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.

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 Fremantle (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.