Today is a National public holiday in Australia, the 26th of January being “Australia Day”, the date marking the arrival of the first fleet into New South Wales and the raising of the British flag at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip. For the indigenous people of this country it is a controversial date, for obvious reasons, and linking the nation to an event in New South Wales as well as to our convict past have also been mooted as reasons to change the date. My blog is dedicated to literature though so I won’t debate the merits of the date here, I’ll simply dedicate this week to Australian books.
The Stella Prize is an annual literary award first established in 2013 for Australian women writers across all genres and gives a $50,000 prize each year. It is named after author Miles Franklin, whose full name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. On 9 February 2016 the longlist for the 2016 Stella Prize will be announced, one of the guest presenters being 2015 Stella Prize winner Emily Bitto.
Melbourne has a very rich art history, and the scene in the 1930’s is described by “Hels” at melbourneblogger.blogspot.com
When Robert Menzies (later Prime Minister) proposed the formation of an Australian Academy of Art, Melbourne modernists were concerned that their departure from conventional artistic practice would be marginalised. Their fears seemed confirmed when Menzies opened the Victorian Artists' Society show in April 1937 and singled out for attack a wall of modernist paintings. A debate ensued in the press: Adrian Lawlor compiled the resulting copy in a booklet entitled Arquebus. Leaders of the modernist group, including Lawlor and George Bell, formed the Contemporary Art Society 1938.
Herbert Vere Evatt M.P (later Leader of the Labour Party) became involved as an approving observer and occasional public advocate. At an exhibition opening in June 1937 Evatt urged Australian galleries to show more modern paintings. He drew a strong rejoinder from James MacDonald, a cultural conservative who had served as art director in New South Wales before moving to the National Gallery of Victoria; “Australian art galleries simply did not like modern art, and it should not be hung in public at all”, said MacDonald
The novel “The Strays” set in 1930’s Melbourne and more specifically the art scene dabbles into these themes and the politics of “modern” art at the time. From the Prologue we know that our narrator, Lily, and Eva have not seen each other for thirty years, at some stage their relationship had broken down, there was the death and prior to the breakdown the two had a very strong bond. Eva is the daughter of a famous Australian artist Evan Trentham. The novel then moves to Part 1 “The Switchgate” and 1930, where Lily and Eva first meet at primary school and we then learn of their blossoming relationship;
What drew Eva and me together was our shared sense of imagination. Hers were formed form rich materials, mine from poor; hers developed over endless hours in the exotic garden kingdom she inhabited with her sisters, mine over hours alone. But the end result was the same, and each recognised it in the other.
Readers of Elena Ferrente’s Neapolitan Novels will find a very similar relationship here between Eva and Lily, one with a dominant partner;
There is no intimacy as great as that between young girls. Even between lovers, who cross boundaries we are accustomed to thinking of as the furthest territories of closeness, there is a constant awareness of separateness, the wonder at the fact that the loved one is distinct, whole, with a past and a mind housed behind the eyes we gaze into that exist, inviolate, without us. It is the lack of such wonder that reveals the depth of intimacy in that first chaste trial marriage between girls.
Chaste, and yet fiercely physical. Eva and I were draped constantly about each other’s bodies. We brushed one another’s hair. We sniffed each other’s armpits and open mouths and nodded if they were free from staleness and sweat. We lay about the garden, one head on the other’s stomach. We became blood sisters, pricking our fingers solemnly with a pearl-ended hat pin and pressing the red seed pearls of blood that sprang out of the dainty wounds against each other, grinding them together to that the mingled blood would squeeze back in to the tight-walled body and we would be part, each, of the other. We lay on the sun bed after school and took turns at tickling one another’s arms, running our fingertips as lightly as possible over the skin so that goosebumps rose up and a delicious shiver ran down the arm and along the spine.
Very much like Lila in Ferrente’s works we have Eva setting the agenda, even though there is the influence of the art movement parents. The art commune and bohemian lifestyle all comes to life with Bitto’s clear prose, the 1930’s art scene in Melbourne as clear as if I was reading a history of the modern school at the time. Through the junior years we move to a coming of age story, from childhood to adulthood:
She’s leaving me behind, I thought. I felt tricked. With Eva, I had given no thought to the world of adulthood that awaited us. But she had crossed some secret threshold while I was facing the other way, absorbed still by the childish fantasies she had cultivated for us: our talk of travelling the world together; of having a salon in Paris or on the Riviera, where all the famous writers and artists were; of becoming artists ourselves, marrying exotic European strangers and always living close to one another; of how, when our husbands died, we would move together into a great crumbling mansion and be visited by amazing people from around the world. Now, I saw so clearly that all of that had been a silly game. She had a lover, presumably, while I did not even truly know what this vague and glamourous term entailed. She had become a woman, with no thought to warn me that I should be packing away my own childhood, dismantling it piece by piece like a rotten tree house, and preparing myself for the new world.
Whilst a novel with a “mystery”, the death revealed in the prologue, this work is primarily about female relationships, single girls, relationships with their own mother and other’s mothers, motherhood and the female bond that entails. A book that works on a number of levels and a fine addition to the Dublin Literary Award longlist. As a debut novel I look forward to reading more of Emily Bitto’s works in coming years and am looking forward to hearing her speak in a couple of weeks at the 2016 Stella Prize Longlist announcement – I am hoping that there is at least one indigenous work on the list, fingers crossed.