Honi Does Sydney Writer’s Festival – Writers on Writers: Malouf and Mendelsohn on the Classics

American literary critic and Classical scholar, Daniel Mendelsohn, in conversation with acclaimed Australian writer David Malouf.

Daniel Mendelsohn has a long history of admiring the work of David Malouf. In 2000, for The New York Book Review, Mendelsohn gushed over Malouf’s Dream Stuff– and his entire output thus far for that matter. Reviewing Malouf’s 2009 Ransom for The New Yorker (a novelisation of the final book of Homer’s Iliad), Mendelsohn waxed lyrical again about Malouf’s playfulness, skill and understanding of Classical mythology. A cursory Google of the two men’s last names brings up a trove of glowing asides by Mendelsohn- and promotions for this event, of course[1].

As myths begin with origin stories, so too did our two writers in conversation. In their suburban, quasi-religious, “average”, upbringings (Malouf’s in Brisbane, Mendelsohn’s in New York), there was no room for sex, flesh or eros. Things that, once dusted off, the Classical world abounds in (“they were pre-Christian pagans- there was no original sin in the Classical world!”).  Malouf  “learned that the flesh was a good place to be, nature itself might be sacred- Classical understanding challenges everything, it was another way of seeing”.

Mendelsohn acted out his childhood obsession with an encyclopedia entry on the Parthenon. Printed on the encyclopedia’s page was a contemporary image of the Parthenon, as a ruin and attached opposite to it was a vellum leaf, printed with an approximation of what the original would have looked like- the reader could lay it over the modern ruin to see how they compared. He said that he spent hours flicking the vellum back and forth- “the classics are about what’s no longer there and it’s an act of substitution. It’s extremely stimulating to a child’s imagination”. As a school boy Malouf said that he would look around at his friends while playing sport, imagining that thousands of years ago they would all have been naked, that that would have been normal- a different normal. The ability to imagine a world like their own but so tangibly different ignited in each of them an incredible capacity for understanding difference.

These are the things that Malouf’s work is about, after all: our shame, our assumptions, our fear of the ‘other’, how our personal and collective memory defines us. He shuns culturalised rigidity and ego. When Mendelsohn talks about the Roman poet Ovid, its hard not to see Malouf’s work in his shadow; “through Ovid’s dilettantism and triviality, he was deeply subversive. Ovid goes against the state by saying that there is more to life than the state”. Ovid says that there is love, sex, flesh, sadness and beauty as well.

There was no individuality in ancient Greece; “you could never be alone- they lived publically”. Mendelsohn explained that Hellenism is a pursuit of balance: their literature is not about good and bad, it’s about two partial views that need to be completed by each other, the one completed by the many; Classical Greek has a grammatical necessity for balance built into the way that it works.

Mendelsohn’s most frequent and highest praise of Malouf’s work is his understanding of Classical culture’s fluidity and its interest in this balance (something in Malouf’s work that Mendelsohn calls “oil-and-water couples”). Today, he elaborated: “they didn’t have a bible, there is no one version of a myth- what David did in Ransom is take a small thing and make it big”. Mendelsohn is a self -declared hellenist, and by the definition anyway, Malouf the writer seems a natural Roman- “The Romans were literary in a way that the Greeks were not” (Greek art was a matter of civic duty). “So much of Roman literature is wrestling with tradition. For the Romans there is a pastness they have to respond to, they adapted and transposed what came before them, made it art”.


[1] It was funny then, that it was up to Malouf to open the event and plug Mendelsohn’s two newest books that were for sale in lobby below- he got through the first title but forgot the second, which Mendelsohn was quick to help him with. A reminder about what book tours are really all about.

This event took place in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Thursday May 21 as apart of Sydney Writer’s festival.