Book review: Robert Hughes, Lance Secretan and Jonathan Franklin

Biography of Australian art critic, essays on love and the story of being adrift in the Pacific Ocean

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 January, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 January, 2016, 11:01am

The Spectacle of Skill

by Robert Hughes

Knopf (e-book)

Perhaps it was a Christmas marketing ploy but The Spectacle of Skill is part this, part that and thus not completely satisfying, despite the brilliance of its author, Australian art critic Robert Hughes (1938-2012). Containing extracts from his books, including The Fatal Shore, the volume includes 125 pages from an unpublished memoir. Surely those alone, with Adam Gopnik’s introduction, would have been enough for a new book? That said, readers new to Hughes might appreciate fast-tracking through his writing.

Many will enjoy Hughes art criticism, on works such as Bob Rauschenberg’s Retroactive I, included in a piece revealing it was this artist who entered Hughes’ hallucinations after a car accident in 1999 left him in a coma. Readers will also discover that Hughes became an art critic only because none of his colleagues wanted the job. The only art he knew at the time was painted in Australia (by “fairly recent whites”). If Hughes failed to mention his son in his first volume of memoirs, he makes up for it with the essay “Danton – I Hardly Knew You”, a wretchedly moving piece written after his son’s suicide. It is, however, a fitting end to the book.

A Love Story

by Lance Secretan

The Secretan Center (e-book)

As Lance Secretan says, this is a small book about a big subject – love. Written in worship of his wife, Tricia, whom he describes throughout in the most glowing of terms, it verges on being tiresome, in the way hagiographies are unreadable. But something about the writing, sincerity perhaps, makes you continue reading. Secretan’s use of carefully chosen quotations and insertion of poems also add depth to what is a book written as a public declaration of a special bond.

You sense there must have been more to the marriage than we’re privy to because no relationship can possibly be perfect. But in his discretion, Secretan also shows his loyalty and respect. One “ritual” that other couples might consider adopting is the giving of cards at every opportunity (hiding them in luggage, coat pockets and the like) because, “to feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life”, as Secretan quotes Pablo Neruda saying. When Tricia succumbs to illness at 60, almost 30 years after she and Secretan met, readers will understand why he felt the need to write this book.

438 Days

by Jonathan Franklin

Simon & Schuster Audio (audiobook)

438 Days will surely be made into a movie, although whoever plays the role of Salvadoran fisherman Jose Alvarenga will need the help of computer-generated graphics to catch fish, turtles and birds the way he did, with his bare hands. That’s also if Alvarenga can convince sceptics that his story of surviving 13 months drifting in the Pacific Ocean – from Mexico to the Marshall Islands – is true. Or that his denial of cannibalism can be believed. Alvarenga’s tale, narrated no-nonsense-style by George Newbern, is astonishing.

It involves not just his creative endeavours to stay alive but his attempt to keep his friend, Ezequiel Cordoba, from perishing. The man, who had almost died, eating raw bird meat, started avoiding food after that episode and sank into depression. When he finally succumbed, Alvarenga, who told his story to author Jonathan Franklin, apparently threw his corpse into the water. While the book contains description of the pair’s daily routine, including hiding from the sun in their ice box lest they fried, this reader would have liked to know more about the protagonist’s day-to-day thoughts: how he kept himself together mentally was surely as remarkable as his physical survival.