Category Archives: Imagination

PORTABLE PLEASURES

 

Recently, while sitting in a café I found myself eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. It was a group of five, all of them bright and twentyish, all dressed in skimpy fashionable clothes, all with well-mussed, multi-coloured hair, each sporting one or more tattoos on otherwise smooth and unmarked skin. They were playing a game of ‘My favourite Things’. Their voices were resonant, they laughed a lot. First there were favourite films, followed by favourite pieces of music. Then in quick succession came favourite shop, favourite brand, favourite device, favourite sexiest person, and lastly favourite colour.

Decades ago when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, Tammy Fraser was asked in a radio interview her favourite colour – as if there were nothing more important to ask this particular first lady. To my horror she did not sound insulted nor did she hesitate.

Yellow, she replied, my favourite colour is yellow.

At the time Fraser, and all associated with him, were not favoured by the left. Even forgetting the limited merits of yellow, the fact that Tammy took colours so seriously – and favourites always help to define oneself – condemned her to remain where we on the left had unquestioningly put her.

Life was a much more simple affair back then.

And yet I have always had favourites.

In Bunuel’s Tristana, one of the characters looks for and finds the best green pea on the plate. I watched that scene and I recognised myself. I make a point, a private point of finding my favourite pea, my favourite potato chip, my favourite cherry. I have favourite flowers and trees, not botanical favourites, but a particular flower on a particular plant. My favourite elm stands near the Yarra River where Alexander Parade turns into Punt Road. My favourite oak, planted in the 1880s and recently cut down due to age and disease, was an Algerian Oak on the edge of the oak garden in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. I have an ever-expanding list of favourite books, I have favourite passages and verses from books (copied into the latest of several quote notebooks). I have favourite buildings and streets, favourite towns and cities, favourite paintings and sculptures, favourite musicians and musical compositions.

 

Quote book

Quote book

And I have a favourite letter.

A few years before Tammy’s interview I began keeping a personal dictionary. Frustrated at having to consult my Oxford dictionary for the same words over and over again – the meaning of certain words simply would not stick – I purchased a sturdy notebook, cut an index along the right-hand side for the letters of the alphabet and every time I looked up a word in Oxford’s dictionary I copied it into my own. I also decided to include in my dictionary interesting words whose meaning I knew, but in the haste and habits of everyday life I would forget I knew, words like ‘canker’ and ‘conceit’ and ‘clotted’ which when put with other words – clotted memories, family conceits, cankerous yearnings – spiced up this whole lovely business of words.

Years passed before I realised that the words of one letter ran to several more pages than any other in my personal dictionary. That letter was ‘p’. And now, along with parrots, the music of J.S. Bach and Bleu de Basque cheese, I rank ‘p’ words high on the scale of my favourite things.

Personal Dictionary

Personal Dictionary

Take ‘patina’ and ‘palimpsest’ and ‘pentimento’. For a person such as myself burdened with secrets these words supplied some gorgeous and relief-giving metaphors. And as an eighteen-year-old desperate to get away, peripatetic peregrinations encapsulated the freedom I longed for wrapped in the lyricism of travel. My sins became the far more acceptable peccadilloes, my pessimism was readily placated by propitious signs, my lack of perspicacity was less of a failure than purblindness. My sense of being at odds with the world, the perfidious world, run by pettifoggers who lacked prescience, found an effective panacea in ‘p’ words.

The appeal of ‘p’ certainly does not reside in its sound. That voiceless puff could never, for example, compete with the sonorous ‘m’ or the tricky ‘r’. The attraction is in the phantasmagoria of ‘p’ words. ‘P’ is the verbal imagination’s favourite child. Once I wrote a letter almost entirely with ‘p’ words – it was a perfect letter.

And if not for ‘p’ I would never have produced my one and only public work of art.

To describe my artistic ability as parsimonious would be to give it airs, so when I agreed to decorate a platter for a fund-raising auction conducted by the Jewish Museum I was understandably challenged. The platter arrived; it was 43 centimetres in diameter and very blank. I was rightly perturbed. I considered a pastiche of portraits cut from various papers but that would have publicised my lack of talent. I considered a range of lies to get me out of the whole thing, but pride stopped me. As the deadline approached and I was still procrastinating, my fears were palpable and my pride was heading for a fall.

And then it occurred to me: I would make a P-Plate.

In different sized fonts I typed out ‘p’ words. Perplexed, pungent, promise, painting, propinquity, piano, politics, people, philology, pertinacious, prose, poetry, 232 words in all. I cut out the words and glued them to my platter. And then I varnished the whole thing. I produced a high-gloss p-plate. And a person purchased it, a person of impeccable taste, and for quite a pretty price too.

Many things are not portable, but all favourite things are. It is the imagination which confers their status and bestows on them their delights. And it is in the imagination they remain special. The material world is so cluttered and cumbersome, but this world of favourite things is a paradise.

 

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.

CONVERSING WITH FAMOUS DEAD PEOPLE

I have had a long-standing habit of conducting conversations with famous dead people. It started in early childhood. While other children had imaginary playmates, children they made up and who were much like themselves, my imaginary playmates (although we never played, only talked) were abducted from the novels I read – obvious ones like the boy in the wheelchair in The Secret Garden and less obvious ones like King Arthur. (An old friend, on hearing about my penchant for King Arthur, pointed out that my father’s name was Arthur, hinting at unresolved Oedipal conflicts. But of all my loves, that for my father was the least complicated, and his attractions quite different from King Arthur’s.)

Back in those days privacy was a rarity. Like most of my friends I shared a bedroom, and pocket money might stretch to the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Victory or a session at St Moritz skating rink but little more. Certainly there was no sulking in your own bedroom to the comfort of your very own record player turned up to a hostile boom in order to obliterate the family from the adolescent consciousness. Even if a greater number of props to solitude had been available back in those days, the disposable income was not – and even if it had been, a child was unlikely to be the main beneficiary. Back then, childhood was a time of deprivation, at least relative to what your parents seemed to have. There were spoiled children who were showered with gifts, but for most children fun, although plentiful, was necessarily cheap.

Privacy within the home was rare, but outside the home was quite another matter. Kids were told to get out from under their parents’ feet. We would walk alone to the corner milk bar for a polly waffle or choc wedge, or a little further to the park to play, or on your bike and riding the neighbourhood streets. And then there was the cubby at the back of the garden. Cubbies were so private there were passwords for entry.

While my sister hung out in the front garden behind the hedge smoking Turf filter tips with her friend Joan, I occupied the back shed, not far from the incinerator, for long leisurely conversations with the best of the best. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliffe, Scarlett O’Hara, a whole swathe of characters from Iris Murdoch novels, Leon Uris heroes, and many many more. Private, cheap, entertaining, enormously satisfying, infinitely rich conversations.

As my reading broadened so, too, did my choice of companion, with a major shift from characters to their creators. By the time I left school I was conversing with famous dead people, regular conversations with Madame Curie, Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf – not together, of course, that would never do, in fact all my conversations have been one-on-one. At the time I knew next to nothing about the real life personae of Virginia and Jean-Paul and wanted to keep it that way. Indeed, I protected my conversations by steering shy of all biographies and autobiographies except those which might serve my purpose, like Sartre’s Paroles, which had the effect of inserting the author more firmly, and certainly more appropriately into my private sphere.

My conversations with famous dead people have afforded me enormous pleasure; they have also been the primary way in which I have clarified my ideas. Once admitted to the circle I rarely get rid of anyone, although our meetings might diminish to an occasional imagined letter. In addition to Curie, Sartre and Woolf, there have been Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Theodor Adorno, Debussy, Barthes (my Debussy and Barthes speak excellent English). And there have been others, still alive, but irrevocably distant from my real existence like Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt, George Steiner. (Years ago, when my friend Robert Dessaix interviewed George Steiner on the ABC’s books programme, I remember feeling embarrassed – and a little jealous too – as if someone had caught me out doing something not quite legitimate).

Such perfect conversations these are, with such assured outcomes, and I always so fluent, so erudite, and so unselfconscious when compared with real conversations where I’m liable to talk rot and am struck by brilliant insights ten minutes too late. Perfect conversations in which I control the ebb and flow of ideas. And even though I remain unsure where the conversation will end, I am absolutely certain that not only will I survive to the end, I’ll do so with flying colours. These conversations, always so intellectually and morally sound, persist unencumbered by corporeal distractions like body odour, or constipation, or unsightly moles, or personality constraints like vanity, or hypochondria, or a dull and intransigent resentment of early family life. And I, too, exist unencumbered by any imperfections in these conversations, whether undesirable personal qualities or, indeed, the risks and slips of the usual face-to-face interaction.

But I do not fool myself – have never fooled myself. My perfect imagined conversations, their intellectual rigour notwithstanding, are nonetheless contrived, and while permitted to meander here and there, they do so only under my direction. This perfection is restricted and solely under my control. It makes a nice change to the rest of life.

Restricted perfection. What an interesting notion.

GALAPAGOS WONDERS

 

Marine iguana

Marine iguana

Practised writers know to resist the temptation to write about an exceptional experience until it has had time to be rinsed through the nervous system. A week, a month, or more likely several months or years is required, during which the original experience having passed through a complex web of memory, aesthetics and ethical gateways will eventually produce an essay or article that manages to expose the essence of the original experience.

This certainly was the case with my trip down to Antarctica made in November, 2006. Apart from the occasional metaphor, I did not draw on my Antarctic experience until years later, most particularly in a long personal essay titled ‘Home Triptych’, included in Home Truths, an anthology edited by Carmel Bird and published by 4th Estate in 2010. The trip to Antarctica was unique, it was life-changing. It was a journey into a landscape of the imagination, the landscape of the imagination. It was an experience that challenged language. It needed time.

I have just returned from the Galapagos Islands. I came home to a bulging email inbox. One email, in preparation for an upcoming gig, asked me to complete the statement: my key life learning is…

I wrote about curiosity and an openness to wonder as fuel for everyday life; I wrote, too, about the importance of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I wrote my reply and after I sent it off it occurred to me that, for the first time in my life, in the Galapagos I had witnessed the extraordinary as an ordinary, everyday occurrence. I walked past bevies of marine iguanas draped over sea-splashed lava benches, I swam with sea lions and turtles, I dived with penguins, I passed within an arm’s length of nesting frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies, I did all this and much much more on a daily, even an hourly basis.

Blue-footed booby with chick Land iguana Frigatebirds

So many wonders.

And this morning, reading a biography of the artist and cartoonist Saul Steinberg (most famous for his cartoon of Manhattan and the rest of the world) I came across a play on Descartes’ Cogito (incidentally it was Descartes who named wonder as the first of the passions). Instead of cogito ergo sum was written dubito ergo sum: I doubt therefore I am. The dubito stance is entirely consistent with a ravenous curiosity and an openness to wonder. I love the notion of dubito ergo sum.

The Galapagos Islands filled me with wonder, no less now that I am home than when I was actually walking among some of the most extraordinary creatures on the face of the earth, and across a variety of landscapes unique in my experience. It may be simple enthusiasm, it may be untamed excitement, it may be the force of the adventure itself, but this Galapagos experience won’t wait. Which is not to deny that when I draw on the same experience in two or three or four years time it will yield far deeper, more considered and thoughtful work.

So much of what I saw in the Galapagos Islands was unimaginable, and even when I was there a breath away from a land iguana, the creature right there in front of me, to make sense of it required all my imaginative resources. These animals – the iguanas, the yellow warblers that flitter around my feet, the turtle swimming towards me, the weird and weighty giant tortoise that lumbers past me on the way to the water-hole – these animals are so vastly different to what I’ve been used to, they challenge all my taken-for-granted assumptions.

Red-footed booby Giant tortoise

And the terrain, too, has a similar effect. There are fields of lava everywhere, ageing red and grey crumbling lava, and fresh gorgeously black stuff in organic slabs and swirls. I could be anywhere – but nowhere I’ve ever been before.

Organic lava Landscape with lava

These animals and birds, this landscape, these seas, all usher me into new terrain. It’s like entering a film or a novel or a piece of music. A landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen before demands the same sort of total attention and creative response as does a work of art. Good art astonishes. Good art takes you out of the everyday – and so too this landscape and these creatures.

Don’t forget this, I tell myself as I watch four orcas frolicking in the seas in front of the boat, don’t forget this, I tell myself as I swim out of the path of a floating turtle. Live always with the shock, the wonderful shock of the new.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Yellow warbler

Yellow warbler

American oyster-catcher

American oyster-catcher

Storm-petrel dancing

Storm-petrel dancing

Dolphins!

Dolphins!

Frigate-bird with fledgling

Frigate-bird with fledgling

 

 

 

 

 

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.