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Love and pastry

  • 27 November 2009

Alex Miller: Lovesong. Allen & Unwin, RP $32.95. ISBN: 9781742371290. Online

Lovesong is a novel that explores its own wellsprings. The situations of its characters and its locations refract Alex Miller's own experience. Ken, the narrator is an ageing, widowed writer who listens to the story of a man whom he meets at a local pastry shop. The story rekindles his own desire to write another novel.

Such intense self-reference could produce a clever, hermetic novel. But Lovesong is simple and lucid, its complexities those that a humane eye will recognise in any human life.

The novel explores the variations on home, homelessness, homesickness, and not being at home. Its central figures, John and Sabiha, are both away from their homes in Australia and Tunis respectively.

They meet in a pastry shop near a Paris abattoir. For the immigrant workers, mainly Tunisian, the café is a home away from home. From its upstairs room can be seen the lights of the Eiffel tower. But this is a world away, and Sabiha never visits it. John and Sabiha meet, fall in love and run the shop for 16 years. They are held in Paris but drawn in their different ways to their own homelands and families.

The energy of the novel comes from Sabiha. The dramatic and tragic events that lead John, Sabiha and her little daughter Houria to establish a pastry shop in Melbourne arise from Sabiha's desperate desire for a child. The working out of her desire puts into play the idea of home for all those involved.

They include Ken, who lives in what was once home. His daughter has returned home after the breakdown of a relationship. Finding and making a home are not simple activities; the apparent tranquillity associated with home is the result of opposing forces held together under great tension.

This limpidity resulting from stress characterises Alex Miller's novels. It is perhaps illuminated by the distinction, popular in classical literary theory and revived by Nietzche, between the Dionysian and the Apollonian.

In classical literature, the Dionysian is associated with the disruptive, spontaneous, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, often foreign, anarchic, liminal, ecstatic, and excessive. It is often embodied in women.

The Apollonian is associated with the movement to form, order, moderation, with giving shape and marking boundaries. When they collide in Greek myth and drama the results are often tragic. Yet art may require both imaginative excess and discipline