This morning I finished Drusilla Modjeska’s new book, Second Half First. Several times during its reading I silently acknowledged that this would be one of my best books of the year. At the end of reading there is no doubt: it is a beauty.
Best Books is an annual tradition for publications like ABR and the Fairfax papers, in which writers name their best reads of the year. So – Drusilla’s book will be on my best of 2015 list. What else, I found myself thinking, will I include?
I keep a reading notebook which I usually consult when deciding on my best for the year. But I was sitting on the couch, dawn was breaking, I had not yet finished my first coffee, Lotte was lying next to me, snuffling in her sleep her head on my lap, and I didn’t want to move. So I relied on my memory, trusting that in this instance memory would hold fast to the truth, or, rather, truth would fix on to memory, and I came up with Peter Rose’s latest collection, The Subject of Feeling. I’d read it earlier in the year when the publisher asked me to write a few words for the cover, and I read it again when the book was published. It has been several months since I looked at it but many of the poems have stayed with me.
Two best books and both written by friends. How then to phrase my contribution to a best books of the year section without being accused of literary nepotism or some other sort of self-serving agenda?
Ours has been a small literary community. It’s changing now, but those of us who have been around for several decades are known to one another. That I count among my friends other writers is to be expected. At the same time all of us are aware of instances when John has cited Joan’s book as the best of the year because he’s sleeping with her or, more likely, wants to sleep with her; and Susan cites Barbara’s book as the best of the year as a means of apologising for a past wrong. These sorts of things happen commonly, and can be staggeringly transparent.
Reviewing is even more vulnerable to personal agendas. A 4th or 5th novel being reviewed by someone who has been trying to get her/his own first novel published for years can be easily tainted by anger, disappointment and envy. A bad book receiving a glowing review can very often be traced to a long-standing friendship between author and reviewer.
Then there’s the poison ink review.
I remember the day Dot (Dorothy Porter) opened the Saturday Age to a review of her latest verse novel (I think it was Wild Surmise) written by Alan Wearne. She slumped, her face was writ with distress. ‘He hates me,’ she said. And true enough the review was a killer, it was so vile and venomous it was hard to make sense of it. Underneath his review, and occupying the same amount of space, was another review praising the book in every respect: the poetry, the fiction, the characterisation, the pace, the artistry of the work. As it happened all other reviewers agreed with the second reviewer. The book went on to win prizes, it was short-listed for the Miles Franklin, it was adapted for radio and the theatre.
I’ve done a lot of teaching in my time. I start all my writing classes with the same question: What are you reading? And what has been the best work you’ve read this past year? Invariably there will be a student whose reading has been confined to her/his friends. Why bother with Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf or White when you can have Raelene and Kylie, Brett and Baxter?
So, how do I get away with naming my friends’ work as the best of the year?
The fact is, and it’s a crucial one, that you want to like the work of your friends and it’s painful when you don’t. You want the best for them, and when their work falls short it is cause, not simply for disappointment, but actual sadness. You just wish it had been otherwise. You suffer for them – even if they are not suffering for themselves.
And when friends write a book that is a stunner, well, you feel doubly rewarded: as a reader (how fortunate am I to have read this book) and as a friend (how fortunate am I to have a friend who can write like this). So I will make no apologies here about my two best books for 2015.
In regard to The Subject of Feeling, I wrote the following as the cover endorsement:
‘Youth and maturity, love and infatuation, memory, music, loss, landscape, Peter Rose exposes the human experience in poems that are gorgeously lucid and often profound.
‘The Subject of Feeling reveals a fearless wisdom, a wry wit and a quiet depth. These poems stop you in your tracks.’
There’s a maturity to the poems, a quiet intelligence that I find irresistible, and complex but accessible emotional undercurrents. As for the Catullan Rag poems that make up the final section of the book, Peter has been adding to this series for years and the poems just get better and better. I’ve always delighted in the conceit of contemporary subjects being couched in the ancient world. One of the poems was, I believe, seeded at my own dining table.
Drusilla’s Second Half First might well be her memoir, but it is also the story of our lives, women like me born in the mid-twentieth century. She writes of passionate friendships, of fervent conversations around kitchen tables with cheap wine and cigarettes close at hand. She writes of family, of parents in particular and our conflicted feelings as adult children, she writes of lovers (so many of them and so fraught), she writes of books (Woolf, Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, the essential reading of those days), and she writes of the business of writing. Her tone is gentle – easeful – and questing, often infused with a sense of wonder. As I turned the pages of her book I found myself grateful to her for having written it.
Drusilla writes too of PNG, of the Ömie people and their barkcloth paintings, and the SEAM project that she helped to found, a remarkable scheme that brings books and education to children in remote areas of PNG. She writes so vividly about PNG that I easily see my pale, English friend trekking through forests, climbing mountains and sitting on verandahs in the wet heat talking with PNG women.
Two books, poetry and prose, both coming from the deeper part of the author to reach the deeper part of the reader, both have enriched my year and my life. Good books become like old friends. I am grateful to my friends for adding to this precious stock.