S-S-S Snake, Kate Jennings’ Snake, that is

I thoroughly enjoyed Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay on Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino (1992) in Reading like an Australian writer. Consequently, I plan, over time, to read and share other essays in this book – at least those discussing books I’ve reviewed here. As it happens, there is an essay by Debra Adelaide on Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review), and it’s the perfect next cab off the rank. Not only have I already posted this year on Erik Jensen’s longer essay on the book in the Writers on writers series, but Snake is a novella, so I’m using this post as a contribution to Cathy’s (746books) Novellas in November. I hope that’s not too cheeky.

I’ll start, though, by introducing Debra Adelaide. A novelist with a few books under her belt, including The women’s pages which I’ve reviewed, she first became known to me through her work on early Australian women writers, her Bibliography of Australian women’s literature, 1795-1990 (1991) and A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988). Like many writers, she also teaches creative writing, and Snake is one of the texts she regularly sets.

So Snake – for those who don’t know – draws from Jennings’ life, and tells the story of a lively, imaginative woman, Irene, who marries a decent but boring man, Rex. It cannot work, and the consequences are dire.

Jensen’s and Adelaide’s essays are very different. This is partly because Jensen’s, being in the Writers on writers series, focuses on the writer, whilst Adelaide’s in Reading like an Australian writer focuses on the reading and writing. Not surprisingly, the approach Adelaide takes is closer to mine – except that her writerly perspective is more astute, centred and expository.

The elastic novella

Early in her essay, Adelaide specifically address its form as a novella, saying that Snake demonstrates “how wonderfully elastic the novella can be”. In Snake‘s case, it is “so elastic that it can almost be prose poetry”. It is also “audaciously” abbreviated. She’s right – this is one spare novel.

Adelaide identifies three main reasons that she sets this text for her students – “its poetic brevity, its ‘experimental’ form, and its intriguing, sometimes maddening, allusions to and quotes from numerous literary and cultural references”.

It is, she says, the perfect set text, because it can be easily read in one night and remembered, but,

Brevity does not mean simplicity: its complex themes ripple out and take their time before finally landing on the muddy shores of our imagination.

This is what makes Snake such a good and memorable read.

The three s’s

Adelaide divides her essay into three main sections, those three s’s in the title: Structure; Serpents; and Scenes, sex and Serena McGarry.

I love discussions of structure, because structure can so often help inform the meaning. When a short novel like Snake has a complex structure, it is worth taking note. Adelaide talks about her own method of writing and wonders about Jennings’ approach. She doesn’t know how Jennings works, but she does say that this novel

opened up my eyes to the possibilities of writing a novel that was straightforward yet clever in structure, that was stripped back to its narrative bones, and yet at the same time managed to be multilayered, dense, poetic and unforgettable.

She discusses the novel’s four-part structure, and explains how, although the book is primarily about the mother Irene, it manages to convey the POVs of all four characters, thus “deftly” delivering a portrait of the whole family. Simultaneoulsy, with its use of second person at the beginning and end, “it offers a powerful sense of everyperson”. I love this analysis. I also enjoyed her further discussion of second person, which accords with some of my assumptions about this voice. One of the points she makes is how second person makes (can make) the reader complicit, which is one of the reasons Madeleine Dickie used it in Red can origami (my post).

Adelaide also briefly discusses an issue that fascinates her, as it does me – “the unlikable character in fiction”. Irene is “remote, ruthless and selfish”, and yet, despite Snake‘s “staccato delivery and disparate parts”, Jennings manages to maintain the focus on Irene “without alienating us from her”.

However, the section I most enjoyed is Adelaide’s discussion of Serpents. She references DH Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, which Jennings quotes from in the novella, and Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. She also references Jensen’s discussion of snakes, because, of course, he discussed them too. The point is that snakes are both metaphorical (the cause of the original fall of humankind, and so on) and actual (a real threat to vulnerable children, dogs and women.)

And so, the heart of Jennings’ Snake lies in, says Adelaide, “the universal fear of the serpent, that potent post-lapsarian symbol of all evil and danger”. All associations with snakes race through our minds, she says, as we read this novel. This is one of the ways a spare novel can lay down meaning on top of meaning.

In the third section, Adelaide discusses Jennings’ “scrupulous clarity”, using a few examples from the novel. One is the murder-suicide of Serena McGarry and her husband. Adelaide explores how much, in less than 100 words, Jennings conveys about Serena, and its implications for Irene. Adelaide makes the point that these “marvellously condensed” scenes “contain entire longer stories within them”. She sometimes uses them as springboards for students to develop their own stories. I would add that this sort of writing can make a book a great reading group book because it encourages readers to think about characters – who they are, why they are who they are, and why the writer has written them this way. Endless discussion can ensue!

Adelaide concludes by saying that Snake is “a novel that replays re-readings well out of proportion to its size”. I second that.

Debra Adelaide
“Structure, serpents and Serena McGarry: Kate Jennings’ Snake
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 219-232
ISBN: 9781742236704

21 thoughts on “S-S-S Snake, Kate Jennings’ Snake, that is

  1. Foist t’ings foist: love your choice of new template, ST ! – wide open and really easy to read. Header image lovely,
    I remember Debra Adelaide from finishing my postgraduate cert in editing at UTS when she was to be an upcoming lecturer for the Masters I was pushed into enrolling for (from which I withdrew, realizing that I couldn’t possibly work at that level). I recall dropping in to her office during the xmas break and being impressed to the point of amazed at her casual literacy ,, And I still feel astonished at the thought that people I’ve met and talked to can be those who are talked and written about !

  2. I don’t have a problem with one or two unlikeable characters but sometimes there is absolutely nobody in a book that I would want to have anything to do with, so I just don’t want to be in their company.

    • Thanks Pining for engaging with that idea. I don’t think that really bothers me if the writing and ideas intrigue me – but that’s not to say that one day I won’t come across a book with all unlikable characters that will turn me off completely.

      Some people didn’t like an Australian book, The slap, for this reason, but I found things to like in some of the characters even if they all had some flaws and hurt each other.

  3. I haven’t read Snake, so I’m starting from well back in the field. But I do have the book of essays and it is one of the best of its kind I have come across. Each writer/essayist seems to have so much understanding of their writer/subject. I haven’t checked, but I wonder if they all teach Creative Writing. – I’m still not sure writing can be taught, but these essays surely show that reading can be.

    • It’s a good book isn’t it, Bill. I’m guessing a lot of them probably do teach. I think that to some degree you can teach writing, but the students have to have some talent first. I’m sure there are good writing teachers who can draw out and develop talent and poor ones who try to constrain it by rules.

      • I’m reading a bio about Gillian Mears atm, and one of her writing teachers was Drusilla Modjeska. They knew they had a talented writer on their hands straight away it would seem. So, yes, there has to be some talent there for the writing classes to be of any benefit, I would think.
        As an aside, one of GM’s favourite authors was Carson McCullers – have you read any of her books?

        • Oh yes, Brona, I want to read that one too. It’s by Brennan who did that wonderful Garner one, isn’t it? Did you read that?

          Yes, I’ve read McCullers’ The member of the wedding (in my teens or early twenties). A strong, powerful book. I think I read The heart is the lonely hunter, but I don’t recollect that so strongly. I think she wrote some good short stories too.

    • Pandora (the NLA) asks you if you are happy for them to harvest your site and then they just do it without your being aware at regular or, more often, irregular intervals. They capture the site and keep it in their server as an archive, but they also provide a link to the live site. The idea is to provide a web archive of online Australian publication. Is this what you needed to know?

  4. Pingback: Novellas in November (#NovNov) Begins! Leave Your Links Here | Bookish Beck

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