The Fighter by Arnold Zable

Suzie Eisfelder

Arnold Zable is one of those great writers. I reckon he’s the Neil Gaiman of the biography genre. I understand I’ll be repeating myself, but I do feel his books should be used as examples of good writing. I am going to choose one paragraph and I’ll try not to wax too lyrical but it’s good enough to be able to get a whole essay out of just this one paragraph.

The street is redolent of sensations all but forgotten: the aroma of dinners wafting through open doors at nightfall, rain-cleansed streets, and fresh tar poured by workmen over cracked bitumen. The memory of cricket games played in the middle of the thoroughfare, lampposts used as wickets, and fruit boxes placed to force drivers to skirt the players. Of drinkers bursting out of the pub around the corner, the Great Northern, at six o’clock, the mandatory closing time. In autumn they wade through gutters choked with leaves and twigs, detritus and rubbish. After winter downpours they step over blocked drains and gutters gushing with rainwater.

The only grammatical errors I could find are those I caused when retyping the paragraph. I’ve fixed them all so you get to read it unadorned with my typos. And that’s the first thing on my mind, good grammar and no typos.

Grammar is really important for the reader. The more correct the grammar the more the reader is able to relax into the story. There might be enough in the story for the reader to try and remember, and also to work through, having to also work through poor grammar can tax the brain too much. If you get the building blocks correct then the reader isn’t being stopped by them and can continue with the story.

I’m constantly at odds with authors who think they’ve proofread their book well enough. Some of them intend to have as many typos as Stephen King. I haven’t read King for some years, so I’m not up-to-speed with the number of typos in a King book. But what I’m finding is that there are anywhere between two and twenty typos in a book. It is distracting. I find my brain actually stops and focusses on the typo. I know other people whizz straight past but in some cases it’s the wrong word and that changes the meaning of the entire sentence or paragraph. I understand that finding typos is a real challenge and I see that I’m putting myself up as an expert here. If I were perfect then I’d be doing the find it games with a snap of my fingers instead of poring over the screen for ages looking for the last item. I feel so stupid sitting there for so long, but I’m fallible just like everyone else. One author friend did an experiment, he sent a book of his to two different proofreaders. One was cheap, he found them on Fivver. The other one was a more normal price. Sadly, I never got the end of the story so I don’t know who was better. There are a number of different ways you can improve your own proofreading, one day I’ll type them all up, it’s mindblowing.

Let’s take a look at the words Zable used. Words such as ‘redolent’ and ‘wafting’ when combined with ‘aroma’ and ‘dinner’ help to take me to a suburb where the streets feel rather narrower than mine. To a suburb where neighbours are friends and help each other out. To a suburb where the the smells of the cooking wanders out into the streets to mingle with other cooking smells and make every hungry, much like my neighbours’ when they’re cooking on the barbeque.

But Zable doesn’t stop there, he continues to talk about a simpler time. A time when children could play on the streets and putting fruit boxes in the way makes them safe as the drivers drive around the game of cricket. That used to happen in Melbourne when it was a smaller place, before there were many cars, and probably before traffic lights had to be installed.

And then with just a sentence we’re reminded that drinkers were thrown out of the pub at 6pm because that was closing time. It didn’t mean the people left any less drunk because, many of them would drink faster in order to get enough drinks before being thrown out. We’re not told this, but it was probably when females weren’t allowed to drink in pubs.

And the end of the paragraph talks about the weather. We’re given a quick overview of autumn and winter using some well used words, but put together in such a way that I’m reminded of my own childhood in Hawthorn. In our street the trees lost their leaves during autumn. The colours were beautiful, but the trees were very large and the many, many leaves blocked the drains. I still love walking through piles of autumn leaves.

Anyway, I should tell you something about the book. It’s a great book. Not just because the grammar is excellent and the typos are non-existent. Not just because Zable has a way of putting words together in a way that makes me really see what is happening. But also because Zable has depicted a man called Henry Nissen. I’ve never met Henry Nissen, but his face is well known to me. We’re given his history, taken into his parent’s histories as they survived WWII. His mother’s is rather sketchy, Zable has such good skills we’re able to get some idea of what might have happened.

I loved this book. Zable the biographer I’d recommend to anyone even if they don’t like biographies. He writes biographies as if they’re fiction. We’re taken from here to there and back again with so much skill it makes reading easy. I often find biographies can be a slow read, but not The Fighter, it really reads like a novel. Having said that I firmly urge everyone to read it. Here is a link to a copy you can buy, but if you can borrow it then that is just as good. Thank you to those people who have click on the links, the numbers make me happy.


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