Master of all he surveys
NEAR the end of his premiership of NSW, Bob Carr rang me and suggested I read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time . Two decades earlier, when we were both journalists at The Bulletin , he had told me to read Anthony Powell’s 12- volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time . As a result, I became a neurotically devoted fan of Powell and have re- read his best volumes over and over.
But I resisted the long- winded Proust. Good grief, I thought. Carr as premier might have time to read Proust but I was a busy foreign editor and had no spare hours.
I was wrong, of course. Carr was a hundred times busier than I was. What he had that I didn’t was iron personal discipline in organising time. It is this discipline, combined with formidable talent, that made him such a successful politician.
With his new book, My Reading Life , Carr has become a serious writer. The only other Australian head of government who came close to matching Carr as a writer was Alfred Deakin. John Curtin is often called a journalist but he wrote for party and union publications, a much lower professional bar, and lamented the absolute lack of influence of his writing on Australian workers.
But Carr has produced a book without peer in a completely original tone of voice. My Reading Life has a deeply serious purpose disguised behind Carr’s witty, conversational style.
It is ostensibly about the books Carr has loved. But it is much more. It is a trenchant defence of the essential canon of Western literature. And, as its original proposed title, The Search for Decency, implies, it is also an exploration of the best and worst in human nature. It is Carr’s celebration of the power and magic of words.
I suspect Carr ditched Search for Decency as a title because of his brilliantly honed instinct for detecting and avoiding pomposity. Critics have missed the book’s marvellous plays of parody. When Carr recommends a book as good to have on your shelf if Gore Vidal is coming over for dinner, he is not just name- dropping. He is writing a parody of name- dropping, a selfparody. The same is true of section titles such as Carr Condemns His Own Bias.
But the wit does not diminish the ambition of the book. It covers the extremes of human suffering and their literary heritage, the best of comic writing, democracy v dictatorship, US politics, spy fiction, China, the Labor Party, the French Revolution, ancient Rome, foundations of Western thought, the great novelists, eccentric books and the environment.
Some critics have upbraided Carr for the small number of women and Australians included. These are silly criticisms. No list is complete.
Having ruled such criticism illegitimate, however, I want to make exactly that type of criticism myself. In considering Western books on China, Carr should surely have included Pierre Ryckmans, whose works are the most beautiful nonfiction prose I have read. Surely Chinese Shadows and The Burning Forest are essential reading on China.
A bigger class generally. Instead omission is Asian writers of reading Westerners on China, read the short stories of Lu Xun, in some ways China’s George Orwell. Nobody has more brilliantly eviscerated colonialism than The Philippines’ great 19th- century novelist and independence leader Jose Rizal.
The corruption of modern Southeast Asia is anatomised in the stories of fellow Filipino, Francisco Sionil Jose. You cannot contemplate race while ignoring Malaysia’s K. S. Maniam. And there is a raft of Indian novelists, from Vikram Seth to Rohinton Mistry, without whom life would be insupportable.
OK, Carr was writing about the Western canon, but I think these Asian writers are now part of the Western canon. Their consciousness was formed by encountering the West.
Nonetheless, these criticisms are grossly unfair. Carr’s book is full of wisdom, the wisdom that a highly literate man has learned from a lifetime of politics and reading, and this in part is what makes the book so distinctive.
Still, I want to pick three further arguments with Carr. In his scintillating chapter on comic writing, he rightly ranks Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell very highly but disregards the incomparable P. G. Wodehouse. I challenge Carr to overcome his prejudices and read just two volumes of Wodehouse. First, The Code of the Woosters, which contains a hilarious parody of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Second, Leave it to Psmith , an English pastorale with a Raffles plot and the final apotheosis of Psmith, the only dedicated socialist in all Wodehouse. Read these two volumes and it is impossible not to regard Wodehouse as a comic genius.
Then there is Carr rating Powell above Waugh. The section on Powell is very good. Carr is right to regard Powell as perhaps the greatest novelist of the second half of the 20th century. But he is wrong to suggest Waugh aims lower, at pure comedy. In A Handful of Dust , and more so in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Waugh offers a metaphor for the whole of Western civilisation and examines his perennial theme: the dilemma of the civilised man in a world of barbarians; or, in Carr’s terms, the search for decency. Powell thought he aimed deeper than Waugh because he was interested in dialogue as a clue to psychology, whereas Waugh was interested in dialogue for its own sake. Powell was wrong. Waugh was interested in spirituality, which is different from and deeper than psychology.
Carr’s second most important section deals with the literature of totalitarianism and the opposition to totalitarianism. It is astonishing and disturbing that once communism was defeated, everything about it was forgotten. Carr is trenchant and brilliant in pointing out that labour camps were essential to the Marxist vision: no Marxist society has existed without concentration camps. It is sobering to recall that much of Western intelligentsia once took Marxism seriously, whereas Carr rightly describes it as a social pathology.
My final disagreement with Carr concerns his most profound and beautiful passages. The silence of God, Carr argues, in the face of Auschwitz can be explained only by there being no God. This does not lead Carr into aggressive secularism. He recognises the beauty of Christian moral thought. Finally, though, I disagree with Carr’s atheist conclusion and note that Viktor Frankl, like Primo Levi, survived the Nazi death camps but came to the opposite conclusion about God and man.
But these are very deep waters. Carr navigates them superbly. We always enjoy the journey in his company. Second only to John McCain’s memoir, this is the finest book I have read by a living politician.