Papa the paradox

It’s a pretty dull life I have at the moment. The only time I’ve ventured out the front door since leaving the hospital is to return to it. I don’t have the energy to do anything more than the basics, so what I’m left with is a routine of reading and watching TV, listening to music or audiobooks, browsing the net, or writing here. There’s sleep, of course, and I look forward to the odd soak in a hot bath to bring solace to an aching body (I’d love a massage).

I’m very careful to manage my day, not doing too much of any one of those activities, lest I spoil it. I retain the ethic drummed into me when I was a kid by my parents about watching TV during the day – don’t, otherwise you’re a slob – but needs must in the circumstances.

When I returned home from the hospital, one of the things I did was to sit myself on the couch and watch a documentary series on Hemingway I’d recorded while I was gone.

I’m one of many millions who was inspired and influenced by Hemingway since I first picked up one of his books as a teenager. I was transfixed by the sharp, direct prose, which yet felt poetic. The stories – which I was drawn to first – also spoke to me in a way I understood inside, within my self, in a way I couldn’t explain to anyone else. They felt true.

I read his novels, more than once mainly, and some biographies of him, and he’s remained a strong influencer, though it’s a long time since I decided that I didn’t like the man.

After watching the documentary on him, it’s hard to reconcile the paradox of the man. By many accounts, he was a boorish, bullying, blowhard capable of cruelty and indifference. Yet, he could be great company also and, when engaged, a man capable of generosity and kindness.

If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back and meet him, but I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in his company. He’s just the sort of man I like least.

But then there’s his writing. Everything missing in his human persona is there in his writing. You wonder how a man so caught up in his own myth could then write so truly and with such insight about the human condition? In his writing, there is so often the wisdom that comes from a deep knowledge of how people act and react, their flaws and strengths, their fears and desires. There’s a stark simplicity in his writing that yet reveals so much. Particularly early, there’s a great sensitivity.

That’s the Hemingway I’d love to know.

So, how do you reconcile this? Was it that he was only capable of this sensitivity when he wrote – that it was somehow an unconscious talent the act of writing revealed? Or was it that he only showed himself in his writing?

Hemingway was clearly a very complex individual, and there seems little doubt that he was beset by mental health issues from a relatively early age. They worsened over time, were indulged and pampered, and exaggerated further by his heavy drinking. In the end, he was almost a caricature.

He was haunted by his father’s death and came to hate his mother. I feel sure that he was terrified of following in his father’s footsteps with deteriorating mental health and suicide. I suspect he tried to overcome those fears with the boasting and tall stories he told of himself in later years as if to distance himself from any of that. I’m certain it also fuelled his creative self and his writing.

I’m no psychologist, but it appears that Hemingway was deeply insecure at heart and reacted to (rejected) that with his overtly masculine behaviour. Whether he ever admitted it to himself, the truth was different, and I suspect he sensed it. That’s where his writing came in. His writing was a way to tap into that sensitive inside and express it. It was something he needed to do.

Because he himself felt so much, he understood much. Most of this was rejected in his public life, though he was said to be a good father. But it was fertile ground for his story-telling. This is where his insight came from – a keen observation of the world and people around him, filtered through this deep and painful knowledge.

When his writing failed him, he killed himself. I understand the impulse, though it was ugly how he left his wife to find him (he was far from thinking clearly). He was a gruff, oversized presence, and he could sustain that for as long as he could write. It was the one true thing for him. When that left him, there was nothing left for him. His meaning collapsed.

I’m no psychologist, and I’m probably way off, but that’s how I see it, from my observation of life and myself. It seems such a great pity that he could never integrate the writer in him with the man the world knew – though I’m sure, from the love he enjoyed, there were great periods when it shone through privately.

A half-century of reading

When I started reading, way back when I was a little boy, I was started off with the Enid Blyton books. First, there were gentle fantasies such as The Magical Faraway Tree before I progressed onto the quiet adventures of the Secret Seven. These were stories about kids – seven of them – joining together on holidays or some such and having a jolly amount of fun together munching on tongue sandwiches and getting into all sorts of quiet adventures with smugglers and the like. Quite inoffensive, but a lot of fun.

As I grew older, though – perhaps 7 or 8 (I was a precocious reader and started at age 4), they became a bit too tame for me and predictable, which is when I progressed onto the Famous Five series of books. The formula was very similar, just updated for an older audience, and they were five rather than seven. Once more, they got into scrapes and adventures, discovering conspiracies and unveiling crooks. It was all very wholesome and British, quite old-fashioned, in fact, though strangle I can’t help thinking of Scooby Do when I recall those stories.

I can’t remember how old I was when I progressed onto fully adult novels. I don’t know if there was a young-adult genre those days, but if there was, I probably skipped right over it. I was a good reader, not only in the sense that I read a lot, but I also absorbed much and understood more than my years would normally allow.

Everyone loves a reading child. There seems something noble and good in it. I was greatly encouraged all along my reading journey. My mum was a good reader and would make sure there was an adventure or two in the Christmas stocking every year and would take me along on her monthly visits to the library.

My maiden aunt was the other who went out of her way to encourage my reading habit. Every birthday and every Christmas, I would get at least one book from her, wrapped in her signature style – in silver, or occasionally, gold glossy wrapping, tied up in ribbon. She always bought non-fiction – histories and biographies and so on – as if she wanted to encourage my curiosity. Later she would sign me up for subscriptions to interesting magazines. I have a lot to thank the adults in my life for nurturing my love of books.

I reckon it was by the time I hit high school that I was reading adult fiction. Mostly I read spy thrillers and adventures. Alastair MacLean was one of the early passions. I devoured his books, one after the other. I suspect it started with HMS Ulysses, which I found on my grandfather’s bookshelves. I still think it’s probably MacLean’s best pure writing – more novel than escapist adventure.

Thereafter I would pick MacLean books up from Eltham library – South By Java Head, Night Without End, When Eight Bells Toll, and all the rest of them, not forgetting, The Guns of Navarone. They’re broad stroke adventures featuring capable men thrust into positions of crisis by unfurling events – crime or disaster or war. They battle villains with brain and sometimes brawn. The villains are generally clever, sinister types, the dark side of the coin. There’s nothing particularly complex about most of the plots, but as many of them are written in the first person, you become intimate with the protagonist and his mind. Almost always, there’s a scene when the hero and the villain face each other, and the details of the dastardly plot are revealed, which, surprise, the hero always manages to foil.

I don’t know if they write books like that anymore. There’s a bit of Boy’s Own about them, though they’re definitely adult-oriented. I think partly that’s because the times we live in are not simple as they were then, and many books of similar intent are made complex to the extent of being overwrought. Or else, at the Matthew Reilly end of the scale, they’re made silly and comic book. I think MacLean was a better writer than most comparable writers today.

There were other writers of similar type I discovered along the way when I was a boy. Desmond Bagley was one, and Hammond Innes, and then there were the old spy thrillers of Eric Ambler and the more modern spy thrillers of Adam Hall’s Quiller series, which I gobbled up as soon as they hit the bookstores. Then there was Len Deighton and, slightly later, John Le Carre.

By the time I hit 14-15 I had started to move onto more serious literature, including a Russian phase when I read most of Dostoevsky, and some Tolstoy and Turgenev. The rest is history.

I recall all this now because, on a whim, I picked up an audiobook version of MacLean’s Night Without End the other week and have been listening to it in breaks from work ever since.

It feels a bit simple now, in a way. However, that’s part of the strength of the story, which is classic – plane crashes in the snow far from civilisation with a murderer on board, nearby a scientific station where the protagonist takes them on a journey through the bitter cold towards safety, all the while trying to unmask the villains.

There’s a great deal of nostalgia – I would’ve read it 40 years ago at a minimum. But it’s a rollicking adventure too. It’s not intellectually taxing, but for escapist entertainment, it can’t be beaten. Reckon I’ll try another again soon, and perhaps something by Bailey – The Golden Keel, perhaps. Then there are the Quiller books which, at least, I reread every 10-15 years.

There’s a lot of people who don’t read these days. I sometimes wonder if it’s dying away as a pastime. It seems to correspond to general literacy. All of this is a pity. I try to encourage where I can, but it feels like a forlorn hope mostly. I’m lucky. I was handed this gift when I was just a small boy, and for the half-century since have enjoyed thousands of hours of reading. I don’t know who I’d be without it.

Stages of life

I finished a book last night, which I think must be the best historical fiction novel I’ve read. Augustus, by John Williams, is the story of the Roman emperor by the same name. It’s told from multiple points of view in letters and diary entries and feels as authentic as anything you’re ever going to get in this genre. I’ve read a few books like this in the past, and though some are entertaining, they generally feel a bit contrived and as if the author is putting words into the mouth of these famous characters.

Williams is doing the same, except that it reads as if these are genuine documents, and each voice unique and individual. It helps greatly that Williams – who also wrote Stoner – is a very good writer. He’s dealing with the historical record – the murder of Caesar, the civil war with Marc Antony, the various controversies and conspiracies of the age – but to re-imagine it so vividly, and with such convincing realism, is a great feat.

If you like this sort of stuff then you should do yourself a favour.

Near the end of the book, Augustus is ruminating in a letter to a friend as he feels his life coming to its close. He reflects on the people he’s known, the friends he’s had and lost, the great moments of history he was part of. He writes as a man, as Octavious perhaps, as he started, rather than the great emperor Augustus history knows him as.

There’s a passage there which feels very true and wise, and resonated with my experience of life to this point:

“The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy. For his triumphs and his failures merge, and one is no more the occasion for pride or shame than the other; and he is neither the hero who proves himself against those forces, nor the protagonist who is destroyed by them. Like any poor, pitiable shell of an actor, he comes to see that he has played so many parts that there no longer is himself.”

― John Williams, Augustus

I certainly experienced and felt the full force of the first stage, that as a young man. It’s all about adventure and questing and insatiable appetite and curiosity and proving yourself. Life is a wondrous mystery.

I’m in the middle of the second stage. Parts of life feel tragic. I look back upon my earlier days, and I’m amused by my naivety, though impressed by my idealism and sensual gusto. I wonder at the value – and futility of it all. I’m much more measured, looking at things from the outside rather than within them. I question the point of it.

I look forward to the final stage as described here – seeing life as a comedy. I can believe in this. I feel as if it’s close now and as if I may already have experienced some of this. It would come as a relief to shed the burden of the belief I carry – though that seems harder to believe. It seems to me that if this stage is true, then it explains why they say the last 20 years of life are often the happiest. It’s a letting go.

I don’t think I can ever completely let go – and I don’t think I want to. But then, I’m still in the middle stage.

Reflections on a rainy Saturday afternoon

It’s Saturday, and I’ve been for my long walk with Cheeseboy and the dogs, and Rigby has had his swim. A steamy morning has become a wet afternoon, ideal for taking it easy and relaxing with an old movie. That’s what I’ve done.

The movie is not so old – 1986 – but it’s a movie I’ve been thinking about watching since I discovered it on Prime a month or so again. It’s an Australian movie – Kangaroo.

I think I’d seen the movie before, in the nineties perhaps, but it’s the book I remembered better. It’s perhaps one of D. H. Lawrence’s less known works, however, it’s an interesting novel, especially for an Australian reading about his country through the eyes of a famous English novelist. When did I read it? I’m not sure. The mid-eighties, maybe. I can picture the paperback in my mind – I have it somewhere – an old Penguin edition in white.

I read the book with the fascination of a young Australian male wanting to discover something of the identity I belonged to. Much of the history I knew – Sydney in the years after WW1 – we had studied it at high school. I knew about the New Guard, which is reflected in this piece, knew of the history to come in a period after the novel – de Groot slashing at the ribbon on the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the colossal figure of Jack Lang, the premier of NSW when the depression came along.

I read it with the fervour of a young man wanting to soak up and learn as much as I could. This was an era when I also read many of the existentialist novelists like Sartre and Camus when I searched through the words and works of great authors for something I could believe in. Kangaroo was more personal because it spoke to the place I had come from.

There was much I recognised in the novel, though not all of it pleased me. It’s in the movie, too, though with less articulation and none of Lawrences’ intense mental ramblings.

The book’s main character is Richard Somers, transparently a proxy for Lawrence himself – a controversial writer with a German wife who exiles himself from England, coming to Australia for a new start. All this Lawrence did also. In the book, Somers encounters a neo-fascist organisation of ex-diggers led by a charismatic former general code-named Kangaroo.

They seek to draw him in. They intend to re-make Australia, do away with the unions and the socialists, and make a world something loosely based on mateship and sacrifice.

There is something in Somers that is drawn towards this. Kangaroo demands love from him, and there’s something seductive in such an entreaty. In the end, he can’t, as we know he cannot, and nor does he join forces with the union movement on the other side. Ultimately he departs the land.

The politics of this I found less interesting than the human elements. The world at that time was rife with such movements – fascists in Germany and Italy and other places doing battle against socialism and those who had betrayed them. There was the New Guard in Australia, though it never amounted to much; the spin on it in this version is that it was based on brotherly love.

More interesting to me was the coming together of Somers with his Australian neighbours. He rejects the country on an intellectual level but is drawn to it sensually by fascination and desire. It’s the vitality that captures him, a sun-bronzed physicality that is essentially practical; a sensual, unassuming masculinity. Like many who live in their mind, he is attracted by those who act – and the Australian men he portrays in this are all of that type. They’re canny, robust characters with blunt natures, though capable of sophistry. To do comes easily to them, to act and be, even if it comes down to violence. They are raw spirits, as seen through his cultivated eyes. (Jack Calcott, as played very well by John Walton in the movie, embodies this).

Reading all those years ago, I recognised the type, and it made for a conflict in me. Much is admirable in that character, and it’s a character the world has come to love – easy and amiable. It’s what is lacking from it that dismayed me.

I share some of those attributes being an Australian, and I’m glad of many of them – the directness and honesty, the casual masculinity, I think. But, very clearly, I’m someone for whom the life of the mind is precious.

It’s all very well to be peopled by men of action, but it’s the thinkers that take us forward. It’s what fails Somers in the end – there needs to be more to it than this. We need more than instinct – there needs must be thought and reflection also, and imagination. I read it back in the eighties and recognised then the suspicion of anything fancy or intellectual – as if they were a bit dodgy, a bit soft.

We have moved on from then, and it’s not as pronounced now perhaps, but it still dismays. How I wish we had an intellectually curious culture like France or Germany. I’d love for us to engage with ideas and make the discussion of them a public affair. I yearn for that personally, and I believe it’s what we need as a nation at a cultural and intellectual level.

This movie triggered me for those reasons, but mostly because it got me thinking of our government. It has been a deliberate ploy from the day that Howard assumed power in 1997 to discourage that kind of curiosity. I think John Howard, a very stiff and proper type, felt uncomfortable with such things, but there were also excellent political reasons for it.

If people don’t think they won’t question. If we pander to their appetites and speak in their language, they won’t stir to make trouble. If we give them someone to vent their fear and hostility against, they won’t turn it on us.

With this current government, we have reached the apogee of this. It feels like a betrayal of what we could be and should be, and Morrison ultimately a subversive who is prepared to pander to our baser selves to the detriment of our cultural soul. He cares nothing for that, perhaps because he is without qualities himself – a shallow, opportunistic man who seeks only power, not justice. Like many, like Cheeseboy today, I hate him. I hate him because he is mediocre and selfish and without a skerrick of true patriotism.

I hate him because he is deliberately anti-intellectual and is happy to mock such pretensions as if they were unworthy. He plays to the simple mentality, and it suits him if we aspire to nothing more ambitious or worthy than a comfortable living. Our leader should be seeking to elevate us, as a nation and as a people, but such a nation would have nothing of such a superficial nonentity as him (and much of his party), and so instead, he manipulates opinion to his own ends. He is deplorable, as so many recently have been.

We deserve better leaders than this. We deserve to think and wonder for ourselves. We deserve to live in a country enlarged by possibility and the excitement of becoming more as a people. A true leader would encourage us to become bigger, not smaller.

I think ultimately, the likes of Morrison will be found out. I think we live in a time when many established attitudes are being challenged and turned on their head, despite the likes of Morrison. Bit by bit, old ways of being and thinking are being chipped away at, as they must be. We live in a time when leadership has come from below because there’s such a lack of it at the top.

As an Australian and someone who always wanted to be proudly known as an Australian, I hope this movement catches here as well, as there are signs that it will. In the end, we need the leadership from above to seize the moment to allow for all of us to be better. Right now, that’s just hope, but I live for it.

Funny, I started off writing about an old book and movie and turned it into a diatribe. Everything is political these days.

Back writing

Last week was busy with birthday celebrations and appointments, and it was all fine except that I don’t like to squeeze so much into such a short timeframe. It was different before. There was a time I’d be out two or three nights a week, plus whatever I got up to on the weekend. I was younger than and life was different generally, and one advantage I had that mostly I would go from work to whatever social escapade I had planned – drinks or dinner, with someone I knew, or on a speculative date.

It’s the nature of my life now that it will become quiet again for the next 10 days or so. It would be better to spread the festivities more evenly, but in winter we sow and in summer we harvest.

Yesterday was the Labour day holiday, so at least I had the occasion to catch-up after days full of movement and excess. Yesterday I watched an old TV program on YouTube – The Invaders – and had a nap in the afternoon listening to Richter’s take on the Four Seasons. Later in the day, I wrote.

There was a patch of about 3 months I got out of the habit of writing. I lost the groove and felt barren of inspiration or even the basic capacity to put words together in any pleasing combination. Interestingly, it seemed not to affect my writing here.

About three weeks ago, it came back to me. It was a Thursday night, and as I was reading, I found imagery coming to me and the words to describe it, all related to the book I’m writing now. I know how well these things are lost, so I set aside my book and noted them down. Since then, I’ve got back into a pattern of writing, and it feels both less complicated and quite satisfactory.

I could credit this turnaround to many things. It was bound to turn, and I knew that all along. I pushed at it, but I also told myself to be patient – you don’t lose it, it’s just that sometimes it goes on vacation.

Helping it to return was the correspondence I had with a friend’s mother. I think I mentioned how she discovered how I wrote and wanted to read something? Well. she read my first book in about a week and was full of it. She told me how I must get it published and good it was and how much she liked the style, and so on. It was gratifying, but while I don’t dismiss such commentary, I hold myself to a higher standard. I don’t want something merely good enough to publish – even if she thinks it’s much better than that. It has to measure up to what I expect of it, which is nothing to do with its commercial prospects.

Still, just the to and fro in answering her questions and responding to her exuberance. was enough to get my creative juices flowing again. I began to think of the book I’m working on now, the second book, and where I was stuck – about a third of the way into the second draft. That’s when it returned to me.

I’ve been writing since and relatively pleased with the output. On Sunday, I had lunch with the boys. At one point, we each said what we’d do if we had enough money to get by without seriously working. One said he’d set-up a men’s shed. Another said he’d get into fashion. The third said he’d like to get into dancing (which was mind-blowing – he’s never shown much interest or aptitude in it previously). They all assumed for me that it would be writing, which was pretty correct.

Once more, I was urged to get something published. I figure I’ll get around to that when I get this book finished – though it’s not nearly as simple a matter as that.

Telling a story

Yesterday, I finished reading the final story in Richard Ford’s latest collection of short stories, Sorry For Your Trouble.

I don’t know how many people still read short stories. I’ve read them all my life, picking them up when I first encountered Ernest Hemingway. It seems to me I recall there was a brief renaissance in the popularity of short stories maybe 30 years ago, or even earlier. If my memory is accurate, then Raymond Carver was in the vanguard, but many other worthy practitioners of it. Among them, and the best in my mind, was Richard Ford.

Ford has also written several acclaimed novels, but I think of him as one of those writers better at stories than novels – Updike is another. There’s no shame in that. Writing a decent short story is probably more challenging than writing a novel because you’re dealing in the miniature.

In a novel, you have space to expand and develop. You can digress and add layers of depth. In a short story, everything must be precise to achieve the same effect. Richard Ford is great at this.

I started this collection, and for the first two or three stories, I was enraptured. He’s an old-fashioned writer in a way, naturalistic and easy to read. He tries none of the post-modern literary tricks, and there’s nothing show-offy in his prose. If I’m a writer at all, then I belong in the same school as him.

I didn’t warm quite as much to the stories in the middle and latter part of this collection. That’s not to say they were any less, but, like anything, we have different tastes. I’m hesitant to use the word ‘resonate’ these days because it feels such a cliche, but at a personal level, I could relate better to the earlier stories to those that came after it.

This is the essence of story-telling really. The best stories focus on character and personality, with the events coming forth subject to that combination. Sure, things happen to us externally, but how we respond to them is individual – and many of the things that ‘happen’ are because we are that individual.

I preferred those earlier stories because I could feel them more closely. They aligned more particularly with my experience perhaps, or a particular perspective. We respond to stories when they touch upon something that is in us already – perhaps hidden, perhaps unknown, perhaps neglected. Then we read something, and it reacts in us and feels like a truth we know without exactly knowing why.

But it takes good writing to achieve that. Like the best writers, Ford knows people. You can imagine him watching and observing and learning. Soaking things up. Imagination plays a part because observation is the starting point from which it takes over. Wonder leads us to speculate on what we don’t observe – what happens next? Why? And what if that happens instead of this? And so the materials for a story gather.

Even the stories I favour less are a joy to read because Ford is such a craftsman. He’s a complete pro, and that’s a compliment.

I began the last story, and for the first few pages, I was certain it wasn’t going to work for me as well as the earlier stories did, but slowly I found myself drawn into it.

What was it? Nothing in the story’s events was more than generally familiar – it was about a second marriage, then divorce, and the characters were well to do. I came to feel great affection for the main character, though he felt quite different to me but for one aspect. It didn’t resonate for the usual reasons.

I fell into it because I came to understand the leading characters’ innate humanity, so artfully and perceptively described by Ford. We’re all a collection of attitudes and beliefs and perceptions all wrapped up in experience and genetic inheritance. There is a multitude of variations between us – as many as there are different human faces. And yet we can draw an understanding by tracing those elements, or rather by taking what we see and tracing them back.

Ford just doesn’t give us different personalities and characters to interact with each other, he offers up human qualities that mesh and conflict.

I knew the people he wrote of. I understood their why’s and wherefores. They were complete and complex human beings. What they were and how they interacted made perfect sense. They weren’t characters contrived in the imagination of an average writer, but rather described as if from life by a writer whose starting point is human nature.

That’s why I read – to encounter such writing and feel illuminated by it. And that’s why I write – in the hope that I can do the same for others.

Magic and wonder

I read this morning that the author and naturalist, Barry Lopez, had died.

I’ve read a lot of his stuff over the years. He was a luminescent writer with a keen eye and an open heart. He’s known for his writing on the natural world, but he also wrote more conventional stories. In either case, his prose was sensitive and drew you close inside the essence of the tale.

I think this happens when you have an extreme sensitivity to the world about you – not as something you travel through, but exist within. As a naturalist, he was drawn to detail and understanding context, and the result of that was naturally spiritual.

When you realise that everything has a life and purpose, that the world around us and we within it co-exist within layers of dependencies, then you begin to see a depth of meaning that eludes most of us, most of the time.

I was always found his writing illuminating, and often enlarging. He had a way of showing the wonder in enchanting things. He was one of those writers I would occasionally set aside midway through just to contemplate what I’d just read – to feel it full in me and abundant, to capture some of the truth of it and hold it in me for a while. And that was true for his stories as well as his naturalism.

He was 75, which seems relatively young, but I envy how he saw things, and the delight it must have filled him with.

By chance I’m reading a book by another naturalist right now, Richard Nelson.

He shares with Lopez a lovely lyrical gift of seeing and describing that is almost spiritual. It seems to me to be truly close to the natural world is a humbling and spiritual experience, and it’s there in their words. There’s a weight of meaning that is the very opposite of superficial. In all cases, a forgotten virtue – respect – is essential.

Reading this book, I’m reminded of the years I would go camping with my step-father and hunt for game. Mostly, we’d be far from civilisation. We’d stop in places where we were the interlopers and surrounding us raw nature. I would feel it every time I heard the call of an animal in the night, or see their tracks in the morning, or see the great gusts of cockies fly through the air before settling to cackle at us. The nocturnal thump and scrape, the movement in the bush felt as much as seen. And the owls in the trees looking on, hooting at their desire, and the wedge-tailed eagles majestic high in the blue sky as they circled and swooped.

We visited some out of the way places – out past Narrabri in the hills, the back of Bourke in red soil country, in scratchy brush and drought lands and places green and rugged. Just being there felt eye-opening, because it was a life very foreign to what I knew and understood in the city. I was a sensitive kid, and I felt these things, sitting in the fork of a tree overlooking it, or later by the fire with the scent of wood smoke in the air and deep night beyond the circle of light. Often it felt wondrous and bigger than anything I had ever understood.

There’s a morality to that world you can touch when you’re awake to it. You fit into it. That’s very present in the words of Lopez and Nelson, and most naturalists I’ve read. There’s an innate humility when you realise that life is all around you. I wonder if part of my problem is that I’m feeling an increasing disconnect from that sense of morality.

We live in an age of rampant hubris, and when our arrogance has become so extreme that we are destroying the environment we are part of and killing our future. This is what happens when you feel you are above all life and the environment is there to serve you. This happens when there is no balance or perception, when life is consumption, without magic or wonder.

Living in parallel

The big news yesterday was the the death of David Cornwall, aka John Le Carre.

He was 89, which is pretty ripe as old age goes, and had been writing up till the end. There’s always a tinge of sadness, nonetheless.

For me, some of the sadness is purely selfish. We might get some posthumous publication out of him, but he aint writing anymore. That’s sad because I reckon he was one of the very best novelists writing in the English language – never mind limiting it to spy novels. He was a gifted observer of human foibles and acute when describing them. As far as prose goes, his is some of the more intelligent you’ll come across.

He’s one of those authors that I feel like I’ve known all my life. You know how books evoke memories, and particular periods in your life, well he was one of those writers I feel as if I’ve lived in parallel to, on the other side of the world.

If I close my eyes, I can see places long lost to me, places where I read his books or spoke of them – and of course, all the memories of those places and periods are there also for me. I cottoned onto Le Carre early, and then there was a big gap before I returned to him about 20 years ago.

I had an Aunt, who was a great reader. For every birthday and Christmas, I could count on getting at least a book from her, beautifully wrapped in gold or silver foil with a ribbon around it. She cultivated my reading, and I was happy to have it cultivated.

She lived in Sydney, and I would stay with her most of the time I visited there, and I actually lived with her in her Watson’s Bay apartment for a while in the eighties (what a vivid memory that is). She had several bookcases full of books, and there was Le Carre.

I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Honourable Schoolboy in hardback while I was there. In the adjoining years, I also read The Spy That Came In From The Cold, and A Murder of Quality.

It was years until I read any of his books after that, though I was an avid watcher of the various TV series and movies made from his books.

I don’t know what brought me back to him. It’d never been a deliberate decision not to read him, more so that he had moved out of my reading orbit. Then he returned.

Over the last 15 years, I reckon I’ve read a dozen of his books, maybe more. There are no duds, though some are better than others. If nothing else, I always enjoy the quality of writing.

Not surprisingly, he was also an astute commentator of current affairs. He was clever and erudite and his politics – no coincidence – were at the liberal end of the spectrum. Like for many of us, the rise of Trump and Brexit was horrifying to him. He wrote well about that, seeing in it something revealing of the human condition – but then all his writing was about that really.

Funny how people die. That’s another one – and my aunt passed on nearly 20 years ago. Times go on. Sad to see him go, but it had to happen.

White noise

The counterpoint to the movie I wrote of yesterday – The Great Beauty – is the book I’m currently reading – Going To The Dogs.

The Great Beauty is set in contemporary Rome, grand and ancient. It features the creative well-to-do leading a life of endless parties and dinners and intellectual discourse round and round. Going To The Dogs is set in Berlin during Weimar Germany, just after the stock market crash of 1929. It’s provocative and lewd and anything is possible.

On the surface, the protagonists could hardly be more different. One is a 65 year old Italian sophisticate and intellectual. The other is an unemployed German half his age. One has known success and has settled into a life of comfort and sensuality, as well as minor celebrity. The other is talented and intelligent, but lost in the mess and muck of an era in transition – before the Nazis. One leads a gilded life and possesses a manner of charming cynicism; the other is an affable moralist, but without a position in life, and no future.

The differences are obvious, but there is much that ties them together. The worlds they inhabit are vibrant and decadent, though in different ways. One has lost an essence and the other lacks it. Both are observers. Both experience a form of detachment. Both of them quest, one by belated circumstance, and the other by nature. And both possess that quality we called sensibility in the post yesterday.

I find them as two sides of the same coin, very different at first glance, but sharing fundamental attributes. I wonder if they met what they would think of the other, but in between them I find myself drawn to both.

In the case of Fabian, the protagonist of Going To The Dogs, the reasons for that are less clear than they were yesterday.

I like Fabian – he’s smart and thoughtful and a decent human being. He’s capable but unmotivated, though not because he’s lazy. His is more a existential lack of motivation, though he remains curious about what he finds in the world about him, and at times he’ll seek out difference as if to learn from it. He reminds me, in memory anyway, of Ulrich, from The Man Without Qualities. They’re the same age, and both are seemingly searching for the thing that might light them up inside. In their way, both are outsiders, though not by choice. It’s as if something present in most people is absent in them, though it doesn’t stop them from joining in and trying.

It’s a rich vein of literature this, particularly in European art over the last century. I can only guess that it coincides with much of progress and modernisation and conflict along the way which, in combination, have had the effect of drawing us further from the fundamental and numbing our sensibility. Along the way, some get lost in all the white noise. Which is one reason why the experience of lockdown lately has been so profound in some ways – much of the white noise has been muted, and other things heard.

It’s always appealed to me this trope, and think this is the basic story here. Jep, from The Great Beauty, has coddled himself in lifestyle. He’s given way to the white noise. Then he hears something through the  noise and it harkenns to him things that were precious to him, but which he let go. In Fabian, he’s conscious of the white noise, though maybe it’s something he couldn’t articulate in so many words. He’s aware, all the same, of a basic distance between him and the world he has yet to reconcile. At times he thinks he will do the conventional but it appears the world is against him and won’t allow it. Even when he wishes it…

That’s a common part of this – fate has condemned…

When reading is a pleasure

I read a lot of books, and by definition, most of them are average. The genuinely memorable books have a great story well told, but it’s a rare combo. By my reckoning a good 70% of books fit in the middle of the bell-curve – competently written and more or less a worthy diversion, but not something you’ll necessarily recommend to others or remember too long. There’s about 20% of books on the wrong edge of the bell-curve – poorly written and edited, formulaic, sloppy, etc. I’m lucky if I finish one of the books, and if I do it’s generally because some small skerrick of interest has been pricked and I’m curious how it ends. Mostly, when that happens, I’ll scan the last hundred or so pages very quickly, or skip outright to the last chapter.

Then there are the very few – 10% if I’m lucky – which I deem to be a pleasure to read. Often times, it’s the sheer quality of writing that draws me in. I’m a sucker for that. Depth and insight and a mean way of stringing words together make for a delightful reading experience. Add that to a ripsnorting story, and I’m a slave to it.

As someone who writes on the side, and who’s passionate about it, that’s the standard I’m aiming for. You want a cracking story, obviously, but what makes for that is mostly subjective. As they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. I accept that. I can only measure up to the standards I set myself in that regard, which are my own, so I’ve got that pretty well ticked off from the get-go.

It’s different when it comes to the quality of the writing. It’s harder to get right too, I reckon. Sure, you can turn in something competent without breaking into a sweat, but where’s the fun in running a five-minute mile? It’s not the point, either.

The point is to write something people want to read, and keep reading, and take pleasure – and perhaps even wonder – out of the reading experience. That comes in two parts, I reckon.

The first part is simpler, I think – to put words in a sequence and with a cadence that bewitches the reader into reading more. It sounds nice in your head and has a quality that stays in mind. I guess you’d call this style. There have been some great writing stylists. The best of them make a simple shopping list a thing of pleasure. They resonate. Their words linger. Think of Hemingway and Salter, writers like that, and many other writers just enjoyable to read. I say it’s simpler, but it’s still very hard.

Style is great, but most of us aren’t going to splash out for a well-written shopping list. What I’m talking about is human insight and understanding. I’m talking about the rare writer who exposes through their prose human nature and vulnerability. Somehow, they see with more precision than the rest of us and have an understanding of how we act and interact, the why’s and wherefores and even the hows of it. They tug the curtain aside to give us a view of things otherwise hidden to us, but which so often feel ineffably true when we come across them. They’re the writers you find yourself looking up from the page in contemplation. Something dawns on you. You feel enriched. You wonder why you never knew this before. Then you bend your head and read some more. Think of Roth and Updike, Mann or Remarque. These are writers who have lived. This is a rare gift.

Naturally, I hope to put together style with insight. Time will tell.

I started a new book last night, which is what prompted this discourse. The book is Commonwealth, by Anne Patchett. She’s an author I knew of but never read previously. I’ve only read the first chapter, but it’s a winner.

As I began to read, I felt a sense of pleasure. This lady knows how to write, I thought. With that came a subtle pang. For one of the rare occasion reading, I felt self-conscious about my own writing. I knew wasn’t this good, and I felt both sad and inspired knowing it.

I don’t know about other people, but writing is one of the few areas I don’t feel particularly competitive about. Mostly I’m content to do my own thing while others do theirs. On the occasions when I come across writers like Patchett, I feel much more humble than aggrieved. I’m glad of the opportunity to read such quality. I drink it up, and at the back of my mind, I figure I can learn something – and maybe that’s my get out clause. I’m not the finished product, I figure, I’m still learning, still improving. One day I might be as good.

What’s the quality that seduced me reading last night? It felt so real, and so rich at the same time, like a story passed down through the family, you know backwards and forwards. You know it in yourself and can see and feel it too. And though she’s not a stylist like some of the big names her prose is of the top shelf, easily read, easily absorbed, and totally engaging.

Let’s see what chapter two is like.