Knopf, $39.95 hb, 678 pp, 0 091 83676 X
Relations between the public arena and the private are what the novel is all about. This loose, generous prose form was developed in early-modern Europe to enable a vigorous bourgeois imagination to ask the question: what is public, in fact, and what is private. If this could no longer be determined by titles and duties, properties and subservience, countesses and clowns, a kind of unrolling narrative had to evolve which was capable of asking all the psycho-political questions. And the genre has come a long way, has taken on many forms, along with many fields of information. Modern fiction is full of frisky factions.
To nobody could these reflections be more appropriate than to Frank Moorhouse. From his early chain of stories, The Americans, Baby, he has been asking awkward questions about the raw, chafed edge of public and intimate, in a shallowly modern world which calls for deep enquiry. A story like ‘Del Goes into Politics’ brings together the angry political divisions of the 1970s with a young woman’s coarsely sexual awakening. What is more, he has long been able to write un-sensationally about bisexual characters: about the secret world of the senses, to use a phrase which touches upon his Everlasting Secret Family.
From early on, Moorhouse chose to adopt a very plain prose style. He took on board the very dangerous influence of Hemingway and other American plainsmen, at best to good effect. His uninflected prose has proved to be a way of coping with the postmodern and Vietnam War years, since it can register the near-meaninglessness of daily juxtapositions; it can set the far beside the near, the political alongside the genital. It can also come up with stark near-sentences like, ‘The urge to fall into the black abyss’ or ‘But not glamorous’.
For all that it can stand alone, Dark Palace runs on from Moorhouse’s previous large novel, the much-admired Grand Days. We are back in Geneva between the World Wars and our stylish, spunky protagonist is the young Australian, Edith Campbell Berry, who has made her way up the senior ranks among League of Nations administrators. A Sydney science graduate, Berry acts out and presents us with her éducation sentimentale. She acts, and is acted upon, amid the international world and all its tensions.
Working close to this character, Moorhouse is fascinated by her clothes, both by the intimate accoutrements of silk that surround Berry’s complicated sexuality, and by her daylight fashion statements. Thus: ‘She had on a black suit with a hip-length jacket, a box-pleated skirt, and belt. Two-toned blue and white shoes. She rather liked the two-toned shoes although on men she considered two-toned shoes to be cad’s shoes. As a general rule.’
Back in Australia, she even pleasures an Australian lawyer–poet with her kid-gloved hand, a very strange detail, when all is said and done. But then, such bizarre details are part of Moorhouse’s stock in trade, an aspect of his familiar range of effects. In essence, he has asked us again and again, why should this range of sexual practices be permissible in fiction, and not those other ones.
They are part of life, too; and his particular realism – as gently ironic in other respects as that of Stendhal’s Lucien Leuwen – wants to include them. His tension lies in the fact that he wants to be realistic and teasing at the same time. I suspect that our disturbance gives him pleasure. No wonder that he sends his two central characters to T.S. Eliot’s psychoanalyst. Tom’s very shrink, indeed: jump, dear reader, jump!
In a recent newspaper interview, Moorhouse has spoken of the way in which these two novels ‘are an expression of the female part of my persona’, as well as their being a deeply researched quest for the peaceful, palliative meanings of the League. He also admits, in a Jamesian way, that Edith Berry, a marginal character in one of his early books, arose and led him into these new narratives. As ever, he is a character-driven storyteller.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Dark Palace is the ease with which it mingles fictions with historical figures. At Sydney University, Berry had met figures such as Camilla Wedgwood and Enoch Powell, but now, going about the world’s business, she has dealings with Anthony Eden, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, James Joyce, and Alexis Saint-Leger Leger: not far offstage are Laval, Hitler, and, in particular, the emergent, swaggering Mussolini, in whose Ethiopian war Berry seeks to intervene. In time, of course, the League fails, and Hitler’s war breaks out. And gradually runs its course. Our characters are last seen in a San Francisco hotel, feeling a little like the diminishing instruments of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. Their silk nighties have gone: they are as naked as the postwar world. Loss is our indistinct inheritance.
Focusing frequently on Berry’s political ideals, the novel has glided between the corridors of power in the Palais des Nations and the cross-dressing Molly Club. Its long-term focus is upon the fluctuating relationship between Berry and Ambrose Westwood, a former English diplomat, whose bisexuality has its curious appeal for her. The novel plays over his passive but demanding role, intriguingly, contrasting him with the unimaginative Robert, a conservative male to whom she is married in the earlier years.
But on the larger scale, this is a history of the bowels of Europe from 1931 to 1946, Auden’s ‘low, dishonest decade’ and a half. For Edith Berry and her level of the telling, there is a trembling tension between her rationalist upbringing and her remembered Paris peccadillo with a black musician, the key passage from Grand Days recapitulated here: recalled with a great deal of slippery physical particularity and ardent vagueness. Always, however, she has work to do, and on the world stage. Over the escaping years, Moorhouse has become a novelist who knows what work is: ordinary labour with meetings and diurnal deadlines. There is a lot in life beyond the sensitiveness of protagonists, and he knows it now, can delineate its dull demands.
Berry’s place in the League’s painful deliberations is sustainedly convincing. She is far more than a young woman dressed ‘in a new, pale pink silk-satin Parisian evening dress, with a low scooped front, Egyptian emerald bracelet, necklace and ring, and with her short hair set in waves and parted on the side.’
Indeed, the end of the novel cries out for a completion of Moorhouse’s incipient trilogy. Like corny old Victorian readers of realistic fiction, we find ourselves craving a bigger resolution. But in this we may be naive, locked in antique gender roles.
‘What then, said Plato’s ghost, what then?’ Moorhouse, having rubbed the microcosm against the macrocosm, leaves us asking just such a Yeatsian question.