It’s starting to look like a long month and I feel again that reluctance to write, together with the demand to do so, that’s so much a part of the profession . . . if profession it is. I finish reading By The Sea and it continues to surprise and delight until the very last page, indeed, the last sentence. Something about its prose style is beguiling, it’s not often that you feel words in the act of shifting, even transforming, on the page as you read; and the embedding of stories within stories within stories is extraordinarily adept. The time of the book is about six months, the first six months of the old man’s sojourn, as an asylum seeker, in England; but within that half year we are given to explore generations, two families, and their intricate, tragic, dealings with each other and especially with property, houses, furniture and names. Also perfume.
My recreational reading is essentially random, I trawl the shelves in St Vinnies (just around the corner) and also visit the Anglicare warehouse on the other side of the park about once a week, just to see what’s come in. You’d be surprised – I often am. Not so long ago I picked up a hardback, with loving inscription on the flyleaf, of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning The Sense of an Ending. I had been going to buy it for M’s mother for Christmas last year but am glad I didn’t. It’s more novella than novel and so contrived it’s almost risible. Despite the sophistication of the prose, the tone-perfect capture of English hapless and hopelessness . . . Mr Gurnah has I think been short-listed for the Booker but not for By The Sea. A 1994 novel called Paradise. I’ll read anything he writes.
Today, after a change came through overnight, is quiet, a grey, sombre day. Easter Sunday, not that I care. I don’t expect to see anyone or go anywhere much, and I don’t. My self-appointed tasks include a proper examination of the archive of my mother’s papers in the Turnbull, there’s a meticulous online summary of every item, all six hundred and thirty something, that has been catalogued; and I need to sort out which are relevant to my purpose and then put in a request to be allowed to see them. It’s daunting, not least because I’m unsure if I want to proceed with the project at all. And yet I persist. As if being dragged unwillingly before some tribunal where my testimony cannot fail to incriminate.
My ideas for books usually come out of the one before; this one arose because I was thinking about my parents, in Dunedin in 1947 or 8, receiving a present of the Colin and Anne McCahon children’s painting that my sister has. I started to wonder about their courtship and marriage, which unfolded between 1940 and 1945; about their separate lives and how they came together; about the war in the Pacific, where my father served; about the high old time my mother had in the social whirl of the early 1940s. I requested, and received, a copy of my father’s war records; I thought, with that, and with my mother’s account of those years in her letters and in her autobiography, I could attempt to construct a narrative. What for? I don’t know. Re-enchantment perhaps.
I’ve applied for funding for this project in both Australia and NZ – several times, unsuccessfully. There’s another request pending but, since the funding body in question hasn’t acknowledged receipt of my latest application, I doubt they’re even going to consider it. I was probably supposed to ask for permission to re-apply first. I might apply over here again this year but I’m not sure. Why do I want to do this? It’s not likely that any of my sisters would welcome a book like this. When my father’s war records arrived, before Christmas last year, I flicked through them briefly and then put them away. They seemed unbearably poignant. He was so young, so vulnerable.
Perhaps that’s it – the vulnerability. My mother’s presentation of herself as a young woman was constructed in the 1980s but is documentary-based and it’s those documents I want to see, in order to determine if they differ, and if so how, from the published version. I think I might find something more like what is revealed in my father’s war records; youth, vulnerability, poignancy.
Anyway – I must say I’m impressed by the hoarding instincts my mother showed. She kept everything, as if in the certain knowledge that posterity will remember her. Well, perhaps not everything . . . but everything from the 1970s on. The 1950s and 60s don’t seem to be represented and there’s just four folders that relate to the 1940s. Letters to her family. She wrote extensively about those two other decades, of course, and no doubt there is material in the papers that concern Vols. 2 and 3 of her autobio; but I’m restricting myself to Vol. 1.
So I compile my list, write a covering letter and then leave it in the drafts folder for later. Always a good idea, with communications like this, to have a second look. I have no idea what will happen.
The day wears on, the sky becomes more and more sullen and then, just around dusk, a violent thunderstorm begins. Sheet lightning turning the rooftops to black silhouettes, rolling thunder and, after what seems like a protracted overture, the rain. I try to get an early night but the neighbours are raucous and the air traffic controllers, as they often do on a Sunday, are sending the taking off aeroplanes over Summer Hill. Usually I manage to ignore these sorts of things but tonight I can’t. I give up trying to sleep and begin to read. The Following Story, by Dutchman Cees Nooteboom. A man falls asleep in his own home in Amsterdam and wakes up next morning in Lisbon, in a hotel room where, twenty years before, he had an affair with another man’s wife . . .