Noise to signal

I never read books when they appear. I prefer to let them sit and marinate on a shelf for a few years before picking them up.

There is always a book of the moment. You’ll remember them all . . . Tsiolkas’ own Barracuda and The Slap, of course. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. They are the novels which everyone seem to be reading or asking if you have read yet (oh happy author). For a few months, it seems, it is everyone’s book club pick and the subject of dinner-table chatter. There are special stands in bookshops and interviews and author profiles in the weekend papers. Even the person next to you on the tram is reading it.

For me, the noise to signal ratio is too high. It’s impossible to read a book and separate my response from influence by the blizzard of others’ opinions about it. Reading is an intensely intimate, personal experience, as much today as when I was a ten year-old curled up on a sofa with the story of Black Beauty. Whatever the book, I read every page twice, fast then slow: once for the story and again for the poetry of it. We rarely pay as much close attention to another person’s words as we do to the those black marks on the page before us.

I let books marinate after I buy them, then. After a few years the noise dies down and I can read them at last, can be alone with them. And so, at last, to Damascus.


My new novel, The Winter Palace, will be published by Penguin Random House in February 2024.

The Winter Palace is a tale of love and war spanning a lifetime, from pre-war Poland, to Siberia, Palestine, and Australia. It explores the mystery of how love endures despite all which conspires to destroy it; despite the passing of time which exiles us relentlessly from our own past.

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.

What becomes of the broken-hearted?

Cover: Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted

The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted
Robert Hillman (Text Publishing, 2018)

‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ wrote Theodor Adorno.

For a whole generation after World War Two, few novels were written about the Holocaust. It seemed too soon. Only in the nineteen-eighties did writers feel more confident that they could write about it without throwing the typewriter across the room with a cry of horror and despair. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Thomas Keneally Schindler’s Ark (both published in 1982) showed it was possible to write about the fate of the Jewish people under the Nazi regime with sensitivity as well as a clear artistic purpose. Since then, the Holocaust has become a frequent background for both fiction and movies, including the highly-praised Book Thief by Markus Zusak, another Australian like Keneally. For any writer, the dangers of writing about that period are legion; how easy to stray into treating what happened with mere sentimentality, a lack of the right kind of respect, or – almost worse – to bring that cruelty and horror into the domain of the normal through familiarity.

Robert Hillman ventures into this perilous territory with a new novel, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted. The year is 1968. A farmer, Tom Hope, has lost his wife, Trudy, not once, but twice. She runs away first to be with another man, and then again to join a religious cult. To add injury to injury, she abandons a child with him for a few years – long enough for the farmer and the boy to bond and love each other – and then takes him away again. Bemused and alone again, Tom considers himself a hopeless husband, a hopeless man. At this point, a newcomer opens a bookshop in the local town: Hannah Babel, an immigrant from Hungary. The plot is sprung.

Tom Hope is a simple man. A dab hand with farm equipment, metalwork, or a sick sheep, he is ‘soft,’ reluctant even to shoot a wild dog that is killing his sheep. He has few words, seems ignorant of the wider world, is passive, dull even – just the sort of man a wife would leave, you imagine. Hannah appears a familiar literary character at first. An attractive ‘continental’ (read, ‘Jewish’) woman arriving in a conservative country town: sophisticated, educated, well-dressed, and setting the feathers flying among the men.

The town is full of memorable characters, from the randy butcher to the eternal spinster. There is a flood. There is a wedding. There is a murder. More than one, in fact . . . around six million in total, including Hannah’s first husband and little boy who are killed in Auschwitz. Here, then, is the challenge Hillman sets his characters: how can you bear to live, let alone love, after such tragedy, such loss? How can you have hope? Into this maze, Robert Hillman leads his characters in The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted.

Hillman is a practised and masterful storyteller. The plot is ‘frictionless,’ carrying the reader forward eagerly as the pages are turned. Description of people and places is spare; the narrative pauses only occasionally with a telling detail. This is most obvious with ‘Hometown’. ‘You can’t have a wedding without sausage rolls,’ Hannah is firmly told by Bev from the CWA. Anyone who has lived in the country will recognise Hillman’s affectionate, sharply-drawn evocation of the suffocating yet also comforting familiarity of small town life. Once Tom and Hannah become lovers and marry, they begin to change. The reader’s initial impressions of them are forced to change too.

In Hannah’s presence, Tom is forced to grow up. His relationship with his first wife, Trudy, was in monochrome, either adoration or bleak despair. With Hannah, he learns about love as coming to understand that someone else actually exists in the same way he does, and the extraordinary struggle to accommodate sharing one’s existence with another person. This is profoundly true as he discovers Hannah’s past; she even has to educate him about the existence of the death camps and who the SS were. He learns the tenderness with which to manage her feelings, while at the same time, preserving his own integrity as a person. This becomes a crisis when his little step-son, Peter, runs away from his mother to be with Tom. The thought of having a little boy in the house and developing affection for him is unbearable to Hanna, whose own son was taken from her at Auschwitz to be murdered. She feels there is no choice but to flee.

Hannah, too, changes in Tom’s presence. We learn more about her experiences in the 1940s. It is as though the reader sees a pencil sketch turn to an oil painting with colour and subtle depths. Her initial exotic ‘cosmopolitan’ persona is revealed as a protective outer layer to her character, as she lowers her defences with Tom. He (and the reader) begin to see her complexity and pain and courage to somehow carry on living with the burden of horror she has known.

Among other things, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted is a portrait of a good marriage. Being together challenges Hannah and Tom to mature and to become better people. They learn when to compromise and when to not. They learn when to be together and how to be happily apart. Tom can never completely know Hannah’s pain, but he knows its shape and how to respect its presence. In Rilke’s telling phrase, ‘Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.’

In Robert Hillman’s impressive canon, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted is possibly the best book he has ever written.


Image: Text Publishing

Nabokov’s Blade Runner


‘[Pale Fire] unlocked my understanding of K.’
Ryan Gosling

Spoiler alert
Recent years have seen a succession of thoughtful movies about robots, artificial intelligence, and aliens: Her, Ex Machina, and Under the Skin, among others. As well as concerns about technology, these also explore current anxieties about society and what it means to be human. Also noticeable is the sympathy invited for non-human entities (a strategy cleverly exploited by the plot twist in Ex Machina). In this, they are faithful to the origin of almost all robot-themed stories for the last two centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

‘I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.’

It was not only Frankenstein’s monster which was ‘born’ in 1818, but one model of the Romantic hero: a misunderstood outsider, persecuted and hunted by society for being different. This archetype has lived on in books and movies, evolving to reflect our changing concerns and anxieties.

Blade Runner 2049 must have surprised even avid fans of director, Denis de Villeneuve, by its beauty and depth. The terrible and majestic visions it conjures (reminiscent of the paintings of John Martin) combine with a poignant attention to the emotional life of the characters. First among these is Agent K, a replicant employed by the LAPD to find and destroy any surviving Nexus-8 replicants, which had developed free will and revolted in the 2020s. Ryan Gosling’s muted characterisation perfectly conveys the replicant’s calm, ruthless efficiency at killing.

When all is said and done, Agent K is, after all, just a very smart toaster with good looks, who’s handy with a gun.

Gosling also hints, though, at the curiosity and emotional turmoil which well up inside K after discovering the mysterious ‘6.10.21’ inscription which sets the plot in train. As a Nexus-9 replicant, K is designed to be obedient and truthful; increasingly, though, he learns to lie and disobey, as though experience and memory inevitably lead to development of free will and imagination, despite his programming.  Like the protagonist, K, in Kafka’s The Castle, Gosling’s character is alone and treated with disdain in an indifferent, broken world. LA in 2049 has little civil framework and seems dominated by a technology corporation expert in AI and contemptuous of the law (does that sound familiar?).

As the Shelleys and others recognised 200 hundred years ago, the new industrial capitalist economy would break down existing social relationships and drive people into isolation as individual workers and consumers. To recognise and revolt against this is to be condemned as an outsider: a Romantic tragic hero, like Frankenstein’s monster and all his children, like Agent K.

Blade Runner 2049 is not shy about acknowledging this literary and cultural context which contributes to its richness. The most prominent – insistent – presence in the movie, though, is Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant, perplexing 1962 follow-up to Lolita: the novel Pale Fire. Lines from the work are twice used in a ‘Post-Trauma Baseline Test’ on K, and he has a copy of the novel at home. His virtual girlfriend, Joi, offers to read it to him, but he says, ‘no, you hate that book,’ showing that they have discussed it before.

Pale Fire has variously been called, ‘a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel’ (New Republic), and ‘the great gay comic novel’ (Edmund White in the TLS). The novel purports to be the critical edition of a 999-line poem by John Shade, with a copious critical apparatus by his supposed friend, Charles Kinbote. The poem concerns Shade’s drowned daughter, time, and death, but Kinbote’s notes soon reveal him as a quite unreliable, mad fantasist, interpreting the entire poem as being about him and his secret life as the exiled king of a non-existent Ruritanian kingdom. It is perplexing, delightful, funny and moving all at the same time.

The parallels between Blade Runner 2049 and Pale Fire run deep, beyond the overt references, to enrich our understanding of the movie.

Worlds within worlds
In 2049, Agent K is an artificial being (with the same initial as Kinbote). As a replicant being, he seems defined by the corporation which created him. After discovering the mysterious inscription which matches a childhood memory, though, he begins to imagine himself within an alternative narrative: that he is actually the secret child of Deckard and Rachel. He then finds this is not true: that he was given the DNA and memories of their daughter, Ana, as a way of hiding her existence. By the end, we are left with the question of whether K was actually programmed to find Ana, not operating under free will after all?

In Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, is published within a critical apparatus by scholar, Charles Kinbote. The reader knows these are actually both characters in a novel, each with their own conflicting fictional world. Kinbote’s mad reveries are actually no more ‘real,’ then, than Shade’s moving reflections on death and the imagination. A convincing case has been made that Shade is intended by the author to be the invention of Kinbote. An equally convincing case can be made that Shade playfully invented Kinbote, and is not even dead when the work is published. Nabokov himself stayed mum on the topic, just as the films’ makers cannot be drawn on whether Deckard is a replicant.

Pale Fire also has a little-known place in the history of computer science. The novel was well-known to Ted Nelson, renowned inventor of hypertext and one of the fathers of the World Wide Web. Working at Brown University in 1969, he recognised Pale Fire as a revolutionary literary metafiction and received permission from Nabokov’s publisher to create an electronic version, to demonstrate the possibilities of a hypertext document.


Agent K’s pale fire
‘The moon’s an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun,’ wrote Shakespeare in Timon of Athens – the source of Nabokov’s title. He uses this quotation to muse on whether memories and imagination can be as ‘true’ as actual events. In Blade Runner 2049, a major theme is whether a replicant with ‘memories,’ experience, emotions, and free will – a pale reflection of a human – can be as real as natural-born person. If so, we bear them the same responsibility as a god to its creations, as a parent to its children.


Blade Runner 2049 - eyeCheck the eyes
Eyes – the ‘windows of the soul’ to the ancient Romans – are a dominant motif in the Blade Runner movies. In both, examining the eye is a way of identifying a replicant. Eyes and sight are important in Pale Fire too. In the opening lines, we read:

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit
Or, with a silent shiver, order it, Whatever in my field of vision dwelt –
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte Stilettos of a frozen stillicide –
Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.

There are 15 references to eyes in Pale Fire, principally as a way of recording memories or conjuring imagined or remembered scenes. Ridley Scott explains this in an interview: ‘The eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It’s like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn’t only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot.’


The secret letters
When K examines DNA records to search for Deckard and Rachel’s child, he finds two identical people: a dead female and a male. (This is a rare scene in the movie that doesn’t work: he identifies the matching records by supposedly scanning millions of GATC sequences with his bare eyes. It would also mean the two people would look identical, which K and Ana do not.) Nevertheless, this typographic discovery is a revelation to K: he realises that the child existed, is a male, and still alive. He discovers otherwise later, but this typographic sequence starts him on the trail that leads to Ana.

In Pale Fire, Shade recounts a vision he saw while having a heart attack:

A sun of rubber was convulsed and set:
And blood black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem, And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark,  tall white fountain played.

This is the exact wording chosen by the scriptwriters for K’s post-mission test on K in Blade Runner 2049. Coming across another person’s near-death experience which also mentions ‘a tall white fountain,’ Shade seizes this as evidence of an after-life, that his daughter may still exist after death. Soon, though, he discovers it was a cruel misprint – the word was ‘mountain’ not ‘fountain’.

This mistake was the point, Shade realises: that he is somehow being played with, stumbling through life in search of patterns. He has a revelation that he is part of ‘a game of worlds promoting pawns/ To ivory unicorns.’ In the original Blade Runner, of course, a much-discussed topic is the unicorn dreamed of by Deckard, and then seen as an origami figure left by his colleague, Gaff in the final scene, suggesting that Deckard may be replicant himself. In Blade Runner 2049, K’s DNA sequence of GATC similarly contains misleading typography which inspires, disappoints, and finally takes him nearer the truth.



Snow falling on replicants
Snow is a persistent motif in Blade Runner 2049. Joi, K’s AI companion, holds out her hand to catch snowflakes, but sees them pass through her hologram body. Later, Ana (Deckard’s daughter) creates a virtual mini snow-storm which falls just over her, saying, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ to her father. What neither of them know is that K is dying outside at that moment, lying supine while real snow falls on him. He has a faint smile on his lips, happy that he has given his own life to save Deckard and reunite him with his daughter – proving to himself that he is not just a machine but a living thing. At this moment, the ‘Tears in the rain’ music from the original Blade Runner plays. It inexorably reminds us of replicant Ray Batty’s dying words after saving Deckard’s life 30 years before: ‘I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’

In Pale Fire, snow is also mentioned a total of five times, evoking ‘that crystal land’ of his imagination where all things might be possible, where his dead daughter might still be alive. As in the movie, Nabokov’s novel ends in a death which is accepted and valued as a necessary part of life; the poem is ‘completed’ by an absent 1000th line, missing because the poet has been shot at that moment.


Father and daughters
Despite the extraordinary visuals of Blade Runner 2049 and the literary pyrotechnics of Pale Fire, the emotional power of both movie and novel is drawn from their quiet heart: a father’s love and loss of a daughter.

After the death of Rachel in childbirth, Deckard lives in hiding with their daughter, Ana, first-born of a replicant. While she is still young, he gives her up and deliberately loses contact as a way of saving her life if he is ever hunted down. As far as Deckard knows, he will never see again the only person he loves – sacrificing his feelings for her sake. The climax of Blade Runner 2049 is their reunion, brought about by K, who has willingly sacrificed his own life for their sake.

In Pale Fire, John Shade has lost his daughter – awkward, unhappy Hazel – to suicide or an accident. He is riven by grief, yearning to be reunited with her. The entire poem is a meditation on how this might happen, dabbling and rejecting absurd spiritualism, and finally realising that, while accepting her death, they can be together through the power of memory, imagination, and art which transcend time.

For Deckard, Ana, and Agent K – and for us as the audience – this is as good as it gets, and that is good enough. As John Shade writes:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link and bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.


Seven dreams


Are you haunted by certain dreams?

I am. Here are some dreams that I have had repeatedly, some of them since I was a small child . . .

I have killed someone. I am a murderer. How could I have forgotten for so many years? A few decades have gone by, studying, working, travelling, and all of this time it somehow slipped my mind. It happened in a room of a seaside boarding house. I forget why – an outburst of anger (yet I am never angry) and a body lay on the floor, blood seeping from a blow to the head. I locked the door. Days, weeks, months went by. Summers came and went. Flies did their work. The body lies there still, a skeleton in clothes with shreds of dried skin hanging here and there. No one has ever discovered it, but now I have remembered and the Police will find out. My life will be ruined. If only I hadn’t remembered.

I wake to see a bee buzzing around my bed. Being stung worries me, but I calm down as I see the bee is only going about its own business. It lands on my arm, then flies off to explore the curtain. We mean each other no harm.

The door bursts open. In the bright doorway stands a tall woman. A sort of a woman, for she is immensely tall and powerful, with her upoer parts like a bird. A tall nude body, cloaked in plumage, is topped by a sharp beak and a pair of sharper eyes. She reminds me of the woman in Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride. From her fierce expression, I know she wants me to kill the bee. I don’t want to harm the innocent little creature, but cannot disobey the terrifying bird-woman. Hating myself, I feel I have no choice. I kill the little bee.

I am in a hotel room in Switzerland. French windows open onto a balcony with a vew of a lake and the mountains beyond. On the balcony is a wrought-iron table. On the table is glass. An unseen hand pours water from a jug into the glass. I am the glass. The feeling of being filled with cool refreshing water, the clear air, the view of the lake and the mountains – all combine in an extraordinary sense of fulfilment and exultation.

I arrive home in London late on a dark night. The house is completely empty. All the furniture and everything else has gone.  As I go from room to room, I see that all the walls and every surface have been painted white. I look out of an uncurtained window onto the cold street beyond. There is no difference between inside and outside. From now on, it doesn’t matter where I am. It’s all the same to me.

I am flying over lakes and mountains, arms stretched back and the wind in my face. This feels wonderful and entirely natural. What really delights me is not the feeling of weightlessness as such, but rather the sensation of agency – of being totally in control of my own self, of where I go and what I do.

I have a strong sense of being incredibly small, like a tiny, near-invisible insect. This feeling is so intense, it’s like a sensation on my skin – a tingling of powerlessness and isolation from everything around me. In an instant, I flip to being immeasurably large and potent, spanning the universe. Stars are like dust around me. Then I flip back to feeling tiny again. It’s deeply disconcerting to be out of control of myself like this. I want to stay as the vast being, arms and legs stretching out across the galaxy.

On a winter’s night, I am driving through a wood. A woman is in the car beside me. The narrow road winds steadily up a mountainside. It begins to snow, prettily at first, then more heavily. The wipers work hard to clear it from the windscreen, replaced by fresh flakes as soon as it is swept aside. I have to guess where the road lies ahead between the trees. The car starts to skid now and then. I shift to a lower gear and lean forward to peer out,  gripping the steering wheel tight.

I can’t see my companion’s face as I stare ahead at the road. In the corner of my eye, I see her arm gathering a woollen coat around her body to keep warm. The headlamps are weak in the frenzy of falling snow which snatches up and disperses the light. Inside the car, the glow of the instrument panel is a small comfort. The woman turns to smile and squeeze my hand. I am glad she is with me. We just need to find somewhere safe before the car slides off the road and we are stranded.

The car’s heater stops working. Our breath turns to steam, and every few minutes we need to wipe condensation from the windscreen to see out. The higher we drive, the more the car skids and I worry about getting stuck in a snowdrift. At last we see a faint light ahead. Getting closer, we see more lights and then an old hotel appears. It has thick stone walls and overhanging eaves, like a Swiss chalet. Driving right to the door, we rush inside. Staff bring blankets to put around our shoulders. They bring bowls of hot soup which we drink cupped in our hands as we sit by a log fire.

We are shown to our room beneath the great wooden eaves of the hotel. The bed is high, the bedding thick and warm. Lying safe with arms around each other, we listen to the snowstorm howl around the sturdy building. No one knows we are here; this seems very important. When we wake, everything is quiet, muffled by the thick snowfall. We can get up as late as we like. The hotel is snowed in and we’ll be here for days. I feel intensely happy.


Drysdale. Country Child

Christina Stead (1940)

When was the last time you hated someone? I mean really hated someone, so much so that you would happily see them die? A person who bullied you at school perhaps? Someone who has hurt a child or an animal?

It doesn’t do, of course (or at least to admit it), but within a few pages of starting Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, The Man who loved Children, I felt in myself an unexpected and visceral hatred of both the ‘Man’ and his wife, Sam and Henny Pollitt. Exploring this reaction took me till the end of the book.

The novel is a classic of Australian literature, familiar from its 1966 re-issue with a dust-jacket featuring Russell Drysdale’s Two Children, one of his eerie outback paintings from the 1940s. Unlike the cover image, though, the novel itself is set in the suburbs of Washington DC during the 1930s. Stead had fled Sydney in 1928 and spent much of the remainder of her life in the United States. The origins of the story are avowedly autobiographical, based on Stead’s memories of her overbearing father, a renowned biologist and conservationist (Mount Stead in the Blue Mountains is named after him). What she does with this personal material is extraordinary however.

The Man who loved Children is one of those books you feel you should have read. It’s sat on my bookshelf (or rather the waist-high pallisade of books that lines my bedroom walls) for a good ten years, and last month I decided to tackle it at last. Except that a dutiful ‘tackle’ was not what I found. Stead’s prose thunders and crackles with all the energy and excitement of a storm. How often can you say that a book is truly exhilarating to read?

The story opens with a description of the Pollitt household. In a big ramshackle house live five (or is it six?) children, the eldest being Louie, Sam’s daughter with her first wife (now deceased). When Henny returns home from town, the children crowd around to see what she has bought; she dismisses them with lines that may equally be good- or bad-humoured – ‘What do you mean sneaking up on me like that, are you spying on me like your father?’ – then retreats to her room with a cup of tea.

As Henny sat before her teacup and the steam rose from it and the treacherous foam gathered, uncontrollable around its edge, the thousand storms of her life would rise up before her, thinner illusions on the steam. She did not laugh at the words ‘a storm in a teacup’. Some raucous, cruel words about five cents misspent were as serious in a woman’s life as a debate on war appropriations in Congress; all the civil wars of ten years roared into their smoky words when they shrieked, maddened at each other; all the snakes of hate hissed.

When Sam returns from work each day, there are cheers and picnics and building of tree-houses and speeches about democracy and freedom and the future of mankind . . . but it is Sam who is always in charge; Sam who does the talking and won’t brook contrary opinions; Sam who keeps Louie cleaning and cooking, as the eldest girl in the house.

When the children are in bed, they hear fearsome, screaming arguments between their parents that go on for hours. For weeks on end, Henny does not speak to her husband, but leaves notes for him or uses one of the children as an emissary. These communications are often about money. The spoilt child of a spendthrift father, she keeps secret from Sam that she is always hopelessly in debt. He would earn a reasonable salary as a government scientist, but Henny has no interest or capacity for doing anything with money apart from spending without thought. Debt is easy; you do not have to make any special effort to make it happen. It simply comes about when you do not budget, as Henny discovers. The more she owes, the more terrified she is of Sam finding out. In the end, she is shamelessly borrowing money from anyone she can: family and tradespeople, her children’s teacher, and she even sells her body for favours to a man she despises (and who fathers the youngest of her children). One by one, she disposes of everything of value in the house, and even steals from her son’s savings tin.

It is not the Pollitt’s treatment of each other alone which is fascinatingly repellant; it is how they treat their children. The sensitive Louie, on the verge of adolescence, is beaten by her father when she is recalcitrant. More painful to her, though, is the humiliation she suffers. Henny regularly reminds her step-daughter of how unattractive she is, how clumsy and overweight. Sam openly mocks Louie’s love of literature (her only refuge from family life). He even takes her personal notebook and reads it aloud to the others in a mocking voice.

Jonathan Franzen notes this cruelty in his admiring essay on the book:

Although its prose ranges from good to fabulously good — is lyrical in the true sense, every observation and description bursting with feeling, meaning, subjectivity — and although its plotting is unobtrusively masterly, the book operates at a pitch of psychological violence that makes Revolutionary Road look like Everybody Loves Raymond. And, worse yet, can never stop laughing at that violence!

The pitch of the story rises as Sam goes on a long scientific expedition in Asia, loses his position in obscure circumstances, and the family are forced to move out of their home. The Pollitt parents grow ever more hateful to each other and the reader as the stress of their home life increases. Turning the pages is like hearing an orchestra play ever louder and faster, at a higher and higher pitch. It is here that a lesser author could literally have ‘lost the plot’ but Stead stays firmly in control. How tempting to make outright villains of this self-centred pair, like a couple of Dickensian grotesques. Yet this is where she turns the reader’s hatred of them (or this reader anyway) back on us. After all their repellant behaviour towards the children, Stead gives us glimpses of their inner lives, forcing us to acknowledge their three-dimensional, tragic characters, trapped in their own folly. Sam does love Louie, he makes clear, but is incapable of understanding or engaging with her in any way. His idealism about humanity is sincere but abstract. Henny is an appalling, selfish creature, and yet one can sense the maddeningly powerless frustration of being married to ‘the great I am’ as she calls Sam, who has Old Testament attitudes towards women, despite all his claims of modernism.

Louie is the main victim of their errant parenting. Her increasing pain at their humiliation of her reaches a crescendo when she begs to leave home, and Sam tells her she will never leave but stay always to look after him. In a scene which is ghastly and quite believable at the same time, she decides the only solution is to murder her parents. In a dreamlike state she mixes poison into their tea, hesitates, but sees Henny drink and fall dead before she can stop her.

It’s all too easy for everyone to believe the hysterical Henny took her own life. Sam insists again that Louie stay to look after him and the other children, but now she feels free and walks out of the house, never to return. The end of the novel is the beginning of Louie’s life.

The Man who loved Children is a masterpiece, and Christina Stead is rightly (if insufficiently) recognised as one of the greatest Australian writers of the twentieth century alongside Patrick White. Her 1946 novel, Letty Fox, was banned in Australia for over ten years due to its ‘salacious’ centent. I can’t wait to read it.

Image: Russell Drysdale, Country Child.

Living on the edge

Image: mvs

 James Salter (1979)

Have you read James Salter?

If the answer is no, then I envy you, as one envies somebody about to visit Paris or Istanbul the first time. Salter’s novels and short stories are treasures to explore. They delight, but can also chill your blood.

Now in his vigorous eighties, Salter was a classmates of Jack Kerouac at school. It’s hard to imagine a more different path in life to the one taken by the author of On the Road. Salter was educated at West Point military academy, becoming an officer in the US Air Force. As a fighter pilot, he flew over 100 combat missions in Korea. In his thirties, he abruptly quit this career to become a full-time writer. His novels and stories are disciplined, exquisitely-assembled artifacts, each with a throbbing pulse of emotion within that can make you wince in sympathy or horror (and frequently both). There is hardly a work by Salter that doesn’t leave me feeling disturbed when I finished reading it. Solo Faces is no exception.

Vernon Rand, the protagonist, lives in California where he drifts from job to job and – woman to woman – until he meets an old climbing friend, Cabot. The meeting inspires him to travel to the French Alps to climb the Dru, a notoriously difficult and dangerous ascent. He and Cabot climb it together, one of them almost dying in the process. They have different personalities and backgrounds, but both are leaders, although Rand prefers to climb alone. After their triumph, Cabot travels on. Rand meanwhile stays on in Chamonix, quietly and passionately conquering one peak after another, becoming a local legend. He’s not a particularly good climber, he insists; it is something that comes from within, a matter of will. When two Italians are stranded on a ledge high on the Dru for days, he heroically leads a team up the ice-covered mountain to rescue them. Rand becomes famous, celebrated in the French media and feted at parties in Paris. Tall and modest, with a boyish grin, you could imagine him being played in a movie by Sam Shepard, circa 1975.

 For two hundred years, France had held the idea of the noble savage, simple, true. Unexpectedly he had appeared. His image cleansed the air like rain. He was the envoy of a breed one had forgotten, generous, unafraid, with a saintly smile and the vascular system of a marathon runner.

Rand admits to enjoying the attention and envy that fame brings him, and is simultaneously disgusted with himself doing so. At this point, he hears that Cabot has had a terrible accident while climbing in Wyoming. Rand returns to the US to visit his friend, leading to the horrific scene which forms the climax of the novel.

Solo Faces could be used as a tutorial in the technique of how to write fiction well. Most striking is the parsimony of his descriptions and characterisation. One word more would be excessive. One word less, inadequate. Salter describes Rand at the beach with a girlfriend and her son:

Seen picking their way down the slope from the highway to the beach, half-naked, towels in their hands, they seemed to be a family. As they drew closer, it was even more interesting. She already had a stiffness and hesitation that are part of middle age. Her attention was entirely on her feet. Only the humorous, graceful movements of her hands and the kerchief around her head made her seem youthful.

The descriptions of climbing naturally drew most attention in reviews, and were based on Salter’s own experience. ‘One of the few novels I have read which captures the genuine feel of climbing,’ wrote Al Alvarez.

 They were about halfway. The glacier had become very small. It seemed he was somewhere – he had felt this many times before – where a terrible event, some suspension of physical law might take place, and everything he knew, was sure of, hoped to be, in one anarchic moment would dissolve. He saw himself falling.
       This feeling alternated with one of confidence. A layer of frailty had been stripped away and a stronger, more spiritual being remained. He almost forgot where he was or what he had given himself to. His eye wandered god-like over the silent peaks.

But Solo Faces is not a novel about climbing. It’s about obsession. It’s about the pursuit of bliss, of the feeling that life is worth living. It’s about what it is to be a man or a woman. At times, the descriptions of climbing liken it to a soldier facing an enemy; at times, Rand describes it as being like a lover embracing and charming the mountains. At other times, it seems more of a titanic struggle: ‘He was not merely making an ascent. He was clinging to the back of this monster, He had his teeth in the great beast.’

Rand’s tragedy is that his obsession with climbing consumes his life. It is like an addiction. It becomes the only thing which gives him satisfaction. However, this means that he doesn’t find pleasure in any other things he does. Its drains value from everything else in life around him, and so spoils it. This is most evident in his relationships. In this short novel, apart from Cabot and Rand (both aptly named), there is a remarkable procession of friends, fellow climbers, and especially women, who appear and then disappear, never to be seen again. In the opening scene, Rand is working high up on the roof of the church, doing repairs. The title of the sermon advertised outside the church door is ‘God and sexuality’, and this can be read this as signalling the dominating themes of the book. Rand is effortlessly attractive to women, something he simply accepts. He drifts lazily from one woman to another in the novel without deceit. ‘You make love like someone in a novel,’ one woman tells him admiringly. ‘Whatever it is,’ she tells a friend, ‘he has it despite himself.’ The friend is also a former lover of Rand’s. ‘I think it’s mainly an ability to look good in old clothes,’ she replies drily. When yet another lover falls pregnant, though, he immediately tells her that regretfully he cannot be a father. That is the end of the conversation for him. In Paris, making love almost replaces climbing for him as an obsession. It is still a solo occupation for him, however, described in one ghastly image:

This love was the act of one person, it was not shared. He was like a man on a boat on a wide lake, a perfectly still lake at dawn. There was no sound except that of oars in the oarlocks, creaking, creaking, a man alone in a boat that slowly begins to shudder, to cry.

For Rand, ‘One woman is like another. Two are like another two. Once you begin there is no end.’

Rand has no illusions about himself though, and his disgust with himself deepens. Only at the end, weary after a final shocking encounter with Cabot, is there a hint of reconciliation with the richness of life, of an existence beyond climbing. Some years later, we meet Rand in California again. In the novel’s final scene, he is with another woman, Paula, a schoolteacher. She tells him that her former husband has sworn off alcohol, and begged her to return to him. She is considering it. This time, though, Rand ‘did not want to live again anything he had already lived. He did not want it all repeated.’ When Paula replies that she is unsure about him, that what she says seems to go into ‘empty air,’ he replies, ‘Well, what you have to do is hold on, don’t get scared.’

This is Rand’s way of asking her to stay, a hint that he’s learned from climbing at last, how to live in the world with another person. It is perhaps the beginning of love.

Bradley on the Beach

Clade: cover

CLADE by James Bradley (Penguin, 2015)

Note: plot disclosures.

Climate change. Genetic engineering. ADHD. How to be a parent of teenagers in the twenty-first century. The mysterious worldwide collapse of bee colonies . . .  Add a discussion about the Apple Watch, and a list of topics covered in James Bradley’s new novel would read like the front page of The Guardian.

Writing a serious novel that draws overtly on contemporary social concerns is a fraught project at the best of times. To begin with, it can date badly within a few years; issues that consume the chattering classes’ attention soon become out-of-date because of inevitable changes in circumstance or attitude. (When did you last discuss George Bernard Shaw or CP Snow over the dinner table?) There is, too, the thumping drum beat of Good Intentions which all too often drowns out any subtler artistic music. Even Ian McEwan did not escape this trap in Solar, his 2010 comic novel set against a background of global warming.

What to make, then, of Clade, James Bradley’s latest novel, his first since The Resurrectionist (2007). The tale opens with Adam, a scientist at an Antarctic research base, calling his wife, Ellie, from the snow-covered shoreline. They are going through the frustrations of conceiving by artificial insemination. Adam is researching climate change. ‘The planet was on a collision course with disaster,’ we are told. ‘In the United States and India, floods covered millions of square kilometres; in Africa and Europe the heat was becoming ever more intense.’

For some reason I’m reminded of Neville Shute’s On the Beach, unforgettably filmed in Melbourne in 1959. With the rest of the world destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, scientist Julian Osborn (played by Fred Astaire) realises that as soon as winds from the northern hemisphere reach the city, the last humans on earth will die too. Ava Gardener and Gregory Peck’s characters fall tragically in love. Others grab what pleasures they can before taking suicide pills as the radiation clouds approach. The film ends with a dead city: shots of an empty, windswept Swanston St, and a plea for nuclear disarmament. I settled down to read Clade, confidently expecting another tale of human love and tragedy set against an apocalyptic backdrop of climate change.

It’s here that something curious happens. Adam and Ellie have a daughter, Summer. With a turn of a page, time leaps forward and she is a troubled teenager. With a group of friends, Summer breaks into luxurious empty apartments to party as fires rage around Sydney. They take drugs and ransack the owners’ possessions and even their memories. Technology has continued to evolve even as the planet is racked by the effects of global warming. Summer slips on a pair of ’lenses’ and has virtual reality access to the apartment owners’ files and home videos. There is another lurch in time. Years later, Adam is in England to track down Summer and the grandson he has never seen, Noah. Just as he finds her in a remote East Anglian cottage (near Randolph Stow’s final home in Harwich, perhaps), a typhoon smashes into England causing catastrophic flooding. Summer disappears and Adam (by now divorced) takes Noah home to safety in Sydney. Once again, the story lifts off and whirls into the future. Little Noah is now an eminent scientist himself, about to make an astonishing discovery . . .

The effect of these repeated temporal disjunctions is disconcerting, as thought Clade were a literary TARDIS, unexpectedly whirling the characters through time and space into yet more unfamiliar situations. It is also strangely exhilarating, even when characters we are just becoming curious about fall into the slipstream of the story: Lijuan, the Chinese schoolgirl, Amir the mysterious beekeeper, and Meera the dangerously attractive teenage friend of Summer. We quickly learn to delight in the unexpected, while asking ourselves the question every author prays will form in the reader’s mind: What is going to happen next?

Another pleasure in Clade is the deft handling of how to describe future developments in technology. How easy this is to get wrong, falling into the trap of over-describing and revelling in self-indulgent sci-fi geekery. Bradley keeps his enthusiasm for the genre on a tight leash so that we barely notice the self-driving cars and virtual reality worlds or ‘vulchies’ into which some the characters escape. In this, it is part of  Bradbury’s deft skill at storytelling which carries the novel forward.

Most of all, though, Clade is a profoundly human story, in common with the great dystopian novels. Orwell’s 1984 is not simply about the dangers of totalitarianism. Camus’s The Plague is not about a disease or even the Nazi occupation. Clade, too, is not a polemic about climate change, profoundly concerning as that is. Like any novel worthy of the name, its true subject is how we respond to each other and the world around us: to our evolving relationships, to the inevitable death of ourselves and those we love, to the numberless baffling perplexities of being human – what Nabokov termed as ‘having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence’. At the ending of Clade – especially after Noah’s extraordinary discovery – there is an unexpected optimism and exuberance in the infinite variety and possibilities of life. The motif of the bee, so prominent on the cover as well as in the text, comes to mind. Ellie recalls seeing fossils of bees over 140 million years old; they had buzzed around the dinosaurs to collect their pollen, adapting to evolve and survive over unimaginable distances of time until the present. That too must be our future if we are to endure.