THE DOTTED LINE
Nicolas Rothwell’s deeply personal essays explore the paradoxical idea that some laws are violated to be upheld, writes Peter Craven
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-
ROTHWELL IS, IN TERMS OF CULTURAL BAGGAGE AND CULTURAL DAZZLE, RICH INDEED