In an occasional series of Revisits, we present a 2002 commentary by Peter Bishop, Creative Director at Varuna, the Writers’ House, in response to calls for Australian fiction to reflect contemporary life.
“On the other hand, novels,” writes Charles Darwin, “which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for many years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me. I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily –against which a law ought to be passed.”
The great naturalist can be imagined in pleasant agreement with the English critic who once declared that he liked ‘a nice Trollope, to take to bed with me’. For Drusilla Modjeska, if I may paraphrase a polemic appearing under the title Give Me The Real Thing (SMH Spectrum, 31/8), it’s a matter for complaint and anxiety that current Australian fiction is dominated by imaginations of a not very high order producing works that are only moderately good. “I am not reading much fiction,” she begins. “I buy a lot of novels and start them, but after 10 or 30 pages I give up.” “Too much of our recent fiction has become safe; our novels have lost their urgency…” She’s looking for the risk-takers, the exposers of nerve and honesty, work with ‘tap roots to the real’. “A question I’m hearing a lot at the moment,” writes Modjeska, “is: why isn’t anyone here writing a novel like Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections? Nobody’s writing about the lives we are living right now, here in Australia.”
A polemic, of course, is an act of provocation rather than an act of sober analysis. And deliberate wrong-headedness is an essential item in a good polemicist’s bag of tricks. So before I allow myself to be provoked I must wholeheartedly endorse Modjeska’s final affirmation of the possibilities and freedoms of fiction: “There is no limit to the times it can assume, the distance it can travel, the rein it can give to memory, or the experience it can transform. It is too important to squander.” Noble words, and a law ought to be passed to force Charles Darwin to write them out a hundred times.
Why isn’t anyone here writing The Corrections? I can name a work that seems to me to be directly comparable in scope and achievement. It’s risky, it has nerve and honesty in every line, exemplary tap roots to the real, and it tells us more than we thought there was to know about the lives we are living here and now in Australia. Unfortunately for most readers, it’s not written in prose and therefore –and here I make a slightly bitter polemic point myself– might as well not exist. I’m speaking of The Lovemakers, by Alan Wearne.
To look for Corrections at every turn is one way of travelling hopefully, and a sure way of missing what’s actually there. For while The Corrections demands respect, it reminds me all too often of the “three disastrous faults as a novelist” that A.D. Hope found in Patrick White in a famous review of The Tree of Man: “he knows too much, he tells too much and he talks too much.” I’m grateful to Mandy Sayer for a recent essay reminding me of a beautiful dictum by Hemingway: “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” And I don’t find that lovely dignity of movement in The Corrections. A Titanic novel, one might say, rather than an iceberg.
I do find that dignity, however, in several novels that seem to me also to be warmly suggestive of ‘the lives we are living, right now, here in Australia’. Seekers of home-grown Corrections will have ignored the two I choose to mention because they are unpretentious and do not wear their risks and nerves on their sleeves, but let me recommend to the fiction-jaded (or The Corrections-bludgeoned): Tegan Bennett’s What Falls Away, and Vicki Hastrich’s Swimming With The Jellyfish.
And such seekers may be inclined to pass by Saskia Beudel’s outstanding debut novel, Borrowed Eyes. Yet another Australian novel, they will sigh, taking as its starting-point a historical character and a historical event. And reviewers will complain –have already complained– that this novel which should be about Vivian Bullwinkel and her miraculous escape from Japanese machine-guns is really not about Vivian Bullwinkel at all. Misunderstanding the carefully crafted visible eighth while completely ignoring the shimmering, subtle, invisible seven eighths…
“We were in the water all night, clinging to bits of wood, tin trunks, whatever we could find… We spent the whole night drifting, kicking, drifting, kicking, and, believe it or not, talking.
“ I remember everything we said. Towards dawn Iole had a vision, but such a homey one I’m not sure whether to call it a vision or not. Floating out there, I could sense the world spinning, we were turning in space, revolving a passage against the stars. At some point, like a sigh, the quietest of sighs – not one made for effect – the sky lightened. It was the very beginning of dawn. I said to Iole, ‘Did you hear that?’ ‘What?’ ‘I thought I could hear light entering the sky.’”
– Saskia Beudel, Borrowed Eyes
Copyright Peter Bishop, 2002