by Edmund Campion
Joe Cinque's Consolation; The Master; Bypass
I survived the Melbourne Writers' Festival. This is what I tell people, anxious about my well-being after surgery a year ago, when they ask me how I'm going. Invited to the festival to speak on three topics (spirituality, arts funding, influence of the Church), I was very tired by the end of it all. No surprise in that: it was my biggest adventure since the operation. Two encounters made it all worthwhile.
The first was a Sunday morning session where Helen Garner was in conversation with Claire Forster, the Penguin publisher. Helen Garner writes the best sentences in Australia, as I've often said; but onstage she is no show-off, no glamorosa, as others are, alas. She slips into view, almost as if she hopes you won't notice her, wearing granny glasses and a magenta windcheater over white sloppy joe and black trousers. She won't sit still in her chair but squirms and wriggles round, occasionally scratching herself. Under questioning, her speaking voice, a suburban backyard voice, stumbles and backtracks, feeling its way into what she wants to say, as if it mirrored her though processes. So she puzzles her way into the story.
That story, you will know already, is the one she explores in Joe Cinque's Consolation (Picador, $30). His girlfriend killed Joe Cinque knocking him out with Rohypnol and then injecting him with heroin while their friends did nothing. Joe Cinque: dead. And who is to blame? Most people, I imagine, would point the finger at the girlfriend; and they would have harsh things to say about the friends who stood around doing nothing to save Joe's life. Certainly that's how Joe's parents, decent Italian folk from Newcastle (NSW), feel. Helen Garner too feels much the same way. But not the Law. The law saw it differently. All the friends were absolved and the girlfriend copped four years for manslaughter. So the Law doesn't deliver Justice: This conundrum is at the heart of Joe Cinque's Consolation, as Garner examines her own outrage and puzzlement and slippery grip on how the Law could come to such a soft verdict.
There are other big questions in the book, such as the inaction of the friends and the need for healing as well as the wanting to make amends. There were readers who thought her pages on the friends somewhat judgemental, as if she were tut-tutting at the young. Onstage, she rejected this reading of her book. "We were like that too" - in the radical years of the Sixties and Seventies. "We rampaged through other's lives, grabbing this, doing that, bugger you, someone else can pay." Throughout the session, facing her and her audience square-on was the moral question of guilt and how you discharge it. She did not use traditional words like 'sin' but Online Catholics readers will know that here she was on religious ground as she worried away at the woundedness felt by those who are complicit with evil. She told of doing a book-signing at a Sydney bookshop, looking up and seeing next in the queue one of the young lawyer friends who had stood fast with his hands in his pockets while Joe Cinque was dying. "I need to talk to you," she said; but the lawyer stayed where he was, speechless, then picked up his book and walked away without saying a word. How will he live through his complicity? She doesn't know, either. But because Helen Garner asks these real-life questions, she is, for my money, the most compelling writer about morality in Australia today.
Then there is Colm Toibin. Under the scrutiny of the stage lights his head is arresting: shiny pate, rubber lips beetling eyebrows over dark eyes; and the plane of his face a terrain of valleys and hillocks. If you met this man in a dark lane you might be frightened. As soon as he speaks however, you can feel his geniality: a gentle voice with a sweet Irish accent. He was there to promote his new novel The Master, an enthralling take on Henry James. (Curiously, David Lodge has also just published a novel about Henry James, Author, Author.) I've read all Toibin's books and have special admiration for Lady Gregory's Toothbrush. In part, my admiration is professional and I'll tell you why. Toibin was given a fellowship to the New York Public Library, which holds Lady Gregory's papers. A founder of the Abbey Theatre, colleague of WB Yeats and all that crew, she was a central figure in the Gaelic revival. Now an American academic let loose among her papers could not have stopped himself from producing two sturdy volumes of Life and Times biography. Not Toibin. He did the job in 20,000 words, an exemplary exhibition of literary discipline. A bigger book would have given more facts but would not have told us any more about Lady Gregory. So I was glad that he spent some of his time in Melbourne talking about how these Irish Protestants were surprised to find that the folk who worked their farms or endured their workhouses actually knew, as part of their native culture, the Gaelic mythologies collected in the publications of the Irish Manuscripts Commission. The culture they thought they were reviving was in fact still alive.
A second thing Colm Toibin said interested me very much. He backed into the sad topic of priestly paedophilia by saying that he had gone to a boarding school (St Michael's Wexford, was it?) that was attached to the seminary. Young seminarians shared their classes and acted as prefects, so he came to know "many of them well... Half a dozen of whom ended up before the courts". Now, he said, he had known them as honest, self-sacrificing men who had given ten, twenty, or thirty years of their lives without complaint until, suddenly, disaster stuck them down. What had happened? Thinking back, he remembered that the priests who ran the school were open-minded, intelligent men interested in the latest thinking (this was in the early Seventies) and any topic was up for discussion at the school: abortion, divorce, censorship, democracy... any topic except one. Homosexuality. In such a world, Toibin conjectured, a young man who felt little sexual attraction towards women might construe this as a vocation to priesthood. When other boys said they might consider being priests were it not for mandatory celibacy, these innocent lads might think, "Well, that's not an obstacle for me; perhaps I might be a priest". And so time's winged chariot would carry them, all unknowing, through the years until they crashed.
At the airport, on the way to Melbourne, I was happy to find, just published, Michael McGirr's Bypass: The story of a road (Picador: $30). Carrying it onto the plane, I noticed a young woman peering at the book and, guessing she was a person interested in knowing what others were reading, I shifted the tome so that she could easily read its title. And her fact lit up. Because it was Annie Coulthard, publicist for the very book I was carrying. By the time we got to Melbourne I could tell her how excellent Bypass was, a mixture of McGirr's sly wit with bits of story and snapshots of history and religion, as he pushes his old bike along the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne. It's a lovely book by a masterful writer, a worthy shelf companion to McGirr's Things You Get for Free, which I've read four times. Come to think of it, that book has bike rides in it too, suicidal swoops with eyes shut down a hill on a main road in Melbourne. The downhill plunges were attempts to find catharsis from his unhappiness as a Jesuit; and, sure enough, he left the Jesuits after the book was published. In publicity pictures for Bypass I notice he has not yet lost his Jesuit paunch; and hope his next book won't be called Triple Bypass.