When Actors Kiss


   In dreams begin responsibilities   WB Yeats

Two enormous faces – each the size of a house, it seemed – leaned towards each other. Slowly they kissed, lips grazing against each other in unashamed Technicolor before the two mouths opened to each other. As I realised what was happening, I was overcome with unease and felt sick at the sight before me. Something felt terribly wrong.

I was too young to see this movie. At the age of eight, I was already in love with films. Every Saturday morning, I took myself to the local cinema where we lived in a quiet suburb of London, My taste was Disney classics or science fiction adventures, however, not the romantic drama projected in front of me now. But why was I seeing this very adult film? I can only think that my parents had tickets for a special showing and a babysitter had let them down. Off went the three of us on the Tube to the Leicester Square Odeon (half an hour distant on the Northern Line). I clutched my mother’s hand tight, always terrified of being swept off the platform by the draft of an approaching Underground train. Settled into my seat at the Odeon at last with a packet of toffee Poppets, I watched the inexplicable film. Why was nothing happening? This was so boring . . . no fights, no space rockets, no faithful animal jumping on the villain like Shadow the Sheepdog. It was just people talking! And then the climactic scene, a gigantic close-up of the two stars kissing. Who were they? Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief? Or Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, their beautiful faces contending for our attention?

What had shocked me was this. I understood that it was two actors on the screen, simulating fictional characters, but how could they possibly act something so intimate as a kiss? Could grown-ups pretend to have emotions? A whole world of potential deceit opened up before me. It was a disturbing discovery, like finding out that Father Christmas did not exist, or that my parents had sex. (And perhaps there was an unspoken fear, that they only pretended to love me!)

Ten years later, in a philosophy class at school, I discovered that Plato shared my confusion and concerns. In the ideal state he describes in The Republic, poets and actors are banished for giving a false representation of reality. By imitating actual people, they commit a crime by leading their audience away from the truth. This is a bizarre and reductionist view of theatre and the arts, of course, but I could understand the philosopher’s horror at people pretending to be other people and simulating emotions they do not have. It’s not so far from the horror we experience when watching a zombie movie, as familiar, homely characters become the Living Dead. This reaction also recalls the fascination of ‘did they or didn’t they?’ Decades after they appeared together in Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie still get asked whether the rumour is true that they actually had sex on camera during a bedroom scene. We continue to be intrigued, confused, and sometimes troubled by the phenomenon of people acting someone completely different.

Acting is a very strange profession. Our relationships, and society in general, rely on individuals behaving consistently and ‘in character’. To pretend to be someone else, or about how we feel, is to be suspicious, untrustworthy, and possibly criminal. In a theatre, however, we give an entire profession a licence to lie. Actors ‘shape-change’ into other people, in a way that would be terrifying in real life. They not only behave, dress, and move differently, they kiss people they hardly know, as though they were lovers. They lie in bed together naked and pretend to have passionate sex. It is as though they were possessed by demons.

Over a year, a single actor might need to behave convincingly as half a dozen different people. A Tudor princess. A NSW cop. Someone in an ad, overwhelmed with joy by a new breakfast cereal. It’s a curious job description, that makes actors very special people. Does the regular pretence of emotion and intimacy affect how actors relate to others? Of course not. But they are human too. In secret imaginings, we have all done things quite unlike our usual selves. We may all have dreamed of behaving in ways quite unacceptable in real life. To have such fantasies is entirely normal. ‘The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life,’ wrote Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams.

Transgression only occurs when private dreams leak across into ‘actual life,’ when other people are affected – for example, if the fantasy of a flirtatious relationship with a colleague slips into unwelcome touching and harassment. In dreams begin responsibilities: we might imagine something in our heads, but are culpable for acting on it in a way unwanted by another person. Recognising that distinction is an important part of growing up, and one that I was still too young to understand as those gigantic lips met above my head at the Leicester Square Odeon. For some people, however, it seems this distinction eludes them long after childhood.

Image: Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951).

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Ian Marchant (Cape, 2018)

When punk hit the fan in the late 1970s, I was already at university, writing a thesis on Nabokov’s Lolita. At Friday night dances, the ancient timbers of our college trembled as we pogo-danced on the spot, arms raised in the air and singing along at the top of our voices: ‘SEX . . . DRUGS . . . ROCK . . . ROLL!’ The song was a punk anthem by Ian Dury. The band was the Repeaters. I know them well, and the singer, 20 year-old Ian Marchant, was a chum of mine. After the gig, the night was still young – it’s remarkable that so many of us survived those years with our mental and physical health more-or-less intact.

Click your heels three times, and in 2018 Ian is a respectable grandfather, novelist, author of three acclaimed travel memoirs, and regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 4. In all other respects, he is thankfully just the same. Ian’s new book – A Hero for High Times – is an attempt to write a history of what was once known as the ‘counter culture’, or in his word, ‘the freaks’.  From the 1950s Beats via hippies and punks to the New Age travellers of the 1990s, he traces the lineage of these groups which revolted against society to embrace a life of self-exploration (not to mention, self-indulgence) with wilful, adolescent exuberance. You get the picture.

Every generation believes it is unique and special. There is a good case to be made, however, that those who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century were indeed exceptional. A combination of factors contributed to this, especially free access to health services and university education in post-war Britain. The big three reasons, though, were celebrated in Dury’s song: sexual freedom following introduction of the contraceptive pill (remember Larkin’s much-quoted lines from ‘Annus Mirabilis’: ‘Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) /Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP’). Recreational drug use went mainstream in the 1960s – for good or ill – with everything from cannabis to LSD and heroin easily available. Most important was rock’n’roll; the 1960s were to music what the 1590s were to the English language.

Coming of age in this era which Ian Marchant records was a joy we took for granted at the time. Ian does a good job of tracking the antecedents of this beat-hippy-punk-traveller DNA, noting early-century enthusiasm in Germany and California for ‘natural living’ (i.e. nudity, free love, soyburgers). He is an experienced, natural teacher and raconteur, skilfully explaining a complex thread of social history over the course of a century. Yet the book would have been closer to a sociological study if this were all it did. And after all,  a number of other works have already attempted to write a history of the counter culture. The genius of A Hero for High Times is that Ian alternates chapters of social history with a biography of his friend, Bob Rowberry, who lived these times in the fullest sense.

Bob’s story reads like a picaresque novel: Tom Jones’ adventures updated to Cool Britannia. He came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a Soho ne’re-do-well (doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that). He recalls a teenage Eric Clapton practising his banjo in a coffee bar. Within a few years, helped by his entrepreneurial spirit and a rich girlfriend, Bob had a successful business running a clothes shop on Carnaby Street (featured in Vogue) with some drug-dealing on the side. Needing a little more entertainment, he set off for Afghanistan, armed and leading a convoy of vehicles to smuggle back an industrial quantity of cannabis hidden beneath hundreds of afghan coats (the hippie uniform) – the first to be sold in Europe. You feel his time in Kabul was Bob’s golden age: living with his glamorous ‘posh’ girlfriend on their own estate, doing deals, and riding off on a motorbike with a rifle on his back, to shoot a deer for dinner. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he is everywhere where it’s at, and with anyone who is anyone. He sold acid to RD Laing and half the performers at Glastonbury. (The drug was produced at Europe’s biggest LSD laboratory, hidden in the Welsh mountains near where Ian and I lived at the time.) Similar dealings with another band led to them adopting the name of Bob’s cat, Procol Harum. He was a behind-the-scenes fixer at the legendary Isle of Wight Festival. Caught smuggling in Iraq, he was interrogated by Saddam Hussein but managed to escape. Living in Mexico, he is imprisoned by a corrupt police chief, but freed by a popular uprising. And on the tales go on.

It’s possible half of Bob’s stories are as tall as they are wide-boy. But that is their charm. If even a quarter of his tales are true, that’s a bonus. Alternating Bob’s life with Ian’s chronicles of alternative culture gives the book a dynamic authenticity that either alone would have lacked. The history peters out in the mid 1990s, a time when, Ian claims, the counter culture faltered and failed. Youff no longer celebrated authentic music, rebellion, and innocent hedonism as he did at their age. But isn’t this the complaint of every passing generation? A more likely explanation is that the author, like his hero Bob, belatedly entered middle age around that time, settled down after a fashion, and began to see things differently. For example, like him or not, Jeremy Corbyn is barely mentioned, and  there is no mention of the massive push for social change driven by young people, which has made Labour the biggest party in Europe, with over half a million members. The index has a fulsome entry on Hippies, but nothing about the importance of Hip-hop (in the year Kendrick Lamar has been recognised with a Pulitzer Prize). Music made by young people today is as creative and exciting as it has ever been, from southern California (Knower, The Internet) to the current London jazz explosion (Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings).

It is the fate of youth to be idealistic and exuberant. It is the fate of age to decry that fings ain’t wot they used to be. In A Hero for High Times, Ian Marchant manages to keep both perspectives in focus with this thoughtful and highly entertaining book.

The Lampeter Brethren: A Victorian Sex Cult

St David’s College, Lampeter, is the smallest university in the UK. It’s the oldest in England or Wales after Oxford and Cambridge.  It’s also the furthest away from, well . . . anywhere really. When I arrived – after leaving school and a year away in Germany – I was charmed. It’s a feeling that’s never left me.

Lampeter is an ancient market town nestled comfortably in the hills of mid-Wales, hundreds of kilometres and across a mountain range from the nearest city, distant from any motorway or railway line. The only way to get there is to drive for hours along winding narrow roads sheltered by high hedges tangled with honeysuckle. It’s a bother to get there, and I suspect that’s just the way the locals like it. Listen to conversations on the High Street for ten minutes and you will learn the price of a cow, that the beer at the Black Lion hasn’t been the same since the brewery took over, or that Daniel Price was seen sneaking in the back door of Mrs Jones the baker’s again.

Across an ivy-covered wall lies the College. Wide lawns lead to a tower and spires enclosing a peaceful quad where a fountain plays next to the Gothic chapel. It is the last place you would expect to find after driving for the day across the Cambrian Mountains. There were fewer than a thousand students. A typical day could involve a morning tutorial discussing Beowulf and the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon poetry; an afternoon walking or horse-riding in the hills, and then an evening in a pub with some local girls. After midnight, a group of us might solemnly place tablets of LSD on our tongues to see the true nature of the world revealed.  We would wander in the woods all night, able to stop and start time with a wave of the hand, hiding from neon dragons and following mermaids floating among the branches. In those years, it was as if pages of Brideshead Revisited, Under Milk Wood, and The Electric Kool-Acid Acid Test had been sewn together at random to tell our story.

Like every generation, we believed ourselves unique, with a special understanding of the world. Over a century before, another student at Lampeter had a more dramatic revelation. Henry Prince studied divinity at the College before becoming an Anglican priest. He was convinced that the end of the world was near, and that he alone knew the key to salvation. To be saved, the sinful flesh would need to be united with the Holy Spirit. The sinful flesh would belong to the richer, female members his congregation. The Holy Spirit was himself. This was a clever  and convenient reversal of centuries of Christian tradition. Instead of condemning and repressing sexuality, original sin would be expunged by celebrating the pleasures of the flesh.

Prince had considerable gifts of persuasion, using charm and evangelical enthusiasm to excite the audience in more ways than one. His first congregation was converted en masse, no mean achievement in Victorian England. Men and women of all classes flocked to his sermons. After moving Prince around various parishes in an attempt to reduce his influence, the Church of England eventually defrocked him. This was the making of the renegade priest.

Followers of the Lampeter Brethren now numbered several hundred, including many wealthy families and professional people who looked after its affairs. There were lawyers, a doctor, and even an estate manager. Together, they bought a 200-acre estate near Glastonbury in Somerset and built a village clustered around a mansion and protected from prying eyes by a 4-metre high wall. The community was called the Abode of Love. Here, Prince introduced the Holy Spirit into one of his many ‘spiritual wives’ by having sex with her in front of the congregation as an organ played a celebratory hymn. This was called, ‘the Great Manifestation’. There is no record of whether this was followed by applause.

A journalist from the Illustrated London News managed to penetrate the Abode in 1851, expecting to find scenes of depravity to delight his prurient readership. He was disappointed. Apart from the swinging culture, as we would call it now, the place was the epitome of cultured upper-class comfort. Unlike most Victorian men with their bushy sideburns and beards, the males kept their hair short and were clean-shaven. The women, too, cut their hair short and dressed in simple, comfortable clothes. Billiards was apparently a passion of the women at the Abode. They loved to be in the fresh air too, and had their own hockey teams. They kept horses and hunted with hounds. In a peculiarly English manner, this ‘sex cult’ served its own blend of tea every afternoon at 4 pm.  With an unconvincing attempt at disapproval, the journalist noted that ‘they have converted the chapel into a banqueting house, and substitute feasting and enjoyment for privation and prayer’.

‘If God be not life, happiness, and love,’ said one of the family, ‘then we do not know what God is.’

Prince was undoubtedly a rogue who financially and sexually exploited some of his female followers. At the same time, many of the most enthusiastic members of the Lampeter Brethren were women of all ages who seem to have relished the personal and sexual freedom which the Abode gave them in the repressive Victorian age.

They were ‘very willing followers – his recommendations are so pleasant,’ the journalist acknowledged. This willingness caused a scandal when three daughters of the wealthy Nottidge family joined the Brethren. After the fourth sister, Louisa, ran away to join them, it was one heiress too many for the family. They had Louisa kidnapped and certified insane by a compliant doctor. After nearly two years locked away in an asylum, she managed to escape and sued her family for abduction and illegal imprisonment. Louisa won the case, and returned to spend the rest of her life happily at the Abode with her sisters and friends.

The Nottidge case was one of Wilkie Collins’ inspirations for his famous suspense novel, The Woman in White. There are interesting associations between Collins and the Lampeter Brethren (apart from his own domestic arrangements – living with two mistresses and their children). Louisa Nottidge was declared sane and freed from the asylum after being examined by the Metropolitan Commissioner in Lunacy. It so happened that the Commissioner was Bryan Procter, a friend of Collins (as was his daughter, the feminist, Adelaide Procter). Wilkie Collins also knew Adelaide’s friend, Frances Cobbe, whose brother was a a senior member of the Lampeter Brethren and married to one of the other Nottidge sisters. Frances was a lifelong friend of Collins, and became one of the leading feminist theorists of the Victorian era – producing provocative pamphlets such as What Shall We do with Our Old Maids? And Celibacy vs Marriage, arguing for female economic and personal independence. There is a final link. When Henry Prince died, his associate John Pigott took over as leader of the Lampeter Brethren. He was the nephew of Wilkie Collins closest friend, Henry Pigott.

As new members joined and funds flooded in, the Brethren decided to build a mighty centre in London. It was called the Ark. At first sight, it seemed a regular church, built in the Gothic Revival style with a tall spire. The four corner turrets bear stone scrolls bearing the ambiguous words, ‘God is Love’. The Art Nouveau stained glass windows were designed by the celebrated artist, Walter Crane, inspired by mystical scenes from William Blake’s writings. Two women from the Brethren community were closely involved in this building: the architect, Violet Morris and her sister, Olive, who had trained as an engineer as well as being an expert wood carver (responsible for the Ark’s pulpit and lectern).

Henry Prince died in 1899. The world, after all, had not come to an end as he predicted. The Lampeter Brethren accepted this disappointment bravely, ‘uniting the spirit with the flesh’ in the comfort of their country estate, with free love, fox-hunting, and good food and wine to soften the blow. The community slowly dwindled in the twentieth century, as changing social mores lessened the need for it. In 1957, the last member, one of the Pigott’s ‘spiritual wives,’ died and the properties were sold.

And what of St David’s College where it all started? The little town of Lampeter is almost unchanged. The college is now a campus of the University of Wales, specialising in the humanities. There are still fewer than a thousand students, and the divinity school has been cleverly broadened with courses in Islamic studies, Daoism, and Confucianism. Saudi and Chinese donors have been persuaded to make generous endowments, contributing to the survival of the College. I like to think that Henry Prince would have smiled and approved.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the pictures


Scandal suited Robert Mapplethorpe. He wore it proudly, like a scarlet cloak. . .

That notoriety has evolved, these days, into a hushed, academic reverence. His photographs are not produced in court on charges of obscenity now, but hang on the walls of major galleries around the world (the National Gallery of Australia owns over 60 of them). The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation sells tasteful notecards and Limoges porcelain decorated with his images of flowers. Despite this latter-day respectability, we should never ignore the power of his images to brutally shock and challenge how we view our bodies and ourselves. A new documentary film from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, released in Australia this month, is an important reminder of his importance as an artist who used a camera.

Mapplethorpe was a complex, ruthlessly ambitious figure: an egoistic pansexual charmer, more than willing to use relationships to further his career. This is as nothing, however, next to his mastery of photography. Whatever his subject, the image – always in black-and-white – creates a still space around it, compelling the viewer’s contemplation and challenging us to see it (and our response) afresh.

Mapplethorpe first came to prominence for portraits taken when he was living with Patti Smith at New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the 1970s: not only of Smith’s fellow-musicians like Iggy Pop, Deborah Harry, and Laurie Anderson, but established figures, including Truman Capote, William Burroughs, and Susan Sontag. He was soon a sought-after portraitist. There were his exquisite photographs of flowers too, familiar now from ubiquitous calendars and posters. It was photography of the human body, though, which Mapplethorpe commanded as his own terrain.

Between zoology and pornography lies – sprawls – the art of the nude.

Mapplethorpe refused to acknowledge any distinction between these categories, judging the tasteful ‘artistic’ nude a hypocritical fiction which denied an essential part of our humanity. As Sir Kenneth Clarke acknowledged in his seminal study on the topic, ‘No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals’.

There is often more than ‘vestigial’ erotic feeling aroused by Mapplethorpe’s nude studies, mostly of beautiful, young black men.

‘Photography and sexuality have a lot in common,’ he explains. ‘Both are question marks, and that’s precisely what excites me most in life.’

Friends and lovers, dancers, porn stars, and body builders (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) were all called before his camera to create images full of this questioning. Whatever is pictured – however shocking – has an anatomical exactitude emphasised by the lighting, by the precision of black-and-white film, and most of all by Mapplethorpe’s skill with the camera. Each image invites contemplation. The poses are often reminiscent of classical statuary, with an abstract beauty of form, heads cropped out so that a face does not distract from our focus on the naked body. The studies of body builder, Lisa Lyon, are typical. Lisa is sexually provocative as she poses naked but for a wedding veil or coating of dried mud, yet also challenges the viewer’s reaction as she simultaneously flexes her enormous muscles. Is this art? A porn shoot? A bodybuilder’s catalogue?  The only answer is yes to all, and more . . .

Many of Mapplethorpe’s images are far more overtly erotic. Acts of sexual penetration and nudes with erect penises are recorded with the same skill, dispassionate curiosity, and artistic gaze as Mapplethorpe gives to the unfurling petals of an orchid. Patti Smith comments on these photographs, ‘As Cocteau said of a Genet poem, “His obscenity is never obscene”‘.

In 1989, the refusal of Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery to display an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs sparked a national controversy in the US about art and obscenity. Senator Jesse Helms fulminated publicly about the images, dismissing them as ‘blasphemy’. In the following years, reproductions of his photographs were periodically confiscated as illegal pornography, including a seizure by South Australia Police in 2000. In all cases, the photographs were eventually judged to be not ‘obscene’ and returned. In response to this condemnation, some critics have described his images in defensive, highly aesthetic language, rhapsodising in precious terms about how they resemble Renaissance paintings.

The perceptions of Mapplethorpe’s photographs as both pornographic and deeply serious art are actually both true. He intended these images to be challenging. ‘He loved to get a jolt out of people,’ recalls a friend in the documentary. In doing so, he dares us to contemplate these scenes innocently, without judgement, and to examine our own tumble of responses: shock, arousal, curiosity, awe, and even humour. In the words of Roman dramatist, Terence, Mapplethorpe’s challenge to the viewer is, ‘I am human; nothing human is strange to me’.

When Jesse Helms waved a sheaf of Mapplethorpe’ photographs in the US Senate, excoriating their obscenity, he shouted, ‘Just look at the pictures!’ as though this were enough to condemn them. In a fitting irony, film makers, Bailey and Barbato, have taken Helms at his word, and used the phrase as the title of their new documentary.

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures is showing at Palace Cinemas in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide during May and June 2016, as part of the Essential Independents: American Cinema Now series.



Image: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

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 .

The whipping boy



Who was Stephen Ward? And why does his fate matter today?

The Profumo affair, with its mixture of sex, politics, aristocracy, and espionage, has become the archetypal scandal.

In 1962, Jack Profumo was British Secretary of State for War (ministerial titles were more frank in those days). He had a brief affair with a beautiful young woman, Christine Keeler, who was introduced to him by Dr Stephen Ward, a society osteopath. There it might have ended but for the fact that she was also involved with a Soviet diplomat and spy . . .

In the May issue of Australian Book Review, I write about Geoffrey Robertson’s Stephen Ward is Innocent, OK.


In bed with Simone


I go to bed a little earlier these days.

Sometimes I catch myself looking forward to bedtime during the afternoon. Maybe I’ll go before ten tonight, I catch myself thinking. It’s become a little ritualistic, I confess. I plump up my pillow, reach for the book on the bedside table, and we begin.

I’m reading Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, the French philosopher and writer. It is one of the most beautifully-written and accurate accounts of the process of growing up I’ve ever read: exploring the intricate ties between earliest childhood experiences and the adult we become. Despite the fact she was born nearly 100 years ago, almost every page contains scenes we recognise from our own lives: the earliest memory (hiding beneath her father’s desk); the day she discovered that her parents were not all-powerful; the realisation of her existence in the world (‘Here I am’ she whispers to herself in junior school, almost fainting at the revelation). The Memoirs is the story of the growth of the author’s mind along with her body.

Simone de Beauvoir combined a fierce intellect with a strong, independent will, and an intense awareness of her physical existence. She recounts the sexual fantasies she experienced even as a child, imagining herself as the slave of an oriental tyrant and used by him as a mounting block: Trembling, half-naked, I would substitute myself for the royal slave and feel the tyrant’s sharp spurs riding down my spine. Despite the secret sensual delight these imaginings gave her, she recognised them as fantasy. I never for one moment forgot that it was just a dream, she writes. In reality, I refused to submit to anybody.

What de Beauvoir describes is more than precocious sexuality; she recognises the ‘seriousness’ of sensuality: that ‘who we are’ is based in our physical, phenomenal existence. The body, as she wrote in The Second Sex, is not a thing, it is a situation … it is the instrument of our grasp upon the world.

Being Simone de Beauvoir was a lonely place, both intellectually and emotionally, she admits, until meeting fellow student Jean-Paul Sartre at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He was still young enough to get emotional about his future whenever he heard a saxophone playing after his third martini, she writes. They became companions for life, but that’s another story.

Image: Simone de Beauvoir by Art Shay (1952)

The war on sex

IN 1870, at the height of Victorian prudery, two young men were arrested in a London theatre. They were in women’s clothing, extravagantly made up, and flirting outrageously with anything in trousers. Their crime? ‘Incitement to sodomy.’

As their trial progressed, it became clear that their arrest was part of a plan hatched at the highest levels of the British government to crack down on’ sexual immorality.’ Unfortunately for the prosecution, ‘Fanny’ and ‘Stella’ also had connections with the rich and powerful, through the sexual underground which flourished beneath the veneer of Victorian respectability …

See my review of Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna in the July 2013 issue of Australian Book Review.

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.’