The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

A note for those dis­cern­ing read­ers who flip past the ear­lier pages of Re­view (sav­ing them for later, of course) to read this col­umn first: this week I have writ­ten the cover story, an in­ter­view with the writer be­hind the stage adap­ta­tion of Peter Carey’s de­but novel Bliss and the ac­tor who will play the lead­ing role of Harry Joy. It was il­lu­mi­nat­ing, and a lot of fun.

Carey, a dual Man Booker Prize win­ner, is rel­e­vant to some­thing I have been think­ing about of late: the col­lec­tive im­pact a sin­gle writer can have on other writ­ers. Carey speaks of Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez as the writer who rewrote the rule book so oth­ers could join the game. He has said Mar­quez, born only 16 years be­fore he was, changed his life. His 1967 novel One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude “threw open the door I had been so fee­bly scratch­ing on”.

I have a feel­ing that Michael On­daatje, who at 74 is the same age as Carey, is a sim­i­lar fig­ure to writ­ers who are a gen­er­a­tion or so younger. The fine Aus­tralian novelist Ash­ley Hay puts it sim­ply and el­e­gantly in her re­view on these pages of On­daatje’s new novel, Warlight: “Be­ing among Michael On­daatje’s sen­tences is one of my favourite places to be.”

I’m with her on that. I pulled out my wa­ter­dam­aged home copy of The English Pa­tient, a 1993 Pi­cador pa­per­back, and skimmed through it to check what I had un­der­lined when I first read it back then. Quite a lot as it hap­pens, and most of it about the love af­fair be­tween the “English­man” and Katharine. I will go with this one: “He has been dis­as­sem­bled by her. And if she has brought him to this, what has he brought her to?”

Like Hay, I just like be­ing among On­daatje’s sen­tences. While The English Pa­tient (1992) is my favourite of his books, the one that pops up most when I talk about him to writ­ers is In the Skin of a Lion (1987). That is a mag­nif­i­cent book, too. I am yet to read Warlight as I’ve been caught up in the Syd­ney Writ­ers Festival and other mat­ters, but when I do I will re­port back.

To fin­ish this thought, who was Mar­quez’s Mar­quez? You may well know, but I didn’t so I did some Googling. It was Franz Kafka, who died three years be­fore Mar­quez was born.

When Mar­quez first read The Meta­mor­pho­sis, the open­ing line “al­most knocked me off the bed”. He said he didn’t re­alise un­til that mo­ment that “any­one was al­lowed to write things like that”. In re­sponse, he started writ­ing his own short sto­ries. Three cheers to Bram Presser, a Mel­bournebased mu­si­cian and writer, for the tri­umph of his de­but novel, The Book of Dirt, at the NSW Pre­mier’s Lit­er­ary Awards. The Holo­caust novel, in­spired by Presser’s grand­par­ents, won the fic­tion and new writ­ing prizes and also the Peo­ple’s Choice Award. It’s a re­mark­able book. Our quote of the week goes to Sri Lankan­born Aus­tralian novelist Michelle de Kretser. She and I did a SWF event at Ka­toomba this week to dis­cuss her new novel The Life to Come, which com­bines hu­mour and sad­ness in bril­liant equal mea­sure. My fi­nal ques­tion drew on the book I talked about here last week, An­nie Spence’s Dear Fahren­heit 451, in which the li­brar­ian-au­thor writes let­ters to au­thors and/or their books.

Who would de Kretser write to, I asked, think­ing it would be a bit of fun. She paused and said that while she rarely wrote to writ­ers, she had just done so, to the English novelist Jane Gar­dam, who is 89. The rea­son was be­cause she wanted to thank her for her work.

This fail­ure to thank a writer, she went on, was one of her great re­grets. She should have writ­ten to the ex­pa­tri­ate Aus­tralian writer Shirley Haz­zard, who died in 2016, to say, and here is the quote, “Thank you”. As de Kretser said that, I no­ticed tears in her eyes. She is a su­perb writer, a wonderful per­son and it is a priv­i­lege to know her.

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