romance

Every man has a genius, though it is not always discoverable. Least of all when choked by the trivialities of daily existence. But in this disturbing country, so far as I have become acquainted with it already it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite.

This passage occurs early on in Patrick White’s novel Voss, which I’m currently reading for the first time. It’s a feverish vision of nineteenth-century Australian exploration, and, I discover, a modernist classic which put Australia on the literary map on publication in 1957. In fact I had never heard of it before it was given to me by my Australian sister-in-law for my birthday last month — meant to celebrate my departing America to live in Sydney.

I’ve been here a week and a half. My wife and I have been busy setting up our apartment. It’s the Christmas season and the start of summer. I’ve found that Australia basically shuts down for the holidays and it’s not a great time to look for work. I started reading Voss mostly because I needed something to read and it was there in my luggage. But it has gripped me well enough.

Angela may have chosen Voss simply because it’s an antipodean classic — she’s actually given me several over the years, including The Fatal Shore and Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. (She’s helped me immensely with my homework before migrating.) She might have chosen another book and I might have chosen something else for inspiration. But things are what they are and it’s a fine book to be reading right now. It’s kind of wonderful to be sitting in our sunny living room here on the North Shore, listening to the buzzing of cicadas and the passing trains, and immersing myself in White’s fragmented dream of that hot, difficult other time, his sarcastic sketches of that colonial nightmare. Feeling how the noble and ridiculous Voss is bound some troublesome impulse, some inner hardness, to get lost here. Even to be destroyed here.

You will be burnt up most likely, you will have the flesh torn from your bones, you will be tortured probably in many horrible and primitive ways, but you will realize that genius of which you sometimes suspect you are possessed, and of which you will not tell me you are afraid.

Not many souls are given a chance to choose a country. Most people are born in a place and live their lives there. Many never consider leaving; many more think of it but never act. Still others may try and fail.

I am aware of how very lucky I am. I came to this place almost five years ago and fell in love with it. In the years since I decided I wanted to live here; and my conviction only grew as I read about it and thought about it and talked to other Australians. I considered all the factors, weighed options, compared the costs of living and the crime rates. And now I do live here. It all makes perfect sense. Until I think about it again.

It occurs to me that being born to a nation is like having an arranged marriage. Throughout history most marriages were arranged, because that is what suited society the most. Then romantic love began taking precedence over class, money, and property as the main determining factor. Whether romance is up to the task is perhaps up for discussion, considering the colossal rate of failure.

Most people will of course immediately dismiss the idea of arrangement as barbarism. I’ve always thought otherwise, always found it a pretty sound practice. For one thing there’s nothing intrinsic about it that should deny or foil true love. You don’t get to pick your parents or your siblings, yet there is a good chance you love them with all your heart. The same must be true of our native countries.

There are so many things we are born into: our bodies, our families, our nations. We don’t get to choose much. I chose another nation to be my home. Is it a kind of romance?

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