My Wretched Word-Life


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My Wretched Word-Life
Stephen Orr
In 1953, eight years before his death, Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger wrote a self-critical piece about his ‘wretched tone-life’. In it, he vivisected his life as an artist and asked why he’d never been accepted by his countrymen. He’d spent his life striving to make an Australian music, but finally, felt he’d come up short.

Grainger was a unique individual. He spent his life clinging to his mother’s ‘Nordic’ view of the world. Music and words bent to his will: ‘My nature urge tells me that speech ought to be over-weighingly a forth-showing of race, place and type …’

Around the turn of last century Grainger made his reputation taking the raw material of folk-song (gathered in his long walks through the English and Danish countryside) and forging it into something stronger, or at least more popular. Hundreds of songs such as ‘Country Gardens’ and ‘Early One Morning’ would likely have been lost if not for his efforts.

Grainger was the inspiration for my new novel, Dissonance. On the surface, this book tells the story of Grainger’s relationship with his Adelaide mother, Rose. But, beyond this, I’ve attempted to do what Percy did: forge something new from something old. I’ve taken the essence of this relationship and recast it. Not from song to piano, but from real to imagined. Dissonance begins in the Barossa Valley (instead of suburban Melbourne). Here the young Grainger grows up seeing his philandering father exiled to the back shed by his mother. My boy-Grainger (Erwin) endures a childhood of chin-whiskered Lutheranism before his ambitious mother takes him to Hamburg (read Frankfurt) to study piano.

Erwin leaves from Port Adelaide before the worst of Hitler’s nightmare, whereas the real ‘Perks’ had left some forty years earlier. Still, his life in Germany, studying piano and composition, cycling from town to town with his mum, having his romantic instincts thwarted (by his mum), mostly resembles the real story.

I’m often asked why my books are based on ‘real stories’. My reply is that all fiction is, except perhaps in a more diluted and transfigured form. There are no new stories, but there are hundreds of new stories. No new relationships, but thousands that still elude our understanding. Hence, the need for writers in an age that would prefer to consign them to a back shed full of cartons of Magna Wonder Knives, K-tel cassettes and, well, books.

I started planning Dissonance more than twenty years ago. As a (failed) student at Elder Conservatorium I would spend hours poring over Grainger’s manuscripts, listening to his arrangements (written for stretches of an eleventh!) and attending concerts which included his music. I read biographies and analyses of his music. I read his own writings and fought to reconcile the light with the dark (‘Ugly swine such as the French and the Germans … the sickening shapes of their sculls (sic), their unforgivable trend towards heavy bellies and light legs …’) I knew the novel awaited, but kept putting it off until I worked out that I could write about Grainger by not writing about him. There followed the nine-months of hand-scrawl, the second, third and fourth drafts, the fight to find a sympathetic publisher, the edits and finally, the book – the lump of paper that looks at you as if to say, Yeah, well, like that was really worth it!

That, now, is for others to decide. I promise myself I won’t read any of the reviews (as all the axes are ground in preparation) but find myself peeking, desperately craving some affirmation for the stain I’ve just left on the couch of literary history. The stinker arrives and one reaches for the HB, but stops. It’s not good form, apparently. Still, it feels like someone pooping in your nest, and you, unable to remove the steaming pat.

Sometimes I start to see my own work as a slightly up-market version of an MGM bio-pic: phony beards and fake accents passing as literature. But this isn’t the point. I, like any writer, keep returning to characters I can’t get my head around. By modern standards, Grainger seems part-Ghandi, part-Streicher (remember him, and Der Sturmer?) and part-genius. It’s as though, by writing about these people, I might come to some understanding of them. But, in fact, the opposite seems true. After years of research and toil, I feel even further away from knowing what made them tick.

Another example was the main character of my 2004 novel, Hill of Grace. William Miller led a group of early-evangelicals in mid-nineteenth century New York State. He studied the Bible and predicted the world would end on 21 March 1844. After the inevitable disappointment he returned to the Bible, and its dates, and told his followers they’d need to wait another year, and another.

My William Miller became Wilhelm Muller, a 1950s Barossa Lutheran who came up with a date 108 years after his predecessor’s. Apart from that, not much had changed (except the continent, the pickled pigs and coppiced carobs). The delusion persisted, but also the charisma. As it persists today: Jonestown, David Koresh and the Solar Temple Cult.

By writing about types, we don’t get rid of them. They certainly aren’t interested in self-examination through literature. Syria has its own Hitler, and Assad isn’t giving up power because of some sharply-written novella by a comfortably-heeled British or Australian twenty-something.

So why do we write (and read)? Generally, writers are preaching to the converted. Perhaps it’s because we want to leave some statement behind; a sort of universal disclaimer. Oh yeah, he was Fascist, but I saw him for what he was. Maybe the hope of inspiring or planning for change is way too ambitious. Maybe that’s not an artist’s job.

Perhaps it’s more about the artist’s ego. Perhaps we all like a quick tussle with the universe. In response to a friend’s question (Do you believe that one of the tasks of composition is that of accepting the limitations implicit within a chosen medium?), Grainer wrote, ‘Each man must answer according to temperament … My answer is strongly, No, I will not accept any limitations.’ This is what the word- and tone-smith spends his or her life discovering: the essential truth of a thing.


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