Malouf’s slow-cooked recipe for the literary life
The Writing Life: Book 2 By David Malouf Knopf, 352pp, $29.99 IN 2009 David Malouf turned 75, as did the John Oxley Library, the Queensland-focused research institution at the State Library in Brisbane. A event to mark this conjunction was included in the library’s celebrations: Sydneybased Malouf came to his home town to talk about his words, his world and his just published ninth novel, Ransom.
Now, David Malouf has turned 80, and the John Oxley must be doing so too. I haven’t heard of any parties for the library this time, but Malouf’s natal festivities have been running since before his birthday in March.
These have included an exhibition at the Queensland Museum, a brace of interviews and literary events, a three-day program convened by the University of Queensland, a special issue of the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and publication of three new books: Earth Hour (new poetry); A First Place (his first collection of published essays); and now The Writing Life.
This new volume is, as its cover flap says, “a writer’s reading of some of our best-loved writers”. It’s also an elegant and sustained examination of one question: what does it mean to be a writer?
This is a lot of busyness for a man who, when asked just before his 80th whether he was going to “make a fuss”, replied mildly, “not really”. But perhaps it’s an unavoidable cacophony for such a versatile writer — novelist, poet, essayist, librettist, memoirist — and for someone who occupies an almost peerless position in the constellation of Australia’s writing stars.
For decades now, since Bicycle and Other Poems (1970) and the first novel, Johnno (1975), Malouf has been creating and translating and mediating and unravelling stories that grab us as readers, that help us understand more of our world or ourselves, that fix deep in our imaginations like some newly vital compass point.
In many ways, The Writing Life tracks and unpacks some of the authors whose stories have lodged in a similarly central and necessary pos- ition for Malouf, from the marquee names of Patrick White and Christina Stead, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, Shakespeare and Homer (of course), to people such as Kenneth Mackenzie ( The Young Desire It) and Frederic Manning ( The Middle Parts of Fortune) whose readerships he has tried to revive.
The span of these names, among others in this anthology, underscores several points. The first is Malouf’s extraordinary mind: he is sharp and erudite, and the maps he creates through different texts unfold with that lovely combination of the clarity of the familiar and the rush of unexpected intersections and interpretations.
The second is that he is generous — as a reader and a writer — and honest, laying out his ideas with lucidity and elan. In Writer and Reader, the opening piece to this collection, he explores some of the distinct selves involved in writing, reading and living. “There’s a gap, a mysterious and sometimes disturbing one, between the writer’s daily self, his walking and talking self … and the self that gets the writing done. As there may be a difference … between you, each one of you, and that other agency in us that I referred to as the reading-self.”
If a great deal of this book lays bare Malouf’s own reading self, it’s fascinating to trace the arcs of his interests. Henry James arrives early, in the first two pieces, and is followed by Thomas Mann in On Experience, who returns later in two essays on Proust and one on Kafka, pops briefly into those reintroductions of Mackenzie and Manning, then commandeers the collection’s close, A Last Fling. He’s joined there by Patrick White, visiting from two essays of his own and a cameo in one of the articles on Stead.
This isn’t to suggest the book replicates itself but, rather, to emphasise the pleasure of exploring a writer’s particular enthusiasms and inspirations. Writers have themes, like touchstones and talismans, to which they return: here are fragments of Malouf’s.
Reconstructing his first reading of Jane Eyre — in the contrary setting of the Gold Coast — he considers “what extraordinary creatures we are” that we can simultaneously inhabit the landscape of Thornfield and “the hot sands of Main Beach Southport”. It’s so simple an observation that we may never have given it expression, and it restores proper honour to the magic and process of reading, which sometimes
seems less hallowed than the act of writing these days, although it’s the thing to which all published writing aspires. On Malouf’s page, it’s a sentence to mark, to transcribe, to take on, like his stunning evocation of a creative work’s beginning: the whole universe attending, taking an interest, turning itself as it were in the book’s direction, so that everything one comes across — in the daily papers, in the street, in what begins to come up out of the depths of memory — out of the depths too of an experience one may not have had yet — immediately finds a place there, in indissoluble connection.
That’s the truest report of this mystery I’ve seen.
Malouf says he writes for a slow reader and the work gathered here demands a particular attention, a particular respect. These words are slow-cooked. They should be savoured. They will nourish you. They are also assuredly “interior” — the word he has used in the context of novels he likes to read and to write — while still shimmering with dot points of sensation and reaction. When the author is observable, he seems spotlit and distinct, like the figure he cuts in those portraits by Jeffrey Smart. There’s also a complementarity in the way
The Writing Life urges you towards the more experiential vibrancy of A First Place, where Malouf’s Aunt Rosie flashes her red, white and blue bloomers to conclude patriotic recitations of “a Sophie Tucker number of doubtful taste” and Malouf himself makes the mistake of wondering if Perth might manage an espresso. (“Ristretto?” asks the waiter with “a slight curl of the lip”. “That’d be great,” says Malouf. “Corretto?” the waiter adds. Malouf, “meekly” and “put thoroughly in my place”: “I don’t think we need to go that far.”) In the same way, it should dovetail neatly with a third volume of essays, including reviews and libretti, under selection for publication next year.
They also send you back to Malouf’s diverse oeuvre — the richness of the novels, the distilled music of the poems — and to all the books he’s read for you in The Writing Life: works you’ve read, meant to read, never heard of and for which you feel an immediate want. To read this book is to be inspired, and how could you not be when you read, now, with the sense of a benevolent and polymath reader, considered and considerate, just there, at your shoulder, to help you along?
I used to live near Malouf in Sydney; I used to see him sometimes in the supermarket, near the lettuces. It never seemed appropriate to interrupt his public self, his salad-selecting self, to say, “David Malouf, I think you’re tops.”
But if we’re allowed to make a fuss of him, if we’re going to allocate and cherish the fresh life for the “protean inclusiveness” of his literary mind that collections such as this afford (the quote is his in relation to Ovid’s Ars Amatoria), then I’d like to say it now. David Malouf is tops; he’s a boon to our myriad imaginary lives.