The Museum of Modern Love

Michelle De Kretser's 'The Life to Come' - a reflection by David Burton

International Women’s Day heralded any number of celebrations, revelations and discussions this year, but none perhaps more anticipated by literature-lovers than the Stella Prize Shortlist. The slightly intimidating 12 volume long list was culled to a more easily digestible six. The winner will be announced in mid-April. 20180310 - the-natural-way-of-things coverAwarded to extraordinary Australian female writers, the Stella Prize has become a foundational hallmark of literary success. 2016’s The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood remains on my favourite Aussie books of all time.

2017’s The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose is achingly beautiful. It was reviewed by our good friend Anna Blackie for this blog when it was named the winner last year. 20180310 - the-museum-of-modern-love cover

Every year I promise myself to make it through the entire shortlist. Some years I get very close. In 2018, I’ve started early, and have spent some time lounging, dreaming and laughing with The Life to Come by Michelle De Kretser.

It’s difficult to describe the plot in a nutshell here, because any kind of narrative is, at best, only visible when you squint from a distance. The publisher has suggested the work is a ‘meditation’, a suitable-enough label. The novel centres on a network of relationships at the centre of which is Pippa, a struggling young writer trying to break into the Australian literary scene. Her mentor is the more successful George, then there’s Celeste, who’s engaged in an affair with a married woman in Paris, and Cassie, a young woman trying to please her Sri Lankan boyfriend with extravagant meals from his homeland.

It’s a book about intimacy, about writing, about loneliness - but really it’s about these characters. De Krester descriptions are so perceptible that the writing almost gleams with a sharp edge. This honed blade gives the book it’s most stunning and readable quality: it’s sense of humour.

For me, a lover of genre fiction with more pop culture flavours, a novel like The Life to Come could wander too far into literary-snob territory. But De Kretser’s occasional embrace of satire is irresistible. Some sections come across as a kind of refined stand-up routine. Here’s an example – a description of a couple in Paris that we never meet again, but who just happen to be passing by our characters:

“One of those couples that populate Paris, a man with silvery, swept-back hair, a worshipful, thin-wrested young woman. A cardigan in a docile colour was draped around her shoulders. Her hips, streamlined in cunningly cut linen, nevertheless promised the production of sturdy heirs in a selfless perpetuation of family and nation. Anyone could see that she would prepare a light, delicious savoury flan that evening. While trimming half a kilo of slender green beans - she had risen at dawn to haggle over them in a market - she would comment intelligently on the latest developments in the Middle East. After supper, it would be time to draft the next chapter of her doctoral thesis, write the footnotes for the man’s forthcoming book, put on a load of his washing and practice the pelvic floor exercises that maintain his sexual pleasure at an optimum.”

Other biting moments come when de Kretser describes (with hilarious accuracy and, at times, cringing familiarity), the state of the Aussie publishing industry or, more broadly, Australia’s relationship with culture and sense of self.

20180310 - questions-of-travel coverMichelle De Kretser is a rare talent. Writers with her technical skill and deft hand are only a few in a generation. Her previous novels are well celebrated, Questions of Travel winning the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Life to Come’s add addition to the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist is just another of de Kretser’s achievements.

This book is probably best read over several days while lounging around, perhaps on holiday. This way you’ll be most able to disappear into the prose and let the intimate portrayals of the characters and their observations move you, humour you and, ultimately delight you.20180310 - the-life-to-come cover

'The Museum of Modern Love' - Review

“And maybe this was art, she thought, having spent years trying to define it and pin it to the line like a shirt on a windy day. There you are, art! You capture moments at the heart of life.” Sometimes the things that move you the most are the ones that are hardest to talk about. There are things which can affect you so profoundly that when you search for the words to describe their significance the words simply escape you. In the quiet moments of reflection after finishing the Stella Prize winning novel for 2017, Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, I found myself hit with an array of emotions, joy, sorrow, inspiration and hope. This books does what all books strive to do, and achieved that which so many others have failed to grasp. Heather Rose created a novel that was compelling and magical, while at the same time remaining so very real and relatable.

The performance artist, Marina Abramović sits at the centre of the story like the sun at the centre of the solar system, the characters orbiting around her. Her art, life and sacrifice formsthe catalyst for their own internal reflection and contemplation of their varied experiences of love, loss and the bittersweet pain of longing. Based on Marina’s true performance The Artist is Present, Rose recreates the 736 hour and 10 minute long silent piece in which Marina sat immobile in the atrium of the MOMA while spectators took turns sitting opposite her. With art as their shared interest, the fictionalised characters of The Museum of Modern Love are drawn together by the perplexing gravity of Marina’s work.

Rose has done such a superb job of creating beautifully life-like characters, which are endearing, broken and perfectly flawed.  In many of the novels I have read of late, I have felt that the authors have fallen into traps of creating characters who seem to be over-inflated caricatures of the generic – there’s a sense of the artificial in these characters who are either far too perfect to even be considered real, or so detrimentally flawed that the reader struggles to make a real connection with them. The trope of characters in The Museum of Modern Love completely subverted my expectations. These characters were real, moving and breathing beneath the pages, their joys and sorrows spread across the 286 pages of this phenomenal work of fiction, connecting with me in a very real and deep way that I hadn’t experienced from a novel in some time.

These days, my main time for reading is on my daily commute. The 45 minute train ride that bookends my days provides the perfect setting to fall into whatever I’m reading. It wasn’t until it was too late that I realised The Museum of Modern Love is not the type of novel that I should read in public. I had made it no further than 29 pages when I began to be overcome with emotion. Like so many of those who sat across from Abramović through the period of The Artist is Present, I was shocked to discover myself weeping at the beauty of the art before me. The particular passage that broke the floodgates came from the story of my favourite character, Jane, a widower whose husband has passed away from cancer. In an attempt to deal with her grief, Jane travels to New York and becomes enthralled with The Artist is Present. The passage in question is one too beautiful not to share:

"He worried a lot about Heaven in those last days. He wanted to know, before the morphine shunt took him from her, where she would meet him. If there were steps, he'd be there. He'd be waiting. But where? If there was a cottonwood tree... an olive grove?... 'What will you miss Janey?' he asked her. 'Tell me what you'll miss.' Your whistle when you come in the door, she had told him. Your shirts on the clothesline. The evenings when we watch the fireflies dance under the harvest spotlights. Your heart. The things only you and I remember about the children. The way your skin is always warm. Your coffee mug half empty on the veranda railing at 7am. She could have gone on but he was tired and it had been enough. The real answer to his question was everything. She would miss everything. What she didn't know, what she took for granted about living with Karl and being a wife, was far larger than the things she could name."

This story that circulates around one extraordinary artist and her 75 day performance piece dives into the lives of characters that are incredibly varied. In a broad sense, these characters are really only connected by their fascination of Marina’s work. Yet upon closer inspection, it’s clear that what binds them is deep love. Love of art, of people, of routine. The intensity of Marina’s dedication forms an emotional thread that traverses the entirety of the story, appearing through the lives of each of the characters. As I’ve probably made abundantly clear, for me, this book was all about the characters. So tangible and deep, these beautifully flawed people conveyed a deep sense of connection. I finished this novel with a deep appreciation of the sentiment that we are all one, connected through our physical experiences in ways we cannot possibly imagine.

“She loved him. She loved everyone in the room. She loved everyone alive and everyone who had ever lived to bring them all to this time, all of the millennia that had gone and the millennia of people yet to come.”


Click here to buy your copy of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose from Booktopia.

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