Thursday, August 15, 2013

through the sombre mass

Doris is drawn into a dry landscape, Catherine Martin is drawn also to these landscapes; her first publication was a book of poetry with a meditation on Burke and Wills who died in bleak countryside (this meditation shaped by the Lusiads, "its descriptive power and 'juxtaposition of contrasted episodes,'" states Kevin Gidding); her last book was the story of two Arunta woman crossing spinifex and rocks to find a son who'd been abducted; the protagonist of An Australian Girl (1890) goes to the Mallee. Her name is Stella and here she will relax severely and clear her mind. (Restraint is a theme throughout Martin's work. Her two Arunta women can be grossly summarised as "the restrained one" and "the impulsive one.") "These vast parched domains, lying in all their nakedness under a sunless sky, have nothing to befool the soul."

During winter in the early mornings the sky is often one unbroken mass of gray clouds. As the sullen red in the east that proclaims sunrise dies away, there is no tint or suggestion of colour anywhere visible in heaven or earth. All around, without break or alloy, are the uniform monotonous tones of sand and gray-green bushes; above is the more sombre gray of clouds, in which the eye vainly loses itself, seeking for a lighter tinge. They are so austere and thickly piled -- those clouds that promise rain, but pass away oftentimes week after week without a shower. They hide the blue of heaven, and the sunshine, and rigidly shroud the horizons, as if to make the picture more ineffaceable -- an arid, formless mass above a sombre, colourless desolation. It is as though one came upon the rigid skeleton of a spent world, or upon a living presentment of primeval chaos, when the earth was without form and void.

I notice the line about rigidity making the picture more ineffaceable because Martin behaves towards her characters as if she believes that this is true not only for the Mallee landscape but true for them as well: she treats them rigidly, she tries to sharpen them in monotone.

No wakening breeze swept through the sombre mass
Of foliage, which on the hueless grass,
Cast but a blurred uncertain shade

-- in the Burke and Wills poem, The Explorers (1874).

In An Australian Girl she singles each character out almost straight away with a set of signals and after that she does not renovate extensively. When a man likes horse racing then it is a sign that he is not intelligent, when he says he doesn't read poetry it is another sign, but a woman who wants to listen to a German academic will be respectable in the eyes of the prose; these facts of character remove the people into separate boxes, where they stay: the woman who wants to know about poetry is worthy, the man who reads nothing but the newspaper is not meant to be celebrated, and in this respect he is the cousin of people with tidy brickwork houses in Patrick White, or the poor bogan woman who watches television in The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower.

I react badly to this assumption of theirs, that I should want to be invited to their club of judgment, this is always annoying to me and even an affront -- to be delegated so starkly to that role -- their expectation that I will submit to their personal ethos of placement, as the characters are forced to do.

By accepting that bargain I accept myself as the author's character: no.


  1. I agree. But I think possibly I only object when authors are not skilful/crafty enough to conceal from me the fact that they are forcing their prejudices on me. That descriptive passage is lovely, I think - then, when I read your comments about the writer's failures of characterisation, it made me think that it's a pity a novelist can't choose just to be a landscape novelist in the way that a painter can be just a landscape painter, if they're not much good at people.

    1. That was my thought too. She would have been a superb travel writer if she'd managed to throw away the stiff half-alive characters and the Victorian plots (a love affair, a villain with a treasure) and concentrate on the countryside instead. Ask her to describe a South Australian mining camp and she snaps into focus. Ask her to describe her heroine and you're in for half a page of dewy rose-cheeks and standard sparkling eyes.

  2. ... I'm going to bring up George Eliot's name in a couple of posts, I think, because one of the problems is that she wants to write like Eliot -- she wants to write philosophically, she wants to introduce ideas to her novels and show you how they pan out in normal life -- but she can't get that Eliot complexity inside her characters.

    All of this applies mainly to The Silent Sea and An Australian Girl, though, the Arunta-woman one, The Incredible Journey is written in a more self-consciously mythological style, and less like a Victorian serial.