Ramona Koval: In 1998, philosopher Raimond Gaita's book Romulus, My Father was published. More than simply a memoir of childhood, it looked with the clarity of a child's view at the sometimes difficult yet passionate world created by his parents, disturbed and uprooted after the European war.
In 1950 four-year-old Rai arrived from Germany with his mother Christine and his Romanian father Romulus, a blacksmith who was to work on the construction of the Cairn Curran Reservoir near the tiny settlement at Baringhup, central Victoria. They settled in a weatherboard house, Frogmore, in the isolated landscape that Raimond Gaita fell in love with.
Romulus, My Father was also an exploration of what it was to be a good man, the way Romulus was good. His story of bringing up his son when his wife Christine became overwhelmed with mental illness and despair was full of instances of what a good man must do in the face of his wife's situation. Christine had an affair with Mitru, the brother of Romulus's best friend Hora, having two children by him. Their stories ended in tragedy, with Mitru killing himself at the age of 27 in 1956 and Christine ending her life two years later on the eve of her 30th birthday. After some years Romulus himself descended into insanity.
The book was a great success and was eventually made into a film. But what must in many people's eyes be seen as a triumph has been a mixed experience for the author. Thirteen years after the publication of the book and four years after the film, Raimond Gaita has published After Romulus. What happens when a philosopher who has written widely about truth is faced with telling the truth about real people in his family? And how does he deal with the views of his family from other people?
Rai Gaita is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne and Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at Kings College London. And he joins me now in the studio. Rai, welcome to The Book Show.
Raimond Gaita: Thank you Ramona, it's good to be here again.
Ramona Koval: Would I be right in saying that After Romulus is a book about how to read Romulus, My Father, what happened after the book and the film was written, continuing the conversation really?
Raimond Gaita: Continuing the conversation but not how to read it, I don't want people to think that...especially a chapter called 'Character and Its Limits' in which I comment on the way people responded to their sense of what was particularly good about my father. And sometimes I say I don't think it was like this, it was more like that. But I don't mean that to be a kind of authorial interjection. I wrote that essay in large part because I had been asked a number of times...actually after film showings, and philosophers are not used to having one of their number on screen, even if it's a lovely little boy like Kodi Smit-McPhee. So I might be at a philosophical lecture somewhere and then they would say would you mind speaking after the lecture at a screening of the film.
And so I did, and during the course of that I realised just how much I owe it to my father and to his friend Hora, not just in a sense of what one should do to live a good life, but about the very nature of morality itself, and indeed...again, through their example, not so much through what I've said, I learned from them things that are still very controversial amongst moral philosophers, one of them being that you can be morally severe in the sense of insisting, for example, that you be truthful about how to describe somebody's conduct in moral terms, and yet at the same time not point fingers or be judgemental.
So my father, for example, never for one minute was prepared to deny that my mother and, in a different way, Mitru had betrayed him. And if somebody said, 'Do you think betrayal is the right word?' he said 'Yes, let's call a spade a spade about this one.' But all his life he remained friendly...well, not all his life because Mitru died, but all Mitru's life he remained friendly to Mitru. And one of the things I try to celebrate more specifically in this book than in Romulus, My Father was the nature of his compassionate response to Mitru's need but more importantly my mother's desperate need.
Ramona Koval: Because he said 'this is the wrong thing to do but I understand that there are other factors which drove them'.
Raimond Gaita: Yes, but I don't know that he even thought too much about there being other factors, he wasn't a theoretician, so he wasn't weighing up the conditions of culpability.
Ramona Koval: But you don't have to be a theoretician to say 'my wife is suffering deeply and they are in this passionate embrace with each other and this is what they need at the moment'. I mean, you don't have to be a philosopher to say that.
Raimond Gaita: No. I think...I say this in Romulus at any rate, I think he also always thought that theirs was a doomed relationship, one in which they were doomed to terrible suffering. And I think his response simply was, well, what else was there to be done? This is the thing that I talk about a bit, this was an ethically necessitative response, this sense of impossibility, that there was nothing else he could do, was an ethical necessity but it was also compassionate the same time. And I contrast that with obligation.
I'm going on a little bit about this, but just to illustrate that what I'm trying to do in that particular essay, which is a kind of essay in moral philosophy, was to reveal how certain quite controversial thoughts in my own discipline are thoughts that I owe to my father, and I wanted in that essay to explore that, rather than to tell people, hey, you think character is the important thing, it is not. That I hope isn't the spirit in which the essay is read.
Ramona Koval: It was very important to you in Romulus, My Father to tell the truth, so much so that you are very careful about what you said, whether you remembered particular words that people spoke, whether you could say these people said that these words were spoken, and you didn't try to conflate anything or assume anything. You said perhaps this or perhaps that. Why was it so important for you to be careful with the truth?
Raimond Gaita: I think because instinctively...and I have to say 'instinctively' because I wrote that book very quickly...
Ramona Koval: You said three weeks?
Raimond Gaita: Three weeks, the first draft. But I think instinctively I knew it was a book that was a kind of witness to the values by which my father lived his life. People may disagree with this but I think it's the nature of witness that you can't mix fiction with it and you can't be careless about truth. You will remember a time when you and I were both embarrassed by the Wilkomirski episode where we were both enormously impressed by book, and the way we were moved by that book depended absolutely on it being fact, not mixed up with fiction.
Ramona Koval: And then it turned out it wasn't.
Raimond Gaita: It turned out not to be true. And the publisher for a while had the cheek to at least entertain the thought that maybe it would release it as fiction. Well, I don't think that the sense of my being a witness to my father's goodness would survive anything that looks like carelessness about the facts, and certainly wouldn't survive the addition of a fictitious material. But I really want to add that I don't have a general view about the mixing of fact and fiction. I just think in this case it was out.
Ramona Koval: In your book A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice you quote Simone Weil saying that 'the need for truth is more sacred than any other need, this gives truth a more spiritual value, sacredness rather than simply something that is right or factual'.
Raimond Gaita: Yes. Primo Levi writes...I also quote this in A Common Humanity, that he was disgusted by the way the political life of Italy had been polluted by the lies of the fascists. 'Polluted' is a very interesting word. Only something that can be very precious can be polluted. If it is merely useful to you, you can bugger it up in all sorts of ways and reduce its effectiveness. But you don't describe it as having been polluted. And people can think about truthfulness in their own lives in those kinds of ways where it really matters that you be truthful about, for example, your past, even though your concern to be truthful in that way isn't because you think it will make things better for the future.
Ramona Koval: You write about depending on Bach to keep you truthful.
Raimond Gaita: Don't ask me to explain that!
Ramona Koval: Please explain that.
Raimond Gaita: I can't...
Ramona Koval: You're playing Bach while you are writing because you say...
Raimond Gaita: Not so much while but afterwards. But it was because I knew that in a dramatic story as this one was I had to resist any tendency...in fact I had a deep tendency to pathos in describing what had happened to my mother, what has happened to Mitru and so on.
Ramona Koval: Because it is sad story.
Raimond Gaita: It is a sad story, and I didn't want the sadness to disappear. But I take a vulnerability to pathos to be like a vulnerability to sentimentality, not so much an absence of feeling but as a distortion of feeling. And I listened to Bach to keep me truthful in that kind of way.
Ramona Koval: Because of the structure?
Raimond Gaita: Because of Bach's structure?
Ramona Koval: Yes.
Raimond Gaita: No, because I think in a lot of Bach's music there is such wonderful and powerful feeling but utterly disciplined in the sense of not yielding to any of those things; sentimentality, pathos and so on. I listened during the day to Maria Callas, who my mother loved, but I couldn't take too much of that without knowing that the book would be dripping with pathos.
Ramona Koval: Then the film arrives, the proposal for a film, and I remember your struggle with being courted by many offers of filmmaking at the time. And you were very, very selective, weren't you. Tell me about your attitude to somebody else telling your story.
Raimond Gaita: I didn't want a film at all, and the only reason that Richard Roxburgh got the rights is because originally he asked, having come all the way from Africa to London with two bottles of red wine, he got the rights because he asked only in the end for the rights to write a screenplay, my having refused him the rights to the film. And then one thing led to another and over six years the film was made. But many times during that I was prepared to say let's call it quits when we couldn't get a screenwriter and so on.
Ramona Koval: And what were the points at which you felt that you were struggling over that?
Raimond Gaita: There were two things, perhaps most especially I think it's very hard to make a film about madness without pathos or sentimentality, and in this case there are three mad characters; Vacek, my mother, and my father. So I thought the chances of this coming out well were very small. And also because I thought that one of the things that mattered most to me about the book was to characterise the way in which my father could behave to Vacek who was visibly insane. In the film he is not, in the film he is more or less, as Richard Roxburgh describes him, an amiable homeless man who cooks eggs in his room.
But he was visibly mad, and one of the things that I realised about my father and indeed Hora was that they responded to Vacek without a trace of condescension. And I try in one of these essays in the book to say why I think that is so wondrous. I know that almost everybody would say we should behave like that, and I am now 65 and I have now met about three or four or five people who could do it. And in this new book I try to explain why I think it's such a difficult thing and why it is so wondrous when it occurs. And I thought, well, if I've only seen a handful of people do this in life, why would I think actors could do it? So that was one resistance.
And I think, whether he did it intentionally or not, it was wise of Richard to portray Vacek as merely a homeless eccentric man because I don't think he could have done what I would have wanted him to do and then I would have been disappointed in the film, and I'm not disappointed in the film. I say in the essay about the film, when people ask me what I think of it they are always disappointed because I say I like it.
Ramona Koval: Why do you think they're disappointed?
Raimond Gaita: Because they're so used to writers saying how they hate the films that have been made about their works.
Ramona Koval: When the film came out I remember you being worried, and there was a scene that was dropped from the film that was in the original screenplay.
Raimond Gaita: Yes, there was a scene that was dropped in which (I have to talk about them as characters) Rai and Christine in the shack Frogmore before Christine has Susan, and she hears voices, thereby making it clear that she is suffering from a form of mental illness. That scene was dropped, and so when people see the film and they see Christine's incapacity, so marvellously acted by Franka Potente, to look after season they think this is postnatal depression, which leaves them wondering why on earth she came in an out of Raimond's life and all the rest of it.
And when I saw this I told Richard Roxburgh that they would judge her badly, and he said they shouldn't. And I said, well, maybe they should or shouldn't, but the fact is they will. And I have read countless reviews of the film that sort of say things like, well, it was tough and it was a good film, and the poor boy, good thing that he got through it all right and came out reasonably okay at the end, especially having such a bitch of a mother. That's the sort of sentiment. And that upset me a lot, and it was no consolation for people to say to me, look, she is just a character in the film, because nobody says to me, look, Franka Potente acted this character who has no existence outside the film, they all say Franka Potente acted Christine your mother really well. So I was deeply hurt by that, and I thought I might want to respond to it in some way...
Ramona Koval: So the film had been made by then, or did you know that that scene was going to be dropped?
Raimond Gaita: No, I didn't know until I saw a rough cut of the film that it had been cut. I suspect that was all intentional because they would have known that I would have resisted like mad at that stage.
Ramona Koval: And was it too late to insist that it would be put back in?
Raimond Gaita: It was too late. They did this right at the beginning of the shoot. Sorry, on Richard's behalf I should explain, he thought that there was too much madness in the film and another mad scene would just alienate the audience and turn the film into melodrama. And given that he was making a feature film and not a documentary, that might have been a fair thought. So I'm not saying this to be critical of him. But still, it upset me a lot, and it was one of the many things that was driving me to write about my mother. It wasn't the most important thing. And in this book I do comment on the fact that the scene had been cut, but I leave it for an essay on the film rather than the long essay about my mother because I didn't want in that essay about my mother to have any polemical tone or defensive tone.
Ramona Koval: Let's talk about that last essay about your mother. The way you write, it seems to have generated...by a particular incident that you went through when you went back to Frogmore. Perhaps you could just tell us about that and read a little bit.
Raimond Gaita: Yes, my wife Yael and I have built a house not all that far from Frogmore, and indeed just over the hill from the camp to which my father was sent when he first came to Australia to build a reservoir and where I had lived for a while with him. There is no longer a camp there, it's just over the hill. And Hora, after he died his children came to visit us and they came with Hora's grandchildren, and that's a significant part of the story. So I'll read.
[reading from We spent the next day at Frogmore... to ...what I thought I was seeking.]
Ramona Koval: But weren't you doing exactly that, and don't we try and do that, we put ourselves in the place of others whose lives we can't live but we're trying to understand?
Raimond Gaita: Yes, we try to understand, but I think in this case I couldn't really feel as she did. But what going to that swamp made clear to me on recollection is that after writing Romulus, partly because I wrote it so quickly I was...it sounds strange to say, sort of enlivened by the drama of it. In fact I sort of oscillated between exhilaration and depression when I wrote it, but I do remember coming back to Melbourne utterly exhilarated.
But over the years, and this was before the film, it wasn't the film that triggered this, I became more aware of the quiet desperation of her life rather than the more dramatic episodes like an attempted suicide. And her lying there in that swamp that night became for me sort of emblematic of that more quiet desperation. And later on in the book I talk about how utterly terrible her last two years must have been after Mitru had killed himself and she was going from place to place in Melbourne suffering from mental illness herself, going from Melbourne to Ballarat where she had previously been in a psychiatric hospital to go and seek psychiatric care, and there she killed herself. So it was that deepened sense of the desperate quality of her very brief life in Australia. It's still hard for me actually to get the time span right because I still see it to some degree as a kid and I think, God, it was a long time. But it wasn't, in her case it was eight years.
Ramona Koval: You talk about Emmylou Harris as a musical accompaniment to this part of the story. Tell me about that.
Raimond Gaita: Well, one of my daughters, Katie, had given me for my 50th birthday a tape of music that she liked and some of it she knew I liked and so on. I'd never heard Emmylou Harris before and some of her songs were on that, and one of them, a song called 'I Can't Remember If We Said Goodbye' I played again and again and again. I had intended to write about my father but I thought I might write on weekends and nothing came of it, and I played this for about a week, I just played it again and again. And I said then to my wife Yael 'I'm going to write', but I said I had to be by myself, and I rented a cottage near where I grew up. And though I went to write this book about my father, Romulus, My Father, I started writing about my mother. So I should have realised a long time ago that this need to write about her was there strongly and wasn't really satisfied in the writing of Romulus.
Ramona Koval: Do you think it was the views of other people, those reviews of the film that made you finally put pen to paper about her, because you say that it doesn't happen...you say it can never be a kindness to a child to undermine the love it has for its parents by suggesting that they are not deserving of its love.
Raimond Gaita: I thought the reviewers were all full of sincere compassion for the boy, for the film me, but as I say in trying to suggest in those reviews that this was a woman undeserving of my love and indeed of her husband's love, I thought this was no kindness. In fact I think it's an insidious thing in general. One of the things I say in the book...and again, I wanted to...and this is in the case of my father, being a witness to this, is that the nature of his compassionate love for my mother and his compassionate response to her need, while at the same time never denying that she had betrayed him, that enabled me to see her in a light where I could love her without shame. And that's a very, very important thing, because I knew how disdainful everybody was of her.
Ramona Koval: 'Love her without shame'?
Raimond Gaita: Yes, without being embarrassed by the fact that everybody thought she was utterly irresponsible and so on. I became really aware of this, again, not in my own case, but through a series of accidents I became a kind of ambassador or what's called an ambassador for an organisation called Mirabel which is a wonderful organisation that gives support to kids who have been orphaned or abandoned when their parents were drug addicts.
And one of the talks I gave at a fund-raising thing, I emphasised this, I've seen Mirabel doing this, and a wonderful woman, Jane Rowe, who is the CEO of it, I said one of the things that is so wonderful about Mirabel is it recognises not only that these kids need to be loved, which everybody knows is important, but they had to be enabled to love. And sometimes what gets in the way of being able to love...of course it is psychological factors, traumas of one sort or another, but a certain kind of moralism can get in the way too because if you are encouraged to disapprove of your parents and join in the disdain for them that is felt in the community, and I felt that constantly in the case of my mother...
Ramona Koval: When you were a child?
Raimond Gaita: When I was a kid. I felt that I was being invited to do this by people who were expressing their compassionate sense of me, the poor boy abandoned, et cetera.
Ramona Koval: You went to a Catholic boarding school, didn't you, for those later years of being a child. What was the attitude there?
Raimond Gaita: To her? Well, no one spoke of her there, although one of the things that I do write about in this book is that when my mother came to visit me at the school after not having come...I hadn't seen for two and a half years, not since Mitru's funeral. And my father at that stage had been committed to bringing another woman from Yugoslavia and to marrying her, and my mother came and she said that she wanted to go back to my father, that she probably only had a year to live if the doctors were right, and she asked me to convey this to him. And I did, but only three weeks later when I went home for the school holidays...
Ramona Koval: And how old are you now?
Raimond Gaita: I was going on to 12. So I said to the headmaster, 'Would you mind telling my mother if she were to come again that I don't want to see her', but I did say 'for the time being'. I insisted when the screenplay was written, you mustn't leave that qualification out, 'for the time being'. But, you know, I realised only recently, probably a year ago, that maybe he didn't tell her 'for the time being', and it had been so important for me all my life, that at least I had said 'for the time being'. And so I don't know whether he told her, and if he told her whether she believed it...
Ramona Koval: Or whether she heard it.
Raimond Gaita: Whether she even heard it. So it's all those things that were prompting me to write, because if that's true...let's say for the sake of argument he didn't tell her or she didn't hear it or didn't believe it, then she killed herself a few weeks later, she would have killed herself thinking that she had been abandoned by the man she thought she could always rely upon, my father, and even by her son. So again, it was a matter of coming to see how terrible her life had been and wanting to write about it. Why exactly I wanted to write about it as opposed to just coming to see, and having written, why I should publish, I don't know.
Ramona Koval: And that Emmylou Harris song?
Raimond Gaita: I still play it.
Ramona Koval: But isn't it about 'I don't know if we said goodbye'?
Raimond Gaita: Yes, I know. I shouldn't have been so obtuse. There was a conference in my honour just recently in Adelaide and a number of papers were on Romulus and so on, and I realise a lot of people realised long before I did that I should be writing about my mother.
Ramona Koval: And now that you have written this, does it help? A lot of people would think that that episode with you going to the log and spending the night was a kind of breakdown.
Raimond Gaita: I don't know if you call it a breakdown, but I don't know if it helps. I've never had any time for the expression 'closure' but it's not as though I think this is over. It mattered for me to try to get it as clear as possible. In part it mattered to me to write I hope not too defensively about it but that's in the essay about the film, because I wanted to say this is just not true.
Ramona Koval: There is another part of the film which wasn't exactly true too, it was about your half sister. You've got two half-sisters, and the film, because of the way it was told, and I don't quite understand why, but it only has your mother giving birth to one child. And your other half-sister felt left out.
Raimond Gaita: Yes, the reason is that they had decided to have only one child actor, and they knew they couldn't age him plausibly more than three years. And so they could fit only one pregnancy in without undermining the whole dramatic structure of the film. And I resisted that for a long time but I saw that it was inevitable, and again I had to yield. This was not a documentary. And Barbara, when she saw the film...there's a scene in the film when Christine is killing herself and she looks at photographs, and there's one of Susan and one of me, and Barbara told me that when she saw that scene she felt as though she'd been written out of history.
Ramona Koval: As you would, of course.
Raimond Gaita: As she would, of course.
Ramona Koval: So, it's very interesting about art and about life, and I'm sure your story has moved a lot of people to think about these things by seeing the film, by seeing the artistic depiction, probably asking themselves all the same questions that you raise in your philosophical works and in your memoir as well. But as you say, it's very complex for the writer, for the liver.
Raimond Gaita: Yes, it's complex for me because now sometimes the voice of Eric Bana intrudes when I am thinking about my father, and Franca Potente when I'm thinking about my mother, and so it can be...well, everybody knows about the business of photographs getting in the way of your memories of a holiday, and now I've got a book, a film, and shit, now it is another book! That's a realisation!
Ramona Koval: This new book of essays by Raimond Gaita is called After Romulus, and it is published by Text. And Rai, always a pleasure to speak with you.
Raimond Gaita: Thank you Ramona.
Raimond Gaita's acclaimed 1998 memoir of his father, Romulus, has recently returned to public consciousness with the release this year of the Richard Roxburgh film starring Eric Bana. In this essay I want to make use of this occasion of a revival of interest in Gaita's story to return to the memoir and to consider the ways it raises questions of truth in relation to the specifics of the lives it depicts in the context of the vexed and shifting terrain of national belonging. These questions were further rehearsed and explored by Gaita, in the years between the publication of the memoir and the release of the film, most pertinently for this discussion in his 2004 Quarterly Essay, "Breach of Trust: Truth, Morality and Politics", which explores the pressing question of political mendacity in the light of a larger consideration of the nature of human and national belonging, and I want to draw on this writing in my discussion of the memoir.1
I begin by considering the ways memoir's foregrounding of the workings of memory (over, for instance, narrative) grant it a special propensity to open up the question of the temporality and the porousness of the self, to explore the question of the self in time and in relation to the other, and to consider the relation between these ideas and understandings of individual selfhood and those of community and national belonging. Central to these issues in Gaita's memoir is the relation between the parent and the child, a relation that by its nature is constituted in temporal terms, and one that in the end cannot accommodate a refusal of otherness. In these terms, Romulus, My Father foregrounds a foundational interimplication and interanimation at work in the self produced in and through memoir, a self that is spread out across time by this formulation, and that yet speaks to the specifics of a particular life, and a particular place within the sweep of experience of a nation. This interanimation further inflects the nature and quality of truth and truthfulness, what Gaita refers to as the work of 'bear[ing] witness' that is at the heart of memoir writing, in an essay that accompanies the published screenplay (viii). Alongside Gaita's memoir, therefore, I want to consider another meditation on the nature of memory, truth and the problematics of writing, in particular writing about human goodness: Flannery O'Connor's 1962 essay "Introduction to the Life of Mary Ann".2
Gaita's memoir and the film based on it tell the moving story of his parents' harsh lives as post-WWII refugees in rural Australia, with both works peopling, almost as if for the first time, the desolate countryside of national memory with the voices, the bodies and the stories of non-Anglo Europeans. In the course of this account of fragility, despair, loss and resilience, the memoir works to articulate an ethical understanding of the self, a self constituted in relation to the other, and this is seen most intensely in the friendship Gaita describes between his father, Romulus and Romulus' friend Pantelimon Hora, a friendship understood firstly as an essential humanity that takes the form of conversation:
Their individuality was inseparable from their talk - it was revealed in it and made by it, by its honesty. I learnt from them the connection between individuality and character and the connection between those and the possibility of 'having something to say', of seeing another person as being fully and distinctively another perspective on the world. Which is to say I learnt from them the connection between conversation and Otherness (72-3).
The sense of self that develops through the memoir is, I will suggest, haunted by others, and rendered uncertain, and even mysterious by relations with those others. In this, and in the ways it is characterised by moments of witness, it recalls the complex interplay of writing, reading and remembering selves dramatised in O'Connor's essay, which begins by describing her resistance to an invitation she receives from an order of nuns to write the life story of a child who had died of cancer. Sister Evangelist's letter sketches the child Mary Ann's exemplary life, noting that it "'should be written but who to write it?' Not me, I said to myself", responds O'Connor (214). As the essay continues, her reluctant embrace of the story of the afflicted child draws her back into the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, that is to say, into her own national literary inheritances, and into an engagement with the slippery figure of the author, haunted by his or her own acts, in and between published stories and personal reflections. For O'Connor, further, the problematics of memoir writing - the complexities of truth and witness - are exacerbated by the presence of goodness; as she puts it "stories of pious children tend to be false" (213), and I propose to use the account she provides of the writing and reading of Mary Ann's story to inflect Gaita's discussion of truth and morality, despite and in the face of the differences of cultural location and writerly positionality between the two.
Romulus, My Father presents a family unit which strains at the limits of its various cultural and social formulations. Even at the most literal level, a rigidly social conception of the family unit cannot account for the relations between the young Raimond, his parents and their friends, most tellingly in the ways Raimond is called on to understand and care for his parents in their respective mental illnesses. The memoir proposes a generosity in the face of parental fragility that appears to be at odds with the constraints and delimitation, temporal and imaginative, of the family unit, particularly in the ways it is conventionally understood through the familiar tropes of, here, the migrant family and the 'bad mother'. Here, state care for the child is rendered impossible in terms of the conventional family unit due to the mother Christina's mental and emotional illnesses and the sex-segregated camps to which Raimond's father is confined as a migrant-refugee. In the face of this conceptual impasse - how to care for the child - comes Romulus' understanding of the absolute and in-between nature of parental care, with its mutual constitutions, concerns and responsibilities. These relations are thus in excess of the specific conditions of modern life, here the imperatives of post-war Australia. While the continuing resonances of family histories weave for us a structure of care that is at its heart ethical, caught up in the substance of contemporary existence3, we are impelled by this memoir to think and to imagine beyond the present of the self and the state, to take up the possibilities memoir offers of bringing the ghosts of past selves and stories to bear insistently on the contemporary, to see the work of forming the present world in terms of our uncertain engagements with what is also not present.
This making of the self takes place, over and over, not simply within the family, then, but rather within the particular relations between children and parents, and further, between one's own childhood and maturity. Sociologist Andrew Metcalfe argues for the use of the term "middle-age" to suggest what he calls a "medium of interbeing" in relations with oneself and others: "shifting the term . to an experiential domain, using it in relation to a way of being that is not, in principle, about birth date. [So] . middle-age . is a relation between age categories", and is seen in an image of unknowing, of the mystery of our relations with others: "When you look into or through someone's eyes, the destitution of their face, where or what or who are 'you' and 'they'?" (151).
Metcalfe's formulation articulates what he calls a "fluidity of the relation" (151) between the terms of 'you' and 'they' alongside an explicit bearing witness, at once traumatic and constitutive, that renders the relation between parent and child at once intimate, familiar and unutterably strange. Such a relation fails always to anchor identities in terms of chronology or final responsibility, and in this way, the self - the 'I' or 'you' invoked and at work in his essay - is always both parent and child, and is secure or complete in neither position. The look Metcalfe describes here is, I want to propose, what is at issue in Gaita's account of conversation; it is also the crystallising moment in O'Connor's essay for herself and for Hawthorne, a moment of mystery rather than recognition, across the forms and temporalities of memory and cultural inheritance. O'Connor explains in the essay how she is sent, along with the invitation to write the life-story of Mary Ann, a photograph of the child herself:
I had glanced at it when I first opened the letter, and had put it quickly aside. Now I picked it up to give it a last cursory look before returning it to the Sisters. It showed a little girl in her First Communion dress and veil. She was sitting on a bench, holding something I could not make out. Her small face was straight and bright on one side. The other side was protuberant, the eye was bandaged, the nose and mouth crowded slightly out of place. The child looked out at her observer with an obvious happiness and composure. I continued to gaze at the picture long after I had thought to be finished with it (215).
Looking into the picture of Mary Ann's face stalls O'Connor's dismissing of her story, leading her in the first instance to return to one of Hawthorne's stories "The Birthmark", on reading which she muses that Mary Ann's disfigurement "was plainly grotesque. She belonged to fact and not to fancy" (216). In light of this she turns to another story "Our Old Home" where Hawthorne describes the experience of:
a fastidious gentleman, who, while going through a Liverpool workhouse, was followed by a wretched and rheumy child, so awful-looking that he could not decide what sex it was. The child followed him about until it decided to put itself in front of him in a mute appeal to be held. The fastidious gentleman, after a pause that was significant for himself, picked it up and held it (217).
Hawthorne's narrator draws attention to the ways that acts of social observation work to produce and reproduce isolation and insulation, what he calls "putting ice in the blood", a process interrupted by the embrace, by the human and compassionate response to the child's mute but eloquent appeal. O'Connor notes a further confusion or crossing of selfhood at work in this interpellation: "What Hawthorne neglected to add is that he was the gentleman who did this", linking this figure to that of generation by quoting from his notebook account of the story: "It was a foundling, and out of all human kind it chose me to be its father!" (218). She continues to draw connections across Hawthorne's life and work, remarking that his daughter Rose, who founded the Dominican Congregation, the order to which the nuns who had cared for Mary Ann belonged, and who "later wrote that the account of this incident in the Liverpool workhouse seemed to her to contain the greatest words her father ever wrote", herself "discovered much that he sought, and fulfilled in a practical way the hidden desires of his life" (219).
These generative and generational figures of parents and children, crossing sex and age, are woven dextrously by O'Connor through her essay, drawing us to pause at the crossings of life and writing, of observation and affect, of memory and loss and truth. They are passing points of abject misery and compassion in the face of the call of the social world and the proprieties we fashion to protect ourselves precisely from such vulnerabilities; points that come, we see, to work our own undoing. Gaita invokes just such figures in his 2004 essay, in a discussion of the imperatives to compassion that are called up by a consideration of the morality of torture. He relates the story told by Primo Levi in If This Is a Man, about his witnessing of an act of charity and compassion practised by his friend, Charles, in his care of a fellow inmate, Ladmaker, in Auschwitz:
The whole episode is something to wonder at, but most wondrous is the fact that Charles should have responded 'with the tenderness of a mother'. A religious person might say that Charles responded to Ladmaker as someone who is sacred. Certainly it is an example of the same kind of love that has been shown by saints, and it might well be used as an example to show what it means to love one's neighbour, but one needn't be religious - I am not - to respond to Charles' affirmation of the preciousness of the wretched Ladmaker (58).
Here once again figures of parental care and of grace structure the necessary social relations of compassion that in themselves articulate a humanity that is not closed off to the other.
Metcalfe's "middle-age" likewise speaks to this selfhood, that is formed around traces of others: "middle-age is an uncannily possessed condition, haunted and inspired by voices that seem to come from within but do not quite seem ours." It is further a relation of caring:
a condition that knows the world not through the grip of apprehension but through the touching or compassionate hand: it connects us to others who are old or young but doesn't let us speak in place of them. Rather than insisting on oneness, distinction and autonomy, it emphasises relationality, nothingness and the in-between (152).
These refigurings and crossings that exceed individualised and located temporality draw us into different relations with the truthfulness that we find in the memoir form. Romulus My Father traces Romulus' journey from Yugoslavia to eastern Australia after the Second World War, through marriage, friendship, migration, grief, insanity, work and death. It structures its account of a man's life through and in terms of his ethical coming to be, and in place of what Metcalfe calls a "self-possessed" (151) selfhood, offers Romulus' conception of character:
Character - or kar a cter as they pronounced it, with the emphasis on the second syllable - was the central moral concept for my father and Hora. It stood for a settled disposition for which it was possible rightly to admire someone (101-102).
As an embodied morality, kar a cter organises the self always in relation - able to be admired, never self-sufficient, open to the other in directing one's actions well. This concept is clearly linked to the importance of conversation in its openness to the other, to a flow of sociality that nourishes, challenges and extends the self without consolidating it. Kar a cter is related to other qualities of self, including skill at a trade:
I have never seen a workman as skilled as my father. His unboastful confidence in what he could do impressed me as much as his achievements. He was so at ease with his materials and always so respectful of their nature that they seemed in friendship with him, as though consenting to his touch rather than subjugated by him (97).
Thus skill and craftsmanship are interanimated with morality, and worthy expertise is at once moral and material. This is an embodied ethics that draws on the hand equally with the heart, and that takes us from the hand to the face as the site of our sociability, our conversation, our having something to say.
Parental care further exemplifies this relational self. In the face of Christina's depressive illness, Romulus takes on, with the assistance of his friends, sole care of their son:
My father would walk up to eighty kilometres for a litre of milk or for a small sack of beans or potatoes. Exhausted by his efforts to get food for us and because he denied himself so that I would have more, he fainted from hunger on more than one occasion (5).
On the one hand, we might see the actions described here as grounded in more traditional parental self-abnegation, a charitable mode carrying costs that can of course never be repaid. However, this relation of care is reiterated years later as Raimond works with Romulus to build the headstone for Christina's grave, in a figure illustrating what Metcalfe means, I think, when he points out that the parent cares for him or herself in his or her care of the child; while the child in its demands, anticipates the needs of the parents (158). Gaita writes:
In the summer sun we did our remorseful work. We dug the foundations, carried sand from the creek at Carisbrook, mixed the cement and built the monument. My four-year-old daughter Katie played among the graves, guaranteeing that we would not yield to morbidity. At one point my father rested on his shovel and cried. 'Memories,' he said.
With shaking hands he rolled a cigarette which he smoked to help control his tears, and he spoke compassionately of my mother's troubled life. Working together, our sorrow lightened by the presence of a young girl representing new life and hope we came together as son and husband with the woman whose remains lay beneath us (113-114).
This passage is marked by a complex and yet utterly prosaic temporality, where family relations are determined by care and labour on behalf of another rather than simply or onerously by chronology. The persistence of loss, the impossibility of closure over the death of a mother, frames an understanding of family relations in terms of generation as a mode of interrelation, and recalls Flannery O'Connor's meditation on the mediations of love and compassion, the adequacy, the fit of literary and moral genres and forms, and the persistent excesses of love and its awkward embodiments. O'Connor folds literary inheritance alongside family relations when she marks the point in Hawthorne's narrative where the child of indeterminate sex chooses Hawthorne as its father through a repeated and persistent embrace. In a related move, the internment of Christina draws her story and her loss into the present, and sets it alongside Gaita's memories of the parental care exercised by Romulus and his friend Hora - the sewing, the cooking, the buying and growing food - that work to fill the maternal spaces rendered bereft by Christina's mental and emotional distress and incapacity.
These questions of relation and care, the terms and temporalities within which the self is formed, bear, finally, on the question of truth, itself central to memoir. Gaita writes in the essay that accompanies the screenplay that:
There is no single reason why I wrote Romulus, but I wrote it partly because I wanted to bear witness to, rather than merely record, or even celebrate, the values that defined my father's moral identity. Considered purely as literature, separable from the strict truthfulness of its narrative voice, my book does not have much to recommend it, I think.
I am certain that the way people have been moved by it is inseparable from the fact that they believe it to be entirely without fabrication. They recognize, I believe, if only instinctively, that it bears witness to the values it celebrates. The integrity of witness seldom, if ever, survives invention, however honourable the motive for it might be. Were Romulus exposed as fraudulent, or seriously mistaken, no publisher would recommend that it be reissued as fiction (viii).
His description of "the spirit of witness that is essential to the book's contract to reality", as "a very particular moral reality" renders it akin, I would argue, to Mary Ann's "obvious happiness and composure" in the face of her affliction. For Gaita, his father's goodness, and the truth of this goodness, are exemplified in his relationship with Vacek, a friend from the refugee camps who is insane. Romulus treats Vacek with:
a compassion that was without a trace of condescension. Most people would sincerely profess that everyone should behave like that to people like Vacek, but almost everyone I have known cannot do it. This is not because of failings in what might be called their moral character. Theirs is a failure of perception (ix).
In other words, in Romulus' capacity to perceive a common humanity rests not only his own individual moral wisdom, the core of his goodness, but also the possibility of its articulation, and indeed the responsibility that we face to do so, to bear witness to "a goodness that claims one but whose existence seems to defy reason" (ix). In this sense, then, the imperatives that face the writer are also those of human relations, the face as well as the story of the afflicted child. When Gaita writes: "For my father, truthfulness was [not an abstract principle, but] a condition of human interchange, a condition of conversation" (xvii), he is also explaining the ways that the protagonists of his story cannot be severed from the moral and psychic dramas they have inhabited, cannot be confined to the times or truths of history. The aesthetic imperatives are likewise those articulated by Flannery O'Connor, both in her initial refusal of Sister Evangelist's proposal - "' This wouldn't have to be a factual story. It could be a novel with many characters but the outstanding character, Mary Ann.' A novel, I thought. Horrors." (214) - a refusal that is vindicated by the finished document: "there was everything about the writing to make the professional writer groan" (222). "Yet", she continues, "when I had finished reading, I remained for some time, the imperfections of the writing forgotten, thinking about the mystery of Mary Ann. They had managed to convey it" (223).
The point O'Connor is pressing here is in part an attempt to articulate and distinguish the complicated imbrication within the memoir, of aesthetics and truth; the rhetorical force of skilful and apt expression (not far but far enough from truth) against the weight of truthfulness itself, at once rhetorical, embodied and to an extent, inexplicable, the both-and of Gaita's sense of his story's protagonists, verified according to historical principles but not reducible to them. It is also, I have suggested, for both writers, a point where aesthetic questions come up against other human relations, in particular, compassion.
O'Connor's Catholicism is of course everywhere in her writing, while Gaita writes avowedly from an agnostic position, and they write likewise from disparate points in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, their engagements with the question and the consequences of truth, and the ways it is to be pursued across the forms, figures and genres of writing, both fictional and non-fictional, meet at rich and significant points. Gaita's premise in his essay on truth is that truth is grounded in human contact and understanding, which he understands as a mode of conversation, and which speaks to our specificity; to family, community, to the detail and the matter of our daily lives. It speaks also to our modes of language, to the words we speak, hear and read. His essay argues for the impacts of truth in the contemporary world, and the demands that this places on citizens, through an account that works toward an understanding of what he calls "political illiteracy" (64). These political concerns recall the determining tropes of O'Connor's discussion of the work of the writer in the face of the complex demands made of citizens of 'the most powerful nation on earth', where she spells out the continuing significance of a certain locatedness in writing.
The film of Romulus, My Father makes much of the memoir's setting in central Victoria, in a representation of landscape that owes as much to the history of film as to topography, recalling as it does so graphically the vistas of classic Australian coming-of-age films like My Brilliant Career (1979) and The Year My Voice Broke (1987). In this way it draws on a complex visual archive charting the possibilities of an Australian selfhood, and the problematics of its mediation through forms and structures that are insistently European. My Brilliant Career interrogates the already complex way that gender bears on genre, producing the imperative to renunciation, and the risky transcendence of the artist; while a decade later the loss that haunts The Year My Voice Broke, its account of coming-to-selfhood also inflected with gender, generates rather the imperatives to mobility and even supersession. Romulus, My Father, in its light but evocative reference to both these works, yet sidesteps such acts of renunciation, transcendence or supersession. Rather, in filling the landscape with the voices and forms of migrant Australians eating bread, drinking coffee, washing eggs, it draws on tropes of the impossible fit of European genres to provide a view of the Australian landscape that is densely imbued with its own foreignness. Its account of national belonging, then, is structured around the inadequacy of European forms to come to terms with the matter of the land, in the face of the necessity to do so. Gaita figures the complexity of this engagement with the landscape in generational terms:
Most immigrants found the countryside alien and hostile. Their children usually came to love it, but often in ways that showed their origins. Because I accepted my father's European fatalism and made it my own, the light and the colours of Central Victoria became for me the light and colours of tragedy..Many people have remarked that they hear a distinctive voice in my work. That voice was formed growing up in the landscape of central Victoria with my Romanian father, his Romanian friend Pantelimon Hora, haunted by my German mother, amongst the Anglo-Celtic men and women who farmed it and worked its towns (Screenplay xviii).
The landscape of the film thus speaks to the diversity of the times of the nation, and Gaita's story of traumatic arrival (the bleak stretch of road up which Christina walks toward the hut is the same track along which the young Raimond rides his bike in scenes of joyous connection with the landscape) overlays colonial accounts with other forms of loss and pleasure, other modes of articulation, and returns us to the imperatives of truth and of language that animate the memoir, and Gaita's important contribution to our understandings of national belonging.
Brigitta Olubas is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at the University of New South Wales. She has published widely in the area of contemporary Australian literary and visual culture. Her most recent publication is Women Making Time: Contemporary Feminist Critique and Cultural Analysis, co-edited with Elizabeth McMahon.
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