Peter Gebhardt could be old school, which is amusing when we consider he spent half his life turning old schools into new schools. One way he was old school was how he lived on the telephone. The telephone is a conversational device via which he conducted long conversations with family, friends, and colleagues; probably also reformed individuals he watched through the courts. I imagine this was a lifelong practice, or rather, pastime.
I would pick up the receiver to hear the Gebhardt voice commence a dialogue that could go for the next three or the next fifty-three minutes. He never said, “Peter here”, or introduced himself in full, or said hello, it was straight into it. For example: “What do you make of the Prime Minister this week?” This was less an opportunity for me to remark on the government’s latest misadventure than for Peter to launch forth on his newest series of mock-shock observations and rock solid opinions. The Prime Minister, inevitably, was put in his place.
Sometimes I would lift the receiver only to hear Peter taking up where we left off last week: “What you said about the Irish … Well it’s true, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about it,” upon which his thoughts about my thoughts would deliver and digress in orderly manner, with me hoping to find a lacuna to add something myself. He had a relish for clear ideas.
At his thanksgiving service at Trinity College one of the eulogists drew attention to Peter’s extraordinary ability to live always with the promise of a future. He had things on the go, all the time. The future is there for us to make something positive and concrete, whatever challenges may arise. This truth caused me to reflect on our last phone conversations this year.
In one call I said I was re-reading parts of Proust. I liked the back-and-forward of his narrative, where a person or event may enter, prompting philosophy and memories, memories that prompt deeper memories. I enjoyed Proust’s remarkable digressions, some of them lengthening into pages, before he returned magically to an earlier story. Peter hadn’t looked at Proust for a long time.
A week later, next call, he alludes to Proust. I say I have been lent the recent translation project of Christopher Prendergast & Co. That I have revisited Swann and, not surprisingly, find many surprises that I missed when I read the books thirty years ago. He makes vague noises about versions and how long it all is, before switching to something he knows about, mainly his health. In fact, his health has not been good for a while. I know when it’s really bad because he doesn’t phone at all.
A couple of weeks later, a phone call, and the voice of Peter intervenes on my morning. What was that translation of Proust I was talking about? He has to read it now. He is clearly planning for the future. Proust is something concrete, so Proust is now part of the plan. I imagine having Proust is a good way to pass the hours in hospital. Prendergast. Penguin Books.
Next call is from a hospital. I know this when he starts talking about nurses, tests, and blood. He has his people looking for that Proust set, but to no avail. Where can he find it? ‘His people’, incidentally, are the family members and what I always refer to as his ‘secretaries’, who run his errands, send emails, and do everything a telephone man hasn’t got time to waste upon. He had about five secretaries, by my count, but probably more. He was old school. Readings, maybe. Hill of Content, if anyone, they stock the classics: talk to Andrew or Pauline. Dymocks, if it’s in print.
A week later, phone call, no one has Proust. So I say well you may have to buy online. I praise James Grieve’s translation of the second volume of Proust. Grieve is the enfant terrible of Proust translators, resident in Canberra, even though he’s no longer an enfant and probably not terrible. This annoys Peter even more, a controversial translator of Proust who is an Australian, and he hasn’t got the book. Motivation is reaching fever pitch.
It is a relief to hear that, a couple of weeks later, his secretaries have procured the volumes and that arrival is imminent. I say to Peter he should start with Combray, which is compact and of a piece, setting the scene. That Combray is the narrator Marcel’s recollections of his childhood in Paris and the north of France. That Combray includes the seriously famous passage about dipping the madeleine cake in tea. He listens at the other end and thanks me for all my help on the Proust project.
There were a couple more phone calls, mainly on politics and a letter he had received from Marie Heaney in Dublin. The news of his death came by chance from one of his secretaries, after I had recommended some of his recent poems for publication in Eureka Street. She wrote in an email to say Peter died on the 22nd of July. In the days that followed I reflected on how he rang me, even when in extremis, and what a great person he was for keeping conversation going right to the end. I was just one of his telephone companions, though we’d had the odd lunch, and yet he took an interest, generated new thoughts, mischievous thoughts and creative, joked about Prime Ministers and the like, and cheered the day. I reflected on the set of Proust he’d had ordered, at home waiting for him to read, the next reading project, always something on the go.