Epiphany in Harrower’s “The fun of the fair”

With Bill’s AWW Gen 4 Week still in play, I hoped I’d find something relevant to share from Reading like an Australian writer. And there was, a discussion by novelist Emily Maguire of a short story by Elizabeth Harrower. The short story, as you can probably guess, is titled “The fun of the fair” and it opens Harrower’s collection, A few days in the country, and other stories (my review).

Epiphany

I love short stories, so love that Maguire chose to explore one in Castles’ anthology. Moreover, I was thrilled to see that her angle was the “epiphany”. I have loved that word since I first came across it. It has such a great sound and look.

In her essay, Maguire briefly discusses its meaning. She starts with its religious origins as “a moment of spiritual or divine revelation”, and then says that, in a literary sense, it describes “a different kind of realisation”. She gives examples from To kill a mockingbird, and from Disney’s Frozen and Dumbo. She doesn’t, I was surprised to see, mention the writer though whom I was introduced to the concept, James Joyce – and his novel A portrait of a young man.

So, I did a browser search to see if my memory was correct, and yes, it was, at least according to Wikipedia:

Author James Joyce first borrowed the religious term “Epiphany” and adopted it into a profane literary context in Stephen Hero (1904-1906), an early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In that manuscript, Stephen Daedalus defines epiphany as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” Stephen’s epiphanies are moments of heightened poetic perception in the trivial aspects of everyday Dublin life, non-religious and non-mystical in nature. 

Wikipedia says more, including that “Scholars used Joyce’s term to describe a common feature of the modernist novel, with authors as varied as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, and Katherine Mansfield all featuring these sudden moments of vision as an aspect of the contemporary mind”. And then the penny dropped. I suddenly remembered that Bill had decided to pop Harrower, who straddles his Gen 3 and 4 eras, into Gen 3, which we did last year, because she was “a modernist”.

But now, given the origin of “epiphany” is less important to us than its use and relevance to our reading, let’s get back to Maguire and “The fun of the fair”. Maguire makes a couple of points about epiphanies: they are internal, that is, they come as “a shift within the character”, and “they are not the result of logic or conscious reasoning”.

Indeed, Maguire says they can come “seemingly out of the blue”. In the rest of her essay she provides a close reading to show just how our 10-year-old protagonist’s epiphany comes about. I checked my marginalia for the story, and found that I’d written that the fakeness in the sideshow Janet attended had “shocked her into her own truth”. This is essentially true, but Maguire describes the build-up so eloquently in her analysis. She says that young Janet, who, at the end, “ran, not crying now, but brilliant-eyed” is “experiencing an extreme surge of emotion, so she wouldn’t, and doesn’t, stop to articulate this”. But, she has had a feeling, an epiphany, that we readers see as hopeful, as something that will take her forward into the next stage of her life. I thoroughly enjoyed Maguire’s analysis.

Now, I’ll bring this back to our AWW Gen 3 and 4 discussions. Maguire comments near the beginning of her essay, that ‘sometimes the epiphanic moment is obvious because it’s announced outright with a phrase like “She suddenly realised that”…’ However, she continues,

What this kind of signposting gives us in clarity it may take away in verisimilitude. In real life, a person may experience a powerful feeling or thought that, looking back later, they might call an epiphany. But in the moment itself, the person is probably so busy experiencing the insights or revelation that they don’t pause to note its occurrence.

Elizabeth Harrower, being a realist writer, Maguire says, won’t have her characters exclaim they’ve had an epiphany, but will show us, the readers, that something has changed. She certainly does this with Janet. This made me think of Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain (my review), and Jessie’s epiphany at the end. Jessie is older than Janet, and reflects consciously about life, so her epiphany is more signposted, but elegantly so. Near the end, she sees a garden and finds herself “clamped in the cruel snares of memory”. Memory jolted, she comes to a realisation that, like Janet’s, is a hopeful one. It’s not a guaranteed “happy-ever-after” but the novel closes with a vision of a more positive Jessie than she had been for some time. The power of the epiphany!

I am enjoying this anthology.

Emily Maguire
‘”Not crying now, but brilliant-eyed”: Epiphany in Harrower’s “The fun of the fair”‘
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 233-243
ISBN: 9781742236704

Elizabeth Harrower
“The fun of the fair”
in A few days in the country, and other stories
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015
pp. 1-14
ISBN: 9781925240566

Margaret Barbalet, Blood in the rain (#BookReview)

When I thought about Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, I knew I’d have some hard choices to make as I have many eligible novels on my TBR shelves. However, the choice wasn’t too hard because there was one author who just doesn’t seem to be talked about and I wanted to include her on my blog. Little did I know that Lisa had a similar idea, so this week you have not one but two posts on Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain.

I am a bit embarrassed about it, though, because I must have bought my copy around the time it was published, as the “Aust. recommended” price sticker on my Penguin says $7.95! Indeed, I referred to this book, albeit not by title, when I wrote about Canberra’s Seven Writers of which Barbalet was a member. This is another reason I’ve been keen to read this novel.

Barbalet might have been part of the Canberra Seven, but she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Tasmania, and went to university back in Adelaide, before living in Canberra for many years. Blood in the rain is set in Adelaide and environs, and its descriptions of place reminded me at times of Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review), although the style is different. It might be just me, but I had a strong sense of Patrick White’s intensity in Barbalet’s book, particularly in the weight of her descriptions.

And this is probably a good time to tell you what the novel is about. The back cover tells us that it’s “about Jessie … a young girl growing up and reaching for maturity in the Australia of the Great War and the Depression, as she moves from country town to country town and eventually to Adelaide”. It also says that her life is “in may ways, ordinary” but that Barbalet “follows Jessie’s odyssey with a perception and compassion that reveals a person who is quite extraordinary”. This is accurate, but it misses a few salient points.

“she feels everything”

For example, the novel starts when Jessie, 4 years old, and her brother Stephen, 8, are living with their parents in a small coastal town. In the first chapter, their mother walks out, and we never hear from her again. Jessie adores her brother, but with their father deemed incapable of raising them – in the eyes of the local churchgoing women – the two children are taken in by different relatives. And through one of those twists of fate, Jessie is taken into a loving family, the Whaites, while Stephen goes to the home of a stern maternal uncle Theodore, and his cowed unmarried daughter. There is no affection here, and, indeed, there’s disdain from Theodore, because Stephen’s father was an Irishman – “Of course, Catholics, Irish, what can you expect”. In his opinion, Stephen “had never been checked”.

We spend a little time with Stephen – just enough to realise that his youth was miserable, and for us to see the contrast with Jessie’s life – but the book is Jessie’s. The war comes, and with the death of Mr Whaite in that war, Mrs Whaite can no longer afford to keep her, so Jessie is moved on to an unmarried relation, Miss Symes. Miss Symes doesn’t have the motherly warmth of Mrs Whaite but Jessie realises early on that she “would not be unkind”. A major theme of the book concerns, as Jessie ponders in adulthood, “what made a life good or bad”. One factor, this novel shows, is a secure, loved childhood, something Jessie had well enough, but not Stephen.

Anyhow, the story progresses from here, with Jessie going off to work as a domestic when she’s around 14 years old … and we move into the Depression. Meanwhile, Stephen, with whom she manages to stay in contact, goes to war, and returns with an injured arm, but it’s clear that Stephen’s greatest injury is emotional. The siblings reconnect after Stephen returns to Adelaide with a wife, Pamela, and baby – and some time after, Jessie moves in with them. I’ll leave the story there.

Since I read this for Bill’s week, I want to comment on how this book might or might not fit into his ideas about Gen 4. I’ll start with style, and return to my point about Patrick White. A little research into Barbalet uncovered that she was a fan of DH Lawrence. Guess who was also a fan of DH Lawrence? Yes, Patrick White. I rest my case!

Seriously though, White writes in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass, about missing Australia, and says “I could still grow drunk on visions of its landscape”. Well, you get the sense that Barbalet could too, as her descriptions of place – whether city, country, or coast – are so intensely evocative:

There was no one about but the smell of poverty remained.

The dew on the grass looks dirty, she thought, glancing through the pinched paling fence on the vacant block at the corner. Yellow light leant at corners, streaking the walls with new angles the colour of old flannel. Fingers of sun lifted new dirt in the glare.

There is also intensity in her descriptions of humanity, a Whitean (sorry!) sense of tough, hard lives that need resilience to survive. Jessie has resilience, seeking and enjoying, whenever she can, “manna in the dry waste of life”.

None of this is specifically Gen 4, but Blood in the rain does also embody its era. Barbalet, for example, plays with point of view, something that seems to start once Jessie is sentient. In other words, the novel is told third person, but at moments when Jessie’s feelings are likely to be strong we slip into second person. It begins when she is taken to live with Miss Symes, sister-in-law to her brother’s guardian. The mention of Stephen brings out feelings:

Your brother Stephen. If you skipped and walked even your feet would say the words. That dear face might suddenly slide in front of your eyes … You said the name over and over.

As does the awareness that, while Mrs Whaite had loved her, it wasn’t enough to keep her:

But, you, you, were someone who could be left.

It’s an intriguing technique, and a bit disconcerting at first, but it gives intensity to Jessie’s emotional self.

Besides style, though, is genre and subject matter. Blood in the rain is historical fiction, which was not particularly common in literary fiction, and it’s historical fiction about ordinary people, about ordinary women in fact. It’s a domestic story with little dramas, the sort of story that Gen 4 women made particularly their own.

Domestic, however, doesn’t mean trivial. This novel is about important ideas – about women’s resilience and stoicism in the face of poverty, about the raising of children, and in fact about love. Love, Jessie decides, is what makes the difference between a good life and a bad one. If that’s women’s fiction, it’s fine by me.

Margaret Barbalet
Blood in the rain
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1986
204pp.
ISBN: 9780140089448

Janette Turner Hospital, The inside story (#Review)

Between 1985 and 1990, Janette Turner Hospital wrote four books which had one-word titles – Borderline (1985, novel), Dislocations (1986, short stories), Charades (1988, novel) and Isobars (1990, short stories). I’ve read the novels, and they imprinted on my mind Hospital’s love of metaphor. In these works, her titles clearly herald her concerns, and I love that. All this is to say that I thought I might kick off my contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, with a short story, so I checked The Oxford book of Australian short stories. I found a few to choose from, but the writer who grabbed my attention was Janette Turner Hospital. I’ve read four of her novels, and have her latest short story collection, Forecast: Turbulence, on my TBR. I enjoy reading her.

The story is “The inside story” and it comes from the Dislocations collection, which was first published in Australia in 1986. I specify Australia because, at the time, and for many decades, Hospital was living overseas, primarily Canada and the USA, but elsewhere too. I note, however, that her website says that she returned to live permanently in Australia in 2019.

And now, the story. There is, as you’ll have realised, wordplay in the title. It is set “inside”, with the first person narrator being a teacher of a college literature course in a jail – an American one I presume, though it’s not specified. However, it is also about the “inside” of the characters, about their selves, particularly the narrator. The story involves this narrator, speaking from a later time, telling about the period she spent as a teacher in the jail, sharing her experience and some of the interactions she had with the inmates. So, she is also an outsider, coming from outside, and also an outsider in terms of not having shared experience with her students. For the first half of so of the story, her students are simply “they”, suggesting they are alike in their attitudes and reactions to her, but towards the end two, Jed and Joe, are differentiated.

For budgetary reasons, our narrator is limited in what she can teach to what’s available, so she chooses Malamud’s The fixer as a follow-up to Sozhenistsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich which had not gone down well. She’s surprised, thinking they’d “enjoy the prisoner as hero”. Not this lot. After all, these are the people who had told her:

We can’t afford your romantic empathy … Please check your angst in at the cloakroom, before you see us.

Still, our narrator tries:

‘Kierkegaard suggested that we are all equally despairing, but unless we can write and become famous for our despair, it is not worth the trouble to despair and show it.

You people with a tragic world view, they sighed, you make like so difficult for the rest of us.

And so the story continues, with the narrator trying to understand their experience, and how they manage the brutality of prison life, while they fend off her desire to understand and “reform them with culture”. When she suggests reading Franz Fanon, they are not interested in “another tragic bloody humanist–because that would be the kind of invasion of our head space we can’t afford in here”. In other words, while she is concerned about their “moral survival”, eschewing the cynicism of her colleagues, their focus is pure survival.

She’s not the only one who started with “idealism and compassion”. Another is a guard, but he learns:

The institution could only operate in black and white, he said. Grey got it from both sides. Get out, he said, while you’re still human.

Inevitably, there is violence, and the job comes to an end.

I enjoyed the story, though my brief search of the internet suggests that it is not mentioned the way some others are from the collection. Anthology editor Michael Wilding, however, must have liked it, though he doesn’t mention it in his preface. There is a lot to think about here in terms of dislocations – the prisoners from their lives, for a start, and our narrator’s confrontation with ideal versus reality. Who is our narrator? Does she stand for liberal do-gooders that I can relate to from the 1970s and 80s. Why did she take this job, and is her closing answer completely honest?

On Hospital’s website is a link to an interview with literary editor, Steven Romei, in which she tells him that

All of my writing career is about how human beings negotiate dark matter. I am extremely interested in how people negotiate catastrophe, not because I’m morbidly interested in it but because I’m interested in the secret of resilience, that’s what I’m always exploring in the stories and the novels.

As for how this story fits into Bill’s conception of Gen 4 (see my first paragraph), I’m not sure. Hospital was an expatriate Australian writer when she wrote this, which places her at a remove from specific Australian movements, but – maybe – you could read it as occupying a transition between 196Os and 70s idealism and the cynical neoliberalism of the late 1980s. Then again, it could just be itself, and reflective of Hospital’s ongoing interest in “moral survival” and outsiderness, not to mention “dark matter”.

Janette Turner Hospital
“The inside story”
in The Oxford book of Australia short stories (ed. Michael Wilding)
Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994
Orig. pub. in Dislocations, 1987
pp. 288-294
ISBN: 9780195536102