Great Humanity and Human Decency: Annette Marfording reviews ‘The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey’ by Alex Miller

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey (selected and arranged by his wife Stephanie Miller) by Alex Miller,  Allen & Unwin 2015.

simplest wordsThere are many Australian authors who are good writers, but there are few who, in addition to bringing the reader enjoyment – and incidentally – teach the reader something about how to be a good person, show the reader the impact of racism and other injustices, and thus demonstrate their deep humanity. In America, one of the most famous authors to do so is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird through her character Atticus Finch, teaches her readers the meaning of empathy and the injustice of racism. In Australia, that author is Alex Miller. And for those who are not familiar with all of his work and especially his most award-winning novels The Ancestor Game, Journey to the Stone Country, and Landscape of Farewell, in which those teachings of his are the strongest, his deep humanity is starkly illuminated in this book The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey.

Although Alex Miller has written short stories and essays, some included in past editions of The Best Australian Essays and The Best Australian Stories, he is best known for his novels, for which he won multiple literary awards, including the Miles Franklin award for The Ancestor Game and for Journey to the Stone Country. Apart from the Miles Franklin, his most prestigious literary awards are the Commonwealth Writers Prize (for The Ancestor Game) and the Annual Foreign Novels 21st Century Award from the People’s Literature Publishing House in China (for Landscape of Farewell). He has also been awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature and the Manning Clark Cultural Award for his outstanding contribution to the quality of Australian cultural life.

In individual pieces, written mostly for newspapers – especially the Melbourne Age – and in short stories, selected and arranged for this book by the author’s wife Stephanie, and with the addition of significant photographs with family and friends, The Simplest Words presents a kind of autobiographical journey of the author in chronological order, which ends with a surprise poem. That the book emerges as an autobiographical journey is interesting in itself, because at the symposium on his novels, organised by Professor Robert Dixon at Sydney University in 2011, he began his own contribution by saying, “I’ve been asked for a memoir for this occasion yet I am uncomfortable writing directly about myself. I prefer the mask of fiction. In this preference it is self-deception I fear most, for who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?” The last sentence is, of course, an immediate demonstration of his deep humanity, his morality, his modesty: “who but the self-deceived would claim to be able to write with moral detachment about themselves?”

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey begins with the desire for storytelling in his childhood, takes the reader through the impetus for each of his novels and shows their profound link to his own life, includes brief extracts of each of those novels, and introduces the reader to his special friends, his thoughts about writing and issues he feels passionate about. For those who are new to Alex Miller’s work, this book is thus the ideal introduction to, and overview of, his body of work.

For this reviewer, who is intensely familiar with his novels, has reread most of them, some more than once, who was one of the only non-university people to attend the above mentioned symposium on his novels, and who learned yet more about him in her in-depth interview with him for her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, there were several highlights in this collection. The first, the ability to read ‘Comrade Pawel’, the story that was his first publication in Meanjin in 1975. The story is based on an incident that happened to his friend Max Blatt in the Second World War. Reading the story as written by Alex prompted Max to say, “You could have been there,” and with those words launched his writing life and career.

A second highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is a previously unpublished novella, ‘The Rule of the First Prelude’, in which Alex Miller imagines the life of the child of his protagonist Emily in his novel Conditions of Faith as an adult, and her grief at her mother’s absence. It is an eloquent and extremely powerful story, though written, indeed, in the simplest words.

A third highlight of this book are the essays on issues the author feels passionate about; foremost ‘Australia Today’, in which he writes in disbelief about the Australian government’s shocking turn-away from asylum seekers, and yet, remains hopeful that Australia will return to humane refugee policies. Another is ‘Chasing My Tale’ on the labelling – such as revisionist historian – that he has received by academics following his novels and his resulting bewilderment, causing him to say, “I believe a novel is like a painting or a piece of music, at least in the sense that it cannot be explained but can only be experienced.” Another is ‘Sweet Water’, an outstanding essay on the need to preserve the Urannah Valley, and thus the land and pristine wilderness of the Birriguba people of North Queensland, from damming and consequential destruction. The Urannah Valley is part of the landscape in his novel Journey to the Stone Country and in this essay Alex Miller explains the significance of this land to its original owners, and makes a passionate argument against the focus of Western culture on acquisition: of land, of knowledge, of consumer goods, and in favour of preserving the sacred. And, while in the interview with me he stated that his novels Journey to the Stone Country and Landscape of Farewell were not written as books about Aborigines and the issues they face, but were the stories of his personal friends, which they had asked him to write, towards the end of ‘Sweet Water’ he nevertheless points to the importance of writing about things affecting Aboriginal people: “Some critics assure us that our novels are irrelevant to the important issues facing our society. I don’t share that view. As well as entertaining us, our novels have always explored the individual’s relationship to the great moral questions of the day. Not answers, but an awareness of the questions we need to face. Something, dare I say it, such as an image of the Urannah Valley…., intact as yet and just as filled with mystery as the deepest and most hidden part of the great Amazonian forest. A fragile and precious reality of ours that we are about to destroy in order to provide water for coal mines and crop irrigation.”

A fourth highlight of The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is the inclusion of ‘The Writer’s Secret’, a piece on parental love and advice and writing, which he read at the 2014 Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival and which held the entire audience in a suspended hush for the duration.

A final highlight of this book are Alex Miller’s pieces about his friends, including the aforementioned Max Blatt, the late Frank Budby, elder of the Barada Barna people, who became his protagonist Dougald Gnapun in Landscape of Farewell, Col McLennan, elder of the Jangga people, and his wife Liz Hatte, who became his protagonists Bo and Annabelle in Journey to the Stone Country, biographer Hazel Rowley who became his soul mate by daily email correspondence, and philosopher and author of Romulus, My Father and After Romulus, Raimond Gaita. And in words I would use about Alex Miller, he finishes the Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ as follows: “Rereading her books these last few weeks I have known myself to be in the presence of Hazel Rowley’s great humanity… Her great books are for life. To read a great book for a second time, just as to listen to a great piece of music for the hundredth time, is to be in the presence of a new creation.” Gerard Windsor, in his review of The Simplest Words for The Australian refers to this praise as “quite starstruck admiration” for Hazel Rowley, and the same might be said of this review for Alex Miller, but I see it as simple gratitude for those people in our lives, be it primarily only through the written word, who remind us of the existence of such great humanity and human decency in this increasingly self-centred world.

Buy The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey, buy Alex Miller’s novels, and reread each of his books for perpetual new pleasure, awe and gratitude. It’s no surprise that this book was my book of the year 2015. It was published by Allen & Unwin in a sturdy hardback edition with a hauntingly beautiful cover image designed by Lisa White, which you will enjoy looking at for years to come.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

The Simplest Words: A Storyteller’s Journey is available from  https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/literature-literary-studies/The-Simplest-Words-Alex-Miller-9781743313572

An expression of awe & wonder: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews ‘Interferon Psalms’ by Luke Davies.

Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies. Allen & Unwin 2011

daviesThe title of this suite of poems refers to the treatment its author received for hepatitis C:

Interferons (IFNs) are proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of pathogens such as viruses,.bacteria, parasites or tumor cells. They allow for.communication between cells to trigger the protectivedefenses of the immune system that eradicate pathogens or tumors (Wikepedia).

He describes his treatment as follows:

I was on that stuff for 16 extremely debilitating months…It was actually a combination therapy (with an antiviral drug called ribavirin), the cumulative side effects of which are extensive, you could almost say comprehensive. Among the MANY side effects…the treatment, for separate reasons, reduces both the red cell count and the white cell count. This in turn leads to various unpleasant side-effects. (Comment on ABC website, 12 October, 2011)

His own perspective on the work:

I wrote a book of poetry in which illness was harnessed as a kind of metaphor for how one should engage with one’s life. (ibid)

The comparison that comes to mind for this long poem, with its sweeping changes of theme, mood and form yet complex architecture is the oratorio: ‘a large-scale, usually narrative musical work for orchestra and voices, typically on a sacred theme’, in spite of its avowedly secular nature. The mathematics involved in the 33 psalms on the 99 names of God also remind one of the mathematical relationships in Bach’s music, with its interweaving of point and counterpoint, theme and reply, prelude and fugue.

What it seems to be reaching for is an expression of awe and wonder not specifically linked to religion, though couched in the language and framework of a religious text. This seems very much a modern quest, where even atheists such as Alain De Botton (Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to Religion: Hamish Hamilton, 2012) and A.C. Grayling are acknowledging the human need for ritual and ceremony, Grayling even having produced a secular bible for such occasions (The Good Book: A Secular Bible: Bloomsbury, 2011).

Davies has said he is not in fact a religious man; however, he admits that his Catholic upbringing remains an abiding influence (Review, ABC National ‘The Book Show’, 12 October, 2011). The incantatory style felt good, he says, the music of the service is natural in his ear. He refers to Joseph Campbell, who talks of ‘the rapture of being alive’ (The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Anchor Doubleday 2011). He himself uses the phrase ‘the transcendent to be found in the every day’. Still, his relationship to the supernatural seems deeply ambivalent, is he an agnostic, or is he creating for himself a personal notion of the divine (if that’s not an oxymoron)? His struggle to reconcile the divine with the modern harks back to Apollinaire, a century and a half earlier, a poet whom Davies quotes in the ‘Psalms’ and whose tortured relationship with ‘Lou’ has much in common with the poet’s own love relationship (as represented in the ‘Psalms’).

Paul Auster (Introduction to The Random House Book of French Poetry; Vintage Books, 1984, p. xxiv) has described Apollinaire’s poetry as follows:

(it) ranges from graceful love lyrics to bold experiments, from rhyme to free verse to ‘shape’ poems, he manifests a new sensibility at once indebted to the forms of the past and enthusiastically at home in the world of automobiles, airplanes and movies.

This description could possibly be applied, with appropriate updating, to the ‘Psalms’, though I’m not suggesting that Davies is the equal of Apollinaire.

Bronwyn Lea, in her review of the ‘Psalms’ (The Conversation, 26 July, 2012), has also commented on the links between Davies and the French poet:

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – ‘I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks’ – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies…

I am reminded in particular of Apollinaire’s poem ‘Zone’ (Auster, op. cit. p.2), which is said to have been the jumping off point for modernism; even the style and tone have much in common with ‘Psalms’. In particular, Apollinaire manifests the same agony and ambivalence in regard to religion. On the one hand he declares that in this modern world:

La religion est restée toute neuve la religion
(Religion alone has stayed young religion)

but on the other hand

Vous avez honte quand vous vous surprenez à dire une prière (You are ashamed when you catch yourself at a paternoster)

translation Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps the divine, for Davies, ultimately equates to the aesthetic. (E. Dissanayake – Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, University of Washington Press, 1995 – has said that the concept of ‘meaning’ is of its very nature aesthetic.) It is in poetry that he finds the transcendent.

There are three interwoven motifs, three parallel tracks Davies takes us on, but to untangle them would be like trying to listen to one voice in a multi-voiced contrapuntal musical work. These are: illness; love and loss; travel and alienation. The way in which he has woven these together, the startling shifts between them, sudden turns and dissonances, create unexpected and fresh connections:

My blood was crawling with messianic impropriety. I was a plasma-electric hybrid; it gave me more staying power through the galaxy of my auto-disdain. Or love, I forget which. Or loves. (18)

He is almost forcing us to take the journey with him and sometimes it feels uncomfortable, like looking at the inside of someone’s head, but we know that this is carefully crafted and it is not necessarily his head, but one that he has created. Each of the major themes contains its own narrative: a process, a development. But it is not a straightforward progression, more one step forward, two steps back.

At least I got to bed a minute earlier at night, a minute at a time. (12)
Nature came back to reclaim pretty much everything…The feral geraniums didn’t give up either. (13)
‘That I would narrow down the tasks: one thing, then one. (57)
Mine is to be content with you and not to adopt any one line of action other than that which I’m in… (84)
to overcome certainty was to accept it (85)
… Abide in the mind of the unknown.(85)
The salmon of wisdom was upon me. (85)

Eventually the treatment stops, at first that is difficult, but gradually he begins to thrive. At the same time, he learns to deal with the loss of his lover, and, in terms of his travel and alienation he ‘landed like a bird inside myself’ (97). Part of the ‘answer’ he finds is in the development of the work itself, in the artistic process. I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’, where the poet admonishes herself to ‘Write it!’

The lessons the poet learns are hardly earth shattering, but they are tempered by his humour and his humility, and the fact that this wisdom is discovered, rather than merely learnt.

The poet links his experience of treatment to themes of love, of travel, of identity, and even with the fate of the world and the universe. His appreciation of literature, of nature, are so embedded, that they are integrated into his language, even altered in a spirit of humorous punning, as he distorts them to his purpose. In particular, he plays with notions of time and space:

The ice came back. If you sped up the centuries you could hear the moraines screeching.

Retreated, too. The forests grew again. We would have gone insane with the dripping of the leaves had we been around to hear it. But millions of years passed first. (11)

Of the three motifs, the one I most engaged with was Davies’ representation of his treatment, possibly because I have myself experienced chemotherapy, but also because it is the driving force. He evokes within the reader the sensations of the treatment ravaging the body, making the language breathe with them:

The cells bubbled silently in my liver … (20)
Everything that could sting would sting. (21)…
Then all the injections thinned my blood, and with it my hair, and thus my Great Goat Self.(24)…
Day by day the hours evaporated; hour by hour my hair fell out. Then everyone and everything was gone, except for whatever was most inappropriate. I could not be trusted to drive, there were no bad drivers, only me. Rage peppered the weeks. (32)

We can feel the breathlessness in these short phrases, the fatigue in the repetitions.

In the midst of this breathless, hurtling prose, we come upon a gem of stillness, of repose, of rhyme and structure:

I missed a girl I could not help but miss.
Such missing was colossal in the face
Of all the tender hours that came to pass… (53)

Love and poetry provide a reprieve from ‘the pitch and drag of days’.

What ultimately distinguishes this epic poem is its emotional and formal range; the seamless transition between moods, themes and forms of language, its capaciousness, where in one breath, the deeply personal and the macrocosmic are linked in a universe in which absurdity and meaning are equally present.

Most reviewers have been enthusiastic about the ‘Psalms’. Peter Craven, in The Australian (August 27 2011) has praised it in the following terms:

a tremendous attempt to wrestle meaning from suffering.

It is one of the most ambitious performances in modern Australian poetry and it will command the world’s attention.

Philip Salom, in in the So Long Bulletin, begs to differ. What I have termed ‘emotional and formal range’ is, in his eyes, a ‘sadly uneven’ work. Salom admits to the seductiveness of the poetry, of the ‘wildness that a reader is supposed to swept up in (sic) and might well enjoy, for the wild ride…a seductive otherness.’ He acknowledges that the self-mocking humour is its ‘saving grace’ but his ultimate judgement is that the work is ‘sadly uneven’. Above all he bemoans the trend to ‘overblown personal…over inflated romantic voicing’; a trend he finds disturbing in contemporary poetry.

I have been somewhat shaken out of my trance by this cool assessment, and perhaps rightly so: the reader should be able to depend on the reviewer to stand back and not be swept along. On the other hand, at the heart of even the coolest critique is a gut reaction. I agree the work is ‘uneven’ but not that this is inevitably ‘sad’. Might it not be worthwhile at times to attempt something wildly ambitious and not quite succeed? Perhaps Beethoven is a better metaphor for the ‘Psalms’ than Bach. I prefer Bach, but at his best, Beethoven sweeps you away.

– Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper

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The Interferon Psalms are available from http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781742370347

Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.