Anthony Uhlmann
Saint Antony in His Desert

A critic once wrote of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that a close reading of the novel would yield, if nothing else, a recipe for raspberry jam. A similarly intimate engagement with Anthony Uhlmann’s ambitious fictional debut offers the potential for a kick-arse post-punk Spotify playlist, even if its experimental bent and high intellectual ambitions leave you otherwise nonplussed.

By day, Uhlmann is an academic at Western Sydney University. He is a respected and subtle exegete of the work of Samuel Beckett and more recently that of J. M. Coetzee. He has long been engaged with the relationship between literature and philosophy – that is, he’s interested in the ways literature might be regarded as a way of thinking about the world. He sees the novel not just as forum for the discussion of ideas, but as a form whose manner of unfolding is itself philosophical.

Saint Antony is constructed as a narrative triptych in which three different stories are told at once. Unlike Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, which locks distinct yet interrelated strands of narrative within each page, Uhlmann’s approach is to allow his to flow more casually: a page or two of one story, a paragraph or two of the second, a stray sentence of the third. The effect is initially jarring but soon fades into the background as the stories achieve clarity and momentum.

The first portion of the whole is given over to the account of a weekend spent by two young men in Sydney in the early 1980s. They’re clever, callow, middle-class Catholic schoolboys up from the provincial capital, staying at a Salvos hostel and armed with some mixtapes of local bands and an appointment to meet a woman who works for Triple J.

As a portrait of the seedy inner-eastern and western suburbs in the years before gentrification and lockout laws turned the city into a series of neoliberal Potemkin villages, Uhlmann’s historical imagination is nothing short of superb. Like other laureates of lost Sydney such as Delia Falconer and Anthony Macris, Uhlmann’s attentiveness towards the texture of the period simultaneously admits a sense of loss.

The Departure Lounge cafe next to French’s Tavern on Oxford Street, the Trade Union Club on Foveaux, the old Triple J offices on William, the micro-brothels on Crown, the Block at Redfern: as the youths make their way through a single night of booze, hash-oil laced cigarettes and small hours gigs, these real and vividly re-created sites become set pieces for a metaphysical bender. The sticky carpet and fug of cigarette smoke form a grungy counterpoint to the arch and playfully pretentious debate about love and sin, politics and the state, and God and the universe in which the boys and a cast of locals indulge.

So far, so Iris Murdoch. But the second and third strands of the novel introduce further complexity. The first of these is an unfinished book about the relationship between Einstein and Henri Bergson, a philosopher who was Europe’s most famous in the period when the German scientist was devising his world-changing theories. Working backwards from an infamous meeting between the two men in 1922, when the constitutionally mild-mannered Bergson challenged Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with such vigour that it swayed that year’s Nobel Prize committee (in the end, Einstein never won the prize for his most far-reaching work), the book re-creates the intellectual drama that attended each man’s emergence as a major figure in their respective fields.

The third strand reveals that these two narratives are the recto and verso of a typescript belonging to a defrocked priest who has fled to the desert outside Alice Springs, where he intends to dwell in a cave for the biblically mandated 40 days and 40 nights. He is the author of both narratives – though the meditation on science and philosophy remains unfinished, and the Sydney narrative is scrawled on the back of its pages. It seems this unofficial narrative is a fictional projection of the priest’s own desire or need.

Where the typescript book is calm and orderly, bolstered by the impedimenta of scholarship, the Sydney account is wild and ragged. His own voice flits between them, agonised and self-loathing, offering second thoughts and glosses on each text. He is timid, yet weirdly defiant of the demons he imagines around him as night falls.

Slight as the priest’s relationship to the overall narrative may be, he is the significant glue that holds the disparate parts together. His presence is the bridge that allows readers the freedom to make connections between these very different versions of reality. Just as the priest is experiencing a watershed in his faith, his typescript describes, on a more objective level, the difficulty of reconciling incommensurable visions of the world:

There was real danger at work in the seminar room on 6 April 1922, the danger of crossed purposes, of misunderstanding. Not just any misunderstanding, but the kind that might prove poisonous. Later, Maurice Merleau-Ponty would call the confrontation between Bergson and Einstein a ‘crisis of reason’.

“Reading the transcripts from 6 April you feel a tension”, concludes the passage, “not so much between individuals but within thought itself, which strains to cope with the possible interpretations of a proper understanding of the meaning of the theory of relativity.”

The novel is not a form that proceeds axiomatically, as would a philosopher’s tract. Nor does it play out with the elegant certitude of an equation. It wends and winds and switches subjective outfits in a manner that impedes any singular grip on an event, or place, or person. Saint Antony is not a book that will be to everyone’s taste. It is unashamedly cerebral, even in its relish of bodies, music, ideas and art. What it does do, with intelligence and a certain flair, is proceed not just as a problem to be solved or a theorem to be dramatised, but as a literary artefact with its own virtues – virtues no less valuable than the stricter disciplines it riffs upon.  AF

UWAP, 184pp, $26.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "Anthony Uhlmann, Saint Antony in His Desert".

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Reviewer: AF