TEXT review

A jouissant relay of writing

review by Moya Costello


Marion May Campbell
University of Western Australia Press, Perth WA 2013
ISBN 9781742584911
Pb 148 pp AUD24.99


Marion May Campbell
Poetic Revolutionaries: Intertextuality and Subversion
Rodopi, Amsterdam 2014
ISBN 9789042037861
Pb 324 pp AUD94.00


‘[A]mong the most intellectually challenging and inventive of contemporary Australian novelists … a writer of truly international stature’: thus reads Michael Ackland’s preface to The Experimental Fiction of Murray Bail (Ackland 2012: 2). One could – very easily – substitute ‘Marion May Campbell’ for ‘Murray Bail’. Campbell is ‘[i]rrepressibly virtuosic, a “writers’ writer” … ‘a true innovator’ in ‘writing given to risk and deterritorialization … a major Australian writer’ states Gail Jones in her ‘Preface’ to a Campbell compendium, Fragments from a Paper Witch (Jones 2008: ix-x). Margaret Henderson, reviewing Poetic Revolutionaries, a companion critical text to the novella, konkretion, concurs: ‘Campbell has long been one of Australia’s leading experimental writers, and one of the most innovative feminist writers to have emerged in the 1980s when Australian women’s writing became a significant presence in Australian publishing’ (Henderson 2014: 1).

Poetic Revolutionaries is an exemplary textbook study on leading Australian and international experimental fiction writers. It is a scholarly work of broad, encompassing literary theory and criticism. Campbell attributes her regard for the mutual imbrication of theory and practice to ‘Tel Quel’s projects in the 1960s and early 1970s’ (Campbell 2014: 14). Poetic Revolutionaries examines texts by Kathleen Mary Fallon, Kathy Acker, Jean Genet, Angela Carter, Brian Castro and Kim Scott: writers ‘who use transformations of other texts for subversive purposes’ (Campbell 2014: 26). Andrew McCann notes of the protagonist of konkretion, Monique Piquet, in his review of the novella, that ‘[w]e are clearly in the company of a character who looks outside of Australia for her intellectual sustenance and inspiration’, with her mentions of Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Artaud, Irigaray, Wittig et al (McCann 2013).

Campbell is an incommensurable risk-taker. She risks everything. Always. Risks. Everything. Always. konkretion is a disrupted, polyvocal, punning, intertextual and hybrid text. We move in and out of layered texts, in and out of genres (novella, prose / poetry, monologue / script), in and out of the protagonist’s episodic life, in and out of subjectivities, in and out of spaces.

To write through radical textual practice in Australia is a particularly risky strategy. In France, radical philosophers – ‘maverick intellectuals’, Andrew McCann (2013) calls them – get their name on the front page of national newspapers. Among the many spaces one can see clearly the overwhelming conservative leaning of Australia is in its literary industry – what gets published and by who, what gets reviewed and how, what gets short-listed in literary prizes and what wins those prizes. Campbell notes that what we might think of the ‘“well-made” story’ is marked by the violence of representation and claims for a ‘universality of the sovereign patriarchal subject’ (Campbell 2013b). As narrated in konkretion, ‘[r]ealist illusionism, with all its connective tissue between nicely narrated episodes and its chopper-in-the-sky assurances that all is seen and glossed, make [Monique] sick at heart’ (Campbell 2013a: 28). Jones writes of Campbell as condemning ‘the glamour industry of publishing, its mean duplicities’ (2008: xiv). Campbell herself writes in Poetic Revolutionaries that in contemporary Australia, ‘cultural workers need to fight institutionally to sustain debate about literary works that … write disruptively back to power’ (288). McCann sees Campbell’s novella as:

an intense meditation on the abjection of authorship, but it also explores the fate of the avant-garde (both literary and political) in circumstances in which, as Slavoj Žižek suggested in his 2011 speech at Liberty Plaza, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. (McCann 2013)

Another reviewer of konkretion, Patrick Allington, notes its absence from prize lists, specifically the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award (Allington 2014). Allington congratulates konkretion’s publisher, the small-to-middle-size independent University of Western Australia Press, which, under Terri-Ann White, has joined similar presses such as Giramondo, Brandl & Schlesinger and Spineless Wonders in doing the most interesting things in Australian and international publishing. In the novella, too, through the gaze of Piquet, we view the fate of a radical politics romanticised: it becomes commodified, its hero/ines emblazoned on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs.

Campbell’s novels are challenging, fierce, funny, a fair-ground’s high rides in the air – lines of flight, ‘new creative departures’; terms Campbell (2013b) herself deploys, and which McCann echoes:

The sense of flight that dominates the opening of the novel[la] also points back to the provincialism of an Australian intellectual scene characterized by the commercialisation of literary publishing and the instrumentalisation of higher education. (McCann 2013)

Campbell has noted that the ‘market-driven nature of the so-called Australian literary “industry”’ had caused her to lose ‘quite a bit of … experimental verve’ (2013b). Indeed, in the novella, Piquet is in double trouble: as a writer with publishing and as an academic with higher education. Piquet’s literary agent – think of two television harridans: Joey’s chain-smoking agent, Estelle, in Friends, or Frasier’s mendacious agent, Bebe, in Frasier – says to her that readers ‘want it told, not condensed, in … inscrutable fragments. They want proper characters and … explanation’ (Campbell 2013a: 4-5). Readers who have followed Campbell’s work will recognise here the similarity with her memorable essay in that ground-breaking anthology edited by Kerr and Nettelbeck (1998), The Space Between: Australian Women Writing Fictocriticsm, in which Campbell wrote that ‘[c]haracter and story are troubled categories’: ‘Do you want to be buoyed by the … current… Do you want continuities … I reckon flow sucks’ (Campbell 1998: 271-81). So Piquet writes, or tries to write, or imagines writing – one of several embedded texts in the novella – lesbian young-adult romance, apparently to no avail. Further, in late career, she has an embarrassing moment in a lecture where she forgets what she was to lecture on and drops her folio of lecture papers; this endgame comes after a heraldic career as a radical lecturer inciting young women to revolution – it is a career in which there is also an imperative to publish.

konkretion performs the strategies discussed and the thesis proposed in Poetic Revolutionaries, through its stylistic and genre-boundary-crossing tactics. The novella begins and ends with the idea of a draft which is text as ‘all aperture’, open to other texts (Campbell 2013b). A second embedding of text is the romance manuscript by Piquet; a third is Angel Beigesang’s (Piquet’s former student) text about the Baader-Meinhof gang. (These latter two are formatted by font changes.) Such a move is not uncommon in fiction and is about the fictiveness of fiction, its artifice. Another process in the making of texts is their making by / from other texts, or intertextuality. Intertextuality, if made overt, is an avant-garde strategy, enabling a ‘disruptive, critical purchase on [the] host culture’ (Campbell 2013b).

These strategies are part of Campbell’s cultivation of ‘loiterature’ (2013b), or polyamorous ventriloquy or receptivity, an idea she attributes to Ross Chambers. Poetic Revolutionaires (Campbell 2014: 24) also praises Linda Hutcheon for her work on metafiction, a pointing towards a text’s own artifice, a pointing that forgoes immersion in mimesis for the normally ‘sure poultice for your wounds’ (Campbell 1998: 217), a willingness to bear the wounds open as Piquet herself does with her varicose veins, the result of too much smoking.

In Poetic Revolutionaries, Campbell itemises the textual strategies of innovation, which include ‘radical montage’, ‘parataxis’ (no subordinating based on sentence style), ‘syntactical jumpcuts’, ‘radical textual interruption’ / ‘non sequitur[s]’, voice shifts (and ‘narratorial switching of grammatical persona and tense), ‘font changes’, use of graphics, ‘intersplicing of parodied and “plagiarised” texts’, laying bare the devices of the text, use of puns and intertextuality – many of which feature in konkretion (Campbell 2014: 285-7). Campbell also notes ironic transcontextualisation (via Hutcheon and her work on historiographic metafiction’s parody and intertextuality), and transgressive scenography for purposes of parody (2014: 24). For an example, Campbell looks to Genet’s ‘inversions of classical tragedy’ (26), his anti-realism and the tensions he established between performance and audience. Acker, Carter, Fallon, Scott and Castro deploy parody or radical revisionism, and/or use intertextuality (27).

One of Campbell’s many strategies in konkretion is the frequent use of word puns. ‘Beigesang’, for instance, according to McCann, ‘is a literal rendering into German of the word parody’ (McCann 2013). Francesca Sasnaitis says it reminds her of ‘Der Gesang’ … German for singing and ‘Beigesang’ might, at a pinch, be interpreted as ‘singing together’, an allusion to Piquet and Beigesang … or indeed, to Meinhof and Esslin, whom Beigesang’s book is about (Sasnaitis 2013). I thought, playfully, that it might also signify beige singing or a beige song, as Piquet is critical of Angel Beigesang’s text, seeing it as potentially romanticising Baader-Meinhof, and of Beigesang herself, a lover, according to Piquet, of the same dressage as Baader and Esslin: ‘Monique sees again the acolyte’s mimicry, straddling the seminar chairs in her crumpled gunmetal linen pants-suit and apricot Indian shirt’ (Campbell 2013a: 56). Both Andreas Baader and his lover Gundrun Esslin are themselves immersed in an aestheticised (anaesthetised?) radical chic, through dress/age. Baader memorably makes his own skin-tight jeans and Esslin shops in a Paris boutique for a short mohair pink jumper and potentially a Chanel skirt.

At the core of the novella and the textbook is the question of avant-garde practices in writing and their potential for radical socio-political change. The question that both books ask is ‘how textual innovation can be articulated with effective socio-political critique’ (Campbell 2014: 14-15). The novella acknowledges a number of problems, not the least of which is violence and murderousness, specifically by the Baader-Meinhof gang, later known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). Campbell (2013b) selected the gang for focus ‘because the first RAF generation coincided with the rise of Tel Quel and shared the same intellectual climate’, and because the two women, Meinhof and Esslin, ‘were initially driven by high political passion and ethical ardour’. Baader is in fact a minor character in the novella, and I’ve more than once wondered why it was that Esslin did not have her name included in the gang’s moniker. Mixed up in the revolution were gender and sexual politics still left warped by it. Motherhood is now infamous victim of radical feminist politics. And Piquet, Meinhof and Esslin are all evidence of that bullying: for the three women, something has gone wrong with childrearing; it has mixed outcomes or has been utterly abandoned.

Were Baader-Meinhof’s activities pointless, self-obsessed and selfish? One of the saddest affairs in the novella is Meinhof’s continual attempts to prove herself to Esslin in particular, who equally continued, according to Beisesang’s text, to appraise Meinhof negatively. It is as if, significantly, and ironically, Esslin never got over the rejection of her poetry by Meinhof, in their early association, as ‘too hysterical’.

Baader-Meinhof failed, not only because they converted from ‘resistance to terror’ (Campbell 2013a: 88), but because the language of Meinhof, the prolific writer of the three, was not poetic, was not of poesis. Her language was ‘sloganeering’ (Campbell 2013a: 45). Beigesang wonders ‘how things might have been different if Meinhof had found, beyond journalism and polemics, a kind of writing to run its festive way … in a more jouissant relay’ (Campbell 2013a: 44). For Campbell, the writers she examines in Poetic Revolutionaries are models against the unthinkable: a failure of imagination. Jones (2008) says of Campbell that she ‘is a writer preoccupied … by the profundity of what literature as a category of experience might mean, by what intimacies and revelations attend acts of reading and writing’ (x). Campbell herself concludes: ‘textual practices that counter the teleological imperative of the well-made story … can still deliver potent and critical parodies of oppressive modes of representation … [and] radical textual practice can fuel critique and empower resistance’ (2014: 287-8).

Amid early twenty-first century crises – climate change and global warming, peak oil, widespread poverty and injustice, mass migration and species extinction – I think of Campbell’s texts, creative and critical, as lifeboats, hovercraft with air-borne capacity, passenger-full and powering-up for a new creative departure.


Works cited



Dr Moya Costello teaches Writing at Southern Cross University, in the School of Arts and Social Sciences.


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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste