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Literary Lifeboats

goodbye sweetheart by Marion Halligan cover
Goodbye Sweetheart
by Marion Halligan
Allen & Unwin
304pp
29.99 AU
Published April, 2015
ISBN 9781760111298

‘In literature,’ writes Arturo Pérez-Reverte in The Club Dumas (1993), ‘time is like a shipwreck, in which God looks after His own.’ Pérez-Reverte has authority, as a member of the Spanish Royal Academy and a best-selling author whose works, such as his Alatriste novels, film well. Some might quibble with this statement, saying ‘Which god or gods?’ For horror writers, no doubt Elder Gods. The Judaeo-Christian deity would seem to have nothing to do with it; this would appear to be more the province of the Greco-Romans – Neptune perhaps, or more pertinently the goddess Fortuna. But there is no denying Pérez-Reverte’s essential truth: in the game of literature, like that of Thrones, reputations are subject to incalculable factors, as chaotic and powerful as a storm at sea. Writers, even hacks, want to be part of the long-term literary memory. They all want a place in the lifeboat of the literary Titanic.

The difficulty, as ever in Australia and increasingly worldwide, is that to be published is not enough to achieve that elusive lifeboat seat. The market for writing is worldwide, even in these days of short attention spans, the demands of the internet, work, television and Twitter. Lucky the writer with a reputation; but luckier is the writer with either a not-too-demanding day job, a supportive spouse, or a following large enough to provide genuine material support. In this context, diversions from a dedicated literary track, into food writing or crime fiction, may provide more financial rewards and recognition than the tough and lonely vocation of the high-literary novelist, and in some cases they may produce a writers’ best prose.

Marion Halligan is at that late stage of her career where the location of the lifeboat has been memorised, even if the bright lifejacket has not been donned just yet. Provided a writer does not burn out, her final years may not present a decline, but rather an apogee. Consider Ursula LeGuin, who when approaching 80 produced the very fine historical novel Lavinia (2008), and who only last year had a lovely time embarrassing Amazon in a fiery speech at the US National Book Awards. In literature, sweet little grannies can have sharp teeth – something Elizabeth Jolley and Gwen Harwood knew very well.

So let us consider the figure of Marion Halligan, standing on the deck of a ship, under a stormy sky. Her career has been long and busy. Over a score of books have been published, tending to come from major houses – commercial publishers, rather than small presses. That indicates a following, since such publishers tend not to bother with authors who sell poorly. The books range from collections of short fiction – the area where she first came to notice (and often where a writer’s best work is done) – to a children’s book, non-fiction – generally about travel and food – and ten novels. She has won awards, and has a passel of shortlistings, and was longlisted for the IMPAC prize with Valley of Grace (2009). The international recognition was unusual, but the novel did depart from her more typical Australiana. In addition, she had the job – thankless now if not then – of chairing the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Consequently, she has an AM for services to literature. Some of her fiction has dealt with the cattiness of literary circles – though never quite as memorably as, to cite one example, Anthony Trollope’s depiction of Lady Carbury, the amazing self-promoting authoress in The Way We Live Now (1875).

It is possible to ascertain some patterns. Halligan’s subject matter tends to the domestic, the middle-class life, the here-and-now carefully observed. Australia dominates, although the Spider Cup (1990) and Valley of Grace have French settings, the product of being a good academic wife to a professor in that language, the late Graham Halligan. She certainly writes of the French with more authority than, say, Julia Leigh did in Disquiet (2008). In a more formal literary context, Halligan’s work shares some features with modernism, in that it tends to lack the linear, dominating plot, and eschews the omniscient narrator, preferring multiple viewpoints – modernism is an influence curiously persistent in Australian letters, despite the upstart postmodern. Nobody could call Halligan a dirty realist, but she is a realist – of the well-scrubbed, well-spoken variety. She could be termed a regionalist, given that her strong sense of place is mostly grounded in Canberra. The ACT Book of the Year has been her glittering prize three times. She also belonged to that interesting gathering of writers known as the ‘Canberra Seven’, a group of ‘critters’ including a personal favourite of mine, Dorothy Johnston.

Halligan has an interest in the visual arts. Out of the Picture (1996) was a collection of essays and commentaries on National Library photographs – as it happens, it was the book of hers I liked least. She is often termed a sensual writer. Perhaps in a parallel universe she writes best-selling erotica, but her realm of the senses is less that of Eros than it is Epicurean, particularly when in gourmet-land. She seems happiest when addressing the culinary: taste, texture, savour. In her travelogue Cockles of the Heart (1996), she writes approvingly of Colette, as if seeing an affinity. Certainly, it is possible to imagine the two having a leisurely meal together, discussing vintages and the details of recipes. Halligan was unlucky to have preempted the sub-genre of books about women running away and finding themselves in France with Spider Cup. Nor was gourmet travel writing as highly rated in the 1990s when she published Cockles of the Heart and Eat My Words (1990).

Looking at Halligan’s writing more closely is to observe a tendency I personally deplore: the use of contractions in prose that is not dialogue. Its increasing prevalence in her work may be the consequence of public readings, but unless it is employed in the service of the vernacular it can work against the gravitas of a text. Halligan’s writing does not partake of the playful imagery of, say, Gregory Day, nor does it have the absolute precision of Sonya Hartnett, with exactly the right word dropped into the right place in the sentence. Aphorisms are rare, and the phrasing is seldom overworked. Halligan is easy to read, no doubt easy on the ear when accessed via recordings. Her writing is always clear, but not necessarily simple. The agony of composition is absent – perhaps the words come easily. But ease in writing can be a trap. It can lead to over-confidence and affect an author’s reputation adversely, as when Anthony Trollope famously boasted of his large daily word count.

The short stories, of which there are many, at times flirt with the themes but not the form of crime fiction, as with her contributions to Stephen Knight’s Crimes for a Summer Christmas anthologies. She is also capable of rewriting the story of Bluebeard: the recent ‘A Castle in Toorak’ is not an Angela Carter-style fantasia, but updates the story to the present, recasting it as a young bride’s tale, and highly effectively too.

The most critically successful of her novels was Lovers’ Knots (1992), which won the Age Book of the Year and the inaugural Nita B. Kibble Award. It took the form of a family saga, with excursions into the Australian immigrant experience and the art of photography. The narrative of unfolding generations suited Halligan’s leisurely, discursive approach. The characters travelled through the decades, the novel ending in 2000, eight years after the book’s publication. Halligan did not depict her 2000 in much detail – she is decidedly not a writer of the futuristic.

Among her recent novels, two formed a small series: The Apricot Colonel (2006) and Murder on the Apricot Coast (2008). They combined some of her favourite themes – the literary world, food, love and marriage – with detective fiction elements. The Colonel and his Sandra are a modern Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, investigating the crimes that dared to disrupt their otherwise pleasant existence. These novels read like a highbrow version of the cosy detective sub-genre, with one crucial difference: they lack the tight plotting, the narrative momentum of the classic crime text – the factor that, along with suspense, keeps the reader hooked.

So what is the consequence of all this artistic labour? If we consider Australian literary rankings – about as safe an occupation as handling the nation’s venomous snakes without protective gloves – then her reputation would rest upon a pedestal not shaky, rather solid. It might not be as high as Carey, Coetzee, Astley or Garner. But it is unlikely to be overturned by some acerbic young critic intent on mischief, as when Thackeray sought to make his reputation by trampling underfoot the tomes of Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton. The Halligan brand is reputable, if not always accompanied by critical hyperventilation.

*

Goodbye Sweetheart begins with water that is chlorinated, tamed, encased in tiles: a hotel swimming pool, somewhat lax in its health and safety compliance. William, a successful lawyer with a penchant for literary quotation, frequents the pool, for his health and to ogle comely female swimmers. On what will be his final visit, he has a heart attack and drowns. His death sets off a sequence of events, as the loss, felt deeply or dutifully, percolates through his extended family, which includes three wives and their children, a brother, an aunt, and a secret lover.

The way in which death draws the bereaved together is a fruitful subject. Strong recent examples of novels on this theme include Deborah Forster’s The Meaning of Grace (2012) and Graham Swift’s Last Orders (1996). It is the ultimate drama, bringing with it unseen ramifications, as unknown wives and children arrive at the funeral. As Halligan moves like a movie camera between the characters, their personalities and peccadilloes become apparent. William was a self-satisfied satyr, amoral in his personal and professional life, yet capable of arousing profound love, and much ambivalence. His third wife, Lynette, runs a modish cookery shop, and has a teenage daughter, Erin – she has had little to trouble her married life until now. William’s previous wife Helen is a teacher, who has never recovered from his infidelity. Her son Ferdie has pursued his father’s love of words (if nothing else) into a PhD in literature. William’s first wife Nerys is thoroughly New Age, with a partner, Acacia, who is a marriage celebrant. Nerys’ daughter with William is Aurora, who is deep in the hell of IVF treatment.

In the hands a different writer, these characters would be the subject of sharp satire. In Goodbye Sweetheart, the satire is muted, as befits the occasion (although one does wonder just how Acacia will disrupt the funeral ceremony). The novel is a series of vignettes and character studies. William’s dying vision, suitably sexual, is followed by a section from Lynette’s point of view, as the police arrive on her doorstep with the dire news. The reader then enters the life of Jack, William’s brother – a rare character in Australian fiction: the thoroughly decent older Anglo-Saxon male. Jack is depicted with respect and without masculinist hysterics. In an encapsulated narrative, which could function as an independent short story, Jack’s unexceptional, unambitious life is summed up: it is not without its sadness, but he is not embittered. He goes fishing one day, has a close encounter with death, and then, in a brief intrusion of the supernatural, encounters a man who might or might not be a ghost. Jack and William were chalk and cheese, but now Jack is summoned, like the rest of the family, to enter into bereavement.

Having gathered her characters, the author’s scrutiny continues. Lynette is distraught and is behaving strangely in the way that the grieving sometimes do. She attempts to seduce Jack, who sensibly pretends not to notice. She could compete for misery with Barbara, the secret mistress, who is still grieving the death of her own child. Helen, wife number two, has never ceased to mourn William’s leaving her for an older woman, but curiously she finds the death a liberation – he will never return now, so she can live properly again; the absence is final. Ferdie, William’s only son, reads as either incipiently camp or impossibly fey. He has a girlfriend, but he lacks his father’s indiscriminate ardour. He is too nice to be a cad, but Hemingway fans would worry about his cojones. About Erin, the teenage daughter, who is surely trouble, we hear very little.

In Cockles of the Heart, Halligan comments of Eat My Words (1990): ‘its skeleton was my autobiography’. She adds that books are like bodies: they ‘need skeletons’. Her novels are not without backbone, but they can sprawl. Plot is not a dominant feature of Goodbye Sweetheart. The novel is patterned rather than being a tight assemblage of cause and effect, or clue leading to clue. Experiences are echoed; the death of beloved children is a motif; William has taken what he wants from woman after woman. To read the novel is to dip into these lives, like overhearing gossip, knowing that the progression of events is leading to a funeral, but not knowing what form it will take. There are some surprises, such as the appearance of the unfortunate mistress, Barbara, or Lynette’s abrupt decision to dispose of William’s remains. But the novel’s conclusion, in which the characters quietly get on with their lives, is not cathartic, nor particularly unexpected.

*

Most reviewers have approved of Goodbye Sweetheart, with one notable exception. Helen Elliott, reviewing for Fairfax, wrote a critique which was described to me as ‘rather a stinker’, and certainly read as provocative. Most unusually, it drew a response from Halligan, breaking the first rule of the reviewed, which is to suffer in silence. I was once advised: ‘no matter how just your cause, you sound like a sensitive little plant’. (Other ways exist to revenge yourself upon a reviewer, some of which are devious and dastardly indeed. In The Way We Live Now, Lady Carbury responds personally, and with courage. In several of Halligan’s short stories, the reviewer is murdered – a good reason not to criticise her too harshly?)

Halligan responded via Facebook. Given that friends see the posts of friends, it was circulated widely in this public forum:

Horrible review of Goodbye Sweetheart in the Fairfax papers on Saturday. By Helen Elliott whom I had always thought was a good reviewer. Decided arbitrarily what I was doing – trying to write like Joanna Trollope. I was hugely offended, I have not the slightest desire to write like Trollope. Judged that I failed, which is quite a good thing. Made no attempt to understand what I was doing.

Compared to lovely review by Felicity Plunkett in the Australian which was sympathetic and sensitive. Talked about the prose, and the structure, both of which are important to me.

Sometimes reviewers are mean-spirited and malicious and it’s hard to understand why. The problem with the new Fairfax regime is that where once one would have had three reviews now it’s the same nasty one in all three.

It’s always been considered bad form to reply to bad reviews. But I think Facebook is different. And after twenty-two books I feel like it.

The novel Elliott likely had in mind was Joanna Trollope’s The Other Family (2010), which touches on similar bereavement themes. It is a book that interests but, ultimately, subtly disappoints. A modern writer who was compared to Trollope (Anthony), would likely be chuffed, although such was not always the case: he has been at various times regarded as lightweight or a hack. A comparison with Frances Trollope, his redoubtable mother and arguably his superior as a novelist, would also likely be welcome. The same might apply to Ellen Davitt, Anthony’s sister-in-law and author of the first Australian murder mystery, Force and Fraud (1865).

Comparing a writer with Trollope (Joanna) could function as a deadly insult – or on Goodreads it might lead to increased sales. Whether or not one considers the comparison to be adverse entirely depends upon how one views the middlebrow. The categorisation itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Genres and publishing categories vary wildly in quality, even high ‘literature’. Such a distinction did not exist in Frances and Anthony Trollope’s time: the best writing was Holy, followed by poetry, with the novel trailing dubiously behind. Now an agile writer can exploit both markets. The distinctions can blur. Consider the varying reputations of Barbara Pym, Madeleine St John and Anita Brookner, for example. And Joanna Trollope’s novels, like those of her distant relative Anthony, do make for very good television.

In Murder on the Apricot Coast, a Halligan character notes: ‘A good novel: it’s the apotheosis of the book.’ Like author, like character: their designated barque is the good ship Literature. I would not say that Goodnight Sweetheart subtly or even majorly disappoints, and not because I fear the author would add arsenic to my soup. It possesses warmth, loving craft, and to term it unexceptionable is, in the nineteenth-century understanding of the word, not to damn with faint praise. Yet I closed the book aware that some of the short fiction, or particularly Cockles of the Heart, will persist with me longer. Halligan has time, and more books to write; she can still surprise us. What the shipwreck will make of her oeuvre, God only knows.

 

References

Helen Elliott, ‘Goodbye Sweetheart is sweet and insubstantial,’ Sydney Morning Herald (11 April 2015).

Marion Halligan, The Apricot Colonel (Allen & Unwin, 2006).

⎯‘A Castle in Toorak,’ Griffith Review 42 (2013).

Cockles of the Heart (Minerva, 1996).

Eat my Words (Angus & Robertson, 1990).

Lovers’ Knots (Heinemann, 1992).

Murder on the Apricot Coast (Allen & Unwin, 2008).

Out of the Picture (NLA, 1996).

Spider Cup (Minerva, 1990).

Valley of Grace (Allen & Unwin, 2009).

Stephen Knight, A Corpse at the Opera House (Allen & Unwin, 1993).

Crimes for a Summer Christmas (Allen & Unwin, 1990).

More Crimes for a Summer Christmas (Allen & Unwin, 1991).

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Club Dumas (1973; Harcourt, 1977).

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (Chapman and Hall, 1875).