April 2018

Arts & Letters

Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘In the Garden of the Fugitives’

By Adam Rivett

Pompeii © DeAgostini / Getty Images

Reality flexes at the edges of Dovey’s second novel

While reading fiction as little more than smuggled autobiography is an inherently crass and undergraduate approach to literary criticism, I’d nonetheless like to start that way. I have, after all, something close to the author’s permission. Pondering the lacerations of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in these pages only a few years ago, Ceridwen Dovey, in an essay titled “The Pencil and the Damage Done”, wrote:

I kept being distracted by my own horror at what Knausgaard was doing, slashing away at his world, and by the overwhelming feeling that it would cost him too much as a human being. I googled his wife, his uncle, his mother, even his children, fixating on the walking wounded surrounding the living author.

Upon reading Dovey’s new novel, In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton; $32.99), I, too, googled, and under the “Early Years and Education” subheading of her Wikipedia page found a life story remarkably similar to that of the novel’s central character, Vita. The childhood in South Africa and Australia, the schooling at Harvard, the early career in filmmaking. All there, all echoing unignorably. The living author was insisting upon conflation with a fictional creation.

“A confessional style of filmmaking was ascendant. It was the dawn of the age of baring it all. I liked my classmates’ work but I felt an ethical obligation to leave myself out of my films.” So observes Vita, early in the novel. A similar autobiographical reticence marks Dovey’s early work – a remove perhaps more common in an earlier era, but striking in our confessional present. Her first novel, Blood Kin, is a carefully calibrated and almost abstract political thriller, stripped of any specifics of character or nation, leaving only brutal gestures of power and desire. Her second book, the acclaimed story collection Only the Animals, is stranger still – a series of monologues delivered by creatures as varied as the camel and the parrot, some belonging to famous literary figures, all caught up in scenes of crisis and war. The books – particularly Animals – are vividly conceived and executed pieces of writing, but also at times feel like the work of a brilliant student still finding their own voice. Fugitives marks a legitimate advance on Dovey’s earlier work – not only is it a voice found but it is all voice: recollection, confession, monologue.

The novel’s structure is simple. Reviving a friendship long considered over, Royce, an elderly American benefactor, contacts Vita, a one­-time recipient of his largesse. Royce has recently been diagnosed with a disease whose specifics he withholds (“I stew in sickness, and in my own nostalgia”), and his proposal, such as it is, seems straightforward: confession leading to catharsis, for a readership of one. For Royce the arrangement involves recounting memories of his unrequited love for Kitty, another recipient of his financial and emotional support. For Vita, whose memories are more varied, it draws out something approximating a coming­-of-­age story: a stalled filmmaking career in the United States, poor treatment by several men, and, eventually, a return to South Africa.

Vita at one point talks of their “parallel narrative tracks”, which aptly describes this new relationship. While the novel apes the epistolary form, these are modern people, modern talkers – their words address a void, and themselves, as much as any potential listener. Confession, finally, is its own comfort. While the occasional response mentions an issue raised in the previous missive, both correspondents for the most part tell their own tale with little consideration of providing good company.

Royce’s tale is a forlorn one: dominated by his pursuit of Kitty to Pompeii on a research project as her friend and assistant. (The novel takes its title from an archaeological site.) His story, like any story of unrequited love, ultimately becomes the property of another. Yet beyond his personal agonies lies the city itself, a seemingly inexhaustible metaphor for mourning and loss. Indelicate tools destroy ancient paintings, while all around them sit or stand preserved bodies, sadly unaware that what were once everyday gestures have become their final form. “Little did they know,” Royce ponders, beholding homes frozen in fashions outdated even then, “that this minor failure of taste or economy would be documented forever.”

The tone of these pages is distinct: erudite, quietly chauvinistic (Royce is an old­-fashioned “appreciator” of women) and occasionally self­-conscious. Vita’s half of the book feels more plainly and forcefully stated – ruthlessly interrogative, but significantly more clear­-sighted. Yet there is misery there too, something unshakeable that tracks her from awkward college years to the marketplace of professional filmmaking: “I was overtaken then by a foreboding that I was on the wrong path, in life and in art. What if my own earnestness were a cover for something else, something left unexamined, something putrid?” Earlier in the novel, her college film submission about a South African wine farm is criticised for its inability to “focus on humans”. In the novel’s second half it’s that South Africa she returns to, where she confronts the exact nature of that thing “left unexamined”. “I’m sick of whites making films about the suffering of blacks,” a Nigerian festival organiser tells her. “I want to see whites deal with their own shit instead of trying to claim a moral free pass because they’re so fucking interested in other people’s suffering.”

To say more about where these narrative lines travel and resolve would reveal too much. This is, for two thirds of its length, a gently plotted novel, melancholy in its sensibility and too invested in its characters to hurry them into false encounters, yet in its final third there are revelations and reversals of a considerable nature. What can be said is this: the very act of writing, and of personal accountability, is called into question. Which returns us to what we might call the Knausgaard Google Dilemma.

There is a passage from “The Pencil and the Damage Done” that seems so central to this novel’s conception and fundamental oddness it is worth quoting at length:

Any dream of an unmediated relationship between writer and reader is bound to fail because realism is no more than a convention that produces the effect of verisimilitude. And the readers who identify so strongly with the protagonists of autobiographical fiction are, no less than readers of fantasy, engaged in a kind of willing suspension of disbelief – deliberately not seeing the writing for what it is.

To put it another way, Dovey has called her own bluff. To conflate Vita and the author is simultaneously unavoidable and a massive misunderstanding.

Knausgaard’s work – both in its disdain for overt style and its forthrightness – can make most fiction seem tired, needlessly fussy, mere “invention”; fiction isn’t a thesis statement and novels aren’t manifestos. Yet each novel enacts its own argument about the possibilities of the form, and Fugitives asserts the necessity of its inventions at every turn. We see on every page “the writing for what it is”, first in the self­-conscious stiffness of the correspondents building themselves on the page – the formality of the early pages, the occasionally arch romanticism of Royce’s longings – and then later when it becomes clear just what these constructions­-via-­confession truly mean. The Knausgaardian approach delivers the very catharsis Royce promises in the novel’s opening pages (“purgative, purifying”), while the cumulative effect of Fugitives rejects the promises of the personal form: these words do not exorcise or clarify. No cobwebs are blown away, no sadness expunged. The book, finally, is unresolvable.

What can fiction do? It can tease us with the shape of reality. What can fiction deny? That it can ever be fully mistaken for that reality. Fiction has since its windmill-­tilting inception carried its falsity as regular burden and occasional virtue. In the penultimate chapter of Only the Animals, a dolphin writes to Sylvia Plath about Ted Hughes’ work:

“Back then, I had admiringly thought he was trying to understand the human by way of the animal, but now I can see that in fact he wanted to justify the animal in the human.”

Replace truth for human and fiction for animal and you have, minus a few ungainly definite articles, Fugitives’ philosophy in a sentence.

There is much talk these days about the consolations of literature, of the empathy it engenders in the reader. A smug and banal boosterism colours such a claim. While it is on occasion true, I suspect it’s more often than not a leftish panacea, a necessary lie to justify the exquisite pointlessness of literature under the logic of neoliberalism. Not enough is said in praise of literature’s cold touch, its quiet devastations, its beautiful non­-answers. The marketing for Fugitives can optimistically point to its globetrotting, its sexual intrigue, its political currency, yet these are in the end left behind, mere recollections of figures dying or in unshakeable solitude.

Dovey is a compelling writer, but a desolate one too – an ineradicable loneliness echoes throughout her work. The words of the abandoned parrot that close her previous book seem as fitting here as they are there: “What choice did she have but to hook my cage to the awning overhead and leave as quietly as she could, before I realised I was alone?”

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

From the front page

Still image from ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’

Was that it: ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’

This loving portrait of the indie scene of the early 2000s will likely mean little to those who weren’t there

Image of Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as the “Weeping Philosopher”.

Forecasting the future

What is humanity’s destiny in the Anthropocene era?

Frank Moorhouse, Ewenton Street, Balmain, circa 1975

Frank recollections

Remembering Frank Moorhouse (1938–2022)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

What the James Webb Space Telescope reveals

Why NASA’s new telescope is a huge step forward for understanding the universe

In This Issue

Still from The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’

This Soviet satire pushes comedy’s tragedy-plus-time formula to the limit

Young Fathers’ ‘Cocoa Sugar’

The Scottish group’s third album proves they don’t sound like anyone else


Rethinking the republic

A change in our head of state won’t change everything, and other lessons for the next push

Tim Winton’s ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’

One of Australia’s most acclaimed novelists offers a painful and beautiful story of redemption

More in Arts & Letters

Frank Moorhouse, Ewenton Street, Balmain, circa 1975

Frank recollections

Remembering Frank Moorhouse (1938–2022)

The bureaucracy of evil: ‘The Conference’

The horror of Nazi officialdom is laid bare in Matti Geschonneck’s latest film

‘The Old Man’ and the CIA

Jeff Bridges faces his spycraft past in this Disney+ espionage thriller

Still from ‘Men’

Fear as folk: ‘Men’

Writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film is an unsubtle but ambitious pastoral horror, mixing the Christian with the classical

More in Books

Frank Moorhouse, Ewenton Street, Balmain, circa 1975

Frank recollections

Remembering Frank Moorhouse (1938–2022)

Image of James Joyce and publisher Sylvia Beach in Paris

The consecration: James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

A century after its publication, the difficult reputation of Joyce’s seminal novel has overshadowed its pleasures

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Online exclusives

Still image from ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’

Was that it: ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’

This loving portrait of the indie scene of the early 2000s will likely mean little to those who weren’t there

Image of Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as the “Weeping Philosopher”.

Forecasting the future

What is humanity’s destiny in the Anthropocene era?

Image of Moonage Daydream director Brett Morgen. Photograph © Olivier Vigerie / Neon

Daydream believer: Director Brett Morgen

Morgen’s freeform documentary about David Bowie, ‘Moonage Daydream’, explores the philosophy and creativity of one of popular music’s icons

Image of Chris Kenny appearing in Your ABC Exposed. Image via YouTube

Indecent exposure

Sky News’s ‘Your ABC Exposed’ reveals more about Chris Kenny and co than it does about the national broadcaster