Stephen Romei remembers Christopher Koch
I MET Christopher Koch just once, in September last year, when I travelled down to Tasmania to have lunch with the author and his wife, Robin, at their home in Richmond, a historic village northeast of Hobart. This was just before the publication of what even then was likely to be Koch’s final novel, Lost Voices. He had been diagnosed with cancer only weeks before. I didn’t know that at the time, though I was aware he had been unwell.
It was one of those occasions when you meet someone for the first time and like them immediately and a lot. It’s not necessarily about shared interests, opinions or experiences — Koch was born three decades before I was — but about how the person carries and conducts themselves. (Having said that, we did have a laugh over a common interest — horse racing — with him telling some wild stories from his days on the Tasmanian tracks.)
I was struck by Koch’s warmth and courteousness. People called him an oldfashioned writer, which was true in a good way, and he was an old-fashioned man as well, also in a good way. He had grace and good manners, qualities hardly thick on the ground these days. He was interested in hearing my thoughts on various issues, especially the changes in the media landscape. He listened, not champing at the bit to interrupt.
Of course Koch did most of the talking — I was there to interview him after all — and he conversed with wit and wisdom, and modesty, on a range of subjects, from his favourite authors (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot and Henry Handel Richardson, ‘‘the best novelist we have produced’’), to his love of landscape, particularly that of his native Tasmania, his belief in God, and his own literary reputation (‘‘I do my best, that is all’’). He showed me a copy of the just-printed Lost Voices, a marvellous book by the way, and talked about how important for him it was to have a hardback edition, a moment that has stayed with me for some reason.
The discussion of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy came to mind this week when I was talking to people about Koch following his death in Hobart in the early hours of Monday morning. He was 81. The young Tasmanian novelist Rohan Wilson, who never met Koch but felt his influence, said: ‘‘He wrote like the old Russians: enormous in spirit, enormous in scope.’’ I think Koch would have liked that quote. Another writer I sought out was Koch’s near contemporary and fellow dual Miles Franklin winner Tom Keneally. He is on a book tour in the US and didn’t get back to me in time for Tuesday’s news coverage, so I’d like to record his comments here:
‘‘For me as for many, Chris’s first book, The Boys in the Island, was a proof that a young Australian could write fiction. Since then Chris’s writing took on a grandeur which transcended his origins, as fascinating as they might be. He wrote with enormous care and prodigious authority and has left a fine corpus of work for us. Amongst it, Highways to a War, Doubleman and Out of Ireland are superb and match the inevitably famous The Year of Living Dangerously — one of the best titles, by the way, a novel ever had. He was simply part of the literary landscape of our country and even though the last time I saw him, in Adelaide earlier this year, he asked a little combatively when I mentioned his health problems, ‘Who told you I’d been sick?’, a sad deterioration was obviously under way. Yet it’s a cause of national sadness it’s now run its course.’’