March 2023

Life Sentences

‘The past is a foreign country...’

By Christos Tsiolkas
How a novel’s opening line reflected the author’s dissonance as a teenage reader, and remains an apt tribute to the enduring power of fiction

Recently I was chatting with a niece, and we got into a delightfully civil contretemps. I was extolling the virtues of a lecturer I had at uni in the mid 1980s. He was ferociously intelligent, a survivor of the Holocaust who had little time for postmodernism and left-wing cant. In battling his conservative positions, I found I had to be meticulous in my reading and in my research.

I was telling her of how I had scrambled to write an essay he had assigned us on David Hume. I had put it off till the last minute and had begun writing it hungover and coming down, perusing a few extracts from Hume’s writing and hoping some expertly placed citations would hide the fact that I had not engaged with the philosopher’s writing at all. My lecturer wasn’t fooled. The week after, he came into the tutorial and gave all of us a dressing down on the uninspired quality of our work. He stomped towards me with a rolled-up copy of my essay in his hand, and flung it at my head. “And you, Tsiolkas,” he roared. “This essay is rubbish! Lazy and jejune!” My face was burning and I couldn’t look at him or my fellow students. I knew he was right. He turned away from me, and I heard him contemptuously hiss, “Just fucking do better!”

I spent the next week reading Hume and rewriting the essay. I did want to do better.

“That’s why he was one of the best lecturers I ever had,” I said to my niece.

She was having none of that. “That’s outrageous,” she declared. “He was a bully.” And that’s how we got into the argument: her deriding the aggression of my lecturer, and my defending his methods as inspiring. Back and forth we went, and it became obvious that our interpretations of the incident were irreconcilable. Finally, I shrugged and said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Those words, of course, are the startling opening to L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between. I first read the novel in high school, and I still recall the euphoric rush I had at reading that opening sentence, and the immediate sense I had of the profound truth of the sentiment. The words evoked the strange distancing I was already experiencing in my temporal and emotional detachment to the memories of my own childhood. I suspect there was a further resonance for me in how the words illuminated the vast rift there was between myself and my migrant parents. Their past was indeed foreign, a world of poverty and war and peasant life that I could only opaquely glimpse through their stories. It was a past that was integral to shaping me, yet there was no way I could pretend to have a visceral understanding of their lives.

This dissonance between one’s own experiences and that of the other, even when the other is one’s own family, still feeds my keenness for novels and films, for works of art, that illuminate that breach. One of my pet hates remains historical novels that assume a shared consciousness between people of the past and those of the present. As soon as I hear the voice of the 21st century intruding, I can’t continue reading. Entering the past should terrify us, not only because so much of what occurred there appals us, but also because it reveals so much of how impossible it is to stand in complacent judgement.

I recently reread Dostoevsky’s novel Devils, which I had last read when I was the same age my niece is now. On that initial reading, I was furious at the reactionary assault on 19th-century revolutionary activism. On rereading it, I was astounded to find how bracingly satirical it was. This time I wasn’t seeking to see myself reflected in its pages, and so paradoxically, in respecting the remoteness of the events in the narrative, I found Dostoevsky’s critique of radicalism trenchant and illuminating of some of the follies of contemporary progressive iconoclasm. Devils is a great novel precisely because of its contradictions: deeply felt and wildly misanthropic, tragic and comic, prophetic and of its time.

There was no resolution to the argument between myself and my niece. The issue at stake – in this case, a question of pedagogy – remains unsettled. I have friends who refute the worth of fiction, charging that it evades the accuracy of documentary. My counter to that argument remains a stubborn loyalty to the state of being unsettled. That was the very nature of the thrill I experienced when I first started to read The Go-Between. The past is a foreign country. The pleasure of fiction is that we can do things differently there.

Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels, including DamascusThe Slap and Barracuda, and the short-story collection Merciless Gods.

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