Sunday, January 8, 2012
Plaque With Laurel by M. Barnard Eldershaw (1937)
For a novel which is quite so forgotten to be quite so good seems a crime. I'm guessing the reasons why: one would be that this work is counter-intuitive as far as expectations of Australian literature of the 1930s goes. It isn't larrikin-like, it isn't easy-going, it isn't cheerfully everyday, or historically so. It is astonishingly poetic, philosophically commanding, serious in intent, and modern. Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw really are unsung heroines, but it can be understood that this novel is very unpromising in summary: it's a novel about a writers' conference in Canberra in the 30s! The rich portrait of a couple of dozen denizens of the Hotel Australasia, their interplay, personal histories, attacks on one another, love for others, insecurities, thoughtless and preening confidence, political jockeying, moments together and apart of joy and desperation, really gives the lie to the notion that any scenario can be fundamentally dull - all it takes is brilliance to illuminate it. And these two have that. It can be said that there are too many characters; some of the lesser ones meld together a little. It can also be said that the coolness of the nevertheless fecund, inquiring imaginations at work here could be another factor which mitigated against stronger popularity. But strong this definitely is.