Category Archives: Biography

The Passion of Letters (2)

This is the follow-up article to EPISTOLARY PLEASURES, posted 22/6/15.

I am reading Jonathan Galassi’s novel, Muse, an indulgent, insider’s treatment of independent literary publishing houses, together with their publishers, editors and pesky authors. (Jonathan Galassi is publisher at Farrar Straus Giroux, and Homer Stern, one of the main characters of Muse, shares much in common with Roger Straus.) The first half of the novel consists of long, flat character sketches, with no narrative to flesh out the characters or, indeed, make them stick, dotted with pseudonyms for well-known writers such as Sontag (here a black woman writer, but otherwise Sontagian), Brodsky (can’t resist citing S and B together), Bellow, Malamud, Walcott, and many many others. (Even our Les is mentioned later in the book, and by intimate first name – no pseudonym for him.) Fortunately Muse picks up halfway through when it shifts from tuneless character description to a story with narrative pull.

So I’m reading about Ida Perkins, the famous, successful poet at the centre of this novel, when I come across a reference to onion skin paper. The American narrator associates it with European paper suppliers. That sends me on a search of French web-sites for papier en pelure d’oignon (pelure, I have just discovered in my long-neglected Petit Larousse, is the skin, peau, found on fruits and vegetables). Much to my disappointment, thirty minutes of wandering the web has yielded nothing so concrete or desirable as un canet de papier pelure (a pad of onion skin paper).

Onion skin paper, so rare in today’s world, is mentioned in Muse, a recently published novel. And I recall that Patrick White, in order to save on postage, used onion skin paper to send his manuscripts – typed single spaced – to his overseas publishers. I’m scrabbling for onion skin paper references, as if the mention might somehow conjure up the real thing. (Jean Porter, Dorothy’s mother, sent me an aged half-quarto onion skin pad containing a half a dozen airmail blue sheets. I now ask all people of a certain age to search deep in their desk drawers for long-forgotten onion skin pads. And I ask the same of you, too, dear followers of this website.) The fact is I can’t have too much of the stuff.

I pass the days with a heightened awareness of onion skin paper; I’m also alert to any references to letter-writing. The latter are surprisngly common given the ubiquity of email, twitter, texting and the like. The mind seeks out what it needs. If it is focussed on onion skin paper, it will find references to onion skin paper that would have been previously missed. A mind attuned to letters will find them, in drawers and filing cabinets, in conversation, and most particularly in books.

One of the great pleasures of reading is that it generously satisfies the bookish wanderlust of the devoted bibliophile. You start with one book, follow a reference to a second, double back to the first; then you might take a tangent off to a third book, a fourth, a fifth, and so on. People think that this sort of meandering was invented with the web, but of course it has been around for as long as print.

Last month was a Ted Hughes month for me. I began with Elaine Feinstein’s concise and informative biography, moved on to Hughes’s poetry, and I revisited Janet Malcolm’s excellent book, The Silent Woman, about the stoushes surrounding the writing of the various biographies of Sylvia Plath. One of these biographies was written by Anne Stevenson – a very torrid and trying project for her – who, I discovered in my rereading of Malcolm’s book, wrote a verse novel called Correspondences. A Family History in Letters, (OUP, 1974.) This detail entirely escaped my attention when first I read Malcolm’s book in London, back in 1994, but then I was not alert to letters in the same way as I am now.

I finally located a copy of Stevenson’s book through Better World Books*, and it arrived a couple of days ago. It is a lovely red cloth hardback. It carries a library catalogue number plus the imprint of the library: University of California, Riverside. The withdrawal slip on the inside of the back cover is pristine: there has not been a single borrower. The spine of the book is very stiff, it does not feel as if this book has ever been opened. Sad, I find myself thinking, but pleased that this handsome book has found a home now with me..

The earliest poem-letter in the book is dated 1829, the latest, 1968. The letters are supplemented by fictional newspaper clippings and other bits and pieces of connective tissue. The book is slender, just 88 pages. I read it at a sitting and glean through these letters the lives and times of several generations of a New England family. The letters provide plenty of narrative, but, at the same time, they open up huge narrative spaces which I willingly fill.

This, I decide, is one of the pleasures of reading the letters of others: what is written leads easily on to what is not written – but could be. Or what’s an imagination for?** So it’s not simply the entrée to a private life that’s the attraction of letters, it is also that letters, from someone unknown to you written to someone else also unknown, provide space for you: the intruder, the snoop, the trespasser, the eavesdropper, the peeping Tom, the insatiably curious, the writer in search of characters: you.

I’ve always known this. So many diaries are written with an eye to posterity; the writer at her/his desk copying out today’s offering, every now and then glancing over a shoulder to see who is watching. Letters, too, can carry this same self-consciousness – but not all of them. In a single volume of a famous person’s letters it is not so difficult to determine which have been written primarily for future generations and which are utterly rooted in the time, the place and the grievances of the author’s present. This immediacy of an authentic letter is gold for all future readers, but particularly for biographers. Indeed, letters are the gold standard in manuscripts.

Janet Malcolm expresses this exactly. (The Silent Woman. Picador, 1994. P. 110.)

‘Letters … are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, inauthentic, suspect. Only when he (sic) reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes. He allows the reader to be a voyeur with him, to eavesdrop with him, to rifle desk drawers, to take what doesn’t belong to him. The feeling is not entirely pleasurable. The act of snooping carries with it a certain discomfort and unease: one would not like this to happen to oneself. When we are dead, we want to be remembered on our own terms, not on those of someone who has our most intimate, unconsidered, embarrassing letters in hand and proposes to read out loud from them to the world.’ (Emphasis added.)

In The Science of Departures, the character, Sylvie, who collects letters knows exactly this close, intimate connection with a stranger, this artless exposure of the letter-writer; she knows, too, the thrill of secret transgression. She was taught, as was I, that to open a letter not addressed to you was tantamount to stealing. It was, simply, one of the worst sins you could commit. Sylvie’s life is narrow. Born in 1930, she is too old to benefit from the freedoms of the 1960s, and too timid to draw from feminism and free education in the 1970s. The letters in her collection, about 200 in total, transport her to times and places she would never visit in a lifetime, and they take her into the hearts and minds of men and women whom, even if she were to meet them or their ilk, she could never know – or herself – so deeply or intimately as she does from their letters.

I find myself wondering if Sylvie’s life were fuller would she continue to collect letters. I have just finished a chapter in which I introduce her to the man who will become her lover (she’s in her fifties, it will be a grand passion) so I will have to decide at some point. Yet my inclination is that her letter collecting will endure: that most lives ought to be large enough to contain more than one passion, and messy enough to benefit from the the order that accompanies any collection.

Sylvie is not the only character I’ve created whose pleasures are bound up with letters. In Reunion, (4th Estate, 2009), Jack, knows the power and pleasure of writing and receiving letters. He and his beloved Ava complete their post-graduate study in Oxford. She stays in Oxford with her husband, while Jack returns to Australia. The following is from Reunion, p.6.

‘Within days of arriving back in Melbourne Jack had written to Ava, a long humorous account of the potholes of homecoming that disguised the misery he actually felt. And she had quickly responded. The pleasure of that letter was astonishing. This written communication, Jack realised, involved the two of them in the sort of intense and intimate conversation he had always longed to have with her. Soon they were exchanging weekly letters in what would eventually become a twenty-year correspondence.’

Jack has loved Ava almost from the time of their first meeting. The correspondence between them manages to sustain his unrequited love, and it does so safely, fuelled not by uncertain and flawed reality but rather his fertile and utopian imagination.

‘Anyone who has enjoyed an intense written relationship is well-acquainted with the impact of words that are read rather than spoken. In the silence of a room, with all stops pulled out on imagination, emotions swirl like magma below a charged earth. You feel the fire and the erotic plumes, you spark with possibilities, and it begins even before you open the latest instalment, when you collect the mail and recognise her letter. You know her handwriting, the way she prints your name and address, the way she underscores the area code, you know her scrawl of sender details on the back, you can see her fingerprints, her signature as it were, all over the envelope. You feel the quickening of your heart, the thump of anticipation as you take the mail inside. You sort through the letters, you leave hers till last. Then you make yourself a fresh cup of coffee, sit in a favourite chair, open her letter and read, once, twice, three times, the burn of just you and Ava together and nothing to intrude on your secret and highly charged tryst. And during the writing and the reading and the re-readings and all the times in between as you shop and cook and clean, as you sit out the tedium of dried-out colleagues and plodding students, you not only relive your love, you make it and remake it and embed it in a world that seems both miraculous and tangible. There is nothing to compare with the clandestine enclave of letters.’ Reunion, p. 139.

And this is the case whether love is your passion, as is the situation with Jack, or whether the passion is for something else: books, ideas, humour, friendship.

Since acquiring my onion skin paper I have been writing letters. In addition to my old friend who lives in the next suburb, I have written to my agent, Barbara Mobbs (and also Patrick White’s agent). How well she remembers onion skin paper, Barbara wrote back to me. ‘Having left home at 19 and lived all over the place, I must have written hundreds of letters on that paper. And yes,’ she adds, ‘PW loved it because it made the postage cheaper when he sent the novels to London and New York.’

Most especially I have written to my old friend in London, the one with whom I used regularly to exchange long and thoughtful letters about life, ideas and the books we were working on (she is a scholar of the long 18thC). F and I have frequent contact via email, but the letter I sent her on onion skin paper and the one I received back from her have quite a different depth and tone from our emails.

I think more carefully when I write a letter, it is a far more contemplative, ruminative process than email. In preparing to write, my mind meanders, collects, connects, and in the actual writing the mind moves forward. It is a deeply pleasurable activity.

I recommend it.

________________

*Better World Books is an excellent social venture that recycles old books, primarily from libraries but also other sources. From its profits, it donates back to libraries as well as to literacy programs. If it’s a second-hand book you are wanting and a hike through your local second-hand bookstores has proved fruitless, try betterworldbooks.com rather than feeding the behemoth Amazon.

 

**’Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?’
          Andrea del Sarto. Robert Browning.

_______________

On an entirely different matter: for those of you in Melbourne, I am repeating my National Library of Australia’s Ray Mathew Lecture, titled PRIVATE PLEASURES, PUBLIC EXPOSURE: the Imagination in the Digital Age, at 6pm, 5th August, Boyd Centre, 207 City Road, Southbank. The event is free but bookings are essential on PH: 03 9699 8822 or email: rsvp@australianbookreview.com.au

READING AGAIN. Oliver Sacks’s new memoir.

I’ve had an excellent couple of weeks. In addition to my on-going reading of Soviet history, I read Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, a wonderful account of how MacDonald trained a goshawk called Mabel at a time when she was experiencing the obsession, the desire for control and the longing for abandon that accompanies grief. I read Anne Tyler’s latest, A Spool of Blue Thread, an enjoyable story of the love, the loyalties, the secrets and the stressed connections of family. And I revisited Neruda’s love poems. Two in particular, I read over and over again.

IF YOU FORGET ME
Trans: Donald D. Walsh

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

But
if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

AND ALSO:

THERE’S NO FORGETTING (SONATA)
Translated by: Forrest Gander

Were you to ask me where I’ve been
I would have to say, “There comes a time.”
I would have to tell how dirt mottles the rocks,
how the river, running, runs out of itself:
I know only what left the birds bereaved,
the sea forsaken, or my sister weeping.
Why so many places, why does one day
cling to another? Why does a night’s blackness
drain into the mouth? Why the dead?

Were you to ask where I come from, I would have to talk
with shattered things,
with all too bitter tools,
with massive festering beasts, now and then,
and with my grief-bitten heart.

Unremembered are those who crossed over
and the pale dove asleep in oblivion,
only teary faces,
fingers at the throat,
and whatever falls from the leaves:
the darkness of a burnt-out day,
a day flavoured with our curdled blood.

Here I have violets, swallows,
we want anything and it appears
in that long train of impressions
that marks the passing of kindness and time.

But let’s go no further than the teeth,
we won’t chew on husks heaped up by silence,
because I don’t know how to answer:
there are so many dead,
and so many levees the red sun has cloven
and so many heads that knock against hulls,
and so many hands that shut up kisses,
and so many things I want to forget.

If my reading had stopped at this point I would have known a glorious week or so, but there was more to come. Oliver Sacks has recently published a memoir, On the Move: A Life (Knopf). I first learned of it in Jerome Groopman’s admiring review in the 21/5/15 issue of NYRB. I read the Groopman’s essay, I checked Readings website – yes, yes, in stock – and ordered a copy. It arrived the very next day and the day after that, a Saturday, I began to read.

I have previously written about how our fast-paced, ever-changing, ever-charged, digitally-mediated lives threaten the slow, leisurely, deep immersion that concentrated reading requires. We start to read and minutes later we’re checking mail, messages, Facebook, twitter, news. Or — we start to read and minutes later we’re checking a fact on the web; from there we are led through a maze of interesting and immediately forgettable information, returning to the book in 20 or 30 minutes having completely lost the thread of our reading. I have written elsewhere how, without practice, the ability to concentrate on a single task is quickly eroded, how, in my own case, there are times when I wonder if I have lost forever the joy of a day spent with a book, starting it in the morning and finishing it by day’s end.

My week spent with Helen MacDonald, Anne Tyler and the incomparable Pablo Neruda (and yes, the Soviets) led me to last Saturday and Oliver Sacks. I began his book in the morning and I read all day. I was gripped by this man and his story.

I have written about Sacks before (see ‘Oliver Sacks: Anthropologist of Mind’ in the published essays section of this website), have long been captivated by both the scientist and the great humanist. Captivated and grateful. And so again with his new memoir, although more fervently this time. We live in a culture in which the self seems always to be centre-stage, and care and curiosity about one’s fellow human beings is not a priority.

Reading Oliver Sacks I am brought back to the joys of prolonged, uninterrupted reading and the commensurate pleasures of solitude and contemplation. I am also reminded of the best that makes us human: curiosity, care for others, appreciation of others, the muting of self in order to respond to the world about us, intellectual rigour, and love.

SUSAN SONTAG REVIEW

The following review was published in Australian Book Review, March 2015 issue.

ABR has grown in recent years and is well worth a look – both the print version and the on-line version. I’ve just joined the board of ABR, and as a trenchant non-board, non-meeting sort of person, this act says volumes about the publication.

 

SUSAN SONTAG. A Biography. Daniel Schreiber. Trans from German: David Dollenmayer. Northwestern U Press, Evanston, Illinois. $62.95 cloth, 280 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8101-2583-4.

Susan Sontag. Jerome Boyd Maunsell. Critical Lives Series. Reaktion Books. London. $29.99 pb, 214 pp. ISBN: 978 1 78023 288 1

Susan Sontag

At the age of eight I wanted to be a novelist. By the age of eighteen, having fallen in love with an intellectual, I aspired to be a novelist with sturdy intellectual credentials. There was much work to be done. My beloved set me a course of essential reading, including Susan Sontag’s first two essay collections and her two early novels.

The intellectual lover moved on as youthful lovers do, but Sontag remained: a reliable and enduring guide through my formative years. And while she was not my only guide, she was the most compelling, the most provocative and, indubitably, the most beautiful.

Her essays revealed who I should be reading, whose films I should be seeing, whose art I should be viewing. Sontag alerted me to the style of camp, the power of metaphor, to the complex meanings of photography and pornography. There was a moral imperative operating here – to not know was to be intellectually negligent – and an urgency too: her enthusiasms, the ideas that captivated her and the people she admired, were essential to an intellectual in the making. Sontag introduced me to Walter Benjamin, Borges, Simone Weil, Artaud, Barthes, Elias Canetti and many other luminaries. She shaped my understanding of the films of Godard and Bergman. It was Sontag who had me lining up for hours outside a San Francisco theatre, under assault from neo-Nazis, in order to see a one-off screening of Syberberg’s seven-hour marathon, Our Hitler. A Film from Germany.

The first three essay collections, Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), contain many pieces that still pack a punch today. In contrast, the two early novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967) were always a struggle. At my first attempts, and with the blindness of the acolyte, I believed my failure to appreciate them was indeed my failure, and not the fault of the work; back in those days, Susan, my Susan, was infallible. That the novels were bad – which they are – simply was not an option.

Sontag’s intellect was voracious, her passion for life was insatiable. She wrote essays, monographs, fiction, she directed plays and films, she was a political activist, she was president of PEN, she travelled extensively, she had many friends and lovers.

From the beginning she was the sort of writer to go against mainstream ideas. In the 1960s, when most intellectuals were narrowly focussed on high culture, she argued the case for popular culture. By the 1990s, when pop culture was thriving and high culture was languishing at the university gates, she took up the banner for high culture. In an interview with Allan Gregg conducted in the late 1990s she said that the role of the writer is to be ‘somewhat adversarial’.

Sontag was forceful, she was eloquent and, yes, she was adversarial. Such characteristics inspire strong responses – accolades as well as criticism. But the qualities which produce exciting, contentious, courageous work are unlikely to emerge from a sweet, gentle, empathic nature. As Yeats suggested: it’s ‘perfection of the life, or of the work’. Some of the responses to Sontag have garnered considerable notoriety, such as Camille Paglia’s diatribe, ‘Sontag Bloody Sontag’ (Vamps and Tramps, 1994), and Terry Castles’ wry, disarmingly honest yet appreciative essay, ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (LRB 17/3/2005). A particularly informative and well-received essay about Sontag’s life and work is Joan Acocella’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ published in The New Yorker of 6/3/2000, while a staggeringly mean-spirited essay has come from Elliot Weinberger in his review of At the Same Time, Sontag’s posthumous collection (NYRB, 16/8/2007).

Daniel Schreiber’s biography, originally published in German in 2007, is, to my knowledge, the first book-length study to have appeared after Sontag’s death in December 2004. During the writing of his book, Schreiber was aware that David Rieff, Sontag’s son, planned to publish his mother’s journals. The first volume of these, Reborn, was not to appear until 2009 and Rieff refused Schreiber’s request to view the diaries prior to publication. Rieff’s own deeply personal and anguished memoir of his mother’s last illness and death, Swimming in a Sea of Death, was not published until 2008, and Rieff himself granted only one interview to Schreiber. Annie Leibovitz, Sontag’s partner for the last fifteen years of her life, refused Schreiber an interview. To write a biography without input from major players and source material is a risky exercise. In Schreiber’s case, he has failed to pull it off. His is an irritating, amateurish, tepid biography that provides a pedestrian overview of Sontag’s work and fails to illuminate the woman herself.

A good deal of Schreiber’s material is drawn from interviews with Sontag ‘friends’ – Stephen Koch, Richard Howard, Steve Wasserman, Wendy Lesser among others. The nature of these friendships, their duration and dynamic, is given little or no explanation in the text. This, combined with the absence of an acknowledgements section, leaves the reader unable to judge both the worth and integrity of this source material. Sontag valued friendship; at the same time, she was quick to judge and would sever relations with friends if they disappointed her. Enduring friendship was not one of her strong suits, so when ‘friends’ provide so much information we need to know something about them. (An entertaining account of friendship Sontag-style is given by Terry Castles in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ – an essay which, incidentally, includes no mention of any sexual connection between these two alpha females. Yet Schreiber refers to Castles as ‘Sontag’s later lover’ (p.93), referencing an interview he conducted with Castles. Terry Castles has never been coy in print. If she and Sontag had dallied, not to have included this titbit in her essay but conveyed it to Schreiber for his book strikes me as very out-of-character.)

The published sources Schreiber uses are commonly known to Sontag followers, the book lacks a proper index, it contains no images. I did not learn anything new, and was constantly frustrated by what had been left out.

Jerome Boyd Maunsell’s short biography covers both the life and the work and integrates the two effectively. Maunsell draws judiciously on the journals as well as Sontag’s body of work. He also makes relevant use of Rieff’s memoir, as well as Sempre Susan (2011), a memoir written by Sigrid Nunez, an early girlfriend of Reiff’s, who lived with him and Sontag in the 1970s. Maunsell’s book is highly readable, and, to date, is the best of the biographical writings.

Susan Sontag was a brilliant and original essayist who wanted her reputation to rest on her fiction. She wrote four novels and published a volume of short stories. Of the novels, three of them, including her last, In America (2000), make for poor reading; only the third, The Volcano Lover, an historical romance shaped around the collector and diplomat, William Hamilton, his beautiful young second wife Emma, and Lord Nelson of the Admiralty, displays the fine focus, the sense of continuity and cohesion, and an intense interest in character that marks good fiction. There’s a tragic dimension to the brilliant essayist who wanted to be recognised as a brilliant novelist.

Susan Sontag did not suffer fools gladly, indeed, she did not suffer them at all. She was impatient with slowness, stupidity and those who held opinions which differed from her own. Deification often occurs when an esteemed person dies, when the person enters what Janet Malcolm calls ‘the ranks of the illustrious, unmortifiable dead’. This has not happened in the case of Sontag, perhaps because deification occurred during her life. But now that she can no longer speak for herself (except in the painfully personal diaries – which make her an even easier target to would-be detractors), people are not holding back.

Only the mediocre person is always at their best, as Somerset Maugham self-consciously said. I have recently re-read Sontag’s essays and monographs. I didn’t agree with everything she wrote nor was I bowled over by all her choices of topic, but I was stimulated and invigorated by the originality of her ideas, by the exactitude of her expression, by the breadth of her knowledge. And grateful too: her work remains a rare pleasure.

AS QUIET AS PAPER

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archive boxes

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

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

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

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

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

Bumf

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

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

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

READING LIVES: MORE THOUGHTS ON BIOGRAPHY

For the first forty years of my life I avoided biographies. I believed that to read them was to queer one’s intellectual purity (and would have said so in such pompous terms). My ideas about biography came to me from a friend and sometime lover whom I viewed with blinkers so large and glasses so rose-coloured it was a wonder I managed to stand and walk. My friend and sometime lover, whose intellectual prowess I never questioned, condemned the reading of biography as nothing more than prurience and despicable voyeurism. If I were to read the lives of people (whether I admired their work or not) I would be letting down the intellectual team. At the same time I would be relegating myself to the gold coast of lightweight thought. In those days it was hard to imagine a worse fate.

‘Read their work,’ my formidable lover commanded. ‘The work is what matters, the work is enough.’

I suppose it was – but then I didn’t know what I was missing. I would gobble up the biographical note accompanying a book and any introductory personal remarks. Only occasionally would I capitulate and read a biography, and then it was confined to the Bloomsbury crowd, in whom I was besotted almost to the same extent as I was to the forceful lover. But it was guilty reading: I knew I was letting the intellectual side down.

Lovers change, life changes, work and leisure change. The erstwhile friend and lover was replaced by my partner-poet – a great and unapologetic reader of biography. When I floated my views on biography to her she dismissed them as mad. So I began reading biography – uneasily at first, as if I were a peeping Tom, but soon with the same curiosity and pleasure that holds me in thrall to characters in fiction. And just like with fiction, there was identification and recognition with these biographical subjects, and elaboration of my own experiences in friendship, in love, with publishers and the literary world.

When I decided to make Elliot in The Memory Trap a biographer, it was an indication of how far I had transgressed my former lover’s intellectual rules and regulations. And if Elliot was to be a biographer, I would need to read a lot of biographies. I was familiar with the Partisan Review writers, but I was curious to learn more about the group, so I made Elliot interested in them too. I began with a memoir of the early Partisan Review days, The Truants by William Barret. An excellent biography of Koestler by Michael Scammell led me to an equally good life of Mary McCarthy by Frances Kiernan (where I learned that Koestler had made a move on McCarthy). From McCarthy I went to other big women (Elliot, I decided, would be a biographer of significant women), Victoria Glendinning’s Elizabeth Bowen, and then her Rebecca West. In lieu of a Elizabeth Hardwick biography (one is currently being written by Frances Kiernan, and my Elliot wrote one in The Memory Trap), I read Ian Hamilton’s gripping Robert Lowell (published in 1983 but wearing well). I rounded off the Partisan Review reading with Partisan View a memoir by William Phillips one of the co-founders and editors of Partisan Review. There were more biographies – of Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bishop and Djuna Barnes. I was having a ball, and even if my research was no more than a high-brow version of the Who Weekly or Hello Magazine phenomenon, I really didn’t care.

Although it wasn’t the same. And it isn’t the same.

The people I read about are creators – and not just confined to writers and artists and musicians. For the past dozen years I have explored the lives and times of the early nuclear physicists. I have read about the Cavendish laboratory and the first particle accelerators and the Manhattan Project; and the great phycisists: Oppenheimer, Szilard, Teller, Meitner, Rutherford and many many others. I have steeped myself in these minds at their explosive best. I have known their moments of illumination. And, as with all good biography, it’s a very particular type of knowing. In the same way that you can look into a painting or listen to a piece of music and find yourself ranging through new and unexpected imaginative territory, so too with biography and autobiography. But with the latter there is, in addition, a peculiar intimacy that removes even the tiniest barriers to mind. You read for an hour or two and you come away with ideas you could not have dreamed of. And there’s a sense of privilege too, an entrée into heart and mind as special on the page as across a dinner table.

STITCHING TIME

Jenny Diski, in a recent LRB blog, writes about her discovery of the pleasures of knitting. She’s a novice knitter, and there are holes – three – in the striped rug she is making for her soon-to-arrive grandson. But she doesn’t care, she’s far too wrapped up in the joys of knitting – and of hearing too, but that’s another blog.

(It suddenly occurs to me that JD and I have much in common. We are of similar age, Jewish, both of us are writers, have been to Antarctica, we each have a hearing loss modified by judicious use of very expensive hearing aids, and we both like knitting.)

Unlike Diski, I’ve been knitting most of my life. Knitting is one of the few constructive occupations that allows you, simultaneously, to do something else equally constructive. Last winter for example, I knitted a poncho-cloak affair (in a beautiful maroon wool that felt like cashmere) while working my way through a few of the several thousand requiems that have been written in the past four hundred years. A vest for a friend took me through much of Schubert’s piano music. I caught up on a couple of years of podcasts from the CBC’s Big Ideas programme while knitting a perfect little jacket for the two-year-old daughter of Dot’s nephew. I have knitted through classic movies that I don’t want ever to forget, and TV series like Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad – both of which I dumped after the first couple of series: too much blood and too little character for me. Dexter, incidentally, did not produce the same reaction. I knitted through the five seasons of Madmen – very useful given my next novel will be set in the 1950s and sixties, all of West Wing (it was the best way of surviving the Howard years), and more recently Aaron Sorkin’s latest, Newsroom, which, at a time when I increasingly avoid newspapers and TV news and current affairs, reminded me how truly valuable good media can be.

And I have knitted to make life more bearable. When times are tough you just want to get through the hours. Like Margaret Drabble (see her recent book The Pattern in the Carpet) I have turned to jigsaws during bleak periods. But as well, Hollywood romantic schlock like Pretty Woman, Sleepless in Seattle and The Way We Were have proved extremely useful; two or three of these movies and I can cross off another evening and head for bed. But there’s a self-esteem issue with this sort of entertainment: how to justify such a terrible waste of time when there are books to be read and articles to be written?

Knitting has saved me from self-castigation. I watch the romantic drivel and I knit. There’s a completed sleeve to show for the hours during which Richard Gere and Julia Roberts do their Pygmalion, rags-to-riches thing, and if I take into account all the old Meg Ryan movies I’ve watched there’s probably a whole jumper to show for them. Time which might otherwise be crazed with anxiety passes while I knit in front of the screen. And in the process friends and family receive regular gifts of woollies. (One of these friends, when I presented her with a sleeveless cardigan many years ago, said that wearing a hand-knitted gift shows that someone cares about you.)

The Memory Trap will be published in May. Bound proofs are already circulating in the world. The first review – in Bookseller and Publisher and fortunately a good one – has appeared. Instead of squirming in pre-publication anxiety I am knitting a very fetching rug. It’s a log cabin pattern, visually startling and very easy. The squares grow in number, the nights pass, by the time the book comes out I will have a finished rug. I should also be quite sane.

log cabin rug

POSTSCRIPT:

The rug is finished, and perfect timing too. Autumn is here bringing cool, rug-suitable nights. And The Memory Trap will be in the shops next week.

photo

BIOGRAPHICAL PLEASURINGS

In my youth I was in thrall to a lover who derided biography as a form of prurience. This was a long time ago when I was extremely impressionable –  particularly when it came to those whom I believed had serious intellectual clout. My lover, I was convinced, had the most serious of intellectual clout; I agreed with everything he said – the nonsense about biography was just the start of it. He was particularly scathing about those who would read the biography of a significant writer without having bothered to read the actual works. (This was during the major VirginiaWoolf-and-her-world excavations, when the Bloomsbury lives were devoured far more eagerly than the Bloomsbury writings.)  As far as I can remember – and like many people, I demonstrate a dedicated forgetfulness when it concerns times that reveal me as a fool – he made no mention of the biographies of major non-literary figures: kings and queens, nurses and judges, revolutionary leaders and explorers who never held a pen for long.

‘Prurience,’ he said. And of course he’s right. Where he was wrong and where I was so stupid, was believing there was anything wrong with this.

I have, this very week, finished proofing the pages of my new novel The Memory Trap. The next time I see the novel it will be a book. Between covers – and rather fetching covers I should add, thanks to the art department at HarperCollins. One of the main characters in The Memory Trap is the American, Elliot Wood, a biographer of ‘big women’; Elizabeth Hardwick, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Bishop, Jean Rhys have been his subjects. At one point in the novel he describes biography as ‘the ultimate peering into closets not your own,’ and at another he reveals the intrinsic satisfactions of the biographer, in particular, the privilege of exploring a whole life intimately. And it’s a very particular intimacy, he says, in that it does not demand that he, Elliot, change and compromise like, for example, the intimacy in his far-from-happy marriage. He loves his big woman of the moment, he can’t get enough of her.

I’m fascinated by people: why they behave as they do, how they come to be as they are. I’m particularly interested in the flaws and frailties of people, including the illusions and delusions that pock-mark any life. But there’s only so much poking into the lives of real people – friends, family, acquaintances – that is acceptable.

Herein lies the great satisfaction of fiction that you can plunge into the thick of the characters’ loves and frailties, their strengths and burdens, their mistakes and delusions, and no one is the least concerned about your prying, or your voracious curiosity. This is the case for all good fiction, both for readers and writers alike. And, in fact, fiction is particularly drawn to characters with deep flaws. It is not by chance that the great figures in fiction include the likes of Macbeth, Faust, Medea – not such a wholesome lot, but brilliant to read about, fascinating to know.

And it’s the case, too, with good biography. I have just finished reading Ray Monk’s biography of Robert J. Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, is often referred to as ‘the father of the bomb’. I’ve read a few biographies about him – I’ve long been drawn to the early nuclear physicists of the first half of the twentieth century, particularly the theorists, of which Oppenheimer was one. While most of these biographies are good, Monk’s is in a category of its own. Monk is interested in the complexities of the man, the seemingly contradictory actions that scored Oppenheimer’s life, and far more interested in these than, say, who he slept with. And Monk is also captivated by the science. This is the peak period of nuclear physics, when discoveries came so thick and fast, that it took the likes of an Oppenheimer to keep pace.

I first read Monk back in 1994. Dot gave me his biography of Wittgenstein as a birthday present. She had inscribed it ‘For A – Who doesn’t read biography, but who I’m hoping will make an exception for this one!!’ I was, at the time, still burdened with a few mad habits from old lovers. This gift for my birthday marked my conversion moment. I read Monk’s Wittgenstein, I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated by the portrayal of this complex man, in the same way as I would be caught by a complex character in a novel. When Monk’s Bertrand Russell came out a few years later – two wonderful volumes on another great and flawed man, I was similarly enthralled.

And now with his Oppenheimer.

What these three subjects have in common is their greatness, their uniqueness in fact, coupled with fundamental human frailties that in the end affected their work and the quality of life itself. Oppenheimer’s great flaw was his desire for acceptance and acknowledgement. This is a common enough desire, but it was its particularly American flavourings in Oppenheimer that unseated him. Oppenheimer’s desire was doused in patriotism – a deeply ironic quality given that the FBI dogged him for more than a decade convinced he was a Russian spy, and the AEC  (Atomic Energy Commission) finally withdrew his security clearance because of doubts of his loyalty. But in fact it was his loyalty and love for America that lead to his telling the lies that eventually were his undoing.

Oppenheimer is a fascinating man: great and flawed. And like Russell and Wittgenstein, he was an original thinker. This is another pleasure of Monk: he shows such a vigorous enjoyment in the technicalities of these men’s work, and he shares his joys and understandings with us.

Monk’s Oppenheimer, in fact all of his biographies, have started me thinking about great people, people who are at the very top of their profession, who do something they do not need to do – Oppenheimer’s lie about his friend Haakon Chevalier, Lance Armstrong’s taking of performance-enhancing drugs – and I am wondering how this behaviour would be manifest in a woman. What might her work be? Her family circumstances? The lover she has on the side? When and where might she live? I am feeling a strange pull to the 1950s.

I am, I realise, thinking about the next novel.

Ah, the freedom of it all.