Biography for biography enthusiasts
Reading Robert Forster’s memoir “Grant and I” was an insightful experience for myself. Oddly I found a circle around ‘biography’ in reading a biographical work from a man who has a fascination with biographical works. Robert likes reading biographies about great people sometimes more than he likes their great works in their own right. He likes them for what they show him about the inspirations and patterns of the great literary (and other) pioneers, what he may draw from them and what parallels he may find. Reading this, I drew inspiration and found a parallel as I found a kindred spirit in this respect. I too am an avid reader of biographies. Reading Robert’s explanation of this I find I read them for essentially the same reason. So reading Roberts’ (auto) biographical work has given me a parallel and inspiration for reading biography itself. A nice double reinforcer.
Joyce across the frontiers
Now I cannot say that I gained more from Robert’s memoir than from his great work, his work is not something difficult to enjoy after all. Robert’s favourite biographical subject is shared with me – James Joyce. That was another interesting parallel in reading the book. My own reading about Joyce working toward the completion of Finnegans Wake fascinated me more than my reading of that great work. It is a great work. It is just not an easy work. I will not come to the same conclusion with Ulysses or the earlier works of Joyce. These are easier but still great. I enjoyed the literary links to another fascinating writer in the history of the Go Betweens too. The Godots became the Go Dots and then The Go Betweens. Robert notes thinking the Godots would be a great name for a band that everyone is always waiting for. He does not fully note how prophetic this turned out to be.
It is immensely interesting to see how Joyce inspired Robert in his career. Joyce is often noted as a highly influential writer of literature but the case of Robert Forster, as shown in his memoir, shows how the very way Joyce lived his life and approached his work inspires beyond literature and into a wider range of arts. The songs Go-Betweens may not put you in mind of Finnegans Wake at face value (Mark E. Smith on the other hand, does) but the inspiration of Joyce on the career of Robert Forster is incontestable on reading “Grant and I”. My recollection on reading the story of Finnegans Wake in the Joyce biography was that Finnegans Wake is the ultimate artistic statement – a huge intellectual (and physical in the end) effort to produce a work that’s benefit can simply not be pinned down on a direct pragmatic or beauty basis.
Switching tact but staying on path with the book, I found the early musical inspiration of Robert presented another fascinating parallel and inspiration. Coming of age a generation after Robert Forster but still before the age on the internet, I was completely taken by the work of Edwyn Collins but knew no one who knew much about him and could find little information on him at the time. Of course much more information has become available in the internet age. However, there is still a lack of work that truly does justice to Edwyn. Robert’s book, to my surprise, did provide a special appreciation of Edwyn and his significance. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised and should have known the close connections between Robert, the Go-Betweens and Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice. Yet even if I had I would not have read Robert’s first hand capturing of Edwyn’s genius. I cannot help thinking how special it would be if Robert the biography enthusiast turned his literary hand to the subject of Edwyn Collins. A final note on Edwyn and Robert is that it is always amazing to find the connections between things that you feel you came to independently. I will mark a ditto there in relation to my long love of Jonathon Richman and Tom Verlaine. Both are prominent in Roberts’s book. Even Bowie. But it is hard to believe that one could feel alone as a Bowie supporter in the past. But it did feel that way to me in 1990 in Perth. Robert talking about Grant and his Bowie poster hit a chord. It really shouldn’t have since Grant had the poster up in the early seventies. Yet it hit a chord.
The above leads to a final parallel to draw from the biography. This is antipodean provincial isolation. Brisbane in the sixties and seventies, Perth in the 1980s. Robert’s coverage of waiting for three month old NME papers and imported records is something special for the Australian experience. The entire cultural phenomenon is worthy of further study. Perhaps it has been done. In literature J.M. Coetzee focuses on the provincial. In his memoir Robert Forster provides further insights into the theme. The need to be current in pop music though adds a dimension to the Provincial that is more easily dealt with in the world of literature. Yet somehow the delays, isolation and consequent half filtered cultural flow have created some true originals in Australia. The Go-Betweens, Nick Cave and the Saints come to mind. In the even more isolated city that I live in we have the Scientists and more recently Tame Impala and Pond.
There is a lot in Robert Forster’s book. I am not even touching on its key features here. I have left those for others. I am just adding my notes on some less obvious themes. Here’s to Robert Forster the biographer!
(c) Nuallain O Searcaigh 2017