Tag Archives: Iris Murdoch

WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN. Truth, authenticity and personal allegiance in fact-based film.

Talk given via Zoom, at the invitation of the Film Circle at the Melbourne Lyceum Club, August 18th, 2020.

It’s a common enough happening: you and a friend have a cinema date. Knowing your friend’s interest in maths, you suggest A Beautiful Mind, the film about the great mathematician, John Nash.

Russell Crowe is in the title role. 

Your friend is appalled. ‘Crowe looks nothing like Nash. Come to that, Crowe looks nothing like any Princeton-trained mathematician.’ 

Russell Crowe, she’s suggesting, would not be convincing as an intellectual.

Your friend knows very little about Russell Crowe, but she does know a lot about mathematicians. This should have steered you to a safer topic, one in which your friend had less of an interest, less knowledge, less personal investment, but instead you stick with mathematicians and suggest they see The Imitation Game, a biopic of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, father of the computer and leader of the team that broke the enigma code at Bletchley Park. Your friend is a great admirer of Turing, she would probably say that he, more than any other single person, was instrumental in the allied victory in WW2.

So, off the two of you go to The Imitation Game.

When the film begins you are immediately engrossed, but your enjoyment is short-lived, interrupted as it is by derisive explosions that issue evermore frequently from your friend seated beside you. The interruptions become so frequent and the anger of your friend so palpable, that you suggest she leave the cinema and wait for you outside.

She refuses to leave, someone has to witness this travesty, someone who has a deep admiration and a deep sympathy for Alan Turing.

The two of you have planned a drink and early dinner at Jimmy Watson’s following the film. Given your friend’s behaviour during the film, you know what’s up ahead and really wish you could leave her and just go home. But there’s no escape. She hatedthe film and she can’t wait to tell you why. The film, she said, placed far too much emphasis on Turing’s social awkwardness, it made him out to be hardly a social being at all.

‘We, today, are so fixated on the autism scale, but it didn’t exist back then. Why pathologise the man? He was a genius. Why should we expect a genius, a person exceptional – unique – when it concerned maths and puzzles and probably a whole lot more besides, to be just like the rest of us in the food-and-drink aspects of life?’

The film, she said, was indeed a travesty of the great man. It showed little sympathy for what it was to be a homosexual at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. And throughout the film his mathematical genius was completely over-shadowed by his personal and social deficiencies – your friend, of course, did not use the word ‘deficiencies’. There was nothing deficient in her view of the great Alan Turing. The film, she said, portrayed him as a hectoring, immature, insensitive idiot savant, who was often short on savant.

‘And,’ she added, ‘where was his mother? Apart from a couple of brief mentions, she plays no part in the film and yet she was solidly central in his life.’

Your friend is not happy. She seems personally affronted, she IS personally affronted: Turing is, after all, a figure in her pantheon of heroes, and the film has done him wrong.

But, you say, Benedict Cumberbatch was so convincing, he lent authenticity to the role – at least he did from your less-informed point of view.

Your friend grants that Cumberbatch showed himself to be a fine actor, one who would have done Turing proud if he didn’t have to keep proving throughout the film that he was on the autism scale.

You raise the issue of creative licence and film as entertainment, but she will have none of it: if you want to portray a life then you do justice to that life by presenting it accurately. A life is a life.

But, you continue, a film lasts 90 minutes, a life is several decades long, so of course there will be selections, and of course those selections will be made with the mode – film and entertainment – in mind.

Your friend is unmoved: if they have to skew the life out of all recognition in order to make good entertainment, then they should have chosen either a different topic or a different script-writer.

It’s a familiar scene, we’ve all been there. And it’s not just confined to film: novels that are based on true events and/or real people, the so-called faction form (which seems rather a contradictory term) or the new hybrid form, auto-fiction, are susceptible to the same conflicts, the same arguments. As are films based on novels.

Some viewers of fact-based films or films derived from novels say there should be 100% accuracy to the original events or the original novel, but not even a documentary can meet that standard. The fact is that all film selects its scenes from a much larger swag of material available, putting together a 90-minute cohesive narrative of a true story that might have spanned decades.

Film is not reality, it’s an art form, it is a creation, a different form than the life itself; film based on fact provides a certain translationof a life or historical event. And unlike the life or event, film, excluding purely educational and how-to films, must entertain. Even if a film were able to provide 100% accuracy, and given its time limits and the limits on perspective, it can’t, it has to engage the viewer as well, it has to sweep the viewer into a cinematic world and hold them there – separated from their usual life.

There is a film, in my experience that comes close to 100% accuracy, although it does not tell the whole story. That film is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

Shoahis a 10-hour film about the Holocaust, shown in three parts. Made by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in 1985, it consists of interviews with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators, and, as well, it enters present-day sites of pivotal locations: the former concentration camp of Treblinka, the now unkempt railway tracks that carried Jews in cattle cars towards the camps. In all the ten hours there is no archival footage: no heaped dead bodies, no skeletal survivors in striped pyjamas standing at barbed wire fences. 

The film is slow and repetitive, the experience of those who speak, as well as those who can no longer speak, is imprintedon you. It is far far more powerful, in my opinion than the holocaust museums that have popped up around the world. Lanzmann’s film slows you down, it forces you to focus on singular people, singular messages; it uses certain elements of film-making to powerful and unforgettable effect, e.g. the camera looks directly into the faces of those who are being interviewed. You see every twitch and grimace; sometimes it is as if the scenes they are describing are there on the surface of their face.

Is Lanzmann’s film accurate? As far as it goes I think it is. Is it objective? No, not particularly. Is it comprehensive? Of course not: it reveals only a fraction of the factual horrors and complicities of the murder of Europe’s Jews. However, the film is, I believe, authentic, true to the events it depicts. It is convincing. But no, it does not tell the whole truth, and while it does not lie, a different filmmaker, from a different background, although still using interviews, would produce a different 10-hour film, and provide different perspectives, with different emphases to the viewer, and this film might well be equally authentic. After all, there’s much to be said and more to be understood about genocide.


I would suggest that films and novels, too, that are based on real events must be authentic, but this does not necessarily mean truthful. To exemplify this point, one need look no further than politics. Trump lies, his lies now run into the tens of thousands, his avid supporters know he lies, they LIKE that he lies, and that he does it in such a cavalier manner is evidence, to them, of his authenticity. For Trump followers, essential to their view of him is that he is natural – he doesn’t use the same sort of performance as real politicians. Trump can drain the swamp because he’s not part of it. Every lie reinforces his renegade status. Each lie confirms his authenticity – to his supporters.

Authentic means genuine, it can also mean reliable and trustworthy; but it does not mean good. Indeed, authenticity, does not have a moral dimension at all – although common usage has tended to give it one. Trump is authentic: he is genuine (no disguises as far as his supporters are concerned); but is he reliable and trustworthy? Trump thrives on unpredictability, I would say he is predictably unpredictable; as for trustworthy, his followers absolutely trust him, even when they know he is lying. They trust him to be their Trump.

To return then to film based on real events, and the notions of truth and authenticity, what to make of a film like The Favourite? This film is set in the time of Queen Anne and it focuses on the well-documented relationship between the queen, her chief lady-in-waiting, Sarah the first Duchess of Marlborough, and the younger woman, Abigail, who usurps Sarah as Anne’s favourite. It was a bit of a romp this film, even farcical at times; Queen Anne’s large weight was a target, everyone’s unscrupulousness was on view, only Godolphin, in charge of treasury, came off unscathed. 

As it happens my oldest friend from school days, Dr Frances Harris, is a world-renowned authority on the relationship between Anne and Sarah. Her life of Sarah, A PASSION FOR GOVERNMENT, is at the forefront of works documenting this period and the court. I thought Frances would hate The Favourite. I thought she would judge it to be a wrongful portrayal not only of the main players, but of the times themselves.

How wrong I was. I will let Frances speak for herself:

Everyone thought I’d hate The Favourite, but I loved it; actually even before I saw it, which was the first day it was released, having seen the poster, which I now have in my study: a collage of the three main characters, the queen largest, Sarah in trans riding-kit, sitting firmly on her knee and Abigail mutinously on the floor with her lip and her legs stuck out like a discarded doll.….That image, by itself, managed to contain a great deal of truth: i.e. that the queen, pitiable and old and disabled as she was, was the most powerful of the three and determined the status of the other two; could take them up and put them down as she chose, like toys. The fantastic central performance of Olivia Colman helped a lot. Though the film made no attempt at strict historical accuracy, it did get a number of revealing things right which historians don’t usually bother to mention: that Abigail Masham’s husband was actually a toy-boy several years younger than herself, for example; or Sarah saying something like: yes I’m bossy and disrespectful and impossible, but you know I’m also rather gorgeous. I think it’s best seen as a kind of extended Gillray cartoon about the gossip and misrepresentation that always surrounded the queen, that she was too much under the influence of her favourites — an important constitutional issue. Though – as an aside – the favourites didn’t find her easily influenced. 

(Gillray – 1756-1815, probably the greatest caricaturists of all time.)

What Frances is saying here is that the film was authentic, although not entirely, or even mostly truthful. It was correct in terms of the TONE AND SENSIBILITY of the times, as well as GENERAL BEHAVIOURS at court, e.g. who was in and who was out, and the excellent performance by Olivia Colman as Queen Anne was crucial to the strength of the film.


Back in the halcyon days of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival there was always a lavish festival dinner. One year Faye Weldon happened to be the guest speaker. Some years earlier she had published The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. This novel was typical Weldon: witty, wicked and wise. The BBC made a marvellous mini-series of it with Miriam Margoles in the title role, perfectly cast, with Patricia Hodge also perfectly cast. Some years later, the Americans, wanting to hop on to a successful bandwagon, did as they always do, and remade the film – Americanised it – as if the American viewing public wouldn’t understood and/or appreciate the British version. It was a shocker, all the wit and wisdom was erased to be replaced by heavy-handed humour and plain bloody nonsense, and the cast – Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl in the one bad role of her stellar career) – just didn’t convince.

At the festival dinner, Weldon gave an excellent speech then invited questions. Someone asked what she thought about the American version of The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. Weldon paused – such an eloquent pause it was – and then with an understated wry smile, replied: a book is a book and a film is a film. (I vaguely remember she also added something about a pleasant trip to the bank.)

She is, of course correct. Novels and films are very different forms indeed. A novel can reveal the inner lives of characters; a novel can show why character X did such and such, it can shift the point of view so we can see the effects of character X’s actions on characters Y and Z. The novel excels with interior lives. 

THE POWER OF POINT OF VIEW is well-known to novelists.

In The Memory Trap, I have two characters who behave badly, even brutally – Elliot the biographer and the pianist Ramsay. I did not want them to be ‘baddies’, nor did I want them to alienate reader sympathy, so I gave both of them the point of view at various times in the novel, so a reader can understand why they behave as they do. By giving them the point of view, the reader can get under their skin. 

But point of view is not the only powerful tool in the novelist’s toolbox.

As a novelist, if I want to suggest a particular emotion in a scene, I look to certain parts of speech, certain grammatical constructions, I shorten or lengthen sentences depending on the emotion I want to convey. 

A novelist uses many techniques like these to convey certain information for certain effect, and this in turn shapes reader response.

While the novelist looks to grammar and sentence length, to metaphor and verbs, to convey emotion, the film maker has music and camera angles and close-ups – these, too, shape viewer response.

To take an example: there’s an argument happening between two characters. Quite a different effect is created if the camera takes a wide view and shoots both players in the one frame, as against the camera shifting from one face to the other, one speaker to the other. The camera angle shapes viewer response, most particularly their emotional response, and so does the background music.

At times this sort of manipulation can be infuriating: when the camera homes in on one character and you want to see what another character is doing, or how they are responding. It can be very frustrating. And similarly suddenly the music ramps up the tension, something bad is about to happen, but you’d prefer NOT to have the warning. (Basically you are saying my journey with this film is not what the director had planned for me.)


With a novel you can read a page, and then put the book down and ponder what you’ve read. You can bring in memory and experience and other books, you can consider moral possibilities and ethical dilemmas; when you read a book, you add to it as you go along. YOU add to it. And when you read you go at your own pace – the novelist’s persuasive tools notwithstanding. 

With the various streaming services, with so much film now being consumed in the home, we could watch in the same way as we read – but we don’t. The film nearly always sets the pace, and if you don’t like it, you usually throw the film over and search for something else.

The imaginative space is different for film than for a book. Sure we can – and do – reflect on a film once it is over, but it is rarely to the same extent to the thoughts and analysis we give to a book as we are reading. There is, I am suggesting, more of a reader in a book, than a viewer in a film.

Again – this suggests that a film can never accurately replicate a book because our response is so different for the two forms. (Although if it’s replication one is wanting, exactly the same information, why bother with the film at all?)


Consider all those films set in ancient or medieval times: SpartacusTroyGladiator(a much better role for Russell Crowe), Joan of Arc, The Agony and the EcstasyBeloved Infidel. I am sure I’m not alone in admitting that much of my exposure to history came through film and novels. It never bothered me that these works weren’t absolutely accurate, they gave me, at the very least, the bare bones, and if I wanted to know more then I went to the library (today, people would probably go to Wikipedia).

But when a film draws on something I know about, when I have a personal allegiance to the material, a stake in it, then my response is very different. (Like my friend with the Alan Turing film.)

In 1997, an Italian film directed by and starring the comedian Roberto Benigni was released. It was called Life is Beautiful. This was a feel-good film set in Auschwitz, and I hated it. It was intended to be a film about the power of the human spirit, and it might have been, but at the same time it trashed the horrors of Auschwitz, obliterating all the inhumanities that went on there as it was trying to show one father’s humanity. Not only did it not reveal anything new or different about how Auschwitz, it actually hid the facts. Anyone seeing that film with only a little knowledge of the death camps would have come out feeling quite jolly and wondering what the Jews were complaining about.

I, on the other hand, being possessed of detailed knowledge of Auschwitz, I, having known survivors who lost all their family in Auschwitz, I, having trod, literally, that fraught ground, was appalled. I was also personally affronted. A film that had been authentic enough to some people was an affront to history and to me. This film won praise and prizes, this film clearly worked cinematically but it did not work for me – nor did it work for historical truth.

Another example of when personal allegiance affected my response to a film that was considered cinematically successful, was Iris. I started reading Iris Murdoch as a teenager, and even though she’s been dead nearly 20 years, I still read her today. Iris is one of my life’s companions. I have read several memoirs about her, and biographies too. I know Iris, and when she died, I was asked to write about her, and my long engagement with her work. (Article below, published in The Weekend Australian, April 26-27, 2003.)

I hated the books written by her husband John Bayley after her death, so when the film IRIS was produced, based on Bayley’s memoir of the same name, I should have been warned off, I should have had more sense than to see it. The best I can say about the experience is that the session my partner and I went to was largely empty. I cried hysterically through much of the film, I, a woman who prides herself on being emotionally restrained, was a blubbering mess. So much emphasis was placed on the poor old dear with dementia, while the great philosopher that Iris Murdoch was, warranted hardly a mention, similarly her novels – all 24 of them. Instead we see her lying in bed watching ‘Teletubbies’. It was dreadful, it was cruel, it was distressing.

Others liked the film, considered it a sensitive film about dementia. But it wasn’t about dementia, I wanted to shout, it was supposed to be about Iris Murdoch. They were no wiser about the great Iris Murdoch at its conclusion – I can guarantee that.

So a film can lack authenticity and truth and still be considered a successful film. Such films have a cinematic logic to them, the narrative holds together, the film is, in short, entertaining – or informative about dementia – although it clearly was not for me given my personal stake in Dame Iris Murdoch.

Truth, accuracy, authenticity. Story-telling, narrative coherence, entertainment. Values, attitudes, allegiances. All these features are relevant: before the lights go down.


I’m at the age when people write memoirs.

I have plenty of memorable events to account: I never got the hang of childhood, so childhood itself was made strange; I have a hyphenated identity as a Jewish Australian; I have loved men and I’ve loved women; as a novelist I have a public life, and in that life I meet interesting people, many of whom I count as friends; my partner, Dorothy Porter, was one of Australia’s best-known poets. There is much to fill a memoir, yet I have never been tempted – and that remains the case.

Three recent events have brought me to a new consideration. I am currently reading Irving Yalom’s Staring at the Sun(2008). In this book Yalom, an American psychiatrist now in his late eighties, explores the commonly held fear of death – not a fear I share, incidentally. Irving Yalom is my favourite psychiatrist. He is a humanist, an intellectual, a man of profound erudition and empathy (how rare and wonderful to link those two qualities), a writer of rich and elegant prose. The first half of Staring at the Sunis written in his usual style, in which he draws on his work with patients to explore and understand an essential aspect of the human condition, in this case the extent and variety of death fears; he shows how these fears emerge in therapy and how they are resolved. Along the way he draws on writers and thinkers including Tolstoy, Epicurus and Nietzsche.

The second half of the book, which I have only just begun, documents his own personal story. My reaction was immediate: why a specific section on you, when you emerge as actor and thinker and compassionate therapist in all the stories you tell of your patients? In short, why a memoir when I have a strong sense of Yalom through his books.

The second event was the funeral of the renowned French horn player, Barry Tuckwell. There were wonderful speeches, warm and humorous and revealing of Barry’s life. And there was music, lots of music, including recordings of Barry himself. In ways I can’t explain (but hope to do so in my next novel), Barry’s music revealed more of the man, or rather, had a more profound effect on me than the stories told of his life.

The third event was the follow-up to a dinner with a relatively new friend. We were talking about our adolescent reading, the authors we read and the effect they had. He seemed surprised at mine: all of Leon Uris, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Somerset Maugham, and many many Iris Murdochs. I explained that I stopped reading books specifically written for children at quite a young age (of course back then, children read the likes of Dickens and Austen and the Brontës). I read the classics, but I also read the contemporary novels I found on my mother’s bookshelf. I explained how I would choose a book and then ask my mother whether she would recommend it; I added that some of these books had got me – a good girl – into trouble at school. I told my friend that I’d written about this, and said I’d send some pieces along to him. (I sent him ‘Conversing with Famous Dead People’, posted under ‘imagination’, and the lecture I gave to the National Library of Australia, ‘Private Pleasures and Public Exposure: the Creative Imagination in the Digital Age’, posted under published essays.)

This morning I scrolled through the articles on this website, and it occurred to me as I saw pieces about travel, about books read, about ideas; and articles about biography, about letters, about starting a novel, that writings like these reveal a huge amount about me, more and of greater variety than any memoir – just like Yalom. A memoir is selective, the writer tells only what they want. They have a specific purpose in writing the memoir and the content is selected with that purpose in mind. These articles however, are propelled by curiosity, and by a belief in the power of language and most particularly written language to reveal, to communicate, to connect.

I do delight in the way new ideas appear and develop. Three separate events occurred, and they percolated together and linked in with memory and goodness knows what other richnesses of mind, and suddenly there’s a new insight, a new idea.

A thought is now emerging: that I will select a number of these pieces, along with some of my long essays and collect them together under the title: Instead of a Memoir. Just a thought at the moment, but if it gathers traction I might very well act on it.

The Passions of Alberto Manguel

Passions require time: time to develop in the first place, time to be expanded, time to be enjoyed. Passions, like any experience/activity that requires prolonged attention and an active imagination, can be tripped up even before they’ve found their legs in our contemporary fast-paced world. It is fortunate then, that the pleasures of passionate engagement whether with music, reading, maths, theatre, people or just being alive are such that even a short exposure is generally enough to hold a person for a life-time.

There have always been people who appear to inhabit lives of uniform colour and temperature, who can walk a glacier or climb a mountain and be occupied, not by the magnificence surrounding them, but their growling muscles. There have always been people who hear Bach or read Dickinson and complain of boredom, or see a flamboyant parrot or a scampering lyrebird and remain unmoved.

And there have always been people who inhabit the world as if on alert. Nature, art, people, so many experiences elicit from these people responses that are invariably high-octane. These are exciting people to be with, their enthusiasm rubs off, you feel more alive, more geared to possibility when you are with them.

There are friends who belong in the passionate category, and there are authors too. I have thrived in the company of Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, and many others. I’m excited when there’s a new book from, say, John Banville, Ann Patchett or Justin Cartwright. And even if their latest is not among their best I still enjoy moments walking the high peaks with them.

Alberto Manguel is one such writer. Recently I reviewed his latest book Curiosity. Even if I had not known his work, the title would have lured me in. Below is the review, published in Australian Book Review, September, 2015.


CURIOSITY by Alberto Manguel.
Yale University Press, $44.95 hb, 377pp, 9780300184785

There are two broad approaches to reading Alberto Manguel’s, Curiosity. The first type of reader will study the book – or rather, the text – assiduously connecting the personal narratives that introduce each chapter with the books Manguel references in the more theoretical and discursive aspects that follow. Dante’s Commedia is a constant presence in Curiosity, so they will have their Dante in easy reach for ready consultation, and they will strive to connect Dante’s journey with Manguel’s chapter titles, all of them questions: ‘How Do We Reason?’ (Ch. 3), ‘What Is Language?’ (Ch. 6), ‘What Is an Animal?’ (Ch. 11), ‘What Comes Next?’ (Ch. 15). They will make notes as they read, in an attempt to harness the voluminous material. And they will keep a separate list of the surprisingly numerous literary references that are unknown to them. This type of reader will try to get on top of the material, bring it to heel, master it.

The second type of reader will plunge in. They will not feel the ground beneath them, rather they’ll be swept up in Manguel’s narrative. As Virgil guides Dante, and Dante Guides Manguel, so Manguel guides this type of reader. It is an unpredictable journey. In the first chapter alone, ‘What Is Curiosity?’, Manguel saunters from Dante to Thomas Aquinas; he makes a quick digression to Augustine and Aristotle before slipping past Dante to David Hume and Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Diderot’s co-editor of the Encyclopédie (I had always thought Diderot did the job alone); there are nods to Boccaccio, Isaiah Berlin, Seneca, Socrates, and several others like Covarrubias (a Spanish lexographer who wrote an etymological dictionary in 1611), previously unknown to this reader. This is a journey without an itinerary. A risky odyssey, it is impossible to anticipate where Manguel is heading. But this second type of reader, trusting that Manguel knows what he is doing, goes with the current. These readers are so immersed in Manguel’s wanderings, they might be in a trance as they read – this book is their entire reality – they’re prickling with awareness, in a world bathed in a golden, if sometimes opaque light. These readers are guided by Manguel but, at the same time, they are nudged along by books they’ve read themselves, experiences they’ve had, and thoughts and ideas that surface without warning.

The first type of reader seeks control of the material, the second, although no less hungry for understanding, can tolerate the mystery of the not-yet-known (and perhaps never to be fully known) and the uncertainties of an intellectual quest without a plot.

The capaciousness of Manguel’s curiosity, his voracious reading, and his eagerness to share both with his readers are simultaneously wonderful and daunting. This is old news to those familiar with Manguel’s earlier work. With an author who can leap from the mid-thirteenth century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia to Borges in a single paragraph, any attempt to control the material is, I believe, counter-productive. Too much in the way of analysis somehow annuls the meaning and sense of understanding that arises from this material. Trust Manguel: in The City of Words, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading and A Reader on Reading*, he has proved to be not simply a reliable guide, but the best there is outside Dante’s first circle of Hell.

Manguel, driven by his own ravening curiosity, ranges here, there and everywhere in Curiosity, so it is somewhat amusing that he adheres to a strict format in the structure of his latest book. It is comprised of seventeen chapters, each titled with a question, and each beginning with a full page illustration depicting a woodcut from the 1487 printing of the Commedia (with commentary by Cristoforo Landino). I am wedded to Doré’s illustrations to Dante, their detail and lyricism form a perfect duet with the poem. These fifteenth century woodcuts do not speak to me in the same way; they simply do not – to me – depict the terrible horrors that are related in the Inferno, nor the sublime joys of Paradiso. I am curious as to why Manguel chose them over Doré’s plates. Sometimes the connection between the particular canto from the Commedia and the chapter question is obvious, sometimes it becomes clear by the end of the chapter, and on other occasions a second or third reading will be required. Understandings surface when one reads Manguel.

The text of each chapter begins with a page or two of personal material: a happening from Manguel’s childhood, a recent illness, sexual discrimination in his childhood books (Anne of Green Gables for girls, The Coral Island for boys), Argentina’s dirty war, the economic crisis in Argentina in 2006, concern over the environment, animals, injustice in the world. Following the personal snippet are approximately ten pages during which Manguel wanders through art and literature gathering material that enhances and elaborates on the chapter question. The dynamic is reminiscent of musical improvisation.

Questions, as Manguel makes clear, are far more saturated with meaning than answers. Curiosity is short on answers. What it has are intellectual explorations triggered by all the crucial questions that comprise the human project; indeed, most of the chapter questions have inspired entire schools of philosophy. No précis nor synopsis would do this book justice. Suffice it to say that for readers of Manguel, his favourites are here – Montaigne, Plato, Alice, Don Quixote – and his customary concerns: how we make sense of the world, how we can understand one another. There are many delights. In the chapter ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, Manguel reveals Dante as an environmentalist (with a touch of Paganism) and the Commedia as an environmentalist tract. And surprising thoughts. After reading his account of Nimrod and the building of the Tower of Babel, atheist that I am, I found myself thinking that God made a big mistake, that he should have found a different punishment for the people’s heresy, anything but the confounding of language and meaning. How much more difficult it would be for hatred, prejudice, brutality and corruption to occur if we shared a common language.

The last two chapters of Curiosity, ‘Why Do Things Happen?’ and ‘What Is True?’ represent, at least to me, Manguel’s narrative assent into paradise. As I closed the book, I felt a little as Dante did when brought into the presence of his Beatrice.


*Reviewed by AG in ABR, May 2010.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restricted perfection. What an interesting notion.


August has been Festival month here in Australia.

I returned from the Galapagos Islands and almost immediately flew up to northern NSW for the Byron Bay literary festival directed by Jeni Caffin. This is a wonderful festival held under canvas on a grassy promontory bordering the Pacific Ocean. Then the following weekend was the Bendigo Writers’ Festival – only in its second year but already starting to define itself. Making the most of beautiful Bendigo this festival will go from strength to strength. Then the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and two terrific gigs: the first with Andrew Ford broadcasting for The Music Show live from the festival on 31/8/13, during which he focussed on the musical aspects of The Memory Trap, the other a panel with historians Henry Reynolds and Tim Lycett, titled, In Memoriam,  exploring memory and memorialisation, in particular what we remember, the need to remember, and the distortions of memory and forgetting. After the session, I was whisked away to a waiting car that sped me to the airport to catch the midday plane to Sydney for an in-conversation with Caroline Baum at the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival. It was a thoughtful and wide-ranging interview that made the interstate dash absolutely worthwhile.

I really enjoy festivals, both the sessions in which I’m involved and the mingling with readers and other writers, but I would never want month after month of the performance circuit, and indeed, halfway through August I found myself in need of something to ameliorate the effects of so public a life. Thus it happened that I found myself reaching for familiar books, a sort of comfort reading akin to comfort food. Somerset Maugham was perfect, and Nabokov’s Speak Memory, and — Iris Murdoch.

Slipped inside the cover of one of my Iris’s was a copy of the article that forms the bulk of this posting, an article I wrote back in 2003 for a series published in the Australian Newspaper on INSPIRATIONS. Ten years on, I’m as grateful to Iris Murdoch as I’ve ever been.


It’s December 1965 and I’m not having a great time. I’m surrounded by friends and family but I’m convinced I’m alone. I write copious poems of the obscure pathetic variety which do little to placate my adolescent furies. All rush and throb, I feel that at any time I might break through my skin. Of course I tell no one: life is hard enough without people knowing there’s an alien in their midst.

Then one Saturday morning with the house to myself, I take from my mother’s book-case Iris Murdoch’s Flight from the Enchanter and I begin to read. Page after page, and gradually my alien skins slip away. Page by page, and I am immersed ever more deeply in a world I didn’t even know I was searching for. By the halfway mark I’m struck with wonder that someone, this Iris Murdoch, can tramp through my mind leaving behind a trail of sense.

Murdoch’s first novel was published in 1954, so by the time I discovered her I was well in arrears. After Flight from the Enchanter I read her first novel, Under the Net, followed quickly by her third, The Bell. I decided that if I were heading for the insane asylum, Iris Murdoch and all her characters were coming with me. Iris showed me there was more to life than being slimmer than I was, more to life than pretending an interest in football, and much more to love than the flirtations on the tram I rode to and from school. She taught me there was no shame in preferring the workings of my imagination to my left-footed attempts at compulsory sport. Iris Murdoch revealed to me a world where my private yearnings found a home –  including my secret desire to be a novelist.

Her books were full of wondrous people, strange and seductive people, people heavy with knowledge about a world well beyond the reach of an Australian teenager. These were amazingly literate people who had conversations the likes of which never happened in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. They rarely had children, and if a child did enter a Murdoch novel he or she was like no child who travelled to school with me on the 69 tram. Indeed families were largely absent in her novels. There were no warring siblings or white-faced parents, no fighting over the front seat in the car or pinching your mother’s lipstick because she wouldn’t let you have your own. Most of her characters never married, they had affairs instead. And there were homosexuals in her novels – an extraordinary thing given homosexuals did not officially exist in Australia at that time.

Childhood, in my experience, was never as happy and carefree as it was supposed up to be, and adolescence was proving to be nothing more than a rocky outpost on the way to somewhere better –  particularly in the 1960s when there was so much happening and I was too young to join in. Iris Murdoch provided me with an escape from a life and times, and a geography too, that was so constricting.

I loved her characters. Tuan, Chloe, Sebastian, Tristan, Mischa, Clement, Rainborough, with not a whiff of a Lynette or a Maureen or a Bruce. And along with the exotic names came exotic lives. Murdoch’s characters were writers and artists, scholars and philosophers who lived in London or Oxford or on a windswept cliff. And they lived so passionately, so at a pitch, hurtling from exhilaration to despair in a half page of narrative. And risks, they took such risks. They would fall in love wonderfully but disastrously, or cause someone else’s ruin while they blindly pursued their own artistic goals. And these all-too-human people were never ashamed of admitting their flaws –  a quality unknown in the adults I knew. For a bookish teenager in 1960s Australia, paradise was being inside an Iris Murdoch novel.

Each year at the end of the final exams, I would treat myself to a new Iris Murdoch. And there always was a new one, either one published that year or an old one I’d not yet read. In my twenties I started to read her philosophy too, and from there I spiralled out to other philosophers and thinkers. By this time I had started to write in earnest: not the dreadful angst-ridden poetry of my adolescence, but fiction at last.

Iris Murdoch’s novels did for me what good fiction has always done: they hooked  hard and fast into my imagination and transported me to places and people and ideas I longed to know. Iris (I’ve long been on such familiar terms with her) taught me the power of fiction. I loved her books – rich, fleshy novels of characterisation and ideas, the sort of fiction I wanted to write myself.

I continued to read her books as soon as they appeared. And then, in 1995, came Jackson’s Dilemma, her 26th novel. I read it within days of its being published, approaching it with the same excitement and sense of impending wonder I had brought to all her work. By this stage I was well aware of the typical faults in an Iris Murdoch’s novel – the talking heads’ dialogue, the almost surreal characters that seemed parodies of Murdochian characters,  the over-abundance of inexplicable fallings in love – but the faults with Jackson’s Dilemma were of quite a different order. This novel had no centre, much less one that would hold. Jackson’s Dilemma wasn’t simply ‘not one of her best’ – and Iris has written a number of these – it was a mess, and for this Iris devotee, distressing to read. Three months after the novel was published, it was announced that Iris Murdoch had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. In February 1999 she died.

I loved Iris Murdoch’s work, and I suppose I had come to love her. In the two years following her death when, as the subject of of John Bayley’s memoirs and a mainstream film, Iris Murdoch became widely known as a once-famous woman with Alzheimers, I was appalled at what was being done to her. She had inspired me to trust my imagination, she had inspired me as a reader and she had provided much of the early fuel for my desire to be a novelist. I was ready to mount the ramparts to defend her genius. And in fact I did. I lashed out at Bayley’s books in coffee shops and bars, in writing classes and lectures, once even to strangers on a city tram.

My anger has cooled now that Vintage has re-published so many of her novels. I know there are people reading her work for the first time, even some who are reading her as the inspiration and lifeline so familiar to me.

Descartes named wonder as the first of the passions. That breath-stealing rush when confronted with something new and strange and totally captivating. Fiction is infused with wonder. Fiction has the power to take you to places and times and into the hearts and minds of people who are not yourself but have the power to illuminate your life. As a teenager growing up in suburban Melbourne, it was Iris Murdoch above all who gave me the experience of wonder. She gave meaning to my secret life and yearnings, she gave me solace, she gave me a future, and she revealed to me the pleasures of the text, both as a reader and a writer.

Postscript: and she still does.


My seventh novel, The Memory Trap, was published last week, although my work on the book finished some months ago. It was then that I corrected the third proof pages and sent them back to my publisher. Four years of work completed, four years of life passed. I should have settled back and savoured the moment, instead I was assaulted by a battery of not-unfamiliar questions. Will I ever write another novel? Do I want to write another novel? And if I don’t write another novel, how then to make the days pass? I felt emptied out, not a spark of an idea. Not a spark. So terrified was I of the void, I found myself in a panicky riffling through the piles of unread books which had mounted up in the previous four years. I needed to fill up, I needed to know there’d be another novel.

I began with a biography of the poet Rilke and then moved on to the memoirs of the remarkable Lou Andreas-Salomé, writer, psychologist, lover of Rilke and Nietzsche, close friend of Freud. At this filling-up stage when a novel is finished, I select books on the slightest provocation and never reflect much on the process; I assume that some logic will emerge which will help shape the next novel. So when I found myself in a frantic searching for every possible translation of one of Rilke’s love poems to Lou, ‘Blot out My Eyes and I’ll still See You’, I plunged ahead without question. I was rummaging around in passionate territory. Perhaps my next novel would centre around a big, unconventional love – or several loves. I reached for my pen, scribbled a couple of sentences, but the ideas were drivel and I put the notebook down. Far too soon for sensible words of my own.

I read Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder, a marvellous idiosyncratic plunge into the hearts and minds of 19th century scientists, those romantics geniuses who were captivated by the new worlds they were in the process of revealing. I read about William Herschel’s telescopes and his discovery of Uranus, and Caroline Herschel’s extraordinary mapping of the distant skies. Then to the early balloonists for whom discovery was far more powerful than danger, and Mungo Parks, the deeply humane adventurer and explorer into deepest darkest Africa. Holmes, who knows more than most about the romantic novelists and poets, explores the new mechanical age through Mary Shelley’s profound and poignant novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. I love Richard Holmes’s book. Descartes named wonder as the first of the passions; I am filled with wonder as I read about these men and women who, inspired by wonder pushed against the boundaries of knowledge and understanding. Such lives they enjoyed.

As for my own life, despite having received the advance copies of The Memory Trap, things were pretty drab. There’s the foreboding about reviews, and the quiet niggle of a book before the publicity has taken hold, and of course the bruising absence of my beloved. I long for the conversations of the past. I plan topics for discussion, I rehearse ideas and arguments, I talk aloud in the empty rooms. All of it is cruelly unsatisfying. Better, I think, to confine the discussion to my imagination. I make side-trips to Yehudi Amichai’s blood-boiling poetry and to a couple of early Iris Murdoch novels. I curse Peter Conradi yet again for being so bloody coy and disingenuous in his biography about her. And I reach for Jane Austen as I have done before in extremis: Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility are entirely satisfying.

On May 1st, the official publication date of The Memory Trap, I open After the Victorians by A.N. Wilson, a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for years. (Incidentally, I far prefer Wilson’s messy book about Iris Murdoch to Conradi’s smug production.) Like The Age of Wonder, A.N. Wilson’s After the Victorians is another idiosyncratic history, and like the Holmes, it revels in art and literature. Wilson’s book stops in the early fifties, the period when my own life began.

And suddenly it all comes rushing back. Those taut years of childhood and the books which laid down tracks in the nervy terrain of my mind. Books which inspired a secret, parallel life to that expected of a middle-class, Jewish girl growing up in suburban Melbourne, books which provided me with passions far removed from the soppy intrigues of the playground. Indeed, I was still in primary school when it first occurred to me that all the interesting people were either dead or existed only in novels.

There were three books that were particular childhood favourites. Firstly, a grey hardcover volume of Lives of Famous Scientists, a chapter per famous scientist, each headed up by a glossy, black and white photograph. I loved those scientists; so much more reliable and interesting than my friends, they provided me with a satisfying brew of stimulation and solace. My favourite was Marie Curie, the only woman in the collection, so passionate and tragic. At the age of nine, I wanted to be her – although would prefer to swap Pierre with Ricky Nelson, my favourite singer at the time. I spent hours, years, trying to work out what I could discover which had not yet been discovered. It was when I was becoming quite discouraged – after all, if I could think of something to be discovered, clearly it already had been – that I found on my mother’s bookshelves Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian and other Writings.

In a Jewish household, the answer to Russell’s title was perfectly obvious, but the curiosity about a book premised on such an enquiry was overwhelming. Included in the book was a debate between Russell and a churchman, and it was here that I came upon what I regarded as Russell’s tour de force: If God made the world, who made God? I was delighted with the simplicity of his argument, the indisputable proof, as it seemed to my now 12-year-old self, and with lives of famous scientists in easy reach, I decided that whatever existed could be understood, and whatever could be understood must in some way exist. The world suddenly became less threatening and I stopped believing in God.

The third childhood favourite, also from my mother’s bookshelves and also discovered at the age of twelve, was Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Not for imagined worlds, and certainly not for a group of children with whom I might have identified, but for the marvellous, lyrical language. I would leap from one italicised section to the next for the sheer delight of those words. How they drowned out the mundane utterances of the real world.

Now decades later, sitting in my study with Rilke, Lou, Holmes, and the whole of Virginia Woolf within easy reach, I am struck by the similarities between the 60+ novelist and the 12-year-old child. Both depend on books to fill up, to feel alive, to kick start an imagination which for various reasons is tired out. Both use books to fly into an imagined world when the real world is too hard, or too dull, or just too empty. And through books both find people to talk to, to argue with, people who provide sanctuary to both and start-up fuel for the novelist.

As I read Wilson’s book about the figures and events in Britain of the first half of the twentieth century questions spring unbidden to mind: Is it possible to be good? How much should one risk in experiencing all that life has to offer? What extent of compromise is acceptable to do the work one is driven to do? Is passion always its own defence? And war: is it ever justified? And the press: its power and its responsibilities. I linger in Wilson’s section on Northcliffe, Beaverbrook and Rothermere and the rise of the popular press in England. It is fascinating and I’m surprised to find it so fascinating. And the 1950s, the point where Wilson finishes his book, I find myself thinking of that time, the layers of secrets that supported so many lives, women’s lives in particular.

Henry James went into society and found his stories. I enter the absences of my life, spice them with other people’s words and feel my own imagination begin to stir. All novels are autobiographical in one respect only, not in the storyline nor the characters, but in why the author wrote that particular novel at that particular time.

Therein lies a truth.

And as ideas open before me – the press, the 1950s, secrets – I am gaining confidence there will be another novel.