Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.
Today’s guest is Australia’s best kept secret — prize-winning author Alex Miller — whom I’m incredibly honoured to feature here.
Alex was born in England in 1936 and emigrated to Australia as a 16-year-old to pursue his dream of being a stockman in the outback.
He didn’t start writing until he was in his 50s — and since then he’s won almost every literary prize going down under, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award (twice, in 1993 and 2003), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2003) and the Manning Clark Medal for an outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life (2008).
He has penned 10 novels — Watching the Climbers on the Mountain (1988), The Tivington Nott (1989), The Ancestor Game (1992), The Sitters (1995), Conditions of Faith (2000), Journey to the Stone Country (2002), Prochownik’s Dream (2005), Landscape of Farewell (2007), Lovesong (2009) and Autumn Laing (2011).
Without further ado, here are Alex’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:
This is one of my favourite books. It illuminated two of my own private enigmas in a clear and intimate prose that spoke directly to me and to my own experience at a moment in my life when I was travelling in China and struggling to explore in a novel — The Ancestor Game (1992) — my sense of being Australian and being a writer.
The Enigma of Arrival is about two things. First, England, which remains for me to this day the deeply puzzling landscape of my own birth and childhood; and, second, the long and sometimes tortured process of the coming into being of the writer. Naipaul’s sense of England, his interpretation of its foreign landscape, and his sense of his own literary becoming are not treated as two separate subjects but are entwined, one with the other, in a figure that might be likened, so dependent are they on each other, to the spiraling strands of a double helix. The fit is not perfect, but it is richly compelling.
The limpid simplicity of Naipaul’s prose, the underlying modesty and high ambition of his aim, enthralled me when I first read Enigma. It continues to arouse my admiration freshly after several readings. That Naipaul never does resolve the irreducible complexity of his subject lives on in my memory of the book after each reading with the presence of an illuminated dream. I can ask no more from any book.
Four years after I arrived in Australia from England, at the age of 21 and at a time when I had ceased to see my future as a stockman on remote cattle stations and was at a loss to know what I might do with my life, I was given this great novel to read. The story is of a stranger to Australia, Voss, the German would-be explorer and mystic, who becomes enthralled in a dream of penetrating to the heart of his adoptive country and by this means of finding his way to his own meaning, or perhaps to the consolation of his troubled soul.
The impression left on me by Voss was profound and lasting. The novel revealed the almost infinite potential of complexity that might be involved in getting to know both the great mysterious country Australia and oneself. The book tells of a journey, an adventure, an exploration, in every rich sense of these notions, both physical and spiritual.
After reading Voss I began to dream that one day I, too, might become a writer and might in time accomplish that most difficult and most noble of things, to write a book as beautiful and as enchanting as Voss.
The distinction between poetry and prose dissolves when reading this extraordinary book. The story is set in France in the middle of the 18th century and concerns an untutored peasant boy who meets and falls in love with a member of the nobility. The sexual awakening of the boy Sébastien is a marvel of concision in which the deep erotic luxury of the body’s astonishing song of youth gives potent expression to his dreams and contemplations, and he knows both terror and joy. I have encountered nowhere in literature a more sensually disarming expression of the awakening of the lust of one man for another than Arsand’s account of the peasant boy Sébastien Faure’s sudden disconcerting perception of himself when he sees two men making love in the woods.
Deftly, intricately, and with the kind of accuracy of observation of human intimacy that leaves the reader almost stricken with suspense, Arsand unfolds the story of Sébastien and his lover, the noble Balthazar, to its inevitable and tragic conclusion; a conclusion that, as with all great literature, is no conclusion at all but is a shrug of the shoulders, a comment in-passing, an all-too accurate observation on our moral and mortal condition.
Although it is small in size and modest in its compass, Arsand’s Lovers is a truly great book, unforgettable and insistent in its presence to the reader’s most intimate emotions. When I put it down after finishing it for the first time I thought, “André Gide would love to have written that”.
Thanks, Alex, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I’ve not read any of these books, but am pleased to see Patrick White named here. I’ve read a handful of White’s novels and Voss has been sitting in my reading queue for several years. I also very much like the sound of Daniel Arsand’s novel — I am always intrigued by anything that Europa Editions publishes, not least because they produce such lovely cover art.
What do you think of Alex’s choices? Have you read any of these books?