Emma’s guest Monday Musings post last week on Randolph Stow provided the impetus for me to finally retrieve Gabrielle Carey’s Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family from my TBR pile. I’ve been wanting to read it for the longest time, but … well, those of you with big TBRs will understand.
Moving among strangers, whose title comes from a line in Stow’s novel The girl green as elderflower, is an unusual book. It’s partly a biography of Stow, and partly a memoir of Carey and her family, but Carey wouldn’t call it either. She says in her prologue:
… this book is not a biography. Neither is it a work of literary analysis or scholarly enquiry. It is more like a ‘mostly private letter’, to use Stow’s phrase, written out of curiosity, and tenderness towards a man whom I have come to think of as an almost-relative, a dear friend of my mother’s, and the ideal literary mentor.
It all started when, as her mother was dying in 2009, Carey wrote to Stow in England letting him know of her mother’s condition. It was his response, which came four days after her mother’s death, which set Carey off. She’d known there’d been a connection, of course, but she didn’t know much about it. Stow wrote that Joan’s letters from London, when he was a schoolboy and undergraduate, “were like a window on the world”. Why, Carey wondered, did her mother correspond “with a young man, an adolescent, thirteen years her junior, who wasn’t even a relation?” This question is never properly answered in the book, not because there’s something salacious to discover (in case you were wondering), but because some connections made in life don’t have explanations beyond the fact that they occur. If that makes sense.
So, as the book progresses, Carey follows a Stow trail, “like a groupie”. She interrogates his novels and other writings, and reactions to them. She reads the letters Stow wrote to members of her and his family. And she visits the places in England where Stow had lived and meets some of the people who knew him there. One of the main strands in her story concerns Stow’s unease with Australia – with his feeling rejected by Australia and/or his rejecting Australia. There is no answer to this question either, but Carey’s exploration of the issue is enlightening (particularly given all those other Australian intellectuals who left in the 1960s – some well known like Germaine Greer and Clive James, others less so like Jill Ker Conway and Ray Mathew. Each story is different but there is probably a thread that links them too?)
There are many angles, in fact, from which I could write on this engaging but slippery book. There’s Carey’s sharing of her own history – the loss of her mother, her tricky relationship with her sister, the death by suicide of her father, and so on. There’s the form of the work and how it fits into what seems to be a new breed of biography-memoirs that is popping up. And of course, there’s Stow, himself. He comes across as an elusive character, and that’s probably because he was. When she, having made connection with him, enthusiastically tries to engage him, by correspondence, in a literary discussion about his and her mutual interest in James Joyce, he shuts her down, albeit politely, explaining that he was “old and ailing” which, in fact, he was. He died the next year.
This doesn’t deter her – for which we should be grateful because although the book is not, as she forewarns us, a biography, we do, nonetheless gain insight into Stow. She paints a picture, in the end, of a man at odds with the country in which he was born though exactly why is hard to say. Did he reject Australia – with its “depressing tolerance, even worship, of the second-rate” (his words) – or did Australia reject him with its inability to understand his work. Australian critics, apparently, panned his novel Tourmaline, for example, rejecting its combination of “fable and poetry” with “realism”. A later critic, Carey says, notes that Tourmaline represented a change, a move away from “bush realism … towards something more experimental”. However, at the time, as is so often the case with innovative creators, this was not recognised and Stow’s “too truthful, too confrontational of conventional attitudes” novel was not appreciated in his own country. Stow felt the rejection.
But, Carey is wary of coming to conclusions, as she constantly reminds us. At one point, when she has questions and no answers, she tells us that given there’s no one alive to tell her “the real story”, she “can only imagine”, but a page or two later, she says
But I could be wrong. Being wrong, I realised, is how I’ve spent most of my life: misinterpreting, misunderstanding, misjudging, miscommunication. Words slip and slide, as T.S Eliot said, or as Stow put it, ‘words can’t cope’.
A strange thing for a writer to say, perhaps? And yet, perhaps not. Perhaps, it’s something only a writer could say?
You are probably getting the gist now of this unusual book – and hopefully, realising what a delightful, engrossing and stimulating read it is. It is not a long book, and is therefore not comprehensive. If you want, for example, to read about the Stow book I know best, his first Miles Franklin winner, To the islands, you won’t find it here. What you will find though is an intelligent analysis of Stow the man and of his work. You will also gain, or, at least I did, some insights into literary Australia of the mid to late twentieth century – not a list of luminaries, or even a history, but a sense of the life and times, and of how one particular writer did (or didn’t) navigate it.
Near the end, Carey returns to a theme she introduced earlier in the book, that of twinning or duality of perspectives. She concludes that, in the Essex pub where she met people who had known Stow in the latter years of his life, she found “twin versions” of him, one “content in his lifestyle, in his aloneness, who was self-sufficient and independent” and one “who was uncomfortable in his own skin, internally and perpetually in conflict over his sexuality, his nationality and his identity.”
If you are interested in Stow, in Australian literary history more broadly, and/or in Carey herself, this is a book for you.