Julian Davies, author of Crow mellow and publisher at Finlay Lloyd, has written six novels, some of them short-listed for significant literary awards, but, embarrassingly, I only became properly aware of him through his inclusion in the two Canberra centenary volumes that I reviewed in 2013, The invisible thread and Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue. It’s the Meanjin piece that immediately came to mind when Crow mellow landed unexpectedly in my letterbox last year, probably because I was fascinated by Davies’ description of building himself a place in the mountains south of Canberra near Braidwood. (In fact, I mentioned him in a Monday Musings post about the region). He wrote about people’s fear of the bush, about country versus city living, and about the challenges and paradoxes involved in trying to live a self-sufficient life. It’s not something I can imagine doing myself, but I love reading about people who have the passion to do so. Anyhow, this and the short excerpt from his novel The boy in The invisible thread were my introduction to Davies.
I was therefore intrigued when the odd-looking Crow mellow appeared. It is an unusual shape (longer and narrower than most paperback novels), has a dramatic orange and black cover, has no pagination, and is full of black and white drawings, so full in fact that it was a challenge for me to find space to pencil in my marginalia. I managed however! There are no blurbs on the back cover, just these two sentences:
This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page.
I love this sort of cheekiness, so was looking forward to reading the novel produced by the mind behind it. The cheekiness begins with the title, which might ring a bell with some of you? It is a play, as Davies writes in his Introduction, on Aldous Huxley’s first novel Crome yellow (1921). Indeed, if you read the plot summary in the Wikipedia article on Huxley’s novel, you will have a decent summary of Crow mellow – just ignore the names – because, as the Press Release explains, Davies’ novel is “a contemporary social satire closely based on” Crome yellow.
Now, unlike Lisa (ANZLitLovers) who decided to re-read Crome yellow before reading Davies’ “riff”, I decided to read Davies’ book cold. While I cannot speak for how I might have reacted had I read Huxley first, I am happy to report that the novel holds its own as an independent read. Harking back to the tradition of the 19th century “English country house novel” (Wikipedia), it does have a whiff of the “old world” about it, despite its references to modern technology and financial crises. In fact, it’s a rather odd beast. Its set up – a group of artists staying in a country house/bush retreat with their patrons and admirers – suggests historical fiction, but it is firmly set in contemporary times. This past-present tension adds to the fun of it. The tension is compounded by other factors, one being Phil Day’s drawings which provide whimsical and sometimes very pointed satirical commentary on the text, and another being the fact that the novel’s main character, a poet/novelist who observes more than he acts, is named Phil Day! Games must surely be being played with us!
As you would expect from a “country house novel”, whether or not you’ve read one, the novel takes place over several days, and mostly comprises conversation, over meals, and in different parts of the house and gardens as the inhabitants while away their days. Davies writes in his Introduction that he was attracted to Huxley’s novel for two reasons – the idea of having a go himself at “a playful novel of ideas” and the fact that these ideas, in Huxley’s novel, have to do with “the value, purpose and pretensions of art”. He recognised the challenges in taking this on – novels of ideas are often criticised for being didactic, and “art about art risks disappearing up its own fundament” – but these challenges are of course what appealed to him.
Fortunately, I rather like novels of ideas. Ideas – plus character and language – intrigue me more than plots, so this novel with its flawed characters discussing the “important” things in life – art, love and money – was right up my alley. And of course, art-with-a-capital-A is the idea that interested me most. In an interview last year with journalist Sally Pryor, Davies described how, long ago, he’d become frustrated with the pretensions of the art world and, also, with how “venal” publishing had become, which is why he, with three others initially, had established Finlay Lloyd. He questioned publishing’s definition of “success”, saying:
We have a notion that you have to be a bestseller to be successful, but maybe it’s more interesting to do something a little bit weird and different and have a smaller audience who appreciates it.
Finlay Lloyd has succeeded with Crow mellow, achieving that difficult double of producing something different that is also accessible and fun to read.
And now, I believe I’ve done something different too. I’ve written a long so-called review without many specific references to the book itself. Do I need to I wonder, given the book, by its creator’s admission, closely follows Crome yellow’s story? Well, yes, perhaps I should say something. As I was reading, I made many marks in the book, noting ideas that interested me. Here, in Chapter 3, is cynic Scogum (also called, with appropriate Aussie adolescent humour, Scrotum) speaking to Phil Day about novels:
How many million novels would you say have been written in the last century and a half? Before that people seem to have got along well enough without the blasted things, but now every man and his word processor is blathering away putting words on paper, recounting some lame aspect of their own personal lives, celebrating their petty creativity, as though any other human being on earth could really give a damn. And what possible insight could you have to contribute that Tolstoy or Dickens or Proust or Joyce and so on hasn’t put on paper already? Seventy years ago Scott Fitzgerald had already despaired that the novel was obsolete. What original thought could you have, my dear Phil, what formal invention?
Of course, Scogum is not intended to be the last word on the matter. His is just one of the many views put forward about art in the novel. In another scene, Melissa, on the hunt for a love affair, expresses concern that artist Paul’s drawing is too “literal … where were the ideas in this picture, where the irony?” She asks him about his fine, but literal, charcoal marks:
… but don’t you intend to do something with them? I mean, pull them apart and put them in some sort of context that makes an ironic comment on art as a commodity?
And so the discussions go on throughout the book, sometimes pompous, sometimes sincere, but never reaching resolution because in our post-postmodern world, there is no resolution. And that, too, is part of the underlying, albeit tongue-in-cheek, tension in the book.
Meanwhile, Phil hankers for Anna, the daughter of his wealthy host, while she flirts with artist Paul, and Melissa searches for a love affair elsewhere. The set piece of the story is the annual masked ball to which the neighbourhood and wealthy friends are invited and for which the drawings are particularly exquisite. It’s flirty, and fun, but a little creepy too, in a Nero-fiddled kind of way!
Life, Oscar Wilde said, imitates art, more than vice versa. For Davies and Day, I suspect, life and art are so deeply entwined we couldn’t possibly say – but then that’s probably just what we would say in our highly-conceptualised world. Crow mellow is yet another good read coming out of a small publishing house. Do pick it up if it comes to a bookshop (or library) near you, and let me know what you think.
Illustrated by Phil Day
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2014
No numbered pages (but 384pp, says the Press Release)
(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)