For Book Clubs. 2014.
Let’s go first to the criterion for taking pleasure from a story or a piece, and for me it’s this: I’m pleased to have read that, and to have read it written like that.
What is a short story? In the US practice, the usage is the arrival of change: In a short story some character or some concept is different at the end from the way it was at the beginning. If no change happens, then they call it a case history, rather than a short story.
I rather like the possibility that the change may not happen to a character or a concept, but the change may happen to the reader. This was the reason for writing ‘Kindly Death, a Right to Life Protest and a Shy Semite’ which appeared in the Australian Book Review for Christmas 2012. It follows the life of a widower, who takes in a young Arab man as lover and partner, falls to Multiple Sclerosis and is assisted from suffering to his death by his young lover, who must face trial for murder. The exercise in the writing was to change the reader’s emotional stance by the end of the story, so to have the change, the progression, in the reader, rather than in the circumstance.
A special task of a satisfying story, because it is short, is to give the characters the dimension of having lives beyond the page. We have been with them for some happening, some event, we leave but they live on. Many novels, particularly the classical Russians, end when and because a main character dies, perhaps under a train, or at the end of a noose, or falls during wartime. Often they have no life beyond the book.
Morris Lurie’s recent return to the short story is largely due to poet Les Murray’s tenure at Quadrant magazine. Lurie’s recent story, yet unpublished, ‘Aspects of Veracity’ I admire because the three characters, Morris and brother Norman and cousin Michael, describe the same incident of boyhood but differently. Michael’s is given through his funeral, which gives an interesting dimension, perspective. They all have or had lives beyond the page, because they were all existing people. Morris writes about real happenings. His Jews are real Jews. We listen to authentic Jewishness here. His fiction is not in the happening, his happenings did happen. His fiction is in the meaningfulness of the event, why it happened, what we are to make of it, and in its vividness.
I have heard Morris say, ‘The first duty of a writer is to create a world.’ I have also heard him say, ‘The first duty of a writer is to be understood.’ My own would run, ‘The first duty of a writer is to be vivid.’ Then again, I’d be happy to be heard with this contradiction, ‘The first duty of a writer is to change some influence in the world which is oppressing someone.’ Now, a reader of this will say, ‘Isn’t this the first duty of everyone, writer or not?’ Yes, just so. Everyone.
Kick to kick, two rolled-up socks for football, is being played in the dining room by my cousin Michael and my brother Norm. The dining room is everywhere glass and china and delicate porcelain. The inevitable happens. A figurine is knocked down, breaks in two. A harlequin. A shepherd. Perhaps a maid at her spinet, a gypsy, a laughing cavalier. If it's 1965, which I think it is, my brother is sixteen, our cousin a year older. Boys.
To backtrack. Our parents are dead, mum a slow cancer, a year in bed, dad a brain haemorrhage, a rapid two months later exactly to the day. And when their house is finally sold, able to be sold, all personal property packed up and gone, Norman and I in a flat together, me an advertising copywriter now, he still at school. A year like this, maybe more, until enough is enough, the scream of passing life unstoppable, impossible to silence, to ignore, I sail to Europe to write, to become a writer, to be a writer, Norman taken by our fruiterer uncle to grow up alongside his own three sons, Michael the youngest.
It's a Friday.
Uncle Chaim and Auntie Sonya any minute home from their long day in the shop.
Think fast, boys, think fast.
The broken figurine is wrapped in newspaper, plunged to the bottom of the kitchen tidy, all manner of untouchable rubbish slammed on top.
Now the tricky part.
But quickly, quickly.
Any minute it's already too late.
Each and every figurine in the dining room - also the vases, the bowls, the plates and platters, the sprays of ceramic flowers, the groupings of papier mache and plastic fruit, you have no idea how many, how crammed and crowded, the aunt's treasure, her pride and joy - moved, shifted, nudged, this one a fraction this way, that one a whisker that, backwards and forwards, trial and error, get it right, until the what was an unmistakable and unsightly gap - voila! - perfect, never was, ceases to exist.
In the absolute nick of time.
Without a leftover second to spare.
Before even the dampness upon the brow can be mopped away, the pearly shine of exertion, the bluff flush of rush, the aunt sets first foot inside the door.
And looks to her left.
Fourteen hours on her feet, you understand.
Beyond human exhaustion.
Friday the longest day.
"Something's different," she says.
And now to her right.
Hands heavy with shopping yet unreleased.
"Something's not the same."
The jig, is a word, is up.
The pieces in the kitchen tidy, full confession, no detail spared.
The aunt is a statue of astonishment.
"In the house?" she cries.
And then again, this time in italics.
"Football? In the house?"
More and more the telephone tells us the same story. An aunt, an acquaintance, a cousin, a friend. At michael's funeral I see his two brothers, contrary in every manner of behaviour and performance all their known lives, in character, in morality, by every defining action and trait, standing now side by side stamped with the sameness of grief.
Egocentric unawareness of the workings of the world?
The sun falls this bright day without mercy or favour on this new and growing suburb where we assemble - these recent fields bought by the Chevra Kadisha, a moment ago farmland, now the stone-marked allotments of the relentlessly increasing dead.
He had the car last week!You cheated me of money!
Why is it him, him, him, why is it always him, why do I always have to give in to him?
We go inside, a new building.
The women sit separate, ritually screened from sight.
The prayers are said in Hebrew first, in English after.
Neither rabbi, there are two, both hatted, full bearded, wears a tie.
The modern way.
The service smells of wood.
The middle son, Abe, delivers the eulogy, the traditional summoning of the departed in remembered life.
And he is not long embarked when it is required, in relief to us as it is to him, that his son comes to stand beside him, to support him, to comfort him with an encircling arm, with his closeness, with his presence and love Abe's words otherwise quite unable to be issued, to be audibly uttered into the awaiting air.
Well, maybe not quite for everything.
For school - they lived over the road, there it was, across the street - invariably late.
His carefree casual way.
He was our father's favourite, Abe tells us.
(Here his son has to step up alongside.]
And now this story.
The videos he could watch in a single weekend.
Advice to his daughter:
Always have spare batteries for the remote.
And this story.
The Chinese meal.
One of everything on the menu, what the hell, why not?
And this story.
And this story.
And this story.
And yes, here's the football story, the sock, the smash, the auntie - his mother - coming home.
Except - what's this? - the minute it's broken out they rush, Michael and my brother, a fresh figurine purchased and placed, which fools the auntie - his mother - for less than a second.
"Something's different. Something's not the same."
If even that.
Norman and I don't speak for years and years and years. How can I put this? Writers are not necessarily the best kind of brothers to have. No blame attaches. The freedom or necessity of invention, of lying, if you like, if you must, is not always readily understood or perceived. Or not easily. Interpretation is all.
Nevertheless a lack, a loss.
Which condition, call it that, seems outside of healing, a permanency, leave it alone, how it is is how it is.
Illness unfreezes the embargo.
We speak an unbridled time, an easy half-hour/ over? but who's consulting his watch? of his retirement. his involvement with horses, riding, a passion, a love, this after he's asked me how it is with me, prognosis, progress, limitations, changes to life, the joy of a grandchild, a granddaughter, in more than balancing compensation.
Michael is not mentioned, and why should he be? He's still alive.
Where Norman's next phonecall is when he's not.
But he's not calling for that, about that, the funeral four days ago, in excuse for his absence, or apology, or explanation, as you require, what you will.
No, Norman's news is quite otherwise, his daughter, Esther, the birth of a first child, a son.
Embargo quite forgotten, never existed, over and done.
Our mouths flow with words.
Mother and son.
And eventually, eventually, all in good and proper time, no rush, Michael.
And now we have sow stories.
How he slept in the bungalow at the back of the house and after a hot night under a tin roof sneezed his false teeth into the pile of dirty underpants Auntie Sonya had ready to wash beside the sink and Mike! Mike! had them instantly back inside his mouth sans benefit of even a rinse.
How he scored one Saturday night and in the openness of that democratic household told all at the table in the morning, replacing only a Mary O'Brian with an invention of Eva Binder, a touch of Jewishness to please his mum and dad.
("Binder? Binder?" said his mother all morning. "I wonder if it's the Binders from Bialystock, beautiful people, I remember them well."]
How it was eight pieces of toast when a hunger seized him after television watching, always eight pieces, never less, and what he couldn't somehow stuff down his throat, stand back, into the rubbish it went, not for you.
Never one girlfriend at a time, always at least two.
The horror videos.
The slabs of beer.
But that was after, later, we're talking boys.
"A privilege to be in that household," my brother tells me now, whether to assuage my abandoning guilt all these years who can say, but no matter, no matter. "I couldn't have wished for a better place."
And the playing football, the socks, the auntie's figurine, the dining room kick to kick?
I relate the version as Abe had it at the funeral, as opposed to the real way it was, which I tell him also, in case he's slipped a detail, to refresh his mind
"Naah," he says. "It wasn't the kitchen tidy. As soon as I saw it was broken, I rushed it out the back to the garden and buried it."
"And then I thought about it, that's no good, and raced it up to this place in Malvern, had it glued together, got it back there just in time, except you know what? it looked like two pieces of shit, the auntie spotted it at once."
"And she didn't say, 'Football?' In the house?" She said, 'In the dining room? In the dining room?'"
"Actually," my brother rounds off his remembrance, "I wasn't playing kick to kick. I was just fooling around. Michael wasn't even there."
. . .