I read Voss as an undergraduate in an Australian Literature class at the University of Western Sydney. My teacher was Leon Cantrell. I had Leon a few times, and in one subject he came to class with his arm in a sling. Now, when I come across the texts that remind me of him (Dickinson’s ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ is one, Robinson Crusoe is another), I think of Leon with his arm in a sling.
Leon was kind and lumbering and never not quietly amused by the strange things that came out of kids’ mouths. He was the kind of teacher who made you want to read literature; what more can a literature teacher aspire to? Leon stood at the top of the room, arm slung (but maybe only in my memory), and told us about Voss‘s composition and significance, to him and to literature, and grumpy old Patrick White in his Centennial Park mansion, speaking about the writer as if he was still there.
I borrowed Voss from the library, the cover black with a white Sidney Nolan drawing on it, and marked it up extensively with notes and thoughts in preparation for the assessment. The loan of the book ran out before the date of the assessment and when I went to renew it, the librarian took it from my hands and kept it – it was on reserve. This is how somebody else ended up with my thoughts on Voss.
Leon made you like a book. If you didn’t like a book, he made you want to like it, for him. At least, he passed on an appreciation of the book. Despite this, Voss was hard. My memory of my impression of reading it is of becoming overwhelmed by it, of it beating me, of feeling like I’d been left stripped and dehydrated and sunburnt, lips chapped, as if I was the one attempting to cross the desert. I knew it had power, the raw and bright power of the sun, but, at the time, it wasn’t for me.
A short time ago, I read The Vivisector, my first White book since those years in Leon’s class.
There is a scene in it, more specifically, the scene on page 266 of my Vintage Classics edition, that, for one reason or another, moved something within me. The kind of scene that made me close the book, put it down, maybe out of sight, and move away from it – not far, because I would return to it – for some time alone with my thoughts.
The scene I’m talking about is when Hurtle is being shown by Olivia Davenport’s around her home moments after he finds out she is Boo Hollingrake, and he sees the Boudin on the wall. It’s the Boudin that was at the Courtney’s, the same one that he dared to touch when alone with it as child, and made him want to be an artist at all.
The double Boudin/Boo Hollingrake coincidence (it is and isn’t a coincidence) is maybe too grand and there is a touch of sentimentality about the scene. But it doesn’t need to be perfect (sometimes I like writing better because it’s not perfect) – I’m not sure where this idea came from but writing doesn’t need to be perfect. I’m not communicating it well – I don’t think it’s easily communicated – but what I’m trying to say is that the feeling that this kind of writing evokes is one of my secret reasons for why I read, and for why I write.