Triumphant final fugue
THE Howard family lives in a stone house by the beach on Sydney’s lower north shore. The parents are eminent biologists. Son Russell has recently returned from internment in a prison camp during World War II. Daughter Zoe is smart and lovely, though, like Jane Austen’s Emma, she is a young woman over-certain of her gifts; praise and attention are “part of the public utilities, like running water and electricity”. Into this shiny, enclosed world Russell brings two poor orphans. The elder, prickly Stephen, has smothered his natural intelligence to find work as a paper salesman. Anna still lives with their unstable and manipulative aunt in the house where they grew up: “earthquake territory”, as one character observes, which has left its irrevocable mark.
These character types will be instantly familiar to readers of Elizabeth Harrower’s other novels from the 1950s and 60s: Down in the City, The Long Prospect, The Catherine Wheel and The Watch Tower. As Text has been republishing them during the past years, they have been earning her a generation of newly minted fans, including me. Harrower’s novels always explore the long and sometimes self-sustaining aftershocks of early psychological damage, which can impart a chilling charisma to the damaged.
But Text’s publication of her final novel, In Certain Circles, is a coup because this is its debut. In the early 70s, after her publisher accepted the manuscript, Harrower withdrew it. In a 2012 interview in this paper, in which she claimed to have forgotten the novel’s title, she said the book, written on a grant, was “forced labour” and “would have disappointed people”.
Now 86, Harrower began as a young writer of great promise (Patrick White and Christina Stead were fans), and was still only in her 40s when she withdrew fully from the writing world, so that critics were already rediscovering her for the first time in the 80s.
The decision was so uncompromising and emphatic that it might belong to one of her characters and compounds the mystique around Harrower, whose work, like Elizabeth Jolley’s, focuses on a narrow set of themes (toxic co-dependence, moral survival) in almost compulsive variation. While critic Geordie Williamson compares her “obsessive practice” to Thomas Bernhard’s, others have assumed it is unusually personally driven. (Pressed by an interviewer, a cagey Harrower once admitted the emotional landscape of her childhood was more extreme than anything in her books, while she has referred elsewhere to “other people” having an interest in her not writing.) It’s certainly impossible to read this novel without the question of why it has been withheld for so long, sitting like a crow on one’s shoulder.
It’s clear from the start of In Certain Circles that Stephen and Zoe will get together. “You’re looking at my shoes,” shabby Stephen says preemptively when they first meet at a family afternoon tea and, for the first time, she feels judged, her privilege shaken. “An enchanted padlock was being fitted to her mind,” Harrower writes, “and there was no key.”
Yet, in contrast to Down in the City and The Watch Tower, the union does not come quickly. Neither do Anna and Russell, natural soul mates, pair up. Instead, as its title implies, the novel spends much of its time following the circling of these two sets of siblings around the emotional bonds struck in their youth.
It is only after a successful international career that Zoe will reconnect with Stephen and offer herself up to his unhappiness. Russell has a family, does good works and goes into business with Stephen, who can never forgive him for his kindness. Thus instead of playing out, as we have come to expect, like an urban fairytale, with the fairytale’s dark, inexorable logic, In Certain Circles is more like a fugue on the themes of sacrifice and waste and loneliness, in which minor characters get caught up.
At one level the novel can be read as a scathing take on the solipsism of bourgeois Sydney — its pebbly sentences as certain and brittle as its subjects, with their yachts and tennis matches. But Harrower’s first description of Stephen as resembling “some weird, irascible character out of a Russian novel” clues us in to the fact this book is part of the bigger scheme of her wonderfully disconcerting oeuvre.
Russian literature is always talismanic when it appears in Harrower’s novels. Sometimes it stands in for the ideal of culture itself, beyond postwar Australian philistinism and the narrowed horizons it imposes. It draws our attention to the burden of grinding poverty, especially for women, but it also reminds us that realism takes second place in this fictional world to its staging.
At the very heart of Harrower’s oeuvre is a Dostoyevskyan existentialism: a fascination with the limits of the self and what pours in to fill the void when that is lacking.
Harrower has also learned from the Russians patterns of doubling: for every human vampire, there is a character with innate powers of resili-