The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Ivan Čapovski

That is an odd painting, on the cover, based on a well-known photograph of Miles Franklin in nurses uniform, in Macedonia during WWI, but then this is an odd book. And shockingly for me, it is the book I said the other day that I had begun to write. My first lines (for the nonce) go:

In 2020 I am an old man and Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin is of my great grand parents’ generation, separated from now by gulfs of time, gender and geography. Yet this is me telling her story, imperfectly of course, but if you know my defects perhaps you will recognise the defects in my story telling, will maybe make a clearer picture of Stella/Miles, because of course we all think of her as Miles, than my own words, unmediated can convey.

What are my defects? Well first of all and maybe last, I am as I say an old man, an old white Australian man, and what do old men know of young women, very little. Very little when they were young men, and just as little when they’re old. Though daughters help, and wives and girlfriends. When they’re not grimacing, turning away. Listen to them. You’ll be surprised. I was. And what do old men know of old women? Nothing at all, they’re too busy thinking of young women. Old women pass them by.

As I read, I realise that I know more about MF than does the author, but that he, a Macedonian is of course much better placed to situate Franklin – whom he calls Miles throughout and not Stella as she was almost certainly known – in the complex, indeed Byzantine, geopolitics of Macedonia where she for six months, between July 1917 and Feb. 1918, served as a volunteer with Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Ostrovo.

Čapovski (b. 1936) has Franklin as a nurse, almost at the frontlines of the war, where a bewildering array of Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks and Macedonians are blood enemies from deep in their shared histories. But in fact the SWH unit, under the command of Australian Dr Mary De Garis, was well back from the conflict behind Serbian lines, and Franklin was an orderly, in Stores and assisting the matron (probably because she could type).

Franklin wrote about this period in the extended essay Ne Mari Ništa (It Matters Nothing): Six Months with the Serbs which I am yet to locate, and I wrote about her in Miles Franklin’s War for Anzac Day 2016. What Čapovski has read I can’t be sure. My concern in writing this fiction was how much research it would take. Čapovski seems to have a good if occasionally mistaken general knowledge of Franklin – and total familiarity with Macedonia’s geography and history – and has taken it from there.

You of course want to know how I reconcile my oft stated dislike of Historical Fiction, of WWI Hist.Fic in particular, and of authors with protagonists of the opposite gender, with my intention of writing just such a work. I make no excuses. My model was to have been Brian Matthews’ marvellous Louisa with all my defects, biases and failures of research out in the open for you all to see.

You might also ask how I can bear the errors in Čapovski’s account of Franklin’s life. The answer, I think, is that this Miles Franklin is a fiction just as the Sybylla’s were; just as Justine is in Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (both cases in which the authors gave up writing because they were so often conflated with their protagonists). Čapovski imagines a life for this 38 year old Australian single woman, and the things he gets ‘wrong’ – Franklin’s home being Talbingo, Linda (MF’s sister) dying before MF leaves for America, Franklin working on My Career Goes Bung (in fact the ms was lost until well after the War), and on Up the Country (not started until 1927) – these things don’t impinge on the story. Even Franklin being a frontline nurse instead of a behind the lines orderly is not particularly important. There were a number of Australian women in different roles at Ostrovo and any one of them could have been the protagonist. I’m just pleased that Macedonia remembers that ‘we’ were there.

The author discusses his decision to build his novel around Miles Franklin in an Afterword which I have chosen not to read until after this review is posted.

So what’s the story? In fact, is this a story, or just a cross-section of lives briefly intersecting near the end of the War? More the latter. Franklin arrives at the camp, makes friends with Lina a local girl whose fiancee has been conscripted not once but twice by the various powers vying to incorporate Macedonia. Two men, a poet and a photographer*, once friends, find themselves attached to opposing armies, save each other from death, move on, run into each other again, talk, shoot, end up in adjacent hospital beds. Macedonian villagers are enslaved by the Bulgarians in 1916, by the French and the Serbs in 1917. One young man kills a French officer in a futile attempt to protect his wife and baby, runs, hides, seeks refuge in the hospital at Ostrovo. The War goes on. In the Balkans the war is always going on. MF rests in the summer sun

What did poet EJ Brady who was in love with her, say to her back in 1904? To write about love .. To write about love. Love is like the snake: both conceal venom… She has never had anything against men. She has simply questioned their dominance.

I might have written an interesting novel about Miles Franklin aged 20-40 as I intended, but Čapovski does MF in Macedonia better than I could ever have hoped, because Macedonia and its history is his home territory. Don’t read this novel to learn more about Miles Franklin, but gloss over the minor errors in her back story, and read a fascinating account of a woman writer from the other side of the world observing, swept up in, one more iteration of the ancient conflicts which men have inflicted on each other in these mountains since before recorded history.

 

Ivan Čapovski, The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Cadmus Press, Melbourne, 2020. 280pp. Published in Macedonia, 2004. Translated by Paul Filev. Cover art by Aleksandar Stankoski. (website).

Further reading:
Miles Franklin page (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
Dianne Bell, Miles Franklin and the Serbs still matter (here)
Australians Working with Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Debbie Robson
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Australians talk, Debbie Robson


*The photographer, Jasen Krstanov, says that he is inspired by the Australian writer and war correspondent AG Hales (1860-1936)