In 1977, before personal computers and the Internet, Umberto Eco published How to Write a Thesis. It has remained in print ever since, but only now is it available in English. The book hasn’t been updated and makes no concessions to technological change. Space is devoted to card indexes and manual typewriters, offering alternatives if the student owns an IBM Selectric. Eco advises choosing a thesis topic for which ‘sources [are] locally available and easily accessible’.

Much of this has limited value for the twenty-first-century student. Also, Eco is giving advice for the Italian laurea thesis, which in scope is quite unlike the American or Australian PhD. Nevertheless, it is still true that primary and secondary sources must be accessible, even if they are not held locally, and Eco’s guidelines for manageable thesis topics remain sensible, if sometimes rather comical. He even explains to the time-poor student how to plagiarise a thesis from a sufficiently distant university to avoid detection, while carefully pointing out that the ‘advice we have just offered [is] illegal’.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'How to Write a Thesis' by Umberto Eco, translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina
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  • Book Title How to Write a Thesis
  • Book Author Umberto Eco, translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina
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  • Biblio MIT Press (Footprint), $39.95 pb, 256 pp, 9780262527132

During a lull in the fiercest weather event the south-east of the continent has seen in thirty years – we call them ‘events’ these days, as though someone’s putting them on – I went out on a Sunday morning and bought myself a book.

I should tell you that we live on an acre in the country one hundred and twenty-five kilometres south-west of the city. We moved here two months ago after another unsuccessful attempt to love – and afford – the city. We used to live in the mountains. Then children came, and I needed to find the kind of regular work that feeds a mortgage and a family, and which one finds more of in a city. We moved to a terrace house in the inner city and tried to like it. But I’m not much good at the kind of work you have to do to afford the kind of oversubscribed and overlit life the city wants you to lead, and every day in town was another day I couldn’t see out to any kind of country, and every day I seemed to become less like the man I thought I was.

So here – to keep it trim – we are in the landscape again. The house we found was built for the man who ran the dairy for the big property from which our acre has since been cut. The house has grown in the hundred years since it was that first dairyman’s home. It has four bedrooms now, its weatherboards are a nice dusty yellow, and its roof is clad in corrugated iron. It is a plain house, but pretty, and it is set about with rose bushes and mature trees, and it is more than enough for us.

But the real reason we bought the place – apart from the paddocks over the fence and the space around us and the cool air above, and apart from the fact we could afford it – sits down the back between the silver poplars and the oak. We moved here because of a cowshed. The cowshed is a little older than the house, and it is the reason the house is here. It is made of brick, rendered now and painted the same kind of yellow as the house. According to Ross, who came the other day to dig a trench to bring the telephone wire down from the house, the cowshed is a four-stand walk-through, and it would have milked sixty head twice a day one hundred years ago. Since mid-March it is where I have sat and worked, and I am sitting there now – writing this – in early June. Across the lane the elms have stopped being yellow and stand bare against an acid-clear winter blue sky. The ground smells of poplar leaves and the aftermath of rain. The light is failing; soon I must go and lock the hens in their coop. Down in the paddocks some heifers bawl. Soon the frogs will start up along the Wingecarribee, which snakes through the pastures and the willows and the birches down there, a quarter mile from where I sit.

I am in Australia, though it’s not easy to tell. No eucalypts here. No sheoaks in sight. Nothing to place me here except for the name of that river and the way a mob of Eastern Greys bounds away in its desultory panicwhenever you get close to them in the paddock by the river, and the fact that it is winter in June, and the way right now the possum drags its world-weary self into the nest it calls its own in the ceiling above my head. Something antipodean – which has nothing to do with ‘Australia,’ that abstraction, of course, but everything to do with the way this place belongs to the natural history of this bend of this particular river on this particular continent under this bit of heaven in the present geological era, the Holocene, doomed and beautiful era of men – something antipodean, more than a scent, less than a voice, something close to a sensibility, is immanent here, in the face of so much circumstantial evidence that this cowshed is set down somewhere in West Massachusetts or The Cotswolds. And I don’t believe for a minute that I would write the truth about this place, nor would I write truly from this place about anything, if I didn’t catch in my syntax and diction something of the cadence of that local Wingecarribeean intelligence, including the way it plays among these colonial cows and cowsheds, these immigrant trees and grasses and women and children and men, such as me, sitting here in my post-pastoral shed withmy pale skin, my Cornish surname and my Apple computer.

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Australia, the driest continent on earth after Antarctica, is drying out. Down in the southern half of the island, we’re nearly ten years into a drought that’s starting to feel like the future, global warming being what it is turning out to be. The dam, for instance, that keeps Sydney in water, is below thirty-five per cent, and it’s not been above fifty for as long as I can remember. In the place where I have come to live, a panicked government has slyly approved the pumping of the Kangaloon Aquifer into the river system that stocks that dam – a plan that threatens to wreck the pastures and swamps and brown-barrel forests of the basalt hills under which the aquifer runs. Such is our growing desperation. For the skies have dried up, and the ground below is perishing. In five years we will have a desalination plant turning the Pacific Ocean into potable water. But we’ll be needing quieter and more radical solutions than that: like, for instance, the sclerophyll habits of the native trees – their ethic of restraint.

‘Australia, the driest continent on earth after Antarctica, is drying out’

But in the meantime, we have been dancing and voting and praying for rain – and we’ve been doing it too well, it seems. For suddenly, on the very afternoon of the eve of last weekend, a long weekend, a low-pressure cell settled over a large tract of the east coast and dropped 200-odd millilitres out of cyclonic winds over the next two days. Trees fell, houses fell, roads fissured, and cars upon them and families within them were washed away. Farming land and shopping malls and entire suburban streets were inundated.

Things were pretty calm, by comparison, here along the Wingecarribee. I went out Saturday night and strung a tarp over the chicken coop, because I hadn’t got around to getting someone to get around to patching the leaky roof, and the girls were having trouble staying dry. I was wetter than they’ll ever get by the time I had fought the blue tarp placid in the gusting winds and pinned it with bricks to the roof. And my cowshed leaked; the winds were carrying rain from all points, including, apparently, north, and some of it got in under the big barn door. I came in Saturday morning and found a shallow kind of estuary making a muddy kind of sea of the rug on the concrete floor. I mopped it up and plugged the gap with an old towel and got a fire started in the stove and thanked the household gods that the good old structure, home now to my library as well as my work, was as sound as it looked, and I got on.

By Sunday the worst was over – though not in the Hunter, where floods were just making ready to come downstream. The system that had caused all this had blown out to sea to make its peace. But a trough was coming in behind it, so I figured we had a few good hours to take our cloistered selves and our cabin-feverish children outside. The paddock is normally where I would have started. The paddock and the river. To check on the ducks and the white-faced herons, the horses and the roos. ‘Can you take me to the paddock?’ Henry, who is four, asks whenever I return to the house from the shed. This morning he was more eager than ever because he could see from the house some impressive puddles down there in need of being splashed. But right there – that was going to be the problem with the paddock, even in good rainboots. So instead, we took a drive to Berrima, and after horsing round at the village shops while Maree discovered bargains, we drove some more and landed up at Berkelouw Book Barn.

Now, I don’t need any more books. But you don’t have to need them. I found some nice old Zane Greys and a Paul Auster and a Larry McMurtry, but I left them. I found two volumes by a good poet who used to live close by, one of them named – aptly – Berrima Winter, and I bought them. And then, after an hour’s bibliophilic shambling about the wooden floors, face out on the counter of the café, where we had bought off the boys with a milkshake, there it was, the thing I didn’t know until then I had been looking for: The Book of Tea.

The book was a small work of art, humble and finely made and useful like a piece of anagama pottery: a small hardback, bound in white cloth, the title gold embossed on a black panel, and textured brown endpapers inside. This was an object incarnating an idea, and the idea, happily, was what the book was about. The Book of Tea is a Zen classic, written a hundred years ago by Okakura Kakuzo. What Okakura, like Basho well before him, wanted us to know was that the tea ceremony, performed, of course, mindfully, might be not just a metaphor but an actual practice – right up there with painting and poetry and solitude – for mindful living; for a well-made, dignified and responsible kind of life, and for what Okakura called a beautiful death.

What he meant by that was not so much an actual (good) death but a kind of dying to one’s meaner self – a making of one’s life, as Sam Hamill glosses it in the introduction – part of a greater work of art. And that greater work of art is the way that nature goes. ‘The first task for each artist,’ Basho wrote in Knapsack Notebook, meaning not just the making of art but the making of a good, true and beautiful life, ‘is to overcome the barbarian or animal heart and mind, to become one with nature’.

Mark Tredinnick in Cowshed final2 22Mark Tredinnick in the cowshed (photograph by Tony Sernack)

 

And so one might live well and, for that matter, write and paint and parent and garden and keep the chooks dry and mop up the cowshed well by adopting ‘tea mind’, by living as though one were making and sharing a good cup of tea, a thing one has learned to make so well – sticking at the task and bringing all one’s attention to it – that the enactment becomes easy and natural. As though it belonged to nature herself. ‘Learn the rules,’ Basho advised artists, poets especially, ‘and forget the rules.’

‘Tea mind’, if I have understood it, describes pretty well how I aspire to live here and how I would like to write and how I would like quietly to change the world’s mind. And I am pretty sure I’m going to fail, though the failing and carrying on anyway is part of the ethic The Book of Tea describes. Which goes something like this: to live conformably with the rest of creation; to live modestly, mercifully, truly; to say nothing, if one can’t say something that helps; to do nothing, if one can’t do something that helps. And there is an aesthetic that goes with it: the simple vernacular beauty of the little white book and the tea ceremony it describes; of the cowshed and the paddocks in winter. I was always attracted to the idea of living mindful of one’s small part in the larger natural world. In the story of one’s habitat. In the narrative of evolution. In the geologic epic of the world. I like the idea, though I always stumble at the practice, of living as if I really were a part, like the wrens in the hedge right now, of the place in time, attuned, as Basho put it, to ‘nature through out the four seasons’ (not that there are four seasons here).

‘I was always attracted to the idea of living mindful of one’s small part in the larger natural world’

The secret to the beautiful life, then, is tea; the secret is attunement to a larger world than one’s self; the secret is perspective; the secret is humble, open-eyed, big-hearted, tough-minded awareness.

I paid for the milkshake and coffees, and I bought the book, and as we drove home into the returning rain, I began to wonder how tea mind might look in weather like we had just had, in weather not yet done. What would the tea-mind practitioner look like, for instance, having drunk their tea and walked down to a cowshed, sending some e-mails as the storm resumes outside, and writing some poems and later, perhaps, doing something about trying to persuade the government to stop drawing so mercilessly on the Kangaloon Aquifer just over the ridge – what would one look like if one’s actions were attuned to a once-in-thirty-year weather event like this? What would tea mind look like in cyclonic mood? What would Hurricane Katrina mind look like, for that matter, and what good would it bring?

Nature never was temperate, and she is not getting any calmer. A life pursued at one with nature would not be the tranquil endeavour The Book of Tea might make one imagine. Would a beautiful life and death include behaving now and then like a turbulent low-pressure cell, like the waves that washed a tanker onto Nobby’s Beach and forced thousands of Novacastrians out of their homes and washed nine people away in their cars and killed them?

Okakura has an answer:

Those of us who know not the secret of properly regulating our own existence on this tumultuous sea of foolish troubles we call life are constantly in a state of misery while vainly trying to appear happy and contented. We stagger in the attempt to keep our moral equilibrium and see forerunners of the tempest in every cloud that floats on the horizon. Yet there is joy and beauty in the roll of the billows as they sweep outward toward eternity. Why not enter into their spirit, or, like Liethse, ride upon the hurricane itself?

I am pretty sure that Okakura’s idea would bring small comfort to the extended family of a mother and father and three young children whose car fell into a fissure opened in the Old Pacific Highway last Friday in the thick of all this by the falling rain and the rising creek and carried downstream to their deaths. Nature, whether you are at one with her or not, is blind, like justice. Riding the hurricane can kill you, and the dying won’t always be beautiful. There is a quietism in tea mind – there is a kind of resignation implicit in the very ethic I aspire to – that troubles me. But as in nature, so in human life – and so Ecclesiastes, that other great book, says – there are storms and there is death; there is violence and there is peace; ‘there is a time for every purpose under heaven’; there is a time, for instance, to weep, and a time, a bit later, to laugh; there is ‘a time to break down and a time to build up’.

So I can see how tea mind – place mind, if I may translate Okakura loosely, even cowshed mind – might include rage and protest, rightly steeped, of course, and poured precisely for whom and only for whom it was meant. When marching on the Capitol, I hear Okakura intone, just march on the Capitol; when writing nature poems, just write nature poems; when changing the baby, just change the baby; when changing the world, just change the world. Master the steps required for that one task, and perform them in good time, as though they were the most natural thing in the world – and the only thing on your mind right now.

The weather event played right through the weekend – it still plays – in newspapers and on television as a story of calamity: holidays ruined, property damaged, hopes dashed, lives, worst of all, lost. Disaster is one way, perfectly understandable, to characterise the weather. And again, it is all very well for me, high and dry in my cowshed in the placid Southern Highlands, to say this, but to tell the weather that way is to see the world from an alienated, merely human perspective; it is not to see things whole; it is not to observe the world with tea mind. Ours is, after all, a continent in drought; the land – and we upon it – need the rain. And we need it to come as emphatically as this; the groundwaters are drying out, and only such heavy rain, again and again, will bring them back, if they are ever coming back. We should be giving thanks, while we also help and comfort those who have suffered.

The world, we must not forget, has changed. It was always thus, of course. That is the nature of the world. But lately it’s been doing it fast, and it looks like we are largely to blame. Where I live, the world has got drier; and in many places it is getting sporadically stormier. Like this weekend. This is nature now. This is a new kind of season, and we had better get used to it. There is going to be more hurricane-riding before we are through. ‘The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings,’ Okakura advises. So let’s adjust; let’s see the fierce new world for what she is; let’s ride her and rein her in how we can.

‘Let’s adjust; let’s see the fierce new world for what she is; let’s ride her and rein her in how we can’

When I interviewed David Suzuki last year, he told me that the world has, in his estimation, ten years to change its habits fundamentally – to the tune of ninety per cent, which is to say, almost completely. We’re going to have to scale things back. Drinking tea will not be enough; but it does speak of moderation, a thing we are going to have to master again. The modesty and simplicity of the ceremony remain a powerful metaphor in these immoderate and apocalyptic times. We need to use less of everything, Suzuki explained to me with alarming equanimity (‘tea mind’?) and assurance – less energy and water, in particular, in everything we do (writing books, warming houses, travelling, lighting our lives, growing grain, raising cattle, raising children, fashioning clothes, shipping everything, you name it) if we are to avoid tipping the earth into the kind of unstoppable atrophic chaos Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, so vividly depicted. And we need to do it fast and stay calm while we do.

The good news is we have the techniques and the wherewithal, Suzuki and others say, to change our ways to that degree in just about every field. The bad news is what it always was: everywhere in the developed and developing world there is an overwhelming lack of political, mercantile and domestic will. Prosperity is a drug of addiction; denial and lethargy are two of its side effects. So perhaps the best news of all is also the worst: we are running out of oil. Nothing may teach us to live more slowly than running out of gas. And when the oil is gone – and later the coal – we will, if it is not too late, stop fueling the engine that is overheating the system.

The Book of Tea speaks of the ultimate virtue of attunement, of living at one with the way things go. Harmony is the organising metaphor here. The phrase ‘at onement,’ which grew out of a Middle English expression, used to mean the same thing – harmony. ‘Atonement’, though, which that phrase evolved into, means not just harmony but a process of reconciliation, some kind of putting things right again, and – importantly – some kind of sacrifice or suffering. If we want to live sustainably, if we want the world to keep us, and more particularly our children, we are going to have to surrender some of what we have; we are going to have to give something away. It is going to cost us, and so it should: it is worth the world. Someone has to suffer, and it might as well be us.

We need, more than anything, to learn the elegant restraint, the modesty, of the tea ceremony – a thing the eucalypts already know. And we are going to need to persist. Ritual repetition of modest gestures is what the tea cere-mony, like all Zen practice, consists in; it is what it teaches; it is what the world needs now, possibly more than love. Unless that is what love really is.

The tea ceremony – ‘teaism’, as Okakura calls it – ‘is a worship of the imperfect.’ To live well is to essay something within your gift and to work at it until you have got it more or less down. Perfection, in other words, is not necessary, even in these urgent times. We are going to fail the world long before the world fails us; it is a question of how badly or beautifully. What is compulsory is effort: sacrifice and discipline and selflessness.

One cold night this week, after the stories, some of them recited by the boy, some of them read by his mother, Maree was talking Henry to sleep, and she was talking, as mothers sometimes will, about how the boy had come into the world and how it had made her glad. Nearly asleep, the boy asked her, ‘What is the world?’ What, indeed.

‘What is the world?’ is the question we may be here to live. Learn the world, Basho might almost have said, and forget the world. That is to say, become not merely yourself; become, where you are, what the world is. Celebrate the world; it is beautiful and terrible. Like God; like one-self. Come into the world over and over again.

And because the world, in its physical manifestation, is also what we drink and breathe and eat and walk and work upon, we had better not just observe it; we had better husband and conserve it. And try to rein ourselves in.

After the rain, we had four hard frosts; four cold and brilliant days. Now it is raining again. Steadily this time. Good rain; nothing violent. By mid-month this is already the wettest June since 1964; 350 millilitres of rain have fallen, and this is only the start of what we need. The Wingecarribee has broken its banks and made a floodplain of the pastures just below me. But still there is hardly a word of welcome for the rain. Nothing much is said in the press or on the streets of the virtues of this drenching (except at last today a mention at the bottom of the nightly news that our dam may soon be up to close to fifty per cent capacity.) We seem to need all our stories to speak of ourselves. We want drought and flood; we want tragedy and loss; we want heartbreak and fairy tale and comfort. The land is the big picture, and we forget to paint it. It isn’t news, of course; we are, as ever, the news.

So the rain runs in the papers as the quantum of damage, as contested insurance claims, as heroics and adversity, and it is all those things, and, had I lost my family or farm or library, my teacup might be stormier. But mostly the rain is itself; that is the story, and it would behove us to listen. I have been hearing it all day on the roof and in the gutters; I’ve been seeing it in the hanging lichens of the poplars. The trench Ross dug across the yard has subsided. The boys step in it, and Henry gets stuck there, right up to his knees. The world has got hold of him.

At dusk I wade out to the car and drive – there I go driving again – with our baby girl to the post office to send a birthday card to a nephew before it’s too late. Lucy falls asleep in the car on the road; that was part of the plan. I am home now, and I have carried her to her cot, and I hope she’s sleeping still, but I have come back here to write on, and it rains on, and Maree’s in the house feeding the boys, and night is falling along the Wingecarribee. My wife knows a whole lot more than I ever will about the art of tea and the business of patience and the repetitive performance of small, good, necessary tasks. But something in me wants to write today. So here I sit again at small, difficult repetitive gestures of my own, in which I persist in a cowshed, noting ‘the beautiful foolishness of things’, in case it helps. And beside me rests The Book of Tea.

When I came upon The Book of Tea, I was wrestling with a poem. I didn’t know – I still don’t – if it is an especially good poem. But I knew I had to write it, and I had been sitting at it in the shed, picking it up and putting it down between other obligations all week, in every kind of weather, most of it cold. That Sunday morning in the bookbarn, I knew my poem was two stanzas short. A poem is an equation, among other things, and mine hadn’t quite come out. I was aware, too, that my poem was still looking for whatever it is that tautens a poem, that tightens its screws – a line of thought older and more beautiful than I had discovered working alone in a cowshed; it wanted, perhaps, a hit of caffeine; the medicinal fragrance of a cup of hot black tea. And when I opened the tea book, it happened.

‘I found in the book what my poem had been trying to help me think – about the way I want to live and work, here by the Wingecarribee, or wherever, until I am done; I found what I had been trying to say’

I found in the book what my poem had been trying to help me think – about the way I want to live and work, here by the Wingecarribee, or wherever, until I am done; I found what I had been trying to say. It wasn’t the only answer in the only words I will ever need to the best question I’ll ever ask; half the books in my library know the same thing the tea book told me. Some of the books of my grandfather’s preaching Bible lying over there on the third shelf up have been talking to me thus all along. But it was a good answer, shapely and wise. And timely. And not only for my poem.

I found in The Book of Tea an economics and a moral geometry – to use Okakura’s phrasing – for the slow and mindful, engaged and grounded life I aspire to here, and at which, as I say, I will almost certainly fail. The tea ceremony, writes Okakura, ‘is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life’. Maybe that is what I am down here working at tonight, my feet cold in their boots, the rain falling hard again on the roof.

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Here are some of the interesting things you may learn if you read John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists:

that James Fenimore Cooper was expelled from Yale for training a donkey to sit in the professor’s chair

that Evelyn Waugh once attempted suicide but was prevented from drowning by a passing shoal of jellyfish

that Fanny Burney underwent a double mastectomy without anaesthetic and lived to write a toe-curling description of what it felt like

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  • Custom Article Title James Ley reviews 'The Lives of the Novelists' by John Sutherland
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  • Book Title Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 287 Lives
  • Book Author John Sutherland
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  • Biblio Profile Books (Allen & Unwin), $59.99 hb, 832 pp, 9781846681578
Wednesday, 21 March 2012 05:03

Narrative things

Graeme Harper is a big name in the academic field of creative writing. He was the first in Australia to be awarded a doctorate in creative writing (UTS, 1993) and followed that with a PhD from the University of East Anglia; he has held professorships in creative writing in the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States. He edits journals and writes textbooks on creative writing; his curriculum vitae lists more than seventy-five keynote addresses given on the subject, and thirty-one grants and fellowships. As Brooke Biaz, he also writes fiction. How does he find the time? Any academic will confirm that nothing so effectively limits one’s own creative writing output as does teaching the subject.

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  • Custom Article Title Ruth Starke reviews 'Inside Creative Writing'
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  • Biblio Palgrave Macmillan, $29.95 pb, 224 pp, 9780230212176

If you’re a theatregoer, then somewhere along the line you’re bound to have seen The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s comedy about a rapacious nobody being mistaken for a government official by the citizens of a nameless provincial backwater. (They too are nobodies, greedy to be somebodies.) You might remember (since it’s a line that will have evoked both your contempt and your compassion) that the fussy fool Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky, a local landowner, who fails to exist to the point of being almost indistinguishable from his companion Pyotr Ivanovych Dobchinsky, says to the government inspector (who isn’t one):

I beg you most humbly, sir, when you’re in St Petersburg, say to all the different bigwigs there – the senators and admirals: You know, in such-and-such a town, your Excellency, or your Eminence, lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky. Just say that: lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky … And if you’re speaking to the sovereign, then say to the sovereign as well: in such-and-such a town, your Imperial Highness, lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky.

And the government inspector (who isn’t one) pockets his 65-rouble bribe and, being a windbag, declares that he will be pleased to be of assistance.

Even when I first read these lines at the age of eighteen, I felt knocked sideways by them. I didn’t quite understand why, but I knew they cut straight to the quick of something deep inside me – some tight little knot of anxiety, or even anguish, I had tried for years to ignore. ‘In such-and-such a town, your Excellency, or your Eminence, lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky. Just say that …’

Even then, certain though I was of so many things (as most of us are at eighteen – you’ve got to start somewhere), bound up in a tiny ball inside me was the suspicion that I, too, was after all at root just another Bobchinsky – in fact, more than that: I suspected that most of us, in the final analysis, were just a crowd of Bobchinskys and Dobchinskys stumbling around in semi-darkness, sending messages to different bigwigs living in the light – excellencies and eminences of various kinds – saying: ‘I exist.’ Not much more to begin with, whatever form our first messages might have taken (essays, poems, papers, a short story or two) – just ‘I exist.’

Gogol’s point was almost certainly religious: without God, even these senators, admirals and, for that matter, the sovereign himself, would also fail to exist in any meaningful way. ‘Corks’ is Gogol’s word: they’re all just common and garden ‘corks’, ‘the sort you seal bottles with’, and nothing more, if there is no God to give their being a particular meaning – an identity, as we might say. I doubt that Sid Vicious or Edith Sitwell, or many of the other notables whose names appear on the spines in the Biography section at your local bookstore, would have agreed with Gogol about their ultimate insignificance in a godless universe, and I’m in two minds about it myself, but Gogol’s viewpoint still gives me pause.

When I see my own first book, A Mother’s Disgrace (1994), an autobiography, or perhaps a memoir, on a bookshop shelf beside biographies of Diaghilev and Dickens, or sandwiched between Roald Dahl and Dawn French (if I’m lucky – it’s often stuck in Fiction), I always avert my eyes. In this parade on the bookshop shelves of the celebrated and the wounded, I feel too blatantly exposed as a cork. I can almost hear Gogol aping Bobchinsky’s unctuous patter as he whispers in my ear: ‘In such-and-such a town, your Excellency, or your Eminence, lives Robert Dessaix.’ After all these years (not all of them spent in total obscurity), I’m Bobchinsky again. At this point I usually take refuge in Crime or Travel. But now I’m going to be braver. Enough averting of the eyes: I’m going to unpick that little ‘knot of anxiety’, first felt a lifetime ago on reading those lines in The Government Inspector. I’m going to stand my ground and ask what sort of storytelling I should be doing to take my place unblushingly beside the bigger Ds. I’d like to talk about recounting penumbral lives, lives that lack the historical significance or celebrity status of lives lived in the limelight. I want to talk about pushing back the dark.

I am not the only Bobchinsky on the shelves, of course. In recent times there has been an explosion of what’s been called ‘life writing’ – (not a term I warm to, I must admit). During his Seymour Biography Lecture four years ago, Richard Holmes said that you would need to read about ten biographies a day to keep up with what was being published in English alone. As a matter of fact, I’ve just finished reading the biography of an American snail, a particular snail, not just any snail, which until recently lived in Maine. (I’ll never step on a snail again.) And beyond the bookshops, blogs, I understand, are numbered in the tens – perhaps by now the hundreds – of millions, publicising the minutiae of private lives, or at least of alter egos. And then there’s Facebook and Twitter and all the other social networking sites allowing both nonentities and celebrities to chronicle the course of their daily existences. Lives are ceaselessly dramatised in the cinema and on television as well – and not just Xerxes’ and Henry VIII’s, either. Indeed, every last Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky in the universe, it would seem, turns up sooner or later on Australian Story or Who Do You Think You Are? (Who indeed?)

But I am less interested in the burgeoning array of forms these narratives take – memoirs, diaries, whole-life chronicles, costume dramas, photographic retrospectives, Facebook pages – than in why this is happening. What do we think we’re doing? What Plutarch or Lytton Strachey or Richard Holmes thought they were doing is more or less clear: they were giving historical figures substance, even a nobility, and our present lives a past, a grounding in something bigger than we are. But what do those of us who are not Solon or Queen Victoria or Paul Keating think we’re doing when we turn our lives into art? And, more interestingly, when does what we do seize our readers’ imaginations most strongly, transfiguring them in a burst of lambent moments? That’s the point, after all, isn’t it.

Well, I know what I thought I was doing when I wrote my first book. I was bringing things that had been hidden out into the light. I was lighting a flare. Something must always be uncovered in life writing: if not new information, then new perceptions, new ways of seeing, new relationships – with the author, sometimes – a new way of styling the self.

When I wrote A Mother’s Disgrace, I was not quite Bobchinsky, whose life is sunk in obscurity, lived out unnoticed in a penumbra of chattering meaninglessness in a town with no name. I was at least on the radio – in any event, I impersonated myself on the radio every week; I’m not sure that I was on the radio. As Borges put it so deftly in his one-page piece called ‘Borges and I’: ‘I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me … I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things … I do not know which of us has written this page.’ I did not always know which of us was talking on the radio. For that matter, which of us is talking now?

If I was indeed on the radio, I was on a station that only a few of the intellectually curious listened to. Yet for all that talking (ten years of it), something remained hidden. I hardly knew what it was until I began writing, but something was obscured. Something always is. Illuminate any private life, for instance, and you'll reveal papered-over cracks in public myths – about adoption in particular, in my case, about mothers and sons, about families. ‘The greatest drama of humanity,’ David Grossman, the Israeli writer, said, ‘is the drama of the family.’ Really? Well, I don’t have one – or not the sort that Grossman has in mind – and never will have. As a narrator, where does this leave me? In addition, like everyone else, I lead a double (or even triple or quadruple) life, not all of it in the light. Fernando Pessoa said that he had a whole orchestra of selves playing away inside him. At the very least, in addition to the viola you heard on Radio National, I had an oboe, a flute, and possibly a triangle tuning up in another room. What’s hidden need not be shameful – it needn’t be a matter of confessing to bigamy or being a cross-dresser or anything sensational. It just has to be a hidden self – or two. A time comes when, to ripen as a human being, you’re ready to reconfigure the self you present to the world, to bring out of hiding the darker sides, the raw or quirky sides, the facets you know some will mock, the unhealed wounds. You want at last to fill out and take your place in the world. Like Bobchinsky – or Dobchinsky, who begged the government inspector (who wasn’t one) to make his illegitimate son legitimate: that was quite close to home – but with more flair.

So when, out of the blue, the chance came to send a message to St Petersburg, I did. I gave myself a life. I gave the voice on the radio roots in the suburbs (and beyond, of course, in Russia), in a certain unfashionable religious cast of mind, in intimate relations, in failed relationships, in origins once considered shameful. The story spiralled like coils of smoke around an emptiness – or at least wisps of story (about dozens of things), the one curling into the other, twisting upwards and inwards, tightening. As a consequence, the emptiness seemed to have a shape – the void was given a shape by the spiral – but it was still a void, a shaft of emptiness.

Perhaps I wrote like that, spinning a looping skein of stories around a silence, to avoid plunging into it. Perhaps the reader kept reading to avoid the same fate. With hindsight, I wonder if that’s what I always do in my books (being a Bobchinsky): give nothingness – or at least incoherence – a shape by unreeling a thread of stories init, as a staircase gives shape to the void in a stairwell.

Some biographies have had a void at their centre because little is known about their subject (not because the lives in question were obscure): biographies of Socrates, for instance, or Cleopatra or even Elizabeth I. Here, too, the writer has had to give a hole a shape by describing the doughnut, as it were, rather than the hole. Virginia Woolf, in her essay ‘The Art of Biography’, got very cross with Lytton Strachey for concocting too much doughnut in Elizabeth’s case, turning biography into art, she said, when it should remain craft. I am not quite sure what Woolf thought the difference was. As far as I’m concerned, if a beautiful hand-made chair can be sat on, it’s craft. If it falls apart when you sit on it, it’s art. An exquisite teapot that pours well is craft. If the tea splashes all over the place, it’s art. I have both kinds.

Be that as it may, at least Socrates’, Cleopatra’s, and Elizabeth’s lives were worth imagining. Nebulous as these figures might now appear, a bit short on detail, we do know that they lived abundantly. They were not mere Bobchinskys, flailing for attention.

When I first started to read biographies – about the time I first read The Government Inspector – the notion of writing a life to give shape to nothingness would not have entered my head. In those days, before bleating narcissistically into the ether became fashionable, one knew one’s place. The life narratives I came across – Tolstoy’s, for example, or Lenin’s or Richard Burton’s or some other worthy’s – were researched retellings of lives that mattered, the lives of the bigwigs in St Petersburg themselves (the senators, admirals, and sovereigns), not just lives that should be brought to their attention. No Bobchinskys there. These were crowded lives, densely woven lives that added up to something, recounted from cradle to grave. This was the heyday of the definitive biography.

Lives such as Rimbaud’s, for instance. To quote from his biographer Graham Robb (also the biographer of Balzac, Baudelaire, Hugo, and, more recently, of Paris itself, biographies of cities being quite the fashion): by the age of twenty-six, Rimbaud had ‘worked as a pedlar, an editorial assistant, barman, farm labourer, language teacher, private tutor, factory worker, docker, mercenary, sailor, tout, cashier and interpreter […] he’d been arrested in three countries and repatriated from three others’. He had been on intimate terms with some of the most remarkable writers and political thinkers of the age, not to mention with Verlaine; committed at least a dozen imprisonable offences with impunity; survived war, revolution, illness, a gunshot wound, his own appalling family, and the Cape of Good Hope. And he had, without meaning to, also altered the course of literary history, changing ideas across the world of what poetry could be. By the age of twenty-six. He still had a whole new life gun-running in East Africa ahead of him. Not a likeable sort of fellow, not a saint, not a pillar of church or state, not a worthy (unlike the subjects of the earliest biographies), but not just Miles Franklin or Elizabeth Taylor, either. Definitely busy. And definitely wounded. A ‘one-man, alternative comédie humaine’, Robb calls him.

Robb, by the way, calls biography an ‘optimistic genre’. I suppose he means that it engenders hope – hope of significance, of coherence, of narrative thrust, of validation, at least in somebody’s sight – the gods’, originally, I assume, or God’s, or the nation’s, or history’s – somebody’s. Nowadays I think that most of us writing up others’ lives, or our own, are more modestly optimistic. We know before we start that redemption is a long shot. We’re more likely to aim, as the best portrait painters do, at a compelling likeness with plenty of sweep.

DessaixRobert Dessaix delivering the Seymour Biography Lecture, National Library of Australia, October 2011 (photographs by Jennifer Green).

But why did I resort with such alacrity to autobiography in the first place all those years ago? (If that’s what A Mother’s Disgrace was. It is fragmented, a curling necklace of arresting moments, far from all-encompassing, opinionated, intimate and at least dotted, if not peppered, with scandalous disclosures – illegitimacy, bathhouse adventures, and so on – the sort of thing that Frenchwomen of slender virtue disclosed in the earliest memoirs, although as a rule about bishops and other pillars of society they had encountered.) But why leap into memoir or autobiography and not have a stab at a novel? One reason is that, like Lytton Strachey (at least according to Virginia Woolf), and, I’m sure, many other writers, I doubted my purely creative powers. And so, like Strachey, I turned to writing a life narrative: my own, interwoven with my mother’s. In fact, I didn’t so much doubt my ability to invent as not even contemplate it. In later books I did invent, up to a point – I certainly telescoped and told stories back to front – although in my second book, Night Letters: A Journey through Switzerland and Italy (1997), which I called a novel, although it sprang from my life as surely as A Mother’s Disgrace had, I felt so selfconscious about writing ‘pure fiction’ that I actually wrote the completely fictional story of the amulet in italics, as if to say: these pages were written by someone else, I’ve inserted them into my story, but I’m not responsible for what he’s written.

On the day I arrived in Paris a few years ago to launch the French edition of Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev (2006)– a memoir, if I must name a genre, about my love affair with Turgenev and his with Pauline Viardot – my publisher and translator took me straight off to lunch from the station so we could get to know each other in person after a year of emailing. At around two o’clock she said to me: ‘Well, I should let you go, I suppose – you’ll be wanting to go and meet Daniel.’ (Daniel pops up at several points in the book as a Parisian friend of mine – a kind of raisonneur figure, asking me awkward questions, bringing me back to earth.) ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘Daniel doesn’t exist. I invented him.’ My publisher was not just nonplussed, but flabbergasted. ‘But he’s so real,’ she said, slowly lowering her expensive spoonful of crème brûlée, ‘so completely French, so believable. Perhaps you should be writing fiction.’ I do, of course, write fiction, as I’ve said, but rarely call it that. I generally call it memoir or autobiography. I gossip. To call what I write ‘fiction’ would raise expectations I can’t fulfil.

The books about Turgenev and Gide (Twilight of Love and Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives, 2009) seem to fit most happily into the very modern subgenre of memoirs of readers’ relationships with writers. Many of you will have read Janet Malcolm’s account of her involvement with Chekhov, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001). Then there is Nicholson Baker’s U and I: A True Story (1991) about his imaginary friendship with John Updike – both of them ludic (playing on the boundary between fact and fiction), both of them unscholarly (or at least unacademic), and both of them as much about the writer’s own thoughts and experience as about the subject’s.

But there was more to it than a simple doubt about my ability to write fiction. When I began writing, like many other Westerners at the end of the twentieth century, I think I was losing faith in the purely fictional narrative. (That’s a phrase I’ve borrowed from David Lodge, by the way, who has ruminated on this loss of faith at length.) I don’t know how widespread this sense that pure fiction is in an exhausted, decadent phase is, but I suspect that many of my contemporaries, both readers and writers, share my ebbing faith.

There is always talk of the death of something, I know – the book, newspapers, conversation, even God – but Mark Davis, for instance, of the University of Melbourne, predicts that ‘reading, studying, writing and publishing literary fiction will increasingly become the preserve of “true believers”’.A small niche market, in other words. Certainly, the Times Literary Supplement these days devotes no more than a few pages to recent fiction. Philosophy, religion, classical studies, history, science, biography, medicine, memoir, travel, criticism, even poetry – almost everything but fiction, it seems, is reviewed in its pages. Yet it was as recently as 1963 that Marguerite Yourcenar said: ‘In our time the novel devours all other forms; one is almost forced to use it as a medium of expression.’ Not any more, one isn’t.

It is tempting to blame postmodernism: the postmodernist sensibility distrusts the very idea that a reality can be captured or created by language, and also disdains the traditional boundaries between genres (between fiction and non-fiction, say, or the autobiographical rant of a stand-up comic and the family memoir of a writer such as Edmund de Waal – indeed, the very boundary between truth and lies, some might say). There may even be something decadent about the arts in general at the present time, something stunted and sickly about the modern fascination with form, and we instinctively know that hybridity could replenish the stock. Certainly, as I wrote A Mother’s Disgrace, I found myself to some extent fictionalising my own autobiography, and then later I found myself infusing my fiction with autobiography and biography: in Night Letters, for instance, or Corfu (2001), or my books about Turgenev and Gide, autobiography, biography, and fiction are interlaced.

Are we also less interested in the twenty-first century in national identity than once we were? Not so long ago it was taken for granted that a good biography would tell us not only all we needed to know about Caravaggio or Shelley or Proust, but also about what it meant to be Italian or British or French at a particular point in history. A good biography was almost like a pilgrimage – a tour of sites of cultural significance. Nowadays I doubt that many either know or think the question of national identity worth asking – at least about themselves. And so we look about to see what other kinds of life narratives might take our fancy. Indeed, from my point of view, the current fashion for nationalist clap-trap in the media signals a crisis of confidence in national identities, a growing suspicion that being ‘Australian’, for instance, means less to many Australians than barracking for the Pies does, say, or being an architect or a Christian. ‘Placelessness’ is the word describing contemporary sensibilities that struck a chord with me most recently. Large numbers of us nowadays float placelessly above the world’s nation-states, cocooned in our own private memories, allegiances, and dreams. At least in the West. And so crave to record our own private lives instead.

David Malouf puts it more gently: our idea of our Australianness, he says, is becoming less pressing – but also more subtle and more complex. I certainly believe that there is a growing disaffection for public life. What, exactly, in Australian public life are thinking Australians meant to identify with at this historical moment? ‘What is Australia, anyway?’ Dante asks in Malouf’s Johnno (1975), one of the first works of Australian fiction I ever read. Even fifteen years ago, when I began writing, it would not have occurred to me to try to capture anything except my own suburban story. I, too, would have been hard pressed – and still am – to articulate what the word ‘Australia’ signified beyond its obvious geographical meaning. And so we retreat into private lives, which were not, broadly speaking, the subject of biographies in the English-speaking world until about two hundred years ago. If pure fiction is losing its mass appeal, though, or at least its pre-eminence, pure fact may not be faring much better. For a start, we’re awash with facts these days, swamped by wave after wave of them from the moment we wake up in the morning. Sometimes, while the kettle’s boiling, I make up a word – just random syllables that come into my mind – and then google it to see what happens. Without exception a fact pops up: my little spurt of gibberish turns out to be a town in Albania or a politician from Uttar Pradesh, a boy band in Nova Scotia or the Chinese word for octopus. My fantasy turns out to be a fact. And when it comes to the past, I suspect that the facts now belong on the Internet. If what you want is the facts about some worthy’s life, or even some nonentity’s, then go to Wikipedia. What we now want from a biography, I think, or autobiography, is the very thing that Virginia Woolf, writing seven decades ago, said that we have no right to want: art – not only art, obviously, but art nevertheless. Which is why Christopher Hitchens’s rather savage attack on The King’s Speech and the film’s light-fingered approach to history missed its mark: we don’t go to the cinema for a history lesson, we go to be transported – by art. We’re adults, we know legerdemain when we see it. What we object to is shoddy legerdemain, not sleight of hand in itself. And we love the illumination of dark corners of the soul, having quite a few of our own, if we’re honest with ourselves. Throw in a king or two, a war and Wallis Simpson, and you’ve got it made.

When I began writing, there was no Internet, no Wikipedia – there were libraries and archives – but I think I knew enough about myself after a decade or two impersonating a scholar at various academic institutions, writing the usual sort of scholarly article for journals that virtually nobody read, and even a book or two (so little read that I actually burnt a pile of them in the backyard to free up a bit of storage space in the cupboards in my house) – I think I knew enough about myself when I began writing real books to know that the mere arrangement of facts was not my forte. In any case, as a Bobchinsky (more or less – certainly not a Tony Blair or David Bowie), the facts about my life – birth, adoption, school, university, marriage, divorce, realignment – were hardly worth chronicling for their own sake. The public would have to be seduced into reading about my life by something else. The question was: by what? The main themes of nineteenth-century novels, as Ian McEwan has pithily observed, are present in any tribe of bonobos: ‘alliances made and broken, individuals rising while others fall, plots hatched, revenge, gratitude, injured pride, successful and unsuccessful courtship, bereavement and mourning.’ So it’s all in the telling, isn’t it. Artful retelling is the non-bonobo bit of what I do. That’s what I meant when I said that I’d like to talk, not just about what we think we’re doing when we write about our own lives or others’, but about what will seize readers’ imaginations and transfigure them. It’s not such a problem for the biographers of Agatha Christie or Colette, but, for all the Bobchinskys and Dobchinskys now sending messages to the capital, it is.

Firstly, from a storytelling point of view, there must be an event that changes us, a kind of nub to loop around, something to kick-start the spiralling. It could be anything – any small epiphany, anything (as I say in Arabesques) ‘that fits like a key into the clamp on our soul, unlocks it and throws it wide open, letting who we are come spilling out at last’. Even when I’m writing a memoir through the prism of someone who is far from being a nonentity – Turgenev, for instance, or Gide – I like to circle around an epiphany in his life: falling in love for life at the opera, agreeing to have coffee with Oscar Wilde in the casbah in Algiers. In the case of my first book, it was the first meeting with my biological mother when I was in my mid-forties. What, you might ask, is seductive about that particular twist in my tale? Who, apart from my mother and me, would care whether I met her or not? Almost nobody is interested in what I have encountered on my journey through life, but almost everybody is interested in mothers, questions of blood, and in how selves are fashioned, particularly their own. Almost everyone is interested in unspooling their own lives from time to time and rummaging amongst the loops and curls. My life is there (as Balzac’s, say, or Chatwin’s, probably isn’t) to give my readers the words to reconfigure their own.

Perhaps that sounds a little abstract, a touch bland. It’s not just a matter of getting readers to retell their own lives as they read. A good book, according to the English author Michael Morpurgo, ‘finds cracks’ in the reader. It ‘seeks out’ these cracks and, I assume, worries at them, lays them bare. This chimes with my own experience as a writer. Virtually every letter I have received from readers of my books begins: ‘Thank you for this book’ and then switches to retelling the reader’s life –  sometimes at great length – taking pleasure in the dovetailing of our lives, as well as in the differences between them, in the fresh perspectives on mothers or adoption or Russia or religion or some other element in my story, in the restyling of the self that a good book offers, rather than in information. And then it homes in on one of the fault-lines that my book has shone a light on – a breach or fault-line in the reader’s sense of self, not mine. Naming it in the light of what I have written seems to give pleasure. Morpurgo might be right – it might be desirable in any book to keep us under its spell – but in the autobiography of a Bobchinsky it may well be essential.

But there’s more to it than simply coming up with a dramatic twist to fan out from or seducing the reader into complicity with your story, tricks no traditional subject of a biography or autobiography – no Thucydides, Thackeray, or Thatcher – would need to stoop to. What ‘seizes the readers’ imagination and transfigures it’ is art. Virginia Woolf, in her essay, was insistent in that rather bossy way of hers that biography was craft, not art, ‘a rest from the intense world of the imagination’, and that while Strachey’s biography of Queen Victoria was a ‘triumph’, because craft of the highest order, his biography of Elizabeth I was a ‘failure’ because he ‘treated biography as an art’, flouting its limitations. Art conferred immortality on its subjects, she believed, something craft could not do. Falstaff, she said, would outlive Dr Johnson.

Pearl Buck, the American writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1938 for her ‘rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life and for her biographical masterpieces’, was even more brutal. ‘Fiction is painting,’ she said, ‘biography is photography. Fiction is creation, biography is arrangement.’

From a modern perspective, the distinctions drawn between art and craft, painting and photography, and, by inference, between fiction and fact, are surely misleading, if not spurious, at least in any discussion of biography and autobiography. (And, for that matter, photography, while it undoubtedly has its limitations, could scarcely be dismissed as ‘arrangement’ or ‘craft’ these days.) I would certainly like to think that, while I may not be able to offer my readers much unalloyed fiction, I can and do offer art.

In other words, I believe that, to be worth reading, the biography or autobiography of an Australian who is not a celebrity, who has no honoured place in history and whose life, while not uninteresting, is hardly marked by any towering achievement or swirl of incident, must be a work of art.

After all, whatever else it is, art is performance – and I think back here to what the man Borges wrote about his famous double, the writer Jorge Luis Borges, ‘the one things happen to’, as he put it, the one in the biographical dictionary, the one people write letters to, the one who shares his preferences for coffee, Stevenson, hourglasses and maps, but ‘in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor’. An actor – that’s the point. For those of us who are not Borges – or Bogart or Boyd or Baryshnikov – the performance of our storytelling is all we’ve got.

A writer with a keen sense of how spurious this banishment of art from biography can be is the British playwright David Hare. Hare’s plays tend to be about current events – Bush and Blair planning the invasion of Iraq, Foreign Office complicity in torture, and, in his most recent play, The Power of Yes (2009), the role played by the banks in the global financial crisis. They are firmly rooted in verifiable facts. But that’s not why audiences flock to see them. ‘Art is life with the mystery restored,’ Hare said last year in his punchy Garrick Lecture for the Royal Society of Literature in London, contrasting art not with craft but with journalism, which, he said, is ‘life with the mystery taken out’. He ridiculed the notion that his imagination should be limited to ‘the facts’. His plays were not ‘journalism’. They were art because they had a metaphorical dimension. Unlike a Rolls Royce aircraft engine, for instance, which Norman Tebbit declared on the BBC to be not only art, but more beautiful than most things artists created, his plays offered metaphors for other things. Iraq in Hare’s play was not just Iraq. Unlike a documentary about Iraq, where Iraq just stands for itself, his plays are about war, betrayal, humanity, power. He has transformed Iraq. The artist’s only obligation is to make it clear that the work is a work of art – an exercise in transformation; to make it clear, in Hare’s words, that he or she is asking questions of us, rather than for us, as a journalist (or John Howard in his memoirs, say) might do (a telling distinction, I think); to make it clear that the aim is to give facts shape and meaning for the pleasure of the reader or viewer, and not just to record ‘clumsy Life … at her stupid work’, to quote Henry James. It’s not the only thing you can do with facts, but it’s what an artist does.

Some writers are tempted to go even further. Fiction ‘frees us’ from mere facts, according to Romesh Gunesekera, the prize-winning Sri Lankan novelist, and moves us into the realm of the imagination. It is ‘playing with the interface between fact and fiction’ that excites readers and writers alike. Gunesekera is, of course, a fiction writer, so he and a biographer are approaching this interface from opposite directions. As Beryl Bainbridge, another fiction writer, put it: ‘when I write a novel, I’m writing about my own life. I’m writing biography almost always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end.’ But I think he’s right about the excitement. The traditional subjects of biography – the Lenins and Koestlers and Mandelas and Betjemans – may not need freeing from anything. But the peripheral and unremarkable do.

Now for a touch of voodoo. The Lenins, Koestlers, Mandelas, and Betjemans have an attribute that most of us don’t, at first glance, have, and finding the right words to describe it can leave even the most rational amongst us sounding a little like a shaman or a medium. According to the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, a researcher in what he calls ‘the new science of why we like what we like’, celebrities (Obama, Kennedy, Mahler, Britney Spears, Susan Sontag – take your pick), anyone we apprehend as irreplaceable in either the public or private sphere (Mary MacKillop, Hitler, your grandmother, your beloved), are perceived to have an inner essence, a kind of hyperreal presence, a soul, as we once said, that transcends the ‘facts’ of their bodily existence in the world. The mere proximity of the Dalai Lama or Kylie Minogue is experienced (by many) as emanating a power invisible to the senses. It always did, of course – hence all those saintly relics from the Middle Ages and pieces of the True Cross onto which essences are believed to have rubbed off. We don’t go on pilgrimages so often any more to feel touched by this mysterious life force that our reason tells us cannot exist. Instead, we consult eBay. ‘Authentic sock Britney ran over’, reads a recent post there. ‘The actual sock worn by a TMZ cameraman Thursday when Brit drove over his foot. Tire tread guaranteed authentic.’ Marilyn Monroe’s billowing white dress fetched more than four million dollars, John F. Kennedy’s golf clubs sold for nearly $800,000, a bid of $10,000 was made for Obama’s half-eaten breakfast, a copy of Mahler’s Third Symphony, with corrections and revisions in his own hand, recently went up for auction for between £100,000 and £150,000. On a private level, you might prize paintings by your children, or your grandmother’s sewing case, beyond anything a dealer would be likely to offer you for these objects. We think we’re far too sophisticated to believe in essential presences in objects or bodies, but Bloom’s statistics demonstrate that we’re still half under the old spell. And a perfect replica of an object touched by a celebrity will not do: nothing adheres to it, no mana, aura, essence, or what I can’t help thinking of as ‘fairy dust’. If you want to be rational about it, you might say that such an object has no history of its own.

Similarly, when we’re invited by a writer inside a celebrity’s life, we enter – irrationally or not, it doesn’t matter – an enchanted realm. Even Hilary Spurling has spoken of ‘finding the essence of a person’ in her biographies – not quite the same thing as finding the essence of Marilyn Monroe’s dress, but it’s evidence of how hard it is for us to avoid this kind of language. An article by Lee Tulloch in Portrait magazine from the National Portrait Gallery about the photographic portraitist Stuart Campbell is titled ‘The Essence of You’ – that’s the word that sprang to mind to describe what Campbell captured with his camera. Invited inside my life, on the other hand, you would not find yourself in an enchanted realm. To coax you inside my realm, and keep you there, I must trick you with art. I must offer you an intimacy with your own stylised essence, and, through voice and language, give you a sense of a focused presence you can have converse with.

Not actually believing in these essences or manas or auras, whether Kennedy’s or St James’s or my own mother’s, or at least not in inherent essences, I am constantly aware that what I am doing is legerdemain, not real magic. This awareness – that in some metaphysical sense there is nobody there, just an effervescence – is, I think, part of the void at the heart of my writing, the emptiness I swirl around spinning tales. I will try to give the void my writing corkscrews around a more definite name, but not quite yet.

Does intimacy have anything to do with the kind of seduction techniques I’m talking about? I tend to think it does. Perhaps seduction always promises intimacy of one kind or another – an enticingly deep knowledge, the unashamed disclosure of what to others is veiled, an access to innerness. It is this kind of intimacy that the unknown autobiographer or memoirist can offer the reader – intimacy with the narrator. It is not the intimacy of the blog, mind, which is no more intimate than striptease is. The intimacy that the unknown writer must strive for (through cadence, rhythm, register, and the illusion of physical presence) feels like the intimacy of two close friends talking trustingly with each other. The writer must seem to be saying: ‘Only you and I will know this.’ It won’t be true, but no seducer relies on the truth to lure the object of his desires.

Real intimacy with grand historical figures – with Catherine the Great or Che Guevara – will mostly be an illusion, although it’s an illusion that a skilled memoirist or biographer might succeed in weaving. I felt oddly intimate with Manoly Lascaris, I must admit, as I read Vrasidas Karalis’s Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris (2008) – a series of conversations with Patrick White’s companion – not only because I could hear Manoly’s voice (and that always helps, as Frances Spalding mentioned in her 2010 Seymour Lecture), but also, I think, because Karalis slowly teased me into feeling intimate with him, the writer. In the end I felt deliciously led astray. And also by Rimbaud (unexpectedly), in Graham Robb’s biography. There it’s the quality of the light Robb throws on certain things in Rimbaud’s life. These illuminations seem so individually chosen, so targeted, carried out by torchlight, as it were, not all-encompassing. Seduction is much harder to achieve in the full light of day.

And so I come full circle to the nub of what I wanted to say. It is, as I hinted at the beginning, about light. ‘I was bringing things that had been hidden out into the light,’ I said about my first book. ‘I was lighting a flare.’ Now, that is true. But why was I doing that? It’s not as if the world was waiting with baited breath for my revelations. Who cared about my hidden selves? To be honest, I was actually casting another kind of light. Through language, the only torch I have. In E.M. Forster’s phrase about Virginia Woolf’s language, I was ‘pushing against the dark’ – not just the dark that certain hidden selves were crouched in, but a more powerful dark, the dark that, as we grow older, we all feel stealing over us, blotting out inch by inch what we have loved and who we have been – the dark my gleaming spirals circle around. The act of writing is an act of resistance against the mortal condition – not mortality, but the mortal condition, and not in the sense of winning the writer immortality of the clichéd kind, the immortality we might speak of in connection with Homer or Shakespeare, but in the sense of deepening and magnifying the lived moment while writing. Every syllable I coax from my mind is a push against the dark, a small beam of light that dares the dark to snuff it out. I write to stave off time, to stave off nothingness.

‘In such-and-such a town lives Pyotr Ivanovych Bobchinsky. Just say that …’

This is an edited version of the 2011 Seymour Biography Lecture, which Robert Dessaix delivered at the National Library of Australia on 24 October 2011 and repeated during Adelaide Writers’ Week, on 8 March 2012. The Seymour Lecture is supported by John and Heather Seymour, the National Library, and ABR. We have published three previous Seymour Lectures, all of which are still available in print:

Lawrence Goldman, ‘Virtual Lives: History and Biography in an Electronic Age’ (June 2007)
Richard Holmes, ‘Biography: The Past Has a Great Future’ (November 2008)
Frances Spalding, ‘The Biographer’s Contract’ (February 2011)

 

 

CONTENTS: APRIL 2012

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  • Custom Article Title 'Pushing against the dark: Writing about the hidden self' by Robert Dessaix (2011 Seymour Biography Lecture)
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As contemporary author fan bases go, Margaret Atwood’s must be among the broadest. She is read at crèches, on university campuses, and in nursing homes. Feminists, birders, and would-be writers jostle to see her perform at literary festivals. Yet despite an Arthur C. Clarke Award and, in her own words, ‘three full-length fictions that nobody would ever class as sociological realism’, she has had a rather more rocky time of it with science fiction enthusiasts.

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  • Custom Article Title Melinda Harvey reviews Margaret Atwood's 'In Other Worlds'
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    As contemporary author fan bases go, Margaret Atwood’s must be among the broadest. She is read at crèches, on university campuses, and in nursing homes. Feminists, birders, and would-be writers jostle to see her perform at literary festivals. Yet despite an Arthur C. Clarke Award and, in her own words ...

  • Book Title In Other Worlds
  • Book Author Margaret Atwood
  • Book Subtitle SF and the Human Imagination
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Virago, $40 hb, 272 pp, 9781844087112

British author Glen Duncan released his eighth novel this year, the title of which, The Last Werewolf, is fairly self-explanatory. Although a much more philosophical (and entertaining) read than one might imagine in our current supernaturally-dominated ‘box-office’ novel landscape, Duncan’s book was a marked departure from an author better known for his explicitly literary output. Of his previous seven novels, only one, I, Lucifer (2002), deviated into genre and found a wider readership. Although this story of the Devil transplanted into the body of a failed writer was optioned, and A-list actors such as Jude Law, Ewan McGregor, Daniel Craig, and – ahem – Vin Diesel all dallied with the notion of strapping on horns and a forked tail, no movie has yet appeared. The Last Werewolf stands a much better chance of being adapted for the silver screen, given its purchase by Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free.

Scott notably purchased the film rights to another literary writer’s stab at a blockbuster last year, Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic vampire romp The Passage (2010). When will we stop making films about werewolves and vampires, you may well ask. Probably never. A more interesting question posed by this series of events is why well-respected literary authors are writing novels about them. Glen Duncan’s response during an interview with Anita Barraud on Radio National’s The Book Show, broadcast on 11 April 2011, was both honest and troubling.

It was undertaken initially in a rather mercenary spirit, given that the novel that came before it, A Day and a Night and a Day, had performed exactly as its six predecessors had, which is to say not enough people bought it and it didn’t win anything. I ended up having a conversation with my agent in which I said if I write another novel more or less like that, will you be able to find a publisher for it? And he, rather nauseatingly and simultaneously refreshingly said ‘No’. So the intention at the outset was to write a straight commercial genre novel. It was meant to be a fairly clinical exercise. But very, very quickly it became apparent that this was a great arena for actually writing about the things I wanted to write about in any case. And so it was a happy, accidental consummation.

This may have worked out well financially for both Duncan and Cronin (who earned an advance in the millions for The Passage and its film rights), and may have brought both authors wider name recognition, as well as tying them up creatively for the next few years (both are working on trilogies), but it does make me wonder about the career options for mid-list literary novelists. Has the rapidly changing publishing industry altered the career path of authors, whether they like it or not? Are authors under more pressure than in the past, from within or without, to tailor their content in order to be more commercially viable, and is that necessarily a bad thing? Is it still possible to have a career as a literary novelist? If not, how long before we see a Toni Morrison vampire trilogy?

In a vibrant Australian publishing landscape, a plethora of book award ceremonies keep literary novels in the spotlight, though commercial success does not necessarily follow. Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian, had championed Stephen Daisley’s book, Traitor, several times on his blog A Pair of Ragged Claws prior to its winning the fiction prize in the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Romei was delighted with the result: ‘He collects $80,000 tax free for today’s win. I also hope the publicity will encourage more people to buy his book, which has sold not much at all, even by debut Australian novel standards.’

It is rare for an Australian literary novel to find the sort of commercial success that Duncan and Cronin have tapped into by lending their literary chops to more commercially popular subjects. Despite the evident merits of Daisley’s novel, there are a limited number of readers in Australia willing to invest time and money in stepping outside of their popular fiction comfort zone.

This may not always have been the case. Writers such as Peter Carey have won Man Booker Prizes with nary a lycanthrope in sight. Surprisingly, when I approached Carey for his thoughts on the matter, he initially felt he was too old to address the issue of literary career viability.

I grew up in a time when I never, not for a second, expected to make a living from writing literary fiction. And while I desperately wished to be published in the UK and USA the odds seemed very long indeed.Yet, by the late 1980s and 1990s the world had changed, forever so it seemed. Australian writers were being read and praised the world over. Midnight’s Children was a best seller. Andrew Wiley made a huge deal for Martin Amis and it seemed literary writers could give up their second jobs. Now it’s 2011 and there is, you tell me, an agent advising a literary writer he has to be more commercial. It’s easy enough to imagine a writer feeling that he or she had no choice but to follow that advice. After ten or twenty years of full-time writing, what the hell else can the writer do? But how in the hell do you be more commercial? Does anybody know?

Since 1974, when I first published, my only successes have come from the most unlikely ideas. A gambling tortured clergyman and the heiress of a glass factory? Really? You think that’s sexy? They’re going to float a glass church down a river? We’ll call you back. And then you wish to write about an Australian bushranger and you think they’ll want to read that in Bentdick, Mississippi? Oh, and you’re going to leave out all the commas and run the sentences together? Then tell me this – would you rather shoot yourself?

Yes, I would like to sell more books in what is called a ‘down market for literary fiction’, but I have no idea how I could do it. Being told to be more commercial would not work well with someone of my character. As James Thurber wrote of himself: ‘Easy to arouse, he is very hard to quiet, and people normally just walk away.’ When I write a novel, I’m just doing the thing I know how to do. The result, sometimes, is a commercial success and sometimes, well, let’s say sometimes I sell fewer books. Bryce Courtenay says he could easily write books like mine, and I believe him. He also says I couldn’t write like him. He’s correct again. A hundred William Morris agents couldn’t teach me how.

Writing any good novel is a high wire act. This is enough for any writer to worry about without getting dizzy about what some ‘market’ wants. In fact, as many publishers will tell you, they don’t know what a market wants. And most importantly, the market doesn’t know. It does not have the tiniest clue until it sees it, something, naturally, like nothing it could possibly imagine.

In his novel Theft: A Love Story (2006), Carey coined the geographical location of Bentdick, Mississippi, during one of Butcher Bones’s tirades against the art world, a passage that could equally be applied to publishing.

But it was all the same everywhere: everyone who loved me was trying to get me up to date. Sometimes it seemed there was not a place on Earth, no little town with flies crawling inside the baker shop window, where there was not also some graduate student in a Corbusier bow tie who was now, this instant, reading the party line in Studio International and ARTnews and all of them were in a great sweat to get me up to date, to free me not only from the old-fashioned brush stroke but from any reference to the world itself.

These were weighty issues, but the first question the Manhattan dealers asked me was of a different order: ‘What are the names and phone numbers of your collectors?’

And the next question would be: ‘When was your most recent auction sale?’

And then, when they actually looked at the canvas, they would silently ask themselves, What the fuck is this?

All dark and comfortless. They had no eye, only a nose for the market and I smelled to them like some demented Jesus fool living in a cotton town in Bentdick, Mississippi.

But I am Butcher Bones, a thieving cunning man and I made this beautiful seven-foot-high monster with my greens and my Dutch canvas and when it was done, and I had cropped it, the result was twenty-one feet long and its bones, its ribs, vertebrae, wretched broken fingers, were made from light and mathematics.

Even in this short excerpt, the power and beauty of Carey’s prose is evident. Readers can be thankful that he stuck to his guns and produced the novels that he wanted to write rather than those he felt he ought to write. That his oeuvre has found frequent critical acclaim is heartening, though his royalties are probably a fraction of Justin Cronin’s. As so many writers do, Carey teaches, at Hunter College in New York, alongside fellow prize-winning novelists Colum McCann and Nathan Englander.

In the absence of long-term financial security – if teaching, criticism and journalism are vital sources of income for writers even of Carey’s pedigree – how do authors further down the food chain survive in order to write books? Sophie Cunningham, former Meanjin editor and author of the novels Geography (2004) and Bird (2008), and of the non-fiction work Melbourne (2011), has a pessimistic view, and it is easy to sympathise with her. Cunningham’s third novel, This Devastating Fever, about Leonard Woolf, has been in stasis for the best part of a decade. The excerpt I have heard her read in public was reminiscent of Carey at his best, but there is still no sign of this intriguing book.

I certainly think that any author – as Duncan found – who wants a long-term career as a writer is now under pressure to write ‘commercial’ books. Publishers are less likely to take books on, whatever a writer’s track record, advances are going down, and you’re more likely to be asked to complete the entire work before a commitment is made. Ways in which writers have traditionally made money (teaching, writing, journalism, etc.) are paying less (literally, not just relatively). The publishing industry and bookshops are employing fewer and fewer staff – both these industries have traditionally employed writers. My Twitter profile reads – ‘I used to work in publishing but don’t think I can take it much longer. I am also a yogini. I like ancient grains and cats.’ I’m not actually joking.

I can’t afford to finish my novel and I’ve been told I can’t sell it when it’s only half written, so I’m trying to do other bits and pieces of work, and to work on some more commercial writing projects. In my case this means writing non-fiction, which I very much enjoy – in some ways enjoy more – so it’s not a compromise I’m unhappy with. But it was made because I cannot sustain myself by writing novels. Very few writers can. You can’t exactly blame publishers for this – they can’t continue to run a business publishing books that don’t sell.

Finding the formula that strikes a perfect balance between literary merit and commercial viability has long been the Holy Grail for authors and publishers. Publishers are often accused of being the fly in the ointment in this process, and while there are many cases of publishing houses passing on books that went on to become critically acclaimed successes, the other side of the story is almost never mentioned. Joyce’s The Dubliners was rejected twenty-two times; Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance one hundred and twenty-one times; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind thirty-eight times before winning the Pulitzer Prize; Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune twenty-three times – all quite mystifying decisions, suggesting that publishers don’t have a clue. Of course, they do have a clue; otherwise they would have gone out of business long ago. What we don’t hear about are all the shrewd decisions: the thousands of manuscripts rejected due to their lack of literary merit or commercial potential. Many egos have been bruised along the way, but if a manuscript fails to exhibit a suitable combination of the qualities needed by a publishing house, the author must return to the drawing board with good grace.

Peter-CareyPeter Carey

As Carey suggests, no one really knows what makes a novel commercial. Unlikely tales of success are not limited to the realms of Hogwarts and Robert Langdon. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose has sold more than fifty million copies since its publication in 1994. Although Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap (2008) has yet to scale such dizzy heights, several hundred thousand copies have crossed the counter. It is not unknown for ‘serious’ literature to achieve excellent sales figures. While an author may have no idea if the manuscript she is working on will be a raging sales success that prolongs her career for a few more years, or a dismal commercial failure that has her scanning the employment pages, is it possible to influence the outcome by being circumspect in choosing which novel idea to develop? Do writers have a duty to their publishers and themselves to select from their pool of ideas those stories with a better chance of resonating with readers? Brisbane author Nick Earls is a career writer whose eighth novel, The Fix, came out this year; he is also well known for his five Young Adult novels and numerous short stories.

I do think, at least sometimes, about commercial viability. I don’t want to be non-viable. Being non-viable sounds like you’re one step short of being broken up for parts. As a simple matter of personal preference, I happen to be not very interested in most of the kinds of books that sell millions of copies, and it used to be okay not to be – okay to sell tens of thousands of copies in each of a number of countries. That’s viable as a job, but the publishers in each of those countries are no longer always seeing it that way. Lose a few countries, start to drop numbers in your home market and all of a sudden viability is on the line.

It makes simple business sense to see if you can diversify your product line, but there are limits to that, for me anyway. I’d still have to be excited about the idea and where it might take me, for two reasons. I’m in this job because I love it. If I pushed myself to write something I didn’t even like, maybe I should be looking at a different job. Also, I couldn’t be Stephenie Meyer, Lee Child, or Matt Riley if I tried. It’s not my thing, so I’d do a half-arsed job at it and it’d get me nowhere.

So, I have to look at my range – at the range of things I might be genuinely drawn to write about – and then I think it’s reasonable to start thinking, ‘Which of these stories might people want to read?’ I did that for the first time in 1994 when I was in a career hole. My short stories had sunk and I’d had two subsequent novel manuscripts rejected. I had six piles of ideas. I’d been trying to be a writer since school, in 1978. I had outsmarted myself and was writing work six people might be fascinated by, and there’s no career in that. I told myself to make a career choice. If I was equally excited about all six piles of ideas, I should pick the two that some people might actually like, I should write them and, if they got me nowhere, I should stop. They both ended up published, and are both still in print.

I’m not as pragmatic as some people and perhaps not as pragmatic as I should be, but, on the other hand, this shed is no ivory tower. I think about the marketplace sometimes, but to me it feels like there’s no point in going to it if I’m not excited about my wares. One day that may be the end of me, but I’m pretty convinced I’d write a crappy werewolf novel and have a bad time doing it. I’m going to leave that to people who want to do it, even if it means I end up watching them all drive by in Bentleys.

I have to write as if my current contract could be my last roll of the dice, but maybe that’s how we should write all the time anyway. Complacency never wrote a great novel.

Given the rise of social media and the increased interaction between the public and those in the public eye – be they actors, musicians, hotel heiresses, or novelists – writers are encouraged, even expected, to participate in the sales process. Just as actors travel the globe promoting their latest film in a never-ending series of repetitive interviews, authors now find themselves in a similar position. Awards ceremonies, writers’ festivals, interviews, author talks, readings, Q&A sessions, library and book club presentations – these are some of the myriad activities that authors can look forward to – or dread.

While not every shy and retiring writer is well suited to this whirlwind of publicity, it is relatively easy to forgive publishers for thrusting such a schedule of personal appearances on their literary stars. Books are in direct competition with a wide array of other media and publishers must at least attempt to play the same game as other creative disciplines if they are to survive. In such an environment, rock stars are entirely necessary – the everyday men and women whose names are synonymous with fame and fortune, achieved through the simple transference of an idea into a Word document and thence the crisp pages of a book or the reassuring slate landscape of an e-reader. J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Charlaine Harris, Jonathan Franzen – these gods of popular literature form a pantheon that is irresistible both to their legions of adoring fans and to the thousands of writers, aspiring and established, who trail in their wake.

Sydney-based author and playwright Mardi McConnochie released her fourth novel this year, The Voyagers: A Love Story.

I think there is an element of literary authors wanting to get some of the love that genre authors get. I had one of those writers’ festival experiences recently at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, one I’m sure all authors who’ve ever done a festival can relate to. After one of my sessions I turned up for my signing to find a queue that went out the door, down the street and out onto the footpath, being vigorously patrolled by facilitators who were shouting ‘only one book per person!’ and writing everybody’s names down on Post-it notes, which they stuck to the title page in order to speed up the signing process. There were hundreds of readers there, mostly but not exclusively young women, all carrying large stacks of books and all in a state of high excitement about meeting the author – Cassandra Clare, the author of several best-selling fantasy series. As I gratefully signed my one or two books I couldn’t help but be aware of the hullaballoo down the table and to wonder, how could I get some of that action?

There have always been authors with enthusiastic fan bases. What has changed has been the rise of the mega-successful author and our awareness that this kind of success is possible. Because once it starts to seem possible, an expectation begins to arise that maybe this is something you could, and should, aspire to. Publishers are all looking for the next big thing – of course, why wouldn’t they be? But authors too are more aware that this is possible and many of us want a piece of that: the sales, the adulation, the attention. There probably are writers out there who aren’t interested in reaching a lot of people, because what they have to say isn’t going to interest the vast majority of people; but there are many more of us, I think, who find the idea of spending years of your life on a book only fifteen hundred people read sad and depressing. I’d like to think that I’ve written something that connects with people, and hey, the more the merrier. The model of mega-success is unhelpful for most of us, since we’re not going to achieve it; but it is increasingly difficult to ignore.

I have never been asked to write a more commercial novel by either an agent or a publisher, possibly because what I write is closer to mid-list than highbrow anyway. But I would be surprised by any agent who gave their client such bad advice. I strongly believe that cynically chasing the market is not a recipe for success. Novels should come from some genuine excitement or engagement with your subject matter; writing a werewolf novel, or a vampire novel, or a child-in-the-Holocaust novel just because you think they’re hot right now is just not going to work. You’ll get bored, and readers will sniff out your insincerity and stay away. If you think you have something genuinely new and exciting to bring to a popular genre, then go for your life. But if you’re doing it because you think it will help build your career, forget it, because it almost certainly won’t.

Not all authors can find a place in this vaunted pantheon; nor should they. Like any other job, literature has its high earners at the top of their game and high earners who don’t produce quality work, followed by a range of excellent, competent, and sub-par scribes ranking somewhere below in terms of talent or financial status. Many in the latter camp will inevitably fall away and try their hand at something else. One has to believe that genuine talent and perseverance will eventually be recognised.

The concern with regards to contemporary publishing is that too many of the middle ranks are becoming extinct. A situation is forming, if indeed it has not already formed, wherein the multitude of hopefuls at the lower end of the scale aspire only to become their opposite. Consumed with the thought of an unknown J.K. Rowling scribbling her tale of a boy wizard in the corner of an Edinburgh café, the notion of forging a career as a mid-list author who creates a normal life around their work is anathema. Nick Earls again:

Garrison Keillor last year in the New York Times said ‘the future of publishing [is] 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.’ As far as novelists go, we’ll still need new stories and people to tell them. I just hope there’s room for a range of voices to be heard above the noise. My fear is that, of Garrison Keillor’s 18 million authors, three of them will be earning ten million bucks a year and the other 17,999,997 will be earning eight cents each. I’d like to see a broader base to commercial viability. I’d like to see a lot of authors paying off regular mortgages with their earnings, and doing better than that, and writing without the stress of  non-viability lurking around the next corner.

With traditional employment alternatives for writers such as teaching, working in bookstores and at publishing houses diminishing at an alarming rate, the mid-list of authors who simply want to make a reasonable living from their work is in real danger of vanishing. Publishers are being forced into make-or-break scenarios as the desperate need to find the next blockbuster drains resources that might be employed in assisting mid-list authors to maintain a healthy career. Despite this, those select few whose work does reap a cash bonanza are vital to the survival of an industry under threat from a dizzying array of angles.

Given such pressures, it may no longer be possible to forge a career as a distinctly literary author without another career of some kind for security. Those interested in creating such work can look forward to producing it while working in another capacity, probably unrelated to the book world. Should they be published, the print run is likely to be tiny. Whatever brand of critical reception they receive – hot, lukewarm, frigid – it will make scant difference to their success or failure, or to the prospect of a third or fourth book. A major literary prize may help, ensuring that another book appears, but barring the unlikely crossover of a literary work onto the shelves of Target or WH Smith, the career prospects of tomorrow’s Peter Carey look fraught. Which may mean we are witnessing just the beginning of an onslaught of vampires, zombies, and lycanthropes, albeit beautifully composed. The last werewolf is yet to be written.

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It’s not often that literature makes the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, but on 3 November 2006 the lead story was a report by David Marr about the National Library of Australia’s purchase of a collection of Patrick White’s papers, previously thought destroyed. Other media, both in Australia and internationally, picked up the story. The Times Literary Supplement ran a major essay on White by David Malouf (5 January 2007), while ABR carried a piece by Marie-Louise Ayres, the Library’s Curator of Manuscripts (April 2007), in which she described the material and indicated some of the insights it provided.

Four years on, it is possible to say more about the ways in which this new material illuminates the writing life of Patrick White. There has been revived interest in his work, not all directly occasioned by the new manuscripts. Sales of his novels were boosted this year when The Vivisector was shortlisted for the Lost Booker Prize; and a film of The Eye of the Storm, starring Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis, and Geoffrey Rush, and a chamber opera based on The Cockatoos, are in preparation. Remembering Patrick White: Contemporary Critical Essays, edited by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas (Rodopi), and generated by a conference held in 2007 to celebrate Voss’s half century, was published in 2010.

In June 2010, another conference, ‘Patrick White: Modernist Impact/Critical Futures’, was held at the University of London’s Institute of English Studies. David Marr spoke on ‘The London White’, and papers by scholars from Britain, Europe, the United States, and Australia discussed many aspects of White’s achievement. There was consideration of White’s relation to his contemporaries Christina Stead, Iris Murdoch, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, as well as to Manning Clark and Barry Humphries. The postmodern aspects of his late works were highlighted. Elizabeth Schafer, in ‘A Ham Funeral: Patrick White, Collaboration and Neil Armfield’, argued that in his productions of White’s plays over twenty years, Armfield has been in effect collaborating with White, the productions generating an implied critique of the plays.

A similar emphasis emerged from ‘The Voss Journey’, a public event that was also an extraordinary exercise in scholarly recuperation, held in Canberra in May 2009. Its focus was on Voss (1957) and its afterlife: the 1986 opera, and various attempts (still ongoing) to produce a film. Many of those involved in the opera production participated: David Malouf, the librettist; Moffatt Oxenbould, then artistic director of Opera Australia; Jim Sharman, the director; and, especially memorable, Geoffrey Chard (Voss) and Marilyn Richardson (Laura). The joint curators, Vincent Plush and Robyn Holmes, are preparing a comprehensive narrative exploring the history of Voss, to be made available online and through the collections of the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive.

Significantly, ‘The Voss Journey’ located White in the context of the flowering of Australian performance culture in the 1970s. It foregrounded the importance of his relationships with key figures of that flowering, such as Jim Sharman. Such a perspective situates White in an Australian, and specifically Sydney, context in which he is no longer the sole colossus; and is exemplary of the way new material and the passage of time can identify unrecognised dimensions of his career.

Turning to our own work on the National Library manuscripts, understanding of White’s writing is deepened by the insights provided into his processes of composition, including the research undertaken for his novels, as well as the nature and extent of his revisions. The ten working notebooks, in use from the 1930s into the 1980s, contain entries that modify previous assumptions about the trajectory of his career because of what they show about the gestation of both published and unpublished works. It was immediately clear, for example, that White had elements of The Aunt’s Story (1948) and Voss in mind earlier than had been realised, but the extensive connections between these novels have become apparent only with closer scrutiny.

The three major unpublished fiction manuscripts present different opportunities for thinking about the ways White returned to and reworked themes and characters. He cannibalised ‘Dolly Formosa and the Happy Few’ (about 25,000 words) and ‘The Binoculars and Helen Nell’ (about 160,000), both dating from the late 1960s, for his last novel, Memoirs of Many in One (1986). ‘The Hanging Garden’, begun and put aside in 1981, is a different case. Although it is clear that White intended it to continue, this 25,000-word story is complete in itself, like parts of The Twyborn Affair and The Aunt’s Story,and we agree with Marr’s description of it as ‘a masterpiece in the making’ (‘Patrick White: The Final Chapter’, The Monthly,April 2008). ‘The Hanging Garden’ engages freshly with both personal experience set against contemporary history, and satirical social commentary cut with lyrical romanticism.

Set in Sydney in the later years of World War II, ending on VE Day, the story centres on an adolescent girl, Eirene, evacuated from Greece, where she was born to a Greek father, now dead, and an Australian mother. She is housed with the British widow of a warrant officer who had served in India with the father of another adolescent evacuee, the English Gilbert Horsfall. The house and garden are familiar from White’s other works, though this time set on the north side of Sydney Harbour. The central dynamic is an exercise in the chemistry of adolescent relationships reminiscent of ‘Down at the Dump’. In a way, it is the story of White and his partner Manoly Lascaris, though Eirene and Gilbert do not end up together. There are familiar motifs: cultural displacement, father figures who are sexual predators, a range of mothers (one may be a whore), a volcano, a cairngorm, fuchsias, together with a box containing a talisman (this time a shrunken head from the Amazon). Less familiar is a recognisable ‘real life’ cameo, of the exclusive Sydney girls’ school Abbotsleigh (here Ambleside), under the legendary Betty Archdale.

Patrick White writerPatrick White

White’s use of historical material in his fiction has occasioned debate at least since Voss. In Patrick White: A Life (1991),David Marr insists on White’s concern for factual accuracy in his work. In the notebooks and other papers, we now can see in detail the extent of his research: he quarried Australian sources mainly for Voss, A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and The Eye of the Storm (1973), and studied much Jewish material for Riders in the Chariot (1961).That said, for Voss he read copiously not only in English language sources, but also in German ones such as Leichhardt’s correspondence with his relatives, which, as Angus Nicholls demonstrated in his paper for the London conference, may well have been the main source for White’s depiction of Voss. While he made many notes from Alec Chisholm’s Strange New World: The Adventures of John Gilbert and Ludwig Leichhardt (1955), White’s concern was with factual detail about the terrain, vegetation, and wildlife. Voss does not reflect Chisholm’s character assessments of the explorers or his accounts of their interactions.

Similarly, for A Fringe of Leaves White ranged through nineteenth-century sources dealing with Eliza Fraser and early Queensland history. He looked at studies and translations of Virgil (so important to the fictional Austin Roxburgh); a dictionary of costume; and A.L. Rowse’s Autobiography of a Cornishman: A Cornish childhood (1942). White’s determination to be accurate and to avoid anachronism is everywhere evident: in the manuscript of ‘The Hanging Garden’, there is a note to himself: ‘Hidden in the mangroves blacks are waiting to spear the landing parties of explorers. (Find out about these mangroves.)’

This is one kind of insight into White’s ways of working. There is also the possibility now of fine-grained demonstration of the basis for his famous claim that, ‘I rewrite endlessly, sentence by sentence; it’s more like oxywelding than writing.’ Here is an example of oxywelding from a typescript of The Vivisector, showing the kind of revision that is likely to have occurred many more times than can be documented. On the back of a discarded typed page which refers to the Duffield family ring and the grandfather dying of a seizure in Parramatta Road, there are some handwritten sentences about Mrs Courtney and the boy Hurtle:

She smiled at him so sweetly
She cocked her head, and smiled at him so sweetly
She cocked her head and smiled so sweetly [illegible]:
he might have been a man

We see here progressive elaboration of the basic action, with the interpretation and development of Hurtle’s point of view finally consolidated. Later in the typescript, we find the form of words that appears in the published novel: ‘She cocked her head, and smiled so sweetly at him, you wouldn’t have thought she had the advantage: he might have been a man.’ (Jonathan Cape, 1970, p. 32: the italicised words are added in the published version)

The National Library manuscripts also reveal the extent of White’s work across genres from early in his career. His first publications in the 1920s and 1930s were poems, and some unpublished poems appear in the working notebooks. It is the amount of unpublished dramatic material that is especially interesting. White wrote for the stage in the 1930s and 1940s, then again in the 1960s, and turned to drama even more in the 1970s and 1980s. NLA MS9982 includes copious drafts of plays, a number of them produced, such as Signal Driver (1982), Netherwood (1983), and Shepherd on the Rocks (1987). The most substantial of the unperformed and unpublished plays is the late ‘The White Goddess and the Firebird’, of which there are two full versions. There are many scripts for film and radio plays: for example, screenplays based on the short stories ‘Willy Wagtails by Moonlight’, ‘Clay’, and ‘Down at the Dump’. Further exploration of this body of material will contribute to a revised account of the significance of White’s dramatic works, especially in the last phase of his career.

One of the notebooks contains brief snatches of dialogue and lists of characters relating to several different plays that White had in hand in the 1930s. Though a good deal of the notebook material is fragmentary, there are more sustained drafts for some works, such as a play entitled ‘Marriages are Made in Hell’, which is particularly interesting with respect to White’s later work. These notes begin with an outline of the main theme:

The Bassetts are, in their own opinion, happily married. Brionne and Julian are living in what they accept as satisfactory sin. But Hochtenfel awakens doubts. Why should Mr Bassett accept his wife’s nagging? Has not Mrs Bassett always suppressed somewhat luxurious and ambitious thoughts? Julian has endured Brionne’s tantrums for years because he has not the willpower to avoid them. Brionne’s clinging to Julian is the consequence of ambition and vanity.

Both the Bassetts and Brionne & Julian are the victims of their separate codes, on the one hand the conventional, on the other the unconventional.

The following dialogue makes clear that Brionne is one of the bright young things who feature in many of White’s dramatic attempts from this period, while Hochtenfel appears to be something of a chorus figure:

Brionne: A sense of morality just happens. Some people are born with it, some aren’t. I wasn’t. So however hard you look at me, Mrs Bassett, you won’t make me a good woman.

Hochtenfel: Mrs Bassett once had a sense of morality. Now she’s morality itself.

Brionne: Oh, dear, how uneventful for her. Poor Mrs Bassett!

A later section of dialogue between the Bassetts makes evident that they come from the lower middle classes. Their relationship, as sketched by White in the outline quoted, and demonstrated in this dialogue, foreshadows that between Mr and Mrs Lusty in The Ham Funeral (1947):

Mrs Bassett: You know I could never abide dogs.

Mr Bassett: I must say some dogs ’ave very takin’ ways. There’s Mr Edwards’ Tinker now, ’e can stand on ’is hind legs like a Christian, and smoke a pipe of tobacco.

Mrs Bassett: That brings me no closer to likin’ dogs. Nasty little creatures … soilin’ the carpets, and leavin’ hair over everything. I’ve got no time for ’em.

Mr Bassett: Nobody asked you to ’ave time.

Mrs Bassett: That’s a cheeky answer for a man to give his wife.

Mr Bassett: A man ’as to say something.

Mrs Bassett: There are ways an’ ways of sayin’, Henry. But evidently that’s something you never learnt.

Mr Bassett: All right, Flo. All right.

Mrs Bassett: No, it isn’t all right.

Mr Bassett: All right then, it isn’t. I wonder if tomatoes do down here?

Of course, the long-suffering husband and dissatisfied wife sketched here look forward not only to The Ham Funeral but to Stan and Amy Parker in The Tree of Man (1955) and to many other married couples in White’s later plays, stories, and novels. An interesting feature of these snatches of early plays is their predominant focus on female rather than male voices, something that was to remain true of much of White’s work for the theatre.

Another notebook contains material explicitly relating to The Ham Funeral. This probably dates from White’s return to that play around 1958, rather than from the time of its initial composition in 1947. His renewed interest in The Ham Funeral would seem to have been provoked in part by his very negative reaction to seeing Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955). White’s criticisms of Lawler’s hit play are forthright:

The night I went the line that got the biggest laugh was: ‘These bloody mozzies!’ That line & its reception seems to me to illuminate the very core of the work, & to explain why the author has succeeded. … In The Doll Lawler merely reproduces banality. The reproduction has not the faintest tinge of great art. It remains a rather boring version of the real.

He modified his opinion after reading the play, while continuing to object to its realism. That objection is the basis of his addition of the prologue to The Ham Funeral, where the Young Man warns the audience that this may not be their kind of play.

Immediately following White’s criticisms of Lawler, there is a draft of the most controversial scene in The Ham Funeral, the one where the two knockabout ladies, rooting in the dustbin, find the dead foetus. The next eight pages contain drafts of most of this scene, in one case intercutby a section of draft for Riders in the Chariot. White later made some small but significant changes in the ladies’ dialogue, not always for the better. For example, the Second Lady’s reaction to the First Lady’s scream on finding the foetus is, in the notebook version: ‘Oh, ’ark at ’er! She’s remembered ’er own wedding night.’ In the published version of the play, this has become the rather blander ‘Oh, ’ark at ’er! She’s remembered somethink she lost.’ Generally, however, the final version of their dialogue shows few changes from this draft. More changes were made in the Young Man’s reflections after the two ladies depart, with some of the more pompous lines in the notebook version cut.

These are only some of the ways in which the National Library manuscripts provoke re-reading of White. At once they extend the canon of White’s work, and variously illuminate current perceptions of, and perspectives on, his achievement. More can be expected with the approach of the centenary of his birth in 2012, which will see a number of publications as well as an exhibition and an associated events program at the National Library.

We thank Barbara Mobbs, literary agent for Patrick White’s estate, for permission to quote unpublished material.

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The business of authoring another person’s life is problematic and potentially dangerous. You need to be brave to write biography. It is not just the labour involved, or the obsessive research involving more travel and hours of work than can be deemed cost-effective; it also requires a self-exposing judiciousness. At every stage in the procedure decisions are made, not with the support of a committee or a line manager, but usually by the biographer alone. The rightness or wrongness of these decisions affects not only the selection and handling of the material, but also almost every aspect of the project, from the initial negotiations with descendants of your subject, the literary executor or interested parties, to the publicity that surrounds the book’s publication.

Few of us get by without erring at some point. Biographies, as we know, can be distorted by flattery or idealisation, or dulled by a superfluity of small facts. At one point, while writing my biography of the painter Vanessa Bell, I became so absorbed by the relationship between Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf that, in detailing their lives, I quoted a letter in which is mentioned a forgotten sponge bag. As one reviewer rightly pointed out, it was one detail too many. For a while afterwards, critics, whenever they came across an overstuffed life, referred to its author as belonging to the ‘sponge bag’ school of biographers. I felt deeply chagrined to be the source of this infamous label and still today have such a horror of sponge bags that I can scarcely bear to take one with me when I travel.

But there is rarely a moment when a biographer is not faced with some kind of responsibility: to the facts, to ethical issues, to the past, the future, one’s audience, and to one’s craft. The material has to be sifted with intelligent alertness, not just for information, names, links, and connections, but also for the inner life of one’s subject. You need an open mind and an open heart to note, with feeling, intellect, and intuition, what is being said; to hear also the tone of voice or the irony or hyperbole that is being used. I find it important at relevant moments to let the voice of my subject come through by means of quotations from their letters. In this way, the reader can discern a wry observation, a momentary hesitation, or a characteristic way of looking at things. It is important, too, to catch the register of a person’s vocabulary. For instance, if Vanessa Bell, who was a stoic, admitted ‘agitation’ – a fairly mild word, you might think – I knew that something was seriously wrong. But there are times when a biographer, feeling his or her way into another’s mind, finds scant help. Samuel Beckett, for instance, refused point blank to engage in any discussion about the meaning of his work. I experienced a similar silence when I went, as a biographer, to the British Council in London, in search of the poet Stevie Smith.

As a poet, Stevie Smith is best known for the three tragicomic short verses that form ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. It is a poem that has universal appeal: most of us, after all, do at some point know what it is like to feel disorientated, out of step, emotionally exiled, finding ourselves, as the character in Smith’s poem says, ‘much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning’. In the late 1960s the British Council produced LP recordings of poets reading their own verse; in connection with this, they asked every poet concerned to send in biographical details. I was well advanced with my biography of Stevie Smith by this stage, but I went to the British Council in order to see if what I had written chimed with what she herself thought was significant. A fat, bulging file was put in front of me, and leafing through its contents I learnt what busy lives poets lead, what a lot of prizes they win, residencies they fulfil, wives they have, and how extensively they travel. Finally, I arrived at Stevie Smith’s biographical details, which amounted to two type-written sentences: ‘Born in Hull. But moved to London at the age of three and has lived in the same house ever since.’

Why struggle with this genre, you may ask, in the face of such a flight into anonymity? Aware of the difficulties that biography presents, I am sometimes astonished when young academics tell me they are making it the vehicle of choice for their first major publication. Such a move would have been unwise for several decades. From the 1940s onwards, while the textual analysis of New Criticism held sway, and on through the 1960s and 1970s while Parisian theory created one orthodoxy after another, an allegiance to biography might have damaged your chances of gaining tenure. Post-structuralist and deconstructive theorists questioned the notion of the individual as an originating point of consciousness and sought to disconnect the life from the work. It is a delicious irony that the fame of Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968) has become a major reason why his name lives on. Nevertheless, for many years biography was shunned by academia; it was thought to be conservative, regressive, blindly humanist in its assumptions, and not alive to the crises, conflicts, and discoveries that have exploded the kind of classic narrative on which biographies have traditionally depended.

And yet, in the twenty-first century, like the mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa, biography continues to fascinate with its suggestion of the known and the unknown. Today it is not only popular, but also carries intellectual authority. It is interesting to see how intelligently and acutely it is used today to access politicians, and not least in Australia, in the wake of Kevin Rudd’s rise and fall. Biography is also now firmly embedded within academia. Here and in England, certain universities are actively promoting the writing and study of biography, and employing leading scholars in order to do so.

Some of the questions that are being asked of biography today include the following: How does a biographer combine factual accuracy with innovation? Must a strong narrative drive be at the expense of contingencies? What kinds of selfhood are on display in the presentation of identity? How do we reconcile the private individual with the performative nature of public life? Should biographers imitate Boswell and promise ‘veracity’ about themselves as well as their subjects? What is our responsibility to a past which in some ways remains open, not completed, while we write about it in the present and for the future? Is there a place in biography for postmodernist indeterminacy? Such questions can make biographers nervously aware of the multiple questions and commitments they must keep in mind.

If there is a twenty-first century development in all this, it is, I think, the sudden rise in popularity of ‘life writing’. This variant term, a literal translation of the medieval Greek from which the word ‘biography’ derives, has been used to suggest that the graphic representation of life can take many forms and find more outlets than the traditional cradle-to-grave biography. One noticeable aspect of the work emerging from ‘life-writing’ courses is the greater degree to which personal narrative, reflection, and theorising mesh together. Sometimes a biographical essay is accompanied by psychosocial analysis of its content or an enquiry into the play of gender roles within it. Whether or not this matches the needs of the reader, it must be admitted that this explosion of interest in biographical writing, among people from all walks of life, would have pleased Dr Johnson. ‘No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography,’ he wrote in 1750 in the Rambler, ‘since none can be more delightful or more useful ... I have often thought that there has rarely passed a Life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.’

I worry, however, that if a biographer is primarily motivated by a desire to prove a specific ideological point or a political theory, his or her subject is likely to suffer. It would be foolish, though, to try to establish a set of rules for biography. It is a hybrid and fluid genre, always spilling out of neat packages and persistently reshaping its enquiry as the questions that interest each generation change. This is one reason why there can be no such thing as a definitive biography. But an absence of fixed rules or goals does not mean there are no external constraints and internal restraints affecting the biographical project. For the biographer deals not with fictional characters but with real people, and with that comes responsibility. The more the biographer is aware of those responsibilities, the more she or he will feel themselves to be under contract. Hence the title of my lecture – ‘The Biographer’s Contract’.

A biography cannot sail free on the author’s imagination. It is instead tied to facts and often watched over by interested parties, be it a widow, a literary executor, or a ‘keeper of the flame’. Of course, there are many kinds of biography, from the scholarly edifice to the breezy framing of celebrities, and therefore many kinds of contracts. If a biographer is aiming at shock, voyeurism, and titillation, his or her contract may be similar to that of an assassin; at the other extreme, biography may harbour the kind of dutifulness that curtails enquiry and upholds the status quo. But even the most daring or inventive biographer comes to recognise that biography is necessarily a constrained art form. This may be true of all creative acts. Paul Valèry in his ‘Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci’, published in English in 1929, states the following: ‘An author preparing a discourse, and meditating on it beforehand, finds himself at once source, engineer and constraining influence. One part of him is the impulse; another forsees, arranges, suppresses; another, remembering and deductive, keeps an eye on the material, preserves the harmonies, makes sure of the permanence of the calculated design.’

This hints at the checks and balances in any creative act, especially in the verbal architecture which the biographer must construct. The word ‘judicious’ has already come up twice, once in Johnson’s desire for a ‘judicious and faithful narrative’. As mentioned, a biography is not like a sailing ship steering out to sea with the wind of imagination in its sails: it is more like a tent fixed to the earth, and if one of its pegs is only loosely in place, the endeavour can come crashing down, as with Ian Hamilton’s abortive attempt to write a biography of J.D. Salinger.

So anyone embarking on a biography needs to think carefully about the ways in which she or he is contracted to the project. The standard dictionary definition of a contract is ‘an agreement on fixed terms’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it further: ‘Proceeding from or showing sound judgement; marked by discretion, wisdom, or good sense.’ As a verb, it can mean ‘to effect by agreement’. Now, there is obviously room for manoeuvre here. Certainly, there may be times when the biographer needs to reject discretion. And there will be more contracts than the written agreement between publisher and author. In its standard version, this insists that the book’s material must be original, in no way a violation of any existing copyright; that it must contain nothing obscene, libellous, or defamatory, and that all statements purporting to be facts must be, to the best of the author’s knowledge and belief, true.

Biographers like myself, who work on subjects within living memory and whose written words are still in copyright, know how unwise it is to embark on a major project of this kind without first seeking an agreement with the literary executor regarding access to papers and permission to quote. There are often other conditions on which spoken or written agreement is sought at this stage. Some biographers, for instance, ask if an embargo can be placed on relevant archives or documents not yet in the public domain, so that, while they are at work on their subject, no one else can access this material. This kind of agreement firms up the grounds on which one can proceed. But a biography can be written without copyright approval or authorisation. Peter Ackroyd boldly produced a ground-breaking biography of T.S. Eliot, despite being denied access to the letters or the right to quote more than a few lines of any poem.

At the outset, biographers need to be aware of interested parties, those to whom they will be in some way indebted, contracted, or committed. Again, it is wise to establish agreements of some sort at the start, lest a vital dependency is suddenly withdrawn.

It struck me recently that this diplomacy and preparatory work is rarely discussed by practitioners of biography in the prefaces or acknowledgments of their books. Sometimes we glimpse these constrictions in passing. In July 2010 David Marr revisited his biography of Patrick White in order to deliver the Menzies Lecture at King’s College, London. Titled ‘White’s London’, he unfolded White’s long-standing and ambivalent relationship with this city. Marr wove into his talk a riveting portrait of White, touching on his ambition, sexuality, wit, greatness, tetchiness, censoriousness, among other things, and he ended with an explanation of why news of White’s death, rather surprisingly, reached most Australians via London, the city that shaped White and had formed his other home. Interestingly, in an aside, we learnt that White had read through the manuscript of Marr’s biography – and here I quote Marr – ‘in front of me, slowly, over nine agonizing days’. We can readily guess at what made those days so agonising. Was Marr anxious about the extent to which he had fulfilled or contravened expectations? Had there been spoken or unspoken agreements between him and White? And was he, at that moment, acutely aware of awkward tensions between his various commitments – to his material, to his subject, to his own self, to history and posterity, to his craft, and to his readers?

Francis-Spalding
Frances Spalding signs books at the National Library of Australia after delivering the 2010 Seymour Biography Lecture (photograph by Samuel Cooper, courtesy of the National Library)

Property, permission, and copyright are legal issues. The law, by means of copyright, protects our written words. But there is no copyright on the facts of our lives – hence the relative freedom surrounding the making of biopics. The subject of a recent television biopic in Britain was Lord Longford, the Labour peer who befriended the child murderer Myra Hindley after she was imprisoned for life. One of Longford’s daughters, Rachel Billington, was asked what she thought of the film. She was careful to praise Jim Broadbent, the actor who had played her father, but then admitted it had been painful to see on screen her father being sacked from government by the actor who played Prime Minister Harold Wilson, when in fact he had resigned, and to see her mother, Elizabeth Longford, played as a dithery old lady, when she had been an elegant, specially alert woman of considerable intellect, and an outstanding biographer. Worryingly, the power of film enables these distortions to lodge deep in public consciousness. Despite the uncovering of many inaccuracies and false statements in T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his name is still treated with a certain hagiography, owing, I think, to the lasting power of David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia. Hence, too, the frustrating experience of Iris Murdoch’s biographer, Peter Conradi. After speaking at a literary festival on Iris Murdoch, a woman came up to him and, with reference to some detail, announced: ‘You got it wrong in your book.’ Why do you say that, he asked? Her reply: ‘It wasn’t like that in the film.’

The need to achieve good audience ratings shifts film and television biopics towards dramatic solutions that ignore brute facts. A biography is differently analysed, its truths scrutinised over time and checked by many interested parties. Many of the upsets caused by biographers who write about those within living memory arise from imperfect contracts between the biographer and the literary executor or the spokesperson for the family or the deceased person’s estate. If these are written contracts, the precise terms have been inadequately stated; or they are tacit agreements, with nothing on paper; or they are imagined contracts, imagined because they exist in the mind of one party only and have not been properly communicated to the other, and therefore no agreement has been reached. Often these contracts concern sensitive information.

My only encounters with situations of this kind have been fairly trivial. One arose while I was writing the life of Charles Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat. As her name suggests, she had married a Frenchman, Jacques Raverat, who began to suffer ill health. His condition remained undiagnosed until he tried to enlist in the French Army at the start of World War I, when it was discovered that he had multiple sclerosis, or disseminated sclerosis, as it was then called. By the end of the war, when they tried to start a family, he had already more or less lost the use of his legs, and because of this partial paralysis they had to seek help with conception. They were ahead of their times in this, for the simple process involved was in those days officially only used agriculturally. I was surprised to be rung up, not by the two daughters of the Raverats, but by a more distant member of the Darwin family, who simply said: ‘We do not think it should be mentioned.’ I noted the use of the royal ‘we’ in connection with the Darwin family, and was astonished that a Darwin was asking me to suppress information that reflected advanced thinking. I responded diplomatically, pointing out that the topic was passed over in a paragraph or less, and saying that I would discuss it further with the Raverat daughters. In fact they had no problem at all with the relevant paragraph and the information was not censored.

There was an earlier moment in the gestation of that book when I thought I was up against a more difficult issue. The two daughters had noticed some anti-Semitic remarks in their father’s early letters and asked if they could be ignored. I was able to point out that one or two passages from these letters had already been published in a biography of Jacques’s friend Rupert Brooke, and that it would therefore be foolish to try to cover up this aspect of Jacques’s nature. It could, with reference to his French upbringing, the long-running Dreyfus affair, and the anti-Semitism in France and in certain French newspapers, be placed within a wider context and thus to some extent be, not excused, but explained.

In both instances, I felt that the restraints that had been suggested would have compromised my independence and integrity. Anti-Semitism and multiple sclerosis are public concerns, and a biographer’s audience can be far-reaching. It seemed important, from the point of view of other sufferers of multiple sclerosis, to mention the difficulties the Raverats had faced. In addition, the family’s suggestions, however well intentioned, did not fit with today’s society, whose ethics entail a belief in openness. Readers today generally expect that there should be no censorship or idealisation, a belief that goes hand in hand with the growing resistance, in many spheres, to authority. But for those nearest and dearest to a famous person, the situation may not be so cut and dried.

Nigel Nicolson, son of the diarist and diplomat Harold Nicolson and of Vita Sackville-West, aristocrat, poet, novelist, and gardener, had no qualms about publishing Portrait of a Marriage (1973), his mother’s account of how she and Violet Trefusis left their husbands and fled to Continental Europe in order to have a passionate affair. But it is clear from Nigel Nicolson’s own memoirs, and from my slight personal acquaintance with him, that he was by nature a rather private man; and when he gave Victoria Glendinning permission to proceed with her biography of Vita, he made one condition: that when listing all the women with whom his mother had affairs – and there were a great many – she was not to mention the affair Vita had with her sister-in-law, Harold’s sister. Glendinning respected this request. In the book she simply says that the two women were very close. She felt certain that anyone who had read that far would be able to recognise what was implied.

Censorship, in this instance, was merely an English nicety, Vita’s affair with her sister-in-law being a step too far in Nicolson’s mind. More serious is what Canon Law calls ‘prohibitive consanguinity’. This was precisely the issue in the case of Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Eric Gill (1989). MacCarthy, a razor-sharp journalist and a leading authority on the history of design, refused to do as others had done and turn a blind eye to passages in Gill’s diaries which referred to incest with his sisters and daughters and to sexual relations with dogs. Two previous writers had noted this material and kept silent. But this was dynamite information, for Gill was widely regarded as the greatest English artist-craftsman in the early twentieth century. He was also a devout Catholic and a central figure in the founding of three Catholic art and craft communities laid down on semi-monastic lines.

To this day, MacCarthy remains perturbed by the outcry that greeted this book. Its publication coincided, in England, with the Cleveland child abuse scandal, a notorious case, involving incest, which ran for many weeks in the British press and media, and heightened public revulsion at this crime. But what specifically hurt MacCarthy was the sudden turning away of Gill’s literary executor, Walter Shewring.

The latter had worked with Gill, had gone on to be a schoolmaster at Ampleforth, a famous Catholic boarding school in Yorkshire, and, though not a monk, unlike other teachers at this school, had lived a celibate life. In an essay looking back on her relationship with Shewring, MacCarthy has recounted how it developed, from the first formal meeting in a barren waiting room in the school, where a cup of tea and shortbread biscuits were the only nod to conviviality, to what became regular festive outings to Marmaduke’s Haunted Bistro in York, where Shewring would order two bottles of Corvo wine and the conversation would flow. After one of these meetings, MacCarthy gave Shewring a finished typescript of the manuscript. He promised to check the source notes, but rather surprisingly said, with regard to the text, ‘I leave that to you.’ MacCarthy was certain he knew that it revealed incest, as this had privately already created issues among Gill’s closest associates.

Afterwards, she received from him a letter acknowledging that she had illumined a great deal, and with it came a schoolmasterly list of corrections on points of detail. Then, suddenly, came another message from him, scrawled urgently on a half-sheet of lined paper, telling her that ‘our acquaintance and correspondence must now cease’. MacCarthy shook with sobs as she read it. She concluded that the family had informed him of its hostility to the book and he had been obliged to side with them in what became a bitter vendetta against her. It needs also to be said that, when the book came out, MacCarthy published an article on Gill in a Sunday newspaper which went a step further than the book and also named, in connection with incest, one of Gill’s daughters, who was still alive. Story has it that this daughter did not mind, but that her children took enormous offence.

MacCarthy, who went on to publish a prize-winning biography of William Morris (1994), writes:

The book on Eric Gill had been my first full-length biography. I began it in a state of naivety, imagining my only loyalty lay with Gill himself and the truth relating to the bizarre contradictions of this single human life. What I had not been prepared for was the fact that in searching out the truth, especially the truth of a near contemporary, you impinge on other interconnected lives as well, stirring emotions, resurrecting memories. In the dangerous complexities of writing a biography, the book on Eric Gill was my baptism by fire.

Her humility in acknowledging her naïveté is impressive. But this confession also raises another important issue. Should a biographer respect the right to privacy of those still alive? As mentioned previously, there is no copyright on the facts of our lives, and, in Gill’s case, it would have been impossible to expose incest without naming the members of the family involved. But there are many cases where a biographer is wise to exercise discretion when touching on lives that are still being lived, and may feel silently contracted in this respect.

Given the disturbing paradoxes that Eric Gill presents, it is a relief to find the critic Elizabeth Hardwick, when writing about Thomas Mann, talk about ‘the inexplicable balancings in one soul of heredity, historical moment, character and choice’. Virginia Woolf would have enjoyed her use of the word ‘inexplicable’. ‘We do not know our own souls,’ Woolf wrote in her essay ‘On Being Ill’, ‘let alone the souls of others.’ But what is the biographer to do with such observations? Hold back judgement and refrain from comment? Critics and reviewers often express irritation if a biographer withholds comment or refuses to offer a view. Yet there is integrity in this position, and sometimes it should be adopted. Nevertheless a biography with no views would make very dull reading.

Interestingly, Hardwick was herself the victim of biographical abuse when her former husband, the poet Robert Lowell, used her personal letters in some of his poems, changing them in places to suit the needs of his verse. Lowell had been a poetic touchstone to another poet, Elizabeth Bishop. He was also Bishop’s friend, mentor, patron, ally, and almost-lover. But Bishop was shocked by Lowell’s use of Hardwick’s letters, and saw it as a desecration of poetry and personal dignity. She condemned him unequivocally. ‘[Aren’t] you violating a trust?’ she wrote. ‘Art isn’t worth that much. It’s not being gentle to use personal anguished, tragic letters that way – it’s cruel.’ Somehow their friendship survived, though, as William Boyd mentions in a recent article on Bishop, its equilibrium was never fully recovered. But I am grateful to Boyd for also drawing attention to another quotation from Bishop’s letters, which speaks directly to biographers. ‘My passion for accuracy,’ she writes, ‘may strike you as old-maidish – but since we do float on an unknown sea I think we should examine the other floating things that come our way very carefully; who knows what might depend upon it.’

And so we must recognise that at the heart of the biographer’s contract is the recording of truth and the attempt to commemorate it. Is this still possible in an age of relativism? Not only possible, I would suggest, but urgently needed, for the truths contained in any unpretentious report, be it a record of a parish outing or a school report, remain the foundation of all literary endeavour. Here is that great anatomist of melancholy, W.G. Sebald, looking back over what distinguishes the best scholars on the work of Kafka:

Today if you pick up one of the many Kafka studies to have appeared since the 1950s, it is almost incredible to observe how much dust and mould have already gathered on these secondary works, inspired as they are by the theories of existentialism, theology, psychoanalysis, structuralism, poststructuralism, reception aesthetics or system criticism, and how unrewarding is the redundant verbiage on every page. Now and then, of course, you do find something different, for the conscientious and patient work of editors and factual commentators is in marked contrast to the chaff ground out in the mills of academia … it seems increasingly that ... all [who] have concentrated mainly on reconstructing a portrait of the author in his own time, have made a greater contribution to elucidating texts than those exegists who dig around in them unscrupulously and often shamelessly.

The poet Geoffrey Hill, when asked why his poetry was so difficult, replied that it was because people are difficult. And because people are difficult, writing biography remains a complex task, full of often unresolved tensions. It requires awareness of tradition as well as innovation, boldness as well as diplomacy and sensitivity. You can simplify a life to make for easy reading, but do not forget that similar reductions, omissions, and silences have been used by totalitarian régimes, not to commemorate human life, but to support its denial. A biography that communicates effectively encourages us to empathise with an age or a people or a race or class different from our own. It brings the past closer to us and thereby thickens, enriches, and challenges the present. Moreover, by looking at history through the life of an individual, we come closer to the particularities of the period which can become freshly vivid.

Recently, a friend told me of the lively response on the part of one intellectual to the news that a certain famous writer had died. ‘Oh, good,’ he replied. ‘Now I know that I have got all of him on my shelves!’ Let’s hope that the collection also contains a copy of this writer’s life.

 

This is an edited version of the 2010 Seymour Biography Lecture, which Professor Spalding delivered in Canberra on 16 September 2010. The Seymour Lecture is supported by John and Heather Seymour, the National Library of Australia, and Australian Book Review.

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‘Who do you think you are?’ an eminent paediatrician once thundered at me across a child’s cot during his weekly grand ward round. ‘Anton Chekhov?’

I was a lowly medical student; my white student-smock had a small front pocket meant for my doctoring tools; mine contained, a little ostentatiously, a book of poems instead. I had failed to answer a question correctly. His Eminence plucked out the highly visible book, asked a few polite literary questions to lull me, then proceeded to humiliate me in front of the entire ward team, at length. This was before medical schools became more touchy-feely, caring-sharing places; the old-school teaching principle of ‘thalamic learning’ meant that a public humiliation in front of your peers left such an indelible trace that you never made a fatal mistake again.

I suspect that Chekhov would have liked this story, given his own sense that the sciences and medicine were, finally, more crucial than the world of the arts. He writes about this in one of his best short stories, ‘The Grasshopper’, in which the beautiful wife of a dull medical researcher lives a wild and adulterous life in artistic circles until her husband dies of typhus, and she realises too late that he was a far more significant figure than her artist lover. There are echoes of Emma Bovary in this story, but also of artists from Chekhov’s circle, plus one of his lovers (who, incidentally, never forgave him).

I never forgave the paediatrician, but I also never made that diagnostic mistake again. I also went straight home and looked up the name Chekhov in the Oxford Great Lives Encyclopaedia. Of course, I had heard the name before. It was one of those, like (speaking of Russians) Dostoevsky and Turgenev, that were part of the cultural wallpaper and that were absorbed osmotically, and about whom I even formed opinions before reading their books. But I knew nothing specific. I had not even known he was a doctor.

I liked what I read in Great Lives. Who Did I Think I Was? I hadn’t quite sorted that out at nineteen, but yes, if I had to be someone, why not this six-foot beanpole scholarship boy from the warmer southern provinces who put himself through medical school by writing funny stories? I met the height requirements with ease, and I came from the Northern Territory. I had published one small poem in On Dit – unpaid, but still. Anton had written a comic magazine at school; a friend and I had put out a Mad-type satirical magazine with the highly original title of Insane. Anton undertook a famous investigative journey to the Siberian prison island of Sakhalin; I applied to be the sole medical officer on Norfolk Island. Yes, it was a tourist resort by my time, but it had been a prison island.

Of course, I was doing what every reader, biographer, and especially theatre director of Chekhov has always done: carving out my own preferred Chekhov from the life and works and biograffiti of the complex private man. I took especial note of the fact that despite his theoretical adherence to the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (whose Meditations also sometimes occupied the pocket in my student doctor’s smock), he enjoyed enormous success with women, and later married the foremost actress of his time. Being Anton Chekhov seemed a promising career path to pursue, especially for that self-indulgent stoic, the teenage moi.

That mid-career trip to Sakhalin was an astonishing acting out of the central split in Chekhov’s life. ‘Medicine is my wife, literature my mistress,’ he famously said – and periodically the guilt that accrued over the time spent with his mistress seemed to drive him back into the arms of his wife. There were various reasons behind the trip to Sakhalin – to escape several literal mistresses, to escape critics and publishers who wanted too many pounds of flesh, to escape the financial leeches of his family – but there is no doubting that his central impetus came from outrage over the treatment and conditions of the prisoners, and especially their children, in the hellhole of Siberia. Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago felt that this expedition was rather dilettantish, which seems severe given that the journey was horrifically arduous, and stoic by any definition. Chekhov was already suffering from tuberculosis, and the thousands of miles he travelled in bad weather, in an open cart, certainly hastened his death from the disease at age forty-four.

In fact, the puritanical Solzhenitsyn is just one of innumerable writers who owe an unpayable debt to Chekhov – in terms of plain-speaking, and as a model of economical storytelling. Cancer Ward would not have been possible without the example of Chekhov’s famous long story ‘Ward Six’, nor the interconnected storytellings which form the bulk of Solzhenitsyn’s other writings.

Both before and after Sakhalin, Chekhov continued to practise medicine – often, in his later life, pro bono to the less privileged. He even founded a provincial mental hospital, his own ‘Ward Six’ – in between his busy writing and theatrical career, his numerous love affairs, the setting up of libraries and public schools, the administering of all kinds of boards, the incessant travelling, and the supporting of a vast extended family and a crew of hangers-on and ex-lovers, who would come and stay, sometimes for years. Consumptives burn more fiercely, perhaps – but all this relentless living provided grist for his superproductive fictional mill. His life, family, and friends are everywhere in Chekhov’s stories and plays.

Doctors usually get a good press – or a less harsh press – in Chekhov’s work, which is unsparing and often clinically cruel about characters from every other walk of life, from peasant to aristocrat. He was the first great Russian writer to come from outside the aristocracy (his father, astonishingly, was an emancipated serf), but his unsentimental treatment of peasants (in especially, the ultra-long story, ‘The Peasants’) angered many. Tolstoy was shocked, but he was a sentimental aristocrat, and liked to romanticise the ‘noble’ serfs.

This is not to say that doctors escape scot-free. One of his first stories that I read was ‘Anyuta’, an account of the relationship between a medical student and the young, impoverished seamstress who shares his room and his bed, sews his garments, prepares his frugal meals, and, in her bony, undernourished state, acts as an anatomy ‘skeleton’ for purposes of study. (She also moonlights as an artist’s model.) Slowly, we become aware that the relationship is approaching its end; that she had been passed on to him by a previous student, just like a set of bones, and will be passed on to another when he graduates and moves on into a more affluent professional life. It is an extraordinary and affecting story, told, as usual, without any editorialising – but is clearly written out of Chekhov’s own experiences, and out of a profound guilt.

It has been said that Chekhov invented the epiphany, as against the well-plotted story of, say, a Maupassant, but he can work both ends of the storytelling spectrum. And those epiphanies change nothing in a Chekhov story: illumination is temporary, and soon undercut, usually by humour. For all his darkness, Chekhov is above all a comic writer, and often laugh-out-loud funny, even when he is in his blackest mortuary-humour mode, as in this side-anecdote from ‘Gooseberries’:

While I was inspecting cattle at a railway-station, a cattle-dealer fell under an engine and had his leg cut off. We carried him into the waiting-room, the blood was flowing – it was a horrible thing – and he kept asking them to look for his leg and was very much worried about it; there were twenty roubles in the boot on the leg that had been cut off, and he was afraid they would be lost.

I generally prefer the shorter stories such as ‘Anyuta’, which stab the heart swiftly, even when at their most comical. Like all comedians Chekhov is often cruel; the physical descriptions of his characters can be devastating. But those characters more often condemn themselves out of their own mouths; dialogue, or interior monologue, does the heavy lifting in a Chekhov story. Those stories ask questions, but rarely offer answers; he is never a stern prophet-preacher in the Tolstoy or Dostoevsky – or indeed Solzhenitsyn – mode. Some of his shorter pieces are almost case studies; even longer, later stories such as ‘The Man in a Case’, an account of an obsessive-compulsive, read now like precursors to the clinical essays of Oliver Sacks. This brief story contains another line that could serve as a signature Chekhovian metaphor for the predicaments of many of his characters: ‘People look happiest in their coffins.’ The longer stories, even those celebrated as masterpieces such as ‘A Boring Story’ or ‘Ward Six’, can at times be slowed down by too much long-winded Tolstoyan philosophical dialogue between the characters, of a kind that people never actually speak, even would-be philosophers in the nineteenth century. Yes, Chekhov is usually being ironic or satirical in these situations, including those characters who mouth his own preferred opinions (when Chekhov hides himself in a character, there will always be a self-mocking edge to his words), but in these longer pieces, the satire can seem tiresome at times, becoming the thing it mocks. 

ChekhovPeggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud in The Cherry Orchard, 1962

The cast of characters we get to know in the stories we will meet again in the quartet of late great plays – the ineffectual idealists, the narcissists, the helpless adulterers, the disappointed teachers and doctors and clerks with their aimless philosophising, the melancholics, the apathetic peasants, the paralysed would-be lovers – these people can change no more than the provincial towns they live in can change. Chekhov is probably the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare, but there are no Hamlets or Lady Macbeths – no tragic stars – in Chekhov plays. His casts are democratic ensembles; he is an equal-opportunity misanthrope.

His prose style was unspectacular, but almost always to the point. To an admirer who referred to him as a poet, he responded with a laugh: ‘A poet, dear sir, is someone who uses the words “chord” and “silvery horizons”.’ The lyric poet Mayakovsky may or may not have used these words in his own verse, but of Chekhov he wrote that his language was ‘as precise as “Hello”; and as simple as “Give me a glass of tea”. In his method of expressing the idea of a compact little story, the urgent cry of the future is felt: “Economy!”’

A prose-poet who might be seen as Chekhov’s complete opposite stylistically, Vladimir Nabokov, also held him in the highest regard, although the lover of high style realised that he could never quite explain that regard, even to himself. Chekhov, he wrote, is a ‘medley of dreadful prosaisms, readymade epithets, repetitions, doctors, unconvincing vamps’, then concluded ‘yet it is his works which I would take on a trip to another planet’.

The conundrum of Chekhov worried at him. Elsewhere he wrote:

His dictionary is poor, his combination of words almost trivial – the purple patch, the juicy verb, the hothouse adjective, the crème-de-menthe epithet, brought in on a silver tray, these were foreign to him. He was not a verbal innovator in the sense that Gogol was; his literary style goes to parties clad in its everyday suit. Thus Chekhov is a good example to give when one tries to explain that a writer may be a perfect artist without being exceptionally vivid in his verbal technique or exceptionally preoccupied with the way his sentences curve.

Nabokov did like Chekhov’s scientific eye: ‘In high art and in pure science – detail is everything.’ I suspect that the butterfly collector Nabokov, who pinned out and displayed his characters much as he did his entomological specimens, mostly admired Chekhov’s clinical and often cruel eye.

Chekhov’s legacy was immense, but went well beyond the literary world. He had no time for revolutionary zeal – he was sceptical of all grand schemes and pieties, and satirised revolutionaries as savagely as he did aristocrats – but Lenin was to claim that reading ‘Ward Six’ ‘made me a revolutionary’. Besides his improbable protégé Nabokov, his literary legacy ranges from Katherine Mansfield to Beckett to the more recent Raymond Carver (or the Gordon Lish rewritings that we now know are largely responsibleforthe writer we call ‘Raymond Carver’.) Mansfield was even subject to a plagiarism scandal in the 1930s, when her early story ‘The Child Who Was Tired’was noted to be a clear copy of Chekhov’s ‘Sleepy-Head’, in which a child is suffocated by an exhausted nursemaid. Her reputation suffered severely, but in her defence we might remember the poet and critic Conrad Aiken’s words about Mansfield: ‘One has not read a page of Miss Mansfield’s book before one has said “Chekhov”: but one has not read two pages before Chekhov is forgotten.’

It seems to me that all these ingredients of his short stories – the plain, even boring style, the pre-eminence of dialogue, the cast of ineffective characters trapped in their coffin-like personalities – reach their natural conclusion in the late plays, as if he had finally realised that it could all be told in dialogue. Everything and everybody we have met in the stories seems to turn up again in those big country houses. Even the famous mysterious sound of a distant broken string, or mine cable, in The Cherry Orchardechoes an early story, ‘Fortune’.

Perhaps the last jigsaw piece that was necessary for the genesis of the plays was the social theatre (or communal coffin) of a big house itself; this fell into place with the purchase of the modest country estate ‘Melikhovo’ in 1892, to which the whole Chekhov circus of extended family, former and current lovers and friends soon decamped.

One celebrated lateish story is perhaps especially worth noting among the four plays, at least from a biographical point of view. In ‘The Lady with a Lapdog’, the ageing married roué Gurov realises, if slowly, and mystifyingly, that he has finally fallen in love with his younger married mistress. It is the story of the confirmed bachelor Chekhov’s late discovery of love for Olga Knipper, and perhaps that self-knowledge was more useful to him than it is to the lovers in his novella. Self-knowledge as the key to the doors of liberation? Entire schools of psychoanalysis and self-help have been built on it. But as the dying Nikolai Stepanovich muses in the much earlier ‘A Boring Story’ (in David Magarshak’s translation): ‘Daybreak finds me sitting on the bed, clasping my knees and trying, having nothing better to do, to know myself. “Know thyself” is most excellent and useful advice; the pity is the ancients did not think it necessary to show us the way to avail ourselves of this advice.’

What happens next is not crucial in a Chekhov story, or play, in a narrow plot sense. We are always waiting for some solution, for something to happen, but it usually doesn’t. Or something happens, then something else happens that cancels it out, and we are back where we began. Which may mean that the true inheritor of Chekhov is Beckett after all. I sometimes think that the best Chekhov line was written not by Anton, but by Samuel: ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

But, with the recent sesquicentenary of Chekhov’s birth, it is his moment, not Beckett’s, and if we are waiting for anything it should be for him to speak, to have the last word. Speech, speech? Those famous words from Godot mutate easily enough into the lines about the migrating cranes from The Three Sisters, which sum up the fate of Chekhovian characters, even when they happen to be birds: ‘Whatever ideas, great or small, stray through their minds, they will still go on flying just the same without knowing where or why.’

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    ‘Who do you think you are?’ an eminent paediatrician once thundered at me across a child’s cot during his weekly grand ward round. ‘Anton Chekhov?’

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