Jack Cameron Stanton reviews “Falling Out of Love with Ivan Southall” by Gabrielle Carey
Falling out of Love with Ivan Southall
By Gabrielle Carey
Australian Scholarly Publishing
Reviewed by JACK CAMERON STANTON
The Discomfort of Self-Recognition
For many years, books have documented the literary rivalries of writers—Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, A. S. Byatt and her sister Margaret Drabble—but Gabrielle Carey’s novella length book Falling Out of Love with Ivan Southall (2018) is the first I’ve read to examine what happens to somebody when they lose faith in the writer who convinced them to become one in the first place. Many of its most interesting elements exist in its story architecture, a part-memoir of Carey’s writing life, part-biography of Ivan Southall that critiques his novels and career. To call his career a legacy, however, may perplex contemporary generations of readers and writers, for whom the name rings no bells. For modern readers, his reputation and writing has truly faded into obscurity. By his death in November 2008, Southall was essentially forgotten: “although mostly unread and unknown to young people of the present generation, in the 1960s and 1970s Ivan Southall was a literary superstar.”(Carey; p6) During his prime he produced over thirty books for children and was the only Australian to be awarded the Carnegie Medal. How, then, does Australia continue to suffer from this cultural amnesia?
Ever since Puberty Blues (1979), Gabrielle Carey’s work has been confessional, exploring with her candour the realities of personal and familial loss, often seeking sanctuary and counsel in reading and writing. This eagerness to discern real life meaning and purpose from text is central to her book Moving Among Strangers (2013), in which she traces her family and her mother’s connection to the enigmatic West Australian, Randolph Stow. At a time when Joan was dying from a brain tumour, and Stow is living in exile, Carey sends him a personal letter. Letter writing was integral to the literary life of Ivan Southall, too, a similarity that made her immediately align with, and become wary of, her ex-idol. In many ways, Carey’s latest is a dismayed retrospective on what it means to devote oneself to a life of writing. “Maybe the reason I no longer love Ivan the writer is because I no longer love the writer in myself,” (p64) Carey writes. These tensions, between childhood literary obsession and disenchantment later in her career, confront what Carey dubs “self-delusion” and consequently produce a book that evades definition. A sense of dread occupies each page, and as this negativity teeters on self-loathing we realise that Carey’s “late-life crisis” is being fuelled by a common anxiety: the belief that literature is an echo-chamber, pointless, masturbatory, meaningful only in of itself: “My growing sense of the writing vocation as useless and unproductive in comparison to nursing or even landscape gardening is integral to my late-life crisis. It is hard to maintain one’s sense of self-value if your product, so to speak, is not in any way necessary for society to function.” (p39) To call this book literary criticism, however, seems a misnomer, and likewise the memoir and biographical aspects precipitate in the understanding of the texts themselves. Thus, Carey has found herself in a bind: to explain why literature may no longer be able to provide meaning and purpose in her life, she uses that very thing.
Throughout the mid to late 20th century, Ivan Southall was for many young Australian readers a kind of literary hero, best known for his survivalist novels Hills End (1962), Ash Road (1965), To the Wild Sky (1967), and Josh (1971), his Carnegie Medal winning novel. Nine-year-old Carey was so enamoured with To the Wild Sky that she decided to pursue the “deliberately difficult” writer life. While researching this book, she confirmed her suspicion that she wasn’t the only young reader to be touched by the Southall phenomenon. Her research took her to Canberra’s national archives, where she uncovered the immense letter correspondence Southall received from young fans, discovering that “at the top of each letter in Southall’s handwriting is the word ‘reply’ and a date. No correspondence, as far as I can see, fails to receive a response.”(p11) Carey’s re-reading of To the Wild Sky, the book that spurred her to pursue writing, proved disillusioning. Rather than rekindling her predilections, it awoke a “palpable dislike” (p35) for Southall, who she not only considers a mediocre craftsmen but also a cruelly dismissive workaholic who neglected his own children. “While busily writing to and for his thousands of child fans,’ Carey writes, “Southall’s own children were locked out of his study and, largely, out of his life.” (p42) This disenchantment culminates in her own existential unease, “I have also found myself, at times, more devoted to my writing than to my children.” (p56) In other words, perhaps Carey wrote this book because she was afraid of becoming like Southall, a writer who tried to turn the real world into a big fat metaphor in order to escape from it. “Is this why Southall makes me feel uncomfortable?” Carey ponders. “Because, as a confessional writer, there is something that Ivan Southall and I have in common? Perhaps my discomfort is really the discomfort of self-recognition.” (p64)
Nevertheless, at times Carey can’t withhold a degree of professional admiration for Southall’s devotion to the craft—the very same austere discipline that produced his selfish workaholic nature. “Southall was that very rare of writers, a genuine professional, scraping by from one royalty cheque to the next.” (p23) This admiration manifests especially in his letter-writing to fans (Carey herself being terribly fond of the art). Like Carey, many young readers were inspired to become writers after reading Southall’s books. One young boy by the name of Peter pens the following letter, reproduced in Carey’s book:
Dear Mr Southall,
I’m writing a story called “The Visitors from Outer Space.” It will be a good story if I can find it and finish it. It’s lost around the house somewhere. How do you keep your mind on your work? Once I start working on something I hardly ever finish it. (p11)
While the digital age has made our idols seem infinitely nearer, seldom do emails seem to reach beyond a secretary, automated reply, or the dreaded oblivion of silence. Southall’s reply to Peter’s letter is also copied in the book:
What you must do is use a notebook or exercise book for your stories and put a bright red cover on it. The only way to finish anything, Peter, is to keep on going until you get to the end. There is simply no other way. (p11)
Southall’s directness resonates with Carey’s sensibilities. As a teacher of creative writing for over twenty years, she would never dare offer “this most obvious advice . . . [Students] have paid good money for this secret, which is why so many feel disappointed when they realise there there is no secret except keep going.”(p12) I’m still learning, Michelangelo was fond of saying; no doubt Carey and Southall believe the same to be true of writing. “I can’t believe I have spent so much of my life hunched over a desk and yet still do not know how to write,” (p97) Carey writes.
At this book’s core is an examination of the reach and extent of idealisation. Once Carey finally re-read To the Wild Sky, she was loath to discover it was not particularly well-written, “the dialogue is clunky, the gender roles stereotyped, the grown-ups mostly mean-spirited and unlikeable and there is an uncomfortable obsession with class.” (p34) What can be taken away, then, from a book that explores a peculiar experience of the literary doppelgänger is that seeing yourself in somebody else not only causes the fear of unoriginality but, more tragically, the suggestion that you have lost part of yourself along the way. Maybe the value of falling out of love with a literary idol is the recognition that is was never really about them in the first place, and that, in Carey’s words, “the real nature of the reader-writing relationship [is] one of a long-distance, non-physical love affair. And if so, maybe it represents the ultimate, ethereal, transcendent love, independent of the material world. A love that is purely spiritual, that both children and adults can experience. The only love, perhaps, that is truly perfect.” (p90)
JACK CAMERON STANTON is a writer and critic living in Newtown, Sydney. His work has appeared in The Australian, Southerly, The Sydney Review of Books, Neighbourhood Paper, Seizure, and Voiceworks, among other places. His fiction has been twice shortlisted for the UTS Writers’ Anthology prize. He is a doctoral candidate at UTS.