Friday, September 12, 2008

John Hughes' The Idea of Home



Giramondo Publishing; 224pp
Sydney, Australia 2004
ISBN 1-920882-04-9
www.giramondopublishing.com




I know John Hughes. Or rather the boy near man he was when he first entered the University of Newcastle (in Australia) and an academic clamouring grew around him. A lithe, slightly bitter-tongued idealist, his dark Ukrainian looks and ascetic taste slotted in perfectly with the cold waves of post-punk music breaking over us at the time, English bands of the late ‘70s like The Fall and Joy Division whose bleakly romantic influence would refract through local groups like Pel Mel, Swami Binton and an entire scene of work-shirted students and their amphetamined associates.

In The Idea of Home, Hughes writes that in his own imagination, “I was a character Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky had created, I lived in their novels as their characters lived in me.” Despite the black burning energy he emanated it always seemed there was actually something much lighter, kinder, and more open, if finally shielded away about him: the Cessnock country boy wildly in love with art, music and literature; the individual who didn’t really fit the scene.

Now through this book I meet him again, and the missing pieces of an old puzzle are put before me. Hughes would go on to win the University Medal and the Shell Scholarship that would take him from Australia to Cambridge in the U.K. But it all went awry. Hughes writes of finding his life in Cambridge fraudulent, of how he turned down the opportunity to complete a PhD on Coleridge and ‘the life in letters’ that should have gone with it.

Once feted as the young genius about town, Hughes became a self-proclaimed failure and proud of it. He washes back up where he started at the University of Newcastle, a disenchanted tutor who knows he has let the home side down. Eventually even that insult to his promise loses its negative glow, and Hughes leaves for Sydney. There he spends a few years obsessed with writing a novel about a serial killer who murders only academics. It’s a faintly comical obsession, as Hughes well knows, though he never tips his hand to say so. It’s also a sign of how intense Hughes can be. A whole unpublished novel borne on spite and anger! That’s a lot of exorcising, man.

What do we make of failure in our lives? How much of it is a choice? What do these choices say about us as a human being, about our existential metabolism, the forces of family, history, place and culture that have shaped us? What do we remember? What do we forget? And which of these energies, remembering or forgetting, is the more vital?

Hughes dives deep into himself for genuine answers. And as the title to his first published book, The Idea of Home, suggests, he mulls over that cliché ‘home is where the heart is’ to look at his migrant family background, his childhood growing up in the valley mining community of Cessnock, and the rise and fall of his academic star at Newcastle and then Cambridge. What emerges, strangely, is actually a love story, perhaps best summed up by an epigraph from the poet Carlos Drummond De Andrade that Hughes uses to launch his book: “the strange idea of family travelling through the flesh.”

I’m reminded of Bob Dylan and his line about “a chain of flashing images” when I read Hughes. The author has a way of conjuring up moments from his life with a vivid intensity - then brilliantly reflecting on them, as if his mind were playing on them as a guitar player might tease out themes around a single chord.

Hughes is beautifully clear and logical yet there are moments when the rationality feels unconvincing, as if the depth to his analysis (causing me to re-read some passages at least two or three times) doesn’t really matter. It’s just what he feels. It’s stuff he can’t know. And all the thoughts he has about whatever happened to him aren’t nearly so strong as the intensity of those moments and how he conjures them in words. This can lead to an opaque quality. A contrary power that smudges his great writing with meditative considerations that are just very, very good, and finally no match for their mysterious source, a schematic tension that probably goes to Hughes’ own conflicted identity: writer versus academic, Romantic versus essayist.

An excerpt on what he inherited from his father, a much quieter presence in his life, compared to what he gained from his grandfather, who stalks the pages of The Idea of Home’s as well as the backyards of Cessnock “like a tiger in a cage”, shows how remarkable Hughes can be when he is on:

“While my father talks I say nothing. The beer has made us close and I remember a school night in Maitland, or perhaps in Singleton, watching his greyhounds race and eating a pie and shaking vinegar on my chips. The dogs sleek and steaming in their wire muzzles, the mechanical rabbit they never caught. I remember the cold and the rings around the floodlights and the men shouting the dogs names. I remember being carried into the house, the warmth of my father’s body, his sports coat itchy against my face. Why do such things stay? I loved my grandfather but his influence was intellectual; he talked to me and I learnt about things: ideas, politics, history. The things I learned from him [my father] you couldn’t get from talking (how do you teach openness, responsibility, curiosity, loyalty, respect, integrity, attachment, temper?). They were inherited bodily, transferred like rubbings: his mannerisms, gestures, actions, values. The things I do whose origins I cannot see. That I have to clean my shoes, for example, whenever I return home from a trip while my father cannot leave the house without doing the same.”

In passages like these, and they are numerous in The Idea of Home, Hughes suddenly shakes your heart as well as your head, and sends you back into your own family past, or perhaps towards it, shouting I love you and I miss you and I owe you everything. This is a great book, part of peculiarly modern genre that seems to mix memoir, essay and poetic style into something altogether fresh, contradicting the academic heritage of detachment or aloofness we might normally associate with the essay, while profoundly deepening the shallow waters of the modern-day confessional. You won’t really know yourself without reading it.

- Mark Mordue

* An edited version of this review was first published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books on December 4th, 2004
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