One of my current writing projects is a childhood memoir, so my bedside table is littered with its fair share of books on that subject. Paul Auster’s Winter Journal has provided some good inspiration. While the book as a whole is an attempt to recount most of his life from infancy to the beginning of old age (all the space of 240 pages), it was the parts about his New Jersey childhood in the 1950s and 60s that I found the most engaging. When Auster gets it right, he does a great job of evoking the vibrancy, the tentativeness, the world-within-the-world dimension of childhood that makes it such a mystery and a wonder. The book is written in the ‘you’ voice, which can get a bit grating, but it does suit the existential hero mode you’d expect from Auster’s French influences. He has copped some flak from the critics for self-aggrandisement, which is reasonable given some of his indulgences; in one preening moment he compares himself to Keats. Caught up in the passion of inspiration, this might have seemed a good idea at the time, but his editor should have told him ‘easy tiger, we all know you’re great, but it might be better if you let someone else say it.’
I teach creative writing, and last week I had the pleasure of rereading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover in preparation for a seminar I had to give. An autobiographical novel set in French Indochina around the 1930s, this book is about the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood. The main rite of passage is the young Duras’ first sexual relationship. I’ve taught this book for years and never tire of reading it. Student reactions are always interesting. Most love it, but some find it showy and melodramatic. But look, I say to the sceptics, look at how she uses images to represent the development of sexuality. She does it through the girl’s outfit: the cherry-red lipstick, the gold lamé shoes, the first silk dress, threadbare, but still silk. And the man’s hat, that final twist to make sure the world is taking notice. Look at Duras’ technique and marvel, I tell them. It’s one of the great essays on how we become what we become, on how we fashion ourselves into who we are.
I’m a great admirer of J.M. Coetzee, so I didn’t waste any time in reading The Childhood of Jesus, especially since it spoke so directly to my current interests. It’s a relatively straightforward story: a middle-aged man and the young boy in his care come to settle in a new country. Yet for all the directness of this premise, it’s a wonderfully oblique and subtle book. The country in question is a kind of socialist backwater with a modest but well-functioning welfare system, and as the man goes about finding the boy’s mother, Coetzee provides a fascinating take on just how demanding it is to create a world where children can thrive. He’s particularly good at showing how a child’s perspective can make us look at the world afresh, reminding us that what we take for granted hasn’t always been so. The book’s final act takes on a fascinating Beckettesque turn, but I’ll stop at this point: spoiler alert.
In the course of exploring the theme of childhood, I’ve also dug up some material that I haven’t read for decades, stories that have been fluttering around the edge of my consciousness for years, and influenced me in ways I realised I’d forgotten. I couldn’t find my copy of Patrick White’s The Vivisector, his novel about the fictional painter Hurtle Duffield, so I tried to get it in bookshop. Despite a fair bit of legwork, I couldn’t find a single bookshop in Sydney that had it in stock. Not to worry: a nice first edition came in through the university library. It was an odd reading experience. I first read it when I was at art school, back when I thought I wanted to be a painter (a failed first vocation if ever there was one). I must have been about 18, and at that time I loved it. This was how an artist should be! Aloof. Alone. Bound to tell the truth about human existence, no matter how cruel. I must admit that this time I wasn’t so impressed. I do love Patrick White, really I do. And there were things I loved about The Vivisector the second time around. The first act, where the young painter, son of a humble washerwoman and a budding child prodigy, is adopted by the rich family his mother works for, is terrific. It’s operatic, sensuous, mordant and wry. But after that it was all downhill for me. As our hero (or rather anti-hero) morphs into a successful painter, I found the late-modernist stylistics over-ripe and ultimately tedious, and the artistic angst more than a little hard to bear. Funny what a few decades does to your perception of things.
But let me end on a positive note. The other story from the past I read was Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son by Saul Bellow. This was an early work he never finished and is about his childhood in Canada during the 1920s and 30s. I first read it when Granta published it in 1992, and thought it was amazing. I then promptly forgot all about it until this year. This time round I was even more impressed than before. Bellow grew up in a Jewish community in Quebec. His parents were Russian émigrés who had been prosperous in their home country, but fell on hard times in their new homeland. The young Bellow is an exemplary narrator. He knows when to play the hero, making us experience the passion and emotion of childhood. But, more importantly, he knows when to play the witness, his parents in particular sweeping into the foreground as they argue, bicker, blame and counter-blame in the fight for their family’s survival. It’s a truly stunning evocation of a forgotten world, sharply observed, compassionate in its depictions of flawed but well-intentioned people.
A final plug for the book of a colleague. Shady Cosgrove’s recentWhat the Ground Can’t Hold is a remarkable novel that marries the suspense of a thriller with a multiple point-of-view schema that shows how complex technique can be made to look all too easy. I particularly loved the character of Jack, a boy-man too old to be hanging out with his parents on holiday, yet too young to know what responsibility really is.
Anthony Macris is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UTS. His autism memoir, When Horse Became Saw, was extracted inMeanjin in 2008, and shortlisted for the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. He is also the author of the Capital novels. UWAP published Great Western Highway (Capital, Volume One, Part Two) in 2102, and released a new revised edition of Capital, Volume One in 2013.