Stephen Romei re­mem­bers Christo­pher Koch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Stephen Romei

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.’’

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