John Hughes is the only Australian short- listed for the inaugural Warwick Prize for Writing. His prose is not for the faint- hearted, writes Rosemary Sorensen
JOHN Hughes accepts that winning a couple of important literary prizes comes with complications. His students at Sydney Grammar School now know their straight-looking, literature-loving librarian was once a clever, long-haired, dreamily angsty boy: ‘‘ a hippie in a time of punk, in love with alcohol when those I was drawn to had moved on to chemicals, inhibited, frustrated, unstable, insecure, yet still having to go my own way’’, as he writes in his first book, The Idea of Home.
They know, too, that he set off for Cambridge having won a keenly contested scholarship, but returned a couple of years later, resigned to failure. It was many years before he would complete a doctorate, at the University of Technology, Sydney, with a thesis that was the basis of his award-winning first book.
Those boys curious to know more about the man who was first the head of English at their school, then the librarian, may seek out his books in their school’s well-stocked A. B. ‘‘ Banjo’’ Paterson Library, named after the Australian poet who was once a student there. They will have read about how Hughes, when confronted by his supervisor’s supercilious letter suggesting he take a job as a postman — an ironic ‘‘ life in letters’’ — to stay on at Cambridge when his scholarship expired, scrawled two abusive words across the letter and took off for home.
He had failed but, in the end, he had discovered that what he might have achieved there was not what he really wanted.
‘‘ It’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit,’’ Hughes says. ‘‘ If I’d continued on, the trajectory of my life and my writing would have been very different.’’
He would hate to be seen to be ‘‘ blowing my own trumpet’’, but he does admit his undergraduate and honours years at the University of Newcastle in the early 1980s left him in no doubt he had a talent for writing about literature. ‘‘ I suppose I was very lucky because I was valued for something I did well,’’ he says, carefully, in the measured way characteristic of him.
‘‘ For me, now, writing is about putting things together, a kind of chemistry which you can’t predict. It’s in the words, released when they come together. I’m not a modern chemist, I don’t know much about the properties. I’m more the old-fashioned alchemist or apothecary.
‘‘ That more analytical mode, it doesn’t interest me any more, doesn’t stir me. There may come a time when I feel once more like engaging with words in that way.’’
But not for the moment, not when his second book, Someone Else , has just been placed on a long list for the new Warwick Prize for Writing, emanating from Britain’s Warwick University, which not only has a hefty £ 100,000 ($ 226,000) prize attached but also seeks to celebrate the kind of writing Hughes, in his late 40s, has given himself licence to concoct. The kind of writing that does not fit easily into generic definitions and which defies rules. The kind of quirky, ambitious, experimental but disciplined writing that Hughes loves to read and to which he pays homage in the pieces that make up Someone Else .
Defined by his publisher Giramondo as ‘‘ fictional essays’’, the pieces in Someone Else take as their starting point the lives and thoughts of 21 artists and writers who have influenced Hughes. Included in the list are men ( they’re all men) such as Italo Calvino, Constantine Cavafy, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, Osip Mandelstam, Mark Rothko and Bob Dylan. Don’t look for a thematic link between these blokes, Hughes warns. The way each piece was written was, yes, alchemical. Hughes describes it as a way of exorcising their voices, clearing his internal air of their words, which have long haunted him.
Someone Else presents writing as an act of ventriloquism, with Hughes allowing not only the ideas and lives of his artistic heroes to seep into his own writing but also their work, to create a piece of writing that is about the artist and as though by the artist.
In a preface, he sets the scene, mood and manner of his essays, describing a fictional meeting between Max Brod and a young man in a cafe ‘‘ by the sea’’ ( which he identifies as Coogee, 2006, in the preface’s sign-off). Brod was the writer who encouraged and succoured Kafka. He died in 1968, so his writing in his diary about this meeting with a young man in a Sydney cafe only happened in Hughes’s imagination, set in motion by reading.
The preface sets up the hall of mirrors that is where all the essays in the book must be understood to be coming from. None of them is real but all are the writer’s imaginative reality.
It helps to know a little about the history of each of the artists, Hughes admits, and one of the nicest outcomes of the book has been readers telling him the essays sent them off to read more about his subjects. They can also be read without any prior knowledge, or even curiosity, about the bigger picture surrounding each miniature, Hughes says, but some appreciation of, perhaps even love of, the work of each subject will definitely help.
The idea of these fictional essays began to take shape as he was writing his first book.
‘‘ Towards the end of The Idea of Home, I write about the world in my head, the way the characters got in there, and about how I see them as having a reality the same as the people I come into contact with,’’ Hughes says. ‘‘ I wanted to speak through them, to have them keep their voices, but have them tell my story.
‘‘ I saw it, too, as a way of maybe exorcising them. If I could write them out, they might lose some of their potency and give me some peace and quiet.’’
The first little exercise in exorcism was South , his homage to Cavafy, the Greek poet remembered for poems such as Ithaca and Waiting for the Barbarians . Hughes’s South begins with a man waiting in a cafe, another cafe, or maybe the same one. Dense with allusion, it packs into its two pages references not only to Cavafy’s life but also to Greek myths and ancient writers, and must be read as slowly as you read a poem.
‘‘ That one showed me it was possible,’’ he says. ‘‘ I tried to capture something of the mood of his poetry, and the place too, and something of the style. It’s an exercise in mood and I quite liked it. It gave me the sensation of feeling I’d achieved what I was after.’’
Most of the pieces do not have much of a story to them but Hughes says there is a narrative thread, ‘‘ offstage, but with hints at the beginning and the end’’. For readers who like their prose clear and straightforward, these essays will not suit.
ended, Hughes has
Fictional essays: John Hughes in his school library