Geoff Page reviews The Seaglass Spiral by Alan Gould
by Alan Gould
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Let me begin, atypically for an Australian reviewer, with a declaration of interest. I have been a friend and colleague of Alan Gould from well before before he published his first book, Icelandic Solitaries, in 1978. I have read all his eleven collections of poetry and his seven previous works of fiction and am confident that this new book, The Seaglass Spiral, is one of his three best works (the other two being his selected poems, The Past Completes Me, and his most recent novel, The Lakewoman).
Despite having published a substantial body of poetry and prose over more than thirty years, Gould is not as prominent in our literary culture as he deserves to be. Partly because of its unrelenting integrity and its painstaking attention to linguistic detail, his writing is considered unfashionable, even stilted, in some quarters. It’s not without significance that The Seaglass Spiral was rejected, often in glowing terms, by several major publishers before it was taken up by the small but enterprising Finlay Lloyd of Braidwood, NSW, and produced to an appropriately high standard.
In this work, as in others, Gould reveals a mind that likes to classify and then assess for quality in terms of the relevant category. In fiction and poetry alike, Gould is concerned with psychopathology and individual morale. He needs to know how a particular mind works and what the state of its self-confidence is at any particular time. He admires courage, particularly moral courage — and those who are able to maintain their spirits, even in adversity. He is not, however, without humour and has a lightness of touch, in both poetry and prose, which helps him escape the sententiousness that such a mind-set might otherwise lead to.
For all these reasons Gould’s work is not seen as “experimental” yet The Seaglass Spiral is one of the most experimental books I have read in recent years. It’s strange that an author so Linnaean should have written a book so beyond classification. Some readers will see it as a bildungsroman but it is surely unusual in this genre to start a thousand years before the protagonist’s birth. Others will see it as a roman à clef but in many ways it is not a roman at all, for all that its playful ingenuity with nomenclature might suggest it.
And it is certainly not an autobiography though it does, in fact, cover Gould’s own early life and that of his wife in considerable detail. Biographies and autobiographies tend to start with a birth date and then sketch in the parents. Gould, however, in his brush with this genre, prefers to reach back hundreds of years. The Seaglass Spiral could be considered a family history (or a history of two families) but, if it is, it is also one in which none of the characters bears his or her own name. Hardly the way for a family to immortalise itself.
Gould’s concerns in The Seaglass Spiral, however, go well beyond playing with categories. Essentially, he is concerned with the genetic transmission of physical, psychological and behavioural characteristics (even certain talents) down through families over the centuries. The Sebright and the Ravenglass lines, which eventually converge in the love affair and marriage of Ralf Sebright and Susan Ravenglass (the pseudonyms given to the author and his wife) are, in effect, traced back a thousand years or so.
Fortunately, these forebears are not treated in equal detail — though by this truncation Gould does risk frustrating readers who are just starting to be interested on one character when they are suddenly yanked on to another. It’s a bit like the risk Italo Calvino took in his novel, If On A Winter’s Night, which consists only of alternative opening chapters.
In The Seaglass Spiral Gould evades these difficulties by presenting both the Sebright and the Ravenglass ancestors at key points in their lives — before moving on rapidly to show us the subsequent children and grandchildren at pivotal moments in theirs. Sometimes, as readers, we see these continuities for ourselves. At other times they are suggested to us by a genial third person narrator. There are certainly some distinctly memorable scenes in this process, among them the arrival, as a youth, of Ralf’s grandfather, Jesse, into metropolitan London in 1879 and, later, his wife Maisie’s lively facing down of a crowd of jingoists in the same city in 1914, all the while nursing Ralf’s infant father in her arms.
A good deal more space, it must be said, is afforded the four parents of the book’s central couple — and among this quartet a fair slice of twentieth century history is experienced, including some of the savagery of World War II and the Holocaust. By page 82, however, we meet the author’s alter ego, Ralf Sebright and by page 99 we have been introduced to Ralf’s future wife, Susan Ravenglass, as a baby.
At this point The Seaglass Spiral does indeed become a variety of bildungsroman, tracing the formative experiences of both Ralf and Susan at school and university. Some of the book’s most graphic writing evokes the culture of bullying at an English boarding school. It is not hard to see where Gould derived his abiding concern with morale. Ralf’s relief on arriving at a more benign Australian version is palpable. Susan, on the other hand, has a somewhat easier time of it through a Canberra adolescence marked mainly by a “self-containment … which suited, like a shadow”.
This self-containment or detachment becomes a permanent part of Susan’s character through university and beyond. Ralf, on the other hand, despite a certain shyness, is all involvement — especially in the campaign against conscription for the Vietnam war (which Gould has also written about elsewhere). Neither Ralf nor Susan, however, is initially able to find, or even visualise, what they really want from the opposite sex. Ralf has a lively dalliance or two at university and afterwards but they prove not to be what he wants.
One of the real charms of The Seaglass Spiral is the almost Jane Austen-like delay in bringing the two central characters together and (as is not the case with Austen, of course) getting them into bed and “shacked-up”, as Susan Ravenglass puts it. This is writing of considerable candour, enabled (partly) by the clever device of alternative nomenclature. It’s as if Gould (understandably) finds it much easier to write of Ralf and Susan than of Alan and Anne and yet it’s plain he’s stayed true to the experiences involved.
The Seaglass Spiral is brought more or less up to date by the advent of the couple’s two sons, Charlie and Gregor, but it is in the adolescence and early adulthood of Ralf and Susan that the book’s main concerns are to be found. Despite a near catastrophe posed in the opening chapter and spelt out in more detail in the closing pages, the book has a happy ending which, one might say, is made all the more so by the reader’s realisation that the two main characters, both a little strange in different ways, would definitely have been a lot less happy had they not encountered a partner so well-suited. Is this something that the seaglass spiral of genetics also had in mind for them? One guesses not — but it’s a tempting thought.
GEOFF PAGE is an award-winning poet, novelist and critic. His latest collection is a verse novella, 1953 (UQP).