely Modjeska’s reflections mirror my own reading this year, weaving in Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (unfinished by my bed), Hazel Rowley’s biography of Stead (which I wrote a chapter of my thesis on), Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (Kindle tells me I’m 23% of the way through it), and the Adelaide Writers’ Week panel on biography in 1988 which I had also been reading about in my research. Yet while for me there is a distance between me and my subject, for Modjeska the field of biography is an existential enquiry into how women are to live their lives with both freedom (particularly to write but also freedom from marriage) and love. I also noticed how defining gender is for her and her circle, and how she depicts men and women as so different from each other. In my late-Gen X circles gender doesn’t seem as central to self-understanding. Perhaps this is naivete, perhaps progress, perhaps something else. I also believe in the potential of marriage to be good for men and women, to have its own freedoms and security. Modjeska doesn’t necessarily deny this, but after her early marriage ended she has chosen a very different way.
At one point Modjeska compares writing to psychoanalysis – “some small accrual of understanding, maybe, an expanding of a personal repertoire, a plunge into the darkness we harbour inside ourselves.” (171) The comparison seems apt, and also carries with it the need for distance from events, the years required to find a new angle on them. In the last section, “Now,” Modjeska doesn’t have that distance, and it suffers from it. It reads more like journalism to me, or the diaries she earlier notes are not the most reliable guide to someone’s life. Perhaps it’s also that the (worthy) theme of her humanitarian work in New Guinea held my interest less.