Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with John Tranter
By Yeow Kai Chai
John Tranter is one of Australia's literary lions and its most highly-awarded poet.
His book, Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected (2006), won four major state awards, and his latest book, Starlight: 150 Poems (2010), won the Melbourne Age Book of the Year poetry award and the Queensland Premier's Award for Poetry.
He founded the influential online literary periodical Jacket in 1997 and granted it to the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. Founder of the Australian Poetry Library he also keeps a journal at johntranter.net and a homepage at johntranter.com.
A guest at the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2012, he wrote his answers to these questions while flying home to Sydney at 40,000 feet, across the darkened and empty continent of Australia.
1) What are you reading right now?
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 50 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.
And of course 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 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?
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that his creator was in fact 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.
He eventually became an American citizen and wrote screenplays in Hollywood. He died in Britain in 1993, in his 80s, 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?
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 'pequenaud' 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 lines as "Pass me the spanner, please."
4) Name one living author and one dead author you most identify with, and tell us why.
A dead author: William Somerset Maugham, perhaps. And he has a connection with Singapore. I loved his writing when I was 13. I had developed the mumps when I was staying at my aunt's house in Nowra, 100 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 clubfoot. I wonder whether – should he have written about Lord Byron – whether he might have changed Byron's clubfoot 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?
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
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?
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
10) At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
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! –
Fortune Cookie: "You'll die by your own hand and blade,"
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
The third guest Friedrich Nietzsche would drink more of the Alsatian Riesling than is good for him and would explicate his The Twilight Of The Gods (Gotzen-Dammerung, 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 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. 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 say for 50 cents Australian. That was a 10th 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 over six million now. I remember taking black and white photos of the amazing construction work being done in the late 1960s 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?
But of course it has been well worth it. I'd do it again, given the chance.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013