TRACY FARR The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
Longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Tracy Farr’s first novel cheekily rewrites history.
A Russian scientist developed the world’s first electronic musical instrument, the theremin, during the late 1920s; Farr relocates its invention from the United States to Sydney, and creates the fictional Australian character of Lena Gaunt, musical pioneer and star theremin performer.
Lena narrates this story, beginning in Western Australia in 1991, as she drifts in the gentle waves of Cottesloe Beach. She soon differentiates herself from the other grey-haired, ‘older, early-rising swimmers’ enjoying their morning dip. As she luxuriates in the sea that smells ‘like watermelon, and salt’, she matter-of-factly tells us she feels ‘light and … heavy at the same time: like heroin – a little bit like heroin’.
It is not only her drug use that signals this octogenarian’s unconventional nature. As she swims, she prepares her mind and body for her performance that night. By invitation, she will appear at the Transformer Festival, a showcase for ‘the best electronica and eclectica that 1991 can deliver’. Decades after her last public performance, the woman who was promoted during the 1920s as ‘Music’s Most Modern Musician’ will again coax the theremin to produce its eerie sounds, ‘like a human voice, or an electronic scream … or like the low thrum and moan of a cello’.
Lena’s inclusion in the festival is part tribute, part rediscovery and, for one music reviewer, part ‘laboured, dated, irrelevant … novelty act’. Other audience members, however, are spellbound. One of these, filmmaker Mo (Maureen) Patterson, decides to make a documentary about Lena’s life. As Lena considers whether to cooperate, and what to reveal or withhold, her memories surface, beginning with her Singapore childhood and well-to-do but emotionally stunted parents.
Years later, in Sydney, Lena’s first instrument was the cello. Her music teacher, the chain-smoking Madame Petrova, introduces her to the Professor – the scientific Russian given no further name – who is looking for someone who can play his new invention. So, in 1928, Lena devotes herself to the Professor’s Aetherwave Instrument.
But of all the loves in her life, the one Lena most cherishes is Beatrix Carmichael, a modernist painter. They meet at the society party at which Lena first plays the theremin. Before long, Trix, older than the teenaged Lena, introduces her to places like the Buzz Room in Kings Cross, an alluring underworld where ‘all sorts and all kinds’ of people danced wildly to jazz, and racial, sexual and gender boundaries dissolve in smoky shadows. In this environment Lena also discovers drugs.
Later, when Trix takes a teaching position in New Zealand’s grey conservative Dunedin, the couple allows residents to regard them as a widow and her orphaned niece. Before long, however, they gather together a group of like-minded Bohemians, whose company compensates Lena for the loss of her performing career.
But after five years there, tragedy strikes: Beatrix dies. Lena returns to Australia, pregnant as the result of a drunken sexual encounter after Beatrix’s wake. When her daughter is born, they live simply – and seemingly idyllically – at Cottesloe Beach through the years of World War II.
In her old age – as we meet her at the beginning of the book – Lena is prickly, standoffish, a somewhat narcissistic monster whose occasional flares of self-doubt make her a vibrant and sympathetic character. For example, on the morning after her festival performance, she patronisingly unfolds Perth’s ‘parochial tabloid’, only to discover its reviewer is being snide about her. ‘Good lord,’ she says, ‘they think it was a piss-take.’
But although I enjoyed this intelligent and articulate woman’s story, I was often frustrated at how she floats through life in a strangely passive and disconnected way. Although she connives to control how filmmaker Mo portrays her, she seldom demonstrates a similar desire to shape other aspects of her life. Large world events like the Depression and World War II hardly affect her at all, and her life’s turning points are, unfailingly, offered to her by others rather than pursued. And money always turns up when she needs it.
There are clues, however, suggesting the author may have deliberately created a character whose ability to feel has been damaged by her upbringing. First, there are those undemonstrative, withholding parents. Then, when Lena is only four, she is sent to boarding school in Australia. Fourteen years later – and without seeing her parents again – she learns that her mother has died and ponders her reaction:
I realised that although my mother’s death saddened me, I could not say that my sadness was deep … I did not miss her, it occurred to me, quite as a girl should miss her mother.
As she grows older her lack of engagement shows itself in a series of situations, not the least of which is Beatrix’s death. While the preceding illness is recounted, the death has a curious lack of impact – on me at least. Lena’s disoriented, woozy and painful sexual encounter (it is not completely clear with whom) takes place in a bedroom under the eyes of Beatrix’s final self-portrait: ‘Trix, her hand raised in benediction, was by my side … It felt like the pain of loss. I cried out, sang out, still alive.’
I understand her need to feel something here, but am unconvinced by the way the novel unfolds after this point. When she suffers another serious loss, her response is muted, contained, quite literally, in a box of memorabilia. Perhaps Lena’s heroin helps to keep the pain at bay.
But this flattening of emotional engagement has consequences on the story itself. I was surprised, for example, that although Lena regularly receives financial support from her Uncle Valentine – and enjoys the hospitality of his big house – she doesn’t know, or seem to care, how he earns his money. Her lack of curiosity has the unfortunate effect of denying readers the opportunity to learn something that explains the uncle as a person, that speaks about his interests, talents, social circle. Uncle Valentine is a robust, energetic presence and, early on, there is a hint that he has his own secret sexual life. But whatever mutual understanding exists between him and Lena, it is never discussed. Sadly, Uncle Valentine remains a mystery, little more than a mechanism for bailing Lena out of trouble on numerous occasions. In fact, as I read the book, I fully expected that at some point Valentine – Lena’s closest living relative – would be revealed as doing something distasteful or illegal, thus causing some kind of ethical crisis for the protagonist: something that forces her to act.
And yet, this frustrating ‘disconnected connection’ does seem deliberate, since the theme persists throughout the book. The theremin, for instance, is not touched when played, but produces its strange music when the musician moves her hands to disturb its electromagnetic field. As Lena describes it:
It was part visceral sensation, part physics; the relation between body and air, electrons aligning. A crystalline cold swept through my body when first I played the theremin, swiftly replaced by a bone-warming heat, a calm like none I had known.
The instrument provides an image for the moment when Lena first sees the love of her life: ‘Beatrix connected to me without touching, as soon as I saw her.’ And the same idea echoes in recurring descriptions of the unfinished Sydney Harbour Bridge:
The two arcs of the bridge approached each other across the water, but did not yet touch … Girders, each alone straight and unbending, together formed curves and patterns as delicate as lace, as hard as steel.
When the two halves join, Lena and Trix celebrate. But Trix, who has painted the unfinished bridge, mourns, too, saying, ‘I loved the idea of it being under construction.’ The aesthetic value is in the potential, the incomplete, the uncertain act of reaching, rather than the stability of the finished structure.
This feeds into another persistent theme: the celebration of modernity. The novel offers a wonderful depiction of its optimism, love of machines, and explosive cultural changes. Lena herself says, ‘This was modernity in progress; we were part of the modern age.’ A dress is described as being ‘the colour of aluminium’; a summer-night party in Elizabeth Bay is ‘scented with petrol’; the ‘thrugging engines’ of a boat under the Harbour Bridge make a kind of industrial music: ‘We were part of the percussion, the music of metal and construction and water combined.’
I found much to enjoy in this novel. Like its narrator, it is unconventional, sometimes irritating, but always intelligent, intriguing and very closely controlled.
Tracy Farr The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt Fremantle Press 2013 PB 312pp $26.99
Jeannette Delamoir is a ex-Queenslander and former academic. She loves writing, reading and living in Sydney.
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