“Red Heaven is a very strange book”
Text, $ 32.99
We don’t normally think of Australian writers as exquisite, but Nicolas Rothwell is exquisite, a writer whose work bears the insignia of world art and literature. He’s a cultured writer, and culture – the way in which culture settles into a particular personality and sensibility – is a big part of his subject matter.
Red sky is a collection of stories laden with the burdens and grievances of the imagination, but it is an exotic book and open to the accusation of being precious in the limiting sense of the word. It is about making people dream in the memories of the places which are associated with them and this has a strange quality because everything is imaginative without being convincing as a work of fiction.
The hero received an expensive education in the big world – in his case at a legendary prestige school in America – but had his real education at the hands of two great older women, one the daughter of a Russian general, the other the wife of a great conductor.
The Russian introduces him to the glories of literature and tells him with a certain coloratural grandeur the film she wants to produce. She immediately tells him about this 17th century masterpiece. The Princess of Cleves and she does so with a majestic attention to literary beauty and complexity and its relation to the life of the author, Madame de Lafayette. And when the great old Russian begins to spell out the relationship between the author and this writer of sweet maxims of the seventeenth century, the Duke of La Rochefoucauld, one has the impression of having fallen into the hands of a born literary man who doesn’t quite know the right style.
Critic William Empson once said that Proust sometimes read like a genius critique of a lost masterpiece. Red sky it doesn’t read like that, but neither does it read like a great literary critic who stands brightly in the shadow of Proust like Walter Benjamin. Rather, it is that this book, which bills itself as a work of fiction, still gesticulates towards the putative wisdom of criticism but misses the bus due to the hardworking nature of its geek.
It is carpeted with flies in literature and artistic expression. The Russian wants to make a film about a Tarkovsky film, she is everywhere sensitive to the thirst for spirituality in her Nostalgia, and we talk – we hear it coming like a freight train – of nostalgia for Nostalgia. She wants, we will hear much later, to make a Rousseau film Confession and we also hear him endorsing the image in Crime and Punishment of Svidrigailov – that bad boy of the “good” murderer of Raskolnov – thinking of eternity as a dirty gray room full of spiders.
All of this is instructive, in part poignant, but it has the quality of a discourse on art even if the author invests it with claims of aesthetic truth as the greatest portal life can offer. Well, maybe, but there is an aspect of Wittgenstein’s “We can’t talk about it, we must be silent” to the sheer chatty bravery of this book.