Give baroque writ­ing a break

The Aus­tralian novel needs to let go, ar­gues Ivor Indyk

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - 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

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