Saturday, January 9, 2010

Alex Miller: Comparing 2 Novels

ALEX Miller’s newest novel, Lovesong, (Allen & Unwin 2009), has been compared by a number of critics with his earlier Conditions of Faith (Allen & Unwin 2000). It’s not difficult to see why. Both books have a strong Tunisian connection. In COF, the female protagonist leaves Australia for a married life in Paris, and travels for respite from personal problems to Tunisia for holidays. In L the male protagonist is Australian and falls in love with a Tunisian woman whilst in Paris and longs to come back to Australia with her. Longing is a major theme in both novels. Emily in COF longs for the opportunity to study history and fulfil the expectations she places upon herself to achieve some extraordinary things in research. The Tunisian woman, Sabiha, in L, meanwhile, longs to raise a family and to fulfil a savagely strong maternal urge. In COF Emily is frightened to death at the prospect of motherhood, whilst in L, the barren Sabiha almost goes insane in her desperate attempts to become a mother. The urge to create, in different ways, therefore engulfs both women. And the men in both novels have their own obsessions that predictably conflict with the desires of their wives. In COF Georges wants to start a family and live in Australia and become a first class engineer and build bridges. John, in L, wants to live in Australia too, and fulfil his ambition of working in a cafe or a restaurant with his wife. Finally, the couples in both stories experience an important event in the beautiful French cathedral town of Chartres- although Emily’s experience is by far the more significant.

Lovesong has a more complex narrative in some ways in that there is a significant third person in the story who happens to be the narrator. John and Sabiha’s story is told by Ken, a Melbourne man who is a retired writer. He has met John at a coffee shop on numerous occasions, and has decided to write John and Sabiha’s story, as told to him by Ken. We are reminded from time to time that it is a story told to us via Ken, however most of the time John and Sabiha’s story sounds like a regular third person narrative.

After we are introduced to Ken and his daughter, the heart of the story begins in a Parisian restaurant, run by Sabiha and her aunt. On page 47 John, the wandering Australian traveller, comes into the story as he dines for the first time at the restaurant. After the mutual attraction of John and Sabiha is established, he moves in and helps run the place and becomes Sabiha’s partner. Once the aunt dies it is just the two of them and they live a very happy, simple life.
The narrative flies forward a couple of years and there is restlessness in the couple, particularly Sabiha. Her obsession with wanting to have children is well and truly cemented, which places huge pressure on her relationship. Sabiha even insists that any thought of living in Melbourne is impossible without her ageing father meeting her first born. The major tension in the novel, therefore, is borne out then in Sabiha’s sadness and desperation to conceive. She goes to extraordinary lengths to become pregnant- even secretly seducing an associate of the family on several occasions- chosen because he has eleven kids. The tragedy for Sabiha is that at first she continues to menstruate thereafter and the man she chooses, Bruno, threatens to reveal their secret because he is in love with her.

The major drama in COF, meanwhile, lies with Emily and her desperate need NOT to conceive. Like Georges, she is deeply ambitious, and she sees the onset of children as a serious threat to her ambitions to research a book she wants to write. Emily becomes inadvertently pregnant (like Sabiha, eventually), and like Sabiha, the father is not her partner. The drama plays itself out as Emily seems to be ignoring the fact that she is heavily pregnant, and despite the cold winter, quietly creeps out of bed day after day to go to the Paris Bibliotheque to continue her research. Much to the dismay of Georges, the baby is not Emily’s chief concern.
There are beautiful passages in Lovesong. Sabiha’s encounters with Bruno are well written. There is great tension when we wait with bated breath to see if Emily’s deceit will be uncovered. Bruno continues to visit John and Sabiha’s eating house after each betrayal, and the tension in the air is incredibly thick. I found myself becoming mildly absorbed in Sabiha’s desperate quest to become pregnant at any cost, and the music and the food described in great detail in the restaurant is captivating and appealing.

I can’t help thinking that Lovesong pales in comparison with COF, however. Emily is a much better drawn character than Sabiha and her longing seems more moving. Georges is hugely significant in his own right. His fierce desire to become one of the world’s great engineers is equal to any ambition of Emily’s, and this is touchingly illustrated in a long passage in which Georges adoringly details the kind of work that is involved in the tendering process to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. John is simply not as intricate or interesting as Georges.

The peripheral characters in Lovesong, with the exception of Bruno, are unremarkable. This is true of the ‘retired’ narrator, Ken, as well, despite efforts to make him more complex by introducing passages with his disaffected daughter. It seems that Ken is, in fact, unnecessary. Perhaps Miller placed him in the narrative in a vain attempt to make his story more complex. With COF, this was unnecessary because the story was divergent and captivating enough. In COF we meet the extraordinarily gay friend Antoine, the complex priest, the austere matriarch in Georges’ family, and the beautiful and loyal servant girl, Sophie, who keeps Emily’s secrets from Georges, but is sadly compromised by doing so.

In terms of quests, I found Emily and Georges’ quests to be much more convincing and significant than that of Sabiha’s and John’s. Of course the desperate desire in a woman to bear a child can be tragic and as a subject matter very moving. However, the potential tragedy for a woman who is pregnant and at the same time deeply ambitious and trying to restrict her femininity is for me more intriguing. The denouement, in which Emily abandons her new born daughter and chooses academia in Tunisia instead is breathtaking and some would say outrageous. The train leaves Paris with little Marie and Georges on it, and Emily remains on the platform:

The guard slammed the door and turned the handle. Georges let down the window and leaned out. The train lurched and began to move. Emily and Georges looked at each other. “Goodbye,” she said.
The train gathered speed and rolled away along the platform. Georges leaned from the window, his hand raised, “You can still change your mind,” he called.
They watched him until the curves of the tracks took him from their sight.
Emily leaned against Antoine. They turned and walked away toward the barrier.
“What have I done? I am a monster.” Her voice was stricken with disbelief, regret, bewilderment, sorrow. (p.p. 399-400).

The desperate desire to find contentment is at the heart of both novels and both Sabiha and Emily go to great lengths and take great risks in their attempts to achieve it.

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