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George Alexander: a note on Mortal Divide

From George Alexander’s foreword to Mortal Divide: The Autobiography of Yiorgos Alexandroglou (August 2022), the new edition of a landmark work of Australian literature first published in 1997.

All over the world, across cultures, people wear masks, actors wear costumes, paint their faces, speak in funny voices… From Shakespeare’s plays to Billy Wilder’s 1959 film, Some Like it Hot, men play women, women men. We are confused by twins or doubles in so many plays and doppelgänger movies. The works celebrate fantasy, doubling, the tricky transformations that occur when we change from one self to another. We laugh as we stand on the brink of seeing an old regime overthrown: the double-take.

When your own name feels like an alias, the experience is akin to that sort of wonder, when you look at an old snapshot and puzzle over your connection to the person you were then: the body-shape you inhabited, the hair, skin, look in the eye. Or the fog that descends when you hear your voice on tape: you sound like a person trying to sound like a person talking. The limited-consensus reality ignores the strangeness of most lives, of the consciousness that lives in us. Who was I then? Who am I really? Am I ‘George’ or ‘Yiorgos’? Angel or devil? Well, both, of course.

These ideas were in the back of my mind when I conceived Mortal Divide. Gertrude Stein’s ‘autobiography of somebody else’ – of Alice B. Toklas – provided a clue as to how to go about writing it. The book is also about a clash of cultures, as well as names – trying to fit the Greek Yiorgos Alexandroglou into the Anglo-sounding George Alexander – and it called up the past that always lies in wait. What do you hold on to? What do you let go? Is life a story? Yes, many stories.

The postmodernist always rings twice, it’s been said. Reading Mortal Divide today – my first novel, written twenty-five years ago – I’m surprised how much of my real life got into this fiction. And I’m delighted that the book has outrun Cyril Connolly’s enquiry, in Enemies of Promise (1938), ‘into the problem of how to write a book that lasts ten years’. Literature, he added, is the art of writing something that will be read twice.

— George Alexander

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