Past Life, by William Lane

Hunter Valley author William Lane is the author of four previous novels, Over the Water (2014), The Horses (2015), The Salamanders, (2016) and The Word (2018). (Links are to my reviews).  What I like about his novels is that they are all entirely different to one another, though all of them deal in some way with a character who is not emotionally ready for relationships. His new novel Past Life ventures into territory not much explored in Australian fiction.  Both Melbourne and Sydney have substantial Russian communities, but in my reading experience, they don’t feature much in our literature except in Cold War stories, such as John Tesearch’s Dinner with the Dissidents.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across any Australian novel that features the experience of Russians during WW2. In Lane’s novel, the fraught relationship between lovers who fought on opposite sides bleeds through into the next generation.   Of German origin but living in Russia, Friedrich had found himself working as an interpreter for the invading (and then retreating) Germans, while his lover Julia fought with the Soviet partisans.  When the story opens in the more recent past, Friedrich, who lives in a shed on the back of a Sydney property owned by a Russian émigré called Sophie, is a writer who fell foul of the Soviet Union.  He becomes friendly with Anna, the adopted daughter of Sophie, and tragedy ensues when he realises who she really is. In evoking the childhood emergence of Friedrich the writer, Lane shows the tragedy of Soviet repression of the creative arts. Not long after that the class was asked to write a story.  The children had not done this for some time, and at first collectively struggled — except Friedrich.  Having started his story in a bored mandatory way, suddenly he could not stop.  The words welled up inside him and immediately paired with the outer world. Strings of words might be shining beneath the paper in secret writing.  The smell of the desks, the brush of the boy’s arm beside him, his mother moving about between the desks — it all went in as he wrote, while whatever his self could contain streamed through.  Having reached the end of one thought, his mind pulsed and out came another.  He wrote alongside himself, the train of words pulling him from the everyday.  Friedrich did not hear his mother speak, did not feel her tap on his shoulder.  He was speaking to himself from another world, and his little current self was copying down the words as if by dictation, and he was not at school, and there was no clock, and it was not really he who was writing. (p.209) To think that the miracle of this impulse to write was stymied for so many writers in the Soviet era is really very chilling.  As you can read at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, it’s difficult to know how much was hidden or lost. Judging Friedrich as a traitor seems a bit simplistic when we consider the damage done to his creative spirit… Anna is a photographer, immersed in a long-term project to photograph the orchard on Sophie’s property.  She has had a difficult relationship with Sophie, and her creative ambitions were nurtured by a teacher, Miss Glass.  When the mother-daughter relationship fractures because Sophie doesn’t approve of Anna’s friendship with the adventurous Lisaveta, Anna goes to live with Miss Glass, but soon finds herself constrained there too. When the novel moves on to the next generation, it’s not immediately clear how the lovers Iris and Robin are connected to what has gone before, but they share the experience of love and loss.  When Robin begins his research for a book about Friedrich, he begins with Operation Barbarossa, an unfathomable experience in scale and brutality, and in itself responsible for damage inflicted on every person born into the invasion of the East or its wake.  Iris is an artist, and Robin’s poems are a catalyst for her paintings: Robin began to read her the poems he wrote; in response, she embarked on several new canvases.  When he wrote, and she painted, they were holding open a wound, and letting the words and images run freely.  The longer they could keep the wound open, and prevent what flowed from coagulating, the more material they had. (p.243) In an interview at Female, Lane expresses his hope that readers will understand that Past Life is …not only about intergenerational trauma, but intergenerational healing. And if the reader can find poetry and beauty in the actual writing, then how the material is treated becomes the message. In my stories the focus is not so much on a message, as on an aesthetic. There’s a profile of William Lane at In Their Own Write. Author: William LaneTitle: Past LifePublisher: Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2021Cover and book design by Peter LoISBN: 9781925760781, pbk., 267 pagesReview copy courtesy of Transit Lounge, with thanks to Scott Eathorne

Past Life, by William Lane

Hunter Valley author William Lane is the author of four previous novels, Over the Water (2014), The Horses (2015), The Salamanders, (2016) and The Word (2018). (Links are to my reviews).  What I like about his novels is that they are all entirely different to one another, though all of them deal in some way with a character who is not emotionally ready for relationships.

His new novel Past Life ventures into territory not much explored in Australian fiction.  Both Melbourne and Sydney have substantial Russian communities, but in my reading experience, they don’t feature much in our literature except in Cold War stories, such as John Tesearch’s Dinner with the Dissidents.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across any Australian novel that features the experience of Russians during WW2.

In Lane’s novel, the fraught relationship between lovers who fought on opposite sides bleeds through into the next generation.   Of German origin but living in Russia, Friedrich had found himself working as an interpreter for the invading (and then retreating) Germans, while his lover Julia fought with the Soviet partisans.  When the story opens in the more recent past, Friedrich, who lives in a shed on the back of a Sydney property owned by a Russian émigré called Sophie, is a writer who fell foul of the Soviet Union.  He becomes friendly with Anna, the adopted daughter of Sophie, and tragedy ensues when he realises who she really is.

In evoking the childhood emergence of Friedrich the writer, Lane shows the tragedy of Soviet repression of the creative arts.

Not long after that the class was asked to write a story.  The children had not done this for some time, and at first collectively struggled — except Friedrich.  Having started his story in a bored mandatory way, suddenly he could not stop.  The words welled up inside him and immediately paired with the outer world. Strings of words might be shining beneath the paper in secret writing.  The smell of the desks, the brush of the boy’s arm beside him, his mother moving about between the desks — it all went in as he wrote, while whatever his self could contain streamed through.  Having reached the end of one thought, his mind pulsed and out came another.  He wrote alongside himself, the train of words pulling him from the everyday.  Friedrich did not hear his mother speak, did not feel her tap on his shoulder.  He was speaking to himself from another world, and his little current self was copying down the words as if by dictation, and he was not at school, and there was no clock, and it was not really he who was writing. (p.209)

To think that the miracle of this impulse to write was stymied for so many writers in the Soviet era is really very chilling.  As you can read at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, it’s difficult to know how much was hidden or lost. Judging Friedrich as a traitor seems a bit simplistic when we consider the damage done to his creative spirit…

Anna is a photographer, immersed in a long-term project to photograph the orchard on Sophie’s property.  She has had a difficult relationship with Sophie, and her creative ambitions were nurtured by a teacher, Miss Glass.  When the mother-daughter relationship fractures because Sophie doesn’t approve of Anna’s friendship with the adventurous Lisaveta, Anna goes to live with Miss Glass, but soon finds herself constrained there too.

When the novel moves on to the next generation, it’s not immediately clear how the lovers Iris and Robin are connected to what has gone before, but they share the experience of love and loss.  When Robin begins his research for a book about Friedrich, he begins with Operation Barbarossa, an unfathomable experience in scale and brutality, and in itself responsible for damage inflicted on every person born into the invasion of the East or its wake.  Iris is an artist, and Robin’s poems are a catalyst for her paintings:

Robin began to read her the poems he wrote; in response, she embarked on several new canvases.  When he wrote, and she painted, they were holding open a wound, and letting the words and images run freely.  The longer they could keep the wound open, and prevent what flowed from coagulating, the more material they had. (p.243)

In an interview at Female, Lane expresses his hope that readers will understand that Past Life is

…not only about intergenerational trauma, but intergenerational healing. And if the reader can find poetry and beauty in the actual writing, then how the material is treated becomes the message. In my stories the focus is not so much on a message, as on an aesthetic.

There’s a profile of William Lane at In Their Own Write.

Author: William Lane
Title: Past Life
Publisher: Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2021
Cover and book design by Peter Lo
ISBN: 9781925760781, pbk., 267 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge, with thanks to Scott Eathorne