Ramona Koval: Thank you all for coming tonight. It is indeed an honour and a privilege to be standing here in front of you at the State Library of Victoria with the domed reading room nearby, that’s one of the sacred places that mark the geography of my growing up in the world of books, writing and ideas. And to be giving the Redmond Barry Lecture too, as you heard, the man who not only established this library but my old University of Melbourne, and the idea that he thought reading was very important, he invited people into his own home before there was a public library.
In this National Year of Reading I’ve been thinking a lot about the reading I’ve done, after a rather abrupt but, in hindsight, timely ending of my formal relationship with the ABC, the institution that enable me to spend much of the last 25 years reading. In the time that I left journalism, I’ve been looking at the books that surround me and remembering those I read years ago that formed me. I’m writing a book about what you make of your reading and what it makes of you and how the ideas and characters that you encounter, sometimes in the right book at the right time, can make your life richer and sometimes not as hard to bear. I’ve spent over 50 years reading, so there’s a lot to cover, but don’t worry, I’m not going to take you through the whole 50 years tonight. But this evening I want to talk to you about how reading formed what might broadly be called my ideas about politics.
As we gather in the Library this evening, there’s news each day of the last week or so about reorganisation of our major newspaper mastheads, of editors resigning, of fears of a reduced media diversity, and plurality of political views, discussions of charters of independence for major media companies and the march of very rich and powerful people trying to call the shots. People are saying that this is a time of great threat to the fabric of our democracy. Some weeks ago I was struck by the results of a survey on political ideas by the
Sydney-based independent Lowy Institute on what people think of democracy. They found that 23% of 18- to 29-year-olds in the survey agreed with the statement, ‘For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.’
I was surprised at this. When I was 18, Australian boys just a couple of years older than me had been conscripted and sent to Vietnam. For them, it mattered very much what kind of a government we had. The subsequent discussion of the Lowy survey that I heard on radio and elsewhere was the figure might be explained by the lack of civic education in schools. If only we had my classes in the way our bicameral system works and the states and separation of powers and voting and boundary drawing and the constitution. Well maybe, but then again let me tell you a story.
One of the first stories I remember was told to me by my father, a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Poland. So what did he think it was important to tell a child? A woodcutter was wandering about in a forest. There and then he came upon a bird and he wanted to kill it and carry it home to his family. I remember my father said he grabbed the bird in his bare hands and just before he killed the bird – and remember I’m five years old when this killing is about to happen – just before he breaks its neck, it speaks to him.
‘Don’t kill me,’ said the bird.
‘Why not?’ said the man.
‘Because if you let me live, I will reward you by telling you three secrets of life.’
‘Alright,’ said the man, ‘what are they?’
‘One: don’t believe what you're told. Two: don’t climb higher than you can. And three: don’t reach for things beyond your grasp.’
And the man let the bird go, and it flew and it flew higher and higher onto the top of a very tall tree. And now the bird begins to laugh. And really I hear it as a cruel laugh, a really jeering laugh. And I hear the voice of the bird no longer sweet. ‘Oh you’re such a stupid man, you let me go, but I have a heart that is pure and solid gold and if you’d killed me you would have had riches beyond your dreams and now you have nothing, not even a bird for your dinner.’
This made the man very angry. He realised that he’d lost his fortune and so he begins to climb the tree and he climbs it to the very top, to the part where the branches get smaller and smaller and hard to hold and the treetop moves in the wind. And just when he gets to the top-most branch and the bird was within his grasp, it flies off and it hovers just over his head and he held out his hand to reach it and loses his balance and topples over, crashing to the ground, dead, dead, dead.
‘See?’ said my father. ‘The man thought he’d lost his fortune, but actually he’d been given three secrets for life. He was told not to believe what he was told and yet he believed the bird about the golden heart. He was told not to climb higher than he could and he didn’t listen and he climbed to the top of the tree; and he was told not to reach for things beyond his grasp and he did and he fell to his death.’
I liked this story. I remember asking for it to be told over and over. I was intrigued by this paradox of being advised not to listen to advice. It was the opposite of stories about heroic adventures and magic powers and striving for success, but it was just the kind of story that arose in a feudal landscape where noone expected too much and it was best not to make waves.
When I began working in broadcasting my father said, ‘If you have to speak, speak nicely, and above all don’t be controversial.’
Ramona: He never listened to my programs for fear he’d hear me saying something to cause him to worry. This was my first lesson in politics, one that I often ignored.
For immigrant families like mine where the parents had been only educated to primary level and not in English, taking me to the mobile bus library was much less daunting than the big main library near the Camberwell town hall. Such institutions were hard to navigate when you looked different and spoke with an accent. The bus was much easier, there were fewer books and the atmosphere was more intimate, so my mama took me by the hand and got me registered and I was given a card in a plastic envelope. These were the shelves for the books for children, those were the ones for the grown-ups. But I quickly tired of the children’s section. As I lay on my belly on the floor of the bus that smelled of lino and rubber deciding which books to take, I could read the spines of the adult section. There I saw Kafka and Kazantzakis and Kerouac and Koestler. There I learned to put things into alphabetical order. I decided to sample Kafka’s The trial because, as you might remember, it’s a slim volume. I took the book to the librarian who had a small desk and chair at the back of the bus near the door.
‘Please sir,’ I said, like Oliver Twist, ‘may I have this one?’
‘But that’s for adults,’ he said. ‘You’re only in Grade six.’
‘But please sir, I’ve read all the interesting ones for kids, I’d really like to try this. It’s only very small.’ And he let me borrow it.
This was my second lesson: it was about bending the rules according to the strength of the argument presented and it was about changing the system from within. When the Camberwell bus librarian stamped the back page of Kafka’s The trial and silently handed it to me, I remember how seriously I carried it home. It felt as if I had my adulthood in the palms of my hands. Franz Kafka. His very name spoke to me of things I could already understand, of otherness with which I felt familiar: of Europe, of schnitzels, of poppyseed cake and of the feather bedding we slept under. We upgraded to woollen blankets like other school friends when my mother won ten pounds in Tatts one year.
What I remember from that first reading is the story of a legal system that is bewildering to Kafka’s protagonist Josef K. He’s sitting on a bed one morning, waiting for his breakfast to be delivered, when he’s disturbed by a stranger in a suit who, together with some people who turn out to be court officials and a few junior workers from the bank in which he’s employed, they’re there to arrest him for a crime of which he is ignorant.
I understood Josef K. I found my childhood bewildering and I felt I had to seek out the meaning of the world independently of the explanations that weren’t forthcoming from my parents. When Josef K says he’s innocent of any crimes, his arrester says, ‘That’s what the guilty always say’. I felt, as many children do, that the unhappiness of my parents was due to something I might have done. Perhaps there was a legion of unnamed crimes of which I thought I was innocent but maybe I was guilty.
Reading again now I’m struck how clearly and simply the story is told and how much it has in common with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – of a dream in which events that are more or less lifelike happen, but don’t add up to anything sensible. But while Alice is in a world that is frustrating and bewildering, Josef K is seriously at risk. Kafka describes each step that he takes and why; he’s childlike in his analysis of the people around him and of the insane events that unfold. Even as a child I could see that Josef K was making certain assumptions about his rights or about how the system was going to work for him. I had no experience of formal bureaucracies but I must have intuited from my experience at school, or my parents’ experience of factory life, or going to the bank for a loan, that he was heading for trouble. Lesson number three was the difficulty of fighting an opponent when they hold all the cards in their hands.
Like many of my generation, my political reading started with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Animal farm was a school text, so was Nineteen eighty-four. Now I’m not sure how good the teaching was or how well I was paying attention but I think I missed the lessons embedded in these books. I understood the rewriting of history by the state, its close observations of its citizens and its manipulation of language, but I didn’t understand that Orwell’s state was projected to be under the control of British socialism. Brave new world was not a school text. Set in London in 2540AD, Aldous Huxley’s novel describes a world that is just one big happy state. I read the opening pages again and I remember that the laboratory descriptions of the manufacture of children, the exact recipes for making anyone from clever Alphas to hopelessly stupid Epsilons, the inoculation of tropical workers with sleeping sickness and typhoid – well I thought Huxley had come up with quite a good system, especially as I regarded myself as an Alpha because I was good at school. I could see the frustration of people like my mother who was clever but completely unschooled and therefore stuck with menial jobs and I decided that special breeding programs might just be sensible. I’m not sure what I made of the soma and sex, but the class system stayed with me longer than anything else in the book. I thought of it as a system based on a meritocracy, rather than on money and connections, but of course the inequalities were imposed well before birth.
I kept reading Orwell. Down and out in Paris and London and The road to Wigan Pier, both published in the 1930s, and I was outraged about the mistreatment of the poor and the working classes and I think it was here that I heard of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. When I was 14, I bought The communist manifesto and read it in my room, excited by the frisson that came from a sense of dangerous ideas. How could you not love a book that began ‘A spectre is haunting Europe,’ and ended with, more or less, ‘Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Proletarians of all countries unite.’
Was I a proletarian? I thought so, as my parents worked in factories and had no money. I’d forgotten by then that I also thought I was one of Huxley’s Alphas as well. So keen was I to unite with other proletarians, I decided to learn Russian, to read the great political tracts as well as possibly learn to work as a spy for the revolution. They didn’t teach Russian at Balwyn High but they did offer it at a Saturday morning class at University High. I was 14 and so I was allowed to go by myself.
Learning Russian books one to four by Nina Potapova are four slim, grey, hard books that still sit on my shelves. All remarks and suggestions, I note, should be forwarded to Progress Publishers, 21 Zobovski Boulevard, Moscow USSR. I must have been pretty impressed to have a line of direct contact with the Soviet revolutionaries at Progress Publishers and began to spend my Saturday mornings taking two trams from North Balwyn to the university and then walking across the campus to the high school, sitting in the lessons before taking the same route home. The teacher was immaculate, with a straight bleached-blonde hairdo teased into some kind of helmet shape, white boots and stockings and a mini-dress. It was the beginning of 1968 and she was very serious, just as I thought she should be since the revolution was not something you took lightly.
So now I could add a new alphabet to the two I already knew, English and Hebrew, and experience the endless fascination of learning a new language. I discovered in the first lesson that this one dropped the articles – you just said ‘house’, not ‘the house’ or ‘a house’, and you didn’t have to use the English word ‘to be’ in the present tense: ‘He here, bridge there.’ But I was impatient and you can’t be too impatient while learning a language or a new musical instrument. I was stuck with sentences like ‘Does Comrade Ivanov write English?’ or ‘the river is on the left, the forest is on the right’ or ‘the air is fresh today’. How could I be a revolutionary and be limited to such banalities?
Ramona: I daydreamed that my teacher would recognise my radical potential and make some approach to draft me into a secret plan, but she did nothing of the sort. She favoured those who did their homework, although she did praise my accent, which came from listening all my life to people who were translating their own languages into broken English from all kinds of languages including Russian and gave me scope for mimicry. It occurs to me now that while both of my parents understood Russian as it related to their own Slavic language of Polish, neither offered to help me.
By the middle of the year I dropped out of the Russian classes for the same reason that I dropped out of violin. After a year of violin I couldn’t play like Isaac Stern and after months in the Russian class I was still limited to ‘I remember all the words to the song about the motherland’ and ‘the collective farm is being built by the workers’. I told my parents I had too much homework from school to fit Russian in as well, but the truth was that my revolutionary daydreams were not being nurtured by my teacher. Although I loved the freedom of spending most of Saturday criss-crossing the city on my own on the trams, my romantic dreams were being crushed and this was unsustainable. I kept the books, of course, hoping I would have the time to learn Russian again in the future.
I should say here that while my father occasionally told me strange stories, my mother was the reader of books. When I remember my mother, I see her on the couch, stretched out sometimes under a blanket but always with a book in her hands. She wouldn’t often discuss the book she was reading, but as I grew older she would hand them on to me. In the year I tried to be a 14-year-old recruit for the Communist Party, Mama’s couch-reading had taken a decidedly political turn too. Coincidentally, in August that year, Soviet tanks trundled into Prague. She handed me her copy of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Selected poems in which I read his most famous poem ‘Babi Yar’, and she followed with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, his novel of life in Soviet prison labour camps, and after that she gave me Cancer ward and The gulag archipelago. Now I think it’s strange that we never discussed the contents of these books. It’s as if Mama was in a silent order, where ideas and knowledge were passed between us, with nothing but the text to speak. She semaphored, I interpreted – I have no idea if we were using the same symbolic code. How I would have loved to speak to her about passages like this one I read in Gulag now:
If only it were all so simple, if only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
My mother marched in the moratorium against the Vietnam War in Melbourne in 1970. To my surprise I met her in Collins Street, having absconded from maths with my school friends to march. As far as I knew she voted Labor, but I can also remember her reporting an argument she’d had with one of the mothers she’d befriended at my sister’s kindergarten. Her friend had taken up the offer of a free university place that came in with the Whitlam government in 1972 and she’d enrolled in a politics degree and they were discussing what the war-ravaged Vietnamese might want. My mother’s friend said that they wanted Communist rule but my Mama said that people just wanted full bellies and they would vote for whoever provided them with this. ‘What did anyone know,’ I heard her say, ‘who hadn’t experienced a war firsthand? Nothing.’ That, of course, included me. My friends and I were watching M*A*S*H on television, we were reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and laughing at the absurdities it describes. When Heller’s hero Yossarian is asked to fly on more dangerous World War II bombing missions, the only way he can get out of doing so is to plead insanity. But if you were insane, you wouldn’t want to stop flying, so you must be sane to want to stop, in which case you have to keep flying – that’s catch-22.
I also read The good soldier Švejk written in 1923 by Jaroslav Hašek. Heroism, loyalty, justice: all these themes are given a marvellously absurdist treatment in this novel set in Prague in the beginning of World War I, when the main character Josef Švejk, previously a dealer in stolen dogs, joins the Czech army and ends up as a batman to several officers. With a mixture of enthusiasm, idiocy and luck, he survives a war in which 15 million people died. Somehow, with his misunderstandings and misplaced loyalties – or does he understand things all too well? – he often manages to turn his setbacks into victories. This for me was yet another invaluable lesson in politics and in life. For example Švejk spends so much of the time in the novel imprisoned, including in a lunatic asylum, but here is what he makes of this experience.
I'm blowed if I can make out why lunatics kick up such a fuss about being kept there. They can crawl about stark naked on the floor, or caterwaul like jackals, or rave and bite. If you were to do anything like that in an open street, it'd make people stare, but in the asylum it's just taken as a matter of course. Why the amount of liberty there is something that even the socialists have never dreamed of. I liked being in that asylum, I can tell you, and while I was there I had the time of my life.
I long suspected my father was a Švejkian figure, not that he joined armies, but that somehow a simple tailor with a fondness for telling jokes had survived a war in which many millions had perished. His lessons included not volunteering for anything, not voicing political opinions to anyone and always staying in the back row. The story he told me about the woodcutter and the bird with the golden heart rang true to all his subsequent advice. In fact the first story I ever had published was in a collection about Australian Rules football called The greatest game. My story, ‘Thighs and whispers’, was about how I’d never been to a football match but had determined as a child that following a footy team was something that all children should do. It started with a recollection of my father’s extreme attitudes as applied to football teams. Living in St Kilda, I intuited that it was the right thing to do to barrack for St Kilda as a football team, even though I had no idea what that was. When I asked for a St Kilda scarf, in red and white and black like the other kids had, he was very reluctant to buy one. Now I realise that these are the colours of the Nazi flag too, but I think he was just unhappy to make a statement that might mean he’d be in a difficult position if the winds changed. When I quizzed my parents about who they barracked for in Poland, my mother said they barracked for the winners – first for the liberation forces of the Red Army, and then the occupation forces of the American army.
It turned out that apart from being a member of several trade unions, and a very brief stint in the ALP when I was asked as an academic to help write a women’s health policy in the early 1980s and membership was required, I was not naturally a joiner. It was not that I was afraid of being on the wrong team in the event of a conflict, but that I could always see many sides of an issue and it was hard to convince myself that one lot had all the answers. Apart from that, my reading was underpinning my sense that, even with the best ideas, politics was full of manipulators and ne’er-do-wells who enjoyed playing backroom games to their own advantage. And even the best institutions were supported by vast idiotic bureaucracies, and taking them on would lead to endless frustration.
To boost my views, I went on to read Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s Gathering evidence, Auto da fé by Elias Canetti and the short stories of Swiss writer Robert Walser. These days there are many Russians who write in this vein, now that they can, Dmitri Bykov is one and in his novel Living souls he writes, ‘Noone could deny that the main purposes of every Russian government, whatever its character and duration, was to crush its citizens.’ He described to me the current Russian polity as a cold civil war which is not connected with the murder of its citizens as much as the destroying of the brains of its citizens. Like Neil Postman’s observations of the decay of Western democracies in his book Amusing ourselves to death, it’s a common affliction.
But how extraordinary it is for me to think that 30 years after reading Catch-22 I would be standing in Joseph Heller’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment in New York overlooking Central Park and he would be serving me tea and biscuits. While I interviewed him, a fluffy little white dog ran in and out of the room. It just seemed to be the wrong kind of dog for him. I’d read his memoir Now and then where he said that the short stories he was writing after his World War II experience were plotted extravagantly and often, he said, resolved miraculously by some kind of ironic, divine intervention on the side of the virtuous and oppressed.
So I asked him, ‘What happened to this outlook, that it evolved into a book where the exploiter’s triumph and the good and deserving get nothing?’ Which is what happened in Catch-22.
‘What happened,’ he told me, ‘is that my attitudes evolved in a Darwinian sense, and realism is realism, and what happens does happen – and what does happen in life is that the virtuous usually do not triumph, and those who triumph usually lack virtue, only often they lack conscience too. And it’s the difference between being very young and having a belief in the miraculous and being a little mature and educated and knowing there is no such thing as the miraculous.’
But the work of one writer stands out for me as the epitome of a certain kind of political writing that I love. It seems to rise from the depths of human empathy and wisdom. Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in the Ukrainian city of Brody, then part of the Austrian Empire, a poor region in which Jews and Poles and Ukrainians lived. He went to the University of Vienna in 1914 where he studied German literature and began to write poems. After World War I, in which we served with the Austro-Hungarian Army on the eastern front, he began to write for newspapers in both Vienna and later in Berlin. When he was appointed Paris correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung he was one of the best paid journalists in Germany.
Roth’s greatest novel, which I read after I first encountered his journalism, is agreed to be the Radetsky march which follows three generations of the Trotta family – a soldier elevated to a position of nobility because of a brave act during a battle, the second generation an administrator and the third an army officer. The story of the family follows the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the disillusionment of its supporters. Poet, critic and translator Michael Hofmann has translated many of Roth’s books, the Radetsky march included, as well as a fantastic collection of his journalism, columns and studies called What I saw: reports from Berlin, 1920–1933. They are marvellous pieces, full of wit and depth and they use the novelist’s eye for character and story with a journalist’s duty of witness. He explains to me that Roth was always rather syncopated, that was the way he described it. He said:
He is a Jew in Austria, an Austrian in Germany and a German in France. He is ‘red Roth’ and a Habserg loyalist. He is an Eastern Jew and an Austrian. He is gallant and passionate – both a kisser of hands and a kisser of feet. He is generous and unforgiving. He demands hope and sees despair as a badge of reason.
The collection includes the form that Roth made his own, the feuilleton. It’s said to be best at just a page and written at a café table. Many of the pieces are from an early collection of his, translated as A walker’s guidebook and takes us around 1920s Berlin. He says, this is in the newspapers, remember:
What I see. What I see is the day in all its absurdity and triviality. A horse, harnessed to a cab, not knowing that horses originally came into the world without cabs. I see a girl, framed in an open window, who is part of the wall and yearns to be freed from its embrace, which is all she knows of the world.
He walks the city thinking about traffic and railway crossings, visiting building sites or an auction of the exhibition of topical waxworks, writes about a sign in a railway carriage that says ‘passengers with heavy loads’, rides an escalator and visits homes for sick and destitute refugees. ‘All state officials,’ he writes, ‘should be required to spend a month serving in a homeless shelter to learn love.’ Can you imagine reading a line like that in a newspaper today? And although he was intensely interested in politics, he preferred to approach it from the sidelines and through a kind of poetic expression. Defending his style to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung, when he thought he was being sidelined, he said, ‘I’m not a garnish, not a dessert, I’m the main course.’
His prescience is heartbreaking. In the last piece in this collection called ‘The auto da fé of the mind’, written in 1933, he begins:
Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean. It must be understood, let me say it loud and clear, the European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination. Let us who are fighting on the frontline under the banner of the European mind, let us fulfil the noblest duty of the defeated warrior. Let us concede our defeat.
Roth left Berlin in 1933 and settled in Paris, finding it hard to survive. He was a refugee, his wife was in a mental hospital in Germany, and he was drinking and spending what little cash he had arguing with publishers and begging friends for cash. ‘And believe me,’ he wrote to his friend Stefan Zweig, ‘never did an alcoholic enjoy his alcohol less than I did. Does an epileptic enjoy his fits? Does a madman enjoy his episodes?’ In 1936 he was already describing himself as half-madman, half-corpse and he failed to take up opportunities to escape to the United States. In 1939 he’d come to the end – he died in a Paris hospital with pneumonia after days of delirium tremors. He was 44. He was saved the fate of many others, including his wife, who was killed the next year as part of Hitler’s eugenics program. I am moved by the tragedy of his life, by the beauty of his observations of the world around him, by his inability to save himself, by the silence he found in response to his political writings, even though he had a platform and was saying important things.
And I do see now that if I gathered all my favourite absurdist and prescient European authors into one room, I would have a group of variously mad, alcoholic, outrageous, obsessive men. Some of them would be friends with each other, many would have read each other’s work. Loners and misfits often – I probably wouldn’t have been interested in sharing their tables at the cafes and bars, or even having conversations with them. But I don’t want to marry them. I only love what they wrote.
The other lessons I learned about politics while reading are many and varied, but I wanted to talk a little about reading into a history of a place while you’re travelling. I was in Berlin where I lived for three months in 2001 to do some researching to learn German. I spent weekdays between 8.30 and 1pm in the hothouse of my language class with students from Japan and Korea and China and Uzbekistan and Croatia. Our baby German was the only lingua franca. Our teacher was brilliant and in exemplary German fashion allowed no noodling around in class. She choreographed every moment to gain the best possible result. It was both marvellous and exhausting. I spent my afternoons riding trams and getting the food shopping done. When I’d returned to the flat and done my homework it was an absolute relief to settle with Alexandra Richie’s book called Faust’s metropolis: a history of Berlin, and swim in the rich history of the city I was living in.
‘Like Faust,’ she writes, ‘Berlin can be said to have two spirits in the same breast. It is both a terrible and a wonderful city and a place which is created and destroyed and whose name is both acclaimed and blackened.’ How different it is for the reader coming from Australia to comprehend the long history of a city like Berlin. How many hundreds of years it has taken for the place to get its shape, and how that shape is subject to the geographies of politics. I lived on the old border between east and west, between East and West Berlin, on the same street where the publishing magnate Axel Springer built a gleaming golden building in order to show the Easterners looking over the wall that nature of Western success and so cause maximum irritation to the GDR authorities.
At the corner of Commandant Strasse and Zimmer Strasse there was a line of cobblestones in the street marking where the Berlin Wall used to run. Every morning on my way to the U-bahn Spittelmarkt I hopped over the stones, imagining I was leaping between 1961 and 1989. Hitler’s bunker was around the corner and the Museum of the Topography of Terror farther along. I had passed it one day but I was on my way home to eat the delicious herring I had bought so I couldn’t stop. I read Richie’s book every day and the next day walked the streets with an enlarged idea about the layers of meaning all around me.
A few weeks into my stay, I read Richie about Klosterstrasse, now a U-bahn station that you emerge from if you're going to listen to some cool new music performer, but centuries ago, after the 1349 outbreak of the Plague, Berliners began to blame the Jews for poisoning the wells – they were violently attacked and moved on to Poland and I was sure these people might have helped to form the very Polish communities from which my parents came. Reading Faust’s metropolis in Berlin made the experience richer, deeper, ghostly and chilling.
Even a boat ride on the Spree, advertised as a literature tour of Berlin, was complicated. It had rained the whole day and I sat at the [indistinct] with an umbrella held low listening to the tour guides perform Brecht readings and Kurt Weill songs. We passed by a bridge where the Polish-born German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was thrown in the Landwehr Canal. There was talk of naming it Rosa Luxemburg Brook, but naming a bridge after a communist seemed impossible in the post-Berlin Wall climate. When I flew back to Australia, I went to my Faber book of reportage, which I love, and found this entry from Rosa Luxemburg’s account of her term in Breslau Prison two years before she died. This is it.
Here I am lying in a dark cell upon a mattress hard as stone. The building has its usual churchyard quiet, so that one might as well be already entombed. Through the window there falls across the bed a glint of light from the lamp which burns all night in front of the prison. At intervals I can hear faintly in the distance the noise of a passing train or close at hand the dry cough of the prison guard as, in his heavy boots, he takes a few slow strides to stretch his limbs. The grind of the gravel beneath his feet has so hopeless a sound that all the weariness and futility of existence seems to be radiated thereby into the damp and gloomy night. I lie here alone and in silence, enveloped in the manifold black wrappings of darkness, tedium, unfreedom, and winter – and yet my heart beats with an immeasurable and incomprehensible inner joy, just as if I were moving in the brilliant sunshine across a flowery meadow. And in the darkness I smile at life, as if I were the possessor of charm which would enable me to transform all that is evil and tragical into serenity and happiness. But when I search my mind for the cause of this joy, I find there is no cause, and can only laugh at myself. I believe that the key to the riddle is simply life itself. This deep darkness of night is soft and beautiful as velvet, if only one looks at it in the right way. The grind of the damp gravel beneath the slow and heavy tread of the prison guard is likewise a lovely little song of life – for one who has ears to hear.
I’m so moved by this wisdom, by the spark of life that was hers to illuminate both her dark cell and our own lives, so far removed in time and space. That’s what’s so precious in reading this way, you can plumb the depths of another’s experience while sitting still with a book in your hands. Books that recount ordeals are precious because an ordeal is what we most fear, and the stories that tell us how to survive them reassure us about what a human being is capable of as we survive our lives every day, our own particular mysterious journeys.
In the years of reading the latest poetry and novels and non-fiction for my working life, you might understand that I found it hard to relax with a book on holidays. Every time I took out a book to read, I would find myself reading with a view to talking about it. I would reach for a writing implement, a pencil, a pen, to cure myself of this habit. I tried to read only dead authors on holiday but my mind would wander to ideas, interviewing their biographers for example, and the pen would come out again. Just one book, I’d say to myself, just one interview prepared before I go back to work. And then one became two and two became four and by mid-holiday, I was once more working flat-out. It never occurred to me to cure myself by vowing not to read at all; that would be like vowing not to breathe. I then decided to find a middle way – self-improvement could be attempted, which was a kind of work, but I would read only dead people whose biographies had been long discussed and shelved.
Ramona: I began to seek out the Penguin Classic series with black spines with a purple stripe across the top. I started with Suetonius’s The twelve Caesars. I felt as though I was entering a foreign country without a map. But to my complete surprise the translation by Robert Graves introduced me to a world of intrigue, gossip and reportage that was like a contemporary report from the capital, be it London or Washington or Canberra. He told me all about Julius Caesar’s rise to political power, his marriages, his love affairs and his errors. I learnt that he was embarrassed about being bald, combing his hair forwards, and he was rumoured to remove hair from other parts of his body too. He was said to have had an affair with King Nicomedes the Fourth of Bithynia in Anatolia and was called the Queen of Bithynia in some quarters. He was also a great womaniser as well, and among his mistresses was Cleopatra. In fact, he had a law drawn up to legitimise his marriage to any woman he wanted for the procreation of children. He was not a drinker; his enemy Marcus Cato said he was the only sober man who ever tried to wreck the constitution.
Ramona: I really like the fact that I smile at Cato’s joke and you do too, that the defender of the Roman Republic, who died in 46 BC, can give me pleasure so far from his world and his time. Two millennia later, Suetonius can horrify me with reports of Caligula’s madness and cruelty, his troubling mental illness, his over-confidence and extreme timorousness, as a despiser of gods on the one hand who was afraid of thunder on the other. He can whisper like a style blogger, telling us that Caligula wore an embroidered and precious stone-encrusted cloak at public appearances, teamed with – forbidden to men – silk and women’s dresses over military boots or women’s shoes. Often, he says he affected a golden beard and carried a thunderbolt, trident or serpent-twined staff in his hand. He even dressed up as Venus and before his expedition, wore the uniform of a triumphant general, including sometimes a breastplate which he had stolen from Alexander the Great’s tomb at Alexandria.
Suetonius remarks that such frantic and reckless behaviour roused murderous thoughts in certain minds. When Caligula died at 39 after ruling for just over three years, I was relieved. I was on the edge of my seat at the historian’s description of the Emperor Claudius, whose own mother called him a monster, a man whom nature had not finished but had merely begun. When Claudius hid behind the curtain on hearing of the murder of Caligula, he was found by a soldier who, in a scene from a French farce, saw his feet sticking out from under the curtains and instead of being killed, he was proclaimed Emperor. He died by deliberate poisoning – first by a dish of mushrooms and then by a gruel chaser.
He led me to other books. Suetonius was a friend and employee of the writer and magistrate Pliny the Younger, whose books The letters of the Younger Pliny I turned to next. There’s an added intimacy in reading these letters from the wealthy landowner, lawyer, writer and poet to friends, to a beloved wife, to the historian Tacitus, to the Emperor Trajan and to those who ask favours and advice. Pliny is proud of the life he lives at his country estate. He describes his villa and its gardens and invites people to come and stay and talk with him. I want to visit too. He gives a detailed account to Tacitus of the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, the writer and philosopher who tried to rescue his friends by ship after Vesuvius had erupted, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD. Pliny the Younger was 18 years old and staying with his uncle across the Bay of Naples from the volcano. It’s a really dramatic eye-witness description of the cloud on the horizon, the broad sheets of fire and leaping flames, the falling ashes and stones and the smell of sulphur in the darkness at noon. The Elder Pliny tried to cross the bay against advice and was defeated by the fierceness of the elements – he reportedly shouted ‘Fortune favours the bold!’ – but his body was found two days later. Was that another life lesson for me?
I admired Pliny the Elder, so I found his Natural history and discovered the ancient world’s encyclopaedic book of agriculture, astronomy, geography, metallurgy, architecture, zoology, medicine and pharmacy – it’s this big. I fell upon the love poetry of Ovid and his advice to both men and women on how to go about the arts of seduction. In Peter Green’s translation of his poems, Ovid tells young men that they must stick at wooing the love object through thick and thin, even when all seems hopeless, because in the end her resistance is futile. He says, ‘Birds will sooner fall dumb in spring time, cicadas in summer, or a hunting-dog turn his back on a hare, than a lover's bland inducements can fail with a woman.’
He’s firm on the matter of women keeping their beauty preparations private.
Shut the door, don’t reveal the half-finished process. There’s a lot men are better not knowing. And when age has done its damage, he is wise. When a woman’s manners are good, she never fails to attract. Manners indeed are more than half the battle. Time will lay waste your beauty and your pretty face will be lined with wrinkles. The day will come when you will be sorry you looked at yourself in the mirror and regret for your vanished beauty will bring you still more wrinkles. But a good disposition is a virtue in itself and it is lasting. The burden of the years cannot depress it and love that is founded on it endures to the end.
And on the matter of wooing older women whose experience and versatility make up for their lack of youth, he says, ‘Don’t ask her age, don’t inquire under which consul she was born. Leave that kind of chore to the census office, especially if she is past her girlish prime.’
Ramona: This was political savviness of the highest order, which is applied to intimate relationships.
In summary my political education was gleaned, not by formal politics or civics instruction, but by reading books of all descriptions – from novels to histories to essays to poems and, of course, reading journalism. I remind you then of what I said at the beginning. There is current talk about democracy, the importance of media diversity and plurality of political views and charters of independence for major media companies and there are a few rich people trying to call the shots. Suddenly the mining industry’s interested in the media. I no longer work for the ABC but despite my mixed feelings about that institution, I learned from working there for 25 years – four of them on the board of the organisation – that my personal feelings about things were not relevant for doing my job properly. I took very seriously my role as an independent voice, reporting without fear or favour. We have to have trust that the sources of our information have integrity, that the owners, whether they be private shareholders and boards or governments, can tolerate journalism that does not serve their interests.
In this National Year of Reading, what we read about in our media is a most important way for us to form our political views. We have to remember Joseph Roth in 1933. I’ll repeat what he said, let me say it loud and clear: ‘The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination.’
There are a great many ways to make political judgments and some of them are not necessarily obvious. I’ll end with this utterly life-changing story told to me in an interview with an Argentinian-born writer called Alberto Manguel. He’s the author of many books about reading and he’d read this story in a newspaper. It happens to be a story about another man and another bird. In Canada somewhere a man went into a shop to hold it up with only a Canada goose under his arm. He told the woman behind the counter that he wanted money and if she didn’t cooperate, the goose gets it. He made a strangling sign with his hands. So the woman gave him everything in the till and even went down the street with him to her automatic teller machine to give him all of her savings. He handed over the goose and ran off.
Alberto Manguel delighted in this story in how completely disbelieving his Argentinian friends were on hearing it, and it made his decision to live in Canada and become Canadian. And if you had to choose between a country that disappeared its people and the one that preferred not to disappear its geese, you’d turn Canadian too. Thank you.