There have been three years now of ‘Australian Voices’, but when in all that time have you heard a voice? The metonymic use of the word ‘voice’ to mean ‘way of using language’ has become so familiar we forget it’s figurative. But as far as sensory experience is concerned, reading this series has been about the look of typeface, the feel of paper; the only noise has been the turning of the pages. We’ve heard Australian voices in silence.
In the last few years I’ve been to a lot of literary festivals and conferences and readings to hear writers read and speak, and I am always astonished by the number of people who turn up. Why do they turn up? (Why do I turn up?) The question seems currently, for some reason, in the air: having decided several weeks ago on my topic for this essay and having, as I write this, about half finished it, I was shown an hour ago an article by Helen Garner on writers’ festivals called ‘Singing for your Supper’, in which she asks the very question to which this essay is not so much an answer as a sort of meditative response. ‘What is this powerful urge people feel,’ she asks, ‘that makes them not only buy books but pay even more money in order to clap eyes on the writers themselves, to hear them speak and read?’
If one admires the work of a writer then it is logical to want to buy and own and read the writer’s books, but is it logical to want to see the writer’s body and to hear the writer’s voice? And is it logical to complain, as one woman recently did, of disappointment in a literary lunch at which Elizabeth Jolley ‘only’ read from the manuscript of the book she is currently writing? ‘I thought,’ this woman wrote, ‘that she was going to speak.’ It was not Jolley’s fiction, the thing for which she is justly famous, which had brought the woman out to lunch. What she wanted was what she must have thought of as Jolley’s self.
What is this all about?
I don’t see (and don’t want) any easy answer, but there are certainly a few seductive-looking avenues inviting exploration. I think that the kind of occasion upon which a writer stands up to read, to speak, to be looked at and heard (‘giving a reading’, ‘giving a paper’, ‘giving a talk’: note the verb) has close connections with certain other forms of communication: gossip, letters, crime fiction, biography. Like these, it involves empowerment, pleasure, and desire. Like these, it concerns bodily presence. Like these, it tries to answer one of the questions that these postmodern times have made so hard: ‘Who?’
Psyche: Ormond College, Melbourne, June 1987
The most memorable reading I ever went to was held in a big room of Ormond College at Melbourne University. There was a thick mist and a full moon and both did their best for Ormond’s fulsome architecture; it was a long, cold, spooky walk through the grounds. The audience, upturned and blinking in the light, was grateful to be warm and dry and to have arrived in the right place, and we sat expectantly like good children with folded hands, waiting to be told a story.
The readers were Gerald Murnane, Kevin Hart, and Helen Garner, and when I say that the evening was memorable I do not mean that drama developed or that surprise events occurred, just that everything seemed to fit. The gothic weather outside was a kind of preparation for the concentration of sheer presence on the stage, and what I remember most vividly about the reading is the degree to which the stories and poems that were read and the sight and sound of the readers could not be separated: the way that physical presence produced the words we heard.
Gerald Murnane once gave a reading at Writers’ Week in Adelaide. I sat listening with a friend who had always disliked his writing but had never heard him read. My friend was astounded; watching and listening, exposed to voice and presence, he experienced the writing quite differently and thought it was extraordinary. Murnane’s voice is resonantly unignorable, but too musical to be a shout; the quality of the sound and the repetitions of the prose, taken together, have an effect that is liturgical and hypnotic. On this night at Ormond he read, as he often does, about grass. He read, if memory serves, about the treachery of grass, as distinct from the reliability of rock, and about a small boy. His black hair was so freshly washed it must still have been just damp at the roots, and (hair, like grass, is shifty, transient and treacherous) it kept falling in his eyes as he read, the only small-boyish thing about a man who looks as if he has never been a child.
Kevin Hart, unlike either Garner or Murnane, looked happy. I had always thought of Hart’s poetry as cerebral and abstract even when impassioned and I was surprised by the cheerfully direct and sensual poems he chose to read that night. The last was about gypsophila, a plant with personality and with other, better names. He got to the end of the poem, its last line. ‘Baby’s breath,’ he breathed into the microphone through a mouth in the shape of a small smile. ‘Baby’s breath.’
Helen Garner, elegant and haunted in short hair and matt black, stepped up onto the stage and looked out over our heads as though she could see some cosmic disaster rolling in from the horizon. Usually in public performance she radiates energy and physical grace, but this night she stood very still and read a story called ‘What the Soul Wants’ in a voice like a chilly bell. The story began at the moment when Psyche – or, rather, a Psyche-figure, here unnamed – takes her forbidden look by candlelight at the sleeping Eros and accidentally drips hot wax on his bare shoulder, whereupon he wakes and flees. ‘Was it my fault? I only wanted to look at him.’ The story went on to indicate the terrible punishments in store for any curious disobedient souls who want too much to know what love looks like: to see the body, look at the face of the person by whom they have already been enchanted in the dark.
Maybe the people who come to see writers read have got the same idea.
‘I was at a writers’ conference recently where a screenwriter, Johnny Dingwall, said that the original function of a writer was as storyteller to his tribe. That struck a very resonant chord,’ said David Williamson in 1979, in an interview with Jim Davidson. ‘There’s something tribal about people gathering to be read to,’ said a mate of mine last week, in an interview with me. I like this notion of the tribe a lot, and am interested to see it recur in discussions about what writers are for. The people of a tribe have a tribal culture and a localised collective unconscious. They have the same gods, the same stories, the same rituals against fear and loneliness and the possibility of annihilation.
Disparate members of an audience are given a group identity not only by the knowledge and the reading experiences they already share – which is presumably what has brought them there in the first place – but also by the material they hear at the event, even while each person ‘hears’ something different. That reading at Ormond, for instance, constructed an implied audience with very particular characteristics: familiarity with the vegetation and geographical formations of that region of central and southern Victoria so germane to the psychogeography of Gerald Murnane; familiarity with the phrase ‘baby’s breath’ as a popular name for gypsophila; familiarity with the story of Eros and Psyche sufficient to recognise the wax-dripping scenario as theirs, to interpret the allegory, and to remember what happens in the myth to Psyche, the poor Soul – just to name a few. I am willing to bet that not one actual person in the room matched that abstraction, the ‘implied reader’; but among us, as one entity, ‘audience’, perhaps we did: the amount of collective tribal wisdom we could muster was probably enough to meet the demands of what we were listening to.
As a member of the tribe you can experience, simultaneously, both your sameness and your difference. Once, part of a very large audience, I sat on the grass in the sun at the Adelaide Writers’ Week and listened to a reading about British cities and landscapes given by Jan Morris. On either side of me, by chance, there sat a British woman named Caroline, and, as Morris read of the Welsh hills, both women began quietly to weep. Up till then I had felt like one of three female audience members on the grass, responding in unison to the prose and the problematic physical presence of Jan Morris on the stage, but at that moment the Carolines and their tears became, to me, completely opaque.
Or, to put it another way, when I was in Grade-One-and-Two in a small country school in 1959–60, there was a weekly ABC Radio schools broadcast during which someone would read a story. We had colouring-in books magically containing pictures that went with the stories and as we listened each week we would colour in the appropriate picture. All over the country, kids were having the same story read to them. It made us feel like part of the world. Peace reigned in the prefab classroom as we coloured in and listened with, apparently, one accord. But at the end of the broadcast when we compared pictures, everyone, it seemed, had coloured in a different story. Some kids had purple tigers. Some kids went over the line.
Digression: partly about money
The most obviously important point to be made about those ABC broadcasts is one that belongs to a different kind of essay, and it’s something I don’t feel properly equipped to discuss in a detailed or enlightening way, but I can’t not gesture at it with some questions: what kinds of stories were read to small children in 1960 on the government radio station under the rock-solid rule of Mr Menzies? Why is the story I remember most vividly the one about Little Black Sambo and the tigers who ran in circles so fast for so long that they turned into butter for his Mammy’s pancakes (see ‘purple tigers’), and how would I read that story now? If the ABC broadcasts could be called a tribal ritual, then which was the more important, the content or the fact of enactment? What kinds of values did those weekly stories instil and reinforce? When as grown-ups with our own money we pay at the door yesterday or tomorrow to hear writers read and speak at festivals and readings, what is it exactly that we’re happy to be paying for? Who chose the writers, and on what basis? Where is the funding coming from?
These questions should not be read as accusatory and paranoid (especially not coming from me, as somebody who has, in this festivals-and-readings context, both paid and been paid, both chosen and been chosen/not-chosen, both worked for funding bodies and benefited from them – not, I hasten to add, at the same time.) These questions should simply be asked.
Being read to: partly about love
Once upon a time, I was babysitting for a friend. Her son was two or three (his name is Nicholas, and as I write this I am plotting what flowers to send tomorrow, which is his eighteenth birthday), and he was not at all happy about the absence of his mother; he had been put to bed with his bag of toys, which included some picture books, and a light had been left on at his request. About an hour later I heard what I was sure was his mother’s voice coming from the bedroom; going to investigate, I found him sitting up in bed with one of the picture books held up in front of him, wordlessly vocalising. He wasn’t ‘saying’ anything: no sentences, no syntax, not one recognisable word. But he was reproducing with uncanny exactness the tone, the pitch, the cadences and rhythms of his mother’s voice.
‘Human responsibility for the “materiality” of language has often been portrayed by directly tying language to the body itself, as when Sartre, echoing Marx, described the writer’s voice as “a prolongation of the body”,’ says Elaine Scarry in what is actually an argument about the poetry of John Donne. I have an image that I hope will not fade of Donne, Marx and Sartre lined up in puzzlement at the bedside of a small mesmerised chanting boy, comparing diagnoses, badly in need of the help of Julia Kristeva (well, maybe not Donne), since neither language nor writing is what this story is actually about.
What Nick was doing was making a heroic and in one sense extraordinarily successful attempt to conjure up his mother’s bodily presence – to be not-separated from her – by reproducing that ‘prolongation of the body’, her (actual) voice, uninterfered-with by the static of language. As I think about it now, it seems to me to have been a kind of pre-literate version of the pre-oedipal state that is characterised by what Kristeva calls the ‘semiotic’: the ‘maternal rhythms, melodies and bodily movements which precede and prepare the way for the language of signification’. Nick’s imitation of ‘mother reading’ gestured forwards to his own future literacy and backwards to a memory of oneness with the maternal body.
That’s one of my favourite stories about reading. I love what it says about the difference between ‘reading’ and ‘being read to’, and about the place where that difference blurs. In an attempt to produce his mother’s presence, Nick ‘became’ his mother, and took on, willy-nilly, the role of agent – the opposite, in a way, of the effect he was trying to achieve. I remember very vividly the moment at which I realised I could read, and the sensation of empowerment, liberation and endless possibility was laced with a weird kind of desolation. Now that I could read, I would not need to be read to anymore. I was on my own.
If to ‘be read to’ is to return to the security of oneness with the maternal body or memories of a happy childhood, to conjure up a loving presence, or simply not to be alone, then it’s no mystery why people turn up to hear writers read. But that’s not the whole story.
Writers are Readers Too
Last year, at a library in suburban Melbourne, I took part in a reading that was one of a series of such evenings: we were invited to read not only from our own work but also from the work of our favourite writers. This series of readings was advertised under the heading ‘Writers are Readers Too’. I wondered then, and still do wonder, whether this meant ‘writers read as well as write’, or ‘writers are readers just like the rest of you’. Either way, it was an interesting indication of how easily that ‘writer/reader’ construction can make the two roles look complementary and mutually exclusive, like ‘transmitter/receiver’, and of how utterly misleading that can be.
I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up the Age Saturday Extra and found an article on reading by British novelist Jeanette Winterson that seemed to feed straight into this essay:
When I was supporting myself by working evenings and weekends, so that I could stay at school, I fought off loneliness and fear by reciting … In the funeral parlour I whispered Donne to the embalming fluids, and later, when I had stopped making up corpses and was working in a mental hospital, I found that Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ was very comforting to the disturbed. Among the disturbed I numbered myself at that time … Although I was exhausted most of the time, I felt, too, the exuberance of a lover when I came back to my tiny borrowed room and there were my books … Inside books there is perfect space and it is that space that allows the reader to deal with the normal problems of gravity.
The conflation of all these roles at once – writer/reader, lover/beloved, listener/reciter – in a single human subject is what concerns me here, because, like the story of Nick ‘reading’ his picture book, it shows just how mutable and flexible the reader/writer and speaker/listener roles and their relationships can be. I think a lot of what goes on in public places where writers speak and read is to do with processes of identification and projection. Writers write in private. Readers read in private. Writers read in public. Some readers are writers. All writers are readers. Many readers want to be writers. ‘I think a lot of people come to see writers because they want to be writers,’ said one Australian novelist with a great deal of experience to back her opinion, ‘and they’ve got an idea that some magic or other will rub off.’ She was tired, it’s true. But I think she was also right. Writers’ audiences can be very hungry people. They want things. They reverse the Marx–Sartre dictum about the writer’s voice as prolongation of the body, and regard the writer’s body as a prolongation of the textual ‘writer’s voice’ that they already know: they want to see the writer’s body and ‘read’ that as well. They want access to and knowledge of the writer’s ‘self’, an identity they can identify, and identify with. They are dangerous, like people in love.
Writers don’t know how they did it. They certainly don’t know how they’ll do it next time. And when they’re put into a group with three random strangers and called a panel, then given a topic and asked to discuss it in front of an audience, what they produce is some kind of strange heatshield, or smokescreen. Not lies. But everything ‘one’ says, however hard one is trying to tell the truth or say something useful, comes out askew, a little bit blurred, ever so slightly exaggerated or glib or beside the point.
Helen Garner’s metaphors of protection and defence (‘heatshield’, ‘smokescreen’: things that shelter you from dangerous intensities and prying eyes) in ‘Singing for your Supper’ remind us that a writer appearing in public makes herself or himself hugely vulnerable and that this is considerably more the case when a writer ‘speaks’ than when he or she ‘reads’: audiences wait voraciously for the spontaneous, unguarded, off-the-cuff gesture or remark, the unique, once-only moment you can’t get from a written text.
Writers reading from their work can use it to protect themselves from audiences. Panellists who have written out their ‘talks’ verbatim are likewise protected: as with a reading of poetry or fiction, it is really the text that is doing the performing. But if someone chooses to speak impromptu or consents to be interviewed, there’s no sheet or sheaf of paper mediating spatially and otherwise between the audience and the performer. As the performer, you are your body and your body has become the text: you are stuck with whatever it produces in the way of comment, voice and gesture, Freudian slips, idiot giggles, imperfect breath control, awkwardness of angles, the lot, spinning talk out of your body like a spider.
And once that silky thread of words is out, it’s out: unlike a spider you can’t just rewind it back into your body if you decide, on reflection, that that bit wasn’t really what you had in mind. No wonder writers’ festivals often have a kind of circus feel to them: there’s always a faint sense in the air that any minute the trapeze artist will miss her footing and nosedive into the sawdust, or the animal tamer will stick his head into the lion’s mouth without giving it sufficient thought. Part of our pleasure in the impromptu comes from its potential for disaster.
That’s one way of distinguishing between ‘reading’ (the written) and ‘speaking’ (the not-written); but I don’t think that it is, for example, what the woman at the Elizabeth Jolley lunch had in mind. What such audiences desire is knowledge of identity, a kind of discourse from the writer which is somehow something other than the writer’s ‘proper’ work, a direct expression of the self. It’s a false distinction because it assumes the existence of, and strives after, something stable and unchanging at the heart of the human subject, some essence of personality that will not change, somewhere underneath all that shiftiness of language. Fiction is all very well, the woman at the lunch might have said if pressed, but I wanted someone real.
Writers who agree to perform in interviews and on panels and such – as distinct from giving readings from their own work – have been asked to do nothing less than put their identities on the line, to talk about their own writing, to say what they ‘really’ think about reviewing, or screenwriting, or being edited, or writing-and-sex (a festivals favourite, this one). Some people don’t mind this. Some people are very good at it.
But some people feel the same way about it as Thea Astley, who, at the 1992 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, left the audience in no doubt about anything except why on earth she said Yes in the first place:
I find this terribly embarrassing. I don’t like talking about my writing. I feel the book is done and it is there and if people hate it, well, okay, and if they like it, great. A great audience listening to a couple of people wanking away – I’m sorry, it is just awful. I feel this is one of those situations Hitler didn’t invent but should have.
And that was the first thing she said. But she went through Queensland on the Writers’ Train again this year, stopping off in tiny outback towns with the rest of the train gang to give readings and visit schools and talk to little kids and book-starved grownups. I think the Writers’ Train is a fabulous idea and I hope it goes on for years and years and I hope I get to go on it some time. But if talking about writing and being-a-writer in crumbling ‘Institutes’ and one-teacher schools in darkest Queensland is such a worthy pursuit, then why should talking about exactly the same things on a stage in a city theatre be regarded as a Hitlerian wank? Maybe the difference is definitional: the Writers’ Train was about books and writing, but the interview with Thea Astley was billed as ‘Spotlight on Thea Astley’, and this putting one’s self up for scrutiny has certain things in common with being publicly flayed. It’s no real wonder that there’s a felt need for screens and shields.
And since, as Garner implied, it’s that desire for self-protection which tends to skew anything one has to say, it’s also no real wonder that the best performance I have ever seen at a writers’ festival was a fearless foray into vulnerability. This occurred during a panel session in Melbourne in 1987 somewhat confusingly entitled ‘There’s No Such Thing as Inspiration’; the panellists were Margaret Atwood, Robert Drewe, Kate Grenville, and A.S. Byatt, still three years pre-Booker Prize and considerably less well known than she is now.
Atwood demanded to be allowed to speak first because she had a plane to catch, announced that her talk had been written for a different, earlier occasion but that she was going to recycle it here, did so, and departed, unlamented and very nearly unapplauded, for the airport. Robert Drewe gave a very funny and carefully prepared talk structured around stages of self-deprecation. ‘My inspiration is made up of a sorry mixture of urgency, vanity and vulnerability,’ he said, cleverly rendering himself invulnerable by the old and effective trick of putting oneself down first before anybody else gets the chance. Kate Grenville’s talk was likewise written out verbatim, meticulously considered, great to listen to, polished to a high gloss. Physically and in other respects, each of these two was a bright presence with hard edges, neat, focused, impenetrable.
A.S. Byatt’s bodily presence seemed by contrast somehow curry, like on of the less intimidating breeds of cat. She had not written a speech. She had brought her journal, and said that she would read us some bits of it and talk about the reasons why she wrote them down in the first place, and about how they had been transformed into various scenes and images and episodes in her fiction. She read us the diary entry about the day she opened her meat-stocked fridge and thought ‘My God, this thing is full of death,’ talked about the passage in her novel The Virgin in the Garden on the geometry of meat, and tracked her own progress from the one to the other. She talked about being asthmatic, about the effects of oxygen deprivation on sensory perceptions, about the usefulness of this for artists. Her address was conversational and meditative and she let the journal take her, and us, wherever it might lead. Unscreened and unshielded, she stood on the stage with her heart in her hand, and gestured with it. She was breathtaking.
Bodies of paper and blood
‘Write?’ asks Helene Cixous. ‘Taking pleasure as the gods who created books take pleasure and give pleasure, endlessly; their bodies of paper and blood; their letters of flesh and tears; they put an end to the end.’ There’s something very metaphysical-poets about this poised, determined, overwrought conceit in which the human body has become linguistically inextricable from the book; about the paradox of immoral flesh (‘they put an end to the end’); about that pronoun ‘their’, made irrecoverably ambiguous by syntax: the gods or the books? The writers and their writing, in these metaphors, have become the same thing, one thing. John Donne, says Elaine Scarry,
imagines a word or sentence as something that can contain – or more graphically, as something that can be wrapped around – bodies and other substantive objects. He repeatedly speaks of language in terms of a ‘page’; which, because made of cloth, rag, vellum, or even glass, itself has sensuous properties. [There is] a resulting hybrid of ‘body and cloth’, ‘body and page’, or ‘body and book’.
‘Literary critics make natural detectives,’ said Maud.
There’s a crime writer in the U.S., a woman called Patricia D. Cornwell, who appears to be poised on the brink of becoming very rich indeed. Her third book All That Remains features, like the first two, a ‘detective’ figure by the name of Dr Kay Scarpetta. ‘The top female stars in Hollywood are interested in Scarpetta at the moment,’ she says. ‘The very top. And Columbia Pictures is very interested … We’re being very stingy and very reticent about any kind of deal because Scarpetta’s going to be huge.’
Dr Kay Scarpetta is neither a policeperson nor a PI, but the ‘chief medical examiner of the Commonwealth of Virginia’: the person who performs autopsies on the bodies of those who have died unnatural deaths. ‘Every violent death represents the climax of one story and an introduction to its sequel,’ says another female crimebuster, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, on the first page of F is for Fugitive. The murder mystery is a form of writing about the act of reading: reading the body. The crucial moment in the plot of The Silence of the Lambs occurs when Clarice Starling, gazing absently into a wardrobe full of dresses, is reminded of the weird triangular patches of skin missing form one murder victim’s back, and suddenly realised what those marks say: ‘Starling saw the triangles on Kimberly’s shoulders outlined in the blue dashes of a dressmaking pattern … They’re darts – he took those triangles to make darks so he could let out her waist … Buffalo Bill’s trained to seriously sew.’
What Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey and Poirot and Maigret and Marlowe all do in murder cases is reconstruct a narrative from the state of a body: the story of how the body got to be that way. Most such novels begin with the discovery of the body and then tell the story of the reconstruction of that other story. I think that one reason for the growing popularity of the Kay Scarpetta character is that she is, in a way, a personification of the genre. Unlike her fictional forefathers she is not just the figure poised on this narrative fulcrum, but an actual manifestation of it: the person who is, by profession, a body-reader. ‘You see the body, and you work it out.’
Talking to a friend about how to write this essay, I asked him what he thought about people’s reasons for going to see and hear writers read. ‘They think,’ he said without hesitation, ‘that somehow all will be revealed.’
On not writing a biography
Every morning for a week at the end of winter 1989 I walked from my room at the Australian National University through the park and across the Commonwealth Avenue bridge to the National Library, where I spent each day reading the letters that Australian novelist and historian Marjorie Barnard wrote to Vance and (mostly) Nettie Palmer during the 1930s and 1940s. My project was to write a biography of Barnard, and the more people said to me ‘But didn’t she have a really boring life?’ the more determined I became to write a really interesting book, a book about Barnard’s inner life, its manifestations in writing, the extent to which it might be reconstructable, the things it might reveal about its time and place and about the life of the stately and marmoreal body that disguised it so effectively.
But the more I read of Barnard’s letters the clearer it became that she found the whole idea of having a biography written invasive and disturbing. Quite early on in her correspondence with the Palmers she spells out her disapproval and distress at the idea of literary friends and acquaintances keeping each other’s letters and of the documents’ being used eventually in biographies, and she writes about these feelings several times.
Barnard was one of those big slow creamy never married dutiful-daughter types that you find here and there in the work of Patrick White. She worked for many years as a librarian. She was reliable, honourable, decent, reticent, and generous. ‘You’ll easily know me,’ she said on the phone to Nettie Palmer the day that they were to meet for the first time. I’m middle-aged [she was thirty-five] … I wear brown … I wear glasses … ‘. There is a great deal in her letters to the Palmers about Frank Dalby Davison, to whom she refers as a friend, and about whose various dramatic marital and extramarital upheavals she maintains a tone of gentle concern with an underlay of irony. But on Valentine’s Day 1938, at the age of forty, she wrote – not, interestingly, to Nettie, but to Vance:
Perhaps you already know what has happened. You see deeper than other people … and I at least would be willing for you to know what I should hate to have anyone else touch. Frank. I’d pick up my chin and go through, but there isn’t any other side.
It was the thought of what might lie in those silences on either side of the name that made me finally decide not to write the book, though I didn’t realise this till several months afterwards. It was already beginning to feel impossible to write a biography and not keep faith with one’s subject, and now I was haunted by this letter. I should hate to have anyone else touch.
The disclosure of a clandestine and apparently major love affair with another well-known person was a biographer’s dream, something I would have pounced on with cries of glee if it had not so clearly been a source of pain. Several other Australian scholars are more familiar than I am. with the Palmer correspondence and with other sources of Barnard’s letters, so it wasn’t a new discovery; but, to a life whose drama I had so far perceived as of either an intellectual or a psychological variety only, it seemed to add a major new dimension. (And when more of Barnard’s letters appeared in Carole Ferrier’s As Good as a Yarn With You earlier this year, I found that when Barnard wrote this letter to Palmer, she and Davison had already been lovers for four years. ‘I was deeply in love with him – I think I still am,’ she wrote to Jean Devanny in 1947, years after he had married someone else. ‘We were lovers for eight years … he didn’t pretend to love me [but] he liked my body very much … I didn’t want to put any sort of bond on him … He wanted to punish me for being me … I hope he’ll forget he ever knew me.’)
But as I sat in the National Library looking at that word ‘Frank’ in the letter to Vance Palmer, what I actually felt was a kind of revulsion at the idea of writing a book that would track down someone else’s body so relentlessly. And I was puzzled by the way I’d taken it for granted that Barnard’s bodily life was somehow the central source of the ‘truth’ about her. ‘The whole of our scholarship, ‘says Maud in Possession, ‘the whole of our thought – we question everything except the centrality of sexuality – Unfortunately feminism can hardly avoid privileging such matters. I sometimes wish I had embarked on geology.’
It may be that the literary biographer’s impulse to map the subject’s writing onto the shape of his or her life-in-the-body is an impulse that is shared by the people who turn up at readings to observe that body for themselves. (Especially, as Helen Garner points out, the ones who ask ‘Is this book autobiographical?)’ In fact, since not many literary biographies are published before the writer’s death and certainly no readings given after it, perhaps the two things serve the same basic purpose as far as their consumers are concerned. And it may also be that, like literary biographers, those audiences have a sense of the writer’s body as something tangible, solid, stable, reliable: an anchor for all that endless, shifty language.
This, as any plastic surgeon, cybertheorist or morgue attendant will tell you, is a mistake.
The Telecom Australian Voices essay for July 1991 was written by Philippa Hawker, and on the back cover of that issue of ABR there appeared a photograph, presumably provided by her, of her hands, her haircut (rear view) and the back of her neck. It was a jolt, a joke, almost shockingly eloquent about the person it pictured yet not identifiable as any person in particular. It was a forcible reminder of how much we rely on the face as a site of identity. ‘The face is not an envelope exterior to the person who speaks, thinks or feels … The form of subjectivity, whether consciousness or passion, would remain absolutely empty if faces did not form loci of resonance.’
The paradox of this is that in communicating identity, in reflecting and revealing and relaying the process of subjectivity, the face is the shiftiest thing of all: its very capacity for movement is what tells us most about its owner. ‘Lacan describes the face,’ says Patrizia Magli in ‘The Face and the Soul’,
as the most elusive of objects. Its rhythms and the various dynamics in its makeup all contribute to an unstable form. The roles of its individual actors, such as the nose, eyes, eyebrows, mouth, all belong to the indefinite time of their action, to a fluctuating and unstructured logic … Yet, this same movement, which appears to defy any verbal description, and sometimes the abilities of memory itself, does not preclude the recognition of an identity … There is a sort of perceptual perseverance that allows us to say, upon meeting a friend after a long time, ‘It is you,’ or ‘My God, how you have changed!’
We go to see writers to assure ourselves that they are real, to reassure ourselves that they are who we thought they were, to watch their faces change as they speak, change and stay the same. We live in hope that their bodies, their faces, will tell us who they are. And in seeking out the writers we are treating the writing as though it were a river in an unknown landscape, tracking it back to its place of origin, thinking perhaps that we might better understand how this magical stuff works if we can see the source for ourselves.