Review: Susan Leveron John A. Scott

Artists against fascism: N by John A. Scott

John Scott’s previous novel, Warra Warra (2003), was a ghost story in which the people of an Australian country town were gradually displaced by the dead from an airliner crash. It was possible to enjoy its suspense and horror without recognising it as an allegory of the displacement of Aboriginal people – David Mesher has explicated the parallels and, indeed, the absence of any Aboriginal characters in the town and the Britishness of the ghosts suggest that he is right. Scott’s new novel, N, is longer and more ambitious than any of his previous works, but it develops the interest in the parallel possibilities of Australian history that is evident in Warra Warra. In this case, it is Australia’s experience of the Second World War.

Many readers will be familiar with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947), written while the Second World War was in progress. There, the book’s co-authors, Marjorie Barnard and Florence Eldershaw, imagine a future Australia defeated by the Japanese, with pioneering patriots heading out into the desert to establish a new society. They were, of course, hoping that Australia might become a better society after the war, and they imagined a ‘utopian’ society of the future looking back on the humble ways of ordinary Australians of the past. In the Notes to N, Scott tells us that he has ‘written over’ Erle Cox’s forgotten novel Fool’s Harvest (1939) to imagine the invasion of Sydney, and that he has treated other fictional imaginings of the invasion of Australia, presumably including Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, as ‘non-fictional (historical) texts’. His novel layers fiction upon fiction, though somewhere, deep below the surface, there is a nugget of historical fact.

From August to October 1941, the Australian government was in crisis, with the Country Party’s Arthur Fadden taking over as Prime Minister after the forced resignation of Robert Menzies from the leadership of the United Australia Party. Two independents, Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles, held the balance of power and, in October, they voted against supply to Fadden’s government. It was only the intervention of the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, that secured a seamless transfer of power to the Labor Party by convincing the independents to support John Curtin. Curtin was not elected to his legendary position as Australia’s wartime leader.

Scott considers the possibilities of this forgotten constitutional crisis. What if one of the independents had died before the confidence vote in Curtin and an Emergency Government, ready to surrender to the Japanese for commercial advantage, had been set up? What if the Japanese had taken the next step and mounted a full attack on Sydney, so that Sydney experienced the wartime travails of Singapore? It is not so far-fetched, and Scott’s speculations are supported by elements of recent Australian political history – a government relying on independent members to continue in power, a powerful business class willing to risk Australian lives for profit, a public with no sympathy for refugees from wars where Australia is participating.

N draws on a range of accounts and fictions about the War to create its speculative version of the years from September 1941 to May 1945, with a brief afterword from October 2001 that lets us know the kind of government Australians experience in the twenty-first century. The novel shifts from third person narrative to the voices of several characters: principally Missy Cunningham, the de facto wife of the Social Realist artist Roy Cunningham, and Robin Telford, a Public Servant working for the inner circle of the Emergency Government. These two voices represent the two main aspects of Australian society that absorb Scott’s attention – the group of anti-fascist artists living in Melbourne, and the machinations of the Vichy-style government of Warren Mahony, directing events from Mount Macedon. Art and politics are the two focuses of the novel, though there are digressions to observe the front line, the treatment of prisoners of the Japanese, and some strange experiments in the outback.

At the beginning at least, the novel moves at a fast pace, shifting from one character to another and drawing on the reader’s knowledge of some of the models for its fiction. Albie Henningsen, the ghost writer for Frank Clune and an ardent proponent of accommodation of the Japanese, is clearly a version of P. R. Stephensen. The artists, Vic Turner, Leon Mischka and Roy Cunningham,  frequent Nibbi’s Leonardo Art bookshop in Little Collins Street and mix in Melbourne’s Bohemia with real figures such as David Strachan, Sam Atyeo and Gino Nibbi. They are all members of the Contemporary Art Society in the same circle as Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Russell Drysdale. Reginald Thomas, a fictional minor novelist and playwright, also figures in the narrative as he begins to experience visions of the future and becomes suspect under the new Emergency laws.

The plausibility of this wartime situation drives the novel in its first sections, as the narrative shifts from scenes among the artists, to the bombing of Darwin, to Missy’s account from the domestic edge of the art world. Her husband develops tuberculosis and is institutionalised; Turner, running from his love for Missy, finds himself with Mischka at Tocumwal army camp as part of the Defence Forces. Henningsen risks all in a public meeting where he declares that Australia should recall the AIF, declare national independence from Britain and conclude a separate peace with Japan. In no time, he is incarcerated.

Scott offers a virtuoso demonstration of different genres – Missy’s first person accounts, Turner’s Tocumwal diaries, excerpts from Hansard, newspaper clippings, intelligence files, Henningsen’s desperate letters from prison, extracts from Thomas’s plays. Each section is brief and often in an appropriate typeface. Yet each is carefully written; Scott clearly loves the precise, controlled English of an earlier generation – even Missy always writes in a formal style, usually referring to her son as ‘the boy’. He gives a succinct account of the panic as the Japanese attack Sydney and the consequent stream of refugees to the south. Mahony, as new wartime leader, announces that 27 July 1942 ‘will surely go down in history as the darkest hour of our great Nation’, telling the people that Curtin, most of the Labor opposition and other politicians have fled to New Zealand.

At this point, the novel moves into dystopian speculation about the Japanese occupation and the treacherous Emergency Government. Turner travels north to find the fighting is at a stalemate, with both sides dug in somewhere in the Riverina. Missy’s brother, the patriotic army officer John Menadue, provides some insight into the overseas war, and eventually deserts to become a guerrilla in the Australian countryside. Turner is captured and forced to endure privations similar to those on the Thai-Burma railway line. Missy, left alone with her son in Melbourne, observes the repression directed at artists – one of the first acts of the government is to wall in the area of Melbourne where the artists hang out, creating a ghetto.


N is a sprawling, inventive, engaging novel that draws in a large cast of characters and a major national crisis. But by its mid-point it appears to have left its author’s control. Missy’s position in Melbourne gives her no vantage point to add much to the national narrative, and her menfolk have dispersed to incarcerations of various kinds. All of them – Thomas, Henningsen, Turner, Cunningham, Menadue – have little means of knowing what is going on in their immediate vicinity, let alone the nation or the wider world. A new voice, that of Robin Telford, assistant to the Secretary of the War Cabinet, takes the stage and he increasingly dominates the book. Despite his proximity to power, Telford has little grasp on national events until he is approached by the widow of Norman Cole, the dead independent, to investigate Cole’s death. He spends most of the later part of the novel searching missing files, riffling through documents, and occasionally visiting some of the other characters, such as the visionary Thomas, now kept in appalling deprivation in an institution for the insane.

The novel moves towards the detective or thriller genre. The problem is that, by this point, the Japanese have taken over most of the nation. The disposal of Cole to ensure their easy access to Australia seems a minor issue, given the crisis that ensues. Even after he has the facts, Telford is in no position to bring any justice to bear on the situation – the only resolution can be the defeat of Japan by the United States forces, which duly occurs. So the novel seems to be pursuing a pointless narrative trail.

Scott’s very inventiveness, the way he finds prolific possibilities in every situation, and his love for ‘writing over’ the literature of the past – Swift, Sterne, Joyce and Poe are specifically invoked – means that the novel moves in many directions at once, until it comes to rest on Telford’s rather stilted and silly accounts of his wanderings in a tunnel below the Prime Minister’s house in Mount Macedon. Telford describes it himself: ‘a garish tale limned by a scribbler in pompous style’. Like Telford entering the world behind his mirror, Scott seems to enter a labyrinth of stories, all apparently equally interesting to him, though not equally revealing to readers – and too many of them are dead ends. In one section, Missy’s son Ross speaks for the first time, suddenly taking us into what seems to be a brilliant pastiche of Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850). Ross is never heard from again. The most recent issue of Southerly contains a 45-page story, ‘André Breton in Melbourne (1942)’ which, Scott tells us, was originally part of the manuscript of this novel. This, too, is engaging and witty fiction that demonstrates the author’s ability to imitate other writers and invoke their philosophy. Though it is more playfully surrealist than the published novel, it also includes incarceration and a journey through a labyrinthine underworld. It is a relief that Scott excised it from the novel. There are many more sections that might have gone the same way.

While it is voluminous, N is not encyclopaedic, and the absences in its vision of Australia in surrender become more obvious as the novel progresses. It offers us an exciting glimpse of the attack on Sydney from the perspective of a journalist called Walter Burton, but no other encounter with the battle front, and Burton never appears again in the novel. Its focus on Melbourne means that it can give little account of Australia under occupation, though it summarises horrendous details of rape and murder in the north, based on accounts of the fall of Nanking. Vic Turner and the other captured Australian soldiers suffer the deprivations that Richard Flanagan made the central scenes of his recent The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013), but Scott merely touches on these – perhaps thinking them familiar to most Australians, or a horrific reality too far for a hyperfiction.

Barnard Eldershaw’s interest in the lives of working Australian people is nowhere here: N is about the artistic and the political classes, not the working class. The fascism of the Emergency Government is most evident in its repression of artistic life, beginning with the compiling of a register of artists, poets and writers of fiction, and dissenting intellectuals. There is no hint that the Australians of the suburbs or working city are suffering similar deprivations of liberty and material benefit.

Scott conveys the decadence and cruelty of the Mahony regime through some grotesque ‘national’ spectacles. To entertain his Japanese guests and an apparently blood-hungry Melbourne public, Mahony commissions a re-enactment of the Gallipoli landing to be performed in the Melbourne Cricket Ground before the running of the Melbourne Cup (also at the MCG):

Given the gargantuan task of constructing the battle-site, the fighting was over remarkably quickly. That the Australians were using live ammunition in their rifles proved a decisive factor in the outcome; the Turks, piteously firing off blank after blank, found themselves overrun in little more time than it took to scale the cliff-face. Indeed the scoreboard, which had been given over to record the numbers of the dead on either side, was hard-pressed to keep up its tally of the enemy. ANZAC losses were light, with most casualties resulting from the collapse of part of the papier-maché cliff-top during an impromptu attempt to plant the Australian flag. The success of the Australian attack did guarantee however there would be ample time for lunch before the running of the Cup, at two.

The horse race, though, becomes apocalyptic with four horses taking to the air, and the Prime Minister suffering premonitions of the world’s end. A few pages later, Telford tells us about another symbolic spectacle orchestrated by Mahony – this time a boxing match in the ballroom of his grand Mount Macedon house between an Australian private and a red kangaroo. The kangaroo kills the soldier and, in the second bout, a Japanese soldier kills the kangaroo. These scenes are set-pieces, symbolic tableaux rather than integral parts of a narrative; they have no apparent consequences.

Readers may be familiar with this kind of satirical, speculative, symbolic fiction that claims to offer political insight into actual national experience. The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez set writers on this path and others, such as Salman Rushdie, have demonstrated its application to the madness of repressive regimes across the world.  David Brooks invokes Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) in his back-cover comments on this book. In Australia, Rodney Hall attempted something similar with his novel, Kisses of the Enemy (1987), another bloated dystopian vision of an Australian fascist government. Speculative fictions can be both satirically entertaining and politically insightful, even lethal in their effects on a real world. But the political base for such fantastic treatments needs to be secure before the invention takes off.  Scott offers a narrow political perspective where the greatest crime is the repression of art and artists. In N he proposes that artists are at the frontline of political freedom. Lock them up (even lunatics like Henningsen), and a nation is in trouble.

The conviction that political events exist primarily as material for art is stated blatantly in the first pages of the novel when Vic Turner visits the ship, Ville de Nancy, which is full of refugee children from Europe and has been turned back by Australia. Turner draws the ship and the children peering over its side, aware of their impending fate. But his excitement comes from finding a subject:

He will paint this ragged ship. He will paint the darkened faces. He will paint the rust; and the red of it shall be his never-ending accusation. And he sees that moment how the painting will be the measure of meaning, the act against which his life will be measured, irrational and doubt-ridden though his attempts might appear. Such that, on his very death bed, should he find someone close to him, a voice whispering, What does it mean? What is the answer? his one reply, inescapably, will be that single, fierce imperative—Paint!

Here ‘Paint!’ and Turner’s urgent search for the precise colour of the rust can only appear a self-indulgent and futile response to cruelty and injustice. In a discussion with Mischka, Turner admits that he envies the oppression of others because it gives them the authority to create. Scott, too, may be suffering from oppression-envy – he needs to invent urgent times as the subject for his art. His ‘Artists Against Fascism’ represent an incipient modernism allied with communism that was suppressed in Australia, denounced in the novel by Mahony’s Minister for Culture for ‘degenerate images [that] suggest only weakness and an escape into the world of dreams’, but Scott’s version of them makes them distant from any political solidarity with workers, let alone international justice.

It is obvious that the fate of the Ville de Nancy and Australians’ support for the deportation of refugees also refer to the current attitude of Australians to asylum seekers. In case we miss it, Scott ends his novel with an Afterword recounting a version of the Children Overboard incident of 2001 and the contemporary Prime Minister’s response, including his belief that the alliance with America will mean that ‘Together they will rule for a thousand years’. So the novel ends with a clear political statement about current Australia and its relationship to American imperialism.

Scott, like his Artists Against Fascism, takes a political stand. Yet the priorities of the novel are artistic rather than political. It is a novel about art-making, particularly reading, storytelling and imaginative invention. As well as the artists, the novel is full of writers, some apparently vying with Scott to create the fantastic elements of the narrative: Thomas cannot keep from envisioning events in government; Henningsen imagines an inland sea and a ship, another Nancy, for Burke and Wills to sail on; a character call Wood-Conroy seems to be manipulating political events from deep inside government intelligence; Mahony believes that his autobiography is needed to establish his legend. Then there are the literary models underlying Scott’s narrative: for a while Poe’s ‘Purloined Letter’ takes over Telford’s account. Missy’s voice is refreshingly ordinary and domestic – but she is only a woman and not even an artist, let alone an intellectual. When it is revealed that her name is Hannah, it is difficult not to feel that Scott has diminished her deliberately by giving her a childish pet name.

Perhaps, this is no more than the exasperation of a reader coming to the conclusion of a long novel, full of virtuoso writing and some brilliant ideas, only to find that it ends in obvious, even easy, political comment. Scott writes with a seemingly effortless command of language, and his knowledge of literature and Australian cultural history is immense. His debunking of national mythologies about selfless Australian participation in the two World Wars is an important counter to the current national self-congratulation and complacency about the past. Certainly, his speculation that, if a threat such as the Japanese invasion arose in our present nation, the Australian public and its politicians might well capitulate for commercial advantage gives pause for thought.

Yet Scott’s very inventiveness tempts him away from the issue at hand, so that the layers of literary parody and reference become important for themselves. As Thomas tells Telford: ‘You won’t find the evidence you need in a work of the imagination’. But you can find stimulating ideas that bear on the evidence. N has some marvellous ideas, but too much interest in other literary possibilities to give them a chance. Philip Roth’s more modest speculation about an anti-Semitic Second World War America in The Plot Against America (2004) shows how speculation about just one historical alternative – in his novel, the election of Charles Lindbergh rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt as U.S. President – can be enough to create a frighteningly plausible world. Roth, of course, chooses a more domestic and realist focus for his novel. Scott sees too many alternative possibilities, too many fantasies, too many narrative layers, to keep us convinced.