Alex Miller

Towards the end of Alex Miller's new novel, The Passage of Love, there is an email sent by a woman in Paris to the French translator of the book's leading man, Robert Crofts, a novelist. She is introducing herself as the person to whom Crofts refers on his website when writing about one of his novels.

But eagle-eyed readers of the uncorrected proof copy would have noticed that the short burst of French doesn't refer to the novelist as Robert, it calls him Alex, and the book the woman is writing about is titled Lovesong, one of Miller's most popular and admired novels. "We picked that up. Jesus, nobody noticed," Miller says.

Mind you, it wouldn't really have mattered had the name stayed as it was because, as he says a moment later, "the whole thing is totally true".

The Passage of Love is the story of a young man from England, Robert Crofts, who has migrated to Australia and worked as a stockman in Queensland. After three years he goes south to Melbourne and decides he wants to write. If you are vaguely familiar with Miller's biography, this will ring a bell.

Crofts becomes involved with Wendy, a left-wing activist working as cleaner in Myer where he too is employed, who tells him: "You're a writer if you write."

But the relationship doesn't last and through a man in his boarding house he is introduced to Lena Soren, the daughter of a wealthy family in a bayside suburb and "probably quite as mad and as dangerous as you are". Lena's widowed mother encourages both his relationship with her daughter and his desire to write although she argues the latter would be impossible without first gaining a university education.

So Lena and he marry and begin a tempestuous relationship that eventually founders, although they both acknowledge mutual love and need. Lena is trying to find some sort of meaning to her own life free from the restrictions of class and upbringing. But it is through Lena Robert meets Martin and Birte, two Germans who become crucial to his imaginative sense of the world.

Lena and Robert buy a farm in Araluen in the south of New South Wales, a world that he initially finds to be some kind of agrarian Arcadia, but where eventually he is left on his own, brooding, desperate to be published and sliding into gloom. He is pulled out of this dismal state of affairs when he begins an affair with Ann, about whom he has long entertained erotic fantasies.

For Robert Crofts, the name of the hero in Miller's first novel, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain, read Alex Miller. For Lena, read Ann Neil, his first wife. For Martin Bloch, read Miller's great friend Max Blatt, and for Ann the woman in Paris, read Ann the woman in France who wrote to his translator.

Yes, he says, the whole thing is totally true and although the book is called a novel, he describes it as autobiographical fiction.

"It's the same as Virginia Woolf with To the Lighthouse. People said it isn't a novel, it's just you and your family on holiday. And she said it's 'autobiographical fiction'. It's rather like Helen Garner's The Spare Room and, perhaps, Drusilla Modjeska's Poppy, although she called that a memoir." Other recent examples might include the works of Karl Ove Knausgaard or Michael Sala's first novel, The Last Thread.

For Miller the fiction comes in his collapsing of time, largely to suit the narrative. While stressing everything is real, he has changed some people's names and when some things happened. "Robert makes it as a writer in the sense that he does get his first novel published but I would have had to go a bit longer - quite a bit longer than that - whereas that's a nice moment to end it where he comes back to Australia to sell the house."

It's all a question of truth and Miller claims always to have written the truth in his novels. There is the material truth - as evidence he produces three pictures that have been important in his life and feature significantly in the book - but "emotional truths are the absolute grounding of any novel. Historical truth is secondary to the intimate lives of us.

"The truth of the intimate lives of us is not available to the historian or the biographer. The biographer strives to get there and can be challenged on those things. There's always a sense in writing history or biography of being defensive to a degree in your bibliography or your note ??? Whereas as a novelist you are at liberty to plumb the depths of the human emotions. You'd better get that right though."

He says he has wanted to write this moral accounting of his early years for a long time but it was only after his wife, Stephanie, pointed out the crucial distance old age provided that he was really able to get to grips with it.

"Steph and I have been together for 43 years. I came back to Australia to sell my house and move to Paris and buy the apartment. But I met Steph in my first week and we just knew at once and I never wrote to Ann and she didn't know where I was so she couldn't write to me."

I wondered whether that had played on his mind for 43 years.

"Yes. I always felt a bit guilty about it. As you do. A number of things I've felt guilty about until now."

If the book is an accounting of his early life, it is as much an account of his development as a writer. He wrote three what he calls pre-novels - "I thought you had to write socially responsible novels" - before his friend Max, the model for Martin, asked him bluntly on reading one: "Why don't you write something you love?"

Miller had always told stories; his Glaswegian father had been a great storyteller and as a boy Miller had developed a great intimacy with his brother by making up stories for him about a little green elf. But writing was a different matter.

When he told his father that he'd written a book his response - and here he mimics his father's accent -was "what d'you do that for?"

"I'd lost my audience as far as he was concerned. What I'd lost was the social context of storytelling. He grew up in that context. They handed their stories down when he was a boy from the old people in the Highlands.

"The idea of writing it, being alone in a room with the door closed telling a story - it wasn't telling a story; telling a story was having the response of the people around you."

But writing is Miller's way and has been since well before his first published story, Comrade Pawel, appeared in Meanjin in 1975.

The distress he describes when Robert Crofts' first novel is rejected in The Passage of Love is utterly his own experience even if the rejection letter, which is the one Miller himself received, is as generous as possible and includes a glowing reader's report.

"Writing isn't a complacent way of life but a way of life in which I am constantly challenged. When I'm not writing, a strange kind of loneliness comes over me and by strange I mean I can be in among my family, with my family or close friends and something in me cries out and I can't answer that cry whatever it is.

"Writing is my way of answering this silent cry within. I'm not sure what it means or how it might be explained other than in this way, but I'm grateful for it. It lies in me like a mystery that I will never fully resolve so that I am always drawn back to it."

Miller's first novel was published in 1988. Since then he has won the Miles Franklin twice - for The Ancestor Game in 1993 and 10 years later for Journey to the Stone Country. He turned 80 last year, but is confident he has more books in him and time to write them. The next one will be Max Blatt's story.

Perhaps that confidence comes from a strange encounter he had a while ago in South Melbourne when a tiny Indian man stopped him in the street. Miller offered him some money. "No, no," said the man, "I don't want money. I want to tell you that you will live to 94."

"And I said, 'oh thanks very much'. I said 'will I be all right?' and he said, 'I don't know, I can't tell you the details, I just know that you will live to be 94. Thank you and good day', and off he went. It was a very convincing encounter."

The Passage of Love is published by Allen & Unwin at $32.99.

This story Alex Miller first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.