The Poets' Stairwell : Alan Gould
...with scarcely a disruption to her rhythm, a gaunt Indian woman in purple sari voided the contents of her nostril onto her hand then cast the necklace of silvery substance aside. O, Boon was a proper enough schoolboy, instructed in the use of the British handkerchief, and yet the gaunt woman’s action lodged in my mind, an image repellent, beautiful, troubling.
Claude Boon and Henry Luck, young poets in quest of their muses, cut a swathe through the cultural capitals and byways of Europe and Asia towards the end of the Cold War.
The Poets’ Stairwell revitalises the picaresque novel. Vibrant, sensuous and layered, it has a tumble of characters and pranks.
Anarchist puckish Beamish, the Isadora Duncan-like Eva, class warrior, Branca, a libidinous translator of poems with Jelena, her iconoclast daughter, Luc Courlai a jailed French philosopher, Titus the Yankee acrobat who cradles his gun like a baby, Mr Hark a saintly Irish funeral director, Willi a German truck driver versed in Thomas Aquinas and sensible Rhee, Henry’s girlfriend—amongst others.
Behind this company lives a virtual one of poets and philosophers from Yeats to Plato, attending as time and place invoke them. Our picaros’ adventures allow Alan Gould to discuss poetic inspiration from womb to self-conscious maturity.
The tale of Martha the American plumber will make you cry. There is Sir John Cue the obstetrician who delivers Boon twice across a lifetime to round out the plot. And the meeting with Ted Hughes is not to be missed.
Gould has set himself against accommodation to literary fashion. His courtly voice is one of the loneliest, but most arresting in modern Australian fiction.
Peter Pierce, The Canberra Times
Poets are born, they say, not made. By the time of my own birth I was an over-cooked baby, having dallied in the interior of the Mudda for week after overcast week beyond the normal term. After such dalliance, little wonder I hanker to recover Arcadia.
I am Boon, and begin by imagining the Mudda in the place where I was born long years before Australia and my difficult friendship with Henry Luck. The Mudda is what I called her and these three blunt syllables established for me a proper distance. How else to share the world with the person who had carried me inside herself?
As my embryonic presence swelled her usually neat, Flemish frame, this grew ungainly as a washtub, and needed to be hauled, ah, upstairs, uphill, up-front, ups-a-daisy, onto double-decker buses and into the Pa’s small black car, this Mudda, my Mudda, being throughout these indignities Boon-buoyant, Boon-weary with the burden of poet-me.
Did she complain? I believe not. If she sat at table, I was a round under her grey smock like a great cheese remembered from the plenty of pre-war Holland. If she returned from wet Woolwich High Street where she had stood half an hour in the queue for a ration of sausages or liver, she felt my presence as a grapnel on her every fibre. Her patience, her resilience, were entering my poet-character, as were some of the qualities of her Brabanter forbears, my clean complexion and open forehead, my good-natured nose and my eyes a little too trusting of the world, perhaps. And if I pushed out my fist or my foot, how do I evoke the strangeness of her sensations? Here, did she but sense it, was a live butterfly fluttering against the interior of a balloon, here was the gearstick of a small black car pushed back and forth against her inner fabric.
‘Nou, we zullen zien wat er gaat gebeuren,’ she growled, first in her own language to mask her impatience with the pregnancy, then in English, to show politeness to her host country’s maternity nurse, ‘We must see what comes, of course.’
If the Mudda’s patience was sometimes tested, I appeared at ease with the situation. Through those weeks of the British winter and early spring I hunched in the placental treehouse, stem-fed by her magnificent system. Into my future flowed those exact proteins and vitamins she could extract from the spam, the herring, the dried egg of that tin-food era, the orange juice, rose hip syrup and extra allowance of milk allowed for this pregnancy by her green ration card. While the Pa—unlikely career soldier—beavered among his memos at the British War Office, I spent the day, either rocked asleep by the Mudda’s internal rhythms, or dreamily pushing that exploratory gearstick against her womb wall.
Do embryos dream? Did my own lifelong attachment to reverie begin in the tree house with some part-aural, part-maternal-fantasy? Is this where the protozoa of poems originate? For the muse is said to be a mother-figure.
Beglub-beglub pumped the Mudda’s heart. Gloink, her intestinal plumbing eased itself. Purrr, slid her blood along its Flemish conduits.
Is it possible my proto-intellect was actually wired to the maternal dreaming during her final weeks of pregnancy in the Woolwich army quarter? From some trace memory I possess, here is Mrs Boon dozing during the February afternoons, tiaras of raindrops agleam under the telegraph wires, while the scenes behind her eyelids show the imminent Boon, a spiked coronet on my round head that must surely tear her as I leave her. Then, in this phantasmagoria of a woman-with-child in a monarchic nation not her own, she watches as I grow away from her wounded body, recede to some altitude above her head like a gargoyle leering from the façade of one of those decorous, overbearing English cathedrals that her Englishman husband had shown her during his intervals of post-war army leave.
Week to week, cell on cell, morula, blastocyst, trophoblast, from fertilized ovum to gargoyle I grew. Ears, limbs, testicles popped from me like mushrooms. Blood went beading along my arteries and capillaries; insulin was secreted; teeth aligned themselves below the gums in preparation for their future troublemaking. I gained the full human kit, with the apparent exception of the will to move on from that original treehouse welfare state. So complacent was my attitude to being born, it was decided three weeks after my term I would need medical help to be induced into the world. Poeta nascitur, non fit.
The Poets' Stairwell
Australian Book Review, June-July 2015, no. 372
In 1977 the aspiring poet Alan Gould travelled through Europe with his friend Kevin Hart. Just such a tour forms the narrative thread for Gould’s latest novel, The Poets’ Stairwell. This is a roman à clef and those in the know will enjoy the identification game.
More interesting, though, is the intellectual journey; Gould’s virginal twenty-seven-year-old hero, Claude Boon, slowly defining his own poetic self against the austere and particular mode of his strikingly talented younger friend, Henry Luck. A vagabond he might be for these few months, but Boon is no picaro. Adventurous and willing to abet the occasional rogue, he is decidedly not one himself. Though well into adulthood, Boon undergoes a steady process of maturing and self-understanding during his journey. The subtitle of The Poets’ Stairwell could as well be ‘A Bildungsroman’.
I have always been attracted to Gould’s narrative voice; his selected poems, The Past Completes Me (2005), is the only book of poetry I have ever reviewed: I liked it too. There is a genial insistence on following his own muse (perhaps Clio, as Henry Luck suggests). The narrative pace is leisurely, but there is none of the pretentiousness which so often mars ‘literary fiction’. It is true that concessions are not made to the etymologically naïve. In the first stairwell of the story, their nostrils are assaulted by ‘the fetor of concrete’. But more often a startling and amusing image is hewn from workaday materials. There are many, but it is hard to beat the image of Henry clutching the Yugoslavian Branca ‘as though she were a cupboard he had rescued from a flood’. There are acrobats and tricksters in the poets’ stairwell, but Boon keeps ascending, with Gould, admiring their antics but not ultimately distracted from his own artistic illumination.
The Poets' Stairwell
Sydney Morning Herald 2/4/2015
Alan Gould's ninth work of fiction, The Poets' Stairwell, is sub-titled "a picaresque novel". That promise – of a tale of adventures on the road by characters open to experience and destined to be taken up by kindly and malevolent strangers – is richly fulfilled.
Two London-born Australian poets, Claude Boon and Henry Luck, decide to travel overseas together. To Boon, his narrator, Gould gives details from his own life that have been rehearsed in earlier books: childhood as an army brat, the miseries of boarding school, university radicalism. The resilient Boon, witty and lonely, has to shepherd Luck through both the perils of their travels and the self-absorption of a true believer in his genius as a poet. In their conversations, many poets and philosophers are summoned – genial, ghostly presences who inform the cities and regions on the Australians' route.
Boon travels optimistically: "what happens might be good or bad, but its happening will be good. Spirit of the picaresque, that." Bangkok delivers the pair up to prostitutes and pythons.
Next stop is London, where of course old friends from Australia are to be found, if hardly to be trusted. One of these is Eva Swart, radical and dancer, another is the anarchist Dave Beamish, who is more sinister than he seems. Boon accompanies them on a hilarious but dangerous detour to a rock concert in Leeds.
Reunited with Luck, they travel to Ireland to be greeted in the language of local hospitality: "And will you gentlemen not be coming along with me?" Gould's ear never fails him, as he simulates the speech of rogues and dreamers of numerous nationalities, besides interpolating lines of his own verse, and Luck's
Stand-up performance artists and chancers of all stripes are drawn to the indulgent Boon and the haughty Luck. Among them are a Turkish smuggler wanting a reference to help him emigrate to Australia, an American terrorist-cum-acrobat, a jailed French philosopher and cadger of cigarettes, a German truck driver who is an expert on Aquinas, a Greek who discourses on Mount Olympus, let alone Branca and Jelena Mavec, mother and daughter translators from Yugoslavia who take Boon and Luck to a poetry conference in Venice, while also enticing one of them to bed. Gould's delight in the folk who cross paths with his travellers never flags. One brilliant cameo involves a Czech janitor who says of the national poet Honza Roubik that "he writes from the room where man and devil laugh together. That is our country."
Gould's novel rejoices in many countries and sites, for instance the staircase that Boon mounts in Assisi at the top of which "the mountains of Umbria, glistening with spring verdure, seemed to gather as though alive".
Picaresque heroes are willing prey to coincidence, and people come back unexpectedly into the lives of the wandering poets, nowhere more so than in the novel's surprising and affecting last episode. This also gives the author a chance to engage in the coming commemoration by making a poignant Anzac joke. While Boon reflects that after three months on the road, "a certain lassitude threatened our Grand Tour", the momentum of The Poets' Stairwell never flags. This is the sunniest and funniest work in Gould's long and distinguished career.(Peter Pierce is the editor of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature)
Manning Clark House, 23 April 2015
is a novel narrated by a poet-novelist about poets, specifically the
narrator—Claude Boon—when young and on a trip, a journey, a picaresque
journey across Europe at the end of the 1970s, and another young poet,
his travelling-companion Henry Luck—less worldly-wise than Claude, but
more confident. Each is in search of his writing muse, or voice,
with Claude more interested in the journey itself than in where it gets
you to—“the spirit of the picaresque” (p. 58)—while his companion,
Henry, is more focussed on the destination.
Australian poets, in particular—and this is a novel about Australian poets—are seen by one character, Jelena, a Yugoslavian translator of poetry, as a virus:
“Everywhere! They are with their webs. Australian poets, they drop like spiders from ceilings.”
“You have met some Australian spiders?” I [Claude] asked intrigued.
“Some?” Jelena’s English was quick as lightning. “They sit in the foyer where our conference is. They are in camps. They are draped asleep with their jetlag over sofas. They are making rumpus in cafés to prove the authenticity!” she railed. “Here is an important international poet walks down the stairs and it is Australian poets who are like iron filings around a magnet, waving their publications!” (p.158).
Oh those main-chance Australian poets!
novel has a serious purpose, however, which will not surprise anyone
familiar with Alan’s several other novels or indeed his poetry.
In an interconnected way, there are several.
The novel tells of a journey:
• of a friendship which eventually ends (Claude and Henry are two friends who suddenly spend more time than they are used to in each other’s company; and we all know, from our own trips around Europe and elsewhere, that there is nothing like a holiday for finding out more about your friend than you were expecting to)
• and, another kind of journey, it debates/ discusses/ argues/ ad libs two very different approaches to writing and poetry as represented by our two main characters, Claude and Henry; and shows where their discussion takes them.
The novel’s serious purpose? Claude Boon is interested in poetry which connects with the world in some way—in “playing fair with the world as it unfolded before the eye,” whereas Henry is “in favour of something more austere, more thoroughly imbued by the pure substance, poetry, itself” (p. 123). Their poetic views could not be more different.
The two discuss poetry all over Europe. On a ferry on the North Sea on the way to Ireland, Claude says to his friend:
“I think our imagining takes us in opposite directions... I want to find the fabric of a thing because I worry about its being made complete. You want essence because you fear being distracted from what makes it holy” (p. 288).
For Claude, fabric, but for Henry, essence. Are the two friends really on the same journey? Claude’s poetry veers towards history, whereas Henry’s leans towards religion and the spirit; or, generically, Claude’s poetry links with the novel, with narrative and story-telling, while Henry’s is closer to philosophy.
The novel is also a portrait—from Claude’s point of view—of Henry Luck—who fascinates Claude; but in order to paint or write it, in order to gain some distance and perspective so that he can make Henry his subject, Claude both has to move away, and to realise that he has to move away, from his friend. Claude’s journey is for the sake both of himself and his writing voice, otherwise, as the character Eva Swart says, and note that she is not impressed by what she calls “poultry”—creating her own distance from it with her satire—Claude Boon will “ʻend up with what [Henry Luck] makes of poultry and not what you do. It’s elemental.’” For Eva (and there is no love lost between her and Henry), “ʻif you’re dinkum about the poultry, Boony, dump your mate. He’s getting in your way” (p. 268). For Henry has a very assured personality and an assured speaking voice, which is partly why Claude is so fascinated by him.
Claude has definite ideas but a novelist’s querying disposition, whereas the political Eva is more hard-line. Whether Claude “dumps” his mate is something I’ll leave to you to ponder, but by the end of the novel Claude has found his writing voice, which the reader experiences while travelling together with him on the journey which is this novel. Claude claims himself, at the same time that his narrative aims for a portrait of the already-complete Henry Luck, a quality which can infuriate the narrating poet. The novel is fair to Henry, however. He may be self-absorbed, preposterous, or even rigid, but he is also charming, erudite, intelligent, and amusing; but Claude too is intelligent, engaging, and fun, and it is he, with his openness to experience and his fears of awkwardness whom we, as readers, come to love, happily for Claude who as a young man harbours secret worries about whether he is lovable. Henry on the other hand is both directly observed by Claude, and also interpreted by him because Claude reads and considers Henry’s poetry.
The poets’ stairwell of the title? It’s a spiral staircase which leads to the roof of a castle tower in Italy, in Assisi, and a magnificent view in which “[e]very horizon was unimpeded” (p. 202). The view, of “Assisi’s terracotta roofs and cupolas... the arable lands of the Perugian Plain... the gorge of the Tescio River winding into the Apennines,” has been described to the travelling poets by the Mother Superior of the convent where they are staying as of “ʻThe World’” or “The Creation.” It exalts Claude, but Henry prefers the closed-in crypt of the lower Basilica of Saint Francis with its reputed saint’s remains (p. 204): an underground shrine reliant on faith (Henry) versus open air and experience (Claude); an opposition which is prefigured earlier at the ruined monastery of Clonmacnoise in Ireland where Claude muses on the stonemasons and carvers of twelve hundred years ago, while contemplating the “turmoil” (p. 104) of sun and cloud in the sky, at the same time that Henry finds refuge in prayer in a small, “compact” church, “the temple Connor, still with its roof, still in use (the brochure affirmed) as a place of worship.” And worship he does: in the course of the novel Henry undergoes a conversion to religion, to Christianity, to Catholicism, which will provide the basis for much of his future poetry, while Claude continues to want to see “how the actual and the possible come out of each other” as he experienced it in Assisi in the “simple physical ascent... and the subsequent release from the dark into that astonishing vista” while climbing what the character Rhee suggests to him is a “ʻ[p]oets’ stairwell’” (p. 293).
What I have said the novel is about is all very well, but how is it achieved? how is it done?—because it is this, the manner of writing and therefore the experience of reading, which enables us as readers to inhabit and enjoy a literary world, a world made from words and textual allusion. How is the story told?
The Poets’ Stairwell is, as mentioned earlier, a picaro text—about journeys, movement, change. It is not a romance, so we should not be surprised that our four main characters, Henry and Claude, and their friends Rhee and Eva, do not stay together despite possibilities—plotted, or plottable by the reader—for them to do so. Rhee and Eva, like Henry and Claude, are opposites and possibly alter-egos for each other: they are also feminists in the 1970s tradition so that, without making it a central subject, the novel nevertheless points to the stories of freedom and independence which so many feminist novels of the period explored. All the characters in the novel are on journeys, separately and with each other in various combinations—but the end-points of their journeys are not love and romance, or marriage. A journey twists and turns, so that this novel—as the spiral stairwell of the title indicates—is one of twists and turns. Indeed it is a novel about twists and turns, a novel which is superbly plotted and in which, I suggest, the plot itself plots. It is a novel with remarkable, vivid characters, all met along the way. Each is energetic and full of ideas and emotions, and, in the world of this text, somehow inevitable, intrinsic, or necessary to it.
It is also a novel written with a poet’s sensibility—an awareness of the ways and waywardness of words—and not a single precisely-chosen word wrong or in excess.
You will I know be treated shortly to a reading from the novel, so I shall not follow this theme further here. You also know that some of what takes place in the novel derives from real events which took place some time ago, and from some real people. I wish to say that the novel is not fictionalised fact but rather fiction which includes in its starting points some real events and real people, but that so far as I know all the originals are happy with where—and how—this novel has taken them.
This leads me back to the narrative position of the novel itself which is similar but not identical to Claude’s perspective, that is, we do get a perspective on him as well as Henry. This is a novel, about friendship, which, while paying tribute to its pleasures, does not retreat from its difficulties. Sometimes, to be friends, we have to claim ourselves, to distance ourselves from these same people, which is what Claude does, not always knowingly but usually bravely—and it should also be said that a clear-eyed reading of the novel shows that Henry, too, and the other characters, are all engaged in something similar. This is how we get to the sequence at the end of the novel, where Claude wishes Henry well although at one remove, because he writes this in a letter to Rhee for her to pass on to Henry, “ʻ[i]f you see him’” (p. 312). The gesture exists as a wish rather than wish-fulfilment, for we do not know if Rhee ever does see Henry, although she keeps in touch with all her old friends by letter, postcard, photo, and passed-on message: the friends all move beyond the events and places of the novel to lives in different cities and countries, a long way away from each other.
All is resolved, if not agreed upon. The journey, not the destination—maybe the destination will take care of itself.
I’ve tried to give you an indication of some of the achievements of this wonderful novel, and a taste of what reading it is like. I hope you’ll join me now in wishing it well on its own journey into the world of readers—and I hope that, with the novel and together with Claude and Henry, you will read it yourselves and climb the poets’ stairwell—and that, with Claude, you’ll take in the view!