Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2018

Saint Antony in His Desert, by Anthony Uhlmann #BookReview

St Antony in His Desert is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while.  It’s demanding, but I liked it.

The author, Anthony Uhlmann, is an academic who writes books like Beckett and Poststructuralism, so it’s not surprising that the structure of this novel is unconventional.  It begins with a faux introduction (credited to the author), which purports to explain how an unusual manuscript came into his hands.  He claims to have received a bundle of papers, with a covering letter from a nurse in Alice Springs, who explains that the papers belonged to Antony Elm, a defrocked priest who had died under her care.  This priest, for unexplained reasons, had made a pilgrimage to the desert beyond Alice Springs for forty days and forty nights, and while there, waiting for some kind of redemption, he had written two narratives: one, a sort of coming-of-age story about two guileless young men having their first weekend in Sinful Sydney; and the other, a much more cerebral account of a meeting in Paris between the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and the celebrated philosopher Henry Bergson.  The introduction also tells us that he, the author, claiming not to be an expert but only someone with a strong interest in juxtaposition and non-relation in literature, has chosen to weave together these three narratives – of the weekend in Sydney, of the meeting in Paris, and of the priest’s disordered thoughts – into one continuous text as a whole, mercifully in different fonts so that the reader can always tell which is which.

The website at the University of Western Sydney also tells me that Uhlmann’s work focuses on the exchanges that take place between literature and philosophy and the way in which literature itself is a kind of thinking about the world.  

Sam Atkinson’s The Philosophy Book explains succinctly why Bergson and Einstein (who was in Paris to talk about his theory of relativity and its concept of time as a fourth dimension) were destined not to get along.

Ever since the philosopher Immanuel Kant published The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, many philosophers have claimed that it’s impossible for us to know things as they actually are.  This is because Kant showed us that we can know how things are relative to we ourselves, given the kinds of minds we have; but we cannot ever step outside of ourselves to achieve an absolute view of the world’s actual ‘things-in-themselves’.  (The DK Philosophy Book, 2011, ISBN 9781405353298, p227)

Bosh, says Bergson, (or however you say that in French).  There are two kinds of knowledge: (1) that which we know from our own unique particular perspective and (2) that which is absolute knowledge, which is knowing things as they actually are.  He says we know the first kind of knowledge from analysis or intellect, and en garde, M. Einstein! the second from intuition, linked to our life-force (vitalism) that interprets the flux of experience in terms of time rather than space.  (p. 227)  See what I mean? Science ≠ intuition. In the novel, this stoush between two great men is identified as a crisis of reason:

… not so much between individuals, but within thought itself, which strains to cope with the possible interpretations of a proper understanding of the meaning of the theory of relativity.  (p150).

(The existential angst this causes, it seems to me, is akin to the stoush between Darwinism (science) and the Bible (faith) half a century before.)

Are you still with me?  I hope so.  Reading these different narratives is an adventure, not least because the introduction reminds the reader about the Ern Malley affair!

Yes, we are in the hands of someone making mischief, but also a clever author who is exploring different versions of reality.

The story of the Catholic lads on a jaunt from Canberra dominates the novel.  There is more of it, shaped by longer chunks of text than the single paragraphs of the Einstein/Bergson story and the brief interruptions from the priest.  It’s droll, and utterly absorbing, in a way that the scientist/philosopher sections are not, and in a way that makes the interruptions from the priest seem intrusive and annoying.  But the links between them are revealed in the text as a whole. The monasticism espoused by Saint Antony the Great is in marked contrast to the booziness of the Sydney weekend.  The conflict between science (Einstein) and intuition (Bergson) is illuminated by the learning curve the boys experience as they leave the monasticism of their boarding school: what they know, and what they intuit are two different realities, and the conversations they have expose not just their naïveté but also the limitations of their thinking about the world.  They encounter violence and overt sexuality in Kings Cross; for the first time they meet girls who are not their sisters; they meet Aboriginal people in Redfern who assert a different world view; and they are challenged to interrogate the conservative politics of their middle-class upbringing.

Uhlmann uses these experiences to interrogate ways of knowing.  Kheiron has lost a brother to suicide and finds himself deranged by grief; Charles is quite chipper about the deaths of his grandparents because they died when he was young.

Kheiron takes another drag on his cigarette.  He continues, ‘I don’t mean to sound as if I’m someone who knows, or that kind of thing.’ The smoke covers his face; his cheeks seem to sink and the bones behind his skin are defined as he draws on the joint. ‘If it’s called knowledge, isn’t it supposed to be something that raises those who experience up and makes them better?’  He looks at them, engaged.  ‘You know, the way some people who have kids talk to people who don’t have kids, saying that you don’t know what some part of life is unless you have kids and you’re a parent.  Or like people who create something, publicly, and get some acknowledgement, will sometimes look at people who’ve never created anything publicly and been acknowledged, and feel they know more.’ He flourishes his free hand for a moment.  ‘I’m not sure about those other examples.  What I mean is, I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting.  All I mean is, there’s nothing like it till you experience it.  Outside it you can imagine it.’  He now looks at each of them meaningfully.  ‘You imagined being dead, right, when you were young?’ (p.102)

Further on, the narrative of Frederick and Charles digresses into a meditation on artistic interpretations of the Temptation of St Anthony.  Frederick, separated from Charles after a fracas in Hyde Park, wanders past the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, and sees a window display – reproductions of paintings on this topic from the 15th and 16th centuries.   Although it’s not necessary to know the paintings, I enjoyed Uhlmann’s descriptions more when I knew the paintings he was referring to, so I looked up the ones I didn’t recognise.  (All the images are from Wikipedia except the one by Rosa, and since he died in 1673, I’m not much worried about his copyright).

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Strand Arcade Sydney (Wikipedia Commons*)

These macabre visions of the temptations St Antony faces, are entirely different to the spasmodic visions of Antony Elm, as the reader sees them in his narratives.

Later on in the story, Frederick and Charles are at a surreal music venue called the Stranded NightClub in Sydney’s Strand Arcade.  The arcade first opened in 1892, but was restored and re-opened in 1977, i.e. not long before the action of the novel, and the arcade’s Victorian décor underlines the mundane life that Frederick has known so far.

The tiles contrast starkly with the poorly maintained concrete footpath that runs the length of the rest of Pitt Street, with its chewing-gum stains and cracks filled with dirt.  The comparison makes the arcade appear opulent.  The descent involves a shift in time and cultural order.  Frederick, who has known only the largely suburban landscapes of Canberra, has rarely seen architecture of this kind, which connects with traditions of wealth and commerce from distant empires.  (p.91)

Down the faux marble stairs, the rooms are decorated in Greek themes.  Each one features a reproduction of a famous painting of a Greek myth, accompanied by contemporary artworks on the same theme.  Again, any excuse to see these paintings is good so here they are (all from Wikipedia Commons):

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But these paintings are challenged by Louve, a woman who works for Triple J.  Her sarcasm is refreshing:

‘I guess all you boys don’t see it.  But look around.  Here we have a woman being raped.  There we have a woman being rescued.  In the first room we have a woman being perved on by some peeping Tom.  In the next we have her doting on her toy boy.  Yes, what a range of opportunities.  How the world has opened up to us.’ (p.113)

Ways of knowing, ways of thinking, ways of reconciling views of the world, as depicted by a priest who has lost his faith.

Fascinating!

That cunningly ambiguous cover design is by Ten Deer Sigh.  It looks at first like a naked body in the desert sand, but on closer inspection, it’s a hand, palm up in supplication with a sandstorm rolling in…

*Attribution for the photo of the Strand Arcade: By Wpcpey – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62129231

Author: Anthony Ullman
Title: Saint Antony in His Desert
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2018
ISBN: 9781742589787
Source: Won in a Twitter giveaway


Responses

  1. This sounds like a very unusual but interesting book Lisa. I’ve never heard of this author. Gorgeous cover.

    • I’d never heard of him either. He’s written academic books, but this is his first novel. But I’d seen a review of this in The Saturday Paper and without remembering much about it except the title, I entered the Twitter giveaway and won it.

  2. It does sound interesting so it might be worth checking out.

    In your text should Bergman be Bergson?

    • *smacks forehead* Yes, you are right, thanks for letting me know, I’ve fixed it.

  3. No one could ever accuse you of choosing the easy ones, Lisa!!! Fascinating though.

    • Ha ha! As you will see from the next review, I alternated reading this with a much less demanding book by Pearl S Buck for my book-at-bedtime.

  4. This sounds complex and intriguing. Such an interesting review too. I have bookmarked this one.

  5. Sounds very accomplished for a first novel, though academics seem to always want to stretch post-modernist theory in their fiction. Still, shouldn’t criticise Uhlmann too much, he seems a passionate defender of the teaching of English, which must be a good thing.


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