Life ex­am­ined is quiet, not want­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lucy Sus­sex‘

Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture loves to put its writ­ers into com­part­ments, as if re­duc­ing them to old­fash­ioned cat­a­logue cards. It helps in the brand­ing, within a small mar­ket. Here be chil­dren’s writ­ers, here his­to­ri­ans of con­vic­tism, here an­ar­cho-ve­gan death metal per­for­mance po­ets. For a writer to di­ver­sify is not nec­es­sar­ily a good ca­reer move, though it can make them much more in­ter­est­ing. A case in point is Gre­gory Day.

He started as a poet, be­came a prizewin­ning nov­el­ist with his de­but, is also a short­story writer, and has main­tained a par­al­lel ex­is­tence as a mu­si­cian with Mer­ri­jig Word & Sound. Poetry and mu­sic meet in two song cy­cles for Mer­ri­jig, one set­ting Yeats to tunes.

The Vic­to­ria-based Day has col­lab­o­rated on books by artists, or works of verse plus pho­tog­ra­phy. Within the nov­els alone is a breadth of in­ter­est that can move from mag­i­cal real­ism to com­edy of man­ners to the grim mat­ter of war.

The com­mon ground in all these ac­tiv­i­ties is a strong sense of place, the nat­u­ral world, in par­tic­u­lar the coast of south­east Aus­tralia.

Day had the cu­ri­ous fate to get it ab­so­lutely right first time, with that 2005 de­but novel, The Pa­tron Saint of Eels. A short, deceptively re­laxed tale of small-town Aus­tralia, it min­gled close ob­ser­va­tion of peo­ple and place with a vis­i­tor from heaven — and got away with it. Af­ter he won the ALS Gold Medal, he was faced with the dif­fi­cult sec­ond and third nov­els. What he pro­duced was more of the same, yet dif­fer­ent: same set­ting, over­lap­ping char­ac­ters, more real­ism, in what be­came the Man­gowak tril­ogy.

For the dif­fi­cult fourth novel, Day moved away from Man­gowak. He com­pared and con­trasted two is­lands: King, where he lives, and Crete. Ar­chi­pel­ago of Souls ex­am­ined post-trau­matic stress through the per­sona of a World War II Dig­ger who had fought a largely so­lus war as a guer­rilla on Crete. It was a good, but not block­bust­ing, war novel, short-listed but not win­ning awards.

With his new novel, The Sand Archive, Day re­turns to his home turf, the sand and shrub of the Great Ocean Road. It fol­lows on from one of his Mer­ri­jig projects, The Flash Road, a col­lec­tion of songs about the re­turned sol­diers who built the road.

As he wrote, it was in­spired by the “SHEER POETRY” of their achieve­ment. A dif­fer­ent writer would have writ­ten a so­cial­ist re­al­ist novel about the road­build­ing. Not this lyri­cist, who knows poetry when he sees it.

The con­nec­tion with this not-so-dif­fi­cult fifth novel is via a road en­gi­neer, who the nar­ra­tor en­coun­ters in a Gee­long book­shop. FB Her­schell is cul­tured, with di­verse in­ter­ests; as is the nar­ra­tor, who — in a sly self-dig — is writ­ing the his­tory of the Great Ocean Road “in short his­tor­i­cal-po­etic vi­gnettes”. Her­schell pre­vi­ously has self-pub­lished a book, about dune sta­bil­i­sa­tion, with pho­to­graphs a la WG Se­bald.

How is a road made, an im­mo­bile car­rier of trans­port, when it is threat­ened by the mu­ta­ble, un­pre­dictable mo­tion of the sand un­der and around it? Her­schell’s lit­tle book is sci­en­tific, unas­sum­ing, but with a glim­mer of poetry that in­trigues the nar­ra­tor. Soon they are chat­ting about French lit­er­a­ture, which ul­ti­mately leads to the mat­ter of the road en­gi­neer’s life.

Her­schell in­flu­ences the nar­ra­tor both pro­foundly and sub­tly. The old en­gi­neer causes him to change the mode of his Great Ocean Road project; in a posthu­mous re­turn of favours, he ex­am­ines and writes Her­schell’s life, with the aid of the man’s di­aries. Though they could con­verse with affin­ity, the two were never re­ally friends. Her­schell, like so many Aus­tralian men of last cen­tury, was too ret­i­cent and self-con­tained.

More­over, while he was firmly sit­u­ated in his place, the coast, he was not wholly in tune with the times. For a man who, though not old, wore a tam, tie and tweeds in 1970, he was not a con­ser­va­tive, be­ing closer to rad­i­cal — in thought rather than deed.

Ar­chi­pel­ago of Souls in­volved its hero in the the­atre of war, in Europe. Her­schell sim­i­larly trav­els to that great des­ti­na­tion for an­tipodeans, in search of the sci­ence to tame dunes. What he finds is a desert storm of rad­i­cal youth: he ar­rives in Paris in May 1968, in time for the stu­dent re­volt. He finds him­self a rad­i­cal stu­dent, Mathilde, at an ex­hi­bi­tion of Mon­drian’s sand dune paint­ings. She just hap­pens to be from the sand coasts of Gas­cony, an im­por­tant lo­cale for Her­schell’s re­search.

May 68 has been called the revo­lu­tion that never was, de­spite bring­ing France to a stand­still. Her­schell, for love, and over­whelmed for once by carpe diem, par­tic­i­pates in a his­toric demon­stra­tion, alien Aus­tralian though he is. The irony is that Mathilde, more a child of the zeit­geist, doesn’t, and there lies the grains of dif­fer­ence that drive them apart. They en­joy an in­ter­lude among the Gas­con dunes, then she re­turns to Paris and he makes the long jour­ney back to the South­ern Ocean.

Her­schell might have lost his one true love, but he makes a good-enough life, en­joy­ing the finer, French things, from philoso­phers to cars, and pub­lish­ing nu­mer­ous sci­en­tific ar­ti­cles. He en­dures thwart­ing from his con­ser­va­tive boss, and em­braces the rad­i­cal change of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. It is, by our stan­dards, a soli­tary ex­is­tence, but not with­out its plea­sures. As a char­ac­ter (French) notes: “We must shun the drama of the cul­tural avalanche … and recom­mit to the slow re­al­i­ties of earth, the ac­cu­mu­la­tion rather than the sud­den out­break, of life’s mean­ing.”

It is al­ways pos­si­ble to quib­ble about a novel, to see how it might have been done dif­fer­ently. Another writer might have linked with Aus­tralia’s own tra­di­tion of rad­i­cal­ism, or the Viet­nam con­scrip­tion bat­tle. More space might have been given to the coun­ter­cul­ture.

Rather, in this skil­ful, lyri­cal novel Day ne­go­ti­ates French in­tel­lec­tual thought and an­tipodean na­ture. He is writ­ing a par­tic­u­lar type of Aus­tralian, liv­ing an ex­is­tence “in which nearly all the most im­por­tant things had been left un­said”.

The life ex­am­ined here may be quiet, but it is not found want­ing or un­ful­filled. The same things can be said of A Sand Archive. s most re­cent book is Block­buster! Fer­gus Hume and The Mys­tery of a Han­som Cab.

Gre­gory Day on his home turf

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