Reviews: Auto/biography

Review: “The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days” by Kate Holden [2010]

I adore Kate Holden and have great admiration for her and her writing. Her fortnightly columns in Saturday Age and her musings on her website are filled with wit and a wry sense of humour. I also loved her first autobiography In My Skin.

So it really pains me to say that her second autobiography left me quite disappointed. The Romantic follows up after the seemingly ‘happily ever after’ in the first book where Kate kicked her heroin addiction, left her job as a prostitute and finally got herself sorted enough to get on a plane and leave for Italy and to make a clean break. (Note: you don’t need to have read the first book in order to understand the second). In Italy, Kate, now twenty-nine, roams listlessly between Rome and Naples and have a long string of affairs. The book is basically a description of her string of affairs and sexual escapades in Italy. She wanders through the sights, learns some Italian, writes in her diary and reads the romantic poets in her spare time.

The book is divided and titled on the man Kate is happening to have an affair or sex with. There is Jack, a married man twice her age; Guido, a cheeky hotel worker; Massimo, Guido’s cheekier and charismatic brother; Rufus, a writer; Gabriele, a charming, hardworking and sweet Italian man; Donetella, a woman who gets entangled with Kate and Gabriele; and finally, Kate alone. There is a lot of sex. Kate likes sex, that point is clear, but there seems to be very little character development and the pacing stumbles with its aimlessness, perhaps intentional to capture Kate’s own feeling of aimlessness. There is also the struggle within Kate as she tries to distinguish herself between the Prostitute Kate and Clean Kate. Men seem to fall instantly in love with Kate and she does not discourage them. In being with so many different men and giving herself so easily and freely, it seemed like she was trying to find acceptance somehow and a place for her somewhere, anywhere, in society although almost all the men Kate was with were all unavailable one way or another.

In a moment he’s gone. She watches them drive away. This is the city where they met; they have said goodbye here before.

‘You are in my heart,’ he had said.

‘You are my heart,’ she replied.

But her heart is gone. She was always trying to give it away. – p. 233

Despite being let down by the book, the writing is beautiful even when the content is crude. The whole idea of identity is at play here (as it tends to be when a book is an autobiography!) and Kate really loses and distances herself as she refers to herself in third person in the book as if to point out that the Kate then is not the Kate now.

Review: “Romulus, My Father” by Raimond Gaita

…tragedy, with its calm pity for the affliction it depicts, was the genre that first attracted my passionate allegiance: I recognised in it the concepts that had illuminated the events of my childhood. They enabled me to see Mitru, my mother, my father and Vacek, living among his boulders, as the victims of misfortune, in their different ways broken by it, but never thereby diminished. – p. 124.

Raimond Gaita’s slight but detailed autobiography about his father, Romulus, and Gaita’s own early childhood is filled with both tragic and heartwarming moments. Born in the former Yugoslavia, Romulus was thrown out on the world at the age of thirteen and forced to make his own way. During the second world war he moved to Germany where he met and married Christine who soon after gave birth to Raimond. This happy little life, however, would be peppered with drama and tragedy. Christine, young, attractive and bubbly,was unable to settle down particularly when the family emigrated to Australia and settled in country Victoria. She displayed signs of mental disturbances when Raimond was born, which we can now label as post-natal depression, refusing to take care of her newborn baby. Christine eventually leaves Romulus and embarks on a string of affair. She become a floating figure in young Raimond’s life as she weaves in and out of the family home and, later, psychiatric wards.

Despite this, Romulus, turning his back on the gender conventions of his day, does his best to raise Raimond up alone and, with the help of Romulus’ best friend, he succeeds tremendously. Gaita portrays his father as a strong, moralistic and compassionate man which is all the more heartbreaking when Romulus’ life unravels further down the track.

Despite being a slight volume, Gaita elegantly details his father’s life until his death. It is very clear throughout the book that, despite having a difficult childhood, Gaita felt very loved by his father and that there was not much he missed out on. The book also has a historical element as it details the post-war years of the European migration to Australia and it’s setting of country Victoria.

I was slightly reluctant to pick up this book because I was afraid of reading another depressing but heartwrenching autobiographical story. However, Gaita writes so movingly and simply, with a touch of philosophy thrown in and a nice mixture of heartwarming anecdotes that it becomes a wonderful read. It was a pleasure reading about the life of such a wonderful man.