Author Archives: Andrea Goldsmith

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

During lockdown, the Melbourne Jewish Book Week conducted its annual gala on-line. The theme this year was Fake It till You Make It. Each of the 6 performers wrote and performed a piece. There was poetry, non-fiction, and music. I wrote a short story which I have posted below. I had quite a lot of fun writing it, and even more performing it.

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

Cleo, goddess of poetry and epic fiction, surveyed the Fake Room from her office on the mezzanine floor. It was Thursday, and the Fake Room was already crowded. She anticipated an uncomfortable crush come Sunday, just before the room was emptied out in preparation for the new week. How times had changed. At this rate there might need to be two clean-outs a week – a situation unknown and unimaginable throughout the entire history of humankind.

Cleo thought fondly of the days when weeks could go by with scant occupancy of the Fake Room, allowing her to get on with her epic poetry. And when people did come in, such a different type of man from the current crop. She remembered Clinton, who DID have sexual relations with Monica; the charm of the man, it wouldn’t have been out of the question that she, Cleo, would have engaged in a bit of canoodling herself. And Hawkey, who did NOT give up booze and Blanche despite what he said, she always looked forward to his visits to the Fake Room. Caesar had been a favourite, and a Byron week was never a disappointment, and Bellow – well, despite his five marriages or, perhaps, because of them, he was a man to love.

The Fake Room is actually the Room for Liars, but ‘Fake’ sounds so much more benign than ‘liar’. As the muse of epic poetry and fiction, Cleo is, in a very real sense, mistress of the word, but she does report to a higher authority. If left to her, she would be calling a spade a spade (so to speak). But don’t be fooled: in the contemporary era, fake is most certainly a synonym for lie and liar. 

From her cubby, she surveyed the current rabble. All the usuals were there, indeed, they might as well change their address permanently. Trump, formally of the White House was chanting ‘Make ME Great again’ while he negotiated with Putin for a new Trump towers in St Petersburg – and his return to the White House in 2024. 

‘Or perhaps Don Junior,’ he said with that peculiar pursing of the lips which reminded Cleo of porn films. 

Boris was covering sheets of paper with pithy slogans to replace ‘get Brexit done’ given Brexit was done – on paper at least. He shouted out each possibility and gauged the response: make Britain great again, he said, (Trump glared); better than French (Le Pen glared); British beer for the Krauts (in the absence of a German, the Austrian Freedom Party leader, Norbert Hofer glared). 

While Boris pursued his next pithy statement, Scott Morrison was putting his hopes in thoughts and prayers, as he juggled how good is coal with how good is gas with how good am I. None of the internationals took any notice of his efforts, but that didn’t bother him; seems Nero Morrison lacks more than the empathy gene; in fact, he doesn’t care about the opinion of the rest of the world: they don’t vote in the Australian elections; and, as a marketing man, he knows the importance of identifying the target audience and feeding them what they need to hear. With his handling of Covid he had the Australian people on side and how good was that? But now, with the vaccine roll-out he is struggling, and the recent spate of sexual accusations is sorely testing him. Jen is doing her best to help him understand (‘Imagine it is your daughter’), but his recent obfuscation about what he knew and when he knew it, coupled with the vaccine fiasco, has, in recent weeks, provided him with a permanent seat in the Fake Room.

Cleo again found her thoughts turning to the old days. The company was extremely good back then and she was happy to leave her desk and mingle with the throng. Aristophanes, Lenny Bernstein, Rilke, Dante – this is a men’s club, not exclusively but overwhelmingly, and it would seem that every man has at least one whopper in him. But today’s rabble is all mindless, narcissistic fakery and there’s no charm nor engagement in that. And the dearth of originality in their lies beggars belief – although belief itself, belief based on sound research seems to have become redundant. For these men with their cravings for power, no lie is too bombastic, no conspiracy theory too bizarre.

What strikes her as extraordinary is the greatest lie of all: so many of these men have pledged themselves to public service, yet they don’t give a damn about the public.

In the modern era, the Fake Room requires so much work. 

Back in the old days, emerging from some excellent conversations, her own fiction and poetry progressed through the pens of Dostoyevsky and Dante, her fellow countrymen Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and many other notable luminaries. Eleanor Roosevelt came a couple of times (the incomparable Eleanor and how Cleo wished she’d had come to stay more often). Fortunately when Eleanor did spend time in The Fake Room – it was that issue with the girlfriend – it was not during the same weeks as her husband. Ted Hughes, Philip Roth, Jean of Arc, the list goes on. These days, the goodies have mostly been forced out. 

And the dramas and highlights of the old days. There were some doozies. Like the time Plato lobbied, ex post facto, to get Homer a prolonged stay in The Fake Room for certain fabrications in the Iliad– no anachronism here as time is not linear in the Fake Room. Plato failed, but it took all Cleo’s ingenuity to get him to back down. Plato was not a good listener, he preferred to orchestrate all dialogue, making him a hard man to convince, and Cleo’s being a woman certainly didn’t help – you will recall not a single woman participated in his symposium. Fortunately though, being a woman, Cleo’s reason was tempered with patience, and she brought him round in the end.

One day during the Covid lockdown when truth-telling, one would think, was more important than ever, and yet the Fake Room was so full that social distancing was impossible, Cleo was watching the boys playing ‘mine is more powerful than yours’. And gradually it dawned on her that there was a way of stopping them, of restoring this place to what it once was. 

The solution had been staring her in the face. 

Cleo, the muse of poetry and epic fiction, had always known about the power of fiction to expose, illuminate and generally bear truths. 

It was time to act.

From that moment on, apart from marking the roll, Cleo left the Fake Room occupants to look after themselves. These guys were never going to make it, not if her plan worked. For several months, she lived on coffee and Red Bull while she wrote and revised, read and reread. When satisfied with her work, she sent the manuscript – quite a hefty tome, to her agent, who had been waiting millennia for it. 

THE BOYS LAID BARE, by Hannah Luxenburg, was published simultaneously in a dozen territories throughout the world. The media for the book was Trump-sized, it was an overnight sensation: the revelations fuelled conversations across the globe. 

Hannah Luxemburg, it seemed, had come out of nowhere. But appear she did. Immediately, the fixers, the lobbyists, the official spy agencies, the mum-and-dad conspiracy spooks got to work, striving to outdo one another in uncovering the author’s dirt – to do unto her as she had done in the BOYS LAID BARE to so many others. Because dirt there must be; politically speaking there is always dirt. And when they found no dirt, they faked dirt. But Cleo was the woman who had talked Plato round so these guys didn’t stand a chance.

After millenia of managing the fake room, Cleo knows more about faking it than the fakers. She knows that you can fake it all you like, but that’s not the way to make it. 

No, not at all. 

Call her old-fashioned, but Cleo is a gal wedded to honesty. And, with a mind full of curiosity and a pen in her hand, she has learned there’s nothing like fiction to reveal the truth.

WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN. Truth, authenticity and personal allegiance in fact-based film.

Talk given via Zoom, at the invitation of the Film Circle at the Melbourne Lyceum Club, August 18th, 2020.

It’s a common enough happening: you and a friend have a cinema date. Knowing your friend’s interest in maths, you suggest A Beautiful Mind, the film about the great mathematician, John Nash.

Russell Crowe is in the title role. 

Your friend is appalled. ‘Crowe looks nothing like Nash. Come to that, Crowe looks nothing like any Princeton-trained mathematician.’ 

Russell Crowe, she’s suggesting, would not be convincing as an intellectual.

Your friend knows very little about Russell Crowe, but she does know a lot about mathematicians. This should have steered you to a safer topic, one in which your friend had less of an interest, less knowledge, less personal investment, but instead you stick with mathematicians and suggest they see The Imitation Game, a biopic of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, father of the computer and leader of the team that broke the enigma code at Bletchley Park. Your friend is a great admirer of Turing, she would probably say that he, more than any other single person, was instrumental in the allied victory in WW2.

So, off the two of you go to The Imitation Game.

When the film begins you are immediately engrossed, but your enjoyment is short-lived, interrupted as it is by derisive explosions that issue evermore frequently from your friend seated beside you. The interruptions become so frequent and the anger of your friend so palpable, that you suggest she leave the cinema and wait for you outside.

She refuses to leave, someone has to witness this travesty, someone who has a deep admiration and a deep sympathy for Alan Turing.

The two of you have planned a drink and early dinner at Jimmy Watson’s following the film. Given your friend’s behaviour during the film, you know what’s up ahead and really wish you could leave her and just go home. But there’s no escape. She hatedthe film and she can’t wait to tell you why. The film, she said, placed far too much emphasis on Turing’s social awkwardness, it made him out to be hardly a social being at all.

‘We, today, are so fixated on the autism scale, but it didn’t exist back then. Why pathologise the man? He was a genius. Why should we expect a genius, a person exceptional – unique – when it concerned maths and puzzles and probably a whole lot more besides, to be just like the rest of us in the food-and-drink aspects of life?’

The film, she said, was indeed a travesty of the great man. It showed little sympathy for what it was to be a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. And throughout the film his mathematical genius was completely over-shadowed by his personal and social deficiencies – your friend, of course, did not use the word ‘deficiencies’. There was nothing deficient in her view of the great Alan Turing. The film, she said, portrayed him as a hectoring, immature, insensitive idiot savant, who was often short on savant.

‘And,’ she added, ‘where was his mother? Apart from a couple of brief mentions, she plays no part in the film and yet she was solidly central in his life.’

Your friend is not happy. She seems personally affronted, she IS personally affronted: Turing is, after all, a figure in her pantheon of heroes, and the film has done him wrong.

But, you say, Benedict Cumberbatch was so convincing, he lent authenticity to the role – at least he did from your less-informed point of view.

Your friend grants that Cumberbatch showed himself to be a fine actor, one who would have done Turing proud if he didn’t have to keep proving throughout the film that he was on the autism scale.

You raise the issue of creative licence and film as entertainment, but she will have none of it: if you want to portray a life then you do justice to that life by presenting it accurately. A life is a life.

But, you continue, a film lasts 90 minutes, a life is several decades long, so of course there will be selections, and of course those selections will be made with the mode – film and entertainment – in mind.

Your friend is unmoved: if they have to skew the life out of all recognition in order to make good entertainment, then they should have chosen either a different topic or a different script-writer.

It’s a familiar scene, we’ve all been there. And it’s not just confined to film: novels that are based on true events and/or real people, the so-called faction form (which seems rather a contradictory term) or the new hybrid form, auto-fiction, are susceptible to the same conflicts, the same arguments. As are films based on novels.

Some viewers of fact-based films or films derived from novels say there should be 100% accuracy to the original events or the original novel, but not even a documentary can meet that standard. The fact is that all film selects its scenes from a much larger swag of material available, putting together a 90-minute cohesive narrative of a true story that might have spanned decades.

Film is not reality, it’s an art form, it is a creation, a different form than the life itself; film based on fact provides a certain translationof a life or historical event. And unlike the life or event, film, excluding purely educational and how-to films, must entertain. Even if a film were able to provide 100% accuracy, and given its time limits and the limits on perspective, it can’t, it has to engage the viewer as well, it has to sweep the viewer into a cinematic world and hold them there – separated from their usual life.

There is a film, in my experience that comes close to 100% accuracy, although it does not tell the whole story. That film is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

Shoahis a 10-hour film about the Holocaust, shown in three parts. Made by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in 1985, it consists of interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, and, as well, it enters present-day sites of pivotal locations: the former concentration camp of Treblinka, the now unkempt railway tracks that carried Jews in cattle cars towards the camps. In all the ten hours there is no archival footage: no heaped dead bodies, no skeletal survivors in striped pyjamas standing at barbed wire fences. 

The film is slow and repetitive, the experience of those who speak, as well as those who can no longer speak, is imprintedon you. It is far far more powerful, in my opinion than the holocaust museums that have popped up around the world. Lanzmann’s film slows you down, it forces you to focus on singular people, singular messages; it uses certain elements of film-making to powerful and unforgettable effect, e.g. the camera looks directly into the faces of those who are being interviewed. You see every twitch and grimace; sometimes it is as if the scenes they are describing are there on the surface of their face.

Is Lanzmann’s film accurate? As far as it goes I think it is. Is it objective? No, not particularly. Is it comprehensive? Of course not: it reveals only a fraction of the factual horrors and complicities of the murder of Europe’s Jews. However, the film is, I believe, authentic, true to the events it depicts. It is convincing. But no, it does not tell the whole truth, and while it does not lie, a different filmmaker, from a different background, although still using interviews, would produce a different 10-hour film, and provide different perspectives, with different emphases to the viewer, and this film might well be equally authentic. After all, there’s much to be said and more to be understood about genocide.

TRUTH AND AUTHENTICITY

I would suggest that films and novels, too, that are based on real events must be authentic, but this does not necessarily mean truthful. To exemplify this point, one need look no further than politics. Trump lies, his lies now run into the tens of thousands, his avid supporters know he lies, they LIKE that he lies, and that he does it in such a cavalier manner is evidence, to them, of his authenticity. For Trump followers, essential to their view of him is that he is natural – he doesn’t use the same sort of performance as real politicians. Trump can drain the swamp because he’s not part of it. Every lie reinforces his renegade status. Each lie confirms his authenticity – to his supporters.

Authentic means genuine, it can also mean reliable and trustworthy; but it does not mean good. Indeed, authenticity, does not have a moral dimension at all – although common usage has tended to give it one. Trump is authentic: he is genuine (no disguises as far as his supporters are concerned); but is he reliable and trustworthy? Trump thrives on unpredictability, I would say he is predictably unpredictable; as for trustworthy, his followers absolutely trust him, even when they know he is lying. They trust him to be their Trump.

To return then to film based on real events, and the notions of truth and authenticity, what to make of a film like The Favourite? This film is set in the time of Queen Anne and it focuses on the well-documented relationship between the queen, her chief lady-in-waiting, Sarah the first Duchess of Marlborough, and the younger woman, Abigail, who usurps Sarah as Anne’s favourite. It was a bit of a romp this film, even farcical at times; Queen Anne’s large weight was a target, everyone’s unscrupulousness was on view, only Godolphin, in charge of treasury, came off unscathed. 

As it happens my oldest friend from school days, Dr Frances Harris, is a world-renowned authority on the relationship between Anne and Sarah. Her life of Sarah, A PASSION FOR GOVERNMENT, is at the forefront of works documenting this period and the court. I thought Frances would hate The Favourite. I thought she would judge it to be a wrongful portrayal not only of the main players, but of the times themselves.

How wrong I was. I will let Frances speak for herself:

Everyone thought I’d hate The Favourite, but I loved it; actually even before I saw it, which was the first day it was released, having seen the poster, which I now have in my study: a collage of the three main characters, the queen largest, Sarah in trans riding-kit, sitting firmly on her knee and Abigail mutinously on the floor with her lip and her legs stuck out like a discarded doll.….That image, by itself, managed to contain a great deal of truth: i.e. that the queen, pitiable and old and disabled as she was, was the most powerful of the three and determined the status of the other two; could take them up and put them down as she chose, like toys. The fantastic central performance of Olivia Colman helped a lot. Though the film made no attempt at strict historical accuracy, it did get a number of revealing things right which historians don’t usually bother to mention: that Abigail Masham’s husband was actually a toy-boy several years younger than herself, for example; or Sarah saying something like: yes I’m bossy and disrespectful and impossible, but you know I’m also rather gorgeous. I think it’s best seen as a kind of extended Gillray cartoon about the gossip and misrepresentation that always surrounded the queen, that she was too much under the influence of her favourites — an important constitutional issue. Though – as an aside – the favourites didn’t find her easily influenced. 

(Gillray – 1756-1815, probably the greatest caricaturists of all time.)

What Frances is saying here is that the film was authentic, although not entirely, or even mostly truthful. It was correct in terms of the TONE AND SENSIBILITY of the times, as well as GENERAL BEHAVIOURS at court, e.g. who was in and who was out, and the excellent performance by Olivia Colman as Queen Anne was crucial to the strength of the film.

FORM AND CONTENT

Back in the halcyon days of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival there was always a lavish festival dinner. One year Faye Weldon happened to be the guest speaker. Some years earlier she had published The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. This novel was typical Weldon: witty, wicked and wise. The BBC made a marvellous mini-series of it with Miriam Margoles in the title role, perfectly cast, with Patricia Hodge also perfectly cast. Some years later, the Americans, wanting to hop on to a successful bandwagon, did as they always do, and remade the film – Americanised it – as if the American viewing public wouldn’t understood and/or appreciate the British version. It was a shocker, all the wit and wisdom was erased to be replaced by heavy-handed humour and plain bloody nonsense, and the cast – Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl in the one bad role of her stellar career) – just didn’t convince.

At the festival dinner, Weldon gave an excellent speech then invited questions. Someone asked what she thought about the American version of The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. Weldon paused – such an eloquent pause it was – and then with an understated wry smile, replied: a book is a book and a film is a film. (I vaguely remember she also added something about a pleasant trip to the bank.)

She is, of course correct. Novels and films are very different forms indeed. A novel can reveal the inner lives of characters; a novel can show why character X did such and such, it can shift the point of view so we can see the effects of character X’s actions on characters Y and Z. The novel excels with interior lives. 

THE POWER OF POINT OF VIEW is well-known to novelists.

In The Memory Trap, I have two characters who behave badly, even brutally – Elliot the biographer and the pianist Ramsay. I did not want them to be ‘baddies’, nor did I want them to alienate reader sympathy, so I gave both of them the point of view at various times in the novel, so a reader can understand why they behave as they do. By giving them the point of view, the reader can get under their skin. 

But point of view is not the only powerful tool in the novelist’s toolbox.

As a novelist, if I want to suggest a particular emotion in a scene, I look to certain parts of speech, certain grammatical constructions, I shorten or lengthen sentences depending on the emotion I want to convey. 

A novelist uses many techniques like these to convey certain information for certain effect, and this in turn shapes reader response.

While the novelist looks to grammar and sentence length, to metaphor and verbs, to convey emotion, the film maker has music and camera angles and close-ups – these, too, shape viewer response.

To take an example: there’s an argument happening between two characters. Quite a different effect is created if the camera takes a wide view and shoots both players in the one frame, as against the camera shifting from one face to the other, one speaker to the other. The camera angle shapes viewer response, most particularly their emotional response, and so does the background music.

At times this sort of manipulation can be infuriating: when the camera homes in on one character and you want to see what another character is doing, or how they are responding. It can be very frustrating. And similarly suddenly the music ramps up the tension, something bad is about to happen, but you’d prefer NOT to have the warning. (Basically you are saying my journey with this film is not what the director had planned for me.)

TIME AND IMAGINATIVE SPACE. 

With a novel you can read a page, and then put the book down and ponder what you’ve read. You can bring in memory and experience and other books, you can consider moral possibilities and ethical dilemmas; when you read a book, you add to it as you go along. YOU add to it. And when you read you go at your own pace – the novelist’s persuasive tools notwithstanding. 

With the various streaming services, with so much film now being consumed in the home, we could watch in the same way as we read – but we don’t. The film nearly always sets the pace, and if you don’t like it, you usually throw the film over and search for something else.

The imaginative space is different for film than for a book. Sure we can – and do – reflect on a film once it is over, but it is rarely to the same extent to the thoughts and analysis we give to a book as we are reading. There is, I am suggesting, more of a reader in a book, than a viewer in a film.

Again – this suggests that a film can never accurately replicate a book because our response is so different for the two forms. (Although if it’s replication one is wanting, exactly the same information, why bother with the film at all?)

PERSONAL ALLEGIANCE (STAKEHOLDER) AND CINEMATIC ENTERTAINMENT

Consider all those films set in ancient or medieval times: SpartacusTroyGladiator(a much better role for Russell Crowe), Joan of Arc, The Agony and the EcstasyBeloved Infidel. I am sure I’m not alone in admitting that much of my exposure to history came through film and novels. It never bothered me that these works weren’t absolutely accurate, they gave me, at the very least, the bare bones, and if I wanted to know more then I went to the library (today, people would probably go to Wikipedia).

But when a film draws on something I know about, when I have a personal allegiance to the material, a stake in it, then my response is very different. (Like my friend with the Alan Turing film.)

In 1997, an Italian film directed by and starring the comedian Roberto Benigni was released. It was called Life is Beautiful. This was a feel-good film set in Auschwitz, and I hated it. It was intended to be a film about the power of the human spirit, and it might have been, but at the same time it trashed the horrors of Auschwitz, obliterating all the inhumanities that went on there as it was trying to show one father’s humanity. Not only did it not reveal anything new or different about how Auschwitz, it actually hid the facts. Anyone seeing that film with only a little knowledge of the death camps would have come out feeling quite jolly and wondering what the Jews were complaining about.

I, on the other hand, being possessed of detailed knowledge of Auschwitz, I, having known survivors who lost all their family in Auschwitz, I, having trod, literally, that fraught ground, was appalled. I was also personally affronted. A film that had been authentic enough to some people was an affront to history and to me. This film won praise and prizes, this film clearly worked cinematically but it did not work for me – nor did it work for historical truth.

Another example of when personal allegiance affected my response to a film that was considered cinematically successful, was Iris. I started reading Iris Murdoch as a teenager, and even though she’s been dead nearly 20 years, I still read her today. Iris is one of my life’s companions. I have read several memoirs about her, and biographies too. I know Iris, and when she died, I was asked to write about her, and my long engagement with her work. (Article below, published in The Weekend Australian, April 26-27, 2003.)

I hated the books written by her husband John Bayley after her death, so when the film IRIS was produced, based on Bayley’s memoir of the same name, I should have been warned off, I should have had more sense than to see it. The best I can say about the experience is that the session my partner and I went to was largely empty. I cried hysterically through much of the film, I, a woman who prides herself on being emotionally restrained, was a blubbering mess. So much emphasis was placed on the poor old dear with dementia, while the great philosopher that Iris Murdoch was, warranted hardly a mention, similarly her novels – all 24 of them. Instead we see her lying in bed watching ‘Teletubbies’. It was dreadful, it was cruel, it was distressing.

Others liked the film, considered it a sensitive film about dementia. But it wasn’t about dementia, I wanted to shout, it was supposed to be about Iris Murdoch. They were no wiser about the great Iris Murdoch at its conclusion – I can guarantee that.

So a film can lack authenticity and truth and still be considered a successful film. Such films have a cinematic logic to them, the narrative holds together, the film is, in short, entertaining – or informative about dementia – although it clearly was not for me given my personal stake in Dame Iris Murdoch.

Truth, accuracy, authenticity. Story-telling, narrative coherence, entertainment. Values, attitudes, allegiances. All these features are relevant: before the lights go down.

AN UNRELIABLE MARRIAGE. The writer’s life and the life of the work

Flaubert said: ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi.’ Can he be trusted? Should he be trusted? And if it were true, does it enhance the reading of Madame Bovary

We live in the Age of the Individual. Personal experience reigns supreme. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, has become I AMTHEREFORE I AM.

One need look no further than memoir for evidence that the self and the individual have become the project par excellence. Memoir is thriving, and not just for those with a public life: anyone can and is co-opting the form. Publishers love memoirs – because memoirs sell. It seems that in these days of Facebook and the like, we can’t get enough of other people’s private lives. 

Without a societal focus on the individual, without a significance accorded to the ‘truth’ of individual lives, the issue of author biography and its relationship to the author’s fiction and/or poetry, would probably not arise.*

Like many others, I believe that a poem or a novel needs to be able to stand alone, separate from its author, otherwise it will have no life. A glance at the work that has survived down the years: Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, both Eliots George and T.S., Keats, Coleridge, the Brontës, it is clear it is the work that matters. After all how many readers know about Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet who died at the age of ten? How many readers know about T.S’s conversion and his treatment of his wife Vivienne, and George’s sinful life with a married man? How many know about Coleridge’s opium habit and the Brontës difficult dad? And does it matter? This work lives on, the work thriveswithout knowledge of the author’s life.

The fact is, we humans have not fundamentally changed in the past 4 millennium – since we started writing things down. And those works that endure are those which explore and tap into fundamental – and enduring – human qualities: love, jealousy, joy, revenge, envy. 

And yet there are certain classics in which knowledge of the author does help, and certain others wherein biographical fixing is essential for any significant understanding. 

Much of Henry James’s work centres on wealthy and naïve Americans lost in the clutches of old Europe. It can enrich a reading of Henry James to know he was an anglophile and ex-patriot American – but it’s not essential. 

It deepens understanding when reading Animal Farmand 1984to know that Orwell was a socialist, ardently and critically opposed to Soviet communism. It further helps to know that the left was polarised between Communists and anti-Communists. Of course, reading Orwell’s marvellous essays would provide all the information required. 

It helps, in reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, to know that Mann opposed the Nazi regime and was forced into exile because of it.

In contrast, there ARE certain works in which the author biography is essential.

Much of Sylvia Plath’s work, for example, although in some instances the biography has overwhelmed the art.

And Proust. All those heated, sexless, obsessive loves with girls in A la recherche du temps perdu, these make a lot more sense when informed by Proust’s homosexuality. And this novel, deeply concerned with the aristocracy and social class, acquires greater meaning when Proust’s Jewishness is taken into account.

And Oscar Wilde’s DEPROFUNDISmakes no sense whatsoever without the biographical details (Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, the terrible trial and Wilde’s subsequent imprisonment). 

SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT

Rather than specific biographical detail, often what is required in deriving the most from a novel or poem is a knowledge of the social and political context surrounding the author. Pasternak and the other great 20thC Russian writers writing within the strictures of Stalin’s regime are prime examples; Dante’s Divine Comedy, with all those notable C14th Italians confined for all eternity in the circles of hell, is another; Coetzee’s Disgraceand Justin Cartwright’s White Lightning, make little sense if unaware of South African Apartheid and the post-apartheid period; an understanding of the poetry of Paul Celan requires a knowledge of the Nazi atrocities; the work of Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid makes little sense without a knowledge of the widespread persecution of Muslims; and full appreciation of books from indigenous Australians like Melissa Lucashenko and Tara June Winch requires a knowledge of the history of dispossession and discrimination against aboriginal Australians. Beyond the world of print, Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony (premiered during the siege of Leningrad) as two works whose meaning is firmly attached to the prevailing social and political context. 

But history is in trouble at the moment. 

We live in an ever-present. The present shouts at us 24 hours a day. There’s the 24-hour news cycle. There’s Twitter. There’s an avalanche of notifications. A knowledge of history was, not so long ago, considered to be crucial for the well-rounded, well-educated person, but not any more. The phone is now the beating heart of the 21stcentury individual. 

What history remains is often, blatantly, in service to the present. I know I am not alone in the irritation engendered by all those period TV series, more concerned with today’s mores than any sort of verisimilitude, depicting aristocratic dinner tables with black people sitting as equals with the white lords and ladies. We moderns might well wish it did happen like that back then – I certainly do – but it didn’t, and indeed, in some parts of the world it still does not happen. (It’s interesting to note that Britain was supporting slavery when many of these period dramas were set.)

Yet so many of the works of the past, if they are to be appreciated fully, require some sort of social and political context. 

So, rather than Orwell’s life, a knowledge of the times in which he wrote, the ardent communists and the equally ardent anti-communists, the pervasive influence of the Russian Revolution, the demise of imperial Britain, these flesh out his work immeasurably.

A good deal of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry makes much more sense when you know about his persecution and exile, when you know what the Soviet regime demanded of its artists – its most creative citizens. 

Take, for example, Mandelstam’s famous poem about Stalin, for which the poet was cruelly punished. The poem makes no sense at all without the historical details. The ‘Kremlin Mountaineer’ in the poem, who comes from Ossetia, a region in Georgia, is Stalin.

MANDELSTAM POEM ON STALIN (NOVEMBER 1933)

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

But where there’s so much as half a conversation
The Kremlin’s mountaineer will get his mention.

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders –
fawning half-men for him to play with.

They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,

One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

FROM THE CLASSICS TO THE MODERNS: and the new issue of CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

My second novel, Modern Interiors, was published when I was 41 – though, at the time, I could have passed for a good deal younger. The central character of that novel is 62-year-old Philippa Finemore. On several occasions when I gave talks or readings, people would come up to me afterwards and say how surprised they were to discover how young as I was. 

The implication was clear: readers assumed that Philippa Finemore was based on the author’s life/experience. Why would a youngish woman be writing about a much older one?

The answer involves curiosity, exploration of certain ideas and the wonderful imaginative ride that is fiction. 

Fiction is a work of the imagination – that’s what makes it fiction. To write about Caesar one does not have to be Caesar. A novelist has 2 or 3 or 4 years to write a book, which is ample time (and a gift, too) to explore what is not known or particularly familiar. However, the contemporary issue of cultural appropriation undercuts this fundamental quality of fiction.

Fiction and poetry are works of the imagination. They are made up. If a writer were forced to write from her own life and her own personal characteristics: white, Australian, Jewish, childless, sexually slippery – how dull and boring this would be. Fiction provides an opportunity both for the writer and the reader to go places they have never been, to enter the hearts and minds of people (characters) they would never meet, to time travel. That’s what fiction does. 

The cultural appropriation argument puts the imagination in lockdown, it starves fiction and poetry of its essential fuel. As a writer I don’t want to be confined in this way. Currently I am writing a character from a Pentecostal family. Some Pentecostals might think I have no right. I would disagree: within the context of the novel, the Pentecostal character serves a narrative purpose. In my last novel, Invented Lives, the central character was Russian – I’m not. I created her family background through the Stalin years. I made her an immigrant to Australia – I’m not. I gave her the experience of exile – I have never experienced this sort dislocation. Fiction draws on the imagination.

I am less sure about this standpoint when it comes to writing from the point of view of a character who is an aboriginal Australian. As aboriginal writers have made clear to me, when you’ve been silenced for so long, when not simply your voices but your culture has been appropriated for reasons not yours, then a white Australian writer would be perpetuating old wrongs if she were to write an ‘aboriginal’ novel. And yet, as a writer whose novels are mainly set in contemporary Australia, I do not want aboriginal people to be absent from my books. (As I do not want Jews to be absent, and back in the days when being gay was still a criminal offence in some Australian states, I wanted gays in my books too.) 

I had an aboriginal character in The Memory Trap. She’s a uniting church minister. She’s strong, her experience of grief is illuminating, it’s a positive portrayal. She has an important role to play in the context of the novel. I was comfortable writing her, and there’s been no criticism. 

THE MAJOR PERSONAL CONNECTION WITH A BOOK, IS THAT BETWEEN BOOK AND READER – NOT AUTHOR AND READER.

A poem or a novel must connect with the reader’s biography, their sensibility, their memories, their experiences, their longings and hopes, and the issues that are compelling their attention at the time of reading. Otherwise the book will have no impact. With this in mind, knowing an author’s biography can actually intrude and diminish the power of the work for the reader. We don’t want to fill in all the spaces, after all every reading is an act of freedom – and for every reader it is an act of the imagination.

We’ve all had the experience of picking up a novel and putting it down again. It simply does not connect. But three years later you pick up the same novel and it takes hold of you. And the reverse: novels that claimed us in our twenties but fall flat decades later. 

Reading is a great intimacy. While you are reading there is the world of the book and your active imagination. It can be and often is an illuminating experience. And because different readers bring to the book different memories, different longings, different knowledge, different beliefs, so there are many different readings of the same novel. This connection between novel and reader, or poem and reader is the one that matters. 

So why this drive to know about authors, indeed, any artist, or great scientist, for that matter. Why isn’t the work enough?

 When it comes to the best work, the work is enough. But I think there is, as well, a desire to understand the creative mind, how it emerges, how it works. There were two books when I was young that I particularly loved. One was titled something like THE CHILDHOOD OF ARTISTS, and the other: THE CHILDHOOD OF SCIENTISTS. I read both these books over and over again. I wanted to know the soil of exceptionality, I wanted to understand the roots of genius, and I expect as an eight-year-old I wanted to grow up to be a great artist or scientist. 

My ambitions might have changed, but my curiosity about exceptional people has not. I read biographies, I want to know about the people, these creators whose work I admire. But I don’t think that knowing the life changes the work for me, I’m not sure it even enhances it. But I do learn about creative lives, their highs and lows, the fits and starts, the exhilaration and the despair – and the mistakes both in the life and the art. (There’s a sense that if a famous person can act foolishly, then I should perhaps be more forgiving of my own similar sins.)

Or is this just high-falutin justification for what is essentially a desire to know the gossip and shenanigans? Is my interest nothing more than a desire to peep through the keyholes of those who are creative and intellectually exceptional rather than the rich and famous like actors and rock stars?

Or perhaps there is some innate hunger to know the other, but know it in safety, through the pages of a biography. The ‘meetings’ in a biography, satisfy our curiosity without demanding that we be witty and intellectually playful ourselves.

CAN THE AUTHOR BE FOUND IN THE WORK?

During the covid-19 shutdown, I had reason to reach for a biography of Thomas Mann. His opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had been briefly alluded to in a book I’d just finished and I wanted to know more. About three years ago I started reading a biography of Mann, one that filled its pages searching out Mann’s homoerotic tendencies in his novels. I put aside that biography in disgust. I know that often novels are effective disguises for who you are – so don’t go searching there for the author. This time I reached for another biography, by a German writer that had been well-received. Fortunately, there was no particular focus on Mann’s homoerotic sensibility, but nonetheless, this biographer still chose to portray Mann’s life through an analysis of the work. I did not finish that book either.

Of course, the author’s biography infuses the work to some extent. In my own case, the themes I choose to explore in my novels are autobiographical. 

Around the time I turned fifty, I found myself reconnecting with friends from my childhood. We had gone our own way during the previous 25 years, they to making families and me doing what I did; but by the time we reached 50, many of the differences had lessened, and, crucially, I was far less judgmental than I had been. This change in my life started me thinking about the nature of enduring friendship. Reunion, published in 2009, reflects this. 

The Memory Trap, a novel that explores the complexity of memory, a novel that has at its centre a character who is an international consultant on memorial projects, was written in the years immediately following the death of my partner. The connection is obvious. And Invented Lives, a novel that explores exile in all its manifestations, was written during a time when Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was uppermost in my mind. 

The themes are autobiographical. But, as I want to keep my friends and family, the characters are made up, the situations are made up, the narrative is made up.

THE CASE OF HELEN DEMIDENKO

It can be dangerous looking for an author in a novel, and in the case of Helen Darville-Demidenko, back in the mid 1990s, it can be downright destructive.

In 1993 the Australian Vogel award for an unpublished novel written by an author under 35 was won by Helen Demidenko for The Hand that Signed the Paper. Two years later, the novel won the most prestigious literary prize in Australia: The Miles Franklin Award. It was after the Miles was announced that the controversy began. It was long and heated and it divided the literary community.

Helen Demidenko purported to be the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. Her family, so she said, had suffered in Stalin’s dread famine of the early 1930s; her family had also been involved in the massacre of Jews during WW2. She fictionalised these events in her award-winning novel. Crucially, the judges referred to the significance of her biography in their appreciation of the novel.

Much was said and written about the book, most of it critical: about the quality of the writing, about the impoverished sense of history, whether the book was anti-Semitic and/or anti-Ukrainian, and much much more. But there have been controversies about winners of prizes before, and it probably would have died down. Except that after winning the Miles, it was revealed, by the principle of Helen’s old school that far from being Helen Demidenko of Ukrainian descent she was, in fact, Helen Darville, daughter of British immigrants. (And why her origins remained secret for so long, why someone had not spoken out earlier, is mystifying.)

If the book had been worthy of acclaim, if the author’s purported biography had not been co-opted in enhancing the book, the deception would not have mattered. 

I spoke and wrote against this book. I thought it was poorly written, I thought the history in the book read more like propaganda; the emotional flatness of the characters echoed the moral barrenness of the book, and, significantly, far too much was made of the author’s purported biography when the book, this apparent work of fiction, was being praised (and awarded prizes). 

Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote at the time:

‘From the time The Hand that Signed the Paperwas awarded the Vogel, judgments of its worth have been inseparable from the biography of the author. When it was awarded the Miles Franklin, the judges made much of the multicultural significance of the book. If this novel had been written by a Helen Darville with no Ukrainian ancestry, on the judges current criteria, it would not have won. When historical inaccuracies in were highlighted, the author resorted to her family history to defend the book. Her grandfather, she says, was murdered by Jewish Bolsheviks – hard to argue against that….Whenever moral issues were raised, the author defended her work as a personal quest to come to terms with her family history.

‘A novel should stand apart from its author, yet Darville-Demidenko has consistently drawn on a family history – now shown to be false – to defend the book, and both she and her supporters have used what now emerges as false biographical data to bolster the book’s significance. Separate the author from this book, as the recent revelations have done, and what is left is the work: … a novel of questionable literary merit with severe moral and historical flaws.’

THE CASE OF HEATHER MORRIS AND HER BOOKS THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZAND CILKA’S JOURNEY

Here the biography in question is not the author’s but the central characters, who were real people: Lali Sokolov, the Tattooist, and Cecilia Klein in Cilka’s Journey. Morris herself refers to both books as novels, novels based on real people, and actual events. Events she tampered with – with fictional abandon.

The families of the central characters in both these books, who assisted Morris in her research, believe their relative has been used and abused. Additionally, people (and/or their descendents) who were involved in the same events, Jews who survived Auschwitz for example, feel wronged, abused, but even worse, experience something akin to a denial of their horrendous experience. From their point of view, events that have scarred their lives have been distorted for entertainment, for material gain, and fame.

The problem here is a problem that besets most so-called FACTION. You can’t have it both ways: this hybrid form rarely does justice to history or to fiction. Morris has justified what she did by referring to her ‘composite’ characters. She takes no responsibility either to the families, who were generous informants, or to Lali Sokolov, the Tattooist, or Cilka/Cecilia. 

When it comes to Heather Morris, the only aspect of her biography that interests me, is what it is about her that made her a ‘fabulist’ of other lives not once, but twice. I’m interested in this type of person, I’m not interested in her work at all.

Truth and fiction have had a long and successful co-operation. Many years ago, the biographer and novelist, Peter Ackroyd, when asked about the two different strands to his work said that he leaves his truths for fiction. This is something every novelist knows. I can explore complex truths using a variety of characters and differing points of view. Furthermore I can flesh out these truths by choosing particular narrative lines, particular scenes, particular setting. Truth and fiction work well together. But truth and fact are not the same.

As a reader, I also look for my truths in fiction – MY truths, not the author’s truths. I trust myself as a reader. And I will continue to read biographies, yes, in search of the springs of creativity, but also for prurient entertainment too. Diaries? Rare is the person who starts a diary entry: I’m so happy today. As someone once said to me about her own diaries, they were the site for emotional sewerage. But letters, they’re in a category of their own, straddling as they do the private and the public. I love reading letters of famous people. Letters are so revealing. They are generally written quickly and without undergoing several drafts. There’s lots to be found there about both the life and the work – and an intimacy often lacking in the rest of life.

__________________________

* In this discussion, I will be concerned specifically with fiction and poetry. Clearly an author’s life is essential to autobiography and memoir. And modern history too, when that history occurs within the lifetime of the author, e.g. a history of the Vietnam War written by a veteran.

MUSIC AND MEANING

WORDS AND MUSIC

This is the text of a talk I gave to the Lyceum Club via ZOOM on September 8th, 2020. Most talks given at the Lyceum during the 2020 lockdown can be viewed on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPas0SJNQwJs_NW9fhYVtXQ

 

I count myself fortunate that music has been part of my life since early childhood. It has afforded me immense pleasure. It has also given me much else besides. Music has enlarged and strengthened and deepened my life. I have found a firmer ground for life’s uncertainties through music, and also a means of tolerating those uncertainties. I am sure I’m not the only one here who has looked to music for solace in these blighted days of the pandemic. As a young girl, it was only when sitting at the piano and playing a piece of music that I would know what I was feeling: music revealed my emotions to me. So, if I had selected the sweet Chopin A major prelude then all was well; ‘That Mystic Word of Thine’ from the Methodist hymnbook (an essential companion for this piano-playing Jew) and things were looking bleak; Mendelssohn’s Song without Words number 14, and I was hopeful that life would open up and become easier. The family would also learn how I was feeling – not always a welcome experience.

Music has also been a master of memory, vividly evoking times past. I hear certain songs, pop songs in particular from my youth, and I am transported back to an earlier time and place, or rather, that time and place is brought into the present. Music is such a present tense experience. I hear, for example, the Beatles track, ‘Lady Madonna’, and I am with a guy called Henry, a fabulous dancer and very good-looking, whose manner of eating was so disgusting it put me off my food – and eventually off him, the sort of guy that if life were all dance he would have been perfect. When memories have fallen into the great forgotten, it is music (and smell, too) that, so often, comes to their rescue.

And lastly, and most significantly, from the very beginning, music has opened my imagination. Music has plunged me into vast and glorious unknowns, out of which ideas and insight emerge, and ultimately characters and story. In a very real sense, music has helped make me a novelist.

While grateful for what music gives me, mostly, I have taken the power of music for granted. Just like one doesn’t question why the blood carries the oxygen to the cells, I haven’t much questioned why – or how – music has illuminated the loves, conflicts, happinesses and griefs of my life. Sure, I’ve read books about the power of music – Nietzsche, Adorno, Anthony Storr – but more out of an intellectual interest, rather than desiring to deconstruct the lived experience of music.

Recently this has changed. Largely connected with the novel I am currently writing, I am wanting to know how music works, works on a person. The novel, working title, ADRIAN’S AWAKENING, has as one of its main characters, Adrian Moore, a 43-year-old academic whose scholarly research focuses on death, specifically the social and cultural work of the dead. Adrian is not at all musical. One day, as he’s driving home to Melbourne from an international meeting in Adelaide, he stops at a coastal town, and while he eats a very ordinary toasted sandwich and refried potato chips he becomes aware of some background music. He is utterly captivated.

Adrian is changed by this experience: not that he knows this at the time. Only later when everything that is going to happen has happened, when he acknowledges that at forty-three years of age he has fallen in love for the first time, and a year or so later when he finds himself foundering in a profound and unexpected grief, only then when he knows he has changed, and changed utterly, does he locate the beginning at that coastal café halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, and that piece of music.

He discovers that the music is Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde(The Song of the Earth), the final movement Der Abschied(the Farewell). What he then does, and does quite consciously is research Mahler – he is a researcher after all. So music, or at least Mahler does enter his life. But for all his researches, these do not bring about the change. The change seems to have happened at some not quite reachable part of himself, and it modifies his behaviour, opens him to experiences and understandings that, at 43 years of age, are new to him.

*****

I believe in the power of music, I have experienced the power of music. In creating this narrative for Adrian I have the opportunity to explore these mysteries of music. How do we understand music? Indeed, what does it means to understandmusic. Why does music affect us in the way it does? Why is music consoling for the bereaved, uplifting for the religious, soothing for the sick? The power of music is widely recognised. Many extreme religious sects actually ban music from the lives of their followers, fearing that exposure to music could release Dionysian – and fundamentally human – responses opposed to church teachings.

George Steiner, in underscoring the mysterious power of music, relates a story about Schumann. Schumann played a very difficult étude. When he was finished he was asked to explain the piece. Silently, he returned to the piano and played the étude again.

Are all my questions, then, moot? Is language lame when it comes to music, as Steiner suggests? Or is language simply irrelevant when it comes to music? Is music the best answer to music’s mysteries?

As a way of understanding a piece of music, critics and commentators often create a narrative. But is there a narrative, in the conventional sense of a story, to a piece of music, and does it help to understanding the music better? Certainly an apt title can shape one’s listening. So, for example, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibitionor Mahler’s song cycle Kindertotenlieder(Songs on the Death of Children) or his Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen(I Have Become Lost to the World) one of the Rückert Lieder predispose a particular narrative, and shape a particular listening. Though the lattermost case, I Have Become Lost to the World, poses a warning in adhering too closely to a title. There’s an ambiguity here: does the title mean I’m in a state of existential misery, or does it mean I am lost in the world of music and work? And does the music resolve the ambiguity? Given the relatively happy circumstances of Mahler’s life at the time (4thSymphony completed, engaged to Alma, career looking up), I would suggest the latter interpretation, but others have not.

It was Liszt who invented the term symphonic poem (or tone poem), in which musical themes and transformations trek a narrative. He wrote a series of 13 orchestral works that he called Symphonic Poems (12 written between 1848-58 and the last in 1882).  These were ‘compositions written to illustrate an extra-musical plan derived from a play, poem, painting or work of nature.’ These single movement works were intended to evoke scenes, thoughts, imaginings in the listener: evokenot representactual scenes. A preface accompanies each of the tone poems. Again these are evocative and abstract, but still, I think they shape one’s listening.

Liszt’s symphonic poems inspired many later works. One of the more well-known is Strauss’s ‘An Alpine Symphony’. This piece in 22 short connecting parts follows a climb up a mountain at night, reaching the summit at dawn, and then the descent. I can easily follow this narrative through the music. But if I didn’t know the narrative, I would have a different experience, and a different understanding of the music. Nothing to do with mountain climbing, not for this listener, but a more personal awakening, something tied far more closely to my own past history, my present longings, my future hopes. Something individual to me.

I decided to explore further this notion of narrative in music. Does a narrative extend the music? Does a narrative extend the listening experience? Does a narrative actually connect music with meaning – verbal meaning?

I listened to several short pieces of music that were either new to me or I did not know well. Some had voice, others had solo piano or cello, all had orchestral accompaniments. I listened deliberately and consciously with narrative in mind, which is to say I listened verballyand semanticallyto the music. (In no case did I consult the text of songs, nor did I use any titles to guide me.) The stories came easily: one piece conjured an ocean, rough seas tossing a boat about and when all seemed to be lost, the music calmed and so did the seas, and the boat made it to shore. In another piece with a contralto soloist, I imagined a love affair, unbalanced, unfair, which eventually finishes in a sad departure. A third was shaped around the Kindertransport of 1938-9, the story of a little girl separated from her parent and being sent alone to a strange country; that terrifying train journey. I constructed each narrative as the music played. It was not difficult.

The interesting thing was, when I listened to the music in this deliberate semantic, verbal narrative way, I did not HEAR the music. Narrative did not help either the music, or my experience of it.

So, I am thinking that to hear music, one has to listen musically? Again that Schumann story: to understand music one has to listen or play it over and over again – not talk about it, or write about it.

I believe in the power of words, but is music where language fails?

****

Why does all this matter? Why not take the power of music on faith? After all, plenty of people do this with other forms of the numinous, so why not with music? (And I do regard music, its existence and essence, as awe-inspiring, intangible and yes, numinous.) I suspect this is exactly what does happen: that many people, perhaps most who are affected by music, accept this without question, accept it on faith.

Back when I was young, a scientist named Professor Julius Sumner Miller had a TV show called ‘Why Is It So?’ In this show he would question the everyday world, the world we all tend to take for granted. Why does it rain? Why does water go round the plug hole and not straight down. Why do insects not fall off vertical walls? Where does the water and waste go when you flush the toilet? I loved this show, it explained so many of the conundrums that worried my days and nights. I wanted to know everything about how the world worked, including those things no one talked about – or taught in school. Maybe my desire to understand what makes music work, is a latter-day expression of my juvenile curiosity.

I’m not interested in the neurophysiological processes that occur when listening to music, such as the brain patterns and the release of endorphins: these neurophysiological explanations don’t gel with the experienceof music. And I’m not interested in technical explanations of tonic fourths and fifths, and the relief of certain chord resolutions; again, such explanations don’t connect with the experienceof listening to music. Most people, including those with little knowledge of music, would hear Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’, or the Adagietto in Mahler’s 5th(well known from Visconti’s film, Death in Venice) or Bruch’s ravishing cello in Kol Nidrei, or the Hymn from Philip Glass’s Akhenaten, and hear these as beautiful. And not just classical music: many would hear beauty in Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ or K.D. Lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. And I expect most people would respond to the energy and power of Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’. The question that interests me is why: why would so many people with different knowledge and experiences, different life circumstances, different hopes and longings share a similar response to certain pieces of music?

Although, of course, I’m revealing my Western bias: most people would notfind the music of Strauss and Mahler and Leonard Cohen beautiful. I once sat through a Chinese opera, a very long opera. The concert ticket had been a gift, and the giver was sitting next to me. I was desperate to leave, but I couldn’t. The music grated, I was not attuned to it in any sense, I felt an almost physical aversion.

I wasn’t raised listening to the didgeridoo, but I’ve learned how to listen to it. I love its earthiness and eeriness; its music throbs and flows with the body’s beat. But I’ll never warm to the Indonesian gamelan. There’s a cultural component here, combined with exposure and familiarity – although the lack of familiarity does not mean lack of exposure. There are many people here in Australia who would say they do not listen to classical music – ever. BUT classical music is everywhere: in lifts, in shopping centres and of course in the movies. To mention just a few: Silence of the Lambs(Goldberg Variations); Oceans Eleven(Claire de Lune); the incomparable Callas singing La Mamma Mortain Philadelphia. Music forms the backdrop to many advertisements. No one who was alive in Australia, back in the days when cigarette smoking was ubiquitous, would have forgotten the swell of Tchaikovsky (Symphony 5, just a few bars in the 2ndmovement) as Paul Hogan encouraged all and sundry to have a Winfield. The fabric of our contemporary life is steeped in classical music.

Of course if art is the best, and perhaps only means of understanding art, as Schumann and others would have it, then there will be not explanation of the type I am wanting. But I’m not prepared to jettison language when it comes to music. I have far too great a faith in language to do so, and most particularly, that aspect of language that goes beyond the one-to-one correspondance between word and meaning, sign and signifier: namely metaphor.

Language is a symbolic system, the symbolic system par excellence. As Magritte so pithily showed in his painting of a pipe: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. (Magritte is being doubly symbolic: the pipe in the picture is not a real pipe, and the word ’pipe’ in the sentence is not a pipe either.) In this sense, language itself can be regarded as a metaphor for being-in-the-world, for the world itself, for time and space, for all that has existed and will exist. Language breaks the concrete boundaries of existence, of the here and now.

Metaphor itself, in the linguistic sense of the term, I consider to be the musical arm of language. In metaphor, words are used in original and creative and often unique combinations, evoking meanings and experiences that go beyond the dictionary meaning of individual words. Metaphor crosses the boundaries of the actual into the imagined, in order to illuminate the actual. Consider the following metaphors:

‘The ripe teenage mulch of his bedroom.’ Ian McEwan Saturday(p.30)

From the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (Open Closed Open)
‘I still have inside me the mad search for emergency exits.’ (p. 6)
‘The soul inside me is the last foreign language I’m learning’ (p.33)
‘Enchanted places are the opiates of my life’ (p.69)

From Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
‘We have neglected the tiny sentences of our life.’  (p.70)
‘There was a cold cheap cankered-looking moon’ (p.72)

And from Dorothy Porter, the poem ‘My At-Last Lover’ (Crete, 1996)

Your face sleeps
illuminated
in the early morning
warmth
of my slack arm

you’re my at-last sound asleep
child
you’re my cat
with a dreaming paw
flexing in my hand
you’re my raw storm
gorgeously spent

and what am I, darling?

Exhausted

and full of trapped bubbles
like honeycomb.

Metaphor is suggestive and evocative, in the same way that music is suggestive and evocative. Metaphor has a mysterious illuminating effect, as does music. The power of a metaphor is expanded by its very abstraction, just like music. There’s an intangible but pungent emotionality to metaphor, just like music.

It makes sense to call metaphor the musical arm of language.

There are times in life when language is lame and music fills the breach, that is, music makes sense of an experience when language has backed off. But it does so in a sort of surreptitious, back-door way. You’re feeling bleak, confused, something is plaguing you, but it’s out of reach. You slump on the couch, you long for blackout, you put in earplugs, open your music library, select a piece of music (although probably could not explain your selection), hit play. And forty-five minutes later, your head is clear, your spirit is lighter, the way forward is less murky and forbidding: you are changed.

It is commonplace to refer to the intangible aspects of music – and yet odd, given that music is so PRESENT. People have  written of the metaphysical dimension of music. I would suggest that music functions as a metaphor to our more grounded experience. Like all metaphors, music strikes deep and on target, it’s evanescent and organic, more original and creative than other explanations, other revelations. And so a person can be changed, changed utterly by a symphony.

Music as metaphor to lived experience; that through music, intangible and imponderable as it is, we know and understand more broadly and intensely this great messy experience of life.

 

THE PLAYLIST I COMPILED FOR THIS TALK

WHEN THE VALUE OF LIFE IS LESS THAN THE VALUE OF A DOLLAR

A reading of Russian history from the 19thcentury to the Revolution and on through the Soviet years (and, some might add, right up to the present day), reveals an enduring feature: human life has been treated as a disposable commodity by a succession of Russian leaders. Under the Czars, peasants died from famine and poverty; Jews died from unpoliced and often state-sanctioned pogroms; enemies of the regime were slain, and disloyal functionaries failed to wake up for breakfast. Under Stalin, the induced famine in Ukraine killed more than seven million people; in the great terror of the late 1930s millions of Russians were murdered; state orphanages were filled with children saddled with ‘tainted biographies’ following the ‘disappearance’ of their parents; friends to Stalin in the evening were pronounced enemies over night and killed by lunchtime the next day; cavalier neglect of the people killed millions during the Great Patriotic War; the siege of Leningrad alone, when next to no help was given to the city by the regime, saw two million deaths over those perilous 900 days; throughout the Soviet years, artists and scientists were sent into exile to wither and die in the wilds of Siberia, while others were left to rot in mental asylums. For decades, the Soviet leadership murdered any opposition, whether real or fabricated.

Reading Russian history, one could be forgiven for thinking that human life counts for nothing when there’s a cause at stake: to win a war, or, for several decades to shore up the power of a despotic leader. The same could be said for China and the huge number of lives lost in Mao’s, euphemistically titled, Great Leap Forward. In a mere five years, more Chinese people died than did Soviet citizens in the entire thirty years of Stalin’s rule.

I have been reminded of this each day when I read the world-wide incidence of covid-19, together with the number of deaths and recoveries for each country. Even before the statistics from the US soared to reach the top of this distressing chart, I noted how the percentage of recovered patients to incidence was worse for the US than practically any other country, indicating what a parlous state that country’s health system was in, and how all, except the wealthy, were affected by this. This was in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. I thought at the time that the situation in the US could become quite serious, although certainly not as bad as Italy, after all the US was a wealthy country. But I had not factored in Trump or his administration, or a Congress dominated by Republicans, nearly all of whom have relinquished all moral principles to follow a leader who makes no bones of having relinquished his moral principles long ago – if ever he had them.

It would seem that some people, nearly always men, will do anything to build their power, and that other people, handsomely served by the prevailing hegemony, will do anything to maintain it.

The chart below shows relative statistics on May 14, 2020.

COUNTRY               CONFIRMED CASES     DEATHS                   RECOVERED

AUSTRALIA                  702298                        98                          6301 (89.7%)

US                              1,390,406                    84,119                     243,430 (17.5%)

RUSSIA                          242,271                     2212                      48,003 (19.8%)

UNITED KINGDOM     230,985                   33,264                         1032 (??)

SPAIN                            228,691                   27,104                      140,823 (61.6%)

ITALY                            222,104                    31,106                       112,541 (50.7%)

GERMANY                   174,098                     7861                           148,700 (85.4%)

IRAN                            112,725                      6783                             89,428 (79.3%)

CHINA                          84,024                       4637                             79,246 (94.3%)

INDIA                          78,055                        2551                             26,400 (33.8%)

CANADA                     73,568                       5425                              35,177 (47.8%)

MEXICO                     40,186                         4220                             26,990 (67.2%)

ECUADOR                 30,486                         2334                               3433 (11.3%)

 

It’s easy to lie with statistics, this is commonplace knowledge. And enough is known about countries like China, Russia and Iran to treat their official figures with suspicion. There are, however, issues specific to the coronavirus figures.

  1. 1. It is commonly accepted that the number of confirmed cases is far less than actual cases. There are a number of reasons for this, first and foremost being the low level of testing in many places. But there are also particular features of covid-19, that reduce the numbers, specifically, an incubation period of at least fourteen days; and there are some infected people who will remain asymptomatic at all times. The gap between confirmed cases and actual cases should decrease with wide scale, reliable* testing.
  2. Re deaths and recoveries: neither can be determined until each known case is resolved. This also afects the numbers.
  3. In some countries, for example the UK, deaths in care homes have not been taken into account until very recently. A comparison of UK care home deaths this March-April compared with previous years, suggests a significant number of unaccounted cases of covid-19.
  4. With the best will in the world, it’s extremely difficult to arrive at accurate figures from poorer countries like India and Ecuador.

So, the actual figures are assumed to be much higher than the official numbers. But even on the lower, under-reported figures, the situation in the US is truly shocking. The US is purported to be the richest country in the world, the most advancedcountry in the world. And yet the incidence of covid-19, the number of deaths, and the appallingly low percentage of recoveries shows that the administration has failed its citizens to an astonishing degree.

Trump’s boast that there’s been more testing in the US than anywhere else is a blatant lie. Back in Mid-March according to one Washington DC report, the level of testing in the US per capita was the lowest in the world. The numbers gradually increased – many governors pleaded with the federal government for testing kits and protective gear to no avail – and according to a report in the New Yorker published May 14th, reached an average of 265,000 people per day by the first week in May. While this is nowmore tests than any other country, per capita the US still lags far behind. And given that intensive testing started so late, the country will probably trail behind in per capita testing for some to come.

The president has consistently downplayed the pandemic. Remember when he planned to have the country re-opened by Easter? One of the most extraordinary outcomes of his deceitful optimism is that during those daily two-hour press conferences in April, aka re-election rallies, he hardly mentioned the thousands of deaths, rarely acknowledged the pain and loss so many people were suffering. He treated these sessions as re-election opportunities, keen to tell everyone what a wonderful job he was doing, that hismedical expertise was better than his top medical advisers (after all, who came up with the idea of ingesting disinfectant?), that he could be trusted to manage the health crisis and the economy, and deal with China and the WHO at the same time. Trump seemed to fancy himself as a cross between Christ and Churchill. As I observed him at these daily briefings, I was reminded more of Richard III crossed with Madame Defarge.

It doesn’t matter how many deaths occur, Trump has work to do: specifically, to shore up his election prospects. His every press briefing, his every tweet is in service to staying in power. This is a man convinced he knows everything and can do anything (even delay the presidential elections in November). His intuition is infallible, and much more effective than everyone else’s reason and expertise. And should there be a mistake, he’ll blame it on China, or a formerly trusted member of his team – although there is no team. If you do not do the will of the master, then you’re out. Dr Fauci who has done a remarkable tight-walking act, will, I predict be out of a job before too long.

Trump, like Stalin before him, holds no responsibility towards his nation’s people. These people are nothing more than a means to an end, and, as such, they are dispensable – at least a percentage of them are. The death toll from coronavirus in the US will be well over 100,000. It could rise to over 200,000. Trump is good at numbers. He knows he can lie his way through 200,000 deaths and still have sufficient voters to re-elect him. To him, 200,000 deaths is not even a small price to pay, it’s no price at all, because he doesn’t care about these citizens, indeed, he’d probably dismiss them as collateral damage.** There’s only one deal and that’s to keep him in the White House, and keep him untouchable.

Stalin was the same.

To win in November, Trump believes the country needs to get back to work. 200,000 deaths touch maybe a million people. But unemployment in excess of 20% touches millions more, and not acceptable to the self-proclaimed best economic manager the US has ever known. Covid-19 started out as a nuisance for Trump, then it got in the way of his plans. If it costs lives to reclaim his agenda, so be it. Only one person matters, and not simply in America, but throughout the world, and that is President Trump of the United States of America. Much the same observation has been made of Stalin and the failed state of the USSR.

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*An astonishing number of test kits have been shown to be unreliable.

** Beware all euphemisms. Their function is to cloak the truth in something more pallatable. ‘Collateral damage’ sounds so much more acceptable than ‘people – men, women and children were killed by our actions’. ‘Great Leap Forward’ and ‘Five Year Plan’ hide the millions of people who died as the Soviet Union and China modernised.

PANDEMIC PASTIMES

 

My favourite letter is /p/. It’s not the sound – a voiceless plosive has little to recommend it over

A page of /p/ in personal dictionary.

the musical nasal of an /m/, or the remarkable laterals of /r/ and /l/ – it’s that the most interesting words start with /p/, more than any other letter. I’ve not arrived at this conclusion through research or experimentation, rather it is a matter of experience, backed up by the personal dictionary that I have compiled over many decades. /p/ fills more pages and sparks more interest than any other letter.

In these strange times of the corona virus pandemic, the peccadilloes and proclivities that have sustained me are poetry and prose, paintings and politics. And music, of course, the piano and preludes, but much more than these.

This post is not about my favourite letter, indeed, only in unique times such as these, would I indulge my fondness for /p/; nor is this post my usual sort of article. Rather I want to let you know about a new pandemic pastime of mine.

********

In 1912, in the city of Melbourne, a group of women established a club for women. They called it The Lyceum Club after the London Lyceum which had been formed eight years earlier. Both then and now ‘the Club is for women interested in the arts, the professions, science, contemporary issues and the pursuit of lifelong learning in an apolitical, non-sectarian environment.’ I’d not heard of this club until a few months ago, when I was invited to be the Lyceum’s 2020 artist-in-residence.

I accepted the invitation and, in conjunction with several of the Lyceum Circles* (clubs), I planned a program of lectures and interviews and forums.

Then came the lockdown.

The Lyceum Club events quickly shifted on-line, including a Youtube channel so the artist-in-residence program could go ahead. The first lecture, ‘Imagination and Creativity in the Digital Age’, is currently available. In mid-May, a second talk will be recorded on ‘Truth in Fiction’.

Flaubert said: ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi.’ But can we trust him? Should we trust him? And if it were true, does it enhance our reading of Emma Bovary? These issues will be explored with reference to a range of writers. The talk will include a consideration of cultural appropriation and faked biography through the cases of Helen Demidenko, Heather Morris and Bruce Pascoe.

A third talk on memoir will appear on the Youtube channel in June.

These past several weeks I have been reading a lot of poetry. Poetry, with its intensity and concision, is perfect for these times. It provides illumination and insight, it provides distraction from immediate anxieties, and it does all this in a few lines. It suddenly occurred to me: have-channel-record-poetry. So I have. Short readings of favourite poems are also there on the Youtube channel.

The Youtube channel is available to anyone interested. So, if you are wanting a poetry fix, or you’re interested in the lectures here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPas0SJNQwJs_NW9fhYVtXQ

And for more poetry the Australian Book Review has made a podcast of Poetry in Troubled Times.

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/podcast/760-the-abr-podcast/6472-the-abr-podcast-more-poetry-for-troubled-times-13

When this is over, I will resume my articles on this website, but until then I’ll be writing and recording for Youtube. But please do come along for the duration.

 

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*There are dozens of these circles including the Latin Circle, the Psychology Circle, 15+ reading circles, Italian and Greek Circles, gardening and chess, film and finance – a remarkable range.

 

Surviving the Pandemic

I am reading Colum McCann’s latest novel, Apeirogon. An apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of COUNTABLE sides – I delight in this notion. The book is brilliant. Mesmerising, with an incantatory effect in parts, it is long, structured in sections, some only comprising a single sentence. The story (though there really is not a story per se) is shaped around real events: a friendship between a Palestinian man and an Israeli man, both of whom have lost their daughters in the on-going conflict; these are ordinary men, yet extraordinary in what they do, how they understand. The book is about everything: the habits of birds, biblical characters, partition, the holocaust, the Irish troubles, tight-rope walking, every section providing another layer or another SIDE to the apeirogon. Detail by detail, story by story, the book builds a picture of…of the world really. There’s no plot, not in any traditional sense, but the book is unputdownable. It is, truly, an awesome achievement. When I first saw the title, I scoffed: how could any author be so foolish to provide a title that is meaningless to the vast majority of people. But Apeirogonis exactly right: this book is an apeirogon, the world we inhabit is an apeirogon.

While I am reading, the world beyond the book is silent, held suspended, does not impinge. While I am reading, I do not reach for my phone, I do not even think of my phone, nor my iPad, nor my computer. While I am reading, I do not think of the coronavirus. I am fully engaged in the world of the novel. And my mind is working, working hard. As the world of the novel expands layer by layer, panel by panel, I am making connections, imaginative connections; as I read, my own world grows larger and my understandings deepen.

When the world appears to be hostile and/or when you have lost your place in it, when your anxieties have fully occupied you, squeezing out both rationality and humour, fiction provides easy and readily available respite. Indeed, for my entire life, when things have gone awry, I have reached for fiction, most particularly the novels of Jane Austen – dear Jane – but many others as well. And for a time, with the novel in my hands, my dog’s head resting on my thigh, I am transported into other lives, other places, other times, other minds.

No matter how long this pandemic lasts, the fiction will not run out. Go to your book-cases and take down those classics you’ve always intended to read again. Go to the website of your local bookshops, they all have on-line ordering and delivery services. And your library has a wealth of books; best of all, if you’re set up for e-delivery, you won’t need to leave the couch. We are all going to be spending more time alone and with our immediate family. And this is where fiction is so versatile. You can read aloud with your beloved; you can read to your parents; you can read to your children, and you can read quietly, in peace, for an hour by yourself, while the world outside stumbles along.

 

 

GEORGE STEINER

George Steiner died early last week (February 3rd). He was 90. Many tributes have been written, old interviews have been replayed*, a so-called ‘posthumous interview’** has been published. Several of the tributes include a sting-in-the-tale comment, as if the author can’t help himself (all the articles I’ve read so far have been written by men) about how Steiner inspired controversy with his strongly-held views about the primacy of the primary text, the shortcomings (parasitism) of the critic, diminished standards in the contemporary academy, to name just three. What others call elitism, was Steiner’s life of the mind. George Steiner was a fearless intellectual, he was not going to write to please an audience. (Again and again I am struck by how elitism in an intellectual is condemned, yet lauded in an athlete.)

While I mourn Steiner’s passing, far more intense is my gratitude that he existed at all. Through many decades, Steiner generously opened his mind to readers, sharing his extraordinary erudition in books that can be read over and over again. On hearing of his death, I immediately started rereading one of my favourites, Real Presences. There are notes from past readings, and I am adding different notes now, Steiner always gives me more.

Soon after Real Presenceswas published in 1989, I attended a lecture given by George Steiner. In my memory, it was held at a lecture theatre at the Tate (the old one at Millbank – Tate Modern didn’t exist). It seems an odd place for a Steiner lecture, and I wonder now if I’ve made it up. But I see the lecture theatre – it held about 200 people – the seating rising in long rows, and I am sitting about halfway up and a little to the right. I feel as if I’m there alone, listening to Steiner alone, but my copy of Real Presencesis a signed gift from my dear London-based friend, Frances, so I expect she was there, together with J, who first introduced me to Steiner several years earlier. But I don’t sense their presence. Steiner is standing at a lectern. I assume he has notes, but he doesn’t consult them. He talks without pause for an hour, and I am held, held utterly, in that lovely distinctive lilt, the creative language, the lush eloquence, the astonishing ideas.

In lectures, in interviews, and in his books, Steiner commands my entire attention. He makes me think, he introduces me to writers I’ve not read (Alberto Manguel, very much alive and as productive as ever does the same). I don’t always agree with Steiner, but I am always nourished. And invigorated.

A couple of years ago (August 2017) I wrote about Steiner in a piece posted here called ‘Pardoning your Heroes’. I reprint it here in acknowledgement of the great debt I owe him.

 

* This is a wonderful interview from 1994 with Elaine Wachtel of CBC’s Writers and Company, replayed following Steiner’s death. Go to the Writers and Company website, it is the program of 9/2/20.

**https://www.fr24news.com/2020/02/posthumous-interview-with-george-steiner-i-did-not-have-the-courage-to-create-culture.html

 

PARDONING YOUR HEROES (originally posted August 2017)

 

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday(University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silenceas a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler, this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could be so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturdaywarrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough notto meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this isthe voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they dogive us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether youare enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauungclouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacyof reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spentor Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear hisvoice in the process of mydeciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes tocreativeloves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steinerhas inspired. This is what heroes do.

INSTEAD OF A MEMOIR

I’m at the age when people write memoirs.

I have plenty of memorable events to account: I never got the hang of childhood, so childhood itself was made strange; I have a hyphenated identity as a Jewish Australian; I have loved men and I’ve loved women; as a novelist I have a public life, and in that life I meet interesting people, many of whom I count as friends; my partner, Dorothy Porter, was one of Australia’s best-known poets. There is much to fill a memoir, yet I have never been tempted – and that remains the case.

Three recent events have brought me to a new consideration. I am currently reading Irving Yalom’s Staring at the Sun(2008). In this book Yalom, an American psychiatrist now in his late eighties, explores the commonly held fear of death – not a fear I share, incidentally. Irving Yalom is my favourite psychiatrist. He is a humanist, an intellectual, a man of profound erudition and empathy (how rare and wonderful to link those two qualities), a writer of rich and elegant prose. The first half of Staring at the Sunis written in his usual style, in which he draws on his work with patients to explore and understand an essential aspect of the human condition, in this case the extent and variety of death fears; he shows how these fears emerge in therapy and how they are resolved. Along the way he draws on writers and thinkers including Tolstoy, Epicurus and Nietzsche.

The second half of the book, which I have only just begun, documents his own personal story. My reaction was immediate: why a specific section on you, when you emerge as actor and thinker and compassionate therapist in all the stories you tell of your patients? In short, why a memoir when I have a strong sense of Yalom through his books.

The second event was the funeral of the renowned French horn player, Barry Tuckwell. There were wonderful speeches, warm and humorous and revealing of Barry’s life. And there was music, lots of music, including recordings of Barry himself. In ways I can’t explain (but hope to do so in my next novel), Barry’s music revealed more of the man, or rather, had a more profound effect on me than the stories told of his life.

The third event was the follow-up to a dinner with a relatively new friend. We were talking about our adolescent reading, the authors we read and the effect they had. He seemed surprised at mine: all of Leon Uris, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Somerset Maugham, and many many Iris Murdochs. I explained that I stopped reading books specifically written for children at quite a young age (of course back then, children read the likes of Dickens and Austen and the Brontës). I read the classics, but I also read the contemporary novels I found on my mother’s bookshelf. I explained how I would choose a book and then ask my mother whether she would recommend it; I added that some of these books had got me – a good girl – into trouble at school. I told my friend that I’d written about this, and said I’d send some pieces along to him. (I sent him ‘Conversing with Famous Dead People’, posted under ‘imagination’, and the lecture I gave to the National Library of Australia, ‘Private Pleasures and Public Exposure: the Creative Imagination in the Digital Age’, posted under published essays.)

This morning I scrolled through the articles on this website, and it occurred to me as I saw pieces about travel, about books read, about ideas; and articles about biography, about letters, about starting a novel, that writings like these reveal a huge amount about me, more and of greater variety than any memoir – just like Yalom. A memoir is selective, the writer tells only what they want. They have a specific purpose in writing the memoir and the content is selected with that purpose in mind. These articles however, are propelled by curiosity, and by a belief in the power of language and most particularly written language to reveal, to communicate, to connect.

I do delight in the way new ideas appear and develop. Three separate events occurred, and they percolated together and linked in with memory and goodness knows what other richnesses of mind, and suddenly there’s a new insight, a new idea.

A thought is now emerging: that I will select a number of these pieces, along with some of my long essays and collect them together under the title: Instead of a Memoir. Just a thought at the moment, but if it gathers traction I might very well act on it.

Hectic Reading. Starting all over again (3)

HECTIC READING. STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN (3)

It’s happening again: I’m reading hectically. I’m filling up. Little in the way of rhyme or reason at this stage, just following the imagination’s peccadilloes. I finish a book and within minutes I’m reaching for a new one. Every few days I stop long enough to write notes, prompted by my jottings in the back of each book and the wanderings of a mind set free. The jottings and the notes sometimes bear no relation to anything that has gone before, but more often they feed the new novel that is slowing forming, or, not so much the novel as a whole, but the characters who will carry the story.

Here are the current volumes.

  1. Deborah Levy. The Man Who Saw Everything. I’m reading this book because of Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House. I went to Readings Bookstore in Carlton to buy the Patchett, and there, in the new releases was Deborah Levy’s new one, a novel that traverses the 1980s to the present day, character-based and ideas-driven, and written in Levy’s lucid rich prose. I am 1/3 the way through and Levy’s characters are provoking some surprising thoughts about my own very different characters. (Incidentally, Patchett has returned to form with The Dutch House. Such a subtle, yet intricate portrayal of family relations.)

  1. David Biale. Gershom Scholem. Master of the Kabbalah. Mention of this book was made in a recent article in the NYRB. It occurred to me that while Scholem’s name was very familiar to me, I knew nothing about him, nor the Kabbalah. Biale’s book is part of the excellent Yale Jewish Lives Series – a recommendation in itself.

Jewishness in any of its manifestations is not a theme in my new novel, but suddenly it seemed essential, and urgent, too, that I learn about Scholem. I read the book over two days. Scholem was a great scholar and there are some wonderful quotes in Biale’s book about the power of writing, of language, of story. One quote from Goethe’s Faust particularly struck: ‘Parchment – is that the secret fount/ from which you drink, to still your thirst forever?’ And from Scholem himself: ‘the desiccation of the language has dried out our hearts.’

One of the characters in my new novel, Adrian, is grappling with the problems of meaning, and, in particular, the nature of meaning without language. I put my books aside and listen to Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, a piece of music that has a profound effect on Adrian early on in the new novel, an effect that, wordman as he is, he simply does not understand. I let the music lift me out of the quotidian into the imagination’s swirl. The music plays, the voice lures, and I travel without will, without any monitoring whatsoever, through memory, musings, ideas, images that are not in the least essayist, but more like a Kandinsky painting.

 

  1. Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art

In this book, Kandinsky explains his theory and understanding of art, music, and the numinous. In the years 1911-1914, Kandinsky produced a number of large lyrical paintings. I’ve always loved these paintings, but it was only this past November, when I saw some of them again at Munich’s Lenbachhaus, that I realised the connection these paintings have to music and, more generally to a meaning that seems to circumvent language (Rothko’s work has the same effect). As I read Kandinsky’s book – it’s a slender book, but it demands a careful reading – some of the struggles and insights that beset my character, Adrian, sharpen and, at the same time, acquire a firmer foundation. Rather than the usual fragments that characterise this early stage of a novel, I actually reach for a proper notebook and write several pages.

 

  1. While I was in Germany I read Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Ironyin which she, like others before her, visits the Hungarian intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, an extraordinary group that included the mathematician John von Neuman, Arthur Koestler and Robert Capa, my favourite physicist Leo Szilard, and Elias Canetti – although Canetti could be said to have come from several places including Bulgaria and Vienna. Anyway Canetti was mentioned by Perloff, and I realised I had not read his three-volume autobiography. I’d always assumed I had, it being one of the books I OUGHT to have read.

I’ve read the first volume now, The Tongue Set Free, and am 2/3 the way through the second volume, The Torch in My Ear,the volume that charts his late teens through his twenties.

Books find you at the right time, and this is clearly my time for the Canetti autobiography. This morning I read a section in which Canetti may or may not be in love with a Russian chemist, Eva, who works in the same laboratory as he does. I think of the ramifications of not knowingif you love someone, and I’m not thinking of Canetti and the Russian chemist, I’m thinking of another of my characters, Claire, caught in a marriage that she regards as deep and meaningful and everyone else sees as cruel and destructive. I make some jottings and read on. Several pages later, Canetti writes of a specific type of hearing, a rare type of hearing that ‘was impossible unless you exclude your own feelings.’ My character Claire thinks about the common intrusion of this ‘I’. What people usually hear is first sieved through a mesh of their own desires and disappointments. And Claire starts to wonder about her own husband, what actually drives him in his relationship with her. I reach for the notebook.

 

  1. And poetry. I’m still dipping into Ted Hughes’ Crow— my character Adrian is an expert on death – and I’m about to pull down Goethe’s Prometheusfrom the shelf (it was mentioned in the Canetti autobiography), and I’ve not long finished The Death of Empedocles, both Hölderin’s and Matthew Arnold’s versions.

So this is just the current reading. If I glance down my lists for the last months of 2019 there are a lot of books, and very diverse. And what emerges from all this reading? An imagination that is ranging far and wide (definitely without a roadmap), new thoughts, new ideas, nascent characters who are gaining in flesh and sensibility, interesting scenes and curious events (most of which won’t survive the first draft), and three roughish chapters.

And so it goes. At the end of it all one hopes there’ll be a new novel. Ihope there will be. But it couldn’t happen without reading. Indeed,lifecouldn’t happen without reading.

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