the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

For rea­sons you might guess, I have spent a lot of time lately read­ing mem­oirs. Along with travel writ­ing and bi­og­ra­phy, they are the literary genre I find most of­ten re­ward­ing. There are great new nov­els that I en­joy, but I don’t feel con­fi­dent that I will en­joy a new novel even if it’s been well re­viewed.

Too many of them are full of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion for its own sake, which is dis­tract­ing at best, or end­less au­tho­rial voice tricks, or know­ing literary ref­er­ences, or the mod­ern cult of porno­graphic vi­o­lence. I need a spe­cial rec­om­men­da­tion to take one on.

Mem­oirs and travel writ­ing, by con­trast, of­fer story, plot, char­ac­ter, in­ci­dent, de­vel­op­ment, and even res­o­lu­tion. Travel writ­ing is a bit like light com­edy, though, of­ten good, but by its na­ture rarely great.

But mem­oirs con­front no lim­i­ta­tions of form. Only a few Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal mem­oirs are a de­light. John But­ton and Paul Hasluck are the stand­outs, and Bob Carr’s Di­ary of a For­eign Min­is­ter. But our literary mem­oirs have been su­perb, from Hal Porter to Don­ald Horne to Clive James. I re­alise that two of these — James and Horne — are jour­nal­ists.

Now there is a new clas­sic. Richard Glover’s Flesh Wounds is a mi­nor mas­ter­piece, and I use the word mi­nor only be­cause I am a bit shy of mak­ing too big a claim.

Glover is an ABC ra­dio per­son­al­ity. He writes a weekly col­umn in the Fair­fax press and most of his pre­vi­ous books have been overtly funny and based on the com­edy of fam­i­lies. He is very good at ra­dio be­cause he is well in­formed and good hu­moured, and he has an easy, un­af­fected air that puts his in­ter­locu­tors at ease.

His fam­ily col­umns have their fol­low­ing and they too are light and easy. But I feel that all this gra­cious, good-hu­moured stuff from Glover will lead peo­ple to miss how very fine Flesh Wounds re­ally is. It cen­tres on Glover’s life­long quest to un­der­stand his two deeply ec­cen­tric par­ents.

His mother is a great beauty with work­ing­class English ori­gins who fakes an up­per-class iden­tity. She can­not re­late much to her son, or her hus­band, whom she leaves to run off with Richard’s English teacher. With him she es­tab­lishes a Tolkien-themed menagerie, fea­tur­ing teddy bears and nud­ism, just a cou­ple of steps short of a kind of mad­ness.

Richard’s dad declines into bro­ken mar­riages and al­co­holism. Nei­ther par­ent ever takes much no­tice of their son. But this is not re­motely a story of self-pity.

It is in fact a breath­tak­ing ac­com­plish­ment in style and em­pa­thy. In the end, though you can­not quite be­lieve that Glover emerges from all this as ap­par­ently un­scathed as he does, you end up with more than a glim­mer of un­der­stand­ing, and even some un­ex­pected sym­pa­thy, for his par­ents. This is be­cause Glover so bril­liantly con­veys his own at­ti­tude, which is one of lov­ing be­wil­der­ment, an at­ti­tude re­deemed and re­paid when he meets his wife, De­bra.

The style and pace re­mind me of the ap­par­ent ca­su­al­ness of a Willa Cather novel, where some of the ac­tion takes place off stage, there is a good deal of au­tho­rial chat­ter, much that seems triv­ial is re­lated. But all this builds, with the reader barely aware of what is hap­pen­ing, a pow­er­ful in­ti­macy with the main char­ac­ter, which, fi­nally, is pro­foundly en­gag­ing.

If I have a quib­ble with any­thing it is per­haps that the jok­i­ness and con­ver­sa­tional di­rect­ness is marginally over­done in the early pas­sages. But this is a very small quib­ble. And it could be that Glover is hedg­ing here against some quite shock­ing rev­e­la­tions of preda­tory sex­ual be­hav­iour by char­ac­ters out­side the fam­ily.

Glover is a great fan of PG Wode­house and this is a good in­flu­ence on any writer. He also has a fine sense of self-par­ody, and of the way a sen­tence can take un­ex­pected di­rec­tions. Con­sider: “I was book­ish and ef­fete and found a peer group of other would-be in­tel­lec­tu­als. We were pre­ten­tious and ridicu­lous, of course, com­pet­ing with each other as to who would be the first to claim they’d read Ca­mus or Sartre. All I ac­tu­ally read, of course, was my own body weight in PG Wode­house and Dorothy L. Say­ers.”

That’s a great sen­tence, in what is an as­ton­ish­ingly good book.

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