Just when I thought I’d done enough long trips, and just as AWW Gen 5-SFF Week was getting under way, I was given a string of jobs which has kept me away from home two weeks to date with another week to go. Luckily, I had some posts ready, but though I had a break last Mon-Tue, and again this weekend, I haven’t done any writing and thought I had better explain my absence.
First, I took a couple of road rollers from Perth to a mine out from Laverton, north east of Kalgoorlie; the maiden outing for my new road train dolly. 1,300 km
From Laverton I ran empty to Cape Preston, on the north west coast, south of Karratha. 1,700 km
The reason for this was that a contract I had expected for January had fallen through and so I accepted a road train load from Cape Preston to Peak Downs in central Queensland, inland of Mackay. 6,000 km as the shorter, northabout route via the Northern Territory is closed until the bridges swept away at Fitzroy Crossing are replaced, initially with a low level ford in three or four months. And yes, there are only two made roads east-west across Australia.
A week or so in, in the night, crossing western NSW towards Cobar, the truck started to run slow and a check of the gauges showed I had no turbo boost. For a while I had a top speed of 80 kph until I discovered that by revving the engine really high the turbo could be persuaded to resume working. This problem persisted for a couple of days but is currently in remission.
However, I woke in the morning to a big pool of oil under the front of the truck. Crawling underneath I discovered that the dipstick tube had come away from the sump. I blocked the hole and put a couple of litres of oil in and drove the 200 km remaining to Cobar, the next town. I didn’t seem to be losing much oil, so I bought some more and turned north towards Bourke and on into Queensland.
The days were beginning to blur. I had left Kalgoorlie Tuesday morning and was due in Peak Downs during working hours on Saturday, which I thought could manage by doing 1,200 km a day.
I fuelled in Charleville in western Qld on Friday and was persuaded there by some resting Western Australian drivers to take the shorter dirt road from Tambo to Alpha – which they had just taken in the opposite direction – which I did Saturday morning. It was ok, not boggy, but very narrow and poorly signposted. Soon I was in Emerald and on the phone to my contact in Peak Downs. His directions to me were to go half an hour north to Capella, turn east 75 kms to Dysart and then come up the last short stretch to Peak Downs and I’d be there by lunchtime. Which I was, but Capella to Dysart is a mostly dirt farm track through a mountain range. Next time I’m going the long way!
Still, that was the load done and my money – supposedly COD – earned. The poor old truck desperately needed a service and repairs. There is a Volvo dealer at Mackay, but a phone call to my truck driver cousin in Toowoomba (a major regional city near Brisbane) got me a booking with his mechanic, so I used Sunday to run empty there. 1,000 km
Two days rest for me. A refreshed truck. A part load from Brisbane and here I am in Melbourne (via the inland route for road trains) 2,000 km.
I loaded one trailer Friday, spent a day at B4’s farm near Bendigo where mum was also, and tomorrow (Monday) I load the second and I’m heading for home. 4,000 km
Have you been doing the maths (well, arithmetic really)? That’s three weeks and 16,000 km – about the same distance as Melbourne – London.
On the real business of this blog, I was really pleased with the response to the Gen 5-SFF theme, though I had hoped to get a second author interview. She might still write. I hope I didn’t inadvertently write a question that offended her. I’ll write up the summary when I get home. Thank you all for taking part.
Meanwhile the family message service is running hot. Lou is back in Tennant Creek for another year. The last photo I saw was of him camping at Coober Pedy. Psyche is due for another round of treatment; and as I write, Gee’s bush block which featured in my last Journal post, is threatened, though not seriously at this stage, by bushfires. She and the kids are camping at a friend’s place in town, just in case. Time I was home.
Brona and Whispering Gums have contributed to this Week with reviews of short fiction, and WG further devoted a Monday Musings to discussing Indigenous SFF. I’ll provide links from here so that those (very few) of you who haven’t already seen them might do so. Bron says one of hers isn’t strictly SF but given that we have been discussing that problems we have been putting off dealing with – Climate! – are now upon us, I don’t think that matters.
WG: First Nations Australia Speculative Fiction
I have seen various terms applied to SF, or what I prefer, though Bill doesn’t, to call Speculative Fiction. Introducing their anthology, Unlimited futures, Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail speak of Visionary Fiction. Read on …
WG: Ambelin Kwaymullina, “Fifteen days on Mars”
In 2014, Ambelin Kwaymullina, whose people are the Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, described herself in a Kill Your Darlings essay as writing “speculative fiction for young adults”. Three years later, in the 2017 Twelfth Planet Press anthology, Mother of invention, she said that she was “a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms”. Read on …
Brona: Everything Feels Like the End of the World, Else Fitzgerald
[A] speculative fiction short story collection ‘exploring possible futures in an Australia not so different from our present day to one thousands of years into an unrecognisable future.’ The manuscript won the 2019 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. Read on …
Brona: Before He Left the Family, Carrie Tiffany
[T]he story of a family breakdown told from the perspective of the teenage son, Kevin. Both boys know that their parents only married because their mum got pregnant on the first date. Read on …
Brona: The Animals in that Country, Laura Jean McKay
What a mad, mad ride Laura Jean McKay takes you on … a flu virus – the ‘zoo flu’ as it becomes known in the book – causes the communication barrier between humans and other animals to disappear. Read on …
Will there be more? I’m not sure. I was hopeful of another author interview. But, and this is the big but, today is my only day off work, though I may have another forced on me by, you know, 26 Jan and all that goes with it, including not being able to get loaded. We’ll see. Anyway, I hope to be home and unloaded by next Weds latest, when I undertake to take Milly to dinner (and to write up a Summary).
It occured to me only at the very last minute that I had had the ideal book in my hands for this Week, and that I had given it to Lou as a present earlier in 2022 and promptly forgotten all about it. The book, This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction is “The first-ever anthology of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander speculative fiction – written, curated, edited and designed by blackfellas, for blackfellas and about blackfellas.”
The editor, Mykaela Saunders has written a comprehensive overview of the book and her selection process in the Sydney Review of Books, 18 July 2022; there was a panel on This All Come Back Now at the Sydney Writers Festival, 21 May 2022; and a Symposium at USyd. 24 Oct 2022 featuring Gina Cole (Fiji), Arlie Alizz (Yugumbeh), Jeanine Leanne (Wiradjuri), Mykaela Saunders (Koori/Goori), Ellen van Neerven (Mununjali), and Karen Wylde (Martu). I can’t see video or audio recordings for these, but I will keep looking.
Louis Holloway is a primary school teacher in Tennant Creek where a large proportion of his class is as you might expect, Indigenous.
It is problematic to talk about ‘Aboriginal writers’ and Aboriginal identities from the critical perspective of a hetero, cisgender white person. But here we are. As a reader, presently your reviewer, it is hard not to try and make sense of the thing as a whole. I found myself listening intently for something that might be construed as common ‘authentic voice’. I also found that to read as an investigator, I wanted an academic framework. My thoughts went to Fannon’s Black Skins White Masks, and to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The first asks about the effect of colonization on the subjective existence of the colonized, and the second about how our identity incorporates governing ideas which subject our choices to the governance of the dominant paradigm.
Mykaela Saunders – Overture
“Short story anthologies are like mixtapes, and I want you to think of this book as a burnt CD from me to you, … and on opportunity to find exciting writers you might not otherwise have come across.”
In introducing the anthology, Saunders invites us to dip our toes in. While the collection is explicitly curated to present the diverse work of a subaltern community, it is not an argument constructed of parts, but rather exactly what it claims to be.
I have picked some examples which might lend to a reading of overarching theme, but the first is just a great piece of writing.
Jasmine McGaughey – Jacaranda Street
The haunting mystery of Jacaranda Street after interrupted roadworks. Short and viscerally compelling. Jacaranda is a superb example of the short story medium- just enough of a taste to realise a vision and leave the reader with an unsettled sense of something that might be possible.
If MacGaughey has only come to my attention as part of TheAustralianLegend’s project including Saunder’s anthology, then there must be a flaw in the mechanism by which I am selecting texts.
Lisa Fuller – Myth This!
A horror story. In this case, the wise local with secret knowledge and dire warnings is the protagonist. The foolish Steve Irwin from the University ignores her at his peril.
In Myth This! There is a clear depiction of an encounter between two world views. I found myself looking for this encounter as I considered what I was reading. Fuller’s protagonist is careful, competent, and essentially suburban character who worries that she has not taught her children enough of the truths she learned from her mother and aunties.
Elizabeth Araluen – Muyum, a Transgression
“When I crossed there was only little light darkly”
This is poetry in the shape of a story. While I pride myself in my vocabulary and ease of assimilation of text, the reading challenges both, demanding the pace of the spoken word as poetry often does. She is talking to someone. ‘Muyum’ might be a sister’s son, but I’m not sure how closely the language of my online dictionary matches the geography of Araluen’s biography. I was also tempted to look up more than one English word.
Araluen’s protagonist encounters a librarian “I ask him for rivers and he tells me of boats … our words for ‘find’ and ‘take’ jar and unsound..”
Introduced with the memory of her father’s lessons about how to view the world, Araluen argues the nature of things with a librarian and a cartographer (sort of), and leaves a trail of released artifacts as she busts up a museum – she contests governmentality in the sort of stream-of-consciousness that only such an accomplished poet could present engagingly.
Alison Whittaker – futures. excellence
“When I walk under it, my eyes trained on it’s looming insignia, my jaw tilts to the sky. I concede that’s probably it’s goal: an Aboriginal woman, proud jawed, looking to the sky. But it’s an earnest and uncomfortable thing to do…”
A meta-mob uploaded to a digital Australia- partly voluntary, and partly forced- where they are building something sovereign, new and common to all the First Nations, away from the influence of the “mission managers”.
Whittaker also references the development of a new governmentality, as something that is harnessed to frame the new consensus.
Mykaela Saunders – Terranora
“We’re symbiotic, not parasitic, like they were from the moment they got here… We’re all guests here, part of a diverse community of life… And as a lucid, powerful mob, we have an obligation to make sure that nobody is taking the piss or is trying to strongarm anyone else out of their fair share.”
In her own contribution to the anthology, Saunders creates a quasi-Utopian commune, somewhere between a vignette and a story, that asserts a distinct pan-(first)national identity. Saunders posits explicitly an underlying common culture for all of the First Nations, that can be realized when the colonial regime is swept away by its own ineptitude.
The texts I’ve sketched here have been reorganized by my own thinking. I’ve only made a line through a group of things by applying my own lens, and I offer nothing definitive. As a teacher, I’d like to share the McGaughey and Fuller stories with my students (and we read some Araluen poems last year which we’ll keep up with), while some of the others should probably wait until they are older.
I’ve been listening to highlights of the Fannon in the car. I can’t tell how much it translates to the Australian context. He does talk about identifying a subjectivity separate from the colonisers, engaging in discourse which recognizes the subaltern perspective as valid, and the assertion of a collective identity. I am not the individual to make any judgement, but I feel like I can see some of these themes within some of the texts I read, and explicit reference was made by some of the writers who have clearly more academic, as well as lived, expertise than me.
To a reader, I can only recommend that we take Saunders’ offer at face value – to read a selection of writers we might not have encountered and find what is meaningful or beautiful and follow up what catches the eye.
Mykaela Saunders ed., This All Come Back Now, UQP, Brisbane, 2022. 314pp
Naomi, Consumed by Ink, from Canada’s Atlantic coast doesn’t get a lot of contemporary Australian books to choose from, but she saw this reviewed by Kim/Reading Matters and was motivated to obtain a copy for herself. Naomi says that this was not as ‘SFF’ as she expected, but it occurs to me that just over the course of this ‘generation’ Cli.Fi has gone from futuristic to the present we must confront and that new fiction must necessarily take account of that.
Naomi, Consumed by Ink
The Inland Sea is a coming-of-age story in the ‘age of anxiety’ and climate crisis. After graduating college, a young woman (the unnamed narrator) feels at loose ends, and–with the idea of saving up some money and getting away–she takes a job as an emergency dispatch operator. She assures friends and family that she’s up for the job, but as we get more information about her past–growing up with divorced parents and a fearful mother–we get the feeling that this is not the job for her. Read on…
Marcie McCauley, who blogs as Buried in Print, struggles in the wilds of Canada to get hold of Australian books to read. But she did get this one in time to review it for AWW Gen 5 Week and I’m happy that it follows on from my interview with Jane.
Bill recommended Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck (2017) and I read it throughout the winter break, so that I met George gnawing on human flesh, while I was crunching through shortbread fingers and thumbprint cookies with red jam filling.
Don’t let the reference to cannibalism put you off: nobody really knows what happened, we only know that the few survivors of the historic 1859 wreck of the Admella (a ship named for its route between the Australian settlements of Adelaide, Melbourne, Launceston) were not rescued for weeks and had no reliable food source. Read on (if you dare) …
Jane Rawson was brought up in Canberra, studied journalism, travelled the world writing for Lonely Planet, settled for a while in Melbourne where she was environment & energy writer for The Conversation, and now lives in Tasmania. She has had published three novels, a novella, a number of short stories and, with James Whitmore, The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change (wiki bibliography). If you haven’t read them already, you will see here that her novels fit perfectly within our definitions for AWW Gen 5-SFF.
Q. Jane, in a story in the SMH in 2014, Linda Morris writes, “When A Wrong Turn was published it turned Rawson’s life around. Suddenly, she thought she had permission to take her writing seriously.” That leads to two questions: All that writing you were doing at ‘work’, for Lonely Planet and The Conversation, did you regard that as preparation or practice for your fiction writing; and was A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) the first novel you wrote?
A. A wrong turn was not the first novel I wrote, though it was the first novel I had published. Formaldehyde, published two years later, was the first novel I wrote (though by the time it was published, it was a novella). I wrote that in 2000, as part of National Novel Writing Month; the version that was published in 2015 had been significantly rewritten, particularly the ending – at first I was rewriting for style and coherence, but my later rewritings were because over fifteen years my views on how the world worked and what was ethical, particularly in romantic relationships, had changed a bit.
By the time I wrote Formaldehyde I’d been working as a professional non-fiction writer for nine years. I’d mostly written about environmental issues (my first four years of work as an editor in Canberra) and travel (at Lonely Planet, starting in 1996) and I’d never really thought about getting into fiction, even though I’d always been a huge reader of novels. If I had writing aspirations – and I’m not sure that I did – they were more to do with becoming a journalist. It wasn’t until I wrote 50,000 words in 30 days in 2000 that I discovered how much fun writing fiction could be (and also how impressed people were when I said I’d written a novel – that was definitely a factor). Of course it then took me another 15 years to get a book published and sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more fun to stick with writing and forget about publishing.
Q. Morris describes A Wrong Turn as “an off-beat, genre-defying, head-spinning story that defies all the rules of narrative, space and time.” Sadly, I haven’t read your short stories, a couple of which were published prior to 2013. Were they, if not SF, at least fantastical, as well? I guess I’m asking, did you start out consciously to be an SF writer?
A. Don’t be sad! You can still read them [Links below]. ‘A Dynasty of Square Standers’, 2008, later turned into ‘A wrong turn’. At this point it was about two teenagers forced to see all of America by their parents, and was a response to Lonely Planet readers who claimed to have ‘properly done’ a destination, unlike most half-arsed tourists. It was surreal, but not SF. ‘Instructions for an installation’, 2003, was the last thoughts of a woman about to be turned into an art installation – again, surreal, but not SF. And ‘In Registry’, 2009 was a lot of questions I had about random things, pretending to be a short story about an entry-level public service clerk – surrealism, again. I have so far never written a realist short story or novel, but most of my writing does take place in a world identifiably our own, but skewed in odd ways. I never really set out to be one particular thing, I’ve just written stories about the ideas that most obsess me (and a lot of those ideas are odd).
Q. It is clear the coming environmental catastrophe is an influence on your work. Many writers are addressing this, and to a lesser extent, the rise of the surveillance state, by writing ‘dystopian’ fiction without acknowledging the deep roots of dystopian fiction in SF. You do acknowledge that you write in the SF tradition, but there are also elements of surrealism and Magic Realism in your writing. What are your influences do you think? What have you been reading?
A. I’m definitely influenced by SF, though I think the books I devoured as a younger reader were on the lighter side of SF. I was very into Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut and, before that, CS Lewis (his space stories as well as the Narnia books) and George McDonald’s Princess and the Goblin.
If you want to find out what I’m reading now, why not subscribe to my newsletter at janerawson.substack.com? I read all kinds of things: my favourite books this year included Ed Yong’s detailed and inspirational investigation of animal perception (An immense world), which has influenced a lot of the writing I’ve done lately about nature; Hilary Mantel’s novella about the sad history of a 19th century Irish giant trying to make it big (sorry) in England (The giant, O’Brien), which has been a huge influence on the voice of the novel I’m trying to write; and Benjamin Labatut’s berserk non-fiction novel about mathematical discovery, When we cease to understand the world, which is inspiring me to find new ways to write about facts without being boring. I’ve also really enjoyed three Australian novels this year that mess with ideas of realism – Adam Ouston’s Waypoints, about a man who wants to recreate Harry Houdini’s Australian attempt at flight; Sophie Cunningham’s This devastating fever, which is about writing and ghosts and colonialism and the climate crisis (includes jokes); and Rhett Davis’ Hovering, about a city that won’t stand still (and how confusing it is being alive now).
Q. I enjoy all your work – ok, I gave The Handbook to my greenie daughter – but there is a special place in my heart for Formaldehyde, a very short novel which might almost be described as absurdist or surreal. You complained once it didn’t sell very well, but did you have fun writing it?
A. What a whinger! I mean, for a surrealist novella published by a tiny publisher it sold pretty well. I had so much fun writing it! It was the first book I wrote, and I tried to cram every idea I’d ever had into it. I wrote it in 30 days, and that mad rush inspired all kinds of wild things to come out of my subconscious and connect with each other. I loved the feeling of existing more, for those 30 days, in the world of my book than I did in the world of my life.
Q. A History of Dreams starts out like your other novels, with little touches of ‘magic’, but as you progress, the tone becomes more serious. The topic you are dealing with, systemized misogyny, is serious, and I appreciate the parallels you imply between those 1930s National Guard times and today. Your dystopian near past is an accepted stream in SF, but did you make a conscious decision to treat the subject seriously, rather than through satire, say? Or do you think I am misreading you?
A. I do think it’s my most serious book, though there are a few jokes here and there. I wanted to write something very character-based, and which took seriously the relationships between a group of female friends who didn’t always like each other very much. Really understanding the four women in the book, and letting them work through the ethics and implications of standing up to a powerful force they’d be unlikely to defeat, was my main interest. So I guess that generated the form the novel took, which veers from a kind of 1930s ‘girls-own annual’ school days story into an oppressive dystopia.
Q. Finally, two supplementary questions which are not really anything to do with SF. My inner geography nerd keeps asking: your evocation of Melbourne’s inner western working class/industrial suburbs in A Wrong Turn was great, but From the Wreck (2017) and A History of Dreams (2022) are both set in a closely described Port Adelaide – with which I used to be familiar, though not so much these days – why?
A. I’m glad you enjoyed my near-future Yarraville/Kensington (I was a bit freaked out when the areas that get flooded in the novel were last year flooded in real life). And I’m also glad to hear you say my Port Adelaide is closely described, because I really bluffed my way through the geography in both those books – there was a lot of work on google maps and Wikipedia, though I did do some spot checks for accuracy when I made brief visits to Adelaide. The location of those two books is because they’re both based on my own family history, and my mum’s side of the family is from the Largs/Semaphore/Port area of Adelaide. ‘From the Wreck’ is based on real-life events to do with the wreck of the Admella and takes place in the Seaman’s Home where my great-great grandfather worked, so I wanted its historical portions to be as accurate as possible. By the time I finished it I’d fallen ridiculously in love with imaginary Adelaide, so I was stoked to spend another five years hanging out there while I wrote ‘A History of Dreams’. Whenever I’m in Adelaide I visit locations from my novels, forgetting that I completely made up the incidents that occurred there.
Q. And also from A History of Dreams. One of your characters is reading PC Wren’s Beau Ideal, which I read and re-read through my adolescence. How did you come to give her that particular book to read?
A. It was a book my mum always used to talk about when I was a kid, and which her mum also loved. Weirdly, I have never read it. I probably ought to.
Thank you Jane, for taking the time to discuss your work with us. And let me say how happy I am as a reader that you didn’t “forget about being published”.
Apparently, I recommended Future Girl to Melanie/Grab the Lapels a couple of years ago. Perhaps I bought it for my then 17 year old granddaughter. It looks familiar, and I never write down what I buy. Melanie loved it and I have no hesitation reposting her review for this week. As you’ll see, Future Girl was published in the US as The Words in my Hands.
It wasn’t strictly my intention but I think that the SFF/dystopian theme has the potential to direct us towards some of the more leading edge writing of this generation (and I wish more than ever that I had included Grunge within the definition as well).
Grab The Lapels
Piper is a deaf girl with hearing aids in a private high school with hearing students. Her best friend, Taylor, often serves as a hearing guide of sorts, which resonated with me. I often ask my spouse what another person said, be it the cashier, the neighbor, or our nieces and nephew. However, while my reliance often occurs when I am not wearing my hearing aids because I didn’t feel like it, Piper is relying on very little hearing and years of speech therapy because to her, deafness is a medical issue. Read on …
Welcome to AWW Gen 5-SFF Week! Let the discussion of Australian women’s SF, dystopian and fantasy fiction commence.
And about that ‘Week’. After being on a break, ie. unemployed since Dec. 10, I am now flat out for more or less just this week, so we’d better call it a fortnight (and even then, if all goes well, which it didn’t last time, I will be on the other side of the country looking for a load home) so I can pay some attention at least to your posts and comments.
I didn’t see Gunk Baby come out – at the beginning of 2021 – and I don’t think it was paid much attention, which is odd as Lau’s first novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island (2018) was short-listed for the Stella and it appears Lau’s three-book deal with Brow has been taken over by the multi-national Hachette.
Pink Mountain was a classic debut – a young woman at arts school drawing on her inner suburban adolescence for good/standard grunge autofiction. Gunk Baby is not a sequel, or not the sequel I predicted anyway – “a portrait of the young woman as an art student” – but the story of a short period in the life of 24 year old Leen (Ling) setting up a Chinese ear cleaning/massage business in a suburban shopping centre.
I have squeezed it in under the Gen 5-SFF banner not because it is fantastic or dystopian (except right at the end), but because it has the feel of being set just a few minutes into the future. Of course it doesn’t help that however we might like to think otherwise, we boomers live a few minutes in the past, not fully aware of the present, not as twenty-somethings see it, anyway.
Within the SF tradition, in the 1970s, a number of writers, Sladek, Sheckley, but PK Dick in particular, were able to describe then present-day suburban USA in a way that made it seem slightly unreal, and Lau has that same ability. The ability to make us picture work and living spaces as they might be built tomorrow, sparse and uncluttered, with only the latest gadgets and appliances.
Leen’s father is a “consultant” who has dragged his wife and daughter all round the world. Leen has chosen to settle in the suburb of Par Mars in, let us say, Melbourne. As in Pink Mountain the city is unnamed, but has a Melbourne-ish feel, with occasional references to “Westmeadow” and “Bell St” (an important thoroughfare running east-west across the northern suburbs). Leen’s mother is in Kowloon, and they speak often, in video calls, ‘Face Time’. The father is more distant, wherever he is currently working, but pays Leen’s bills.
Gunk Baby may be a satire on a particular type of consumerism, but it is a consumerism Leen lives with uncomplainingly.
The K.A.G. outlay, for example: so addictive. The genius behind the design of something beautiful is that it can stand alone. We live in an age where we would like things to stand alone, to be one with itself, so that we can, as its consumer, become the one to define it, the one to understand it and its purpose, and curate it alongside other things … we’ve been conditioned to need the product. And a product is rarely ever a product without its brand.
K.A.G. is the principal tenant of the Topic Heights shopping centre where Leen has her ‘Lotus Fusion Studio’. Every few weeks it adds a new product line and forces out a smaller neighbouring store to take over its space. Leen who has been couch surfing ends up sharing a house with Luis who has been made K.A.G. store manager for his total commitment to the job. Everything in the new house is new K.A.G. products being tried out.
I … roll over, pull myself up out of our bed, out of the K.A.G. Elegant Cross-Hatch Sheets in a shade of blue that comforts. The floor is always cold in the mornings. The concrete floor with our Shaggy-Mix Rug in light brown … I look in the big perfect mirror. I’m wearing my K.A.G. Insulating Fleece Pyjamas, white thin stripes and beige everything else. These are not my sexy pyjamas; they’re slightly different. If I’m not in my sexy ones, I’m not in the mood. It’s a silent language… I look at [Luis] in the mirror. I have my K.A.G. Frosted-Glass Toothbrush in my mouth …
Leen’s friends are a wide mixture of East Asians and caucasian, all known to each other, all connected in one way or another through Topic Heights, but she, I guess, compartmentalises. Luis is in one ‘box’; in another are her girlfriend Doms and Doms’ partner Vic, a chemist who has a home lab making artificial urine for faking drug tests; there’s Farah, her receptionist (and budding novelist); and in a fourth are Jean-Paul and Huy. Jean-Paul is gathering followers for ‘acts of resistance’. Leen’s role is to attend meetings where Jean Paul lectures for hours, and to drive Jean Paul and Huy round in her old Saab 9000, leaving while they apparently attack, kidnap, vandalise Topic Heights managers, returning to pick them up, not unaware of what is being done, but also not responsible.
The style of writing is largely emotionless, you have to make your own mind up about the rights and wrongs of what is happening. The end when it comes is inevitable, but still startling. Lau is a fine talent, not mainstream, but well worth following.
No, I’m not fortunate enough to have this dustjacket, this is the first edition cover, though I have a similar cover, with the legionnaire seated, for my copy of PC Wren’s The Wages of Virtue (first pub. 1916. 25th reprint 1942). My copy of Beau Ideal is a first reprint of the first edition, 1928, in which year it was a Xmas present “from George”. And for which I paid 10c, probably in 1967 (at which date it was not as old as, for instance Monkey Grip is today, which is an odd thought).
Percival Christopher Wren (1875-1941) was of the lower middle class, a school teacher, the son of a school teacher, who worked to put himself through university, getting an MA from St Catherine’s Society, Oxford University, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. He taught in England and in India.
Wren enlisted for WWI in India but saw no service (he was 40) and may have enlisted after the War in the French Foreign Legion, or may just have knocked around North Africa for a bit. Note that The Wages of Virtue, which was his first collection of stories about the Foreign Legion, was published well before he had any opportunity to be a legionnaire himself.
Beau Ideal was the third of the trilogy, Beau Geste (1924), Beau Sabreur (1926) and Beau Ideal (1928) which sought to highlight the British upper middle class, Boys Own ideals of honour and sacrifice, held firm in a seething cauldron (don’t all cauldrons seethe?) of underclass foreigners, sand and Arabs – Bedouin and Touareg.
Spoilers: I’m going to have to give away some of the ‘surprise’ elements in the stories here, otherwise you won’t make sense of what is going on, not that I remember everything anyway. Let us start at Brandon Abbas, a fine home in rural England. Living there are Lady (Patricia) Brandon, her nephews/wards twins Michael (Beau) and Digby Geste, their younger brother John, Claudia who may be Lady B’s illegitimate daughter, and Isobel (why she lives there, I don’t remember and I haven’t started re-reading at this stage). And maybe also a priest.
At a dinner party the lights go out. When they come back on the Brandon jewels are found to be missing and so also is Beau. Digby disappears soon after. John assumes they have gone to join the French Foreign Legion and goes after them.
They have various adventures in North Africa. Beau dies. Digby, John and two Americans, Hank and Buddy, escape into the desert. Digby dies. John comes home, returns, is imprisoned as a mutineer, abandoned in a grain silo with half a dozen others.
Hank and Buddy are rescued by Bedouin, pretend to be mute, learn Arabic, and end up rulers of their tribe, of all the surrounding tribes.
Mary, an American tourist, is caught up in a Muslim uprising, is rescued by a fakir who turns out to be a French officer in disguise – the “beau sabreur”. They, and Mary’s maid, escape into the desert, meet up with Hank and Buddy’s lot. And it turns out Hank is her brother.
And so we get to Beau Ideal. The scene in the prison/silo, a dying John being saved by a well-spoken American, forms the Prologue. And then we go back a few years (I’ve always assumed the Beau Geste stories were set pre-WWI, but I’m still not sure)
A nice American boy, Otis, is visiting rellos in rural England. Brandon Abbas is just over the hill. The Gestes are still children. He makes friends with them, falls hopelessly in love with Isabel.
Oh, to be seventeen again! Seventeen, on a most glorious English spring day, the day on which you have first encountered the very loveliest thing in all the world ..
We go on for some chapters in this vein. I find it less compelling than I did 55 years ago! Interestingly, Wren’s ideas on men retaining their ‘purity’ are very similar to those of his contemporary, Miles Franklin, though Wren is much more likely to at least mention unmarried sex and illegitimate children.
Otis makes a couple more (brief) trips to England while he’s at Harvard; discovers Isabel and John were engaged, secretly, the day before John took off after Beau and Digby; breaks with his domineering father as his older brother, Noel, had before him; comes into money; travels around Europe with his sister; they’re invited by a Colonel in the Spahis to visit him in North Africa …
As with most boys adventure stories in the time of empire, you have to put up with a lot of racism.
I have no views to offer on the subject of the ethics of the “peaceful penetration” of an uncivilized country by a civilized one. But nobody could travel southward from Bouzen, contrasting the Desert with the Sown, without perceiving that the penetration was for the greatest good of the greatest number, and ultimately for the whole world’s good, inasmuch as cultivation and production succeeded fallow waste; order and peace succeeded lawlessness and war; and the blessings of civilization succeeded the curses of savagery.
He’s talking about North Africa for chrissake the cradle of European civilization, who had maths and literature when the English had animal skins and woad! And of course all Arabs are oily and untrustworthy, town Arabs especially. Desert Arabs, if savage are at least sometimes noble. [The place names Bouzen and Zaguig, in either Algeria or Morocco, are apparently fictional].
A jihad breaks out while Otis is in Zaguig – I am reminded of how familiar Western commentary felt after 9/11, our illegal invasion of Iraq, and the rise of ISIS – and he fears for his life: “The loathsome indignity of it – a white man struggling impotent in the hands of blacks – his clothes torn from his body ..” Otis is wounded, unconscious under piles of Arab bodies; the French garrison falls. He winds up in Kent. in a sanatorium, where also is Isabel.
John has seen his brothers die, escaped, come home, married Isabel. But Buddy and Hank are still in the desert and he must find them. He has returned to Africa, been arrested by the French, and consigned to the penal battalions. Isabel begs Otis to find him, bring him home. So of course he too joins the Legion, is consigned to the penal battalions. And at the very last minute, finds John. But they are delivered into the hands of villains, are rescued by a half English, half Arab dancing girl whom Otis in desperation promises to marry, and so the adventures continue …
Why is all this so important (to me)? Firstly, I was bought up on a diet almost exclusively Boys Own fiction. Indeed, I had a subscription to Boys Own, or a magazine very similar, in primary school. Boys lived in posh houses, went to boarding school, their mothers had at least a cook and a maid, girls were ok, but were to be treated with respect and care, young women were to be adored from afar. And despite the fact I never saw a servant in my life – well, Granddad had a farmhand when I was really young – I bought into all that.
I may well have had Beau Ideal earlier than 1967, because I remember trying out some of Wren’s Foreign Legion French in French essays in third form (1965). I was in the Western District then and the squattocracy really did live in manor houses. I would spend weekends at Moyne Falls station, where my mate’s father was manager, which had a main house with 20 bedrooms, a tennis court, an airstrip, half a dozen subsidiary houses for staff, 12,000 acres of prime grazing, and so on.
And then, I have always had a girl that I was “in love with” for as a long as I could remember. Sometimes they knew, and sometimes they didn’t. The thing was that doing great deeds for a hopeless passion seemed perfectly natural.
By the time I was 16 or 17 and became aware that kids, some kids, the rough ones, around me were having sex, I was both horrified and fascinated. Boy-girl relations were on a pedestal, and I didn’t have any framework that included “bad girls”. I went part of the way, third base!, but never really believed that I might go all the way. Until of course, I did. But that’s another story
You will see that dynamic again, when we get to A Difficult Young Man, which I read for my matric, and which influenced me in the same way. As I remember, The Way of All Flesh, another matric text, was different, but equally important, in that its principal story was the rebellion of son against father (as was this, partly). They’ll be my next two reads, for February and March.
PC Wren, Beau Ideal, John Murray, London, 1928. 348pp
Potential read-alongers, I started on The Cardboard Crown (# 1 in the Langton tetralogy) last night, and will proceed to #2 A Difficult Young Man asap in order to write it up for Feb. I don’t have 3 & 4, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing and I guess I’m unlikely to come across them.
I read My Brilliant Friend (2011), the first of Ferrante’s quartet, The Neapolitan Novels, on the train from Milan to Naples in 2017. Spent a few hours there with my daughter and grandkids as they waited for the ferry to Ischia, and then by taxi and train continued heading south. But still, I like that I am able to imagine bits of The Story of a New Name (2012), the second in the quartet, in the places they occurred.
Ferrante apparently conceived of L’amica geniale as one novel, but chose to publish in four volumes for ease of reading. Certainly she makes no concessions; vol.2 takes off exactly where vol.1 ends, and if you have forgotten all the names and family relationships in the interval between reading 1 and 2, then you must resort to the look-up tables placed at the beginning of vol.2 for that purpose.
A number of you in the comments to my review of My Brilliant Friend said that you were put off by the hype, and the same was/is often said of Sally Rooney and Normal People. But Ferrante and Rooney are both excellent writers, as thoughtful about writing as they are about relationships, and I think this thing about hype leads to them being underrated (no doubt as they laugh all the way to the bank).
Also, I think being made into popular TV series has done both books/series no favours. Separating the stories from the writing reduces them to their ordinary coming of age and romance elements and leads most readers to overlook the literary elements of the writing – to a large extent the Neapolitan novels are a discussion of what it takes to be a writer. Lila and Lenu are two sides of the same coin, brilliance and hard work.
I can’t see Ferrante’s year of birth anywhere, nor her ‘real’ name. There are a couple of hints early on that the author/narrator, Elena Greco, is now in her 60s looking back, but apart from that the action and Elena’s thoughts are in the novel’s present, the late 1960s.
The ‘new name’ of the title is Lila’s married name, at 16, Signora Carracci, the wife of grocery shop owner Stefano. In my review of My Brilliant Friend I wrote that the final scene, their wedding breakfast, leaves us hanging. Stefano is meant to have broken with the feuding and gangsterism of the neighbourhood’s immediate past, but the presence of the Solaro brothers, Marcello and Michele implies that Stefano is beholden to them. As indeed the early chapters of the new book confirm. More, Stefano has given Michele Solaro the shoes designed for her shoemaker family by Lila.
The gentle Stefano Carracci, the grocer, who out of love had wanted to buy the first pair of shoes she had made, vowing that he would keep them forever. Ah, the wonderful moment when, at fifteen, she had felt herself a rich and elegant lady, on the arm of her fiancé, who, all because he loved her, had invested a lot of money in her father and brother’s shoe business: Cerullo shoes.
At 470pp this is not a small book, and at the story-telling level there is always a lot going on. From the very beginning, Lila is constantly at odds with Stefano, swinging wildly between seducing him and denying him sex, apparently defying both her husband and nature by not getting pregnant, and then when a son finally comes, claiming that Stefano is not the father.
Stefano builds a second, new, grocery within the neighbourhood and gets Lila to manage it, which she does unwillingly but well. And he goes into business with the Solaros, with a smart store in the city, which he largely prevents Lila from being involved in, though it is selling Cerullo shoes.
Lenu meanwhile makes her way through the middle and final years of high school. Though they’re often at odds, still Lila uses Stefano’s money to buy Lenu’s schoolbooks and Lenu is able to get a respite from the dreadful poverty of her own parents and younger siblings, by going each afternoon to study in the backroom of the new grocery.
There are a couple of summer interludes on Ischia, firstly with Lenu working as a governess, and then, later, paid by Lila to be with a party of young married neighbourhood women. On the island she runs into the Sarratore family, formerly from the neighbourhood, who have a small house there. Lenu has always had a crush on Nino Sarratore, a brilliant student, a couple of years ahead of her at school. He, it turns out is dating the daughter of her favourite teacher. Lenu thinks she can win him, but Lila is in the way …
Lenu completes high school so successfully that she is offered a scholarship to university in Genoa, and there she does well, gets herself a nice, upper middle class boyfriend, and writes a novel which may be My Brilliant Friend. (Though, unlike Miles Franklin and My Brilliant Career, the neighbours do not read it and do not get offended).
So, in the first place, all the drama in The Story of a New Name is Lila’s. Which Lenu purports to tell, almost first hand, using the clumsy device of Lila’s diaries which are entrusted to her and which she reads and destroys. The underlying story of course is Lenu’s own growth as a woman, as an educated Italian, and as a writer. Lenu is to some extent an ‘unreliable narrator’, at least of her own story, and it seems to me that she overrates Lila’s flashy brilliance, as she underrates herself, her attractiveness, her intelligence, as of course, most young women do.
The underlying, underlying story is of language. I have been fascinated in the past year or so by the Japanese/American An I-Novel, Minae Mizumura, and Jessica Gaitán Johannesson’s How We Are Translated, both about women moving backwards and forwards between languages. Lenu must do the same, between the dialect of the ‘neighbourhood’ – widely spoken throughout Naples – and the formal Italian of her education. When she goes to Genoa she finds she must navigate a third language, colloquial Italian, with which she has apparently had no prior experience. The translator does not attempt to reproduce this, and I wonder if Ferrante herself does.
I enjoyed this story at the relationship level, though I know a lot of you became exasperated with it, but at another level is a very good writer talking about/showing us developing her craft, and at this level it is fascinating.
Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, first pub. 2012, this edition: Text, Melbourne, 2015. 470pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
Coincidentally, as I finished writing this, a review appeared in Inside Story of the HBO series of My Brilliant Friend. Jane Godall writes at length about the fidelity of the filming to the story and to Naples, but of course, all the literary element is lost (here).