December 2006 - January 2007

Arts & Letters

Some things we don’t yet know

By Craig Sherborne
Robert Hughes’s ‘Things I Didn’t Know’

Memoir is a second-class literary citizen. Humans know they should read books regularly: it's an improving thing to do. But how difficult should these books be? Assembly-line popular fiction doesn't stick to the intellectual ribs or satisfy gluttony for grief's wine and helpings of sweet-and-sour sentiment. Yet if a book aspires to high art, it may test us too much with its Sudoku of sentences - what Finnegans Wake ever wooed the heart? - while reading history can make a fully employed and mortgaged adult feel as if they're back at school. Thank heavens there's an alternative: the memoir. Consumers can be spared artifice and read a writer, face to face. Not even a writer, perhaps; but an amateur just like them. They might also pick up a few tips for surviving life. There may be advice for becoming rich, fit and parvenu spiritual, as found in so many how-to books.

What a depressing situation for any self-respecting, literate autobiographer. Yet, the depression can lift. How? By reaching up to the medicine cabinet of your bookshelf and ingesting the Prozac of accomplished prose displayed by the form's best practitioners. Those who make a mockery of all I've just said, from de Quincey to Orwell, Behan, Hal Porter, Janet Frame. Not to mention the best contemporary Australians: Dessaix, Mandy Sayer, Coetzee and Peter Rose. Add to the list art critic Robert Hughes, with his Things I Didn't Know.

Hughes's titles are usually spirited creations: The Fatal Shore, Nothing if Not Critical, The Culture of Complaint. This one suggests a doddery, earnest memoir of a poor dear who has battled cancer and cycled round the world to raise money for Daffodil Day. But really it is, for a good deal of the time anyway, a sharp cattle-prod of a book, and will especially strike you as so if you've spent too much of your life grazing on the cheap chaff of popular culture and are now unable to digest solids. Not that Hughes is the enemy of all populism. Indeed, he made a living bringing to art criticism something of the directness and clarity of the "politics of culture" of his exemplar, Orwell. It was an admirable undertaking in an era when many artists took to exhibiting their productions with explanatory text pinned to the gallery wall - if you call a puzzle of art jargon and psychobabble an explanation.

Given this democratic ambition, it's laughable that Hughes has had to suffer the burn of the "elitist" brand from his homeland. But, of course, it is no surprise. There's a common strain of Australian who isn't so much opposed to art and books as offended by the Robert Hugheses of this world, whose erudition and passion make them feel inferior. There's also a poisonous strain that hates art and books and Hugheses for the very same reason. In his memoir, Hughes identifies news reporters as hosts in which this deadly attitude breeds and seethes. As a workaday journalist, I know three in the game who boast of not having read a book in years. They consider readers of books, listeners to symphonies, frequenters of galleries and museums as snobs and up themselves. One admits to having the aborted draft of a book preserved in the formaldehyde of his hard-drive, presumably as a tormenting reminder of his inadequacy. For him, hating Hughes-types is a consolation.

Plain and direct though Hughes' prose may be (let's overlook one outburst in which he describes a botched pasta as "a schlumpy farinaceous Gordian knot"), it's lacquered to grainy beauty with theatrical tar-voiced eloquence. And it always gives up splinters of wounding wit for some contemptible target. His comedy is savvy sarcasm, and is therefore automatically treated against corniness. His tone is surly to hot-tempered, now callous, now kindly, humble, proud, sulky, frightened, noble. Which is as it should be in a rites-of-passage tale from an ageing, worldly man with a moody, magisterial temperament.

Misfortune could not have conscripted a more suitable scribe for a car accident. Who better to write the misery of such an ordeal, from the broken body it created to the bitter farce of its legal aftermath? Things I Didn't Know begins with Hughes's 1999 smash near Broome, and what a poet of near-deathness he is. He compels us to view the organs of trauma, the black blood of regret, the pink breath of hope. So powerful is his rendering of the horror that when he wheels us out of his recovery into a tart and tender memorialising of his childhood and family, it takes a while to adjust to the lightness, and to amiable digressions about, among other things, the Fatima myth, and how solitude can be a blissful state, not a loneliness (something he learned through the quiet ceremony of fishing the sea).

Hughes spent his schooldays in the care of the Jesuits at that Catholic boy-farm Riverview, in Sydney, where religious indoctrination was supposed to keep the devil - sex - from his soul. God's earthly administrators espoused ‘just wars' like Jihadists. They roamed dormitories at night like police or voyeurs, listening out for the bedspring creaks of wanking. The devil got Hughes anyway, of course, and the priestly smacks with which he'd been punished left him with a mild liking for the lash.

And, as you'd expect, Things I Didn't Know is full of that business Hughes does know about very well, art, and includes exquisite word-sketches of his artist mates: the dandy John Olsen, randy Donald Friend, and tropical old dero Ian Fairweather trying to tame lizards by placing cheese between his toes and, as a result, becoming gangrenous from an untreated bite.

n, three-quarters of the way through the book, something weird happens. Hughes informs us of his son's suicide in 2002, in what is almost a brusque aside uttered with a queasy shudder - or so it seemed to me. Memoir is slave to time, and perhaps that horror is brewing in him for another book. But the effect of such sudden reticence is considerable: the book should have ended at this point. It feels rather like bad manners to read on past this soupçon of suicide, a death reduced to a doodle. So capacious is Hughes's talent, a doodle doesn't do.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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