by Aashish Kaul
Some months ago, while in India, I went up into the mountains. On a late afternoon, following a walk in the forest, with the day clear and the sun still strong, I came to a café and sat in the open. All around the pines were dark, and there was snow in them, you could see how light tussled to touch the snow that shone very white in the checkered shade. In front, at some distance, stretched from far north down into the east the glacial arc of the Himalayas separating me from Tibet, while to the right, up close, was the snow-covered flank of a forested ridge from where the intermittent cawing of ravens fed and deepened the silence. High above, on icy drafts, roamed majestic the great Himalayan eagles. I had in my jacket pocket a conveniently sized old copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace that I was returning to exactly a decade later. Suddenly, from amid the trees emerged my friend, and past him, still in the forest, rose the murmur of two familiar voices.
The moment he settled next to me, I thrust into his hands the book opened at the page I wanted him to read. We had read the novel around the same time, and neither of us had revisited it until now. My friend read with total absorption for a full minute, and then closing the book and looking up said what I knew he would say, ‘Didn’t remember this at all.’ But it was the way he said it that told me we were, at once, thinking of another, older conversation.
A few years previously, the two of us had driven into the vast silences of Spiti valley, a cold desert on the edge of Tibet. But at the beginning of the journey, so to speak, our progress was halted just under the first of the three high passes we had to cross on our way into the valley. It had been snowing for two days in the height of summer, and men were working up on the pass to clear the way. To avoid returning to the town below in order to get a head start next morning, before the path turned to slush from the passage of held up lorries and required more work and time, we decided to spend the night in a peasant’s shack owned by a makeshift tea stall owner who gladly swindled us for this hospitality. We grudged him nothing, for at such height earning opportunities are as scarce as a roof over your head. But now it was still day, and we were sitting on the edge of a ridge, thirteen thousand feet high, sitting still, absorbing our environment. Sheer rock faces of stone and ice surrounded us in a horseshoe formation at whose bottom were green wooded valleys and hanging pastures with white dots that were suddenly sheep and slim waterfalls opening into so many mist-fans in their layered drop through air and crag. ‘What,’ I had then asked him, ‘is there in us that responds to this scene? And what precisely is the quality of this response? Does it overwhelm us with its magnificent scale or because we have somehow carried and transmitted the archetypal image of this scene across ages, some kind of slow and latent conditioning?’ I may well have been thinking of the Jungian unconscious or the Kantian notion of ‘sublime’ or an amalgam of the two. But his response was sharp and disappointing. ‘Conditioning,’ he said. ‘Plain and simple. Of the worst kind.’ And then I turned to where he had been looking and I saw it too. A fresh batch of tour buses and taxis had landed at the barrier behind us, and men, women, and children were pouring out of them in their colourful, rented snow suits, posing for photos, flitting about, restlessly taking in the scene, sporadic vents of brief joyous eruptions. But already there were others who had had their fill of snow and cold and headaches, and were getting into their vehicles to return to the town below, leading to ever more hooting of horns, congestion, and death-scares.
But even then I knew that it was not solely my friend’s response that had disappointed me, just as it was not the rising commotion of tourists that had made him speak so. Something else was happening. The scene, there in all its timeless splendor, was already leaving us. The mountains and valleys were exhibiting themselves exactly as before, and yet we felt that they were turning away from us. An invisible yet certain veil was falling over everything that instantly excluded us.
Early on in Coetzee’s novel, in the third chapter to be precise, David Lurie is lecturing in class ‘on Wordsworth, on Book 6 of The Prelude, the poet in the Alps’:
‘From a bare ridge,’ [Lurie] reads aloud,
we also first beheld
Unveiled the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieved
To have a soulless image on the eye
That had usurped upon a living thought
That never more could be.
Why does Wordsworth grieve to see the majestic peak unveiled? asks Lurie to a bewildered and disinterested class. ‘Because, he says, a soulless image, a mere image on the retina, has encroached upon what has hitherto been a living thought’:
Usurpation is one of the deeper themes of the Alps sequence. The great archetypes of the mind, pure ideas, find themselves usurped by mere sense-images. . . . The question is not, How can we keep the imagination pure, protected from the onslaughts of reality? The question has to be, Can we find a way for the two to coexist? . . . As the sense-organs reach the limit of their powers, their light begins to go out. Yet at the moment of expiry that light leaps up one last time like a candle-flame, giving us a glimpse of the invisible. . . . Wordsworth seems to be feeling his way towards a balance: not the pure idea, wreathed in clouds, nor the visual image burned on the retina, overwhelming and disappointing us with its matter-of-fact clarity, but the sense-image, kept as fleeting as possible, as a means toward stirring or activating the idea that lies buried more deeply in the soil of memory.
It is this balance between the sense-image and the pure idea that language, at its best, achieves. Destined to be a bridge between the two at its peak, it is also this very Midas touch of language that turns anything it so much as caresses into fiction. Fiction, of course, not in a superficial, everyday sense, but rather in a deeper, more philosophical one.
This ‘peak’ of language is not some stylistic register, or only partially, and in any case is an effect not a cause, a case of total truthfulness to one’s material and utmost clarity of expression, the simplest and deepest way to express the material at hand. And here lies the paradox: where one aims for complete truthfulness and clarity in expression, there are the seeds of fiction sown.
For instance, I have persevered to describe the two different scenes above, one more recent than the other, in precise detail, leaving out all extraneous material, going straight for the thing in all its facticity. Yet it seems to me that it is this perseverance, this exactitude of description, this selectivity on my part, that makes what I have written above resemble fiction, indeed turns it, very likely, into fiction.
This may well be the supreme quality of language. I am aware there are ethical considerations involved in this line of inquiry, but given that we are dealing with psychic phenomena and not outside events where language has, generally speaking, a functional character, I can well assure that those who go down this path will be the better for it. (For one, to see the world and, consequently, our manifold desires arising in and through it acquire the quality of fiction through language is to be humbled and, at least partially, made free of such desires. Continual thinking along this path may well lighten our tread, which would be of immense benefit to our ailing planet).
Gradually improving one’s ability to handle language, aiming for precision and simplicity, is to ascend (or descend) steadily through levels of consciousness, is to be on that (b)ridge from where the sudden unveiling of the summit of Mont Blanc would be not a cause of grief but of joy. Man may be the maker and consequently a prisoner of language, but that prison has no door, or rather the door is forever open.
Music or painting or the plastic arts too perhaps have their respective especial languages in the realm of the psyche, but it is only in words that the senses of sight, sound and – why not? – touch combine, for they are at once more real and more abstract, connecting mind to matter in their inmost being.
Needless to say, in every language and every literature of the world, there must be countless examples of this heightened use (and experience) of language. It is possible, for instance, to read from end to end (and marvel besides) Cormac McCarthy’s gruesome novel Blood Meridian, because the environment in which it unfolds is constructed from a language that is perpetually at the frontiers of conscious experience.
David Hinton, the acclaimed translator into English of the poetry and philosophy of classical China, goes one step further, does something altogether sublime in his marvelous book Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape. The book is composed of a series of walks that Hinton took one autumn through Hunger Mountain, located in the Appalachian range, near his home in Vermont, in the United States. On such walks he explored and meditated upon ideas imbibed from his many years of reading and translating the classics of Chinese poetry and philosophy, ideas ranging from geology and landscape to the origin of language, consciousness, and Cosmos. In one of the best chapters of the book – ‘Dragon’ – Hinton speaks of the mythic significance of the symbol of the dragon in Chinese culture. ‘Feared and revered as the awesome force of change, of life itself, the dragon is China’s mythological embodiment of all creation and all destruction, the ten thousand hunger-driven things tumbling through their traceless transformations …”. It is of the dragon that he is thinking when suddenly from a ridge (that word again) on the mountain, he sees not the ripples and twists of the Appalachian range spreading out below him, but merely ‘a small part of the dragon’s intercontinental sprawl,’ which in its entirety stretches ‘not only up and down the east coast of North America, but also northeastward across Scotland and Scandinavia, as well as southeastward into Northwest Africa.’
The valleys are lost in cloud and mist that thins as it billows across mountain slopes and trails out over ridgeline hollows. . . . Dragon’s dynamic life usually remains hidden here, because its movements take place only across geological time spans. But as I watch summits roam empty expanses of mist, ridgelines breathing in and out of view, dragon seems everywhere rippling and writhing in these mountains. . . . Small as a silkworm and vast as all heaven and earth . . . dragon descends into deep waters in autumn, where it hibernates until spring, when its reawakening means the return of life to earth. It rises and ascends into sky, where it billows into thunderclouds and falls as spring’s life bringing rains. Its claws flash as lightening in those thunderclouds, and its rippling scales glisten in the bark of rain-soaked pines. It can rear up into a mountain, surge in scrawled ridgelines stretching away blue through broken mist and cloud, or cascade in tumbling streamwater. It can clench itself into a beating heart, or twist in a sudden turn of thought. Appearing, then disappearing, only to reappear in another form of hunger, Presence seething through Absence, Absence through Presence – dragon moves, all sleight of hand shimmering in and out of view.
I have quoted Hinton at length not only to show the breathtaking beauty of the prose, its artistry and depth and technical finesse, but to grant an impression to the reader of the total fusion (and dissolution) of an archetypal idea with (into) a sense-image. First, language transforming the world into fiction, and then fiction opening a dialogue between presence and absence, and finally presence snuffing out into absence. One cycle is complete so that, once the dragon has redrawn breath, another may begin.
In one of the poems by Tu Fu (or Du Fu), a favourite of mine, the poet’s presence opens out to encompass the entire universe – from the remote and glittering forest of stars to the new moon recently risen above faraway cold mountain passes right up to the chrysanthemum blossoms fallen near his feet in the yard – and by this virtue alone dissipates into absence, permeates it, is and is not. The translation below by Hinton is from the collection Mountain Home – The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China.
The New Moon
Thin slice of ascending light, arc tipped
aside all its bellied dark – the new moon
appears and, scarcely risen beyond ancient
frontier passes, edges behind clouds. Silver,
changeless – the Star River spreads across
empty mountains scoured with cold. White
dew dusts the courtyard, chrysanthemum
blossoms clotted there with swollen dark.
by Aashish Kaul
Sergei Dovlatov’s comic masterpiece The Suitcase begins with the author’s brief, pathetic conversation with a clerk at the Russian Office of Visas and Registrations (the ‘bitch at OVIR’, he refers to her in anger), conducted in the course of pointless, exhausting formalities that were involved in emigrating from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Dovlatov describes this exchange with characteristic satirical flourish, an exchange essentially about the quota of suitcases allowed to an emigrant. ‘Only three suitcases? What am I suppose to do with all my things?’ But a week later, while packing, he finds that he needs just a single suitcase, for he has given away all his books, which would not have been allowed through customs anyway.
So Dovlatov arrives in the United States carrying an old, battered, string-tied suitcase, and not a single book. And then, some years hence, just as for Beckett the dazzling Proustian universe rises from the banality of a teacup, Dovlatov opening the forgotten suitcase summons forth from its modest depths, from between a portrait of Karl Marx at the bottom and the photographs of Louis Armstrong and Joseph Brodsky on the lid, the grotesque spectrum of life in what was Soviet Russia. Each article from the Finnish crêpe socks to the Nomenklatura half-boots to an officer’s belt stimulates the exile’s memory (seemingly more voluntary than involuntary) to the point that the story of its acquisition comes tumbling forth in vivid detail and comic irony, albeit ultimately as pathetic as the article itself. The contents of the suitcase become the totems of the pathos of a life – of all life – in a totalitarian state, but their remembering is delivered with a touch so sure, light, and poignant that it charms and enlightens.
But I wonder about the other two suitcases, about all those books that could have been crammed into them and whisked away. Admittedly, it is as pointless to think about the books left behind by Dovlatov in his flight, as it is to speculate about the precise location of that bullet fired by Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black that misses its target. Dovlatov and Stendhal do not think these facts important for their respective narratives, and do not wish their readers to think over them. And yet, in at least Dovlatov’s case, the thought of all those books left behind troubles me, begs me to be stretched to its limit.
A lifetime of books. A lifetime of reading and writing books. How many suitcases would be enough?
For as far back as I can remember, I have felt a great need for movement (which is not the same thing as restlessness), and so I always took considerable pride in the fact that I had few possessions, nothing that I could not have packed in one or two suitcases, and left (for where?) at a moment’s notice. I owned a car, but that would be of help and not a hindrance when the time came to make a move. Consequently, when I turned to literature, movement and stasis became the pegs round which I wove my writing. I would like to believe that this preference for motion, and in turn for frugalness, lightened my writing, because in art, in literature, style is already a matter of ethics.
But the books were steadily growing, row upon row, shelf by shelf in a deep, wide oak bookcase. Not unmanageable, of course, nothing as spectacular as the personal libraries of great collectors containing many rare editions, and for whom the book is simultaneously a text and an artifact, but surely a matter to think, pre-empt, and plan ahead, books that were bound to fill more than a few suitcases when the moment of departure arrived. For I never did come around to using the tiny device that can hold at once the electronic simulations of countless books. Convenient, surely, but what then to do about that inexplicable feeling of being surrounded by books?
Movement, of course, is mostly a possibility. The periods of actual movement, even for great travellers, are interspersed with vast periods of stasis, of being at home. But it is precisely this possibility, this idea, this freedom to be able to leave, that is more important than the actual leaving, that first distinguishes the nomadic sensibility from that of the settler.
One of the great readers of all time, Jorge Luis Borges, repeatedly stressed the need to read less but reread more, or rather eschew reading widely in favour of reading deeply. Yet this man had read as widely as any other, but out of weariness or wisdom had chosen in the end to return to his favourite books and authors. In this sentiment there is already the need to find specificity of desire and expression in literature, the belief that the fundamental themes of literature can be deduced from a handful of books.
Alberto Manguel, an acclaimed collector himself who relocated to the Poitou-Charentes region of France from Toronto, Canada, purchasing and renovating a medieval presbytery so as to be able to house his 40,000 books, writes of the disappointment of his sixteen-year-old self when he entered Borges’s apartment for the first time to read to the blind writer. Expecting ‘a place overgrown with books’, he instead found ‘an apartment where books occupied a few unobtrusive corners’. Recounting those evenings four decades later in his book With Borges, he observed that for a man who called the universe a library, and who had imagined Paradise in the form of a library, the size of his own library came as a disappointment, perhaps because Borges knew that language can only imitate wisdom.
After almost a decade since I read this book upon its publication, I already find myself reading fewer new works while rereading continuously. I was never a voracious reader of contemporary literature, but with the increasingly high number of books being published each year, so many of them translated from disparate languages and deserving a reader’s attention, I confess I have given up any ambition I may have entertained of keeping abreast of emerging trends.
They say Joyce rarely forgot anything, and that Proust forgot everything easily. Borges was perhaps thinking of Joyce when he wrote his famous story ‘Funes the Memorious’. To have Joyce’s inhuman ability is surely an asset to a writer, but I am not sure whether the notoriously slippery Proustian memory is not of even better use to a certain kind of writer. For only that which is forgotten can be remembered with renewed vigour. It is for this reason that where Joyce presents or shows a scene, Proust narrates or recounts it. Then again, with a prodigious memory like Joyce’s won’t the pleasure of rereading be substantially diminished?
And it is a pleasure indeed to go back to one’s especial precursors, the books that have played a formative role in one’s development as a writer or as a reader. Try revisiting the essays of Stevenson, for instance, after your head is aching from reading all the Deleuze and Derrida that can be found on the market, and the pleasure will be almost palpable.
In the end, a writer will have to invariably take sides, choose the books and subjects and styles s/he prefers over others which, like the sleeping man in Proust who ‘holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds’, hold (contrariwise) her or him in place in the near eternity of literature.
For these books, five or six suitcases should be sufficient.
A huge thanks to Stephen Sewell for his personal, insightful posts.
This month, our blogger is Aashish Kaul. His bio is below.
Aashish Kaul is completing a Doctor of Arts from the University of Sydney. His book of short stories A Dream of Horses is publishing next month in the UK. He has previously written for Southerly.
by Stephen Sewell
My mother was the storyteller in our family. My mother and her sisters. They knew the truth and the secrets, as all women do, of births and deaths and the mystery in between. They knew the histories and could weave them into something that made sense, even when it didn’t. Not necessarily with a moral or a lesson, but conveying the peculiar contingency and strangeness of it all, the coincidences and odd juxtapositions that make us pause and wonder and grieve. I suppose that’s the overwhelming sense I have, what I got from them, the sadness and improbability of life, the longing. My mother came from an Irish background, full of magic and pain, when driven by hunger her people ventured out across the seas to find something better for themselves than the bitterness of poor, naked Ireland. There was a family memory, like something deep and dark in our restless dreams, of my grandmother’s mother – my great grandmother – watching when she was a little girl onboard a sailing ship as another ship nearby was struck by lightning and foundered off the coast of Africa , with the loss of everyone aboard as they rounded Cape Horn. She was twelve years old, travelling on her own to a new world and a new life and clinging to what little she had with all her might. They grew up fast then, because they knew they didn’t have much time. She arrived in Australia and found what she found, the rat-infested slums of the Rocks and whatever work she could get, and soon she had her own children, and those children grew, and soon the little girl who was to be my own mother was sitting on the front door step blowing bubbles and blinking at the sun in a Chippendale laneway surrounded by her sisters and brother and a world of delight. Soon, fate and chance swept them away again like leaves before the storm and they moved West, to Liverpool, where a new city was rising amidst the dairy farms just like new cities were rising right across this land. And it was there that my mother grew up amidst laughter and hard times and went to school, where she learnt nothing from the nuns who themselves knew nothing but how to say the Rosary, and dated American soldiers and met my father, who pretended to my grandfather that he was a communist so he could get to meet the beauty he’d heard about from his friends, in the years when he had friends. When you look at their pictures together, you can see their love before the years took their toll, both of them bold and confident at the beginning of lives they hoped would burn. She wasn’t a political person, my mother, but she knew poverty and had a keen sense of justice and wasn’t frightened of standing up for what she believed or to protect the people she loved. When we were babies, she’d sing The Wearing of the Green as a lullaby, and between her and our Irish teachers we were given souls of steel. We played it for her at her funeral when we laid her to rest. A rest she deserved, just like they all did, all our Aunts and Uncles, whose lives we’d seen play out in the theatre of christenings and anniversaries and birthday parties and Christmases that spilt like an everlasting outpouring of grace where they’d cuddle and scold us and tell us how to live with virtue and pride because this life is a gift, this breath, these moments, are rain and joy. And when she was dying, she said to me without fear I’m going to see my mother and father, and my Uncle said the same, Uncle Doug, the carpenter and builder who never finished his own house, that he was going to see his wife, my aunt, who’d died twenty five years before, but whom he still loved with everything inside him, because that’s what they were like, that side of the family, people of faith and courage. And coming back to the house afterwards, looking for something I’d left behind when I’d last seen her there, I crept in to its spooky interior, wondering where it might be, and her voice snapped clear and sharp through the darkness, It’s in the drawer! where she’d put it in one of her last acts, still caring for her wayward, dullard sons even after her death. And that faith and devotion, that toughness of spirit, shook me, and made me wonder if there was anything I believed that would give me that strength, that would allow me to walk that way, the way they did toward their end.
My father doesn’t believe in anything anymore, not God, not politics. The sky, perhaps, the air; us, me and my brothers, our children. Perhaps he believes in those things, and that might be enough. And it might be enough for me, too, to believe in the world. He told us what he wants us to do with his ashes. He wants us to take them to the only place he ever seemed to have been happy, to Sewell’s Creek, to where the ruins are, almost erased now, of a hut where he spent a year with his father, my grandfather, free and roaming the hills as a boy when wracked with asthma he’d been sent away to recover in the dryer climate of the Western plains, and my grandfather had mined silver and gold in narrow tunnels dug through the hard quartz beneath the land they’d once owned, and my father had caught rabbits and trout and dreamt of the past and the future before his dreams became the sad ones he has now, of being forgotten and left behind. They were bigger then, he said, and though he was talking about the hills, he might have meant something else. He wants us to take his ashes there, to the bank beside the creek, and scratching three lines in the ground with a stick, he showed us where he wants us to pour him, into the ground, and there to leave him; there beneath an old stump of a tree that looks like nothing, but is everything to him. And we will. We will take him there, and do as he asked, and cover his ashes with the dry dust of the earth. And we’ll take our children with us and say, this is where your ancestors came. This place, here. It was not their land, but they came; they came as prisoners and as people fleeing poverty and persecution, in ships that broke up in storms or just limped through, and they struggled and they lived and they worked and they died. They did good and they did bad, they prayed to God and they blasphemed; they showed kindness and they inflicted terrible cruelty, they reached and they fell. This is who we are, and that is the sound of the storm blowing through you.
by Stephen Sewell
My father was nearly killed in a motorbike accident a month after I was born. When he finally came to, he couldn’t recognise me or my mother and didn’t know who he was. My Aunt Mary tried to tell him, but he didn’t know who she was, either. That was the first blow my parents received. My mother returned to factory work and with the help of her family and my father’s, principally Mary, but also my other aunts, they scraped through. He eventually came home, only to suffer what the doctors called a nervous breakdown that put him in Morisset Psychiatric Hospital getting shock treatment and pleading with my mother to get him out of there. This was just the beginning of many such breakdowns that were to last the rest of his life. One day when I was going to school he stopped me at the back door and asked me if he was dead. I told him I didn’t think so, but he wasn’t there that afternoon when I came home. I didn’t know what was wrong with my father, and still don’t. Maybe it wasn’t that different to what’s wrong with me. Whether he was mentally ill or had been hit so often he’d cracked I can’t say, but the blows kept coming and it must have been hard waking up to realise whatever his hopes were, of living a life of freedom and fulfillment, maybe even a little dignity, were being slowly devoured as first one, then another, then a third son appeared and he had to take on the burden of breadwinner when he’d left school at twelve and was staring at Australia from the bottom up. There were plenty of people like that, men and women trying to make sense of the new world as the great hopes at the end of the Second World War, for a victory over fascism and a new life for all, were replaced by the sullen gloom of the Cold War. That was the era of suburban backyards and kids playing cricket under an aeroplane jelly sky, but it was also an era of fear and suspicion, of Reds under the beds and the threat of cataclysmic atomic war; of visions and signs of the coming apocalypse. And in the house me and my brothers grew up in, the great battles of the era were fought around us in loud, frightened voices and hushed urgent whispers behind closed doors. My father had walked away from the Catholic faith after his parish priest had knocked him to the presbytery floor for questioning the Virgin birth, and his spiritual quest led him across the spectrum of the new religions coming from America, the Jehova’s Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, Billy Graham evangelism. In fact he was a sucker for any kind of revivalism emanating from the US, which had saved us from the Japs when the Poms let us down in Singapore. It was a bad time to be interested in anything beyond your own fence, let alone politics, as the McCarthyites cut their way through freedom and the American Left and ASIO and Special Branch were unleashed on trade unionists and communists here, and my father’s wartime sympathies quickly wilted under the onslaught of a rapidly militarising state preparing for what looked like the inevitable war with the Soviet Union. And while my father lamented our fate, snarling between angry, gritted teeth Who’d bring a child into a world like this? his harshest words concerned our spiritual lives as he struggled with my mother about the truth of Christ and the veracity of the Bible. Hard, raised voices and crying angry tears tearing at the walls about Hell and immortality and the Resurrection of the Dead; terrible fights that hammered through the late night darkness in the world of linoleum and wood chip heaters. It was like living in the snake’s eye. My father’s love of guns continued. A gun for him was the sign that no matter how he was treated by the foreman, he was still a man. My name is Jack, he’d roar defiantly at a system that didn’t care what his name was, as long as he turned up on time. But with a gun in his hand, he was a man, and I know now he was right. A man needs respect – we all need respect – because without respect you’re nothing, you’re dead, and that’s what it felt like back then. We were nothing. Nothing driving around pubs with hessian bags full of skinned rabbits Dad sold for a shilling a pop when he was out of work; nothing, standing around factory gates hoping they’d pick your father and not someone else’s because I could see his shame when he came home empty-handed; nothing slumping back to the car to tell Mum in the front seat with the baby they’d already got someone. The hard grind as the wheels chewed the two of them to bits. Waking up to my mother running into the room with a handful of bullets, crying Hide these, your father’s gone mad; watching our mother making the weekly wage stretch with jokes about bread and dripping she’d learnt herself as one of five kids, the daughter of a communist printer who got paid for printing Penfolds labels with bottles of wine. The hard grind of a world trying to put everyone back in their place before they got any uppity ideas. And then all the rest of it, the things that kids love, whether there’s trouble or not, Christmases with our cousins and aunts and uncles up at our grandmother’s place, Aunty Eileen’s trifle and Uncle Joe’s pranks, summer twilights chasing through the long grass around the woodpile, wondering if there really was a snake in there. The wondering, wondering of it all, wondering if there really was going to be a war, and what it would be like if there was. Wondering if this was the end. My father was convinced it was. The end days, he said, the days of judgment. It can’t go on like this forever, he’d cry, and I never understood his despair till years later I held my own children; I never understood his sense of loss and sadness and failure; the terrible failure of a life set adrift in a world not of his making but for which he was paying in spades. I never understood it even as it was happening. But all lives end in failure, and his was no greater than mine. We try to live; we reach too far and slip and crash and then get up to do it all over again hoping that our children might succeed where we failed. And they might. They might succeed; they will succeed. Our children will succeed, because they’re better than us. They have to be. He never said that, my father, but I think he believed it, in his madness and his rage. Never lie and never work for another man is what he said. I’ve done both, but I hope to be a better man.
From the newest to the most established it would be an unusual writer who did not feel exposed – naked – at several stages in the creation and presentation of a work: when they sit down to the demands (so often their own demands of themselves) of the blank page or screen, when they first show the work to another, and when the work becomes subject to the comments and analyses of reviewers, critics, scholars. Read more…
by Stephen Sewell
My father had six brothers and a sister. They had big families in those days, especially the Catholics. There were eight of them in all – Browny, Noel, Tom, Trowl, Barny, Harry, Mary and my father, the youngest, Jack. Browny was the copper, a mounted policeman out at Condoblin, Tom was the thief who served time in gaol and died spitting and cursing in a sanitorium. He was a favourite of my father’s because of his tough-man talk and claims to knowing Darcy Dugan, a notorious gunman and escape merchant of the era. Sometimes Dad would look at me and say, “You look just like Tom,” and I wouldn’t quite know how to take it, as my mother had a less flattering view of her brother -in-law than my father did. My Uncle Harry lived with us, or we lived with him, till he finally died choking of the same asthma that tore at my father’s chest and mine, and my father stripped off the newspapers he’d wall-papered his room with, painted it and I moved in. The room still had the soury-sweet smell of sickness and tobacco. Noel was a farmer out at Portland who lived unhappily with his wife and starved his dogs. He was the dark horse in the family, with a thick, cruel spirit. One time when they were kids he told Uncle Trowl to put his hand on the chopping block, and he chopped three fingers off with the axe. Another time he shut Tom in the stable and set fire to it. His son, my cousin, was killed in an industrial accident at the cement works when someone switched on a machine while he was inside repairing it. They said you could hear his screams from one end of the factory to the other. It was a family with all the shock of daybreak. My Aunt Mary worked hard all her life, turning hamburgers in a milk bar and calling everyone Darl and raised a large family of hardworking children of her own. Just before she died I took my father down to see her again. They were both deaf and couldn’t work out their hearing aids, so spent the entire time squawking “What?” “What?” “What?” at one another across the dining table. I hadn’t seen my aunt for awhile, and was amazed at how ugly she’d become, with terrible, plum-blotched skin dry and paper-thin peeling off her wrinkled face, but as I listened to her talking about the things she always talked about, her children, my cousins, how Uncle Tom had never been as crooked as he’d made out to be, she began to transform, and it was like her face caught fire while I was looking at it, and in the fire I could see all my ancestors, my uncles and grandparents, all the Sewells, each one flickering there, first this face, then another, and it made me realise they were still alive and still burning inside her and inside me as well and one day I’d look like her, and she would live in me too. The first Sewell, Joseph, had been transported to New South Wales in 1817 after being convicted of stealing a bottle of wine. When they were talking about it, my Uncle Brown, the policeman, liked to add a rueful, “And we’ve been drunks and thieves ever since.” The Blue Mountains had just been crossed, opening up the wide pasturelands to the whites beyond, and Joseph was sent as a shepherd to Bathurst, home of the Wiradjuri people. I don’t know what kind of interaction he had with them, but it was said he used his time to identify the richest pasture in the area, and upon the completion of his sentence he had a good enough knowledge to become one of the largest landowners in what was to become Rockley when it was declared a town in 1848. Rockley became a kind of ancestral home for the Sewells, and every Christmas when I was a kid, Dad would pack our old third hand Vauxhall he spent every weekend trying to keep going and we would limp up and over Mount Victoria with a grey canvas tent filled with stretchers and tables and camp chairs tied to the roof rack to go camping out at the creek, Sewell’s Creek, a trickle of muddy water meandering through the steep bare hills that my father would then stalk, looking for rabbits and ducks and the happiness he’d left behind in his childhood. That’s the way it went. The farming people were driven off the land, their properties foreclosed by the banks and their children hunted into the factories awaiting them. My father felt the oppression of the working class sharply and was never really tamed. Like all of them, he longed for the day when they’d be able to step back out through the factory gates as free men and go back to the country where they belonged, but it never happened and he ended his working life in an abattoir, the closest he could get to the things he loved, listening to the animals roaring out their last, and feeling the pull of their own forlorn sadness. That first Sewell, Joseph, lived many lives and like the children he fathered stood tall against the sky. He died at the age of 86, breaking his neck as he came down the steps of the Bathurst Court House, where he’d just been charged with murder and having only recently sired his last son. They were tough people, all of them, made of something immortal. One time my father took me to visit one of his cousins, and she was out in the field ploughing with a horse. When she came up to talk to us, her skin and overalls caked with dirt, it was like she was made of the earth itself. And she was, just like me, just like all of us, made of the earth and waiting to go back.
All photos property of Stephen Sewell