The Salzburg Tales, Christina Stead

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The Salzburg Tales (1934) is a collection of often fantastical tales told to each other by a group of visitors to Salzburg, there for “the August Festival, the great event of Salzburg men”, and with spare time during the seven days of the Festival to wander in the woods and pastures outside the town. We know that Stead is a wonderful writer, but the virtuosity of these tales with all their different styles and settings is amazing. And Stead’s daring in making her first published work a take on The Canterbury Tales, one of English literature’s earliest and best-known works, is breathtaking.

The story behind the book is that for some years Stead had been working on, and her partner Bill Blake had been attempting to find a publisher for, Seven Poor Men of Sydney. Eventually Blake came up with Peter Davies – apparently the adopted son of JM Barrie and the model for Peter Pan – who gave her a contract with the condition that she write something else as well, which she did, taking about a year.

When she presented this second work to Peter Davis he said that his company did not like to begin with a book of short stories, to which she replied ‘too bad’. He did however publish The Salzburg Tales first and it was a succès d’estime. (Williams)

We know, in later years at least, that Stead always had two or three manuscripts on the go, and my guess is that that was the case then too. She had already begun on ‘Lovers in Paris’ that was to become her third novel, The Beauties and Furies, and I’m guessing that she had also already begun the stories that make up The Salzburg Tales, enough at least to make an informed pitch to the publisher.

The Canterbury Tales begins with a Prologue which includes portraits of the travellers, and then goes on to the travellers’ tales. The Prologue begins: “When April with his showers sweet with fruit/The drought of March has pierced unto the root/And bathed each vein with liquor that has power/To generate therein and sire the flower …”.

The Salzburg Tales begins also with a Prologue, with the opening lines:

Salzburg, old princely and archiepiscopal city, and its fortress Hohen-Salzburg, lie among the mountains of the Tyrol, in Salzburg Province, in Austria. The river Salzach, swift and yellow from the glaciers and streaming mountain valleys, flows between baroque pleasure-castles standing in glassy lakes, and peasant villages pricked in their vineyards, and winds about to reflect the citadel rising in its forests, single eminence in the plain.

Here is a photo, though with words like that you hardly need it.

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Salzburg

Stead, then living in Paris with Blake, had holidayed in Bavaria and Austria in the summer of 1930, spending August in Salzburg for the Mozart Festival. The publishing contract was secured the following April, and Stead:

… sat down in the kitchen of her flat and immediately wrote The Salzburg Tales, one day a story, the next day editing and ‘connective tissue’ … from beginning to end ‘because I’d just come back from Salzburg and was inspired by Mozart, because he has the most marvellously connected and creative brain in the whole world, I think.’ (Williams)

The Prologue is short and is followed by a chapter on The Personages. Stead describes actors and audience entering an open area before the cathedral for a performance of Jedermann (Everyman) which she herself had attended on August 1, 1930, and provides vignettes of all the ‘personages’ who will meet over the following seven days and tell stories for the amusement of their fellows.

According to Williams, many of the characters were based on people Stead knew. The Centenarist, who tells a number of stories, ‘was not pleased to find a copy of himself in print’; though the English Gentleman and the New York Doctor of Medecine were flattered. Bill Blake was the model for the Critic of Music as well as for some of the characters in the stories – Ernest Jordain, a polymath and Isidor, a poor Jewish boy. There is also a Little Old Lady in two of the stories who is probably Bill’s mother Rosa, who was living with them at the time, and with whom Stead had a difficult relationship.

The ‘connective tissue’ of the stories is that a few people gather and call on one or another of their number to tell a story. So, on the first day “a party from the ‘Hotel Austria’ went up into the monastery wood on the Kapuzinerberg in the morning to listen to the bells of the town and rest for some hours on the wooded height” and the Town Councillor tells the first tale, The Marionettist.

The tales themselves are difficult to place in time, most of them have a nineteenth century feel, though every now and again a car or even a television is mentioned. Only right near the end does the 1914-18 War come up, and even then it’s just mentioned in passing. I’m sure you could do a PhD on themes in the stories and their relation to stories in The Canterbury Tales, and for that matter in the Decameron and the Arabian Nights, but it is beyond the scope of this review, and beyond what I could glean out of a single reading (fractured over the past month).

Mostly the stories have the feel of tales being told, rather than the mixture of speech and action which characterises ordinary novel writing, but Stead is very clever at differentiating the tellers’ styles one from another. The tales are from all over. Some probably come from Blake’s Jewish heritage, some involve magic or ghosts, some are straight accounts of small incidents in the teller’s life, and there are two or three in which it gradually becomes apparent that the setting is Australia.

[Two young women mistake their way while walking in the Blue Mountains] They looked down and still saw the rolling ravined bottoms, full of tree-ferns, eucalypts and patches of burnt-out scrub.

“We will follow the same path tomorrow. I have heard of a new path for the descent: we strike off to the left and reach more shortly the Burrogorang Valley; there, where you see a clearing glimmering in the forest.”

Lilias looked down at the night assembling and massing in the gullies. It was there in its cohorts; its sentinels were climbing to the eyries of the cliff, it reconnoitred in the lofty escarpments. It was there in the clefts and scoriations of the precipice: it was running instantly and languorously, with the movement of irresistible floods over the endless sky. (The Schoolteacher’s Tale, On The Road).

If you are at all interested in Christina Stead, or if you are a fan of Angela Carter, say, then read this book. You don’t have to rush, read it one or two tales at a time before you switch out the light at night. I think there are more than a hundred, so it will take a while, but you won’t be disappointed.

 

Christina Stead, The Salzburg Tales, first pub. 1934, My edition Sirius, 1989

I have reviewed Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here) and a number of her novels (click on ‘Stead’ under Tags in the sidebar) but the best place to start is at ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page (here)

Ten Authors I Love to Hate

If I’m listening to old people’s radio and they start playing John Williamson I switch automatically to another station, ditto for Johnny Farnham who as far as I’m concerned will never get over Sadie the Cleaning Lady no matter how often he works himself up to sing tenor for I’m the Voice. And so it is with some authors – I’ve tried them, or haven’t been able to avoid them, and they’ve let me down, and now I can’t stand them.

As for what I mean by ‘authors’ let me be clear: an Author is a name to which is attached a body of work, or to quote Foucault, “an author’s name … performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others.” (What is an Author? (1969), translated by Joseph Harari, (1979)).

I don’t hate these writers, just some (or even all) of the stuff they have written. A distinction which may have been lost on the obituary writer in the Australian who caused a storm when he wrote of the late Colleen McCullough, “Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.” But let’s get on with it, starting with the author who annoys me most and working down to number ten.

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1. Clive James (1939- ) was born in Sydney and moved to London in 1962 where, like his contemporaries Germaine Greer and Rolf Harris, he has been a professional Australian ever since. He is fabulously knowledgeable about History and the Arts, is a minor poet, and has written criticism and fiction. His three volumes of autobiography, starting with Unreliable Memoirs, for which he is best known (as a writer) are mildly amusing and of course by understating, serve only to underline, his considerable intellect. During my M.Litt I had to study his novel The Remake (1987) which he wrote to demonstrate how clever he was about postmodernism. It too is mildly amusing. Leaving aside the embarrassing “Clive James on Television” (1982-88), his borderline racist show about bad television, my big disappointment with James is that he chose not to be a serious author. And he might have been.

2. George Johnston (1912-1970) was born in Melbourne, moved up from lithographer to journalist, and became a well-known war correspondent during WWII. After the war he gave up a prestigious posting in London to live in the Greek islands with his second wife Charmian Clift as full-time novelists. He wasn’t a particularly good writer and in the novels he co-wrote with Clift he supplied the plots and she did the writing. His career finally took off in 1964 with the publication of his fictionalized memoir My Brother Jack, which like its sequel Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) took out the Miles Franklin. It’s a long time since I read them, but I recall them as blokey, boastfull books, and Johnston as a braggart and a loudmouth.

3. Colleen McCullough (1937-2015) was a woman of intelligence – she was a neuroscientist at Yale before ‘retiring’ to full-time writing – and wit. When quizzed one time about her size, she was 5’10”, she quipped at least she had a nice waist and big knockers. What she wasn’t, and I have no idea if she wished to be, was a writer of Literary Fiction. I bought her The Song of Troy (1998) for geology daughter and found it astonishingly badly written – The Illiad meets Mills & Boon. I see she also wrote a Pride and Prejudice spin-off, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, the reviews are so bad I might try and find a copy.

4. Peter Carey (1943- ) is a very good writer, and he has two Bookers and four Miles Franklins to prove it. Up till I was nearly 30 I read only SF and Mad Magazine (which kept me surprisingly up to date with popular film culture). After that I started catching up on what was around me, which was of course the renaissance in Australian film making and a new, post-war generation of Australian writers. And if David Ireland was at the top of that list, then Carey was next. I read his short stories The Fat Man in History (1974), and his novels Bliss (1981) – and saw the movie – Oscar and Lucinda, The Tax Inspector and Illywhacker, in that order. These are probably all the books he wrote in Australia. Illywhacker with its second half descent into magic realism and the fantastical Oscar and Lucinda probably demonstrate the direction of Carey’s thinking, but his move to New York in 1990 seems to have coincided with an ambition to become a ‘world’ writer, which has led to his writing becoming increasingly pretentious, less relevant to Australia, and of little impact in the wider world of literary fiction.

5. Geraldine Brooks (1955- )is a writer of historical fiction, so that’s one strike; while I understand her wish to provide positive representations of women I do not agree with plonking 21st century women in 16th or 17th century situations, so that’s two strikes; and she’s an American who happened to be born in Australia, so that’s three.

6. C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was a popular poet. The Sentimental Bloke (1916), which I like, sold 65,000 copies in its first year. The first problem I have with Dennis is not with him specifically, but with the nature of ‘poetry’ at the turn of the century. Dennis, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and others wrote doggerel to illustrate current stories in newspapers and magazines. Poetry it wasn’t. The second problem is that Dennis filled a spot analogous to that later filled by the cartoonist Pickering, providing daily commentary that was sometimes amusing but always right-wing. The third problem is that in primary school I had to learn the poem that begins “Hey Ho, Hey Ho, the circus is coming to town” and it haunts me still.

7. Linda Jaivin (1955- ) is an American who became an Australian. For that I commend her. She is seriously knowledgeable about China and that is reflected in some of her later fiction. Another tick. What really gets up my nose is that when I was studying Australian Grunge – literature by young writers in the mid to late 1990s – there she was with Eat Me (not a grunge novel at all really) and Rock’n’Roll Babes from Outer Space and yet her bio had her taking part in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. She’s bloody nearly my age! A generation older than the other (reluctant) grungers like Tsialkos, McGahan, Ettler, and carrying on as though she’s one of them.

8. Kate Grenville (1950- ) is probably a good writer who attempted with The Secret River (2005) to reframe the way white Australians think about First Contact. And for that she was drawn into a whirlpool of controversy. Grenville argues furiously against the accusation that she regards herself as a writer of history but I’m afraid I side with Inga Clendinnen who argued that Grenville introduces C21st sensibilities into her account of the early settlement of the Hawkesbury River region.

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9. Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) is best known these days for Brideshead Revisited (1945), the enormously snobbish story of a gawky university undergraduate in love with his best friend and his best friend’s English Catholic aristocratic family, which I read and was of course tremendously impressed by at the end of my first and only year at Trinity College (Melb.). Strangely, my first Waugh was the biography of English saint, Edmund Campion, given to me at the end of primary school, and probably the first grown-up book I ever read. I’ve since purchased all his fiction, but only Put Out More Flags is any good, the rest is the ravings of a right-wing social climber.

10. Joseph Heller (1923-1999) wrote Catch 22 (1961) for which he will live in our hearts forever. His next novel, Something Happened (1974) is a dark view of life as a successful office worker, containing a shocking twist which I have thought about off and on for 30 or 40 years. I own those two and the next, Good as Gold (1979), which is ok, and his last two Closing Time (1994) and Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (2000). Sadly, whatever it was that he had, he has lost. Closing Time which reprises some of the characters from Catch 22 is derivative and not worth reading. Sad.

There are many others whom I considered for inclusion. Barry Humphries is a snob and a misogynist. I have his ‘comic novel’ Women in the Background (1995) but really, he doesn’t belong in a post about writers. Then there are Australian ‘action thriller writer’, Matthew Reilly, Robert G Barrett, and all those ‘John Williamsons’ of the Akubra romance genre – Judy Nunn, Joy Dettman, … And Ruth Park gets up my nose too, but I’d better stop before I get carried away.

 

The Light Between the Oceans, M.L. Stedman

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Let’s get one thing clear right at the beginning. I found this popular novel turgid and melodramatic. Towards the end of its interminable 10 hours on audiobook I started skipping instead of listening one more time to how unhappy the two mother/protagonists were, and to all the plainly silly plot devices keeping them and the child in close proximity to one another.

Still with me? A brave soldier (officer) returned from the Great War joins the lighthouse service and is assigned to a light on remote Janus Island off the southwest corner of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, hence the title. The officer, Tom Sherbourne, meets and marries a local girl, Isobel, and takes her to live on the island. Shortly after her third miscarriage, a dinghy is cast up on the island carrying a dead man and a live baby girl, a few weeks old. Rather than report this discovery Tom is persuaded by Isobel to keep the baby and for them to raise her as their own.

Spoilers. Only after two years does it become apparent that the baby is in fact that of another local woman, Hannah. And it is another two years after that before Hannah is made aware that her daughter is still alive. Tom is arrested. The baby, now old enough to have her own opinions, is returned to Hannah, who for some reason doesn’t go and live in Perth or Sydney or London, anywhere the child might adjust to her new situation in peace, but stays on instead in the small town where she and her daughter must inevitably run into Isobel. This drags on for hours seemingly while a case is made out against Tom, who has assumed all the blame, until at last some sort of resolution is achieved.

It seems to me that maybe 40 years ago it became fashionable (in Australia) to write about the First World War as an unmitigated horror – which it was – and to discuss soldiers returned from that war as damaged, traumatised. Two books stand out in that regard, David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (1982) which rapidly became the standard ‘text’ on war in schools, and 1915 (1979) by Roger Macdonald. In retrospect I believe these books and the many that followed, including the Light Between the Oceans, were and are code for providing a path towards acceptance for soldiers returned from the illegal and unnecessary Vietnam War, and for understanding what we now call PTSD.

Stedman employs the familiar, indeed worn-out trope of the strong, silent returned soldier unable to speak the horrors he has seen, for Tom, in contrast with Isobel’s once free spirit descending further into despair with each successive miscarriage, to provide a background for their flawed decision making. Whether this essay on moral relativism needed to be set in a work of historical fiction is a moot point. I certainly don’t think Stedman contributes anything new to our understanding of 1920s Western Australia, or to take a wider view, to our understanding of post WWI Australia.

And if you as readers want to know more about children separated from their mothers then maybe you could try Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review), or one of the many other Indigenous accounts of the Stolen Generations. Thousands of Aboriginal children were taken forcibly from their homes and put into institutions and then into service, and to get worked up about one imaginary white child is both an indulgence and insulting. And no, I haven’t forgotten about all the children removed from teenage single mothers right up to the 1960s.

If you’re interested in the setting, there is no Janus Island and indeed, as far as I know, no islands at all 100 miles (160 km) off the southwest coast. The coastal township of the story, Port Partageuse appears to be a composite of the town of Augusta, nearby Cape Leeuwin, which does have a lighthouse (#4 on map), and Point D’Entrecasteaux which is a bit further south.

The Light Between the Oceans has its good points. The characterisations, particularly of Tom and Isobel, are excellent and if the author had decided they should have kept the child, I would have sympathised, instead of running out of patience with them is I eventually did. The descriptions of the rugged island and later of the West Australian bush are also excellent. This is Stedman’s first novel and I would not be surprised to learn it was the product of a creative writing degree – passages of good descriptive writing around an immature plot.

 

M.L. Stedman, The Light Between the Oceans, Random House, Melbourne, 2012. Audio version: AudioGo, 2012, read by Noah Taylor (10 hrs 20 min)

For a contrasting view try Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here)
Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest likes it despite its faults (here)

Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett

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This is probably the only ‘poem’ I’ll ever write:

Leonards Hill
Underbool
Bonnie Doon
Inverloch
Leongatha
Murrayville
Macarthur
Blackburn South
Colac

The homes of my childhood, Victorian country towns – except for Blackie Sth, a suburb of Melbourne, now leafy, then new red brick and tile. For my father, markers of his progress through the teaching service and into the bureaucracy. For me, constant changes of school, 5 years, 3 years, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, dux of class, class captain, move, repeat, till in 1968 I matriculated with 3 first class honours, a fail in English and a bare pass in Calculus, with a pregnant girlfriend, and an insufficient grounding in mathematics, already heading for a life in trucks, away from supervision and away from people.

This is a book about sons and fathers, and it has set me off. I had a childhood like the boys in this book, church on Sundays, school on weekdays, but otherwise, from the age of six or seven, free to jump on my bike, head off to a mate’s house, or out into the paddocks, to a game of tennis or to swim in the river or at the pool. Mum home cooking, Dad sober. An idyllic childhood. And it makes me angry. I know fathers who came home drunk, fathers who beat their children, fathers whose behaviour in relation to their daughters, and sometimes their sons, was unspeakable. And still I’m angry, about the friends I didn’t keep, about the father I didn’t have, about the second-rate teaching I got at Colac High so he could be District Inspector.

Golden Boys is set in a suburban neighbourhood in an unnamed city in an unspecified year. A middle class suburb of mixed weatherboard and red brick houses. It feels like (Melbourne suburbs) North Blackburn or Clayton or Reservoir in the 1980s with cheaply constructed post-war housing and young families, but it could be anywhere. Strangely, though it’s November it’s too cold for swimming, so maybe it’s Hobart. Everywhere I lived, before heated pools, swimming started at the end of the September school holidays.

The principal actors are Freya, Declan and Sydney Kiley, aged 12, 11, 10; Colt and Bastian Jenson, aged 12 and 9; and two boys from broken or damaged families Avery and Garrick aged 11. And that’s the other problem, two problems really, I have with this story. The boys all knock around together. My brothers are 2, 5 and 7 years younger than me and I would have had to be really desperate to play with even the nearest. At different times Freya and Colt are the same age, then Declan, Syd and Colt are, then Syd and Bastian (who’s a bit of a baby), or Avery and Bastian and so on. It doesn’t ring true.

Spoilers. Which takes us to the second problem. The central focus of this novel is that Rex Jenson buys Colt and Bastian flash toys, a roomful of flash toys, and a swimming pool, in order to entice other boys into his house where he can molest them. Or at least his behaviour can be construed that way, and we are given plenty of hints that he has moved to this neighbourhood because he had to leave his previous one. The secondary focus is on Joe Kiley who comes home drunk on payday and is getting increasingly violent towards his wife and children (there are 3 or 4 more younger ones I haven’t named). Hartnett insists Golden Boys is an adult novel, not YA, but it doesn’t read that way. The POV we get is the kids’, not their parents, and even if it’s not suitable for 12 year olds, the novel appears to me best aimed at, say, 16 year olds.

The Jensons have just moved in. Colt and Declan get on ok and (father) Rex makes clear that all the boys are welcome, not just to knock around on their bikes, but to come in, use the toys, get something to eat.

Declan from early on is uneasy about Jenson’s behaviour, worried that Syd is gravitating towards the toys and more particularly the pool, where Jenson can towel him down, tuck his clothes in. Avery, a parentless boy, almost a street kid, keeps his distance and surprisingly it is the rough boy, Garrick, who is first to complain. He has to tell someone and he tells Declan and Syd:

Without looking at them he says, ‘He wasn’t naked,’ and adds swiftly, ‘Neither was I. he didn’t make me touch his toggle -’

Then he tells them the full story, of him and Avery having a swim in the Jenson’s backyard pool in the evening, with Rex looking on “Making his stupid comments”. Then Avery slips away and Garrick is caught:

‘… he grabs me and, really quick, he tucks my shirt into my jeans. He sticks his finger down the back of my jeans, stuffing my shirt in… He cops a feel of my arse, Declan!’

So Colt finds himself friendless. Again.

There’s other stuff going on. We never completely lose sight of Freya, who persuades herself she’s responsible for her parents’ failing marriage. She also develops a crush on Rex Jenson, and turns to him for help when her father’s violence gets out of control. Rex intervenes, Joe fights back by accusing him: “You’ve been touching my kids”. Rex shrugs it off and that would seem to be that.

Golden Boys is an odd book, dealing with important issues, and Hartnett, as you no doubt know and I had to look up, is an experienced and much awarded author, but I think she got the tone of this one wrong. For adults it should have been much darker, and for YAs it should have been clearer about what they could do. At the end, even if he has to move again, Rex Jenson seems to have not suffered at all.

 

Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys, Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, 2014. Audio version, Bolinda Books, 2015, read by David Vatousios

Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey

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There are some writers I really, really dislike, and I don’t mean just Colleen McCullough whose ambition (and sales) far exceeded her talent, but writers of real ability who let me down. First of these is Clive James, a man of prodigious intellect who chose to be a clown, and if you’ve seen his old shows about Japanese ‘reality’ television, a not even very funny clown and probably a racist to boot. Next, and more relevantly is Peter Carey, a very good writer, maybe even the best Australian writer of his generation, who wanted to be a World writer and got lost. There are others, Geraldine Brooks first among them, but let’s leave it at that.*

There was a time when I was a Peter Carey fan, The Tax Inspector is a novel I still like, and not-then-ex-Mrs Legend spent a great deal of our housekeeping budget to buy me Oscar and Lucinda in hardback as soon as it came out, but Peter discovered Magic Realism, thought after the international success of O & L that he was the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez, moved to Manhattan to mix it with the big boys, and Booker prizes notwithstanding started to write shit pretentious nonsense.

The Carey novels which are re-hashes of old stories – Jack Maggs, Ned Kelly, and in Parrot & Olivier, Alexis de Tocqueville – are not even good (ie. accurate) history, or illustrative of current situations, just stuff he’s made up and stuck on the bare bones of someone else’s story. I think Carey struggles to come up with plots, he certainly has difficulty fleshing out his characters, in developing protagonists the reader can identify with, and his women… they are very nearly non-existent. One reviewer wrote that each sentence is perfectly crafted, which is probably true, they just don’t make up a cohesive whole.

De Tocqueville (1805-1859) survived various iterations of French Revolution, Restoration and Napoleonism and in 1835 after touring the United States ostensibly to report on penal reform for the French government, came up with Democracy in America, a seminal study of American society and the evolution of democracy. Carey uses de Tocqueville as the basis for his Olivier character – Olivier de Garmont – the spoiled child of an aristocratic family, his grandfather beheaded in the Terror, his parents remote and preoccupied.

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable – slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the château de Barfleur.

Parrot is about 20 years older than Olivier, working class English, his father a journeyman printer who is hanged when Parrot is 12 for his part in forging French banknotes after which Parrot ends up in New South Wales, in a token nod to Carey’s origins, from whence he is ‘rescued’ by Tilbot, a one-armed, French Baron of no fortune, who seemingly lives on his connections to the surviving aristocracy.

The story is told in alternating sections by the two men, who describe over the course of the novel, both their times together and episodes from their childhoods. They are brought together by Tilbot who is a friend of Olivier’s mother. Olivier who has studied to be a lawyer is to be sent to America to report on prison systems. Parrot is to be his secretary and Tilbot’s informant.

We learn that Parrot is living in Paris with Mathilde, a painter, and that he has left behind in New South Wales a wife and son. Parrot persuades Tilbot to allow Mathilde and her mother to accompany him on the ship to New York. Carey enjoys himself describing the familiar streets of his new home town as muddy tracks, infested with pigs, the outer suburbs just paddocks dissected by lanes. Many of the characters too are larger than life, ‘Dickensian’ in many reviews, colourfully drawn but with little insight into their characters.

On board ship there had been much talk about the healthy breezes on Manhattan. They must have meant the wind blowing from the arses of New York pigs. Beekman Street stank like a shit heap, worse than the faubourg Saint-Antoine. We headed south, past Theatre Alley, into a smudgy charcoal sort of maze in which the high-haunched New York pigs mingled with New York clerks …

Mathilde and her painting are the focus of Parrot’s life in America, but Carey tends to describe scenes and events rather than people, and we learn little about her, though a lot about her painting. Olivier moves around New England, staying at the country homes of his various backers, marriage material for ambitious daughters eyeing a French title, until eventually he selects a bland, blonde girl and makes his awkward advances.

The strength of the novel is the tension between varying accounts of the same events by the two protagonists. The weakness of the novel, apart from its rambling plot, is that when the two are apart as they are for most of the second half, that tension is lost. Parrot & Olivier in America is not without its good points, but all the good writing in the world cannot make up for a disappointingly weak story.

 

Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America, Hamish Hamilton, Australia, 2009. Audio version, Blackstone Audio, 2010, read by Humphrey Bower (17 1/2 hours)

The Guardian has a review by Ursula La Guin, so if you want a sensible, informed and literate opinion here’s the link.


*Kate W has suggested I make a list. I’m thinking about ‘Ten Writers I Really Dislike’, but I’d better offer at least partial justifications so it might take me a couple of weeks.

Like Nothing on this Earth, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

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Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (2017) is a sizeable book, almost 600pp, covering the history of a small part of Western Australia with a current population of maybe 100,000, depending which provincial cities are included. I have already referred to it – in fact that was my reason for spending fifty bucks to buy it – in my posts on Jack Davis (here and here) and will do so again when, hopefully soon, I get to Dorothy Hewett. So this is not so much a review as an introduction.

Hughes-D’Aeth writes that when he first saw a satellite image of WA he was struck “by the sharp line that ringed Perth to the north and east, stretching roughly from Geraldton to Esperance and marking out an area most West Australians know as the wheatbelt.” This line, known as the clearing line, “follows the rabbit-proof fence which also marks (more or less) the minimum rainfall threshold, the 10-inch line … below which cropping is unsustainable.” It also nearly coincides with the outer edge of Noongar country, the home of the Indigenous peoples of the South-West.

Outside the line is semi-arid scrub and the remnants of the Great Western Woodlands, the world’s largest remaining temperate forest, on the in side is sandy farmland, degraded to within an inch of its life and criss-crossed with salt pans. The wheatbelt’s other boundary is a line from north of Perth south to Albany, excluding the Darling Escarpment, Perth and the high rainfall, heavily forested south-west corner. I know the wheatbelt well as I drive through it 3 or 4 times a week, I spent all my school holidays on wheat farms (in Victoria), and in earlier years I delivered farm machinery into WA and spent a season carting grain, including from Nomans Lake where Albert Facey ended up (map).

This book traces the creation of the Western Australian wheatbelt during the course of the twentieth century by considering the creative writing of those who lived in the wheatbelt at various points in their lives and then wrote about that experience.

The eleven authors covered, who get a chapter each, are:

Albert Facey (1894-1982)

Cyril E. Goode (1907-83)

James Pollard (1900-71)

John Keith Ewers (1904-78)

Peter Cowan (1914-2002)

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002)

Jack Davis (1917-2000)

Barbara York Main (1929- )

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007)

Tom Flood (1955- )

John Kinsella (1963- )

Of these I have read Facey, famous of course for his ‘primitive’ memoir, A Fortunate Life, bits of Hewett, Davis, and Jolley and I really must get to Kinsella. Notable by his absence is Kim Scott, whose home country (see Kayang and Me), around Ravensthorpe, west of Esperance, was opened up to cropping after WWII, though the author mentions him briefly in the Introduction. The others I not only haven’t read, I haven’t heard of, so I have some reading to do.

The author does however discuss at some length two other important authors he has excluded: Randolph Stow (1935-2010) grew up on farms around Geraldton, but in his writing focussed on larger properties, ‘stations’. “Crops are a distant background , and one sees no evidence of the ideology of wheat.” KS Prichard (1883-1969) is more difficult again. Hugo Throssell had taken up land at Cowcowing before the war, and on returning home he married Prichard and took her there for two years before she could stand it no longer. She does not mention this in her autobiography or in any of her novels. Only in the short story “Christmas Tree”, included in the collection Potch and Colour (1944) does she tell the story of a woman “looking over her farm for the last time, as the bank has called in their mortgage”. (Nathan Hobby’s review here. In looking this up I see that Hughes-d’Aeth is Nathan’s PhD supervisor.)

Elizabeth Jolley did not in fact live in the wheatbelt, though The Well is set on a wheat farm near York or Brookton, just over the Ranges from Perth, the location also, a century earlier when land clearing had just started, for The Boy in the Bush by DH Lawrence and Mollie Skinner. Two other well-known books not included are The Fringe Dwellers, Nene Gare, which is not about farming, but Mr Comeaway’s work on the Geraldton wharves would have been mostly lumping bagged wheat; and Xavier Herbert’s  memoir of growing up in the wheatbelt, Disturbing Element.

In his Preface Hughes-d’Aeth says that the ‘event’ of the creation of the wheatbelt was also the destruction of “a vast territory of native wilderness with a bio-diversity almost without equal on the planet.” Total land cleared up to 1970 was 200,000 square kilometres (by comparison, the landmass of Britain is only 230,000 square kilometres). He then says something that I have often thought and even sometimes argued (here for instance):

I have gradually come to realise the particular value of creative writing as a document of record.

Hughes-d’Aeth touches on another subject I have discussed elsewhere, the contrast between farming and the outback pursuits of the mythical Australian. In the poems and stories of the 1890s “we find bushrangers and drovers, boundary riders and billabongs, shearers and prospectors. We do not find many stories or songs about people farming grain.” These are the rival ‘legends’, of the independent bushman on one hand and the pioneer, stay-at-home man with his wife and kids, on the other, working to scratch a living out of a bit of dirt.

Though as wheat farming grew in importance, Banjo Paterson at least changed his tune:

We have sung the song of the droving days,
Of the march of the travelling sheep –
How by silent stages and lonely ways
Thin, white battalions creep.
But the man who now by the soil would thrive
Must his spurs to a ploughshare beat:
And the bush bard, changing his tune, may strive
To sing the song of the Wheat!
(Song of the Wheat, 1914)

In his Epilogue: The Wheatbelt in Deep Time, Hughes-d’Aeth sets out the arguments justifying his methodology and adds, “There is no exact precedent in this country for what I have done in studying creative writing and the Western Australian wheatbelt, though I am by no means the first to draw a relationship between Australian literature and place.”

There are many, maybe 120, illustrations, although being included in the text they are of only photocopy quality, good endnotes (yes, I’m getting used to them) and a useful Index. While in places the writing has an academic feel, perhaps that is just Hughes-d’Aeth not treating us general readers as idiots.

Overall this book represents a fascinating approach to an area that is at once Western Australia’s economic heartland, outside of the mines at least, and a potential ecological tragedy. I am looking forward to reading and maybe even reporting on the individual chapters.

 

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2017

The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Elizabeth Jolley

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Up till now I have read only one Elizabeth Jolley, The Well, which I wrote on during my studies 12 or so years ago. I would have used my essay as the basis for a post, being shameless in my recycling, only I cannot find it. My old 3” back-up discs are not well-labelled. I also have Brian Dibble’s 2008 Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley in my TBR, if only I could get to it.

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) was born and grew up in England, and began training as a nurse before entering a complicated marital relationship with Leonard Jolley, with whom she emigrated to Western Australia in 1959. According to Wikipedia (there is no ADB entry), they lived in the comfortable middle class Perth suburb of Claremont until 1970 when they purchased a small orchard at Woorooloo in the Ranges on the outskirts of the city.

Jolley had always been a writer, mostly of short stories, but remained unpublished until 1976. Shortly after this she began to teach one of the earlier Creative Writing courses, at WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin Uni.). Her first novel, Palomino was published in 1980. The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981), a novella really, was her second.

No one knew or cared where the Newspaper of Claremont Street went in her spare time. Newspaper, or Weekly, as she was called by those who knew her, earned her living by cleaning other people’s houses.

And so we begin. ‘Claremont Street’ is an imagined long street in Claremont, mostly residential but with a very old fashioned mixed-business grocery cum haberdashery store. Weekly lives in an old rooming house at one end, opposite an intrusive block of flats, and her clients live along its length. Weekly, who was brought up ‘in service’, cleans and helps out at dinner parties. At the end of each day she plonks down in a chair in the store and gives off a few items of news.

The story has a timeless feel which makes it difficult to place, but Weekly’s friend Nastasya was a teenager during the Russian Revolution and she and Weekly appear to be similar ages. By the time of the story Weekly is in late middle age so perhaps the setting is the early 1960s, before supermarkets had wiped out all the old grocery stores.

We learn that Weekly and her mother had been in service in England, and had emigrated to Australia when her father was killed in an accident. An older sister goes to work in the wheatbelt and we don’t hear of her again, but Weekly’s younger brother, Victor, who had been doing well at school in England, becomes a young con man, hanging around and taking what he can from Weekly and her mother, until at last, owing too much to the wrong type of people, he too disappears.

Weekly and her mother were in service in a large house. House cleaning was the only work they knew. Between them on swollen feet, they waited on Victor, cherishing him, because they knew no other way. And Victor, as he grew older, made his own life which they were obliged to hold in reverence because they did not understand it.

All the time, as Weekly works and saves, we are on the edge of her thoughts, listening in …

It was if her mother’s sigh persisted through the years, sadly and quietly, in the noise of the leaves flustering in front of the broom. Weekly added her own sigh and then shook off the thoughts. It was such a long time ago now.

Eventually Weekly gets a little car, persuades one client to give her an old car they have for sale, and another client, not to be outdone, to pay for her driving lessons, and begins to drive out into the country to seek out a little farmlet to which she might be able to afford to retire.

The fly in the ointment is that Nastasya, who has been used all her life to be waited on, has moved into Weekly’s room and Weekly doesn’t have the heart to abandon her. Twice they head for the ‘hospital’ (nearby Graylands, formerly the Hospital for the Insane) only for Weekly to turn back. So finally Weekly takes Nastasya with her, to the shack on a few acres in the hills and there she comes up with a solution to her need for isolation and quiet that is as shocking as it is funny.

Jolley’s writing is exquisite and her characterisations are brilliant. She writes with great feeling about what it is to be an older woman, but more than that, she writes with insight on what it is to be, in Australia.

 

Elizabeth Jolley, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 1981. Audio version, The Association for the Blind of WA, 2009, read by Coralie Ellement