Monday, August 1, 2011

Ruth Park

August, 2011:  In a romantic mood, I bought Ruth Park's The Witch's Thorn and D'Arcy Niland's The Big Smoke from Sappho's Books, thereby reuniting the two lovers as they bumped along together in my bag.  Helen and I looked up Park and Niland on the Google - they are a beautiful couple:

And a line in the bio of The Witch's Thorn makes me almost sigh with envy: "...after her marriage to the author D'Arcy Niland, [she] roamed around the outback with him doing a variety of jobs, all of which has provided rich source material for her writing." 
The Witch's Thorn is Park's third novel, and I didn't dog-ear any pages - her writing, in these early novels, is ungainly.  She doesn't seem to have lingered over her sentences, carefully crafting them, nor her characters; her eye is on the plot and structure, and on getting her main point across.  This gives The Witch's Thorn a workmanlike feel, which I thoroughly approve of.  I walk away from Park's novels with new ideas in my mind; whereas from an unstructured writer like Eve Langley, I walk away with a feeling that the author has impressed her personality upon me.  I value both experiences, but the latter is more limited.  Inevitably I want more breadth than is offered by one personality, however fascinating.
Once I'd finished The Witch's Thorn, I suddenly saw how planned and plotted the whole novel was; while I was immersed in it, the story had felt pretty natural and organic, and only two or three times had I felt a clunk underneath me as the story moved to the next gear.  Park examines the social strata of a rural town in New Zealand, using a parentless (if not exactly orphaned) child, Bethell, as the tool with which to test the values of five different households, starting from the top - the respectable, church-going shop-keeper and his wife, who grudgingly accept charge of their niece - and one-by-one working down through the layers, as Bethell is rejected and failed by everyone in the town, even the nice old priest, and even the reformed prostitute with a dozen healthy children and a heart of gold.  Finally, Bethell is rescued from the brink of death by the ones well beyond the pale of the conservative town - a Maori family, who gladly sacrifices, for Bethell's sake, the skerrick of respectability and social acceptance that they have garnered over the years.
Once again, Park's boldness is notable.  I suspect that Park and Niland were a good influence on each other in this respect, encouraging each other not to shy away from the shadowy corners of society.  Such as, in The Shiralee, the part where Macauley has sex with an Aboriginal maid; he despises himself and her for doing it, and most callously gives her money when he leaves the property, thereby turning their encounter into a base transaction (while she had put a red ribbon in her hair, and probably had a big crush on him).  In The Witch's Thorn, there's a similarly dirty, degraded passage: Johnny Gow hates his downtrodden wife, Ella, who is debilitated by all the children she has borne, including a new baby about a week ago.  They are driving back from the funeral of the woman he loved:
"If I had any guts I'd murder you.  But I haven't.  I haven't the nerve to buck the rope, even for you.  There's only one way to get rid of you, Ella."
She stared at him, terrified.
"Get out," he ordered.
"No, Johnny," she quavered.  
He threw the reins over the pony's head and leapt to the ground.  With fierce, hating energy he dragged his wife out of the trap.  Her limp, flabby body both repelled and frenzied him.
"Johnny," she moaned, "give me a little time.  Just a little while.  I'll do anything if only you'll leave me alone for a while."
He dragged her after him over the rough ground to the lonely paddock with the broom hedge spiking along the ridge.
"Johnny, I 'll die if I have another one so soon.  Think of the children.  What would happen to them?  Oh.  Johnny, please, please."
He began to laugh.  She felt his body rumbling with mirth.
"Men have been murdering their wives this way for centuries," he said softly and gently.  "And it's all so nice and legal, too."
Park points the torch at numerous domestic taboos - Bethell's respectable cousin tries to rape her, and Bethell is blamed.  Her uncle has an inappropriate attachment to one of his daughters - there's a repulsive scene where the daughter has to give her father a head-rub.  Bethell's nicest aunt becomes a prostitute after being widowed with eight young children.  And Bethell herself is illegitimate, her mother having had an affair with the married Johnny Gow. Johnny Gow not only rapes his wife, but beats her regularly, too.  Johnny and his wife both beat Bethell.  And when I remind myself, "This is a society that stoned Eve Langley for wearing trousers!", I really admire Park for her fearless crusade against hypocrisy and social cruelty.  And although I get a bit irritated by her idealism of the characters at the outer edges of society - they're all so cheerful! as though they lack the depth to feel things such as existential crises or self-doubts - perhaps if I were living in '40s or '50s New Zealand, I would feel the same disgust with the inner-circle, with the ones with the power to change the rules.
There was one passage I puzzled over:
"My old daddy had some funny Scots ideas," said Lachie Gow.  "He used to tell me about a thorn tree that the Highlanders believed in.  When it pricked, it poisoned.  It was a witch's thorn.  And whoever it pricked could pass on the poison to someone else, just with a touch.  He believed in that thorn, my old man."
"I never heard of it growing around here," said Mrs Hush, puzzled.
He tried again.  "It's just a story, don't you see?  But it means that one bad action influences everyone else.  My brother Johnny loved your sister when he shouldn't have, and look what came out of that, ruined lives and changed lives, all through this town and out of it, too, for all I know, for who knows how many people Queenie met and altered in some way?  [He cites some more examples]...It's all mixed up in some way, and there's no getting away from it."
Fascinated and awed, Bethell held up her hands in the dusk, examining them minutely.
"I haven't been pricked by the thorn.  Mr. Wi hasn't.  Hoot Gibson hasn't.  But perhaps we will be someday."
The mystery, and the fear of the mystery, prickled her skin, and she crept out of the grass and ran like a hare for the light and the warmth and crowded companionship of the house.
It's a passage that isn't as straightforward as it first seems.  Considering that Park, in Swords And Crowns And Rings, wrote, "She had accepted that no one could come into another's life without consequences.  Jackie had taught her that.  She would not want him to feel guilt for anything in her life", I'm not so sure that Park is saying that being pricked by the witch's thorn is a bad thing.  Maybe she is saying that being altered by life's experiences and encounters, even to the extent of being poisoned by them, is the price we pay for being alive, just as losing innocence is the price we pay for knowing more.  We can't keep ourselves intact.

D'Arcy Niland

August, 2011:  I went to Cowra with no book, so had the pleasure of picking out one from my grandparents' shelves.  As I had just been reading about Ruth Park, and the Australian novelist for whom she was leaving New Zealand, I chose The Shiralee (1955), by D'Arcy Niland.  
I don't have The Shiralee here with me, so I have to write about it from memory, which is probably a good thing (seeing as I presently have a back-log of 'Books Of The Moment' to write about).  It's a story about a freedom-loving swagman/itinerant worker, Macauley, who unexpectedly gets lumped with his 4-year-old daughter, Buster.  He is unwilling to change his ways; the story follows his gradual compromising, and the increase of happiness that comes to him in exchange for taking on the burden, or shiralee (another name for a swag), of a child.  It's a simple, archetypal story about 'freedom versus attachment' - themes that I, for one, never tire of puzzling over - but it is made unique by the voice it gives to Macauley.  
Macauley is an ultra-masculine man, who expresses himself by action, not words, and is therefore a difficult subject to make the bearer of a written story.  These are men who frequently appear in stories (or more often, films) as the object rather than the subject; they are useful protagonists, as they so readily do things, and cause plot to advance, but few novel-readers or movie-goers would identify with them, would expect to be guided through a story by one of them.  The people who would identify with them aren't often, I'm afraid, reading novels.  Ethan Frome has a similarly inarticulate main-man, but I reckon Niland does it better than Wharton.  Niland shows the reader Macauley's thought-process, in all its rough, simple language and broad strokes, in its lack of detail, in its cruelty and every-man-for-himselfishness, and yet without leaving Macauley looking like a brutish Neanderthal or a lump of stone.  As an inveterate lover of this type of man, it was a great insight for me to read of Macauley's thoughts and feelings - so different to mine!  So impossible for me ever to understand!  
One passage I partially remember is when he is taking shelter from a downpour under a bridge, and thinking about the woman who served him in a bakery.  He is tormented with sexual frustration, and finally thinks (to paraphrase), "Leave it at that: he was a man, he wanted a woman.  Leave it at that."*
A passage that made me "well up" was when he meets up with a crazy old fellow with a few verbal tics, who nevertheless understands Macauley's type and gives him some advice, which will sound hackneyed when I put it down here without a context, and without Niland's straightforward language: it's all very well to keep on the move, but isn't this almost an act of despair, rather than an exercising of your freedom?  Isn't it because there's nowhere you want to be, nothing you want to be doing, isn't it a fleeing from, rather than an aspiring to?  Instead, find something you like and stick to it!  (Sorry, D'Arcy Niland, to Musak your beautifully-couched sentiment.)  Macauley reacts to this piece of advice not by moving into a little cottage and becoming a potato farmer - Niland never sacrifices his man for the sake of a moral - but by investing in an ancient horse and cart, and otherwise keeping up his itinerant ways.  
Another thing that I loved about The Shiralee was its lack of materialism.  Macauley doesn't have a tent - he has a bit of tarpaulin.  He doesn't have special walking boots.  He doesn't have a pram for Buster, or one of those baby-backpacks.  He makes her walk.  And when she starts to fall asleep walking, he picks her up and carries her.  It's good for us - we live in a time of great dependency - to read something that reminds us that all we need to live is our body.  We don't need equipment, a licence, or to have done a course.  We don't actually need money.  We certainly don't need mobile reception!

*In Cowra with my grandfather's bookshelf and my computer.  I feel the obligation to transcribe the passages as they are, putting my paraphrasing to shame.  Here's the bit about sexual frustration:
He twisted his hands with tension, but it was going from him, and he was feeling easier, and in a little while he was all right, quiet and reasoning.  He took a look at himself and he stood by what he saw.
I'm a man, he thought.  And I want a woman.  That's straight.  I wouldn't deny it before God himself.  If I didn't want one I'd start to think there was something the matter with me.  I want a woman all right.  Leave it at that.  For all the good it is thinking about it, I might as well be docked.  Leave that as it is, too.  I don't have to go on like a pimply-faced whore-chaser, do I?
Here's the conversation between Mac and Desmond, the philosophical crackpot:
Desmond suddenly said to him, "Do you know where you're going?"
"I don't mean going away tomorrow, or the day after, and so on.  I mean do you know where your life's going?"
Macauley looked puzzled for a moment.  He shrugged.  "Who does?  Do you?"
"I have a fair idea.  But I don't think you follow me.  I'll put it this way: Why do you move about?  Carry on the life you do?"
"Here and there and all over the place like a fly, you mean?"  Macauley sighed, gazing into the fire.  "Some people can move slow and get on all right, I don't know, I never could.  All my life, something's been biting me - urging me on."
"Yes, but where to, that's my point."
"How do I know?" Macauley said.  "Does it matter?"
"Listen!" Desmond exclaimed.  "Hear that river?  There's water coming from somewhere and going somewhere and so on.  It flows on a set course for thousands of miles.  It's not only getting away from something, it's getting to something.  It's getting away from the mountains and getting to the ocean.  Well, I'll tell you something.  That's the was a man's life should be and so on."
"Why?" Macauley asked.
"Well, otherwise there's no purpose.  A man is right to get away from evil, from trouble, and the things that are bad for him.  But he can spend all his life running away from them.  He should stop and think and so on.  Then he should pick something that will better him, that is good for him, and try to achieve it.  Then he's running towards something.  See what I mean?"
Macauley nodded his understanding.  "But who's talking?" he said.
"What I just said," Desmond replied, "I never thought of it till just a few months ago.  It took me all those years and so on to find it out.  And it's too late for me to start doing anything about it now."