The al­chemist

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.

With the

school

year

ended, Hughes has

Pic­ture: Alan Pryke

Fic­tional es­says: John Hughes in his school li­brary

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