This New Writing
On Beverley Farmer
by Josephine Rowe
Published October 2020
In A Body of Water (1990), Beverley Farmer chronicles her thoughts on how to reshape her work in favour of a more personal expression. Her early writing now feels foreign to her: ‘Assuming that I want to go on writing the conventional sort of fiction that I have been. Why do I assume that?’ By that stage, she had written three collections of short stories – Snake (1982), Milk (1983), and Home Time (1985) – none ‘conventional’ in any strict sense of the word – and a novella, Alone, which she completed in the late 1960s and was published in 1980.
These works came at the tail end of the heyday of the class of 72 – Peter Carey, Frank Moorhouse, Michael Wilding, and the rest of the booming boy club – who were thrilled and angered by an explosion of possibilities on and off the page: the Tabloid Story, Vietnam, the Dismissal, and so forth. At a remove from the ‘wine and rage’ spirit of the times, Farmer’s early work deals foremost with the inner lives of characters caught in between Australia and Greece, where she lived with her then-husband for a few years in the late 1960s.
What aligns her Greek fiction with that of her contemporaries is its chameleonic defiance, with the voice of the speaker itching to wear and shed identities one after another. Some of these stories stand out for sheer poetic audacity and intertextual legerdemain. ‘Gerontissa’, for instance, brings together T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Gerontion’ and Gerontissa Gavrielia, the Greek twentieth-century nun. Instead of the old man of Eliot’s poem, an ageing erudite woman is speaking with a knack for turning patriarchs into pastiche:
I used to know pages of Baudelaire by heart when I was a young girl, even before I went to Paris. I stole my father’s copy from under the musty shoes in his wardrobe to transcribe poems from Les Fleurs du Mal.
As a young writer, Farmer could bend and boost style, and be intensely interesting. That was never a problem. Her doubt in A Body of Water, her writer’s block, registers the relation between form and the creative self, whose mutations she sees as inherently interconnected. To continue writing like before betrays a fundamental principle, a quality of ‘truth in fiction’, simply because she inhabits a different mindscape. Back in Australia, the divorced mother of a young son, she has chosen to live by the ocean in Point Lonsdale, the lighthouse a stone’s throw away. This Farmer still wants to write fiction, but of what kind? Can she make money by churning out romance novels? The thought sickens her; no way would she become a faceless pseudonym like Colleen Bell – ‘if there is not already a Colleen Bell’. She views Mills & Boon as contemptible, an infectious moral disease that ought to be avoided like the plague:
It’s ludicrous and corrupt, ‘romance’ is, and (I fear) contaminating. Not only my real, other writing would be at risk: I’d have to fear its contaminating effect on the honesty of my love. Do I mean honesty? Or sincerity? Integrity? All these.
Farmer’s fierce jealousy of her ‘real’ writing – her ‘other’ writing – staggers her bold and sparse mid-career output. We encounter her doubts about her own practice threaded with a suspicion, even resentment, of fiction as a coherent representational frame:
I’m going to write a story – not a story as such, but I hate the term ‘a fiction’ – based on this print, by way of beginning my new phase of writing, my new departure.
This new writing: I want it to be an interweaving of visual images – more open, loose and rich, and free of angst. And if I keep a notebook this time as I go, it will grow side by side with the stories, like the placenta and the baby in a womb.
For Farmer, transcending generic convention sits in continuity with the acknowledgement of an original reality that connects the scattered dots of life, human, ecological and otherwise. Later in the book, she sees a dying starling, and its corpse the next day (‘a tent of feathers’), and moves on to a jarring phone dialogue (‘I sat, shivering on the rug then and afterwards, cold to the bone’) the very next paragraph without a signpost – no hint as to why these two incidents are related. Maybe the relevance is in the impermanence of our mental anguish against the certainly of decomposition. Maybe, maybe not. In these notes, Farmer’s literary consciousness evokes everything, not the theory of everything, all of it. She shares this state of unwitting connectivity, a kind of oneness, with many writers that she quotes from, and her own characters in stories that interject her memoranda. The monk in ‘A Drop of Water’ – a story about a Buddhist ascetic who descends on two careless retreatants fooling around in the consecrated gompa – muses that, as he ages, he finds that ‘everyone is everything’.
In mood and structure, Farmer’s ‘notebooking’ evades something of a problem in Australian letters – the problem of topicality that has both depressed and enlivened literary publishing since at least the 1980s, the so-called ‘postcolonial’ moment. Vying for visibility in an attention economy saturated with a sense of looming disaster, the publishing industry tends to talk up literary works for being about something with locatable and often urgent political reference points. Aboutness is extraneous to almost everything that Farmer wrote in and after A Body of Water. Not that her work doesn’t have a compelling subject matter – what can be more acutely immanent than our place among the organic mass, as the organic mass? But the demands of this painstaking collaging of the personal, the textual and the mythological on the reader makes publishing Farmer a decisively non-commercial enterprise. In a euology delivered at her memorial service, Ivor Indyk – Farmer’s editor and publisher at Giramondo since 2000 – recalled reading an animated email by her about the enduring imprint of the material world on the human mind:
I felt slightly ashamed at my despondency. But I knew, as a publisher, what Beverley didn’t know, how few copies of The Bone House had sold, how difficult it is now, to find readers who want to know her work.
Josephine Rowe on Beverley Farmer is an homage to Farmer’s ‘new writing’ and its provocation on relevance. In this comely addition to Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series, Rowe revisits two of Farmer’s ‘commonplace’ books, A Body of Water and The Bone House (2005), as well as the opening chapter in her last collection, This Water: Five Tales (2017). She adds a telling note about her selection of texts: the rest of Farmer’s oeuvre is currently out of print, while those available remain mostly underrecognised:
This overlooking leaves me discouraged about what carries in Australian literature, what else, who else, might be slipping from rightful notice.
Rowe chances upon The Bone House at a centre for Australian writers in Rome on a shelf of books accumulated by residents before her, including Farmer, where the ‘echoes of past residences carried a linear sense of community’. Her reading takes a slow start, only a few pages in each sitting; her conviction to read on expires at the ‘foothills of the second essay … with that bewildering sense of impasse.’ Farmer’s death a few months later leaves Rowe with an unexplainable grief, ‘a surreal plunge of loneliness, loss’.
Despite this emotional and archival proximity, Rowe shuns effusive reification or claims of rediscovery, as if to disabuse the reader of the assumption that she is going to be the redeemed future of Farmer’s neglected past. (Farmer wouldn’t have liked that either, Rowe reminds us. When she was awarded the Patrick White Award in 2010 honouring the inadequate recognition of her work, she complained to Jason Steger, The Age literary editor, that the award felt like an ‘obituary’ and that she wanted to tell the previous winners not to ‘give up, don’t let this make you feel that it’s all over.’) In her position as a public reader, Rowe grapples with a question on the levels of attachment and announcement: how to stage one’s reading with any evaluative consistency in a space of critique that privileges being affected (de rigueur display of affinity, affability, affectation) over affect (what actually the work does to the unspecified reader)? Apropos Farmer’s endearing assertion about ‘the invisible network of women reading each other’s work and cherishing it’, she quips:
I adore these lines, but at the same time, they cannot date quickly enough.
As to whether a male writer might have enjoyed more recognition for the same kind of innovatory feat, there’s a relevant case to be made, but I’m tired just thinking about it. Chalk me up as a yes, and let us move on. I want to use these pages to speak to the work itself.
Rowe reads ‘with the sense of the author as an abiding entity, existing both within and around the text’. She asks why Farmer wrote what she wrote in her mid- to late career, and what it can mean to her, to us. This phase is marked by Farmer’s astounding tenacity in seeing the world, that Rowe suspects might have been sharpened by her eye condition – musca volitans – and her subsequent fear of losing sight:
The act and the art of looking, whether as writer or photographer or artist or scientist or mystic. The quixotic business of transposing this witness into language. The image hoard of one mind.
Farmer stores objects with prismatic descriptions of colour and light:
Chestnuts are in at the Victoria Market: fifteen dollars a kilo! And cases of the long ruby peppers, Florina peppers – not bright like other long peppers but a deep strong red (madder carmine? Crimson lake?) So intense it shimmers.
No wonder the figure of the painter – Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch – emerges in her writing so frequently, and often leaves other characters pondering suddenly what they have repressed or neglected. Is putting the world in pictures an utterance of psychic injury, or a method of averting it? In a piece that she wrote for Meanjin in 2007, Farmer bethought her painter-characters with great tenderness for their beauty entwined with their capacity to suffer:
They had in common the image of the sun, the body-martyr, self-mutilation, mother-fixation, absinthe, solitude and madness, Paris as the nexus, the self-portrait as mirror, metamorphosis.
Rowe brings remarkable discernment as she notices what Farmer notices, abstract and concrete – death, insect morphology, marine life – all ‘egalitarian in the designation of worthiness.’ She does so with deference to Farmer’s intense lyricism and with appropriate essayistic economy (Farmer’s intuition of deep time is likened to a future with ‘heightened colour of remembered lives’). Farmer’s humanity percolates throughout. Concerning Farmer revisiting her first memories of sex with a lingering sense of social stigma about queer desire, Rowe writes:
Sane, she affirms, perhaps still felt the need to affirm. I cannot read that word without wanting to tear something to pieces. For all the hurt it intones, and all the waste.
For Farmer, reality exists prior to thought, and yet it is the mind that projects significance outwards. The mind gives time, otherwise everything is illusory, even human anguish. This objective vacancy generates the almost impenetrable elegance in her late style; her nonlinear, elliptical locution is a way of saying, as it were, stop philosophising the ocean. In response to this degree of abstraction, Rowe’s dialogue succumbs to occasional opacity:
For now, what I’m moved to return to are apparitions, semblances, shades: the surprisingly widespread and enduring belief that both the psyche and the corporeal self are a series of infinitely overlaid transparencies.
Return, indeed, defines anxiety of influence. In her last chapter – ‘Patterns of Return’ – Rowe alludes to Farmer’s stylistic and imaginative legacy in future perfect:
If you were to go looking for evidence of Farmer’s influence in my writing, there’s nothing to see. But from first opening The Bone House, I recognised that her words would have significant bearing on my work.
That leaves her to contend with a puritanism in Farmer’s contemplative writing that is hard to calibrate – exquisite, for sure, but tightly harnessed, judiciously meditative. Rowe qualifies that as the labour of disciplining an irrepressible desire to roam:
Gratitude for the present, in Farmer’s text, seems to come by sheer force of will, while longing for elsewhere – that restlessness of intellect and voracity for travel – arrives as a natural state of being.
This edginess might explain why Farmer collects so freely and extensively from other texts – Rilke, Woolf, Plath, Byatt, Duras, and many more. Same echoes in Rowe’s essay. She ‘gleans’, as Farmer does, from writer after writer.