When a first book by a new writer appears the occasion gives rise to the question, ‘Why do some people give their lives to writing?’ The American essayist Paul Fussell has remarked that writers often complain of what hard work writing is — but they omit to mention that no one has forced them to write, no one has even asked them to write. They choose to do this work.
Soon after Franz Kafka’s first book was published in 1912 (a collection of short pieces titled Meditation) he told his friend and later biographer Max Brod that the publisher had reported eleven copies had been sold at the main bookshop in Prague. Kafka said he had bought ten of those copies and would dearly like to know who bought the eleventh.
So, we write in order to be published, and to have those published books sold. Stuart’s publisher has told me that the first twenty copies of Personal Taxidermy placed in Readings book shop in Carlton sold out almost immediately. I suspect Stuart’s bulky back pack has about nineteen of those copies in it, as it should.
Around this time in Prague a seventeen-year-old Gustav Janouch, was writing poems in his bedroom at night. His father, a lawyer, called him in to his offices one day and told his son he knew he was writing poems. ‘How do you know?’ Gustav asked. His father explained that the home electricity bills had been increasing, and after some investigation he realised his son’s bedroom light was on most of the night. He had searched his son’s room and found the poems hidden in the piano. ‘Many of them I did not understand,’ he said. ‘Some of them I can only describe as stupid.’ But he wanted a professional opinion from a competent authority, so he had his assistant type out the poems and then he gave them to a legal assistant in the insurance section, a man who had a reputation for being a minor writer — Franz Kafka.
Kafka asked to meet Gustav, and when they met the first thing Kafka said was, ‘You need not be ashamed. I too have a large electricity bill.’ Gustav asked him what he thought of the poetry and Kafka said, ‘There is too much noise in your poems.’ The noise, he said, was itself beautiful because it had in it the vitality of youth. They began to see each other regularly, and on one of their walks Kafka said he had shown some of Gustav’s poems to a publisher. Gustav begged him to take them back, and never show them again to a publisher. ‘So, you don’t write in order to publish?’ Kafka asked. Gustav said he wrote poems to prove to himself that he was not altogether stupid.
Here then is another reason some people give themselves up to writing — because it is difficult, strange, challenging, beautiful and terrifying: it is a way of using and testing our minds, our vitality, our cleverness, a way of rescuing our sense of self. Kafka in fact used to complain when his books were published that it was none of his doing, that his friends had given the manuscript to the publisher. He called his books ‘personal proof of my human weakness’.
Stuart’s book Personal Taxidermy is proof of human weakness if we can take this as one of the best compliments a work of writing might draw to itself. Stuart’s novel is beautiful. He can write, and yes, there is the beautiful, vital noise of youth in it. Stuart might never write quite like this again because he will never be quite so unknown, quite so new to such inventions of the imagination. For all his later success and his brilliant books, Peter Carey whose Fat Man in History was published in 1974, has never quite written anything as brilliant, as tender, as adventurous, as surprising as his first book. Part of the excitement of being there when a new writer emerges is this experience of watching talent finding itself as we read.
Stuart’s novel is not merely beautiful, for there is darkness as well as light in the novel, and an intense interest in both. Here he is, writing of a man who is telling about the time he fell in love:
I propped up on one elbow to get a square view of her. As I made the sudden movement, something came loose. It rolled down the spouting of my brain like a single marble, clanking and banging at every twist and turn, echoing down the pipe, through my head, down my neck and my shoulders, into my stomach, my buttocks and finally down my right leg, where it came to rest in my little toe. The place where love resides. She stared at me for a moment, and I don’t know if she ever knew what I felt, but I must have looked funny because there was something different in her stare. I lay back on the sheets.
Lorelei picked her things off the floor. She pulled on one stocking, then the other, then put on her shoes. I watched her leave . . . at the door she turned to me with eyes as shiny as river rocks . . .
I’m not sure if I loved her . . . Looking back, it is hard to quantify love if you only meet someone once. But even though it may not have been love, something inside me changed; and in that respect I suppose she became as needed as love.
In this novel there is the creature who lives in a dark room where everything is painted black; there is the ghostly girl Bebel whose body is becoming massive; Natalie the prostitute and heroin addict who protects and befriends the boy who can’t remember who he is; the beautiful thirteen-year-old Indy Maru who must wear yellow gloves because she is allergic to all product made from wood, including paper. All the characters come with the stamp of this book’s imaginative style and with lives lived out on the streets of Melbourne that readers care about. There are the always surprising twists and turns of Stuart’s prose. It was a book worth writing, and one that will repay any reader. Stuart’s parents have probably told him not to give his life to writing because of course there is no money in it, no security, and no clear career pathway. Parents have to say these sorts of things even if they don’t mean it. But like Kafka, like Carey, like so many of us, Stuart has gone ahead and done it, and along with his parents I’m sure, I am grateful he did it.
His publisher too has been brave to bring out this book. It is always a small miracle to see another independent publisher testing the possibilities of a new readership for new kinds of writing. I admire and commend Helen Cerne and Vanark Press for this venture.