Pan: From Lieutenant Thomas Glahn’s Papers; or, You can’t unread a book: when you discover the author of one of your favourite love stories gave his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels

‘I love three things,’ I say then. ‘I love a dream of love I once had, I love  you, and I love this patch of earth.’
‘And which do you love best?’
‘The dream.’

n189005Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, the eccentric, solitude-loving narrator of Pan, prefers the dream to flesh and blood, prefers it to the earth itself. At the end of the 19th century, the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun’s passionate urge to articulate dreams, the dark shadows of the mind, the deviant and poetic dimensions of life, charged the European novel with a new energy – one that would power writers and artists into the next century, like Edvard Munch, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller.

In 1888, Hamsun caused a sensation when a fragment of his novel Hunger was published in the Danish literary journal New Earth. Hamsun’s lyrical, impressionistic tale of a young writer starving in Kristiania (now Oslo) electrified the literary world with its stark originality and subtle psychological perceptions. In his introduction to a later edition of Hunger, writer Isaac Bashevis Singer called Hamsun ‘the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect – his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.’

Following the publication of the completed version of Hunger in 1890, Hamsun was celebrated across Europe. There years later, he moved to Paris and here he began work on a cool, unnerving love story set in a remote mountain village in northern Norway, published in 1894 as Pan: From Lieutenant Thomas Glahn’s Papers. In Pan‘s intimate, first-person narrative, Lieutenant Glahn recalls his sumer holiday in the mountains two years earlier, accompanied by his dog Aesop. Hunting in the woods with Aesop, Glahn is filled with ecstatic joy, until one day he meets a tall girl with curved eyebrows – ‘someone who for a short while filled my thoughts’ and disturbs his solitude. The alluring, petulant girl, Edvarda, is in turn attracted to Glahn’s animal look. Their affair is awkward, intense and perverse, as ‘bewitching and ephemeral’ as the short Arctic summer, as beautiful and elusive as the lovers themselves.

I found a copy of Pan in a bookshop and was drawn by its cover and blurb: ‘The relationship between the awkward, introverted Lieutenant Glahn on his lone hunting holiday, and the lovely and spontaneous Edvarda has a mysterious dream-like quality which lifts it into the area of myth; a myth of the almost inevitable failure of love.’ Of its author it said merely that ‘Knut Hamsun has recently regained recognition as one of the greatest modern writers.’ Little did I wonder about why this recognition had been lost in the first place.

And so I bought Pan and read it in one sitting. I was spellbound by its tale of peculiar love and the clear-cut poetry of Hamsun’s prose, which is so spare, so pure and direct, and yet so suggestive of incandescent dreams and evocative of shifting moods. He writes beautifully about the mountains and forests of Norway, the long summer of daylight, the dark winter beyond: ‘Indian summer, Indian summer. The paths ran like ribbons in through the yellowing woods, every day a new star appeared, the moon showed dimly like a shadow, a shadow of gold dipped in silver …’ And Hamsun understands the human soul is irrational and untameable, that it is this that shapes our apprehension of the world and not the world itself, ‘For it is within ourselves that the sources of joy and sorrow lie.’

Hamsun by Edvard Munch

Hamsun by Edvard Munch

Only years later did I learn the story of its author’s later life. Hamsun was born Knut Pedersen in a remote mountain hamlet in the Gudbrandsdal Valley in central Norway. His family was of peasant stock and his father was a travelling tailor. When Hamsun was three they moved to an estate called ‘Hamsund’, near the Lofoten Islands north of the Arctic Circle, with its long winter darkness and months of summer daylight. Although Hamsun had little formal education, he soon became an avid reader and began writing his own stories. In 1877, not yet 20, he used his hard-earned savings to publish his first book, The Enigmatic One, which appeared under the name of ‘Knut Pedersen Hamsund’. A printer’s error later dropped the ‘d’ to make ‘Hamsun’, which the author liked and decided to adopt.

Inspired by Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Strindberg, determined to make a living as a writer, Hamsun quit his apprenticeship and spent the next 10 years on the road, embracing a precarious, itinerant life. In 1878 he moved to Kristiania and in 1882 he made the first of his two journeys to the United States, hoping America would offer him better prospects of becoming a writer than Europe. During his travels he worked as a teacher, a labourer, a journalist, a tram conductor in Chicago, and a farmhand in North Dakota. But he was disappointed in America and returned permanently to Europe in 1888.

The demands Hamsun made of his writing were exacting. He wrote: ‘Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness.’ In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his novel The Growth of the Soil (1917) and became one of Norway’s most lauded citizens, celebrated for his literary genius and for his portrayal of the natural beauty of his country, a young nation which had only 15 years earlier achieved full independence from Sweden.

But Hamsun’s national celebrity was short-lived. In the 1930s he wrote a series of pro-Fascist articles and when the German forces occupied Norway during the Second World War, Hamsun gave them his full support. He even presented his Nobel Prize as a gift to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Following the war, Hamsun was taken into custody for collaborating with the Nazis. Owing to his old age – he was nearly 90 – the charges were dropped. Instead he was ordered to pay a large fine to the Norwegian government and was sent to a psychiatric clinic in Oslo. Hamsun remained unrepentant and died in 1952 aged 92.

Today Hamsun is a divisive figure in Norway and in the literary world more generally. Can we separate the writer from their writing, abhor the one while celebrating the other? Much was written about Hamsun in 2009 on the 150th anniversary of his birth, including this from his biographer Ingar Sletten Kolloen: ‘We can’t help loving him, though we have hated him all these years. That’s our Hamsun trauma. He’s a ghost that won’t stay in the grave.’

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Six shades of capital in the 21st century … Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have – or can accountants save the planet?

resized_9781743319161_224_297_FitSquareSo at last I’ve finished my new book, right down to the details of cover design and end pages, and it’s being published in Australia next month. Just as I didn’t set out to write my first book about accounting – Double Entry, which I thought was going to be a book about Renaissance art and business, and the monk and mathematician Luca Pacioli – so I didn’t set out to write this second book about accounting, Six Capitals: The revolution capitalism has to have – or can accountants save the planet?

But after Double Entry was published I was thrown into the world of contemporary accounting in most unexpected ways. I became fascinated by accounting all over again, especially, now, by its implications for the future of the planet. It started with an invitation in May 2012 from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia to a round table discussion on the future of accounting. By accepting that invitation I unknowingly embarked upon a journey into the cutting edge of accounting which eventually became this book. At that meeting I discovered there was an upheaval taking place in the world of accounting which was only the third such momentous change since the birth of accounting in Mesopotamia around 7000BC. That was the beginning of my researches into the new accounting paradigm – and its implications for corporations, nations, capitalism and the planet – that is the subject of Six Capitals. Here’s a quote from the book’s back cover:

‘I found I had stumbled into what I would soon realise was a revolution. A quiet revolution taking place in the least likely realm of all: our accounting systems. And it had been brewing for some thirty years. The “revolutionaries” were not the usual sort; instead they were accountants, a former judge, a Harvard professor. Their mission was the overthrow not of kings, tsars or states, but of capitalism itself. In the name of capitalism.’

I plan to write more about Six Capitals and the new accounting paradigm here when I write about Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It seems ‘capital’ is the mot du jour.



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‘When I grow up I shall go there': Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

As a child Joseph Conrad pointed his finger to the heart of a map of Africa and declared: ‘When I grow up I shall go there.’ Two decades later, in 1890, Conrad sailed as mate on a river steamer up the Belgian Congo into the heart of Africa. Having joined the French merchant navy aged 16 and spent 17 years at sea, this was Conrad’s first freshwater navigation – and it was to be his last. Conrad was so deeply disturbed by what he experience in the Congo, by the greed and cruelty exercised by the regime of Belgium’s King Leopold II, and perhaps by the stirring of his own blood, that he was left a broken man, physically, mentally and to the depths of his soul, and never went to sea again.

The Congo

The Congo

Having stayed four months in the Congo, Conrad returned to Europe, where he spent his first weeks in hospital recovering from a debilitating illness that was to plague him for the rest of his life in fevers and gout. It was not only his physical health that failed in Africa; in the Congo Conrad suffered psychological and existential shock so profound that he was permanently altered. ‘Before the Congo I was a mere animal,’ he said. His friend Edward Garnett believed Conrad’s Congo experiences were ‘the turning-point in his mental life’ and transformed him from a sailor to a writer, for on his return to England, Conrad gave away his life as a sailor and began his ‘second’ life as a writer.

It is possible to see in Conrad’s existential crisis a clash between the culture of Victorian England, with its sexual suppression, and that of the Congo, renowned for the erotic power and beauty of its music, particularly its drumming. Conrad’s character Charlie Marlow finds the music and dancing of the people along the Congo requires his deepest strength to behold: a man ‘must meet that truth with his own true stuff – with his own inborn strength’.

HeartOfDarknessIn 1899 the first of three instalments of a story based on Conrad’s voyage up the Congo – then named The Heart of Darkness – was published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, one of Britain’s most prestigious literary journals. The story appeared in full three years later as Heart of Darkness, the second story in Conrad’s collection Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories. Conrad described the novel as ‘the spoil I brought out from the centre of Africa, where, really, I had no sort of business.’ In the century following its publication, Conrad’s haunting novella has lived out its author’s own hopes that his tale would resonate long after its telling: ‘That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.’

The story of Heart of Darkness is simple – it recounts the journey of a sailor, Charlie Marlow, up the Congo in the 1890s during its brutal rule by King Leopold II of Belgium. It is in the telling that the story’s complexities and ambiguities arise. An unnamed narrator sits aboard the Nellie in the Thames Estuary with four other men, waiting for the tide to turn. As they wait, the only one of their number to be named, the haunted, sunken-cheeked Marlow, embarks on a troubled tale of his Congo voyage. The narrator recounts to us Marlow’s story as Marlow tells it on the darkening Essex marshes, recalling his experience of Africa and the infamous Mr Kurtz.

Marlow’s journey into the Congo begins as Conrad’s own did. Both hiked on foot along the lower reaches of the river to the registration port on the upper Congo to meet their assigned steamers. Both found on their arrival that their boats had sunk days earlier. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad suggests the sinking is deliberate, part of a covert plot to isolate the fictional Kurtz further upriver. Here truth and fiction diverge – Conrad was impatient to be afloat and took a position on another boat, the captain of which taught him the art of freshwater navigation. But Marlow stays at the station while his assigned boat is being mended, waiting months for a handful of rivets to arrive from downstream for the work to be completed, during which time he plumbs the depths of the cruelty of colonial life in Africa, finding it increasingly bizarre, increasingly surreal.

The manager of the station appears to have his own agenda, entirely focused on undermining the star of the Belgian colonial venture, the ‘universal genius’ Mr Kurtz, the chief of the Inner Station. Although Marlow will later find on meeting him that Kurtz has become ‘hollow at the core’, he was once considered a prodigy, the most promising man of the colonial administration, ‘an emissary of piety, and science, and progress’ rumoured to be destined for great things.

The station manager, in stark contrast, inspires neither love nor respect, but uneasiness. But as Marlow soon realises: ‘You have no idea how effective such a … a … faculty can be.’ In the debilitating Congo climate rife with sleeping sickness, robust health is the key to success and the manager’s only distinction. ‘His position had come to him – why? Perhaps because he was never ill.’ The devil of imperialism that Marlow witnesses laying waste to the land and its people is Dostoyevsky’s decadent, modern devil, ‘a flabby, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly’.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

From its earliest days, Conrad’s life was one of travel and exile, until he eventually found a home in southeast England: ‘I have been all my life – all my two lives – the spoiled adopted child of Great Britain and even of the Empire; for it was Australia that gave me my first command.’ Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Poland, at the time part of the Russian Empire, now the Ukraine. When Conrad was four his father, Apollo, a poet and Polish patriot, was exiled for his involvement with an anti-Russian movement, which later organised the 1863 uprising against Russian rule. Conrad and his mother joined Apollo in northern Russia and, following his mother’s death four years later, the boy lived a solitary life in exile with his father.

Conrad spent his days reading Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Dickens and Thackeray in Polish and French while his father translated Shakespeare and Victor Hugo to earn a living. On his father’s death in 1869, Conrad was cared for by a maternal uncle, who sent him to school in Cracow and Switzerland. In 1874 Conrad left Switzerland for Marseilles, dreaming of becoming a sailor. Following a failed suicide attempt in February 1878, Conrad joined a British freighter, served in the British merchant navy for many years and became a British subject in 1886.

On his return to England from Africa, Conrad sent the story he’d been working on for five years, Almayer’s Folly (written in English, his third language), to a London publisher and in April 1895 it appeared under the name ‘Joseph Conrad’. The following year he married Jessie George and they eventually settled in Kent. Not until the publication of Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904) and Under Western Eyes (1911) did Conrad find financial security with his growing success as a writer. In April 1924, Conrad refused a knighthood from the British prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and he died in August of the same year.

The shock and uncertainty that struck Conrad in Africa shapes the way Heart of Darkness is told. There is no secure foundation to his story. In a much quoted line, the narrator observes that Marlow is no typical seaman:

‘to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.’

This quality in Marlow pervades Heart of Darkness: his circumlocution – coupled with the narrator’s retelling – gives the novel a haunted and haunting allusiveness. The novel’s vagueness is called to account as morally irresponsible by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in his influential essay ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness‘, first published in 1977. Achebe argues that Conrad’s much noted insistence on ‘inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery’ must not be dismissed lightly, ‘as many Conrad critics have tended to do, as a mere sylistic flaw; for it raises serious questions of artistic good faith’. According to Achebe, Conrad’s mystery in fact works to induce ‘hypnotic stupor’ in his readers, numbing them to the racism inherent in his story. Achebe calls Conrad ‘a thoroughgoing racist’ for his portrayal of Africa and its people: ‘Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.’

More recently, the German writer WG Sebald, who also moved from Europe to settle in England, shares in his writing Conrad’s shifting, multi-layered approach to truth and the impossibility of its direct telling. Like Conrad, Sebald was deeply engaged with an attempt to articulate profound, unsettling truths about the European psyche. His novel The Rings of Saturn (published in English in 1998) is, among many things, a reflection on Conrad’s voyage to the Congo and his troubled life lived apart from his birth country. Heart of Darkness also influenced TS Eliot, Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Jean Paul Sartre, among others, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now famously draws on it.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now



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Drusilla Modjeska does Randolph Stow’s Visitants – Reading Australian Literature 2014

UnknownI was very excited when I saw that one of my favourite writers, Drusilla Modjeska (especially for her hybrid fictional biography Poppy and The Orchard), was speaking at the University of Sydney last Monday about one of my favourite novels: Randolph Stow’s Visitants. Scandalously, this novel is now out of print, but perhaps Michael Heyward plans to publish it in Text Publishing’s new-ish classics series. Given Modjeska compared it to Virginia Woolf’s extraordinary prose poem The Waves – an entirely reasonable comparison – it deserves to be available in some form.

The talk was at the University of Sydney’s new law building which I watched rise out of the ground through the windows of Fisher Library. It is a beautiful building and perfectly suited for sitting still and listening to book talk.

Sydney Law School

Sydney Law School

Here is how Modjeska introduced her talk:

‘Randolph Stow’s Visitants is often described as ‘underrated’, an understatement if ever there was one. Set in the Trobriand Islands off the east coast of Papua New Guinea, it was published in 1979 and, in my view, remains unsurpassed in outsider fiction of our complex near-neighbour. Each time I read it, I admire it more.’

Given her own fascination for Papua New Guinea, having lived there in the late 1960s and written about it in The Mountain, Modjeska’s talk and the conversation afterwards focused on PNG, especially on Australia’s tendency to ignore it – its former and only colony – in fiction as in life, and on Stow’s sensitive portrayal of the local Kiriwina people. As Modjeska said, commentary on the novel usually focuses on the Australian official Alistair Cawdor, whose death sparks the novel’s action. Instead, Modjeska chose to focus – as is her want – on a central female character, Saliba.

Visitants is told in eight voices, one of which is Saliba’s. Each voice speaks from the context of what it considers normal, which Modjeska called the novel’s ‘radical break’ from previous fiction portraying postcolonial worlds. This is a particularly difficult novel to talk about to those who haven’t read it and much of Modjeska’s talk was devoted to describing it. She then put it in context through the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who wrote about the Trobriands – especially making clear the easy relationship the matrilineal Kiriwina have with sex, the fact that young girls are as sexually free during puberty and until marriage as boys – before turning to her real focus, which was Stow’s portrayal of Saliba and her significant role in the novel’s complex events. The novel begins with Saliba’s voice and it is her relationship with the young warrior Benoni that drives the novel, rather than the usual ‘dimdim [foreigner] romance’, as Modjeska put it. I will return to a couple of other things Modjeska said, but first, some more about the novel itself and its author Randolph Stow.


Randolph Stow

Having published four acclaimed books, at the age of 24 literary prodigy Randolph Stow decided to give up writing to become an anthropologist in Papua New Guinea. In 1959 he took up a post as a cadet patrol officer and assistant to the government anthropologist in the Trobriand Islands, but it was to be a short-lived career. During the course of his work he contracted malaria, had a severe psychological breakdown, and was forced to return to his home town of Geraldton, north of Perth in Western Australia, to recuperate. Stow drew on this traumatic experience – and on the widely reported sighting in 1959 of a disc-shaped craft containing four human-like figures hovering over the Papuan island of Boianai – for his extraordinary sixth novel Visitants. Told in five sections – Prologue, Sinabada, Visitants, Cargo, Troppo – the novel opens with the following words:

‘On June 26th, 1959, at Boianai in Papua, visitants appeared to the Reverend William Booth Gill, himself a visitant of thirteen years standing, and to thirty-seven witnesses of another colour.’

The prologue recounts the well-documented historical sighting by the Reverend Gill, an Anglican missionary, and his companions of a flying saucer hovering over their island.

As its title suggests, Visitants is about visitation – the invasion of bodies, minds, islands and planets – and about the complex interweaving and generation of systems of belief, myths and legends. The visitants in Stow’s novel travel to Kailuana Island, off the south-east coast of Papua. They include two of the Australian government officials who manage the territory, Alistair Cawdor and his assistant, cadet patrol officer Tim Dalwood; a local planter, MacDonnell, who arrived on the island in 1908 and announced to the local people that he owned it; Metusela, a disturbing newcomer to the local village with the large, changeless saucer eyes of a zombi; possible extraterrestrial visitants whose rumoured sightings start a cargo cult; and the elusive visitant that seems to have possessed Cawdor himself, as he retreats further and further from human society into alcohol and malarial madness: ‘And he screamed: The house is bleeding. There is nobody inside, he said.’

Visitants is told in fragments, in the voices of five witnesses to an inquiry into an outbreak of violence over the succession to an ageing village chief on Kailuana Island. The inquiry is held in November 1959 before Mr JG Browne, the Assistant District Officer, who also contributes his voice to the story. The five witnesses are: Dalwood; the planter MacDonnell; one of his servants, the young girl Saliba; the Government Interpreter Osana; and Benoni, the heir to the local chief. But although the inquiry is sparked by the violent destruction of a village, the focus of the testimony is the young patrol officer Alistair Cawdor, ‘sprawled there in his underpants like a zoo animal that had given up’, and his failing health and mental instability. Cawdor’s own contribution to the story consists of fragments of italicised notes on the lore and history of the island: ‘When asked why they should connect the stones with the space-ship, all the men implicated said that they had heard of the connection through BENONI, who had heard it from me.’

Stow beautifully evokes the islands and their inhabitants, from a cockatoo – ‘As I watched there was a sudden commotion in the air, and a white cockatoo came out of nowhere and skidded to a halt on the crown of the hat’ – to a sunset: ‘That evening, between Kaga and Kailuana, the sea died to a smooth curve of bottomless blue, and the blue of the sky faded and changed to green; an apple-green peacock-green sky pouring down a pink and golden light.’

He vividly conveys the constant flux and disintegration of the tropics, from Cawdor’s health and the power structures of the local village to the very materials of MacDonnell’s house itself: ‘Time has not smoothed or mellowed the fabric of the house. Grey splinters fur the walls of the central room, where maps and ships’ pennants fade to a neutral dun. A smell of mildew circulates, from chests and cupboards where clothes, bedding, papers, moulder in the hot damp.’ … ‘Rain was written on everything, fifty years of rain.’

Visitants is a rich, resonant novel told with lyrical precision, steeped in the simmering suspicion and menace that haunt the novels of Joseph Conrad, a writer Stow admired, along with TS Eliot. On his final decline, Cawdor scribbles a note for Dalwood in the local language, which Osama translates into English. It is a version of the closing lines of Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets, which in turn echo Julian of Norwich.

The true story of the sighting of flying objects over Boianai in 1959 by the Reverend William Booth Gill and his companions was widely reported in the media, whose coverage was based on the extensive notes and drawings make by Gill. A copy of Gill’s report was circulated to every member of the House of Representatives in Australia’s federal parliament. In December 1959, Gill was interviewed by the Royal Australian Air Force, but his sighting was dismissed, despite the large number of witnesses. The air force concluded that at least some of the lights that had been observed in the sky in June 1959 were the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. In the ensuing years, a number of explanations for the phenomenon have been suggested, including one that postulated the experience had been the result of the deluded visions of those in thrall to a cargo cult.

Which brings me to two of Modjeska’s closing remarks, both of which were news to me:

1 there is a myth common in the Trobriands that its people had two common ancestors, one white and one black, and that the white one took off with the cargo.

2 she used the word ‘hapkas’, which is the local language for ‘half-caste’ and is worn by its people with pride, designating that they come from two worlds. Modjeska spoke of ‘existential half-castes’ and in this context the brilliant PNG writer Russell Soaba and his outstanding 1980 novel Wanpis, which she said had never been published in Australia (a fact which makes her extremely angry). Soaba blogs about PNG literature here.

The last talk in Sydney University’s Reading Australian Literature 2014 series is Fiona McFarlane on Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story on 22 September. And next up here, rather fittingly and by pure chance, is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.


Drusilla Modjeska, 1 September 2014, Sydney Law School



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‘a huge Beatles haircut': Les Murray, ‘the Subhuman Redneck who writes poems’

Weathered blond as a grass tree, a huge Beatles haircut
raises an alert periscope and stares out
over scrub.

For anyone who has ever seen one, these lines so perfectly conjure an emu, that bizarre and slightly comical bird, that they could picture nothing else. This is the opening sentence of Les Murray’s poem ‘Second Essay on Interest: The Emu’ from The People’s Otherworld (1983). In its humour, descriptive precision, wide ranging metaphors (from the natural to the mechanical world through pop music) and easy rhythms, this is quintessential Murray, the bush poet. So are the following lines from ‘The Steel’ in the same collection:

At length a neighbour nurse
produced the jargon: haemorrhage,
miscarriage, and the ambulance
was swiftly on its way.

Here the cool objectivity, staccato rhythms and abrupt movement through time convey another side of Murray: the impotent child of dairy-farm poverty whose excruciating agony following his mother’s death at 35 when he was only 12 years old found no release. ‘Thirty-five years on earth; / That’s short. That’s short, mother.’

Les Murray

Les Murray

At the 2005 Sydney Writers’ Festival Les Murray spoke to a packed room with his German translator, Thomas Eichhorn, about the translation into German of his verse novel Fredy Neptune (1998). As Eichhorn described the challenges Murray’s 10,000 line poem posed for its translator, Murray chuckled with delight. Fredy Neptune covers the first half of the 20th century from the First World War to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Its narrator, German-Australian Fredy Boettcher, is an international adventurer, strongman and sailor who, after witnessing a mass murder, becomes completely numbed to all feeling, including fire, knife wounds and orgasm. Murray wrote the poem in English with a German idiom, and included fragments of deliberately awkward German, and somehow Eichhorn had to convey these linguistic complexities in German.

fredyDespite his impoverished rural upbringing and interrupted education, Les Murray has brought to fruition his prodigious intellect, extraordinary memory and gift for languages (he told me he knew ‘ten or eleven’ but his biographer Peter Alexander calculates at least 20) which manifests in his poetry as a preternatural ability to seize the world in words. Before coming to his poetry, I’d thought of Murray as the ‘larrikin’ he’s often described as being. This is a common misapprehension about Murray. As critic Peter Porter put it, Australians continue to be baffled ‘that someone who espouses country rituals’ should be ‘the most sophisticated and accomplished poet Australia has yet produced’.

Murray’s poetry is deeply rooted in Australia and the Bunyah Valley, his sacred land in central New South Wales. He’s described his connection to it as ‘Aboriginal’. He was an only child and didn’t go to school until he was nine, so his friends were animals. He roamed free through his natal valley, across his parents’ and neighbouring Murray dairy farms, and knows the creatures of his childhood intimately:

his polished horse is stepping nervously,
printing neat omegas in the gravel

He also loved machines and conjures them as unerringly as he conjures animals: ‘The bulldozer stands short as a boot on its high-heel ripple soles’ (‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spacemen’).


Murray taught himself to read at four and read compulsively: newspapers, his mother’s encyclopaedia (most of which he had memorised by the time he went to school), the Bible, anything he could get his hands on, including Bugs Bunny comics. Accounting for his obsessive nature, Murray describes himself as ‘half-autie’ (autistic), which he explores in ‘Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver’. He has also written about his son Alexander, diagnosed with autism as a child, in poems like ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’. The Murrays, he told me when I interviewed him for Good Reading magazine in 2005, produce someone obsessed with words, a gifted linguist, once a century or so, such as the remarkable Scottish lexicographer Sir James Augustus Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. And like Murray himself.

Following his mother’s tragic death, Murray’s childhood came to an abrupt end. His father collapsed into grief – ‘For a long time, my father / himself became a baby’ – and Murray’s boyhood obsession with war took on a dark new life. He planned to leave school to train as an army officer, but his father, who had promised his wife that he’d make sure their only child received an education, kept Murray at school. Murray’s last two years of school were spent at Taree High, where he suffered dreadfully the torments of other children, especially the girls. In ‘Burning Want’ Murray describes this experience as ‘erocide’ – ‘Between classes kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale’ – and it determined his lifelong abhorrence of mobs, which is why he’s sided with individuals picked on by a majority, often controversially, as with his support of writer Helen Demidenko and politician Pauline Hanson, whom he considered victims of bullying.

9781863952224It was at Taree High that Murray discovered poetry, especially that of Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot (although he only likes early Eliot, particularly ‘The Waste Land’). Murray is mistrustful of Eliot’s need to abandon America for the intellectual literary scene of London, which he believes was prompted by Eliot’s high-culture snobbery, another thing Murray abhors. I asked him why he didn’t like reading Shakespeare at school and he said that somehow every Shakespeare play they did featured the notoriously rotund Falstaff. The children teased him for his own great size by calling him Falstaff. To save him from Shakespeare and Falstaff, his teacher gave him Australian poetry to read. ‘I never knew there was any,’ he said. Reading John Shaw Neilson, David Campbell, Kenneth Slessor, Bruce Dawe and Mary Gilmore was a revelation and taught him that Australians could write poetry about their own country.

Although Murray had always dreamt of being a painter, he knew he didn’t have ‘the gift of painting’. After discovering Australian poetry, he realised he could do in words, in a poem, what he’d longed to do in paint. After leaving school he wrote his first ten poems on Christmas day, aged 18, and the following year he went to Sydney University on a Commonwealth Scholarship. There, at last, he found himself among kindred spirits, including his friend Bob Ellis and fellow poet Geoffrey Lehmann. But despite finding a haven at university, Murray became increasingly unsettled and began to sleep on the streets. In July 1961 he went walkabout:

A month from home, barely,
and I’d even made a beginning

in the more advanced, more fruitful major subjects:
jettisoning weight, non-planning, avoidance of thought
in favour of landscape, stones and the travelling sky.

(‘Recourse to the Wilderness’)

The same year, his first poem was published in the Bulletin, ‘The Burning Truck’, which he’d revised in a truckies’ cafe near Gundegai, on his way to Melbourne.

When he returned to university he met Valerie Morelli, a devout Catholic of Hungarian/Swiss-German background. They married in 1962 and have five children. Murray converted to Catholicism in 1964, finding in it a sense of liberation and imaginative richness he’d not found in the deterministic, dour Calvinist Church of his childhood. For Murray religion and poetry are inextricably entwined, almost synonymous, and he dedicates his poetry ‘To the glory of God’.

Murray, who always struggled to find work that suited him (he was an early and vocal advocate of state funding for artists), eventually found a perfect job, as a translator at the Australian National University, and in 1963 he and Valerie moved to Canberra. His first book of poems, The Ilex Tree, co-authored with Lehmann, was published in 1965 to wide acclaim. In 1968 they moved to Sydney, where Murray became friends with the poet Kenneth Slessor, his ‘model and master’. Two years after the publication of his second collection, The Weatherboard Cathedral in 1969, Murray left his job, determined never to have another one. In 1974 he was able to buy ‘The Forty Acres’, part of the farm on which he grew up and where he has lived since 1986.

9781863954471Soon after his return to the Bunyah Valley Murray fell into a depression he calls ‘the Black Dog’. He had struggled through regular bouts of depression all his life, surviving with the help of poetry and his remarkable wife until he hit 50. ‘That’s a big one,’ he said. Having smoked all his life, suddenly something in him decided to stop smoking – and he had his first full-blown panic attack and thought he was dying. Valerie rushed him to hospital where he was immediately put into the cardiac ward. Tests showed nothing wrong with Murray’s heart, but a brain-scan showed his brain had been flooded with adrenalin and he was diagnosed with clinical depression. Murray, who believes the condition runs in his family, said it’s very common among artists, and is central to poetry and the creative process.

Murray is fascinated by the unconscious wisdom of his mind, the part of him that knew he needed a massive breakdown in his life, and stopped him smoking one day. He draws on this at the conclusion of Fredy Neptune, which he completed after finally coming out of his eight-year depression following an almost fatal abscess on his liver in 1996. Having been unconscious for 20 days, Murray regained consciousness to discover he’d left the Black Dog behind. In Fredy Neptune, Fredy finds the key to freeing himself from his numbing past in a dialogue with his unconscious: ‘You have to pray with a whole heart, says my inner man to me’. For Murray, poetry comes from these two minds, the conscious and the unconscious, in concert with the body.

Each day Murray sits down and writes all morning, letters and other correspondence, ‘waiting to see if something will come, a poem’. If a poem does come, he works and reworks it in longhand until it reaches the stage when it’s ready to be typed. ‘That’s a big moment,’ he said, because ‘you can tell a lot about a poem when you’ve typed it’ – whether it’s working or not, whether it will be a poem. Many of Murray’s poems come to him while he’s walking around his farm. Given his love for his farm, I asked him why he travels so much (he’d just returned from Milan). He said he doesn’t particularly like travelling, but it’s how he makes his living, he must ‘sing for his supper’, as he put it.

Murray is full of paradox and seems to delight in it. He is fiercely, defiantly Australian, yet reads 20 European languages and married a European. His life has been plagued by depression and the aching loss of his mother when he was a small boy, yet he is filled with mirth and laughs at every opportunity. He is a massive man with a quicksilver presence. He is apparently tone deaf, yet he makes music in poetry. No one has put the paradox of Murray more succinctly than Murray himself, when he called himself ‘the Subhuman Redneck who writes poems’.


Les Murray by David Naseby

Posted in Novels, poetry, book news | 2 Comments

Finished writing new book! Now back to reading and being bookish

At long last I’ve finished writing, editing, copyediting and proofreading my new book. Now I can read freely and blog again.

Last week a friend mentioned Les Murray’s extraordinary poem ‘Burning Want‘ which reminded me that I’ve been wanting to blog about Les Murray here for ages. And poetry is what I’ve been LONGING for while being down among the numbers for the last 12 months and more while working on my new book. Here are the first three stanzas of Murray’s devastating poem:

From just on puberty, I lived in funeral:
mother dead of miscarriage, father trying to be dead,
we’d boil sweat-brown cloth; cows repossessed the garden.
Lovemaking brought death, was the unuttered principle.

I met a tall adopted girl some kids thought aloof,
but she was intelligent. Her poise of white-blonde hair
proved her no kin to the squat tanned couple who loved her.
Only now do I realise she was my first love.

But all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.
Between classes, kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale.
Mass refusal of unasked love; that works. Boys cheered as seventeen-
year-old girls came on to me, then ran back whinnying ridicule.

I’ve also started reading, along with the rest of the world, Thomas Piketty’s  Capital in the Twenty-First Century. So far so excellent, and I can see why it’s knocked economists’ socks off everywhere. Apart from being exceptionally well researched and thought, it’s beautifully written, lucid, rollicking even. I’m also reading Clive James’s translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. So far I’m only up to James’s Introduction, which is mesmerising. What a brain, what an ear, what a writer. More about both these books when I’ve read them.

I also received a copy of my publisher Allen & Unwin‘s centenary history this week, which I’ve been reading over breakfast and thoroughly enjoying: A Hundred Years of Allen & Unwin, 1914-2014 by A&U founders Patrick Gallagher and Paul Donovan. Such fascinating history which I had no idea about before now. Here’s how it opens:

‘On 4 August 1914, England declared war on Germany and a new book publisher by the name of George Allen & Unwin Ltd opened for business in London with one Stanley Unwin at its head.’

According to the book, Stanley Unwin bought the floundering publishing house George Allen & Company to set himself up in business. This company has a wonderful history: it was founded by George Allen, a pupil and friend of John Ruskin, in a field in Kent in 1871 to hand print and publish Ruskin’s books, which kept it in business until Ruskin’s death in 1900.

My next blog will be about Les Murray, followed by, at long last, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.


Posted in Novels, poetry, book news | 7 Comments

A crime: Joseph Stiglitz on the proposed deregulation of Australia’s universities

More on universities – this time not on the libraries of Sydney University (although I will be back onto that the moment I’m through this ocean of rewriting), but on the appalling moves the Abbott government made in its 2014 federal budget to deregulate Australia’s universities so they are more like America’s. Education minister Christopher Pyne said before the budget that Australians have much to learn about universities ‘from our friends in the United States’.

Joseph Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz

I like the language economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz uses to debunk Pyne and the Abbott government’s delusions that such a move will bring better education: ‘A CRIME’. This is the sort of language we need to be using in our fight against neoliberalism. I note that these Liberal Party architects of this monstrous budget do not have an economist among them: Abbott, Hockey, Pyne, lawyers and sophists all. They have NO IDEA what they are doing. On the other hand, Stiglitz is in Canberra reporting from the heartland of free market America where it’s all gone horribly wrong, and is a bold and brilliant economist. Will they listen to him?

According to today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Stitglitz said: ‘Countries that imitate the American model are kidding themselves. It seems that some people here would like to emulate the American model. I don’t fully understand the logic.’ And he called the Australian education system ‘really a model for the rest of the world’ and said deregulating fees was a move in the wrong direction.

‘Trying to pretend that universities are like private markets is absurd,’ Stitglitz said. He called the American system ‘a way of closing off opportunity’ and said ‘While we in the US are trying to RE-REGULATE universities you are talking about deregulating them. It really is a crime.’

Stiglitz trashed the whole American free market model, the one the Abbott government is so desperate to instal in Australia. He said: ‘You have to say that the American market model has failed. It’s a very strong statement for someone who believes in a market economy.’

Some powerful words for the morning, to take into the day. I am realising more than ever that powerful words are what we need. So I cannot wait to read Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, due out this September.


Posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Economics, Other news and marginalia | 3 Comments