The edition I actually read was not the paperback pictured above but a Viking hardback with the most luxurious-feeling semi gloss paper and a little woven bookmark. Which means I couldn’t cart it around with me, for fear of damage, but I’ve had some time off and so got it finished.
Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) as we all know, was born in Birmingham, England where she worked as a nurse, had a complicated married life, came to Western Australia, where she bought a little farm in the hills outside Perth, and quite late, began to teach creative writing and publish novels. This is important to keep in mind because it usually forms the basis of what she writes about. But not this time.
Lovesong (1997), one of her later works, is a difficult work to come to grips with, set in an unnamed (Australian) city with a male protagonist who appears to have been released into the community from an institution for the criminally insane (that is, for people who commit a crime and plead mental illness, or sometimes for people who are at risk of committing a crime, usually sexual). I found it very slow to get into, though I gradually became engrossed, and I think Jolley may have been concentrating on imagining/reproducing the thought processes of someone who was a bit bewildered to find himself where he was. That is, the problem she set herself was not ‘how do I tell this story?’, but ‘how can I best write what/how this man is thinking?’.
I still haven’t read Brian Dibble’s biography of Jolley, Doing Life, but I thought I should at least look up what he has to say about Lovesong. Jolley said, in an interview with Ramona Koval, “she was inspired to write the book by work she had done with women inmates at Perth’s Bandyup Prison and male prisoners in Fremantles’s maximum security jail; she was moved when she thought of the loneliness such men faced when they returned to the community.”
Dibble writes: “While some readers might regard Jolley’s last three books [Lovesong, An Accommodating Spouse, An Innocent Gentleman] as chaotic, lacking structure and control and more, what is remarkable about them is how they recapitulate Jolley’s entire oeuvre from three different points of view, the first focusing on the sexual outsider and the other two on the family.”
Dalton Foster, still lingering in his doorway, straightens his tie and wondering why his mother and aunt Dalton should come, all at once, into his mind, goes downstairs in search of the dining room and breakfast. He has not thought of his mother or aunt Dalton for some time. Perhaps the memories are a part of the experience of coming back into the community after working meticulously for half his life through a sentence and a cure in various special institutions.
This is not quite the beginning of the book. We have already spent some time, half a dozen pages, in Foster’s mind as he idly considers music, his mother and his aunt, and his new lodgings. And this is how we continue – we meet Mrs Porter, the landlady, and her lodgers; we meet another family, do-gooders who take in Foster one night a week; a young girl, in rags, in the park where he walks, who Foster follows -yes, that’s as creepy as it sounds – dreaming of befriending, helping. But all along Foster’s mind returns to his childhood, his ineffectual father, his mother, his father’s sister, aunt Dalton, who form a strange menage mostly ganged up on Foster senior; and to his years in Cambridge, studying, singing; circling round to/lightly touching on the choirboy whose approach seemingly leads to his imprisonment.
It bugs me that the novel has no definite location. It could be Perth – the lodging house backing on to the rail line in the relatively poor inner suburb of North Perth; his walks through parks and to the consul’s house in a better suburb, maybe Subiaco; the homeless sleeping under the bridges where a major roadway crosses from the north bank, to an island and then to the south bank of the river, which sounds like the Swan and Herrison Island. But Jolley doesn’t say, and she has “mile long” grain trains thundering behind the house, which is nice image but the suburban Fremantle line has probably not been used by freight trains for more than 50 years*.
Foster’s father was a consul for trade – his wife and sister, who formed a couple, with Foster’s father a distant third, were very contemptuous of “trade” – so they moved constantly, though never apparently to the most interesting European cities, and for a while were in Australia, in this city, and living in the same house as the do-gooder family, not that he tells them, or barely anything else either. Just sits quietly in the company of the teenage children, staying over sometimes on a bed made up on a sofa.
There is no plot, just a short chain of events – the two men in the room next to his introduce themselves, and may follow him when he walks in the park in the dark; Mrs Porter attempts to set him up with the ever hopeful Miss Vale; he makes a number of attempts to follow the little girl, eventually successfully, which leads to him being beaten up by the homeless community under the bridge; the teenage boy of the do-gooder family stands before him naked, apparently in invitation, and he flees; things come to a head with Miss Vale.
He is deeply sorry now. Sorry for Miss Vales because he is silently irritated with her the whole time. He is sorry that he has no qualities fit for a bridegroom. His dealings with women have always been mainly by accident.
Elizabeth Jolley is a stunning writer, and she slowly immerses us in the mind of this unlikeable person who nevertheless engages our interest and sometimes our sympathy. Your heart is constantly in your mouth in fear that he will do something grotesque, which thank goodness, he eventually does not.
Elizabeth Jolley, Lovesong, Viking/Penguin, Melbourne, 1997. 240pp. ex libris J. Terry
All our E. Jolley reviews at ANZLitLovers’ Elizabeth Jolley page (here)
*Railway stuff: A dual gauge rail line for freight was constructed through Perth’s outer southern suburbs in the 1960s to connect the ports at Fremantle and Kwinana (south-west of the city), via the freight terminal at Kewdale, to Midland Junction (east of the city) for all the narrow gauge wheatbelt lines, and on to Kalgoorlie to meet the standard gauge Trans Australia line. It is possible that prior to that, freight from the country came to the wharves at Fremantle via the city. I can think of a couple of earlier literary mentions of Perth’s rail system. One in Xavier Herbert’s memoir Disturbing Element when their furniture was brought from a country town to Fremantle by train (Herbert’s father worked on the railways); and when DH Lawrence travelled up from Fremantle to the city in a wood-fired steam train). And of course there’s the Dorothy Hewett poem In Midland Where the Trains go by.