Essays (book reviews)
Weights and Measurements:
On Delia Falconer's
The following text was delivered at the Melbourne launch of Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, Readings, Carlton (Melbourne), 6 July 2005.
The other day I happened to find on the Internet the transcription of a talk by the French philosopher Luce Irigaray. She began by speaking about praise: how, in Western societies, we are not skilled or schooled in it, we don’t know how to handle it. Especially in Australia, as I sometimes think: we take praise sometimes defensively, or mockingly; and we give it grudgingly, couching it in a note or deflation, or even insult.
I am happy to report, however, that for a critic like myself, the book launch is one of the few occasions that allows absolute license for the handing-out of praise.
But there’s another side to this business of praise – which is precisely when praise becomes a kind of business. For people in my game – the film reviewing game, but likewise for the book or art or music reviewing game – praise is often given too easily and freely, too quickly and cheaply.
It is a rare event in the arts that makes a critic want to lift his or her game, to find adequate praise, exact praise, just praise. Delia Falconer’s new book is having that effect on me right now.
I was indeed honoured when Nikki Christer of Picador asked me to say these few words to launch Delia’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers. It is, in fact, the only book of fiction that I have ever been asked to launch. But if I imagine myself suitable for the job, that’s not only because this is, in many ways, a very cinematic book.
My other qualification for the task: I have also been an avid fan of Delia’s work since it began to appear publicly in the mid 1990s. I have followed her novels, her short stories, her essays, her book reviews, her talks. I may have an advantage over some of you because, as the author of a book on The Mad Max Movies, I am also closely acquainted with Delia’s extensive writing on Mad Max – and indeed, I believe George Miller missed out on a great opportunity when he neglected to commission Delia to write the screenplay for the fourth film in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road.
Now, the distance between Mad Max and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is not as great as you might think. Both are about mythologies of men, and of the landscape. Both are about men in battle, surrounded by the enemy. And don’t forget that Mad Max has often been referred to as a “Western on wheels”. Delia’s book is a Western. It in fact tackles a classic Western subject: General George Custer’s last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Delia tells this story from an oblique, indirect angle. She narrates the tale of Fredrick Benteene, who was definitely not the legendary hero of the Battle of Little Bighorn. What was hard for him is that he survived. And he lived to a ripe old age. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is told in a kind of cinematic flashback through the recollections of old Benteene.
Even at this level, the tale and its telling are oblique. The book is about lost thoughts, often cryptic, mysterious thoughts – not the cartography of an epic battle. It is about bodily sensations and mechanisms, about changes in the weather, about fleeting impressions of the land. Delia writes fearlessly about things that are hard to describe: often I remembered, while reading this book, the filmmaker Robert Bresson’s modest but enormous statement that, in one of this films, he “tried to capture the force in the air just before a storm”. But Delia also retains a fine and tender sense – evident from that first story which we all read of hers, “Columbus’ Blindness” – for every doomed, everyday attempt that we feeble humans make at describing the indescribable, every kind of weight and measurement going.
Delia has remarked that part of her motivation in writing (all her writing) is to explore, to imagine, to show what is left out of official history. And Benteene, the old codger, is the hero of this unofficial history.
I suggested that this book is cinematic in many ways. For example, I described it as a cinematic flashback: I know literature probably invented that technique (William Faulkner?), but cinema took it over so thoroughly that, today, when novelists use it, they are quoting cinema whether they like it or not – and Delia, I suspect, likes it.
A second way in which this book is cinematic: when it comes to the history of the American West we have, after all, a very curious situation. Even while the real West was still around, in its death throes but still kicking, the real cowboys and Indians, soldiers and families, were already being turned into a media-created mythology. This took place in popular writing and folk tales, but above all in visual imagery (paintings and photographs), theatrical and circus spectaculars (the subject of Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians ), and, of course, in the movies. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is about this complex cultural moment, and state of mind, when all of us (Benteene included) come to understand history through the images and stories refracted through movies.
And a third level of cinema. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers often reminded me of one particular film: Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1998). This is another story about men in a historic war (Guadalcanal); another story of man (the character played by Elias Koteas) who chose not to pus through and fight and sacrifice (as his commander ordered), but to live and help some of his ‘children’ to live. It’s another story about men – not just men in war but men, period – and their strange, mystical ideas about the unfathomable otherness of Women. Malick, too, approaches his tale obliquely and internally, attuned to those private, lost thoughts. And he, too, avoids the Hollywood spectacle of the battle scene.
But I have to tell you – with all due respect to Terrence Malick – that The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is a heck of a lot funnier than The Thin Red Line. There is a Monty Python element in Delia’s sensibility. A lot of the book is preoccupied with absurdities: irrational thoughts, inexplicable sights, the daily chatter of nonsense that soldiers speak to each other when they are approaching the lines of war.
And this leads me to something I really love about this book: that it’s moving and profound, without ever playing on manipulative sentimentality or heavy-handed epiphany. And here I would like to try to something precise about Delia’s writing – I mean her language, her words. I am often amused by the predictable poverty of adjectives we find in literary reviews. If written language, prose, is ever pared down, in some way minimal or terse, we either call it hardboiled and muscular (meaning that it’s masculine, like Hemingway, apparently – ‘muscular prose, that always cracks me up); or it’s delicate and exquisite (and that means it’s feminine, pretty).
With Delia’s writing, with her style in this book, we have something hard to describe: something dead-set in the middle between hard-boiled and exquisite. Something that I can tell you that Delia avoids like the plague is what I think of as the temptation to epiphany, a constant epiphany about the profound meaning of things in every fourth line or so, that so bedevils writers who try to write in the tradition of Raymond Carver or Richard Ford (even Ford himself increasingly falls into this trap). You know the sort of thing I’m referring to: Time compressed and caught up with Johnno at the precise moment he stepped into the golf buggy, and the meaning of his entire life unfurled before him like a parchment …
But here’s something from Delia’s book:
When he was away upon the plains she had stood in the street and imagined a pair of hands pressed against her waist, it did not matter whose. No particular tone to what she said. Her neck, as she spoke, was still and supple, all at once – it seems to him that she has been the same age, always. (p. 51)
This could be the evocation of a scene from another Malick film, Days of Heaven, which Petr Král once praised for capturing our “honeymoon with the world”. There’s that same honeymoon to be had, reading this book by Delia.
In general, I tend to read the Author’s Note or the Acknowledgements at the back of a book first. Maybe I shouldn’t have, in this case, but I did. You will learn much there about Delia’s way – sometimes strict, sometimes fanciful – with details of the historical record, which she meticulously researches, collates and compares. And then she takes off from there, obeying the call of fiction. In trying to capture the quality of Delia’s writing, I followed this thread of Little Bighorn, and found myself going to a passage in Private Screening, a remarkable 1985 book of “viewing memoirs” by the aforementioned Petr Král: a passage which, too, is about that same battle, as depicted in the odd 1960s film Custer of the West by a once great, Classic Hollywood director, German-born Robert Siodmak.
Custer of the West climaxes with a reconstruction of the celebrated Battle of Little Big Horn [sic]. Kirk Douglas in the title role finally stands alone on the battlefield in the midst of his dead troops, and exposed to the arrows of the Indians who circle round him. Yet he is not to die: at the very last moment the image jumps slightly and then we note Custer’s singular absence at the centre of the famous circle, which at that moment begins to break up. Disappeared, literally, without a trace. Obviously caused by a simple technical fault, this spiriting away of his death gave him a singular nobility totally lacking from the rest of the film.
For Král, singular nobility is something that arrives in films obliquely, sometimes by chance or surreal accident. There are no accidents in Delia’s prose, but there is this sparkle of nobility caught unawares, appearing unexpectedly. Her language sets us up for, hunts out and captures that moment, those moments.
It’s an intriguing time in Australian writing at present. We can observe the fates, compare and contrast the styles, of two authors who both started in [that] mid 1990s period: Delia and Christos Tsiolkas.
On the one hand, Christos’ Dead Europe is 411 pages, jam-packed with radical politics, gory violence and kinky sex – like an episode of Big Brother. It offers a mode of writing that people tend to call melodramatic, whether they mean that as praise or damnation. It’s main plot hook is gay vampires – ghosts/spirits/wraiths that haunt the living, that haunt history itself, ghosts that infect and kill and rape. Public intellectual Robert Manne was indignant, repulsed by it – and willing to write about it for many pages in The Monthly magazine.
On the other hand, Delia’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers. This one’s 140 pages, with elegantly, widely spaced lines. It offers a kind of writing that people tend to call literary – or indeed very literary – whether they mean that as praise or damnation. And it is also a book about the ghosts of history, and memories that haunt the living.
OK, so it’s not a contest; these are two very different books which attempt (and succeed at) very different things. But if there is a point of convergence between them – and this point of convergence is also a sign of health in contemporary Australian literature – it is that both authors are working not just to clash or collide but truly blend vastly different forms of writing: ‘between documentary and fiction’, as we say at the movies. They blend narrative with essay, imaginative speculation with hard, historical research, metaphysical poetry with urgent polemic. And I don’t think it’s an accident that both Delia and Christos are obsessed with this theme, this process, of haunting. The voice of ghosts, of history’s ghosts, is the kind of voice that pricks your social conscience, not just your individual consciousness, and it’s a voice that demands to be given special form in a new kind of writing. That’s the kind of writing we get in The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers.
I do, however, have one piece of literary – very literary – advice for Delia in terms of whatever her next book is (her third, and may it be soon). It concerns the title. After The Service of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, please, not another title in the form of The X-Y of Z. That would be turning yourself into a genre!
Beyond that, I have no critique to make of this book. It is superbly written and constructed, and it has a quality that one reviewer has already mentioned: the Iceberg Effect. What this reviewer meant was exactly what the old Hollywood Studio Moguls meant when they wielded this term: that the true depth of the book is hidden, secret, and what we encounter on first contact, at the surface, is only the entrée to something much larger and deeper. Something that resonates, and stays with you.
And if this is indeed the only book of fiction I am ever asked to launch in my life, I am extremely glad that it’s this one.
© Adrian Martin 6 July 2005