C(hristopher) J(ohn) Koch Biography
C.J. Koch comments:
Nationality: Australian. Born: Hobart, Tasmania, 1932. Education: Clemes College; St. Virgil's Christian Brothers College; Hobart State High School, 1946-50; University of Tasmania, Hobart, 1951-54, B.A. 1954. Has one son. Career: Until 1972, radio producer, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney. Awards: The Age Book of the Year award, 1978; Australian National Book award, 1979; Miles Franklin award, 1986. Agent: Curtis Brown, 27 Union Street, Paddington, New South Wales 2021, Australia.
The Boys in the Island. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1958; revised edition, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1974.
Across the Sea Wall. London, Heinemann, 1965; revised edition, Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1982.
The Year of Living Dangerously. Melbourne, Nelson, and London, Joseph, 1978; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1979.
The Doubleman. London, Chatto and Windus, 1985; New York, McGraw Hill, 1986.
Highways to a War. New York, Viking, 1995.
Out of Ireland. London, Heinemann, 1999.
The Year of Living Dangerously, with Peter Weir and David Williamson, 1983.
Chinese Journey, with Nicholas Hasluck. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1985.
Crossing the Gap: A Novelist's Essays. London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.
Australian National Library, Canberra.
"In the Shadow of Patrick White" by Vincent Buckley, in Meanjin (Melbourne), no. 2, 1961; "The Novels of C.J. Koch" by Robyn Claremont, in Quadrant (Sydney), 1980; "Asia, Europe and Australian Identity: The Novels of Christopher Koch," May 1982, and "Asia and the Contemporary Australian Novel," October 1984, both by Helen Tiffin, in Australian Literary Studies (St. Lucia, Queensland); " Pour mieux sauter: Christopher Koch's Novels in Relation to White, Stow and the Quest for a Post-colonial Fiction," in World Literature Written in English (Guelph, Ontario), 1983, and "Living Dangerously: Christopher Koch and Cultural Tradition," in Quadrant (Sydney), September 1985, both by Paul Sharrad; "Oedipus in the Tropics: A Psychoanalytical Interpretation of C.J. Koch's The Year of Living Dangerously " by Xavier Pons, in Colonisations (Toulouse), 1985; "Expanding Other-world: The Achievement of C.J. Koch" by Andrew Sant, in The Age Monthly Review (Melbourne), June 1985; "The Envenomed Dreams of C.J. Koch" by Laurie Clancy, in Island (Hobart, Tasmania), Winter 1985.
(1991) I began by writing verse, but gave my main attention to the novel from the age of 19. I believe that the novel can be a poetic vehicle, and that it has taken over the function of narrative poetry in this century. By this I do not mean that it uses the techniques of verse; nor do I mean that it can replace the lyric.
My first two novels were youthful and over-written. I have cut and revised both, and am now more satisfied with them. I don't expect to do this again, since I feel that I reached the stage of mastering my craft with The Year of Living Dangerously.
Two things preoccupy me as a novelist: the way in which many people search for a world just outside normal reality; and dualities: the dualities that run through both the human spirit and the world itself. It is the effort to reconcile these contradictions that makes for the pathos and drama I am interested in. Perhaps an Australian is attuned to duality more than some other writers, since he comes from a country born of Europe, but lying below Asia.
* * *
C. J. Koch (who originally signed himself Christopher Koch) had his first poem accepted when he was seventeen and began writing fiction in his teens. He wrote two novels but became silent until, at the age of forty, he left his senior position at the Australian Broadcasting Commission to devote himself full-time to writing. Since then he has established himself as one of Australia's leading novelists. Koch substantially revised his first two novels and published a fine book of essays, Crossing the Gap, which does much to illuminate his own art, but most importantly has produced several outstanding novels. His concerns in all his books remain remarkably consistent, as do the imagery and symbolism through which he explores them. He is preoccupied with the nature of reality and illusion and the relationship between them, and with the related question of whether it is not, after all, necessary to live by illusion if one is to live at all. Waking up and growing up are, for Koch's earlier and younger characters especially, conditions to be feared. Koch's concern also is with the flaws in his male protagonists that lead to their betrayal or near betrayal of the women with whom they become involved.
The Boys in the Island tells the story of a sensitive young boy through his school days and adolescence to his final, reluctant initiation into early manhood. Francis falls in love with a young girl who suddenly, heartbreakingly, abandons him. He fails his exams and travels from Tasmania to Melbourne, where he becomes involved in a meaningless life of petty crime. Then the suicide of a friend and his own near death in a car crash send him back to his home to reassess his life and accept unprotestingly "the iron bonds of his imminent adulthood." Despite the familiarity of the material, Koch's keen ear for colloquial speech, sensuous command of natural detail, and understated prose give the novel a fresh and poignant flavor.
Across the Sea Wall opens with journalist Robert O'Brien looking back over an affair he had six years ago. Fleeing from marriage and the life of a staid suburbanite working for his future father-in-law, O'Brien and a childhood friend take a boat to Naples, Italy. En route he falls in love with Ilsa Kalnins, and they skip the boat at Ceylon. But eventually O'Brien discovers that he cannot accept the challenge of Ilsa's love or believe in its sincerity when confronted with the accusations that his friends bring against her, and he returns to Australia. Two years later she appears in Sydney and they make plans to marry, but once again O'Brien abandons her. The novel has many shrewd touches of characterization and the same sensitivity in dealing with the impact of love on the uninitiated, the failure of the males to respond adequately to its demands, that is a recurring them in Koch's work.
The Year of Living Dangerously is set in Indonesia in the last year of Sukarno's regime. The Sukarno of this novel is a man who seemed originally to embody the hopes and dreams of his people (including those of an Australian-Chinese dwarf named Billy Kwan who is in the country as a press photographer) but who has now lost himself in grandiose schemes and the pursuit of private gratification. A coup is being prepared against him, and it is this that provides the spectacular climax to the novel. Slowly, as Billy begins to see through Sukarno, his idealistic allegiance to and hope in a savior begin to switch towards Guy Hamilton, the journalist who has been sent out to replace Billy's previous boss. The novel is narrated by someone identified only as "Cookie" or by the initials he supplies to his occasional footnotes, R.J.C. Through the use of diaries, speaking through the voices of various characters, using purloined documents from Billy Kwan's private files, speculating and inventing when he cannot know for certain, the narrator builds up layer after layer of texture upon the basic structure of the narrative. At the end, Koch tries, unfashionably and audaciously, to suggest Hamilton's final redemption and capacity to love as he ascends into insight via partial blindness.
The central character in The Doubleman is Richard Miller, a thoughtful, complex man but an observer rather than a participant in life and a man who has developed a heavy psychological dependence on worlds of fantasy and illusion. Although barred from an active physical life, he is drawn towards his athletic cousin Brian Brady, who is both simpler and more adventurous than himself; such relationships are common in Koch's fiction. Miller leaves Tasmania and follows Brady and his friend Darcy Burr to the mainland, where he pursues a career as a radio actor and the other two form a musical group. When the three men come together again in Sydney, Miller is now a successful media producer; Burr, Brady, and eventually Miller's emigre wife Katrin form a folk group called Thomas and the Rymers; and it is inevitable that he will become entangled in the complex moral and ethical choices that confront Koch's protagonists sooner or later. As with the previous novel, comparisons with Graham Greene come to mind—the superb sense of place and atmosphere, the conviction of the ambiguous and double-edged nature of innocence—and in fact Greene expressed his admiration for it.
The locale of Highways to a War is Vietnam and then Cambodia (after a beautifully written section on Tasmania), but the period is the 1960s and 70s; again the confrontation is between an Australian innocent and a world of Asian complexity that leaves him vulnerable and bewildered. As presented by his friend Ray Barton, the protagonist Langford is a deeply romanticized character; he is even, if we are to believe the ending, a Christ figure who attracts his own Judas in the person of the secret operative Aubrey Hardwick. But he is also a man fatally in love with the past, and although it is not primarily his own fault, his relations with women are all doomed ones that he spends his life, unsuccessfully and in the end fatally, trying to keep alive.
As he did in The Year of Living Dangerously, Koch tells the story by adding layer upon layer, voice upon voice, so that the effect is of a kind of palimpsest that has been painted over repeatedly, with each portrait of the main character adding to or contradicting the ones previously offered. The effect is of a rich and multi-faceted tapestry of meanings that involve not just Langford himself but the history of the Vietnam War and of Asia during the bloody decade that the novel covers. The history of Langford being slowly sucked into the vortex of the war becomes a history of that decade and what Koch sees, even though he is careful not to take sides, as its betrayals.
There is a scene in Highways to a War in which two young boys break into a locked room and discover a portrait, a cache of letters, and two calfskin-covered notebooks. The portrait is of Irish patriot Robert Devereux, who was tried before a rigged jury and sentenced to exile for inciting rebellion against the English occupiers of Ireland in 1848. Out of Ireland purports to be a record of the contents of those diaries—Devereux's account of his three years in exile before escaping to America, as edited again by Ray Barton. In Highways to a War different people wrote the text that is put together by Barton. In Out of Ireland, however, the whole long novel is written in the voice of Devereux himself. That it succeeds is mainly because Koch is able to capture that voice—grave, measured, beautifully lucid—so well; he makes it consistent and plausible while varying it sufficiently to maintain interest.
Devereux is the charismatic head of the Young Irish movement, a brilliant writer and orator and potentially a leader of Ireland's rebellion against its oppressors. Barton says of Devereux that he "stood on the brink of the modern world," and Koch seems to want to make him an avatar of historical change, the kind of change, he seems to imply, that is not always for good. The novel is set in 1848, that quintessentially revolutionary year in Europe, and yet for his fervor Devereux is at heart a conservative, even aristocratic, figure. He praises France as the capital of freedom and the new order yet at the same time argues that "Socialism and feudalism are brothers under the skin." One suspects that Koch agrees. It was the French intellectual tradition, after all, that gave birth to and nurtured the terrible ideology of the Khmer Rouge.
At the same time Devereux is Prometheus—potential savior of mankind but now bound to a rock. And in one of Koch's favorite tropes he speaks of himself as a "man of double nature." For all his genuine qualities there is something stiff-necked about him. As with many of Koch's protagonists, his insistence on standing on his dignity carries disastrous consequences for the woman he loves and very nearly for himself. Out of Ireland brings to its conclusion an impressive and formidable achievement. Although both Out of Ireland and Highways to a War are self-sufficient, when read together they illuminate one another more fully as commentaries on two crucial and interrelated periods of history.