I have just finished reading a piece of fiction about a man who insists on finding out how deep the bedrock is wherever he happens to be standing.
I would like to know the name of the woman who wrote the fiction. She has light-brown hair and interesting eyes, but her skin is rather weatherbeaten and her forehead is oddly wrinkled. I can never judge a person’s age. This woman might be thirty-five or forty-five.
The woman’s fiction is all in the first person, and the narrator identifies himself as a man. The author—the woman with the creased forehead—claims that the man in the story is based on her own brother, who suffers from what she calls an illness of the mind.
I will explain where I am and why I have to write this.
I am sitting at a battered garden-table on the back veranda of a ten-room stone house on a hilltop thirty-four kilometres north-east of the centre of Melbourne. A forest of rather skinny eucalypts grows all around the house and all down the steep gullies for as far as I can see. About once an hour I hear a motor-car on the gravel road deep down among the trees. Mostly I hear the cheeps and tweets and ting-tangs of birds and the swishings of leaves and twigs in the wind. If I walk along the veranda I can just hear, through the thick stones of the wall, the tapping of a typewriter. At two other places along the stone wall I can hear the same faint sound. Far inside the house, and quite inaudible to me, two people are using electronic keyboards and screens. A writers’ workshop is in progress.
The stone house belongs to a painter (a painter of quite ordinary views of desert and savannah, to judge from what can be seen on the insides of these walls). At this moment the painter is somewhere on the road to Hattah Lakes. But these details are not important . . . the artist’s house is ours for the present.
We are six writers—three men and three women—who have undertaken to write and to show our writing to one another for seven days and six nights up here among the sounds of birds and the wind in the treetops. Five of us, so I believe, have had fiction published in magazines or anthologies. Myself, I am a poet (sparingly published) who is trying to break into prose. Our workshop is not meant to produce immediately a body of publishable writing. Our meeting here on this hill is meant to put us in touch with the deep sources of fiction.
Last night—Friday night—each of us had to write our first apiece and then hand it to the person in charge of the session. This morning at breakfast each of us was given a copy of each of the five pieces written by our fellow writers.
In most writers’ workshops the members sit around discussing their work; they talk about themes and symbols and meaning and such matters. The six of us do none of this. Ours is a Waldo workshop. The rules were devised by Frances Da Pavia and Patrick McLear, a husband-and-wife team of writers in the USA. In 1949 these two began a series of workshops at their summer house in Waldo County, Maine. Francis Da Pavia and Patrick McLear have both since died but they bequeathed their estates, including the house in Maine, to the Waldo Fiction Foundation, which continues to arrange annual workshops and to keep alive the Waldo theory of fiction in the USA and in other countries.
The rules for the Waldo workshops have hardly been changed since the first summer when the co-founders and four disciples shut themselves away for a week on a rocky peninsula looking across the water to Islesboro Island. As far as possible the writers have to be strangers to one another. (The co-founders were far from being husband and wife in the days of their first workshops, and after their marriage they were never again together as writers in the stone house.) Everyone is compelled to take a pen-name at the first session and to change that pen-name each day. But the most important rule is the absolute ban on speech.
In this matter a Waldo workshop is more strict than a Trappist monastery. Trappist monks are at least allowed to use sign language, but writers at a Waldo workshop are not allowed to communicate by any means other than the writing of prose fiction. Waldo writers may exchange any number of messages during their week together, but every message must be encoded in prose fiction. No other’ sort of message is permitted. Writers may not even allow such a message to reach them inadvertently: if one writer happens to intercept another’s glance, the two must go at once to their separate writing-tables and write for each other a piece of fiction many times more elaborate and subtle than whatever lay behind either glance or was read from it.
Waldo writers are not even permitted to make the sorts of comment that writers in conventional workshops make about each other’s work. Each morning in this house each one of us will pore over the latest batch of fiction, looking for scattered traces of our own stories in the manifold pattern of Waldo.
To preserve the ideal of unbroken silence, the Waldo manual recommends a certain gait for strolUng around house and grounds and a certain posture for sitting at the dining-table or on the veranda. The eyes are kept lowered; each stride is somewhat hesitant; arms and hands are guarded in their movements for fear a hand might brush a foreign sleeve or, worse still, a naked wrist or finger. House and grounds, naturally, are required to be remote and secluded. The co-founders’ house, in the one photograph that I happen to have seen, seems to belong in an Andrew Wyeth painting.
The theory behind the vow of silence is that talk—even serious, thoughtful talk or talk about writing itself—drains away the writer’s most precious resource, which is the belief that he or she is the solitary witness to an inexhaustible profusion of images from which might be read all the wisdom of the world. At the beginning of each workshop, every writer has to copy in handwriting and to display above his or her writing-table the famous passage from the diaries of Franz Kafka:
I hate everything that does not relate to literature, conversations bore me (even when they relate to literature), to visit people bores me, the joys and sorrows of my relatives bore me to my soul. Conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, the truth, out of everything I think.
Every breach of the vow of silence must be reported to the writer-in-charge. Even so seemingly slight a thing as sighing within earshot of another person is a reportable offence, and the writer who catches a hint of meaning in the sound of someone’s breath escaping is therefore expected not only to write before long about a fictional sigher and sigh but to draft a brief informer’s report. Likewise, the sight of a mouth being drawn deliberately down at the corners or even a distant view of a head shaking slowly from side to side or of a pair of hands being pressed against a face—any of these can oblige a writer to amend the work-in-progress so that it includes a version of the latest offence against Waldo and of the report of the offence and any other documents to do with it.
A first offender against the Great Silence is punished by being sent to his or her room to transcribe passages from writers whose way of life was more or less solitary: Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Giacomo Leopardi, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Michel de Ghelderode, A.E. Housman, Thomas Merton, Gerald Basil Edwards, C.W. Killeaton . . . The Waldo Fiction Foundation keeps a register of all those who for at least five years of their lives wrote or took notes but talked to no friend or lover.
A second offence brings immediate expulsion from the workshop. The expulsion is never announced to the group, but suddenly among the buzzings and clickings of insects and the chirrups of birds on a drowsy afternoon a motor-car engine starts up, and perhaps you notice an hour later that a certain pair of creaking shoes are no longer heard in the corridors; or perhaps, standing at a certain point on the veranda, you see the same trail of ants flowing up and down the yellowish stone and the same tiny spider unmoving in its cave of crumbled mortar but you no longer hear the faint rattling of a typewriter through the wall; or later at the dinner table a bread roll lies unbroken by a pair of hands that you formerly watched from under your eyebrows.
Does anyone reading this want to ask why the workshop should expel a person whose presence had made the fiction of at least one writer daily more bulky and more complex? Anyone who could ask this question has not even begun to understand what I have written so far. But Waldo can answer for me. What might have seemed to the objector a grave objection earns a sentence in the manual. Just the one room becoming empty will make the echo of the fiction of the house more lingering still.
No one questions the rules concerning silence, but newcomers to Waldo sometimes wonder why no rule forbids a writer in a workshop from sending urgent letters or manifestoes or apologias after someone who has just been expelled. How can the purpose of the workshop be served, the questioner asks, if the bereft writer, instead of working at fiction, drafts long addresses to someone who has seemed to undermine the basic principles of Waldo?
A little thought usually reassures the doubter. The writer in a work-shop has to deliver each day to the writer-in-charge not only the finished drafts of fiction but any earlier drafts or page of notes or scribble and certainly any letter or draft of a letter written that day. No one may send out from a Waldo workshop any letter or note or any other communication without first submitting it to the writer-in-charge. In short, the writer sending messages after an expelled fellow-writer may be writing to no one. Even if Waldo, in the person of the writer-in-charge, actually forwards the letters, there is no obligation to reveal to the person who wrote them the true name, let alone the address, of the person they were sent to. And the ritual bonfire at the end of every workshop is not just for all the writing done during the week but for all of Waldo’s records—every scrap of evidence that might otherwise be adduced some day to prove that this or-that writer once, under half a dozen pseudonyms, learned the secret of true fiction from an eccentric American sect.
So, the writer who spends the last days of a workshop trying to reach someone who once or twice glanced or stared in a certain way before being expelled—that writer will usually understand in time that no letters may have been forwarded or that the letters were forwarded but with the sender identified only by a false name and the address ‘Waldo’. The writer who reaches this understanding will then be grateful to the body of theory and traditions personified as Waldo. For if the writer had had his or her way at first, much precious writing time would have been lost and perhaps the workshop itself abandoned while the two strangers made themselves known to each other in conventional ways. But, thanks to Waldo, the-writer stayed on at the workshop and began the first notes or drafts of what would later become a substantial body of fiction.
Those novels or novellas or short stories or prose poems would be widely read, but only their author would know what they really were and who they were addressed to. As for that person, the one whose motor-car had started up suddenly among the dry sounds of grasshoppers on a hot afternoon, that person would almost certainly never read any of the published fiction. That person would have been won over years earlier by the doctrines of Waldo, and in all the years since the founding of our group not a single apostasy has been recorded. The expelled writer is still one of us, and like every other follower of Waldo he or she would read no fiction by any living author. He or she might buy the latest books and display them all around the house, but no author would be read until that author was dead.
No living author would be read because the reader of a living author might be tempted one day to search out the author and to ask some question about the text or about the weather on the day when this or that page was first composed or about a certain year of the author’s life before the first sentence of the text came into being. And to ask such questions would be not just to violate the most sacred tradition of Waldo; it would be as if to say that the old stone house by Penobscot Bay has never existed, that Frances Da Pavia and Patrick McLear are no more substantial than characters in a work of fiction, and that the Waldo theory of fiction—far from having produced some of the finest writers of our day—is itself the invention of a writer: a bit of whimsy dreamed up by a man at a writers’ workshop and handed to the writer-in-charge so that a woman with light-brown hair and a frowning face would learn why the man had not yet told her how impressed he had been by her story of a man who worried about bedrock.
In an earlier draft of this paragraph—a draft that you will never read—I began with the words: ‘You may be wondering about that ritual bonfire mentioned a little distance back . . .’ But if you had read those words you would have wondered not just how the words could have reached you if all the pages written during the workshop are ritually burned on the last evening; you would have wondered also who the word ‘you’ referred to. If these pages are being written on the veranda of a stone house during a writers’ workshop, you might say to your-self, why are they seemingly addressed to me: to someone who reads them in very different surroundings? For the pages are much too explanatory to have been written for the other workshop members—why would five followers of Waldo have to be told in the opening para-graphs of a piece of workshop fiction all the rules and traditions so well known to them?
But you have almost answered your own objection. You have spoken of this writing as fiction. This is the truth. These words are part of a work of fiction. Even these last few sentences, which can be read as an exchange between the writer and a reader, are fiction. Any thoughtful reader would recognise them for what they are. And the writers at a Waldo workshop are the most thoughtful of readers. When these pages are put in front of them, my fellow writers will not demand to know why they have to read an account of things already familiar to them. They will read with even more than their usual alertness. They will try to learn why I have written in the form of a piece of fiction addressed to strangers far away from this hilltop a piece of fiction that only they can read.
And yet, you still want certain puzzles explained. (Or, to put this more clearly, if you existed you would still want those puzzles explained.) If the ritual bonfire consumes all evidence of the workshop, why should I write as though these pages are going to be preserved?
My first impulse is to answer, ‘Why not?’ One of the most cherished anecdotes among the followers of Waldo is of the writer who begged for a last few minutes while the other members of the workshop were already around the fire and making scrolls of their pages, tying bundle after bundle with the obligatory silk ribbons in the Waldo colours of pale-grey and sea-green, and tossing their bundles into the flames. During those last few minutes the writer crouched in the glow from the flames and scribbled over and over the same sentence for which the right order of words and the right balance among the subordinate clauses had still not been found.
With Waldo it is the spirit that matters rather than the form. No writer is stripped and searched before leaving a workshop. No luggage is forcibly opened on the front veranda on the morning of departure. If you still believe that I am writing these words to be read by someone outside the workshop, then you only have to imagine my slipping this typescript under the heap of my soiled underclothes on the last night . . .
Now the danger may be that I am making Waldo seem a mere set, of conventions to be varied if occasion demands. I assure you that Waldo weighs heavily indeed on me. Every page that I write here on this veranda will be tied, five nights from tonight, in the colours of ocean and fog and burned in the view of five writers whose good opinions I value, even if I may never learn their true names.
And I follow the way of Waldo even more strictly for having read sometimes, on the last day of a workshop, the implication that we are not meant to take Waldo seriously after all: that these monastic retreats with their fussy rituals, the manual with all its rules, the house in Maine, although they are, of course, part of a solid world, are only meant to work on the imagination of writers and to suggest how seriously one might take the writing of fiction in an ideal world.
At this point someone who had never heard of Waldo before reading these pages might need to be reminded that the isolation of Waldo writers is not relieved during hours of darkness.
The co-founders in their wisdom decreed that the writers in each work-shop had to be strangers and that the numbers of men and women must be equal. Some people have concluded from this that we provide a literary introduction service. Perhaps one of my readers, even after the careful account I have so far given, supposes even now that only half the bedrooms will be occupied each night during this workshop.
Even if my suspicious reader, like all my readers, is only someone I called into being this morning on this veranda, still I consider myself bound to answer truthfully. In any case, what do I have to gain by writing anything but the truth in these circumstances?
I spent last night alone in my room. I cannot imagine why I would not spend tonight and every other night of the workshop alone in my room—unless the whole of the history of the Waldo movement has been an elaborate practical joke of which I am the sole victim, and unless I am the only writer in this house who believes that if I were to try a certain door-knob tonight it should only be for the purpose of thrusting a little way into the darkness the thick bundle of all the pages I have written, with not even my true name on them, before I creep back to my room.
I cannot answer for any other writer, of course, but I hereby declare my faith in the doctrine that persuaded me to give up poetry and to come to this stony hill to learn how to write truly. I believe as a Waldo writer that my existence is only justified by the writing of prose fiction. And for inspiration I look to Campobello Man.
You Waldo writers reading this know very well who I mean. But my imaginary reader far from this hill could not have heard even the title of the book that explains everything.
Isles Fogbound: the Writer on the Wrong Side of America—have any of us read this book as it deserves to be read, and changed our lives accordingly? I am no better than any of you. I can expound the thesis of many a chapter, yet I have still not felt in my heart the joy that is promised in the last pages; I have still not seen the changed world that I ought to see all around me if only I could give myself wholly over to Waldo.
How can I think of everything I see as no more and no less than a detail in a work of fiction? I walked a little way down this hill before breakfast. From every outcrop of stones and gravel a small vine of hardenbergia grew: the same mauve that I look for in every garden I walk past in the suburbs of Melbourne. Yet I stared at the mauve against the golden-brown and could think of no place for it in any piece of prose fiction I might write. Perhaps the mauve and the brown belong in the fiction of another writer, and perhaps this is the sense of those ambiguous passages in the last pages of the inspired volume of Waldo. When I knelt and touched the soil a surprising image came to me. The flaky stones had the look and the feel of a thick layer of face-powder plastered oddly on her face by a woman not quite right in the head. A different sort of writer might follow this image wherever it leads. Of all I have read in Frances Da Pavia and Patrick McLear I remember mostly the smaller details and the quirky propositions. From the accounts of the first workshops I remember the custom of making the newly arrived writers walk all around the rooms and corridors counting windows. They could consider themselves for the time being dwellers in the House of Fiction, but they ought to acknowledge that the house had considerably fewer windows than Henry James had asserted. As for the windows, even though I have never set foot on the North American continent I can see the dark-blue sky, the green of Penobscot Bay, and above all, the pearly-grey of the fogs—even the painted fogs on the double panes of the rooms for those who wanted to live Waldo doctrine to the fullest.
I am familiar too with all the contrivances that were fitted to the house for those who wanted to spy on their fellow writers by day or night. (In these temporary quarters we have no opportunity for the intensive spying that Waldo has always permitted without directly encouraging. A Waldo writer is urged not so much to spy as to feel always under close surveillance, and the spy-holes and carelessly hidden cameras all around the house in Maine are to promote this feeling. How many writers make use of these things Waldo officially does not trouble itself to learn. No one on this hilltop would have drilled through the artist’s walls, but anyone would have been free to bring their own equipment with them, and one of you five readers of the first draft of this may be reading it not for the first time.)
I have only sometimes glimpsed the world through Waldo’s eyes, but I have meditated often on the map of North America as Da Pavia and McLear taught me to see it. The people of the continent are mostly going in the wrong direction.
The people are all being carried blindly westward. They are all hoping to reach a place of bright sunlight where they will see enacted deeds befitting the end of a long journey. But the people are all going the wrong way.
The coast of Maine is almost the farthest place where a group of American writers can stand and declare that they have gone, literally as well as spiritually, against the prevailing currents of their nation. But even in the stone house in Waldo County, the writers wanted to say more than this; and so began the game of the islands.
The people of America are being carried blindly along in the path of the sun, but not the writers of Waldo. They huddle on their clifftop and set their faces towards Penobscot Bay. America, these writers say, is a book. They themselves may be situated within the pages of America, but they stand where they stand to signify that the subject of their own fiction lies behind the readers and even the writers of America.
The man who wrote under the name of Stendahl is supposed to have said in 1830 that he wrote his fiction for the readers of 1880. Frances Da Pavia and Patrick McLear announced in 1950 that their fiction of that year was being written for the reader of 1900. (To make their arithmetic quite clear: they were writing in 1960 for the readers of 1890; and if the co-founders were alive today in 1985 they would have in mind the readers of 1865.) Towards the end of their lives Da Pavia and McLear thought of themselves as privileged to be drawing still nearer to the putative age when no word of fiction had yet been written. And just before their sudden deaths, our founders were preoccupied with the question what mode of fictional address the lucky writer would choose for that generation for whom a sentence such as Call me Waldo . . . and all that it could possibly mean were solid items of a factual world. This is what first drew me to Waldo of all the schools of fiction I might have joined: this earnest undertaking by Waldo writers to shape their sentences not according to habits of thinking in their own day but as though each writer is writing from a separate island just short of the notional beginning of the mainland.
In the early years of the game the writers chose from actual islands. Before beginning a workshop each writer would consult large-scale maps of the coast. Then, on the first morning in the stone house and while the fog outside was still unmoving, table and chair would be carefully aligned so that the seated writer faced the blank double-page of America and a word would be whispered in the monkish room. For the remaining six days of the workshop, Monhegan, Matinicus, or Great Wass would mark the place where the true story of America was being written; where a writer that the writer in the room could only dream of found the words to write; where the invisible was on the point of becoming visible.
Although every page of fiction purporting to have been written at these places was burned in due course, still rumours and gossip hung around the stone house, and each new group of writers seemed to know which islands had been claimed in earlier years and which dwindling few had never been written from. In the last year before the game changed its direction, members of the workshop had to choose from mere rocks and nameless shoals. Then someone who claimed afterwards not to have noticed the dots and dashes of the international border swerving strangely south-west across the inked ocean wrote that he dreamed of someone writing dreamlike prose on Campobello.
What happened during the following week enriched the theory and traditions of Waldo, it was said, immeasurably beyond the hopes of the co-founders. (I prefer to believe that Da Pavia and McLear foresaw confidently the scope, if not the details, of the Campobello Migration and wrote about it in some of the best of their lost typescripts.) In a word, the writers for that week were divided quite by accident into two groups. The first had consulted in the Waldo Library (can any of us in this house almost bare of books imagine what a treasury of recondite lore is the library in the original stone house?) an atlas in which coloured inks were used only for the nation or the state which happened to be the designated subject-matter for that page, surrounding areas being colourless, ghostly, almost bare of printed names. The second group consulted an atlas in which the colours reached to the very margins of every page, no matter what political or geographical borders crossed the page itself. So for one group Campobello—the island, the man supposed to be writing there, and the host of invisible possibilities behind the word itself—gave pleasure because it was perversely located in a place that a writer might actually visit if he or she was literal-minded enough to want to travel through the fog and even further along the schematic edge of America. (This group was further divided into those who recognised that Campobello Island is part of the Province of New Brunswick and those who believed it to be the utmost outpost of the State of Maine.) The second group, having seen a pale blob on their map and having deliberately refused to turn to the pages presenting a coloured Canada—not even to learn the name of the blob, supposed Campobello and everything arising from it to be the result of an ingenious invented cataclysm.
They supposed that at some time during the filling-in of the blank double-page of the continent and while the ink of America, so to speak, was still not dry, someone of far-reaching imaginative power had taken each page by its outermost edge, lifted the two pages upwards and inwards, and pressed them firmly together, even rubbing certain patches at random fiercely up against one another for simple delight.
How can the result of this be best described? America as a mirror of itself? America turned inside out and around about? America as a page in a dream-atlas? With this map in mind a writer could see in the forests of New England the colours of New Mexican deserts; could see, as I myself once saw (admittedly in an atlas published in England), the word Maine clearly printed near Flagstaff, Arizona, and the word Maineville near Loveland, Ohio. But of all the thousands of embellishments and verbal puzzles and aimless or fragmented roads and trails now added to America, what most appealed to the writers in the stone house was the simple notion of a Beautiful Plain as the primordial setting for fiction and the Handsome Plainsman as the original of all fictional characters, if not of all writers of fiction.
I could write an entire short novel on this subject, but I am only a minor poet taking his first stumbling steps as a writer of fiction; and in any case my first task is to finish this account of the most wonderful week in the history of Waldo.
After the bonfire of that week the writers meditated on the two versions of Campobello: the writer as finder of blank spaces on actual maps, and the writer as finder of quite new double-pages of maps. And what those writers never forgot was that the fiction from each of their two groups had been indistinguishable. The so-called Campobello Migration that followed meant simply that all Waldo writers were free from then onwards to locate the ideal source of their fiction in places even further east than New Brunswick or in places whose names or parts of whose names might have appeared on a map of Maine if certain pages of atlases were rubbed together, figuratively speaking, before their colours had finally dried.
• • •
The shadows of the nearest trees have now reached the yellow flagstones under my writing-table. The time is late in the afternoon. And just a moment ago I heard the sudden starting-up of a motor-car.
The artist who owns this house left a badly written note explaining how to operate the pumps that bring water up the hill from the under-ground storage tanks, and for some reason he scrawled at the bottom: Late in day find spot on back veranda with terrific view of Melb skyline so long no smog.
As I write these words, a motor-car is following the winding road downwards between these hard hills where off-blue hardenbergia sprouts wild between outcrops of dull-gold talc. In the motor-car is a writer who believes wholeheartedly, as I believe, in the claims of Waldo fiction. That writer has submitted to being expelled from this house as the penalty for sending a message to a fellow writer by means other than the inserting of an allusion into a passage of fiction. If I am the person who was meant to receive the message, I can write truthfully that I have never received it.
I do not know the name of the person in the motor-car. I will probably never know that name. If I could give all my time to reading all the fiction published in this country, I might read someday a passage recalling a piece of fiction I once read about a man who thought continually about the bedrock far under his feet, who studied the surfaces of all the stones he saw, who wanted to live only in stone houses, who would not have complained if he had been made to read fiction day after day, or even poetry . . .
The rules of Waldo allow me only until sunset to finish what I am writing. If this were only a piece of fiction devised to amuse a few writers with tastes and interests like my own—if not only Waldo and the man who wondered about bedrock but even the woman with the light-brown hair was invented for the benefit of a group of writers who have not yet been mentioned in these pages, surely now would be the time for me to explain myself.
• • •
Until I was nearly twenty years old I thought I was meant to be a poet. Then, in December 1958, I saw in the window of Alice Bird’s second-hand bookshop in Bourke Street, Melbourne, a copy of Ulysses, by James Joyce. After reading that book I wanted to be a writer of prose fiction.
In those days I knew only two people who might have been interested in my change of heart. I told the two people what I had decided while the three of us happened to be standing under an enormous oak tree in the grounds of the mansion known as Stonnington, in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern. Stonnington at that time was used by the Education Department of Victoria as part of a teachers’ college. I was a student of the teachers’ college, working to qualify at the end of 1959 for the Trained Primary Teacher’s Certificate, after which I would teach in schools of the Education Department by day and write prose fiction during evenings and at weekends.
After I had announced my decision to write prose fiction I wanted to do more. I searched in libraries for information about Joyce. Some-where I found a sentence that I still remember today: He dressed quietly, even conservatively, beringed fingers being his only exoticism.
I went to one of the pawnbrokers in Russell Street, Melbourne, and bought two cheap rings. Each was low-carat gold with a slab of black onyx. I wore the rings on my fingers but I did not otherwise change my threadbare style of dressing.
The first picture I found of Joyce was a reproduction of a photograph that I have rarely seen since. I believed the man I considered the greatest of prose writers had had a forehead sharply scored by lines of the same pattern—three parallel horizontals intersected by a single diagonal—as the lines I had drawn in my fourth year of secondary school in my general science notebook to represent a layer of bedrock.
I hid my rings from my father. In my father’s eyes, rings and tiepins and cufflinks were of the style he called Cockney Jew. I hid Ulysses also. My father could not bear to hear such words as ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ uttered in any context, and I assumed he would not want to read them either.
My father has been dead now for twenty-five years. He left behind him no prose fiction and no poetry, and not even a written message for any of his family. But on the wall of a sandstone quarry on the hill called Quarry Hill near the mouth of Buckley’s Creek in the district of Mepunga East on the south-west coast of Victoria, my father’s surname and his two initials are still deeply inscribed above the date 1924. When my father carved his name he was as old as I was when I made my announcement under the oak tree in the grounds of the building called Stonnington.
In 1924 James Joyce was forty-two and Ulysses had been published for two years. The young man carving his name in the stone-quarry had thirty-six years still to live; the man writing Finnegans Wake in Paris had a little less than half that time ahead of him. The man in the quarry knew nothing then of Joyce or his writing and still nothing of them when he died.
I have enclosed with my last will and testament five sheets of paper inscribed with what I consider useful information for my sons. One sheet tells them how to find the inscription made by their grandfather who died ten years before the eldest of them was born. One or more of my sons may care to inspect my father’s writing twenty-five years after my own death, and then to note how much or how little of my own writing can still be read.
Out of the quarry on Quarry Hill came the blocks of sandstone that went into the building of a house known as The Cove about one kilometre from the quarry and within earshot of the Southern Ocean. My father’s father built the house and lived in it until he died in 1949. The house stands solidly today, but it is owned and lived in by people whose name I do not know. I have not seen the house for nearly ten years. I hardly ever think of it. I did not even think of it while I was writing about the stone house of Waldo by Penobscot Bay. This is not a story about a house but about the space where a house could have been. I only mention my grandfather’s house in this story because the digging of the stone for that house gave my father a page for his writing that has lasted for sixty years.
• • •
All my life I have looked around me for outcrops of rocks or pebbles or for any jagged place where the true colour of the earth is exposed. Even the crumbs around an ants’ nest will make me stop and look. I watch the cuttings beside railway-lines, the bare patches at the bases of roadside trees, and the dirt thrown up from trenches; I like to be able to think clearly about the colours underneath me as I walk.
The man I read about today is not interested in the colours of soil. He wants to be sure the bedrock is deep and true for as far downwards as he can imagine it. He believes in a world of countless layers, most of them invisible, and he believes that a fault in any one of the layers has an influence on every other layer. He believes that what some people call his mental illness is a fault in one of the subtle, invisible layers of the world at about the level of his own head. He believes that the ultimate cause of this fault is a terrible creasing of the bedrock far below.
The man I am writing about is a character in a piece of fiction, but the woman who wrote the piece of fiction is a living woman whose forehead creases when she writes or reads. Until a short while ago that woman was with me in this house, but now she has gone and I do not expect to see her again.
The woman with the furrows in her forehead has left the house because she has already read what I am writing. The woman came up to my table this morning while I was crouched on the hillside staring at the mauve hardenbergia and fingering the brownish, powdery rocks. The woman read my pages and understood more clearly than I understand why I am writing them. Then she left a message for me—a clear, unambiguous message not encoded in prose fiction and therefore in serious breach of the rules of Waldo. And then the woman handed all her papers and drafts to the writer-in-charge and left this house.
• • •
To finish this piece of fiction I would only have to write that after the woman had gone I went in search of her message and found it in the most obvious place—in the nearest thing to a library in this house. I would only have to write that one volume on the artist’s miserable shelf of books was oddly stacked, as though drawing attention to itself . . .
The book is: Berenice Abbott: Sixty Years of Photography, by Hank O’Neal with an introduction by John Canaday, published by Thames and Hudson in 1982. On the front of the dust-jacket is a brilliantly clear picture of James Joyce at the age of forty-six. Two rings are clearly visible on his fingers. Inside the cover of the book the name Nora Lee has been written in ballpoint. My mother’s mother had exactly that name but she owned no books. Towards the end of the book I found a photograph of a place called Stonington, which is on an island off the coast of Maine.
• • •
Or I might finish this piece of fiction by mentioning that I have always been drawn to writers who have felt their minds threatened. When I read Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce in 1960 I studied carefully the account of his daughter’s madness. I wondered whether Joyce could follow, as he claimed he could, the swift leaps in her thought.
One night in October 1960 I was drinking in the house of a man who boasted that he was welcome in the houses of famous artists in the hills north-east of Melbourne. Late in the evening, when the man and I were both very drunk, he drove me in his station wagon (it was the company car that he drove as a sales representative) first to Eltham and then along hilly back roads to the strangest building I had ever seen. I learned afterwards that the place was Montsalvat, but on that dark night in 1960 the man who took me there would only tell me it was an artists’ colony. I learned afterwards too that the man I met in the stone castle was Justus Jorgensen, but I was introduced to him only as the Artist.
The Artist would have been justified in sending us away from his front door, but he let us in and dealt with us most politely. We must have talked for an hour, but all I remember is my learning that the Artist had been in Paris in the 1920s; my asking had he ever seen James Joyce; his telling me that he had; my asking had he ever seen Joyce’s daughter Lucia and had she seemed in any way strange; his telling me that Lucia Joyce had been a beautiful young woman with no imperfection that he had noticed.
• • •
I might have ended this piece of fiction in either of the two ways outlined above, but of course I did not. I have thrown in my lot with Waldo. If I am any sort of writer I am a Waldo writer. If what I write rests on any coherent theory it rests on those doctrines devised by starers into fogs and mutterers of names of islands on the wrong side of their country.
And so, trusting utterly in the wisdom of Waldo, and noting that the sun is at the point of sinking below the faint purple-brown blur which is the northern suburbs of Melbourne as seen from an artist’s stone house far to the east of my own home, I end, or I prepare to end, this piece of fiction.
• • •
All the fiction I have written in the stone house has been an encoded message for a certain woman. In order to send this message I have had to imagine a world in which the woman does not exist and neither do I. I have had to imagine a world in which the pronoun T stands for the sort of man who could imagine a world in which he does not exist and only a man steeped in the theories of Waldo could imagine him.