Max by Alex Miller evaluation – a compelling and tender story of 1 man’s hidden historical past | Australian books
Alex Miller is now known as one of Australia’s best writers – having won Miles Franklin twice. But he was just a young, newcomer to Australia from the UK, where he met Max Blatt, a German clever Jew, former communist and anti-Nazi member. The value of their friendship cannot be overstated: it was Max who inspired Miller’s ambition to become a writer, and who was, secretly, one of Miller’s greatest collaborators.
Miller’s new book, Max, is a testament to the richness and publicity of Blatt’s friendship. It also showcases an exciting new development in Miller’s writings – a show that has been very interesting to read – as a compelling and fascinating story of one man’s hidden history.
Reading Max, one feels surrounded by deep memories of Miller’s memories of a kind and sympathetic man. We know Blatt as young Miller knew him, in the early 1960s. Based on their relationship, Blatt lent Miller his book Doctor Manust’s by Thomas Mann, “a sign of his great leap that one day I will be the author I aspire to be”. While Miller always regarded him as a friend as a stranger, Blatt saw himself as a fugitive. Miller’s confession that his life was in vain, that he had failed, remained unknown.
Some 30 years after Blatt’s death, Miller is left to fend for himself, reflecting on the great gifts of their friendship. It was very sad that they had crashed at the end of Blatt’s life, and Miller did not attend the funeral of a friend. He is affected by many of the previously unknown details of Blatt. He wants to know more, to understand the mystery and silence that surrounded the secret history.
Australian writer and two-time Miles Franklin winner Alex Miller. Photo: Julian Kingma
All Miller has to say is: Blatt was persecuted by the Gestapo and fled to Europe (to China and then to Australia). Her loved ones were murdered by the Nazis. The details of Max’s childhood, or the potential for the remaining family members, seem to be obscured by the deterioration of history.
We follow Miller as he begins his search for museums in Melbourne and Berlin. He travels to Poland, to his Blatt home in Breslau / Wrocław, and finally to Israel, to visit the live members of the Blatt family, and to reveal a new way of remembering and interacting.
Miller’s writing in Max is amazing as he writes words and phrases over and over again throughout the journey. “Silence” is like a leitmotif that has many meanings and pronouns: silence of the unspoken, of a place, two friends in a conversation, of brothers who are in the same grief. Like many survivors of such catastrophic events as the Nazi Holocaust, Blatt’s silence speaks volumes about the complexity, the impossibility, of the past. The growth of grief and shame is too great to say. For Blatt, the hidden guilt of his silence was that, while many of his family members were killed in Nazi-occupied Europe, he survived.
For a writer who often thinks of new experiences – for example, “Central Queensland” books, such as Journey to the Stone Land, and available articles – Max is the most vulnerable and at the risk of Miller’s books. As they take the joy of the family historian to reveal something new about their parent, each new information also opens up difficult questions. Who was Hanna, Max’s first wife? How did he die? How could Max leave his parents, his family, and his young wife?
While a group of people around the world support Miller in his research, the process of going back to Blatt’s history is sometimes difficult. Miller describes how he thinks “deeply” about his partner. Reflecting on Max’s ability to keep quiet about the past, Miller explains how “it hurt me to think of going beyond the limits I have respected for the rest of my life”. This is the sanctity of Max’s memory. The book begins with an epitaph from Austrian author Joseph Roth: “shard is better than pot”. The notion of inadequacy makes Miller understand how he should incorporate the precious pieces of memory he possesses. That we cannot know “the whole story” is a fact of the lives of those who were destroyed and rebuilt after the Nazi horrors.
Meeting Miller with people who help him on his journey gives Max a strange interest. Blatt Liat’s granddaughter tells Miller that, since the death of her husband, she has not been to her favorite restaurant. Miller’s search makes him feel good: “Max said come on,” he tells Miller. In many ways family reunion gives a sense of peace and unity to Blatt’s divided story. Miller describes how “This group of friends came into my life – they were real and complete while Max was still our connector, a broken vessel, the most precious things in his life scattered in the ruins of the past.”
Miller’s book is a dynamic and skillfully written covenant on the power of friendship.
• Max author Alex Miller has now released via Allen and Unwin