Tri­umphant fi­nal fugue

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-

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