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Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir – Tell us more, Marina Warner

A dazzling, intimate autobiographical work by a writer of rare allure and learning

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In George Sand’s 1864 novella Laura, a young man and woman who have been studying rocks and crystals in a museum are magically transported inside a glittering diode: a world in miniature, filled with wonders. This is what reading Marina Warner feels like.

Essayist, scholar, fabulist, scintillating critic of art, literature and life – Warner is a writer of extravagant learning and rare allure. Whether her subject is ancient or modern, hallowed or mundane, she is able to take a single object, image or even word and make it vibrate with meaning.

The relationship between knowledge and enchantment has long been Warner’s theme, in books about the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc, fairytales and the history of magic. But what happens to her visionary method when its research materials are the stuff of her own life, early memories, her parents’ letters and snapshots, their long-gone joys and regrets?

Warner was born in London late in 1946: it was one of the century’s harshest winters. Two years earlier, Esmond Warner had married Emilia Terzulli (known as Ilia); he was a well-off officer in the Royal Fusiliers who had served in north Africa, and she a relatively poor Italian with good English, 15 years his junior.


In some of the photographs that Warner reproduces, they seem to come from different universes: Esmond bald and bluff behind his owlish glasses, Ilia implausibly beautiful, angular and playful. In fact, they were both adventurers, both frustrated by sooty end-of-war England, its “general stewed comforting frowsiness”. Esmond was also an anxious snob, surrounded by much wealthier friends. Eager for status and money as well as the heat and energy of the Middle East, in 1947 he took his family to Cairo, where he was to manage the first WH Smith bookshop in Egypt.

Local girl

Warner’s evocation of colonial Cairo after the war is a shifting and shimmering thing. On the one had, she is a child, innocently attached via nanny and servants (also her parents’ ease and entitlement) to a place where she belongs: “Those days when I was growing up in Cairo, I could happily dream-play at being a local girl.” On the other hand, she’s now a writer and scholar with a rapt but also abashed attitude to the late-imperial impunity with which Esmond and Ilia, and people like them, took up residence in Egypt.

Warner expresses “amazement at how things were and how they have changed, embarrassment at the assumptions behind that journey into Egypt, and of course a sharp sense of absurdity and pathos”. Absurdity: little Marina photographed on a donkey ride with Donald Maclean, British diplomat, Soviet spy and future defector. Pathos: Esmond’s bookshop reduced to ashes in the revolt of January 1952, and his inability to understand the violent rage for Egyptian independence.

Warner left Cairo with her parents and her sister in 1959; they moved to Brussels for four years and then back to England, where Esmond ran a number of ailing bookshops, and Ilia grew unhappy. Perhaps she had already had affairs in Egypt; Warner sketches a succession of admirers. Esmond, who in his youth seems to have courted the famous cabaret singer Hildegarde, coarsened in middle age, and disappointed his wife.

Missed opportunities

Our parents, Warner writes, “are perhaps the people we have the opportunities to know best, but these opportunities are missed”. And yet: she also wants to keep them at some consoling distance, doesn’t want fully to reveal their suspected infidelities or later sadness. Her narrative grows hazy as it heads into the 1960s and beyond, which was also the period of Warner’s becoming the extraordinary thinker and writer she is.

Time and again I wanted to hear more about her adolescence and early adulthood: Warner as a debutante at Buckingham Palace, dining with her godfather, Lord Longford; being sent as a young journalist to interview the painter Balthus; getting photographed by the exotic Madame Yevonde.

In other words, I hope this book might signal a sustained autobiographical turn in Warner’s nonfiction. Inventory of a Life Mislaid has all the merits of her more scholarly work, including a keen attention to artefacts, to pictures, to their errant significance. And to words. Warner is able to summon a whole historical era with a reference to some antique example of her parents’ mid-century slang, or their habit of chic, “macaronic” (excellent word in itself) bits of French or Franglais.

Give Warner a word like rastaquouère – “a stranger living in the grand style whose means of existence are not known” – and she is off, digressing into histories of language, class, race and religion. And all, somehow, without neglecting her reader or losing her focus on the distant lives at the heart of this dazzling, intimate memoir.

Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. He is working on Affinities, a book about images

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic. His books include Suppose a Sentence and Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives