the heart

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

man, but his ide­al­ism and self-doubt are ap­peal­ing. He is not the fey crea­ture of myth, liv­ing in shadow of a heroic death, yearn­ing for an Eng­land seen only by posh boys buried in for­eign fields. Tan­gled in with his dream­ing is a bawdy youth, ironic and play­ful and des­per­ate to shift the bur­den of his vir­gin­ity — with man or woman, whichever comes first.

‘‘ He looked to peo­ple like Au­gus­tus John and Henry Lamb, th­ese great se­duc­ers, and I feel a lit­tle part of him wished he was more like that. But he wasn’t,’’ she says of Brooke’s des­per­a­tion about sex. He is also ham­pered in his quest to lose his vir­gin­ity by the fact that the women he is drawn to are strong, not nec­es­sar­ily at­trac­tive, but in­tel­li­gent and aware of the po­ten­tial dis­as­ters of sex, which are far worse for women than men. Sleep­ing with men, for this Brooke, is a ques­tion not of pref­er­ence but ne­ces­sity.

The de­ci­sion to por­tray Brooke as a re­luc­tant bi­sex­ual is the most con­tro­ver­sial as­pect of the book but his am­biva­lence in the novel re­flects his real views, the au­thor claims. ‘‘ It was an area about about which I felt I had to be ex­tremely cau­tious and not im­pose my views.’’

The scene in which Brooke loses his vir­gin­ity with his school friend Denham Rus­sell-Smith is based on a let­ter to James Stra­chey. It is told with per­func­tory de­tail and some hu­mour, but there is no pas­sion, just re­lief that his vir­gin­ity is gone. His lack of ar­dour in the let­ter leads Daw­son to be­lieve Brooke pre­ferred women to men.

‘‘ I felt that in his let­ters, po­etry and other writ­ings, his feel­ings were strongly about women. He is so open in the let­ter to Stra­chey that if he had strong feel­ings for men they would have been there — but they weren’t,’’ she says. ‘‘ I felt I could take my lead from that and show his feel­ings torn be­tween the ide­al­is­tic women he can’t have and the moth­erly one he can.’’

It comes as a sur­prise to learn that Daw­son’s in­spi­ra­tion for The Great Lover was not the poem of the same name, or sto­ries of Brooke’s sex­ual en­coun­ters, but a post­card picked up on a visit to fel­low writer Martin Good­man. It fea­tured two maids who worked at the Or­chard House in Brooke’s time, and though both were prob­a­bly the daugh­ters of Brooke’s land­lady, in Daw­son’s imagination one evolved into Nell.

It is not the first time Daw­son has cre­ated a knowns. Within this re­lent­less litany of lost and de­stroyed works there are a num­ber of gems, such as the story of Wi­b­o­rada, a Swabian woman who in AD 926 was in charge of the li­brary in the monastery of St Gall, Switzer­land. Ap­par­ently, just be­fore a horde of ma­raud­ing Huns at­tacked St Gall, Wi­b­o­rada had a sa­cred vi­sion and hid all the li­brary’s books. The Huns were re­pelled but the monastery and its li­brary were burnt to the ground and Wi­b­o­rada killed. But by sav­ing the books Wi­b­o­rada be­came not only the first woman to be canon­ised by the Vat­i­can, but also the pa­tron saint of li­braries and li­brar­i­ans.

Baez loses his way in the mid­dle chap­ters, pil­ing on some­times su­per­flu­ous, some­times just plain silly in­for­ma­tion. There’s a whole chap­ter on books de­stroyed in fic­tion that ad­vances noth­ing in his ar­gu­ment; and an­other chap­ter ti­tled On the Nat­u­ral En­e­mies of Books which, among other things, talks about sil­ver­fish, book­lice, ter­mites, spi­der bee­tles and other book eaters of the nat­u­ral world.

With the ad­vent of the print­ing press in the 1450s, books be­come some of the first masspro­duced com­modi­ties. Baez touches up cen­sor­ship and po­lit­i­cal sup­pres­sion, but only deals in pass­ing with is­sues such as the su­per­abun­dance of text on the in­ter­net and the false sense of se­cu­rity that dig­i­tal stor­age con­fers.

Baez is best in the fi­nal chap­ters when writ­ing about atroc­i­ties such as the loot­ing of the fe­male pro­tag­o­nist whose am­bi­tions have been de­nied by class. ‘‘ She is slightly a ver­sion of Madame Guerin, who looked af­ter Vic­tor in my novel The Wild Boy ,’’ the au­thor ex­plains.

‘‘ She wasn’t ed­u­cated but was very strong­willed and, had she been bet­ter ed­u­cated, would have been a very dif­fer­ent per­son. I think Nell is an amal­gam of her and Edie Thomp­son, in her as­pi­ra­tion to do and be more.’’

In 1923, Thomp­son and her lover Fred By­wa­ters were hanged for the mur­der of Edie’s hus­band Percy. It was a widely pub­li­cised case, which Daw­son vis­ited in her novel Fred and Edie , pub­lished in 2000.

I won­der what at­tracts Daw­son to mythol­o­gised peo­ple? As well as Edie and Brooke, The Wild Boy is based on a case from the early 19th cen­tury. ‘‘ It is about try­ing to res­cue some­one from that myth-mak­ing but also try­ing to in­clude the myth,’’ she ex­plains.

‘‘ Edie has been writ­ten about in ev­ery decade since she was hanged. Each writer took a view of her that re­flected their time: in the ’ 70s she was a bat­tered wife who fought back, in the ’ 50s a poor vic­tim. I think with Brooke there is some­thing sim­i­lar; with each decade, bi­og­ra­phers have taken a dif­fer­ent stance on him that re­flected their own time.’’

Bi­og­ra­phers’ in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Brooke be­gan with pa­tri­otic pride, moved on to dis­cred­it­ing his sta­tus as a war poet ( he died be­fore see­ing action), and more re­cently have re­flected pop­u­lar cul­ture’s ob­ses­sion with sex. Though Brooke’s ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity has been a fo­cus, other de­tails, es­pe­cially the naked dips that led Vir­ginia Woolf to dis­miss Brooke and his ‘‘ neo-pa­gan’’ friends as ‘‘ dew-dab­blers’’, em­bel­lish the leg­end.

‘‘ His hard-ons were re­ally fa­mous!’’ Daw­son blurts out loudly — so loudly that a group of tourists seated at a nearby ta­ble gawp and our waiter eyes us, sniff­ing the air like a ter­rier sens­ing trou­ble. Daw­son gig­gles — as do I. It is a mo­ment at which Brooke would have laughed.

That I can imag­ine Brooke laugh­ing at a smutty com­ment says much for Daw­son’s abil­ity to cre­ate vig­or­ous char­ac­ters. Nell and Brooke breathe. They feel nearby. Be­fore we part she tells me of a visit to the Or­chard House when the owner, Robin Cal­lan, left her alone in Brooke’s old room, clutch­ing the poet’s di­ary. ‘‘ I just sat with it and thought, ‘ He would have had that in his breast pocket, close to his heart,’ ’’ she says. It is as if a lover has just left the room.

The In­de­pen­dent Na­tional Li­brary of Bagh­dad in 2003, and the fire-bomb­ing of the Na­tional Li­brary of Bos­ni­aHerze­gov­ina in Sara­jevo in 1992. Here, he ar­gues pas­sion­ately and from first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence.

But the au­thor is at his worst in the open­ing chap­ter, where he serves up semi-di­gested gob­bledy­gook mas­querad­ing as A Par­tial The­ory of the Bi­b­lio­caust.

This is a very un­even book. It con­tains ty­pos and mis­takes galore ( Sal­man Rushdie was not born on June 1, 1947). From an in­ter­est­ing premise it de­scends into a hodge­podge of dates, names and events that reads like a drunk mis­cel­lany without a co­her­ent ar­gu­ment.

There are awk­ward mo­ments in the text that can be as­cribed to prob­lems with the trans­la­tion from Span­ish. But then Baez writes: ‘‘ The preSo­crat­ics and Sophists ex­ist only in frag­ments. It al­ways comes as a shock that we haven’t pre­served On Not Be­ing or On Na­ture by Gor­gias of Leon­tini, who proves that noth­ing ex­ists.’’ I couldn’t tell if this was a lame joke, a sloppy trans­la­tion or just con­fused writ­ing.

At times A Uni­ver­sal His­tory of the De­struc­tion of Books reads like it’s been cob­bled to­gether from too many het­ero­ge­neous sources and is try­ing to do too much, a lot like some of the an­cient texts it lov­ingly refers to.

And like so many of them, it might be run­ning head­long to­wards obliv­ion. The Great Lover will be pub­lished in Aus­tralia next month by Scep­tre. Jose Borgh­ino lec­tures in lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.

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