Alex on... The Passage of Love | Autumn Laing | Writing novels | The Ancestor Game | Lovesong | Life at Araluen | Landscape of Farewell


Why I Wrote The Passage of Love

I've had several goes at writing this book over the past thirty years but have lacked the one thing I needed; the detachment from my youth that is one of the advantages of old age. The book is my take on fictional autobiography, an attempt in the form of a novel to review the struggle years of my youth and to celebrate the lives of loved ones, old friends, lovers and partners, most of whom are no longer with us.

Writing the book, I missed those old intimates more than I had missed them in years. They stood with me. They lived for me again. They came into my dreams. Their lives moved me and my love for them was rekindled. Nostalgia, gratitude, sadness, the beauty of their world and mine in youth, a world to which I no longer belong but to which I once belonged with all my failures, my passions, the limitless energies of my youth, my hopes, my dreams and my regrets; it was all there. They gave me once again the joys and the terrors of their lives and my own. The truth of us.

I wrote the book to settle my moral account with my early years. As a novelist my allegiance is to the truth of dreams not to the interpretation of factual reality. The facts are incontestable, they are the infrastructure of our reality, and so long as we don't deny them, what we do with them is up to us, whether we are writers or artists or film makers. And it is to the truth of my youthful dreams, the story of those people and those yearnings and longings that formed the shape of my history, that I pay tribute with this story. It is a novel based on my years of struggle to turn myself into a writer, and it is the story of my first wife's terrible struggle to liberate herself from the bonds of her childhood and to find meaning and purpose in her own existence as an independent woman.

Alex Miller discusses Autumn Laing

To what extent is the novel based on reality and how much of it is autobiographical? How much of it is really Sid Nolan and Sunday Reed?

A novel is always a dream. This novel, my novels, are my dreams. A dream of how things might be, how they might have been in a private world of my own imagination. This business of story telling as Henry James said, 'The mystery of story telling.'

We don't really know, but novels are always based on reality, on fact, on history, on the inspiration given to me in this case by the life of Sunday Reed and the life of Sid Nolan. That's the source of my inspiration on the realistic, factual, historical level, their lives. But what happens in the process of writing a novel is that you enter into this other room (I think it was Auden who spoke of the dreaming self in another room). And there is that sense of yourself not being in the room of simple fact and the elaboration of fact, but being at liberty to respond to the prompts of the imagination, of your own imagination, which arise from your own life and your own intimate experience and history.

So the writing of the novel is a kind of journey of the imagination in which there's the liberty to dream your own dream around the basis of the morality and history of the characters whose lives you're working with, the real people on whom your own characters are based, the models. There's always got to be a model located somewhere in fact and reality and there's got to be a model in your own life. But some of your best characters are what you think of as being purely made up, just characters that needed to be there. Lang Tzu in The Ancestor Game needing a mother, for example, so Lien appears and suddenly you are with her private story. There's a liberty and a freedom about the stories these characters carry with them that the other characters sometimes lack – these pure inventions are freer in the dream, they arrive unscripted, and for a while you don't know who they are.
You wake up one morning and you say I had a dream about this bull charging me across a field. A huge bull and I'm in this laneway behind a fragile gate and I know he's going to tear the gate apart. This bull can't possibly be allowed to come out of that gate and escape into the wider world, and it is your responsibility, your fate, to stand guard over the gate. You know the task is an impossible one. And you wake up and you ask yourself, what was that all about. So there's a sort of freedom about it that you don't yourself necessarily understand. Henry James' the mystery of story telling is on that level, it's a dream. It needs and requires interpretation but still it has a realistic coherence. It does not need explanation.

Like all good questions there's no simple answer to this one. There's the wonderfully simple answer Nabokov gave when he was asked, Can you tell us how important your wife Vera was in your life as a writer. His answer was, No I can't. Because her importance was so vast, so complex, so nuanced, so intricate and intrinsic to his creative life that he couldn't possible tell anybody how important she was. The question, how autobiographical or biographical is your novel requires a complex and nuanced response. But that response will never really be an answer.

Writing Novels

The serious novel is an act of imaginative truth and requires the writer to confront unclear aspects of the self; to delve, in other words, into the unconscious and awaken repressed emotions and memories. It is a dangerous occupation in which imagination is sustained by the drive of ambition and courage. It is most dangerous in later life when the writer begins to be detached from ambition and from that inner drive to uncover and recover that has sustained the work during a creative life. Then, towards the end, I mean, the writer faces despair without the sustaining possibilities of imagination. To dream, after all, is everything. To fulfill the dream the least of it.

The Ancestor Game

The Ancestor Game, my most ambitious and difficult book, was my response to the moral burden bequeathed to me by my friend's suicide. What was left after Lang Tzu's suicide was this terrible unanswered question of my own responsibility as his friend. He had acted on his despair while our friendship was still a living thing. To dispel that burden of doubt and of guilt, to have dealt with it in some way, this was the real motivation of the book. The lesser, more self-conscious, motive was to memorialize him, to 'bring him back' for those other friends who grieved for him as deeply as I did.

Alex Miller on the inspiration behind Lovesong

My daughter was visiting us in the country and she and I were sitting by the fire reading. I had finished writing Landscape of Farewell a month or so earlier and was without a writing project. I was reading Edward Said's Musical Elaborations, an exquisite series of three lectures on a musical theme that Said had given at the University of California in 1989. I was close to the end of the third and last lecture, 'Melody, Solitude, and Affirmation,' when I read the following: "And that memory led me back to Louis Malle's film Les Amants, constructed around the relatively innocuous tale of a nameless unknown man happening on a lonely wife (Jeanne Moreau) in the country, and then becoming her lover for a time before he moves on." When I read this I laid the book aside and said to my daughter; 'I think I'll write a simple love story.' My daughter, who was eighteen at the time, answered at once; 'Love's not simple, Dad. You should know that.' The young are wise. I did know it. Love, or at least sensual love, is the most complicated and hazardous of our states of mind.

What I imagined, when I laid Said's little book aside and looked into the flames of the fire, was a man driving along the old gravel road to Lower Araluen, where I once had a farm. The man, who was in a sense the nameless unknown man of Said's memory of the Louis Malle film, was returning to the farm which had once been my own. He was returning after an absence of many years. He was coming back out of curiosity, just to see the old place again. When he came to the farm, the old house below the road and just above the creek flat, he pulled up and sat looking down at the place that had once been his home. A woman was working in a well-tended vegetable garden at the back of the house. He sat watching her for a while, then decided he would go down and make himself known to her.

Before sending the nameless unknown stranger down to the nameless unknown woman in the garden, I asked myself where the man was returning from. As the author of this love story, I believed I should know. Who was this man? He could not be me. I could not bear that. But perhaps he could continue to have something of my background. During the seventies I had lived for a year in Paris. So why couldn't he be an Australian who had gone overseas and, instead of living in London, had lived in Paris? What, I asked myself, might have kept this man in Paris? Was it love? Was he returning to his old home after the breakup of an earlier marriage?

I sold my own farm in the Araluen Valley when I went to live in Paris, invited to go by a woman friend who, when she visited me at Araluen, had seen how jaded I was by my lonely life on the farm. After I'd been living in Paris for a year, I decided I liked it so much I would come home to Australia, sell my house in Melbourne and move back to Paris permanently. When I got home, however, I met a young woman and we fell in love, and instead of selling my house I lived in it with the young woman, who soon became my wife, and eventually the mother of our children. In a sense I gave John Patterner the reverse of my own story. His story is why he stayed, and the life he lived there with his wife, when, like me, he had not intended to stay.

I used to visit a café in Paris called Chez Max. I visited it regularly. It was my place for coffee and to eat my evening meal. It was run by a North African, a Pied Noir, and many of his clients were North Africans, but it was not exclusively North African and always had a good mixture of people. I liked the easy going atmosphere and the padron made me welcome. Also the other clients were not French and spoke French little better than I did. We got along. We were outsiders in Paris. Chez Max, of course, became, with a little twist here and there, the model for Chez Dom in this story. The book that became my complicated love story, as my daughter had predicted.

I had visited Tunisia some years before while researching my novel Conditions of Faith and had made Tunisian friends. The country and its people have stayed with me and have become part of the vocabulary of my imagination. Tunisia and its people fit easily for me into the Paris I know. When I think of my Paris days I think also of my days in El Djem and Sidi bou Said and the people I knew there. Perhaps one day I shall return to the farm at Lower Araluen and let the unknown and unnamed strangers meet at last. But that's another story!

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On living at Araluen

In 1967 I was deeply demoralised by working in the public service in Canberra for two years and needed to get out of the place. I managed to get hold of $12,000 and bought a run down, 1500 acre farm in Lower Araluen. My reason for buying the farm was to have a place where I could write without the distraction of a nine to five job. Araluen saved my life. Another year in the public service would have killed me.

At Lower Araluen I got the contract for the mail run. This gave me a modest monthly cash payment. I grew my own vegies and began buying a few head of breeding cattle at the Braidwood market. I knew how to deal with cattle in the bush. There were already horses I inherited with the property. I had once made my living as a horsebreaker and a stockman and I wasn't worried about dealing with all that stuff. Over the next few years I built up a modest herd of Hereford cows and I grew tomatoes and pumpkins for the Canberra market. Together with the money from the mail run I had enough to live on.

At Araluen I wrote three pre-novels. In other words, I did my apprenticeship there. The first pieces of mine that were published in mainstream journals, like Meanjin and Quadrant were written there.

I made great friends with my neighbours, who were all old timers and were glad to have a young man around the place who could shoe their horses for them and help them muster their wilder country. I look back at Araluen as a beautiful warm, homely place which I found very nurturing. I made wonderful friends there. They are all dead now.

For me John Patterner is a good Aussie bloke of the kind I knew in Araluen. A modest Australian with enough intelligence and curiosity to go to the university and make the journey to England. Like me, John Patterner also went to Melbourne University. He’s got a lot of my biography in him. I know and love the places he knew and loved. I know the smell of his country and the feel of it. Like him, I loved Araluen and the time I spent there.

Lower Araluen is beautiful, wild forest, very steep, hilly, with nice little creek flats. The Araluen creek ran all the way through my property and the southern border was the Deua River. A beautiful old river. It's marginal country. It's not country for people to make a lot of money on. I always only barely made a living. And so did my neighbours. I'm always glad if I can get some reference to it into my work.

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On writing Landscape of Farewell

Landscape of Farewell is a celebration of friendship between two men of my own generation.  The novel speaks of the shadow of the past they have each lived with in silence for the whole of their lives.  It is the story of how their friendship empowers them to penetrate that silence and to give it a voice.

I first heard the story of the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre when I was a boy of sixteen and was newly arrived in Australia from England.  I was working in outback Queensland as a stockman on Goathlands Station in the beautiful valley of Coona Creek, south of the Central Highlands town of Springsure, not far from Cullin-la-Ringo Station, where the massacre of nineteen white settlers by the local Aborigines took place on a lovely summer morning in 1861.  Over the years since then I often wondered how I might write the story of that massacre without setting it in an historical reconstruction of the times in which it took place, when European pioneers were first penetrating that country with their vast flocks of sheep and dispossessing the local Indigenous people of their traditional homelands, which until that time they had enjoyed without challenge.

My inclination has always been to write of my own times, or at least the times of my family and friends.  The idea of writing about Cullin-la-Ringo, however, continued to pester me.  When I was in Hamburg in the autumn of 2004 at the invitation of the Gesellschaft für Australienstudien, I met and became friends with Dr Anita Heiss, one of Australia's foremost Indigenous writers and intellectuals.  Anita was teaching Indigenous Studies at UTS at the time and told me of her admiration for my novel Journey to the Stone Country, a story also set in North Queensland, and which dealt with a profound reconciliation of the past that had been effected by two friends of mine, one a Queensland Murri and the other a descendant of one of the white settlers who had dispossessed the Aborigines of their country in the 1860s.  These two people were, of course, familiar with the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre, the white woman's father even having owned for a time a section of the original run on which the massacre took place.  I told Anita about this web of connections and she encouraged me to write about it.  Although I'm certain Anita was unaware of it, I felt that her enthusiasm was a green light to my desire to write this book.  So it was in Hamburg that I first began to imaginatively piece the story together.

In Hamburg I also met and made friends with a number of German academics, most of whom were young people of my children's generation, but a few of whom, especially the professors, were of my own generation, men and women born just before the war as I was and who had lived through it and could remember it.  I was able to speak openly with the young academics about the conflict in Australia between the European settlers and the Indigenous people and its unresolved legacy of shame, guilt, denial and dispossession in our contemporary society.

These young Germans were also keen to talk to me about their feelings about the Nazi regime, which their grandparents and parents had lived through.  To a person, they told me their own parents - people of my age - had never been able to question their fathers about the role they had played in the war.  It was, they said, too hideous and too distressing and was a subject that was avoided.  For these young people, however, the Nazi period was obviously a source of enormous curiosity.  Their anxiety was to know the whole truth of their own family's participation in those events.  Many had not yet begun to question their own parents, who, they assured me, still suffered from a terrible sense of guilt and shame by association with the horrifying deeds of their parents' generation.  Those one or two who had begun to question their fathers spoke to me with emotion about the conversations they'd had.  My own father fought with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers in Northern France against the last desperate divisions of the SS, who defended themselves to the bitter end around the city of Caen.  My father was wounded, physically and emotionally by those events, and our lives were changed by them for ever.  I felt a direct sense of association, and even of a kinship, with the parents of these young people.

When I tried to talk about their fathers' involvement in the war to Germans of my own age - the sons of those who fought for the Third Riech - I found them reluctant and I got very little response.  When I pressed them, a few even began to argue a kind of wild, nervous and anxious historical defence of what had happened.  I realised that the reactions of the two generations to the war were deeply divided, and I began to see, too, that the depth of silence in Germany about the Nazi period among my own generation was akin to the depth of our silence in Australia about the stolen generations.

I have listened to intelligent and well-informed Australians of great moral probity make the claim that they did not know about the stolen generations until the publication in April 1997 of Bringing Them Home, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.  When we consider the vast army of lawyers, government officials, legislators, administrators, and the families and acquaintances of all those thousands of people involved in the active policy of stealing Aboriginal children from their parents over a period of seventy years, indeed until well into the sixties, it makes the claim, "I didn't know about it" implausible.

Deep silence of this kind is a psychic and cultural phenomenon common to the experience of many individuals and countries.  It is a feeling that we don't know about something when the evidence for it has been all around us.  To be in denial in this way about historical and family trauma is a well-known psychological condition among the perpetrators of the trauma and their victims.  There was an incident in my own childhood about which we, as a family, never spoke, and when I had tried to get my father to talk to me about it when he was an old man he wept and could not speak.  So I knew about deep silence and the way we use it to cover our sins.  And I knew how it can warp and disfigure lives.  I knew how difficult it is for us to say,  I knew and yet I did nothing, and how much easier it is for us to say,  I didn't know.

I was sitting one afternoon reading in my vast, half-empty room in the hotel in Schluterstrasse in Hamburg, looking out of the enormous bay window at the horse chestnut trees, which were just turning towards autumn, conkers littering the footpath, when I began to think about the Cullin-la-Ringo massacre and how its historical relationship to my Murri friends in Queensland was of a similar order, but a further generation removed, to the relationship of Germans of my own generation and the events of the Second World War.

I am one of those who believes the holocaust to be unique, and that there are no comparisons to it in history.  The holocaust is not my sacred ground and I was never going to write about it.  It was not the inspiration for this book, but nevertheless it always stood behind me, as it stands behind my generation and the generation of my parents, a great dark mass that will remain with us until the end.  The shock of the holocaust still poses for us the biggest question about the nature of humanity and ourselves, and we know there will never be an answer to this question that will ever satisfy us.  There is nothing we can compare to the holocaust that will make either moral or emotional sense to us.  The holocaust is so terrible it reaches way beyond us and within us and we will never be rid of it.  We will always doubt the goodness of humanity and the worthiness of the human project because of it.  I speak for myself and for my own generation.  Referring to Landscape of Farewell, when Hilary McPhee writes,  "Massacre is the blockage in the Australian imagination, in our sense of ourselves in this place  ..."  what I hear is,  "Massacre is the blockage in the human imagination, in our sense of ourselves in this place."

My fiction of the retired German professor of history, Max Otto, writing his own fictional account of the massacre at Cullin-la-Ringo is a celebration of my real life experience of writing my first published short story, Comrade Pawel. From 1968 to 1973 I lived alone on 1,500 acres in the Araluen Valley in New South Wales.  My closest friend at that time was Max Blatt.  Max was older than I, a highly educated and deeply humane man, he was a German Jew from Upper Silesia who had barely survived torture by the Nazis.  The promise of his youth and his loved one were destroyed by the Nazis and he had eventually made his way to Australia via Shanghai. 

When I was living on the farm, Max used to visit me regularly from Melbourne and we would smoke our cigarettes and sit by the open fire and talk far into the nights.  At weekends friends often came down from Canberra and joined us - journalists, academics and, in those days, out of office labour politicians.  We would sit around the big old table in the kitchen and drink red wine and eat salami and discuss the issues of the day.  After one of these evenings, during which the discussion had been about anti-semitism, and when the guests had all driven back to Canberra, Max and I were sitting alone in front of the fire having a final cup of tea before turning in.  Max had said little during the earlier discussion.  He turned to me now and said,  "Would you like to know what anti-Semitism is?"  He then told me, in a few sentences, the story of how a Polish comrade had first saved his life then turned on him for being a Jew.

Earlier that weekend Max had finished reading a draft of a novel I was writing and, on finishing it, had thrown it down on the table in disgust with,  "Why don't you write about something you love!"  I loved Max and I recognised the enormous value in the truth of what he had said to me as a writer.  That night I wrote my imaginary re-enactment of the story he had told me about the comrade who had first saved him then betrayed him just because he was a Jew.  I called the story Comrade Pawel.  In the morning I gave it to him to read.  He read, as he always read - as he listened to music - without saying a word and without giving away his feelings in his expression, which remained impassive.  When he finished he looked at me and I saw that he was moved.  He said,  "You could have been there."  It was the moment when I first began to believe I could write and from that moment on I have always written about what I love.  When Dougald says to Max Otto after he has read Max's fiction, Massacre,  "You could have been there,"  it is for me the expression of one of the most important moments in my life and is a private tribute to my friend and mentor Max Blatt.

So, even there, the connection is made.  But it is a hidden connection.  A connection that works in the soul and not in the lyrics of the song.  It is surely the test of the authenticity of all serious literature, that the one who knows intimately the subject of the work feels, as he or she reads it, that the author could have been there too.

It is a great privilege, and an even greater responsibility, to have the freedom of the artist to make it up.  The result of what exactly one makes up, however, can never be gratuitous or haphazard, but must be, so I fervently believe, authentic to the moment and to the lives and experiences of our characters.  The novel is not just, or merely, entertainment, but is also responsible for reflecting with accurate insight the temper of the age in which it is written.  If the people one writes about cannot recognise themselves in one's work, then the work fails, no matter how successful it might be commercially.  All my novels have been written because I believe in the moral force of the human imagination, and am convinced that art can play its part in the conceptual work we need if we are to understand ourselves.  That is what I strive to do.  Whether I succeed or not is measured for me in the response to my work of those I write about.

For Australians of my generation some things are inescapable.  They pervade our emotions, our attitudes and the way we experience art and life.  The holocaust is one of these things, and the confusion of childhood feelings of guilt and shame that we associate with it will never leave us.  Another is the terrible price Australian Indigenous people have been required to pay for the prosperity and the opportunities enjoyed by people such as myself.  As a novelist, it is not possible for me to write as if these things are not part of my life, embedded deeply in my experience and my psyche.  I believe it to be at least part of the job of novelists to bear witness to the emotional and moral questions that haunt our lives, and to deal with the consequences for us of there being no resolution, nor any redemption, from questions such as the ones I have mentioned here.

So I write about what I love.  But as my friend Max Blatt first taught me all those years ago with his story of his comrade Pawel, human love can be a terrible thing as well as something of infinite beauty.  I am not a polemicist, but write of the intimate in our lives.  It would shame me to remain silent, however, about those questions that make me doubt my faith in the decency of humanity and the civilising project in which we like to believe ourselves to be involved, a belief that encourages in us the dangerous and comforting illusion that we have made moral progress, and which encourages us to believe the lie of those who say,  It can never happen again.

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