domingo, 13 de janeiro de 2013

DISQUIET by Julia Leigh - Reviewed by John Holten

Julia Leigh 
Reviewed by John Holten

Faber & Faber 2008

What is it about the space of time writers indulge in between books? Often times it seems that they can't get it right – too long and people forget they even exist (the first novelist's quandary) and too short a time and a suspicion of haste will inevitably be raised, an arched eyebrow levelled at the integrity of a work knocked out in half a year. It has been quite some time since Julia Leigh's first novel. ‘The Hunter’ appeared almost ten years ago in fact. With her follow up, ‘Disquiet’, she has delivered a short novella length piece of work that is as poised and deftly crafted as her first. But of course in an ideal world literature should be free of these concerns – number of pages, time taken to write a book – the pared down nature of this novella however opens up a feeling of compression, of concentration, in both style and subject matter, that is hard to not to contrast with the space of time the writer had to compose it.
‘Disquiet’ opens with a mother, Olivia, and two children, a boy and a girl, turning up outside a large French chateau, a building only ever vaguely outlined in the book, and surrounded by surprisingly ornate gardens complete with 'yews clipped into fantastic shapes, into top hats and ice-cream cones and barbells'. They arrive with their baggage in tow, fleeing it seems from a violent and traumatic past. The world they enter, the world of the chateau and Grandmother, Olivia's mother, quickly turns out to be no safe haven; it is a house of slow, sure footed drama – a very fine big house then, exactly the way literature likes them. Balloons greet them on arrival, balloons set out to welcome back the Olivia's brother Marcus and his wife Sophie from hospital, due back with their first born child that very same day. Only of course the baby has died upon birth, and what the reader is left with quite quickly are three mothers all in various states of extremis, each colliding with the next in a series of oddly claustrophobic scenes that play out slowly, somewhat dreamily, the narrative Leigh so carefully unpicks with her short, detached paragraphs and neatly divided islands of prose (even with its hundred odd pages, ‘Disquiet’ still enjoys a tremendous amount of blank space throughout).
It is hard to say whether Leigh has spent all this time deciding to dispense with character, with story, and concentrate instead upon ideas and the language of ideas. This short book stands on the tightrope fiction itself throws up in the face of taking subject matter, conceptual subject matter, before the narrative characterisation that drives so much of recent writing. Whether or not the ensuing story of a French chateau hosting grief stricken families balances the reader's want of drama and characterisation or falls for an antiseptic aestheticism of its themes is difficult to tell at times. Leigh's language is nothing if not wholly assured, her management of setting, right down to the maid's Gallic use of English is as successful as it is economic. This is where the length of the book feels like it pays off, the reading in places is a joy of perfect sentences, one following the next, slowly turning the screw of the suffocating story. The space allows for the increasing despair of Marcus and Sophie and the rest of the household in their wake to be bearable to a reader seduced by the pitch of words perfectly chosen: a telephone's persistent ringing gives it 'dominion'; 'The girl was chit-chattering'; the old relatives who turn up for the first failed funeral of the baby are 'the revolution’s refuseniks, death's attendants'. However Leigh's control loosens once in the book when she relies on multiple exclamation marks to designate heightened speech – something I first read in a printed literature in last year's Booker Prize winning novel – and which confuses me for its lack of grammatical restraint. Here Sophie attacks a priest because of his exhortation to bury her dead, putrefying baby, an act that in her grief she finds impossible to carry out:
The Prophet Isaiah speaks of the time which is to come! he shouted. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days! Or an old man who does not live out his years!! He who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth!! A youth!!! And he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed!! Accursed!!
This is the one point in the book where lyrical compression lets itself down, not because of the use of the exclamation mark, a usage the reader will consider either as a possible by-product of text messaging influence or as an unwieldy grammatical device, but because it shows up the limitations of brevity, of the author's difficulty to outline the naturalism the book plays with throughout in scenes suspended on that very same tightrope mentioned earlier. This is a work of fiction that is itself unconcerned with doing justice to its characters, or self examining its 'voice' – it is third person prose which is unapologetic in its own literariness, and the use of multiple exclamation marks, something that should really only be employed in closer prose, first person prose if you will, lets this literary distance down.
The priest is just one beseecher who steps up to 'an elaborate piece of garden furniture, a rattan throne' and from which he gives forth the reasons why Sophie should let the dead be buried and embrace the death of her miscarried child. The story twists and turns around the macabre (Gothic springs to mind but thankfully, through the world weariness of Olivia, seems a superfluous word to use here) disability for Sophie to let go of the cadaver, an elaborate scene allowing the reader to wince as Olivia discovers the bundle of it in the kitchen freezer, where it is stored at night. It would seem like this is one of Leigh's main points of investigation in the book – the ends to which the bereaved and hurt go to deal with their fate. The initial funeral is abandoned after Sophie runs off with her bundle, allowing for a succession of advisors attempting to convince the grief stricken Sophie to bury the baby. The Grandmother is one of the first: 'You must bury this baby. In a short time no-one will speak of it. That is good. Things are not diminished by being left alone.' People barely speak of it as it is, it should be pointed out, the reader guessing their way through the denial and hushed atmosphere of a house in pain. Josette, a local from the nearby village and 'a representative of the State', ups her supplication beyond the levels employed by the Grandmother and even the priest:
The smell – the smell is a sign. Return the corpse to the earth. The skin will blister and fall away, the organs will bloat. Liquefy. Leak. Even the little ones leak. Millions of microbes inside the body will feast from within. And there may be coffin flies. It doesn't take long to work down to the bone. The bones, they will outlast you. And one day they too will – crumble. Everything will be transformed: this is what happens. The earth is thriving…The child is no longer suffering. She will remain in your thoughts. I do not believe in any soul, God is not the mystery, but I say – open your heart to those around you.
The mystery is not god, not the reasons why this death had to happen – or indeed why Sophie is so unable to part ways with her dead child. Leigh makes the mystery a lot more deep rooted than anything the story itself immediately offers – Marcus, for example, would appear to be having an affair and yet also is deeply complicit in the charade his wife plays with their dead child. Husbands, in the world of ‘Disquiet’, or absent or sinisterly complicit in crimes unstated and committed off stage. Olivia's husband would seem to have beaten her savagely, leaving her to profess that she is already 'murdered', deadened by her lived life.
The book works as a contemplation on death, the various ways it can be present in people's lives, but ultimately fails to comment on it in any way that is engaging or at least subtly involving. Mothers can go some way, it would seem Leigh says, to staving off death, averting the inevitable, calculating for its upheavals, but ultimately they fail too. Olivia at one point even appears to offer Marcus and Sophie her two children in a weird form of sisterly generosity.
The graceful pared down nature of the prose is just one effort Leigh makes in her novella to affect a sort of universalism, the kind of clean-shaven effect Cormac McCarthy mastered so well in ‘The Road’. And while his interest in the ideas his fictional world generated were perfectly married to the sparseness of his characterisation and style, Leigh's attempts at something similar fail due to a confusion of intent, something that comes through in the necessity of naming her characters. We meet them throughout in her prose as the mother, the girl, the boy, but within dialogue they are named: Olivia, Andy, Lucy. The frequency of her fine dialogue is out of tune with her equally well-honed prose – the result being a deflation of the sincerity the novella strives toward. Perhaps it would have been better if another level of compression was applied, striping the names completely of the whole cast, sifting out the personal from the dialogue, compacting the action even more. The story after all seems to strive for such compactness, but the length as it is just doesn't allow for it: it overruns itself and as such leaves one to think whether or not this story could have been more successfully managed as a short story. All of which brings back the question of length: compression and concentration in both prose and subject matter, married to an attempt at elemental universalism leaves the reader in a world that seems not quite fully realised, reading their way toward a world only a longer novel could do justice to. With ‘Disquiet’ you quickly find that what you are offered is an obscure world hiding its own story behind the conceits of its telling and artifice.
From the beginning the boy is compared to elemental forces of nature: 'But the door was oak and he was boy,’ or toward the end: 'The boy was mountain and lake.'And once they manage to bury Sophie's dead baby successfully right at the very end of the book, the boy's mother has her own fears for her son presented in a cadenza explicit that forces her to come to terms with the passing of things, of her own disappointments in life and the growing older of her son, 'But no boy is mountain and lake.' This leads to her to make a wish for him to 'Hold, hold’ as if all things could become steadfast in the face of the transience of things. The house and its ghostly grounds would seem to have stayed steadfast, Ida, the head maid, seems to be the only one to remain implacable. The boy asks her early on if she is a servant."'A housekeeper,' replied Ida. 'And I am here a very long time. I know this place inside outside and I know everything that happens here. Every. Thing. Everything.'" And isn't this the way of big house stories? It is always the domestics who hold out over the lost inhabitants, exhibiting the real wisdom of the story, complicit in all the plot's demands. But it is hard to know what to make of this equation Leigh makes between nature, children and death – not much really, due to the changing of the values constantly throughout the book. Boy equals mountain and lake, boy does not equal mountain and lake (he and his mother and sister nearly drown in the lake), nature is impervious to change, nature is all about change and becoming. In the end all that is really to be gleaned from this shadowy, elliptical narrative is the bald facts that children can die, and if they don't die they will grow up in a world that will hurt them, becoming just like the damaged adults that gave birth to them in the first instance. Therefore, even if they do in fact die as infants, this novella is interested in the parent's ability to remain holding on to them. Some children never want to grow up; Leigh posits in ‘Disquiet’ that it is the damaged parent, full of weakness and wholly fallible, that can sometimes wish for their children not to grow up and so not to approach death.
All of this, and what with the setting, led me to think on more than one occasion that a better title for the book could have been ‘l'Angoisse.’ Unjust I have no doubt, but as a reader angst or anxiety, a fixed gaze on death – these existential concerns crowd in on the reading of the story. Not just once will you find yourself squirming as you battle on to denouement of this tale, eager to start breathing again. Disquiet after all, is not very present within the story: the characters are all far too damaged and disturbed to be inconveniently disquieted by things. Indeed, it is as if even in her title Leigh is once more acknowledging the book's inherent literariness, informing the reader what it is they are going to experience upon reading.
Unlike the interest generated in Donna Tartt between ‘The Secret History’ and ‘The Little Friend’, Julia Leigh's first work does not anticipate a book such as ‘Disquiet’. A quiet, punctilious piece of art that, published as it is by Faber and Faber who are increasingly, it seems to me, the cul de sac of many such literary endeavours, will remain as an interesting exercise in marrying ideas with fine prose, nothing more. What those that pick up this slight book will find is a short work (shorter than McEwan's ‘On Chesil Beach’, leaving it squarely in the novella genre) that is as aloof as it is 'disquieting' in its stuffy story, so full of bruised adults and decomposing dead babies. The epitaph comes from Ingeborg Bachmann, after Flaubert: Avec ma main brûlée, j'écris sur la nature du feu, which leads one to consider the possibility that this a more personal piece of work than its unabashed artifice would lead one to believe: certainly the mother character, Olivia, fleeing her husband in Australia, who is 'already murdered' and sees herself as dead, fears for her children and their future hurts, their inevitable passing, their deaths, in a manner that at times, and only for the shortest of times, seems more humane than Leigh may have intended. A strange mirroring therefore goes on in this book that could be seen to act as a metaphor for the writer who writes from experience, the empirical burn or scar from the real world going some way, in all that time between books, to a meditation on life's difficult phenomenon. But than in an ideal world such fancies have no place, the art should be aloud to speak for itself. Perhaps that is the final irony of ‘Disquiet’: that for all its sparseness and intensity, so long in its appearance from such an undeniable master of the craft, one cannot help try and fill in all the white space around its elegant prose. You count the pages, you count the years of writing – and you're left wondering: is this it?

© John Holten 
Reproduced with permission
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