The Life to Come: Michelle de Kretzer

Michelle de Kretzer’s The Life to Come wasn’t a quick read. I found myself returning to it, reading it slowly. This wasn’t a fault of the book, but rather a need to chew things over, absorb what was happening. The story is broken into five sections which overlap as we follow Pippa Reynolds, an Australian writer, her friend Cassie, Cassie’s boyfriend, Sri-lankan/Scottish Ash, and translator Céleste who lives in Paris.  There are a handful of secondary characters who move in the same circle, people who belong and yet who don’t belong, people who are seeking something they can’t quite define.

This is a novel with multiple strands–a story that flows picking up and dropping off characters whose stories are continued later.  The novel opens in Australia in the late 90s with George who attends university, writes a novel at night and teaches tutorials for extra money. George would appear destined to be a main character (he isn’t), but then the plot circles its way to Pippa, a young woman who’s determined to be a writer.

The Life to Come

I suspect that many of us know Pippas. She’s not a bad person, but she’s shallow and thoughtless, and as the novel continues (where The Life to Come fits in) we see how she’s this nebulous self-construction, but at this point, she’s still young, working on her image:

George thought back to her essays: a stew of passionate opinion, mangled argument, atrocities of usage and grammar; that Credit had been the purest largesse on his part.

Pippa is never shy with her vacuous opinions:

“I love animals,” she went on.

“That must be why you eat so many of them,” said George. He didn’t intend unkindness but was opposed to illogic. Pippa’s fondness for broad, blurry statements twitched his nerves. “I love India,” she once announced, after watching a documentary on TV. She had never been there. George, who had, most certainly did not love India. He could also see that these declarations weren’t really about animals or India but about Pippa: what they proclaimed was her largeness of heart.

This is a circuitous narrative, with no clear central path (I’m reminded of Ali Smith’s Autumn) a panoramic frieze of various characters who inhabit the borders of Pippa’s life. Pippa’s friend Cassie lives with Ash, and while Cassie tries valiantly to please Ash with various Sri-lankan delights, she only, somewhat clumsily, manages to alienate him. These characters have flashes of insight regarding the future, and also retrospective moments when hazy incidents take on great significance. At one point, for example, Cassie, who loves Ash and works hard to build a life with him, even she “came close to seeing that he was only an instrument in her quest.”

Later in the novel, Pippa, further along in her self-invention project (at one point she sports a carefully angled beret) travels to Paris and meets Australian translator Céleste. Céleste, whose parents became inadvertently embroiled in Algerian politics in the 60s, is having an affair with the married Sabine, but it’s a hopeless affair based on use. But then isn’t that true of most of the relationships in this book?

There’s a quote which hits at the heart of the novel:

It had been explained to Ash that the government funded the Centre of Australian Literature after a ministerial survey of humanities graduates found that 86 percent of English majors had never read an Australian book. 

This is a novel that savagely bites at its characters while at the same time offering a sort of understanding and acceptance, as if the general human condition seems to be blundering through life, using others as they pass through our boundaries. Céleste notes that “Setting out from home, the Australians, like fortunate children, had expected to be loved,” but that the world, human nature, isn’t programmed that way.

Just as Pippa decides to become a writer before she has anything to write about, and Cassie ( a more sympathetic character) doesn’t, can’t understand Ash and his Sri Lankan experiences, things are right in front of our characters, and understanding eludes them. Yes, Australian English majors don’t read Australian books; they don’t read the very things that are in front of them, even as they pursue higher education, further knowledge, while that which is right in front of them remains ignored, of little interest, perhaps not worthy of attention. Similarly the characters here live, love and befriend other people, sharing the most intimate moments  and yet understanding eludes them. Even the title suggests looking forward, and while the plot propels us forward through the lives of its characters, there’s also the sense of these people wanting something more, waiting for what is yet to happen.

Review copy

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17 Comments

Filed under de Kretser Michelle, Fiction

17 responses to “The Life to Come: Michelle de Kretzer

  1. Interesting that Australian English majors do not read Australian books. I guess it is similar in Switzerland, French or German parts. You major in German or French but hardly ever in Swiss German or French Literature.

    • I’m not Australian, so I can’t offer firm knowledge, but I’m wondering if it’s the colonial thing. IE: British stuff is important and Aussie stuff not so much. I watched a Place to Call Home and watched the film version of Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm and there’s a worship of all things British. Making little corners of Australia into far flung bits of England. I can remember the brouhaha when Australia finally dropped God save the Q for their anthem. And about time too, I say.
      Hoping some Aussies chime in.
      This is number 4 of my Reading Australian Women challenge . I keep forgetting to put that.

  2. Re: Australian students not reading Australian books, that’s based on the fact that no Australian universities offer Australian literature studies (which was one of the reasons behind the push for Text Classics as this article attests: https://www.textpublishing.com.au/about-the-text-classics ) … though that might have changed now.

  3. That’s all changed now. When the Gerts were at university we studied all the English greats. I think American writing is probably more popular these days.
    Didn’t love the de Kretzer. Couldn’t see the point of some of the characters who made a brief appearance and Pippa didn’t really seem to have enough depth to carry the weight of the narrative. Good to read your review.

    • I was a bit shocked at the paragraph about nobody reading Australian writers. Glad that’s changed, but then even just a decade ago it was much harder to find Aussie books.

  4. Ugh. I left a long comment but WP seems to have eaten it. This article might help explain the dearth of Australians reading their own canon: https://www.textpublishing.com.au/about-the-text-classics

  5. PS forgot to say I love your review. I really struggled to write mine b cause the novel is difficult to pin down but you’ve done a brilliant job of capturing its essence, I think.

  6. Someone at Melbourne U was telling me that these days the English classics are off the menu there. It’s all Aus, American, Caribbean and African. Apart from Patrick White and now Gerald Murnane Auslit seems to struggle to find a powerful original vision. And when people get a name they seem to lose their original edge, eg Peter Carey. I wasn’t crazy about the de Kretzer either.
    Gert 2

  7. Happy to chime in here:)
    First, I loved the book, full of illuminating insights as your review shows, and I thought Pippa was a wonderful invention. Will she win the MF with it? It’s such a strong field this year, it’s impossible to say.
    Secondly, re OzLit: after a long period when English Lit was always English, there was a period of nationalism in our writing, which was then bumped aside when it was thought that our writing shouldn’t be parochial but should be more international. The cynic in me says that it was more about selling anodyne books in the lucrative US market than having a global outlook on the world. Anyway, that coincided with two things in universities: firstly that stuff got taught around themes (power, feminism, post-colonialism, whatever) rather than chronologically tracing the development of something (e.g. the novel), and secondly that the generation that grew up watching American TV on commercial channels has come to power itself.
    They probably have read an Australian novel, it’s hard to pass Year 12 without doing so, but the hype and the buzz are around American books so when pressed to name one, that’s what they’ll remember, or failing that, Harry Potter…

  8. Finally catching up with my blog backlog, which seems to be the story of my life these days.

    I will finally be reading this in July when my reading group does it. I’m looking forward to it.

    The issue of Aussies reading Aus lit is a fraught one. When my son was in Year 11, the first book they did was John Steinbeck’s Of mice and men. I asked the teacher why not an Australian book. The answer was pragmatic – the school had large quantities of the Steinbeck, so that’s they would teach it seemed until they wore out. And then there’s always the issue of teacher training. A vicious circle, eh? They teach what they have learnt and those students go on to teach what they’ve learnt …

    I think Lisa has a point about the teaching style and approach. I suspect this sort of teaching by themes is not confined to Australia. Certainly, it was what I saw in my daughter’s curriculum when she did her exchange year at the University of Virginia which is one of the USA’s leading state universities I believe. These things come in fashions I suppose. I did look at our local ANU’s website and found a course on Rethinking Australian Literature (which I hope presupposes it’s preceded by courses which have given the students a grounding to rethink!? But, I’m not sure). Anyhow, I was interested in the example reading list:
    Melissa Lucashenko, Mullumbimby
    Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career
    Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
    Patrick White, The Twyborn Affair
    Christos Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods

    Interesting … and certainly suggestive of diversity.

  9. Yes that is a diverse list.
    There are a lot of thematic courses in American universities but also solid literature courses from a handful of countries.
    Do you think that colonialism had anything to do with the sad non-reading of Australian literature?

  10. Interesting conversation about Australians studying their own literature. I wonder how it goes is Canada and especially in Québec.

    I don’t think this one is for me. I’m having difficulties with Australian books because of the language, I think.

  11. I’ve now read the book, and I enjoyed it too. There are so many angles to look at this from, and I only covered a couple.

    Really enjoyed the thread of your post, Guy.

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