May 2018

by Helen Elliott

‘A Sand Archive’ by Gregory Day
Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing

Gregory Day is a poet, musician, essayist, nature writer, philosopher, critic and novelist. All these accomplishments fleck his fifth novel, A Sand Archive (Picador; $29.99). Day is a regional writer, meticulously documenting people and landscape along the south-west coast of Victoria. Coasts mean sand. There’s much to be learnt from the fact of sand, from the high culture of Mondrian’s dunes series to engineering Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing, magical beyond our prosaic imaginations.

The unnamed narrator is a young man who works in a Geelong bookshop. He is also a musician who has researched stories of building the Great Ocean Road and turned these stories into song. He became entranced by a slim book, The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties, by an engineer, F.B. Herschell: “There was no schmaltz, no spin, only knowledge, technique, experience, and, every now and again, an unexpected glimmer of poetry.” When the now elderly Herschell turns up in the bookshop, the men make a formal but profound friendship. It is also brief.

The narrator and the engineer mirror each other across time and generations as the story moves, shifts and swirls between them. The middle section of the novel takes place in Paris, 1968. Herschell is at the Sorbonne, studying sand structures. The time in Paris opens up his emotional and intellectual horizons, causing him to dig deep into his own sensibility. This personal flourishing parallels an acute awareness that what lies inert beneath the cobblestones of Paris are layers of civilisations worthy of many lifetimes of enquiry. Yet Herschell is Australian. They are not his cobblestones, and he knows that if you dig deep enough there is also just the sand. Back in Australia, that remote island, the sand is always visible, always shifting.

Day is a singular writer and, like Gerald Murnane, or any other writer focused on interiority, is absolutely an acquired taste. As with Murnane, the crossover between fact and fiction is blurred, and the language is often deliberately opaque.

In a globalised world, regional writing becomes more precious, more jewelled. Bruce Pascoe is showing the way in Australia, proving there’s nothing small about regional. Balzac might be called a regional writer. The question regional writers ask is tremendous: if we can read our landscape, can we read ourselves in a more truthful way? Day believes we can, but a guide is useful. The narrator of A Sand Archive has written a song called “Theodolite”, named for the precision instrument that measures both the horizontal and the vertical. The theodolite is a perfect metaphor for measuring life itself, but it helps to have a temperament that is in love with measuring and perhaps with the past.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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