Strangers on a train

Review of Travelling Companions by Antoni Jach (Transit Lounge, 2021)

Travelling Companions is a book made to read in lockdown. We Australians are renowned travellers. The year spent backpacking after university is a rite of passage, and we think nothing of flying 1,000 km and back for a lunch meeting in Sydney or Melbourne. Being locked in ‘Fortress Australia’ for a second year is especially frustrating, therefore (though trivial compared to the impact of COVID-19 on many other countries, of course). The next best thing to a Qantas ticket, then, is a vicarious journey through Europe is the company of a master storyteller.

This is the plot of Antoni Jach’s new work, describing a journey which starts in Barcelona and curves across Europe to end in Rome where the narrator flies home to Melbourne again. He meets various other travellers from around the world who tell stories to each other, especially Nina, an alluring Milanese whose tales are ever more extraordinary and captivating. Any reader expecting an easy ride on a travelogue is soon disappointed. The intial train journey to Avignon is delayed, then postponed; the travellers are turned back to their starting point before setting out a second time by bus, only to be held up yet again by French farmers who have blockaded the autoroute. The bus turns back . . . it feels like there are more delays and digressions here than in chapter one of Tristram Shandy. What can the passengers do but pass the time by telling stories?

We hear from a Dutch commercial traveller haunted by his ancestors’ wealth being built on colonial exploitation in Java. A postman in Poland steals and opens love letters, making ‘improvements’  before re-sealing and sending them on their way. There is a stockbroker who moonlights as a courtesan offering the expensive SGE (Superior Girfriend Experience). A philosopher who turns to the family business of art forgery. We also learn about the travellers’ lives, the story of the historical sites they visit, and much more besides. It soon becomes clear, though, that something odd is happening. Set in 1999, it’s remarkable how the journey feels like another epoch when the characters cannot stay in touch by mobile phone, before they can use a single currency throughout Europe, or make flight and accommodation bookings via apps instead of queuing at a travel agency or struggling through a telephone conversation in another language to a distant hotel. It’s more than this though . . .

 As well as acutely observed characters and situations, there is something delightfully artful going on. The same details crop up in different tales told by different people. A reference to Pinoccio. Clairefontaine notebooks. In Venice, the narrator dreams of a ring and finds one on a footpath the following morning . . . he gives it to an Australian girl who returns it to him in another city . . . an American companion plans to give his girlfriend a ring in the hope she will marry him, but she refuses to accept it and walks onto her plane and out of his life. The recurring details, circling stories, and performance of departures and returns, make Travelling Companions more reminscent of oral storytelling than a compact modern novel. The narrator carries Bocaccio’s Decameron with him, but his tale hints at a far older, pre-literate tradition, when travelling storytellers would recite a long chain of stories linked by a subtle thread, such as Scheherazade, for example. The need for story is deeply ingrained in human cultures, whether narratives around millenia-old rock art or the latest must-see TV serial such as Mare of Eastwick. Stories make sense of the random data of everyday life. They place us in space and time. We recognise the characters and situations and feel that, perhaps, we are not alone in the solitary confinement of our skulls after all.

Travel itself is a kind of story. On the road, we are living a narrative with an intense awareness of having been somewhere different yesterday, and that we’ll be somewhere else tomorrow. Everything is new. Away from our usual habitat, there is a heightened sense of existence as Jach’s narrator recognises. We give ourselves permission to be someone a little different if we want, and permission to watch others and our surroundings more closely. ‘I’m like blotting paper’ soaking up impressions, Jach writes, and ‘I’m just a solitary traveller looking for people to talk to, so I don’t fall off the edge of the flat earth’.

Reading Travelling Companions began to remind me of watching a Fellini movie, so it was no surprise when one of Jach’s characters exclaimed, ‘my life feels like  or La Dolce Vita . . .’ In unfamiliar surroundings, his characters undergo metamorphoses like Fellini’s, transformed by the tales they hear and of which they are a part. ‘We hold our personalities together with paperclips,’ Jach writes, ‘and those paperclips are the stories we tell each other.’

At one point, the travellers stand in a Venetian art gallery before Gorgione’s The Tempest, famously one of the most mysterious paintings ever created.  In the foreground, a woman on the right suckles a child at her breast. She is nude, with her pubic area visible, yet the impression is of innocence and trusting vulnerability, not sexual display. On the left stands a young man with a pike, well dressed and looking pleased with himself. They do not look at each other; in fact, each seems to inhabit their own space. In the background a storm looms over a city which might be Padua as lightning crackles across the sky. Jan Morris called it ‘a haunted picture’. The Tempest is an enigma which viewers must construct their own stories to explain. For the characters and readers of Travelling Companions too, it is stories which make sense of our lives – the lies that tell the truth.

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Giorgione, The Tempest (c.1508). Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

Do you want to know a secret?

A secret, once told, is a secret no longer . . .

Once shared, a secret hardens into ‘a fact’, one of those awkward, sharp-edged pieces of reality that we have to accommodate in our lives. Have you ever kept a secret from those closest to you? No? Not one, ever . . ? We all do at some time, of course (even it’s a matter of being ‘economical with the truth’). The universal excuse we make is that it saves hurting people’s feelings. And that’s not something easily dismissed.

But what would happen if our deepest secrets were made brutally visible to everyone? If some Edward Snowden of the heart decided the world would be a better place without lies? What would be the consequences of truth? This is the terrifying question at the heart of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which Simon Stone has adapted in his first movie, The Daughter.

Film versions of stage plays are notoriously difficult to carry off, usually trapped in a box of static interior action (with the occasional exterior shot for atmosphere). In The Daughter, Stone does not attempt to make a film version of his acclaimed Belvoir Theatre adaptation of The Wild Duck, but re-imagines the play again entirely against the backdrop of the Snowy Mountains. The extended opening scene shows a beautiful, still high country landscape. Vast banks of mist cushion the mountains, as though insulating them from harsher realities beyond. At last the crack of a gunshot shatters the peace, and the action begins.

Oliver (Ewen Leslie) works at the local timber mill which is closing down. He breaks the news to his wife Charlotte (Miranda Otto) and daughter, Hedvig (Odessa Young). They are a strong, loving family, and you feel they are tough enough to weather this challenge. Oliver’s father, Walter (Sam Neill) lives in a caravan behind their house, pottering around and looking after wounded animals and birds (wild duck alert). Modest domestic scenes between the four of them are surprisingly moving, a testimony to superb acting talent as well as Stone’s script and direction.

Up at the ‘big house’ meanwhile (filmed at Camden Park House, NSW), the local landowner, Henry (Geoffrey Rush), is preparing for his marriage to Anna (Anna Torv). She is young enough to be his daughter, but it only seems crass when someone points out the age difference. They clearly love one another. The closure of his timber mill has been shrugged off; Henry evidently has plenty of other assets. Christian (Paul Schneider), his son from a first marriage, returns after 16 years in the US for the wedding. When Christian meets Oliver (they are old school friends), a spark arcs between the two families. A circuit is closed, and the destruction of their peaceful existence begins. Henry’s carefully-named son is like a serpent bringing the curse of knowledge into their garden of innocence. If he cannot be happy, then nor shall anyone else.

As Christian exposes the secret, and then the secret-within-the-secret, everything leads back to his father, Henry. Geoffrey Rush loves vaudeville and clowning and draws on these traditions in some of his film roles, but he has a nice line in buttoned-up, conflicted middle-aged men too. It is a delight to see him act so minimally here by force of character it seems, rather than through grand speech or gesture. Henry is nothing but polite and considerate to the other characters. He is anxious to please and do the best for everyone, providing generous packages to the workers at the mill when it closes. Yet in the end, everything is his fault. It could also be said that nothing is his fault either. The action of the play unfolds with the inevitability of a Greek drama, as though it were all fated to happen.

Henry’s crimes and misdemeanours might be blamed on his sense of privilege, but secrets are not the prerogative of any social class. Adjusting other people’s view of the world, by what we say and do not say, is intrinsic to how we operate. Secrets great and small are part of the human condition. Exploring the consequences of this was Ibsen’s project, and is Simon Stone’s too in this new movie. It seeks to understand not to condemn.

While the men in the story are rendered helpless or crumble under the weight of the truth, it is the two main female characters who remain strong and decisive. Charlotte rushes into action to prevent the secret escaping, desperately trying to hold the hold the men together as they emotionally collapse. It is Hedvig, her fifteen year-old daughter though – as luminously played by Odessa Young – who is at the centre of the movie. She is the kind of girl you might have yearned to have as a friend at school: intelligent and conscientious, tomboyish and sexually adventurous with her boyfriend, always ready with smartass remarks yet warm, loving, and close to both her parents. When she, too, learns the secret, Hedvig’s reaction is the most mature of all the characters. By this time, though, her father has been reduced to a snivelling, angry mess, unable to respond. She then takes the decision which reverberates long after the closing credits.

For his debut movie, Stone wisely ensured he had some of the best in the business on his team: Jan Chapman as a producer, Andrew Commis as cinematographer, and Veronika Jenet as editor, among others. His direction is assured and subtle, as in the slow, horrific exposure of Christian from fresh-faced prodigal to the demonic messenger he truly is, haunting the corridors and shadows of the great house where he grew up, and where actions first became secrets. Particularly impressive is the way Stone works with his actors to convey emotional intensity and meaning through scenes of quiet intensity, as when Hedvig silently watches from the school bus when her boyfriend packs up to leave town without having had the courage to tell her.

The Daughter is a masterly film.

Bereft

Parsimony is not a word often used to describe a novel. For Chris Womersley’s Bereft (2010), I mean it as praise indeed.

Bereft tells the story of solder, Quinn Walker, returning from the First World War to the small NSW town where he grew up. Ten years earlier he had fled the town after witnessing a terrible crime for which he was blamed. The Australian bush becomes an almost surreal landscape in the novel. It is peopled by wandering figures traumatised by the horrific losses of the War and ravaged by the Spanish Flu ’plague’ of 1919. Quinn’s search for justice, together with the wild orphan-child, Sarah, is a compelling, beautifully-written tale that hardly puts a foot wrong.

I’m a firm believer in the Taoist principle of writing: that what you leave out is as important as what you leave in, and requires just as much thought. Wormesley is a master at this. It’s not simply that ‘less is more’. Rather, to have written more would have been excessive and ‘clogged’ the story; to have written less would have made it fail and fall out of the sky. He writes just the right amount to make the novel sufficient in itself, to make it run like a lean machine – and this parsimony in storytelling is a difficult thing to achieve.

Contemporary Australian novels contain plenty of examples of authors slipping up in this way at times (and I don’t exclude myself).

    • The over-refined, self-conscious passage which hold up the action while it shows off – like an irritating, costumed street-performer blocking the pavement when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.
  • Elegant variations: those pointless, fey descriptions that the author wasn’t ruthless enough to delete and ‘kill their darlings’.
  • Excessive use of simile, which becomes like a tic (‘like …like …like’).
  • The needless ‘literary’ words which send the reader to the dictionary (blame Nabokov.) I personally never want to read the word ‘palimpsest’ in a novel again.
  • The sagging middle, where the plot seems to dither around to fill pages after a dramatic start. Or, more commonly, what Zadie Smith terms the ‘staring-out-to-sea’ ending: the protagonist contemplates some pretty landscape while mulling (in a somewhat self-satisfed way) over the wisdom they have gained in the course of the novel.

Few writers won’t recognise these sins in their own work at some time. Wormesley is an experienced journalist and editor, and this will have helped the economy of his prose (yet when was that background alone ever a guarantee of good fiction-writing?). He has the instinct, too, of a natural storyteller who understands exactly how much to reveal to the reader, when, in what order, and without giving too much – or too little – detail.

Bereft, like all well-written novels, moves swiftly down the runway from the first page, like a beautifully-designed aircraft. It lifts effortlessly into the air, becomes weightless, and takes the willing reader wherever the author wants to fly.

The great dark pillar of cloud rises high in the air then arches sickeningly across the sky – a satanic arm about to scoop up the world in a terrible embrace.

It seems higher and more menacing by the second, as though every childhood fear he’s ever had are all now made visible and noxiously palpable. Between the stormclouds and the earth twist whirling, intersecting cones of wind and hail and rain, persecuting the tiny figures who crawl across the craggy ground in the distance, bowed against the wind but still pushing one step out in front of the other. The scene is full of dread and awe, of the overpowering force of nature, yet it also evokes the sheer will of humanity, enduring in the midst of this vortex of chaos.

Turner moves from the window where he has been feverishly drawing this scene on the back of a letter. He calls out to the young boy playing with a cat by the fireside.

 ‘Hawkey, Hawkey, come here! Never mind puss, come and look at this thunderstorm. Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it sublime?’

It is 1810. Turner is thirty-five years old and staying at Farnley Hall in Yorkshire, the home of his friend Walter Fawkes.

‘Shall I fetch you a block of drawing paper, Uncle?’ asks his host’s son, Hawkesworth.

‘Not at all, Hawkey, this will do fine.’ He scribbles arrows and notes on the sketch, describing effects of massing and colour for use later.

‘I do like thunder and lightning, Uncle, don’t you?’

‘Nothing like it in the world,’ says Turner, smiling at the boy. ‘There Hawkey,’ he goes on, holding out the crumpled letter covered in scribbles, ‘in two years you will see this again and call it Hannibal Crossing the Alps.’

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An excerpt from Turner’s Paintbox.