Declan Fry’s closing thoughts on the Festival

In this phantasmagoric piece, Declan Fry’s voice weaves through the Festival, spinning images from behind the scenes, amongst the audience and on the stage. There’s writerly discussions at The Old Clare’s breakfast bar, words of appreciation shared between writers backstage and momentous meetings in the Green Room. Discover the Festival, anchored in musings on David Malouf’s Closing Address, through Declan’s eyes.

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There is a teahouse in Redfern that no longer exists. In this vanished teahouse, in 2017 or so, I recite Li Shangyin to someone I have just met:

向晚意不适,驱车登古原。    Restless at evening, setting out for Leyou plateau,

夕阳无限好,只是近黄昏。    the sunset infinitely beautiful, though only a setting sun

During Michael Williams’ introduction to the Closing Address, Omar Sakr worries that David Malouf’s work as a poet won’t be mentioned. (It is.)

Backstage at ‘The Unacknowledged Legislators’ poetry reading, before we go on, Eileen Chong says thank you for appreciating my poetry.

Appreciation: the quality of coming to know; of being sensible to, or sensitive of, delicate impressions and distinctions.

Williams tells the audience that he hopes this address will not be Malouf’s last.

 

Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on.

(Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable)

 

In the shadows Malouf stands, looking for all the world like an observer at his own celebration.

Evelyn Araluen is doing work at The Old Clare bar.

Alison Croggon is at a writers’ festival trying to write lol.

Labour is precarious. Writing especially.

Better to be David Malouf, if you can. Even David Malouf must sometimes pinch himself. God, how did I manage it, eh? An absolute jackpot this whole business of getting to be David Malouf!

Maybe, after he retires, there won’t be another opening available: the business will close, the position fold, and younger writers will have to find another way.

I thank all those who have supported me during my startling and sometimes painful initiation into “this business of words”.

Linda Gray Sexton, on editing Anne Sexton’s 45 Mercy Street

The trick is to make it new.

Krissy Kneen comes by to tell me that David Malouf and Murray Bail live in the same area. In He. – prominently displayed in Sydney’s Kinokuniya bookshop – Bail even prints his home address.

Robert Watkins tells me his love language is giving, handing over his business card.

Is Bail trolling? Does he really believe no one will come and visit him – hopes to test whether anyone will even read the book? It’s not hard to learn some things about writers; even The Old Clare found our cat photos on Instagram, putting young Turnip in a frame inside the room. The hotel worries we will be gone too long without seeing her. I think the sentiment is charming; others, creepy. 

Does Sisonke Msimang have a special message in their room? Does Maria Tumarkin? Osman Faruqi gets a Taylor Swift lyric installed in his (‘Lover’). 

Walking into The Old Clare bar for breakfast, I imagine the joy of finally discovering what Trent Dalton eats for breakfast, Ramona Koval’s favourite martini...perhaps even Murray Bail will be there? What if Peter Carey has flown in? Maybe Matthew McConaughey? What if they both have? I mean, it would be scandalous – and a grave public health concern – but also our little solemn secret. 

Paul Kelly asks me: So what do you write?
I mention an essay about Ziggy Ramo and Elijah Doughty.
You should have been there! I say.
I was, he replies.
Unalloyed terror fills me. Had he been there? How?
I mean, he says, I’ve performed with Ziggy. We once did a song together.

Nam Le enters The Old Clare bar that night. Wearing a bright red baseball cap, he looks, for all the world, like a secret agent, or a Hollywood actor trying not to be recognised, or even (let’s be honest) a champion poker player.

And to some, I guess that’s all Nam Le might be: just a bloody good poker player.

When I first meet Christos Tsiolkas (an avid and enthusiastic user of the hotel’s breakfast bar), I ask him if he would ever do something completely different: write about zines, say, as he did in 1996. Maybe even make one.

In a panel hosting Claire Thomas and Rebecca Starford, we get to talking about a character in Thomas’ novel who is ashamed of Samuel Beckett’s poster being on her wall – because, well, he’s a dude, and a white one at that. In reference to the novel’s anxieties about age and climate disaster, I mention Philip Larkin’s ‘Dockery and Son’. Larkin is self-conscious too, though not about identity so much as the temporariness of the self, the fear of mortality:

Life is first boredom, then fear.

Whether or not we use it, it goes,

And leaves what something hidden from us chose,  

And age, and then the only end of age.

The problem of writing: to speak for one’s communities, you enjoy a platform that also separates you, on some level, from those communities.

I talk to Maxine Beneba Clarke about it.

The fanzine can be about anything and by anyone. This is what is worth celebrating.

Christos Tsiolkas, ‘Fanzines … 2 or 3 Things I (May) Know About It’

The paradox is inescapable, but necessary. Without that ability to speak, you would not be given a platform; though having it inevitably means a degree of removal from those who never get the opportunity.

It’s something both Lech Blaine and Sakr talk to me about – what it means to write from a family or community for whom your writing may not be accessible, or even meaningful in all the ways you might hope or wish that it could be.

After hosting ‘The Unacknowledged Legislators’, I thank the writers and organisers; I thank Emma Walsh, Aimee Huxley, Lydia Tasker; I thank the drivers (shout-out to Tobias and Sam); the baristas (the baristas!); and the many, many volunteers. 

Malouf is in the audience.

The day before, I’m told, he was down at Carriageworks, patiently checking his tickets outside the ‘Bearing Witness’ event with Nayuka Gorrie, Chelsea Watego, Amy McQuire and Veronica Heritage-Gorrie. Evelyn Araluen calls it the most adorable thing. Except that Oh no, he was at the wrong event.

We are born into a world that is not of our choosing. But live with its inheritances, all of them. We are never able to disclaim responsibility. We are never just at the wrong event.

And every piece of writing we make depends upon a wealth of ordinary labour; all the work that allows for the space and time to think, observe, create: the roads that get us to the Festival; the safety of the buildings and communities and civilisations we are born into.

On the day of Malouf’s Closing Address, Brendan Kerin, who describes himself as adopted Eora, gives a Welcome to Country. Ten years ago, he says, we would never have had the chance to do such a Welcome. He is one of ten removed siblings.

Second-generation removed. I was taken in 1971 – but here I am.

Brendan Kerin

It didn’t only happen in the past.

Nothing ever did.

I first read David Malouf in Kalgoorlie. I am nine or ten, thumbing through my mother’s Penguin copy of Antipodes. The cover depicts a singleted man looking out toward a figure standing beside a motorcycle. The story is ‘Southern Skies’.

As in so much of Malouf’s work, there is a sultry sense of proximity, of human contact. Something evanescent, transcendental. Otherworldly. I remember how close the stars seemed, the whole glittering world, in the prose. The ineffability of it all.

In the dictionary of Malouf, ‘I could not put the book down’ means we do not want the spell to end.

He invokes Stendhal’s happy few those who will come to appreciate what the author sets down even if their contemporaries cannot. The afterlives of art.

In the Green Room, I ask Malouf what events he has enjoyed seeing at the Festival. He mentions Lech Blaine.

Malouf discusses D.H. Lawrence, too. The writing demon. A young man is afraid of his demon and puts his hand over the demon’s mouth sometimes...

Two nights before, Blaine tells me a story he heard about a man running after David Malouf on the street. 

Are you, the man says – cautious, not wanting to presume, but hopeful, of course, undeniably hopeful – David…?
And even as an indulgent smile is creeping across Malouf’s lips, the man raises a frayed ticket with the author’s name printed on it.
Yeah, it’s just – I wasn’t sure. But – I think you dropped this, he says.

Some of us, having found our happy few, must still reconcile with the fact that, perhaps for the vast majority of people, we are no more than a ticket, a misplaced name someone has collected from the pavement.

Literature is not escapist, Malouf says. That is to say: literature is not a distraction vis-a-vis violence against women, or environmental catastrophe, or Black deaths. It is an economy of its own – we come away from a work of art with more energy than when we came to it. No work seems worth beginning if we cannot bring to it our whole attention.

He is affectionate, he says, about Tolstoy’s late career change. What Nabokov, referring to the teeming details of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, called “lovely irrelevancies”, followed gradually by the retreat to asceticism; and then the temptation, at the age of 70, back to storytelling in Hadji Murat

 

My demon,

too often undressed,

too often a crucifix I bring forth,

too often a dead daisy I give water to

too often the child I give birth too

and then abort, nameless, nameless…

(Anne Sexton, ‘Demon’)

 

In the Green Room, I am introduced to Malouf by Felicity Plunkett. I’ve seen your photo in Australian Book Review, he says. No indication if he may or may not know anything about me beyond that.

But then, some of us really are just names on tickets. Photos in magazines, or family portraits.

 

I range through the thesaurus

for a word: homesickness, yearning

of grandsons for a language

the dead still speak, the dying in their sleep still

matter, the advent

of common objects, strange upon the tongue.

(Malouf, ‘To Be Written in Another Tongue’)

 

Malouf mentions the wealth of Englishes beyond the US and England. The dozens of Anglophone communities spread across the globe. And the “admirable but self-defeating” desire to focus only on local books in newspapers and reviews. The exile of a shared language (and its accumulated exiles).

I envy how put-together Malouf looks. Some bodies defy gravity: everything militating against the earth, with its stresses and pulls and pressures. The self kept enviably taut.

Others give in early, charting a gradual downward descent, before coming to a stop full as the period enclosing a sentence that starts as a question but which, in the end, turns out to be a statement of fact.

I think of Murray Bail’s face. That hangdog look. 

At the first reading of his debut collection of poetry, Erik Jensen concludes by reading a poem by his friend and second reader, the late Kate Jennings. She passed away the day before.

And time, that takes survey of all the world, must have a stop.

Shakespeare, Henry IV

I remember his whole body seeming to shake. A pain the heart could not bear.

The most insidious change that COVID has worked on us, Malouf says, is time. Everything is always until, until…

In the half-diminishing light outside Carriageworks, Omar Sakr describes a moment in Johnno where the protagonist reveals himself. Golden-dark skin, Omar says. He’s a wog.

Showing himself, while seeming to show nothing at all.

Malouf mentions Proust, among other writers (Nooteboom, Ondaatje, Proulx). I think how Jewish people and Judaism are treated equivocally in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Catholic but half-Jewish (on his mother’s side), Proust’s narrator presents simply as Catholic, and pious.

The first time I visit Meanjin, in high school, apart from learning to surf, I try to read as much Malouf as possible. I make my way through Johnno (sultry, roustabout), Remembering Babylon (circuitous, sinewy; all those multiplying commas and parentheses and accumulations – what Nam Le called its biblically inflected tone and parataxis), and Harland’s Half Acre (no strong memories; perhaps it’s telling that Malouf later revised the novel, albeit only slightly).

In the end, I think Johnno felt closest to what I saw in the hills and palms and weatherboards of Meanjin’s sprawl.

And yes, Omar, it’s true that I told you how I was aware of queerness in Johnno long before I perceived race. How someone might advert to Lebanese Christian attachments without saying so. Without having to elaborate them at all.

Part of the price of the black ticket is involved – fatally – with the dream of becoming white. This is not possible, partly because white people are not white: part of the price of the white ticket is to delude themselves into believing that they are.

James Baldwin, ‘The Price of the Ticket’

At breakfast, Jason Steger tells me and Tim Flannery a story:

The actor Simon Callow is performing at the Arts Theatre in London. Suddenly, the fire alarms go off. People rush from the theatre.
Then, slowly, the fact of a false alarm makes itself apparent (there was no monster under the bed after all!). They return to their seats. Simon Callow smiles, facing the audience. 
Now – where was I? he says.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

There are mutterings after the address about Malouf’s vague (and mostly implied) aversions to identity politics. And it’s odd, certainly, for a man who has often sought to subsume his identity, disguising it, to enter this vague and sometimes hostile landscape. But then, there’s also the desire for reconfigurations, new freedoms. Maybe he fears losing them.

 

a landscape

mirrored, held a moment,

and let go again.

(Malouf, ‘Stooping to Drink’)

 

Days before the address, Jamie Marina Lau is talking in the breakfast bar about the prison identity can create. Stephanie Ochona and I sit listening. Lau is preparing to speak on a panel with Kavita Bedford, hosted by Winnie Dunn. She describes being a reflector – someone who channels or allows others to pass through the prism of their selfhood. Like a mirror. Or maybe a window.

This morning, telling Krissy Kneen that younger people have already moved past tedious straw-man arguments about cancel culture, about identity politics. Yes, yes, I say, it’s already yesterday’s news.

People want portals, not mirrors, someone on Twitter announces.

And I wonder if Patricia Lockwood’s description in No One Is Talking About This of social media as the portal is sardonic or serious.

Anyway, I say to Kneen, people spend too much time thinking about white people. All those invocations devoted to not reading white authors, not wanting another all-white panel. Does making space for other communities really need to spend so much effort obsessing over whiteness? Relax! They’re just white people!

Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’ is playing on the hotel stereo. Early on, when first meeting Tsiolkas, I make a reference to their song ‘Being Boring’ and he laughs like it’s the first time: wholly and entirely. I like that. I like his skill, his talent for laughter.

In Tsiolkas’ Loaded, Melbourne is vivisected into four compass points: North, South, East, West. In Kavita Bedford’s Friends & Dark Shapes, Redfern turns into four seasons.

At a writers’ festival, we all play two parts, neither necessarily any less real than the other.

Division. Repetition. Put a clean line down the middle: two halves. Like a book, held in the reader's hands.

Like a book, held in the reader’s hands.

In the Green Room, Malouf talks to me about Frederic Manning’s novel Her Privates We. The next day I meet him again, in Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library, where he talks, in print – and as if for the first time, as if it were happening all over again – about Her Privates We.

Life is what happens while you’re busy trying to do other things.

 

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

(W. H. Auden)

 

The anxious effort of making yourself known. Being present at each panel.

 

We were never holding back

or worried that

time would come to an end.

(Pet Shop Boys, ‘Being Boring’)

 

I remember that ‘Being Boring’ appears, too, in Anwen Crawford’s No Document. Talking to her inside a Potts Point teahouse, Crawford describes wanting to include a PO Box address in her book, so people could reach out to her if they wanted. Bringing the artist down to earth, as the DIY scene taught, the zine-making scene. She bemoans the fact that Tsiolkas’ 1996 autobiography with Sasha Soldatow, Jump Cuts, is out of print.

And I worry, too, about the way Australian writers are always having to start from scratch, tabula rasa, with each new book. Even when Alison Croggon releases her latest, Monsters, few are able to contextualise it, to compare its resonances with her previous fiction and poetry: those works are all long out of print.

What goes is time.

Malouf, ‘Wild Lemons’

Amid a grotesquerie of mid-twentieth century dentists’ chairs, all the assembled kitsch littering the lobby of The Old Clare, I return the printed notes of Melissa Lucashenko’s Opening Address (some of which contain her handwritten corrections). She tells me I can throw them away. Well. She may as well have told me I could also be responsible for destroying the Library of Alexandria while I was at it. Just chuck them, like it’s no big thing? I hand them back to her. You can throw them away, I say, but I’m not going to.

Before Jason Steger leaves for Naarm, he talks about losing his glasses on the plane ride over. I can’t help remembering Elizabeth Bishop’s poem:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Walking past the Chalmers Street Central Station mural depicting ‘100 years of NSW Rail’, I notice the relative absence of Black, Asian, Lebanese faces.

A lot of people in the hotel are curious about how Nam Le’s writing is going. Once you’ve begun, you can’t begin again.

Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.

John Updike

On the plane, trying to write these words, my pen skating across the page (there’s a little pirouette with every vibration and bump of the aircraft), I remember writing in my father’s four wheel drive, Wongatha country rushing past the window, leaning into each sentence, my pen working against the paper. 

Sometimes, you’re just a name on a ticket. A ship with somewhere to get to, sailing calmly on.

 

Through all those years keeping the present

open to the light of just this moment:

that was the path we found, you might call it

a promise, that starting out among blazed trunks

the track would not lead nowhere, that being set

down here among wild lemons, our bodies were

expected at an occasion up ahead

that would not take place without us.

(Malouf, ‘Wild Lemons’)

 

In He., Murray Bail puts his address down in a book and wonders if anyone will come and say hello. 

To some, David Malouf is just a man trying to figure out which panel he hoped to attend.

 

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

(Elizabeth Bishop, One Art)

 

I said that I first met Malouf in the Green Room, but that was only half true: in fact, he will always be an author I first met, on the page, in Meanjin.