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Mostly private letters: Moving Among Strangers by Gabrielle Carey

Moving Among Strangers by Gabrielle Carey
Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family
by Gabrielle Carey
University of Queensland Press
240pp
$29.95 AU
Published October, 2013
ISBN 9780702249921

Five days before her mother’s death from stomach cancer in 2009, Gabrielle Carey’s Waiting Room was launched. In Waiting Room, Carey contemplated her mother’s mortality in the weeks leading up to Joan’s surgery for a meningioma. In her characteristically unflinching yet graceful manner, Carey celebrated her mother’s thoughtful generosity and strength of character, while questioning her own role as a daughter and mother. Now we have Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, which operates, on one level, as a companion piece to the earlier memoir. It is a work of mourning for Joan Carey – mother, activist and friend – but it is also so much more.

In Waiting Room, Carey noted briefly that Joan ‘went to school with Dorothy Hewett, and was close friends with Randolph Stow’. In Moving Among Strangers, we discover the depth and enduring nature of that curious, sustaining friendship. Carey wrote to Stow in Joan’s final days to inform him that her mother was dying. Stow responded warmly, recounting memories that affirmed family stories. More intriguingly, he disclosed hitherto unknown family secrets. Carey discovers through Stow’s letters how much of her mother’s life, both inner and outer, she never knew. Suddenly she finds that her reliable, ‘fusty’, ‘restrained’ Presbyterian mother had lived an independent and creative life in London, attending the ballet, visiting galleries and ‘accidentally’ meeting her husband Alex ‘again’ on a park bench.

Joan’s ‘letters from London’, written to Stow when he was a schoolboy and undergraduate, were, he said, ‘like a window on the world’. Yet Joan ‘had never once recounted an anecdote of her time in London’ to her daughter. She never discussed ballet or her favourite ballerina: the feisty, thwarted Elaine Fifield. She never told her children about the repeated early separations from her husband. And she certainly never mentioned that Randolph Stow used to send her his poems.

Memoirs penned by ‘adult orphans’ are becoming increasingly common. As Susan Wyndham writes in her introduction to the recently published essay collection My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent (2013): ‘As a baby boomer it sometimes seems that everyone I know is entering the same bubble or working their way out of it.’ A recurring concern of such memoirs is the sense that the loss of parents marks an irredeemable loss of family history. Carey feels this loss acutely.

Like Helen Garner in her contribution to Wyndham’s collection, ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’, like Anne Summers in The Lost Mother: A Story of Art and Love (2009), like Inga Clendinnen in Tiger’s Eye: A Memoir (2000), Gabrielle Carey, as an adult daughter, has much unfinished business with her mother. Years before Joan’s death, as they waited patiently for scans and the neurosurgeon’s appointments, Carey realised that her mother’s brain tumour, and the confusion and lack of restraint it occasioned, might be her ‘one opportunity to really get to know her’. As Carey’s bewilderment in Moving Among Strangers attests, Joan maintained much of her reserve until the end. ‘My mother has always been a mystery to me,’ she admits, ‘… and just about everyone who’s ever known her.’ She concludes that Joan’s intense privacy was deliberate: ‘she didn’t want to be known.’

But it would appear she was known, to an extent, by ‘Mick Randolph Stow’, another intensely private individual. One of the most intriguing – and largely unanswered – questions posed by Carey in Moving Among Strangers is: ‘Why did my mother correspond with a young man, an adolescent, thirteen years her junior, who wasn’t even a relation?’ Perhaps, she muses, they both felt like outsiders in the West Australian community. There is no doubt that the sensitive, brilliant Stow, the non-sporting Guildford Grammar student, who went on to publish, by the time he was 23, the powerfully disturbing novels A Haunted Land (1956), The Bystander (1957) and To The Islands (1958), and his first volume of poetry, Act One: Poems (1957), would have welcomed a friendship with a more mature, interested and obviously interesting person like Joan Ferguson. Perhaps their relationship in Australia, and their ongoing correspondence across time and space, was also facilitated by the nature of the times.

As a mark of respect for these very private, reserved friends, Carey seeks to honour the more genteel aspects of their social world:

While writing this book I came to believe that both my mother and Stow were content to leave this life, in part, because neither of them could cope with that the world had become. Both had grown up in a different era – of manners and customs, hand-embroidered tablecloths, thimbles and engraved serviette rings. An era that both of them eventually rejected and yet there were aspects of those days that they longed to maintain: the frugality, the quietness, the slowness, the restraint … An era with a quality that Stow described as ‘a certain fineness’.

Carey’s prose reflects a similar kind of quiet gentility, but as a product of her own time and personal history, she also makes clear how the weight of expectation, class divisions and the social mores of earlier times constrained and possibly destroyed creative lives. Stow was expected to become a lawyer, Carey’s father Alex a farmer, and Joan a farmer’s wife. All three rejected those roles. The consequence for Carey was four decades of estrangement from much of her extended family.

Naturally, when Stow reveals snippets of information about her parents and grandparents Carey is keen to hear more. She writes excitedly to Stow suggesting she travel to Harwich and interview him. Characteristically, Stow decides he has said all he has to say and chooses silence. And by the next year he too is dead. Now Carey has to rely on research and imagination to weave the fragments she knows into a coherent story. She sets out on a ‘pilgrimage’, and at every step of the way her journey carries with it a sense of the sacred.

Moving Among Strangers carries the dedication: ‘In Memory of Randolph (Mick) Stow (1935-2010) and Joan Carey née Ferguson (1922-2009).’ It is ‘Mick’ rather than Julian Randolph Stow (the author’s real name) who comes to life in these pages, through the various letters he wrote to Carey’s young niece, to her mother, to his mother and aunt, and of course to Carey herself.

Carey is an academic and scholar. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Western Sydney and currently teaches creative non-fiction writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is steeped in Stow’s oeuvre. But Moving Among Strangers remains a deeply felt and personal response to Stow as a man, and to his work. As she explains at the outset:

this book is not a biography. Neither is it a work of literary analysis or scholarly enquiry. It is more like a ‘mostly private letter’, to use Stow’s phrase, written out of curiosity, and tenderness towards a man whom I have come to think of as an almost-relative, a dear friend of my mother’s, and the ideal literary mentor.

Stow, like so many writers and artists of the twentieth century, strove to convey the shape and vitality of silence. He struggled with the paradoxical nature of language, with the idea that there are too many words and yet these words lack the capacity to express the writer’s intent. He sought to overcome what he saw as the restrictive barrier of language to silent communication by attempting to ‘counterfeit’ or make the closest of copies of ‘the communication of those who communicate by silence’. His volume of poetry titled, somewhat ironically, Counterfeit Silence was published in 1969. Poems such as ‘Ishmael’, ‘Persephone’, ‘Penelope’ and ‘Enkidu’ allow what is not said to be communicated because they are, in Stow’s words, ‘very personal, each one addressed to a particular person, and talking about my relationship with that person’.

These poems and this form of address were his ‘mostly private letter[s]’. Counterfeit Silence includes the sequence ‘from The Testament of Tourmaline’, published by an exasperated Stow as a mode of explanation to his continually unwitting critics. Number ‘XVI’ reads, in part:

Silence is water.
All things are stirring,
all things are flowering,
rooted in silence.

Silence is empire.
Tao is eternal,
flowering, returning,
with water, with silence.

Arguably Tourmaline (1963) is Stow’s most silent novel. In that work, Tom Spring’s quiet Taoist philosophy of inaction and silence is offered as the contemplative alternative to Michael Random’s aggressive Christianity. It is Tom Spring and his friend Dave Speed who counsel the narrator, the Law, that ‘Words are no good. Words are crap. Throw ’em away and think.’

Carey appreciates Stow’s drive towards silence, but her ‘mostly private letter’ affirms her faith in the ability of well-structured words to make sense of experience. Throughout her work, Carey muses on the act and art of writing. In Waiting Room, she states:

I need to find a way to tell my story. If I’m not allowed to put the pieces together in some kind of pattern, I feel lost … Telling the story is my way of making a pattern. It’s the only way I can make sense of things.

In ‘A Reluctant Novice’, from So Many Selves (2006), she contemplated, via James Joyce, the relationship of the body to writing – the possible connection between writing and sex – before citing Jacques Derrida’s suggestion that ‘all writing is a search for forgiveness’. And in Moving Among Strangers, she explains that no one is left to answer the many questions she has about her parents’ lives:

Everyone involved – my grandparents, my mother, my father, my sister, Stow – are all dead and silent.  So I am compelled, as Atwood says, to attempt that risky trip to the Underworld in an effort to bring something or someone back.  The only way down is via imagination.

The only response to the losses she has suffered and the connections she now finds is to take control of, and rewrite, her (extended) family narrative.

Carey is surprised and delighted to discover that Stow was intimately connected with both sides of her family. His father played tennis with her paternal grandparents. His maternal grandfather went to school with her great uncle. As a sixteen-year-old, Stow picked grapes for her maternal grandfather. The friendship between Stow and Joan is strongly established, but Carey weaves a more imaginative connection between her father Alex and Randolph Stow. The two men remain separate, and yet on some deeper level merge in a kind of uncanny twin relationship. Carey travels through, and immerses herself in, Stow country – ‘immense openness threatened by its very emptiness’ – as a means of understanding the writer more deeply. This geographical and metaphysical Stow country is also Alex Carey country: if she travels through this country, perhaps she will come to know both men better, perhaps her persistent questions about her father and his death will be answered. She visits the childhood farm Alex refused to inherit, choosing instead a life of the mind in London and then Sydney, and ponders how the death of his seven-year-old twin brother may have bred a sense of loss and a melancholy that could never be assuaged. The story of Alex’s revulsion at having to kill animals is mirrored in the citation of Stow’s poem ‘Country Children’.

The real point of connection between the two men, however, is through the contemplation and act of suicide.  On her website Carey notes:

Moving Among Strangers returns to the story of Alex Carey, first told in my 1992 book In My Father’s House.

Randolph Stow and my father first crossed paths in Geraldton, the small Western Australian town where both men grew up. Both men rejected their colonial family heritage and both travelled to England to begin academic careers. While Stow retreated to rural Suffolk ‘to rusticate’ and write fiction, my father returned to Australia, and to the life as an academic and an activist. The final point of common ground for these two talented men from rural Australia was a suicidal impulse. Where Stow fortunately failed, my father succeeded.

Alex Carey hanged himself the day before Gabrielle arrived home from Mexico, hoping to introduce him to her infant daughter. Years later, Carey and her siblings fear the possibility that Joan may choose to euthanise herself prior to her scheduled but unwanted brain surgery. Suicide is of course a recurring preoccupation throughout Stow’s work and – as Carey suggests with a respectfully light touch – his life. She cites Stow’s comments on Conrad and suicide. When asked in interview whether he believed that ‘knowing something of the life and personality of an artist can help to understand his work’, Stow responded:

I think one does need to know a great deal – well, a certain amount, anyway, about an author’s life … and not only what he chooses to have known …  For instance, it wasn’t known until quite recently that he [Conrad] had tried to commit suicide as a young man.  I must say that is obviously something one needs to know.

Did the reclusive Stow want readers to understand the facts of his life more fully? Would our reading experience alter greatly if we knew more of the real events and places that informed Stow’s imaginative processes? The answer to both questions is yes and no. Carey’s account of C.Y. O’Connor’s failed attempt to pipe water three hundred miles from the Darling Range to the Coolgardie reservoir offers fresh, interesting perspectives on the character of Michael Random in Tourmaline. Her identification of Ellendale pool and her confirmation that Byron died in the bed of Stow’s ancestor, and various other moments where Stow’s prose reflects real events and places, demonstrate that Stow drew imaginatively on his immediate environment. No real surprises here, given that Stow himself admitted to being ‘a quite fanatical realist’, by which he meant that he needed to be ‘exact about things’.  It was social realism he rejected.

For all the importance of the vast West Australian landscape – or that of Papua New Guinea or Suffolk – Stow always affirmed that the ‘environment of a writer is as much inside him as in what he observes’. The ways in which Carey emphasises the fluid relationship between Stow’s geographical country and his country of the mind, signals a way of reading Stow that bypasses the paralysing debates among critics about the supposed clash between symbolism and realism in his work. In Stow’s writing, real and imagined events, real and symbolic signs, are not separate, divisible categories. In ‘Raw Material’, published in Westerly in 1978, Stow explains that

the boundary between an individual and his environment is not his skin. It is the point where mind verges on the pure essence of him, that unchanging observer that for want of a better term we must call the soul. The external factors, geographical and sociological, are so mingled with his ways of seeing and states of mind that he may find it impossible to say what he means by his environment, except in the most personal and introspective terms.

In 1966, Stow left Australia to settle permanently in England. When Carey asks Fay Zwicky why Stow may have felt he needed to go into self-exile, Zwicky replies curiously that ‘the trouble with Australia … is that you have to explain yourself’. Carey is not exactly sure what Zwicky means, but she poses an interesting and important question: ‘Is there something specifically Australian … about always being on the defensive?’

Unsurprisingly, Stow continues to elude Carey’s attempts to capture him in print. She concedes that, despite her research, Stow remains as mysterious as ever. Yet Moving Among Strangers offers a fuller, more humanised portrait of Stow, particularly of ‘Mick’ Stow, than has previously been available. Most poignantly, Carey paints a picture of Stow’s Harwich life. Here the suggestions that Stow was a reclusive alcoholic are laid to rest with stories of his interactions with his village neighbours: his discussions about Papua New Guinea; his ready translation from German of a long, complicated email enquiry for his local bookshop; his collaboration with ‘Georgetta, Martin, Peter and Rebecca’ over the Guardian cyptic crossword in the Stingray pub. We will discover more about Julian Randolph Stow in the coming years when Roger Averill, his authorised biographer, publishes his work. Averill put his biography of Stow on hold to write the moving memoir Exile: The Lives and Hopes of Werner Pelz (2012). Suzanne Falkiner, meanwhile, is currently writing her biography of Stow.

Carey’s ‘infatuation’ with Stow is the catalyst for her attendance at his memorial service at the University of Western Australia. On that trip, she reconnects with her long lost cousins and aunt. So Stow is instrumental in restoring her to a sense of family and belonging. After 40 years, her family are no longer strangers. Through this reconciliation Carey experiences a kind of homecoming:

My motive, at the beginning, wasn’t so much to bring Stow back from the dead but to bring back my mother. Now, miraculously, it seemed that I had managed, without my intention, to rejoin almost the entire Carey family, who’d been gone from me for decades.

 

Moving Among Strangers also enacts a literary homecoming, reminiscent of the kind described by Stow in his 2009 letter to Susan Smith: ‘the act of writing, because of the concentration of attention and observation which precedes the act, is a kind of settling-in, a kind of pioneering, in some circumstances a kind of homecoming.’  Carey has been writing about death and its rituals since the publication of In My Father’s House (1992). Her intention to call back the voices of the dead, is signaled in her second epigraph, C.P. Cavafy’s ‘Voices’:

Ideal and loved voices
of the dead, or of those
lost to us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes the brain hears them in thought.

And, for one moment, with their sounds,
sounds come back from the first poetry of our lives –
like music at night, remote, fading away.

When Carey invited Stow to contribute to the Penguin Book of Death (2007), which she co-edited with Rosemary Sorensen, he baulked at the offer. He was unable to handle ‘such a big subject’. Carey, in contrast, is driven to explore the subject of death. Throughout Moving Among Strangers, Carey writes about the deaths of her father, her mother and Stow, but there is one further death, she needs to mark and to mourn – that of her elder sister Catherine, who died in 2011. The final moments of the narrative, titled ‘Last Drinks’, confront Cathy’s death and final wishes, and assert the ongoing power and presence of the dead to shape our lives.

By a literary homecoming I mean that Moving Among Strangers, while traversing new territory, also returns to the pain and loss articulated in In My Father’s House, So Many Selves and Waiting Room. At the conclusion of this new work, however, there is a notable sense of peace, healing and love. The title of the book is taken from Stow’s novel The Girl Green as Elderflower (1980) and cited as the first epigraph:

Truly there is in the world nothing so strange, so fathomless as love. Our home is not here, it is in Heaven; our time is not now, it is eternity; we are here as shipwrecked mariners on an island, moving among strangers, darkly. Why should we love these shadows, which will be gone at first light? It is because in exile we grieve for one another, it is because we remember the same home, it is because we remember the same father, that there is love in our island.

In ‘A Death-Denying Circus’, Carey’s contribution to the Penguin Book of Death, she celebrates the Mexican Day of the Dead and the way in which ‘something beautiful … an altar of flowers, food and drink … a few treasured things of life’ is offered to those who have died.  She writes of wanting to erect an altar as a ‘tangible statement of remembrance’ for her father and laments the paucity of rituals to mourn the dead in secular Australian society. Moving Among Strangers is a gentle, beautiful piece of writing that, read alone or together with Carey’s earlier works, operates as a tangible statement of remembrance and love for her family, and for Randolph ‘Mick’ Stow.

References

Roger Averill,  Exile: The Lives and Hopes of Werner Pelz (Transit Lounge, 2012).
John Beston, ‘An Interview with Randolph Stow,’ World Literature Written in English 14.1 (April 1975).
Inga Clendinnen, Tiger’s Eye: A Memoir (Text Publishing, 2000).
Gabrielle Carey,  In My Father’s House (Macmillan, 1992).
⎯. So Many Selves (ABC Books, 2006).
⎯. Waiting Room: A Memoir (Scribe, 2009).
Gabrielle Carey and Rosemary Sorensen (editors), The Penguin Book of Death (Penguin, 1997).
Anthony Hassall, ‘Interview with Randolph Stow,’ Australian Literary Studies, 10.3 (May 1982).
Randolph Stow, A Haunted Land (MacDonald, 1956).
⎯. The Bystander (MacDonald, 1957).
⎯. Act One: Poems (MacDonald, 1957).
⎯. Tourmaline (MacDonald, 1963).
⎯. A Counterfeit Silence: Selected Poems (Angus and Robertson, 1969).
⎯. Raw Material, Westerly, 21 (1978).
⎯. The Girl Green as Elderflower. New York: Viking, 1980.
Anne Summers, The Lost Mother: A Story of Art and Love (Melbourne University Press, 2009).
Susan Wyndham (editor), My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent (Allen & Unwin, 2013).