Vale Frank Moorhouse, 1938-2022
Death is a perennial theme for literary fiction. To have a main character die is a sure fire way to manufacture a dramatic plot turn or a poignant ending, to create a certain mood or a degree of artistic gravitas. All signs that you are a Serious Writer. And yet, something I have always found remarkable about the work of Frank Moorhouse is that he did not have a main character die until his seventh book of fiction, Forty-seventeen (1988), nearly 20 years after his first book, Futility and other animals (1969). More remarkable still, is that after killing off this character – a certain Edith Berry – Frank spent the next 25 years, and three long, long books – Grand Days (1993), Dark Palace (2000), and Cold Light (2011) – telling the story of Edith Campbell Berry, creating a fictional biography worthy of such a death (and giving her a middle name, in the process). For Frank Moorhouse was, if nothing else, a writer concerned with life.
His writing is, and always shall be, concerned with such vitality.
This concern motivated all of Frank’s writing, and it underpins his technique of ‘discontinuous narrative’ – a term he coined in order to persuade an early publisher to publish that first collection of stories in 1969. This narrative technique pointed to the fact that his stories didn’t necessarily end, they were just interrupted; they contained interstices and breaks in the lives of his characters, but not conclusions. This technique kept the possibilities of each story, of each character, alive, so that they could be revisited in later stories, later collections, creating new possibilities, and deeper connections, between each work, with each new publication throwing fresh light on previous works, while opening up new horizons for future works to explore. All of Frank’s books are thus connected. And in this way, he achieved perhaps the most sustained imaginative act in Australian literature. A body of work that can never be finally, definitively read, but only ever re-read, and kept vital.
This concern entered Frank’s life as well, even as it was often shadowed by an underlying discomfort with living. It was why in his 2005 memoir, called simply Martini, he took this classic cocktail to be the guiding metaphor for a (discontinuous) series of reflections upon his own life. It makes sense that he would choose an apéritif: that drink designed to have before a meal, to whet the appetite, to anticipate the future.
We had a long running argument, Frank and I – over long dinners, and even longer lunches, while discussing the biography I am currently writing about him and his work – regarding the apposite virtues of the martini versus the Negroni – my own cocktail preference, and, perhaps revealing too much about my own temperament, a digestif.
But tonight, after learning of his death this morning, it is to the martini that I turn, and which I am drinking now as I write this. In his memoir, he outlined the Thirteen Awarenesses that one experiences during the course of drinking a martini. And it is with the final awareness that I am now sitting with in this moment, that brief period of reflection that comes with finishing the (first) martini.
‘If you are in the mood,’ Frank wrote, ‘you may want to leave space also to glance at the other imps which swim in every martini – to feel the delicious bewilderment of being alive on a planet surrounded by unimaginable infinite space and unimaginable infinite time; to experience once again the angst of living with an imperfect intelligence, and incomplete knowledge, and a consciousness prone to the fundamental adolescent questions of our children about why we are here, why we exist; to laugh at the dangerous, nonsensical, religious narratives we concoct to handle all this; and the nature of inescapable death.’
But, being Frank Moorhouse, he also added: ‘Or you may not, as the case may be.’
And, tonight - for this moment, at least - I do not.
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