I have an old woollen cardigan hanging on the back of my desk chair. When I get cold, sitting here trying to write, I put it on. My blanky. I’ve had it for years and a lot of writing has happened under its mantle. Then a hole opened up across the shoulders. It’s a net-shaped thing, loose-knit, crimson, grey and aqua blue, bought at a time that colour combination was in fashion. I don’t know if moths ate it or the fibres started to break down or the ergonomic chairback stretched it out of shape, or if the unthinking way I yanked it on and off was too much, but it came to the point where it unravelled if I tried to put it on. So it just stayed draped on the chair.
I didn’t want to throw it out. I was attached to it and I like mending things anyway. But this was hard. My sister Mary, a textile conservator, turned down the job. She told me about The Adelaide Remakery and eventually I went there. The Remakery is a place where all things cloth can be renewed—patched, repaired, recycled, reinvented, for use or play. Shredded sheets are woven into rugs. Indigo-dyed patches are sewn into book covers in a Japanese tradition. Crocheted squares become cubes become pyramids. Lacy nighties turn into party hats.
I took the cardy there and gave the remakers free rein. As long as it was wearable in my study, they could do what they liked. Sue Renwick, the founder of The Adelaide Remakery, took up the challenge.
Months passed. And months, through the summer. Then another winter was coming in and I wanted something warm around my shoulders.
Sue recognised my name as the author of a novel she had read, The Custodians, published in 1997. It’s a novel about crossing the Hay Plain, turning north to the Walls of China and to Lake Mungo, and having Australian time and space re-cast. It’s a novel of a ’70s generation making their way in the world, their fantastic and tragic life choices. Sue recognised her own journeys between Adelaide and Canberra in the book, her own Lake Mungo.
She made a patch across the shoulders of the cardigan which she cross-hatched with red, white, charcoal and pale blue yarn, colours of the country, to create an image of that powerful ancient lake, dry since the Ice Age, but flooded in our imaginations.
For the hole in the left elbow she sewed in a smaller circle—the circle that is Canberra—the roundabout so many of our lives have passed through.
The cardy is an artefact now. I wore it writing The Custodians on cold mornings in Kangaroo Valley. I wear it tentatively again now. The label says Testa. Roma. That’s where I got it years ago. The website says that Fellini shopped there. And Antonioni. Aldous Huxley. Lucio Fontana. O brave old world.
Sue Fenwick is a master of the red thread that links us through reading and writing, from one life to the next. A stay of execution for a cardigan. It will disintegrate in time. As will we all.
April brings Praiseworthy, Alexis Wright’s epic vocalising of where we might be heading. It’s an outrageously visionary book, despairing but hilarious. Its cast is those who dream and scheme up north in the vast expanses of land, sea and sky. Its rollicking satire carries an urgent warning. I read the book on a roll, fifty pages a day for a few weeks, getting into the rhythm of the barrelling wave that is Wright’s work. We’ve never had this vantage point on the country before, inside, outside, from somewhere beyond, where all times and all spaces are beheld as one.
To find language for this the author starts from ‘wreckage words’, what is left after generations of devastation and disruption, which is also where things begin again, in the ‘leaf litter’. From there the voice rises. The novel is operatic in its grand personages and settings, and musical in its repeats and variations. It has all the moves of an action blockbuster, including slow motion narration that can come in close and pay microscopic attention. It’s networked like satellite telephony. It breathes.
The flavour of Wright’s prose is best evoked through quotation, where her voice tells the story to the reader:
Far, far away, way out in the blue ocean where only the big fish lived with the old sea country ancestors, where in modern sea lanes the world’s cargo moved in traffic flowing back and forth with international container ships, and people traffickers rolled in the wake, and the seagulls spun in angel flight, flurrying around the deep sea fishing boats that passed by with trawling nets flung wide under the ghost moon as the travelling swallows rested on the decks in the tens of thousands, this was where Aboriginal Sovereignty Steel was drifting, sinking, and being pulled back to the surface again and again by the old sea lady, where she hurled him, eyes stage fright, back on the old sea turtle, another of his close relations, carrying him further into the open sea, the broken spirit of a praise inherited through the ages. Of this ending, of a story almost complete in a wondrous ancestral sea country rolling and roaring in the eternal drift, nothing would be finished.
And nothing is finished: ‘Nothingness achieved again, and again.’ Yet against that ‘inhospitable void world … of the poor dispossessed traditional owner of the continent’, Wright’s vision also reveals how ‘the script of the country was about the infinite timelessness of the ancestral will to survive into eternity’.
This is big thinking, achieved in extraordinary and inventive writing. The comedy skewers the self-delusion of contemporary Australia, the ‘adhocracy settlement’. With its donkeys, paedophiles, child suicides and schemes to seek asylum in China, the book shocks. Reviewing the novel in Australian Book Review (April 2023), Tony Hughes-d’Aeth says:
If you want to feel the grit of Indigenous sovereignty, or to see it working in its most unassimilable and joyously maddening forms, then Wright’s novel offers that possibility. It is a novel that runs rings around the mincing discourses of reconciliation. It seems to casually hold the whole universe in the teasing circularity of its incantations.
That includes its gorgeous evocations of the natural world, the golden beetles and the clouds of butterflies.
At a party in Sydney given by Giramondo to celebrate the publication of Praiseworthy, publisher and editor Ivor Indyk spoke of his role, describing himself as a page running along behind Alexis Wright to make sure her train didn’t get tangled. He was referring to the challenge of her long sentences, which are the very rhythm and texture of what she is determined to express. This voice, worked through three previous novels and the mighty multi-vocal tribute to visionary Aboriginal leader Tracker Tilmouth, has a culminating presence in Praiseworthy. If we were talking Wagner—which we’re not, dear reader, please be assured—we would call this Wright’s Götterdāmmerung, her Twilight of the Gods. Her book laughs and cries, bitter and humorous, and at last its great wave breaks on the shore.
Wright speaks in praise of literature as a way of safeguarding ‘the sovereignty of the mind’. Towards the end of the novel she imagines a sea man come to help:
He knew no language existed that was powerful enough to explain the world of one single person on the boat, nor was he sure if a comprehending language of man-made atrocities would ever be developed that discovered how to empathise with the depth of loss in the sum total of human endurance so far, nor the strength and survival of each of these people standing behind him, even though God knows a new form of language would be needed for a future world of exponential chaos, when someone of far greater compassion, will need to tell these stories of the broken world that even on this small boat he could not look at, and had turned his back on what these people saw, had known, and he was ashamed of being unable to reach the level of understanding required of him.
The author might almost be speaking of herself, finding a language for our broken and chaotic world, except that she shares that level of understanding with us in a book. She’s a genius.
Maybe writers look more like themselves in a drawing than a photograph. I’m lucky to have a sketch of me by Chong on the home page of this website, even if I’m looking down. It’s hard to know what to do when you realise Chong is at work on a portrait of you. I tend to look away, to avoid self-consciousness. I focus on whoever else is there. The artist observes the interaction from the side. Chong’s approach is nicely caught by John Wolseley in his foreword to Portraits by W. H. Chong who describes a ‘drawing epiphany’ when ‘Howard Arkley showed him a drawing by R. B. Kitaj of a figure looking away at a strange angle. We agreed that it is often these kinds of imperceptible or oblique shifts of vision from an unusual angle which can be so revelatory.’
The view from looking away. You experience it in Kitaj’s portraits of Walter Benjamin, watching sidelong in the Arcades project. It’s what E. M. Forster famously said of the poet Cavafy: ‘A Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.’ It’s best done with a hat. It’s there in Thomas Hardy’s extraordinary poem ‘The Self-Unseeing’, when the poet revisits a room where he and his now dead lover once made music together:
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day!
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
I’m looking away in the drawing of me included in Chong’s Portraits, looking piercingly inwards perhaps. Part of the charm of the book is that it’s a gathering of diverse folks in diverse styles. There’s no index and the alpha ordering is here and there. The dead are among the living: Di Gribble, Milton Glaser, Ken Whisson, Marguerita Wu (twice) and the Yolngu master with his clapsticks who ends the book, along with Chris Andrews, James Jiang, Mike Ladd, Joan London and a host more. It’s not a young crowd. Michelle de Kretser prefers her earlier portrait. Of the later one she writes: ‘The picture informs me with clear-sighted patience that my past is expanding and my future dwindling.’
How to explain the memento mori effect of these images, snatched from fleeting social encounters? Wolseley celebrates Chong’s ‘particular talent for getting a dynamic likeness’. It’s mysterious how an impression of someone’s outer being can convey an inner self. If we know the subject, we can judge the lifelikeness. That one catches something. Or doesn’t quite. A person is rendered being themselves while also being seen into and seen through. And if we don’t know the subject, we can still admire the artistry—the effect of personhood that can be conjured in just a few lines. ‘Dynamic likeness’ exists in a zone of intimate attention between seer and seen, artifice and reality, in an ambient, overlooking world. Minimal has something to do with it, and the moment. We’re curious, we care, we move on. That’s something about how we live in our skins.
The artist/author wore a drummer boy suit and a Marilyn wig to the launch party where he did a little twirling dance of life to conclude his speech. The walls were hung with new portraits done since the book went to press, including one of Alexis Wright and another one of me, front on and scribbled over. It’s inscribed with the title of my new novel, The Idealist 2023.