We’ll start with a pair of shoes. In 1944, a young Italian woman named Emilia “Ilia” Terzulli marries an older English soldier named Esmond Warner. They’re an unlikely couple. Nicknamed “La Giraffa,” Ilia is tall, poor, gorgeous, and untraveled. Esmond is balding, bespectacled, and worldly. She’s not just Italian but southern Italian; he’s not just English but English English, his family’s wealth faded but not their lordly idiosyncrasies. (His mum goes by Mother Rat; his father, a former professional cricketer, by Plum; his childhood pet rat by Scoot.) And so, to make his Bari-born wife feel at home in South Kensington, Esmond buys Ilia a pair of shoes. More specifically, he buys her “bespoke brogues”: sturdy, plain-ish, yet expensive shoes that mark Ilia’s “formal enrolment in the world of the squirearchy, hunting, going to the point-to-point, the harriers, the beagles, the open-gardens scheme, the charity fête.”
We read about these brogues in Marina Warner’s Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir (New York Review Books, 432 pp., $19.95). A prolific cultural critic and sometime novelist, Warner calls her book an “unreliable memoir.” It’s a memoir because it obliquely considers how Warner’s sensibility—her cultural leanings, her thinking about books and God and class—have been shaped by the lives of her parents, Ilia and Esmond. It’s unreliable because, Warner writes, it’s “not possible to know your parents or their lives and yours before the age of six” and much of Esmond and Ilia attempts to map this terra ignota: the whirlwind wartime courtship; the family’s relocation, shortly after Warner’s birth, from England to Cairo, where they opened a bookstore; the years in Egypt during which Esmond and Ilia realized they were not just an unlikely pair but “profoundly unsuited to each other.”
Warner stays close to the family archive, quoting from old letters (writing to Mother Rat, Esmond describes his wife as “a greyhound” possessing “the lightest step I ever met”) and presenting us with old photographs. (The slender Ilia looks like a movie star, the nebbish Esmond, with his tweed jacket and owlish glasses, like a New York City trad Catholic ready to hold forth on all that’s wrong with liberalism.) Warner organizes the book around a series of memory-laden objects: one chapter begins with Ilia’s brogues; another with her powder compact; one of the last with a photograph of the charred remains of the family bookstore—burned, along with most British businesses, in the 1952 Cairo Fire. This focus on material objects works well. So too does the use of what the academic Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation”: a scholarly practice that sees the archive as a necessary but partial record to be completed, provisionally and dialectically, by the imagination. In each chapter, Warner grounds us in history and then flies off on the wings of poesy, writing dialogue and rendering psychology like a novelist.