Meike Ziervogel (1967) grew up in Germany and came to Britain in 1986 to study Arabic language and literature. She is the founder and owner of the London based publishing house Peirene Press. In 2013 she started her career as fiction writer with the novel Magda, which was listed as one of the books of the year 2013 by the Observer and Irish Times. Magda explores the story of Magda Goebbels, wife of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and the psychological intricacies that might have led her to kill her own six children. Meike Ziervogel brings the reader of Magda back to the character’s childhood and relationship to the mother in order to decipher the female psyche. In Clara’s Daughter (2014), the author continues the exploration on the mother-daughter relationship, this time in contemporary London. This book focuses on Michele’s life, a successful career woman, wife, and mother of two, but who experiences a complex relationship with her aging mother. The unresolved psychological issues between Michele and her mother Clara undermines Michele’s very existence. In this context, the complexities of mother-daughter relationships are openly expressed, and the roles of mother and daughter are represented in their contradictions. At the same time, motherhood is not represented as an ideal; nor is the figure of mother presented as an example of virtue and self-devotion. Clara’s Daughter is, thus, placed within a wider European, literary context that polemicizes the topic of motherhood such as in German Verena Friederike Hasel’s Lasse (2015), French Véronique Olmi’s Bord de mer (2001), or Spanish Jenn Díaz’s Mare i Filla (2015). The following interview also looks at stereotyped female feelings such as pity, guilt, and sacrifice, as well as the construction of ‘daughter’ and ‘mother’ as western concepts. Besides these, contemporary experiences of home and the aging female body, as potentially erotic and sensual (in defiance of western media stereotypes), are also important topics of the novel that the author discusses here.
The novel’s title suggests that the text is mostly about a mother-daughter relationship but it deals with many other things that seem equally important (Michele’s marriage, or the representation of the female body in middle and late age, for example). Why the title Clara’s Daughter? Why did you choose to focus on the role of Michele as daughter and not as mother, or wife?
Before a woman is a wife or a mother, she is a daughter. And if she wants to become the wife or mother she imagines then she must alter the meaning of “being a daughter”. In literature there are many stories about how sons break away from their fathers in order to become men. Unfortunately, the necessity of daughters to break away from their mothers in order to become a woman has been rarely addressed in fiction. Often the relationship is idealized. A mother is supposed to want the best for her daughter, and the daughter is supposed to look after her mother. But the mother-daughter relationship is far more complex, far more fraught with negative feelings, such as envy, rage and guilt. In Clara’s Daughter I wanted to tell the story of an outwardly successful woman, Michele, who feels blocked by her mother. I wanted to explore that sense of being blocked and feeling stuck.
Why does she feel stuck?
Michele’s mother Clara can no longer look after herself. Michele has found her a place in a good nursing home. But under pressure from her sister and Clara herself, who doesn’t want to move out of her own house, Michele agrees to convert her basement into a flat for Clara. She does it against her better instinct. She knows that she can’t live with her mother again, nor that her mother can live with her. Still she goes ahead with the move, convinced that she has decided for the best.
I found the representation of Clara’s experience of her own body later in the text very interesting. It is difficult to find representations of old female bodies, especially, from her own perspective. Your passage evokes a sensuality which usually is not associated to old women. Could you tell us a bit about this scene? Is the scene trying to tell something new about womanhood?
Clara is a woman whose life lacks fulfilment. She feels unable to express herself. She’s probably been depressed. In the scene you mention we are inside Clara’s head. We see her walking through the park, arriving at the lake, taking her clothes off, lying in the grass and finally swimming in the lake. It’s the first time she has ever dared to do that. She feels free. In reality of course something very different is happening to her body: There, she is still sitting on the park bench, lonely. And she is dying. I don’t know if I’m saying something new about womanhood with this scene. What I am saying, however, is that the reality we build in our imagination is the real for us as individuals. And the outside existence often doesn’t matter at all.
Should we, as society, try to make eroticism emerge beyond young beautiful women’s bodies? In other words, should we see the erotic as an important part of everybody’s subjectivity, and as something involving far more than the mere physical body in contrast to common representations of erotic scenes?
To answer this question let me talk for a moment about creativity. In my view, creative and sexual feelings are both erotic. When I’m in a creative flow with my writing, I sometimes feel sexual arousal (that doesn’t of course mean that I want sex there and then, but it is a very similar sensation to desire). Both, creativity and sexuality link to something that goes beyond ourselves. When Clara finally leaves her body behind, she experiences that sensation of going beyond herself, probably for the first time. And so for the first time she also experiences her physical being as erotic. In some ways it’s a contradiction: we need to be able to transcend ourselves, our bodies in the here and now, in order to experience sensuality. I don’t know if it’s true for all women but it certainly is true for me. I often think that I write to experience those moments when I go beyond myself, when I link into something bigger than myself, when I’m no longer in control and something else is dictating the story to me. And that same sensation occurs within Clara as she is sitting on the bench: For the first time ever she takes life as it comes. And suddenly we, the readers, are able to perceive her as a sensual being. But she is dying. Sadly she was never able to experience such transcendence previously. And, maybe, if she had been able to, she might have had a different relationship with her daughter Michele.
Why would she have had a different relationship with Michele?
From experience I can say that I connect with my children if I’m connected to myself. Clara is somebody who most of her life has been disconnected. Who didn’t even know where to look for herself. I don’t think she was ever able to see the world from her daughter’s standpoint. A telling example for this comes from Michele’s memory from when she was little. Her mother is sitting at the kitchen table crying and the little girl offers up her dearest possession – her dolly – to make her feel better. But the mother, wrapped up inside her own sorrow, ignores the gesture. She is unable to connect to the bigger picture around her, outside herself.
It seems to be a kind of holistic perception in your writing: you describe both creativity and eroticism as something that pushes us beyond ourselves, and that make us lose control; and you just mentioned Clara’s inability to connect to the bigger picture, to the whole, somehow. All that seems to be framed by a kind of Freudian-Jungian Weltanschauung, which contradicts a more common positivist approach to reality, especially in the Anglosaxon world. Would you say that the difficulties in having a more healthy experience of mother-daughter relationships are partly due to a view that labels us according to roles, separates our different selves according to those roles, and stops us from integrating all these roles in a singular self?
We stop ourselves from integrating those roles. In order for society and public life to function we need to operate in different, separate roles. But within our own psyche we have to learn to integrate those roles into a coherent self. This task is part of our life’s journey.
Jim, Michele’s husband, is also a very interesting character. Through Jim, the book introduces the topics of fidelity, trust, marriage expectations, as well as male attraction to young women. There is certainly a male perspective on marriage. Could you comment on it?
At the beginning of the novel we observe Michele and Jim happy together. They go for a swim, are about to have sex. But then Michele remembers that she needs to take her mother to the doctor, and suddenly she is no longer able to make love to her husband. She is now pre-occupied with her mother. And when later on she tells Jim that she likes her mother to move in with them, Jim is opposed to the idea. You could say, he knows his wife better than she does herself. He fears that if Clara moves into their basement, Michele’s relationship to him will change. And he is right.
In my novels, images and scenes always work on two levels: on the literary and the symbolic. So if I talk about Clara moving into Michele’s basement, I’m not only talking about a concrete basement in a north London house. I’m also talking about Michele’ psyche and Michele’s body. If Clara is occupying Michele’s ‘basement’, Michele will struggle to have a satisfying sexual relationship with her husband.
In my view, the mother-daughter relationship plays a vital role in a woman’s sexuality, after all our first intimate relationship with another body is that with our mother’s body. A woman – like a man – needs to separate from the mother’s body in order to find her own sexuality. However, unlike with a son, for a daughter it is often difficult –in psychological terms – to fully comprehend where her mother’s body ends and her own body begins because of their sameness. It’s a very complex separation process which we haven’t examined enough in art and literature.
Returning to the novel, the moment Clara enters into Michele’s private and intimate life, Michele finds it difficult to have intercourse with her husband. The relationship between Michele and Jim does not get worse because he parties, but because Michele starts interpreting his nights out in a way that allows her to begin destroying their relationship in order to make more space for her mother. Of course this is all subconscious. Consciously she is convinced that Jim is at fault. But I don’t think their relationship falters because of Jim’s behaviour – after all it is left open to interpretation if he has an affair or not that night. The relationship disintegrates because Michele can’t cope with her mother moving back into her house.
You mentioned the house in relation to Michele’s psyche. Is the house also a psychic space?
On the surface the story has to work in a literal sense, and therefore, there are realist descriptions of the house. But because ultimately these characters are inside my head, I also think, that I am talking about somebody’s internal house. And my internal house too. Michele is the daughter aspect within myself, Clara is my mother aspect, and Jim my husband aspect.
Clara feels herself treated as a madwoman when she is pushed by her daughter to live in Michele’s cellar. I think there is an interesting re-appropriation of the nineteenth-century topic of the madwoman in the attic. Are old women undermined in our society? Is Clara some sort of modern scapegoat?
Who is ultimately the madwoman in this novel? I would say Michele. Because Michele if she had wanted to, could have made different choices. But she decides not to and instead jeopardises the life she has built with her husband. I am not blaming the mother for the failure of Michele’s marriage. Instead, I explore in this novel Michele’s inability to say to her mother ‘sorry you cannot move in’. Michele is a successful business woman and she wouldn’t have got there without the ability to say ‘no’. So why can’t she keep a clear head when it comes to her mother? Why is she willing to let her marriage fail? That to me appears quite mad – and sad.
But if Michele says ‘no’ to having her mother in the house, wouldn’t we accuse her of cruelty?
Women often face the issue that if we want to be kind to ourselves it can look from the outside as if we are cruel to others. Clara is unhappy in the basement, Michele is unhappy, and Jim leaves. When Michele decided – against her husband’s wish – that her mother should move into their house, their lives fell apart. Who knows what might have happened if Michele had insisted on taking her mother to the old people’s home which she had already found and which looked very nice? My feeling is that Clara would have been as unhappy or happy as in Michele’s basement. On the other hand, Michele might have been happier. But Michele would have needed the courage to say ‘it is important that I keep the house to myself for my life to function’. However, how would have such decision looked from the outside? Society – and probably the reader too – would have judged her as an unloving daughter.
For Clara, domestic space is very important. There is a sense of alienation when she needs to leave her house to move into Michele’s basement. What is the meaning of home for Clara? And for Michele?
For Michele domestic space is only one part of her identity, she has been able to define herself in many different ways. For Clara, on the other hand, the domestic space represents her entire identity. She has never been able to step outside her domestic space.
In the novel I therefore describe these two domestic spaces very differently from each other. Clara’s is depicted in very concrete, detailed images. I describe how she moves through her house, how she opens cupboards and sorts through drawers. Michele’s house is less tangible, I’m deliberately vaguer with my descriptions. The different techniques point to the different meanings of Clara’s and Michele’s domestic spaces.
Then, Clara and Michele have different experiences and understandings of home. What is home for Michele?
Michele ends up in a home she does not like. She has moved out of the house that she used to share with Jim and moves into a small flat, with a wardrobe where she hangs Jim’s old clothes in the hope that he might come back one day. She keeps her mother’s ashes in an urn on the mantelpiece. Despite all the ways in which she managed to define herself, she ends up being surrounded by things rather than the actual people to whom those things belong. How did she end up in this situation? In my view it all boils down to her inability to address one fundamental question: how to be Clara’s daughter while safeguarding her own space.
Over the last 100 years women in the western world have gained many freedoms and rights that now allow us to shape our lives – and the lives of others – increasingly according to own ambitions. However, our psyche has been formed by millenia of patriarchy where we as daughters had to behave in certain ways – towards our families and society. Such behaviours and attitudes are difficult to alter. Outward freedoms are more easily gained than psychological freedoms. It might take generations. Michele ultimately failed to step out of her role of merely being her mother’s daughter. Like her own mother she was not able to set herself free.
Are you continuing exploring family ties in your last novel, The Photographer?
Yes. This novel is loosely based on my own family, who fled during the Second World War from former East Prussia to West Germany. It once again explores a flawed mother –daughter relationship. Agatha doesn’t like her son-in-law and when war breaks out she arranges for him to be sent to the front. The family is eventually reunited in a refugee camp near Hamburg where her daughter Trude will have to confront her mother in order to save her husband.
My first three novels have dark endings. The darkness comes from within the main characters. In The Photographer, on the other hand, the backdrop behind the characters environment is dark indeed: war, flight and refugee camps, while the characters themselves possess the potential for courage, compromise and love.