Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

“How many fa­mous peo­ple die in a nor­mal year, Dad?” That’s what the 11-year-old asked me this week when I men­tioned pop star Ge­orge Michael had died. I didn’t know the an­swer. He guessed six, which was kind of sweet. It has been that kind of year, from David Bowie to Car­rie Fisher. My son per­haps hears about it more than most kids be­cause I work in the me­dia, where deaths are part of the daily record. The obituary should note the death and, bad seeds apart, re­spect the life that was lived.

News­pa­pers like to have a col­lec­tion of pre-writ­ten obit­u­ar­ies, ready to go into print when the time comes. This year saw an un­usual ex­am­ple of that habit when the Ir­ish writer Wil­liam Trevor died in Novem­ber, aged 88. The obit in The Guardian was by the Lon­don-based Aus­tralian poet Peter Porter, who had died six years ear­lier. It was a beau­ti­ful cel­e­bra­tion of Trevor’s life and work, but it still felt a bit weird to be read­ing, in a daily news­pa­per, a dead poet writ­ing about a just-de­ceased writer.

Any­way, death is not what I sat down to write about. I want to write about the liv­ing. In re­cent months I’ve been for­tu­nate enough to meet, talk to by phone, or cor­re­spond with well-known writ­ers of a cer­tain vin­tage. I like to keep them in mind as we ap­proach the end of this dif­fi­cult year, to think how much I value them and their work. I’m writ­ing a few days be­fore New Year’s Eve, so any­thing could hap­pen to any­one be­fore these words are in print, but even so I want to end 2016 think­ing about the liv­ing, start­ing with Alex Miller, who turned 80 on Tues­day.

I re­cently spent a lovely day with Alex and his wife Stephanie at their home in Castle­maine, Vic­to­ria. I wrote about it in this news­pa­per on Tues­day, to mark the mile­stone birth­day of the dual Miles Franklin Award win­ner. Alex said some­thing that stuck hard, not least be­cause it co­hered thoughts I’d been hav­ing my­self. Nod­ding to Mar­cel Proust, he said peo­ple of his age were in “time re­gained”, a pe­riod where the ob­ses­sions, thrills, dis­ap­point­ments and angers of youth seemed triv­ial. He is a fine writer — with a new novel com­ing — and a gen­tle­man. I’d like to grow up to be more like him.

I had a pleas­ant din­ner not long ago with David Malouf, who is 82. He is charm­ing and wise. I went on a bit of a rave about his bril­liant 2009 novel Ran­som, which reimag­ines parts of The Il­liad, not be­ing el­i­gi­ble for the Miles Franklin. He did have some in­ter­est­ing thoughts on the mat­ter but rave he did not. Homer may have writ­ten, per­plex­ingly, about a wine-dark sea but Malouf is an ocean of calm. Now, that’s not a de­scrip­tion I’d use for the ex­u­ber­ant Tom Ke­neally, who is 81. I spent a day with him some weeks ago at his home in the Syd­ney beach­side sub­urb of Manly. He’s fit and well — so much so he took me on a lively tour of the nearby ceme­tery — and con­tin­u­ing to do what he’s done for more than 50 years: write good books. Ke­neally has a cou­ple of Miles Franklins, but not as many as David Ire­land, who will turn 90 in Au­gust. I like to call him up now and then just to chat, and to know he’s still go­ing. I do the same, via email, with the ill Clive James, who is 77. I’ve also liked re­cent emails with his­to­rian Ge­of­frey Blainey, who is 86. He’s so po­lite.

I know I haven’t men­tioned fe­male writ­ers here. Sadly, two who I had some con­tact with, Inga Clendin­nen and Shirley Haz­zard, did die this year, along with youngers ones such as Gil­lian Mears. And oth­ers who I email from time to time, He­len Gar­ner, say, are not be­ing put in the 80-plus “cer­tain vin­tage” cat­e­gory! Nor is Carmel Bird, a much-de­serv­ing win­ner of the Pa­trick White Award. I’ve met El­iz­a­beth Har­rower, who is 88, only once and she was de­light­ful. Let’s hope for more books from all of these su­perb liv­ing writ­ers.

Happy new year to all read­ers. Your en­gage­ment with these pages is a plea­sure. I will be tak­ing a few weeks off in Jan­uary but the Claws re­solve to clack again in Fe­bru­ary.

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