By Frank MoorhouseFiction Vintage
Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith’ trilogy is one of contemporary Australian literature’s most loved – and admired – achievements.
These three novels are a tantalising combination of history and fiction, the personal and the political, the domestic and the world stage. And despite their solid grounding in historical fact, they are alive with invention; driven by their characters and relationships as much as (if not more than) their page-turning plots and tapestry of ideas.
In Grand Days, a 26-year-old Edith arrived in Geneva from the Australian bush, to take up her post at the League of Nations and learn the ways of sophisticated Europe. Dark Palace saw the optimism of the first book crumble, along with the League itself, as World War II encroached.
In Cold Light, the final book in the trilogy, a middle-aged Edith settles in Canberra with her (secretly cross-dressing) husband Ambrose, poised to take a central role in Australian politics. Instead, she finds herself confined to the outskirts, defined more by her gender than her international experience. As she becomes reacquainted with her brother Frederick, a leading light in the Australian Communist Party, she is drawn into the new politics of the Cold War – and the world of espionage.
‘I never thought of myself as tragic,’ Edith reflected in the closing pages of Dark Palace, ‘but I do now.’ Indeed, Cold Light is replete with wasted promise and missed opportunity, as Edith’s once brilliant career stalls in the corridors of Canberra. However, the novel is also alive with Edith’s characteristic verve, wit and sheer persistence – and provides a revealing window onto the politics and mores of the recent past.
Cold Light is a fitting conclusion to Frank Moorhouse’s ambitious ‘Edith Trilogy’, one of the landmarks of recent Australian literature. In his vibrant protagonist, Edith Campbell Berry, he has created an indelible character. Cold Light returns Edith to Australia, plunging her into the political intrigues of the Menzies era and following her exploits through to the Whitlam years, and the novel combines her professional and personal travails with ease and fluency. Its intelligent considerations of questions of national identity and personal loyalty enrich a vibrant dramatisation of the timeless struggle between political idealism and pragmatism, played out against the backdrop of an atomic age. Written with the confident authority of a novelist at the height of his powers, Cold Light is at once a superbly realised work of historical fiction and a robust novel of ideas.
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‘The past is unpredictable.’
This is the last in a thicket of (seemingly over-determined) epigrams in the opening pages of Cold Light.
Carrying the concise depth charge of humour, this old joke from the Soviet Union is folded back on itself, broken and truthful. For Frank Moorhouse, the precise contours of the past are not only unpredictable but, in the intimate tension between expression and denial, deeply personal.
Arguably, Moorhouse has found no better vehicle for this than the character of Edith Campbell Berry, the voice– hell, just about the whole damn world – of his novels Grand Days, Dark Palace and (as the closing volume of what is now marketed as ‘The Edith Trilogy’), Cold Light.
It’s 1950, and Edith has left the wreckage of post-World War II Europe that her beloved League of Nations was unable to prevent, and returned to Australia and ‘an unfinished city with no position in life’. Canberra’s unfinished small-town blankness provides her with the opportunity to both be a part of the bush capital’s consolidation and to be amongst its people, historical or not. Her Bloomsbury marriage to Ambrose, a British diplomat, is one of affectionate convenience, allowing them both their careers and other partners. Edith also has an initially uncertain reconnection with her younger brother, a ‘provincial revolutionary’.
As the book drily notes, Canberra is in the midst of ‘a very dramatic time both diplomatically and politically’, but the real unpredictability that interests Moorhouse is that of the body, not the body politic. The charge of a stranger’s hand on your thigh; the feel of women’s clothing on male skin; the annihilation of time and other bonds with hungry lovemaking; the rising sob stifled into an expletive at a parent’s gravesite. The passages that concern human connection are among the novel’s liveliest, marking out touch and severance as the pathfinders lighting Edith’s journey from the start.
Ambrose’s usually careful closeting is tempted into a freeing – then disastrous – moment of display. The care Moorhouse takes with the character of Ambrose means that the consequences of his brief carelessness have real emotional weight.
But inevitably, this is Edith’s book. Hers is a lively, questioning voice, awake to contradictions as she wonders if speaking aloud ‘would somehow disable the truth of what she had said’. The sometime dissonance between her wanting and denial is the space in which this novel truly lives.
There’s a newspaper swiftness to much of Moorhouse’s prose, aligned with Edith’s reflection that ‘deep experiences were knowable only in an approximate way, through language’. Edith, the fluent extrovert, is perhaps too expressive, leading to a problem of repetition, as what is thought is very often said or echoed. Canberra’s (then only planned) central lake is referred to in the same paragraph as both ‘intestinal’ and as ‘the guts of the city’; someone thought of as a student of politics is then addressed, ‘You speak like a student of politics’. The effect of this unmeasured echoing is to draw you out of the narrative – and out of Edith’s head – to wonder (however briefly) at the word choice.
The effect of reading Cold Light is like one of your oldest, chattiest friends returning to your home after many years away, delightfully crowding the conversation with candour and sex – then leaving you at the door with air kisses and a swift retreat.
James Tierney blogs at A Long, Slow Goodbye.
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