Life examined is quiet, not wanting
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