Rereadings III: John A. Scott: N

Blackheath, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2014, 599pp.

John A. Scott’s N belongs, at least on a superficial reading, to the genre of alternative histories. The death of an independent, Norman Cole, in 1942 leads to the replacement of the Curtin government by one lead by Warren Mahony. The Japanese invade, the American forces, only newly arrived, depart and the Australian government retreats southward, making Melbourne the centre of “free” Australia and forming a new base for government at Mt Macedon. But readers expecting a conventional, realistic exploration of this new “reality-possibility”, will quickly register surprise since N is also a compendium of different styles and, more importantly, a compendium of imaginative, non-realistic scenarios.

Despite this multiplicity, the narrative is, however, dominated by the histories of two frustrated relationships. The first is Missy Cunningham’s love for the painter, Vic Turner, a relationship compromised by her loveless marriage to Roy and her desperate protectiveness of her son, Ross. The second is Robin Telford’s doomed love for Esther Cole, the widow of the politician whose death made the accession of the Mahony government possible. And the trajectories of these two relationships have, as one expects in Scott’s work, very beautiful and shapely structures. Each has a moment when a decision, quickly taken, leads on to a disaster which is, in its own bleak way, a kind of fulfillment. When Vic – as semi-official war artist – is camped with Australian forces entrenched opposite the lines of the Japanese forces in a stalemate that recalls – as much else in this genuinely “phoney” war does – the experiences of the First World War, and the signal to surrender comes through, he is given a chance to leave. Menadue, Missy’s brother and his immediate superior, planning to desert and operate as a guerrilla behind Japanese lines, offers Vic the chance to join him. He refuses on the grounds that the his work as a painter is only half finished and, since it’s given his life meaning, needs to be completed. It’s a quick decision and sets in train the events that will eventually lead to his brutal death in the mining camp at Yampi Sound in the Kimberly region of north-western West Australia. Menadue, whose decision is also quickly taken, will die spreading bubonic plague among the Japanese scientists experimenting on human victims in Camp 732 in Tallon “a town in the middle of nowhere”. In the other relationship, Telford, while involved in setting up the new governmental centre of Mt Macedon, comes across an old University friend, Wood-Conroy, while on a trip to Melbourne. (Wood-Conroy, a remorseless behind-the-scenes operator, is clearly based on Alf Conlon who, coincidentally, for readers of Australian poetry, was the employer of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, the authors of the Ern Malley hoax which, more and more, looks like a plot derived from a book by Scott). Wood-Conroy is about to return to America and, on a whim, offers Telford a job as “like-minded assistant”. Telford refuses on the very Telfordian grounds that “a good rank in the Public Service, assisting the secretary to Emergency Cabinet, was not something to let go of on a whim”. Shortly after, Esther Cole comes to find him and present him with the task of working out what had happened to her husband and Telford’s fate is sealed. Significantly, when all the explanations of the events are made at the end, it is Wood-Conroy who takes a leading role. He seems as close to omniscience (and thus perhaps to the novelist, though he is implicated in the horrors) as anyone in the work and his long debriefing of Telford at the end has about it a tone of “If you had come with me you would have known this all along and thus avoided all this suffering.”

Clustered around these two narratives (though “interwoven with” might be a more accurate critical cliché) are the stories of Albie Henningsen (whose character recalls “Inky” Stephensen), Menadue, Leon Mischka and Reginald Thomas. Henningsen is an Australia First proto-fascist who is arrested and interned at the beginning of the war and his complex and painfully comic story – conveyed as monthly “letters” written on official notepaper with its recurrent reminder “Do Not Write Between The Lines” – involves the Scott themes of “ghost-writing”, plagiarism and identity-theft as he attempts to write the “true history” of the Burke and Wills expedition before being made the official biographer of the Prime Minister whose government has interred him. Menadue and Mischka are involved in different campaigns, the former demonstrating, perhaps, how a soldier should behave in impossible times and the latter how an artist might. Reginald Thomas is an extraordinary creation, an innocent novelist and radio dramatist who suddenly finds that he experiences visions that turn out to be accurate, word perfect predictions of the future. Since this material is worked into radio plays, he is immediately imprisoned by security forces who find him – since he is completely aware of his future fate – calmly waiting for them.

The figure of Thomas is a reminder that although N can be seen, nominally, as an example of “alternative history”, a better description of it might be “alternative reality”. While having a Tiresias-figure like Thomas – breasts and all – could be seen as a stretching of realistic norms in the interests of myth, there are other parts of the novel’s world that are more weirdly surreal. Australia is given an alternative geography, for example, where the vast “inland sea”, imagined and sought for in the nineteenth century, actually exists: Burke and Wills have a boat waiting for them disguised as a cart when they reach Wentworth at the junction of the Murray and the Darling. A bunyip, escaped from the pages of Ola Cohn, roams the country. One’s sense of these distortions is that the world of the imagination – usually corralled within literature and the visual arts – interpenetrates conventionally perceived reality. Scott’s own work might be included here since early poems like “Flooded City” and “Six Sonnets: Even Their Stories” chime with the Melbourne’s freak tides during the war In N. It is during one of these floods that, when others are asleep at flooded stations, Missy voyages with “the boatman” in a barge full of pennies and hears mysterious voices of “other times, other stories . . .places you might try to reach at your own peril”. In fact, these waters are a specific manifestation of the most important element of this alternative reality: tunnels (as well as passages of water) connect different places and even different times. Telford’s    assigned accommodation is built over a network of tunnels – a labyrinth whose stations are marked by letters and thus, symbolically, the labyrinth of writing – that will draw him farther into his search. A short trip along a tunnel that one of his fellow deserters has fallen into takes Menadue, for example, far away from the line of the opposing armies into Tallon, deep in the interior. It is no accident that Roy Cunningham goes into the mines to draw the workers there, nor is it an accident that he should become disoriented and hear Japanese voices if not from another reality then from another place and a future time. 

Whereas the bunyip enters the narrative as a nightmare from literature, actual literary characters appear also. A brilliant narrative of an imaginary visit to Australia by the surrealist Andre Breton didn’t survive the editorial process, as Scott reveals in his notes at the end of N. But Gertrude Stein (together with Alice B. Toklas) appear when Missy’s son, Ross, is sent for his own protection to his great-aunt in Trentham. It’s a short, very comical episode (Ross overhears them in bed) but it is thematically connected in that Stein and Toklas spent the war in occupied territory and Stein is the author whose Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas plays with issues of ghost-writing and biographer/subject interactions. This episode also makes a contribution to the idea of N as a kind of anatomy of distortions since its first person voice is impossibly high-flown for a small boy, even one who has read widely.

And then there are the comic distortions of a recognisable, historical reality. The arrival of General MacArthur after his evacuation from the Philippines together with the American forces is a tour-de-force of fantastic, hyperbolic comedy just tenuously tethered to reality:

And then the General was with us. You would see him everywhere, MacArthur – on street corners, striding down Collins Street, his trousers (from the knees down to the cuffs) soaked, as though he had just stepped from a landing craft into the shallows of a beach-head ready to lead his men to victory.
            His posters were plastered outside dance halls, Schools of Arts buildings and mechanics’ institutes, in shop windows and on railway walls alike. In the evenings he would hold communion in St Paul’s Cathedral, or sing 30s favourites in the Melbourne Town Hall. On occasion he would drive to the suburbs to call numbers in the bingo parlours. He was well-loved. People flocked to get his signature in their autograph books; he would turn the pages to the back inside cover and in a tiny hand print:

                        By hook or by crook
                       I’m the last in this book.

And if it were a woman he would kiss her; and if a man, he would arm-wrestle with him on the pavement. There was, we found, nothing extraordinary about this – in America, we were told, all heroes did such things.
            MacArthur. And in his wake the American servicemen, battalion after battalion marching down Swanston Street with their baseball caps and their catcher’s mittens, decked out in padded uniforms with huge shoulders and wearing large helmets. Americans. Raising their gleaming trombones, their gleaming trumpets, clutching their banjos, whole divisions of them, picking in perfect unison . . .

Nothing, as I’ve said elsewhere, is more irritating than having the mechanism of a joke teased out but, since I have been looking at the sorts of surrealism present in N it is worth pointing out that this passage (soon to be balanced by the scene in which the Americans depart, done as a lyrical lament) is a kind of development of the kernel idea – MacArthur was popular – spinning out into hyperbole influenced by the film traditions of the pre-war American musical.

All of this means that N’s stance towards “reality” – its modes of mimesis – is immensely and fascinatingly complex and trying to describe some of them may downplay the sheer pleasure of reading the thing. Simple items from what might be thought of as the aesthetic dimension of the book would include the distinctive voice given to each of the narrators. Telford’s is especially well-done so that he sounds, in genre, rather like an Edwardian civil servant, telling “my own story” but sensitive to imposing on his audience and careful to signpost for their benefit: passages like, “By way of putting a close to these preliminary observations, I should say . . .” and “I need to say something of Wood-Conroy, conscious, as I put pen to paper, that by the time my story is read there will be many such memoirs and evaluations of the man and his work” capture his tone perfectly. More generally, the evocative power of the recreations of Australian life – most especially Melburnian and bohemian life – at the end of the thirties is overwhelmingly detailed and accurate without ever being oppressive in the leaden, fact-laden way of well-researched historical fictions. Missy’s early description of the town:

Ask, and the temptation would be to dismiss Melbourne as a dreary, sober, almost sanctimonious place. A city of steel-grey buildings to and from which workers, suited, dressed, in appropriately sober clothing, made their charges every day.
            But that is not as I remember it. To me, Melbourne was the time of after-hours drinks in the back bar at the Swanston; of a celebratory dinner, with carafe of wine, at the Balalaika (a Three Course Meal inc. Borscht 1/9d. Tea 6d a glass tumbler). Of endless arguments – with the Italian at the Leonardo, at Bill Dolphin’s violin shop or in one of the low-rent studios which flourished in the abandoned offices and condemned warehouses of the North-East, the artists’ quarter . . .

gives at least a taste of the kind of precision of the prose, here filtered through Missy’s distinctive voice. A later passage is a brilliant evocation of the radio drama of the day (I’m old enough to remember the late fifties as the end of that tradition), describing an evening with Lux Radio Theatre, 3KZ. And, of course, this isn’t mere period window-dressing since what is radio drama but voices from elsewhere, inhabiting characters from elsewhere and speaking to a receptive listener?

At least as important as this ability to evoke is the way that Scott’s narrative method involves the shaping of scenes. It’s a feature that can be found in his earliest poetry, especially when it moves towards narrative. One might think of it as being a dramatic imagination because it isolates specific encounters and focusses intensely on them. But I prefer to think of it as deriving from an aesthetic pleasure in shapeliness. Missy’s memories, the beginning of which I have just quoted and which veer from idyllic memories to the memories of the nightmare harbingers – the freak tides, the violent storms, the screams in the night – are concluded by a passage which balances the opening: “The city was not like this, I hear you say. This was not Melbourne. Melbourne was a dreary city. A sober, almost sanctimonious place . . .” It’s a very minor example but not untypical.

One could find hundreds of examples of this as evidence that it is at the heart of Scott’s conception of what a narrative is, but I’ll confine myself to one I have already introduced. During the artificial stand-off between Australian and Japanese forces, Menadue decides to desert in a passage whose title – “Another Front” – recalls Slessor:

A running Corporal Davidson appeared, shirt fluttering.
            “Call’s come through on the blower from HQ,” he gasped, half in breathlessness, half in astonishment, “They’re telling McIlwaine to surrender.”
            “You’re bloody joking!” Menadue exclaimed. And he stood there a good half-minute trying to make some sense of it. “I mean, what’s changed? We’ve been camped here staring at each other for what, nine, ten months? And all of a sudden we’re to give in?”
            “Something’s obviously changed down South.”
            “Is that what they said?”
            “No sir. Sorry. Just guessing. Just passing on the news.”
            “Who knows about this?”
            “At the moment only you sir.”
            “Nothing’s got through to McIlwaine?”
            “I’m the messenger, Captain. Just on my way to inform him when I saw you.”
            “That might be seen as disloyalty, Donaldson.”
            “Yes sir, it well might.”
            Menadue paused a moment, considering.
            “No-one’s going to be busting a boiler getting the news through, I’d imagine – what with us being here for so long already.”
            Donaldson gave a wry grin: “I wouldn’t think so, sir. Besides, the colonel’s not always the easiest person to find.”
            “It might take, say, another half-hour or more to get the news through?”
“Three-quarters at least, I’d think, sir.”
            “Very good, Donaldson. Carry on.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            Menadue checked his watch and made hurriedly for no-man’s land, for Turner – a lunatic figure amidst the greying plain and its far distant shimmer of an enemy, or what was now, absurdly, a conquering army.

The pleasure of this scene lies in the understanding of what the other is thinking which quickly develops between the two characters without any authorial explanation. It is very close to theatre. It also contrasts with a passage in which Telford is trying to extract information from the Reference Librarian of the State Library in that neither character has any understanding at all of what the other wants or knows and the result, as Telford says, is a “lunatic exchange” of verbal “nods and winks” – there is no authorial interventions because the scene is beyond understanding.

It is Menadue whose story provides an example of this shapeliness moved beyond the short, tight scenes into something much larger. After his “escape” with three others, the stolen jeep runs out of petrol and is jettisoned. At that moment

. . . he knows from the depths of it that to turn back, if it has ever been a possibility, is now unthinkable. There is a speech, a passage, he half-remembers from school, from Shakespeare, half-learnt. About wading in so deep one might just as well go on as return. He would like the authority of Shakespeare to make something of this journey (Enter Menadue, a Captain in the Australian Army, with Fisher, a Sergeant, and Cooke and Young, common soldiers), something more than how he knows it seems – a selfish rush for survival . . .

One hundred and twenty pages later we see Menadue for the last time when, together with Fisher, they work out a plan for infecting as many of the Japanese scientists as possible with the plague whose symptoms they are already suffering from:

            “Disguising the symptoms won’t be easy.” The ever-increasing pain. The disorientation. “Still, I always fancied myself as a bit of an actor,” Fisher continues. “I was in a couple of school plays. Shakespeare.”
            “Me too,” says Menadue. “Me too.” Suddenly as excited by this as anything he could remember. “In fact, you might be able to help me,” he adds. “At the beginning, back when we dumped the jeep . . .”
            Fisher nods.
            “Back then, I was trying to think of a line from Shakespeare . . . something about going so far, one might as well go on as turn back?”
            “Macbeth,” says Fisher, and he gathers himself for the delivery, the exhaustion that will come with it:
            “’For mine own good, all causes shall give way: I am in blood stept in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er . . .’.”
            “That’s the one,” says Menadue, smiling. Fischer continues it, then, to the end of Macbeth’s speech, as though it is something they should keep in mind.

. . . . .

“Ready to break in on our Oriental friends?” he asks, breaking the silence.
“Ready, Captain.”
Exeunt marching, then,” says Menadue.

The length of this quotation will give readers some idea of the extent to which this is a favourite example out of many. And it isn’t merely a stylistic coup: the entire nightmare world of Tallon – the rural town taken over for plague experiments – has a seventeenth century theatrical horror about it, especially when the town doctor wears one of the grotesque bird masks used by doctors during plague years in the hope of fighting off the infection.

N, in all its different modes, is united by this method of shaping narrative into scenes but it is also united by its shared symbols and significances. I have already mentioned the tunnels in which one can hear voices from “other times, other places” and through which one can move into different realities. And the entire work draws on many of the themes of Scott’s earlier work (and for which his first novel, Blair, is a kind of comic repository) from flooded cities to the fascination with the act of writing, especially the act of biographical writing in which – as happens to Henningsen and Mahony, Henningsen and Frank Clune – the character of the writer merges with that of the subject: a world of plagiarism, palimpsests, overwriting and identity theft. In a sense the entire media presentation of the war in N is a fabrication derived from copied reports about the earlier war, hence the stalled battlelines before the surrender. There are two motifs that are worth looking at briefly. The first of these involves the novel’s setting in the light of the debate about asylum-seekers in Australia. N begins with the government’s rejection of asylum for children on board the ship, Ville de Nancy, berthed at Melbourne (the “nancy boys” as Mahony, then a minister, cruelly says). The Nancy is the name Burke gives to the boat that he launches into the vast inland sea, named, we are told, after his sister. Henningsen’s new and revisionary version of the expedition is to be called “The Voyage of the Nancy”. It is a kind of nightmare combination of both ships which greets the prisoners of war as they encounter the inland sea on their march to work in the mines. The second is the play made with the word “Dig”. It is the word carved in the tree in Longstaff’s Burke and Wills painting; it is what cryptic crossword solvers call a “hidden word” in the inscription over Telford’s mirror – haud ignota loquor – and in the message left scratched on the railway platform for the surrendering soldiers – “Run Digger” as well as the initials of Telford’s loathsome superior, David Ivor Gelder. It is also the refrain of all Esther Cole’s urgings of Telford – “You might need to dig deeper, Mr Telford. Dig deeper” as well as being the way into the underworlds of tunnels. And, of course, it is the imperative for all followers of the clues in the labyrinth of fiction.

N is a wonderful work, perhaps a great one. Immensely complex yet amazingly clear. Multifaceted but single-minded. Dealing with great tragedies – at national and personal level – but often with a wry humour. Embodying many of its author’s obsessive themes but always an absolutely distinct work. Its re-creation of wartime Melbourne is superlative and rich with possibilities. In a world where streaming networks have made a practice of eviscerating fictions of their plots (or attenuating these plots as much as possible) and capitalising on the distinctive worlds they have created (the world of The Handmaid’s Tale The Man in the High Castle or Westworld, for example) by spinning them out into seasons’ worth of series, it’s a bit surprising that nothing similar has been done with N. An alternative-history, alternative reality Melbourne of the forties seems rich in possibilities.