Author Gail Jones’s latest novel, The Death of Noah Glass, reflects the cross-cultural interests of an enthusiastic traveller who finds inspiration in getting lost. It also revisits her original passions of art and art history.By Steve Dow.
Gail Jones and the art of words
In all of Gail Jones’s writing, words bump up against images from art and cinema – visual keys to convey what narrative may not. Her working-class childhood in rural and remote Western Australia had offered little in the way of literature, but visually there was much to fire her imagination. She remembers the pearl-diving industry of coastal Broome, especially the mother shells that shone like moonlight.
Jones now lives in Sydney’s inner-city Glebe, and meets me, dressed casually in grey T-shirt and vertically striped pants, at the door of her cosy single-fronted terrace. Here, she writes at a desk in the low morning light of the front room, looking out onto a park.
Jones sits back now on a plump white couch, next to floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves stacked with books. The 62-year-old has a soft voice and speaks precisely, drawing on a formidable knowledge of art history, literature and film, underscoring her professorial role at the Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre.
A late starter to writing, Jones wanted to become a visual artist and was an avid painter. She studied art and art history, interests that come to bear in her seventh and latest novel, The Death of Noah Glass, set in contemporary Palermo but reaching to 15th-century Quattrocento art of the early Renaissance.
Wrapped in a mystery of art theft, the book invokes the pernicious civil dominance by a Sicilian Mafia supplying a poorly policed and massive illegal art trade. Jones hadn’t planned to write about the city, but began the book after she was invited to a university in Palermo that teaches her perhaps best-known novel, Five Bells, set in Sydney, as part of a course in literature that examines cities. She became intrigued when she learnt Falcone–Borsellino Airport is named after two murdered magistrates who had led the struggle against the Cosa Nostra.
On her latest book’s cover are details from a painting by Piero della Francesca, including a male servant who in the original painting is seated next to a sleeping Constantine the Great. “Piero was a mathematician before he was a painter,” Jones says. “He believed in a rationale behind everything, that there is a sort of explanation: there are equations, there are balances, there are formulas. I chose him because he’s a mixture of a formalist and a humanist. So his figures are touchingly human at a time when paintings were very stylised.
“The Emperor Constantine converted the Roman world to Christianity, so he’s this huge figure in human history. But he’s asleep, and this is meant to be the first image of a sleeping person in the Western tradition. This is the sort of thing Piero did: he had these humanist gestures, which I find touching. His servant is sitting up but slumped, and there’s this huge angel wing pointing down. So it’s got this iconography, but it’s quite tender, with these two blokes.
“I’m interested in art history. I began as a painter, not as a literary person. So I’m very interested in the visual arts. I also taught cinema for a while, so I’m also interested in the history of cinema. In everything I’ve written, there are images and words in contention. I’m interested in what images can do that words can’t, and what words can do that images can’t.”
In that spirit, Jones explores what happens when a sense is dulled, or removed. In her new book, Evie, a philosopher disenchanted with academia, and who believes in alphabets and lists and order, answers a job advertisement that requires her to describe movies to a blind film buff.
“I heard a radio interview with someone who had that job, and I had no idea, because I assumed it was all automated – there are apps for blind people who explain what’s happening during quiet parts in the movie,” says Jones. “The idea there might be a job where you can do that gripped me because it makes you think about duration in the cinema, about silence and speech, and what is meant to be conveyed by image alone, without words.”
Another character, a child, is the subject of a parental dispute over whether she should have a cochlear implant for a hearing impairment. Meanwhile, the title character, Noah Glass, an art historian whose body is found floating face down in a swimming pool, had been ruled by his own blinding snobbery about culture and a desperation for professional acknowledgement. He might also have been an art thief.
Jones has Noah recapitulating the biblical Noah’s tale of woe after the flood, when he carries the shame of his sons finding him naked and drunk. Yet, as always, there is Jones’s humane touch: the novel tracks back to the funeral of Noah Glass’s own father, and reflects on his broken relationship with his parents, “the unprodigal son, ever the boy, pleading implicitly to be an orphan”.
Despite these intricately entwined stories with common themes, Jones says she starts with no grand plan to her plotting. “When writers talk about books, it always sounds so well planned. Nothing is planned in my work. It just fortuitously finds its pattern.”
Born in the little town of Harvey, 140 kilometres south of Perth, Jones grew up Methodist. She says she is an atheist, which is surprising, given her intrigue with biblical references, but she still feels spiritual, with a sense of wonder and acknowledgement of things beyond our understanding. “There’s this idea if you say you’re an atheist, you don’t have any idea of the mystery of things. There’s a great deal that is mysterious, ineffable, and compelling for those reasons. There’s a profundity to looking at the night sky.
“I’m very interested in what it means to come from a secular position but still include a sense of wonderment and mystery. I respect people of faith enormously. I don’t have a rationalist’s condescension to people of faith.”
Jones’s parents had left school early. Her electrician father worked for the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and her mother was a part-time journalist. “My dad left school at 12 and my mum at 14. She did a reporting job from Broome, because there was no one else to do it, and she also liked stories.”
Both were from the goldfields, where Jones would spend a lot of childhood time, too: Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie, areas in the desert. Between the ages of seven and 10, when her family lived in the Kimberley, there was no library, no television, no bookshop and no radio, but they would drive from the outskirts into town to the movie theatre and see a double feature each Saturday, taking in a Western or mystery or sword-and-sandal epics such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus.
Childhood was a “time of enormous freedom”, says Jones. “There was a lot of liberty.” Jones has also spent time on Aboriginal communities, missions where her two brothers worked in Indigenous education. “I see my parents, who had little formal education, who are both highly intelligent – interesting people – and I am very aware of class distinctions in Australia and how many assumptions are based on class. Certainly when I went to university I was very conscious of that. I had no credentials, in a sense. I only lasted a year, and then I dropped out and went travelling. I lived in Darwin for a while. I was a very bad student. I mean, I eventually went back, but found it quite difficult.”
What changed? “I discovered books and the pleasure of intellectual life. Once you learn it, you can’t unlearn it.” Jones took seven years to complete her bachelor of arts at the University of Western Australia. “I don’t want to sound ungracious or ungrateful – I’m very glad that I had a university education.”
Her writing career began at 39, with a book of stories. “These days, people are publishing wonderful books at the age of 20. I didn’t have that kind of confidence,” she says. “And I wrote two books of stories before I tried a novel. I’d like to think that I’m a novelist of ideas, so for me it’s a way of thinking.”
If Jones’s early life was lived outside the literary culture of the urban middle class, it nonetheless prefigured a strong sense of mission. “I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that literature has an ethical charter,” she has said, “and that imagination has a moral dimension.” There is always an immersive and keenly understood sense of place in Jones’s books, with the author as outsider looking into other lives, other cities and towns.
Her first novel, Black Mirror, published in 2002, ranged from the West Australian goldfields to Paris of the 1930s, where a young artist gets caught up in the whorl of the Surrealist painters. It won the fiction category of the WA Premier’s Book Awards, and was followed by Sixty Lights and Dreams of Speaking, exploring family relationships and cross-cultural friendships respectively.
Sorry, in 2007, was an ode to Jones’s Aboriginal compatriots and the suffering of the Stolen Generations, which narrowly prefigured the Rudd government’s apology to Indigenous Australians. Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Sorry is dedicated to Veronica Brady, the late Catholic “red nun”, a communist and feminist academic who encouraged Jones at university to become a writer.
Her next novel, the multi-narrative Five Bells, from 2011, was a nod to Kenneth Slessor’s poem of the same name, its characters converging on Circular Quay in Sydney.
For A Guide to Berlin, Jones took her cue from a Nabokov short story, its characters connected to historical calamities such as the Holocaust and the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack.
“A lot of my work is cross-cultural because I do travel a lot and I try to spend time in other places. You learn your own limits when you travel, your own vulnerabilities. That challenges me, the discomfort of being lost, of having to find your way, of not speaking the language. For me, that’s very generative, and makes me want to think things through.” Jones’s spoken Italian “is very poor, but I can understand a lot, so I tend to be a bit of an eavesdropper. I’m very bad at German,” she says, laughing. “I’m learning.”
Jones likes to quote Sartre, saying “the writer’s style is his metaphysics”, and says she is concerned with the “physicality of language; that the word is partly productive breath from inside the body; that we express things with language that had effects from and in the body”.
What does she mean by literature has an “ethical charter”? “There are economies of value that circulate, where some lives are given more value than others. How does one counter or encounter that? It’s about the prosecution of an idea of ethics, and that is going to sound so grand, so forgive me: the notion of justice. What might a just case be?”
Jones’s idealist politics run counter to the current climate of the humanities being devalued under neoliberal governance. She believes it is right that students should be able to write novels supported by paid scholarships.
“In my ideal culture, everyone would have a sabbatical, every worker would be given paid time off to write, to learn an instrument, to watch movies, to go fishing with their grandfather, whatever. The idea of a space of contemplation, expression and self-reflection – I’d love to see that.”
She paraphrases Marx’s suggestion that socialism would yield a flourishing of great creative expression and artistic self-enhancement, the reference perhaps harking to the politics of Sister Veronica Brady or another literary luminary from her university years, the late playwright and poet Dorothy Hewett.
“I’m not being naive but I think this is a lovely ideal. Every person is a special kind of artist, and it would be wonderful if we had a culture that organised itself to recognise that.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 10, 2018 as "Noah’s arc".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.