Two Thursdays in a row I’ve climbed the short steep steps outside the Wheeler Centre, each time with a half-read novel in my bag. First Voss, then Monkey Grip: two very different books.
And, in the space of one hour on each of these evenings at the Wheeler Centre’s Australian Literature 101 series, two very different literary critics have shared their thoughts on these Australian classics and on what they mean to our literary landscape.
These two books, one that I’ve now nearly finished in the few hours since the session ended, are flooding my mind and my diary with very different thoughts and ideas, about writing and life.
Last Thursday the book presented at the Wheeler Centre was Voss, the author of which is Australia’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White.
The presenter was Peter Craven, critic and cultural commentator, seeming ever so slightly bored to be there but more than happy to talk about Patrick White, about how White “imagined us into being”, and what this meant to Australia.
Tonight the book was Monkey Grip, originally published by McPhee Gribble because it was a bit radical. The author is Helen Garner, writing of and from within the Melbourne that she knew, in the ’70s.
Kerryn Goldsworthy was the presenter this time. She was given a copy of Monkey Grip for her twenty-fifth birthday, the year after it was published. She spoke about the book as one who loves it and for whom it resonated, most particularly at the time but, one senses, even now.
My copy of Voss, half read before I put it down to start Monkey Grip for this week’s talk, is smooth and nearly new and cost me $5 on a bargain table. It’s a Vintage Classic, print tight and thick on cream pages. It sat unread on my shelf for nearly two years and now is waiting on my bedside table until I get back from my journey to 1970s Melbourne.
Monkey Grip has my mother’s name inside the front cover, and the date, January 1979. It was published in 1977, so maybe it did not immediately seem so relevant across the continent, far away, where the sun sets into the ocean and the changes of the seasons are easily missed.
The book falls open in a precise spot, where a few pages are falling out. All through the text, against the small print on brown pages, there are pencil marks. I recognise what I think might have been my mother’s concerns, her interests, back then.
There are lines beside the paragraph on children delimiting the scope of women’s lives and freedom. Grey pencil runs under those phrases where something is captured, purely and cleanly in prose, something messy about love, or loneliness, or addiction.
Voss impressed me from the beginning; I saw the characters of Laura and Voss drawn so densely in the opening chapter. I read on through their meeting in the garden, their meeting of minds or souls; of recognising each other’s flaws. Peter Craven placed the novel in a hierarchy of worth. He said it was a parallel of Moby Dick. He was certain of Patrick White’s place in the canon of literature in English – not up to the mark of James Joyce, of course, but as “good as Beckett or Nabakov”.
Kerryn Goldsworthy spoke tonight of what makes a classic. Critics don’t decide what makes a classic, she said, but readers do. She spoke of the second wave feminism of Monkey Grip – how it was not just about the fight for equal pay but also about women working out how to live their sexual lives. Goldsworthy said that Monkey Grip, and Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, both with main characters named Nora, marked the beginning of a period when more female writers were able to get their work published.
Monkey Grip makes me want to write more, and it makes me think I can, and should, write with more surety than I do, in this voice that I have, this voice that is mine.
Reading Voss, I admire it and appreciate it, but I struggle for the vision – struggle to ever imagine having the vision to be able to write like that. That’s to be expected, you might say, for it is Patrick White after all.
Reading Monkey Grip, I think instead, I don’t need that vision – I have my own, I just have to free up my mind and my words and let it come, with the clarity of my own voice, and thought, and imagination.