Monthly Archives: July 2014

Haxby’s Circus: a review


Spoiler Alert

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s seventh novel, Haxby’s Circus: The Lightest, Brightest Little Show on Earth (1930), is a portrait of a circus family across a couple of decades and the transformation of the central character, Gina Haxby, from an agile, innocent acrobat to a world-weary and overweight middle-aged clown.

The circus wanders around Australia, right up and down the eastern states, into the small inland towns as well as the cities, and even across to Perth and then Geraldton. The narrative itself wanders as well, and any particular direction it has taken is often veered away from or even completely doubled back on. This is no weakness, but comes to be part of the novel’s charm. An example: in the first half of the novel, the antagonist is Dan Haxby himself, the patriarchal head of the family and circus. He seems too hard and too cruel, driving his wife and children to extremes. Gina breaks her back in a fall, and resolves to save her mother and her younger siblings from Dan. When she succeeds in escaping with her pregnant mother, they live in hiding to bring up the child, Maxine (Max), whose life will not be ruined by the circus. Yet years later, Dan comes to the same town and the family are reunited, the circus reformed and Gina’s resolve wavers. Over the rest of the novel, Gina’s relationship with her father softens, and he becomes slightly more reasonable; Max becomes an acrobat and it seems Gina’s fears and determination may even have been unwarranted. In this subtlety of character, it rings true with life for me. (Interestingly, the transformation from tyrant to a somewhat gentler man is the opposite of Hugh in Coonardoo, the novel KSP was writing in the same period.)

John Hay astutely calls the novel ‘episodically tragic’, but judges it the lesser work next to Coonardoo, and notes that it received little critical acclaim. Coonardoo is a more concentrated tragedy, with a smaller cast of characters and the profundity of tackling race relations in a more progressive way than contemporaries. Yet Haxby has the most powerful scenes I’ve yet encountered in KSP’s work, scenes of beauty, darkness and insight. The most profound is in the final chapter as Jack confronts Gina, asking why she is ‘running amuck’, hitting the drink and sleeping around. Gina responds ‘I want to know if there’s anything in this business of living, I think.’ She goes on to remember what Billy had said years earlier:

‘Billy was right after all. He said to me once: “Life’s a three volume novel, Gina. The first’s the book of ideals and illusions ; the second’s the book of realities and noble resolutions; the third’s the book of the senses and breakdown of the will.” I think he was right, Jack. It’s the third book I’m up to now.’ (312)

This cannot be KSP’s own philosophy; she lived her whole life in the book of ideals, perhaps with some noble resolutions from the second volume. Jack’s response is more in line with how KSP lived her life; it echoes a similar line in the autobiographical Wild Oats of Han: ‘I’d like to crock up and run off the rails. It’d be a relief somehow; but I won’t let life beat me that way. I’ve got to stand up to it, somehow.’ (314) Out of this existential scene, Gina finds the will to live meaningfully again; but, perversely, it’s by transforming herself into a clown, restoring the circus by humiliating herself.

KSP wears her politics more lightly in this novel. There are no Communist characters who turn up to challenge the system. Interestingly, when Gina inherits a fortune and finances the expansion of of the circus, she tells Dan ‘it must make a profit’. Yet all the family now have a share in the circus, and it’s this communal ownership which gives a taste of KSP’s politics. The other taste comes in the fact that again in this novel she successfully depicts a community, something few other novelists have done as well. There is a sense of the dignity of all the characters, and the goal Gina is striving for is not her own personal freedom or benefit, but the benefit of all in her circus community.

Haxby is in print in the Angus and Robertson Classics series, available both in print and as an ebook. I was fortunate enough to find a 1932 edition in the Florin Books series by Jonathan Cape at Robert Muir Books in Nedlands; Florin Books are, the ad says ‘the right size for all times and the right price for these times’ – at two shillings, that is. I liked my copy so much I didn’t write in it, and thus I have no annotations.

Reviews of biographies: downplaying biography and the biographer

There’s a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in this weekend’s Australian. It’s a biography which I felt relied far too heavily on Updike’s stories for insight into his life, unpicking the fictionalisation of each piece Updike wrote in an exhaustive and unilluminating way.

Yet, typically, in this review we get so little engagement with the biography itself. Instead, in this case as in many others, a review of a literary biography is a chance for the reviewer to reassess or recap the significance of the biographical subject. A review will draw on the portrait offered in the biography, and give some quick assessment on how good a biography it is, but it will not tend to properly discuss the book as biography. The concept of biography as a literary form is short-changed, and the significance of the biographer downplayed.

It’s understandable why this happens; it reflects the status of biography. Yet reviewing biographies as biography could be a major step forward in the development and recognition of the riches and potential of the genre.

“That’s the only intelligence I shall convey to you except by word of mouth”: the difficulty of biography

He went down with Catherine to see his parents at the cottage in Alphington which he had found for them. “They seem perfectly contented and happy,” he told Forster. “That’s the only intelligence I shall convey to you except by word of mouth.” In that last sentence, of course, lies all the difficulty of biography, for how is it possible now to guess at what passed by mouth, by the sudden expression or by the unintentional phrase? The whole meaning of a life may be evoked in such moments which cannot now be reclaimed – like the life itself disappeared utterly, leaving behind just written documents from which we can only attempt carefully to reconstruct it. But the biographer does know some things which may not even have been clear to Dickens himself as eagerly he moved forward through the world, each day a new confirmation and extension of his being; we know that the parents were not happy, for example, and that John Dickens would soon be forging bills with his son’s signature.

– Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 314.

In this excerpt, Ackroyd acknowledges the pain of the gap, of the clue in Dickens’ letter that he had something significant and sensitive to say which is now unrecoverable. (Ackroyd exaggerates; there are so many other difficulties too!) When Ackroyd talks of the ‘meaning of a life’, he is suggesting that the ‘true’ self is not the one presented in the documents which have survived. (But he probably means an inner state more than anything, and that may not be conveyed truthfully verbally either.)

Ackroyd also notes the consolation of a biographer – of knowing what will come, of knowing things about ‘characters’ in the subject’s lives which the subject does not yet know or may never know.

Bold or careless?

There is a deep resemblance always between a writer and his work, but it has nothing to do with his expressed opinions or sentiments; it is rather that the form of his work embodies the form of his personality.

– Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 232.

It’s sentences like this that got Ackroyd in trouble with some reviewers when his monumental biography of Dickens appeared in 1990. It takes a boldness or carelessness to make pronouncements and generalisations like this one. I can think of possible ways in which he’s wrong about particular authors, but it also has a feel of truth; in this case, he is talking of the ‘variegated mixture’ of ‘humour; poetry; declamation; melodrama’ in not just Oliver Twist but all of Dickens’ novels. To extend the idea: Borges is enigmatic, brief, timeless. Auster is playful yet intense, full of life’s strangeness. Oh, this is getting very subjective. Counter-argument: we mainly know authors through their work; the ‘resemblance’ is inevitable and misleading. But maybe Ackroyd has a right to his judgement, given the preface tells us that he’s read every extant letter etc of Dickens.