Update: in response

The Wall, the Gate, the Balcony

Written in response to:

The Wall, the Gate, the Balcony

Any author, be it of a novel, or an essay such as David Brooks’ ‘The Wall, the Gate, the Balcony’ on my novels Out of the Line of Fire and The Snow Kimono – or anything else I imagine – who floats something out into the world hopes that it just doesn’t fall into an echoless abyss. Feedback is a wonderfully humanising thing. But the elephant hidden in the eloquent room of Brooks’ essay is: well, that’s interesting, but I wonder what Henshaw thinks? I hope what follows goes some way to answering that question.

Let me first say that whatever the accuracy or otherwise of Brooks’ suppositions about the influences on either Out of the Line of Fire or The Snow Kimono, his essay is a brilliant account of the influences of postmodernism on Australian fiction from the mid-1980s until now. It is worth reading for those observations alone. It also raises some issues that other commentators have raised about my work. My focus in what follows is on The Snow Kimono, although I found Brooks’ account of Out of the Line of Fire wonderfully insightful. If I, as an author, had any regrets about the writing of Out of the Line of Fire, it would be that its ‘metafictional’ surface obscured another of postmodernism’s descriptors: its sense of ‘play’. The narrative stance is, for the most part, playfully ironic – it is always outside, not in. The other thing that the postmodern gloss cost Out of the Line of Fire was any real sense of humanity. This aspect of the novel was, at best, obscured. But mostly it’s lost, despite the constant movement in this direction in Part Three.

To the nitty-gritty, though – The Snow Kimono and Brooks’ essay – and my responses to some of its statements.

Had I continued to live in the city in which I was born [Canberra] … I might have known …

I think what Brooks is signalling here, contrary to what some people might think, is that we don’t know each other. We are not two boys pissing in each other’s pockets, although I do remember vividly in the early 1970’s sitting opposite him and his then wife at a mutual friend’s now melancholically remembered wedding. Neither of us could see into the future. And his was not the only the wife to move on. I have, on the other hand, admiringly read most of what Brooks has written.

It is evident, for example, that [Henshaw] has been working on, or at least thinking about, this ‘new’ book for much of the time.

Brooks’ memory, or archival access, is better than mine. I had forgotten that in 1989 I had mentioned to the Canberra Times that I was working on a book set in Japan, a ‘tale told my an old man’, or that indeed, the Canberra Times had published, around then, a version of the jig-saw story that Omura relates to Jovert early on in what is now The Snow Kimono. Apart from this – and as indicated in the Acknowledgements, Chapter I – none of what is now in The Snow Kimono was written prior to February 2012. I used to keep the idea ticking over in my head from time to time, but that was it. I had some notes – and I knew the overall architecture of the book – but some of these notes, when eventually I went back to them, were comically brief: ‘Jovert in Algiers’, for example. On the other hand, and characteristically, I did know in my head, more or less, the content of this episode. But not, for example, its catastrophic conclusion. That is, I did not know its detail until I came to write it. The Algiers section, as it turned out, was the final section I wrote. I had not even got Madeleine, Jovert’s wife, to the ferry!

For what it’s worth, the model for this story – now a story within a larger story – was the work of Alice Munro. Start somewhere, end up somewhere else, always aiming for that odd sense of narrative torque that characterises Munro’s work. Similarly, the model for the Natsumi episode in The Snow Kimono is Chekhov – the short stories. Hence this episode’s opening two-sentence paragraph. But this kind of thing is at the level of topos, not specific detail.

The story is of course far more complicated than this … It seems, Ancient Mariner-like … I might, for instance, have started my summary differently. ‘Paris, just after dark one gusty evening…’ But that, of course, is the beginning of Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’.

My reaction to this? My God, yes it is. And have I read both of those works? Well, yes I have. Did I intend for those echoes to be there? Not intentionally, no. But the sub-conscious is a slippery thing. And, intentional or not, the echoes and intersections Brooks points out are fertile. Maybe there is more to Booker’s Seven Basic Plots than either of us would care to admit.

What I wanted to do – and here we are on that other slippery slope: authorial intention – was to harness some of the feeling that characterises the work of Kawabata or Tanizaki or Kenzaburō Ōe: the feeling that life is lived in a fate-inflected world. As for Edgar Allan Poe, the only Poe I have read in the last 30 years is Japan’s Edogawa Ranpo.

But the references to Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982) have left me in little doubt that such a process is quite consciously at work here.

I wish I were that smart. And what follows is not meant to undermine what Brooks has to say about postmodernism in general, or what he has to say about Out of the Line of Fire and The Snow Kimono in particular. In one of those freakish coincidences – and coincidence plays a big role in The Snow Kimono – I did take the names Etsuko and Keiko, but not Sachiko, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills (I took the name Ishiguro as well), but only by accident. I was overseas at the time I was writing these sections, without access to the internet, and needed a couple of Japanese names – so I just flicked through my Kindle version of A Pale View of Hills to get them. The narrative parallels never occurred to me (but see below).

Just as [John] Scott has named the sections of What I Have Written after his central characters …

Again, by coincidence, I introduced John Scott to James Salter and Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (in 1990 we were both in Paris at the Cité des Arts and we went to see him talk), after which John went on to write his own very beautiful Salter-esque What I have written (1994). But in the interim, I had forgotten that that book is divided up into named sections. I think I took my cue from Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout (1988), although naming chapters in this way is hardly an uncommon thing to do.

What, then, is the relationship between The Snow Kimono and postmodernism from my point of view? I did not set out to write another ‘postmodern’ book. I wanted something much ‘simpler’, more human. I ‘just’ wanted to tell the story of three older men looking back on their lives, and the lies they had told, and to do it in a way that engaged a reader – a non-specialised reader. I wanted there to be a certain Japanese-ness about the book – the sense that fate has a role to play in our lives, that we are all in some way accountable and connected to others, and that there are more ‘beings / gods’ in the world than our Western post-Enlightenment rationalism allows. While I consciously exploited a number of postmodern narrative strategies in The Snow Kimono, I wanted these to be much less obvious, much more embedded in the deep structure of the book, than they were in Out of the Line of Fire.

There may be echoes of other writers in The Snow Kimono – for me it might be F. Scott Fitzgerald; I think Katsuo sees himself as some kind of Gatsby figure, with Mariko as his Daisy. Or they might be of Chekhov or Alice Munro. Katsuo’s reference to ‘Old Eguchi’ will probably only have its sinister impact on a Japanese audience – he is the main character in Kawabata’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961). There may be others, I don’t remember. Nor ultimately do they matter. A reader brings his or her own history to any reading of a book – it is what makes a good book the bigger experience it can be. It is why, in the end, I left The Snow Kimono alone, without all its ‘loose ends’ neatly tied up. Life goes on. In the end, and at the end, I wanted a reader simply to be ‘moved’ by what they had just read, even if the status of what that was was not immediately clear. And perhaps, at the end, I also wanted the reader to re-think what they had read – from Katsuo’s point of view. That this – what we have just read – is what his life and the way he has chosen to live it has cost him. It is a kind of holding himself to account. The fact that, at the end, there is a kind of elidedness between the two characters Katsuo and Omura I thought of as echoing the notion of the interconnectedness of each of our lives with the lives of others. Although, as Brooks would say – it’s more complicated than this. Well, yes it is …

The most gratifying thing readers – at least those who have talked to me one way or another – have said to me is that they found The Snow Kimono moving. Of course, this observation raises the spectre of what lies behind all of the above – reader-response theories versus authorial intent. But who cares about the theory? It is this – this perception of humanity, The Snow Kimono’s human-ness – that Brooks’ final paragraph seems to indicate he experienced (‘There are haunting scenes; there are poetic scenes …’). Brooks is a reader who clearly reads as a poet reads. It is a reading that is generous, insightful, attentive, humane. And it is just such a reading which, for this author, made the whole enterprise seem worthwhile after all.

Mark Henshaw


Published November 28, 2014