AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Gail Jones on ‘Five Bells’ (Vintage)

Gail Jones’ latest novel follows four characters over a single summer’s day at Sydney’s Circular Quay. Reviewer David Gaunt spoke to the author.

You made reference recently to your book being an ‘acoustical novel’. What did you mean?

I meant simply that I tried to include sound in the texture of imagining the city. Sydney is too often pre-empted by spectacle: I wanted to suggest that there are also currents of sound that make it interesting, (the mixture of didgeridoo and human voices at the Quay, for example). It’s a noisy city, in ways that might at times seem oppressive—traffic, airplanes—but it also has the ambient music of many languages, the sense that its cosmopolitanism is registered, at least in part, through random sound.

‘Five Bells’ was voted Australia’s favourite poem in a bicentennial poll conducted by the ABC. Given its length and density, does this surprise you?

Yes, I’m surprised. I didn’t know that at all. Coming from Perth, I had imagined the poem ‘Five Bells’ was an idiosyncratic and minority passion of mine—I didn’t realise everyone in NSW studied it at school, and that it was so well known. But clearly it speaks to something profound, resonates, somehow, as meaningful and moving for Australian readers.

Your characters, like you, are all ‘new’, to a certain extent, to Sydney. What was it that drew you to write a novel so obviously identified with Sydney?

I wanted to write from the position of relative novelty. I felt I could not pretend to ‘know’ Sydney with the density of local knowledge, so I tried to thematise and explore the newness of experience, the fact that even if we’ve seen images of a monument, like the Opera House, hundreds of times, the actual encounter may be radically strange, and may recover a sense of aesthetic interruption or interception that is genuinely inspiring. I have been surprised by the beauty of Sydney, its clamorousness, its contradictions, its heterogeneity. So I wanted to give a sense too of how enlivening this jumble might be, how a sense of self is refashioned in a new city that is nevertheless somehow familiar.

You, and others, have referred to ‘psychogeography’ in your work. What is it, and how does it work?

Psychogeography is a term associated with the Situationists, a group established in the 1960s in Europe to try to think about how we might invest everyday experience with a kind of pleasurable intensity and an aesthetic purpose. Guy Debord, one of its theorists, is interested in how we move through cities: he thinks cities are basically repressive and controlling, wedding us to the seductions of power and capital, but at the same time we have, he argues, the capacity to renegotiate this relationship, to find ways of discovering the art and playfulness in everyday encounters. The randomness of the city, for the Situationists, has a kind of aesthetic potential. Moving between different zones, sounds, spaces, between insides and outsides, chambers, corridors, footpaths etc, can make perception constantly mobile and new, even return us to wonderment. I don’t think I’ve written a pyschogeographic novel: I simply enlisted the term, in a recent talk, to describe how accustomed we are to feeling bored by the city, and how this might be challenged.

Memory, forgetting and forgiveness, and the capacity of adults to reconcile the pasts of their childhood to the present seem to loom large in your work. Is that an accurate perception, do you think?

Yes, I think that’s so. I’m very preoccupied by these things and wanted to connect to my other books, to find for myself the continuity in my own thinking. Memory and forgetting are particularly large themes, and I’m interested in how we are made and unmade, as it were, ravelled and unravelled, by experiences of self through time—by what we claim and refuse as our own. Five Bells is an attempt to think through radical contemporanity—one single Saturday—and the way present time collapses into the past through unbidden memory. So my sense of the novel is of a kind of contest between past and present tenses, and the ethical matter of forgiveness (including self-forgiveness) is one which inevitably comes up in this temporal fluctuation.

Five Bells is published by Vintage in February. Read David Gaunt’s review here.

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