‘There is another world, but it is in this one.’ That is Paul Éluard, channelled by Patrick White as one of four epigraphs to The Solid Mandala (1966), a ‘doubleman’ of a novel avant la lettre.Other quotations appended to this story of Waldo and Arthur Brown are taken from Meister Eckhart (‘It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within’) and Patrick Anderson (‘… yet still I long / for my twin in the sun …’).
Consider the plight of the established novelist. The readership (that’s us) comes to recognise a particular style, a particular set of themes, and presumably that is one of the reasons to go on buying the writer’s books. Should the next book always be in the same mould – in which case we might become a tad bored – or should there be something quite out of character, causing us to gasp with disbelief? After all, it is usually disastrous when a diva starts singing popular songs. Christopher Koch’s new book sets up these kinds of tension. Something new about what is remembered?
Reading literary criticism can be like viewing a portrait: you are essentially subjected to another person’s vision of the subject. One can feel that the perspective is unduly harsh at some points, lavishly lenient at others. It is easy to project one’s own bias onto the work, and to take issue with the representation too quickly. This is particularly true of a critical monograph on a subject such as Christopher Koch, who has been both prominent and controversial throughout his career. It is difficult for any commentator on Koch not to be drawn into the ‘Australian Melodrama’ that Peter Pierce identified in Australian literary culture in 1995.
This is not a reissue of a novel almost twenty years old, nor is it quite a new novel: it is a heavily revised version of an early work by the author of the prize-winning novel Year of Living Dangerously. Across the Sea Wall was written before C.J. Koch was thirty. In a prefatory note to the new version he writes: ‘If such novels of youth are worth republishing, they are worth revising ... The cuts and alterations are not fundamental, but they are extensive.’ He concludes with the hope ‘that the earlier version of this work will be consigned to oblivion, and that anyone referring to the book, or quoting from it, will go to no other version but this one’.