Nothing happened, or everything got worse?
Keep reading, or the kid gets it.
Yep, French wifey kills herself. No reader can say that this news comes as a surprise. Natasha was too special for this world. But by the same token Bragg drags it out for hundreds of pages. Granted, there were so many potential reasons for the overdose. And doesn’t Melvyn Bragg make a meal of them? His Remember Me becomes something of a hypothetical about causation. Was it the evil step mother, was it the aching back, was it the fact that her shrink topped herself? Or was it the other woman? And was Bragg’s alter ego Joe blameworthy for Natasha’s death. Or could he plead diminished responsibility because of incomplete knowledge, the temper of the times, or accident? Bragg is accomplished enough as a writer to induce me to care, at first. But as the many chapters ground by I cared less.
The world learns about this glum little domestic breakdown by means of a series of revelations of Joe to his daughter Marcelle many years later. One is understandably curious about the circumstances of one’s parents. But there is such a thing as too much information.
What claim does this novel make to be more than a much extended anecdote? Certainly, the incidents described could not have taken place before the 1960s. The 1960s are recognisable in the same way that Ronnie Biggs was recognisable from his identikit picture. Serviceable but far from definitive. But this aspect of the novel is preferable to the tedious pushing of then fashionable existentialist peas around the plate.
Bragg, the husband of a French suicide in real life, thus presents his own lightly disguised past as conversations with and letters to his real-life daughter in an effort to lay to rest his own pain and guilt.
We learn that Bragg’s alter ego Joseph was a student at Oxford when he met Natasha. He fell in love at once. She was French, older than he, an art student and a depressive prostrated by the desertion of her lover, Robert. All very intense. But isn’t being dropped the natural condition of the twenty-something? Perhaps Joe might have sniffed a difficult situation. But of course he didn’t. Young folks Iiving during the early 1960s were particularly vulnerable to exalted and unreal expectations of relationships. Bragg is good on this cultural phenomenon and its upsetting consequences.
The reader is eventually presented with the possibility that were events in her background that had activated her state of mind – a too-strong father and an apparently cruel stepmother. Nothing seriously traumatic in other words. But it didn’t take much to unhinge Sylvia Plath’s contemporaries. Nazis figure in Remember Me as well.
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time–
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
As Theodore Dalrymple has noted:
Plath felt it right to allude to one of the worst and most deliberate inflictions of mass-suffering in the whole of human history, merely on the basis that her father, who died when she was young, was German…the metaphorical use of the holocaust measures not the scale of her suffering, but of her self-pity.
Dalrymple is too polite to say it, but he means that women like Plath and Natasha merited a good slapping.
Yes, the misidentification of self-pity as suffering provokes a sense of tedium. Bragg should have thought about this.
Bragg hints that there was something in Joseph that propelled him towards her – like is always drawn to like. In adolescence he, too, had suffered a breakdown. But in the book Joe’s breakdown hovers coyly in the wings. Bragg pleads both diminished responsibility and historical inevitability — uneasy and fundamentally contradictory bedfellows.
Bragg asserts that Natasha allowed herself to trust Joe; she feels love again. The reader is regaled with the full panoply of coupledom. What more could Joe have done?
Joe, was thoughtless enough to pursue a successful career in television and writing. Mutual obsession gives way to the workaday world. Time for both of them to consult analysts. They just make matters worse, as all sensible folk said they would. In due course, hers tops herself. What to do? Keep it secret, of course! Huh?
This is where I finally stopped caring about Joe and Natasha.
While reading this book, like Beryl Bainbridge, “I kept thinking about what I would feel if my father had chronicled the events leading up to my own birth and the often mysterious happenings that took place in my childhood.” Like Bainbridge, I would like to hear my father’s side of the story. Unlike Bainbridge, I would have accepted this narrative as a symptom rather than as an explanation.