I really liked this unusual book.
Morris Lurie’s Hergesheimer in the Present Tense defies easy categorisation. The media release calls it short stories, while the book-cover calls it a sort-of novel. It consists of 30 vignettes featuring a cantankerous old author who’s at war with his publisher, his ageing typewriter, his would-be lover Valerie, and, well, the world in general.
It’s such a clever title! It is indeed the present that makes Hergesheimer tense. While there are many amusing moments in the book, there are poignant moments too, and a sense that Hergesheimer is losing the battle to keep up with the modern world. It’s moving too fast for him, and the values by which he’s lived his life don’t seem to matter to people any more.
Hergesheimer’s life as a writer is full of trials and tribulation because the world of publishing is not the gentlemanly pursuit that it used to be. While on the one had he has to pursue one publisher for his missing royalties, on the other he has to hawk a manuscript around all over Melbourne trying to find someone who’ll take it – and he can’t quite believe that this is happening to him, an established writer of note! What’s worse, when he tackles a plagiarist, he gets short thrift. Though tone is wry, there’s a serious point being made here about the modern attitude to intellectual property:
These are famous footsteps I’m treading in here, he lets you know.
For instance, your thieving Mr Shakespeare, to select an example, common knowledge he wasn’t one to leave a good storyline alone.
Oh, I see, growing your flowers in another man’s plot?
Hey, that’s good, cries the plagiarist. Mind if I use it?
Which, even if you do, even if you did, no difference , it’s already scribbled into the handy notebook no self-respecting plagiarist is ever without. (p.125)
Hergesheimer’s not comfortable with the expectation that these days writers are expected to ‘perform’. He gets sent on publicity events that test his patience to the limit, and he’s peeved by the celebrity status accorded to more popular authors that he obviously thinks are not worthy of such acclaim. Having stumbled into writing some successful books for children, he has to go on the schools’ circuit where his jokes fall flat and he gets ticked off by an eight-year-old for not having love in his story.
Actually, Hergesheimer doesn’t seem to have much love in his life. His marriage failed, he doesn’t seem to get on with his son, and his daughter died. (This last, sadly, is an autobiographical element in the book. See my review of To Light Attained.) The girlfriend Valerie shocks him sometimes with her casual attitude to his old friends, and he’s embarrassed by her overt displays of public passion. No, it doesn’t look as if that relationship is going anywhere…
Indeed, his most long-lasting relationships are with things. He flees his marriage in a twenty-four-year-old car… … that nice green that was popular with bathrooms just after the war . Yes, it’s old but he’s fond of it and he doesn’t like the idea of selling it to avoid paying tax.
The chapter entitled ‘Hergesheimer Embraces the New Technology’ is laugh-out-loud funny, but it also shows us that Hergesheimer can’t even rely on his trusty typewriter anymore:
Show me a man without tantrums and I’ll show you a man without blood. Hergesheimer, that most gentle of souls, peacefully writing a tender memoir of cloudless and blissful childhood days, mistypes the word malfeasance for the seventh time in a rotten row, rips the ruined page from his cursed machine with such sudden savagery that whoops a vital perspex part snaps and shoots broken forever from the pale green Swiss made Hermes 3000 manual typewriter for forty and more stalwart years his trusty tool.
Or can it be glued?
Hergesheimer has inherited his father’s fingers.
Don’t even try.
His telephone book discloses typewriter repairs in some remotest of far-flung suburb. Hergesheimer flying there at once.
‘Vot bad luck!’ says to him the Polish technician who opens the door. ‘A skip of such machines I sent to the tip exactly last wick.’
His framed and displayed foreign diploma of typewriter technicianship notwithstanding, he is now with television aerials, he tells Hergesheimer, somehow simultaneously proud and sad, well, what can you do, you have to move with the times.
‘Bot perhaps,’ he says.
Hergesheimer, could he come back possibly tomorrow? he’ll manufacture for him a replacement, should be the solution, no?
‘Could you make it two?’ Hergesheimer suggests, holding up fingers. ‘You know, a spare?’ (p.168)
Hergesheimer in the Present Tense is a glimpse into the life of a n older man who seems beset by difficulties large and small, but it’s not depressing because of the droll style and the self-deprecating humour. And I love the Yiddish sentence constructions – this is the English that I heard all around me when I was child growing up in Caulfield, and it brings back memories of the nicest neighbours I ever had.
Check out the review at the SMH too.
Author: Morris Lurie
Title: Hergesheimer in the Present Tense
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers