Bereaved men go to the brink in Ned Kelly country
Joyful By Robert Hillman Text Publishing, 352pp, $29.95 THERE can’t be many novels with titles more at variance with their subject matter than Joyful. It is far from a joyous work. Indeed its subject is grief — loss so relentless and disabling that it pitches over into madness. Though the novel is mainly set in rural Victoria, the psychological intensity of its pages feels closer to Attic tragedy: Euripides in Wangaratta. I kept recalling Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film version of Medea, in which a kohl-eyed Maria Callas stumbles through a barbarous sun-blasted landscape, death-haunted, vengeance-bent.
Though readers will likely reel away from Joyful as though from a bomb blast, this is not the novel’s sole manner and mode. There are
June 28-29, 2014 also moments of grace when, alongside the two men whose sufferings are central to its narrative, we are granted compensatory visions.
For Leon Joyce, a rich, sleek, urbane and rather cold-fish Melbourne bookseller, the vision is Tess Wachowicz, a beauty about town unhappily married to a boorish Polish millionaire, though she is well-regarded as a classical musician and broadcaster on musical subjects. Joyce has no interest in her sexually — his deviance consists of an utter absence of desire — but he is desperate for her to wear the exquisite couture gowns he has been collecting for decades.
Tess loves the clothes and wears them magnificently; and the two soon come to an accommodation. She will leave her wife-beating husband and marry Leon. She will dress for him, chastely share his bed, and in return he will take her and her children in. Crucially, she retains the right to screw whomever she cares to.
It happens that Tess is as libidinous as she is beautiful — men drop about her like autumn flies, yet Leon accepts this as the necessary cost of their bargain. He settles for a passive aesthetic worship that gradually shades into love: With the passing of anniversaries Tess’s beauty meant less and less to him; everything ordinary meant more. He gathered garlands of her common moments. Cavernous yawns at the breakfast table that displayed her oldfashioned silver fillings; arm over her head in the bathroom rasping way at the stippled flesh of her armpits. He thought: ‘‘Nobody told me.’’
Imagine Henry James’s Gilbert Osmond from The Portrait of a Lady cured of his depthless selfishness and shallow snobbery by Isabel Archer’s poor domestic habits. When Tess is struck down suddenly by the cancer that will kill her, Leon is surprised again by the reserves of care that he possesses.
It is Tess’s death that opens the novel, and that provokes Leon’s unravelling. Distraught at losing her, Leon begins to collect her belongings, sorting and grading them as if assembling a catalogue of rare books. Then old emails reveal the existence of a Polish artist and poet named Daniel, a distant connection of Tess’s first husband who apparently was the love of her life throughout the union with Leon. Tess calls Daniel ‘‘monster’’ and revels in her sexual abasement to him; Leon is referred to merely as ‘‘porpoise’’ (echoing Vladimir Nabokov, who called Henry James, that legendarily asexual figure, the ‘‘great pale porpoise’’). She went so far as to set up Daniel at a country house belonging to Leon but never visited by him — a beautiful, dilapidated pile outside the small country town of Yackandandah named Joyful. On learning this, Leon drinks a bottle of single malt and hops in his car to confront the man.
But to install the swaggeringly nihilistic Daniel, Tess had to eject old friends of hers and