Ronald Fraser is England’s outstanding oral historian. In the 1960s he pioneered the sensitive recording of the texture of working peoples’ experience of labour, first in the pages of this journal and later in two Penguin books, Work and Work II. His concern with lived experience in history found ambitious expression in three books on Spain: In Hiding (1972), an account of the twilight life of a Republican mayor concealed from Franco’s police for thirty years; Pueblo: A Mountain Village on the Costa del Sol (1973), a broadening of his canvas to include the collective life of an entire village in the post-war period and finally the magnificent Blood of Spain (1979), nothing less than an oral history of the Spanish Civil War. That book was not only a great literary document, integrating the testimonies of hundreds of participants within a masterly narrative of the war, but also a major contribution to the historiography of modern Spain. It recast our understanding of the civil war while transforming the genre of historical writing.

Fraser’s new book, In Search of a Past footnote1, also challenges conventional categories: an elegant and experimental work suspended astride autobiography, history and fiction. It is the narrative of a psychoanalysis of a writer who wants to write the history of his own childhood. To do so, he uses the techniques of oral history to reconstruct his past and that of his parents. Two normally discrepant forms of remembering, therefore, structure and energize the text. The book is divided into three sections that move along a chain of pronouns that form chapter headings and denote alienated relationships of various kinds (‘We’, ‘They’, ‘You’), to the finally reconstituted ‘I’ who has—at least provisionally—come to terms with the past.

The circumstances of that past are unusual, or unusually frankly acknowledged for a Marxist traitor to his class: the inter-war world of rural, or rather ‘county’ Berkshire, of the monotonously sporty hunting rich. The writer’s first session with his analyst sparks a determination to rework and order a series of taped interviews with the family’s servants made ten years before. In this long section the present subject of the narrative addresses the fragmented object-self of the past as a separate person: ‘through them, I recall you thinking, you might at last find a way forward’. There are interviews with the nanny who brought him up, with the gardner, the groom and the housemaids. An extraordinary network of personal lives begins to emerge, dotted by the tiny struggles of the oppressed with each other, resonating in a wider political history: there is a familiar, tense combination of resentment and nostalgic deference towards the prewar past in many of the servants’ reminiscences. The detail of the work they had to do, most of it drudgery, comes through without bitterness but with full consciousness of oppression. They couldn’t speak unless they were spoken to; were banished from the front of the house, like incidental landscape figures, when friends came to call; like the groom, were sent off to the war after seven years’ service without a sentimental word or a valedictory fiver. Rarely has the human cost of the English bourgeoisie’s dream of country life been so carefully registered and dissected. That the mother was American and the father Scottish probably gave an extra edge of insensitivity to their behaviour. The divisions and contradictions among the servants are fascinating: for the nanny (a German to whom England was a weird place of horses, sport and Gracie Fields) the writer’s father treated the servants as human beings, while for the gardener (who had to put leather shoes on the donkey before he mowed the grass) he treated people like pigs.

A double relationship of class difference and personal identification is established: finding ‘yourself’ in the discourse of ‘their’ class oppression. Although he is in a sense searching for his own identity in the identity denied to them, what they are recalling is a hidden history that lends reality to the blanks of his early childhood. Through these non-familial witnesses (defined by a specifically class relationship) he can begin to restore the phantasized damage done to the love objects of his past (a specifically psychic relationship, figured in the text in broadly Kleinian terms): a kind of personal history from below.

In strictly psychological terms the relationships are even more complex. His relationship with his parents is marked by coldness, distance and separation, physical as well as psychic. Both the psychoanalysis and the history allow him to progress beyond a vision of the mother as split between indifference on the one hand and magical love, permitting anything to happen, on the other. Before the war, she represents an unreachable realm of freedom. Then she recalls him from some unnamed and grim public school. In the context of rapidly transformed social relations that alter his relationship with the ‘village’—untouchable before—he lives in an idyllic union with the mother until displaced by the airman she leaves his father for. Coming to terms with this phantasized ideal mother also involves repairing the guilt he feels towards the father, stiff, conventional, all tenderness socialized out of him by the rituals of army and hunt. The psychoanalytic exchange is intercut by memories of another dialogue with a senile old man being driven toward a nursing home, which gradually reveals itself as the prelude to the father’s death: a sadness with an oedipal anger burned into it.