Friday, 7 October 2011

Before The Time Was Taken...

My discovery of 2011 is undoubtedly Steven Carroll, an Australian writer I'd never come across before this year, but who is now one of my favourite contemporary writers.  Of course, as a winner of the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's best-known literary prize, he wasn't exactly anonymous, but a random decision to read The Art of the Engine Driver earlier this year has led to a wish to devour all of his novels as soon as possible.

I haven't quite got there yet, but I was still very pleased when I heard that he had a new book out, and even happier when I was amazingly able to borrow it from my local library, almost before it was actually released.  Add to that the fact that this new book was rumoured to be an addition to the sublime Glenroy Trilogy of novels, and you can imagine that when I started reading Spirit of Progress, I was one very happy bunny indeed.

Spirit of Progress, named after a train in the story, is actually both a prequel and sequel to The Glenroy Trilogy.  We begin in France, where Michael, now a writer, is waiting for a train.  On seeing the driver's compartment, he is reminded of his father, and this episode enables the writer to take us back in time to 1946 - ten years before the original trilogy began.  Now we are in postwar Melbourne, a city mourning lost heroes and welcoming back the lucky ones who have survived the war.  And somewhere, ten kilometres or so north of the city, is a block of land that will one day become a home...

The war-weary city of Melbourne is ready to move on with its life, preparing itself for the imminent baby boom, little knowing that this population increase will bring with it a move from the city to the open suburbs on Melbourne's fringe.  However, not everyone is looking forward to spending their life here; a substantial group of frustrated artists, trapped in Melbourne because of the war, dream of escaping to the great art capitals of the world.  As they prepare to display their work at an exhibition in the city, a culmination of the pent-up artistic energy of the war years, what is ostensibly a celebration of a talented group of people becomes, in fact, the farewell of an emigrant generation.

As well as encountering several old friends, in Spirit of Progress we are introduced to many new characters: Tess, the owner of the gallery, the one person who understands what the artists have, and how fragile it is; George, a journalist who wants to be a writer - or perhaps a writer who may be becoming a journalist; and Sam, first among equals in the bohemian art society, who is looking for inspiration for this final exhibition...

Despite my love for Carroll's work, it actually took me a while to warm to this latest novel, and that was mainly down to two things.  The first was the relatively minor role that the chief protagonists of the previous books, Vic, Rita and Michael, played in this one.  Although Vic eventually grew more important and contributed to some of the important storylines, Rita appeared rarely and briefly - and Michael spent most of it waiting to be born.  The second reason had more to do with my expectations than reality, as I had got it into my head that this was to be a sequel.  It took me a while to adapt to the idea of placing the actions before the original books, but once I had, I began to enjoy it a lot more.

In The Gift of Speed and The Time We Have Taken, Carroll painted pictures of life at a crucial juncture, catching the spirit of the time between the past and the future, the moment of moving on.  This idea is expanded upon in Spirit of Progress as a city isolated by the tumultuous global events of recent years prepared to move on into an era that may already have been labelled 'Post-War', but which was still very much a blank slate.  The writer is fond of talking of History and Progress (usually with the attention-drawing capital letters), but what he also underlines is that Progress is constant and unrelenting; those who are the agents of Progress will eventually find themselves, however unwittingly, consigned to History...

This idea of the tension between past and future, caught in the fleeting present, is well displayed in several places in the novel.  The great exhibition, which will be the last hurrah of the artists before their inevitable flight to Europe, is almost a painting in itself, catching the painters and patrons in a moment which will soon belong to the past.  This passing of urban society is contrasted with the character of Skinner, a farmer, the last generation of his family, whose farm will soon be sacrificed to form part of the new suburb.

However, even those who form part of the future are not safe. Webster, the businessman who thrusts himself onto the scene, ready to create whole suburbs in his image, appears to have the future in the palm of his hand.  Those who have read the previous books in the trilogy, however, will know that he too will change from being an agent of Progress to just another footnote in History.

So, how does this compare to the rest of the trilogy?  Well, once I had left my preconceptions behind, I began to enjoy the book immensely.  The time taken to introduce the new characters eventually paid off, especially when their lives began to link up with those of Vic and his family.  While it can be read alone, having read the other three books gave the story a weight and poignancy that the casual reader would perhaps have missed.  Names, places and events lightly touched upon resonate greatly with readers who have already spent many an hour in Carroll's semi-fictional world...

It's fitting that, in a series which constantly revisits the idea of the moment of change and departure, I finish this post with the words of one of the characters on leaving Melbourne.  They are words which people, like myself, who no longer live where they were raised will fully understand:
"...although he will visit this city he has reluctantly called home for just on a quarter of a century, it will cease to be the home it was.  And the elsewhere to which he is going will both replace that home and never replace it.  And home itself, the very idea of it, will become something that requires thought and reflection, whereas until now he has always taken it for granted." p.260 (Fourth Estate, 2011)

5 comments:

  1. You're tempting me Tony ... I'll have to try to get to Carroll soon.

    Your comment about this book coming before reminded me of Ruth Park's Missus which is the last written in the Harp in the South trilogy but is before them in time. It also required a mindset shift ... so much so that I put it down the first time I picked it up. But when I got into it finally, many years later, I liked it a lot. Preconceptions eh?

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  2. I m tempted to Tony I ve not read many australian novels outside winton ,carey ,white and couple of others that we all know in the uk ,all the best stu

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  3. whisperinggums - He's definitely worth it :) And yes, it's hard to get rid of preconceptions when what you're reading isn't what you thought you were going to read...

    Stu - I've read a lot of Australian fiction this year Stu, and most of it has been good. If you stick to Miles Franklin Award winners, that'll be a guaranteed good start :)

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  4. Beyond my usual reply concerning Aussie lit, except for one Thriller writer whose name escapes me, this is an area I need to investigate, but at least I know where to come to find out more, Thanks.

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  5. Happy to help as always :) More to come - once all the G-Lit's done and dusted anyway!

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