One of my greatest joys whenever I finish writing a book is re-entering the zone of whimsical, spontaneous reading. While I am at work on a long manuscript, I am always careful about what I read, particularly during the first draft. I think of this as going on a reading diet—mainly to prevent harm coming my way, to protect my budding voice. For instance, although I love Jonathan Franzen’s fiction, reading his novels when I write is dangerous for me, because they are thick on dialogue and thin on mood, whereas my ratio is the reverse. Franzen’s powerful voice can easily silence my own. Instead, I read works with textures more similar to mine.
Up until six months ago, I had been working for two years on Imperfect, a book that explores how the way we look can shape our lives. This required reading a lot for research—anything about the body and its appearance, including empirical studies, investigative journalism, works by philosophers, historians and psychologists, and memoirs by people whose appearance deviates from the so-called norm (most notably, Lucy Grealy’s wonderful Autobiography of a Face). Most of what I read didn’t explicitly make it into the book, but everything stimulated my thinking and writing.
While I enjoyed much of what I read then, I wasn’t thriving as a reader. Many other books were beckoning me from my overcrowded shelves and my books-to-buy list, appealing to my various moods. Right now, I feel liberated. I haven’t started a new manuscript yet, so I’ve indulged a variety of interests. I’ve read several books by and about Carl Jung and Joan Didion, for example. And I’ve been reading fiction again. One novel I particularly loved recently was Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap.
I must be the last bookish Australian to read this novel, so I don’t need to describe its premise. But what a feat this perceptive, non-euphemistic portrait of our multicultural society is. Tsiolkas, though, isn’t only a master of broad brushstrokes; he is a deeply nuanced artist, a barometer capable of capturing the many follies as well as beauties that every human being contains. Tsiolkas humanises even his most repulsive characters; no black-and-white aesthetic for him. He does all this using a voice that is more modest (unlike his sex descriptions) than in some of his other fiction; the language doesn’t draw attention to itself. While frequently such a stylistic choice works against literary merit, here it fits perfectly with the hyper-realistic flavour of the book.
And it means a great deal to me that one of The Slap’s characters, Anouk, is Jewish. Jews have been a part of the Australian community since the very first days of colonisation, when eight Jewish convicts disembarked from the First Fleet ships. But non-Jewish Australian fiction writers hardly ever write Jewish characters, whether major or minor, unless they are writing about the Holocaust. (Perhaps tellingly, in Wikipedia’s entry on The Slap, Anouk is the only ‘ethnic’ character whose ethnicity isn’t mentioned.)
Another writer whose candour I admire is the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard. Some years ago, I read the second instalment, A Man in Love, in his six-book opus My Struggle and, forgive me the pun, fell in love with his prose. My Struggle is an autobiographical novel depicting Knausgaard’s life from childhood until his early 40s, but it is much more. Proustian in flavour, and genre-defying, Knausgaard’s life story is punctuated by essayistic prose that can go for dozens, and even hundreds, of pages, about anything from Dostoyevsky to the challenges of multiculturalism (another common thread with Tsiolkas).
For now, I don’t intend to read My Struggle in its entirety, mostly on account of its volume and my desire to be as promiscuous as possible in my limited window of whimsical reading. So I’ve just read the fifth part, Some Rain Must Fall. In it Knausgaard is a 20-something university student battling low self-esteem and alcoholism. But, above all, he is struggling to forge himself as a writer. I didn’t feel as much in Knausgaard’s head as I was in A Man in Love. Here his voice is less retrospective and my reading experience was less intimate; I was mostly an observer of Knausgaard-in-action as he wrestles with his self-destructive urges. Still, Knausgaard is Knausgaard. It’s always wonderful to have his voice in my head. I was particularly taken, and fuelled, by his descriptions of his writerly struggle. By how relentlessly and ambitiously he read—philosophy, scientific books, modernists. By how he stumbled and fell and got up and failed again, yet persevered. Knausgaard’s descriptions of the Norwegian literary milieu amused me greatly as he dissects both people’s writing and their characters with entertaining precision. Reading this book was an elevating experience—it made me want to be sharper, more dedicated to the art of writing, and generally invest more in my inner world.
I normally don’t read the latest ‘book-everyone-is-talking-about’, even if occasionally I do buy such books. When I choose my next read, I follow my moods and whimsies not recent reviews or prize shortlists. I shelve my books like some shelve wine—to open them only when the right moment arrives. Just recently, I read a biography of Marc Chagall which I’d purchased 20 years ago. However, sometimes I read the newest books because I am part of the literary community—to launch them or interview the author, or to write an endorsement as I did lately for the following three excellent new Australian nonfiction books.
The Joy of High Places by Patti Miller is a creative nonfiction work that tells the parallel, yet also converging, stories of Miller’s passion for long-distance walking and her brother’s obsession with paragliding. Remarkably, Miller tells her true stories like myths, at once conveying the singularity of personal experiences and their archetypal dimensions. Chloe Higgins’ debut memoir The Girls: A memoir of family, grief and sexuality also has siblings in its heart. It begins with a tragedy: the death of her two younger sisters following a horrific road accident, when Higgins is only 17 and her grief has just begun. It will trail her for years to come, many-faced and shapeshifting yet constant in its perseverance. Higgins explores its multitudes with the precision of a brain surgeon and the feeling of a poet. Special: Antidotes to the obsessions that come with your child’s disability, is by Melanie Dimmitt, an author whose young son has a disability. Dimmitt shares snippets of her story, but her book is mostly a research-based work that offers advice to parents in the early stages of navigating their children’s conditions. Melanie doesn’t gloss over the toughness of her subject, yet she delivers her practical wisdoms with a healthy amount of playfulness and humour. My youngest son has albinism, and many of the questions tackled in this book are deeply familiar, the kind of questions I, too, asked in the immediate aftermath of Ollie’s diagnosis. For instance: Why has this happened to me? Will I ever stop comparing my child to typical children? Will I be able to work again? I wish I’d had Special as my companion during that time.
And as I’m writing these last lines, I’m back with Knausgaard, having skipped straight to the final instalment of My Struggle, at 1153 pages its longest and dryly named The End. Here Knausgaard’s irreverent retrospection is back in full force as he examines the aftermath of his literary success, and the personal costs of writing about his life he’s paid and is still to pay, as well as reflecting on dystopia, Paul Celan’s poetry, familial intimacy, and Hitler’s Mein Kampf no less, and I’m still 600 pages short from finishing the book. Its formidable size notwithstanding, I’ve been reading The End quickly, greedily, possibly because deep in me lurks the foolish hope that some tiny percentage of Knausgaard’s brilliance might trickle into my own future pages if I keep reading him. Or at least that his words could somehow help me start a work of my own . . .
Dr Lee Kofman is a Russian-born Israeli-Australian author of five books and editor of two anthologies, writing teacher and mentor based in Melbourne.