Travels in Greece, Charmian Clift

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Charmian Clift (1920-1969) was a well-loved writer, though more by women than by men probably, famously married to journalist/author George Johnson (1912-1970). The two met at The Argus in Melbourne in 1946 when Clift was a fledgling reporter and Johnson was an editor and renowned war correspondent. They began an affair, for which they were sacked – mostly because Johnson was already married but also, I think, because they were not discreet.

They moved to Sydney, Johnson secured a divorce, they married, and they began co-writing novels, winning a prize with High Valley in 1948. Next stop was London in 1951 after Johnson obtained a prestigious position there with Associated Newspapers. But after only a few years they moved again, to Greece, with the intention of living as cheaply as they could, as full time writers of fiction.

Clift and Johnson were ten years in Greece, one year on the island of Kalymnos, close to the Turkish coast, the remainder on Hydra where they used all their savings to purchase a house. They had two children, a boy and a girl, Martin and Shane, born in Sydney, and another son born on Hydra. Clift wrote about living on Kalymnos in Mermaid Singing (1958) and about their first year in Hydra in Peel Me a Lotus (1959). Travels in Greece (1995) is a combination of the two.

Johnson had had little early success as a novelist, tending to rush his writing, and was probably happy to co-write with Clift, to take advantage of her greater attention to style and detail, although he continued also to produce novels on his own, finally achieving critical and financial success only after the end of their time on Hydra, with the fictionalised account of his boyhood, My Brother Jack (1964). Johnson, followed later by Clift and the children, then moved back to Australia. Clift was a script writer on the ABC TV series of My Brother Jack which aired in 1965, and began writing columns for the Sydney Morning Herald, soon achieving a large following.

In 1969 Clift, who like Johnson, had a drinking problem, suicided with an overdose of pills. Johnson’s entry in the ADB (here) says that Clift may have feared what Johnson might reveal in the second part of his fictionalised biography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) which came out a month later. This implies firstly that Clift had something to fear, presumably Johnson’s jealousy of her real or imagined affairs on Hydra, and secondly that she had not seen any earlier drafts of Johnson’s novel, which you would think unlikely, given their former collaboration.


At this point it occurs to me that the subjects of this and my previous review both died by suicide. If you are thinking along the same lines then I strongly suggest you talk to someone about it. I had a shot at it myself, as a young man, when my first marriage failed, and as it happens I was found and resuscitated. I have since had occasion at different times to rely on family, friends, workmates and counsellors, and they have all helped.*


Clift and Johnson’s time-out began on an impulse. They had often talked, when “outside in the Bayswater Road the night was the colour of a guernsey cow, and on the pavements the leaves lay in a sad yellow pulp”, about chucking in the London grind and moving to an island:

Perhaps if that very day we had not met, by accident, a friend newly returned from Greece who had asked me to come into the BBC to hear a radio feature he had made on the sponge-diving island of Kalymnos …

It burst like a star, so simple and brilliant and beautiful that for the moment we could only stare at each other in wonder. Why the devil shouldn’t we just go?

So we did.

We had no means of communication other than sign language, and we had a bank account that didn’t bear thinking about. Still, we thought we might be able to last for a year if we managed very carefully and stayed healthy. We had for some years published a novel every year or so, not very successfully, but we thought that it might be just possible to live by our writing when our capital ran out.

Clift’s writing is straightforward and clear, bringing to life the people they live amongst, and mixing in lots of geographical and historical background. Her own family we don’t get to know so well. George it seems is generally upstairs typing while Clift gets on with the shopping and cleaning, or he’s with her down at the local bar, and the kids are off playing. I enjoyed both accounts, but the first, Mermaid Singing, more than the second, Peel Me a Lotus. The former has a friendlier feel, as Charmian and the islanders, with the utmost goodwill, learn to understand each other and become friends. So much so that, at the end of the book, it comes as a bit of a surprise when they decide to move on.

Surprisingly, disappointingly, there is nothing at all about Clift’s and Johnson’s collaborative writing, or indeed about Clift’s life as a writer, at all. From that point of view, Park and Niland’s lightly fictionalised account of their first year together as struggling writers in Sydney, at about the same time, The Drums Go Bang (my review), is both more informative and more entertaining.

The people of Kalymnos are friendly, but seemingly without personal boundaries, living as they do (did!) in houses with a single bedroom and one sleeping platform for maybe 10 people. Locals wander in and out of the Clift/Johnson house at will, all the family’s activities are observed by hordes of children, it is not possible to walk anywhere alone, without people making it their business to be your company.

Peel Me a Lotus begins with Charmian pregnant with their third child – only ever called ‘baby’, as far as I can tell – on Hydra, having purchased a two storey house from the many empty since the glory days of the previous century, but waiting for the interminable renovations to be completed before moving in, and waiting desperately for the return of the only half-way competent ‘midwife’, before giving birth.

This book is more concerned with the activities of the other expats – not Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t arrive on Hydra until not long before the Clift/Johnsons leave – though George and Charmian still have friends in the local community. Clift is concerned that the charm of the island is being lost as it becomes a summer holiday destination for Athenians, as well as the latest resort for the usual suspects attempting to live cheap.

For it is now apparent that the yearly passage of the smart, penniless, immoral, clever young people – Creon’s ‘bums and perverts’ – has had its inevitable effect. This beautiful little port is to suffer the fate of so many little Mediterranean ports ‘discovered ‘ by the creative poor… We are watching the island in the process of becoming chic.

You will be pleased to hear that ex-Mrs Legend and I found, and the Greeks we spoke to agreed, that Hydra is probably still the least spoiled of the tourist islands. Perhaps the town, pop. 3,000, is too small to ever become a major tourist destination. Hope so!

These are interesting and well-written books with just one discordant note. Lisa at ANZLL in a recent review (here) on Clift’s newspaper columns published as a collection of essays after her death as Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967 (1990) said that Clift had disappointingly expressed the view that she had left school at fourteen because there was nothing they could teach her that would be “of the slightest use”. It was obviously a view she held seriously, leaving her children to the vagaries of Greek village school education, in fact, on the evidence of this book, not paying them much attention at all.

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Hydra, 2017. I believe the cave where Clift and her kids swam is just outside this photo, to the right

Charmian Clift, Travels in Greece, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1995. Previously published as Mermaid Singing (1958) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959)


I’m now home after a marvellous trip, my first and only probably. On the evidence of this past month, if I were to spend that ‘mythical’ year in Europe it would be in Paris, where I could pick up the language, where there is so much to do, and from where the whole of Europe is accessible by Fast Train network. Returning to earth, I have a couple of books left to review, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers written while he was living in Hydra; and Cave of Silence (2013) by Kostas Krommydas, recommended to me by a friendly lady bookseller on Santorini.


*Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia1300 78 99 78

Internee 1/5126, Robert Paterson

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This year’s Anzac day post concerns the imprisonment without trial of my great-great-great uncle in 1916, and begins with an extract from my late father’s A Family History (1997), which had only private circulation. Family and military history is all he wrote so this is probably his one chance at a guest post:

Carl Zoeller (1868-1926) was a German merchant who came to Melbourne in 1885, and settled in Brisbane in 1886. He spent 5 years in New Zealand and New York, and was highly successful in various enterprises, and prominent in the German community in Brisbane. In 1898 he married Minnie Luya, my mother’s great-aunt. Their children were Richard, b 1902, d in infancy, Lisette 1905, Herbert 1908, Mary 1910 and Barbara 1914. In 1907, his father died and Carl renounced his German inheritance, a pottery factory at Grenzhausen in Nassau, and was naturalized in 1908.

Carl and Minnie and their family were victims of an awful vilification during the Great War. It is hard to imagine the Australian government, let alone the people, having been so brutal in their treatment of naturalized citizens and their Australian-born offspring. Apart from Carl’s summary arrest and internment for the duration of the war, his whole family, irrespective of their having been born in Australia, were snubbed by friends and neighbours, verbally and physically assaulted, and finally deprived of their citizenship rights. Their Lismore branch store was wrecked by a mob on Christmas eve, 1915, and Carl was arrested in February 1916. He was sent first to Holdsworthy, and later to Berrima, where the Emden survivors were interned.

He was deported to Hamburg in 1919. Minnie’s Australian citizenship was taken from her, and she and the children joined him at Grenzhausen, near Coblenz, in mid 1922. Germany did not want them, and their brief residence there was a misery. Minnie and the children came back to Australia, to an unhappy existence, in 1924 (Mary remained until 1926).

Carl applied to numerous former friends for help to re-enter Australia, but no-one, not even his in-laws, helped him, although his mother-in-law, Eliza Luya, prayed for him daily until her death in 1923.

Finally, he was allowed entry to South Africa, and he left England for Capetown in June 1926. His daughter Lisette left Australia on 12 October to visit him, but on 17 November he committed suicide, knowing that Lisette would reach him four days later. Minnie died in 1948.

All this was told to me on various occasions by my mother [Nancy Clare Holloway (1902-1977)], although she had forgotten some dates and details. But the story is now recorded in Robert Paterson’s book, Internee No 1/5126. Robert is the son of Mary Zoeller, and has since sent me a copy of his book.

David Clare Holloway (1927-2014)

Paterson’s self-published book naturally provides much greater detail, particularly of Zoeller’s frequent appeals against his imprisonment and subsequent deportation; of the (Billy) Hughes war-time government’s vilification of German-Australians; and of the mistakes and blame-shifting involved in the government’s ongoing refusal to accept that Zoeller was stateless and had never at any time been German. The  ‘Demit’, granted prior to his departure in 1885, releasing him from Prussian citizenship, was conveniently lost for a number of years by Australian authorities around the time of his deportation after the war.

The Zoellers were in fact from Grenzhausen (near Coblenz) in Nassau. The Duchy of Nassau was taken from the Austrians by the Prussians in 1866, and was subsequently incorporated into a newly united Germany in 1871. Carl Zoeller, by renouncing his right to German citizenship and emigrating before his 17th birthday was never ‘German’ and this was belatedly accepted by (parts of) the Australian government only after his deportation, when they were obliged to return (some) of his property which they had, as it turns out, illegally seized or sold up during the war.

On his arrival in Australia, Zoeller worked in Melbourne and Brisbane and then spent four years in business in NZ, before returning briefly to Germany, via New York, on a visit to his family in the 1890s. He was able to become the agent for a number of German medical products and returned to Brisbane and established a business which was soon flourishing.

As dad writes, he married Minnie Luya in 1898 – and let’s be clear, Minnie was Australian born, of Anglo/Irish heritage. Her father was a timber trader/shipper from Gympie Qld, and her mother was the illiterate Eliza Clare, out from Ireland as a servant (no doubt via one of the bounty schemes) I mentioned in my post of a couple of years ago, Educating Women. Zoeller’s wife Minnie, and my great great grandmother Maria were both sisters of Abraham (‘Eb’) Luya, who headed the trading conglomerate later known as Luya Julius, and whose trucks, by then part of Fleetways Ltd, were still prominent on Qld roads when I worked there briefly in the 1980s. Eb Luya was also for a while Chairman of the Queensland National Bank.

In 1911 his business was doing so well that Zoeller was able to purchase for cash a house in Wilston on a large block of land – he ran cows, an orchard, and 60 chooks – which he “gave as a present to my wife and children so that they will always have a roof over their heads”. He named the house “Munna”, and in 1983 it was still in use for wedding receptions, at twenty-nine Murray Street.

In 1912 Zoeller and Dr Euchariste Sirois built a private hospital at Marburg near Ipswich, and Zoeller also provided the backing which enabled Fred Peters, the owner of Eskimo Pie, to establish Peters Ice Cream. Fred Peters was later Mary Zoeller’s godfather.

War was declared against Germany in August 1914, and the sentiment against German-Australians was strong right from the beginning. Late that same year Zoeller was the first person prosecuted under The Trading with the Enemy Act (1914) and received a £100 fine for importing some small items of medical equipment from Germany on a client’s order. Zoeller was kept under surveillance and in 1915 his file with the local (Brisbane) military read “believed to be disloyal but nothing can be obtained against him”.

In Feb. 1916 he was “detained for the duration of the war”. The actual conditions of his detention at Holdsworthy and Berrima weren’t too bad, but unfortunately Zoeller wrote an intemperate letter to his sister in law, which after sections were cut out by the censor, ended up being pasted together to read:

Xmas here in camp … we all prayed extra hard for an early German victory on all fronts, wished damnation to war … if only half the curses which I heap on those flaming Australian idiots who are responsible for my internment hit their mark they will roast in hell for all eternity … Am taking every possible care of myself so as to be as fit as a fiddle when the fight for Germany’s commercial and economic victory comes to be fought.

This letter and the conviction for ‘Trading with the Enemy’ were held against him (and were all that could be held against him) through all his appeals to officialdom for the remainder of his life.

In 1919 Zoeller’s naturalisation as an Australian citizen was removed and in late September, after 20 years as a prosperous Australian businessman, he was one of “5,276 [Germans] deported in nine ships which sailed at various dates between May 1919 and June 1920.” He had no option but to return to his family home in Grenzhausen where he lived with a cousin but was able to obtain only minimal employment. “Luckily”, as the German economy slowly collapsed into hyper inflation what little money he was able to obtain from Australia was sufficient to keep him going.

Zoeller missed his wife and children, and they missed him. We have the evidence of his considerable correspondence with one of two men who stood by him throughout, Dr Sirois (the other was his attorney, Arthur Birley). As his appeals to be allowed to return continued to be refused, Minnie and the children had no choice but to join him in Germany. Minnie applied for a British passport, but the most she could obtain was an obnoxious ‘permit to travel’ which identified her as a ‘German national’. They stayed from 1922-24 but conditions in Germany continued to deteriorate and they came back to Australia, leaving just Mary, who was thriving in boarding school.

Even after restrictions on Germans emigrating to Australia were lifted in 1925, Zoeller continued to be denied (re)entry. On the advice of Australian officials, he was also denied entry into NZ and so he sent Mary home and in June 1926 he moved to South Africa from where he wrote “being back in an English colony is to me like being in heaven.” However in November of the same year he wrote to his sister in Germany, “I do not want to be a burden on my beloved ones and therefore I have decided to put an end to my life with a bullet tonight.”

Paterson paints a clear picture of his grandfather as a cheerful, optimistic and loving family man ground down by the obduracy of an Australian government playing up to anti-German hysteria for which it was largely responsible in the first place. Shades of 2017!

 

Robert Paterson, Internee 1/5126, self published, Brisbane, 1983

Existentialism, Sartre

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Sartre, Iris Murdoch
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, Thomas R Flynn

Existentialism is commonly associated with Left-Bank Parisian cafes and the ‘family’ of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) who gathered there in the years immediately following the liberation of Paris at end of World War II… The mood is one of enthusiasm, creativity, anguished self-analysis, and freedom – always freedom. (Flynn)

These two books are only short, not taking up much room in my backpack, and I thought, rightly as it turned out, that I might at last have the leisure to both read and think about them as I was training and boating around southern Europe. To say that I understood them however, and particularly Iris Murdoch’s dense 1953 account of Sartre’s early writing, would be an overstatement.

I first came to Existentialism when I lost my licence (for speeding in a heavy vehicle) and returned to uni for a year of Arts in 1971, and it subsequently became an important part of my opposition to conscription and the Viet Nam War.

I was impressed by Sartre’s credo – Existence precedes Essence, by his work as a novelist, and by his commitment to Revolution. For a number of years I carried a battered copy of his opus, Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943) with me in the truck, a copy which went missing with many of my ‘political’ books when my son was a teenager, and which I saw maybe ten years ago, on the shelves of one of his friends. When I chipped him about this he said, “Oh yeah, there’s a few of your books in a box out the back.” But that’s as close as I ever got to recovering them.

English philosopher and author Iris Murdoch’s book was the first monograph on Sartre in English (Wiki). Sartre’s writing is notoriously difficult but a beginning to comprehending it might lie in Murdoch’s description of his discursive method of argument. Sartre believes (you can take as read in all that follows, “in my limited understanding”) that you can never know yourself fully through self-reflection, but that, if you are honest with yourself, then each iteration of reflection results in improvement.

According to Murdoch, Sartre is an unwilling solipsist. He wishes to believe in the Other, indeed he imagines himself the unwilling object of the Other’s gaze, but is unable to determine what, or even if, the Other is thinking. And this leads us to ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Good Faith involves constant reflection, to refine our understanding and therefore, our behaviour. Bad Faith consequently, involves a lack of reflection, an acceptance of ourselves as we imagine we are seen by others.

Being and Nothingness is apparently just a (very) extensive rendition of Sartre’s reflections, psychoanalysis as metaphysics according to Murdoch, in which successive iterations progress his arguments (and our understanding, to the extent that we can follow him). Likewise, Flynn’s much later ‘Very Short Introduction’ describes how Sartre’s political thinking was progressed both by reflection and by his better understanding of the external, “real” world, as he got older.

Sartre comes to politics from two points of view. Partly he approaches it as a philosophical solution to a solipsistic dilemma. Partly he meets it as the practical concern of a Western democrat. Sartre has in himself both the intense egocentric conception of personal life and the pragmatic utilitarian view of politics which most western people keep as two separate notions in their head… (Murdoch)

Sartre’s writings were initially concerned with his theories of self, and were very much derived from intense and continuous self analysis. However the War, and in particular of course, the fall of Paris to the Nazis in 1940, brought home to him the need to engage with politics. The pivotal position of the Communists in the Resistance, and his own distaste for the bourgeoisie, made them first port-of-call, but he soon found both their totalitarianism and their insistence on historical determinism at odds with his insistence on freedom, and so moved on.

As Sartre’s politics moved increasingly towards the Left, he separated himself from former friends whose political development moved in the opposite direction [referring to Camus and Merleau-Ponty]. By the time of the student revolt of 1968, Sartre was associating with the so-called French ‘Maoists’, who had little to do with China but a great deal to do with such classical anarchist ideals as ‘direct democracy’. (Flynn)

I recommend Flynn as a very clear account of existentialism and its grounding in European philosophy from the ancient Greeks onwards, whereas Murdoch’s book is more one of one philosopher engaging with another, contemporaneously, only a few years after the War, which is to say, at a time when Sartre’s politics and European philosophy were going through some big changes. Flynn goes on to discuss Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism which movements seem to me, to the very limited extent I understand them at all, to both involve a great deal of sloppy thinking, and to have been appropriated by the Right to justify their aversion to truth speaking.

Murdoch and Flynn both see as important Sartre’s What is Literature? (1948) in which he writes, “Though literature is one thing and morality another, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative.” Sartre attempts, unconvincingly, to demonstrate that it is the writer’s intrinsic duty to advance the cause of freedom, and proposes a distinction between Poetry and Prose in which the latter is ‘instrumental’, committed to the alleviation of suffering, whereas Poetry, like Music, is non-instrumental, art-for-art’s-sake. A distinction which I think even he was forced subsequently to disown.

You will have to read Flynn for yourself if you are interested in other authors, first amongst them Camus, who advanced existentialism in their writing, but I will say a little about de Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner for life both personally and intellectually. De Beauvoir, a prolific writer, was probably ahead of Sartre in her understanding of the individual as a member of society. Her seminal The Second Sex (1949) contains the line, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” meaning, I gather, that a woman begins with certain sexual apparatus, but that society imposes on her the condition of ‘being a woman’.

This leads us back to the famous “Existence precedes Essence”, which comes from a 1945 lecture, ‘Is Existentialism a Humanism?’. Sartre and his philosophy were atheist, so there was no obvious basis for acting morally. Sartre claimed that this freedom from doctrine was itself the basis for moral action, ‘in choosing anything at all, I first of all choose freedom’, not just for himself, but for every member of society. And by “Existence precedes Essence” he meant that every moment of every day we must choose, that our ‘essence’ is what we make of our ‘existence’, and that further, almost the worst choice we can make is to not choose, to be ‘in bad faith’, to abrogate our freedom, to allow our existence to be what others choose it to be.

And that is the basis of my objection to conscription in the Viet Nam War years: that my fellow 20 year olds failed to choose freedom; that they allowed society to choose for them to be soldiers; that they allowed themselves to be used to kill Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians, who were fighting for nothing more than their own right to make their own choices.

Paola (19)

Iris Murdoch, Sartre, first pub. 1953, my edition (not pictured above) Fontana, 1967
Thomas R Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, Oxford, 2006


I’ve been reading Charmian Clift’s Travels in Greece, a combo of Mermaid Singing and Peel Me a Lotus, but have spent too many lotus-eating days myself on Greek islands and so am behind with my review. Luckily I had Sartre ready, and, touch wood, I’ll put up Clift this time next week.

The Three Miss Kings, Ada Cambridge

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Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was English-born and came out to Australia as the young wife of a Church of England vicar, George Cross, who went on to serve in a number of parishes around Victoria. She took up writing she says to supplement the family income, and her serials in the newspapers under the initials ‘AC’ soon proved popular. “Overall she wrote more than twenty-five works of fiction, three volumes of poetry and two autobiographical works” (Wiki). In the “hastily suppressed” volume of poetry, Unspoken Thoughts (1887) she apparently expresses “religious anxieties, thoughts on the limitations of sexual love and concern for the under-privileged” (ADB).

As you can see by the cover above, The Three Miss Kings (1883) has been republished by Virago, but the version I read was on my kindle, courtesy of the AWW Challenge, Books by Australian Women page (here) and Project Guthenberg (here) – where I see her autobiography, Thirty Years in Australia is also among the titles available.

The three Miss Kings (shouldn’t that be the three Misses King?) of the title, Elizabeth, Patty and Eleanor, are sisters, young women in their twenties, orphaned following the early death of their mother and the recent death of their father. They live outside a town on the Victorian west coast, a town unnamed but which has both a steamer service and access to a rail service to Melbourne. The Rev Cross’ list of appointments does not include such a town and I’m guessing it is a composite of Port Fairy, Warrnambool and Port Campbell. At one point the action includes a visit to a ‘limestone’ cave. Port Fairy and Warrnambool in particular are in volcano/basalt country but geology daughter assures me that even there it might be possible to find sandstone caves, though not limestone, which takes longer to form.

Although the girls were brought up in relatively impoverished circumstances, their parents, and especially their mother, had been well educated and the girls were home schooled with special attention to their music.

The parents of the three girls had been a mysterious couple, about whose circumstances and antecedents people knew just as much as they liked to conjecture, and no more…. But the greatest mystery in connection with Mr King was Mrs King. He was obviously a gentleman, in the conventional sense of the word, but she was, in every sense, the most beautiful and accomplished lady that ever was seen …

On the death of their father the Misses King decide to sell up, realising a few hundred pounds, and move to Melbourne. This coincides with the opening of the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton in 1880, which forms the background for much of the remainder of the novel.

Assisted by their local solicitor’s son, Paul, they take rooms in a quiet street in East Melbourne from whence they can walk through the Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens into the city. They are slowly introduced into society, aided by their poise, their beauty (though Cambridge is at pains to tell us that Elizabeth is classicly-built) and by Patty’s excellent piano playing.

Each finds a man, and is eventually married; it is the setbacks and hurdles to be negotiated which of course are what makes a love story. Elizabeth and Patty are serious young women and concerned to find a man whom they respect sufficiently to accept being dominated by. This is something they discuss, and Patty specifically rejects any claims to independence. Eleanor is a bit empty-headed and is pursued by a young man who is likewise, but sufficiently well-off for her to finally accept him.

The mystery of their parents’ origins and their exile in Australia is explained satisfactorily, though it initially complicates Elizabeth’s plans for marriage. But the biggest hurdle for Elizabeth to overcome is that her lover (in the old sense!) is a pantheist, while she is devoutly orthodox C of E. Cambridge’s discussions, and Elizabeth’s eventual acceptance, of this, allow Cambridge to air concerns she must have had herself. Amusingly, in light of Gaskell’s beliefs in the previous review, Elizabeth on first being told cries, “Oh no, you’re not a Dissenter!”

Elizabeth ends up “rich beyond the dreams of avarice in all that to such a woman is precious and desirable”, her husband-to-be an Englishman using his wealth to provide opportunities for the very poor. Interestingly Cambridge thinks that the wealth should both be enjoyed – there is a magnificent family seat in the country whose parks are eventually, but not immediately, turned into fields – and disbursed wisely. For instance, she discusses the problem of building homes for the very poor where, if the homes were attractive enough, the intended beneficiaries would be forced out by workers a class above them.

Cambridge is not the writer that her fellow chronicler of  C19th Melbourne, Tasma, is. That is, she is not as ‘literary’. But her writing is straightforward, the story itself is enjoyable – I of course love her descriptions of Melbourne, and of the Melbourne International Exhibition – and as with Gaskell, she is concerned to describe the process of finding a husband in both moral and religious terms. And that is something I find surprisingly acceptable, in the nineteenth century at least.

 

Ada Cambridge, The Three Miss Kings, first published 1883

see also:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (review here)
My post, Early Australian Women Writers (1) (here)

Cousin Phillis, Elizabeth Gaskell

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Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was the author of 15 novels, novellas, and story collections, the best known of which were probably North and South (1855) – which I think of rightly or wrongly as Jane Austen with steam engines (Gaskell did cite JA as an influence) – and The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857). Her novel Ruth (1853), the story of an unmarried mother bringing up a son, I have mentioned a number of times, and I and/or Lisa (ANZLL) who is reading it now, will “shortly” produce a review.

Gaskell was brought up Unitarian, by her aunt in Cheshire following the death of her mother, and married a Unitarian minister. Dissenting religion and the plight of the poor, as well as strong women characters, are all important themes in her work.

I came across the novella Cousin Phillis (1864) recently, in a Madrid book stall (I can’t imagine I’ll ever be able to say that again) and coincidentally, read it in conjunction with Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings (1883) which I have with me on kindle. The two have similar themes – innocent and religious young women falling in love – and I plan to compare them in adjacent reviews.

For Cousin Phillis, Gaskell assumes the voice of a young man, Paul Manning, not very successfully IMO, and the story consists entirely of his observations of his (second) cousin Phillis falling in love, and of his own unfortunate interferences.

Manning is from Birmingham where his father is a tradesman and an inventor. His father’s industry and success enable him to raise Paul up one level in class, as apprentice to the relatively young Holdsworth, the experienced engineer/manager of a crew putting in a new railway line in the south of England. In one of his weekly letters home Paul mentions that he is working near a town that his mother recognises as the home of her cousin who is married to a farmer who at the weekends is an Independent clergyman. Paul, who has been diligent in his attendance at Chapel is not keen on having to waste his limited free time on another clergyman, but does as his mother bids and goes out to meet his new relations, the Holmans.

The beautiful and demure Phillis, a couple of years younger than Paul, is their only child. Paul finds that he is both welcome, and enjoys being on the farm, and slowly he and Phillis become friends. Holdsworth is introduced to the farm when he becomes ill and needs somewhere to recuperate.

Long rows of peas stretched at right angles from the main walk, and I saw Phillis stooping down among them, before she saw us. As soon as she heard our cranching steps on the gravel, she stood up, and shading her eyes from the sun, recognized us. She was quite still for a moment, and then came slowly towards us, flushing a little from evident shyness. I had never seen Phillis shy before.

Spoiler alert. Phillis, an innocent, reacts to Holdsworth’s attentions by falling in love, but before anything can happen, or even be said between them, he is offered, accepts, and leaves immediately to take up employment in Canada, telling Paul that he will be back in two years to offer for Phillis. Phillis falls into a decline, Paul revives her by telling her what Holdsworth has said, but before the two years are up a letter arrives from Holdsworth telling of his marriage to a Canadian girl, Phillis collapses and Paul must admit to her father the part he has played.

Phillis collapses with brain fever and is unconscious or in a delirium for weeks – is that even a thing now, or were brain fevers, and for that matter hysteria, purely C19th illnesses.

Religion is present throughout this story without being intrusive, so that Phillis is just as moral as any other middle class young woman of her time. Though, while it looks like Phillis will die, Holman’s fellow dissenting preachers, ride out to argue with him to resume his ministry: “First, God has given you the opportunity of showing forth an example of resignation”; and “Secondly, we would have you listen to the voice of the rod, and ask yourself for what sins this trial has been laid upon you”. Holman, no doubt reflecting Gaskell’s own views about these strict interpretations of the situation, refuses both to give up his bedside vigil, and to accept that his daughter’s illness might be punishment for his pursuing his parallel vocation as a farmer.

In Ada Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings, as we will see, Cambridge, who was married to a Church of England minister, has similar concerns about the strict application of Church dogma, while insisting as does Gaskell, that young women should act both morally and circumspectly.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis, first pub. 1864, this ed. Penguin, 1995

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

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Translated by Ann Goldstein

My Brilliant Friend, Book 1 of Ferrante’s four volume Neapolitan Novels, is both deservedly famous and outside the range of my usual reading, so I hesitate to attempt a review. But geology daughter requested it as a present last Christmas and here on the train from Milan to Naples is an obvious time to read it and to at least record some of my observations.

The story concerns two girls, born about 1945, growing up in one of the poorer sections of Naples. Much of the background – the War, Mussolini, gangsterism – is assumed, but left unsaid, so that our intertextual reading necessarily forms part of the work.

The girls, Lena, the narrator, and her ‘brilliant friend’ Lila, find that they excel at school work, though Lila when she puts her mind to it is often way ahead in reading, in languages, in mathematics, and in writing and constructing arguments. Lena works hard to keep up but still often finds that a few words from Lila show more insight than she has been able to extract from hours of study. We might assume from the narrator and the author having the same name, Elena, that My Brilliant Friend is autobiographical – I haven’t read any reviews or interviews to check – but I hope that it is at least authentic, written out of the author’s lived experience.

Surprisingly in such a ‘popular’ work, the central concerns are literary – the efficient use of words; the efficacy of ‘facts’ laid out as argument over facts presented as fiction – though, in the end, Ferrante has chosen fiction; and the baggage of ‘before’, of history, being carried into the present.

They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend their money both at Don Achille’s son’s and at the Solaras’, and sent us too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us too.

But of course there are also personal stories – the girls and their friends growing up from childhood, through puberty, to young womanhood; the violence to which the girls are routinely subjected by their fathers, their brothers, and sometimes their mothers; Lila’s brilliance in elementary school on which she seemingly turns her back, to fall back into the life of their community, while Lena works her way up and out through high school. And there are the secondary stories which, as in any tightly knit community, wind their way in and out of the lives of the main protagonists.

Two of these stories indicate ways out of the cycle of poor education, manual labour, early marriage, and constant violence. The first is of the railway conductor (and serial womaniser) Sarratorre who writes poetry and articles for magazines. He and his family leave the neighbourhood to escape the consequences of his relationship with the disturbed widow, Melina. Later, the girls are astonished to find a book of poetry bearing his name and fantasise that he must be rich ‘like Louisa May Alcott’. Lena is attracted to his intellectual son, Nino, who is ahead of her at high school, though when she begins experimenting sexually, it is with Melina’s auto mechanic son, Antonio.

The second is of Stefano, a few years older than the girls, whose father, Don Achille, a minor gangster or loan shark, is murdered by the father of another of their friends. Stefano makes a conscious decision to break with the past, to be both a good citizen and to break the cycle of feuds which underlies all their relationships. The final scene though, a wedding breakfast involving all the neighbourhood families, leaves us hanging – has there has been any progress after all? Maybe.

The prologue, brief, set ‘now’ when Lena and Lila are in their sixties, suggests that Lena has escaped – escaped Naples, yes; escaped the working poor, probably – and that Lila has not escaped, but has diverted her considerable intellect into mastering computers, as far back as the 1960s when she was in her twenties.

Ultimately though for Elena the author and Lena the narrator, it is the writing which is important. While on Ischia, on a summer holiday job, Lena receives a (rare) letter from Lila.

From the first lines I thought of The Blue Fairy [a story written by Lila in elementary school], the only text of hers that I had read, apart from our elementary school homework, and I understood what, at the time, I had liked so much. There was, in The Blue Fairy, the same quality that struck me now: Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Santorre in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well-constructed and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her.

Later, Lena persuades Lila to read an article she has written for publication which, with a few, quick edits Lila completely transforms. Ferrante I’m sure is setting out here her ambitions for herself as a writer – to write directly, precisely and well – and in this acclaimed novel she achieves them.

 

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, translation by Ann Goldstein, first pub. 2012. This edition, Text, Melbourne, 2015

After Dark, Haruki Murakami

After Dark

Translated by Jay Rubin

Haruki Murakami (1949 – ) is Japan’s “best-known novelist abroad”. I came to him late, borrowing an audio book version of 1Q84 from my local library one or two years ago. The opportunity to read this one came up when I saw our house in the Rue de la Tombe Issoire had a shelf of English language Murakami’s, selected this one as the shortest, and knocked it off in one night (that is, I read it, I didn’t take it with me). But I’ll have to make room in my posting schedule to fit it in.

After Dark (2004) is both short – 200pp – and unlike 1Q84, relatively straightforward, but still with elements that occupy the space between SF and magic realism. A young woman is sitting in a cafe, a Dennys, late at night, reading.

She is probably college freshman age, though an air of high school still clings to her. Hair black, short, and straight. Little make-up, no jewellery. Small, slender face. Black-rimmed glasses. Every now and then, an earnest wrinkle forms between her brows.

She’s pretty, but we learn that she doesn’t think so herself. A lanky, young man with long, tangled hair comes in and, after a minute, joins her at her table. It appears that he has met her before,  on a sort of date with her spectacularly good looking older sister. The name of the young woman is Mari, and her sister is Eri. It is only later that we discover the young man’s name, Takahashi.

Takahashi leaves. He’s a trombonist in a band having an all-night practice session in a near-by warehouse. Later, a big, athletic woman, Kaoru, comes in, a former wrestler now managing a love hotel. A Chinese prostitute has been beaten and abandoned. Takahashi who sometimes helps out at the love hotel, has told Kaoru that Mari speaks Chinese. Mari goes off with Kaoru.

Murakami’s voice alternates between narration and observation.

The room is dark, but our eyes gradually adjust to the darkness. A woman lies in bed asleep. A young, beautiful woman: Mari’s sister, Eri. Eri Asai. We know this without having been told so by anyone… We allow ourselves to become a single point of view, and we observe her for a time.

There is a television in the bedroom. The screen shows a seated man staring out into the room. Sometimes the screen flickers. Later in the book Eri’s bed is empty, the bedding undisturbed, but through the screen we see that, somewhere, she sleeps on. When she eventually wakes she seems unable to make her way back.

With Mari translating, Kaoru and her workmates patch up the Chinese woman. Mari feels they might have been friends if circumstances weren’t dragging them in radically different directions. The Chinese woman is picked up by her minder on a motorbike. Throughout the night the bike cruises past Mari and Takahashi. They don’t notice.

Mari talks to the women at the love hotel, to Takahashi who has cut short his rehearsal. Mari’s parents have concentrated all their attention on Eri and her modelling career, Mari is the ‘plain’, sporty one. She can’t go home, something is wrong with her sister, she, Eri won’t wake up. Takahashi has decided to give up music and concentrate on his studies to become a lawyer. We find that Eri has confided in Takahashi, who was in her year at school, but not in her circle. The night passes.

Allowing ourselves to become pure point of view, we hang in midair over the city. What we see now is a gigantic metropolis waking up. Commuter trains of many colours move in all directions, transporting people from place to place. Each of those under transport is a human being with a different face and mind, and at the same time each is a nameless part of the collective entity.

Mari finds a way to begin bridging the gap to Eri.  After Dark is a good read, and  just sufficiently weird to keep you intrigued.

In the rue de la Tombe Issoire we are sitting up late, watching new episodes of Big Bang Theory on British TV. Geology daughter says “if it’s written by a man, with that cover” then she doesn’t want to read it. She’s right, Murakami is telling us women’s stories, of being in the beauty industry, of being a sister, so now I am unsure. You will have to decide for yourself.

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Staircase and skylight

Haruki Murakami, After Dark, first pub. 2004, this ed. translated by Jay Rubin, Harvill Secker, London, 2007

see also this comprehensive guide to reading Murakami in the blog Book Oblivion (here)