Nav­i­gat­ing a river of sad­ness

Helen Trinca con­sid­ers a writer who found life a ‘very mys­te­ri­ous busi­ness’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

MADELEINE St John’s The Essence of the Thing was short­listed for the Booker Prize in 1997. On the night the win­ner (Arund­hati Roy’s The God of Small Things) was an­nounced, Car­men Callil com­pared St John’s novel about the end of an af­fair to Joanna Trol­lope, while AS By­att sug­gested it should be read as if it had been writ­ten by Kafka.

The chair of the Booker judg­ing panel, Gil­lian Beer, said of St John: ‘‘ Tak­ing a very nar­row so­cial group, she un­cov­ers pro­found dif­fer­ences of re­la­tion­ships within it.’’ Not so much deep as ba­nal was the ver­dict of one lit­er­ary critic.

Such con­flict­ing views go some way to con­firm­ing St John’s tal­ent. She could be as de­cep­tive in art as in life. For decades she played with the emo­tions of ac­quain­tances and in­ti­mates, fam­ily and lovers, mix­ing charm with dark cru­elty. Her books do the same, with their glanc­ing ref­er­ences to com­plex mat­ters fol­lowed swiftly by a re­fusal to be se­ri­ous. She is hard to pin down.

The Essence of the Thing tells a fa­mil­iar story of a break-up, but are we be­ing of­fered the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet or Not­ting Hill melo­drama? Trol­lope or Kafka?

St John’s prove­nance is sim­i­larly elu­sive. At the Booker din­ner she was an­nounced as an Aus­tralian, but she dis­liked the label af­ter spend­ing more than three decades over­seas. She was born in Syd­ney in 1941 and left in 1965 for Cal­i­for­nia. Three years later she was in Lon­don. She never lived in Aus­tralia again, and vis­ited only three times.

Un­like Clive James, Ger­maine Greer and Barry Humphries, who to some ex­tent built ca­reers as Aus­tralians abroad, St John was never re­ally iden­ti­fied as an ex­pat in Lon­don. She told jour­nal­ists she thought of Aus­tralia as ‘‘ an ac­ci­dent of birth’’ rather than as her home­land. She had been ‘‘ brought up on the idea that Eng­land was where I came from, in a deep sense where I be­longed. Aus­tralia was a de­vi­a­tion of one’s essence.’’

St John’s mother, Syl­vette Cargher, was French; her ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents were Ro­ma­nian; and when she wasn’t pass­ing as a Lon­doner she had a touch of Paris, with her con­sid­ered style of dress and an ac­cent that re­minded one ad­mirer of a French na­tive who spoke English well.

Yet when she de­cided to write her first novel, St John turned for in­spi­ra­tion to the ‘‘ gothic’’ Syd­ney of her youth. The Women in Black (1993) de­picts Aus­tralia at a turn­ing point in the 1950s and 60s, and shows a deep un­der­stand­ing of, and af­fec­tion for, the coun­try.

It was the only time St John wrote of Aus­tralia. Her other three nov­els have the same ef­fort­less dia­logue and wry hu­mour, but they are un­mis­tak­ably English in set­ting and tone. She may not have lived the pro­fes­sional, mid­dle-class life of in­ner Lon­don that she de­picted in her books, but she was an acute ob­server of a sec­tion of so­ci­ety strug­gling for mean­ing in a ma­te­ri­al­ist sec­u­lar world.

The Essence of the Thing was St John’s third novel, pub­lished af­ter The Women in Black and A Pure Clear Light (1996), and be­fore A Stair­way to Par­adise (1999).

St John had come late to fic­tion af­ter two decades re­search­ing the life of He­lena Blavatsky, the Rus­sian-born 19th-cen­tury theosophist. She made sev­eral at­tempts to find a pub­lisher for the bi­og­ra­phy be­fore tear­ing up the draft. But when she turned to fic­tion she wrote quickly, fin­ish­ing The Women in Black in a few weeks, just months be­fore her 50th birth­day in 1991.

By late 1993 she had an­other two short nov­els ready. They were ‘‘ both about 90s Lon­don . . . and ex­tremely po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect’’, she told her friend Ju­dith McCue, to whom she would later ded­i­cate The Essence of the Thing. It is likely Essence was writ­ten be­fore A Pure Clear Light: when St John’s lit­er­ary agent, Sarah Lu­tyens, of­fered the manuscripts to pub­lish­ers in 1995, she sent Essence out first. Its get­ting-of-wis­dom story fol­lows nat­u­rally from the com­ing-of-age tale of The Women in Black, and the re­li­gious themes that are ex­plicit in her other Lon­don nov­els are far less de­vel­oped here.

Thirty-some­thing Ni­cola Gatling works in pub­lish­ing and is happily part­nered — al­beit with the odd mo­ment of doubt — with Jonathan, a lawyer. They’d been walk­ing out for slightly less than a year: it seemed to be go­ing quite beau­ti­fully: ex­cept for that edge of anx­i­ety or even of fear —‘‘Can it last? Are we ac­tu­ally — shall we — do you re­ally love me?’’ never ar­tic­u­lated but al­ways there, like a drone note which was si­lenced only dur­ing the act of love it­self.

Jonathan is a per­fect model of English male strength and fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, but he’s also rather good at tak­ing charge. St John her­self was a sucker for a chap like him, and she is wickedly ac­cu­rate as she al­most mocks her heroine’s predilec­tions: He’d ar­rived with some flow­ers for her, and a bot­tle of wine. ‘‘ Jonathan, you are nice.’’ ‘‘ Am I? Am I? Come here.’’ The dark blue smell of English serge: noth­ing else like it. Then the smell of Jonathan. Noth­ing else . . .

This cosi­ness con­tin­ues un­til the per­fectly aver­age evening when Jonathan, with­out cer­e­mony and with very lit­tle ex­pla­na­tion, gives Ni­cola her march­ing or­ders.

St John al­ways de­nied the novel was au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, but she suf­fered a painful break-up af­ter a short mar­riage to the Aus­tralian Chris Til­lam in the 1960s, and again af­ter an even shorter af­fair with the English rock mu­si­cian Dave Codling in the 70s. The book’s fo­cus on aban­don­ment chan­nels a re­cur­ring theme in St John’s psy­chol­ogy as well as in her writ­ing. She was 12 when her mother took a fa­tal over­dose, and she con­sid­ered her fa­ther, the bar­ris­ter and politi­cian Ed­ward St John, to have turned his back on her emo­tion­ally from that point.

The Essence of the Thing is thus much more than a tale of a bro­ken ro­mance and a po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect heroine who is pre­pared to for­give a great deal in the name of love. It is also an ex­plo­ration of the pro­found sense of loss that so of­ten comes with be­ing hu­man. St John strug­gled in her life to ac­com­mo­date that empti­ness be­fore she found mean­ing and struc­ture in her re­li­gious prac­tice. In 1972, as she bat­tled de­pres­sion in Lon­don, she wrote to her aunt in Syd­ney that life seemed ‘‘ a very mys­te­ri­ous busi­ness to me & not at all what I ex­pected’’. In 1998 she told an old Aus­tralian school friend that she had al­ways found ‘‘ The World’’ to be a ‘‘ very funny place, which we never quite get used to’’.

In this book St John’s can­vas is do­mes­tic, her plot is all but nonex­is­tent, and her char­ac­ters spend as much time talk­ing about the virtues of gloss paint over emulsion as they do about God and the uni­verse. But her in­ter­est is metaphysical. She asks us to con­sider the essence of the thing:

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