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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:

sherlock

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: http://www.themillions.com/2014/02/how-to-tweet-like-boris-from-the-goldfinch.html.  I defy you not to laugh.

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My Mother, My Father: remembering our parents

ABR             ABR_logo_black

My review appears this month in Australian Book Review.

My Mother , My Father, edited by Susan Wyndham                 Allen & Unwin  $29.99

In  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), novelist Dave Eggers recounts the horror of seeing both his parents die within one year, leaving him and his sister as sole carers of their young brother. Eggers recalls the intense pain of being orphaned at the age of twenty-one, but also the frustration and acute resentment at having to grow up too fast.

There being no uniform pattern to death, it breeds conflicting emotions.  Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, we all face our parents’ final exit in our own way. Susan Wyndham describes the ‘chaos of grief ’ that engulfed her following her mother’s death in 2011. This spurred Wyndham, the Sydney Morning Herald ’s literary editor, to assemble an anthology of essays from some of Australia’s best-known writers, as a tribute to ‘the people who have known us the longest’ – our parents and their legacies.

The fourteen memoirs in My Mother, My Father, include reflections by Helen Garner, Thomas Keneally, David Marr, and Mandy Sayer. Each resonates with a personal voice. Some are diary entries or interlinked thoughts, others more linearly focused. All are united in their unsentimentality and their desire to put cards on the table, frankly assessing both the positive and negative contributions their parents made to the adults they are now.

What emerges is a kaleidoscope of snapshots, vividly recalled anecdotes. As Nikki Barrowclough writes, ‘death gives memory added power’. Caroline Baum, in ‘Waltzing the Jaguar’, remembers her dapper, cosmopolitan, impatient father and their shared love of cars. As a child, she would nestle close to him in the front seat of their Jag when they drove through the car wash, forgetting their frequent rows, ‘as if we have undergone a ritual of purification, all the tensions that encrust the chassis of our family washed away’. Garner, in ‘Dreams of Her True Self ’, recalls spotting a girl on the street wearing a blouse from the 1940s: ‘At the sight of it a bolt of ecstasy went through me, an atavistic bliss.’ Her mother had worn one just like it when she was a baby.

Several memories amuse. Others twist the knife. Kathryn Heyman’s last meeting with her father was in 1990.She had just had her first play produced and was writing a second. He was completely uninterested. ‘Curiosity about my life … is beyond him. I tell myself it’s okay, that I don’t need him to see me, to notice me.’ ‘ A Tale of Two Fathers’ poignantly contrasts this indifference with the approbation and encouragement of Heyman’s late father-in-law.

The need for parental approval remains overwhelming, as does the acute desire to meet expectations. ‘I amhaunted by the things I did not do, the things I should have said,’ Susan Wyndham regrets in ‘Disbelief ’. Thomas Keneally recounts his early years, his ineptitude at school, wishing for parental ‘redemption’ in ‘Independence Days’. He believed himself a ‘massive failure’ in their eyes after abandoning his  seminary studies to concentrate on writing, this inadequacy only intensified by the early success of his brother, a doctor.

A young Susan Duncan realised that she had failed to fulfil her mother’s criteria of physical beauty – ‘Esther Jean’ damned with faint praise. ‘It was my mother’s dissatisfaction with me that taught me to distrust praise or compliments (her own rare approval was always delivered with a painful sting in the tail),’ Duncan writes wryly.

Yet even parents found wanting are missed, sometimes with a visceral rawness. The death of Keneally’s father ‘seemed to shatter the interior of the earth I stood on’. ‘ Oh, if only she would walk in here now,’ Garner laments, at the same time acknowledging her mother’s increasingly marginal presence in her life. For others, grief is heartfelt but kept within boundaries. David Marr recalls the deaths of his parents in ‘Afterlife’, admitting: ‘We were never a close family, affectionate but not entangled.’Nevertheless, Marr is ‘struck by something unexpected: a sense of growing into them … I find I am morethem than I ever was. It’s a reassuring surprise. I’m easy in their company.’

So what’s left? Rituals of closure, funerals, wakes, and the mixed blessing of clearing up parental possessions. In ‘Goodbye, Porkpie Hat: 16 Ways to Say Farewell’, Mandy Sayer’s funny, touching, episodic memories of her divorced jazz musician father and alcoholic mother, the flotsam and jetsam of lives left behind includes: ‘the saucer on the coffee table, knotted with roaches from his final joints; a racing guide with numbers scrawled in the margins; crockery and utensils on the sideboard, mostly stolen from pubs and clubs.’

Children also take on their parents’ physical and psychological makeups.  ‘Her ghost is in my body,’ writes Garner. ‘I have her long narrow feet with low arches… her fine grey-brown hair that resists all attempts at drama.’ Noting that his parents ‘died in character’, Marr quips that he expects to ‘make a noisy exit clamouring for attention’.

Lingering deaths from cancer or dementia, recounted in stark detail, are harrowing; children wonder how theycan help parents towards a ‘good death’. In a short space of time, Barrowclough’s mother, brother, and partner died; her anguish leaps off the page. But there mare life-affirming stories, too. For Jaya Savige, a chance discovery of a photograph among his dead mother’s belongings led to a reunion with his long-lost biological father. With loss, there is also recovery, growth, understanding. Some kind of an ending; some sort of solace. 