The Hallelujah Shadow
The Mists and Murk of Time
What’s likely to strike a reader of The Hallelujah Shadow, first and foremost, is Andrew Sant’s distinctive voice, which seems to belong to another time. It’s the equivalent of opening an envelope to find a letter tucked inside, written in a spidery, cursive hand. This impression is created in part by the vocabulary Sant employs in each of his essays: old-fashioned words, like wayward, supine, bibulous, poorly, loquacious; expressions you rarely hear used any more, a dab hand, a tad, in my haste; and a generous use of adverbs, lavishly, gingerly, venomously. Further, there’s the author’s suspicion of all things modern: banging jackhammers and wheezing coffee machines disrupt his concentration, supermarkets are sites of “conformity and predictability” (1), and TVs are “enemies of the written word” (for this is a man who values writing, and reading, above all else) (19). Finally, there is Sant’s preference for long, circuitous sentences, a stark departure from the clipped syntax and plain style of much contemporary prose. Consider the glorious subordination at work here, in Sant’s description of an old friend:
Eventually, because I was wondering, he mentioned he had a wife who, he was reluctant to admit, is an alcoholic whose days are spent in her room, out of sight, like Mrs Rochester – my friend, by the way, is a champion of facts not books or fiction or any books, actually – and so, because his wife is permanently sozzled, although they live in the house they don’t communicate. (28)
James Ley, in his discussion of Lydia Davis’ Essays, identifies two distinct approaches to the form. With Davis, there’s “a sense that the thinking is already done”, and that she is “simply reporting her results”. Other essayists, conversely, attempt to draw readers “into the movement of their thoughts”, as though ideas and arguments are “being pursued on the page” (Ley). Sant falls squarely into the latter camp—indeed one of the real pleasures of The Hallelujah Shadow is not knowing where his line of thought is about to turn. In ‘On Regret’, for instance, he quotes lines from a Frank Sinatra song heard in a supermarket, transitions into an abstract, taxonomical discussion on the notion of regret, an anecdote about a rescue pup vomiting in his car, and then a sincere and sorrowful reflection on the unbending loyalty and vigilance of his—now departed—canine companions. This digressive quality is often evident even at the level of an individual sentence. Sant is an accomplished poet (the author of over a dozen collections), a fact which may explain why his commas at times function almost like line breaks, creating meticulously assembled and sequenced clauses that land on a final, significant note at the sentence’s end. Singing the praises of his pet dog, for example, he writes:
There was a consistency in our relationship, a lack of high drama, decidedly missing in the parallel relationship I had with my girlfriend, no longer live-in, which frequently took me well away from my studies in a way that a long walk with Almost – no lead, across paddocks, through bushland, startling kangaroos, all the while being wary for both of us, since it was summer, of snakes – simply did not. (3)
In seeking to capture the spontaneity and freshness of thought, Sant falls into a tradition of essay writing established by Montaigne over four centuries ago. In the preface to his Essais, Montaigne stated, “I myself am the matter of the book” (2); Sant’s main subject and lens, likewise, is himself. Again, this sets him apart from many of today’s personal essayists, with their tendency to incorporate more external source material and to be more explicitly concerned with topical and political affairs. This is not to say that Sant is ever solipsistic. Like Montaigne, he is deeply curious about the world and traverses a diverse range of subjects—the trivial and domestic, as well as the profound or philosophical: why do we travel? Why is ‘settling down’ considered virtuous? Why are we surprised by ageing faces? Like his predecessor, Sant is also a deeply idiosyncratic writer: the title essay is about a particular shadow he encountered in Greece; ‘On Getting Lost’ describes a bee trapped in a moving car; ‘On Memory’ includes an anecdote about a book he possibly—but isn’t convinced—once gifted a friend.
Many of the essays collected in The Hallelujah Shadow were previously published as stand-alone pieces. Reading the individual essays alongside one another though, the reader can see the author’s thematic preoccupations with greater clarity. The past is ever-present for Sant: real and weighty and revered in a way that the future is not (“only someone with rocks in his head could conceivably spend time thinking about an actual future”! (86)). Sant, the narrator, is forever grappling with memories accumulated and mislaid. In this, he recalls the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts (also an older, solitary, male figure), who describes himself as a “student of mental imagery” (80), deeply interested in the images which most affect us, and which we retain as part of our visual memory throughout our lives. Indeed, Sant’s descriptions of shadows and mirrors are reminiscent of Murnane’s lengthy musings on his boyhood glass marble collection, and on the light refracted through the stained-glass windows of his Catholic youth.
Sant has a keen sense of mortality and the transient nature of existence: he meets with long-lost friends and reflects on their changes in physical appearance; he meditates on memorial park benches; he contemplates his ageing face in the mirror; writing about the rituals associated with smoking, he says he “wants to record this aspect of our cultural history” (77) before it disappears; and, most movingly, he tells us about his mother, who took her own life when he was only a young boy. But memory does not only summon regret or loss for Sant: it is, somehow, redeeming. When he pictures his mother, she is still in her youth, younger than he is now, and thus “arrested in time” (80). Ancient Roman poets, through their written record, speak “as freshly to us now” (81), and are thus rendered immortal. When he forgets a book, he describes it as “akin to a death” (60).
Repeatedly in The Hallelujah Shadow, Sant positions his own lifetime within a far greater timescale. The natural world in his essays is an ever-present reminder of deep time. For example, while swimming in the ocean, Sant’s mind goes to the nearby sandstone cliffs, millions of years old, which then, as now, are “looking on” (21). The Australian bush is “a presence, withheld” (5), and maps are described as emerging “out of the mists and murk of time” (8). There are earthquakes and storms, references to geology, Aboriginal songlines, and “morphic resonance” (a theory that memory is inherent in nature, responsible for how ants, say, construct their complex nests) (60). Seen in the context of this vast scheme of things, our “personal extinction”, Sant writes, might be regarded as a “microscopic matter”, but it is “no less hugely significant for being so” (83). In sum, Sant is acutely sensitive to the passage of time, to both the weight and the lightness of our individual existences here on earth.
In his time, Montaigne’s literary innovations were considered subversive and almost scandalous. Sant’s essays are oddly fresh and enlivening, not for breaking new ground, but for resisting contemporary mores and harking back to older modes of the essay form.
Ley, James. “The Writers’ Writer’s Writing.” Sydney Review of Books, 2020.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Translated by Donald M. Frame. Stanford University Press, 1958.
Murnane, Gerald. Border Districts. Giramondo, 2017.