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We asked author, editor, journalist and friendly neighbourhood spider-dude Robert Whyte to tell us about some of the books that inspired him to become a writer.
I blame Brisbane for my quirky collection of favourites. Brisbane is a quirky place to grow up as a writer. You develop a contrarian streak. Just about every aspect of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland was something you wanted to run a mile from. My friends and I thrived on every scrap of not-Queensland we could get our hands on. Lloyds and the Red and Black Bookshop in Elizabeth Arcade, a punk and new wave record shop that had Television (the band), Jonathan Richman and the Rubinoos. The nearby second-hand Gorman’s books where you had to prove you were worthy of reading a book he considered “quality”.
My piece on Crome Yellow is long because it’s an obscure book – but it has a funny twist in the tail. I hope I’m forgiven for exceeding the word count. The others are briefer, but also have strange back stories. It’s more about the life than the art, I’m afraid. Isn’t it always the way?
Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley (1921)
Denis Stone is a mooning, gawky, naïve, would-be “great writer” of “perfect poems”. Crome Yellow is a country house in Oxfordshire where he stays for the weekend. I devoured this book at age 15, seeing myself in the main character who had a constantly inventive stream of consciousness with witty wordplay, insightful observations and a hopeless love interest. I revelled in his scathing opinion of the pompous literary hack Mr Barbecue-Smith, and like Denis, was rather in awe of (if not a bit puzzled by) the cynical Mr Scogan (a Bertrand Russell parody). Why weren’t there such splendid places near Brisbane, I thought, where one could hold up one’s end of a truly mind-blowing discussion on the importance of words, the classics, art and history?
What I failed to realise was that Crome Yellow was Huxley’s self-lacerating satire. Its main character (my hero) was a vacuous, narcissistic failure, about as intellectually advanced as a tapeworm. Morally, Denis is no better than any of the other freeloaders who descend on Crome each weekend to leech off the host, spending their time eating, drinking, and holding forth on their personal intellectual conceits.
Crome is a thinly disguised Garsington Manor, home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, who “simply adored” being surrounded by artists and intellectuals. She was a great supporter of nascent literary talent, including Huxley himself and such luminaries as DH Lawrence and TS Eliot. Lady Morrell’s real lover at the time was a domineering Bertrand Russell.
I believed it all as unvarnished truth, having no idea it was satirical. Would any writer paint himself so unfavourably? No, this was the pinnacle of my aspirations. I even believed the account of the new-age Barbecue-Smith who hypnotised him staring at a lightbulb each evening to wake up at midnight, refreshed, and in possession of a manuscript 15,000 words long, being the next chapter of his brilliant mystical novel.
The apogee of the book, and my nadir as a reader, is the passage in which Denis remembers his love for the word “carminative” which should have meant “that warm and golden sensation of liquid cinnamon trickling down your throat”. Everything was “carminative”. After using the word for years in every context when something ethereal had to be described, he finally looked it up in a dictionary. “Carminative”, he found, referred to a herbal concoction for treating flatulence, also administered to induce farts.
Froth on the Daydream (L’Ecume des Jours) by Boris Vian (1946), translated by Stanley Chapman (1967)
I took Froth on the Daydream to read on my first trip out of Queensland as an adult, to visit my cousins in Chatswood, Sydney. I don’t know what I was expecting of Sydney, but after the lightness and air of Brisbane’s timber and tin, verandas and jacarandas, my first impressions of the suburban red bricks was one of mind-numbing boredom. It was tragically real, like Kafka. Lucky I had a book to escape into. It was about the furthest away from real as you could get.
The instant I started reading Vian, I “got it”. His world twists and turns, writhes and wriggles, bursts into bloom and sinks into swamp. His targets are religion, work and the military. I was taken aback to find what I’d been trying to do with my own prose, Vian was doing much more simply, directly, creatively – and let’s face it, better. By a long way. Vian created a “desire-shaped universe”, one in which even the laws of nature are subject to change in service to the narrative. His basic message was: “Why not be creative? Isn’t the imagination, the ability to live in a waking dream, what we are here for?”
Also on The Big Smoke
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- Five books that inspired me: Stella Award winner, Heather Rose
Colin, the book’s hero, falls in love with Chloe. The world falls in love with them both. But their freedom, individuality and creativity cannot last. Chloe falls ill with a waterlily in the lung, a painful and rare condition that can only be treated by surrounding her with flowers. The expense soon exhausts Colin’s funds, compelling him to work for the military, buried in soft earth, growing rifle barrels ten at a time from his fingers and thumbs, but he’s so often distracted by the thought of Chloe that the rifle barrels transform into useless roses, for which he doesn’t get paid.
Froth on the Daydream started me on a lifetime love of Boris Vian. His books are only available in French and I’ve translated them myself, just to read them. The only regret I have is recalling my first reading of it: I’ve haunted myself with the stifling memory of hot summer days in boring Chatswood.
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
I saw the Penguin edition of Joyce’s Ulysses in an obscure second-hand book store on Roma Street, near where Bill Brown’s Sports Store used to be, opposite MacDonnel and Easts when it was still a department store, when the cafeteria on level one was simply the place to be on those rare days you went into town if you were a poor country mum. I had some idea the book was smutty or scandalous, which prompted me to pay much more than I normally would’ve. I think it was $3.50.
I didn’t find any smut in Ulysses, unless you called Molly Bloom saying “Yes!” a lot smut, but I did find a guy who could really write. I wanted to write, so I went to school on it. It was probably a mistake, but it was a great mistake to make. Influences are more about what you make from them than how they rate, and Ulysses gave me the freedom to explore the dizzying heights, even if it meant flying too close to the sun and melting my wings.
One memorable incident highlights the sheer class of the book, the greatest book of all time – which no one has read all the way through, including me. We had a priggish, prudish English teacher who, if he caught you reading some trash like Frank Herbert’s Dune, would rip the book out of your hand, go to the balcony, tear the thing to pieces and send it fluttering down into the quadrangle. He looked over my shoulder once and I turned the cover back to show him the cover, James Joyce and Ulysses writ large. He gave me an imperceptible nod of approval and moved on.
Killer in the Rain by Raymond Chandler (1964)
I’m not going to say anything about Raymond Chandler, except that if you haven’t read him, you’re the luckiest person on earth, because you have in store some of the most compelling and satisfying stories of shop-soiled gallantry ever produced by a pen. I envy you.
Heroin Annie by Peter Corris (1984)
I believe Peter Corris is one of this country’s great authors and if you don’t agree with me you can all go and get stuffed. You can take your fancy-pants, hoity-toity Patrick Whites and bury them all in the desert they rave on about in couplets and quatrains. On the other hand, if someone offered me the Nobel Prize for swallowing a dictionary and writing a blank verse masterpiece on the metaphor of the nulla nulla, I wouldn’t say no.
I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t even heard of Peter Corris until 1984 when Heroin Annie came out. By the time my great friend Bill Psarras gave me his copy to relieve my appalling literary ignorance, Peter Corris had already written his masterpieces, The Dying Trade (1980), White Meat (1981), The Marvelous Boy (1982) and The Empty Beach (1983). He was in, settled, and on a good wicket. At the crease for 38 years, he had a good solid innings, seemingly ready to nudge a ton not out when he gave up writing because of his diabetes-related blindness in 2017, soon followed by his death in 2018 at the age of 76. His later works, especially the spin-off characters in other genres, like the Ray Crawley spy novels and the WTF Browning and Luke Dunlop novels, lack the magic of the early ones which were somehow great because of his struggles to make truly Australian the American vernacular private eye novel created by Dashiell Hammett and stripped down to its tough but hopelessly romantic bones by Chandler.
We’ll probably never escape the stigma of the British canon, and the curse of the “good taste” British tradition. We have universities now, would you believe, and they teach that stuff, in an age when all cultural studies are really cultural history studies. But Corris got out from under it and almost singlehandedly brought about the naissance of direct powerful, stripped back writing. What a relief!
Robert Whyte’s latest book is A Field Guide Spiders of Australia (2017).