INTERVIEW: Frank Moorhouse on ‘Cold Light’ (Vintage)

In the conclusion to Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’, former League of Nations officer Edith Campbell Berry mixes politics with pleasure in post-war Canberra. Moorhouse spoke to Andrea Hanke in the November issue of Bookseller+Publisher. (See her review here.)

Edith has a glamorous lifestyle in the first two books. She is young, attractive, surrounded by interesting men and women, and working for world peace. Were you tempted to end her story there?
For a while after Dark Palace I thought that Edith’s life ended with the collapse of the League of Nations. She had come through this great disaster in human vision—what some saw as the greatest diplomatic embarrassment of the 20th century—the new UN had rejected her, and some of her friends at the League had suicided because of their failure to stop World War II. In some ways Edith flees back to Australia to find herself. I became excited and went to Jane Palfreyman, my then editor at Random House, and said, ‘the third novel is set in Canberra in the 1950s’. She looked at me and said, ‘do you have a stronger pitch than that?’ I told her that this was a remarkable time in Australia and the world regardless of how we tend to see it—and Edith belonged there. Jane agreed. In Canberra Edith again confronts all the great problems of the human race—and her own personal dilemmas. Wherever we go the existential questions follow us. Edith is a woman in her prime, also a woman still trying to understand her sexuality even if it means crossing the sexual borders or trying to live without borders. She is a woman who wrestles for her say in the world; to find a family life; she wrestles with alcohol, and she strives for a sexual life which fits her personality and she searches for peace of mind.

In Cold Light, Edith takes up a number of causes, including the construction of Canberra, for which she has lofty dreams. How do you think she would feel about Australia’s capital today?
Edith would’ve been pleased to see that the unique and creative hands of Marion and Walter Griffin were still clearly present in the design of the national capital.

She would have seen that the residential neighbourhoods of Canberra had lost their rawness and had become distinctive in design and layout—some with interesting restaurants and their own community activities, and that each is now an archive of the architectural styles of the decade in which they were built.

She would have said now let’s pull down any unsuccessful structures and ugliness.

She would have been disappointed that the buses taking people to and from work did not have visits from wandering minstrels and opera singers and celebrities.

But she would be delighted and thrilled that Australia had manage to create a distinctive city ‘not like any other in the world’ with its ‘temples’ of art, literature, science, music, democracy, law, military history, its parks and gardens, and a national museum—all showing where we came from and what brought us along.

She would probably ask where the Museum of Design, Arts, and Crafts was and why there wasn’t there a great museum of Indigenous culture.

She might be disappointed at the level of political debate in the new parliament house.

You spent some time in Geneva to research the first two books of the trilogy. Did you set up camp in Canberra for this book?
One day in the bus travelling through Canberra in a winter mist I had a dazzling revelation—it was that Canberra may well have evolved into the most aesthetically distinctive and functionally satisfying 20th-century planned city in the world—that Australia had pulled it off. I then had a second realisation, Canberra was now completed in the formal sense—the new parliament house was working and the key cultural institutions were pretty much in place. I even entertained the notion that Canberra might be the most beautiful 20th-century city in the world. While some people who live outside Canberra still hold out-dated memories of the ‘city without soul’ where you couldn’t get a decent coffee, Canberra is now a sophisticated city and it increasingly delights me—architecturally, gastronomically and with its wonderful cultural resources.

The story also delves into the history of the Australian Communist Party, and its role in political espionage during the 1950s (both as a spy and as a party that was heavily spied upon). Did you find many sources to draw on this?
The release of national archival material and the publication of a revealing book by former communist Mark Aarons (The Family File, Black Inc.) may have extinguished any illusions those on the left still have about the nature of the Australian communist party leadership during the immediate post-war years. We now know that the communist party in Australia was substantially funded by the Soviet Union and a section of the membership was engaged in spying for the Soviet Union. Whether this has discredited forever the vision of some sort of a socialistic economic and social system as an alternative to that of American capitalism is, perhaps, still to be resolved.

You write ‘literary novels’ that are funny and sexy, which is less common in this genre. Have you been influenced by any particular authors?
My hero author is George Eliot and she has influenced me throughout my life since school days but I doubt that she has contributed to what you call the ‘sexy’ in my work—I have to take responsibility for that—although, given her own personal life, I do not think she would’ve been in any ways embarrassed by it if she were alive to read it. I think her influence on me was that she showed me that the personal life, the civic life, the life of ideas and social change can be intertwined into an engaging readable novel.

Are there any plans to adapt Edith’s story into a movie or mini-series?
A number of film options have been taken out on the Edith novels over the 20 years that they were written but they still await the right director and producer—Cate Blanchett said in an interview that my character Edith was the one she most wanted to play. I hope that comes to pass.

Most mentioned this week

Sherlock Holmes expert Anthony Horowitz brings the great man to life for a new generation of readers in The House of Silk (Orion), which sits at first place on the most mentioned chart. The following three titles received equal mentions this week. Peter FitzSimons provides a portrait of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 100 years ago inMawson and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age (William Heinemann). Cold Light (Vintage) is the final volume of Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’ set in 1950s Canberra among the murky politics of multi-national diplomacy. Pride and Prejudice fans should keep an eye out for P D James’ Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber): the year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years, when Lydia Wickham, an uninvited guest at their annual ball, arrives screaming that her husband has been murdered–Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: Cold Light (Frank Moorhouse, Vintage)

In the final volume of Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’, former League of Nations officer Edith Campbell Berry has fallen on hard times: Canberra in the 1950s. As a married woman—albeit an unconventional marriage to her longtime companion, British diplomat and ‘nancy boy’ Ambrose Westwood—she finds it difficult to break into conservative Australian politics. While life in postwar Canberra may lack the glamour of Geneva in the interwar years (the setting of the first two books Grand Days and Dark Palace), beneath the surface it is far from dull: communism, nuclear weapons proliferation and a town-planning conference are just some of the issues demanding Edith’s attention. In Cold Light, Moorhouse adds further layers to his complex character. Edith is older, she has suffered disappointment and is searching for direction. Happily, however, she still knows how to have fun, and it was wonderful to spend time with the ‘old Edith’ in this book: the witty Edith, who excels in verbal sparring, sometimes in Latin; the sexy Edith, who enjoys under-the-table hanky-panky at a dinner party at the Lodge; and the slightly eccentric Edith, whose first task in landing a public service position is to redecorate her office. This is an intelligent, insightful, funny, sexy and sometimes sad conclusion to a wonderful trilogy.

Andrea Hanke is editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This review first appeared in the November 2011 issue of the magazine, available online here.

Most mentioned this week

All five books on the most mentioned chart received equal mentions this week. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating has published a volume of speeches and occasional pieces in After Words: The Post-Prime Ministerial Speeches (A&U). An English teacher finds a portal to 1958 and is given the chance to stop the assassination of John F Kennedy in Stephen King’s 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton). Cold Light (Random House) is the third book in Frank Moorhouse’s Edith Campbell Berry Trilogy, set in postwar Australia. The rise and metamorphosis of double-entry bookkeeping is one of history’s best-kept secrets and one of its most important untold tales in Jane Gleeson-White’s Double Entry (A&U). And finally, media personality and foodie Indira Naidoo embarks on a mission to transform her tiny balcony into a bountiful kitchen garden in The Edible Balcony (Lantern)–Media Extra.

The November issue!

Well, the stylish November issue is in the house. As well as the usual reviews and news, it’s got interviews with author and bookseller A S Patric, whose short story collection The Rattler is published by Spineless Wonders in November, Brian Falkner who has a new YA series kicking off in November with Recon Team Angel: Assault (Walker Books), Frank Moorhouse, whose ‘Edith Trilogy’ wraps up with Cold Light (Random House, November) and, of course, Ray Martin, whose new book Ray Martin’s Favourites (Victory, November) contains the stories behind some of his favourite interviews.

In the same issue, Eloise Keating looks at changes to sales repping and Andrea Hanke investigates the finer details of digital rights. We report on the Melbourne and Brisbane writers’ festivals, Reuben Crossman reflects on the international book design awards and Kate Cuthbert interviews two digital advocates working in romance publishing.