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Into the Red

Haydn in the Outback

 
Cover: May 2009
May 2009Long read
 

It was only some years after I first set out on a series of extended trips through the desert inland that I came to grasp how profoundly, in the course of those journeys, my ideas about the aims and tasks of art had changed. Before, I would read books with a view to plot, and to the consistency of character; I would search out and judge the themes and currents inside an unfolding story; or, with paintings, it would be their symbols or the clues they held to the life of the artist that most intrigued me, the features that conveyed their intent and their human scale. But that emphasis, in looking and in reading, eventually gave way; I found myself struck, increasingly, by the influence that nature works on art; I concentrated my attention more and more on pattern, rhythm, tone, the things that give force and drive to images and words - and I can date my dawning awareness of this shift inside me with some precision: it came during a long drive I made, at the blazing height of summer, in a wet, stormy season, together with my photographic colleague Johnson Venn. We were in an old white LandCruiser with scalloped tyres; the vehicle was caked in clay and mud from creek crossings; and we were travelling down the exiguous backtrack that runs from Innamincka on the Cooper across flat gibber plains, north-west, before crossing the border and meeting the Birdsville Development Road. It had been a hard, slow ride. We came up to the site of Cordillo Downs: the gaunt stone woolshed of the station loomed, looking distinctly like a Romanesque cathedral's nave. I pulled up. Off to the west, black cloud systems, dropping heavy rain-veils, stretched away. The air was still; the heat haze shimmered; a group of half-dead gums drooped by the roadside.

“I suppose you think this is beautiful,” said Johnson, in a challenging voice.

“Well,” I said, “it does have a certain primal quality.”

We had not been getting on for the past 300 kilometres, and this was mostly because of the music issue. Photographers, and their musical tastes, have formed a leitmotif in my desert travelling: Glenn Campbell, who came from Mount Isa, believed the songs of Slim Dusty gave him the key to read the world; Davis Calandra preferred psychedelic country music and the New Riders of the Purple Sage – he and I once drove the full length of the central desert road searching for the Wild Brumbys, at that time the star ensemble of the Pitjantjatjara lands. Johnson Venn, though, was clearer about his dislikes than his likes.

“It’s hideous, this country,” he said, and glared about. “It’s dreadful, it’s devastation: I can hardly stand it. Look around! Everything’s dead, or twisted and stunted, and barely clinging on to life. And you think it’s beautiful; but it’s intense, that’s all. It’s all pattern, it’s impersonal; in fact, it’s inhuman – like that piano music you were playing: what was it again?”

“Bach, of course – the English suites.”

“Why do you listen to that stuff? It’s relentless, just like the landscape: when I hear it, I imagine a laser beam inside my head.”

I sighed. “Trying to explain would be like trying to catch the blowing wind.”

“Really – and where did you read that: in the liner notes or somewhere?”

“There’s plenty of good writing about music in the liner notes, Johnson – haven’t you picked up on that? I often think it’s because sound’s so hard to fix in words – and so it’s chance, thrown-off impressions that cut deepest, and somehow they end up giving the strongest sense of music’s movement and its pulse.”

We drove on, in silence; the country evened out; I turned over what Johnson had said. Unlike him, I found those pieces very human: I found they reached into my heart, just like a spell – and was that precisely because they made a rhyme with the landscape we were driving through? Over the past few months, I had come to feel there was a match between the look of the inland and a certain kind of music: music was the art that brought one in. I knew that it had been everything to desert people: they saw the terrain around them as a frozen song, and it was clear that singing, and piano music, had been at the heart of early station life – and when I first went down northern roads, I too found it was music that helped me see the country, and feel its impact, and tune myself to my surrounds. I built up a picture then of the inland as a distinct realm, marked out not merely by hard, blinding light, but by a repeated pulse of rhythmic patterns: by trees, and fence lines; by river channels; by the passage of the clouds. Often, on those initial forays, it was the music of Bach I would be listening to: he seemed the fitting master for that world, the interpreter whose tempo clarified and gave shape to the bush and all its murk – and this, I decided, was because of the tension in his music, and the way that tension was so elaborately prolonged; indeed, I came to see the sand-dune deserts and the savannahs as a set of Bach-like fugues inscribed upon the landscape. They were patterns, modulations: just as in the music, a first theme would evolve and vary, and be played out against other, competing themes, in a constant, shifting dance, so that it was the clash, more than the harmony, that could be heard. It was a transparent art: you could see its components; you felt them being defined, and shaped, and held in suspension against each other, for long snatches of seconds, for minutes on end, until the pressure became too much to bear, the mind rebelled – and at that instant, resolution would abruptly come, the themes would join and reveal their identity, in much the way, on desert drives, the dunes and the intervening claypans slowly take on a rhythm in their passage, and intermesh, and become one before the eye, and the landscape seems held fast between the fingers of twin interlocking hands.

“See that tree line, up ahead?” asked Johnson.

He pointed. I made out a smudged blur on the horizon.

“Providence Creek,” he said. “Although I’d have to say I’m not a believer in divine agency, myself.”

He unfurled the antique Corner Country map he had been examining all through the trip. “Just listen to this: ‘The route traverses gibbers, encroaching Sturt’s Stony Desert, and skirts sand dunes that rise from the stone floor. Gates will be encountered; the crossings are rough, and badly rutted; the surfaces are harsh, with loose rocks and extensive bulldust’ – what language! It’s almost poetry, don’t you reckon?”

“You’re right,” I said, “it’s magnificent. Sometimes, I wonder if there isn’t some master stylist living out this way – in Quilpie, maybe, or Jundah, or Windorah – some genius whose every waking hour is devoted to writing gazetteer entries for the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland; and when the literary history of the Australian twentieth century comes to be written, it’ll be quite incomplete if this unknown presence is left out. But maybe that’s the best way, anyhow, and there’s a whole secret current of writing that has to do with landscape, and never travels too far from its source.”

We crossed the creek bed.

 “Rainbow Plain,” called out Johnson, “dead ahead. I wonder where they got the fancy names for all these places – I wouldn’t think there’s ever been a rainbow out here.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure,” I said. “Once, I was in this country, around this time of year, in big storms, past Oodnadatta, on backtracks: we were caught; it rained for days; eventually we drove out, and came in on the sand-dune road to Coober Pedy, and just as we were turning off the dirt and heading in to town, the rain fell again, with the sun behind us: heavy rain, and its drops were falling all around us, in long spears of light; they were picked out so brightly by the sunshine you could see the impact of each one on the sand, and see the droplets splashing back up into the air like little gleaming crowns – and ahead of us there was a double rainbow in the sky, with both its arcs clear, and sharp, and well-defined, as if they were fixed, physical features hanging above the town.”

“Coober Pedy,” said Johnson, without enthusiasm: “I’ve had other kinds of epiphanies there – mostly underground.”

He fell silent. I ran through our conversation inside my head, and imagined I had reached an insight: into the bush, into myself – but life’s path never lets thoughts stay still. How much we ourselves are in flux, and only dream consistency into our ideas.

My impressions the next time I went down that track, long afterwards, were very different. For time, by then, had entered into my understanding of the bush – not just external time, in its stately passage, but inside time, the time of the mind and heart, time that makes one smile ruefully when revisiting places: laugh, and smile in bitterness. And the country, which had been, at first, a flat, bright, shallow stage for me, was now covered with a net of memory – it had a warmth, and depth.

I had been away. I had come back to that landscape; I was careful to renew my ties: over several weeks, I drove my way across wide tracts of the northern inland, reacquainting myself with what I had known, and imagined that I loved – but often I would find my former haunts meant nothing to me, those peaks and plains and gorge-systems which once seemed like a promised home were mute, and men and women I had carried in my thoughts all through my time away had died, or left, while my precise recollections of how things had once been still lurked inside me, like a filter that blocked my eyes from sight. In punctilious fashion I then set about repeating all the most protracted desert journeys I had made before. I even took Johnson with me down the Corner Country track again – in a cab-chassis LandCruiser, this time, brand new, fitted out with every extra in the book: it was his vehicle, for he was a photographer of substance now; the music playing was his – trance music – and the tone of our relationship had undergone a distinct change, as well.

“Do you remember,” I asked him, “the last time we drove along here, this stretch, when we stopped at Cordillo, in the blazing heat, and you threw yourself down at the side of the road, and you said you found the country so oppressive it had brought you to the edge of some mental precipice?”

“I think you’ve got that wrong,” said Johnson, very coolly. “I don’t remember that at all – maybe it was someone else. But I do remember those classical suites and preludes you kept on playing – music that was like a knife blade to the head.”

“You said a laser beam at the time, actually. Anyway, my ideas about music in the landscape have changed: I don’t expect the music playing on a trip through the bush to serve as a topographic overlay any more; I’m more interested in the idea that there’s a connection between pieces of music and certain places. Don’t you find that there are snatches of song that go with particular landscapes, that belong with country – songs that mean something to you, and mean it above all in a special place?”

“You mean like ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, or ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’?”

 “Those are journey songs. They’re songs about making for somewhere, or longing to be somewhere. I mean more the kind of music that ties a place to you, that has an affinity with a place, that you can’t help but associate with a stretch of country. For me, the place where you first hear a piece of music matters very much. There are whole tracts of the Pilbara or Queensland that summon up music for me: it’s so strong I can’t hear that music any more without seeing the landscape that’s connected to it in my thoughts.”

“You see,” said Johnson, “it’s just like all this retracing your steps. You’re really living in the kingdom of memory.”

“And nostalgia.”

“The pain of returning,” he said.

“That’s exactly right,” I said: “a perfect translation.”

“And you’re surprised I know the meaning of the word! You should wise up. I might be the deepest, most knowledgeable person in the desert at this very moment, and you the shallowest – and you might just think you know so much because you’re so shallow.”

This was a typical sally of Johnson’s: almost a mark of friendship. I ignored it.

“In fact, it’s not just nostalgia,” I said. “Or not simply. It’s also that there’s a shadow line in life, which I was quite unaware of before – a line in everyone’s path through the world, and nothing tells you that it’s coming up. It’s the midway line: the shining, secret balance point in life’s trajectory; the fulcrum, where the weight of things shifts. Where the past suddenly becomes more important to you than dreams of the future, and memory becomes the imagination’s sweetest field.”

“And you’re across that line? I don’t know that you weren’t always over it: you never seemed that interested in what was coming. For me, though, it’s not that way. Things are cyclical – I sometimes feel I’m living out the same life my father and his father lived before me, trapped, trapped in nets and obligations, and only the details have changed: same arc, same rises and falls. And then I found picture-making, and it set me free, I thought – only now all I care about is making images and art from life, and that feels just like slavery as well.”

“I’ve got a new provisional conclusion on that front, too,” I said.

“Amazing,” said Johnson. “Unexpected!”

I accelerated, and unfurled my ideas before him, feeling exceptionally clear-headed, but also with the sense that my thoughts were shifting and changing even as I expressed them, and I was clambering alone, unguided, on loose screes of rock. Memory and life, and artistry and balance – how linked they were, how much they took their tension from each other; they were energies, they needed to be in play, and made and unmade all the time.

“You always talk,” said Johnson, “about the depth and majesty of how we see the world – but it always turns out to be a very mechanical affair. Too much theory!”

“I do have a theory,” I said. “I’m not going to be defensive about that.”

I explained it; Johnson was silent, as though pacing round this new structure, examining it from various angles, checking to see how its different elements hung together. A trance theme, in several segments, pulsed through his speaker system, faded, and died away.

“I summarise,” he then said. “The darkness drives us to make art. There’s nothing true or beautiful about it – at least for you. Life comes from next to nothing, from silence; art and music are our challenge to the emptiness, hence the importance of place. We need home; we need structure, and shape, and that’s why art and music come to be: as a pattern, against the void. Would that be right?”

I turned this over: places that were dear to me, like the ranges outside Warburton, or the Fitzroy River in its swirling gorges, seemed to shimmer in my mind. And what does silence prompt us to? What is it that the heart, in silence, says? What do mystics and self-explorers seek, in the darkness of their mental quest: mystics turn to dreams of heaven; the reflective mind turns to the past. We listen for the sound of life; we need the sound of life, some sound, to hide the truth of ourselves: our origins, our destination. And I cannot fail to register how desperately modern man needs music, craves music, cannot bear even the briefest space of silence, as though without the beat we would be forced to listen to the rushing of our blood – and solitude itself, which once paved the way to insight, has become an enemy: indeed, it is a bitter truth that our kind today is afraid of isolation; we crowd together with each other, and can hardly stand to be alone for very long.

*

The journey with Johnson reached its endpoint; we went our ways. Soon I was travelling again, on a road that has always had a sharp resonance for me: the Tanami Track’s northward extension, which runs from Balgo Hills, skirting the eastern end of Lake Gregory, into the lush, ambiguous country watered by Sturt Creek. It was here, in the dark Denison Range, that the rock-art hunter Grahame Walsh came upon a carved figure, in three-quarter profile, unlike anything he had ever seen: on his reading of the marks upon the rock, that image showed a man in heavy armour, bearing weapons. Grahame included the panel in his grand bicentennial book of Australian rock art, but he described it there as a recent work, made probably by Afghan cameleers travelling between the desert stations and Halls Creek. In his inmost heart, though, he was convinced it was prehistoric; he dated it before the last ice age; he saw it as a secret clue to Australia’s deep past. Just one ridge line distant was a fearful stretch of landscape: he felt there was a strong, terrible presence there, which had cursed him, and which he heard in his mind as music, light, repeating snatches of song. Never had he felt such an oppressive force in remote country, he told me, in tense, urgent style, on the last trip we made together before his death – and it was hard for me, as I drove through the bare country, beneath menacing clouds, to resist the thought that presences and auras survive, and that he was somehow with me there, and we were exploring once again together, and there was no divide at all between us in state.

At which point, abruptly, the Halls Creek junction loomed ahead. Back roads towards the ruined gold camps stretched away. I took one. Beams of sunlight were catching the mesa crowns: there were fire fronts on the ranges, burning up the spinifex. That landscape, between Elvira homestead and Old Halls Creek, seems full of shaded grandeur; it is almost always veiled by dust, and mirage shimmer, and haze curtains hanging in the air; its colours are ornate, like the illuminations in a medieval manuscript, and so it was on that occasion – it looked just as I remember it from the first time I travelled there, years before. By chance, I was in the midst, then, of a prolonged immersion in the music of Haydn, the composer whose work deals most urgently with the texture and the race of time. I had been listening intently to his Prussian Quartets, which he wrote at the midpoint of his life: contained, ungiving pieces – works that strain against the cage of form and elegance, and only at rare instants break through to resolution, and allow their themes a semblance of fluency and flow. That journey was the first time I had heard them fully, that I could give my thoughts to them, and plunge into their depths – and at once it was clear to me that it would be time well spent if all the remaining hours of my life were passed in elucidating those pieces and the emotions they held.

Haydn’s progress towards this peak of his art has been well covered, at least in external fashion, by his various biographers: he was, after all, the most famous musician of his age, although his court duties virtually confined him to the “Hungarian Versailles”, the schloss at Eszterháza, isolated and built upon a humid, mosquito-ridden swamp. It was there, around 1770, that the composer, free from all influences, entered upon a period of great creative energy: from fragments of operatic and cantata form, from trio and sonata structure, he built, for his thoughts, a new language – almost, it is tempting to say, a new means of making patterns and intervals in sound. This was the string quartet, which served as a beginning for a long tradition, and the spur for countless imitations, but was in fact an end. Haydn himself turned away from the radiative weapon he had forged; all his followers did no more than copy and derive: the new form’s fate exemplifies the speed with which inventions, in art, fade from their first flush. Scholars see the emergence of this music, and trace it to the violent dramas then taking the stage by storm; historians trace an echo of literary romanticism in the composer’s mind: but the truth lies in the notes – it is there, and plain, for those who wish to hear the tale. He was trapped in a loveless marriage; he longed for escape; he found, instead, a perfect amplifier in the patterns of his mind, for in his time at Eszterháza, in that court of elegance, he had become a crystalline, refractive being: all he felt was transformed, expressed in music – remade in finely graduated sound. The pieces he wrote then, elaborate and interlinking, join together torment and analysis of torment; irony attends them, too. The first fully realised sequence in this series is the set of Sun Quartets – so named from the engraved frontispiece of an early published score, though nothing written is less like the triumph of the sun, and light. They record his grief, and his love for grief’s intensity, and his constant passage on the shining path between insight and despair. It was only a decade afterwards that Haydn found his emotions renewed: he fell for the Italian opera singer Luigia Polzelli, who would blackmail him in later life; the music he wrote for her in those days is full of carefree happiness – and in the wake of that incautious romance, at last he retreated, to the realm of solitude, and the poise and clarity of the quartets I heard for the first time around sunset, long ago, on the Old Halls Creek track.

What do they teach? Linked lessons, for both art and life: how close the line is between the heart’s darkest regions and the light; how the two imply each other, they require each other – one cannot be felt without the presence of its opposite nearby, in just the way that themes in music can be expressed in major key, and in minor, and the passage from one to the next is no more than the inflection of a string. The quartets speak, too, of the brittleness of life, which is simply the helter-skelter race of man through time: time, which holds all beauty and mystery inside its arms, which advances imperviously, unknowably, and yet is full of shape and splendour – so much so that, through music, we can speak its language, we can weave in it, and what we make can answer the presence of pattern and of grace in life. That reply is art; swiftness and multiplicity lie at its core: it is better to race and dance than walk mournfully through the world. Captured in this way by those quartets, and their cryptic, inward themes – themes turning upon themselves, like mirrors gazing into the future, and reflecting its tidings back – caught up, held in that music, I drove on, through Halls Creek, along the highway, past grand, deep-red range systems, and ever since then that stretch of the East Kimberley has seemed a place of the utmost grace to me: the quartets have stayed there; they open up the bush; I feel them inside the landscape’s rhythms. They are with me, at Bow River, at Springvale and Lissadell – they are a gift, given by the composer, his last, in a sense, for it is very clear that after these quartets something in Haydn dies: he falls from history, his engagement in his work is gone; he is hollowed out, he becomes nothing but his celebrity and fame; indeed, his music is no more than a series of grand spectaculars, the emotions it harbours are judged for the wider world: they are far from him.

Just as he is far from us, far from the Kimberley, a world away, and centuries into the past – and doubtless my wild desire to inscribe his music into the landscape testifies to my own isolation there, and my need to fill that realm with outside presences – and yet I cannot entirely forebear from mentioning the fate of the Prussian Quartets autograph: the score in Haydn’s hand, which, alone among the scoresheets of classical masterpieces, came, through a long chain of chance events, to rest on Australian soil – and it may even be that this link lends the music a distant resonance within the landscape, a tie to its rhythms and its sense of sombre force.

Shortly before Haydn’s death, the reigning Eszterházy prince, the second Prince Nicolaus, engaged the composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel: it fell to him to sort through the many manuscripts and scores Haydn had left at Eszterháza Palace, which was now neglected and falling into disrepair. Hummel took what he amassed with him to London, where most of Haydn’s scores can still be found in the music collection of the British Library, their neat marks speeding along the staves. But the autograph of the four last Prussian Quartets eventually appeared in the possession of the composer Muzio Clementi, a minor virtuoso whose musical duel with the young Mozart in Vienna has preserved his name. Clementi scribbled on the pages of the autograph, and kept them for some while; he died in 1832, and the score becomes impossible to trace until 1851, when it was sold at auction in London. The purchaser was a British Army colonel, who was on the point of emigrating to New Zealand, and who may well have bought the manuscript as a kind of financial surety against the uncertain times ahead. The following year, after oceanic passage on the vessel Jane Seymour, the colonel, his family and his Amati violin reached Christchurch. HeHe prospered: he set up his own orchestra; he had the manuscript bound into a single volume by G. Tombs & Co., Printers & Bookbinders – Autograph Quartettes / Haydn reads the title on the red front cover, in letters of stamped gold. The colonel in his turn died; the volume passed to his granddaughter, who lived on a sheep station in the depths of the South Island, where it remained in a bookcase, largely untouched, for many years, until another death impended: this time the heirloom was left to a half-sister, but the new custodian had moved recently, to Melbourne. By chance, though, her daughter was just then on holiday in New Zealand: she collected the Haydn book, put it in a suitcase and continued the driving tour she was embarked on, thus giving the quartets exposure to the country in which the greater part of their existence had already been spent.

Then it was off to Melbourne: the book was stored, for almost a decade, in a jiffy bag under a bed, until the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Haydn’s birth, in 1982, provided the occasion for a great festival of the composer’s music, by then somewhat out of fashion – and, as chance would have things, it was in Melbourne that the festival took place. The English conductor Christopher Hogwood, a leading interpreter of Haydn’s early symphonies, was invited to perform. At the end of a concert given “on a wet Sunday afternoon” in the Universal Theatre, Hogwood was approached by a woman carrying a plastic shopping bag. She told him the story, and asked his opinion as to the authenticity of the handwritten score. A few pages were photocopied at once in the theatre manager’s office before the woman, and the bound volume, disappeared into the gathering dark. What to do? The Melbourne Age, at that time the defining organ of high culture, swung into action, and covered the episode; the Age story was read out on the ABC’s radio program Arts Illustrated, together with an appeal for the bearer of the book to come forward once again. By good luck, an academic conference on Haydn was also unfolding at that time, nearby, in Adelaide, attended by an array of specialists from around the world. Georg Feder, the director of the Haydn Institute in Cologne, was dubious, at first, when told this winding tale of manuscripts – but some weeks later he was able to make contact with the custodians of the book. Feder spent his last day in Australia at their house in the suburbs, making his detailed investigation of the scores: he checked the paper and the watermarks; he checked the ruling of the staves. Next morning, he returned, and plunged into textual comparisons, but time was running out. Could he take a copy? The little group dashed to the local public library, and fulfilled its mission just before the closing time of noon. On, then, to the international airport, and a press conference of high drama, covered in ceremonious fashion by the ABC. Before the cameras, mastering the sustained, celestial excitement that comes scarcely ever in a scholar’s life, Feder was able to confirm that the missing autograph of the Prussian Quartets had at last been found.

So it is, with the Haydn story, and those mysterious pieces – but at this point in Haydn’s life, with the abrupt inflection that comes in his music, not only does he become a figure of renown in Vienna, Paris, London, in all the capitals of Europe; he also becomes invisible in the bush: no one would listen to a late Haydn symphony or mass and imagine some connection between that stately, varnished species of composition and the inland country, hard, as it is, and reticent. He is lost to us; he was, in fact, always half-known, obscure – and yet the turmoil of those first quartets and their constant tone of self-interrogation still give him to us, more purely than any other great composer gives up himself. For those who study him, and seek him, he is present in those fugues and scherzos; he is revealed, intimately – he is disclosed in such detail that he seems to stand beside his listeners like a brother-spirit, like a messenger from time’s oblivion, a close and truthful friend.

It is, then, tempting, almost natural to hear and take to heart the words his music whispers, as one drives through the range country – through landscape that forms so sparse a backdrop it encourages the mind into a series of ever-wider journeys into the void, aloft. It is tempting to believe, like Haydn himself, that form and pattern are the mark not just of beauty but of life, that form in the landscape is the country’s way of telling us it lives, too. But then the darkness waiting in these thoughts descends, for if art is just its own pleasing, weightless thing; if it comes into being by our will and vanishes, like some particle in the cold depths of an experimental chamber; if it is doomed, and transient, then the nostalgia is all it is – the imprint of its own mortality, the catch in its breath, the false promises that lure us with their siren grace. This, as much as the travails of love and loneliness, this trap is what lies sprung, waiting, in the quartets. We are creatures conscious of our fate, we long to live, and yet we cannot make or see or hear a work of art without sinking in the flow of time, and finitude: those fleeting notes that surround us, and sweep us up, and propel us forward make us feel the past’s gravity; they make us sense that past’s tide – memory, the all-shaping, constantly shifting bridgework of our minds.

These thought-fragments swirling through my head, I pulled in, after crossing the Carr-Boyd Ranges, at the roadhouse next to Doon Doon community, where mazy, philosophic conversation is almost always to be had; but the moment was wrong, there was a large funeral cortege awaiting departure – and the impact of that mournful scene seemed only to confirm and deepen my wildest ideas. Across the causeways I drove, north, dodging the gaps and washouts, feeling, as always there, the strange conviction that a road train was on the verge of sweeping round the approaching bend and coming straight for me at speed. Intuitions of this kind were often in the thoughts of the mid-century poet Aleksander Wat, a lover of form in music, whose example has come increasingly to influence my ideas about the way one should live and shape one’s life. Wat relates several emblematic episodes in his memoir, My Century, which he recorded, during a dark phase of illness, in the company of his fellow poet Czeslaw Milosz, shortly before committing suicide. Wat had been greatly moved, as he relates, by an experience that came to him in his incarceration under the Soviet regime during World War II. On one occasion, he was allowed onto the roof of the Lubyanka prison, in the heart of Moscow, for a walk that lasted 20 minutes: in that brief interval, he was able to catch on the wind, drifting towards him across the rooftops, faint snatches from a recording of the St Matthew Passion – and for the remainder of his life he would turn to Bach’s music in moments of remorse or grief.

As a young writer in Warsaw, Wat was an eager, well-schooled modernist, determined to tear apart the restraints of form: art, for him, in those days, seemed to need not precision, or elegance, but an aim, a direction, a cause. Once he had fallen into the Gulag, the pattern of his thinking began to shift – and this was in part through the good fortune that had brought him to the Lubyanka, the jewel in the NKVD’s crown: the intellectual’s prison, where the quality of the libraries matched the sophistication of the torture cells. One of the first inmates Wat came to know there was the etymologist Evgeny Dunayevsky, a man teetering on the brink of madness, and obsessed with the deep root meanings of common words. Together, the two spent hours lost in this unending speculative realm. As their exchanges continued, Wat’s own ideas about art and writing were slowly transformed. No longer did the avant-garde, with its cavalier desire to pulverize the language of the day, seem so bold or so appealing – quite the opposite: he came to believe that it was the particular responsibility of the poet to excavate the language he employed, to explore its foundations and depths, to make proper, exact use of every single word. Wat now sensed the concealed associations lying within the arms of language: the bonds of words; their links to history, to the tissues of human destiny, to the destinies of generations. The writer had a special task, a mission, that set him apart from other speakers of a language: a duty to rediscover the weight of each word, its place in the flow of time – and the more Wat and his story preoccupy me, the more I feel sure that his argument holds certain keys for our present path in life. Those ideas of his reflect not just the long trajectory of words and literature in the heart of Europe, but also a sharp awareness of that tradition’s impending end.

And so it must be, for us: the ending is always in the words, in the phrase of music – the end is the completion that recasts the whole – so much so that all writing comes down to the quest for the last words, all music is the frantic quest for the last note, for silence. The close is like the setting sun that sheds its light upon the ranges, and brings their features out, and, after long hours of dazzling, deceptive day, displays their true nature to our gazing eyes. We live for the end: all art reaches for it, and shies away from it, just as we watch for and shy from night’s extinguishment of sunset – why else do we travel down unending highways, our eyes fixed on the horizon line; why else listen, as time goes on its rush past us? We are a chain of sounds, and words, and thoughts; we are sequences in the flow: what most concerns us is the struggle, the aim in all the music that we hear – to bring the song to the last note, when all dies away, and all coheres.

About the author Nicolas Rothwell
Nicolas Rothwell is an author and a journalist for the Australian. His books include The Red Highway and Journeys to the Interior, and his coverage of Indigenous affairs has earned him a Walkley Award.