Dame Marina Warner: 18th November 2021
Marina Warner gave an absorbing presentation about Inventory of a Life Mislaid, illustrated with vignettes by Sophie Herxheimer. ‘Inventory’ suggests a factual record but she undermines this by adding the sub-title ‘An Unreliable Memoir’. Marina had been thinking about this book for years, acutely aware of the shifting, untrustworthy nature of memory. She explained that she reconstructed her earliest years with the help of a hoard of material left by her ‘secret diarist’ mother but she acknowledged that had to be supplemented by speculation and ‘invented truth’.
There was some imaginative addition since Marina is only six when the main narrative ends and, abruptly, her family had to leave the British protectorate of Egypt. In 1947 her English father with her beautiful, orphaned Italian mother Ilia, had come to Cairo. Esmond was the well-connected son of cricket’s ‘poster boy’, Sir Pelham ‘Plum’ Warner, although his family was not wealthy. Marina surmised that Ilia had expected to be living la dolce vita in ‘Paris on the Nile’, having enjoyed a gilded time in fashionable London.
She talked about the ‘soft power’ of the English bookshop in Cairo run by Esmond. On January 26 1952 the bookshop was reduced to ash in an anti-colonial uprising. She remembers her father ‘howling’ as the city burned and showed a photo he had taken of the devastation. She recalled a ‘Shanks of Glasgow’ lavatory bowl surviving the fire and spoke of how objects help to reclaim ‘the genie of the past’ and its losses. She remembered her mother’s jewellery, her perfume and, poignantly, the hatbox that travelled with Ilia when, in anticipation, she sailed from Bari. Marina quoted from José Saramago’s All the Names: ‘wounds heal over on the body, but in the archive they always stay open, they neither close up nor disappear’.