It takes a little while to orient oneself in Street to Street. There are layers of meaning, narration and irony that move in and between the tenderness and ennui in a way that iscan be dizzying. The book is no less pleasurable for the vertigo though. Ostensibly, Street to Street is a portrait of Christopher Brennan, the Australian poet and academic whose book Poems (1913), is the subject of many an academic thesis.
Castro re-imagines Brennan and his failed love affairs, difficult academic career and poetic struggles through the lens of fictional biographer Brendan Costa. Costa’s own academic career, unhappy romances and creative struggles mirror Brennan’s, and are themselves seen through the lens of the narrative voice of a man known only as The Labrador, an old friend, fellow university “rebel,” and former drinking partner of Costa’s. While the Escher-like triple narration doesn’t distance us from Brennan or Costa the way it might, it does force us to think of our own role in this labyrinthine biography: the reader’s lens becoming a fourth dimension that both alienates us from these characters and brings us closer to them. The subjects are both biographers and the subject of biography – throwing meta-fictional elements into the pot.
It’s a strange and unsettling sensation that is heightened by the nature of the book’s subjects. Both Brennan and Costa are having difficulties with their lives. They are both likeable in a laddish way – it’s easy to empathize with them – and detestable in their inability to settle, to pull their poetic fingers out and get to work, and in their overt and sometimes childish romanticism which borders on selfishness. The cognitive dissonance this like-detest sensation creates works in both a structural and semantical way, asking the reader to participate directly in the process of characterization.
The book itself is beautifully presented – small, squarish with a textured matte finish that folds open more tidily than most modern books. The pages are slightly yellow, and the whole effect is one of rich understatement which aligns perfectly with Street to Street. Though we all know that books shouldn’t be judged by their covers, this little gem is a reminder that print books remain appealing artifacts and can be a joy to hold and read, irrespective of the content they contain. However, the content of Street to Street is, as one has come to expect from Castro, supremely beautiful. Taut and poetic, every line seems to move between point of view reflection and broader, more generalized and powerful statements of meaning:
In time, silk stockings would mean nothing. But death could not be a deception, nor was it an experience. Death was imprinted on a butterfly, for the perception of others. How long did a butterfly last? The vanity and value of life was that it was both a deception and an experience. (14)
There are many motifs throughout the book. The most obvious one is a recurring dog theme – there is Costa’s old dog Dante, The Labrador, Churchill’s black dog of depression that ‘dogs’ both Brennan and Costa, and Costa’s own first book of poetry Hot Dog which becomes the vehicle for his meeting with his Dutch translator Saskia Grivald, who later becomes his mistress (and perhaps his undoing, too), and there is, for both Brennan and Costa, a “dogged pursuit of failure”. In addition, in many different forms we encounter the stultifying nature of bureaucracy, the lure of drink, the play between the need to earn a living and the urge to create, play between painting and writing (and some utterly wonderful descriptions of paintings), the difficulty of love, the strange distortions of time, and perhaps above all else the inevitable creep of death that seeps through the narrative and finds its expression, like all the motifs, in a multitude of parallels, symbols, and images:
What was talent without revolt. He heard arguments, the groans of male solitude and feigning women. He imagined his own breakdown in a burlesque of lonely rooms, unremarkable despair, ready for anything, afraid of no one. He was sixteen. From street to street, the future was already mapped.
Close the lens. At sixty-four, his future is still unknown but the past lies visible, in camera. (20)
The collision of Brennan with Costa with the Labrador, with the reader, with time and with death, forms the tension of the novel as we progress from metaphorical street to street in this work. There is a symbolist poetic aspect to the way in which these characters are built up, discovered through self-discovery, and fleshed out through their failures and losses that is both charming and distancing. This link is signaled by Brennan’s studies of the French Symbolists, and by the way in which poets like Verlaine, Mallarme and Baudelaire influence and shape his work and the choices he makes in his life too as he attempts to mimic their bohemianism.
Though Street to Street often presents a bleak view, with university bureaucrats stifling creativity, talent thwarted and wasted, and beauty and love destroyed through lack of focus, it does seem to me to end on a very positive, and deeply tender note. The real richness of this novel begins and ends with language and the power that attentiveness to it has to overcome the foibles and day-to-day emptiness that seems to take hold of the two protagonists in this book. Though there is much to be wary of,: the “dangers and pitfalls of life” are never easy, Street to Street ends with new life – the continuum, and above all else, a transcendence through love and time:
Memory is what we are and she is learning that she is not the only one in the world, that people die before we even know them, and that it is not impossible to feel their looseness in the same way as she listens to her mother’s stomach and experiences the kicking of another child, and that relationships can sometimes begin in the womb or at the graveside. (149)