If you’re not able to give up work to read Alex Miller’s breathtakingly beautiful Lovesong, I suggest that you start reading it on a Friday night so that you can finish reading it on the weekend. It’s not a page-turner in the sense that a thriller is, but it’s such a sublime reading experience that you can’t bear to leave the world that Miller unfolds before you.
It is a love story, of such power and complexity that you find yourself deeply immersed in the paradoxes of love and desire. It’s about the love that sustains marriage: that desire for a companion, the complexities of passion, and the stubborn instincts that forge love of children born and unborn. The quiet comfort of being cherished although neither really understands the other; the mutual misery and guilt of betrayals large and small. There’s also love of country: the Australian abroad, tormented by twin urges: to live in the sophisticated world that seems elsewhere and yet to rejoice in the sunlight of home.
I’m hesitant to sketch out the plot for fear of spoiling discoveries the reader will make, so I hope you will be enticed into buying this book by the following brief introduction:
Ken, an aging writer, is back in Melbourne from Venice. He’s convinced himself to retire from writing, but, fearing death in Venice, is pleased when friendship with John Patterner emerges to rescue him from having nothing to do. Over coffees at the Cafe Paradiso, John relates the story of his wife Sabiha, whose dignified sorrow had first intrigued Ken when he bought pastries from their bakery. A quiet man – whose favourite book is the autobiography of the flamboyant Benvenuto Cellini – John becomes the storyteller, sharing the romance of meeting his exotic bride at the Cafe Dom in Paris, where she had first come from Tunisia as young woman to comfort her bereaved aunt, and their unfolding tragedy.
Interwoven with this story is Ken-the-author’s struggle to find a place for himself. His daughter Clare is back home after a failed marriage and his relationship with her is strained by his inability to belong in Melbourne’s sub-culture of footy and pub comedians. He has melancholy doubts about whether she reads anything (much less his books) and he’s alarmed at the idea of sharing his home with an adult daughter and the strains of rap in the house when he prefers Shostakovich. It’s more than a generation gap: he loves Clare above all else but he feels alienated by the banality of contemporary life that has intruded into his refuge from it.
I particularly enjoyed the author’s musings on writing as a ‘conversation with the unconscious‘. The writer-as-listener takes a story and summarises it, with…
…diversions and reflections, into which [his] own life finds a way – like a cat finding its way into a cupboard and going to sleep there. These secret intrusions are the assertion of my rights as a listener. My view of this is what when someone tells you a story they give it to you. The story is their gift. It becomes yours…They place the story in your trust. And they do that because they need to do so. They want their story to go out from them and be somewhere else, with their listener. Just as a writer wants to rid himself of his writing and get it to his reader. I am aware that with my notes I am in my own customary way making something other of John and Sabiha’s story than the story they know. Shaping it…in my own imagination. I don’t know how not to do this. (p208-9)
I hope Alex Miller goes on shaping stories in his imagination for a long time to come. Reading Lovesong has been an enriching experience.
Lovesong has been longlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin award. Wary now of making any predictions about the choices this year’s panel of judges might make, all I can say is that I hope Lovesong makes the shortlist too. Apart from Jasper Jones still on the TBR for ANZ LitLovers discussion in September, I’ve now read three of the longlisted books that I already have, but am not tempted to investigate the others. Maybe when the shortlist is revealed…and maybe not.
Author: Alex Miller
Publisher: Allen and Unwin 2009
Source: Personal Library, purchased at Readings – and if you’re quick you may be able to get the signed and numbered limited edition for a mere $33.95.