The complex, funny, sharp and talented Australian writer, Morris Lurie, has died at the age of 75. Here is a transcript of my conversation with him recorded in October, 2008.
Ramona Koval: Morris Lurie was last on The Book Show when he won in 2006 the $25,000 Patrick White Award, established after White won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, as a way of acknowledging Australian writers who may not have received sufficient recognition for their work.. Its honour roll includes Christina Stead, Janette Turner Hospital and Fay Zwicky.
Lurie’s novels have been Rappaport, The London Adventures of Charlie Hope, Rappaport’s Revenge, Flying Home, Seven Books for Grossman, and Madness. Flying Home was selected by the National Book Council as one of the ten best Australian books of its decade, and The 27th Annual African Hippopotamus Race was voted by school children of Victoria as their favourite young storybook by an Australian author. He also wrote his Bicentennial Award-winning autobiography Whole Life.
His new novel is To Light Attained. In it we meet Herschel Himmelman, who tells us the story of his daughter, his marriage, his state of mind and his search to understand why his troubled daughter has suicided in her early twenties. Morris Lurie knows the territory well; his own daughter died 14 years ago. Morris Lurie, welcome to The Book Show.
Morris Lurie: Thank you, hello.
Ramona Koval: You have a very ‘Morris Lurie’ writing style, Morris, your voice is unmistakable, so let’s begin with a reading.
Morris Lurie: Okay, let’s try this.
[reading from How do you write about a child who died… to …her alive rushing face.]
Ramona Koval: Morris, tell me about this book. You began writing it quite a while ago.
Morris Lurie: I wrote this book…I have to call it a novel because that’s the only way I could get round to writing it. Maybe there are other reasons but I called it a novel and I gave myself a different name and I put it in a certain grammatical stance or text, and I wrote it fairly soon after my daughter took her life. Then there was a gap of 14 years, and I might say that this is not the first time I’ve had to wait for a book to come out.
I wrote a children’s book once called What’s That Noise? What’s That Sound? and that took seven years, and that was a very strange thing because…it seemed to me pretty strange because everyone loved it, a publisher grabbed it, but the publisher said lets do this and that. You can alter a book in various ways, and a children’s book is very easily altered, not by the words but by doing pictures that contradict what the words are saying. So I tried very hard with that book.
At that time I was seeing a psychiatrist, lying there on the shrink’s couch, and I said, ‘I can’t understand this. I’ve got a book that says the world is a welcoming place. Now, there are 37 million books that say the world is not a welcoming place, why can’t they let me do mine? I’m not going to stop theirs.’ And my shrink says, ‘Because your book makes their books wrong.’
Now, we get to this book and the first thing that happened is my ex-wife said, ‘No, you’re not going to do this book,’ and I can understand that too. But I don’t think that was the real reason that it wasn’t done. A publisher grabbed it when I offered it to him and he said, ‘This is a best-selling book, this is amazing. Has your wife [at that time] seen it?’ No. And then that was the end of it.
Now, 14 years later when the book was cleared of that hurdle, I offered the book to him again. Now there was another reason not to do it. Then you say there are things that we don’t…I mean, the greatest censorship is self-censorship, it’s not freedom of the press and so on, it’s things that we don’t want to know about ourselves, and so this book has got some uncomfortable things in it.
Ramona Koval: So how to write about such a terrible event, the death of your daughter? Was it inevitable that you are a writer and you have to write about what moves you, or did you ever debate with yourself ‘how can I write about this’?
Morris Lurie: No, because you have to first…there are these stages and things, there is of course amazing rage and a feeling that you have to blame someone and so on. These are indications of impotence, ‘I can do nothing’, although I couldn’t have done anything for years and years and years, and you feel all this rage. I remember when it happened, the first person I went to see was this same psychiatrist, and I said, ‘I’ve all this crazy stuff going on in my head,’ and I thought, well, I want to put this down. And that’s how the book began.
Ramona Koval: So the book began in rage, and now 14 years later when you read it again, was there anything you changed about it?
Morris Lurie: No. I might have changed a misspelled word or an editor might have said ‘I think a comma in here might help the reader along’ but basically not.
Ramona Koval: Herschel Himmelman, your character, says; ‘Never trust an artist, they’ll do you every time.’ Tell me about that.
Morris Lurie: That’s right at the beginning of the book where I’m walking around the botanical gardens and I see some piece of sculpture there and I think it’s got two meanings. Maybe that’s all I want to say about that. I can’t tell you not to trust me. All I can say about this thing is, reading the book now I find it just as…it’s a very moving book to me, I find it very, very difficult to read of course, but the main thing to me is to understand something.
I have this legendry reputation for finding money. People say it’s because I go around with a metal detector and my nose is seventeenth of an inch from the surface of the Earth…this is not true. But I know that when I walk along and suddenly there’s a coin there…what was I thinking? And I’ve understood something. I wasn’t looking for money or something, but to understand is to see something, and suddenly I can see and it’s almost like there’s a reward, there’s this thing. So that’s what I wanted to do with this book, I wanted to understand what was going on.
Ramona Koval: He’s trying to work out why. ‘Because I was sarcastic,’ he says. Is it the school’s fault? Is it the mother’s fault? Is it the fault of the relationship between the parents? He is looking for everything. He is looking for every explanation.
Morris Lurie: Maybe it’s a way of explaining things, but I always like to do things by illustration. I remember on one occasion I went…I think I’d finished writing a book or whatever and I went to stay with a friend in another city, and this friend knew that I’d been to see a psychiatrist for some years and he just avoided me. So I was there for two or three days and it was sort of awkward. And he realised on the very last night, I’m leaving tomorrow morning, that unless we had a bit of a talk now I was gone.
So we shared an interest in jazz, we went for a walk and apropos of nothing he suddenly said, ‘Benny Goodman is a shit.’ I sort of looked at him, and he said, ‘When the band came out here there was a kid who went round to the stage door, and the base player and the drummer and every single person in that band gave this kid his autograph except Benny Goodman. He just walked straight past him, what a shit!’
And I said to this friend, ‘Well, if you want to think about things like that then that’s where you are, but you might benefit by thinking maybe Benny Goodman didn’t think he was good enough to give that kid his autograph.’ And that’s part of what’s going on in this book. I’m talking about a chain of things. How do you get this thing? Where did Benny Goodman get this thing that he wasn’t good enough? From his own mother, his own father and so on? The world might have said ‘you’re terrific’ but there was that thing…and if you’re not careful you pass it on.
Ramona Koval: So this phrase keeps coming up; ‘not to outrun the river of my own understanding’. Tell me about that.
Morris Lurie: I need to know these things slowly and to feel them as I go along, and I do, and they’re given to you in moments. I think it’s a Jewish belief and the last time I said this to someone they said it’s an Aboriginal belief as well, and that is that we’re born knowing everything, we cannot know anymore, and this little mark we have splitting our top lip is…an angel comes and at the instance of birth wipes it away. A life is to remember, to recall. We can’t get anything new but we have to recognise that a life is in this recognition. And so that’s what I do.
Ramona Koval: So you sift and you go through ‘was it this, was it that, there was this moment which reminds me of another moment’, trying to build a mosaic.
Morris Lurie: We get back to in this book where my daughter would come and stay with me or Himmelman’s daughter would come and stay with him, and on one cold wintry night she said for the first time ever, ‘Let’s got for a walk.’ It was pitch dark out there, so we go for a walk. This great reputation I have as a money finder, we’re walking along this dark street, and she suddenly stops, and she says, ‘Do you ever find money at night, Dad?’ And I just pointed straight instantly to her feet where we standing, ‘There,’ I said. I could see nothing. She bent down and yelled. There was $50 there. What I like about that is that we did it together. It’s a daughter required and a father supplied, and I think that’s how I understand these small things.
Ramona Koval: I’m going to say ‘you’ now because you keep saying ‘you’ and I keep saying ‘Himmelman’ but that’s another conversation to be had. You’re writing about real people in a novelistic way. In the last line you name your daughter, Rach, that was her name. So what are the ethics about writing about real people?
Morris Lurie: I remember I wrote a piece about my landlady once. I got into very big trouble and I was thrown out for writing about her. I was thrown out for other strange reasons. But the piece I wrote was about Ernest Hemingway writing about some fellow, it’s the beginning of Fiesta or The Sun Also Rises, and I understand that that fellow that he wrote about was destroyed by it, absolutely destroyed by it, never quite recovered. It’s not a bad book. So was it worth it for that book? Well, I think that guy had his own problems to allow yourself to be destroyed by blustering Ernest Hemingway calling you something silly.
Ramona Koval: So you think it’s up to other people to be strong enough to withstand your pen?
Morris Lurie: No, I think everyone has the right to say what they want to say and if you don’t see it my way then you write a book or you write an article and tell it your way, and the reader will sift out what works in there. I’m not talking about being malicious just for the sake of being malicious and so on, but I’m talking about if you think this is important and necessary to be said.
Ramona Koval: Now that it’s published and sitting in front of you like that, how does it feel, to be finished after 14 years?
Morris Lurie: I don’t really know yet, I don’t really know. The only time ever felt something about a book was a very strange thing. My mother died when I’d just turned 22 and my father died two months later. And off I went, went about my life. But one day in Tangiers, I think I was then 26 or 27, I went to get my mail, and there was a little package and I opened it up, it was almost like a cottage industry, brown paper, bit of string and so on, it was from Hodder & Stoughton the English publisher, and there was my first novel. And I wanted my mother there to see it. But other than that, I don’t…you know, each book that comes along, you look at it for a minute and it’s…you’ve spent a lot of time with it and it’s really over. It’s not for me anymore, it’s for someone else.
Ramona Koval: People talk about writing as therapy. What do you think about that?
Morris Lurie: No, absolutely not. I think woodwork, go and do a bit of woodwork.
Ramona Koval: Because?
Morris Lurie: Well, then you might make a useful set of shelves or something like that. I don’t think so. I think mostly you understand things before you write them down. Sometimes if you’re lucky you understand it as it goes along. But just as a general rule, no, I don’t think it’s therapy. I don’t think Ian Fleming got a lot of therapy out of writing James Bond. Maybe he did.
Ramona Koval: What about you? Did writing this book help you?
Morris Lurie: At the time I think it did. At the time, again, this was a time in which I felt very, very impotent and filled with rage and all that sort of stuff, and yes I wanted to get it down, and I was very, very disappointed for quite some time when it couldn’t come out then. But then it just was over there and I wrote other things and did other things. When a publisher came along and permission to do this book appeared, that was just the natural book to do.
In that way that I’ve just told you about, being a legendary money finder, yesterday I was obviously thinking about coming here and talking to you, and I suddenly bent down and there’s $2…what was I thinking of? And my thought just before that was ‘Don’t let your daughter down’, that’s the thought, ‘Don’t let her down’. So yes, the book has to come out for that reason.
Ramona Koval: The book is called To Light Attained. It’s published by Hybrid Publishers. Morris Lurie, thank you so much for being on The Book Show.
Morris Lurie: Thank you.