On Writers

Hergesheimer Hangs In

by Morris Lurie.
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011.
RRP $24.95. 184 pp.
ISBN 978.1.92875.34.2
Review for Quadrant 2011.

An Event of Some Importance.

A return to writing by Morris Lurie, after a decade away, is an important event.

Don Anderson, reviewing the Booker winner ‘The Finkler Question’ wrote, ‘Howard Jacobson does not care for being called “The English Phillip Roth” and one can sympathise. The “English Mordecai Richler” perhaps, or “The English Michael Chabon?” Possibly, dare one suggest, “The English Morris Lurie?”

Respect, neatly put, and is followed now with Romona Koval’s reported choice of Lurie’s ‘On Not Writing’ for inclusion in ‘The Best Essays of 2011.’ This piece appears as Chapter 24 of ‘Hergesheimer Hangs In’ and was coaxed from him by Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham. This ended the silence. Quadrant magazine played a prominent part in keeping him at it; six of his stories were published in Quadrant, all of which appear here as chapters in the life of Hergesheimer, anyway this volume of it.Lurie is the best writer of the circumfluent sentence of anyone, anywhere, anytime.

And new apartments, a building everywhere you look, Hergesheimerturns his back for a minute up goes another architectural beehive, thewhole gaudy gamut from millionaire maison grand deluxe to minimum perfunctory shoestring fuckbox (this latter a coinage of Hergesheimer’sown savage devise,) whatever, a cramming, a crowding, a shift in howwe live, how to live, never mind why, slots, spaces, welcome to themodern world, some section of Hergesheimer mouthing rueful pleasurehe won’t be around to see the life being thus assembled, another partall eager eyes questing to see.A free-flowing sentence like this, with a quickly peripatetic eye, varied rhythms, may be read softly aloud, like a play. And sometimes the wide sweep of view has another purpose.I could tell you, for instance, the tedium of Talmud Torah, theimpossibility of listening to an important serial on the wirelesswith everyone else talking so loudly and shouting and the onlyway they know to close a door is with a slam, the fubrenteh(charred) latkes my mother made a specialty of when she wasn’tstanding on a chair on top of the table washing the kitchen ceiling,never mind the sexual education which was never mentioned, thetoilet training I’m still suffering to this very day.This range of historical perspective, of character built on family personality, is designed to have the reader made fit for the next event. About dysfunctional families, his and most likely yours and mine, the next event is:We survived.And shows some continuity of technique, for it’s from ‘If You Need an Introduction,’ written two decades ago, and not included here.Lurie’s Hergesheimer is a writer, as was an earlier marionette Himmelman, and here we have Hergesheimer inventing Naumann, a writer. Hergesheimer spends time not writing to paint while writing is absent. As did Lurie, so this book carries drawings by, in implication, both of them. Hergesheimer has an often-absent son, Lurie’s, and his daughter had taken her life, as did Lurie’s. In the blurb, which I’d guess Lurie wrote, Hergesheimer is told: ‘This is your world. Deal with it.’ Some of Hergesheimer dealing with it, in writing, are stories of the way Lurie has been dealing with her loss ever since her death, recalling episodes of their life together, anticipating the inevitable presence of her face, a flash of her hair, of her gesture, in every group of schoolgirls passing by…. to find himself, at a certain corner, passing a certain corner,this busy and bustling certain corner of third and final glimpseor facet once afforded, the record, the rush, the reason,Hergesheimer in humbled discovery seeking still in desperatedenial her alive rushing face.

Lurie’s 2008 volume, ‘To Light Attained,’ is, in my own view, his masterpiece, so far. It needed fourteen years to find a publisher.

Unlike Jacobson, no need to be Jewish. The goyische get it. Hergesheimer is a writer of universality. He writes a murderous movie script, and a play for a young actor. He writes of Bilson the bookman who dies in a car smash, brought back to life so we can experience the frenetic scramble of a trader maybe finding a volume of undiscovered worth. In ‘The Hospital Visit’ the writer, one of the two, treats a visit to his gall-stoned father in a public ward, bearing a gift ridiculed at the top of his father’s voice, cadging his bed-row neighbours to join in the derision. At the beginning of this story, the writer gives us the setting to expect inside the ward, then asks:Shall we go in?displaying, in this small sentence, his regard for the intimacy between writer and reader apparent everywhere, as in ‘On Not Writing,’I trust I have made myself clearand later,Got it?and later,I’ll leave you to unravel the symbolismeach time Lurie caring for the reader’s capacity to take in, to keep up, equipped to understand the full meaning of the next event.

And ‘The Story of Father Quentin McGillicuddy’s Rabelaisian Bowel Explosion and the Events that Flowed Therefrom’ has this patient take an enema, after days of priming, to a thunderous movement which would close the hospital ward, and persuade him to renounce the sins of the flesh to join a Christian Order. This is clever writing at it’s most excremental.Is my recollection accurate of Spinoza writing something like: ‘Do not deny a man his religious experience merely because it was due to the condition of his bowels’?