The Lake Woman, by Alan Gould; Arcadia, 2009, 295 pages, $29.95.
I would like to begin by suggesting (though not insisting) that Alan Gould’s new novel evokes and draws upon three significant sources. The first is the legend of the lady of the lake, which informs Gould’s depiction of the main female character who provides the novel with its title. The second is the model for his main character, Alec Dearborn, which almost certainly is the poet David Campbell. The third, though perhaps the most marginal, is Patrick White’s Voss, which provides—in the form of Laura Trevelyan’s and Voss’s spiritual union and dialogue—a literary antecedent for the telepathic-like relationship between Vivianne Orbuc (Viva), “the lake woman”, and Dearborn, the Australian soldier in British service whom she rescues after he parachutes into a flooded Norman field and nearly drowns. I will take these three sources up in turn.
The title, The Lake Woman, sets in play any number of associations, establishing a series of literary motifs and antecedents, even if some of these are not directly picked up in the novel: Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and, further back, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and the various Arthurian legends that have circulated for eons. The lady of the lake is often a nurturing character in the Arthurian legends, sometimes a victim, although she can also be dangerous; and she usually plays a seminal role in the development of the hero—handing Excalibur to King Arthur being perhaps her most famous act. Her role in legend is as mysterious as her characterisation is unstable, and she goes by various names, including Vivianne, which, as we have seen, is her name in this novel.
Of course, although the title gives away its indebtedness to the legend, I only discovered most of the above after I’d finished Gould’s novel, through internet searches and The Oxford Companion to English Literature. In any case, I enjoyed the novel immensely without consciously grasping the conversation it is having with the myth. Part of that conversation, it turns out, involves a domestication and democratisation of the legend, without demystification, as can be discerned in the subtle but real contrast between “woman”—in Gould’s title—and the more aristocratic-sounding “lady”.
George Steiner says in Real Presences that, culturally, we now unavoidably read Homer through Joyce, and so it is that I’ve discovered the legend of the lady of the lake through Gould. What this means—in Steiner’s terms—is that it will never be possible for me to isolate some element of this legend that does not already participate in the conversation that Gould has now extended and into which he has drawn me. The lady of the lake will now always be not only the mysterious woman who revives Lancelot and traps Merlin; she will also be the mysterious woman who saves and gives meaning to the life of Alec Dearborn, and Dearborn will likewise always gloss and nuance the Arthurian legend, enlarging it with the context of the Second World War as David Jones’s In Parenthesis does with the First World War.
And yet, for all that, the legend functions so vividly on its own terms in this novel that it does not rely on the reader’s previous knowledge of its literary and mythological history—it is a grounded and particular incarnation of an archetype and, therefore, authentic. So how does Gould use it? Well, as with the aforementioned works, the lady of the lake is not really the subject of the novel—at least, she is the subject only insofar as she completes (a key word in Gould’s lexicon) or complements Alec Dearborn, and becomes the means of his continued presence in this life and his emotional, spiritual and imaginative sustenance. Her question to him, “Are you not complete in yourself?” is answered in the negative by the fact of her asking it. She is his Other, the means of his achieving selfhood, the source of his morale and well-being. She is also Other insofar as she assumes mystical dimensions, hovering at once in this world and a dream world, in time and timelessness. (She is oddly evasive when asked for the time: “He tried to impress upon her how vital the matter was that he should know the simple exact hour of day, but she was heedless to his interest in this.”)
The character of Alec Dearborn, equally well drawn and convincing, is also based upon an almost legendary figure—in this case a real person, the Keith Miller of Australian poetry, David Campbell, whom Gould knew and about whom he has written an essay: “Remembering David Campbell”. While the legend of the lady of the lake developed only vaguely in my mind as I read Gould’s novel, the figure of Campbell in Alec Dearborn was immediately recognisable through their shared history. Campbell was raised on a sheep farm outside Canberra (so was Dearborn); he boarded at the King’s School in Sydney (Dearborn also attended a Sydney boarding school), before reading History, then English at Jesus College, Cambridge (Dearborn is at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he reads History and English), where he became particularly enamoured of the Elizabethan lyricists (Dearborn carries The Oxford Book of English Verse in his pack and, while convalescing, rereads the Renaissance poets he’d studied at Cambridge), and won a rugby blue against Oxford (Dearborn also has a blue for rugby, as well as one for athletics). After graduating, Campbell returned to Australia to join the Royal Australian Air Force, in which he served during the war, twice awarded the DFC. Dearborn joins the British Airborne, although he sees little action in the air or on the ground.
Although it is not essential for the reader to know that Dearborn is based on Campbell, this knowledge certainly enriched my reading, in part because the differences between Dearborn and Campbell open new vistas on Gould’s treatment of major themes: morale and well-being, chance (Dearborn’s name positions him as a graced individual), history, the sense of self, to name a few. For though Dearborn is like David Campbell, he is not David Campbell; he is something of David Campbell and Alan Gould, living in the novel a possible life that could have been lived—but was not—in history, and that is lived imaginatively. It is significant that Dearborn, unlike Campbell, is not a war hero, since his need to express and realise the virtue of courage informs his sense of incompleteness at various moments: “for the interim he would press on, so that he might establish his validity”. Unlike Campbell, Dearborn is not an outstanding poet, although he does write poems. Unlike Campbell, he does not return to a life of sheep farming after the war, although this choice is presented to him and encouraged by his sister Bell (her name also evokes Campbell), instead becoming a lauded schoolteacher: “Miraculous rather, Alec reflected, to have once tumbled from an aeroplane, not into deathly mud and asphyxiation, but to the course in life that led to this applause.”
A third source for the novel is Patrick White’s Voss. While there are some rare occasions when Gould’s diction resembles White’s in Voss (for example: “In fact he did need time to meditate his choices because the formation of his nature had led him to trust humans”) the far more significant connection is that between Vivianne and Alec’s relationship and Laura and Voss’s. As with Laura and Voss, so with Vivianne and Alec the relationship extends infinitely beyond what one would expect from the short time the characters actually spend together in physical proximity. Like Laura and Voss, Vivianne and Alec are, in a sense, mystically married, and this mysticism permits an ongoing union and conversation that reaches into the life they do not share at the juncture of time and space. As with Laura and Voss, they complement each other and are defined by one another. White writes of Voss: “He knew that part of himself, the weakest, of which was born the necessity for this woman”, and so it is with Alec Dearborn: “The joy, the completion was her presence”, and:
Another wave of aircraft were droning overhead, not intrusive enough to prevent him noting how her reversal of mood made his own mood sunnier, how in the space of a mere few hours her happiness had connected itself with the sense he had of his own wellbeing.
Among the most impressive features of Alan Gould’s writing are its balance of seriousness and levity and an expansive moral vision with precise prose. We find these qualities concentrated in the penetrating insights that pepper the novel: into the fragility of human life (“From the window of his train he shook hands with his two Cambridge chums and looked a little self-conscious in his khaki as the carriage moved away, bearing the young man toward his training at Aldershot, then North Africa, Italy and a wholly effective sniper’s bullet at Monte Cassino”); into the psychological effects of warfare and killing (“the radical switchover, from being one kind of person in this moment, then irrevocably altered in the next”); into the conflicts and skirmishes of the human heart (“how wild was the sorrow for the thing that might have been”); into individual and national identity (“He felt the antique Australian need to deprecate his authority without extinguishing it”); and into the ability of work, music, poetry and the imagination to open intervals of calm and timelessness within time’s effacement (“the eye follows and ignites a delicacy in the mind. Even here, in war’s agenda”). But beyond these, the novel’s greatest achievement is its exploration of the problem of “that self-preoccupation when there was all this everyday purpose eddying around” and of the idea that “life is a matter of learning the exact point where nerve is required”, subjects Gould has made his own. These themes are brought together in the question that haunts the entire novel, revealing Gould’s comprehensive moral vision:
How can you believe your own life has been preserved within an enchantment when these appalling numbers were the tokens for how casual the difference was between being alive and being extinct?
The Lake Woman is a superb achievement by a master novelist.
Stephen McInerney lectures in English at Sydney’s Campion College. His poetry appears in 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know.