Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Vinnie, etc

Poor Vinnie. I say "poor Vinnie" but honestly, my sympathy and compassion for him is limited, even though he's quite pitiful. Here he is next to me on the couch right now 
He just really, really wants a cuddle and I completely understand that - everyone wants to be cuddled - but he has zero idea about how to behave and he can only sit quietly by my side for a few minutes before he is driven to claw and bite, never understanding that this isn't behaviour which makes a person want to cuddle him. He's just kind of disgusting and he isn't to blame for that, and I know that nobody else will love him or even be niceish to him or pay him a little bit of attention every now and then. None of this actually matters because I just can't get enthusiastic about him. He's Vinnie and he always will be.

I've just finished reading Men of Mont St Quentin by Peter Stanley

I've read quite a bit of this fairly interesting writer's work at this point. When I started at the Shrine, I asked a colleague who's an active professional historian to give me a reading list that would help me not just to fill in the huge gaps in my knowledge of Australian war history, but also to get my bearings in whatever debates were going on in the field. It probably says something not very good about me that I asked to be pointed especially toward significant figures in the discipline who've made a stand against post-Howard historical revisionism. (Going tribal at the outset, always a dick move.) Stanley was one of the people identified for me then and consequently I've read a lot of his stuff over the past year and a half - in fact I've read far more of him arguing with other historians than I have of those other historians actually putting their cases. It's a little like listening to someone in your train carriage having an argument on the phone: sure, the person on the other end of the line probably is a fascist, but what you mainly get first hand experience of is the cross person beside you.

Anyway this book is one of those very worthwhile & instructive textual objects: a narrative experiment, triggered by qualities in the source material that don't appear to be amenable to capturing or conveying in conventional ways. This is maybe the best reason to experiment with form; possibly these are the only circumstances where genuine form-breaking is able to produce a fully legible and coherent text. Measured against the various intentions/ambitions Stanley describes at different points in the book, I don't think the experiment is entirely successful, but it comes close enough to suggest some very interesting possibilities for this kind of history.

The primal source is a set of scrapbooks made by a Hawthorn man called Garry Roberts, whose son Frank died at Mont St Quentin in France on 1 September 1918. That's Frank and his wife Ruby on the book cover. Garry had been documenting his family and community in scrapbooks for many years before the war so he was fluent in the medium, if you like. When his son went to war Garry collated and curated every bit of correspondence, news, information, photos, cuttings - anything that shaped his understanding of what was happening to Frank. When Frank was killed, Garry, like so many other heartbroken people in this country, in his grief needed to know as much as he could about the circumstances of his son's death and where his body was buried. He sought out the surviving members of Frank's platoon and elicited from all of them detailed accounts of the battle, Frank's death and what happened afterwards. All this, along with official and journalistic accounts of the battle, official correspondence, photographs, postcards, clippings, letters of condolence, the complete textual web, went into the scrapbooks, which Garry kept making for the rest of his life, and which are now in the collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Those scrapbooks sound cool. They sound like phenomenally powerful objects that both demand interpretation and render it superfluous / impossible. They sound to me like a fantastic example of the collection as the medium par excellence for expressing the lived experience of the twentieth century. You know that I am completely seduced by things like that - any kind of personal attempt to make sense of something ineffable through an organised selection of things connected to it. And these scrapbooks clearly exert some power because they have been the subject of a string of responses. Stanley lists half a dozen books and theses that have engaged with them (some of them are classics of Australian history), and since his book appeared (it's a few years old), the scrapbooks also came to play a key role in Melbourne Museum's exhibition about Australian families' experiences of the First World War, Love & Sorrow. I've seen the display. One of the scrapbooks is there, open in a book cradle, and placed next to it are some relics of the Roberts family that will make most people weep and also perhaps reflect on the infinite capacity of objects to represent not just a loved person but also to hammer home that person's absence. There's a curl of Frank Roberts's baby hair, letters from him, a tattered cloth parcel which Ruby had posted to Frank two days after his death containing one bootee belonging to their baby Nancy who Frank had never seen, and both bootees, and Frank's medals and his dead man's penny. Those things are pretty shattering but they don't speak. You have to impute a narrative to them. Mixed in with them the scrapbook looks a bit like another sad and silent object. Going only by its effect on historians who've worked with it, I think it isn't in the same category.  The curators have done as much as possible to allow the scrapbook's richness to emerge: there's a touchscreen next to the case where visitors to the exhibition can turn the digitised pages. Even so what dominates is the depth and extent of Garry Roberts' grief: in the context of the exhibition devoted to the topic of emotion and the war, not much else could cut through.

But Peter Stanley, who is a military historian, seems to have found the most remarkable thing about the scrapbooks to be not what they represented about Garry Roberts's grief but how that grief frames and drives a polyphonic, braided, temporally shifting and multivocal representation of the war, the voices of the living and the dead, the campaign and the battle, the aftermath and the consequences. Those first-hand accounts of the battle given to Garry by the surviving members of Frank's platoon are set by Stanley into dialogue with official records, against partial accounts by figures like Monash, Frank Hurley and Charles Bean, and eventually with the interpretative work carried out by journalists, war artists and the first historians. He says there is no comparable collection of minutely focused first-hand accounts of frontline fighting and I have no reason to doubt this and also no idea whether it's likely to be true (but soldiers wrote letters all the time didn't they? Certainly there seem to be zillions of letters and diaries recording individual perspectives on the Gallipoli landing). I must confess I was more interested in the historiographic reflections on the unique insights afforded by this collection of testimonies than in the book's actual telling of the battle. It occurred to me that one reason I felt a little let down is that I've read plenty of fiction about the Great War and because I'm kind of sloppy about keeping these things quarantined, it didn't strike me as particularly special to observe an event narrated through multiple (inconsistent) consciousnesses. In fact I wondered a couple of times, why doesn't he just write a novel?

The density of the scrapbooks created problems as well as opportunities. (still going)

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