Give baroque writing a break
The Australian novel needs to let go, argues Ivor Indyk
ARECENT review of Alice Melike Ulgezer’s novel The Memory of Salt in these pages regretted that it was let down ‘‘ by some naive writing and the editing that has failed to discipline it’’. I was the editor, and had worked intensively on the novel with its author, so this criticism was a bit hard to wear.
In truth, I don’t see editing in terms of discipline at all, though some, more puritanical than I, or who simply like the idea of discipline, may well think of it this way. My view is that the role of the editor is to bring out the power of the work, to be attentive to its rhythms and its voices, and to ensure that its metaphors and elaborations achieve their full expressive reach.
I see this as all the more important in the case of Australian literature because it labours under a predisposition towards reticence and understatement, the legacy of its English literary traditions. Writing that is openly expressionist is likely therefore to be regarded as excessive, ill-mannered and — to the extent that it is not hedged or qualified by irony — as naive. Gothic, that most English of all the forms of expressionism, is allowed — after all, it speaks of fear and guilt and terror. But the baroque, with its emphasis on the uninhibited emotions, on theme and variation, repetition and elaboration, gesture and performance, appears to have hardly any legitimacy at all, so little is it spoken of.
Patrick White is our most openly baroque of authors. It is characteristic of his writing, in its reaction to inhibition, to drive the portrayal of emotion to the point of excess, and beyond. Hardly anything has been said about his writing in this, his centenary year, though plenty has been said about his life. The most common critical statement I heard, repeated endlessly as a question, was: ‘‘ Why is he so difficult?’’
How much more difficult is it then for young writers working in an expressive or poetic mode, especially when they are writing from traditions that place a high value on richness of voice and the embellishments of metaphor? The Memory of Salt is deeply influenced by Sufism; one of its focal points is a Turkish Muslim circus musician given to mystic visions, fuelled by marijuana and a relentless energy for life. Inevitably, this character lends his colours to the language of the novel, all the more so because the narrator who tells the musician’s story is his child and conveys the father’s legacy in the way the story is told.
In the past 30 years there has been an extraordinary enrichment of our storytelling traditions and indeed of English itself as our literary language, from indigenous Australian, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic sources, among others. This places a large responsibility on the act of editing, and really demands a responsiveness to the logic of the work and the integrity of its expressive means, rather than to some imagined general sense of decorum or restraint.
There is another often ignored aspect of our literature that requires openness in the editor, and in the reader: its awkwardness. If you look at the fiction of Henry Lawson or Joseph Furphy in the 1890s you find a huge comedy of awkwardness, arising out of the uncertainties of frontier society and the difficulties of communication between people of different backgrounds. Awkwardness is always a complicated business, not only to perform but to describe. Successive waves of immigration have rendered this complexity an enduring aspect of our literature. It is something to be respected, not edited out.
There are many reasons for what may look like excess in a novel, emotion and awkwardness being only two of these. Contrary to what might be assumed, a novel embraces many realities, not just one, and some of these — dreams, fantasy, ecstatic states or moments of communion — are registered only by their exaggeration of the real.
The visionary madness of the father in The Memory of Salt creates a disturbance in the atmosphere, a sudden flaring of light followed by a rippling of its texture, in the manner of van Gogh. The representation of the lost or recovered homeland, as in many novels of this kind, is shrouded in enchantment: its landscapes cast a hypnotic spell. The progenitors are like giants in the storyteller’s imagination, romantic, heroic, menacing, grotesque, as in a fairytale.
More to the point: the imagination often declares its presence in fiction by its wilfulness over facts and language. At moments of high intensity White dispenses with syntax and punctuation altogether, and his details take on a life of their own as metaphors, shifting and changing their significance as they go. Ulgezer has a similar way with metaphor, particularly in those richly coloured scenes that the narrator couldn’t have witnessed, but is compelled to imagine, since they preceded her birth and are, for this reason, loaded with significance.
A similar imagining in Laurence Sterne produced Tristram Shandy, a work so irregular and undisciplined that critics now regard it as the purest kind of novel — precisely because it is impatient of discipline and restraint.
Ivor Indyk rejects restrictive editing