Josephine Rowe’s short stories are like poetry. Like poetry, they are often less concerned with narrative than with creating word pictures for the reader—illustrating a mood, a relationship, an idea, or a place.
‘In the Mornings we would Sometimes Hear Him Singing’ is steeped in nostalgia for those ‘in between’ years of transition between adolescence and being a fully-fledged grown-up. The narrator evokes the ‘we’ of the denizens of a St Kilda apartment block, a group of hipster friends who live ‘in the midst of each other’s static’: they dance together, dream together, cycle to the beach in summer and light fires in blocked fireplaces in winter.
Their bohemian lives, driven by creative endeavour and immersed in sensation, are contrasted with those of their neighbours—the homeless men who fall asleep on their doorsteps, the working girls who perch ‘in a fleshy row’ on their brick wall, and most of all, the neighbour with a ‘rum-blossomed face’ whose singing somehow transcends the shabbiness of their shared surrounds and makes them ‘better than they were’. His singing represents an unexpected beauty, a genuine lack of self-consciousness that manifests in his squeezing and spitting fruit in the supermarket, while ‘we’ look on, ‘awed by his disregard for supermarket conduct’. This contrast, between his unrestrained behaviour and the politer, more controlled recklessness of the narrators (whose awe reveals them as rule-followers rather than rule-breakers) foreshadows their moving on.
The nostalgia for the time when ‘we’ lived intermingled rather than individual lives is represented by this nostalgia for a specific place, and for that singing—a random beauty that is more likely to manifest when life is open rather than closed. That singing is what makes the narrators’ share house experience specific rather than generational.
Rowe’s prose is, as always, exquisite, with some gorgeous images that stop the reader in their tracks. Potted basil and coriander grows ‘in the three hour blade of sunlight that cut between the two buildings like they were two halves of a failed cake’. The singer’s voice comes across a ‘greying, toothless fence’ that evokes an image of the singer as well as the fence, and the place— in the second line of the story. And there is a sense of perfect authorial control; not a word is wasted or out of place.
This is a story that speaks to a common experience, but makes it uncommon, with the element of that singer and his resonant individuality. It’s a seductive read, but most of all, it’s a mood piece. And as that, it succeeds beautifully, leaving the reader with an emotional twinge, an empathic nostalgia that pierces and lingers like a song.
Murray Bail’s ‘A,B,C,D–Z’ is a curious blend of quirky and realist fiction. It begins by drawing the reader’s attention very deliberately to the act and artifice of reading a story. ‘I select from these letters, pressing my fingers down. The letter (or an image of it) appears on the sheet of paper … I am writing a story.’
He goes on to describe a ‘weeping woman’, analysing the idea of a weeping woman—and then going deeper to describe the particularity of this weeping woman, Kathy Pridham, a librarian for the British Council in Karachi. She is weeping over a failed romance, though Bail waits to reveal this.
First, he introduces us to his character and her connection with the place where this romance unfolded; her personality so intrinsically remoulded by the place that ‘the words Kathy and Karachi are becoming inextricably linked’. In her home, London, ‘if she had an opinion she rarely expressed it’, whereas in Karachi she is voluble on the country and its politics. She hosts Sunday salons where she is the centre of attention.
At one of them, she meets a local man—an artist—who eventually changes her again. This is an old story. He pronounces her ‘extraordinary’, but there is a contempt there, too, even as he moves into her quarters (after mocking them, and her, as a ‘memsahib’). She stops giving her parties, starts wearing traditional saris and kurtas, shows signs of suffering domestic abuse. The romance ends; she returns to London, a weeping woman.
The conscious presence of Bail the author in the story never lets us forget that we are reading a story. It prevents the reader from entering Kathy’s experience too fully, keeps us on the outside. But in another way this distance, this awareness of the story as a construct, works with its theme —the way our selves are consciously constructed, the way they change and re-form in response to our environment.
Kathy changes in the freedom of Karachi, a foreign place: she allows herself a confidence and self-expression that she wouldn’t dare at home. And her relatively elevated social status, as a foreigner and one of few women, makes her more sought after. But then, she changes again – is restricted, this time—in response to her lover, who erodes that confidence, alienates her newfound friends, and turns her social status (which he seems to half-covet and half-resent) against her.
There is a hint of possible hubris, in the reference to Kathy’s volubility on ‘the country’s problems, its complicated politics’. The reader is uneasy; why is she comfortable talking about the politics of a land where she’s a visitor, but not her own home? Perhaps her new, constructed self is a false one, created out of a social superiority that is built on unearned privilege.
Both of these stories are very clever and skilfully crafted; both are less about character than exploring an idea. But while ‘In the Mornings we Would Sometimes Hear Him Singing’ is steeped with emotion, the distance of ‘A,B,C,D–Z’ makes it more intellectually than emotionally engaging. Despite the emotion of the weeping woman and her broken relationship, these devices are tools to dissect human relations. And the authorial reminder that we are looking at words, signifiers for people, rather than entering the lives of people themselves, accentuates that distance.
I’m impressed by both of these stories, but I like to feel something in response to a piece of writing—so I choose Josephine Rowe’s musical mood piece, ‘In the Mornings we Would Sometimes Hear Him Singing’.
WINNER: IN THE MORNINGS WE WOULD SOMETIMES HEAR HIM SINGING by JOSEPHINE ROWE
Jo Case is a writer, mostly of non-fiction, though she’s had one short story published in Sleepers Almanac and Best Australian Stories. She is senior writer and editor at the Wheeler Centre and her first book, Boomer and Me, will be released by Hardie Grant in 2013.
Ben: Interestingly, this match kicked off with the explosive revelation that Josephine Rowe’s stories are like poetry—for a while it seemed certain that she would be disqualified for over-versification. But the stewards were kind, and she battled on—although it was notable that Murray Bail wrote “I am writing a story"—a sly dig at his adversary and her close-to-the-wind poetical ways? Whatever the case, this game really made me question my whole conception of what a story is. I decided it’s a thing with words, but that’s as far as I’ve got. Still working on it.
Jess: Poesy-like or not, I did notice a distinct lack of rhyming in Rowe’s prose, and this was probably what saved her—although it does make it difficult to put her stories to music. Difficult, but not impossible, as my forthcoming solo album ‘In the Mornings you will Sometimes Hear Jess Singing’ will prove beyond all doubt. Moving swiftly along! Case gives the competing short stories props for being “clever and skilfully crafted” and admits to being impressed by both pieces, but there can only be one winner and on this occasion, the emotion of an almost-poem was simply too much for an intellectually powerful but kinda-annoying-to-write-the-title-in-full: ‘A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K,L,M,N,O,P,Q,R,S,T,U,V,W,X,Y,Z.’ . Onwards you go, Josephine Rowe.