Finishing the Renaissance

Arts Librarian Raymond mounts a defence of the printed word as an e-library purge sweeps through his university. Thousands of volumes are culled before the librarian himself is shown the door. Redundant, alone with his books, Raymond plots his renaissance: a return to the past, to a time when ‘everything he encountered was new’.

His renaissance takes him back to architecture, to the student experience, to the suburb of his student days — all encapsulated in his planned renovation of a derelict inner suburban warehouse. When the renovation stalls, Raymond takes the opportunity to visit Italy. Inspired by a classic text, surrounded by the architecture of Italy, he re-invents himself as the ‘student of architecture’. He learns to draw, to see with different eyes, to discover the Italian Renaissance as if it were new. Why didn’t we just stop here? he asks. But on the cusp of heading to Rome, misadventure disrupts his euphoria, and he finds himself convalescent in the home of an Italian nonna, in an Italy that is everyday.

Finishing the Renaissance is a novel of books, of art and architecture, of rediscovery. It explores the relationship between past and present, between old and new, between personal and cultural longing.

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extracts from chapters 1, 2, 3 & 4

This is how it all begins: Raymond sees Don Quixote lying in a skip. The last days of summer, sun shines in the bluest of skies, small birds sing, a sweet breeze flirts with the leaves on the eucalypts. Days like this you would imagine yourself by the sea — the cries of the gulls circling, the soft kiss of the tide on the sand, and you, without a care in the world, drinking chilled wine and thinking you could live forever. No hint of an autumn to come.

Don Quixote. Raymond scampers over the edge, bangs his knee on the hard metal, looses his balance and tumbles onto his back. He rolls over and now they are face to face. Don Quixote. Someone has thrown Cervantes’ masterpiece into the skip! He gets back up on his knees and examines his find: wear on the spine, a faded scratch on the back cover, fresh damage on the bottom left corner where it landed. He tries to smooth out that crease, gently coaxing the bent corner back, but he knows you can’t do that with a book, it will stay there like a scar.

The Tobias Smollett translation. Remember the difficulty getting it? Years out of print then. All those faxes to that bookseller in Tottenham Court Road. Did he really have a copy or was he just playing you along? Never thought it would arrive. The library has others, Putman’s and the Edith Grossman translation, as good as any contemporary version, but Smollett is the original and the favourite. It’s the language, it takes you back there.

As if by instinct the book falls open… So eager and entangled was our Hidalgo in this kind of history, that he would often read from morning till night, and from night to morning again, without interruption, till at last, the moisture of his brain being quite exhausted with indefatigable watching and study, he fairly lost his wits…

He is elbows and knees on books, what other treasures have been thrown away? Raymond gets back on his feet and perches on the slender metal edge of the skip, one foot resting on somebody or other’s First Principles of Accountancy, the other on a science textbook, Inorganic Chemistry, Kotz & Purcell. There is a broad ledge at the front of the skip and it is there that he places Cervantes’ classic. He gently traces an arc across the cover with the tips of his fingers, an apology for the outrage.

It’s just chance that he found it. Victoria has a child taken sick at school and was anxious to head home. She had been packing up crates of old books when the news came in — old chemistry books, out-dated business texts, long-forgotten basics-of-sociology, critical theory readers that have fallen out of favour. Some books don’t have long lives. One academic retires, the new one clears the shelves. New schools of thought, new theories, new egos, new texts. Happens all the time. ‘I’ll look after it’, Raymond offered. Though it’s hardly a job for the Arts Librarian, he’s feeling generous today, first week back after three months’ leave.

Not that he had done much. Caught up with old friends over dinner, poked around in the garden, did the dental and medical check-ups expected of a conscientious sixty-year-old, and obliged when called on for the odd stint of grandchild-sitting. One day he took a flight to Tasmania and wandered around Hobart. First time ever. What a interesting city! Was it because of the water? Or was it the isolation? Cass insisted he visit the new gallery, MONA. Wasn’t sure what to make of that. Of course he liked it: the arrival by boat, the long walk up the steps, and inside, the descent in the glass lift, into the warm bowels of the earth, like into the Pharaoh’s tomb. The art confused him, though. Wonderful antiquities in one room, nonsense in another. Cloaca Professional: a shitting machine that pooed on the dot of two every afternoon. Real enough, you could smell it. And the crowd loved it, but seriously… Art?

Then he flew to Sydney and spent a week with her. Cass makes him visit the museum most days, she shows him everything, gives him a run-down on what’s coming, introduces him to people he’ll probably never meet again. Every night they eat out somewhere, never at the same place. She exhausts him. Now the boyfriend’s gone, she has an excess of energy. ‘He was so much work!’ She can say it now. ‘Knew how to do everything, but did none of it himself!’ Never marry someone who grew up with servants, he told her once. Good advice, too. She’s forty soon, so children are out of the question. He doesn’t mind that, he just wants to see her happy. 

Sometimes he catches himself watching her. Can’t get past how much like Em she still is. He sees Em when she laughs, the way Em’s eyes would almost close. It’s in the gestures, too, like she’d learnt them off by heart. One night she cries and he holds her like he used to when she was little and something silly would frighten her. Does he sense some regret? But the next day she’s her true self again, full of big plans and laughter. Men aren’t that important to the Curator of Contemporary Art. She’ll be the Director there one day.

Most of his long service leave was spent in the garden, reading. A table under the big magnolia, cups of morning tea, wine with lunch. On the few wet days he would retreat inside, pull a chair over to the dining room window and read, the garden still there for those moments of quiet reflection that good reading demands. It was Christmas when he began and the end of an Indian summer when he closed the last book, put on his jacket and tie and went back to the library. Rilke’s ‘new’ poems, Malouf’s short stories, the latest Alex Miller. Lots of others. Heer’s study of the Middle Ages captivated him; The Memory of Salt, another favourite. The librarian is on holidays and he’s reading.

Cass was furious. ‘Three months! What you could have done! You could have travelled!’ She can’t hide her disappointment with him these days. Wanting him to get out of that empty house, wanting him to get out of himself. ‘You’re just growing old there…’ The familiar lament. He tries to tell her how travel would only make things worse — the solitary figure in the strange land, disoriented by the foreign tongue, perplexed by the aimlessness of the journey. No, he’d be more alone than ever. And he just couldn’t go, it was something they were meant to do together.

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He will have to sell the house. He doesn’t want to, he can’t avoid it. On the day of the decision he wanders from room to room overcome by nostalgia and distressed by feelings of guilt. Abandonment? Betrayal? You make your home here, you live your life here, and then one day you walk away, you leave it behind. Will Em still be there for him when the house is gone? He stands at the back door, looks out into the garden. It’s still the same garden, the one they made together, and it’s still the same house. But the town is no longer the one they fell in love with. That town has gone now, and if developers buy the house, the house will be gone, too.

They couldn’t believe their luck then: a twenties house on a big block, more than an acre, going for ‘almost nothing’. Views to the hills from the kitchen window, an old orchard over the back fence, kids riding their ponies down the street on the weekends. It was close enough to the northern suburbs for work, but far enough away to be its own place, to have its own small town identity. You would meet people in Yerendah who had lived there all of their lives, and they could tell you about the bushfires and the droughts, they could tell you what life was like between the wars. They remembered who were the first families to have cars, who were the first to get television sets.

The houses in Yerendah reflected those two periods. A lot of of them were built in the nineteen-twenties: stuccoed brick bungalows with red-tiled roofs, arched porches facing the street, big front windows with leadlights up top. The age of Australiana: gum nuts and gum leaves, native birds and flowers. Houses with big hallways and living rooms, and kitchens always too small. There had been another burst of building in the nineteen-fifties, flat-roofed fibro cottages on the outskirts of the town. The plainest of houses, these, ‘timid’ you would call them, houses without ambition or stature. They were never able to compete with their solid pre-war cousins, and they hadn’t worn well, either, always looked run-down without ever looking ‘old’.

Outside the day is warm, the air tastes of spring. Raymond settles into the chair under the lemon-scented magnolia. There is a mower humming in the distance and snatches of clarinet practice up the road. The town was at its best in spring. Mists in the morning, the first sounds of crickets, the nights sometimes warm enough to eat outside. The old orchard, (long gone now), would spontaneously burst into flower one day, and that was the cue for Em to replant the herb garden, ready for the summer. Time didn’t seem to move on in Yerendah; it came, it went, it came back again. A cycle of renewal.

They weren’t the only ones to discover Yerendah. There was a steady stream afterwards, people with jobs in the northern suburbs, enjoying the evening drive home past the farms and the orchards. There was no way it could last. You could see the northern suburbs advancing crab-like along the highway, closer and closer, year after year. Now that the town has been swallowed up and the northern suburbs have moved on, what is left? Pockets of the 1920s houses, but with swimming pools, two-storey extensions and kitchens you could run a restaurant out of. Most of the fifties houses have been bulldozed.

In the end there is also the promise of a beginning. Weeks passed before that realisation took hold. Then one morning, sitting in this same chair under the magnolia, Raymond freed himself from his melancholy and made the decision. No, he would not retreat to the life of the retired librarian, the eccentric old man with a house full of books, he would start again. And by then he had a vision of what ‘starting again’ might mean: finding a new life by going back to the past, back to the promise of a future that had once been contained there.

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The plumbers and electricians take a few weeks to get everything working again in the warehouse. Raymond does the cleaning himself, hiring out industrial equipment for the task, vacuuming up the decades of dust, sluicing down the dirt and grime, carting the rubbish down the stairs to the skip in the street. Scrubbed down, the building becomes ambivalent, a sense of the old factory is still there and the remnants of the seventies’ renovation. Down at heel, but no longer derelict. Habitable, but with the barest minimum of comfort. The sort of place students could live in, like they did once.

Damian is helping with the move. Getting the few sticks of furniture placed in the right positions is proving difficult. There are lines and angles in the space Raymond wants to emphasise, vistas to be set up in positioning the chairs, for example. And he keeps changing his mind. They move the dining table. No, they move it again. Most of the furniture has been put into storage. Just a few items make it into the new place: a bed, (not his own, but one of the spares), the dining table, enough chairs for guests, the small couch. The bookcases are there, but the thousands of books are in storage.

‘I hope you know what you’re doing. I wouldn’t be moving in until it was completely renovated. It’s a dump.’

‘I think I need to live here before I can renovate it. I need to understand it, to experience it. How does the space work? I need to see the angles of the light, the views, the way sounds travel. I have to live in it for that. It takes time.’

‘With hardly any furniture? Not even a washing machine?’

No, not even a washing machine. No-one had washing machines in those days, so Raymond won’t have one either. He will go to the laundrette once a week and sit there reading a book while the machines whirr and clunk.

‘There’s a laundrette round the corner.’

‘A laundrette!’

What is it he is looking for? To start the new life by going back to something he had once: the experience of the student living cheaply. To do the washing at a laundrette, to dine on macaroni cheese now and again, to drink wine out of a cask. On Saturday mornings he will head off to the Vic Market to buy whatever is good and cheap. They always went late to the market. At midday, as the butchers started packing up, they would offer trays of meat half-price. Enough meat to feed the whole household for a few dollars. They would walk back when it wasn’t hot, walk back halfway and then jump on the tram. They felt rich.

But he is not trying to recreate the life of that young architecture student. You can’t do that, he tells himself, you know you can’t. He won’t be living in a shared household, he won’t be attending university, and he won’t be listening to the old music, either. What he wants, though, is to touch that young life, to run his hands over it, to recapture, however he can, what he realises was its essence: that feeling of wonder when everything you come across is new.

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It’s a different type of drawing, the drawing of the architect. Architects draw things that don’t yet exist, they draw things into existence. How to draw like an architect. Remember that? The way the lines had to overlap, not stopping where they met, but crossing over to form an intersection, the corner precise within it. Overlapping the ends of the lines, drawing each line with a single clean stroke, drawing with boldness and purpose. And the feel of the drawing pen, light in the fingers but firm on the paper. How significant the black ink seemed as the line came into being, as if the line once drawn could never be erased, as if drawing were actually building.

The young architect draws quickly. It’s just three weeks since her visit, and they are perched on stools at a drawing table, as she reveals her ideas in her white-black-white architect’s office. Photographs of contemporary interiors line the walls, the same ones she used in the lecture: the stables converted into apartments, the restaurant conversion, the re-built warehouse. She is throwing ideas around with her pen the way other people talk. She talks as she draws, explaining the ideas, pen and voice working as a team.

‘I really like your idea of keeping the old doorway at one end of the warehouse and the big arched window at the other. But let’s emphasise them.’

So she takes the openings as a motif and makes another in the middle of the space by putting in an arch that mirrors the openings at either end.

‘It’s not a ‘real’ arch, it’s not structural, only holding itself up.’

The arch appears on the paper, a big broad arch of laminated timber, attached at the top to the exposed timber truss. An orb at its apex is sketched, and the timber fretwork linking the sides to the brick walls. But she resists Raymond’s idea of keeping the old stairwell.

‘How you arrive at a space is critically important for how you experience it’, she says.

She wants a circular stairwell right in the middle of the space so that the whole open area is revealed as you wind your way up the stairs. A prism-shaped skylight above will give it a celestial quality, and glass treads on the staircase will refract and reflect the light above. It’s a staircase you can see through, right up to the sky.

‘You will feel like you are being lifted up’, she says, ‘like you’re ascending a staircase to heaven.’

Raymond is happy to go along with that, but then she installs the library downstairs! Punching big holes in the end walls to let light in, and filling in the holes with glass bricks. It’s genius, really: thin glass bricks stacked together to look like books on a shelf, standing, lying, leaning. The idea is exhilirating, but it ignores his brief. The library is meant to be upstairs.

‘It’s wonderful, but…’

‘You will still have books upstairs.’ Peering at him through her black-framed glasses, trying to reassure, sensing his resistance. ‘Here. A small, intimate library. A private library. An alcove. For all your really important books.’

And the pen is at work again, detailing how that might look: an almost enclosed space, a narrow entrance. ‘You might even have to turn sideways to enter…’ It gives a sense of just how private a private library could be. There’s no desk at its centre, there’s no space for a desk, just the outlines of a chair. But then it’s not just any chair.

‘Marcel Breuer. You have such an affection for modernism.’ She pulls a catalogue off the shelf, flicks through it until she finds the chair. ‘They still make them. The Wassily. You don’t sit in this chair. You’re sort of suspended in it. Perfect for reading.’

A Bauhaus design: tubular chrome frame with black leather straps stretched across it like strips of skin. It’s modernism, pure modernism, just as he remembers it.

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The restaurant is on the far side of the Giardini in a residential neighbourhood that doesn’t look a lot like the rest of Venice, there is so much space. They are dining on the pavement. There’s a view towards the water in one direction, and a view into a walled garden in the other. Boys kick a ball around the campo.

‘I’m thinking of returning to Architecture.’

They have finished their entrées of stewed salt cod and now the waiter has cleared their plates. Raymond judges it to be the right moment.

‘You mean, to study? To become a student again?’ The word is whispered, as if the suggestion is somehow scandalous.

‘I’m looking at it as unfinished business.’

‘This is because of the warehouse project. You’ve been so immersed in it.’

‘I’ve started going to lectures, and I’ve been to a couple of architecture events. That’s how I found the architect, Gabriele. She gave a lecture about her work, but it wasn’t the work that struck me, it was what she said. Buildings have histories, buildings have lives. We don’t need to demolish the past to build the future…I’m reading a lot, too. There’s a whole new section in the library: history, theory, contemporary design journals, and lots and lots on Modernism. I’ve been re-reading the works I read in Architecture School. It comes back. I have to tell you, I’m really inspired again.’

‘But Raymond, you don’t seriously see yourself becoming an architect, do you?…Do you?’

He hasn’t thought about that. Becoming an architect. It’s the wrong question. What does it mean to ‘become an architect’, anyway? It’s a question for another time.

‘I want to be a student again, to pick up from where I’d left off, and the simplest way of doing that is to return to where it all started.’

‘But Raymond, everything changed now. Architecture is a different world now…’

‘I know. They’ve demolished the old building and built a new one, and they don’t call it a ‘School of Architecture’ anymore, it’s ‘Environments’, now. Yes, it’s different there, people see Architecture with different eyes, but….’

‘It’s been a long, long time…’

‘I know, but it’s got big on me. It’s what I think about all the time…’

‘Why not do Fine Arts? You don’t need a professional qualification, you just want to enjoy the field.’

Over the main course of more Venetian fish, Cass warms to the idea of Raymond doing a Fine Arts degree. This is her territory, and she paints a picture of people like Raymond happily returning to university to study things for which there is no professional outcome and no specific expectation. ‘Best time of your life’, she says. And she talks quickly about museums and galleries, periods and histories, movements and turning points, art heroes and art warriors, and she makes it sound almost irresistible, except….

Except it’s not the answer for Raymond, because the point of returning to study is to study architecture, whatever the outcome of that might be. As he listens to her expound on the joys of the Fine Arts degree, he realises the mistake he is making: to imagine returning to the institution. The books are great, but the university doesn’t work. Sitting up the back in the lecture theatre, listening to a different language, trying to understand a sensibility that is barely recognisable, and feeling all the time alienated, like he doesn’t belong. And it doesn’t work because there is no romance there, no possibility of experiencing awe like there is in Venice, no moment of euphoria in discovering the Renaissance as a set of architect’s drawings. And then he remembers Robinson, and another idea of the architecture student takes hold.

‘We had this lecturer back then, Robinson was his name. We all thought he was the best design teacher in the school. He had this way of explaining the process of design; he made the act of creation totally compelling. We were in awe of him. Some of the staff were too, I think. Then one day, we found out something really shocking: Robinson had never built anything! Nothing. Whatever buildings he’d designed, whatever brilliant schemes he’d fashioned on his drafting table, none of them had ever been built. He was an architect without any architecture. It was devastating at the time, and just like that, we all gave up on him. How can you be an architect without architecture? we asked. We didn’t get it then. But I do now: architecture was his way of understanding the world.’

It’s their last night together in Venice, the curator of contemporary art and the architecture student, and they walk back along the riva, arm-in-arm, in a strange sort of harmony. And Venice is a dark lagoon, reflections on the water of the lights on the vaporetti, black silhouetted buildings in the distance, dimly lit spires, the fragrance of the flowering shrubs perfuming the air around the Giardini.

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