Thursday, 27 November 2014

Games Writers Play

From my 1934 Modern Library edition of Ulysses, gift from my stepfather.
Such was Australia’s largely British orientation in 1958 that when I emigrated from the States to Australia in my late teens and enrolled in Sydney University I lost all but two of the credits I’d piled up at UCLA.  I’d been on the semester system but Sydney Uni still operated on the three-term Oxbridge year and that as well other adjustments put me well behind.  I was allowed to progress in English and history on the basis of my UCLA marks in them, but hadn’t the faintest clue about how these subjects were organised here.  There was no continuous assessment then and we were marked for each course solely on the terrifying end-of-year final exam.  Now that Australia’s universities operate on the American system I suspect our many foreign students (those with a good command of English at least) are less likely to experience such radical pedagogic dislocation.
My aim in mentioning this is not to plunge into a discussion of how universities have changed, however vital I believe such discussions are, but to illustrate how the passions of those long-ago days still affect the way we read and write today.   When I came to third-year English, Sydney University’s English department was bitterly divided, although being a part-time student I had no idea there was a schism or the burning issues it entailed.  The catalyst was the appointment of a formidable new professor from Melbourne University.  This was Sam Goldberg, who soon blew the Sydney department apart.  Goldberg, who died in 1991, was a Leavisite, meaning in a nutshell that he emphasised the moral heft of literature and whether any particular work measured up.  Succinctly, this meant interrogating the work’s moral compass above any other consideration.  What it boiled down to in the department was a vigorous championing of D.H. Lawrence over James Joyce.
James Joyce
This was to prove troubling for me, though, as said, I had no idea why.  Blithely unaware of the hidden agenda, I was delighted to be studying Joyce.  The Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man were straightforward if impressive reads for me, but Ulysses was a challenge.  If I accepted that Joyce had written a modern Odyssey, an ambition that itself excited me, many of the classical and Christian references were lost on me, barbarian Angeleno Jew that I was.  And in addition to the Leavisite strictures we were deep into New Criticism then, which firmly dictated that a text be evaluated on the basis of its internal workings only, regardless of the historical, political, or even aesthetic considerations influencing or inspiring its author.  The text was to stand or fall on its own, divorced from any context.  Of course, this was ridiculous, tantamount to trying to understand a person by studiously avoiding any knowledge of her childhood or background.   Though warned against accessing explanatory material when grappling with the novel, I happened upon, buried in the university library, a treasure of a book: Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.  Gobbled up in secret, it was the miraculous Rosetta Stone to my understanding, and, more, to my appreciation of Joyce’s art.
Stuart Gilbert was an English scholar living in France who became friends with Joyce after offering to translate Ulysses into French.  Joyce helped with the translation, providing in detail the intricate substructure of each of the 18  chapters, which he based on episodes in Homer’s epic.  According to Gilbert’s schema, Joyce had assigned to most of these a body part, a colour, a symbol, an art and a ‘technic’, or technique.  There are exceptions. The last chapter, Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, has only an organ (flesh), a symbol (earth) and a technic (monologue), and the first three have no body part, and some of the middle chapters are missing a colour, but you get the drift.   Take just one of the chapters – Nausicaa which does tick all the boxes.  This is the one where Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s modern Odysseus, jerks off while spying on the beautiful but lame Gerty MacDowell at the Sandymount shore.  The scene is The Rocks (on which Bloom is resting while watching the unsuspecting Gerty), the time is 8 pm (towards the end of Bloomsday, June 16, 1904, when Joyce took his wife Nora Barnacle on their first date), the designated body parts are the eye and the nose, virgin is the symbol, painting the art, and the technic tumescence/detumescence.
I should stress that none of this is essential to a rewarding reading of Ulysses, a novel that works on many different levels.  Nevertheless, the introduction to its arcana set my mind alight.  More, it set my own writing on its own perhaps opaque path.  Because what Joyce’s method impressed me with (through Gilbert’s crucial mediation) is the idea that a story is more than a story, and that everything in it, from its language and physical elements to its characters and plot points, has an underlying often hidden meaning that’s the actual glue binding together its parts.
Joyce was a modernist, arguably the modernist par excellence, and over the years modernism went out of style.  (I think it’s creeping back again – the 2013 Man Booker prizewinner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, has a schema similar to that of Ulysses.)  It was going out of fashion by the time I published West Block, the novel, my first, based on my experiences as a femocrat.  Yet it was only natural for me, impressed as I’d been, to make use of a Joycean template.  My overarching symbol was the Canberra building that in the capital’s earliest days housed the whole of the public service, with the public service itself representing the nation, Australia.  I did restrict myself, though, to merely giving each of my chapters an art.  The opening one, for example, with its central character the mandarin George Harland, has gardening (the abstract his lesbian daughter puzzles him with is heart-shaped like Canberra); the next chapter, with Henry Beeker foregrounded, uses sculpture; the third has music; the fourth, economics (arguably less a science than an art); and painting marks the fifth.  There are other Joycean touches, like the economist Jonathan Roe’s gold cigarette case, based on Lady Denham’s from which she plucked the name ‘Canberra’ and gave it forever her own pronunciation, which in turn was inspired by the cake of soap Leopold Bloom carries throughout a good deal of Ulysses.  And so forth and so on.
It would be wholly wrong to assert that a writer’s work lives because of these quirks of cohesion.  They’re ways of making our work live for us far more than they do for readers.  They’re games we writers play; at their simplest, the names we saddle our characters with, but it often goes further.  Writing a novel is arduous work and there has to be something apart from our egos that pulls us along.  For me, and many others I think, these symbolic keys open doors to greater resonance.  Apart from anything else, they’re fun.
And fun, I now see, was at the bottom of the rift between the Joyce-lovers and the po-faced Lawrentians in my long-ago English department.  For the Leavisites, Joyce just wasn’t serious enough.  The fact that he gave the last word to a woman and the woman said yes to life, with all its imperfections, rejoicing (yes he loved puns too) in the mess ... well, this was somehow deficient.  We could argue the toss about this endlessly, and should.  But the legacy of this is a readership, with its satchel of tools limited for the most part to narrative arcs, how characters behave and respond, beauty of expression and emotional appeal, that isn't quite as rich as it could be.            

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Memories of Political Things Past

This past week I’ve been besieged by the past – that other country, two of them in my case.  And two events were responsible for this assault – the memorial at Sydney’s Town Hall for Gough Whitlam, Australia’s 21st Prime Minister and certainly the best I’ve known in the 56 years since I came here; and the midterm US elections that have given those antediluvian Republicans control over both Houses of Congress again.

Let’s begin with America, because that’s where I was born and cut my political teeth, so to speak.  It was way back in the 40s that I began to understand that democracy was an ideal that when put into practice could be appreciably tarnished.  The last well-publicised lynching was in 1946, when I was eight years old.  Apart from the ongoing violence, the South was ruled by Jim Crow laws discriminating against African-Americans (Northern liberals called them Negroes or coloured people, certainly never blacks; the African-American designation wasn’t even coined then).  Discrimination, more subtle in the rest of the States, was nonetheless well entrenched.  And North or South, East or West, it wasn’t restricted to African-Americans, though the treatment they got was undoubtedly worse.

The South began as Democrat, because Lincoln was a Republican, and in the country of my youth the racist Southern Democrat bloc was an impediment to anything remotely progressive.  The task of Democrat presidents, from Roosevelt to Kennedy, was to deal somehow with this conservative behemoth lodged like a tapeworm in the belly of their party.  Yet everyone understood that the Republicans were the party of big business, Wall Street, and the banks.  

After Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II, the politics of another war – the Cold one - began to bite deeply.  At some stage my mother had joined the communists and though she soon left the party, a decade or so on she would be punished by the blacklist.  The repercussions whipped through our family and, on reflection, this was clearly one of the reasons why I was willing to go as far away as Australia when I did.  Although Democrats were culpable (the loyalty oaths began under Truman), Republicans made the Cold War their own.  We had J. Parnell Thomas and Tricky Dick Nixon on the House Un-American Activities Committee, and  Joseph McCarthy, a Senator, created untold mischief until he started in on the Army, which is when another Republican, President Eisenhower, a World War II hero, put a stop to him.

In those Cold War days anything that smacked of socialism was anathema, but once in Australia I was amazed to find a somewhat more relaxed attitude to it, though I sensed that Australia was a more materialistic society, less driven by ideological considerations than America was.  Yes, America.  The almighty dollar ruled then as now, but this was masked to a degree by the deeply Calvinistic Protestantism brought to its shores by the dissenting Pilgrim Fathers.  Australia seemed to me then, well, more bread-and-butter in its approach to politics.  Of course, I was young and knew next to nothing about the place I had come to.  I’d heard of the White Australia policy and something of its convict past, but understood little about the depth of the Protestant-Catholic cleavage, though antisemitism here didn’t seem as strong.  I believed what most Americans believed, that Australia was ‘the new frontier’, or, in another way of looking at it, ‘the workers’ paradise’.

But classless it was not.  Snobbishness, I discovered, was rife.  And with censorship and restrictions on drinking and shopping hours it didn’t seem all that free.  And though we hadn’t the word for it then, the naked sexism was abhorrent.  And in the lily-white northern Sydney I lived in - Cammerigal country - Aborigines were all but invisible, if the racist feelings against them were in full evidence.  Menzies was revered by my publican inlaws, if thought an irrelevant fool by most of my generation.  I found, too, that Yanks were either loved or hated, a consequence of their recent bivouacking here during the Pacific war.  My uncle was one of them, billeted in Brisbane, an 18-year-old kid at the time.

Fast forward to the 70s.  I was in Canberra then and it made all the difference.  If the public service was ludicrously hierarchical, Canberra itself was a forward-looking, civic-conscious town.  I learned more about Australia in the first two years I lived there than I had in all ten of my Sydney years.  For one thing, for the first time I had studied Australian history, in Manning Clark’s department at the ANU.  What a privilege that was.  But more important still was my connecting with a group of remarkable sisters in what we then called Women’s Liberation.  We were riding on a powerful crest of reform that carried the ALP into government, led by Gough Whitlam after 23 seemingly hopeless years.  Just before the election I took out Australian citizenship in order to join the public service, and lost my American one because of it.  But the compensation!  To have been in Canberra at that time.  To have served my short stint in Camelot.  I was changed forever.

Now that Gough Whitlam is gone from us and we’ve been reminded of all that he achieved for this country in the three years he was allowed to govern, I’m reminded as well of littler things.  Like when I was on duty in the pm's department the morning Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, and I was the one to ring him and tell him, addressing him with a tremulous ‘G’day, Prime Minister’ - evidence of my total transformation from Yank to Aussie, if taking him somewhat aback.   And there I was, standing in the outraged crowd the day he emerged from Parliament House after his sacking.  Sacked?  By a governor-general?  The Yank left in me found this quite incredible.  But the forces of opposition lined up against him were formidable, and even after a second, double dissolution election, they cut his prime ministership short, just at the time in the electoral cycle when any government’s standing is at its nadir, so he was certain to lose the coming, coerced election.  As the years went by he dwindled in the public imagination, and Labor in government was cautious ever after but never achieved so much, and it’s taken forty years, and only his death, for him to loom as large he did in those rapturous, tumultuous three years.  As Noel Pearson said in his powerful speech at the memorial, that was the time when ‘reform trumped management’, and Australia was never the same complacent, provincial, racist and sexist backwater though, sadly, traces of that remain.

It was hard to come back to earth after Pearson’s oratory, doubtless a match to Whitlam’s own, and all the other moving speeches that day.  But then something happened that brought the moment even further home.  A son of mine, eleven years old when Gough Whitlam was dismissed, happened to be in Canberra the day after his memorial.  He was walking with a colleague around the parliamentary triangle when they ran into some men who were carrying the portrait of Gough that had been displayed outside Sydney Town Hall.  My son and his colleague asked if they could photograph it on the steps of the Old Parliament House near where the crowd yelled ourselves hoarse and where Whitlam stood when he came out to speak to us.  The portrait was duly placed and photographed with their smart phones.  It was only when that was done that they noticed the inscription on the back.  Signed by Graham Freudenberg, Whitlam’s speechwriter and biographer who also spoke at his memorial, the inscription was addressed to Andrew.  I've yet to ascertain who this Andrew is and would like to give him due credit for his fine painting.  To Freudenberg, it was, simply, a portrait of ‘the greatest man I have ever known’,

There are those who disagree, but they were always the naysayers, and so they will always be.  Small-minded, jingoist or populist, and now, after decades of  neoliberalism, soiled by lamentable greed.   But working for the betterment of a nation’s people – that has never been without its foes.  Just look across the Pacific to where America is now.