All posts by Ian

Cover preview

When its author first sees how a forthcoming book will look, there’s a frisson of pleasure.

So I’m very happy to share this preview of the cover of my soon-to-be-released fourth novel, A Thousand Tongues.

The design by Steve Barwick captures the story’s mood well, incorporating a landscape scene that figures importantly in the action. The row of stones, stark, uncanny, tongue-like, has stood in this part of Dartmoor since prehistoric times.

The title? It alludes to a speech by one of Shakespeare’s characters, quoted in an epigraph to the text.

More on this before long, as the release date draws nearer.

Curious journeys

Curiosity is a vital attribute for successful teachers and students, and for writers and readers as well. It can motivate us to learn and to invent: to pose questions, pursue answers, devise alternatives, refine our cognitive skills, and imagine fictional stories that take us beyond the small circle of self-absorption in which we often crouch.

So it was appropriate for the English Teachers Association of Western Australia to choose ‘Curiosity’ as the theme for its recent state conference, and to arrange the final plenary session as a conversation between two writer-educators, Josephine Wilson and myself, about the ‘curious journeys’ that we have undertaken during our careers. Tanya Dalziell skilfully facilitated the session and posed stimulating questions. I won’t presume to summarise the various interesting things Josephine and Tanya said, but what follows is a sketch of a few of my own thoughts on the topic.

We were asked, to begin with, what choices we’ve had to make along the way and where these choices have led. I said that, for my own part, I’ve tried to avoid either/or choices. Having always wanted both to teach literature and to produce it, I’ve done my best to sustain the two kinds of activity simultaneously. There are times when one or the other may take priority; but in general, over the years, I’ve juggled them together as best I can. Making a choice between an involvement in literary creativity and an involvement in teaching (or teaching-related work such as curriculum reform projects) is something I’ve resisted.

Choosing isn’t everything. Important turning points in one’s life sometimes just happen without much considered choice. Looking back, it’s tempting to see them all as purposeful, shaped by bold decisions – even, grandly, as constituting a kind of heroic quest, in the course of which one has bravely surmounted obstacles and survived ordeals, driven onwards by unshakeable belief in the chosen goal of vocational fulfilment.

But my curious journey has actually been less like a quest than a kind of peregrination, a wandering, meandering way of getting along. American writer Denise Levertov has a poem called Overland to the Islands that sums this up perfectly. It begins “Let’s go—much as that dog goes, / intently haphazard.” And it ends with the following lines:

Under his feet
rocks and mud, his imagination, sniffing,
engaged in its perceptions—dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction – every step an arrival.

Similarly my own progress (not quite the right word; more apt is Samuel Beckett’s “gress”) has been a medley of step-by-step discoveries, not a series of conscious purposeful career choices. Most of the big changes and commitments were unplanned. They came from other people’s suggestions or popped up as digressive distractions while my canine imagination was fully absorbed in just sniffing around. That kind of “intently haphazard” wayfaring, I believe, has something to recommend it.

Other questions that arose in our conversation were about the specific nature and extent of the curiosity that a writer or teacher should aim to nurture. What exactly do we want our readers and students to be curious about, above all? And should there be ethical constraints on our curiosity?

It may seem obvious that a primary objective ought to be developing curiosity about lives that are different from our own. Certainly that’s important, and has potential ethical value if it fosters empathy. Yet it’s not an end in itself, at least where literary experience is concerned, as I was reminded recently when reading John Banville’s brilliant novel The Untouchable. Its narrator and main character, Victor Maskell, makes this comment on an acquaintance who writes fiction: “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.” At first sight Maskell’s witticism may seem merely to reflect his own sardonic character, but I think it’s worth pondering. For while a keen interest in what makes people tick is part of a good writer’s necessary equipment, it’s not sufficient. Many a person, despite being genuinely and intensely curious about others, will lack what is required to turn that curiosity into patterns of words that are well worth reading. The first-rate writer must above all have a burning curiosity about the medium of language itself – its semantic resources,  its capacity to convey a great range of thoughts and feelings in precise and memorable ways.

Similarly, what the teacher of English needs to develop more than anything else is a love of language in all its varieties, and a deep understanding of how words shape every aspect of our lives – sometimes working negatively to constrain or distort our perceptions but potentially working to enlarge them.

So if I’m conducting a writing workshop (whether in a school classroom or with a mature-age group), I like to focus on details of language – stylistic nuances, subtle connotations, careful selection and sequencing of words. All sorts of things may serve as an initial stimulus – a physical object, a remembered scene, a photograph, etc., and these starting points can generate creatively a long string of productive questions – but my main aim is help students to concentrate their attention on the expressive capacities of their medium: the best words in the best order, as Coleridge put it.

Do we always have the “right” to be curious, or should we recognise ethical limits to curiosity? My view is that, in principle, the boundaries that may need to be respected in some real-life situations (an anthropologist encountering unfamiliar cultural practices, a neighbour itching to intrude on next-door privacy) should not apply to fiction writers, who are, after all, in the business of being transgressively voyeuristic, persistently nosey about how other people see the world. I reject the possessive kind of identity politics that wants to fence off some sections of experience and make them no-go zones for inquisitive writers who don’t belong to the particular group in question but want to imagine (and help readers imagine) what it might be like to do so. Of course it’s a presumptuous enterprise, and fraught with peril.  I wrote more about this in a previous blog post.

But what do you think about these matters, dear reader? I’m curious…

Writing to explore the self – or to escape it?

There’s a long and honourable tradition of writing about oneself. Many literary masterpieces have come from authors who choose to focus directly on aspects of their own lives.

St Augustine, painted by Philippe de Champaigne (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The earliest notable example in the western tradition is Augustine’s Confessions (c. 400 AD), which records an assortment of his experiences and beliefs as he progressed from naughty childhood to devout maturity. Another landmark of self-scrutiny is the work of Montaigne in the 16th century: ‘Je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre,’ he states (I am myself the subject matter of my book) – and what makes his essays so mesmeric is their candid way of enquiring into what he feels and knows. ‘I have never seen,’ he remarks unblinkingly, ‘a greater monster or miracle than myself.’

Deeply personal reflection on the writer’s emotional development continues in the 18th century with Rousseau’s Confessions and his Reveries of a Solitary Walker, reaching its fullest expression in the Romantic period with Wordsworth, whose autobiographical work The Prelude: Growth of a Poet’s Mind runs for hundreds of pages of blank verse meditation on formative episodes in his early life. It was, Wordsworth admitted apologetically, ‘a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.’ The word autobiography didn’t appear in the English language until the first decade of the 19th century, but ever since then the idea of writing to express oneself has enjoyed huge popularity.

Some of the most engaging autobiographies and memoirs are written in response to trauma. Contemporary prize-winning examples include Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics, an acerbic depiction of her poisonous family relationships in Canada; Tara Westover’s Educated, which recounts in matter-of-fact detail her painful emergence from an abusive fundamentalist doomsday-obsessed household in rural Idaho, and Robert Dessaix’s What Days Are For, in which an almost fatal heart attack prompts a witty stream of introspective associations that include his experiences as a gay man charting a path through the jagged social terrain of late-20th-century Sydney.

So there’s no doubt that authors and readers alike can find great appeal in the act of writing to express and explore the self. Becoming increasingly popular during the last couple of centuries, it has established itself as a quintessentially modern genre.

BUT recognising the legitimacy of autobiographical literature is very different from suggesting that any other kind is illegitimate! A notion currently being advocated with alarming stridency and frequency is that unless writing stems directly from within one’s own experience it will be inauthentic, politically suspect and potentially offensive. This contention arises from a possessive, censorious kind of identity politics, and I find it bizarre. So female novelists should be disqualified from creating male characters? Someone with perfect hearing shouldn’t have the temerity to invent a story that presents a deaf person empathetically? An atheist mustn’t presume to write about someone with religious convictions? To argue that it’s ‘inappropriate’ (what a lazily dismissive cliché that is!) for a writer to try to enter imaginatively into the mind of anyone whose gender, ethnic background or other personal circumstances are different from the writer’s is to miss entirely the very point of fiction.

As Graham Swift, author of Waterland, Last Orders etc., remarks:

The whole appeal, the whole challenge and reward of fiction, lies in its liberation from personal fact. The very least we should expect of it is that it will, to use the common phrase, ‘take us out of ourselves,’ take us out of the place we normally and sometimes narrowly inhabit.

Most people value reading because it lets them escape the confines of the self, but the same principle should hold for writing as well. Rose Tremain, author of The Gustav Sonata and other fine novels, has said in an interview that when creating a character she prefers to choose someone unlike herself in gender, age etc. ‘If your subject is really yourself and your own life,’ she adds, ‘it is very likely that you will run out of steam,’ and anyhow to write only about what you already know ‘must be quite boring.’

Fiction writer Colum McCann emphasises that same point in his book Letters to a Young Writer:

Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place.

Lionel Shriver fearlessly repudiated the interdictions of identity politics in her 2016 keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival. She observed that fiction writers today are faced by a ‘climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice.’ As a result, ‘the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.’

Those thoughts call to mind a famously succinct statement by T.S. Eliot in an essay published  a century ago. He was referring specifically to poetry, but the same point applies also to almost any imaginative writing: it is ‘not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’ In this context, the idea of writing to escape the self needn’t have a pejorative meaning. As Graham Swift says, ‘surely that initial escape is vital, and can be profitable if we are led back in the end, with something more than we started with, to ourselves.’

Storytelling line by line

‘Flash fiction’ has become a popular label for very brief written stories. Sometimes these have a compressed intensity that makes them indistinguishable from ‘prose poems.’ Anyhow, it’s generally assumed that their proper medium is prose. But what might flash fiction look like in verse form, where the line-breaks can create rhythmic patterns and nuances of emphasis? I have an example in mind – but first, let me put it in context.

In modern times the most popular vehicle for telling tales (as distinct from performing them on stage or screen) has been prose fiction. So we tend to think of novels or short stories, or short-short flash fiction, as the most natural ways to recount a story in words. Yet those prose literary genres are quite recent inventions. The oldest narrative forms are shaped by poetic rhythms: they are folk ballads and heroic epics.

Epic poetry goes far back into oral traditions that derive ultimately from prehistoric cultural practices. Bards chanted stories whose meaning emerged in the context of myth and ritual.

Ballads, too, were transmitted for centuries before printed versions appeared. The best-known published collections of traditional ballads in English are by Bishop Percy in the 18th century and Francis Child in the 19th. By then, Romantic poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats were inventing ballads that imitated the traditional forms, with a strong metrical beat and rhyming structure, while Australia produced anonymous bush ballads such as ‘The Wild Colonial Boy,’ emulated by poets like Banjo Paterson (e.g. ‘How Gilbert Died’).

But a different kind of narrative poetry emerged a couple of centuries ago with Wordsworth’s autobiographical work ‘The Prelude.’ Although it’s a very long composition, it contains numerous passages that can stand on their own as accounts of formative childhood experiences – ‘spots of time,’ he called them: moment of insight, epiphanies, traumatic episodes.

A recently published poem of mine is thematically similar to those Wordsworthian ‘spots of time,’ though I haven’t adopted his 1st-person point of view; the experiences undergone by the boy in this poem may have parallels within my own childhood but a 3rd-person point of view shifts the focus away from the purely personal. Nor have I reproduced Wordsworth’s ‘blank verse’ iambic pentameter. My three-line stanza form is loosely based on the traditional ‘terza rima,’ but with a less regular metrical beat and rhyming pattern: it uses half-rhymes and assonance, deployed in various combinations instead of a formal interlocking chain.

My poem, ‘Going Under,’ appears in the latest issue of StylusLit, a bi-annual online journal, where it’s in good company. You can access it here.

 

The book-chat paradox

Reading and writing are essentially solo activities. Yes, they’re channels of communication, but they communicate indirectly through the printed page (or screen page). When we read or write, we do so as individuals – and generally in silence. Yet paradoxically, readers and writers can’t stop talking with other people about their literary experiences.

A book-chatterer at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

Most of us like (occasionally) to listen to writers speaking on the subject of things they have written. For those of us who are writers ourselves there can be a particular interest in hearing an insider’s comments on some aspect of the craft of writing. Literary festivals attract large audiences to sessions that feature various authors using the medium of speech – a very different medium from the written language in which they are supposedly expert.

Most of us also enjoy conversations with fellow-readers, comparing reactions and discussing opinions. The proliferation of book clubs and reading groups testifies to that.

Both of those kinds of book-chat can sometimes be disappointing, irritating, tiresome. In Sally Rooney’s recent novel Normal People a young student called Connell, who is himself beginning to write stories, goes along to a public reading by a notable visiting writer, and finds that ‘everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy.’ The writer’s performance is stiff, and Connell wonders ‘why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant.’ He reflects cynically that ‘they were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.’

No doubt some reading group members often feel similarly dispirited after a meeting in which the book-chat has been superficial, taken up with gossipy digressions rather than getting to grips with the literary qualities of the book that they have read (or half-read).

Yet despite our disappointments, we readers and writers continue to involve ourselves in book-chat. This isn’t really surprising, because the spoken word underlies all literature. Voice precedes print. Long before people began to produce books, long before writing emerged, singers and rhapsodic bards chanted epic stories and expressive lyrics around campfires and in ancient mead-halls.

At any rate, whatever reservations I may have about book-chat, I’m up to my neck in it. Within just the next week, for example, I’m giving talks to a couple of MALA groups about myth and literature, conducting a workshop for fellow-writers on editing towards publication, and speaking to the WA Genealogical Society on how a fiction writer looks at family history. Details about these occasions are on the Events page of this website.

Reading at a tangent

Recently, turning the pages of a newly released book, I’ve been reminded of the simple truth that different ways of reading can provide different kinds of pleasure.

Most of the time, whether it’s a newspaper article that we’re reading, or a poem, a novel or whatever else – we focus intently on what the language in front of us is directly presenting. We keep within a framework provided by the author because we want to follow closely the line of argument, or the plot, or the revelation of character, or the patterns of figurative meaning. The words on the page encircle ideas and images within which our attention is held. We try not to miss anything relevant, and so we stay within that circle, avoiding stray associations that might distract us.

But there is another, less disciplined kind of reading, which can yield another kind of pleasure. This happens when we move beyond the circle that the text itself has drawn around its subject matter, and let our thoughts wander off digressively.

This is what I call “reading at a tangent.” Being easily distractible, I often do it: I find myself thinking not so much about what’s within the text as about something that’s absent from it. It may be quite legitimately absent as far as the author’s apparent intention is concerned because it’s extraneous to the topic, off to the side at an odd angle. But to me, as a digressive reader, irrelevant associations can become absorbing.

I’ve enjoyed the experience of tangential reading while looking through Amanda Curtin’s just-published book Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, a study of the life and work of a notable painter who (like me) was born in New Zealand and eventually found a home in Western Australia, but (unlike me) spent most of her life as an expatriate in France.

There’s much to admire in Amanda’s meticulously researched, imaginatively written and handsomely produced book, but I’m not offering a review of it here. Instead I’m just recording a few musings that it has brought to my mind – musings about possible questions and imaginary connections that lurk silently outside the circumference of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris. In several passages Amanda indicates that she herself is aware of such possibilities but chooses not to pursue them, apart from a few speculative asides, because they are beyond the book’s scope. Fair enough. I’m not suggesting that she should have treated these things differently, just confessing to my own pleasurably undisciplined habits as a reader.

In this case what sets my reading off at a tangent is the fact that so many aspects of Kathleen O’Connor’s life remain obscure despite patient research. This is especially true of most of her personal relationships. Time and again Amanda scrutinises the available evidence in an effort to discover why Kathleen’s friend X seems to have fallen suddenly out of favour, or what may perhaps have been behind Kate’s coolness towards Y, or whether Z was really more than a casual acquaintance. Often the answers cannot be found. Kate was discreet, even secretive, and covered her tracks carefully.

This can lead a distractible reader (moi) to drift into a reverie about things that almost certainly didn’t happen to Kate but could conceivably have done so.

For instance, what if she had met Katherine Mansfield (who was also Kathleen until she adopted a pen-name)? Both spent childhood years in New Zealand, including Wellington, where they lived in the same street and went to the same school. Though KO’C was twelve years older, and left New Zealand when KM was only three, their paths might have crossed briefly in that little colonial outpost… Or later, as expatriates in London or Paris? Both women spent time to-ing and fro-ing between both those cities in the years 1906 to 1908, and again in 1914-16. Both, by then, were strictly dedicated to the vocation of an artist, though they differed not only in their choice of medium – the written word for KM, paint for KO’C – but also in their tastes. They were unlike each other, too, in temperament, and in their attitudes to men. KM was wildly promiscuous during those years; KO’C seems to have had a tendency towards ascetic habits.

But just suppose they had met, perhaps introduced by one of the many other antipodean-born writers and artists working in London or Paris: what would these two have thought of each other? Both tended to be severe in judging people, and my guess is that they would have irritated one other. If they had met after April 1917, they would have had one painful thing in common: each, by then, had suffered the loss of a brother on the western front. But they reacted differently to this trauma: KO’C wrote an embarrassingly sentimental verse tribute to Australian soldiers in general (which reveals not only a tin ear but also, as Amanda comments, an “emotional lack”), while KM’s response was to inscribe particular memories of her beloved brother into that great portrait of family and place, the story “Prelude.”

Still reading at a tangent, I begin to imagine other possible meetings of expatriate artists and writers in Paris and London during the time when KO’C was there. The New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins certainly did know KO’C, who was for a while one of her pupils and friends; but there is no record of FH ever meeting KM – though one of FH’s pupils while she was in Wellington was Edith Bendell, with whom KM had an erotic affair a couple of years later. So if FH and KM did happen to meet, and get talking about people they both knew, there might well have been some delicate nuances in their conversation.

Regarding the O’Connor/Hodgkins friendship, Amanda allows herself a passing conjecture about its sudden severance. “If there had been a romantic relationship between them, might that have contributed to the irrevocable nature of the estrangement? But I have seen no supporting evidence in Kate’s archives.”

This print of Rice’s Mansfield portrait has been above my desk for many years.

What if those three – FH, KO’C and KM had at some stage shared a table in a Montparnasse café, reminiscing about Wellington days? And if that had happened in, let’s say, 1922, the little gathering of female expatriate artists could also have included Australian writer and painter Stella Bowen (five years younger than KM), who had moved to Paris from London that year with her novelist/critic husband Ford Madox Ford, and also the American painter Anne Estelle Rice (one year younger than KO’C), who previously lived in Paris before the war, then moved to England, painting a famous portrait of her friend KM there in 1918, but often visited Paris during the 1920s.

As far as I know, KO’C never mentions Rice, though they both exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in the same years, 1911-13. Nor does she make any reference to Stella Bowen, though it’s hard to believe she hadn’t at least heard of her. But then SB’s talents were considerably more versatile than KO’C’s; they extended beyond painting to writing, and her  memoir Drawn From Life (1941, often reprinted) shows that she belonged to a much more prominent community of artists than KO’C ever did. KO’C, probably knowing this, might well have felt resentful. (I haven’t read Drawn From Life, but I’ve seen extracts from it in an absorbing chapter of Rosemary Lancaster’s book Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880-1945.)

If those five had met together in 1922, surely sparks would have been flying. I’ve mentioned the tensions between FH and KO’C, and my surmise is that KM wouldn’t have found either of them congenial. As for SB, her literary circles were markedly different from KM’s. The previous year, KM’s husband John Middleton Murry had reviewed dismissively the latest novel by SB’s husband Ford, and the two men were intensely rivalrous editors of notable magazines. It’s likely that Rice, being close to KM and Middleton Murry, would not have been comfortable in SB’s company either.

Not a relaxed social occasion, I imagine. But all the more fascinating for that. It’s the sort of thing that can take shape when one reads at a tangent.

 

Lecturing: an unfashionable art

Next Monday, without shame, I’ll be doing something that many people these days frown on, though it has been a valued part of education for centuries. I’ll be giving a lecture, the first in a course of ten that will run weekly until late October. Lecturing! What a shockingly antiquarian practice!

I’m familiar with the usual arguments against lecturing. It’s said to be an incorrigibly authoritarian, top-down, monologic way of imposing an individual’s views on a docile group of listeners. It supposedly discourages independent learning and gives the lecturer a licence to parade his or her ego.

No doubt all of this can too often be true. But need it always be? Is it self-deceptive to think I understand those potential problems well enough to mitigate them when I stand at a lectern?

Many years ago, in The Making of Literature, I wrote about the importance of ensuring that a teacher engages a class actively in the learning process, combining the roles of “a resource specialist, who puts the learner in contact with useable information, and a response specialist, with whom the learner can negotiate and test particular communications.” The format of a lecture may not always facilitate this kind of engagement, but doesn’t preclude it either. Much depends on the nature of the group, particularly the motivations of its members, the knowledge and interest they bring to a session, and their level of maturity.

This particular course of mine is for the Peel (Mandurah) branch of MALA, the Mature Adults Learning Association. Knowing MALA members well, I can be confident that, while I’m responsible for much of the content that we explore together, they will bring a spirit of active enquiry to what we discuss. I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for groups of this kind in a previous blog post, ‘In Praise of Older Readers.’

In medieval universities a lecture was simply, as the French-derived word suggests, an oral reading from some text along with a commentary on what was being read. Its purpose was to impart knowledge of the text and instruct the audience in how to interpret it. Today, books are so readily available in so many ways that it may seem needless for a lecturer to read aloud even a few select passages from a chosen text. Why not leave it entirely to students to do their own silent reading? Answer: because well-written words sometimes deserve to be voiced. By reading a passage aloud, an experienced lecturer can draw attention to certain nuances of phrasing. This serves to model the process of interpretation. Marks on the page don’t supersede the spoken dimension of language.

The topic for my course is Myth in Literature and Society. ‘Myth’ signifies a range of things, from mere fallacies to fabulous old tales of gods, superheroes, creation and destruction. Why does the word have such diverse meanings? Why do many myths have long-lasting appeal? Why do creative writers go on retelling and adapting mythical stories? What can myths tell us about the societies that produced them, and what relevance can they still have in our own time and place? In exploring such questions, this course draws examples from literary sources, mainly in the western tradition (e.g. Greco-Roman classical drama, poetry and epic; biblical stories; medieval romances; Shakespearean plays), as well as from cultural practices, ancient and modern.

MALA is still accepting late enrolments. If you’re interested, click on this information.

I’ll also be presenting a different lecture course, beginning the following week (on Wed 22nd August), for the Rockingham branch of MALA. This one is on Historical Fiction. Details here.

Denmark: a story-haunted place

Last month I spent a memorable week in Denmark. Not the little West Australian town of that name but the Scandinavian country, which I was visiting in person for the first time. Yet this wasn’t a first encounter with Denmark, because in my imagination I’d often travelled there on a magic carpet of stories.

For one thing, I’d read fiction by a few Danish writers. A handful of sentimental tales by Hans Christian Andersen had assuaged the growing pains of my childhood. Later, Karen Blixen, who wrote as Isak Dinesen, had beguiled me with her novel Out of Africa and her short story Babette’s Feast, both of which were converted into memorable movies. I’d also admired Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg. In a broader non-fictional sense, ‘stories’ about aspects of Nordic identity are implicit in sombre essays I’d dipped into years ago by the 19th-century proto-existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, and in the writings of his antagonist, the famous nationalist poet, educator and politician N.F.S. Grundtvig, to whose work some Copenhagen friends had recently introduced me.

But more deep-seated were certain non-Danish sources for some of the Danish images in my head. The experience of being physically present in Denmark reminded me that two of the greatest masterworks of English literature have Danish settings and vividly express distinctive elements in the cultural history of that nation.

Kronborg Castle today, hardly changed since the 16th century.

One can’t walk around Kronborg castle in Elsinore without recalling scenes or lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and recognising how much the mood of that play was shaped by the upheavals of the Lutheran reformation that had begun not far south of Elsinore. (In some ways Danish culture remains profoundly Lutheran in character.) When the play opens, the young prince himself has been studying at Wittenberg University, where Martin Luther was a Professor.

The conscience-burdened self-questioning that suffuses Hamlet’s soliloquies, troubling his sense of purpose, is deeply Protestant in character. Standing in the lavishly decorated chapel, the sole part of Kronborg Castle that has survived in its original 1572 form unscathed by fire and decay, one can readily picture Claudius confessing there to the king’s murder. Several tapestries still hanging on the castle walls are original furnishings, some large enough for a ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’ like Polonius to hide behind.

Shakespeare adapted his plot from an old Scandinavian legend recounted by the 12th-century historian Saxo Grammaticus, but the English stage version from Tudor times ensures that Elsinore’s 16th-century castle has become Hamlet’s home, contributing to the allure of Denmark as a story-haunted place.

In a similar way the mighty Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf belongs to both Denmark and England. Written down a thousand years ago on the basis of previous oral transmission, it’s the earliest extant long poem in the English language, but its story has a Danish origin, incorporating people and events from 6th-century Denmark. While the eponymous hero himself is actually from the Geat tribe in what is now southern Sweden, the main narrative action begins when he comes to the aid of Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose mead-hall Heorot is being terrorised by the monster Grendel. Archeologists have recently established that Heorot had a historical reality on the island of Zealand, where modern Copenhagen, Elsinore and Roskilde (the country’s ancient capital) are located. At Lejre (near Roskilde), the site of a royal court in pre-Viking times, the remains of a huge 6th-century feasting hall have been uncovered.

So Hamlet and Beowulf, this pair of ‘English’ literary heroes, have Danish origins. Yet the influence has not been in only one direction. The two quintessentially Danish 19th-century philosophers mentioned above were admirers of the great English works that their own culture had generated. Grundtvig, an enthusiast for Anglo-Saxon literature, translated Beowulf into Danish, and Kierkegaard made frequent reference to the hero of Hamlet as a way of meditating indirectly on his own habits of melancholy introspection.

Reid and I: a writer’s double life

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion Of Creation (1892). Public domain (Wikimedia)

Reid’s public self at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

In 1960 a very short story called ‘Borges y Yo’ appeared in Argentina. Its author, on the verge of becoming internationally famous, was Jorge Luis Borges. Translation soon made this story widely known under the English title ‘Borges and I.’ It begins abruptly: ‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.’ The first-person narrator goes on to describe someone who is almost identical with himself, but from whom he feels somewhat alienated.

‘It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.’

Ultimately they comprise an inseparable dyad, as the story’s final sentence suggests: ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’

It’s an amusing way of depicting the tense relationship between any literary figure’s public persona and the more private self who quietly does the writing.

In the opening piece of his essay collection The Writing Life (2014), David Malouf considers the distinct selves involved in writing and living. ‘There’s a gap,’ he says, ‘a mysterious and sometimes disturbing one, between the writer’s daily self, his walking and talking self … and the self that gets the writing done.’

Another essay in the same book, ‘When the Writer Speaks,’ picks up the theme:

‘The real enemy of writing is talk. There is something about the facility of talk, the ease with which ideas clothe themselves in the first available words, that is antithetical to the way a writer’s mind works when he is engaged in the slower…deeper business of writing.’

Malouf refers to a short story by Henry James, ‘The Private Life,’ in which the narrator is astonished to discover that the person who publicly poses as the admired author Clare Vawdrey, entertaining people with plausible literary conversation, is not the person who, invisibly secluded, writes Vawdrey’s books. There is an arrangement of convenience between those two distinct people. As Malouf remarks, James’s tale dramatises a fundamental truth about literary activity: ‘The social self is a front…behind which the real writer can hide.’ The latter is ‘a creature of solitude, of the inner life.’

Like any writer, I’m acutely conscious of this tension described by Borges, Malouf and James – and I feel quite ambivalent about what often seems to be my double life. When I glance back at the ‘Events’ page of my website I’m reminded of the umpteen different literary and para-literary activities that have engaged much of my time in recent years. I’ve attended numerous meetings related to the writing life, such as Board sessions of the Australian Society of Authors. I’ve given presentations under the auspices of the Copyright Agency, WritingWA, the State Library, national and state English Teaching conferences, the National Trust and other bodies. I’ve run writing workshops for several schools and for groups such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Peter Cowan Writers Centre. I’ve lectured on literary topics to metropolitan and regional branches of the Mature Adults Learning Association, and to U3A and Probus groups.  I’ve been a featured guest speaker at several different literary festivals. I’ve given countless talks about my books in libraries, town halls, universities, community centres, bookshops, local museums and other venues. Book clubs have invited me along to the-author-meets-his-readers discussions. And so on.

While I enjoy all such encounters, I’m also haunted by Malouf’s admonition: ‘Too much time talking about writing, not enough doing it.’ Perhaps I should follow the example of Henry James’s Vawdrey and hire someone to impersonate me in public so that, unobserved, I can get on more productively with the solitary task of writing?

 

Manuscripts then and now

For any writer there are few experiences as satisfying as the transformation of one’s manuscript into the finality of a published book. When at last the precious assemblage of thousands of mulled-over sentences emerges into print publication, a surge of pride mixes with huge relief at the culmination of a long and laborious process.

“Manuscript,” of course, literally means handwritten. Although it’s seldom the case these days that producing a manuscript (conventionally abbreviated “ms”) is a matter of putting pen to paper in the way that authors did for centuries, in its modern usage the term is no misnomer. For while a computer now does the work of converting what we compose into a readable form, we still use our fingers to tap out every word.

But imagine how much more painstaking – and how final – the production of a manuscript used to be before the mid-15th century, when Gutenberg perfected the art of printing with movable type. Until that revolutionary technology appeared, there was virtually no distinction between a manuscript and a publication. Books were entirely written by hand, each copy being unique even if it was transcribing something already written.

From the 8th-century Codex Amiatinus (discussed by Hamel): Ezra writing beside his bookshelves.

I’ve just finished reading Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin, 2018), a wonderfully detailed account of a dozen outstanding medieval books. Hamel invites us “to accompany the author on a private journey to see, handle and interview some of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.” Its chapters are framed as celebrity interviews with famous documents that are inaccessible to most people. “It is easier to meet the Pope or the President of the United States,” Hamel remarks, “than it is to touch the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.” So under Hamel’s expert scholarly guidance we visit each beautifully decorative ms in its particular archival setting, questioning it about its often complicated physical production, historical significance, changing ownership and serendipitous survival.

Hamel is the perfect companion, not only a brilliant palaeographer but also a warmly witty writer with a gift for lucid exposition and lively narrative. “The life of every ms,” he says, like that of every person, is different, and all have stories to divulge.” Mss he discusses at length range from the 6th-century Gospels of St Augustine (belonging to an era when a new Christian literacy was emerging from the collapse of Ancient Rome) to the 16th-century Spinola Hours (a gorgeously illustrated work, embodying a culture of high Renaissance luxury).

As I read his book, it occurred to me that some of my own earliest “publications” were childish versions of the kind of production that de Hamel celebrates. Hand-written and hand-illustrated, co-authored with one of my primary school classmates, they testify to the immense pleasure that the physical making of a book can yield.

Looking at them now, I recognise how tritely formulaic they are, how full of verbal and visual stereotypes. But those home-made thrillers were also amateur in a better sense: we loved the process of putting them together ourselves. Nostalgically I salute here The Valley of the Headhunters, Pioneers of Space, The Creeps of Crumbly Castle and our other humble latter-day examples of the art of the illustrated manuscript.

Though we produced those little books of our own accord and primarily for our own enjoyment, they did reach a wider audience: an indulgent teacher read them aloud to our school class. In this respect, too, our publication method echoed what had been normal practice in the Middle Ages, when the literate few gave voice to words on the page for the benefit of groups of listeners.

Did any readers of this blog have similar childhood experiences of hand-producing books?

The other ABR: an Adelaide story

If an institution celebrates its 40-year anniversary, you might well think it began four decades ago. In the case of a major arts periodical, the Australian Book Review, you’d be wrong.

The Melbourne-based ABR has been proclaiming a Fortieth Birthday to commemorate its 1978 starting point, but that date actually marks only the resumption of a publishing history inaugurated in Adelaide, the magazine’s home for thirteen years until 1974. The original ABR deserves respect as a noteworthy production, distinctly local in tone but national in importance. Its role in promoting and evaluating Australian publications was innovative, if sometimes quirky.

In 1961, when the first ABR issue appeared, few people could have sensed that South Australia was a place where literary enterprise would soon thrive. The state’s cultural climate exuded no more than a faint whiff of impending change. The everlasting Sir Thomas Playford, having held office since before World War 2, was about to be elected Premier for an eighth successive term of economistic and parochial government. Though the Adelaide Festival and Writers’ Week had got under way the previous year, the burgeoning of the arts under Don Dunstan still lay ahead.

Yet over the next five years several Adelaide-based activities, propelled by Max Harris in collaboration with Geoffrey Dutton and Rosemary Wighton, brought an exhilarating vitality to Australia’s literary scene and publishing industry. Mary Martin’s Bookshop, after ownership passed to Harris, created a new business model and international outlook for bookselling, which quickly spread to the eastern states. In those days, Kerryn Goldsworthy aptly recalls, MMB seemed ‘one of Adelaide’s few real gateways to the great world.’

While MMB required much time and effort, Harris found further outlets for his immense energy during this period. He started his weekly ‘Browsing’ column in The Australian newspaper, which would continue for 27 years and generate three book-length selections. He worked with Penguin Books on developing Australian titles, including The Literature of Australia, a highly successful critical handbook which Dutton edited and to which Harris contributed a chapter. Wanting a livelier Australian list of their own, Harris and Dutton then partnered with Brian Stonier to establish Sun Books, an eclectic paperback imprint featuring brilliant new work like Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance. The quarterly Australian Letters, co-edited by Harris and Dutton, had begun earlier but came into its own in this period. And through the advocacy of this same pair of impresarios, the Union Theatre successfully staged three experimental plays by Patrick White that the Adelaide Festival had disdained. But it was the Harris-led ABR venture that, arguably, had the broadest influence.

While Adelaide hasn’t forgotten Max Harris, even now he is mostly associated with the youthful turbulence of his 1940s Angry Penguins phase and the Ern Malley hoax in particular. For a capacious account of Harris’s prodigiously extensive achievements as trenchant critic, versatile poet, bold editor, entrepreneurial publisher, unorthodox bookseller, gadfly journalist and much else, we are indebted to Betty Snowden’s definitive biography, which should be better known.

Harris’s founding and sustaining of the ABR, supported by Dutton and Wighton, merits special tribute. I remember with affection the magazine’s heyday. Though my own involvement was peripheral, as a regular reviewer I dealt directly with its editors and warmly appreciated its ethos.

My contributions were not remarkable for critical acumen, but their nature illustrates a significant aspect of the ABR phenomenon. During the magazine’s last few Adelaide years, I reviewed scores of miscellaneous titles at Max’s behest, gathering armfuls of them together for each instalment in a series of longish essays. All were New Zealand books! Why give them so much attention in a publication nominally devoted to Australian publishing? Because, like MMB, the ABR was cosmopolitan in spirit. Harris and his co-editor Wighton had the aim of not only reviewing almost everything newly published in this country but also including brief notices of many books from overseas. Impossibly ambitious, but they gave it a really good crack.

As a juvenile Kiwi recently arrived in Adelaide, I’d been browsing one day in MMB and got chatting with the genial Max about my prospective research project comparing Australian and New Zealand fiction in their social contexts. ‘Ah!’ said Max. ‘Well then, I hereby appoint you as our New Zealand editor!’ Thereafter I reviewed whatever happened to come into the magazine’s postbox from across the Tasman: not only literary work but also books on topics as diverse as ornithology, visual arts, criminal sociology and Maori culture. These I supplemented by titles I solicited myself. Max and Rosemary gave me a free hand.

I was conscious that my apprentice reviews were appearing in distinguished company, including Strehlow on anthropology, Bannon on trade unions, Shapcott on poetry, Semmler on fiction, Petty on cartooning, and Harris himself on Sidney Nolan, or on book design, or on the ‘blind self-righteousness’ of Governor-General Hasluck’s speeches. I was conscious, too, that while material under review might have a foreign source the magazine’s main readership was Australian. So I’d try occasionally to show what was distinctive about a chosen NZ book by juxtaposing it with a comparable Australian book – to consider, for instance, how some Janet Frame novel resembled and differed from one of Patrick White’s.

The Adelaide provenance of the ABR remained unmistakable. Harris had a keen eye for local matters that could potently dramatise issues of larger concern, such as censorship. He didn’t hesitate to print in full a dissenting judgment by Chief Justice John Bray, running to well over 100,000 words, on the appeal against an injunction prohibiting any South Australian performance of the musical Oh Calcutta! Still, readers would often encounter exotic items as well: an article on Prague’s political and cultural scene in 1970, for instance, or a witty piece by Dutton on some curious tome picked up in a Bucharest bookshop.

In 1971 the magazine moved from monthly to quarterly publication. This partly reflected commercial trends: for one thing, advertising space was becoming harder to sell. It probably indicated also that Harris was beginning to wilt under the demands of the production process. Misprints and other errors crept in. The 1972 correspondence column carried complaints and corrigenda from publishers, one stern letter being addressed ‘Dear Max the Lax.’ Meanwhile, as Dunstan’s wave of reforms gathered momentum in South Australia and Whitlam’s federal government came to power, the whole cultural and political environment was being transformed.

Adelaide’s ABR expired a couple of years later, only to be revived elsewhere after a four-year interval. This 1978 rebirth is what the Melbourne-based ABR is now celebrating. May the magazine continue to prosper! – but let’s not forget its earlier incarnation.

 

 

 

Hoarding and writing

There’s a painful process I need to put myself through from time to time: discarding accumulated books. They keep multiplying until they threaten to take over the house. Recently my groaning shelves and other cluttered surfaces – desktop, bedside table etc. – told me another big cull was overdue.

It’s a cyclic pattern: as fast as I shed books, I acquire more. Costly, but for a writer it’s mental food and I also try to justify the expense by thinking of all the other people who’ll get to read these copies more cheaply when I donate them to charities for resale.

Of course I can’t ever bring myself to part with certain books. There are those I know I’ll want to re-read periodically, from Edith Wharton’s to Patrick White’s. And those inscribed to me by fellow-writers are also too precious to let go.

My hoarding habit isn’t confined to books. It’s just as hard for me to relinquish various things related to the writing life. Letters, for instance, from novelists, poets, editors, critics – sometimes responding to my work, sometimes about their own. I’ve previously recorded on this blog my thoughts about the decline of letter-writing, and I’m particularly conscious that literary correspondence is already becoming extinct, so I seldom throw away the vestiges. Whether ‘from sentiment or inertia’ (to borrow Margaret Drabble’s phrase in her novel The Dark Flood Rises), I’ve kept on file some letters received from authors in the past, while putting most of them in a special research library collection.

There may be a fundamental link between the hoarding habit and the writing habit. Writers typically collect and store away miscellaneous phrases, ideas, images, mementos, snatches of conversation, observations. Some of us record such things more or less systematically, seldom going anywhere without a notebook, obsessively preserving scraps of information for possible later development. I think of the eponymous character in Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue Karshish, who describes himself as a ‘picker-up of learning’s crumbs.’

Hoarding is especially attractive, I guess, to writers who are drawn to historical subjects, as I am in my novels. We cherish all sorts of objects, documents and visual materials that preserve aspects of the past. Often we incorporate these into what we write, deploying them to reveal characters or provide narrative turning points.

Years ago I wrote a poem about the compulsion to hoard. It appeared in my book The Shifting Shore:

HANGING ON

The old retainers are surrounding you.
From oddment jars, leftover keys implore:
‘One of these days we’ll come in handy! Don’t
discard us yet. So many things require
unlocking. In the long run you’ll remember
where we fit, and why. Some happy hour,
with a smooth click, we’ll turn for you again.’
Albums of photos clamour, ‘Keep us here!
Each picture tells your story. We contain
the moments of your memory and desire.’
Rusty-hinged notebooks hoarded from schooldays,
and never written in, say they need more
extended deadlines. Boxes of fading postcards
rattle for your attention – you can hear:
‘Just hold us tight! We’re full of messages
from misplaced friends.’ Name-tags recall each year
of conference-going. Worn-out copper coins,
scuffed shoes, wide ties, stretched cardigans, the flare
of trouser-cuffs, packets of ancient seeds,
dried-up ink-bottles …

                                                 You stare at the debris –
then fling away the keys; what they might open
no longer holds a promise. Photos and cards
belonged to earlier selves; out with them now,
and out with all the other hoarded trash,
into the bin of past expiry dates
like rhymes that have lost their grip.

But the empty notebooks: those, perhaps, you’ll keep.
They’ve waited blankly there for long enough,
And now you’re ready to inscribe them all.