I started out planning to say that Morris Lurie wrote not Australian stories, but what it is to be Jewish in the world, and perhaps not even Jewish, but Yiddish, of those east European Jews fleeing Nazism transposed in one great rush into the cities of the West, which is why the writing of his novels has such a rapid-fire, New York feel. But of course Melbourne and Sydney also have large populations of refugees from WWII, and Lurie, who wrote of and from Australia, his stories are Australian stories too.
Morris Lurie (1938-2014) was born in Melbourne, to Polish refugee parents, grew up in Elwood, went to Melbourne High and studied architecture at RMIT. His first novel, Rappaport (1968), was set in Melbourne but many of his subsequent novels were set overseas, reflecting his own travels. Flying Home (1978) is his seventh (of 21) and perhaps the most awarded. Lurie’s autobiography, Whole Life, was published in 1987, and in 2006 he won the Patrick White Award for under-recognised, lifetime achievement in literature.
The protagonist, the ‘I’ of this novel, is Leo Axelrod, 26, a commercial artist from Melbourne’s inner northern (working class) suburbs, and the son of Jewish refugees who arrived in Melbourne before the War, his mother from Poland and his father too, but via Palestine. Leo’s parents hadn’t been happy in Australia – by the time the novel commences they have died –
They didn’t like Australia. Well, it wasn’t even a matter of like. They ignored it. They pretended it wasn’t there. Australia was an unfortunate thing that had happened to them, that Hitler had done, that’s all it was to them. An accident. A terrible accident. It wasn’t the real world. The real world was Bialystock, Poland, Europe. Well, that’s what it was for my mother, and for her brothers and sisters, for all those family friends. For my father it was Palestine. Israel. He was from Poland too, but he didn’t want to talk about that or even remember.
We start out with Leo and his English girlfriend, Marianne renting a house in Lindos on the Greek island of Rhodes, socialising with the expatriate community there, though not always happily. After one night eating out Marianne says to Leo, “Listen, if you ever don’t want me, all you have to do is say. But you have to say. OK?” But the next morning he is up before dawn, down the hill to Rhodes, and by the time Marianne is awake, ‘I was already miles away, God only knows exactly where, gripping the salt-encrusted railing of some foul Turkish boat, blank-faced and staring into the waves.’
Leo, an only child, has his demons. His father, always angry, taunts and scorns him. While his parents work he is brought up by his father’s father, his Zaydeh, who is strict and probably mad. Marianne he has met at a party in London, or rather, seeing her across the room, he has collapsed at her feet and coming to, says, “Come to Greece with me”, and she does. Marianne has been a rich man’s mistress and has demons of her own. They buy a car, a second-hand Mini, and set off. Leo has the money from a secret, pornographic commission to pay their way. There are ‘ghosts’ in the car, Leo’s parents and grandfather, criticising his spending, criticising his life, criticising him, but in between times he’s happy. For a year after the death of his mother, his father, his Zaydeh packed off earlier back to Israel, he has toured restlessly around Europe before settling in London, but now he is back, “Oh what a fool I had been to ever leave Europe, to have rushed to England, to have stayed there that long. Nearly a year in that tight, closed land.”
In Melbourne he had been a virgin until he was 24, till his mother died. For a while there was Gaby, a girl with a rich father, who had sex with him in wilder and wilder places, finally abandoning him at a rich kids’ party, then in Europe nothing for a year, and now, Marianne. They cross Europe in fits and starts, the engine unreliable, flat tyre after flat tyre, sometimes idyllic, sometimes fleeing down the highway to escape the demons in the back seat. Paris, Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia and finally Greece, the Mini dead, towed to the Rhodes ferry.
I won’t take you all the way to the end, but Spoiler Alert, Leo is back on his ‘foul Turkish Freighter’, days and nights at sea, stopping at Crete to load up with deck passengers, pilgrims, docking at Haifa. Israel. The port is deserted, he’s lost track of the days, it’s Easter, Passover:
Pesach! My heart hammered in my throat. “The first day?’ I said. “The seder?” He looked at his watch. “In four hours,” he said. I was the first person off the ship.
In the empty streets he locates at last a taxi, negotiates a fare to Jerusalem, and there finds his way somehow to his father’s brother’s house, hopelessly late in the evening. His aunt opens the door. And screams.
I had brought back to Israel my father’s face. The same smile. The same look. The same moving of my head, my eyes, my mouth. But more than that. My father had sailed from Haifa when he was twenty-six, my age now. Forty years had disappeared in a second, had never happened. My father had returned to Palestine.
His uncle ships Leo around Israel, farming him out to friends and relos. Slowly he resolves the mysteries of his father’s anger, of his Zaydeh, of a grandmother he had never heard mentioned. But to Marianne, whom he could not tell he was leaving, he cannot write, not even to say he is returning. He leaves, sails back to Greece, in the same foul Turkish boat, to Rhodes, to Lindos, “I climbed the steps up from the platia, paused for a second to catch my breath, and then I started to run …”
This is a terrific book, suspenseful to the end. Even on the last page Leo is confronting the parents who were too bound up in their own stories, the wreckage of their own lives, to give him love:
Everyone was always shouting. I can hear them now. My father. Zaydeh. My mother trying to make peace. What peace? What peace could there be? I can taste the bitterness, the hopelessness, the rage. I told you all this in Como, when you wanted to go home. That was the truth, or I thought it was the truth. In Israel I found out other things. A different truth. So now I understand everything, I understand at last why they were like that …
I sit here in the dark and I try and remember when my mother held me, or my father, I want to feel, just once, their arms around me, their lips on my cheek, because I know that if I can remember that, just one time when they held me close, then everything will be all right, but I can’t. I can’t
Does Marianne forgive him? Are his demons laid to rest? Leo thinks so, we can only hope.
Geology daughter and x-Mrs Legend are talking me into going to Europe with them next April-May and specifically to Greece, so I may after all see Rhodes and Lindos, may even send back a Charmian Clift post from Hydra. If I don’t get cold feet!
Morris Lurie, Flying Home, Outback, 1978. My copy published by Imprint (A&R), Sydney in 1991.