Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 7, 2014

A Horse of Air, by Dal Stivens

A Horse of AirAs soon as I started reading this, I thought of Robert Edeson’s The Weaver Fish, which I recently read and reviewedA Horse of Air has a similar cheeky narrative style: the author jocularly undercuts his own narrative so that the reader doesn’t know what to believe.  It’s very entertaining.

Dal Stivens (1911-1997) seems to have begun his writing career in journalism, writing articles and short stories for a variety of journals and moving on to complete five novels, short story collections, a children’s book and some non-fiction. (See Middlemiss and Wikipedia for more information and the names of his titles). His legacy includes the foundation of the Australian Society of Authors (of which I am a grateful member) and was influential in the establishment of the Public Lending Right (of which I am a grateful recipient in its offshoot the Educational Lending Right).  But despite winning the Miles Franklin Award for A Horse of Air in 1970, he’s not an author who’s widely known, which is why he received the Patrick White Award in 1981.  He gets a mention in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library, but perhaps because his books are out of print and even A Horse of Air is impossible to find, there are only two reviews at GoodReads, neither of which might inspire anyone to mount a search.  Which is a pity because this book is seriously good fun. I would really like to own a copy but even second-hand copies are scarce, so I’ve had to make do with a library copy.  And they won’t let me renew it.

(This library copy has one of those old-fashioned date due slips in the back, and it shows that this book has been borrowed two-to-three times a year, every year, since at least 2000.  It’s been to Tongala, Rutherglen, Echuca, Rochester, and Kyabram.  It’s in ok condition, but how much longer can it last? Somebody needs to reissue this book in a new edition!)

Anyway, the novel purports to be the narrative of one Harry Craddock and his search for the rare Night Parrot in Central Australia*. The blurb tells us that he’s a millionaire, an ornithologist, an idealist and a buffoon.  However, as we learn from the very first chapter, Craddock is in a mental hospital and it’s his psychiatrist who’s suggested that he write this narrative, to ‘get to the bottom of things’.  Soon we see footnotes from Craddock’s purported editor, rebutting some of what Craddock says, and indeed this un-named editor – although a partisan of Craddock’s –  has, in the Preface, alerted the reader to the fact that this is an ‘unorthodox’ autobiography and that the psychiatrist has objected most forcefully to its publication .   Then there are comments from the psychiatrist, and ‘Tolstoyan’ excerpts from Craddock’s wife’s diary. Who and what shall we believe?  When we see a casual reference to a shooting of someone called R.H. at Parramatta, which might have some bearing on Craddock’s incarceration, we know that we are in for an interesting time.  Is he really a manic-depressive as he tells us, frantically following one obsessive interest after another and sending his narrative off on all sorts of weird tangents, or is he a murderer trying to evade justice with a plea of insanity?  (The death penalty was still technically legal when this book was written – though not necessarily for murder – in all states except Qld).

* I was about half way through the book when it occurred to me to check that there is actually such a bird as the Night Parrot.  Wikipedia tells me that there is, though at the time that Stiven was writing it had not been sighted since 1912:

The Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) is a small parrot endemic to the continent of Australia. The species was originally  placed within its own genus (Geopsittacus) [as it is in Stiven’s book], but most authors now prefer to place it within the genus Pezoporus together with the two ground parrots.  It is well known as being one of the most elusive and mysterious birds in the world, with no known sightings of the bird between 1912 and 1979, leading to speculation that it was extinct. Sightings since 1979 have been extremely rare and the bird’s population size is unknown, though based on the paucity of records it’s thought to number 50–249 mature individuals. The first photographic and video evidence of a live individual was publicly confirmed on July 3, 2013. Wildlife photographer John Young says that after 17,000 hours in the field and 15 years of searching, he has captured several photos and a 17-second video of the bird in western Queensland.

A Horse of Air blank pageHarry’s nickname for his psychiatrist is Pseudemydura umbrina Siebenrock, and he enjoys tormenting Dr S with all kinds of stories which he hopes will ‘amuse’.  Along with deliberately false memories of incest with his sister, Harry copies out great swathes of Rousseau’s Confessions, which (mercifully) he spares the reader, merely alluding to the 1500 words at the top of blank pages (e.g. as on p.110; see at left).  Other postmodern flourishes in this pastiche include a ‘transcript’ from Harry’s entry at Who’s Who, quotations of doggerel, an encyclopaedic entry about the Night Parrot from Cayley’s What Bird is That? and a long booklist of obscure titles for Dr S to procure for Harry’s bedtime reading.

In addition to the narrative that he’s parodying for Dr S’s case notes, Harry is also privately writing his own story.  (Is it possible to do anything privately in a mental hospital??)  So we get the fake story, the purportedly true story, plus comments about the psychiatrist and about the veracity of his wife’s contributions.   Much of it is seductively ‘truthful’.  So, when Craddock tells us that he’s invented these stories in order to placate his psychiatrist’s desire for some childhood trauma to analyse, how should we interpret that? Accept that he’s a manipulative man with a naughty sense of humour?  A sign that he’s a dangerously clever manipulative man? Are these stories really lies? Or is what he says about inventing them the lie?

Is Harry mad?  Quotations at the beginning of the book explain that the title a horse of air’ comes from Mad Tom o’ Bedlam’s Ballad, and it is ‘an hoast of furious fancies’.  But another quotation from Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man alerts us to the notion of ‘punning with ideas as another man may with words’ (p.vi), so perhaps he’s just having fun.  There are plenty of examples, and it’s not hard to guess who Harry’s satirising here in a passage where he tells us about not wanting to work in his father’s newspaper business.  I’ve quoted at length here so that as well as seeing the satire, you can also see the way he manipulates his argument and (deliberately or inadvertently?) contradicts himself.

(BTW inside his mansion Harry has set up a room as an aviary for Bourke Parrots, replicating their environment exactly):

‘With your drive and ability you could be a tremendous success in business,’ said my father to me the next morning.  He meant Hubert Craddock and Sons Pty Ltd.  This was the first time for years he’d approached the subject.  We were standing together watching the Bourke parrots.  I didn’t answer because there was no need.  His words tugged at my heart.  He was my father and I loved him.  He was seventy-three and went to sleep each night knowing it could be his last. He wanted me to carry on his life and I couldn’t do it, even though I loved him.  He made me feel selfish and he had no right to make me feel that way.  He was as big a clown and as obsessional as I was.  I was a bloody sight better because I didn’t try to impose myself on others and manipulate them the way he did.  (I’d done that a little with my wives and I’m sorry for it.)

I’ve got my own Hubert Craddock and Sons Pty Ltd, ‘ I said, feeling the skin on my forehead growing tight and hearing my voice getting on edge.  ‘See, I can step up the heat and make them dance.’  I moved the thermostat to 11o°F.  ‘It’ll be uncomfortable for them, but I won’t let them suffer for too long.  And they’re well looked after – well, reasonably.’

You were playing at God, Harry Craddock.  My mind saw the ugly concrete block in which his parrots produced his newspapers – a commercial slum by the standards of any other businesses – and in my imagination I walked along those dreary duck-turd-green corridors with their hot little cubicles.  ‘The factory,’ they’d called it on the richly carpeted executive floor.  If I’d taxed my father with deliberately degrading the journalists who produced ‘Australia’s greatest newspaper’ he’d have expressed genuine surprise.  Yet I knew it was deliberate, even if it was below the level of consciousness.  ‘My personal experience is that the more uncomfortable journalists are the more they whinge and the better is the work they produce,’ said one proprietor once.  Bad conditions and fear were important ingredients in the Craddock empire.  My riches – inherited from my mother and a maiden aunt – and my freedom had been bought with this ruthless exploitation of men and their idealism.  (p.36)

There are digressions of all kinds running through this complex narrative, but the main thread is Harry’s fantastic* expedition into the Gibson desert with a messy cast of characters.  There is might be a stalker called Leo; a rival ornithologist called Tom Drake, an on-again/off-again wife called Joanna (she’s No 3);  a possible lover called Elizabeth (with whom his erotic moments might have been mere fantasy); and some Pitjantjatjara people who wisely keep out of the way most of the time.  The party rampages about all over the desert putting up mist nets all over the place to catch the night parrot.   There is also a relic from Gibson’s lost wanderings in the desert, but it might be fraudulent, and as for the sightings of the Night Parrot – well, who knows?!

*I use the word fantastic in its original sense.  Even the most cursory knowledge of the environment in the Gibson Desert suggests that the ease with which Harry’s expedition travels must be fantasy.

I had time to read this book only once before having to return it to the library, but I’m not sure that re-reading it would make things any clearer – I’d really love to hear from others who have read this extraordinary book!

Author: Dal Stivens
Title: A Horse of Air
Publisher: Penguin, 1986, first published by Angus and Robertson, 1970
ISBN: 9780140092165
Source: Campaspe Library,  inter-library loan courtesy of Kingston Library

Availability:

Out of print and scarce as hen’s teeth.


Responses

  1. When is this book set? Are we to assume it was set at the time of publication? Are there any clues as to the narrative time period in the book?

    • Hello Mandy, that’s a good question but not one that I can answer definitively because (as I’ve said) I no longer have the book. My recollection is that the narrative was more or less contemporary with the publication date, and I’m basing that on the use of cars and communications when they were in the Gibson Desert. Have you got a copy?

  2. […] One of the Miles Franklin Award winning writers featured by the Weekly was Dal Stivens, who won the 1970 award with A horse for air (see Lisa of ANZLitLovers’ review). […]


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