Q. At the recently held Tata Literature Festival in Mumbai, you spoke extensively on the therapeutic effect of literature. If you could give us an insight into this for our readers…
A. The topic is not one that ever entered my mind as I began to write fiction. In fact, the attitude when we were young writers was that fiction was not meant to send messages or achieve an identifiable end — if you want to send a message use a telegram, a tweet, an Instagram, Snapchat. Writers, we thought, should be non-judgmental and even amoral. I am talking of the fiction tradition of realism or naturalism.
The Enlightenment commitment premises itself on the idea that free wanderings of the imagination, especially into dark or taboo zones of human sensibility, are not only the privilege of art but also its primary imperative and that the exercising of it will yield riches to the making of civilisation — will somehow take the human spirit to a plane of awareness, or, in its more limited claim, will somehow confirm and comfort us in the misery of our species (Dr Johnson said the purpose of literature was “to help us endure”: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to
The faith of this empirical tradition is that we all, individually, those who create untrammeled works of the imagination as practitioners but also those who engage with it, the readers, will contribute, together, to the creation of a more tolerable, compassionate and enhanced life because our way of life will be grounded on data which will lead to sound, safer decisions in the arrangements that we make for our living together on the planet (leaving aside, for now, the philosophical difficulties of “knowing” and “reality”).
I have a theory, that much more than the internet, 19th-century realist fiction and naturalism, that is, the depiction of human behavior without moralism, began to dismantle formulaic models of human personality and to offer a picture of a deeper diversity of human behavior without judgment by the author. It led the way to making us feel more open about ourselves, encouraging us to drop our deceptions, poses, and masks. The movement finally expressed itself in the exuberant candour of the writings of the 1960s and 1970s, the genre of confessional poetry and ever more candid memoirs, biography, and autobiography which continues to the present.
This fiction drew on the author’s private life or the private lives and secrets of others known to the author, as well as on the observation of the world around the writer, and of course, on the imagination. Realism permitted the author to have their characters show their innermost secrets and their darkest souls. For some time, this new fiction was opposed as being amoral because it seemed to be endorsing, or at least accepting, the irregularities of life without comment. In turn, these literary movements loosened journalism with the emergence of the frank, mass-media profile, exposé, and the long, personal interview. One of the positive results of these movements is a weakening of stigma and move to a tolerant diversity.
Some of the unintended healing was that it helped some of the anxiety ridden minorities be affirmed and non-judgementally recognised, say, the gay community — the isolated and fearful homosexuals for example. I think D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover helped many of us in the West to love more happily. (India has always had the Kamasutra — it wasn’t in most of our homes when we were growing up.) It showed us that we are not alone in our fears and uncertainties. Or that we are not alone in our despair and can endure it.
Q. Is there anything in your writing and your experience that makes you particularly suited to comment on literature and healing?
A. No, not really. Sadly, writing for the practitioner is rarely therapeutic. It may help us as writers to manage our insecurities, our inadequacies as a person — but the practice of making art does not seem to heal those making it — Virginia Woolf drowns herself, Hemingway shoots himself, James Joyce drinks himself to death, Scott Fitzgerald had five people at his funeral and was out of print. But the readers may take from our work some solace. The solace of knowing that they are not alone. That spirit behind serious writing and the reader-writer contract is that the writer promises to share with the reader what he or she, the writer, has experienced of the human condition, to tell stories as well as our talents allow, in the traditions of the great mission of the enlightenment — to use science, scholarship, and the arts to investigate without inhibition, the human condition, without malice, that is, without private motives of attack, cruelty, revenge or mischief.
Q. Tell us about your journey from being an aspiring author to an accomplished one?
A. I was inspired by Ernest Hemingway as a high-school student, became a cadet journalist, and then in my late 20s a full-time writer. After I read Hemingway’s First Forty Nine Stories I thought, wow, I want to write like this. I want to write. I was told that the way to be a writer was perhaps best approached through journalism, as Hemingway had.
Q. To what extent has your career as a journalist had an effect on your fiction writing?
A. The cadetship was an advanced course in writing English — it taught me precision and brevity. Being a reporter was also a passport to many places and to many people.
Q. You have also spoken and written extensively on gender politics and homophobia. Did you have to go through the ordeal of censorship in Australia for speaking openly on the same?
A. Things are fine now. Historically, Australia, until 1973, had one of the strictest censorship systems in the Western world.
The following are only some of the writers who have been banned in Australia because of their perceived threat to society: James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Zola, Maupassant, Balzac, Defoe, Colette, Norman Lindsay, Aldous Huxley, John Dos Passos, Hermann Broch, Erskine Caldwell, Radclyffe Hall, J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), Céline, Henry Miller, Bernard Shaw, Eric Remarque, Johnathon Swift, Max Harris, Brendan Behan, Walt Whitman, Phillip Roth, Alex Buzo, Frank Hardy, Frank Moorhouse, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Ian Fleming, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway.
Before 1973, there was sub-legislative censorship. Westerly (Australia’s literary magazine) edited part of a story referring to a boy being masturbated by his girlfriend, without reference to me; Pluralist changed the word fuck to ???? because the printer wouldn’t print it…; printers complained to Squire about my story in a recent issue — said it was indecent and were considering not printing but did. Other case of interest was that binders refused to bind the Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and it had to be flown to Victoria for binding. So in these cases, you have printers, editors, distributors, and binders all exercising their dirty little moralism. That is all finished now. Up until 1973, had the Martians arrived on earth and read Australian fiction, they would’ve had no idea how the species reproduced.
“Sadly, writing for the practitioner is rarely therapeutic. It may help us as writers to manage our insecurities, our inadequacies as a person — but the practice of making art does not seem to heal those making it — Virginia Woolf drowns herself, Hemingway shoots himself, James Joyce drinks himself to death, Scott Fitzgerald had five people at his funeral and was out of print.”
Q. Besides such serious subjects, you have also dedicated a whole volume to martini. Now how did that come about?
A. In film, in fiction and in folklore the martini cocktail has been a classy icon now for many generations — it has been drunk for about 100 years. (Or, as we will discover, maybe it has never been drunk, maybe it has never existed. But that is for later when we go deeper into
Anyhow, it stands for a sociability — but more — a sociability with classiness. Swankness. It stands for something more as well. It is a connection with another world of style — an imagined stylishness which others we admire in the past — especially, say, in literature — authors we admire. We are paying homage to a stylish past and perhaps identifying with, seeking to spiritually connect with that stylishness.
The martini, once it is served, is always in a transitory state — what is known as “the sadness of evanescence” — to fade from sight; to become effaced — from the Latin evanescere, vanus meaning, to become empty — the mutability of reality.
It is astounding that the human mind is able conceive of this perfection, to imagine the perfect martini, and then to accept that it is unattainable, and then to accept that the imperfection can at times be imperceptible, and yet still continue to seek it without falling into madness.
Philosophically, there is much to be learned from the martini and I would urge people to buy my book Martini: A Memoir — the martini contains within it deep mysteries and lessons.
And the last literary word on the martini has to be with Dorothy Parker, the spokesperson for that Golden Age and the small piece of verse I wish to quote contains yet another rule about the martini.
Dorothy Parker wrote:
I like to have a martini
Two at the very most
After three I’m under the table
After four, I’m under my host.
Q. Your visit to India also includes a lecture at Delhi’s JNU [The lecture was delivered on Wednesday, a day after we conducted the interview]. If you could share with our readers the subject of this talk.
A. I wish to talk about the authority of the imagination: can the imagination of the artist do anything it wishes?
The artistic imagination sometimes draws its authority from the great liberal enterprise — that of inquiry — scientific, intellectual, and artistic — which tries to lead us to be a more knowing society, a society which is in closer touch with reality and therefore a safer society. The arts contribute to a widening of perception, they produce what poet and theorist Susan Stewart calls “ironic and deliberative knowledge” — those unarticulated, even unconscious, awarenesses which come from aesthetic experiences to both the practitioner (not always, and not always in completely comprehended form), more often the awarenesses come conscious more to the engaged audience or readership than to the creators themselves. The inner voice — the true writer listens only “to the promptings of his own inner self”. That is a quote from the 18th century German poet and philosopher Frederick von Schiller but the same idea has been expressed over and over again by writers in many formulations.
There has been for many centuries the belief that a pure artwork can only be produced when the artist listens to the untrammeled imagination, untrammeled by commerce, by government, by the church, or other lures — a claim for the paramountcy of the inner voice.
It is often claimed that art is an endorsement of the “human spirit”. I am not sure I know what this means. I think it means reinforcing a positive view of the species and its future, an affirmation of its resilience, its survival, of the ultimate defeat of evil, the defeat of those things which assail the species — “happy endings” — or now fashionably expressed in the words of Abraham Lincoln as listening to “the better angels of our nature”. The literary mission was described by American critic Lionel Trilling as being “to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture…to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgement”.
Associated with this posture is a Western literary tradition which for some centuries now has maintained that the serious artist alone determines the subject and pursues it in his or her own way to the natural conclusion of their imaginative enterprise and then offers the outcome of their work to the world. To defend this posture is awkward because it is more a demand than an argument: it requires an act of wild wisdom by those who espouse it and accept it. Another part of the paradox of the arts is that after scaring us they stabilise us, because their creations — a story, an object, an image — are, after all, just that, objects, playthings — they are not live, marauding monsters.
Although as I write it, I am uneasy about the use of the word “play” as a description of the arts: I am reminded of Montaigne’s observation that no one is more serious than children when they are at play. The arts, even when they are being comic, are serious. A sophisticated society should be able to say to the arts: astonish us, disturb us, shock us, investigate our shyness, our sense of shame, our inhibitions, entrance us, make us gasp, delight us.
Q. Any upcoming projects that might interest our readers.
A. I have written an erotic novel which I hope will help reduce the fear many Australians, including myself, have about sexuality (as illustrated in the past with our censorship laws). As Indians, you are centuries ahead of us because you grew up with the Kamasutra.