This is a slightly revised version of the Boisbouvier Oration, delivered at the Melbourne Writers Festival, 4 September 2019.
Though I have called my lecture ‘Publishing from the Provinces’ I don’t intend to refer much to the most obvious implication of my title, which is that all Australian publishing is necessarily ‘from the provinces’, given that we operate at a great distance from the centres of English-language publishing in London and New York, and from the foreign-language publishing centres in Europe. We are interested in their books, but alas, they are not all that interested in ours. No, the province I have in mind is even more remote, a province within or beyond the provinces, the place occupied by literature in Australia, at the far edge of trade publishing, or as a barely visible enclave within it, its titles scarcely known to the general reader, and bought by few, its existence dependent on what is more like a subsistence economy than the profit-driven commercial economies of the multinationals and larger independents that dominate our publishing landscape.
I don’t want to be another alarmist, crying out about the state of Australian literature, and blaming it on our readers, because after all, those who reside in the provinces of literature choose to live there, and find ways to survive. They do so, for the most part, on small sales and unreliable incomes, with only sporadic recognition, and with a great deal of patience – because the effort involved in writing and publishing rarely receives its proper remuneration; and because time out here has its own way of passing, in large silent stretches between the book and its reception, if it has one. Out here one depends heavily on the regard of the few, and on their support, whether family or fellow writers, patrons or the hand of government – but most of all, on a belief in posterity.
I am talking about a certain kind of writing and its publication here, one independent of the blandishments of social media, and not necessarily topical in its own time. Though much is made now of ‘storytelling’ as the source of the literary, literary writing is in fact characterised by the texture of its language and imagery, by implication and resonance, by its strangeness and resistance to expectation. How time sweetens what may seem initially to be abrasive and discomfiting! But alas, we live in the present, not the future, and posterity is sparing in its consolations to the living.
I should be more concrete about this aspect of life in the literary provinces. Giramondo’s poetry books sell around 200 to 300 copies each, regardless of the stature of the poet, or the prizes they might win, or the reviews they might get. Collections of literary essays fall into a similar category, as do literary translations from other languages – I stress literary translations, translation as a literary art, not translations of books which have been bestsellers in their own language. Literary memoirs and novels might sell between 1000 and 1500 copies – only a Miles Franklin listing or a CBCA Young Adult award is likely to make any difference to this. A prize as supposedly prestigious as the Prime Minister’s Award has only a modest impact on sales, and in the case of poetry, none at all. Speaking generally, we have to deal with a reluctant readership, a timid readership, a readership now barely versed in the idea of literature at all.
To reside in the literary world, in the outer provinces of publishing, is to become used to the discrepancy between expectation and response. Each book carries a unique significance and value, both because of the effort that has gone into its crafting, and because of the contribution that its writing makes to language and the imagination. I suppose no public response could ever do justice to this sense of value. It is the appreciation of individual readers, usually of the quiet or modest kind, that one depends on most. Perversely, the discrepancy between expectation and response is most likely to be felt by writers who have enjoyed for a moment the spotlight of public attention, only to have it move away from them. This is regularly the case with authors who have been listed for, but have not won, literary prizes. The prospect inflames one’s expectations, all the more so because they have been kept in check for so long, and the disappointment, especially when the process is attenuated, as it usually is, is an exquisite kind of torture. Were it not for the sudden fortune it brings the small number of authors who are successful, I would ignore the giving of prizes altogether.
Writers live in the realm of expectation, it fuels their imagination and is the substance of their craft. They are vulnerable to disappointment, but disappointment also acts as an incitement, to imagine further or more deeply. It is easy to think of writers pursuing their aims with a noble persistence, despite the fact that they will only have a few readers, and little support along the way – but it would be truer to see the experience of isolation as constitutive of their writing, as a formative influence, rather than as an impediment to it. For me, among Giramondo authors, it is Brian Castro who most intensely writes from this extreme provincial position, face to the void, a writing that, to be true to itself, must confront the fact of failure. In his latest book, Blindness and Rage, Castro imagines a secret society whose members surrender their manuscripts to anonymous publication, thus saving themselves from the disappointments of authorship. If the only alternative is ‘the insanity/ of enjoying posterity when quite dead’, then why not sacrifice yourself to anonymity now and allow the work to go its own way? Blindness and Rage won a Prime Minister’s Award and earnt its author, in an unexpected coup de foudre, an amount of money many times greater than the income from all his preceding books combined; but in the six months that followed, the book itself sold only fifty copies.
What to make of this craziness, the absence of readers, just when they have been called to attention? In his preceding book, the novella Street to Street, Castro staged an encounter with Christopher Brennan, the early twentieth-century poet who most grandly represents the figure of the failed writer in Australian literature. Brennan, the great poet in an outmoded idiom, swinging between megalomania in his talk and self-disgust, drunken, and finally defeated. I always think of Brennan’s lines when considering the outermost limits of the province we call Literature in Australia:
Where star-cold and the dread of space
in icy silence bind the main
I feel but vastness on my face,
I sit, a mere incurious brain,
under some outcast satellite,
some Thule of the universe,
upon the utter verge of night
frozen by some forgotten curse.
Castro presents this kind of self-dramatisation as the dramatisation of a condition, by having Brennan’s failure recorded by a biographer, Brendan Costa, who shares Brian Castro’s initials – BC – which are, in turn, the reverse of Brennan’s initials – CB. I will come back to this play of mirrors, of repetitions and inversions, for it is characteristic of the imagination at full stretch, in the province of literature I am describing. Castro describes Brennan thus: ‘He stood on the foreshore and dreamt his greatness and knew the means would never reach its ends.’ And then he adds, ‘It was the shame of any artistic endeavour: making a gift no one wanted.’
It should be said that Castro’s writing is full of wit and humour. Perhaps the main reason that Blindness and Rage won the Prime Minister’s Award is that it is funny – it wears its gloom lightly, which is in itself an expression of resilience and courage. The epic manuscript that Castro’s doomed hero is working on, never to complete, is called Paidia, which is Greek for ‘play’. ‘Will it signify payday?’ Castro quips, in a dazzling series of puns, pursued through three languages. ‘Turn you into a high-liver?’
Not likely. Enjoy your suspended sentence…
you mist ’ave la foi dans le foie,
at least une fois – un coup de foie gras.
In this far province the imagination rules, in its own unruly fashion. (And often along with the consumption of alcohol.)
Gerald Murnane is the author who most readily springs to mind when one thinks of the figure of the little-known or barely regarded author in Australian literature. As the New York Times Magazine declared in March 2018, on the publication of Border Districts in America, ‘A strong case could be made for Murnane as the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of.’ I was amused by this claim, as we have many writers that most people have never heard of – some of the best, the most challenging in fact. But because the New York Times said it, people sat up, and took notice. I remember Richard Glover, the afternoon Drivetime host for ABC Radio in Sydney, ringing to ask for an explanation. ‘Murnane, Murnane, who’s ever heard of Gerald Murnane?!’ his voice rising with excitement. He must have thought he’d uncovered a hoax. As if it was impossible, that a great writer, a Nobel-Prize possibility, could be unknown in his own country.
Although it was Murnane’s thirteenth and last book, Border Districts, which gained him international and therefore national attention, it is an earlier work of fiction, Barley Patch, written after a period of more than ten years in which Murnane had not written at all, that most vividly captures his commitment to exploring the province of the imagination, which he refers to as ‘the territory on the far side of fiction’ – the imagined territory, that is to say, beyond the territory of the imagined fiction. The title of Border Districts explicitly acknowledges the territory Murnane occupies as a provincial writer, both physically, living as he does in a remote hamlet near the border between Victoria and South Australia; and imaginatively, in the mostly level grassland with a line of trees in the distance across which he pursues the images and their connections in the landscape of his mind. I have often wondered why writers from the provinces should be supposed to look back, over their shoulders as it were, to the metropolitan centres for their inspiration and acknowledgement.
How much easier it is, and more interesting, to look forward, to imagine other countries beyond or within the borders of the place that you know. This is what Murnane does, though not without a sense of crisis, in Barley Patch, which begins with the question Must I Write? and goes on to consider the question Why Had I Written? The whole book is haunted by his decision, years before, to write no more fiction, but the difficulty of writing – without response, without recognition, without confidence – is everywhere in his earlier and later fiction as well.
In a way this is the prospect that drives his imagination. In explaining why he had stopped writing fiction, the narrator of Barley Patch recalls the imagined countries created by the Brontë sisters. The Brontës, and particularly Emily Brontë, the author of Wuthering Heights, are the iconic provincial novelists of nineteenth-century England. Living remotely, on the edge of things, they invented lands beyond their own. One of these they called Gondal. When she was seventeen, Emily wrote in her diary that the inhabitants of Gondal were just then off to explore the interior of Gaaldine, a country they had invented beyond the country of Gondal that she had invented. Dissatisfied with merely picturing characters or a scene in his mind, Murnane is also in the habit of projecting himself as a character in his fiction, moving through the scene and into its background, to explore the perspectives on other worlds that open up there. In this way his mind becomes a place which contains other places. For Murnane, this movement is a testament to the freedom and power of the imagination, but it is also fraught, for where might the creation of realities beyond realities end?
When he had stopped writing over ten years before he had begun writing Barley Patch Murnane had been in the midst of writing a work of fiction called O Dem Golden Slippers. The chief character of this fiction imagines a time in the future when he is married and goes with his wife to live in a cottage attached to a country school. As his ‘image-wife’ and his ‘image-self’, as he calls them, lie on their ‘image-bed’ to rest, his image-self falls asleep and dreams that the cottage has shrunk to the size of a cabin in which he lives, along with other young men in other cabins, as grooms and track-riders on a large property surrounded by mostly level grassy countryside. And yet, just at that moment, the dreamed-of young man seems to be looking at the outside of a cottage in a city in northern Victoria which the chief character had stood in front of with his mother and another young woman when he, the chief character, was four years old. The two women are speaking derisively of a third, young, woman who lives inside the cottage, and reads books instead of doing the housework. Her surname seems to have as its first syllable the word Bells. The Brontë sisters employed the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The dreamed-of character in the future who imagines the chief character of the fiction at the age of four watching the scene, imagines the bells appearing in a certain book the young woman in the cottage remembered reading, or in a picture hanging in one or other of her dim rooms.
It is hard to say how many levels of recursion, or nesting, there is in this fiction – are there five levels or six? – and that is without taking into account the reference to the Brontës and their worlds within worlds. The work O Dem Golden Slippers had to be abandoned, it must have become too complex with all its recursions, and yet it comes alive again in Barley Patch, embedded in this new fiction which Murnane is writing ten years later. It is as if he is out to demonstrate, that the imagination which produced these worlds within worlds is still active, still revelling in its own inventiveness, for Barley Patch includes not just the embedded sequence from O Dem Golden Slippers, but many other recursive sequences as well, in which any image, from a dolls’s house to an ocean liner to the communion wafer to a marble, might act as the entry point to a network of associated images. ‘It seems characteristic of images appearing in the mind that one or another detail should be incongruous, if not inexplicable’, Murnane notes, thus opening the door to other worlds that might accommodate them, requiring him ‘to search, if possible, behind the scenery of his mind for the further scenery that must have lain there.’
I would like to turn now to the work of Alexis Wright. Wright’s most recent novel The Swan Book begins with just the kind of recursion I have been examining as a formal feature in Gerald Murnane’s writing, that movement in which the imagination seeks to expand beyond the condition of neglect or indifference, or in the Indigenous case negation, to declare its power. The opening scene portrays a ‘cut snake virus’ – that is to say, an angry virus – who is living inside a doll’s house, inside the brain of a young woman, who has spent her childhood inside the bowels of an ancient tree after a traumatic attack by petrol-sniffing youths. The virus shoots missiles through the window of his ‘little old-fashion prairie house’, levelling the landscape of Oblivia’s mind with its assertions of racial purity. ‘So my brain is as stuffed as some old broken-down Commodore you see left dumped in the bush,’ the young woman declares. ‘But I manage.’
Her name – Oblivion / Oblivia Ethylene – is a testament to the alcohol that has caused her flight into the tree. Her way of managing is as unexpected as it is expansive, and in terms of the imaginative effects created by the novel, wondrous. It depends on what Oblivia has learnt from the encyclopaedia of stories housed in the ancient tree by the spiritual ancestors of the swamp in which she lives, and more, on a conscious attempt to draw on what the whole world has to offer, ‘illusionary homelands’, as she calls them, from ‘the continents across the world of my imagination’. This allows her to fill the ‘wide-open vistas of the virus’s real estate’ with mountains and forests and deserts and oceans, and the myths and legends they contain. ‘I have become a gypsy, addicted to journeys into these distant illusionary homelands, to try to lure the virus hidden somewhere in his own crowded globe to open the door. This is where it begins as far as I am concerned. This is the quest to regain sovereignty over my own brain.’
Sovereignty is of course a political concept. For Wright, the phrases ‘sovereignty of mind’, or ‘sovereignty of the imagination’ stand against the denial of Indigenous sovereignty in the political world. Like Oblivia hidden in the ancient tree, the concept of Indigenous sovereignty has had to take refuge in the imagination. As Wright noted, in an address to the third China Australia Literary Forum, ‘This is what I call the importance of having sovereignty of mind, where, while we currently lack sovereignty in our relationship with the social, political, and economic structures of Australia, we uphold the sovereignty of the imagination, and we act like sovereign people. These ideas of the sacredness and the sovereignty of our own imagination are not new, but remembered lessons, taught by the stories and laws of our own people.’ On the one side sovereignty of the imagination is rooted in place, in the stories of the ancestors; but on the other side it is, under the rule of its own sovereignty, limitless. In a recent paper to a conference on World Literatures Wright stressed this point, ‘The imaginative literary mind is as boundless as it is borderless and bountiful in its finding ways of powerfully creating anew the already imagined with the unimagined, or unimaginable.’
In The Swan Book the agent through which the stories of the world enter Oblivia’s brain is the matron of refugees, Bella Donna of the Champions, who draws Oblivia from the tree, and who is an oracle of stories from Europe and beyond, stories about the migration of humans, and of the swans their guardian spirits. The world is in the grip of turmoil from climate change and the forced displacement of populations from their familiar habitats. The Australian black swan and the European white swan, merged in their northern and southern displacements, are emblematic of this turmoil. But it is not only swans that carry this double significance, in which indigenous and international perspectives augment each other. The Aboriginal residents of the swamp have been gathered from all over Australia – they are simultaneously from here and from elsewhere. In one scene, after the ghost of Bella Donna chants Juvenal’s line Rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno (a rare bird in these lands, very much like a black swan), as if there were no such thing as a black swan, the swamp people suddenly start speaking Latin in turn, see themselves as Latino Aboriginals, and the swamp as Rome. ‘You could call it stupidity, naivety, logical’ – that’s three different ways of looking at the phenomenon – ‘Old swamp people were becoming the greatest Romans of all times, even greater than the Romans themselves. The swamp had become a colosseum.’
‘How bold to mix the Dreamings’, Wright comments. ‘Those laws of the two sides of the local world were always clashing.’ This is a significant formulation, because it locates the non-Indigenous world as one side of the Indigenous local world, as a dimension of that local world, not as something extraneous to it – in other words as a possession claimed by the sovereign imagination. And so it is, that virtually every figure in the novel, every character, displays this double aspect, and opens out from the local into the encyclopaedic reaches of the universal. This is true of Oblivia’s quarrelsome guardians the Harbour Master and the monkey Rigoletto, both world travellers; and of the great Warren Finch, first Aboriginal president of Australia, so caught up in foreign affairs that ‘his feelings were nothing more than weightless dust, particles of responsibility from their own Brolga plains he had scattered across the world’. His three acolytes, Dr Hart, Dr Mail and Dr Doom, have PhDs in every discipline you can imagine, hagiology, mythology, palaeontology, ontology, ornithology, oology, musicology – ‘Scientists in the laws of two ways, in all of the things a black man needs to know about today’s world in the bush up here, down in Heaven, or Paris whatnot…’
It’s a vexed issue, combining the laws of the two ways, one wouldn’t want to pretend otherwise. There is the man on a camel called Half-Life that Oblivia encounters in the desert on her trek northwards across the continent from Melbourne, the king of the country thereabouts. He claims to have bloodlines from all over the world, ‘Arabian, African, Asian, Indian, European all sorts’, but his people live in a catastrophic conditions, and spend their lives in a frenzy eating or taming all the animals introduced into their country from elsewhere. And in a recursive sequence similar to the virus in the house in the brain which opens the novel, there is the Christmas house that belongs to Warren Finch’s red-haired patron in Melbourne, through which Oblivia is guided by an orange cat rather like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, into a room which is divided into smaller rooms, each of which has been partitioned into even smaller spaces featuring miniature replicas of winter scenes from all over the world. Like Murnane’s narrator, Oblivia enters this ‘theatre of remembered foreign lands’, travels into their landscapes, even assists at the discovery of black swans by the Portuguese explorer de Vlaminck in 1698, but can find no trace of her home, the swamp, the old eucalyptus tree. She can enter imaginatively into their worlds, but they know nothing of hers.
The disappearance of Oblivia into the bowels of the ancient tree, an apparently unique event, is accompanied by a genealogy which ends by evoking ‘a tumultuous universe of lost girls’. As with the characters, so with the creatures with which the novel teems – each type of creature carries the memory of its species along with it. This is especially the case with the swans, which appear in large numbers, in great swirling movements and explosions of energy, accompanied by an encyclopaedic array of stories, folk motifs and literary citations – but it is true of all the animals in the novel, the butterflies, brolgas, rats, owls, snakes, all opening perspectives, however unlikely their appearance might be. Places too have this encyclopaedic potential, some explicitly so, like the swamp with its diverse population (‘the place for reincarnation for all sorts living around the place’); or the People’s Palace in which Oblivia is held like a princess in a tower, filled with wonders that demonstrate ‘the human ability to marvel in its imagination’; or the vast salt lake Oblivia crosses with the Doctors, its apparently featureless skin suggesting the white glistening body of the enormous ‘serpent spirit fellow’, and acting as a stage for battalions of stink beetles, plague grasshoppers, moth storms, budgerigars, kites, crimson and orange chats. ‘That was during the day’, Wright comments. At night the mind goes down below the surface, to a spirit sea populated by shoals of fish-bones, brine shrimps, larval fish, seeds and stalks, bloated grunters, bony herrings…
The effect of this constant expansion and contraction, from the detail out to the great world and back again, gives the novel a huge resonance, and the experience of reading it an enormous scale, which barely seems containable.
It must be clear by now that, by describing what I take to be some of the contours of the provincial imagination, I am also gesturing towards a distinctive kind of literary aesthetic. The sense of being unregarded, and therefore unconstrained (the element of play), the recursive inventions of an imagination which seeks to move beyond its frontiers, the encyclopaedic aspiration which seeks to discover the whole world in a remote part of it – all these suggest a willingness to experiment with perspectives, in both space and time, both formally and in terms of the responsibilities perspective entails. These possibilities are most dramatically enacted in two recent works published by Giramondo, Lisa Gorton’s collection Empirical and Pi.O.’s epic work Heide. Both are poetry titles, and it may be that poetry, with its nimbleness and its powers of compression and expansion, offers particular strengths in this area. Both titles make use of citation and montage, and draw on an encyclopaedic range of sources, and both mobilise expansive perspectives through these means. I would like to end by quoting these lines from Lisa Gorton’s recent collection Empirical, in which the poet looks across Royal Park in Melbourne, which in previous ages had been a dumping ground:
Out in that unimaginable field
in which wrecked worlds heap their monuments—
an accumulation of fragments that only here
convert themselves into a scene…
and sees in turn a wilderness –
being to itself a storm
perpetually in the front of light—
Brian Castro, Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria (Giramondo, 2017); Street to Street (Giramondo, 2012)
Christopher Brennan, ‘Where star-cold and the dread of space’, Poems (1913) (Angus & Robertson, 1992)
Mark Binelli, ‘Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town’, New York Times Magazine, 27 March 2018
Gerald Murnane, Border Districts (Giramondo, 2017); Barley Patch (Giramondo, 2009)
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo, 2013); ‘What is the role and function of literature’, paper given to the ‘Third China Australia Literary Forum’, Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University, 28-29 August 2015; ‘A Self-Governing Literature’, keynote address to the ‘World Literatures and the Global South’ conference, University of Sydney, 23-25 August 2019
Lisa Gorton, Empirical (Giramondo, 2019)
Pi.O. Heide (Giramondo, 2019)