Submerged in a sea of memories
The Seaglass Spiral
ALAN Gould’s The Seaglass Spiral uncoils its narrative skeins in the space between near-drowning and miraculous salvation.
The novel opens with protagonist Ralf Sebright struggling as he swims in the sea, scattering his father’s ashes. Close to giving up hope of survival, his mind is imbued with memories.
As he watches ‘‘ the sea’s ceiling, like a dress of silver silk’’, Ralf contemplates personal and familial history and the question of extinction. The narrative emerges from this surprisingly peaceful underwater reverie.
The story leaves the drowning Ralf and leaps back 10 centuries to a Viking named Hrafn, then traces the lineages of Ralf and his cherished wife, Susan Ravenglass. The merging of their surnames produces the eponymous seaglass. The seaglass spiral, in its literal form, is an ornamented brooch wrapped around a microchip carrying their family stories. It is Ralf’s gift to Susan on the 20th anniversary of their ‘‘ shacking up’’.
An epigraph from Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory describes the spiral as a ‘‘ spiritualised circle. In spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, ceases to be vicious’’. Ralf’s underwater perspective is similarly gently spiralling. Like the subject of Five Bells, Kenneth Slessor’s elegy for the drowned Joe Lynch, Ralf, approaching death, begins ‘‘ living backward’’. And like the mourning speaker of Slessor’s poem, memory is overwhelming and paradoxical: ‘‘ the flood that does not flow’’. Drowning brings a loosening, and a kind of regression from which the narrative unravels. The result is a sprawling and particular work of fiction, one that steers close to the nonfictional but finds its shape in a vast discovery of family resemblance. While Gould is best known as a poet, this is his eighth novel and follows his 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlisted The Lakewoman.
Part of the book’s loosening involves categories of genre. It has, at once, the scholarly diligence of biography and the imaginative range associated with fiction. There is a sense of the narrative reflecting back and forth between life writing and the fictive, collecting the two in an innovative alignment of their particles. Ideas of the particular and of particles provide an overarching theme.
As much as Ralf might search for the particular, there is a sense of its elusiveness. The quest is often for the occluded, something suggested in one of many images that reminds us that Gould is a poet.
Ralf remembers a tapestry and the idea of the ‘‘ unspoken, invisible, like the knots on the obverse of the tapestry’s flawless surface’’. Elsewhere, Susan comments on the power of a bird’s-eye view of something interconnected By Alan Gould Finlay Lloyd, 299pp, $28 ‘‘ where the deeper you look, the more intricate the detail, the more fine the relationship of one layer with the next and next’’. It’s tempting to wonder whether, in fact, the narrative’s perspective is a fish-eye view, for its width of focus, and for the way memory’s bubbles and distortions suggest the underwater.
While the vast catalogue of metaphors describing memory often involves depth, typically memories are buried, dug up or unearthed. Gould’s novel suggests they may, instead, be submerged. Accordingly, the protean movement between remembering and forgetting is central to the novel’s vision.
Also crucial is the story of Ralf and Susan. While each has learned ‘‘ how unhappiness might contribute to the formation of the imagined life’’, their connection is magnificent and transformative. Each has felt something missing, Ralf admiring campus lovers who glide ‘‘ as if they had leapt from the imagination of Chagall’’, while Susan wonders, ‘‘ What was it her imagination wished?’’
When they connect, they find the ‘‘ ancient spark of interest’’. Ten years later, Ralf thinks of Susan and ‘‘ the singularity of her presence, its insouciance, its loveliness, drew him with a gladness that was not reducible to desire but included desire’’. After 20 years, he is able to celebrate ‘‘ a change for the best’’ that shifted his life when they met.
The love story is steeped in loss, since it appears Ralf is drowning. Susan watches from the shore, unaware that her life may be about to shift again. Beneath this poignancy, much of the appeal of the love story between the two artists lies in Gould’s exploration of the political and ethical aspects of love, as well as the delight he takes in Susan’s particularity. Although Ralf is clear that their love ‘‘ must not reduce to the ordinary’’, it is often in the ordinary that the lovers anchor their ‘‘ scrupulously just’’ arrangement, in which the work and desires of each are respected.
This novel is as much about creativity as it is about love, as the eccentric gift of the seaglass spiral suggests. The strands and tendrils of the back story are not always as compelling as the story of Ralf’s longing for love and his exploration of ideas of sensitivity, passion, confusion, misogyny and desire. When, as a young man, he looks up the word ‘‘ f . . k’’ to find in its etymology the word ‘‘ pugnus’’, a fist, and ideas of striking and ruining (pugnacious, repugnant, impugn), he knows he is after something ‘‘ more generous, more intricate’’, something creative.
The drifting tendrils of his near-death thoughts return to the importance of creativity in love, seen through the generations of couplings, but focused through Ralf’s love for Susan and the luminosity of narrative.