Second Half First came to me through my dear friend Donica. She and her partner Joseph were in Germany recently and we spent a week together — first a few days in Berlin, then the rest of the week in a house in the north of Germany in an area called Rügen. It was dark, moody, wet, cold and unbelievably beautiful. But it was also a really important trip for me because it reconnected me not only with friends, but with voices. In a house full of people with Australian accents who all live away from home, there was a familiarity and sense of ease that I was dearly missing. Up until October we’d had a series of visitors here in Berlin. Friends who gave us a little piece of home through their accents, stories and presence. Then in October it got cold and it got dark and things got very lonely. As those of you who read my Tiny Letters know, November was a really difficult month. So the timing of this trip was perfect. A reason to get out of the apartment, out of Berlin, into the countryside.
Before Donica arrived we had organised a book swap to share Australian novels both of us had yet to read, and this became our reading for the holiday. Second Half First was the book that stood out the most. Because it had everything the trip had: friendship, familiarity, a sense of ease, probably too much talk about work, reconnection with people, places and books.
The book begins, as the title suggests, at the midway point. On Drusilla Modjeska’s fortieth birthday she suffers a crisis. Throughout the book we see her come out of it, the ups and downs, the bits she did right and the bits she did wrong, the things that were beyond her control, the things she fought to maintain, the people that made life easier and more joyful and the people that made life harder and more painful.
The first chapter, ‘The House on the Corner’, was perhaps the one that struck me the most, because of the way it centres on relationships. From the house on the corner Modjeska and her female friends, comrades in many ways, build a sanctuary for themselves. A place to write and talk about writing, a place to read and talk about books, a place to love and talk about men, a place to be themselves. The joy I felt in imagining these strong successful women together in one house comes off the page in a way that shows just how much it meant to Modjeska also.
Argumentative and contested though our relationships with men could be, sometimes wounding, sometimes tender, in that house we were free, as free as I’ve ever been. Complicatedly free, but free. Free to move; free to enjoy our lovers. But most of all, there was a freedom of mind that was new to me: a sense of my own voice as a writer, and the potential of writing, as I began to understand how to work the pliability of words.
But Modjeska also hit on a sense of loss that came when the house inevitably changed, which is similar to how I feel about the distance between myself and my best female friends right now. She writes how after Helen (Garner) moved to Melbourne, she lost a connection to herself, despite having other friends (Hazel) close by:
These are the thoughts of me now, not then, thoughts I can’t have with Hazel. I could have them with Helen but she is in Melbourne, too far for a drink in a quiet bar - which is exactly what I’d like right now, at the end of a day as well as a chapter.
I immediately understood. I know some lovely people here in Berlin, but they are not the same as my friends at home. On the phone to my Mum recently she talked about her time living in the country, straight out of university, as a young teacher. She said when something good would happen and she’d tell her friends in Mount Gambier, they would say ‘I’m really happy for you’. When something good would happen and she’d tell her friends in Adelaide, they would tell say ‘I’m really proud of you’. They knew how much it meant, how hard she’d worked, what her family was like, how much it would mean to them, what she’d had to overcome to gain this success. Something that would take years and years for her new friends to understand. Right now I’d give anything to be able to drink a pot of tea with one of my best mates, to talk things through with her knowing she understands where I’m coming from and what it all means. And to hear about her life the same way; to be able to offer support, or even to just listen. But maybe it’s this time away that also fosters these friendships. As Modjeska says of her relationship between her dual homes, in England where she was born and raised and in Australia where she lives, in the chapter ‘Making Shapes Square Up’:
While I’d got to know a lot of people in London after twenty years of travelling between, it wasn’t the world in which I had a voice. … In London there was a part of me that felt out of place, and I’d look around at these people I liked and considered friends … and wondered if I’d have found me way to them if I hadn’t gone to Australia.
Through distance we gain clarity about many things, and friendship is one of them. Who are the people who keep in touch. Who are the people who know when to message you and ask if you’re ok. Who are the people who have your back no matter where you lay. This is something Modjeska found out through a diagnosis of breast cancer. Who were the people who didn’t know what to say so said nothing at all? And who were the people who didn’t know what to say but knew what to do? From ‘A Dangerous Road’: ’Generosity came in the form of the little boats, my women friends sailing alongside.’
Second Half First ends with ‘Now’, perhaps the most difficult reflection of all. Because the book until this point of course has the benefit of hindsight. The chance moments that would prove crucial, the mistakes now seen as things learnt, the introductions to people and places that would change Modjeska’s life. There’s a lot more to this book that I haven’t discussed — writing craft, travel, Modjeska’s work in Papua New Guinea — and it’s not that I didn’t find them enjoyable to read about. It’s just that this book was at it’s richest when she wrote about the people around her. Because she captures the spirit of friendship in all it’s beauty: camaraderie, beauty, joy, familiarity, ease.
As I sat by the fire reading Second Half First in a house on the other side of the world from my family and friends in Adelaide and Melbourne, Joseph started to play a Sigur Ros album. I picked up my phone and emailed my friend Jeremy, someone who became a friend by complete chance but who I wouldn’t have first moved to Melbourne without. In one of the best gigs of my life, we went to Festival Hall in Melbourne and saw Sigur Ros play. It was ephemeral, magical, joyful, emotional, exquisite. I think of it often, but perhaps not often enough. Being reminded of that show, and of Jeremy, brought a smile to my face and a warmth to my heart. There are many moments in Second Half First where I could imagine Modjeska reminiscing with the same joy, and that feeling is electric, beautiful, and contagious.
So here I am, now, sitting alone in our Kreuzberg apartment with the heaters on and the rooms artificially light. Currently the sun sets in the middle of the afternoon, and in the last few days the mornings have been full of fog so dense it hasn’t lifted until lunchtime. Some days it seems easier to just not leave the apartment, but on the days I push myself I walk along the canal — a place that was so bright and green and filled with laughter and joy over summer, is now dark and stripped bare with few other people in sight. Yes a beauty still lingers there, but it’s a lonely one. So I throw myself in to Christmas, a season I adore so much, and in which the dark cold weather finds a good home. Visiting Weihnachtsmärketen and drinking mulled wine are not familiar to an Australian Christmas, but baking is universal, no matter what the weather or hemisphere. This year I’m trying out some traditional German recipes full of warming spices and homely scents to fill the apartment with warmth and beautiful smells. Traditional Advent cookies, Plätzchen, go far beyond the simple gingerbread we might think of from Australia. This recipe for Vanillekipferl from my friend Christie of the German food blog A Sausage Has Two is like a cross between a rich buttery shortbread and the vanilla sugar biscuits my brother and I would make with Mum every year, in a race to see how many could make the oven before we ate the raw batter from the roll of dough chilling in the fridge. These Vanillekipferl have a very delicate crumb coming from the mix of almond meal and flour, but are tender and incredibly moorish. Despite being (literally) covered in sugar, they are not overly sweet and go perfectly with an afternoon cup of tea or with a nightcap after dinner. I will certainly be making these again, indulging in rituals that bring a bit of homeliness and familiarity during the absence of friends and family this Christmas.
As the end of the year draws closer to the end, so begin the avalanche of best-of lists, undeniably full of books I wish I had read, ones I’ve never heard of, and a few I recognise and wish they’d been further up the list. So within the context of the end-of-year rush and feelings of FOMO I think of the books I have amassed, those that have struck me and stuck with me. While they may mostly be in boxes in a storage container on the outskirts of Melbourne, one day they will again fill rows of shelves, their spines sitting proudly together. Like familiar cooking smells or time spent with friends, these books evoke familiarity and homeliness. The amount of time I have spent staring at those spines, the amount of joy they have brought me. On Literary Hub, a piece that hits on the importance, beauty and intrigue of book spines.