Hitch-hiking young tourists assailed by a ‘truly woeful Eagles tape’ and trapped in an ancient Merc carrying an impressive haul of hash and coke across the border of France and Spain, does not sound like the stuff of a literary adventure undertaken to meet a highly-regarded poet and man of letters. However, it sure smacks of the 1970s and as such, it deftly evokes the era in which young Australian poet Jack Driscoll sets out on an odyssey to Deya, Mallorca to meet literary titan Robert Graves and obtain a poet’s blessing from him. The unfolding surprise of the unexpected is one of the most striking qualities of Larry Buttrose’s novel The Muse of the Maze (eBook, BryshaWilson Press, Melbourne, 2016, $AU9.99 from Amazon and Kobo). The other is the delicately modulated prose delivered as a first person narrative by Jack, who assumes the dual role of major player and observer as his story unfolds.
The reader is gently lured to follow as Jack recalls in the first chapter:
…a shadowy world of taverns and cantinas, barbers and shopfront tailors, brothels and gaming dens, all shunted together in the tall and winding, sombre sandstone walls of the maze. Heat and humidity got trapped in here. Dust gritted between the teeth. The sea air which somehow penetrated brought with it the intermingled smells of diesel, sewage and rotting fish, and wafts of perfumes that caught in the throat. A pair of ragged children sat on greasy flagstones blowing bubbles from an old bone pipe. Women squatted on their haunches gutting fish, the tails left hanging in the teeth of drains. I passed down cobbled paths of scrawny cats and lousy pigeons, beneath drying sheets lacy with cigarette burns. Boys hauled handcarts piled improbably high with sacks of onions and potatoes. Babies yowled, whores yawned, and old women looked on from the windows above. Men clustered here and there—it looked like deals were being done, crimes schemed, political acts plotted. I liked it.
In its own cheerful way this beguilingly sensual passage is just as much a portent of potentially tragic consequences as the Rilke quote (from The First Elegy) that prefaces the chapter:
The beautiful is nothing but the first apprehension of the terrible
Jack grew ‘up an only child in a bookless house on a treeless street’ in an outer suburb of Canberra, then ‘took to the road’ after graduating from university with an arts degree. Subsequently his ‘grand tour’ was to give him time to make decisions about what to do with his life and find his way in it as a poet. Stranded in Barcelona, he appends himself to an English-speaking arty enclave of assorted foreigners, while simultaneously engaging in sequential relationships with three different women and straying into the seedy, dangerous side of Barcelona nightlife. Meanwhile, the journey to meet Graves makes little progress.
While Jack’s quest pays homage to Graves, the novel references Graves’s controversial work The White Goddess, a radically personal discursive exploration of the notion of the poetic Muse, whether in triple or single form, as female. The referencing occurs on various planes: in the storyline and its action, as well as in the ideas flowing through the work on both the literal and symbolic levels. All this makes it a satisfyingly intelligent novel, albeit one packed with intense action and tragic consequences. But in the context of The Muse of the Maze even the notion of tragedy is fluid and multi-applicable, leaving the reader to consider if any or which aspect of the events depicted is actually tragic or merely unfortunate. In that sense, too, it makes for fascinating reading. In fact, The Muse of the Maze is that great rarity—a finely wrought literary novel that is also compulsively readable.
The Muse of the Maze had its beginnings in volume form as The Maze of the Muse (Flamingo, Pymble, 1998) and when BryshaWilson Press approached Larry Buttrose for the publishing rights to re-issue his novel as an eBook, he revisited the manuscript and revised it extensively. The changes are so major that the result is a distinctly new book and in recognition of that it was renamed The Muse of the Maze.
Interestingly, Larry Buttrose did go to Mallorca in 1976 to get a poet’s blessing from Graves and the true story of that is included as a Memoir in the Afterword of The Muse of the Maze. The image on the novel’s cover is a photograph of Deya that Buttrose took at the time of his visit.
Publisher, BryshaWilson Press