Monday, July 26, 2010

the states that began with an I

In some ways Old Bill was like a parent to us, or a grandfather perhaps. He not only taught us Latin, Greek and other languages, but he spoke to us as if we were already adults ...

I read those lines in David Musgrave's Glissando, and, strangest sensation, not one I've had before, I saw that Glissando was a tunnel or alternate doorway to Little, Big, opening into or out of the moment when Smoky Barnable's father teaches him "Latin, classical and medieval."

Because the two of them moved so often, Smoky never did go to a regular school; and by the time one of the states that began with an I found out what had been done to Smoky by his father all those years, he was too old to be compelled to go to school any more. So, at sixteen, Smoky knew Latin, classical and medieval; Greek; some old-fashioned mathematics; and he could play the violin a little. He had smelled few books other than his father's leather-bound classics; he could recite two hundred lines of Virgil more or less accurately; and he wrote in a perfect Chancery hand.

I know it's not unusual to believe that you've seen an echo of one writer in another writer's style, or another writer's themes, or sensibility (and later in Glissando the narrator talks about memory palaces, as Crowley does) but this wasn't that -- I didn't believe I was seeing an influence, or anything conscious; I didn't think, "So he's read Crowley and now he's copying Crowley's idea," although it's possible that he did (if so, it doesn't matter). This was something abrupt, like love at first sight, not a feeling of, "I've spotted a hidden connection, I'm clever," but a moment that seemed to exist outside one's perception of oneself as a reflective thing, or as an opinionated thing (I had no opinion, none, nothing). I wasn't thinking about myself at all, but I felt like a conduit, as a wire might feel when the electricity comes on, radiant or consumed.

At the same time I knew that I was holding Musgrave's novel in my hands, and I remembered the position of Little, Big in a pile of books on the other side of the room. Not only the position of it, but the way the front cover would have looked if I had taken it out of the pile. My mind was performing practical functions; it was also putting itself in the position of a medium. This amphibiousness, this two-in-one, reminded me of the hippocampus Wikipedia page I'd found while I was looking up seahorses.

The appearance of hippocampi in both freshwater and saltwater is counter-intuitive to a modern audience, though not to an ancient one. The Greek picture of the natural hydrological cycle did not take account of the condensation of atmospheric water as rain to replenish the water table, but imagined the refreshening of the waters of the sea oozing back landwards through vast underground caverns and aquifers, rising replenished and freshened in springs.

So I was in two kinds of water, one physical, one chemical or spiritual, observing the imagined souls of two books, and when I thought of Proust's narrator, who describes himself as, "a man, one of those amphibious creatures who are plunged simultaneously in the past and in the reality of the moment," I wondered if this experience could be split in another way as well: the love-perception and the feel of Glissando in my hands were "the reality of the moment," and the idea of Little, Big hidden in the pile at the other end of the room, where I could only look at it with my mind, not my eyes, was "the past," since it was memory that was providing me with a picture of the cover.

When I arrived at Musgrave's lines about memory palaces I paused, wondering if the connection would come to me again, but there was nothing aside from a kind of mechanical recognition. "He has just mentioned memory palaces. Crowley mentions them too." I couldn't make myself feel that this duplication of memory palaces meant anything significant. Dozens of authors, fiction and non-fiction, have talked about Giordano Bruno and his ars memoria or art-of-memory. There was no reason to assume that Musgrave should have come across it in the same place I had, which was, first of all, Little Big, in the character of Ariel Hawksquill.

So it was that Ariel Hawksquill was rooting around in one of the oldest attics of her memory mansions, looking for something she had forgotten but knew was there.

She had been reading an ars memoria of Giordano Bruno's called De umbris idearum, a huge treatise on symbols and seals and signs to be used in the highest forms of the art. Her first-edition copy had marginal notes in a neat Italic hand, often illuminating but more often puzzling. On a page where Bruno treats of the various orders of symbols one might use for various purposes, the commentator had noted: "As in ye cartes of ye returne of R.C. are iiiij Personnes, Places, Thynges &c., which emblems of cartes are for remembering or foretelling, and discoverie of smalle worldes."


The immense laughter of Bruno when he understood that Copernicus had invented the universe -- what was it but joy in the confirmation of his knowledge is the centre of all, contains within it all that it in the centre of?

Friday, July 23, 2010

organic unity, and verisimilitude

There's a radio interviewer in the States named Michael Silverblatt, who has a show called Bookworm, and a few weeks ago he interviewed the filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Divine, etc), who said that The Man Who Loved Children is one of his five favourite books. He discusses this in a recent memoir called Role Models, which I don't have, but I've transcribed the Man part of the interview. Is it legal to publish transciptions on blogs? I'll start with the disclaimer I've seen on fan transcripts of TV shows: Disclaimer: This transcript is intended for educational and promotional purposes only, and may not be reproduced commercially.

MS: The next one is the magnificent novel, uhm, by Christina Stead ... is it Sted or Steed, do you know?

JW: You know, I think Sted, but I'm not sure. You know, I found out my book came out on audio, and I had to read the whole thing? Never write words you can't pronounce. And you'd be; you don't think of that. I mean, words you've written your whole life, read your whole life, but once you have to say them out loud, think, "God, is that right?"

MS: It's The Man Who Loved Children, which is a title that's sure to give you both the right idea and the wrong idea.

JW: Yup. He thought he loved them, yah, but his love was the most oppressive love, and this is the most angry book about a terrible marriage I've read, ever, I mean it's a true angry feminist ... It is a feminist novel but in a way that women hated this book when it came out too ... no one ... Mary McCarthy hated this book. I mean, this book had very, very little praise until it was released, what twenty or thirty years later, and even then, it's a tough book. I [indistinct] pick difficult books. This -- I love feel-bad books though. They make me feel good. I feel good anyway. Why do I think a novel has to make me feel better?

MS: Well, wonderfully, just recently, the New York Times Book Review had an essay by Johnathan Franzen, who chooses this as one of his books of all time.

JW: I was amazed. It was yesterday. I thought, "Suddenly this is a trend? [laughing] This obscure novel is like on everyone's lips?"

MS: Uh-huh. And, and look, in his description, it's a funny book. In your description it's a book about a terrible marriage. In my description it's a book about a daughter trying to escape her father.

JW: Well that's true too, yeah.

MS: And so, this is the big deal, everyone's experience of a book is different, not book by book, but person by person, you don't all have to agree. Agreement is what they teach you in school.

JW: We all love the books, because it's an extreme book, and we like, that I said we should perform, get, a Hate bookclub, and we should do the tirades of her against her husband. There are pages of venom that she says, that -- I get why he thinks they're funny. They aren't really funny, but they're so well written, and so angry that she can barely ... she flubs words because she can't even speak, she's spitting in rage, so to act these parts out, the neighbours would call the police, definitely, if you were having a book club reading. And if you're trying to escape your father don't you often marry another bad man?

MS: [laughing]: You must.

JW: Yeah. It's a tradition.

MS: That's Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children ...

You can listen to the recorded version online at the radio station's website. They start discussing Stead at about 16:30. The "her" who performs the tirades against her husband is Henny, of course. (Looking at this explanation, I realise that I probably would not have felt compelled to provide it if I hadn't written the line down. If, in other words, it had remained spoken. Why do words on the page seem to require more explanation and support, or is this my misunderstanding? How much scaffolding is provided by those ums and ahs and inflections that only really appear spontaneously among speakers?)

As for Waters' other four favourite books, they are Denton Welch's In Youth Is Pleasure, Ivy Compton-Burnett's Darkness and Day, Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles.

On the subject of Man's critical reception ("this book had very, very little praise ..."), Margaret Harris in The Magic Phrase: Critical Essays on Christina Stead summarises it like this:

Stead herself was to speak of the novel as a failure: "It was first published during the war, when, of course, it had no relevance. It fell almost dead. The publishers didn't want to print it."


However, Randall Jarrell's comment in 1965 that The Man Who Loved Children had been "a failure both with critics and the public" (MWLC, p.36) does not hold up, for critics recognised the scale of its achievement, even when their praise was qualified. It was as a study in the drama rather than the politics of the family that the book was acclaimed (for example, by Louis B. Salomon in Nation) except in New Masses where Isodor Scheider's review was entitled, "In the Bosom of the Bourgeois Family." He observed that "The Man Who Loved Children may in a sense be considered a novelization of Engels' Origin of the Family, and it is a rare distinction of the book that it should succeed in this without prejudice either to the integrity of the ideas or to the embodying art." There were notable attacks, like that of Mary McCarthy on what she called "this peculiar, breathless, overwritten, incoherent novel." Even Fadiman faltered in his praise, though his criticisms -- including the charge that Stead did not render effectively American idiom and local colour -- were symptomatic of the syndrome identified by Louise Yelin. "The reviewers," she observes, "unable to assimilate the novel into the standards of the literary culture they inhabit, treat it as a grand anomaly, a literary lusus naturae or work of savage genius" which violates the decorum of women's novels, organic unity, and verisimilitude alike.

The Ragged Claws blog says that Melbourne Uni Press is going to reprint "a collection of titles" by Stead, "including her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, and the remarkable novels Letty Fox: Her Luck and For Love Alone." "Including" had better mean more than just those three, I hope, since Man and Love Alone are the easiest to find in the secondhand shops here, and Letty Fox was reprinted by NYRB about, ooh, ten minutes ago. Challenge yourselves, people. Reprint House Of All Nations.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

a dispenser of bric-a-brac

In a post a little while ago at ANZLitLovers a rule was quoted, "Omit needless words" and another one "Murder your darlings" -- "Puritanical" said the writer who was discussing those rules, "As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits," which are my feelings too, "but," I thought, "what are needless words? What is a needless word?" Some people say that suddenly is a needless word, and others advise against really and very, or anything else that makes a writer seem undecided, but David Foster Wallace used really and very and all kinds of vagueness, and he -- see -- like this:

I felt unbelievably sorry for him and of course the Bad Thing very kindly filtered this sadness for me and made it a lot worse. It was weird and irrational but all of a sudden I felt really strongly as though the bus driver were really me. I really felt that way. So I felt just like he must have felt, and it was awful. I wasn’t just sorry for him, I was sorry as him, or something like that.

Wyatt Mason, quoting that excerpt, goes on:

The mix of registers here is typical of Wallace: intensifiers and qualifiers that ordinarily suggest sloppy writing and thinking (“unbelievably”; “really” used three times in the space of a dozen words; “something like that”) coexisting with the correct use of the subjunctive mood (“as though the driver were”). The precision of the subjunctive—which literate people bother with less and less, the simple past tense increasingly and diminishingly employed in its place—is never arbitrary, and its presence suggests that if attention is being paid to a matter of higher-order usage, similar intention lurks behind the clutter of qualifiers. For although one could edit them out of the passage above to the end of producing leaner prose—

I felt sorry for him. It was irrational, but I felt as though the driver were me. I wasn’t just sorry for him, I was sorry as him.

—the edit removes more than “flab”: it discards the furniture of real speech, which includes the routine repetitions and qualifications that cushion conversation. Wallace was seeking to write prose that had all the features of common speech.

Not only Wallace, but George Eliot and hundreds of others -- all speaking -- here's Felix Holt, the Radical:

It is so very rarely that facts hit that nice medium required by our own enlightened opinions and refined tastes!

Omitting needless words:

Facts rarely hit the medium required by our opinions and tastes.

Which "discards the furniture of real speech," and so Eliot's style is hamstrung. What is that style? She goes along talkingly and slips you sharp ideas along the way: she has a sage chat. Elsewhere in Felix she gives us a sentence about Mrs Transome's embroidery. The sentence starts with the kind of dimity that would get itself described as use of needless words: "A little daily embroidery had been a constant element in Mrs Transome's life" -- and then, without altering the essential furniture, she cools into something like anger, the whole temperature of the sentence grows colder and brighter, or else (depending on your inner reading-voice) sours -- "that soothing occupation of taking stitches to produce what neither she nor anyone else wanted, was then the resource of many a well-born and unhappy woman." And ah, we've gone from platitudes about this embroidery to what it really means for Mrs Transome: she is wasting her life, she is trapped. 'Soothing' enters like a transit station between the chirpy mood of the beginning and the more sarcastic and melancholy mood of the end. The needless words are needed, they're part of the journey from platitude to point.

Compare the feints and hesitations of a good actor. If the actor recited their lines from beginning to end without pause, without inflection, would we understand what the lines meant? Yes, but they would become unfelt and unthought, in other words, inhuman. The actor would not be an actor, and a writer who does not act is not a writer: writers act, it is one of their jobs. And they are the script too, and all of the scenery. 'Needless words' in Wallace and Eliot aren't the meaning: they indicate the thought behind the meaning. Humanity is the aim, not words or needless words.

Christina Stead, lover of folk tales and Arabian Nights and other richness, of course she can be trimmed --

The distribution began. Sam made himself a dispenser of bric-a-brac, with a pin pot here, a matchbox there, a napkin ring beside, and a snuffbox neighbouring, and again a pin pot, according to the choice of men and women.


The distribution began. Sam dispensed the bric-a-brac, with a pin pot, a matchbox, a napkin ring, and a snuffbox, and again a pin pot, according to the choice of men and women.

And there, the voice that bounced along in singsong time has been hobbled. Well done you. And as a reader I conclude, that there are no needless words, or: no category of needless words, no box containing very and really and other things that can be eliminated from sentences as if elimination were a magic potion swallowed or a juju worn with fidelity to make problems go away. It seems to me that the only answer for a writer is to find out what they should write like, and write like it, and then they will be able to use 'very' as much as they like; no one will care. Which is difficult, or I assume that it is, and it would be much easier if you could identify needless words in the way you register the presence of rats or possums in the ceiling and then have them exterminated, but it's not that simple, or it doesn't seem to be.

Geoffrey draws on his boots to go through the woods, that his feet may be safer from the bite of snakes; Aaron never thinks of such a peril. In many years neither is harmed by such an accident. Yet it seems to me, that, with every precaution you take against such an evil, you put yourself into the power of the evil.

says Emerson. The "trick" to writing, says Mark Tredennick, is

to heighten it with an art that’s true to one’s own nature; that makes your writing sound like itself, like someone speaking ...

In an essay I read recently in Spectrum, David Malouf reflected on the intimacy that grows in good books between a writer and a reader. He said something that a writer like me takes great comfort from; for I am a writer who gets bored fast with narrative—especially my own. There are readers like me, I’ve come to realise; David Malouf thinks they are the truest readers. What a reader really means, if I may paraphrase Malouf, when she says she couldn’t put the book down, is not, or not just, that she couldn’t wait to find out what happens next; what she means is that she couldn’t bear to break the spell of the writer’s telling—of the book’s voice. Great writing, even good functional writing, compels us more by how it speaks than by what it says. The real narrative of the best books may be how the reader is changed and moved by the music, by the enchantment of the voice of the work.

I don't have that Spectrum essay, but here's Malouf saying a similar thing on ABC radio:

Well I've come to the conclusion that in the end what people are actually interested in, in writing, is the actual writing. They may not necessarily say that to themselves but when they choose one writer rather than another, it's the particular music of that writer that they're responding to, the particular tone of that writing, the particular density with which detail occurs in that writing, the span of sensory stuff in that writing.

When is a word unneeded? When it's being used poorly. When is it being used poorly? When it doesn't contribute to meaning or to the illusion of thought. All this advice boils down to is: write well. Which is marvellously unhelpful.

Friday, July 16, 2010

life is theirs no longer, and

The dread of death, and I know not what strange anguish at this all-important moment, blanch those human faces, to which the choicest wines of Greece and Italy had just given a hue of purple. These men feel -- instinct tells them -- that life is theirs no longer, and they have not the courage to die!

The opulent freed-man calls to his slaves, and promises them their liberty if they consent to risk their lives in an attempt to save his. But the vile herd is already dispersed; the porter alone remains -- for no one had thought to liberate him -- and he, in his impotent fury, replies by insulting clamours to the cowardly supplications of his quondam master.

Reading this part of the Pantropheon, a chapter called "A Roman Supper," which describes a feast laid on for semi-enemies by a rich freed slave named Seba, I thought Soyer was inventing behaviour for a real person, as Hackforth-Jones did in her Barbara Baynton biography. Only after I had finished the book did I try to find out if Seba had existed, and discovered that he was probably the Frenchman's invention. "So why" I asked myself, while I was still believing him real, "aren't I insulted by this, why don't I react with irritation, the way I reacted to Aitch-Jay and her fake Baynton?"


1. Because Seba was an ancient Roman, and so much has been written about ancient Romans that their reputations have become impenetrable. People rarely write about Barbara Baynton. Therefore anything written about Baynton seems precious. Anything written about ancient Romans does not.

2. Soyer's piece is one chapter in a long book. Baynton's piece is the book itself.

3. Soyer is old and dead and foreign and therefore quaint and unthreatening. Hackforth-Jones is none of these things. There is more of a temptation to judge the living, who are our competition.

4. Soyer is an entertaining writer, Hackforth-Jones is not, or not as much. Entertained, I feel recognised and included. I'm ready to forgive someone who entertains me.

5. Hackforth-Jones was privileged by her intimacy with people who knew her subject. Baynton's son-in-law was her uncle. Soyer didn't have anything comparable. More hope rests on Hackforth-Jones because she could have achieved more. Hers is possibly a cornerstone biography and she's padded it with misinformation. In the future it could be taken as a given that Barbara Baynton's son Alexander Frater was precocious at the age of five, and theories built around that -- someone might get hold of that idea, look at Drought Driven, and say, "Yes, the son is this story is obviously based on Alexander Frater," not realising that their Alexander Frater (Hackforth-Jones' Alexander Frater) is based on the boy in the story. Then they'll go on to write about an Alexander who is not the real Alexander and not the boy in the story but a hybrid imaginary animal, like a mermaid. Naturalists don't tolerate mermaids, so why should ...

6. I care about this why?

7. I should relax. This Hackforth-Jones way is the way history goes and has always gone. This is natural. Someone hears a truth, decides it needs to be embellished; entertaining, it becomes a rumour. Someone else continues the rumour, throws in some extra details, sees a gap, fills the gap. On it goes. The creature that comes out is not quite real, not quite false, and this is History. Pliny says that Seba's friend Nero was a monster; Lucanus tells us he was not so bad. But the monstrous Nero is the Nero who has survived. The ordinary Nero still hovers around us invisibly but he is not well known, no one summons him up with a saying ("Fiddling while Rome burns"), John William Waterhouse did not find him a compelling subject for a portrait, he does not appear in animated Warner Brothers shorts saying, "Release the lions," his name is not a byword for overbearing spoilt-brat tyrants or for anything else. If Nero had been nothing but good (not only in fact, but in the minds of historians) he wouldn't have the reputation he does now, and everywhere we think of Nero we'd be mentioning Heliogabalus or someone else instead, or no Roman at all, but a different figure from a different place and time.

8. I am identifying myself with Alex Frater and thinking, "I would not want someone to steer me around like that after I died, I would prefer to maintain the integrity of myself at the age of five."


9. Fear of posthumous possession.

The ancient chronicles say that in the 12th century a German cathedral held the cranium of John the Baptist at the age of twelve ...

Umberto Eco: The Infinity of Lists

Monday, July 12, 2010

the stone desireth to be opened

The genius of Coleridge, said John Livingston Lowes, lies in this: he was able to submerge a collection of ideas in himself and transmute them into The Ancient Mariner. The ideas were ordinary enough, free for anyone to use, but he was the only true alembic, he was the one who burnt them down and purified them.

How long ago did I write about that? Months ago. March. Old Nicholas Flammel in the 1600s, translated by Marcella Gillick, and writing beautifully -- or translated beautifully -- in either case, beautiful, flowing, roaming -- describes alchemical processes -- Coleridge's bubblings:

And when thy Elixir is so brought unto Infinity, one grain thereof falling upon a quantity of molten metal as deep and vast as the Ocean, it will teine it, and convert it into most perfect metal, that is to say, into silver or gold, according as it shall have been imbibed and fermented, expelling and drying out far from himself all the impure and strange matter, which was joined with the metal in the first coagulation: for this reason therefore have I made to be painted a Key in the hand of the man, which is in the form of Saint Peter, to signify that the stone desireth to be opened and shut for multiplication, and likewise to show thee with what Mercury thou oughtest to do this, & when; I have given the man a garment Citrine red, and the woman one of orange colour.

I was reminded of Lowes and his Beloved C. by a recent reprint of Alexis Soyer's 1853 The Pantropheon or, The History of Food and its Preparation, From the Earliest Ages of the World. A strange thing: he has ideas that could be transferred into Proust. Soyer brings them up fleetingly though, he doesn't spin them out or turn them into elements of a broad philosophy and consideration of time and manners. He flits through with a joking tone.

LEEKS. This vegetable -- a powerful divinity, dreaded among the Egyptians, and a food bewailed by the Israelites in their journey through the Desert -- cured the Greeks of numerous diseases, which in our days it is to be feared would resist its medicinal properties. Everything changes in this sublunary world, and the leek no doubt follows the common law.

He could have traced leeks back and forth through the ages, as Proust traces the names of towns, and arrived at the same graceful conclusion, that the human perception of the leek changes according to culture and fashion. "[T]rue it is," Soyer agrees, discussing the ancient Roman dislike of horse-radishes, "that the manner in which objects are associated with our ideas determines almost invariably our love or hatred for them." So there he was, with Proustian material all around, but what he came up with was not À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or even a part of it, not even an equivalent of the passage in which Proust describes the phases of Odette's drawing room as if he's on an archeological dig, but the Pantropheon. (Genius, according to him, "is nothing else than the faculty of producing.") He is a person who, in Coleridge's day, would have written travellers' tales, but not The Ancient Mariner. Or perhaps not, perhaps this is not a matter of fate, like that, but of timing, and luck; and, born on a different day, in a different place, Coleridge would not have been Coleridge either, but Alexis Soyer.

And one begins by turning one’s eyes,
as if by eating bread
we traced the course of flour.

(From An Der Gewesenheit, by Eduardo Cote Lamus, translated by Laura Chalar)

Monday, July 5, 2010

then lost patience and swore at her, disgusted

The thing about Penne Hackforth-Jones is that she doesn't acknowledge a difference between Baynton's life and the events in Baynton's fiction. The first part of that life (born obscurely and illegitimately, Baynton lived lonely in the bush during her first marriage while her husband rode away to find work elsewhere or gambled at track meetings) is mostly negative space and mystery, the second part is positive space and recorded detail, viz, her book of short stories being published, interviews with newspapers, a friendship with the editor of the Bulletin, houses in England and Australia, her photograph in the London Daily News, her patriotic behaviour during World War I, and so on. The contrast between positive and negative, invisibility and visibility, could have been the theme that shaped the book (the subtitle paves the way: Between Two Worlds), but Hackforth-Jones prefers a clean, smooth, even surface spread over everything: she won't let the negative space be. She fills it with information lifted from the stories; she goes at her subject's life like a handyman with a tub of polyfilla. She writes --

She was frightened when she tried to separate the cows from their calves and had to be forced to do it. Alex [her first husband] first laughed and then lost patience and swore at her, disgusted. When she finally had forced the animal to do as she wanted and came back white-faced and trembling with the stick he had given her to brandish still in her hand, she wondered if he too would run if she tried the same on him.

-- then endnotes it to one of Baynton's short stories, The Chosen Vessel. "This story was used to reconstruct Barbara's early married life." The relevant part of the story reads:

It was he [the protagonist's husband] who forced her to run and meet the advancing cow, brandishing a stick, and uttering threatening words till the enemy turned and ran. "That's the way!" the man said, laughing at her white face. In many things he was worse than the cow, and she wondered if the same rule would apply to the man, but she was not one to provoke skirmishes even with the cow.

But no recognition of the difference between fiction and fact, an absence of the note that would remind us there is no reason to believe that the thought Baynton gives to her character should be given to her as well,* and no discussion of Baynton's debt to Gothic literature, or the similarity between the husband in this story and the standard Gothic villain who traps the heroine so that he can gloat over her. In the biographer's eye the husband and the villain become indistinguishable, the author and the heroine are the same person, and the precocious little boy in the unpublished short story Drought Driven is precisely Barbara Baynton's son at the age of five. Hackforth-Jones shows the same faith in Baynton that Robert Burton shows in the Bible when he advises his readers to treat their melancholy with wine in accordance with Proverbs 31:6, as if the Holy Book is only incidentally a spiritual guide and more importantly a health manual. ""Give wine to them that are in sorrow,"" he writes, "or as Paul bid Timothy drink wine for his stomach's sake, for concoction, health, or some such honest occasion." In the mind of Hackforth-Jones, Chosen Vessel and Drought Driven cease to be stories; instead they are transformed into diary entries with the names changed a little; they are not literature; they are news reports in disguise.

* Compare this, for example, to Peter Ackroyd's long Dickens biography. Ackroyd acknowledges that certain events in the author's life might have turned up again in his fiction, but he does not draw absolute conclusions with the insouciance of Hackforth-Jones. She treats uncertainty with repulsion; he treats it like an invitation to an unanswerable mystery. He will say that "such and such seems to be the case" or "we may speculate that ..." For example, "There is another small echo, too, perhaps in the importance which in his fiction Dickens imparts to someone helping a small boy with his homework -- Paul Dombey is helped by his older sister, and Anges helps the young David Copperfield. Can we see in these two consonant pictures an image of Dickens' older sister Fanny helping him?"

So the idea is introduced but not taken for granted. In place of Hackforth-Jones' conflations, Ackroyd writes: "But such derivations have to be taken very cautiously -- there is no doubt that on many occasions Dickens used certain salient characteristics of the people whom he met or knew, but there are very few instances when he simply transcribed what he had seen and heard onto the page. The novelist's art is not of that kind. Dickens perceived a striking characteristic, or mood, or piece of behaviour, and then in his imagination proceeded to elaborate upon it until the "character" bears only a passing resemblance to the real person."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

flat on her back she played

The Fraters by then had three children -- the last, Alex,* was born in 1859. They had risen in standing enough to have the death of their second son, Peter, reported in the Maitland Mercury two years before.

* To distinguish the three Alexander Fraters in Barbara's life, the first, her father-in-law, is always called Alexander; her husband, Alex; and her son, Alec.

It's a fact, M. says, that once you become aware of something you see it everywhere. It was only a few days after I finished Penne Hackforth-Jones' 1989 biography of Barbara Baynton that I was working my way through a box of of books in one of those shops that sells cheap remaindered stock when I came across a name that was absolutely familiar to me from Baynton -- the name of Alexander Frater -- on the cover of a book called Tales From the Torrid Zone -- and so I stood there, startled, as I tried to work out how this person might be related to Barbara Baynton, if he might, somehow, be her son -- this, in spite of the fact that I knew the dates were wrong, that the son had been a middle-aged man when his mother died in 1929, that there was no earthly way he could be alive now and writing travel books -- unless he was immortal or magical -- yet I stood there on the concrete floor for about a minute, thinking, "The Alexander Frater?" We're going through a cold stretch of weather and my toes are like marble. When I went outside earlier there were lorikeets on the telephone wires.

The one bird that recurs throughout Hackforth-Jones' book is the crow:

On a trip visiting friends in the bush, she [Barbara Baynton, in her sixties] had risen before dawn to watch the countryside waking. She had walked far out to see the bird and animal life as it stirred into action. An emu rose stiffly from its nest, a dog barked at the hurdled sheep, lizards scrambled out of their shelters. Lying flat on her back she played childhood games with the crows -- trying to dupe them into thinking her dead

In photographs taken around that time Baynton looks rich and fashionable; she was one of those women who are called formidable. When I try to imagine her on the ground it's this vision that I see: the slightly-smiling woman of the photographs wearing her collar of grey pearls, prone like an effigy among the trees, while, nearby, a crow stands on a fallen branch, turning its head suspiciously and watching her, waiting to peck out her eyes, as, in an earlier chapter, a different crow removed one eye from the head of a dead cow. A vision so radiantly strange that it comes like benediction in a book that tries too hard to guess its way into the life of its subject through a mixture of cheap psychology and passages lifted from her fiction.