Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth was a big deal when it came out in Australia in 2004. His previous novels had given him a following, but The White Earth was the winner of the Miles Franklin Prize, Australia’s richest literary award, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. The book is a multigenerational tale in which the generations collide. Young William and his mother are cast from their homestead in Queensland when William’s father burns to death in a farming accident. They are taken in by William’s cranky great uncle, John McIvor, who lives holed up in a decrepit mansion on what’s left of what was once a great homestead called Kuran Station. There is still enough land left at the Station to lust after though, and William’s sickly but greedy mother sets out to make sure that William will be the heir to his hermit uncle. The main action of the book takes place in 1992 and is filled with what I understand to be the political questions of that time, mostly having to do with compensating aborigines for the ancestral land that was taken from him. All of this makes old John McIvor something of a crank, obsessed with protecting his land and leader of a fringe organization whose membership has racist tendencies fueled by fears that cityfolk will allow their farms to be taken away. Luckily McGahan provides flashbacks to the life of young John McIvor so we can see how Kuran Station, taken from him when he was young and regained after middle age, became his life’s obsession. Though not as masterful as other books in this same mold and a bit heavyhanded in the use of certain images (men on fire), The White Earth is an enjoyable epic of the struggle for land Down Under.
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.I recently bought Aleksandar Hemon’s latest book, The Lazarus Project, on a whim. Always a sucker for fiction with photographs I had not heard of the book, Hemon’s name a vague item on a mental list of contemporary authors I’ve been told to read. The jacket copy raves about Hemon’s ability to invigorate the English language, his second language, telling the two stories that comprise the novel.The book’s title makes itself an obvious choice as the two parallel narratives unfold: one shadows Vladimir Brik, an expatriated Bosnian living in Chicago under the pall of the war on terror; the other makes fiction of a historical event, the 1908 killing of Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch by the Chicago chief of police. Both stories concern themselves with returns that unlike the title’s biblical namesake cannot be resurrected.We meet Brik at a Chicago celebration of Bosnia’s Independence Day where he unexpectedly reunites with his old friend from Sarajevo, Rora, who unlike Brik suffered through the Bosnian War. Married to an American neurosurgeon, writing a newspaper column about expatriate experiences and working on a novel, the American life Brik has built for himself since his 1992 arrival in Chicago is one of a self-inflicted, guilty complacency. Rora, a photographer, shares a worldview more aligned with a resignation to struggle indicative of something that not even America’s abundance can slake: “a poor people’s affliction: the timeless feeling that plenty never means enough.”Brik receives a grant so he can travel to Eastern Europe to research his novel about Lazarus Averbuch, planning to retrace the immigrant’s path to America, which is signposted by pogroms and refugee camps. Brik decides to bring Rora along, and the journey becomes a homecoming of sorts. What both narratives share in common is the fact that home is not a place one can always return to, or find it easy to create elsewhere.Using newspaper clippings and imagination, Hemon’s examination of the circumstances resulting in the death of Lazarus focuses on Olga, the only person in Chicago that really knew her brother. Speculation about anarchist leanings and the persistent bigotry that neither Olga nor her brother could escape cloud the actuality of what really happened to Lazarus, the police and the press favoring their assumptions over the facts.It is here at this intersection of history and imagination where the two stories weave in and out of one another. For Olga, as news of her brother’s slaying evolves into an issue of great civic import, she has no way of knowing what really happened to her brother, and therefore cannot fathom how to break the news to their mother, who is still in Europe. The lack of any objective clarity about Lazarus inspires speculations about the man he had become, the friends he made, the meetings he attended, as contrasted with her memories of their happy pre-pogrom upbringing. On a grander scale, this inability to connect the dots, or even discern them, speaks to the development of the American experiment during the early 20th century, something that was in full swing but nearly impossible to decipher.For Brik, his imaginative indulgences not only make stark the rift between history and imagination, but also reveal his solipsistic selfishness. The ostensible reason for this trip is to learn about the past, the personal history that delivered Lazarus to his demise. But before Brik and Rora leave, intimations are made that for Brik, it is only about him. Rora’s presence is not so much about companionship but to serve as a foil for Brik to absolve his guilt about not staying in Sarajevo.Discovering Lazarus Averbuch’s past becomes a secondary activity as Brik and Rora shuttle through the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bosnia. As Rora does little more than drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and snap photographs, Brik is either considering his marriage or needling Rora about the sordid details of wartime life. Both lines of questioning reveal the inadequacies Brik sees in himself, though it doesn’t seem that anyone else sees them in him.The photographs in the book – a mix of images shot by Velibor Bozovic and culled from the Chicago Historical Society – separate the chapters, which trade back and forth between the two narratives. The photographs do correspond with the two plots, but they also insinuate vagueness. Rora and the photographs he takes serve in the same capacity within the context of the book. Photographs rely on the imagination of the viewer. Whatever photographers see in a scene they shoot, whatever they do or do not capture, they are present at the moment of the photograph, but the viewer is not.Before Brik and Rora depart, Brik reminisces about his pre-American life: “The one thing I remembered and missed from the before-the-war Sarajevo was a kind of unspoken belief that everyone could be whatever they claimed they were – each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside.”This internal validation defines Brik and his quixotic quest. His endless string of questions for Rora (which for most of the book Rora deflects with jokes) finally results in Rora calling out his travel companion: “Even if you knew what you want to know, you would still know nothing. You ask questions, you want to know more, but no matter how much more I tell you, you will never know anything.”After a booze-fueled argument with his wife, Brik is locked out of their home, leaving him to wander. Having nowhere to go gets him thinking about “home.” Without home, everywhere is nowhere. Later, he defines home as a place where people miss you when you are gone. But, where Brik wants to be missed is a place where no one knows him.In The Lazarus Project, birthmarks rhyme with eye color; sparking bottles overflowing from a dumpster elicit pleasure; twiggy arms emerge from sleeves like tongues; Jesus is either “Mr. Christ” or a “nailed gymnast;” sunflowers are coy, despair “brick-thick.” The lively writing makes for a vivid read that casts a glaring light on the horrors of pogroms and the Bosnian War and what was left in their wakes. Some of the book’s most intriguing ideas are not followed through, however, because of Brik’s single-mindedness, which eclipses the Lazarus Averbuch story, leaving us with a character who cares only about himself.
It isn’t easy being the son of a famous man of letters. One has to be on guard from adolescence. When Matthew Spender was in boarding school, he let slip in a conversation with a friend that he didn’t know where Bloomsbury was. Shortly thereafter, a snarky bulletin appeared in the school’s literary magazine: “Spender, son of Stephen, asks, ‘where is Bloomsbury?’” Little wonder that Matthew would turn to the visual arts, writing to Spender père, eminent poet, that he is “[t]rying to unlearn the habit of thinking in words.” Take that, Dad.
In Joseph Brodsky’s tribute to Spender, “In Memory of Stephen Spender,” we see an adult Matthew mourning at his father’s funeral: “Matthew screws the bolts into the coffin lid. He fights tears, but they are winning. One can’t help him; nor do I think one should. This is a son’s job.” A House in St. John’s Wood: In Search of My Parents, Matthew’s perceptive, absorbing account of growing up in a family at the center of “literary London,” commences with Matthew presiding over the deceased body of his other parent, the pianist Natasha Spender (née Litvin.) As he waits for the undertaker to arrive, Matthew sketches her. Something strange happens: “The drawings came out angrier and angrier. Was this my feeling, or hers?”
Given that Natasha had drawn up papers excluding Matthew from the Spender literary estate — fearing that her son would lay bare family secrets — the feeling was at least partly hers. (The papers, unsigned, are tossed.) And Matthew soon gives her a reason to be even angrier. Disregarding her mother’s request that her papers be destroyed unopened immediately upon her death, Matthew discovers a cache of “passionate” letters between her and Raymond Chandler. In possession of new material, Matthew summons both his parents back to life in his memoir, partly to get the last word in: “This book started as an imaginary conversation with the ghosts of two parents whom I never challenged while they were still alive.”
Matthew had a touch of the biographer about him from childhood, adopting a neutral stance towards his parents’ fraught relationship early on: “I have no say in this matter. I must keep out of it. After all, for better or worse, the family works. Odd decision for someone so young but I never went back on it.” Stay out of it he did, but that’s not to say he wasn’t intensely observing them. “My children are going to curse me with their total recall,” his father had joked, and that total recall proves useful in attempting to answer the several knotty questions at the heart of the book: How did his mother cope with her husband’s homosexual affairs? What went on between her and an infatuated Raymond Chandler? And what did Stephen know about the CIA’s involvement in funding, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the magazine Encounter, which he helped edit from 1953 until 1966?
This latter is the key question haunting Matthew because it touches on his father’s artistic integrity:
…Encounter, for me, stands for the parts of my father’s life that are the real enemies of literary promise: the contamination of art by power, the ambiguous role of the intellectual in society and the political relationship of England with the United States. Encounter in my mind stands for Temptation.
The American Melvin Lasky, another one of Encounter’s editors, knew full well that the Congress for Cultural Freedom was funded by the CIA as part of a program to promote anti-Communist ideas. But Spender, whom Cyril Connolly described as “an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible,” claimed ignorance about the money’s origin. After reviewing the evidence, Matthew finds this entirely plausible, save for one indication of subconscious complicity in a comment his father made 20 years after the scandal erupted: “I knew, somehow I knew.”
On the question of his father’s love life, Matthew accepts the notion that Stephen’s affairs with men were a matter of freedom — personal, political and artistic. When a young Stephen overheard his fellow partygoers in Hamburg refer to him as Unschuldig, or without guilt, he “latched on to this word as a talisman that would guide him through all his future explorations of love. Whatever he did with his body, it would be ‘without guilt.’” These guilt-free explorations, Stephen felt, were vital to his creative powers, and thus while Matthew fully acknowledges the unfairness to his mother, he understands his father’s commitment to infidelity, as it were. As a poet, Stephen wanted both stimulation and stability, or as Matthew puts it, “the impossible: amour fou in a family niche.”
How to rebel against an Unschuldig father? Through faithfulness of course. At the age of 16 Matthew enters into a lifelong relationship with Maro Gorky, the daughter of the Armenian abstract painter Arshile Gorky. Vivacious and cultured, Maro whirls into the narrative telling stories about everything from meeting Alberto Giacometti and Jean-Paul Sartre to her aversion to orgasms: “Centuries of rape by Kurds and Turks means we [Armenians] have to stay numb, in order to pull ourselves together next morning and tidy up.” No one, not even she, is sure what will come out of her mouth next: “How can I tell what I think until I’ve said it?” the worldly ingénue asks. The Spenders don’t initially warm to the match, but Matthew detects a subtler reproof behind his father’s practical objections:
If I’d starred in a porno movie shot in a cellar in Soho, he would have been secretly amused, because it would have reminded him of his experiences around the docks of Hamburg when he was young. But happy straight coupledom? No, not that!
Later Stephen asks Matthew if he can dedicate a poem, “The Generous Days,” to him. The poem includes these lines: “After, of course, will come a time not this/ When he’ll be taken, stripped, strapped to a wheel.” Matthew rightly sees this as a passive-aggressive message about his relationship and refuses the poetic gesture: “I had no desire to be strapped to a wheel of daily life by my father, not even in metaphor.”
If Stephen reacted against Matthew’s “happy straight coupledom,” Matthew could be withering about his father’s acquaintances. After meeting a young American novelist David Plante, who had taken up with one of Stephen’s lovers, the Greek poet Nikos Stangos, Matthew tells his father: “I think he must be one of those creeping plants.” The usually even-keeled Spender explodes in anger, less for the actual dig than for what it implies: “My casual remark was a form of rejection, not so much of David Plante himself as of this whole arcane world that my father valued, which I felt I couldn’t enter.” As one of Matthew’s friends points out to him, the son must have felt jealous seeing his father, in whom he occasionally detected “a detachment indistinguishable from boredom,” exuberantly devoting himself to these young men.
While we’re playing amateur psychoanalyst, I might as well mention Matthew’s decision to give up rowing, which he discusses almost exclusively in terms of its post-workout showers and “all that yucky business of comparing cocks among the steam.” He found the grueling workouts less bothersome than “facing the true hideousness of the male sex.” He goes on:
So many organs, some of unusual colour, some evidently damaged, almost skinned. Though you’d been told that pricks were as noses, no amount of comparison could reconcile you to the fact that whereas a nose was familiar and visible, a prick was always a surprise and ugly.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about the membrum virile, but Matthew’s revulsion, expressed as it is in a book exploring his father’s homosexuality, strikes me as a tad excessive. Then again, sometimes a locker room scene is just a locker room scene.
But let’s exit the showers and towel off. The book has an interesting rhythm, jumping between standard biographical passages (dates, places) to charged familial scenes to amusing sketches of nonchalantly outrageous behavior to idiosyncratic reminiscences, including a bizarre anecdote about Matthew’s attempt to breastfeed a stray cat. Here he provides the definitive answer to Robert De Niro’s question in Meet The Parents:
So I lay there patiently every morning as this wild thing kneaded my breast with adamantine claws and chewed my nipple with needle-sharp teeth. After a week, I began to lactate.
Complications ensue, and he has to have a mastectomy.
One of the pleasures of memoirs like these are the cameos from figures in the family’s orbit. W.H. Auden appears at regular intervals throughout, meeting Stephen Spender at Oxford in the 1920s, where the two famous poets began their lifelong friendship. Auden would take Spender’s virginity, blithely reassuring his sexually inexperienced charge: “Now, dear, don’t make a fuss.” Years later, after Stephen had married Natasha, Auden, playing the role of “kind but didactic wizard,” would teach their young son Matthew about adjectives or compose “Tolkienish poems” with him, each contributing alternating lines in the quatrains:
God knows what kings and lords,
Had their realms on these downs of chalk,
And now guard their bountiful hoards,
One night you may see them walk.
(Quick, which are the bard’s and which are the child’s?) In another anecdote, Natasha phones Auden, who is staying at the house, to ask him to put a chicken in the oven for dinner. This he promptly does. Natasha comes home to find the uncooked chicken in the oven, which was never turned on. Poets can be so damned literal.
An alcoholic Raymond Chandler, somewhat uncharitably described as looking like a “decaying tortoise,” is another key figure in the memoir. In 1955 Chandler, a widower recovering from a botched suicide attempt, meets and falls in love with Natasha. Stephen is not particularly worried about Chandler, whom he sees as another of his wife’s “cases” — she was “always a saver of desperate people.” Stephen even sends them off on an Italian vacation together so that he can have the house to himself for a bit. Chandler pays for the trip, buys her extravagant gifts and eventually leaves her everything in his will. He even writes her a check to open her own bank account. Despite being chronically worried about her finances, Natasha carries it around uncashed in her pocketbook. Chandler loves this, and Matthew, in a concise observation that demonstrates his psychological acuity, explains why: “There was something erotic about this: his check, her purse.” Chandler nursed the fantasy of Natasha leaving Stephen, but for her Chandler was less a “viable alternative” than “a fantasy, a counterweight to the my father’s yearning for a public display between two men.”
Virginia Woolf, whom Stephen showed a draft of his homosexual coming-of-age novel, The Temple (unpublished until 1988), makes an appearance as well. Responding bluntly to Stephen’s question about the importance of sex in a relationship, she tells him: “It depends how highly you value cocks and cunts.” Next question? Matthew recounts a dinner hosted by the literary critic William Empson: “If what Bill was arguing became too arcane, he spoke to the ceiling and the rest of the table went on rowdily saying whatever came into their heads.” And on a boat in the Mediterranean, Matthew puts a patronizing Cyril Connolly, who edited the influential magazine Horizon alongside Stephen, in his place: “He didn’t frighten me. I could see in his small eyes surrounded by fat a nervous child peeking out, hoping not to be rejected.” Matthew was 10 years old at the time.
Speaking for the parents of memoir writers everywhere, Matthew’s mother at one point tells him: “You were a much loved child, and if you choose to remember differently, it’s no bloody business of anyone but you.” Had she read A House in St. John’s Wood before she passed, her death mask might have looked angrier still. Matthew does admit to being hard on her at times, but given the witty inquisitiveness of the book, I think a wry, proud smile might have come through as well. Then again, it’s entirely possible she never would have read it. Raymond Chandler found it delicious that six years after her husband’s now-classic autobiography World Within World appeared, she still hadn’t taken a look.