Ramona Koval

Interview by Melissa Shook

An Australian edition, in lieu of galleys, of Ramona Koval’s By the Book: a Reader’s Guide to Life was on top of a pile in my friend Margaret’s kitchen. When I asked if she’d liked it, she said that she found it on the free table at work, hadn’t read it, and I could have it.

I was fortunate, since this gorgeously comforting and informative writing brings home the huge mistake I made by dismissing books as purveyors of lies and nonsense when I was a disappointed teenager having picked up my mother’s novels – Forster, Fraser, Woolf, Hesse – after she died and finding nothing in them remotely related to the difficult situation she’d left me in. I vowed never to trust novels again. But, it was touching to read  Ramona Koval’s elegant explanation of the many ways she’s explored the thinking of others, the enjoyment she’s had through her choice of reading companions, and the career she developed along with this fascination.

In the first three pages of this remarkable book, she gives us a glimpse of her mother, stretched on a purple divan, “her soft body covered by a blanket, her attention absorbed by the pages in her hands. She was lost to us” and “absorbed in her self-education program.” Koval informs us that her mother is a Holocaust survivor who learned Yiddish in the shtetl, Polish in school, German in Warsaw living under a false identity, French in Paris, and English once they settled in a working class neighborhood in Melbourne. Koval hints of her mother’s secret depths: “She had little to spend on herself, but she favoured a particular brand of French perfume, Amour Amour by Jean Patou. I suspect that she didn’t buy it herself. And that my father certainly wouldn’t have thought of giving it to her.”

Along with an economical glimpse of family dynamics and economic status, Koval describes the critical abilities she developed at a very young age, proved by her quick dismissal of The Little Red Hen, a story that most people my age have heard or read. “I have always thought the little red hen was a twisted martyr who should have made the tasks fun so the other animals might have wanted to help her.”

After three pages, I was not only questioning my (unconscious and thorough) dismissal of novels, but certain that the child I was hadn’t the sense to call that hen a twisted martyr. Oh, dear.

Luckily I was drawn along by the quality of Koval’s writing, fascinated by the complex path her life took, and the passages she quotes from an assortment of books that mark her choices, changes, preoccupations, and professional life. In fact, my copy of her book is porcupined with stickies and copiously underlined.

While I’m not enticed by Koval’s enthusiasm about polar exploration, I am very glad that she included Scott’s list of impressions of the landscape. How can I not be grateful for the stunning quote about the quality of internal happiness and contentment that was written by Rosa Luxemburg two years before she died in Breslau Prison? She remembered that from John Carey’s The Faber Book of Reportage, which seems like a book worth investing in. At the end of her book there are five and a half pages listing books that Koval briefly referred to or quoted from, sometimes extensively. I can just imagine her bookshelves, sagging with the weight.

By the Book: a Reader’s Guide to Life has just been released in the U.S. Please do look at Koval’s website, which provides transcripts and audio versions of her adroit interviews with writers such as Martin Amis, P.D. James, and Colin Thubron. It’s also quite nice to hear her voice!

MS: So, on page 3, you mention the Amour Amour perfume that your mother, who you’ve so gently, cozily and concisely described, uses and then, way, way along into the book, almost at the end, you write that a photograph taken by Andre Kertsez in Paris leads you to imagining

“my mama reading there with a man she has met in the gardens, while my father plays cards in a café, oblivious to what my mother is doing in another part of the forest. Banned books were not the only forbidden fruit my mother enjoyed. But that is a story for another time.”

You’ve so nicely interwoven the way books have marked stages in your life. Will you go on to write another book more specifically about your family, your mother, yourself, a more conventional memoir?

RK: Well spotted, Melissa! The book I am working on at the moment starts from a strand of memoir – to do with my mother and forbidden fruit – and goes on to explore questions of identity, passports, languages, shadows, false trails, genetics, history, evidence and storytelling, and I think I might end up arguing that all these things don’t matter as much as we think. A good life and love given and received might matter more. But as I am still in the midst of writing, I may even surprise myself.

MS: It seems to me that you’ve not only read countless books, but have retained passages that are nourishing to you. Did this come about largely because of your radio interviews with authors? Or do you think you would have taken on this habit anyway because you were taught, by your mother, how important books are?

RK: It’s true that I was always a reader, but this tendency was turbo-charged in my years in journalism in Australia as I was presenting shows on public radio at ABC (think BBC) dedicated to books in all their genres, poetry, publishing, history, politics, science, essays  – you name it. Perhaps I noticed nourishing passages because this was important in conveying the essence of a book’s style and intention to people who had not yet read it.

I always notice the way some things you read just make you sigh, and I scribble the page number in the back of the book for later.

 MS: Four chapters that appear in By the Book: a Reader’s Guide to Life have been published elsewhere. Did that push you toward writing the book? I understand that you’ve written notes, underlined, scribbled thoughts on the flyleaves of your books, but have you kept a file of interesting material over the years? 

RK: Given the years I had spent reading other people’s work I knew that I could write a book about reading. And when I went through the books I had around me that were dear to me, the ones I had kept through marriages, divorces, house moves and culls, I started to wonder why they were dear. I reread them and became 15 again, or 27 or 39 or whoever I was when I read them. I was transported back to times and places and memories on the magic carpet of the books on my shelves. In a sense, they were the notes I had made through the years – notes that were in my memory and then had to be written. And when I sent the first draft to my publisher he said that he really loved and wanted more on the personal reflections. So I was a reluctant bride to memoir, having lived my journalistic live with the belief that the people I was interviewing were more interesting than I was.

MS: I was, of course, fascinated by your description of dancing with the “aboriginal man in the light suit – could it have been violet?” and the fight you had about racism with your doctor/boyfriend after the music stopped that ended with a sentence and a fine paragraph:

 “Now everyone would think he could not control his woman.

And even with all the books I had read and the lessons I had tried to learn and the voices of the women in the conscious-raising group and the words of Simone de Beauvoir and Mary McCarthy ringing in my ears, readers, I married him.”

That’s so terrific that I don’t know if there’s anything you can add, but I hope you’ll try. And maybe you’ll write about why you occasionally directly address the reader, a touch I appreciated.

RK: I think I was wrestling with two disparate ideas. The first is my conviction that books can tell us how to live and how others have lived and what might happen to us and how to imagine ourselves into the lives of others and into our own future lives too. Because the moment in my life you raise was an example of me not heeding all the things I had read. Maybe we only recognize the wisdom of books in retrospect? Then we can tell others how important the lessons are to be learned from books, and the people we so urgently tell can ignore us and find out much later that we and the books were right!

On the question of direct address to the reader, I was, of course, playing with that mid-nineteenth century address to the reader that you see in Jane Eyre.

But also you need to know that I spent more or less twenty-five years working as a radio broadcaster where there is an intimate connection between your brain, your mouth and the ears of the audience. The address to individual listeners is I think part of the craft of broadcasting, and knowing how to do it and where and how often is something you learn by doing. When you are telling stories of your life I think that you can assume that a reader is like a friend with whom you are trusting part of yourself. And so a direct address occasionally marks the strength of this connection.

MS: I loved the question on your first-year university biology exam about the excretory system of the spider that you were supposed to answer as a ‘biochemical analysis,’ but that you failed because you “waxed lyrical,” a first clue that you might not become a scientist. And that, after a few years, as you said “I got over the grief [of not becoming another Madame Curie] because I realized that, with or without a baby, I didn’t have the temperament to be really good at science…I was still impatient, and most of all I loved the poetry in those great stories of science.”

Would you please write a bit about your appreciation and curiosity about science, your career, and what your plans might be for future projects?

RK: I am still fascinated by what comes out of the world’s laboratories and from the best minds working in science. I have the NASA app on my phone and like to see what the curiosity rover is up to from time to time. I have a massive photo of our galaxy on my wall next to my desk to remind me of the enormity of the universe/s and how tiny our address is here on the blue planet. I’m amazed by nanotechnology and about what technology can tell us about other things like archeology and the origins of human populations. And then there are the stories of how different organisms live in their variety of environmental niches. I fear global warming. But I’m of no use in the laboratory and so I’m happy to tune in to these stories and read and wonder about them.

My current project is a book that is due out in Australia at the end of 2014, and I continue with a small amount of literary journalism – video interviews with writers for The Monthly Book on www.themonthly.com.au

MS: Would you please recommend any memoirs that are important to you?

RK: I have just finished reading one of the most impressive memoirs I’ve seen – Robert Antelme’s The Human Race, first published in French but translated into English in 1992 and published again in 1998 by the Marlboro Press, Northwestern in the U.S.

Another just published, less harrowing but complex work is A History of Silence by New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones published in Australia by Text.