QUICKSILVER: A Reader’s Introduction

Two decades ago, Nicolas Rothwell began a journey into the Australian inland and its mirage-like horizons – a journey both of exploration and self-exploration. The three fictions that came about as a result of these experiences – “Wings of the Kite-Hawk,” “The Red Highway” and “Belomor” – form a group, with each shining a distinctive light on their linked stories. “Quicksilver” applies the lessons of the deserts on a wider stage.

“Wings of the Kite-Hawk” was written in response to an intuition – the intuition that men and women are shaped by the country they move through; that they leave their traces in the landscape; that their essence remains, and we can tune into them, and know them; we are not isolated, and alone in the world: we can imagine what others of our kind have felt.

“The Red Highway” is a quest narrative that pursues a different goal. The figures in its stories experience moments of insight and revelation, moments when the inmost structures of life seem clear to them: they see through things, they see what has been on the edge of their vision all through their lives. This is the hidden world they sense: great clashes and intense episodes break into the flow of each tale, and, like lightning in the distance, these passages offer up a glimpse of secret contours lurking within the day-to-day.

“Belomor” depicts a world in fragments, and the paths in life taken by its set of characters: individuals who find themselves drawn to seek affinities between the events and accidents that punctuate their lives. Their task – as for all of us, writers, readers – is to make order from what lies about them, to find beauty in the pattern of their experiences, to compose a world.

quicksilverNow comes “Quicksilver” – the mirror to this trilogy, its completion, and a new beginning too. Its backdrop is not just the desert country of inland Australia, but Europe, both past and present – the West, and what western ideas made when transported into a new world. It binds its themes and fragments into a union. It listens to the silent space inside our being: “Whether in the harsh country of the De Grey River or the mulga plains of Western Queensland, the sense I have in silent moments is similar – I feel a distance. I feel something remote, yet watchful: a distant presence.” The book is made up from shards joined together – reflecting pieces, recombined. One of these recurring threads in the narrative follows the explorer Leichhardt into the savannah country and the deserts of the North, and takes him as the exemplar of the Western eye in collision with the Inland, its shapes and images and sounds. One thread traces the evolution of mankind’s sense of the sacred in the bush: and what is the sacred but the element most profaned? One takes nature’s despoliation as its theme, one traces the origins and first flourishing of the language of art. This mirror casts new reflections: it binds together the Australian frontier and the wider frontiers of the world.

What is it that lies on the horizon line? What lies beyond it? What is the destination we seek at the end of all our efforts, and the past from which we begin? Readers who find these questions speak to them will be at home with the image of life “Quicksilver” offers to their eyes.

For more information please visit the publisher’s site here: https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/quicksilver

Quicksilver: Reflections

The 2011 Madgwick Lecture, delivered at the University of New England in November

I should like to guide you through three distinct episodes in recent history: one from 18th century Europe, dominated by grand, unstable empires, one from the Australian colonial frontier of almost a century ago, and one from the central deserts, from our own time horizon. Each has its particular ironies, and its angled lessons to impart. I choose them not because I think them simple events, but because I think there is a mysterious, fearful beauty about them all. On one level, I trust that these episodes will seem to hang together as a suggestive sequence, cameos from the retreating past; on another I hope the parallels between my stories, drawn as they are from such different realms, may hint at some regularities in human affairs: and lastly, I have the dream that my examples may encourage you to turn your thoughts inwards – to gaze at the strange stillness we bear inside ourselves. Continue reading » » »

True North: An interview carried in Bookseller and Publisher

From “Bookseller and Publisher” May/June 2009, on The Red Highway and fictional form, the questions put by David Cohen

Q: The Red Highway begins with a detailed account of Czech artist Karel Kupka’s explorations in Australia’s Far North. How did you come to use Kupka’s story as a starting point for the book?

A: Kupka stands as the precursor figure at the opening of this book for a number of reasons: much in his experience seems to mirror what later artists and seekers in the landscape and amidst the societies of north Australia have found: the beauty and the grief of the life-worlds there, the air of complicity that seems to spring up around their travels, the sense of freedom to think and feel deeply, edged by a persistent conviction that the realm they aim to grasp remains elusive. Kupka, I now realize, has served me as a means to focus my own thoughts and sensations, and he has done this because of several elements in his biography that call out to aspects of my own life: he, like me, descends from Prague in Central Europe; his impossible aim is to see and appreciate remote Australia but not do harm in the act of looking and classifying; and the burden of his own being weighs on him very much. He is also a representative of a particular time, an era in the history of the modern world that seems to me to have set and determined our collective fate as a civilization. Continue reading » » »