Tag Archives: That Untravelled World

Looking both ways

So we’ve crossed the threshold into another New Year.  Now what?

To the ancient Romans a doorway (or gateway) had such importance, both practical and symbolic, that it warranted a special deity to preside over it: Janus, the god of portals and transitions, beginnings and departures. January takes its liminal name from him. Images traditionally show him (and the year’s hinge-point) as two-faced, looking both back and forward, both inward and outward.

Wooden sculpture by Annette Seeman

I like to think of Janus as a suitable patron for writers and readers. Why? Read on…

Having no predecessor in the Greek pantheon, Janus is usually regarded as a Roman invention. But comparable images recur in the art and mythology of several other cultures. The one illustrated here is from a series of large wooden sculptures by Perth artist Annette Seeman called “Stories from the Indies,” which draw on her family links with Indonesian culture. This double-headed forked-tongue figure has belonged in my household for nearly 30 years, and to me it has the significance of a literary totem, among other things.

Looking both ways is what serious writing mostly tries to do, because it combines memory with imagination. On the spectrum connecting the past to the future, those two faculties apparently face in opposite directions: memory is retrospective, summoning up what used to be, while imagination is prospective, envisaging what might be. On the spectrum connecting oneself with others, memory and imagination again may seem to represent contrasting tendencies: the former generally looks inward, while the latter is potentially more outward-turning and wide-ranging. Yet memory and imagination are inseparable in the act of writing, just as the two faces of Janus belong to a single body.

Evidence from neuropsychology indicates that the mental processes of remembering and imagining are intimately linked. This shouldn’t surprise anyone with literary interests. Remembering (like writing) actively reshapes the material it works on. And as the White Queen remarks to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” As we recall details from past situations, we can recombine and adapt them into new imaginary scenarios.

Commenting on the title character in her recently released film Claire Darling (itself adapted from a novel), director Julie Bertuccelli says “Claire is forgetting things she prefers to let go of, and summoning up in her imagination some unfinished business from the past.” Isn’t this often also true of autobiographical writing, and of characters in novels or short stories? I’ll have more to say on that subject in a couple of public talks I’m giving in March at the Glyde-In Community Centre: see the Events page of my website.

Looking both ways is a distinctively human capability. In my novel That Untravelled World, young Harry Hopewell has a conversation with his girlfriend at the Perth Zoo. She asks him what he thinks the main difference is between humans and beasts, and he replies:

‘To my mind, it’s summed up in a saying that my mother likes to repeat. A little quotation from some poet – don’t know who: “We look before and after, and pine for what is not.” More than anything else, that’s what separates people from other animals.’

She wrinkled her forehead. ‘I’m not sure I understand. What does it mean to you, that saying?’

‘Just that we humans don’t live fully in the present, the way a lion or a pig does. A lot of the time we’re preoccupied with what used to be, and what might yet happen. With remembering and imagining. That’s not true of creatures in cages. I hope not, anyway – terrible for them if they have regretful or wistful feelings.’

“We look before and after…” — those lines are from Shelley’s To a Skylark, written two centuries ago but still resonant. The bird addressed in the poem sings beautifully, but for a human listener its song is tinged with the sadness that accompanies our sense of what’s beyond the present moment. Janus is always at our shoulder, and writers whose work has durable appeal are especially good at evoking this dual consciousness.

As readers, too, we’re often looking both ways. While there can be great pleasure in the feeling of being immersed in an act of reading, this is seldom separable (for narrative in particular) from what we anticipate and recollect as we proceed through the text.

And sometimes we stand back from a finished book to reflect on the general patterns of our reading, on our specific library or bookshop choices. I find myself doing this annually in early January, casting an eye over a record of what I’ve read during the previous year. (I’ve kept these lists for many years.) It’s interesting to see what assortment of genres my reading has covered: how much fiction, how much poetry, how much non-fiction of various kinds… Other aspects of a year’s list also strike me: how many recently issued books, how many older publications, how many re-readings of what I’ve read previously, how many by Australians, how many by men and women respectively, how many multiple titles by this or that author, and so on.

None of these categories have determined my choices, and similarly I won’t set myself any fixed program of reading for the year ahead. I don’t need a “challenge” list to motivate myself to keep frequent company with books. Some such sign-ups (the annual Australian Women Writers Challenge, for instance) are too narrowly political for my liking. I enjoy the freedom to select what I read without being constrained — whether by the writer’s national affiliation or by gender identity or genre or period or anything else.

Still, the New Year seems an apt occasion for calling to mind a few titles and authors I’d like to spend time with in the future. Memo to self: when choosing, look both ways.

 

Ask an author – FAQ #3: Why are your stories so dark?

While I’m not filled with gloom myself, it’s true I don’t write happily upbeat stories. Why dwell so much on shady characters, sombre moods and grim situations?

Although we may all want plenty of sunshine in our lives, most of us don’t want to read a lot about it, because the state of happiness is not particularly complex and there’s little of interest to be said on the subject.

Being conscious of unhappiness (some of the time, and in various ways) is surely one of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals, and also stimulates the narrative impulse. It’s pleasant to listen occasionally to birdsong or to the purring of a cat, but birds and cats have no stories to tell us. Storytelling is the main medium through which we make sense of experience, and it doesn’t lend itself to cheerful chirping or merry miaows.

More often than not, I suppose, people tell or read stories in order to equip themselves to look unblinkingly into the shadows – to cope with difficult and dismal feelings, such as loss and grief, guilt and shame, fear and loathing, remorse and rejection.

Or just plain disappointment.  In large part, my novel That Untravelled World is a tale of dreams that don’t come to fruition – though it’s also a tale of consolations. I’ve tried not only to convey an impression of that troubled formative period of Australia’s development – covering the Great War, the Great Depression and the build up to WW2 – but also to get the reader thinking about the things that, during times of adversity, can either pull us apart or bring us together, especially in family relationships of different kinds.

Ask an author – FAQ #2: Why imagine stories about the past?

IMG_5227Inevitably, writers of serious historical novels give this question plenty of thought. For me the answer is fairly simple: imaginary time travel can bring a distinctive kind of satisfaction to both author and reader, providing insights that are not cramped within the here-and-now.

Too often, literature that focuses on contemporary experience tends to reinforce our habitual attitudes and assumptions. The best historical fiction is still relevant to the world we live in, but in a potentially more illuminating way. Far from being an escapist retreat from the present into earlier periods, it can show aspects of our own everyday world in a new perspective. That, anyhow, is what I’m trying to do when I invent characters and episodes set within the factual framework of times past.

For instance most people today are infatuated with technology and its globalising potential. My novel That Untravelled World links the growth of early radio technology to the hopes and setbacks of Australia as a young nation grappling with the tyranny of distance. Perhaps this may illuminate our own precarious dependence today on the power of wifi and other wireless innovations that had their tentative beginnings a century ago.

Here’s another example. Almost daily the plight of refugees pervades the mass media, and so insistent is the pressure of images and stories about the current transnational deracination crisis that it’s hard for us to situate it within a longer timespan, and to think about perennial patterns of large-scale mobility. How, over the centuries, have traumatic movements of myriads of people been intertwined with social, economic and political changes? What enables some migrants to surmount hardship while others are crushed by what they suffer? Historical perspectives help us to understand these fundamental processes, and if shaped into the form of literary fiction (as in my novel The Mind’s Own Place, which follows several 19th-century migrants to the Swan River Colony) they allow us to imagine the corresponding tensions within and between people, as individual motives are linked to family dynamics and the cultural contours of a period that differs from ours but has contributed to the way we live now.

Having also written ‘pure’ history myself, I’m duly respectful of a disciplined fidelity to fact. On the other hand its constraints can sometimes leave a reader (and author) dissatisfied. Although historical fiction won’t be successful unless, on the basis of meticulous research, it explores themes that resonate beyond the circumstances in which the events are situated, ultimately it needs more than that. It should offer gripping stories with strong momentum and complex characters, related in memorable language.

In the parallel universe imagined by a writer of historical fiction, characters are revealed more intimately than is possible in a purely factual study. A novel can give us magical access to the inward experience of the figures who move through its pages, and episodes can be freely constructed to give meaningful shape to what happens. In contrast, the historian remains limited to verifiable evidence, which is often inconsequential and inconclusive. Fiction has more scope for resuscitating people from times past, bringing their minds and hearts back to life.

Above all, historical fiction depends for its impact on the quality of its language. For the author of a historical novel, reviving an earlier period and those who belonged to it means much more than marshalling facts and interpretations. It also means painstakingly yet creatively constructing an idiom, a texture of language, that will achieve two things: it will convey with a compelling illusion of authenticity the way people in that particular time and place used to feel and think and speak, and at the same time it will communicate powerfully to the modern reader. No easy task!