- Spinoza's Overcoat, by Subhash Jaireth. Transit Lounge. $29.99.
Posthumous interest in tracking and pinning down where and how writers lived is a quite modern sub-set of literary biography. Instead of the formal, public lives of writers, readers have often been offered their psychological compulsions, catalogues of lovers and speculation about motives, travels or sexuality. To borrow a term from horror stories, we are encouraged to scrutinise the writer's familiars.
Rather than Dr Johnson's Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, we are now offered photographs of writers' studies (William Faulkner's the most beguiling, since he scribbled his plots around the walls). Far from labouring over a detailed exegesis of one work, some fans collect autographs, as if a trace of the writer's genius attached to the inked paper. More earnestly, Richard Holmes plods along in the footsteps of Romantic poets (Coleridge especially). One detail of an author's belongings can stand as a metaphor for their achievement, as in Flaubert's Parrot (Julian Barnes) or Pushkin's Button (Serena Vitale).
Now, to supplement that eccentric collection, Subhash Jaireth has published Spinoza's Overcoat. Born in Punjab, Jaireth spent nine years in Russia studying geology and literature before emigrating to Australia 34 years ago. Among his numerous literary endeavours, Jaireth has translated Indigenous poets into Hindi. He is convinced that "by visiting or seeing places where a poet was either born or died, or where this or that poem was written, one can find an opening to the emotional world of a poem".
In the service of that quixotic opinion, Jaireth has collected essays on Kafka (or, rather more, on his sister), Tsvetaeva, Celan, Spinoza, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky, Belbahani, Pasternak, Lorca, Ghani Hikmat, Ito and Carson. Although his list is skewed towards Russians (with four represented), Jaireth's curiosity extends to a Czech, a Romanian, a Dutchman, an Iranian, a Spaniard, an Iraqi, a Japanese and a Canadian. Counting Ottla Kafka, five of this idiosyncratically gathered set are women. A few are not what we might call household names.
An author needs to be multi-lingual, well-travelled and deeply-read to frame persuasive, intelligent insights on such a miscellany. Jaireth manages that task well, partly because he is a deft story teller who also picks his stories cleverly. Much of the Kafka chapter, for instance, is taken up with an argument beyond the grave with Ottla's husband. (She was murdered in Auschwitz, having chosen divorce to end her marriage to a gentile.) With Tsvetaeva, Jaireth explains how she considered at least 49 alternatives before deciding on the final word for a poem. The reader eavesdrops on Bulgakov in 1922, desperate to write but lacking the money to buy paper and ink. Turning to Celan, while appraising the notion of "searching and dwelling" on an idea, Jaireth examines the links in a poem between a baobab and a cannon.
In addition, Jaireth is consistently interesting when accounting for the ways in which works are composed, whether they be The Master and Margaritha or Pasternak's translation of Hamlet. He quotes at length from Mayakovsky's own thoughts on creating a poem, walking along "mumbling almost without words", seeking a rhythm which "runs through the poem like a rumble". A mumble forges a rumble.
Moreover, Jaireth's assessments are the product of serious inquiry, designed to link a poem to a person then to poetry more generally, or to try to judge "the moral compulsion felt by the poet".
As a cross-reference, Jaireth appends 27 pages of his subjects' poems. Two (translated by Jaireth himself) stand out. Tsvetaeva requests "for my aging years/A dog's bone-stash" while Pasternak reminds us again (in his poem on Hamlet) that "to live life isn't crossing a field".
An author needs to be multi-lingual, well-travelled and deeply-read to frame persuasive, intelligent insights on such a miscellany. Jaireth manages that task well, partly because he is a deft story teller who also picks his stories cleverly.
More obscure artists are brought to life in a learned but affectionate manner. Jaireth celebrates Ghani Hikmat's plans to scatter around Baghdad statues of characters drawn from the 1001 Nights. Sinbad was meant to straddle two boats floating down the Tigris.
Belbahani comes to life in Jaireth's descriptions of one of her poems, 'His Master's Voice', based logically enough on an old vinyl record. As for his own life, Jaireth happily recalls the hotchpotch ("khichidi" in Hindi) of languages in his family home.
At one point Jaireth discusses how writing a poem begins for him, with "a sideways glance perhaps, or maybe an invitation for a more engaged encounter at a more auspicious time".
Now and again his essays start in much the same way, with an aside, an unlikely insight, a peculiar perspective or a personal memory.
Jaireth's distinctive style takes some getting used to. His own ruminations and reminiscences are integrated into the narrative, even to the point where we learn about his warm socks (in Leiden) or the date of his wedding anniversary (Amsterdam that time).
The pronoun, "I', pops up regularly in the text. Here Jaireth is an actor as well as director and producer.