Books: Even As We Speak — George Russell: A Reminiscence |
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George Russell: A Reminiscence

George Russell is a great teacher and I was the worst student he ever had. It could be argued that the opinion of a bad student ought not to be allowed to count for much in the assessment of a teacher’s quality. But George Russell’s eminence as a teacher is not in doubt. Too many star students would willingly give testimony about his influence on their lives. What might perhaps add an extra, unexpected dimension to the eulogistic chorus is the testimony of a student whose biological resistance to being taught was a phenomenon of immunology. If George Russell could influence even me, there must have been something uncanny about him.

Having, to nobody’s surprise greater than my own, conned my way into the English Honours school after two undistinguished years of the ordinary pass course, I joined George’s high-powered class in Anglo-Saxon, opened my newly purchased textbook for the first time, and sat there as if staring at a cobra. Until that moment I had had no idea that Anglo-Saxon was a foreign language. My petrified gaze must somehow have aroused George’s sympathy, not normally a commodity that he made freely available to dolts. George could be pretty cutting with anybody whose unpreparedness or plaintive outcry disturbed the rhythm of the class. ‘Thank you very much,’ he once publicly told a girl who had nowhere near finished protesting about the difficulty of a term exam, ‘I think we’ve heard enough of your piping treble.’

But at least she, like all her classmates except one, had attempted to decode the set text. George knew exactly which one of the students sitting at the desks in front of him was trying to bluff his way through the whole course by memorizing the translations. That he took me under his wing instead of booting me back to the pass class can possibly be explained with reference to his religion. No doubt it imposed on him some form of spiritual mortification. I was his hair shirt.

The woman to whom I am now married was at that time a fellow student — the sort of student that every teacher dreams of teaching. Her presence by my side must have made up for the fact that I was the sort of student every teacher dreams of getting rid of, because together we were invited by George and his wife Isabel to dinner at their house in Pennant Hills. George picked us up in his car at Pennant Hills station. The visit became a regular thing; which says a lot for Isabel’s tolerance, because for someone who drank George’s wine as if it was water I got a great deal of talking done. My companion, needless to say, was the soul of moderation, possessing the judicious self-assessment appropriate to an academic record unblemished by any grade lower than A or honour other than first. She delighted the Russells.

But I think it fair to say that it was I who fascinated them. Wide-eyed behind his glasses, George watched enthralled while the contents of his cellar vanished inside me. I think he took a scientific interest in seeing if one of the finer things of life could work its civilizing influence even on someone who was throwing it in a high curve over the taste buds so that it didn’t touch flesh until it hit the back of the throat. When my powers of monologue flagged, he would put one of the pearls of his impressive collection of classical records on the radiogram. Here again I proved a hard nut to crack, and here again he proved strangely forbearing. I can remember his laughing appreciatively, instead of in derision, when I compared Brahms to oxtail soup. When it became clear that a classical recital was to be a regular after-dinner feature, I started to retaliate by bringing along some Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker LPs. George generously tapped his feet to ‘’Round Midnight’ and ‘Salt Peanuts’ while I made faces at Monteverdi. If he construed my grimaces as a sign that the great music was striking deep into my unwilling soul, he was prescient, because there was to be little manifest evidence until many years later. Without giving too much of the game away, however, I might confide at this point that I am today no longer disposed to compare Brahms with oxtail soup, and that I could bore you pretty thoroughly with my opinions about what Emil Gilels gets out of the two piano concertos that Rubinstein doesn’t, and about how Karajan drags the tempo in the Fourth symphony. Then, though, I was apparently impermeable, partly because paralytic. At the end of the evening, George drove us all the way back to town, to obviate the possibility of my boarding the electric train and falling out of the opposite door on to the track. Though I am assured that he invariably drove us all the way to Town Hall, today I can’t remember us having even once crossed the Harbour Bridge. It must mean that I was unconscious every time.

In class I stayed awake but it didn’t make much difference. For the Union Revue I adapted an Anglo-Saxon text about the Battle of Maldon into a sketch in which two warriors from each team faced off across a very small river and pronounced incomprehensible war-cries. The sketch was a big hit with those members of the audience who were familiar with Old English texts. This was as close as I came to any kind of rapport with our ancestral tongue. Less forgivable was how I remained impervious even to George’s special seminars in which he touched upon a wider field, the Middle Ages in Europe. Unfortunately I had no Latin and it didn’t occur to me at that time to acquire any, busy as I was with such important matters as editing the literary page of the student newspaper Honi Soit. But I can remember now being impressed even at the time by George’s grave humility as he introduced a discussion of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, by Ernst Robert Curtius. ‘This,’ said George, his hands poised above the volume as if he were about to break bread, ‘is a great book.’ Then he opened it. It hardly needs saying that I had neither the preparation nor the spare time to corroborate his opinion, but the moment stayed with me.

Only the rare teacher is as fond of his promising young writers as he is of his promising young scholars. Christian Gauss of Princeton knew that Edmund Wilson was an outstanding student, but he was equally proud of his class dunce, Scott Fitzgerald. Gauss realized that Fitzgerald’s divine gift for the rhythmic sentence was the cause of his immaturity: facility outran understanding, and would do so until experience provided a measure of resistance, something solid to be carved. In a teacher it takes more than brains, it takes clairvoyance, to realize that a callow chump might be carrying the seeds of literary life. I don’t suggest that I had it in me to write This Side of Paradise, but I certainly had a startling capacity to talk fluent tosh. George listened tolerantly as I informed him of my plans to spend five years in Europe doing odd jobs while looting the area for its cultural wealth and composing poetic masterpieces by night, before returning to take my rightful place as an Australian man of letters, position and political influence. He heard me out with a patience aided by cold beer. Somewhere between the University and Redfern station there was a pub where we sometimes met at the end of the working day when George was on his way home by train and I, after two hours in Fisher Library sleeping off the effects of a long lunchtime in the Forest Lodge, was preparing for a hard evening’s dissipation in the Royal George, the headquarters of the Downtown Push. Sipping reflectively, George ventured the suggestion that in the unlikely event of my scheme’s failing to reach immediate fruition I might drop him a line, because if the necessity ever arose for me to take refuge once again in a university, he had a certain amount of pull at his old Cambridge college. Grandly I let him know that the possibility would never arise: the place of the artist was not in the cloisters, but in the world.

The place of this artist turned out to be in the soup. As I write this note, the second volume of my unreliable memoirs is about to be published, whereupon the full story of how I failed to ignite the Thames will be edifyingly available for any reader still harbouring the delusion that all the Australians who sailed for England in the early Sixties achieved instant success. I, for one, achieved a depth of oblivion from which I could see to climb out only by the light of my lucky stars. George, as ever conscientious beyond the call of duty, or perhaps once again impelled by the self-mortifying requirements of his lay religious order, wrote me fulsome references by air-letter so that I might apply for jobs which a glance must have told him had a dead end. Finally, when I had at last concurred with the otherwise universal opinion that I was unemployable, he wrote the letter which secured me a place at Cambridge.

Safe inside the oak doors of his old college, Pembroke, I immediately set about betraying his trust by giving my principal attention to Footlights. What reading I found time for was off the course. On one of George’s visits to London I met him for a drink and gave him an account of my progress that was probably the real reason for the sour look which at the time I put down to the unspeakable English beer. My degree was obtained more by turn of phrase that by proof of diligence and I must have been the only graduate in memory who got himself registered as a Ph.D. candidate merely so that he might become president of a dramatic society. Mine was scarcely an academic record. It was almost a police record. Always I read any book except the one specified. But I never stopped reading. Nor did I ever stop listening to music or looking at paintings. In George’s house I had somehow got the idea, more by osmosis than observation, that an education was something you went on acquiring all your life. Perhaps I got the idea too well, and too often postponed what I should have tackled early. But I got the idea.

The moment when George said mass over his holy book has stayed with me ever since, and now, when I look up from the typewriter at the bookshelves in my office, I can see my own copy of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Beside it is another book by Curtius, his Essays on European Literature, which includes the two important long pieces about T. S. Eliot. Next comes Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Romanische Philologie, which contains Curtius’s definitive review of Gianfranco Contini’s edition of Dante’s Rime. I bought that one in Cambridge in 1968, before I could read any German. Then there comes Curtius’s pioneering little study of Proust, and then an authentic rare bird, the first edition of his Balzac, Verlag von Friedrich Cohen, Bonn, 1923. Where did I buy that? My inscription on the flyleaf reminds me: Staten Island, two years ago, in a house full of books bought from the descendants of European refugees from Hitler. The thousands of abandoned books stacked two deep in the shelves were a whispering testimony to the cultural disintegration that Curtius first feared, then experienced, and which gave European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages its pessimistic tone. I could write an essay on the subject. It might not be an outstanding essay, but it would touch on the main points. It has taken a long time, but I am some kind of student at last.

Still not a good student, however. A writer can never be that: not this writer, anyway. Borges, book mad if anybody was, divided the two things neatly in Historia universal de la infamia, when he said that writing comes before reading and is less considered. The same dichotomy is fundamental to Croce’s aesthetics, and I suppose Schiller’s celebrated distinction between the naïve and the sentimental amounts to the same thing. But these are weighty names of learned men, and merely to adduce them is to concede that you can’t be a writer without at least wanting to be a reader as well. A writer who took literally Schopenhauer’s imprecations against book-learning would not be concentrating his energies, he would be inhibiting their renewal.

We would all like to set our minds in order, and that applies most to those of us who are obliged to lead disorderly lives. As I consume, in the TV studio, hundreds of hours that I might have spent making yet another attempt to get somewhere with Greek, my great teachers are with me as an ideal. (Probably their great teachers were with them as an ideal, when they were wasting their time reading my emptily fluent essays, and certainly when they became, later on, Professors with departments to run.) I remember George Russell standing at a lectern, silently reading a photostat of a medieval manuscript, the hurrying world shut out. I remember H. J. Oliver, when I was in his office for the first time and transfixed by his collection of those first-issue Everyman volumes with the gilt spines, pointing out gently, so as not to daunt, that the real collection was at home. Nowadays I have my collection too: books bought during assignments in Munich, Vienna and Salzburg, in Tokyo, Peking and Hong Kong, in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. Some of the books I buy I will have to wait to read until I can read the languages they are written in. But at least I know what should be desired. I think it was while George was holding a seminar about the austere dedication of the Brethren of the Common Life that he first mentioned Rachel. She wasn’t a real woman, she was a spirit — the spirit of contemplation. For the monk, to be denied her company was to be left desolate. To forsake Rachel was madness.

Expounding this concept, George spoke as both a man of religion and a humanist. At the time I had little idea of what he meant. A quarter of a century later I am still proof against religion of any stamp, and will no doubt remain so until my pagan grave. But humanism, the thirst for concentrated meaning that turns a classic text into a fountain of refreshment, has by now become as vivid for me as the river of light became for Dante. I wish I had good enough Latin to read the Annals of Tacitus as I can read his Histories, or to read his Histories as I can read his Agricola. Yet after my first hour with the Annals, an hour spent sweating to unpick even a few of its compressed sentences — whose elliptical density, like that of Shostakovitch’s string quartets, is the guarantee of their truth and of the truth’s private defiance of state terror — I could at last see our horrifying twentieth century for what it has been, a time like any other: a time like all the others. When I closed the book I held my hands above it as if to touch it might burn them, and only later realized that the gesture had been an echo. Benedictus benedicat. So George Russell has had his influence, beginning with a few words and coming to fulfilment far away, as an important part of his pupil’s attitude to life. There are other, better pupils with less erratic tales to tell. But I was the test case, the one sent to try him; and he came through.

(From a Festschrift for George Russell, 1984)