Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2022

Salonika Burning, by Gail Jones

Gail Jones ninth novel is an interesting addition to Australia’s literature of World War 1.  Salonika Burning attracted my attention because it features a fictionalised ‘Miles Franklin’ in a setting I’d encountered before, in The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, by Ivan Čapovski, translated by Paul Filev (Cadmus Press, 2020, see my review).  Both novels are inspired by an episode in MF’s life when she was briefly working behind the lines in WW1 with the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Serbian Ostrovo. (It is now Lake Vergoritis, Pella Prefecture, in Hellas. National borders and place names change *a lot* in this part of the world).  Čapovski’s novel uses MF primarily as a witness to atrocities little-known within the dominant narratives of the war, while Jones counters the prevailing Anzac narrative in a different way.

The four main characters of Salonika Burning are all fictionalised versions of real people who served behind the Balkan front lines as volunteers.  Their real life identities are Australians Stella Miles Franklin and wealthy adventurer Olive King who bought her own ambulance; along with the surgeon, painter and psychology researcher Grace Pailthorpe and the proselytizing painter Stanley Spencer, who were both British.  As Gail Jones explains in the Author’s Note, none of these people ever met each other in real life, and in the novel, only their first names are given, to disassociate them from their postwar lives.

Of these four characters, only Stella had much of a public profile before the war — but what fame she had achieved in Australia with her notable novel (an allusion to My Brilliant Career, 1901) is lost on her colleagues.  Indeed, Stella’s lowly position in this setting is a humiliating comedown for someone whose authorial ambitions were never matched by achievements after the success of that first novel.  [She was no Louise Mack, the notable Australian journalist who was the first female war correspondent, reporting from Belgium for the Evening News and the Daily Mail.] All of the novel’s characters are outsiders, and their motivations are primarily a search for relevance.  They are people marking time in a war that is mostly offstage and in different ways they are experiencing profound disillusionment.

None of them think that they are being really useful.  Soldiers die despite the surgeon’s best efforts, and once because of a mistake Grace made under the pressure of time. Spencer gets told to stop his religious ravings because the army will not abide a raver and is put in charge of the donkeys. Olive’s ambulance is used as a delivery vehicle when supplies run short because of the disaster in Salonika.  Bossed around by a matron, with no interest or aptitude for cooking even if there were access to decent food, Stella is not a nurse as portrayed on the cover of Čapovski’s novel.

In Salonkia Burning, the characterisation of MF is a counter to her semi-heroic image as fostered by the literary prizes in her name.  In San Francisco to seek her own meaning she left within days of the 1906 earthquake, dismayed by the ruins, the despair and the sense of hope overturned. 

Decisive, Stella bought a train ticket east.  There was no point staying, and San Francisco didn’t want her.  What could be more alien than an Australian woman, motivated by unionism and women’s rights, wandering distrait in a ruined city? (p.26)

She was irrelevant then, but is hopeful of being relevant in this war.

Now more than a decade later, she was a different woman, internationalised and sure.  She was a journalist and a writer, though the fame she sought eluded her.  In London, she found work in the Minerva café on High Holborn, and this was enough to recommend her for a six-month contract with the Scottish Women’s Hospital: ‘assistant cook and orderly’.  In truth, she barely knew a pot from a pan, and had to ask an Irish biddy to give her a few tips. (p.27)

Note the derogatory term ‘Irish biddy’, the implication being that this is Stella’s own usage.  There are other aspects of her characterisation which show her resentment about the menial tasks she is given and the lack of respect shown to her.  She is dissatisfied with what she is doing, not least because she was seeking material for her writing and, laid low by a badly administered anti-malarial injection, she can’t get to see the ruins of Salonika after the fire which destroyed it.

Had she been honest, Stella would have conceded a barrier.  She felt apart from all that she saw and from her workmates and companions.  She’d expected credit and esteem from her role with the Scottish Women’s Hospital but found her own skills negligible and her writer-self suppressed. Now what she might contribute—a literary reckoning with the historical event of a destroyed city—had been denied her.  She had been wounded by a needle, humiliated and laid low. (p.109)

After years away from Australia, she is homesick too, yearning for Australian birds, for the kookaburra and the curlew, that rasped with rude energy and unmelodic cry. 

Stella was in pain and miserable and wondering why she was here.  She was thirty-eight years old and felt that her life was over. (p.110)

(And when Stella does write, she’s writes so much that she is slapdash and careless with spelling and grammar. I was reminded of Jill Roe’s analysis of the real-life MF’s writing failures when I read this, see my review of the bio, paragraphs 3 & 5.)

Reading about Stanley Spencer’s surreal image-making as he performs his duties made me realise afresh that today’s readers can use the wonders of the web to amplify their understanding of a text.  In the novel, Stanley sketches the men but gives away their portraits … while in his head, he plans the paintings he will create.  I’d never heard of Stanley Spencer, but when I found him via Google I could see his style. (And I could see what a ‘travoy’ was too.)

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) by Stanley Spencer (Wikipedia)

Again, as a counter to the prevailing narrative about the postwar experience of men damaged by war, there are intimations of as yet unnamed PTSD among the women who served.  Matron is adamant that there should be no talking about the distressing things they see and experience: it is better, she says, to get on and do one’s duty. This directive makes them distant and insensitive with each other.  Olive is offended by Grace’s dismissive manner when she confides her observation of an old man rescuing small items from the ruins in Salonika:

Olive hated her then.  Not to hear what was being said, not to realise she told the story because she was dismayed by what was being burned or blasted or raided by burly soldiers.  Of all that was gone.  Was going.  Would never be retrieved.  Grace seemed to have no regard for the dense world of sentiment, for small, fragile and personal things.  Nurses said it was the work: to saw through a man’s leg or stitch across a fleshy hole you had to lock down feeling, you had to be exacting and crafty. (p.120)

In contrast to the male mateship of the Anzac narrative the women do not support each other.  The novel is episodic and impressionistic, but most of the time we see inside the minds of the characters rather than hear their dialogue.  So it is the omniscient narrator who shows us that they are judgemental about some ‘scandalous’ behaviour and scornful when one of them cries at a funeral.  Olive cannot not know anything about Grace’s demons.

She’d been told they would blur, all the dying men.  But what was striking was how specific the memories were, how much her mind retained of individual gestures, or words, or the splinters of another life showing in the flesh of a new wound.  Some were innocent, some were fools.  Some were crushed not by their injury so much as by the shame they felt in receiving it, in being handled by girl nurses and strangers and the system that took over their bodies.  With their regiments they had small protective rituals and beliefs, but once at the clearing station or hospital they were a shape on a stretcher, incongruously huge in their own pain as they were tiny in the world’s estimation.  The satisfaction of a medal or commendation was a long way away; at this point they were vastly lonely and alone. (p.128)

And — as we see when one of the four receives the news that was dreaded around the world on both sides — so were the healers among them.  [Who like the overwhelming majority of soldiers, did not receive medals or commendations.]

All wars are awful, but this one remains a mystery to us still.  Soldiers receiving gifts of socks and care packages that were meant for someone who had died before the giver knew it, understand that as cannon fodder they have lost their individuality.

They tried not to think about the fellow whose socks they wore or imagine someone ese wearing socks intended for them.  The logic of substitution. This was an inefficient war, and crude, deathly logic had made them all interchangeable.  It did not bear thinking about. (p.138)

It’s still so true…

Image credit: Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) by Stanley Spencer – http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/25132, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30833366

Author: Gail Jones
Title: Salonika Burning
Artwork and design: W H Chong
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922458834, hbk., 249 pages
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Responses

  1. I’m halfway through this Lisa, so will save your review until I’ve finished.

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  2. […] Salonika Burning | Gail Jones (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LItLovers) […]

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  3. Sorry! I’ve been working. The picture on the Čapovski cover is from an actual photo.
    I enjoyed Čapovski’s book, I think because I didn’t have to take his Miles Franklin seriously. I’m not sure I’d be so willing to go along with an Australian author.
    MF did a lot of menial work – from 1902-1906 in Australia and then for a year while travelling across the US. The Minerva cafe job, one day a week, was through her branch of the English suffragists, who ran the cafe. Other days (around 1916) she did journalism and volunteer work. Does Jones say that the doctors running the Ostrevo camp were Australian women?

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    • Did I send it on you? I’m glad you enjoyed it anyway…
      Somewhere in Jones’s book (maybe not in these words, but it’s late and I’m not going to look it up) it says something about her wanting the approval of the suffragists.
      As I remember it, the only doctor whose nationality is mentioned is the English one, Grace Pailthorpe.

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  4. […] Salonika Burning | Gail Jones (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LItLovers) […]

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  5. I’m looking forward to reading this one; she’s one of my favourite Australian writers.

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