Award-winning biographer Jacqueline Kent has written books about Beatrice Davis, Hephzibah Menuhin and Julia Gillard, but here she tells a much more personal story of her relationship with the writer Kenneth Cook.
Jacqueline Kent’s memoir is the story of a love affair, a marriage and a tragedy. Within this slim volume spanning the years 1986-1987, she paints a vivid picture of the Australian writer Kenneth Cook, a man of contradictions and great charm who wrote the classic Wake in Fright and a string of other books. Along the way she provides a vivid snapshot of a particular moment in Australian publishing:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, local publishing was expanding. Though it was dominated by British and American companies, at least they were publishing books by Australian writers for Australian readers. There were more books, more writers, more stories, and it was exciting to be part of all that, however small my role was … I became a freelance editor, working on a project-by-project basis for several publishing houses.
Many of my editor colleagues who freelance will identify with her when she says:
I enjoyed being able to concentrate on the work at hand without factoring in office politics, personalities and meetings … Generally, the work suited me very well. On good days – and there were many – helping authors to write better books felt like an honourable craft, an honest and useful thing to do.
As well as being an editor, Jacqueline Kent is the author of three biographies, including the award-winning A Certain Style, about pioneering Australian editor Beatrice Davis. Her formidable knowledge of Australian publishing is worn lightly in this very personal story, however there are fascinating sidelights into editing in the 1980s, which was a very different process to the on-screen matter it is today. Back then:
… manuscripts were living things. Those piles of paper with pencil markings like bird tracks, crossings-out, paragraphs chopped up and sticky-taped to pages and sentences selectively obliterated in a blizzard of Tipp-Ex could seem as huge, creative and messy as the process of thought itself.
Kent says of herself ‘I lived in words, was surrounded by words; words were my business …’ and early on we see her engagement with nuances of meaning as she introduces us to Cook:
People, whether they knew him or not, tended to declare that Kenneth Cook was larger than life. They would say this in a slightly self-congratulatory way, as if this hackneyed expression was the best and only way to describe him. (It’s a phrase almost always applied to men, by the way; maybe the thought is that women can generally be cut down to size.)
Jacqueline Kent and Kenneth Cook first met in 1985, when he was briefly engaged to someone else. Their love affair began in early 1986, when Kent was commissioned to edit his book of humorous short stories, The Killer Koala. Their initial telephone conversation about the manuscript was not promising, with Cook explaining:
‘I am not used to being edited. My characters do not exclaim, they do not snort, wince in speech, respond, or chuckle or gibber. I don’t want you to change “he said” or “she said” to any of these things. Is that clear?’
Oh, for …
‘Perfectly clear, thank you, Mr Cook,’ I said, making no effort to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. ‘And would you like me to put hyphens between the syllables of the long words, too?’
When they subsequently meet for lunch, she asks him whether he’d worked with editors before:
‘I only agreed to have an editor for these stories because [his publisher] Margaret Gee told me I would probably need one. It’s the way they do things now, apparently.’
I spotted an attitude I had met before in older writers: I have been writing for forty years thanks very much, and I don’t need somebody your age to tell me how to do it. I’ll agree to an editor under sufferance, but leave my words alone.
Kent observes that writers of Cook’s generation (he was nearly 20 years older than she was), like Ruth Park and Dal Stivens:
… had usually had their work presented to the reader almost exactly as it had been submitted to the publisher, with perhaps a bit of tweaking from a proofreader.
Nevertheless, despite differences in age and outlook, the spark was lit, and they married on 6 January 1987. On 18 April that year, as they began to set up camp in a spot by the Macquarie River, Kenneth Cook died of a heart attack.
This devastating episode is described plainly, but Kent does not ignore its more surreal moments. After having her husband’s death confirmed by the local GP, she finds herself sat at a table of gliding enthusiasts at the town’s only motel. These well-meaning strangers struggle to find a way to respond to what has just happened to her. ‘At least it wasn’t bowel cancer,’ one says reassuringly.
Kent describes grief in its overwhelming brutality. In coming back into life in the months afterward, she observes that yes, she has friends to visit and to go out with, but ‘What I no longer had, of course, was somebody to do nothing with.’
Her loss was compounded by the fact that when he died Cook was an undischarged bankrupt. Touchingly, he had visited his doctor for a medical check-up before the marriage. One wishes Kent had visited an accountant or a lawyer beforehand to understand the ramifications of marrying a bankrupt.
However much he loved her – and there seems no doubt that he did – he left her with a terrible legacy when he died: threatening letters from bankruptcy lawyers arrived, and the unit they had bought together was sold without consulting her.
Kent is clear-eyed in her portrait of Cook, who could be infuriating as well as charming, and delivers wonderful succinct portraits of minor characters such as Peter Owen — the English publisher of Anais Nin, Hermann Hesse and Doris Lessing — for whom she briefly worked in London:
He was a short and erratic man, even shambolic, with a harsh voice and mad Einstein grey hair; a wearer of expensive suits with trousers trailing on the floor and important buttons missing.
Jacqueline Kent has called her memoir Beyond Words, but the words she has assembled here powerfully convey the impact of profound grief and an insight into Kenneth Cook the man and the writer. This is an elegant, wry, beautifully written tribute to an intense love and shocking loss.
Jacqueline Kent Beyond Words: A year with Kenneth Cook UQP hardback 256pp $29.99
This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 26 March 2019.