Rereadings I: Rodney Hall: Terra Incognita

Sydney: Macmillan, 1996, 211pp.

(This review is the first of what I hope to make an annual event: a rereading of a text which is important to me but which, for one reason or another, I have never written about.)

Terra Incognita is the first of three novels grouped under the general title of The Island in the Mind and published twenty years ago. More importantly it is the first of a series of seven novels devoted, at least on the surface, to tracing the history of a small part of the south coast of New South Wales called Yandilli in the books but recognisable as the area around Bermagui and Tilba. But, as with Marquez’s Macondo in his Hundred Years of Solitude, the single small location stands as a symbol for the nation it is part of and so the heptalogy presents a view of Australia’s history up to the Second World War. And it is a view which begins more than a century before the arrival of the “first fleet”: like the Americas, Australia is a country that could be said to have been invented before it was discovered. The novels themselves, as one would expect, have complex interrelationships. They also have a complex order of composition (not entirely unlike the Star Wars saga), beginning with Captivity Captive, the sixth, so that the order of writing (and publishing) is: 6, 4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 7. Terra Incognita concerns itself with the earliest phase of Australian history beginning with the writing of an opera in a small and unidentifiable European country in the middle of the seventeenth century.

For all its historical and cultural obsessions, Hall’s imagination has always seemed to me to be essentially a dramatic one. And at the heart of all drama is not understanding but conflict. It would be an understatement to say that the seven novels are rife with conflict: at every point conflict between individuals is the core of what is happening (at least on the plot level). You would have to look hard in these novels to find examples of contented marriages, placid childhoods or bland mentorships – there is almost always, even if suppressed, a crackle of conflict. And the key conflict is not between historical or cultural enemies (representatives of nations or religions or classes) but between closely bonded individuals. As such, the central conflict might be called rivalry. At its best rivalry is not a destructive relationship but an opportunity to raise the bar. You can see this in a poem from the mid-sixties, “The Two of Them Are Rivals”:

The two of them are rivals
both attempt the chute of wind,
forcing their climb with flattened hair
toward some exploration of success.
And yet they stay together:
not quarrelling (as most outsiders would expect
as hydra-headed third men definitely hope)
but edging upward with each other’s help
already dangerously above the city . . .

But, of course, it isn’t always so mutually supportive and one is likely to find Hall’s characters locked in a psychic struggle for supremacy.

The closer the characters are together (think of the large family in Captivity Captive, or the de facto family of the female followers of Muley Moloch in The Grisly Wife) the more intense the friction. A crucial moment in the relationship of father and son (both, interestingly, sharing the same name: Richard Godolphin) in the third novel, Lord Hermaphrodite, occurs when, imprisoned in Kishangarh, each tries to prise open a shuttered window. Needless to say, the younger succeeds where the elder fails. In Hall’s universe this isn’t a simple, mildly oedipal triumph to be acknowledged wryly, but rather a rearrangement of the entire relationship:

The shutter gradually screeched open. Daylight flooded in through a barred window. We faced one another.

Our whole lives were before us at that moment: justices and injustices through the years, protections and beatings, playfulness and puzzlement, trust, treachery, disobedience, love, buried contentments and raw fears. Dear uncle, whatever your plans for the future, never again send a son with his father. Together, neither of them can be relied on. Indeed families are a microcosm of the world’s horrors – loving families no less than families forever embroiled in jealous quarrels. After nineteen years of affection Richard and I had reached a difficult moment, never mind that it may have seemed so slight a thing. And we both knew it.

And closeness reaches its highest point in the case of identical twins. One of Hall’s best poem-sequences is “Romulus and Remus” from the late sixties. It explores a relationship so close that it could be called schizophrenic: one twin almost thinks for the other and the rivalry is almost between two halves of the same self. At any rate, it is Romulus who triumphs, killing his brother who has jumped across the wall he is building: “Death to anyone / who dares to clear my battlements; / we murder those who try / to make our vision small”. All of the novels in the heptalogy, despite their focus on the complex history of Australia as a nation, have this underlying value: a hatred of those “who try to make our vision small” and a commitment to “imagining the unimaginable and searching for something new”.

There is a final issue to be thought about when it comes to the question of rivalry. The Second Bridegroom (the fourth novel) contains a passage in which the narrator explains the myth of the two bridegrooms, supposedly derived from an Irish translation of a commentary on the Thebaid of Statius:

Going back to the most ancient times before history there was a Goddess who took two bridegrooms each year – have you heard of her? – one for the winter and one for the summer. Each had the task of killing the husband who had lain with her for the six months before him. This idea could still be found, so the commentary said, under the skin of the Thebaid of Statius, enemies in pairs and friends in pairs. A warrior having a lion’s mane, with a warrior whose bushy boar bristles rise like a horror of white-shrike wings when with wild angry terror he seizes his enemy.

In the Celtic tradition, lacking lions and boars, these totemic animals have been transferred to a horse’s mane for the summer bridegroom and goat’s thighs for the winter bridegroom and the legend is imagined to have survived in the horse-mating feast in spring and the goat-mating feast in autumn. As we will see, rival bridegrooms (metaphorically and literally) are common in the seven novels and it raises an important issue that I’m not really able to resolve: is this myth the generative foundation of all of the novels (and other parts of Hall’s work as well) or is it simply a mythic version of the central theme of rivalry? I can think of arguments in both directions.

The dramatic cast of Hall’s imagination makes itself felt in the narrative method as well. All of these books are monologues and the narrating character usually has a very distinctive (ie dramatically “rounded”) voice. The central books of each group of three are narrated by women, as is the last book. Hearing them read, or reading them aloud, is likely to transform how readers relate to them, opening up vistas unseen to those for whom reading fiction is a matter of quickly processing words in order to follow plot. Some of the voices are easier to grasp than others and Terra Incognita is narrated by an excitable young man whose voice is easy to recognise. In contrast, the narrator of the third volume, a middle-aged man who, almost without his knowing, is engaged in a process which will expand his vision, is far less vocally distinct. And I’ve always had problems with the breathless (post-tuberculosis) disjointed narration of Catherine Byrne, the narrator of The Grisly Wife. But the consistency of the speaking voice is what makes all of the seven novels unified wholes.

The second issue is the relationship of the narrators to the action. I think Hall is always excited by the dramatic irony whereby what is really significant is not necessarily what is being conveyed by the narrator, and in fact it sometimes must be seen through the obfuscating screen of the narrator’s excited tale. There are dangers in this method because many readers will feel a constriction of their readerly freedom: there is a response to the events that they must see and one where the author has been there before them laying down a trail of clues. It can feel like a bit of an examination of one’s credentials as a reader where the author has a sheet with the correct answers. But seeing the central events obliquely, as it were, can be justified on other grounds than its success in producing a theatrical coup. When Isabella Manin, now guardian of Aurangzeb’s treasures, meets the Goldophins, she tells the story of the planned execution of a Christian by the Moghul emperor so that he can make a point to some visiting ambassadors of the East India Company:

“Have you ever thought how the sacrificial beast might feel, facing the grandeur of death, sir? The rarest privilege is to find death’s meaning. Most do not, I suspect. Most are probably more muddled than elated and cannot make much sense of the ceremony. Perhaps being too close to the centre to see any coherence, even. For anyone who wishes to understand, it is important not to be right at the centre.”

Obviously this can be read in terms of the relationship between the centre of an empire and it’s outlying provinces, but I’m content to read it also as a justification of Hall’s oblique narrative methods.

There is an important exception to this technique of having a narrator who looks towards the crucial events but can only see part of them. That is Captivity Captive where the narrator, Pat, is intimately connected with the three murders that the novel centres around (it is a solution to the “Gatton Mystery” and it stays very close to the known events but shifts the location to southern New South Wales). I think it’s fair to say that, unlike the other narrators in the series, Pat knows everything and has witnessed almost all the important things. Given that the solution to the mystery is not presented until the climax of the novel, this makes for a lot of challenges for the author. As a result, readers will be inclined to think either that the narrative has a lot of uneasinesses in it (to whom could Pat be imagined to tell the events in the order and with the elisions and emphases he does?) or that it is a narrative tour de force (a bit like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but in a very superior mode). I’m inclined to lean towards the latter but the characterisation of Pat and the way he moves towards revealing the events of the night of the murders is a complex issue well beyond the ambit of this review.

The narrator of Terra Incognita is, as I have said, an excitable young man in a permanent state of excitement. I’m not sure exactly how Hall wants us to feel about him and it may be that his creator is a lot more critical than I am. He is marked out by his self-confidence and his tendency to misinterpret things. But given the complexity of the court world of which he is a part, this doesn’t seem a terrible failing. Although there is a lot of humour at his expense, especially in the business of his seduction of his sister-in-law, Adelaide, he is no Emma Woodhouse. True he fathers an illegitimate child but then he has the decency to visit the mother and offer her his protection, and he is also granted an extraordinary vision – a single sentence two-pages long – of the world spinning out from a single baby to the farthest reaches of the known and the unknown. True, he remains a mere observer when a blind old woman drowns when the ice covering the river breaks up, but he does help her would-be rescuer. True he allows himself to be drawn, Waverly-style, into dangerous court factions, but he loves his king and his older brother and tries to put nation and family first. One could go on multiplying examples like this where readers would probably want to feel free enough to make their own ethical judgements about him.

In the conflicts and rivalries in which he is involved and which we know best because he is the narrator, he is typical of all the characters in the book – with the possible exception of the Venetian theatre architect, Tranquilli (whose name might be a clue). Everyone is involved in serial conflicts and rivalries, usually resolving themselves into threesomes as two strive to win a third. The most important (though readers have to see this – I’m not sure the narrator does) is between Scarron, the king and the queen. If there is a central figure – though it distorts the novel to try to shoehorn it into the kind of fiction that has a central character – it is Orlande Scarron. He is the only one of all the cast of this court who we will meet again in the later novels. We learn that he is a prodigy of very humble origins who (as an extra during a hunt) befriended the king while he was a mere prince visiting a French court. A request to be given the boy is refused (how scandalous such a request might be and what its implications might be is never followed up, either because the narrator is not interested enough to find out or because it falls outside his remit). The boy turns up a couple of years later as a flute player in a visiting orchestra, is recognised by the king and made into his court composer. The two are very close, discussing all issues privately and hunting together as a lone pair. At almost the same time as his befriending of Scarron, an English queen is found for the king. The fact that she remains barren and that her husband prefers to spend his time intimately with his concert-master leads to the obvious implication that the king is homosexual. Some readers have seen the fact that the narrator never seems aware of this to be part of the comedy of the ignorant narrator but I think the real issue is that the sexual side of this threesome is very secondary to the power-relationships: at courts sexuality is very fluid and essentially a tool to be shaped and manipulated.

It doesn’t take any great readerly skill to realise that the relationship between king, queen and Scarron is a weird distortion of the two bridegrooms myth. Instead of the two men competing for the hand of the queen (at least for six months), here the queen and Scarron compete for the love of the king. And just as one of the rivals must always lose and be occluded, so here the queen loses. Throughout the book she is a sick, fretful, mildly delusional and pallid creature (the last of these probably a reflection of the fact that she is at the mercy of doctors keen to order enemas and bleedings). As she weakens, so Scarron thrives to the point where he becomes a kind of übermensch, Hall’s visionary artist-hero.

There are other variations of the two bridegrooms theme. The narrator decides that he must seduce his sister-in-law, a representative of the faction centred around the Lord Treasurer to whom the narrator is opposed. As such the younger brother supplants his rival, the older brother. But there is, as I have said, a good deal of comedy about this deriving from the fact that the narrator seems quite unaware that his sister-in-law has, off-stage so to speak, come to the same conclusion: the seduction turns out to be remarkably easy because the seducer is really the seduced. In another triangle, the king has an odd sexual quirk whereby he wants to visit the narrator’s lover, Marie, immediately after their love-making with everything left as it was when the narrator finished. This could be read a number of ways, but I see it as the king usurping his younger “rival” by sliding into his position. At the level of court mechanisms it is a bizarre but intriguing way for messages to be sent to the king since the narrator knows that anything he says in confidence to Marie will be immediately passed on to the king.

The most spectacular example of the two bridegrooms theme in Terra Incognita, though, involves the arrival of Louis XIV of France on a visit made early in his reign (the events of this book are set in 1661 – 2). The fate of the kingdom is in the balance as court factions argue between a future role as a small, expanding, imperial power or as a financial supplier and guarantor of greater powers, a “neutral exchequer” as Adelaide calls it. The novel goes into these issues at some depth, reminding the reader that the conflicts at the macro level are not just a setting for those at a more intimate one. The narrator, indeed, has a long passage in which he positions his country as one of the third rank, parallel to states such as Belgium or Switzerland. The narrator’s state hopes to make an alliance with the French by being one of the first to invite him on an official visit and Scarron’s opera, by being in a mode much loved by the French but outdoing them at every level, is to be one of the most winning of gestures. Initially it is only part of the celebration (together with a military tattoo and fireworks) but because Louis’ arrival takes place in driving rain, all hopes of a treaty depend on the opera alone. Between Louis and the king, under the guise of the surface requirements of a courtly visit, there are immediate tensions:

The monarchs greeted each other gravely but, I thought, with a touch of unlooked-for strain. They were much the same height, wearing full wigs and the ermine robes appropriate for such an occasion. Their likeness was remarkable but scarcely surprising given the Habsburg connection. Louis carried himself well, showing notable assurance for a man of twenty-three. Yet there was something, in their exchange of civilities, which gave me the firm sense that they took an instantaneous, perhaps faint, but nonetheless ineradicable, dislike to each other.

During the performance of the opera, the queen appears and is made a great fuss of by Louis who offers her his seat and spends a good deal of time raising her spirits, “He conversed exclusively with the queen, showing her the handsomest gallantry, even bringing colour to her cheeks so that one glimpsed, now and again, kindlings of her former beauty”. In fact, of course, at a metaphorical level he is wooing her. And not just as an individual, because he is also making the point that a connection with England is more important to him than a connection with the little country he is visiting. All of this is done with tremendous brio on the novelist’s part. The arrival of Louis and his accompanying troops is a brilliant climax, though I will have more to say about the book’s structural dynamics later. Louis’ soldiers displace the local army and there is some fear amongst the locals that they have been invaded. It is a terrible blow to hopes and pretensions: as the narrator says later,

Bitterly I saw the truth of it, there in the blue salon. Our political future is to fight for room at the trough among a swarm of piggy little kingdoms and principalities, each insatiably engrossed in a scramble for scraps and favours, each tyrannized by the dictatorship of feverish ambitions. The great powers are above all that . . . . . So, no doubt, when France received our invitation she accepted it – not for the sake of raising us to the rank of ally, but for the opportunity of putting us in our place.

The political humiliation is part of the occlusion of one king by another – again the rivalry exists at both political and psychic levels. After the meeting, the narrator and his brother attend the king in his disrobing where he is, again both literally and symbolically, stripped naked. But he is, also, rerobed:

Clean underwear was brought and the king’s nakedness covered. . . . . For no reason he smiled. Was it the emergency inspiring him with fresh courage? He struck me as tragically radiant. His mouth had changed – a subtle unevenness, the slightest shadow, who knows? – whatever it was, his curving lips confirmed my suspicion. A new man emerged. No longer the monarch whom these same valets had dressed that morning. How this might affect me or Marie I could not guess. But I caught a glimpse of his grief.

Finally in this extended discussion of the most important of the triangles, there is the fact, never mentioned in the novel, that Louis is the Sun King, arriving as a visitor in autumn to symbolically depose its king. He is, in the language of the opening of “Romulus and Remus”, the “sunbrother”. And both the kings at the end the opera, when art has the power of engaging its audience by letting them join in the final dances, appear as rustic goatherds. The question arises as to whether the intense power of these episodes arises because the author has tapped into an energy-providing universal myth. But it’s a question I’ve never been able to even begin to answer and I suspect that it requires too many disputable assumptions even to be begun.

One of the pleasures of Hall’s oblique narrative method is that we never hear the final words spoken between Scarron and the king, though we are told that the composer was never seen in court again. We do, however, get to see a final scene between Scarron and his erstwhile rival, the queen. It forms the last chapter of the book and is full of pithy but extremely enigmatic dialogue. We have to wait until halfway through the third novel for Scarron’s judgement on the king, conveyed (thoroughly obliquely) by an old poet accompanying a Danish embassy who recounts his meeting with Scarron:

He drew me aside. “I once loved a prince,” he confessed privately, “who, when he became king, no longer quite deserved that love. He was not evil, nor even bad. He lost his radiance. For political reasons he chose to play the doubter. Then he grew to be a doubter. Doubt was the fashion at the time. But he had no need of fashion. He could have remained aloof and chosen to go on earning his crown . . .”

Though it may be drawing a long bow (a thirty-five years’ long bow in fact) and prove nothing more than consistency, this recalls a poem in Hall’s first book, Penniless Till Doomsday, which compares two Velasquez portraits of Philip IV:

. . . . . 
Unshaken, untried,
you once stood in your finery
hardly a king.
Now discreet in your clothing
you sit king entire -
and yet man incomplete.

Terra Incognita is keen to separate the processes of creativity from the processes of the court – ie politics. And one of the ways in which this is done is by the comparison between the hectic rivalries that dominate the latter and the relationship between Scarron and his theatre architect, Tranquilli, where there is no question of rivalry. Two professionals, both geniuses in their own fields, co-operate to get the work done. Scarron is in fact rather prickly in these scenes, impatiently working through the architect’s plans to see what solutions he has proposed. No doubt it is all idealised but these scenes have great power, taking us as close as possible to the processes of creation since each of the creators has to work in co-operation and thus feel their way into the ideas of the other. The fact that this relationship is the only one of its kind – and entirely unlike those of the court – gives it the right degree of highlighting.

The opera itself is dealt with at some length in the novel and there is no doubt that Hall is invested enough in it to imagine it in all its details. Importantly it changes as the events of the novel’s plot develop. In the beginning, for Scarron, its subject – The Enchanted Island – is an attempt to visualise what lies beyond the reaches of the known and the conventional but, as the events surrounding Louis’ visit develop, it becomes more and more an attack on imperial expansion. By the time of its first performance, it has begun to seem a dangerous attack on French policy and risks offending the visitor. But since the visitor has offended his hosts (by supplanting their king) it becomes interpretable to the viewers in the court as a warning against France’s imperial designs on them! Tranquilli’s part is not to be underestimated. Hall furnishes us with a lengthy description of his creation of clouds (by thin wooden lathes attached to spindles inside white cloth) enough to convince us that the opera satisfies all the requirements of a theatrical mind: it will shock and stun and then later reorient the minds and emotions of its viewers.

In fact the mechanisms of the opera seem to be contrasted to the theatrical spectacles of empire which are assemblages of the grotesque, ostensibly for scientific purposes. In the second novel, Isabella Manin finds the Australian aboriginal man, Yuramiru, in a collection of freaks for which her father acts as a dealer. In a sad irony – reminding us that Empires are all the same whether of east or west, she finds herself curating a similar collection in the court of Aurangzeb. In Terra Incognita, the initial, “feeling-out”, interview between the Lord Treasurer and the narrator, takes place in the court’s “Cabinet of Art” where, among the collection, are bottles of dead babies:

He reached among the clutter of wax pots, surgical instruments on trays and boxes of talc to pick up another of these fine large jars. He held it out towards me. This baby was tinier still, a newborn boy with washed hair, eyelashes and translucent ears. As the Lord Treasurer turned the glass in his hands the manikin drifted around like a compass in oil. “Little monkey,” he swore crossly, “won’t face me.” No matter how he rotated its death chamber that child – eyes wide open – confronted me instead. Confronted me with the unblinking perfection of an arrested moment not of death but life.

We can allegorise this out in many ways – the tug of the need to react to events as a human being rather than as a politician reaches the narrator through this child and later his own child – and it has a profoundly comical as well as grotesque element. But, at another level, it is a representative of the kinds of collections made by the scientific outreach of the imperial venture. In Australia (and North America) in the nineteenth century, this appeared as the bizarre need to measure the skulls of native people and the interest which the Ottoman sultan, the pope and the Venetian merchants have in Yuramiru in the second novel, The Lonely Traveller By Night, is exactly this kind of interest in its nascent form.

Finally, I want to say something about the dynamic structure of Terra Incognita, surely one of the main reasons for its success. It will come as no surprise that one wants to speak of this in musical terms because I am convinced that that was how it was conceived. The endless rivalries which I have described are cycled through in a way that makes one think of a fugue (though it could also, I suppose, be seen as a theme and variations). It is also quite possible that the entire novel is conceived as the first (allegro) movement of a seven part musical piece and I have always wondered whether there is any structural significance for the novels as a sequence in the fact that seven is the number of notes on the heptatonic scale. Significantly the first novel describes the writing of an opera and the last (The Day We Had Hitler Home) describes the central character’s being present at a performance of Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra in a hall in Munich in 1919, a piece which, she feels, has in it intimations of the future.

Seen as an entity in itself, Terra Incognita has a spectacular opening describing the complex procedures (which the narrator as a recently promoted Gentleman of the Bed Chamber is involved in) for bringing the food from kitchen to dining rooms to serve the king and lesser members of the court. The narrator is required to oversee the complex procedures for poison-tasting and is happy to tell us just how miserable the feasting process is for the rest of the court who, according to protocols, cannot begin any course until the king has finished it. This has the dynamic quality of an overture and it is no accident that, as the tension ramps up towards Louis’ visit, court protocols are introduced again as the equally complex procedures for people arriving to stay at court are described: as with the feasting, there are many uncomfortable and unhappy members of the court. The whole book is clearly allegro in tempo and the beginning of this process will give some idea of the energies of narration which have been building:

Although the daylight was only just fading, flares outside already sputtered and brightened. Boys ran helter-skelter with lanterns to guide the rain-shiny coaches rolling in. Tired horses snorted steam while grooms darted among them repeating the names they were to announce and shouting directions to the drivers. Pale powdered faces, blurred behind streaming window-glass peered out at the palace through distortions of rain. Rain swept down and swept on down out of a glowering sky to cascade across the vehicle hoods and splash carpets of crystal coronets among the horse hooves.

And so it continues, not just mere fine writing (of the kind that always seems pleased with its own sensitivity) but fine writing whose pace and material is determined by the structure of the book so that this set of arrivals is merely a dynamic preparation for the arrival of the Sun king himself. If the ordinary local visitors provoke prose as good as this, we might ask, what will the visiting king, replete with the mythical trappings of the usurping bridegroom, produce. In other words, Terra Incognita is a musical book. Or, perhaps, it is an operatic book. It is full of the intertwinings and sudden, theatrical (in the best sense) surprises – rather like Scarron’s opera.

Since my concern is Australian poetry, I don’t keep any sort of watching brief over Australian prose fiction but clearly twenty years is a long time in the publishing of literary fiction and readers’ tastes are easily influenced by exposure and publicity machines. But if there are many books half as good as Terra Incognita published in the last twenty years then Australian fiction must be in radiantly good health.