Peter Robb, Black Inc.

Lives is a ballsy title for this loose collection of personal portraits, essays, reminiscences and book reviews, organised in three parts: “Australia”, “Italy” and “Elsewhere”.

There are fascinating pieces: for instance, portraits of Aboriginal academic and writer Marcia Langton, and fashion designer Akira Isogawa; essays on one of Robb’s specialties, the 16th-17th century painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio; essays on Mafia and modern Italian life; a review of Raymond Howgego’s massive Encyclopedia of Exploration.

Other pieces are less compelling. Still this is a good book to browse.

In trying to make sense of this grand, ungainly 386-page assemblage, it might be worthwhile meditating, however briefly, on some lines from that book review just mentioned.

“Personal coordinates are not enough in a work that ranges so far in time and space,” Robb writes. In context, Robb means to criticise the index provided for finding one’s way through the Encyclopedia of Exploration. It points only to personal names and biographical dates, when exploration of the world is an enterprise in which any person — however notable — plays just a small role, in a field of effort and serendipity so vast that it cannot be grasped only at the scale of an individual’s life.

But the criticism can be drawn as an illuminating lesson from Robb’s Lives: A life is fragmentary, and a fragment of something larger. The attempt to collect and cobble together the fragments of our lives is vital, which is to say, essential to human existence. But we may always be dimly aware of a grander scale we don’t quite grasp.

So, we might discover, “Life is more than an accumulation of lives.” Our religions have ways of misleading us on this matter and we are already, many of us, pretty misled anyway.

To long for a life after mine, whether to add life upon life in an endless cycle, or to hit the jackpot with a life “everlasting”, is to mistake the promise of the divine life.

Divine life isn’t some other life, hoarded away for me, in heaven or in hell. It isn’t even “my” life to have. It’s the life in me that welcomes all, maybe only ever fragmentarily, but ever so freely.

Peter Robb might not care for this analogy but, in the welcoming sweep of his writerly embrace, I am reminded of that Great Welcome. Divine life may be a grand, ungainly assemblage, too, but it embraces all our fragmentariness, even — or especially — though we don’t quite grasp it.

Andrew Irvine


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