Reviewed: Grand Days, by Frank Moorhouse (Macmillan, 1993).
Deep in the acknowledgements at the end of Grand Days Frank Moorhouse notes that in 1986 he was the first fiction writer to be awarded the Australian National Library’s Sir Harold White Fellowship. His project was to study documents connected with the League of Nations, especially the papers of John Latham, leader of the Nationalist opposition in 1930-1 and deputy prime minister in the Lyons government (1932—4). I remember wondering at the time whether the project was a typical Moorhouse joke. Not only was the mise-en-scène of interwar Geneva far from Moorhouse’s usual territory of Balmain and a bit of the Bush, an anachronism from the perspective of Days of Wine and Rage and Moorhouse’s interest in the predicament of Australia trying to ‘make it new’ under the shadow of Rotary, Coca-Cola and other postwar Americanizations; but the League of Nations, an unglamorous international bureaucratic failure, struck me as perversely untractable material for any sort of readable fiction. As it turns out, the Library’s selection committee was right in its judgement. In Moorhouse’s hands, the League of Nations becomes a far grander House of Fiction than any the author has previously inhabited — something of an old home, or original dwelling-place, to the outhouses and extensions of discontinuous narrative in the rest of the oeuvre. In the pathos-laden comedy of Australia’s participation in the international community’s first botched attempt at global co-operation, Moorhouse finds opportunities to amplify and stitch together many of his themes as Australia’s newly forged values — rationalist and Utopian, democratic and small-town, pragmatic and negotiable — are aired for the first time on a world stage through the person of that intelligent and virtuous woman of the future, Edith Campbell Berry of the South Coast of New South Wales.
Moorhouse subsumes the familiar first-person narrator of most of his earlier work to bring us extremely close to many aspects of Edith’s being. We follow her relentless self-interrogation and her honourable analysis of the actions and motives of others. We know the other characters in the story through her experience and eventual judgement of them. From a contemporary perspective we see and value Edith, post-feminist before her time, as she would never have been seen and valued in her day. I was curious, or trepidatious, as to how Moorhouse could enliven the ponderous diplomatic machinations of the League. In fact he spares us, save for a bathetic appendix. The pomp and circumstance of institutional life becomes mood music, most overblown when the matter in hand is most trivial. Research in the National Library and other archives has yielded a pastiche verisimilitude that hides the sheer artifice of the setting Moorhouse has devised for his Edith.
Grand Days is a comedy of manners, ending as the genre requires with marriage; the heroine identifies the right partner for her after being misled by a charming bounder who is more and less than a man. But unlike the conventional comedy of manners Edith is also her own hero: she takes action, she initiates, she decides — she, not Fate, drives the plot through its bizarre and incredible turns. In her actions compulsion and caprice are inseparable, introducing a degree of necessary farce into the stylized comedy, as when she parades through Geneva streets dressed as Annie Oakley out of a whimsical sense of how the League should promote itself; or when she cannot resist, because in Paris, fellating a black musician; or when she shaves the face of the English Secretary-General of the League, establishing an alliance that goes against the grain of organizational hierarchies. At such moments Edith admits a totally different kind of energy and mystery into the rational procedures of existence. She even challenges her own considerable powers of rationalization. But where Moorhouse might earlier have left the discontinuities open, here he — or Edith — moves towards a more riskily comprehensive possibility of accomplishment:
Edith began to weep from the fear of the million unseen and unruly things, over which she had no supervision. She wept also for the trembling chance that the world now had to become safe and just, and … for the trembling chance she had to love and be loved, and she entreated the million unseen and unruly things to help her become wise and brilliant and loved.
Edith accomplishes herself through marriage to real-man journalist Robert Dole, which allows a parallel commitment to her calling as worker for the world (the calling continues through to her death, in Moorhouse’s earlier novel Forty-Seventeen, in war-torn Beirut, where she has gone as observer for the International Atomic Energy Agency). The marriage also must include a modern commitment to scientific birth control, as her work at the League contains an argument about eugenics. Edith’s accomplishment is a happy ending achieved by negotiation, having pulled back a notch from Utopianism, but without descending into inauthenticity:
Negotiated positions were often disappointing: less shining than the hoped-for outcome, less shining than the preliminary rhetoric of hopes and dreams which came before negotiations began. But their love was a negotiated position which didn’t fail the shining vision of either of the negotiators.
Moorhouse believes in negotiation, and much of the pleasure in this leisurely novel lies in following the offer and counter-offer of negotiation through the dramatic interchanges and inner self-revisions of the prose.
When I ask myself why I ardently admire Moorhouse’s work, as if the capacity to be witty, entertaining and somewhat shocking on any occasion is not enough, I have to answer that it’s a matter of how the sentences sound and move on the page. When I try to analyse this, I can only say that it is something to do with how well his writing manages his argument and thought. Sentences slide and correct, yield and obstruct; the emphasis is on verbal drive and the intricate precision of naming, with a few careful adverbs to twist the verbs and almost no descriptive adjectives at all.
This is not poetic prose, except perhaps in the sense T. S. Eliot meant of Henry James, that the syntax, rhythm, repetitions and sequences of prose acquire a charge akin to that of poetry, as felt in any number of aphoristic instances:
She felt she had learned two things. The first thing concerned the nature of innovation in public policy: that good ideas did not always have the proper and most appropriate of exponents and did not always come from the expected direction…. Good ideas were sometimes propounded by people who were not always personally sound and not always decorous.
The style negotiates, taking an idea and pushing it around, transforming unwieldy raw material into something else, shepherding a wish until it becomes policy that can be implemented. Edith invents her rules as she goes, as has Moorhouse in his conception of the novel. All of which ultimately has to do with Australia, with the putative ‘national soul’ as the Swiss Under-Secretary of the League calls it, ‘altered by the sun and by the pioneering and by the distance in under 150 years’, and with an Australian literature brought into being in a complex series of negotiations, as hopes and possibilities are carved, with compromises and knots, into unique accomplishments.
Moorhouse’s importance as a writer lies in the nexus between style and his compulsive engagement with Australia. In Edith Campbell Berry, like other DIY divas before her, we have a shadowy allegory of Australia trying, with candour, conviction, slyness and skill, to fashion something new, noble and dignified, ‘with full awareness that every choice could entail an irreparable loss’. The plot of the comedy requires her to be seduced by the Englishman Ambrose, who secretly works for the British Foreign Office while he works officially for the League of Nations, a servant of two masters. Ambrose defends himself on the grounds that the two masters have compatible aims, but that is paternalistic talk. Ambrose also likes to dress up, disposed towards a double sexuality in which he educates Edith. She profits from the ambiguities and betrayals through which Ambrose expresses an identity more sophisticated than Edith’s own. But, seeking to form an identity for herself, she opts for something more satisfyingly straight, in full knowledge of the alternatives she is hanging up in her wardrobe. Is it an allegory of how hard it has been for Australia not to be travestied by Britain? The nice thing is that Edith/Australia is only interested in national identity in a provisional sort of way. She wants to go on and discover an international soul. ‘One of the ethics of her upbringing had been the stewardship and care of her domain but she had tried to make the whole world into her domain.’
Allegorical Edith has more than one self. ‘As she removed her make-up, sitting at her three-mirrored dressing table, she saw too clearly three selves at least in the cross reflection of the mirrors. She smiled at each, helplessly.’
In helplessly recognizing his Edith’s sorority at this moment with her namesake Eudoxia/Eddie/Eadith, the gender-subversive protagonist of Patrick White’s The Twyborn Affair, Moorhouse hints at his own quizzing relationship with his literary avatars. His disciplined anti-descriptive prose and his principled resistance to transcendentalism indicate an oppositional response to White, whose thrice-born Theodora in The Aunt’s Story was also an Australian fashioning herself in Europe between the wars. Our fantastic latter-day gender sensibilities can find Moorhouse’s Edith as an original, released from strictures against men writing about women: the black swan of trespass on the waters of Lake Geneva.
I wrote in 1984 that Moorhouse ‘has not sought to write the Great Australian Novel. He has broken free of the archetypal exile-and-return of the major earlier works of fiction, the colonial journeying between the old world and the new.’ If he has now proved me wrong, it is still in a way that subverts the conventional literary mythology of Australia. Edith wonderfully says at the end of Grand Days, ‘And I am not from sheep country. I come from milk, butter and cheese country.’ Hers is not the Australia of the squatter and pastoralist, the bunyip gentry, the flies and the dags, the outer and inner desolation. Her Australia is the nurturing milk, the parents who have given her a robust capacity for the oral gratifications on offer as life proceeds: ‘Australia taught me civitas, but it would not give me the wherewithal to become accomplished. I had to find that and do that for myself.’
Moorhouse turns on its head the idea of Australia as an uncivilized place, aligning himself with a different sort of tradition in Australian writing. Scaling the heights in Leipzig, Louise in Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest has an Australian ambition of spirit that stops her from ducking any of the extremes of experience. Her quality is inherited by Teresa in Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, whose passion has the intellectual voraciousness reflected in the scope and scale of Stead’s novel of the international scene, House of All Nations, cousin once removed to Grand Days. The work of Shirley Hazzard, especially Transit of Venus and People in Glass Houses, which is set in the United Nations where she worked, charts the challenge to the ideals of the accomplished Australian woman posed by the less humane, more institutionalized international system that has developed in the postwar period. In this inheritance, borne largely by women writers, Australia is the virtuous mother girding her strong daughters for a world they are to change. If nothing else then, Australia — signally rural Australia — is understood to gift its children with the freedom, the wit and the wherewithal to create the society of which they desire to be citizens, and to become the people they want to be. That is Edith Campbell Berry’s eugenics.