Betrayals of faith
The writings of Alex Miller
In a recent interview, Alex Miller told a story about a friend called Max Blath coming to visit him. It was years ago, before he’d published, when he was living on a farm outside Canberra. Max, a “survivor from Europe”, would turn up in a taxi from Goulburn station wearing his homburg and carrying a little black case. “He’d duck under the wire,” Miller said, “as if he was in Poland some 50 years before. He didn’t change his external demeanour at all.” When Max asked what he’d been writing, Miller produced the hefty manuscript of his third (and last) pre-novel, full of politics and issues, the things he thought a novel ought to be about. Max took the 400 pages and set himself up on the back verandah while Miller paced out the day, feeling “pretty desperate secretly”. He knew the novel was “no bloody good”. “Anyway,” he recalled, “I’ve got my head on the kitchen table. It’s the same table I’ve got now. And then bang. He dropped the manuscript next to me. Thump. I jumped up. ‘Why don’t you write about something you love?’ After that I did.”
Prochownik’s Dream (Allen & Unwin, 299pp; $29.95) is Miller’s seventh novel, and it is dedicated to the memory of Max. It opens with artist Toni Powlett unable to paint since the death of his father, the Prochownik of the title, who like Blath was a refugee from the labour camps of the European war. While Toni’s wife Teresa has been running a travel agency – selling dreams of escape – to support him, Toni has done nothing in four years; the old clothes that were ignored by critics as an installation are now mouldering in the corner of his studio. It’s not until artists Robert and Marina Golding return to Melbourne that things begin to move. Marina asks Toni to join them in an exhibition at a new island venue that their dealer is soon to open. She takes him to the island, and while she sleeps under the trees he picks up her sketch block and begins to draw. He also forgets to collect his daughter from kindergarten in the first of the betrayals that come with his return to art.
Under the spell of Marina’s belief in him, Toni clears the old clothes out of the studio and dumps them in the courtyard. All he keeps in the studio – “a mute witness” – is the three-piece suit that embarrassed him as a child when his father would wear it on his days off from the Dunlop plant, walking with him to the park or the beach. As the sleeping figure of Marina takes painted shape in the studio where Toni is spending more of the time he would once have spent with their daughter, Teresa becomes increasingly suspicious. The brutal truth she feels on every page of this novel is that her daily support of Toni – without which there would be no studio, no materials, no time – is not sufficient to make him an artist.
The transgressive nature of creative life is familiar Miller terrain. It was starkly drawn in the character of Emily Stanton in Conditions of Faith, his fifth novel, set in the 1920s when the possibilities of a woman’s creative life were more obviously curtailed. Emily’s dilemma lay between her marriage to a kind but unimaginative man and her struggle to find a way of living that held meaning for her. In some ways she is a more interesting character than Toni Powlett. She’s impulsive and uncertain, blindly acting out her confusions and suffering for it as she fights her way through the betrayals, for which she can offer no justification except that originating self-betrayal of her marriage to the wrong man. She is as ruthless as Toni Powlett, as driven in pursuit of her own creative life, but by nature of her era and circumstances the risks she takes are greater. While everything is offered to Toni Powlett – and we know that whatever happens with Teresa, there will always be a studio and a dealer for a man like him – the choice Emily makes will cost her a daughter as well as a husband, and still nothing will be assured. The question for Toni Powlett is not so much which path he will choose, though that hangs in the narrative, but what he will make of each.
“Live a fairytale for us,” Emily Stanton’s friend Antoine says to her the first time they lunch together. It’s a seductive wish, and its consequences stretch far beyond the imaginings of either of them as they banter across a Parisian table. The point Miller makes in Conditions of Faith, and again in Prochownik’s Dream, is that it’s not a fairytale, this question of living the life of the artist. “Our passions,” Antoine tells Emily on another occasion, “always require from us a betrayal of our former state.”
Conditions of Faith is a big, baggy narrative novel, carried by the drama of Emily’s fight for a creative life. Prochownik’s Dream is a painterly novel, less than half the length. Miller is a master storyteller and he skilfully draws us into the many betrayals of Toni Powlett’s life as an artist. But this is not a novel that depends, as Conditions of Faith does, on the power of character. Around Toni and his central narrative is a cast of artists and family, the two sides of a familiar opposition. Almost geometric in design, their stories are clipped and abbreviated, given to us visually and in shards that stay in the mind: figures in a meditation on love as much as on art.
When Toni paints a group portrait of Robert and Marina in their inner-city studio and titles it “The Other Family”, Teresa takes it as an insult. He has never painted her, and he’s never painted their daughter. But for Toni, it’s this other family that understands and accepts the ways of art. There Toni doesn’t have to explain that in portraiture the “perfect lie”, by evading the seductions of likeness, can be “generative of the perfect meaning”. But what stays in our mind about Robert and Marina, if not in Toni’s, isn’t their philosophy of art, or their studio, or their beautiful house; it’s the “decision” they took long ago not to have children for the sake of their art. That’s all we’re told, though we can see that rather than going on to do her own painting, Marina works the canvases for which her husband, preoccupied with his university department, generates the ideas and takes most of the credit. It’s a strange and spooky situation. But when Marina offers to paint a background for Toni, he accepts as if it were an easy extension.
Robert’s father Theo, another figure in the pattern, watches Toni and Marina as they come into the studio one day, flushed from their collaborations. “We always confuse life and art in the end,” he says. “It can’t be helped.” This from a man who abandoned his wife and child for a life in Paris as a tradesman illustrator. For him, art makes life bearable. It’s an escape that is signified in a dying man’s
sketchbooks full of skilled but derivative erotic drawings. On the side of family is the child Nada, drawn with great tenderness, and Teresa, who is far from an unimaginative spouse with no feeling for art. She is backed by Toni’s much older brother, Roy, whose past is offered in another narrative shard. He was once jailed for murder when he punched a man who had taunted their father, proud in his suit from another era and another continent, and the court did not accept the man’s death as accidental. This is almost all we know of Roy, and it too stays in the mind as we follow Toni into the studio where he paints at night, sleeping during the day, withdrawn from his family, in thrall to his dream, or idea, of a painter’s life. Neither Roy nor Teresa is going to accept the “perfect meaning” of a portrait when the “lie” of it is lived in the daily experience of the neglected household across the courtyard from the studio.
The figure that disturbs this pattern of oppositions is Moniek Prochownik, Toni’s father, the old man from Poland in the three-piece suit. In the hallway to Toni and Teresa’s house is one of his paintings, a modest gouache of a “straight backed chair and the corner of a kitchen table with a jug and bowl”. He painted at night when he was free from the factory. At the kitchen table he produced small tonal images of the things he saw around him: the cup and saucer on the end of the ironing board, so powerfully rendered that Roy says it’s as if their mother has left the room just that moment. But when Andy, the dealer, says let’s take the old man’s paintings out and make a show of them, Toni wants to protect him, keeping the paintings hidden in the suitcase Moniek brought with him from Poland and that’s now under his mother’s bed. He wouldn’t want it, he says in another small moment of betrayal. He was a man, wasn’t he?, Roy counters.
Of all the betrayals in Prochownik’s Dream, the most potent and the most subtle, appearing not as betrayal at all, lie at the heart of the powerful relationship between Toni and his father. Toni protects his father from the risk of standing as an artist before the gaze of strangers. Moniek Prochownik protected his beloved son, holding him safe from the wound of his own harsh past of labour camps and war and flight, and the drudgery of the Dunlop plant. And he protected him from the reality of Roy’s incarcerated life. Moniek Prochownik wanted the child Antoní kept safe for the life of art that he himself had not been able to live, other than in the small space of a night-time kitchen. He fostered his son’s talent, taught him to draw, passed on his faith in the capacity of art to give meaning to a man’s life.
When we meet this favoured boy he is a father himself, with the life of an artist laid before him like an offering. The question is whether he knows its worth, and the nature of its worth.
In a celebrated article that dates back to 1964, the Jungian psychoanalyst James Hillman tells a “questionable” Jewish joke. It’s about a father teaching his son to gain courage. He gets the little boy to climb the stairs and jump, catching him in his arms. Then the next step, and then another. The boy becomes brave, trusts his father, and leaps. But when he reaches the highest step, the father steps back and lets the boy crash to the floor. The shockingness of this story, questionable for more than the anti-Semitic overtones of its punchline, serves Hillman’s purpose by raising the questions, themselves quite shocking, he wants to ask of betrayal. It is not a story we are likely to forget. “What does it mean to be betrayed by one’s own father, or to be betrayed by someone close? What does it mean to a father, to a man, to betray someone who trusts him? To what end betrayal at all in psychological life?”
In a long and complex argument, Hillman brings us round to see that betrayal is the dark side of trust and love and that without knowledge of it – and all that that knowledge demands of us – our lives remain on the surface of psychological experience. “To live or love only where one can trust, where there is security and containment, where one cannot be hurt or let down, where what is pledged in words is forever binding, means really to be out of harm’s way and so to be out of real life.” It is through the harsh lessons that land us flat on the floor that we break through to another layer of feeling, or consciousness, or being. It’s where the deep struggles of life are no longer “a game of private theatricals,” as William James put it, “from which one may withdraw at will”.
For Hillman, the matter of betrayal and trust between father and son is of particular significance in the psychology of men. If the boy is to become a man, his father must not only protect him, but help him to trust himself to survive outside the protections that do not exist as a right and are hard-won in the world of adult to adult. There is no easy equation, and no easy lesson, no moment of initiation into manhood. Letting a child fall from the stairs is posed as a metaphor not a prescription. Betrayal, as Hillman points out, can do great damage, as easily locking us into denial, or cynicism, or vengeance. “Nothing’s ever as simple as aphorisms,” the curmudgeonly portraitartist of Miller’s earlier book, The Sitters, tells us. “Whenever we’re tempted to try them on we discover their general truths never quite fit ... All the untidy bits are left hanging out, the important bits, the inexplicable stuff that nothing resolves.”
Like the painters he gives us in his fiction, Miller is not content with surface appearances, or the seductions of likeness, or the private theatricals from which we can escape when the going gets rough. It’s the untidy bits, and important bits, the inexplicable stuff, that sustains him as a writer. He knows the subtleties of betrayal and he knows how easily we can wreck our lives with them, either in love or in art. That’s what he writes about.
But Miller is also a kind of optimist, for having stripped both art and love of sentimentality, and having removed from them every self-deluding panacea, he holds to their possibility with a faith that is rare in this cynical world. I take him to be saying, through the pattern of this novel, that if we are to create art or love – or reconciliation, or trust, or new life of any form – it has to be found in the dark underbelly of our own capacities and our own histories. But he’s also saying that even, or especially, in the face of our dark selves, our inescapable narratives, both remain possible. Imperfect, never easy, rarely resolved, but possible.
At the end of Prochownik’s Dream, the fight between Teresa and Toni becomes literal. When Teresa pulls the sheet from a painting of Marina lying naked on a chaise, the full force of her anger knocks Toni to the studio floor. She wrenches the canvas and splits the frame, the wet paint smearing the skirt she wears to sell travel dreams at her agency. She crashes a heavy lamp down on him, aiming for the head, and fracturing an arm. It is a visceral fight from which their marriage will never continue as it has.
Where Conditions of Faith brought Emily Stanton’s marriage to a clear conclusion, Prochownik’s Dream offers no outcome. The ruined skirt suggests the giving up of one dream, the smeared image of Marina another. Even the painting is probably better in the form in which it survives the fight than in its earlier state of seductive transgression. “Our love is not as simple or as nice or as straightforward and perfect as I thought it was,” Teresa writes to Toni from Noumea, where she takes Nada on one of her own packages of escape. “But it’s still real and it’s still love.”
Fighting with Teresa brings Toni up against the destructive capacities of his own betrayals, and it is from that low place that he comes to understand something of the complexity of the moral foundation – in both love and art – that has been laid down for him by his father. It is only with his face on the floor that he begins to understand what was meant when his father told him to paint what you love and the shadow that is carried in the inheritance he takes on with the use of the name Prochownik. What he’ll make of it, either in love or in art, we don’t know. What matters isn’t his resolution, but our meditation.