On reading Lovesong, by Alex Miller

Here is a novel which opens with some of the sweetest prose you’re likely to find in contemporary Australian fiction. The sentences are simple, constructed with a delicate economy, wasting nothing, drawing us fluently into the tale. The narrator, whose name we only ever hear late in the book – in someone else’s dialogue – has just returned from Venice to his home in Melbourne. His daughter, Clare, living in his house even though she is thirty-eight, has bought no food, he has to go out for milk. Cross, tired, jet-lagged, he goes around the corner to buy supplies and finds new owners have taken up the old dry-cleaners, turning it into a bakery. The shop is full of customers but even with them, with Saturday morning business, there is time for his eyes to meet those of the proprietor, Sabiha.

This, then, is to be her story, or rather that of Sabiha and her partner, the oddly named John Patterner, a name which seems like it should be allegorical for something but doesn’t really turn out to be. It is a story, it turns out, that John will tell the narrator over coffee in various locations in Melbourne over the next few months.

The book then, is of that type which is referred to in the trade as a pipe and port narrative, the kind where a narrator, who we are made familiar with, a voice we somehow immediately trust – and those first few pages, the first couple of paragraphs give us good reason to – will draw out someone else’s story. In the old days, of Stevenson, Buchan, Conrad (Heart of Darkness is a classic of the genre: we often forget that the tale we hear is told by Marlowe, sitting on the deck of boat out on the Thames, telling the story to friends as darkness falls). In those days the role of the narrator was really just to listen and record, but, being as we are now all modernists, sharply aware of our ironies, the more recent type always also involve the narrator, him or herself. What we observe, we are all obliged to remember, is changed by the observer.

Lovesong is a beautiful novel. No qualification. It’s not just the first few pages that are written with economy and care. My concern on finishing it was simply that I wanted more. I’ve not read any of Miller’s other books. I’ve meant to, all through my bookseller days, hand-selling his books on other’s recommendations, I kept saying, I must read that, and it was the simple force of the prose on those first pages that had me at last get around to bringing this one home. I have, however, heard Miller talk on the Bookshow and various other venues and have been delighted by his way of speaking, his capacity as a story-teller. Those interviews were enough to recommend his books on themselves.

This Christmas I’ve been glancing through the best reads for 2009 in the magazines and literary sections, on the blogs, and I note that Miller is one of the few Australians who get regularly mentioned. It is disappointing, really, how few they are, I feel like the question should have been, in at least one blog, which Australian novel did you like most this year? If only to jolt writers to read from their own stable, to be engaged in some sort of discussion with each other about what is possible. And it is in that context that I want to ask Miller for more, to suggest that this novel, rather than being good, far the best Australian novel I’ve read all year, could have been great.

Let me begin with John Patterner: He stays in Paris for sixteen or seventeen years. (I’m going to try and avoid giving things away here, for the benefit of people who haven’t read the book, but I’m bound to talk about some elements of the plot, so be warned) I find this difficult to believe. Two years, yes, five even, but this is present time we’re living in, aeroplanes leave for Australia every ten minutes from Europe. Did he not take one to see his parents in all that time? Did they not come to see him? Why did he stay? It’s not that it’s impossible that he might have done that, only that what sustained him for so long is unexplained. I feel that, although this is in part his story, I know him at the end of the book no better than I did when he first walked into the café, he has not developed, he has not become a chef or a host, the only way he has changed is to become more worn.

The narrator, too, remains unexplored. We find that Ken is a writer, a retired writer (and don’t we all groan a little at that? Do we need another writer talking to us about his experience? No other profession bangs on about how hard their work is in the way writers do. It’s as if because we’ve got the words we feel we have the right to use them about our own process, which I guess is fair enough, but could we perhaps make an agreement, you know, when you join the guild, not to do it in the novels themselves, please.) As the novel progresses, tensions appear in Ken’s household. His home is invaded by another, someone entirely different to him. This is mentioned but then discarded as a line of interest. It is in no way explored.

But more importantly the extraordinary tension with arises between John and the narrator twoards the end of the novel is completely glossed over. I remember years ago reading Paul Theroux, that clever curmudgeonly traveller and novelist, paddling around the Pacific Islands in a canoe. At one point, about half way through the book, he’s talking to someone who asks him not to write what it is he’s going to say. Theroux does immediately the opposite. He doesn’t even pause, he just keeps writing. I had to put the book down. I felt sullied to keep reading. I’ve never read a word of his since.

There is a similar tension that arises towards the end of this novel – when the two stories, Sabiha and John in Paris, and the narrator and his daughter in Melbourne, begin to come together – that is ignored in the most curious fashion. The ethical problem is pointed at, but then dismissed, because somehow everything is going to be all right, everyone is going to sit down together and eat Tunisian food, and all the threads of the port and pipe narrative are going to be melted into one by the vigour of the spices. We move into a strange happy ever after land.

I’m not sure what has happened, but it’s as if the force of the prose, the wonderful cadence of the story-teller, has won over the content. The words have taken over from what they were saying.

Should one read as attentively as this? Should one be ungrateful for what is clearly already a gift? I have no answer to that, only to say that had these elements which were flagged been picked up then something extraordinary might have occurred. And what I wonder is if, because we are writing in such a tight little community, desperate to defend our boundaries, we don’t engage in these kinds of conversations with each other about our books and so, as writers, we don’t hear what we need to hear.

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