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.