Christopher Koch, Our Finest Living Novelist

Jamie Grant delivered this speech at the Henry Jones Art Hotel in Hobart on September 22, to launch Christopher Koch’s new novel Lost Voices.


Lost Voices
by Christopher Koch
Fourth Estate, 2012, 480 pages, $39.99

As you can see, I am not Christopher Koch. I am here as his delegate, while he recovers from illness. Yet I am able to do something he would be too modest to do himself, and that is to set out the reasons for all of us to see him not just as another award-winning literary novelist, nor as an author of best-sellers, though he is both of these things, but as Australia’s finest living writer of fiction.

This is not the first time I have made this suggestion regarding his stature; it is one I believe it would have been possible to support even while Patrick White was still alive, and my purpose here is to touch on a few of the elements in Koch’s writing which have led me, over the years, to reach that conclusion.

Chris Koch is not our only living novelist, and at different times we have all been subject to claims on behalf of the likes of David Malouf, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Geraldine Brooks, Gerald Murnane, Murray Bail, Helen Garner, Thomas Keneally, Richard Flanagan, Christos Tsiolkas, and others too many to mention. This is not the time to be negative, but I will say that it is possible to demonstrate the superiority of Koch to each of these acclaimed authors by the old-fashioned method of close attention to the text.

If we pay close attention to the words on the page in the books of all the authors I have just listed, it soon becomes apparent that Koch exists on a different dimension. The qualities in his work can be measured on a scale, or a set of standards, we should all keep in mind while making imaginary hierarchies of literary merit. These standards, for a novelist, include such elements as plot, structure, characterisation, depth of content, and, perhaps most importantly, prose style.

When we open the pages of Lost Voices we find each of these elements refined and polished to the highest degree. The plot is both intricate and perfectly balanced; it fulfils the memorable aphorism we find in the novel’s first sentence, to the effect that “everything in our lives is part of a pre-ordained pattern”. It is a plot that would serve just as well in a commercial, page-turning thriller—yet this is the plot in a novel with serious literary ambition. Incidentally, one of the more notable features of Koch as a novelist has always been his ability to produce a memorable opening sentence. Who can forget the way The Year of Living Dangerously begins: “There is no way, unless you have unusual self-control, of disguising the expression on your face when you first meet a dwarf.” In turn, he has also had such a memorable way with book titles that several of his have become clichés of the newspaper headline industry.

The structure of Lost Voices realises perfectly the scheme Koch thought of first in the early stages of what was to become the two separate yet interlocking novels Highways to a War and Out of Ireland. Originally, he thought of these two as a single novel, divided into four sections alternating between the twentieth and nineteenth centuries, but in the end the length of each segment grew to the point where it seemed less unwieldy to turn that single novel into a diptych. The overall title of the diptych, Beware of the Past, could be applied to Lost Voices as well. In Lost Voices, we are presented with a novel within a novel, the twentieth-century memoir of Hugh Dixon’s youthful dealings with his great-uncle Walter enclosing the story of Walter’s father Martin and the events he was never able to forget. The two stories, this time, are seamlessly contained within a single volume, and characters from the nineteenth-century segment echo across the years with their twentieth-century counterparts, though these echoes are not schematic or heavy-handed.

Because Koch creates these structures with a light touch, the characters in all his novels come to life in such a way that one feels it would be possible to recognise them in the street. Indeed, I was in a Sydney coffee shop with Christopher many years ago when a man walked in and greeted him; I knew at once, without being told, that this was the model for Darcy Burr, in The Doubleman, which had just been published. Christopher confirmed my thought as soon as the man had left. Frances Lambert and Moira Doran echo one another across the century-long span of Lost Voices, each of them demonstrating one of the skills Koch does not always receive due acknowledgement for, which is the portrayal of strong female characters. Similarly, Roy Griffin and Max Fell are linked as characters, as each embodies what Koch sees as a rarity, a being of pure evil, while Lucas Wilson and Walter Dixon are both kindly mentors to the younger Dixon men, both of them well-meaning yet flawed.

It is the content of all of Koch’s novels that make them something more than just an exciting adventure story, though each from The Year of Living Dangerously on can be read as such. Beneath the clever plots, and the carefully worked-out structures, his novels deal with ideas essential to an understanding of society today, and of the essence of human nature. Through the views of Lucas Wilson, he is able to outline many of the political theories which took hold in the nineteenth century and were to have such an effect in the next century: Wilson is an idealist, who sincerely believes that he can create a perfect society run for the benefit of all who belong to it, yet his ideals can only be achieved by violence and the threat of violence. The existence of evil in the world, Koch shows us, has always been an insurmountable obstacle for political ideologies.

Koch shows us these ideas; he does not tell us, for he is never didactic. Ideas in his novels emerge naturally from the mouths of his characters, as he is a master of believable dialogue. His skill, in this area where many novelists lose their readers’ suspension of disbelief either by exaggerating vernacular expressions, or by allowing modern phrases into historical speech, lies in the plainness of the language spoken by his characters; as far as possible they use expressions that might as well be used today as more than a hundred years ago.

This simplicity of expression is the reason for the success of his historical fiction; it makes a novel like Out of Ireland read as universal story-telling, not as an elaborately concocted pseudo-historic document. In turn, this is the result of the most important of Koch’s attributes as a writer, which is the sheer beauty of his prose style. His literary career began, long ago, with poetry, and he has always maintained an affinity with poets, which is why the character Alan McLeod in Lost Voices bears a distinct resemblance to Les Murray—like a film director, Koch likes to sometimes give walk-on roles to his friends. Of all those highly-regarded novelists mentioned earlier, including Patrick White, none can match Koch, sentence by sentence, for elegance, clarity and rhythmic effect. For me to make such an assertion, however, is not enough: the evidence for my claim can be demonstrated most effectively by a simple exercise, which is to open one of Koch’s novels at random and read the first sentence before one’s eyes.

When I performed this exercise with Lost Voices, the following passage appeared before me:

He pointed across the land that lay everywhere below them. The afternoon was sunny, with a faint breeze, and they were walking across one of the hills in the east, through an open area of grass and boulders. They seemed to walk close to the sky, and Martin was buoyed up by an illusion of limitless freedom. Below them on the western side of the hill stretched a green open pasture where the dairy herd grazed, enclosed by a post-and-rail fence. Beyond this, on the far side of the valley, the dense hills of bush rose above the roofs of the settlement, and beyond these again stretched those long blue ranges, hazed with sun, which seemed to belong in another dimension. It was to these that Wilson had pointed.

I study them for hours, he said, and I ask myself what is it they hide. Not just unexplored country, surely. Nosomething more. The entrance to a sphere beyond our knowledge. The dimension of the divine, perhaps.

This is more than one sentence, of course. One sentence, in this novel, leads irresistibly to the one that follows it, even though there are no clever linguistic tricks or ingenious, unlikely images to attract the reader’s attention. The style is unadorned and direct, presenting a picture in words that is as easy to grasp as a landscape painting; and yet the writing is as full of subtle echoes, alliterations and repetitions and half-rhymes, as a poem might be.

The implication that the writing in Lost Voices approaches the condition of poetry may seem off-putting to those in the audience who happen to be booksellers or publishers; poetry, after all, has an unfortunate reputation for lack of commercial appeal. They should not be put off for long, however. This extraordinary novel provides full value to paying customers: not only does it consist of two novels for the price of one, it really includes several types of book at once, all of them gathered together in a neat package. They include a childhood reminiscence, a study of art history, a book about first love, a gripping historical thriller, a murder mystery and a courtroom drama. Above all else, however, Lost Voices is a hymn of praise for Tasmania, and that is why we are all here in Hobart today.

Some of Jamie Grant’s poetry appeared in the October issue.

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