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Brendan Cowell: My favourite Aussie Read

The blunt, semi-biographical legacy of Helen Garner. The flourish and wonder of Tim Winton. Tsiolkas and The Slap, of which I adapted into television. Dalton’s excellent debut Boy Swallows Universe.Patrick White’s Tree of Man,that I quoted at the front of my first book How It Feels. Swallow The Airby Tara June Winch is kind of perfect. All these books and many more swirl about my head at the sight of the term ‘Great Aussie Reads’. But when I sat with it a while, a little gem of a book popped its head up above the shelving, and said “remember me, you loved me, me”.

Norman Lindsay is one of Australia's greatest artists, more readily known for his drawing and etching, his watercolours, oil and sculptures than his novels. When I visited his museum in Faulconbridge, I learned of his passion for boxing, which only endeared me to him more. Lindsay was a controversial bloke, his penchant for the erotic often winning him titles such as ‘anti-Christian, anti-social, and degenerate.’ For an artist, is there any greater compliment? I dare not imagine in this current time. Sirens,which the suave Sam Neil starred in, was filmed on this same property, daring to encapsulate the feeling of ‘wowserism’ ascribed to Norman’s vibe.

In the late 90’s a theatre director I was working with (whom I believe, and don’t quote me, as I was drinking a lot in this time, had some sort of connection with the family) handed me Rooms and Housesas a text that we could possibly adapt into a big theatre piece. I read the thing and then we went to Bryon Bay and wrote a play out. I don’t know where this play is now, like I said, it was a Norman-esque time. Wowsers.

Rifling through my storage unit of late, working out which books to discard of, which to take back to England with me, and which to give to friends and family, I stumbled upon its sweet blue cover jacket: Rooms and Houses.And I felt something. Like what you feel when you see a really innocent photo of you and an ex, skiing or something, and realise that you were actually happy for a while, and that you were also young and beautiful too. I read it again in what it takes to devour a chicken burger hungover. Because it’s just so good. And nothing like his more renowned work The Magic Pudding.Which won’t let you eat it all.

Rooms and Housesis, as it says on the cover next to the woman arching her back in a ball gown, is the portrait of an artists as a young man. There is a feeling this book is written tongue-in-cheek, but as you delve into it, there is real heartbreak, and the essence of a time lost to us now. Where art had real power in the swing of things, where Sydney and Melbourne were popping with culture, and anything was possible in the night. The book follows artist Jim Partridge, or as I like to call him ‘Norman Lindsay’, in the midst of mismanaging his marriage to Cora, due to the irresistible lure of former model, the ‘gorgeous young Julia’. Caught in the storm, Jim finds out that Cora has met up with Herbert Pomeroy, a fellow burgeoning artist in Victoria, and chaos ensues. It’s funny, it’s bonkers, it’s Oscar Wilde with a tin of Reschs in his hand. And it finishes with a line that stays with me more and more, as I travel about the globe writing and acting on my own: ‘An artist should live in a room and never a house.’ Or at least that’s how I think it ends. Go hunt it down and prove me wrong?