The idea of an author rarely matches the reality, but character flaws are still insightful, writes Ramona Koval.
I WAS IN EDINBURGH A FEW weeks ago, working at the International Book Festival, and I was called on by my ABC colleagues to report on what everyone was saying about the scandalousrevelations.
They’re saying nothing, I tell them. They’re worried about not being able to take hand-luggage through Heathrow on their way home. The world of the literati can be a very parochial place.
In a memoir expected out this month, Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass admits he volunteered at the age of 15 for submarine service near the end of the Second World War. When he was finally called up he was sent to serve with the Waffen SS in Dresden. He says he joined not out of an ideological conviction but to escape a restrictive family atmosphere, and a feeling of being cooped up. We’ve all had that feeling of being cooped up. Maybe you have to be 15 to think that fighting with the SS in Dresden will be more fun than staying at home with Mum and Dad.
After he was wounded at 17 in 1945, he was a prisoner in an American prisoner-of-war camp, after which he worked on farms and in mines in the Rhineland. He became a writer in his late 20s and by the time he published his first novel, The Tin Drum, in 1959, he was the ripe old age of 32.
He’d lived quite a few lives by then.
He became part of the artistic movement the Germans call “vergangenheitsbewaeltigung”, or “coming to terms with the past”.
So he wrote a lot about this, being extremely critical of his fellow countrymen and the way they avoided facing up to their pasts. Now we know that his own “coming to terms with his past” took him the best part of 60 years.
In a way, if we play amateur psychoanalysts, it’s clear, through his work and through his speeches, that he has been trying to tell us something all his life.
When he accepted the Nobel prize in 1999 he said: “Long before humanity learned to write and gradually became literate, everybody told tales to everybody and everybody listened to everybody else’s tales. Before long it became clear that some of the still illiterate storytellers told more and better tales than others; that is, they could make more people believe their lies.”
Elsewhere he said: “Believing – it means believing in our own lies. And I can say that I am grateful that I got this lesson very early.” And he also said: “Art is uncompromising and life is full of compromises.”
So what do we learn from this? That at 15 he was naïve and at 78 he was an old hypocrite? Is this really big news? Headline: a writer was a human being, flawed and disappointing.
Some are saying his Nobel prize should be revoked, although I assume it was given for his body of work rather than his talent for living up to his own declared standards for others.
Rudyard Kipling said “blessed is the man who finds no disillusion when he is brought face-to-face with a revered writer”.
And Raymond Chandler put it this way: “Never meet a writer if you liked his book.”
But we do want to meet the writers. There is always the hope that such a close observation of someone, who is themselves a close observer of the world and the state of things, will have some genuine wisdom to impart.
But to meet a writer up-close, you might have to be prepared to be disappointed.
You may find that the feminist icon is deeply uninterested in women and wants only to speak to the men in the room. Or the writer seething with machismo jumps to attention when his young wife wants to go shopping for expensive shoes.
Or the famous African poet, far from being activated by the struggle for black liberation, is actually a Nigerian prince with a retinue of servants doing his bidding.
Life teaches you lessons in many ways, some of them hard and some of them painful. A good way to learn them softly is through the work of writers, and through what their work is able to tell you about the world. And perhaps, even through talking to them about their lives, and the books they write.
These are some of the things I have learned.
Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, whose mother burned her first book, said of childhood adversity, “there’s nothing like obstacle to make a writer”, and she quoted Flannery O’Connor on accepting your roots: “If you’re going to write, you’d better come from somewhere.”
Morris West told me about a moment he had as a young man sitting on a hillside, rather drunk, with a barmaid from a country pub, thinking his life was beginning to fall apart. She put her arm around him and leaned his head against her very ample breast and said: “Would you be dead, kid? Not for quids!”
And when I asked him what he thought of the young man he was, he said: “I feel sorry for him, because it takes such a long time to learn.”
Just before Judith Wright died, she said: “I think through life, you change all the time. Sometimes you know you’re changing, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just find that something isn’t there any longer that was there. It isn’t sad. It’s just right . . . I realise I’ve been several different people in the course of my life, as we all are. And you’ve got to give in to that . . . I don’t think that all those Judith Wrights are surviving, but I do know I remember them.”
Maybe Gunter Grass is now remembering the many people he has been. Maybe he is growing up.
Nobel Laureate and Trinidadian poet Derek Walcott says his friendship with American poet Robert Lowell suffered terribly because of Lowell’s mental illness, and that he was capable of furies and insults. Walcott says that although poetry is not the redemption of conduct, Lowell’s delusions were both demonic and angelic – he made honey from the bile of his illness.
And isn’t it just this honey-making that draws us, again and again, to the work of the novelists and poets we love?
That no matter their foibles – their disappointing traits, the cracks in their personalities, their deep and abiding moral failures and their lack of honour – they can show us, through their art, the way the world is, the way we are, and the way we and the world might hope to be.
This is an edited version of a speech given at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award Dinner.