Lopsided lover of literature
Bob Carr’s learned book about books is a case of omission implausible, writes Rosemary Neill
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).
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