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.

Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman

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Jane’s Fame (2009) is a well-written and fascinating account of the rise of the ‘Divine’ Jane from obscurity to world domination in two centuries. That’s three ‘Janes’ so just in the unlikely event you haven’t caught on, I’m writing about English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817). Where she fits in an Australian literary blog I’m not sure. She was already immensely popular by the end of the nineteenth century but no Australians that I know of cite her as an influence. Boldrewood of course cites Austen’s contemporary, Walter Scott, many others cite Byron and Dickens, but maybe at least Ada Cambridge and Tasma owe something to JA’s spare, ironic, ‘domestic’ writing.

Anyway, at some stage I’ll also write about Waverley (Scott), Ruth (Gaskell) and The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne) not because they’re relevant, though they might be, but just because I like them. I also have to write about America’s ‘Noble Frontiersman’ as a precursor to the Lone Hand of the Australian Legend which might involve reviewing ES Ellis, James Fennimore Cooper and even Zane Grey. Interestingly, it seems Cooper’s first novel was a spoof of Persuasion . Apparently, he wasn’t very proud of it!

It is easy to conflate Austen with her most famous creation, Elizabeth Bennet, and her parents with Mr and Mrs Bennet, but in fact they were nothing like (although it is probable that Jane, like Elizabeth, was her father’s favourite). The Austens were a literary family, her mother was an ‘unstoppable versifier’, and “two of her brothers, two first cousins, an aunt, two second cousins and a neighbour were all published authors, and others in her circle strove to be.” In fact, the writer of the family was meant to be Jane’s oldest brother, James, a poet who as it turned out, remained unpublished. Jane’s father was the rector at Steventon, Hampshire until 1801 when he retired in favour of James. The parents moved to Bath, taking with them Jane and her older sister and confidante Cassandra.

Jane began writing at a young age, as we know now from her published juvenilia. Leaving aside Lady Susan which Austen doesn’t seem to have meant to be published, her first novel First Impressions was offered to a publisher by her father, and rejected, in 1796. By 1800 she had early drafts for Elinor and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility)First Impressions (renamed Pride and Prejudice after the name was taken by another writer) and Susan (later, Northanger Abbey).  Susan was in fact sold to a publisher in 1803 but he didn’t go ahead and it took her many years to recover the rights. Eventually there was a period of 20 years with completed novels in all their iterations circulating amongst family and Jane revising. Harman sees this interregnum as vital to Austen’s later success: “The longer Austen remained unpublished, the more experimental she became, and the more licence she assumed with bold brilliant moves.” The spare style, with its naturalistic descriptions of family life, which she adopted, invented really, anticipated Modernism, at the end of the C19th, by almost 100 years.“Almost single-handedly, Austen moved the novel into the modern era – and did much of it before she got a single word in print.”

In 1809 Rev Austen died and Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane moved to Chawton, Hampshire on the estate of Jane’s brother Edward Knight. In 1811 Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. “Austen attempted to bring the book right up to date by adding a reference to the twopenny post – introduced in 1809 – and Marmion, the bestselling poem published anonymously by newcomer Walter Scott in 1808.” The book was well received, the first edition sold 750 copies, and generated some speculation as to who might be the author. In fact, the only time Austen was ever to see her name in print was as a subscriber to Fanny Burney’s Camilla in 1795, and although her authorship was something of an open secret she wasn’t publicly acknowledged as an author until her brother Henry’s tribute after her death. Next to come out was Pride and Prejudice, at the beginning of 1813, for which she sold the copyright for just 110 pounds. The following year brought  Mansfield Park and also Walter Scott’s Waverley, also anonymously, although he at least had the pleasure of publicly acknowledging his own authorship in 1827. Emma was commenced in 1814 and published in 1815, by which time Austen had begun Persuasion and also, having finally recovered Susan, had begun revising it as Northanger Abbey. Sanditon, which was to remain unfinished, had also been begun.

Right from the beginning Jane Austen’s novels were perceived as something above the normal course of romantic and adventure novels then current. Harman writes:

Three months after the publication of Emma, an unsigned article by Walter Scott, about 4,000 words long, appeared in the Quarterly, acknowledging publicly that ‘the author of Pride & Prejudice etc etc’ was a force to be reckoned with. Scott’s thoughtful, deeply appreciative overview … recognised her kind of novel as something new in the past fifteen or twenty years, replacing the improbable excitements of sensational literature with ‘the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life’.

In 1817, Jane became seriously ill. She left Chawton and took lodgings nearer her doctor but by July she was dead, aged just 41, doubly unfortunately as many of her siblings lived into their 70s. Her papers were distributed between siblings, nephews and nieces, beginning a Jane Austen industry which descendants of the family manage seemingly right up to this day. The very unlike Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, shorter than their three volume predecessors, were published together posthumously as a single, four volume edition later the same year. The included Biographical Notice names Austen for the first time and stresses her rectitude, “No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen”, an invention of her family somewhat at odds with Jane’s pleasure in collecting, and soliciting from her correspondents, notices of her work and other mentions in the press.

For a while it seems as though Austen may have faded out of sight, but in the 1830s publisher Richard Bentley purchased the rights for all 6 Jane Austen novels from the family for the bargain basement price of 250 pounds and began publishing them in his ‘low-cost, compact’ Standard Novels series. At a time when she was receiving little critical notice, although Scott like many others was reading her over and over again, the ongoing availability of the Standard Novels served to keep Austen before the public. Then, in 1869, Jame’s son, James Edward Austen-Leigh published his Memoir of Jane Austen which “remains the main source of biographical information, incorporating family reminiscences, extracts from letters and anecdotes about Austen’s life as a writer.”

For some time Austen’s novels remained a secret appreciated only by more discerning readers but Harman goes on to document the exponential growth of both scholarly writings about Austen and of fan clubs of her readers following James Edward’s memoir . Let me end with these words from Katherine Mansfield:

the truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone –reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of the author.

 

Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2009

I can’t list every post Sue at Whispering Gums has done on Jane Austen, there are too many. No, there could never be ‘too many’ so let’s just say there are lots. The list of all her JA posts is here, and from them I would recommend in particular her close reading of Emma, volumes 1,2 and 3.

Lisa at ANZLL reviews (the unfinished) Sanditon here.

 

The Bond of Wedlock, Rosa Praed

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Rosa Praed (1851-1935) was born into ‘comfortable’ circumstances on one of her father, Thomas Murray-Prior’s Queensland cattle stations, the third of eleven children (ADB). She was educated at home, by her mother and tutors. Her mother was the niece of poet Charles Harpur and the family had its own magazine to which Rosa contributed stories.

In 1872 Rosa was married from Government House, Brisbane to Arthur Campbell Bulkley Praed, younger son of an English banking and brewing family, and in 1876 they returned to England, to the family business in Northamptonshire. A few years later Rosa, having achieved some literary success, began living in London. By 1897 she was separated from her husband and from that time onwards she lived with Nancy Hayward, a ‘psychic medium’, until Hayward’s death in 1927.

Praed, Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) and Tasma (Jessie Couvreur (1848-97)) are often bracketed as romance writers and dismissed as extraneous to the nationalist tradition of the 1890s, thus not only ignoring the importance of marriage and its organization for colonial women (and men too, for that matter!) but also dismissing their accurate and often satirical depictions of colonial life. In her seminal Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia (1975) Anne Summers compares Praed with Cambridge:

 Ada Cambridge became a perspicacious observer of the manners of Melbourne [post gold rush] middle-class society and applied a gentle wit and a mild irony to its pretensions and hypocrisies. Rosa Campbell-Praed discarded any pretensions to critical accolades and created superb if implausible heroines… A revealing feature of her writings was her proclivity for having her female characters dispense with weak, cowardly or uninteresting men and take up, legally or otherwise, with more exciting characters.

The Bond of Wedlock (1887) is the eleventh of Praed’s 45 novels. Re-written as the play Ariane it ran for 100 performances in the West End in 1888. Unlike many of her other works, it is a drawing room drama, set totally in London and does not draw on her experience of life in Australia. Its relevance today is that it is an important example of the attacks Australian women writers were making on the institution of marriage well before Miles Franklin’s famously anti-marriage My Brilliant Career (1901).

In The Bond of Wedlock Ariana, a beautiful young woman has been forced by the loss of her father’s fortunes (or rather, by her father’s dissipation of his father’s “great tallow business”) to forgo her expectations of marrying into the minor aristocracy and instead has married Harvey Lomax, “the junior partner in a house of business in the City”. After nine years of ongoing ‘financial crises’ caused by overspending they have one child of 7 or 8 years and Ariana has learnt that “if my marriage has been a mistake, I ought to have learnt in nine years that the only thing I can do is make the best of it.” But is that “the only thing”? She has a rich friend, Sir Leopold D’Acosta, who visits her frequently, sends her gifts and even makes ‘loans’ to her father. Lomax, constantly irritated by Ariana’s indifference to him, and infuriated because she will not ask D’Acosta for a loan to help him out, strikes her one night in a drunken rage. Her father and D’Acosta see the bruises and arrange with D’Acosta’s mistress for Lomax to be caught out in adultery. Lomax agrees not to contest a divorce and Ariana marries D’Acosta. Praed does not argue that Ariana might have remained single but neither is marriage, even to a millionaire, an unalloyed pleasure:

[Ariana] did a certain amount of languid shopping. She drove a certain number of times up and down the Ladies’ Mile. She talked all her conventional society talk. She had her admirers, whom she treated in somewhat haughty fashion… She dined out in the smartest houses, and she went to the smartest balls and receptions. She sometimes thought with a shudder of [her previous] little house in Elizabeth Street.

Ariana genuinely loves D’Acosta but begins to suspect that he no longer loves her in return. When she confronts him he replies,“You are a little unreasonable aren’t you? … One doesn’t suppose that a honeymoon lasts forever. I had an idea that we were a fairly affectionate couple, as couples go. I congratulated myself upon having married a woman of sense and experience.”

Shortly after, her father lets slip the details of Lomax’s entrapment and all love is fled. Ariana conveys to D’Acosta that they will forthwith maintain only the appearance of marriage, “‘We can be very good friends on the outside. We need never be anything more.’ ‘I think you are wise,’ he answered, and not another word was spoken …”

One of the advantages of reissues is that they often come with an interesting introductory essay, in this case by Lynne Spender, sister of Pandora Australian Women Writers, The Literary Heritage series editor Dale Spender. Her conclusion is that:

Obviously, Praed saw women of her time as damned if they did conform to society’s standards and damned if they did not. In neither case could they exist as free and independent beings…

Rosa Praed’s observations still have a ring of truth. To readers of the 1980s, Ariana’s dilemma is credible and, for many, familiar. Although ‘the bond of wedlock’ has loosened somewhat in the intervening 100 years, women who have faced violent men and who have contemplated divorce can readily understand Ariana’s ambivalence and the intensity of her feelings.

As I said, by the 1880s Australian women were already writing (and therefore reading and thinking) about ways to break out of the conventional domestic stereotypes; about how to circumvent men’s expectations of their behaviour. In addition to Praed, there were Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) whose ‘utopian’ novel Handfasted – A Romance (not published until 1984) was submitted to the Sydney Mail in about 1880 for a competition, but was rejected as ‘calculated to loosen the marriage tie … too socialistic and therefore dangerous’; and Catherine Martin (1848-1937) and Mary Gaunt (1861-1942) whose work I have reviewed in earlier posts (here and here). And in the 1890s we might add Louisa Lawson, Rosa Scott, Vida Goldstein and so on.

Rosa Praed came up in an earlier post on depictions of Aborigines, for which her upbringing on an outback cattle station left her well qualified. I still intend to review one of her novels with an outback setting, probably Lady Bridget which I have on my laptop but which continues to be gazumped by books which I have to hand.

 

Rosa Praed, The Bond of Wedlock, 1887. Reissued by Pandora, Sydney, 1987


Two items of housekeeping:

  1. I’ve started a Facebook account to match this blog. I want to experiment with it to see what extra material I can carry. More photos of course and maybe some stories shared from other parts of the web. I’m not sure how to access it from here, but the account name is Wad Holloway (and the profile picture is a sketch of Miles Franklin) if you want to search for it.
  2. And that takes me to the second thing. Melanie at Grab the Lapels is running an excellent weekly series of tips to improve your WordPress experience (here) and she has promised to show me/everyone how to add a button so you can jump from WordPress to Facebook.- which she did overnight and I think I have my facebook button up and running, thankyou Melanie
  3. Lisa, I’m reading Morris Lurie’s Flying High and I’ll post a review for you in a couple of weeks.

Pia and the Skyman, Sue Parritt

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Sue Parritt’s Pia and the Skyman is the sequel to Sannah and the Pilgrim (2014) and the second in a planned science fiction trilogy set in an Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) four centuries into the future. The third, The Skylines Alliance, is apparently underway.

It is a truism of SciFi that wherever/whenever the novel is set, the narrative deals with problems which are contemporary to the author. So early SciFi of the 1950s-1970s, the Golden Age as far as I am concerned, dealt with the Cold War and the aftermath of seemingly inevitable nuclear war, later SciFi (CyberPunk) dealt with computers and the growing underclass in Western societies, and today’s SciFi (or CliFi) deals with global warming and population movements.

Parritt writes on her website

I was inspired by the continuing inhumane treatment of refugees seeking asylum in Australia and the government’s failure to adequately address climate change.

I want readers to grasp what is happening not only in contemporary Australia, but throughout the world with regard to refugees and the ongoing environmental degradation that poses increasing problems for humanity…

In ‘Pia and the Skyman,’ I focus on a tiny population forced to flee their home and the ramifications when a significant percentage are refused asylum due to unacceptable difference. By writing fiction that I believe could easily become fact, I hope to inspire more ‘ordinary’ people to take a stand and work for a more equitable and sustainable world.

The Australia and Aotearoa of Pia and the Skyman are ravished by drought, and coastal plains have been inundated by rising sea levels. An apartheid-like system is in place in Australia, with the Whites who of course retain power, although they are greatly impoverished compared with today, living on what remains of the arable southern and eastern coastal fringe; Browns, refugee populations from largely drowned Pacific Islands, are confined to the central desert; and Asians are in factory and farming villages in the north. The Indigenous population has apparently been wiped out by disease. The people of Aotearoa live mostly on the south island, and the northern part of the north island is a haven for Brown refugees from Australia.

Pia, a young woman, is the daughter of the eponymous Sannah of the previous title. She has been rescued from a desert prison by the ‘skyman’ and brought to Aotearoa where she is active in the Women’s Line, a Resistance/Underground Railroad-type organisation. Kaire, the skyman of the title, is a visitor from Skyz59, a remote space platform, settled some two centuries earlier. He uses his ‘inter-galactic’, 10 seater space vessel for trips between Australia and Aotearoa, neither of which have planes of their own.

I should say at this point that I haven’t read Sannah and the Pilgrim. I attempted to buy it after reading Lisa of ANZLL’s review (here) but my local bookshop could only source it from the US. Lisa was good enough to put me in touch with the author who sold me the copies I wanted and also kindly provided me with a review copy of Pia. However, I am pretty sure you can buy both books at Dymocks or from the publisher, Odyssey.

Pia and Kaire, become lovers early on (it is not regarded as remarkable that previously Kaire was Sannah’s, ie. Pia’s mother’s, lover), so their romance is a given rather than contributing to narrative tension. They undertake a series of adventures in Kaire’s spaceship, rescuing 5 women from an underground prison in the Australian desert; and on another occasion, leaving the ship hidden in scrub while they infiltrate the Asian zone, acting as White education officials, escaping from flash floods and arrest.

When Kaire receives a message recalling him to Skyz59, which is approaching the end of its working life, Pia determines to accompany him, in defiance of his instructions. The Aotearoans are willing to accept the hundreds of residents of the space station as refugees, and all Sky-ship pilots have been recalled from their various explorations to undertake their transport. But there is a problem, many of the people on Skyz59 have been created by cloning, rather than in the old-fashioned way, and clones are unacceptable on Earth. Kaire himself is a clone and Pia expects that once he has transported his consignment of refugees to Earth he will return to pick her up and they will spend what remains of their lives exploring the galaxies.

The Skyz59 people resolve the clone problem in their own way and Pia and Kaire, once more on Earth, have yet another adventure in northern Australia tracking down an informer in the Women’s Line network.

This is science fiction in the old way, with lots of action and only minimal characterisation. The science itself is a bit dodgy, with instantaneous communications over very large distances (although the great Le Guin ‘invented’ the ansible to deal with just this problem), and a space ship capable of inter-galactic flight being used for personal, sub-space transport*.  But overall, I found Pia and the Skyman to be a fun read and the geo-political problems it addresses totally realistic. I do however suggest you read Sannah and the Pilgrim first.

 

Sue Parritt, Pia and the Skyman, Odyssey Books, Melbourne, 2016

Book 3, The Sky Lines Alliance, is due out in October 2016.

*Inter-galactic distances are measured in millions of light years and even the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is 30,000 light years away. While Mars for instance is, on average, 12.5 light minutes from Earth, making for 25 minute gaps between speakers even over this relatively short distance.

Sue Parrit’s blog here

 

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

also: The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford

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Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2014) is a work of popular fiction about a clique of kindergarten mothers, or competing cliques really, at Pirriwee primary school, a fictitious Sydney beachside suburb. We are told at the beginning that someone has died at a school trivia night, but not who or by whose hand, and then we go back to the beginning of the school year and by degrees work our way forwards to the trivia night and the denoument. And as an aside, don’t check out the Wikipedia entry for this book if you wish to be surprised by the ending.

I listened to Big Little Lies recently in the truck and it was an easy way to pass the time, and more than that, under a pleasant surface Moriarty deals with issues with a bit of bite – date rape, domestic abuse, adultery, bullying – as well as the usual family conflicts and an amusing romance.

Before Big Little Lies I was listening to an American, old guy novel, Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land (2006), 23 hours of prostate problems and failed second marriages, as I ran to and from a job at Karalundi, an Aboriginal “community” (actually a Seventh Day Adventist mission/school with a name change) 800 km north of Perth, and the third time it’s been mentioned in these pages in the last couple of months. I had to sit at Karalundi for a day waiting for my last trailer to be empty. It’s a lovely place, green, with plenty of underground water, and neat pressed earth buildings, but there’s no community living there, just mission staff and Aboriginal students. The (white) woman running the cafe and caravan park gave me the keys to the museum – an old school building I think with three rooms of photographs. As far as I can tell, the mission closed in 1974 but reopened shortly after as a church school carrying on as before but nominally controlled by locals, presumably from Meekatharra and Wiluna.

I’ve said before I don’t read old guy books – although Rebus and Cliff Hardy and so on have their share of old guy musings – and I don’t know Richard Ford, but I was impressed by The Lay of the Land which notionally deals with three ordinary working days in the life of Frank Bascombe, fifty five, a realtor in coastal Sea-Clift NJ, but is really a stream of consciousness as Bascombe deals with recently diagnosed prostate cancer, preparations for Thanksgiving, a missing second wife who has gone back, temporarily at least, to her first husband, theoretically adult children, a surprising offer from his first wife and, as a committed Democrat, awaits the result of the court case (remember hanging chads in Florida) which determined the result of the 2000 Presidential election; all matters that kept me thinking and agreeing as I listened.

As well as I can tell from the covers, I attempt to vary my listening, so from the male American voice of The Lay of the Land it was a natural jump to the female Australian voice of Big Little Lies. I hadn’t heard of Moriarty either but apparently this is her second or third international best seller with a big budget movie underway.

The story, briefly, is that Jane, a 24 yo single mother moves to Pirriwee with her 5 yo son Ziggy, becomes friends with Madelaine who has a 5 yo (Chloe) and a 7 yo with her second husband and a 14 yo, Abigail by her previous marriage to Nathan who is now married to Bonnie and they have a 5 yo of their own. And Madelaine, and hence Jane, is friends with the beautiful Celeste, married to very well off merchant banker Perry, and they have 5 yo twins, Max and Josh; and all these 5 yo’s are starting in kinder year at Pirriwee. There are others, most amusingly the “blonde bobs”, the power mothers with identical (Julie Bishop) hairstyles who run the school, but you get the picture. On the first day, Ziggy is accused of bullying and it takes most of the novel to lay this accusation to rest. Meanwhile Jane gradually reveals to Madelaine and Celeste details of the date rape that led to Ziggy’s conception; Abigail breaks Madeline’s heart by going to live with her father and Bonnie; Celeste is the victim of ongoing violence by Perry; and Jane makes friends with the ‘gay’ owner of the local coffee shop.

The narrative pov switches between Jane, Madelaine and Celeste but at the end of each section there are also tantalising excerpts from witness statements (following the trivia night ‘murder’) which provides an interesting, multifaceted view of the action, especially when compared with the single, linear (male) viewpoint of The Lay of the Land.

The big similarity of the two books however is their focus on privileged, white, middle class suburban life. Within Big Little Lies there is a range of incomes, but only from middling to high, as you might expect in a Sydney beachside suburb, and no ethnic diversity at all. The Lay of the Land is similarly situated but interestingly, to an Australian at least, the lower classes are evident by their colour – Latino servants, female African American cooks and so on, and Ford seems to me to refer to them quite disparagingly.

As I said, the authors of both books are unknown to me, but not, according to Google, to millions of readers world-wide, and The Lay of the Land at least seems to have attracted some pretty high powered reviews. If you have the time, I recommend them both.

 

Karalundi
Karalundi Museum

Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies, Penguin, 2014. Audio version: Bolinda Audio, 2014, read by Caroline Lee

Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land, 2006. Audio version: AudioGO, 2012, read by Peter Marinker

Review of The Lay of the Land in The Independent (here)

Previous mentions of Karalundi (here and here). More photos facebook Karalundi album

 

The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony, Henry Handel Richardson

 

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The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and other stories is misleadingly named. Firstly, Cuffy, a boy, has only one adventure and secondly, all the other stories, divided into Growing Pains – sketches of girlhood, set in Australia, and Part 2, Tales of Old Strasbourg and a couple of other stories reflecting the author’s move to Europe, are mostly about aspects of what it is to be a woman. I suspect that the name and the opening story were chosen only to take advantage of the popularity of Richardson’s masterwork, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

For my increasing numbers of overseas readers (I had a reader in Brazil last week), Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Ethel Richardson (1870-1946). In The Australian Novel (undated, but inscribed with Dad’s name and the year 1947, so it was probably a text for teachers’ college) Colin Roderick writes, “Although not typically Australian, Henry Handel Richardson’s work stands at a higher level than that of any other novelist belonging to this country.”

HHR’s doctor father, whom she later fictionalised as Richard Mahony, died when she was 9. Her mother supported the family by becoming Post Mistress at first Koroit then Maldon, Victorian country towns, and managed to get Ethel and her younger sister into exclusive Presbyterian Ladies College, Melbourne and then the Leipzig Conservatorium (earlier post here). HHR met and married Scot and noted scholar of German literature, John George Robertson in Leipzig, lived for a number of years prior to WWI in Strasbourg, and then the rest of her life in England.

It is speculated that her marriage to Robertson was a cover for her sexual preference for women. HHR alludes (in her letters, I think) to an ongoing, long-distance, relationship with a Melbourne woman with whom she was at school, and a recent essay* says straight out that in the latter part of her life HHR was in a relationship with her secretary/companion Olga Roncoroni. The author of her ADB entry (here) strongly disagrees. The reason I raise this at all, is that it illuminates any reading of the stories, particularly those making up Growing Pains.

The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony, subtitled The End of a Childhood, is really a sort of afterword to Ultima Thule, the last book of The Fortunes trilogy. Richard has been dead one year. Mrs Mahony has moved on from Koroit to Maldon with children Cuffy and Lucie. She receives an unwelcome proposal of marriage from a well off family ‘friend’ which she is in two minds whether to accept. She has an accident, dies and the children are taken away to be raised separately. It is well enough written, from Cuffy’s as well as Mrs Mahony’s point of view, but is out of place in this collection.

Growing Pains consists of 9 short stories whose protagonists are all girls/young women, each a little older than the girls in the preceding story, set in rural pre-WWI Australia. So in the first, a girl age 6 bathing naked at the edge of the ocean is put off bathing for life when two older women strip and join her.

And suddenly she turned tail and ran back to the pool. She didn’t want to see…

Two fat, stark-naked figures were coming down the beach. They had joined hands, as if to sustain each other in their nudity … or as if, in shedding their clothes, they had also shed a portion of their years. Gingerly, yet in haste to reach cover, they applied their soles to the prickly sand; a haste that caused unwieldy breasts to bob and swing, bellies and buttocks to wobble. Splay-legged they were, from the weight of these protuberances.

In the next, three girls in a boarding school dorm spend a night attempting  to arrange themselves in an uncomfortable bed; and in the third two twelve year-olds argue in a hay loft then get a thrill when a workman lifts them down from the ladder: “… two long arms, two big hairy hands, which, gripping each twelve-year-old securely round the middle, swung her high before setting her on her feet. Carelessly now the short skirts fluttered and ballooned.”

Nineteen year-old Alice with a fiance attempts to explain the facts of life she barely knows herself to a younger girl worrying about the consequences of her first kiss. Then, not a story, just a snippet, four girls rushing to have a bath together in muddy water – the dam must be low – no names, just descriptions. The bath is full, someone is coming: “Like a herd of startled wild things, all made for the water at once, a phalanx of cream, white and dusky legs whisking over the side with incredible rapidity.” And more water. A girl on an outing being rowed by The Boy, but he takes a wrong fork and they are in the middle of a men’s bathing enclosure: “ … men were running, jumping, chasing, leap frogging … every one of them as naked as the day he was born.” A girl at her first ball tears her gown getting down from the wagonette, doesn’t get asked to dance, goes home early and cries herself to sleep. Two women, friends, argue. One has found a man she is willing to marry. But:

“Oh, Betty, Betty! … I couldn’t, no, I couldn’t! It’s when I think of that … Yes, it’s quite true, I like him all right, I do indeed, but only as long as he doesn’t come too near. If he even sits too close I have to screw myself up to bear it.” … and locking her arms around her friend she drove her face deeper into the warmth and darkness.

And last, 6 sisters, their mother dead, their father a drunkard, running a farm and praying for husbands, at least for the youngest and prettiest.

The German stories, again set before the War, reflecting Richardson’s time there studying and then as a professor’s wife, are denser and maybe written later, the product of a more mature writer, I wish there was an Introduction so that we could know. In the first a working class girl has a baby, takes it home, watches it die of infant cholera brought about by the mother’s failure to always boil the milk. And in the second, a middle-aged professor of Philology living in a flat with his older sister takes a younger wife. Again the baby dies, of boredom probably, and this story seems so palpably a dig at her husband that it is hard to know what to make of it without more information, but it ends with the sister walking out, re-evaluating her situation as his eternal housekeeper/servant.

In the others, a woman dies, a composer takes and abandons a young lover in pursuit of his art, and another woman dies. The stories of Growing Pains are easily the best, but all are well written and the descriptions of old Strasbourg are very fine indeed.

 

Henry Handel Richardson, The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and other stories, Sirius,Sydney, 1979. The End of a Childhood first published 1934


*Anne-Marie Priest, The Love Song of Henry and Olga, Australian Book Review, May 2014. See also a fierce ‘rebuttal’ in Letters to the Editor, ABR August 2014

 

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Maldon P.O. (2015)

 

Ion Idriess

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Ion Idriess (1889-1979) was, with Frank Clune (1893-1971), the foremost of a number of author/journalists, Ernestine Hill was another, who reinforced Australian Bush archetypes with their easy-to-read story-telling.

According to a website maintained by fans (who call Idriess by his nickname, Jack):

From his first attempt in 1927 to his final book published in 1969, Jack published 53 books…

Jack sold more than three million books when his target audience (Australia’s population) was less than seven million and this record must also be set in the context of the Great Depression. In the 1930’s, when Australia was in the depths of depression, people still bought his books by the million.

Of the 53 several were novels but, according to The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, “in the main he wrote basically factual stories, imaginatively re-created, with the invented conversations that are a feature also of the works of Frank Clune.” (for a Bibliography see Wikipedia). Quite a number were about, or included accounts of, Aborigines. The Introduction to Gems from Ion Idriess (1949), a book intended for schools, says of Idriess who in his twenties was in Queensland prospecting:

[On Cape York Peninsula] he made contact with aboriginal life by becoming a prospecting mate of two half-caste brothers. These men were the leaders of a tribe of aborigines. The three wandered with the tribe for months at a time.

From [his] relatively primitive mainland brothers, Idriess learned many strange things. He became acquainted with age-old aboriginal customs and beliefs that have adorned the tales he has set in the land that was once theirs.

The Introduction goes on to say, “His is no cultivated style. He possesses a natural talent that springs from his own Australia: he is an instrument through which the genius of the country speaks, for it has become a part of his mind.” Further, he brings vigour to Australian writing. “In this he resembles Walter Scott, who first led the English man in the street to read poetry.” The Introduction is by the ubiquitous Colin Roderick (ADB Whispering Gums).

Following on from Lisa at ANZLL’s recent Indigenous Writers’ Week I thought it might be a good time to review a writer who was, in his day, influential in forming attitudes amongst urban readers the great majority of whom spent their lives then as they do now, remote from Aboriginal contact. My brothers have (and my father had) extensive collections of Ion Idriess, so I have to hand:

Nemarluk: King of the Wilds (1947)

Gems From Ion Idriess (1949)

The Red Chief: A Mighty Aboriginal Warrior (1953)

Gems consists of 34 excerpts, of about 5 pages each, from longer works. I don’t remember seeing it during my schooling in Victoria and the inside cover is stamped Broken Hill High (the Class is listed as I or 1 BP) so it may have been a set text in NSW in the 1950s. There are a couple of stories from the book Lasseter’s Last Ride (Lasseter was an explorer who claimed to have discovered a fabulous reef of gold in the NT at the turn of the century but who lost his life in 1931 in remote desert on the WA border while attempting to re-find it). One describes an emu hunt:

The warriors rushed in, striking with their wommeras, leaping aside from those flail-like legs, striking at that dodging head which struck viciously back. Lasseter danced with the others. Here was meat, plenty of meat!

In another, Idriess describes a Kaditcha man laying a curse. Arthur Upfield tells similar stories – it seems to be an Indigenous story that white authors ascribe to quite widespread groups – of a man wearing shoes “of emu feathers clotted together with blood” who cannot be tracked and whose power comes from the spirits of the dead. In this story Lasseter is ceremoniously presented with a long, intricately carved spear by a group of tribesmen. But when it is shown in Alice Springs, Lasseter’s party is told, “This stick is one of the sandhills gods. You people might best understand my meaning when I use the word ‘god’. It bears the record, the life history of a tribe from the time that tribe began.”  The stick has been stolen and the curse on the stealer transferred to Lasseter. ‘“He will never come back,” said the man, and was gone.’

Another story deals with Aboriginal burial platforms, but it is obvious the overall purpose of Gems is to inculcate students with good, Bush values.

Nemarluk is the name of a tribal leader on the rugged coast south-west of Darwin, between the Daly and Victoria Rivers. He was “chief of the Cahn-mah, King of the Wilds …  six feet two inches tall, broad chested with a springy quickness of body … a magnificent young savage”, leading his chosen men:

Light of heart the Red Band walked on. Nature’s children these, primitive sons of primitive men. This the land they loved, the life they loved. … These and their tribesmen in Australia’s last few isolated places are the last of the Stone Age men.

And let’s not forget Marboo, “Nemarluk’s young wife, the happiest, proudest little woman in all the Wild Lands.” The landscape is also a ‘character’ as it is in many outback stories. In this case the mangrove swamps, and the canoes gliding through them, evoke de Heer’s 2006 movie, Ten Canoes, set further east, in Arnhem Land.

Much of the 220 pp is taken up with informative and picturesque descriptions of day to day Indigenous life but the main story is that Nemarluk’s group ambush and murder the crew of a ‘Jap’ fishing boat come into shore for water. The police hear of this and with their fierce ‘black-tracker’ Bul Bul set out in pursuit. Nemarluk evades them for months, rampaging across the lands in classic outlaw fashion. “This was their country; they would fight against the white man’s law.” This is not a bad story and the action is well described, but of course Nemarluk and all his warriors, in their home country, are no match for a couple of white policemen and their few Black assistants and eventually they are all locked up in Darwin’s famous Fanny Bay Jail. Nemarluk escapes and makes his way home but he no longer has fighting men to support him and after a series of adventures he is recaptured.

The Red Chief, according to Idriess’s Preface is the story of an earlier Aboriginal leader, told by Bungaree, the last remaining Gunnedah (NSW) man, in the late 1800s, written down and passed on many years later to Idriess.  Red Kangaroo (the ‘Red Chief’) by a series of adventures consolidates the tribes of the Liverpool Plains and becomes their paramount leader. Here he gains himself a couple of brides:

Red Kangaroo, cautiously following, grew hotly eager to lay his hands upon these two attractive girls, as desirable as any he had ever seen. And soon they would be at his mercy… gripping his nulla, he stepped towards the nearer girl … Lifting his club, he brought it smartly down with just the right force upon that thick mop of hair.

He treats the second girl likewise and secures them in a cave, where he tells them:

“I am a warrior of the Gunn-e-darr… Learn that I am a good warrior, as you are going to be good wives!”

Let me finish with two points. Firstly, even allowing that he was well meaning and had first hand information, Idriess’s Aborigines reflect nineteenth century stereotypes which might equally have been applied to ‘Red Indians’ (native Americans) or South Sea warriors; and secondly, following on from Resident Judge’s reference* to Graeme Davison at the recent AHA conference, whether the writers of the ‘Australian Legend’ are from the Bush or from the City, the consumption of such writing by mainly urban Australians was the product of their great thirst for stories which reflected their view of themselves as laconic, independent, resourceful inheritors of an Outback culture. And yes that culture was male-centric and probably the readership was and is too. (Apparently Idriess still sells).

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*Resident Judge blogged each of the four days of the recent 2016 Australian Historical Association conference. Graeme Davison’s essay Sydney and the Bush: An Urban Context for the Australian Legend was mentioned in passing on 6 July and piqued my interest.