In the April issue of our magazine, reviewer Richard Bilkey asked David Musgrave about his first foray into novel-writing, and found out why Patrick White may have had a laugh reading the forthcoming Glissando.
The title, Glissando: A Melodrama, immediately informs the reader that music will underscore everything in the novel. It is present both in metaphor and as a constant accompaniment to the characters’ lives. How did the musical effect of ‘glissando’ in particular come to be of such central importance to the novel?
One of the main themes of Glissando is the arts and how they are interrelated and the role art can play in our lives, and the focus is really on architecture and music, although food, memory and writing also play important roles. The musical aspect came naturally, as I have played and written music since I was a child; the architectural aspect I guess came from a preoccupation with forebears who were colonial architects (and who feature in the book). Because I was interested in the arts in combination, Glissando refers to the musical technique of the glissade, to the house Glissando where the narrator lives and writes (the man who built it conceived of the house as a glissade realised in architectural form) and to the dying fall of the narrator’s life. So, in a way, music itself is a kind of master trope in the book for how art can shape our lives, for good and for ill.
Your previous work has often been noted for its clever use of satire and Glissando is no exception, targeting everything from self-righteous wowsers to the ‘majestic idiocy’ of the Sydney Opera House. Why is satire important to you as an author?
That’s a difficult question. It’s not really satire per se that is important to me, but the exuberance of the form. I was attracted to satire not because it is a form of attack but because it seems to open up possibilities and make new connections between things because the form is so varied and goes in so many different directions at once. I first became interested in satire when I studied a course under the late professor Bill Maidment at Sydney University. I was fascinated at the time by Tristram Shandy, and how it seemed to be wrestling with the idea of representation as a totalising act. Later, of course, I realised that Sterne was parodying encyclopaedic knowledge, and making fun of the attempt to make representation complete and total. My initial interest led on to studying other types of the same kind of satire, such as Rabelais, Swift, Peacock, Rushdie and many others. I actually ended up writing a book on it, called Grotesque Anatomies, which is being published in the USA later this year. People often think of satire negatively: for me, it is joyous and celebratory; the satirical targets in Glissando are often almost incidental to the fun, hopefully, that is had in doing so and they are treated fairly gently, I think.
Patrick White comes in for some satirical treatment with a cheeky reference in the final chapter. How did your reading of Voss influence Glissando?
There’s a parody of Voss buried in the pages of Glissando. Many of the characters from White’s novel turn up in the grandfather’s journals and wander through it, sort of approximating what their counterparts in Voss did, but not quite. Voss itself is a very strange and interesting book. It has a camp quality, and it is a kind of burlesque on aspects of German Romanticism and idealism. It seemed natural, and very easy, to draw Voss into the weird world of the grandfather’s narrative, which is a madder version of German Romanticism than White’s. But as a parody, Glissando is not intended as a travesty of Voss: rather, it’s like some alternative, older traditions of parody where there is a kind of ‘singing alongside’ rather than against. I think that Patrick White might have had a chuckle if he had read it.
You have received a number of awards for your poetry and short stories but this is your first published novel. Your prose is beautiful and lyrical throughout Glissando and you have maintained much of the philosophical intensity of your shorter works. What did you find most difficult in extending the scope of your work into the novel format?
Thanks! There’s no rule for writing novels and so the hardest part, I think, was intuiting what I wanted to do. The first draft of the novel was dreamier and, as a consequence, even more improbable than the events in the final version, so one difficult part was being able to transform fictional implausibility into fictional plausibility. You can get away with a great deal of implausibility in poetry, but it is harder to do so with a novel. Learning how to write well is also learning how to edit well.
What are you working on next?
A novel about band culture in Sydney in the 1990s with a working title The Obituary Collector. It’s part murder mystery, part family drama. I’m also working on a book-length poem, The Architect, and of course, poems—there are three books of them coming out over the next 12 months.