“Exploring in the dark” is how David Malouf frames the process of writing. In other words, writing, he says, brings out what is within the writer but is not fully understood until the writing starts. Furthering this notion, he quoted Herman Hesse as saying that a writer needs to be “a sleepwalker with the absolute assurance that he will put his foot down in the right place”. These were the first thoughts David Malouf shared with us, this morning, at the National Library of Australia’s last Books with Breakfast event of the year. He was in conversation with academic Brigid Rooney.
This is the second time my friend and I have attended a David Malouf literary event, the first being in 1990 when The great world came out. Admittedly that was a bigger event but we both felt that he was more relaxed today. I guess that’s not surprising given nearly 20 years of literary events have passed since then.
The focus of the conversation was, not surprisingly, Malouf’s most recent book, Ransom, which essentially recounts the last 24 hours of Achilles’ and Priam’s lives at Troy. Malouf explained his fascination with Troy, from his first introduction to the story in 1943 when he was 9 years old, through a poem he wrote around 1969/1970 called “Episode from an Early War”, to this latest novel of his, Ransom. Explaining his obsession, he talked about Troy being a city under siege waiting for war, and how Brisbane had felt the same in 1943; and about the 1960s being a period of maximum anxiety about nuclear war, and how Troy reminds us of the destruction of a civilisation. He sees Troy as an important part of our cultural inheritance and as emblematic of many of the things that confront us today – particularly in relation to war and its victims.
The discussion returned several times during the conversation to writing and storytelling, things of major concern to Malouf and about which he is wonderfully eloquent. He recounted Henry James’ description of “experience” as being “threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness”. Henry James also said that “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost”. Similarly, Malouf said that he sees our consciousness as “whole”, by which he means “all our experience is always with us”. Writing, he said, is about making connections in our experience and is “an extraordinary illustration of how our consciousness works”.
At one point in the morning, he discussed his book An imaginary life, which explores the exile of the Roman poet Ovid. He said it initially puzzled people as to why an Australian would write such a book, and that it was not really comprehended until European commentators started noticing that it dealt with the issue of “living at the centre versus living at the edge”. Just as the exiled Ovid was “living at the edge”, so do we in the New World. This recognition, he said, helped readers see it as a book that was indeed about and relevant to Australia.
Towards the end, the conversation returned to Ransom…but as I have only read 20 pages (after all, while I wasn’t concerned about spoilers, I didn’t want to go to the event completely unprepared) I will save discussing those comments until I review the book (probably next year the rate I’m going!) The event concluded with Malouf giving a brief reading from the book. Rather tellingly – and perhaps cheekily – he chose a section that ended with the words:
This old fellow, like most storytellers, is a stealer of other men’s tales, of other men’s lives.
Would that I could be such a stealer!