Book launch speech by Brenda Walker, 15 July 2015
Ian Reid, The Mind’s Own Place.
The critic James Wood seems to have spent most of his adult life writing about the novel, defending and defining the form. In his most recent book, The Nearest Thing to Life, he writes that ‘in fiction, we get to examine the self in all its performance and pretence, its fear and secret ambition, its pride and sadness.’ Ian Reid‘s three novels are brimming with character, with the intelligent and sometimes sombre demonstration of contradictions in fate, in history and in the way lives might be lived.
In the first novel, The End of Longing, Will Hammond, a furious suffering child, wounds himself at his mother’s graveside, then grows up to inflict wounds on all who dare to love him. His wife’s relatives speak bitterly of his ‘real [bad] character,’ which they failed to notice, blinded by Will’s performance as a doctor and a man of religion. What Ian Reid’s novel shows, in fact what all his novels demonstrate, is that ‘real character’ is a complicated matter. A person, even a deceptive and in some ways shameful person like Will, is driven, in the words of James Wood, by fear and secret ambition, pride and sadness, and we as readers draw close, fascinated by the complications of the self.
In That Untravelled World, Ian’s second and most sombre novel, a hopeful practical visionary, impressed with the possibilities of modernity: the aeroplane, the wireless, photography, exploration, lives an impoverished life while war and Depression slowly detonate his confidence in the future of humanity, and the love he cherished for the best part of a lifetime dissolves into an ordinary and practical separation.
In this third novel, The Mind’s Own Place, which we are celebrating tonight, Thomas Browne, a character who begins his working life in a foundry witnessing the onset of the great institutions of industrial transformation: the railway, the infrastructures of urban life and mobility, witnesses, too, the madness of pointless consumerism and the collapse of his own economic enterprise.
Ian Reid’s fiction is grounded in an understanding of how complicated character can be, how tragic fate can be, and how lives that might seem inconsequential carry the immense force and power of history and personality; how each life is so much more than it might appear. James Wood writes about fiction as ‘the life-surplus,’ fiction has a way of demonstrating that individual lives overflow with incident and ‘push’ themselves beyond death.
Central to this is Ian Reid’s understanding of history and storytelling. His work is a sophisticated demonstration of the idea that each novel contains a kind of unspoken guide to the way it should be read. These novels are not dramatized historical events. They are philosophical and thoughtful conversations about history and storytelling. The End of Longing begins with a reconstruction of the past: an attempt by Edward and Frederick Phillips, and, later, by legal authorities, journalists and correspondents, to get ‘more information’ about the death of Frances Hammond. This information will not, in the end, explain very much.
The novelist, with the special instrument of a novelist’s imagination, travels between characters, explaining and enlivening, showing the reader how bizarre and seemingly impossible events can unfold, and how the imagination that can enable such understanding can also be seductive and sinister: the dead woman, Frances, is besotted with the scoundrel Will Hammond because he has ‘begun to enlarge her imagination.’ This novel shows us, too, the energy and mobility of nineteenth-century life: ideas about God and literature move through large and small communities, and personal transformation and self-invention are constant possibilities.
That Untravelled World is also eloquent about history and storytelling. In the terrible privations of the Depression, people read to try to gain traction on the collapse of their hopes. They read ‘serious novels,’ hoping to be shown ‘human resilience.’ The ‘power of storytelling’ consoles the hero, Harry, he remembers the novels of Dickens and the small potent transformations of family life that Dickens writes about: ‘In novel after novel, parents acted like children; children acted like parents; siblings turned into strangers; and strangers into siblings.’ Fiction offers a domestic model for the changes that Harry experiences in his own expectations, once so sunny and certain. I cannot leave a discussion of this novel without quoting its most beautiful paragraph, full of a hopefulness about history which is diminished as the book progresses but still faintly resonant: ‘Harry believed he could glimpse the world of tomorrow, when wireless – along with aeroplanes and other new inventions – would help to remove the barriers between different peoples, different places. He saw with his inward eye a planet encircled by waves, not only in the constant rhythmic undulation of mighty expanses of water but also in the pulsing and rippling relay of electromagnetic signals, invisible, miraculously rapid.’
Which brings me to The Mind’s Own Place. James Wood writes about fiction that comes close to ‘giv[ing] us the awful privilege of seeing a life whole’ – he likens it to obituary. In Ian Reid’s third novel Thomas Browne, a boy who works in the heartland of early English manufacturing, so that the ‘adult world’ seems to be ‘regulating his pulse in accord with industry’s throb,’ a boy who sees the ferocious labour of railway workers as ‘heroic’ and the workers themselves as ‘transfigured,’ ends – well, I won’t spoil the story, but he ends in a way that could never have been predicted, given his youthful excitement, his enterprise, and his thoughtful understanding of social forces, his sensitivity to the demands of the masculine models of his time. I’m constrained here, because I don’t want to give the story away, but I can say that, as in previous novels, Ian Reid shows the grim side of industrial and social advancement and that, enmeshed with the great and often terrible forces of history he shows us the complication, the tenderness, the resignation or rages of a properly understood character. His hero, if that’s the right word, is not alone, because this novel is a great gathering of personality, character after character, in irreducible and fully imagined life, all shown making the journey from England to the staggering brilliance of Fremantle, where social certainties fall away, and people are not defined and penned in by old stories about themselves and their families. The Irish, Fenian political prisoners, have stable identities, but other characters are more fluid. Compared to England, to a short life ‘fur-pulling’ – or scraping the stinking carcasses of rabbits until the lungs fill with fine hair-dust; or a short life working with lead glazes in a pottery, to working in wooden clogs in winter on a drenched factory floor, Western Australia is magnificent. However it can be a desperate place, and this novel is filled with the tension of human fates played out in unexpected unison. As in previous novels, storytelling is a kind of touchstone – a successful family is ‘bound together within a comfortable circle of storytelling.’ And storytelling brings a necessary perspective: Thomas Browne says that when we tell stories we might be ‘taken away for a while from familiar everyday situations so we can see them in a different light when the story is over’. This distraction and refreshed understanding is part of what the novel, and this novel in particular, does. In The Mind’s Own Place Ian Reid once again gives us the ‘life-surplus’ of history: love and journeys and work and ideas, fear and purposeful action and sometimes, failure, all playing out before us in this big and beautifully balanced novel of character.
I haven’t said anything yet about the storyteller himself: Ian Reid, an acclaimed poet, a critic investigating narrative, an educator and administrator whose academic work has benefited so many young people in their own journey towards the accommodation of history and personality. I think only a writer of Ian’s accomplishment and experience could have achieved the brilliance of The Mind’s Own Place. It is an example of the imaginative understanding of character, fate and situation and a great cause for celebration.