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<p>Judith Beheading Holofernes' by Caravaggio</p>

Judith Beheading Holofernes' by Caravaggio

Peter Robb's Word Pictures

Essayist Peter Robb gives us divine 'Lives'.


Here is a dazzling collection of essays by one of Australia's finest writers. Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily (1996), a biography of the 17th century Italian painter Caravaggio, M (1998), and Street Fight in Naples (2010). This new book, Lives (Black Inc.), is made up essays going back to 1985, most of which originally appeared in the pages of newspapers and magazines including the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, El Pais, The Bulletin and The Monthly.

A series of portraits of leading Australians makes up the first part of the book, including Aboriginal activist Marcia Langton, architect Glenn Murcutt, video artist Shaun Gladwell, actor Alex Dimitriades, film director Ivan Sen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Stephen Crittenden in conversation with writer Peter Robb

The portrait of Marcia Langton in particular is a masterpiece of sympathy and scared affection, not least because we sense that Robb has known his subject for a long time and his view of her has been allowed to settle. She is "even scarier silent than in speech, a glowering matriarch, stony and immobile above a rapidly jiggling booted foot, surveying the auditorium through the hooded eyes of a predator bird".

Robb captures perfectly the matriarch's sudden squalls of rage that can just as suddenly soften. "She constantly surprises with heart-melting leaps into candour and openness," he writes. "These are no more or less than signals of trust, when the armour clatters to the ground and the delicate hesitant sensibility of the young girl glows in her words and intonation. When you have her trust her talk is relentless and wonderful."

Among the other highlights are an encounter with film director Federico Fellini on the set of his movie Roma in 1971, musings on Italian fiction-writing, and a piece on the life of American killer Gary Gilmore.

With the Gilmore portrait, as with the portraits of Glenn Murcutt or Marcia Langton or Julian Assange or Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, there's always an interest in the deep "back story" of a life, a powerful sense that people are fatefully shaped by the place they grew up in and by the tangled narrative of family and childhood.

Decline and disintegration is one of Peter Robb's main themes. The tawdry lives of middle-aged sex tourists are captured very close up in a bar town in The Philippines that he describes as being an "elephant's graveyard of the Australian male." Or there's the aging Mark Twain, trapped inside the persona he has created for himself, or the flailing, failed life of minor Italian writer Giovanni Comisso and the ageing Gore Vidal domineering his household in Positano.

“The painter who had only ever worked from life was now painting the life inside his own mind. Who knows where he might have gone next?”

Above all, there is the decline and disintegration of Italy itself, where Robb lived for a number of years. Evocation of place is very important in his work; when he writes about figures such as Pasolini or Sandro Penna or writer Leonardo Sciascia, he often seems to be using them in order to create a kind of identikit portrait of the realities of contemporary Italy itself, devastated by corruption, crime, inept bureaucracy and over-development.

And so we hear about Italy's Christian Democratic Party, in power for almost 50 years in the post-war period until it was destroyed in the corruption scandal of the early 1990s, and described by Robb as "the political arm of Cosa Nostra and the Vatican." And the dark tale of the kidnap and murder of former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the far-left Red Brigades in 1978, a watershed moment in the political history of modern Italy. Moro was held captive for more than 50 days and Robb writes brilliantly of the inadequate attempts to secure his release: "The Sicilian mafia wanted to mount a rescue operation, the Christian Democrats being after all the mafia's party.

Even the leaders of Cosa Nostra failed at first to register the depths of the perfidy in Rome. Their boss in the capital finally had to spell it out. You still haven't got it, he told a summit in Palermo. Leaders in his own party don't want him free."

“He took another fried squid ring from the plate between us, slumped back and sighed. The trouble is I’ve never had any ambition. We chewed and reflected. So what’s new in food? he asked.”

At the centre of the collection are several essays about the early 17th century painter Michelangelo Merisi — better known as Caravaggio. Merisi's life and work have become one of Peter Robb's great themes and always seems to inspire writing that leaps off the page. As a reader you feel like you are there, that you can see what Robb sees, the flickering light, the dramatic palette red and gold, the stench of drains, the sudden violence lurking in the shadows, the fleeting beauty of youth.

In "Keep on Running" he describes in loving detail a major exhibition in 2005 at Capodimonte in Naples in 2005 of Caravaggio's late works painted in Naples, Sicily and Malta, some of the Sicilian paintings now in very bad shape. "Adorers of the Roman hyperrealist have failed to recognise the extraordinary new vein Merisi was working at the end," he writes. "The painter who had only ever worked from life was now painting the life inside his own mind. Who knows where he might have gone next?"

In fact I sense that Peter Robb shares a great deal with Caravaggio in his own aesthetic sensibility. It's not just his interest in crime, violence and sexuality, but a painterly quality that runs through so much of his writing, a sensitivity to light and shadow, the smell of decay, an almost hallucinatory sense of how to compose a scene.

“As the grave and beautiful images unfold with rather little action and few words – old, young, male, female – Ivan Sen can hardly take his eyes off a face – you realise not only that you are getting to know a group of people quite closely but that you care deeply about what happens to them.”

During the trial of Ivan Milat he surveys the courtroom and lights on the figure of Justice David Hunt, "swathed in scarlet robes with facings of dove grey silk, but in his confinement he keeps them tight around him like a pensioner wrapped in a dressing gown. His august remoteness is undone by mobility. The springy lightweight recliner chair he sits in rolls and swivels with his slightest pressure, and flips him back into overnight in business class."

His description of actor Alex Dimitriades, bored, drifting through his career, his waist thickening, could almost be a detail from Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus: "He took another fried squid ring from the plate between us, slumped back and sighed. The trouble is I've never had any ambition. We chewed and reflected. So what's new in food? he asked."

Perhaps the piece that is most revealing of all about Robb's own painterly sensibility, is the one about Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen, director of Beneath Clouds, Dreamland and Toomelah.

Robb accompanies Sen as he goes"lappin" around the town of Moree in western New South Wales — watching the Aboriginal kids as they drive around aimlessly, occasionally stopping to talk or pick up a passenger, take pictures of the landscape as the shadows lengthen, watching and listening, and always searching the faces as he looks at actors to cast in his next film. Writing of Sen's 2011 film Toomelah, Robb says: "As the grave and beautiful images unfold with rather little action and few words — old, young, male, female — Ivan Sen can hardly take his eyes off a face — you realise not only that you are getting to know a group of people quite closely but that you care deeply about what happens to them."

Robb understands the way Sen composes his scenes because he works the same way — one a Caravaggio in celluloid, the other a Caravaggio in print.

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