The thinking about writing: berni m janssen launches Finola Moorhead’s A Handwritten Modern Classic

A Handwritten Modern Classic by Finola Moorhead. Spinifex Press. 2013. First published by Post Neo Books 1982.


In 1977 Finola was writing the everything of her living, in her own hand, in a small notebook and this is The Handwritten Modern Classic. She was writing of her living, her thinking about her living, the thinking about writing, and writing all of this – this everything of Finola’s living at that time.

I first read the Handwritten Modern Classic in the eighties, and was delighted and my delight has been re-ignited.

Simone Weil says ‘attention is love’ and Finola is attending, attending to the everything of her living, and this everything so interesting and of interest, we feel Finola loving; living, thinking, writing, everything. We are immersed in this close attending of everything that is so interesting and it is in this that a present, a now, that continues to be now, is composed.

In The Handwritten that present is still so now, continuing into this present

In the handwritten the writer is always present: present in the writing of the hand

In the handwritten the voice of the writer is printed. The handwriting a voiceprint.

The handwriting composing the voice in a continuous present that we are reading now.

And so present, that my delight continues.

But, what a cheek Finola has! To name her writing a classic as she is writing it, well before she is dead. What a tongue in cheek she has! She is poking her tongue at capital H History, capital L Literature, capital A Authority and all capitalisation! Amongst other things.

Finola says

– it is political to write a handwritten modern classic –

In 1977, feminism spoke of the personal as political, and so Finola writing the everything of her living is a political act. As a writer, thinker, feminist, lesbian, protestor, questioning, questioning the everything of living, outspoken, critiquing; this places her outside of the mainstream, on the outer. Standing on the outer is a way to look in, look at, closely. Standing on the outer, looking in, so many minute details, filter in to focus, out. Pass.

She is writing of the everything of living in that time of 1977 – the politics of politics, the politics of living, the politics of thinking, of being, of relationships, of communication; thinking about and questioning the everything of living – writing, freedom, rules, roles, genius, romantics, literature, philosophy, alienation, imagination, insanity and sanity, of what is correct, of escape, of sarcasm, expression, failure, success, of barricades, a little seventies literati gos , an occasional portrait, wry observations, and of conversations with mother, lovers, friends and of speaking of language unbound in a Fitzroy laundromat. What a gritty hilarious romp it is!

As Gertrude says –

The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.

(Composition as Explanation)

Finola pays respect to her lineage. Nods to the thinkers and literary forebears: Austen, Woolfe, Simone Weil, Marcuse, Wittgenstein, Coleridge, Tolstoy, Eliot. We feel this continuity. And of course, the entire composition, more than a nod to Gertrude Stein. It’s a rigorous conversation with Gertrude’s Composition as Explanation.

The Handwritten makes us laugh, sigh, groan, roar in protest, escape into, deeply, deeply into, the thinking and the imagining and the writing. As Finola says ‘imagination is best employed on what is’.

I am breath-taken, breathless by the scope, the attention, the detail, and the writing – the language so wonderfully composed. Composing the everything of a living, in words elastic, precise, evocative; playing playful. A sentence being more.

The Handwritten Modern Classic is difficult to read. We are unfamiliar now with handwriting – an idiosyncratic flow of script. Finola’s handwriting loops and lurches across the page. You must pause whilst reading to distinguish an ‘i’ or an ‘l’, one must pause in the reading of the writing, take time to be with the writing, in a way that text typed, text texted does not.

We pause in the irregularity. Pause to decipher, and in those moments of pausing, we are ciphering the word, rolling it around, and the word is clarifying and as the word clarifies the sentence has formed and nestled in our consciousness. The act of ciphering the hand, makes space for the intensity of thinking, of thinking of living, of questioning the thinking of living and the writing is living with us, as close as it can be.

This writing makes us stop to think, and in the pause of reading we are thinking, as Finola has been thinking through her writing of her living. She is not only thinking of how the writing is to be written but how her living and thinking of her living and her writing of her thinking of living is written. We pause in the loops of the handwritten, as we pause in the loops and twists of living, and the loops and twists and returns of thinking. We return again and again. We must start again, in reading and thinking, and reading the writing of living and thinking.

As Gertrude says, writing is often not recognised at the time it is written whilst it is very contemporary and exciting, but that often it must wait some thirty years or more before it can be recognised. And this is mostly when the writer is dead. Long dead. However once it has been accepted after it has been refused, and the writing is still contemporary and exciting, this is what makes it a classic.

Finola has us in her now of the living of these days in 1977. There is a freshness still, a beauty of the moment, a now that continues into now, that makes it a classic. A classic does not have wrinkles in its words, nor dust collected in the serifs. Unless placed there, with intent.

Gertrude says that a classic is wonderfully beautiful, after many have found that it has been annoying, difficult, stimulating. Some see the beauty whilst it is still annoying difficult and stimulating. Others will never see beauty in such.

A classic endures time.

Fresh as it was then, we are in the present of her writing of her living of everything and it is a delight, and the delight also makes it a classic.

And so Finola, who with tongue in cheek, nodding to her philosophical and literary lineage, with imagination, attention and foresight wrote The Handwritten Modern Classic. She wrote this from the outer, from the other side of the law, and as Gertrude has said you are an outlaw, until you become a classic.

As I was reading, I was noting so many lines, sentences, thoughts that delighted me and that I wanted to quote -so many hilarious quotable lines that I wanted to share, to sprinkle through these launching words, but they became so thick, I may as well have read you the book, so better you buy it and trip with this handwritten, pause in its stimulating difficult beauty, living in the writing of the living and the thinking of the living and the writing of the everything. Buy this book, so that you can begin and begin again, for the continuing delight of it. Gertrude would be well pleased with this classic composition!

– berni m janssen


The Handwritten Modern Classic is available from Spinifex Press

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