It is mid-morning on a blue-bird day and I am coughing my way up the side of a mountain, suffering from what I will later decide must be bronchitis—constant coughing, weariness, shortness of breath. I’m on the west coast of Tasmania for a writing job, and there’s just enough time to hit the hills on the way home. I don’t have proper boots or gaiters here, so my feet are covered in mud; after pushing through the early patches of overhanging bush, the pad opens up and I scoot up the track as quickly as I can. I feel pretty sick. My breath is rasping as it tries to heave me up the side of the hill.
But it’s worth it. Because this is Mt Tyndall, and there’s fagus in the Tyndalls. It’s the middle of April, mid-autumn, and Nothofagus gunnii, Tasmania’s only deciduous plant, is blazing yellow and orange through the green scrub and slabs of grey rock; sometimes it shines against the snow.
It takes a little over an hour of climbing to hit the plateau, and it’s a glorious alpine landscape. Patches of fagus gleam in the sunlight, and there are astonishing views to the peaks along the Overland track and across the Eldon Range; in the other direction, the west coast of Tasmania and the freezing Southern Ocean beyond. I check the GPS, note the high point is to the north, and stroll across the shelves of stone to the top. Watching the plateau with its scattered tarns, the perfect blend of colours; the temptation of Mt Geikie curling its fingers at the other end of the ridge, beckoning. I could wander about here all day. But I’ve got to get back to the car. I want to be home before the kids are in bed, and it’s a long, twisting drive back to the Huon Valley.
There are plenty of reasons to go walking, particularly in Tasmania; responding to a photo, one friend asked, ‘how do Tassie writers get anything done?!’ There’s the exercise, the company, the mental health, the sense of achievement, all of that. But looming over them all is the compelling vision that the Tasmanian landscape offers, a vision where you find yourself embodied, living in and through it.
In reading, and perhaps writing, I am largely searching for the same kind of compelling experience. Sometimes I read to learn something, or to pass the time with a genre story, but for the most part I’m hunting down an astonishing and gobsmacking vision. A enrapturing vision that offers a sensibility, or voice, or collection of ideas set apart from everyday human experience. Some might say this is just a subjective category, but there’s something to it. The late and lamented Les Murray is famous for noting that ‘Religions are big, slow poems, while most poems are short, fast religions.’ There’s a little of that here: I wonder how many failed priests become interesting writers? Or perhaps: ‘If you walk hard enough,’ wrote Bruce Chatwin, ‘you probably don’t need any other god.’ I don’t know that I agree with either of them, but I understand what they mean.
Offering this kind of experience in text is something that characterises few Australian books, perhaps because the writing and publishing of them necessarily involves risk. But Wayne Macauley gets it. After enjoying his latest book, Simpson Returns, I’ve been working through his backlist, feeling ashamed that I’ve never gotten around to it before. Caravan Story is the best of them so far: it’s like a dreamy Kafka. Funny, interesting, smart, and like nothing else I’ve ever read. The ending reminds me a little of the Polish author Witold Gombrowicz, who wrote two of my favourite books in recent years, Cosmos and Ferdydurke. These are hilarious, paranoid, and utterly incomparable.
And then there’s the French writer Pierre Michon. By way of circling notions, he does it through the prism of religion: his curious short works, Winter Mythologies and Abbots, published together by Yale University Press, take obscure ancient chronicles and reimagine their participants with evocative, hemmed-in prose.
Another way of conceiving the visionary: I want to be interested, captivated, surprised. I want my eyes to be narrowing: what is the writer doing here? This is constant when reading through Michon’s odd fictions. His translator, Ann Jefferson, notes that the subjects of his texts are largely ‘minor saints and little-known monks from the early Middle Ages…[t]he brevity of the texts in which they appear gives readers the sense of merely glimpsing critical moments in these unfamiliar lives.’ These are complex, remote characters with cross-hatched desires. There is an urgency, an abruptness to the style, and the stories often feed into each other—some of them are almost prose poems, and their effects are cumulative. In one sense, Michon isn’t a quotable writer, but an extract from one vignette can give a sense of the building sentences.
Hilère is growing old. We know that he is growing old, but very little else is known about him. We know what he is not. He is not Hilary of Poitiers, who returned from beyond the grave to wield Clovis’s sword against Alaric at the Battle of Vouillè. He is not Hilary of Carcassonne, who was there on the day of Pentecost, backstage with Saint Sernin, and who consequently saw the tiny flames above the heads of the apostles, observed the apostles twirling and humming beneath the fire like girls dancing in a ring, was convinced that it was the truth which danced and blazed like this […] Nor is he Hilarion of Gaza, friend of Saint Anthony, about whom Flaubert brazenly said he was the devil. Our Hilère is also well acquainted with the devil.
The inconstancy of such narratives and the uses to which they are put is made explicit in one series, ‘Nine Passages on the Causes,’ but Michon exemplifies this in his approach to them, making and remaking. And the strangeness of the work is only partly that of the world they reimagine; the rest is Michon’s approach to storytelling, his choice of language, and often, the doom he buries in his subjects’ lives.
What are these tales? They are old stories made new, certainly, but above all, they are utterly singular, and this is the best that reading can bring us. The comprehensive otherness and alterity, the striking nature of the depth and detail. The ideas that we can encounter nowhere else; the feelings and sensibilities that lift us to new landscapes where we can wander about, drinking the view, with little desire to leave.
Ben Walter is a writer of lyrical and experimental fiction who has been widely published. He has twice been shortlisted in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes, and guest-edited Overland’s special anti-/dis-/un-Australian fiction issue.
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