THE SIMULTANEOUS TIME ZONES OF LIFE

Recently I was in London. I am familiar with the city, indeed, next to Melbourne, London is the city I know best. I first visited as a 21-year-old and have returned perhaps a dozen times since, sometimes staying just week or two, other times for months.

On that first visit, in 1972, the King’s Road was still the King’s Road, indeed, the sixties, most of which I’d been too young to explore fully, were still very apparent in clothes, in music, in a loud fuck-you attitude to traditional institutions, in a ‘new left’ that still had a presence. Of course, within a couple of years, the prevailing belief of the 1960s that the personal was political would metamorphose into the personal growth and development movement. Indeed, by 1975, politics had almost entirely disappeared, and what Tom Wolfe termed the ‘Me Decade’ was in full swing. Instead of storming the barricades of the past and of privilege, ‘realising one’s potential’, ‘finding the real me’, ‘remodelling the self’ had become the raison d’être of a meaningful life. This trend was described as ‘the new alchemical dream’ and the ‘sweetest and vainest of pastimes’ by Tom Wolfe in his essay ‘The Me Decade’ – which still reads well, more than forty years on.

I lived in London for several months that first time. The plan had actually been to stay indefinitely, but a boyfriend in Melbourne and a lack of confidence in my own capacities brought me home within a year. But still I managed to cover a lot of ground. I walked the streets of London, I walked for hours, for days, and I walked alone. And I read. I read the existentialists finding a vocabulary for my own angst, I read books on the sociology of alienation, I read the soul-breakers of poetry, Baudelaire and Rimbaud (my brothers, my brothers) and I read Virago’s recently discovered feminists as well as George Eliot and Edith Wharton and many others.

It was a very solitary time. There was no one to disturb my reverie and no one on whom to test my thoughts. As I walked the London streets, my mind was alive: to the books I was reading, the people and scenes around me, as well as memories, longings and imaginings. It all mingled together, hard to separate the facts from fiction and both from desire. Not that I minded, I was never lonely in a George Eliot novel, I was never clumsy or misunderstood when a part of alienated youth, I was never shy or reticent in my imaginings.

On my latest trip, unlike the several that had preceded it, impressions from my first visit to London surfaced with particular vividness. In fact, there were times when I felt as if I were simultaneously living in different time zones, that now was also then, and, given my awareness and knowledge of this experience, much of the time in between. There were two factors that marked this trip as different: the first was a book – Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland – the second, an exhibition about the 1960s that was showing at the V&A.

Back in the old days before e-books and electronic readers, books would take up a good portion of my suitcase when I travelled. While I will always prefer reading a paper book to a screen, these days I travel with my iPad loaded up with both new and old titles (I never leave home, for example, without the complete works of Jane Austen), I travel with the equivalent of several suitcases of weightless books. But I was in London and staying around the corner from Daunts, and I simply could not resist.

For booklovers who don’t know Daunt Books in Marylebone put it on your list if you aredaunt-books-marylebone-high-st-london going to London. In the meantime, visit the Daunt Books website and take the virtual tour through this lovely Edwardian bookshop (make sure to check out all three floors). I found an essay by Brodsky on Venice that I’d not known about before, and a fat family memoir by Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the LRB; I picked up a new Justin Cartwright, Lionheart, and Julian Barnes’s first novel, one of the few books of his I’d not read.

From the first page of Metroland, indeed, the first sentence I was hooked. ‘There is no rule against carrying binoculars in the National Gallery’ the novel begins. How could I not continue? Is there a rule about using binoculars, I wondered. And plunged ahead.

Metroland comes in a lovely edition, a ‘special archive edition’ according to the publishers (Vintage). It’s a paperback with folding flaps and a repeating graphic of stylized suburban houses on front and back, and inside both covers there’s a similar repeating graphic in a hot orange.

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The book begins in 1963 in Metroland, that area of London served by the Metropolitan line, when the narrator, Christopher, and his best friend Toni are 16 years old. Christopher and Toni are intellectuals, they’ve read books their fellow students have never even heard of, they pepper their conversation with French and they fancy themselves as modern-day flâneurs. And they assume that distanced, critical, somewhat superior stance of alienated youth. They are adamantly not of Metroland and will escape as soon as they can. The book is laugh-aloud funny at times, it is also very knowing.

For almost half the book the narrative stays with the boys in Metroland before shifting, along with Christopher, to Paris in 1968 – yes, that pivotal year, although unfortunately the upheavals (or, as Christopher refers to them in meaningful italics, les événements) seem to have passed him by. In the third section of the book the narrative shifts back to Metroland. Now it is 1977 and Christopher is a husband and father; he is far wiser and far happier (with neither shame not embarrassment) than his younger self.

I was captivated by the entire book, but it was the first section, the youth section, that had the major impact. I recognised those boys, not in every respect and certainly not in their fixation on sex, but in their reading and other intellectual pursuits and their sense of being different from their peers. (I wonder if all intellectual children of the second half of the 1900s gravitated to the same books.) Because there were two of them, they managed to legitimate the other and they often made light and merry of their difference. In my own case, I too met a like-minded girl in early adolescence. It’s much harder if you are alone. So I was infusing Metroland with my own experience, or Metroland was infusing my memories and I read and read and did not want the book to finish.

During this time I visited the 1960s exhibition at the V&A. The clothes, the bands, the books, the films and TV, the posters and badges, the personalities, how very familiar they all were. Best of all was a large room where a movie of Woodstock was playing, huge images covering the walls and cushions cast across the floor, and there I sat rocking along to the familiar music, gazing at those lovely familiar figures.

This entire exhibition was a banquet in identifying with the familiar. As I wandered the exhibition, I saw that most of the other on-lookers were around my age, and I saw the smiles on their faces, the pleasure of recognition, as they peered at the exhibits. I wasn’t the only one enjoying this trip to the past.

But was it the past? I was in the now, I was in the present. What I was recalling did not make me forget where I was, the pull of the past did not obliterate the present. Indeed, it was the past coming into the present, like red wine into water, a lovely mingling that softened and pleasured the present. (This is quite opposed to nostalgia, a deluded state that has you longing for a lost past.) This past was enriching the present, and the present was making more sense of the past. Simultaneous and merging time zones, I decided.

Often when explaining memory, metaphors from archaeology are evoked. So, for example, we read of the strata of time, the bedrock of events. These particular metaphorical associations are romantic in a nineteenth century type of way, but they are not accurate. The memories that burst upon us do so in a single moment, they are not sequential; simultaneously they operate together with one another and with current events. There’s nothing linear or strata’d about it.

Our sense of time is that it flows inexorably forward while now, this moment, does not. Now, this moment, if you could only hold on to it, is stationary. Now is what we experience. But for it to become experience, something reflected on, something that can be drawn upon in the future, it is no longer now, but rather it becomes part of our stock of knowledge (surely, an aspect of memory), a sort of personal and portable library.

I was learning more about the past, more about now with the sixties of Metroland, the V&A exhibition, and I actually made my way down to King’s Road, the first time in years. The days passed as if inside a movie. Movies, like novels, toy with time, years can pass in a few pages, or from one scene to the next. We might see in a flick of hair or perhaps a facial grimace alerting us that a character has remembered something, in a novel we can actually know the character’s thoughts. We are of this time and we are of all our time. Each memory affects many that have gone before and will itself be affected by many that come afterwards. And all those memories are still active as we make our way through the often tumultuous currents of today.

Risky Reading

My greatest and reliable pleasures have been found in the pages of books. From the beginning this has been the case. In the crowded confines of the family if I was reading I was left alone. For my mother, I was one less child to worry about; while for me, with a book in hand, I gained respite from the demands of family life and escape into lives so much more interesting than my own.

Novels provided me with an entrée into the desires and disappointments, the loves and resentments, the thoughts and actions of country parsons, well-born but impoverished girls, low-born but inspiring urchins. Through fiction I came to know military men, peasants, unhappily married women, demanding men; I learned of Russians and French people, English and Americans, Spanish, Italians and long-dead Australians.

Through the decades, my love affair with reading has faltered only once: when the fleeting delights and mind-dumbing seductions of the digital world altered the way my mind worked to such an extent that prolonged immersion in a book became increasing difficult. This was the impetus for my National Library of Australia Ray Mathews Lecture (posted on this site).

If a good book affords great pleasure and gratitude, what then for a disappointing one? With so many riches on offer – both new and those favourites to which one returns – I see little point in continuing with a book that it is not rewarding. Similarly with a play or film that has failed to grab me. Mind and memory need exercise, but at the same time there’s only so much you can take in and you need to select with care.

Sometimes there is no choice. Recently I reviewed a book that did not live up to expectation. If not for having to write the review I would have closed the book after a couple of chapters, deeply disappointed but pleased I’d made the decision not to waste more time. Instead I had to read through to the end, increasingly angry and resentful, like a lover trapped in an affair that has soured.

And it occurs to me that an about-to-be-read book is exactly like those tantalising moments when you meet someone and feel a spark. There’s a bubbling excitement over the possibility, of the yet not-known but desired. And you are confronted with risk: to plunge or to step back. The reader is the lover who plunges. A one-night stand? A long weekend? A lifetime? The reader is the lover whose pleasures are huge and whose disappointments are cataclysmic. But who would want to live any other way?

gottliebI have just finished reading Robert Gottlieb’s wonderful memoir, Avid Reader (FSG, 2016). Gottlieb, the renowned editor (Simon & Schuster, Knopf The New Yorker), writer, serial collector of all manner of things, and dance – ballet – aficionado has been a great reader all his life. His love for and appreciation of books and writing runs through this memoir. Gottlieb shares his love so generously that I experienced a strong sense of gratitude as I turned his pages. To meet someone over a mutual love, and to meet in that extraordinary intimacy of reading, there is little to compare. Gottlieb’s book is the perfect long weekend.

BOB DYLAN – NOBEL LAUREATE

The choice of Nobel laureates for literature falls into three main categories:

  1. justly deserved;
  2. surely there were others more deserving, and
  3. incomprehensible and/or bizarre.

Glancing down the list from 2016 back to the first winner, Sully Prudhomme from France – a writer who has certainly not withstood the weathering of time – I would include In the first category: Doris Lessing (2007), J.M. Coetzee (2003) Szymborska (1996), Derek Walcott (1992), Nadine Gordimer (1991) Joseph Brodsky (1987), Milosz (1980), Saul Bellow (1976), Patrick White (1973), Neruda (1971), Pasternak (1958), T.S. Eliot (1948), Thomas Mann (1929), Yeats (1923), to name just a few. Indeed, the Nobel Committee gets it right, or close to right, surprisingly often.

Taste is a major factor in the second category. I am not drawn to the work of Hemingway (1954), Alice Munro (2013) and V.S. Naipaul (2001) but many readers are. As for the third category, Pearl Buck has become representative of those who were chosen to the astonishment of all but the committee. But she is far from being alone in this third group.

Many of the winning writers have been politically active both on the page and off. Alfred Nobel stated that the prize would be given to an author who has produced ‘in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ (emphasis added). This requirement might help explain that small group of winners like Winston Churchill (1953), Bertrand Russell (1950) and possibly Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) who actually declined the prize, writers who warrant praise for so much of their work, but not, it seems to me, for any literature that flowed from their pen. Winners like Churchill and Russell have excited heated controversy. Indeed, over the 100+ years of the prize controversy has been a major player. And no more so with the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Laureate.

I think Dylan is an inspired choice.

By anyone’s estimation I would be considered a serious reader. Many of the Nobel winners figure among my favourites: Mann, Eliot, Yeats, Russell (yes, although I would not have given him the prize), Camus, Gide, Neruda, Patrick White, Eugenio Montale, Saul Bellow, the utterly essential Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Gordimer, Szymborska, Coetzee, Doris Lessing. I’ve read Proust, my comfort reading is Jane Austen, I belong to a small group that discusses a different Shakespeare play every month. I read widely in contemporary fiction, and I always have a volume of non-fiction and another of poetry on the go. People have been surprised that a serious literary person like me would celebrate the awarding of the world’s premier literary prize to a singer-songwriter.

Dylan is not a great poet and he’s not the greatest lyricist who ever lived – of the moderns that prize might possibly go to Col Porter – but I do think he was deserving of the Nobel.

The selection committee chose Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ This is a restrained, vague even coy citation, I’m not even sure I know what it means. ‘New poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ is ambiguous, and one of the interpretations is a contradiction. But leaving that aside, I think the Committee’s citation is off the mark.

Dylan was the voice of a generation. Even more than this, he provided the words to a generation wanting to break with tradition, with the past, with political leaders, with parents. This was a generation growing to adulthood under the threat of nuclear destruction, in a world where the separation between rich and poor was widening, where unions (at least in the USA) were weakening, and workers were being squeezed. Dylan burst on the scene in the 1960s and for the next decade or two his songs expressed what the alienated youth of the time were feeling. He was anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons, he protested injustice, he sang for the worker, the immigrant and the poor.

Dylan’s songs were anthems for the time. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ (1963-4), ‘Masters of War’ (1963), ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (1962), ‘I Am a Lonesome Hobo’ (1968), ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’ (1968). Dylan expressed uncomfortable truths, and he gave direction for those who no longer trusted the old leaders.

As a teenager I would sit around with friends and we would sing Dylan songs. This was not an occasional happening. Most weeks, a group of kids would descend on our house, and accompanied by guitars and bongos and occasionally the piano we would sing – folk songs, Pete Seeger, what were known in those days as Negro Spirituals (I don’t know what the politically correct term is these days), Peter Paul and Mary (who often sang Dylan), and the master himself.

Dylan’s songs introduced us to people, places, politics and events far beyond suburban, middle-class Melbourne. And they taught us not to take things on faith or trust. They taught us to question authority, tradition and traditional institutions like the church, the family, the military.

And Dylan’s songs also taught about love – not in a gauzy, dewy-eyed way like most of the offerings on the Top 40, but honestly. A half a century on ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ remains one of the most brutally honest songs about love.

You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no,. no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for babe

(It Ain’t Me, Babe, 1964)

Some have criticised the choice of Dylan because, they say, the lyrics cannot be separated from the music. But they can, they have a different effect, a different power when read as poetry rather than song lyrics with the music playing in your mind. The best analogy is reading a Shakespeare play as against seeing it performed. No one suggests that the plays of Shakespeare are any less worthy on the page rather than the stage. And I think the same goes for Dylan.

Others have criticised the choice of Dylan, not because he is a songwriter, but rather he was the wrong songwriter to receive the prize. These people say that Leonard Cohen should have been the candidate.

I am a lifelong fan of the work of both Cohen and Dylan, but for the politics and the history, for the courage and uncompromising gaze, for the breadth of material Dylan is my choice. This is not to suggest that all his lyrics are breathtakingly good, there are some that are shoddy and banal. But as Somerset Maugham wisely noted: only the mediocre man is always at his best.

And there are those who insist that song-writing is not poetry, in the same way that in the early days of film there were those who insisted that film was not legitimate performance like theatre. There are poets who find their calling through pop songs – Dorothy Porter was one such poet – who see the modern song-writer within the context of poetry’s fluid boundaries. The conjoining of music and poetry is an ancient coupling, witness the minstrels of old wandering from village to village in days long gone.

Are there other writers more deserving of the prize? My reading is very much in the European and English-speaking traditions, so I can’t speak for African and Asian writers. I hope one day the Polish-American poet Adam Zagajewski gets a gong; I think it was inexcusable that the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (died 2001) was never selected. But in the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I am surprised that the committee was willing to take such a risk, but very pleased they did.

IMAGINATIVE EXCURSIONS

CHIHARU SHIOTA: Absent Bodies.
Anna Schwarz Gallery. Till 5th November, 2016

There have been a handful of occasions in my life when I have stood before a work of art meaning to look at it, appraise it and have found myself drawn into it. In some strange way I become part of the work. It is as if my imagination has merged with the imaginative space of the art work and, at the same time, any mind-body split has been dissolved. I have, simultaneously, a visceral and imaginative response to the work – the heart rate increases, the stomach plunges – and yet I am strangely incorporeal. I am all mind, I am all sensation. It is a pure, original, all-consuming experience.

The first time this happened I was standing in a large room at the old Tate in London the walls of which were covered with huge Rothkos. I was wrapped in Rothkos. Then, all of a sudden there were no edges and I was floating in these paintings and pounding with their rhythm and even more extraordinary I was filled with a type of knowing that, for someone with a strong intellectual bent, was staggeringly new. The second time, also in London, occurred at the Courtauld when for the very first time I saw the genius of Cézanne, saw the planes and shadings, saw the landscape through Cezanne; it changed the way I have looked at landscape – real landscape, in the world – ever since. The third occasion was coming face to face with Arthur Boyd’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall’. I remember the shock of understanding when I saw that painting, the utter conviction that this was how life was – the beauty and the terror. The fourth time was walking through Kathy Temin’s large work ‘My Monument: White Forest’ (see the posting Imagination Soup: How novels begin). I was absorbed into this large installation so profoundly that I was transported back ten years to a visit I’d made to Auschwitz-Birkenau – one of the places, I would later discover, that had inspired this work of Temin’s. There was no prior knowledge here, no intention, rather my imagination and the imaginative space of the artwork merged.

And it has just happened again. Today I saw ‘Absent Bodies’ by Chiharu Shiota (at Anna Schwarz Gallery, Melbourne, until 5th November). This beautiful art work, 15×4.5×4.5m takes up half the space of the gallery. It is a huge complex web, or rather webs constructed out of smooth red yarn. The obvious analogy is the network of neurons in the brain, the long axons, the ganglia where nerves meet, blown up to the size of a small house. But to reduce Shiota’s work to mere physical presence is to leach it of power, of effect.

 

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Shiota’s art work knows space, possesses space in the way, say, of the Grand Canyon or the open vistas of Antarctica or, indeed, the unfettered imagination. The tangle of red string creates an environment, and even though you stand at the edge you enter it (and yet physically you can’t enter it because the strings, criss-crossing in all directions, would stop you.) Again that sense of an imaginative space being coterminous with your imagination. Where the threads meet and cross one another, they are not knotted – there are no knots in this tangled environment – rather they twist around one another. And through the middle the threads thin out, may even disappear, creating a tunnel that leads to two chairs at the end; they are vacant, they are waiting for you.

This is an environment of complexity and possibility, just like the imagination. It’s all about connection and space, creativity and insight. It is, truly, beautiful. And it opens a fourth dimension – not time, in fact time is stationary in this sort of unregulated experience – the dimension running along the consciousness-unconsciousness continuum releases the imagination itself, a numinous presence that simultaneously envelops depth and motion, memory and forgetting, experience and insight. This artwork becomes you.

LETTERS (again)

Personal letters are private. Written by one individual to another, they are composed in private and intended to be read in private.

There are few other human-to-human activities that can claim this level of privacy. Sex perhaps. And good conversation, by which I mean those passionate, exploratory, discursive exchanges that occur over many hours, during which mind and language are exercised to a magnificent degree; where the conversation is a journey, a magical mystery tour, in which the stopping-off posts and the end points are adventures to be discovered.

I have fallen in love during hours of close conversation. (As has often been noted, the brain is the sexiest human organ.)

I am currently reading Ted Hughes’s letters, selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Hughes had some fine correspondents, family of course, as well as many writers and artists; and poets, too, such as W.S. Merwin, Daniel Weissbort, Al Alvarez, and Yehuda Amichai (one of Hughes’s favourite poets – mine too). Often in reading Hughes’s letters I am pulled up short by some seriously intoned astrological aside (not sharing his beliefs, I find some of them laughable), some acutely observed aspect of nature, some superbly expressed outrage. Here he is on a particular critic who had given a bad review of a friend’s work.

Davie [the critic] is a kind of parasite in the crutch & armpits of poetry very common in the States – a strident proclaimer of the latest O.K. notions all sure to be found in a pitiful form in his own latest verse. He’s a grotesquely shrunken silly imitator of Pound, forty years after the phenomenon. He’s the old receptacle of every other critic’s – particularly the American battalion – dud cartridges & empty cases & he’s trying to fit them all together, not dropping one, into a semblance of armament….He’s the mincy mean know-all kind of little office snot – a standard English type – gone into Literature, & in the branch of poetry his own practice is about the measure of his understanding – all creak & no cart. (Letter to the poet John Montague, 1961)

I am reading the letters from 1960, 1961 and 1962. I know Plath’s death occurs in February 1963, but Ted Hughes does not know what’s up ahead. As the terrible time draws closer, I read his letters and I feel for him. Feel for , not her. I read past her death to a letter to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, written three months after Sylvia’s death. It is several thousand words long. In this letter Hughes reveals the profound loss he feels – the Plath-Hughes love was a great and difficult one – he also writes about guilt and regret, and he writes at length about his two young children. Always clear and forthright, he states what they need and don’t need – particularly from their grandmother – at this vulnerable time. (Hughes’s relationship with his mother-in-law was never easy. After Sylvia’s death, Aurelia Plath wanted the two children to live with her in America. In this plan, Ted Hughes’s maternal aunt, Hilda Farrer, would look after them. Hilda would have none of it. Nor, of course, would Ted.)

I am reading the letters from 1960, 1961 and 1962. I know Plath’s death occurs in February 1963, but Ted Hughes does not know what’s up ahead. As the terrible time draws closer, I read his letters and I feel for him. Feel for him, not her. I read past her death to a letter to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, written three months after Sylvia’s death. It is several thousand words long. In this letter Hughes reveals the profound loss he feels – the Plath-Hughes love was a great and difficult one – he also writes about guilt and regret, and he writes at length about his two young children. Always clear and forthright, he states what they need and don’t need – particularly from their grandmother – at this vulnerable time. (Hughes’s relationship with his mother-in-law was never easy. After Sylvia’s death, Aurelia Plath wanted the two children to live with her in America. In this plan, Ted Hughes’s maternal aunt, Hilda Farrer, would look after them. Hilda would have none of it. Nor, of course, would Ted.)

I read this long letter a second time and wish, yes wish, this letter had been public when Robin Morgan wrote her accusation in Monster (1972) and we feminists raised our fists and fury against Ted Hughes, blaming him for Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

I felt ashamed and sorry when, more than 30 years after the publication of Monster, I read Hughes’s Birthday Letters, those brilliant poems of yearning and perplexity about his courtship and marriage to Sylvia and the terrible impact of her death. At twenty I had no idea how ignorant I was. The certainties and righteousness of youth can be so brutal.

But I digress, this article is not about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, it is about letters. When published letters are by famous people you, the reader, already know the context, you know the life and the work. You are in possession of the basic narrative, a sort of connective tissue which cushions the letters and holds them together. So when Ted Hughes asks a publisher to consider a collection of poems by a poet called, David Wevill in December 1962, but expressly asks that under no circumstances should his, Hughes’s intervention be mentioned, the reader knows why. Some months earlier, Hughes and Wevill’s wife Assia had begun an affair. We know that two months after the letter was written Sylvia will kill herself, we know that Ted Hughes’s second wife will be Assia Wevill. (I find myself wanting to warn Ted.)

None of this sort of background narrative exists when letters have been written by an unknown person in an ordinary context. (An extraordinary context would be letters written by a foot soldier from the trenches in the Great War – we may not know the individual soldier, but we do know the circumstances in which he finds himself.) When it comes to an ordinary personal letter, any reader who is not the intended recipient or a confidante of the recipient is reliant on the letter itself to supply a cushioning narrative, together with the products of their own imagination. The letters of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, letters that relate loves or losses or illness or travels or local happenings or desires or disappointments provide huge imaginative space for any unrelated reader.

Sylvie Morrow, the character in my new novel, The Science of Departures, who collects letters, is trying to understand the appeal of these private communications that are not intended for her, but speak to her in an utterly irresistible way. The man in the novel who becomes her lover gives her a stack of epistolary novels, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, generally considered to be the first of the modern epistolary novels. He gives her Bellow’s Herzog, Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a verse novel in letters (and yes, she is the same Anne Stevenson who wrote Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath). He also gives her Dracula.

Like Sylvie I have struggled through Pamela and struggled part way through the Richardson’s 1500 page door-stopper Clarissa (many have started, few have finished). Indeed, I have read quite a number of epistolary novels in recent times. The problem, it seems to me, of the epistolary form is that the necessity of carrying the narrative actually bleeds the letters of their sense of privacy and intimacy, of being intended for just one person. Indeed, in many of the letters in epistolary novels one gains no sense of the recipient whatsoever, and not much of the writer either – the ‘I’ of the writer being too often crushed under the narrator function. In short, often epistolary novels do not read like letters at all, rather they are like any first-person narrative – replete with all the pitfalls of that particular point of view.

I’m yet to be convinced that the epistolary novel can be true to the qualities of letters AND the requirements of a novel.

How very different is the journal novel, of which Dracula reigns supreme. I read Bram Stoker’s novel for the very first time only recently. It is a gripper. The story is told through the journal entries of three main characters, with the addition of a few letters and some diary entries. The work is masterfully structured so it reads like a continuous narrative with changing character point of view. I could not put it down.

__________________

My character, Sylvie, reads the epistolary novels given to her by her lover. She decides that what she gets from her letter collection is quite different – and preferable. She wants the private tone of real letters, that clandestine atmosphere they create. It is, she decides, the very intimacy of the letter form that draws her into other people’s lives, lives that are not her own, lives that are far distant from her own. The letters in her collection, having no back-story require her own imagination to be active; it is she who supplies the connecting narrative. She decides that she wants letters to be letters and do the job of letters; the epistolary novels do not do that. She wants this whether it is the letters in her collection, or the volumes of published letters written by famous people. She wants letters that allow her to trespass on private lives.

I find myself in full agreement with her.

THE FIERY MAZE

 The Fiery Maze Rehearsal

It was a dream partnership: a poet who thrived on rock music and a rock musician with a poetic soul.

In 1994, Tim Finn read Dorothy Porter’s genre bending verse novel The Monkey’s Mask. He loved the book. But there was something else. In those short, punchy lines of poetry he perceived a natural lyricist. He reached for pen and paper and wrote to Dorothy suggesting they collaborate on some songs.

Dorothy Porter was in thrall to music. It was the rock music of the 1960s, she always said, that made her a poet. She had listened to and admired Tim’s work for years. The prospect of a collaboration with him was irresistible.

And the time was right: two artists with limitless imagination and eager for creative risk-taking.

For the first time in his life Tim had his own studio. Located in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, he was in an exploratory phase, extending his musical boundaries into strange and new territory. While his focus during 1994 had shifted from performance to composing, he nonetheless had formed a new band with two Irish friends. The band was called ALT, deliberately evoking the alternative music that was its domain. The more experimental musical space in which Tim found himself was also reflected in the fact he was the group’s drummer.

At the same time, he was observing changes in the way young people were approaching popular music. The Gen Xs were open to music from times other than their own. They were listening to Janis, to Jimi, to Jim Morrison, and they were as excited by this music as had their parents been thirty years earlier. The idea of having these past gods infusing new work started to emerge. Musically, it was a time when anything seemed possible.

In the suburb of Elwood, just a few kilometres from Tim’s studio, Dorothy Porter was between books. The Monkey’s Mask had become a best seller – a rare anomaly in the world of poetry. Not tempted to write The Monkey’s Mask 2 despite considerable pressure to do so, Dorothy was in no hurry to embark on her next book. With time on her hands and her ravenous imagination on sabbatical from any specific project, Dorothy, like Tim, was ripe for anything.

In December 1994, the two of them met for the first time. Tim shared with Dorothy his musings about Janis, Jimi and Jim and other greats of the 1960s and 70s. These were the gods of Dorothy’s own music pantheon, and they would figure in the songs she would write.

But for the central theme she chose love – not warm, fuzzy, walk-off-into-the-sunset love, but blind, explosive, knock-you-off-your-feet love. The exquisite ecstasy of an unspoiled, idealised love had been a recurring theme in Dorothy’s work – as had its aftermath of pain and misery when the beloved turns out to be all too human.

Off the Planet MSDorothy Porter wrote most of the lyrics in a six-week period of white heat during December-January, 1994-95. An explosive new love begins in the Victorian town of Ballarat of all places (‘Will Ballarat ever be the same’). Some of the lyrics are laugh-aloud funny: ‘I’m always sick or sober, I’m just a boring little dag’. Others reflect the pain and poignancy when love grabs you by the throat: ‘Today I want to swim in black water…black water tastes sweeter than stale happiness.’ With each song she added a note regarding musical style; ‘dark, slow and dreamy’ (Off the Planet), ‘bitter-sweet, brooding & slow – smoky’ (Talking in my Sleep), ‘punchy, staccato beat’ (New Friends).

For Tim, Dorothy’s words and imagery were ‘intoxicating and liberating’. He went into his studio and, like Dorothy, he wrote in white heat. The result is an astonishing variety of music that is as breath-takingly original as the words. From the joyful rock of ‘Like Janis’ to the eerie, evocative murkiness of ‘Black Water’ each song has a distinctive quality and power.

There was no specific discussion about what they would do with the songs, although Dorothy, long confined to the tiny poetry world, had visions of going gold, then platinum and ultimately taking on the world. In the autumn of 1995, Tim invited twenty-two-year-old Abi Tucker to the studio. He had heard her sing at a concert in Sydney, an explosive rendition of the 1960s hit ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’.’ Both the voice and the presence of this young singer were a perfect match for the songs.

Abi had just finished work on Heartbreak High, and was soon to leave for London where she would land a music development deal with EMI. She was thrilled by Tim’s invitation.

Abi Tucker, The Fiery MazeDorothy, Tim and Abi went into the studio one autumnal evening. What emerged were the earliest versions of the songs that now comprise The Fiery Maze. Abi, hoarse from a cold, let herself rip, Tim let her have her head, and Dorothy at last saw poetry displayed in neon as she always thought it should. (She was often heard to say that poets should play huge venues just like rock stars.)

They taped the songs, but with no plans for a commercial recording, Tim, Dorothy and Abi went their own way. As the years passed. Dorothy continued to listen to the songs, and at some point, responding to an inexplicable but insistent urging to preserve the songs, Tim transferred the original recordings to a digitised form.

Early in 2008, Tim proposed that he and Dorothy shape the songs into a rock musical. She loved the idea and plunged in. But just as the project was gathering momentum, Dorothy Porter died.

Six years later, in 2014, Abi Tucker contacted Tim, to inquire about ‘those songs’. It was ‘Black Water’ in particular that wouldn’t leave her alone, a song she describes as ‘a cracker’. She wanted to hear it again, she wanted to sing it again. Tim contacted me and The Fiery Maze, a show that charts a wild, risky destructive love affair came into being.

Twenty years have passed since the songs were written. Inspired by the great gods of rock music, these songs tell a universal human story of love. They are seductive, lyrical, brilliant. They are The Fiery Maze.

The Fiery Maze is playing at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne from 20th August to 5th September, with previews on 18th and 19th August. Further information is available from the Malthouse website www.malthousetheatre.com.au

(Performance photographs taken during rehearsals 12/8/16. Tim Finn is on keyboards, drums and guitar, Brett Adams on guitars, Abi Tucker is singing.) 

 

 

 

IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING

I have always been captivated by the idea of memory. While it has been a theme in all my novels it was THE theme in The Memory Trap. In this novel, memory in all its forms – personal biographical memory, national collective memory, memory and obsession, mementoes and memorials – was explored through the lives of the characters.

ABR coverThe American writer and film-maker, David Rieff, has made memory the subject of his past two books. I have reviewed his latest for ABR and reproduce it below

This month’s ABR has a stunning cover to accompany the announcement of the 2016 Calibre essay prize to Michael Winkler. Check out the issue at

http://www.australianbookreview.com.au

 

 

 

IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING
David Rieff
Yale University Press, $36.95 hb, 145pp.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18279-8

Over the past three decades, and particularly since the prime ministership of John Howard, there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of young Australians making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli. Most of these people have no ancestors among the ‘fallen’, but rather are following what has become a rite of passage for patriotic young Australians.

Lest we forget, they intone. But what exactly is being remembered? And to what purpose is it being used? After all, until recently, few young people visited the site of this appalling military failure in which Australians were used as cannon fodder by their colonial masters. For that matter, until recently, flag-waving nationalism and loud-mouthed patriotism played little part in any aspect of Australian life.

Memory and its more structured form as remembrance are considered to be positive and desirable attributes. Personal memory is thought to be the primary vehicle by which individuals define themselves, while collective memory helps define a nation. Collective memories, like Gallipoli, act as the struts and foundations of nationalism, uniting poor and rich, urban and rural populations alike. As for history and memory, they are regarded – if thought about at all – as almost exactly the same, rather like identical twins.

In his excellent new book, In Praise of Forgetting*, David Rieff questions the commonly unquestioned: namely the purposes and effects of collective memory. He shows how easily history can fall prey to morally contingent, proprietorial and emotive memory. Ranging across the Irish troubles, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Israel and Palestine, Stalin’s Russia, and the Balkans’ internecine battles Rieff reveals how collective memory invariably follows a political and ideological agenda, which is itself underpinned by specific moral imperatives. He makes clear that structured, state-sanctioned memorialising is in thrall to contemporary goals and aspirations and not the past it is purporting to preserve. As well, he points out ‘that exercises in collective historical remembrance far more closely resemble myth on one side and political propaganda on the other [more] than they do history.’ Rieff will always see the elephant in the room.

In advancing his arguments, Rieff draws on a wealth of work about memory and remembrance including that of the great Russian neurologist A.R. Luria, the Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz, Theodor Adorno’s classic Minima Moralia, and most particularly the Israeli political philosopher Avishai Margalit (The Ethics of Memory) and the social philosopher Tzvetan Todorov (Hope and Memory and Memory as a Remedy of Evil). Rieff sets up a dialogue of sorts with these latter two luminaries in which there is acknowledgement and agreement, as well as argument and disagreement; crucially Rieff extends the analysis of both men. As a thinker, Rieff is fearless and devoid of sentimentality. To take on those you admire is a difficult task, but if done well, as it is in this book, it yields far richer and nuanced arguments than if you were to pit yourself against a thinker with a diametrically opposing view.

Individual memory degrades very quickly while official memorialising is a tool in service to ideological and cultural currents. Rieff refers to Shelley’s pithy ‘Ozymandias’, as well as David Cannadine’s memoir ‘Where Statues Go to Die’ about the ‘inglorious fate’ of colonial monuments in India. My favourite monument story concerns the Bremen Elephant. This ten foot high red brick elephant was erected in 1932 to celebrate Germany’s colonial conquests, especially in Namibia. By the 1980s this particularly brutal colonisation had become a matter of shame; the monument was an embarrassment and there were calls to pull it down. In 1990, when Namibia gained its independence, the Bremen Elephant was re-dedicated as an anti-colonial monument, and in 2009 a new monument was built adjacent to the old to commemorate the lives of those Namibians who perished in the colonisation. Rather than an enduring truth about the past, monuments rise and fall depending on prevailing political and social concerns.

Official remembrance is big business these days. New monuments, memorial gardens, entire museums are popping up all the time. Rieff is rightfully critical of a number of these, including the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, where the atrocities portrayed have been book-ended in kitsch. (For an excellent book on kitsch in memorialising see Marita Sturken’s Tourists of History, 2007.) My complaint with the U.S. Holocaust Museum is in its use of experiential exhibits. The underlying premise of this fashionable trend in museum practice is that by promoting a personal involvement in the (long-past) events being portrayed, visitors will be motivated towards a better understanding. So it happens that on entering the U.S. Holocaust Museum visitors are issued with an identity card of a real person who existed during the Holocaust. As you walk past the displays of horror, as you watch the videos, as you linger in the (real) cattle car, you clutch your identity card wondering if your person – your surrogate self, after all – has survived. You have been inserted into these horrendous events. As for the imagination as a means of understanding, it has fallen out of fashion. What this might mean for memory in general, given that memories involve an imagining of past events, is anyone’s guess.

Rieff, in highlighting past atrocities and the way they have influenced current conflicts, recommends forgetting as a means of facilitating individuals to move on. Many Holocaust survivors did exactly this. They had survived and it was incumbent on them to live fully – not only for themselves but the millions who were denied a future. They did not consult counsellors or psychiatrists, rather they drew on their own resilience and determination to separate from their terrible experiences and steer themselves into the future. In many instances, It was their children and grandchildren who insisted on dragging them back to Auschwitz. It seems that the parents’ very productive forgetting interfered with the children’s demands for remembrance – a peculiarly narcissistic remembrance. The therapeutic has indeed triumphed as the author’s father, the sociologist Philip Rieff, predicted in 1966.

Rieff sees more value in forgiveness than do I. I am of the belief that some acts and the policies that allow them to occur are unforgivable, such as the atrocities under apartheid, those committed by the Nazis, and the slaughter being carried out by ISIS now. Nelson Mandela recognised this when he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not a Truth and Forgiveness Commission. There can be understanding and reconciliation, there can be a future where past enemies live together in peace, and this can occur without having to forgive the unforgivable (and thereby act in bad faith).

In Praise of Forgetting explores the powerful and often brutal effects of the seemingly benign and beneficent processes of memory and remembrance. It forces scrutiny of what has long been complacently accepted. Over the past half century or so, there has been a sacralising of memory both at the personal and collective levels. For the former it has often lead to a life of victimhood, for the latter entrenched hatreds and shocking brutality. If remembering truly were so therapeutic then such undesirable outcomes would not occur with such distressing regularity.

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*In Praise of Forgetting grew out of an earlier monograph Against Remembrance (MUP, 2011). I am hoping Rieff is planning a third volume titled ‘Against Forgiveness’.