Ni­co­las Roth­well’s deeply per­sonal es­says ex­plore the para­dox­i­cal idea that some laws are vi­o­lated to be up­held, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ni­co­las Roth­well is a weird and won­der­ful writer. In this new book, Quick­sil­ver, he takes the form of non­fic­tion and turns it into an ex­tra­or­di­nary drama of spir­i­tual quests and cul­tural haunt­ings. The re­sult will en­thral any­one who has fallen for that re­cent un­fold­ing in lit­er­a­ture — it’s there in that mas­ter of dark ironic arts, Thomas Bern­hard, or in the great WG Se­bald — where the de­tails and de­tours of what might be bel­letris­tic writ­ing are in­vested with the rav­ish­ing in­ten­sity of lyric po­etry.

Roth­well is also a God-both­erer, a man on a sus­tained spir­i­tual quest who has trans­ported a sen­si­bil­ity pos­i­tively mar­i­nated in artis­tic ap­pre­hen­sion to the stark re­al­i­ties and med­i­ta­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties of life in the cen­tre, to the de­pic­tion of deserts and in­dige­nous peo­ple. But Quick­sil­ver is a short­ish book of what pur­ports to be prose that has the ver­tigo-in­duc­ing am­bi­tions of Wordsworth’s The Pre­lude. It is full of dark en­chant­ments.

We be­gin in the red desert with Roth­well driv­ing west to­wards the Pil­bara and re­mem­ber­ing the ex­pe­di­tion of Colonel Peter Eger­ton War­bur­ton, who found the desert en­gulfed overnight by a flood of wa­ter 300m wide. Roth­well comes across the kind of lizard War­bur­ton en­coun­tered and is re­minded of Leo Tol­stoy and the Black Sea gecko in Yalta. Ac­cord­ing to Maxim Gorky, Tol­stoy looked at the lizard and said, “Are you happy?” And, when the gecko just gazed back, said to it: “Well, I’m not.”

Gorky howled in his grief when the great man died, and spoke of how he went off into a high, wild place and looked into the face of death, the red light of what should not be. Roth­well re­counts the saga of Gorky li­onised by the Quick­sil­ver By Ni­co­las Roth­well Text Pub­lish­ing, 195pp, $29.99 (HB) Bol­she­viks, the city re­named for him, of how Joseph Stalin, that en­gi­neer of souls, was a pall­bearer at his fu­neral, of how he prob­a­bly had him killed. Then we pass, in a char­ac­ter­is­tic Roth­well move, to the fact An­drei Sakharov, the great dis­si­dent nu­clear physi­cist, was ex­iled to Gorky and how Roth­well went there, osten­si­bly to look at the shrines and churches but, in fact, in quest of the faith of the man of sci­ence who wrote, “I am un­able to imag­ine the uni­verse with­out some guid­ing prin­ci­ple, with­out a source of spir­i­tual warmth.”

And so our author gets from a glance at a lizard a sense that the same light shines in the desert where the kites climb up­wards and no an­swer comes in the sand, amid the blood­woods and the river­gums.

Roth­well col­lo­cates dif­fer­ent kinds of iso­la­tion, dif­fer­ent forms of desert spa­ces. Think of AD Hope’s tri­umphal­ist phrase about Aus­tralia (that it is still from the desert that the prophets come) and con­sider Roth­well’s ap­pre­hen­sion that ev­ery heart is a desert place, and that ev­ery­one stares into the red light they would re­ject.

For Roth­well there must al­ways be faith in the life spirit, some faith in faith. The ti­tle es­say, Quick­sil­ver, re­calls the author’s child­hood in the High Ta­tra moun­tains of Slo­vakia and as­tronomer An­tonin Bec­var and his ex­tra­or­di­nary At­las Coeli, a ge­og­ra­phy of the stars.

Roth­well’s child­hood was a time of dic­ta­tor­ships and to­tal­i­ties fall­ing, a “molten” time for the world and for a young man driv­ing through a land of grave­yards. And it is in one of these that a pho­tog­ra­pher shows him the tomb­stone of his grand­fa­ther and tells him it is a Frankist tomb.

Ja­cob Frank was a would-be Jewish mes­siah of the late 18th cen­tury whose story is tied up with the enig­mas and al­le­gories of the Kabba-


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