2009, 354 p
There are spoilers here, so if you haven’t read the book you might not want to read this yet…
So what IS a lovesong, after all? It’s a performance, a creation with words and music, written sometimes for a particular person, or sometimes as a fantasy on the experience of being in love. Alex Miller’s book is called “Lovesong” and I think it falls into this final category. It could just as easily have been called “Love Story” – although I think that someone already has used THAT title! – because it’s a love story in its own right, but it’s also a story about love stories. We all have our own story about love, but we can’t all turn them into lovesongs.
The frame story has an aging writer, not unlike Miller himself, who has returned to Carlton in Melbourne after an extended stay in Venice. Like Miller, whose last book “Landscape of Farewell” was well received, the author Ken’s last book was called “Farewell” and he expected that it would be his final book too. But he finds himself at a loose end, and the writer in him begins observing the owners of the pastry shop that has opened up in his small Carlton strip shopping centre. The wife is Tunisian and exotic, the husband Australian. He watches and gradually strikes up an acquaintance, then friendship, with the husband who tells him his story.
The story of Sahiba and John is the love song of the book. They met in Paris where she lived and worked in her aunt’s restaurant and after the aunt’s death they worked there together. Like all love stories, it was complicated by other desires- for home, for a child- promises and secrets.
I read this book along with others in an online reading group, and several of us had a similar response at much the same place in Sahiba and John’s story – “hold on- how does he know all this?” I’m still not sure whether this is a failing or sheer artistry on Miller’s part. Instead of the love story, which is tender and sad and real, you become aware of the telling of the story itself.
While Ken is drawing out and shaping John’s story, there’s his own domestic life in Carlton with his daughter who turned up after her marriage broke down five years ago, and has just continued living with him. She has recently started a relationship with a stand-up comedian who embodies the footy-loving, commercialized parochialism of suburban Melbourne. Where the love story of Sahiba and John is burnished and somehow sacred, his daughter’s relationship seems banal and shallow.
And so John tells his story, Ken says,
so he could understand it himself and move it on. I had no active part in it. I was not his prompt. It was his confession and he didn’t need to be told what to say by me. (p. 208)
But Ken was listening, writing up his notes after they met, having “my own secret life of his story.”
I am aware that with my notes I am, in my own customary way, making something other of John and Sabiha’s story than they know. Shaping it, if you like, to my own imagination. I don’t know how not to do this. (p.209)
But he’s not the only one writing up notes: John is writing his story too, and is almost pathetically grateful to Ken for being “the perfect listener”. There’s an imbalance in the power relationship of storyteller and writer that I find rather disconcerting and chilling. There’s also a sterility and elitism in it too. John and Sahiba continue to live their lovesong, while Ken, unconvinced that John will ever write his own version, moves to the next story:
Sabiha’s story had come out of her and been carried to me; now after I had lived in it jealously myself for a while, I would carry it to others, and in the end would let it go and be done with it, like all the other stories I have carried. (p. 354)
I’m always pleasantly surprised by Miller’s books. I come to them with an expectation that they’re going to be difficult- probably because in interviews he comes over as a fearsome intelligence himself- and each time he cuts through my trepidation with simple, clean prose that captures a setting or a feeling with a ‘click’, like a lens. Miller makes many references to Aschenbach in ‘Death in Venice’, and certainly Ken is an aging, world-weary narrator. I feel as if he’s offering this book to us, as a lovesong to love itself.