Lay­ers of depth in pa­ter­nal por­traits

Richard King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘ THERE is no more som­bre en­emy of good art,’’ wrote Cyril Con­nolly, ‘‘ than the pram in the hall.’’ Ironic, then, that so many good writ­ers, es­pe­cially 20th-cen­tury writ­ers, should choose to ex­plore the theme of fa­ther­hood. For even as he shields his ears against the baby’s pierc­ing cries, the chances are that the writer next door is try­ing to come to terms with the fact that his fa­ther seemed a dis­tant fig­ure.

Nor should we be­grudge him this in­dul­gence. Af­ter all, many ex­cep­tional works of 20th­cen­tury lit­er­a­ture — from Sa­muel But­ler’s The Way of All Flesh and Ed­mund Gosse’s Fa­ther and Son to Blake Mor­ri­son’s And When Did You Last See Your Fa­ther? and Martin Amis’s Ex­pe­ri­ence — have cen­tred on the theme of fa­ther­hood, or dealt with it sub­stan­tially.

When John Mor­timer died last month, it was to his play A Voy­age Round My Fa­ther that many friends and com­men­ta­tors pointed as one of his most touch­ing works. Even the new in­cum­bent at the White House man­ages to get in on the act: his first book was ti­tled Dreams From My Fa­ther . Whence comes this mod­ern ob­ses­sion with fathers? Per­haps part of the an­swer has to do with our in­creas­ing ten­dency to­wards in­tro­spec­tion. Dur­ing the past 100 years or so, the gen­eral thrust of lit­er­a­ture has been to­wards the psy­cho­log­i­cal, and en­gage­ment with fam­ily al­lows writ­ers to ex­plore their past and iso­late the in­flu­ences that went into form­ing their per­son­al­i­ties.

The fo­cus is rather neatly sum­marised in Alexan­der Waugh’s en­gag­ing mem­oir cum fam­ily his­tory, Fathers and Sons ( 2004), the ti­tle of which is al­most cer­tainly an al­lu­sion to Gosse’s 1907 clas­sic: Sa­muel But­ler be­lieved that ev­ery son is given a new lease of life on the death of his fa­ther. This might well be true. In my

That some­one with the sur­name Waugh should find such feel­ings dis­con­cert­ing is not per­haps to be won­dered at. ( Alexan­der’s fa­ther, Auberon, would some­times be­rate him for in­dulging in ‘‘ self-think’’.) But con­certed or not, the au­thor has iden­ti­fied what seems to me an in­creas­ing ten­dency: the ten­dency on the part of the mod­ern writer to mine the sub­ject of their pa­ter­nity with a view to ex­tract­ing the di­a­mond of self-knowl­edge.

The lat­est is­sue of Granta mag­a­zine, the first with Alex Clark at the helm, col­lects to­gether short sto­ries, non­fic­tion, graphic art and po­etry on or around the sub­ject of fa­ther­hood. It also con­tains a num­ber of small es­says in which writ­ers at­tempt to give a sense of their fathers’ per­son­al­i­ties by com­ment­ing on a pho­to­graph printed on the op­po­site page.

One of th­ese pho­to­graphs — of Reina James and her fa­ther, the Carry On ac­tor Sid James — also serves as the book’s front cover and is, I think, par­tic­u­larly strik­ing, if only be­cause this ten­der scene ( Reina is feed­ing Sid a chip) is so far away from James’s on-screen per­sona. Cer­tainly it gives an ex­cel­lent sense of the kinds of emo­tional ex­ca­va­tion un­der­taken by the var­i­ous con­trib­u­tors.

The dif­fer­ent pieces or­bit the theme of fa­ther­hood at rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent dis­tances. Some, in­deed, are so far out that one won­ders what they are do­ing here at all, though in the case of Will Self’s riff on pipe-smok­ing and Emma Donoghue’s dra­matic mono­logue Man and Boy , I’m glad that they have been in­cluded.

Oth­ers are up close and ( very) per­sonal. Ruchir Joshi’s Trac­ing Puppa is a won­der­ful trib­ute to his fa­ther, Shivku­mar, a mi­nor Gu­jarati writer and a man of adaman­tine in­tegrity, while David Gold­blatt’s Do­ing the Pa­per­work is a deeply mov­ing rem­i­nis­cence that brings to­gether two kinds of pa­per­work: the kind his fa­ther never did ( the tax re­turns and other nec­es­saries that go along with run­ning a busi­ness — in his case a busi­ness spe­cial­is­ing in spank­ing) and the kind the au­thor him­self must

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