As the door closes on the two-faced month of January, I am faced with an overdue last quarter to round off my journalling of a year. This fourth quarter extends almost to the start of the new lunar year tonight, 9 February 2024, the eve of the Chinese Year of the Dragon. Should I leave the door open to allow for redirection and flow, a continuation of unfinished business, or draw a line?
The fourth quarter of 2023 began early too, when copies of my new novel, The Idealist, appeared in bookshops on the last Friday of August, ahead of an official publication date of 1 September 2023. Someone sent me a photo of a pile of the books on Instagram. Things have changed since I published my last novel some years ago. There was an interview on ABC Radio with Richard Fidler that was fun and heard by huge numbers of people. Richard, my former student, had done his homework. We talked about China, Tiananmen and after, arcing round to the questions of divided loyalties and the hope for justice in the world that concern The Idealist.
There were two lovely launch events, one hosted by Cross Arts Projects in Sydney in October with tais and artworks from Timor-Leste on the walls. Julia Leigh spoke about how we met through a writing competition in 1997. The other was at the Wheatsheaf Hotel in Adelaide in November where Jennifer Mills read from The Airways and spoke about our connection through China. People have been reading The Idealist, talking about it, writing to me about it. They saying it reminds them of things they’ve forgotten or never knew about. They’re stirred, moved and surprised—partly because it’s my first novel for a while, partly because it’s unusual for an Australian to be about politics in this way, at home and in the region. People tell me it has gravitas and a moral centre while being enjoyable to read. I hope so. Reviews have come along intermittently, positive on the whole. The best are those that recognise immersion in a fictional reality. The best readers are those for whom the fiction becomes as if real. Giramondo reprinted the book at the end of November and it was out of stock again in shops by Christmas.
By year’s end I’m the other side of the rollercoaster of sensations induced by publishing a novel. These days it’s all much closer to me as author because of the immediacy of social media, yet more removed than before, at the mercy of electronic virtuality, algorithms etc and the ease by which an image or idea of something can swirl on regardless of any point of origin, until it just fades away. That’s how it feels. I have writers’ festivals to look forward to.
My own reading has been feverish as a way of balancing. Here are a few:
Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, an intense, sexy, sliced-up attempt to conjure a man and writer whom the author calls ‘autapomorphic’, meaning having a unique characteristic for his species, in Donne’s case his ‘reckoning with the grimly and majestically improbably problem of being alive’. Sharing Donne’s love of hyphenated words, as in her book’s title, Rundell compacts her research into a hyper-biography, plucking jewels from the extended corpus of Donne’s prose, which was largely overlooked when we studied the love poems and holy sonnets at school half a century ago. Next on my list is Donne’s Devotions on Emergent Occasions (great title), ‘written at breakneck speed during a near-fatal illness’ in 1624.
Turning then in the other direction to our own hyper present, Rebecca F. Kuang’s Yellowface makes mordant comedy of the publishing industry and the current vogue for Asianness (however defined) as a pathway to success. Kuang’s brilliant story only opens the door wider. My Australian reading has included the big one, David Marr’s Killing for Country, bluntly factual and sorrowfully salutary in the wake of the failed Voice referendum. For The Conversation I reviewed an academic tome, The Cambridge History of the Australian Novel, edited by David Carter.
Why? Because I’m always interested in Australian fiction. I had to give up on A Straight Furrow (1960) by Frank Kellaway, though, which I got from a second-hand bookshop in Gippsland. Yet his subsequent YA novel The Quest for Golden Dan (1962) was magical for me and remains so.
I read the copy of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle that I picked up at the Orchard Bookshop in the Adelaide Arcade with the voucher I got for reading at their Bloomsday in June. Dick wrote the novel by consulting the I Ching (Book of Change) and the I Ching is its key. I consult the I Ching from time to time, drawn in to John Minford’s translation and commentary—really an assemblage of voices and wisdom from many centuries. Shall I consult it for my next novel? I’ll have to ask it about that.
Meanwhile our Dante reading circle moved on to Wordsworth’s The Prelude which was an unexpected hit, if sometimes long-winded, and now we’re doing Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin in a translation by James E. Falen that makes the blood surge ‘within the withered heart’, as the translator puts it for the poet.
I heard Anthony Marwood play Schubert on his violin at Ukaria in the Adelaide Hills for my birthday in November, with Alexander Madžar on piano. Madžar open the program with Schubert’s D899 Impromptus, played with unearthly precision. These Impromptus were written in 1827 around the same time that Pushkin was writing his verse novel and have something of the same feel, hovering between classical and romantic, with a shimmer of post-Mozartian melancholy. Sulphur-crested cockatoos land in the tops of the mighty gum trees outside. Doesn’t get better than that.