On my dining room table. Each post-it note is a chapter and/or plot point. Over the last 4 years I’ve been spewing out scenes onto my screen in some, but generally no particular order. Today was an attempt to find the narrative arc. Initially it looked a mess – well, it still is a mess, but it’s now a mess with a little more order. It also gave me some idea where the holes are. There are many.
Here’s the Prelude to give you an idea of what it’s about.
If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.
If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.
This is a story of a boy who did just that.
I needed an idea of what this boy might look like and I found this photo on the web and immediately I knew it was him:
He’s a fifteen year old boy who was hit by puberty ridiculously early and hard.
He’s a very naughty boy but affectionate, intelligent, and often annoying
… and he’s still at school.
A boy in a man’s body.
Potential titles: Knitting with Fog, Gulliver’s Travels, or just Gulliver.
With the slow demise of intimate snail mail it would seem that the numbers of epistolary books are dwindling, but here’s one to turn the tide; but, yes, not letters, emails.
Ailsa Piper is a ‘walker’, and some years ago she asked friends and their acquaintances if they had any sins they wanted her to ‘walk off’ on a planned pilgrimage along the centuries-old camino in western Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The response was overwhelming and far from the lightheartedness in which the offer was made: she was sent some very serious sins. The walk inspired a book, Sinning Across Spain (2012), now in it’s second printing. It was this book that Monsignor Tony Doherty read and so engaged was he that he emailed the author, a woman he had never met; and so began an extraordinary correspondence that eventually turned into a book: this book, The Attachment.
It’s impossible to say there is no narrative since there is a timeline, or, at least, a sense of time passing: Tony writes, Ailsa replies, Tony replies and asks a question, Ailsa answers and asks one back … a conversation. However, there are pieces written by each of them addressed to the reader, not to each other, which I was very glad about. It saves the work from that tricky sense of rude intrusion that unattractively hangs around a book of letters, like the lingering stench of too much information never intended to be shared. I don’t usually read other people’s letters for this reason.
Ailsa is an agnostic writer, director, walker and performer originally from the red-dry wilds of north-western Western Australia, although, during the writing of this book, from Melbourne; Tony Doherty, an urbanite, has been a parish priest in Sydney for over fifty years. They met well after their conversation began. Initially it must’ve been an admiring reader to an inspiring writer but it soon developed into a friendship that coloured topics like birth, death, child abuse, grace, forgiveness, god, family, belief, siblings, friendship, politics, nature, silence, celibacy, walking, creativity, professional calling, poetry, marriage, language, food, and words.
I once heard of, to my dismay, an Australian fiction writer and teacher who told her writing students to avoid dialogue. I hope I never meet her, but if I do I would simply urge her to read this book, if only as a strong argument for the revelatory and character defining use of dialogue. I should confess here that I know Ailsa but I have not met Tony, although I have recently found there is a close connection; how many degrees of separation are there these days? I had a few thoughts on Ailsa confirmed and a few debunked, but the voice is unmistakably hers, which gives me confidence that the sense I have of Tony is fundamentally correct.
It’s a quick read. Despite its size, the large font, thick paper, and wide spacing make it so – I’d love to talk to a publisher one day about these decisions – although the need to read the next reply, usually short and to the point, is strong enough to add page-turning to its excellent credentials.
Its other strong point is the encouragement, by an annoying urge, to join in the conversation of particular topics, like family, with points, anecdotes, arguments, and examples of my own. Tony comes from quite a well defined family; Ailsa from a messy one, of divorces, other marriages, more siblings, that has morphed into a loving and noisy tribe; mine was neither of these – what two families are alike? – and I was keen to add, “Yes, but…” and “No, I don’t agree because…”.
What this book will ultimately do to you is force you to find your own Ailsa, your own Tony, and tease out what you think and feel about important things that only a duo-logue of dark scratchings on a pale background can ultimately get satisfactorily right.
You can buy both books, Sinning Across Spain and The Attachment, including the audio versions, here.
These stories are masterful, enlightening, moving, shocking, blasphemous, erotic, breath-taking, and scary: some of the best I’ve ever read. They are so good, they could render a yearning writer silent.
The opening, and title, story sets the bar. A group of young Australian professionals, close friends, at a deliberately over-indulgent dinner party thrown to celebrate an important new editing job in San Francisco for one of their number is destroyed by another: his ego, self-importance, and jealousy – he wanted the job – combine with a silly game to allow him to dominate the room and shatter these long-time university-born relationships forever. The story has a tricky structure: a story-telling within the story, and set-up information is economic enough not to turn you off or lead you to wonder where it’s going, but detailed enough that you understand what’s happening. Tsiolkas also tells the story from a more recent time reminiscing about a lost past, lost friendships, and lost innocence. This creates an expectation that the point is big: it is, even though on the surface it’s a bunch of mates boozing, snorting, talking, and toking at, and after, a dinner party. Thinking back on the story a day later some of the necessary plot-points seem over-stretched but at the time nothing jarred. There is nothing for the reader to do except go along with it. This, I believe, is a sign of a good writer: the reader will believe whatever is thrown at them even if, on reflection, some things are a little bumpy; but in the moment, while reading it, the reader is completely in the thrall of the writer, ready for anything. It’s what a reader – well, this reader – craves.
“The title story of Merciless Gods is stunning and should be read by everyone in the country who cares about fiction. It is worth the price of the book alone.” Sydney Morning Herald
Saturn Return is about dying. And grief.
When the door finally opens again, Barney rushes out sobbing and falls on me. I hold him tight. It is not as if he his crying exactly; rather, sorrow is pouring out of him, from every heaving breath, from every lacerating tear. The warm lounge room is suddenly freezing and the only heat comes from where our bodies touch. I strengthen my hold on him. I’m scared that if I let go,not only the room, not only this city, but the whole world will go cold forever.
I cried. Not bad for a story of twelve and a half pages.
Tsiolkas has never shied away from writing about sex, particularly in its extremes. His novels Loaded (1995) and Dead Europe (2005) are testament to that. There are stories here that may curl your toes; this book may not be a good idea as a Christmas present for Gran.
The Slap (2008) was his breakout hit; publication in Europe and around the world set him up as one of Australia’s premier writers. However, he had already established a small group of fans in Australia with challenging works like, Loaded, – adapted for the screen in 1998 as Head On – Dead Europe – which some considered the best book of 2005 – and The Jesus Man (1999). The television series of The Slap (2011) in Australia and the US version (2015) consolidated his reputation and broadened his readership. His 2013 novel, Barracuda, was also adapted for television in 2016.
The most remarkable thing about Cold Light, the last in the Edith Trilogy (Grand Days 1993, Dark Palace 2000, Cold Light 2011), and indeed the trilogy itself, is the woman, Edith Campbell Berry. She is the type of woman who, while working at the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1920s and visiting a Paris nightclub, slips lightly from the lap of a lone black musician and puts his penis in her mouth; falls for and marries a bi-sexual, cross-dressing, English diplomat but only after mis-marrying an American journalist who turns out not to be whom he seems; masturbates a mutilated war veteran as her deed for post-war reconstruction; hates the smell of keys, and who kisses her brother’s girlfriend on the lips. This is Edith Campbell Berry who in 1950 finds herself, aged in her 40s, living in Canberra “…about as far from the centre of the modern world as you can get without being in a desert … a slap-dash country of such unhappy food.”
If this mismatch isn’t mismatched enough Cold Light opens with Edith discovering her long-lost brother, Frederick, who is now a working member of the Communist Party which is about to be banned by the new Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. How’s a girl, with a lavender husband and a red brother supposed to get a job in this town? This is particularly galling for Edith who wants – believing she deserves it – a status-riddled diplomatic post, which was something then a married woman could not have no matter what colour her husband was.
Because of a few pulled strings, she gets an invitation to dinner at the Lodge, where she airs and wears her Chanel, but diplomatically tells the other wives ‘it’s a copy’, and gets a hand up her dress from the man on her left, something she relishes, and offered a job by the man on her right, something she despises, because it’s only a job of sorts: as ‘special’ assistant to Canberra’s Town Planner. However, despite its low status, really no status as all, she is inspired by the sketches of the Canberra dream made by Marion Mahony Griffin, wife of Walter Burley Griffin, and takes the job but insists on her own office, gets one, but one with no windows, and decorates it with bespoke furniture from Melbourne and a cumquat tree. She drinks Scotch, is a fastidious dresser, wears stockings under slacks, a Tam o’ Shanter, when necessary, and does her husband’s nails and lets him wear her silk nightie to bed.
Edith Campbell Berry is a hotel cat: mistrusted by a few, loved by most, but belonging to no-one. Her wish for a Bloomsbury life leads her to recognise a man for her, and so marries again, but after years that began passionately, her marriage slips into one of normality and routine (wonderfully and insightfully described by Moorhouse) and when confronted by a new Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, whose lieutenants know nothing of her, her ideas, or what she has to offer, she is then unemployed, discarded, and emotionally alone. However, her past does not desert her, and her experience as an officer of the League of Nations in Geneva (Grand Days), her work in Spain during the civil war and her position on a UN committee (Dark Palace), and her reputation in Canberra, mainly fuelled by incorrect gossip about MI5, ASIO and her truthful but unconventional life, comes to the attention of Whitlam. She is offered a position as an ‘eminent person’ to be a pair of eyes for the new Australian government in areas of international diplomacy and unease. She is delighted. This takes her to the Middle East where the book ends, surprisingly, dramatically, but really, so appropriately. No spoilers here.
Frank Moorhouse is a living Australian writer who deserves to be better known. He has won the Miles Franklin Award (for Dark Palace) and many state and national awards as well. The Edith Trilogy is a major contribution to Australian literature where trilogies are rare: Henry Handle Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1917 – 1929) and Ruth Park’s Harp in the South (1948 – 1985) are ones that spring to mind. The books are big, Cold Light, is very big, but where Moorhouse excels is his tone and insight into love and all its shades, romance, sex, politics, human frailty, personal ambitions, and inevitable failures. All three books can be read in isolation but once you taste Edith Campbell Berry you will want to taste her again, so read them all. You won’t regret it and you won’t forget her.
You can buy the eBook here for $10.99, as well as the others in the trilogy.
I am ashamed to admit that it took an American literary critic, James Wood, in a long, detailed, and inclusive article in The New Yorker dated October 20 2014 to inform me of an Australian writer who is not only still alive, but has always lived in Sydney in a suburb next to a suburb where I lived for twenty-five years. I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower; and as if to make up for lost time, or as an urging to put things right, I found a book of hers, this book in the Text edition, praised by the New Yorker for re-discovering her, in a second-hand book shop on the little tropical island in Indonesia where I live. But to rub salt into the wound of my ignorance, when I mentioned her to my book-loving sister in the Barossa Valley Sis said, “Oh, yes! I read her years ago.”
Elizabeth Harrower was born in Sydney in 1928, spent her childhood in industrial Newcastle, New South Wales, north of Sydney, but lived in London from 1951 to 1959 where she wrote her first two novels, Down in the City (1957) and this one, The Long Prospect (1958); the latter was highly thought of by Christine Stead, a champion of Harrower’s work. When she returned to Sydney she worked in publishing and wrote three more books, The Catherine Wheel (1960), The Watch Tower (1966), considered her best, and In Certain Circles, which she withdrew from publication, sent it to the National Library and gave up writing. It was finally published in 2014 when Michael Heyward of Text Publishing re-discovered her and ultimately re-issued all her work. In 2015, a collection of stories, A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories was published.
Her major themes are somewhat repetitive: a naïve woman, or women, trapped in their parochial and/or stifling circumstances come under the spell of a bully, usually a man, but in The Long Prospect, a woman: Mrs Lilian Hulme is particularly unpleasant, manipulative, and selfish, especially to her granddaughter, Emily.
Harrower’s women characters can be adequately summed up by this, said about Paula, Lilian’s daughter and Emily’s neglectful mother: “And there, in the city, as far as one could tell, she had been content in her own quiet humourless way to sit with the resignation of a decoy duck in a fun-fair allowing things – life in this instance – to be thrown at her.”
Men were hated, described as old women or letches, but useful to humiliate. Girls thought they drowned little girls in sacks or pursued them through mulberry bushes, wanted more than they could get, had slippery hands and shiny foreheads, slapped other men on the back for just being men and trying to get what they wanted which was always what they couldn’t have.
“… she hates all men. So do I, so do you, eh, Thea? Still you’ve got to have some around.”
Yet women read magazines of true love stories where heroines, after much trouble, get the men they want, but such men never seem to be anywhere around where such women readers live; and others read real-life murder stories where men are fiends on the prowl just waiting for a young girl to be left alone when they leap through carelessly closed windows and do what everyone knows men do. All this causes little girls to dream that they are orphans or that their mothers are not theirs, especially when those mothers return from partying having left little girls all alone and frightened; those little girls run back up to bed and listen to giggles and someone being sick and it is all normal again and nothing is ever said: bad mothers know nothing of little girl’s fears and if they did, so what, it had happened to them, and they turned out alright, didn’t they?
And on these men and women, lay an attitude of “humourless endurance” which “had been imposed on most by parents like themselves, surroundings of monotonous ugliness, participation in wars the young could not remember, and by a brief education delivered with so little relevance to circumstance and ability as to be incomprehensible.” And where female friendships, at best, are full of nothing but silent, sad contempt interspersed with moments of need disguised as affection.
Lilian – “dyed blonde hair and grey eyes” stated at her friend Billie – “dyed black hair and great cow eyes.” So ageing, they thought.
Such is the social landscape of Harrower’s characters in the late 1950’s Australia. In the muddle of all this Emily Lawrence grows up and one Christmas holidays she turns twelve and “made capable of objectivity. Overnight she had become all-seeing and all wise … which she incredibly, sometimes shockingly, and often to the dismay of her heart, knew what was true and what was not.”
Then Lilian takes in a boarder, Max. He not only looks at Emily, he sees her, “No one ever looked as if they saw her” and what excited her most was not all his books, or the gramophone, although that was indeed exciting, but that she was “conscious of his unconsciousness of her…and felt a small physical reaction on her spine to the suddenly strange, living humanity of the man…” In a world of men who had no control over their vices, tobacco, alcohol, pride, and the pity of women, here was a man who talked to her as if she was a grown-up and “she knew she would always have to be what he expected her to be.” Was it possible that there was such a thing as a good man?
The adults thought he taught Emily “high-falutin’ rubbish,” but “he was deep; he could do all that without looking silly or soft.” Max is indeed a very different kind of man. Can a genuine friendship between a grown man and a twelve-year old girl flourish in an atmosphere of gossip, small-mindedness, and stifling conformity?
Harrower is a master of language sometimes surprises you with her choice of words:
“His physical presence among them was a phenomenon, to which they accustomed themselves with the ease of savages”.
“The mild flowery smell preceded her into Max’s room, beginning another day in which he would be.” But her choice is always apt and enlightening.
There is little free indirect discourse (sometimes called close writing) here: the prose seldom reflects the language that each character would use – Emily sounds much older than she is, more like the narrator; but this was written in the 50s where such techniques were only sparsely used, but are now a common factor in contemporary fiction. However, The Long Prospect is still an effective portrayal of the narrow minded 50s of semi-urban Australia; no wonder most intelligent and ambitious people, like Harrower, left for London where civilisation and creativity dwelt, and a chance to be someone other than the person one was born as.
The Long Prospect is an intriguing read and recommended as an important work from an important ‘re-discovered’ Australian writer.
You can purchase the eBook through iBooks here or the paper book here from Text Publishing.
Extraordinary. This is a word that we use too much. In fact, we use it so much that we have elided its pronunciation from ek-stra-OR-din-ai- ree to ek-STROR-din-ree; four syllables from the original six. English-speakers do this because, fundamentally, English speakers are lazy; and laziness elicits contractions. Therefore, the fact that this word has had two syllables, a third of it, elided from its pronunciation proves that we use this word a lot. I want to use this word, not only in its original six-syllable pronunciation but in its original compound word construction, before it became a word: its beginnings when the prefix ‘extra’, meaning ‘outside’ was joined to the word ‘ordinary’ meaning ‘normal’: outside normal, or not normal.
This is an extra-ordinary novel.
Imagine three novels of personal discovery by characters of varying nationalities, creeds, and circumstances – Polish, Australian, American, Jewish, African American, prisoner, ex-prisoner, displaced person, kidnapped child, holocaust survivor, trapped husband, abandoned wife, ghetto dweller, historian, oven-stoker, psychologist, and soldier – written by a writer who is fundamentally obsessed with what connects one person to another regardless of time, place, and belief; and who advocates that a connection, whether it be via six or thirty six degrees of separation is still a connection; who then knits them together as one. This ‘knitting together’ is not so much a writer’s skill; it’s more an editor’s, but the idea of it, the concept certainly is Perlman’s.
But there’s more to a book that its contents. One of the other things a book is, is its narrator: who tells it? Usually, but not always, a novel’s narrator is a third-person, unnamed, genderless voice that is all-seeing, all-knowing, god-like. In The Street Sweeper Perlman proves this is all undoubtedly true. It takes Adam Zignelik, a major character, 25 pages to wake up. Don’t think this is indulgent or dull: far from it. In the moment this happens in real time we learn, via the Herculean and history-obsessed narrator, about Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black boy from Chicago, who, in 1955, while travelling to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, is tortured and murdered for sassing a white woman; about what happened at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957 to a fifteen year old black girl, Elizabeth Eckford; about the reasons, racism, and inconsistencies of the American Civil War, 1861 -1865; about what happened at the Coloured Orphan Asylum on the corner of 43rd Street and 5th Avenue in New York in the summer of 1863; about who is sleeping next to him as he’s waking, Diana; and even what will happen to her a couple of weeks after Adam wakes crying. Perlman doesn’t allow his narrator to tell you what happened, he shows you what happened; he takes you there. This is fresh history. But history that Adam Zigalick doesn’t know anything about, but could.
History is what excites Perlman and he explodes the idea that history is only a story that you’re not in.
Listen carefully. A young man – a very young man – lived in a house with his elderly father whom he loved very much. His father had grown unwell to the point of being bed-ridden. The young man shared the responsibility of taking care of the ailing father both with his mother and with a long-time and loyal servant of the family. . . He took pleasure in this even though, being a serious student at the time, he might have been forgiven for begrudging time away from studying in furtherance of his own future. It was all the more remarkable given the added stresses on him as a newly married man living upstairs in the family home with his even younger pregnant wife. . . Is any of this true? How can you know? How can you possibly know? I haven’t given you enough information even to ask better, more sensible, more meaningful questions. The better question is “Having heard what I told you about the young man, is it likely to be true?” Let me suggest these categories: true, untrue, likely to be true, unlikely to be true, and, there isn’t enough known to answer likely or unlikely.
His novelistic techniques are simple but effective. To flavour the testimony of a holocaust survivor, a Pole and obviously not a native-English speaker, he does as little as necessary, a little word-choice ‘mistake’:
I fell asleep in their second floor what was not yet finished,’ Mr Mandelbrot continued. ‘The cold come in through the missing windows but I was exhausted and fell asleep very quickly. The next thing what I knew was the SA man standing over me in the dark.
The use of ‘what’ not ‘that’ gives Mr Mandlebrot’s voice all the foreignness it needs.
Perlman has Adam discuss things in his head, not with himself, but with Diane, his partner who loves him but who he forced out of his life through his own inadequacies, fears, and selfishness: dialogue is far more interesting to read than blank prose:
He opened the mirror cupboard and found the comb that Diane had left still entwined with strands of her hair and he wondered how he became the man who held that comb.
‘So that’s it, is it?’ Diane whispered to him in the middle of the night.
‘I looked everywhere I could, did everything I could do . . . everything I could think of.’
‘Check them, Adam.’
‘Will you forgive me . . . for what I’ve done . . . to us?’
‘Sweetheart, check your notes.’
Adam went to his desk as he’d heard her direct him to do and started flicking through the pages.’
These ‘conversations’ not only keep the reader rooting for Diane and Adam’s possible reconciliation (no spoilers here) but also furthers the plot; not usual for thought bubbles.
Sensitive men, she had always felt, were intimidated by her looks, thinking that rejection was so likely that, as rich as the prize might be, they were too flawed, too certain to fail, to do anything but admire from a distance. (And then from the narrator, but in light of what this character had then thought, a little use of free indirect discourse) Men like these pursued women just slightly prettier than plain and then married whichever of them they were next to when suddenly the music stopped to announce that graduate school was over.
Immaculate, complex sentences with unusually expressed insight topped with a little poetry. This is classic Perlman.
Ultimately this book is about history and, more specifically, truth even in the little things:
It was the honey-skinned woman with jet-black straight hair, the student who no longer attended his ‘What is History?’ lectures; the one who had correctly guessed Gandhi. True? It was unlikely to be true but beneath the palm fronds as the past and the present wilted, beneath the candlelight where shadows snuff the sidle of evening, beneath the tropical motifs, thatch-clad walls and thud of the speakers there to help drown out people’s private internal, soon-to-be-publicly-misunderstood celebration of themselves, it was true.
There are no walk-ons in this story: a passing student has a goal, purpose, a history.
Elliot Perlman is a Melbourne barrister but has published three novels, Three Dollars (1998) which won the Age Book of the Year, and was adapted for film in 2005; his second novel Seven Types of Ambiguity (2004) was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award and the television adaptation will screen in Australia in 2017; and his third, The Street Sweeper (2011) was long-listed for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award. His short story collection The Reasons I won’t be Coming came out in 1999; the title story won the Age Short Story Award in 1994.
The Street Sweeper tells the stories, linked web-like through time and place, of a young African American man, Lamont Williams, and Adam Zignelik, a Jewish Australian historian, both living in Chicago and both trying to get their lives back on track: Lamont, after an unjust 6-year stint in prison, and Adam after his personal relationship and career starts to unravel.
Warning! The scenes set in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 are harrowing, detailed, vivid, and extremely disturbing. However, this book is also about memory, testimony, and what should not be forgotten; skipping these scenes is possible but not in the spirit of the work.
And the title? I’ll leave that for you to discover.
This is enlightening, intriguing, sometimes horrifying, but satisfying reading. Highly recommended.
You can get the hardback, paperback, and eBook editions here.
Frank Moorhouse and his girlfriend were lying naked in their back garden drinking wine and soaking up sunshine when the writer threw aside the book he’d been reading and exclaimed: ‘My God. Oh my God. Copyright is the key to all understanding. If you understand copyright theory, you understand the whole way the world works. It’s all there.’
It’s just a vignette. But in its composition and tone, it’s also a story which takes us to the heart of Moorhouse and his work. There’s the eye for sensual detail. The juxtaposition of the intimate and the abstract. The continuum between the big picture and the everyday. The intellectual energy at play amidst other pleasures. And, of course, there’s the delicious irony of a man lying next to his naked lover, inflamed with passion by legal prose.
Nowhere is the above more illustrative than in this following scene, from page 198 of Grand Days (Volume 1 of The Edith Trilogy, The Vintage edition, 2011).
The Australian protagonist, Edith Campbell Berry, an administrative assistant with the League of Nations in 1920s Geneva, is in Paris with friends at a jazz club. She is enthralled by the music, especially scat singing which she perceives as a new kind of language with staggering potential; she’s a little drunk. She is also fascinated with one of the black musicians, Jerome in a bowler hat, who comes, invited, to the table and explains about scat singing. A little time later, on her way back from the Lady’s, Edith stumbles across the musician’s room and enters, discovering Jerome, alone. She offers him her hand which he takes and guides her onto his knee. Then this sentence…
Time and movement then become slippery, as she gracefully slid, seeing for the first time his caramel and cream shoes and without thinking too much at all about things, it seemed his warm dark hands were on her exposed and very alive breasts, which she felt she had delivered up to him; all seemed to happen in flowing fixed steps, something like a waltz, except they were not moving from where they were adhered together in this strange way, and without any guidance at all and in no time at all, and with no impediment, with no thought at all, warm, fleshy and flowing, it was finishing, and she took her lips, tongue, and gentle teeth away, opened her eyes and looked across the room to an open instrument case.
Here the mundane, ‘cream and caramel shoes’, ‘no thought at all’, and ‘an open instrument case’, juxtaposed with the sensual, ‘dark hands’, ‘breasts’, and ‘lips, tongue, and gentle teeth’ create something perversely human; although once the penny drops and you realise what she has just done the sensual flavours the mundane and ‘an open instrument case’ takes on a brand-new meaning entirely.
That quote is an apt example of free indirect discourse which has become the characteristic of literary modernism ever since Joyce knowingly used it, and understood it as a style, in his 1916 autobiographical work, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are also examples of it in the works of Goethe and Jane Austin but it was Joyce who used it in such an obvious and effective way, as a literary tool, that it was subsequently taken up and experimented with by his contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse, 1927), and now it is so widely used that it’s hardly noticeable anymore. Free indirect discourse, or experienced speech, or, as The New Yorker literary critic and academic, James Woods, calls it, close writing, allows the author two very useful authorial tools. Firstly, it gives the writer freedom to flit from character to character to give their different view of the scene, character, action, etc. A vivid modern example of this is Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose novels (2012) where St Aubyn describes the (autobiographical) sexual abuse of his 4-year-old protagonist by his father from the boy’s and the man’s point of view. It’s as if the unnamed, god-like, all-knowing, third-person narrator flits from the mind of one character to the mind of the other. Secondly it allows the writer to use the language and tone of the character, the times, and circumstance to colour the narrative prose itself. Joyce’s opening to “A Portrait …” uses baby language – moocow, little tuckoo – not as dialogue for his baby protagonist, Stephen, but in the prose itself making it very clear, and without the necessity of saying it, that the boy is very young. By the end of the first chapter the narrative language is that of an intelligent, sensitive, and inquisitive school-boy which is what Stephen is at that time in the story.
If you read the Moorhouse sentence again – go on! Re-read it! – remembering that Edith is quite drunk, it is in language and tone (defensive) that she might have used if she was asked to explain what happened; the narrator’s prose is using the language of the circumstance, the situation, and the character.
Pre-Joyce, this rarely happened: the unnamed, god-like, all-knowing, third-person narrator was usually sage-like, mature, and distanced in time and character from the people and all the elements of the story. Dickens is a solid example of this.
Edith Campbell Berry is a sophisticated and complex creation, which was an entirely intuitive process, says Moorhouse, and her genesis began with his mother. Moorhouse has always been interested in social and personal politics, citing the liberation movements, both social and sexual, of the 60s and early 70s as having a transformative effect on him; and literary works such as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) he found enlightening and greatly affected his understanding of his own sexuality. Edith is aware of her multiple histories, ambiguities, desires and even chaos in her personal life which is separate and guarded from her professional life which she is immensely proud and protective of. She is an idealist and believes “the League had the task of making the manners of the world.” Her personal life in Geneva is founded on her early meeting, on the train from Paris to Geneva as she travelled to take up her post, of Ambrose Westwood, a British diplomat who too works for the League and, with Edith’s knowledge and support, investigates his own predilections for cross-dressing – she loans him her best evening gown forcing her to wear her second-best on their first tryst to The Molly Club – and homosexuality, while remaining Edith’s lover and confidant. Moorhouse admits there is some of him in the character of Ambrose Westwood. Her exploration of her own desires is stimulated by his, but she is constantly aware of, and ruminates at length, on her perceived reputation at the League (Is she a ‘vamp’?) finding it imperative that both her personal and professional lives are kept separate, and rightly so: a consistent theme in Moorhouse’s work. However, while making little effort to curtail her exploits with Ambrose into the secret and steamier side of Geneva’s social life, she is in constant threat of being exposed. This tension propels the narrative where both fictional and real characters and events are mingled to create a fascinating picture of the personal, the political, and the professional in the early years of the League of Nations.
At every turn, Moorhouse suggests, the answer to the question of how to live lies in learning to live with ambiguity and resisting the impulse to bury the contradictions of being human behind reductive, authoritarian codes.
It’s a fascinating read and once you get to know Edith Campbell Berry you are even pleased with the novel’s length – it’s big – as are the two to follow – because you just want more of her, as do many of the characters in the books.
Dark Palace is next, followed by Cold Light. A lot to look forward to.
The ebook edition of Grand Days is available here through ibooks for $US10.99.
It is not all that long ago, 1994, that Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days was disqualified from the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary prize because it was not Australian enough (he won the prize for its sequel Dark Palace (2000), which contains one scene set in Australia); apparently Australian literary sentiment has grown up since then, thank god – although the real problem lies from the rules of eligibility for the Prize . Here now is an Australian author, Hannah Kent, whose debut novel, Burial Rites (2013) was set in Iceland and now her second, The Good People, is set in Ireland: and still not a gum tree in sight. The only thing Australian about this book is its author; but that’s all that is needed, and rightly so, to herald Kent as a new, rising, and shining voice in Australian literature.
Kent paints time, place, and character through dialogue. The time is 1825 in rural, south-west Ireland where the Catholic Church is as powerful as ever but also where old Irish superstition and language is still rife and useful. All of this is established through how the characters talk: here a man comes to seek council from Nance Roche about his troubling dreams. Nance Roche is a wise woman who lives alone in a windowless, mud hut near the wood and who is said to have ‘the knowledge’.
‘Faith, what does it matter? I’d best be on my way.’
‘Sure, Peter, Go on home.’
He helped Nance to her feet and waited as she used the tongs to pluck a coal from the fire, dipping it, hissing, in her water bucket to cool. She dried the dead ember on her skirt, spat on the ground and passed it to him. ‘You’ll see no púca tonight. God save you on the road.’
Peter put it into his pocket with a curt nod. ‘Bless you, Nance Roche. You’re a good living woman, no matter what the new priest says.’
Here archaic English (“Faith, what does it matter?”), old Irish (púca means ghost) and Catholic salutation (”God save you on the road.”) all create the world of this novel: illustrative, complex, colourful, informative, and believable. The last because of Kent’s success at creating verisimilitude: the appearance of truth. You do not need to look up the meaning of púca; nor do you need to research the veracity of the use of the word ‘faith’ as an exultation in nineteenth century south-west rural Ireland; nor that the possession of a cool coal from the hearth of a bean feasa living in a mud-hut will soothe one’s dreams. As quickly as you read the lines the reader accepts this created truth because of the trust we readers place in the creator of such truth; when the real truth is that we are sitting in our reading chair scanning and finding shared meaning from little dark marks on a pale background. All hail our imagination and those that tickle it!
Kent has done her publisher proud: produced a novel with all the qualities of her first that prompted her global success and her publisher’s trust in her in the first place (it’s rumoured her earnings from rights, foreign publishers and the like, was $1 million); mid-nineteenth century far-western Europe in a valley of poverty, crime, women, faith, and fear, but with such differences that make it fresh and new, in tone, theme, crime, spine, and ending.
This is a story of three women: a new and bitter widow, Nora; a servant girl, Mary; and a feared and revered loner, Nance Roach; unwedded, unbedded, and therefore considered unworldly, but ironically, powerful despite the “fear of any woman who was not tethered to man or hearth.” In a society of family and neighbourily trust, tension and anger can boil quickly if livelihood is threatened: if cow’s milk is without butter, if a hen’s egg is yolk-less, or if a man falls suddenly dead, the inhabitants clutch at reasons, causes – be it four crows seen huddled together at a crossroads; lights seen bobbing on a fairy mound; or a cretinous child thrust on a widow who has no means to support it.
This is what happens to Nora whose motherless and afflicted grandchild is suddenly handed to her but who firmly believes it is the mischievous fairies, The Good People, who have taken her Micheál and left her one of their own. Her attempts to return the fairy to its own kind and see the safe return of her grandson is what propels the narrative to its tragic finale.
The belief systems, be it Christian or fairydom, give meaning to these ignorant people; the world is mysterious and explanations are needed for everything that ties them down, keeps them safe, or lifts them up. They need these causes of things to be certainties to allow them to get on with their poor and mundane lives; to keep planting their potatoes, milking their skinny cows, and harvesting turf to heat their hovels because their only other choice is to take to the road: the worst of outcomes.
Some readers have found the book depressing; yes, the story is sad, but the writing is evocative and succeeds is creating a vanished world, surreal almost, for the reader to get lost in so when the world of this valley is pushed into a civilized courtroom the reader too is confronted by the complexities and necessities of belief, survival, and what is true, good, and right.
I urge you to read this book. You can find it here.