Saturday, May 3, 2008

Breath, by Tim Winton, and the May issue of Australian Book Review

My review for The Australian of Tim Winton's Breath is here. I've been interested to note that more than one person has picked me up on my mention of Winton's Christianity, as though that were somehow unusual or odd, but I can't imagine how it would be possible to review his work without mentioning it: it is the world view from which his work proceeds, and it would be an impoverished, misshapen commentary that didn't at least acknowledge it.

James Ley, a critic I have come to admire more and more for the unerring way he can remain engaging and lucid while working with abstruse ideas, not to mention his willingness to lay about him with the jawbone of an ass if he thinks the occasion demands it, has reviewed this novel at more length in Australian Book Review, where with the extra space he has been able to write more reflectively; the image I have is of spreading ripples in a pond. There's never space for that kind of leisurely expansion of ideas in newspaper reviewing, though I was very glad to have a 12-1400 word limit, rather than the more usual 8-900, for my own review. One paragraph of James's in particular is a wonderful encapsulation of what's going on in Winton's writing generally, and pinpoints what he sees as a mismatch of content and mode:

What distinguishes Winton's recent work from a number of other writers with metaphysical leanings -- Flannery O'Connor, say, or Cormac McCarthy -- is that it does not try to evoke a palpable sense of evil ... characters are sometimes damaged and violent, but not irredeemably bad. "People are fools," observes Pikelet [the narrator-hero], "not monsters." This empathy can be double-edged when it is combined with Winton's visionary instincts. There is a generous humanity, an exultation of the ordinary, informing the celebratory domestic scenes of Cloudstreet ... But it is also why a self-consciously dark book like The Turning can seem dour and mean rather than tragic. Its air of fatalism appears confected and tendentious, because Winton is a high symbolist working in a realist mode. [My emphasis.] The same element that elevates his best writing can encumber it: meaning is forced upon his characters whether they like it or not.

Now that bolded clause is the most insightful thing I have ever read about Winton's work and it explains to me exactly why I have never been fully comfortable with it. I would have paid the cover price of ABR to read that paragraph alone. As it is, there is some fabulous other stuff in this particularly good (and, if I am not mistaken, unusually fat) May issue, beginning with a review essay by J.M. Coetzee on Fredric Jameson's The Modernist Papers that asks what is for those of us who have spent a goodly part of our lives in university English departments -- and that includes Jameson, Coetzee and me -- a very scary question:

... it is not hard to come up with materialist explanations ... for why there should have been a shake-up in literary fashion in and after the 1960s. What is not so obvious, what we need the assistance of the historian to understand, is why departments of English, in which overwhelmingly monoglot bodies of students gathered to read products of fancy written in their mother tongue, were ever called on to act as an accrediting agency for entry into the middle class.

Why indeed, she asked as she mentally rewrote a bit of her hypothetical autobiography. There's also an insightful and fair-minded but intermittently tart review of Helen Garner's The Spare Room by ABR editor Peter Rose (full text online at that ABR link), and a review of the Tony-Jones-edited collection The Best Australian Political Writing 2008. Other highlights include reviews of Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds' Drawing the Global Colour Line, which is one of the few books I've bought in the last few weeks, of Joan London's new novel The Good Parents (also fully readable online), and of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by one of my favourite bloggers, the brilliant New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.

There's also a lengthy continuation in the letters page of an increasingly unseemly wrangle between rival biographers and their supporters over whether or not Martin Boyd's death was suicide. Given that most people die of being themselves in any case, surely the line -- that distinction between suicide and whatever the other thing is -- is often greyer and fuzzier than most people are prepared to admit in any case. Martin Boyd was a unique figure in Australian literary history and part of a unique family in its cultural history, and the manner of his death is not one of the important things about his life. Let him rest in peace.


  1. Kerryn, that's more what I wanted to hear, I guess. And the bolded stuff says it for you in a nutshell.

    You might be interested to know that I did have a chat to one of the religious members of my household who has read a bit of Winton, and would see a lot of that imagery much more easily than most. He does not see it, he spoke of Winton as a secular humanist at first. And he has read The Turning, so I guess I'm still sticking to my assertion that the Christianity in Winton is a smaller elephant than you've suggested at my blog. (Do we get this, for example, in Prichard, I wonder? I don't really see Communist symbolism all over her books, mostly out of courtesy because I'm interested in what she has to show me. Certainly in Lawrence, though).

    Though certainly I feel some of the ickyness around sexuality and religion when I read, for example, some of James McAuley's love poetry. Perhaps I am still so soaked in this stuff that it's harder for me to sense it. I don't know. Does this make Beckett a high symbolist too? and if not, why not?

    Also it did come to mind for me that there are much more obviously tagged fictions around. William Gaddis' The Recognitions, is the book I would think of here; practically impenetrable to non-Catholics - they need an online glossary or a guide to deal with it, whereas I just skated through most of the Christian references (T.Rex, of course, is chockers full of other juicy things.) Gaddis even puts himself in at a party, where a character jokes to him, 'yes, you are writing for a very small audience.'
    So it is not as though this symbolism you are sensing is immediately apparent to all concerned. Perhaps that says something about the extent to which Judeo-Christian images still linger through our culture, though.

  2. umm, obviously not Communist symbolism in Lawrence. Sorry, the comment is a bit long, that should read 'personal symbolism' for Lawrence.

  3. I think you may be over-reading my elephant and room reference a bit -- my fault, I was being unnecessarily hyperbolic. How about 'to ignore Winton's Christianity is to ignore the elephant in the room'. Just in the sense in which one usually uses the phrase. You may also be reading me as hostile to it, which I'm not, just neutral.

    So it is not as though this symbolism you are sensing is immediately apparent to all concerned.

    No, of course not -- which is all the more why one sees a need to point it out; as a critic, to illuminate what's going on in the work. I'd also argue, though I bet a lot of people wouldn't agree with me, that when one actually is a Christian, or an adherent of any other self-identified belief system, one often can't see the forest for the trees in Christian (or whatever) -oriented literature because one has internalised these things as the norm. I see Christian/Biblical references (as Ley points out, the hero's wife isn't called 'Grace' by accident, and nor is Eva's name a coincidence) from the point of view of a secular reader trained to understand what's going on in a literary work by coming at it from historical and biographical angles among others. I'm not trying to pin down meaning, but rather to open it up more.

    But if I were Winton and writing all these tales of guilt, temptation, redemption and grace, I would be bloody annoyed if readers didn't see it.

    You seem to be suggesting (correct me if I'm wrong here) that to identify the Christian symbolism elements in Winton's work is to somehow ignore or neglect 'what he has to show me', but I'd argue that those tales of redemption and fall and conversion and grace and so on are, precisely, what he has to show me.

    I'm still a bit puzzled about exactly what it is that you're taking issue with, but I think what we're really talking about, as per your Gaddis comparison, is the difference between literature that is actually overtly about Christianity and literature that uses its allusions, symbols and spiritual narratives. Here's Ley again, on the nature of that distinction, in his review of The Turning:

    'Any novelist prepared to name on of his characters 'Fish Lamb' and to have that character come back from the dead is obviously interested in Christianity on some level. It is also true that several of the big themes that run through Tim Winton's work -- guilt, atonement, forgiveness -- have a religious flavour. Nevertheless, Winton's symbolism tends to have an open-ended quality ... [Spiritual] experiences are often depicted as a non-specific form of mysticism or pantheism. It is thus slightly unusual for Winton to address a religious conversion as explicitly as he does in the title story ..'

    I'm not sure how to read your Prichard comparison -- surely 'Communist symbolism' is practically an oxymoron? :-) Prichard's a heavily symbolic writer but she was a Freudian as well as a communist, indeed heavily influenced by Lawrence, and most of her imagery/symbolism is secular-sexual. (Do I detect here a particularly Melbourne historical inheritance from the 1950s of seeing 'Catholic vs Communist' as the naturally-occurring opposition? It would never have occurred to this South Australian!)

  4. Well, foine. Points about symbolism are interesting enough.
    However, the Gaddis book is about authenticity rather than Christianity per se, in art and in life.
    As for Winton? 'Not called 'Grace' by accident' - well, that is the sort of thing Bunyan would do too, I suppose. Point taken.

    Communist symbolism - yes, that's a clumsy expression.

    I suppose I did not warm to this open labelling of Winton because there is a sense in your points about symbolism that the other uses to which it is put, namely to write tales of redemption or conversion, are narrative curves that a lot of other writing shares anyhow. Redemption and conversion are not exclusively Christian tropes, I would have thought they were a bit older than Jesus.
    My point about Prichard, put badly, is that the quality of her writing is not damaged by the use of symbolism, Freudian, secular or otherwise, whereas Lawrence's reputation seems to have suffered for that reason. (And she does stick in my mind as a Communist writer mainly because she did not repudiate Stalin.)

    But if Winton's use of Christian or pantheistic symbolism has slipped under my radar, well, fine. I will re-examine it, and thank you for pointing it out.

  5. I'm still kind of puzzled, because you sound offended, but I can't quite work out by what. Especially since I've said several times that I personally don't regard 'Christian' as in any way pejorative, and didn't mean to imply (and I don't think I did imply) that his writing is necessarily 'damaged' or otherwise diminished by it. That's not an argument I would make.

    Your phrase 'open labelling' makes it a bit clearer to me, though. The things is that Winton openly labels himself. He talks about himself, and has always talked about himself, as a Christian whose beliefs inform his work. I guess I was taking for granted that everyone knows he does this. And I believe writers when they say this kind of fundamental thing about themselves.

  6. There's no offence taken, Kerryn - I was writing between organising a family tea, and had a bit to say, didn't want to bang on too much though. Perhaps it was a bit terse? if so I'm sorry.
    I'm just trying to rescue my somewhat tenuous position from your consistently dazzling skewers :-) (If I knew any fencing terms, I'd throw one in there.)
    As always, it's a pleasure to joust with you. And I should be obtaining either Breath or The Spare Room for Ma's Day now. So I look forward to checking out that pachyderm for myself sometime.