I am reading a new book by Hal Porter.
I do not like his attitude. Small things upset me, like the scratchy remarks about other writers which intrude on his fictions, and his period-piece postures with their half-offensive diction, clearly there as a demonstration of distaste for the contemporary political sense which extends to language itself, or indeed for any political sense at all. If I can, on the other hand, relish a suspect simile like ‘foul-mouthed as a feminist’, it’s partly because I sense that his intentions (though baleful to a point) are at least ambiguous and partly because it seems so apt, even though the feminists of my acquaintance are among the unfoulest-mouthed of all to whose utterance I am or am not, as the case may be, privileged to be exposed. (Possibly, as a foul-mouthed feminist myself on occasion, I am simply wallowing in primitive delight at having found on someone else’s page something which apparently refers to me) — where was I?
Oh yes. Small things intrude, then, things for which I have always held the dated Porterish cast of mind responsible; it seems to me an unimportant but fatal inability to move forward into history, as though the stylus of his sensibility were stuck in a crack in the record of his life, an image I think he would like, and present much more felicitously than I have.
I do not like his attitude, but I read Porter because I am in love with his writing. In love with his writing, in the midst of a story both topical and timeless ‘about’ the death of Aldo Moro (none of these things being at all typical, I am reading with surgical care), I come across the following sentence: ‘It goes with the garnerings she has arranged in the rooms of the house built for the Inquistor’s secretary — paintings by such out-of-fashion artists as Brangwyn, Foujita, and Russell Flint; with Benda masks, and flexuous pieces of furniture by Galle and Marjorelle’.
I have never heard of Foujita, Russell Flint, Galle or Marjorelle. I do not know whether Benda is a person, a period, a place, a multinational company or an African tribe, although I am fairly sure it is not a form of Japanese theatre.
I have a Brangwyn.
There it is, propped on the bookcase. I go over and look at it; a tiny sixty-eight unpolished watercoloured sketch. Colours — blues, greens. The two central figures, a man and a woman, appear to be discussing the woman’s feet. These are certainly peculiar, propped in classical ballet’s First Position on the ends of impossible Olive Oyl ankles. For the rest: bridge, steps, other figures sketched with half a dozen strokes. And at the bottom, in small, black, faded, warm handwriting:
a bit of Venice
It is probably a famous bit of Venice, a place to which I have never been. The texture of the sky where the paint has spread in fine lines recalls the marks of marble; four fast blue brushstrokes suggest the outlines of buildings. It is an object that one might give or under certain special circumstances sell, but to lose it through lack of sense or care would cause any sane person the sharpest remorse.
I have never really looked at it before.
I have never really looked at it before, and yet I regard it as one of my two necessary possessions, the things I would rescue from a burning building if two things were the limit. The other of these relics is a sixtyfive-year-old diamond ring, the engagement ring my grandfather gave to Great-Aunt Jessie on one of his leaves from France. Jessie looks out from the photograph, full-length, quarter-profile, Edwardianly dressed, hands on hips, her hair a feral variation on Gibson Girl.
Jessie practises that not-right thing, a profession: she is a nurse. She looks alertly out of the photograph, fashionably unsmiling, her expression one of impersonal compassion blending into a fearlessness bordering on the fierce. She appears to have eschewed Calvin and embraced Florence Nightingale, and she looks out of the picture and in through the watcher’s eyes as though to say, I know you.
As a nurse, in Scotland, in the thick of the deadly 1918 flu, Jessie succumbs to a fate more tightly sealed than most. My grandfather, a man with a Jamesian sense of honour but not overly endowed with imagination, marries instead her younger sister, my grandmother.
Had Jessie lived, my parents among others would have been spared a great deal of pain and trouble. But had Jessie lived, my father would never have emerged from my grandmother’s stony Scottish womb to marry my mother. It is even conceivable that had Jessie lived, her life or her betrothed’s might somehow have crossed the life of one or both of my other grandparents; my mother, too, might never have been born.
(At this point I have a sudden and nasty attack of ontological insecurity, a dis-ease to which I am particularly prone; I think of Borges, and then of Calvino, and then I go to the kitchen to search for the Scotch.)
Further: had Jessie lived, she might have proved to be more of a sister of my grandmother’s than her photograph implies is possible. That seems unlikely; but what of my grandmother’s passport photograph, taken at a similar age? Under a soft felt ‘twenties cloche, her mouth is as sweet as Frieda Lawrence’s in that oft-reproduced picture usually captioned ‘Frieda as a girl’, the uncontrollable sweetness of the mouths of Degas women. To anyone who has not seen the passport and knew my grandmother only in her later years, the use of the word ‘sweet’ in reference to anything about her might seem a touch indecent. There is the photograph, however.
The Brangwyn was a wedding present —no, a wedding gift, as it says in the inscription on the back, in the red, don’t-argue handwriting of Celia Scott-Weatherall. Nine years later, a month ago, there is Mrs. S.-W. on the telephone, wanting my collaboration on a literary project. Having neither heart nor stomach for it I claim to have no time, although here in the no-person’s-land of my late, indeed last, twenties I have come to believe that time has all the qualities of plasticine — stickiness and runny colours by no means excluded. Back when I was a blurred and sticky fifteen, Mrs. Scott-Weatherall became my literary mentor. She was an old woman then; what must she be like now? I last saw her in my parents’ house, nine years ago, on the night I was married.
She was the only person at our wedding wearing gloves. Gloves and beige brocade, and, if I am not mistaken, a hat. If Porter had been there he would have made a beeline for her, perhaps not hesitating even when he saw — if he saw — that she was straight off a page of Patrick White’s, and not a satirical one, either. (It strikes me as peculiar in Porter that he seems unaware of the similarity between his own contemporaryAustralia satire and White’s, as overdressed and as wincesome as one of his own underripe female caricatures coming with a half-eaten hamburger out of McDonald’s in mismatched and sparkly tat from the Brotherhood shop. Shooters, both, of wombats with elephant guns. But I digress.)
I cannot remember when, or why, or under what circumstances, my grandmother gave me Jessie’s ring. My guess is that it had something to do with her feelings on observing that at least one of her three granddaughters had toed the marriage line — although if that is so then she ought, at a later date, to have taken it back. But I suppose in a way it makes sense that I should be the keeper of the key to Jessie’s arrested, evanescent, ever-nascent future. Symbol of an eternal ideal, in her case unrealised, in my case botched and mercifully short-lived, the ring seems to say something about us both, as well as about time and life and age and all those other things that people name periodicals after. And I was, as it turned out, the last of the three sisters to see my grandmother alive.
As her death approached — not obviously, hands in pockets, whistling, looking at the sky — it was, to borrow and adapt from Grace Paley, an ordinary middle-sized death, but it was coming — my younger sister seemed to sense what was in the air and skedaddled, an adept skedaddler with a faultless sense of timing though by no means lacking fortitude, off to Europe. My older sister finally refused, about a year before our grandmother died, to visit her any more; she feared, with reason, that she might physically assault the woman (who at eighty-two would have given my strapping and short-fused sister a run for her money) if placed in the same room with her for any length of time.
Living, as they did, at home, the other two had helped my parents far more than I to carry the cross of the crass crofter (I can’t help myself) without whom none of us would have existed, and it seemed only fair that I should do my bit towards the end. And the last time I saw her she was — I can use no other word — gentle. She spoke chiefly of my mother, of whom her treatment had been mostly brutal, and who in her spectacular and sadly uninherited talent to excuse had very nearly broken her own heart against the granite of my grandmother’s personality.
My father, having inherited a few sizeable granite chips of his own, fared better. I was not at my grandmother’s funeral, but I am told that it was a colourful affair. She had wanted, and socially speaking did indeed have, a quiet, private, almost non-existent funeral. (This still puzzles me; perhaps she had anticipated being ashamed of being dead. While still alive she had considered death to be a sign of weakness; my grandfather’s final illness ten years earlier had provoked a certain amount of snorting about the dropping of bundles and the losing of grips. She had, come to think of it, a whole vocabulary of luggage-suggesting cliches, possibly the result of some warped Calvinistic notion of life-as-burden. She never forgave my grandfather, although to be fair this was largely his own fault, for having succumbed to frailty and terror in the last three months of his life after spending the previous seventy-five years as a splendid paradigm of that robust male arrogance which believes its perpetrator, and itself, immortal.)
But her own ancient and lawless Celtic gods, though by her unclaimed and doubtless unheard-of, took a hand in her farewell; during the service a freak if not positively garish thunderstorm raged outside. And half an hour earlier, my father, looking at the sky, had been heard to observe dispassionately that for my grandmother to be staging her exit under such thundrous circumstances and insanely blooming, iris-purple clouds was after all entirely in character.
And so I have Jessie’s ring, and Mrs Scott-Weatherall’s Brangwyn. Brangwyn gave it to her himself, in 1949, as what turned out to be a winning stroke in their disagreement over whether the beauty of Venice, like that of sacrifice, was overrated. Why, you ask, have I not kept up my acquaintance with this woman? Because she belongs to a period of my life that was no more interesting then than it is now, a period of which I do not care to be reminded if I can help it, and I can help it less and less.
Because I am embarrassed by her belief in something I do not, after all, possess.
Because she is an old woman, with an unimportant but fatal inability to move forward into history, as though the stylus of her sensibility were stuck in a crack in the record of her life, an image I think she would like. Almost exactly halfway between now and the first time I met her, she came to visit; like today, it was very hot, blinds-drawn hot, but she drove, alone, the not inconsiderable distance between her house and ours. As with the handing-on of Jessie’s ring, I cannot now remember the reason for her visit; but there must have been one, for there she was. And swimming through the colours of apple-juice and iced coffee against the blue-and-white china (gifts; wedding gifts, forsooth), I dimly heard her say as though for all the world she were reading from a Porter page: ‘What lovely things you have.’
Kerryn Goldsworthy is a freelance writer and critic, and a former academic who lectured in literature at the University of Melbourne for 17 years.