Gail Jones is a writers’ writer, not nearly as well-known as she should be even though she has been three times shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and for international awards as well, has won a host of prizes, and is translated into thirteen languages. Our overseas blog mates who are reading Australian woman writers should take a look at her.
The novel takes its name from a Nabokov short story, and like that story it celebrates the imaginative observation of ordinary life. A rather unlikely group of expatriates – two Italians, a New Yorker, a Japanese couple and an Australian girl – come together in Berlin to share their love of Nabokov’s work and to extend it into their own lives:
At the next meeting they would begin a ‘speak-memory’ game, in which each would introduce themselves with a densely remembered story or detail. They had made a kind of pact, a narrative pact, to speak openly and freely. There was no compulsion, Marco insisted, No pressure or obligation. But each would try to speak with candour in whatever manner or genre they chose. (16)
This is already complicating their highly-literary project, and it gets very complicated as the stories they tell open up their individual vulnerabilities and the relationships start to shift. A death in which they all become complicit blows apart the artificial fellowship created by their shared literary interest and the conceit that they can use it to move into some sort of deeper truth about the world. The moral of the story is, as the Australian girl Cass realises:
They had been tricked into believing that the speak-memories told them everything, but in all that mattered, finally, there was no trustworthy knowledge there… This was the surprise of other people: their wealth of remorseless secrets. (254)
It’s a risk to put yourself up against a writer like Nabokov. This is a mournful, moody book, full of beautiful and intelligent observation, but for me, in the end, there was too much manoeuvring around the Nabokov associations and not enough hold into the actual world of these characters. That’s one of the dangers of being a writers’ writer.
Gail Jones’ latest book, just published, is The Death Of Noah Glass set in Palermo and Sydney. It’s on my list.