Review: Sophie Cunninghamon Frank Moorhouse

Odd Fish: Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light

I have returned to Cold Light, the third novel in the Edith Trilogy by Frank Moorhouse, time and time again. One of my reasons for going back to it is, as is often the case with writers, self-interest. I am currently writing a novel about Leonard Woolf and Woolf was, like Edith Campbell Berry, an odd fish. A bureaucrat of sorts, committed to public service. A man who could be both cruel and deeply romantic, and, while not as queer as Edith, he certainly surrounded himself with queer acquaintances, living the life of a Bloomsbury man, a man who was in, to quote a phrase oft-used by Edith, in a Bloomsbury Marriage. In the current draft of my novel a fictional character called Bella jots various scenes of a novel she is writing down on 3 x 5 inch cards. It was no surprise to me, really, when researching this lecture, that I discovered Frank Moorhouse carries 3 x 5 inch cards everywhere he goes, in a leather custom made wallet.

Like Edith, Leonard could be boring and pompous. Extravagantly so. Neither Edith, nor my fictional Leonard are ‘likeable’ exactly, much as I adore them both, and I’m of the view that likeable characters sound a death knell for fiction. Leonard and Edith have a passion, an intensity, an attention to detail, what you might term a nerdery, that is richly characterful and one of Cold Light’s great qualities is the way in which its characters are given to enthusiasms. Moorhouse himself has said that ‘the beauty of being a writer is that we play many parts’. He continues:

I remember thinking, yes, of course there’s a lot of me in Ambrose but there’s a lot of me in the secretary-general of the League of Nations. And there’s a lot of me in T. G. McDowell.

Cold Light was the first of the Edith books that I read, after which I went back to the beginning and read Grand Days then Dark Palace.  This is part of my delight in Cold Light, I’m sure: the novel where I fell in love with the voice already familiar to readers of the first two novels. Love at first read.

I read Cold Light when I was one of a group judging the Barbara Jefferis Award. That award is for ‘the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society’. It was unusual to have a book written by a man entered into the award, though certainly not against the rules. Once read there was no doubt in my mind that Edith Campbell Berry was one of the great heroines in Australian literature. I never found myself thinking ‘a woman wouldn’t do that’. Never was forced to step outside my experience of the novel, as it were, to remind myself Edith had been written by a man.

One of the things that makes her so magnificent is how flawed her judgement can be. I’d make the same observation about her on-again off-again lover, her partner in life’s adventures, the aforementioned Ambrose. But while we don’t always know whether to trust Edith or her choices she is always quite self-aware. For example, towards the end of the novel there is the suggestion that she, as a seventy-year-old woman who is on a work trip with a forty-year-old man  with whom she shares many a hotel, has became quite delusional about her sexual powers.

‘She opened the door. “I was preparing for bed. You wanted something?”

For an instant, their eyes met with what she was absolutely sure was desire – unmistakably desire.’

Edith and Ian first appeared in Morohouse’s discontinuous narrative, Forty/Seventeen, in 1988. In that book we find the same scene, written from Ian’s point of view, and what Ian remembers is that ‘their eyes had met with fleeting, hopelessly inappropriate carnal intent.’ The point being that Edith is not as wrong as often as we think she is.

What Cold Light nails is voice and voice’s deeper relationship to themes and structure. The novel follows in the tradition of the grand Victorian novel. Performed realism that takes place in a chronologically consecutive fashion. There is great commitment to chronicling every detail of our protagonist’s life, which means that, like any good Victorian novel, it’s baggy. Constructed as a series of large set pieces with details being built on, embroidered over and over. (These set pieces can also be read, as Elizabeth Webby has commented, as an extension of Moorhouse’s interest in discontinuous narrative.)  Consciously a historical relic, you might say, the novel’s interest —or should I say one of its many interests — is an understanding of history and the way history is constructed. The way in which personal and public histories come together. How those things have made Australia, for better or worse, the place that it is today.

As a former publisher and editor (though never of Moorhouse) I enjoyed Frank’s description of pitching the novel to his editor:

For a while after Dark Palace I thought that Edith’s life ended with the collapse of the League of Nations. She had come through this great disaster in human vision—what some saw as the greatest diplomatic embarrassment of the 20th century. . . Edith flees back to Australia to find herself. I became excited and went to Jane Palfreyman, my then editor at Random House, and said, ‘the third novel is set in Canberra in the 1950s’. She looked at me and said, ‘do you have a stronger pitch than that?’

So: Cold Light is set in Canberra, in the 1950s. Edith works for Robert Menzies (a man who, say what you will about him, loves a good martini). There were many notable moments in Menzies’ long hold on power, including forming the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in 1953, and the setting up of the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights (which began operation on 26 January 1958). The Maralinga tests took place during his time in office. In Edith’s later years she becomes an advocate for the use of uranium.

It was important to me, the reader, and indeed me, the writer, that Edith makes choices that by today’s standards can seem perverse. This is not a dinner party where, what Moorhouse himself has called ‘a ritual cursing’, takes place of anyone who does not toe a party line. This is a reference to a short story Moorhouse once wrote where ‘one of the dominant guests begins the evening with a curse against an enemy.’ He observed that everyone was then invited to extend the curse ‘or give bad news of the enemy.’ Moorhouse is against such ritual. There is, I assume, an irony that it is that great advocate for Women’s Lib, Gough Whitlam, who signs Edith’s death warrant, albeit accidentally, when he recognises Edith’s extraordinary skills, and sends her out onto the world stage. Moorhouse is not interested in enemies other than the enemy within.

The conservative complexity of the times provides rich fodder. Structural repression, if you like. These were decades when married women could only be ‘temporary’ employees, restricting their promotion opportunities (only permanent staff could be in a supervisory position). Being a temporary employee also restricted the ability of married women to accumulate superannuation and meant that they were the first to be targeted for redundancy. Changes were recommended by the Boyer Committee in 1958, although it took another eight years before they were accepted. The only way Edith could refuse the diminishment inherent in being a married woman in these years, was through performance: a performance of self supported by carefully chosen outfits, furniture, potted cumquats and business cards. A refusal to accept her station if you like. Furniture provides form. Structure. To a life. To a self. To, you could argue, a novel.

She wrote immediately to . . . Fred Ward, in Melbourne, asking him to quote on the design and making of an office chair; two desks – a major and a minor desk; two visitor chairs and a bookcase. In her notes to him she suggested designs that she had seen in the Sydney magazines. Best to be Australian she thought. . . From Frances Burke, on recommendation of Ward, she ordered a Bakelite glass and metal table lamp, which had style but which would say sternly, ‘Serious late-night tasks and serious thinking are done here.’

As the years go on, while Edith finds herself in tiny offices that are an embarrassment of sorts, she also moves to the same corridor as the Prime Minister. Through a slight of geography she becomes a senior advisor. Never correctly titled, but, increasingly, feared and revered. No one quite knew what she did, or how she did it, and in that mysterious and private space, Edith carved out a professional life for herself. She knew what all women know: you are not born entitled. Power will not fall in your lap. You must grasp it.

Structural misogyny is just one of the obstacles that our heroine must overcome on her life journey and I’d argue the emotional arc of Edith’s life over the three novels of the trilogy echoes the shape of creative process: taking risks with a strong sense of what the rewards might be and a clear sense of purpose, then moving into a period of disillusionment and the abandonment of hope, before discipline and a healthy dose of realism take over. In this final stage the author (of the novel, of a life, of a city) narrows their scope and does their utmost to pull something together. You imagine a jewel; you end up with a stone. You polish it anyway.

I suppose you could argue that narrative form in general follows this arc, but the subject of idealism is something that Edith returns to time and time again. And in this novel Edith Campbell Berry finds herself in a city that is still a work in progress. For Canberra in 1950, the year Edith arrives, is not much more than a set of unrealised plans, some under drafted scenes. Canberra, like Edith, was interested in being both connected to the international world, and celebrating the local.  Edith saw Canberra as, potentially, a world exemplar. She saw herself, too, as such an exemplar.

The original architects of Canberra, Walter and Marion Griffin, were great idealists, deeply philosophical, and Marion was an outstanding watercolourist. The plans are a work of art in themselves, making the gap between them, and their realisation, all the greater. It seems to me no surprise that these initial drawings evoke some of the topography we see in Indigenous art: landscapes imagined from a bird’s eye view, long before air travel was common. Edith imagines Marion Griffin, doing her original watercolours for the Canberra, capital of a land she’d never seen, from a studio in snowbound Chicago. It is, it must be said, some kind of miracle.  Her husband Walter was similarly visionary: ‘I have planned a city not like any other city in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any governmental authorities in the world would accept I have planned an ideal city – a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.’ (New York Times, 1912)

Edith responds to this serious intent, sensed if not fully understood, in a conversation with the man who would be her first boss in Canberra:

Gibson then adopted a professional, lecturing tone. ‘Griffin believed in what he called “the order of the site” – that the plan should respond to the nature of the site; hills and so on. And then talked about “the complementary order of function” – some bending of the natural setting to human requirement.’

Severe simplicity. She turned over the sheets. ‘The free-flowing with the severely shaped.’ If she were to describe her own aesthetic it might be that.’

Gibson and Edith go on to argue about the lake, that unrealised, empty centre of the plans. Gibson believes the lake won’t happen. He also believes Griffin’s plans need more spires and verticals. All those soft, round suburbs, sitting at the end of axis, are too much for him.

Edith makes it her personal mission to ensure that the lake is completed: that moist wet centre between Mt Ainslie and Black Mountain. With the fictional Edith’s help, the construction of Lake Burley Griffin, as depicted in the original design for Canberra, began on 10 October 1957.

Canberra is a sexually ambiguous city. When a friend of mine was designing a public building for the city, a cleft nestled into two hills, we jokingly called it the vagina, a jest that was more accurate than we realised at the time. Not a city of phallic symbols but their opposite. This even plays out in discussions regarding the nature of the professional partnership between Walter and Marion. Who was the main designer, Marion or Walter? Phallus or cleft? The name Canberra comes from [kamberri] ngambri, meaning cleavage and describes the space between Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie. ‘Since the Dreamtime, however, Black Mountain and Byalgee have been a woman’s breast. Her womb is Capital Hill.’ (Paul Daley, Meanjin).

The Griffins bring me to the character in the novel I am most challenged by. Scraper, a man who was almost burnt alive in the first world war and is now a mass of knotted skin, a man who lurches through the novel, a demonic personification of war and sexual violence. What are we to make of the deformed war hero who effectively rapes Edith not once, but twice? Scraper’s scenes are so surreal they threaten to strain the novel’s realist tendencies to breaking point. And it is he who talks to Edith about the geomancy at the heart of the Griffin’s plans. The sacred and spiritual meanings encoded into the design. Unrevealed paths, is how Scraper puts it. Paths with unspoken intent. Edith shares this view.

Freud likened the human mind to the city of Rome, with all its traces of past habitation and over building, and alleyways and cellars and lost parts. An old city represented an unconscious mind. We dream of houses and strangely familiar cities and precincts. Does living in a circle or a pentagon or rhomba or square change us?

Form matters. And Canberra had hopes of being a conscious not an unconscious city. But that doesn’t mean that the unconscious did not have its way.

For all that Scraper repulses, Edith agrees with him that there is too much air and space in the original plans. Like Gibson she yearns for more spires. More fire –- though Scraper also believes the arboretum was a coded way of introducing fire into the city’s heart. And so we (and she) will lose Ambrose as she pursues her phallic dreams.

There are so many types of love in Moorhouse’s work. Friendship, sexual, filial. Love of institutions such as the League of Nations, love of  ideas. Edith retains a passionate belief in the idea that groups of people, banding together, can produce change, and a consequent commitment to institutions. ‘She’d realised over the years that she needed an institution as well as a cause. She was not a lone crusader who has a personal cause; she could not thrive without an institution within which to work … ’ Edith’s heart and brain contain multitudes and she struggles, until her dying moment, to contain and marry these multitudes. It  is no surprise that, despite being fired upon in Palestine it is her heart giving out, not a bullet that kills her.

The institution that gets written about in the greatest detail in Cold Light is not so much the Australian parliamentary system – though that gets quite a going over – but the Communist Party.  One of the many plot points that the 1950s, and Robert Menzies, have gifted the novel is his pursuit of that party. On 23 June 1950, the Communist Party Dissolution Bill was passed by parliament. After it was enacted in October, the law was challenged in the High Court and, on 9 March 1951, was held to be unconstitutional. The Court ruled that parliament could not invoke its defence powers to rule an association unlawful when the nation was not at war.  Menzies persisted and called a referendum that year on the same issue. It was opposed by the Communist Party as well as the Australian Labor Party, and thus narrowly defeated. This in turn led to the Australian Labor Party split of 1955 and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party comprising of disaffected ALP members who were concerned about communist influence in Australian unions. We are still feeling the effect of these power moves today, and you could certainly argue that while Menzies didn’t win the battle he won the war – he, like John Howard, was a successful general in the culture wars. Moorhouse has a deep understanding of the long-term ramifications of such political manouvering and brinkmanship. In 1952 Menzies ordered that all Commonwealth Literary Fund applicants be vetted for political conformity giving ASIO, to quote Fiona Capp’s book Writer’s Defiled,  ‘a real power to penalise left wing writers’. The witch-hunt that followed saw writers’ and academics’ ‘freedom to travel affected, career advancement stymied, funding terminated, literature confiscated, or privacy invaded’.

Moorhouse himself became a focus of ASIO’s attentions. His ASIO file notes that at 17 years of age he was part of the ‘communist-dominated’ Labour Club at the University of Sydney and that he had participated in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This was all considered when he was vetted for suitability as a journalist at the ABC.

Edith’s brother Frederick is a senior member of the Communist Party and the novel begins with the siblings’ cautious reunion in the foyer of the Hotel Canberra after decades out of touch. The party defines and raises questions around their relationships from then on: Has Frederick approached Edith in the hope of luring her into the party? Does his girlfriend, Janice, fuel the sexual tension that builds between her and Edith for similar reasons, or is she actually bisexual (and if so, what would the party think about that)? Is Ambrose spying on the lot of them, and passing information back to London? When Stalin died and his crimes became more public members began to leave the party, or, like Frederick, were thrown out when they insisted on a public discussion of the content of the Khrushchev Speech, the speech that first laid bare those crimes. He’s then abandoned by Janice and loses everything. He’s shattered, much as Edith was after the collapse of the League. ‘Over the years, with Janice and Frederick, and in discussions with Ambrose and people at the League, she had come to understand the seductions of a Great Cause for those who wanted an all-embracing all-knowing commitment. The right way to live.’ So, while Moorhouse rejects the idea of a correct or party line, he also has great sympathy for the desire for lines to be drawn, and boundaries to be clear.

It also becomes apparent that through all this a genuine relationship has grown between brother and sister, which, in turn allows Moorhouse to meditate on what family relationships both do and don’t mean, as does an extended sequence where Janice and Frederick visit their parents’ graves together.

As an aside, I love the fact that Frederick eventually leaves Canberra to become a second-hand bookseller in Sydney. Even the smallest of details in this novel seem to me quite perfect. Not everyone agrees with me on this though and here I quote Phil Shannon from the Australian Left Book Review:

Moorhouse’s communists speak in the clichéd jargon of the tedious ideologue (a technique which also equates the native Australian communist with the 1950s Russian Stalinist – two fundamentally different political species) whilst Edith’s middle class intellectuals routinely quote Byron, Shakespeare, H. G. Wells (and Lytton Strachey on Ottoline Morrell) at the drop of a not very convincing hat.

But I’d argue that formal language is one of the qualities of Cold Light. Language is a code. Etiquette is important. The reader a code breaker.

There is a relationship between language, secrets, writers, and sexuality. A relationship that Moorhouse as a bisexual, a writer and political being was more than familiar with. In this scene between Edith and Ambrose – and indeed in many other scenes – these various themes come together.

‘If we are to be hobnobbing with a known Communist Party official, I will have to do something – make a note on some file or other. Inform the King.’

‘He’s your brother-in-law.’

Ambrose paused. He had not quite taken that in. ‘That’s true. How odd.’

She had an insight. ‘Remember, though, that I go by my married name. They may never make the connection.’ She could hide inside the marriage.

… She took his hand and look at his nails, his immaculate nails – no tell-tale traces of varnish from his weekend en femme indulgence, of lolling about the suite in silks and satins and painted nails …

‘Are you still a master spy?’

She knew the question was a waste of time.

‘In the old days I was simply someone who helped his friends with some information to save the Empire. I was never one of the real spies. You know that.’

They had talked about this many many times back then. Had he forgotten that she had searched his apartment and found the hidden-away League papers and the coding book?

She said, ‘Spies always say something like that.’

‘We do.’

The trope of the sexual deviant who is both the surveyor and the surveyed is used in this novel (as it is in many spy dramas), but it also the lot, perhaps, of the writer, the permanent outsider.  Writing a character is the act of living inside another’s skin. A form of cross-dressing. Moorhouse, is, in this sense, like Ambrose, a double agent.

Cold Light is a very queer novel, though I don’t doubt that Edith would consider a label as loaded as that quite absurd. I’m not sure what Moorhouse thinks of the term. His creations are famously libertarian by instinct. Peter Pierce has written of him, ‘He has always been more interested in different, sometimes competing forms of idealism, whether these are embodied in an evangelist for American capitalism or the Rotarian ideals of a mayor in rural NSW.’ Which is all by way of saying that I think of Moorhouse as being deeply interested in morality. In ideas around truth and fairness. And I am assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that he’d reject a label like queer as being faddish.

In various interviews, Moorhouse has described Edith as being a portrait of his mother, and Ambrose being an aspect of himself. I thought of both characters as versions of Frank. Edith representing his more masculine, heterosexual inclinations, and Ambrose his more feminine, queerer self.  Moorhouse is found, like shards of glass, in all his characters. As with many writers, there is a feedback loop – the writer creates his characters and they, in turn, (re)create their author.

Edith’s most deluded fantasy is a yearning for a nuclear family. The notion of a grand passion seems – if I were to psychoanalyse her ­ to be a fantasy, a way of not owning her queerer self. Her affair and then marriage to Richard return Edith, briefly, to the phallus. ‘How elemental this act of penetration was. How it changed her sense of her body and drowned her mind.’  The first sexual encounter between Edith and Richard leads to her dramatic invocation ‘Give me a child’, as well as the musing that ‘Every sexual intercourse was a playlet’, an implicit acknowledgement that sexuality, and gender are always, on one level or another, performative.

Richard has symbolic power. Richard, unlike Ambrose, is a proper man. He is also less complex, less intellectual and uninteresting. Edith initially imagines that her and Richard’s sexuality intimacy is transgressive. Wild in a way that hers and Ambrose’s could never be (despite the use of Jennifer, a state of the art, spring loaded, Viennese dildo). She wears Richard’s dead wife’s bracelet and doesn’t feel a thing. (A bracelet that, significantly, she is forced to return when she meets his children). ‘Passion had its own indifferent conscience’. Moorhouse is brilliant at the telling of brutal truths (or lies experienced as truths). He does not soften blows out of fear that the reader will not like his characters. He is fearless in this. Edith sits, semen running down her legs, wearing a dead woman’s kimono while that women’s widower speaks to his children on the phone and blows her kisses. ‘He seemed guiltlessly entranced by their irreverent sexual play, her violation of his dead wife’s clothing.’ One of the things that draws Edith to Richard is the intense, if brief, break from the rules their first sexual encounter provides. A night of hard, heterosexual – excuse my, and Edith’s language ­ fucking that she imagines will somehow liberate her. A delusion that leads to the total brutality of a phone call to Ambrose and the abrupt ending of their marriage. ‘I am with a man,’ she says. ‘This is not for one night,’ she elaborates.

Edith’s heterosexual fantasy of a nuclear family (uranium and all) is not just a fantasy about having someone inside her, so much as a fantasy of being an insider. Queerness, bisexuality, whatever you want to call it, is aligned with something else. It makes you an outsider. Much as being a communist does.

After the initial rush of the relationship is over Edith finds herself hiding many aspects of herself when in his company. Choosing him over Ambrose is the great romantic tragedy of the novel. Ambrose does not totally abandon Edith – he never could ­­– and, once back in Britain he continues to maintain their connection, sending her items in a diplomatic bag, items that include secret data about the British atomic tests and James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room. What queerness allows Moorhouse to explore, what standing outside looking in makes clear, is that gender is a performance.

Ambrose came from the bedroom to the door of their sitting room, tying his tie. She saw that he had chosen his old school tie, Exeter, something he rarely did. Three-piece, navy pin-stripe suit. Black patent-leather shoes. For reasons she couldn’t find, her eyes filled with tears. It was a very masculine tie … His daily transformation from man-en-femme to a man-of-the-world never ceased to fascinate her. At times it even beguiled her. Sometimes, though, it also still perplexed her. She lived with two people: she lived in a ménage a trois. And one day he would be caught out, and if he were caught out she would also be caught out and revealed as a certain type of woman. And what type of woman was that?’

Furniture and structure, as I mentioned earlier in this essay, are a crucial part of any performance but another is that you don’t let on that your performance is a performance. It was an uninhibited performance that spelt the end of Ambrose’s career in Canberra, when he, as a part of a drag act called ‘The high-heeled commissioners’ performs a ‘Bloomsbury on the Molonglo’. His dancing and outfits are so impressive that he allowed work colleagues a glimpse of his secret self.  And in doing so he lost his power.

Edith becomes increasingly concerned about how Ambrose’s sexuality reflects on her, the potential impact of that on her career (as if being heterosexual woman in Canberra at that time wasn’t a career killer). Edith, it must be said, was not always as courageous as she needed to be. She cared very much about how people perceived her.

The tragedy of the loss of Ambrose, and with him her queerer self, is something that Edith herself acknowledges, instinctively, when she is fired upon in Palestine, and, with only seconds to live, thinks not of Richard, her husband of the last 27 years, but Ambrose.  ‘She was falling backwards in time. She saw a handsome Ambrose in a silk dressing gown, leather slippers, a cravat, sitting on a sofa in their rooms at the Hotel Canberra, a brandy glass in hand. He was smiling. He was about to tell her a secret.’ In this, Edith’s final thought, the entire novel is refracted.

So, what did I discover on this, my most recent reading of Cold Light? Did I get any closer to understanding my attachment to it? I think so. The novel combines form and structure to produce deeper, hidden meanings, much as Griffin’s plans for Canberra did. Moorhouse has created players on a stage that both speaks to the broader political world and the particularities of people’s intimate lives. He is interested in the relationship between people’s public and private lives and engages with the complexity of this. Cold Light’s assertion of the importance of idealism, of bravery, of striving to be your best self, seems all the more important in the current impoverished political climate and will always, always be the best of advice to a writer.

This is an edited version of a lecture given on 12 September 2017 at the University of Sydney. This lecture was part of the Reading Australian Literature series presented by Sydney Ideas.