Saturday, 29 August 2015

A True Privilege: Coetzee, Kennedy, Malouf

By Sean Watson

When you’re lining up out the front of a theatre waiting to see a Nobel Laureate, it can be difficult to avoid inflating your expectations.

Because you know them almost exclusively through their books, the tendency is to imagine Australian icons like J. M. Coetzee, Cate Kennedy, and David Malouf as somehow larger than life, existing on another plane. But when you walk in beneath the glass ceiling of the Deakin Edge theatre and find them sitting solemnly on the stage, you recognise their humanness, and the mystique kind of vanishes.  

In a black suit and open-collared linen shirt, Coetzee cuts a stern figure on the stage, his carved features and shock of grey hair betraying an intense seriousness. He says that he hasn’t had much experience working in the form of the short story, and that the piece he will be reading (“A House In Spain”) was initially published thirteen years ago.

Like much of Coetzee’s work, the story is more or less plotless. Centred around a man who has recently bought a house in Catalonia, it proceeds more like an essay than a traditional story, examining the psyche of an ageing man with an extensive history of failed relationships. Coetzee speaks intently, his brow furrowed. The story’s protagonist develops a relationship with the house that eerily parallels the relationships with his former wives – buying the house makes “a deeper kind of sense” than an economic one – and Coetzee’s strange, almost academic, style allows him to depict the lingering presence of the past in our everyday lives.

Things shift in tone when Cate Kennedy approaches the podium and begins to read from “Flexion”, a story from her collection Like A House On Fire. Kennedy’s prose is furiously written, shifting between lyrical description of landscapes to blokey Australian vernacular. The story details the deterioration of a marriage in the aftermath of the husband’s debilitating accident. Told from the wife’s perspective, it’s a frank and brutal study of the failures of masculinity, and the anxieties of encroaching death.

The final story of the night comes from David Malouf. Walking across the stage in a red turtleneck, he speaks in a energetic, raspy tone. Told from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl, “Closer” examines the tensions between a devoutly religious farm family and their gay son who leaves them for more prosperous territory in Sydney. The naivety of the narrator underscores the absurdity of a religion that preaches tolerance castigating someone for their sexual orientation, with humour and lyricism.

As the sell-out crowd shuffles towards the book signing tables, people speak of the stories in hushed, almost reverent tones. Though extended readings can often prove tiresome, to sit and listen to three Australian masters feels like a true privilege.

Edited by Margaret Robson Kett

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