Malouf’s slow-cooked recipe for the lit­er­ary life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ash­ley Hay

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.

David Malouf

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