I was born, a second child and second daughter, who, in another couple of years with the birth of my younger brother, would become a mostly unnecessary middle child. Childhood and I were not an easy fit. Filled with anxiety I was getting the child role wrong and ever alert to tools that might help me navigate those perilous years, I studied other children in order to learn the ropes. The price of such vigilance was inexhaustible exhaustion. I was watchful during the day, and the nights were spent analysing the previous day’s mistakes and planning how to be perfect in the next. The most reliable respite I had from this anxiety was not sleep (with so much to do I was a poor sleeper) but my own imaginings. I would slip into other places and other lives and, relieved of my burdensome self, I would be stimulated and invigorated. Ego-less I would know contentment. Spurred on by books, I would separate from my usual trials and travel through distant epochs and fantastic places of my own devising, meeting famous people and marvellous creatures, whose company was, literally, the best imaginable.
As for the rebellion, overt rebellion, I left that to my sister. She got into so much trouble. She mixed with the bad girls at school, she sneaked out with Tom from across the road, she held hands with Marcus while in school uniform (this was an indictable offence in the early 1960s). She was caught necking with Peter in the tea-tree at Aspendale on Port Philip Bay, a boy she had been forbidden to see; she broke open her money box and spent the contents on Turf Cork-tipped cigarettes; she smoked the cigarettes behind the hedge in front of our house and started a fire. With each transgression I would suffer for her – not for the punishment meted out to her but because she had been so exposed: people would know what mattered to her, parents, friends, teachers would know exactly where she was vulnerable. I simply could not bear this. In my world, safety required secrecy.
So began a life of covert rebellion. Private rebelllion. Secret rebellion.
Reading provided an effective panacea during the formidable and seemingly endless years of childhood. I loved everything about reading. I loved the characters in books better than most of the people in my real life. I loved reading so much I had already decided to be a writer – although I kept my ambition to myself having learned through those troubled years of childhood that whatever I valued must be protected, kept private.
So the life, the private life of the novelist began. And while I never wavered in my ambition, an incident the year I turned thirteen, served to reinforce my decision.
It was a late November day, exams finished, the year winding down, when, with no prior warning, I was summoned to the principal’s office. I had no idea what I had done, but I knew it must be very serious. By the time I arrived at his door I could barely walk, I could barely talk, and I wanted to vomit. The principal was quick to enlighten me. I had, he said, been found in possession of ‘filth’. The filth was Han Suyin’s novel, A Many-Splendored Thing. He demanded to know where I had obtained it. From my mother’s bookcase, I said – and, I added, with her permission. I was accused of lying. No respectable woman, the principal said, would keep such a book in her home.
My mother wrote to the principal explaining I had indeed told the truth and the matter was dropped. But I learned from this incident that books were not only a source of life-giving pleasure and stimulation, they could also be dangerous, and very powerful. A year or so later, Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) was banned. Arthur Rylah, the deputy Premier of Victoria at the time, said he certainly wouldn’t want his teenage daughter reading it; I, on the other hand, had been privy to a pirated copy, or rather some much-fingered, fast-fading roneoed pages, the pages, as it happened. Around this time I also learned about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer (1934), all, like The Group, banned for obscenity.
A couple of years later, and fired by a slender poetry book, I first became aware of political censorship and the persecution of writers. The book was called Modern European Verse and it cost 50 cents. In a single volume I was introduced to Brecht, Cavafy, Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Rilke and Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’. It was a short journey from there to Akhmatova and Mandelstam, both of whom became and remain among my life’s essential poets. Art, I was learning, was a risky business with the power to expose complex and previously opaque truths. In the world I was trying to inhabit, my middle-class, beige, luke-warm, everyday-might-be-Wednesday world, this power of art, of books in particular, was not simply fascinating and admirable, it awakened a hunger in me to which I responded without really understanding.
I read before school, I read after school. I read through weekends and school holidays, I read when my siblings were playing, I read in preference to all other activities. I became an ardent mental traveller thanks to the riches on my mother’s bookcase and the local library.
Outwardly I was careful to conform, inwardly I was wild.
I would imagine places, people, dinners, deaths, coincidences and conversations. I would give my people emotions – anger, longing, love, sadness – all those emotions I prohibited in my own life. Soon I discovered that I could construct these imagined people and their imagined worlds at will. I might be sitting at my desk with homework or studying for exams, and I would permit myself thirty minutes respite during which I would travel into one of my imagined scenarios, thirty minutes in which I would lose myself, vent my frustrations and confusions, invent scenes and situations so much more preferable than those on offer in the real world. The thirty minutes would stretch to an hour: I didn’t care, I was totally captivated by the worlds within my head, and strengthened when I returned to real life.
Among my various guides, Iris Murdoch reigned supreme. She wrote into existence eloquent and original men and women whom I slipped into my own imaginings: Sebastian, Chloe, Franca, Tristan, Clement, Rainborough, and not a Janet or John anywhere in her pages. She wrote of a world I truly believed existed, a world that when I was finished with childhood in suburban Melbourne I would find and inhabit and in which, like Iris herself, I would write books.
And I did. And I have. And how very grateful I remain.
This essay was broadcast on Radio National’s The Bookshelf on 22 March. Andrea’s latest novel, Invented Lives, is out now.