August 2009

Essays

Peter Conrad

The good son

Nick Cave, Futurama, Deinze, Belgium, 1986. © Yves Lorson/Flickr
Nick Cave

If Nick Cave were not kept busy by his multiple artistic careers – musician, actor, novelist, all-purpose avant-garde icon – he might have made the most surgically proficient and brazenly confessional of serial killers. Failing that, he could have been a fulminating preacher, perhaps even an unmerciful messiah, scourging a world that hardly deserves salvation and prescribing pain as a cure for our diseased souls. How much difference is there, after all, between these vocations? Art, like murder, is a revenge on reality; religion is a metaphysical exercise in killing, since God created the world only to have the pleasure of slowly destroying it.

Cave’s entangled artistic and religious preoccupations are on display this month in Nick Cave: The Exhibition at the National Library in Canberra. Originally conceived and curated by the Arts Centre in Melbourne, the travelling show uses anecdotes, reminiscences, doodles, scribbles and souvenirs to plot a guided tour of Cave’s imagination. One of his treasured totems, featured in the exhibition’s publicity photograph, is a bust of a long-faced, lank-haired Jesus, acquired during a South American tour. The marble curio and its owner could be brothers, except that Cave dresses in funereal black and relies on a doleful handlebar moustache to turn his mouth sourly down at its corners, whereas his Christ has a full beard and a blissed-out smile. The angry rocker and the meek redeemer might have been separated at birth.

On stage, Cave often impersonates a pinioned Christ, writhing in excruciation. During a crazed rant in ‘Truck Love’ he sees “the face of Christ leaping from the storm”, while in ‘Wild World’ he awards himself company on the cross. “Hold me up, baby,” he begs. “Our bodies melt together (we are one) / Post crucifixion, baby.” In the video for ‘Loverman’, the members of his band parade with his stiff body, as if re-enacting Christ’s solemn passage to the tomb. Cave seems at times to long for crucifixion; he has spent his life eagerly awaiting his chance to suffer, believing – as he admitted, quoting WH Auden, in a lecture on love poetry in London in 1999 – that trauma turns life into “a serious matter”. But the anguish of erotic disappointment, to which he gives vent in so many songs, doesn’t quite match the saviour’s unrequited love for fickle humanity. “Too many Christs and not enough crosses,” grumbles the hero of Cave’s first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989), a demented hick who crucifies himself in a thicket of brambles.

In less spiritual moods, Cave slips into the persona of a maniacal brute, a bloodthirsty savage character not as far removed from his personal Christ as one might think. Rumour has it that the whore-slaughtering Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, contributed a few lines to Cave’s song ‘Wings off Flies’. In fact the song was written with a different Peter Sutcliffe, but Cave himself has encouraged the misunderstanding, and the story is perversely apt. Psychotic murderers like Sutcliffe believe they are engaged in a cleansing crusade; they have an alarming kinship to many of Cave’s creations. In And the Ass Saw the Angel, Christ wields a “sickle of blood”. In his new novel The Death of Bunny Munro (Text, 288pp; $32.95) another self-appointed executioner kills his way across England, admonishing a befouled society with a black stick and a garden fork. This new slasher sports devil’s horns, but his crusade is divine rather than diabolical.

Cave’s work is full of such armed avengers. From his point of view, the ferocity that fuels their rampages is somehow holy: God realises his initial error and returns to reverse creation. In Murder Ballads (1996), ‘Stagger Lee’ casually shoots a bartender who doesn’t give speedy service, while ‘O’Malley’s Bar’, the most fiendishly systematic of the Ballads, describes a leisurely massacre, a gunman systematically blowing holes in a succession of lowlifes. Heads explode like pulped fruit, bowels spread across a squelching floor, blood spurts in scarlet rivulets. The strutting killer eyes himself in a mirror and finds time to admire his own handsomeness as the spree continues; with a dandyism that evokes Cave’s attention to his own sleek coiffure, he feels a twinge of remorse when the spilled guts splash his mane of raven hair. Cave is candid about the malevolent source of his creative energy. This song was his response to a stay in a German hotel, where the roistering guests around the swimming pool disturbed his peace. He got his own back by inventing identities for the obnoxious strangers and obliterating them one by one in the lyrics he wrote. There could hardly be a neater illustration of the Freudian need for revenge – a craving that turns some people into artists while others, who suffer from fewer inhibitions, make careers as psychopaths or fire-breathing redeemers. We can only be grateful that Cave chose not to go into politics: artists are self-elected dictators who rule over a world of play, where the power of life and death they wield does no actual harm.


Is there a mission in the vindictive madness Cave unleashes in his songs and novels? What gives him his faith in a cleansing, cauterising violence, and prompts him to rectify the world with blades, bullets and a voice that, as he says in one of his songs, bellows at the firmament? These are questions that, with a shudder of alarm, he occasionally asks himself.

In John Hillcoat’s film The Proposition (2005), for which Cave wrote the screenplay, Emily Watson conducts the interrogation on Cave’s behalf, like a soothy therapist. Comforting her husband, the hardened colonial police captain played by Ray Winstone, she strokes his fevered brow and tries to picture “the world you live in, in there”. In the film, that world is a dark and probably fetid room, sealed off from the blinding desert outside. Poets once referred to this private mental space as their cave of making; as Cave said in a BBC program on religion in 1996, the imagination’s “large, bolted door” shuts in “all manner of shameful fantasies”. It’s not surprising that Cave’s characters, holed up with their fetishes and their neuroses, tend to be cave-dwellers. A cannibal outlaw in And the Ass Saw the Angel has his lair in “a small stone cave”, while the book’s mute narrator, Euchrid, skulks in a “cave of vine and moss”, an office where he stores hammers and nails, Bibles, bird skulls, stained bandages and other devotional trophies.

Euchrid calls his jungly hide-out a “sanctum”, but Cave seems unsure whether the place is sacred or profane. In his BBC talk he described the creative imagination as “God taken flight”. It’s an enigmatic, deliberately ambiguous phrase. He may mean that imagination is our grieving substitute for an absent God; or perhaps it is a demon, God’s avowed enemy. A “Manichean divide”, as the novelist Will Self has said, runs like an embattled frontier throughout Cave’s mental universe. In ‘Song of Joy’, he quotes Milton’s Satan, who in Paradise Lost refers to the “red right hand” of a jealous, vengeful God. In Milton’s poem the hand is red because it blazes with fiery potency; in Cave’s song it belongs to a murderer who has scrawled the citation in his victim’s blood.

This homemade theology masks a psychological trauma. Usually it is our parents we accuse of having forsaken or forgotten us, depositing us against our will in an inimical world. By a sly displacement we can transfer the blame to God, hoping thereby to escape blame for a transgression that is the true cause of our plight. Cave’s father, an English teacher who was responsible for his son’s love of literature, died in a car crash in 1978. Nick and his mother were given the news at the St Kilda police station, where she was bailing him out after he’d been charged with drunken vandalism. Whenever he describes the “abject horror” the incident induced in him, Cave uses words that might just as well be applied to God’s desertion.

“The loss of my father,” he explained in his talk on love songs, “created in my life a vacuum, a space in which my words began to float and collect and find their purpose.” We create art, it could be said, because the world God created is so purposeless. On another occasion, glancing at the guilt he felt for surviving, Cave reversed relations between Old and New Testaments. What if Christ had outlived the parent who sought to ordain his death? “Just as Christ was to His Father,” he said in 1996, “I am a generation further on, and, if you’ll forgive me, Dad, in evolutionary terms an advanced version.” On the cross, Christ asked God the Father to forgive his human tormenters; Cave’s Christ, recovering from his wounds, asks the parent’s forgiveness for surviving.

This self-exculpation doesn’t erase a sense of complicity that has troubled Cave ever since his father’s death. Were his disorderly antics in St Kilda somehow responsible for the accident that happened many miles away? Such fantasies shiftily act themselves out in the imagination’s locked, barred room. Cave sympathises with the outcasts of romantic literature who wander the earth in the hope of atoning for some unforgivable sin. After quoting Milton’s Satan, ‘Song of Joy’ alludes to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who recites his own neurotic murder ballad about killing the albatross to a careless, convivial wedding guest: “And so I’ve left my home / I drift from land to land / I am upon your step and you are a family man.” In Coleridge’s poem, the Mariner says “I pass like night from land to land”, and goes on to explain that his sufferings have given him “strange power of speech”. The drifter in ‘Song of Joy’ hardly needs to liken himself to night, which serially extinguishes half the globe, because Cave himself is such a nocturnal character – ghoulish in his demeanour, as stiff and jerky in his movements, especially when dancing, as one of the undead. Nor does he need to mention the strangeness of his speech. In Cave’s case language has been replaced by music, which can say things that words would refuse to articulate. The song ends with a babbling that conveys the murderer’s glee as he commits some new and unspeakably foul crime: “La la la la la la la la la la / La la la la la la la la la la / La la la la la la la la la la.”

Killers like this are Cave’s deputies and idols. He admires their godlike refusal to behave as if they were timorous earthbound citizens, and envies the uninhibited courage with which – like artists whose implements are knives or guns – they surrender to their obsessions. He is in the line of those agonised Romantic poets who studied human wickedness by vivisecting themselves. Baudelaire in 1856 regretted “the great heresy of our times”, which was “the suppression of the concept of original sin”. In the mechanised nineteenth century, people were expected to outgrow their primitive urges and advance towards altruistic perfection; as a consequence, they came to mistrust the imagination and its teasing deviancy. Warning against this fearlessly secular modern mentality, Baudelaire pointed out that “all literature derives from original sin”. The stories that attract us do so because, like the apple, they offer access to a forbidden knowledge and free the imagination from the control that stifles it. In 1999 Cave echoed Baudelaire’s complaint, arguing that “the hysterical technocracy of modern music” banishes the expression of sorrow. “I feel sorry for sadness,” he said. “No wonder sorrow doesn’t smile much. No wonder sadness is so sad.” Depression is our alienable right, because we have so much repenting to do; if we are not allowed to bewail our guilt or misery, art – or at least the art of song, which depends on primal screams – will wither away.

Among many other depredations in Murder Ballads, Cave devised a crime that must count as one of the most gratuitously wicked in Australian history: he killed Kylie Minogue, battering her airy, eggshell-frail cranium with a rock during their duet in ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’. Not content with having bludgeoned and then drowned her, Cave brings Kylie back to life in The Death of Bunny Munro so that his sleazy hero, listening to her on his car stereo, can ravish her in a series of drooling reveries. When Kylie sings ‘Spinning Around’, Bunny rejoices in her “orgiastic paean to buggery”, and licks his lips over her gold hotpants and the “gilded orbs” they squeeze into shape. An ad for her range of lingerie sends the blood coursing into his ever-eager penis. It all gets so recklessly dirty that Cave adds a note at the end of the book thanking his colleague for her forbearance.

Bunny is at his happiest cruising through Brighton on a sunny weekend, taking inventory of female flesh, with its skimpy peekaboo covering and its cosmetic or prosthetic improvements: bikini waxes, smirking midriffs, thongs “as anatomically integrated as a sausage-skin” – a carnal carnival that gives his language the springy vigour of erectile tissue. When not working like an aphrodisiac, words stir up force-fields of negative energy that erupt in abuse. In And the Ass Saw the Angel, Euchrid describes his alcoholic mother as “a scum-cunted, likkered-up, brain-sick swine”, “a piss-eyed hell-bag” and “a great whopping whale of a hog’s cunt with a dry black maggot for a brain”. You can feel the almost chemical charge of delight as the novelist spits out these expletives, defying stylistic propriety and defiling the idea of the family. Obscenity is the way Cave expresses his lust for life and his love of the world. Hence the gloriously filthy language of Euchrid or Bunny Munro; hence too the jumbling of religious and erotic pin-ups – chaste Madonnas and German prostitutes with spread legs and tangled pubic bushes – in the ‘Sacred and Profane’ notebook, now on display as part of Nick Cave: The Exhibition.

Cave enjoys blaspheming: like many libertines and freethinkers, he defames the deity in the hope of provoking a reprisal, which will at least demonstrate whether God exists. In ‘Hard on for Love’, he interprets one of the psalms priapically. His paraphrase of the biblical text begins innocuously enough, declaring “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” He goes on to boast about being the Lord’s rod and staff, homing in on the “gates” of a woman’s body, intent on discovering heaven and hell by breaching the clenched entrance. And what could be more piously provocative than calling your cronies the Bad Seeds, a name taken from Christ’s parable about the sower in the gospel of St Matthew? Cave ended his 1999 lecture on love songs by talking about his “divine discontent”, which would persist, he said, “until I see the face of God himself”. The casualness of this coda didn’t soften its shock. The statement was at once an insolent challenge and a bravely hopeful plea.

The Proposition counted as a belated homecoming for Cave, who set most of his best-known songs in a phantasmagoric America. Yet his America, like that of Brecht and Weill in their operas Mahagonny and The Seven Deadly Sins, consists of unvisited places with comically exotic names. He clearly relishes rhyming “Texas” with “sexless” in ‘Truck Love’, and in ‘Wanted Man’ his fugitive travels from the Gulf of Mexico to the Hollywood hills and onwards to New York and Maine. In ‘Saint Huck’ he cuts short the roaming career of Mark Twain’s young hero, sending him to be corrupted in a city where he exchanges “the mighty ol’ man River / For the dirty ol’ man Latrine!” These geographical games were easy for Cave to play because he sees America as a yawning emptiness, a map rather than a country. A menagerie of marsupials did stray into ‘Babe, I’m on Fire’, written in 2003, but only towards the end of a global tour that took in every other continent and demonstrated Cave’s citizenship of the world by listing Viennese vampires, Chinese herbologists, Las Vegas crooners and poor Pakistanis along with “the cattleman from Down Under”.

In The Proposition, he at last recognised that the landscape inside his head was Australian – not the swampy, bigoted Deep South evoked in And the Ass Saw the Angel, not even walled Berlin or pullulating São Paulo, where he lived during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The act of repatriation set him down in a place that begrudges human existence, an apt setting for the apocalypse. Guy Pearce plays a captured outlaw torn apart by a tragic choice: he must either track down and kill his gloatingly sadistic older brother, or watch his muddled, harmless younger brother be hanged. As the older brother, Danny Huston spends much of his time perched on a rock watching an inflamed sun die in the western sky; in a song written for the soundtrack, Cave overhears the fireball shriek as it expires, while trees moan and clouds shed a few sparse lamenting tears. A bounty hunter played by John Hurt proposes a toast to “the God who has forgotten us”. Winstone’s police captain, unable to share in that jaunty, joking nihilism, sneers instead at “this Godforsaken hole”.

America prefers the God of the New Testament, so anxious to assure the world of his love, so determined to ensure that the faithful regain paradise and enjoy heaven on earth (provided, of course, that their credit rating passes muster). Australia’s theological founding father is the God of the Old Testament, a ruthless patriarch addicted, as Cave once said, to “bloody-minded violence”. The Queensland desert where The Proposition was made might be the burning fiery furnace in which Nebuchadnezzar tested the fortitude of the Israelites. American Westerns usually end with the conquest of terrain and the closure of the frontier; Australia’s sullenly invincible landscape forbids such triumphs. After shooting Huston, Pearce squats beside him like a psychopomp who will accompany him on his passage between worlds. Huston assumes the lotus position as he waits to die, and stares one last time at a setting sun that bloodies the sky. “What are you going to do now?” he asks Pearce. There is no reply, because there is no future in prospect, only a few more of those weary, gory sunsets.

The characters in The Proposition act out Cave’s fantasies of corporal punishment, rape, torture and decapitation. These primal outrages serve to beat culture into the raw colonial society. Winstone, policing a precarious settlement on a seething, mutinous frontier, vows, “I will civilise this place.” To civilise a place does not mean to tame it, to cultivate transplanted gardens and celebrate Christmas with a roast dinner in the buzzing tropical heat. In the film’s fraught and tormented world, law, like religion, depends on the shedding of blood.

Cave’s song ‘There Is a Kingdom’ quotes the philosopher Kant, who found a rational basis for action in “the starry heavens above me” and “the moral law within me”. But the stars that puncture the Australian sky aren’t necessarily peepholes through which God supervises our doings, and the indwelling moral law can compel us to commit acts that are atrocious yet unavoidable. Hence the fratricide with which The Proposition concludes. When Cain enviously kills Abel, the Bible deplores the sundering of natural bonds and establishes a standard against which all subsequent human lapses can be measured; when Pearce kills Huston, he is cleaning up moral ordure, and even his victim does not chastise him for doing so.

Cave’s saturnine persona refutes Australia’s national optimism and its chirpy creed of ‘No worries’. This is why he was so intent on collaborating with Kylie. One druggy evening in Manchester in 1992, he persuaded a fan to give him a little pink and baby-blue plastic bag with Kylie’s name on it, now on show at the National Library; he toted the candy-coloured trinket around the world, hoping it transmitted a message. In 1996 she fell for the bait and sweetly permitted him to slay her in ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’. They make an odd couple in the video: Frankenstein’s lumbering monster has apparently convinced Ramsay Street’s fluffy, sugary Charlene to go out on a date. It was a sacrificial act, designed to ravage the suburban Australia of barbered nature strips, trilling budgies and unstained laundry happily flapping on rotary clothes lines.

Cave has compared Australia to the Holy Land, but only because its terrain is so stark and unhallowed. For The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1998), the Australian artist Tony Clark painted a specially commissioned triptych, Sections from Clark’s Myriorama, which depicts a line of glowing trees that seem about to incinerate, backed by boulders that might be cooling asteroids; it looks, Cave wrote in the journal Art and Australia, like “the Garden of Gethsemane seen through the conflagrating prism of the Australian outback”. Imagining that outback in The Proposition, he surveys a tragic land, an open grave of failed hopes, where tombs are marked by piled stones because the earth is too dry to supply a bed, and black clouds of flies gather to feast on a fresh corpse. “More flies than at the Crucifixion,” comments Euchrid in And the Ass Saw the Angel, futilely brushing away the winged filth that crawls on his skin. Who but an Australian, picturing Golgotha, would listen for the hum and drone of the blowies that surely converged on Christ’s succulent wounds?


Having taken stock of Australia in The Proposition, Cave now in The Death of Bunny Munro trains his gaze on his current place of residence, the resort town of Brighton on the Sussex coast. Brighton has always been raffish, dedicated to illicit enjoyments. During George III’s reign, the Prince Regent used it as his hedonistic Xanadu and built an oriental pavilion to house his romps; Edwardian adulterers sloped off to fornicate at the Metropole Hotel on the seafront; in the 1960s, gangs of Mods and Rockers scrapped on the pebbly beach. Cave seems immune to the place’s enticements. His Brighton is a stewing waste, deservedly strafed by the shit of its dive-bombing seagulls. Winstone, squinting at the desert in The Proposition, calls Australia a “fresh hell”. Cave’s England is an ashen inferno, without the incinerating heat of the bone-dry outback.

Bunny Munro, his death foretold in the title and in the novel’s first sentence, spends his last few days in a state of eschatological dread, haunted by “that end-of-things thought – ‘I am damned’”. Everything seems to point towards a judicial slaughter like that in The Proposition, but the anticipated encounter between Bunny and the serial killer never happens. Instead Cave restages the death of his own father. After Bunny’s wife hangs herself, he drags their young son along with him on the road as he touts cosmetics to sexually itchy housewives. Bunny Junior waits stoically in the car, fends off suspicious parking inspectors by pretending to be a spastic, and idly speculates about the planets, places as alien and hostile as Australia. After these trips through an astral wilderness, he comforts himself by conjuring up images of his mother, trying to “remember her back into existence”. Cave is rewriting his own life, and for once he decides to be forgiving. The elder Bunny, thrown out of a café where he has been misbehaving, is abruptly exterminated by a truck. His son sees the fatal crash, shrieks in horror, but regains his composure in time to kiss his dying daddy. Although the book is supposedly about Bunny Senior’s death, Bunny Junior is at the centre of the scene; he imagines an “awed crowd suddenly clamouring, like a vast agency of protection, for his attention”. It’s the same fond delusion that makes the audience at a tragedy feel a purgative rush of pity and terror: the spectator satisfyingly takes the place of the suffering hero. And death treats Bunny with tender clemency, closer to the compassion of the New Testament than to the punitive harshness of the Old. His sins are instantly remitted and he is fast-tracked to heaven, which turns out to be a cheery replica of a holiday camp he visited in his childhood. Finally the orphaned boy is gathered into the maternal arms of a policewoman who has a “warm, merciful, adult face”. But he gently spurns her solicitude and, in the novel’s last sentence, decides to stand alone. Cave has spent three decades begging pardon for an Oedipal crime he didn’t actually commit, while punishing the world for its random injustice by fancifully killing off everyone who isn’t his irreplaceable father. Time at last to grow up; time, as psychobabblers say, to get over it and move on.

Before this lurch into sentimentality, The Death of Bunny Munro is a bilious satire. The novel begins with Bunny declaring “I am damned”, which instantly recalls the damned hero of the best novel about this benighted place, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Brighton Rock concludes with a miracle. Before being despatched to hell, the gangster Pinkie places a posthumous curse on the girl he has seduced. But his plan misfires, perhaps thanks to divine intervention, perhaps only because a record sticks in the groove and cuts off the message in which he scorns her. Cave’s novel starts with a phone conversation between Bunny and his doped wife, Libby, who begs him to swear that he loves her. “Upon Christ and all his saints,” Bunny glibly replies. Libby, unconvinced, hangs herself in their grisly flat on Church Road. When Bunny finds the body, he can’t help noticing that her tits look good, pleasingly hardened by mortality. Greene spares Rosie the destructive truth; Cave shows no such regard for the inconsolable Libby. Instead, he redeems Bunny, who (a little implausibly) faces up to the last judgement, tearfully repents and escapes the eternal bonfire.

Greene’s Brighton is a place of petty crime and tacky moral truancy: this is how our sordid world looks from God’s lofty vantage point. The people in Brighton Rock may be imperfect, but they can rely on the sympathy of a deity who chose to incarnate himself among them and on a novelist who is their advocate. Cave, despite his Christianity, lacks this humane fellow feeling. The people in The Death of Bunny Munro are post-human, a mutant race of freaks and mechanomorphs. Early risers in a hotel prowl through the lobby “like the living dead”, and children watch television with “zombied eyes”. Walking corpses wear clothes that advertise Armageddon: a woman has a mushroom cloud on her T-shirt; a little girl is kitted out in a strawberry top with “TOXIC” inscribed across it in silver studs. Bunny makes arrangements for his wife’s funeral with “robotic insentience”. Wedged into a swivel chair, his obese boss resembles “some infernal cyber-experiment gone horribly wrong – the unholy welding of too much man and too little machine”. These offences against nature goad Cave to improvise his own Book of Revelations, a saga of cosmic upheaval and divinely directed pestilence featuring “planes falling from the sky; a cow giving birth to a snake; red snow; an avalanche of iron maidens; a vagina with its mouth stapled shut”. Aptly enough, this deranged montage flickers through Bunny’s head in a toilet attached to a church. The world is God’s cloaca; angels are replaced by the incontinent seagulls that spray Brighton.

Cave takes a bumptious colonial pride in writing the language better – or at least with an ampler, more exhibitionistic vocabulary – than those who invented it. While his lyrics draw on the vulgar vernacular of the streets, his novels employ a diction as learned and circumlocutory as that of the eighteenth-century poets who called fish “the finny tribe” and deer “the antlered herd”. In And the Ass Saw the Angel, Euchrid cannot bear to say that he was woken up by the cawing of crows. He refers instead to “cachinnations of the corvine kind”, though at once, apologising for his pretension with the matey familiarity of an honorary Australian, he calls the noisy birds “fucken hecklers”. Cave betrays his sneaking fondness for Bunny in the slick verbs that describe his rubbery-limbed movements as he slithers from one mishap to the next. He “castanets” or “forceps” his mobile phone. When he’s drunk, the room “turbinates” around him. His erections are predictable and automatic, but Cave’s fastidious language endows each of them with its own vertical swank. First he experiences “a radical teepeeing of his trousers”. Next the metaphor turns ecclesiastical, as the same pants are “steepled” by a spire poking skywards. Later there is a “plasmatic surge in his leopard-skin briefs”: now the adjective celebrates the plasticity of his shape-changing penis rather than its architectural uprightness.

Sometimes Cave appears to have ransacked Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, which legitimised English words by anchoring them to their classical etymologies (although his source is more likely to have been The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Words, a prop as essential to him as his Jesus bust or his Kylie bag). A thong, for example, accentuates the “arcuation” of a woman’s buttocks. Cave could just as well have said that the plump mounds were arched, but the esoteric word allows him to maintain the satirist’s haughty, disapproving distance. An old lady’s piano has “a rictus of flavescent teeth”; Cave makes her furniture match her face, though the adjective could easily have been the less abstruse ‘yellowing’. Another woman has a “furuncle” on her face: actually a boil, derived from the Latin word for a little thief. Cave’s Latinisms are a sanitary precaution, diagnosing the ailments that disfigure or besmirch his characters.

The Death of Bunny Munro is as riotously excessive as Cave’s early performances with The Bad Seeds, when he yelped and gibbered like a caged werewolf. But because the holocaust that is threatened throughout the novel never happens, his rhetorical riffs achieve little more than the manic expenditure of energy. Probing the relation between civilisation and carnage, The Proposition bared Australia’s infirm foundations and reminded us that we have not lived down our country’s iniquitous origins. The England excoriated in this novel is too immemorially corrupt and complacent to be disturbed by Cave’s righteous fury. Undeterred, he does his best to accelerate the country’s rot. The twisted girders of the West Pier, stranded off the beach in Brighton after a fire a few years ago, please him as evidence of national decay. Cave’s Brighton is an oppressively sunny place. Bunny Senior complains about the heat, and Bunny Junior, whose sickly eyes cannot tolerate the seaside glare, longs for curved black sunglasses like his father’s, which make him look “insectile”. Only a character imagined by Cave would want to live inside a wraparound eclipse, or aspire to resemble a fly.

Reading these pained reactions to Brighton’s brightness, I thought of Cave’s recurring reference to “Australia, where the sun shines” in his 1999 lecture. The phrase turned into a refrain, a laconic slur that was uttered – I assume – with a vampirish smirk of disgust. It’s impossible to imagine Cave sunning himself, either at Brighton or Bondi; it’s startling to see him, photographed on location for The Proposition, wearing khaki shorts instead of his usual mortician’s suit. As AD Hope said in his poem about Australia, prophets come from the desert, and bring with them its searing, scorching light. But they may prefer to live in caves, acclimatised to gloom as they wait for the darkness that will descend on us all. Cave’s grudges and rages and festering vendettas made him an artist, and his despair and hatred made him a believer; at this late hour, he is exactly the kind of rankling conscience the world needs. Although I don’t ever expect to see the face of God, I imagine that if he did exist, he might have a face a bit like Cave’s – scarily sombre, with an adamantine gaze and a mouth that twitches to hint at a sense of humour as black as his hair.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

Cover: August 2009

August 2009

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