Reviewed: Seed, by Peter Cowan (Angus and Robertson, 1966).
There is a critical doctrine which has become fashionable in the last few years to the effect that a work of art is especially admirable if it displays in itself the characteristics it is holding up for inspection. In other words, a novel which wishes to expose dullness, or emptiness or long-windedness does so best by being dull, empty and long-winded. If one’s commonsense rebels and one describes a book as tedious, the reply comes back pretty smartly that that was precisely the author’s point: by being tedious he wished to convince us of tediousness. There is no possible reply to this except to cease reading novels: there are less time-wasting ways of apprehending tediousness.
Peter Cowan’s new novel Seed exposes flatness, dullness, emptiness for us in a way that can be described only as flat and dull.
The narrative prose is grave to the point of monotony, its rhythms almost wholly predictable; the author exercises a relentless control over the story-line and the emotional pattern; he subjects the minutiae of life to a laborious scrutiny, but in the end these techniques seem out of all proportion to the material they are exercised on. One is left with the uncomfortable feeling that Mr Cowan is using a fine lancet to cut up the dog’s meat.
The quotation from Kenneth Mackenzie which forms the epigraph to the book holds out great promise:
from the moment they were got and born
the children go.
They go out like flowers from the seed to the sun.
Not having at first much purpose
until something they have done,
some good deed or bad deed
shows them the way; before you walk you must run.
We turn the pages expectantly but it is clear before long that these people will never run; all they achieve is a circumspect trot, varied occasionally by a short sprint, before settling down to the decorous walk round the suburbs which is their manifest destiny. Maybe this is what Mr Cowan is setting out to show us, which is fair enough. But in this case the epigraph arouses expectations which the author had no intention of fulfilling and is therefore a confidence-trick, and the whole tone of the book is at variance with its actual theme. The tone and the style would suggest that the matter is tragic, or at least highly serious; the real content is of the kind that demands satire, or irony. The people in the book are at most pathetic; it would not greatly matter if none of them had been bom, but we are made to feel neither that it matters, nor that it is regrettable that it doesn’t matter.
This is a pity since the setting and social stratum of the book are rarely treated so fully in Australian fiction. Middle middle-class suburbia at the income-level which makes it just possible to send children to an expensive private school needs more investigation. The people in the novel form three closely related groups in a sea-side suburb of Perth: parents, children and their teachers, each pursuing their separate but curiously similar ways of life in closed circles which intersect briefly at certain points, until the essential relationship between them is made clear. The parents have settled for walking long ago, though one or two of them have itchy feet; the children — late adolescents — are more restive, some of them aimlessly, one or two with certain limited aims. Their restiveness expresses itself in joy-rides in stolen cars, which they are careful to return, parties at which a certain amount of alcohol is consumed in the absence of the parents, and a moderate degree of questing, mainly fantasy, in the sphere of sex. Some of this gets out of hand in the end, but not very far out; there is an equitable distribution of punishment, an experience of mild shock, and one of the mums returns home as a result. More greatly daring than her colleagues, she had been on the point of running away with a rebellious schoolteacher, an artist with a passion for bird-watching, old buildings, Audubon and Gould. He is, needless to say, misunderstood. While the juvenile delinquency is in progress, the fathers are conducting their business affairs along much the same lines; pulling off shady but not highly dangerous deals in second-hand cars and real estate, and visiting one another’s houses in monotonous rotation for drinks. Some of them show a faint interest in sex, but it is on the whole peripheral. Their interest in human beings, including their wives and children, is fixed at business-level. Much the same could be said of the wives and children.
The seed and the flower indeed, as the author states explicitly on page 19, resemble one another, and so do the sowers themselves: ‘Men had begun to achieve the sleek round anonymity of termites.’ Mr Cowan may be right about this and equally right about attributing the cause of it to the advance of commercial civilization, ‘whose touchstone is price.’ There are no statistics to tell us the number of rugged individualists who despised money in Caesar’s armies, or in the fields of medieval land- owners. But his method of conveying anonymity and emptiness does not convince us of their horror, and the individualists he sets up in opposition to the commercially-minded termites impress us no more than the termites. The conversations about culture (certified Australia-made: Arthur Phillips, Judith Wright, Max Harris and all) are so self-conscious as to be embarrassing, and no more lively than the conversations earlier in the book about the intestinal arrangements of second-hand cars.
The fault seems to me to be entirely one of method. There is no doubt that Mr Cowan is sensitive, imaginative, perceptive, acutely aware of fine shades of feeling, of complex motives, of the vagaries of human behaviour. What he lacks is dramatic sense and the gift for selection. As it stands the book is as exhausting to read as touring Europe with a compulsive sight-seer. Pages 7, 8, 9 and 10, for instance, are devoted to getting a sleepless father out of bed, through bathroom, kitchen, via the front garden to a brief encounter with his son in the hall. We are spared none of the details of his most trivial physical actions, which must be preparing us, we think, for some momentous conclusion, since their immediate interest is negligible. What it adds up to is the agreement between father and son that the boy had better stick to his swimming training, because: ‘You’ll get further on in sport these days than you will on maths.’ It is the statement itself that is revealing, if anything is, not the elaborate introduction to it. The method is pursued relentlessly throughout the book and combined with an unerring instinct for relegating intrinsically dramatic material to the ‘wings’, almost succeeds in alienating the most doggedly persistent reader.
There is nothing wrong with the method of amassing external detail to build up a scene. What is necessary is that this immense mass should bear some proportionate relation to its purpose, should be justified in terms of character, action and scene. Here they simply will not bear the heavy weight of the treatment. What all this ‘fine writing’ conveys in the end is a sense of strain, a sense of a desperate effort to squeeze every event dry, to extract significance from what is in itself insignificant. A very large proportion of the analytic and descriptive passages are simply there for the sake of being there. When one considers this sort of writing in the Australian novel, one is not surprised that Australia has practically no drama. With only few exceptions, our novelists show little grasp of the three basic requirements of a ‘scene’: preparation, retrospect and immediate interest. They are happiest reporting: ill at ease if required to evoke immediate experience.
For instance, early in the book the artist Max rescues a bird, takes it home and tries unsuccessfully to keep it alive. The episode is intended to have considerable thematic importance in the story, but the actual encounter with the bird is given to us in retrospect, filtered to us through the pluperfect tense, that constant bane of Australian narrative prose. ‘The small eyes had regarded him, the head lifted steady, though the body had been helpless and without motion.’ Tolstoy, even Lawrence, would have given us the scene directly, made us feel the bird and what it stands for in the book. The same sort of evasion, the relegation of the significant event to a position off-stage, occurs towards the end. The frustrated anti-suburban wife of the respectable lawyer disgraces herself at one of the routine parties they are obliged to attend. We are told about it all afterwards, instead of being present at it. George Eliot, or any novelist with red blood in him, would have jumped at this opportunity for a head-on collision between convention and dissent. This refusal of a challenge is regarded, I gather, as a virtue; one forms the impression that critics nowadays prefer to attend to the gaps between the lines rather than the lines themselves, for reasons too obvious to mention, and that novelists consequently feel impelled to provide the gaps, as long as they are labelled reticence, suggestion, understatement. The combination of understatement and overstatement in the same book adds up to an artistic vacuum.
It is not surprising to find that what Mr Cowan communicates best is our failure to communicate. He shows immense skill, for instance, in indicating the lack of a common language between husband and wife, mother and son (pp. 71, 82). The theme justifies the avoidances, the emptiness of the dialogue, at these points, and the omniscient author probes for us below the surface inarticulateness to the barrenness of feeling beneath.
But when he attempts to write dialogue for characters who do wish to communicate with one another and who, we are led to assume, have some interests in common, he is frequently banal and clumsy, as in the heavy-footed conversation in the King’s Cross restaurant, after the artist and the lawyer’s wife have become lovers.
The absence of a feeling for characteristic speech is matched by the failure of the narrative style to accommodate itself to differences in mental tempo. It is unfailingly deliberate, carefully measured, calculated, suited perhaps for analysing the thought-processes of the lawyer, but not an all-purpose tool.
It is only fair to say that the defects of Mr Cowan’s technique are an excess of its virtue. At times his power to accumulate subtle detail serves him as he intends: ‘He heard Reg Linker’s voice with its habitual air of enforcing a confidence, or reaching in some mundane matter some significance peculiar to himself and his listener, a manner that once, it seemed a long time ago, had irritated him. Now, at times, he almost caught himself being touched by the implied importance, flattered.’ But illuminating as this passage is in its context, the rhythms are those of the narrator, not of the character who is thinking. And this sort of writing, where it is not subordinated to its purpose, ends by dissipating attention, not commanding it. What happens too often is that the characters are not illuminated, but submerged in a mass of circumstantiality, buried in the solid, implacable prose, as landmarks are obliterated by falling snow. Mr Cowan’s hold on the narrative is so strong, so disproportionate is interpretation to dramatisation, that his people rarely persuade us they exist independently of the observer. They remain ideas in the mind of Mr Cowan, who becomes the only living presence in the book.
Mr Cowan has been praised recently for his ‘inwardness’. What strikes us most about this book is its ‘outwardness’. The inwardness, if it exists, belongs to Mr Cowan, not to his characters. It may well be that his real medium is after all the short story, which like the lyric poem is a better vehicle for the subjective than the novel or the drama.
One would hope that this might not be so: Mr Cowan has gifts which demand to be used in further exploration of the country he has opened up, and the novel gives him more room to move; at the moment, perhaps, too much. He could, on the other hand, settle for the short story and perhaps turn out to be a latter-day Lawson, making a unified saga out of seemingly scattered fragments, lighting up for us permanently the whole process of living in the middle regions of an acquisitive society in Australia.