awkward moments with authors: meeting harry mulisch

I had just started working in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet in 1988 when a former colleague rang to let me know that Harry Mulisch would be visiting the University of Melbourne on 19 September. Harry Mulisch (1927–2010) was one of the towering figures in postwar Dutch literature and my colleague, knowing how highly I thought of Mulisch’s oeuvre, was kind enough to invite me to join the party for lunch at University House. I was blown away by the invitation and immediately went to see my supervisor to beg for a day’s leave. So far so good…

I had read most of what Mulisch had written and admired in particular Het Stenen Bruidsbed (The Stone Bridal Bed, 1959), which I had placed on the third year reading list when I was lecturing at Melbourne Uni. It is a dark, complex novel about the bombing of Dresden and, at a deeper level, moral ambiguity.
I felt totally overawed throughout the lunch and the conversation wasn’t going well. When I told him I thought The Stone Bridal Bed was a masterpiece he replied with a confident “ja”. While it was nice to see the Master agreeing with my views, the conciseness of his reply wasn’t really conducive to breaking the ice. I felt like a groupie. I asked him to autograph my copy of Het Stenen Bruidsbed and gave him a copy of one of my short stories, which went down equally well. At least he had the good grace not to leave it on the table.
The whole episode now reminds me of an epigram cited by Margaret Atwood in Negotiating with the Dead: “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.”

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