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A gift of real time 


 Relationships, death and art are central themes for Salley Vickers, but in her latest novel it's the ability to be in touch with reality that fascinates

AT the recent London launch of The Other Side of You, her fourth novel in six years, Salley Vickers was an almost ethereal presence. And her manner seemed to verge on the whimsical. It was not at all the persona of someone with such a high-achieving, high-lit profile, and at the time I wondered if this were the other side of her. Or whether it was more a response to the well-wishing throng in the cramped Fulham Road bookshop being so seriously heavy in literary A-listers, supplemented by a smattering of select politicos, medicos and leading jurists. And somebody called Mark Knopfler.

Also there was Vickers' father, Jon, a former card-carrying unionist and World War II prisoner of war. Poignantly, it was his 90th birthday. More poignantly, Vickers' mother was not there: she had died three days earlier.

For someone quite public, Vickers is resolutely private. She made no mention of her loss at the book launch and I write of it now only because the information is in the open domain: I came across her mother's obituary in a newspaper, where I also discovered that Freddie Vickers was a war hero whose legs were amputated in 1942 after a stray German bomb turned her residence into a conflagration. And that she subsequently became revered for her resilience and almost reckless joie de vivre, her dedication to socialism and her sensitive psychiatric counselling of the traumatised.

So as I head towards Vickers' London apartment, I'm as conscious of tragedy as of triumph: critical response to her novel has all been positive. After the Saturday morning tourist tack of nearby Portobello Road, her home reflects culture and calm. As does she: there are no airs here but considerable grace. Which is as well, really, because although she wears her learning lightly, the Liverpool-born, London-educated Vickers is a bona fide brain who studied English literature at Stanford and Oxford, then taught ancient literature before training as an analytical psychologist specialising in addictive disorders.

She is also someone whose promising ballet career -- think prodigy -- was ended by injury (she still wears ballet shoes as slippers and assumes the third position when standing), who displays an expert's knowledge of dance, opera and art, and who just happened to write a bestseller with her late-developer debut novel. Published in 2000, the wry Miss Garnet's Angel was a bookshop sleeper that became a word-of-mouth sales Cinderella in Britain, the US and Australia: prime book club fodder, it has sold more than 250,000 copies in paperback in England. Her second novel, a playful ghost story of social manners, was called Instances of the Number 3, even if instances of the number two are more personally prominent: the two marriages, for instance, the first to a physicist when very young, the second at 50 to Irish writer Frank Delaney; they shared a Somerset manor and Brit Glit Lit coupledom for four years until he took off for his fourth marriage and New York. (Scuttlebutt suggested this was at about the time her literary fame began to outstrip his.)

Then there are her two high-achieving sons. And the two homes, the second in Wales, her "writing retreat just across the road from the English border''.

"I'm not a very mainstream writer,'' she mentions as she rustles up tea for two, ``but I think it's still true that people want serious matter, if not in a solemn way.

"Some people call my books old-fashioned, and I know what they mean, but in a way it is really because my stories have a beginning, middle and end.'' And plot, narrative and characters, I suggest. "Quite,'' she laughs.

She reads very little contemporary fiction -- she's much more a ``Shakespeare, Elliot, Austen, James and Conrad'' kind of gal -- but she was a Booker Prize judge the year Life of Pi won. She did that, she says, ``as a discipline for myself. And I'm glad I did because the judging was a fabulous experience, mainly because I so loved my fellow judges; we were very unusual in that we got on very well, we even went on a short holiday together a year later. I can't say I enjoyed reading all the 133 novels but the process was good for me.''

If not influential. Her own books continue to major in thematic depth, shrewd humour and seductive subtleties, and to explore central questions such as love, salvation, forgiveness and redemption. And to survey their own geometries: they are heavily patterned with parallels, intersections and triangles, so it's no surprise to learn Vickers is "interested by mathematics, especially geometry and physics. And very interested in structures of reality.''

Mathematics is in her family, itself a complex of permutations. Her brother is a professor of mathematics, "and we grew up in the British communist party; although my parents left the party, they remained very, very active socialists. My father became a trade union leader, which doesn't really describe who he is: he is essentially an academic. Now he wasn't mathematical but his father was, and his great uncle [Frederick Lindemann, later Lord Charwell] was Churchill's scientific adviser during the war.'' There was also the grandmother whose pre-World War I play, written under a nom de plume, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain.

As for structures of reality, there were her years of deep theological spelunking because her home was so avowedly atheist; her awareness of Christian and biblical principles has been an invaluable cultural resource, in a non-evangelical way: in her third novel, Mr Golightly's Holiday, God is a novelist rewriting his classic for a contemporary audience reared on soap opera, while the concept of purgatory colours her second novel. She's as well read in other theologies, with the Jewish Apocrypha and Zoroastrianism informing much of Miss Garnet's Angel.

Her interest, she says, owes much to the "forbidden fruit'' nature of religion in her childhood. But she's talked about it so much -- she lectures extensively on the connections between literature, psychology and religion -- that today she'd rather not, if that's all right. Besides, there is in her work another religion to discuss, that of painting.

The Other Side of You, a taut psychological weave of a failed suicide, her lost love, her psychiatrist and his dead brother, returns to the love of art she memorably canvassed in Miss Garnet's Angel, alongside her loves of literature, myth and Italian settings, and her fascination with the intricacies of relationships, with emotional and erotic entanglements, and the nature of intimacy.

And with death. She has always been interested in the last, she allows, "not morbidly so, but since my childhood there has not been a day when I don't think about it. I'm frightened by the process, by its possible pain and indignities, but not by death itself.'' Her funeral, she laughs, "is perfectly planned, although I keep changing my mind about the music and poetry''. People look at her askance when she talks about death, she says in self-mocking would-you-credit-it? tones, but she is equally amazed by how others avoid thinking about it. It's why a sense of carpe diem underlies her work.

But we digress, because central to her new book is the painter Caravaggio and the effect his paintings have on her ensemble of main characters. So embracing is her art erudition that people imagine she is an art historian although "I'm not at all, I'm an absolute amateur''. How, then, to explain the astute insights and perceptions?

"I've thought about this a bit,'' she says, "and I think that while I write for the ear, I think in pictures; because I was a trained psychologist, I have to think about the way I think, and once you do that, of course, you can't think about how you think. But I think I think in images and I write with a voice in my ear.'' And then she laughs at the verbal tangle she has woven. "At least I think I think that's what I think.''

Paradoxically, she had no special feeling for Caravaggio until she wrote this book. Even though his work provides the perfect visual correlation to the T.S. Eliot epigram that impels it ("Who is the third who walks always beside you?/... Who is that on the other side of you?'').

"When I started the book,'' she explains, "I didn't know what I was doing with it except I really wanted a painter in there. The idea actually came when I was in Adelaide for writers week two years ago and I wrote the first part immediately on my return to England. But because I didn't know where it was going, I then just left it, quite a hard thing to do when you have a publication date.

"Sometime later I went to the National Gallery and I just came upon it, Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus, and I thought to myself: 'That's what I am trying to say.' '' And then she fell in love with Caravaggio, "although not immediately because I didn't get it. I resisted abandonment, I think. But when I did see, it was doubly strong and revealing.''

So why resist abandonment? "Well, that's partly why I wrote the book: why does Elizabeth resist love, why do we resist experience? We naturally gravitate towards the familiar, but great art challenges us. And Caravaggio challenged me because he is so melodramatic.''

Alain de Botton has said that "art functions as a stable repository of humanity's most valuable insights and perceptions''. Vickers would take umbrage with the word stable, but would otherwise support her fellow Sydney Writers Festival guest's analysis.

After all, one key element to her book is an investigation of how and why people resist recognising the truth. That's always "a very difficult and quite existential question,'' she says. "What emerges in the book during the conversation between Elizabeth and her psychiatrist David is the reality that they have both known and not known, and it only emerges because of the union between them.

"People are also frightened about being known by others, they resist that ... that's why you have to write a book because such matters defy quick answers. It's certainly why I write.''

So what of her other side? "Like most people, I have a lot of other sides,'' she says. "In this book, for instance, there is quite a lot of me in David. But he's rather stitched-up and lives mostly in a world of ideas; there's a lot of what I'd like to be in Thomas, who really embraces life.''

That's another reason people write, she says: to explore other sides of themselves that they can't live. "I can't be a man, for instance, or a spinster, but I can extrapolate and imagine those lives. My favourite bit in the book,'' she jumps up to rifle through a copy she retrieves from her bookcase, "is when Thomas is talking about Caravaggio: 'A real artist knows the other side of himself better than the side he's in at the time. You don't paint as you are; you paint as you're not. But you only know what you're not through knowing what you are.'

"That's my favourite bit: you have to know your own reality to explore the other side. And Caravaggio obviously knew his reality extraordinarily well because he was able to really, really look at real people and paint them.''

For her, Caravaggio's biggest gift was in demonstrating that "reality can be created as much as it is discovered, or rather that it has an objective existence but it is constantly being re-created by the way we perceive things''. Beyond re-created realities, I suggest, things that are real seem to loom largest in her consciousness. "Real is a word of mine,'' she agrees. "One I use a lot ... the intangible is real, intense conversation can be real, great art is real, true friendship is real. In the book, Elizabeth asks her lover Thomas what he has seen in her, and he says she is someone who didn't make themself up. Most of us make ourselves up, that's how we get through, but I want not to make myself up.

"That's a rather odd thing coming from someone who writes fiction,'' she says with a laugh. "But then, for me, good fiction is always made up about the real.''


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian,  20 MAY 2006. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren

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