Tirra Lirra by the River, by Jessica Anderson, 1978, Macmillan Company of Australia; pictured edition Penguin paperback, 1985.
As Mister Zimmerman sang: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” And such is the essential thesis of the life Nora Porteous, the heroine of Tirra Lirra by the River, a work that provoked mixed feelings in me. It is an archetypal example of a ‘70s Australian “slim volume” novel: 141 pages long, laced with then-fashionable concerns, chiefly feminism and the cultural cringe, it captured the 1978 Miles Franklin Award, and it’s exactly the sort of stucco-crusted work that prize delights in. The narrative takes the structure of an aging woman’s assessment of her less-than-satisfied life, and expresses often urgent and telling emotions in a prose style that is occasionally witty and yet, for the most part, pedantic and lacking any formal grace, the kind of poeticism that could give it the weightless quality of reverie it requires. You can practically smell the green tea and potpourri wafting off the page. Heroine Nora is supposed to be a likeably flawed, but finally, heroically self-possessed woman who manages to reinvent herself against impossible odds, but it's possible to argue that, more often than not, she's the type of unfortunate personality who successfully blames everyone else for the traps she puts herself in.
Nora is a child of a
As a detailed portrayal of shifting cultures and psychological acuity, Tirra Lirra isn’t deeply moving, because Nora’s perspective on other people is so disengaged, and the mysteries of her personality not all that terribly interesting. The core memory she dredges up of an incident when she was a teenager with a younger boy, Jack Cust, which seems to have caused her retreat from passion, isn’t exactly a riveting revelation, and the climactic discovery that Dorothy slaughtered her family except for young Gordon strangely lacks menace and horror, and proves, truth be told, to be just another wellwhaddayaknow in Nora’s life. The novel reads partly like listening to a long ramble on an airplane flight by the lady in the next seat. Compared to the vibrant psycho-sexual tension and indiscernibly confused mysticism and madness Patrick White evoked in his similar The Aunt’s Story,
It is as a piece of rumination that the novel gains a depth beyond the humdrum. It suggests that life is finally being little more than the accumulation of memories that prove it occurred, as Nora’s journey of reverie reveals. Nora has no children, so it is the momentary proofs of her life that signal its substance to her. Proof comes in objects, photographs. The father she never knew, smiling impersonally in ancient pictures. Brothers and once-were-loved-ones beaming in pristine remoteness. In the house, in the totems of a long-discarded existence. Objects confirm the past, but only memories explain the past, and memory can be tricky. Nora’s self-study pivots around the events of her past, and yet her memories are slow, even unwilling, to resolve. And without the willingness of memory, no object is itself a proof of anything.
Of course Tirra Lirra tells a temporal narrative, of a woman who has lived long, poised in a perpetual state of becoming. Death is of course the easier choice. Easier by far to cry one’s heart out to the last like the Lady of Shalott than to build Camelot (Nora maintains an attachment to Tennysonian imagery, and an of course unfulfilled vision of a perfect Lancelot, from childhood). Nora presumes that Dorothy chose death as Nora almost chose death, but in fact they were Janus faces conjoined to the same annihilating impulse.
Nora’s life encompasses several familiar Aussie mythologies, not the old ones of Clancy of the Overflow, but more contemporary varieties: the creative soul who has to fly overseas to find fulfilment. The hopeless dreamer hemmed in by dull-witted suburbs. The lively female corralled by an empty male. Very ‘70s. No, wait, very now. How many women do I know in their mid-’30s who have run screaming from paltry marriages? But I digress. Nora attempts to assert a measure of control over her life, and yet discovers in the end that possibly she cheated herself of becoming something else, something more interesting. Like too many people, she is an accumulation of mistakes, and not necessarily the best judge of herself.
For Nora is a bundle of contradictions. Dissociated and ardent, tortured and blithe, talented and mediocre, self-destructive and self-actualising, unforgiving and compassionate, highly resolute and utterly malleable, she does a good job to survive as long as she does. She almost doesn’t, but she does. Nor does she go crazy from some unexamined anxiety like Dorothy. The twinning threat – self-annihilation or extermination of others – looms darkly in both her immediate life and the world about her, in the strange and yet coherent accord of her depression over her fading looks and the horrors of concentration camps, establishing the depressive’s sensibility that entwines all ills into a single mass, but also the artist’s sensibility, the poet’s sense of everything being connected – in what way do the terrors of the age reveal themselves in the individual life? Was Dorothy’s rampage only her own, or an explosion of frustration and horror keen to a generation like her? Is Nora alone in her plight, or a representative?
In this regard the novel is deadly accurate: the tight-fisted matriarchs, bowling club conspiracies, nervous homosexual bohemians and churchy suburban compost-tossers plainly evoke the seamy tedium of pre-‘60s
Nora too has faith, of a different, more immediate variety: faith in getting the hell of out sad and sickly little places. Like Grace, however, her conclusion is troubled by the sense that she missed something. In the act of running, much of the passing landscape is blurred. Nora, in waiting for life, refuses to live, in a crucial sense. She aborts her child and has a facelift, and both surgeries are crucifying disasters that rebound: her efforts to hold time at bay only confirm its force, and she is left old and powerless. The illness that afflicts her on homecoming seems as much the manifestation of an exhausted spirit, which has to be worked through before she can face her waning days with simplicity, as Nora looks at the mystery of herself and those people in her life.
The ultimate destination of Tirra Lirra, and its redeeming grace, is such meditation on memory, and how it constructs a person for their own understanding. Nora’s memories do not flow readily, and therefore her stock-take of her life gains an elusive, eliding uncertainty. Nora conceives herself as a mystery, which she attempts to solve in delving into the past, turning up lost fragments, like her forgotten physical flirtation with Arch Cust, that have the potential to upend her understanding of the past. The chains of her memories are built around severance, conclusions, to long patterns of existence that are vague in their being settled, and it is in that vagueness that Nora finds ambiguity, the kind that taunts and corrodes the settled opinion, the established prejudice, the assumed necessity. Nora’s certainty in what she doesn’t like, and her determination to escape it, reveals a final uncertainty of just what she wanted. Nearing the end of her days, Nora has no more experience to gain, but she does find a true second chance in her homecoming, a chance to delve into the nature of things, and discern their essence. Finally,