OBITUARY: Robert Close

Robert Close has been compared with Conrad as one of the greatest novelists of the sea. He said: "I had to be there when I wrote, to sweat, taste the storm's spume, lick bloody torn fingernails, to swear and to set down the bawdy talk of sailors' brothels."

His passionate and pithy book Love Me Sailor (1945) led, however, to one of the most extraordinary trials of the century in Victoria, Australia. Despite the support of Henry Miller and his loyal publisher, Ted Harris of Georgian House, who said he recognised "the flame of genius in the work", Close was sentenced to three months' imprisonment after being charged with committing an obscene libel.

Judge Sir Edmund Herring, who refused him bail, had never heard of James Joyce, whose book Ulysses was being sold in the same shop. His successor, Judge Martin, who convicted Close after a staged re-trial, declared that Shakespeare could have suffered the same fate. He told Close: "You have made a gross assault on the morals of the community," and fined him pounds 150.

Close had the final word, to the jury who wanted autographed copies of the book; and this "made even the gaolers wince". In his autobiography Of Salt and Earth (1977) he wrote that the authorities were determined to convict him because of their paranoia about left-wing writers. Close later sold his manuscript of the book to Sydney University.

Close's frantic early life in Australia, racked with disappointment and hardship during the Depression, gave him the material and doggedness to write. He hated school and was passionate about the sea, like his paternal grandfather. But four years after sailing on the windjammer Shandon at the age of 14, he found his career was blighted by the discovery of his colour blindness. To his delight he found he had a powerful singing voice but TB crushed this vocation too.

With a wife and two young sons to support, he worked as labourer, manager, salesman, and debt collector, but read literature avidly wherever he could and won prizes as a short-story writer. He always claimed the weekly meetings of the Writers League in Melbourne, started after the Spanish Civil War, were the best possible training for a writer, but said he wrote well when he was alone.

Disillusioned by the trial and an unhappy marriage, Close left to live in Europe for the rest of his life, only returning to Australia for two more years. But Australia still formed the setting for most of his novels. In liberal France, he became the toast of Fifties Paris, where he was compared with Ernest Hemingway and given the support of George Whitman (a descendant of Walt Whitman) at the famous Shakespeare & Sons bookshop.

Once in a cafe, overhearing a man called Bill talking about leaving his flat, Close rushed over like a long-lost friend. The bemused Bill who lent his flat was the writer William Gadden. In another cafe a man asked the waiter who he was. He wrote a note with his name and the man returned one with his - Picasso. Not long after, Close said, he met an American girl who had hitched through 93 countries and was a virgin - till she met him. He was an incredible romantic, but needed the security of marriage to write.

Thanks to Maurice Girodias, of the Olympia Press, whose reputation for not paying his authors was resolved when Close challenged him to a duel, Close earned sufficient fees from the Olympia edition of Love Me Sailor to buy a six-ton cutter and live in Cannes. Here he met his second wife, Francette, a Martiniquaise, during the film festival.

But Close was a restless spirit and rejected a bourgeois life. Once with his friend the film star Peter Finch he made a toast: "God protect us from good women." Later, when a friend in Majorca asked what he would do if there were no women in the world, Close replied, "A bottle of whisky . . . and write for ecstasy".

Writing was Close's life and women its romance, though he loved a yarn with his mates. He completed With Hooves of Brass (1961) in three months in an Australian timber settlement; She's My Lovely on Mount Calvo (1962) in Italy in four months; and Eliza Callaghan (1959) in 18 months, writing 600 words a day in freezing temperatures in Moret sur Loing. He suffered constantly from hypertension and after Francette died he threw away 30 years of his diaries because he said they were so sad.

It was a side his friends never saw. In Paris he was always charming, elegant and bubbling with fun. I enjoyed endless chats about life and literature in Paris and later in his flat overlooking the port of Andraitx, in Majorca. It was here that his restless spirit felt at peace thanks to his adored friend Catalina, and other friends who arranged an auction to pay for his nursing care.

Bob Close always said that if a writer did not use his imagination it would come back and bite him. In Morn of Youth, his first volume of autobiography, he concluded: "The morn of glorious youth was ended. Somewhere beyond the shoals and storms ahead was a future hour."

Jackie Williams

Robert Close, writer: born Camberwell, Victoria, Australia 15 July 1903; books include Love Me Sailor 1945, The Dupe 1947, Eliza Callaghan 1959, With Hooves of Brass 1961, The Voyage Continues 1970, Of Salt and Earth 1977; twice married (two sons); died Palma, Majorca 17 July 1995.

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