No country for young men: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

The reflective, circular “report” that occupies the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s latest, and if he can be believed, last, novel is presented as an account “of actual events and no sort of work of fiction.” This clarification, coming in the midst of an extended extrapolation of possible impossibilities, anticipates the skeptic:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

Of course, in Murnane’s mental terrain the line between fiction and events actually experienced is a slippery one, but Border Districts reads like a meditation on a lifetime of traversing imaginary landscapes as a reader and writer famously adverse to physically travelling beyond the confines of his home state of Victoria, refracted through a playfully multi-toned meta-fictional prism. This is a novel about perception and memory, and the degree to which we can ever hope to grasp the contents of our own minds. More critically it’s about the way our experiences and our experiences of our experiences are inflated or telescoped with the passage of time.

The narrator of Border Districts has relocated from a capitol city to a small town near the state border, echoing a similar move made by Murnane a number of years ago. He has not entirely shunned the city, he makes several return trips to visit friends and family, but his stated goal in moving to this remote place is to spend his last years focusing on the images, emotions and words that have stayed with him over time, “guarding” his eyes, as he puts it, so that “I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision.” Anticipating the essential, fragmentary quality of this mental inventory he embarks on a meticulous effort, paragraph by paragraph, to trace the connections from one recollection or set of recollections to another.

The result is a digressive internalized odyssey. Perspective shifts from first to third person for a time as the book-hungry boy approaches the remembering man. Uncertain boundaries exist between recalled events and the fiction writer (and reader)’s inclination to wander off on paths not taken, to imagine what might have been, sketch out potential storylines, flesh out characters that could have existed, and step out from the shadows of possible unlived trajectories to anticipate a meeting of minds on the open plains of a mental landscape. Idiosyncratic sideways cognitive processing is acknowledged, examined, and entertained. But the challenge with exploring the way our minds work is that we can never clear the workspace, step back from the stage. We are always in our own way.

There are a number of key motifs or pivot points to which the narrator returns as he attempts to maintain order and control of his own report. Lines of thought that keep circling back and merging. Readers familiar with Murnane will recognize the elements of the rural Australian landscape, the fondness for horse-racing, and a certain literary cynicism. Houses with return verandas hold a peculiar affection. But the key image that recurs is one of coloured glass—from the windows of the unassuming church in his adopted hometown, to observations about stained glass, to a treasured marble collection—and the difficulty of accurately perceiving the shade and details therein. Just like our memories, in our mental images, appearances are mutable. Light is the key because:

. . . a coloured pane better reveals itself to a viewer on its darker side, so to call it; that the colours and designs in glass windows are truly apparent only to an observer shut off from what most of us would consider true light—the light best able to do away with mystery and uncertainty. The paradox, if such it is, can be otherwise expressed: anyone observing the true appearance of a coloured window is unable, for the time being, to observe through the window any more than a falsification of the so-called everyday world.

Yet knowing this limitation does not diminish the narrator’s natural inclination to want to penetrate the opaque surface of the window, to truly see the nature of the glass itself. He even attempts to capture, on film, the coloured windows of a friend’s house. When he retrieves the processed images and brings them home, he realizes that the image-panes are less colourful than they were when he photographed them. Was this a function of his modest photographic skills or further evidence of the unreliability of memory? Perhaps. But the explanation he chooses to endorse, is that the qualities he perceives as lacking are not inherent to the glass, but rather unique to himself:

. . . what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass. And if I could give credence to such an eccentric theory, then I might go further and assert that I saw in the glass part of the private spectrum that my eyes diffused from my own light as it travelled outwards: a refraction of my own essence, perhaps.

As he makes his way through a range of remembered images, experiences, and feelings, obscured with the patina of time, he is interested in what details he does recall. What he has forgotten, if it does not resurface on its own by association, is of no regard. He is keenly aware of his age and fascinated by the memories that have persisted, with a measure of intensity, for thirty, forty, sixty years. The narrator’s associations and meanderings are unique to him, but they reflect our own idiosyncratic mind loops—those layered networks of connections constructed through exposure to art, literature, landscape, life experience—which increase in depth but become more firmly attached to our specific pivot points or mental signposts, as we get older.

I have come to this book midway through my sixth decade (as frightening as that sounds), younger than Murnane and his alter-ego, but close enough. I come to it as a writer interested in capturing his perceived experience, rather than biographical detail, and inclined to believe that we only have the ability to know what we think we know, a through-the-coloured-glass perspective at best. Border Districts is an older writer’s reverie. It dips back to childhood and adolescence, marriage and parenthood, and spins off into realm of possible lives unlived. There is something to greet a reader at any point in life, but I wonder what my twenty-eight-year-old self might have found. What I do know is that this novel entertains the kind of questions about memory—about the feelings, colours, and images that linger ever “on the edges of my range of vision”—that occupy me more and more with each passing year.

 Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Publishing in Australia. It is now available in North America through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

A delicate madness: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne d’Arc has been the subject of countless historical, literary and dramatic accounts, and it is likely that, at least in the western world, everyone has some image they associate most readily with the famed young woman who donned men’s clothing and led the army of France to a series of decisive victories against the English during the Middle Ages. The rough outline of her story is so ubiquitous in our culture that it is likely difficult to recall one’s first encounter. But I certainly remember my most intense moment of identification with the Maid. It was late May, just over twenty years ago. I was, at the time, at the height of an episode of psychotic mania that would lead to a bipolar diagnosis and, ultimately, to an understanding of the deep gender discomfort I had felt for as long as I could remember. At the time however, I was a mess. Female-born and married with two children, my ex and I had endured a few years of destructive soul searching on my part. My madness, complete with visions, was just one more thing we tried to survive in the desperate hope that it would all pass. In my experience I’d seen drag queens and butch lesbians but no one I identified with. Until May 30, when I suddenly realized—and to this day I don’t remember how or why I knew it—that it was the feast day of Joan of Arc. In this convergence I saw a message. I saw myself. In the state I was in, the timing was fortuitous and seemingly miraculous. In the end, the ultimate moment of self-understanding was still a number of months ahead, but I will ever think of Jeanne’s appearance on my journey toward belated manhood with a mixture of embarrassment and wonder.

When I first heard of the premise around which The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc , the recent novel from Australian author, Ali Alizadeh is constructed, I was skeptical. It triggered my frustration that, looking back in history, cross-dressing women are typically conflated with lesbians or “straight” transmale identities, in these days of heightened trans awareness. However, it’s not always accurate, historically or today. But that is another matter. My initial negative reaction quickly turned to curiosity the more I heard about the unusual, innovative approach taken in this account of a life that has been celebrated, and excoriated, in so many well-known renditions over the past six centuries.

For Alizadeh, who was born in Iran and emigrated to Australia in his teens, the fascination with Jeanne d’Arc is long standing. It goes back to his childhood years.  His enigmatic heroine was the subject of an epic poem he wrote for his PhD and it is this background—a comprehensive understanding of the historical material combined with the spare elegiac prose of a poet—that allows him to create a curious, sensitive, and deeply human portrait of a complex historical figure.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, as the title implies, is structured around the final days of Jeanne’s life. After months of brutal interrogation, she has renounced her Voices and her actions by signing a letter of abjuration. She has saved herself from a charge of heresy, torture and execution, but now she is imprisoned in a cold, damp cell beneath the Treasury Tower of Rouen Castle. Forced to remove her male attire and put on a white gown, she feels vulnerable and alone. However, it seems that there is something more weighing on her, a sense that her passion runs deeper than a divinely inspired drive to serve her King and country—something much too fragile and painful to remember.

As Jeanne’s story is fleshed out, the narrative will return repeatedly to this dim prison, and each time we will know her a little better. But, Alizadeh, a skillful storyteller, takes his time, inviting the reader to remain open to possibility. Effectively employing an inventive style that weaves together a chorus of voices and shifting perspectives, The Last Days avoids falling into the morass of detail that can drag down more conventional historical novels. Narrated primarily in the present tense, from a third person perspective, the historical context and military conflicts are presented in a spare, dated, often time-stamped, documentary style echoing nonfiction prose poetry. It is blunt and remarkably effective:

1413

In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of France…

Once Jeanne enters history and, in her first battles proves her value, the narrator gradually moves closer into her thoughts, letting the account slip back in time again, to meet our heroine as she hits adolescence. It is at this time that young Jeannette, as she is still called, has her first visionary encounters. It is also the when she begins to sense that the affection she has for her childhood girlfriend is of a somewhat different order. Before long she finds herself distanced from the other youth of her village. She is excessively pious and decidedly indifferent to the idea of dancing with boys, marrying and having babies—something her peers are well on their way toward achieving by their early teens. There is a soul wrenching loneliness in being set apart like this, by desire and, if her beloved Saint Catherine of Alexandria is to be believed, by divine destiny.

As the narrative turns to follow Jeanne’s life more directly, her Voices are allowed to speak, set apart in italics and indentation, appearing to float in the text. Jeanne’s own voice also enters, slipping in periodically either to comment on or clarify the account, or to address another, a “you” who remains, for a time, unnamed as in this passage, just prior to her first encounter with her Voices, where perspective and tense shifts several times:

She has never been caught in such a terrible storm and there is so much pain in her skinny body. I struggled to stand back up. The whole world flared up in the lashes of blinding lightning. The rain immersed my being. She is kneeling, paralysed by the mud. My tears merged with the rainfall. (Did I tell you, my love, how exactly it happened?) The thunder strikes harder and the rain is now a flood and it is in this cascade—why do historians insist it was a sunny day?—amid the fruits and plants being washed away by the storm that Jeanette clenches her fists. It is then that she howls back at the unforgiving sky. She rips off her scarf.

O God O angels O Saint Catherine.

Are you there?

Are you there?

 Allowing room for Jeanne’s voice to reflect back on her experience deepens the intimacy of the present tense narrative. This polyphonic quality will become more pronounced as other emphatic voices interrupt with curses and threats as the story progresses toward its inevitable and unfortunate end.

The portrait of Jeanne d’Arc that emerges over the course of this novel is one of a mix of vulnerability and determination. We see a young woman torn between her convictions and her doubts, conflicted by her desires, and isolated from others by gender, lack of education, and the unconventional role she plays. She is never entirely free from concern about the reality of her Voices and her own sanity, especially when her entreaties meet silence. And, while she becomes hardened to the violence and gore of the battlefield, she grows increasingly distracted by her love for another woman and all of the complex emotions that such a forbidden affection arouses. What comes across is a certain naivety. She is, after all, young (only nineteen at her death) and has, in a sense, been protected from the kind of demands of life that would have hardened and matured her peers who married early. So although she becomes an experienced soldier and commander of men, her romantic love affair has an idealized, almost adolescent intensity that betrays her youth.

Alizadeh does not offer this speculative image of Jeanne d’Arc as a lesbian woman lightly. He knows the relevant documentary material exceptionally well and is aware not only of the limitations but of the spaces where possibility resides. His narrator respects his heroine, balances the historical account with the personal, and situates his chronicle to the contemporary reader. His Jeanne is a medieval heroine for a modern imagination, his novel is an absorbing, lightly experimental, and human re-imagining of the life and death of a young woman who has never ceased to be the source of inspiration and intrigue.

As I can attest.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh is published by Giramondo.