What To Look For In Winter: A Memoir In Blindness
Candia McWilliams (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010)
One of the first details we learn about Candia McWilliam, Scottish author of ‘Debateable Land’ (1994), in her autobiography ‘What To Look For In Winter’ is that she is now functionally blind. That is, she has fully operational eyes which refuse to open, a result of the effects of blepharospasm. We meet her in this blindness, “picking up lost bits and pieces of my scattered life and trying to make something whole by putting it all together.” In many ways we are reminded of blindness throughout the history of literature, Homer reciting his poetry, Milton sat on his porch, Joyce dictating to young amanuensis Samuel Beckett. As with her predecessors, McWilliam’s blindness turns her attention inward to reflect on the details of her extraordinary life. Unlike them, she is no less aware of the bleak humour that may be drawn from these situations.
Perhaps this is a unique quality of the author’s Scottishness. Being born in Edinburgh to architectural writer and academic Colin McWilliam, a native Scottish humour serves as a meniscus overlaying what Woolf described as the “well of tears.” ‘What To Look For In Winter’ is remarkable in both its life and the ways that life is remembered. Its slim opening chapters give way to longer, more meditative remembrances that arc and circulate before finally touching upon significance. In the moments prefixing the death of McWilliam’s mother, I was reminded of my own optometrist examinations, being told to relax my eyes and allow a distant letter-board to fade slowly into clarity. Or in the words of the author, “it has becomes impossible to write of my far past without being somewhat open about the present and its tense surface.”
‘What To Look For In Winter’ is a memoir that can be dipped into with ease. Drawing from her previous experience of short story writing in ‘Wait Till I Tell You’ (1997), these episodes feel well contained, conscious of the need for both emotional and intellectual stimulation (“has a doughnut an omphalos?”). Pushing at over 450 pages, some of these chapters are simply more memorable than others. Such is the nature of life. Were this to be presented as a collection of short stories, an editor would question why such time is spent meandering between climax and pathos. Yet as a memoir, these moments offer welcome respite to commune a voice of notable talent.
The emotional intensity of ‘What To Look For In Winter’ does not only arise from the mere facts of its author’s life. The memoir unfurls itself with surprising tenderness, a contemplative questioning, and a breadth of formal talent. “Candia McWilliams swallowed a dictionary,” the author muses as a shared joke between her teachers, however we would be forgiven for checking our Websters for bite-marks. The striking brevity of questions such as “where does pain go?” ring with pure simplicity. However it is disappointing when the McWilliam allows her obvious love of language to silence the better angels of her editing, such as in:
“This book will be a struggle to find that Eden when they were both about, my oddly paired parents, both, incidentally, lovers of pears, and each devoted to a separate means of paring pears.”
The intelligent pacing and attentiveness allows McWilliam to recount the formative events of her life while always dispersed – one becomes ever aware of the optical imagery lathered through the memoir – through the prism of her present condition. Subtle moments of pain are scattered throughout the book, evidently not in the remembering but in the nostalgia for a time that was, in its experience, different (“I like the Queen because she isn’t dead… because she is not me, not even the best of me, but she is my times, and shelters my life.”).
Perhaps solipsism is part of the fabric of an autobiography. Despite McWilliam admitting an over-reliance on “I” throughout ‘What To Look For In Winter’, her presence is noticeable. It is refreshing to hear other voices, the opinions and multitudes that are contained within each person. In lines such as “I married a toff and then a Pakistani. I did not have a respectable job. I was horribly visible” we are correct to ask who is speaking, who has held these opinions, and why they have been presented in this manner. These different voices exist in close proximity, although any confusion this invites only affirms the core belief of the novel, that life is not simply lived but re-lived.
‘What to Look For In Winter’ is at times an affirming, upsetting, and challenging book. It is both bleak and speckled with hope. It is most certainly Candia McWilliam’s novel, and yet it feels tethered to the dramatis personae that speak with an intense alive-ness. Every life is built upon a vast history of lives, an experience that McWilliam describes as acutely Scottish. If blindness was the peripeteia of her life, around which all things will be understood, it has also salvaged the memories and emotions that lay deep within the author. As is poignantly demonstrated, this transformation is another in a great chain of transformations a woman may undergo in the course of her life.