Notes to a biographer

INK THIS: IN the afternoons he would begin to drink – not very much, but steadily – to gauge the state of his soul, he said. He also said he could not calibrate the soul by thinking too hard, or by measuring it according to the Plimsoll line on a glass. He used the word entelechy, understood by examining liquid motion and listening to pouring sounds. His mind was used up, his soul a dog. Less sighted but with a keener nose, he tried to sniff out perfection. A small change of mind by the season brought bad memories or illness. He remarked on how hard writing really was – not in producing anything but in being true to the notion that nothing should be produced; writing should occur through knowing something deeply. For that, I should let him tell his story if he has one, because it would be wrong of me to take it from him if it were his to begin with.

It may have been late summer in the year when everything in his life started going wrong. Although he said that was nothing. Life had always gone wrong for him. He had given up his job as a teacher – a job that paid well, with generous holidays – and had decided to spend a year living in a cabin in the mountains, trying to become a writer. Everyone had probably tried that, I said to him – trying to become a writer that is, as if by willing it you could turn yourself towards talent. That was cruel. I didn't know it was his intention to kill himself. That was the kind of fanatic he was. I can say that now. He'd read a lot of Hemingway, who killed himself by way of explanation – after the fact – that he'd written himself out. The author must always die dramatically. It's the romantic ending, that's what I thought. But my friend was not Hemingway. Besides, his name was Witold. A spent wit, you could have said. I, on the other hand, cultivated my lambency on the talk show circuit, smoothly and spontaneously putting people at ease before unsheathing my rapier.

In the late summer of that year, Witold paid a modest sum for a cabin in the mountains, a leaking cypress box with a slow-combustion heater and erratic beams holding up the roof, defying all architectural principles. In the fullness of time, he used to say to me, his life would be revealed. He was into time, slowness. He spent the first six months renovating and buttressing. That, Witold said, was the way to build creativity. I must say I didn't agree with him at all. He had a knack for tragedy. He loved animals: chickens, sheep, dogs, llamas. They all died. There was something in the soil. His house sat on a toxic dump. Somewhere, a pond, filled with ash. The roof collapsed. He had no money left.

Meanwhile I was buzzing with the grammar of creation, dazzling, disbelieving the world, moving through China with a portfolio of change, a thousand ideas, strings of firecrackers, suites of girls. I was invited to the best houses, mansions the world would never see, let alone photograph. Two novels a year was not out of the question. I had three on the boil. It was all a matter of application. Tell me a plot and I would write it, dedicate it to you. You wouldn't need to read it. On rooftop restaurants I toasted the times. Artists brought me gifts – tales of their desperate lives. Tugboats tooted my anthem: onward and upward. My books sold like silk stockings, always a run on them.

That was the price of lying, Witold once said to me. What price? I asked. I must say, I felt very sorry for Witold, whom I visited several more times while I was in Australia. Sometimes his cabin was so silent I could hear the sap dripping from the cypress, soaking into my heart as I watched birds falling out of the sky in bushfire season. The heart is a contradictory organ, pumping and sucking. They've transplanted mine but it comes with different aches and alien memories. Of course I mourn the loss of love. I don't know how Witold could have thrown that one at me ... that the price of lying was the loss of love. After all, I don't think he has ever been with a woman. I mean, you must know that moment when you are lying for the sake of your art, when the plot was given to you all wrapped up, with a ribbon, the ceiling fan batting smoke, the night spiced with herbs, prohibition laid out on your bed. But dying for the sake of art was a totally different thing; that notion didn't jump out of a cake for me.

One must not think of the place in which one has loved, but of the emptiness in which love plays, Witold said to me. And besides, nostalgia can never be love. A fine thing for him to be speaking after the fact. After all, the only way he could love was to drink. And then he was able to let go of all the things he cherished: hygiene, health, neatness, accuracy, paranoia, animals, the snapping turtles he would have shot but didn't. In his country, Sunday afternoons were an emotion devoted to poetry. He was French, or possibly Polish. His Vs and Ws were troubled or doubled. My question: how much despair does it take to distil half an ounce of creative success?


THEY APPOINTED ME – they, the ministry for culture and the arts – a captain of my industry. The idea was to reveal to the world, at least to the West, the number of writers we could produce in a year: top-class, prize-winning writers who had slaved most of their lives in menial jobs or labour infernos; writers with their arms blown off in explosives factories, writing with their toes; writers blinded by sulphuric acid when boilers exploded; writers who had written through drought, starvation, fire and flood, who had the bloated stomachs, burnt backs and weak lungs to prove it; writers who had killed their own families to tell the stories of their loss; writers with immense talent who had to take their talent lightly. We in Australia needed to pay them very little except heed, I said to Witold. One day I told him that he was a precious butterfly caught in this internet of horror. He said it was no different in Australia – no different anywhere else for that matter.

I'm an entrepreneur. I know more agents than authors. So maybe I'm wrong about the dysfunction of artists. I gaze out over the tops of cities and choke on the air. From rooftops, the light of the sky, the depths of the flowers ... all are artificially conceived, none can bring joy. How to feel is not learned. Could everything hinge on this balance? Between feeling and learning? I sit on my rooftop dealing with my loneliness, hearing old men coughing and hawking on the Bund or on the Praia ... a familiar kind of rasp. My nights are bitterly juiced with cigars and sulphurous rain. Whether in Havana or Buenos Aires, I await a storm that never comes, a form that is not a tango. The harshness of this solitary waiting game. I am eager for art.

Witold, who I'm sure has never had a partner, told me about love. He wrote to me: ‘I often wonder how it is that one could change so suddenly. Within a few short years there is an irreparable shift from receiving love to incontestable wills. How so? That devotion could turn to hate when it is betrayed, is understandable. But how is it that one betrays? Why? Because there is no emancipation from this kind of devotional love. Because one is loved but one no longer loves. This is where it all falls down: not a matter of keeping the balance but of having engaged in the first place with the idea of love. A toying. In the first period there should have been a turning away, practised under an ethical responsibility. Love is never equal. The see-saw is never horizontal. Solitude has been reigning most of the time; solitude, which is sovereign. Art is not love.'

‘My dear Witold: Why do you renounce so much? Don't you know there is no romantic "genius" anymore? That individual intention is swallowed up in discourse and convoluted analyses stammer in the reproduction of formulae? Don't you know that subjectivity is over ... that it is soap? Nowadays no one hides in convents waiting for the masterwork to come. They believe in soap, they tear down trees to hold a blockbuster in hand.'


I REMEMBER THOSE convent days. A riparian hermitage rented out to artists and writers. I sampled it: dry, hot and hard up against the walls where nuns once slept davening to Christ. No divan there, a litter if one were terribly ill, rosaries in the night waiting for the crow-caw to insure there was still life. Hot fever or cold death. I gave away my drugs. There I inscribed toilet paper with marginal annotations; there my rickety shelves rattled with rows of febrile pens. I agonised, my time a melting iceberg. Ghosts crooned in the night. My life hung in balance between respectability and rescue; such fantasy. I was a writer once, during Convent Days, leaning out from my second-storey window to inspect the garden of corruption below. I reached out. Tried to put myself in Witold's place.

It was at that window that I imagined him with a future wife. He would write things in a little notebook, since he was no longer able to speak, having had a stroke or two. When she had a particularly heavy period he referred to her nether regions as The Fields of Troy. He wrote things like that. Not as a misogynist but as a classicist. His immediate impulse: an odyssey. I imagined mostly their rivalry, she lying on the big bed reading over the side, he trying to work at something, a fugitive idea. The eager snapping of her pages as she tortured him with her late-night reading. He did not need it, having spent years without a pillow in the gloom of a prison light bulb. All this mental industry for nothing. He had learned not to feel. I think he would have mourned the loss of solitude then, but some fear of loneliness would have driven him back, ebbing and flowing with alcohol or mania. He would take afternoon naps, take cruises ... I cannot quite command all these neurasthenic moments ... but he, folding his jacket on the rail as the wake coursed beneath, watching the grey ocean stretch towards the horizon ... would lever himself up on the uneven bars and at the Thirtieth Parallel would jump ship, swim for a moment, sink, rise and sink again. Years later, this folded paper cast on to the waves. My wreath of poems.

I wrote to Witold. Told him to keep up his solitude, and therefore stay alive. For me, all of that was gone. Those were times when I had time to imagine him. There is no time, I said, after China, when once all was time. Now the slingshot rain pelts at my black limousine threading through the Shanghai streets and cell phones purr for me to dine in warm embassies before open fireplaces built by the Portuguese. It may be a very long time, I wrote, when that passage of water is crossed again. I meant our friendship. My administration was faltering. I needed to shore it up with frantic dinners. I have no time, putting out fires, stubbing out memory. The phrase ‘literary festival' filled me with dread.

Witold replied, albeit in a shaky hand. He wrote that there are those who have to steal time, not for publication but only because they cannot exist, cannot value themselves, without writing during a stolen moment. My friend Edmond Jabès was forced to leave Egypt during the Suez crisis, he wrote. He was Jewish, living in an Arab state. He went to Paris and worked in a printery. He wrote his books and poems in the rattling Metro, to and from work. His language was out of place. The Metro was his home. He had to think reality retroactively, by passing it through the sieve of truth. Each station a beginning of the end. I too have no time, Witold wrote, although you think my leisure unlimited. I have chickens to feed, sheep to shear, dogs to worm. Husbandry is what I do; there is always something to be done. The mending of fences. The putting out of fires.

It is easy to become someone else. I have been rewarded for this, being out there. My svelte assistant cannot understand this phrase. What is out there, she asks, placing my hand between hers in a most un-Chinese manner, holding it to her silken bosom. It means not having a secret you admire, I say to her. She screws up her face. Like? She pursues. Like when I was a child in primary school the sun appeared outside my classroom window as though it were truant. It signalled illness, an early escape to a secret place. One day I will tell you the story of a boy who has not stopped running for that place, associated with the licence of illness, because the sun illegally sanctioned his early mark. He ran back and he ran back and it was fading before him, the secret place evaporating, but not its sensation. My face reveals my mourning for its loss and the authorities know that. They do not approve of grief as a sanctuary, a prelude to abscondment. My face is a dying face. A ruin. I've not fallen from my shadow in this strange and familiar city though I walk with seeming confidence and hope my washing's folded and my apartment cleaned. Small heart clasped to the past. I remember the dog-hair scotch-taped into Witold's diary to remind him of the roundel of nature. What knowledge of this kind can I impart while slouching for a sandwich? Tonight, the usual appetite for insight slung in plastic bags for later, the slurry of wet women, the future caught in rain.


WE SHOULD LAY everything on the table, I said to withold on my final visit to his cabin. The place was clean and well lit. There was a fragrance of hot pine needles. We drank a long bottle. Witold has had neither a stroke nor a love affair. What are the exhibits of our dreams? Witold took a deep breath. I don't know if the skeletons of whales, recovered from the deep, spell out the horror of drowning, he said. What about you? I was far more prosaic. I am in a long haul of parties before I reach a puzzling night, I replied. In places where I still rule, there are stone laurels sheathed in dust. No one will weave that into memory – they prefer rows of wilting lilacs squandered in summer. I spend dark hours in a parochial Pantheon throwing all to the winds. Dry leaves rustle in its stairwell. Then you should leave, Witold said. I hate the way we have to leave in order to write, I lamented. There is no need, Witold replied. Writing is only necessitated by something like lovesickness. Yes, lovesickness is the only time when writing is justified. When there is no need for it. It is the only moment when embarrassment allows requital in the form of an equal shame of self-pity; a tensile see-saw of dispositions, a return to sender. A lover addressing himself.

Morphing. It's the new creative buzzword. I tried to resuscitate my career by ghosting for girl writers. Helped them with their prose and then to pronounce the words so they could do the interviews. Fifteen-minute favourites. I made love to these Narcissi. Days left nothing and nights promised even less, words swelling with the uselessness of thought. All spent, I only understood the 4.20 am of emptiness. Morphine. I grew to love her at that hour. I sent Witold my last cheque.

There are no more early mornings and early nights, the routine of domesticity. There is only the body being dragged, loving and hating, from small rooms towards small hours. Agoraphobia and claustrophobia combined, I gave myself two hours every morning to write my death – ‘catch it' in the old phrase, as if I entrapped a fish and let it slip from my grasp ... leaving wet emptiness and smells of deep ocean, is that it?

‘It takes a long time to retrieve a small thing.' (Witold, 1979)

I wrote to Witold. Told him that a whole spectrum of emotions was washing over me. A rainbow of feeling. That's how it should be: writing the future, warm, jasmine-flavoured afternoons, slow wines, the creeping cool of darkness. Instead, I fold paper cranes on my office desk, refusing to field all the banalities of memory, odd moments when I said I was happy and disbelieved it immediately. As I did when the sun coming through my schoolroom window led me to the sea afar: an astonishing blueness and sadness. So here I go. The purest needle. Struggling with a tin nib and the plangency of age, I bow to a divorce from life. I've lost something, I think, in not having persevered; my creativity crumpled into pseudo poems, minor threnodies, asinine qualms, amateur psalms. And it was there that I suddenly got it. I was imagining Witold again. In his cabin, with his chickens. The beauty of his pine forest. He sits, he drinks and he thinks: he is in love. It is his last trick, that of an amateur. In love with creating something beyond memory. A fantasist of smallness. But what had Witold survived with such fear and trembling that led him to this pass? What had I survived and why am I entitled to write? I dip my pen: Treblinka. It is the first word I write when I write of Witold.


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