I’ve been fascinated by this question since reading the very interesting book by Tim Parks, Where I’m Reading From which I talk about here. He suggests that we are profoundly affected by our earliest introduction to reading – whether it was a positive experience or discouraged – and by the underlying theme or system within which we grow up. This system affects every family member because we all have to create our own identity either within, or by rebelling against, that system. His parents were evangelical christians and he thinks that he and his siblings have been affected by that very strong environment. His older brother rebelled, his sister fitted in and he was somewhere in the middle. He believes his response to this situation has led to him having a visceral response to novels that interrogate the theme of good versus evil especially through renunciation.
Parks believes his theory explains why no novel ever has universal appeal. I’ve always been fascinated by the very different responses people have to works of art, especially films. It’s interesting to think about it in relation to novels as well. Ever since reading Parks’ book I’ve been trying to work out what my family system/theme was and how it affects my reading choices and responses.
INTRODUCTION TO READING
The very first book I have any recollection of is this classic picture book. It was given to my brother in 1955 when he was three and I was one. This is the very one we loved all those years ago – and I love it still.
Our mother read it to us; I suppose I was, but have no memory of, sitting on her knee. I think I remember Terry my and I joining her in the refrain, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, followed by the triumphant I knew I could, I knew I could. Looking at this little book now brings back very happy memories. My next recollection is of Mum reading this to my brother and I – there is no father in these memories, nor any sign of my two younger siblings which means I’m under four years of age when this later book was read to us.
I have a romantic image of Terry and I sitting at her feet in front of the fire in the lounge as she read. It may have been a chapter a night but I can’t imagine we did this every night consecutively. What I do know it that I looked forward very much for the next instalment. It’s the story of a boy on a drought stricken farm dreaming about a cavalcade of Australian animals – which makes me think now it was written for an English as much as an Australian audience. The animals take him along for a series of adventures. Here’s the frontispiece with one of the illustrations that gives a flavour of the thing. Note how the koala is called a Monkey-Bear. Finally the boy is engaged in a life and death struggle with a mean old wombat which culminates in him finding, in the wombat’s hole, a nugget of gold. To which, upon awakening, the boy is able to lead his father thereby saving the farm from the evil bank that was threatening to foreclose.
I remember the story this well because I read it to my children about ten years ago; like my mother, over a number of nights as they were settling into bed. I don’t think they’ll have the same memory of it as I do. Inner city sophisticates they’ weren’t that interested in a series of schmaltzy adventures involving a little boy and animals straight out of a tourist brochure. Added to which, much to their amusement I was often tearful during the reading. I know not why except, obviously reading this book evokes a deep emotional response which makes me think there is something truthful about Parks’ theory about the impact of our earliest reading experiences.
So my introduction to reading was very positive; as was my early life as an avid reader which is what I quickly became; reading wherever and whenever I could. A log on our woodheap was a congenial place – out of sight but near enough to hear if your were being called. Out on the old couch on our oiled verandah, under the bedclothes at night with a torch. Reading was considered a virtuous habit in our household so long as it wasn’t interfering with household chores; mine including polishing all the brass door knobs (I think there were only about four but I hated it – bloody Brasso), either washing or polishing the linoleum kitchen floor (we argued about who should do what, cleaning was marginally better although both required being on your hands and knees), dusting (with Marveer – another dirty job), cleaning the venetian blinds (leading to a lifelong aversion to same), running errands to our general store which was close by but we hated doing it and other bits and pieces.
The book from my earliest reading on my own that has had the most influence on what has been a lifelong pursuit was another of my mother’s childhood books. She was given The Children’s Treasure House, by one of her aunts. I can’t properly remember the story she told but it included something about a voucher from Coles or Myer. – would that department stores still went in for encouraging reading. Having been used a lot, by Mum and then me, it needed a bit of restoration work which was done by an artisan bookbinder here in North Fitzroy. He was very fussy about the commissions he undertook but accepted this one perhaps because of its age although it didn’t have a title page to tell us the publication date – probably from the 1930s.
She couldn’t understand why I would spend five hundred dollars to get it fixed up, but it meant a lot to me. It introduced me to authors and poets that are amongst my favourites as well as fairy tales and excerpts from literary classics that I’d go on to read as an adult. Look at these two (out of four) content pages; which, incidentally also show how old it is.
The Brothers Grimm, Hans Andersen (no Christian then), Æsop, Arabian Nights, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, R. L. Stevenson, John Bunyan, Walt Whitman, Charles and Mary Lamb (their tales from Shakespeare), Lord Tennyson, William Blake, Lousa M Alcott, William Wordsworth, W. B. Yeats, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Robert Browning. There were also excerpts from Don Quixote, Anthony Trollope, Ivan Tourgenieff (interesting spelling), poems by Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling and a series of Wonder Tales of Other Lands by someone called Hilda A. E. Roberts. All in the one volume, all in my home. I pored over it on many long, languid days, in the mallee; where it must be said, there was nothing much else to do!
Beautifully illustrated. Here’s one from The Little Mermaid; her sisters are handing her the knife with which they want her to kill the Prince (she should have). And I remember being terrified of this one; I thought it must have been an illustration from one of the Greek myths which I thought were included in this book, but which I now see weren’t. It’s a story about a man being turned into a horse which I found unbearable.
Around the same time I was dipping into the Treasure House I began reading the Billabong books which were also a great influence during childhood. I started with the first, which I always thought had been given to me by my mother but now I find looking at the flyleaf that it was given by Aunty Mary to me and my brother. I wonder if he ever read it?
I loved Norah. She was a feisty role model and I was always going to call a daughter after her, but in the end didn’t – too much singsong in the sound Norah Doran. If ever I take a nom de plume it will be Norah Burke (she who might have been). I had no idea what a billabong was and the world described, whilst said to be in the Australian bush, bore no resemblance to the mallee country in which I was growing up. Too green and verdant – thanks to that billabong – and I don’t recall any stories about drought but maybe there were. I suppose I also absorbed the casual racism that is embedded in the Mary Grant Bruce novels but her Imperialism – England is the mother country and the boys eventually go back there to fight in the Second World War – didn’t have any impact at all on this republican. I went on to read all of the books, some of which I still have.
Later I moved on to my mother’s Georgette Heyer novels. Parks is disparaging of his sister’s reading of these but that’s a masculinist take on the world. They are very accurate renderings of Regency England which conjured up a very exotic world so different from mine. I, like my mother, loved both that world and the romantic pairings off in each novel – alas, entrenching the idea of the white knight in his charger coming to the rescue from all those fairy tales in my Treasure House. I didn’t come to Jane Austen until much later, but these still hold up well. I’ve inherited Mum’s collection; she had all of them and this is just a part of the total.
Theme One: The Middle of Nowhere
So much for early reading. What about this idea about family systems and themes? I’ve thought long and hard and think I can identify three that have had a lasting influence. First up, if you’ve read what I’ve written closely you may have identified it already. It’s about where we lived which could be described, and often was and still is, in the middle of nowhere.
It might not seem so far now in the age of faster cars and so many means of communication but in some respects it’s even more isolated. Three hundred miles from Melbourne, and about the same from Mildura I think, although we travelled south more frequently. When we were there the little hamlets and villages in between the big population centres were reasonably well populated which isn’t the case now. People have to travel further to the bigger towns like Swan Hill to the north east and Horsham to the north west. In any event we didn’t travel much – only to church and football regularly. Each little place had a primary school and a town hall although not much happened in the latter.
It was a hot, dry, harsh environment. Harvest at the end of the year was a busy time – until wheat quotas came in during my teenage years. We spent two weeks with an aunt and uncle in Williamstown every year after harvest, during which my father carted wheat. On that holiday we spent most days at the beach with an occasional trip to town to see a movie.
My mother had grown up in central Victoria in a family of nine children. She felt the distance from them keenly. She spent every Sunday closeted in our general store speaking on the telephone to her sisters and sisters-in-law. She could be there for four, five, six hours. Reaching out to civilised society far away! While we ran wild – swimming in muddy dams, walking barefoot avoiding the dreaded bindi-eye prickles, playing with the wild paddy melons, sitting in the trays of trucks full of wheat lined up waiting for the silo to open. A cousin staying with us once asked at about 2-o-clock when lunch would be served to which we chorussed Oh, no, we don’t have lunch on Sunday’s!
I see my mother still, reading to herself by the fire in the lounge. My father out in the garage messing about on mechanical things. We had a television from its earliest days – my father liked new technologies but hated most programmes! Only the ABC was allowed and even then it wasn’t on for long.
There was a strong sense of being in a hostile, unique place only just subdued to the needs of agriculture and then only by the barest margin. Watchupga had very little rain even by mallee standards; an average of twelve inches a year. Good harvests relied upon us getting that much; mostly during my childhood we did but people spoke of the dry nineteen thirties (they still do, resisting the idea of climate change).
The physical presence of the land was all around us – dust storms, electric lightning storms (no rain), mice plagues. This background made us feel special although we didn’t until we came into contact with people from other places. My friend from secondary school came to stay and couldn’t believe how flat it was. In my first year at university I asked a young man I sat with in the lectures for one of my subjects where he was from; he answered You must be from the country, because only country people ask that so I never asked it again.
This might explain, according to Parks, why I felt so drawn to Patrick White, when I was at last introduced to him. Remarkably not during my school years, nor during a law degree at university; but through this man; Mr Tersch.
When I went to live with my aunt in Williamstown during my tertiary schooling she took me down to Mr Tersch’s private lending library. I have no idea what led to her to do this; it wasn’t my idea. Perhaps it was her anxiety about how to keep a self-absorbed, naïve (just out of the convent) eighteen year old entertained? In any event it was an inspired decision. Mr Tersch said, So you want to be educated do you? and disappeared past his shelves of penny dreadfuls (cowboy and detective books and mills and boons) from which I could hear boxes being moved and ladders manhandled. He emerged through the curtains brushing the dust off a very old, and little read book.
An Austrian Jew, he had an extraordinary back story. Every year he came to my aunt’s chemist shop to buy an expensive bottle of perfume, chosen by my aunt, as a gift for the woman who had married him to enable him to escape on the last plane out of Vienna before the Germans came during the Second World War. That was my aunt’s story anyway. He never spoke to me of that. My brother took the picture and made copies of the print so that he could send it to his brother or cousin, I can’t remember, who lived in America. They hadn’t seen each other since Vienna. He’s standing beside his desk on which there was a stack of books that were the same height. He was very happy to have the photo. And so am I.
He did tell me about his years studying to be a lawyer in Vienna; showing me his law degree – the size of a small table cloth and very ornately decorated. He tried to explain the Viennese system of legal training that involved apprenticeships along with university study in two different streams. He had trained in what he called the court system as opposed to training to be a private lawyer – I suspect this meant he was destined to be a lawyer in the equivalent of the public service but I’m not sure. The war ensured he never got to practise in any system. Arriving in Australia he had established his private lending library; obviously with high hopes of the tastes of his expected readership. Which were not met. The books he loaned me all came from the back of the store where they had lain, untouched for a long time.
He introduced me to Thomas Mann (Royal Highness, Buddenbroocks, Magic Mountain – all of which I loved), Emile Zola (Earth – which I didn’t love), Gogol’s Dead Souls (which I struggled through but finally appreciated) and lots of others which I can’t remember. Most memorably he introduced me to Patrick White whose novels I immediately related to, finally reading all of them, the final ones as they were released. I’ve been collecting them over time.
I’ve since read David Marr’s autobiography of Patrick and his edited letters as well as various literary analysis of the books. There was a Wheeler Centre series of talks on Australian writers which included Peter Craven talking about Voss. There’s plenty of opportunity to continue my interest in Australia’s greatest novelist.
The first of his novels I read, courtesy of Mr Tersch, was The Vivisector. I’ve often wondered why he chose that one. However my favourite, in which I saw intimations of the lived experience of my father and mother (not I hasten to say, the affairs), is this one.
I loved them all really. My second favourite is probably Voss which again features the Australian landscape. Whilst this one is especially lauded I wasn’t so keen except for the early part about the misfit girl – perhaps recognising something of myself. I didn’t like the steady disintegration of the personality of the title character; a dissolution finely captured in this extraordinary cover painting by Sydney Nolan.
My most recent acquisition is his first novel, The Happy Valley which I am going to read this year. It is hard to find in the original and I was pleased to add it to my collection.
Theme Two:Faith And Renunciation = Existentialism
Our second family theme would have to be related to our traditional Catholic upbringing – mass every Sunday, religious instruction leading to First Communion, Confirmation, Catholic secondary schools – the works. I and my siblings all had the same response in adulthood – we gave it away to varying degrees although both my sisters baptised their children. I didn’t.
At my convent school we were told that once out in the big wide world there would be all sorts of people people intent on dissuading us from our religious belief. But when I got to university I fell in with a whole lot of people brought up Catholic who were busy dispensing with its dogma all by themselves as fast as they could. I had in fact given it away while still at Marys Mount.
My Williamstown uncle had a stroke and in response I started going to mass every morning – it was compulsory for us boarders only on Tuesdays and Friday mornings in addition to the regular Sunday. I think weekday mass was at 7.20am which seems a strange starting time. In any event that’s what I did from about August – every morning and I made my younger sister come with me. Looking back I can’t believe she did, although she grumbled. But we both loved our uncle, and our aunt.
We were the only students there and sat upstairs in the choir watching the nuns below us in the nave. Sister Presentation who worked in the kitchen took me aside once and told me it would be all worthwhile implying we would get what we were praying for, which was Uncle Jim’s recovery.
At some stage while I was doing this we had a discussion in class with Sister Denise, our Mistress of Schools whom we all admired, about religious belief. I can’t remember the context, nor the exact question that was put and even whether it was specifically directed to me: Why are you going to mass for your uncle? or a more general one directed to the whole class: Why do you give up things in Lent or do other things like that for your faith? Regardless of whom the question was asked I answered it. Because it’s a sacrifice. To which Sister Denise responded: Why don’t you just go and jump in the lake? I didn’t have an answer, and in that instant I stopped believing in God. Sounds strange now I’ve written it down finally – I’ve thought about this exchange a lot since it happened. But there it is – as clear in my memory as if it happened yesterday. I think we kept going to mass, but I was completely over it all.
Which, according to Parks, would explain why novels exploring faith and its renunciation resonate with me. Which in turn explains my immediate affinity with the novels by existentialists when I first encountered them. This was in the same year that the discussion about faith and sacrifice described above took place. That year I studied these two books, which in my mind I’ve always put together.
I don’t know whether you would call Power and Glory an existential novel. It’s certainly about faith and renunciation. I’ve not read it since school but I remember the abject whisky priest and his hopeless, forced and unlikely heroism. My attraction to his nemesis, the revolutionary rebel, may have been influenced by the fact that Dirk Bogarde played him in the film of the novel. I’m not at all keen on any of Graham Greene’s other so-called Catholic novels; his characters’ struggles about living in accordance with Catholic dogma strike me as ridiculous but I did love this one.
I loved The Plague more although I’ve not re-read it since. I admired Dr Rieux and his deeply humanistic response to the desperate situation of the people in the plague ridden city. I was also blown over by Camus’ The Fall which I read during my university years. It so affected me, reading it in bed in the Hotel Marignon in Paris (a very suitable location – I was on the last legs of my mid Uni European sojourn) that immediately upon finishing it a first time, I turned back to the first page and started reading it again. A visceral response indeed.
I had a similar response to Sartre’s trilogy The Road To Freedom. Here are my original copies. I’ve only just discovered that they’ve renamed Iron In The Soul as Troubled Sleep which strikes me as a most unsatisfactory title.
I read these at the same time that I was studying Sartre’s great philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness. Which I was taught by the much esteemed philosopher Max Charlesworth during my first year at Melbourne Uni. I also fell upon underlining relevant bits that spoke about our responsibility to exercise our freedom (condemned to be free), the absolute need for authenticity and to avoid bad faith. These concepts resonated strongly with me back in the 1970s and did so once again in 2018 when I undertook a week long course on Being and Nothingness through the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. After that I re-read the Sartrean trilogy and enjoyed it all over again. I’ve blogged about the course here.
Theme Three: Flawed Heroes
I’ve been trying to work out what family theme has led to my fascination with flawed heroes which is most tellingly found in my immediate and ongoing visceral response to Richard Wagner’s opus Der Ring Des Nibelung. I first heard about this mammoth work in one of my conversations with Mr Tersch. I’ve struggled to remember how this conversation about opera came about. I think I may have just seen my first opera, which was Carmen and I must have asked Mr Tersch what he thought about it. In any event his answer was: The best short opera is Carmen and, of course, the greatest opera ever achieved is Wagner’s Ring Cycle. This judgment from a cultured Jewish man has reassured me whenever the question arises as to whether one should appreciate Wagner’s music given his anti-semitism. I wasn’t interested enough to further investigate the best opera of all time.
It was nearly a decade after that conversation that I first saw a production of the full Ring cycle. This was on SBS television in 1986 which was the first year Joe and I lived together. He visited his family every Sunday night, while I watched the Ring on a small black and white television which had terrible reception – lots of snowy, indistinct photography. But I loved every minute of it. I’ve tried to find out what production it would have been but it is very hard to find historical references – most articles on the net revert to the latest undertakings. I think it may have been a production by Peter Hall conducted by georg Solti at Bayreuth in 1883 because it was a traditional staging in line with Wagner’s own directions. In any event I was smitten despite having read nothing about it and despite not hearing the music very well through my small, not very good telly (probably a second hand one fixed up by my father).
I’ve now read reams of material including the libretto and lots of philosophical treatises about this work and seen it performed. The first time being a concert performance of Die Walkure with Rita Hunter singing Seiglinde. I was blown away. Since then I’ve seen four full cycles – two in Adelaide (both sublime but the first one in 2004 remains my most compelling). Here is a booklet purchased at the first full Ring in Adelaide.
I’ve written about these performances here
I’ve now seen a further two Ring Cycles in Melbourne; both of which were disappointing. I was critical of the design, the use of supernumaries and the costuming along with other aspects! There, you see I’ve become an opinionated Ring veteran. I liked the production better the second time it was staged. In any event I have blogged about my impressions
Wotan was (and remains) my man; the flawed hero in pursuit of power, attempting but failing to exercise power with integrity, ducking and weaving around the compromises required to achieve and exercise power and finally demonstrating the ultimate impossibility of achieving this endeavour. I think that’s what fascinates me. It’s something more than the perennial fight between good and evil.
So what in our family environment makes this such a source of emotional resonance for me? I think I know, but that will be the subject of a future blog on another day.