Is 7½ the most ‘Tsiolkas’ of all of Tsiolkas’s books? The very fact that the main character, an author, renounces writing about race, class, religion, and sexuality, and instead wants to write about beauty (which turns out to be a story about retired porn-star, Paul, and of course slides into all sorts of commentary on sexuality, money, loyalty and self-image), allows Tsiolkas to tackle all of his favourite subjects by default. Because of course, no matter how hard we try to get away from politics, race, class, religion, and sexuality, we can’t – that is life.
And so, since the fire and the pandemic, reminded again of the meaning of labour – for it was the firefighters, nurses, doctors, cleaners who sacrificed – it is any wonder that my notions of how to write and what to write have changed? No more screeds to capital-J Justice and to capital-S Society and to capital-L Love and to capital-E Equlity and to capital-R Revolution: how can those of us with soft hands even contemplate such forgery?
7½ is a work of auto-fiction and Paul’s part provides a story within a story (which actually reminded me of the nineties film, Indecent Proposal). I attended an author talk when 7½ was launched, and Tsiolkas revealed that he’d had the idea for Paul’s story for many years, and had tried to turn it into a script. There was no interest in it as a movie, and he had all but abandoned it when he realised that there was a way to use the story. As a result, in 7½, our author intersperses scenes from Paul’s story (which is titled Sweet Thing), with his own stream-of-consciousness reflections on his childhood, his sexuality, literature, music, the pleasure of swimming, his friend Andrea*, and even the meals he makes for himself.
This commentary is so natural, and so intimate that some parts feel as if your are crossing personal boundaries. I think that’s what Tsiolkas always does best – takes the reader to a point of discomfort; puts into words the worst of us, or the things we turn away from; questions thoughts or behaviour that we might try to justify or dismiss. Of a moment when, as a child, our author, Christo, realises the differences between himself and his mother –
We were not one body. She was a woman, and I was becoming a man, and from now on we would be keeping secrets from one another. Of course, my mother would have known this already, and over the following years I realised that the revelation of her loneliness and her griefs and her fears was never a comprehensive confession… It was my own naivety that was exposed. Daughters and fathers must have a similar moment of dissonance, with the daughter’s first menstruation, or the accidental glimpse of the dark thatch of her father’s pubic hair… The love need not be shattered; nevertheless, there is the beginning of an estrangement.
So, did I like it? I’m not sure I’ve ‘liked’ any of Tsiolkas’s books, but nonetheless I’m compelled to read them. 7½ has some grotty scenes but I admire how viscerally I feel things when I’m reading his work.
There are moments of beauty in this book (beauty that is familiar to me, anyway). I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the ocean and swimming. There was a wonderful bit about striding into the ice-cold water likened to an ‘axe to the knees’ (I didn’t mark the passage and despite going back through the pages, I couldn’t locate it).
This is an eastern sea. It fades slowly into night and awakens magnificent and overpowering in the morning.
But did Tsiolkas get his story about beauty? The old adage, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, might apply, but I think Tsiolkas did come to the conclusion that beauty requires context, that it sits alongside other things that we feel and sense –
Like Paul, I too am mindful of my fortune in this world. I am aware of the world’s beauty. And like Paul, I will wear my shame till my end: for we know there are worlds without love, neither filial nor compassionate.
Lastly, read this book in hard copy if you can – Tsiolkas references an old black and white photograph of a boxer and sailors, and Manet’s painting, The House of Rueil, throughout the book, and each is featured on the inside book jacket. Van Morrison’s song, Sweet Thing, also becomes central to the story.
*Andrea is author Angela Savage, right?
There’s a wonderful scene where Christos describes day-trips to Dromana, with his mother and aunts spending the evening before preparing ‘pies’ for the picnic. Fairly certain that one of my favourites, spanakopita, would have been on the menu.
Hours in the water: that is how I remember the summers of my childhood. There must be other cultures in other parts of the world where children experience this festal communion in water. But this continent has space: the vastness of its land and coast, and the sparseness of its population.