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.

True love


Do you remember the cartoons on TV when you were a child? In those surreal tales, Scooby-Doo, Tom, Jerry, or Roadrunner would sometimes be hit by a cannonball. It passed through their bodies, leaving only a neat circular hole which they looked at in comic dismay.

That’s how grief feels. A great hole punched through your body –  through your life – that makes you want to curl up on the ground, weeping and whispering the lost one’s name. Nobody said it would be dignified. We don’t pass through neat stages of grief either, as was once thought, but – at best – we somehow learn to live with it, in time.

Robert Hillman’s new novel, Joyful (Text Publishing) explores this terrain of love and loss with a characteristic blend of lightness and dark enquiry. Antiquarian bookseller, Leon Joyce, mourns the early death of his wife, Tess. Leon is no ordinary man, however, nor is their relationship conventional. Leon is, he tells us, quite uninterested in sex. Tess, on the other hand, is enthusiastically promiscuous. They come to an arrangement. One day a week she can do as she wishes with no questions asked.

When Tess dies, Leon discovers that she had a secret, slavish passion for a bear-like Polish poet, Daniel. She had installed Daniel in one of Leon’s country properties and visited him every Sunday. Driven almost mad with grief, Leon sets off to Yackandandah, to repossess the house, and to jealously reclaim her memory – to restore the beautiful, perfect Tess he remembered.

Tragedy and comedy are finely and sensitively balanced in the story of Leon and the people he encounters. There are a number of sub-plots which echo the despairing extravagance of Leon’s sorrow. The most moving and memorable of these concerns Professor Delli who is also driven mad by grief for a while following the death of both his children. Delli empties his house onto the street and ends up standing naked in the rain by a country road, like Lear on ‘the blasted heath’. He threatens to kill his wife, Daanya, and calls her by new obscenities every day. Daanya only responds with understanding and love, stroking his arm and saying gently, ‘poor Delli’ until he finally recovers.

In contrast, Leon tries to literally ‘buy’ others’ memories of Tess, so that only his own are left. He almost destroys the house, carving letters to her into every wooden surface of the house until it is covered, then attempting to set it on fire. Finally realising he can never regain the idealised Tess, he abruptly proposes to Susie, the assistant in his bookshop, who agrees to move in with him.

This is no romantic, healing conclusion. Leon is a monster of self-pity. After losing Tess, kept like a beautiful mannequin as the object of his obsession, he finally releases her memory only to attach his needy tentacles to poor Susie who feels sorry for him. Iris Murdoch defined love as ‘the extremely difficult realisation that someone other than yourself is real’. To love, then, is to realise and cherish that other existence in itself, with no reference to oneself. This is a discovery that the repellant Leon ultimately fails to make, remaining a prisoner to his own obsessive needs. In her own gaily promiscuous way, Tess was actually more faithful to him.

It must be said that the novel is sometimes tangled by levels of detail which ‘over egg’ the story: for example, the academic researcher who conveniently appears on Leon’s doorstep with the sole function of leaving copies of his great-aunt’s diary behind, which carries another echoing sub-plot.  Overall, though, Joyful is an idiosyncratic and imaginative novel which will move anyone who reads it .

Narrow bed. Wide desk.

Three-Sisters VARUNA Pronounced: Var-oon-a. Noun. Vedic god of the ocean and of the law.
Place: Creative writing retreat in Katoomba, NSW.

Set in a large garden, beside a nature reserve perched on the edge of the Katoomba escarpment, sits Varuna, the Writers’ Centre.

It is a unique and delightful place to stay and work. The house was designed in the 1930s in a mixture of Art Deco and comfortably domestic architectural styles. Built for writer, Eleanor Dark and her husband Eric, the local GP, it was generously gifted to the Australian people by their son, Mick, through the Eleanor Dark Foundation. Now in his eighties, Mick still visits the house regularly to sit and talk with the writers in residence. I recently spent a week at Varuna and chatted with Mick for an hour, as scores of others must have done over the years.

‘Quiet – Writers at Work’ says a sign at the front of the property. And it is indeed silent as a monastery all day. Jancis and Vera, the helpful staff who manage the house, work in a nearby weatherboard office, formerly the garage and garden shed. A cook tiptoes in once a day to prepare a dinner and leave supplies. For one week at least, I and my companions – Andrew, Martine, Taryn, and Alison – do not have to lift a finger in domestic effort. We live like the Crawleys of Downton.

There are no excuses therefore. The first curse of the writer, prevarication, is removed and I have no choice but to begin writing. The second curse is neutralised by removing the dongle from my laptop. No Internet means no checking emails. No googling for ‘research’ of dubious relevance. No ‘while-I’m-online-I’ll-just-check-Facebook’.

While the others have a bedroom and study upstairs, I sleep in the narrow Maid’s Room next to the kitchen. (There is no narrow maid, I should explain.) The room feels appropriately like a hermit’s cell. It also means I have exclusive use of Eleanor Dark’s writing cottage in the garden.

From 10 in the morning till the early hours of the following day, I sit at my wide desk alone, unconstrained by time or other distraction, pausing only to dine and catch up with the others for an hour. Time is no longer measured by the hour in carefully monitored allocations, but simply flows and carries me with it. The clock seems to move at my pace and no one else’s.

After a week, I have done more writing than in the preceding three months. I have a full first draft of a novel. Thank you , Varuna. We shall meet again . . .


Lolita’s Jacket


‘HOW DID THEY EVER MAKE A MOVIE OF LOLITA?’ asked the publicity for Kubrick’s 1962 movie adaptation The challenge for publishers has been can you ever illustrate the jacket of a novel about paedophilia?

I’ve been writing a review of Brian Boyd’s Stalking Nabokov recently. It took me back to when I spent two whole years relentlessly taking Lolita apart, word by word, before putting it back together in different ways. I felt like one of those guys who lovingly, obsessively takes his motorbike to pieces, lays out out all the components neatly, checks and cleans them, then reconstructs the bike again.

For all the fame (and notoriety) of the novel and film versions, one fact seems curiously misunderstood: the relative ages of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. When they meet he is only 37, not the ageing, avuncular figure he assumes to the reader. And Lolita? She is not a long-legged 17 year-old – as she appears in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 movie (above). She is not even a precocious 15 year-old whom Humbert can tell himself is  ‘barely illegal’.

Lolita is twelve.

This is the most important and shocking fact in Nabokov’s novel. Lolita (‘Dolores on the dotted line’) is just a year 7 student when she meets Humbert, the stepfather who drugs, kidnaps, rapes, and repeatedly abuses her for years.

Lolita was a succès de scandale and remains one of the bestselling novel of all time (50 million copies since publication). Over half a century later, it remains a terrifying and appalling story as well as a work-of-art of genius. Despite my love for it as a novel, the emotional brutality described still turns the blood cold, and this, of course, is part of the high risk and deadly serious game Nabokov plays with his reader.

Jacket design is a crucial element in marketing fiction.

The cover is part of a book’s ‘body language’. It tells the potential purchaser what type of book to expect, hints at genre, winks to indicate the great read they’re going to have, and seduces as an attractive, desirable commodity to have around the house. The challenge for publishers of Lolita has been to fulfill these functions while respecting the sensitivity of the subject matter. Looking back over the history of the jacket designs, three very different approaches can be seen.

Soft porn

It is hard to believe the designers of these jackets ever read the novel. Lolita is presented as barely-clothed or naked – a frankly lubricious ‘come on’ to exploit the book’s reputation as a saucy read among readers who would not normally buy a literary novel. Perhaps these editions made a few converts, but regardless, their design ignored Lolita’s age and vulnerability – ultimately insulting the text, the subject matter, and the reader.


A second group of Lolita jackets suggest her youth more accurately, but in a way that is more disturbing. The child portrayed has part of her body exposed, or shows her legs in a short skirt, being pawed by man. The  crude literalism of the design also invites the reader to be complicit in viewing little Dolores Haze as a sexual object. This approach reflects the concern which critic Lionel Trilling had about the novel, when praising it on publication: ‘We find ourselves the more shocked when we realise that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents … we have been seduced into conniving in the violation.’

Challenging the reader

A final group of jacket designs get it right, respecting the subject matter – the abuse of a child – while challenging readers to respond to the novel as a work-of-art, recognising and negotiating Humbert’s attempt to seduce them through his prose. On these covers, Lolita’s face stares out, beautiful but clearly still a child. Her legs are shown, but they are a young girl’s knock-kneed legs, rendered as vulnerable rather than suggestive.

This is the Lolita we come to recognise in the novel: the lonely, orphaned child who weeps at night, then creeps into her abuser’s bed because, as Humbert says:

‘You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.’ 


Parsimony is not a word often used to describe a novel. For Chris Womersley’s Bereft (2010), I mean it as praise indeed.

Bereft tells the story of solder, Quinn Walker, returning from the First World War to the small NSW town where he grew up. Ten years earlier he had fled the town after witnessing a terrible crime for which he was blamed. The Australian bush becomes an almost surreal landscape in the novel. It is peopled by wandering figures traumatised by the horrific losses of the War and ravaged by the Spanish Flu ’plague’ of 1919. Quinn’s search for justice, together with the wild orphan-child, Sarah, is a compelling, beautifully-written tale that hardly puts a foot wrong.

I’m a firm believer in the Taoist principle of writing: that what you leave out is as important as what you leave in, and requires just as much thought. Wormesley is a master at this. It’s not simply that ‘less is more’. Rather, to have written more would have been excessive and ‘clogged’ the story; to have written less would have made it fail and fall out of the sky. He writes just the right amount to make the novel sufficient in itself, to make it run like a lean machine – and this parsimony in storytelling is a difficult thing to achieve.

Contemporary Australian novels contain plenty of examples of authors slipping up in this way at times (and I don’t exclude myself).

    • The over-refined, self-conscious passage which hold up the action while it shows off – like an irritating, costumed street-performer blocking the pavement when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.
  • Elegant variations: those pointless, fey descriptions that the author wasn’t ruthless enough to delete and ‘kill their darlings’.
  • Excessive use of simile, which becomes like a tic (‘like …like …like’).
  • The needless ‘literary’ words which send the reader to the dictionary (blame Nabokov.) I personally never want to read the word ‘palimpsest’ in a novel again.
  • The sagging middle, where the plot seems to dither around to fill pages after a dramatic start. Or, more commonly, what Zadie Smith terms the ‘staring-out-to-sea’ ending: the protagonist contemplates some pretty landscape while mulling (in a somewhat self-satisfed way) over the wisdom they have gained in the course of the novel.

Few writers won’t recognise these sins in their own work at some time. Wormesley is an experienced journalist and editor, and this will have helped the economy of his prose (yet when was that background alone ever a guarantee of good fiction-writing?). He has the instinct, too, of a natural storyteller who understands exactly how much to reveal to the reader, when, in what order, and without giving too much – or too little – detail.

Bereft, like all well-written novels, moves swiftly down the runway from the first page, like a beautifully-designed aircraft. It lifts effortlessly into the air, becomes weightless, and takes the willing reader wherever the author wants to fly.

The great dark pillar of cloud rises high in the air then arches sickeningly across the sky – a satanic arm about to scoop up the world in a terrible embrace.

It seems higher and more menacing by the second, as though every childhood fear he’s ever had are all now made visible and noxiously palpable. Between the stormclouds and the earth twist whirling, intersecting cones of wind and hail and rain, persecuting the tiny figures who crawl across the craggy ground in the distance, bowed against the wind but still pushing one step out in front of the other. The scene is full of dread and awe, of the overpowering force of nature, yet it also evokes the sheer will of humanity, enduring in the midst of this vortex of chaos.

Turner moves from the window where he has been feverishly drawing this scene on the back of a letter. He calls out to the young boy playing with a cat by the fireside.

 ‘Hawkey, Hawkey, come here! Never mind puss, come and look at this thunderstorm. Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it sublime?’

It is 1810. Turner is thirty-five years old and staying at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, the home of his friend Walter Fawkes.

‘Shall I fetch you a block of drawing paper, Uncle?’ asks his host’s son, Hawkesworth.

‘Not at all, Hawkey, this will do fine.’ He scribbles arrows and notes on the sketch, describing effects of massing and colour for use later.

‘I do like thunder and lightning, Uncle, don’t you?’

‘Nothing like it in the world,’ says Turner, smiling at the boy. ‘There Hawkey,’ he goes on, holding out the crumpled letter covered in scribbles, ‘in two years you will see this again and call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps.’


An excerpt from Turner’s Paintbox.