A Book About Beauty
by Christos Tsiolkas
Allen & Unwin
Published November 2021
I now find it jarring to watch films or television programs which depict characters standing closer than one and a half metres apart, failing to don their face masks, or ignoring the use of hand sanitiser. Their naivety is frustrating and glaring. Literature which sidesteps or ignores the pandemic, the way life is now, comes across as illusory, idealised, or fantastic, as if it is taking place in an alternate universe.
7 ½ is Christos Tsiolkas’s first post-COVID novel, and it does not shy away from this changed world. Indeed, ‘since the fire and the pandemic,’ the fictional Christos of the novel observes, ‘is it any wonder that my notions of how to write and what to write have changed? No more screeds to capital-J Justice and to capital-S Society and to capital-L Love and to capital-E Equality and to capital-R Revolution’ (232). 7 ½ is a manifesto of Tsiolkas’s evolved ideas about art, and a testimony to the lived experience of the past two years. At its core, it is concerned simultaneously to sketch the blind cruelty of global disaster and to find and celebrate the beauty and joy in the ordinary simplicity of everyday life.
This is the note on which the novel begins, with an epigraph quoting Jean Genet: ‘Novels are not humanitarian reports. Indeed, let us be thankful that there remains sufficient cruelty, without which beauty could not be.’ It is an idea which has been a thematic undercurrent throughout Tsiolkas’s works; beauty, which for him is almost a synonym for love, family, community, can only grow from, can only be appreciated in its contrast to, pain and horror. Flowers grow best in manure, we are reminded. In Dead Europe (2005), for instance, Isaac, his mother, and their traumatic ancestral past are reconciled only through her sacrifice to the demon who personifies cruelty and oppression. In The Jesus Man (1999), Louie finds meaning after the violent suicide of his brother, Tommy, in his connection with and care for Tommy’s widow and their child. And in Damascus (2019), the development of Christianity is spurred on by those who seek to destroy it.
Tsiolkas’s recurrent depiction of the horror and detritus of society is one reason that my students give for finding his work difficult. But Tsiolkas doesn’t merely seek to shock his readers, as is sometimes the accusation, but rather to provoke us to feeling and to action. This is the ethical function of the contemporary novel, and it’s not one achieved by happy endings. In 7 ½, this takes a turn. 7 ½ is a book about writing a book, a book about the creation of art, and the book the author persona is creating (also named Christos) is ‘a book about beauty’. This statement he makes to an author friend, Andrea, instigates an argument between them as he tries to explain the goal:
Every bloody novelist sounds the same now … All the same cant, all the same desire to shape the world to their academic whims and aspirations. All this compassion and all this outrage and all this empathy and all this sorrow and all this fear and all this moralising and not one sentence of surprise in any of it … Not one moment of beauty. I don’t want to write that fucking novel.
In response, she describes him as ‘soft’, insisting that ‘“Nothing illuminating can come from contentment, Christo. If you are happy with the beauty of the world” – and she has snarled in her enunciation of that word, beauty – “then stop writing novels and leave it to people who know suffering and oppression and anger and know that beauty is not enough”’. Andrea’s contention is a familiar one, rehearsed by Elaine Scarry in her philosophical study, On Beauty and Being Just (1999). Like Christos in 7 ½, Scarry laments the loss of beauty from contemporary discussions in the arts and humanities, suggesting two reasons for its disappearance: first, because ‘when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object’ by ‘reifying’ or objectifying it. In an implicit refutation of this, much of Tsiolkas’s novel celebrates the appreciative gaze as it lands on people (particularly young people), works of art, or elements in nature. These instances of beauty feed the creation of the author’s own art, emerging as characters in his developing novel. Scarry’s second reason for the neglect of beauty as a critical topic is that ‘by preoccupying our attention, [beauty] distracts attention from wrong social arrangements. It makes us inattentive, and therefore eventually indifferent, to the project of bringing about arrangements that are just’. This is Andrea’s assertion: that in writing about beauty, Christos is neglecting his ‘emotional and unrepentant honesty,’ the skill he has ‘to take the contemporary world and create characters that articulate the thoughts and fears we don’t dare speak aloud’. It is true that in his attention to beauty Christos/Tsiolkas is diverging from the earlier patterns of his work, his insistence on exposing the ugly, the awful, the darkness as a means to turn his reader towards the light. But in 7 ½ he appears to move towards Scarry’s conclusion: that beauty (a form of fairness) is the provocation for justice (another form of fairness), precisely because it shows us what fairness is and can be. Far from distracting us from justice, beauty enlists us in its program of ethics.
The novel begins with a contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the invasions of modern technology, transitioning from birdsong, the glow of sunset, and the shimmer of the ocean, to the assaults on attention of the glass of wine, the cigarette, the computer, the security light. Christos has come to a holiday house on the coast in order to write. He deliberately leaves his phone downstairs, out of sight, permitting himself to check it only once per day, refusing the invasions of social media, the news, even limiting conversations with his partner, in order to secure the isolation needed to create art, ‘to divine what I wish to do with this vocation called writing’. In leaving behind the city, which ‘dulls the severity of nature’, and restricting the influence of technology, Christos comes to the realisation of the Romantic poets of the sublime power of nature. Citing Édouard Manet’s painting, The House at Rueil (1882), he shares the artist’s derision for the ‘radicalism of the Impressionist’s technique,’ noting how it is put to work to show how,
Nature intrudes … Nature doesn’t adhere to your visions or your beliefs or your sentiments.’ It is this wilfulness that the poet and nature share … [Mother Nature] doesn’t give a fuck for purity and care, for compassion and justice, for fidelity and communion. She can conjure an annihilating wave from the deepest ocean; she can make mountains collapse and the earth rip open.
But the novel is not so simple as to stop at this idea. Rather, in the context of a world which seems to be devastated by disaster after disaster, the sublime forces the artist to realise the size of their sphere of influence – that this need not be a global call to action, but a recognition of the individual impacts and influences of daily life, and that it is here that fairness most effectively operates and is modelled.
I have so far been referring to 7 ½ as a novel, but this is not quite accurate. Perhaps, as the fictional Christos says of his own project, ‘I am not sure whether it is a novel that I want to write’, suggesting that it is better described more simply as ‘a book’. At its base, 7 ½ describes an author, ‘Christos,’ who spends some weeks in a coastal town in order to work on a book, Sweet Thing, with which he has been struggling. This book within the book is itself not quite a novel, not least because Christos imagines and attempts to write it using the techniques of the cinematographer, who has cuts, sound, shots, and so on at their disposal. Thus part of 7 ½ is Sweet Thing, but much of it is a meditation on the process of writing Sweet Thing, on remembering experiences the author weaves into the story, and reflections on the function of contemporary art itself. 7 ½ represents a merging of genres, combining fiction, essay, memoir, and critical reflection. It might be described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography with fictional elements – but this does not go the whole way to describing the considerations on art, politics, and responsibility which 7 ½ contributes. What the book offers is a unique multiperspectival approach to the state of the post-pandemic world, creating a shadowing or spectralising effect in which multiple books, multiple worlds, multiple ‘Christoses’ exist simultaneously. This is both Tsiolkas and not Tsiolkas, now and not now, the world as we know it and not, and in the process 7 ½ demonstrates the close-but-not-quite-identical-ness of realist narrative, the way in which realism can only ever approach but never quite match ‘the real.’
The memorialisation of 7 ½ further contributes to this multiplicity, since it is partly constituted by Christos’s (and perhaps Tsiolkas’s – it is difficult to tell) own memories and partly by echoes of his earlier works. We are offered flashes of experience from both significant and insignificant moments of Christos’s life: a teacher who protected him from bullies, a group of adolescents waiting for a bus, a priest who picked him up while hitchhiking. But the astute reader of the Tsiolkas oeuvre will also recognise resonances or repetitions from earlier stories, novels, and essays, both specific and more generally thematic, creating a kind of shared memory between author and reader: buying and watching pornography (The Jesus Man and several stories in Merciless Gods ), the daily ritual of stretches and agility displayed by Hector in The Slap (2007), the cleansing power of swimming celebrated in Barracuda (2013), the lingering grunge attitude of Loaded (1995), the appreciation of physical labour and the dirty, hardened hands of the gardener or workman which appears in several works. Even Christos’s early assertion about his plans for the book appear as a mature take on Loaded’s Ari and his famous diatribe:
I’m not Australian, I’m not Greek, I’m not anything. I’m not a worker, I’m not a student, I’m not an artist, I’m not a junkie, I’m not a conversationalist, I’m not an Australian, not a wog, not anything. I’m not left wing, right wing, centre, left of centre, right of Genghis Khan. I don’t vote, I don’t demonstrate, I don’t do charity.
As if in response to Ari, the Christos of 7 ½ claims:
I have come here to write a book. I don’t know yet exactly what it will be. I do know this: I don’t want it to be about politics; I don’t want it to be about sexuality; I don’t want it to be about race; I don’t want it to be about gender. Not history, nor morality and not about the future. All of those matters – politics, sexuality, race, history, gender, morality, the future – all of them now bore me.
Perhaps most powerful among these self-conscious intertextualities and thematic echoes is a recurrent recognition of adoration between sons and fathers or father figures: the father and son working together to launch their boat into the ocean, Paul and Neal labouring alongside one another in the opening scene of Sweet Thing, Christos’s memories of his father, uncle, and a close family friend – the guidance and inspiration each offered, to be sure, but with an emphasis on the corporeality of these connections. They are the Daedalus to his Icarus as he ‘play[s] God. I reach out my hand, pretend to touch the sky. The glare of the sun is blinding’.
Thus, what is celebrated in 7 ½ is a return to the body, placing emphasis on the corporeality of memory and of creation. Christos’s physical presence grounds the narrative: his meals, swimming, walking, smoking, drinking, sex, sweat. ‘I rub my palm into my armpit,’ he says, ‘collect the sweat and cover my face with my hand. I inhale deeply. To remind myself I am also flesh’. The contemporary writer is too cerebral, is the implication; in the turn to the abject is the implication that writing, too, must be labour, even if the writer still has soft hands. The contemporary ‘novelist’s art [must be] a hurling, a spewing’: ‘I use the word vomit because it makes us cringe. It returns us to our bodies, the shock and humiliation of an urge or an impulse that cannot be resisted’.
7 ½ takes its inspiration from the cinema – its title is an homage to Federico Fellini’s film, 8 ½ (1963), and its metatextual depiction of the director’s struggle to realise his vision. Tsiolkas is a cinephile: his work The Devil’s Playground (2002) is just one place in which he articulates the influence of this form on his life and art. Cinema is, among other things, an art of the body. It is the body on screen, the actor’s beauty, which captivates the audience, Christos reflects; it is for this reason, he says, that ‘When we look up at the movement on the cinema screen, we see dreams’. The spectacle of cinema offers the body as we most wish it to be. This is articulated most profoundly by the cinema of pornography, which can ‘venerat[e] the human form’ in a way written language cannot. Indeed, it was ‘the realisation that dream can indeed become reality, which first made me fall in love with cinema, and I have no hesitation or embarrassment in including [the porn actor, Paul] Carrigan in that pantheon of gods whose illuminated arms reached from the screen, grabbed me by the hand and led me into that netherworld’. The conceptualisation of the spectrality of the screen has perhaps most famously been made by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. In Ken McMullen’s film Ghost Dance (1983) he offers an articulation of cinema as ‘the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms. That’s what I think the cinema’s about, when it’s not boring. It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back.’ Playing himself in McMullen’s film, Derrida says, means that he has become a ghost: ‘Here the ghost is me … I let a ghost ventriloquise my words or play my role.’ His words equally describe the strange presence of Christos/Tsiolkas in 7 ½, who becomes a ghostly version of himself in the novel. Derrida’s ghosts are akin to Tsiolkas’s dreams, since ghosts, he says, ‘are part of the future. And … the modern technology of images, like cinematography and telecommunication, enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us.’ Chief among the themes of Sweet Thing, then, is the spectrality of identity: Paul, a former porn actor, easily plays his old self, Sean Garner, when he returns to the United States for a role, and he sees in his drug-addict brother a shadow of who he might have become had he stayed in his hometown. The overwhelming sobbing he experiences when he returns home, then, comes as these two selves are shown in relief, when the ghostliness of self is exposed, and when the film offers the realisation that ‘the motion of images always leaves interpretation’ – always leaves choice, fate – ‘open to chance’. Sweet Thing thus develops the point about realism made by 7 ½ in its articulation of reality itself as an actively created illusion.
At the novel’s end, a devastating global event invades Christos’s solitude and he is forced to return home. Although the construction of the diegetic world has been faithful to the world as it is throughout 7 ½, I cannot identify what this global event is, so tumultuous the past three years have been. It is war, it is murder, it is illness, it is disaster, it is protest. It is nothing and everything and anything. Whatever it is, it means the writer must return to that from which he had retreated. But the creation of Sweet Thing for the writer, the consumption of 7 ½ for the reader, has permitted the perception of the reassurance offered by the continuity of nature, by the sublime:
I turn back to gaze upon the ocean, force myself to recall the images on the screen, the anxiety in my lover’s voice, the truth that the world of humans is again being bedevilled by terror and venality and crisis; yet the reflection doesn’t even last half a breath, for the sea dashes and crashes and ripples along the pure white sand of the beach, and there is an eagle soaring up high over the water, hovering, searching the deeps for the silver flash of a fish’s scales; and the sun’s heart remains beating and this tide has been surging and abating, like the most diligent and disciplined of sculptors, forging and chiselling and forming this coast for an eternity, and it will continue to do so long after the ages of testimony and uncovering, the eras of justice and atonement and even the centuries of forgetting are gone.
He is ‘not returning to the world,’ then, because to do so implies a return to those old ways of thinking in which the body, the self, is lost. Instead, he says, ‘I am simply coming home’. Home, the self, exists in love and relationships and connection, while the alienating modern world is beyond us and our control. Solace and contentment are to be found in our own small lives, is the suggestion – in the hand on the knee, the tender message, the loved one awaiting our return. This beauty exists alongside of, is only recognisable because of, the cruelty alongside it: the global disaster, the loneliness of the old man, the hopelessness of the unborn baby already addicted to drugs.
8 ½ referred to the number of films Fellini had produced until that point; 7 ½ similarly describes the seven books Tsiolkas had published prior to this most recent work. It is half a novel, a novel uncertain about what it is, but it comes to a powerful conclusion about what not only art can do, but what we can each do in our own lives. It is a post-pandemic book, but not one interested in the global, returning us, ultimately, to the extraordinariness of the ordinary life.
McMullen, Ken, dir. Ghost Dance. Other Cinema, 1983.
Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. 1999. Princeton University Press, 2013.
Tsiolkas, Christos. Loaded. Vintage, 1995.