About 10 Minervans plus the author found somewhere to sit in my living room last night to discuss this, to quote Les Murray, "strange and compelling book". Appropriately for Anzac day reading, the book begins with the moment that an Australian soldier in British service parachutes into the chaos of D-Day Normandy. It was good to have Alan confirm that the book was intentionally set in, but not actually about the war. Also, as it has a most arresting first few sentences, we weren't surprised to hear that for him, a novel begins with a sentence. Luckily his was a more fruitful beginning than that of a character in Camus's "The Plague" who, we remembered, endlessly rewrote the first sentence of his novel but got no further.
Alan, who started out as a poet, explained that for him, poetry is like music while fiction is like history, and that he can only work in one mode or the other and not both at once. We were struck by the beauty of his prose throughout the book though, written as only a poet could write. We felt that it helped create the sense of unreality and dislocation that overtakes Alec, the main character, as his purpose is shaken after his rescue by a strange and unforgettable woman, in a way shifting his mind to a timeless, legendary dimension. His subsequent lack of focus caused distress to his loyal, practical sister who hated to see him fail in his promise. Alan confirmed that he had used clocks and watches as symbols of Alec's removal from time, and the different languages, French, English, German, including music ("doodling") as different channels of communication to create a sense of confusion between two dimensions. Cannon fire, the chaos of war and and the surreal devastation of the formerly peaceful Norman countryside heightened the sense of unreality.
We were struck by the authentic, period feel of the spoken interaction between the characters, particularly the military and the Australian country people. It was interesting to hear how Alan absorbed and adapted the experiences and expertise of the friends and acquaintances credited in the Acknowledgements section, and no-one was surprised to hear of hours spent examining various maps of Normandy.
Alan was queried about the role of coincidence in the novel, for example the constantly reappearing Sergeant Ferris. He explained that Ferris is the death figure, appearing when others die, but himself unkillable, and that for Alan as a novellist "coincidence makes a story other than bland, both at the level of history and at a plane outside natural causality". In response to another query he explained why he took us through the whole of Alec's life - so that, through the response of the students at his retirement, he could see that his life had had some value after all. Some of us were very moved by the last couple of paragraphs, which clarified something that had remained ambiguous through the whole story.
We also heard about the highs and lows of life as a poet-novellist, the impact of changing literary fashions and the sad reality that the marketing manager now decides what gets published.
I've left out such a lot that was covered in a wide ranging conversation that I really enjoyed. I also really loved the book, which I think is Alan's best so far, but as an old friend of his I'm rather biased. Did anyone disagree though when someone said "We should have the author here every time"?