April 2019

Arts & Letters

David Malouf’s new worlds

By Nam Le

David Malouf. © Sophie Bassouls / Sygma via Getty Images

Consciousness is at the heart of the celebrated author’s body of work

Strange, that I remember only the mornings. Or maybe it was all a single morning, all those high school years – dark chill runny-nosed morning, shock of school uniform starch against the skin. Kerbs and platforms, buses and trains and trams and traffic lights. I was a scholarship kid and never felt like I belonged there and maybe I made sure to make it so – blocked myself out till pretty much insensible. Melbourne Grammar (1991– 1996) was bluestone shadow, navy blue and paler blue recurring, faces floating against rain and a sort of drowned light. It was sports fields gone green and wet, galleys of wooden desks and the always reverberant voice in those wood-filled rooms calling Anyone? Anyone at all?, naming names – Sibree, Hooper, Dinning, Frye, Downing – fathers’ names, patriarchs’ names. The light that light of air just after rain. Classrooms full of wood and plastered drywalls, nylon charts and corked pinboards and washed and chalk-clotted blackboards, all barely masking the cold, sounding, ancient stone beneath. That was high school. Mood dream, time tolled through the body.

But dreams are multi-registral. They can be all mood and still take in all sorts of other stuff. They admit whatever comes to mind. My mind at the time was mucked up: by hormones, by classroom codes, by inchoate insecurities and ambitions, by the disjunctions – language, ethics, expectation, allegiance – between school and home. Nothing was given. What was home, anyway, and what away? What I knew was this: I was most at home when reading, when being taken away by words.

I read in English. (Both tenses apply.) For a while there I read mostly poetry, which seemed to ratify or at least dignify my outsized feelings. School, as everyone knows, is where books go to get sterilised, so I was lucky to have English teachers who let me read outside the curriculum. Palgrave and Norton were my boon companions. Human-wise, my best friend was Ché, a bawdy, brainy country boy who’d managed to land a spectacular triple scholarship (tuition, music, boarding). He played piano. I read poetry, and then I wrote it, and then he read it. He was my first real reader – by which I mean he proclaimed my talent as amongst the brightest that had ever blazed across our or any firmament. We were big on ranking talent, on absorbing and contriving distinctions. Yeats over Keats, Rilke over Rimbaud. Hopkins over Donne, but only just. We argued intensely and violently when I said Tennyson and he Blake. Or maybe it was the other way around. We were very serious; we persuaded our Lit teacher to accept a joint essay qua duet: Ché at the grand piano in the gym riffing off Ravel and Berg while I stood alongside, reciting rip-offs of Eliot and Pound.

We were not popular.

What we’d realised, though, was there could be agency in exclusion. If we were going to be outsiders, we would decide outside what. To hell with friendship groups stretching back twelve years plus, to family alums and fundraising networks, homes in Toorak and holidays in Noosa, to men’s eights and first elevens and eighteens – instead, we would camp on the periphery of ye olde haute culture, importuning ourselves upon its canons and classics.

This, of course, was (is) classic cringe. A condition of always choosing the other side. Putting yourself on the wrong side. But so we chose. The dead over the living. The old over the new. The white over the coloured. The European over the Antipodean, the international over the Australian. Always the proscribed over the prescribed (or, in one of English’s archest contronyms – and how couldn’t you love this language? – the sanctioned over the sanctioned). At the time, post Bicentennial, there was a grand push to triumphalise Australian literature, so even as we submitted to the Ozlit foisted on us at school, we saw those books for what they were: scabs, labouring to shore up the shibboleths of shoddy nationalism. We scorned them. They were substandard. They were, to use perhaps the most cutting put-down of our schoolboy sociolect, “try-hard”.

And then we got where we were going. Assigned via VCE reading list: Remembering Babylon, David Malouf. An Australian book about Australian settlement by an Australian author. And here, of course, is where I’ve been going. This sleek, slim book – readable in an afternoon – was good. Not a whiff of affirmative action. It shook our snobberies: here was a very-­much-­alive half-Lebanese writer (from provincial Brisbane, no less) producing English-language writing of the very first order. (We spoke like this.) And in prose, not poetry. The poetry was in the prose; it stayed and sprung its rhythms, chorded its ideas, concentrated its images. Every other novel claims to be written in “poetic prose”; the real thing, when you come across it, is actually shocking. It torques your reading brain (neuroimaging confirms this), drafts your breath, excites and exhausts your eye and ear. It’s as taxing as it is exultative. Remembering Babylon, while being syllabus-bait for its Big Ideas, was acutely for me a sentence-level novel.

What does this mean? Isn’t any novel (and its evoked ideas) only and always made of sentences? Yes … and yes … but only a writer attuned to the molecular level of syllable and sound can understand how profoundly ideas inhere in their inspiriting expressions. See, e.g., the book’s last paragraph:

It glows in fullness till the tide is high and the light almost, but not quite, unbearable, as the moon plucks at our world and all the waters of the earth ache towards it, and the light, running in fast now, reaches the edges of the shore, just so far in its order, and all the muddy margin of the bay is alive, and in a line of running fire all the outline of the vast continent appears, in touch now with its other life.

Critics have maligned this passage for its transcendentalism, but who could deny its grace? Its ambition of register – the biblically inflected tone and parataxis; the gorgeous mimesis of its tidal ebb – or its register of ambition – the cosmic, vatic scope of its concern, fast erupting through space and time? The subject is light and light lies all through it. Reading this for the first time, Ché and I, as propensely hostile as we were, couldn’t but cede. Here was language that drew meaning out of music, of echo, silence. That communicated before it meant. Here was lyricism that neither beat up nor blenched at the sublime but treated it as a necessary aspect of ordinary life. Most of all, here was a confidence that seemed to flex its way serenely through any niggles of cringe.

Here was a way forward.

Twenty-odd years have passed since then. In that time I’ve re-read Remembering Babylon maybe a half-dozen times. There was a stage – when it mattered to me – I’d go around touting that book as the Great Australian Novel/Bunyip. Since then I’ve also read pretty much all of Malouf’s other output. His books may be slim but there are lots of them.

The man and his books have been praised and puffed and premiated and I think this is fine and right but I’m not really interested, as a rule, in writing encomia. Besides, so much has been written about his body of work, from the expected angles, through the expected prisms, I’d feel redundant reprising those staples here. I say “expected” because Malouf is adept at slyly steering his eponymous studies: not only through interviews, essays and lectures but in his imaginative writing itself, where themes and ideas are often elegantly laid out as though inviting cut-paste-and-tabbing in academic papers. When it comes to critical responses, Malouf’s work (perhaps more than any other Australian writer’s) has truly lopped a thousand trees.

So what am I doing here? To ask a writer to write “on” another writer is (for this writer, at least) to activate acute prepositional anxiety. No syntactical unit is asked to be more load-bearing. If a preposition between two nouns fixes them in relationship to (with?) each other, the way I read that single word – “on” – may well determine my relationship to David Malouf.

“On” means “about”, of course, by way of exposition or interpretation. But it can also connote spatiality: am I on top of, supported by Malouf – standing on his shoulders, as it were? Or am I writing “on” as in “over” him, my words laid over his words, redacting, even replacing them? Do I intend us to be contiguous or coincident? Coeval, or clear as possible of temporal overlay? Am I “on” Malouf as a function of following “after” him, on his heels? (Attenborough springs to mind – to be “on” something is also to capture the instant of attack: now the lion is on the gazelle, the cheetah, the wildebeest …)

Nothing so dramatic here. What follows is much as what’s gone before: a thinking out loud, a setting down of thinking. Not overwriting but personal annotation. Just one more view from the margins.

In the time since I first read Remembering Babylon (as I embarked upon my own writing), David Malouf has become for me something of a paragon of praxis. I’ve never met the man, never seen him in person. (I’m trying to write this as though he were dead.) But there is an intimacy – an oft-occurring word in Malouf studies – between us. That the intimacy is one-way only makes it more dependable.

I guess I’m supposed to spell it out. It feels self-­serving and self-exposing to assume any connection at all, but here goes. Like Malouf, I started in poetry. Like him, I’d like to think, I’ve never left it – even when moving into fiction. Poetry is the weather, the prevailing conditions. When I learnt recently that he too used scansion notation to meter out prose, I felt – no kidding – less of a freak in the world.

I feel kinship with the unapologetic nature of Malouf’s learning, his reading – his chosen networks of literary kinship. With the dignity of his extraordinary (and evolving) erudition. The naturalness of his assumption of inheritance. His lines lead back to Europe, this is fact. His writing comes up fulgent from immersion in Western classicism. Reading Malouf, you get the sense at times he thinks the entirety of human concern was satisfactorily carved up between Homer and Hesiod 3000 years ago, and everything since has been interpolation and ornament. At times, I think I agree.

But we inherit more than the work. We inherit the method that can vitiate the work. That can even void it. Like Malouf, I’m a student of Western philosophy. I honour the Western approaches of intrinsic scepticism, self-critical inquiry, uncertainty. I hew, as hard as I can, to epistemic humility. These are the same approaches that have, it’s important to note, successfully prosecuted the Western canon for its perpetuations of imperialism and privilege, its cultural genocides – it’s not too much to call them that – that have ripped from the world countless works, actual and potential, that dared associate with the wrong sex, race, creed, caste, class, colony – you name it. Surely no serious thinker denies this. Nor that the work that remains (overwhelmingly by dead white men) is conditioned by, and complicit in, its milieu. Nor that this stigma is still perceptible – on the page, and between the lines. But I’ve never met a serious thinker who considers this work to be therefore worthless. We are not so rich in art to deplore what we have merely because it is not what we might have had. Having been deprived of female, or black, or baseborn Shakespeares and Socrateses, must we now deprive ourselves of the ones we do have? Is it not possible to acknowledge their worth, critique the context that begat them, and then go out of our way – out of our skin – to find, encourage, value and include works by and about all those people who all this time have been systematically “othered”?

All this feels rudimentary. Unremarkable. But in our shared, splintering moment, nothing can be said to go without saying. Basic things beg belabouring. So here’s one thing: Culture is complex. Another: The “culture wars” have nothing to do with culture. The real casualty of these wars is truth; culture itself is AWOL. Culture can’t be trusted, after all, to shoot straight; it’s change-able, capricious, tightly coiled, better at asking questions than taking orders. Its units are highly individuated and overly subjective. On the worst parts of the right, “culture warriors” worship “Western culture” only as far as they can weaponise it. The worst of the left, in response – pursuing its pet strategy of self-righteous self-­loathing – relinquishes “Western culture” to the right. (That culture in toto could be posited as partisan shows how degraded the discourse has become.) Under this set-up, “West” becomes metonymical for “wrong”. To defend it is to defend only its sins; to commend it – any facet of its thoughts, ideals, institutions or art – is to condone – lock, stock & barrel – the whole atrocity. Better, then, if you’re a fellow traveller, to steer clear, shut up.

Malouf doesn’t do this. For this I admire him. He owns his occidentalism, in all its contradictions and culpabilities. And for this, his name, of late, has come under faint stain. For being a tad too … cultivated … too belletristic … for hanging out, basically, with a non grata crowd of dead white guys. The kicker was his acceptance of a lecture invitation from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, a new outfit which subsequently, on a separate matter, waded into the culture wars and deservedly ended up in hot water. The lecture itself? David Malouf extolling the complication of women in ancient Greek drama. Haul up guillotine blade!

The man is too dignified to answer snideries in public (and he certainly doesn’t need me to defend him) but I’m not so bound and I’m stumped for his sake and I want to say this: smear by association is easy. When done from tribe, it can also feel oxytocin-good. Even easier is to abhor writers and their works – whether individual writers or their entire matrices of influence – when you haven’t read them; when, in fact, your tribe actively rewards you for maintaining ignorance. You’re merely de-platforming a problematics, the lingo goes (even if the only platform at issue is your brain, the only issue at stake your intellectual integrity). None of this is new. It is the craven logic of bullying. The agora, where speech is meant to be most free, has always attracted mobs. And the kind of rhetoric deployed against Malouf and his impugned alliance with “Western civilisation” – argument ad ignorantiam (from ignorance), ad populum (appealing to group belief), ad verecundiam (via self-­proclaimed “authority”), ad nauseam (by repetition), ad baculum (made under threat) – constitutes, ironically, a greatest hits of Western suasion. Calling it out in Latin makes it insufferable, but no less true.

One more thing. This is also a logic of purity and contamination. And we should know better. Nothing complex is pure; the wanting it so has led to unspeakable, immeasurable suffering. We should know better. Those who crave purity – who would tell us what may be read, and by whom, and who may write what, and how, who would sort us into silos of identity and then, worst of all, vacate the “good” for the “correct” – should, by their own argument ad absurdum, have nothing more to do with the written word. After all, what could be more impure, more steeped in blood, than written language itself – a technology only invented to keep account of grain and slaves, and then to codify the placations of God to keep the oppressed oppressed? How many lies have been told in it, how many deaths ordered, lives destroyed? “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” writes Walter Benjamin, and this doesn’t even go to the philological violence within language, the merciless miscegenation, the way words, meanings and usages – all of which bear witness to real human lives – are supplanted, marginalised and effaced. A dictionary is a site of massacre. A language is a living corruption.

And, I happen to think, it is the best thing we have. And I think Malouf would agree with me.

What else?

His affable humanism, how he errs into compassion rather than condescension. I aspire to this. That the self is protean, provisional, makes it no less sacrosanct. Auden, to whom we both owe early and enduring faith, writes in Horae Canonicae that we should “bless what there is for being”. This is as close as I come to creed. This is what I see in Malouf’s eidetic writing. We share, I think, a sense of wonder towards a world that is both sui generis and palimpsestic, sacred with beauty and mystery – against which epiphany serves not as literary reaction but as dialectic of being alive. The world makes us. We can, in our small way, through our writing, perform the mimic miracle. Make a new world.

Underwriting and entangled in all this is consciousness. The sine qua non of all the rest of it. Of thinking and feeling, being and becoming, making and minding. Consciousness, as well – to belabour the point – is complex or it is nothing. The question of how we should go about (failing to) articulate it lies at the very heart of literature. That Malouf puts it at the heart of his body of work makes his work vital for me. When Malouf invokes “seriousness” – which he does often – he is talking, I believe, about morality. A good-faithed, ongoing attempt at articulation.

Consciousness is our entire access – it opens us to the world, to each other. But it also confirms us in our solipsism. It locks us in; language offers no parole. None of us can escape (or even parenthesise) our own consciousness to experience another’s. None of us is available to each other in this essential way. Every common reality we think we share actually consists in convention and conjecture, axiom and supposition. (Think back to those dopey undergrad moots where, wait for it … what if red for you looked blue to me …)

Turned inward, consciousness proves to be no more clarifying. It is almost all unseen, all unknown – all process and no phenomena. Self-consciousness, per Malouf in Ransom, “makes us strange to ourselves and darkly divided”. We are not meant, perhaps, to presume ourselves to scan. Certainly we do not have clean hands, nor clear mind, with which to properly do so.

Last year he died, Ché, my old, young friend: London, suspicious circs, autopsy. It was the first day of the year and I found out on Facebook, the whole thing shot through with the sly feel of a joke. For so long we’d been living on different continents; distance had preserved our friendship in its formative attitudes: we were permanently outsiders looking in, permanently aspirants to unscalable tradition. His death brought up all the eulogic chestnuts – live each day as if, life being short – but more powerfully, more brutally, it resurfaced all our shared schoolboy ardencies. Beauty and truth. Excellence. Seriousness. Even writing these words, a wryness creeps in – an ironic reflex. How did this happen? How had we – had I – allowed these standards to become embarrassing? Was it because we’d chosen self-exile for their sake that we then felt obliged – out of some weird pride or petulance – to distance ourselves from the very solace we’d sought in them?

Malouf’s first novel, Johnno, recounts a friendship between two boys that also starts in school and ends when one of them dies suddenly. The friendship is charged, complicated, built on Australian cringe and the bulwarks of European culture. After Johnno dies, the narrator, nicknamed Dante (of course), reflects on his old school’s honour boards for the war dead:

And just reading off the places where they fell, Ypres, Mons, Gallipoli, Pozières, Bullecourt, evoked a peculiar atmosphere of golden splendour and colonial chivalry that we might have longed for like a broken dream. Their deaths were both tragedy and fulfilment.

That Europe’s “golden splendour” is washed by blood, waxed by colonial depredation, makes those lives lost at Ypres, Gallipoli, Pozières (and how right was Hemingway that in war only the names of places hold dignity?) no less dead. That Europe is a broken dream makes it no less meaningful. Johnno dies and Dante goes to visit his mum. There, it is she who comforts him: Johnno is happy, she assures him. “He’s with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.”

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. In the same war, in his 20s, on the heels of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Wittgenstein ended his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with this proposition. The Tractatus itself, he considered, went on to end every problem in logic. But where logic ends, literature begins. (“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”) If you believe this, you must believe that to enlarge the possibilities of language – against the necessities of silence – is to enlarge the world. I have come to believe, with Malouf, that any serious literature – any real articulation of consciousness in language – must set, each time, its main strategy against silence: which salients to yield, which to approach in a “spirit of play”, how best to mass and mobilise words against negative capability. Ellipse, error, illusion. We press on, seeking ways out of our selves that do not exist, failing to say what we cannot say. This is, for Malouf (and for me), the big game, the end game. This is the labour of his life. We are privileged to watch.

This is an edited extract from Writers on Writers: Nam Le on David Malouf (published by Black Inc. in association with State Library Victoria and the University of Melbourne; $17.99), out May 6.

Nam Le

Nam Le is a writer based in Melbourne.

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