Alex Miller is one of Australia’s most respected – and widely read – literary writers. He has won multiple awards, attracted critical acclaim, and many of his novels have been bestsellers. Crikey literary blogger Angela Meyer is well known for her passionate fandom when it comes to Miller’s work. When it came time for Readings to find an interviewer to highlight Alex’s ninth novel, Lovesong, as part of our New Australian Writing feature series, we thought it would be nice to showcase a cross-generational conversation between this up-and-coming young literary journalist and the revered, long-established novelist.
Two-time Miles Franklin winner Alex Miller (for Journey to the Stone Country in 2003 and The Ancestor Game in 1993) is celebrated as an author who appeals equally to the emotions and the intellect. His new romantic and celebratory novel, Lovesong, echoes many of the themes Miller is known for – longing, desire, transience, the secret inner life – but is also somewhat of a departure from his previous works. For Miller, it was a delight to write, coming straight after the ‘very challenging’ Landscape of Farewell, which left him ‘very empty’.
After finishing Landscape, Miller took time off to read. Sitting by the fire with his daughter, he was on the last few pages of Edward Said’s Musical Elaborations when his daughter asked him what he was going to do next. Miller had just read Said’s memory of seeing Louis Malle’s film Les amants, which went something like this: ‘An innocuous tale of a man, an unknown unnamed stranger who comes down the road and meets an unknown unnamed woman, and they become lovers, so then he moves on and everybody’s happy.’ He told his daughter, ‘I’m going to write a simple love story’. And she said, ‘Dad, love’s not simple, you should know that’.
Love is not simple in Lovesong, but it is celebrated. John, an Australian man, meets Sabiha, a Tunisian woman living in Paris who runs a restaurant with her widowed aunt Houria. Falling in love happens quickly. But staying in love is complex, interrupted by different kinds of longing – for distant homelands, for a child. Love is constricted by compromise, and the difficulty of understanding the solitary needs of one’s romantic partner. ‘I lived in Paris for a year in the 70s, and Paris and Tunisia are part of the landscape of my memory, and therefore the landscape of my imagination,’ says Miller. ‘A great amount of this story came out of a concoction. There was no recipe. But I was the cook and I had all these ingredients, and they were what was there, available to me, and that’s how it came about. Then it surprised me.’
Miller’s ‘surprise’ was the third character, Ken, an ageing writer who ‘discovers’ Sabiha and John’s story when he perceives the ‘sadness in the depths of [Sabiha’s] dark brown eyes’. Lovesong is thus framed by contemporary Melbourne and a writer who can’t ‘not write’, absorbed by the story he slowly gathers from John. Ken first sees Sabiha at a pastry shop. ‘There are heaps of pastry shops like that around now. Especially out in the suburbs,’ says Miller. ‘So it really is the story behind this very average, ordinary – these days – Australian family. It was never going to be talked about, unless someone like him [Ken] came along and wrote it. So in a sense it’s a celebration of their secret story. But it’s also the story of how Ken can’t really give up writing. What does he do after that?’
Thankfully, Miller can’t give up writing either. ‘I’m now writing a novel based on the life of Sidney Nolan. You know, what are you going to do? I’ll keep going until I fall off the chair, or until I lose vigour or momentum.’ The framing story therefore plays with the reader’s interpretation of fiction – allowing them to question the author’s and characters’ truths and motivations, mixing in their own curiosity, empathy, and experience. ‘The imagination is the ability to empathise,’ Miller tells me, ‘it’s the ability to – not necessarily consciously, quite unconsciously – find that you’re hugely sympathetic to someone else’s situation. So much so, that you imagine a full realisation of it.’ In Lovesong, we not only have an insight into this process (through Ken), but we are free to empathise with the characters in John and Sabiha’s story, and with Ken, this grieving, seeking writer who, when asked about himself says: ‘There’s not a lot to know. My life’s in my books.’
It also becomes unclear whose version of the story we are actually experiencing. When I say this, Miller smiles. ‘Well it’s a triple-play,’ he says. ‘It’s very ambiguous.’ When Ken invites John and Sabiha for dinner, Sabiha insists: ‘We cook for our friends … you are part of our story now.’ Ken reads it a permission to write the story and it ‘enlivens his own imagination and sensitivities towards Sabiha’. Ken likes to read her statement that way because that’s what he wants out of it.
John and Sabiha’s story, set in Paris, is romantic, yet poignantly ephemeral. Miller says he ‘wrote the book purely for pleasure. Normally I have a whole complex of reasons and senses of responsibility … and a need to get stuff out that’s been with me for years and years.’ The essence of this pleasure comes across in the novel. The first flush of romance is as delectable as the sweet treats Sabiha bakes with her aunt Houria, but is weighted by the fact we have already witnessed ‘sadness’ in Sabiha’s eyes later in life. As in some of Miller’s other works, something is sought outside the marriage – but here, the motivations are more defined (by the obsessive desire for a child). But these dark and very human moments are compelling – and drive the reader on.
Miller’s unadorned prose has a sneaking effect. Simple moments between characters catch you up hours, or even days, later. I relay this to Miller with the example of Landscape of Farewell. There is a scene where Max, the German character, is fetched a cane by Dougald, his Aboriginal friend and temporary housemate. I was telling my sister about how much I loved this moment – the way Max imagines Dougald’s perception of him as an old man, and accepts this – and I searched for the moment in the book to read it to her, as I mark my favourite passages by turning the pages down. I was surprised to find I had not marked the passage at the time – the moment in the story had only resonated much later.
In this ‘simple romance’, Miller has created many moments of resonance, such as the devastation caused by two fragrant, honey-dipped briouats and the light brush of a woman’s hip against a man’s shoulder. Lovesong is a tender, astutely charming and multi-layered treat.
Angela Meyer’s blog LiteraryMinded is hosted by Crikey. She is the acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.