Sunday, April 16, 2017

Margery Wolf 1933-2017

Margery Wolf
Via Damaso Cerquetti, Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017—
WHILE THE CHRISTIAN world rejoices in the resurrection of its redeemer this Easter morning, word comes in the e-mail of the death of yet another friend. It was no surprise; we'd seen it coming, Lindsey and I, for a few months. But it is saddening; we cherished this woman, and we extend our sympathy to the husband, friend and lover she leaves behind, a man I know pretty well from having spent a month with him on the trail in the French Alps.

During that month he telephoned Margery every day, missing the call only when there was no Internet. His conversations were long and private. I'm sure they were exchanging their news of the day: after many years together they were still in many ways like newlyweds.

Margery has an Internet presence, because she early in her careeer wrote a book that seems to be immortal, The House of Lim: a Study of a Chinese Farm Family (1968). I haven't re-read the book for a few years now, but I recall it as being, like all good books, a succinct portrait of its author as well as of its subject: clear, orderly, direct, not humorless, at times just a little arch. (I'll reread it first time I get a chance.)

Margery and I loved to tease one another. On Chinese opera, for example, which she was not fond of and I was, when in the mood. What do you know about China, she would ask pointedly: and what do you know of opera, I'd reply, with equal justification. And there we would let it lie, as we knew and respected one another's boundaries.

In her last years Margery was plagued by shortness of breath, and I think one of the last great efforts she made against this was the walking trip she and Mac, Lindsey and I took on various walking routes in the Netherlands. She was contemptuous of sheep, having spent too many years among them in her rural youth, and we were walking delicately through sheep pastures. Sheep, like many other apparently uncritical beings, amused her, but annoyed her too. She was a woman who knew there were facts, and despised those who twisted them, or hid them.

I find, just now, writing this, online, the fascinating Who’s Afraid of Margery Wolf: Tributes and Perspectives on Anthropology, Feminism and Writing Ethnography, a series of papers delivered in her honor on the occasion of her retirement from teaching, concluded by her own graceful response to them. Among her responses is an anecdote about having been given false history by a Chinese peasant she was interviewing:

…she told me that her brigade didn’t have very good stories to tell foreigners but the government had sent an exhibit around the year before explaining all about landlords and how mean they were, so they used those stories. Her comment was apt. “What does it matter whether it happened to me or to some other woman just like me? It happened somewhere and it was wrong.”
I knew Margery as a woman who enjoyed herself, who bantered, who dined and drank well, but who also always looked for the way to get things right, because in the end it does matter. And in her last years, like many of us, she was struggling with the concept of metafiction, of narrative — and especially historical or even biographical narrative — that necessarily, in order to be written, has to turn its back on dogmatic loyalty to the separation of fiction from "non-fiction."

Alas, this kept her from leaving us with a memoir — at least as far as I know. Perhaps there's one, or the notes toward one, squirreled away somewhere on a hard drive. As usual, a friend leaves forever, and leaves me pondering the questions I might have asked.

1 comment:

Charles Shere said...

I should have added, as another friend did in a private e-mail, how much we all admired Margery for her unfailing determination and good grace through these last troubled times. Our dying friends have much to teach us if we can only learn.