Patrick Allington interviews Frank Moorhouse about his new novel Cold Light
In Grand Days Frank Moorhouse told the story of Australian Edith Campbell Berry’s arrival in Europe to work at the newly formed League of Nations (the precursor to the UN) and her tempestuous romance with Major Ambrose Westwood. In Dark Palace, we met Edith and Ambrose again, in the dark years and uncertain political atmosphere that led to the outbreak of World War Two – and the demise of the League. Acclaimed novelist Patrick Allington spoke to Moorhouse about Cold Light the much-anticipated final instalment in his Edith trilogy.
‘These are pretty big questions,’ Frank Moorhouse cheerfully protested about halfway through our chat about his new novel, Cold Light. He’d just returned to Sydney from one of his regular solo treks. ‘By trekking, I mean carrying the food and sleeping bag and tent and going off into the bush,’ he told me. ‘I do map and compass work, I go off trail … I can’t carry any more bourbon than for seven days.’
Moorhouse had a point about my ‘pretty big questions’ but it is every rusted-on fan’s right, given half a chance, to revel (or wallow) in earnest inquiry. Moorhouse’s writing invites readers – no, it compels us – to think about life, the universe and everything, especially the political and the gastronomic ‘everything’.
We spoke mostly about Moorhouse’s most complete fictional creation, Edith Campbell Berry. After a cameo role in the novel Forty-Seventeen (1988) – on that more later, as Moorhouse might put it – Edith has dominated Moorhouse’s magnificent trilogy on the League of Nations and its demise, which comprises Grand Days (1993), Dark Palace (2000) and, now, Cold Light.
The new novel brings Edith home, although she doesn’t seem thrilled to be stuck in Canberra. Its weighty themes include the Cold War, the atomic era, domestic politics from the 1950s to the 1970s, sexual politics, food and drink, and the development of the still-adolescent capital city of Canberra. Edith is a mover and shaker but she’s fundamentally an idealist. At one point, she sums up her philosophy by saying, “I believe we change the world meeting by meeting … conversation by conversation. Every argument in the workplace or around the kitchen table about the fair way to do something — these are fights for a civilised world.”
But in Cold Light, Edith’s efforts to fight for a civilised world seem forever out of sync. Her brand of internationalism sits awkwardly amidst the rigidity of Cold War posturings. Socially conservative and male-dominated Australia discomforts and agitates her. She struggles to find meaningful work, let alone the diplomatic posting she dreams of. She questions her unconventional marriage to long-time on-off companion Ambrose Westwood, breaks with mentors, endures old sparring partners like Scraper Smith, and forges new alliances and friendships, some of which flounder. Most intriguingly, she reconnects, although uneasily, with her long-lost brother, Frederick, now a communist official.
Moorhouse uses Frederick and his partner, Janice, to examine Cold War communism in Australia, including the views of non-communist politicians and the general public. It’s complex, intriguing and very personal. ‘Edith obviously tried to contemplate revolutionary change,’ Moorhouse said. ‘Her brother was a split of her mind, in a way. Given a slightly different personality or temperament she might have gone that direction. I mean, the League of Nations was a revolutionary idea.’
Moorhouse himself holds nuanced views on communism in Cold War Australia. He told me that he believed the Menzies government’s assessment of the degree of risk or threat of expansionist communism was ultimately wrong and that the refusal of Australians to pass the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party ‘defined Australia in a way, I hope’. But he also reflected that ‘there was reason to be frightened in the fifties, in the Cold War … I hope the book somehow conveys some of the reality of that, too, the reality of that fear … I lived through it. I’d probably say that I underrated the threat of the Soviet Union, of Russian-driven expansion of communism. I think I underestimated how risky that all was.’
Moorhouse writes with terrific poise and wit about politics, perhaps because he starts from a point of genuine inquisitiveness about political processes and institutions –rather than disdain. In Cold Light, dramatisations of real people, including politicians such as Menzies and Whitlam, commingle with invented characters. I asked Moorhouse about the line he treads between historical accuracy and the demands of storytelling. ‘I suppose I started off with certain personal ground rules about it,’ he said, although he also happily ’fessed up that the explanatory note about truth and imagination that appears at the beginning of Grand Days has undergone ‘refinement’ for Cold Light.
‘I did work from documentary sources but I also construct within the context of existing evidence,’ he said. ‘Writing imaginative fiction is very much an intuitive process and the arcing between the historical record and the fiction is sometimes quite intense and extraordinary. In all three books, I was virtually in archives throughout the whole writing of the book. I didn’t do the research and then write the book, I wrote the book while doing the research. And the research and the writing were hugely tangled. It was a process and in some ways the archives were writing the story; I hope the story wasn’t writing the archive.’ There is, however, one important difference with Cold Light: ‘I was drawing on my personal archive as well. I had lived through this period whereas the other two books I had lived through it only through my parents and their generation.’
However important Cold Light’s political themes are, its primary achievement is its layered and compassionate portrait of Edith’s later years. I often found myself barracking on Edith’s behalf, but ultimately I felt desperately sad for her. Moorhouse said he shared that sense of sadness. ‘It’s not only because of her nature or her personality but it’s a lot to do with her generation of women. There were a lot of women who were wasted, absolutely wasted. It must have been intellectual hell for a lot of them, the way they were treated and the way they were talked about, even in their presence. It was a tragic generation, I think, because they saw the light, they could see it happening, that it was all going to change and how it should be for women. Edith had a glimpse of that.’
The failure of the League of Nations parallels Edith’s troubles. ‘I did feel as I created Cold Light that there was a certain element of tragedy that I hadn’t foreseen,’ Moorhouse said. ‘But that’s in contrast to the golden years of the grand days, where even tough-minded politicians like Churchill and Eden and others thought that the League of Nations would work and that international mediation would work … It is a pretty stark contrast, the world of Cold Light to the world of Grand Days.’ And yet Edith seems undefeatable. It’s as if she takes on the whole world and, rather than winning or losing, claws her way to an honourable and inspirational draw.
I cannot remember the last time I felt compelled to read two novels side-by-side. But as I approached the end of Cold Light, I pulled my copy of Forty-Seventeen from the shelf (its pages sunned and smelling of stale ink). Both books find 70-year-old Edith back in the diplomatic game, visiting Vienna and Israel as a ‘special envoy’ on nuclear matters for the Whitlam government. In Forty-Seventeen, readers witness events from 40-year-old Ian’s perspective but in Cold Light we see Edith’s side of things. According to Moorhouse, ‘It was an interesting imaginative journey to make that switch. When I wrote Forty-Seventeen I was around about 40 years old and only the passing of time would have allowed me to go really into Edith’s perspective. I probably couldn’t have done it when I was forty’. For readers, the effect of witnessing Ian and Edith’s very different versions of the same events is startling – and at times quite distressing.
The last pages of Cold Light have a dream-like quality to them, and they are amongst the most beautiful and poignant writing that Moorhouse has produced. These days, the descriptions ‘epic’ and ‘great’ enjoy such indiscriminate use that I hesitate to invoke them here. Except that Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’ is a truly epic tale of twentieth-century international diplomacy, and Edith Campbell Berry is one of Australian literature’s great characters.
Patrick Allington’s novel Figurehead was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009.