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Poetry of the nitty-gritty

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Looking back Delia Falconer's books are based on history.
Looking back Delia Falconer's books are based on history.

JUNE GAUR

Australian novelist, essayist and short-story writer Delia Falconer goes back into the past to find subjects for her books.

I HEARD Delia Falconer read from The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers in a packed tent with people spilling over onto the lawns during a Writers' Week in Adelaide earlier this year. I met her the next afternoon in a cool but not-so-quiet hotel lobby for a glimpse into the very private sphere of a writing life. But Delia looked remarkably composed for someone with so much travel ahead — to Sydney that afternoon and later to the U.S. where her "dark love letter" to that country (The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers), was to be published by Soft Skull. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, Delia Falconer's second novel, was inspired by the story of Frederick Benteen, one of the few survivors of Custer's army at the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn. Her debut novel, The Service of Clouds, was also inspired by a moment in history: the introduction of photography into the Australian Blue Mountains a century ago. It was a risky thing to do; going back to the past for a subject at a time when critics in Australia looked upon historical novels with disdain. Delia recalled. "When I started writing, around 1995, I was quite naïve; I didn't have much awareness. There was this huge explosion in Australia of novels that were realistic and a lot of pressure to write about the political issues of the present."

First best-seller

In this cold critical climate, Falconer's debut novel went on to become that rarity: a best-selling literary novel. The Service of Clouds was listed for the Miles Franklin Prize, one of Australia's most prestigious literary awards. Bolder now, Falconer went ahead with The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, also an historical novel, but set in the U.S. and featuring real-life figures and events.She recalled having felt "oppressed by the weight of this historical period", but she wasn't really interested in the trappings of history. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers pieces together the memories of Frederick Benteen, the Captain in the Seventh Cavalry who saved the lives of the rest of Custer's troops at Little Bighorn while Custer and 210 other men were massacred. Far from being rewarded, Benteen was blamed for not bringing reinforcements to save Custer and his men. Almost 20 years later, he was courtmartialled for drinking.Frederick Benteen was the sort of character who has always interested Delia Falconer. "I'm always fascinated by the lone voice of opposition... the contrarian: I think we celebrate yes-sayers but don't value the oppositional voices."So, instead of celebrating Custer, Delia Falconer chose Benteen as her main character and through him she set out to write "the lost thoughts of soldiers. Not the grand story... but the seams and spaces in between... the weight of gathered thoughts... "

Unrecorded history

"I realised that American history was so familiar that I could trust my readers, allowing it to form a kind of skeleton, a ghost image, beneath my own narrative. This left me wonderfully free to concentrate on the unrecorded aspects of history... . the spaces in between."She imagined Benteen, perhaps on the last day of his life, assessing what he had done out on the plains. And what Benteen remembers, in a stream of consciousness way, are not the grand moments of battle but the quiet moments of married life, the lost thoughts, the smells and the jokes he shared with his fellow soldiers with whose ghosts he now communes. Delia recalled how the epic sparseness of the plains and of Little Bighorn had haunted her long after she'd visited these parts in 1998. Her sense of admiration for the Indian nations who had made their home here, and the soldiers who had come to fight them here, was overwhelming, she declared. But she was also haunted by "the dryness, the irony and the iceberg-effect of western speech". And when it came to writing, she returned "not to the detail of sage brush and high plain, but to the psychological space that it must have opened up around these fighting men." "One intense pleasure was pushing myself to find this poetry of the nitty-gritty, the poetry of the feel of riding a horse or the shape of a duck or warming one's wrists over a fire bed." So in writing the non-story as the story in The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers was Delia Falconer attempting to break new ground? "I think it was the Goncourt brothers, of all people, who said that the duty of the novelist is to write about the people who don't ordinarily appear in novels!" And so part of the purpose of The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers was also "to try and give a feeling for one individual human life with all its flaws and all its light and shade, and to bring those things back into the historical record that are the things that make us human."


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