“A snob, an elitist, a deserter”

The memoirs of favorite critic Robert Hughes (see this poor attempt at appreciating a book I had not yet read; I wrote this note too) have finally reached the other side of the Atlantic. Christopher Hitchens has warm, personal praise (and a biting bit or two of criticism) in The Nation. He evidently knows the author well, which helps explain the source of the following insight:

It is only toward the very end of the memoir that Hughes utters the line that furnishes the title. "By now," he says, "I realized that my main impulse for writing a book was to force myself to find out about things I didn’t know." This could be said by or about almost any author–"the educator must be educated," as Marx put it, and no serious person is not self-taught–but it would be as true to say of Hughes that he came to find out things that he knew already.

In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley quotes the exact same excerpt in his review, in a passage about the influence of the Jesuits on the young Hughes. He takes the book’s title, Things I Didn’t Know, at face value; he also does not dwell on the sensational stories from the Sixties. But I found his review more illuminating, in part because of details like the following:

He became friends with the distinguished writer Alan Moorehead, best known as the author of The White Nile and The Blue Nile , "my beau ideal of a popular historian," and in time, no doubt, his model for the writing of The Fatal Shore [Moorehead, I happen to think, judging from my well-thumbed copy of African Trilogy, is one of the best war correspondents of all time]. Moorehead told him in 1962 that "I would have to leave Australia, just as he had done, if my work was ever to go anywhere." Moorehead said: "If you stay here another ten years, Australia will still be a very interesting place. But you will have become a bore, a village explainer."

So with little to his credit except letters of introduction from Moorehead and a bit of money, Hughes headed for the United States and then for London, where "I knew nobody and I felt lost — a provincial Australian in a place that still, in 1964, tended to look down on Australians." He began to educate himself at the city’s great museums, though, and then took up Moorehead’s offer to use his house at Porto Ercole, in Italy. His months in that country left him "more at ease in the world and filled with delight at what its human and inanimate contents could mean, say, and create," and when he returned to London in the mid-1960s, he was far better equipped to fit in and find work.


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