What a difference a good night’s sleep makes! This morning I woke up, picked up A Body of Water which last night I had declared too demanding for bedtime reading, became entranced by Farmer’s writing…and spent almost the whole day reading it!
I wrote in a comments interchange after my previous post about this book that it’s one to dip into over time, but the more I read of it, the less sure I am about that. There’s a coherence that might be missed if the experience is reduced to reading it as discrete short stories merely interspersed with quotations and musings about Farmer’s life and art.
In the early pages, there is a sense of melancholy, brought about by the loss of friends. Farmer writes that ‘the invisible network of women reading each other’s work and cherishing it’ matters very much to her (p27), and she grieves for the loss of women writers that she knows both in real life (Marjorie Barnard, Olga Masters) and through their work (Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Katherine Mansfield).
She writes with melancholy too about her determination to publish. It’s a quality a writer must have, of course, a courage that supports persistence in the face of rejection, which is another kind of loss for an author. She has written a poem about miscarriage, and the publisher has failed to understand her choice of form and rhythm.
‘I want it to be published, though, and will keep sending it out. So what if it strikes people as crude and melodramatic, its form as singsong – this is intended, necessary. It had to have a sort of Greek pop tempo, and strict rhymes – like a nursery rhyme’ (p22).
She wonders if sharing this loss with her husband was wise; but she can’t take the knowledge of it back. Did she get the empathetic response she expected? Maybe not, because another loss that permeates this writing is the deterioration of her relationship with her husband. I think this impending loss – and her recognition that the marriage is dead – is tied up with her thoughts about Greece, where she lived in cross-cultural confusion for three of the thirteen years she was married. She writes about the deserted villages, barren of young people, and ‘dour, stony, frugal Greece – never a land of plenty’ (p32): this is not the sun-drenched welcoming Greece of the tourist brochures, and rejecting the country of his birth with such bitterness seems to be part of rejecting him too, though her metaphors are different:
What will happen? If I’m forced out in the open? The ice around me will most likely break. But if it’s only the ice that’s keeping my head above water…? I’m a holed ship stuck in the pack ice: what is there to do but, somehow, repair the hole before the thaw? And then sail free. Where? How? (p34)
Buddhism obviously means a lot to Farmer, but – oh what was that other book I read not so long ago where Buddhism seemed to swamp the story? There is more about a retreat in Tasmania than interests me, and I was glad when she made a ‘chaotic re-entry into [her] old life, there under the battered slate roof of Faraday Street’ (p52) . I was disappointed when she seemed to abandon the ‘red fishes story’ based on the Matisse painting on the cover, for a new one about a monk – but I should have checked the table of contents, because the story makes its welcome reappearance before long, though it too is a tale of a failed relationship.
Is A Body of Water fiction because it includes short stories? It reminds of Belonging by Isabel Huggan which I read last year and found intriguing because its structure mirrored the ‘follow the brush’ philosophy of Kenko. I didn’t know how to categorise it, and in the end called it a memoir. I think A Body of Water is a memoir of writing in the similar sort of way.
Armchairs turned to the view –
the quiet bay, one long ripple
of black swans, one splash of the sun –
I’d quote more of this powerful poem from p122, because this is contemporary poetry that ‘speaks to me’ but I’m not sure if it’s ok to do that (from a copyright point of view.)
Stephen Reynold in his review at Amazon writes that this is the sort of book that teachers of creative writing would ‘champion’, because it reveals the writing process so well. Indeed it does, and it also shows how well-read this author is herself. I remember being quite astonished by the lack of reading amongst young wannabee writers when I toyed with a professional writing course some years ago. They suffered from a naive arrogance that their youthful experiences were adequate to hold a reader’s interest, and that these experiences alone could compensate for clichés and stagnant narratives. (They were wrong). Farmer reads Alice Munro, and makes notes about the structure of her stories; she goes to the Spoleto Festival (forerunner of the Melbourne Festival) and brings home the books of A.S. Byatt from which to learn. She wishes she had the insouciance of Olga Masters, she admires the ‘spirals within spirals’ in V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (p192) and she reads and re-reads cherished authors, to ‘rebuild and restore’ (p169) finding a ‘fearful symmetry and sureness of touch’ in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River (p219).
I love the way water permeates almost every page. She has a house down on the western coast of Victoria, and visits coastal places I know well: Barwon Heads, Queenscliff. the Great Ocean Road. ‘Storms and heavy swells’ (p128) have surged into her life, it seems, and intruders can shatter peace:
On full moon nights, two slabs of white marble stretched under her two bare front windows; and the bedroom window was white marble, watered with shadows. So quiet was the wash of the sea that she heard the engines of boats in the Rip. Sometimes in the middle of the night a loud rattling made her sit up and switch the bedlamp on. It was one of the mirrors quivering on the wooden wall, and as she watched the other mirror began and the double sound shuddered in the hollow space between that wall and the wall of the next room, then in the spaces of the rooms themselves until the whole house was throbbing aloud for as long as it took for the ship to edge through the passage. (p130)
‘November’ and ‘December’ are more difficult, densely packed with quotations and allusion and references, only some of which I recognise. Perhaps after all this is a book to dip into, having read it once to discern the whole, I think it would be nice to have a copy to come back to after reading some of the works I don’t know. It would be especially good to have it on a Kindle so that I could use the search function to look up different poets and authors!
Beverley Farmer must be in her sixties now, and I wonder if she knows about the new cyber-networks of writers reading each other’s work…I come across this all the time online and I think it’s a beautiful use of the Web. But perhaps she’s a bit slow to adopt new technologies: the jacket photo in my 1990 copy shows a young woman beside her typewriter – when typewriters had long been superceded by word processors. I find this ironic because she champions innovation when it’s in fiction!
No point in fiction which doesn’t in some way expand, at least redefine, the boundaries of what fiction has said and been (fiction is what it says). (p196)
Surely by now she must have moved on to computers? Maybe not. She seems to have very little presence on the web apart from some brief bios at jRank and Wikipedia. Let’s hope that the Patrick White prize prompts more of us to read her work and promote it!
Author: Beverley Farmer
Title: A Body of Water, A Year’s Notebook
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 1990
Source: Kingston Library