Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2009

The Acolyte, by Thea Astley

What a pleasure it is to read this witty, intelligent book! I’ve read a bit of dross lately, for one reason and another, and observant readers of this blog may have noticed a couple of titles in my ‘currently reading’ menu box have never made it to a blog post. Well, why bother bagging very popular books, eh? What would be the point?

The Acolyte,  however, is a treasure.  It won the Miles Franklin in 1972, Thea Astley’s third win and (according to the book blurb) her favourite of her own books.  The Well-Dressed Explorer won in  1962, The Slow Natives in 1965, and I have those to look forward to on the TBR as well, and quite a few others which I found mostly for a song at Brotherhood Books.

The only other Astley I have read is Drylands, a powerful, angry book, written in 1999 and her last.  It is fiercely critical of Australian anti-intellectualism; cynical about justice for victims of white-collar crime; scornful about attempts to import ‘culture’ in the form of writing groups and a branch library to the backblocks of Queensland; and contemptuous about small-town life and society.  There are no concessions: Astley expected her readers to be literate and she peppered the book with allusions to William Faulkner, Teilhard de Chardin, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Belloc’s Tarantella, and many others, including composers less well-known.  Her characters engage in one tirade after another, and although I have learned from Rosa Cappiello not to mistake the wild extravagant voice of the character for the opinion of the author, nevertheless, Astley can’t have made herself many friends in Queensland with this confronting book.

My favourite quotation from Drylands (as you would expect from a blogger who’s had a sporting bypass) is this one, from the character Joss:

I do wish the sporting blah blah would stop stop stop…this country is round the bend over jumping and kicking and running all in the name of winning.  It isn’t about sport any more.  It’s about power.  And money.  And politics.  And it’s boring. My God, it’s boring.’ (p249)[1]

The Acolyte is quite different in style and tone.  It is bitter and cynical, but the anger is directed inwards, not so much at the society in which her characters live, though her narrator, Paul Vesper, does sneer at Grogbusters, ‘ a border town of rangy street sprawl in the southern part of the State with apple and grape farms plotting its granite ridges and sheep on random story-book squares’. (p3)  Vesper is the ‘acolyte’, the devoted attendant of the blind pianist Jack Holberg, but he is not alone: all the characters in this novel sacrifice themselves to serve his genius.

Vesper, at least, seems aware of what he is doing, though he seems powerless to break free of Holberg’s powerful grip on his sense of self-determination. Vesper loses his ‘Rotary Dad and CWA Mum’ (p2) after they ‘debated the right of way unsuccessfully with a lilac cement-mixer’ (p68) so he is financially independent, but even before that, he abandoned a career as an engineer to be at Holberg’s beck-and-call, and his amanuensis.   As his compositions achieve international fame, Holberg holds court in his architect-designed mausoleum (p57) , defying his ordinary origins with an aristocratic mien and a harem of women.  Hilda, (his wife) and Ilsa , (his friend’s wife) however are pale, vacuous handmaidens in Holberg’s service, and Holberg’s live-in friends all have to endure rudeness, cuckoldry, mental cruelty and violence, ‘just one big happy incestuous family’ (p52).

It is wickedly funny.   Holgate’s elderly aunt Sadie  ‘played Manilla poker and the stock exchange with the deadliness of a Chicago mobster’ (p57) .  She has a red wig to hide her thinning hair, and wears ‘Bermuda shorts and a Stetson and refreshed herself constantly with chipped ice and a stomach-ripping plum brandy. (p58) After a fall she is taken to a Glitterlights Convalescent Home for a month’s repair (p108) but comes back ‘refreshed and television-addicted from the cure-methods of the twilight zone’. (p115) She certainly has an acidic tongue, berating the hangers-on and critics with equal ferocity.

There are also moments of poignant empathy for Holberg’s disability:  most of the time he and they ‘act as if there were nothing different about him at all’ (p95).  One day however, after Vesper has driven him on a ‘town trip to ruin Mr Shumway’s leading lady’ (p95), he asks Vesper how he whiles away the time, and Vesper says he goes window-shopping, to a film or the library.

 ‘I’d like to be able to do that too, matey.  window-shop, go to the odd movie.  What’s window-shopping really like, eh?  If it’s too much of a feast, you’d better not tell me.’  I couldn’t tell him after that, though he pressed me when we were next in the city’s main street.  ‘It’s a lot of gimcrack rubbish, ‘ I said, hesitant outside a picture gallery.  ‘Loud, brassy, tawdry’. ‘You’re a loyal old liar, ‘ he said, pressing my arm… (p96)

Later on, when Vespers finds some of Holberg’s plaintive writing about what it’s like to be blind, it’s what jolts him into really seeing how he is wasting his own opportunities.

It’s not an easy book to read.  There are characteristics of modernism everywhere: unconventional metaphors, e.g. ‘restlessness spreading like nettle-rash’ (p56) allusions to music and books half-remembered and obscure, and antiphrasis e.g. ‘There was wind, and had been for days, from the coast, a scurrying dark concussion of branch and leaf-strop’ (p97).  It’s a book that demands concentration, and it seems best to read it with as few breaks as possible so as not to lose the plot.   But it is very, very good, and well worth the investment of effort.

Author: Thea Astley
Title: The Acolyte
Publisher: University of Queensland Press, 1998
ISBN: 0702215406
Source: Personal copy (Dymocks)

[1] Alas, I can’t cite the reference to Drylands properly, I don’t have the book any more, only notes and quotations in my reading journal.


Responses

  1. Oh, great to see you reviewing an Astley Lisa. As you know I love her – and some of the things I like are her darkness and bite, alongside her humour, and her social conscience. She should be read more shouldn’t she.

  2. I think she might once have been on school readings lists. I couldn’t find any reviews online, but there were shreds of those crib note sites.

  3. […] It’s a witty, intelligent book – redolent with Astley’s bitter cynicism – and it’s wickedly funny. See my review. […]

  4. […]  Astley won it twice in her own right, with The Slow Natives in 1965; and The Acolyte in 1972, see my review; and she was a co-winner for Drylands along with Kim Scott’s Benang (see my review) in […]

  5. […] in The Canberra Times that is about her winning the award, her third, for The acolyte (which Lisa has reviewed!). The writer, Maurice Dunlevy again, doesn’t much like Astley, titling the article, […]


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