Brian Castro is one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed novelists – our very own ‘writer’s writer’. He was joint winner of the Australian/Vogel Award in 1983 for his first novel, Birds of Passage. Ten years later, Shanghai Dancing (Giramondo) won a swag of literary awards, and his most recent novel, The Garden Book (Giramondo) was shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Literary Award and won the Queensland Premier's Prize for Fiction.
Giramondo publisher Ivor Indyk interviews his author about his latest novel, The Bath Fugues, for Readings, and talks about the importance of this major Australian writer from a publisher’s perspective.
Brian Castro was one of the reasons I started publishing books in 2002. I found it hard to believe, as a critic and a lecturer on Australian literature, that a novel like Shanghai Dancing couldn’t find a publisher in Australia. I don’t think there was any doubt about its quality. It’s just that the numbers didn’t stack up. There is an assumption, which seems quite widely held, that the art of a democratic country should be democratic too – in the sense that it should be open and accessible, and appeal to as large an audience as possible. Commercial success follows.
But the great quality of Shanghai Dancing is the richness of its texture. When a book has a lot to offer, you don’t expect it to show itself all at once. There are social and historical complexities too, in the author’s experience, which aren’t easily negotiated, and which require reticence, allusion or a certain wariness in the telling. Shanghai Dancing dealt with these complexities in quite a romantic way, since it presented them in the form of family history, through the focus of memory and recollection. The Garden Book was more direct, even brutal, in showing just how little openness or accessibility there could be, in a country which paraded its democratic virtues. It had its secrets too, as the scholars have discovered. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and I often wish it had won – a novel with a Chinese-Australian heroine; that would have opened things up, quite decisively.
Castro’s new novel, The Bath Fugues, resembles Shanghai Dancing in its use of a musical principle to orchestrate its materials – in the latter it was jazz improvisation; here it is the contrapuntal fugue. The novel is made up of three novellas, each told by a different narrator in 30 parts, each with its own answering narrative, each bound to the others by reiterated motifs, like bicycles and clocks and counterfeits. Like The Garden Book, two of the novellas have strong Australian settings, in the hills west of Sydney, and on the far north Queensland coast, where his characters, most of whom are migrants or of migrant stock, find their way through an intricate web of relationships and identities, some of which they are barely aware of.
I asked Castro why he had employed the fugue as a structural principle, and was pleased when he gave an answer that wasn’t purely formal. ‘I wanted to connect the musical form of the fugue with the psychological condition. Both are about flight – in my narrators’ cases, flights of the imagination. The musical fugue takes on the form of a contrapuntal dialogue set against a ground bass – in this novel the ground bass is the theme of inheritance. The psychological fugue is represented by the bicycle, an easy form of locomotion which allows escape and flight. In the late nineteenth century fugueurs were very common – the discovery of the bicycle led them to explore places beyond their own villages. Many never came back, took on false names and left their little lives behind. So there was flight and there was forgery – everything a novel should incorporate. A character is an alter-ego forged by the imagination.’
Inheritance is a dominant theme throughout Castro’s work: his characters are in flight because they have no inheritance; they are in flight from their inheritance; in vain, because ultimately the past possesses them in all sorts of fugitive ways. Another condition, closest to Castro’s own, is when out of a sense of impoverishment the character chooses his ancestors, either from the stories told to him, or those he reads himself.
‘One inherits the lives of others. Perhaps this inheritance was the only thing I was left with by my family. The stories they told were passed onto me. So they were legitimately given. If my family knew I was to become a writer they would have clammed up. But my innocent absorption of lives and stories made the process seem innocuous.’ Jason Redvers, the teller of the first novella, claims the essayist Montaigne as his ancestral figure; Camille de Conceição, the teller of the second, is obsessed with Baudelaire. Other progenitor figures make an appearance in the book: Bach (naturally), Walter Benjamin (who was also obsessed with Baudelaire), Frances Bacon, Nathalie Sarraute…
I was also keen to know why The Bath Fugues was so preoccupied with forgery, and the counterfeit. In this novel the absorption of lives and stories is neither innocent nor innocuous. Redvers is a forger, Conceição a counterfeiter. Redvers’ friend, Walter Gottlieb, who may have falsified his past, steals Redvers’ story and make it his own. Friendship and forgery seem to go hand in hand. As it turns out, the betrayal of friendship sits very close to Castro’s idea of the writer. ‘Because writing is such a secretive act, furtive almost, the fear of revelation is always present – before the work is completed. So friendships are put at risk if these revelations are premature and stated in good faith to a good friend. Writers tend to suck up moods like vacuum cleaners, and sometimes a novel can disappear in a momentary loss of a central idea, when another writer runs off with it or destroys the trance. The phrase “in the ether” is more accurate than one thinks. This is a novel about story-stealing, clepto-biography, the rubato of measured time; getting between and behind the lines. I call this my ‘saboteur style’… it relies a lot on irony.’
I would guess that there is an anxiety here, not only about the writer’s relationship to his contemporaries, but to those writers from the past he has read and admired, and made use of in his own work. In that respect, the anxiety is about the authenticity of writing itself; but in fact it goes much further, to a moral doubt about the nature of character and conduct. ‘Art is the rendering of a simulacrum; it is a forgery of life. In turn, as André Gide demonstrated in The Counterfeiters, a novel conceals other novels within it…I’ve embedded diaries, lives and legacies in the formation of the narrative, so that the original and the copy work in tandem to reverse the loss of the “aura”, not only of the work of art, but of these ancestral biographies. In terms of human relationships, good faith and bad faith operate in a similar fashion. For the most part, Gide’s characters are not ‘nice’ people … nor are Dostoyevsky’s. One’s behaviour is determined by cultural norms which elicit a kind of trust. But put simply, when asked about one’s “identity” one counterfeits as the moment sees fit, as identity is never stable.’
In her recent book, Brian Castro’s Fiction, Bernadette Brennan observes that Castro’s characters are often wounded or injured in some way. That is certainly the case in The Bath Fugues, which is why the third novella is told by a doctor, who is privy to the secrets of all the characters we have met before. Because they are wounded, these characters are often unpleasant: self-conscious, ashamed, suspicious, resentful. Middle-class readers like to identify with characters in a novel, to empathise. I put this to Castro: ‘What is it with your characters?’
‘Well, one aspect might be that the “Hollywood Project” of sugary romanticism has effectively erased voices that are bristly and barbed-wired. The latter used to be at the high end of literary art: viz. Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard, indeed, Dostoyevsky. The yearning to empathise is one of the diseases of modern reading. Literature as self-help? I cannot think of a more fitting example of an oxymoron.’
It’s interesting, because the predominant feeling imparted by a Castro novel –and this is true of The Bath Fugues – is one of exhiliration, when the associations suddenly gathered around a detail or a turn of action convey an experience of richness and assurance, or disclose relationships where none had existed before – effects which are the very opposite of the doubt and suspicion often displayed by his characters. Castro’s art of variation and return is surprising, funny, beguiling, consoling. It gives you a world forged by the imagination, and it contains all the ironies of which its author speaks.