Gre­gory Day Pi­cador; $29.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - NOTED -

Gre­gory Day is a poet, mu­si­cian, es­say­ist, na­ture writer, philoso­pher, critic and nov­el­ist. All these ac­com­plish­ments fleck his fifth novel, A Sand Archive. Day is a re­gional writer, metic­u­lously doc­u­ment­ing peo­ple and land­scape along the south-west coast of Vic­to­ria. Coasts mean sand. There’s much to be learnt from the fact of sand, from the high cul­ture of Mon­drian’s dunes se­ries to engi­neer­ing Vic­to­ria’s Great Ocean Road. Day grasps land­scape as an in­ti­mate liv­ing thing, mag­i­cal be­yond our pro­saic imag­i­na­tions. The un­named nar­ra­tor is a young man who works in a Gee­long book­shop. He is also a mu­si­cian who has re­searched stories of build­ing the Great Ocean Road and turned these stories into song. He be­came en­tranced by a slim book, The Great Ocean Road: Dune Sta­bil­i­sa­tion and Other Engi­neer­ing Dif­fi­cul­ties, by an en­gi­neer, F.B. Her­schell: “There was no schmaltz, no spin, only knowl­edge, tech­nique, ex­pe­ri­ence, and, ev­ery now and again, an un­ex­pected glim­mer of po­etry.” When the now el­derly Her­schell turns up in the book­shop, the men make a for­mal but pro­found friend­ship. It is also brief. The nar­ra­tor and the en­gi­neer mir­ror each other across time and gen­er­a­tions as the story moves, shifts and swirls be­tween them. The mid­dle sec­tion of the novel takes place in Paris, 1968. Her­schell is at the Sor­bonne, study­ing sand struc­tures. The time in Paris opens up his emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual hori­zons, caus­ing him to dig deep into his own sen­si­bil­ity. This per­sonal flour­ish­ing par­al­lels an acute aware­ness that what lies in­ert be­neath the cob­ble­stones of Paris are lay­ers of civil­i­sa­tions wor­thy of many life­times of en­quiry. Yet Her­schell is Aus­tralian. They are not his cob­ble­stones, and he knows that if you dig deep enough there is also just the sand. Back in Aus­tralia, that remote is­land, the sand is al­ways vis­i­ble, al­ways shift­ing. Day is a sin­gu­lar writer and, like Ger­ald Mur­nane, or any other writer fo­cused on in­te­ri­or­ity, is ab­so­lutely an ac­quired taste. As with Mur­nane, the cross­over be­tween fact and fic­tion is blurred, and the lan­guage is of­ten de­lib­er­ately opaque. In a glob­alised world, re­gional writ­ing be­comes more pre­cious, more jew­elled. Bruce Pas­coe is show­ing the way in Aus­tralia, prov­ing there’s noth­ing small about re­gional. Balzac might be called a re­gional writer. The ques­tion re­gional writ­ers ask is tremen­dous: if we can read our land­scape, can we read our­selves in a more truth­ful way? Day be­lieves we can, but a guide is use­ful. The nar­ra­tor of A Sand Archive has writ­ten a song called “Theodo­lite”, named for the pre­ci­sion in­stru­ment that mea­sures both the hor­i­zon­tal and the ver­ti­cal. The theodo­lite is a per­fect metaphor for mea­sur­ing life it­self, but it helps to have a tem­per­a­ment that is in love with mea­sur­ing and per­haps with the past.

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