Review: James Leyon John Hughes

Lest We Remember

The first sentence in John Hughes’ novel The Dogs is lifted from his first book, a collection of autobiographical essays titled The Idea of Home (2004), though the recycled line is not quite verbatim.

‘It’s impossible, when one writes about the living, to resist seeing them as already dead,’ Hughes asserts in The Idea of Home.

‘It’s impossible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead’ – so begins The Dogs.

The revision is subtle but significant. The second sentence is more direct, less affected, avoiding the first version’s languid subordinate clause and the slightly pompous locution ‘when one writes’. The substantive change from ‘seeing’ to ‘thinking’ does not alter the general sense: seeing is such a naturalised metaphor for understanding that it clearly implies thinking. But the removal of that unobtrusive metaphorical element sharpens the focus, makes the statement just that little bit more precise. Writing is an ongoing process of refinement – second thoughts to the power of n, as J.M. Coetzee once wrote.

And yet there is a considerable difference between something being impossible and it being impossible to resist. The notion of resistance acknowledges the presence of the writer’s desire. It recognises that the impossibility is not an inevitability, but a function of his own weakness. The implication is that the writer does, in fact, have a choice, but lacks the necessary willpower to resist temptation. On some level, he knows he could and probably should resist. When he states that the mortifying effect of his own cruel gaze is ‘impossible to resist’, he is making an excuse for his indulgence, casting himself as the helpless victim of his own selfishness. The absolving claim that he has been compelled to do something he wanted to do anyway is a backhanded admission that there is something shameful about that selfishness.

In The Idea of Home, Hughes implicates himself in this moral equivocation, accepting that the relation between the writer and his subject is ethically compromised by the exploitative instinct to see a living person and think: yes, I can use you; whatever else you may be, you’re material. But when he misquotes himself in the first line of The Dogs, placing the observation in the mouth of a fictional character, he eliminates the faint note of equivocation. The sentence is recast as merely incontrovertible, a blunt statement of fact that suppresses the underlying sense of guilt and shame. The line becomes exculpatory in a different way; the evasion expresses the reluctance of the novel’s notably selfish narrator to accept his own responsibility.

There is truth to the statement in either form. When you write about someone, you are committing a kind of symbolic murder. The living person is wrenched out of time and transformed, quite literally, into an arrangement of dead symbols. No matter how accurate or well meaning, the representation will always be a misrepresentation, a selective distortion, less than the reality it describes, omitting of necessity most of the substance of that person’s lived experience. It is actually true that photographs steal souls; in its own way, and for similar reasons, writing does too.

The same objectifying principle applies when you are writing about yourself. The corollary of the repeated line is declared later in The Idea of Home. In an essay that describes his disillusioning experience as a scholarship student at Cambridge, Hughes remembers his first galvanising encounter with Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, which impressed upon him the idea that ‘all autobiography is biography, because the writer, by writing, cannot help but consider himself someone else’.

The insight is important to Hughes for the ambiguity it creates. One of the striking things about Biographia Literaria, he goes on to observe, is that Coleridge also demonstrates the converse principle that ‘all biography – all literature, in fact – is autobiography in that the writer, by writing, cannot help but consider his subject in terms of himself … he is, if only implicitly, writing (defining) himself through his subject’. Writing, then, is at once objectification, self-effacement and self-creation. It is a repudiation, a figurative murder-suicide, yet it is also a helpless confession and a process of self-discovery. The writer thinks of himself as his subject and his subject as himself. He thinks of both of them as already dead as he writes them into a new existence.

More than just a curious paradox, this understanding is the source of the distinctive sense of hauntedness that pervades Hughes’ work. His writing is constantly circling back to the twinned themes of memory and forgetting, not with the moralist’s insistence on the importance of remembrance and bearing witness, but with a disquieted awareness of their destabilising power. The simple fact that life is lived forwards and understood backwards makes our relationship with the past fundamental, but constantly shifting and elusive. To say that we are constituted by our memories is also to say we are constituted by that which we have forgotten; it is to say that we are constituted by something that is lost and inaccessible, and yet inextricably entangled with the present. ‘In a sense, it’s never really the past we remember,’ Hughes has his narrator reflect early in The Dogs.

The future clings to the past like a winding sheet. Every time we think back, we attach the future to it, if only unconsciously, with a knowledge of the time between the moment we are trying to recapture and the present from which we cast our net. Thus the past always knows the future, not as something still to happen, but as something that already has.

Hughes can be considered an antipodean writer in several senses, one of which is that he knows how to stand an idea on its head, but the most significant is that his preoccupation with memory and forgetting has its origins in the cultural dislocations of his Australian childhood. As he observes in The Idea of Home, the nondescript Britishness of his name conceals the fact that he is Ukrainian on his mother’s side. His grandfather brought his family to Australia to escape a war-ravaged Europe and wanted nothing more than to put the past behind him. Hughes writes of his Ukrainian heritage as a shadowing presence when he was growing up, something rarely discussed, the source of a vague feeling of foreignness. His mother and grandmother would communicate in a language he did not understand: a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, at once familiar and incomprehensible, which instilled in him the odd belief that he had, as he puts it, ‘forgotten a language I never knew’. He admits to feeling somewhat ashamed that his younger self did not take a more active interest in the unspoken travails of his mother’s family, but also acknowledges the conflicting imperative to respect their desire to forget.

The imaginative space of Hughes’ writing is shot through with this divided consciousness, this haunting sense of being the embodiment of an inherited past from which he is estranged. The personal experience of deracination becomes the lens through which his work examines its cultural and historical themes. It was through his grandfather’s desire to forget, he writes in an illuminating passage, that he came to recognise Anzac Day as a ‘ceremony of forgetting’. The sacralising rituals, the ostentatious solemnity, the perpetuation of confected national myths – these are all elaborate forms of avoidance, the means by which ‘we glorify the past in order to forget its reality’. The injunction of the day, he proposes, should really be ‘lest we remember’. Yet the important point for Hughes is not simply that there is something distasteful about the glorification of war, or cynical about the manipulation of nationalistic sentiments; it is that there is something willful about the forgetting that is characteristic of the way human beings process pain and suffering.

Running counter to this notion of willful forgetting is a potent sense that certain memories can never be forgotten or even successfully suppressed. Hughes avoids the fashionable term ‘trauma’ with its unwelcome clinical air, but he writes in full awareness of what the unnamed narrator of his novel No One (2019) describes as his ‘horror at the persistence of memory’. The past is understood to perpetuate itself from one generation to the next in ghostly traces that can assume a tangible form. In Someone Else (2007), a collection of ‘fictional essays’ in which Hughes puts into practice that Coleridgean principle of self-definition through self-effacement, writing his way into the sensibilities of writers and artists who have influenced him, haunting them as they have haunted him, he quotes a line from Proust: ‘The dead annex the living who become their replicas and successors, the continuators of their interrupted life.’ Proust’s narrator is observing the way his his mother has adopted his grandmother’s mannerisms, but Hughes interprets the line in a more far-reaching sense: ‘We forget the dead, that is, even as our bodies become repositories of their memories, annexed by history, our gestures repeat, perhaps eternally, what cannot be forgotten.’

The conflict between this notion of embodied memory and willful forgetting sits at the heart of The Dogs. The novel’s narrator is a scriptwriter from Sydney named Michael Shamanov, who is 55 and carrying some of the more unwelcome baggage of middle-age. He is divorced and not on good terms with his ex-wife. His relationship with his adult son is strained. His elderly mother Anna, who emigrated to Australia from Italy at the conclusion of the Second World War, is wasting away in a nursing home, dementia steadily stripping her of her memories and with them her identity, though she has enough awareness of her terminal condition to tell her son, in a lucid moment, that she wants to die.

The keynote of Michael’s character in the initial stages of the novel is his selfishness. In an early scene, he is driving and narrowly avoids hitting cyclist, who ends up a tangled mess in the middle of the road. He doesn’t bother stopping. Michael does, however, possess just enough self-awareness to feel a gnawing sense of guilt at his neglect of his vulnerable mother, whom he rarely visits. The catalyst for the novel is the relationship he strikes up with his mother’s nurse, a Lebanese immigrant named Catherine El Khoury. He comes to realise that Catherine has learned more about his mother in the short time she has been caring for her than he has gleaned in a lifetime. His mother had never been forthcoming; he had never bothered to ask.

The opening line is not the only instance of self-quotation in The Dogs. The novel is, in fact, a veritable echo chamber, full of observations drawn from his earlier work. Hughes has incorporated several passages from his essay ‘My Mother’s House’ into a chapter where Michael remembers Anna’s habit of hoarding junk in the basement of his childhood home. ‘The basement,’ he states, ‘is the memory of my mother’s house.’ Several pages later, he reflects:

I used to think my mother’s hoarding of her Australian past was an attempt to compensate for the irretrievability of the European past she had lost. I no longer believe this is the case. That past is all too retrievable. My mother does not want to remember. The apparent randomness of her hoarding signals the means by which she has tried (valiantly but futilely) to forget.

The centrepiece of the novel is an extraordinary chapter describing the horrific experience that Anna spent the remainder of her life trying to forget. Beyond the drama of this pivotal event, The Dogs is concerned to examine the complications and ambiguities of the process by which Michael uncovers the painful history that his mother had tried to bury under all that junk. At least some of those ambiguities are ethical. When Michael realises there is something disturbing in Anna’s past, his initial response is tainted by that opportunistic writer’s impulse to think: there’s a story here. He has always known his mother as a reticent person. ‘If someone asks you a personal question,’ she advised her young son, ‘you’re perfectly entitled to lie.’ Now she is increasingly helpless; her disintegrating mind is throwing out disjointed memories like embers from a dying fire. As Michael places his tape recorder by her bed and begins coaxing information from her, it occurs to him that maybe he is taking advantage of her condition. A little later in the novel, he expresses the hope that his attempt to imagine his way into his mother’s experience, to write the past she does not want to remember back into existence, might be understood as an act of love, but read against the earlier guilty thought, the line has the lingering air of a rationalisation. When Anna comes to understand what Michael is doing, she tries to strike a bargain:

‘Kill me, Michael,’ she said at last. ‘While your mother is still your mother … I’ll tell you everything you want to know. Just promise me you’ll help me die.’

A significant irony attends this uneasiness, namely that Anna, while suppressing her own past, has gone out of her way to preserve the history of her parents. Michael, via his son Leo, comes into the possession of a cache of letters. The letters tell the unhappy story of the estrangement of Anna’s mother Ravenna, an Italian opera singer, from the father she never knew, a Russian aristocrat forced into exile after the Revolution. As he reads them, Michael realises they could only have been translated from Italian by his mother, who would only have done so if she wanted him to know about this aspect of his family history.

The intricate multi-generational and multi-textual plot, which also delves into Catherine’s backstory as her relationship with Michael deepens, has something of the roominess of a nineteenth-century novel. On a formal level, this makes The Dogs a notable departure from Hughes’ previous novels No One and Asylum (2016), both of which are succinct and highly stylised explorations of the historical wounds and inherited neuroses that have defined Australia as a nation born of colonialism. These are novels that understand Australia as a predominantly immigrant society with a predominantly immigrant literature, a society haunted by feelings of dislocation and anxieties about its legitimacy. Asylum is a harrowing reflection on the plight of the refugee in the form of an oblique existential allegory; No One rewrites the Odyssey as a way of addressing the historical fact of Indigenous dispossession, presenting itself as an odd kind of detective story in which the narrator is trying to track down the victim of his own crime. What the novels share is a preoccupation with the idea of home as something tantalising but chimerical, a longed-for but unachievable state of resolution and security. ‘I sometimes feel something vital is missing in me,’ the narrator of No One confesses: ‘… in me is nothing but guilt, as if I’ve been searching all my life for something that doesn’t exist.’

The nation’s pathologies are the result of this perpetual state of irresolution. The conceit of Asylum – a novel that develops its own version of that atmospheric blend of the oneiric and the bureaucratic perfected by Kafka – is to see the figure of the displaced person as a reflection of the gatekeepers who would exclude him. The asylum seeker exists in a state of suspension between the remembered reality of his homeland and the ideal of his new home. He is seeking security and a new life in a land that is, to him, imaginary. Thus his very existence is threatening, because he is an uncomfortable reminder that Australia itself is a figment of the colonial imagination. He is shunned because he confronts all non-Indigenous Australians with the spectre of their own displacement, their own illegitimacy. In a passage styled as a report on Terra Australis Incognita, Hughes elegantly diagnoses the condition that afflicts the many immigrants who have arrived in this imaginary land:

The reality is the arrivals never really leave behind the places they have left and continue to live there in all but a bodily sense. But what comes of this pathology is the most ingenious adaptation. Man, as we know, lives on promises, and in this all promised lands are the same. Rather than seeing this as a problem of ideals (that the place one sets out for is never the place one arrives), the arrivals find it easier to turn the imagined place itself around so that it becomes an imagining place, a place that re-creates other places in order to be itself and exists only in its imagining of these other places. They dream of escape, in other words, and do, but in a such a way that they remain to people it still, dual beings whose imaginations inhabit them like ghosts in this rarest of lands where men don’t have to die for their soul to separate from their body – where the condition of life is this very separation.

The Dogs brings the historical and cultural themes of Asylum and No One back to a personal level. It sets aside the fanciful and allegorical aspects of those novels, placing its narrative on a more realistic footing. In doing so, it renders intimate and palpable the idea that there are certain pathologies intrinsic to Australia as a site of dislocation, forgetting and imagining. Early in the novel, Michael recalls that throughout his childhood Anna was ‘a stranger to me. A displaced person, closed and distant.’ When he asks her why she came to Australia, she tells him to look at a map. The Dogs is ultimately about what happens when that distance can no longer be maintained, when it is no longer possible to separate past from present, when those provisional barriers erected to make life bearable come down.

As the novel’s central motif, Anna’s terminal condition comes to represent the ineluctable quality of the themes that have defined Hughes’ work from the very beginning. It recalls a cryptic line from No One: ‘I’ve often thought that history is just a form of dementia.’ Anna’s expressed wish to die, which hangs over The Dogs as an unresolved ethical dilemma, gives a literal cast to the idea expressed in the opening line that to write about someone is to render them figuratively dead. ‘That the greatest insult of the disease,’ Michael reflects: ‘it kills you while it keeps you alive.’ Near the end of the novel, in a moment of confusion, Anna mistakes Michael for her estranged father. Michael’s reaction is clear echo both of Proust and Hughes himself:

who was I to say there wasn’t recognition, that the dead don’t annex the living, who become to the continuers of their interrupted life, and it was me who had forgotten, not her, for in my body was a repository invisible to me, my features and gestures repeating forever what can’t be forgotten, that I am the father my mother has never seen, just as she is her mother and I am my own father’s son? So time is confused, so are you everyone you remember, so the child becomes the parent and the parent the child.

This collapsing of time, this insistence that certain experiences and patterns of behaviour are fated to be handed down or simply recur across generations, is underscored by the symbolism of the letters themselves: physical traces of Michael’s family history that are passed from hand to hand and which are referred to on several occasions as a ‘curse’. The epistolary sections of The Dogs reinforce the connection between the paradoxes of memory and the paradoxes of writing. And it is this essentially Janus-faced quality of Hughes’ vision that allows The Dogs to move towards its culminating moment of bittersweet catharsis.

In The Idea of Home, Hughes alludes to a remark of Cicero’s that a man who does not know what happened before he was born will remain a child. One can read The Dogs in this light as the belated coming-of-age story of a middle-aged man. Early in the novel, Michael states that ‘we are all built in one of two ways: like a house upon foundations, or an oyster against the grain’. To the extent that this is true, the Michael we encounter in the first section of the novel has not been built at all. He is ignorant of his family history and the mess he has made of things is the result of his desire to live a frictionless life by avoiding difficult decisions and responsibilities. He has the vain writer’s belief that he can think his way into other people’s experiences, yet he also styles himself as a misanthrope and a nihilist – callow postures that are merely semblances of independence and resistance, covers for his demonstrable lack of interest in the concerns of others. The sly elision Hughes introduces into the second metaphor is deliberate and telling: it is, of course, the pearl that is formed against the grain. The oyster is merely itself: a thoughtless creature with a hard defensive shell. As The Dogs unfolds, Michael is chastened by the countering voices of Catherine and his preternaturally worldly son Leo. His realisation that his identity and the shape of his life have been determined in decisive ways by layers of buried history, even while he remained ignorant of that history, affects him to the point where he can recognise himself as a ‘mewling child who’s never grown’.

With great artistry, the full weight of these issues is brought to bear upon Michael’s difficult but unavoidable final decision about his mother’s fate. The Dogs concludes with a gesture that echoes the novel’s central incident, a gesture that is the culmination of the process by which Michael has written himself back into his mother’s life, becoming the living embodiment of her past. In its perverse way, it is a moving moment of reconnection and mutual understanding in a novel defined by its many secrets and estrangements. The moment is neither noble nor cruel, but represents Michael’s mature acceptance of responsibility and the burden of grief, which, like history, cannot be avoided or circumvented, but can only be lived through.

Near the end of The Dogs, Hughes alludes to Les Murray’s poem ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, in which a man stands weeping in Martin Place, his sorrow expanding until it acquires an elemental force. The Dogs is a sorrowful novel in many respects, but it ultimately comes down on the side of the idea that facing the sorrows of the past is the only way forward. The gravitas it ultimately achieves is perhaps best evoked by the lines at the conclusion of Murray’s poem, just before the man hurries away from the shameful spectacle of his own grief, when he is seen

mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.