According to Wikipedia Morris Lurie is an author of comic novels and short stories, but he doesn’t have a high profile as an Australian author. He received the Patrick White Award in 2006, awarded to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not received much recognition. Truth be told, I knew his work only through for that wonderful children’s book, The Twenty-Seventh African Hippopotamus Race. I’ve read that to almost every class I’ve ever had, and it’s one of the best-loved stories I know.
So reading To Light Attained was a revelation. It makes harsh demands on the reader, and at times it is so emotionally charged that one wants to put the book aside. In searing poetic language, the book charts a father’s grief after the suicide of his daughter. There is no support from a loving wife because his marriage has failed, and his career as a writer is in limbo because the words won’t come. The book portrays a man in extremis as it is rarely seen in fiction.
Except that it’s not quite fiction. In an interview with Ramona Koval, Lurie readily admits that To Light Attained is autobiographical, and that for a variety of different reasons, its publication was delayed for many years.
I wrote this book…I have to call it a novel because that’s the only way I could get round to writing it. Maybe there are other reasons but I called it a novel and I gave myself a different name and I put it in a certain grammatical stance or text, and I wrote it fairly soon after my daughter took her life. Then there was a gap of 14 years, and I might say that this is not the first time I’ve had to wait for a book to come out.
My guess is that the author renaming himself as Herschel Himmelman enabled some kind of distancing, but the book seems incredibly intimate. He has had to face death before – his mother’s, his father’s, his friend’s, but the death of a child is an upset in the natural order of things. Children should outlive their parents.
How do you write about a child who died? You can tell me? You have some words for me? Some tactic you can teach? Some strategy of proper and correct formulation you can advise? A child who said enough. A child who finished. A child who said, in our most unsayable way, this child, no more.
In fragments laced into his everyday life, driving to the Botanic Gardens through the familiar streets of Melbourne and running The Tan, Himmelman’s memories emerge. He remembers his daughter’s childhood, (ballet lessons, going endlessly to the inane movies she loves, trips to the snow and the Show). He shares the pain of his marriage breakup:
The marriage vanishes. Himmelmann’s marriage. One minute it’s there and the next minute it’s not. Disappeared. Finished. Over and done. Gone. The fat kid jumps off the see-saw, the thin kid comes down with a bump. There are worse metaphors. Eighteen years, two children included, it’s still a see-saw came down with a crash. Where the important thing, says Himmelmann’s brother, Himmelmann’s rarely in touch by Himmelmann now phoned distant younger brother, is not to let the kids feel they’re in any way to blame. Spend time with them, Hersch! Before it’s too late! Do it now! Taken them on a holiday! Get close!
I love that kind of advice, don’t you?
Where the tinkle of razoo, full brash brass or otherwise, was offered in alleviation?
Go in peace, good brother. (p. 69)
The reader witnesses Himmelman’s attempt to write his daughter’s life chronologically and coherently, it’s impossible. As she grows older her life becomes messier: she starts things (overseas trips, university, jobs) but always they fail her needs. She disappears, she returns. He reacts as parents do, with love, hope, impotent rage, incomprehension, and as we make our way across the pages, we dread coming to the end because we know what has happened to her life. She has made her decision and her father must live with that for the rest of his life.
Liam Davidson reviewed it for The Australian.
Author: Morris Lurie
Title: To Light Attained
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2008
Source: Kingston Library