City Paper is not for tourists
When Frank Moorhouse suggests “a leisurely Friday lunch,” I’m not surprised—lunch, after all, is what first made Moorhouse famous. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the afternoon meal provided the Australian writer with the material to launch a career. In the avant-garde circles of Sydney, lunch with Moorhouse and company was no bite-size affair: It was, in a word new to those times, a lifestyle. Talk of revolutionary politics wound round the table. Oceans of wine were drunk. And as the afternoons stretched into evening, the revelers, giddy with the new freedoms of sexual liberation, went home with each other in various combinations. Moorhouse kept notes on the goings on, and the books that came out of those extravaganzas—Days of Wine and Rage, Room Service, and the remarkable short story collection, The Americans, Baby—established his literary reputation as a gifted prose stylist and a ruthless observer of the new cultural and sexual manners.
The heady days of social revolution are past, but Moorhouse still has a knack for transforming the midday feed into a spectacular, almost orgiastic event. Our lunch was to be an interview about his stunning latest novel, Grand Days, and the research for its sequel, which has brought him to Washington for several months. But we are two martinis and a bottle of wine to the good before I even flick on my tape recorder. The conversation, which had been flowing as quickly as the wine, stalls once the machine is stationed like a vulture between us. After an extended silence, we simultaneously blurt out that the tape should go, and for not the last time during our introductory bacchanal—three venues, six kinds of drink, eight hours—Moorhouse lets out a quick and hearty laugh.
These days, the 55-year-old Moorhouse has reason to be cheerful. Four years in the making after a decade of research, Grand Days is a tour de force that has silenced the critics who wondered if he had the goods to pull off a Big Novel. Its sprawling 600-plus pages have met with highest praise both here and abroad, and the critical consensus seems to be that Moorhouse has finally made good on the promise of his earlier work. While the previous books revealed a writer of considerable gifts—not least of all, a refreshing and unflinching honesty about the complexities of male sexual desire—they also relied on both prurient interest and formal experimentation to provide much of the kick. Moorhouse’s style was dubbed “discontinuous narrative,” a kind of multiple-points-of-view, cubist approach to storytelling largely indebted to Hemingway, an acknowledged influence on his formation as a writer.
Grand Days is of an altogether different order, a fully realized work of the imagination that a number of reviewers (including myself in New York Newsday) compared favorably with George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The story is told from the point of view of Edith, an idealistic, young, small-town Australian woman who comes to Europe in the ’20s to work at the doomed League of Nations and collides with the swirling forces of modernity. It is a brilliant meditation on borders and boundaries, those drawn on maps and the more or less ineluctable ones within the human psyche. And though you mightn’t think a 4-inch-thick novel about a bureaucrat at a failed political institution would have immediate sex appeal, even for Washingtonians, the staid London Sunday Times said of his heroine: “[I]magine her on her knees in Paris, marveling at the taste of a black musician’s penis, not a woman who routinely performs fellatio, but a woman who can name fellatio among the acts she has performed; and now imagine her story told by a writer who lacks nothing of George Eliot’s dutifulness or gravity, but who knows how droll it is, how poignantly comic, to
hope to live a good and serious life.”
“I’d already been at work on the book for some time,” Moorhouse recalls, “when I met a Canadian in France who had a living relative with the same name as someone who’d worked at the League. When he wrote me back a year later, and said, “Yes, it’s her,’ I flew over immediately. I didn’t want to write ahead of time to tell her what I was up to for fear she’d say no. Her name was Mary McGeachy, and once you got her started talking the most amazing stories would pour out. Here was a woman, after all, who had been there; I was touching a hand that had touched the political figures of the book. She was 91 years old, and each day I would have to get reintroduced to her. And she would say, “I don’t know what I can tell you, you should talk to some of the others.’ Of course,” he adds, “she was the last one [from the staff of the League] left.”
Friends say Moorhouse was obsessed with this book, and while his historical research was characteristically meticulous—“I’m not the type of writer to have historical characters do what they didn’t do,” he declares—Grand Days displays the imaginative power of a writer addressing some of his innermost concerns while at the peak of his form. Moorhouse has surely never been shy about mining his experiences for his writing. “He was writing provocatively with authenticity and embarrassing honesty about how it was then,” critic Brian Kiernan told an Australian magazine about Moorhouse’s early volumes, in which the young characters groped each other as much as they grappled with their notions of political revolution. His last novel, Forty-Seventeen, drew on a painful failed romance with a woman Moorhouse met when he was 40 and she 17.
But the central themes in Grand Days—the awakening of the soul amid the forces of social upheaval, the flawed naiveté of political idealism, the constant redrawing of the map of the self and the world—resonate with the life Moorhouse has lived. Edith’s collision with emerging modernity parallels his own bout with the age of Aquarius, and the sexual ambiguity of her cross-dressing, bisexual lover touches on Moorhouse’s own explorations to find out who he was and what, exactly, he wanted. “I’m comfortably heterosexual now,” says the writer. “But I had homosexual relationships then, very important ones. I was in bed with men.”
His empathy with the erotic desires and drives of his characters gives the sexual writing a freshness and immediacy that few other writers on boudoir behavior attain. One reveiwer noted that Moorhouse seems to become Edith, obliterating the distinction between author and character in much the same fashion that his characters blur the lines between their inner and outer selves—and between what’s acceptable and what is taboo. All boundaries are crossable, he implies, and the quest for one’s own personal rule-book is an essential feature of our lives. It is the sort of hard-won truth eked out over a lifetime of living.
“I gave this book my all,” he said last year when Grand Days first appeared in Australia. “There is nothing left undone that I should have done.” For all the hard labor, though, Moorhouse also betrays the signs of a life spent cohabiting with pleasure, if not contentment. His face is ruddy with vitality, tinged just a bit with martini. His frame is thick and solid, and his clothes—a green wool jacket and khakis—look stylish and disaffectedly cool on his middle-age frame. When we decide to adjourn our meal and continue with cocktails at a private club, tie required, Moorhouse cheerfully strolls into a downtown store, selects his cravat, and knots it at the counter. And when I suggest a follow-up meeting, he readily agrees.
Once again we make a date for Friday. Moorhouse has just met with a Hollywood scriptwriter who’s very interested in the rights to Grand Days. Should the deal go down and the film be produced, the dollars would stretch into seven figures. Not bad money for the anarchist who taunted censors in his wild days with homoerotica and a liberal use of the F-word, but Moorhouse remains nonchalant. “He told me Nicole Kidman loved the book,” he says archly. “Which means that some idiot described it to her in two sentences.” As he starts to speculate on what she might know about the League of Nations, a pompous English fellow chimes in. Adorned in a three-piece suit, sporting a thick, bushy white mustache, and speaking diplomatic French with some other gentlemen, he might have stepped from the novel’s pages.
“A writer, eh?” the Brit inquires, “what’s the name of your book?” Moorhouse, who has been eating and sleeping diplomacy now for over a decade, tactfully heads off the question and gets the gentleman to start wheezing about the World Bank. Within minutes they are off on a discussion about Beirut and colonialism and the character of the Irish, and I sense that my interview will once again disappear into the ethereal mist of conversations lost to history, remembered only by the participants. It seems apt enough as a metaphor for Moorhouse’s grand, historical enterprise, but some bit of terror must have flashed for a second in my eyes. He notices it, and puts things as right as he can.
“Your editors will just have to understand,” he smiles, generously extending to me his own mea culpa for a lifetime of conviviality. “You’re someone who does lunch.”