I had heard of English novelist Alan Hollinghurst. His novel The Swimming Pool Library was openly gay at a time when such writing was still emerging from a murky, clandestine time and it was the height of the ‘AIDS Crisis’. In 2004 Alan won the Man Booker prize with his novel The Line of Beauty.
He was in Adelaide to discuss his latest book, The Sparsholt Affair, which, in five parts spanning the time of World War II to the 1990s, tells the story of three generations of Sparsholts and hinges on an affair that takes place in 1966. What a great name, I thought, it sounds a bit sinister.
The book starts in Oxford in October 1940, when the war had been going for just over a year. Alan pointed out that Oxford was both convenient to London and a safe distance from it. The MI5 had a base there. He read the section where we are introduced to David Sparsholt, seen through a window, lit up at dusk, doing his exercises. Young students watching from an opposite window admire his body without making overtly gay remarks. The story is never told from David Sparsholt’s point of view, he comes over as a young man without an inner life. Alan described him as ‘locked into a muscular carapace’.
We see Johnny, David Sparsholt’s son, who is a young man in 1970s London. Alan read out a wonderful description of the ‘bright pulsing square’ of the dance floor of a gay nightclub of that time; brilliant. It made me determined to read the book.
There was an interesting discussion on writing about the past. Alan says that he tries to do this without giving a sense of what is to come – he aims to convey what it’s like to be alive at that moment. Asked about the extent to which he draws on his own life or the lives of his friends, he said that he never consciously uses a friend as the model for a character but, on the other hand, memory is a novelist’s main resource.
As a writer of memoir I was interested in a session entitled ‘The Self in Story’. Participants were Sarah Krasnostein (The Trauma Cleaner), Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (The Fact of a Body) and Ashleigh Young (Can You Tolerate This?). Each writer was asked what was the starting-point for their books. Sarah had attended a conference. Ashleigh had asked herself the question: why do I feel so awkward in the world?, and Alexandria had been wanting to fight the death penalty in the US since childhood, and this motivated her to study Law.
There was a lot of discussion about whether and when to show a manuscript to family or people directly involved in the story. All writers had waited until they were close to publication and then some expressed surprise at how little change was sought. It was agreed that even though you, the writer, may be in the book, you still need to craft a kind of persona for yourself.
Robert Drewe is a popular Australian writer and I went to a discussion of his latest book, Whipbird.
‘Whipbird’ is the name of a vineyard where a family gathers for a large celebration hosted by Hugh Cleary. The family has been in Australia for 160 years (they missed out on celebrating 150 years, and 200 years is too far away!). Having a large family gather in a remote place provides a tantalising setting for drama and some unusual characters such as the ‘grimly worthy’ unmarried sister Thea (rhymes with diarrhoea). She is a doctor and announces to the family that they all have a condition where there is too much iron in the blood. Another interesting character called Sly (distinguished by being written in the 1st person) has a condition where he believes he is dead (a state of befuddlement originating from his participation in the 1980s and 1990s rock culture). Through this strange condition, Sly perceives the ancestor who started the Australian branch of the family.
Drewe said he was inspired to write this from his own family history: a great grandfather who sired 15 children, his last when he was 70. But Drewe said that, while family is very important to him, he has never been to a large family gathering. Asked, what does your book say about modern Australia – looking at Australia as a family?Drewe considered that the family is safe, but elements can be very dangerous.
A session entitled ‘Berlin Stories’ attracted me. Catherine Chidgey’s book gives a perspective of Hitler’s Germany from the point of view of young children living there at the time. David Foenkinos tells the story of an almost forgotten German Jewish artist who was killed at Auschwitz.
Catherine lived in a farm in Germany when she was 16. Her host father had fought on the Eastern front and, although he hadn’t talked about it to his family, he told Catherine of some of his experiences. He described killing men and ‘carrying their ghosts’. Catherine went to school while in Germany and found that German history after 1933 was glossed over. When, much later, as a young adult Catherine returned to Germany, her partner dug up in their back yard tin soldiers in Nazi uniforms – as a result Catherine tried to imagine what it was like to be a child just before and during the war. She believed that although there are a lot of World War II stories, there was still a need to ‘breathe life’ into a story that had been forgotten.
David had just arrived from France and it is his first time in Australia. When asked to read a passage from his novel (translated into English) he said it was the first time he had ever read out aloud in English. He did a good job.
Why didn’t the Jewish ‘pillars of society’ see what was coming in the 1930s? David said that these families saw themselves first as German, secondly as Jewish. Would their own country kill them? Impossible! The pessimistic left and ended up in Hollywood. The optimistic ended up in Auschwitz. David’s novel is written in a form where each sentence begins on a new line. His book isn’t generally about the war at all, but a tribute to the artist Charlotte Salomon – he seems to have become quite obsessed with telling the world about this young woman who died in the gas chambers when pregnant at 26. He says it is not an historical book. David’s obsession with Charlotte started at an art exhibition in Paris in 2006. Charlotte knew she was in danger and gave her paintings to her doctor, saying ‘This is my life’. Hence her paintings survived.
As David said, this is a novel, because you can’t really know Charlotte – you can’t know what is in her thoughts or her heart.