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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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