On Looking Back - a launch speech for Salt Picnic

Nicholas Wright launched Patrick Evan's new novel Salt Picnic in Christchurch recently. He has kindly allowed us to reproduce his speech here.

When I was first asked by Patrick to launch his latest novel – the second, but final instalment of his ‘Frame Trilogy’ – ‘The Master’ presented me with two options: 1) ‘say that it’s shit’, or 2) read something I’ll write for you. Anyone familiar with Patrick’s previous novels will recognise immediately his fascination with ventriloquism, a notion inseparable from the question ‘who speaks?’, central not only to the process of writing a novel but also to the thoroughgoing investigation of representation with which all his work, critical and creative, has been preoccupied. I thought of a third option, however: 3) talk about the novel’s first draft’s deleted scenes. It would be entirely appropriate to talk not about what’s in the novel, but what was left out. This is, after all, a novel filled with sudden deletions, of visions and revisions, as another modernist persona once put it.

As I looked back over my readings of this novel in preparation for this launch, I saw the novel I thought I knew disappear; I saw many of my favourite readings fall away, made brittle by my own crystallising gaze. I thought I might have spoken to you tonight about what happens in the book, but in this looking back I’ve come to see that even that endeavour is fraught – not surprising given the novel’s reliably unreliable narrator, Iola Farmer, though even to refer to her as a narrator is to look back at this figure and lose her in the act of forming an identity for her. So I resolved, much in the manner of Evans, to prefer evocation and to speak, in the manner of the novel, in a riddling way; but not the sort of riddles the at-times obtuse and witless Ralph Almond poses Iola: ‘four down: Speechless state makes a healthier pet.’ ‘Catatonic’, Iola replies; ‘Herb’s jail sentence.’ ‘Thyme’, says Iola. The riddles that reach out and grasp at Iola are the more existential, absurdist riddles of language-bound beings caught up in the material, non-language-bound world. This is what the novel is ‘about’, if I might risk that word, which is why it is about a writer and the act of writing.

What happens? A woman, a colonial, a pākehā, living and writing in England (you might have heard of her) travels to Ibiza—a place of exiles: Germans on one side, Americans on the other, and, in 1932, a forty-year old Walter Benjamin. Iola’s luggage is lost. She can barely speak the language (or languages), meets some people, tries to write about them, but comes to understand what she calls ‘the despotism of language’, and with this, the artist’s culpability for century after century of narratives, histories, and aesthetics that have been violently imposed on the world and the worlds of others.

It’s called Salt Picnic, but Almond spreads the blanket in a ruin on the island of Formentera, just off the coast of Ibiza, where, incidentally, Janet Frame spent several months in 1956 and 1957. Iola surveys this new-yet-old, ‘familiar-unfamiliar’ world, a landscape of atrocity during WWII, and finds herself pushed to the edge of the alphabet: ‘is this—nothing?’ she asks. Almond replies: ‘It is nothing and something’. She is shocked, but of course, we are always picnicking in the shadows of history, the ‘nothing’ of unwritten and unremembered histories that is also the ‘something’ of the yet-to-be imagined.

Looking back into the shadows didn’t work for Orpheus, nor did it work for Lot’s wife. Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of history’ can’t help but look back, but all he sees is the catastrophe of history, his wings caught by the storm of modernity that blows from paradise, sending him blindly into the future; historians look back, as does Patrick, in all the novels of this trilogy. But this doesn’t mean he writes solely with history in his gaze, but that he looks back at what hasn’t been read or seen; like Iola, he looks back to the material reality of objects and bodies that exist beneath the narratives of history, beneath the stories we construct every day, and to that which exists beneath and before art: the ‘Heartless, passive, indifferent, unimagined. The uncreated world’.

Iola looks back, with the artist’s curiosity of Orpheus, aware that to do so is inevitably to lose the desired object. But look back we must. Iola is also like Lot’s wife; she knows this backward glance will engender some crystallization, but let’s look back at that story too: Edith—let’s name her—looks back not for Sodom, but for a glimpse of her daughters—and a possible sorority in defiance of the Master’s dreadful judgement. Iola looks back and finds her body, finds other women, and a voice calling out to her from the past, a New Zealand voice which is also a European voice, speaking in a language that is both hers and not hers. Iola remembers who she is: ‘Katherine’.

Benjamin’s angel is of course Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), whose features are those of the ferryman who by rowing, his back to his destination, takes Iola and Almond from Ibiza to Formentera. The ferryman is Ángel, a man terrible to look at, blasted by a birthmark, hydrocephalic, with huge ears and facial deformities; he lives on the forgotten island, so neglected it is referred to as the ‘Isle of Women’; all the men sent there were worked to death by order of Franco’s fascist government. In Patrick’s rendering, Ángel is the exhausted angel of history, destroyed by centuries of looking into the continuous cycle of catastrophe that modernity has only accelerated. Ángel is the forgotten; we must look for him, one might say, but we might also look after him, back through his wake. In the spirit of Benjamin, the novel seeks to liberate the fullness of the past from the predations of historicism and aesthetics. So it is, then, that Iola finds herself in the Louvre looking at the space where the Mona Lisa was. Its void, a ‘magnificent, articulate lack’, reveals what art has obscured, that strata of the material world that has supported this vision.

In many respects Patrick has written a haunted novel, but one in which it is the alienated bodies and objects of modernity that call out for remembrance. In writing about the past, it seems Patrick has written a truly contemporary novel. As Peter Boxall has argued of twenty-first century fiction, our contemporary condition can be described as the ‘profound disjunction between our real, material environments and the new technological, political and aesthetic forms in which our global relations are ... conducted’. Boxall continues: contemporary writing is preoccupied with the illusive and untimely experience of temporality, with a renewed attention to the materialities of existence, and with what Catherine Belsey calls the ‘incursion of the unknowable real into an increasingly idealist culture’. This ‘conjoined concern with temporality and the real is thus interwoven’ with a ‘preoccupation in the contemporary novel with embodiment’ – especially the untimely, uncanny, or estranged body. It is hard to think of a better description of Patrick’s novel. Certainly it is about the alienated world, but it is also about the estrangement of a female body subjected to spectation, conjecture and language.

As I’ve already suggested, this is a novel written in riddles and marked by multiple sudden disappearances, but by every such instance we are offered the opportunity to look back and reconsider the written record. Iola’s world is one in which she comes to see the dominion of things, not language. But this material world is always untimely, always mediated by a looking back, as is apparent in the novel’s key words: ‘it’, ‘here’, ‘now’, ‘there’, ‘is’, ‘that’, and later ‘like’. All words that point to something they nevertheless cannot name, even as they offer it place and form. In Iola’s text these words are riddles – terms that say and unsay at the same time the things to which they refer, but which in untimely fashion evade the ‘here’ and ‘now’ of their appearance in a work of fiction. The now of Iola Famer both is and is not the now of your reading; just as it is and is not the ‘here’, or the ‘is’ of her observation. The ‘here’ of the narration is always a looking back, a something and a nothing – a spectre of the real.

All of this is encapsulated in the seductive ‘now’ of the novel’s first vision, which begins as all good novels ought to, with its narrator reconstructing a moment while high on an overdose of ‘Mothersill’s Travel Remedy’:

And now, at last, the island—after all those postcards, and the brochures and the books, and the photographs in the books and the words beside the photographs: here it is, growing in front of her. Around the ferry the roll of the sea flattens and blurs till it reaches the horizon and dissolves into the soft, pale turquoise at the ends of the earth: the island seems to lift above its shadow and its own quivering reflection, a little world rising into the air, turning slowly as it climbs, streaming rocks and clods and stones that make a coronet of splashes in the darkening sea beneath. Soon, she knows, she’ll hear the distant bird-chatter of its people high above her, and look up, and see the island’s adamantine base

The novel’s opening enchantment—the revolving island that lifts free of the ocean, the ‘is-land’ of fiction, as Frame may have called it—is also the opening act of violence, a violence produced by a writer’s and a reader’s wish to transform the world into our own private vision or, as we say, version, which involves lifting the real from reality, from place and time and context. It is the same process we repeat on lifting and opening a book which is only ever a piece of the world, a trace, an island of forgetting, even if, at the same time, a certain kind of remembering. But, as history has shown us, the remembering can be both beautiful and brutal.

Transformation, translation, and interpretation are among the great seductions of modernity, produced by its difficult, twinned progeny: the individual and the novel. And yet, for every moment of lifting, that which isn’t remembered, falls away and returns to the untold world which, as Iola comes to recognise, is all around us: ‘the solution is right in front of people, ...still waiting’. I’d like to describe the novel as a bildungsroman—a novel about the transformation and growth of an artist, but in Salt Picnic the artist is decentred: The novel’s real subject, we might say, is the gravid yet undelivered world. It is a novel about the things that haven’t made it into a novel, while acknowledging, as Iola does, that writing makes the world disappear.

There is one final act of disappearance, and this is Patrick’s own: Iola is neither Patrick Evans nor Janet Frame, but something else altogether – this may be the novel’s most faithful achievement. Who speaks?

Salt Picnic by Patrick Evans is available for purchase through our online store here.

Patrick Evans (Victoria Birkinshaw)