in conversation with peter marks...

Peter Marks is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney.
Some of his favourite books include Ulysses by James Joyce and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

Tell us a bit about yourself?
I'm professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney. Originally from New Zealand, I have lived in Australia for nearly thirty years. I was the first in my family to go to university, and was a bit of a later starter, not really getting going until I was in my mid-20s. I did my PhD on George Orwell's essays at the University of Edinburgh. I have been teaching modern and contemporary literature and film at Sydney for more than 20 years.

How did you decide what you wanted to do?
I didn't. My Honours supervisor suggested that I do a PhD, and the subsequent scholarship to study for three years in Edinburgh seemed a better option than working in factories and warehouses, which is what I had mostly done since leaving school. Luckily, soon after I did my PhD, I got a lecturing job in England. I was 35 by then, so I guess you could say that I meandered into lecturing, helped far more by a tremendous amount of luck than by any planning.

What inspires you?
The perseverance of others. Acts of unrewarded generosity.

If you could only wear one colour for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Black. I am a Kiwi, so being in all black makes sense as a statement of national identity. And, being lazy and messy, it would mean that I would not have to decide what to wear, and would have to wash my clothes less frequently.

Do you have a favourite fun fact that our readers may not know?
In 1933 a book appeared that at one point was to be published under the pseudonym 'H Lewis Allways' and with the title, The Lady Poverty. Happily, the author, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair, decided on the pseudonym 'George Orwell' and on the title, Down and Out in Paris and London.

 

What is something you have ticked off your bucket list? Can you describe what it was like?
Can something be on a bucket list if you did it at 21? Certainly living in Paris at that age fulfilled what had been my ambition for all my teenage years. Paris was the place where so many of my literary artistic heroes and heroines had at some stage lived and worked and loved and argued and created. I remember looking out the window of the hostel I was staying at, across the rooftops of Paris and thinking 'wow'. Not profound, I grant you, but a true reflection of my joy at making it there. I was literally across the other side of the world from suburban South Auckland, but the metaphorical distance was far greater.

What is something on your bucket list? Why?
To write that novel. Why? Because it was one of the reasons I went to Paris when I was 21.

Upon reflecting on your life, if you could do anything differently, what would it be?
I would think about the consequences of my actions before doing them. I would be bolder. I would write that novel. I would not have that 'one for the road' as often.

What was the best advice you ever received?
I don't know whether it was the best advice (it was more a warning) but my dad told me when I was 17, after I quit my first job (as a very bored bank clerk), that 'everyone hates their job'. That was the reality he and most of those people he knew lived. I set out to prove him wrong, and I succeeded. Admittedly, it took me 20 years and tremendous luck to get there, but, hey, I was 17. Now, I get paid to read, and to talk to smart, enthusiastic people about books - what better job could there be?

Do you have any pieces of wisdom to share?
Always compare down. To be living in a rich western country in the 21st century is to be experiencing one of the most privileged lives in the history of the human race. And in this moment, too.

What are some of your favourite books?
The two books I find endlessly fascinating are James Joyce's Ulysses and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. The first time I read Ulysses (I was about 17) I didn't really understand it, or large sections of it, but I was amazed by the ambition and the refinement of it. I have gone back to it again and again. The chapters are distinct, so that it's like walking through a gallery of Picasso's lifeworks and re-configuring your sense of the world, of people, and of what art can do, in each new room. The first page of The Sound and the Fury is something that stirs my juices, partly because you feel launched into a completely different way of understanding the world. That is partly because of the peculiarities of the narrator, but there is tremendous craft and poise in the representation of what, at first, seems almost random nonsense. Each section is strikingly different, determined (in the next two sections) by the consciousness of the new narrator. Faulkner, like Joyce, gives us no guidance, no trainer wheels. You are required to become a better reader, to work at uncovering and piecing together meaning. There's no end to the process; I find that exhilarating.

What is the strangest book you have ever read?
House Mother Normal by B.S. Johnson. This novel is set in an old folks home. Each section (they're not really chapters) presents the mental processes of people who are increasingly older and less compos mentis. [Spoiler alert]: you realize after a few sections that you are reading the same scene as understood by each of these old people. Increasingly there are blank lines, where, seemingly people have no thoughts, and then blank half pages and even blank pages. It's darkly funny and poignant. While the sections are separate, you can move back and forth in the book, and see what two or more people were thinking about the same incident at the same time. This novel has the best linguistic in-joke I've come across. But you have to know Welsh.

What book should everyone read at least once in his or her lifetime?
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Especially now.