Tuesday, October 27, 2009

dust, swirling beneath me

Last week I discovered a two-dollar copy of David Malouf's An Imaginary Life at the local St Vincent's and felt delighted. This is the same St Vincent's where I found his book of short stories, Dream Stuff, and also a Johnno, parts of the story underlined by a student, and, inside the cover, the name of the student, who might now (I looked him up) be the Head of Mortgage Credit Intelligence at the National Australia Bank. His Facebook profile picture, if this is the same person, suggests that he owns a black wetsuit and a jetski, or would like to.

On one page he has underlined this:

Johnno cared for nothing and nobody. No crime was beyond him. He was a born liar and an elegant shoplifter, who could walk through Woolworths at a steady pace and emerge with his shirt fairly bulging with model cars, pencil sharpeners, rubbers, exercise books, wind-up teddy bears, toy trumpets -- anything you liked to name.

My other Maloufs came from library sales. Remembering Babylon, a piece of prose as beautiful as the day, a book that was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Booker, won the inaugural IMPAC, the Prix Baudelaire, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Best Foreign Novel at the Prix Femina, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and a Best Novel prize from the Los Angeles Times, is underscored, footnoted, the margins crammed with jagged grey pencil remarks:

Fairytale opening opportunity to see something extraordinary

George is inadequate

Everybody language is foreign

The person who wrote in this book has one symbol of their own, like an O with a stroke through it, that I haven't worked out yet. I thought at first it was @, but they don't seem to be using it that way.

In darkness one light shows O hope

On the title page of this Imaginary Life someone has written, Dea Lea, And this is really my favourite book! T, while someone else, possibly Lea, has tucked a clean envelope with "Nancy Joan" on it in curly blue ball-point between pages sixteen and seventeen, leaving me to me wonder if she ever got past that point in the story. Malouf's narrator is dreaming that he has left the building where he is sleeping and walked over the surface of a river "which swirled like smoke under me and I was moonlight.

I came to the further bank. A vast plain stretched away, flat, flat, featureless, it was all dust, swirling beneath me, and out of the dust no creature stirred, not a serpent even. It was original."

He means that it was newly-formed, virgin, unique, but when I read that last line as I was typing it out just then (not suffused in the book but flipping it open casually it at the stiff part where the envelope still sits) I read it in a tone-deaf way, as if it had been written for Kath & Kim, and I saw the narrator by the river, looking at this plain, whining, "It was original, it was noice, it was un-yew-suwul," because "It was original" is a natural Kath & Kim line.

In an instant, without thinking about it, I reconceived the entire book like that, seeing the picture I'd had of it before, elated, thoughtful, submerged, stirring, running concurrently with another picture, brash, noisy, declarative, and the narrator jerking about like a fluorescent light. Just for that moment, I thought: "I had this book wrong when I read it the first time. Of course - Malouf is Australian - so is Kath & Kim - if Imaginary Life is like Kath & Kim then that makes sense. Why couldn't I see it? It's cultural" - and an argument for An Imaginary Life being written in the tone of Kath & Kim assembled itself in my mind. Somehow the bones of the story remained the same but now the narrator, Ovid, approached everything in a changed way. He didn't care that he couldn't speak the language in his exile-village. When he wanted to make someone understand he shouted and enunciated like a bad tourist. He treated everybody as if they were stupid, he wasn't humble for a second, he made an exasperated moue at the story's feral boy and asked him why he had to be so difficult.

Trying to describe this now is like trying to describe a dream, this half-and-half piece of writing that existed solidly in my mind for a few moments, taking shape like a flash of real insight, as if I had finally outfoxed a problem. The world with this centaur-book in it was the world I lived in, and had always lived in without knowing it.

In the next paragraph there is an apparition of men and horses and Ovid believes he is seeing gods.


  1. Well, I never thought there could be an argument for scribbling in books (I'm in the leave-your-books-pristine camp LOL) but you have certainly enlightened me with this post. I love Malouf's work and now I have a new way of looking at it. (Have you read On Experience? What a gem!) I will be reading Ransom in the summer holidays because I want to read The Iliad first and really enjoy it, and I shall bear this post in mind when I do.

  2. On Experience is one piece of Malouf I haven't read, but if I ever see it at St. Vinnies or the library I will snatch it up. Coincidence: I was at your blog about twenty minutes ago, reading your review of Fly Away Peter, which reminded me of that scene with the mammoth on the battlefield, a great example of Malouf's apparently instinctive knack for prose-poetry -- it's awesome, mythical, at the same time the idea makes real-world sense. Thinking of all those Victorian amateur collectors and antiquarians prowling the British shoreline, eyes out for fossils, it seems perfectly sane to suggest that, in the early 1900s, you should have people on a European battlefield willing to take time out from eating rats and shooting Germans to rescue a skeleton. And the dozens of ideas that spin out of that scene: one dead creature being respected by other creatures that will likely soon join it; people armed with the weapons of today meeting the weapons of the distant past, seeing the beginnings of the path that led them to this gun-holding spot, the historical continuation of fighting and killing, a sense of inevitability, death, and a sense of the future, in which other creatures will go on doing much the same thing: an immediate event and the space of history all around it. No wonder his books are so short. He packs a lot in.