Friday, November 1, 2013

Frank Moorhouse

November, 2013: I've been reading a lot lately - it's an activity that fits in well with having a baby sleeping on my lap.  I've been reading almost too much, finishing novels too quickly, starting another immediately.  In an effort to slow myself down, I decided to read Frank Moorhouse's 'Edith' trilogy, Grand Days (1993), Dark Palace (2000) and Cold Light (2011).

I was prejudiced against Frank Moorhouse; being a writer who is struggling through the Great Arts Depression*, I find myself resenting those who 'broke though' and made a name for themselves in the Arts Boom of the 70s and 80s.  [*Perhaps calling this current period an Arts Depression is like farmers bewailing a Drought, when really we live in a low-rainfall continent, and it's the good seasons that are the exception.]  I have a tendency to doubt whether these writers are really any good - suspecting them of just coasting along on their comparatively easily-won reputations - and therefore to avoid reading them, as they've had enough attention already.  As soon as I catch myself at this shameful sour-grapism, I make reparation.  I borrowed Moorhouse's trilogy from Errol, took it home in a wheelbarrow, and winched it onto my bookshelf.  There it sat, piled higher than my Shorter Oxford English Dictionaries and higher even than my yoga bricks, like a punishment I had to inflict on myself.

Then came this phase in my life where long books are what I need.  My first response to Grand Days was surprise.  I thought, "This is almost twee!"  And I wondered if I would have taken it less seriously if a woman had written it.  I might have thought, with a shudder, "Chick lit."  Here's a characteristic example from the third volume:

Janice took a piece of the Belgian chocolate and put it into her mouth, closed her eyes and exclaimed, "Divine."
There was a moment of silence while they ate their chocolate, making large eyes at each other.
Janice then asked, "Are you someone who eats their chocolate slowly or the person who gobbles it?  I'm a gobbler.  But I won't gobble yours."
Edith smiled.  "I'm a gobbler who tries not to be.  It's amazing that we have any of the chocolate left."

Although this tone - twee, or camp, affected, even silly - put me off at first, soon it was established as part of Edith's personality.  She is, above all, fun, and a character with whom the reader will go anywhere - to bed with a man in a lacy nightdress, into Sir Eric's office to forge his signature, and even (rather reluctantly) into a conventional marriage in 1950s Canberra.  At the times when the story loses its thrust, the pleasure of Edith's company is all that pulls the reader along - but it's enough.

There is substance to the fun.  Most obviously, the trilogy is a thorough and detailed portrait of Edith, following her trajectory for forty years.  As in Portrait of a Lady, our youthful heroine, full of confidence, promise and idealism, is put through severe tests.  Edith longs for grand causes - no less than world disarmament and the end to all war.  She goes to Geneva in the '20s to work for the League of Nations.  Where is the League of Nations now?  With grand causes come grand failures.  I find this worth examining, over three long novels: how the biggest disappointments are allotted to the biggest dreamers.  So we follow Edith, hoping she doesn't give up or become embittered.  Her urge to enjoy life vanquishes disappointment time and again; finally the fun is the substance.  A sense of fun is an invincible weapon against life.

People used to dream big, and the trilogy touches on some of the biggest dreams.  On reading of, say, 'the Pact of Peace', my first reaction is to scoff: "Well, that certainly didn't end war forever!" - the barest knowledge of history turns the reader into a smug know-all.  Then I marvel that so many people could have shared such a preposterous dream.  Then I think it would be a great boon to have a cause, and to live in a time when there were still causes, still Utopian hopes.  Lastly it brings me to feel sad that our time is one where we don't believe in much except the greediness of humankind, and the best we can hope for is that we don't destroy the planet and extinct ourselves...or maybe that we do extinct ourselves.  No, my very last thought on the matter is that I should find myself a cause, to hell with the futility of it!  In Mr Smith Goes To Washington, which Andy was watching last night with headphones on, while I watched it silent, knowing that Andy would fill me in on the best bits, Mr Smith said, "Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for."

I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Moorhouse is including in his shortlist of grand failures of the twentieth century, our capital Canberra, with its design that Edith, and the Burley Griffins, foresee as creating a new type of city.  It's poignant to read of Edith's romantic projections about Canberra-to-be, such as: "the streets and roads that broke away from the old grid pattern were themselves a work of some art and reminded people that they were in a special city."  In fact, those artistic roads are annoying and impractical; as an inveterate pedestrian, my experience of those roads is needlessly long and boring trudges relieved here and there by shortcuts - invariably straight lines - worn into the grass by other pedestrians.  The satisfaction of being able to contrast the concrete reality of 2013 to the various futures imagined for us by earlier decades is one of the pleasures of Moorhouse's trilogy.

There is a curious echo between what goes on within the pages of the trilogy, and the actual work itself.  For Moorhouse, this was clearly a Grand Project (Edith/Moorhouse likes to upper-case the important things).  It took twenty years to write, and involved extensive reading and research, with Moorhouse living for several years in Geneva.  There are pages of acknowledgments to benefactors and institutions.  People clearly believed in and supported this work; Moorhouse himself must have been devoted to it.  It was probably going to be bigger than The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, or even in the realms of Tolstoy.  But like Edith's plans for ending war, Moorhouse's plans for a classic masterwork run up against the facts of imperfect reality, 'the human element' (to quote a poem of my father's).  The trilogy is full of flaws, from the major - such as the superficial treatment of two of Edith's three marriages, or the artless and repetitive recapping that goes on in the second and third volumes, presumably in an attempt to make them capable of standing alone - to the minor - the misspelling of 'gnarled' as 'knarled', and grammatical inconsistencies and errors such as  ' allowed Ambrose and she to...'.  But just as Edith's life is not a failure, although her plans didn't amount to much, Moorhouse's trilogy is far from being a lost cause.  Edith and Moorhouse (and the reader) enjoy her life up to her last minute, or page.  Because of the joie de vivre - the fun - of Moorhouse's writing, I would have gladly kept reading if it had been twice as long.

At the moment, writers seem to be obsessed with the finish, the polish, of a work.  The spirit of a work has often been polished right out of existence.  I'd much rather a book with rough patches and a life of its own, than one with perfect prose, no mistakes, and unlovable, humourless characters.

Finally, I think it is almost a handbook on how to live a good life - Moorhouse seems to know his own fallibility too well to state answers, and instead, through Edith, proffers suggestions.