John Tranter: Interviewed
John Tranter answers the Proust Questionnaire for the Quarterly Literary Review, Singapore, November 2012; Questions by Yeow Kai Chai
In November 2012 John Tranter attended the Singapore Writers’ Festival. He answered this series of questions soon afterwards. This piece is about 12 printed pages long.
The ‘Proust Questionnaire’ is a questionnaire about one’s personality, named after the French writer Marcel Proust. At the end of the nineteenth century, when Proust was still in his teens, he answered a questionnaire in an English-language confession album belonging to his friend Antoinette, daughter of future French President Félix Faure. At that time, it was popular among English families to answer such a list of questions that revealed the tastes and aspirations of the taker. The original manuscript of his answers of 1890, titled ‘by Marcel Proust himself’, was found in 1924. It was auctioned in 2003 for the sum of €102,000. The modern television host Bernard Pivot, seeing an opportunity for a writer to reveal at the same time aspects of his work and his personality, traditionally submitted his guests to the ‘Proust questionnaire’ at the end of the French broadcast «Apostrophes», and the idea of such a questionnaire has become widely popular. [Wikipedia]
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What are you reading right now?
Singapore writing, old and new. First, a generous and detailed illustrated biography-bibliography of Edwin Thumboo («Time-Travelling: A Select Annotated Bibliography»). Edwin is a senior Singapore poet who worked in academia for most of his adult life. I first met him in 1969, when he visited Australia, and I met him again after a many years in Singapore recently, in November 2012.
He has lived through some extraordinary times: occupation by the Japanese — my God, can you imagine what that was like? — the struggle against the British for independence, independence from Malaya, and over the last fifty years the struggle to grow as a multi-cultural nation free of sectarian violence. You only have to look at the region around you — Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar — to see how vital that was, both the independence and the freedom from violence and war.
And of course the freedom from corruption: Singapore should never take that for granted. We are now seeing in Sydney, the lovely city I live in, how corruption can spread across both sides of politics and ruin public life. When one side of politics is thrown out for their corrupt ways, the opposition is waiting to take their place at the trough. And that constant shifting from left to right and back again means that no long-term infrastructure projects are ever commissioned, because the other political party might benefit from them in say ten years’ time. Disgusting! Our transport, roadways and hospitals are a sickening disgrace. I sincerely envy Singapore in that regard. The British heritage is no guarantee of decency in public life.
Edwin has had a steady progress through the academic establishment in Singapore, moving from the idea of Singapore as a British colony where all the students were taught English literature on the Oxbridge model, to the new more independent university — universities, really — where the whole world is there to be studied in all its diversity.
And at the same time, I am reading a book of poems («When the Barbarians Arrive») by the much younger Singapore poet Alvin Pang, whom I had the pleasure of talking with on stage during the 2012 Singapore Writers’ Festival. Like me he has never been an academic but has worked at a number of occupations, and like me he has taken on influences from Britain (where he studied for his higher degree) to the US where he also studied. And in Alvin’s case, he has also engaged with the vast and complex English-speaking population of East Asia, made up of over a hundred million people in dozens of different cultures.
2) If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
Hmmm. When I was an adolescent I became absorbed in the adventures of a twentieth-century character and citizen of the world — part debonair thief, part Robin Hood — hero of over one hundred stories and novels, some twenty movies, and dozens of television serial episodes. I assumed that his creator was like him — tall, slim, dark-haired, blue-eyed — and as an awkward boy growing up in the Australian bush, I somehow imagined myself into that role. When I lived and worked in Singapore in the early 1970s I used to watch my hero (played by Roger Moore) in his many television adventures: The Saint, dubbed into Cantonese, with English subtitles. That cultural mix was very strange!
His creator was born in Singapore in 1907 as Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin, a smart chap with wealthy parents who went to school in England and on to Cambridge University, where he studied Law. Unlike another famous Singaporean who studied Law at Cambridge, Leslie Bowyer Yin dropped out at the age of nineteen, during his first year, when some stories he had written had a sudden success.
He changed his name to Leslie Charteris, and went on to live a life of adventure, working as a barman, an employee in a circus, and as a merchant seaman. He prospected for gold, dived for pearls, worked in a tin mine and on a rubber plantation, toured England with a carnival, and drove a bus, and all the time he was writing. Not literature, perhaps, but entertainment that appealed to the public. He was fluent in several languages and was a gourmet cook.
Charteris eventually became an American citizen and wrote screenplays in Hollywood. He died in Britain in 1993, in his eighties, rich and famous. He had made himself into the most widely-read writer Singapore has ever produced.
Perhaps it’s time for some young Singaporean academic to write a PhD analysing his life, his immense success, and his vast output of prose. A job like that would keep you busy, and vastly entertained, for several years.
3) What is the greatest misconception about you?
Well, it’s hard for me to see, because people who meet me don’t actually meet the real me, they meet a shy person trying to look self-confident, and then they really meet not me, but their idea of me, a kind of semi-reflective glass screen onto which they project their idea of me, gleaned from a bit of gossip and some lines of my poems which may have been misunderstood. And they often don’t tell me what they think of me, in case I should bite them.
But there is also a false rumour that should be knocked on the head right now. I have never had an affair with the French actress Catherine Deneuve.
For a start I don’t speak French, for another thing Ms Deneuve wouldn’t have anything to do with a person like me, a ‘péquenaud’ with a disappointing bedside manner, and finally I dislike her 1964 film «Les Parapluies de Cherbourg», filmed on over-coloured Eastman stock, and which replaces dialogue with operatic singing, a disaster when the day-to-day operations of a motor garage are the focus of such beautifully-sung lines as ‘Pass me the spanner, please.’
4) Name one living author and one dead author you most identify with, and tell us why.
Living author: I can’t really identify with anyone, because they’re not me and would resent my inserting myself into their life. But I do like and respect the US poet John Ashbery. He has influenced my writing, and is a generous and tactful friend.
A dead author: William Somerset Maugham, perhaps. And he has a connection with Singapore. I loved his writing when I was thirteen. I had developed the mumps when I was staying at my aunt’s house in Nowra, a hundred miles from my own home, and there was nothing else to read except some mystery stories and a two-volume Maugham Collected Stories. I read all of the short stories and fell in love with his skilled command of English. Later on I found that some writers and critics looked down their noses at his English because he was very famous and rich because of his stories and novels and plays, so he must have written slush to please the public.
And then I learned that he too had a stammer, which he changed (in an autobiographical novel) into a club foot. I wonder whether — should he have written about Lord Byron — whether he might have changed Byron’s club foot into a stammer.
Then I found out that he was gay, and secretive, and jealous, and vain, and vicious, and cruel, and that when he became old — very old — he took the Swiss Monkey Gland Treatment and lived to a great old age — he could have met a young Proust at the start of his life, and a raddled Kerouac towards the end — but though his body lived on, his mind went, and he took to shitting behind the sofa. Well, I’m not like that, I hope. I identify with his early writing, not the life.
5) Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I used to worry about it, when I had gone for a while without writing something glorious and eternal. What an idiot! It’s a relief not to have to worry about writing poetry for a while, so enjoy it while you can. Soon enough you’ll begin worrying about poetry again, and the holiday will be over.
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
A combination of indefatigable industry and an immense, dazzling talent. That’s about it. Oh, a touch of modesty helps, so that other writers don’t hate you so much, out of jealousy.
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
Well, this is fairly common among Australians, and among many other people too, so there’s nothing special about it, but I deplore bullshit. Gush, insincerity, fake passion, slyness, being a little too clever, acting manipulative, overdone sincerity, overdone humility, blah, blah… all that bullshit stuff that people use to forge ahead when they don’t actually have much talent. Most people can smell it a mile off, but some people — often arts bureaucrats, for obvious reasons — just beg for it. What can you do? Write well, that’s all, and turn your back on the bullshit artists. Every Alexander Pope must have his Colley Cibber, but you don’t have to be nice to him.
8) Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Sure. The Hollywood scriptwriter Tommy Thompson once gave this advice to aspiring writers, after thinking carefully for a while. ‘Every day,’ he said, ‘no matter what else you do, get dressed.’
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…..
…went to Hurlstone Agricultural High School, a government boarding school near Sydney, and in the final high school exams, failed Agriculture. Though I had grown up on a farm and could drive tractors and all that. I liked the machinery, I just disliked farming.
Oh, I failed English at university, too, the first time I tried it. And I dropped out of Architecture I. One disappointment after another. And then my father died when I was nineteen. So the decade of my life from sixteen to twenty-five was a catalog of misery, really. I couldn’t wait to become old and famous, and leave all that behind. Unfortunately, that took fifty years.
10) At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
A funny action thriller with a touch of distant tragedy in the background, with two sub-themes, one about food (the hero is always breaking off in mid-adventure for a masala dosai, perhaps) and another sub-text about being kind to animals.
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
I once read that some sensitive soul once said that ‘swallow’ seemed to them the most beautiful word in English. That lovely swooping flight of the little vulnerable bird through the English twilight over a dusky lawn… then their friend said ‘What, do you mean what you do when you have a gobbet of phlegm in your throat?’ and the magic was quite gone. Words only gain their ambience from their surroundings, in a large cultural sense.
But, for what it’s worth, I like the words ‘deliquescent’ and ‘sparkle’ (I think of beautiful gems in a lovely range of colours), and I think ‘phlegm’ is pretty bad. The ‘ph’ and the silent ‘g’ are disturbing. But that’s the thing, again, not the word.
12) Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: knife, bookkeeper and fortune cookie.
The bookkeeper’s fortune — lookie, lookie! —
was to love the knife, and hate the cookie.
Fortune Cookie: ‘You’ll die by your own hand and blade’,
and the bookkeeper’s knife ensured the prophecy was paid.
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
According to poet Stephen Spender, the German romantic poet Friedrich Schiller liked to have a smell of rotten apples, concealed beneath his desk, under his nose when he was composing poetry, but my tastes are less eccentric: something to write with, a laptop, or a desktop computer, or pencil and paper, fountain pen and paper. An infallible memory helps, and a fertile imagination, and I like a cup of coffee to wake me up in the morning…
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
Early in the morning, as several writing manuals will tell you. That vague eidetic period before you’re fully awake is rich with dream fragments, and the conscious mind with its policeman attitude to spelling, grammar and common sense is half asleep. I write some interesting material, half awake, but I find I write gibberish just as often. If I have a shower first, the magic is usually all gone.
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soirée, and why?
Let’s see… Wonder Woman, for one. And Gertrude Stein. The ever-optimistic Wonder Woman would exhort Ms Stein, whose mien was generally morose, to take up exercise — jogging, or barbells, perhaps — and lose some weight, and Ms Stein would counter by trying to teach Wonder Woman the various conjugations in French of the verb ‘to write’ (d’écrire, and so on) and after dinner would offer her some ‘special cigarettes’ spiced with a forbidden drug.
The third guest Friedrich Nietzsche would drink more of the Alsatian Reisling than is good for him and would explicate his «The Twilight of the Gods» (Götzen-Dämmerung, 1888) in a droning monotone, the central thesis of which is his boast: ‘I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground and too petty — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind…. The only excuse for God is that he doesn’t exist.’
Wonder Woman, who fought on the side of the Allies in World War Two and is a fervent Jehovah’s Witness, would challenge him to justify the excesses of the Third Reich, while Ms Stein — smoking one of her ‘special cigarettes’ on her own — would observe a resentful silence.
16) You lived and worked in Singapore in the early 1970s. What do you remember most about that time, and what do you think about Singapore now?
[I passed through en route to Europe in 1966, and on the return journey in 1967. And later, I worked there in 1971 and 1972.] Yes, I was there for over a year, and my first child, my daughter Kirsten, was born in Singapore’s Mount Alvernia Hospital in Thomson Road, in 1972. I hated the heat and humidity, and I still do. That’s genetic, I think. I’m partly Scottish, and like my mother I far prefer cold dry climates.
I thought it was a great time, but then I was young, and perhaps I am remembering my youth, not so much its setting. And there was a strong sense of the people building a nation almost from nothing, and a sense of the real danger of sectarian violence that had so badly scarred nearby countries.
The local people seemed very different to Australians like me. They worked and saved and slept, and they had little time for leisure pursuits like reading or writing. There was little poetry, and what there was seemed subsumed under the academic study of English verse. At that time in Australia, poets were turning away from a university career — I did, that was why I was in Singapore [for the third time]. I had dropped out of my English Fourth-year Honours year to take the job as a publisher’s editor that brought me to Singapore.
So I felt somewhat isolated as a Westerner and as a poet. It was very different to the way it is now: there was no thought of the government supporting a literary festival, as they have done now for many years. Edwin Thumboo helped to start that practice a quarter of a century ago, with the Singapore Writers Week in 1986.
In those days the society felt somewhat repressive in a quiet way: they made you cut your hair short, for one thing. But it seemed that the people wanted that; they wanted and needed security before anything else. And that’s understandable, when you look at the alternatives.
The food was and still is thrilling, with cuisines from a dozen areas of China, and Malaya, and India, not to mention the various European imports. And the Australian dollar was strong; one Australian dollar bought you three and a half Singapore dollars, so a filling meal could be had at Newton Circus (the outdoor hawker stalls sold wonderful food) say for fifty cents Australian. That was a tenth of what it cost in Sydney, and the food in Singapore was much better!
Now Singapore is larger and busier, with three times the population. It was about two and a half million back then; it’s close to six million now. I remember taking black and white photos of the amazing construction work being done in the late sixties when I passed through by ship: women in black pyjamas and conical bamboo hats carrying baskets of cement over their shoulders on poles. They were Hakkas, I was told.
This week, in November 2012, looking out my hotel window, I could see ten large digging machines and pile-drivers working day and night at the same task. The sheer scale of road and apartment building is almost terrifying.
And Orchard Road, the main shopping centre, is like a dystopian vision of a future gone too far. It reminds me of the scene in the movie «Blade Runner», where the Harrison Ford character is eating at a busy roadside stall while milling crowds push past and giant video billboards illuminate the rainy sky. Except that Orchard Road is much busier and more crowded and futuristic.
They say Singapore is shopping and eating to an extreme degree. Though now the art and writing is confidently contemporary too, when in the early 1970s it seemed less professional and unsure of itself. There is a busy ‘do it’ attitude now, which is good to see.
17) What would you write on your own tombstone?
‘J’ai perdu ma vie’.
It’s from the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, ‘The Song of the Highest Tower’, 1872. ‘I have wasted my life’. You can read about the poem at the foot of my homepage, here.
But of course it has been well worth it. I’d do it again, given the chance.
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