So when we were passing through an airport lounge on the way back to Perth last November after a visit to see the grandchildren, Daniele snaffled The Passage of Love which had only just come out. She read it but was not moved as I was. Drawn immediately into the story, I was inspired by the way Miller recreated his life; how he was able to talk in the 1st person as an 80-year-old ‘Robert Crofts’ and then go back into 3rd person to deal with the period between the age of 22 and 35 when Crofts’ world opened up and the writer was born. Now, in February 2018 at the Perth Writers’ Festival, Alex Miller would make an appearance.
The name ‘Miller’ has significance in my reading life. As a young man in my mid 20s I went to Germany in the employ of the Australian Immigration Department. My wife of the time and I lived in Hamburg. Literature in Australia, as some of you will remember, was still subject to strong censorship. Don Chipp was then a Liberal Minister and the easing of restrictions had begun. But people like Henry Miller were still banned. In Germany of all places – West Germany as it was then – I began to read Miller in earnest. Coming out of the cultural backwater that was Perth, Western Australia, his stories of growing up in New York and moving to Paris, his love affairs and his friendships and drunken escapades were fodder to my young soul. This author was larger than life itself and I wondered how, at close quarters, I would experience the English-come-Australian author of the same surname.
I was not disappointed. As I entered the auditorium on the lovely campus of my alma mater – the University of Western Australia – I did something unusual (for me). I took up one of the unoccupied seats in the front row – an escape hatch, mind you, at the very end of the row. Moments later two elderly but lively ladies sat in the adjacent seats and from the hum of conversation behind me I determined the room – like many venues at a Writers’ Festival – was dominated by women - and generally women of a certain age.
Alex Miller was interviewed by Carolyn Baum. He commenced with a reading from the book – the passage which begins with the death of Robert Crofts’ cat and segues into his reminiscences about his ex-wife Lena’s abortion in London. Miller was unhurried and I sensed his interviewer was twitchy. That was confirmed as the interview went on. Answers were lengthy and considered, and when Baum attempted to move onto the next question, he would cut her off and continue with what he was saying. It was all done in a nice, smiling way but there was no doubt this was a man totally comfortable in his own boots, let alone his skin. He impressed me, not only in his demeanour but by what he said. In some ways I was reminded of the formidable Margaret Atwood who we saw interviewed at a festival some years ago.
In hindsight I wish I’d snuck my little voice recorder into the room as I have forgotten most of the interview. But I’ve since jotted a few notes, beginning with one about memory. At one point Miller said something along the lines of ‘all memory is imagination’. I thought about this earlier when I started to dictate this piece and I get a sense of what he is saying. Even if we have photographs and journals of our past, when we attempt to recreate that past – with its smorgasbord of events, experiences, ideas, and feelings - in the present, it is – at least in part - our imagination that interprets whatever we are recalling and we then regurgitate them in the language and the manner of an older person, a person who may no longer bear much resemblance to the younger version. Here, I gather, Miller is using ‘imagination’ as a wide lens – a lens that covers our perception and interpretation of our personal past and that of others.
Good stories, Miller outlined, are stories about people. There may be an historical context but a book will stand or fall on how well the author deals with our human condition – the ‘intimate lives of us’. The aptness of that succinct yet evocative phrase stuck with me throughout the interview and beyond.
Asked about into which genre the book fell, Miller’s face conveyed that he had heard this question one thousand times. In her remarks the interviewer had alluded to memoirs being all the rage these days and writers such as Richard Flanagan had disparaged this trend, claiming it was detrimental to the novel. Miller made it clear he didn’t give a tuppenny fuck one way or the other. To paraphrase his reply: ‘Virginia Woolf copped criticism when she wrote To the Lighthouse. It’s autobiographical fiction. So what?’
Miller spoke about the detachment old age brings and how this enables one to write about youth in a way that is not possible when one is actually immersed in the experiences of being young. I heard him talk this way in an interview with Michael Cathart on the ABC’s Radio National. In that interview he mentions he knew he was making himself vulnerable by writing this book and was aware of tension in himself - in facing up to such questions as ‘who I was then and who Lena was’.
At an early age, Miller found his sense of direction. He contrasts himself with Lena (who is based on his first wife, Ann) in this regard. He zeroed in upon a vocation whereas it took Lena a long time to unravel herself and find a creative expression – which she did in art. He said she was neither suffering mental illness nor anorexic, contrary to the assessment by the Australian’s book reviewer. She had her ‘struggle’- that was how they saw it. He was quite forceful on this point.
Miller spoke deeply and lovingly about the input his present wife has into his work. She - Stephanie - has been with him for 43 years. Initially he was trying to write the story of his great Polish friend, Max Blatt, (Martin in The Passage of Love). But it wasn’t working. Then he attempted to do something containing an autobiographical element and also Max’s story. When he gave 150,000 words to his wife, she slashed it by half and told him he had his own story to tell and ‘Max’ was a separate book.
‘She’s my best editor’, he said. ‘I’m very lucky.’
Miller was quite candid about his own struggles – which he distinguishes from Lena’s by calling them challenges. He was asked by Baum if there had come a time, before The Passage of Love was written, where he had thought to himself there would be no more books. He confirmed a fallow period but something had been said to him by one of his psychologist friends. ‘Alex, the tide has been going out – and it’s going to go further out – but eventually it will come back in.’ Her potent imagery struck him as apt and naturally the tide did come back in. As a writer, I find it a helpful way of looking at the process itself. My friend Jack, some years ago when I complained I was sitting doing nothing, said with his usual positivity: ‘Don’t worry, you’re incubating’. I still take this to heart, even when I know I’m lying to myself and indulging in countless distractions.
Miller said he had been blessed with a sense of direction. It was not totally obvious when he left the cattle station in northern Queensland and came down to Melbourne but it formed and crystallised in those early years. He knew he was to be a writer and would not be distracted. Yet mentors had been crucial – Max being one of them - to encourage and to critique. Another, it turns out was, Manning Clark. At one point Miller flirted with academia but Clark saw where that would take him and discouraged him strongly. ‘You’re a novelist, not an academic.’
Three quarters of an hour went far too quickly. There was time for two questions both of which were asked by men – the first by a bloke in a striped T-shirt sitting on the far end of the front row.
‘You say that good novels involve at their core the intimate lives of us. I notice the bulk of people in this room are women. How do men take to your books?’
Miller smiled. I’m reconstructing his response: ‘Years ago when I did these events I would see a token male in the audience. But today there seem to be many more men. Younger men, too. And with this book, I’ve received more letters from men than I have from women. They seem to be responding to something that appears in their own lives.’
I think Miller is on the money. He talks a lot about a sense of purpose and the creation of meaning. He is, on one level, a quintessential bloke’s bloke yet one who is very comfortable exploring human emotions – ‘the intimate lives of us’. In the society that most of us know, most men have not been keen on emotions, let alone to explore them. Inexorably, this is changing and if literature can be a vehicle for that change, so much the better.
I am smiling to myself right now. The Passage of Love is my choice for our next book club meeting. We are a bunch of old fellas and I am intrigued what they will make of Miller and his wonderful book.