Panthers and the Museum of Fire
by Jen Craig (2015)
illustrations by Bettina Kaiser

Spineless Wonders (2015)
130 pp

. . . the whole of the reading seemed to be just the prelude to a reading; it pulled you along from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next, and you held on for some reason, never doubting for an instant that the real part of the story would be about to begin; and even when you knew, later on, when it was evidently too late, that there was no real part – when you watched yourself holding on to your role in the reading like an idiotic fool, holding on for the real part to begin when all the time there was never a real part, all the time there was nothing but the reading of the manuscript one word after another, the words being everything, the storyline nothing — you continued to read, I should have told Raf last night, although I was still jet-lagged, if I could call it that, from the experience of reading and writing.

This wonderful novella came to my attention via a tweet from Martin Shaw @booksdesk:

Word, what an outstanding novel this is (from 2015)! Makes me feel once more that Oz so badly needs a Goldsmiths-style prize to give bold fictions such as this some exposure (they turn up on the edges of existing prizes sometimes, but seldom seem to get s/listed or win)

Panthers and the Museum of Fire was indeed longlisted but not shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize in Australia; the judges’ report read:

Panthers and the Museum of Fire is about a woman returning a manuscript to the sister of its deceased writer. It is immersively written in a stream-of-consciousness style that takes the reader directly into her reflections on life, friendship and, importantly, her own writing.

The unpretentious truths and agonies, soul-searching and tenuous self-regard of the artist’s life are brilliantly and immediately depicted, in writing that deploys European modernist literary techniques in an Australian setting. In Jen Craig’s novella, voice, character and vocation combine in a sophisticated and accessible narrative.

I would not agree with the “stream-of-of-consciousness” description (one overused in a rather lazy fashion by reviewers; see also Milkman), since the narrator’s thoughts here are carefully reconstructed after the event, but the reference to European modernist techniques is apposite.

The use of photographs in the text (but — warning — not in the Kindle version) is immediately reminiscent of W.G. Sebald. An example from Martin Shaw’s Twitter feed (while I await my hardcopy):


But another influence (as on so many authors), one also highlighted by Shaw and acknowledged by the author, is my favorite writer of the second half of the 20th Century, Thomas Bernhard. When asked about influences:

It is interesting that you can see something in this work that could be compared to Joyce’s Ulysses. If this is so, it is completely unconscious. Of course, there is the walking through a city — I can see that — and the way the main action or event in the book occurs in a single day, a single morning, even (and before work!). But apart from that: my piece is one, undivided work — a single throw, if you like, and is actually much closer to Proust, despite its brevity. But having said that, I can see that the simple fact that my narrator is a woman, and that she is also rather breathlessly pressed in her narration, could have something of Molly Bloom’s monologue about it – a kind of Molly Bloom taking over the male patterning of things but not one to play into the fantasies that they might have of her, nor even what women often have about themselves, as sexual beings, as women. I think Orhan Pamuk’s short novel, The New Life, was an important influence on this novella. Although I have read it twice, I haven’t read it for some years — and all that remains of it in my head, apart from some images of people hurrying along the streets carrying grey plastic bags, and the extraordinary glare and speed of night bus journeys, is something of its urgency and its focus — its sheer determination. Another important influence has been Thomas Bernhard, who was the first to show me that so much didn’t need to be written at all, that you could cut to the quick — which for me, as for him, I think, are the driving nature of thoughts and the way they play out. I grew up in a household that was presided over by a very dramatic, hyperbolic and vividly expressive if usually contradictory monologist and it took me the work of Thomas Bernhard — first Christina Stead’s, but later Thomas Bernhard’s, to make me aware, very slowly, of what I could do with this dominating part of my experience in terms of form.

(from Short Australian Stories)

Later in the same interview she notes that her own breakthrough as a novelist came while reading Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles. And this concept of a breakthrough while reading a manuscript is key to the novella which opens:

For a long time I have dreamed of such a breakthrough, I thought as I set off from my flat in Glebe on that Monday morning — walking to a café in Crown Street for no other reason than to meet the sister, Pamela, so that I could give her back the manuscript Panthers and the Museum of Fire supposedly unread, as she had insisted on the phone only two days after she’d given it to me.

I have spent years and years of my life doing little more than work towards this very breakthrough. I have sacrificed love, holidays, sanity, my health, I told myself on my way up the street from the place where the building I lived in had mired itself in the roots of Moreton Bay figs and playground urine and the fetid remnants of plastic bags — doing nothing but work and work, or at least all the time just seeming to work and work, to get close to this breakthrough that might, indeed, have always escaped me because this is how I find it, and in spite of myself.

One notes immediately the (Bernhardian) thinking-while-walking, the indirect reported speech (here of her own thoughts) and the artistic obsessiveness. Although Craig doesn’t produce a pale imitation of Bernhard, but very much creates her own personal work and style.

The concept of the novel is that the narrator, a radio-station worker and aspiring author called (like the actual author, although this is not auto-fiction) Jen Craig, recently attended the funeral of an old school friend, Sarah (her death possibly caused by obesity). At the wake afterwards, Sarah’s sister, Pamela, “practically foisted” on her a completed by unpublished manuscript written by Sarah, asking for Jen’s views, appealing to her “literary flair, as she called it.” Jen had had no intention of reading the manuscript but, when receiving a call from Pamela a few days later asking, without explanation, for her to return it unread, she decides to read it, and thereby obtains a decisive breakthrough in her own writing.

The novel itself has her recall her thoughts as she walks across Sydney — a walk described in precise detail — to meet Pamela, reflecting on the events of the funeral and subsequently as well as her acquaintance with Sarah. And much of this is told via a recollection, and indirect report, of a conversation between reading the manuscript and the walk which took place while preparing a dinner with her friend Raf — the various stages of the preparation also described in some detail. So one ends up with sentence structures such as:

Sarah has always been someone, I said to Raf that time, I was remembering now as I was walking towards Pamela in the café in Surry Hills.

As mentioned, the journey across Sydney is described in block-by-block detail, and I suspect that this part may give even greater pleasure for those who know the streets in intimate detail. This promotional video for the book was certainly useful to give me an impression of some of the street scenes (see here), but I would agree with the author that my lack of knowledge of Sydney didn’t over hinder my understanding:

I do think place is important. It always makes a huge difference where I am and where I walk, which is probably why I am such a creature of habit. Perhaps, too, that’s why I’ve been living in the same crumbling sandstock brick terrace for close on 23 years. Having said that, though, I don’t think it is necessary for the reader to know Sydney to understand what is going on in the book, because place, in this novella, is filtered, almost entirely, through the narrator’s head — it is the narrator’s version of Sydney, and many readers will probably disagree with her version. Many will not even recognize it.

We also get diversions into the narrator’s own personal history — her anorexia as well as her gain (at a religious camp with Sarah’s believer family) and later loss of faith, from a form of Faustian pact but with God:

The act of believing is a selfish one, I muttered, as I would like to have muttered to Sarah, no matter that it was far too late to talk to her. I wanted to be a writer and in order to do this I’d had to renounce everything else; I’d made a deal with God — a deal that I had worked so it was entirely beneficial to my interests; it was weighted towards me (I have to face this, I told myself — just keep remembering your self-justifications, and you might have a chance of facing this) — because I’d said to this God: I will believe in You so long as You make me a great, a famous writer, which surely only You have in Your power to confer.

Or her (as the author’s) unfortunate name — ironic given her anorexia — as after she was born it was adopted by a multinational dieting company, something that particularly struck her when, a couple of years earlier, she had encountered the morbidly obese Sarah in the street, after having (somewhat deliberately) lost contact for many years:

Sarah had cut through to me with the kind of greeting that I hadn’t heard in years. Sarah called me Jenny, of course, which nobody but my parents call me these days — my parents preferring to ignore the fact that they had called their daughter after, though in advance of, a multinational dieting company, I had said to Raf who immediately laughed as I was hoping he would — and so Sarah called me Jenny and I had to stop walking and say hello.

And indeed a distinctively Bernhardian tribute to the pleasure of rants:

Pamela has always been an interferer, I had then gone on to say in definite tones, as a way of leading Raf towards another rant I wanted to make — another whose anticipation had already brought heat to my cheeks and the usual numbed, even trembling, incompetence to my lips and my words.

Thinking-while-walking (à la Robert Walser, Bernhard and Sebald) is key to the narrator’s way of life (again an interesting link to reading-while-walking in Milkman):

all my life — or at least since the time that I was anorexic, when to walk was the ultimate pleasure, the only existence possible — I have attempted to understand my self by taking walks and I have always arrived somewhere with apparently more simply formulated thoughts and a sense that thinking is possible, and that I know what I’m doing or at least what I have been trying to do. I make connections as I walk, I was realising as I got closer and closer to the end of the tunnel, and I am always being buoyed by the unexpected, serendipitous connections between one train of thought and another, and yet the connections that I fashion in my brain through the repetitive, inevitable rhythm of my walking could well have no reality, no veracity, I was realising, or trying to realise, outside these peculiar ambulatory conditions of my mind 

As for the unusual title of both this novel and the (fictional) manuscript, the explanation is rather prosaic. It is taken from a real-life (although no longer existent) road-sign in Western Sydney, en route to the Blue Mountains which read, “Panthers and the Museum of Fire Use Route Number Fourteen,” the Museum of Fire being aimed at aspiring junior firefighters, and the Panthers the name of the local rugby team in Penrith.

Although Sarah had called her manuscript Panthers and the Museum of Fire — or at least had written this title on the front of the manuscript, writing it in her handwriting, if in fact it was her handwriting and not someone else’s — it has been so long since I can recall ever seeing her handwriting – the manuscript seemed to have nothing to do with this title: all the suggestive allure that I might have expected from a title like that. I recognised the wording at once when Pamela gave me the manuscript at Sarah’s wake, passing it on to me despite my best attempts not to take it. Anyone would have recognised the wording, anyone who has ever driven along the east–west motorway of Sydney. It was the wording of a sign, of course. The title was a sign — an ordinary sign — a large white-on-brown sign that sits on the side of a road, of the sort that denotes trails or destinations of supposed tourist or heritage interest, in this case for the drivers of cars or trucks that might want to turn off the motorway to go to the rugby league club Panthers, named, as I’ve learned by Googling, not after the mysterious animal that is said to be wandering the Blue Mountains, confounding all attempts to capture it or even to prove it exists, but because a woman called Deidre won a competition to name the club in 1964: the name Panthers being only one of her many suggestions, her many animal-name suggestions.

Highly recommended: and if by a British author and publisher would have been a shoo-in for the Goldsmiths Prize.

Quoting the narrator quoting Virginia Woolf:

A manuscript about everything and also about nothing: a hold-all object, as Virginia Woolf says — a manuscript in which everything is possible, everything can be written.

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