Sunday, December 1, 2013

tinged with pale gold

Bengala was published in 1860 but it is set about twenty years in the past, before the gold rush changed the nature of the Australian colony from a gentle accumulation of people and farms into a site of hectic immigration; the general view of history lessons today is brutality followed by gold, but, reading books set in that period, I see a different point of view, a soft progress with guilty tussles to and fro about the abuse of the indigenous people and the use of convicts who were, for the length of their sentences, as good as enslaved to their farmer-masters -- this arrangement was corrupted or interrupted forever by the interior penetration of outside longings: rapid township diggings going up, the phasing-out of free land for retired military, the phasing out of transportation as well -- a free trip to Australia was not a punishment any more -- a blindsiding eruption of other manners, like the skin of a bubble being pierced, though that upper-middle life did not vanish and it's there in Martin Boyd's Langton Quartet which was published between 1952 and 1962, and the people in his books (with their picnics, their parties, their enjoyment of life) are recenter versions of the ones in Vidal but bohemian and Melburnian whereas Vidal's people are living in country New South Wales.

They are the same species, which is the lunch-eating species.

It all seemed very remote to her, as she sat with Wolfie at lunch on the verandah, while the winter sunlight gleamed on the hock bottle and tinged with pale gold the far purple forests of Gippsland.

(Martin Boyd, Outbreak of Love)

Patrick White goes to that class for characters as well, looking at the extreme uppers and extreme lowers, the people living in manors and the people living in shacks (The Riders in the Chariot), and food has a regular integrated walk-on part in all of his books though slimy when he writes about it (wet caramels pushed into mouths: The Vivisector): still: food: grossness, lowness, farts, and then the elevation of a character having an insight, the Vivisector son struggling for transcendent paintings, or Miss Hare in the Chariot.

Vidal never makes a fart, nor does she make an ecstasy.

However she does have agony and madness.

Harry Heseltine describes the milieu of Vidal's book like this in the introduction: "Bengala does not sit easily within the conventions of Austenesque realism, colonial romance nor melodrama, though it has elements of all three; and it links contemporary English literary, moral and religious debates with social life in Australia during the short period when hopes were entertained for the creation of a colony fit for English ladies and gentlemen."

So there was a phantom nation in the collective mind, and this country may remain forever in the future, which is the place where we are not and have never been.

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