Essays (book reviews)
The following text
was delivered at the Melbourne launch of Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, Readings, Carlton (Melbourne), 6
other day I happened to find on the Internet the transcription of a talk by the
French philosopher Luce Irigaray. She began by
speaking about praise: how, in
Western societies, we are not skilled or schooled in it, we don’t know how to
handle it. Especially in Australia, as I sometimes think: we take praise
sometimes defensively, or mockingly; and we give it grudgingly, couching it in
a note or deflation, or even insult.
am happy to report, however, that for a critic like myself,
the book launch is one of the few occasions that allows absolute license for
the handing-out of praise.
there’s another side to this business of praise – which is precisely when
praise becomes a kind of business. For people in my game – the film reviewing
game, but likewise for the book or art or music reviewing game – praise is
often given too easily and freely, too quickly and cheaply.
is a rare event in the arts that makes a critic want to lift his or her game,
to find adequate praise, exact praise, just praise. Delia Falconer’s new book is
having that effect on me right now.
was indeed honoured when Nikki Christer of Picador
asked me to say these few words to launch Delia’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers. It is, in fact, the only book of
fiction that I have ever been asked to launch. But if I imagine myself suitable
for the job, that’s not only because this is, in many ways, a very cinematic
other qualification for the task: I have also been an avid fan of Delia’s work
since it began to appear publicly in the mid 1990s. I have followed her novels,
her short stories, her essays, her book reviews, her talks. I may have an
advantage over some of you because, as the author of a book on The Mad Max Movies, I am also closely
acquainted with Delia’s extensive writing on Mad Max – and indeed, I believe
George Miller missed out on a great opportunity when he neglected to commission
Delia to write the screenplay for the fourth film in the series, Mad Max: Fury Road.
the distance between Mad Max and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is not as
great as you might think. Both are about mythologies of men, and of the
landscape. Both are about men in battle, surrounded by the enemy. And don’t
forget that Mad Max has often been
referred to as a “Western on wheels”. Delia’s book is a Western. It in fact
tackles a classic Western subject: General George Custer’s last stand at the
Battle of Little Bighorn.
tells this story from an oblique, indirect angle. She narrates the tale of
Fredrick Benteene, who was definitely not the legendary hero of the Battle of
Little Bighorn. What was hard for him is that he survived. And he lived to a
ripe old age. The Lost Thoughts of
Soldiers is told in a kind of cinematic flashback through the recollections
of old Benteene.
at this level, the tale and its telling are oblique. The book is about lost
thoughts, often cryptic, mysterious thoughts – not the cartography of an epic
battle. It is about bodily sensations and mechanisms, about changes in the
weather, about fleeting impressions of the land. Delia writes fearlessly about
things that are hard to describe: often I remembered, while reading this book,
the filmmaker Robert Bresson’s modest but enormous
statement that, in one of this films, he “tried to
capture the force in the air just before a storm”. But Delia also retains a
fine and tender sense – evident from that first story which we all read of hers,
“Columbus’ Blindness” – for every doomed, everyday attempt that we feeble
humans make at describing the indescribable, every kind of weight and measurement going.
has remarked that part of her motivation in writing (all her writing) is to
explore, to imagine, to show what is left out of
official history. And Benteene, the old codger, is
the hero of this unofficial history.
suggested that this book is cinematic in many ways. For example, I described it
as a cinematic flashback: I know literature probably invented that technique
(William Faulkner?), but cinema took it over so thoroughly that, today, when
novelists use it, they are quoting cinema whether they like it or not – and
Delia, I suspect, likes it.
second way in which this book is cinematic: when it comes to the history of the
American West we have, after all, a very curious situation. Even while the real
West was still around, in its death throes but still kicking, the real cowboys
and Indians, soldiers and families, were already being turned into a
media-created mythology. This took place in popular writing and folk tales, but
above all in visual imagery (paintings and photographs), theatrical and circus
spectaculars (the subject of Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians ), and, of course, in the
movies. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is about this complex cultural moment, and state of mind, when all of us (Benteene included) come to understand history through the
images and stories refracted through movies.
a third level of cinema. The Lost
Thoughts of Soldiers often reminded me of one particular film: Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1998). This is another story about men in a
historic war (Guadalcanal); another story of man (the character played by Elias Koteas) who chose not to pus through and fight and
sacrifice (as his commander ordered), but to live and help some of his
‘children’ to live. It’s another story about men – not just men in war but men,
period – and their strange, mystical ideas about the unfathomable otherness of
Women. Malick, too, approaches his tale obliquely and
internally, attuned to those private, lost thoughts. And he, too, avoids the
Hollywood spectacle of the battle scene.
I have to tell you – with all due respect to Terrence Malick – that The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is a heck of a lot funnier than The Thin
Red Line. There is a Monty Python element in Delia’s sensibility. A lot of
the book is preoccupied with absurdities: irrational thoughts, inexplicable
sights, the daily chatter of nonsense that soldiers
speak to each other when they are approaching the lines of war.
this leads me to something I really love about this book: that it’s moving and
profound, without ever playing on manipulative sentimentality or heavy-handed
epiphany. And here I would like to try to something precise about Delia’s
writing – I mean her language, her words. I am often amused by the predictable
poverty of adjectives we find in literary reviews. If written language, prose,
is ever pared down, in some way minimal or terse, we either call it hardboiled and muscular (meaning that
it’s masculine, like Hemingway, apparently – ‘muscular prose, that always
cracks me up); or it’s delicate and
exquisite (and that means it’s feminine, pretty).
Delia’s writing, with her style in this book, we have something hard to
describe: something dead-set in the middle between hard-boiled and exquisite.
Something that I can tell you that Delia avoids like the plague is what I think
of as the temptation to epiphany, a
constant epiphany about the profound meaning of things in every fourth line or
so, that so bedevils writers who try to write in the tradition of Raymond
Carver or Richard Ford (even Ford himself increasingly falls into this trap).
You know the sort of thing I’m referring to: Time compressed and caught up with Johnno at
the precise moment he stepped into the golf buggy, and the meaning of his
entire life unfurled before him like a parchment …
here’s something from Delia’s book:
When he was away upon the plains she
had stood in the street and imagined a pair of hands pressed against her waist,
it did not matter whose. No particular tone to what she said. Her neck, as she
spoke, was still and supple, all at once – it seems to him that she has been
the same age, always. (p. 51)
could be the evocation of a scene from another Malick film, Days of Heaven, which Petr Král once praised for
capturing our “honeymoon with the world”. There’s that same honeymoon to be had,
reading this book by Delia.
general, I tend to read the Author’s Note or the Acknowledgements at the back
of a book first. Maybe I shouldn’t
have, in this case, but I did. You will learn much there about Delia’s way –
sometimes strict, sometimes fanciful – with details of the historical record,
which she meticulously researches, collates and compares. And then she takes
off from there, obeying the call of fiction. In trying to capture the quality
of Delia’s writing, I followed this thread of Little Bighorn, and found myself
going to a passage in Private Screening,
a remarkable 1985 book of “viewing memoirs” by the aforementioned Petr Král: a passage which, too,
is about that same battle,
as depicted in the odd 1960s film Custer
of the West by a once great, Classic Hollywood director, German-born Robert Siodmak.
the West climaxes with a reconstruction of the celebrated Battle of Little Big Horn
[sic]. Kirk Douglas in the title role finally stands alone on the battlefield
in the midst of his dead troops, and exposed to the arrows of the Indians who
circle round him. Yet he is not to die: at the very last moment the image jumps
slightly and then we note Custer’s singular absence at the centre of the famous circle, which at that moment begins to break up. Disappeared, literally, without a trace. Obviously caused by
a simple technical fault, this spiriting away of his death gave him a singular nobility totally lacking from the rest of the
For Král, singular
nobility is something that arrives in films obliquely, sometimes by chance
or surreal accident. There are no accidents in Delia’s prose, but there is this
sparkle of nobility caught unawares, appearing unexpectedly. Her language sets
us up for, hunts out and captures that moment, those moments.
an intriguing time in Australian writing at present. We can observe the fates,
compare and contrast the styles, of two authors who both started in [that] mid
1990s period: Delia and Christos Tsiolkas.
the one hand, Christos’ Dead Europe is 411 pages, jam-packed with radical politics, gory violence and kinky sex –
like an episode of Big Brother. It
offers a mode of writing that people tend to call melodramatic, whether they mean that as praise or damnation. It’s main plot hook is gay vampires – ghosts/spirits/wraiths
that haunt the living, that haunt history
itself, ghosts that infect and kill and rape. Public intellectual Robert Manne was indignant, repulsed by it – and willing to write
about it for many pages in The Monthly magazine.
On the other hand, Delia’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers. This
one’s 140 pages, with elegantly, widely spaced lines. It offers a kind of
writing that people tend to call literary – or indeed very literary – whether
they mean that as praise or
damnation. And it is also a book about the ghosts of history, and memories that
haunt the living.
so it’s not a contest; these are two very different books which attempt (and
succeed at) very different things. But if there is a point of convergence
between them – and this point of convergence is also a sign of health in
contemporary Australian literature – it is that both authors are working not
just to clash or collide but truly blend vastly different forms of writing:
‘between documentary and fiction’, as we say at the movies. They blend
narrative with essay, imaginative speculation with hard, historical research,
metaphysical poetry with urgent polemic. And I don’t think it’s an accident
that both Delia and Christos are obsessed with this theme, this process, of haunting. The voice of ghosts, of
history’s ghosts, is the kind of voice that pricks your social conscience, not
just your individual consciousness, and it’s a voice that demands to be given
special form in a new kind of writing. That’s the kind of writing we get in The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers.
do, however, have one piece of literary – very literary – advice for Delia in terms of whatever her next book is (her third,
and may it be soon). It concerns the title. After The Service of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, please,
not another title in the form of The X-Y
of Z. That would be turning yourself into a genre!
that, I have no critique to make of this book. It is superbly written and
constructed, and it has a quality that one reviewer has already mentioned: the Iceberg Effect. What this reviewer meant
was exactly what the old Hollywood Studio Moguls meant when they wielded this
term: that the true depth of the book is hidden, secret, and what we encounter
on first contact, at the surface, is only the entrée to something much larger and deeper. Something
that resonates, and stays with you.
if this is indeed the only book of fiction I am ever asked to launch in my
life, I am extremely glad that it’s this one.
© Adrian Martin 6 July 2005