Hear Robert Drewe, Australian author of the prize-winning memoirs The Shark Net and Montebello, as he presents a lecture exploring the complexity of writing a memoir. Hear about the literary, personal and public issues involved in writing this increasingly popular and often misunderstood art form.
2015 Seymour Biography Lecture
Who Me? By Robert Drewe
17 September 2015
National Library of Australia
Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim, Robert Drewe
Cathy Pilgrim: Good evening. Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia and to the annual Seymour Biography Lecture. I’m Cathy Pilgrim, Assistant Director General of the Executive and Public Programs Division here at the Library. As we begin tonight I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
It is a great pleasure to see so many of you here for this year’s Seymour Biography Lecture, an event which is definitely a high point on our spring event calendar. Tonight is the celebration of telling true stories about people’s lives, it is also an opportunity to explore the craft of life writing in all its forms and also how biography can play an important role in not only to help us in understanding the person but also their work.
The Seymour Biography Lecture is named in honour of John and Heather Seymour who are both with us this evening and through their generous support make this lecture possible. John and Heather are passionate supporters of the National Library and also the literary forms that we call biography, autobiography and memoir. While many of us share their passion John and Heather have chosen to express their interest in life writing through their support for this lecture and also for an annual scholarship. For many years now the Seymours have supported a summer scholarship in biography as part of the Library’s fellowship program for young scholars and in doing so helping to develop the life writers of the future. Heather and John, we thank you and we acknowledge you for your ongoing support. Thank you.
We are very privileged this evening to be joined by Robert Drewe to present this year’s lecture. When Robert was 18, just a few years ago, and wishing to become a writer but not knowing who was in charge of writing he joined The West Australian as a cadet reporter. Robert established a career as a well-known columnist, features editor, literary editor and special writer for The Australian and The Bulletin but still in his 20s he turned from journalism to writing fiction. Robert’s novels, short stories and nonfiction have won national and international prizes, been widely translated and been adapted for film, television, radio and theatre. His novels include The Drowner, A Cry in the Jungle Bar, Grace, Our Sunshine and Fortune which won the National Council’s Prize for Fiction at the National Book Council Awards. His short story collections are The Body Surfer, The Rip and The Bay of Contented Men which won a Commonwealth writer’s prize. His new book, The Beach: An Australian Passion, which is proudly published by the National Library, will be released in November 2015. Robert has written two prizewinning memoirs, The Shark Net in which he recalls his childhood and journey to adulthood in suburban Perth in the 1950s and early 1960s and the crime scene of serial killer, Edgar Eric Cooke. Its sequel, Montebello, focuses on the archipelago off the West Australian coast, the site of a series of British nuclear tests in the 1950s. Reality and its representation play a major role in the writing of memoirs and tonight Robert will explore the literary, personal and public issues involved in writing this increasingly popular art form. Please welcome Robert Drewe to present the 2015 Seymour Biography Lecture.
Robert Drewe: Thank you very much and thank you all for coming tonight. I’d like to thank John and Heather Seymour first for enabling me to come here and to talk to you a bit about what it is that I do. I’ve called this lecture Who Me? Because I thought that encompassed memoir writing as well as anything else. Now Fish or Foul, just an autobiography with a more melodious name, a cry for attention, a woe is me self-portrait, a form of revenge, an onanistic confessional exercise, a truth-twisting jaunt closer to fiction, worse, complete fakery, and why does it make critics cranky? No one seems to know what to expect from a memoir or from an autobiography for that matter and those who write them are as uncertain as those who publish them.
The Polish Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, subtitled his memoir a search for self-definition and I dare any Australian writer to put that on their book jacket. Jean-Paul Sartre stressed that his autobiography was nothing but words. Patrick White insisted that his publisher play down his memoir, Floors in the Glass, by stating on the jacket that it was merely a self-portrait in the form of sketches. When they can be bothered to treat it with any seriousness the critic’s most charitable view of the memoir is that it’s an extreme case of self-absorption. Well I beg to differ but sort of, they’re only partly right, memoirs are as diverse as the people who write them. In his wonderfully irritable Harper’s Essay, The Art of Self, Autobiography in An Age of Narcissism William Gass systematically dismembered the memoir 21 years ago. The distinguished American critic began by stating it’s an odd activity, I imagine a blotter soaking up its own absorbency and disappearing like a Cheshire cat by slow degrees. Well after that rather complicated metaphor he really went to town. He wondered rhetorically whether there were any motives for the enterprise that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification. To halo a sinner’s head, he said, to puff an ego already inflated past safety. He went on to say history is now a comic book and autobiography the confessions of celluloid whores and boorish noisemakers whose tabloid lives are presented for our titillation by ghosts still undeservedly alive. Phew.
Now we note that Gass like many modern critics preferred to call all writing about oneself autobiography and to never mention the word memoir. Even while attacking a literary genre or subgenre that had been around for a millennium and a half he couldn’t quite bring himself to acknowledge its separate existence. Incidentally although they’re definitely ... they’ve definitely had a hand in it the memoirs of history’s winners are not solely to blame if history does resemble a comic book. Take the King Richards I and III for example: history has it that I was very good, the other very bad when it was probably the other way round. It wasn’t memoir that turned the vicious, misogynistic King Richard I who spoke only French and in whose adulthood visited England only twice into the beloved iconic figure, Richard the Lionheart. With him military victories led to mythologising. Drama should take some of the heat. After four centuries of brilliant Shakespearean agitprop it turns out that Richard III was neither a wicked tyrannical leader nor a nephew murderer, not even a Machiavellian hunchback. Since his recent emergence from a municipal carpark he’s been reassessed as a brave and thoroughly decent chap with scoliosis.
As it happens William Gass' scathing view of the memoir was hardly a new one. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions scandalised Paris in 1782 with the author’s frank accounts not only of his masochism and enthusiastic masturbation of the non-literary kind but his shameful blaming of a young servant girl for the theft of a ribbon he’d stolen himself from the family they’d both worked for as adolescents. Apparently ribbons were worth stealing in the 18th century. Decades later the only way the renowned philosopher could relieve his youthful guilt at this double sin was to write about it. As he said this burden then has lain unalleviated on my conscience until this very day and I can safely say that the desire to be in some measure relieved of it has greatly contributed to the decision I’ve taken to write my confessions.
Following Rousseau’s Confessions, Edmund Burke criticised the new sort of glory Rousseau had obtained for in bringing to light the obscure and vulgar vices which we know may sometimes be blended with eminent talents. But for better or worse Rousseau had begun the movement of confession into the literary arena, he got a shameful secret off his chest and redemption theory was born.
But the confessional memoir had its beginnings long before. In Roman North Africa in the village of Figasti in what is now Algeria in 371AD when a 16 year old boy raised in a mixed Christiana and pagan family of Berber, Latin and Phoenician blood and with a background of delinquent behaviour pinched some fruit from a neighbour’s tree. As adolescent transgressions go pilfering unripe pears is hardly evil. As he recalled 30 years later he’d been neither hungry nor poor and he didn’t particularly want to eat the pears, he stole them simply to be bad. It was foul and I loved it, he wrote, I loved my own undoing.
As Daniel Mendelsohn, the American memoirist and memoir scholar wrote in a 2010 New Yorker essay, But Enough About Me, however trivial a crime and perverse its motivations this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences for the boy’s future, for the history of Christianity and western philosophy. To this day it even affects the shelf layout, the separate memoir section in your local bookstore. For although the boy eventually straightened himself out and converted to Christianity, the man he became was tortured by the thought of this youthful peccadillo. His desire to seek a larger meaning in his troubled past ultimately moved him to write a starkly honest account of his dissolute early years. He was as disarmingly frank about his prolific sex life as he was about his teenage scrumping and also honest about his stumbling progress towards spiritual transcendence, right up to the climactic moment when by looking inward with what he called his soul’s eye he saw the light, an immutable light higher than my mind and decided to write everything down. The man was St Augustine and his book was also called Confessions and at least one famous quotation from his Confessions is still considered by today’s would-be memoirists: Lord, make me chaste but not yet.
The guilt of two naughty teenage boys, thieves of ribbons and pears, could be said to be responsible for the advent of the confessional memoir. While there had been a long tradition of publishing biographies of famous men’s public endeavours and military derring-do, St Augustine was the first writer to make the accomplishment an interior enterprise and the road to salvation a spiritual one. According to Mendelsohn the arc from utter abjection to improbable redemption, at once deeply personal and appealingly universal, is one that writers have returned to and readers have been insatiable for ever since. From the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance the memoir from the French word meaning memory or reminiscence, was popular with French writers in particular. Two more ancient forerunners of the 20th century war memoir, a popular subgenre of its own, were Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic wars and his commentaries on the civil war in which he describes events during his many battles.
Military leaders especially have been writing their memoirs ever since and from the First World War at least so have the lower ranks. And so have military prisoners including our own David Hicks whose memoir, Guantanamo, My Journey, details his arrest on terrorism charges and his five and a half years in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
All autobiographies are lies, pronounced George Bernard Shaw. I do not mean unconscious unintentional lies, I mean deliberate lies. Shaw went on to say no man is bad enough to tell the truth himself during his lifetime, involving as it must the truth about his family and friends and colleagues. And no man is good enough to tell the truth in a document which he suppresses until there is nobody left alive to contradict him.
Clive James, author of Unreliable Memoirs, agrees with Shaw. James by the way is one of the top three bestselling Australian memoirists, the others being those most incongruent authors, Albert Facey, author of A Fortunate Life, and Errol Flynn, author of My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Amusingly frank as ever James declared that all attempts to put oneself in a bad light are doomed to be frustrated, the ego arranges the bad light to its own satisfaction as indeed did he, beginning with the leeway granting title of his Unreliable Memoirs.
I’m reminded here of a quotation credited to John Cheever. When asked by an earnest interviewer I suppose you’re your own severest critic he replied not at all, I’m forced to say I have many fiercer critics than myself. Speaking of ego, when Sigmund Freud was invited by an American publisher to write his autobiography he replied with customary serenity, and fairly disingenuously, quite an impossible suggestion, outwardly my life has passed calmly and uneventfully and can be covered by a few dates. Maybe outwardly but the Freud life story was maybe a little more complex within. In a letter to a relative, Freud said that the $5,000 advance the publisher offered him, $70,000 in today’s money, was a hundredth of the sum he’d need, $7 million in today’s money, to entice him into such a reckless project. Such a huge publisher’s advance wasn’t forthcoming enabling Freud to take the high ground and declare that a psychologically completed honest confession of my life would require so much indiscretion on my part as well as that of others about family, friends and enemies ... most of them are still alive ... that it’s simply out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless, he went on, is their mendacity. Clearly his life wasn’t just a matter of couch dates crossed off his appointment book.
Already we’ve noticed that most of these eminent people refer to autobiography rather than memoir. A case could be made for autobiography being the overarching genre but if not a separate category, memoir is a definite subgenre. In fact it predated the autobiography as we know it and the novel for that matter by hundreds of years. So how does a memoir differ from an autobiography? The line between them might seem blurry but put simply an autobiography tells a story of a life whereas as a memoir tells a story from a life. An autobiography tells a life story from go to whoa or certainly right up to the back stretch. It’s a chronological telling of the author’s entire existence, often even before conception to the moment of the book’s publication. It includes the phases of childhood, adolescence and adulthood and can often begin a generation or two before conception, often going right back to the subject’s grandparents. And it’s expected to include all the major details of his or her public and private life.
A memoir on the other hand with its narrower, more intimate and dramatic focus descries selected memories of benchmark events, emotions and turning points in the author’s life. With a memoir the author has questioned what happened and has come to some sort of understanding about how he or she now sees the world. Memories are typically less formal, less encompassing, less obsessed with factual events and more concerned with the emotional truth of a particular portion of one’s life whereas autobiography is focused on detailed chronology, events, places and people that have inhabited the life of the subject.
Now I must admit that when I see or hear the word autobiography my mind turns immediately to the writing of retired politicians and test cricketers and I think not of literature but of father’s day. As do publishers who time these books’ release accordingly, a couple of months ahead of the usual pre-Christmas general release thus putting the books in the same retail category as a new tie or a nice bottle of red and even displayed in David Jones alongside them.
Interestingly there’s also a female counterpart of Father’s Day memoirs. In April in time for Mother’s Day in May publishers release female memoirs which are known in the publishing industry as WOTOs, their initials, WOTO standing for women overcoming the odds, a very popular genre. WOTOs typically record the memoirs of widows left to look after a struggling cattle station in the outback or who’ve sailed singlehandedly around the world or climbed Everest or saved endangered species or of celebrities whose men have dumped them, sadder but wiser they’re all the better now the bastard has gone.
In the case of politicians’ books dull titles like Afternoon Light (Sir Robert Menzies), The Good Fight (Wayne Swan), Cabinet Diary (Gareth Evans), and Battle Lines (Tony Abbott) spring to mind. Solemn titles that not only tell me this politician has fought the good fight but make me feel I’ve read the book many times already. Only one of these books however, Mark Latham’s turgid-sounding but explosive memoir, Diaries, threw that idea out the window.
On the memoirs of cricketers I find myself wondering if they or their editors can possibly come up with a new pun involving both cricket and retirement. At The Close of Play, Over But Not Out, Standing My Ground, Over To Me, Line and Strength, To The Point, Bowled Over, Crossing the Boundary and Time to Declare have all been recent popular cricket book titles. Incidentally as Time to Declare has been used as a title three times already by Mark Taylor, Michael Vaughan and Basil D’Oliveira, it really is time for time to declare to declare.
In a recent Meanjin article, the go-to publisher for Australian politicians, Louise Adler of Melbourne University Publishing, shed an intriguing light on contemporary political memoirs. She reveals that these books are rarely produced without considerable editorial support, the unacknowledged ghost writer, the credited co-author, advisors, researchers, fact-checkers and a legion of loyal staff. The author in this case is in what semioticians might call an unstable category, an unusually capacious term that permits a looser definition than in other genres. Of course these memoirs were usually penned in defeat or retirement, in the gloomy afterlife beyond the heady pressures of the political maelstrom. An interesting process for the publisher, she says, is persuading or sometimes dissuading a politician to write them.
Initially flattered by the publisher’s invitation most politicians were then intimidated by the word length required, they frequently felt ambivalence towards their colleagues and restrained by party loyalties. She said whether retirement has been imposed or chosen the process of writing one’s memoirs seems to involve picking at scabs. Point-scoring is an art not always easy to resist. Politicians had remarkably long and detailed memories for insults, slights, frustrations and the failings of others. According to Louise Adler, and this will come as no news to anyone in the city, in this room, Labor politicians tended to be equal opportunity avengers, enemies in their own party are as worthy of exposure as those across the ideological divide. Liberal politicians on the other hand usually pretend and play nice to their own. Perhaps it’s the cheery clubbishness of a private school education, she says, but Liberal politicians share a conviction that theirs is the natural party of government and the enemy without is their focus. She reminds us that the memoir is the last opportunity for the politicians to secure a place in history. Delusional perhaps but this is the last chance to seize the microphone to record their achievements for posterity. As Winston Churchill famously said history will be kind to me for I intend to write it. And he was right. In spades. In 1953 his version of history won literature’s Nobel Prize for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.
Political memoirs might be unreliable first drafts of history but according to Louise Adler it’s precisely their unreliability that makes for riveting reading. She gives some examples. The British Labour politician, Dennis Healy, in his memoir The Time of My Life compared managing the foreign secretary to the strain of acting as psychiatric nurse to a patient who was often violent. A memoir by Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff revealed disturbingly that the First Lady’s astrologer influence the president’s encounters. The staffer ... the ex-staffer then revealed that Reagan thought Forrest Gump was a documentary.
Anyone who imagines a political memoir to be objective, fair or even accurate is naïve, Adler says. The political memoir is unabashedly myopic, subjective and reflexively partisan. Read with this caveat however the genre continues to deliver riches. Mark Latham’s diaries offended most of his colleagues and party loyalists however Adler says the diaries provided a passionate account of Labor party culture at the start of the 21st century and for students of parliamentary politics the book would remain a remarkable primary source. All of which suggests to me the words of Mr Dye in Anthony Trollope’s, The Bertrams: in politics one should always look forward, he said, as he held up to the light the glass of old port which he was about to sip. In real life it is better to look back if one has anything to look back at.
Gore Vidal gave his definition of the two genres in his own memoir, Palimpsest. A memoir is how one remembers one’s life while an autobiography is history requiring research dates and facts double-checked. So a memoir is something a bit livelier with secrets revealed and a more intimate focus and there in a nutshell we have what it is about the memoir that bothers the veracity squad. Memory is a flawed thing, they grumble, at best it’s a slippery slope. Unless you've carried a recorder around with you for your whole life or have a photographic memory there’s no way that the dialogue in your memoir can be factual. How to answer that? And does it matter or change the essence of the book, that Hunter S Thompson might actually have taken fewer tabs of acid the weekend that prompted Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or that due to forgetfulness Errol Flynn’s tally of starlets, waitresses and boarding school maids was a few score short of the true mark. Or that in her memoir, The Story of My Life, Helen Keller described in great detail becoming deaf and blind at the age of 19 months, a stage at which neurologists and psychologists say it’s highly unusual for us to retain memories. But only she knew the truth.
Of course there are plenty of examples of so-called memoirs that have completely departed from the truth, the literary hoax from Ern Malley to Helen Demidenko via a string of other writers who have faked either their race or their story has a long tradition in Australia. Perhaps topped off by the memoirs of the ex-criminal Mark Chopper Reid who wrote 13 of them, with help. We remember Demidenko, then actually Helen Darville and now Helen Dale, a Queenslander of English parentage alternately embarrassing, then infuriating the local literary establishment in 1994 with The Hand That Signed the Paper. This was the multi prizewinning, supposedly autobiographical knowledge of a student’s discovery or her family’s bleak wartime history as peasants in Ukraine under Stalinism and their so-called liberation by Nazi invasion. Here the criticism wasn’t so much for the writing ... it was a novel ... but for the author’s Ukrainian masquerade including wearing national costume to receive Australia’s biggest literary prizes including the Miles Franklin and the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal plus the book’s perceived antisemitism. I have a vivid memory of her at the winner’s table dressed in a peasant blouse and brushing her long blonde ... pale blo ... long pale blonde hair while being presented with the Australian Vogel Literary Award.
A more recent scandal centred on the international bestseller Forbidden Love by Norma Khouri, the supposed story of her relationship with Dalia, her best friend in Jordan who fell in love with a Christian soldier, Michael. When Dalia’s Muslim father discovered the chaste relationship he stabbed Dalia to death in a frenzy in a so-called honour killing. Khouri wrote of her lifelong friendship with Dalia in Jordan, how her own life was in danger under the patriarchal Muslim system that protected Dalia’s male relatives and how she had to be smuggled out of Jordan to become a standard bearer for oppressed Arab women. Her book became a template for a rush of similar stories. Her hoax was uncovered after long investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald reporter, Malcolm Knox, who revealed Khouri, real name Norma Toliopoulis, had lived in Jordan only until the age of three, was an American citizen and had lived in Chicago ever since.
No matter how lame it sounds all the writer can do is stress the first rule of memoir, that you shouldn’t lie. And the veracity squad then say yeah, yeah but we all know memory is flawed. For example just picture a family Christmas dinner with several generations present and notice that everyone around the table has a different perspective on a particular incident in the past. And the serious memoirist will then say, a little self-righteously, but I tried to accurately and ethically reflect the intention of what was said and done and the veracity squad will stomp away unconvinced. But what’s the alternative? Have the memoirists and their families wear wires to ensure their lives are recorded with 100% accuracy? Transcribe everything into a public record with nothing edited or crafted? Never dramatise a particular person into a standout character even though in your mind they were? No abusive priest or brutal former teacher would ever feel threatened under such a boring documentation procedure. No creepy uncle, unfaithful ex-spouse or alcoholic father would ever feel betrayed. However as long as writers have the desire not to simply record real life but to transform it into literature this scenario seems highly unlikely.
Another difficulty for critics is that while memoirs might strive for the art of fiction they’re not believed capable of achieving the meaning found in novels. But there’s an irony here when novels are often dismissed for the sin of being memoir dressed as fiction. However I think there’s one excellent reason why a writer might choose to present something in memoir form rather than in fiction: it’s because the story is better that way. This was definitely the case with four standout Australian memoirs. Raymond Gaita's Romulus, My Father, Sally Morgan’s My Place, Timothy Conigrave’s Holding The Man and Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life. They achieved meaning as true stories, as memoir rather than fiction and our national culture would be infinitely poorer without them. On the other hand Danni Minogue’s memoir, My Story, in which she reveals the truth behind her divorce to Julian McMahon and her arguments on the panel of The X Factor might have done the book no harm at all.
In 2000 I felt I should record certain chaotic events that occurred in my Perth suburban community and in our family home in the 1960s and I began writing my memoir, The Shark Net. I certainly wasn’t a writer keen to rush into a memoir, or to write a factual story for that matter, but 35 years while I published novels and short stories, these events seemed both too powerful and too confusing to fully disclose. They didn’t need to be transformed into something more artful or with more meaning or with more attention given to the writer. If anything I thought the way to deal with and understand the chaos of that time was not to emphasise ego, as memoirists are accused of doing, but to minimise it as much as possible and in doing so to reproduce the dazed confusion of the 18 year old boy who was unwillingly near the centre of big events but at the farthest removed from controlling them.
The encompassing story in The Shark Net was the five-year rampage of a serial killer, Eric Cooke, who is still embedded in West Australian folklore for killing eight complete strangers including a friend of mine, John Sturkey, while he slept. The police were out of their depth looking for eight different killers because Eric Cooke killed in so many different ways, by gun, hatchet, knife, scissors, blunt instruments and motor vehicles. He was a murderer who worked for my father and was a regular visitor to our home officially by day and unofficially as a masked and gloved prowler by night. Meanwhile the community panic he caused, my father and I were among many adult and teenage males fingerprinted as potential murder suspects, was mirrored in our household by a simultaneous domestic chaos that culminated in the sudden death of my mother.
Now I doubt that the story in The Shark Net would have been ... had more meaning if I’d turned it into a novel, it was already exuding meaning from every pore. In fact I found it difficult to keep the meaning restrained. Some true stories are best kept true. Having said that there are a couple of chapters in the book that are clearly fiction. In one I reimagined a real incident in Cooke’s pre-murdering days when as a young show-off rejected at a dance by posh girls because of his hair lip he dived fully clothed into the Swan River and swam across it. And in another I imagined his reaction while on death row in Fremantle Prison on hearing the news relayed to him by warders that his first son, Michael, a mentally retarded boy, had walked into the river and drowned. They were fictionalised fact because I had no way of checking with Cooke, he’d been hanged in 1964, but they were fiction based on what I gathered about his life and behaviour from long interviews I conducted with his widow and second son. It was important to me to show him as a human being and not just as a grim headline, a hair-lipped serial killer. As it happened nothing I’d written before or have written since has had such a big reader reaction. The Shark Net was published 15 years ago and about once a week, and more often when I’m in Western Australia, someone still either writes to me about the book or collars me in person to discuss it.
This brings up the two questions most asked about writing a memoir. How do you remember things that happened so long ago? And what’s the reaction of people you’ve written about? All I can answer is that I’ve got one of those memories that easily recalls trivia and emotions and incidents from childhood but forgets passwords and the name of someone I met only yesterday. But what I recalled in The Shark Net and in the second memoir, Montebello, was so emotion-charged there was no chance I’d ever forget it. Having said that of course I check dates and names and important events to make sure I’ve got them right because there’s always someone who will rush in to correct you.
There is no one quite as self-righteous as a pedantic reader, especially an amateur historian, a burgeoning retirement occupation, as I found when the newspaper files in Perth Battye Library provided the name of the cox in the Scotch College rowing crew who was killed by a bull shark in the Swan River in 1923 as Charles Robinson which I wrote. Not at all, said my complainant, beginning a correspondence between us that lasted several years during which he continued to demand the book be withdrawn from sale and pulped. He insisted the name was Charles Robertson.
As for my relatives’ reaction to being named in a memoir,this potential problem didn’t come up. An important facet of my memoirs ... lucky for the memoirist, deeply troubling for my youthful self ... being my parents’ untimely early deaths. Frankly this underlines one common feature of the memoir, I’d say that in 99% of memoirs the writer waits until the parents are dead. In the case of The Shark Net I should mention there was one very well-known complainant, the American evangelist, Billy Graham. In the book I recalled attending his crusade in the Perth Showgrounds with my mother in 1959. She was swept away by charisma ... by his charisma. I remained firmly in my seat. For some strange reason the Graham organisation denied he’d ever been to Perth. I supplied newspaper cuttings and photographs that show him on stage in the Perth Showgrounds and of the 40,000 people who turned up and the complainant went away.
There was one other conceivable problem I thought in mentioning in unusual circumstances the name of my closest childhood friend. One day when we were nine years old he remarked to me thoughtfully that he wished he could remember what it was like to suck his mother’s breasts. I didn’t take much notice, he was always saying things like that. Next day he said well I found out. What? How? He’d asked his mother to remind him. You’re nine years old, I said. So what? And she’s old. So? There was a fairly long silence then I asked well what was it like? He thoughtfully examined a wart on his thumb. It was okay, no milk, of course. Anyway I wrote about this highly unusual conversation changing my friend’s name in the book to Nick Howell to save him embarrassment and save me a potential libel suit. The Shark Net was duly published; I was on the publicity tour and speaking about the book at a reception at Perth Sheraton Hotel. At the end of my spiel the chairperson invited questions from the audience. To my shock a frowning middle-aged man shot to his feet and in his mature face and heavier body I discerned the former nine-year-old boy whom I’d called Nick Howell. I have a question, he said sternly, his voice echoing ‘round the hotel reception room. In the book you wrote about me sucking my mother’s breasts when I was nine. That’s right, you got that right. Why didn’t you use my real name?
While most stories enjoy the freedom of fiction, some stories need limitations like the overarching first person voice from the past and the pressure of truth and the unique byplay that occurs in a memoir between the present and the past. In his essay Reflection and Retrospection, the distinguished American critic, Philip LaPorte, sees these so-called handicaps as advantages. In writing memoir the trick it seems to me, he says, is to establish the double perspective which will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity. And the critic, Sven Birkerts’ in The Art of Time and Memoir, adds memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning, with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.
Now here’s a case where I agree with the critics about a literary memoir not matching the author’s fiction. Many like me found Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, a disappointing semi-failure. Rushdie’s alias while he was on the run from the Iranian fatwah was chosen from the combination of the names of his illustrious literary heroes Conrad and Chekhov. Despite this little conceit Joseph Anton didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, match the literary magnificence of his two prizewinning novels Midnight’s Children and Shame as the critics rightly complained. Joseph Anton was as pompous as it was intermittently gripping with Rushdie’s referring to himself throughout in the third person like a rugby league footballer and a TV interviewer. Perhaps this was his delayed reaction to the grim events that turned him into the world’s biggest literary celebrity. Perhaps unfairly we expected more meaning from such a long running human interest news story that had already supplied just about everything that drama had to offer.
And perhaps we felt mildly queasy that Rushdie’s ego was so obvious and so ordinary as to be delighted by such things as his cameo appearance in the chick flick Bridget Jones’ Diary. We expected more of him. As he wrote of himself acting was his unscratched itch. But the lack of intuitive reflection isn’t the only point. It’s not that I think his story of living under the Ayatollah’s fatwah, of being on the run from a death sentence for more than a decade for offending Islam with The Satanic Verses should only have been dealt with as fiction, it’s about as powerful a story as one could imagine. I just think his memoir should have been a better memoir.
As it is Joseph Anton succeeds as an insight into Rushdie’s considerable self-esteem under extreme pressure and I must say who of us could have withstood similar tensions and for so long. It’s indicative of Joseph Anton that some reviewers passed quickly over the intense human drama and concentrated on the frivolous revelations of his affairs and those of his allegedly wayward wives. And on the juicy literary gossip. For example, the first morning of the fatwah is also the day of Bruce Chatwin’s funeral and in the church Rushdie sits next to Martin Amis and Paul Theroux who says I suppose we’ll be here for you next week, Salman.
Rushdie is hardly the first enormously gifted novelist to have his memoirs shafted by the critics. Patrick White still gets a pasting in some quarters for Flaws in the Glass published in 1981. According to Richard Davenport-Hines in The Spectator in 2012, and I’m quoting, his spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s. Davenport-Hines urged new readers of White to go instead to the masterpieces of his midcareer; these are thunderingly powerful, full of emotional depth and grandeur, epigrammatic and ironic with brilliant scrutiny of human characters and motives. In contrast Flaws in the Glass is an ugly book.
Another English literary magazine sulked because White hadn’t written enough about being homosexual. The South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer entered the fray declaring ‘I should have been disappointed if he’d written more about being a homosexual than about becoming and being a writer.’ She went on to wonder: is autobiography the story of a personality or the work that has made the subject an object of sufficient public interest to merit writing about him or herself? If the subject is an artist, she went on, and in particular a writer for whom the act is performed in the medium of his own art, what one wants and expects is a revelation of the mysterious incest between life and art. Maybe there was some consolation for White in that according to his biographer, David Marr, Flaws in the Glass outsold all the famous novels proving, as if we didn’t know already, not only that many readers prefer nonfiction but they prefer nonfiction full of vengeful waspish gossip.
But for every Rushdie and White accused of failing to imbue their memoirs with the same meaning as their novels there are of course hordes of famous examples of fiction writers who did so. Here’s a few random examples, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Graeme Green’s A Sort of Life, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, The Diaries of Samuel Peeps, Hemingway’s Immovable Feast, Robert Grave’s Good-Bye to All That, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Paul Auster’s Winter Journal. And of course there are famous entirely meaningful memoirs, never out of print from previously unpublished writers like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and T D Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Twenty years ago James Atlas in the New York Times asked why this pull towards the anatomy of self? He said it reflected a phenomenon pervasive in western culture, people confessing in public to an audience of voyeurs. The notion of privacy, of a region beyond the reach of public probing had become a foreign concept, he went on, and the culture of narcissism had been replaced by the culture of confession. It was a phenomenon that transcended high and low, the media revelled in the sexual peccadilloes of magnets of movie stars. Why should aspirance to literature be immune to this climate of unbridled candour? Writers no longer needed to furtively disguise their transgressions as fiction. Famously Atlas wrote that if Proust were writing today about his penchant for observing handsome young men sticking hat pins in live rats he wouldn’t hide behind the narrator of his novel, Remembrance of Things Past. The book would be a memoir. Would that necessarily be wrong? As Robert Lowell, the American poet, put it: why not say what happened?
What can lie behind the critical disapproval of memoirs is the literary theorist’s resentment that a genre exists that encourages the author not to sit anonymously and invisibly behind the text but to stand centre stage in full light. To have the audacity to choose which portions of his or her life to emphasise also gives offence. Who do you think you are? What do you think you’re doing? These are not the parts the critics would have chosen. Any novelist can be downcast by an inept review that marks him or her down for not choosing a subject that interests the critic more. Sheltering behind his review the critic yawns dismissively, I like chess, Carlton Football Club and inner-city living and you’ve gone and written a novel about fishing in the Arafura Sea. Sorry. They can’t grant the writers their material. It’s clear that they want them to have written a different book. How much worse than for a memoir writer when those sort of reviewers want the writer to have lived a different life?
In their reviews of my second novel ... second memoir, Montebello, a couple of critics, who I’ve never met, vigorously suggested they knew more about me than I did and corrected me on this shortcoming. They went on to accuse me of only writing about myself to which I confess yeah, you got me, my memoirs about me. Thanks. Thank you.
Cathy Pilgrim: Thank you very much, Robert, for your extraordinary personal, entertaining and enlightening lecture this evening. We do have time for a few questions from the audience. Perhaps there’s a couple of your childhood friends here who have a question for you but if not I'm happy to open up to the audience for any questions. If you have a question please raise your hand, we’ve got some microphones for you so that everyone can hear any questions so over to you, yes, just here.
Audience member: I’d just like to ask you what is your opinion of the ABC series The Shark Net?
Robert Drewe: What was my opinion?
Audience member: Yeah.
Robert Drewe: I thought it was pretty good, I liked it very much.
Audience member: Yeah, I thought it was fantastic.
Robert Drewe: They did ... there was a lot of ... with the ABC ... struggles to compete with the commercial channels and also with movies obviously but there was ... it looked good. I know from my dealings with the people involved how important they saw it at the time and I thought they did a great job. The o ... there were a few little quibbles. When people ... when stylists look in ... the stylists are all aged 24 or 25 ... when they look at a period like the ‘60s they see it as ancient history and that we’re all riding penny-farthings and so forth. I was asked by the ABC to ... I was invited, it was very kind of them, to go through their wardrobe department and choose the clothes that my parents would have worn in that time, the clothes my father would have worn to work, my mother’s clothes that she’d wear around the house and I chose things ... it was a very moving experience and I chose exactly the sort of things they would have worn but they didn’t use any of them because one of the stylists had gone to Vogue of 1964 or something and saw what stylish women were wearing, had ... so had my mother making bloody toast with a little hat on her head. And also in the church service you know which was moving, the church service at her funeral anyway, seeing it again wasn’t you know was pretty hard to bear. It was only made easy by the fact that it was ridiculous. They had all the men with ha ... you know we were Christians, we were Presbyterians ... all the m ... every single man in the room had a hat on, the same hat and all pointing ... ‘cause the director wanted a nice angle ... all pointing in the same way. So all the men were the same height, they all had the same hat on and their angle ... their hats were all on at a particular angle. It would have taken hours to arrange for the congregation. But apart from things like that it was good, no, it was good.
Audience member: Robert, what did you say to your childhood friend in the huge auditorium? And did you catch up later?
Robert Drewe: We did catch up and I hadn’t seen him for years before that but we’ve now ... we’re close friends again which is good. I haven’t asked him any more personal questions, though. If anyone wants any books signed or anything later I’d be happy to do that.
Audience member: Thank you, Robert. That’s .. that little anecdote about your childhood friend reminds me to ask what do you think about passing the anecdotes or the writing or whatever past the person that you’re writing about to see whether you know you are risking libel and whether they do want their name used?
Robert Drewe: Oh I don’t think much of that.
Audience member: Tell me why. Tell me why.
Robert Drewe: It depends how good the anecdote is. Although obviously if I’d passed ... if I’d passed that to Nick Howell he would have been enthusiastic about it, his name appearing. I don’t know how ... I mean of course there are you know I do have reservations, there are certain things I wouldn’t mention in a family, things I wouldn’t mention because they’d be too hurtful. I wouldn’t embarrass my children or loved ones you know really. But things that have passed and I think growing up in that period, I mean it was so unusual that you know I think everything really was open slather, basically. There’s a lady there in the pink, you ..?
Audience member: I’m not sure ... yes, it is on. Sorry, I’m not actually someone you knew in childhood but I am from Western Australia, I'm really sorry. But something that’s very exciting in our family is that you actually mention my great-aunt in Leon Road at the beginning of the book. Apparently you and some friends pissed up on her moss, on her fence and it all got ... so I can’t remember on what page it was, we were all terribly excited because we’re in you know we’re in literature. But what ... my late great ... she is my late great-aunt so she was deceased before 2000 so I don’t know what her thoughts were on it but ...
Robert Drewe: It wasn’t me, it was Nick Howell.
Audience member: Now we know. But now I’m a bit concerned that she may not have been Miss Thomas, you may have used another name for her, that’s one thing but also I’m just wondering whether you’ve actually got any memories of her because I would actually quite like those memories if you’ve got them.
Robert Drewe: She lived with her old mother, didn’t she?
Audience member: Yes, yes, she would have done.
Robert Drewe: Yes. Yeah, I do have a few memories. Sure. Sure. I’m sorry about the moss.
Cathy Pilgrim: Well ladies and gentlemen, we have run out of time this evening but I do hope you can join us upstairs in the foyer for refreshments and as Robert has kindly said he’s agreeable to signing copies of his books and tonight you have the wonderful opportunity to purchase pre-release copies of The Beach: An Australian Passion which is out for Christmas as well as many of other Robert’s titles from the Library bookshop with a 10% discount, of course. Please also join me again in thanking Heather and John Seymour for supporting tonight’s lecture. Thank you.
Cathy Pilgrim: I would also like to take the opportunity to thank Peter Rose and his team at the Australian Book Review for their ongoing support for the lecture over many years. We’re delighted that Robert is presenting the Seymour Biography Lecture again in Melbourne on 11th of November in association with the Australian Book Review and the City of Melbourne. It is through the generous support of our friends and supporters that we are able to host wonderful events such as tonight’s lecture. Supporting the Library is done in many ways, by being a volunteer, by being a member of our Friends, through donations, sponsorships and bequests. It also comes from attending events like tonight’s. If you love the Library, if you are passionate about history, information, literature and telling Australian stories I invite you to think about how you might support us from a single donation to a lifetime as a patron your contribution will enable all Australians to experience the Library’s collections. Finally I would like to ... especially like to thank once again our inspiring, challenging and entertaining 2015 Seymour Biography lecturer, Robert Drewe. Thank you, Robert.
End of recording