Books: May Week was in June — Epilogue |
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May Week was in June — Epilogue


All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. There was a time when I got hot under the collar if the critics said I had nothing new to say. Now I realise that they had a point. My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not quite so obvious until I said them. In my younger and more nervous years, I sustained myself by thinking myself remarkable. It took time to accept the fact that I was ordinary, and more time to be thankful. Born without a sense of proportion, I had it imposed on me by the weight of evidence. My solipsism was already crumbling when I played my World Record Club 12-inch LP of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony over and over at top volume until it drove my mother mad. It was in the glazed-in back verandah of our house in Kogarah, the year I turned eighteen. My Pye carry-gram, with the lid that split into two stereo speakers, had been hefted into position on a chair, with a book underneath to bring it level Willem van Otterloo conducted the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. I danced to the scherzo. During the adagio I sat on another of the wooden chairs, closed my eyes, and rocked slowly back and forth so that the front legs of the chair lifted an inch off the linoleum. That must have been how Blinky bought the farm. Blinky was my mother’s budgerigar. When the day was cool enough to permit the closing of the Cooper-Louvres, Blinky was allowed out of his cage to roam the floor. On that day he must have roamed under one of the front legs of the chair and been crushed just enough to limp away and die under the crockery cupboard. Though I decline to admit culpability, the thought was never to leave my mind that I might be someone who loved art so much he could kill while in its thrall.

My mother survived the shock of Blinky’s death, and of all the other outrages I have since perpetrated. Readers of the first two volumes of this autobiography often ask me whether she lives and thrives. The answer is that she does both, although she is a different person from the one I have portrayed — no less kind and brave but much more sophisticated, a natural psychologist whose prose, in her letters, has a rhythm and an easy-seeming perspicuity of detail which I would be pleased to hear it said that I had inherited. The point is that I didn’t realise any of that until later. Not realising things until later is the story of my life. This applied, still applies, to the awkward philosophical problem generated by the existence of other people. Even the people I knew best I seldom paused to appreciate. There have been those I loved who had to disappear before I saw their outlines. Usually it was only my story that they dropped out of, so as to continue theirs. Perhaps, in order to forestall enquiries, I should close by giving a quick account of those personages in these three volumes who, having played a formative part in my own dazzling course, influenced it still further by their daunting ability to have destinies of their own. The Australians, in particular, showed a disconcerting tendency to forget that I was meant to be the captain of the ship they filed aboard, laughing and waving, on that summer night, almost thirty years ago, when the band played and the cicadas sang and we all went sailing to adventure.

As I recounted in Falling Towards England, Lilith Talbot went home to marry Emu Coogan. She thought better of it when she got there, perhaps because as a husband he would have been out of his role, which was to be a radical, a gambler, a battler and a legend. A woman can marry a man like that and still stay sane, but she can’t teach school, which was Lilith’s vocation. The year after she went home, Lilith was taken ill with meningitis, and for a further year was on the point of death. Her great beauty melted into the pain. But she was saved, and her marvellous looks returned, and now, at a huge school in the Western Suburbs of Sydney, she has taught a whole generation of young Australians from different ethnic backgrounds how to construct an English sentence — the lesson at the foundation of our democracy, and one which the old country needs to learn again. Much loved by the thousands of pupils who are the children she never had, Lilith lives alone in an apartment at the edge of the harbour. From her window in the evening can be heard the tinkle of the moored yachts, like wind-chimes in a water garden. After twenty years I found her again, and although I do nothing for her except invite myself to tea, I am a better suitor to her now than I ever was when we were lovers. My past, of which she was a crucial part, served to civilise my future, and now, in the present, and despite the handicap of my frozen heart, our friendship, restored through good fortune after being broken by neglect, will last until one of us dies, to be mourned by the other.

Robin was three different women, all Catholics: a Holy Trinity. With an overwhelming two-thirds of this group I failed to establish the intimacy here recorded. One by one they went home to Australia, where they now think of London as a part of their upbringing, in which — so one of them secretly assures me — I featured as a marginal, affectionately tolerated part of the geography, like Soane’s Museum or Madame Tussaud’s. At the time I preened myself as no end of a rogue. Now I see that my love-life was a cliche outclassed by that of any tom-cat. The tremendous, condemnatory last act of Don Giovanni was written for Don Juan, not for a feckless young opportunist whose beard had grown because he was too lazy to shave. From the women I did not marry I took what I could get away with, including—a gluttony which can look like generosity in the right light — pride at having given pleasure. More often I gave pain, and probably more often than I thought. It would be hypocrisy, however, to say that I didn’t enjoy being a free agent. It would also be ill-advised to say that I did. Marriage is supposed to put a stop to all that. Françoise is not the woman I married, who certainly has the quality of innocence, but only in the sense of being incorruptible by the knowledge to which her high intelligence gives her access. She knew all about me. She knows all about me now, and knows above all that the real blank in this book is not where she should be, but where I should be. In our prurient time, this true age of revelations, even the most sensitive sometimes find it hard to accept that the lasting involvement of two human beings must remain a mystery. The reader has the right to know, however, that something like the wedding in the last chapter happened something like that, and that something like the same marriage is still in existence twenty years later. The long storm of divorce that has blown away the marriage contracts of our generation continues to leave my hair unruffled — what there is of it, and for what such an exemption is worth. Perhaps my house is being saved up for last. Anything more specific I will have to say in a novel, where one can pile in all the right facts, as long as they lead in the wrong direction.

Some of the Australians went home, some stayed away, and much has since been made of who fulfilled his duty and who betrayed it; but the truth is that it all came down to personality in the end. Brian C. Adams, who had struck me as the prototype of the prematurely middle-aged academic, just as I had struck him as the extreme case of the delayed adolescent, went back to Adelaide to begin a university career which I loudly condemned in advance as a caricature. As things have turned out, he has played an important part in furthering the movement to give the study of Australian literature its due dignity without succumbing to provincialism. Particularly impressive, in every article he writes, is his mature, humane judgment, which I would once have said — did often say — that he could never possess. Some people develop, and sometimes they have to do that by throwing off the limiting estimation of those who know them. The privilege I always claimed for myself, of putting off until later the onus of knowing better, I should have more readily extended to others. It might even have been preferable, in the matter of success and failure, never to have judged people at all. Though the Australians who stayed abroad have made their mark, some of those who returned home have changed the history of their country. A few years back, Romaine Rand and I were in Sydney to appear on a television programme together. Romaine’s first book, whose early drafts kept me awake while she typed, had long since made her one of the most famous women in the world. We went to see Il Trovatore at the Opera House. Romaine, not liking the production, talked to me animatedly throughout the first act. (Proust, when gladly accepting an invitation to the opera from the Baroness de Pourtalès, said: Tve never heard you in Faust.’) During the first interval we looked out through the screen of glass at the harbour and the city lights. ‘It’s beautiful/ I said. ‘It’s pretty,’ said Romaine.‘Venice is beautiful.’ She was right, but there was no denying that the city we had left behind had come a long way. The expatriates who had repatriated themselves had realised their dreams at least as well as we had. Australia had done very well without us. We could count ourselves part of it only to the extent that our books were on the racks in the shop at the airport. After the performance we walked, middle-aged and arm-in-arm, up Macquarie Street past the Mitchell Library. In the branches of the Moreton Bay fig trees arching overhead, the possums, driven mad by the spring, were behaving shamelessly. It was a sweet moment, but we didn’t even reminisce. We hardly ever meet except in television studios, and even then, for preference, one of us is there only as a satellite image. The stayaways are all like that, more or less. Lost in space, they have only so much time for one another. Huggins, who left us behind in volume one of these memoirs, wrote a book about the early days of Australia that is now being translated into every language on earth. New York, though, is his home. He needs something that tall at his feet. As for Spencer, he is beyond achievement, far gone in a version of our search from which no messages come back. The last I heard of him, he was in Brazil, teaching linguistics. It is less than certain that he will ever go home, and more certain than it should be that he will never publish a thing. He, however, was the man with the gift. Given a brilliance of phrase the way Mahler was given melody, Spencer, if he leaves behind nothing more than a thin exercise book with his ten best poems in it, will be the writer in whose work our wandering generation of Australians finds its purest voice. Why did the children of paradise go out into the world? Why did they give themselves up for lost? We will hear the answer in a cadence.

The same way they had come, on expensive silver wings, the Americans all went home again, because to an American there is so little to be gained by staying away. Sometimes the route home was circuitous, but it always led there. Strad Blantyre was with the Peace Corps in Africa. In his letters he insisted that he could have done the same work in Harlem to better effect. Milos Forman was right when he said that there are only two places where we feel at home: home, and in America. My American friends were fighting for their country, but the war to be won was within its borders: in a cruel dilemma, they grew through the seeking of its cure. Chuck Beaurepaire, who knew everything, put his egregious self-confidence to good use as a lawyer in defence of civil liberties. Even Delmer Dynamo, exempted from the draft on about seventeen different counts of physical inadequacy, lent himself to the struggle. At Berkeley, in the bad days when Ed Meese sent in the cops, Delmer, according to other accounts beside his own, saved the life of the most luscious girl student on the campus by throwing himself on top of her. In his version of the story, he did this several hours before the riot even started. He is probably understating the case in order to sidetrack nemesis, a trick I know well. Delmer is a funny man who makes his friends funny too. I should see him more often, but I am seldom in New York long enough, and the passing of time becomes hurtful between friends if they don’t see each other regularly. Strad Blantyre I see often, but that is partly because he is one of my American publishers. It comforts me that he has lost almost as much hair as I have. In New York he takes me to lunch at the Princeton Club; in London I take him to dinner at the Garrick; and it pleases us both to impersonate pillars of the Establishment. What we really share is an unspoken dread of how the dice roll. Stability, for both of us, is a nostrum against caprice.

Marenko is dead. Having decided that the war in Vietnam was a criminal enterprise, he opposed it with a determination and bravery that could have cost him his life, and would certainly have cost him his career if he had not been so — the military word somehow seems apt — outstanding. When the tear gas cleared, the campuses that he had helped turn into battlefields vied to appoint him. His first book of literary criticism carried a charge of abstraction that I was glad to see being partly unloaded in the second, by which time he had become the youngest associate professor in the United States. He married a fellow teacher called Rosalind. They gave their baby another Shakespearian name, Miranda. When they were doing well enough to have a vacation cabin in Maine, Marenko typically built the cabin. I still have a photograph of him, naked from the waist up, hefting an axe and looking like Li’l Abner filtered through a pipe-dream by Thoreau. Miranda, about five years old, looks up at him in adoring awe as he stands there, baking bod, in confident possession of the summer. In the winter of the following year, when he was out with Miranda on the frozen lake teaching her to skate, the ice gave way under her. Trusting his strength, he jumped in with his skates still on. It took him too long to find her and bring her up. They were both already gone when Rosalind got back from the store. My guess is that the little girl died first, and that when he realised this he gave up the struggle, and let the terrible weight of what he had allowed to happen take him down. I knew him, you see. He felt responsible for everything.

Was he wrong about that? I find it hard to be sure. A sense of guilt, it seems to me, is inseparable from having grown up in our share of the twentieth century, when to die young, and for no reason, has been, if not the typical childhood, then certainly the representative one. When I was first old enough to look back on my infancy, I thought it the epitome of dislocation. My mother’s fears while my father was a prisoner of war; her grief when he failed to return; her lonely struggle to bring me up — all this struck me as dramatic, and it was a mystery to me why my mother seemed more inclined to count our blessings than to curse fate. I was a long time, by now stretching to a lifetime, in grasping how reality has a texture to which histrionics are an inadequate response. Those millions of young lives apparently rendered meaningless by arbitrary death were taken from us too: a deprivation for which we can compensate only by making ours meaningful. When I was five years old and sobbing in my mother’s arms because the bull ants had stung my foot, children my age were being rounded up all over Europe, to be crammed into boxcars and despatched into oblivion. There were mothers who were obliged to kill their children so as to save them from the protracted agony of medical experiments. Compared with that, the story of my mother and her little boy, and of her husband who did not come home, was something old under the sun, and possible to understand if hard to bear. One day, if I am granted life, I will write a book about what happened in the Pacific when two nations, Australia and Japan, strange to each other in every conceivable way, met and fought, and about what has happened since, in the long, blessed peace which by some extraordinary stroke of good fortune has coincided with my own life. If I have an important book in me, that will be the one, but I will have no warrant to take pride in it, because it will be the book into which I finally disappear, having overcome an inordinate need for attention the only way I could, by reducing it to absurdity. For such a book I will need a decade to prepare before I even begin to write, which is asking a lot. Ten years ago, the joke behind the first volume of these memoirs was meant to be that I was too young to be writing it. Now I can hear the clock. As I bring this slight manuscript to an end, in the fiftieth year of my life, and the first year of the Heisei Era, the swags of blossoms on the cherry trees in the many cemeteries of Tokyo are falling softly apart under their own weight, covering the asphalt walkways with faded pink petals. The year before last, at the cemetery in Aoyama, when there was no hint of a breeze, and ! saw the petals change their pattern as if driven by the sad cry of the chestnut vendor, I could already feel the texture of what I will one day write. It will be frail, but as the surface of the sea is frail. The transparency which is all I have ever been capable of will have at last justified itself, by joining up. Inside that opalescent bubble, I will be invisible at last. There is not much time left, though. Already I have lived half as long again as my father did, whose fading daguerreotype, as Rilke once said, I hold in hands that are fading too.

Merely to be clear would have seemed an aim too trivial to be considered by the eternal student commemorated in these memoirs, which have that much truth, if no more: they are faithful to my ignorance. Through hindsight, I could have given myself foresight. It would have been a bigger lie than any I have told here. I thought I was Jason the Argonaut, Odysseus the long voyager, or at least one of the children in the radio serial I listened to every week when I was still too young to read — children who never had to go to school, and who were always free to continue their quest, the Search for the Golden Boomerang. It just never occurred to me that the real distance I would cross would be in my own mind. In that respect, I had flown half a million miles before I moved an inch, and these three volumes are just the rattling the side of my cot made when I climbed over, on the first stage of that long, momentous journey across the carpet, towards the light of the open door.