Navigatio: a response

I am very grateful for the opportunity to launch this book. It gives me a chance to respond to it, and after reading NAVIGATIO I wanted to respond. I needed, somehow, to express the joy it evoked in me, joy in its subtle craft and in its potent contents. A response can only be a secondary thing, a dignified shadow at best, the dignity of which is something borrowed from the primary source, the book itself. Like all fine work, I think NAVIGATIO invites response, as much as it invites emotion and thought. For me it also invites humility, not only in the face of the skill it displays in its construction and execution, but in the face of the emotional and intellectual terrain it covers. 

NAVIGATIO is a book of a little over a hundred pages, but it is a vast and complex work.

In order to speak of this book I need to speak of Alchemy. Of common Alchemies and profound ones. Of the marriage of opposites and of affinities. Of the deceptions and the truths of magic. I need to conjure the idea of transformation, of transmutation; of the changing of one thing into another, of base elements into richer, more resonant states. Of an exchange of energies between a life lived and life imagined, and of the equality that can be made to exist between these two things. I need to speak of the imaginative riches that reside in memory and of the memories that can be inspired by imagination. I need to speak of drama and the dramatic, of poetry and what it entails, of what it so fiercely requires. And perhaps finally, or firstly, I need to repeat an old riddle. Question: when is a door not a door? Answer: when it is ajar. This simple riddle is founded on the tricks of language, on the difference between the spoken and the written, on the idea that language is not a set of fixed meanings but a living energy that has meaning only in usage; it is a riddle created by the invention that the transparencies of language allows.

The riddle, the conjuring trick, the Alchemical, the metaphor, language itself: they are all are pure drama. The dramatic concerns itself with change, with transformation; with the living presence of that transformation, experienced as it occurs. We can so rarely experience tranformation, moment by moment; it either happens too quickly or too slowly for us to perceive completely; usually we can only reflect and remember.

NAVIGATIO invites us to witness the Alchemy, the riddle, the drama of transformation. It spreads before us the process and the outcome. The magician, the joker, the alchemist, the dramatist, the poet, reveal themselves. It is, finally, an act of revelation. A revelation that leaves mystery intact. In other words, an act of magic.

The architecture of NAVIGATIO is deceptively simple: alternating chapters of biography and fiction, one framing and revealing the other as the book proceeds, this alternation giving the book its strange and irresistable momentum. It goes like this: a woman is writing about her life; her life as it is at the moment of her writing of it and of her life as it was, her childhood. She remembers. Her remembering is a journey she takes, through herself, through regions both familiar and unknown. She asks questions of her self and of those people she remembers, old questions and new ones. But she is always drawn back to the present moment, to the moment of writing, to the act of writing itself. And then she begins to imagine. Other lives. Another time. These other lives she imagines, this other time, are connected to her; through common affinities, through synchronous events, through similar longings, through familiar sufferings. She invents a parallel world, a coexistence as real as her memories, as present as her present moment. This is the method by which NAVIGATIO seeks and discovers its form as a novel.

It is a stringent and confident design. But there is also a prodigious freedom of composition in NAVIGATIO; in each chapter ideas are mixed with anecdote, biography with pure fiction, historical detail with fantasy; there are passages of joyfully intoxicated improvisation, that in ignoring unity of action achieve more complex and richer structures. The writer is inventing her own rules. But the rules she invents are not random: they are calculated and calibrated, drawing on her deep understanding of poetics, and they are finally, as all rules should be, liberating. The book takes exuberant flight. But its wings are not made of wax. They are made of steel.

NAVIGATIO is at once an act of intelligence and invention and an overwhelmingly generous act of biography. That it resolves these differing if connected energies is remarkable, and is the book's achievement. In its pattern and execution it enters areas unheard of in Australian literature. It is a fearless book of remorse and absolution. It is a joyous book, joyous in the face of truths that are difficult, at the end of a labour that has stretched the boundaries of both fiction and biography, that in the end resolves them into a form that both exposes and increases the mysteries and the reality of imagination and memory.

There is an ancient saying: Memory is the mother of imagination. In NAVIGATIO memory and imagination stand together and sing to us, and the harmony they make is richly alive, as beautiful a music as you could wish to hear, a poem like no other I have read. It is pure joy.

By Daniel Keene, September 1996. Given at the launch of Navigatio by Alison Croggon.