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Posted on 11 Jun 2020 in Fiction | 1 comment

GREGORY DAY A Sand Archive. Reviewed by Paul Anderson

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The author of Archipelago of Souls explores a life spent with the sand dunes of the Great Ocean Road in A Sand Archive.

Gregory Day’s fifth novel is a confluence of nature and culture set in France and Australia, on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Day is a writer, poet and musician, and this particular coastal landscape has also been a subject in his music (the 2005 album The Flash Road). In A Sand Archive he has again drawn inspiration from it to create a heartfelt work of estimable quality, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

FB Herschell is its touching main character, a civil engineer who lives at home with his mother in Geelong. His name is Francis but he is referred to as FB throughout. This fits: FB is dapper, gentlemanly, almost eccentric, ‘in tweeds and tie, in tam-ó-shanter, in deep Victoria’. He is in his twenties in the 1960s; a sometimes ‘emotionally reticent’ young man, but actually an unsung polymath with ‘a thinking heart’. He works for the Country Roads Board and is tasked with fixing sections of the Great Ocean Road prone to sinkholes and hazardous sand drift. FB takes this on uniquely: he camps on site – on a weekend, in his own time – and is portrayed thus:

For company he had the kangaroos and plovers. The gannets wheeling above porpoises out to sea. And Salisbury’s Downs and Dunes. A bright grass-green, cloth-bound hardback.

The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator-writer (possibly also a version of Day) who is researching the building of the Great Ocean Road. He knows of FB as the author of a book on the subject, and in the 2000s they meet. The narrator works part-time in a Geelong bookshop, and it is there that they begin an acquaintance during what turns out to be the last years of FB’s life. The writer feels a kinship and encourages FB to complete what becomes his final project, a chronicle of his multifarious technical and historical writing in local publications.

A Sand Archive is an imagined retrospective, the narrator posthumously sifting through FB’s ‘professional papers, personal journals and diaries’ (the archive) deposited at the university library. The narrator comes to admire him, and what starts out as curiosity becomes more philosophical: he discerns what went almost unwritten, the love affair in France that underlaid FB’s life.

FB’s wide reading and research had taken him to Arcachon on the Gascony coast – site of the massive Dune du Pyla, the largest in Europe – to study French solutions to dune stabilisation. En route, he finds himself in Paris at the height of the May 1968 student-worker protests, and meets Mathilde. He falls in love and his life, his inner life at least, is altered forever.

On his return to Australia, his technical recommendations are implemented, notwithstanding the disdain of his boss, the ‘rotter’ Gibbon. Marram grass is planted to stabilise the sand at Barwon Heads, just as FB learned at Cap Ferret. The grass stabilises the dunes, which in turn protects the road, but later FB changes his mind and wants to replace this introduced species with native plants. His career gradually fades and in its twilight he self-publishes his opus: The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties (1982).

The Sand Archive is aptly situated. The Great Ocean Road and Arcachon are intersections of great natural beauty where human endeavours coexist against immense natural forces. The  histories of both places are interesting to read: the ingenuities required in order to urbanise. Moreover the book gently conveys the permanence of the natural world in these places, the incessant winds and oceans; stabilising the dunes can only ever be transitory.

Day said in a radio interview with the ABC’s Book Show that he sees 1968 as ‘a crisis of an imbalance between nature and culture and the way the grid of culture had been placed upon the more analogue, organic and fluid forms of nature; and that nature being human nature as well.’ Many of the protest slogans of 1968 are used in the book and one provides a succinct example: ‘Sous les pavés, la plage’ (under the cobblestones lies the beach) is scrawled on a wall in Paris. Some of these stones are dug up and thrown by demonstrators at the police; they are elements of the network of boulevards and represent gentrification. Later FB observes the streets being tarmacked to prevent this tactic, by ‘literally the machinery of the state’, sealing their dominion.

FB and Mathilde meet unexpectedly and each becomes caught between following their own nature and outside forces. FB has been driven ‘to study the ontology of the dunes’, not simply to fix the road. He arranged a scholarship to fund his trip to France despite the indifference of his employer, and learned the language. He is not in Paris for the demonstrations, although he does get caught up in one of the big marches. Mathilde, on the other hand, is actively involved, yet she decides to leave the protests behind to accompany FB and his academic supervisor, Professor Lacombe, when they decamp to Arcachon to study the dunes. This is also near Mathilde’s family home in La-Teste-de-Buch, and thus, so soon after meeting FB, she is introducing him to her parents. She worries her sudden return home may simply be nostalgia. Mathilde’s father is pleased to see her, and at the same time surprised when so much is happening in the capital. Alain Soubret firmly supports the protests. In a key passage he and Professor Lacombe have a good-natured intellectual arm wrestle about current events in Paris ‘like a pair of hungry insects happy to feed off each other’. They go at it as inadvertent proxies for FB and Mathilde. ‘Society needs to reconfigure itself metaphysically. We need to re-embrace the natural world,’ says the professor. ‘What will bind the students and workers together will be an urgent sense of human decency. It is always a cultural issue, not one of nature,’ her father says. Ultimately Mathilde is more persuaded by this and returns to Paris, leaving FB to his fieldwork.

FB and Mathilde had first met after viewing an exhibition of Piet Mondrian’s dune paintings. The paintings seem to represent both the real and the imagined, an artist in transition from the natural world. Mondrian will go on to be most famous for his abstract blocks of colour and lines. Late in the book FB suddenly travels to Domburg in Zeeland, where Mondrian painted his dunes. There he has an epiphanic encounter with Professor John Coulthard, a grieving mathematician (who could be a version of FB). That night FB begins to write his life’s work. His first love was also to be his last. Mathilde survives in his writing – subtly between the lines – and the narrator shows us where to look. FB lives out the rest of his life in Geelong unassumingly, and sleeps in the same single bed in the family home his whole life.

This is an intelligent novel packed with literary and cultural references – Hélène Cixous and Nathalie Sarraute are particularly important, as is Albert Camus. This is never heavy going; rather it completes a brilliant portrait. FB is a bibliophile and an eclectic buyer; his books reveal him as something of a private intellectual:

… everything from books of Portuguese poetry from City Lights in San Francisco, to monographs on Japanese aqueducts from Kelly & Walsh in Hong Kong. He bought the latest American fiction from Strand Bookstore in New York, and European psychoanalytic theory and Estonian liturgical music from Charing Cross in London. He made extensive notes about the Frankfurt School, but also about Telford and Brunel, and Scottish Enlightenment painters.

Day’s writing is original and beautiful. There are rare words to look up and chapter headings that could be Cocteau Twins tracks: ‘Slacks Between Ridges’, ‘Slip Face’, ‘Polyp and Frond’, ‘Rhizone’. FB is mollycoddled by his mother yet remains ‘as pliable as a pomaderris strand to the shape of her needs’.

There is a tender scene at the opening of the love affair between FB and Mathilde when they are trailing through the streets of Paris the morning after the night of the barricades and see a canary in the window of an abandoned tabac. Mathilde opens its cage door and, taking FB’s hand, says: ‘La porte a été ouverte, mais l’oiseau va-t-il s’envoler?’ (The door has been opened, but will the bird fly?) Mathilde is being delicately flirtatious or may be referring to the protests. Both work: later they add this to the slogans painted on the walls. Day uses French adroitly; translations are hardly required and sometimes not provided. His descriptions of Paris streets are well integrated and credible, especially the scenes on Île Seguin and Pont Saint-Michel.

A Sand Archive is a rich and enjoyable work of multiple layers: a meditation on the interrelationship of nature and culture, beauty and knowledge; a love story, a history, an account of the Great Ocean Road project, of Paris in May 1968. It is also an examination of a quiet life, a love of books and a healing heart. Day holds all this together superbly, as tightly as the marram grass does the dunes.

Gregory Day The Sand Archive Picador 2018 PB 320pp $29.99

Paul Anderson is an aspiring book editor. He completed the Graduate Certificate of Editing and Publishing course at UTS last year and is a member of IPEd.

You can buy The Sand Archive from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.


1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Paul. This is a beautiful review – resonant and exciting to read. And clearly A Sand Archive is a beautiful book. I look forward to reading your own book, and Gregory Day’s. Thanks again, Virginia