Australian Literature, Book review, Literary criticism

Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse

frank-moorhouse-pic

The Australian writer Frank Moorhouse

Here’s a little anecdote …

Frank Moorhouse and his girlfriend were lying naked in their back garden drinking wine and soaking up sunshine when the writer threw aside the book he’d been reading and exclaimed: ‘My God. Oh my God. Copyright is the key to all understanding. If you understand copyright theory, you understand the whole way the world works. It’s all there.’ 

It’s just a vignette. But in its composition and tone, it’s also a story which takes us to the heart of Moorhouse and his work. There’s the eye for sensual detail. The juxtaposition of the intimate and the abstract. The continuum between the big picture and the everyday. The intellectual energy at play amidst other pleasures. And, of course, there’s the delicious irony of a man lying next to his naked lover, inflamed with passion by legal prose.

         ‘Our man at cultural studies cliff face’, by Professor Catharine (2004): in Gleeson, Lumby and Bennett: Frank Moorhouse: a celebration, Canberra: National Library of Australia.

Nowhere is the above more illustrative than in this following scene, from page 198 of Grand Days (Volume 1 of The Edith Trilogy, The Vintage edition, 2011).

The Australian protagonist, Edith Campbell Berry, an administrative assistant with the League of Nations in 1920s Geneva, is in Paris with friends at a jazz club. She is enthralled by the music, especially scat singing which she perceives as a new kind of language with staggering potential; she’s a little drunk. She is also fascinated with one of the black musicians, Jerome in a bowler hat, who comes, invited, to the table and explains about scat singing. A little time later, on her way back from the Lady’s, Edith stumbles across the musician’s room and enters, discovering Jerome, alone. She offers him her hand which he takes and guides her onto his knee. Then this sentence…

Time and movement then become slippery, as she gracefully slid, seeing for the first time his caramel and cream shoes and without thinking too much at all about things, it seemed his warm dark hands were on her exposed and very alive breasts, which she felt she had delivered up to him; all seemed to happen in flowing fixed steps, something like a waltz, except they were not moving from where they were adhered together in this strange way, and without any guidance at all and in no time at all, and with no impediment, with no thought at all, warm, fleshy and flowing, it was finishing, and she took her lips, tongue, and gentle teeth away, opened her eyes and looked across the room to an open instrument case.

Here the mundane, ‘cream and caramel shoes’, ‘no thought at all’, and ‘an open instrument case’, juxtaposed with the sensual, ‘dark hands’, ‘breasts’, and ‘lips, tongue, and gentle teeth’ create something perversely human; although once the penny drops and you realise what she has just done the sensual flavours the mundane and ‘an open instrument case’ takes on a brand-new meaning entirely.

That quote is an apt example of free indirect discourse which has become the characteristic of literary modernism ever since Joyce knowingly used it, and understood it as a style, in his 1916 autobiographical work, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are also examples of it in the works of Goethe and Jane Austin but it was Joyce who used it in such an obvious and effective way, as a literary tool, that it was subsequently taken up and experimented with by his contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse, 1927), and now it is so widely used that it’s hardly noticeable anymore. Free indirect discourse, or experienced speech, or, as The New Yorker literary critic and academic, James Woods, calls it, close writing, allows the author two very useful authorial tools. Firstly, it gives the writer freedom to flit from character to character to give their different view of the scene, character, action, etc. A vivid modern example of this is Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose novels (2012) where St Aubyn describes the (autobiographical) sexual abuse of his 4-year-old protagonist by his father from the boy’s and the man’s point of view. It’s as if the unnamed, god-like, all-knowing, third-person narrator flits from the mind of one character to the mind of the other. Secondly it allows the writer to use the language and tone of the character, the times, and circumstance to colour the narrative prose itself. Joyce’s opening to “A Portrait …” uses baby language – moocow, little tuckoo – not as dialogue for his baby protagonist, Stephen, but in the prose itself making it very clear, and without the necessity of saying it, that the boy is very young. By the end of the first chapter the narrative language is that of an intelligent, sensitive, and inquisitive school-boy which is what Stephen is at that time in the story.

If you read the Moorhouse sentence again – go on! Re-read it! – remembering that Edith is quite drunk, it is in language and tone (defensive) that she might have used if she was asked to explain what happened; the narrator’s prose is using the language of the circumstance, the situation, and the character.

Pre-Joyce, this rarely happened: the unnamed, god-like, all-knowing, third-person narrator was usually sage-like, mature, and distanced in time and character from the people and all the elements of the story. Dickens is a solid example of this.

Edith Campbell Berry is a sophisticated and complex creation, which was an entirely intuitive process, says Moorhouse, and her genesis began with his mother. Moorhouse has always been interested in social and personal politics, citing the liberation movements, both social and sexual, of the 60s and early 70s as having a transformative effect on him; and literary works such as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) he found enlightening and greatly affected his understanding of his own sexuality. Edith is aware of her multiple histories, ambiguities, desires and even chaos in her personal life which is separate and guarded from her professional life which she is immensely proud and protective of. She is an idealist and believes “the League had the task of making the manners of the world.” Her personal life in Geneva is founded on her early meeting, on the train from Paris to Geneva as she travelled to take up her post, of Ambrose Westwood, a British diplomat who too works for the League and, with Edith’s knowledge and support, investigates his own predilections for cross-dressing – she loans him her best evening gown forcing her to wear her second-best on their first tryst to The Molly Club – and homosexuality, while remaining Edith’s lover and confidant. Moorhouse admits there is some of him in the character of Ambrose Westwood. Her exploration of her own desires is stimulated by his, but she is constantly aware of, and ruminates at length, on her perceived reputation at the League (Is she a ‘vamp’?) finding it imperative that both her personal and professional lives are kept separate, and rightly so: a consistent theme in Moorhouse’s work. However, while making little effort to curtail her exploits with Ambrose into the secret and steamier side of Geneva’s social life, she is in constant threat of being exposed. This tension propels the narrative where both fictional and real characters and events are mingled to create a fascinating picture of the personal, the political, and the professional in the early years of the League of Nations.

At every turn, Moorhouse suggests, the answer to the question of how to live lies in learning to live with ambiguity and resisting the impulse to bury the contradictions of being human behind reductive, authoritarian codes.

It’s a fascinating read and once you get to know Edith Campbell Berry you are even pleased with the novel’s length – it’s big – as are the two to follow – because you just want more of her, as do many of the characters in the books.

Dark Palace is next, followed by Cold Light. A lot to look forward to.

The ebook edition of Grand Days is available here through ibooks for $US10.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse

  1. Excellent and I agree but he should have stopped after #2 I will be interested to read what you have to say of Cold Light – I had had enough of Edith by then – although the last scene is fitting.

    Like

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