ESMOND AND ILIA: An Unreliable Memoir, by Marina Warner
How many of us have fantasized about chucking in the daily grind and opening a bookshop? In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, this exact dream enticed the writer and academic Marina Warner’s father, Esmond.
After fighting in the desert campaign “for so long he began to feel at home in North Africa,” Esmond, an officer in the British Army, landed in Italy in late 1943. There, in the southern city of Bari, he met Emilia Terzulli . The youngest of four sisters, she was a dark-haired, 21-year-old beauty. Esmond was 15 years older and an Anglican to boot; nevertheless, they were married in June 1944. He then sent her home to his parents in London, where she spent the rest of the war in the “stewed comforting frowsiness” of their mansion block apartment, waiting for her husband to reclaim her, like a piece of left luggage.
Warner is an expert on all facets of myth, legend and fairy tale, whose writings have explored everything from Ovid to the Brothers Grimm to the Arabian Nights. As such, it makes sense that even a personal work recounting eight years of her parents’ life should be envisioned as a story of the power of narrative, the clash of cultures and the role of the heroine, told by means of lore, symbols and allegory.
For a young woman raised in the Mediterranean sun, the strange smells of dull, damp London were an assault on Emilia’s senses: “Mouse droppings and rats’ nests, suet and soot, cabbage and cabbage water, Worcestershire sauce, lard, mustard, Marmite , chicory coffee.” Ilia, as Esmond learned to call her, was no stranger to deprivation. All the same, in her new home she was chilly, lonely and homesick.
But even Esmond (who in his daughter’s rendering talks like a character out of PG Wodehouse, addressing Ilia as “old thing” and frequently ending his sentences with “what!”) struggled with the privations of postwar England. He couldn’t find purchase or purpose back on Civvy Street; until, that is, he chanced on the idea of moving to Cairo to open a branch of the British booksellers WH Smith. During the war, he’d described the Egyptian city as his “second home” — a “premonition,” Warner writes, of what lay ahead.
Ilia gave birth to Marina in November 1946, and six months later, they bundled up the baby and fled “cold, bomb-scarred, soot-laden and ashen London” for sunnier, more multicultural climes. Henceforth, if anyone wanted Esmond, a telegram addressed to “Bookman, Cairo” would do the trick.
In recounting the story of these early years of the couple’s marriage, Warner weaves together fact and fiction in the most dazzling and inventive ways. It’s a sort of stepsibling to her 1988 novel her, “The Lost Father,” in which an English archivist attempting to unravel the mystery surrounding her Italian grandfather ‘s death her creatively fills in the blanks in his story her. Whole sections of “Esmond and Ilia” read like fiction, complete with dialogue and interior thought. Warner knows the cadences of her characters’ speech, certain phrases are presumably excavated from memory, and a rich imagination fills in the rest.
The fallibility of the project is built in. One can never really know one’s parents’ lives, Warner argues — or, for that matter, one’s own before the age of 6 — but in embracing embellishment and misinterpretation, she elevates this family history to a work of art far denser and more delightful, both more erudite and earthy than anything that cleaved meticulously to the known facts could have been.
She vacillates between narrator and character, observation and ownership. This delicate dance between the intimacy of “my mother and father” and the remove of “Ilia and Esmond” charts subtle shifts in perspective, and captures that process of transition by which matters of historical record morph into family lore. Given her area of expertise her, it’s no surprise that Warner should spin such enchanting versions of the fables that underpin her own existence her. But, refracted through the prism of one marriage, she also interrogates Britain’s dwindling power in a postcolonial world, ideas of Englishness and the immigrant experience.
Although the story is told chronologically — beginning in Italy and ending with the Egyptian revolution of 1952, which led to the family’s dramatic departure from Cairo — there are digressions aplenty along the way. Chapter titles refer to objects from this vanished world: Ilia’s powder compact; Esmond’s Box Brownie camera; nasturtium sandwiches. This catalog includes a pair of Ilia’s bespoke women’s brogues, items of initiation that “announced her life to come in the English countryside, her formal enrollment in the world of the squirearchy, hunting, going to the point-to-point, the harriers, the beagles, the open-gardens scheme, the charity fête.” They also inspire a treatise on the history of the shoe and a consideration of “brogue,” as in accent.
Ilia’s journey — geographic and cultural, from Emilia Terzulli to Mrs. Esmond Warner — is the beating heart of the book. Warner explains how the Egyptian pharaohs were buried with shabtis, “laborers of the other world, who work on behalf of the deceased to meet their needs and provide for their comforts during eternity.” She’s her mother’s shabti; her job is “to witness the arc” of Ilia’s life his — though not always in a literal sense. Some of the most evocative images are those that Warner could never have seen : the wide-eyed war bride fresh off the plane, her pocket Italian-English dictionary in her handbag, her in-laws ‘London address scrawled on the piece of paper clutched tightly in her hand.
Although she was met by kindness, this didn’t diminish Ilia’s sense of alienation. Everyone addressed one another by pet names — “Mother Rat,” “Plum,” “Father Badger.” This was an England that still belonged to Old Etonians, keen cricketers all of them — “It’s not just a game,” Esmond insists at one point, but the very “embodiment of what it means to be British” — with “claret-curdled and Stilton-and-port-enriched guts.” A world now lost, then already in decline; Warner makes it feel just as exotic as Cairo.
Ilia is roughly uprooted, but in Warner’s telling it’s Esmond who’s increasingly out of time: like a “ship in a picture from a great polar adventure when winter sets in and the pack ice closes round it, holding it tight and lifting it, as if the desire to move forward could take it only upward, into a zone of dreams.” Postwar Cairo, then a cosmopolitan “Paris on the Nile,” allows him to indulge his illusions his a little longer. But a day of judgment is on the horizon, and when it comes, it splinters his worlds his — both real and imagined — apart.
More than anything, “Esmond and Ilia” is a reckoning with loss — personal and public. Wandering among ghosts, however, is a dangerous business, and the sensory memories this provokes, “fumes of rose water, pistachios and icing sugar from the Mouski, chlorine in the swimming pool at the Club,” weave a heady spell. “The dust from the desert gently powdering the surfaces all around,” Warner recalls. “Sugar melting in pans to make syrup. My mother’s dressing table glinting with glass.” Ilia and Esmond aren’t the only ones adrift in the mists of time: In the middle of it all, a little girl watches as her parents’ world goes up in flames.
Lucy Scholes is a critic based in London.
ESMOND AND ILIA: An Unreliable Memoir, by Marina Warner | 432 pp. | New York Review Books | Paper, $19.95