Thursday, May 23, 2013
The leap between the Broken Shore woman and my own situation (a long-faced Witness with the uncanny curved brown teeth of a camel lifting up his meeting-pamphlet) is a footnote I have extracted on my own, not one that the author wrote, not the kind of reference that Joyce ever invites you to make in Finnegans Wake (in fact acts against it by breaking up the continuation of an apparent reality in his literature), but it is the reference that Temple promotes, even if he didn't consciously formulate any kind of aim like that, by setting his story in a specific place, in a realistic place, in a place that he describes with the language that a person walking down an existing street and looking at the scenery might bring into their active vocabulary -- he uses the word "Victoria" and telling you that the detective Cashin drove his car to a city -- he uses the name of a city that exists, "Melbourne," and locates the character in a car, which is an existing form of vehicular transportation, he is not asking you to swallow the words "flying horse" or "galloping giant rainbow" or "a teleportation device" -- which he could do, he's the author, it would be simple -- "Cashin joll to Vim-Blimgydor on a yimpy dingbat sherp" -- took me about ten seconds to type that, easy, too easy, but now I want to pick it apart -- "joll," does that sound right? -- I'm not happy with it -- what is this pickiness? or am I just addicted to distress? -- anyway -- and then he's using words that belong to existing particulars within that city, the Gallery with its water wall, and the sight of vaguely-sketched characters on the other side of the water wall setting their fingertips against the glass to have lines opening in the sheet of downward-running water, as meaty people do every day, insulting the queenhood of the liquid blanket that would command the complete surface of the glass if they left it alone; and he brings his detective to a bluestone alleyway in North Melbourne though the one I picture when I read those words is a bluestone alleyway in Richmond which is for some reason more attractive to memory, and though the mind has seen alleyways in North Melbourne it still rebelliously sticks with this one in Richmond, making a sort of excuse for itself, "I know it isn't North Melbourne but something like this," or maybe, "Not the right one but close enough," though what it is really uttering or formulating I do not know, and how would I strain through the mind itself to see or discern the mind, and not type "Not the right one but close enough" which is not an honest deduction but only a few words to fill the space that was going to be the end of that sentence until I decided to keep going?
Monday, May 20, 2013
On page two hundred and sixty-seven of The Broken Shore there is a woman who thinks that a pair of police officers are Jehovah's Witnesses. "Dint I tell you to bugger off last time?" she shouts. "Comin around with yer bloody Yank religion, yer bloody tower of Pisa, leanin bloody watchtower, whatbloodyever." You are a wonderful woman, I thought: I am exhausted by my doorknockers and my conspiracy theorists, all of whom have, since I moved here, been drawn to me like magnets, telling me that the United States government is flying UFOs around Las Vegas at night or whatbloodyever, and that it has built prisons in various cities, right in the open where people can see them, surrounded by barbed wire, and that it passes laws so that it can imprison its citizens in these prick-wired pens though where the jails are located in their muds of iniquity thick as pond slime the informant cannot say.
And what large stretches of contradiction our beliefs can cover, I think, and how automatically we shorten the space between one thought and another until there is no space, being certain that prison camps exist yet not being able to even nominate the name of the ground where one can be seen in all the nudity of its ignominy by the traveller or tourist.
(I think I have said all of this before.)
This absence of information is not a problem for the conspiracy theorist, the certainty is robust, it is as if the edges of a sheet have been folded together and the sheet comprehended like this, or it is the way that very fast interstellar travel might operate one day, when the dimension of space can be folded like that sheet, as in books by Frank Herbert. So if there is a dimension called thought then we have the power to fold it already, and treat our minds like the universe, going from star to star in a black space.
I read this woman's single piece of dialogue again about three times as though I thought there was a large truth here, and as if the author would give me an insight or cure, or only satisfaction, to see someone swear at those people, the Witnesses, who knock on doors and always start with the same gambit, proposing that the world is terrible and that they can do something about it -- I fight back -- I point out the sweet gleamingness of the incessant sun and how pretty the nice clouds look and in general I am hamming it up about the uncommon loveliness on all sides, even though anyone this side of degenerative senility can see that we are in one of the ugliest suburbs of an ugly city with cracked pavements running along every street and in some places no pavements at all because the people who manage streets have decided not to include any, for whatever reason, nor have they decided to build any nature strips, and they have obstacled the concrete where you want to walk. With what? With thick poles and magazine bins.
Earlier this week we were in Pocatello where they have nature strips and look, I said, falling over with shock: nature strips! All of the houses have basement windows with little curtains and everybody without exception grows tulips. Tulips, I said.
I wonder if this useless battlefield of pavement in Las Vegas is meant to repel the homeless people with their shopping trolleys, and it does, they veer off the pavements and continue down the roadway in the bike lanes. It is hard to get anywhere unless you are in a car, and ever the drivers of cars have to go on long treks across baking car parks to reach the front doors of shops. And almost nowhere do the shops open their doors directly onto the pavement, which is inhumane and neglects the dignity of the human animal that rises up with an autonomous ease of movement; there is always a large car park in front of the doors. This suburb has not been designed to meet the requirements of any human person although a completely different species with diametrically opposed interests might do incredibly well.
Go from this star to that star, say the Witnesses, but I go to other stars, I talk about the sun and remember Walter Murdoch, the Australian essayist who wrote in the 1930s --
No new and inspired religion has come to us from the United States for over a fortnight. This is very disquieting; if there was one thing we thought we could depend on, it was the steady uninterrupted flow of American religions.
(On Sitting Still, from On Rabbits, Morality, etc.: Selected writings of Walter Murdoch.
Which leads me to the reason I didn't make a post earlier this week on Wednesday as I usually do: we were going to Elko, we ended up in Salt Lake City, and there was the enormous Temple glowing in the twilight like four Sleeping Beauties Castleses.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
At the back of this U.S. copy of The Broken Shore they've put a glossary to delineate chook, bludger, ambo, dill, and other words that don't seem to contain their own explanations, chicken not leading naturally to chook unless you know the path already, but there's no guide to the words like "big boss-woman" that look as if they explain themselves -- a sort of vague woman somewhere dictating policy, assumes the reader in the United States who has never heard of Christine Nixon because she is not local, and maybe some part of them decides with an instant reflex, see, political correctness, the author is throwing the words "boss-woman" in there because they think they need to be PC, this is so artificial -- feeling actively alienated by the presence of this totem -- and they flit too, over the significance of one character "eating a pie, meat sludge" not picturing the thing that the Australian reader probably pictures (they are not picturing it because such a pie does not exist in the United States in any kind of popular way, chicken pot pie being the closest, size-wise, but chicken pot pie is white cardboard in grey drench, not the sludge and slurry of the pie the character without doubt was eating in the brain of the author), which might even be a Four 'n' Twenty pie, specifically, as I mystically sensed it, in a cellophane packet, and behind that an atmosphere of meat pies, pies at the footy, pies in the hands of children, pie ads on the sides of shops, even the pie in Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm which I mentioned -- months ago, several posts, hell I bore myself -- one of the characters there eating a pie as well, also meat sludge -- not described with the word sludge but the meaning around the pie would have admitted that very word and Temple's word sludge would have accepted the scene in White's book, the character Basil eating some sort of mess and wiping all fingers on his foulard, though Temple's pie does not admit White's disgusted comparisons with deep filth, dirtiness, foulness, the humiliation of Basil's sister as her brother sits there with this lower-class thing -- all of this is alien to Temple's meat pie, even though the word "sludge" could have supplied a link if he had wanted to draw those conclusions and could even have been a reference if he had extended the idea there, paying some sort of homage to the meat pie in Eye of the Storm, the police officer in his Broken Shore eating a homage before he drops his packet in the bin and goes away to arrest a group of murder suspects.
The Patrick White foulness-idea here maybe having something to do with impurity in the Victorian police force, Temple being interested in that, but not in a White-way, which is high-strung, the prose spitting with its hands clenched and the nails digging into the palm. Temple is dry and tired with hardboiled crime novel tiredness, everybody corrupt, nobody trustworthy, or very few, maybe the swaggie-character in his shed.
The novel ends with extra stabs of betrayal thrown at the character to show that betrayal doesn't end just because the temporary case has ended; betrayal can lie low for years and erupt by chance, nothing is eternal but betrayal. None of White's ecstatic moments for Temple's characters, only relief when things don't go completely wrong, or the sound of a recorded opera on CD. "Callas, Bergonzi and Gobbi always helped."
Peter Temple's police officer with the meat pie could have been called Baz, for the sake of White's Basil, and Baz wipes his fingers afterwards on a paper tissue out of his shirt pocket (reference to the foulard); then the rest of the book would have to be reconfigured to admit this sort of reference, there would have to be more references (to cue us to this one) and a reason, in The Broken Shore, for that abrupt and weird reference to The Eye of the Storm to be useful; it would have to be a different book, but it is not a different book, and so the pie is as it is and not any other way, it is not a reference to Patrick White; even the tiniest element is singing in tune with the corpus, and not being all that it could be, which is the price it has to pay to be there at all.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Peter Temple in The Broken Shore writes with commas between his jabs -- here's a sentence -- "She had a plastic glass in one hand, yellow wine in it, a cigarette in the other hand, a filter cigarette held close to her fingernails, which were painted pink, chipped" -- the jabs swinging into one another, each jab so short that I can feel the energy of the first one dipping only slightly before the second one picks up the slack and flings the sentence on again with a gasp, growl, grunt, or otherwise absence of words, no "with" before the yellow wine, no "and" before chipped; you could also compare that action to the action of the sea making waves, the grab, the dump, the grab, this style that mimics a physical exercise of energy.
And the reader is aware that the book is not giving them everything. Why won't you let me have my "with"? Then the mystery in the plot as well, the idea of mystery gets into the prose, and the reader is asked to solve a mystery in every sentence. What is the missing word? It's a "with" says the brain. It's an "and." But it has to do a little detective work first.
Why reticence? Why absence? What have I done? Why are you so tense, book? Characters themselves are reticent, their atmosphere infects them, nobody is open.
I can't calm a book, the tension was already intact and waiting for me to come along, and find it, and activate it with my eyes, which are wearing themselves out rubbing against these things. Here it is, pages of tension and reticence, I open the cover, I read the first chapter, the book lets me know that it is going to address me like this until the last page (could I activate it another way? Could I exercise my will and give it a light comedy tempo?). I know what's coming, I take that bath voluntarily, being slapped like this for fun, what am I getting out of it, a sort of stinging vigour, doused in this cold seawater by this stingy book that keeps its words behind its back -- senselessly -- because I know there's an "and" there, and the book knows that I know, yet nonetheless it will not change, it will let me sit there thinking, "It's doing this on purpose. It is almost ruining language but not quite."
So I'm never allowed to forget that the author is writing purposefully, not to make an argument or an intellectual point, but so that the book can be a free-floating unit of purposeful intent, like a tight fist or ball.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
Let me find a purpose for as many of these burdens as possible, says Joyce -- the nursery rhyme living like a fish in the subtle electricity of your head since you were two, here is a reason for you to have retained it, you can use it now, you can bring your mental light-beam to bear one bit of my book by remembering Mary had a Little Lamb, making the Wake a more magnified, diverse, and concentrated version of those works, poems, shows, whatever, that ask you to see them through the lens of some single piece of literature that came to you in your primordial young life, the television series Grimm half-arsedly hoping that you remember something about fairy tales, or even my own book (says Joyce) Ulysses, which if you compare it to Finnegans Wake, seems so undemanding -- oh reader, says the Wake -- without you to connect me together I am nothing, I am helpless, I am not even a proper language, your memory is my engine -- the most difficult book is also the most dependent.
When a member of the Victorian police force in Peter Temple's book The Broken Shore said the words "big boss-woman" I reacted as other readers who have lived in Victoria must have reacted, by picturing Christine Nixon, who was Chief Commissioner of the Victorian Police Force from 2001 to 2009, seeing her in my mind's eye, a phrase that I might have thought of just then because Joyce turns it into a pun that I can still remember. "I have them all, tame, deep and harried, in my mine's I".
I've come across a series of puns recently, first in Joyce, then by reading Les Murray's Taller When Prone and then finding a reprint of an 1873 pantomime called Australia Felix or Harlequin Laughing Jackass and the Magic Bat by a writer called Garnet Walch, whose name would have given me an instant set of associations if I had been alive in Melbourne and watching plays in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. He would have come to me through a hundred doorways, I would have watched his plays, I would have read about him in the newspapers, I would have talked about him to others and they might have said, "Walchie!" knowing him instantly because his work was popular, but now he arrives through only one doorway.
The setting: a room of demons
[Thunder and Lightning. Enter KANTANKEROS]
ALL: Our King! Behold him!
KAN: That will do at present,
Give me a whine that's not so effervescent.
SCO: Real, and not sham-pain.
They used to sell copies of the script with the jokes italicised so that you wouldn't miss them when they were said in front of you the first time and then so that you wouldn't forget them afterwards: one purchase and you were reinforced in both directions. There is the villain, Kantankeros, then there is a hero, Felix, there is his father, Old Australia with an Irish accent which the script spells out phonetically (and it phoneticises the elevated diction given to some words, which are accented not because the characters using them have accents but because the words have been used so many times on the stage that they have accents, independent of the characters, "kyalm" for "calm," "trr-r-aiter!" for "traitor," these accents that are in-jokes and footnotes, the possible depth of a written language seeming infinite, vertigo setting in when I think about it) -- there is a companion animal in the shape of a kookaburra and an evil companion animal in the shape of a Mosquito, rip-off of the human Spider act that Melbourne was loving at that moment; there are satirical representations of topical figures, there is an alluring city woman named Miss Collyns Treeter (Collins Streeter, she promenades on Collins Street), there is a troupe of monkeys defeated by a troupe of ladies on a jungle island, there is a painted canvas depicting The Silver Pavilion of Perfect Bliss by Mr A.C. Habbe, there is a little boy in a beard and moustache representing W.G. Grace who was visiting Melbourne with the English First Eleven, and nobody had to explain that Boblo, who wants to meet Kantankeros, was really Robert Lowe, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was hated in Australia for his law proposals, and in Britain as well -- one of them was this: he wanted to put a halfpenny tax on boxes of Lucifer matches. In the play he tells Kantankeros that he has made Britain miserable and now he wants to make Australia miserable too. Excellent, says Kantankeros, I am the demon of misery and I was going to do exactly that thing.
For this purpose he will steal the Magic Bat which is a bat in the sense that it hits a cricket ball and not in the sense that it flies around like a mouse and eats all the mangoes.
Meanwhile the real Robert Lowe did several things one after the other, he became an Hon., he became sick, he published a book of poems (one of them in honour of Caroline Chisholm, one of them about the poverty of guano collectors); and died debilitated by his bad health in 1892.
But though they've deprived us of herds and of flocks
We can still steal the treasure that lies on the rocks,
Scraping, scraping, scraping guano --
Scraping, scraping, scraping.
(from The Gathering of Guano, in Poems of a Life, by Robert Lowe, pub.1885)
I look at that and it occurs to me that Guano is a poem so obscure that no one will probably ever want to cross-reference it or pun it or portmanteau it anywhere because an unfootnoted cross-reference would seem to point, in the minds of almost every reader, to a blank blasted howling spot where stillness dwells in the undisturbed grey dust, or if the writer cross-referenced it they would feel proud of the obscurity, not proud because they had given the reader an immediate passage into an idea: I could be the only person who has read it in years -- that's not impossible.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
The temptation is to shortcut the distance between myself and this book, Hadrian the Seventh, by judging the author as he seems to reveal himself here, powerless and seething, then transferring that judgment to the book wholesale, overwhelming it with a sort of depressed scorn.
The aesthetic cultural surge that he's riding has been washed away by time (the surge in that precise form -- the one represented by an exquisite mantlepiece of Greek intaglios next to squalor -- there are modern equivalents but they're not the same, not even the feeling around them is the same, though they have that longing for refinement --), and as I read the word "Ruskin" in one of his paragraphs, I can think, "Ruskin writes with this disdain too, for anything he can call "low," still, in him the definition of lowness is more of an eccentric one, less conventional, it's as though he's been alone in himself for so long that he finds it necessary to anthropomorphises people -- and one of the ironies of Rolfe's book is that this protagonist who hates conventional souls is filled with conventional prejudices and doesn't Dostoevsky touch on this phenomenon in the fourth book of The Idiot? -- but Ruskin makes all of his prejudices seem so strange and pitiable -- I can watch Ruskin building the architecture of his sentences where Rolfe's sentences are ordinary reasonable sentences (in other words I feel reassured that there is more to Ruskin, his mind is operating elsewhere, I can believe that the disdain is an excuse for the mission of sentences; the disdain is the patron of the sentences as the Church was the patron or conduit of Michelangelo, who came from a silent point that was not-them and was emitted through them), and at least Ruskin sounds as if he's in actual berserk and helpless prophetic agony when he tells you that steel is evil, but Rolfe doesn't have those sentences or that agony, he doesn't have those mitigations or padding, he writes like a man who's confident that he will find an audience that agrees with the idea that people who don't talk like classically-educated Englishmen are revolting or funny, and it might have been the agony of Ruskin, decades earlier, that helped to nourish the aesthetic audience, giving them confidence in their disdain, but Ruskin's own peace of mind doesn't seem to have benefitted from it since he wrote more and more like a mad Cassandra until he died, so that even when I read his diaries I see the depression-words dominating the last years: "intensely ill and sad," he writes, "Despondent exceedingly," "languid as well as sad" --
A perfectly pure golden and orange sunset found me listless and careless of it; or rather, for I watched it reverently, careful, sadly, that I could not care (Tuesday, February 4th, 1873))
-- and it is thanks to his distress that Rolfe was given that opportunity to be bitterly and yet complacently spiteful in this exact way; the work has all been done for him, the atmosphere was pre-established, though he was poor, apparently, and suffered in life, fighting with his friends and experiencing bitterness and otherwise constructing an atmosphere around his person; but in his prose life in this book he does not construct anything except his hatred, he is parasitical on his era, as C.S. Lewis, seeing cynicism in John Donne's poetry, insisted that Donne was parasitical on the universe of idealistic love poems, no matter how bad they were -- Rolfe appears to be easily condensed and dismissed, and Ruskin not, though if I had met them in life I might have gone away thinking that their personalities were virtually the same, both, let's say, hovering by the mantlepiece, silently gloomy, waiting, passively, to be approached by a conversation that seems to be up to their standards, this behaviour described in at least one Ruskin biography, the name of whose author I cannot now remember, and if Rolfe is true to his protagonist then he would have exhibited behaviour like it -- and both of them would have hated the bus ride I took yesterday, the man and woman opposite discussing their drug addictions, the man irritated because the U.S. military doesn't take you unless you have paperwork to prove that you've been off your bipolar medication for two years -- "Two years! I can't be off my medication for two months --"."
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Hadrian behaves as if you inhabit the same piece of mental earth as the protagonist -- even if you don't, it address you as if you do -- if it treats you like this firmly enough, if it only treats you in this way, if it hammers you with persuasive details, then you will be bent into the right shape -- this is how it seems to think -- if it never lets you have a crack to escape through -- if it never stops squeezing -- if it never shows weakness -- then it will win -- if it does not let you speculate ambiguously -- if it will not let you disagree or laugh -- if it only ever shows approval of its protagonist -- if it only ever seems repulsed by its villains -- "then," it seems to say, "I will triumph."
The protagonist represents this point of view distilled into a person. He is the book itself, he is the book's idea of itself replicated inside itself like a reflection in a mirror, a picture of the author beaming through the medium of prose and shining, smaller, in colour, against a white panel -- he is a proudly stubborn aesthete in a dirty world, retrograde, austere, rebellious, unbending, his taste "exquisite" --
At the upper edge of the board a number of Publishers' Dummies reposed, having the outward similitude of six-shilling novels: but he had filled their pages with his archaic handwriting --
-- two lines later he is quoting Sophocles in Greek, and so the information piles up, the room is graced with "sixteen exquisite Greek intagli" and "a curious Greco-Italian seal shewing St George as a winged-footed Persys," "four tiny ingots of pure copper," and you notice that the scale of the treasures is important here, diminutive items preferred ("tiny ingots"), objects you can only admire if you're being rewarded with a view at close range, "a miniature in a closed morocco case," smallness stressing the character's privacy, poverty, and modesty, "a small low armchair," "a small fire," the items listed and lined up on display by the exactness of a detail that guides the reader's inner eye to one spot, "done on the back of an Admiralty chart," the author never admitting that this heap of little delicates is getting ridiculously large; you either respect it or you're out.
"Cultivate the art of saying No," says the protagonist to himself because he is afraid he is too nice. The book erects boundaries as it goes, such is its temperament, it creates and discovers them; if it hates then it wants you to hate, if it loves then it wants you to love. If you are not its kind of person then it does not want you. "It does not want me," I thought. Rolfe does not try to persuade, he tries to obliterate, banish, or crush.
"He behaves as though I am somehow him," I thought, "and as though I am reading this book through his own brain, so that all he has to do is use a word like "low" or "conventional" or "socialist" and his disgust will be transferred instantly into my veins, he treats his words as if they are hypodermic needles."
Here was the spoor of a time that had departed. I was supposed to know. It was supposed to be in the air. I was supposed to be viscerally revolted by pre-Revolutionary Russian Communism. The book was published in 1903. I feel a wall. The book is on the other side. There was no wall, now there is a wall. It wants ascetic coolness and visceral hating emotion together. A character speaks with a slang accent. I am supposed to think that he is morally squalid not only because he has those thoughts but because he expresses them in that voice. The voice is coarse and coarseness is vile. Rolfe is so repelled he's spitting. Through no other route may I emphathise with this book. But I am so distant from that time and place that I couldn't sacrifice myself like that even if I wanted to. I am blocked even from the pyre. The author is suffused with disdain. I believe that I can read his mind that far. I can describe the shape of his hatred by borrowing the words that he uses. He hates people who bark, he hates people who drop an h, he hates people who don't respect the monarchy. But my description is pure word-borrowing. I am only making a quick skin for that hatred so that I can tell you, "He hates."
Thomas Bernhard's books call people pigs and philistines but they're not as smug as Hadrian -- they're not martyred saints -- they don't insist so coldly and soothingly on their own holy infallibility -- and I get along with them better -- their protagonists who'd like to scratch off their own faces -- Rolfe likes his own face intact and noble -- the more petty he is, with his hatred of accents or ugliness, the more he wants his nobility -- I have learnt something here, I thought --