Friday, January 25, 2013

Gone in the grate

The central motif of Geordie Williamson's The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found -- Walter Benjamin's idea of the lasting work of art as a slow-burning fuse, or as Williamson has it,  works that continue to glow even as the remnants of more brightly flaring books have 'gone in the grate' -- is actually a melancholy one. As I read this book I could see these glowing works staring without blinking from the dusty coal hearth in our dining room, behind the electric column heater that we never put away as Sydney's weather always changes (and our house is too small -- there is nowhere to put it). Geordie Williamson had hunted out these still warm books in second hand shops, the bookcases of friends and the online market. I imagine they had the smell and toasted edges of the David Foster essay collections I once found in a charity shop in Adaminaby. That said, many of my favourite Australian novels are in this kind of shape, from the unspeakably worn greasy cover of Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children to the multiply broken backed Angus and Robertson editions of John Shaw Neilson's poems and Joseph Furphy's Such is Life. Such is Life indeed.

In his introduction, Williamson quotes from David Ireland's 1979 novel, A Woman of the Future:

It is a continent of dreams we inhabit, a waiting continent. All who have set foot in its bush, its lonely places, know that silence. The continent is dreaming. We have felt it and been afraid...and retired to the outer rim.

While this idea of the continent dreaming has been used so often in the last few decades, and in such a confusion of hurried misappropriation -- in itself suggestive of the very fear that Ireland describes -- it's impossible not to recognise, immediately, the immense complexity of otherness that we continue to avoid.

Williamson adds:

The outer rim is a pretty good description of where we perch today. Some will claim that this retirement is more conscious than fearful, a principled turning away from the centre [....] From where I'm standing, though, in the thick of an intense engagement with a number of neglected Australian authors, it looks more like a loss of nerve.
While Australia, with our penny-a-piece language and the disconcerting similarity, to so many in the northern hemisphere, of our rows of fast food outlets and lowering furniture stores and kitchen showrooms -- along with the apparent absence of successfully titular castles, or at least indigenous multinational brands -- while this country might be more prone to a bargain basement attitude to book production, I found it hard not to think, as I followed Williamson's argument, that he was describing what was happening to Anglophone fiction in every country where it struggles to keep roots in any kind of soil. The difference, perhaps, is that the sheer number of irretrievable cultural and human losses, and the press of the unknown millennia that we feel in every part of this land -- that Delia Falconer describes in such evocative detail in her book on Sydney -- is often balanced by only the slightest or most smugly meaningful of publications and a suspiciously vigorous obsession with real estate.

An edited version of Williamson's introduction can be found here (if this link won't let you read the whole piece, try googling it). Interestingly, in the online edited piece the brief bright book has gone cold in the grate; in Williamson's book, as I read it, it has slipped through the teeth and lies thin and lost in the ash.