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Composer James Humberstone during the creative development sessions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, December 2017. (Image: Ryley Gillen)

When I first met James Humberstone, over dinner in 2015, he looked like a guitarist in Radiohead: joggers, funky trousers, coloured T-shirt, and a cardigan that looked like something a soccer player would wear in the garden. With his English accent (he was born in London and migrated to Australia in 1997) and a brain full of opinions, which range from veganism to marriage equality, James is terrific company. In terms of music, I remember us that night chatting about Malcolm Williamson, the Australian composer who was also the Master of the Queen’s Music from 1975 until his death in 2003, but also the stratospheric English rock band Muse. James has an irreverent sense of humour, with political conservatives coming off second best.

With the Sydney shows for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT just around the corner – Friday 27 July, to be precise – James and I had a chat about our influences, and, after all these years, what we think is at the core of our song cycle.

NIGEL

In terms of music, who inspires you?

JAMES

Howard Skempton (image credit: Clive Barda)

The biggest influence on my own composition has been Howard Skempton, the English post-experimental composer. I remember the first time I heard his Lento, at the age of 16, I was struck by a music that was timeless in more than one way. Timeless because it was obviously new, but seemed ancient, too. And timeless because structurally it felt like the piece didn’t go from A to B to C, but instead just occupied the time for which it lasted.

At university I was able to find more of his music, and loved it equally. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Howard’s music over 20 years ago and was lucky enough to study with him privately for a short time before migrating to Australia.

In Australia, the biggest influence on me has been Anne Boyd, who was my supervisor during my Masters in composition, but also influenced me through the study of her own work, as I engraved it as she wrote it over a few years, and as a friend. I knew I wanted to be an academic-composer early on, but it was Anne who made me sure of it.

Of course, I’m inspired by many other composers and performers. In the last decade I’ve drawn on so many of J S Bach’s ideas, which are still so radical even today. I think Beethoven was probably the greatest composer to live, and don’t ever try to emulate him. As a young teenage composer I was inspired by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten, and still often revisit their scores to see how they achieved the amazing sounds that they did, especially orchestrally. While I’d describe myself as a (post-)experimentalist (though if Cage didn’t like that label, why would I?), I’m one of the few who loves the music of both minimalists and the serialists/complexists. In fact, there isn’t much music that I don’t like, although to me the stuff that’s truly inspiring is the music you don’t ‘get’ the first time and hear new things in every time you listen.

I’ve listed traditional western art music composers there, but I must also say that last qualification applies to all of the genres I listen to. The greats include Radiohead and Björk, but there are many writing such interesting music in all fields now – I’m listening to hip-hop, punk and EDM just as much as I am to any art music composer. It’s a feast.

What about your musical inspirations?

NIGEL

My musical life started with Kate Bush and The Cure and has progressed (maybe?) from there. Bands that continue to resonate are The Smiths, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Red House Painters, Frightened Rabbit, and The Go! Team, as well as artists such as Nina Simone, PJ Harvey, Peaches, and DJ Shadow. I went through a huge dance-music stage – series by Global Underground and Renaissance – and I still enjoy the more intricate side of that kind of music e.g. Burial, Kiasmos, and Jon Hopkins. After getting into some wonderful post-rock – primarily Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Explosions in the Sky – I’ve been immersing myself in more minimal music; I’ve always loved Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Arvo Pärt, but more recently I’ve been listening to Dustin O’Halloran, Jóhann Jóhannsson (rest his soul), and Max Richter – I love his re-scoring of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as well as Three Worlds, his score for a ballet based on the novels of Virginia Woolf. Nils Frahm’s All Melody is that newest album that I adore, as well as Singularity by Jon Hopkins.

I could go on…

Tell me about the literature that has interested you?

JAMES

I’m a complete lightweight, but not because I want to be. I have a job that involves reading thousands of words every day, and while I do find reading for research extremely pleasurable (I won’t say the same for marking university assignments, but they are an essential part of the education process, so I try not to complain), I have little energy left for reading for pleasure, so tend to read page-turners.

Margaret Atwood

Rather like my choice of films and TV series, my tired brain enjoys science fiction as Philip K Dick described it (anything where reality has changed a little bit – not necessarily with spaceships and laser guns!). I’m a huge Phillip Pullman fan, and really want his permission to create an opera trilogy of the Dark Materials books (I’ve asked; his agent says no), just reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after the excellent new TV adaptation, and have been enjoying reading Tolkien and Rowling to my kids.

That may not sound very inspiring for a composer, but I should point out that when one works with words, as I have in my two largest recent projects, The Weight of Light and Odysseus: Live, I’m constantly inspired by the texts that I’m setting. One begins with the words, their emotion, their structure, their intent, the narrative, and everything is planned around that. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing writers, and have never had to set a ‘dud’ text yet. I imagine that it would result in a piece of music that wasn’t much cop, either.

Over to you: what’s the literature that inspires?

NIGEL

I love the Russans, especially Chekhov and Tolstoy. More often than not I’m stunned by JM Coetzee. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx is one of the most extraordinary pieces of literature I know, as is Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and The Riders were an early influence, and I’ve also found much inspiration in Helen Garner, as well as Patrick White and Randolph Stow. Of course, there’s Hemingway – what a perfect piece of writing is The Old Man in the Sea. Other authors who regularly inspire are Aminatta Forna, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colm Tóibín, Evelyn Waugh, Michelle de Kretser, Alan Hollinghurst, Anne Enright, Evelyn Waugh, Christos Tsiolkas, and EM Forster. In terms of poetry, for me it’s Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, ee cumings, Philip Larkin, and Dorothy Porter. Recent novels that knocked me for a six: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, both of which are thrillingly, bravely experimental – but with heart.

To finish, in terms of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT I’ve been thinking that, at its core, the work is about the pressure nations put on individuals to do near impossible things, but the unpredictable chances we get to heal and make new.

What do you think the work is about at its core?

JAMES

Humanity, or the human spirit if you prefer, pulling us through.

Whether we live in Australia, where most of us live in the top levels of wealth in the whole world, or in poor countries where the majority struggle to survive, or in war zones, where it might not matter how wealthy or poor you are, but whether you can save your life and the lives of your family — we all have stories of adversity that we have survived. Most adults have lost someone very close to them. Many of us, even in this country, have struggled with questions of our identity or against forces and misassumptions out of our control. Perhaps just thinking back on those things is enough to make us cry, or break down again.

Yet most of us get up. And get on. And when we see someone who can’t, or at least not yet, we help them. Or, at least, the best of us do.

In THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT a series of devastating events shake our soldier to the core, all over one short weekend. He is down, he is down again, he is hurt, hurt, hurt, and breaking. Yet he gets up. We endure and express so much pain, but we get up. And when we can’t, we ‘cry out for help’, and hopefully our family and our friends are there for us. I hope in this Trumpian, post-Brexit, keep-out-the-boat-people time that we live in, that the tide might change, soon, as we remember our humanity and find a little more compassion and love for those around us – or far away – who are hurting.

Michael Lampard as The Soldier, at the world premiere of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, Canberra, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2018. (Image credit: Shelly Higgs)

*

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT: Friday 27 July 2018, 1pm and 7.30pm. Venue: Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featuring Michael Lampard as The Soldier. Pianist: Alan Hicks. Direction: Caroline Stacey. Tickets ($25/$15) available here.

*

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra.

A place that looks like this could well be predisposed to melancholia. With any luck.

A place that looks like this could well be predisposed to melancholia. With any luck.

I always look forward to it, through the high dry heat of summer and much of autumn.  As the days shorten and shadow, once daylight-saving has finished its run and darkness comes before dinner, it’s one of the things I love most about being alive.  And it’s this: at 6pm each night I scrunch up newspaper pages into balls, carefully craft a tee-pee of kindling, and, like placing a cherry on a dollop of ice-cream, I top it all off with a pine-cone, before, with the strike of a match, fire takes hold in the hearth.  But wait, there’s more.  There’s the pouring of a glass of semillon or ‘sav blonk’, and then, the piece de resistance, the playing of the most deliciously maudlin music I can find – Max Richter is a favourite (his reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is heartbreaking, in a good way), as is anything by Johan Johansson or those Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros.

When everything is in its place like this, I’m as happy as a humble scribe can be.  Except, of course, happy isn’t right, because it’s misery that I’m after, or, at the very least, a no-holes-barred melancholy.

Melancholy: it’s a word to be adored.  Acquiesce is another, so is panacea, but melancholy is the king or queen of the lexicon; but in these wild days of ours where gender is the be all and end all, let’s just say that melancholy rules the roost.  Because it sounds good, and it looks good – as if it’s something that could be diced up and steamed – but it also feels good, no, it feels sublime.  Melancholy means, of course, pensive sadness, or the constitutional tendency for said sadness.  But it has troubling roots, being derived from the Greek word melas meaning black and khole meaning bile, which puts me off, just a smidgeon.  Quick, throw another log on the fire, pour another dash of the white, and turn up the music!

However, there’s no escaping the out-and-out danger of what we’re talking about.  It’s widely acknowledged that melancholia refers to a mental disorder marked by depression and ill-formed fears.  Please step forward Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway and, um, Moses; Vincent van Gogh is also a member of the club but you already knew that.  Interesting that my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus Everyman Edition (1972) jumps from melancholy to ‘distressing’ and ‘dejection’, but for melancholia it cuts to the chase by taking us straight to ‘insanity’, which sounds rough to me, but you can’t argue with Roget.

Could it be that the ACT region, in which I include the Southern Tablelands to the north and the Monaro district to the south, might be devilishly fond of putting melancholy on its people?  It’s highly likely.  Because we have the harshest winters: fog, frost, freezing nights, as well as wind and rain and sleet, and snow if we’re lucky.  Because during the day we have a frighteningly blue sky, the sort that can send the best of us into an abyss of existential angst.  And because during the night we have a perilously black sky, one that can pinch our breath. The tropics we are not; our winters can kill.

'Blue Notebooks' by Max Richter.  For those who like to be blue, we salute you.

‘Blue Notebooks’ by Max Richter. For those who like to be blue, we salute you.  Well, I salute you.

This particular winter, with all the dreadful mess that’s currently oozing out of Capital Hill (or Camp Hill as it was once called, and as some still refer to it, which is divine), could well be sending even the most buoyant amongst our number into a pit of despair.  Or into the cult of busyness.  And it’s here that I’m reluctantly reminded of what Gunter Grass wrote in From the Diary of a Snail (also first published in 1972): ‘If work and leisure are soon to be subordinated to this one utopian principle – absolute busyness – then utopia and melancholy will come to coincide: an age without conflict will dawn, perpetually busy – and without consciousness.’  No doubt our representatives in parliament house will ensure that over the next three long, slow, sinister months we’ll be fully supplied with conflict, between the future and the past, between fact and fiction, between elevation and condemnation, and – oh it seems absurd but regrettably it’s the case – between male and female*, and many of us may well indeed want to slip into unconsciousness.  Which ultimately, irony of ironies, could be a lifesaver.

Virginia Woolf, in A Writer’s Diary (1953), is a bit more positive about us melancholic types, especially, I think, those who’ve fallen into the black hole of social media but are trying to make the most of it: ‘If one is to deal with people on a large scale and say what one thinks, how can one avoid melancholy?’

Amen to that, sister.

So, until mid-September, until spring with its colours that go beyond black and blue, and the lengthening, lightening days that are to come, I will ensure that the woodpile is fully stocked, overstocked if my back and bank-account can manage it, that there are enough bottles of cheap white plonk ready and waiting along the bottom drawer of the fridge, and that the most miserable CDs I own (and I have quite a few) are stacked beside me.  But despite all this intentional – and, let’s be frank, gratuitous – desolation, there is hope.  Because as winter knows best, particularly the sort of winters we have around these parts, especially the 2013 version, a true melancholic isn’t sick at heart, and a true melancholic doesn’t let cheap political tricks suck the marrow out of his or her bones.  A true melancholic is simply realistic, and just a little brave.

*

First published in The Canberra Times on 22 June 2013.  Thanks to Cameron Ross. *Written before Wednesday 26 July 2013, when Australian politics went arse-up.  Now insert ‘between male ego and male ego’.

1.

It was the phonecall I never wanted to make, but I had to do it, I had to press the buttons, I had to organise the appointment – I had to get this done.

2.

So I did: 9.45am, that would be the time.  I hung up and went back to the mini camp-bed beside the dining-room table.  I rubbed his belly, scratched his chin, rubbed his belly again.  I felt his back legs.  Were they cold?  No, they were warm, or warmish.  Was he purring?  If he was, he was doing it quietly, only for himself.

3.

We haven’t always been the best of friends; in fact, to begin with, he was nothing more than a replacement.  Our first cat, Cooper, died at six months while being de-sexed – the vet said something had gone awry during the operation, a reaction to the anaesthetic maybe.  Two weeks later, which was too soon but these things happen, we found a black and white kitten in a pet store and home he came.  His fur was coarser than Cooper’s, and overall he seemed more unruly, wilful.  Still he settled in, and we settled in with him.  His name?  Sam.  Which was short for Sambuca, because of his black-and-white markings.

4.

He came with us when we moved house a year later, to a place just around the corner, so I spent thirty minutes driving the streets of the suburb to give him the impression that we’d actually moved kilometres away.  For two days I kept him inside so he’d get used to his new digs, but eventually I bit the bullet and let him out – I remember being thrilled to the point of incredulity when a moment later he appeared at the front door as if wanting to be let straight back in.  Sometimes he slept on the bed, sometimes on the couch, often on the dog’s bed, making a point about that – his superiority.  Often he sat on the armrest of the couch and took a swipe at the dog, just because he could.  In winter he stood in front of the heater, warming his face and chest and belly, his eyes closed.

5.

'A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not' - Ernest Hemingway

‘A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not’ – Ernest Hemingway

In adulthood, however, he became a horror.  No matter how many bells I put on his collar he’d catch birds – magpies, currawongs, cockatoos; early one morning he even brought home a semi-comatose chicken.  He was remarkably agile: he could jump straight up as high as the Hill’s Hoist as if he had little rockets on his feet.  Twice I invested in a collar that would emit a high-pitched squeal the nano-second before he’d launch an attack, but he still managed to catch birds.  And I hated it.  Under a bush beside the front door was a spray of feathers – it was a death cave, and I hated this too.  He also fought with other cats, and got abscess after abscess, forcing me to pay $300 a pop to clean him up.  One day about five years ago a neighbour came around to politely complain about Sam.  ‘He’s a lovely cat,’ she said, ‘and he visits us a lot, but he also attacks our cats, and we have to take them to the vet.  We had to put down one of our cats after a fight with yours.’

From that day onwards Sam was curfewed at night.  Which he hated as much as me.  Around two or three every morning he’d want to be let out, which I couldn’t do, so I’d lock him in the other part of the house.  Which he hated even more.  He’d thump at the hallway door as though he’d made fists out of his claws; some mornings it sounded like he was taking a running jump and flinging his whole body at the door as if he felt sure he could barge his way out.  The more I kept him in the house, the more he sprayed the curtains, the corners of the bed, even the hi-fi speakers that I’d bought as a present for my 40th birthday.  The more I kept Sam inside, the more he shat everywhere – due to the layout of the tiny Canberra house he didn’t always have access to his kitty-litter, which was in the laundry.  Eventually I decided that each night I’d lock him in the double garage so I could get some sleep and didn’t wake each morning to find a nice pile of shit in the kitchen.  I thought that I’d get another complaint from the neighbours because out there he meowed incessantly and banged on the metal door.  Thankfully, after some weeks, he became used to sleeping out there, and I got used to sleeping through the night again.

To be frank, it was always good to feed him in the morning and then kick him out again – sometimes literally.  I distinctly remember thinking that looking after Sam was a burden: all work, not much joy.  Really I only spent a few hours with him every evening, before jailing him in the garage.  In the column I write for The Canberra Times I began referring to him as Cat the Ripper, because it was like living with a murderer.  But each year I took him to the vet to get his annual jabs.  He got a cancer on his nose, so I got that fixed; it came back so I got it fixed again.  When He Who Is More Of A Dog Person moved to his own place, there was Sam, snoozing beside me on the couch – when he wasn’t out and about causing complete and utter havoc.

Even though Sam was de-sexed at six months (a different vet did the honours this time, obviously), I spotted some kittens over the road who looked distinctly similar to Sam.  He Who Claimed Not To Be Fond Of Sam But Couldn’t Help Giving Him Long Tender Cuddles pointed out the impossibility of Sam siring anything, but one day, as we were walking back from the shops, he said, ‘What’s Sammy doing in that garden over the road?’  I said, ‘That’s not Sammy.’  And he said, ‘Oh shit.’  Later a vet would tell me that if a cat is de-sexed very young a testicle can remain inside, meaning that he could still do the deed.  Which would also explain the spraying.  So he was a lover and a fighter and a hunter.  With the cutest face.  When he wanted something.

Did I love him back then?  It’s hard to say that I did.  If he went missing for a night or two I’d go out with a torch and search the gutters for him.  I could always tell if he wasn’t feeling the best because he’d spend the whole day on my bed.  If I went away for any period of time, I’d always get a cat-sitter and make sure to leave detailed instructions.  I’ve found these on the computer; here’s a cut and paste:

  • he gets dry food in the morning, about a cup and a half;
  • it’s best to leave him outside all day, even if he wants to come in;
  • but he must be kept inside at night otherwise he gets into fights; he’ll start meowing around 5am, so you can let him out then and he’ll probably come back an hour later for food; personally I find it best to put him in the garage at night (he’ll meow but don’t worry about that) and then let him out in the morning;
  • if you want to get him inside, bang a can with a spoon – he’ll come in pretty quick; and
  • warning: Sam meows A LOT!  Don’t worry about it – he’s just very chatty. If you ever want to shut him up, give him some watered down milk or, again, just put him in the garage.

But was any of this love?

6.

In 2010, when I decided to quit more-or-less fulltime work and move to Goulburn to put writing and related activities at the very core of every week (up until then it was a matter of waking at 5am to write), amongst the hundreds of decisions to make – which real-estate agent, which renovation, due to all the travelling I’d be doing soon should I buy a new car, if so, which one? – I didn’t make a decision about Sam, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with him.  If someone had offered to take on Sam, would I have accepted?  Probably.  More than once I thought that if I got him up to Goulburn but he then did a runner and disappeared then so be it, in fact it would be a relief.

He settled in – slowly.  Initially, despite the yard being small and contained and with plenty of nooks and crannies, he seemed frightened of the outside, which was odd for a cat who was used to ruling the world (he was actually quite shy around humans, only really engaging with the two of us).  In the end his innate bravery got the better of him and he ventured out the back door.  Which was good, because I was adamant that with this new house, which is actually a very old house, I wasn’t going to have him spraying everything and shitting all over the joint.  Thankfully, in my part of town there are no cats and the only birdlife is an unruly gang of sparrows, so he could be outside as often as he wanted.

I remember the first time I had to go away for a couple of nights.  I set up an automatic feeder and left him to fend for himself.  Would he hang around?  On my return, I found him standing in front of the corrugated iron shed that passes as a garage, meowing as loudly as ever, demanding – yes, demanding – to be let inside or be fed, or he just wanted to chat.  I think it was James Joyce who said that no one loves a conversation more than a cat.  He put on weight and I wondered if he was pinching food.  So we eased into a regional-town rhythm, both of us enjoying the slower pace of life and the distance in the air.  Visitors commented that Sam looked more ‘chilled’ than ever, which perhaps was because his owner was more ‘chilled’ than ever (though there’s nothing ‘chilled’ about a piece of writing that isn’t coming together, or maybe there is, the shivery chill of the still-born).

For the first time I began to enjoy Sam’s company.  He was eleven years old now, and I’d sit in the backyard and have a coffee with him, the two of us staring at the chooks; he barked at them when they first joined the yard but soon realised that being behind wires they were out of reach.  I’d find him sleeping all over the house, sometimes on the bed, which was always a pleasure.  He had the softest white belly, and a chin that needed scratching, and I was the man for him.  Sometimes he’d sleep in the dog kennel, because it was near the back door.  Each week I’d have to go down to Canberra for a couple of nights, but he’d always be around when I got home, almost always just in front of the shed, as if waiting for me.  In the shed I’d set up a cosy nook out of boxes and an old woollen underlay that was meant to be for The Old Lady of the House before he commandeered the thing.  There’s a potted plant at the back window, and sometimes I’d come home to find it knocked over; I’ve always blamed the wind, which can be severe, but now I wonder if he used to sit there waiting for me.

In short, I could imagine us growing older together.

7.

Last winter, just after dawn, there was a commotion in the backyard.  Beneath the wattle was an explosion of feathers; Sam had a pigeon in his mouth.  But what was that in the fig-tree beside the shed?  A large brown hawk.  What was going on?  Had the hawk dropped the pigeon, much to Sam’s delight?  Or was the hawk trying to get at Sam’s catch?  Or was the hawk after the chooks?  (He wasn’t after Sam, was he?)  Whatever the case, I managed to get Sam to let go of the pigeon, but the pigeon was too badly injured and died shortly afterwards.

A few weeks later Sam started hanging around the shed and staring into space – he looked lost and confused.  Even when in the house, he hid under tables or chairs; if there was as sudden movement he leapt for cover.  I hadn’t seen the hawk again, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t around.  When Sam walked, he looked low down in his back legs, almost like he used to do when out on the prowl.  No longer could he jump up to his comfy cubby in the shed.  And his voice had changed: it was no longer deep and strong but high and scratchy.

One morning he came into the house and went all the way to the library, where his tail twitched and a pool of urine flooded out from beneath him.

8.

The vet retained Sam in hospital while a bunch of tests were run.  They all came back negative.  The vet concluded that Sam had had a stroke.  However, cats, he said, are extraordinary in their ability to recover and compensate; with a good diet (no seafood apparently), a daily dose of a painkiller called Metacam, twice-weekly vitamins, and tender loving care, Sam could continue to age well into his very senior years.  Except Sam didn’t recover.  Within days he was by now walking as if paralytic, flip-flopping all over the place.  He could get up the back step for breakfast, but only just.  He had two preferred spots in the garden, one under a lavender bush, the other under a rosemary bush, and he managed to get to these places but it was a struggle.  But how determined he was.

Even though his back legs continued to weaken, he seemed mentally more alert: his voice returned; sometimes he purred after being fed – and he ate more than ever, though sometimes he lay down beside his bowl as if he simply didn’t have the energy to move away.  But usually he eventually managed to get around to the camp-bed where he’d preen himself; more often than not he preened The Old Lady of the House, too, something she adored, and maybe he did as well.  One morning I heard Sam opening the sliding door into the laundry so he could see if he’d left any biscuits behind.  But mostly he just slept, either on dog’s camp-bed or outside under the lavender or the rosemary.  Some days I carried him inside so he could eat or sleep with The Old Lady, and some times I carried him outside.  If the weather was turning foul, I’d carry him back inside.

Last Thursday I had to drive down to a Canberra Critics Circle event, but a massive wind and rain storm came in.  Back home, Sam was outside – would he be able to get himself to cover?  What if I came home to find him still lying in the garden, soaked to the bone because he couldn’t get up?  Thankfully he’d managed to get himself to safety, but strangely he no longer used the kennel.  Every time I put him in there he staggered back out again as soon as I turned my back.  These days he spent the night sleeping in a drift of leaves beside the kennel.  Was he improving physically?  No, he wasn’t.  Not at all.

9.

Saturday night.  Another storm came through so we left him inside.  Around 5am I heard a soft, unsteady shuffling and dragging sound.  Sam had got himself down to the bedroom doorway because he needed to be let out.  I got up, called for him to follow me, but he could barely move.

I carried him out the back door.

10.

A decision had to be made.  On one hand, the vet had made it clear that an old cat should just eat well and sleep well.  Sam did these things.  Just because he was now partly disabled didn’t mean he wasn’t happy; any pain he was in was ameliorated by the Metacam.  But I spent most of Sunday in the garden, Sam not far away under the rosemary bush.  He slept stretched out, not curled up.  Sometimes he hugged his legs as if trying to will them back to life.  But was he really sleeping?  His eyes were half-open, or half-closed, staring at something in the near distance.

11.

We watched Last Orders that night, just Sam and me, the movie of Graham Swift’s Booker-winning novel about a bunch of old mates driving to the coast to scatter the ashes of one of their own.  It seemed appropriate.  For two months now Sam hadn’t been able to get onto the couch, so I picked him up off the camp-bed.  He rested his front paws and chin on my thigh, my black track-suit pants becoming stuck with his white hair.

12.

He ate breakfast well, chopped steak, some biscuits, some meat and gravy, his daily dose of Metacam mixed in.  When he was done, he managed to get all the way from the laundry to the camp-bed.  He preened The Old Lady of the House, then lay down beside her.  I wrote for a while, went back to check on him, went back to writing, but checked on him again.  Then made the phone-call.

13.

‘There is nothing more you can do,’ said the vet.  ‘You’ve done everything for him.  You could have another couple of days with him, if you want, but really there’s only one option.’  I said that I didn’t want another couple of days, because I’d already made the decision.  ‘Okay,’ he said, his voice softening, ‘let’s do this.’  He explained what would happen.  ‘It will take about ten to fifteen seconds.’  He disappeared into a backroom for a minute.  Sam hid his head between my side and the crook of my arm.  The vet returned with a syringe and his assistant, a youngish girl with a rolled-up towel in hand – I could tell it would be a pillow.  The vet got down and looked at Sam in the eye, scrunched his ears; perhaps the vet said something I couldn’t hear.

14.

As Sam’s body relaxed, my mouth, my throat, my chest – all of me, so it felt – sucked in air.  I began to weep.  The vet’s assistant handed me a box of tissues that had been there all along.  I went to go, but turned back and stoked Sam’s soft, warm head one last time.

15.

The yard seems less without him.  Whenever I open the back door I expect to see him there, waiting to be let in.  I look for him beneath the lavender or the rosemary.  Sometimes I feel sure that I can hear him lapping at the water-bowl beside the dining-room table.  I still find his white hair on my clothes, particularly my black track-suit pants.  I’ve got rid of the food bowl, but I haven’t been able to get rid of the half-full bottle of Metacam and the half-full bottle of vitamins – these things remain on the top of the fridge.

16.

The afternoon before he went, I took photos of him in the garden, more photos the following morning, him and The Old Lady of the House sitting together on the camp-bed, then just him lying alone, hugging his legs.  I haven’t looked at these photos yet, but I will.  I’ll put the best one on my wall.

A certain Ernest Hemingway

There’s this problem child I know.  We all have someone in our lives who could fit this definition – a rebel, a wild one, a lost soul, or all three at once, which would be quite something – but mine is less conventional, in every possible way.  The problem child I know isn’t made of flesh and blood and bone, it doesn’t have a heart (at least not in the usual sense), and for some – for many, it seems – it doesn’t actually exist, or they know it does but wish it wouldn’t.

What on earth am I talking about?  The novella, of course.  That little book of power and pummel, the miniature of in-between.

A quick survey of literary history reveals that the novella has well and truly punched above its weight.  Stories like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (1912), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) have had an immeasurable impact on Western writing and reading – mini revolutionaries, the bunch of them – and each has firmly found its place in the canon.

But the crunch is this: what is their true identity and purpose?

Jonathan Cape’s hard-cover edition (1972) of The Old Man and the Sea describes it as “shorter than the conventional novel, longer than the longest short story, Hemingway’s new work of fiction eludes classification.”  My 1993 Arrow Classic edition of the same tale contains references to it being a short story, a long short story, and a novel.  In other words, we haven’t a clue what we’ve just published.

The fact is there is a great suspicion about the novella, because it’s next to impossible to categorise.  Down through the ages there have been times when no one wants to even talk about the thing, as if worried that it is going to lead to incarceration, or a long, slow death from The Plague.

But let’s be brave.

The word itself, novella, comes from the Latin, novus, which means new and was originally applied to plants and animals.  In the sixth century, novella meant a newly planted tree, which is rather delightful; I’ll be using it the next time I’m at the nursery.  Yet this doesn’t really get us anywhere.  And definitions that rely solely on word-count – somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 words seems to be the rule of thumb – completely under-estimate the devious ways of the novella.

In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story (1998), Richard Ford tries to capture a definition of our little friend (or perhaps that should be foe) but even he can’t get one to stick, despite interviewing his comrades in academia, who appear knowledgeable about the subject but ultimately brush him off.  Interesting that for this story I approached two respected academics in the creative-writing field and neither returned my emails – as if I was enquiring about a missing person they might just know something about.

The history of the novella goes back further than the efforts of Tolstoy and co.  Five hundred years earlier one Giovanni Boccaccio authored (or may have simply collected) the first cycle of novellas that comprise The Decameron.  A hop and a skip from there, the Germans, who have never shied away from a bit of cheeky experimentation, took a particular shine to the form, primarily in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the point that the critic Theodore Mundt, in 1823, called the novella ‘the German house pet’.  (I shudder to think what Australia might nominate as a ‘house pet’.  Kylie Minogue?  Actually, could she be described as a pop-music novella?)

However, despite the novella having a long and illustrious history of contribution, it really does seem to be the literary problem child.  But why?  Why is it so hard for people to get their heads around what is essentially a short work of fiction?  Then again, a short story is also ‘a short work of fiction’.  And therein lies the apparently insurmountable difficulty: the novella is the slipperiest of beasts, refusing to fit neatly into boxes that appeal to writers, readers, and publishers.  And if history has shown us anything, we are sceptical about what doesn’t fit neatly into boxes.  Ask your nearest bisexual.

But still novellas are written, and sometimes they’re even published.

John Clanchy, the Canberra-based award-winning writer of short stories, novellas and novels, says that despite being a fan of the shorter story the novella really is cause for heart palpitations.  “The concept,” he says, “is suss for many in the Anglo word, which has tended to see the novella as just one more European conspiracy: first they foist the novella on us, and when that doesn’t work they go and invest post-modernism.”

How would Clanchy define the novella?

“Whatever we call it,” he says, “the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way.  I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length.  But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.”

Despite his own success with shorter works – His Father’s Daughter (UQP, 2008) contains five stories ranging from 9,000 to 30,000 words – Clanchy agrees that one of the biggest challenges with novellas is getting the bloody things into print.  “Editors and publishers don’t seem to know what to do with this ‘intermediate’ form,” he says.  “Show a novella to an editor – the adventurous Madonna Duffy at UQP excepted – and she’s just as likely to pull a mouth and say, ‘A novella?  It’s kind of…um…long, isn’t it?’  To which the only sensible reply is, ‘Yes, but so is a goanna.’”

Mandy Brett, Senior Editor at one of Australia’s most respected mid-sized presses, Text Publishing in Melbourne, believes that it goes without saying that novellas are difficult to publish.  “There are a couple of reasons for this and the first is brutally economic.  On the bookshelf, a novella is just a very skinny book.  We can’t expect people to pay nearly as much for it as for a novel.  But in fact it doesn’t cost all that much less to produce.  This makes the small book a highly dodgy proposition in terms of turning a dollar.”

The second difficulty is cultural, says Brett, but ends up being economic.  “There is not a broad readership for the novella.  It is not widely appreciated as a form, being perceived as a stingy novel or a bloated short story.”

Brett certainly has a point.  Inspired by Richard Ford undertaking an ‘informal poll’ of his academic mates, I posted on my humble home in the blogosphere a request for thoughts on the novella.  Comments came back along the lines of “most writers like writing them and reading them, but readers don’t, because they generally want more of a meal when they sit down to eat” and “I prefer the traditional novel format – it’s not so much a more-bang-for-your-buck kinda thing (though I have found myself standing in a bookshop thinking, there’s no way I’m paying $32 for 120 pages) it’s that I find short stories just too damn short!”

However, according to Mandy Brett it’s not as grim as all this might suggest.

“There’s a small subset of literary readers who will buy an outstanding novella because they appreciate wonderful writing, or hear enough good things about it to give it a go.”  Brett cites A Love Letter from a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths, which was published by Text earlier this year, as an example of a contemporary novella.  It is 20,000 words in length and she describes it as “exquisite”.

John Clanchy, too, is optimistic about the future of the novella.  “As a committed reader in the Age of Obesity,” he says, “I’ve cut the contemporary fat novel right out of my diet – too many carbs and too little nutrition at too large a price.”

What about this brave new world of digital publishing and e-readers?

Mandy Brett sees fertile ground.  “As the ebook starts to take over and book pricing comes adrift from the traditional restrictions imposed by print technology and the physical distribution of books, it will become much easier to play around with format and form.  I expect to see more poetry, more novellas, more short stories, and more experimental literary forms accessible in mainstream outlets in the future.”  And that’s a ray of sunshine for those writers who want to muck up and those readers who hunger for more than the bulging literary block-buster.

So, it seems, the novella, despite its inherently shifty business, is here to stay.  It may well be lurking behind that wall over there, ready to frighten the living daylights out of an unsuspecting public.  Perhaps the revolution will – again – come in the form of a little book, one that might pop up on a computer screen and say this: There’s something that you really should know about.

*

First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 August 2011.  With thanks to John Clanchy and Mandy Brett.  Thanks also to Alec and Agnes, who commented on an earlier Under the Counter post about the novella and are quoted above.

Yes, I need you, well, I need your help.

I’m currently writing a feature article for The Canberra Times on the problem child of literature – the novella.  It seems to me that down the ages the novella has had a tendency to well and truly punch above its weight.  Stories like Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (1912), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) have had a massive impact on Western literature and each has very firmly found its place in the literary canon.  But are they long short stories or short novels?  For example, my 1993 Arrow Classic edition of The Old Man and the Sea contains references to this amazing gem being a short story, a long short story, and a novel.  It’s a bit like a motor-bike manufacturer describing its latest model as a mono-cycle, a very fast mono-cycle, and an open-air rocket on wheels.

I’m intrigued about all this because by some extraordinary miracle I’ve written one, a novella, that is.  I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the thing other than I just sat down to tell a story and by the time I’d finished it I had 40,000-word manuscript on my desk, a manuscript, I was convinced, would have a life in the bottom drawer.  To me, Fall On Me feels like a novella because it has a focused scope, which is common to the short form of the story, but it also has narrative depth (at least I bloody well hope so), which is common to the longer form.  Further, it might have a moral purpose, but who I am to judge.

I’m also intrigued with the novella because it is such a misunderstood little beast, and I completely love misunderstood…anything really.

But enough about me.

What are your thoughts on the novella?  How would you define the thing?  When you choose fiction to read, do you prefer the expansiveness and long journey of the novel?  If you’re a fan of the novella, do you have a favourite?

Do you not care about definitions?

Do you not care at all – would you rather just go fishing?

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