Auckland University Press, $24.95
Now, to the scandal of men, women are prophesying.
So runs the epigraph of Anne Kennedy’s Musica Ficta, though quite what scandal the novel involves remains a puzzle. In so far as it frames this novel the line from Hildegard of Bingen, with its gendering of scepticism and outrage as a peculiarly male response to the presumption of female speech, is curiously askew. At least part of Musica Ficta’s state of the artness is given over to an avant-garde ruse, the soft selling of ambivalence, as though sexual difference weren’t slick enough. Through a series of literary displacements, this novel renders an old familiar thing, the androgyny of creativity, modishly queer.
For instance, the enclosed gardens and open casements of this novel are also those at the sentimental heart of Oscar Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates. With those stories Musica Ficta shares a prince gilded in gold leaf, a selfish giant and seasons arrested in winter. But inside this novel the woman lays that Wildean aestheticism and effeminacy, that ‘studied naivety, ‘firmly at the precious feet of the rival artiste, the man; as the whimsical means to escape reality they belong, as strategy, to the porcelain musician he becomes, although as literary mannerism or affectation they return to infect the larger narrative as well.
The woman’s literary muse, as Hildegard becomes her mentor, would seem to be Gertrude Stein. Stein makes a parenthetical appearance on page 63, repeating the apocryphal mumblings of her deathbed, although her presence in this novel is not limited to that cameo. She also stands as the modernist double to the medieval religious who steals so much of its limelight. Hildegard, cloistered since eight and drilled in the convent’s repertoire of symptom – gifted in the art of throwing her head back in the modus lascivus of Bernini’s Teresa and thus signifying ecstasy, or migraine – might seem an unlikely stand‑in for the butch Stein, whose truck with feminine wiles was duly limited, but Kennedy’s synopsis of the nun’s story suggests the resemblance of inverts:
The woman was quite an extraordinary man. She was, in reality, a woman, but she thought like a man and she spoke like a man. This despite the fact that she had lived in a community of women for the past several years, and before that had led an increasingly solitary existence, following her life back from the time we are speaking of. At eighteen she took the Benedictine habit, as was the habit of Benedictine men. In her middle teens she learned Latin and music like men, the difference being that all the while she was the recipient of feminine visions she dared not tell anyone about. In her early teens, under pressure to conform, she learned embroidery, tapestry and the wiles of illness.
Like much of the novel this reads as if it were technically derived from Stein. As a prose style, it is cold to the lure of lyricism and avoids that adjectival shuffle toward poetry. Although she tends to leave the grammatical apparatus of the sentence intact, if anything relying more heavily on the tuck and pin of comma and semi‑colon than we are used to in fiction, Kennedy seems sure of the syntactical flex of the sentence. Her method, often enough, involves the unbuckling of figures of speech, or their hyperbolic animation. When she is shrewd about this the results are truly impressive; it makes for a writing that can stretch to include forms of understanding that would otherwise remain alien. At its weakest it can seem fey or self-indulgent, merely ornamental, in the way that the personal clutter of someone else’s life – traces of their catholic childhood, signs of that broken romance – can seem when they are seen from outside and not bathed in the warm flush of narcissism. It is no coincidence that Kennedy so often gets it right when she is working with something else, notably Percy Scholes’s 1938 Oxford Companion to Music. The set pieces on musicology, like the dance sequences in Singing in the Rain, can make everything else look tired in comparison.
Wilde and Stein, fin de siècle queen and Left Bank dyke, are convenient counters for the style games that go on in this novel; we might even think of them as representing different modes of writing, say the Dorian and the Sapphic, or alternate perceptions, those of ‘Wondering and Knowing.’ But, as the dovetailing of the sacred and profane in the history of music suggests, there is no sure way to check the promiscuous commingling of styles. Modes will be modes and mix, after all, and the hard and fast rules of gender start to look a little Presbyterian when the boys are so girly, and the girls all toms.
This insouciant textual cross-dressing is not markedly transgressive. Like most ‘experimental’ writing these techniques quickly become familiar, taking on the regularity of a house style in which we are soon cosily at home. For the reader, scanning a page of Kennedy can be a far less estranging experience than unravelling the dyslexic metaphor of some local realist writing. Our orientation within the fiction is further aided by the way in which church and musical history is anachronistically jumbled with the iconography of New Zealand’s recent past, as when the seventeen china princes become entangled in the webbing of a rotary clothesline in a suburban backyard.
With just as much ease we recognise, encoded within the sumptuous costume drama spanning centuries, an utterly contemporary tale of love’s everyday denial or abandonment (and yes, following the theme of diabolus in musica, at least one wolf slips into Musica Ficta, the one that wrote Orland. The retrieval of this story, that of ‘a man and a woman and the) difference between them,’ becomes the subtle work of both writing and reading. Discretely clothed in an elaborate and obscuring conceit, this affair of the heart is also stripped bare by the retrospectivity of narration, gently recaptured and simultaneously exposed to the hard-won knowledge that comes with loss. One of the measures of Kennedy’s art is the way in which that love survives its retelling; with each version (and there are now several) the sense of things falling into place, people taking allotted roles, diminishes.
In this respect the novel might be thought a meditation on something as simple as two figures curled together in sleep. Invoking the synchronicity of the shared bed, lovers turning in time, Kennedy has the wishful, idea that they might also turn in the same sleep, the same dream:
A man and a woman containing a dream that described their sleeplessness, found themselves vacated by the dream. The dream left their bodies in search of an exit from this world…
The man and the woman, clasping each other, were pulled along in the dream’s wake.
Imagining this she also imagines, in that involuntary embrace, a new betrayal:
The jongleurs she recognises from their china bodies as replicas of the very same china prince who left her early one morning before she had woken. She saw them leave in her dream; her dream watched them go and then her dream also departed. She followed.
The desired counter-transference of dream is achingly terminated by the man’s escape. The woman follows, drawn into the cold draught of his departure. Once reciprocity has been lost, and she is pulled into the slipstream of his disavowal, that love, now devious, becomes narratable.
If I could give this an illustrative woodcut it wouldn’t be medieval, certainly not those iconic husbands and wives laid out on their short tombs, dressed for eternity in a stiff domesticity, fidelity a dog at their stonecold feet. Perhaps something decadent, sexually indeterminate: two boyishly ruffled heads emerging from an expanse of counterpane, Toulouse-Lautrec’s lesbian Dans le lit? But there is something about Kennedy’s novel that refuses that particular detour, something that says those two figures in bed must be, and be known to be, male and female:
Their infatuation know no bounds, apart from he is a man and she is a woman; as simple as that. With others it is more complicated, but here they need look no further than the difference between them, how their bodies cast into the heavens are drawn like magnets, opposites their imaginations like magnets, the same, repelled in their delicate fields….
The epigraph has already gestured toward a tussle over (divine) speech that will set men and women at odds. In the novel a man and a woman have laid competing claim to the inspired composition of a novelette which is also the book in which they both appear. However charming or tiresome one finds that metafictive conceit (as antique as it is postmodern), it shouldn’t obscure the reassuringly heterosexual aesthetic Kennedy’s novel finally promotes:
I set out to write what I knew but instead I have written what I wondered, and a man is the author of these astonishments.
Musica Ficta’s map of the heart is plotted on the grid of gender, straight and true. Which is not to assume that the delicate field of desire – the acts, anticipations, narratives and pleasures that we know as love – might adequately be spoken by the attraction and repulsion of men and women. But it is, for the moment, to remain mute about those other, more complicated, intervals. Sexual variance has always figured in Kennedy’s writing; completely unremarked, it inhabits the snug or shattering interiors of her fiction like a purloined letter, making an absence of its very ordinary presence.
Lee Wallace is a doctoral student at Auckland University.