Lop­sided lover of lit­er­a­ture

Bob Carr’s learned book about books is a case of omis­sion im­plau­si­ble, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

MID­WAY through this in­ter­view, Bob Carr jumps up from his chair with a sense of ur­gency that seems to come from nowhere, and dis­ap­pears. The man who presided over the coun­try’s most pop­u­lous state for a decade has ap­par­ently taken to heart some­thing I have just mut­tered about lik­ing Ge­orge Eliot more than Jane Austen. ‘‘ I take that se­ri­ously,’’ he says, with the same air of grav­i­tas one might re­serve for al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion against a, well, ex- pre­mier. ‘‘ That’s very in­ter­est­ing that you’d rec­om­mend Ge­orge Eliot over Jane Austen.’’

Carr, who stepped down as NSW pre­mier in 2005, asks me for the ti­tles of Eliot’s key works, and ( much to my alarm) starts tak­ing notes, be­fore scur­ry­ing out the door of his book­lined con­fer­ence room. ‘‘ I’ll just get my driver to head off to Par­lia­ment House and see if they’ve got th­ese in a big print size,’’ he ex­plains.

I am here in Carr’s tightly se­cured of­fice in Syd­ney, hemmed in by other high- rises, to in­ter­view the politi­cian- turned- au­thor about his latest book, My Read­ing Life: Ad­ven­tures in the World of Books , a guided tour of his fa­mously crowded, fa­mously don­nish book shelves.

While Carr sends out a search party for Mid­dle­march , I sit and con­tem­plate his col­lec­tion of ti­tles on the Amer­i­can Civil War, as well as his stash of Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion- era Chair­man Mao stat­ues: the for­mer pre­mier has at least five. The hia­tus in our in­ter­view re­veals two things about Carr, who used to be re­ferred to, not al­ways fondly, as the novel- read­ing pre­mier.

First, given his rel­a­tive un­fa­mil­iar­ity with Eliot, it’s a fair bet he has over­looked other im­por­tant fe­male writ­ers. In­deed, My Read­ing Life in­cludes no women in Carr’s chap­ter on great nov­el­ists, or among his favourite Amer­i­can nov­el­ists. Such egre­gious omis­sions are sure to of­fend fans of lit­er­ary gi­ants Doris Less­ing, Toni Mor­ri­son and Mar­garet Atwood, not to men­tion Vir­ginia Woolf, Austen, Eliot and the Brontes.

On the other hand, Carr’s im­pa­tience to get his hands on Eliot’s Mid­dle­march and Daniel Deronda sug­gests the open- mind­ed­ness of some­one will­ing to be proved wrong: a gen­uinely search­ing and sup­ple in­tel­lect. ( Carr is also a huge fan of Colleen McCul­lough, more of which later.) As he ad­mits: ‘‘ The point about any read­ing list or any canon is that it should be open to con­stant re­vi­sion.’’

My Read­ing Life is im­plic­itly a defence of the lit­er­ary canon, and a user’s guide to it. It’s also a med­i­ta­tion on the na­ture of democ­racy, dic­ta­tor­ship and the hu­man con­di­tion.

Why has Carr, now a con­sul­tant to Mac­quarie Bank and board mem­ber of Dy­mocks, writ­ten such a weighty tome? In­vok­ing those mean­ing­ful pauses, sum­mon­ing the same bari­tone notes that re­ver­ber­ated in the NSW Par­lia­ment for years, he ex­plains: ‘‘ When I was in my 20s and 30s, some­times cast­ing around for a bit of se­ri­ous read­ing, there was no guide, there was not a sin­gle book that was a guide to the canon, or an in­tro­duc­tion to th­ese works on the shelves of any li­brary, let alone a book­shop.

‘‘ My no­tion is that all a reader needs is a few key ideas to get go­ing. Like the idea that James Joyce’s Ulysses can be re­garded as a gag book, or that Pa­trick White’s The Twyborn Af­fair is a so­cial com­edy that il­lu­mi­nates 1920s Aus­tralia.’’

Our only home­grown lit­er­ary No­bel lau­re­ate as a co­me­dian: how would White re­spond to that? ‘‘ I don’t think I’d be in­vited back,’’ Carr says with a laugh, re­fer­ring to a meet­ing with White at the writer’s Syd­ney home, de­scribed in the book. ( True to his cur­mud­geonly rep­u­ta­tion, White seemed to de­nounce just about ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing dis­cussed.)

My Read­ing Life pushes the un­fash­ion­able idea of ‘‘ hard lit­er­a­ture’’; the value of read­ing dif­fi­cult works that ‘‘ stretch our con­scious­ness’’.

Carr has lit­tle time for most con­tem­po­rary fiction. Much of it, he writes, ‘‘ seems triv­ial, gim­micky, forced’’. Sip­ping a flat white, he tells Re­view : ‘‘ I can’t un­der­stand why any­one would want to read from the Booker prize list if they haven’t read The Brothers Kara­ma­zov or The Il­liad or ev­ery word of Tol­stoy . . . I think one chap­ter of War and Peace is worth ev­ery­thing at the front end of a mod­ern book­shop; ev­ery con­tem­po­rary work of fiction propped up in the win­dow of a mod­ern book­shop.’’ As if still at­tuned to how this will play in hard- core La­bor elec­torates, he adds: ‘‘ Peo­ple might say that’s snob­bery.’’ But Carr de­clares it’s those who ‘‘ look down and dis­miss as weird or ec­cen­tric any fo­cus on en­dur­ing cul­ture, I think they’re the snobs’’. Still, it’s odd that some­one who took such plea­sure in pre­sid­ing over the NSW Pre­mier’s Lit­er­ary Awards should be so dis­mis­sive of mod­ern fiction.

Carr ad­mits the clas­sics can seem in­tim­i­dat­ing. ‘‘ Be­cause I’ve come to th­ese works late — I was in my 40s when I read War and Peace and when I read Dos­to­evsky — I can sym­pa­thise with some­one who’s got that prej­u­dice.’’

Carr’s deep and con­sid­ered read­ing of US and Euro­pean po­lit­i­cal his­tory, classical lit­er­a­ture, the great 19th- cen­tury Rus­sian nov­el­ists, po­lit­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy and 20th- cen­tury Amer­i­can lit­er­ary li­ons ( Norman Mailer, Gore Vi­dal, James Ell­roy, Saul Bel­low) is im­pres­sive. He makes many eru­dite rec­om­men­da­tions and wise ob­ser­va­tions in his book.

Yet he makes other big calls that are ec­cen­tric and some­times in­de­fen­si­ble. For ex­am­ple, be­cause he is so taken by Ell­roy’s gritty crime writ­ing, ‘‘ I will not pick up an­other mur­der mys­tery.’’ What, not even a Ray­mond Chan­dler or Pa­tri­cia High­smith? Carr sug­gests he hasn’t tried ei­ther, but ‘‘ I can­not be­lieve they’ll be as ac­com­plished as James Ell­roy . . . I might find that’s an un­sus­tain­able prej­u­dice.’’

Equally un­sus­tain­able is his po­si­tion on Napoleon Bon­a­parte, partly be­cause he was a war­mon­ger: ‘‘ Boy­cott all bi­ogra­phies of Napoleon I . . . No in­tel­li­gent, hu­mane per­son should take an in­ter­est in this bas­tard,’’ he writes.

Then there is McCul­lough, whom he boldly rates as the planet’s best liv­ing fe­male nov­el­ist. McCul­lough, dis­missed by some as a writer of lust- in- the- dust ro­mances ( a legacy of her phe­nom­e­nal best­seller The Thorn Birds ), is also a his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist of tow­er­ing stature, ar­gues Carr: ‘‘ McCul­lough is the most for­mi­da­ble his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist around, bar­ring Gore Vi­dal . . . In my view, she is the best wo­man nov­el­ist now writ­ing, on the ba­sis of her Ro­man fiction ( the Masters of Rome se­ries).’’

Carr is sim­ply un­con­vinc­ing about his omis­sion of other fe­male nov­el­ists. Strug­gling to find the right words, he says he finds it dif­fi­cult to move from the big can­vas of McCul­lough’s Ro­man se­ries ‘‘ into the small cham­ber of Jane Austen’s fiction . . . but I’m pre­pared to con­cede that I’ll one day re­tract this avoid­ance of Jane Austen’s uni­verse and en­ter it with plea­sure’’.

He con­sid­ered a Joyce Carol Oates story when writ­ing his chap­ter on his favourite Amer­i­can nov­el­ists, but stopped ‘‘ be­cause the story was so painful’’. Yet one of his book’s chief pre­oc­cu­pa­tions is the to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism in­flicted by Mao , Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, which caused mil­lions of deaths.

He is on more solid — and for him more com­fort­able — ground in as­sert­ing that Ge­orge Or­well was ‘‘ the best writer on pol­i­tics of the 20th cen­tury’’, and that the most im­por­tant book of the 20th cen­tury is Primo Levi’s mem­oir If This is a Man, be­cause ‘‘ it is the best of all the books in the lit­er­a­ture of tes­ti­mony’’.

Levi was an Ital­ian Jewish chemist who was in­terned in Auschwitz in 1944 but sur­vived the con­cen­tra­tion camp to bear wit­ness to the Holo­caust through his lu­mi­nous mem­oirs and fiction. His writ­ing pro­vokes a ques­tion that in­trigues Carr: How can the de­struc­tion of in­no­cents, in­clud­ing chil­dren, on a vast, in­dus­trial scale, be rec­on­ciled with the idea of a benev­o­lent God? ‘‘ The big­gest chal­lenge to bib­li­cal faith in God is those skies above Auschwitz,’’ he re­flects. ‘‘ Chil­dren were mur­dered . . . with­out any divine in­ter­ven­tion.’’

When it comes to mat­ters of faith, Carr is ‘‘ a scep­tic, I don’t be­lieve in the God of the Bi­ble’’. De­spite this, while he was pre­mier he lis­tened to

a 60- CD set of the Bi­ble while on his nightly walks. This was his idea of re­lax­ation: fur­ther ev­i­dence of his rav­en­ous in­tel­lect and al­most scary self- dis­ci­pline.

Though he is a big fan of po­lit­i­cal bi­ogra­phies, he was more likely to read Chekhov while he was in of­fice. Dur­ing this time, he en­gaged a tu­tor to teach him about the Old Tes­ta­ment. ‘‘ I never would have had the time to read the Bi­ble while I was pre­mier,’’ he ex­plains. And ‘‘ be­cause I have a great fond­ness for Jews and their story, it was a de­sire to be­gin to un­der­stand other peo­ple of the book — I mean Mus­lims — and be­cause of the way the Bi­ble has shaped all of West­ern life and lit­er­a­ture.’’

In non­fic­tion, Carr is drawn to books that in­ter­ro­gate the great­est in­jus­tices of the 20th cen­tury, from Robert Con­quest’s study of Stal­in­ist re­pres­sion, The Great Ter­ror, to Alexan­der Solzhen­it­syn’s The Gu­lag Ar­chi­pel­ago and Martin Amis’s short, fu­ri­ous polemic Koba the Dread , ‘‘ a scalpel- like dis­mem­ber­ing of the sen­ti­men­tal re­luc­tance of old Marx­ists to give up on Lenin and Lenin­ism’’.

Carr hopes his book will sway younger read­ers to tackle such ti­tles. ‘‘ The anti- to­tal­i­tar­ian theme is an im­por­tant part of my book and I’d like to think it will re­vive an in­ter­est, an in­ter­est that has flagged since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union.’’ He re­calls that ‘‘ when I was com­ing of age po­lit­i­cally, there were a lot of peo­ple in the La­bor move­ment with be­nign views of Marx­ist- Lenin­ist dic­ta­tor­ships’’, even though such regimes were built on mass mur­der.

Many West­ern in­tel­lec­tu­als who were Maoists or Stal­in­ists have yet to re­cant, and he sees a par­al­lel de­nial­ism to­day: ‘‘ In el­e­ments of the Left now — I should em­pha­sise only el­e­ments of the Left — you’ve got a re­luc­tance to see the fas­cist el­e­ment in some Is­lamist think­ing.’’

Pro­ceeds from My Read­ing Life will go to In­ter­plast, a char­ity that sends Aus­tralian med­i­cal teams to de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to pro­vide free treat­ment and train­ing. In a rare, un­worldly mo­ment, Carr con­fides with a gri­mace that he’s so fond of long quo­ta­tions, the steep copy­right fees have in­creased the num­ber of copies he’ll need to sell to make money for In­ter­plast.

A jour­nal­ist be­fore he went into pol­i­tics, Carr wrote two books while he was pre­mier. The first, Thought­lines: Re­flec­tions of a Pub­lic Man ( 2002) grap­pled with sub­jects as di­verse as the fail­ure of so­cial­ism, Mar­garet Thatcher and heroin. The sec­ond, What Aus­tralia Means to Me ( 2003), was a care­fully cal­i­brated es­say on Aus­tralia and pa­tri­o­tism. Within weeks of step­ping down as pre­mier, Carr took up a highly paid con­sul­tancy with Mac­quarie Bank. This move was crit­i­cised widely, as Mac­quarie had been one of the big­gest private fun­ders of pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture while he was in power. ( There was no sug­ges­tion of im­pro­pri­ety, how­ever.)

To­day, Carr is in­volved in re­new­ables and car­bon funds at Mac­quarie. He’s also a be­hindthe- scenes en­vi­ron­men­tal ag­i­ta­tor, lob­by­ing state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments ‘‘ off my own bat’’ on cli­mate change. He has ad­dressed more fo­rums on this than on any other is­sue since leav­ing pol­i­tics. He de­votes a siz­able chunk of My Read­ing Life to the threat of global warm­ing. Un­prompted, he boasts that un­der his stew­ard­ship NSW ‘‘ had the world’s first car­bon trad­ing scheme, we beat Europe by two years. We stopped the clear­ing of na­tive veg­e­ta­tion, which en­abled Aus­tralia to meet its green­house tar­gets, as John Howard never stopped boast­ing, even while not sign­ing Ky­oto.’’

Does Carr think peo­ple are tak­ing the global warm­ing threat se­ri­ously? ‘‘ Yeah, but I just think it’s slow; hu­man­ity is very slow. Just as there is some­thing very wor­ry­ing about the way we’re hard- wired for war and racism . . . we find it very hard as a species to change our claim on the re­sources of the planet . . . We are re­morse­less, creative and some­times hu­mane, but also very, very greedy. So that, com­bined with my sur­vey on the lit­er­a­ture of war, makes me a sub­lime pes­simist. But I’m a pes­simist aching to be proven wrong.’’

My Read­ing Life: Ad­ven­tures in the World of Books, by Bob Carr ( Vik­ing, $ 35).

Pic­ture: Gra­ham Crouch

Pes­simist aching to be proven wrong’: For­mer NSW pre­mier Bob Carr val­ues read­ing dif­fi­cult books that stretch our con­scious­ness

Po­lit­i­cally as­tute: Ge­orge Or­well

A rare wo­man: Colleen McCul­lough

Un­beat­able in crime fiction: James Ell­roy

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