Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2022

Marlo, by Jay Carmichael

Let me tell you, I am not, as a general rule, interested in relationship stories about love. Falling in love, years of married/partnered love, loss of love, frustrated love, failings of love, betrayed love… with apologies to all the authors slaving over such themes, meh, I am probably not interested.  (But lots of other readers are, so don’t let me discourage you.)

Love is important, of course.  But I suspect that the reason the riches of the English language don’t include any words to describe the kinds of love that matter to us is because the Brits, and those of us that retain a bit of Brit despite many years elsewhere, tend to retain some reserve about it. Of course we desire, and sometimes enjoy the love for which our language is lacking: the love of lovers, of long-term spouses and partners, of parents, of children, of siblings, of best friends, of fur babies and even for horses, plus the love for substitutes for all of these when they fail us as they so often do. (Well, not dogs, and I am not joking.  My dear old music teacher loved dogs more than people all her life, and they never failed her.  They repaid her with devotion till they died.)

But equality in love — the opportunity to find it, feel it, be swamped by passion, to marry or partner, to make a family, to muck it up or to lose it, that’s a different thing.  Being denied love because you’re the wrong one, or the wrong colour, or the wrong class, or the wrong religion or the wrong gender — when authors tackle that, whether in Pygmalion or Coonardoo, I am interested.  Especially if there are institutional barriers getting in the way of a fundamental human right.

Marlo, Jay Carmichael’s follow-up to the well-regarded Ironbark (2018), reveals the hostile environment of 1950s Melbourne for a young man discovering his sexuality when the laws of the land denied him the right to be.  It’s a very powerful, moving novella, tracing the coming-of-age of Christopher, a young gay man escaping the constrictions of the small Gippsland town of Marlo.  Although this is a tender story written with dignity and hope, Marlo makes it impossible not to feel angry about the anguish of the two lovers, who are negotiating fear of rejection, of detection, of mockery, of police and community brutality, of press condemnation and of judicial punishment.

There are many things to admire about this novella, and one of them is the assumption that readers will understand the significance of a certificate of exemption for Indigenous people.  It is a sign of maturity in our literature that an author can acknowledge this aspect of Australia’s Black History and expect that readers will find out more about it if they don’t already know. (See my review of Black, White and Exempt, edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones, for example.)

The counter to my ignorance, however, came in the Author’s Note at the back of the book, where it was made plain that this story is imagined because there is no literature of gay love in Melbourne at this time.

(There is Fairyland by Sumner Locke Elliot, reissued in a Text Classics edition, is Elliott’s ‘coming-out’ novel, published in 1990, and it provides a vivid picture of ‘camp life’ in Sydney in the 1930s and 40s, when homosexuality was illegal and therefore necessarily covert.  See my review.)

Because of the surveillance and victimisation of homosexuality in 1950s Melbourne, Carmichael says that despite his research in the public archive… he found no holistic account of the lived experiences of male homosexuals in the 1940s and 1950s.

Here in Australia, we are struggling to understand our own history when there is very little in the public record that was authored by working class and First Nations people, and that is because education, and therefore literacy, was denied them.  But what Carmichael reveals here is that the voices of people of a certain identity are absent from the historical record not because they were illiterate, but because they had to suppress that identity.  They were not supposed to exist.

… there’s a gap in what we today can know and understand about how life was lived by a male homosexual under societal scrutiny and persecution during mid-century Australia.  Such lives must be largely inferred.  This is the task of the historical novel. (Afterword, p.146).

Carmichael alludes to this in Christopher’s anxiety about contacting Morgan.  They have met briefly, and Morgan has covertly passed his address on a scrap of paper to Christopher.  Christopher’s roommate Kings is a journalist, and he often regales Christopher with the content of his salacious reporting about impending court cases.  (Whether there is suspicion or personal malice or merely crassness in this is left for the reader to decide).  Christopher tackles Kings about the way other cases aren’t reported with the names, addresses and even the jobs of those charged; whether they are ever convicted or not, these men are already vilified in the press with headlines such as ‘Growing Menace of Sex Perverts’.

Around that time, there was a major criminal trial happening in one of the city’s courts.  A newly arrived prisoner at Pentridge was awaiting bail after being entrapped by the Vice Squad.

A former Lance Corporal, Mr Michele Alazone, who resides at 2/23 Glentree Road, Malvern West, has been alleged in court today to have assaulted a 19-year-old private from his artillery team during a training session at Camp Bonadee six months ago.  Mr Alazone, a naturalised Italian alien, was arrested last Saturday.  His trial started today. He has in the intervening time been demoted from his military duties.  (p.47)

Christopher is terrified that a reply to Morgan would amount to a confession. 

Perhaps we were guilty even prior to writing.  But if we did write to each other, and over time those letters accumulated, all someone had to do was chance upon them and speculate as to their cause. Perhaps Kings himself would find them, would read them, would say something to the wrong person about my being in possession of such letters, and then all that wrong person had to do was declare the news in the press or to the police.  I might not have been a corporal in the army, but that did not seem to matter.  What mattered was speculation and editorial policy.

Morgan ran laps in my head.  His voice had first attracted my attention, his countenance had fixed it, and his manners confirmed him to me. Swish: a code word, shorthand. For now, perhaps forever.  When Morgan handed me that piece of paper, somebody could have seen.  We could have become front page news.

This weighed on me as I considered writing to Morgan; a letter could become evidence and send us both to prison. (p.48)

I came of age in an era when my boss’s homosexuality was known to the staff.  It was sniggered about in the packing room, but was not a problem as far as his continued employment was concerned.  I really liked him: he was funny and clever and took risks on giving me opportunities, and he used to give me a lift home after overtime and it was nice to feel confident that there would be no #MeToo moments to fend off.  In the 1980s a different boss used to arrive early at school to remove the daily graffiti speculating about two female teachers; in the 1990s at another school a colleague came out to friends but not to staff.  As late as 2017 we had that awful, awful and wholly unnecessary plebiscite which caused rifts in families that still resonate today, and then the last parliament had to fend off the Religious Discrimination Intolerance Bill.

Marlo reminds readers that the battle for equality is a continuum with a history.

See also the review by Jack Callil at The Guardian.

Jay Carmichael’s profile at Scribe Publishing is as follows:

Jay Carmichael is a writer and editor whose first novel, Ironbark, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2019, and whose writing has been published by Beyond Blue and appeared widely in print and online, including in OverlandThe Guardian, SBS, and The Telling Tree project. Jay lives and works in Melbourne.

Author: Jay Carmichael
Title: Marlo
Cover photo: Foundation Day, 1930, courtesy State Library Victoria.
Publisher: Scribe, 2022
ISBN: 9781925713695, pbk, 150 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

 


Responses

  1. I read this first of the queued up posts tonight, but I’m still unsure what to comment. I’ve only known gay men infrequently in my life. None that I knew of at school. A whole mob of private school boys at uni, in the late 60s, who didn’t seem to be worried about being public – though our college was probably pretty safe for them.

    Interesting that there are no accounts of gay life in 50s Melbourne. Now I’ll have to keep a lookout.

    Like

    • It is interesting, I agree.
      I wonder if there are secret diaries locked up in a safe somewhere that will see the light of day some time in the future? I say this because it must have been terrible to have to live such a repressed public life, and writing can be a good release for feelings that can’t be expressed publicly?

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  2. Like you, I’m not usually into stories that simply explore the angst of relationships, but this does sound like something different. I can remember the sniggering when I was growing up and the intolerance that there was (and in fact which still exists). So this does sound like a really interesting read.

    Like

    • I was more interested earlier in my reading life, but what I mostly liked was satire (like Fay Weldon) because I needed reminding not to take myself too seriously. I loved her over-the-top representations of female angst!

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  3. These type of stories give me angst as I can’t relax with intolerance to various lifestyles. Haha. Give me a dog any day but have a hard time reading books about them too. 🤭🤭🤭

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    • Ah, I have the book about dogs that will please you. It’s by Virginia Woolf, and it’s called Flush: A Biography, and it’s narrated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.

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