Category Archives: books

CONVERSATION IN FLUX

The other day, following a conversation with a friend that ranged over current politics and political engagement, then moved on to changing modes of interpretation in the digital world, and ended up with my friend and I exchanging Netflix recommendations, I paused to reflect on the implicit understandings that had under-girded our conversation. These understandings formed a common ground we both drew on in the course of our conversation. The common ground itself represented an intellectual and cultural terrain established primarily through books we had read over many decades; these books (and their authors) had become touchstones in our on-going quest to understand the world around us.

In the past half hour, I said to him, we have drawn on, or alluded to, several books and authors. There was Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift when talking about the digital age; Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Lifewhen discussing identity and social media; Arendt’s Totalitarianism, Orwell’s essays and his 1984when attempting to understand the appeal of Trump; we have mentioned Sontag, Tony Judt, Masha Gessen, Camus, and many others. Also in our discussion, we have assumed that we both know the defining events of the modern era, that if 1848 or 1870 or 1905 are mentioned these will immediately conjure up the same events for us both: war and revolt across Europe (1848), a unified Germany and subsequent influx of Russian Jews escaping the pogroms (1870), the first (and failed) Russian Revolution (1905).

When we talk, I said to him, there is a wealth of information and knowledge that we take for granted; it’s not made explicit, it’s background – like respiration. If we were to bring all this material into the conversation, a thirty minute sprightly conversation would become a three hour turgid waffle.

My friend and I share a similar background. We are white, Jewish, secular, and of European descent (for him recently, for me far more remote); our touchstones reflect this. These touchstones both embody and reflect the tools we use in our understanding of the modern world. We could be exploring the appeal of Trump, the role of celebrity in shaping values, the slippery nature of values in secular societies, authoritarianism and popularism in the western world, the assault on the imagination and creativity generally in the digital age, the human capacity for delusion, we could be exploring any number of facets of the contemporary world but in our explorations the interpretative frameworks we would be using would reflect substantial intellectual inputs, the majority of which are of long-standing.

 

In my twenties and thirties, when much more time was spent in other people’s houses than is the case now, I used to study book shelves. A person’s books revealed who they were and what was important to them; their books also informed their worldview, their interpretative framework. Of course there were times when the books were misleading. There was one woman I knew whose shelves were heavy with Hegel and Habermas, as well as Adorno and Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt school (making a comeback, incidentally, with the rise of the pop president). Whenever this woman and I went away for a weekend, two or three of the heavy boys would come along with us; and, at home, two or three of the books would sit on her bedside table. The pattern did not change over the two years we were close. She would, on occasion, read a page or two, but no significant inroads were made in any of the books. I expect they still sit on a shelf somewhere, bookmarks poking out of early chapters.[i]

With most people, however, I found the book-cases a reliable guide to who they were, and if there were no books displayed back in those paper-filled days, that was a reliable guide too. The bookcase scrutiny test also provided for a sense of location and belonging. You learned who belonged to your intellectual and political tribe. Amongst those of us who were readers, there was enormous common ground, and while times have changed and books are not so much on display, the common ground established decades ago, is still revealed when we are in conversation today.[ii]

Common intellectual ground does its work quietly, until you find yourself in a situation where it is missing. Someone wants to discuss the rise of popularism but has none of the touchstones you have. So you can swap a few facts, but when it comes to ideas you’re stymied. Ideas have roots, and if the roots are different, or, which is often the case, missing entirely, how then do you converse?

In these fast-paced times of fleeting knowledge and multi-tasking, common ground is still being established, but the shared touchstones now tend to have a shorter lifespan than their forebears, and they are less likely to be books. A few years ago, feasting on The West Wing and Six Feet Under, a dedication to Seinfeldand being sure to see the latest Woody Allen film even though Woody had gone off the boil since he went off with the stepdaughter implied a raft of common knowledge and assumptions. TV series as touchstones have now morphed into streaming. Who is binging on what carries far more information than just the name of the series.

The laying of solid ground takes time, and our presentday touchstones have a relatively limited lifespan. Indeed, it’s the discontinuities that prevail these days, not the continuities. The contraction and weakening of shared solid ground have repercussions both for the exchange of ideas as well as the sense of who we are and what we believe. As for that old fundamental sense of connection rendered through books and conversation, social media platforms with all their pleasures and pains, their fickle rewards and lasting punishments have taken over that role.

The way we are communicating is changing rapidly: texts and tweets, Facebook and Snap chat, emails (but perhaps for not much longer) and chat rooms. Phone calls are fast going the way of the dodo, and face-to-face communication, with mobile phones screen-side up and in reach, is constantly interrupted.

Conversation is a skill, and like all skills it requires practice. Common conversational ground is not forming as it once did, and when it does appear. shared touchstones tend to be ephemeral. In the wind and dust of these times, in the bright lights and glittering promises of our age, conversation itself is on shaky ground.

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[i]This same woman was described by some as ‘a genius’. A few years after our friendship had dwindled out, I heard her referred to as ‘an unproductive genius’. Such an oxymoron: the products are the proof of genius; without the products all that’s left is groundless reputation and myth-making.

[ii]The common ground does not remain static. Books and authors are added over the years, and some figures drop away. In recent times, Tony Judt, Zygmunt Bauman, Timothy Snyder, Alberto Manguel and others have been added to my cultural and political terrain, and I expect Jia Tollentino will earn a place there before too long. With fiction, Elizabeth Strout, Siri Hustvedt and Julian Barnes are in, while out go Lawrence Durrell (extraordinary how a writer so influential in your twenties can become not only irrelevant but actually anathema a few decades later), D.H. Lawrence, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (the latter was perfect for the self-destructive twenties: so much fun to be had while heading for the precipice).

The Slaughter of Language

There are books/authors that mark a time of life. Of these, I would include Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet; D.H. Lawrence and Scott Fitzgerald; Tilly Olsen, Grace Paley, May Sinclair and a swag of other women writers who were published through The Women’s Press and Virago. The defining characteristic of books that exert a significant power at a particular time is that most of them cannot survive later readings. It is best – kinder – to leave them in their times.

Other books/authors traverse an entire lifetime. For me, these would include the novels of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf (also Woolf’s letters and diaries), Proust, E.M. Forster, Maugham, Coleridge, Rilke. Life companions such as these are relevant no matter where you are on your life’s journeying. You read them over and over again. Each rereading is a new reading.

I first read George Steiner’s Language and Silencein 1971. It was a remarkable event. I was astonished and captivated by the ideas, dazzled by Steiner’s erudition, delighted and surprised by the richness of his language. And there was a sense of privilege too, that I, a twenty-year-old in Melbourne, Australia had access to something so extraordinary.

I have returned to Steiner many times through the years. I have read each book of his as it was published (Steiner is over 90 and is still working) and I have returned to several of them, but none so often as Language and Silence. Steiner is definitely one of my life’s companions, most especially through his Language and Silence.

I am a more critical reader these days than I was as a twenty-year-old, but still I find Language and Silence a compelling book; still I come away with the delight and appreciation and new understandings that have accompanied all my readings. This morning I reread the second essay in the collection, ‘The Retreat from the Word’. In this essay, from 1961, Steiner considers the dilution and shrinkage of language usage. He writes about modes of understanding other than linguistic, e.g. mathematical and musical, as well as the use of jargon. He is highly critical of the often quasi-scientific jargon in the humanities and social sciences. This jargon does not illuminate, rather it obscures. (Steiner’s essay was written before critical theory strangled the life out of the language, replacing it instead with deadly neologisms.)

Since the time of Shakespeare, common language usage has consistently shrunk. These days, all you need is a few hundred words to navigate the press, social media and everyday conversation. A few hundred more and you could probably get a PhD. We are like Moloch, killing off all that is most humanly precious.

In killing off the language, we also snuff out theorising and understanding and debate. The process has been accelerated with the doorstop interview and the 24-hour news cycle. It is impossible to get across a policy or a complex argument in 10 or 20 seconds; similarly, it is difficult to persuade people to shift from long-held attitudes and beliefs. Under present conditions, considered explanation and reasoned argument are jettisoned, and instead, our politicians and policy makers are resorting to emotional wrenching and obfuscation in the guise of euphemisms.*

Remember THE PACIFIC SOLUTION (nothing peaceful about it), and PEOPLE SMUGGLERS (at one stage mentioned ad nauseum, in contrast to desperate people seeking asylum who were hardly mentioned at all), and QUEUE JUMPERS and the MALAYSIAN SOLUTION. Now we have the absurd and almost incredible NEGATIVE GLOBALISATION (straight out of the Breitbart handbook), the tritely rhetorical HOW GOOD IS….?, and the just plain trite IF YOU HAVE A GO, YOU GET A GOWhile the current Prime Minister on his recent suck-up trip to the US was an embarrassment, his use of language is simply shameful. It’s as if he, and others like him, actually want the population – us – to be ignorant and stupid. Yes, our leaders are dumbing us down.

Back in 2012, and posted on this website, I wrote an article titled THE LANGUAGE OF LYING, about the way in which language was being defiled and squeezed of life. It is only 7 years ago, but with the dominance of social media and the prominence of Twitter as a means of spreading news at the expense of the traditional news; with a man in the White House who talks in tweets, who lies without compunction, and who never defends himself against criticism but rather attacks instead, and with several similar types in other parts of the world mimicking the supreme commander, language is truly in terminal decline.

In Australia, anyone under twenty and most people under thirty have never known life outside the digital age. It is hard to suffer the loss of something you’ve never known or experienced. Privacy, contemplation, personal responsibility, mental arithmetic and memory (to mention just a few human qualities and skills) are fast going the way of telephone boxes and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. And so too a language usage that is lithe, argumentative, subtle, persuasive, that feeds and expresses an active, hard-working intelligence.

How can we navigate our way through this complex, fast-paced world if we don’t have the language to perceive, to analyse, to understand what is going on? How can we change what needs to be changed if we cannot define it in the first place? How can we head into an uncertain future if our power to reason and understand, both vitally reliant on language, is crippled?

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*During the most recent election, Bill Shorten dropped his pre-fab zingers and decided instead to treat the electorate as capable and thoughtful. In the post-election analysis, however, it was decided that Shorten’s message was too complex, too over-whelming for the average Australian. (Is it like climate change? Have we passed the point of no return with our language usage and ability to consume ideas?)

I would argue against this analysis. Politicians need to work out other ways than the ten-second grab,\ to get ideas and policies across to the electorate. We need vision in our politicians, and we need skill. We need politicians who make us better citizens, and our country a better country, politicians who address the best in us, not our worst.

 

 

Times Past, Times Present.

My last visit to London was a couple of years ago, the January that Trump was inaugurated. I was visiting alone, and with work behind me in Melbourne and more work ahead of me in Berlin, my stay in London was to be a holiday. Rather than my usual rental in Bloomsbury, I borrowed the flat of a friend. It was located in Marylebone, south of Baker Street and a short distance from Wigmore Hall. My friend had briefed me about the area: the cheese shop, the wine shop, Daunt Books in the high Street, and the weekend market in a carpark at which, she said, she had once seen the writer, Julian Barnes, shopping for vegetables.

The day after I arrived, rather than explore the local area, I went to the RA. It was the last day of an abstract expressionist exhibition, the central exhibit, at least to my Australian eyes, being Jackson Pollock’s stunning Blue Poles. Afterwards, filled with that pleasant, lightly exhilarated feeling one gets with the best of art, I popped across the road to Hatchards.

It still felt like the old Hatchards, or rather, it did not feel like another Waterstones, and I browsed happily, and at my leisure. I ended up buying a memoir by a woman about her sister’s suicide – I thought my interest in death books might have dwindled, but even now, ten years after D’s death, it still hasn’t; I indulged in a little fun book calledI Wandered Lonely as a Cloud…and other poems you half-remember from school; and lastly, I bought a new Vintage edition of Julian Barnes’s Metroland, his first novel and one I’d not previously been aware of. (Would I have bought this book if not already oriented in Barnes’s direction by my friend’s mention of him? I think not, although when I purchased the book I don’t believe I made the connection.)

It was a beautiful edition, a ‘special archive edition’, with a repeated graphic of a small cluster of suburban homes front and back in orange and magenta, folded flaps for the blurb and author bio, and illustrated end pages decorated with another repeated graphic, this one in orange and grey and also of houses but with the addition of the Eiffel Tower, so you know these are Parisian houses and not the London suburbs of the front and back covers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lovely edition, although less lovely to read – nothing to do with the print or the layout, but rather the spine was reinforced with steel-like glue. There was no bending this spine, no possibility of hands-free reading, the book lying independently on a table while I sipped my coffee or ate my breakfast or made the occasional jotting or just stretched my arms or shifted my position without missing a reading beat. The spine needed the strength of a weight-lifter to keep the book open.

This not withstanding, I was hooked from the very first page, indeed, by the very first line: There is no rule against carrying binoculars in the National Gallery.It was the word ‘carrying’ that particularly pleased; it contained so much more narrative possibility than the more prosaic ‘using’.

The novel is structured in three sections, with Chris the first-person narrator throughout. The first and longest section enters the world of Chris and his best friend Toni in 1963. Chris and Toni are all-knowing, all-critical, 16-year-old intellectuals. They are steeped in French writers, they assume an air of superior alienation and ennui, they deride parents, school and, above all, life in Metroland, that area of London served by the Metropolitan tube line. They look forward to the day when they are free to escape and enter LIFE PROPER.

How familiar I found this attitude, although in my case it came equipped with far less confidence and less superiority than that revealed by Chris and Toni. How familiar, even though it happened a half a century ago in the late 1960s, on the other side of the world, and at a time of life I preferred to forget. (I never really got the hang of childhood or adolescence, would have done better to begin life at 30.) Back in those long-ago days, I was reading the same French books as were Chris and Toni, and I was writing angst-laden poetry about not being understood, and in the same way that Chris and Tony dreamed of escaping Metroland, I dreamed of escaping suburban, far-from-everything Melbourne. London was the location of my LIFE PROPER. Already steeped in the Bloomsbury writers and artists, I would live a short walk from the BM – I, too, rejected the Metropolitan line without even knowing it – and I would write books. (My first published story was titled ‘If Patrick White Married Virginia Woolf’ in which a misunderstood Australian girl imagines the perfect life: PW married to VW, living and working in London along with their children, an Australian-born girl and Hurtle Duffield from White’s The Vivisector. Clearly I’d made the not-particularly-large leap from angst-filled poetry to hope-filled, biographically-stifled fiction.)

But back to the present. I am living in an area of London that may or may not be associated with Barnes, reading his first novel, I’mburiedin his book, in the longings of his young characters that match my own long-ago longings (perhaps the same longings experienced by all bright children), longings that reappear to me exactly as they once were, untouched by time or experience. And then, unbidden, I find myself, in the whirl of my own early escape to London, that first impoverished visit of wonders, that at-last-I-can-start-life sense of boundlessness and fear. I haven’t moved. I’m still sitting in my friend’s flat in Marylebone, reading Metroland, Julian Barnes first novel, I am in the mire of my 16-year-old self’s longings, and I am alone in London as a 21-year-old. And all this is happening simultaneously.

It’s like being in a three-dimensional Blue Poles, or better still, a three-dimensional Rothko (his is such a deep imagination), or inside a Mahler symphony. Linear time and linear space have been demolished by limitless imagination. Times past, times present and times future all mixing and mingling at the same time.

It was a fevered, fantastic experience, and while not the first time it has happened to me, there was a particular intensity on this occasion. Good fiction, the fictions that seduce and hold until the last page, invariably illuminate your lived experience. As I read Barnes’s Metroland,and relived times past, and also idly wondered if I might see Barnes himself at the Farmers’ Market the following weekend, there were swervings and touches and connections occurring in the imagination, enriching that vital swirl just beneath consciousness. And some time in the future, while occupied with the mundane business of life, doing the washing, walking an aisle in the supermarket, I will be aware of sparks and curiosities that emerge from that rich swirl, that shape into possibilities that firm into ideas and understandings. Standing in front of the oils and vinegars, I will be astonished and delighted by this wonder that is the imagination: the fuel of the LIFE PROPER.

 

THE SIMULTANEOUS TIME ZONES OF LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risky Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOB DYLAN – NOBEL LAUREATE

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

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

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

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

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

I think Dylan is an inspired choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(It Ain’t Me, Babe, 1964)

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

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

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

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

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

The Passions of Alberto Manguel

Passions require time: time to develop in the first place, time to be expanded, time to be enjoyed. Passions, like any experience/activity that requires prolonged attention and an active imagination, can be tripped up even before they’ve found their legs in our contemporary fast-paced world. It is fortunate then, that the pleasures of passionate engagement whether with music, reading, maths, theatre, people or just being alive are such that even a short exposure is generally enough to hold a person for a life-time.

There have always been people who appear to inhabit lives of uniform colour and temperature, who can walk a glacier or climb a mountain and be occupied, not by the magnificence surrounding them, but their growling muscles. There have always been people who hear Bach or read Dickinson and complain of boredom, or see a flamboyant parrot or a scampering lyrebird and remain unmoved.

And there have always been people who inhabit the world as if on alert. Nature, art, people, so many experiences elicit from these people responses that are invariably high-octane. These are exciting people to be with, their enthusiasm rubs off, you feel more alive, more geared to possibility when you are with them.

There are friends who belong in the passionate category, and there are authors too. I have thrived in the company of Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, and many others. I’m excited when there’s a new book from, say, John Banville, Ann Patchett or Justin Cartwright. And even if their latest is not among their best I still enjoy moments walking the high peaks with them.

Alberto Manguel is one such writer. Recently I reviewed his latest book Curiosity. Even if I had not known his work, the title would have lured me in. Below is the review, published in Australian Book Review, September, 2015.

 

CURIOSITY by Alberto Manguel.
Yale University Press, $44.95 hb, 377pp, 9780300184785

There are two broad approaches to reading Alberto Manguel’s, Curiosity. The first type of reader will study the book – or rather, the text – assiduously connecting the personal narratives that introduce each chapter with the books Manguel references in the more theoretical and discursive aspects that follow. Dante’s Commedia is a constant presence in Curiosity, so they will have their Dante in easy reach for ready consultation, and they will strive to connect Dante’s journey with Manguel’s chapter titles, all of them questions: ‘How Do We Reason?’ (Ch. 3), ‘What Is Language?’ (Ch. 6), ‘What Is an Animal?’ (Ch. 11), ‘What Comes Next?’ (Ch. 15). They will make notes as they read, in an attempt to harness the voluminous material. And they will keep a separate list of the surprisingly numerous literary references that are unknown to them. This type of reader will try to get on top of the material, bring it to heel, master it.

The second type of reader will plunge in. They will not feel the ground beneath them, rather they’ll be swept up in Manguel’s narrative. As Virgil guides Dante, and Dante Guides Manguel, so Manguel guides this type of reader. It is an unpredictable journey. In the first chapter alone, ‘What Is Curiosity?’, Manguel saunters from Dante to Thomas Aquinas; he makes a quick digression to Augustine and Aristotle before slipping past Dante to David Hume and Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Diderot’s co-editor of the Encyclopédie (I had always thought Diderot did the job alone); there are nods to Boccaccio, Isaiah Berlin, Seneca, Socrates, and several others like Covarrubias (a Spanish lexographer who wrote an etymological dictionary in 1611), previously unknown to this reader. This is a journey without an itinerary. A risky odyssey, it is impossible to anticipate where Manguel is heading. But this second type of reader, trusting that Manguel knows what he is doing, goes with the current. These readers are so immersed in Manguel’s wanderings, they might be in a trance as they read – this book is their entire reality – they’re prickling with awareness, in a world bathed in a golden, if sometimes opaque light. These readers are guided by Manguel but, at the same time, they are nudged along by books they’ve read themselves, experiences they’ve had, and thoughts and ideas that surface without warning.

The first type of reader seeks control of the material, the second, although no less hungry for understanding, can tolerate the mystery of the not-yet-known (and perhaps never to be fully known) and the uncertainties of an intellectual quest without a plot.

The capaciousness of Manguel’s curiosity, his voracious reading, and his eagerness to share both with his readers are simultaneously wonderful and daunting. This is old news to those familiar with Manguel’s earlier work. With an author who can leap from the mid-thirteenth century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia to Borges in a single paragraph, any attempt to control the material is, I believe, counter-productive. Too much in the way of analysis somehow annuls the meaning and sense of understanding that arises from this material. Trust Manguel: in The City of Words, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading and A Reader on Reading*, he has proved to be not simply a reliable guide, but the best there is outside Dante’s first circle of Hell.

Manguel, driven by his own ravening curiosity, ranges here, there and everywhere in Curiosity, so it is somewhat amusing that he adheres to a strict format in the structure of his latest book. It is comprised of seventeen chapters, each titled with a question, and each beginning with a full page illustration depicting a woodcut from the 1487 printing of the Commedia (with commentary by Cristoforo Landino). I am wedded to Doré’s illustrations to Dante, their detail and lyricism form a perfect duet with the poem. These fifteenth century woodcuts do not speak to me in the same way; they simply do not – to me – depict the terrible horrors that are related in the Inferno, nor the sublime joys of Paradiso. I am curious as to why Manguel chose them over Doré’s plates. Sometimes the connection between the particular canto from the Commedia and the chapter question is obvious, sometimes it becomes clear by the end of the chapter, and on other occasions a second or third reading will be required. Understandings surface when one reads Manguel.

The text of each chapter begins with a page or two of personal material: a happening from Manguel’s childhood, a recent illness, sexual discrimination in his childhood books (Anne of Green Gables for girls, The Coral Island for boys), Argentina’s dirty war, the economic crisis in Argentina in 2006, concern over the environment, animals, injustice in the world. Following the personal snippet are approximately ten pages during which Manguel wanders through art and literature gathering material that enhances and elaborates on the chapter question. The dynamic is reminiscent of musical improvisation.

Questions, as Manguel makes clear, are far more saturated with meaning than answers. Curiosity is short on answers. What it has are intellectual explorations triggered by all the crucial questions that comprise the human project; indeed, most of the chapter questions have inspired entire schools of philosophy. No précis nor synopsis would do this book justice. Suffice it to say that for readers of Manguel, his favourites are here – Montaigne, Plato, Alice, Don Quixote – and his customary concerns: how we make sense of the world, how we can understand one another. There are many delights. In the chapter ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, Manguel reveals Dante as an environmentalist (with a touch of Paganism) and the Commedia as an environmentalist tract. And surprising thoughts. After reading his account of Nimrod and the building of the Tower of Babel, atheist that I am, I found myself thinking that God made a big mistake, that he should have found a different punishment for the people’s heresy, anything but the confounding of language and meaning. How much more difficult it would be for hatred, prejudice, brutality and corruption to occur if we shared a common language.

The last two chapters of Curiosity, ‘Why Do Things Happen?’ and ‘What Is True?’ represent, at least to me, Manguel’s narrative assent into paradise. As I closed the book, I felt a little as Dante did when brought into the presence of his Beatrice.

 

*Reviewed by AG in ABR, May 2010.