Category Archives: memoir

Risky Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Books of Friends

This morning I finished Drusilla Modjeska’s new book, Second Half First. Several times during its reading I silently acknowledged that this would be one of my best books of the year. At the end of reading there is no doubt: it is a beauty.

Best Books is an annual tradition for publications like ABR and the Fairfax papers, in which writers name their best reads of the year. So – Drusilla’s book will be on my best of 2015 list. What else, I found myself thinking, will I include?

I keep a reading notebook which I usually consult when deciding on my best for the year. But I was sitting on the couch, dawn was breaking, I had not yet finished my first coffee, Lotte was lying next to me, snuffling in her sleep her head on my lap, and I didn’t want to move. So I relied on my memory, trusting that in this instance memory would hold fast to the truth, or, rather, truth would fix on to memory, and I came up with Peter Rose’s latest collection, The Subject of Feeling. I’d read it earlier in the year when the publisher asked me to write a few words for the cover, and I read it again when the book was published. It has been several months since I looked at it but many of the poems have stayed with me.

Two best books and both written by friends. How then to phrase my contribution to a best books of the year section without being accused of literary nepotism or some other sort of self-serving agenda?

Ours has been a small literary community. It’s changing now, but those of us who have been around for several decades are known to one another. That I count among my friends other writers is to be expected. At the same time all of us are aware of instances when John has cited Joan’s book as the best of the year because he’s sleeping with her or, more likely, wants to sleep with her; and Susan cites Barbara’s book as the best of the year as a means of apologising for a past wrong. These sorts of things happen commonly, and can be staggeringly transparent.

Reviewing is even more vulnerable to personal agendas. A 4th or 5th novel being reviewed by someone who has been trying to get her/his own first novel published for years can be easily tainted by anger, disappointment and envy. A bad book receiving a glowing review can very often be traced to a long-standing friendship between author and reviewer.

Then there’s the poison ink review.

I remember the day Dot (Dorothy Porter) opened the Saturday Age to a review of her latest verse novel (I think it was Wild Surmise) written by Alan Wearne. She slumped, her face was writ with distress. ‘He hates me,’ she said. And true enough the review was a killer, it was so vile and venomous it was hard to make sense of it. Underneath his review, and occupying the same amount of space, was another review praising the book in every respect: the poetry, the fiction, the characterisation, the pace, the artistry of the work. As it happened all other reviewers agreed with the second reviewer. The book went on to win prizes, it was short-listed for the Miles Franklin, it was adapted for radio and the theatre.

__________

I’ve done a lot of teaching in my time. I start all my writing classes with the same question: What are you reading? And what has been the best work you’ve read this past year? Invariably there will be a student whose reading has been confined to her/his friends. Why bother with Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf or White when you can have Raelene and Kylie, Brett and Baxter?

So, how do I get away with naming my friends’ work as the best of the year?

The fact is, and it’s a crucial one, that you want to like the work of your friends and it’s painful when you don’t. You want the best for them, and when their work falls short it is cause, not simply for disappointment, but actual sadness. You just wish it had been otherwise. You suffer for them – even if they are not suffering for themselves.

And when friends write a book that is a stunner, well, you feel doubly rewarded: as a reader (how fortunate am I to have read this book) and as a friend (how fortunate am I to have a friend who can write like this). So I will make no apologies here about my two best books for 2015.

In regard to The Subject of Feeling, I wrote the following as the cover endorsement:

Youth and maturity, love and infatuation, memory, music, loss, landscape, Peter Rose exposes the human experience in poems that are gorgeously lucid and often profound.

The Subject of Feeling reveals a fearless wisdom, a wry wit and a quiet depth. These poems stop you in your tracks.’

There’s a maturity to the poems, a quiet intelligence that I find irresistible, and complex but accessible emotional undercurrents. As for the Catullan Rag poems that make up the final section of the book, Peter has been adding to this series for years and the poems just get better and better. I’ve always delighted in the conceit of contemporary subjects being couched in the ancient world. One of the poems was, I believe, seeded at my own dining table.

Drusilla’s Second Half First might well be her memoir, but it is also the story of our lives, women like me born in the mid-twentieth century. She writes of passionate friendships, of fervent conversations around kitchen tables with cheap wine and cigarettes close at hand. She writes of family, of parents in particular and our conflicted feelings as adult children, she writes of lovers (so many of them and so fraught), she writes of books (Woolf, Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, the essential reading of those days), and she writes of the business of writing. Her tone is gentle – easeful – and questing, often infused with a sense of wonder. As I turned the pages of her book I found myself grateful to her for having written it.

Drusilla writes too of PNG, of the Ömie people and their barkcloth paintings, and the SEAM project that she helped to found, a remarkable scheme that brings books and education to children in remote areas of PNG. She writes so vividly about PNG that I easily see my pale, English friend trekking through forests, climbing mountains and sitting on verandahs in the wet heat talking with PNG women.

Two books, poetry and prose, both coming from the deeper part of the author to reach the deeper part of the reader, both have enriched my year and my life. Good books become like old friends. I am grateful to my friends for adding to this precious stock.