David Musgrave is a poet, publisher and critic – and now a novelist. Jo Case spoke to him about his wonderfully Australian satire, Glissando for Readings.
The journals of Archie Fliess’s grandfather are an important thread of the story, interwoven throughout the text. What made you decide to use this technique of the journals to tell his portion of the story? Were there any challenges in crafting the distinctive voice of Heinrich Fliess in the journal form?
I can’t really remember. I wrote the book 12 years ago, and although I remember some ideas clearly, I can’t recall why I decided to use the journals. I think I wanted the protagonist, Archie, to be aware of his grandfather’s story, so it seemed like the only way to do it. The main challenge of writing in Heinrich Fliess’s voice was to make it seem from a bygone age without seeming fruity. One eye was firmly on Voss at every step of the way – the basic plot of the journals is from White’s novel, as are many of the characters – which made writing easy. I had also recently been sacked from a job in IT, and I had in mind the man who sacked me as a model for Heinrich. As he (Heinrich) got loopier, the writing became more fun.
Our relationship with the land we inhabit – and the troubled relationship of European settlers with the Australian landscape – seems to be at the heart of this story, as epitomised by Heinrich’s quest to build the perfect house, perfectly integrated with the landscape. What interests you about this idea?
There are some architects in my remote family history, and architecture has always featured strongly in my life as a consequence: for example, I went to a University which had some of its major buildings designed by one forebear. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with houses, even though I can’t yet afford one. As soon as I began toying with the idea of some half-mad German Romantic in the Australian landscape, it seemed to open up all sorts of possibilities, particularly the notion of land ownership. Heinrich was an idealist and his attempt to share the land with the original inhabitants, although ultimately doomed, seemed to be a natural consequence of his obsession with the perfect house.
Glissando has a wonderful absurdist edge throughout, sometimes immersing itself in this element – at times it reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s surreal wordplay and skewed (but somehow logical) world view. Were you inspired by any other writers in this tradition?
Yes, heaps of them. Thomas Love Peacock, Rabelais, Pope, Swift ... I once made a list of all the books I’d plundered in writing Glissando and it was embarrassingly long. Not all of them were from the same tradition either: for example, bits of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War sit alongside Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. I’m not sure if the book belongs squarely in an absurdist tradition; it’s really a satire in the sense that it is concerned with the impossibility of faultless knowledge. It is also a love story, which complicates things.
Archie, immersed in his life’s great obsession, says he is ‘far too absorbed in the impossible pursuit of perfection to be bothered with anything else’. In this, he resembles his grandfather and his passionate fixation with architecture. What is it about this aspect of their characters that appealed to you as a writer?
I guess it’s a family trait I share with them. It was necessary for both those characters to be slightly monomaniacal and unworldly, otherwise they would not have been appealing and they certainly wouldn’t have lived the lives they did.
Though Glissando has a fantastical element, it also incorporates real historical characters: Freud, his friend and associate Wilhelm Fliess, Australian-based theatrical entrepreneur JC Williamson (with his initials changed). What inspired you to incorporate these characters into your story, and did you do any research into their lives?
There is also my great-great-grandfather, and his brother, who make pleasing little cameos in the first part of the book. I knew about Fliess through the collected letters of Fliess to Freud, which I had consulted when I was writing my doctoral thesis, one chapter of which was on the nose in satire and comic literature. The story of their falling out and Fliess’s belief that Freud had plotted to kill him on a walk in the alps was too weird to be true, as was his theorisation that the nose was the seat of all sexual neuroses. The Williamson thing was just a lark, and I was probably thinking more of David than JC when I used the name.
Critics are a dark and powerful (and supremely egotistical) force in Glissando, culminating in the grotesque and powerful Basil Pilbeam, chief critic of Williamson’s National Theatre. You have worked as a critic – have your experiences or observations fed into this aspect of the book?
Not really. Much of the ludicrous hierarchy of the Court of the Critics at the National Theatre was lifted from a wonderful little book called Peri Bathous or The Art of Sinking in Poetry which was a guide for how to not write poetry written by Alexander Pope. It is an absolute hoot. Someone like Harold Bloom, among critics, would have been an inspiration for the megalomaniacal nature of Basil Pilbeam, but really, it is my experiences with and observations of (admittedly only some) poets which fed directly into this aspect of the book.
In the world of Glissando, the arts are given an importance and prominence not generally accorded them in life – particularly Australian life. The National Theatre is called ‘the most powerful institution in the land’ and sparks wars where ‘rival critics were beaten in the streets’. Heinrich Fliess is driven mad by his architectural strivings; Reggie becomes an idiot savant in the field of music. What was the thinking behind this aspect of the book?
Don Anderson calls Glissando an anatomy which I suppose it is. It is also a satire and because it is also a novel of ideas, it is really concerned with questioning ideas. The prominence I give the arts in Glissando is of course the opposite of the Australia we live in. Sometimes the best way to satirise a culture’s failings is to imagine what it would be like if the reverse were true. However, I was also concerned with the role that art can play in our lives. I think it is extremely important, and some of the ideas that Archie ruminates on towards the end of the book are really questions of aesthetics. In the end, his life becomes a kind of work of art, which is where the idea for the title originally came from. It’s not really possible to live a life without some idea of art – it’s what we then choose to do with it that makes a difference.