Red

Stephen Bann

  • Time in a Red Coat by George Mackay Brown
    Chatto, 249 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2804 6
  • Harland’s Half-Acre by David Malouf
    Chatto, 230 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2737 6
  • The Border by Elaine Feinstein
    Hutchinson, 113 pp, £6.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 09 156320 8

When poets decide to write in prose, and a fortiori to undertake so substantial a piece of prose writing as a novel, they are apt to leave unmistakable traces of their poetic craft. Indeed a certain class of novelists, not far below the very best, makes it an axiom to inform us from time to time, in case it has slipped our mind, that they rest their case in the end on a much more precise theory and practice of language than the on-going bustle of narrative will allow for. George Meredith, to take a good example, plays havoc with the expected sequence of events, expanding and contracting particular elements of the plot so that we can feel the sinews of narrative creaking and cracking under the strain. Then he turns round and reminds us that metaphor is the writer’s real business. Metaphor is the sign of our fallen state, of the irretrievable fact that we are estranged from the blissful, natural communication which took place in the Garden of Eden. But metaphor is also our only way of momentarily overcoming and forgetting that estrangement. The poet, whether in the person of the novelist or through those numerous surrogate figures who belong ambiguously to the world of the novel, is continually breaking through to remind us of his creative priority. Images, he suggests, are superior to actions.

In Time in a Red Coat, George Mackay Brown has given us his first novel for 11 years. It is, however, a novel in which the poet assumes an undoubted authority. He can question, and criticise at its very base, the prodigal use of images which the storyteller displays in his concern to get the narrative moving. The storyteller writes down ‘River’ as the heading for Chapter Four. The poet blocks the action with a meditative passage on the suitability of that word ‘River’:

It is a worn metaphor, surely, that sees life as a river issuing from high mountain snows, with cataracts and torrents, down to a fertile plain and then, with many windings and turnings, finding its way to the vastness of the sea. And yet, when it was new-minted, the metaphor must have seemed beautiful and true. Doesn’t life begin with the high snow-bright innocence of childhood; and have great mountain tumults and sonorities in adolescence and young manhood; and afterwards there are the slow fertile turnings of maturity, when the river becomes ever deeper and wider; until at last it empties itself into the bitter immensity of death, the ocean of the end? And by an extension of the metaphor, the river is not a figure for the life of a single individual, but for the life of the whole tribe, the whole nation, the totality of the human race, and indeed of all creation. More, poets have seen the river as time itself, all legend and history, and tales as yet untold by children’s children.

A passage like this, surely, is a sufficient rebuttal to those critics who have tended to see George Mackay Brown as a kind of miraculously preserved primitive storyteller, who has managed to discover a rich seam of mythic material and offers it to us in raw ingots, untouched by the refiner’s hand. It is not simply that he questions and undercuts his rhetorical effects, drawing attention to the mythic state of ‘new-minted’ metaphor which is by definition lost in the far distant past. He is also willing to show us the contrasting process, whereby the poet builds up ever more ambitious structures through a relentless accumulation of synecdoches: river as the life of the individual, of the tribe, of all creation, and finally river as the image of time and the tale.

George Mackay Brown is as firmly in control of his linguistic means as any Formalist could desire. When he draws our attention to the perilous condition of metaphor, he might almost be echoing Viktor Shklovsky’s convictions, explosively communicated in ‘The Resurrection of the Word’ (1914). Shklovsky laments: ‘The most ancient poetic creation of man was the creation of words. Now words are dead, and language is like a graveyard, but an image was once alive in the newly-born word.’ All is not lost, however, for the ‘image’ can eventually be retrieved: ‘when you get through to the image which is now lost and effaced, but was once embedded at the basis of the word, then you are struck by its beauty – by a beauty which existed once and is gone.’ Obviously it is the poet who will take the lead in this process of linguistic retrieval. In quoting a prescriptive verse from a contemporary Russian source, Shklovsky illustrates with Mackay Brown’s metaphor of the new-minted coin the distinctive responsibility of the poet:

Verse, like coins, mint
strictly, precisely, honestly.
Follow the rule stubbornly:
So that words may be compact,
Thoughts – expansive...

How then does Mackay Brown go about his new-minting process? In the first place, he uses the opportunities of narrative to return the figurative to the concrete. Scarcely have we had the disquisition on the worn state of metaphor, when the resumption of the action permits him to use the statement: ‘They mint money.’ Money becomes a recurrent motif in the narrative, as one gold or silver piece after another is produced from a seemingly inexhaustible purse. But this vivid thematic patterning must be accompanied by more precise and individual poetic effects, if the narrative is not to relax its imaginative grasp upon us. ‘The epithet as a means of renewal of the word’ is one of the resources championed by Shklovsky, and it is certainly exploited by Mackay Brown. The fact that he was at one stage a student of Gerard Manley Hopkins is no doubt apparent in his tendency to coin new adjectival nuances through hyphenation: ‘the hawk-neighboured sun’ precedes by only a few lines ‘the buttercup-gentle and maggot-humming wind’. And indeed, in his use of almost obsolete words for expressive purposes, there is more than a suggestion of the old poetic dream of onomatopoiea – the perfect equivalence of the symbol with the real. ‘The frost crepitated in the well,’ writes Mackay Brown. Such a good word is too precious to be used only once. Crackling can take place in hot or cold conditions, and so we read a few pages later of the ‘line of hot crepitating blacknesses’.

In seeking to anchor Mackay Brown’s achievement in these local and particular uses of poetic language, I am not wilfully neglecting the wider view of Time in a Red Coat. For its singularity depends precisely on the fact that such questions are integral to its conception. Mackay Brown’s most recent publication, Andrina and Other Stories, touched upon a number of different themes, and each theme had its appropriate idiom. Most prominent, and most characteristic of the author, were the tales of life in the Orkneys, whether set in the distant past or the present day. But Mackay Brown already seemed anxious to offset this disclosure of his home ground with a mode of storytelling which was much less easy to locate in time and space: he wrote of a mythic territory that seemed oriental rather than occidental, and lacked the clear historical outline of Orcadian events. Time in a Red Coat is an exercise in the fusion of these two alternative modes. Or rather, it involves the gradual replacement of a mythic, oriental subject-matter by an occidental subject-matter which is firmly anchored in recent European history. It begins in ‘the courtyard of the palace of the great Khan’ and it ends in a fishing village of the Orkneys. Only the economical, but adequate scattering of place-names and personal names (Ilyich, Cracow, Tomas, Louis) is there to assure us, in the early stages of the story at any rate, that we are engaged in a methodical journey, across the centuries, from East to West.

But this overall movement of the novel is also represented in the continuous oscillation between general and particular which is a feature of each descriptive passage, as it is enacted in our reading. Mackay Brown will lend a definite article to his chapter on ‘The Mountain Village’, and then counteract it by stating: ‘It was like any village in any part of the world, almost; with its church, its wine-shop, its smithy... This bore all the marks of a mountain village.’ Faithful to this intuition of the typical nature of the village, we will find the inhabitants designated according to their typical roles – the priest, the vintner, Abel the weaver. The purpose of this strategy is well vindicated when we realise that, in this episode, the general and the typical properties of the mountain village are to be sacrificed in the name of one who is beyond any shadow of doubt a unique individual: the Emperor Napoleon. Mackay Brown has set out to write a novel that is, on the simplest level, a sustained denunciation of the recurrent ravages of war. But he has taken enormous pains to ensure that his claims to generality are underpinned by a self-questioning poetic strategy, which both lays bare the mechanisms of imaginative fiction and then contrives to work with them nonetheless. The result is a book which is far from easy to read. Occasionally Mackay Brown’s refusal to pamper us by remaining within an established mode creates irritation and confusion. But his achievement is a convincing demonstration of the fact that ‘words may be compact, Thoughts – expansive.’ In the last resort, it is the minute attention to imagery and linguistic detail, at the expense of narrative clarity, which enables Time in a Red Coat to resonate, powerfully, in our minds.

David Malouf makes no bones about going to work on his novels as if he were constructing a poem. If I may retranslate a passage from an interview quoted in a French magazine (which shows that his reputation has already spread well beyond the boundaries of his native Australia), he is reported to have said: ‘I still make a story as if I were structuring a poem. I never think of the plot, but rather of correspondences, of a metaphorical development, a metamorphosis. That gives a kind of subject and the plot works itself out.’ Such is a clear and unequivocal statement of Malouf’s working procedure. It puts one in mind, again, of the way in which a Formalist like Shklovsky will try to discriminate between the linguistic processes applicable to poetry and those applicable to prose. ‘Possibly,’ suggests Shklovsky, ‘what basically distinguishes poetry from prose is its greater range of geometric devices; a whole series of arbitrary semantic resolutions can be replaced by a purely formal, geometric resolution.’ If this is the right distinction, then there is no doubt which side of the fence Malouf stands.

This element of formal design is first of all evident in the way in which the novel is conceived as a dialogue between two narrative voices. It is not, strictly speaking, a polyphony, in which narrative voices weave in and out of one another, but a clear alternation of viewpoints. Frank Harland opens with a remarkably beautiful and, as it were, densely textured evocation of a motherless childhood in Killarney, many miles south-west of Brisbane in ‘lush country... of the green, subtropical kind’. Phil Vernon comes in next with an account of his own, less materially deprived childhood and his memories of the smart seaside resort of Southport, where his family come to know ‘the artist-bloke, Frank Harland’. It is a pattern which will enable us, of course, to see Frank Harland the painter as he appears in his own eyes, and also to observe him as he exists in the eyes of others, even to the point of being able to pass a retrospective judgment on his work and his life.

Up to this point, it may appear that Malouf is using a fairly conventional narrative strategy. Where he establishes himself as a gifted and even brilliant writer is in his overriding concern for the kind of poetic effects to which my quotation testifies. He is willing to dispense with verisimilitude to a certain degree, preferring the hard and clear outlines which emerge when an episode is sharply and unceremoniously curtailed. Stendhal has rightly been credited with good, rather than bad judgment in allowing Julien Sorel to attempt the assassination of Mme de Rênal when his motivation is hardly adequate. The effect is all the more telling because it exceeds the norm. Malouf will close a chapter with a sudden tempest of unanticipated rage, an abrupt suicide or another catastrophic event for which we have been barely prepared. A section of the narrative is cut off cleanly by this consistent, yet consistently unpredictable procedure, and we start the next episode with something like a clean slate. Yet there is still, in spite of these summary executions, a persistence of images throughout the novel which recalls Malouf’s own reference to ‘metaphorical development’. After seeing the scene of a brutal suicide pact, Frank Harland imagines his link with one of the participants as if he had shared with her the supreme gourmandise of a country childhood: ‘Most of all, he brooded on the mystery of Edna Byrne, who might have been his sister; they came from such similar worlds and had grown so close. Hand in hand, like children, they had followed a lean back into deep woods, licking from their fingers, and smiling, the remains of purple-grey bread pudding, the sweet fat.’ By this stage, in the reader’s mind as in Frank Harland’s, the ritual gorging of the end-of-week bread-pudding by Frank and his father and brothers has become one of the symbols through which the animal warmth and conviviality of the family circle can be re-apprehended most easily. If we wanted to find a similar but contrasting symbol to recall the very different living conditions of Phil Vernon, we could well light upon it in the almost Proustian intricacy of this description of domestic ritual: ‘It was the ice-block that occupied the centre of this daily drama. Glittering there at the end of hooked claws and leaving a wet trail all the way from the gate, with a puddle where the two figures had crossed beside the mint patch half-way up, it gathered to itself whatever heat these meetings contained, so that it might have been the iceman’s foxy attempts to catch her hand, or Della’s feelings when she turned things over in her little cubbyhole by the stairs, that reduced the great block to liquid, and some understanding between them that the relationship would continue, but not necessarily develop, that created that void in the ice-chest that had each morning to be filled.’

Yet Harland’s Half-Acre is not simply the juxtaposition of one kind of childhood and its consequences against another – hot against cold, as it were. Malouf makes the most skilful use of binary oppositions, and there is a sense that (as he confesses in the interview) plot has been left to tag along behind the carefully matched scenes and situations which form the broad structure of the work. Yet what accumulates throughout the novel, and what gives it a compelling unity of development, is the sense of Frank Harland’s vocation as a painter slowly arising, developing and being fulfilled. Even the death of Edna Byrne, which has left one of his pictures awesomely splashed with blood, becomes a junction point for the interfusion of his life as an artist and his life as a man: we could read in both ways the question which he puts to himself on that occasion: ‘How had he failed to see the rising of such a tide of red?’

Malouf does not, above all, fall into the trap of making Frank Harland the painter belong to any obvious, pre-established category of artist. The surprising news that the mature Frank Harland uses sheets of cardboard from the grocer, and not only conventional canvases, might appear to make him a kindred spirit to the Cornish fisherman and painter, Alfred Wallis. But this is not borne out in the descriptions of his later works, which seem to cross stylistic categories with a merry abandon. This is as it should be. Malouf is not assembling an identikit painter for our benefit. He is using the hypothesis of a steady assimilation and refinement of imagery as the tracer element through which we locate Frank Harland’s self-knowledge and success as an artist, and his failure as a man. We see him being defeated, in the end, by the incapacitating love which he has always felt for a father who uncannily usurps the role of mother, and thus binds his sons to him in painful, indissoluble ways. It is enough to be assured that Frank Harland makes great art out of this unequal struggle: that he compensates for the loss of the Harland acres by his improvident ancestors by creating his own bare half-acre of painterly colour, a life’s work. As with Proust, the proof of the masterpiece resides, and can only reside, in its displacement onto the elaborate network of signs and traces which is the literary text itself.

Where David Malouf shows us an Australian artist starting from scratch, Elaine Feinstein chooses Sydney as the faraway vantage-point from which the elderly European exile can reflect upon the tangled skein of loyalties which was cut when she left the Old World. Malouf takes pains to introduce a minor but undeniably powerful character, the antique dealer Knack, in order to show that ‘coming from Europe’ must ‘be an education all in itself – a bitter one’. Elaine Feinstein presents us with a perfectly transplanted milieu, still redolent with the sights and smells of Central Europe: ‘The boy marvelled at the way she had enclosed herself in a piece of Central Europe, as if she had conjured the walnut chest, inlaid tables, and curving velvet button-back chairs into place; or perhaps transported them with infinite care, to be reassembled in Australia, like the wooden house of the first Governor General in Melbourne. When she put a porcelain plate before him, with a plain yellow cake upon it, the aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon rose to his memory as if he had spent his own childhood in Vienna or Budapest.’ But the boy has not spent his childhood in Vienna or Budapest. He is a native-born Californian, son of a Viennese father shipped out to relatives before the commencement of the Second World War. The grandmother whom he finds in Sydney among her reminiscent pieces of furniture and fragrant cakes is in sole possession of a secret which has so far eluded him: she alone can release the documents which tell the story of her flight from Central Europe, by way of Paris, and clarify the circumstances under which her husband, also in flight, came to die at Port-Bou, on the Franco-Spanish frontier.

To describe The Border as a story of retrospective detection is therefore accurate up to a point. We are offered not only the grandmother’s testimony, after the event, but also the diary of her husband, Hans Wendler, standing next to her own diary of the same year, and supplemented by the letters of Hilde Dorf, her husband’s mistress. But Elaine Feinstein has not constructed a mystery which lends itself to being solved: in the end, we are only slightly the wiser about the real significance of the events which have taken place. Her concern is more precisely to form a web of suggestions, in which political and personal motifs are inextricably bound up with one another. Walter Benjamin, whose suicide at Port-Bou is incorporated into the fiction, is also perhaps to be seen as the pervasive figure in this textual carpet. Quoted more than once in epigraphs to the various sections, he stands for a desire to fuse together, rather than to separate out, the strands of intellectual, political and emotional life. Is Hilde Dorf’s love for Hans Wendler initially an attempt to entrap him into political action on behalf of the Communist Party? Does Hans Wendler’s love for Hilde disregard the barely concealed political motive which is, it would seem, the mainspring of her actions? Is Hans Wendler, perhaps, as profoundly captivated by the political message as he is by the personal relationship? And is Inge Wendler’s testimony simply an attempt to prevent us from realising this point?

There is no hierarchy of discourses which will enable us to pick out where the truth lies on any of these matters. Elaine Feinstein traces a spare, and at times deceptively casual, outline to the sequence of events. It is difficult to feel that any of her separately itemised sources should be privileged over the others. At least, that is the impression until we reach the last and shortest of the six parts of the novel, which consists of Wendler’s three ‘Poems in Exile’. In the rhythmic vitality and imagistic piquancy of the short stanzas, we pick up a new and superior tone of authority:

Monsters and blood I dream of now,
     and a long voyage, lost,
although the wind has filled our sails,
     I must not falter in my mission,
Dido, at whatever cost.

It is not what Hans Wendler tells us here, in the lightly assumed disguise of Aeneas, that gives us the clue to the enigma of his death. We can remain sceptical about the political contours of the Rome which he intended to found. But what we cannot easily resist is the sense that the poet is speaking through the persona of the novelist, and that this is a voice we are meant to attend to. Elaine Feinstein has taken the risk of allowing the whole weight of the story to rest upon these intensified fragments of poetic language, and the risk pays off.