The Library of Shadows

Ondaatje, Southall, Knausgaard, Salinger reflect the art of darkness

I have been thinking a lot lately about books that hurt me, about those times in my life when I’ve been shaken by what I read. How painful and valuable those experiences have been, and also beautiful, which may well be a darker level of appreciation to descend into. How books that mess me up are still probably the most important reading experiences I can have.

This heart of darkness to our literary lives is not much spoken of these days. After all, something ‘‘negative’’ isn’t just emotionally repelling, or aesthetically and morally questionable — it’s bad for marketing.

Of course we also like to think of literature doing us good, improving our minds, even redeeming our souls. But bad books — as in troubling, shadowy, strange and confronting books — can have their place in your life too. Make no mistake about it.

When I think these thoughts an image always comes to me. It is late afternoon and there I am, at the corner of Bourke and Cleveland streets in Sydney’s Surry Hills. I am in my mid-30sand I have just finished Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter.

The switching on of streetlights and car headlights, the gauzy monoxide air and peak-hour rush is overwhelming. Ondaatje’s ‘‘jazz novel’’ has left me feeling as if a large plate-glass window has been smashed right in front of me. There is no inside and outside any more. The world is coming in, violent, discordant. This must be what a nervous breakdown is like. And this is how Coming Through Slaughter makes me feel: broken to pieces.

The metaphor is a hangover from the novel and a climactic fight scene in which cornet player and sometime barber Buddy Bolden, a prehistoric New Orleans precursor to Louis Armstrong, begins to go mad.

Bolden precipitates a fight with a customer that sees him pulled through his own barbershop window, out brawling into a stormy street, “grey with thick ropes of rain bouncing on the broken glass”. He ends up sitting on a chair that has come through the window with him, a physical and psychic mess, “the rain coming into my head”.

But it’s not just that this fight scene’s furies haven’t left me. It’s the entire book: its jump-cut prose-poetry and streams of consciousness, its language of riffing and disintegration.

Within a half-hour my senses will right themselves. It will take somewhat longer to end a fragmenting relationship.

Once again a disturbing book has forced me to change direction: I see that to be free I must destroy what I know; but if I destroy it there are no guarantees I will find freedom, let alone happiness.

Yet Coming Through Slaughter is inside me now, guiding me as surely as a siren singing. And I am grateful for the trouble it brings.

I look at the books on my shelves. For all the artistry and beauty, all the philosophy and poetry, another force takes shape like some plague cloud condensing from their spines.

Coming Through Slaughter, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, Charles Bukowski’s Women, WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Roberto Bolano’s 2666… on and on, each engaged with its own particular hell, each pulling me in as deep as they can.

One would like to say such books deal in catharsis, but the truth is they plunge us into a shadow land and leave us there to find our own way out again. Years after I read these books, in some cases even decades later, they come alive as if I could still be turning the pages, my fingertips detecting their terrible vitality.

Even the supposedly sweet books, the children’s books I grew up with, the ones I really love, suggest something of this dark energy. From then until now my journey has been entirely subjective, of course. But a few glimpses into a biographical reading list may be familiar to many readers, and highlight what I am saying here. In the end, we each have a different library of shadows stored somewhere inside of us.

I could easily have begun with a celebration of the melancholic shafts that so deepened fantasy works such as CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, EB White’s Charlotte’s Web and Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter. Standard primary school texts that serve as initiations into sorrow and death, beautifully framed as they may be. Their correct weight — if that is the measurement we should use for children’s stories — favouring magic over loss.

When I was a boy during the 1960s, none brought me further along on that magical journey — yet so strongly back to earth — as Australian author Ivan Southall (pictured right). In what would come to be defined as young adult novels, Southall dealt with subjects such as a bushfire (Ash Road), a plane crash (To the Wild Sky) and a fog-bound road accident (Finn’s Folly), adventures where the agency of children, beyond the reach of adults, was his classic theme.

Now recognised as a pioneer of local settings and sensibilities, Southall was excoriated for his unduly heavy subject matter, a predicament that seems a constant for children’s writers of any era. For all the grand elemental drama in his work, there was always an intimate core, a sense of children as frightened, mixed-up, isolated survivors in a landscape that was very Australian. It was this physical closeness that made his books so affecting.

“Real adventure belongs to us,” Southall wrote in his essay collection A Journey of Discovery: On Writing for Children. “Being ordinary and inept are acceptable qualities, they give meaning to achievement. There must be contrasts within oneself. One must know weakness to know strength. One must be foolish to be wise. One must be scared to be brave. Adventure is simply experience; the mistakes often enough meaning more than the success.”

He knew what he was talking about. Southall was a decorated pilot during World War II. He had also written a nonfiction book for adults called Softly Tread the Brave (reissued, re-edited and retitled as Seventeen Seconds for teenage readers today) detailing the bravery of bomb defusal experts in England during the Blitz.

Originally subtitled A Triumph Over Terror, Devilry, and Death by Mine Disposal Officers John Stuart Mould, GC, GM, and Hugh Randal Syme, GC, GM and Bar., the story focuses on two Australian officers working in London — Mould and Syme — who survived near-suicidal duties. Sure, there was plenty of derring-do, and yes, the heroes of the book made it through alive, but this was rather like Biggles thrust inside The Hurt Locker. Officer after officer would be blown apart and killed trying to defuse the bombs before time ran out. I was hooked from an opening description of them as “thin men” (thin like me, I felt) who “had graves, but no bodies”. I’d continue to learn, chapter after chapter, about death as something sudden, random and answerless.

On the very first page Mould takes an emotion-choked phone call about an explosion that has killed an officer. It ends with angry, grieving words, “There ain’t no God, I tell ya.” My guess is Softly Tread the Brave had been stocked on the basis of Southall’s glowing, if gritty, reputation as a local children’s author. I doubt my Catholic primary school librarian would have approved of a 10-year-old in thrall to such mortally intense material. But I was ripe for it.

My grandfather had died the year before from cancer, and though both my grandparents had been deeply involved in my upbringing I have only one memory left: him standing smiling in a doorway after a day’s work, wearing his railway guard’s pants and braces and a singlet.

Actually, there is a second, less pleasant memory. Pa on his deathbed, his skin grey as paper, asking me to kiss him goodbye: I run from the room in tears, and that’s it, within seconds he is gone. Now I wonder about my lack of memories, about death as a kind of bomb that blew him out of my life and out of my mind. In reaching back to Softly Tread the Brave, my intuition is that despite all the deaths Southall depicted, I took courage in his two military heroes’ ability to carry on, and move forward because there was no other move to make. Yes, I loved Southall’s children’s writing, but I can’t guarantee now that Softly Tread the Brave is any better than an old war movie. It just affected me, caught me at the right moment. I often feel I owe Southall. That he gave me some kind of urgency.

My inclination since then has been to resist overly tidy and positive endings, or any crowd-pleasing concessions to something emotionally ‘‘up’’. If only for a gut feeling it is unbelievable or, worse still, a lie.

In all my reading the only great novel I can recall with a persuasively happy ending is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. No doubt there are other examples, but the whole point of what I am trying to say here is remembering, and therefore being truly marked.

A happy ending, of course, can be the saddest thing of all. Not because it is crudely dishonest or manipulative but because it is permeated by a wish more than a belief. This longing wounds the reader, and perhaps the author too, precisely because it reminds us of the gap between how things tend to be and how persistent our hopes remain.

Some part of Mockingbird’s appeal resides in that paradoxical aftertaste, though Lee’s vision is so true, it reassures us every time we return to Atticus Finch, his daughter Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill in ‘‘Maycomb County’’, Alabama.

As Lee famously wrote — transforming the southern lawyer Finch into a paragon of fatherhood and racial tolerance, and the child narrator Scout into an equally heroic storyteller along the way — “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”

Great books do this every time. Which is why it’s not really the nature of endings that concerns me here, though endings do matter, but this larger sense of entering into someone else’s consciousness and being changed by that experience.

To Kill a Mockingbird plays the reader a harmonious tune as love and nobility get the better of prejudice and fear in what we sense is the last great summer of an extraordinary child — and the beginning of an adult writer’s life we recognise as that of Lee herself.

The novel is so complete in this way, it is almost a relief Lee never published another book. Until the recent discovery of a manuscript entitled Go Set a Watchman. Though written before To Kill a Mockingbird, it tells the story of Scout as a mature woman returning to visit her ageing father Atticus. The looming release of Go Set a Watchman is therefore a frightening prospect, primarily for concerns over the quality of the writing and why an ailing Lee never published it before; and, second, for the possibility we may have to witness Scout’s adult disenchantment in the wake of her childhood’s radiant truths.

Perhaps the most famous conflict between bleak endings and visionary radiance in our recent literature would be McCarthy’s concluding passages from The Road. Father and son have trudged through a post-apocalyptic landscape of forbidding misery. The book’s prayer-like minimalism and intoned pace take us only one way: down.

But when the inevitable comes, McCarthy (unusually, given his bloodthirsty and pessimistic track record as an author) offers us consolation and cryptic, neo-Christian imagery: atavistic memories of trout in a mountain stream and things that “hummed with mystery”.

This ending, much argued over for its believability as well as its meaning, seems to suggest we are hard-wired into a primal dreaming that blesses us and unites us with nature. And if nature is all but destroyed, well then our very existence, our blood memory, can be a last stand against that greater destruction. In helping his son survive an apocalypse, the father sustains this sacred accord and thereby hope and beauty may continue. Whether we believe this is a matter of individual faith. I know I wanted to. Deep down I did not.

Such desperately mixed feelings only made me want to love my children better than I ever have, and hold them close indeed. Which may well have been McCarthy’s ‘‘message’’ to himself, and thereby my painful good fortune during the period in which I read his book. That I should do this while I can; that my children will be the ones who eventually hold me, not with their arms, but with their remembering.

JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye remains the philosopher’s stone for most lost boys’ lives. Though some argue it did not transmute lead into gold, as good coming-of-age literature should, but instead polluted the minds of every teenage generation, as it defined — and arguably invented — that state of mind when it was first published in 1951. For the phenomenon of The Catcher in the Rye is not simply a matter of continuing sales or critical regard; it’s an issue of narrator Holden Caulfield’s defining presence as the teenage messiah.

His war on “goddamn phoneys’’, his struggles to resist growing up and all its falsehoods, his puritanical encasement in himself to the point of a nervous breakdown, are well examined. As is the fact the novel has been cited as an inspirational manual by, among others, John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman and Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. Deeply unfortunate associations that only confirm the book’s intensity.

I do believe books have an almost occult power in our lives. Never more so than when we are young and open to their influence, even if their meaning is more sophisticated than we can grasp. And I see now that The Catcher in the Rye made me want to be a writer. I see now that all the books I have so far mentioned drove me to express myself. All of them spoke to me. All of them had a sound.

Salinger was particularly focused on this quality. He observed that, “The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade ‘scenes’ — only a fool would deny that — but for me the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the nonstop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener. He can’t legitimately be separated from his first-person technique.”

Holden’s resurrection, if you like, lies in the fact that he is telling you his story. He has found a way through. And now he seeks apostles.

His gospel of apartness penetrated me deeply, isolated as I was from my family in an informal boarding arrangement with my grandmother while I went through high school during my teens. Reading The Catcher in the Rye made me feel both less alone and somehow anointed in my boyish suffering.

One sees this sliver of light in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book project, My Struggle. Indeed, I think of Knausgaard as something of an overgrown Holden Caulfield, reincarnated into his adulthood in Norway, his obsessional speaking voice still intact, still seeking us out.

Knausgaard blurs the lines entirely between what can be defined as a novel or a memoir. On a number of occasions he has called writing “a way of being”. It’s a telling description. In a recent interview he used that phrase again, adding: “It’s unthinkable not to write. It’s the only place where I can find complete calm and harmony. Where, at the same time, I am not my present self, I am somewhere else.”

This ‘‘way of being’’ is how it is for readers too, taken outside of our worlds, yet deep into our selves. Whether or not that leads us towards the transcendent, however, is another question entirely as we ‘‘come of age’’ again and again.

There are few apparently darker sentences than the one at the end of A Death in the Family, the first novel in Knausgaard’s series, where he has been forced to confront memories that have arisen while cleaning the debased home of his estranged and deceased alcoholic father: “And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension in life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a coat hanger and falls to the floor.”

In my opinion Knausgaard is hinting at forgiveness and freedom, and perhaps even love, in those final words. I could be wrong, of course. Things may be just as they appear. But I’ve only to look back at my copy of Coming Through Slaughter to be reminded of the paradoxical relationship between pessimism and possibility, damage and awakening: “The right ending is an open door you can’t see too far out of. It can mean exactly the opposite of what you are thinking.”

Mark Mordue ©


This story was first published under the title ‘Art of Darkness’ in the Weekend Australian Review, 16 May 2015.

Photo of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Attribution: Soppakanuuna [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

Image below is a library card. Attribution: Tammy [CC BY 2.0 (

Library card, USA.