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Having the chance to leave a difficult life in Europe did not altogether make up for the remote and at times desolate one they found waiting for them in rural Australia.
Nor could he ever quite discover in Australia the feeling of an intensely involved community life that he had experienced as a boy and young man living in Europe, defined in the main through conversation with friends and neighbours.
Raimond, though, loves their new home, and in the early chapters of the book we get to know the author in his own right through his affection for the central Victorian landscape, for neighbours, and for the many animals inhabiting the bush and even the farmhouse itself.
As Helen Garner has described it, Gaita’s narrative voice is ‘wonderfully serious, and terrified of being sentimental’.
Like a tragic poem, the voice seems to accept that the human condition is, as Gaita puts it, ‘defined by our vulnerability to misfortune’. Coetzee puts it in his comments about the book, Romulus ‘comes to serve as a lifelong moral compass to his son and, via his son, to us as readers’.
He showed this speech to Robert Manne, a friend he’d known since their university days in Melbourne.
Manne had become editor of the prominent magazine Quadrant, and in this capacity had commissioned articles from Gaita.Here, he is referring to the classical Greek idea of tragedy: that is, a portrayal of how good people are seen to suffer at the hands of fate or unmovable circumstance.Another aspect of the tragic mode lies with its objective point of view – its seemingly unaffected way of relating events.The first is the book’s genesis as a eulogy, the second its expression of Gaita’s return, both physically and imaginatively, to the central Victorian countryside of his youth.The third, and perhaps most distinctive, is the narrator’s unusual position as a philosopher writing about his father in a way that reveals his father’s influence on his beliefs and ways of thinking.s Gaita mentions in an acknowledgments section at the start of the book, Romulus, My Father first developed from his eulogy at his father’s funeral in 1996.He had discovered again the ‘delicate beauty’ of central Victoria, and the ways in which his father and those close to him were illuminated by it: ‘I hoped that the events and the characters of the story I told would be bathed in the light and colours of that landscape.’ The result is that Gaita’s memory of the landscape forms part of the memoir’s structure and themes, and helps to shape the often troubling connections that are formed between beauty, madness, and suffering.Gaita has referred to Romulus, My Father as a ‘tragic poem’.And yet, as Plato forewarns us, a search for the ultimate wisdom of such things must come later – several decades on, when Gaita is faced with the task of writing his father’s eulogy.It is then that a sense of his father’s character is joined to his own search for wisdom, a combination of biography and reflection that marks the memoir form at its best, and shapes the ultimate impact of Romulus, My Father.Memoirs are by nature inductive, for most of the content is specific to the person writing.And yet the task of a memoir is more than mere individual recollection.