Perth Writers Fest 2010 diary, part two: re-reading Alex Miller’s Prochownik’s Dream

Yesterday was my Q&A with Alex Miller, mainly focusing on his new novel Lovesong. I’m happy to report the session (where we actually covered a lot of ground, and got some great audience questions) will be available as a podcast on 720 ABC Perth. Watch this space. I’ll write more about my sessions and general experience of the Perth Writers Festival during the week when I’m back home. For now, I’ll share my experience of re-reading my favourite of Miller’s novels.

prochownikThe first book I ever read of Miller’s was Prochownik’s Dream in 2005 when I was 21. It’s always been my favourite, though late last year when I interviewed Miller I struggled to remember why!

So I went back and read it, and I have to say, despite being deeply moved by Landscape of Farewell and being completely lost in Conditions of Faith – probably his two most technically brilliant books – Prochownik’s, a much slimmer book and a more contained world and story, still compelled me and affected me the way it had the first time.

So I remembered why I love it so much:

It’s about the struggle for the freedom to be an artist and also live in real life – the tragedy that this, really, can never be; the inevitable pain inflicted on others by being an artist, and being the art.

Toni Powlett has to get a new work ready to show with his artist friends Marina and Robert, who have just come back to Melbourne from Sydney. Toni’s wife, Teresa, has never liked them, believes they’re not ‘their kind of people’. But for Toni, the art, and the world inhabited by these two characters (and Robert’s dying father, Theo), are inseparable. The art is also tied in with an extended grief for his own father and nostalgia for the moments of his childhood that awakened the passion, the art, within, such as his father painting still lifes at night in the family kitchen.

Marina becomes even more essential and integral to the work because she possesses something Toni craves: a deep understanding of the desire, the burning need to create, and on top of that, the inexplicability of wanting it all and not being able to have it. She, too, understands this. And so he is absorbed by her.

I love the character of Teresa, too – Toni’s wife. I am simultaneously annoyed by her (stop talking, he needs to work, woman!) and empathetic toward her – the way she tries for him; the way she looks after their daughter, Nada; her reasons for marrying an artist; her jealousy; what she wants him to say and do that he won’t.

Marina, Robert and Theo are seen at more of a distance, through a ‘gloss’ if you will. They are the art and the ideas and so Toni needs them. They charge his artistic battery (and ego).

The writing in this book is much more consistently charged and compelling than some of Miller’s other works. I think there are flaws with the ending, but I’m not sure how it could have been done any differently. Someone has to ‘lose their shit’, so to speak.

I have dog-eared the crap out of this book. Here’s just one part I like:

‘He caught her warm breath, the delicate waft of her health, the sweetness of her inner body. Could he paint an internal portrait of her? Would they know her? Pink lungs and purple viscera? Or are we all the same once we pass the barrier of the skin? Our likeness all alike deep down? Carcasses on the hook? The brutality of fact, Francis Bacon’s phrase for it. Dismembered by experience. Would we know our beloved’s internal organs if we saw them? Spread them with our hands as the Roman augurs spread the vitals of the sacrificial goat; divining the omens, presentiments of one’s own fate in the bloodied remains. How deep could one go with a portrait? Where were the limits? I foresaw my fate in my lover’s heart. Seeing things. Prognostications and tokens of unease. A heady liberation from the daily insistence on the governing norms; an acknowledgement that one’s creative decisions and motives were generated in a place of which one possessed no practical knowledge and over which one exercised no conscious control – an imaginary place, in other words, without the morbidity of accumulated responsibilites.’

Prochownik’s Dream is also available as an ebook, including on the Kindle.

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