Last night I had the pleasure of introducing Miriam Frank and her book My Innocent Absence: Tales of a Nomadic Life at a packed event at Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden.
Miriam is not only a memoirist and translator but until 1995 was a senior lecturer and consultant at the University College, London and head of Anaesthetic Services for the Obstetric department at Newham General Hospital which is affiliated with the Royal London Hospital.
Miriam has led an eventful life. Her account of her childhood reads like a film script. She was born in Barcelona four months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Her mother Kate Lichtenstein was German from a well to do Jewish family - a spirited, intelligent, rebellious young woman, a Communist who embraced the idea of free love and perplexed her conservative mother. She trained as a paediatric nurse and during the war in Spain fed the refugees streaming past her gate on their way out of Franco’s Spain into France. Miriam’s father Lou Frank was from an orthodox Jewish family, transplanted to America at the age of nine to escape the progroms against Jewish communities in Lithuania. His studies in Humanities at Cornell University were interrupted by World War 1 and because of his multilingual abilities he was recruited by the US counter intelligence After the war he chose to remain in Spain where he met Miriam’s mother. His relationship with Kate was intermittent however and he was mostly absent when Miriam was growing up.
Miriam had a nomadic and unsettled start to life as she and her mother, moved from village to village escaping the upheaval in Spain and then more sinister threats in France. In 1940 Kate was interrogated by the German military police in Marseilles and in a breathtaking scene, Miriam describes how she managed to evade questions about her Jewish identity. Eventually she secured travel documents and sailed with five year-old Miriam to Mexico via Casablanca arriving there in 1941. Miriam’s evocation of life in Mexico overflows with colour, warmth, sunshine, vigorous electric storms, spicy food and luxuriant plant life;
I climbed the guava trees and bit into their fragrant, fleshy fruit. Banana trees grew among them, and tall hibiscus bushes with scarlet flowers and lush pink ones, their petals all tousled and ruffled. Tiny, brightly coloured humming birds swooped down…
Miriam felt happy and settled in Mexico. Her father had followed them there and a sister Evelyn was born when Miriam was nine, but gradually he drifted away again and when the marriage broke down irretrievably Kate decided to join her sister Carlotta Munz in New Zealand. The four siblings had ended up each in a different continent and Kate wanted to be close to her sister. So she migrated in 1948 with Miriam and Evelyn to Christchurch ‘at the other end of the world.,’ or that’s how it felt to Miriam. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast in culture and environment. It was a huge upheaval and Miriam’s relationship with her mother, which up until then had been very close, began to fracture as Kate sensed her daughter becoming more independent and moving away. Miriam found Chch freezing, colourless and the people emotionally repressed.
In this country people didn’t touch each other. Not only did they never hug or kiss as a form of greeting between friends or relations, but they didn’t even shake hands. When someone arrived or left… arms hung limply close to the body. At most they would nod – with never a sign of human contact in public.’
But as her book shows she has a tremendous capacity to adapt. At Christchurch Girls’ High School Miriam met my mother who says that until she read My Innocent Absence (2010) she was unaware of Miriam’s perilous and momentous early life. Her memories of Miriam were of a lively, friendly, alert and highly intelligent fellow student. Miriam went straight from the sixth form to Otago University to study for her medical intermediate. She was one of 12 women in a class of 120 at Otago Medical School. On graduating she worked in Auckland Hospital, was a GP in London, visited Italy and Greece and fell in love with both countries and also journeyed to Israel to understand her roots and find her identity.
In 1964 Miriam met the Austrian painter Kortokraks who said on more than one occasion during that first evening, ‘I like looking at you.’ It was a romantic and promising start and they were married in Salzburg in 1965 however Miriam very quickly found that her gifted artist partner was also an alcoholic, a fragile being tormented by self-doubt and insecurity and that living alongside him would test her powers of endurance. This section of her story is utterly compelling. It is honest, insightful and written with compassion. It describes a strong and resilient woman in the midst of considerable adversity somehow managing a complex juggling act as she trains in anaesthetics, financially supports and nurtures her two young daughters, Rebekah and Anna while coping with the turbulent mood swings of a tortured artist.
Sleeping pills and alcohol. A combination doctors warn against, but he ignored such details. His paintings, he kept yelling were no good to anyone. All his life’s work, what he stood for, everything he ever lived for, was useless…He was reeling around in his studio in a rage, screaming that he was going to set fire to everything he ever made.
It was early November. The night was dark and cold. A thick layer of snow covered the garden. He opened the French doors and started to cart his paintings out. He piled them untidily on top of each other on the wet snow. I went up to him and tried to stop him. Talking was useless. My words did not touch…It was well past midnight by the time all the paintings were piled on the snow under the tree. Now he was looking for kerosene and matches, which I had hidden away in anticipation. Halfway up the stairs towards the kitchen, he was suddenly overcome by the combination of drink, sleeping tablets, emotional exhaustion and the late hour, and he collapsed into an unconscious heap.
While he slept Miriam returned all the paintings to the studio. For weeks he avoided the door into the studio. Finally he re-entered the room and began painting again.
That Miriam managed to qualify as an anaesthetist during such an unstable period is testament to her determination, persistence and strength of character. Reflecting on the meaning and value of her medical career Miriam has said, ‘dedicating myself to heal others seemed in itself a healing experience.’
The marriage lasted 20 years and the couple remain on friendly terms. Early in his career Kortokraks had been assistant to Kokoschka at the School of Vision in Salzburg and in 1981 Kortokraks re-opened the art school in Tuscania, 90 kms north of Rome. Miriam was involved with its establishment and although it has since been disbanded, Miriam still owns a dwelling in the Etruscan part of the town. Following her retirement Miriam has continued to travel widely. On a trip to the Andes she came upon the work of Argentinian author (H) ector Tizon and formed a friendship that led to the translation of two of his novels, Fire in Casabindo and The Man who came to a Village.
Miriam has said that although her early life was marked by displacement she feels at home wherever she goes and has found contentment within. In fact her prologue opens with a quotation from DH Lawrence:
One can no longer say: I’m a stranger everywhere,
Only ‘everywhere I am at home.’
Miriam has a home in London overlooking the Thames, a home in Greece and a home in Tuscania.
As a teacher of memoir and an editor of life stories, I have spent some time considering the question of what makes for a successful memoir? It certainly helps to have a riveting story but that alone does not guarantee success. For a memoir to hold the reader from beginning to end, it helps if the writing is eloquent and insightful and the personality of the narrator is appealing. The last thing you want to do is bore or repel, or alienate your audience. Miriam’s memoir fulfils all the criteria. It contains a powerful, personal story of a life that has coincided with tumultuous historical events. She has encountered considerable upheaval, hardship and emotional pain and yet learned from and overcome adversity. Miriam’s writing is elegant, expressive, energetic, perceptive and inspirational. As you read you connect with her joy in living, her openness to other people and cultures and what they have to offer. You feel yourself wanting to travel more and also explore and understand your own life. But most importantly her book courageously explores the less talked about but vitally relevant challenges we all encounter in close human relationships and it does so with a warm heart.
In the question time following Miriam’s readings, I raised the following ethical issue around writing about significant others and making their personal public. ‘Your description of a volatile relationship with Kortokraks is particularly gripping. I am interested to know what Kortokraks thought of the memoir.’
Miriam answered that she showed Kortokraks the manuscript before it went to print. She waited with some anxiety for his response. His first words were, ‘I thought it would be much worse.’ He was pleased with the book, thought it would be a best seller in Germany and offered to make enquiries about a release there, on her behalf.
Her answer is heartening. Many of us are wary of writing about difficult relationships for fear of hurting the people closest to us. Miriam instinctively knew two things. She wanted to write something that counted. She wasn’t going to tone down or sanitise her experience because then what would be the point. The writing would be bland and meaningless and why bother to write. She also sensed the only way forward was to write with honesty and understanding. I am reminded of the words of Peter Wells discussing his memoir Long Loop Home. He said that writing memoir offers an opportunity to bring our full human and mature intelligence to bear on the things that have happened to us. I love this idea and believe that we should all try to write with insight and in good heart. Then we will have something valuable to offer our reader.