THE DEEPEST ENCHANTMENT: an interview with Alan Gould
Alan Gould is one of those rare – and utterly intriguing – literary beasts: an accomplished poet and an accomplished novelist. His latest novel, The Lakewoman, was short-listed for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award (fiction) 2010. It’s an extraordinary book, and in this humble scribe’s opinion it deserves all the praise that come its way.
Now a long-term Canberra resident, Alan was born in London in 1949 of English-Icelandic parents, and lived on armed forces camps in England, Northern Ireland, Germany and Singapore before corning to Australia in 1966. He has an arts degree from The Australian National University, a Diploma of Education from what’s now the University of Canberra, and has had various jobs, including nuclear physics technician.
Since 1973 he has written poetry and prose as full-time as resources have allowed, augmenting his income with literary journalism and relief teaching. He has held several fellowships from The Australia Council, and has been a writer-in-residence at the Australian National University (1978), the Geelong College (1978, 1980, 1982, 1985), Australian Defence Forces Academy (1986), amongst others.
Alan has published 20 books, seven fiction titles, twelve poetry titles, and one collection of essays (I’m exhausted just thinking about it). His literary awards include NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry 1981 (for Astral Sea), Angus And Robertson Fellowship 1983 and Foundation For Australian Literary Studies Best Book Of The Year, 1985 (for The Man Who Stayed Below), National Book Council Banjo Award for Fiction 1992 (for To The Burning City), TDK Audio Book Of The Year 1998 (for The Tazyrik Year), The Philip Hodgins Memorial Award 1999, Co-winner Courier Mail Book Of The Year 2000, and co-winner ACT Book Of The Year 2000 (for The Schoonermaster’s Dance), The Grace Leven Award 2006 (for The Past Completes Me – Selected Poems 1973-2003), short-listing for The Prime Minister’s Fiction Award 2010 (for The Lakewoman). What on earth makes this man tick? Stay with me – this will be a mind-expanding ride. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
Congratulations on The Lakewoman – it’s a wonderful read, and clearly the judges of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award thought so as well. An Australian soldier parachutes into German-occupied France during World War Two only to be rescued by a mysterious woman who emerges from the flooded battle-fields. What was the inspiration for this novel?
Thank you, Nigel. Lakewoman began in that cellular way most of my novels start life, where disparate and fragile scraps attract each other under the compulsion that I intend another book.
In this case, one element was a memory I had of a British television play I saw about 1961. A Naval officer walks the foggy streets of wartime London and is called by a woman he is certain he does not know for all that he finds himself familiar with the interior of her house. I recollect nothing of the further plot, but what knocked about my memory for forty-five years was an over-voice saying ‘This is a story set in war but not about war.’
Now I find a strange tension in this, a story immersed in an era of great turbulence, yet unaffected by that turmoil, as though by spell. At odd times in both my poems and my fiction I have been interested in the idea of enchantment. You will know Hoffmannsthal’s saying, ‘Where is yourself to be found? Always in the deepest enchantment you have experienced.’ Well, I wanted to see where that strange leftover quote from the TV play led me, and the Airborne assault at Normandy in 1944 seemed to offer itself, for it is a peculiar thing to drop out of the air into war is it not. Moreover, the flooding of the lands on either flank of the D-Day landing zones allowed me to remove Alec from his previous life in a form of rebirth by water and place him in an environment made strange by the inundation and the night.
Viva was waiting for me when Alec put his head above water because I had used the figure of La Dame du Lac in a previous novel, The Tazyrik Year, (1998) where my Viv in that novel is a figure who takes a young man from his familiar existence to an experience and its consequences that estrange him from himself. Both this Viv and Lakewoman’s Viva are aspects of the Arthurian Viviane, and I call the story a ‘romance’ in that Arthurian idea of a person estranged from his familiar life to enter an enchantment where his consciousness of the particularity of experience is made more acute.
As for Alec, I wanted an Australian from a certain pastoral and educational background, and in looking for this I found the voice of the poet David Campbell speaking in my head. I knew David in the last years of his life, felt his early death was unfair, and so he began as my model. I think Alec turns very much into his own person – that is the way with a character – but whenever I wanted to know how he might phrase a thing, I thought of how DC might have construed it.
But your word ‘inspired’ Nigel, suggests a moment of connections, whereas it is more a process of watching protozoa drift together and then trying to arrange this in favour of meaning.
You say, ‘’Inspired’ suggests a moment of connections, whereas it is more a process of watching protozoa drift together and then trying to arrange this in favour of meaning’ – that’s an extraordinary way of describing the writing process. Being a poet and novelist, how are your processes similar and different in these two modes of writing? It seems to me that poetry is more about distillation, whereas long-form prose is more about expansion, though perhaps fermentation is a common feature of both.
One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that ‘…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire.’ I think this touches on your separating ‘distillation’ from… perhaps not ‘expansion’ so much as ‘encompassing’.
One curious behavioural aspect of the distinction I find in my own practice is that I cannot compose poems when I have a prose work in hand, and I cannot work at a novel if I have embarked on accumulating poems for a new collection. Whatever mind-set is required by each genre seems to blanket that required by the other and I am yet to fathom the reason for it. I do know that my poems have often been novelistic in the past – spoken by a voice that reveals character in a given place, time and context. And the prose of my novels has been described as poetic; I certainly fiddle with it until balance and nuance have the vibrancy I look for.
I was once asked to talk on this subject at The Sydney Writers’ Festival, and the conclusion I came to as to the distinction between a committal to poetry and a committal to prose, if you will allow me to be expansive, was as follows.
….The act of will (to write something) and those filaments of proto-subject matter necessarily do come together at the inception of a work, and I would hazard a guess that the psychological mechanism (between choosing poetry or prose) works something like this….
…Until I have made my act of will – ‘committed bottom to chair’ (Somerset Maugham) – I am not a writer, but a daydreamer. The will informs the daydream with an anxiety to get started, turning an idle attention to my reverie into one that is more urgently on the lookout for material. At the instant where a likely idea, image, scrap of verbal music occurs, the mind does a curious thing. It seizes upon the raw, unformed substance at the same time as it anticipates an end-result, how the thing might look, the effect on an audience it might have.
We have seen this mechanism expressed when Michaelangelo tells us that his tortile, completed sculpture is already incipient in the uncut marble, just as we have seen the cartoon of the person looking at a cow with a succulent sirloin steak sizzling in his thought bubble. The mechanism is a foreshadowing rather than a forseeing, and bears little resemblance to the actual finished poem or novel.
The critical thing is that it has occurred and linked an outset to a provisional end. This instantaneous mechanism, this foreshadowing, is of course one of humanity’s most common and ancient mental processes, by no means confined to artistic enterprises.
Now, the intuition that opts for poetry or prose in this foreshadowing does so, I believe, on the basis of this anticipated effect of the-thing-as-realised. Setting aside the particular emotional effects of a given poem or a given novel, the animus of a poem, its primordial intent, is, I take it, to create a trance that isolates a reader/hearer within the world created by the poem for the duration of the poem.
The primordial interest of the novel, by contrast, is in creating a trance that makes of the reader a link between the world within the novel and the one that is larger than the novel. ‘Only connect,’ E.M.Forster advises the novelist. So the trance of a poem orients the reader toward the immediacy of music; this is now and now and now. The trance of the novel points the reader toward the continuity and scale of history; this is… and then, and then, and then. In my opinion no effective fiction can ever quite rid itself of the ur-proposition, ‘Once upon a time…’
Nigel, your question has prompted me to quote copiously in answer, whether Woolf, Forster or Gould. This is because it impinges upon two mysteries that frequently lodge themselves within the single composing mind; how does truth work in a poem, and how in a prose fiction? There may be an intriguing study, comparing the nature of imagination in writers like Lawrence, Graves whose expressive powers overflowed into both arts, and writers like, say, Wallace Stevens or Evelyn Waugh who preferred not to cross the genre borders.
I love the idea of poetry as a trance of isolation. But I am completely blown away by this: ‘The trance of the novel points the reader toward the continuity and scale of history; this is… and then, and then, and then. In my opinion no effective fiction can ever quite rid itself of the ur-proposition, ‘Once upon a time…’ Speaking of once upon a time, you deliberately labelled The Lakewoman as a ‘romance’. In some ways it’s such an old-fashioned term, but, perhaps because of our more cynical times, it’s also delightfully beguiling. Why have you used this particular label?
Ah! I choose the word ‘romance’ to describe The Lakewoman as reflexively as I might choose the word ‘avian’ to describe a crested pigeon. It is a taxonomic term; a set of kindred works of literary imagination are invoked by it. Most particularly in the case of my novel, I had the Arthurian romances in mind, the anonymous poem, Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, for instance, where the landscape through which Gawain passes on his quest is redolent of the Normandy landscape into which Alec finds he has fallen on June 6 ’44. I also had Shakespeare’s romances in mind – The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and so on. The term romance gives The Lakewoman its family and alerts readers to the generic properties they might expect to find in the story.
I take these properties to be essentially of a psychological kind. Typically, what a romance does is take a hero (or more rarely a heroine) and estranges him from his familiar experience by enchantment in order to bring him to a recognition of the strangeness of experience itself. This is what happens to Alec. He does not so much drop into war as fall, curiously unscathed, through the middle of it. On that night, and for the rest of his life, he is profoundly moved by Viva – La Dame Du Lac – and at the same time as he is moved, he is watching what happens to his sense of his own being, bewildered by it, but honouring it as the thing presented to him by life.
In composing the story I wanted to establish these conditions of enchantment while observing as finely as I could the psychological necessity of each of the people. So Bell and Sgt Ferris are foils to Alec, as up-front and practical as he is contemplative and dreamy. Viva was to have her own necessity impelled by The Occupation and the particular tensions this brought to her life. The tumult of the actual historical event, the D-Day landings was to give highlight to the small cell of enchantment in that attic room and the tension between historical time and enchanted time, just as the flooded countryside and house had a real aspect – the flooding was a German military strategy – and an unreality in how it defamiliarised landscape and house. The model I had in mind for these scenes in the story was dream, the way in which the dreaming self will seem beleaguered by frenzied activity and strangeness at the edge of his consideration. This frenzy is the status of the tracer bullets, the Panzer engines, the bombardment, ambush and so on.
You call our times ‘cynical’ above, and this may be true, though I would observe that the magic element within the old idea of romance has been converted to ‘magic realism’ in literary works. While novels of ‘magic realism’ like The Life Of Pi have charmed me from time to time, I preferred the older generic term Romance because I wanted the entire fabric of my story to dance on that friable edge between the historical and the enchanted. So I hope that the telepathy, the coincidence, that are vital to the narrative, give a sense both of surprise and being underpinned by plausibility, psychological or otherwise. My disaffection with some magic realism is that it brings the arbitrary to a story. A well-found romance will reconcile the arbitrary with a story, will show how the enchantment has its home in the historical.
I should say that, when I am writing a novel, I need two things to become clear before I feel secure about the enterprise. The first is an idea as to what the moral crux of the story is going to be – that the behaviour I depict matters. The second is a notion of where lies its mythic underpinning. All my fictions have had this echolalia in myth in various ways, whether the Baldur story from Norse myth in my first novel, The Man Who Stayed Below (1984), Aeneas’ rescue of his father from burning Troy in To The Burning City (1991) or my reversal of the Eurydice story in The Schoonermaster’s Dance (2000).
So, where to from here? Can you see no end to writing?
I have completed a picaresque novel titled The Poets’ Stairwell and hope a publisher will allow this to become my next contribution to readers. The story tells of two young Australian poets on the road in different parts of the world, looking for their respective muses. The picaresque allowed me to discover how I might fare with comedy, for the work is conceived as an elegiac comedy, as well as an exploration of an odd friendship and the growth of poetic mind and temperament in two individuals.
Now I would like to return to composing poems, songs for preference.
Can I see an end to writing? O yes, for two reasons. Most immediately I have lived off savings for the past year and will need to find a source of income short of the looming Wall. This, in my present circumstances, is unlikely to be further literary patronage, so service to some paid employment will distract me from my real job. Secondly, I hope I will have the wit and courage to stop writing if I detect the things I make have become merely talkative.