Kristel Thornell (joint winner of the Australian/Vogel's Literary Award 2010) on writing Night Street
I came across my first painting by Clarice Beckett at the Art Gallery of South Australia: a simple little urban landscape, two trams passing on a misty twilit street. Gorgeously soft, hazy shapes. Minimal detail. It had a depth to it that became more hypnotically palpable the longer you stared. This tends to be the case with Beckett's paintings, as if there were something in them behind what was shown -- some mysterious emotion, perhaps. It’s like studying something alluringly half-visible through a gauze curtain. An oddly intimate, dreamy mood ensnares you.
Beckett's art set me imagining the woman who, early last century, had created such subtle and involving scenes. I learned the biographical details often approached as tragic: art that was misunderstood; a life in the family home, as the unmarried, care-giving daughter of ill parents; a premature death from pneumonia contracted after painting in a storm. I was drawn to the idea of looking behind the curtain of this melancholy story of a neglected, self-effacing artist from the margins of art history. I was saddened and indeed provoked by some of the biographical facts, especially, of course, by the scarce recognition Beckett's art received during her lifetime, but the story appeared rich and elating to me. It also told of a unique artist who, in the face of incomprehension, in spite of the handicap of being a woman, lived daringly, magnificently. Her relationship with life -- with men, with nature, with Melbourne, those streets and beaches celebrated in her art -- was brave and passionately intense.
Instead of writing a biographical novel, I wanted to inhabit the mind of a woman like Beckett, to creatively follow some of the teasing leads suggested by those captivating paintings. I was attracted to the kind of intimate, internal path that had to be freely invented. Painting landscapes, Beckett focussed on the shifts of light and shade. I thought of Night Street as reflecting such a vision -- as a psychological landscape made, not from sharp-edged reality, but from the tones of atmosphere and feeling.
During the three or so years that I worked on the novel, I lived in Adelaide, upstate New York and Helsinki, and I spent long periods in Melbourne, Nice and Trieste. Australia was on my mind, vibrant in my imagination and, in my expatriate phases, magnified, too, by nostalgia. The novel came, in a sense, both from Australia and from the floating in-between spaces of a nomadic life. This seems fitting to me. Clarice, the central character, is deeply connected to Australia. Yet Beckett's art, the origin of Night Street and a ghostly presence in the novel, evokes more than anything the elusive geography of the inner life.
An intensely satisfying novel that celebrates the short richly lived life of Australian artist, Clarice Beckett. Co-winner of the 2009 Australian/Vogel Literary Award.