Five Bells, by Gail Jones
Five Bells, Gail Jones’s 2011 novel of four characters in one day in Sydney, first came to my attention through Jem Poster’s review for The Guardian, which made much of its similarities to Mrs Dalloway. My 2005 Authors in Context book on Virginia Woolf had included a chapter on the ways in which Woolf’s work is recontextualized by film adaptation and by the kinds of rewriting we find in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Robin Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, so I was naturally interested to hear of another what might be another such work. More recently I’ve been working on a reader’s guide to criticism of Mrs Dalloway, and thinking about what creative adaptations (principally The Hours) mean for our understanding of the original novel. Critical articles that purport to be about both Mrs Dalloway and The Hours are often really only about the latter; they’re uninterested in how Cunningham’s adaptation might make us see the 1925 novel in a new light, or might simply remind us of its strengths. (Seymour Chatman’s 2005 narratological comparison of the two is the most impressive exception to this rule.)
The novel concerns four characters on a January day in Sydney, all converging on the Circular Quay, from which the Sydney Opera House is visible. Two, Ellie and James, are Australian born (though James’s Italian ancestry is something he is particularly conscious of), and they were friends and lovers as teenagers. Now in their thirties (I think it’s set in 2010 or 2011), they have come to Circular Quay to meet again after many years; it slowly emerges that James, who for many years has been in poor mental health, has recently been involved in a tragic incident and wishes to tell Ellie about it. The other two characters are Pei Xing, a Chinese-born woman who has settled in Australia, and Catherine, a young Irish woman who is there on holiday. Each is preoccupied by memories: Pei Xing by her family’s persecution in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and by her father’s work as a translator of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago; Catherine by the death of her sparky, iconoclastic brother; James by a succession of traumatic incidents; Ellie, by less conspicuously painful memories of her teenage years. In among these, several of them remember other bits and pieces, phrases from poems and novel and songs, so that when ‘No direction home’ turns up (p.174), you don’t doubt that ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is being invoked. (I can’t think of another novel that’s as relaxed as this one about popular song being part of the fabric of people’s emotional lives.) Thematically, Five Bells is about the way we hold memories and that memories hold us; it’s about healthy and unhealthy relationships with the past; it’s about the value of re-engaging with the past, but also the value of detachment and disengagement.
On a first reading, prompted by Jem Poster’s comparison to Mrs Dalloway, it seems as if James is going to be an equivalent to Septimus Warren Smith, but this isn’t The Hours, and Jones isn’t attempting any straightforward mapping of Woolf’s characters on to her own. Most importantly, there isn’t a Clarissa, no sane truth to set alongside James’s insane truth, no upper middle-class woman whose power contrasts with that of the lower middle-class male, no hostess of parties who might be seen (rightly or wrongly) as a redemptive figure. James is mentally unwell and taking medication, but his illness is nothing like as severe as Septimus’s. Ellie is predisposed to happiness (I’m paraphrasing), but that attitude is significantly different from Clarissa’s more self-conscious and artificial celebratory trait.
Poster’s comparison is more relevant to what the characters (and Jones’s prose) register as they wander round central Sydney. Five Bells is particularly good at noticing the urban soundscape:
[Ellie] was filled with corny delight and ordinary elation. Behind her, raddled train-noise reverberated up high, and the didgeridoo, now barely audible, continued its low soft moaning. A child sounded a squeal. A ferry churned away. From another came the clang of a falling gang-plank and the sound of passengers embarking (pp.3-4)
There’s an echo here of one of the passages early in Mrs Dalloway that defines Clarissa’s outlook:
In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
But it doesn’t feel like Jones is following Woolf slavishly; more that she’s selected the same palate, but modernised it and transposed it to contemporary Australia. (The next thing we hear in the passage from Five Bells is ‘Jumping Jack Flash’.)
It’s modernised too in that eventually, but with an impressive inevitability, CCTV and contemporary surveillance culture comes into play. Quite how Jones hints that this will be so, I’ve not determined, having read it only once, but halfway through I found myself wondering who or what was watching the four characters, and then, in the sixth and final chapter, there it was: a CCTV image capturing two of them. It may be these expectations came from a recollection of Woolf’s plans for Mrs Dalloway, in which sketchy version Septimus would attempt assassinate the Prime Minister; that led me to wondering what James or another character might do, and how quickly they’d be spotted in a modern city centre. Perhaps also a hazy recollection of Barbara Vine’s King Solomon’s Carpet, in which I think there might have been a terrorist. But it might simply come from the opening account of the four characters passing through a train station, talk of glimpses and ‘blurred partial vision’, and from Ellie’s reflections in chapter two about this being an age of mediation, and ‘relentless repetition’ of generic images of death and grief in newspapers and on TV. (It’s great though, that alongside those relatively conventional accounts of surveillance culture we can have Ellie’s recollection of her father’s word for old-fashioned aimless people-watching: lollygagging.)
What Five Bells illuminates about Mrs Dalloway is the way that Woolf’s novel relates the extraordinary to the everyday, the epoch-making to the quotidian. Woolf’s account of Septimus’s insanity is intensely sympathetic, but Five Bells leads to the reflection that there’s something unfortunate about the way that Septimus’s illness has to be yoked to and derived from the Great War; the fact that the novel hints at other aetiologies (above all, Septimus’s sexuality) doesn’t diminish the problem. Five Bells never really commits to an explanation of James’s illness. There is an early incident involving the slaughter of a chicken, which seems to have become a traumatic memory in the sense of a memory that can’t be assimilated into the main life narrative. (The grammar describing it is tellingly ambiguous: ‘all of them caught in this drama with the headless chicken that would not do the right thing and straightaway, as it should, just lie down and die’ [p.61]. Is it the memory or the chicken that refuses to die?) But there are other factors for James — his family history, his mother’s own mental illness, the recent tragic incident — and the novel doesn’t want to place them in any kind of hierarchy. In Catherine’s life, the epoch-changing event is the murder of the Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, but when we eventually learn about the cause of her brother’s death, it has no meaning on a worldwide scale. (It’s interesting that we’re told Catherine adored U2 from an early age, as their songs so revel in the epic and the epoch-making, whether Bloody Sunday or Martin Luther King, but haven’t found much space for the everyday. That preference, and the repeated references to Guerin, leave us expecting a more significant death for her brother.) Its not that Five Bells doesn’t include the Significant Events of History — most obviously it does so in Pei XIng’s experience of the Cultural Revolution — but rather that it refuses to subordinate the everyday to those events. By contrast, Mrs Dalloway‘s focus on the everyday is always overshadowed by the Great War: the aeroplanes refers back to it; the car backfiring refers back to the trenches and the assassination of the Archduke. Recently, Elyse Graham and Pericles Lewis have questioned whether Woolf really believes in the sacrificial-redemptive logic that might seem to be implied by Septimus’s suicide and Clarissa’s response to it, and Five Bells also seems to distance itself from that aspect of Woolf’s novel.
A novel as deeply committed to the everyday as Five Bells necessarily has some trouble reaching a conclusion, and the solution that Jones has found in the final chapter involves a modulation into a slightly different style of narrative, a more dramatic one that we aren’t fully prepared for. (I don’t want to say too much, for the sake of those who haven’t read it yet.) There’s a kind of Thomas Hardy-like bitter irony about the conclusion, where trivial causes and a failure to communicate have terrible consequences.