Pain and the books that cause it, by Mark Mor­due

Ahead of next week’s Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, Mark Mor­due con­sid­ers the books that cause him pain — and why he is grate­ful for them

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

Ihave been think­ing a lot lately about books that hurt me, about those times in my life when I’ve been shaken by what I read. How painful and valu­able those ex­pe­ri­ences have been, and also beau­ti­ful, which may well be a darker level of ap­pre­ci­a­tion to de­scend into. How books that mess me up are still prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant read­ing ex­pe­ri­ences I can have.

This heart of dark­ness to our lit­er­ary lives is not much spo­ken of th­ese days. Af­ter all, some­thing ‘‘neg­a­tive’’ isn’t just emo­tion­ally re­pelling, or aes­thet­i­cally and morally ques­tion­able — it’s bad for mar­ket­ing.

Of course we also like to think of lit­er­a­ture do­ing us good, im­prov­ing our minds, even re­deem­ing our souls. But bad books — as in trou­bling, shad­owy, strange and con­fronting books — can have their place in your life too. Make no mis­take about it. When I think th­ese thoughts an im­age al­ways comes to me. It is late af­ter­noon and there I am, at the cor­ner of Bourke and Cleve­land streets in Syd­ney’s Surry Hills. I am in my mid-30sand I have just fin­ished Michael On­daatje’s Com­ing Through Slaugh­ter.

The switch­ing on of street­lights and car head­lights, the gauzy monox­ide air and peak-hour rush is over­whelm­ing. On­daatje’s ‘‘jazz novel’’ has left me feel­ing as if a large plate-glass win­dow has been smashed right in front of me. There is no in­side and out­side any more. The world is com­ing in, vi­o­lent, dis­cor­dant. This must be what a ner­vous break­down is like. And this is how Com­ing Through Slaugh­ter makes me feel: bro­ken to pieces.

The metaphor is a han­gover from the novel and a cli­mac­tic fight scene in which cor­net player and some­time bar­ber Buddy Bolden, a pre­his­toric New Or­leans pre­cur­sor to Louis Arm­strong, be­gins to go mad.

Bolden pre­cip­i­tates a fight with a cus­tomer that sees him pulled through his own bar­ber­shop win­dow, out brawl­ing into a stormy street, “grey with thick ropes of rain bounc­ing on the bro­ken glass”. He ends up sit­ting on a chair that has come through the win­dow with him, a phys­i­cal and psy­chic mess, “the rain com­ing into my head”.

But it’s not just that this fight scene’s fu­ries haven’t left me. It’s the en­tire book: its jump-cut prose-po­etry and streams of con­scious­ness, its lan­guage of riff­ing and dis­in­te­gra­tion.

Within a half-hour my senses will right them­selves. It will take some­what longer to end a frag­ment­ing re­la­tion­ship.

Once again a dis­turb­ing book has forced me to change di­rec­tion: I see that to be free I must de­stroy what I know; but if I de­stroy it there are no guar­an­tees I will find free­dom, let alone hap­pi­ness.

Yet Com­ing Through Slaugh­ter is in­side me now, guiding me as surely as a siren singing. And I am grate­ful for the trou­ble it brings.

I look at the books on my shelves. For all the artistry and beauty, all the phi­los­o­phy and po­etry, an­other force takes shape like some plague cloud con­dens­ing from their spines. Com­ing Through Slaugh­ter, Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky’s Crime and Pun­ish­ment, Joseph Heller’s

Catch-22, Joseph Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness, Tru­man Capote’s In Cold Blood, Nel­son Al­gren’s Never Come Morn­ing, Charles Bukowski’s Women, WG Se­bald’s The Rings of Saturn, Cor­mac McCarthy’s The Road, Roberto Bolano’s 2666 … on and on, each en­gaged with its own par­tic­u­lar hell, each pulling me in as deep as they can.

One would like to say such books deal in cathar­sis, but the truth is they plunge us into a shadow land and leave us there to find our own way out again. Years af­ter I read th­ese books, in some cases even decades later, they come alive as if I could still be turn­ing the pages, my fin­ger­tips de­tect­ing their ter­ri­ble vi­tal­ity.

Even the sup­pos­edly sweet books, the chil­dren’s books I grew up with, the ones I re­ally love, sug­gest some­thing of this dark en­ergy. From then un­til now my jour­ney has been en­tirely sub­jec­tive, of course. But a few glimpses into a bi­o­graph­i­cal read­ing list may be familiar to many read­ers, and high­light what I am say­ing here. In the end, we each have a dif­fer­ent li­brary of shad­ows stored some­where in­side of us.

I could eas­ily have be­gun with a cel­e­bra­tion of the melan­cholic shafts that so deep­ened fan­tasy works such as CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, EB White’s Char­lotte’s Web and Tove Jans­son’s Moomin­land Mid­win­ter. Stan­dard pri­mary school texts that serve as ini­ti­a­tions into sor­row and death, beau­ti­fully framed as they may be. Their cor­rect weight — if that is the mea­sure­ment we should use for chil­dren’s sto­ries — favour­ing magic over loss.

When I was a boy dur­ing the 1960s, none brought me fur­ther along on that mag­i­cal jour­ney — yet so strongly back to earth — as Aus­tralian au­thor Ivan Southall (pic­tured right). In what would come to be de­fined as young adult nov­els, Southall dealt with sub­jects such as a bush­fire ( Ash Road), a plane crash ( To the Wild Sky) and a fog-bound road ac­ci­dent ( Finn’s Folly), ad­ven­tures where the agency of chil­dren, be­yond the reach of adults, was his clas­sic theme.

Now recog­nised as a pi­o­neer of lo­cal set­tings and sen­si­bil­i­ties, Southall was ex­co­ri­ated for his un­duly heavy sub­ject mat­ter, a predica­ment that seems a con­stant for chil­dren’s writ­ers of any era. For all the grand el­e­men­tal drama in his work, there was al­ways an in­ti­mate core, a sense of chil­dren as fright­ened, mixed-up, iso­lated sur­vivors in a land­scape that was very Aus­tralian. It was this phys­i­cal close­ness that made his books so af­fect­ing.

“Real adventure be­longs to us,” Southall wrote in his es­say col­lec­tion A Jour­ney of Dis­cov­ery: On Writ­ing for Chil­dren. “Be­ing or­di­nary and in­ept are ac­cept­able qual­i­ties, they give mean­ing to achieve­ment. There must be contrasts within one­self. One must know weak­ness to know strength. One must be fool­ish to be wise. One must be scared to be brave. Adventure is sim­ply ex­pe­ri­ence; the mis­takes of­ten enough mean­ing more than the suc­cess.”

He knew what he was talk­ing about. Southall was a dec­o­rated pi­lot dur­ing World War II. He had also writ­ten a non­fic­tion book for adults called Softly Tread the Brave (reis­sued, re-edited and reti­tled as Seven­teen Sec­onds for teenage read­ers to­day) de­tail­ing the brav­ery of bomb de­fusal ex­perts in Eng­land dur­ing the Blitz.

Orig­i­nally subti­tled A Tri­umph Over Ter­ror, Dev­ilry, and Death by Mine Dis­posal Of­fi­cers John Stu­art Mould, GC, GM, and Hugh Ran­dal

Syme, GC, GM and Bar., the story fo­cuses on two Aus­tralian of­fi­cers work­ing in Lon­don — Mould and Syme — who sur­vived near-sui­ci­dal du­ties. Sure, there was plenty of der­ring-do, and yes, the he­roes of the book made it through alive, but this was rather like Big­gles thrust in­side The Hurt Locker. Of­fi­cer af­ter of­fi­cer would be blown apart and killed try­ing to defuse the bombs be­fore time ran out. I was hooked from an open­ing de­scrip­tion of them as “thin men” (thin like me, I felt) who “had graves, but no bod­ies”. I’d con­tinue to learn, chap­ter af­ter chap­ter, about death as some­thing sud­den, ran­dom and an­swer­less.

On the very first page Mould takes an emo­tion-choked phone call about an ex­plo­sion that has killed an of­fi­cer. It ends with an­gry, griev­ing words, “There ain’t no God, I tell ya.” My guess is Softly Tread the Brave had been stocked on the ba­sis of Southall’s glow­ing, if gritty, rep­u­ta­tion as a lo­cal chil­dren’s au­thor. I doubt my Catholic pri­mary school li­brar­ian would have ap­proved of a 10-year-old in thrall to such mor­tally in­tense ma­te­rial. But I was ripe for it.

My grand­fa­ther had died the year be­fore from can­cer, and though both my grand­par­ents had been deeply in­volved in my up­bring­ing I have only one mem­ory left: him stand­ing smil­ing in a door­way af­ter a day’s work, wear­ing his rail­way guard’s pants and braces and a sin­glet.

Ac­tu­ally, there is a sec­ond, less pleas­ant mem­ory. Pa on his deathbed, his skin grey as pa­per, ask­ing me to kiss him good­bye: I run from the room in tears, and that’s it, within sec­onds he is gone. Now I won­der about my lack of mem­o­ries, about death as a kind of bomb that blew him out of my life and out of my mind. In reach­ing back to Softly Tread the

Brave, my in­tu­ition is that de­spite all the deaths Southall de­picted, I took courage in his two mil­i­tary he­roes’ abil­ity to carry on, and move for­ward be­cause there was no other move to make. Yes, I loved Southall’s chil­dren’s writ­ing, but I can’t guar­an­tee now that Softly Tread the Brave is any bet­ter than an old war movie. It just af­fected me, caught me at the right mo­ment. I of­ten feel I owe Southall. That he gave me some kind of ur­gency.

My in­cli­na­tion since then has been to re­sist overly tidy and pos­i­tive end­ings, or any crowd-pleas­ing con­ces­sions to some­thing emo­tion­ally ‘‘up’’. If only for a gut feel­ing it is un­be­liev­able or, worse still, a lie.

In all my read­ing the only great novel I can re­call with a per­sua­sively happy end­ing is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mock­ing­bird. No doubt there are other ex­am­ples, but the whole point of what I am try­ing to say here is re­mem­ber­ing, and there­fore be­ing truly marked.

A happy end­ing, of course, can be the sad­dest thing of all. Not be­cause it is crudely dis­hon­est or ma­nip­u­la­tive but be­cause it is per­me­ated by a wish more than a be­lief. This long­ing wounds the reader, and per­haps the au­thor too, pre­cisely be­cause it re­minds us of the gap be­tween how things tend to be and how per­sis­tent our hopes re­main.

Some part of Mock­ing­bird’s ap­peal re­sides in that para­dox­i­cal aftertaste, though Lee’s vi­sion is so true, it re­as­sures us ev­ery time we re­turn to At­ti­cus Finch, his daugh­ter Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill in ‘‘May­comb County’’, Alabama.

As Lee fa­mously wrote — trans­form­ing the south­ern lawyer Finch into a paragon of father­hood and racial tol­er­ance, and the child nar­ra­tor Scout into an equally heroic sto­ry­teller along the way — “You never re­ally un­der­stand a per­son un­til you con­sider things from


his point of view … Un­til you climb in­side his skin and walk around in it.”

Great books do this ev­ery time. Which is why it’s not re­ally the na­ture of end­ings that con­cerns me here, though end­ings do mat­ter, but this larger sense of en­ter­ing into some­one else’s con­scious­ness and be­ing changed by that ex­pe­ri­ence.

To Kill a Mock­ing­bird plays the reader a har­mo­nious tune as love and no­bil­ity get the bet­ter of prej­u­dice and fear in what we sense is the last great sum­mer of an ex­tra­or­di­nary child — and the be­gin­ning of an adult writer’s life we recog­nise as that of Lee her­self.

The novel is so com­plete in this way, it is al­most a re­lief Lee never pub­lished an­other book. Un­til the re­cent dis­cov­ery of a manuscript en­ti­tled Go Set a Watch­man. Though writ­ten be­fore To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, it tells the story of Scout as a ma­ture woman re­turn­ing to visit her age­ing fa­ther At­ti­cus. The loom­ing re­lease of Go Set a Watch­man is there­fore a fright­en­ing prospect, pri­mar­ily for con­cerns over the qual­ity of the writ­ing and why an ail­ing Lee never pub­lished it be­fore; and, sec­ond, for the pos­si­bil­ity we may have to wit­ness Scout’s adult dis­en­chant­ment in the wake of her child­hood’s ra­di­ant truths.

Per­haps the most fa­mous con­flict be­tween bleak end­ings and vi­sion­ary ra­di­ance in our re­cent lit­er­a­ture would be McCarthy’s con­clud­ing pas­sages from The Road. Fa­ther and son have trudged through a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape of for­bid­ding mis­ery. The book’s prayer­like min­i­mal­ism and in­toned pace take us only one way: down.

But when the in­evitable comes, McCarthy (un­usu­ally, given his blood­thirsty and pes­simistic track record as an au­thor) of­fers us con­so­la­tion and cryptic, neo-Chris­tian im­agery: atavis­tic mem­o­ries of trout in a moun­tain stream and things that “hummed with mys­tery”.

This end­ing, much ar­gued over for its be­liev­abil­ity as well as its mean­ing, seems to sug­gest we are hard-wired into a pri­mal dreaming that blesses us and unites us with na­ture. And if na­ture is all but de­stroyed, well then our very ex­is­tence, our blood mem­ory, can be a last stand against that greater de­struc­tion. In help­ing his son sur­vive an apoca­lypse, the fa­ther sus­tains this sa­cred ac­cord and thereby hope and beauty may con­tinue. Whether we be­lieve this is a mat­ter of in­di­vid­ual faith. I know I wanted to. Deep down I did not.

Such des­per­ately mixed feel­ings only made me want to love my chil­dren bet­ter than I ever have, and hold them close in­deed. Which may well have been McCarthy’s ‘‘mes­sage’’ to him­self, and thereby my painful good for­tune dur­ing the pe­riod in which I read his book. That I should do this while I can; that my chil­dren will be the ones who even­tu­ally hold me, not with their arms, but with their re­mem­ber­ing.

JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye re­mains the philoso­pher’s stone for most lost boys’ lives. Though some ar­gue it did not trans­mute lead into gold, as good com­ing-of-age lit­er­a­ture should, but in­stead pol­luted the minds of ev­ery teenage gen­er­a­tion, as it de­fined — and ar­guably in­vented — that state of mind when it was first pub­lished in 1951. For the phe­nom­e­non of The Catcher in the Rye is not sim­ply a mat­ter of con­tin­u­ing sales or crit­i­cal re­gard; it’s an is­sue of nar­ra­tor Holden Caulfield’s defin­ing pres­ence as the teenage mes­siah.

His war on “god­damn phoneys’’, his strug­gles to re­sist grow­ing up and all its false­hoods, his pu­ri­tan­i­cal en­case­ment in him­self to the point of a ner­vous break­down, are well ex­am­ined. As is the fact the novel has been cited as an in­spi­ra­tional man­ual by, among oth­ers, John Len­non’s killer Mark Chap­man and Ron­ald Rea­gan’s would-be as­sas­sin John Hinckley Jr. Deeply un­for­tu­nate as­so­ci­a­tions that only con­firm the book’s in­ten­sity.

I do be­lieve books have an al­most oc­cult power in our lives. Never more so than when we are young and open to their in­flu­ence, even if their mean­ing is more so­phis­ti­cated than we can grasp. And I see now that The Catcher in

the Rye made me want to be a writer. I see now that all the books I have so far men­tioned drove me to ex­press my­self. All of them spoke to me. All of them had a sound.

Salinger was par­tic­u­larly fo­cused on this qual­ity. He ob­served that, “The Catcher in the

Rye is a very nov­el­is­tic novel. There are ready­made ‘scenes’ — only a fool would deny that — but for me the weight of the book is in the nar­ra­tor’s voice, the non­stop pe­cu­liar­i­ties of it, his per­sonal, ex­tremely dis­crim­i­nat­ing at­ti­tude to his reader-lis­tener. He can’t le­git­i­mately be sep­a­rated from his first-per­son tech­nique.”

Holden’s res­ur­rec­tion, if you like, lies in the fact that he is telling you his story. He has found a way through. And now he seeks apos­tles.

His gospel of apart­ness pen­e­trated me deeply, iso­lated as I was from my fam­ily in an in­for­mal board­ing ar­range­ment with my grand­mother while I went through high school dur­ing my teens. Read­ing The Catcher in the

Rye made me feel both less alone and some­how anointed in my boy­ish suf­fer­ing.

One sees this sliver of light in Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s six-book project, My Strug­gle. In­deed, I think of Knaus­gaard as some­thing of an over­grown Holden Caulfield, rein­car­nated into his adult­hood in Nor­way, his ob­ses­sional speak­ing voice still in­tact, still seek­ing us out.

Knaus­gaard blurs the lines en­tirely be­tween what can be de­fined as a novel or a mem­oir. On a num­ber of oc­ca­sions he has called writ­ing “a way of be­ing”. It’s a telling de­scrip­tion. In a re­cent in­ter­view he used that phrase again, adding: “It’s un­think­able not to write. It’s the only place where I can find com­plete calm and har­mony. Where, at the same time, I am not my present self, I am some­where else.”

This ‘‘way of be­ing’’ is how it is for read­ers too, taken out­side of our worlds, yet deep into our selves. Whether or not that leads us to­wards the tran­scen­dent, how­ever, is an­other ques­tion en­tirely as we ‘‘come of age’’ again and again.

There are few ap­par­ently darker sen­tences than the one at the end of A Death in the Fam­ily, the first novel in Knaus­gaard’s se­ries, where he has been forced to con­front mem­o­ries that have arisen while clean­ing the de­based home of his es­tranged and de­ceased al­co­holic fa­ther: “And death, which I have al­ways re­garded as the great­est di­men­sion in life, dark, com­pelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a coat hanger and falls to the floor.”

In my opin­ion Knaus­gaard is hint­ing at for­give­ness and free­dom, and per­haps even love, in those fi­nal words. I could be wrong, of course. Things may be just as they ap­pear. But I’ve only to look back at my copy of Com­ing

Through Slaugh­ter to be re­minded of the para­dox­i­cal re­la­tion­ship be­tween pes­simism and pos­si­bil­ity, dam­age and awak­en­ing: “The right end­ing is an open door you can’t see too far out of. It can mean ex­actly the op­po­site of what you are think­ing.”

Mark Mor­due is an au­thor and critic. He won the Pas­call Prize as Australia’s critic of the year in 2010.

Cover de­tail from a 1950s edi­tion of JD Salinger’s The Catcher

in the Rye

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