Category Archives: books

READING DANTE

It is 1960, Melbourne. There’s a shed down the end of the garden. It is empty save for a bench on which sits a child with a book. There’s a musty smell overlaid with the tang of pine. The door to the shed doesn’t close and the soughing of the wind in the huge pine tree cushions the silence that surrounds the reading child.

Another scene. The same child reading a different book is sitting on the floor in a corner of a large attic room. The attic smells of dust, old smoke and neglect. There are battered suitcases and boxes, there are rickety chairs and fold-up tables, and a chest filled with ancient photos and theatre programmes. Down one end of the attic there’s a small door that opens into the roof. The child sits as far from this door as possible, yet must keep it in view, must keep a watchful eye on the demons and spirits that lurk in the roof’s blackness. And watch she does, periodically looking up from her book. But after a while it seems she has forgotten about the demons because her gaze no longer lifts from the page. She’s given herself over to fiction.

A third image. The same little girl as before is stretched out on her bed in the room she shares with her sister, an open book propped against her pillow. Beyond the bedroom family life whirls about. There are voices calling, a radio blaring, a barking dog. The child is immune to it all; she’s lost in her book.

******

Reading for me has always been a private affair. As a child growing up in the crowded world of the family, reading was my sanctuary and a time of necessary solitude. My mother valued reading so, if I had a book in my hands, I was left alone. With the book of the moment I would be whisked away to other times and places and into the lives of people very different from those who filled my ordinary days. It was the making of me as a writer. Those hours spent reading, those hours spent in a deep and prolonged immersion in the imagination is what gives rise to creative work. Reading took me into a world of make-believe. Here life was real, it was authentic, but it was made up. And even if it were not real – as a very young child I loved Enid Blyton’s fantasies and the tales of King Arthur and his knights – it seemed as if it could be.

In fact, I learned very early that fiction could convince me of just about anything.

As a very young child, I enjoyed being read to. But as soon as I learned to read independently I wanted to keep the pleasure all to myself. It was not only the stories that held me in thrall, there was the utterly seductive effect of reading itself. A unique intimacy was created between me and the characters, and through them with the imagination of the author. There is no intimacy to compare to this sort of imaginative coupling.

I never felt the need to discuss the books I read. They were part of my private world, a world that shaped my understanding and my desires. I harboured the sense that to reveal how important these books were, would both taint their effect as well as betray the life I secretly longed for, which was, in fact, the secret life I was actually living.

I grew up. Books still filled my days and still I guarded them closely. I found in them security, I found excitement, I found curiosity, I found endless stimulation, I found illumination. I did not want my reading to be public. I did not want my reading to be touched.

Then several years ago I changed the pattern of a lifetime. I asked a small group of people to join me in reading Plato’s Dialogues. Over the years I had dipped into several of the dialogues, but I had arrived at a point where I found this unsatisfactory, and all my attempts at private study had petered out long before the task was finished. The group provided the necessary structure I seemed to require.

At first I found it difficult to discuss what I had read. Being public, being in a group, felt like working against the current, trying to run with stiffened limbs. And it was difficult to listen to others with my own reading reverberating in my mind. And the pace of discussion could be irritating. You set your own pace when reading, but a discussion will sometimes pull you back or push you forward faster or slower than you would choose for yourself. But in time I adapted and came to enjoy our meetings. After a while we moved from Plato’s dialogues to Montaigne’s essays. And then, after a year or two, life with its demands and its deaths intervened, and the group stopped meeting.

Next week will see the first meeting of another group: three of us have decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, three cantos for each monthly meeting. Years ago I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of The Inferno, and I always planned to read Purgatorio and Paradiso but never got round to it. As with Plato, a group seemed the way to proceed.

I’ve been preparing for our first meeting by a full reading of The Inferno. I have several translations at hand but have focussed particularly on those by Robert Pinsky (for the poetry), Mark Musa (for the lucidity and the detailed notes) and John Ciardi (a looser translation but very lyrical). I also have a quarto-sized book containing the hauntingly beautiful plates of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy. I love the focus of this reading, the detail, I love the study. And yet I know that if not for the group I would not be reading Dante in this way or at this time.

Antaeus - Descent to the last circle. Inf XXXI

What is happening here? Why a sharing of what has always been a private activity?

It seems to me that some books are so layered and so complex that to be fulfilled by them – and to find them fulfilling – requires study and discussion and the richness that comes from other minds, other thoughts, other understandings. But there’s something else as well, and it concerns the type of reading involved. When I open a novel, a novel that is the right book for the time, I find myself drawn inside the fictional world. I experience understanding from the inside; I become one of the initiated. This does not stop me from reflecting as I read, making connections between this novel and other books (novels, poetry, history, philosophy) but as soon as I start reading again I am pulled back into that imagined world.

This is not how I read Plato’s Dialogues, nor is it the way I read Dante. Here the reading is infused with study. I am grappling to understand from the outside. I am grappling rather than being immersed. Even with Dante, who has told a gripper of a story, I am not pulled inside the narrative in the way I am with, say, Jane Austen or Elizabeth Strout or Justin Cartwright.

It is reading for study rather than reading for creative life. It’s reading to know, rather than reading to be. That is not to say I won’t glean fundamental understandings from Plato or Dante, of course I will, but it is the act of reading of these books that is so different from my fiction reading.

I expect many others would want to disagree.

READING THE CLASSICS – OR NOT

READING THE CLASSICS – OR NOT.

A couple of months ago I discovered a Henry James novel I’d not read. Titled The American, it is his third novel, first published in 1876-7 in The Atlantic Monthly. Later in life James acknowledged fundamental flaws in this novel, and most James’ readers would agree. And yet the novel gripped me from the start with its universal themes of love and honour and clash of cultures. It was only at the send-the-beloved-to-a-convent ending that I felt let down.

The American is not a literary classic in the sense that The Portrait of a Lady is a classic – although both are classic Henry James. Love, deception, misplaced trust, ravenous curiosity, the pitfalls of innocence, and the immorality that can be at the back door of worldliness are all to be found in The Portrait of a Lady, while its leading lady, Isabel Archer, is one of the enduring characters in literature.

I often find myself musing about what makes a classic. In my recent revisiting of Patrick White’s classic Riders in The Chariot (see posting – November, 2013) I quoted James Stern’s definition of a classic (from NYT Book Review in August 1955).

‘Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent residents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life… To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.’

In his definition, Stern is particularly concerned with the powerful effect of a classic on a reader. There are a number of characteristics of the work itself that promote such an effect. Most importantly, classics canvas fundamental human qualities: jealousy and revenge (Medea), power (Macbeth), fraught love (Anna Karenina), the human struggle (David Copperfield), the complexities of family (Pride and Prejudice), brutality, idealised love, (Wuthering Heights), remorse and redemption (Crime and Punishment), obsession (Of Human Bondage), and thereby reveal what it is to be human. As well, classics provide entry into times and places not your own. So, for example: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and much of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Books that can reveal ourselves to our self? That can take us to places and times not our own? That can inform us of the complexities that make us human? This is powerful stuff. It’s no wonder we want to read classics. Indeed it would be foolish to ignore such rich resources.

I finished The American and placed it with all my other James volumes. Then I reached for Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

For the third time.

I first tried this book years ago on the recommendation of my Russian friend Constantine. The novel was written in the late 1930’s during the worst of Stalin’s terrors but not published until a quarter of a century later (and, extraordinarily, published in the Soviet Union in an inexplicable lapse of diligence by the censorship authorities). In this fantasy tale the devil arrives in Moscow. He wreaks havoc: lives are ruined, some are ended, people are swindled. Given the novel’s coruscating view of the Soviet system the fantasy form is not surprising; indeed there’s a long tradition of literature using fantasy, allegory and fairytales to reveal dangerous truths.

But barely fifty pages in I gave up. The characters did not hold me. There were too many of them and too thinly drawn, and the society in which they lived too strange. As for the Jesus in Jerusalem sections, I simply could not see their relevance.

A few years later I tried the book again with the same failure. Yes, failure. For when it comes to a classic that you truly want to read, that you want to take it into your life as you’ve taken in other classics, when you are unable to do so you experience it as failure. Here is a book that is recognised as great, what’s wrong with you that you fail to respond to its greatness?

On my third attempt I thought it would be different. In recent months I’ve been reading about the Soviet years and I am much better informed. I understand the workings of this society into which the devil comes. The allegorical nuances that escaped me on my previous attempts would now be comprehensible. And it was true, my reading was easier: I understood the deaths, the removals to psychiatric institutions, the loss of rooms in apartment blocks that occur in the early part of this novel; I understood the devil  with his guilt-free, unapologetic brutality. But nonetheless, by page 150 I was lagging; 30 pages later I gave up.

There are so many books I want to read. If a book fails to satisfy I do not persist. Although when it comes to a classic, because I doubt myself more than I doubt the book’s renown I will persist a little longer. I do believe that if the Bulgakov had a lesser reputation I would have jettisoned it much earlier. For that matter, if it had had a lesser reputation I would not have given it three attempts.

I know about the lovely quirk of books that make then uninteresting at one point in your life and absolutely essential reading at another. I had truly hoped that given my current interest in the Soviet years this would be the right time for Bulgakov’s classic. But it seems there are some classics that, desire notwithstanding, will always elude me.

Like Joyce’s Ulysses.

One Bloomsday I attended a twenty-four hour reading of Ulysses in New York. I was in my twenties and absolutely capitvated by the idea of a 24-hour reading of a classic novel. I can still see the darkened room, the scattered tables, the raised platform, the shadows of people, the heavy clothes, the smoke, but for the life of me I can’t remember the words and voices, I can’t see the readers themselves. I was given a copy of Ulysses for my 21st birthday, I tried to read it but failed. I thought the 24-hour reading would help. And it did. For 100 pages. No more.

I have failed with The Master and Margarita as I failed with Ulysses.

And yet I still want these books, and other classics as well. I want to know their power, their originality, their wisdom. I want the pleasure that so many readers before me have known. I don’t mind failing at sport, at baking, at sewing, at bike-riding, at map-reading, at maths (well – I mind a little with maths) but I do mind failing at books. I want to know that any book I desire I can make my own. It’s a terrible disappointment when I can’t.

THE PERSONAL LIBRARY AND FACEBOOK

I was twenty, a student at university, when I it first occurred to me that books provided the best entrée to another person’s essence. Not their clothes nor their hobbies, not their family and friends, not even their conversation. But their library.

A particular incident brought this home to me. Together with my boyfriend of the time, I was visiting one of his friends. E was a girl my own age. She lived in her parents’ house, a huge place, along with her two brothers. Although I had met her before, I knew her best by reputation. She was enormously clever, and warm and generous as well. Embraced by her peers, she had been captain in her final year of school, and her popularity had accompanied her to university. This was the sort of child of which any parent would be proud, although, according to my boyfriend, her parents would have preferred their daughter to have less in the way of brains and a good deal more when it came to beauty. Indeed, her parents favoured their plodding, predictable sons over their intelligent, not-pretty-enough daughter.

That house, it was a mansion. I’d never known anything like it. I wanted to look over the whole place, explore it room by room. However, the good manners that had been drilled into my generation made such an adventure impossible. Although, as it happened, I did manage to see quite a lot of it. E’s bedroom was on the upper storey at the back of the house; we needed to walk many passages past many rooms to get to it. I saw chintz and brocade, occasional tables and objects, large nondescript paintings, fresh flowers in vases. The overall impression was of beige and gold spaciousness. Later when we went downstairs to the kitchen for coffee I saw more beige and brocade. There was leather in this part of the house too, and the timber of cupboards and shelves had been blanched of their woodiness with a pale limed finish.

So many rooms, yet it was difficult to read the inhabitants through this house. Obviously they were rich, and they were also mindful of surface appearances, but as for anything more I could not say. It was only afterwards that I realised what had been missing. Except for E’s room, there were no books in the house. Not in the hallways, not in the living rooms I passed. How to know someone without knowing what they read? And it was then I realised that for years I’d been reading people’s hearts and minds unconsciously through the books they owned. Without books to guide me, E’s family might have been cardboard cut-outs.

In my adolescence I hid my favourite books: too private to be seen, too embarrassing if they were, my best books would expose more of me than I could bear. Later, after I left school and started a life of my own choosing, I would often find myself in strange rooms in shared houses with people I hardly knew, and I would seek respite from the strains of interaction by loitering beside the makeshift bookcases – long boards with pylons of bricks at each end – learning about the person in whose room I found myself. I would, in those far-off days, peer at the spines of books surreptitiously. I knew I was spying, I knew I was glimpsing a private life. It was like peeping through a keyhole or fumbling around in someone’s underwear drawer. But at the same time there was the delight when I found books that I’d read, providing an immediate connection to this new friend, and a range of possible conversations. And I’d turn back to the room, far less jittery and greatly relieved.

Personal Library

As the years have passed, I’ve become less covert about my interest in personal libraries. I read the spines of books more avidly than the faces of people. Faces wear masks, books don’t – although I’m well aware that books displayed do not necessarily mean books read.

I once had a friend who was reading Noam Chomsky – two large volumes of his weighty, linguistic writings. My friend’s Chomskys lived on the coffee table in her living room, within easy reach. When she went on holiday, her Chomskys went with her. Two years later, the books were still in easy reach and the bookmarks had not progressed more than a page or two.

I am also aware that books read but not consistent with an individual’s public persona are often hidden. Like the philosopher who hides her true crime books, or the historian who always has a romance on the go, or the left-leaning liberal with a nostalgic fondness for Ayn Rand’s characters. Books on show may not be an accurate portrayal of an individual’s reading habits, but the fact remains that those books that are displayed reflect how the reader wants to be regarded, what s/he regards as important, even if those goals have not been attained.

Seen in this way, personal libraries function rather like Facebook postings.

In both cases we display snippets about ourselves that will portray the person we want to make public: those aspects of ourselves we want to emphasize and share with others. The process of selection may not be the same, and the information revealed may be qualitatively different, but personal libraries, revealing as they do private thoughts and beliefs and aspirations, mimic Facebook’s exposure of an individual’s private life.

And yet, despite the similarities, I want to believe that my quiet appraisal of a person’s library, my thoughts and musings, the curiosity and the ensuing connecting are different from the frenetic ‘I’m here’ ‘Look at what I’m doing’ ‘Look at who I’m doing it with’ postings on social media sites. I want to believe that personal libraries stop people, turn them inwards, to thoughts and nuance in a way not possible with the spontaneous, immediate, abbreviated communications that jostle for attention on social media sites.

*******

Over coffee the other day, a friend told me that most of her reading now is done in e-format. As a result she rarely buys print edition books and, in fact, has culled her library to 150 meaningful books. These consist of books from her childhood, others from her beloved deceased mother, others still from past lovers and close friends, plus a handful of  favourites. It’s a motley collection, and impossible to glean the essence of my friend from it. Sentiment has distorted identity in her choice of books. And again, I am reminded of Facebook, but in this instance the differences between my friend’s abbreviated personal library and the often sentimental, wince-producing postings that appear on Facebook seem minimal.

In New York city, my friend, C, is in the process of selling his parents’ apartment. It’s located on the Upper East Side in a block with a resident committee with veto over who can buy into the building. The realtor looked over the apartment. The ageing, out-moded kitchen could remain unchanged, he said, but the books, and he waved a careless hand to take in the entire apartment, the books would have to go. Books suggested dust and the past, an impression that would discourage the hip young Wall Street types the realtor was hoping to attract.

It’s all surface these days: the books for display, the displays without books, Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media sites. But as paper formats give way to e-books, and social media encroaches on every waking hour, we are losing more than just an artefact with the demise of the personal library, we are losing what was once a readily available opportunity to reflect on who we are and what we value.

THE PASSIONS OF PATRICK

RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT*

Lecture given as part of the Wheeler Centre Australian Classics Series, Melbourne, with James Ley (25th November, 2013).

To begin: I believe Patrick White is the greatest – perhaps the only truly great – writer Australia has produced. In 1973, he became the first and only Australian to win the Nobel prize for literature – Coetzee won his in 2003, before he took out Australian citizenship. It’s no matter that Patrick White was born in England, no matter he was schooled there and lived there as a young man, his work is steeped in his being an Australian, or rather steeped in his abrasive relationship with Australia.

Sometimes the Nobel judges get it astonishingly wrong, but not in the case of White.

I do not like all his books – but then only the mediocre man is always at his best as Somerset Maugham once wrote – in defence of himself. But when asked for my list of ten Australian classics Patrick White takes up four spaces.

My ten Australian literary classics – in no particular order:

Riders in the Chariot

The Twyborn Affair

The Vivisector

Eye of the Storm

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

An Imaginary Life – David Malouf

Lilian’s Story – Kate Grenville

The Getting of Wisdom – Henry Handel Richardson

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony – Henry Handel Richardson

The Monkey’s Mask – Dorothy Porter

My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

(And yes, I know, there’s 11 in my list, but the universe IS expanding.]

 

James Stern, in reviewing THE TREE OF MAN for the NYTBook Review in August 1955 defined the essence of a classic. ‘Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent residents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life… To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.’

A classic does not need to be the most brilliantly written book, nor does it need to be popular in its day, but it DOES needs to stand the test of time. In this regard it is important to distinguish between classic and popular. So Christos Tsiolkos’ The Slap is popular, but whether it will become a classic requires a couple more decades.

A classic work of literature also needs to address fundamental and universal human issues (if it doesn’t it will become dated) and it needs to do so in an original way.

Riders in the Chariot is about the conflict between good and evil, it’s about exile and belonging, and human brutality pitted against great humanity – all of these are fundamental human qualities, and all are as relevant today as they’ve ever been. Indeed, it could easily be argued that a book driven by these ideas is even more relevant in today’s bullish, combatative, humanely-bereft world.

__________

RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT, White’s 6th novel, was published in early October 1961 when he was 49 years old. It came after THE TREE OF MAN (1955-6) and VOSS (1957). It received some enthusiastic reviews here in Australia and in the UK, although more tempered in the US (where he had previously triumphed). But overall they were the best reviews he’d ever had. The novel won the Miles Franklin Award (his second – VOSS won the inaugural Miles).

In his correspondance Patrick referred to it as his Jewish book. But it could equally be his aboriginal book, his Christian book, his outsider book; it could also be his exploding-myths-about-Australian-culture book, myths such as mateship, support for the underdog, egalitarianism and a fair go for all. RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT is dedicated to his friend Klari Daniel and his American publisher Ben Huebsch, both Jewish. Huebsch, at Viking US published White’s first novel, HAPPY VALLEY, and would be with him for five books. He died at the age of 88 in 1963 as Patrick was getting started on THE SOLID MANDALA. Huebsch was a visionary publisher (oh how we mourn the passing of the likes of him), the first in the fundamentally puritanical US to publish James Joyce and DH Lawrence – amongst others. Klari Daniel was a refugee from Hungary, who enjoyed with White a very close relationshiop for ten years before the inevitable falling out –cauliflower salad finally did it, but in truth, he got sick of her. (In fact he ‘was dispersing’ most of his Jewish friends after the publication of RIDERS, according to David Marr in his brilliant biography of White. p. 383*).

RIDERS was for White his Jewish book because, of the four main characters that fuel the narrative of this novel, it was the character of Mordecai Himmelfarb who presented the greatest challenges to him. White had written aboriginal Australians before, and his good salt-of-the earth characters, like Mary Godbold, are all over his novels, eccentricity such as that manifest by Miss Hare was no problem for him, but Jewishness, in particular a German Jew who had survived the Holocaust was new for him.

In fact it was new for most people at the time.

In 1961 there had been little written about the Holocaust and hardly anything in fiction (Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT, a sort of fictional memoir, comes closest; it was published in 1960). These days there are whole sections in bookshops devoted to the Holocaust, there are Holocaust studies at universities, there are Holocaust museums, there are Holllywood films from Sophie’s Choice and The PIano to the fake and sentimental Life is Beautiful, and umpteen documentaries of which the most profound and comprehensive is Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH (and yes he did have a longish affair with Simone de Beauvoir). There’s a huge Holocaust industry now, but there was not at the time of White’s writing.

There were two main triggers to the Holocaust entering the public domain. The first was the Eichman Trial in 1963 along with Hannah Arendt’s extraordinary series of articles published in the New Yorker of that year, later to appear as the book EICHMAN IN JERUSALEM. The second was the Hollywood miniseries HOLOCAUST (broadcast in 1978).

RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT was published in 1961, although work on it started many years earlier. As usual Patrick White was well ahead of everyone else.

I have read RIDERS three times: in 1980, 1996 and again this year. In between I have often dipped into portions of this novel as a means of feeding my own writing. White is a master of detail, and he’s a master at metaphor: he’s been a gift to this novelist, to any writer who revels in the richness of English. Three readings of RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT and I have never regarded it as a Jewish book much less a Holocaust book. And I still don’t. It is a novel about outsiders, exiles either at home like Miss Hare, Mrs Godbold and Alf Dubbo, or exiles from home like Himmelfarb. And it is a great novel of spirituality, of those riders in the chariot, God’s chosen four, embodying the spirit of the Lord, as described in Ezekial Chapter 1. Each rider with four faces and four wings, joined together and going forward together, vague to the reader, even to themselves, but each of them instantly recognisable to the other.

 

THE WRITING OF RIDERS STRETCHED THROUGH 4 YEARS

One of the earliest mentions of his ‘Jewish novel’ is in a letter White wrote to Ben Huebsch in February 1957. The novel is already brewing but White writes ‘I may not have the courage to embark on anything so esoteric.’ (Letters 111*). His first mention of the title, RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT, is in September of that year, also in a letter to Huebsch – always addressed as MR Huebsch (Letters 122). The brooding continues, while at the same time VOSS is making its way in the world and White is occupied with the various machinations of publication and reviews.

In February, 1958, a year after he first mentioned the new novel and just before he and Manoly Lascaris left for 8 months overseas, White writes to Huebsch: ‘If I were not going away, I think I might start RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT at this point. Always when I meet with lack of understanding in Australian critics [most recently to VOSS] I feel like sitting down and starting another of the novels they deplore, to give them further cause for complaint….Oh dear, it is going to be a very trying book to write, but I am living with it all the time now. It is shaping and altering, and the four voices of what I still like to think of as a kind of cantata are beginning to sing in the way that, finally they must.’ (letters 131). In this same letter he refers to Himmelfarb as a ZADDIK ‘one of the 36 Jews of exemplary righteousness, secret saints, believed to be on earth at any one time’.

White and Manoly Lascaris returned to Sydney 1/10/58. Once home White starts to write RIDERS. Just 10 weeks later, just before Christmas he writes to Ben Huebsch (MR Huebsch still): ‘I have started on my new book….and have written –  how much it is difficult to say, perhaps a third, perhaps not so much, but I can see it will take some time, and perhaps need as many as three writings. I shall want someone here to check the Jewish parts after a second writing. I feel I may have given myself away a good deal, although passages I have been able to check for myself, seem to have come through either by instinct or good luck, so perhaps I shall survive. After all, I did survive the deserts of VOSS.’ (letters 151).

By May of 1959 he has written 90,000 words and anticipates it will come in at 120,000 – he was way off there. He describes the book as follows to Ben Huebsch:

‘…the book [does not] have an exclusively Jewish theme…What I want to emphasize through my four ‘Riders’ – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist [Earth spirit] of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress [I love the image of this ambiguous description]. and a half-caste aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.’ (letters 153)

By January 1960 he reports to Huebsch that he’s finished the first version of RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT. (Letters 162). He confesses among other things that it has run to some 200,000 words! (he emphasizes the figure with an exclamation mark). He gets Klari Daniel to check the Jewish bits. She was Hungarian and not German which might explain some of the mistakes.

The second version is finished by August 1960 and now it’s 230,000 words – which I would estimate to be about the size of the final version. White has tried it out on a Jewish friend and is feeling far more confident. He WANTS the approval of Jewish readers.

In a short letter to MR Huebsch – but signed PATRICK – (3/1/61) he writes: ‘I am about to send the MS. of Riders in the Chariot by airmail (first or second class depending on the sum involved). ‘ Patrick had plenty of money but was often protective of it. (After Patrick’s death Lascaris was surprised to learn HOW much money there was, given the frugal way they had been living.) As for White’s finished manuscripts, they were always typed on what was known as onion skin airmail paper, single spaced. Very light.

When he hears back from Huebsch (within the month), he writes (5/2/61):

Dear Ben, (To burst into first names so late in the day!) Your letter and cable were a great relief….you have been the true judge over so many decades…Himmelfarb was a worry, because he had to be just right….In the end what helped me most was the fact that throughout my life I have been an outcast myself in one way and another: first a child with what kind of a strange gift nobody quite knew; then a despised colonial boy in an English public school; finally an artist in horrified Australia – to give you just a few instances.’

Huebsch loved the book.

Geoffrey Dutton was one of the early readers – pre-publication. Patrick writes to Huebsch: ‘He (Geoffrey) has gone off his head about it, but of course he is a very superior Australian.’ (letters 190). (The mandatory falling out would soon occur with Geoff Dutton and his 1st wife Ninette. In the latter half of the 1970s White came to regard Dutton as a dilettante who had sold out to Mobil Oil and a conservative government. You’re vile vile vile he said to Ninette.)

 

THE NOVEL

RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT is set in fictional Sarsaparilla on the outskirts of Sydney. Sarsaparilla draws on Castle Hill where Patrick and Manoly had a small farm – Dogwoods – from 1948, when they arrived in Australia, until they moved to Martin Road Centennial Park in October 1964. At Castle Hill they felt the Sydney suburbs encroaching on them, just as they encroach on Sarsaparilla in the novel. The fibro houses that replace Xanadu, Miss Hare’s crumbling mansion, also came to Castle Hill.

The structure of the book is very simple: the narrative is handed between four main characters with a little overlap.

MARY HARE opens the novel. Firstly the significance of the name. Mary annointed and dried the feet of Jesus. Late in the novel, Mary Hare warms the feet of the dying Himmelfarb – the Jesus figure. And HARE: hares have a rich mythological tradition – pre-Christian with Pagan flavour, often associated with the lunar cycle – and Miss Hare, so powerfully connected with the natural world, is a quintessential Pagan. Miss Hare is a spinster. She lives in the family mansion, Xanadu, now crumbling all about her. She needs help in the house, with everyday living, and has just organised for a housekeeper, Mrs Jolley to come and live with her. Mrs Jolley is ordinary, unimaginative and incapable, or even interested in understanding her eccentric employer. She is one of the evil ones in this novel. She and her friend Mrs Flack truly demonstrate the banality of evil – to draw on that famous phrase of Hannah Arendt’s.

MORDECAI HIMMELFARB has the same initials as Mary Hare – and given the importance of names to the novelist, I cannot think it is accidental. Himmelfarb translates to himmel = sky or heaven and farb = colour. Himmelfarb thus becomes the colour of heaven. He is the Jesus figure, the Zaddick. He was a professor of English in provincial Germany. After the death of his wife and the loss of job, home and freedom at the hands of the Nazis, Himmelfarb eventually makes his way to Australia. He takes on manual work at the Brighta Bicycle Lamps factory. The intellect has failed us, he says.

RUTH GODBOLD (née Joyner) has resonances with the biblical Ruth, the loyal ever-faithful woman who says to her mother-in-law Naomi: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee’. And GODBOLD – well, it is exactly as it suggests. Mrs Godbold is a washer woman living in a shack with many children and an abusive, violent, unfaithful, boozing husband. She was born and raised in what she describes as flat fen country – probably the fen country in eastern England, particularly as she mentions the great cathedral. (The Fens have been referred to as the “Holy Land of the English” because of the churches and cathedrals in the region, e.g. at Cambridge, Ely, Peterborough to name just three.) After the death of her brother and mother, Ruth Joyner migrates to Sydney – alone – where she enters service with Mrs Chalmers-Robinson. It is there she meets her future husband, the iceman, Tom.

And lastly there’s ALF DUBBO, the ‘half-caste’, removed from his black mother. to live with Rev Timothy Calderon and his sister Mrs Pask (whose now-dead husband the Reverend adored). The traditional land of the Dubbo-ga or the Dubbo mob is located where the town of Dubbo is today. The name Dubbo comes from a red or blood pigment found in the earth of the area, and highly prized. Alf the painter has an almost magical feel for colour. It was as a boy in the house of the Calderons that he discovers painting, becomes in thrall to it, and on his thirteenth birthday receives Mrs Pask’s old paints. His has been a rough life, and a tough one. He, like Himmelfarb, also works at Brighta Bicycle lamps.

These are the four riders. We meet them singly or in pairs. Only at the end of the book do they all come together in the same place, although Dubbo remains outside the group, staring in at the others through the window of Godbold’s house. I wanted the four to be properly joined, just once in this long book. But Dubbo has a job to do. He loads the vision through Godbold’s window with ‘panegyric blue’ – the laudatory blue, his secret blue, and goes home to paint it.

The greatest danger of a narrative where there are several equally weighted characters is that the reader comes to prefer some of the characters over others, making the book proceed with lurches and falls. On my first reading, the book was dominated by Himmelfarb. On my second it was Hare and Himmelfarb. On this, my most recent reading, I have been drawn strongly to Godbold and Dubbo. On the fourth it will be different again.

Of course your reading pleasure may have been disrupted by other things, most particularly White’s unique, fleshy, evocative writing style. Indeed, some readers find his writing clotted to the point of unreadable. The fact is that when subjected to analysis many of White’s sentences do not make sense. It’s not simply the way he drops the subject off a sentence or omits a verb, sometimes the sentences if put through a reality scrim are absurd. And yet the overall effect of the language is profound. It reminds me of Mark Rothko’s huge canvases of colour: I have stood before a Rothko with tears rolling down my very private cheeks. Such a profound effect these canvases have and I don’t subject it to analysis, because I don’t want to destroy the experience. White’s sentences exert a simliar power and allude to a similar mystery.

But I will admit that at times, particularly in the first third of the book, I read paragraphs that sounded almost like a parody of White. e.g. The following lines about Miss Hare’s father:

p. 24 ‘Years after, when his stature was even further diminished in her memory, her mind would venture in foxy fashion, or more blinderingly worm-like, in search of a concealed truth.’

This quote not withstanding, most of the time when I find myself verbally overwhelmed, I will stop, and then reread the seething paragraph, often out loud and then I will understand what White is truly saying. And to be honest at the end of reading I feel hugely fortunate to have read such language.

Here are a few extremely lush paragraphs. But wonderful. It helps to read them aloud.

In an early Himmelfarb section telling of his past, the issue is discussed of why, with the rise of Hitler, Jews didn’t leave (143)

‘There were many, however, in the aching villas, in the thin dwellings of congested alleys, ….. in tasteful, beige apartments, who, for a variety of reasons, could not detach themselves from the ganglion of Europe: their bones protested, or they loved their furniture, or they must surely be overlooked, or they were drunk with kisses, or transfixed by presentiments of immolation, or too diffident to believe they might take their destiny in hand, or of such faith they waited for divine direction. These remained. And the air was tightening. All remarks, even the silent ones, were aimed at them. Their own thoughts suspected doors, flattened themselves against the walls, against the dying paper roses, and pissed down the sides of lavatory bowls, to avoid giving their presence away.

The underlined bits, when read analytically are nonsense, but within the paragraph, they supply emotion, tension, temperature, texture. The sum is definitely more than the parts.

And after a beating from her husband, suffering his ‘rampant masterfulness’ – this from Godbold (p.233).

‘She would have liked to talk to somebody about the past, even of those occasions which had racked her most, of emigration, and miscarriages, not to mention her own courtship; she longed to dawdle amongst what had by now become sculpture. For present and future are like a dreadful music, flowing and flowing without end, and even Mrs Godbold’s courage would sometimes falter as she trudged along the bank of the one turbulent river towards its junction with the second, always somewhere in the mists. Then she would look back over her shoulder at the garden of statuary, to walk amongst which, it seemed at that enviable distance, faith was no longer needed.’ The past as statuary is so vivid, so utterly original.

Not easy, this sort of writing, but evocative and true.

With a writer like Patrick White you need to trust him to know what he’s doing. If you do then you will glide over the difficult bits – he knows where he’s going even if you don’t. He will guide you. But at the same time you can’t read his books empty-handed: he expects his readers to have a reasonable historical, artistic and literary literacy. He expects people to know about Hitler and the Nazis, neither are mentioned by name in the novel, also Kristallnacht; he expects us to know enough about art to understand the type of painting that is Dubbo’s.

And as with all great writers you have to forgive him his mistakes. And there are mistakes with his German Jew, in particular. For example, on Kristallnacht, it would be most unlikely that Reha, Himmelfarb’s wife would have been taken away or even harmed – much less killed. Jewish men and boys were targetted, and while 30,000 Jews were rounded up 9/10 November 1938 and sent to camps many had been returned within 6 weeks. And I think he rather labours the point with the Riders in the Chariot. It is mentioned many many times. He has written his four main characters as visionaries, ‘illuminates’ (63), it is not necessary for him to explicate the whys and hows. And occasionally he WILL get a word wrong. In a Himmelfarb section before Himmelfarb leaves Europe, in a portion written from H’s point of view, White uses the word ‘dug’ for breast (184). It’s quite wrong. Firstly, when used to describe a woman’s breast it is a derogatory term and Himmelfarb is not wanting to be derogatory. The origin of the word is unknown but it sounds like English slang and absolutely not the sort of word to be used by a European intellectual. But quibbles like this are, in fact, only quibbles, and few in number.

_________

There’s a fabulist tone to RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT – not magical realism, but it does require a suspension of belief not customary with realist fiction. Sometimes there’s an almost incantatory feel to this work. Mies van de Rohe, the great modernist architect said that ‘God resides in the details’. This Patrick White knew, and his detail is breathtaking. He has a bus driver clean his ears with a key (435). Tom Godbold had ‘fine dark eyes’ (230)  and ‘one of those long, tanned faces, too thin; it made [Ruth] think of used pennies….She would have gone on looking at the man’s face, if he had not been in it.’ (254). ‘It was only later that everyone…realised that Tom Godbold’s tragic eyes had merely been looking deeper into himself.’ (230). In referring to the evil Mrs Jolley, White writes of ‘the swept chambers of her mind’ (74) – how much better than empty-headed – and later he refers to the ‘nylon dream’ of America (143). And there’s humour too: when someone enters the office at Brighta Lamps the stenographer ‘did not rise, of course, having reduced her obligations at the salary received’ (201 & 203).

Then there are the ideas, the risks, the breathtaking narrative flare of this novel. White portrays evil through Flack and Jolley, a couple of petit-boirgeois widows; he infuses pity into the wealthy Mr Rosetree (Haim Rosenbaum). He displays goodness – and a whole lot more – in a washerwoman, a mad spinster, a German Jewish refugee, a hard-drinking aboriginal painter. People pushed to the margins tend to have a clearer view of mainstream society – not simply their unique perspective but as well they are not blinded by mainstream values: certainly this is the case with White’s riders.

There’s another much more uncomfortable truth in this novel: that all positive qualities – kindness, humility, generosity, faithfulness, creativity, learning – make those who do not have those qualities uncomfortable, can even turn them into brutes. ‘To some it is always unendurable to watch the antithesis of themselves’ (402, my emphasis). It is not enough that Blue and his mates (the lucky seven who win the lottery) crucify Himmelfarb, they set fire to his wooden house thinking he is inside. Miss Hare, also thinking Himmelfarb is burning to death, accuses them: ‘You have killed him!’ Blue and his mates beat the flames off her. ‘And continued to belt at her, now with their dislike and their consciences, in addition to their coats.’ (423)

At a time when we call those seeking asylum – sanctuary – criminals, and banish them to places we’ve never been nor are ever likely to go. At a time of race riots in Cronulla and Indians fearing for their safety in Melbourne streets and security guards at all Jewish schools, RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT remains of enduring relevance.

‘Go home. Go home,’ the watching rabble shouts as Himmelfarb is hoisted on the tree.

Just like us now.

Go home. Go home. To anyone who is different.

The relevance of RIDERS remains because we fear the outsider. The black skin, the bearded believers, the men with hats, the women with veils, the children with bent spines, the adults with jittery limbs. We fear the very fat and the very thin, we fear the androgynous men and women, we fear the beggar and the drunk. And what do we do with this fear? Rather than try and understand it we berate and condemn those who cause our discomfort – just like those men who crucify the Jew Himmelfarb on Good Friday, who beat Dubbo, who ostracise Miss Hare, who deride Mrs Godbold as simple. This great novel of the outsider is, in my opinion, more powerful and certainly more relevant to today’s world than when it was written.

_______________________

*

Patrick White. Riders in the Chariot. Penguin edition. 1984.

David Marr.  Patrick White. A Life. Random House. 1991

David Marr (ed). Patrick White. Letters. Random House. 1994

 

IRIS MURDOCH

August has been Festival month here in Australia.

I returned from the Galapagos Islands and almost immediately flew up to northern NSW for the Byron Bay literary festival directed by Jeni Caffin. This is a wonderful festival held under canvas on a grassy promontory bordering the Pacific Ocean. Then the following weekend was the Bendigo Writers’ Festival – only in its second year but already starting to define itself. Making the most of beautiful Bendigo this festival will go from strength to strength. Then the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and two terrific gigs: the first with Andrew Ford broadcasting for The Music Show live from the festival on 31/8/13, during which he focussed on the musical aspects of The Memory Trap, the other a panel with historians Henry Reynolds and Tim Lycett, titled, In Memoriam,  exploring memory and memorialisation, in particular what we remember, the need to remember, and the distortions of memory and forgetting. After the session, I was whisked away to a waiting car that sped me to the airport to catch the midday plane to Sydney for an in-conversation with Caroline Baum at the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival. It was a thoughtful and wide-ranging interview that made the interstate dash absolutely worthwhile.

I really enjoy festivals, both the sessions in which I’m involved and the mingling with readers and other writers, but I would never want month after month of the performance circuit, and indeed, halfway through August I found myself in need of something to ameliorate the effects of so public a life. Thus it happened that I found myself reaching for familiar books, a sort of comfort reading akin to comfort food. Somerset Maugham was perfect, and Nabokov’s Speak Memory, and — Iris Murdoch.

Slipped inside the cover of one of my Iris’s was a copy of the article that forms the bulk of this posting, an article I wrote back in 2003 for a series published in the Australian Newspaper on INSPIRATIONS. Ten years on, I’m as grateful to Iris Murdoch as I’ve ever been.

INSPIRATIONS: IRIS MURDOCH

It’s December 1965 and I’m not having a great time. I’m surrounded by friends and family but I’m convinced I’m alone. I write copious poems of the obscure pathetic variety which do little to placate my adolescent furies. All rush and throb, I feel that at any time I might break through my skin. Of course I tell no one: life is hard enough without people knowing there’s an alien in their midst.

Then one Saturday morning with the house to myself, I take from my mother’s book-case Iris Murdoch’s Flight from the Enchanter and I begin to read. Page after page, and gradually my alien skins slip away. Page by page, and I am immersed ever more deeply in a world I didn’t even know I was searching for. By the halfway mark I’m struck with wonder that someone, this Iris Murdoch, can tramp through my mind leaving behind a trail of sense.

Murdoch’s first novel was published in 1954, so by the time I discovered her I was well in arrears. After Flight from the Enchanter I read her first novel, Under the Net, followed quickly by her third, The Bell. I decided that if I were heading for the insane asylum, Iris Murdoch and all her characters were coming with me. Iris showed me there was more to life than being slimmer than I was, more to life than pretending an interest in football, and much more to love than the flirtations on the tram I rode to and from school. She taught me there was no shame in preferring the workings of my imagination to my left-footed attempts at compulsory sport. Iris Murdoch revealed to me a world where my private yearnings found a home –  including my secret desire to be a novelist.

Her books were full of wondrous people, strange and seductive people, people heavy with knowledge about a world well beyond the reach of an Australian teenager. These were amazingly literate people who had conversations the likes of which never happened in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. They rarely had children, and if a child did enter a Murdoch novel he or she was like no child who travelled to school with me on the 69 tram. Indeed families were largely absent in her novels. There were no warring siblings or white-faced parents, no fighting over the front seat in the car or pinching your mother’s lipstick because she wouldn’t let you have your own. Most of her characters never married, they had affairs instead. And there were homosexuals in her novels – an extraordinary thing given homosexuals did not officially exist in Australia at that time.

Childhood, in my experience, was never as happy and carefree as it was supposed up to be, and adolescence was proving to be nothing more than a rocky outpost on the way to somewhere better –  particularly in the 1960s when there was so much happening and I was too young to join in. Iris Murdoch provided me with an escape from a life and times, and a geography too, that was so constricting.

I loved her characters. Tuan, Chloe, Sebastian, Tristan, Mischa, Clement, Rainborough, with not a whiff of a Lynette or a Maureen or a Bruce. And along with the exotic names came exotic lives. Murdoch’s characters were writers and artists, scholars and philosophers who lived in London or Oxford or on a windswept cliff. And they lived so passionately, so at a pitch, hurtling from exhilaration to despair in a half page of narrative. And risks, they took such risks. They would fall in love wonderfully but disastrously, or cause someone else’s ruin while they blindly pursued their own artistic goals. And these all-too-human people were never ashamed of admitting their flaws –  a quality unknown in the adults I knew. For a bookish teenager in 1960s Australia, paradise was being inside an Iris Murdoch novel.

Each year at the end of the final exams, I would treat myself to a new Iris Murdoch. And there always was a new one, either one published that year or an old one I’d not yet read. In my twenties I started to read her philosophy too, and from there I spiralled out to other philosophers and thinkers. By this time I had started to write in earnest: not the dreadful angst-ridden poetry of my adolescence, but fiction at last.

Iris Murdoch’s novels did for me what good fiction has always done: they hooked  hard and fast into my imagination and transported me to places and people and ideas I longed to know. Iris (I’ve long been on such familiar terms with her) taught me the power of fiction. I loved her books – rich, fleshy novels of characterisation and ideas, the sort of fiction I wanted to write myself.

I continued to read her books as soon as they appeared. And then, in 1995, came Jackson’s Dilemma, her 26th novel. I read it within days of its being published, approaching it with the same excitement and sense of impending wonder I had brought to all her work. By this stage I was well aware of the typical faults in an Iris Murdoch’s novel – the talking heads’ dialogue, the almost surreal characters that seemed parodies of Murdochian characters,  the over-abundance of inexplicable fallings in love – but the faults with Jackson’s Dilemma were of quite a different order. This novel had no centre, much less one that would hold. Jackson’s Dilemma wasn’t simply ‘not one of her best’ – and Iris has written a number of these – it was a mess, and for this Iris devotee, distressing to read. Three months after the novel was published, it was announced that Iris Murdoch had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. In February 1999 she died.

I loved Iris Murdoch’s work, and I suppose I had come to love her. In the two years following her death when, as the subject of of John Bayley’s memoirs and a mainstream film, Iris Murdoch became widely known as a once-famous woman with Alzheimers, I was appalled at what was being done to her. She had inspired me to trust my imagination, she had inspired me as a reader and she had provided much of the early fuel for my desire to be a novelist. I was ready to mount the ramparts to defend her genius. And in fact I did. I lashed out at Bayley’s books in coffee shops and bars, in writing classes and lectures, once even to strangers on a city tram.

My anger has cooled now that Vintage has re-published so many of her novels. I know there are people reading her work for the first time, even some who are reading her as the inspiration and lifeline so familiar to me.

Descartes named wonder as the first of the passions. That breath-stealing rush when confronted with something new and strange and totally captivating. Fiction is infused with wonder. Fiction has the power to take you to places and times and into the hearts and minds of people who are not yourself but have the power to illuminate your life. As a teenager growing up in suburban Melbourne, it was Iris Murdoch above all who gave me the experience of wonder. She gave meaning to my secret life and yearnings, she gave me solace, she gave me a future, and she revealed to me the pleasures of the text, both as a reader and a writer.

Postscript: and she still does.

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.

STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN

My seventh novel, The Memory Trap, was published last week, although my work on the book finished some months ago. It was then that I corrected the third proof pages and sent them back to my publisher. Four years of work completed, four years of life passed. I should have settled back and savoured the moment, instead I was assaulted by a battery of not-unfamiliar questions. Will I ever write another novel? Do I want to write another novel? And if I don’t write another novel, how then to make the days pass? I felt emptied out, not a spark of an idea. Not a spark. So terrified was I of the void, I found myself in a panicky riffling through the piles of unread books which had mounted up in the previous four years. I needed to fill up, I needed to know there’d be another novel.

I began with a biography of the poet Rilke and then moved on to the memoirs of the remarkable Lou Andreas-Salomé, writer, psychologist, lover of Rilke and Nietzsche, close friend of Freud. At this filling-up stage when a novel is finished, I select books on the slightest provocation and never reflect much on the process; I assume that some logic will emerge which will help shape the next novel. So when I found myself in a frantic searching for every possible translation of one of Rilke’s love poems to Lou, ‘Blot out My Eyes and I’ll still See You’, I plunged ahead without question. I was rummaging around in passionate territory. Perhaps my next novel would centre around a big, unconventional love – or several loves. I reached for my pen, scribbled a couple of sentences, but the ideas were drivel and I put the notebook down. Far too soon for sensible words of my own.

I read Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder, a marvellous idiosyncratic plunge into the hearts and minds of 19th century scientists, those romantics geniuses who were captivated by the new worlds they were in the process of revealing. I read about William Herschel’s telescopes and his discovery of Uranus, and Caroline Herschel’s extraordinary mapping of the distant skies. Then to the early balloonists for whom discovery was far more powerful than danger, and Mungo Parks, the deeply humane adventurer and explorer into deepest darkest Africa. Holmes, who knows more than most about the romantic novelists and poets, explores the new mechanical age through Mary Shelley’s profound and poignant novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. I love Richard Holmes’s book. Descartes named wonder as the first of the passions; I am filled with wonder as I read about these men and women who, inspired by wonder pushed against the boundaries of knowledge and understanding. Such lives they enjoyed.

As for my own life, despite having received the advance copies of The Memory Trap, things were pretty drab. There’s the foreboding about reviews, and the quiet niggle of a book before the publicity has taken hold, and of course the bruising absence of my beloved. I long for the conversations of the past. I plan topics for discussion, I rehearse ideas and arguments, I talk aloud in the empty rooms. All of it is cruelly unsatisfying. Better, I think, to confine the discussion to my imagination. I make side-trips to Yehudi Amichai’s blood-boiling poetry and to a couple of early Iris Murdoch novels. I curse Peter Conradi yet again for being so bloody coy and disingenuous in his biography about her. And I reach for Jane Austen as I have done before in extremis: Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility are entirely satisfying.

On May 1st, the official publication date of The Memory Trap, I open After the Victorians by A.N. Wilson, a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for years. (Incidentally, I far prefer Wilson’s messy book about Iris Murdoch to Conradi’s smug production.) Like The Age of Wonder, A.N. Wilson’s After the Victorians is another idiosyncratic history, and like the Holmes, it revels in art and literature. Wilson’s book stops in the early fifties, the period when my own life began.

And suddenly it all comes rushing back. Those taut years of childhood and the books which laid down tracks in the nervy terrain of my mind. Books which inspired a secret, parallel life to that expected of a middle-class, Jewish girl growing up in suburban Melbourne, books which provided me with passions far removed from the soppy intrigues of the playground. Indeed, I was still in primary school when it first occurred to me that all the interesting people were either dead or existed only in novels.

There were three books that were particular childhood favourites. Firstly, a grey hardcover volume of Lives of Famous Scientists, a chapter per famous scientist, each headed up by a glossy, black and white photograph. I loved those scientists; so much more reliable and interesting than my friends, they provided me with a satisfying brew of stimulation and solace. My favourite was Marie Curie, the only woman in the collection, so passionate and tragic. At the age of nine, I wanted to be her – although would prefer to swap Pierre with Ricky Nelson, my favourite singer at the time. I spent hours, years, trying to work out what I could discover which had not yet been discovered. It was when I was becoming quite discouraged – after all, if I could think of something to be discovered, clearly it already had been – that I found on my mother’s bookshelves Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian and other Writings.

In a Jewish household, the answer to Russell’s title was perfectly obvious, but the curiosity about a book premised on such an enquiry was overwhelming. Included in the book was a debate between Russell and a churchman, and it was here that I came upon what I regarded as Russell’s tour de force: If God made the world, who made God? I was delighted with the simplicity of his argument, the indisputable proof, as it seemed to my now 12-year-old self, and with lives of famous scientists in easy reach, I decided that whatever existed could be understood, and whatever could be understood must in some way exist. The world suddenly became less threatening and I stopped believing in God.

The third childhood favourite, also from my mother’s bookshelves and also discovered at the age of twelve, was Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Not for imagined worlds, and certainly not for a group of children with whom I might have identified, but for the marvellous, lyrical language. I would leap from one italicised section to the next for the sheer delight of those words. How they drowned out the mundane utterances of the real world.

Now decades later, sitting in my study with Rilke, Lou, Holmes, and the whole of Virginia Woolf within easy reach, I am struck by the similarities between the 60+ novelist and the 12-year-old child. Both depend on books to fill up, to feel alive, to kick start an imagination which for various reasons is tired out. Both use books to fly into an imagined world when the real world is too hard, or too dull, or just too empty. And through books both find people to talk to, to argue with, people who provide sanctuary to both and start-up fuel for the novelist.

As I read Wilson’s book about the figures and events in Britain of the first half of the twentieth century questions spring unbidden to mind: Is it possible to be good? How much should one risk in experiencing all that life has to offer? What extent of compromise is acceptable to do the work one is driven to do? Is passion always its own defence? And war: is it ever justified? And the press: its power and its responsibilities. I linger in Wilson’s section on Northcliffe, Beaverbrook and Rothermere and the rise of the popular press in England. It is fascinating and I’m surprised to find it so fascinating. And the 1950s, the point where Wilson finishes his book, I find myself thinking of that time, the layers of secrets that supported so many lives, women’s lives in particular.

Henry James went into society and found his stories. I enter the absences of my life, spice them with other people’s words and feel my own imagination begin to stir. All novels are autobiographical in one respect only, not in the storyline nor the characters, but in why the author wrote that particular novel at that particular time.

Therein lies a truth.

And as ideas open before me – the press, the 1950s, secrets – I am gaining confidence there will be another novel.