Mas­ter of all he sur­veys

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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