The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - RICHARD KING on lift­ing lives

DOES a writer’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to his art per­mit him to com­pro­mise the pri­vacy of oth­ers? In a lec­ture at the Univer­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia last year, writer Frank Moor­house ex­pressed con­cern, as well he might, that the Howard Gov­ern­ment’s anti- ter­ror leg­is­la­tion might prove in­com­pat­i­ble with civil lib­er­ties and free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

Of course, he couldn’t have known at the time that, a lit­tle more than a year down the road, the way he used his right to free­dom of ex­pres­sion would be called into ques­tion from a less pow­er­ful though still for­mi­da­ble quar­ter about ma­te­rial in Mar­tini , Moor­house’s 2005 mem­oir deal­ing with his life and loves, and his love for the epony­mous cock­tail in par­tic­u­lar.

At the end of March the au­thor’s ex- wife, Wendy James, crit­i­cised him in an ar­ti­cle in The Week­end Aus­tralian for quot­ing from her let­ters and for sug­gest­ing that she might have had an af­fair with her high school teacher, ‘‘ Mr W’’.

Clearly, this case has less to do with lib­er­ties taken from the au­thor than with those al­legedly taken by him, and even a glance at re­cent lit­er­ary his­tory will show that such con­tro­ver­sies are far from rare.

The rel­e­vant chap­ter in Moor­house’s mem­oir also ap­peared in an an­thol­ogy, School Days , edited by poet John Kinsella. Last year, Kinsella him­self fell foul of a per­fect storm of lit­er­ary con­tro­versy when po­ets An­thony Lawrence and Robert Adam­son de­nied Kinsella’s por­trayal of them ( drugs, pornog­ra­phy, carous­ing and so on) in his tell- all mem­oir, Fast, Loose Be­gin­nings . ( Kinsella, alarmed by cryp­tic emails from Lawrence and Adam­son, sought and was granted re­strain­ing or­ders.)

Also last year, Peter Carey’s ex- wife ob­jected to the writer’s novel Theft on the grounds that it was a thinly dis­guised and self- serv­ing ac­count of their re­cent di­vorce.

More re­cently, Les Murray has ac­cused his bi­og­ra­pher Peter Alexan­der of mov­ing to pub­lish a vol­ume of his let­ters ( Les Murray: Man of Let­ters is the in­tended ti­tle) with­out first show­ing the man­u­script to Murray.

The jus­tice of th­ese al­le­ga­tions aside, taken to­gether they raise a ques­tion: To what ex­tent, or in what ways, can a writer use the private but iden­ti­fi­able lives of real peo­ple as ma­te­rial?

It is, per­haps, the con­fes­sional po­ets of the 1950s and ’ 60s who ef­fected a fun­da­men­tal change in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween art and life and put this is­sue on the agenda. Po­ets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sex­ton, W. D. Sn­od­grass and Robert Lowell in­cluded in­for­ma­tion in their po­ems that would or­di­nar­ily be re­garded as private, this on the as­sump­tion that the per­sonal de­tail would at­tain a kind of im­per­sonal res­o­nance if set within an artis­tic con­text. The re­sult was that po­etic li­cence as­sumed a very dif­fer­ent mean­ing: not the right to al­ter the facts but the right to set them down in the raw.

Lowell, who pops up in Moor­house’s mem­oir as a con­sumer of ‘‘ ve­su­vios’’ ( vodka and gin), was the poet for whom the con­fes­sional tag was coined in 1959 in a re­view of his land­mark col­lec­tion, Life Stud­ies . This book, how­ever, was a model of dis­cre­tion com­pared with Lowell’s later col­lec­tions, and one col­lec­tion in par­tic­u­lar, The Dol­phin ( 1973). In this book, which charts the break­down of his mar­riage, Lowell in­cluded frag­ments of let­ters, tele­grams and tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions, some of them mod­i­fied to suit his pur­poses. Even his clos­est friends were shocked. Amer­i­can poet El­iz­a­beth Bishop wrote to him in the strong­est terms: ‘‘ One can use one’s life as ma­te­rial — one does, any­way — but th­ese let­ters — aren’t you vi­o­lat­ing a trust? IF you were given per­mis­sion — IF you hadn’t changed them etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.’’ ( Em­phases in the orig­i­nal.)

I do not know if copy­right ex­ists in private let­ters but per­haps it would be a good idea if writ­ers be­haved as if it did. Of course, a let­ter can in­spire a writer. But to print a let­ter ( whose au­thor is still alive) with­out per­mis­sion, this is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Nov­els, po­ems, au­to­bi­ogra­phies: none of th­ese things have ‘‘ only beget­ters’’. But let­ters do have only beget­ters; they are not in­tended for pub­lic con­sump­tion.

Of course, the writer who writes from life is al­ways open to ac­cu­sa­tions that they have mis­rep­re­sented or oth­er­wise wronged some sig­nif­i­cant other. Add in the fact that mar­i­tal break­down is an in­escapable mod­ern theme and con­flict be­comes in­evitable.

In­deed, the con­tentious post- di­vorce novel is be­com­ing some­thing of a lit­er­ary sub- genre. Saul Bel­low, Philip Roth and Hanif Kureishi have all been ac­cused of us­ing their nov­els to get back at their for­mer wives.

Whether th­ese al­le­ga­tions are jus­ti­fied only the par­ties in­volved will know. But one thing writ­ers can avoid is the de­lib­er­ate blend­ing of fact and fiction, such that the reader is en­cour­aged to won­der which bits are true and which are not. Of course, all lit­er­a­ture draws on real life. But it is when a writer im­plies some con­fu­sion or even makes a show of it that the eth­i­cal prob­lems start.

Moor­house re­sponded to his ex- wife’s ar­ti­cle by say­ing that fiction ‘‘ is wo­ven out of the life that the fiction writer has led’’.

But Mar­tini: A Mem­oir is not a work of fiction. It is, as its sub­ti­tle sug­gests, a mem­oir, or so the reader is led to be­lieve when they first open the book. Yet the con­tentious chap­ter, Mem­oir of a Story: Story of a Mem­oir, is clearly a piece of generic cross- dress­ing. Moor­house ev­i­dently thinks this am­bi­gu­ity is its sav­ing grace. The back- cover blurb to Mar­tini reads: ‘‘ How to live a mar­tini and mix a life’’. In what pro­por­tions the life is mixed ( five parts fact to one part fiction or five parts fiction to one part fact) is left to the imag­i­na­tion. Mean­while, James ( or Mar­garet, as she is named in the book) has to en­dure the spec­u­la­tive glances of peo­ple who thought they knew her well.

The fam­ily into which a writer is born is doomed, poet Czes­law Milosz said. True or not, it is cer­tainly the case that to treat peo­ple as ma­te­rial for art with­out tak­ing due ac­count of their feel­ings is re­veal­ing of a de­based aes­thetic. Writ­ers should be a lit­tle more care­ful with the lives of those who don’t share their am­bi­tion.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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