Category Archives: Reading

GEORGE STEINER

George Steiner died early last week (February 3rd). He was 90. Many tributes have been written, old interviews have been replayed*, a so-called ‘posthumous interview’** has been published. Several of the tributes include a sting-in-the-tale comment, as if the author can’t help himself (all the articles I’ve read so far have been written by men) about how Steiner inspired controversy with his strongly-held views about the primacy of the primary text, the shortcomings (parasitism) of the critic, diminished standards in the contemporary academy, to name just three. What others call elitism, was Steiner’s life of the mind. George Steiner was a fearless intellectual, he was not going to write to please an audience. (Again and again I am struck by how elitism in an intellectual is condemned, yet lauded in an athlete.)

While I mourn Steiner’s passing, far more intense is my gratitude that he existed at all. Through many decades, Steiner generously opened his mind to readers, sharing his extraordinary erudition in books that can be read over and over again. On hearing of his death, I immediately started rereading one of my favourites, Real Presences. There are notes from past readings, and I am adding different notes now, Steiner always gives me more.

Soon after Real Presenceswas published in 1989, I attended a lecture given by George Steiner. In my memory, it was held at a lecture theatre at the Tate (the old one at Millbank – Tate Modern didn’t exist). It seems an odd place for a Steiner lecture, and I wonder now if I’ve made it up. But I see the lecture theatre – it held about 200 people – the seating rising in long rows, and I am sitting about halfway up and a little to the right. I feel as if I’m there alone, listening to Steiner alone, but my copy of Real Presencesis a signed gift from my dear London-based friend, Frances, so I expect she was there, together with J, who first introduced me to Steiner several years earlier. But I don’t sense their presence. Steiner is standing at a lectern. I assume he has notes, but he doesn’t consult them. He talks without pause for an hour, and I am held, held utterly, in that lovely distinctive lilt, the creative language, the lush eloquence, the astonishing ideas.

In lectures, in interviews, and in his books, Steiner commands my entire attention. He makes me think, he introduces me to writers I’ve not read (Alberto Manguel, very much alive and as productive as ever does the same). I don’t always agree with Steiner, but I am always nourished. And invigorated.

A couple of years ago (August 2017) I wrote about Steiner in a piece posted here called ‘Pardoning your Heroes’. I reprint it here in acknowledgement of the great debt I owe him.

 

* This is a wonderful interview from 1994 with Elaine Wachtel of CBC’s Writers and Company, replayed following Steiner’s death. Go to the Writers and Company website, it is the program of 9/2/20.

**https://www.fr24news.com/2020/02/posthumous-interview-with-george-steiner-i-did-not-have-the-courage-to-create-culture.html

 

PARDONING YOUR HEROES (originally posted August 2017)

 

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday(University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silenceas a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler, this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could be so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturdaywarrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough notto meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this isthe voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they dogive us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether youare enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauungclouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacyof reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spentor Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear hisvoice in the process of mydeciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes tocreativeloves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steinerhas inspired. This is what heroes do.

Hectic Reading. Starting all over again (3)

HECTIC READING. STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN (3)

It’s happening again: I’m reading hectically. I’m filling up. Little in the way of rhyme or reason at this stage, just following the imagination’s peccadilloes. I finish a book and within minutes I’m reaching for a new one. Every few days I stop long enough to write notes, prompted by my jottings in the back of each book and the wanderings of a mind set free. The jottings and the notes sometimes bear no relation to anything that has gone before, but more often they feed the new novel that is slowing forming, or, not so much the novel as a whole, but the characters who will carry the story.

Here are the current volumes.

  1. Deborah Levy. The Man Who Saw Everything. I’m reading this book because of Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House. I went to Readings Bookstore in Carlton to buy the Patchett, and there, in the new releases was Deborah Levy’s new one, a novel that traverses the 1980s to the present day, character-based and ideas-driven, and written in Levy’s lucid rich prose. I am 1/3 the way through and Levy’s characters are provoking some surprising thoughts about my own very different characters. (Incidentally, Patchett has returned to form with The Dutch House. Such a subtle, yet intricate portrayal of family relations.)

  1. David Biale. Gershom Scholem. Master of the Kabbalah. Mention of this book was made in a recent article in the NYRB. It occurred to me that while Scholem’s name was very familiar to me, I knew nothing about him, nor the Kabbalah. Biale’s book is part of the excellent Yale Jewish Lives Series – a recommendation in itself.

Jewishness in any of its manifestations is not a theme in my new novel, but suddenly it seemed essential, and urgent, too, that I learn about Scholem. I read the book over two days. Scholem was a great scholar and there are some wonderful quotes in Biale’s book about the power of writing, of language, of story. One quote from Goethe’s Faust particularly struck: ‘Parchment – is that the secret fount/ from which you drink, to still your thirst forever?’ And from Scholem himself: ‘the desiccation of the language has dried out our hearts.’

One of the characters in my new novel, Adrian, is grappling with the problems of meaning, and, in particular, the nature of meaning without language. I put my books aside and listen to Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, a piece of music that has a profound effect on Adrian early on in the new novel, an effect that, wordman as he is, he simply does not understand. I let the music lift me out of the quotidian into the imagination’s swirl. The music plays, the voice lures, and I travel without will, without any monitoring whatsoever, through memory, musings, ideas, images that are not in the least essayist, but more like a Kandinsky painting.

 

  1. Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art

In this book, Kandinsky explains his theory and understanding of art, music, and the numinous. In the years 1911-1914, Kandinsky produced a number of large lyrical paintings. I’ve always loved these paintings, but it was only this past November, when I saw some of them again at Munich’s Lenbachhaus, that I realised the connection these paintings have to music and, more generally to a meaning that seems to circumvent language (Rothko’s work has the same effect). As I read Kandinsky’s book – it’s a slender book, but it demands a careful reading – some of the struggles and insights that beset my character, Adrian, sharpen and, at the same time, acquire a firmer foundation. Rather than the usual fragments that characterise this early stage of a novel, I actually reach for a proper notebook and write several pages.

 

  1. While I was in Germany I read Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Ironyin which she, like others before her, visits the Hungarian intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, an extraordinary group that included the mathematician John von Neuman, Arthur Koestler and Robert Capa, my favourite physicist Leo Szilard, and Elias Canetti – although Canetti could be said to have come from several places including Bulgaria and Vienna. Anyway Canetti was mentioned by Perloff, and I realised I had not read his three-volume autobiography. I’d always assumed I had, it being one of the books I OUGHT to have read.

I’ve read the first volume now, The Tongue Set Free, and am 2/3 the way through the second volume, The Torch in My Ear,the volume that charts his late teens through his twenties.

Books find you at the right time, and this is clearly my time for the Canetti autobiography. This morning I read a section in which Canetti may or may not be in love with a Russian chemist, Eva, who works in the same laboratory as he does. I think of the ramifications of not knowingif you love someone, and I’m not thinking of Canetti and the Russian chemist, I’m thinking of another of my characters, Claire, caught in a marriage that she regards as deep and meaningful and everyone else sees as cruel and destructive. I make some jottings and read on. Several pages later, Canetti writes of a specific type of hearing, a rare type of hearing that ‘was impossible unless you exclude your own feelings.’ My character Claire thinks about the common intrusion of this ‘I’. What people usually hear is first sieved through a mesh of their own desires and disappointments. And Claire starts to wonder about her own husband, what actually drives him in his relationship with her. I reach for the notebook.

 

  1. And poetry. I’m still dipping into Ted Hughes’ Crow— my character Adrian is an expert on death – and I’m about to pull down Goethe’s Prometheusfrom the shelf (it was mentioned in the Canetti autobiography), and I’ve not long finished The Death of Empedocles, both Hölderin’s and Matthew Arnold’s versions.

So this is just the current reading. If I glance down my lists for the last months of 2019 there are a lot of books, and very diverse. And what emerges from all this reading? An imagination that is ranging far and wide (definitely without a roadmap), new thoughts, new ideas, nascent characters who are gaining in flesh and sensibility, interesting scenes and curious events (most of which won’t survive the first draft), and three roughish chapters.

And so it goes. At the end of it all one hopes there’ll be a new novel. Ihope there will be. But it couldn’t happen without reading. Indeed,lifecouldn’t happen without reading.

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Times Past, Times Present.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting All over Again (2). The Genesis of Invented Lives.

There’s a residue left when a novel is finished. You rarely recognise it at the time; only later, when the next novel is nearing completion do you see a connection with the one that preceded it.

While writing The Memory Trap I was vitally interested in monuments, in particular, how voluble they were about political and social currents. Following the break up of the Soviet Union, there was an avalanche of falling statues and monuments throughout central and Eastern Europe – as if the communist years could be so easily shattered. And, more recently, there’s been a rise of new monuments exemplifying a revised perspective and understanding of the Soviet years, including a number of monuments erected to the victims of communism.

The Prague Monument to the Victims of Communisms (Photo by Serje Jones.)

 

 

 

 

 

The Memory Trap was finished and in production when I found myself reaching for books focussed on Putin and contemporary Russia. Apart from the usual Russian novels (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pasternak, etc) and the poets (Pushkin, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva) I’d read nothing about Russia. I did not bother to analyse this new direction in my reading: a novel was finished, I needed to fill up again, I know it to be a hapahazard business. I quickly realised that to understand Russia today required a knowledge of the Soviet years; and to understand the revolution and the years that followed required knowledge of Russia under the Czars. So back I went. My reading petered out around 1880.

I read the stunningly informative and always engaging Orlando Figes. (They are all good but The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia is unique, compelling and unforgettable.) I reread Nabokov novels and autobiographical works, and I read biographies of both him and his wife, Vera. I read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s autobiographies Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned, both extraordinary documents of Stalin’s terror and beyond. I read Russian fiction and Russian poetry, I read one book after another. After a while I realised all this Russian reading must be taking me somewhere. Familiar with the need to fill up again when a novel is finished, and well-acquainted with the uncertainty that accompanies the writing of a novel, I was not too concerned to understand where these Russian books might be taking me.

At the same time as I was immersed in Russia of the past 140 years, the media was full of the Australian Government’s policy towards asylum seekers. Turn back the boats. No one who arrives illegally by boat will ever be permitted to settle in Australia. Politicians actually boasted of the success of the policy. Either they did not stop to think how cruel and brutal it was, or they did think about it and simply didn’t care. Desperate displaced people were seeking asylum, seeking safety with us, and we were treating them like criminals. As for the queues politicians and their supporters kept referring to, when your very life is being threatened, queues don’t matter. Queues won’t save you. Queues won’t protect you against rape, against mutilation, against rampaging soldiers intent on killing you and your family.

It seemed self-evident to me that no one would willingly choose exile. No one would willingly separate from one’s culture, land, language, friends and family, unless one’s very life was threatened. Why were we demonising these people? The politicians were whipping up hatred, and much of the press was following suit. Where, I wondered was our compassion, where our understanding? And why this fear of difference? Aboriginal Australians are the only indigenous Australians, the rest of us are immigrants. We were welcomed and yet now we refuse to welcome those seeking our help.

I was reading about Russia and the Soviet Union and I was thinking about exile and I knew that from 1979 to the break-up of the USSR, many Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate – to Israel, to the US, to Canada and to Australia. And so the character of Galina Kogan started to form. Born in Leningrad in 1961, Galina travels to Australia alone in the mid-1980s.

It occurred to me there might be advantages to setting a novel in the recent past. A little bit of distance not only eliminates any of the bias directed at current political and social circumstances, it also provides a clearer view of these circumstances. Reading about the recent past almost automatically prompts a comparison with today.

It was in thinking about the 1980s that I created my married couple, Sylvie and Leonard Morrow, both born in the 1930s and married in the 1950s. Two people who experience exile – nothing to do with moving country, but exile from their own true selves. And their son, Andrew, an intensely shy young man, in exile from the social community that others inhabit with such ease. And so I started to write a novel that in a very deliberate sense, democratised the experience of exile.

The novel grew, the drafts mounted up. It was very late in the process when I realised the novel was also exploring the notion of self-invention. I came of age at a time when Erving Goffman and R.D. Laing were required reading. Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Laing’s Self and Others are still on my bookshelves, while the ‘Looking glass self’ theory of the sociologist Cooley, is etched into my memory. All the characters in Invented Lives shape their personas according to the particular environment in which they find themselves. This is what we used to do prior to the digital age and social media. And back in those days you would receive immediate feedback from others in the environment through facial expressions, gestures and/or utterances, and make adjustments accordingly.

I knew very little of this at the beginning of writing Invented Lives. But that’s the magic of fiction. And now that Invented Lives is finished, I am filling up again with books about death. I wonder where that will take me.

 

BRING ME FICTION

Recently, while on a wilderness expedition with several others, I found myself talking with a man, a counselling psychologist. Apropos of nothing in particular, he said that when it came to novels he always read the last few pages first. It sounded like he was bragging. At this point, another member of our group told him I was a writer, a novelist.

‘What sort of novels do you write?’ he asked, not the least embarrassed.

I described them as contemporary fiction, character based, that while they told a story they also explored ideas.

‘Like what?’

‘The book I’ve just finished, Invented Lives, explores the notion of exile, the one before, The Memory Trap, looked at the complexities memory.’

He said he wouldn’t like my books. ‘They sound like too much hard work.’

I asked him who he liked to read. He said Dan Brown.

‘So you like plot,’ I said. ‘You like a fast-paced story.’

He nodded.

‘But still you read the end first.’

He nodded and smiled. Very self-satisfied he was.

‘You’re clearly not a man to take risks,’ I said, letting politeness off the leash. ‘You want to know the destination before you embark on the adventure.’ It was a comment made sharper by the fact that we were currently on a real-life adventure.

The barb missed its target. He was happy with his performance, indeed, he seemed a man entirely contented with himself. If he was aware of having insulted me, he didn’t care. It was hard to see him as a counselling psychologist.

I would be appalled if someone accused me of being risk-averse. It conjures up a warm-water-bath life, the years mounting up into decades of sameness. And I was appalled as a writer. Writers spend years shaping the journey, and this Dan Brown reader basically says, ‘Fuck you’ when he goes to the last page.

I was relating this incident to a friend of mine, one of Australia’s finest writers. D said she often consults the end of a novel first, in order to get the plot out of the way. She wants to savour the journey, and not be swept along in plot’s white water. She wants to linger in the language and the evolving fictional world. This is a desire I understand – and share. But I choose a different approach: I’ll succumb to the pull of the narrative on a first reading and return for the language and the nuances on a second – at least that’s the plan, but with so many books waiting to be read, the second reading is often little more than a cursory glance.

I suppose I should have been grateful that the counselling psychologist at least read fiction. Many men don’t. They read non-fiction and news sources, books and periodicals, but not fiction. They admit this not as some sort of shameful confession, but rather as a boast, as if to say ‘I am above the fluff of fiction. My time is too important to waste on stories.’ Their not reading fiction is not a fault in them, but a fault in fiction.

It is true that many women do not read fiction either, but in their case, they’ll announce – generally apologetically – that they are not really readers. They don’t read fiction because they don’t read anything.

At a cursory glance fiction can appear to be a curious anachronism in the fast-paced, multi-tasking digital age. The long, slow immersion in fiction, spending a weekend with Christina Stead or Julian Barnes becomes increasingly unlikely when 24/7 connection is the measure of not simply one’s place in the world, but of identity itself – a shockingly frail sense of identity, it must be said, one that can soar or collapse with a battery of likes/dislikes. And gauging others in this fast-paced world is similarly fraught when confronted with an avalanche of ever-changing data; it seems that the kitbag of tools once available for making considered judgements is emptying fast. We follow people like us; we visit sites that confirm our opinions; if we read news outlets (and most of us don’t) it will confirm our political views. The whole world is just a swipe or tap away, and yet for many people the day-to-day world seems to be getting smaller.

I’ve long believed that fiction makes the reader more understanding, more tolerant. The reason is obvious. Through fiction, you are exposed to characters – people – who are different to yourself: different life experiences, different family circumstances, different culture, different eras. For 12, 15 or 20 hours you are immersed in a world not your own, seeing it from the point of view of people who are not yourself, actually experiencing it from beneath the skin of strangers who are no longer strange. The other becomes a familiar through the process of reading a novel. This is an intense learning experience: it’s also an intensely enjoyable and stimulating experience, one that exercises concentration and attention and memory. There is no other activity that exposes a person to such a diversity of human experience in so concentrated and economical way.

So many works of fiction appear in lists of great books: The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, all of Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, to mention only a few. Fiction exposes our complex human longings, it shows anxieties, jealousies, cruelties; it reveals shame, anger, joy and love. Fiction provides a context for understanding what drives us, what tempts us, what destroys and uplifts us. Fiction stops the flashing lights and flabby noise of our on-on-on lives and allows for reflection and understanding.

Imagine it: an hour at the end of every day, after work and before the night begins. You make yourself a coffee (or tea, or pour a glass of your favourite tipple), collect your novel and adjourn to the couch. You kick off your shoes, settle into its cushions; the dog (cat) jumps up, lies down next to you head on your thigh. Your phone is out of reach, in fact, it is out of hearing. You open your book, remind yourself where you are up to, and slip quickly and easily into a world of other people. This is bliss.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO…

Jewish Book Week Gala performers.

The 2018 Jewish Book Week in Melbourne opened with a gala choreographed by Galit Klas along with Evelyn Krape. 6 writers were asked to write a short piece shaped around the phrase: The World According to… While others chose a specific person (e.g. a 16th century mathematician, Batman, a Batmitzvah girl) I took a different tack. The readings were accompanied by music and large screen visuals. The evening was tied together with some fabulous singing from Galit. The piece I performed is written below.

 

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO….

Pamela Simon was an excellent wife, an excellent mother, and an excellent grandmother. Indeed she had been imbued with excellence from childhood when, as Pammy Silverstein, she had excelled at her studies, played flute in the youth orchestra, and lead the school debating team to the state finals.

She had married the very excellent David Simon straight after university, and while she had planned to continue her studies with an MA and then a PhD in the border frontier of philosophy and literature, she knew she could return to university later. In the meantime she kept a note book in which she transcribed interesting and punchy quotes from poets and novelists, philosophers and other thinkers.

Ambitions change – or perhaps are supplanted when babies come: first Jonathan then Melanie. And by the time Melanie started kindergarten, rather than a return to university, with David’s printing firm thriving, Pamela joined him in the business.

The years passed, the children flourished, the business went from strength to strength. Every now and then Pamela would pick up her quote-book and read through the inspiring lines; very occasionally she added a new quote drawn from her current reading

The years turned into decades. With David now in his mid-sixties, Melanie was taking over more of the day-to-day running of the business. Retirement was on the horizon, and Pamela was eager for the next stage.

Then her excellent life exploded.

David was indeed retiring from the business, but not to be with her, not to do the things they had long planned together, but to live with Kylie from accounts who was expecting his child. If it were not her own life, her own tragedy, Pam would think she had stumbled into a political soapie.

David moved out of the house and in with Kylie. With the bedroom of the past forty years now full-strength toxic, Pam withdrew to her sewing-come-hideaway room. Jonathan and Melanie, both appalled at their father’s behaviour, tried to coax her out. But she did not want to be coaxed. Her life was over.

‘I would prefer not,’ she said when Melanie on the other side of the closed door invited her mother for lunch, for dinner, for outings with the grandchildren.

‘I would prefer not,’ Pam says, recognising it as a quote from someone. She rummages through her book cases, and there it is: ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, a short story by Herman Melville. ‘I prefer not,’ Bartleby says, when assigned various work tasks that do not appeal.

Hard to argue against that.

 

The voices begin soon afterwards.

The 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer is first: ‘Life is a miserable thing’, he says. ‘I have decided to spend my life thinking about it.’

Pamela is smiling, the first time in weeks, and then actually laughing when she recalls that the world according to Schopenhauer was not known for its laughs. It’s a pleasant respite in her life of woe. But before long she’s back in the stifling blackness, back in the gluey swamp of grief, loss, anger, misery.

‘The emotions are not skilled workers.’

Another voice, again faintly familiar, cuts through the silence. Pamela, perched on the day bed, reaches for her old quote book. She wipes the dust from the cover, and leafs through the pages of faded ink. So many wise words in this book of hers, all written out in her hand. And there, she’s found it, and another smile. The words are Ern Malley’s, the non-existent poet created by James McAuley and Harold Stewart in what became Australia’s greatest literary hoax. In the world according to Ern Malley:The emotions are not skilled workers.

‘You’re probably right,’ she says aloud. ‘But emotions are so damned insistent. So intrusive. So domineering. Reason doesn’t stand a chance.’

Outside the sewing room, Melanie and Jonathan are eavesdropping on their poor mother. She needs help, they decide, professional help. But how to help someone who refuses to be helped.

Inside her room Pamela is pacing. ‘I liked my life as it was.’

The world according to modern historian Tony Judt intrudes with its usual perspicacity. ‘Nostalgia makes a very satisfactory second home.’

Pam is quick to respond. ‘At least nostalgia dulls the pain. The loneliness, too.’

On the other side of the door Jonathan and Melanie decide on an emergency home visit from the doctor. They hasten from the house their mobile phones clamped to their ears.

Inside the sewing room the conversation continues.

‘Solitude is the best cure for loneliness.’

Pamela riffles through her quote book. Yes, there it is, the world according to the American poet, Marianne Moore. Solitude is the best cure for loneliness.

And hasn’t she longed for solitude day after day, year after year, through the clutter and noise of her busy life?

The world according to the artist and poet Jean Arp joins in.

‘[Human beings] ha[ve] turned [their] back on silence,’ he says. ‘Day after day [they] invent(..) machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.’

Jean Arp wrote this more than seventy years ago. What on earth would he think of the constant talking, typing, texting, beeping, buzzing, connecting of today’s world, Pamela wonders.

So much activity and so much noise. No time to think, to contemplate, to loiter in the imagination. And if we don’t think and we don’t imagine, how are we live? And how will we live with people who are different from ourselves?

Pamela searches through her quote book. Whose thoughts are these? Whose world? She can’t find the source, quickly grabs a pen and writes the thought down on a fresh page in her quote book.

People often praised her for what they called her intuitive understanding of others – even when the person was very different from herself. But it was simple really: she would IMAGINE what it was like to be in their position, to be them. Being an avid reader of fiction had honed this ability. She would read about people so different from herself, people who lived in different countries, different eras, different cultures, different circumstances, and by entering the world of these characters so her imagination was fed. Perhaps fiction readers make better citizens, wiser and more welcoming citizens, and she quickly jots that down too. Whatever the reason, she did seem to understand others, and not just Mrs Nextdoor, or the pharmacist, or family and friends. She understood what it was like to be so desperate you’d risk your life to take a leaky boat to a distant shore where you know no one where you don’t speak the language, where you are exiled from all that is familiar. She can imagine what it’s like to flee persecution in your own country only to be imprisoned by another, a country that you thought would be safe, would be kind. What she can’t imagine is what on earth goes on in the minds of those who demonise these desperate people.

She turns to the world according Thomas Hardy in her quote book.

 

We are getting to the end of visioning
The impossible within this universe,
Such as that better whiles may follow worse,
And that our race may mend by reasoning.

To reason and imagine in the way Hardy suggests requires uninterrupted time. She has plenty of time. The imagination requires solitude. She has plenty of solitude. The imagination does not like boundaries and schedules. With her life blasted to pieces, she lacks boundaries and schedules.

You must change your life.
You must change your life.

The world according to the German poet Rilke sets up a chant.

You must change your life. You must change your life.

The words come rhythmically, they take her over like music. She rises from the bed, collects her hand bag, checks her makeup, leaves the room, walks down the passageway, opens the door and leaves the house.

As she enters the street, the voice in her head shifts to a different register. It is the world according to Emma Goldman and it puts bounce in her step:

If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

ODYSSEUS AND ME

I have always believed that, at a personal level, anything is possible, that if I desire to be a particular someone or do a particular something I can. All my desires have been realistic: no hankerings for time travel or reinvention as a theoretical physicist – though both have enormous appeal – my desires have been possibilities: working as a volunteer in Africa, joining a choir, mountaineering, falling helplessly in love, winning the Miles Franklin. The only things to stop me would be lack of ability, lack of application, and/or lack of courage – all of which, given enough time, could be worked upon and overcome.

Time, so recently as abundant as air, is now suddenly in short supply. One day everything seemed possible, and the next, my life wasn’t exactly on its knees, but neither was it leaping with anticipation.

When did it happen that all the things I planned to do became the things I will never do? I will never climb a mountain, I will never win the Booker, I will never sleep alone in the outback under a big Australian sky; even the choir and the hot love affair have gone the way of all flesh. The list of things not done, so recently sparkling with possibility, now weighs as heavy as sludge, and no matter how numerous your wins and achievements, it’s hard not to feel a failure. Harder still not to blame yourself for all this wasted opportunity.

This is not a good state of mind, not when you are planning on another quarter of a century of healthy and active living. I recall an interview I heard years ago on Late Night Live. Philip Adams was in conversation with the American sociologist Studs Terkel. Terkel, who published consistently throughout his long life (he died at the age of 96 in 2008) was in his early eighties at the time and had just published his latest book. Philip asked him how he managed to remain so productive. Terkel replied that he made a point of doing something new each day. It might be visiting a park or a gallery for the first time; it might be finding a new author or reading a new book; it might be listening to familiar music and hearing it differently (this happened, memorably, to me a couple of years ago when Andrew Davis conducted the MSO playing Mahler’s Third), or watching a spider build a web. It might be a journey, like one I made recently to Iceland, where I ventured into volcanic, snow-covered wildernesses. Being immersed in these beautiful and tranquil environments made me unusually and surprisingly happy.

Something new every day keeps building a life, keeps creating a dynamic growing you. The future might be diminishing, Terkel was saying, but you are not.

On my return from Iceland I was determined to hold on to the sense of wonder and aliveness I’d felt in that country, of being attuned to my environment: to be, as it were, a tourist at home. But it didn’t seem to work. It was as if home activated a stronger force. There was something about its comforts, its familiarity that slowed me down and, at the same time, dulled the questioning mind. I was lulled, stilled, my edges were blurred – like in a warm water bath. And the list of things not done was a constant background presence that grew into a punchy accusation.

And yet I had been ready to come home, and was, at least initially pleased to be back in my own space. But before long it felt as if I were functioning at half-strength. When I mentioned this to people my own age they all nodded knowingly: what I was experiencing, they said, was a fact of advancing years. But it made no sense to me that I was on the final slope, inexorably sliding down to the end. Just days before I’d been hiking over iced lakes; I’d held my ground on the side of a cliff in a bluster so strong that in the end I wedged myself in a cleft of rocks so as not to be blown off; I’d wandered snowy wildernesses alone towards unknown destinations. Age alone could not explain what was happening to me.

It was in this state that I read a review of An Odyssey. A father, a son and an epic by the American classicist, translator and essayist, Daniel Mendelsohn. I know Mendelsohn’s work, have enjoyed his essays in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I checked the Readings website, the book was in stock at the Carlton store, I bought myself a copy.

Rationally, I have no special reasons for being drawn to this book. Sure, my reading group has decided on the Greek dramatists for 2018 – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – which might make me more susceptible to a book that enters the ancient Greek world; but if this were the case, surely I’d reach for Homer himself. And while I like Mendelsohn’s work, I like the work of so many of the contributors to the NYRB and I haven’t sought out their books.

There have been times in my life when the right book for the right time has simply presented itself. I never expect it, I never willit, it is an inexplicable wonder of the imagination (and heart and soul) and something for which I am deeply grateful.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odysseyturned out to be one such book.

It tells a simple story. In the first semester of a new year, beginning in the depths of winter, Daniel Mendelsohn will be teaching a weekly, semester-long class on The Odysseyat Bard, a liberal arts college, about 140 kilometres north of New York City. His 81-year-old father, Jay, a retired mathematician and a man heavily steeped in the sciences, asks to attend the class. While surprised at the request, and a little worried about the effect his father might have on the other students, Daniel nonetheless agrees. Each week for a semester his father makes the long journey from NYC on the Thursday, stays with his son on Thursday night, attends the class on Friday morning and returns home by train in the afternoon. The students taking this class are under-graduates, Jay would be older than most of their grandfathers.

As a father and a very particular type of scientist there are no shades of grey for Jay. X is X, and if it’s not then either you are wrong or you need to return to the drawing board. When it comes to Homer’s great epic two fundamentals emerge as obvious to him: so-called ‘heroic’ Odysseus is not a hero because he cheats on his wife, and, given that all his men die, the so-called ‘great leader’ is in fact a poor leader of men. This becomes a regular refrain throughout the course, Jay’s regular complaint.

During the semester Daniel and Jay take an intellectual, psychological and literary journey through Homer’s epic, and when the class finishes the two embark on a physical journey: a cruise tracing Odysseus’s travels through the Mediterranean. During the course of these two journeys Daniel comes to understand his father in new and nuanced ways. The Odyssey, or rather his father’s response to it, helps explain his father’s dogmatism, his reluctance to show physical affection, his autocratic paternalism; it also makes sense of those rare and surprising occasions when warmth and softness do seep out. Mendelsohn also takes we readers on two journeys: that of Homer’s Odysseus (and a great introduction for those who have never read Homer) and that of a modern-day father and son on a journey of their own.

Mendelsohn, a translator of Cavafy, draws attention to Cavafy’s wonderful poem ‘Ithaka’ (1911) with its emphasis on the journey rather than the destination: don’t be in a hurry, is the message of this poem, don’t be impatient, embrace the risk and surprise that infiltrates all life’s journeys, soak up all the new experiences. Mendelsohn mentions an earlier version of ‘Ithaka’ called ‘Second Odyssey’ (1894), in which Odysseus, having arrived home after an absence of twenty years – ten years of the Trojan Wars, and ten years trying to get back to Ithaka – finds home dull and boring; he does not feel himself. So, too, in Tennyson’s great poem ‘Ulysses’. In Tennyson’s poem, after striving to return to Ithaka, to his wife and son and ageing father, despite all the dangers he faced on his travels, the set-backs that occurred, the yearnings that plagued him, Ulysses decides to leave home again. (A long-time favourite of mine, I always take a copy of this poem on my own travels.)

I put Mendelsohn’s book aside to reread Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ and search for a copy on-line for Cavafy’s ‘Second Odyssey’. (I have three different volumes of the collected Cavafy, as well as a biography, and in none of them is printed the ‘Second Odyssey’.) When I have finished reading I am steeped in journeying and alert to the shortcomings and deceptive pleasures of home, but most surprising of all, I feel lighter, happy even, and more energised than at any other time since my return from Iceland. And these poems I thought I knew so well, I seem to be reading them anew. Suddenly my diminished future doesn’t matter any more, and, in not mattering, neither does it feel diminished any more.

I’ve had an invigorating time these past few days with Mendelsohn, Tennyson Cavafy and, of course, Odysseus himself; all of these books and poems, these words and ideas have rejuvenated me. It’s the same sort of feeling I had in Iceland as I wandered the snowy wilderness, that sense of newness, of increased understanding, of possibility– Terkel’s way. But there has been something else as well. These Odysseys of Mendelsohn, Homer, Tennyson and Cavafy have nourishedme; even more, they have illuminated and provoked me; and they have armed me for the way ahead. They have been journeyings. And they’ll always be there. Books don’t die, they don’t leave you, they don’t lose their mind. They sit on their shelves waiting for you to find them again and again and again.

When you stop adventuring, when you avoid risk you feel useless. When the brain grows sluggish you feel useless. Life itself demands care and attention, work and revision. It can be difficult sometimes to find the right nourishment, after all, you can’t hop on a plane and fly to Iceland every time you feel bleak and useless. But books, your favourite books will always be there, offering something new and provocative on every reading. So easy to lose sight of this.

Home, certainly the ideal of home, is all about comfort and certainty. If you’re not careful, this can be counter-productive in one’s advancing years. ‘Don’t expect Ithaka to make you rich’, Cavafy writes. While there are rewards and fulfilment to be found at home much more are to be found when you venture beyond your front door – whether physically or in your imagination. To have a zest for life is to relish being alive in the first place. And life is not a warm and cosy nest, though that may be part of it, life is also the clinging to the side of a cliff and feeling the wild wind in your hair.

 

POEMS 

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare sensation
touches your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from those who know.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

THE SECOND ODYSSEY (1894) – copied from the web, translated by Walter Kaiser.

A great second Odyssey,
Greater even than the first perhaps.
But alas, without Homer, without hexameters.

Small was his ancestral home,
Small was his ancestral city,
And the whole of his Ithaka was small.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The happy repose of his home,
Penetrated like rays of joy
The heart of the seafarer.

And like rays they faded.

The thirst
For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
At night, spectres of Hesperia
Came to trouble his sleep.
He was seized with nostalgia
For voyages, for the morning arrivals
At harbours you sail into,
With such happiness, for the first time.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s ageing years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The peace and repose of his home
Bored him.

And so he left.

As the shores of Ithaka gradually
Faded away behind him
And he sailed swiftly westward
Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
Far from every Achaean sea,
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
And his adventurous heart rejoiced
Coldly, devoid of love.

 

ULYSSES by Tennyson.

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, & sleep, & feed, & know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of all them;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where through
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d & wrought, & thought of me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

 

 

INTELLECTUAL HEROES

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety of manifestation, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silence as a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could have been so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturday warrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough not to meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this is the voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they do give us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether you are enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauung clouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacy of reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spent or Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear his voice in the process of my deciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes to creative loves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steiner has inspired. This is what heroes do.

Risky Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOB DYLAN – NOBEL LAUREATE

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

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

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

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

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

I think Dylan is an inspired choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(It Ain’t Me, Babe, 1964)

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

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

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

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

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