Brenda Walker is one of Australia’s most respected novelists – loved and admired for books such as The Wing of Night and Poe’s Cat. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, books became her comfort and her sanctuary. In her memoir Reading by Moonlight, she shares her experience – and her intimate relationship with her favourite books. Jo Case spoke to her for Readings.
There is a fine literary tradition of moving and intelligent memoirs about facing serious illness, the prospect of death, and moving through the stages of grief – one that encompasses Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, about mourning her husband and, locally, Pamela Bone’s Bad Hair Days, about her experience with cancer. When writing, did you see yourself as part of a tradition and were you inspired by any other books in this vein?
No. I was inspired not by memoirs but by the novels that have sustained me throughout my adult life – novels by writers such as Nabokov, Beckett and Tolstoy. These works, even in translation, seem to carry both wisdom in the bare but not simple truths that they offer the reader, and a kind of deep music in the rhythms of the sentences themselves. They can be a source of fascination and consolation. I felt I had to write about this. I was also inspired by the books of James Wood, who writes about the meaning of the novel in a way that is conversational and often personal.
You write, ‘These days we’ve turned our faces to the wall in the matter of death and loss. We’re just not looking’. Do you see your book as a move in the opposite direction – looking squarely at these experiences?
Yes. And I think that these are times when life leads us in the direction of loss and this is for many people an ultimately helpful thing. Everybody faces loss, some people face loss many times and in many forms. Loss is not the same thing as extinction. I think because the novel takes us into other (imagined) consciousnesses it gives readers a sense that death, however terrible, is not entirely the point, or not the only point. We contain much more than our individual lives, we contain our imaginations as readers and as listeners, and we hold within us a sense of the inner largeness of other people. Some of those people may be characters in books, some of them may have lived long before us and some may be with us, telling us their casual or complicated stories. This cannot be wholly extinguished – storytelling, the imagination and imagined consciousness connect us and move between us.
When you were diagnosed with cancer and began chemotherapy, you had just finished your book The Wing of Night – and interspersed your treatment with publicity photos, interviews and festival appearances. What was it like for you, moving forward with something as all-consuming (and hopeful) as promoting a new book amidst a far weightier experience?
Being sick freed me from a lot of ordinary anxiety about the reception of the book, which was good, but of course I wasn’t very strong, so I was a bit of a limited participant in terms of the celebrations that surround the release of books – I still get tired easily, and I don’t drink. But I laugh and talk a lot. Too much, probably.
Reading, you say, is ‘a temporary loosening of the ego’. How was this act of escaping from the self useful for you while dealing with cancer and enduring treatment?
It took me away from my immediate difficulties, by offering me an imaginative place in other lives, in other places, and I was less likely to be overwhelmed by the specific medical events that I faced.
You write about the relationship between the acts of reading and writing and the development of empathy. ‘the way we can place ourselves, imaginatively, in the position of another person’. Do you think that the empathy we find as readers and writers translates beyond the world of the page? Has your immersion in these acts affected your capacity for empathy?
I hope that the empathy of readers – myself and others – is largely useful, although of course it’s impossible to know. You can only hope. My immersion in medical treatments has certainly made me a more generous driver. I bear in mind that the person who slows a whole lane of traffic might be recovering from difficult surgery. Other drivers were very forgiving when I was sick and I remember this in tricky car parks and on the highway on my way to work.
You evoke the story of Scheherazade and say ‘as a writer, I feel that storytelling is about staying alive’. What did you mean by this?
It’s a commonplace idea, but I think it’s true: as a reader you buy into a deep source of vitality, a protective space of imagination, like the storytellers in The Decameron who try to isolate themselves from the plague.
You mention a woman who had perhaps ‘managed to walk away from the cancer narrative’. That’s an intriguing turn of phrase – what is ‘the cancer narrative’? And do you feel that you’ve managed to walk away from it?
It’s very easy, in the face of a serious illness, to narrow everything down to the immediate situation: a narrative of cancer and cancer treatment, which is helpful at the time, but limiting. The passing of time, the distractions of family, travel, friends, food and books all led me, personally, and others that I know, away from this intense and narrow place.
You describe your favourite books and writers as ‘the stars in my night sky, constancies in my exile from the place of health, which I had thought of as my rightful home’. What were some of those books and writers?
Beckett shows us the final pure things in Malone Dies: thought and storytelling and memory; Dickens is very good on doctors, among other things, in Bleak House; Poe’s stories and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History are about how we cope with ourselves, (not well, as it happens) when we’re terrified; Murasaki Shikibu in The Tale of Genji, shows us that the novel, full of human impulse and misplaced passion and self-destruction and even serenity, has a history over a thousand years old, which puts life and art in some kind of proportion; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina captures the constantly shifting movement and variation, from person to person, of thought and motivation; Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, when read with Coetzee’s Foe, shows us the possibility of urgent novelistic conversations, across centuries, about various kinds of survival, and these ideas of survival are themselves useful and interesting.