Ten years later, in 1978, she sent me, in a letter from India, a famous quote from George Bernard Shaw, from the ‘Maxims for Revolutionaries’ section of Man and Superman (1903):
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
This unsettled me. In the 1964 NSW Leaving Certificate English examination, that same quote was offered as a trigger to a free composition, an essay agreeing or disagreeing with it. I chose it without hesitation; agreed 100% with Shaw’s sentiments; wrote a spirited essay. Four years after that I met Vicki, but it wasn’t until 1978 that I grasped the circularity: Vicki was my ‘unreasonable man’, only she was a woman. Complicated? You bet.
Her writing, like her life, strove against the normative. In her own words:
The sort of literature I prefer to read is usually about misfits: the novels of Samuel Beckett, Ice by Anna Kavan, the novels of Nathaniel West, the fiction of Ann Quin or Shena Mackay, once-up books like The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, the prose of Paul Bowles on his experience of Muslim culture in Egypt. I like all the writers who are out of step, and I guess that’s what I try to write about myself, the realities of subcultures in Western society such as bohemians, junkies, criminals, prostitutes, atheists, homosexuals, or people who are just plain amoral.1
When I first met her, in 1968, she was writing judgmental poems about people known to her at the time. She and her then husband, the painter Robert Finlayson, were intensely commited artists and exquisite aesthetes. Their flat on the ground floor of an 1880s mansion by the water at East Balmain was an orderly domain filled with paintings and prints, visual riches and pleasures. Vicki and Bob were also no-nonsense autodidacts. As Vicki wrote:
I left school at 15 and my knowledge of literature is completely self-taught … I first started writing my problems out on scraps of paper when I was 15 and living away from home, and later found these ‘problems’ were actually poems.2
Vicki was a phenomenal reader; the poetry books on her shelves were well-thumbed; poems she respected were marked with an ‘x’; others were subjected to critical comment in the margins. She was a dedicated Samuel Beckett fan, one of the few people I’ve known who read all Beckett’s novels and prose works, as well as the plays.
Her ‘portrait gallery’ phase didn’t last longer than a year, but it gave rise to some striking poems, e.g. ‘Fig’. In this poem Vicki’s ability to make a single image ramify into a nuanced conceptual arrangement comes into its own. This is a modality that can be read again and again in her work: the use of a single image as both cognitive anchor and rhizomic ramifier. As her writing evolved – as it became more ‘exploratory’, as she began to write some of the stories that were eventually published in Wrappings – her marriage began to dissatisfy her. I think there was some contradiction between the social realism that Vicki and Bob Finlayson prescribed as desirable, even necessary, in literary art – this was close to an official position taken by them as a couple – and the more playful modalities that Vicki was discovering through the European writers she liked, and through her own experiments with prose. Memorable was a ferocious argument between me and them about Wallace Stevens, whose work they deplored, late in 1969. But many people were disappointed when Vicki and Finlayson split up, because from the outside they seemed the ideal artistic couple.
After her marriage ended, Vicki lived for a while in Melbourne and began to get to know the countercultural scene there, attending readings at La Mama – ‘You should go,’ she urged me. ‘If they don’t like your stuff, they throw things. It would do something for your confidence.’ But I never did go. Vicki’s poem ‘Shoreham, Victoria’ dates from this time.
Vicki was conflicted, frequently at war with herself: for instance, there were many things about Australian life that she didn’t like, and we heard about them: she preferred India. But in India she also found much that made her furious and deeply unhappy.
Long before the passionate inwardness in Hinduism stirred her, she was spiritually driven: she viewed art as a spiritual task, and her writing is haunted – haunts itself, perhaps – with a kind of oblique tormenting of the connections between self and spirit, an elusive entity that may be less an ‘entity’ than a relation. Her unpublished novel, Kali and the Dung Beetle, is illustrative here; but her poem ‘Ghosts’, written in 1974-5, attests to her subtlety in writing ‘self’ as simultaneously embodied and disembodied, a correlate to the ‘gulls’ that transmute into ‘broken glass chips’, the same and not-the-same, in an edge-of-the-sea moment that seems created from a perspective as long as time.
Vicki could be extremely warm and generous to friends, in her living, but as regards her writing she was reticent, resistant to questions about it, very private, even secretive. And although she was a fine, incisive critic, and quite open to critique of her own work when she asked for this, she would have to make the approach. A rare occasion when she talked about her work was when Hazel de Berg visited the place we shared in Balmain in December 1975. Beforehand, Vicki showed no enthusiasm for the meeting, and I worried a bit. But Hazel de Berg opened her up as with a key. I occupied myself with typing a poem so as to avoid the temptation to eavesdrop.
One thing she doesn’t mention in the de Berg interview is the influence of Huysmans; yet in her writing Vicki negotiated the difficulties, the instablities of ‘going against the grain’. She thought that the enshrining of male writers who inscribed their spiritual search in poems and novels was at least a bit overblown – that the legendary status accorded Ginsberg and Kerouac for instance, along with their literary ancestor Rimbaud, occluded women who had taken their own against-the-grain journeys, such as Isabelle Eberhardt. I think that Vicki’s work is partly about showing that a woman can do it too – can write a libertine pursuit of (arguably, questionably) spiritual liberty with as much power as any male writer, but write it from a female perspective, out of her life. But she could also write divergent male characters with empathy – e.g. the gay man of ‘Mice. In Dreams Perhaps’; the alcoholic of ‘Not Harry’.
Her writing also questions the oppressiveness of the gender-structured world; note the questioning of the narrator’s gender-bound self in ‘Steve and the Big Smoke’. The butch lesbian of the latter story, the prostitute and the heroin addict of others, take on legendary contours; they challenge us from the page – generous, swashbuckling, nakedly contradictory; unstable, flickering identities asserted against the grain, the norm, the structures of the okay-everyday.
Some of her commitment to the out-of-step and to being out-of-step may have stemmed from her apperceptions of her father, an Estonian violin-maker, a post-war refugee, never quite at home in the Australia of the 1950s, ‘60s or ‘70s. Vicki looked European – Slavic, really – and certainly responded enthusiastically to European novelists and poets: Beckett, as noted; also Akhmatova, Djuna Barnes, Baudelaire, Cavafy, Cendrars, Eluard, Grass, Herbert, Holub, Popa, Prevert. Didn’t care for Rilke, ambivalent about Rimbaud, or not even ambivalent: ‘Kid stuff’, she once said.
Some of Vicki’s best writing seems to reverse Slavoj Zizek’s question: ‘Why is a woman a symptom of man?’ Read in the light of her candour, her ardent sensuous brilliance, the men of Vicki’s stories and poems can seem symptoms of the female – of the feminine that Vicki both creates and doubts; affirms and undermines. But if this collection stands as testimony to her themes, it also witnesses her range – from the turbulent passionate broadsides of ‘Four Poems on a Theme’ to the uproarious street-comedy of ‘Greasy Copper and the Adventure’. The latter story comes closest to her spoken anecdotal style.
Vicki’s tragic death came too soon. But her creativity, her inquiring mind and her generous complexity are reflected in her writing, the traces of her journey through life and the human experience. She was indisputably a strong voice and perhaps the embodiment of the ‘Generation of ‘68’.
Disclosure: Transit Lounge is the publisher of In the Hungry Middle of Here and the forthcoming Sputnik’s Cousin by Kent MacCarter