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European high culture in unlikely Australian settings lies at the heart of these two novels by Australian poet Tom Shapcott.

whitestagImagine this: a cultivated European gentleman of the late 19th century, highly educated, speaking seven languages, knowledgeable in fine art, eventually father-in-law to the great ballet dancer Nijinsky, commits suicide in the bush outside Brisbane in 1899. This seemingly unlikely event is the historical fact from which Thomas Shapcott has spun his novel White Stag of Exile. The man was Karoly Pulszky, who had been Director of the newly established Hungarian Gallery of Art in Budapest. His wife was a distinguished actress, Emilia Markus. They had two daughters, Tessa and Romola, the latter of whom, after her father’s death, managed to wheedle her way into Diaghilev’s company of dancers and fix Nijinsky in her determined sights (to the great annoyance of Diaghilev). The Pulszky parents were known for their glamorous sophistication, their lavish entertainment and their mutual love. And yet – Pulszky shoots himself outside Brisbane! Why? What was he doing there?

Shapcott gradually gives us the answer, in a book of fascinating construction with a series of vignettes, each preceded by an explanatory title:

1895 October 24th, Budapest: Karoly Pulszky interrupts a rehearsal at the Hungarian National Theatre of Joszef Katona’s play Bank Ban, in which his wife Emilia Markus performs the role of Melinda

and:

1899 May, Brisbane: Dr Eugen Hirschfeld invites Karoly Pulszky to his dinner table

and:

1970, Los Angeles: Romola Nijinsky at eighty recalls her family

These titles give immediacy to the novel, as well as serving to keep the action clear, as the scenes appear out of chronological order. Gradually the story emerges.

Pulszky has been given a generous budget by his government to attend European art auctions and bid for items for the collection. In Milan he buys a portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo and eventually finds himself obsessed by the young man’s face, to the extent that he cannot bear to relinquish the picture to his gallery. He seems to see himself in the painting, and to sense some sort of connection with his beloved father, a persecuted victim of political jealousy in Hungary.

Pulszky is accused of sequestration of government property – in fact, of embezzlement. (This was untrue; he was apparently imprudent and negligent but no thief.) For whatever curious reason his wife does not stand by him. The poor man is jailed for two years and when released flees to Brisbane and secures a job as a door-to-door salesman of life insurance. Thomas Shapcott is known as a poet; his whole style is intensely poetic and he includes direct poems in the novel.

Theatre of DarknessAs with White Stag of Exile, Theatre of Darkness incorporates scene-setting section titles, as well as poetry – in both books the prose is also intensely poetic. Both novels examine the cultural shock of European sophistication crashing headlong into rough-and-ready Australia. Opera and culture were (are?) so un-Australian.

And Theatre of Darkness, too, takes a historical event as its inspiration. In 1913 the American Wagnerian soprano Lillian Nordica, returning home from an Australian tour, was famously shipwrecked on Thursday Island. She developed pneumonia, from which she never properly recovered, dying some months later at the age of 57.

Shapcott gives us her memories, her interiority. As she recuperates in the local hospital, she is conscious of her failing powers, both of voice and body. Depressing self-doubt has started to manifest itself. Is it merely strong imagination, or a ghost, that makes her see her possessive first husband everywhere?

Much of what the ageing diva thinks and does is related to us by the young woman Quetta Braun, ward of the man who runs both the post office and the local paper. Quetta sees much of her life as ‘meant’, incidents as ‘signs’ (she was saved as a baby from a shipwreck and named after the wrecked ship); there must therefore be some meaning to Madame Nordica’s arrival at this time, and it is in Quetta that Nordica confides as she relates fragments of her life story: her rivalry with Nellie Melba, her shock at the contrast between rich and poor in Moscow.

Quetta’s editor father/guardian is pestered by Dr Fomorian, an ambitious ‘nutty professor’, who seeks publicity for his researches into the phrenology of the ‘natives’. He is ambitious, manipulative and deeply sinister, and becomes the secondary centre of the story.

Madame Nordica’s violinist Franklin Holding seems half in love with his employer, but is also fascinated by the masculine magnetism of a local islander. It is quite fun to re-encounter Dr Hirschfeld, whom we know from White Stag, vigorously rebutting the nasty Fomorian’s letter to a newspaper with his own letter.

As death approaches, Madame Nordica’s imagination, memories and visions intensify. There is a thrilling, if enigmatic, confrontation with her persecutor Fomorian. At a great feast in her honour she imagines herself as Brünnhilde on the funeral pyre in Götterdämmerung.

Unfortunately, virtually every quotation in a foreign language (German, French, Italian) contains a mistake. The past tense of ‘forbid’ is ‘forbade’, despite its pronunciation, and ‘expostulate’ (p94) should be ‘expatiate’. ‘Horde’ ought to be ‘hoard’, ‘practice’ is the noun, ‘practise’ the verb. And it is hard to believe that ‘spook’ (ie, ‘frighten’) was in use in 1913. However, this is still a splendid book, full of evocative images and ideas.

White Stag of Exile Thomas Shapcott Penguin 1985 PB 184pp; Theatre of Darkness Thomas Shapcott Random House 1998 PB 282pp

Tony Bremner was born in Sydney and now lives in London, where he is a composer and arranger. Some years ago he collaborated with Tom Shapcott on an opera based on White Stag of Exile.

Both of these books are out of print but may be purchased from second-hand bookshops and online sites.

To see if they are available from Newtown Library, click here.