So is Miller, like Bill Bryson, stopping writing? Really?
‘‘There’s a compelling symmetry about it,’’ he says over the phone from his Castlemaine home. ‘‘A beautiful symmetry that appeals to me enormously in that he gave me my first published story. Has he given me my last published story? I think it’s a question rather than a statement.’’ Later he adds: ‘‘There’s got to be a reasonable limit, hasn’t there? I can’t keep going forever.’’
Miller, who is now 83, is the author of 12 novels and has twice won the Miles Franklin award. But Max is his first work of non-fiction. It is, as the late Jacob Rosenberg said of his own memoir, East of Time, ‘‘a rendezous of history and imagination’’. That’s because although Miller suspects Blatt wanted him to write his story, he was chary with details of his life so it is Miller’s imagination that is applied to what he gradually learns about his friend.
Miller has ‘‘shards’’ of Blatt – he calls his chapters ‘‘fragments’’ – but there remain lacunae, not least what seems to be the conundrum at the heart of the book and the reason perhaps for Blatt’s personal reticence, the dreadful fate of his parents and, particularly, his first wife, and the guilt he felt about it. Blatt carried her photograph in his wallet for the rest of his life, clearly to the irritation of his second wife, who burnt it immediately when he died in 1981.
But why, I wondered, was Blatt so special to Miller. Why for so long after his death did Miller want to write about him, why did he dream about him, and why had he remained his moral touchstone?
Miller is happy to discuss these questions, but not answer them. ‘‘There are no answers to the serious questions of life, no final answers. There is continuing and ongoing discussion, and the book itself is my statement of that sort of thing.’’
Max is a personal, ultimately moving attempt to encounter fully the man whose ‘‘friendship has been an inspiration to me since my youth’’ Miller says. ‘‘It has been to Max, since my twenties, that I have looked for my private standards as a writer … [it] is a book about the influence of the dead on the living and the necessity of remembering and valuing our connections to them if we are to understand who we are ourselves.’’
In the course of the book, Miller travels to Germany, Poland and Israel and unearths much about his friend and the world he lived in before it was ripped apart by the Nazis. And he learned about himself and writing.
‘‘I haven’t done non-fiction in a big way before and one of the discoveries I made was what I call ‘the magic of the simply real’, that connection of things that runs in the book. These things are something that I would never have invented in a novel,’’ he says. But the surprising coincidences and connections – of people and places – are crucial to his hunt for the buried story of Max Blatt.
When Miller and his wife first went to Berlin and he got hold of a cache of letters between Blatt and one of his comrades in the Socialist Workers’ Party, he realised he was ambivalent about what he was doing.
‘‘I’m breaking the seal of Max’s silence, which is in a sense the most wonderful and interesting thing about him and it’s been in me all my life and has led me on to this idea that writing can be a noble enterprise and not something that I can cheapen in any way.’’
But that ambivalence vanished when in Israel he met Liat, Blatt’s niece – he also learnt that he had encountered her as a 15-year-old in Melbourne 50 years earlier – and she told him that Blatt had said he had a friend who would come one day and write the story of the family. ‘‘I could hardly believe what she was saying,’’ Miller says.
What he didn’t want to do was write what he calls a complete and full-bodied story about Max and the Holocaust. That’s because a story with all the pieces fitting together again would be a lie. And, he says, it would be a dangerous lie because the Holocaust could happen again in any form.
‘‘The repetition of history is only too plain in the current elections in America, where it’s terrifying. You’ve got China with a leader for life, you’ve got Poland, which is awful, and the way the Polish government have managed to diminish the power of and separation of the law from the government, and in America you’ve got a President saying I can’t guarantee a smooth transition in our democratic elections.’’
Max Blatt returned to Germany for a year in a frustrated attempt to get compensation. But because he had no documentary proof of his experiences, it was denied him. Miller compares his treatment to that of Australia’s towards refugees.
‘‘We have people coming here in good faith believing in that Australian myth that, oh it’s wonderfully flat, socially flat and because it’s a country created by European and Asian migration, you’ll be welcomed. Bullshit.
‘‘You have only got to test the system a little bit and the appeals to our humanity from tragic tragic people who are lost through these terrible upheavals overseas and seek refuge in Australia and we turn them away. Not only we turn them away, we turn them away cruelly.’’
Having completed his act of remembrance, I wondered whether Miller still dreamt of his friend.
‘‘Not since I got back from Poland.’’
But he still carries Max Blatt with him.
Max is published by Allen & Unwin at $32.99.
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald