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Posted on 29 Oct 2015 in Fiction |

MILES ALLINSON Fever of Animals. Reviewed by Joshua Barnes

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feverofanimalsWeird, audacious, paradoxical and strange – this novel of a writer’s search for a missing painter offers much to think about.

In the first pages of Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust describes the tendency of his narrator ­– also named Marcel – to fall asleep while reading in bed:

I had gone on thinking, while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was the immediate subject of my book.

As he dreams, Marcel finds his way into the text as a character, and the boundaries between reality and fiction grow porous. Dreaming, for Proust, is an allegory for writing, and it is in literature that reality and art may be combined.

Just under a century later, in 2011, American critic David Shields identified the same impulse in ‘a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists in a multitude of forms and media’. This movement – if we want to call it that – can be characterised by what he termed its ‘reality hunger’, the artistic desire to incorporate ‘bigger and bigger chunks of reality into their work’ without concern for formal conventions. Shields called this kind of writing an ‘anti-genre’, and argued that it ‘relies on viewer awareness of the creator’s self-conscious, wobbly manipulation of the gap between person and persona’.

If Shields’s anti-genre permits classics, then Fever of Animals, the first novel by Melbourne writer Miles Allinson, is surely one. The book relates the story of Miles, a failed artist turned writer who, after his girlfriend leaves him, travels to Romania in search of the disappeared surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu.

In 1967, Miles tells us, Bafdescu walked with his dog into the Hoia-Baciu forest – which, according to Romanian folklore, is one of the most haunted places in the world – and never returned. Allinson the writer and Miles the character are similar enough that we readers are never quite sure of the full extent of the gap between the figure of the author and the persona of the protagonist. And such questions of certainty are not just incidental to the novel – they are the very source of its authority.

Fever of Animals consistently invites us to question its claims to authenticity: what exactly is the difference between great fiction and a tremendously compelling lie, a hoax? In a phrase reminiscent of Shields, the American writer Ben Lerner describes the novel-form as ‘lying and lyric and the intersections thereof’. Indeed, Fever of Animals bears a suitably uncanny resemblance to Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, which is about a languorous poet called Adam Gordon on a research fellowship in Madrid. Gordon, whose biography resembles Lerner’s, and who travels to Madrid on a fellowship much like the Fulbright Scholarship Lerner himself received, is at work on what he calls ‘a long research-driven poem’ about the Spanish Civil War. Miles is on a similar pilgrimage, as he writes:

I am here to investigate the disappearance of the surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu, and to write something about him. I’m just not sure what, exactly. Something called Notes on a Disappearance, I think. An essay for a little magazine that no one will read, perhaps. Or the beginning of a thesis that no one will read. Or a long, research-driven poem.

But where Lerner’s Gordon is disingenuous and evasive, Allinson’s Miles is earnest and faintly idealistic: Gordon mocks a man who breaks down in a gallery during what he derisively terms a ‘profound experience of art’. Miles, on the other hand, finds artworks redemptive, clarifying, even though he has given up painting. After his work is rejected by a gallery, he even vomits into a gutter, like one of Sartre’s existentialist anti-heroes.

For Miles, art and life wash together, and one of the novel’s many impressive qualities is its ability to blend the public and the private. The book is divided into three sections and the first and last parts deal primarily with the dissolution of Miles’s relationship with his girlfriend, Alice. She is a kind of muse, but her consciousness is mediated through Miles’s own. She is intelligent and forthright, but too frequently eroticised or made unduly vulnerable. The novel shares with Lerner’s Atocha Station an interest in a certain kind of pathetic male solipsism. Early in the book, for example, Miles leers at a waitress in a restaurant, and seems offended when she does not return his advances. However, one of the pleasures of reading Fever of Animals lies in questioning the extent to which Allinson is aware of Miles’s narcissistic urges. Miles’s aesthetic sensitivity compels us, but his salaciousness is grotesque; he is acute because he is narcissistic, and we are attracted to his digressions not despite, but because of, their repulsiveness.

In a remarkable feat of dexterity, the book shifts its emphasis halfway through from the personal – the broken relationship of Miles and Alice – to the critical, as it presents an authoritative, though enigmatic, account of Emil Bafdescu, the forgotten surrealist. Despite the ambiguity of his subject, Allinson’s account of Bafdescu is persuasive, and he employs the rhetorical techniques of the critic to great effect. Though it may seem initially ungraceful, the shift in register from personal to critical is ingenious. It’s simultaneously a sharp counterpoint to the emotional intensity of what precedes it and the logical fulfilment of it. The novel’s second half is a critical study or monogram – or perhaps a parody of one – and it reaches its apogee as Miles explores the forest where Bafdescu disappeared. Flirting with exhaustion as he ventures deeper and deeper into the darkness, he writes:

Everything seems sweet and precise, acute as a type of pain and, at the same time, almost boring, absurd, exhausting, footstep after footstep, vision upon vision, lonely and unrelenting and inhuman and claustrophobic, all this greenness.

Of the American literary critic Janet Malcolm, Helen Garner once wrote that ‘she will string adjectives and adverbs together in sinewy strands – half a dozen of them, each one working hard’. Like Malcolm, the author-protagonist here is an elegant critic, and for proof one need only look at those adjectives – ‘sweet’, ‘precise’, ‘acute’, ‘boring’, ‘absurd’, ‘exhausting’, ‘lonely’, ‘inhuman’, ‘claustrophobic’ – all working hard, complicating and complementing each other. Fever of Animals seems to be the fruitful collaboration of the critic and the fiction writer, and it is because it is a mongrel of criticism and fiction that the novel is so full of bizarre, uncalculatedly stunning moments. As Bafdescu’s biographer, Mircea Szaba, quips: ‘A good painting defies the maker. It attacks him when he is least prepared.’

Before the trip to Venice that destroys their relationship, Miles and Alice travel to Naples, in part because he wants to see Caravaggio’s The Seven Works of Mercy. When he arrives in the chapel where it hangs, Miles experiences what Lerner’s Adam Gordon would call a ‘profound experience of art’. It begins simply enough: Miles describes it as ‘a dark, faded grey, grubby with time’. Although ‘it lacks almost entirely the jewelled quality, that brilliant red, of so many of the more famous Caravaggios’, Miles realises that the painting ‘is a feat of weird compositional audacity, even though it seems hidden in almost every sense’.
Miles’s perception of the painting soon expands into a virtuosic commentary, dizzying and cinematic, as he describes …

… the top half of the canvas, [which] enacts a type of perspectival miracle, so that above this worldly scene in the cramped alleyways of Naples, a heavenly one takes place in a slightly separate spatial dimension. Mary, with a young Christ in her arms, watches from amid a maelstrom of wings and cloth where two male angels seem to be making love. Once again, the sacred is charged with eroticism. Those angels must have been painted from above, Alice points out. Caravaggio, she says, must have been looking down at his models from a ladder. She’s right. It seems as if the whole painting is hinged in the middle, as if the heavenly world has been painted onto the inside lid of a box that is now (and forever) closing. The angels tumble ecstatically towards the earth.

It’s characteristic of Fever of Animals that this passage would seem to describe so many of the own novel’s qualities, for it is similarly weird, and similarly audacious. It is excessive and self-absorbed and strange, at once playful and deeply serious. It is entirely possible that this excessiveness may repel some readers, who will empathise with Miles, as he sits in a Budapest hostel, hung-over on cheap European beer and despondent, stymied in his search for Bafdescu, able only to ‘manage a couple of pages of Proust (pages 245 and 246 of the Vintage Classic edition of Swann’s Way) and laugh out loud’. But if, like Proust, you dream your way into this book’s pages, you will find yourself in a paradoxical, uncomfortable place, somewhere at the intersection of lying and lyric.

Miles Allinson Fever of Animals Scribe 2015 PB 272pp $29.99

Joshua Barnes is a Melbourne-based writer and fiction editor at Voiceworks. His fiction and criticism have appeared in The Point, Voiceworks, All the Best Radio and the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

You can buy this book 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.