‘In the Class Struggle, Better Red than Wed ‘Widdershins’ by Jack Bealey

8 Apr

Widdershins by Jack Beasley Wedgetail Press 1986. First appeared in the Times on Sunday (formerly The National Times) in 1986.

widdershinsJack Beasley certainly is no stranger to Australian radical fiction, having spent a lifetime involved in radical politics and in writing about its literature. Indeed his major works to date, Red Letter Days and the The Rage for Lifea study of Katherine Susannah Prichard, have attracted consider attention. The publication of Widdershins, his first major fictional work, must therefore be seen as an event of some importance.

‘Widdershins’ means to swim against the tide and, predictably, one of the novel’s central themes is the struggle of the main character, Jeff Conway, to swim against the prevailing tide of Australian conservatism. Conway is, in many ways, typical of a generation  of Australian communists and radicals. Born to a working class family in the BHP steel city of Newcastle in the early 1920s, his education takes place against the backdrop of the Depression. Returning from the war to Sydney, he quickly becomes deeply involved in the struggles of his trade union and in the day-to-day affairs of the Communist Party.

Indeed Conway’s life strangely parallels the history of the Communist Party of Australia, something which he recognises:

The party and I are more or less of an age. We both breathed what was then the clear Australian air about the beginning of decade three….as the party and I attained maturity, our two paths coincided. I joined our revolution and I signed on for the duration.

These parallels are, at times, striking. During the period from the end of World War II to midway through the 1950s when the party was at its peak, Conway’s family life was happy and secure, But as serious splits and divisions opened up in the party after the 20th Congress of the Soviet party and the Soviet intervention in Hungary, his marriage begins to fall apart. By the mid 1970s party membership is at an all time low and Conway is in hospital recovering from a serious car accident, but also showing the first signs of asbestosis.

Although Widdershins clearly fails into an Australian tradition of radical realism, Beasley attempts at times to expand the genre. In the opening sections of the novel he employs several stylistic devices, such as discontinuous narrative and stream of consciousness. He also plays with notions of time throughout the novel – dates are left deliberately vague and one only gradually becomes aware of the time gap between specific events. Beasley, however, is obviously far more at home with realism and overall these devices tend to disrupt the novel’s continuity without really adding to its impact.

One of the great strengths of Widdershins is the portrayal of the relationship between Conway and his wife Ann. Ann, also a party member, sees in their marriage new possibilities for an equal relationship. SHe soon finds, however, that despite Jeff’s best intentions, their marriage has fallen into predictable patterns. She also realises that, despite its rhetoric, the party still works to marginalise women:

Even in the party itself, do you think there’ll ever be a woman as general secretary? Not while they’re always sidetracked into work among women as we call it!”

Ann’s anger grows as she realises that far greater importance is placed on the work Jeff does organising the men at the power station where he works, than among the “work among women’ or the mundane party work she undertakes in her own branch.

Although Jeff never admits it, a clear distinction grows up between his party work and his family life, and the two increasingly take on the appearance of opposites. Either he stays at home and looks after the children or he goes to an important meeting and feels that he is accomplishing something “real”. The party eventually disciplines him when he misses a vital branch meeting  because Ann is sick and he has to look after the children. The party obviously believes that Jeff has a political duty to be at the meeting. Ann finally leaves him, realising for the first time that she was, in fact, the “strong one” in the family”.

Ann’s political consciousness was perhaps 15 years too early. Her marriage took place well before the saying “the personal is political” became a catchcry for sections of the Left and before the resurgent feminism of the sixties nd seventies began to affect the Communist Party’s attitude and structures. One of the final ironies of Widdershins is that while Jeff leaves the party because of what he sees  as “the party’s collapse into the mire of revisionism”, Ann probably would have found the Communist Party of the seventies far more flexible than the “cohesive” party of the fifties.

While Beasley may lack, in the final instance, much of the sophistication of many younger writers, his novel is an honest portrait of the aspirations, achievements and shortcomings of a generation of Australian communists who lived through some of the century’s most tumultuous struggles. As such Widdershins is an important addition to the Australian radical literary tradition.


Jack Beasley’s review of Wintering by Victor Kelleher appeared in P76 Issue 6



The Pathetic Jogger David Foster ‘Hitting the Wall’ (1989)

10 Jan

Hitting the Wall by David Foster Penguin 1989. This review was first published in Australian Book Review Issue 109 April 1989.

David FosterI have often found myself feeling a little frustrated after reading a David Foster novel. While never doubting his ability as a writer, the convolutions of his narrative have, more than once, overshadowed his undeniably fine prose. His latest book Hitting the Wall, a collection of two novellas, allows us the opportunity to examine how Foster handles the more urgent needs of this much shorter form.

Hitting the Wall also allows us to see two different stages of Foster’s development as a writer. The first novella, ‘Eye of the Bull’, was written in 1986, while the second, ‘The job’, is a much earlier work having been written in 1973 and having first ap­peared in Escape to Reality in 1977. Both these novellas share similar concerns. Wilson, the central charac­ter of ‘Eye of the Bull’, is obsessed with running. In fact he spends most of the novella running, both physi­cally and emotionally. Like a true addict he believes that he can keep his addiction under control, whereas his addiction gradually overtakes him, and this will cost him his job, his health and eventually his family.

Billy, the small time crim in ‘The Job’, is unable to break out of the lifestyle which has already landed him once in gaol. Unable to enter­tain the thought of a conventional job, he lives off his wits, content for the most part to drift from one situ­ation to the next, making little effort beyond his regular nights Of safe breaking. Billy, in fact, is addicted to ‘the job’, describing how, when he was on a job, his heart would beat ‘as though I had dosed up on methedrine, attuned to the spirit of the night’.

‘The Job’ opens as Billy is released from gaol. A few hundred metres from the gates he accepts a lift from Brian in a beaten up old car. Brian soon talks Billy into taking part in a series of robberies. But as time passes with nothing to show but an amateurish attempt on the local RSL, we realise that Billy is simply a plaything for Brian — that a game is being played out that has been played out many times before. Billy himself recognises this early on when he thinks:

You tell yourself you’re learning, you’re changing, but you’re not learning and you’re not changing very much, except that you feel increasingly tired.

‘The Job’ is, in fact, built on repet­ition. Billy is befriended by Brian and when Brian disappears Billy finds himself taking his place. He begins living with Brian’s wife in Brian’s house and begins sleeping with his mistress. In the end it is the same need that Brian felt to ‘escape’ which takes Billy back to the road leading past the gaol looking for a hitchhiker just out of gaol.

Stylistically Foster has kept a tight rein over this earlier of the two novellas in Hitting the Wall. The lan­guage, at times, seems a little forced and overall I felt that ‘The Job’ could indeed benefit from one final, thor­ough edit. ‘The Job’ is obviously a carefully planned work and one is always aware of Foster leading the narrative in a wide circle. Halfway through the novella it became clear that he is leading us back to the beginning. ‘Eye of the Bull’, by comparison, is much more stylistically relaxed, and this has a lot to do with the subject matter. Whereas Billy in ‘The Job’ returns to his starting point, Wilson runs virtually in a straight line from beginning to end. It may also have something to do with Foster ‘s matu­rity as a writer. The thirteen years which separate ‘The job’ from -Tye of the Bull’ have been prolific for Foster and one can perhaps argue that the smoothness of `Eye of the Bull’ is, in part, a result of Foster’s growing confidence in his own ability.

Wilson is obviously suffering from a midlife crisis. Concerned that he is in a dead end he throws in his job and moves David Foster pichis family to the country­side outside a city that is obviously Canberra. The cliched rnidlife crisis tale continues when Wilson leaves his wife and family for a much younger woman. While ‘Eye of the Bull’ could easily have become a for­mula story of an ageing man at­tempting to rediscover his youth, Foster has tackled the subject with sensitivity and originality. The end­lessly jogging Wilson still emerges from the novella as a pathetic char­acter but his pathos is edged with a hint of tragic heroism.

Foster has always attempted to inject an element of humour into his work. While this humour has some­times sat quite awkwardly in novels such as Plumbum, in ‘Eye of the Bull’ the humour grows naturally out of a situation without becoming obtru­sive.

While highlighting some of his re­curring concerns, the two novellas in Hitting the Wall, also provide us with an opportunity to examine how Foster has developed as a writer over the last decade or so. The ‘achieve­ment of `Eye of the Bull’ suggests that Foster is at his best when he dis­tances himself slightly from the text and works with a relatively uncom­plicated narrative. It will be interest­ing to see whether Foster will con­tinue this approach in his next novel.

A Film and Video Showcase: Shooting Gallery: A Group Show Featuring Film and Video Projects (1986)

10 Jul

Shooting Gallery: a group show featuring film and video projects, funded by the Australian Film Commission (AFC) and exhibited in association with the Australian Film Institute. It screened at the Chauvel Cinema Sydney and  the  Brisbane Centre Cinema. It also screened in Hobart, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide. Review first Published in Tribune (Issue 2417), April 2 1986.

The late Lance Curtis in ‘The man You Know’ by Steven Jacobs. The film deals with a complex range of social and political questions and satirises the peculiar combination in Australian politics of “conservatism, apathy, the profit motive and rampant pragmatism.

The demise of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative has left a large gap in the distribution of independent films and video in Australia. But while, in the long term, there are still many obstacles to the establishment of an effective independent distribution service, for the present the Australian Film Institute (AFI) has come to the rescue with Shooting Gallery.

Shooting Gallery brings together a wide range of films and videos which have been produced with the assistance of the Creative Development, No Frills, and Women’s Film Funds of the AFC. The films are organised into nine programs which will be screened across Australia over the next few months. The films range from professional, mainstream oriented documentaries to open-ended dreamlike reminders of Super 8 film festivals.

Some, such as Red Matildas, Kemira — Diary of a Strike, Song of Ceylon and Munda Nyuringu. have been screened before. But, as independent films generally receive such brief commercial seasons, another opportunity to catch up on those you may have missed the first time round is always welcomed.

For other films, particularly those in the “Best of No-Frills Fund”, Shooting Gallery may provide the general public with one of the few opportunities to see what is happening at the grassroots level of Australian filmmaking.

Program 1 of Shooting Gallery opened with Flotsam Jetsam, an energetic and colorful song clip by Lucinda Clutterbuck. Based on dancers who had been animated to bounce and flow across the screen, the two-dimensional stick figures moved with such energy you could almost see the dancers fully formed beneath. Red Matildas, by Sharon Connolly and Trevor Graham, concluded the first program. Lots of historical footage cut with modern-day interviews created an enthusiastic and informative picture of three Australian women’s involvement with socialism and anti-fascism, beginning in the depression days of the early ’30s.

Punching Keys, by Sally Ingleton, is a highlight of Program 2. It is a dramatised documentary, questioning the application and side effects of modern office technologies on women VDU operators. The image was manipulated by the wonders of video technology to describe the depersonalisation and stresses of computer technology.

Among films to look forward to in later programs are Kay Self’s Portrait of Psyche, Steven Jacobs’  The Man You Know, Patricia L’Huede’s and Mark Mcleod’s Rapunzel in Suburbia, about the life and work of writer Dorothy Hewett.

At a period when the future of independent film-making is still under a cloud. Shooting Gallery is an opportunity not to be missed.

‘The Tiger in the Head’ by Robin Gurr (1990)

9 Jun

The Tiger in the Head by Robin Gurr. Jacaranda Wiley 1987. First published in SCARP No 16. May 1990

The title of Robin Gurr’s sixth collection of poetry, The Tiger in the Head, is echoed in her poem ‘The Visionary at Dawn’:

Inside the cherished

chaparral of his skull


nestles a stealthy drowsing


While the poem has, as its departure point, Rousseau’s painting ‘The Sleeping Gypsy’, there are also very deliberate and unmistakable echoes of William Blake. The most obvious refer­ence to Blake is the image of the Tiger. Compare, for example,

a tiger

stalks in emancipated bliss


flashing poems from its sulphurous eye


In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes



Inside the harsh

Saharas of his skull


a tiger

rasps into its pondered mash



What the hammer? What the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?


Gurr’s concentration on light and dark, day and night in the opening poems of the collection also recalls Blake. This dichot­omy recalls the Songs of Inno­cence and Experience and, indeed as we progress through The Tiger in the Head, we come across poems with titles like ‘Child in nature’ and ‘Three meetings: Dark, Fear and Death.

For Gurr a celebration of youthful life and naivety is fol­lowed by the realisation of death in the same way as night follows day:

The sea mouths the morning

Then spits it on the shore

The stippled shells hold warnings

that night will come once more


In these poems Gurr moves from the very strict rhythms and rhymes of a poem like ‘Shells’ to the apparent freedom of ‘The Visionary at Dawn’. Her best poems however, are those she keeps under a tight rein. The Plath like ‘The Cutting of the Wind’, with its carefully meas­ured lines which have the effect of emphasising each word, is an example of Gurr at her best:

My face is turned by blade

my mortared limbs were


cast in clay  earth locked

and burnt to strength

While the highly structured nature of Gurr’s poetry at first seems a little ‘old fashioned’ when compared with the current directions of contemporary po­etry, her obvious skill at utilising traditional forms quickly over­comes any reticence in her read­ers. She doesn’t allow the struc­ture of the poem to dictate to her, rather she uses it to mould her ideas, constantly surprising the reader with unconventional rhythms and sound patterns. Indeed Gurr’s poetry repays a careful reading.

The Tiger in the Head i s a very accomplished collection by a poet who is obviously in complete control of her genre. While the book has been handsomely pro­duced by Jacaranda Press my only complaint is that there is no listing of her five previous collec­tions. This is going to make track­ing her earlier work down diffi­cult for those many readers who may want to read more of Gurr’s work.

– Mark Roberts

Going Down Swinging still going strong (1989)

17 May

First Published in Editions Issue 2 September 1989

Going Down Swinging Issue 9, 1989

Distribution has always been a problem for small literary magazines. The eco­nomics of producing a literary magazine means that, in most cases, editors would have to pay one of the mainstream distribu­tors to take on their products. Most maga­zines, therefore, rely on direct sales to a handful of more or less sympathetic book­shops and subscribers. Even here, howev­er, things are not all they should be. Bookshops will generally take between 25% to 40% of the retail price of the magazine and, as most bookshops will only take mag­azines on a ‘sale or return’ basis, the editors only get paid for the number of issues sold (or so the theory goes). Building up a sub­scription list can be just as daunting.

Without the funds for effective publicity campaigns most magazines are forced to rely on ‘word of mouth’ and mentions or free ads in other magazines to attract poten­tial subscribers.

There have been various attempts to change this situation by setting up co-oper­ative based small press distribution net­works and small press publicity campaigns. But to set up such a project costs money and the funding authorities, for the most part, seem content to hand money out to a handful of magazines on an individual basis rather than to build up an  infrastructure which would help all magazines.

Recently a group of six magazines com­bined resources to produce what they call ‘The Small Press Package’. This scheme is essentially a sampler: for $21.50 you get the current issues of all six mags. Presumably, once you have a copy of all the magazines you can then decide which ones to sub­scribe to.

The six magazines on offer are Going Down Swinging ‘a prose and poetry maga­zine that publishes the writing of new, unknown, and/or young writers’; On the off beat ‘a publisher of women’s short sto­ries and a focus for continuing support of good contemporary women’s fiction’; Studio a Christian literary journal ‘publishing poems, short stories and articles from established, new and aspiring writers’; Brave New Word  ‘a publisher of contempo­rary Australian short stories and poetry, and sometimes interviews related to Australian writing and publishing’; Writing ‘a magazine coordinated by the Victorian Community Writing Committee. Writing gives preference to unpublished, or as yet unpaid writers, and to writing groups’; and The Famous Reporter ‘a short story maga­zine publishing the work of both new and established writers in a wide range of styles and themes’.

One of the most ‘established’ of these magazines is Going Down Swinging which has just published its ninth issue. It was established by Myron Lysenko and Kevin Brophy in 1980 and has produced an aver­age of one issue a year since. Like many magazines it seems to have been born out of a feeling that the existing magazines were ignoring a section of the writing and reading community. In the editorial for the ninth issue Brophy and Lysenko, along with Associate editor Nolan Tyrrel, make the point that it is through magazines like Going Down Swinging that many writers make their first contact with editors. The comment and reaction they receive can be the first steps away from keeping their work to a small circle of friends’. Going Down Swinging has therefore always had a policy of ‘reacting specifically and personally to all submissions’.

Probably as a result of this policy Going Down Swinging has become one of the more innovative magazines in Australia, consistently publishing original, interesting and non-mainstream work by new and/or unknown writers. Issue number nine is a good example of the success of this policy. The work in the issue ranges from the real­ism of Leah Nischler’s opening piece ‘Barbara Cartland does a bunk’ to the fast-moving prose in Doreen Sullivan’s ‘Johnny Fish-Face’ and the measured emotionalism of April Phillips’ (I’m sure that’s a pseudonym) ‘Cage, manger, rack’.

There is also some impressive poetry in this issue. Colleen Farrell’s seven poems stand out. Her opening lines are constantly a particular highlight, an example being the Plath like opening of Ten Tulips’:

‘Do you know the dying stages of a

tulip? I do I’m learning.’

I also liked Rosanne Musu’s descriptive poem ‘Ship building’ and Christine Lindberg’s ‘All that jazz’

It’s interesting to note that the majority of work in this issue of Going Down Swinging is by women. Their confident experimentation is in contrast to the gener­ally ‘safer’ more literary work by the male contributors.

Another strength of Going Down Swinging has always been its reviews and interviews. Over the years it has contained interviews with writers such as Peter Carey and Murray Bail. In this issue there is a very interesting interview with Adelaide writer, performer and, most recently, chil­dren’s verse writer, Jenny Boult. Boult, who has been a long-time champion of small presses paints a gloomy picture of creative writing in the late 1980s: The sixties and seventies were boom years for poetry but the late seventies and eighties have put the lid on it to a great extent… publishers .are tending to publish much more mainstream, popularist kinds of poetry rather than tak­ing risks with new people and different styles of writing.’

If you’re interested in writing outside of the mainstream then Going Down Swinging number nine will provide you with an enjoyable introduction to a range of new(ish) innovative writers. Or better still choose from a cross-section of small liter­ary magazines from the Small Press Sampler.

Going Down Swinging is published once a year and a subscription costs $10.00 for two issues from PO Box 64 Coburg, Victoria 3058. For more information on the Small Press Sampler contact Walleah Publishing, PO Box 319 Kingston, Tasmania 7051. (All six magazines cost $21.50, any five $18.50, any four $15.50, any three $12.50).*

Mark Roberts is an editor  of P76 magazine and has had wide experience in small press publishing. He will be writing a regular col­umn on small presses and magazines for Editions.


*NOTE: The contact details and prices above are now out of date.

  • Going Down Swinging is still very much in existance and can be contacted through it’s website: http://www.goingdownswinging.org.au/
  • Brave New Word is also still around – though it will fianlly end publication later this year. It can be contacted through Walleah Press  http://walleahpress.com.au/
  • Interesting to note that Walleah Press were responsible for the Small Press Pacakage.

Installing Peace – Peace and Nuclear War in the Australian Landscape. (1985)

14 May

Peace and Nuclear War in the Australian  Landscape. An installation devised and assembled by Darani Lewers, Tanya Crothers and Jan Birmingham. At the Adelaide Festival Centre Gallery March 29 – May 5 (1985), the Gryphon Gallery Melbourne June 8 – July 26 (1985). Ivan Dougherty Gallery Sydney August 17 – September 7 (1985). Previewed by Mark Roberts. First published in Tribune 2369, 27 March 1985

Darani Lewers, Tanya Crothers and Jan Birmingham (left to right) sitting on a section of the 'duck board' whihc weaves through their installation 'Peace and Nuclear War in the Australian Lanscape'. - Photo: Mark Roberts

Darani Lewers, Tanya Crothers and Jan Birmingham (left to right) sitting on a section of the ‘duck board’ which weaves through their installation ‘Peace and Nuclear War in the Australian Landscape’.

Darani Lewers, Jan Birmingham and Tanya Crothers took almost three years to create Peace and Nuclear War in the Australian Landscape. The installation was assembled in a studio situated in an old wool shed in Ultimo, but its official opening will take place in Adelaide on March 30 to coincide with the Palm Sunday Peace Rally.

Dominating the installation are a number of constructions and large hanging canvasses on the theme of peace. These canvasses are divided into two groups. The ‘bush canvasses’ affirm life by evoking natural patterns of birth, growth and regeneration, while the ‘urban canvasses’ are concerned with human cycles of rest, work and leisure. The bush canvasses represent both original, unspoilt images of the Australian countryside and the cultivated landscape of modern agriculture. Pieces of a car, cricket stumps, a goal post, a tennis racquet and a wall of torn posters for rock bands are used in the urban canvasses. The images of peace conveyed by these canvasses is not always a happy one. There is a recognition that pain and suffering can be a basic part of nature. As Jan Birmingham pointed out, “there is a possibility of perfection in nuclear war. Peace is not perfect, but it is infinitely preferable to nuclear war.”

Connecting these various images of peace is an unstable ‘duckbord’. The duckboard was designed and constructed by Frederick Chepeaux and was based on the duckboards at the bottom of trenches in World War One. It snakes its way around the canvases and past various images of war, which, although not as imposing as the peace images, covers a large section of the floor and threatens to engulf peace.

A further dimension is added by the unstable nature of the duckboard. While most of it is built on top of bricks, a number of sections are supported by large inflatable rubber tyre tubes.  When you step onto an unstable section you feel as though you are about to be ‘tipped onto the X-rays of different parts of the human body, assorted charred pieces of ‘human debris and horrific newspaper headlines about nuclear war.

There are two videos incorporated into the body of the installation. Simply titled ‘Peace’ and ‘War’ they were produced for the installation by Sally Bongers and Paul Elliot. A grant from the Music Board allowed the artists to commission a young Sydney composer, Wendy Hiscock, to write a 15 minute piece of music.

The strong emphasis on peace is intended. Jan Birmingham explained how they had begun to work with the idea of using images of war, but realised that powerful sections of the media have appropriated many of the more terrifying images of war and made them seem glamorous and exciting. So the installation now concentrates on “the concept  of making peace stronger”. What is emphasised is not the act of destruction, the mushroom cloud and missile systems, but what would be lost, the familiar images of the Australian landscape which we take for granted.

A number of related activities have been designed to take place around the installation while it is in each city. In Adelaide it will be part of a larger exhibition in the Festival Centre on the theme of Peace and War. A peace conference will also take place in the Centre featuring Dr Trapeznikov from the Soviet Union and Dr Abrahams from the USA.

In Melbourne a seminar run by the Arts and Craft Teachers Association on a proposed peace curriculum will be run in conjunction with the installation. While in Sydney a number of events, including a Conference on Positive Peace Practices and a poetry reading organised by the NSW branch of the Poets Union will take place.

It is hoped that the installation will be able to continue touring after September. But that depends on the amount of support generated over the next six months. So make an effort to get along and see it when it is in your city.

Finola Moorhead Remember the Tarantella Primavera Press 1987

23 Apr

Finola Moorhead Remember the Tarantella Primavera Press 1987. First Published in P76 Issue 5, 1991

NOTE: Remember the Tarantella rereleased in a new edition by Spinifex Press in 2011 with a new Afterword.

Finola Moorhead’s Remember the Tarantella attracted some interest when it first appeared towards the end of 1987. It was briefly reviewed in a number of the major papers and was the subject of a number of lengthier articles in a handful of journals. It did not, however, go on to be nominated for any of the major awards, or indeed attract the sort of attention that Kate Grenville’s Joan Makes History received during the bicentennial year.

The failure of Moorhead’s novel to attract major critical attention says much about the current state of publishing and criticism in Australia. Remember the Tarantella is one of the few major Australian novels of the past decade. But while the Australian publishing industry continually trumpeted its own praise while at the same time at threatening to devour itself in a frenzy of takeovers and buybacks, it was left to a Primavera Press, a relatively small publisher, to pick up and run with Remember the Tarantella. Primavera did an admirable job launching the book, and they probably did as much as they could to promote it. The fact remains, however, that for a book by a small publisher to gain the important column centimetres in the major Saturday book pages, the book has to be extraordinarily good – or the publishers have to rely on the old girl/boy networks.

The reviews that did appear seemed somewhat guarded in their response. One had the feeling that while they recognised the importance of Moorhead’s novel they also felt that there was something about it that pushed it off to one side of the mainstream.

What was it then that led to this undercurrent of ‘unease’ among ‘serious’ reviewers. The answer, I believe, can be found in the opening of Moorhead’s ‘Author’s Notes’ to Remember the Tarantella.

“Perhaps Remember the Tarantella started with Christina Stead’s challenge to me – it’s very difficult to make an interesting novel with no men in it.”

While much has been made of the ‘success’ women writers have ‘enjoyed’ in Australia over the past decade or so, there still remains a number of institutionalised barriers to certain   kinds  of  womens’ writing. The literary mainstream has long used literary genres as a tool to defend ‘literary standards’. If something can be pushed into a category such as ‘community writing’ or ‘Black writing’ then it ceases to be a threat to ‘real’ literature. It can be examined in terms of its own genre which, it is understood, is inferior to real literature. Such a response is not of course, always conscious and it would appear that it has, to an extent been part of the baggage that many   reviewers   have brought to Moorhead’s novel.   Overall,   critics in Australia have appeared reluctant to see Remember the Tarantella as part of the mainstream of Australian writing. Rather, they  have   argued, its complexity and scope  make   it   one  of  the major achievements of the women’s writing movement in Australia. Such mariginalisation is unfortunate because,  by marginalising some of the more dynamic forms of contemporary writing, these critics eventually marginalise literature itself.

Remember the Tarantella is a great, swirling novel. Like the dance from which it takes its name it seems, at first, to be out of control rushing back and forth, spinning wildly, even somersaulting. But all these movements are part of an overall pattern, the steps of the dance, and in the same way that the movement of a dance may be unintelligible if you are in the midst of it, Remember the Tarantella demands  that you step back and ponder the structure of the dance/novel.

Moorhead hints at one pattern in her ‘Author’s notes’. Besides men in fiction Moorhead also discussed mathematics with Stead and as a result there is the “daring to make a novel out of geometry”. In fact according to the author, the first draft “was a series of diagrams and nouns. No sentences”. This geometry provides the novel with its structural depth, it also sets up an almost unconscious rhythm to the narrative. The novel concludes with a highly structured dance which brings together a number of structural features of the novel. The 26 women in the dance are identified by letters of the alphabet. There are also  26 major characters in the novel – from Arachane through to Zono. The dance itself is highly structured. It forms geometric shapes which dissolve and reform. One feels that there are many years of research in front academics in relating the structure of this final dance to the overall structure of the novel.

There are also other structural elements running through the novel. The alphabet is obviously central to the work , as is numerology and astrology. There is also an international network of women which provides numerous anchoring points for the narrative. Each woman in the novel affects every other woman in the novel. The result is that Remember the Tarantella becomes a highly structured network of crisscrossing webs.

In the end we are left with what Moorhead has called ‘everywoman’ – the 26 different women, different aspects of the ‘everywoman’, united in their network yet often contradictory, even hostile. This web or network, is the dance, the tarantella the collective memory that can only be realised by bringing the 26 women together in the final dance.

But while the structure of Remember the Tarantella is no doubt challenging, its strength lies in the number of ways in which the novel can be read. While it is easy to become overwhelmed by the swirling structure – caught in the web if you like – it is also possible to read Moorhead’s novel as a vivid representation of the lifestyle of 26 different women during the early eighties.

Moorhead’s novel then, is a major achievement by anyone’s standards. Its expansive scope and its complex yet intricate structure sets it apart from much of the more mundane mainstream literary activity in Australia during the late eighties. It is to be hoped that the next few years will see it receive the recognition it deserves – both in Australia and overseas.

– Mark Roberts


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