The Hebrew, a play by George Soane
George Soane (1790-1860) was more than unhappy his father wanted him to lead a single life, rather than the double life that he, George, had mapped out for himself. ‘Mercurial’ wouldn’t cover the younger man’s elemental tempers. Maybe ‘potassic’, with the world as his water. George was, or acted endlessly surprised to be, (or to have been) caught out in his parallel ways of being, and was, to understate it, disappointed and regretful that Sir John seemed not to feel the affection for him that a loving father ought to feel for an heir leading a single and upright life.
The son was more tactical than strategic, but lacked skill in this too. George’s first tactic to regain paternal love was awky sycophancy. In the Dedication to his play The Hebrew, he addressed his father:
My Dear Sir,
Accept this feeble but sincere testimony of affection and gratitude. Our religion teaches us, that repentance of error is the most pleasing offering to heaven—pleasing beyond the rectitude that never sins—Will it be less so to a father?—Let me too excuse the past, as Araspas once excused himself to Cyrus…
—George supplied the passage from Xenophon’s Cyropaedia first in Greek, before giving the translation thus:—
I plainly perceive, O Cyrus, that I have two souls; for if there were only one, it would not at the same time be bad and good; it would not at the same time love honorable and dishonorable action; it would not at the same time wish and not wish to do the same thing…
When trying to write, there are only two kinds of books, those that help and those that don’t—I’m pretty sure this cogent binary came from a talk Amanda Lohrey gave at Varuna Writers’ Centre a decade or two ago.
The novel I’m trying to write brings together the collected artefacts and life of the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in London, and instigator of Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Reading the play by his estranged son is a little to the side from central research towards the novel and, because of the type of reader I am (distractible, left-branching, fragmentary), I have not yet completed this piece of Victorian melodrama. George’s Dedication sent me off towards Xenophon’s version of The Tale of Araspas and the moral lessons one might learn therein, lessons in ancient ideas of restraint and decency which George Soane had not applied outside this Cambridge-educated piece of obsequiousness.
The filial relationship didn’t work out so well for George Soane—it had started to go downhill when he declined architecture in order to appear on the Stage, and he didn’t help it by writing novels—but he did later achieve some reputation for his translations from the German.
I’ve heard it said that some writers don’t look up their new books online. Is this really true? In checking whether any bookshops were stocking my book of short stories, When I Saw the Animal, I found two photography books by Ed Panar, titled Animals that Saw Me Volume 1 and Animals that Saw Me Volume 2. I recommend these books to people who enjoy photographs of raccoons, sheep and chickens staring at the photographer. Animals that Saw Me Volume 2 includes text by speculative realist philosopher Timothy Morton. One blog reviewer commented that Animals that Saw Me Volume 1 made them inexplicably happy. It made me happy too.
In common with other contributors to ‘What I’m Reading’ a large pile of partly read and unread books and literary magazines towers beside my bed, multilingual as Babel. From time to time, for a delusional sense of self-control and non-hoarding normality, I pack these into a cabin-baggage-sized suitcase, and stow this in the cupboard. Some books then make their ways back out to a newly growing pile. This is a kind of semi-closed system in equilibrium. The books currently out are mostly poetry:
The first year was like icing
Then the cake started to show through.
Which was fine too
(John Ashbery, ‘More Pleasant Adventures’ in Selected Poems, Penguin, London, 1994)
The books make their own links, mini-essays in every juxtaposition, so this quote from Ashbery is less about layering and more about the pace of time when it sits beside Jorie Graham’s ‘Sea Change’:
One day: stronger wind than anyone expected. Stronger than
ever before in the recording
of such. Un-
natural says the news. Also the body says it.
(Jorie Graham, Sea Change, Ecco, New York, 2009)
Bashō opens The Narrow Road to the Deep North with a brief reflection on the same subject, ‘Day and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by.’ (Matsuo Bashō, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Penguin, London 1966)
So I’ve been reading about time as an object, time as a construct of events, and time as a journey of many small steps.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen (Penguin Melbourne, 2016) starts with a (verbal) map of the narrator’s body in place of setting, time bent, stretched, telescoped, a narrator’s voice as brilliantly abject as any. I was a little sorry when plot took over—not that there’s anything wrong with Moshfegh’s plot, but I could have stayed with that narrative-microscopy focused on the minutiae of the foul alcoholic home, fume-ridden automobile, desperate workplace (a youth prison) and painful, sexless lust.
It is extraordinary that Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Picador, Sydney, 2018) even exists, let alone that it is a work of high literary ambition with roots in terrible, Australian-imposed experience, and references (as the translator notes) ranging from Kurdish folktales to Kafka. Back in 1993, soon after Australia’s policies of imprisoning people seeking asylum were first implemented, I wrote:
There are foreign people in Australia thinking foreign thoughts. Some are locked up in Villawood, at the detention centre. Some are confined at Port Hedland. Some are restrained in Perth. In those places, you see, they are not really in Australia. They are in the empty, ungoverned space of their bodies, I guess, confined within not-Australia. Some people in Villawood have seen much of not-Australia… flying from no place to no place in Utopian airliners. (Cohen, ‘Aliens’, Westerly vol 38 no.4)
‘Not-Australia’ has been moved offshore. Boochani’s brave volume is next on my list.
I do sustain another reading regime, practised with intensity every week, and I’m quietly confident that I hold some kind of record within this practice. It is for reading the most pieces of creative writing by children, over 200,000 stories, poems and other literary objects so far.
In 2006, I started teaching writing to young people—spring 2018 marks my fiftieth term of it.
Like many (most?) writers, I’ve never felt totally expert in the practice of writing—impostor syndrome is built into the vocation, and every piece contains elements of risk—but I do feel that I know what I’m doing as an educator, perhaps because children’s learning and developmental patterns seem to emerge with some clarity after the first few thousand samples.
Licensing is important, and young people are pretty keen to test the extent of their creative licence. Thus, in the first paragraph of the first piece a child writes (feeling licensed and unconstrained by school) the protagonist is likely to (a) do a poo and (b) die.
I have about a hundred regular students, in small groups. I have read that children are very different to adults:
I asked my Dad what did you do when you were a child? My dad said when I was a child I loved to play but now I’m an adult and now I am very responsible. (6 year old)
The future may be bright:
In 100,009 years there are rainbows everywhere. The sky is pink and the sand is light gold. It is very curious and the people are very curious. [Sparkle] is happy-sad with her life. She has a wife too and she loves him too. His name is Kumble. They live happily ever after. They love each other and Sparkle is wearing a pink sparkly dress that’s invisible. (6 year old)
Bernard Cohen is the award-winning author of five novels and a picture book. His latest book is the short story collection When I Saw the Animal (UQP). For Bernard’s teaching, please see writingworkshop.com.au.