Arnold Zable applied his extraordinary storytelling skills in writing his new biography, The Fighter, about a truly working-class hero. Henry Nissen grew up in the inner suburbs of Melbourne and became a champion boxer, before he turned his courage and compassion to helping those less fortunate than himself.
Chris Saliba, co-owner of North Melbourne Books, asked Arnold a few questions about the new book.
The Fighter is a lyrical biography of Henry Nissen, a former champion boxer who now works as an inner-city youth worker in Melbourne. What attracted you to Henry Nissen’s story?
I was drawn to it for many reasons. Henry is a contemporary of mine. He grew up in the same suburb, North Carlton, about ten minutes’ walk from my place, but in those days this meant he lived in another neighbourhood—he was an Amess Street boy, and I from Canning Street. His story uncannily mirrors some aspects of mine, and in other respects it is very different. Both of us had mothers who, in different circumstances, were severely affected by the trauma of war and what had happened to their families. I fictionalised my own experience of growing up in a Carlton neighbourhood in my novel Scraps of Heaven, but Henry’s story had other elements that attracted me—his journey deep into the world of boxing, his current work on the docks, his extraordinary work with street people and the disaffected. And something else that has fascinated me: the interplay between older working-class Australian families and the newly arriving postwar immigrants—Jews, Greeks, Italians and others. This is also a preoccupation of mine. I was drawn to the relationship between the Nissen twins and their trainers, the Reads, Peter and old Mick. In pursuing the story, I was led to many other unexpected places and people, in particular to the neighbourhood ‘mothers’, and the mother–daughter relationship between Henry’s sister, Sandra, and Sonia. I was led to many individual tales of street people, and the extraordinary work and attitudes of those who reach out to help them—witness Father Bob, the larrikin priest, a long-time mentor and partner in Henry’s work, who makes a cameo appearance.
I love writing about the physical neighbourhood, the textures, the changes of an inner suburban neighbourhood during the turning of the seasons.
Although The Fighter is a true story, it also reads very much like a novel. What made you want to write the book in such a style?
I did not want to write a conventional biography. This felt too constrained. I love the conventions of the novel—at its heart there is the art of scene construction. I wanted to take the reader with me as the story moves from scene to scene, into some of Melbourne’s lesser-known liminal spaces, such as the Port Diner, the various shadow-worlds occupied by the displaced and alienated, a present-day fight night at the Melbourne Pavilion, and the courtroom settings, as magistrates deal with the petty misdemeanors of street kids. The art of the novel is at the heart of recreating such scenes vividly in the mind’s eye, rather than drawing upon sheer narration and a procession of facts. I was also compelled to recreate Henry’s mother’s point of view—another technique that is central to fiction. I talked at length about her to her children, and probed over and again, in order to be able to authentically recreate her descents into disturbance. Armed with what I found out, and with my own observations of that situation from my childhood experiences, I put myself in Sonia’s shoes, and immersed myself in her world. At one point it was a borderline decision for me as to whether it would go as a novel, as opposed to what is loosely referred to as creative non-fiction. After consultation with the publisher we decided on the latter.
It seems that the heart of the book is the tragic history of Henry’s mother, Sonia. She survived the Holocaust, married, had children, made it to Australia, but remained deeply traumatised by her experiences. How important was Sonia’s story to you?
Sonia’s story was as important to me as Henry’s, for the personal reasons I touch on above, and also for wider reasons. I am haunted by the impact war has on those who survive, one way or the other, due to my personal experience of growing up in such a family. I am drawn in particular to those survivors who become mothers, who give life to others, and who are so burdened by trauma they cannot be what they so dearly aspire to be—loving, caring mothers. Sonia was loving, despite it all. Yet she also descended into psychic rages and could not control the forces that had possessed her, and that wreaked enormous havoc on her loved ones. Yet, I hope that the reader also comes to see Sonia’s great courage, in making it through life, in becoming a grandmother, in enduring life in order to be with family, and I hope also that they come to see the saving graces, those moments when she was a great nurturer and loving mother. I hope, above all, the reader comes to see the things that did give her agency, and that hint at the strong, independent woman she could have been, had circumstances been otherwise. In an unexpected twist, through exploring Sonia’s story, I come to a point where I dedicate the book to ‘the mothers of the neighbourhood’—they could see the boys were hurting. They suspected what was going on. They attest to the adage ‘it takes a village to bring up a child’.
The sections of The Fighter that describe Melbourne’s postwar Jewish community are wonderfully evocative and vibrant. The reader feels transported back in time. What’s it like for you as a writer to go back and relive those times?
I love writing about those times and places, partly because I knew them so well. I love writing about the physical neighbourhood, the textures, the changes of an inner suburban neighbourhood during the turning of the seasons. I love taking the reader both into the streets and into those small terraced houses, and out into the backyard boxing gym, and to introduce them to a range of characters across cultural boundaries—although of course, there are darker and disturbing elements to the times, and to the streets, which must be brought to light—these darker shades are also an integral part of the writing, of transporting people to those times. Each time I go back to the neighbourhood, and relive it, I discover something new, or recover a memory long forgotten, evoked and accessed by returning to the streets of the old neighbourhood. It was a special time in our city’s history too, when so many different expressions of life were flowing in, with newly arrived immigrants, who recreated their old worlds within the new—and hence enriched us all.
What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Like many others I caught Ferrante fever, and have read all four of her Neapolitan novels. There are parallels between the streets of Naples, and the worlds she describes, with postwar inner Melbourne, but of course the enduring poverty and the violence it produces was, for historical reasons, more intense and disturbing, and the fight to get out of it all the more riveting. I love the visceral nature of Ferrante’s writing, and her exploration, especially of the women of the neighbourhood—the impact on the mothers, yet another parallel—her range of characters and depth of perception is astonishing, and her writing, at times so intense it become hallucinatory. She is a writer’s writer—and the power of her writing inspires writers. I am moving onto Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life, and early indications are that here is also a powerful voice, documenting the gritty streets and working-class immigrant lives of the inner city.