Everyone knows – in theory – how to write an essay, but very few people can write them to really high standards.
Excellent essays can begin with the author in a state of frank confusion: Montaigne not only invented the form, he made an art form out of just such beginnings. But Montaigne never reached the end of an essay without having achieved a pellucid certainty about his topic. You are never confused at the end of his essays, much as you and he may be at the start of them.
Now that’s the kind of trick that very few essayists can be trusted to turn ever, let alone at will.
Inga Clendinnen wrote an indispensable book on the dawn of European occupied Australia: Dancing With Strangers. The central message of Dancing With Strangers was that 1788 need not have been (indeed did not at the time look like being) the cusp of various cultures’ destruction. This message is a useful one to remember when reflecting on Australia’s modern history, and all the more so as our history sidles haltingly into the twenty-first century.
When Clendinnen writes history she is lucid, compelling and full of playful enthusiasms. When she writes essays on writing history however (or indeed on just about any other topic), a fog descends, and though she thrashes ever so energetically through it, she almost inevitably fails to clear it.
Agamemnon’s Kiss is a selection of twenty essays written by Clendinnen during the nineties and noughties on literature, history, Indigenous affairs, organ transplants, the Shoah and family holidays back in the good ol’ days. I’m sorry to say that over the course of the book, Clendinnen’s inbuilt smoke machine only malfunctions twice.
In this particular essay, (‘Fellow Sufferers’) Clendinnen is trying to unpick the differences between fiction and history. Her problem lies with the division between what she calls ‘gratuitous images’ (created by the authors of fiction) and ‘records of past actuality’ (primary historical documents). Groping in the mist, she tells us that
‘Nabokov the fabricator cuffs us lightly: “Attend now.” In Lolita I attend, for the pleasure of it. But I am under no obligation to attend; I could, should I choose, simply close the book. I have made that choice with Bend Sinister: the pages dealing with the death of David Krug are stapled together in my copy. I do not wish to see them even inadvertently. And despite my collusion, or perhaps because of it, I cannot forgive Nabokov for installing those images in my mind, because they are gratuitous images of his own invention.’
Let’s leave aside the nastier implications of ‘fabricator’. The word ‘gratuitous’ is primarily synonymous with ‘gift’ – it is something given or obtained free of charge. Clendinnen, however, clearly intends it to be understood in its second meaning: ‘uncalled for, unwarranted, motiveless, done or acting without good or assignable reason’. Having never read Bend Sinister, I hesitate to condemn Clendinnen on this point, but I would hesitate much longer before I accused Nabokov of ever having written a passage of ‘motiveless’ or ‘unwarranted’ prose.
Clendinnen feels no compunction to staple together the pages relating to certain historical events, however – and as she explains her reasons for refraining from doing so the mist thickens and begins to look truly impenetrable:
‘Years ago I worked on Spanish Inquisition documents from the late sixteenth century; documents in which ever moan, every whimper, every twist and wrench was meticulously recorded. I read, recorded and collated equally meticulously, even though I had to have brandy-and-water beside me, even though I would be quite drunk by noon. I could not turn away. Why? Because I had appointed myself clerk of record, and therefore witness to those five-hundred-year-old sufferings… I am not free to refuse painful engagement of emotions and imagination, because I have entered into a moral relationship with the persons enclosed in the documents’.
The implication here might just be that reading and doing history is morally superior to fiction (even if you happen to be pissed as a parrot while reading or doing it): the violence in history is not ‘fabricated’ and we have therefore a ‘responsibility’ to witness it. At least, that seems to be the message of these two passages. Or is it, exactly? Elsewhere Clendinnen says that
‘when I read great historical writings the bliss is tempered and, in a sense and paradoxically, intensified by a critical alertness and an undertow of moral implication not present in the limpid realms of fiction.’
Since she is an historian, we can perhaps forgive Clendinnen this bias in favour of her own field. But is fiction a ‘limpid realm’? Does she really mean limpid (‘pellucid, clear, not turbid’)?
Fiction is a clear realm?
I don’t think so. And ‘tempered’? Does she mean ‘having elements mixed in satisfying proportions’, or the more common ‘made harder’? Frankly, neither possibility provides clarity here.
And I think this points to Clendinnen’s most egregious fault: she’s a stranger to the dictionary.
She must be, or she would not have used the verb ‘brutalise’ at least seven times in this collection and never once correctly. To brutalise someone is, properly speaking, to turn them into a brute, not to treat them brutally. Clendinnen even describes Anne Frank as having been brutalised. Now there’s an image for you.
And like many an academic, she can’t resist hyphenated word-play. I counted five instances of her claiming to ‘re-present’ her historical subjects. You groan the first time, but by the fifth, you’re ready to throw something – and there happens to be a book right there in your hands…
Clendinnen also shares with us the information that some historians see themselves as ‘horny-handed labourers in a field of stone-hard facts’. I don’t like that phrase at all. The alliteration is trite, the metaphors are parsecs short of apt, the pun on ‘field’ is a clanger and anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with history knows that the ‘facts’ it presents are nearly always debatable. But Clendinnen must really like it: why else would she use it twice in Agamemnon’s Kiss?
When Clendinnen writes straight history – perhaps particularly Aztec history – you wish she never wrote on anything else. Here’s what she can do when she’s on song:
‘At the great festival of the god of spring, the successful [Aztec] warrior was rewarded with, among other things, the skin of his most distinguished warrior captive. The skin was peeled so deftly from the trunk and limbs… that when finally tugged free from the flesh it resembled a ragged union suit. It was the warrior’s duty and glory to climb into the still-warm skin; to feel it shrink to tightness as it dried; to wear it again and again… on high occasions through all the twenty days of the festival until, the lessons of personal mortality and physical corruptibility most intimately learnt, the stinking, blackened tatters could be laid away.’
Dense, evocative and morally astute, this is the sort of prose you want from an essayist.
But this chunk of prose comes at the start of an essay on death and funerals, and atheist though she is, Clendinnen can’t quite decide on the most appropriate last rites. She derides a coleopterist who wants to be devoured by beetles, she doesn’t like casual funerals at which many friends speak, she flirts with the idea that some form of ritual is necessary. But then, taking her cue from Henry Lawson’s story The Bush Undertaker, she decides that she
‘would like to wander into the bush with a bottle; to be discovered and made decent by a passing friend with a shovel; to lie quietly in the brittle earth until the husk of the extinguished self has quite crumbled away.’
But enough, and more than enough.
Agamemnon turns out to be a singularly bad kisser.