Saturday, June 16, 2012

A pair of shorts

Last week I bought a pair of shorts at the publisher's launch: Varamo and Recluse.

Along with Evelyn Juers, author of Recluse, I have long been interested in the myth that the origin of Charles Dicken's character, Miss Havisham, was Newtown's retiring nineteenth century inhabitant, Eliza Donnithorne. Even as I have discovered over the years that there is nothing at all to the supposition, when I wanted to read Great Expectations to my children over the summer holidays one year, it mustn't only have been the fact that the story opens in a graveyard that had made me decide to start the reading early one summer evening during a picnic in Camperdown Cemetery, where Eliza was buried in her father's grave in 1886. Although I began reading it to them on Christmas Eve, as the book itself begins, this was simply a co-incidence; it is only late on a Christmas Eve when, all the preparations for both Christmas and the coming long months of summer, have at last come to a necessary close with the shutting of the shops. I must have thought of Magwitch though, and mused that his imaginary, antipodean adventures might have brought him to this cemetery or at least to this settlement at the terminus of a short nineteenth century omnibus ride from Sydney where, even in her lifetime, Eliza Donnithorne was rumoured to have been the model for the character which all of England and its colonies feared and so loved for her bitterness and her mad, white wedding gown and mouldering feast.

Despite her careful, persistent research, however, Juers finds that Eliza remains nearly as elusive to outsiders as she was while she was still alive and so, in place of a detailed portrait, the book stretches an extended, dizzying web of connections -- with details of Eliza's relatives, her associates, the descendents of the children she might have known in England and India -- around this quiet, almost unknown centre. So powerful is Juers's evocation of these connections that we feel what a relief it must have been for her to live on the other side of the world from this network of well-wishers who could never understand why it was, once her father had died, that she didn't come home -- that is, home to England.  The most precious aspect of Eliza that Juers discovers is this love of seclusion and, along with this, her love of books. Far from a cobwebbed, dank and reeking inner chamber, Juers has us imagining a replete and well-read sanctuary on the doorstep of the increasingly busy main street of Newtown, and as well as this, a generous heart. Miss Havisham might have brought up a young girl to wreak her revenge on all of the male world but Eliza Donnithorne, we learn, never turned a beggar of either sex away. Recluse is a gently paced extended meditation on reclusion -- a reclusion that we no longer wish to disturb.

Similarly, for all its teeming oddball peripheral characters, César Aira's Varamo, translated by Chris Andrews, has a quiet, if anxious, narrative thread through the middle of it. It has the feel of one of Italo Calvino's tales of urban naives: Varamo like a Marcovaldo or Mr Palomar -- but with an additional touch of Russian-style bureaucracy: a Mr Palomar as described by Gogol. Varamo is set in 1923 -- the height of literary modernism; in 1922 T. S. Eliot had published 'The Wasteland', and the flavour of this broad period of modernism is everywhere, from images of Varamo in his bowler hat in the 'crepuscular landscape of Panama'  -- suggestive of paintings by Magritte -- to the moment when, carrying his tiny mother with the ease that Kafka's Georg Bendemann carries his own paranoid parent in 'The Judgement', I almost expected Varamo's mother suddenly to grow tall, strong and frightening and take over the story with her wrath as Georg's father does. But Varamo is a tale that resists our desire for such elaborations. It is fitting that Varamo's seemingly surrealist attempt at embalming a fish and constructing a scene of it playing a piano -- no great modernist or surrealist statement in Varamo's eyes, but just a scene that he thought 'would be amusing, and was bound to appeal to customers' and hence to bring him extra cash to supplement his meagre public servant wage -- that this attempt should end with a half dead poisoned fish that his mother cooks for their dinner and a model of a piano that he can never get right, for even as he tries to imagine a piano as Cezanne might have done -- as 'basically made up of cubes embedded in one another' -- the object that he produces after many attempts, 'didn't look like a piano at all, even to him'.

The theme of money and deception is there from the beginning, when Varamo is paid his wages in counterfeit notes which he is too slow off the mark to hand straight back to the cashier. His fish sculpture fails, but fortune, or at least a reprieve in his financial anxieties, comes in the form of three pirate publishers hungry and ready to pay two hundred pesos for 'something really new'. I will quote what Chris Andrews himself read at the launch as it is a perfect comic scene:

'Do you write?' Varamo smiled and said no, amused by the thought. It had never occurred to him. 'But we're open to local writing, especially if it's the work of intelligent and cultured people like yourself. You wouldn't like to try?' Varamo replied that it was tempting. But he had no experience, he didn't even know the basics of the writer's craft... 'That doesn't matter at all,' the publishers exclaimed. On the contrary: in barbaric lands like the Americas, writers produced their best work before learning the craft, and nine times out of ten, their first book was the strongest, as well as being, in general, the only one they wrote. Since Varamo had no counter-arguments left, he improvised an obliging fantasy: 'For a while I've been wanting to write a book, to record what I've learned from my experiences as an amateur embalmer. I've even come up with a title: How to Embalm Small Animals.' Had he known what a keen interest his declaration would provoke, he would have kept his mouth shut. The three publishers expressed their desire to publish the book straight away. 'When can you deliver the manuscript?' 'Does it have illustrations?' 'I have enough paper ready for a good print run.' 'I'd do it in hardcover.' Although the project was a castle in the air, Varamo felt he should rein it in somehow: he said that he still hadn't received satisfactory results with his embalming. 'That doesn't matter!' The thing was to make it look like real work; in the current phase of capitalism, work was coming to resemble play, and losing its necessity; that was why instructions were the way of the future, a poetry of instructions freed from the tyranny of results. They continued in the same vein for a while, but Varamo wasn't listening, and eventually he interrupted them. 'I have an idea: what about How to Embalm Small Mutant Animals, wouldn't that be a more attractive title?' The publishers gaped in amazement. They were thinking: He's one of us.
This is the only mention of mutants in the book, as far as I can recall, but there is one of Aira's famous shifts in genre a little earlier where, in an essayistic digression on the 'free indirect style' and the technique of improvisation, the narrator expands on the playful conceit of the book being a 'historical reconstruction' of Varamo's consciousness while the future poet plays domino solitaire and and his mother cooks the poisoned and mutilated fish that we will soon forget for, in this kind of narrative, the fish doesn't need to be fired in the the final scene.

On the back of both of these volumes from the new Giramondo series, Giramondo Shorts, I read the following:

it is time perhaps to cherish
the culture of shorts

This is a reference, as I learned last week, not so much to the short attention span that I have heard referred to so often that it has ceased to have any meaning, but to the sometimes humorous, humble fey of Les Murray as given creased and stretchy form in his poem: The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever -- the whole of it an image of being in this country that I recognise, if only from certain quirk-loving books and films that must have drawn their sustenance from Patrick White's Mrs Poulter and Mrs Dun and their less wordy men down Terminus Road over four decades ago in The Solid Mandala. I'm not sure what Les Murray would make of either Varamo or Recluse. Perhaps he would see them as relying too much on the webbing of words and not enough on the loved, worn edges of the dominoes themselves. And yet he might surprise me. After all, I, who never ordinarily wear the sartorial sort myself nor read his poetry more than rarely, bought this pair of shorts last week with Les Murray lines on the back.