Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse

The Australian writer Frank Moorhouse

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.










Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse

The Australian writer Frank Moorhouse

Here’s a little anecdote …

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.

         ‘Our man at cultural studies cliff face’, by Professor Catharine (2004): in Gleeson, Lumby and Bennett: Frank Moorhouse: a celebration, Canberra: National Library of Australia.

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.