Peter D. Mathews: From Poet to Novelist: The Orphic Journey of John A. Scott

Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria, 2022, 242pp.

One of the defining motifs of John A. Scott’s poetry and prose is the recurrent notion of an underground lying beneath the surfaces we are accustomed to treading on. It is the source of his interest in the myth of Orpheus – who ventures into one version of that underground in search of Eurydice – and the complex notions of creativity and death which, following Rilke and the late nineteenth century French poets, he teases out and deploys. There are many other undergrounds from the sewers of Paris in Before I Wake to the network of tunnels which underlie the reality of the events of N and connect distant times and places as well as distant and dissonant voices. The imperative for poor Telford in N is expressed by the sinister Esther Cole when she tells him that, if he is to uncover how her husband died, he will have to “dig deeper . . . not just for my sake but for yours”. Digging deeper is also the imperative that lies behind good criticism, differentiating it from material that considers that its task is, Petronius-like, to separate “good” from “bad”, and from material that thinks that its main function is to bolt a specific, contemporary interest onto a defenceless text and see how it matches up. Peter D. Mathews’ book, From Poet to Novelist, is an example of good criticism in that it sees its function to be to tease out what the underlying generative structures in Scott’s work are. It’s not an easy task since Scott’s books are, for all their superficial attractivenesses, immensely complex in construction.

Although structured as a chronological survey of Scott’s books, From Poet to Novelist: The Orphic Journey of John A. Scott, has, as its full title suggests, an interest in framing how that chronology can be approached. In fact the book as a whole is sensitive to the balance between the extraordinary thematic and methodological unity underlying Scott’s work and the diachronic perspectives that are sensitive to developments and changes. As such it embodies a tension underlying much good criticism: on the one hand there is the desire to trace developments and changes and on the other, the desire to find underlying, everpresent generative obsessions. The major change that the book concerns itself with is Scott’s “abandonment” of poetry for fiction. The “death of the poet” is something the book is especially attracted to and its overriding Orphic notion of death, dismemberment and rebirth nicely deals with the fact that Scott’s most recent book, Shorter Lives, is, generically, a poetry book, despite its prose poems and prose sections.

A number of things are clear from Mathew’s investigations of these seven books of poetry and six novels. The first is that the literary cast of their author’s mind owes most to the literature of nineteenth century France not only in the frequent references to the poetry and prose of that period but in its themes: the nature of desire and its complex forms inside human lives, the nature of art and the principles on which it operates and by which works “of art” are generated, and so on. Secondly, there is a remarkable unity in Scott’s work, despite the radical differences in tone: the term “livre compose” is used and in Scott’s case it is accurate. Remarkably different as the books are – compare the high campus comedy of Blair, for example, with the fraught intensity of The Architect – they share underlying themes and generative procedures: their unity is well beyond the obvious one of having been written by the same person. Thirdly, there are three crucial texts for making sense of what Scott’s “project” (to employ an overused term) is: “A Stitching of Water: Notes Towards a Poetic” of 1993, “Towards a Scriptural Realism” of 1996, and Scott’s doctoral thesis of 1997, “Approaching Coherence: Reflections on a Writing Practice”. As Mathews says:

The eventual development of the notion of “scriptural realism” derives from two key objectives. First, Scott reveals that “for the majority of my writing life I have sought to produce texts with an ethical trajectory, whilst still declaring the methods and processes of their construction”. This imperative partly explains why Scott has little interest in replicating the experimental approach of Robbe-Grillet. “My books seek no claim on this ‘authentic real,’” writes Scott, “yet their enquiry into human behaviour places them at odds with texts of zero readability. . . . . . Scott’s vision of “scriptural realism” thus eschews the false opposition between experimental and realist writing, innovatively deploying characteristics of both approaches . . .

This seems to go to the heart of the poetic and novelistic issues that Scott is dealing with. There is a perceived opposition between, on the one hand, the realist novel with its ability to look intensively at human behaviour, especially the ethics of human behaviour, while, at the same time, deploying plot devices that ensure that we keep turning the pages and, on the other, those experimental methods – the nouveau roman and the productions of the Oulipo, for example – which are capable of pulling the veil aside from the illusion of reality that realistic fiction deploys in the interests of a more honest vision of what a text is and what the author’s role as generator of that text is. Scott’s “scriptural realism” is really an intelligent compromise which – and this is where the genius lies – gets the best of both worlds. Scott’s fictions are built out of complex narrative devices – including unacknowledged quotation, superimposition of texts and their significances, phonetic translation, distortions of existing texts, to name only a few – which are not entirely hidden and can be found by readers prepared to dig beneath the surface of the text: Mathews makes much, in his analysis of Before I Wake, of the way in which a hyper-realistic portrayal of Parisian streets and restaurants is deliberately undermined by a single temporal impossibility. But Scott’s work is also immensely pleasurable at the superficial level.

A good example of both the underlying methodology and Mathew’s careful exposure of it might be found in the chapter devoted to Warra Warra. This novel has always seemed something of an outlier in Scott’s work in that its surface seems to mimic the genre of the popular ghost story. I think admirers of Scott’s poems and novels have always felt a little uncomfortable with it. Blair, another novel mimicking a popular genre, has enough brilliant prose at its surface to be attractive on that level and “Preface”, the finest of Scott’s pre-novel, long poems balances features of the “uncanny” genre of fiction with a surprising and unexpected amount of humour, especially in the letters in which Carl ventures into the London popular music scene.

A superficial reading of Warra Warra might see it as little more than an expansion of a clever idea. A commercial aeroplane explodes over a rural town in New South Wales but the spirits of the dead passengers begin to appear to haunt the inhabitants. Thus it plays on the notion that Australia’s inhabitants saw the newly arrived English colonisers as ghosts of their own departed. The ghosts become increasingly dangerous and, after wreaking violent havoc on the townspeople, eventually set up their own community, replicating the cosy English houses and gardens they have left behind and thus beginning to take over the land and impose their own culture. If Warra Warra were no more than this it might also be no more than its unfavourable initial reviews saw it as: a popularly written book in a popular genre with a clever idea as its starting point but with the fundamental problem (noted in a review by Ken Gelder) that the inhabitants of the town visited by the ghosts are not indigenous Australians but white Australians, only a few generations earlier than the ghosts who descend on them, despite the fact that the town itself and its major protagonist, Bill Pemmell, have names that relate to indigenous resistance. Beginning with two more sophisticated responses by David Mesher and Suzie Cardwell, Mathew’s chapter takes us into these issues in a subtler way, one more worthy of the book’s author. Mesher makes a connection with Laurie Duggan’s book on the visual culture of Australia, Ghost Nation, and its idea of “ghost” as not being “a shadow of something which is dead, but in a visual sense of images which ghost each other”. Scott, in “Approaching Coherence”, describes his method of “stitching” together existing texts as “not a characteristically postmodern adaptation of collage (Schwitters) or photomontage (Heartfield) but rather a form of combination printing (Henry Peach Robinson). As Mathews comments:

Warra Warra, then, is not only a ghost story, as its subtitle announces, but a “ghosted” story, a narrative that is created by the repeated layering of ideas and references that appear to operate on a single, interrelated textual plane.

Warra Warra declares itself to be more than a good idea expanded into a pastiche of a genre of popular fiction in many ways. One is in the context of Scott’s work, where it is part of a development whereby internal workings of desire, abuse and guilt are slowly moved to a national level, something made increasingly possible by moving from the fragmented forms of the poems to the longer, discursive possibilities of the novel. There is a lot about the Algerian dead in Paris in Before I Wake, and The Architect (whose core text is the The Book of Job) is, at least in part, about postwar Germany and its relationship with its Nazi past (as well as being, according to Mathews about “the dangerous susceptibility of the Australian mindset to the seductions of authoritarianism”). Warra Warra concerns itself with Australia’s colonial heritage not as something from the past but as something layered, photographically, onto the present. Warra Warra has echoes of the books that precede and follow it, radically different though they are. The Architect is about a devastating betrayal that the elderly German architect commits on his innocent Australian admirer: like The Book of Job, of which it is a kind of avatar, the betrayal is a horror that comes “out of the blue”. Warra Warra begins (after some throat-clearing scenes which establish the community of the town) with a brilliant narration of the remains of an exploded passenger plane crashing down out of the sky on the township. The Architect has, near the end, an apocalyptic scene in which Von Ruhland re-enacts God’s address to Job from the whirlwind: Warra Warra begins with an equally apocalyptic one. And N, the next novel, it should be remembered, contains, early on, the bombing of Darwin, again, fire from the sky. The Book of Job is also recalled in Warra Warra when the priest, O’Phelan, finds his bible opened at the page in which Eliphaz describes a vision arriving “at the hour when dreams master the mind and slumber lies heavy on man . . .” O’Phelan’s desperate attempt to cobble together an exorcism from random texts that he barely understands as well as popular texts like the novel, The Exorcist, which became a popular film, is, by the way, a semi-comic version of Scott’s own method of stitching texts together and a reminder that there are faux-poets in many of Scott’s works, especially Blair.

Mathews devotes some space in his chapter on Warra Warra to dealing with the book’s problematic conclusion in which the ghosts decide to leave aboard a paper ark and descend into one of Scott’s flooded cities. It’s a puzzling conclusion, slightly reminiscent of the final, “Exodus” section of Rodney Hall’s Just Relations, which might act as a reference text for the book although its hyperbolic, “magical realist”, style is a long way from the cooler, realistic prose of Warra Warra. As Mathew’s points out, we can hardly expect a triumphant conclusion to a vast problem such as Australia’s colonial heritage anymore than we could expect The Architect to solve Germany’s postwar problem with its Nazi past. It is an issue which has puzzled me since I first read the book and I’m impressed by Mathew’s approach which is to take the reader back to the individual issues of desire and guilt. In summary, he convincingly sees the book’s conclusion as being about fulfilled desire and the restlessness this produces:

The ghosts are caught in a pernicious cycle of nostalgia for their English homeland that brings them no actual satisfaction. The paradise they have created is entirely superficial, an external performance that becomes more empty with each reenactment. . . . Repetition thus functions as a form of emotional entropy that turns paradise into its opposite . . . . .This crucial theme of repetition, of returning to the past, drives the downward journey of the ghosts to the flooded city of Cudgegong . . . a descent into a watery underworld that releases them from a “power which for so long had held them in this state of neither life nor death relinquishing its grip”.

It’s a convincing solution and derives from extended engagement with the text, something not available to most time-pressed reviewers of novels. It certainly makes sense even if it makes our initial readings of the book embarrassingly superficial. The idea of “ghosting” as simultaneously a textual and anthropological practice is valuable though Warra Warra is not a one-dimensional parable/allegory about Australia’s dispossession of, and cruelty towards, its indigenous inhabitants. Rather it is a book (surreal ending and all) in which various allegorical possibilities lie over the top of the narrative. One of these, by far the most important, is the record of Pemulwuy’s war of resistance, but there are others. The novel begins with fire from the heavens and ends with a flood of sorts (at least a protracted spell of rain), a character called “Noah” Thompson is building the ark which eventually is mocked up into a version of the aeroplane that the ghosts “arrived” in so that biblical apocalypticism also overlies the narrative. And perhaps Mathews is right in seeing how important the theme of satisfied desire is in the experience of the ghosts, raising once again the theme of the inauthenticity of white Australian culture which was a major issue as early as the 1930s.

Thus Warra Warra, unsurprisingly, turns out to be an infinitely more complex text than early reviewers picked up. My widow’s mite in its interpretation involves the luring of the ghosts into the ark. It can only be done by recreating their original boarding of the aircraft with the ghostly flight attendant calling out instructions. This reminds me of Bunuel’s film, The Exterminating Angel (whose title alone resonates with almost all of Scott’s work). In the film a group of middle class citizens are trapped inside a house by a mysterious force. They eventually realise that the only method of escaping is to recreate the exact situation before the entrapment began. And it works.

My only lasting reservation about Warra Warra comes from its realist, popular fiction, mode. Usually Scott’s texts are coruscating and brilliant on the surface but Warra Warra’s surface prose is that fairly dreary narrative style that Australian novelists seem to fall into when they set their plot in a rural community. One of the passages that Mathews quotes, part of the character-establishing scenes of the novel’s opening, will show what I mean:

Jack Elliott and Ron Aitken sat opposite each other at a free-standing table within easy reach of the bar. It was the same table they had occupied from the days when they’d returned, each on his separate journey, one from the cement works, the other from the abattoir, up to thirty years before. The table notched along two sides with burns from Ron Aitken’s forgotten cigarettes. . . 

Scott is a brilliant stylist and this can only be a parody of the flat prose of Australian rural narrative, down to the carefully chosen neutral names for the two men. But it forms the bulk of what readers experience when approaching the novel and is one instance where I have always felt that the “benign realist” surface is unattractive and too dun-coloured.

To leave Warra Warra as a critical test-case and return to Mathew’s excellent book, it’s extraordinary how much lies below the surface in Scott’s works. There are references, teased out here, which I have never seen: the origin of the repeated theme of letters that one character passes on to another to read in order to determine whether they would have been “bearable” has a passage of Derrida as its source (or perhaps merely as a text that chimes with it). David Brooks reflects what will be a common experience for admirers of Scott’s work when he says on the book’s cover, “There are a great many ideas and details, which had not occurred to me or that I had not yet discovered . . .” So many, in fact, that one feels, after reading Mathew’s book, that it really might be no more than a primer, encouraging readers to dig deeper and more carefully, rather than being exhaustive. In fact, in Scott’s case, criticism might play an unusual role. Different writers hope for, and get, different things from criticism (ie another’s careful and sympathetic reading of their work) and in Scott’s case, I’ve often wondered what criticism can give him. There will be little that readers like Mathews or Brooks or myself can tell him that is new and we are, in a way, doomed to labour in territory that he knows intimately: we are unlikely to be able to offer any intriguing new perspectives to this particular author. To use one of his references in N, we will wander in amazement through the complex structures of his work knowing that we can only follow in his footsteps; like Professor Lidenbrock in Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth who, exciting adventures and discoveries notwithstanding, is always only ever following in the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm.