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TALL TALES AND SUMMER SATIRE

gloverbook

After my jetlag was compounded by searing days of 40+ degrees in Melbourne, leaving me and everyone else tired and mentally foggy, I took advantage of the last few days of holiday to tidy up the house, to the sounds of cool jazz and essential books/arts podcasts. My spring – or rather summer – clean was a great way to kick off the new year and I can’t tell you how cleansed I feel after de-cluttering, ruthlessly binning outdated files, and “I should keep this it might come in useful” oddities (anyone fancy a Duck Clock, complete with quacking alarm? Who gave me this? And, more importantly, why?), bundling up clothes for the Salvos and moving read books into boxes, to make room for this year’s crop.

It’s going to be a great year, with new work from amongst others David  Malouf, Sonya Hartnett, John Scott, Janet Turner Hospital and Favel Parrott; internationally, expect new books from Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwen. Martin Amis and, a personal favourite, Lorrie Moore. And of course, I’m still working out how much – if any – of the First War commemoration I should cover. A pile of freshly-minted books is eying me accusingly as I write this, but I have copy to write for the Australian Book Review, a grant application, and the second draft of my play to finish off first, so they will just have to wait.

One of the pleasures of holiday reading is that you have time to cover books you wouldn’t normally have time to savour, so I was genuinely pleased to chortle over Richard Glover’s George Clooney’s Haircut (ABC Books, $24.99).  Glover is a humourist who writes for The Sydney Morning Herald. Although his work is sometimes syndicated in the Melbourne Age, we don’t have the pleasure of reading his columns weekly, which is a great pity.

Glover has a talent for exploring the minutiae of everyday life. Whether it’s acknowledging the passing of time and accepting his mullet needs drastic, overdue attention – hence the “Clooneyesque” haircut of the title – pondering on the best way to fill out the census, or despairing over his never-ending home renovations, he cracks witty one-liners as easily as shelling nuts. He writes with an enviable ease and fluidity, an empathy for his readers that makes reading him both a joy and a feeling that you’re conversing with an old friend. I caught myself deliberately slowing myself down not to finish the book too fast, making myself wait for one more delicious chapter.

We can all identify with his list of faux-pas and declining standards of etiquette. They include Phone abandonment (leaving your mobile on your office desk, where it will ring constantly with a sickeningly cloying ringtone); Elevator Blindness (deliberately closing the door on someone you can see running to catch the lift); Eyejacking (some Philistine reading the newspaper you’ve bought over your shoulder on public transport) and Surprise Veganism (slaving over a hot stove cooking a meal for 10 only to find none of your guests can eat anything on the menu).

His survey of writers’ festivals wickedly partitions authors into purveyors of Quick Lit (news-related books published 24 hours after a cataclysmic event), Clit-Lit (erotic fiction aimed at the female market), Sick Lit (crime novels often with a Scandinavian setting featuring ghastly murders), Shtick-Lit (memoirs by comedians featuring their best one-liners), Flick-Lit (picture-filled coffee table fare), Sit-Lit (any book to be read in the loo) and so on.

This is all highly amusing, but Glover delves deeper. He has an uncanny ability to point out home truths, so you reflect on changing social mores, with a smirk on your face. Take his views on today’s increasingly complex menus in fancy restaurants. “Restaurant chefs claim to be obsessed with ‘fresh ingredients simply prepared’, but… everything is presented in little towers, as if the plate were valuable real estate. It’s then splashed with a melange of butter, cream and salt in a way designed to cause a heart attack. The only place you get with ‘fresh ingredients simply prepared’, is at home”.

Yes, yes, Richard, bring it on, carry on exposing the comedy in our ridiculous posturings and pretentions. Can’t wait for your next book.


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Settling old scores: Saul Bellow’s Heart

greg bellow

Pictured – Greg Bellow as a toddler in his father’s arms

Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow    Bloomsbury    $26.99

Greg Bellow first heard of his father, Saul Bellow’s, death on the car radio. The media were informed before the family. At Saul Bellow’s funeral, the eulogies were given by luminaries such as author Martin Amis, Bellow’s literary “son”, but none of his own three sons were asked to contribute. Over the ensuing weeks, tributes flowed incessantly from writers, such as Philip Roth, who had been mentored by Bellow and by his many friends. So orchestrated were these testaments of public grief, that Greg Bellow wondered: “What is it with all these filial narratives? After all, he was my father! Did they all have such lousy fathers that they needed to co-opt mine?”

Greg Bellow’s memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart is a poignant cri de coeur of what it was like growing up in the shadow of that huge literary presence, and monumental ego. It’s a commonplace that just because you may be a great writer, you are not necessarily a great human being. Greg Bellow’s warts-and-all account of his father is refreshingly honest. Life was not easy with a man who was affectionate and easy to love but who expected much and often gave little in return. Greg Bellow recounts the many hours he spent as a child waiting for his father to finish writing in his locked study after being promised an outing that never eventuated. Saul’s Bellow’s gravestone simply states he was a “Writer”, not that he was also a “father”. Reading between the lines, it’s clear Greg Bellow ruefully understands where Saul’s priorities lay.

For a long time, Greg Bellow tried to separate his father’s public and private personae. This was partly out of respect for Saul’s privacy but also his own peace of mind. The older son of Saul Bellow’s first marriage, Greg’s early years were spent out of the spotlight, as his father struggled to write. But after the publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, Saul Bellow’s star rose. By the time Herzog was published in 1964, he was not only world-famous but hailed by Time magazine as an icon of American literature. As Martin Amis wrote in The Atlantic Monthly: “The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further.” Bellow’s Nobel Prize win in 1976 cemented his greatness.

For Greg, Saul’s rise to international prominence saw him change from the “young Saul” – warm, left-leaning, bohemian, tolerant – to “old Saul” – grumpy, conservative, arrogant and reactionary. It was the time of anger and recrimination. Greg, who had absorbed tolerance and liberalism in his childhood from both parents, could not accept “old Saul’s” right-wing views and the two were estranged for a time. Greg was also furious that Saul did not attend the marriage of his own granddaughter, Greg’s daughter Juliet. It was only later that he realised Saul was trying to cover up the muddle-headness that was besetting him in old age and did not wish to make a public appearance. Though reconciled at the end, their relationship was frequently a bumpy one.

This is also a memoir of justification – Greg is very keen to point out his own financial independence (he was a successful psychotherapist for over 40 years).  This is particularly relevant in view of his complex family history: Saul Bellow married five times. There were sons from the first three marriages, and a daughter with his last wife, Janis, forty years his junior. Janis became the executor of Saul’s estate after his death in 2005 and unpleasant family feuds and legal battles ensued amongst the siblings. Greg makes it clear he wanted no part in this and that he loved his father for himself alone. Part of the rationale for writing this book was to put forward his own personal view of a brilliant and difficult man.

There are many anecdotes in this memoir that shed light on Bellow’s personality: crying in the car after yet another row with his own father; the spirited, extended family dinners with everyone speaking Yiddish and talking at once; even the amusing snapshot of Saul’s sister falling asleep during the Nobel Prize ceremony, so interminably long were the speeches. Yet Greg Bellow never reconciles himself to the fact that as a public figure, his father was shared by many others, and this memoir quivers frequently on the verge of resentment.

This, then, is his final judgement of his father: “He was a man who lived for a singular creative purpose; a man who struggled with his deepest emotions; an author touched with literary genius; an authority with wisdom to impart; a father recently passed away; a father largely absent but emotionally present; and a man, father, and husband who promised more than he could deliver. And I was his little boy: a boy who felt deeply cared about; a grown son deeply influenced by the kind of love he received; and a man wrestling with the challenges of relating to a difficult father who walked away from shared family ideals.”


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Paradiso or Inferno? Writers on writing

GERMANY-HUNGARY-LITERATURE-KERTESZ          michener

Imre Kertesz (above) found writing an angst-ridden struggle but James Michener (below) relished every syllable

I’ve just started writing a new play after a fallow year spent licking my wounds when a promising commission failed to materialise into a theatrical production. I know, I’m too thin skinned; finding time to write has also been my greatest problem: when you work and have a family, time slips by before you know it. Of course, this is a convenient excuse. Why not get up two hours earlier and write before work? How about stopping writing this blog and turning out four pages of dialogue instead? The fact is, for me journalism and blog posts are fun, flow easily and I love sharing them, but I find creative writing tough going. I’ll make any excuse – even doing the ironing, for crying out loud, a job I loathe, rather than sitting down in front of that anxiety-producing blank page.

It made me wonder about other writers’ procrastination techniques, and their attitude to writing. Years ago, I interviewed the playwright Tom Stoppard for my university magazine and he told me that although he loved the rush of adrenalin when his writing was pouring out of him, the hardest thing for him was to get started. “I’ll do anything to avoid sitting down at my desk”, he said. “I’ll drink five cups of coffee. I’ll read the paper. If I really want to avoid writing, I’ll even clean my tennis shoes!”

He’s not alone, but not all writers  hesitate. Some relish the act of creation. “I love writing”, said James Michener. “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”  For writers with a strong ego like Saul Bellow, writing was a manifestation of self-belief and “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  Similarly, Martin Amis refutes the idea of the struggling writer and the pain of writer’s block, stating he follows a “throb, a glimmer, an act of recognition” that turns, inevitably, into a novel.  For John Barth, the creative muse is awoken following an intriguing ritual which includes filling his Parker fountain pen, opening up a 40 year-old ring-bind folder and inserting crisp pages of lined paper and wearing wax earplugs to banish external noise. Writers are also notoriously superstitious. In the delightful film Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare rubs his quill between his hands, spits three times and practises his signature before writing Act I of Romeo and Juliet. We can only guess if he did this, of course, but we do know Roald Dahl used to rug up to write in his freezing garden shed in the depths of winter because only when he felt uncomfortable did his imagination roam freely. To each his own.

Writing is a hard task master, an unforgiving mistress. “You must write every single day of your life”, Ray Bradbury urges us sternly. (He obviously never got up at 2am to feed a crying baby, nor spent a day with a sick toddler who vomits every half hour.) Sometimes, your best intentions go by the wayside. “I love deadlines”, quips Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” As  Ernest Hemingway put it with characteristic terseness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

If only there was a blueprint to follow, things might be easier, but W Somerset Maugham dashes even this faint hope: “There are three rules for writing a novel”, he asserts. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Even the prolific Neil Gaiman recognises the frequent futility of the task. “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job”, he muses. “It’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins… This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”  The outcome is always uncertain and you’ll probably agree with Michael Cunningham that “one always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”  You only hope you’ll avoid writing the kind of novels, as Charles Dickens observes in Oliver Twist, “of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

So why stick pins in yourself? Are all writers stark, raving mad? Yes, says George Orwell. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  As for Imre Kertész, whenever he sat down to write, “it felt like a tragic fate I had to endure.”   Again, Hemingway recognises the folly of the writing process. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Still, when the work is completed, there’s a definite feeling of satisfaction and relief.  “I hate writing”, Dorothy Parker confides, “I love having written.” And then maybe, just maybe, you might have made a difference. “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” advises Toni Morrison.  After all, as Ishmael Reed notes wisely – “no-one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”

Back to the drawing board. I’ve run out of excuses. I’d better crack on with Scene 4. To quote Neil Gaiman once more: “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”