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Marion (May) Campbell Biography

bess self lives fremantle

Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, 1948.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Lines of Flight. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts CentrePress, 1985.

Not Being Miriam. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle ArtsCentre Press, 1989.

Prowler. South Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts CentrePress, 1999.

* * *

Marion Campbell is one of Australia's most powerful intellectual and postmodern writers and has an impressive reputation on the basis of three novels. Her first novel, Lines of Flight, is a work of luminous and startling intelligence, both elegant and playful. Through rival narrative modes, it is the story of Rita Finnerty, a young Australian artist in France, struggling to create a career, but struggling also to break free of the cloisters of other peoples' lives. Splinter scenes of her childhood and her early compositions emerge through the notion of cumulo-nimbus formations, but in France, amid emotional and artistic upheaval, the notion of lignes de fuite prevails, obedience to perspective and the lines of flight which taper to disappearance point.

Rita's involvement with Raymond, the entrepreneurial gay semiotician, and his two students, Gerard and Sebastien, becomes a locus of postmodern dissent and denial. Internal pressures in Rita's private world implode and the language too becomes implosive, yet the form of the novel remains precise, elegant, baroque. Campbell draws on spatial structures, such as framing and tripytch to cross the lines between art and self, between rival determinations of event, word, imagination, and vision. The development of Rita's painting in France and the sharp satire of the Australian art scene on her return to Australia, her disappearance even, are occasions of profound visual and spatial luminosity, her prose extraordinarily energetic and intellectually rich.

The novel is both witty and ludic, the scenes in France often droll, but beneath that surface there is a profound intellectual quest and a struggle to find in painting and in language areas of self-determination without confinement to the interstices of others' lives. Her writing is marked by the precision of elusive and complex notions and forms of trespass from the definitions and determinations of others. Campbell writes with

… wild vertigo, intoxication of turning on my own axis in freed space. In a long greedy scrutiny of space from that pinnacle, I would see that crazy queue of arbitrarily fused selves, oh yes, from moments past recede, I would pluralize and scatter on horizons ebbing into horizons ….

Narrative shifts and tilts with concentric planes, emanations, absences, default, space vacated, searching out the sacred, transgressing boundaries, as if the prose is on an inner spiral, measuring the space of self which defines and confines.

Prowler, published in 1999, has a similar spatial construct playing over reversals of perspective and the sides of mirror and glass, again with tense and intense pressures of trespass and self-determination.

Her second novel, 1989's Not Being Miriam, is about the "danger of certainty." In its composition of shifting frames about the tendencies of things, the world is "a tissue of complicated events only tending to occur." It is a fiercely celebratory vision, in which Campbell's remarkable energies and intelligence play across the intense inner dialogue of three women.

Through the interlocking stories of the three women, whose lives overlap, Campbell weaves a tapestry of lives compressed and defined by default. It is first the story of Bess, her childhood and her teaching life and her young son taken by the father to Italy, then her world as a middle-aged single woman. Through her sense of chaos and dissolution, of possibilities shrinking all around her, there is a quest for the center of gravity. When her own life palls and seems uninhabitable, she enters and enacts other lives, playing out putative selves, in her theater of masks.

Bess's story overlaps with that of Lydia from childhood in Nazi Germany to her adult life married to Harry; and the life of Elsie, Bess's working-class neighbor and the second wife of Roger, haunted by the presence of the first wife, the late Miriam, whose image is treasured openly by Roger. The women come together in the absence of Miriam, who stands as the figure of reference. Through Bess, Elsie and Lydia, Campbell conjures numerous images of woman. Each one is shadowed by antecedent figures: for Bess, Ariadne; for Elsie the second Mrs. de Winter from Rebecca; and for Lydia, Katerina Kepler, Johannes Kepler's mother, "the last musician of the spheres." One of the most remarkable sequences is about Katerina Kepler, suspected of witchcraft and doomed. Her voice plays out many of the notions of women caught in the ellipses of male lives.

The novel has a series of interesting structures, with filigree lines of narrative, a labyrinth of voices and threads which lock together in one startling moment. In the climactic courtroom sequence, Bess is charged with manslaughter. Amid voices of gossip and condemnation, where every gesture of the self, past and present, is suspect, there are echoes of the charges against Lindy Chamberlain in the notorious Australian case which ran through the 1980s. As Bess feels the collapse of the past, the collapse of all her rival selves, the condemnation of Bess becomes a dark enclosure, as if she is trapped in the ellipses of the other, reduced to a figure of others' purposes, a player in a collective script.

Through themes of mechanistic and quantum physics, Campbell explores the causal links which tended towards this effect, seeking the rip, the breach in the fabric of things. Amid narrative modes of theater and script, of acting out roles and guises of the self, literary and mythological references abound, from the prophecies of Cassandra, to impassioned writing about Ariadne and Theseus, or to the sisters in Genet's The Maids, with Bess forever playing out "this maid's revolt." Not Being Miriam is a bold and prismatic novel, in which voices spar in the deepest recesses of the self, while the narrative weaves in and out of the lives of women in a montage of voices. The prose is rich and crystalline, full of resonances and summonings of historical and mythological, literary and classical antecedents.

—Helen Daniel

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