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Bring Back Boris, Donna!! The enduring appeal of fictional characters

tartt                    goldfinch

Donna Tartt                                                                        Fabritius’ The Goldfinch

When I was growing up, my favourite literary characters included the usual suspects, Jo and Laurie, Jane Eye and Edward Rochester, Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Mr Knightley, Scarlett and Rhett, Pip and Estella. They all felt very real. If they were girls, I would often identify with them; if they were boys, I’d sigh deeply into my pillow. Characters were more important to me then than a novel’s form, style and purpose. As a child, I rarely thought about how a novelist had created plot. Whether I was swept away by a book through my love of characters was my only value judgment.

By my teens, heroes had well and truly trumped heroines in my romantic imagination and I was completely smitten, (eclectically but not necessarily simultaneously) by Howard Roark, Sydney Carlton, Daniel Deronda, Joseph K, Stephen Dedalus, Count Vronsky, Julien Sorel, even the infamous Vicomte de Valmont.

There was usually something dark or dangerous about these male characters – depressed or tortured souls, some had a cruel, sadistic streak; or they were artists and visionary dreamers, philosophers and sinners. All, though, were larger than life, highly intelligent and drawn with insight and empathy. By this stage I had become more conscious of literary devices and authorial voice, and obviously took note of a character’s physical descriptions. Yet in my fantasies, the heroes I longed for were all tall and saturnine and bore a strong resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis or Kevin Klein. It took a few more years (and my first love affairs) for female characters to get a look in once more.

Our attraction to fictional characters is both passionate and possessive. In her book, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, author Blakey Vermeule asks: “Why should we spend attention on people who will never care about us in return?” The reason, she explains, is curiosity: we may idly speculate about the lives of people we see on trains and buses, knowing we will probably never see them again. But when we read, we are in a highly privileged position, able to go on a journey with characters and enter their world intimately. We know them, warts and all, with an immediacy we rarely have with people we meet in everyday life.

So we fight on the battlefield alongside Napoleon in War and Peace, steal handkerchiefs with the Artful Dodger, glory in Jean Brodie’s prime and approve Martha Quest’s political coming of age. By entering this world willingly, we gain social information that would often be, according to Vermeule, “too costly, dangerous, and difficult to extract from the world on our own.”  This trade-off in turn builds attachment to story-line and character.

So much for science.  As readers, we’re hard-wired to seek out memorable heroes and heroines Yet, despite the many novels I’ve read, few characters have stayed with me as vividly as the ones I encountered in my youth. That is until I met Boris, who appears in Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch.

Let me preface this by saying that until now, I wasn’t a fan of Tartt’s. I disliked her debut novel, The Secret History. Of course she had talent, but I didn’t care for a murder in a stuffy college committed by a group of over-privileged, over-reaching spoilt brats. So I chose not to read her second novel. But The Goldfinch, published late last year, intrigued me. First, it is an imaginary story about a real 17th century painting, the Dutch masterpiece The Goldfinch, painted by Fabritius.  I adore that painting, as I love all Dutch Old Masters. Fabritius was a pupil of Rembrandt and taught Vermeer. Few paintings of his survive, because he was killed at the age of 30, when a munitions factory exploded and much of his work disappeared with him. The Goldfinch was painted in the year of his death.

In her novel, Tartt surmises that the miniature painting (no bigger than a sheet of A4 paper) is taken by 13 year-old Theo, after a terrorist bomb destroys the New York museum in which it is housed. The Goldfinch is part bildungsroman – Theo’s story – but it is also the story of that painting, of moral ambiguities, lost loves and the enduring power of art in a post 9/11 world.

Early on, Theo says the bird reminds him of his beautiful, delicate, arty mother, who is killed in the blast. The painting, one of her favourites, comes to symbolise everything that Theo has lost.  But this post isn’t a review of this wonderful, wonderful book, its intricate Dickensian story-lines and fully realised worlds which cross, effortlessly, from psychological drama to thriller and back again. I’m celebrating character, because, when we meet Boris, we come across one of the most loveable, maddening and completely believable creations in contemporary fiction.

After the bombing, Theo reluctantly joins his estranged father in Las Vegas. Through Theo’s eyes we see the vast, crass, cardboard emptiness of that city, in which Theo wanders like a lost soul. But at school he meets Boris, another misfit and an instant connection is born. “He was pale and thin, and not very clean, with lank dark hair falling into his eyes and the unwholesome wanness of a runaway, callused hands and nails chewed to the thumb”.

When they begin talking, Theo marvels at his accent. “Though he spoke English fluently enough, with a strong Australian accent, there was also a dark, slurry undercurrent of something else: a whiff of Count Dracula, or maybe it was KGB agent.”

Boris is from everywhere and nowhere, half Russian, half Polish, swears fluently in four languages, a true global citizen. His father is in the mining business, so he’s lived in Australia, Russia, Scotland, New Zealand, Sweden, Texas, Alaska, Saudi Arabia, New Guinea, Scotland, the Ukraine. As we get to know him, we find he’s tough and tender, irresponsible and compassionate. Both boys are motherless only children, living with drunk, physically violent or neglectful fathers, with no parental guidance and supervision. They’re rootless, so cling to each other, and as their friendship grows, they become closer than brothers.

The story of this lifelong friendship is the indelible marker in The Goldfinch, more lasting even than the fate of the stolen painting. It’s depicted without one grain of sentimentality. The boys fight, play truant, get blind drunk, take drugs. There’s a bit of adolescent horseplay, but the relationship isn’t sexual. As adults, both Boris and Theo end up in that murky zone that hovers between outright criminal behaviour and legitimate business deals, but you can’t help liking them for all that because you understand their history.

At first glance, both men appear irreparably damaged from their childhood traumas. Boris is an alcoholic, Theo, still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, has a hopeless drug dependency. Yet Tartt ensures their relationship is life affirming. There truly is honour among thieves, loyalty, brotherhood. Sometimes, as Boris himself says, “you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right.”

Part of the joy of Boris is his Russian-inflected, mangled English, which Tartt renders faultlessly. “My official business so called is housecleaning agency. Workers from Poland, mostly. Nice pun in title of business, too. ‘Polish Cleaning Services’. Get it?” He also a Slavic tendency to overdramatise, frequently ending sentences with an emphatic “Never! I rather drown myself!”, or a telling “Pfa!” Boris’ energy, warmth, volubility, enthusiasm (and, it must be said, undeniable sex appeal) add  much to the pleasure of reading the novel. Here he is, reunited after many years, with Popper (Popchik in Boris-speak), Theo’s Maltese terrier he played with as a boy.

Boris – whooping with laughter – dropped to his knees. “Oh!” snatching him up as Popchik wriggled and struggled. “You got fat! He got fat!” he said indignantly as Popchik jumped up and kissed him on the face. “You let him get fat! Yes hello, poustyshka, little ball of fluff, you, hello! You remember me, don’t you!” He had toppled over on his back, stretched out and laughing, as Popchik – still screaming with joy – jumped all over him. “He remembers me!”

I’m pretty good at predictions. I saw Cate Blanchett in a tiny theatre production here in Melbourne in the early 1990s, and urged all my friends to see her saying I’d just spotted the next great star. So here are a few more:


Boris will spawn fan clubs. There will be Boris soundalike contests. A vodka will be named after him. Consumption of pickled herring, smoked salmon, caviar and truffled eggs will soar. Benedict Cumberbatch will play him in the movie (not only is he great at accents but Boris, like Sherlock, wears a long black coat). And please, please Donna Tartt, can you reincarnate him in another novel, because I’m already suffering withdrawal symptoms?

In the meantime, witty Claire Cameron from The Millions has penned the hilarious “How to Tweet Like Boris” which I share here:  I defy you not to laugh.


Telling it like it was: Mandy Sayer’s troubled memoir


THE POET’S WIFE BY MANDY SAYER         Published by Allen & Unwin, $32.99

Five months after her marriage to the writer Louis Nowra, Mandy Sayer read a press clipping from the United States recounting the death of the Indian-born writer, Reetika Vazirani, who had killed herself and her two-year old son while housesitting for friends. Her suicide note mentioned the child’s father, the award-winning African-American poet and academic Yusef Komunyakaa. There had been problems in the relationship.

Sayer was shaken. For she herself had been married to Komunyakaa for a turbulent ten years. During that time, she skidded from euphoria to depression. The Poet’s Wife is her recollection of their relationship, from their meeting when she was 22, to their parting, eleven years later.

Although Sayer is a fiction writer (she won the Vogel Prize for Australian writers under 35 for her first novel, Mood Indigo), she’s perhaps best-known for her award-winning memoirs, Velocity and Dreamtime Alice. This is not surprising: few novels are as colourful and extraordinary as her own life. The daughter of an alcoholic mother and Gerry, a free-thinking, jazz-loving father, she spent her late teens and early twenties touring America with Gerry, busking as a tap dancer while he played drums. They earned little, slept in claustrophobic rooms and roach-ridden outhouses, ate one meal per day, dressed themselves from charity bins and mixed with junkies and artists. All of this is recounted in Dreamtime Alice and the current memoir picks up from where Alice left off.

Sayer met Komunyakaa in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, 1985 and the memoir’s Prelude is a sensual, passionate account of their love-making for the first time. “I pressed my face into his hairless chest and inhaled, drawing the scent of his sweat down deep into my belly, where my song always began…. I drank him in, all his sadness and temerity, his silence and saliva, his breath which tasted like damp country earth.”

Yet ten years on, this tender and lyrical start to their life together had turned into a nightmare in which Sayer endured Komunyakaa’s cruel jibes and ongoing infidelities. When she finally left him to return to Sydney, she’d discovered that not only had her husband carried on an affair with a previous lover for the duration of their marriage, but had recently fathered her child. And there were many other women. He was a compulsive liar – he told Sayer he was 38 when their met, but in fact he was 44, twice Sayer’s age – he’d managed to falsify his army discharge papers and passport. The more Sayer delved, the more deceit she uncovered. At the end, she felt she no longer knew her husband at all.

Still, they fell in love. When they met, he was an out-of-work university teacher, poet and Vietnam vet. She recognised his brilliance and the power of his writing won her over. “Even though we’d grown up in vastly different cultures and countries, we’d both known poverty, domestic violence and the expectation that neither one of us would ever amount to anything.,” she writes.  “That was probably what united us more than anything: our shared defiance of that prediction.”

Kominyakaa had his good points: he provided Sayer with a proper home, the first she’d had in years. He encouraged Sayer to go to college and earn her BA, and championed her early writing. When he was unemployed, she supported him by dancing in the streets. When he found work as a university lecturer and began publishing his verse more regularly, she wrote, taught and completed her MA. They moved from the USA back to Sydney, from Sydney to the USA, as job opportunities arose. At the beginning, the sex was mesmerising. She recounts an almost idyllic period of their lives together when they wrote at adjacent desks, editing each other’s work. Yet by the time he was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994, the marriage was already in trouble.

Kominyakaa was a master of verbal abuse. Insults ranged from taunting Sayer about her weight, her lack of sophistication and basic education; he laughed at her poor housekeeping skills, her inability to cook. He’d go on tour with poetry readings and “forget” to call her, stay out late or hang out with students rather than come home.  Sayer recounts his unspoken surprise – and maybe even jealousy – at her literary successes. He became more and more controlling, even of her own writing, which was the last straw.

Early in their marriage. Sayer miscarried; later, realising Kominyakaa no longer loved her, she terminated a pregnancy. Their disintegrating relationship is symbolised by the caged doves Kominyakaa gave Sayer as a present: after a while, the male began pecking viciously at the female, so Sayer freed them both before one bird destroyed the other.

As Sayer’s depression grew, she described her suicidal feelings in her diary, writing in Spanish, a language Kominyakaa didn’t understand, because she was convinced he was spying on her. At her most desperate, she kept a plastic bag hidden beneath her pillow, so that if things got too bad, she could always suffocate herself. There are fleeting passages where Sayer comes across as a victim, but not for long. This tough, street-smart woman was more than capable of protecting her precious busking patch in King’s Cross by swearing fiercely and taking on anyone who’d dare to muscle in. In her dealings with Kominyakaa, she gave as good as she got, but after a while, he wore her down. She was simply exhausted. More importantly, he’d betrayed her trust.

Kominyakaa and Gerry didn’t get on. There is a sense of Sayer emancipating herself in this memoir, disentangling herself from the influence of the two most important men in her life, to become the writer she is today. The memoir also traces the developing state of race relations from the late Eighties to mid-Nineties, especially in Australia. At one point, after a job interview at Sydney University, where he affects an upper-class accent, Kominyakaa explains to Sayer how important it is for black people to learn to “switch codes” – adopting one pattern of speech with white authority figures that conform to white expectations, another with family and friends. This schizophrenic mind-set dictated by race, Sayer believes, underpinned his own volatile behaviour towards her. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s a fascinating thesis.

Sayer is a natural-born writer. Sentences, similes, reminiscences flow out of her like water. There’s superb poetry in the pain. She recounts this significant chapter in her life with much humour and not a trace of self-pity and you’re left with huge admiration for her courage and survival instincts. What also emerges from this memoir is her unswerving dedication to writing. Innately disciplined, a typical day could include writing in the morning, teaching and studying in the afternoon, teaching a tap dance class at night as well as reading for pleasure.

Mandy Sayer won The National Book Award in 2000 for Dreamtime Alice and The Age Non -Fiction Prize for Velocity. I’d be very surprised if this third memoir doesn’t garner equal awards and praise.

I’ll be talking to Mandy Sayer in a forthcoming Pageturners podcast on 3MBS.


NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: Biography’s facts and fiction


THE LAST WORD by Hanif Kureishi             Faber & Faber, $29.99

Several years ago, when I was working as a feature writer for a Sunday newspaper, I was asked to interview a famous singer who was making a comeback after years out of the spotlight. My brief was succinct: “Dish the dirt”, my editor said. “We’ve heard all these rumours – drugs, teenage girls. Find out if it’s true”.

When I met my subject – a mild-mannered, nervous, chain-smoking man – I felt he deserved a chance. I couldn’t bring myself to slam him for the sake of sensationalism. Instead, I wrote a civil, factual piece. The editor was livid. The article was published but I never wrote for that newspaper again.

Scruples and biography don’t mix, and salaciousness feeds our ever-growing appetite for preying on the famous. This is the premise for Hanif Kureishi’s new literary satire, The Last Word. Here, Harry, a young biographer on the make, is urged by his editor Rob to write an “extreme biography”, of Mamoon Azam, an elderly, celebrated Indian-born writer, now living in England. Mamoon’s work is no longer selling. A titillating biography, crammed with lurid anecdotes exposing his sexual depravity might rekindle interest.

“That clever old sly fox Mamoon might seem dull and dead to you”, says Rob. “He comes across as someone who has never knowingly given pleasure to a woman, someone who has never loved anyone more than himself… He has been a dirty bastard, a liar, an adulterer, thug, and possibly, a murderer.” “How common is this knowledge? “You will make it known”.

Harry seems the perfect fit to write a scandal sheet. He has little, if any, conscience, having previously published a biography of Nehru “lightly spiced with interracial copulation, buggery, alcoholism and anorexia”. Over the ensuing months, Harry spends time at Mamoon’s gracious country house. He meets Liana, the writer’s Italian, horny, clothes-obsessed second wife, uncovers journals written by Mamoon’s first wife who committed suicide; he travels to the United States to meet a scorned mistress with a taste for revenge, to India to meet Mamoon’s family. Harry gets caught up with the hangers-on of the household, hidden secrets of servants, sexual intrigue and the unravelling of his own private life. Along the way, the blond public schoolboy and the wily elderly émigré joust and parry in the elegant surrounds of the estate. Mamoon, though infirm, is nobody’s fool.

On publication in Britain, the media couldn’t help but point out similarities between Kureishi’s plot and the real-life biography of the grand old man of literature, Nobel prizewinner, VS Naipaul, by Patrick French. Invited to Naipaul’s country retreat, French penned a less than flattering account of the writer as a snob, racist, adulterer and frequenter of prostitutes. Indeed, it’s hard not to see similarities between Naipaul and Mamoon, with his passion for cricket, glamorous women and his “hooded eyes” and Kureishi has admitted to trading off the resemblance in a recent BBC interview.

But that’s not the point. Kureishi relishes scenes of cat and mouse between Harry and Mamoon, as truth and fiction begin to blur. Mamoon is a consummate story-teller who may well be reinventing episodes of his own life. Harry writes his book. But when Mamoon publishes a new work, obviously based on his relationship with Harry and Harry’s girlfriend, the facile, flaky fashionista Alice, the themes of “stories within stories” come full circle. Who, Kureishi asks, really has the last word?

It’s a precarious state of mind Kureishi obviously identifies with. In a recent interview, he was quoted as saying that all media interviews and publicity become works of fiction in their own right. “Over a period of time you work up an account of yourself and one day you find you even believe it. Finally, it has become the story of your life.”

This account of reality has also become a byword for Kureishi’s oeuvre. After the publication of an early novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, his sister accused him of “selling the family down the line.” Later, his novel Intimacy, an account of a man leaving his wife and twins, eerily paralleled Kureishi’s own family life when he left his partner and twin sons.

Such duality unsettles. Even the title has more than one meaning: The Last Word may well be Kureishi’s last book because, aged 60 this year, he’s implied he may not write another work of fiction. And on the similarities go: Mamoon has sold all his papers to an American university; Kureishi sold his last year to the British Library. Kureishi teaches creative writing – this could be Harry’s fate if his biography doesn’t sell. At the end, you wonder whose version of events is the more fabricated, Mamoon’s, Harry’s, or any of the other characters in the novel, and whether objective truth exists.

It’s a savagely funny book. Kureishi’s a master of punchy one liners. “The past is a river, not a statue”. “A writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family”. “You’re in the remembering business,” Mamoon tells Harry during one of their interviews, “I particularly like it when you remember things which never happened.”

There are also delicious set pieces, such as a celebratory dinner with Mamoon’s ageing fans, zimmer framing their way into the dining room (all armed with complimentary copies of his works), at which the writer affirms the decline of Britain, the end of mankind and toasts a “happy apocalypse”.

Yet there are longueurs, too, interminable exposition and pages of talk, talk, talk. Kureishi tends to be too clever by half. By working so hard to deliver wit on every page, he sacrifices the flesh and blood of character. True, the novel’s a satire and satire demands  stereotypes. But none of his people feel or sound credible, especially the women who remain shallow, hysterical, obsessed by sex and shopping. Plus, the characters are almost all pretentious or unlikeable. This is not a book you’d care to reread anytime soon.

Far more interesting are Kureishi’s pointed views about the tensions in British race relations, the rivalry between young and old, the precarious state of literature, the frivolities of the digital age. This almost, almost raises the level of the novel from biting comedy to a work that’s greater than the sum of its parts.


Sins and Sacraments: Ann Patchett’s candid memoirs

My review appears in this month’s edition of Australian Book Review

FebABR        patchett

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett             Bloomsbury, $29.99

In 2006, novelist Ann Patchett found herself in the midst of intense controversy. Truth and Beauty, an account of her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy, had been allocated as a text for freshmen at Clemson University, South Carolina. One parent objected because the book depicted an intense affection between two women, discussed premarital sex, and ‘encouraged (students) to find themselves sexually’. Clemson banned Patchett’s book, branding it ‘pornographic’. Her 2007 Atlantic Monthly essay, reprinted in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is an eye-opening account of her confrontation with American academic fundamentalism. Written with unflagging dry wit, her subsequent address to the Clemson University student body is a courageous, blazing defence of intellectual, academic, and artistic freedom.

Part memoir, part retrospective, the twenty-two essays in this collection build up a composite portrait of Patchett as writer, friend, granddaughter, wife, and investigative journalist. ‘I was always going to be a writer. I’ve known this for as long as I’ve known anything,’ she recalls. Selling her first short story to the Paris Review when she was twenty, she published her début novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), seven years later. Since then she has written six more novels and three works of non-fiction, winning the Orange Prize for Bel Canto (2001).

For many years she combined novel writing with journalism for publications as diverse as the New York Times and Vogue. The discipline of writing precisely and to word limits is evident in her fiction. She generally underwrites, preferring taut to florid, banishing the unnecessary phrase.

Take her personal response to anti-police riots in Los Angeles,  The Wall, sealed with her own memories of growing up the daughter of an LAPD cop. She takes the gruelling Academy entrance exams because ‘I want to tell a story about people who do hard work. I want to explain that living beneath the weight of all those three-ringed binders filled with the neighbourhood dead takes its toll … that being the one to discover children entombed in cement wears you down … To show what’s good. But good, like the police, turns out to be complicated.’

These essays confirm that Patchett’s initial premise for writing is frequently turned on its head by the force of experience. She sets off for a camping holiday in a Winnebago, ‘to expose it for the gas-guzzling, fitness-eschewing underbelly my editor knows it to be’. After discovering the vast open spaces of America, she recognises ‘the Winnebago has set me free. It has made me swim in cold rivers and eat pancakes with strangers and turn down obscure roads with no worry about where I have to be or when.’

Her revisionism is particularly evident regarding her personal life, and here Patchett is unabashedly candid. There’s her hopeless, short-lived first marriage, an eventual rewarding second marriage to a Tennessee physician, and several mistakes in between.  The Sacrament of Divorce and the title story reveal much about her, but these essays also celebrate common links between women who fail at relationships, dust themselves off, and start over. ‘I was as grateful for divorce as I was for my own life, but it had done me in … I saw a much simpler path: if I never married again I would never again be divorced. In short, I had found a way to beat the system. I was free.’

Free – that word again. Free to cock a snook at political correctness and write, blithely childless and content with her dog in her lap, ‘I wonder if there are people out there who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog?’ Patchett’s enthusiasm for new passions discovered in adulthood (including dogs and opera) is infectious.

Some of the most illuminating essays concern her attitude to her craft. Nothing if not practical, casual jobs and an apprenticeship at Seventeen magazine allowed her to pay the bills as she wrestled with her early fiction (proudly, she notes that she was the first to get a perfect score in the T.G.I. Friday’s waitress test).

A former student of Allan Gurganus, Grace Paley, and Russell Banks, Patchett sets out a road map for wannabe writers: challenge yourself and write what you don’t know; be consistent; ‘writer’s block’ is just an excuse for procrastination. Amusingly, she banishes forever the notion that everyone has a book within them. ‘Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them? … One algebraic proof? … One Hail Mary pass? One five minute mile?’

As editor of The Best American Short Stories 2006, Patchett in her introduction uncovers an admiration for a form she visits only rarely herself. ‘The stories offered me their companionship, each one a complete experience in a limited amount of space,’ she writes. The same could be said of this book. Dive in and savour the essays at random, although in a recent interview Patchett suggests reading them sequentially.

Two years ago, Patchett opened Parnassus Books in her home town, after the last bookstore in Nashville closed. Her journey from writer to successful entrepreneur is recounted in her Atlantic Monthly essay, The Bookstore Strikes Back. It sums up her unflagging energy and optimism. ‘Maybe we just got lucky. But my luck has made me believe that changing the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions … If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore … This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.’