Meanjin ‘Tournament of Books’

24th September 2011

I’ve recently had the privilege of judging the Meanjin Tournament of Books 2011: an annual event modelled on The Morning News championship, which has been running in the States since 2005. The Meanjin event is slightly different from its predecessor however, as it only focuses on Australian women’s fiction. A full chart of the Tournament is available here, and excellent match is commentary provided on the site by Jess McGuire and Ben Pobjie. My fixture pitted Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach (1984) against Elizabeth Jolley’s Mr. Scobie’s Riddle (1983). It’s a great opportunity for readers to familiarise themselves with canonical novels, by women, that they might otherwise have passed over for the latest release—and I’m excited to see which book will ultimately win (the favourites are Alexis Wright and Christina Stead, reportedly, although my money’s on Garner). My review is reposted here, and you can comment across the way.

Having recently relocated from west to east, I have been unable to escape the geographic implications of reading these two novels alongside one another. My willful expectation—borne only from the stubbornness of rushing to making familiar ground out of what is strange, and new—was that the Jolley would show me a hometown literary tradition out of step with the rest of the nation. Garner is so often cited as the Australian woman reader’s writer (even as a new generation of female commentators gracelessly cosset her politics). Jolley on the other hand, seemed to be from another age. As a lodestar in Perth’s marginal cosmos, my anticipation was that Jolley’s writing would be starchy in tone, and arthritic in form. The ocean would inevitably appear, as it always does in Western Australian novels, the way one salts things that are going stale. Mr. Scobie’s Riddle was the first Jolley book I’d ever read.

But where on earth did I get that impression from? Mr. Scobie’s Riddle is both textually experimental, and architecturally shambolic. Set at the St. Christopher and St. Jude Nursing Home, the narrative springs between the experiences and recollections of ‘patients’ (residents)—interdicted by excerpts from reports by the Night Sister and Matron. An explanatory contents entitled “A Guide to the Perplexed” foreshadows bizarre plot points such as ‘the row with the fish’, ‘Mrs Renfrew eats Miss Hailey’s junket’, and ‘Frankie and Robyn enjoy a rave about climaxing’. Jolley cultivates the absurdity of the semi-blind and the cloth-faced in Mr. Scobie’s Riddle: characters misconstrue and blunder through otherwise lamentable circumstances. What makes this such a dazzling display of writerly craft though, is the way in which the novel sets up its own internal logic systems and vocabularies. Mr. Scobie’s Riddle contains its own operating instructions: so that the reader recognises the clinking of a load of bricks being trucked up an incline as exit music, and a character’s calls for ‘Hildegarde the Meat Bird’ as marking out a loss of home. Garner may be the journalist, but Jolley is the master of shorthand.

Yet, while it is Jolley’s novel that deals most directly with mortality, The Children’s Bach is the darker of the pair. This short book is driven by the tension between sexual desire’s depthless intensity, and our social obligations to contrived imperatives (most notably, obligations to family). Characters orbit, repel, collide and find themselves unable to completely detach. In breaking in and breaking out of their established modes, they discover that morality is circumstantial, and commitment is only ever conditional. Garner may not have Jolley’s sensitivity for language and structure, but her device par excellence is emotional compression. What The Children’s Bach seeks is more rigorous forms of emotional honesty. Garner shows how women (particularly women) foreclose upon their tumultuous inner lives in order to perform a more cohesive public persona. This revelation is at once demolishing, and rousing—particularly in the context of thinking about women’s writing in Australia. Imagination is cruel, imagination is chaotic, imagination is combative in The Children’s Bach. What a wonderful and bold mandate for those of us whose stock-in-trade is imagination.

I ruin the books I love: turning dog-ears down in the upper corners for ideas that strike me, and folding them up in the lower corners for expressions I find elegant or canny. While Mr. Scobie’s Riddle surprised and delighted me, it is The Children’s Bach that has suffered the most as a result of my reading.  For her astonishing use of emotional compression, and her ability to construct even as she deconstructs relationships, Garner wins this round.