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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS

An Artistic Woman's Struggle Through a Troublesome Life : MY MOTHER'S MUSIC: A Memoir by Paul West; Viking $22.95, 208 pages

June 10, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An English butcher's daughter, Mildred Noden sacrificed her dreamed-of career as a concert pianist to care for her ailing mother. A brother died young in Africa; her husband, Albert West, was half blinded in World War I. Injured internally by "lifting slabs of beef" in 1915 when few men were left on the home front, she had to undergo "several grueling bouts of gynecology" to bear a son, who became the novelist Paul West, author of this charming, idiosyncratic, contentious and affectionate memoir.

West has told parts of his mother's story before, in both fiction ("Love's Mansion," Random House, 1992) and nonfiction ("A Stroke of Genius," Viking, 1995). But this proved insufficient to do justice to a character so formidable in herself and so intimately bound up with all West was and is. "She was complex enough to write a book about," he says simply. This is it.

Despite the tragedies and domestic drudgery of her life, his mother was "a Romantic," West says, "a woman who was prelude, fugue and enigma variation all at once . . . a fasces of naked, convulsive nerves enclosed in savory pastry. . . . The recitatives of her indignation were just music of another kind: royal fireworks to the steady sun of her pianoforte almost nine hours a day." She gave lessons "year in, year out, to keep us clad and fed, and later on to supplement our scholarships."

On one level, this is a typical English story of class aspiration: Mildred Noden West, with little help from her war-stunned husband, pushed her children to achieve, enlisting a small army of spinster tutors to help West hurdle the entrance examinations for Oxford. On another, it's the familiar story of ambition thwarted and sublimated: In him, her artistic drive found an outlet.

More specifically, though--and West is nothing if not a savorer of nuances--it's a story of a birth: of one creative talent literally being mothered by another, taking nourishment from it even in the act of breaking free.

*

"Loved rotten" by his mother and knowing it, West nonetheless rebelled. He refused to take piano lessons, preferring words to notes. His first musical craze, anathema to her, was American swing. A pudgy, curly-haired, often-teased boy, he adopted a tough-guy posture, bowled a wicked game of cricket and, as World War II cut "a black swath" across his childhood, cultivated the taste for the macabre that shows up in such novels as "Rat Man of Paris" and "The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper."

But the rebellion was always undercut by their deeper sympathy. "Words were her avocation just as music was mine," West says. He learned to appreciate her kind of music, from Ravel to Bach; his mother, a thesaurus-browser, grammar maven and histrionic reader of Tennyson and Wordsworth, came to accept his writing as an equivalent, if not quite equal, art.

A polished and elaborate stylist, West invokes the spirit of Proust in these reminiscences, though there are echoes, too, of Nabokov's "Speak, Memory" in the way he organizes his chapters around themes as well as chronology. For example: "Maladies" (the migraines that tormented them both), "Blue Bags of Sugar" (which West's mother threw at his father when incensed) and "Mildredism," in which he states her artistic credo--and his: "Do the work incumbent on you. . . . You are not the public, nor are you the cognoscenti. Make your stuff and stand behind it."

In the end, style is the point, even when West's mother is in her 90s, drifting into and out of sleep, her memories tangled, unable to "forgive life for doing this to her." Her aging son is trying to console her, sentence by sentence, with the fulfillment of her dream--not so much Look, Mummy, I did it as See what you and I accomplished together.

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