For Virginia Woolf, it was Hamlet. A play the Modernist giant found so resonant and abundant with meaning that she thought an annual re-reading, along with a record of the reader’s shifting responses to the text over time, would form a kind of autobiography – the self coming to know itself through sustained engagement with a work of art.
For the narrator of Nicolas Rothwell’s Red Heaven, it is Madame Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves – a 17th-century historical novel regarded as a central text of the French literary canon, a book so well known that questions about it are included in the national Civil Service Examination.
The book’s narrator is just a boy when he first encounters the work. It is read to him by a woman he calls an aunt, but who is no blood relation. In fact, the boy appears to be an orphan, albeit a curious one – a foundling with influential guardians who intermittently ship him off to private schools in Switzerland and America, whose holidays are spent in the company of intellectuals, diplomats and artists in grand alpine hotels – observing everyone, recording everything – while being alternatively coddled, importuned, interrogated and ignored by the adults around him.
A fey, precocious child, in other words, whose coming of age in Europe and the States during the late ’60s and ’70s matches some of what we know about the author’s own upbringing – up to and including Rothwell’s eventual turn to journalism as a foreign correspondent in the wake of communism’s fall.
And a boy, who, in the absence of ordinary nuclear family bonds, ends up a rogue particle balanced between two strong attractors: women of oversized personality and achievement whose differences are such that they operate as parental antitheses.
“Great Aunt” Serghiana, first reader of La Princesse de Clèves, is the daughter of a Soviet general. She works as a film producer, a bridge between Soviet cinematic talent and Western cash. Serghiana is tolerated by the authorities at home, though not entirely trusted. She maintains her linchpin role in postwar Russian culture through her beauty, intelligence and sheer force of will.
Serghiana is wholly Russian, too, in her love of art and literature. Her offering to the boy of The Princess of Cleves is not an indulgence but a laying down of the law. “It’s a treasure,” she tells the boy, “it’s still taught in schools, it’s even been made into a film by Cocteau, God defend us – but none of the scholars who study it and write about it seem to understand the secret feelings in the heroine’s heart.”
In the encounters that follow, interrupted by months or years at a time but usually unfolding against the faded glory of some once-famous Swiss hotel – the alps a looming theatrical backdrop to the dramas she generates, that ragged demarcation between Slavic East and European West – Serghiana instils in the boy a sense that art is the one serious thing. Viennese Aunt Ady is having none of this. She’s the woman who steps in to care for the boy when Serghiana absents herself from the picture, as she regularly does. Ady was once an actress and singer but is now more famous for her many rich and talented husbands.
The child of risen Hungarian peasants, Ady has no time for true believers, whether in politics or the arts. Nor does she tolerate what she regards as Serghiana’s efforts to inculcate the child who apparently belongs in their shared care. “I know what she was doing,” Ady explains to others as the boy listens: “Shaping him, training him, making him her own – reading him those sickly mediaeval stories that tell her own life’s tale.
“She idealises art because there is no life in her, she’s parched and dried up. Women like me are quite different: I understand what life is. Fear, mystery, beauty, laughter, tears. Art reflects life. That’s all it is. A mirror, a mechanical thing. I put it in second place.”
What results from this struggle for the boy’s sense of himself and the world – a struggle that proceeds, piecemeal, across the years of his childhood and youth, as the Soviet Empire crumbles from within and the grand era of European Modernism peters out – is a personality stilled by the contrary natures that have laid claim to it.
Those who know Rothwell’s work as a journalist and as a chronicler of northern and central Australia might be shocked by the milieu summoned into being here. But the author has always returned to the mountains of Mitteleuropa in his imagination, even as he has trodden the sand and spinifex of the great Australian elsewhere. Each of his books has been divided between past and present, Old World and New. Each employs the same repertoire of image and idea, as though they were all part of a single, endless, elegantly recapitulated work.
Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian filmmaker whose spirit lies everywhere in these pages, argued that “we must live our own experience, we cannot inherit it”.
Red Heaven is the account, rendered on a grand scale by the most exquisite and enigmatic figure in contemporary Australian literature, of how one boy grew out of his tangled inheritance and found his own.
Text Publishing, 400pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 28, 2021 as "Red Heaven, Nicolas Rothwell".
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