Colleen McCullough (1 June 1937 – 29 January 2015) has died. She will be forever missed, forever mourned.
I spent last Sunday reading the second of the Carmine Delmonico mysteries, Too Many Murders. I’d read the first one, and enjoyed it enough, and like the characters so well, I’d been trying to get my hands on a copy of this one since last summer, so finally went to the library to borrow their copy. The third novel in the series, Naked Desire, doesn’t show up in the library catalog (an omission I find hysterically funny; but then again, the detective novels are presented in gruesome detail, and it might be too much for some of the reading public, I admit). I finished the (unfortunately) final book in the series LAST NIGHT.
I first read Thorn Birds (1977) in hardback, when it was brand new. I thought it was amazing; the story and the plot were, to me, secondary, because of the quality of her writing. She didn’t write in British-English, she didn’t write in American-English. She didn’t write like an American, or a Brit; she wrote in English, as an Australian, and it was the first time I’d ever encountered such a thing as Australian-English.
She kept writing, I kept reading. When THE FIRST MAN IN ROME (1990 – I read the first two volumes in paperback) came out, I was both intrigued and a little confused. The overarching series title The Masters of Rome hadn’t been popularized yet, and her intent to chronicle “The Fall of the Roman Republic” hadn’t really come to the forefront yet. She wrote in modern terms, for a modern audience of ancient times; she (and her team, I’m sure) did extensive, in-depth research, and came up with psychological realities for all of her characters (without laying on a modern facade over the events), and wrote both accurately (I went back to my college World History textbook, and quickly found the basis for the first book. I’d never heard of Gaius Marius or Lucius Cornelius Sulla, even having studied the history, so all this was new and fresh to me, presented in a way conducive to being read by a modern audience. I had no idea who Marius’ nephew was, at least until the third book in the series (Fortune’s Favorite (1993) that I realized what she was doing – it took me that long to figure out Marius’ nephew Gaius Julius was the world-beater, Gaius Julius Caesar, and that the overarching aim of the series was to chronicle The Fall of the Roman Republic (and how timely has that been shown to be; the woman was a pure genius, no one can convince me otherwise).
She told me things I didn’t know (Brutus’ head is at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea (an interesting tidbit of history that has stayed with me ever since), and presented these historical figures as comprehensible, living, breathing human beings, not plot devices or historical stick figures. It was an accomplishment that alone ranks here among the greatest writers of the turn of the century. She SHOWED me things, and when an author does that, that author hits the top rank of greatest writers, to me. She surprised me, over and over again, a feat to be treasured and lauded for.
Her background in medicine (she “established the department of neurophysiology at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney before working as a researcher at Yale Medical School for a decade”) informed and illuminated much of her writing, sometimes indirectly, in the attention to detail and focus on both the behavior and psychology of her characters, and sometimes directly, as in the Carmine Delmonico mysteries, or the nursing careers of her last protagonists, in Bittersweet.
Her strong sense of history was also present in her tales of earlier generations of Australians and New Zealanders. It turned out that her husband was a direct descendant of the first transports to the prison colonies Down Under, and she tells his tale brilliantly. Then she offers the Carmine Delmonico mystery series, taking us back with her to her decade at the Connecticut of memory, and brings all her literary depth, psychological depth, and historical depth to bear on what at first seems a superficial crime/mystery story. What other writer takes the time to elaborate on the eyes of each character in turn? It’s a most intriguing detail that adds so much – going right up to the window of the soul, and offering the reader what’s there to be seen – that is so unique it had to come from a very singular mind. The Delmonico mysteries, however gruesome- and she presents the business she knows in the most minute detail –delight and illuminate in equal measure. You know these characters as people, and want to keep on knowing them.
Colleen McCullough is one with the immortals of literary history, now. There are those that would- shall we say –squabble over my designating her “The Greatest Living Writer in the English Language”. Let them. In my lifetime, there have been four; until his death in 1963, on the same day as JFK and C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley was my only contender for the title. He wrote poetry, he wrote plays, he wrote novels, he wrote the most brilliant essays; he wrote letters, but those were all destroyed as he worked to compile them for publication when his Beachwood Canyon house burned down in the early 1960s (for newsreel footage, you can go here: http://www.britishpathe.com/video/homes-destroyed-in-brush-fire-in-hollywood-hills). While I was an undergraduate in college, begging, borrowing and (admittedly) even stealing to get my hands on whatever Huxley collection I’d not yet read (hey – another secret released; this blogging can be very liberating! – that’s for you, Colleen), the changes wrought by the combination of Huxley’s influence, removing myself from the Catholic fold, and benign LSD experience (it was no longer experimentation, but exploration, after the first time) have influenced everything in my life since.
After Huxley took that final LSD trip, the crown fell to Anthony Burgess. Sometime in or around 1958, Anthony Burgess was diagnosed with a brain tumor that would kill him within a year, a year he decided to dedicate to writing as much as he could. He wrote nine of his first ten novels, including A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which was published in 1962. The paperback edition I read in college had a glossary in the back, to help understand the slanguage used by Alex (the narrator) and his droogs. I started reading, and kept on reading everything and anything I could get my hands on; I was hooked. I probably first encountered Burgess in college – I saw CLOCKWORK ORANGE (“which Burgess considered to be “badly flawed”, according to Wikipedia) on LSD with my college freshmen dorm mate and his friends from home. I thought it was the wildest cartoon I’d ever seen; my dorm mate’s friend went up the aisle singing “SINGING IN THE RAIN”, just roaring with laughter. And I’d had the good chance to see the original X-rated version with the additional 30 seconds still intact. Flawed presentation of the novel the film may well be, but it was my introduction to the works of the Greatest Living Writer in the English Language of his time. By the time EARTHY POWERS came out, there WERE no other contenders. There were writers I loved, writers whose new works I anticipated eagerly (foremost among them John Irving and E.L. Doctorow – Corey not so much), but Burgess, like Huxley, was in a class all his own, his works inhabited a universe that was all his own. And he was a secret delight; nobody else seemed to appreciate Burgess as much as I did; that cinched it for me.
He wrote, and I devoured, two volumes of autobiography (Little Wilson and Big God, and You’ve Had Your Time – oh, come on; that’s a great title; he was a hell of a ballsy writer), and then he too was gone. The post of Greatest Living Writer in the English Language was vacant, and Colleen McCullough stepped up to fill the post.
Until today. It’s not an era of literary history anybody else will acknowledge, but the post has once again been vacated, and for my money, there is again only one contender. Ladies and gentlemen of the literary sphere, I present to you the Greatest Living Writer in the English Language, Neal Stephenson.
I was working at the Virgin Megastore on Times Square at the turn of the millenium, and there was a book featured by a writer I’d never heard of, Neal Stephenson. It was plain black, with white letters, and nothing else. It was intruguing; it was titled CRYPTONOMICON, yet it wasn’t science fiction, per se, it was a story of cryptography set in World War II, including, in part, the tale of my personal hero Alan Turing, in Bletchley Park. It was a complex tale deftly handled by an obvious master of the written world. I was fascinated, so when QUICKSILVER, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle, came out I was there at the checkout counter, hardback in hand. As the story continued, and I learned the story of Sir Isaac Newton, I fell into a rabbit hole of history, philosophy and just plain exciting reading that left me stunned and illuminated in ways similar to my reaction to the MASTERS OF ROME series.
There are stories that he used one of the ten books from my personal Course in Consciousness as a basis for one of his novels (Snow Crash is purportedly written around Julian Jaynes’ theories from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), and he could do that convincingly. I read Snow Crash before I got into Jaynes, and I am eager to take some time to re-read it and find out the facts of the matter.
His new work, Seveneves, comes out on May 19, 2015. Find out why for yourself.