Saturday 28 November 2020


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Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit   {Reviewed by STELLA}
Rebecca Solnit’s memoir will not open the doors to her personal life. The title, Recollections of My Non-Existence, gives you a hint of what to expect. This is a series of recollections, mostly from the 1980s, of the young woman she was and how she became the writer we know in her excellent essays and observant analysis of place in her ‘travel’ writing. I say travel, but Solnit is not easily subsumed by genre and here again in her memoir, it is never pedestrian. The chapter headings are intriguing to begin with. 'Looking Glass House' — how we look back into the past like looking into a mirror watching for some sense of the person we once were. “I looked at myself as I faced a full-length mirror and saw my image darken and soften and then seem to retreat, as though I was vanishing from the world rather than that my mind was shutting it out.” Later she goes on to describe the sea as mirror-like and like her sense of self she draws comparison with the subtlety of nature and human depths. “Sometimes the whole sea looks like a mirror of beaten silver, though it’s too turbulent to hold many reflections; it’s the bay that carries a reflected sky on its surface.” “Sometimes at the birth and death of a day, the opal sky is no colour we have words for, the gold shading into blue without the intervening green ...the light morphing second by second so that the sky is more shades of blue than you can count ….If you look away for a moment you miss a shade for which there will never be a term..”  With much of this writing, quiet observation and the importance of place is crucial to the way in which Solnit remembers and reflects on herself. Or, as she states in 'Disappearing Acts', her non-existence as a young woman, attempting to find a place and a sense of herself. Centred around the flat she lived in for twenty-six years, moving (escaping) from suburbia to a then ungentrified area of San Francisco, she pinpoints the influence the neighbourhood on her development as a writer as she carves out a way forward as a student, a young journalist and then as an art writer and later a feminist political thinker and essayist. And it is words, always words and the way in which we and others use language, that underpin her thinking, either by descriptions of her apartment, her writing desk, her neighbourhood or by actions which are enacted upon others, specifically violence on women and the wider use of authority structures which fires up so much of Solnit’s work. The only image, aside from the cover, included in this memoir is at the beginning of the book — it is her writing desk. Gifted to her by a friend, who survived a vicious assault, it is Solnit’s place from which she travels with words. It is lovingly described and a central object in her life. Reading these passages remind me of the desk in  Nicole Krauss’ Great House and the pivotal role that an object can have. Solnit’s memoir has some parallels to the autofictions of Sheila Heti and Siri Hustvedt but remains at a space removed. The writing is subtle, beautiful in parts, but don’t expect to find any gritty revelations. What we do sense is the honesty to reveal the girl she was — thin, unconfident, living with family violence — and the steps it takes to seek out one’s self in the world where Solnit as a young woman describes herself as having made herself invisible. Read this for the thoughtful approach to becoming a person; what it means to be alive in your own skin; for, as always, the sharp insistent voice she employs against injustice and violence; for an insight into the development of a writer; and for the luxury of the language.   

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