Category Archives: books

The Passion of Letters (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend it.


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


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


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

READING AGAIN. Oliver Sacks’s new memoir.

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

Trans: Donald D. Walsh

I want you to know
one thing.

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

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

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

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

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


Translated by: Forrest Gander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I was born into a print world.

I learned to read at a very young age and I bought my first books while still in primary school. As a university student, in addition to my study books, I read newspapers and periodicals, feminist tracts and political manifestos. I would wander through campus on the way to and from the union gathering flyers as I went. I collected roneoed foolscap sheets advertising rallies in support of the NLF in North Vietnam, demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, lectures on Existentialism and phenomenology, a Bunuel festival, a sit-in over the slaughter in Uganda, a reclaim-the-night march down St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street. A single trip across campus and I would collect information and activity sufficient to fill a week. I never threw anything out. I worshipped print. Stored in my filing cabinet – yes, I still possess a four-drawer monster – on sheets of fading foolscap I can revisit the left-leaning liberal’s diet of times past.

There has always been too much to read for any voracious reader, but back in the days of print I managed better than most. Through a process of sifting, selecting, and settng aside reading time every day I would read two or three books a week, plus newspapers and periodicals. The situation has now changed. With numerous digital devices and twenty-four hour access to the web, the problem has become one of abundance. There is, simply, too much – and not just to read. There’s too much information, there are too many shops, restaurants, publications to explore, in short, there’s too much of everything all of the time.

I long for an off-switch or a safety overload-switch. But I keep my longings to myself, for to admit to any sort of disenchantment with these information-rich times all too readily casts one as a dinosaur of the pre-virtual world.

Don’t get me wrong, I delight in being able to access a variety of information without moving from my chair. Over coffee with friends, I’m relieved to search out the name of that 1940s Hollywood star that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there. Like the kid in an IRL (in real life) candy shop, it’s so difficult to control yourself when you enter the web. And just like the child keeps piling in the sugar despite feeling sick, the pleasure and delight you initially experience is readily crushed in the frenetic dashing that takes you over. You read an article or a news item, there are two or three links, you follow one, then another, there’s an ad for a miracle face-cream, you peruse the product, don’t buy, search out another product, still don’t buy, check into Facebook, return to original article, follow another link, check your email, investigate another face-cream, back to article, breaking news, return to Facebook, more email. And an hour or a day later little, if any, of the information is remembered because there’s been no time taken to absorb it, and no opportunity to reflect on it.

This is life in cyberspace. And it has consequences.

My favourite Saturday as a child, and well into adulthood too, was one spent with a novel. I would start the book in the morning and have it finished by day’s end. I was so absorbed I had no sense of time or place; indeed, the world about me could pass through all the colours of the rainbow and I would not have noticed. That same deep, focussed attention served me well during my studies, and has continued to serve me well as a novelist. I’ve never experienced any difficulties going to my desk and staying there throughout the many drafts that novels require so they appear as if they fell onto the page fully formed.

Until recently.

My new novel, The Science of Departures (the title is taken from a Mandelstam poem) has a Soviet Russian connection. The idea for this novel emerged about two years ago. Since then I have been reading extensively about Russia through the Soviet years. Most of this reading has occurred via printed books, and includes works by Orlando Figes, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Catriona Kelly, Gary Shteyngart, Masha Gessen, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Nabokov and many others. The books have furnished me with the political and social fabric of Russia during the twentieth century. But when it comes to specifics like the sort of home lighting available in the years just after the revolution, or the location of hospitals and universities in Leningrad during the 1980s, or brands of Russian cigarettes, or daily life in the communal apartments, the Kommunalki, it is the internet with all its arcane and special interests, together with its print and picture archives, that has been astonishingly helpful.

So where is the problem? I have books for depth, I have the web for detail, and I know enough about my characters to bunker down and write the novel. (In that previous sentence I rather fancied the word ‘hunker’ rather than ‘bunker’, but had a suspicion that ‘hunker’ might not be a real word. A few months ago I would have done an on-line search, but today, just moments ago, I took down my tattered OED and looked up ‘hunker’. It is not a word in my 1997 edition. I then flipped the pages back to ‘bunker’ to help me decide whether to use ‘bunker in’ or ‘bunker down’. Consulting my old OED took about one minute. If I had gone on-line, I would still be there, following up interesting titbits offered up by my search engine, but completely irrelevant to the task at hand.)

Yes, I have changed. Rather than mindlessly capitulating to the seductions of the web I am asserting control over my usage.

For a long time I’d been aware that my ability to concentrate on a single task for hours at a time had been compromised by constant web searches, obsessive checking of email, and an unnatural attachment to my mobile phone. Novels, particularly in the early drafts of their creation, require long and deep immersion: without prolonged concentration they will not be completed. My susceptibility to the vast digital world was putting my new novel at risk.

At the same time, my memory, always so reliable, was letting me down. Or, to be more accurate, I was not taking care of it. On the third occasion I looked up the various names given to the Soviet secret police during the 70 years following the revolution, I realised I needed to change my tactics; specifically, I needed to revert to some pre-digital practices.

I found an empty notebook. This became my ‘things/facts that need to be remembered’ book. It was no longer sufficient to do as I had done in times past, that is, take a moment to stick a fact into memory. My memory had been, for too long, mollycoddled by the ever-available information on the web, and it had grown slack and flabby. By writing the information down I was simultaneously taking the time memory needs to open itself up to a fact, and I was doubly rehearsing that fact by committing it to writing.

There still remained the issue of my jittery attention span. This was dealt with in a most unexpected way. It was a Tuesday in mid-July, I was having dinner with my old friend L. L and her family are, like me, Jewish, although they are a good deal more observant than I am. In particular, they observe the Sabbath – Shabbat: from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday theirs is a time of solitary reflection, of prayer, of time spent with family and close friends. For twenty-four hours they do no work, they do no cooking, they do not handle money, they do not drive or take public transport, they use no electronic devices including sound systems, computers and phones.

It’s a day of replenishment, L said to me, and went on to add that she simply did not understand how people managed to start another busy week without a day in which to stop and take stock. To replenish.

As L talked about her Shabbat, her manner and voice became quieter and more reflective, as if demonstrating what this day meant for her and the effects it produced. It was a state foreign to my current life.

I told her how besieged I felt by email. Each day, I said, brings at least twenty new messages most of which I do not want. I trash emails without reading them; I unsubscribe from commercial communications with fury; I think I’ve finished an email thread only to receive another communication. I can end up having daily emails with someone I’ve never met – and would not want to meet. I feel stalked, hounded, battered. I told her about my susceptibility to the web, that even before a session finishes I feel like a rat in a maze. And I wondered aloud whether I might not benefit from my own day partitioned off from the rest of the week – not a religious observance but a day of solitude and reflection: reading in the morning, followed by an afternoon of music and a leisurely walk. A day with no email, no time spent on the computer, no iPad, no mobile.

L stressed that if I chose this path it must not feel like deprivation. She suggested I might begin with just two hours away from my various devices.

This conversation occurred on a Tuesday. As the week progressed I found myself eager for Saturday to arrive.

I checked my email just before midnight on the Friday night. On the Saturday morning I woke at my usual 6 am, made my breakfast and took it back to bed, along with the latest print issue of the London Review of Books and a book on the publication machinations of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée). Every few weeks I have breakfast in bed on a Saturday, so this in itself was not unusual. What marked it as different was that my iPad and my mobile were not on the breakfast tray, they were not even in the room. I read for an hour, I had paper and pen next to me to jot down notes and queries. I made a second cup of coffee and returned to bed. I read some more.

Far from feeling deprived, the hours were infused with familiarity. This was exactly how I used to start the weekend in the ancien régime before the digital age.

At mid-morning on that first Saturday I took my digital temperature. I didn’t feel deprived, I didn’t want to check my email, I wasn’t driven to do web searches on issues that had arisen in the course of my reading. So far so good.

I showered, I dressed, I took my dog for a walk. I was at ease. I felt gentled. And as I walked through the park my mind was in a lovely meandering – just like it used to be – moseying off into surprising and fruitful places. On the way home I bought the Saturday Age, and over lunch I read an IRL newspaper and not the on-line version. I read slowly, I finished articles.

That first Saturday afternoon I listened to a Mahler Symphony. I knitted while the music played and my mind continued its leisurely sauntering. Every now and then I put my knitting down, picked up a pen and made a note. Around four o’clock I checked my email. Only one email was waiting for me – which underscores what we all know: that the more you use email the more emails you receive. I checked my email again before going to bed. My inbox was empty.

The next morning I awoke refreshed and, yes, replenished for the day and week ahead.


I now observe digital-free Saturdays, this also includes mobile-free Saturdays. I also try to keep the day clear of arrangements. I look forward to my Saturdays, I actually start thinking about each one, planning for it a couple of days ahead.

To anyone who wants to reclaim an interior life, who wants quiet and extended periods of creative reflection, I would recommend you take a digital-free day each week. For those born into the digital age you won’t know yourself, for older people you will recognise a self from long ago, one you’ll welcome back – with relief – as a familiar.



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.



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.


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.



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.



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.)



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