Ever since Eve was banished from paradise for demonstrating a curiosity sorely lacking in the insipid Adam, women have suffered for harbouring desires that do not fit within the narrow confines of their lives. The list of fictional women who have been punished for wanting more than their designated lot includes Anna Karenina, Wharton’s Lily Bart, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and, more recently, Thelma and Louise. The list is long, and to my eyes delightfully illustrious, yet of all these women who defied the conventions of their time, it is Emma Bovary who has received the worse press.

I’ve been reminded of this during a recent rereading of Flaubert’s famous novel. Books and Arts Daily (ABC RN, weekdays at 10) is delving into a selection of European classics on the last Friday of the month throughout 2014. They are commencing the series with Madame Bovary – an excellent beginning to what promises to be a great series. (The series includes Crime and Punishment and All Quiet on the Western Front, both of which make my best novels of all time list.)

While I’m rereading Madame Bovary in Alan Russell’s wonderfully rhythmic and lucid translation, I receive a copy of Rebecca Mead’s irresistible and idiosyncratic The Road to Middlemarch (Text, 2014). I find myself comparing Dorothea Brooke with Emma Bovary. Both women reveal yearnings and desires far too abundant for the limited boundaries that corseted the lives of nineteenth century ladies. But Dorothea wins a happy ending while Emma, like so many tragic thwarted heroines of literature, kills herself.*

There are many reasons, above and beyond authorial whims, that accord Dorothea her happiness while Emma’s only option is death. Dorothea’s author, George Eliot, was a woman who had felt the constraints of the society in which she lived and had bucked against them. She lived with a man who was married to someone else, and after he died she married a man twenty years her junior. In contrast, Emma’s creator was a man who took lovers but never married, whose most committed connection with a woman was with his mother. George Eliot would have wanted more for her heroine than a tragic end – as indeed she wanted more for herself. But author biography aside, the desires and yearnings expressed by Dorothea and Emma are different. Yes, there is some overlap when it comes to romantic love – both women want that sort of passion, but Dorothea has intellectual and social justice passions as well. Dorothea reads beyond the fictional romances that fill the young Emma’s leisure hours, she reads about social conditions and she observes them as well, and she yearns to improve the lot of tenant farmers. So while both women revel in active imaginations, the life of Dorothea’s mind is far broader and better nourished than that of Emma’s.

Still, these reasons alone fail to explain why Emma Bovary has received such a consistently raw deal. A consideration of sex and motherhood fills out the picture. Emma is not a Madonna type. The passion Emma wants is sexual passion, that explosive, fall-in-love-at-first-sight, take-me-I’m-yours emotion that exists primarily in romantic novels and Hollywood films. And when she does fall in love the sparks don’t last. She discovers that love, like marriage, like town life, is prey to habit. Emma is imaginative but her imagination is mostly in service to her own well-being. Dorothea’s imagination, in contrast, takes in the intellectual as well, and is thus seen as a more admirable character.

Then there’s the matter of children. Emma has often been criticised for being a bad mother to young Berthe. This judgement lacks evidence. There is a single instance in which Emma lashes out at Berthe; she is immediately appalled at her behaviour and deeply remorseful. She’s been accused of being neglectful, but the fact is that women of her class and time had nursemaids and wet nurses. Often parents saw their children only briefly in the mornings and evenings. Berthe and her mother most certainly have a relationship on which the young girl doted. This is demonstrated on a day when Emma fails to return to Yonville after a rendezvous with Léon, and Berthe is distraught because her mother is not around to kiss her good night. With this instance, many readers have simply focussed on Emma’s absence, rather than the child’s response which suggests that mother and daughter were accustomed to regular and close connection.

Emma has been excoriated through the years, but what about the men in the novel? All of them are either weak or cads – or in the case of Léon, both. But somehow a weak and rather stupid man like Charles Bovary is less deserving of our condemnation than his passionate adulterator of a wife. I can understand this response in 1856 when the book was first published, I can understand it through much of the twentieth century (although I would have thought plenty of 1950s housewives would have understood Emma’s plight). From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century though, Emma Bovary is a quintessentially modern woman. And while I wish she had more of Dorothea Brooke’s intellectual muscle, Emma Bovary nonetheless pushes at the boundaries of her life with courage and imagination.

*The comparison runs deep. Madame Bovary (1856) is subtitled ‘A story of provincial life’, while Middlemarch (1871-2) carries the subtitle ‘A study of provincial life’.



It is 1960, Melbourne. There’s a shed down the end of the garden. It is empty save for a bench on which sits a child with a book. There’s a musty smell overlaid with the tang of pine. The door to the shed doesn’t close and the soughing of the wind in the huge pine tree cushions the silence that surrounds the reading child.

Another scene. The same child reading a different book is sitting on the floor in a corner of a large attic room. The attic smells of dust, old smoke and neglect. There are battered suitcases and boxes, there are rickety chairs and fold-up tables, and a chest filled with ancient photos and theatre programmes. Down one end of the attic there’s a small door that opens into the roof. The child sits as far from this door as possible, yet must keep it in view, must keep a watchful eye on the demons and spirits that lurk in the roof’s blackness. And watch she does, periodically looking up from her book. But after a while it seems she has forgotten about the demons because her gaze no longer lifts from the page. She’s given herself over to fiction.

A third image. The same little girl as before is stretched out on her bed in the room she shares with her sister, an open book propped against her pillow. Beyond the bedroom family life whirls about. There are voices calling, a radio blaring, a barking dog. The child is immune to it all; she’s lost in her book.


Reading for me has always been a private affair. As a child growing up in the crowded world of the family, reading was my sanctuary and a time of necessary solitude. My mother valued reading so, if I had a book in my hands, I was left alone. With the book of the moment I would be whisked away to other times and places and into the lives of people very different from those who filled my ordinary days. It was the making of me as a writer. Those hours spent reading, those hours spent in a deep and prolonged immersion in the imagination is what gives rise to creative work. Reading took me into a world of make-believe. Here life was real, it was authentic, but it was made up. And even if it were not real – as a very young child I loved Enid Blyton’s fantasies and the tales of King Arthur and his knights – it seemed as if it could be.

In fact, I learned very early that fiction could convince me of just about anything.

As a very young child, I enjoyed being read to. But as soon as I learned to read independently I wanted to keep the pleasure all to myself. It was not only the stories that held me in thrall, there was the utterly seductive effect of reading itself. A unique intimacy was created between me and the characters, and through them with the imagination of the author. There is no intimacy to compare to this sort of imaginative coupling.

I never felt the need to discuss the books I read. They were part of my private world, a world that shaped my understanding and my desires. I harboured the sense that to reveal how important these books were, would both taint their effect as well as betray the life I secretly longed for, which was, in fact, the secret life I was actually living.

I grew up. Books still filled my days and still I guarded them closely. I found in them security, I found excitement, I found curiosity, I found endless stimulation, I found illumination. I did not want my reading to be public. I did not want my reading to be touched.

Then several years ago I changed the pattern of a lifetime. I asked a small group of people to join me in reading Plato’s Dialogues. Over the years I had dipped into several of the dialogues, but I had arrived at a point where I found this unsatisfactory, and all my attempts at private study had petered out long before the task was finished. The group provided the necessary structure I seemed to require.

At first I found it difficult to discuss what I had read. Being public, being in a group, felt like working against the current, trying to run with stiffened limbs. And it was difficult to listen to others with my own reading reverberating in my mind. And the pace of discussion could be irritating. You set your own pace when reading, but a discussion will sometimes pull you back or push you forward faster or slower than you would choose for yourself. But in time I adapted and came to enjoy our meetings. After a while we moved from Plato’s dialogues to Montaigne’s essays. And then, after a year or two, life with its demands and its deaths intervened, and the group stopped meeting.

Next week will see the first meeting of another group: three of us have decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, three cantos for each monthly meeting. Years ago I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of The Inferno, and I always planned to read Purgatorio and Paradiso but never got round to it. As with Plato, a group seemed the way to proceed.

I’ve been preparing for our first meeting by a full reading of The Inferno. I have several translations at hand but have focussed particularly on those by Robert Pinsky (for the poetry), Mark Musa (for the lucidity and the detailed notes) and John Ciardi (a looser translation but very lyrical). I also have a quarto-sized book containing the hauntingly beautiful plates of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy. I love the focus of this reading, the detail, I love the study. And yet I know that if not for the group I would not be reading Dante in this way or at this time.

Antaeus - Descent to the last circle. Inf XXXI

What is happening here? Why a sharing of what has always been a private activity?

It seems to me that some books are so layered and so complex that to be fulfilled by them – and to find them fulfilling – requires study and discussion and the richness that comes from other minds, other thoughts, other understandings. But there’s something else as well, and it concerns the type of reading involved. When I open a novel, a novel that is the right book for the time, I find myself drawn inside the fictional world. I experience understanding from the inside; I become one of the initiated. This does not stop me from reflecting as I read, making connections between this novel and other books (novels, poetry, history, philosophy) but as soon as I start reading again I am pulled back into that imagined world.

This is not how I read Plato’s Dialogues, nor is it the way I read Dante. Here the reading is infused with study. I am grappling to understand from the outside. I am grappling rather than being immersed. Even with Dante, who has told a gripper of a story, I am not pulled inside the narrative in the way I am with, say, Jane Austen or Elizabeth Strout or Justin Cartwright.

It is reading for study rather than reading for creative life. It’s reading to know, rather than reading to be. That is not to say I won’t glean fundamental understandings from Plato or Dante, of course I will, but it is the act of reading of these books that is so different from my fiction reading.

I expect many others would want to disagree.



A couple of months ago I discovered a Henry James novel I’d not read. Titled The American, it is his third novel, first published in 1876-7 in The Atlantic Monthly. Later in life James acknowledged fundamental flaws in this novel, and most James’ readers would agree. And yet the novel gripped me from the start with its universal themes of love and honour and clash of cultures. It was only at the send-the-beloved-to-a-convent ending that I felt let down.

The American is not a literary classic in the sense that The Portrait of a Lady is a classic – although both are classic Henry James. Love, deception, misplaced trust, ravenous curiosity, the pitfalls of innocence, and the immorality that can be at the back door of worldliness are all to be found in The Portrait of a Lady, while its leading lady, Isabel Archer, is one of the enduring characters in literature.

I often find myself musing about what makes a classic. In my recent revisiting of Patrick White’s classic Riders in The Chariot (see posting – November, 2013) I quoted James Stern’s definition of a classic (from NYT Book Review in August 1955).

‘Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent residents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life… To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.’

In his definition, Stern is particularly concerned with the powerful effect of a classic on a reader. There are a number of characteristics of the work itself that promote such an effect. Most importantly, classics canvas fundamental human qualities: jealousy and revenge (Medea), power (Macbeth), fraught love (Anna Karenina), the human struggle (David Copperfield), the complexities of family (Pride and Prejudice), brutality, idealised love, (Wuthering Heights), remorse and redemption (Crime and Punishment), obsession (Of Human Bondage), and thereby reveal what it is to be human. As well, classics provide entry into times and places not your own. So, for example: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and much of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Books that can reveal ourselves to our self? That can take us to places and times not our own? That can inform us of the complexities that make us human? This is powerful stuff. It’s no wonder we want to read classics. Indeed it would be foolish to ignore such rich resources.

I finished The American and placed it with all my other James volumes. Then I reached for Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

For the third time.

I first tried this book years ago on the recommendation of my Russian friend Constantine. The novel was written in the late 1930’s during the worst of Stalin’s terrors but not published until a quarter of a century later (and, extraordinarily, published in the Soviet Union in an inexplicable lapse of diligence by the censorship authorities). In this fantasy tale the devil arrives in Moscow. He wreaks havoc: lives are ruined, some are ended, people are swindled. Given the novel’s coruscating view of the Soviet system the fantasy form is not surprising; indeed there’s a long tradition of literature using fantasy, allegory and fairytales to reveal dangerous truths.

But barely fifty pages in I gave up. The characters did not hold me. There were too many of them and too thinly drawn, and the society in which they lived too strange. As for the Jesus in Jerusalem sections, I simply could not see their relevance.

A few years later I tried the book again with the same failure. Yes, failure. For when it comes to a classic that you truly want to read, that you want to take it into your life as you’ve taken in other classics, when you are unable to do so you experience it as failure. Here is a book that is recognised as great, what’s wrong with you that you fail to respond to its greatness?

On my third attempt I thought it would be different. In recent months I’ve been reading about the Soviet years and I am much better informed. I understand the workings of this society into which the devil comes. The allegorical nuances that escaped me on my previous attempts would now be comprehensible. And it was true, my reading was easier: I understood the deaths, the removals to psychiatric institutions, the loss of rooms in apartment blocks that occur in the early part of this novel; I understood the devil  with his guilt-free, unapologetic brutality. But nonetheless, by page 150 I was lagging; 30 pages later I gave up.

There are so many books I want to read. If a book fails to satisfy I do not persist. Although when it comes to a classic, because I doubt myself more than I doubt the book’s renown I will persist a little longer. I do believe that if the Bulgakov had a lesser reputation I would have jettisoned it much earlier. For that matter, if it had had a lesser reputation I would not have given it three attempts.

I know about the lovely quirk of books that make then uninteresting at one point in your life and absolutely essential reading at another. I had truly hoped that given my current interest in the Soviet years this would be the right time for Bulgakov’s classic. But it seems there are some classics that, desire notwithstanding, will always elude me.

Like Joyce’s Ulysses.

One Bloomsday I attended a twenty-four hour reading of Ulysses in New York. I was in my twenties and absolutely capitvated by the idea of a 24-hour reading of a classic novel. I can still see the darkened room, the scattered tables, the raised platform, the shadows of people, the heavy clothes, the smoke, but for the life of me I can’t remember the words and voices, I can’t see the readers themselves. I was given a copy of Ulysses for my 21st birthday, I tried to read it but failed. I thought the 24-hour reading would help. And it did. For 100 pages. No more.

I have failed with The Master and Margarita as I failed with Ulysses.

And yet I still want these books, and other classics as well. I want to know their power, their originality, their wisdom. I want the pleasure that so many readers before me have known. I don’t mind failing at sport, at baking, at sewing, at bike-riding, at map-reading, at maths (well – I mind a little with maths) but I do mind failing at books. I want to know that any book I desire I can make my own. It’s a terrible disappointment when I can’t.


I was twenty, a student at university, when I it first occurred to me that books provided the best entrée to another person’s essence. Not their clothes nor their hobbies, not their family and friends, not even their conversation. But their library.

A particular incident brought this home to me. Together with my boyfriend of the time, I was visiting one of his friends. E was a girl my own age. She lived in her parents’ house, a huge place, along with her two brothers. Although I had met her before, I knew her best by reputation. She was enormously clever, and warm and generous as well. Embraced by her peers, she had been captain in her final year of school, and her popularity had accompanied her to university. This was the sort of child of which any parent would be proud, although, according to my boyfriend, her parents would have preferred their daughter to have less in the way of brains and a good deal more when it came to beauty. Indeed, her parents favoured their plodding, predictable sons over their intelligent, not-pretty-enough daughter.

That house, it was a mansion. I’d never known anything like it. I wanted to look over the whole place, explore it room by room. However, the good manners that had been drilled into my generation made such an adventure impossible. Although, as it happened, I did manage to see quite a lot of it. E’s bedroom was on the upper storey at the back of the house; we needed to walk many passages past many rooms to get to it. I saw chintz and brocade, occasional tables and objects, large nondescript paintings, fresh flowers in vases. The overall impression was of beige and gold spaciousness. Later when we went downstairs to the kitchen for coffee I saw more beige and brocade. There was leather in this part of the house too, and the timber of cupboards and shelves had been blanched of their woodiness with a pale limed finish.

So many rooms, yet it was difficult to read the inhabitants through this house. Obviously they were rich, and they were also mindful of surface appearances, but as for anything more I could not say. It was only afterwards that I realised what had been missing. Except for E’s room, there were no books in the house. Not in the hallways, not in the living rooms I passed. How to know someone without knowing what they read? And it was then I realised that for years I’d been reading people’s hearts and minds unconsciously through the books they owned. Without books to guide me, E’s family might have been cardboard cut-outs.

In my adolescence I hid my favourite books: too private to be seen, too embarrassing if they were, my best books would expose more of me than I could bear. Later, after I left school and started a life of my own choosing, I would often find myself in strange rooms in shared houses with people I hardly knew, and I would seek respite from the strains of interaction by loitering beside the makeshift bookcases – long boards with pylons of bricks at each end – learning about the person in whose room I found myself. I would, in those far-off days, peer at the spines of books surreptitiously. I knew I was spying, I knew I was glimpsing a private life. It was like peeping through a keyhole or fumbling around in someone’s underwear drawer. But at the same time there was the delight when I found books that I’d read, providing an immediate connection to this new friend, and a range of possible conversations. And I’d turn back to the room, far less jittery and greatly relieved.

Personal Library

As the years have passed, I’ve become less covert about my interest in personal libraries. I read the spines of books more avidly than the faces of people. Faces wear masks, books don’t – although I’m well aware that books displayed do not necessarily mean books read.

I once had a friend who was reading Noam Chomsky – two large volumes of his weighty, linguistic writings. My friend’s Chomskys lived on the coffee table in her living room, within easy reach. When she went on holiday, her Chomskys went with her. Two years later, the books were still in easy reach and the bookmarks had not progressed more than a page or two.

I am also aware that books read but not consistent with an individual’s public persona are often hidden. Like the philosopher who hides her true crime books, or the historian who always has a romance on the go, or the left-leaning liberal with a nostalgic fondness for Ayn Rand’s characters. Books on show may not be an accurate portrayal of an individual’s reading habits, but the fact remains that those books that are displayed reflect how the reader wants to be regarded, what s/he regards as important, even if those goals have not been attained.

Seen in this way, personal libraries function rather like Facebook postings.

In both cases we display snippets about ourselves that will portray the person we want to make public: those aspects of ourselves we want to emphasize and share with others. The process of selection may not be the same, and the information revealed may be qualitatively different, but personal libraries, revealing as they do private thoughts and beliefs and aspirations, mimic Facebook’s exposure of an individual’s private life.

And yet, despite the similarities, I want to believe that my quiet appraisal of a person’s library, my thoughts and musings, the curiosity and the ensuing connecting are different from the frenetic ‘I’m here’ ‘Look at what I’m doing’ ‘Look at who I’m doing it with’ postings on social media sites. I want to believe that personal libraries stop people, turn them inwards, to thoughts and nuance in a way not possible with the spontaneous, immediate, abbreviated communications that jostle for attention on social media sites.


Over coffee the other day, a friend told me that most of her reading now is done in e-format. As a result she rarely buys print edition books and, in fact, has culled her library to 150 meaningful books. These consist of books from her childhood, others from her beloved deceased mother, others still from past lovers and close friends, plus a handful of  favourites. It’s a motley collection, and impossible to glean the essence of my friend from it. Sentiment has distorted identity in her choice of books. And again, I am reminded of Facebook, but in this instance the differences between my friend’s abbreviated personal library and the often sentimental, wince-producing postings that appear on Facebook seem minimal.

In New York city, my friend, C, is in the process of selling his parents’ apartment. It’s located on the Upper East Side in a block with a resident committee with veto over who can buy into the building. The realtor looked over the apartment. The ageing, out-moded kitchen could remain unchanged, he said, but the books, and he waved a careless hand to take in the entire apartment, the books would have to go. Books suggested dust and the past, an impression that would discourage the hip young Wall Street types the realtor was hoping to attract.

It’s all surface these days: the books for display, the displays without books, Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media sites. But as paper formats give way to e-books, and social media encroaches on every waking hour, we are losing more than just an artefact with the demise of the personal library, we are losing what was once a readily available opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we value.


I have had a long-standing habit of conducting conversations with famous dead people. It started in early childhood. While other children had imaginary playmates, children they made up and who were much like themselves, my imaginary playmates (although we never played, only talked) were abducted from the novels I read – obvious ones like the boy in the wheelchair in The Secret Garden and less obvious ones like King Arthur. (An old friend, on hearing about my penchant for King Arthur, pointed out that my father’s name was Arthur, hinting at unresolved Oedipal conflicts. But of all my loves, that for my father was the least complicated, and his attractions quite different from King Arthur’s.)

Back in those days privacy was a rarity. Like most of my friends I shared a bedroom, and pocket money might stretch to the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Victory or a session at St Moritz skating rink but little more. Certainly there was no sulking in your own bedroom to the comfort of your very own record player turned up to a hostile boom in order to obliterate the family from the adolescent consciousness. Even if a greater number of props to solitude had been available back in those days, the disposable income was not – and even if it had been, a child was unlikely to be the main beneficiary. Back then, childhood was a time of deprivation, at least relative to what your parents seemed to have. There were spoiled children who were showered with gifts, but for most children fun, although plentiful, was necessarily cheap.

Privacy within the home was rare, but outside the home was quite another matter. Kids were told to get out from under their parents’ feet. We would walk alone to the corner milk bar for a polly waffle or choc wedge, or a little further to the park to play, or on your bike and riding the neighbourhood streets. And then there was the cubby at the back of the garden. Cubbies were so private there were passwords for entry.

While my sister hung out in the front garden behind the hedge smoking Turf filter tips with her friend Joan, I occupied the back shed, not far from the incinerator, for long leisurely conversations with the best of the best. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliffe, Scarlett O’Hara, a whole swathe of characters from Iris Murdoch novels, Leon Uris heroes, and many many more. Private, cheap, entertaining, enormously satisfying, infinitely rich conversations.

As my reading broadened so, too, did my choice of companion, with a major shift from characters to their creators. By the time I left school I was conversing with famous dead people, regular conversations with Madame Curie, Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf – not together, of course, that would never do, in fact all my conversations have been one-on-one. At the time I knew next to nothing about the real life personae of Virginia and Jean-Paul and wanted to keep it that way. Indeed, I protected my conversations by steering shy of all biographies and autobiographies except those which might serve my purpose, like Sartre’s Paroles, which had the effect of inserting the author more firmly, and certainly more appropriately into my private sphere.

My conversations with famous dead people have afforded me enormous pleasure; they have also been the primary way in which I have clarified my ideas. Once admitted to the circle I rarely get rid of anyone, although our meetings might diminish to an occasional imagined letter. In addition to Curie, Sartre and Woolf, there have been Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Theodor Adorno, Debussy, Barthes (my Debussy and Barthes speak excellent English). And there have been others, still alive, but irrevocably distant from my real existence like Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt, George Steiner. (Years ago, when my friend Robert Dessaix interviewed George Steiner on the ABC’s books programme, I remember feeling embarrassed – and a little jealous too – as if someone had caught me out doing something not quite legitimate).

Such perfect conversations these are, with such assured outcomes, and I always so fluent, so erudite, and so unselfconscious when compared with real conversations where I’m liable to talk rot and am struck by brilliant insights ten minutes too late. Perfect conversations in which I control the ebb and flow of ideas. And even though I remain unsure where the conversation will end, I am absolutely certain that not only will I survive to the end, I’ll do so with flying colours. These conversations, always so intellectually and morally sound, persist unencumbered by corporeal distractions like body odour, or constipation, or unsightly moles, or personality constraints like vanity, or hypochondria, or a dull and intransigent resentment of early family life. And I, too, exist unencumbered by any imperfections in these conversations, whether undesirable personal qualities or, indeed, the risks and slips of the usual face-to-face interaction.

But I do not fool myself – have never fooled myself. My perfect imagined conversations, their intellectual rigour notwithstanding, are nonetheless contrived, and while permitted to meander here and there, they do so only under my direction. This perfection is restricted and solely under my control. It makes a nice change to the rest of life.

Restricted perfection. What an interesting notion.



Lecture given as part of the Wheeler Centre Australian Classics Series, Melbourne, with James Ley (25th November, 2013).

To begin: I believe Patrick White is the greatest – perhaps the only truly great – writer Australia has produced. In 1973, he became the first and only Australian to win the Nobel prize for literature – Coetzee won his in 2003, before he took out Australian citizenship. It’s no matter that Patrick White was born in England, no matter he was schooled there and lived there as a young man, his work is steeped in his being an Australian, or rather steeped in his abrasive relationship with Australia.

Sometimes the Nobel judges get it astonishingly wrong, but not in the case of White.

I do not like all his books – but then only the mediocre man is always at his best as Somerset Maugham once wrote – in defence of himself. But when asked for my list of ten Australian classics Patrick White takes up four spaces.

My ten Australian literary classics – in no particular order:

Riders in the Chariot

The Twyborn Affair

The Vivisector

Eye of the Storm

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

An Imaginary Life – David Malouf

Lilian’s Story – Kate Grenville

The Getting of Wisdom – Henry Handel Richardson

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony – Henry Handel Richardson

The Monkey’s Mask – Dorothy Porter

My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

(And yes, I know, there’s 11 in my list, but the universe IS expanding.]


James Stern, in reviewing THE TREE OF MAN for the NYTBook Review in August 1955 defined the essence of a classic. ‘Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent residents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life… To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.’

A classic does not need to be the most brilliantly written book, nor does it need to be popular in its day, but it DOES needs to stand the test of time. In this regard it is important to distinguish between classic and popular. So Christos Tsiolkos’ The Slap is popular, but whether it will become a classic requires a couple more decades.

A classic work of literature also needs to address fundamental and universal human issues (if it doesn’t it will become dated) and it needs to do so in an original way.

Riders in the Chariot is about the conflict between good and evil, it’s about exile and belonging, and human brutality pitted against great humanity – all of these are fundamental human qualities, and all are as relevant today as they’ve ever been. Indeed, it could easily be argued that a book driven by these ideas is even more relevant in today’s bullish, combatative, humanely-bereft world.


RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT, White’s 6th novel, was published in early October 1961 when he was 49 years old. It came after THE TREE OF MAN (1955-6) and VOSS (1957). It received some enthusiastic reviews here in Australia and in the UK, although more tempered in the US (where he had previously triumphed). But overall they were the best reviews he’d ever had. The novel won the Miles Franklin Award (his second – VOSS won the inaugural Miles).

In his correspondance Patrick referred to it as his Jewish book. But it could equally be his aboriginal book, his Christian book, his outsider book; it could also be his exploding-myths-about-Australian-culture book, myths such as mateship, support for the underdog, egalitarianism and a fair go for all. RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT is dedicated to his friend Klari Daniel and his American publisher Ben Huebsch, both Jewish. Huebsch, at Viking US published White’s first novel, HAPPY VALLEY, and would be with him for five books. He died at the age of 88 in 1963 as Patrick was getting started on THE SOLID MANDALA. Huebsch was a visionary publisher (oh how we mourn the passing of the likes of him), the first in the fundamentally puritanical US to publish James Joyce and DH Lawrence – amongst others. Klari Daniel was a refugee from Hungary, who enjoyed with White a very close relationshiop for ten years before the inevitable falling out –cauliflower salad finally did it, but in truth, he got sick of her. (In fact he ‘was dispersing’ most of his Jewish friends after the publication of RIDERS, according to David Marr in his brilliant biography of White. p. 383*).

RIDERS was for White his Jewish book because, of the four main characters that fuel the narrative of this novel, it was the character of Mordecai Himmelfarb who presented the greatest challenges to him. White had written aboriginal Australians before, and his good salt-of-the earth characters, like Mary Godbold, are all over his novels, eccentricity such as that manifest by Miss Hare was no problem for him, but Jewishness, in particular a German Jew who had survived the Holocaust was new for him.

In fact it was new for most people at the time.

In 1961 there had been little written about the Holocaust and hardly anything in fiction (Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT, a sort of fictional memoir, comes closest; it was published in 1960). These days there are whole sections in bookshops devoted to the Holocaust, there are Holocaust studies at universities, there are Holocaust museums, there are Holllywood films from Sophie’s Choice and The PIano to the fake and sentimental Life is Beautiful, and umpteen documentaries of which the most profound and comprehensive is Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH (and yes he did have a longish affair with Simone de Beauvoir). There’s a huge Holocaust industry now, but there was not at the time of White’s writing.

There were two main triggers to the Holocaust entering the public domain. The first was the Eichman Trial in 1963 along with Hannah Arendt’s extraordinary series of articles published in the New Yorker of that year, later to appear as the book EICHMAN IN JERUSALEM. The second was the Hollywood miniseries HOLOCAUST (broadcast in 1978).

RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT was published in 1961, although work on it started many years earlier. As usual Patrick White was well ahead of everyone else.

I have read RIDERS three times: in 1980, 1996 and again this year. In between I have often dipped into portions of this novel as a means of feeding my own writing. White is a master of detail, and he’s a master at metaphor: he’s been a gift to this novelist, to any writer who revels in the richness of English. Three readings of RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT and I have never regarded it as a Jewish book much less a Holocaust book. And I still don’t. It is a novel about outsiders, exiles either at home like Miss Hare, Mrs Godbold and Alf Dubbo, or exiles from home like Himmelfarb. And it is a great novel of spirituality, of those riders in the chariot, God’s chosen four, embodying the spirit of the Lord, as described in Ezekial Chapter 1. Each rider with four faces and four wings, joined together and going forward together, vague to the reader, even to themselves, but each of them instantly recognisable to the other.



One of the earliest mentions of his ‘Jewish novel’ is in a letter White wrote to Ben Huebsch in February 1957. The novel is already brewing but White writes ‘I may not have the courage to embark on anything so esoteric.’ (Letters 111*). His first mention of the title, RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT, is in September of that year, also in a letter to Huebsch – always addressed as MR Huebsch (Letters 122). The brooding continues, while at the same time VOSS is making its way in the world and White is occupied with the various machinations of publication and reviews.

In February, 1958, a year after he first mentioned the new novel and just before he and Manoly Lascaris left for 8 months overseas, White writes to Huebsch: ‘If I were not going away, I think I might start RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT at this point. Always when I meet with lack of understanding in Australian critics [most recently to VOSS] I feel like sitting down and starting another of the novels they deplore, to give them further cause for complaint….Oh dear, it is going to be a very trying book to write, but I am living with it all the time now. It is shaping and altering, and the four voices of what I still like to think of as a kind of cantata are beginning to sing in the way that, finally they must.’ (letters 131). In this same letter he refers to Himmelfarb as a ZADDIK ‘one of the 36 Jews of exemplary righteousness, secret saints, believed to be on earth at any one time’.

White and Manoly Lascaris returned to Sydney 1/10/58. Once home White starts to write RIDERS. Just 10 weeks later, just before Christmas he writes to Ben Huebsch (MR Huebsch still): ‘I have started on my new book….and have written –  how much it is difficult to say, perhaps a third, perhaps not so much, but I can see it will take some time, and perhaps need as many as three writings. I shall want someone here to check the Jewish parts after a second writing. I feel I may have given myself away a good deal, although passages I have been able to check for myself, seem to have come through either by instinct or good luck, so perhaps I shall survive. After all, I did survive the deserts of VOSS.’ (letters 151).

By May of 1959 he has written 90,000 words and anticipates it will come in at 120,000 – he was way off there. He describes the book as follows to Ben Huebsch:

‘…the book [does not] have an exclusively Jewish theme…What I want to emphasize through my four ‘Riders’ – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist [Earth spirit] of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress [I love the image of this ambiguous description]. and a half-caste aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.’ (letters 153)

By January 1960 he reports to Huebsch that he’s finished the first version of RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT. (Letters 162). He confesses among other things that it has run to some 200,000 words! (he emphasizes the figure with an exclamation mark). He gets Klari Daniel to check the Jewish bits. She was Hungarian and not German which might explain some of the mistakes.

The second version is finished by August 1960 and now it’s 230,000 words – which I would estimate to be about the size of the final version. White has tried it out on a Jewish friend and is feeling far more confident. He WANTS the approval of Jewish readers.

In a short letter to MR Huebsch – but signed PATRICK – (3/1/61) he writes: ‘I am about to send the MS. of Riders in the Chariot by airmail (first or second class depending on the sum involved). ‘ Patrick had plenty of money but was often protective of it. (After Patrick’s death Lascaris was surprised to learn HOW much money there was, given the frugal way they had been living.) As for White’s finished manuscripts, they were always typed on what was known as onion skin airmail paper, single spaced. Very light.

When he hears back from Huebsch (within the month), he writes (5/2/61):

Dear Ben, (To burst into first names so late in the day!) Your letter and cable were a great relief….you have been the true judge over so many decades…Himmelfarb was a worry, because he had to be just right….In the end what helped me most was the fact that throughout my life I have been an outcast myself in one way and another: first a child with what kind of a strange gift nobody quite knew; then a despised colonial boy in an English public school; finally an artist in horrified Australia – to give you just a few instances.’

Huebsch loved the book.

Geoffrey Dutton was one of the early readers – pre-publication. Patrick writes to Huebsch: ‘He (Geoffrey) has gone off his head about it, but of course he is a very superior Australian.’ (letters 190). (The mandatory falling out would soon occur with Geoff Dutton and his 1st wife Ninette. In the latter half of the 1970s White came to regard Dutton as a dilettante who had sold out to Mobil Oil and a conservative government. You’re vile vile vile he said to Ninette.)



RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT is set in fictional Sarsaparilla on the outskirts of Sydney. Sarsaparilla draws on Castle Hill where Patrick and Manoly had a small farm – Dogwoods – from 1948, when they arrived in Australia, until they moved to Martin Road Centennial Park in October 1964. At Castle Hill they felt the Sydney suburbs encroaching on them, just as they encroach on Sarsaparilla in the novel. The fibro houses that replace Xanadu, Miss Hare’s crumbling mansion, also came to Castle Hill.

The structure of the book is very simple: the narrative is handed between four main characters with a little overlap.

MARY HARE opens the novel. Firstly the significance of the name. Mary annointed and dried the feet of Jesus. Late in the novel, Mary Hare warms the feet of the dying Himmelfarb – the Jesus figure. And HARE: hares have a rich mythological tradition – pre-Christian with Pagan flavour, often associated with the lunar cycle – and Miss Hare, so powerfully connected with the natural world, is a quintessential Pagan. Miss Hare is a spinster. She lives in the family mansion, Xanadu, now crumbling all about her. She needs help in the house, with everyday living, and has just organised for a housekeeper, Mrs Jolley to come and live with her. Mrs Jolley is ordinary, unimaginative and incapable, or even interested in understanding her eccentric employer. She is one of the evil ones in this novel. She and her friend Mrs Flack truly demonstrate the banality of evil – to draw on that famous phrase of Hannah Arendt’s.

MORDECAI HIMMELFARB has the same initials as Mary Hare – and given the importance of names to the novelist, I cannot think it is accidental. Himmelfarb translates to himmel = sky or heaven and farb = colour. Himmelfarb thus becomes the colour of heaven. He is the Jesus figure, the Zaddick. He was a professor of English in provincial Germany. After the death of his wife and the loss of job, home and freedom at the hands of the Nazis, Himmelfarb eventually makes his way to Australia. He takes on manual work at the Brighta Bicycle Lamps factory. The intellect has failed us, he says.

RUTH GODBOLD (née Joyner) has resonances with the biblical Ruth, the loyal ever-faithful woman who says to her mother-in-law Naomi: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee’. And GODBOLD – well, it is exactly as it suggests. Mrs Godbold is a washer woman living in a shack with many children and an abusive, violent, unfaithful, boozing husband. She was born and raised in what she describes as flat fen country – probably the fen country in eastern England, particularly as she mentions the great cathedral. (The Fens have been referred to as the “Holy Land of the English” because of the churches and cathedrals in the region, e.g. at Cambridge, Ely, Peterborough to name just three.) After the death of her brother and mother, Ruth Joyner migrates to Sydney – alone – where she enters service with Mrs Chalmers-Robinson. It is there she meets her future husband, the iceman, Tom.

And lastly there’s ALF DUBBO, the ‘half-caste’, removed from his black mother. to live with Rev Timothy Calderon and his sister Mrs Pask (whose now-dead husband the Reverend adored). The traditional land of the Dubbo-ga or the Dubbo mob is located where the town of Dubbo is today. The name Dubbo comes from a red or blood pigment found in the earth of the area, and highly prized. Alf the painter has an almost magical feel for colour. It was as a boy in the house of the Calderons that he discovers painting, becomes in thrall to it, and on his thirteenth birthday receives Mrs Pask’s old paints. His has been a rough life, and a tough one. He, like Himmelfarb, also works at Brighta Bicycle lamps.

These are the four riders. We meet them singly or in pairs. Only at the end of the book do they all come together in the same place, although Dubbo remains outside the group, staring in at the others through the window of Godbold’s house. I wanted the four to be properly joined, just once in this long book. But Dubbo has a job to do. He loads the vision through Godbold’s window with ‘panegyric blue’ – the laudatory blue, his secret blue, and goes home to paint it.

The greatest danger of a narrative where there are several equally weighted characters is that the reader comes to prefer some of the characters over others, making the book proceed with lurches and falls. On my first reading, the book was dominated by Himmelfarb. On my second it was Hare and Himmelfarb. On this, my most recent reading, I have been drawn strongly to Godbold and Dubbo. On the fourth it will be different again.

Of course your reading pleasure may have been disrupted by other things, most particularly White’s unique, fleshy, evocative writing style. Indeed, some readers find his writing clotted to the point of unreadable. The fact is that when subjected to analysis many of White’s sentences do not make sense. It’s not simply the way he drops the subject off a sentence or omits a verb, sometimes the sentences if put through a reality scrim are absurd. And yet the overall effect of the language is profound. It reminds me of Mark Rothko’s huge canvases of colour: I have stood before a Rothko with tears rolling down my very private cheeks. Such a profound effect these canvases have and I don’t subject it to analysis, because I don’t want to destroy the experience. White’s sentences exert a simliar power and allude to a similar mystery.

But I will admit that at times, particularly in the first third of the book, I read paragraphs that sounded almost like a parody of White. e.g. The following lines about Miss Hare’s father:

p. 24 ‘Years after, when his stature was even further diminished in her memory, her mind would venture in foxy fashion, or more blinderingly worm-like, in search of a concealed truth.’

This quote not withstanding, most of the time when I find myself verbally overwhelmed, I will stop, and then reread the seething paragraph, often out loud and then I will understand what White is truly saying. And to be honest at the end of reading I feel hugely fortunate to have read such language.

Here are a few extremely lush paragraphs. But wonderful. It helps to read them aloud.

In an early Himmelfarb section telling of his past, the issue is discussed of why, with the rise of Hitler, Jews didn’t leave (143)

‘There were many, however, in the aching villas, in the thin dwellings of congested alleys, ….. in tasteful, beige apartments, who, for a variety of reasons, could not detach themselves from the ganglion of Europe: their bones protested, or they loved their furniture, or they must surely be overlooked, or they were drunk with kisses, or transfixed by presentiments of immolation, or too diffident to believe they might take their destiny in hand, or of such faith they waited for divine direction. These remained. And the air was tightening. All remarks, even the silent ones, were aimed at them. Their own thoughts suspected doors, flattened themselves against the walls, against the dying paper roses, and pissed down the sides of lavatory bowls, to avoid giving their presence away.

The underlined bits, when read analytically are nonsense, but within the paragraph, they supply emotion, tension, temperature, texture. The sum is definitely more than the parts.

And after a beating from her husband, suffering his ‘rampant masterfulness’ – this from Godbold (p.233).

‘She would have liked to talk to somebody about the past, even of those occasions which had racked her most, of emigration, and miscarriages, not to mention her own courtship; she longed to dawdle amongst what had by now become sculpture. For present and future are like a dreadful music, flowing and flowing without end, and even Mrs Godbold’s courage would sometimes falter as she trudged along the bank of the one turbulent river towards its junction with the second, always somewhere in the mists. Then she would look back over her shoulder at the garden of statuary, to walk amongst which, it seemed at that enviable distance, faith was no longer needed.’ The past as statuary is so vivid, so utterly original.

Not easy, this sort of writing, but evocative and true.

With a writer like Patrick White you need to trust him to know what he’s doing. If you do then you will glide over the difficult bits – he knows where he’s going even if you don’t. He will guide you. But at the same time you can’t read his books empty-handed: he expects his readers to have a reasonable historical, artistic and literary literacy. He expects people to know about Hitler and the Nazis, neither are mentioned by name in the novel, also Kristallnacht; he expects us to know enough about art to understand the type of painting that is Dubbo’s.

And as with all great writers you have to forgive him his mistakes. And there are mistakes with his German Jew, in particular. For example, on Kristallnacht, it would be most unlikely that Reha, Himmelfarb’s wife would have been taken away or even harmed – much less killed. Jewish men and boys were targetted, and while 30,000 Jews were rounded up 9/10 November 1938 and sent to camps many had been returned within 6 weeks. And I think he rather labours the point with the Riders in the Chariot. It is mentioned many many times. He has written his four main characters as visionaries, ‘illuminates’ (63), it is not necessary for him to explicate the whys and hows. And occasionally he WILL get a word wrong. In a Himmelfarb section before Himmelfarb leaves Europe, in a portion written from H’s point of view, White uses the word ‘dug’ for breast (184). It’s quite wrong. Firstly, when used to describe a woman’s breast it is a derogatory term and Himmelfarb is not wanting to be derogatory. The origin of the word is unknown but it sounds like English slang and absolutely not the sort of word to be used by a European intellectual. But quibbles like this are, in fact, only quibbles, and few in number.


There’s a fabulist tone to RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT – not magical realism, but it does require a suspension of belief not customary with realist fiction. Sometimes there’s an almost incantatory feel to this work. Mies van de Rohe, the great modernist architect said that ‘God resides in the details’. This Patrick White knew, and his detail is breathtaking. He has a bus driver clean his ears with a key (435). Tom Godbold had ‘fine dark eyes’ (230)  and ‘one of those long, tanned faces, too thin; it made [Ruth] think of used pennies….She would have gone on looking at the man’s face, if he had not been in it.’ (254). ‘It was only later that everyone…realised that Tom Godbold’s tragic eyes had merely been looking deeper into himself.’ (230). In referring to the evil Mrs Jolley, White writes of ‘the swept chambers of her mind’ (74) – how much better than empty-headed – and later he refers to the ‘nylon dream’ of America (143). And there’s humour too: when someone enters the office at Brighta Lamps the stenographer ‘did not rise, of course, having reduced her obligations at the salary received’ (201 & 203).

Then there are the ideas, the risks, the breathtaking narrative flare of this novel. White portrays evil through Flack and Jolley, a couple of petit-boirgeois widows; he infuses pity into the wealthy Mr Rosetree (Haim Rosenbaum). He displays goodness – and a whole lot more – in a washerwoman, a mad spinster, a German Jewish refugee, a hard-drinking aboriginal painter. People pushed to the margins tend to have a clearer view of mainstream society – not simply their unique perspective but as well they are not blinded by mainstream values: certainly this is the case with White’s riders.

There’s another much more uncomfortable truth in this novel: that all positive qualities – kindness, humility, generosity, faithfulness, creativity, learning – make those who do not have those qualities uncomfortable, can even turn them into brutes. ‘To some it is always unendurable to watch the antithesis of themselves’ (402, my emphasis). It is not enough that Blue and his mates (the lucky seven who win the lottery) crucify Himmelfarb, they set fire to his wooden house thinking he is inside. Miss Hare, also thinking Himmelfarb is burning to death, accuses them: ‘You have killed him!’ Blue and his mates beat the flames off her. ‘And continued to belt at her, now with their dislike and their consciences, in addition to their coats.’ (423)

At a time when we call those seeking asylum – sanctuary – criminals, and banish them to places we’ve never been nor are ever likely to go. At a time of race riots in Cronulla and Indians fearing for their safety in Melbourne streets and security guards at all Jewish schools, RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT remains of enduring relevance.

‘Go home. Go home,’ the watching rabble shouts as Himmelfarb is hoisted on the tree.

Just like us now.

Go home. Go home. To anyone who is different.

The relevance of RIDERS remains because we fear the outsider. The black skin, the bearded believers, the men with hats, the women with veils, the children with bent spines, the adults with jittery limbs. We fear the very fat and the very thin, we fear the androgynous men and women, we fear the beggar and the drunk. And what do we do with this fear? Rather than try and understand it we berate and condemn those who cause our discomfort – just like those men who crucify the Jew Himmelfarb on Good Friday, who beat Dubbo, who ostracise Miss Hare, who deride Mrs Godbold as simple. This great novel of the outsider is, in my opinion, more powerful and certainly more relevant to today’s world than when it was written.



Patrick White. Riders in the Chariot. Penguin edition. 1984.

David Marr.  Patrick White. A Life. Random House. 1991

David Marr (ed). Patrick White. Letters. Random House. 1994



It was 1933, and Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam had finally been given a flat of their own, in Furmanov Lane, Moscow. Boris Pasternak came to visit. As he was leaving he said that now Mandelstam had a flat he would be able to write poetry. The remark was passed casually, without forethought. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam in her magnificent memoir, Hope Against Hope, her husband was furious: no true poet, he believed, would be reliant on physical comforts to work.

In response to Pasternak’s remark, Mandelstam wrote a poem that begins: The apartment is quiet as paper. There’s a double irony to this line. Mandelstam composed in his head. When it came to writing his poems down, he needed nothing more than a few minutes, paper, pen and a scrap of bench; mostly the actual writing down was done by his wife, or occasionally someone else. An apartment as quiet as paper: Those words are steeped in threats: with the ubiquity of informers, all walls had finely attuned ears: and in those terrible times, no paper was ever silent or safe.

Mandelstam’s famous poem against Stalin was never written down, it was recited to a small group of friends in May 1934. This poem, now commonly known as his Epigram On Stalin, sent Mandelstam into exile and helped shape his death at a relatively young age. No paper in Stalin’s Russia was silent, but even if it were, the silence of paper is not the silence of poetry.

The Stalinist years were dangerous times, mine are not, and yet these past couple of months as I’ve been sorting through papers and manuscripts to send to a newly-established Porter-Goldsmith archive at the National Library of Australia in Canberra that line of Mandelstam’s, The apartment is quiet as paper, has reverberated in my mind.

Both Dorothy and I were life-long preservers of paper. It has been a mammoth task this finding, reading, sifting, and cataloguing our stuff. I thought I knew what lay in the cupboards, in boxes, piled in files, on shelves, slipped between the pages of books, the books themselves, I thought I knew because in these past years since Dot’s death, I have, intermittently, dipped into the paper troves and revisited our past. But I knew very little. Casual, spontaneous riffling of a box or a folder of notes as an aide to immersing yourself in a lost life has as little to do with the systematic ordering of the stuff – or bumf, to use one of Dot’s favourite terms – which has characterised these past couple of months

The house is littered with paper. On tables and shelves and scattered across the floor are sheets of manuscript, slabs of book drafts, stacks of magazines, folders of pamphlets and newspaper cuttings; there are letters, cards, notebooks, pocket diaries, and in the cavity beneath the stairs, a jagged and increasing mound of brown archive boxes with the NLA’s name and address on the top. And emanating from it all is the smudged, enveloping silence common to books and paper. When visitors enter this house of paper, I stand and watch them. They must hear it, they must hear the subterranean jangling and shuddering of all this human geology.

Archive boxes

Dot threw nothing out, not when it came to paper. Ancient, unused cab charges have been a regular discovery in her old files. When The Eternity Man, the chamber opera Dot wrote with the composer Jonathan Mills, played at the Opera House one Sydney Festival, Dot went to every performance – there were several – and saved every single ticket from those performances. She kept every letter/email pertaining to a gig, even that last one of a series that carried a ‘thankyou’ and ‘I’ll see you soon’. Every advertisement – either for a gig or for one of her books – was shoved into an appropriately named and dated file. And I mean shoved. Dot was all thumbs when it came to folding things – paper or clothes. As for wielding a pair of scissors around a square advertisement, it was an insurmountable challenge.

Many years ago I started using coloured string folders to hold drafts of my novels in progress. I would choose a different colour per book – green for Reunion, pink for The Memory Trap, blue for The Prosperous Thief. The stack of finished drafts would grow in a neat, ordered pile, a vague assertion of control in a process shot through with uncertainty. I suggested that Dot use the string folders too, I even bought the first bundle for her, so her later manuscripts are a little tidier than the earlier ones. But a string folder can only do so much when it comes to a neat bundle, and Dot would pile in drafts with pages non-aligned – a kind of origami nightmare, I found myself thinking as I was straightening up one manuscript a couple of weeks ago.

So much preserved paper has yielded many treasures. Such delight in coming across a good unpublished poem with her fresh, familiar, vibrant voice speaking to me. Her death is irrelevant to the pleasure I derive from these poems; indeed, the only area of my life that has remained untouched by her death is her work. And I’ve found personal bits and pieces, events we shared but I’d forgotten, holidays and weekends away, happenings which at the time I might have glimpsed, but with the papers she kept, now bring a deeper insight and a more poignant punch.

I spent a couple of hours going through two large cartons of my own. I have lugged these cartons from house to house over a period of four decades. Like Dot, I kept everything. Notes and cards from primary school friends, from teachers, from anyone who bothered to notice me and address me on paper are stacked in an old shoe box, itself in the bottom of one of the cartons. Purple and gold crepe streamers kept from not one but two Wesley school dances have been preserved in neat rolls. Invitations to birthday parties, letters from school-friends. I’ve kept early scribblings, (how good, I wonder wryly, do early scribblings need to be before they’re called ‘juvenilia’?), faded photos of friends whose names I’ve forgotten. Like Dot, I have thrown nothing out, I’ve just stored the stuff more tidily than she did. Although not when it concerns dating and labelling. Dot was a stickler for completeness. Everything of hers has been dated and located. So, for example, every draft of every poem carries the date of its composition and the name of the house, the hotel, the coffee shop and/or suburb or city in which the writing occurred.

Driven by hopes for posterity, there are writers who keep everything (I’ve even heard about writers who spend the fallow months between books copying out manuscripts by hand in order to enhance the value of their papers). But not for me and nor, I believe, was this the case for Dot. I started stockpiling my life long before I knew what my future would hold. Yes, I knew I wanted to be a novelist from my earliest years, but this was a secret desire, more in the way of a fantasy to make the childhood years more bearable. I had no thought of being a writer as I carefully stashed away those invitations and notes and jottings. And I expect it was much the same for Dot.


I wonder now if there is something about paper and the ephemeral nature of imaginative work that has we writers hoarding paper even before we know what our future will bring. Prior to our current era of on-line living where anything and everything is preserved (and made public), perhaps writers in pre-digital times announced themselves in primary school because of the paper they stashed away. Perhaps this hoarding, revealing as it does a value, even a reverence directed specifically to paper and the written word, used to separate the future writers from the future musicians and accountants and plumbers. And it’s not just the paper itself, but what it symbolises in terms of memory. After all, these papers and keepsakes are mementoes – monuments and records – and memory is the fiction writer’s stock in trade. The novelist creates characters, s/he gives them childhoods and adolescences, families and lovers; the novelist creates narratives out of how the past shapes a character’s life in the present and on into the future.

I work slowly in the silent house. Occasionally I’ll hear an explosion, a cry of delight coming from me as I find a never-before-seen good poem. I’ll read such poems aloud, just as I used to when Dot would hand me a draft of a new poem. I would read it silently at first, then if it was very good or if there was a bit of a clunk, I’d read it aloud to her. Listen, I used to say, listen to me read it. And she would sit on the couch, her head cocked to one side in that characteristic listening pose of hers while I read.

You need quietness and stillness, you need background silence to hear voices. You need silence for memories, ideas, the past and the future to break through the surface of consciousness. The silence of paper: there is nothing richer, nothing more vibrant. Not even life itself.