In Law and Literature, a subject offered to the University of Melbourne’s final-year law students, they study Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man and Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation. In both books the law fails. Or as Gary Cazalet, who got the subject up and running, says of Hooper’s book: ‘It is an indictment of our legal system and it isn’t.’ I’d put it another way. In both books the victims’ families find, in law, neither solace nor justice. Justice, that is, the way we laypeople like to imagine it: morally purifying, thunderously absolute, a revelation, a release—justice of the kind that law can rarely give us.
In 2004 Cameron Doomadgee was arrested for a minor misdemeanour (swearing, a bawdy song, being drunk in public; there are several versions) by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Forty-five minutes later Doomadgee lay dead—his death caused by severe internal injuries, among them a ruptured spleen and liver—on the floor of a Palm Island police cell. Senior Sergeant Hurley was acquitted of manslaughter. Anu Singh, years earlier, was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility after administering a lethal dose of heroin and Rohypnol to her 26-year-old boyfriend Joe Cinque (she had planned to kill herself too, but didn’t go ahead with that part of her plan). She was released in 2004, the year Cameron Doomadgee died, having served four years of a ten-year sentence. While in jail she’d finished her law degree and got herself a masters in criminology. Her fellow students, who knew of her plan and didn’t attempt to stop her, now practice law.
Different energies, different passions, run through these two books. In both cases, law comes out looking hollow. Cold. An inhabitant of a different planet. I love the thought of these books landing hard in the middle of Gary Cazalet’s classroom. Making a racket. The course also calls up Antigone, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Moisés Kaufman’s The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Most final-year law students are ‘still weighing up their attitude to the law’, says Gary, still working out how they fit into the system, and if they are lucky they’ll come across books—not textbooks, but books—that throw them, and make them worry about what they’re getting themselves into. This is what ‘Law and Literature’ does. It puts you in the room with books that let a teacher ask his students: ‘What is it that literature might be able to do, in the legal field, that the law cannot?’
A lot of lawyers and law profession-types have a go at Helen Garner over her Joe Cinque book: Garner is turning the complex story into a morality play; Garner is grossly misrepresenting the criminal justice system; Garner is acting as a vigilante; Garner is tabloidising the crime. Gary Cazalet thinks the fact that many lawyers (not him) do not like Garner’s book is a reason to study it. The way it breaks the cocoon in which many lawyers operate is a reason to study it. ‘I do have a belief’, he tells me, ‘that once one becomes a lawyer, it is very difficult to see the world as a non-lawyer.’
Lawyers being prodded by literature into asking what unbendable truths and principles guide and bind their profession has to be a good thing, right? I agree with Simon Leys (I often agree with Simon Leys) when he writes that he wants his doctor to have read Chekhov, and ‘If I commit a crime, I hope to be judged by a judge who has read Simenon.’
Literature occasionally has something else to offer law students: the power of revelation. For many in Gary Cazalet’s class, reading The Tall Man is ‘the first time they realise that this is what happens in parts of Australia; the role of the law in marginalising people’. So Law and Literature is what you could call a cathartic course. ‘Have I had students in tears? Perhaps I have had a couple of students in tears. I’ve been in tears, anyway.’
I ask what made him cry. Archie Roach’s song ‘Took the Children Away’, he replies. They study it alongside Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ and Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’.
Not long ago, in another classroom, in Sydney, senior lecturer Anthony Macris instructed his creative writing students to ‘ask themselves if what they were writing was of use to anyone’. The words flew out of his mouth. Macris is an accomplished writer, an experienced academic, and by no means a believer in books being judged on utilitarian grounds. But Macris’s young son, Alex, is sick: he has regressive autism. And on that day, and on many days before and after, Macris felt stripped to the bone, exhausted, in new and unfathomable ways, and things come out of his mouth, the likes of which he’s never said, or thought, before.
Macris wrote a memoir of the first few years in which his family faced Alex’s condition. It is called When Horse Became Saw. When I got to where he writes of the moment in the classroom I held my breath. What Macris was saying went against my faith, his faith too, in the unconditional value of books, their moral and material self-sufficiency, yet I prayed he would stand his ground.
Of use to anyone. I immediately regretted using the phrase; it sounded terribly moralising. But as I said it, I could feel my lethargy lifting ever so slightly. Suddenly I could see a way forward as a teacher.
One reviewer, Gerard Windsor, also found this a pivotal moment: ‘My variation on Macris’s demand for usefulness is to conjure up a distinction between necessary and unnecessary books.’ As for Macris’s own book, Windsor felt,
Here’s a book that can only do good. As an anatomy of a non-normal neurological condition, as a testimony to the prolonged torture imposed on a family, and as a record of love, its use is obvious.
If you talk to people about Macris’s book, if you read what they say about it in blogs, it becomes clear that while the story of a little boy unravelling in front of his parents moves people, and while the depiction of government indifference towards families with autistic children rallies the troops, it matters a whole lot that it is a good book. People don’t merely want reports from the Eastern Front, they want Vasily Grossman. On grief – they want Didion. On memory—Proust. The usefulness (I’m learning to say this word and not wince) of When Horse Became Saw lies in a good writer writing it.
When we, about to be gone-for-good immigrants, were leaving the almost-but-not-yet-former Soviet Union, I was allowed to take five small books. I chose four slim volumes of poetry—Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva—and one equally slim book of Jorge Luis Borges short stories. I don’t recall pausing over my selection of non-book items—I must have, surely—but I can clearly remember standing in front of my books and drawing up shortlists in my head. It wasn’t like choosing between your children, or even your friends. Faced with so stark a choice, the choice became not difficult at all—poems were top of the list, they grew bigger after each re-reading, they were infinite, as was Borges, and I needed infinite where I was going—but having to make that choice changed me.
Ever since, I have taken seriously a question that often strikes people as puerile: ‘What books would you take with you on an uninhabited island?’ What books can sustain you, hold the pieces of you together, remind you of who you are and what matters to you, not ever lie to you no matter what?
Twenty-odd years ago, as we were leaving, we did not expect any of the books we left behind to come into our possession again. Today few books are technically irreplaceable: there is always a new edition, an online version, a used-books website copy for sale somewhere. Today it’s not death any more when you part ways with your books, or at least, as Bob Dylan sings, ‘death is not the end’. But still we have to choose books to take with us—to uninhabited islands, and places, where no room exists for our human companions. In Reading by Moonlight, Brenda Walker writes of choosing books to take with her to chemotherapy. One is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, a novel ‘strong enough to hold the attention of a person sitting upright in a hospital bed, waiting for a difficult night to fall’. For such a night ‘you need a populous, witty but serious book’. It has to be ‘good-sized’, too: the night is long.
This is what happened to Carol while she was still in her twenties: her best friend was one of fifty-two people killed in London’s 2005 terrorist attack, her ex-boyfriend committed suicide, her wedding got cancelled. But then, she tells me, in one of the long emails we write, unable to make our lives coincide enough for Skype, there came respite. But then—for once—the gods were smiling. She met a man, who was right for her, the man she was going to have children with. They bought a house, and then the man was diagnosed with a rare and terminal form of cancer. ‘This last event was the case that broke me fully,’ Carol writes. Carol nursed her boyfriend for several years. At the end—anxious not to ruin her life, determined to die alone—he asked her to leave.
Carol’s aunt, who lives in Australia, sent her a book: Maggie MacKellar’s When It Rains. In When It Rains, MacKellar writes about losing her mother to cancer and her husband to suicide. One after the other. When her husband kills himself she is pregnant with their second child. She leaves Sydney and her academic job and moves with her children to the family farm in central-west New South Wales, where she had grown up. To grieve. To let her children grieve, and grow.
For six months Carol read and re-read MacKellar’s book. ‘I ate the words so they lived inside me, feeling as if they could hold me up.’ After six months she quit her job as a teacher, sold her house, and moved to Australia for a year. When Carol left work she gave a speech to two hundred or so colleagues, and quoted from the book. In notes to dear friends she used the book’s words. ‘To this day’, she says, ‘I carry the words. To this day I justify the depth of love and life and emotion with some of the metaphors in Maggie’s work.’ The book gave her the strength to leave and the language with which to tell others where she had been, and why she had to go.
‘So much of the time in my grief’, Carol writes, ‘I found myself animal-like, desperate, unknowing.’ The book was there with her in those moments, the best companion she could have had. It didn’t try to cheer her up. It didn’t need to be told what was going on. It understood the timelessness of grief. It changed as she was changing. It knew that grief was the simplest thing in the world, as simple as the sky, an animal in a paddock, and that it was the biggest assault a person could withstand. Whatever consolations the book offered, it never asked Carol to turn away from her grief or to welcome the dimming of memory, the closing-in of her wound. In time, the book became a diary of sorts, to which Carol added notes, thoughts, all kinds of feelings prompted by the book, prompted by the changes within her. ‘My grief will last a lifetime—not always with the same intensity—but it is in my make-up, and my history, and in that same way I will carry the book that carried me through it.’
Part of the book recounts the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris and Isis. Osiris is killed by Set; his dead body gets cut into twelve pieces and scattered across the Nile. Isis, his wife, throws herself into the river. I go back to the book and re-read:
She searches for each piece of Osiris and binds his body back together. I see her crawling through the mud and reeds, finding the reeking pieces of flesh, rescuing her love from the nibbles of tiny fish, crabs who fight over hackled fish, the snapping jaws of crocodiles.
To someone outside grief, Isis is spiralling into madness. Surely she knows her quest is doomed? Her husband will never come back to the living. To the one grieving, what Isis is doing is the most honest thing she can do. ‘I knew that feeling,’ Carol tells me. ‘I loved her for scraping the riverbed.’
Do you give up just because they are dead? Do you abandon them? There are books out there that hold us as we are trying to hold them—the ones we have lost. There are books that let us go scraping the riverbeds, because that’s what we must do, before we do anything else. There are books that—as Helen Garner wrote about Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father—can ‘smash open a reader’s own blocked-off sorrows’.
Jenny Heald grew up in the North Richmond housing commission flats with her brother Colin. Their father was, for the most part, absent; their mother had chronic asthma. ‘My mum died when I was aged thirteen,’ Jenny tells me. ‘But even before that I was the grown-up in the family. My mother was sick and I always took responsibility. From the day she died I decided that I was going to be strong, no matter what.’
Nearby in the flats lived a boy called Tony. Jenny and Tony knew each other, but they were not friends. Jenny was trying to do the right thing in life. Tony wasn’t. He was a rough nut, Jenny says, looking for trouble, getting expelled all over the place. Almost four decades later, Jenny would write to Tony:
I read Blood over the weekend. Pretty much in one sitting. I really love all your stories, cos I feel like they talk about part of my life experience too.
She wrote to him immediately after finishing his novel. By then she’d read his short stories too.
You know, I live in this middle-class world where no one knows about life and the experiences I had as a child.
No-one knows what it is like, when you are barely ten, to be forcing yourself to stay awake at night because if you let yourself fall asleep your mother might die. You need to be awake so you can call an ambulance as soon as your mother has an asthma attack; you need to be awake to go with her to the hospital and wait all night for her to get better. No-one knows what it’s like to be a child holding a family together with your two hands, watching over it with your unsleeping eyes. And then one day you read a book. And the book knows.
In Tony Birch’s Blood, the main character, Jesse, is thirteen. His sister Rachel is eight. Their mother Gwen is alive, but it is Jesse who carries the family, who is responsible for himself and his sister.
Jenny’s brother Colin was twelve when their mother died. Jenny and Colin were passed around from relative to relative. Once Jenny finished high school—out of a thousand kids in Richmond who started the equivalent of Year 7, only about seventy ended up doing HSC—she and Colin lived on their own above a pizza shop on Victoria Street. She took care of her brother.
It was from middle-class Canberra—‘another planet’—that she finally read and wrote to Tony.
Anyway, Jesse and Rachel’s story in many ways felt a bit like parts of my life, in particular never feeling like I was the child in the family. It’s funny that I’m telling you all this stuff, it’s just because I feel like you are honouring the sort of lives we lived (and people still live, I guess).
I ask Jenny what the book gave her. She says it took her back to the place from which everything that she is stems and that nobody knows about. Tony captured that place, she says. She doesn’t know how he did it. I speak to Australian artist Lily Mae Martin, who lives in Berlin with her Australian husband and a young daughter. (Four years away is enough. Lily is aching for Australia; they should be back soon.) Lily also recognised in Blood parts of her early life:
I wanted my husband to read this because I wanted him to understand my past. It gets hard to articulate everything to him and I felt this explained the world I once was in. My husband grew up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and moved out of home when he was twenty-one. I grew up in a rocky home in the northern suburbs, ran away at sixteen, then moved in with a very Gwen-like woman.
There are books out there that let us say to people closest to us: ‘If you want to know who I am, read this book.’
‘I grew up,’ says Lily, ‘with this ludicrous assumption that everyone had the same experiences.’ We don’t, and inevitably we don’t really understand each other, often without noticing that we don’t understand each other, but how to explain? To explain, you can’t just give examples, throw memories in the ring, and if you do they’ll seem too crazy, too grotesque; to explain, you have to conjure an entire world.
Recently I was reading Ramona Ausubel’s novel No one is here except all of us. It is a fable about a small Jewish village somewhere deep in Romania imagining that it can escape the Holocaust. Escape? For all the villagers’ elaborate schemes, their steely pretence that the world outside does not exist and is not going up in flames, all they can do is delay the murderers coming to their door. The murderers come, of course. The murderers always come.
I’ve read many Holocaust books: not quite a veteran, but someone whose wires are not completely bare. I was reading Ausubel and nothing felt safe any more. A feeling closed in on me, the one I’ve heard survivors of genocide and dictatorships describe—the feeling that it can happen again, it will happen again, just you wait. Only fools think the past sits safely in the past. I was reading Ausubel and I was scared.
A wise friend reminded me that when you read a fable, even a fable written for adults, you return to the state of reading as a child. Simon Leys calls it one of the two purest forms of reading—the surrender of child readers to the oracular quality of the text, the unquestioning acceptance of what a book presents as reality. (Leys’ second pure form is reading, or a memory of reading, in extreme circumstances: the concentration camps of Europe, the labour camps of China or Cambodia.) ‘In childhood,’ says Leys, ‘all books are books of divination.’
There are no defences. You get obliterated.
For a long time now I have been interested in what books do to us, because I know they do things, tangible things. People read Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons and get back behind the piano, the piano that just a day before stood there abandoned and unloved. People read Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point and out tumble stories of frontier violence—‘a kind of subterranean oral history’, Mark tells me, ‘that runs through our families, much of it not recorded’—and once out in the open, once they are spoken out loud, the stories survive, they get passed on. Some books don’t hop softly onto our bookshelves, or land with a worthy thud on school curricula, they produce the friction necessary to slow a culture down: our culture’s blessed little speed bumps. There are books out there—as Garner, again, wrote of Romulus, My Father, again—that change ‘the quality of the literary air in this country’. They change the quality of non-literary air too, I suspect.
The Antipodes Writers Festival in June was a celebration of Greek-Australian writers. One of the festival’s co-convenors, Konstandina (Dina) Dounis, presented a tribute to Arnold Zable. Ten years ago she had picked up, by fluke, a copy of Zable’s The Fig Tree and was discovered by her husband, still reading, at seven o’clock next morning, having read all through the night, oblivious to the world. Towards the end of her tribute, Dina directed herself to Zable:
Arnold, like all master storytellers, your stories have a way of impacting upon the everyday and, indeed, initiating an environment in which the ongoing narrative can be added to and thereby sustained afresh.
Ever since Dina’s mother passed away, her father has been coming for lunch each Sunday. He is in his eighties. The Sunday before the festival, Dina was preoccupied with all the things she had to do—‘a prohibitive list’—and her father asked her, as he always does, what she was working on. Dina mentioned the tribute to Zable, and a true story she had come across in Zable’s work about Jews in the Greek town of Zakynthos, who were saved during the Nazi occupation by Bishop Chrysostomos’s refusal to betray them.
My father became quiet. I could see he was on the threshold of recollection. The signs are always a giveaway—the taking off of his glasses, looking straight ahead …
Then came the memory. Wartime. He was a young boy. German soldiers occupied the buildings in the centre of their seaside village. His father had assumed the role of mayor, reluctantly, and every day the boy helped his father shepherd goats up the mountainside. One day, trudging up a mountain path impassable to all but the shepherds, the boy heard sounds coming from a concealed cave. His father said there were people hiding in that cave, and the following night the people were going to get on fishing boats and, God willing, make their way to the Middle East. The boy peered in the cave and saw women holding babies, frightened men, children his age. The father told the boy to not tell anyone what he had seen.
Dina sat stunned as her father spoke, overwhelmed with pride for her ancestors. She had never heard this story before.
And I felt a melancholy creep over me at the thought that for each story preserved, countless more were doomed to oblivion.
Dina tells me about the tribute she delivered. ‘And Maria,’ she says, ‘there were people in that audience crying, and my father was overcome.’ He hadn’t known this story was going to be told—let alone that total strangers would cry upon hearing it.
I said, ‘Dad, why had you never told me?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know, Dina. It never came up. There are many stories, but what to remember …?’
In 2009 Linda Neil, a musician and writer, published a memoir called Learning how to Breathe. It is a love song to her mother Joan, who, after teaching singing her entire life, was struck down by Parkinson’s disease. Linda’s father Ben (born Arthur Gerard Neil) is in the book too, but his is a ghostly presence, not only because he is no longer alive when Linda returns to the Brisbane family home to care for her mother, but because so much about him, about the life he led before his marriage, is a mystery. Neil writes:
Towards the end of nearly thirty years as a Christian Brother he was appointed head of the Strathfield seminary in Sydney and became, in effect, the head of all the young religious men in Australia, until he walked out one evening, leaving his charred dinner burning in a saucepan.
The abandoned saucepan story was repeated in family lore. But beyond it, Linda knew little. Thirty years was actually twenty-five years (as she would soon find out); her father was responsible only for those young men in the seminary, who were training to become teachers. More importantly: why did her father renounce religious life after a quarter of a century’s service? That was never spoken about. It couldn’t have been a loss of faith. Her father remained a practising Catholic his whole post–Christian Brothers life.
A couple of months after the book came out, Linda received a long letter from a man named Brian McInnes. By chance, Brian had come across the name of Linda’s father in a Sydney Morning Herald review of Linda’s book. Then Brian read the book—and, yes, Linda’s father was indeed Brother Benedict, his teacher, who one night abruptly left the order. The boys were told Brother Benedict ran off with some woman down the street. Brian, for one, didn’t buy a word of it. Those particular precise details are still a mystery. And yet, Linda says now:
Thanks to Brian, I was gifted with another completely different story to the one I told in Learning how to Breathe—the story of my father’s life from the time he entered the monastery, aged fourteen, to when he left it twenty-five years later.
Brian, who also left the order, became Linda’s guide into ‘the mysterious world of religious orders and monasteries in Australia’. Together they did the walk her father made on the night he left the order. It became a Radio National documentary, The Long Walk of Brother Benedict. There is a moment in the program when Linda asks Brian what leaving the order would have felt like for her father. ‘It would have almost torn him apart,’ Brian replies.
Before Brian, her father was a stranger. Now Linda says she’ll write a book about him. This is what happens—one book begetting another, people we thought lost being returned to us, stories getting caught just as they are about to disappear forever, and all of it by chance, by magic, by fate, by words. M© Maria Tumarkin 2012