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Authors: Frank Moorhouse


BOOK: Forty-Seventeen
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About the book

What could he tell her now, now that he was forty and she was no longer seventeen?

He is a failed writer turned diplomat, an anarchist learning the value of discipline. He moves in a world which takes him from the Australian wilderness to the conference rooms of Vienna and Geneva; from the whore-house to warzone he feels the pull of the genetic spiral of his ancestry. At the sharp axis of his mid-life he scans the memorabilia of his feelings in the hope of giving answers.. In his first full-length novel Moorhouse presents a roving, dissatisfied man entering middle age in a house-of-mirrors portrait: fragmentary and multifaceted. Sean, a hard-drinking, hard-living Australian, has just turned 40; the other half of the title refers to a precocious schoolgirl who is one of his many liaisons. The most important of the other women who drift into and out of his life include his ex-wife Robyn, now unflinching in the face of cancer; Belle, Sean's fellow sexual adventurer; and Edith Campbell Berry, an aging iconoclast whom Sean encounters in Vienna and Israel.

Forty Seventeen
is told with characteristic Moorhouse style - candid, wryly insightful and morbidly comic - and, in this resonant and acclaimed book achieves a new virtuosity.

Dedicated to Fiona Giles whose wonderful presence
in my life when this book was written inspired some of
these stories.

Buenaventura Durruti's Funeral

The American poet's visit.
After lunch over coffee and stregas at Sandro's, the poets showed their pens. Two of the poets had Lamys, another a pen from the New York Museum of Modern Art which looked like a scalpel. A fifth said he thought he'd ‘get a Lamy'.

They handled each other's pens, writing their favourite line from Yeats or Eliot or whoever. ‘Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world', one wrote. He had not seen poets at this before.

He then made a reluctant presentation of a book of Australian stories to the visiting American poet Philip Levine, for whom the lunch had been organised. He said the book contained the story
The American Poet's Visit
and that he had been induced to present it by his friends as a ‘joke

‘Did Rexroth ever read the story?' Levine asked, after being told that it was about the American poet Kenneth Rexroth.

This wasn't known.

When we here, he gestured at the table, were all younger, Australians wrote with a perspective which came from feeling that we lived outside the ‘real world'. For us, Europe and the US were the world. We lived somewhere else.

Australians wrote with the greatest freedom there is – writing without fear of being read.

He observed to himself that the others at the table had made it as writers while he'd gone other ways. Though he had tried it for a time.

‘That's right,' said John, ‘without the fear of being read by anyone really.'

A joke for John, a bitter truth for him.

‘Further, people from the real world were, paradoxically, people from literary history and they had a fictional gloss to them – you were not of the world of

?' asked Levine.

‘Our literary world, I mean.'

‘It's the Aboriginal word meaning “rejected from the
New Yorker
”,' someone else said.

Levine, or someone at the table said that now someone else would be able to write another story –
The Second American Poet's Visit.

‘Ah, there cannot be another story because we are being read now by the people from “out there”.'

Everyone fell thoughtfully glum at this observation.

‘But when the first story was published the editor thought “Rexroth” was a pseudonym for a “real person”.'

‘And Philip isn't the second poet to visit, there's beer. Duncan, Ginsberg, Simpson.'

‘Kinnel, Levertov, Snyder.'


‘The Harlem Globe Trotters.'

‘We are now part of the poetry night-club circuit.'

‘The poets arrive – we look them up in Norton's
Anthology of Modern American Poetry
so that we can quote them a line or two of their poetry.'

‘Speak for yourself,' said John.


In this cafe, Durruti,

the Unnameable

Plotted the burning of the bishop of Saragossa.


‘Very good,' said Levine, ‘they are indeed my lines from Norton's.'

Levine said that although Norton's was laboriously footnoted for students there was no footnote for his poem
The Midget
to explain who ‘Durruti' was or the ‘Archbishop of Saragossa'.

‘Do you people know?'

We shook our heads expectantly.

He wrote down the name Durruti and the name Archbishop of Saragossa on a table napkin because of the noise in the restaurant and we passed it around, reading the names.


A biography of Durruti is reviewed in the TLS.
He wrote to his friend Cam Perry in Montreal, a professor of hypnosis, and asked him to get the biography of Durruti which was published in Montreal by Black Rose Books and reviewed in the
Times Literary Supplement.

He said in the letter to Cam, ‘By the way, my friend Belle says that because I work for the UN I can't be
really decadent. I didn't spend all that money at night clubs and go through all those squalid situations when we were young to be told that I'm not decadent. You were there – write to her …' He wrote jokingly to Levine, now back in California, saying that there was a biography of Durruti and that Norton should be informed so that they could make a footnote in the anthology.


The Archbishop.
The Archbishop of Saragossa was shot dead in 1923 as an anarchist act – ‘a cleansing social act'. He was a key figure in the repression of that city. Popular rumour said that he held weekly orgies at a convent which in itself seemed to be something of a redeeming feature of the Archbishop. When he died he left his fortune to a nun who then deserted her order.

At the time of the shooting Durruti and the Los Solidarios (an anarchist commando group) were blamed – ‘credited'? – and while they almost certainly planned the execution, the actual shooting was probably done by Francisco Ascaso, a close friend of Durruti. But it was said that Ascaso was the stone, Durruti the blade.

In Sydney we always said assassination was ultimate censorship. But things were tougher in Saragossa.


Durruti lived in Barcelona.
Barcelona he knew visually from Michelangelo Antonioni's film
The Passenger
and Luis Buñuel's film
That Obscure Object of Desire
, and he knew about the Barcelona telephone exchange
and Durruti from his reading about the Spanish Civil War. There'd been no real point in telling Levine or the poets that he did know who Durruti was.

In 1936 Durruti and the anarchists gained control of the Barcelona Telefonica and collectivised it. The communists at this time were plotting to destroy the power of the anarchists and the battle for the exchange was part of this power struggle. When calls came to Barcelona for ‘the government', the anarchist operators would instruct the caller in anarchist theory and tell them there was no ‘government' recognised by the anarchists in Barcelona. Although it slowed down telephone calls, the control of the exchange was useful as a ‘school' for the anarchists and their callers. And it should be mentioned that, the Telefonica aside, most functions run by the anarchists were well run.


The Passenger was a special film for him. The Passenger
is about a journalist (played by Jack Nicholson) who is approaching forty and who takes on the identity of a casual acquaintance after the acquaintance dies while they are together in a hotel in North Africa. Nicholson lives out the man's life and appointments.

It is in Barcelona that Nicholson meets a young student – Maria Schneider – who involves herself with him on his drive along the Spanish coast from Barcelona through Armeria, Purellana, and Algeciras. He keeps the final appointment in the Hotel de la Gloria and meets the other man's destiny – he is shot dead in that hotel.

The film was special for him because he'd been approaching forty when he'd met a seventeen-year-old school girl in Adelaide – he'd been there visiting the weapons testing facility. On erotic impulse he had asked her to drive with him to Darwin – 5000 kilometres clean across the continent and back again. She had said without hesitation, ‘Yes.'

‘Your mother?'

‘She'll be OK.'

They had driven the first 1000 kilometres at 160–80 kilometres an hour hardly speaking, just observation and occasional biographical anecdote, straight across the desert and made love at the small town of Arkaroola in a motel which had not yet been cleaned by the staff but they could not wait.

She had been transfixingly erotic for him and the silent interplay was intricate – uniquely so and he'd told her this. She took the compliment and said gracefully, ‘My body is young but I know some things about its pleasures.' She said she thought she understood ‘sexual mood'.

On that drive across the first 1000 kilometres before they'd made love his desire for her had grown unbearable and he had stopped the car out in the desert and suggested they walk for a little, with the intention of making physical contact with her.

They'd stood there in the desert. He had moved to kiss her but received no signal of permission.

‘Look,' he'd said, ‘I can't take this uncertainty, my body, my heart can't take it – you will make love with me when we reach the next town?'

‘Of course I will,' she'd said, ‘let's go,' and then moved back to the car before he could take her in his arms. He'd felt the pact should have been sealed affectionately. But then he'd thought that maybe she did not go in for the ‘affectionate sealing of pacts'.

In the motel they had not drunk alcohol, which was unusual for him but he'd felt no need. After their first lovemaking she'd come to him and coaxed him back into her saying, ‘Give me more,' and he'd had no trouble making love to her again.

Despite the intricacy of their silent interplay she'd had difficulty talking to him at times and he had had to ‘make' the conversation.

Though during the drive across the desert, before the lovemaking but after the pact, she had turned to him and asked, teasingly, ‘Do you find me very young?'

‘Yes,' he said smiling, ‘do you find me very much older?'

‘Yes and I like it.'

‘So do I.'

In Darwin he'd found a copy of Turgenev's
First Love.

‘In this book,' he said, ‘the father competes with the son for the love of a girl.'

‘Who wins?'

‘The father. It is a book which you read first from the son's point of view and then later in life you read it from the father's point of view. A male does. I don't know how it reads from a female point of view.'

‘I'll tell you,' she said.

A year later she said, ‘You know you gave me Turgenev's
First Love
to read and you said you didn't know how it read from “a female point of view”?'

He said, yes, he remembered.

‘Well,' she said, ‘it reads acceptably well from this female's point of view,' and she laughed, half privately, and he guessed he was being compared with her young boyfriend.

He had continued to see her in the years that followed, during her vacations from university, and they'd meet in motels somewhere in Australia. They had other long drives in different places in three states. He had not been shot in any hotels. Inevitably he would be at the motel first, awaiting her. She would arrive with her tube tote, which she called her ‘parachute bag', stuffed with a few things and many books which would never be opened during the trip.

They would always refer to
The Passenger
and recall favourite details.

He had during one of their trips talked to her about a possible journey to Spain as a homage to the Spanish anarchists and to
The Passenger
and to Buñuel.

She had laughingly refused to take the idea of a pilgrimage to Spain seriously. ‘Why should I know anything about the Spanish Civil War – except to know who were good and who were bad?' He did not know whether it was because she thought the pilgrimage unlikely or whether she didn't want to be too much a part of his fantasies.

‘There are the “real” lessons of the Spanish Civil War,'
he said, but she did not pick up the question and he refrained from overloading her with his preoccupations.

He on the other hand had taken the pilgrimage too seriously. He said to her a few times that they would do it the year he turned forty and she graduated.

He listed the places they would visit. Madrid University which the Durruti Column had defended and near where Durruti had been shot, the Ritz Hotel where he had been taken to die, the Hotel Victoria in Valencia where Auden and the others drank. The Hotel Gaylord in Madrid from
For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The Hotel Continental where Orwell stayed during the war. The Hotel Christian where Hemingway's
Fifth Column
is set.

‘And the Ritz in Madrid is one of the twenty leading hotels of the world.'

But she would stop the conversation before it got too far.

In a motel dining room in some Victorian coastal town one night she said, ‘But if we did that you'd be shot in a hotel room like Jack.'

‘Do you really think that?' He took her hand.

And then a darkness passed over her face and she said she did not wish to talk about it, as if she had forebodings.


Hypnotic coercion and compliance to it
. Instead of the biography of Durruti, Cam sent him a copy of one of his academic papers published in the
International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.
It was
about the potential of hypnosis to coerce unconsenting behaviour. One position asserts that coercion is possible through the induction of distorted perceptions which delude the hypnotised person into believing that the behaviour is not transgressive. The other position asserts that where hypnosis appears to be a causal factor in coercing behaviour, the other elements in the situation, especially a close hypnotist–client relationship, were probably the main determinants of behaviour.

He read the paper with delight at the things people did with their lives and the way these things entered his life.

Cam said the Durruti book would follow.


Up at the Journalists' Club.
Up at the Journalists' Club he and his ex-wife Robyn met some old friends from his cadetship days and following a joke about the anarchists and the Barcelona telephone exchange – a joke they'd been enjoying since those days – they argued over what was the last battle fought in the Spanish Civil War.

He said he was more interested in the ‘real' lessons of the Spanish Civil War.

‘The Spanish Civil War is not behind us,' he said suddenly, ‘it is in front of us.'

‘The bitch is on heat again,' Barry said.

‘No,' he said, ‘I mean that it is not the war with the fascists which is ahead of us but the war between the free left and the authoritarian left.'

BOOK: Forty-Seventeen
11.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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