There is no doubt about it: Australian writing has become much more interesting lately. For a while there our literary fiction was in danger of drowning in heavy-handed lyricism, with novels so weighed down by a sludge of symbols and metaphor that the hapless reader could hardly wade through it all. One after the other first-time novelists emerged from their respective creative writing schools in the same mould; it was not a good time to be a keen supporter of Australian literature!
But the recent crop of first time writers seem to be offering something new and playfully inventive. Glenda Guest entertains with magic realism in Siddon Rock, and now David Musgrave has come up with Glissando, a wonderfully comic pastiche deliberately drawing on literary traditions both familiar or obscure. For before long (if you’ve read it) Voss comes irresistibly to mind (though alas, since that recent notorious stunt where the first chapter of The Eye of the Storm was rejected by every Australian publisher it was sent to, I think we’d have to say that for most people Patrick White’s Voss is indeed obscure. Australia’s only Nobel Prize winning author, too…)
Even if you have read Voss, be warned, this is not a book for bedtime reading. To really enjoy yourself, you need the Web nearby so that you can look up some of the more obscure allusions. You will certainly have to find your well-thumbed copy of Voss, so that you can scamper between the two to match up the correspondences – for Musgrave has played shamelessly with the original. Characters have the same names, but they are not the same people; scenes from Voss are replayed but differently, and even the pastiche genres match (letters, crazy poems etc) but they’ve been subverted. (If you haven’t read Voss, you could try reading my blog post about it but it’s a poor substitute.)
BEWARE: SPOILERS (LOTS)
Absurdist aspects of Glissando erupt with joyous anarchy. When Archie’s grandfather disappears into the bush to ‘build the perfect house in a land that was as yet unsullied by centuries of ill-conceived architecture’ (p8) he and his final companion Frank le Mesurier are the only ones who are mad. The Australia of his grandson Archie, however, is a surrealist comedy where Archie is abducted by actors pretending to be kidnappers, and the Theatre of the Absurd is real life.
The title is a pun. As Wikipedia tells us
In music, a glissando … is a glide from one pitch to another, performed or considered as continuous. It is an Italianized musical term derived from the French glisser, to glide. It may colloquially be referred to as a bend or bending, or as a smear.
Yes, a smear. The title does describe the way the tale twists and turns, gliding from one bit of enjoyable nonsense to another, but it also points to the plot. There’s a character well-known in Australia’s theatrical history who in this story gambled his theatre in a bet, lost and never paid up. Part of the action has to do with a missing promissory note which would alter ownership of a very valuable theatrical company. The subtitle is ‘a melodrama’ and very apt it is too!
Glissando begins with a young boy and his half-brother in outback Australia, but it’s no family saga. Archie and Reggie were abandoned at birth by their parents. They are fostered by the bizarre Madame Octave, have a desultory education and finally end up at the family homestead ‘Fliss’. Here at last Archie meets his grandmother and finds out about his eccentric ancestor, Heinrich Fliess.
In common with his generation who believed Australia to be terra nullius, Heinrich likes the idea of Australia as a pristine landscape where he can build the perfect house, and sets out for the outback. He’s obsessed by architecture, taking his host Sanderson at Rhine Towers to task for not knowing the name of the first architect to build a verandah in Australia. (Lieutenant-Governor Ross, in case you are wondering). In Voss, Sanderson is the ascetic who escorts the explorer Voss into the bush and provides his home as the first staging post of the journey; he is thought odd because he likes to read books. Here in Glissando there’s not much chance of Sanderson being able to read a book: his home is shrouded in blinding smoke if they light a fire when the thermals in the valley are blowing the wrong way.
Musgrave plays around with quite a few of the characters in Voss, most notably Judd, the convict who in White’s novel, reinvented himself as convicts then could, representing the fresh beginning that Australia offered. Palfreyman in Voss is speared, in Glissando he is impaled on a weather vane. The journal that Archie finds in the library at Glissando reveals that like Voss, Fliess makes his final journey only in the company of Le Mesurier, but in Glissando the pair of them are lost in laudanum-induced hallucinations. And whereas Laura’s ‘presence’ in Voss’s last days is symbolic of their spiritual unity, Muriel (Fliess’s wife) is a nagging termagant who demands he return to Fliss (the homestead he built) to support his family.
Part II continues Archie’s quest to learn about his grandfather but adulthood brings a relationship with Mme Octave’s Estella-like daughter Nicola and an apprenticeship in Mme Octave’s Pataphysical Theatre. A series of surreal theatrical performances similar to those at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich culminate in attention from the police when they stage a ‘theatre of the bottom’ similar to Marinetti’s Theatre of the Feet (La Basi).
There is a hilarious ‘Tragedy of King Hambethlo’, a Shakespearean tragedy for the time-poor, in five ‘courses’. It takes place in the dining-room at King Hambethlo’s palace:
HAMBETHLO: [Holds up a sausage on a fork] What is a sausage,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? Pass the mustard.
LADY MACDELIA: [Rubs tablecloth] Out damned spot.
Out I say!
HAMBETHLO: Get thee to a laundry. (p193)
Interviewed by Jo Case for Readings, Musgrave explained why the arts dominate the world of Glissando and why his critics have such power.
The prominence I give the arts in Glissando is of course the opposite of the Australia we live in. Sometimes the best way to satirise a culture’s failings is to imagine what it would be like if the reverse were true.
The arrival of the (literally) monstrous Basil Pilbeam, First Critic of the National Theatre, his apprentice Winston Inchbold, Blaise Sommerville (Critic-in-Waiting) and Professor Matthias Asbach-Schnitker puts paid to Archie’s two-year idyll with Nicola. The description of the Court of Critics is hilarious, with Pilbeam the absolute monarch presiding over an inner circle and outer circle, all of whom are higher in the hierarchy than the lowly actors who are only allowed to attend the court as domestic servants. The Professor has gained entry to the inner circle only because he’s a ‘respected proponent of the scientific critical method and theoretico-speculative criticism…and was accorded the exalted rank of Regius Professor of Criticism’. (p285)
Musgrave’s parody of food critics and epicureanism is especially droll:
There was also Legumes de la root, which, despite the solecism of combining an English with a French name, was applauded as frightfully witty. The dish contained an obscene congeries of root vegetables: long, tuberous yams snaking in and out of pumpkins with potatoes paired at their bases and voluptuous marrows festooning the assemblage. It was an erotic melange that seemed to writhe upward in a pyramidal shape and was surmounted by a large, drooping butternut pumpkin with a bulbous base.
‘Now that’s the kind of dish to serve at a wedding feast,’ said Basil Pilbeam, ‘although Johannes Bruerinus in his treatise on sitology was of the opinion that roots are windy and bad and troublesome to the head.’ (p330)
(It was actually Robert Burton who wrote the Anatomy of Melancholy in which these calumnies about the humble spud are disseminated, so BP is really showing off how erudite he is! BP is reminiscent of Monty Python’s Mr Creosote, view the link at your peril.)
Australia’s black history is not neglected, but there’s serious intent in this part of the story. Heinrich Fleiss recognises the spiritual connection of the local Wooratha People to the land he’d taken up and in a pre-Mabo gesture of restitution, entrusts its care to Yarramunga and the remnants of his people until it is claimed by a descendant, who – as a condition of the inheritance – must share joint custody of the house and land. In a scene reminiscent of Jacky tearing up Voss’s letter to Laura, Yarramunga – who is illiterate, and doesn’t understanding the significance of this ‘custardy note’ to the whitefellas who control his future – gives it to Archie. When the authorities inevitably arrive, there is a shoot out. The Wooratha people are dispersed onto reservations, the children are taken into missions, and Yarramunga is arrested and dies in custody. The newspaper clipping that reveals his culpability to Archie does not even record the name of the man who was shot, and so he doesn’t know which of his childhood companions, Weeyah or Warrum is dead.
The final conceit made me laugh out loud. Archie in his old age takes up writing, and is visited one day by a would-be author named Patrick seeking his help with research. Yes, he’s asthmatic, and yes, he’s writing a novel about an explorer!
I do hope Musgrave receives due attention in our various literary awards for this marvellous and witty tale!
Author: David Musgrave
Publisher: Sleepers Publishing 2010