A long good­bye in play­ful verse

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright

rian Cas­tro has been a great in­no­va­tor in Aus­tralian fic­tion for decades. After win­ning the 1982 The Aus­tralian/ Vo­gel’s Lit­er­ary Award for his first novel, Birds of Pas­sage, his orig­i­nal­ity took him down a path of semi-ob­scu­rity and penury stud­ded with com­plex but bril­liant nov­els such as his reimag­in­ing of Sig­mund Freud’s wolf man in Dou­ble Wolf, or his in­trigu­ing take on the spy novel in Step­per.

His nov­els won prizes and a small but ded­i­cated au­di­ence, but it was his 2003 fic­tional au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Shang­hai Danc­ing, in which the pro­tag­o­nist, An­to­nio Cas­tro, re­turns to Shang­hai in a quest to un­der­stand his fam­ily her­itage, that broke through to a wider read­er­ship.

Sub­se­quent works in­clude The Gar­den Book, set in the Dan­de­nongs out­side of Mel­bourne; Street to Street, a fig­ur­ing of the tragic life of Syd­ney poet Christo­pher Bren­nan as well as a wry com­men­tary on the ab­sur­di­ties of the hu­man­i­ties in the con­tem­po­rary univer­sity; and The Bath Fugues, a three-part in­ter­re­lated nar­ra­tive, loosely struc­tured around Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions.

Cas­tro’s work of­ten fea­tures strong jux­ta­po­si­tions of sub­ject, lo­ca­tion, time and style. In Blind­ness and Rage: A Phan­tas­mago­ria: A Novel in Thirty-Four Can­tos we are con­fronted with Lu­cien Graq, a re­tired town plan­ner and failed epic poet domi­ciled in the Adelaide Hills who has been given 53 days to live.

The post-colon com­po­nents of the ti­tle are in­struc­tive of what to ex­pect. First, this is a verse novel. Se­cond, it is a phan­tas­mago­ria, a work whose ref­er­ence to re­al­ity is per­pet­u­ally in doubt. It’s a tac­tic used by Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge in The Rime of the An­cient Mariner.

Graq is telling us a story but is it just a dream, the lu­cid dream­ing of mor­phine-fu­elled pal­lia­tive care? It’s hard to know. Cer­tainly the book possesses the in and out slip­per­i­ness of mor­phine days: float­ing tran­si­tions; the child­ish de­lights of chimed rhymes; silly puns; as well as the sud­den ter­rors of what comes next, good rea­son per­haps to fore­stall the clar­i­fy­ing en­ergy of nar­ra­tive mo­men­tum.

The poem goes to Paris, first through Graq’s en­gage­ment with some of the more idio­syn­cratic play­ers in modern French thought, such as pornog­ra­pher cum philoso­pher Ge­orges Ba- tailles and Ray­mond Que­neau, Ouli­pean, math­e­ma­ti­cian and au­thor of the won­der­ful Ex­er­cises in Style. Cas­tro uses Graq as a ve­hi­cle for the ex­plo­ration of lit­er­ary fetish. Paris has long served as the venue for the fix­a­tion with ut­terly lit­er­ary lives. In Paris, or in his fan­tasy of Paris, Graq joins an exclusive all-male lit­er­ary so­ci­ety, Le Club des Fugi­tifs, which prom­ises to pub­lish posthu­mously the work of its mem­bers on the pro­viso they abide by a fixed date of death. The close­ness of ac­tual death in­cites an in­tense long­ing, prob­a­bly also phan­tas­magor­i­cal, for his neigh­bour, pi­anist Cather­ine Bour­geois, who is “as beau­ti­ful as any­one misted / in the an­nals of great ro­man­tic love”.

Cas­tro’s verse is eru­dite and play­ful, full of ir­res­o­lu­tion and con­tra­dic­tion. But it’s also some­what un­even and at times lacks po­etic mus­cle. In fact the strong­est part of the book is when Cas­tro re­verts to prose in Canto XXVII, in the form of Graq’s love let­ter to Cather­ine. In­stantly there’s a height­ened sense of rhythm and sinew that the verse too of­ten lacks. Po­etry is more than a mat­ter of chop­ping up sen­tences into lines. His verse does have its plea­sures, how­ever. There are rid­dles, for in­stance: The Ray­mond play­ing soli­taire / was over­hear­ing words from ev­ery­where. / “We once had an ap­pli­cant, / Louis Fer­di­nand,” he in­ter­jected, / whom we re­jected as to keen/on prov­ing a math­e­mat­i­cal ba­sis / for prej­u­dice. He was a doc­tor, / had vis­ited Africa, / em­ployed a jun­gle of prose / and thought him­self a big-game hunter, / join­ing a sa­fari ea­ger to fore­close / on re­li­gion and race; / his mother a hum­ble maker of lace/who kept the fam­ily alive / in a ten­e­ment, turn­ing a trade / from a hive of thick re­sent­ment. / Loco, la como, his mo­tive be­hind the hide / of his writ­ing desk was soon caught /out in his train of thought, re­veal­ing / a skilled shunter on the ques­tion of geno­cide.

This is a pot­ted bi­og­ra­phy of Louis-Fer­di­nand Ce­line, au­thor of the bril­liant Jour­ney to the End of the Night, who sided with the Nazis and their anti-Semitism in World War II and was de­clared a na­tional dis­grace.

In keep­ing with the in­flu­ence of the Ouli­peans and others, Cas­tro also has filled his verse with puz­zles, most no­tably a kind of word search where in­stead of whole words be­ing found in a sea of let­ters, lit­er­ary ti­tles are dropped de­con­tex­tu­alised into the poem. His play­ful­ness ex­tends to the plea­sures of cheesy rhymes. In Canto IX, for in­stance: “Lu­cien Graq did not post his let­ter. / He thought it bet­ter / to be curled up in his doona / wish­ing he had taken up the of­fer / of a res­i­dency in Varuna.” It’s a verse choice that seems more ap­po­site to the Adelaide Hills and its po­ten­tial for bush po­etry than for a voy­age into French mod­ernism’s lit­er­ary avant-garde. But then this is a typ­i­cally Cas­tro ploy, mis­chievous and desta­bil­is­ing.

Still the lines quite of­ten feel in need of tight­en­ing and there are reaches for rhymes that needn’t be reached for. The con­se­quence is en­tropy. While the avoid­ance of mo­men­tum is a func­tion of Graq’s at­ti­tude to his predica­ment, verse nov­els are dif­fi­cult things and some nar­ra­tive ten­sion is usu­ally nec­es­sary. While there is much to ad­mire here in the mi­cro­cosm, the whole doesn’t quite main­tain the in­ter­est that the fre­quent sparks of bril­liance de­serve. is a writer, poet and critic.

De­tail from the cover of Brian Cas­tro’s Blind­ness and Rage

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