An afternoon in March, the air cooling, the sun coming and going at the whim of slow-sailing clouds. The colouring of the day is changing from moment to moment, as it often does in the island: colour giving away to monochrome; monochrome flooded by colour again. Birds like frowns on the glassy autumn air. Intensities of a cold climate.
—The Memory Room
With an opening paragraph as deceptively gossamer as a spider’s web, Christopher Koch traps and holds us in the grip of his new novel, which is either his seventh or his sixth. Consider the promises implied in the four sentences: of action, with the day changing from moment to moment; the alluring reference to “in the island”, islands being romantic places to continentals, which most of us obviously are; the electrification of the commonplace through poetic use of language—bird formations frowning against a clear sky.
Koch, a most organised novelist, keeps all his promises. The Memory Room has a spy (in the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, ASIS) as its central character and we spend considerable time in the secret world of spies. Inattentive readers may be tempted to make comparisons with John le Carré, who in his early and best days had a facility for drawing character and ambitions with language. But any such comparison is specious. Koch’s concern in The Memory Room is with the secret world we each inhabit and which enables us to be individuals.
This is Koch’s first novel since Out of Ireland in 1999 and his fourth since The Year of Living Dangerously in 1979. Koch regards the latter as his first mature work, where he fully mastered his craft. His first two works of fiction were what he calls “young novels”, with the limitations of youth, despite some qualities he still values. These are The Boys in the Island, which he began at the age of twenty and published in 1958, when he was twenty-five, and Across the Sea Wall, which came out seven years later.
Koch published revisions of both books: of The Boys in the Island in 1974 and Across the Sea Wall in 1982, and considers these the final versions. Vintage Books has published a uniform edition of Koch’s works, but the author has chosen not to include Across the Sea Wall. Attempts to discuss Across the Sea Wall with Koch are met with studied off-handedness, although he discourses freely about the adventure which the book uses as a background: a journey through India in 1955 with a friend from university. Here clearly (and justifiably) is an author interested in guiding posterity away from error in assessing him.
An impediment to counting his novels accurately is that he planned and wrote Highways to a War and Out of Ireland as one novel, its narrative presenting an ancestor and descendant, living 150 years apart, as essentially one person. Having engaged with Dickens at an early stage in his life, Koch had chosen to write the historical section of his story in the discursive manner of the nineteenth-century English novels. Although, characteristically, he hewed to his theme and pruned his prose sharply—being free of the imperative of serialisation while in production that led Dickens to digression and prolixity—Koch was rather taken aback by the totals that his computer’s word counter totted up. Critics who chastised him for inflicting a 700-page novel (Out of Ireland) on them may not have realised how close they came to confrontation with a 1200-page novel. That Koch, of his own pragmatic volition, was able to divide his vast structure neatly into two parts is a tribute to the soundness of its architecture.
Koch describes Highways to a War and Out of Ireland as a diptych. So outlandish and archaic is the concept that nobody seems to have tried the more accurate “two-volume novel”. But if there was any direction from which you suspected a two-volume novel might come, it would be towards Koch that you looked. He is an unconventional and, in some respects, anomalous figure in contemporary Australian literature.
The five novels of his maturity, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Double Man, Highways to a War, Out of Ireland and the new one, The Memory Room, are major contributions to the Australian canon. Seeding novelists like tennis players is probably a fruitless activity and a claim for Koch as Australia’s best, a plausible thesis, would certainly arouse seething animosity in some quarters. But it would demand carefully reasoned rebuttal. In the United States and the UK, Koch gets excellent reviews and the modest sales customarily befalling a foreign author identified as critically admired. (The largest foreign sales of The Year of Living Dangerously have been in Brazil.)
Koch’s long-time publisher, Random House, recoup their generous investment in him—a handsome hardback to launch The Memory Room instead of the now customary jump straight into large-size paperback, for instance, and the uniform edition of his works (Vintage Books is a Random subsidiary)—from his sales in Australia, where he is very popular. Sales here of around 50,000 for Highways to a War and 200,000 and counting for The Year of Living Dangerously are phenomenal for a literary novel.
Though a sociable and attractive man, Koch is not much of a mingler with Australia’s literary set, to use a not inappropriately dated phrase. In thirty-five years as a full-time writer—which he considers to have begun at forty—he has been mainly self-supporting. In lean periods, because he spends so long on each book, he has had Australia Council grants. In a note at the end of The Memory Room he acknowledges with graceful appreciation and an auditor’s precision a grant that supported the writing of “the first third” of the novel.
Although his novels are by no stretch polemical and he does not offer himself as a public intellectual nor broadcast his political views, Koch is widely known to be a traditionalist. This provocation keeps him somewhat on the cultural outer in Australia, a nice clean place for a serious novelist to reside. Generally speaking, he is the elephant on campus that Australian academics try not to see, despite energetic finger-pointing by a watchful few.
Koch probably surrendered his chance of being universally loved with his speech of acceptance of the 1996 Miles Franklin Award (for Highways to a War). In it, he spoke of “the plague of deconstructionism” and “the white-coated scientists of the English departments”. Such phrases made the headlines and seared the souls of many who had not read the full text of the speech—which is hard to come by, having never been published (before now—see page 51 of this issue) nor posted online.
In fact, it is a moving plea to young writers to engage in the pursuit of beauty through story telling, to write fearlessly and with obeisance to none from “your inspiration and your response to the world”.
Among Australia’s full-time writers, Koch certainly ranks with the fullest. Although he writes every day, mostly in the afternoon, he takes four or five years over a novel. His concentration is intense. He never lets even the wisp of an idea for another novel enter his thoughts while he is working on his current one.
After finishing The Memory Room, Koch’s mind went blank, as he depended on it to do. When he has read the final proofs of a book, he indulges in a fallow period of a month or so. The need to write then begins to gnaw and he opens up to it.
A neat Koch aphorism: “Ideas won’t come to you unless you make yourself available.” This line of thinking ended the twelve-year gap between the first version of Across the Sea Wall and The Year of Living Dangerously. Koch spent the years as a producer of educational radio programs for the ABC and, in the beginning, attempted to write his fiction after work and at weekends. But he soon gave this up, aware that he was not making himself sufficiently available.
On his fortieth birthday, with misgivings appropriate to a man in his middle years, with a wife and son depending on him, Koch quit the ABC, where he had been happy and prosperous. He believed that if he was ever to be a serious writer, a goal to which he had aspired from his mid-teens, when he wrote poetry, he had to start now. There wasn’t a moment to lose!
Beginner’s (or re-beginner’s) luck with The Year of Living Dangerously, if I may speak so irreverently of such a substantial literary accomplishment, rolled the dice in favour of Koch’s big gamble. The novel sold 80,000 copies in Australia in its first two months, before the movie was even mooted. Returns from the movie gave Koch financial security for a couple of years. It also tested Koch’s capacity to release his creations into the custody of others.
This turned out not to be high and, in due course, Peter Weir, the director of The Year of Living Dangerously, banned Koch from the set for expressing contempt for a script that was subsequently scrapped. He also engaged in an action few men would be bold enough to attempt. He rubbished Sigourney Weaver—the strapping, future Sergeant Ripley of Alien—as odiously miscast as Jill, his fair, slight English diplomat, noting that Sigourney’s shoulders were broader than Mel Gibson’s.
A while ago Koch mulled over the possibility of writing a novel about an actor. He started Erika, in The Memory Room, off as an actress but changed his mind and made her a journalist.
The first year or so of Koch’s work on a new novel is spent developing the germ of an idea through enormously detailed notes written with pen and ink (which he enjoys using) in large, lined exercise books. For Out of Ireland/Highways to a War he filled forty exercise books before turning to his word processor.
The note-taking is the design process of Koch’s novel writing. The intricacy of his plots and themes, the depths of characterisation he strives for, and the often idiosyncratic philosophical thinking that boxes them together, leave much room, in the absence of tight design, for loose ends and grinding parts. Koch works with his pen in the exercise books to create harmony of character with narrative, consistency in relationships between characters, and to determine the climate and landscapes in which events are to occur.
“To some extent,” Koch says, “novels are like maths. Components have to fit together … If you start before you’ve got it worked out, you will get into trouble.”
For all the architectural diligence, Koch is not enslaved by his blueprints. Erika Lange, the tsunami character of The Memory Room, was intended for a supporting role. When she began to take over his novel, Koch let himself go with the flood. He was able to accommodate the transmutation of Erika because of his confidence that language—its cadences and rhythms, its sounds when read aloud—commands a novel. Though Erika slipped from his grasp, she didn’t get away. The novelist’s language provided her with a magical shape change.
In an essay, “The Novel as Narrative Poetry”, in the 1987 collection Crossing the Gap, Koch writes: “There is no substitute for a lonely man or woman sitting in a room … unpicking all you’ve done, again and again and going back to weave it all again: not once, not twice, but maybe half a dozen times.” Koch benefits from uninhibited criticism of his manuscripts by his friend the poet Geoffrey Lehmann, never flinching before Lehmann’s savagery.
The way Koch, through language, piles layers onto the kernel of an idea for a novel, like a pearl oyster enveloping a grain of sand, is wonderfully demonstrated in The Memory Room.
The germ of the book was the discovery some twenty years ago, at the foot of a cliff on the outskirts of Hobart, of the body of a close friend of Koch’s. Although well-liked, the friend was thought of by his contemporaries as something of a fuddy-duddy, an apparently unambitious public servant and marooned suburbanite.
Some months after his death, however, Koch learned that his friend had been an ASIS operative since university days. Had trained with MI6 and had travelled to eight countries in the twelve months before his death. Shortly after his body was found, officials from Canberra had come to his house and taken away all his papers. Koch also remembered his friend’s once saying to him: “Some day I must show you the contents of my locked room.”
From this developed the plan to write a story about the secret world of spies, and then, beyond that, to explore the secret worlds of individuals; further, to delve into the secret worlds of Erika, sexually fixated and driven, and Vincent, asexual and fanatically idealistic, who ruins his ASIS career and enrages both Beijing and Canberra by attempting to organise an unauthorised defection by a Chinese literary scholar; and finally to tell the story of Erika and Vincent admitting each other to their secret worlds, a cross-over that proves painful for both and eventually unendurable for Vincent.
Koch grew up in Tasmania. His German ancestors came to South Australia in 1840. His grandfather, an architect, moved to Tasmania as a young man. On the maternal side, Koch’s antecedents go back in Tasmania to the 1830s.
But Koch is in no sense a regional novelist. Sophisticated and cosmopolitan, he has travelled widely and lived for an extended period in London and California. He has spent most of his adult life out of Tasmania.
Three years ago he moved from Sydney back to Tasmania, partly because of his love of the island and partly because it was cheaper to live there. Koch has every reason to feel at home (and does) in Richmond, a handsome Georgian village twenty kilometres from Hobart, where he lives with his second wife, Robin. His grandfather, Hobart’s city architect, built the Richmond town hall, and his maternal great-great-grandparents were married nearby in 1845.
His great achievement as a Tasmanian writer stems from his freedom from the inhibition that creates countless mute, inglorious provincial Miltons, who are embarrassed to be writing from and about suburbanly backwaters, instead of real places like New York and St Petersburg and Paris. Koch’s six novels (to settle arbitrarily on a score) have placed Hobart on the literary map, with the riches from its secret worlds matching New York, St Petersburg and Paris—not to mention Berlin, Los Angeles and Rio.