Steven Carroll is the reigning Miles Franklin winner for The Time We Have Taken, the last in his trilogy about the evolution of one family alongside that of a Melbourne suburb. In The Lost Life, he heads in a new and unexpected direction – exploring an episode in the life of poet T.S. Eliot, and the ‘special friendship’ he attempted to rekindle with childhood sweetheart Emily Hale in his unhappily married middle-age. Juxtaposed with their relationship is that of two ‘ardent’ young lovers whose paths intertwine with the pair. Chris Wallace-Crabbe spoke to Steven for Readings.
The narrative drive of novels commonly turns on love, sex and loss. Something absent drives the characters along, a yearning of some powerful or foolish kind. That’s a story for you and – as E.M. Forster slyly complained, ‘Oh dear, yes, the novel tells a story’.
In The Lost Life, Melbourne novelist Steven Carroll has focused intensely on the emotional needs of two couples (one young, one middle-aged), gently defining and uncovering what will happen to their desires. Yes, it’s a love story – a delicately orchestrated one that grabs the reader’s attention and holds it. No wonder Carroll reflects: ‘It was such a marvellous experience, writing this book.’
As is not uncommon in a novel, history is drawn into the telling: in this case, private history. Well, the private history of a public figure, a writer in whose work the private found expression in many oblique ways – above all, with vivid reference to particular places. The public man is T.S. Eliot, a great modernist poet about whom we know either too much or too little, given his own intense focus on a creative artist’s need for impersonality.
Carroll has been fascinated by Eliot’s writing for decades. His own first play, about the poet and his private life, was written over a couple of years in the early 1980s. It was workshopped and broadcast. Then, he reflects, ‘I was going to write this book.’ However, ‘I had this dream about my old street.’ The dream became a novel (The Art of the Engine Driver) and then a trilogy, set in familiar Melbourne suburbs and following the evolution of one family. The Time We Have Taken, the final novel in the trilogy, won Carroll the Miles Franklin Literary Award last year. Mr Eliot remained on the back burner for years.
But Carroll continued to be haunted by Eliot’s disastrous marriage, divided life and ravishing poetry; he yearned to find his way back to this material. ‘I just thought, how will I do it?’ The right creative strategy for unwinding a prose narrative had to be found, given ‘the problem with using such a well-known historical figure’. He discovered it through an overseas trip and a visit to the old property, Burnt Norton, which had generated the first section of the poet’s great work, Four Quartets. Through the poetry, and through his visit to this decayed estate, which the married Eliot had visited in 1934 with his old friend Emily Hale, Carroll reached the heart and unfolding of The Lost Life.
This elegant, deeply moving work of fiction plays out the interaction between two fictive lovers (or should I say, courting couple?) and the already famous poet with his dear friend and would-be lover, Emily Hale. At first, Carroll had thought of depicting children in the shrubbery, given the poet’s enchanting lines: ‘Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children/hidden excitedly, containing laughter.’ He admits, ‘I just had that phrase continually in the background’. But in the end, it is a pair of young adults, Daniel and Catherine, who overhear the middle-aged couple plighting their secret troth.
Where did Catherine and her Cambridge-educated young man come from? ‘They just became the main characters.’ For a male writer, Carroll is remarkable at developing the consciousness of female characters. So much of the story is felt through the perceptions of Catherine and Emily – the former becoming, in a Jean Brodie-ish way, one of ‘Miss Hale’s girls’. But there is far more to Catherine than this, as we gradually find out.
Love trembles on the edge of loss. It also, inevitably, changes in time: or rather, with time. We all live at different speeds, after all. Accordingly, the narrative here brings the leisurely pace of Tom and Emily – rediscovering one another in the idyllic landscape of a ruined mansion, with its green shrubbery and dried-out pool – into contact with two young lovers, whose emotions are accelerating. The adjective which attaches to this pair is ‘ardent’ – word-loving Catherine actively treasures as ‘their’ word.
The generational couples are paralleled, their secret and semi-private lives interwoven. But it all begins in the evocative, poetically-endorsed garden of Burnt Norton. The story lives, then, in the rich Gloucestershire countryside, between invention and history. The book is saturated with the flavour of England, of an older, rural, touristic countryside and small town torpor.
Carroll is a most persuasive stylist, drawing us to his tale with prose that is plain yet subtly moving. He evokes movement through the garden at Burnt Norton thus:
‘In the same trance they walk slowly, without speaking, up the path lined with roses, pass under an arch and out into the rose garden, humming pink and white in the autumn sun, which still retains the heat of summer.’
Here, he orchestrates the simplest diction to evoke the couple’s movement, their feelings, and the landscape surrounding them, in the one melody. Just as Carroll can give us this pastoral, he can modulate into a harsh London, dramatised both as strange to young Catherine and as the haunt (or den) of Eliot’s estranged, pathological wife. The writing here suggests a descent into the circles of Dante’s hell (which had long obsessed the poet in fact), an effect produced without melodramatic excess. The author maintains his subtle control, his vocabulary, his governing rhythms, even when he evokes the famous, harrowing photograph of the Eliots with Virginia Woolf.
Some might call his writing poetic – an adjective that is much over-used for effects that can range anywhere from gaudy to delicate. But this is a novel about the mature life of a distinctive poet, and it is threaded with occasional echoes of his poetry as well as of his divided life.
At the heart of the story (if a quadrilateral can be said to have a heart) is the re-enacted figure of Emily Hale, the civilised, highly intelligent American drama teacher who loved Eliot for decades, but never married him. And Catherine who, says Carroll, ‘like many of us, just loved Eliot’s poetry’. The Lost Life endorses the belief that Eliot and Hale’s visit to Burnt Norton set in train the poet’s great late work, Four Quartets, the first part of which is directly named ‘Burnt Norton’ – a property Carroll has, in his turn, visited and brooded upon.
Eliot’s very title, Four Quartets, reflects the powerful influence of Beethoven’s late quartets, as does the actual structure of his poem, or suite. Carroll builds his novel in a similar way, with four major characters (or, if you count the baleful Vivien Eliot, five). The Lost Life is strongly invested with that same musical form as the poem that inspired it. On the last page, after all events have taken their compelling and entirely persuasive course, Catherine listens to a string quartet in the garden, sounding:
‘The jabbed, emphatic final note that sounds the end of the movement, the end of the whole piece, the music slowly fading in the open air of the whole estate, but never quite gone.’
That string of definite articles attempts to close everything off – but, as Steven Carroll well knows, there can be no ultimate closure. Despite that mortal truth, the fifth movement of his story has ended the narrative with a positive scene of restitution, one that has the formal rightness any reader will have desired.
Chris Wallace-Crabbe is a Melbourne poet. His latest book is Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw.
Photo: Sophie Bassouls