Strangers on a train

Review of Travelling Companions by Antoni Jach (Transit Lounge, 2021)

Travelling Companions is a book made to read in lockdown. We Australians are renowned travellers. The year spent backpacking after university is a rite of passage, and we think nothing of flying 1,000 km and back for a lunch meeting in Sydney or Melbourne. Being locked in ‘Fortress Australia’ for a second year is especially frustrating, therefore (though trivial compared to the impact of COVID-19 on many other countries, of course). The next best thing to a Qantas ticket, then, is a vicarious journey through Europe is the company of a master storyteller.

This is the plot of Antoni Jach’s new work, describing a journey which starts in Barcelona and curves across Europe to end in Rome where the narrator flies home to Melbourne again. He meets various other travellers from around the world who tell stories to each other, especially Nina, an alluring Milanese whose tales are ever more extraordinary and captivating. Any reader expecting an easy ride on a travelogue is soon disappointed. The intial train journey to Avignon is delayed, then postponed; the travellers are turned back to their starting point before setting out a second time by bus, only to be held up yet again by French farmers who have blockaded the autoroute. The bus turns back . . . it feels like there are more delays and digressions here than in chapter one of Tristram Shandy. What can the passengers do but pass the time by telling stories?

We hear from a Dutch commercial traveller haunted by his ancestors’ wealth being built on colonial exploitation in Java. A postman in Poland steals and opens love letters, making ‘improvements’  before re-sealing and sending them on their way. There is a stockbroker who moonlights as a courtesan offering the expensive SGE (Superior Girfriend Experience). A philosopher who turns to the family business of art forgery. We also learn about the travellers’ lives, the story of the historical sites they visit, and much more besides. It soon becomes clear, though, that something odd is happening. Set in 1999, it’s remarkable how the journey feels like another epoch when the characters cannot stay in touch by mobile phone, before they can use a single currency throughout Europe, or make flight and accommodation bookings via apps instead of queuing at a travel agency or struggling through a telephone conversation in another language to a distant hotel. It’s more than this though . . .

 As well as acutely observed characters and situations, there is something delightfully artful going on. The same details crop up in different tales told by different people. A reference to Pinoccio. Clairefontaine notebooks. In Venice, the narrator dreams of a ring and finds one on a footpath the following morning . . . he gives it to an Australian girl who returns it to him in another city . . . an American companion plans to give his girlfriend a ring in the hope she will marry him, but she refuses to accept it and walks onto her plane and out of his life. The recurring details, circling stories, and performance of departures and returns, make Travelling Companions more reminscent of oral storytelling than a compact modern novel. The narrator carries Bocaccio’s Decameron with him, but his tale hints at a far older, pre-literate tradition, when travelling storytellers would recite a long chain of stories linked by a subtle thread, such as Scheherazade, for example. The need for story is deeply ingrained in human cultures, whether narratives around millenia-old rock art or the latest must-see TV serial such as Mare of Eastwick. Stories make sense of the random data of everyday life. They place us in space and time. We recognise the characters and situations and feel that, perhaps, we are not alone in the solitary confinement of our skulls after all.

Travel itself is a kind of story. On the road, we are living a narrative with an intense awareness of having been somewhere different yesterday, and that we’ll be somewhere else tomorrow. Everything is new. Away from our usual habitat, there is a heightened sense of existence as Jach’s narrator recognises. We give ourselves permission to be someone a little different if we want, and permission to watch others and our surroundings more closely. ‘I’m like blotting paper’ soaking up impressions, Jach writes, and ‘I’m just a solitary traveller looking for people to talk to, so I don’t fall off the edge of the flat earth’.

Reading Travelling Companions began to remind me of watching a Fellini movie, so it was no surprise when one of Jach’s characters exclaimed, ‘my life feels like  or La Dolce Vita . . .’ In unfamiliar surroundings, his characters undergo metamorphoses like Fellini’s, transformed by the tales they hear and of which they are a part. ‘We hold our personalities together with paperclips,’ Jach writes, ‘and those paperclips are the stories we tell each other.’

At one point, the travellers stand in a Venetian art gallery before Gorgione’s The Tempest, famously one of the most mysterious paintings ever created.  In the foreground, a woman on the right suckles a child at her breast. She is nude, with her pubic area visible, yet the impression is of innocence and trusting vulnerability, not sexual display. On the left stands a young man with a pike, well dressed and looking pleased with himself. They do not look at each other; in fact, each seems to inhabit their own space. In the background a storm looms over a city which might be Padua as lightning crackles across the sky. Jan Morris called it ‘a haunted picture’. The Tempest is an enigma which viewers must construct their own stories to explain. For the characters and readers of Travelling Companions too, it is stories which make sense of our lives – the lies that tell the truth.


Giorgione, The Tempest (c.1508). Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

Maigret and the crime of being alive

Maigret is one the great fictional detectives, yet he is also unique, quite unlike all others. Why are stories about the Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire of Paris so different?

There’s no denying his popularity; the numbers tell the story. Agatha Christie wrote a dozen books about Miss Marple and 33 on Poirot. Georges Simenon published a whopping 75 Maigret mysteries, which have sold over 600 million copies. These aren’t potboilers either. Each is a gem of a novella at around 40,000 words. John Banville calls the Maigret books, ‘extraordinary masterpieces’ and André Gide’s praise was even higher: ‘The greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature’. What is more extraordinary is that he wrote each book in little more than a week. For anyone who has spent agonising years writing a novel, it’s enough to make you weep. Simenon would prepare himself like an athlete – as obsessive about writing as he was about money, sex, and every aspect of his life – then shut himself away in his study, barely eating or sleeping until the job was done.

There are three principal aspects of a successful detective novel: the plot, the atmosphere, and the hero’s character. Without all three parts of this machinery working smoothly together, a book is unlikely to succeed or satisfy the reader.

The Maigret plots follow the model established by Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: an inexplicable crime surrounded by a veritable shoal of red herrings, which by observation of details and a process of abduction, the hero solves the mystery, identifying the guilty party. However, this is probably the aspect of the story which interested Simenon least. In his Intimate Memoirs, he confessed that his writing method was to list the characters and their background, plan the house where the action takes place, and then not write a plot, but only find some incident to trigger the story, before making it up as he went along from there. The plot performs a necessary but essentially mechanical role: it provides a skeleton on which the flesh of the story can be built up.

Like other fictional detectives, Maigret operates in a distinctive setting which creates an atmosphere for the books. As 1930s LA is for Philip Marlowe, the foggy streets of Victorian London for Holmes, and the country houses of England for Poirot . . . Paris is Maigret’s manor. From the fashionable apartments of the sixteenth arrondissement to the night clubs of Montmartre, he is at home everywhere, with everyone. The city becomes a character in the novels, infusing each with a particular atmosphere, drawing in all our associations from memory, music, and movies.

It is the character of Police Commissioner Jules Maigret which differs so much from the familiar tropes of the genre. Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, Poirot, Rebus, Wallander or Vera . . . they share common characteristics. Most are loners, solitary figures often operating as private investigators. Maigret, however, is a career police officer who works with a loyal team of detectives. They live alone, often in a run-down or eccentric apartment. Maigret, however, shares a comfortable bourgeois home with his wife, Louise. They generally have something dark and unresolved in their past which haunts them (broken relationships, grief, wartime trauma). Maigret seems fundamentally happy, free of guilt or worry. They often drink excessively or take drugs (starting with Sherlock Holmes and his infamous coke habit.) Maigret likes a drink, but probably no more than the average Parisian. They have an obsessive personality, making relationships with others difficult. Maigret has none of this friction, is happily married, and enjoys nothing more than a quiet dinner with Louise before an evening walk holding hands. Finally, there’s often a signature habit (a verbal tic such as Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’, or Rebus’ regrettable for fondness British ’80s rock music, for example). Here, at least, Maigret conforms to type with the immovable pipe in his mouth as an aid to cogitation.

Maigret’s unique character and approach to criminals are the source of his charm and fascination for readers, rather than the plots or crimes themselves. Simenon described this attitude in Maigret in Society:  ‘He did not take himself for a superman, did not consider himself infallible. On the contrary, it was with a certain humility that he began his investigations, including the simplest of them. He mistrusted evidence, hasty judgements. Patiently, he strove to understand, aware that the most apparent motives are not always the deepest ones.’

The Maigret novels are not so much who-dunnit or how-dunnit, but rather why-dunnit. The Commissioner certainly uses evidence, but the most compelling proof for him is that of the motivations and emotional lives of his suspects. His motto is ‘understand and do not judge’. All people are the same to Maigret. He is comfortable with anyone – whether duchess, surgeon, prostitute, or dock worker –  and treats them equally and empathetically as interesting subjects who will help him to understand humanity better. His perspective is closer to that of a priest or anthropologist, rather than the hero of a traditional detective novel. The focus of Simenon’s real interest may not even be the criminal, but an informer or witness whose character is exposed by Maigret’s attention after the crime.

Detective novels are primarily for entertainment, of course, but also satisfy an unconscious need for confirmation that the world of crime, disorder, and violence can ultimately be subdued by rationality, by logic and reason. They reassure middle class readers that they and their way of life are ultimately safe. Simenon did not see things this way. For him, the chaos of humanity and its frailties is a permanent state of affairs. The best we can do is to recognise this with humility, to strive to understand it with compassion, and to ameliorate it as best we can. It is simultaneously a bleaker and yet warmer perspective on humanity.

Reviewing a TV crime series, JG Ballard mused that, behind every fictional murder, the real crime being investigated is ‘the crime of being alive. I fear that we watch, entranced, because we feel an almost holy pity for ourselves and the oblivion patiently waiting for us.’ Simenon would have nodded in agreement. What Maigret investigates is the human condition itself. There is no escaping our nature or our mortality, but Maigret is like a parent who never disappoints: the stout, dependable figure of the Commissioner is always there, pipe in hand: understanding, forgiving, and kindly as he delivers us to justice.

Image: Rowan Atkinson as Commissioner Maigret in the 2016 ITV series.

The school of pain

Total eclipse of the Sun, Turkey, 29 March 2006.

It’s not easy to write about pain . . .

After all, there’s something humiliating about it, isn’t there? Whoever you are, there inevitably comes a time in life to bow down and submit to this physical torture your body is suffering which knows no mercy. Pain feels almost shameful. It advertises our vulnerability and mortality. Even animals seem to know this, creeping away to suffer alone. A fox licking a crushed and bloody paw beneath some bush where it cannot be seen.

By middle age, most of us know a little about pain. For women, there’s childbirth, of course, and then there are accidents and injuries, surgery, disease and chronic conditions, and trauma too. All pain feels personal, like a torture technique designed with you alone in mind. I once asked a surgeon how a wound would feel after that day’s procedure. ‘Imagine there’s a long strand of barbed wire inside you,’ he said, ‘and someone is slowly pulling it out through your skin.’ He was remarkably accurate. Pain comes in many colours: aching, acute, referred, grumbling, and everyone’s favourite – breakout pain, the sudden stab that make you gasp and cry out for mercy.

‘No one needs to feel pain these days,’ doctors reassure us. Somehow, though, medication and other measures can struggle to keep up with that jagged line in our bodies screaming out for relief. It is not only the pain which hurts, but the awful awareness that we cannot do anything about it. Like you, perhaps, I have had my moments. Kept awake all night long, turning constantly from side to side, trying to fool myself that one position hurts less than another. Days spent in hospital on a morphine drip, greedily watching the clock until I can press the pump again for another blessed spurt into my bloodstream. These are the times when we crash into the cruel, sharp edges of life at last.  How we respond becomes a part of who we are, learning hard lessons in the school of pain.

This is pain, then. Imagine being in utter darkness apart from a point of sharp, bright light in front of you. It hurts intensely, even with eyes closed, yet there is nowhere else to look. It might as well be the spotlight trained on your face by a torturer, or the fierce glow of the blowtorch he is holding. Like nothing else in life, except the sexual climax, pain totally drains awareness of anything else and focuses you exclusively on that one bright and savage point where you hurt. Unlike an orgasm, though, it goes mercilessly on and on. It has a single all-consuming effect – a desperate desire for it to stop.

Pain is personal. It feels like being beaten up by invisible thugs every day. Wherever the hurt is, it shows on your face. Humiliated by the experience, you curl up internally. It becomes difficult to give attention to anything beyond what you are feeling. The world beyond ceases to exist, or at least it hardly seems to matter. You are unresponsive when someone tells you about their day – there’s little sympathy left over for anyone apart from yourself – and then follows the inevitable guilt, making you feel even more cut off from the world, with only your pain for company.

But pain also teaches us that we are embodied beings. Our body and mind suffer as one entity; they are not separate. This at least is a positive discovery, if we can manage to be philosophical and stoic about it. We learn another important and terrible lesson, too: that sometimes we are powerless and have to surrender to what seems unendurable. You must train yourself to let it pass through you, like a wave through water. To do this with as much grace as we can muster seems the most important thing in the world. And then we can wait for that far-off hour when the pain fades away – when it becomes, at last, merely something to write about.

On reading Ghost Species

Ghost Species

Why do we read novels? Why are we the only species which has such an ability (and compulsion) to create and hear stories – these ‘untrue’ tales, like memories of things that never happened? We know they are not real, yet they clearly matter to us in some profound way.

Many works of fiction appeal because they provide a form of comfort. They relay parables which reassure readers that their way of seeing the world is correct. We may agree with many of these perspectives, but what’s the point of reading answers with which we already agree? On relationships, on politics, on environmental issues or the ‘unfairness’ of society, there is a danger of complacency – of simply congratulating ourselves on ‘thinking right’. Rather, as James Baldwin wrote, the aim of fiction is surely ‘to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers’. Good novels do this by creating alternative worlds. They shimmer alongside our own, similar but strangely different. It is a kind of magic. They offer new ways of seeing the world, of seeing people and relationships from other perspectives. After reading a good book, you are never quite the same person.

These thoughts were in my mind when I picked up James Bradley’s new novel, Ghost Species. I was taken aback. There in the prologue, these very thoughts were laid out on the page:

Are we the only animals that tell stories? Do the birds? Do the fish? The elephants? The whales and dolphins? And if they do, what shape do those stories take? For surely story is as much a way of being in the world as a way of describing it? A means of comprehending the way all that surrounds us hums through us as we live?

This story begins with Kate, a renowned genetic engineer, flying into a remote research facility owned by Davis, a tech billionaire who seems an unnerving blend of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. He asks her to work on a project to revive extinct species (she has already spotted a pack of thylacine in the grounds). These are part of Davis’s mission to restore a healthier, pre-human ecology in response to the impact of the climate emergency. So far, so sci-fi, I thought, immediately reminded of the opening scenes of Alex Garlands’s Ex Machina. Davis asks her to join a secret team to create and bring to birth a Neanderthal baby. Kate says yes, and here the story take off. An embryo is developed from surviving neanderthal DNA, a surrogate mother found, and at last a baby is born.

For Kate, the thought of the little creature being brought up in a lab as a ‘proof of concept’, without affection or an emotional bond, is unbearable. (Her response brings to mind the pity evoked by the famous Harlow monkey experiment, in which newborn rhesus monkey clung to a wire-and-cloth ‘mother’ in a pathetic bid for affection.) Kate kidnaps the baby Neanderthal, named Eve, and spends several years hiding out with her before being recaptured. By now they have developed a loving relationship and stay together as a family. When Eve is a teenager, though, Kate develops an inoperable tumour and soon dies. Eve is alone in the world as well as the only one of her species, just at a time when changes to the climate and ecosystem are accelerating and society begins to collapse.

James Bradley has developed into a master storyteller. His prose is ‘frictionless’ in the best sense. Any more detail would be too much; any less would be too little. The unnamed Tasmanian setting is evident to an Australian reader, but is sufficiently evocative to satisfy an overseas reader. Climate change and ecological disruption rumble in the background and increasingly play a significant part in the novel, but Bradley does not strain for effect here as some might – the reality speaks for itself. Similarly, technology hints that the action is set a little into the future, but not far enough to be intrusive or evoke a more distanced response.

Eve, the Neanderthal, is an impressive creation. Writers have attempted this before, notably William Golding in The Inheritors. Bradley has an advantage, however, in that the genome of Homo neanderthalensis was fully sequenced in 2013, and subsequent DNA analysis as well as archeology is allowing us to learn more about their lives. This is not essential for a work of imagination, but it makes for a fascinating read, and must have been an exhilarating challenge to write. Eve is a rounded, convincing character who just happens to be from a different species. Without being an identikit construction, she has enough Neanderthal characteristics to remind the reader (and herself) that she is different. Eve’s appearance is noticed by others (bulkier, broader nose, and larger eyes). She is slower to develop theory of mind when young (struggling at first to imagine how others think and feel). The centre of her consciousness is more embedded in her body than her mind, and at first she instinctively communicates through gesture rather than words, though she learns language and comes to speak as well as any Homo sapiens. When Kate, her adopted mother dies, it is Eve who moves to the centre of the novel.

Since the publication of Clade in 2017, Bradley has been recognised as a leading author of eco fiction, as a sort of spin-off from science fiction. Genre is a necessary evil for writers, placing books into a reductionist category which nevertheless gives the hapless bookseller some idea of where to place them. Bryan Aldiss regarded Frankenstein as the foundation of all science fiction, and we can recognise the story as one that has been told over and over again until the present day, in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, for example. Mary Shelley’s masterpiece transcends genre and is far more than a scientific horror story, of course. Like any good novel, it takes on new meanings for each generation, for each reader, for each time it is read.

The same is true of Ghost Species. Eve’s situation will resonate with anyone who has felt ‘the same but different’ in society: an awkward adolescent; a child of immigrants regularly asked ‘but where do you really come from?’; someone affected by disability or a mental health issue, or who is coming to recognise that their sexuality or gender doesn’t fits easily into a box. Kate’s situation resonates too, alienated from her own chaotic, alcoholic mother, yet discovering love for a child who is not quite human. Like each of us, she locates her full identity by recognising the responsibility we owe the past and that we owe to future generations. This is the case for our species as a whole, too, as the consequences of the Anthropocene become ever clearer.

Ghost species by James Bradley (Penguin 2020)

Dr Kwong, the bright moon, and a problem with time

Nostalgia. noun.
Derived from the Ancient Greek νόστος
(nóstos, ‘returning home’) + ἄλγος (álgos, ‘pain’).

There comes a time in life when we’re able to pause and catch our breath at last, and to take a look back at the past. Our mind turns to vivid memories of childhood and youth. Whatever happened to the person who sat next to us in class, or the one we had a first crush on? Perhaps we make a sentimental visit to where we grew up, wondering at how much has, or hasn’t changed. How small the town and buildings look now! How intense those memories, saturated in colour and emotion, compared to whatever we did last year!

Emigrants feel this nostalgia deeply. For them, distance in time and space have become confounded: they can be lovesick for a place and a past that no longer exist. The home country has kept changing while their memories are frozen in time. Exiles feel the pain of nostalgia even more sharply, forbidden even from returning to the landscapes of their youth.

Andrew Kwong is an exile. A GP on the NSW Central Coast, he was brought up in rural China during the horrors of the Maoist Great Leap Forward of the 1950s (when millions starved) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s (when millions of educated and cultured Chinese were persecuted and murdered). His 2020 memoir, One Bright Moon, tells the story of this upbringing, and his escape to Macau, Hong Kong, and eventually Australia.

There has been a wealth of migration memoirs in recent decades, with a number relating to China. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin are the best-known examples. A Penguin Book of Migration Literature anthology was also published in 2019. Kwong’s One Bright Moon is a valuable addition to this genre. He vividly evokes a childhood of feeling constantly hungry, with his family persecuted for being ‘bourgeois’ (as his parents had university degrees), yet still eager to be a loyal follower of Mao Zedong and wear a coveted red scarf. Speakers on every street corner blared out revolutionary exhortations all day. Every year, so-called traitors with ‘incorrect thoughts’ were publicly executed in front of the townspeople. As a little boy, Kwong witnesses one of these killings and feared for his own family. His father has to attend ‘thought-cleansing’ sessions in the evening, and the entire experience sounds like being plunged into a real-life version of 1984, which of course it is. George Orwell understood how totalitarian regimes operate long before anyone else.

After the family spirit young Kwong out of China, he attends school in Macau before being smuggled to Hong Kong. From there, he managed to move on to Australia and then medical school. It’s not long before Kwon is married, established a general practice in NSW, and has a family of his own. While his father was eventually able to escape, his mother remained in China during the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, causing everyone great anxiety. Only 20 years after Kwong’s escape was she finally able to leave, reuniting the entire family for the first time. This is the ‘one bright moon’ of the book’s title.

What lingers in the mind after reading the book is not only the dramatic moments, of which there are many, but also the author’s intense accounts of small details and incidents from his youth. Being given a delicious Arnott’s biscuit, from a packet sent by family overseas; the scent of incense sticks burnt to honour their ancestors, fishing with his friends to eke out the family’s food. Every precious memory is rescued and restored to the world. It’s as if, decades after living in Australia, he has to pinch himself as a reminder that he is not still back in Maoist China. This is not only about the trauma of political oppression, but also about the mystery of time passing for all of us. After all, how can a clock ticking compete with the intensity of our memories and emotions?

Time is a mystery for philosophers, astrophysicists, and clockmakers alike. Is it another dimension like space, which can bend and change shape? Are there many ‘times’ just as there are three physical dimensions, with others strongly suspected to exist? And how can we even imagine it, from the absurdly narrow perception of a species which lives for less that 100 revolutions of the Earth around our sun? In the universe, there is no such thing as ‘a long time’ for there is no comparator. No sooner has something happened, then it is gone for ever. When we remember past times, though, and the deep personal and emotional meaning they have for us, then they live on inside us, sometimes more ‘real’ than the present, that tick-tock procession of ‘now’ followed by ‘now’ and so on. Andrew Kwong’s memoir is a dramatic tale of survival during a tumultuous period in history, and also an evocation of the fact that what matters to us – what gives meaning to all our lives – is independent of time passing.

No one describes this better than another exile, Vladimir Nabokov, in his memoir, Speak Memory:

Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love – from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter – to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behaviour of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time.

One Bright Moon is published by HarperCollins.

The Tale of Genji: Reading in a time of pandemic

For Genji, too much was never enough . . .

When I was in my twenties, I worked at home for several years. I was writing a thesis on Lolita, gazing out at an oak tree in the garden of my cottage, and making endless cups of tea. BBC Radio murmured in the background, the ubiquitous soundtrack of British life. Every morning, the presenter announced the winner of a ‘round tuit’ – listeners nominated someone who was always going to ‘get round to it’ on some household task. It was harmless chatter in between the music which I need when working.

In the years since, I’ve accumulated a formidable list of works I mean to read, when I get round to it. Among these is The Tale of Genji. Nestled in the ziggurat of books beside my bed – between DeLillo’s Zero K and a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft – Murasaki Shikibu’s novel has lain untouched for years. One reason for this delay is the work’s formidable reputation (‘Am I ready for it?’). Another is the commitment it requires; The Tale of Genji is a doorstopper of nearly 400,000 words. It is 1,200 pages long, and weighs over a kilogram. But if not now, when?

While the pandemic rages, I am working at home again, in isolation like everyone else. It is a silvery eucalyptus tree that I see in the garden. Once again, I make countless cups of tea while Spotify plays in the background. The time has come to read The Tale of Genji.

Scholars dispute whether the book is a novel or not – or whether it was the first. Yet it doesn’t need a label to be recognised as a great work of art. The Tale of Genji is a richly-embroidered tale of romance and intrigue at the court of the Emperor of Japan, written around the year 1,000 CE. Apart from literary quality, it is invaluable as a historical document, providing an acutely-observed insight into Japanese life and culture in that period.

What were your ancestors doing a thousand years ago? Mine were sitting in a wattle-and-mud hut somewhere in Britain, coughing as they huddled around a smoky fire, and waiting for someone to invent the chimney. The urbane comforts of Roman Britain were long forgotten. Yet on the far side of the world, a level of civilisation had arisen beyond their imagining. In Japan, this flourished in the Heian (‘peace’) period between the ninth and twelfth centuries: a period recognised as the classical era of Japanese culture, in architecture, music, literature, and art. There was a huge cultural flowering – comparable to that in Elizabethan England.

The Imperial Court was based in Kyoto. Among the courtiers was the woman now known as Murasaki. She was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, and a renowned poet and novelist in her own lifetime. The Tale of Genji is her greatest work. Most females at this time were married soon after reaching puberty. Murasaki, however, stayed at home with her father well into her twenties. He was a renowned scholar and poet, and she was an eager student. This turned out to be a great advantage when she joined the court, to be a companion for the Empress Shōshi, who had joined the imperial harem at the age of 12. The Empress too, seems to have been an enthusiastic student, and the two became lifelong friends bonded by a love of literature.

Murasaki was not not only a keen observer of life at court, she was finely attuned to the complexities of human relationships. Drawing on her experience, she imagined the most noble man of all: the son of an emperor, charming, handsome, intelligent and cultured, a poet and musician, cunning yet kind-hearted. His name is Genji.

The novel recounts his life at court and many romantic affairs. He falls from favour and is exiled for years. Returning to Kyoto, he marries several wives and takes many consorts (Japan was a polygamous society during this era). Over the years, he does not discard the women he is involved with, but retains them as lifelong friends – adding more and more wings to his palace to accommodate them. Each keeps her household of servants and a private garden designed to her wishes. Sometimes Genji passes an entire day visiting them in this chain of pavilions, chatting, playing music, and reciting poetry. (There are over 800 waka poems in the novel.) At other times, he is skilfully navigating the complex power-play between rival families at court. The tale covers decades, including around 400 characters, and lasts beyond the end of his life. Despite many affairs, Genji’s deepest love is for his life companion, Murasaki (by tradition, the author has been named after her). Once she dies, he is plunged into a fatal grief. His last words to her echo lines of the poet, Henjō, we are told:

Above, below, the dew falls soon and late,
As if to tell us the story of the world.

’Grief does not correspond exactly with love,’ Genji muses. ‘When an old and continuous relationship comes to an end, the sorrow is not just for the relationship itself . . . it is the proliferation of memories . . . that makes for the deepest sorrow.’ The following chapter is entitled, ‘Vanished into the clouds’. It is a blank page. When the story resumes, Genji is referred to in the past tense. Murasaki has described his passing in the most elegant way possible. Genji had every advantage anyone could desire. Yet for him, too much was not enough, as he hungrily sought new experiences. Murasaki’s death teaches him that the quality of experiences is what matters, not their quantity. He wishes that they could have lived a thousand years together, yet knows the final moment of that thousandth year would still come around.

The Tale of Genji paints a shimmering picture of that distant place and time a millennium ago. Genji’s palace of pavilions in Kyoto, gardens alight with lanterns. Mountain-top monasteries above the clouds. The lonely, wind-swept strand of his exile. This world seems exotic, yet also very familiar at times. Murasaki is able to write convincingly from the perspective of both male and female characters. Relationships are immediately recognisable as authentic. When the wife of Yurigi, Genji’s son, has had enough of his behaviour, she storms off to her parents’ house, leaving their young sons behind. ‘So you leave your brats behind for me to look after, do you?’ he asks. ‘Now they’re my brats, are they?’ she replies angrily. The bickering could be from a Family Court transcript of today. Despite the conflict, Murasaki makes it clear that they love each other too, and work – sometimes painfully – towards a new understanding and appreciation of each other.

When Arthur Waley’s translation of Genji was published in the nineteen-twenties, reviewers compared Murasaki to Jane Austen and Marcel Proust. The breadth of her portrait of a society over decades, and her precision in rendering characters, relationships, and how people talk to each other, justify these comparisons. Murasaki moves with absolute mastery between narrative, poetry, characters’ interior monologues, and her own, sometime acid, asides. Like Remembrance of Things Past and other ‘great works,’ being labelled as such can make The Tale of Genji seem daunting and marmoreal. This is a pity. Murasaki’s novel, Like Proust’s, is deeply human, full of humour and sexual adventures, as well as psychological and social insights. Yet the delight she takes in portraying Genji and his society is accompanied by a profound awareness of its ephemeral nature. This is the concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ) – a melancholic sense of the transience of life, seen even today in the Japanese fondness for travelling to watch the cherry trees’ brief blossoming.

We do not know Murasaki’s actual name, but some of her diaries survive, covering the years 1008-1010. Here she imagines how other women at court see her: ‘awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, and scornful’.

I like her already.

Murasaki Shibiku. The Tale of Genji. Translated with an introduction by Edward Seidensticker (1976).

An unfettered howl

Francis Bacon at the Pompidou Centre, Paris

When Francis Bacon’s Three studies of Lucian Freud was auctioned at Christie’s, the painting sold for a remarkable $127 million. Bacon is not only one the most valued painters of the past 100 years (by the crude index of auction price), he is also established as one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. A major new exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris focuses on the artist’s late period from 1971 until his death in 1992.

Bacon. En toutes lettres (11 September – 20 January 2020) includes 60 paintings, with 12 triptychs. In side-chambers, readings which inspired Bacon can be heard: passages from Aeschylus, Nietzsche, George Bataille, T S Eliot, and others – carefully selected from the artist’s library by the Pompidou’s Didier Ottinger. There is more than one trap for curators when attempt to provide an exhibition with structure. Telling a simplistic story with a rigid time-line. Being over-reverent. ‘Padding out’ with works which don’t add to an exhibition’s value. Worst of all, imposition of a rigid interpretive perspective, making it harder for the viewer to come to a personal relationship with a work of art – to see it for ourselves.

Ottinger falls into none of these traps curating Bacon. En toutes lettres. The high, wide spaces allow the works to ‘breathe’ with sufficient space around them for comfortable contemplation. Labels are discreet and minimal. The book readings provide an interesting context but are not overbearing. Bacon’s paintings are left to speak for themselves. Yet they do not simply speak. They roar. They howl. They sing sweetly and weep and scream out in defiance. This exhibition is an explosion, a spectacular display of Francis Bacon’s creativity in the last twenty years of his life.

The paintings are notably different from his earlier work: sparer, more refined, and using a smaller palette of intense colours. With Bacon, we are reminded of the human body in the bloody process of being born, in the throes of sex or death, or perhaps in an operating theatre or torture chamber. We look away, then are compelled to look again. Bacon’s cool, unblinking gaze is turned onto his own grief and suffering too. A posthumous portrait of his lover, George Dyer, is especially moving. One panel of the triptych shows Dyer as a defeated boxer, twisted and bloodied on the floor, hardly recognisable as a person. Many works are coloured by the sexuality which Bacon, recognises as integral to our existence and identity. He lived for most of his life in an era when homosexuality was cruelly persecuted, yet was defiantly, brazenly proud of who he was. Bacon understood sexuality not in a narrow physiological or legalistic way, but as an acceptance and delight in our physical existence. Through all of his works, we sense this delight as well as evocation of the fear and revulsion we can feel at this mirror held up to human life and our mortality.

The portraits – like the 1976 painting of Michel Leiris in this exhibition – can seem horrific to some, as though skin had been sliced and peeled back to expose what lies beneath, like a soldier’s face mutilated by an exploding shell. Yet perhaps what is most terrifying is not the suggestion of torn flesh, but what this reminds us of – the uncomfortable realisation of our own fragility: that we are embodied beings trapped for life in a carcase of meat and destined to die, eaten up by time.


The final painting in the exhibition is Study of a Bull, completed a few months before Bacon’s death. The bull hovers translucently at a doorway. Behind him is sheer blackness, before him the plain background of what may be a bullring. (The dying Bacon rubbed dust from his studio floor into the painting here, a reminder of his own mortality.) The door is a bright rectangle of light. Is the bull going forward into this? Retreating into the blackness? Or is the flickering, part-transparent bull doing both? The creature is transfixed in time. Study of a Bull is a masterpiece, evoking the mystery of human existence, providing no answers, but asking all the right, thrilling questions. Bacon wrote that he hoped through art ‘to crystallise time, in the same way as Proust did in his novels’. Bacon. En toutes lettres also reminded me forcefully of a passage by Vladimir Nabokov. It could have been written in flames at the entrance to this astonishing exhibition:

Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting the gladiator. Don’t stop to think, don’t interrupt the scream, exhale, release life’s rapture.

For more details of the exhibition, see the Pompidou Centre website.


Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer (1971)

Portrait of Michel Leiris (1976)

Study of a Bull (1991)

There are certain summer days . . .


There are certain summer days in England when the heat bring a hallucinatory, even eerie stillness to the landscape.

One feels that, with the next breath of wind, everything might shimmer and disappear. Beneath the glory of the hedgerows lurks the horror that this will not last.

Thomas de Quincey noted this feeling in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1819):

The contemplation of death generally, is (caeteris paribus) more affecting in summer than in any other season of the year . . . The exuberant and riotous prodigality of life naturally forces the mind more powerfully upon the antagonist thought of death, and the wintry sterility of the grave.

For it may be observed generally, that wherever two thoughts stand related to each other by a law of antagonism, and exist, as it were, by mutual repulsion, they are apt to suggest each other.

On these accounts it is that I find it impossible to banish the thought of death when I am walking alone in the endless days of summer.


To the bluebell wood


In memoriam T.S.

UK Border officers dress like wannabe SS guards these days. They wear black uniforms with tight, uncomfortable collars, and squint menacingly as you file by. I feel sure one of them will pull me aside, tip up my suitcase, and demand an explanation for the little tin box full of suspicious grey dust . . .

Clearing Immigration, I passed through the endless ‘duty-free’ zone. Vodka and perfume, all the essentials of life. Like Australian airports, Heathrow is a vast, glitzy shopping mall with a parking area which happens to fit planes as well as cars. Twenty minutes later, I was in a Vauxhall SUV, heading for the motorway. I had a mission to fulfil.

I’d met Trevor through mutual friends. Somehow we got along. It’s always a mystery why we like the company of some people more than others. He was an artist. He was originally from England, but then so are thousands of other Australians. Did we recognise a similar way of looking at the world, despite differing in so many other ways? Whatever the reason, there was an inexplicable click, like two jigsaw-puzzle pieces fitting comfortably together. Catching up with Trevor and Meegan in Melbourne, we’d sit on their verandah after dinner with a bottle of wine, while he talked excitedly about his latest project.

After decades in Australia, Trevor had begun to yearn for the landscapes of his youth. Nostalgia is an especially British ailment. He started a subscription to the London Times. He spent hours on Google Streetview, humming as he re-created the bicycle rides of his boyhood down the country lanes of the 1950s. No sooner was the family back from one visit to Europe, than he began planning the next. There was one more trip in Trevor last year, but it never happened. An illness returned and he died in September. The cremated remains of a human weigh about two and a half kilograms. Trevor’s family agreed that he would want half of these buried in England.

I knew just the place.

I love to drive off straight after landing at Heathrow. I like to catch how the English landscape feels strange to me before I get used to it. Within a few hours it feels normal again, the place where I grew up. So it’s exhilarating after the long flight to set off on the M4 at 130 km per hour, down the long green corridor to the west. The motorway gives way to dual carriageways, then A roads, then narrow country lanes that I know as well as my own skin. I’ve become used to the subtler shades of the Australian bush, so the hedgerows and woodlands of Britain have an almost tropical luxuriance. As the light fades, so the foliage turns a thousand shades of green. Stopping for a coffee, I feel like a secret agent, able to pass as a local but not of this place any more. I am a spy from the past. Trevor and I used to discuss this feeling, and the strange, powerful love we all feel for the landscape where we grew up.

I reminded him of Birkin in DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, who delights in stripping off his clothes to lie in a field, ‘naked among the primroses’ and at one with the earth. In a few weeks, too, Trevor too would go to earth, his ashes dissolved into the moist and fragrant soil beneath a canopy of oak trees. The leaves would fall. There would be snow. A fox would pass by, leaving footprints lost when the next rain fell. And by the following April, bluebells would appear, to fill the woods with a hallucinatory blue haze.

Do people still use the word ‘gentleman’ these days? I hope so. Trevor was one of nature’s gentlemen. Older than me, he seemed eternally boyish. Peter Pan with a roll-up cigarette in his hand. There was a full head of hair (banished later by chemotherapy) and an impish expression. He had a modesty and curiosity about the world that was not assumed or even a virtue, but simply an innocence which he had somehow retained after the age of eight. Maybe you know the feeling of being the youngest person in the room, even when you are among the oldest. What is it to be a ‘grown up’? It’s how we expected to feel when we were older, but for some of us it never happened and never will.

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes. The ceremonial burning of the dead was practised for thousands of years until it fell into disfavour with the rise of Christianity. By the nineteenth century, it was regarded in Europe as a barbaric, primitive ritual.

Cremation became respectable again largely thanks to a Welsh doctor, William Price.

When Price’s infant child died in 1884, he built a pyre on a nearby hilltop to cremate his son. An angry mob stopped him from going ahead and Price was arrested and charged. He defended himself in court, acknowledging that there was no law stating cremation was legal, but equally there was none stating it was illegal. The judge agreed and a legal precedent was set. Within a few years, crematoria were being built all over the country.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Dr Price, one of the great eccentrics and freethinkers of the Victorian era (when there was plenty of competition). He was prominent radical and had to flee the country for a while after the Newport Rising, when troops killed dozens of Chartist marchers. A popular GP, he refused to treat tobacco smokers, was a vegetarian and an anti-vivisectionist. Dr Price despised religion, was an enthusiastic nudist and propounded free love, denouncing marriage as the enslavement of women. He promoted the Welsh language and culture, founding his own Druidic movement, mainly for the rather splendid costume, I suspect.

On his eighty-first birthday, Dr Price married for the first time, to 21-year old Gwenllian Llewelyn. They had several children and he lived well into his nineties.

On his death bed, Price’s last words were, ‘Bring me a glass of champagne’.

Trevor was one of those people ‘good with their hands’. He never knew how much I envied his easy way with the physical world. Apart from previous professional careers (air force, finance) and being an accomplished painter, Trevor could build a house . . . create a beautiful garden . . . restore a piece of furniture. My father was the same, with a shed full of tools that he took for granted all men knew how to use. Mallet. Vice. Plane. Mortice block. Spokeshave. He tried to interest me in them for years before sadly accepting my cack-handed and complete lack of interest.

I can only imagine how it feels now to walk through the world able to have such mastery over your surroundings. I wish I’d talked about this to Trevor. Did he feel more confident to know such power over his surroundings? Would you feel more a part of the material world? That you could build a wall, repair a roof, plant a new garden, fix a broken chair? As someone who has Hire-a-Hubby on speed dial, I can only dream . . .


Trevor painted moments rather than places. They are never dramatic, his works. Depictions of people are rare. A doorway opens into a brightly-lit corridor. Hills and hedgerows undulate into a distance that never seems to arrive. A country crossroad with a girl and a dog slipping by. What interests him is how the light falls and interacts at that very instant – the angles and reflections of sunlight in that moment of still life, never to be repeated. In their quiet, deceptively calm way, Trevor’s paintings evoke for me the horror of time passing, those photons of irretrievable moments now spinning away into the cosmos.

In 1998, astronomers detected the first body circling another star. The tally is now over 4,000 exoplanets. We can tell that some have atmospheres, even oceans. We know some are rich in minerals and even have volcanos. It is a near-certainty that life has evolved elsewhere in the universe. The nearest of these exoplanets is Proxima Centauri b, just four light years away. In other words, what we see has taken four years to travel through space at the speed of light. We are looking into the past, at where the Centurians may live. But if we can see them, perhaps they can see us.

With a powerful-enough telescope, those alien watchers would see the earth as it was in 2015. They would see Donald Trump announcing his candidacy for president. Islamic State capturing Palmyra. Ireland voting for equal marriage. They would see Trevor giving us a tour of his garden in the most exquisite detail. They could watch you, perhaps even hear what you were saying, at that exact distance in space-time ago. As Einstein insisted, ‘the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion’. Each moment is never lost after all, but lives forever, travelling endlessly in a wave of photons across the universe.

The Summer of Acid


People are talking about using LSD to treat mental illness again. Evidence is thin, and the plural of anecdote is not data, but my own experience was educational . . .

I learned more about music and drugs than my studies as an undergraduate. My university was ancient and deep in the countryside, comfortably nestled among the buxom green hills of Wales. While other students were innocently dancing to Abba at a campus disco, an exclusive, long-haired coterie (so we imagined) sat around a log fire in our sprawling farmhouse retreat, listening to the Velvet Underground, Spirit, or the Quicksilver Messenger Service. We took our music seriously, preferably on LPs imported from the States (which had extra-stiff covers, ideal for rolling joints). Our musical mentor was a gentlemanly dealer of the old school, more interested in expanding minds than his wallet. Drugs were not simply for recreation, he taught us, but a way to explore altered states. They were surprisingly plentiful and LSD was our substance of choice. Pure and strong, it was the Dom Perignon of drugs.

Lysergic acid diethylamide (acid) is a hallucinogenic drug which binds to serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain. A dose of just 500 micrograms (imagine 1/10th of a grain of sand) is enough to affect someone for up to 12 hours, causing major disruption to how the brain interprets information from the senses, to the perception of time, and even to the sense of self.

A group of us took an acid trip once every week or so. Those nights lasted for days, it seemed. Time became elastic. I recall walking through the college gatehouse and making no progress despite putting one foot in front of the other. However long I walked, I remained on the same spot. Only by gripping the wall and forcing myself forward did I begin to move at last. Space and time synchronised once again, I joined my friends. Somehow they knew what had happened without a word. We took telepathy for granted. By raising my hand, I could stop time or make it run fast or slow. As I walked, I felt the air caress my skin like a cashmere scarf. All my senses were intensified and spilled over into each other. Everything was more so.

April Love (Arthur Hughes)Back at the farm, a woman on a poster began to move as she smiled and beckoned, inviting me into the Pre-Raphaelite world she inhabited. Music, too, was caught up in this synaesthesia. Sounds tumbled visibly from the speakers in coloured cubes and spheres, spilling and dissolving on the floor. After a walk at sunrise through an oak wood, we went to bed and slept all day. Waking that evening, we felt like space cowboys returning from a voyage to a strange and distant planet, our eyes still sparkling with what we had seen.

A bad trip was something we all expected eventually. We were professional trippers, we told ourselves. The standard operating procedure was to get home and feel safe, minimise stimulus, and hopefully get to sleep early. When it happened to me, this advice was no help against the conviction that devils were swooping above the house on black leathery wings, impatient to destroy and devour me. They were like Doré drawings of Satan brought to life. No sooner did I imagine something, than it appeared before me in terrifying detail. I tried hard to remain calm. Surely I would fall asleep soon. Dawn came and went. My fellow-travellers retired to bed and I was left alone with my waking nightmare. When I tried to think, a second voice rose in my mind, insisting it was me. I have never been more terrified in my life. Closing my eyes transported me to another world where demons slashed at my sides with razor-sharp scimitars. I gasped in pain. The idea of cutting my skin to part the flesh went around and around in my mind. It was an almost philosophical obsession: that I could cut one surface into two, and then slash again into smaller and smaller pieces to infinity. The dark world of the cloaked, devilish figures had always existed alongside ours, I realised. Mirrors were the doorway. I jumped from the bed and hung a blanket over the bathroom mirror. Was I safe for now? What else could I do? There were still a half-a-dozen tablets of LSD in my desk drawer – the tiny eggs from which these devils had hatched! As quickly as I could, I cut up the tabs and flushed them down the sink, remembering to put the plug in afterwards as an extra precaution. At last I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.

When I finally woke after nearly 24 hours of unconsciousness, I thought it was all over. But it was not over. Mirrors still worried me. I remembered that Vonnegut had called mirrors ‘leaks’ into another universe in Breakfast of Champions, but that provenance did not help; alone in the house, I would still turn them to the wall. I discovered it was possible to believe something and not believe it at the same time. And then I found myself incapable of telling a barman what I wanted to drink. Standing wordless and feeling like an idiot, I couldn’t make that simple decision. The problem, in fact, preceded decision-making: I had lost the capacity to discriminate and form any preference. It extended beyond that embarrassing moment in the pub. There were trivial decisions like which shirt to wear in the morning. There were more serious matters, about which course electives to take, for example. I found it easiest to let matters flow, doing things at random without thinking about why or about the consequences. As the months went by, my friends began to notice the difference. I was careless in various ways, with things and with people. In the middle of Lent Term, I took off on a trip overseas just because I felt like it. I avoided hallucinogenics, but there were other vices to indulge. If I wanted to do something, then others would just have to accept the fact. This included my relations with an increasing number of females, both in college and in the town. Life was getting complicated. It was my year of living dangerously.

Only slowly did I recover a more robust sense of identity – of who I was and how I behaved. The madness drained away. After a year I could look in a mirror again and wonder what on earth I had been worried about. I could look my friends in the face. I could order a Pils beer with confidence. By then, we had all become more cautious after someone we knew embarked on a never-ending trip . . . the LSD brought on a first episode of schizophrenia. This is uncommon but happens if you are genetically vulnerable, and who knows what lies in your genes? Only much later did I learn to call my experience a drug-induced psychosis, with effects that were temporary. I was luckier than I knew.

Was there anything positive about that sunny summer of acid? It was a vivid lesson that subjective reality is only a construct of our senses – and yet an exquisitely sophisticated one, evolved to optimise survival. It was a reminder that normality is precious and not to be taken for granted. I’ve been left with a faint but perceptible sense of distance from everyday life, like a scientist observing an experiment. It was also an uncomfortable discovery to know how it felt to be brutally selfish in my dealings with other people: a temporary psychopath. The most important, unforeseen consequence, though, was that when I later worked in mental health, I could better understand and empathise with people affected by psychosis, due to my own first-hand experience. In the end, I am aghast now at the risk we took so casually in those days with the most complex and extraordinary thing to ever exist: the human brain.

Satan in Paradise Lost (ill. C. Doré)


Arthur Hughes. April Love (1856)

Gustav Doré. Illustration for John Milton, Paradise Lost: Satan (1866).