Lectures

True to Form

At the Melbourne Festival.

When the Harvard School of Mathematics comedian Tom Lehrer came to Melbourne in the 1960s, the show opened at the Town Hall, and was introduced by a lanky, pale American whose very nervousness moved us all to loyal applause, when, with an out-flung hand he threw all our expectancies over towards the curtain, where he re-appeared as Tom Lehrer, grinning and confident now, an old friend.

I’d love to pull something of the same trick, but I’d want to do it to get someone off. I have become used, since the Chamberlain case, to being described as a lawyer. And it’s the lawyer I want to get off-stage. That’s why, instead of trying to put my part of this session together on my feet, I have written it, so that it’s not the law to get closer to here, but stories, and writing, and journalism, and that peculiar mix of the physical world and the psychological world, and why I write about it.

I am not claiming that I don’t have as much trouble with that mix, as everyone else. Here’s a story, and it happened last week, that might have been designed to stop me becoming overconfident about anything. It was Saturday, last Saturday. My son was in the school play, he’s an angular fifteen-year-old, playing a prosperous Edwardian businessman, in Hobson’s Choice, and when the time came for him to deliver the line which would identify who he was, he declared himself to be Mr Prosser, which was stunning news to the rest of the cast right then because he had been rehearsing as Mr Cornbean. He recovered himself well, and was altogether wonderful thereafter, but is still stiff and sore about it, wondering how he could have been so confused, after weeks of rehearsal, about who he was.I wondered a little myself, although human adolescence is a time renowned for crisis of identity, until I recalled quite another incident. I had taken him, three weeks before, into the city, shopping. On the busy pavement we happened on a chap I knew, and I did the introductions. My son I introduced as Michael, which was stunning news to him right then, since his name is Matthew.

And there is story enough for a writer, or for anyone else, even if it were all. But the timing of the thing must be fully reckoned with: my son had played every performance true, until the last night, and whatever we call the miraculous and unsung part of the human spirit which controls these things, his had waited, to ring the flagrant changes, until the night there sat, in the close front row, his comfortable father.

But, to the basement with all such stories, where they belong, until I can work out why I would want to write about it.

Before the publication of Evil Angels I would have, and I’m guessing here, written three times as much fiction as anything else but it’s the non-fiction that’s prominent now, so I should try to deal with why I write this. In a story called, in its short form, ‘A Miscellany of Characters,’ John Cheever ends by writing a parody of over-blown fiction, and asks, in the very last sentence, how this could hope ‘to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous cream?’ Now, celebration may not be apt, always, but the bewildering and stupendous dream is out there, all right, bright and compelling.

Now I see what I have done. In need of advice, reach to the book shelf. Well, there are no law books there, I can tell you. And none written by lawyers, so far as I know. The writer who comes closest to a legal analysis of anything, or anything more current than Dickens, seemed to me to be Vonnegut in Rosewater. He has the lawyer Leech speak of the movement of money from one client to another, saying:

‘An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic second, taking a little of it, passing it on. If the man who is to receive the treasure is unused to wealth, has an inferiority, complex and shapeless feelings of guilt, as most people do, the lawyer can often take as much as half the bundle, and still receive the recipient’s blubbering thanks.’

Now, it seems to me, that passage should be framed behind lawyers’ desks, next to the degrees and the practising certificates, and affixed to the wall not so much by hammer and nail as by the force of law, given the same status as warnings on cigarette packets.

So far, I’ve called two fiction writers in aid of my interest in non-fiction. I’m not complaining about boundaries, simply that we have some straight non-fiction writers about, whose styles are attractive and wonderfully judged to their subjects. They take, for examination, things of the world which are not as they seem to be, which I think is another way of talking about ‘the bewildering dream.’

If I am to do something of any lasting use in this session, I should give these writers the right of brief appearance, so their documentaries, and their collections of pieces, will be familiar as they hit the booksellers’ shelves, and the remainder tables. I’m leaving favourite Australians out here, because it’s one of the tasks of a festival like this to exhibit them in person, and I’m leaving out others because they already have a grand following in this city, I mean people like Joan Didion and Lillian Ross now, in favour of folk we wouldn’t so easily happen upon.

We wouldn’t easily happen upon original pieces from Lewis Thomas, unless we are readers of the New England Journal of Medicine. Thomas is a pathologist, who links, with wonderful engagement, the mechanisms of the body and the mind with things like pond life, with animals he watches in the Tucson zoo, with what goes on in an anthill. Penguin and Bantam bring Thomas in, but not in big numbers. The documentaries of Richard Kapuscinski come out first in Warsaw where he lives, but Quartet and Picador are interested in him now, and the Melbourne Age ran a short piece not long ago. He likes the structure of social eruption, like the revolutions against Haile Selassie and the Shah of Iran, particularly where he can deliver the witnesses in intriguing person, so that they seem either to be whispering in the Royal corridors, or shouting to us over the gunfire.

Primo Levi, a chemist who grew up in Mussolini’s Italy, can, with wise but now shaky fingers, can distil a rare liquid in his laboratory, in such a way that the ethers he takes off might just as easily be the human spirit. Tracy Kidder watches the building of a house and builds a book with architecture not too different, and when it’s all completed, we understand that this house has been fully occupied since the pegs were first driven into the ground, peopled by carpenters, cabinetmakers, electricians, by fears and dreams of the same universal order as those now to come in with the owners who think they are the very first tenants.That’s enough of examples, but those and others like them are there on my shelves not only because they use style and structures which grasp the subject and the reader with equal force, but because they are astonished at the way the world works.

To find my earliest appetite for astonishment like that, go, so Freudians say, to early childhood, and maybe they’re right. The material I keep coming up with from there, at any rate without thinking about it for a year, is a small family album of relatives, all of them aunts.

I spent much of the Second World War years, from the age of seven I’d guess, to ten, being passed from the house of one aunt to the house of another. They all lived around Sydney and seemed immeasurably old. The first, if I can break into the round-robin somewhere, was shared by two aunts who lived together in a world of hot-house blooms, ferneries, and lusty garden bulbs. They wore straw hats and face-scarves, as if a certain suggestion of leaf-curl at the chin was due to the sun, and they followed the grocer’s cart along the lane, without shame, to gather the horse's steamy fertiliser.

Spring after spring, they were astonished by the jostling going on in the germination trays, the sudden beauty of a new hybrid bloom or, inside the grafting shed, by the love of a brutally orphaned branch for its calm host. I was astonished myself, though this didn’t matter, since astonishment was compulsory. Their place was in the garden, and up at the house they bickered and sulked, sly hatreds I couldn’t figure out, and it was not unknown for one, at stealthy night, to slit the throat of a beautiful but rival orchid. But when one fell ill, and died, the inconsolable other withered back, and was senile within a month, by what seemed like an act of will.

The next aunt was no one I can use as a literary antecedent, in the way I’m talking about, although she was remarkable for the fact that she was never much spoken of by the others. Hers was the first household in which I heard the words Medicinal Brandy, and the only other passionate interest she had was in the horse racing pages of the Sporting Globe. She was, not long before I was there, bitten on the thigh by a reptile, an event of unlikelihood enough to give her some notoriety around the neighbourhood. At about the same time her husband fled to Queensland, which seemed to an eavesdropping child to offer a clue to the more plausible identity of the biter.

Of more use in my search was the last aunt, a Christian Scientist, a gaunt woman with the whitest hair, whose sea captain husband she had lost, not to the ocean but to a cancer in the bowel, which she put down to his excessive use of a motor car. She’s set great store by the Lord, and by molasses, and I read aloud the Scriptures at night, and she read me anatomy texts, which she had annotated where the authors had gone wrong. We lived in Bondi, and the mornings we roamed the beaches because she didn’t much trust schools. She preferred the Lord, and her own firm grasp of the physical world.

Whatever God was good at, this aunt was terrific with minnows, particularly the galaxias varieties, and could spot a gregarious imposter right off. She had the food chain, anyway so far as the shallows went, in neat order. Of the animals that look like seaweeds, she seemed to be drawn more to those which resemble the organs of human body. Of the ambiguities, those sitting the border between animal and plant, she preferred the behavioural test, made definitions accordingly, and with lots of them, the way marine zoology is moving, she could be vindicated any day now.

Her specialty was with the crabs. She could name them for species, and many for variety. Charles Darwin inhabited territory not safe for a Christian Scientist, so morphology was out, but with structure she was just fine. She identified the articulation of limbs and described their useful arcs. She knew how well the swimming-plates worked, and how the armor over the abdomen protected dozens of the crawling young. It took me a long time to set this fascination with crabs next to the cancer from which her husband had died but I’m sure it was not beyond her. She ate green vegetables and molasses, walked everywhere, and grew lighter and lighter. Everyone was worried about her. But whatever dark forces hover around emblems and associations like that, she toughed it right out and, I’m pleased to say, and this is a happy event to end with, she lived a very long time.