Day of My Delight, Martin Boyd

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Painting: Rosebud, Arthur Boyd, 1939

My ‘secret’ (reading) pleasures – Georgette Heyer, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Guy Crouchback novels, even Gilmore Girls – are stories of the upper classes at play. So it should be no surprise I also enjoy the works of Martin Boyd (1893- 1972), having first read his A Difficult Young Man (1955) in my matriculation year. The book being reviewed here, Day of My Delight (1965) is an autobiography, his second. The first, A Single Flame (1939), was necessarily part-fiction owing to so many of the people he wished to discuss still being alive, and was subsumed into this later work.

Boyd says of his frequent novelisations of the extensive Boyd and à Beckett (his mother’s) families that:

As far as I know I am the only one to put on record the kind of life led by these people, even if I have done it with a touch of levity. In the last century they were the “ruling class” in Victoria, and so have historical interest. Up to 1914 they still held the pre-eminence this had given them… I did not question that I was entitled to exercise this privilege. Our sort were soon overshadowed by rich squatters, who in turn have been overshadowed by rich business people.

He is at pains to point out that his family, his ‘sort’, were comfortable with their noblesse and also with their oblige, in fact he says, during the Depression his mother gave so much of her money away that she regarded herself as a socialist, and contrasts this with the crassness of the working rich, without titles in their backgrounds, the self-styled upper middle class. In fact a great deal of his writing, not just this autobiography, can be read as documenting and maybe even justifying class distinction.

Boyd’s father Arthur Merric Boyd, an artist with independent means, was the offshoot of Irish Protestant and, more distantly, Scottish aristocracy. Emma Minnie, his wife and also an artist (they exhibited together at the Royal Academy in London in 1891) was the granddaughter of Sir William à Beckett, first Chief Justice of Victoria (having replaced Resident Judge Willis in 1845). More importantly for their finances, Emma’s wealthy mother was the daughter of the founder of the Melbourne Brewery. For many years the Boyds and their relatives and in-laws, like artist John Perceval and author Joan Lindsay, were at the centre of artistic life in Melbourne, and a great deal of Martin’s social life both in Victoria and subsequently in England revolves around his extended family.

Boyd says of himself (in the early 1960s) that “I was recognised in England, if not in Australia, as one of the two major novelists of the latter country.” Kerryn Goldsworthy, who allows him half a page in the Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000), writes:

Boyd has fallen out of favour in recent years, his novels seen as little more than an expression of nostalgia for a vanished way of life and his technical skills less valued than twenty years ago, but there is much in his fiction and in his biography to engage contemporary critics in the fields of postcolonial theory, gender studies and Queer theory.

A quarter of a century earlier Geoffrey Dutton (editor) in his The Literature of Australia allowed Boyd his own chapter. There Dorothy Green rated him as “one of the easiest to read of the principal Australian novelists” but also credits him with raising, and attempting to answer, serious moral questions, especially around individual responsibility during war.

Briefly, in the 1890s the Boyds were living at their English property, Penleigh House, Wiltshire. The Melbourne bank failures of the 1890s greatly reduced their wealth and in 1893 they sold up in England and, largely bankrolled by Emma’s mother, were returning home slowly via Europe when Martin, their fourth son, was born in Switzerland. Back in Victoria they live at the Grange, the à Beckett family property near Berwick southeast of Melbourne. Then, describing what are now crowded, bayside suburbs:

For about eight years, until I was thirteen, we lived at Sandringham, near Melbourne. Apart from a few shops around the railway station, there were then only half a dozen scattered houses. We had the undisturbed use of a mile of golden beach, and tea-tree covered cliffs. …

My mother’s parents lived at Brighton, about three miles away, while my grandmother Boyd lived in St Kilda, in a grey, gabled house set in a large garden and surrounded by fields. We were always conscious of living against the background of our relatives.

The Grange is “Westhill”, the Langton family home in The Cardboard Crown series of novels, novels based to some extent he on the diaries of his grandmother à Beckett from which, he says, he quoted whole passages verbatim. Throughout the autobiography he matches real people and places with the novels he has ‘used’ them in.

After Sandringham the Boyds, having come into their Boyd and à Beckett inheritances, purchased a farm at Yarra Glen, on the banks of the Yarra, northwest of Melbourne. “Beyond the vineyards was Madame Melba’s [opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba’s] house, where she came back regularly from the homage of Europe to help her native land”. By this time Martin was a weekly boarder at Trinity Grammar. He did not do well enough to get into university and instead, considering a vocation in the Church, attended St John’s Theological College in St Kilda. Boyd belonged at the High or Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, which he discusses at tedious length and in fact although he is off and on agnostic, and sometimes very angry with the Church for their support of killing during both World Wars, in his last few days he converted to Roman Catholicism (but is nevertheless buried in a C of E cemetery).

After a year at St John’s his vocation is lost. His parents refuse to let him ‘laze around the farm’ – though they and their parents all had independent means and never a regular job in their lives – and is articled to a firm of architects in the city. Saved by the outbreak of war, he attempts to enlist with the AIF but, due to his being born in Switzerland, is not immediately accepted and so, accepts an uncle’s advice that he should go to England and get a commission (an option not available in the Australian army) among people “of my own class”.

Late in 1915 he enlists and begins training. Recruits were able to choose a regiment if they could persuade the colonel to take them. Boyd is accepted into the Buffs (Royal East Kent) on the basis that a cousin of his mother’s had married a daughter of the second Earl Kitchener and was a friend of the colonel’s. Boyd also has to tell us that the colonel’s grandson was Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who was, much later, the husband of Princess Margaret.

Boyd is passionately anti-war on the quite reasonable basis that politicians seek power and businessmen grow rich by persuading young men to kill each other, and increasingly civilians as well, on their behalfs. He believes the Germans were willing to sue for peace as early as 1916 but Lloyd George thought that if there were an armistice “it might be difficult to get the nations fighting again”. In the end he was in the trenches in Flanders for most of 1917, surviving by the merest chance as men were blown up all around him. “I was the only officer who had survived neither killed nor wounded since the day I joined the battalion.” At the end of the year he transfers to the Royal Flying Corp, whose losses were, proportionally, even higher than the army’s, but again he survives.

After the war he spends time in an Anglican monastery then, finally, he begins to write. He is not happy with his first three novels, which he publishes under the pen name Martin Mills (His brewer grandfather was John Mills). The second, Brangane (1926), is meant to be based on Australian author Barbara Baynton who by her third marriage was Baroness Headley, but sadly for us, except for one brief mention of an eccentric Irish peeress, he says nothing about having met her. The third was The Montforts (1928). Miles Franklin whose own career had finally got back on track with Up the Country, wrote late in 1928 to her friend Alice Henry:

Of course [Katherine Sussanah Prichard’s] Working Bullocks is the best book we’ve had for a long while. I was astonished when I was handed a 1928 book The Monforts… A book showing possibilities but so curiously put together. It covers eighty years and eighty years in Melbourne means a good deal…

Quite often, especially during the war, Boyd is invited by his companions to join them in their visits to prostitutes, invitations he always manages to refuse. Later when he is living in Cambridge he gets quite excited about the famous King’s College choir and it slowly becomes clear that he is often in the company of young men. This is as much as he says about his sexuality.

During the 30s, living between Sussex and Italy, he writes social comedies of little consequence. His first important novel is Lucinda Brayford (1946) with its Australian-born heroine and this leads into the four ‘Langton’  novels—The Cardboard Crown (1952), A Difficult Young Man (1955) , Outbreak of Love (1957) and When Blackbirds Sing (1962). A fifth was planned but Boyd says he refused to write it when his publisher demanded more sex. Boyd is probably proudest of When Blackbirds Sing which he considers a passionate argument against the evils of war.

In the 1950s Boyd tries to live back in Australia, buying and doing up the old à Beckett family home, but this doesn’t work out and he retires to Rome where in his final years, he is a supporter of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

 

Martin Boyd, Day of My Delight, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1965 (Reprinted 1974)

References:

Kerryn Goldsworthy, Fiction from 1900-1970, in Elizabeth Webby (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, CUP, Cambridge, 2000

Dorothy Green, Martin Boyd, in Geoffry Dutton (ed.), The Literature of Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1964, Revised 1976

Brenda Niall, The Boyds, A Family Biography reviewed here by The Resident Judge

Special, Georgia Blain

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Special (2016), YA science fiction, is Australian author Georgia Blain’s 7th novel and her second ‘Young Adult’. 2016 has also seen the release of Blain’s eighth, Between a Wolf and a Dog, and also the unhappy news that she has brain cancer (SMH story). I’m not sure how I came into possession of Special, I just noticed it one day sideways in a bookshelf, which is what I do with books I’m waiting to read, one of a stack handed to me by an ex-wife or daughter I guess. I have, and vaguely remember reading, Blain’s first two, so I decided to give it a go.

I’ve read some YA but not much. When I was growing up I went straight from Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton (all right, I still read William books) to adult fiction, as I’m sure most of you did too (not counting one blogger with Sweet Valley High addiction!), maybe some Ivan Southall and ES Ellis and, when they came out, Harry Potter. Special is a good story but suffers in my mind, not from being didactic exactly, but from too obviously putting up issues for kids to discuss.

The setting is a near-ish future, in an unnamed location, after ‘the Breakdown’, and is well imagined. Nation-states are gone, corporations are in control, privileged employees live in company towns with manicured surrounds and clean air. Ordinary workers live in little flats with shared facilities in grimy towers and the underclass in shanties around the base of the towers, queuing for casual work or begging from the marginally less underprivileged. Data is currency and the air is full of mediastreams, moving images that cannot be avoided without data.

Fern, the protagonist, is one of four girls who by virtue of their worker parents winning Lotto, have been genetically enhanced and admitted to Halston, a school run by the BioPerfect corporation for the genetically enhanced daughters of rich parents.

“I’m a Lotto girl. They use us. Sometimes it’s just to fill a gap in the market, sometimes they want to try out a new model. They might want to test the success of a teacher with more imagination. They finetune and shape and sculpt and then they have us – a prototype for a possible next version. They encourage our parents or bribe them. Mine were told I would be beautiful as well if they selected the menu option BioPerfect wanted.”

There they are house mothered by Margaret, herself crafted by BioPerfect to be an infertile carer. Fern is proud of her attributes in the field of communications – creating mediastreams – and is happy to lose touch with her parents and her brother. The other three are less so and two of them are deemed failures in terms of BioPerfect’s ambitions for them.

We learn much of this as Fern, aged 17 or 18, regains consciousness and memory after apparently being datawiped and dumped in a worker compound with, according to the data on her mobie, a new identity. She survives as a ReCorp trash sifter and grudgingly accepts the assistance of Chimo, a young man who befriends her. She has a memory that her removal, and that of the other Lotto girls, from Halston was engineered by Margaret for their protection, but as time passes she cannot contact them and no one comes to rescue her.

Eventually, she falls for Chimo and reveals to him her previous life as a Halston girl and her belief that she is in hiding from BioPerfect. Chimo helps Fern to make contact with her long-lost brother and through him, with the resistance organisation to which Margaret seemingly belongs. Blain’s descriptions of data as layered and tactile, of Fern diving into the data and leaving clues in order to be contacted while avoiding surveillance, is reminiscent of the much grittier and more detailed descriptions in William Gibson cyberpunk novels such as Neuromancer (1984).

Without giving away too much, Fern ends up once more with BioPerfect and seemingly in control of her own destiny. The dilemma she has to resolve is that throughout the course of the story, neither side sees her as a person. Both the corporation and the resistance seem to be using her as evidence in an argument over genetic design vs targeted education. I’m a black and white kind of guy and although Blain does suggest a resolution I’d have been happier if she/Fern more obviously took sides.

 

Georgia Blain, Special, Random House, Sydney, 2016

For a review of Blain’s earlier work see Lisa at ANZLL here and also a guest review by Karenlee Thompson of Blain’s short story collection The Secret Lives of Men here.

The Shriver Kerfuffle

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Lionel Shriver (image from Alchetron)

Following the dustup surrounding Lionel Shriver’s speech in Brisbane last week I thought it might be useful to provide a summary and to gather into one place as many links as I could. While I’m sure much of the outrage was confected, and indeed planned for, the underlying debate around Cultural Appropriation is of ongoing relevance. For me it began with a report in The Age of 11 Sept 2016:

Brisbane Writers Festival has been swept into a storm of controversy after the opening address of American author Lionel Shriver caused members of the audience to walk out.

This report was seemingly in response to an article in the Guardian of 10 Sept by Yassmin Abdel-Magied headed:

As Lionel Shriver made light of identity I had no choice but to walk out on her

referring to Shriver’s BWF opening address of the previous night, ie. Fri 9 Sept.  At this point we understood that Shriver had claimed the ‘right’ as a writer to stand in the shoes of/to represent the views in her fiction of any person of any gender, ethnicity or colour that she chose. And that Abdel-Magied claimed that this represented ‘cultural appropriation’, with which view I largely agree. The Age further reported Festival volunteer Yen-Rong Wong as saying:

The publishing industry is chock full of white men, and advocating for their ‘right’ to write from the perspective of someone in a marginalised position takes opportunities away from those with authentic experiences to share.

A “Right-of-Reply” event hurriedly organized by the BWF was held on Saturday night, 10 Sept to give speakers opposed to Shriver a forum for their views. Then on Monday, 12 Sept the key players were all interviewed on the ABC’s The World Today. The following day my favourite commentator on all things cultural, Helen Razer in (pay-walled) magazine Crikey, appeared to suggest that Shriver was known for her opposition to ‘political correctness’ and that BWF may have been courting controversy for the sake of publicity.

At about the same time, the New York Times put up an article about the affair with, embarrassingly,  a great deal more detail than was available in The Age, claiming amongst other things that the Right of Reply symposium was deliberately timed so that Shriver would not be able to attend, and that the text of Shriver’s speech had been taken down from the BWF website. This last was frustrating for those of us interested in the debate as we had very little idea what Shriver had actually said until finally, on 13 Sept, the Guardian obtained and put up a transcript.

So who is Lionel Shriver? She was born in North Carolina in 1957 and changed her name from Margaret to Lionel as a teenager. She has always been explicit that she did not wish ‘female’ to be her primary identity. Shriver is the author of 13 novels, most notably We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) and her most recent, The Mandibles (2016). Blogger Kate W of booksaremyfavouriteandbest went to see Shriver at the Melbourne Writers Festival the previous week (Sun. 4 Sept) and wrote, “She is, without question, one of the most compelling and powerful authors – no, people – that I’ve ever heard speak.” Kate, who has reviewed a couple of Shriver’s books (Double Fault and Big Brother) cited an article from earlier this year by Shriver, Gender – Good for Nothing which begins:

From childhood, I experienced being female as an imposition. Growing up between two brothers, I was the one who had to wear stupid dresses …

In the article Shriver makes a compelling case that second wave feminism with which she grew up has failed to eradicate male/female differentiation. That, because it has become accepted that we are now able to choose our gender identity anywhere along and beyond the LGBTI spectrum, it is exactly those old male/female stereotypes that we use to determine our orientation. She writes:

I am often asked how I manage to write persuasively from a male character’s point of view, which I do frequently… the crucial constituents of our characters have little to do with gender, unless we insist on labelling clumps of qualities—forcefulness, violence, inability to cry; tenderness, consideration, inability to drive—as exclusively male and female, which they are not.

In her BWF address, and I strongly recommend that if you have got this far, that you read it in full, she makes a series of ‘commonsense’ examples about dressing up in other peoples’ clothes, leading up to her central argument:

What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.

I’m hoping that crime writers, for example, don’t all have personal experience of committing murder. Me, I’ve depicted a high school killing spree, and I hate to break it to you: I’ve never shot fatal arrows through seven kids, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker, either. We make things up, we chance our arms, sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.

Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.

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Yassmin Abdel-Magied

The young woman who challenged Shriver, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, “is a mechanical engineer, social advocate, writer and petrol head and is the 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year.” It is clear from her bio that she pursues a career as a ‘public intellectual’ with a high profile on programmes like Q&A. In her Guardian article she writes:

[Shriver’s] question was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?

Not every crime writer is a criminal, Shriver said, nor is every author who writes on sexual assault a rapist. “Fiction, by its very nature,” she said, “is fake.”

There is a fascinating philosophical argument here. Instead, however, that core question was used as a straw man. Shriver’s real targets were cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. It was a monologue about the right to exploit the stories of “others”, simply because it is useful for one’s story.

Cultural appropriation, Abdel-Magied concludes, is a “thing”. Colonisation has taken everything from peoples all around the world, should they now also surrender their identities?

Interestingly, I have not seen any comments by Aboriginal writers on this issue. Googling Anita Heiss brings up a Twitter post from a month or so ago “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm”. Heiss has addressed the issue of who should write Aboriginal stories previously in Dhuuluu-Yala: To Talk Straight (2003) which I reviewed earlier this year.

Finally, let me knock down a straw man of my own. It is often said that in a multi-cultural society, and indeed in a multi racial world, that authors fail to properly represent society if they present a mono-racial picture, and as it happens I made just that criticism recently of Liane Moriarty. So let me be clear. I do not think male authors should not have female characters. I do not think white writers should not have characters of other ethnicities or colour (or class). I think they should fill their books with such characters, just not the protagonist. What they should not do, what the members of any dominant culture should not do, is attempt to pass themselves off in their fiction as representing the views of an oppressed culture. The stories of the oppressed are not ours to tell. Middle class white men back off!

We generally acknowledge that white men in management (and politics) will have fewer opportunities for advancement until women and people of colour have taken their rightful place amongst them. It has been clear for some time that the same must apply to white writers. That is not a denial of their rights, but simply a reduction of their privileges.

I do not think fewer white men should be published, as MST has pointed out the problem is not in publishing but in what receives attention. I don’t even think white men should be stopped from telling the stories of women and people of other ethnicities. But I do think we should call them out when they do.

26 Sept 2016. Shriver has replied in the NYT (here).Thanks to Tim Harding of The Logical Place, who reposted the Shriver Kerfuffle, for putting this up.


Links used in this post –

Age http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/your-brisbane/us-author-lionel-shrivers-brisbane-writers-festival-speech-prompts-walkout-20160911-grdp0m.html

Guardian YAM https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/10/as-lionel-shriver-made-light-of-identity-i-had-no-choice-but-to-walk-out-on-her?CMP=share_btn_fb

BWF blog https://uplit.com.au/festival/uplit/blog

ABC http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2016/s4537028.htm

Razer https://www.crikey.com.au/2016/09/13/brisbane-writers-festival-caused-lionel-shriver-controversy-deliberately/

Guardian LS https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

Kate W https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/lionel-shriver-at-the-melbourne-writers-festival/

KW review DF https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/double-fault-by-lionel-shriver/

KW review BB https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/big-brother-by-lionel-shriver/

LS Gender http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/gender-good-for-nothing

YAM http://www.yassminam.com/rtn/

Heiss http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/?utm_source=SocialWarfare&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=SocialWarfare

Heiss https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/dhuuluu-yala-anita-heiss/

MST https://adventuresinbiography.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/book-reviews-where-are-all-the-women-stella-count-paints-a-depressing-picture/

NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/books/lionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html?module=WatchingPortal&region=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=15&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2016%2F09%2F13%2Fbooks%2Flionel-shriver-cultural-appropriation-brisbane-writers-festival.html&eventName=Watching-article-click&_r=1

Shriver reply http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/opinion/will-the-left-survive-the-millennials.html?_r=0

 

 

 

Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty

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I shouldn’t have undertaken to review another Liane Moriarty. She’s Sydney, I’m Melbourne. She’s popular, I prefer literary. She’s plain vanilla whitebread middle class bleeding heart first world problems, and I like my reading just a little bit grittier.

Moriarty is of course a best-selling author with six novels and some children’s books under her belt. I recently reviewed no.5, Big Little Lies after listening to the audio version and to my great regret, promised to actually read her before passing final judgement. So here goes with no.6, Truly Madly Guilty (2016). I can confidently predict that I won’t be reading no.7 (nor no.s 1-4).

The action centres around four characters, two couples, Erika and Oliver, Clementine and Sam, thirtyish, Sydney-ites of course, from innerish (unnamed) northern suburbs. Erika and Oliver’s suburb posher, more suburban, Clementine and Sam’s older, trendier. Erik and Oliver are nerdy, accountants, childless, had difficult childhoods. Erika’s mother has a serious hoarding disorder, Oliver’s parents are alcoholics. Clementine is a cellist, Sam does something in marketing. Their daughters, Holly and Ruby are 5 and 2. Clementine is Erika’s best friend.

There are not many other characters to fill the (excessive) 500 pages – Erika and Oliver’s neighbours, Vid, a Slovenian electrical contractor, his wife Tiffany a property developer, and as it turns out, former exotic dancer, and their 10 yo daughter Dakota. Vid and Tiffany’s neighbour on the other side, the elderly, angry Harry, makes occasional, eventually crucial, appearances.

“‘This is a story that begins with a barbeque’, said Clementine.” But, in fact, Truly Madly Guilty commences in the weeks and months after ‘the barbeque’ and continually circles back, in what seems to be trademark Moriarty style, with gradual reveals, using the point of view of whichever character is most convenient at the time.

No spoilers, I’ll just go on for a bit longer with generalities. Vid, a loud, enthusiastic man, holds a backyard barbeque for everyone I’ve mentioned above (except Harry). Something happens. It might be sexual, Sam and Oliver are pretty taken with Tiffany.

[Tiffany] walked over to within chatting distance and noted Oliver’s terrified glance at her cleavage. He fixed his eyes desperately on her forehead as if she were a test. Yeah, buddy, I’m a test, but you pass every time.

Tiffany might be taken with Clementine – or perhaps she’s just arousing the men – and is about to do a lap dance for her (on her?) when the something which happens happens.

They are all traumatised and in the following months struggle to cope. Marriages are tested.

[Erika] took a breath. Her husband was upset. Extremely upset by the look of it. So he probably wanted and needed to ‘share’. People with dysfunctional childhoods like hers didn’t have the best interpersonal skills when it came to relationships. Well it was just a fact. No one had modelled a healthy relationship for her. No one had modelled a healthy relationship for Oliver either. They had their dysfunctional relationships in common. That’s why Erika had invested close to six thousand dollars to date in high-quality therapy.

Sam wants another child, Clementine doesn’t. Sam stops sleeping with Clementine, which seems an odd way to go about it. Erika and Clementine’s friendship is tested. They have been friends since school, when Clementine’s mother, Pam instructed her to play with the lonely Erika, and Erika has ever since treated Pam as something of a foster mother.

‘That little girl needs a friend,’ [Pam] told Clementine … So Clementine went and sat down opposite Erika in the playground and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And she’d glanced over at her mother for the nod of approval, because Clementine was being kind, and kindness was the most important thing of all, except that Clementine didn’t feel kind. She was faking it. She didn’t want anything to do with this dirty-looking girl.

Clementine had “learned to feel bad about her white middle-class privilege long before it became fashionable”, so at least Moriarty is self-aware, perhaps she is just writing to her audience. Clementine goes on “faking it” and the two become bound by a shared history if not by shared affection.

Clementine … tried to imagine her life without Erika in it: without the aggravation, followed always by the guilt. A melody with only two notes: aggravation, guilt, aggravation, guilt.

Erika and Oliver want a child, but can’t. The reveals around this pad out the earlier part of the novel. We learn bits about Harry. Dakota who had been delegated to ‘play with’ the two younger girls at the barbeque is subdued, maybe guilty. Erika and Oliver attempt to clean up Erika’s mother’s house but chuck it in. Clementine who is meant to be concentrating on an upcoming audition at the Sydney Opera House has instead taken up public speaking to small audiences in suburban halls.Why? She feels guilty about the something that happened at the barbeque. Obviously.

500 pages is definitely too long for such slight material, but it is easy reading and if this is your preferred mode of relaxation you’ll knock it off in 5 or 6 hours. Me, I might go and watch an old episode of Friends.

 

Liane Moriarty, Truly Madly Guilty, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2016


I try and post once a week, on Fridays, but I have so many reviews done or in train that I thought I’d get this one out of the way, out of order so to speak. Treat it as a bonus.

An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire

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An Isolated Incident (2016) is the story of a rape and murder, in a town midway along the Hume Highway between Melbourne and Sydney, told mostly by the murdered woman’s sister. It is not a whodunit, we are given no clues as to the murderer’s identity, but is rather a portrait of one woman’s descent into and eventual acceptance of grief. I bought and read this novel following MST’s review in Adventures in Biography where she writes, “Crucially, An Isolated Incident also illuminates the insidious sexism and misogyny of the genre, as well as of society”, and describes Maguire, whom I have not previously read, “as a safe pair of hands” whose “articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely”.

In Comments Michelle wrote that she thought I might like it, “Not least because it has trucks and truck drivers in it!” In fact, that ended up being the part that nearly put me off finishing, let alone writing a review.

On Monday, 6 April (which makes the year 2015) police in the fictional town of Strathdee knock on the door of big-breasted, 30 something barmaid Chris to ask her to come with them to formally identify the brutalised and barely recognisable body of her younger sister Belle which has been found a few kilometres out of town near the edge of the Highway. Strathdee is a town of about 3,000 people which has in the past few years been bypassed by the Highway but which still sees a lot of travellers and truck drivers pulling in for a beer and a night’s sleep. Chris will often bring a truckie home for the night, partly for the sex and partly it seems, because they are willing to pay.

Chris receives support from her ex-husband, Nate, with the compliance of his (pregnant) new partner in Sydney, and Nate is for a while the chief suspect. Over time Chris is befriended by a journalist, May, who gets a bit obsessed with retelling Belle’s story.

At the half-way mark the novel had two weaknesses, and I was close to giving up. Firstly Chris speaks directly to the reader. However, the conversational tone does not always come off, people don’t always speak in full sentences, and sometimes the author is forced to use awkward constructions to advance the exposition. Secondly, Maguire reads like a middle class city woman writing about an area she drove through once and thought she might reconstruct as the setting for a novel about working class male violence.

So. I’ve been up and down the Hume Highway since the 1960s when it was a hilly, winding country road. I remember when fog lines were first painted along the outside edges so that when an oncoming Grey Ghost (that’s a Kwikasair Express truck not a parking inspector) came wide around a bend in the rain in the middle of the night you could at least see you were being forced onto the shoulder. I remember stopping with my mates to build a bonfire and have a beer, when roadside pubs were the dinner stops of choice, when ‘general freight’ meant taking your time. Well, those days are gone. The Hume Highway has been a freeway now for a generation and Campbellfield to Camperdown takes 8 hours or you’d better explain where you’ve been, the blood alcohol limit for truck drivers is 0.00, and a break is half an hour at a plastic table at a BP/McDonalds truck stop.

If you’ve read Eve Sallis’ Hiam (1998) you might remember the fuss about whether Sallis had ever actually driven from Adelaide to Darwin. Well the same applies to Maguire. Strathdee is part Gundagai, part Tarcutta and part ‘imagination’. A town of 3,000 people may have 3 churches and lots of pubs but it also has a lot more than ‘six’ streets. And truck drivers don’t get to pull into bypassed towns, let alone for a few beers and a night’s sleep. If Maguire ever did drive down the Hume Highway at night she would find it nose to tail with trucks at 100 kph, and no place for cars!

In the second half of the novel Maguire sticks to doing what she knows best – writing about the nature of men’s violence to women – and it shows, in the flow of her writing and in the increase in psychological tension. Some of Chris’s increasingly frequent bad choices come back to bite her, and May, who’s been making some bad choices of her own, and whose point of view and journalism we hear from time to time, begins to identify with Belle, who had probably been having a secret affair with a married co-worker, as May was herself:

… maybe this was exactly what being that kind of girl [who screwed married men] felt like. It felt like being lonely and uncertain and excited and anxious about enjoying the company of a man who speaks frankly even while finding some of the things he says a bit upsetting. It felt like wondering if you were a bad feminist because the scent of a man’s groin sends the blood to your cunt and the way he grips your hair and groans gets you dripping wet and knowing you are a bad feminist and a bad person because there are more important things than wanting a man and wanting a man to want you …

In the end Chris is still alone, May has her one on one interview, and the Police have their man. This is a strongly written and opinionated book. I clearly didn’t like all of it, but by all means give it a try. And try not to get too annoyed at the bits I got too annoyed at!

 

Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident, Picador, Sydney, 2016

 

Brent of Bin Bin, Miles Franklin

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Kindle Edition

Miles Franklin (1879-1954) was probably almost in despair as a writer when she made the decision to publish under the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin. By 1928 she was nearly 50 years old. The ground-breaking My Brilliant Career she wrote as a teenager had come out in 1901 to great acclaim and popular success but the intense scrutiny it brought upon her family and neighbours had led her to withdraw it from re-publication. Her next two novels, brilliant attempts to explore the relationship between ‘real’ and fictionalized life were rejected. Following them, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) met little success and her next, The Net of Circumstance (1915) under the silly pseudonym Mr. and Mrs. Ogniblat L’Artsau, none at all. And since then there had been nothing.

Born into the squattocracy, Australia’s landed gentry, she had been dragged down by her father’s unwise venture into farming, and her parents’ failure to secure her a decent education, and had been barely clinging to the bottom rungs of the lower middle class in England during the Depression doing clerical work and writing in her spare time. With the mss of at least four completed and unpublishable novels ‘under her bed’ she made the no doubt unpalatable decision to tone down the feminism and experimentation in her writing and to adopt her topics to mainstream taste – family sagas of the Australian bush. In other words, she decided to man up, and how better to do that than to adopt a male nom de plume.

In 1900 Franklin had written to Blackwoods, the publishers of My Brilliant Career:

Please on no account allow “Miss” to prefix my name on the title page as I do not wish it to be known that I’m a young girl but desire to pose as a bald-headed seer of the sterner sex.

That wish had been thwarted by Henry Lawson’s description of her in his Preface as “just a little bush girl, barely twenty-one” but now she was in control and the secret of Brent’s real identity, known only to herself, her best friend Mary Fullerton and a smallish circle of family and friends, although guessed at by half the industry, was still being kept beyond her death in 1954, so that Marjorie Barnard in her biography published in 1967 could only point to the clear similarities between Franklin’s and Brent’s work as proof that they were one and the same. In fact ‘Bin Bin’ was the name of a station (large grazing property) belonging to Franklin’s father’s family which she used for the first time in My Brilliant Career (“My father was a swell in those days – held Bruggabrong, Bin Bin East and Bin Bin West, which three stations totalled close on 200,000 acres”).

Further, her deception of her publishers, Blackwoods, was double or even triple, as she not only acted as Brent’s agent under the pseudonym Miss S. Miles or Mills, later clarified as Sarah Mills, but also claimed that the author was ‘William Blake’, a member of an old Australian squatting family who wished to be known as Brent to distinguish him from the Romantic poet of the same name who had died a century earlier.

Early in 1927 ‘S.Miles’, as agent for Blake, submitted a draft of Up the Country, ‘a Novel of the Australian Squattocracy’ to Blackwoods. Their prompt acceptance included the right of first refusal on the next two or more works. In June, Franklin returned to Australia, to care for her ageing parents in Carlton, Sydney, and began typing out the final draft in the Mitchell Library. Over the space of a few months of amazing productivity Franklin knocked out Up the Country, the first draft of Ten Creeks Run and began working on Cockatoos, a rewrite of the unpublished On the Outside Track (one of two novels she wrote in 1902 or 1903 as a ‘corrective’ following the unwelcome reception of My Brilliant Career as biography ) as the third novel in a family saga based loosely on the arrival and establishment of her mother’s family in Australia over 3 or 4 generations.

In all, six novels appeared under the Brent of Bin Bin name, following the Mazere and Labosseer families and all their connections. They are:
Up the Country (1928) Period 1840s-1860s. First generation
Ten Creeks Run (1930) Up to the 1890s. Second generation
Cockatoos (1954) Boer War to 1906 (‘A Tale of Youth and Exodists’)
Prelude to Waking (1950) 1920s Mayfair, London
Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (1956) 1920s, back in the NSW high country
Back to Bool Bool (1931) late 1920s (the return of a new generation of ‘exodists’)

Blackwoods brought out Up The Country, Ten Creeks Run and Back to Bool Bool in fairly short order as a ‘trilogy’ to good reviews and moderate sales, but there things stalled. The Depression made all business difficult, Prelude to Waking, a Mayfair comedy originally written in 1925, which Franklin wanted published next is very different stylistically to the first three, and then there was the War.

The most prominent of the initial reviews was in the Bulletin of 2 Jan 1929. Headed ‘An Australian Classic’, the review said that although Brent had no style as understood by literary cliques it contained some of the most tender writing in Australian literature (Roe, p.301).Likewise, HM Green writing later said, “The Bin Bin books are not works of art, but extracts from life or stories of life.”

After the War, Beatrice Davis of venerable Australian publishers Angus & Robertson (who famously refused My Brilliant Career back in 1900) purchased the rights from Blackwood and over the course of half a dozen years, brought out all six, starting with Prelude to Waking in 1950 and reissuing Up the Country in 1951. Unfortunately, Miles Franklin did not live to see the publication of the final book in the series which she had been writing, re-writing and tirelessly promoting for a quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, during the period of her initial success as ‘Brent’, Franklin had published under her own name Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931), similar enough in style and location to reconnect her with the public who had not forgotten My Brilliant Career (To coincide with the release, Nettie Palmer published an important essay comparing Franklin with South Africa’s Olive Schreiner)*. She followed up with a forgettable murder mystery in the style of Dorothy Sayers, Bring the Monkey (1933) and then her popular triumph, the Prior Prize-winning All That Swagger (1936), a saga based on her father’s family and very much in the style of Up The Country. According to one of the judges, “In not one page is there to be seen any evidence of overseas influence. Only an Australian could have written it, and there has been nothing written like it except the Brent of Bin Bin novels.”

Over the next few months I will review all six of the Brent series, I own four of them – three I see in checking the publication dates are first editions – and I’m sure I can dig up the last two, if not from the WA State Library then from the Mitchell, and if all else fails there’s always Kindle.

 

References:
H.M. Green, A History of Australian Literature, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1961
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
Sylvia Martin, Passionate Friends, Onlywomen Press, London, 2001 (review)
Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin, Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1967

Prior Prize announcements, 1936 (here), 1939 (here)


*Nettie Palmer’s essay ‘The “Olive Schreiner” of Australian Literature’ was published in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, late in 1932 I think, but I can’t find it on Trove. (Roe, p.331)

Flying Home, Morris Lurie

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I started out planning to say that Morris Lurie wrote not Australian stories, but what it is to be Jewish in the world, and perhaps not even Jewish, but Yiddish, of those east European Jews fleeing Nazism transposed in one great rush into the cities of the West, which is why the writing of his novels has such a rapid-fire, New York feel. But of course Melbourne and Sydney also have large populations of refugees from WWII, and Lurie, who wrote of and from Australia, his stories are Australian stories too.

Morris Lurie (1938-2014) was born in Melbourne, to Polish refugee parents, grew up in Elwood, went to Melbourne High and studied architecture at RMIT. His first novel, Rappaport (1968), was set in Melbourne but many of his subsequent novels were set overseas, reflecting his own travels. Flying Home (1978) is his seventh (of 21) and perhaps the most awarded. Lurie’s autobiography, Whole Life, was published in 1987, and in 2006 he won the Patrick White Award for under-recognised, lifetime achievement in literature.

The protagonist, the ‘I’ of this novel, is Leo Axelrod, 26, a commercial artist from Melbourne’s inner northern (working class) suburbs, and the son of Jewish refugees who arrived in Melbourne before the War, his mother from Poland and his father too, but via Palestine. Leo’s parents hadn’t been happy in Australia – by the time the novel commences they have died –

They didn’t like Australia. Well, it wasn’t even a matter of like. They ignored it. They pretended it wasn’t there. Australia was an unfortunate thing that had happened to them, that Hitler had done, that’s all it was to them. An accident. A terrible accident. It wasn’t the real world. The real world was Bialystock, Poland, Europe. Well, that’s what it was for my mother, and for her brothers and sisters, for all those family friends. For my father it was Palestine. Israel. He was from Poland too, but he didn’t want to talk about that or even remember.

We start out with Leo and his English girlfriend, Marianne renting a house in Lindos on the Greek island of Rhodes, socialising with the expatriate community there, though not always happily. After one night eating out Marianne says to Leo, “Listen, if you ever don’t want me, all you have to do is say. But you have to say. OK?” But the next morning he is up before dawn, down the hill to Rhodes, and by the time Marianne is awake, ‘I was already miles away, God only knows exactly where, gripping the salt-encrusted railing of some foul Turkish boat, blank-faced and staring into the waves.’

Leo, an only child, has his demons. His father, always angry, taunts and scorns him. While his parents work he is brought up by his father’s father, his Zaydeh, who is strict and probably mad. Marianne he has met at a party in London, or rather, seeing her across the room, he has collapsed at her feet and coming to, says, “Come to Greece with me”, and she does. Marianne has been a rich man’s mistress and has demons of her own. They buy a car, a second-hand Mini, and set off. Leo has the money from a secret, pornographic commission to pay their way. There are ‘ghosts’ in the car, Leo’s parents and grandfather, criticising his spending, criticising his life, criticising him, but in between times he’s happy. For a year after the death of his mother, his father, his Zaydeh packed off earlier back to Israel, he has toured restlessly around Europe before settling in London, but now he is back, “Oh what a fool I had been to ever leave Europe, to have rushed to England, to have stayed there that long. Nearly a year in that tight, closed land.”

In Melbourne he had been a virgin until he was 24, till his mother died. For a while there was Gaby, a girl with a rich father, who had sex with him in wilder and wilder places, finally abandoning him at a rich kids’ party, then in Europe nothing for a year, and now, Marianne. They cross Europe in fits and starts, the engine unreliable, flat tyre after flat tyre, sometimes idyllic, sometimes fleeing down the highway to escape the demons in the back seat. Paris, Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia and finally Greece, the Mini dead, towed to the Rhodes ferry.

I won’t take you all the way to the end, but Spoiler Alert, Leo is back on his ‘foul Turkish Freighter’, days and nights at sea, stopping at Crete to load up with deck passengers, pilgrims, docking at Haifa. Israel. The port is deserted, he’s lost track of the days, it’s Easter, Passover:

Pesach! My heart hammered in my throat. “The first day?’ I said. “The seder?” He looked at his watch. “In four hours,” he said. I was the first person off the ship.

In the empty streets he locates at last a taxi, negotiates a fare to Jerusalem, and there finds his way somehow to his father’s brother’s house, hopelessly late in the evening. His aunt opens the door. And screams.

I had brought back to Israel my father’s face. The same smile. The same look. The same moving of my head, my eyes, my mouth. But more than that. My father had sailed from Haifa when he was twenty-six, my age now. Forty years had disappeared in a second, had never happened. My father had returned to Palestine.

His uncle ships Leo around Israel, farming him out to friends and relos. Slowly he resolves the mysteries of his father’s anger, of his Zaydeh, of a grandmother he had never heard mentioned. But to Marianne, whom he could not tell he was leaving, he cannot write, not even to say he is returning. He leaves, sails back to Greece, in the same foul Turkish boat, to Rhodes, to Lindos, “I climbed the steps up from the platia, paused for a second to catch my breath, and then I started to run …”

This is a terrific book, suspenseful to the end. Even on the last page Leo is confronting the parents who were too bound up in their own stories, the wreckage of their own lives, to give him love:

Everyone was always shouting. I can hear them now. My father. Zaydeh. My mother trying to make peace. What peace? What peace could there be? I can taste the bitterness, the hopelessness, the rage. I told you all this in Como, when you wanted to go home. That was the truth, or I thought it was the truth. In Israel I found out other things. A different truth. So now I understand everything, I understand at last why they were like that …

I sit here in the dark and I try and remember when my mother held me, or my father, I want to feel, just once, their arms around me, their lips on my cheek, because I know that if I can remember that, just one time when they held me close, then everything will be all right, but I can’t. I can’t

Does Marianne forgive him? Are his demons laid to rest? Leo thinks so, we can only hope.

Geology daughter and x-Mrs Legend are talking me into going to Europe with them next April-May and specifically to Greece, so I may after all see Rhodes and Lindos, may even send back a Charmian Clift post from Hydra. If I don’t get cold feet!

 

Morris Lurie, Flying Home, Outback, 1978. My copy published by Imprint (A&R), Sydney in 1991.

Lisa at ANZLL reviewed Rappaport CompleatRappaport and Rappaport’s Revenge here and also wrote ‘Vale Morris Lurie (1938-2014)’ here.