Our host dropped me off in Casa Grande, at a secondhand bookshop where so many of the shelves were labelled Romance that the owners had separated the books into subcategories, so, rows of Harlequin Romance, rows of Paranormal Romance, rows -- and so on -- and then other shelves of Mystery/Thriller and SciFi/Fantasy, and then, on the nonfiction shelves, (smaller than Paranormal Romance), a strange autobiography, amateur-published, written by an American woman who grew up in the West Australian outback on a mission station, speaking the local language -- which was something beginning with W. I don't remember what.
She loved the years she spent killing animals for food with the W children, and the rest of her life up to the point of authorship was lived in North America and misery.
I didn't buy the book, otherwise I'd excerpt passages to support myself, but trust me when I say that this woman's tone was all despair. Why did her missionary parents send her away? Why did the adults in North America beat her? Why couldn't she return to the W? Why, why, was everything so awful, and why was she fated to be so helpless and unhappy? "Why," she says in a thousand different ways, "can't I go back to the place where I was satisfied?" A pair of Canadian foster brothers threatened to make their pet budgerigar flap around her head and she told them that if they did then she'd strangle the bird and eat it.
By the end of the book she is living in Arizona where the desert reminds her of the countryside she believes is her true home, the land of the W. I had the impression that misery had made her both frantic and inert. Her real autobiography was not the book she had written, which was passive, polite, surreptitious, and bewildered. It was a passage from Les Chants de Maldoror.
I am filthy. Mice gnaw me. Swine, when they look at me, vomit. The scabs and sores of leprosy have scaled my skin, which is coated with yellowish pus. I know not river water nor the clouds' dew. From my nape, as from a dungheap, sprouts an enormous toadstool with umbelliferous peduncles. Seated on a shapeless chunk of furniture, I have not moved a limb for four centuries. My feet have taken root in the soil forming a sort of perennial vegetation … filled with vile parasites. My heart, however, is still beating. But how could it beat if the decay and effluvia of my carcase (I dare not say body) did not abundantly feed it? In my left armpit a family of toads has taken up residence, and whenever one of them moves it tickles me. Take care lest one escape and come scratching with its mouth in the interior of your ear: it could next penetrate your brain. In my right armpit there is a chameleon which endlessly chases the toads so as not to die of hunger … Oh! If only I could have defended myself with my paralysed arms -- but I rather think they have turned into legs … My anus has been blocked by a crab.
(Isidore Ducasse, translated by Alexis Lykiard)
Those are the biographer's sentiments, distilled. It is clear that she wrote herself into the wrong book. After volumes of sadness she terminates her life story with pages of Christian instruction -- but why, when no one who reads this book is going to want to live a Christian life? "This is a Christian?" the reader will think. "Then evidently the life of a Christian is one of passive-aggressive misery and pain, which religion does not relieve." It's as if she doesn't know what she's written. There it is on the page, yet she can't take it in. Ducasse's protagonist: "Loss of memory took residence in my imagination when, by the inflexible laws of optics, I happen to be confronted with the failure to recognise my own reflection!"
If only she could have written her autobiography like the Chants (I fantasise this) then the evidence on the page would have been so bald that she wouldn't have been able to ignore it. "To appear before your eyes as I really am," she should have written to the reader, "I shall not cast virtue's mask at your feet for I have never worn it ... and if from the very first you observe my features closely you will recognise me as your respectful disciple in perversity but not as your deadly rival." Bold and fair! Looking back over her own words, she would have risen from her desk and fled the house she shares with husband John (his one memorable act, throwing her tuna casserole at the wall), away to the outback, where she would kill animals for food forever, and live with the W.
Ducasse's protagonist is a fictional character, and she is real, but he is living her life and she is living like a ghost.
But where is he living it? This is the place she needs to go. Not the land of the W.