Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Invitation to the Voyage: Reading Gail Jones's Five Bells

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Invitation to the Voyage: Reading Gail Jones's Five Bells

Article excerpt

Gail Jones's novels cannot be understood fully without making connections between them and the essays she publishes as an academic. Like a number of theoretically-informed contemporary writers-Brian Castro is another-her body of work demands to be read as a whole: that is to say, her novels are often ways of thinking through in fictional form the theoretical issues that preoccupy her in her essays.

Jones's earlier novels often deal with Australians who travel or live abroad and engage with aspects of modern global culture. Five Bells (2011), the first since her move to Sydney in 2008, is set entirely at Circular Quay, yet its characters seem designed to illustrate the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural nature of contemporary Australian society. As Stella Clarke wrote in an early review, Five Bells is 'both explicitly Australian and insistently cosmopolitan'; 'Jones's Sydney is a global hub and her literary allegiance exceeds national boundaries' (18). There are four main characters. Ellie is a postgraduate student from Western Australia who has come to Sydney to do a PhD in literary studies. James DeMello, Ellie's childhood friend, has come in search of her: originally a medical student, he retrained as a primary school teacher but has since been traumatised by the death by drowning of a young student in his care. Catherine Healy is an Irish woman who has come to Sydney as a tourist after the death of her brother Brendan in a motorcar accident. Pei Xing is an elderly Chinese woman who has immigrated to Sydney from Shanghai where, during the 1960s, she and her family experienced the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The fifth character alluded to in the title is a little girl whom we glimpse in the opening pages of the novel, and who reappears at the end when she is reported on the evening news as a missing person. Ellie, Catherine and Pei Xing are potential witnesses to her disappearance.

In this article I will outline several contexts that I believe will be foundational for subsequent readings of the novel. They include its relationship to Kenneth Slessor's poem of the same name; Jones's interest in the French Situationist International and their theories of urbanism and psychogeography; the influence of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925), trauma studies and the trauma novel; and another cluster of themes associated with Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (1957), World Literature, cosmopolitanism and global translatio.

Kenneth Slessor's 'Five Bells'

In an interview with Catherine Keenan for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011, Jones indicated some of the conceptual frames that inspired her in this novel. The first is Kenneth Slessor's poem, 'Five Bells' as Keenan explains:

The title of her novel is, of course, a nod to Kenneth Slessor's famous poem. Jones was coming home on the ferry one night, after dinner at a friend's house, when the dark wash of water made her think of Five Bells. ... One of the things that interested her was that the poem's sadness, its elegiac quality, was so strong, even though it was written many years after Joe Lynch's death, the event it mourns. Her book doesn't draw on the poem or its subject directly; she thinks of it more as 'a trigger for a meditation on the idea of time as water.' (31)

Written in 1937 and first published in 1939, 'Five Bells' is an elegy on the death of Slessor's friend, Joe Lynch, an artist and noted bohemian, who drowned when he fell from a ferry at Circular Quay on the night of Saturday 14 May 1927 (Kirkpatrick 263-72). Kate Lilley suggests that the poem is characterised by 'a thematics of death,' in which the relationship between the elegist and elegised (mourner and mourned) becomes radically 'interchangeable' (290, 246). Ironically, the harder the poet works to resurrect the presence of the deceased, the more his own memories of Joe seem to disintegrate. As Kevin Hart puts it, Joe is gradually realised as an absence (194-5). Poetry cannot recapture the essence of the dead, who nonetheless haunt the memory of the living:

I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,

The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,

And the short agony, the longer dream,

The Nothing that was neither long nor short;

But I was bound, and could not go that way,

But I was blind, and could not feel your hand. …

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