Sunday, January 7, 2018

ambling through silence downhill on a drooping nighthorse

David Campbell's Evening Under Lamplight, 1976, begins with lyrical language and no dialogue: "When horses gallop at night, the sound is mysterious. There was Billy, frowzy with sleep, ambling through silence downhill on a drooping nighthorse. The frost, after a week of rain, had sharpened the hoof-falls. The horse's paunch creaked, and Billy was aware of the silence. He was aware of the cemetery on the dark ridge where the owls moped."

After a page and a half this lyricism vanishes and people speak ordinarily:

"It was easy, he said. "When Len's sick, I'll get the horses in every morning. You're only a girl."
"I'm older than you are."
"That doesn't count."
But Janet only smiled.

So on until the end of the book, though it comes back again a little in the last story while a settler in the bush is contemplating a fox: "The fox lived its own life and he lived his. And the gold trees grew from stone."* Most of the stories follow Billy the child, who is said by the introduction and the blurb to be a fictionalised version of Campbell himself (did Campbell ever say so or did he only let them believe it?), and the later ones tell you about men flying planes in World War II, where he himself flew planes.

Why is the entrance of Janet at breakfast like an ice age that cuts off an earlier way of life in the book?

David Malouf, who wrote the introduction to the 1987 edition, never lets dialogue get in the way of the contemplative-lyrical tone in his own books; he ploughs on through, and you remember the castaway in Remembering Babylon, 1993, meeting his compatriots in Australia after a long time with the indigenous people and getting his words confused so that he says, "I am a British object," instead of subject. And that has a penetrative meaning.

But the dialogue words in David Campbell do not try to have any kind of penetrative meaning. I don't think it occurred to him that they should have one, even though Malouf tells you that prose and poetry are one in the mind of a writer: they do not separate them: "it is the same world he is moving in … however different the demands of the medium he is the same man, bringing with him the same sensory equipment." And this is true because the dialogue in Campbell's poems is as plain as it is in the book – see Outback (No. 1) for example.

I wonder if this is part of his New Bulletin past, this Henry Lawson idea that the lyrical meaning in dialogue should be conferred through narrative events around the spoken language and not through the language itself, as at the end of The Drover's Wife, 1892, when the son says, "Mother, I won't never go drovin'; blarst me if I do," which makes a strong impact in light of everything that has happened. So that if people are lyrical it is not because you have rudely gone inside them and pretended to express their thoughts, but only because you have pointed to plain things around them which could be verified by other observers, though there are no other observers for you are the author, the only one who observes; and yet you are behaving as if there are observers who might accuse you of rudeness or lies, and so you are protecting yourself from the accusations of these non-existent people, the ones who know that Janet would not speak like the woman in the book I'm reading at the moment, who describes river water "spilling over the oar with a pure metallic lustre, like blood" (Narcyza Żmichowska, The Heathen, 1846, tr. Ursula Phillips). But if you can say that Billy on the nighthorse can feel inside him that "to his heartbeats the horses were suddenly galloping," then you can have him wholly and lyrically.

*When I say lyricism I am thinking of that kind of gold-and-stone language in which things are made of beautiful, solid substances and the characters' attention to small, distinct things like creaks is noted; everything is sensation and fluid but there is also a suggestion of eternity as well as attention to the way that a word like "ridge" sits against "moped."

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