Academic journal article Hecate

Modernist Takes on Film in Jean Devanny's First Novels about Australia

Academic journal article Hecate

Modernist Takes on Film in Jean Devanny's First Novels about Australia

Article excerpt

We are accustomed to consider Jean Devanny's fiction in the context of two powerful modernizing nineteenth-century discourses, feminism and Marxism.1 In an essay published in 1985, Carole Ferrier argued that Jean Devanny's 'sexuality and her politics presented a challenge both within the [Communist] Party and without,' and for more than twenty-five years, this has been the dominant framework for reading Devanny's fiction.2 In this essay, I would like to offer a more specifically modernist vantage point on the fiction Devanny wrote about Australia, soon after she moved with her family to Sydney in 1929, by looking more closely at her lesser-known romances, Out of Such Fires (1934) and The Ghost Wife (1935).

According to David Carter, the early 1930s was 'the initial moment of literary proletarianism and the left avant-garde in Australia,' for only then did Australian writers and Communist intellectuals begin to discuss the value of experimental modernist techniques and forms. Moreover, as Carter explains, 'In the twenties and at least until the mid-thirties it was America rather than Britain that provided the models for radical left-wing artistic practices. Influences from continental Europe, including the Soviet Union, were also mediated through their American reception.'3 Judah Waten's manifesto in Strife, Carter argues, illustrates a distinctive synthesis that is 'bohemian, libertarian, communist and avant-gardiste', and illustrates the 'uncommon conjunction of the proletarian and the avant-garde' in the early 1930s. Carter then compares Waten's journal, Strife, with the American journal, New Masses, which presented a specific model of 'radical (avant-garde) proletarianism' that was projected, as Carter puts it, 'against those other essentially modern and American 'mass' cultural forms, the cinema and the newspaper. He cites from the American Communist Michael Gold's 'Manifesto for Proletarian Realism' to demonstrate Waten's and Gold's common interest in 'swift action, clear form, the direct line, cinema in words.'* 'Waten's Strife was 'avant-gardist' because it directed its critique 'at the level of the institutions of literature, cinema, journalism, and the theatre,' it insisted on the polarization of 'old and new, bourgeois and proletarian,' and it focused on the 'destructive and constructive forces' in Australian society and in the larger world. In these documents, Waten and Gold called for a new socialist realism based on 'facts' and for a break from the 'sickly plots, tremulous love chirpings, ecstacies, sex triangles, and individual heroisms of the writers of the past.'5

While Carter's main focus is on Waten's circle in Melbourne in the early 1930s, he notes that between 1927 and 1929 the Sydney based the Workers' Weekly also published articles about film from New Masses and an essay from the Soviet Union claiming that 'scenic art has assumed a mass character, especially in the cinema.'6 Jean Devanny had her quarrels, of course, with the literary and Communist figures in Waten's circle, but she was deeply engaged with many of the same issues, through her work with the Communist Party, which she joined in 1930; her involvement with the Workers' Art Club in Sydney; and Hal Devann/s association with Workers' Weekly after he was named its publisher in the early 1930s.

Devann/s first two novels about Australia are interesting because they show how her involvement with the Communist Party in the early 1930s prompted her to adopt a more modernist, and arguably 'avant-gardist' and libertarian perspective, transforming her longstanding interest in film and suggesting how and why she alluded to film techniques in Out of Such Fires and to film stars and the film industry in The Ghost Wife. Written before the premises of Zhdanovian realism were articulated, these novels present Devann/s take on the distinctive Australian modernism that Carter describes by showing how mass-marketed films were transforming the hopes and dreams of modern women. …

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