A portrait of Anthony Uhlmann

BEYOND THE FICTIONAL FRAME: an interview with Anthony Uhlmann

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

Interviewer: Anthony Macris

In his role as Professor of literature and creative writing at Western Sydney University, Anthony Uhlmann has spent much of his career writing about the connection between literature and philosophy. He has an international reputation as an expert on the works of Samuel Beckett, and has also written extensively on Joyce, Woolf and Nabokov. His academic work is characterised by a vitality of thought and understanding of aesthetics that informs his artistic sensibilities. Taken as a whole, his fiction and literary criticism form one of the most compelling bodies of work in the current Australian literary scene. 

Uhlmann’s recently published debut novel, Saint Antony in his Desert (UWAP), has already made its mark, with positive reviews in The AustralianAustralian Book Review, and The Saturday Paper, which noted that ‘his historical imagination is nothing short of superb’. It is a richly layered novel of ideas that interweaves the Sydney alternative music scene of the 1980s with the famous Einstein/Bergson debates of the 1920s. The book’s success demonstrates that fiction aspiring to prompt deep thinking about art, culture and philosophy, is still very much in demand. Yet, for all its intellectual ambitions, the novel is both humorous and entertaining. I caught up with Uhlmann recently to discuss Saint Antony in His Desert.  


J.M. Coetzee’s recommendation on the cover of your novel describes it as ‘an ambitious novel of ideas set against a phantasmagoric Sydney’. It’s an apt description. Can you expand on how St Antony in his Desert is a novel of ideas, and what drew you to writing that kind of book?


I have two kinds of interest: finding meaning, and trying to find a way of explaining what ‘meaning’ is. I think everyone has the first interest, but many can’t see the point in the second. So, it comes down to disposition.

Once that is in place the kind of book you want to write will make itself known to you. When I grew up there was a moment of ‘fuck dance, let’s art’, in post punk music. It was also a moment when American directors like Scorsese, Coppola, and Bogdanovic were making challenging, arty movies, and a whole host of international directors like Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, Cavani, the fag end of Antonioni, were making high art movies that you could see in your local art or repertory cinema, like the Boulevard Blue in Canberra. And if people read books at all, they were reading Camus, Sartre, Woolf, Lessing, Borges, Kafka and high modernist poets. There was an audience and a hunger for ideas. Perhaps because of a cultural moment, I got hooked on certain kinds of books. I started reading Ulysses before I went to University and that wasn’t considered particularly odd of me, at least among the people I was hanging out with. I remember discussing it with an Irish woman I met who used to post letters in the post office I worked in in Mascot, where I was sleepwalking through my first years out of school.

So I had that disposition, and I was given that ‘taste’. What hooked me on Ulysses, for example, was how it seemed possible to write something that offered the outlines of the souls of people and places. It ruined me a little for less ambitious kinds of writing. I always want that hit, when I read, something that cuts through surfaces.

Now all of that is a bit unfashionable, though a niche remains. At university, I then became interested in the mechanisms behind what makes things mean. So, I wanted to write, but if I were to write I had to write a certain kind of book, with a certain level of complexity. That became a problem for me, it left me spinning my wheels for quite a few years. At least I think, in the last ten years, I found a way of drawing together my interest in thinking conceptually with my desire to write sensations. That’s in part because I started to move my literary critical work over to trying to understand process and how writers achieve effects and get people to feel. That started with the second book on Samuel Beckett, where I looked at how he took images from philosophy and put them in his works, and my third book which looked at processes of composition, relation and sensation in Woolf, Nabokov, and Joyce. I was able to learn lessons of process and method and apply them to the images that were haunting me.


I’d like to look a little more at the phantasmagoric dimension. The book is set in the inner-city of Sydney of the early 1980s, and covers one night in the life of a group of young university students as they make their way to a gig given by an alt band. You do a wonderful job of evoking that time and place, but you also transform it into something larger than life, something transcendent. Could you explain why you’ve rendered this time and place in this way?


I read someone, I forget who, arguing that lots of writers set their works in a time and place, or at least an atmosphere, that corresponds with their early adulthood. That is when you first open your eyes, when you are not a child anymore being carried around by your parents and teachers and engaging with their world. That is the time that the world first becomes yours, something you enter into, something you can engage with. I guess it goes back to that idea of meaning. My intuition is that when you are a young adult things just glow with significance; the world surrounds you with this radiation of sense. This is not a feeling that lasts a long time. I realised it must have ended for me when I finally saved enough money to travel overseas in the late 1980s. By then I was already in my mid 20s and I remember feeling again wonder and awe when I got to a new country, when I walked in a new city, San Francisco, the city of the City Lights bookstore. It made me realise I no longer felt that at home.

Sydney overwhelmed me when I made my way up, a big child, right out of a closeted all boys school in Canberra, on my own for the first time. I would say that the feeling of transcendence you mention was something I remembered. I remembered the feeling quite clearly, even as certain details faded; the feeling of the place I was in, and the people I met, and the situations I encountered simply pulsating with life, with significance, with wonder, remained. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling those things. My guess is it is pretty common. Hopefully, at least. I’m not sure how much the particular circumstances added to that feeling. I was so young, so utterly naïve, away from my parents, meeting new people who accepted me but who also seemed so much cooler than I was, being in a place and time which was so culturally vibrant and interesting, maybe I was lucky about that. So much of it was time of life. In the writing, I had this feeling in mind. I was free to diverge from the purely autobiographical, I could shift things and remake things pretty freely, but the feeling was the thing I tried to remain true to. Part of the feeling was in me, but a large part was also there, in that time and place, in that particular cultural atmosphere, so I was as careful as I could to be true to the feelings it left me with.

Going back to process and how you start or get moving, I was pretty taken with Virginia Woolf and how she talks about rhythm. It starts with an image, or a wave in the mind, and the first thing you have to do is follow that rhythm, that feeling, which is already pressing itself upon you because it is important to you. Once you get that rhythm she says, you will find words to fit it, and if you really get the rhythm you can’t get the words wrong. That’s why we read aloud, after all, to see if the sentence has the right sound. Lots of writers have written about that but in some ways that is the most difficult thing to conceptualise because it involves giving yourself over to feeling rather than ideas. The rhythm I tried to give myself over to was that transcendence you mention.


The novel is layered in a very interesting way, which makes it a rich reading experience. There’s the inner-city of Sydney narrative, the Bergson/Einstein narrative, and, to a lesser degree, the priest in the desert narrative. Was constructing this kind of book a big compositional challenge?


the cover of St Antony in his DesertThe process of writing it was quite difficult. I had an idea for the main story for a long time, though I didn’t understand how I could write it. That came to me slowly. At the same time I became fascinated, in an academic way, with questions of how meaning is created, and how it is conveyed, and how important it is to people, not just in art, but in philosophy, science and elsewhere. I was trying, in my own way, to work through this in my literary critical work.

One day I was at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, where my father got up to address a crowd, who to me were a crowd of strangers. As with many people, my parents were important to me, I cared what they thought. In going through the achievements of his kids, ad-libbing, Dad let out that he hated my works of literary criticism (which I had dutifully sent to him and mum over the years). You could tell by how he said it that it was an almost visceral distaste. That hurt me. I confronted him immediately after the speech, even with strangers watching on, and asked him why he was bagging me. I went away to lick my wounds. My father was self-educated in many ways but he was very smart. I thought some of it must be my fault. I knew he had a strong interest in science, but his interest in philosophy was minimal, and much of what he disliked in my criticism was how I tried to mix philosophy with literature, and focused on ‘hard’ writers. I wanted to write him a kind of letter in which I could explain to him that his interests, his passion to know, was not so different to mine, if only I could make the two resonate.

About this time, I came across the story of Bergson and Einstein. I thought this was a watershed moment in Western culture, when Bergson fought with Einstein and Einstein and his crew rolled right over the top of Bergson and metaphysics as if Einstein and his crew were tanks encountering a regiment of boys and girls wielding cut-out swords. Metaphysics was discredited, when a few years before Bergson had been the most famous thinker in the Western world. I wanted to tell that story and to make it about meaning. I wanted to tell that story in such a way that my father could read it and see something of what I meant; how metaphysics remains in spite of science and the two go towards meaning in different ways. So I started writing that. It was meant to be a full book. I couldn’t finish it. I set it aside but knew it had more life in it. I did write enough to be able to send to my father in draft form before he died, and he told me he really liked it.


So how did you make your way forward with it? Was it a difficult process?


The other story had to find a way to be told, but, since the early 1990s I’d been butting up against problems in my creative writing that had stopped me writing anything worthwhile. In part, it was self-consciousness, an awkwardness in the being of the words. I looked to other models. I needed to start. I took a paragraph from Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, the first paragraph, and tried to rewrite it. It was like someone taking the intestinal flora of another, taking a shit tablet, say, to change the makeup of their gut. It sounds like a very small thing, it was the only paragraph in the work I wrote that way and it ended up not even being the first paragraph of the novel, though a version remains. Anyway, it was a major breakthrough, I had the beginnings of a voice that wasn’t telling too much or too little. I went to other models, in particular Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, which was also a model for Joyce when he wrote the nighttown episode of Ulysses, to work out a way forward, and drove on with that piece. I then edited it and re-edited it, showing it to a few people, like my brother Mark, who gave feedback that was very useful.

For a while I thought this was a stand-alone piece. Then I sent it to a reader I greatly admire, who told me he couldn’t get past chapter five. I sat with it for some more time. I began to worry that the story of the two boys coming to Sydney was too linear and also, for some readers, too particular. I thought about breaking it up in some way or reorganising it. In my parallel life I had put Bergson and Einstein’s story aside…

Part of my idea in composing the work or recomposing it by mixing elements, was that so much of what I was trying to get to, the idea of significance, of understanding, doesn’t come to us directly; rather, it is there in between things. I realised how many of the writers I like left gaps that they force you to leap over, how many of the visual artists I like, even the musicians, worked through juxtaposing things. When you put something alongside something else new potential meanings emerge, that’s some kind of principle, right? Visual artists, and my brother Paul is one, must do that a lot. I felt the two stories must resonate because I had begun both for more or less the same reason: to try and capture a feeling of sense. The Bergson Einstein story, written for my Dad, had been deliberately light on conceptual ideas, though there are still some there. I had also been working towards conceptual ideas in the narrative of the nighttown Sydney. I reorganised and interspersed.

About this time I felt I was ignoring the power of the fictional frame. This was something I’d never really written about but had begun to notice in the people I was writing about in my works of literary criticism. Once you start to think of everything within as being animated by a principle of fictitiousness, lots of things open up, things like humour, satire, distancing effects. I at last, through this process, understood why Joyce had always characterized his work as comic. This brought into being, more or less out of mysterious contact between the two texts, the character of Antony Elm, the defrocked priest in the desert.

I had, to be honest, been using the name as a kind of pseudonym while writing, as a way of tricking myself into writing fiction, by pretending I was not the one writing, that it was someone else. Again, this was a distancing effect, trying to remove those elements of the ego that stop you writing, that make you self-conscious. So it was ‘Antony Elm’ who had already composed both texts, though at first I had no character for him. The character followed naturally from the materials as a way of explaining how they were bound together.


The novel contains a romance of sorts, an underplayed one, but still a touching one. Some might argue that the novel gives us a snapshot of the masculine in a particular time and place, and for a particular sub group of young men. Were you consciously exploring issues of gender in the book?


We are all formed by what surrounds us and the matter that comprises us, and when you are young, and even later, you struggle to work out what parts of yourself are really you and what parts of you involve regurgitating like a good dummy. The relation between Friedrich and Louve is at the heart of the book’s concerns, yes. I was trying to seek out something that cut through the exchanges, some kind of purity of contact, that remains pure even with all the other noise and bullshit generated around young male identity and representations of women. Again, that is something that involves feeling rather than any worked out idea.

There are certain things, in their formation, that distinguish Friedrich and Charles: they are from a Catholic all boys school in Canberra (ie, a conservative and socially alienating centre of formation in a medium-sized town or a big country town). They are heterosexual but staggeringly naïve in affairs of the heart and totally intimidated by girls whom they either idealise or lust after with dumb intensity. They are deeply affected by the contemporary music scene which they are engaged with in Canberra, and want to engage with the much bigger scene in Sydney. They are, then, susceptible to the glamour of this scene, and in particular to vaunted entities like radiostation Two/Triple J, which is at the heart of that scene. They are star struck by people who work there.

So it is difficult to overstate how much Friedrich idolizes Louve, an older charismatic and confident woman, who is at the heart of the scenes he so admires, and who doesn’t treat him like he is nothing; who treats him, for the most part, kindly. As I’ve said, one of the starting points for the book was Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, because it too deals with a younger man idolising an older woman, though in a way my book quickly departs from Flaubert’s, at least that one by Flaubert, as I was also, as I’ve said, really interested in The Temptation of Saint Anthony. There is an enormous amount of awkwardness and naivety — to the point of comic stupidity — that I was interested in, but I was also trying to get to some of the power of the feeling, the deep feeling, and some of the quaint connection that somehow emerges between Friedrich and Louve.


So far the novel has been very well received, with positive reviews in much of the national media; that’s hard to pull off with a such a formally challenging novel in contemporary Australian writing. How do you feel about being an experimental novelist in the current publishing climate?


I’m conscious that the publishing scene is dominated by the market and ideas of the market, at least with the majors. I’m also conscious that there are a number of heroic and high quality presses across the country who remain committed to books for other than commercial reasons.

I wouldn’t characterize my work so much as ‘experimental’, since in a way I am plugged into and drawing on examples that were already taking shape in the 19th century. I adapt and rearrange things a little. So, in using Flaubert as a model I started by working with, in early drafts, a closet drama form: description, monologue, dialogue. I realised that this was not something that could work now, so I moderated it, brought it back into a shape that was more familiar to modern readers. In the same way I was influenced by the night town stuff in Joyce, his own riff on Flaubert, but I knew too I couldn’t go as far as he did. I pared it back, the delirium, a little, but I pushed it where I could. I was conscious of what I thought a reader could take, a reader not afraid of being pushed a little, but who needed the comfort of complete sentences. So it is not full-on experimental. The interspersing of narratives is unusual, but I think that kind of juxtaposition is something that we can easily manage, if a frame that justifies it is given to us, so I tried to justify it internally.

It is very true that there is pressure — both in the academy, where I work, and in the publishing industry — to engage with the commercial economy, even to remake yourself in relation to its demands. It might be even more the case now than it was in past decades. However, I don’t think there is an overt opposition to works that try to be more complex. What I mean is there is a strong commercial resistance to them, and certainly more than one publisher thought my interspersing of narratives went too far, was too hard, but I really think, perhaps in delusion, that we are moving to a time when people are again starting to question what things mean. The old cliché is the Chinese proverb, ‘may you live in interesting times’. I remember hearing that in the sheltered, white, middle class places I grew up, and even in the privileged if grungy suburbs I moved into as a young man, and realising that nothing much was in crisis, even though the things we read and watched and listened to were often interesting. I now think everyone, more or less, thinks everything is in crisis, and, maybe for the first time in a while, this is not an exaggeration. What this gives to the writer, I think, is huge themes. Huge themes — about why we are here, about what the fuck we can do in the world, about how it got so bad and where that leaves us — are pressing upon us now. We are entering, or are already in, interesting times. There are contradictions, since much of our high profile popular culture is not all that interesting or challenging (compared to say, punk, or grunge, or early hip hop), yet if you drill down there are still major artists everywhere, just mostly not on the surface. I think there is still a hunger for that in all of our cultural forms. Think about the TV show Atlanta; that is really complex in form, and really good, and at least a cult success. It is something that deals with some of these big themes, in its case to do with race and class.

So, in short, I think people, if they are allowed to find the works, are actually interested in art that tries to engage with the world and how it matters.

Saint Antony In His Desert can be purchased from UWAP

A photo of Anthony MacrisAnthony Macris is an award-winning Australian writer and author of the Capital novels. He is also the author of When Horse Became Saw: a family’s journey through autism, which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Non-fiction category. His most recent book is Inexperience & other stories. He is currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney.