‘Truth? – it is one of the many miserable conventions the human brain has tortured itself with’: Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest

m4qcR5xsiWyqSZjYDyGowCwMaurice Guest is my favourite of Henry Handel Richardson’s novels, with its extravagant passions, music and Leipzig setting. And I now realise that it does actually connect with the Overland essay that prompted last Monday’s blog: Christopher Scanlon‘s ‘HappinessTM‘. In particular, I’m thinking of what Scanlon writes about the fact that in extreme cases ‘the constant requirement to be “up” at work left some employees estranged and alienated from their true feelings’. This, he says, is consistent with research that shows that ‘When faking emotions becomes a habit, rather than a temporary coping strategy, people can become estranged from their authentic emotions.’

I’m interested in fake and authentic emotions, the very idea that we might tell the difference, and have been thinking a lot about the extent to which we all fake emotions – or put them on hold, suppress them, manage them – to a greater or lesser extent to get through our days, live our lives. Emotional states are of course the stuff of literature – and Maurice Guest is about emotions let loose in the extreme. Which is, I think, one of the main reasons I love it so much.



Maurice Guest, Richardson’s first novel, is the story of a young music student – Maurice Guest – who travels from his ‘cheerless’ middle-class home in provincial England to Leipzig to study the piano and is soon caught up in a dissolute love triangle. The novel opens with Maurice filled with the ecstasy of music, wandering into the woods beyond the town after a public concert rehearsal:

‘He was under the sway of a twofold intoxication: great music and a day rich in promise. From the flood of melody that had broken over him, the frenzied storm of applause, he had come out, not into a lamplit darkness that would have crushed his elation back on him and hemmed him in, but into the spacious lightness of a fair blue day, where all that he felt could expand, as a flower does in the sun.’

Maurice arrives in Leipzig filled with hopes for a brilliant career as a concert pianist: ‘He felt so ready for work, so fresh and unworn; the fervour of a deep enthusiasm was rampant in him …’ But Leipzig was one of the most sophisticated centres of music and culture in 1890s Europe, and Maurice is a decent provincial boy – and the mix proves fatal for him. As the novel unfolds, Maurice drifts further and further from the spacious lightness of the fair blue days into the recesses of a lamplit darkness, for his enthusiasm and ‘anxiousness to oblige’ cloak a ‘deathly indifference’.

Eleonora Duse

Eleonora Duse

The agent of Maurice’s undoing is a fiery, provocative, gifted Australian music student, Louise Dufrayer. Richardson based Louise on a celebrated actress of the day with whom she was obsessed, Eleonora Duse, whose tempestuous ten-year affair with Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio was the talk of Europe. Louise Dufrayer, that ‘scentless tropical flower, with stiff, waxen petals’, is to shape Maurice’s life. And tragically so, for Louise is in love with another man, the insolent opportunist and genius violinist Shilsky, whose great symphonic poem he names ‘Zarathustra’. One portentous day, Louise’s beauty enchants Maurice as powerfully and irreversibly as any Wagnerian love philtre: ‘The beauty, whose spell thus bound him, was of that subtle kind which leaves many a one cold, but as if just for this reason, is almost always fateful for those who feels its charm.’

Maurice Guest, with its portraits of student life and passionate debates about love and art and music, unerringly charts Maurice’s corruption as he succumbs to the allure of Louise and abandons music for the dictates of sexual desire.

Henry Handel Richardson

Henry Handel Richardson

Henry Handel Richardson, born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson in Melbourne in 1870, was herself a gifted musician. Her father, Walter Richardson, was an Irish medical graduate from Edinburgh University and her English mother, Mary, had followed her brothers to the Victorian goldfields, where she met her future husband. Richardson’s musical distinction brought some much-needed recognition to her otherwise unhappy boarding-school years at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne (the subject of her second novel, The Getting of Wisdom (1910)), but her life was forever marked by the slow, traumatic deterioration of her father’s health from the tertiary syphilis and associated dementia that led to his death in 1879.

In 1888, Richardson sailed with her mother and sister to England. The following year she began a three-year course to train as a concert pianist at the famed Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, founded by Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Leipzig, in the new nation of Germany (founded in 1871, just 18 years before Richardson’s arrival), was one of the great cultural centres of Europe. It was renowned for its age-old choir, St Thomas’s Boys Choir, where JS Bach had once been choirmaster, and as the birthplace of Richard Wagner. Here Richardson immersed herself completely in music.

In 1890 she met JG Robertson, a shy, brilliant, Wagner-loving 23-year-old science graduate from Glasgow who was writing his PhD in philology at Leipzig University. Robertson invited Richardson to a series of Wagner operas, which she later said was the beginning of her real musical education. They quickly discovered their shared love of music and books, and in 1891 they were engaged.

Henry Handel Richardson by Rupert Bunny

Henry Handel Richardson by Rupert Bunny

The following year Richardson graduated and abandoned her plans to become a concert pianist, deciding to become a writer instead. Perhaps she discovered in Germany that her talent, so prodigious in isolated Australia, was not great enough for the world stage. And she began to suffer agonies when exposed on the concert stage, like Krafft in Maurice Guest, who speaks ‘with a morbid horror – yet as if the idea of it fascinated him – of the publicity of the concert-platform.’

In December 1895 Richardson and Robertson were married, and the following year Richardson began work on Maurice Guest, based on her student life in Leipzig. In 1903 the couple moved to London when Robertson was appointed to a German chair at the University of London. Here, with Robertson’s unfailing moral support, Richardson threw herself into her manuscript and finally finished it in 1907.

Maurice Guest was published in 1908 under the pen name ‘Henry Handel Richardson’. The novel’s European sensibility was influence by Richardson’s reading of Scandinavian literature, particularly Ibsen and Jacobsen (whose Niels Lynne she had translated from the German, published in 1896), Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, and the music of Wagner. Nietzsche’s influence can be felt in her portrait of the genius artist Shilsky, and in the views of the eccentric, sexually fluid music student Krafft:

‘No, there is no such thing as absolute truth. If there were, the finest subtleties of existence would be lost … Truth? – it is one of the many miserable conventions the human brain has tortured itself with, and its first principle is an utter lack of imaginative faculties.’

Richardson was a passionate, driven, unconventional woman, and perhaps formed a love triangle of her own when the musically gifted Olga Roncoroni (whom she met in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1919) moved in with her and Robertson, remaining with Richardson as her secretary and constant companion until her death in 1946. Richardson returned only once to Australia, in 1912, to research her trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, based on her father. The third volume, Ultima Thule, published at Robertson’s expense because Richardson’s publisher rejected it, finally brought her the fame and commercial success she had longed for all her life. A review in the Daily News (14 January 1929) gave Ultima Thule high praise: ‘if our age has produced a masterpiece at all, this is a masterpiece’.

Henry Handel Richardson by Rupert Bunny

Henry Handel Richardson by Rupert Bunny




Posted in Classics | 1 Comment

‘Our people are our machinery’: HappinessTM in Overland 217 and human capital in the post-industrial age

Now my new book Six Capitals is out, I’ve been thinking through and talking about the various manifestations of the four ‘new’ capitals – intellectual, human, social and relationship, and natural capital – whose application in business and economic life is embryonic, nascent.

The new It Capital – and the one I’m most interested in – is natural capital, which made its formal appearance on the global stage in 2012 when it was adopted by the United Nations as a statistical standard with equal status to GDP. So far it’s yet to be widely used in practice, but the UK’s early forays in natural capital accounting have proven controversial. They’ve been fiercely opposed by George Monbiot and vehemently defended by others, including long-time environmentalist Tony Juniper, many ecologists, and environmental economists such as Robert Costanza. (I wrote a little about natural capital here two years ago.) I’m planning to write about the language of natural capital in relation to the G20, especially regarding Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey’s rhetoric which pits climate change against the idea of economic growth, as if the economy existed only in a mathematical model and not as a human activity here on earth.


The simplified view of one proponent of natural capital


But in the meantime I have been reading an absolutely fascinating essay in the new Overland (Issue 217) by Christopher Scanlon called ‘HappinessTM’. Scanlon writes about the applications of ‘positive psychology’ to incite happiness in workers in call centres and other service industries who must be ‘up’ all the time in order to do their jobs properly. He writes:

‘Call it HappinessTM: a form of happiness that, like any other industrial product, is manufactured in a predictable, standardised and, perhaps most importantly, reproducible fashion. As we’ll see, Happiness TM is both a management tool to ensure compliant and efficient workers, and a product in its own right.’

I’m interested in the resonances of this for the idea of human capital, a concept which has emerged in accounting because we humans are now among businesses’ most important assets (who knew we weren’t?), thanks to the advent of the information age and the slow demise of the industrial era with its factory production and blue collar workers.

As management guru Peter Drucker noted in 1999: ‘The most valuable assets of a 20th century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.’

Attempts to value employees – or ‘human assets’ – date to the 1960s, but only recently have a few companies begun to include such information in their financial statements. Notable among these are India’s global technology company Infosys and corporate giant Tata. In 2012 Infosys valued its ‘human-capital externality’ at US$1.4 billion. This value is generated largely through its intensive technical training program. Infosys has built the world’s largest corporate university, which trained 100,000 software professionals between its founding in 2002 and 2012.

The authors of Natural Capitalism: Creating the next industrial revolution – who advocate natural capital accounting as well as human and social capital accounting – argue that just as nature needs to be accounted for and safeguarded, so society and humans must be nurtured in the same way to prevent their breakdown and exhaustion:

‘Just as ecosystems produce both monetised “natural resources” and far more valuable but unmonetized “ecosystem services”, so social systems have a dual role. They provide not only the monetised “human resources” of educated minds and skilled hands but also the far more valuable but unmonetized “social system services” – culture, wisdom, honour, love, and a whole range of values, attributes, and behaviours that define our humanity and make our lives worth living.’

And just as there are better and worse ways of handling nature, so there are ‘unsound methods of exploiting human resources’ that can ‘destroy the social integrity of a culture so it can no longer support the happiness and improvement of its members’. When people are overworked and undervalued, and when their jobs are insecure, community and civil society break down.

UnknownLike all the new capitals, the idea of human capital is … a double-edged sword? While it might offer ways to rethink the value of employees, argue for investment in their training and education, for their better care, the stories Scanlon tells from the frontline of call centres sound more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with its soma-numbed humans.

He quotes Stuart, the Manager for Culture at one call centre, who said:

‘Our people are our machinery and so we need to invest money in order to maintain that machinery. If that means giving someone an opportunity to put a streamer up, or giving someone the opportunity to celebrate their birthday or a birth or a marriage or something else that’s important to them, then we need to make that happen.’

As Scanlon says, ‘Just as a steel mill needs to ensure its machinery is operating efficiently, a call centre needs to grease the wheels of its employees’ emotional lives. The growing interest in managing the emotional lives of employees is not at all surprising. It is the logical outcome of a shift towards services-based work.’


And in services-based work, we have to be happy – or, as Scanlon puts it ‘projecting a positive outlook and, more importantly, being able to elicit positive emotional responses from clients matters much more than in manual labour’.

‘If you work in a service role, emotions aren’t just one part of the job – displaying emotions and, in turn, inducing emotional responses is your job. Emotions are the product.’

Welcome to our brave new world.

It’s a thought-provoking essay in a strong issue of Overland (which happens to be the last issue under the brilliant editorship of Jeff Sparrow).

And next up here, moving right away from capitals and happiness into the throes of doomed passion, is Maurice Guest, about which the great literary blogger John at Musings of a Literary Dilettante said: ‘As a study of obsession and erotic love it has few equals. Madame Bovary comes to mind as the obvious touchstone … But there’s something about the very European Maurice Guest that defies comparison, even with the great novels.’



Posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Economics | 4 Comments

‘Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned’: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

709931‘Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce – and our social customs don’t,’ says Newland Archer to Countess Olenska, attempting to explain the subtle but rigid unspoken conventions of the patrician New York society to which they both belong. The Countess Olenska arrives in New York from Europe as Archer is about to announce his engagement to her cousin May Welland, a beautiful, athletic and irreproachable society girl. Ellen Olenska has fled her philandering husband, a Polish count, and returned to her family in New York to get a divorce. ‘The individual, in such cases, is nearly always sacrificed to what is supposed to be the collective interest: people cling to any convention that keeps the family together,’ continues Archer, dismayed to find himself forced to resort to such platitudes.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska

Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska

The ferocity with which the Countess longs for her freedom from her husband, her inability to be surprised by anything, her bold talk and eccentric style – ‘Madame Olenska, heedless of tradition, was attired in a long robe of red velvet bordered about the chin and down the front with glossy black fur’ – conjure for Archer a mysterious European world that grows to fill the void in his life, which is rapidly becoming apparent to him with the approach of his society marriage. Brought together by May’s family, the Countess and Archer find themselves consumed by desire for one another.

In the unfolding of Archer’s story and his divided heart, Edith Wharton teases out the tensions between individual needs and social obligations – the shame of divorce, the pain of marriage, the restrictive codes of society, its damning of outsiders and yet its generosity to its own, the irresistible charm of its ways – and draws a complex and subtly delineated portrait of upper-class New York in the 1870s. Only in its quiet closing moments does the novel reveal the truth of May’s lucid understanding of her husband and marriage, and demonstrate the ambiguity of Wharton’s rounded perception of life.

Edith Wharton was in her late 50s when she wrote The Age of Innocence. She had experienced in her own life the pain of loveless marriage, the shame of divorce, the pleasure of illicit sexual passion and the unyielding power of New York’s upper class. She had also experienced at first hand the devastation of the First World War. The war broke out when Wharton was living in Paris and she immediately became energetically involved in assisting those whose lives it had ruined, helping refugees from northeastern France and Belgium, and travelling to the front in her motorcar. (Wharton loved driving and bought her first automobile in 1904.) In 1916 Wharton edited The Book of the Homeless, an anthology with contributions from Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and WB Yeats, to raise money for the refugees. In recognition of her wartime relief work, Wharton was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French government.

Following the war, totally consumed by an urge to write about its overwhelming intensity, almost as an aside Wharton began to work on a new novel about the New York of her childhood. If before the war Wharton had seen society exclusively in terms of its power to crush the individual, her experience of the war years opened her eyes to the benefits of civilisation, the ways in which family, history and tradition can provide the context and security essential for life. Her new insights can be felt in The Age of Innocence.

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Born in New York in 1862 during the Civil War, Wharton was the youngest child (by twelve years) and only daughter of George and Lucretia Jones, members of the New York upper class whose English and Danish ancestors had acquired their vast wealth in business, law and banking. (They were the original Joneses with whom the term ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ originated.) As a teenager Edith was known as ‘that handsome, disagreeable little Pussy Jones’. In her milieu a girl’s only conceivable ambition was to make a successful society marriage and become an exemplary wife and mother. Wharton’s family was not at all interested in literature and was surprised by Edith’s passion for reading and writing. Educated at home and on the family’s travels through Europe (which began in 1866 and lasted six years), Edith wrote poetry and finished her first novella, Fast and Loose, when she was 15. A few years after the death of her beloved father, Wharton, at the ripe old age of 23 (at which she was considered almost on the shelf), married Boston banker Edward Wharton in 1885.


Wharton’s first notable book was published in 1897. Written with friend and architect Ogden Codman, her book The Decoration of Houses advocated simple, classical design and immediately influenced designers throughout America. Wharton also designed her own house, ‘The Mount‘, in Lenox, Massachusetts. Completed in 1902, the house was described by Wharton’s friend Henry James as ‘a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond’. Wharton adored her house and garden, and wrote in her diary that architecture and flowers (as well as books, dogs and a good joke) were among her ruling passions.

The Mount

The Mount

In 1905 the popular and critical success of her novel The House of Mirth established Wharton as a prominent American writer. But she felt enormous tensions between her position as a society matron and her vocation as a writer. This may have contributed to the breakdown of her health, which took the Whartons to France and Italy, where her health was restored. In 1907 Wharton moved with her husband to Paris, a city she felt was in her blood.

Following her move to Europe, Wharton flourished as a writer but her marriage foundered. In France she wrote in bed, dropping page after page onto the floor for a secretary to type. Her daily output was massive and she produced a book a year for 40 years. But in 1913 Wharton and her husband Edward were divorced, prompted by his mental instability, financial irresponsibility and numerous affairs with other women.

In 1908 at the age of 46, Wharton fell in love with American expatriate Morton Fullerton, a journalist on The Times who’d had affairs with men and women, and they had a passionate sexual affair as well as a meeting of minds. Henry James had introduced her to Fullerton, with whom Henry was also in love and on whom he modelled Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove. Wharton was a lifelong supporter of Henry James, which included campaigning for him to win the Nobel Prize (which he never won) and secretly diverting some of her own more abundant royalties to him via her publisher.

Contracted for publication by The Pictorial Review, a popular magazine for women, The Age of Innocence appeared in four large instalments from July to October 1920. The book, published the same year, was an immediate success. In 1921 The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize. In what was to be her only journey home following the war, Wharton returned to America to receive the award. Two years later, in 1923, she became the first woman to received a Doctorate of Letters from Yale University. For a girl born into a society in which women writers were unheard of, that Wharton had become a writer at all was a remarkable feat of courage and determination. That she had risen to such heights of critical acclaim was testament to her abundant talent and fierce intellect.

Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous 1993 cinema adaptation of The Age of Innocence starred Daniel Day Lewis as Newland Archer, Winona Ryder as May Welland and Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska. Scorsese was passionately committed to directing Wharton’s great novel and brings to his film all the subtle characterisation, complex social mores, signs and codes, all the claustrophobia and beauty of Wharton’s original.


Posted in Classics | 6 Comments

Six Capitals, my obsession with accounting – and how I went from Leo Tolstoy to Keanu Reeves



Three years ago my obsession with Venice, art and mathematics and my fascination for a Renaissance monk, mathematician, magician and teacher to Leonardo da Vinci – Luca Pacioli – metamorphosed into a book about accounting (Double Entry), just because that monk also happened to have published the world’s first treatise on double-entry bookkeeping. And thus Venice, art and mathematics spawned my obsession with accounting.

The publication of Double Entry only fuelled my obsession. It led me Alice-like – or perhaps Persephone-like – into the underworld of the global economy: the realm of 21st century accounting, where I found that nothing was as it had been and that everything was changing at breakneck speed. And so I now find myself the author of a second book about accounting, Six Capitals, which tells the story of this world in flux.

Because literature is my first love, I seem always to need bookish touchstones while submerged in the strange realm of accounting. While I wrote Double Entry, Tolstoy was my companion. Apart from being one of my all time favourite writers, Tolstoy’s novels are concerned with many of the implications of double-entry bookkeeping as it evolved to govern commerce during the industrial revolution.

In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, set in 1870s Russia, the hero and landowner Levin relishes the fact that Russian merchants and farmers continued to conduct their business using an abacus, without proper account books, and certainly without Italian bookkeeping, as double entry was then known. For Levin, this arrangement among Russian farmers preserves a sense of the sacred calling of tending the earth and keeps farming from becoming just one more commercial activity.

He muses about the ancient ways which still prevail in Russian farming and are so unlike the ‘Italian bookkeeping’, as he calls it, which is taking over Europe: ‘Yes, it’s a strange thing … The way we live like this without reckoning, as if we’ve been appointed, like ancient vestals, to tend some sort of fire.’

Through Levin, Tolstoy expresses his general unease with the encroaching ‘rationalisation’ of life – the measurement of time and space of which double entry was a part – brought by science, accounting and the new forms of production that spread across Europe in the 19th century. Tolstoy was just one of many writers and artists who were deeply suspicious of such modernisation. The English Romantic poets took a similar view – captured vividly in William Blake’s ‘satanic mills’ – as did Dostoyevsky, one of whose characters says in The Idiot ‘the whole spirit of the last few centuries, taken as a whole, sir, in its scientific and practical application, is perhaps really damned, sir!’

Agent Smith

Agent Smith

But if Tolstoy and Levin kept me company while I wrote Double Entry, there were no novels or poetry I could call on while writing Six Capitals. Instead, aptly enough given it’s about a 21st century revolution in capitalism, more and more on my morning runs, and then throughout my long days of writing, images and whole scenes from the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix started to appear. Especially this line from my favourite character Agent Smith, brilliantly played by Hugo Weaving:

‘I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realised that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. And the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague and we are the cure.’

And as a counterpoint to Smith’s cure are Neo‘s heroic attempts to manipulate the code of the Matrix, among other dazzling things.

Keanu Reeves being dazzling as Neo

Keanu Reeves being dazzling as Neo

Six Capitals is about accounting in the 21st century – which also turned out to be a story of rampant viral (non human) persons and two paradigm-shifting attempts to rewrite the code of the global matrix.

I’ll be talking about Six Capitals - and why writing it made me think of The Matrix - on Thursday 6 November 2014 at 6pm for 6.30 pm at Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, Sydney. I’d love to see you there.



Posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Classics, Six Capitals | 4 Comments

In praise of publishers and editors: Richard Flanagan’s speech on winning the Man Booker Prize – and the wondrousness of my own publisher and editor

9780857980366I was totally thrilled to hear that Richard Flanagan had won the Man Booker Prize last week, for him (obviously); for Australian literature; for the stage it gave Flanagan to despair vocally about the state of Australia in 2014 (‘Ashamed to be Australian‘); for his winning novel’s (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) story about the Second World War and the Burmese Railway (although I’ve yet to read it, I think this is such important subject matter); and for his brilliant acceptance speech.

And in his brilliant acceptance speech, what warmed my heart more than I can say was this: ‘And I particularly want to thank two remarkable women sitting at my table.’ One was his partner Majda. The other, and this is when my heart blazed, was his publisher. He said:

‘The other is Nikki Christer, my publisher at Random House Australia, dear friend, and an editor of rare genius who has been my collaborator of nearly 20 years. She is the Motown publisher, who cracked me and so many other Australian writers out of the literary ghetto and took us to a mass audience. Making books, including The Narrow Road, with someone of Nikki’s gifts, has been one of the great creative joys of my life.’

I have not been at it – the writing-publishing life – nearly as long as Flanagan has, but I’ve now written four published books (as of yesterday, when Six Capitals was officially published) and for a long time I’ve been wanting to praise more publicly than at a book launch or in an email or over drinks my EXTRAORDINARY publisher Jane Palfreyman and my extraordinary editor Clara Finlay. (Jane gets the capitals because she is EXTRA extraordinary – sui generis as Christos Tsiolkas calls her – has been with me from the beginning, and wholeheartedly backs and takes all the risk for my ideas.)

resized_9781741753592_224_297_FitSquareOf course Flanagan has found the coolest metaphor with which to describe Nikki Christer’s alchemical powers: the Motown publisher who cracks writers out of the ghetto and takes them to a mass audience. I haven’t yet worked up one for Jane Palfreyman, but it would definitely involve one-time Melbourne boy Nick Cave. Her passionate publishing and editing of Melbourne boy Christos Tsiolkas - from the first appearance of his manuscript Loaded in the Random House ‘slush pile’ (as the massive piles of unsolicited manuscripts were known in the days of paper) to his storming of the world stage with The Slap - says it all.

Nikki Christer is also Flanagan’s editor. My editor, if I could be said to have one (because it’s up for grabs with every new book), is Clara Finlay – and I know from the depths of my being that there is no way my last two books could exist without her. She is the most intelligent, most probing, most courageous (I’ve been an editor and I know the daring it takes to ask what you fear might be silly queries but in fact are absolutely critical questions), most patient, most painstaking, apparently tireless, creative and imaginative editor I could wish for.

Books cannot exist without these extraordinary people. So today I give thanks to all the publishers and the editors out there, as well as to my own extraordinary two. They work mostly for love and it can be hellish, fraught work against unspeakable deadlines. THANK YOU.

Nick Cave 06_wm

Nick Cave


Posted in Other news and marginalia, Six Capitals | 2 Comments

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. Three years later, he moved to Paris and there 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. Hamsun had little formal education but he 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.’

Posted in Classics | Leave a comment

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.



Posted in Can accountants save the planet?, Six Capitals | Leave a comment