March 2017

The Nation Reviewed

The unedited life

By Thornton McCamish
Illustration
What is the allure of the writer’s archive?

It was 30 years ago, but you can still feel the anger rising off the page. Writer Peter Carey and theatre producer Mike Mullins were working together on a big-budget musical for the 1986 Adelaide Festival of the Arts, a “political, surrealistic rock pantomime”, in one critic’s description, called Illusion. The show would prove to be a famous flop. But Carey and Mullins’ collaboration was clearly unravelling, letter by typewritten letter, well before Illusion opened. “You accussed [sic] me of trying to blackmail you,” Carey protests, “… blackmail is so wide of the point as to be an insult.” “Now to the severity of your attack on my artistic integrity,” begins Mullins, in his fierce reply. Things only get worse when they start talking about each other’s wives.

These letters are among the 60-odd boxes that comprise the Geoffrey Cains Collection of Australian manuscripts (MS 15500), one of the State Library of Victoria’s most prized recent acquisitions. More than 200 poets and writers are represented by notes, letters, postcards, annotated drafts and manuscripts, mostly handwritten, all amassed over nearly 50 years by Cains, a skin specialist and book lover from Bowral, New South Wales.

Anyone who has ever spent time in literary archives will know how addictive it can be to graze through old things that were not made to be seen – or not by you, anyway. It seems remarkable that it’s even allowed. There are Patrick White letters here; correspondence relating to Helen Garner’s 1977 novel Monkey Grip; a letter from Jessica Anderson in which, a collection note says, Anderson discusses her trip to Florence “and her perceptions of art, people, and good”. That’d be worth reading, you’d think.

When Cains’ collection was acquired for an undisclosed sum in 2014, the library hailed it as the largest and most significant private collection of its type in Australia. It is valuable for the quality and the sheer extent of its contents: the archivist who is cataloguing the material and preparing an exhaustive finding aid has been working on it for 18 months, among other things, and reckons she’s only about halfway. But it is also significant as an artefact of collecting. Cains’ collection is a blend of avid connoisseurship and exquisite scrapbooking. Many of the items have been bound in forest-green or navy morocco leather, mostly, Cains tells me, by “a lovely man called David Newbold”, who worked for many years out of a garage behind the Cornstalk Bookshop in Sydney’s Glebe.

Humans have been keeping archives since they were writing in cuneiform. But there is a special allure to literary papers. Librarian and poet Philip Larkin observed that manuscripts have two different kinds of value: “the magical value and the meaningful value”. Both are ultimately about the desire to get as close as possible to the elusive quark of inspiration. As a part-time scholar who has recently completed a PhD on suppression and censorship in Australian literature, Cains is particular about the content of the things he collects. But the magical aura of the original matters, too. Before he sold the collection he would often take out favourite items and spend hours poring over them. “As objects, I find them absolutely fascinating,” he admits. “I’m just intensely drawn to them.”

Oddly enough, it was around the time Roland Barthes announced the death of the author in the 1960s that the business of collecting modern writers’ archives took off, particularly in the US.

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, has been aggressively collecting the archives of modern British novelists for decades. For years, English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro swept every old note, opened envelope or doodle into a cardboard box under his desk; the Ransom Center gobbled up the lot in 2015. For the biggest names, every scrap of literary memorabilia counts. When the New York Public Library made accessible the papers of Tom Wolfe, which it had acquired in 2013 for US$2.15 million, they were found to contain, Vanity Fair reported, “tailors’ bills, school report cards, to-do lists, reader letters, lecture notes … and dozens of sexually explicit and totally insane letters from a female stalker, including one consisting chiefly of 17 pages of red lip prints”, all decanted from steamer trunks that the author kept in his attic.

Playwright Tom Stoppard has said he regards his archive at the Ransom Center simply as “an incinerator that doesn’t incinerate”. But the omnivorous approach to collecting does mean that gems are sometimes discovered at the bottom of unpromising boxes. Packing up his debris for shipment, Ishiguro found a manuscript of a novel he’d forgotten writing. A few years ago, an archivist at the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library was going through a fresh deposit of David Malouf papers and saw, on the reverse of a blank Italian bank deposit slip, the first sentence of The Great World, rewritten several times as it inched towards its final form.

Items such as that have traditionally been considered the most precious, says Nicholas Pounder, a Sydney-based rare-book dealer who values material for institutions. “There you’re getting the very ore of the text that shows excisions and changes,” Pounder says. “But the trend in scholarly interest is that people want the correspondence, they want to get the life.”

Literary archives have always drawn a special charge from the promise of intimate exposure or revelation. The growing quantity of collectibles produced on computers – “born-digital” material – poses all kinds of preservation and copyright challenges for libraries, but it’s done nothing to dull the archival appetite for intimate life details, and for correspondence in particular. Anyone corresponding with a well-known writer faces the real prospect that what they write will end up in a public archive. Emails, too. In a breathtaking act of self-disclosure, Ian McEwan included 17 years’ worth of his emails when he sold his literary archive to the Ransom Center in 2014.

This forensic interest in the sloughed skin of a writer’s working life – their emails, hard-drive fragments and random pad jottings – implies a need to believe that the published work is never the full story, that an even better one might be hidden in the workings behind it.

One of Cains’ favourite items is a covering note that Helen Garner sent to two close friends in 1984 with a typewritten draft of The Children’s Bach. “[You] will see immediately that I have used certain superficial details of your lives for my story,” Garner wrote on a torn-out sheet of square-lined paper. “I know that you (of all people) will understand that all these characters are me. I feel very anxious, standing here in the GPO …” That little note, Cains says, “just touched me so deeply. To me, it said everything about the relationship between an author and her fiction.”

When Cains began collecting in the early 1970s, he hoped to specialise in classic English first editions. But that proved to be “futile”. Too expensive. He decided to focus on Australian rare books instead. Then, after he bought a small collection of literary papers, he became intrigued by handwritten manuscripts and notes. “It occurred to me that with the advent of computing all of this material would disappear, and I wanted to accumulate as much as I could.”

There had been notable collectors in this area before, but if anyone else was looking for literary ephemera in the ’70s and ’80s Cains says he never saw them. “I ended up being a sort of Nigel No Friends in the auction room, so to speak.” Competition intensified later, when libraries that had previously relied on donations of material began to offer significant money for writers’ archives; in the late 1980s, the Australian Defence Force Academy, of all places, embarked on a manuscript-buying spree. “And that certainly made it harder to collect material,” says Cains. He recalls being offered manuscripts of Thea Astley’s It’s Raining in Mango in the early ’90s; the price was about $14,000 – pretty steep for the time. He reluctantly passed.

But the material he wanted had always been hard to find. In the early days, he scoured dealers’ catalogues and auction listings; not finding enough, he started writing to authors directly, asking if they had anything they may like to sell. That’s how Cains got in early or mid career with many novelists and poets whose reputations have only grown in the decades since – writers such as Thomas Keneally, John Tranter, Kate Grenville and Les Murray.

You can see from the replies he received – all carefully preserved – that Cains’ eagerness to buy signed material was taken as a kind of generous attention, which is something no writer has enough of. Cains’ collecting effectively created a value for papers that otherwise would have had little. It provided a supplementary income stream that helped nurse numerous authors, many of them friends of Cains by now, through career crises, divorces or legal strife. “I’d hesitate to claim my motivation was always that high-minded,” Cains says. “But over time, offering a kind of support to writers I admired did evolve to become an important part of what I was doing.”

It can seem that literary archives are simply the result of a fortuitous meeting between collectors’ desire to see everything and writers’ willingness to make a buck. But generosity runs both ways. Most Australian writers donate their papers, if anyone’s prepared to take them, perhaps for a tax break if they’re lucky, and lucky enough to need one. And, like all of us, writers need to clean out their sheds. But writers also tend to have a special relationship to the past. Memory and experience are their special terrain, and it’s hard not to detect in the candour of their archives a sense of obligation to future writers and scholars.

The price they pay is privacy. There’s always a risk that embarrassing hopes, old rages and long-forgotten heartbreak will be exhumed by future researchers. And scholars and biographers will use the Cains collection to see up close how our national literature was made.

But aspiring writers could also learn from the collection, from items such as the raw notes for Brian Castro’s acclaimed novel-memoir, Shanghai Dancing. The main lesson to be drawn from Castro’s jumble of scrawled lists, frowning deletions, endless reworkings and backtrackings may be that while life can be hard, writing is even harder – at least for writers. The miracle is that good books get written at all.

Thornton McCamish

Thornton McCamish is a Melbourne-based journalist and author. His most recent book is Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead.

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