THE ART OF BIOG­RA­PHY

Three per­sonal rules of writ­ing

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - BY DAVID MARR

Ihad a call one af­ter­noon in 1988. Patrick White had col­lapsed and they needed a hand at Martin Road. I rushed over and found the whole house­hold mus­tered in his at­tic bed­room. It looked like a stroke. For the umpteenth time in their lives to­gether, Manoly Las­caris had packed White’s bag for a dash to hos­pi­tal. The am­bu­lance was on its way. White lay silent. He had shrunk in the past few days. His hand grip­ping the blan­ket was a knot of bones and veins. His teeth were out. Once or twice he mur­mured in a soft, clear voice, “Oh dear.” Birds were mak­ing a racket in the gar­den. The smell of jas­mine filled the room. It was a per­fect spring af­ter­noon.

I’d come very close to this man over four or five years work­ing on his biog­ra­phy. He was grow­ing im­pa­tient. “When are you ever go­ing to fin­ish that fuck­ing book?” he would yell down the phone. I was nearly done and now, as far as I could see, he was dy­ing.

I was poleaxed. But I was al­ready won­der­ing how this would be writ­ten. One thing I knew for cer­tain: I would not be there, a fig­ure sob­bing in the cor­ner. This scene be­longed to a dy­ing man, Manoly and the sweet an­gels of the am­bu­lance ser­vice, led by a stocky New Zealan­der called Wendy who strode into the at­tic ask­ing the per­fect ques­tion: “What’s the story?”

Be­hind her came a big bloke called Troy who held Patrick’s wrist very gently to take his pulse. They didn’t hurry. Ev­ery­thing was calm and or­derly. When they were ready they lifted Patrick be­tween them in a boatswain’s chair to carry him down the nar­row, twist­ing stairs.

This is what I wrote:

He was breath­ing very heav­ily and his arms kept drop­ping. Wendy said, “No, Patrick, mate, hold me ’round the shoul­ders.” They gave him a spell at the head of the stairs and then be­gan to ma­noeu­vre him down, paus­ing to rest ev­ery few steps. It took five min­utes, per­haps more, for them to reach the hall. The back door was un­bolted and in the light that streamed into the house White looked like a sack of bones, his face was blank but his eyes were full of fear. They car­ried him through the gar­den and down to the am­bu­lance wait­ing in the lane.

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