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FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

During lockdown, the Melbourne Jewish Book Week conducted its annual gala on-line. The theme this year was Fake It till You Make It. Each of the 6 performers wrote and performed a piece. There was poetry, non-fiction, and music. I wrote a short story which I have posted below. I had quite a lot of fun writing it, and even more performing it.

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT

Cleo, goddess of poetry and epic fiction, surveyed the Fake Room from her office on the mezzanine floor. It was Thursday, and the Fake Room was already crowded. She anticipated an uncomfortable crush come Sunday, just before the room was emptied out in preparation for the new week. How times had changed. At this rate there might need to be two clean-outs a week – a situation unknown and unimaginable throughout the entire history of humankind.

Cleo thought fondly of the days when weeks could go by with scant occupancy of the Fake Room, allowing her to get on with her epic poetry. And when people did come in, such a different type of man from the current crop. She remembered Clinton, who DID have sexual relations with Monica; the charm of the man, it wouldn’t have been out of the question that she, Cleo, would have engaged in a bit of canoodling herself. And Hawkey, who did NOT give up booze and Blanche despite what he said, she always looked forward to his visits to the Fake Room. Caesar had been a favourite, and a Byron week was never a disappointment, and Bellow – well, despite his five marriages or, perhaps, because of them, he was a man to love.

The Fake Room is actually the Room for Liars, but ‘Fake’ sounds so much more benign than ‘liar’. As the muse of epic poetry and fiction, Cleo is, in a very real sense, mistress of the word, but she does report to a higher authority. If left to her, she would be calling a spade a spade (so to speak). But don’t be fooled: in the contemporary era, fake is most certainly a synonym for lie and liar. 

From her cubby, she surveyed the current rabble. All the usuals were there, indeed, they might as well change their address permanently. Trump, formally of the White House was chanting ‘Make ME Great again’ while he negotiated with Putin for a new Trump towers in St Petersburg – and his return to the White House in 2024. 

‘Or perhaps Don Junior,’ he said with that peculiar pursing of the lips which reminded Cleo of porn films. 

Boris was covering sheets of paper with pithy slogans to replace ‘get Brexit done’ given Brexit was done – on paper at least. He shouted out each possibility and gauged the response: make Britain great again, he said, (Trump glared); better than French (Le Pen glared); British beer for the Krauts (in the absence of a German, the Austrian Freedom Party leader, Norbert Hofer glared). 

While Boris pursued his next pithy statement, Scott Morrison was putting his hopes in thoughts and prayers, as he juggled how good is coal with how good is gas with how good am I. None of the internationals took any notice of his efforts, but that didn’t bother him; seems Nero Morrison lacks more than the empathy gene; in fact, he doesn’t care about the opinion of the rest of the world: they don’t vote in the Australian elections; and, as a marketing man, he knows the importance of identifying the target audience and feeding them what they need to hear. With his handling of Covid he had the Australian people on side and how good was that? But now, with the vaccine roll-out he is struggling, and the recent spate of sexual accusations is sorely testing him. Jen is doing her best to help him understand (‘Imagine it is your daughter’), but his recent obfuscation about what he knew and when he knew it, coupled with the vaccine fiasco, has, in recent weeks, provided him with a permanent seat in the Fake Room.

Cleo again found her thoughts turning to the old days. The company was extremely good back then and she was happy to leave her desk and mingle with the throng. Aristophanes, Lenny Bernstein, Rilke, Dante – this is a men’s club, not exclusively but overwhelmingly, and it would seem that every man has at least one whopper in him. But today’s rabble is all mindless, narcissistic fakery and there’s no charm nor engagement in that. And the dearth of originality in their lies beggars belief – although belief itself, belief based on sound research seems to have become redundant. For these men with their cravings for power, no lie is too bombastic, no conspiracy theory too bizarre.

What strikes her as extraordinary is the greatest lie of all: so many of these men have pledged themselves to public service, yet they don’t give a damn about the public.

In the modern era, the Fake Room requires so much work. 

Back in the old days, emerging from some excellent conversations, her own fiction and poetry progressed through the pens of Dostoyevsky and Dante, her fellow countrymen Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and many other notable luminaries. Eleanor Roosevelt came a couple of times (the incomparable Eleanor and how Cleo wished she’d had come to stay more often). Fortunately when Eleanor did spend time in The Fake Room – it was that issue with the girlfriend – it was not during the same weeks as her husband. Ted Hughes, Philip Roth, Jean of Arc, the list goes on. These days, the goodies have mostly been forced out. 

And the dramas and highlights of the old days. There were some doozies. Like the time Plato lobbied, ex post facto, to get Homer a prolonged stay in The Fake Room for certain fabrications in the Iliad– no anachronism here as time is not linear in the Fake Room. Plato failed, but it took all Cleo’s ingenuity to get him to back down. Plato was not a good listener, he preferred to orchestrate all dialogue, making him a hard man to convince, and Cleo’s being a woman certainly didn’t help – you will recall not a single woman participated in his symposium. Fortunately though, being a woman, Cleo’s reason was tempered with patience, and she brought him round in the end.

One day during the Covid lockdown when truth-telling, one would think, was more important than ever, and yet the Fake Room was so full that social distancing was impossible, Cleo was watching the boys playing ‘mine is more powerful than yours’. And gradually it dawned on her that there was a way of stopping them, of restoring this place to what it once was. 

The solution had been staring her in the face. 

Cleo, the muse of poetry and epic fiction, had always known about the power of fiction to expose, illuminate and generally bear truths. 

It was time to act.

From that moment on, apart from marking the roll, Cleo left the Fake Room occupants to look after themselves. These guys were never going to make it, not if her plan worked. For several months, she lived on coffee and Red Bull while she wrote and revised, read and reread. When satisfied with her work, she sent the manuscript – quite a hefty tome, to her agent, who had been waiting millennia for it. 

THE BOYS LAID BARE, by Hannah Luxenburg, was published simultaneously in a dozen territories throughout the world. The media for the book was Trump-sized, it was an overnight sensation: the revelations fuelled conversations across the globe. 

Hannah Luxemburg, it seemed, had come out of nowhere. But appear she did. Immediately, the fixers, the lobbyists, the official spy agencies, the mum-and-dad conspiracy spooks got to work, striving to outdo one another in uncovering the author’s dirt – to do unto her as she had done in the BOYS LAID BARE to so many others. Because dirt there must be; politically speaking there is always dirt. And when they found no dirt, they faked dirt. But Cleo was the woman who had talked Plato round so these guys didn’t stand a chance.

After millenia of managing the fake room, Cleo knows more about faking it than the fakers. She knows that you can fake it all you like, but that’s not the way to make it. 

No, not at all. 

Call her old-fashioned, but Cleo is a gal wedded to honesty. And, with a mind full of curiosity and a pen in her hand, she has learned there’s nothing like fiction to reveal the truth.

AN UNRELIABLE MARRIAGE. The writer’s life and the life of the work

Flaubert said: ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi.’ Can he be trusted? Should he be trusted? And if it were true, does it enhance the reading of Madame Bovary

We live in the Age of the Individual. Personal experience reigns supreme. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, has become I AMTHEREFORE I AM.

One need look no further than memoir for evidence that the self and the individual have become the project par excellence. Memoir is thriving, and not just for those with a public life: anyone can and is co-opting the form. Publishers love memoirs – because memoirs sell. It seems that in these days of Facebook and the like, we can’t get enough of other people’s private lives. 

Without a societal focus on the individual, without a significance accorded to the ‘truth’ of individual lives, the issue of author biography and its relationship to the author’s fiction and/or poetry, would probably not arise.*

Like many others, I believe that a poem or a novel needs to be able to stand alone, separate from its author, otherwise it will have no life. A glance at the work that has survived down the years: Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, both Eliots George and T.S., Keats, Coleridge, the Brontës, it is clear it is the work that matters. After all how many readers know about Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet who died at the age of ten? How many readers know about T.S’s conversion and his treatment of his wife Vivienne, and George’s sinful life with a married man? How many know about Coleridge’s opium habit and the Brontës difficult dad? And does it matter? This work lives on, the work thriveswithout knowledge of the author’s life.

The fact is, we humans have not fundamentally changed in the past 4 millennium – since we started writing things down. And those works that endure are those which explore and tap into fundamental – and enduring – human qualities: love, jealousy, joy, revenge, envy. 

And yet there are certain classics in which knowledge of the author does help, and certain others wherein biographical fixing is essential for any significant understanding. 

Much of Henry James’s work centres on wealthy and naïve Americans lost in the clutches of old Europe. It can enrich a reading of Henry James to know he was an anglophile and ex-patriot American – but it’s not essential. 

It deepens understanding when reading Animal Farmand 1984to know that Orwell was a socialist, ardently and critically opposed to Soviet communism. It further helps to know that the left was polarised between Communists and anti-Communists. Of course, reading Orwell’s marvellous essays would provide all the information required. 

It helps, in reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, to know that Mann opposed the Nazi regime and was forced into exile because of it.

In contrast, there ARE certain works in which the author biography is essential.

Much of Sylvia Plath’s work, for example, although in some instances the biography has overwhelmed the art.

And Proust. All those heated, sexless, obsessive loves with girls in A la recherche du temps perdu, these make a lot more sense when informed by Proust’s homosexuality. And this novel, deeply concerned with the aristocracy and social class, acquires greater meaning when Proust’s Jewishness is taken into account.

And Oscar Wilde’s DEPROFUNDISmakes no sense whatsoever without the biographical details (Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, the terrible trial and Wilde’s subsequent imprisonment). 

SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT

Rather than specific biographical detail, often what is required in deriving the most from a novel or poem is a knowledge of the social and political context surrounding the author. Pasternak and the other great 20thC Russian writers writing within the strictures of Stalin’s regime are prime examples; Dante’s Divine Comedy, with all those notable C14th Italians confined for all eternity in the circles of hell, is another; Coetzee’s Disgraceand Justin Cartwright’s White Lightning, make little sense if unaware of South African Apartheid and the post-apartheid period; an understanding of the poetry of Paul Celan requires a knowledge of the Nazi atrocities; the work of Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid makes little sense without a knowledge of the widespread persecution of Muslims; and full appreciation of books from indigenous Australians like Melissa Lucashenko and Tara June Winch requires a knowledge of the history of dispossession and discrimination against aboriginal Australians. Beyond the world of print, Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony (premiered during the siege of Leningrad) as two works whose meaning is firmly attached to the prevailing social and political context. 

But history is in trouble at the moment. 

We live in an ever-present. The present shouts at us 24 hours a day. There’s the 24-hour news cycle. There’s Twitter. There’s an avalanche of notifications. A knowledge of history was, not so long ago, considered to be crucial for the well-rounded, well-educated person, but not any more. The phone is now the beating heart of the 21stcentury individual. 

What history remains is often, blatantly, in service to the present. I know I am not alone in the irritation engendered by all those period TV series, more concerned with today’s mores than any sort of verisimilitude, depicting aristocratic dinner tables with black people sitting as equals with the white lords and ladies. We moderns might well wish it did happen like that back then – I certainly do – but it didn’t, and indeed, in some parts of the world it still does not happen. (It’s interesting to note that Britain was supporting slavery when many of these period dramas were set.)

Yet so many of the works of the past, if they are to be appreciated fully, require some sort of social and political context. 

So, rather than Orwell’s life, a knowledge of the times in which he wrote, the ardent communists and the equally ardent anti-communists, the pervasive influence of the Russian Revolution, the demise of imperial Britain, these flesh out his work immeasurably.

A good deal of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry makes much more sense when you know about his persecution and exile, when you know what the Soviet regime demanded of its artists – its most creative citizens. 

Take, for example, Mandelstam’s famous poem about Stalin, for which the poet was cruelly punished. The poem makes no sense at all without the historical details. The ‘Kremlin Mountaineer’ in the poem, who comes from Ossetia, a region in Georgia, is Stalin.

MANDELSTAM POEM ON STALIN (NOVEMBER 1933)

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

But where there’s so much as half a conversation
The Kremlin’s mountaineer will get his mention.

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders –
fawning half-men for him to play with.

They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,

One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

FROM THE CLASSICS TO THE MODERNS: and the new issue of CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

My second novel, Modern Interiors, was published when I was 41 – though, at the time, I could have passed for a good deal younger. The central character of that novel is 62-year-old Philippa Finemore. On several occasions when I gave talks or readings, people would come up to me afterwards and say how surprised they were to discover how young as I was. 

The implication was clear: readers assumed that Philippa Finemore was based on the author’s life/experience. Why would a youngish woman be writing about a much older one?

The answer involves curiosity, exploration of certain ideas and the wonderful imaginative ride that is fiction. 

Fiction is a work of the imagination – that’s what makes it fiction. To write about Caesar one does not have to be Caesar. A novelist has 2 or 3 or 4 years to write a book, which is ample time (and a gift, too) to explore what is not known or particularly familiar. However, the contemporary issue of cultural appropriation undercuts this fundamental quality of fiction.

Fiction and poetry are works of the imagination. They are made up. If a writer were forced to write from her own life and her own personal characteristics: white, Australian, Jewish, childless, sexually slippery – how dull and boring this would be. Fiction provides an opportunity both for the writer and the reader to go places they have never been, to enter the hearts and minds of people (characters) they would never meet, to time travel. That’s what fiction does. 

The cultural appropriation argument puts the imagination in lockdown, it starves fiction and poetry of its essential fuel. As a writer I don’t want to be confined in this way. Currently I am writing a character from a Pentecostal family. Some Pentecostals might think I have no right. I would disagree: within the context of the novel, the Pentecostal character serves a narrative purpose. In my last novel, Invented Lives, the central character was Russian – I’m not. I created her family background through the Stalin years. I made her an immigrant to Australia – I’m not. I gave her the experience of exile – I have never experienced this sort dislocation. Fiction draws on the imagination.

I am less sure about this standpoint when it comes to writing from the point of view of a character who is an aboriginal Australian. As aboriginal writers have made clear to me, when you’ve been silenced for so long, when not simply your voices but your culture has been appropriated for reasons not yours, then a white Australian writer would be perpetuating old wrongs if she were to write an ‘aboriginal’ novel. And yet, as a writer whose novels are mainly set in contemporary Australia, I do not want aboriginal people to be absent from my books. (As I do not want Jews to be absent, and back in the days when being gay was still a criminal offence in some Australian states, I wanted gays in my books too.) 

I had an aboriginal character in The Memory Trap. She’s a uniting church minister. She’s strong, her experience of grief is illuminating, it’s a positive portrayal. She has an important role to play in the context of the novel. I was comfortable writing her, and there’s been no criticism. 

THE MAJOR PERSONAL CONNECTION WITH A BOOK, IS THAT BETWEEN BOOK AND READER – NOT AUTHOR AND READER.

A poem or a novel must connect with the reader’s biography, their sensibility, their memories, their experiences, their longings and hopes, and the issues that are compelling their attention at the time of reading. Otherwise the book will have no impact. With this in mind, knowing an author’s biography can actually intrude and diminish the power of the work for the reader. We don’t want to fill in all the spaces, after all every reading is an act of freedom – and for every reader it is an act of the imagination.

We’ve all had the experience of picking up a novel and putting it down again. It simply does not connect. But three years later you pick up the same novel and it takes hold of you. And the reverse: novels that claimed us in our twenties but fall flat decades later. 

Reading is a great intimacy. While you are reading there is the world of the book and your active imagination. It can be and often is an illuminating experience. And because different readers bring to the book different memories, different longings, different knowledge, different beliefs, so there are many different readings of the same novel. This connection between novel and reader, or poem and reader is the one that matters. 

So why this drive to know about authors, indeed, any artist, or great scientist, for that matter. Why isn’t the work enough?

 When it comes to the best work, the work is enough. But I think there is, as well, a desire to understand the creative mind, how it emerges, how it works. There were two books when I was young that I particularly loved. One was titled something like THE CHILDHOOD OF ARTISTS, and the other: THE CHILDHOOD OF SCIENTISTS. I read both these books over and over again. I wanted to know the soil of exceptionality, I wanted to understand the roots of genius, and I expect as an eight-year-old I wanted to grow up to be a great artist or scientist. 

My ambitions might have changed, but my curiosity about exceptional people has not. I read biographies, I want to know about the people, these creators whose work I admire. But I don’t think that knowing the life changes the work for me, I’m not sure it even enhances it. But I do learn about creative lives, their highs and lows, the fits and starts, the exhilaration and the despair – and the mistakes both in the life and the art. (There’s a sense that if a famous person can act foolishly, then I should perhaps be more forgiving of my own similar sins.)

Or is this just high-falutin justification for what is essentially a desire to know the gossip and shenanigans? Is my interest nothing more than a desire to peep through the keyholes of those who are creative and intellectually exceptional rather than the rich and famous like actors and rock stars?

Or perhaps there is some innate hunger to know the other, but know it in safety, through the pages of a biography. The ‘meetings’ in a biography, satisfy our curiosity without demanding that we be witty and intellectually playful ourselves.

CAN THE AUTHOR BE FOUND IN THE WORK?

During the covid-19 shutdown, I had reason to reach for a biography of Thomas Mann. His opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had been briefly alluded to in a book I’d just finished and I wanted to know more. About three years ago I started reading a biography of Mann, one that filled its pages searching out Mann’s homoerotic tendencies in his novels. I put aside that biography in disgust. I know that often novels are effective disguises for who you are – so don’t go searching there for the author. This time I reached for another biography, by a German writer that had been well-received. Fortunately, there was no particular focus on Mann’s homoerotic sensibility, but nonetheless, this biographer still chose to portray Mann’s life through an analysis of the work. I did not finish that book either.

Of course, the author’s biography infuses the work to some extent. In my own case, the themes I choose to explore in my novels are autobiographical. 

Around the time I turned fifty, I found myself reconnecting with friends from my childhood. We had gone our own way during the previous 25 years, they to making families and me doing what I did; but by the time we reached 50, many of the differences had lessened, and, crucially, I was far less judgmental than I had been. This change in my life started me thinking about the nature of enduring friendship. Reunion, published in 2009, reflects this. 

The Memory Trap, a novel that explores the complexity of memory, a novel that has at its centre a character who is an international consultant on memorial projects, was written in the years immediately following the death of my partner. The connection is obvious. And Invented Lives, a novel that explores exile in all its manifestations, was written during a time when Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was uppermost in my mind. 

The themes are autobiographical. But, as I want to keep my friends and family, the characters are made up, the situations are made up, the narrative is made up.

THE CASE OF HELEN DEMIDENKO

It can be dangerous looking for an author in a novel, and in the case of Helen Darville-Demidenko, back in the mid 1990s, it can be downright destructive.

In 1993 the Australian Vogel award for an unpublished novel written by an author under 35 was won by Helen Demidenko for The Hand that Signed the Paper. Two years later, the novel won the most prestigious literary prize in Australia: The Miles Franklin Award. It was after the Miles was announced that the controversy began. It was long and heated and it divided the literary community.

Helen Demidenko purported to be the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants. Her family, so she said, had suffered in Stalin’s dread famine of the early 1930s; her family had also been involved in the massacre of Jews during WW2. She fictionalised these events in her award-winning novel. Crucially, the judges referred to the significance of her biography in their appreciation of the novel.

Much was said and written about the book, most of it critical: about the quality of the writing, about the impoverished sense of history, whether the book was anti-Semitic and/or anti-Ukrainian, and much much more. But there have been controversies about winners of prizes before, and it probably would have died down. Except that after winning the Miles, it was revealed, by the principle of Helen’s old school that far from being Helen Demidenko of Ukrainian descent she was, in fact, Helen Darville, daughter of British immigrants. (And why her origins remained secret for so long, why someone had not spoken out earlier, is mystifying.)

If the book had been worthy of acclaim, if the author’s purported biography had not been co-opted in enhancing the book, the deception would not have mattered. 

I spoke and wrote against this book. I thought it was poorly written, I thought the history in the book read more like propaganda; the emotional flatness of the characters echoed the moral barrenness of the book, and, significantly, far too much was made of the author’s purported biography when the book, this apparent work of fiction, was being praised (and awarded prizes). 

Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote at the time:

‘From the time The Hand that Signed the Paperwas awarded the Vogel, judgments of its worth have been inseparable from the biography of the author. When it was awarded the Miles Franklin, the judges made much of the multicultural significance of the book. If this novel had been written by a Helen Darville with no Ukrainian ancestry, on the judges current criteria, it would not have won. When historical inaccuracies in were highlighted, the author resorted to her family history to defend the book. Her grandfather, she says, was murdered by Jewish Bolsheviks – hard to argue against that….Whenever moral issues were raised, the author defended her work as a personal quest to come to terms with her family history.

‘A novel should stand apart from its author, yet Darville-Demidenko has consistently drawn on a family history – now shown to be false – to defend the book, and both she and her supporters have used what now emerges as false biographical data to bolster the book’s significance. Separate the author from this book, as the recent revelations have done, and what is left is the work: … a novel of questionable literary merit with severe moral and historical flaws.’

THE CASE OF HEATHER MORRIS AND HER BOOKS THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZAND CILKA’S JOURNEY

Here the biography in question is not the author’s but the central characters, who were real people: Lali Sokolov, the Tattooist, and Cecilia Klein in Cilka’s Journey. Morris herself refers to both books as novels, novels based on real people, and actual events. Events she tampered with – with fictional abandon.

The families of the central characters in both these books, who assisted Morris in her research, believe their relative has been used and abused. Additionally, people (and/or their descendents) who were involved in the same events, Jews who survived Auschwitz for example, feel wronged, abused, but even worse, experience something akin to a denial of their horrendous experience. From their point of view, events that have scarred their lives have been distorted for entertainment, for material gain, and fame.

The problem here is a problem that besets most so-called FACTION. You can’t have it both ways: this hybrid form rarely does justice to history or to fiction. Morris has justified what she did by referring to her ‘composite’ characters. She takes no responsibility either to the families, who were generous informants, or to Lali Sokolov, the Tattooist, or Cilka/Cecilia. 

When it comes to Heather Morris, the only aspect of her biography that interests me, is what it is about her that made her a ‘fabulist’ of other lives not once, but twice. I’m interested in this type of person, I’m not interested in her work at all.

Truth and fiction have had a long and successful co-operation. Many years ago, the biographer and novelist, Peter Ackroyd, when asked about the two different strands to his work said that he leaves his truths for fiction. This is something every novelist knows. I can explore complex truths using a variety of characters and differing points of view. Furthermore I can flesh out these truths by choosing particular narrative lines, particular scenes, particular setting. Truth and fiction work well together. But truth and fact are not the same.

As a reader, I also look for my truths in fiction – MY truths, not the author’s truths. I trust myself as a reader. And I will continue to read biographies, yes, in search of the springs of creativity, but also for prurient entertainment too. Diaries? Rare is the person who starts a diary entry: I’m so happy today. As someone once said to me about her own diaries, they were the site for emotional sewerage. But letters, they’re in a category of their own, straddling as they do the private and the public. I love reading letters of famous people. Letters are so revealing. They are generally written quickly and without undergoing several drafts. There’s lots to be found there about both the life and the work – and an intimacy often lacking in the rest of life.

__________________________

* In this discussion, I will be concerned specifically with fiction and poetry. Clearly an author’s life is essential to autobiography and memoir. And modern history too, when that history occurs within the lifetime of the author, e.g. a history of the Vietnam War written by a veteran.

WHEN THE VALUE OF LIFE IS LESS THAN THE VALUE OF A DOLLAR

A reading of Russian history from the 19thcentury to the Revolution and on through the Soviet years (and, some might add, right up to the present day), reveals an enduring feature: human life has been treated as a disposable commodity by a succession of Russian leaders. Under the Czars, peasants died from famine and poverty; Jews died from unpoliced and often state-sanctioned pogroms; enemies of the regime were slain, and disloyal functionaries failed to wake up for breakfast. Under Stalin, the induced famine in Ukraine killed more than seven million people; in the great terror of the late 1930s millions of Russians were murdered; state orphanages were filled with children saddled with ‘tainted biographies’ following the ‘disappearance’ of their parents; friends to Stalin in the evening were pronounced enemies over night and killed by lunchtime the next day; cavalier neglect of the people killed millions during the Great Patriotic War; the siege of Leningrad alone, when next to no help was given to the city by the regime, saw two million deaths over those perilous 900 days; throughout the Soviet years, artists and scientists were sent into exile to wither and die in the wilds of Siberia, while others were left to rot in mental asylums. For decades, the Soviet leadership murdered any opposition, whether real or fabricated.

Reading Russian history, one could be forgiven for thinking that human life counts for nothing when there’s a cause at stake: to win a war, or, for several decades to shore up the power of a despotic leader. The same could be said for China and the huge number of lives lost in Mao’s, euphemistically titled, Great Leap Forward. In a mere five years, more Chinese people died than did Soviet citizens in the entire thirty years of Stalin’s rule.

I have been reminded of this each day when I read the world-wide incidence of covid-19, together with the number of deaths and recoveries for each country. Even before the statistics from the US soared to reach the top of this distressing chart, I noted how the percentage of recovered patients to incidence was worse for the US than practically any other country, indicating what a parlous state that country’s health system was in, and how all, except the wealthy, were affected by this. This was in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. I thought at the time that the situation in the US could become quite serious, although certainly not as bad as Italy, after all the US was a wealthy country. But I had not factored in Trump or his administration, or a Congress dominated by Republicans, nearly all of whom have relinquished all moral principles to follow a leader who makes no bones of having relinquished his moral principles long ago – if ever he had them.

It would seem that some people, nearly always men, will do anything to build their power, and that other people, handsomely served by the prevailing hegemony, will do anything to maintain it.

The chart below shows relative statistics on May 14, 2020.

COUNTRY               CONFIRMED CASES     DEATHS                   RECOVERED

AUSTRALIA                  702298                        98                          6301 (89.7%)

US                              1,390,406                    84,119                     243,430 (17.5%)

RUSSIA                          242,271                     2212                      48,003 (19.8%)

UNITED KINGDOM     230,985                   33,264                         1032 (??)

SPAIN                            228,691                   27,104                      140,823 (61.6%)

ITALY                            222,104                    31,106                       112,541 (50.7%)

GERMANY                   174,098                     7861                           148,700 (85.4%)

IRAN                            112,725                      6783                             89,428 (79.3%)

CHINA                          84,024                       4637                             79,246 (94.3%)

INDIA                          78,055                        2551                             26,400 (33.8%)

CANADA                     73,568                       5425                              35,177 (47.8%)

MEXICO                     40,186                         4220                             26,990 (67.2%)

ECUADOR                 30,486                         2334                               3433 (11.3%)

 

It’s easy to lie with statistics, this is commonplace knowledge. And enough is known about countries like China, Russia and Iran to treat their official figures with suspicion. There are, however, issues specific to the coronavirus figures.

  1. 1. It is commonly accepted that the number of confirmed cases is far less than actual cases. There are a number of reasons for this, first and foremost being the low level of testing in many places. But there are also particular features of covid-19, that reduce the numbers, specifically, an incubation period of at least fourteen days; and there are some infected people who will remain asymptomatic at all times. The gap between confirmed cases and actual cases should decrease with wide scale, reliable* testing.
  2. Re deaths and recoveries: neither can be determined until each known case is resolved. This also afects the numbers.
  3. In some countries, for example the UK, deaths in care homes have not been taken into account until very recently. A comparison of UK care home deaths this March-April compared with previous years, suggests a significant number of unaccounted cases of covid-19.
  4. With the best will in the world, it’s extremely difficult to arrive at accurate figures from poorer countries like India and Ecuador.

So, the actual figures are assumed to be much higher than the official numbers. But even on the lower, under-reported figures, the situation in the US is truly shocking. The US is purported to be the richest country in the world, the most advancedcountry in the world. And yet the incidence of covid-19, the number of deaths, and the appallingly low percentage of recoveries shows that the administration has failed its citizens to an astonishing degree.

Trump’s boast that there’s been more testing in the US than anywhere else is a blatant lie. Back in Mid-March according to one Washington DC report, the level of testing in the US per capita was the lowest in the world. The numbers gradually increased – many governors pleaded with the federal government for testing kits and protective gear to no avail – and according to a report in the New Yorker published May 14th, reached an average of 265,000 people per day by the first week in May. While this is nowmore tests than any other country, per capita the US still lags far behind. And given that intensive testing started so late, the country will probably trail behind in per capita testing for some to come.

The president has consistently downplayed the pandemic. Remember when he planned to have the country re-opened by Easter? One of the most extraordinary outcomes of his deceitful optimism is that during those daily two-hour press conferences in April, aka re-election rallies, he hardly mentioned the thousands of deaths, rarely acknowledged the pain and loss so many people were suffering. He treated these sessions as re-election opportunities, keen to tell everyone what a wonderful job he was doing, that hismedical expertise was better than his top medical advisers (after all, who came up with the idea of ingesting disinfectant?), that he could be trusted to manage the health crisis and the economy, and deal with China and the WHO at the same time. Trump seemed to fancy himself as a cross between Christ and Churchill. As I observed him at these daily briefings, I was reminded more of Richard III crossed with Madame Defarge.

It doesn’t matter how many deaths occur, Trump has work to do: specifically, to shore up his election prospects. His every press briefing, his every tweet is in service to staying in power. This is a man convinced he knows everything and can do anything (even delay the presidential elections in November). His intuition is infallible, and much more effective than everyone else’s reason and expertise. And should there be a mistake, he’ll blame it on China, or a formerly trusted member of his team – although there is no team. If you do not do the will of the master, then you’re out. Dr Fauci who has done a remarkable tight-walking act, will, I predict be out of a job before too long.

Trump, like Stalin before him, holds no responsibility towards his nation’s people. These people are nothing more than a means to an end, and, as such, they are dispensable – at least a percentage of them are. The death toll from coronavirus in the US will be well over 100,000. It could rise to over 200,000. Trump is good at numbers. He knows he can lie his way through 200,000 deaths and still have sufficient voters to re-elect him. To him, 200,000 deaths is not even a small price to pay, it’s no price at all, because he doesn’t care about these citizens, indeed, he’d probably dismiss them as collateral damage.** There’s only one deal and that’s to keep him in the White House, and keep him untouchable.

Stalin was the same.

To win in November, Trump believes the country needs to get back to work. 200,000 deaths touch maybe a million people. But unemployment in excess of 20% touches millions more, and not acceptable to the self-proclaimed best economic manager the US has ever known. Covid-19 started out as a nuisance for Trump, then it got in the way of his plans. If it costs lives to reclaim his agenda, so be it. Only one person matters, and not simply in America, but throughout the world, and that is President Trump of the United States of America. Much the same observation has been made of Stalin and the failed state of the USSR.

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*An astonishing number of test kits have been shown to be unreliable.

** Beware all euphemisms. Their function is to cloak the truth in something more pallatable. ‘Collateral damage’ sounds so much more acceptable than ‘people – men, women and children were killed by our actions’. ‘Great Leap Forward’ and ‘Five Year Plan’ hide the millions of people who died as the Soviet Union and China modernised.

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.