Martin Edmond reviews The Recluse by Evelyn Juers and Varamo translated by Chris Andrews

The Recluse

 By Eve­lyn Juers

Gira­mondo Shorts, 2012
 

 

 

The Recluse opens with a brief, evoca­tive descrip­tion of stu­dent life in a share house in Queen Street, New­town, Syd­ney in the early 1970s; wherein we learn that the author some­times skips classes and goes down to read in Camper­down Ceme­tery. One of her favourite spots to sit is near the grave of a cer­tain Judge Don­nithorne and his daugh­ter Eliza; one of the books she reads is Charles Dick­ens’ Great Expec­ta­tions; there is, it turns out, a ghostly con­nec­tion between these two –the grave and the book – not dis­parate things. For it is rumoured that Eliza Emily Don­nithorne, who lived out the later part of her life in a big nine­teenth cen­tury house in New­town, was the model for the reclu­sive jilted bride, Miss Hav­isham, made famous by Dick­ens’ fiction.

Eve­lyn Juers, employ­ing the same method­ol­ogy – which might be described as the brico­lage of syn­chro­nous quo­ta­tion – used to such won­der­ful effect in House of Exile, sets out to see if this is true. Her quest takes her all over the world, and all over the World Wide Web, as she searches the records in Aus­tralia, British India, South Africa and the UK. The con­nec­tions she finds set up rever­ber­a­tions in the echo cham­ber of her mind, which she tran­scribes with grace, econ­omy and a hint of the mis­chie­vous absurd – she has a nice line in wry acknowl­edge­ment that there is a point past which con­jec­ture can­not go, and yet she will always try to go that one step beyond. What she turns up – whether it strength­ens the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion between fic­tional char­ac­ter and his­tor­i­cal fig­ure or not – is always worth know­ing any­way: the book is in some respects a social his­tory, full of lumi­nous images – a gold scarf pin with pearls – of New­town as it was in the sec­ond half of the nine­teenth century.

Her method means that the divid­ing line between the spec­u­la­tive and the ver­i­fi­able is con­stantly being chal­lenged; the sheer range and num­ber of pos­si­ble con­nec­tions unearthed is dizzy­ing, the might-have-been is as fecund, as sug­ges­tive, as any incon­tro­vert­ible dis­in­terred fact. This high­lights an aspect inte­gral to search lit­er­a­ture: the grail, what­ever it might be, fre­quently turns out to be elu­sive or even delu­sive, the quest itself is replete with inter­est, insight, enlight­en­ment and delight. The Recluse leads us seduc­tively through the detail of for­got­ten lives to become a med­i­ta­tion upon strate­gies for liv­ing, amongst which is the choice to spend your time in seclu­sion, col­lect­ing, cook­ing, gar­den­ing, harp-playing, lace-making or fol­low­ing other soli­tary pur­suits – of which the most soli­tary and her­metic of all is reading.

Reclu­sive­ness is of course also a provo­ca­tion to the social ani­mal which, these days, we are all required to be: that mys­te­ri­ous point at which an indi­vid­ual declines to be known by oth­ers is a per­pet­ual irri­tant to the con­vivial – how then can we tell if those soli­tary ecstasies are not more intense, more ful­fill­ing, more tran­scen­dent, than any we may expe­ri­ence in com­pany? And yet it does not require much reflec­tion to under­stand that all of us reserve a part of our­selves, and a draft of our most inti­mate expe­ri­ences, from the eyes and ears of oth­ers; the recluse there­fore dif­fers from the rest of us not in kind but in degree.

There is a beau­ti­fully under­stated point here, which the author implies rather than makes: her inde­fati­ga­ble inquiry into the antecedents of the Don­nithorne fam­ily, their con­nec­tions in Africa, India and Eng­land, the well-heeled life they lead among the upper ech­e­lons of colo­nial soci­ety in Syd­ney, Mel­bourne and the hin­ter­land, must fail to reveal the essen­tial that it seeks to uncover. Not only can we never be cer­tain that Eliza was a model for Miss Hav­isham – and it seems that, if she was, she was one of sev­eral – nor will we ever know who she was, as we say, really. She remains an enigma, a shad­owy fig­ure who lives what may be a life of great felic­ity behind that door which is never closed but never quite open either, inscribed in a work of ‘biog­ra­phy as vast­ness, minute­ness, con­ti­gu­ity and as a form of Wun­derkam­mer.

So this is a work that knows it can­not close the book on its sub­ject. We as read­ers are asked ques­tions with­out answers, beguiled with pos­si­bil­i­ties that may or may not have a basis in fact; most of all, per­haps, tan­ta­lised by the nature of the rela­tion­ship between a lit­er­ary work and the cir­cum­stances that gave rise to it. A cen­tral para­dox is that, in Impe­r­ial Britain and her Empire, there was too much his­tory, while in the nine­teenth cen­tury Antipodes there wasn’t enough: hence a source for what might be called the Myth of Miss Hav­isham in New­town as turn-of-the-twentieth-century news­pa­per spec­u­la­tion that arises out of that sense of there not being enough past. In so doing this cre­ates, albeit in a spe­cious or inau­then­tic sense, the very his­tory we lack.

 

Varamo

by César Aira,

trans­lated by Chris Andrews

 (Gira­mondo Shorts, 2012)

 

 

 

The impov­er­ish­ment of antecedents thus leads to the inven­tion of a his­tory that is much more com­plex than a fic­tion could ever be; and yet, like a fic­tion, this his­tory exists in an imag­i­nary space. Such ter­ri­tory, whether we call it his­tory as fic­tion or fic­tion as his­tory, is as char­ac­ter­is­tic of Latin Amer­i­can as it is of Antipodean writ­ing.  Tra­versed in a wholly dif­fer­ent man­ner is the other book from the ele­gant series of Gira­mondo Shorts under review here: one writ­ten by an Argen­tine and trans­lated by an Australian.

‘Although,’ remarks Varamo’s nar­ra­tor, ‘this book takes the form of a novel, it is a work of lit­er­ary his­tory, not a fic­tion, because the pro­tag­o­nist existed and he was the author of a famous poem.’ The nar­ra­tor thereby makes a state­ment that is incor­rect in every par­tic­u­lar save one: Varamo does indeed take the form, albeit unusual, of a novel. It is not how­ever a work of lit­er­ary his­tory, save for the sense that it is the his­tory of a fic­tion; there is no war­rant, apart from Varamo itself, for the prior exis­tence of its hero, Varamo, and none what­ever for the exis­tence of his poem. Even though the cir­cum­stances of the com­po­si­tion of that work, called The Song of the Vir­gin Child, are exhaus­tively detailed, not a sin­gle line of the poem is given to us. We have no alter­na­tive but to dis­be­lieve in the actual exis­tence of ‘that cel­e­brated mas­ter­piece of mod­ern Cen­tral Amer­i­can Poetry.’

The pro­lific Aira’s novella was com­pleted in the dying days of 1999 and pub­lished in Span­ish in 2002; it is one of a very few, per­haps only nine, of his more than fifty books to have appeared thus far in Eng­lish. This pub­li­ca­tion, in a trans­la­tion by Chris Andrews, is notable for its clar­ity, its trans­parency and its preter­nat­ural abil­ity to repro­duce the voice of Aira’s nar­ra­tor, with his dead­pan style, his pre­pos­ter­ous inven­tions and his propen­sity to jump from nar­ra­tion to com­men­tary then back to nar­ra­tion again. Varamo is an absur­dist account of twenty-four hours in the life of an obscure clerk work­ing for the Pana­man­ian gov­ern­ment in the city of Colon in 1923 – the year, (per­haps) coin­ci­den­tally, that Kafka ceased to write in his diary. It begins with the hero’s receipt of his month’s wages in coun­ter­feit notes and ends with the sale of his poem; the events of the book, by turns bizarre, comic, grotesque, hum­drum, the­atri­cal, are told in a man­ner that the nar­ra­tor reminds the reader is known as ‘free indi­rect style,’ defined as ‘the view from inside the char­ac­ter expressed in the third per­son [which] cre­ates an impres­sion of nat­u­ral­ness and allows us to for­get we are read­ing fiction.’

Of course, as soon as we are reminded of the man­ner in which an illu­sion is cre­ated, that illu­sion is likely to fade, but one of the many strange things about Varamo is the way in which the illu­sion of the real­ity of the unsung clerk per­sists even as we are shown the mechan­ics of its con­struc­tion. It is in fact a book of strange­nesses: a stuffed fish play­ing a minia­ture piano is one, two spin­ster sis­ters who smug­gle golf clubs singly into Colon another, a car rally that isn’t a race but an attempt to arrive at a uni­form aver­age speed over dis­tance, a third. Aira is known for his propen­sity to make things up as he goes along and that is, indeed, one of the plea­sures of Varamo – what on earth is he going to come up with next? There’s an implied com­ment here on the magic real­ism of Mar­quez and other Latin Amer­i­can writ­ers antecedent to Aira, who might be said to be plough­ing a fur­row of his own ‘dia­bolic realism.’

But this kind of story-telling can­not work unless there is inter­nal con­sis­tency to the tale and in this sense Varamo is a tri­umph: the story, while out­landish, is com­posed so that all of its ele­ments con­tribute to a whole which has the coher­ence of a shaggy dog story or some­thing writ­ten in verse by Lewis Car­roll or Edward Lear. And the voice of the book is so com­pelling we believe, not so much the events, as the char­ac­ters that the events man­i­fest. Even if noth­ing we are told could pos­si­bly have hap­pened in just that way or indeed any other way, Varamo him­self is real, the chauf­feur Cig­a­rro is real, so are the Gón­go­ras sis­ters . . . and so too, finally, is the poem that Varamo is about. For Aira’s most majes­tic and auda­cious sleight of hand is that he cre­ates The Song of the Vir­gin Child in absen­tia, as it were, with­out need­ing to quote a line of it: his fic­tion becomes the poem it writes about.

This is made crys­tal clear in the last few sen­tences of the book, which can be read, inter alia, as a suc­cinct com­men­tary on the mak­ing of The Recluse; and also excuses the reviewer from hav­ing to rec­om­mend these two excel­lent books in his own words:

If a work is daz­zlingly inno­v­a­tive and opens up unex­plored paths, the merit is not to be found in the work itself, but in its trans­for­ma­tive effect on the his­tor­i­cal moment that engen­dered it. Nov­elty makes its causes new, giv­ing birth to them ret­ro­spec­tively. If his­tor­i­cal time makes us live in the new, a story that attempts to account for the ori­gin of a work of art, that is, a work of inno­va­tion, ceases to be a story: it’s a new real­ity, and yet a part of real­ity as it has always been for every­one. Those who don’t believe me can go and see for themselves.