Alex Miller:  The Passage of Love, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin,  2017 

Alex Miller

I  am totally hooked on Alex Miller and have just reread the autobiographical The Passage of Love after first reading it two years ago.  Our book club is reading it again as background for Miller’s most recent book Max, which focuses on the true life narrative of Max Blatt, a Polish/Jewish refugee who came to Australia fleeing Nazism. In The Passage of Love, Max Blatt becomes Martin Bloch, who with his wife Birte befriend Miller and his then wife Lena and who encourage Miller with his studies and his desire to be a writer. 

Reading Miller a second time, one has the luxury of following up references instead of hurrying on to find out “what happened”!. There is also time to savour the extraordinary quality of his prose which in my view, has made Miller the most important Australian novelist since Patrick White.  Paragraphs such as Every one of us betrays something. Everyone who is compelled to search for meaning and purpose in his life is forced by circumstance to betray his finest hopes. We all founder in our struggle to find our way. Our way to our own truth. Success in the end is to survive these repeated failures. (p.358). 

The novel is based around Miller’s relationship with four women: The note-taking woman in the women’s prison book club where he occasionally gave talks; Wendy, his Communist fellow cleaner at his second job after arriving broke in Melbourne (True love is a bucket of shit; sex is great; love stinks; get over it! Lena Soren, his demanding, intense and very needy first wife; and Ann, who became his lover in France after Lena had left him for the second time.

On the second reading I am stunned by the vast array of literary, artistic, and historical references which Miller quotes as he wrestles  with the task of educating himself after leaving school and family  early in England, working as a ringer in Outback Australia and then turning himself inside out by gaining a school certificate and engaging in a university Arts degree. The list is vast: Kazantzakis/ Brendan Behan/Henri de Monfried/John Berger/Georg Lukáks/Voltaire/J.H. Hayes/Hilary Mantel/Marguerite Yourcenar/Tolstoy/Francis Bacon/Thomas Mann/Goethe/Burns/Scott/The Glasgow Poets/Keats/Camus/Charlotte Bronte/Hemingway/Jeanne Mareau (French actress)/Max Beckman/Karl Liebknacht/George Eyre Todd/Giacometti/Aldous Huxley/Naipaul/Mailer/Pia Francesco Mola/Ferdinand Schevill/Machiavelli/Rilke/John Sell Cottman…just to name a few!

Miller finds ways to take us places in our mind we’ve never been before, eg His love for Lena was real, but he didn’t know if it was necessary. (p.222) and on the same page: Friendship was essential — the remains of the sacred in a broken world.  Or consider the profoundly simple: facts were not enough for reality. (p.270).  On writing autobiography: memory and imagination become indistinguishable (p.284)or: being careful of our possessions is being trapped by them…my parents risked nothing and lost their dreams. (p.385) Or try:  And he understood in that moment that the passage of love was not to be known any more than was the passage of death. (p 183) …For Lena had described in her painting not the essence but the passage of love. (p.582)

As with all Miller’s writing this is a novel which extends the boundaries of your mind, makes you wish you were somewhere else (the Araluen Valley, Paris, probably not Canberra!) and lifts your vision of life’s potential to a higher plane.  Once again 5 stars!

Review of A N Wilson: The Book of the People: How To Read the Bible, 

p/b, London, Atlantic, 2015

A N Wilson has written over 45 books of biography, popular history and fiction and is an occasional newspaper columnist in Britain. He has been in and out of Christianity and when out wrote some withering assaults on the negative value of religion. His depressing account of God’s Funeral [London, Abacus 2009] is salutary reading for all Christians and his early books on Jesus and Paul are challenging assaults on the historicity of both. In this current book he seems to be embarrassed by both these last two earlier efforts especially his book on Jesus. 

Nevertheless Wilson has never been able to shake off the Holy Spirit and he wrote significant biographies of Christian leaders including C S Lewis, Tolstoy, Dante and Milton amongst others. In recent years Wilson has returned to the Christian faith, in one of his accounts, due to the simple joy and commitment he found in the Easter parade of his local Anglican church!

One result of this new found commitment to the authenticity of the Gospel story and the reality of God is this cleverly titled book, The Book of the People,   sub-titled “How to read the Bible”. In part the book is a retelling of the work of a lifelong university colleague and friend, he calls “L” , a university colleague he caught up with intermittently as she was writing a book about Christianity but who suffered a breakdown and never completed the task. This makes for a challenging style because we are never quite sure if is Wilson or “L” who is speaking. 

In the bulk of the book Wilson writes demanding chapters on the Genesis narrative, the prophets, Job and the Psalms and focuses on the notion of “mythic truth” (my interpretation) rather than searching for a historical and literal foundation. Drawing on the insights of Erich Auerbach’s amazing  Mimesis, the American poet Wallace Stevens, and the literary approach of Northrop Frye to the Old Testament, Wilson weaves a pattern of analysis which invites readers to look once again and with care to the meaning of the Old Testament text.  Parts of these chapters will certainly offend those committed to a more literal understanding of the Old Testament narrative, nevertheless, as always, his interpretation has many spiritual lessons to teach us and will help many  C21st sceptics and doubters to see the value of the  Old Testament in a new and exciting way. 

The final chapter on the New Testament is radically different from the rest of the book. Here, with some initial diffidence, as if he cannot believe he is writing it, Wilson writes a stunning analysis of the arguments for the historicity of the Gospel accounts, using insights from the poet George Herbert as well as Austin Farrer and  Richard Bauckham in particular. In addition he interacts in detail with interpretations of the  prints of William Blake. Wilson’sf insistence on the historicity of both the crucifixion and the resurrection is startlingly the reverse to his ahistorical approach to the Old Testament.

This is not a book to give to a young Christian but it might help a seeker who is widely read. I think the final chapter in particular will give pause to the prevailing dismissiveness of the Bible in  the current Western press and intellectual leadership. Wilson has learned a deep truth about himself and about God and to write about it publicly must have been a great surprise to many. I gve this book four and a half stars. 

A N WILSON biographer, historian,

Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, in Everyman’s Library: Shorter Novels: Eighteenth Century, h/b, London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1930 (1764)

Horace Walpole was an English man of letters and parliamentarian and the brother of William Walpole, regarded as Britain’s first ‘Prime Minister’. Horace Walpole also created the eccentric and fantasmagorical  neo-Gothic house Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, West London, which still stands.  The Castle of Otranto is indeed a Gothic tale, perhaps the first, with knights in shining armour and beautiful damsel’s seeking refuge from dastardly, lustful and powerful lords. Manfred, unlawful Prince of Otranto is the wily and scheming villain. Hippolita his doting, demure but foolish wife, and Mathilda his beautiful but doomed daughter.  The poverty stricken Theodore, actually the true Prince of Otranto, is the hero who wins the heart of Mathilda but fails to overcome her evil grasping father. The story is filled with supernatural appearances, fearful human parts appearing on castle walls, awe-full groaning and other unearthly events It is a cross between the Knights of the Round Table and the adventures of Robin Hood. Thankfully the story is short!   A popular novel of the mid C18th but not likely to have much of a re-run in the C21st.  2 stars.

Richard Prideaux