September 2008

Arts & Letters

Only look, only see

By Inga Clendinnen
David Malouf’s ‘On Experience’

Matching writers to themes can be a dubious business, but David Malouf and experience are a natural match. My guess is that Malouf has sought experience, relished experience, anatomised experience since he was about three. This is how he recalls the young David of 12 Edmondstone Street (1985): "two foot seven one year, three foot two the next" ... "a complex assembly ... of organs, nerve-ends, bones, cartilage, muscle. An experience machine, that observes, thinks, smells, attends, touches." The mysterious process by which in-flowing sensory material is transformed into in-dwelling experience fascinates Malouf the septuagenarian as it preoccupied the child. What mechanisms work this marvellous experience machine? What is the role of observation, memory, dreams, desire? How do we do this extraordinary thing? Philosophers grow lean over these matters, but for Malouf they are meat, and the dynamic behind the strangely mesmerising quality of his poetry and prose. Our attention is arrested. For once we will be given time to see, analyse and reflect on a process we are usually too busy to notice.

Clearly, observation matters. Malouf has a durable preference for child narrators, beginning with himself as a small experience-machine resident at Edmondstone Street: his artful eavesdropping; his secret observation posts; his places for secure reflection; his infatuation with apparently commonplace household objects, each trailing its own secret history. Children live in a world of giants, under the existential necessity of extracting reasonably reliable meanings from the giants' riddling speech and baffling conduct. Born in the same year as Malouf, and in similar social circumstances, I luxuriate in the details of his childhood. I too lived in a small, crowded weatherboard house, with every creak, space and cranny teeming with hooded meanings. I remember the same objects and domestic spaces, the same strategic silences, the same practised evasions. We had an under-the-house, where for once being the smallest was an advantage. I even cradled a dying dog there (animals go under-the-house to die; the smallest and youngest human is drawn to tend them). I know the house I left close on 60 years ago better than any house I have lived in since, and Malouf delivers me back to it.

If memories matter, dreams matter too. Here is Malouf talking with Ramona Koval after the publication of the short-story collection Dream Stuff (2000):

We spend about a third of our life asleep and a lot goes on then. I mean we're not just blocked out, that's not blank time, that's the other world we're living in, really living ... When we're awake we've learned to block out everything that doesn't make some kind of logical sense. When we're asleep we don't do that, and again, our thinking process when we're awake, we've been trained for it to be logical. It's also associative, but it's logical. We've imposed a kind of line on it, and I think when we're asleep it is merely associational.

The individual imagination will find new sources in its personal theatre of dreams, along with the "different pools of imagery that ... come out of our real experience somewhere". And sometimes the pools are not so very different ...

Malouf began that interview by reading a short story titled ‘Closer', which gives us observation, memory and dreams, along with another great source for meanings: experience distilled into story. It is, I think, my favourite Malouf story: like Chekhov's ‘The Lady with the Little Dog', I could not bear a single word of it to be different. It is spoken in the voice of one of his child narrators, this time nine-year-old Amy (or ‘Ay', or ‘Rabbit' - we are already deep inside a particular family), who must use the vocabulary and brutal metaphors of a punitive religion to express her love, and to imply the love of other family members, for her beautiful, wayward young uncle. We watch her struggling to find phrases she can bend to express her intensely felt experiences; we are shown the small actions which give this passionate observer access to the masked feelings of others; she tells us her dreams and we see why they matter. The earlier collection Antipodes (1985) houses my second-favourite Malouf story. ‘A Change of Scene' shows us a snug little family of three tourists concocting their small, pleasurable world from selected aspects and individuals of the local world - which then asserts its actuality by erupting in blood. Then comes the parents' flight back to innocence; their attempt to expunge unwanted experience. But their child has been present throughout. He has watched what has happened. What has he noticed out of what he has seen? What will he dream? What will he remember?

Preparing to write this review, I have come to think that every last scrap of David Malouf's writing is about how sensations, framed by a particular situation within a particular slice of time, are transformed into experience: the random intensity of the stimuli, the vulnerability of the process, the mysterious ways in which still-tentative accounts are found good or disastrously wanting. This is his temperament, his history, and the core of his writing craft. It also appears to be infectious. It was only this morning that I realised I have stolen a Malouf experience: a trio of children watching a great fish dying on a beach in a final blaze of colours. There are differences. My sea creature is an ocean-floor monster delivered to the upper world by an aberrant current; my child witness feels an atavistic connection, broken appallingly when the light in the depth of the monster's one visible eye blinks off. But the Malouf story has penetrated so deep into my consciousness - is now so permanent a part of my present - that I thought it was lodged in my private memory: that it had happened to me. As, of course, it had, but only by way of the page.

This is the helpless enmeshment we experience with those strangers who, speaking to us through writing, speak more directly, more intimately and more memorably than any human speaks in life. I think Malouf writes and speaks so openly about his craft because he recognises his attempt at communication of these matters to be the death-or-glory project it is. Interacting with those highly conscious arrangements of sensations that we call art - listening to a fugue, absorbing a Rothko, ‘seeing' a Pollock - is typically a private experience, however many other people there may be in the room. It is also, typically, wordless. Music unfolds at its own pace; visual art seems to speak in a different accent each time we look at it. To follow the process by which another individual has transformed sensory impressions into experience and so into potentially useable knowledge, we need words, and words written rather than spoken: words fixed on the page. Malouf has written libretti; he named one of his collections of poetry Typewriter Music; he has come close to describing in luminous words the cascading sensations liberated by a Henson photograph. He shows us the process in its different representations again and again, until we begin to grasp it. Some other writers do it. I think of WG Sebald, slowing readers to his slow walking pace, pointing to what we must look at until we begin to see, or Coetzee directing our attention to the reverberating spaces between triple- or quadruple-decker narratives, or Alice Munro's female characters walking out from under a clutter of experience towards an emptier life, and discovering, through time, what they are carrying still. Historians can sometimes do it, if briefly and precariously: to ‘see' how a different people have experienced the actualities of their own particular worlds, and made their own particular sense of it. I believe there has been a revolution in human sensibility effected by the spread of literacy, or at least of fixed texts (I don't want to be trapped inside the Western world), because those texts, and only those texts, open the experiences of strangers to us in decipherable, discussable forms. Now: consider the audacity of the previous sentences. I have had a few brief conversations with the walking and talking David Malouf. I enjoyed them, but I would never claim to know him. Yet here I am, daring to trace the most intimate processes of his thinking, and daring to believe I have got it, approximately, right. That is the miracle of literacy.

Reading this small book (Melbourne University Press, 86pp; $19.95) in this strange, small series I have had the unusual experience of being closely attentive to everything said on every one of its pages. I am glad Malouf reminds us of Henry James's marvellous image of experience as "an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider's web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissues." I am grateful that he admits us so deeply into his understanding of a work of art, whether a partita, a poem or a photograph, as an individual construction built out of our unique memories, dreams and desires in glancing interaction with the sensory impressions laid before us by the artist. This seems to me as close to right as we are likely to get. I am less happy with his fast stride through history from the Enlightenment through the Gulag to Akhmatova. I would have chosen different stopping places and persons, like Charlotte Delbo, with her mantra "Only look, only see," or Miklós Radnóti, whose poems pulse between memory, dream, desire and the brutal coercions of the moment. I am glad that he chooses to linger with Primo Levi, who shows us again and again how the systematic denial of certain sensations and memories can liberate humans into vicious action. I am unhappy with his suggestions regarding the intentionality of Levi's ‘suicide'. I suspect every one of Levi's loving readers (he being another writer who inspires love) has been guilty of wanting to confine Levi to a particular role according to our particular preference: as a man uncorrupted by Auschwitz, perhaps, or as an incorruptible witness. For our own reasons we have penned him inside what he recalled as the ten months of his life lived in Technicolor. We have not wanted him to be a man primarily remarkable for his literary skills, yet I suspect that is what he most wanted to be. We kept forcing him back into our preferred straitjacket, and always to sobriety, so denying the comic invention, the gleeful genius of this rare man. (My evidence? Abundant, but essentially the doings and sayings of the great Faussonne of The Wrench.) We want Levi solemn and simple, when he was by nature neither - although politely, to meet our needs, he tried to make himself so. I urge Levi lovers to read the collection of interviews and talks he gave over the last years of his life (including an especially illuminating one with Philip Roth) published under the title The Voice of Memory in 2001, where you will encounter again his impeccable, and possibly self-dooming, courtesy. As for David Malouf's On Experience: buy it. You will want it beside you.

Inga Clendinnen
Inga Clendinnen is an academic, historian and writer. Her book Reading the Holocaust was judged Best Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1999.

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