Thinking in a Regional Accent

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Thinking in a Regional Accent: New Ways of Contemplating Australian Writers is a recent essay by WA academic, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth in the ABR which I no longer get, but a copy of which was sent by a friend. HdA was the editor of Like Nothing on this Earth, a compilation of WA Wheatbelt writing which I reviewed a few years ago, so he is an advocate for investigating ‘regional difference’ when analyzing Australian writing.

But what is regional difference? Certainly, one feels that regional
difference is at most a weak factor when compared to the forms of
difference that most occupy us today: race, gender, class, ethnicity, and, increasingly, sectarian political affiliations.

Yet regional difference is one of the first things I look for in a novel, and the failure or success of the author in delineating it is often where I begin my criticism. I like my novels to be grounded in a particular location, for the author and the reader, to know where they stand.

For [Marxist critic Raymond Williams], what emerged under the name of ‘regions’ in nineteenth-century Britain was essentially a geographical spatialisation of class. Regions were economically subservient peripheries of production. This meant that, for Williams, regional consciousness was a form of class consciousness. With this in mind, it is interesting to go back to how accents work in Australia, where they follow class rather than regional lines.

Is this true in Australia, about class and regions? Not really. Not that I don’t think class is important for understanding Australian writing. The different perspectives of Lawson and Paterson for instance are not just urban and rural; they are the polar opposites of working poor and landed gentry.

So what are Australia’s literary regions? HdA speaks as a Western Australian and the regions he cites are within WA, but I think the first important divide is urban – Melbourne and Sydney really, but if you like, that sliver of coast from Adelaide to Brisbane to which clings 80% of our population – and the rest, the Outback which occupies so much of our imagination. And a close second of course comes Melbourne and Sydney, as in Melbourne v Sydney.

After those two, it is clear the states themselves are regions. Much of our literature is state based. I imagine that Gerald Murnane could have written in Perth, or Thea Astley could have in South Australia (but maybe not that Patrick White could have written outside of Sydney) but the point is they didn’t. Their novels are firmly situated in the places they knew. And if regionalism has any meaning then the bodies of writing around those places is different from the writing around other places.

Probably different cities, different regions have a different feel and that permeates the writing (Lisa yesterday wrote about the imporatance of cylcones in Queensland). But also writers work together and influence each other; and increasingly writers pass through the universities and so are influenced by the writers they find there – Elizabeth Jolley, Kim Scott, John Kinsella in WA (though not all at the same uni) – how could they not be?

The WA Wheatbelt is not really my home region, though I live on the edge of it, and work there, and drive backwards and forwards through it, and so experience a sense of familiarity when I read works which are not just plonked down there but which explore what it means to be in that place – from the memoir A Fortunate Life, to Dorothy Hewett’s fictional Muckinupin, to Arthur Upfield’s spell at Burracoppin, to The Fringe Dwellers, to Jolley’s The Well, to the poetry of Kinsella and Charmaine Papertalk-Green.

Hughes-d’Aeth also discusses regional literature in a slightly different sense

.. it has been inspiring to watch the Wirlomin Noongar grouping (Kim Scott, Clint Bracknell, Claire G. Coleman, and others), who trace their belonging to the south coast of Western Australia, become a nodal point of Noongar cultural and language renaissance, and seriously influence the national imaginary.

Noongar country and the Wheatbelt are more or less the same geographically (the former includes Perth and the latter extends north a little way into Yamaji country and excludes the heavily forested south-west corner), but ‘Wheatbelt’ is such a White concept that I have trouble treating them as one. Do Indigenous Lit and White Lit belong in the same region? Same space, opposite perspectives.

Cutting back across the emergence of bio-regionalist sensibilities in literature and criticism has been the advent of second-wave Indigenous authors like Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, and Tony Birch and of the powerful insinuation of the concept of ‘Country’ into wider Australian discourse

I hadn’t thought of these writers as ‘second-wave’. I guess the implication is that Jack Davis (1917-2000), Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) (1920-1993) and Mudrooroo (Colin Johnson) (1938 – 2019) were the first wave. Davis and Johnson were from WA, were there others over east?

“.. literary regionalism is a critical stance that I find myself adopting,
whether I want to or not” is not Hughes-d’Aeth’s conclusion, but I think it makes a good one.

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Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Thinking in a Regional Accent: New Ways of Contemplating Australian Writers, Australian Book Review, Nov. 2020, no. 426.

Lisa/ANZLL – Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature (here)

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

Journal: 059

Cat's Eye Audiobook | Margaret Atwood | Audible.co.uk

After years as a truck driver, half a century! (an exaggeration, I had a 15 year white collar gap in my 30s, 40s) I am a little bit intuitive, not the way natural drivers and mechanics are, but enough to often belatedly realise, feel when things are going wrong – the smells of burning grease, oil, electric wiring, the feel of unbalanced wheels, trailers swaying or sliding, vibrations from the engine or tailshaft, changes in the constant noises of the engine and the wind.

I drive by ear, changing gear with the rise and fall of the revs, choosing the right gear to hold my speed at a given volume of noise through towns or roadworks. Until this week anyway, when books and blogging unexpectedly intervened.

A year or so ago, no doubt enticed by free books, I opened an Audible account which subsequently morphed into one book plus occasional freebies for $16/month. And so I began accumulating a library which I could not access. Ok, which I could not cable and was too incompetent to bluetooth from my phone to my truck radio.

This week, wanting to read Cat’s Eye for MARM (which has co-hosts, so here and here) I downloaded it and went out and bought expensive noise cancelling headphones. Noise cancelling! I can feel the base rumble of the engine but I can’t hear at all the wind around the cabin, the constant woosh of the air over the engine beneath my feet, the high-revving of the motor. I’m deaf to my truck!

I have some excellent books in my Audible library but I’m going to have to space them out. Listening through headphones while remaining conscious of the truck requires far more concentration than just letting all the noise of the truck and the radio speakers wash over me, more concentration than I can manage for any length of time.

I’ve read a few Margaret Atwoods, The Handmaid’s Tale & The Testaments, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin (the cover is totally familiar but I don’t remember one word of the story). She’s a good writer though her SF lacks imagination compared with greats like Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin. I didn’t have any expectations of Cat’s Eye – except that it’s long – and I looked nothing up, prepared to allow the story to speak for itself.

The protagonist, Elaine, is 8 or 9 when WWII ends and is in her mid-fifties at the time of writing, so we can say she was born in say, 1936 which I’m guessing is roughly true of Atwood also, and the book is set in about 1990. The novel is framed as Elaine coming from Vancouver where she lives to Toronto where she grew up, for a retrospective of her paintings, but mostly consists of her coming of age, from grade school through to her mid twenties.

Elaine’s father is an entomologist. When she’s young, and later in school holidays the family, father, mother, Elaine and Steven, her older brother, travel the forests in their old Studebaker, collecting bugs, camping or staying in cheap motels. Then when she’s 8 father gets a job at the university and they buy a new, unfinished house in the Toronto suburbs.

Every now and again we duck back to the ‘present day’, to the week or so Elaine is spending in John, her artist ex-husband’s apartment (while he is away). They have a daughter and she has another daughter with her second husband. I get the impression that Atwood makes herself an artist rather than a writer because she likes to philosophize about painting but also because it is easier to talk about movements in painting than in writing.

But mostly we make our way through Elaine’s childhood, year by year, structured around the two or three girls with whom she is friends and around her brother. These children Carol, Grace, Cordelia, Steven, are ciphers – temporary constructs against whom she can contrast herself and her development, abandoned when they are no longer needed. Cleverly, Atwood tells each year in some detail, detail which the Elaine of a year or two later has often forgotten.

As she moves on from being Steven’s sister to Carol’s friend to Cordelia’s friend what we observe is her socialisation from tomboy to young woman. And it is this process of what makes a girl and then a woman that is the core of the book.

Right from the beginning Atwood makes it look as though this is the story of Elaine’s relationship with the darker (I don’t mean skin colour) Cordelia, but it is nothing of the sort. Cordelia is a year older, and one or two years ahead. Elaine is willingly submissive to her, until at last Cordelia forces her to descend from the bridge over the ravine on the way home from school, abandons her when she falls through the ice into the creek and nearly dies of hypothermia. Cordelia goes off to a different school, Elaine starts high school, and then Atwood brings Cordelia back, in the same year as Elaine, makes Elaine the confident one, because that suits her narrative.

Later, Cordelia drops out of sight for years, Steven is sent off to California, Carol and Grace are long gone. Elaine studies Art History, goes from virgin to two days a week lover of her drawing teacher, another relationship involving submission, starts going out with John. The drawing teacher’s other two day a week student/lover gets pregnant and has a messy illegal abortion. Cordelia reappears, briefly, in a mental home. Elaine refuses to help or even visit her after the first time. The story stretches on for a while, but the coming of age is done and the rest is just filler.

I enjoy coming of ages and I enjoyed this one. I enjoyed too ‘living’ in Canada for a while, especially 40s, 50s Toronto, though I expect I would have enjoyed it more if I were familiar with the areas she’s writing about. I find Atwood to be a fine writer but only a so-so story teller and so it was here.

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Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, first pub. 1988. Audiobook read by Laurel Lefkow, 2013. 15 hrs 17 min.

Audible Library

Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Joan D Vinge, The Snow Queen
Christos Tsialkos, Merciless Gods
Joy Ellis, Their Lost Daughters
Charlotte Bronte, The Professor
Thomas Keneally, The Pact
Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe
Richard Flanagan, Death of a River Guide
HG Wells, The Science Fiction Collection
F Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamzov
Andy Weir, The Martian
William Gibson, Agency
Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
James Joyce, Ulysses
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
GG Marquez, Love in the Time Of Cholera
F Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment
George Eliot, Middlemarch
M Lucashenko, Too Much Lip
Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
Samuel Delaney, Dhalgren

Some of these I have read since buying the audiobook, some I own but won’t get the chance to read anytime soon and would like to listen to again, and a couple I wouldn’t have chosen but got for free. And Melanie, The Snow Queen will be next.

Trooper to the Southern Cross, Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) was born in England of good upper middle class stock. Her father was professor of poetry at Oxford, Rudyard Kipling was a rello and her godfather was JM Barrie. She was tall, good looking and rebellious, married a bi-sexual, professional signer to disoblige her family, as they say, had two sons, divorced him, and near the end of the Great War, married George Thirkell, a captain in the AIF who had served right through from 1914 – Egypt, Gallipoli, France. Thirkell’s family had land in Tasmania, but he was an engineer.

“Early in 1920 the Thirkells returned to Australia aboard the Friedrichsruh, a horrendous voyage when rank-and-file diggers became increasingly assertive. After a sojourn at Hobart, the family settled in suburban Melbourne. In January 1921 a son, Lancelot George, was born. Thirkell’s business activities as a director of a small engineering firm won only modest rewards.” (ADB)

Angela, needing money, began writing satirical essays and short stories. In 1930 she made her second visit home and stayed there. From 1931 on, for 30 years, she published a novel a year, middlebrow stuff set in Trollope’s Barsetshire, which she said she wouldn’t want her friends to read.

Trooper to the Southern Cross (1934) is something else, a fictionalised account of her post-war voyage to Australia, biting in its contempt of incompetent officers and sometimes laugh out loud funny, which was originally published under the male pseudonym Leslie Parker.

The story is written in a chatty tone in the first person, by Major Bowen a doctor in the AIF who had, like Capt Thirkell whom he no doubt represents, served right through the War.

I have always wanted to write the story of the old ‘Rudolstadt’ which took a shipload of Australian troops home after the War, but there were so many reasons against it. At the time we were all very angry, because it isn’t a fair deal to put families on a troopship where there isn’t any dicipline ..

opening lines

Bowen’s background is as the son of a Western District (Victoria) property owning family with whom he has only distant relations. I was impressed by Thirkell’s local knowledge, though I waited until I had finished the book to look up her history. It doesn’t say, but perhaps she travelled a bit during her 10 years in Australia. Bowen talks of his mother cooking for shearers – chops for breakfast, a roast joint for dinner and the shoulder for tea. Do people still eat like that! My grandparents did, and sandwiches for morning and afternoon lunch in between, and tea, tea, tea, and maybe a slice of cake for supper.

Still, that’s only the first few pages, and a couple more to deal with the War. But because Bowen mentions fighting in Egypt (in 1914, though it was actually 1915) before Gallipoli, I had to look that up too (here). The AIF landed in Egypt for training at the end of 1914 and some must have taken part in the defence of the Suez when the Turks attacked from Palestine to retake Egypt from the Brits.

After the Armistice, Bowen takes a position at a hospital in Leeds, meets a girl, Celia, to whom it turns out he is related, marries her and after a year or so the Army tells him he is to be repatriated on the Rudolstadt along with many other officers with their wives and children and hundreds of diggers (troops). He wrangles a decent cabin for himself and Celia. His mate Jerry has a suite for his wife, two children and young nanny, but the junior offices are crammed into small cabins below decks not necessarily with their wives; the diggers are a level further down, and beneath them are the cells for hardened criminals who soon have their jailers bluffed and the keys to the cells chucked overboard.

I don’t have to tell you the plot – they sail to Australia, the men cause a lot of trouble, and despite an incompetent CO and his adjutant, Owen and Jerry with the assistance of a few loyal sergeants, save the day. Repeatedly.

The pleasure of the book is in the humour, a lot of which is the author slyly making fun of her husband (whom she had already left). Here they are on first meeting –

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain they were way out beyond everything. So I asked her if she had read ‘On Our Selection’ … but she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’ so I knew she wasn’t literary.

And here, on wifely duties –

As for Celia, the poor kid didn’t know the first thing about cooking, but she soon got the hang of it, and I can tell you it was good-oh to know there would be a nice hot supper my little missis had cooked, whatever time I got back from the hospital … [he and a mate would] go off somewhere and get a drink and get yarning, and often I’d bring the chap home with me … It was great to walk into our own little sitting room and say “What about some tea, babe?” and introduce her to my pal.

Sometimes I’d take my boots off after supper and Celia would give them a shine for me … She was a great hand at polishing boots, as good as a batman, and it’s a job I’ve never liked somehow.

There’s all that stuff of my father’s and grandfathers’ generations about not swearing in front of women, not even hinting at sex. One bounder shows some officers’ wives a pornographic Indian carving which accidentally ends up overboard. And a great deal of racism about unwashed Egyptians, ‘gyppos’ and Irish Catholics, though the RC chaplain on board shows he’s made of the right stuff.

All in all a fun, nostalgic, read.

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Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross, first pub. 1934. Sun Books (pictured above, right), Melbourne, 1966. 177pp. ex libris J. Terry

see also: Sue/Whispering Gums’ review (here)

The Place on Dalhousie, Melina Marchetta

Talk about getting what you wished for! I wrote a few weeks ago, in comments after Saving Francesca that “I’d be interested to read a Melina Marchetta that covered the next few years, 17,18 through to mid twenties like say Normal People, though perhaps her style would be too gentle.” The Place on Dalhousie is Marchetta’s latest and here is a quote from p.4.

And that’s all it takes. A couple of drinks and she’s back in some strange guy’s room, upstairs at the pub. His calloused fingers find their way between her legs and she realises she’s going to spend another night of her life screwing a guy she doesn’t know. Makes her feel as if she can’t climb out of the bat cave, and the bleakness is smothering.

‘She’ is Rosie, 19 year old daughter of Sicilian immigrants, passing through a central Queensland town (probably based on Theodore, 560 km NW of Brisbane). Her life is a mess. Her mother has died of cancer. Her father who spent years rebuilding the old house ‘on Dalhousie’ in inner western Sydney, has remarried, to Martha, the daughter of German immigrants, and then been killed in a traffic accident. The guy she doesn’t know is Jimmy. They spend the next week or so helping residents deal with a major flood, then go their separate ways.

We move on a couple of years. Martha, forty-ish, is dealing with a stressful job, with being a widow, with a girl upstairs with a screaming baby, with a girl upstairs who won’t talk to her but insists that the house is hers. Her best friend gets her to join a netball team with some of their old class mates, most of whom she has spent the last twenty years avoiding. Marchetta it seems, is big on the bonds formed at school.

Jimmy responds 15 months late to the text informing him he is a father. He is now working on the mines up north, week on, week off. Rosie is not impressed but Jimmy hangs around, couch surfing when he can get down to Sydney, with his own old schoolmates from inner-western Sydney. At some stage my goldfish brain finally catches on – twenty-something Jimmy and Frankie and Tara and so on are the 17 year-olds from Saving Francesca.

Poor Jimmy has to work very hard to convince Rosie he’s worth bothering with.

She holds out the crying kid for Jimmy to take, but he doesn’t.
‘When he gets used to me, maybe,’ he says.
Rosie cradles the sobbing baby, but it doesn’t seem to help. And that’s it for the day. No more talking, just a lot of standing around and soaking in the mess.

Martha has a love interest. She has sex with a football hero/older brother of one of her classmates in the back seat of his (presumably dual cab) ute after a funeral, and two or three times after. Yes, they do have homes, they just seem to have a thing about reliving their, twenty years previous, school days.

The football hero guy is also their netball coach, so that makes one plot line. The ups and downs of Jimmy and Rosie being parents and learning to talk to each other, makes another. Then, we get bits and pieces of the lives of the Saving Francesca crowd (whom I read were also in another novel, The Piper’s Son), and of the Sydney inner-west Italian community to which both Frankie (Francesca) and Rosie belong, so there’s plenty going on.

Rosie joins a new mothers group for support from which she and another couple of misfits (ie. non-Anglos) are shunted, and as they get over their prickliness they form a support group of their own. She starts working in an old people’s home and of course that’s the home where football guy, whom she doesn’t know at that stage, places his father. There’s ongoing background hum about a lost Monaro which eventually stretches concidence even further. But mostly it’s just an easygoing story of people and their lives, intertwined in ways that I as a constant moving-onner find both interesting and a bit unbelievable.

No, it’s not literary fiction – I may finally get a mention in the AWCC General fiction round-up (I think I missed out with Jane Harper and Liane Moriarty) – but nevertheless an interesting step up from the schoolgirls of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.

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Melina Marchetta, The Place on Dalhousie, Penguin Random House, Melbourne, 2019. 277pp.

Brona’s AusReading Month 2020

November 2020, which is to say now, is Brona of BronasBooks eighth annual AusReading Month. Hopefully it will also be remembered as the month the USA stepped back from the brink of Fascism and, more cheerfully, it marks 20 years of international cooperation in space with the continuous occupation over that time of the Space Station. (And don’t you think Brona’s map is ‘brave’. Taswegians are vowing vengeance as I write.)

Celebration: What Australian books have I read over the past year? After filling last year’s bingo card. I started the new AusReading year with Banjo Patterson’s An Outback Marriage – “It was as if he gathered up all his knowledge of bush life and carpentered it up into a longer tale than those in his bush verses… The novel is cynical and shallow.” Miles Franklin didn’t like it! Despite the fact that she had been asked for advice during the writing.

During 2019 I featured the work of David Ireland and in December I read his The Flesheaters. Then it was time for wrapping up (Best Reads 2019) and on to Australian Women Writers Gen 3, with one extremely important Australian work in between, Chris Owen’s Every Mother’s Son is Guilty on Aboriginal massacres by police and settlers in northern WA.

The AWW Gen 3 Week summary, with all your contributions, is here. I personally read Exiles at Home, Drusilla Modjeska; and No Roads Go By, Myrtle Rose White. Then back to undirected, all over the place general reading. First, Melbourne arts student Jamie Marina Lau’s Pink Mountain on Locust Island which I greatly enjoyed; my own notes on Daisy Bates, followed by her The Passing of the Aborigines; another Gen 3, Jungfrau by Dymphna Cusack; then right back to Gen 1 with Sisters by Ada Cambridge.

It’s April, Covid-19 has struck, I’m in a motel outside Darwin in quarantine getting lots of reading done, and even a little exercise. I read Virginia Woolf, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, three Willa Cathers and finally Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. I think I’ve moved on to my daughter’s apartment in Darwin when I read the predictably disappointing Bring the Monkey by Miles Franklin, because my next review is of The Black Line which she and I watched together.

I’d forgotten that David Ireland slipped over into 2020 with John ‘Fourtriplezed’ providing a guest review of Bloodfather. Back home, a brief respite from Covid, the 1987 short story collection, The Babe is Wise, then Second Wave in Melbourne and I am back in isolation, seemingly forever, but working, constantly driving backwards, forwards, Melbourne, Perth, though still doing some reading. Marjorie Barnard’s biography of Miles Franklin; Patrick White’s novella collection, The Cockatoos; a bit of recent history, The Hand that Signed the Paper, Helen Demidenko; Choc.Lit for ANZLL’s Indigenous Literature Week, Not Meeting Mr Right, Anita Heiss, and also her compilation, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia; two for ANZLL’s Thea Astley Week, Drylands and Collected Stories; a Karenlee Thompson short story, Grace; a bit about Christos Tsiolkas before Melanie (GrabTheLapels) and I buddy read The Slap; a Macedonian novel featuring Miles Franklin (that must count as Australian); Jessica White’s A Curious Intimacy; my son Lou’s review of Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup; Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers; a YA, Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca; and that’s it.

Anticipation: This will be brief. I’m currently reading and will review later this month Melina Marchetta’s not-YA novel The Place on Dalhousie. After that I have hundreds of unread Australians in my TBR including The Cardboard Crown from which I keep getting distracted, but near the top of the list, friends have recently given/loaned me Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe; Bill Green, Small Town Rising; Mudrooroo, Tripping with Jenny; Jean Devanny, Sugar Heaven; Elizabeth Jolley, The Orchard Thieves, An Accommodating Spouse, Lovesong and the memoir, Central Mischief. I also have two Miles Franklin’s to dig up, The Net of Circumstance and Pioneers on Parade as well as all her unpublished/uncollected short works and journalism. If the plague is ever behind us I might shout myself a trip to Sydney and the Mitchell Library.

Promotion: There are two items under this heading. First of course is Australian Women Writers Gen 3, Part II Week on this blog 17-23 Jan, 2021, which is back a little compared with last year but I suspect I’ll be working right up to Christmas so that gives me a few days extra to prepare.

As I wrote last year, Gen 3, 1919-1960, which covers the period from the end of WWI to the beginning of the sixties, is the story of White Australians clustered in a few cities on the arable fringes of a hostile continent. I said there were two main strands to Gen 3, ‘Social Realism’ and ‘Modernism’, but there was a third, ‘Pioneering’ which followed on the Bush Realism of Gen 2 and which emphasised the role of families in the Bush, and therefore of women, as a reaction to the misogyny of the Bulletin’s Lone Hand myth (AKA the Australian Legend).

At the edges of any movement and in this case between Gen 3 and Gen 4 there are always writers on the cusp. I haven’t given enough thought to Gen 4 yet, and you guys might help, but it is in essence those writers we baby boomers began to read as we reached adulthood, corresponding to the revolution in popular music represented by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, musicians born 10 or so years before us, and to Women’s Lib, the pill, de facto marriages, cheap universal tertiary education, the anti-War movement. So, Thea Astley, first novel 1958; Elizabeth Harrower, first novel 1957; and so on through to Helen Garner, first novel 1977. The theoretical background should be post-modernism though I’d be surprised if that was influential in Australia before the 1970s.

I plan to read Kylie Tennant’s Tell Morning This which, speaking of cusps, was published in 1967. But I hope also to get to The Great Australian Loneliness (1937) by Ernestine Hill which I think is central to how Australians saw themselves ‘back then’. Look on the AWW Gen 3 page for authors and the reviews I’ve so far collected.

My second ‘promotion’ is I plan a deep reading of Joseph Furphy’s great work Such is Life, following in the footsteps of Brona (Moby Dick) and Lisa Hill (Finnegan’s Wake), with posts, probably monthly, throughout the year.

I have a 1999 edition annotated by FD Glass, R Eaden, L Hoffman & GW Turner, though unfortunately IMO the annotations take the form of end notes. I’m not sure yet how I’ll break the 7 chapters, 297 pp into 12 sections but I hope that by the end you, and more especially I, have a better understanding of this wonderful, idiosyncratic work.

That’s another year in summary for me. I don’t think I can manage a Bingo card. Thank you Brona, and good luck. From the chatter around it sounds like you already have lots of participants.

BronasBooks: AusReading Month 2020 (register here)

Madura Sunrise

Journal: 058

Yesterday morning I woke up way out in the desert at Madura, 600 km after the last town, Penong SA, 525 km to the next, Norseman WA, and another 725 km after Norseman to Perth (map). I made it home around 8.00pm but couldn’t face another 3 or 4 hours getting my last trailer in, so that cost me most of this morning. Now, after lunch and a glass of wine, I can finally attend to my bloggerly duties.

The good news is that while I was on the road Victoria announced that it had got on top of its second wave Covid outbreak and was coming out of lockdown. The next good news was that the WA’s hard border was down and that visitors would be allowed in from states without ongoing infections. The bad news was that this doesn’t yet include Victoria and that, unlike the citizens of both Vic and WA, truck drivers who travel between the two must continue to self-isolate. Still, I have my fingers crossed for Christmas.

[Just then, I wrote something, deleted it and somehow deleted the previous paragraph with it. Luckily, Undo worked just fine. Did we always have Undo?]

Otherwise, I had an unremarkable trip. It rained. It’s rained every trip for as far back as I can remember. At least with the coming of spring the rain seems a bit warmer. And I saw two Mallee Fowl. In the Mallee (north western Victoria). I’ve seen them a few times over here in the west, going into mines in mallee scrub country, but despite all the years I lived there, this was the first time I’d seen them in Victoria. Which leads me to where are the great flocks of cockatoos, galahs and rosellas that we used to see as kids? I still see some of course, but nothing like we used to, nor magpies. Every other bird these days is a crow. I blame glysophate.

That’s the reading/listening for three trips or six weeks down there, representing maybe half a dozen half-considered and abandoned posts, mostly because by the time I sit down at my computer I’ve forgotten all the arguments with which I was going to dazzle you. But two American books to which I listened on the way home made me think some more about ‘the Independent Woman’.

The Independent Woman in Australian Literature was, I’m sure you all know by now, the title of my M.Litt dissertation. Its thesis is that Australian women writers developed an archetypal heroine who eschews marriage in favour of career, that this is an alternative to the male archetype – mates in the bush/brave, larrikin Anzacs beloved of politicians; and that this archetype seems peculiarly Australian though with possible antecedents in early English Lit.

What started me thinking was Robert Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon (1942). The principal theme of the work, as was so often the case with Heinlien, is supermen – in the Nietzschean sense – but here the hero meets a woman who might be his equal, including in the wearing of guns. His response is, “You’re not one of those independent women, are you?” before wrestling her to the floor, taking away her gun, and forcing her to accept a kiss. At which she falls in love with him and becomes the mother of his (super) children.

Next up was a Danielle Steel, Power Play (2014), which was less formulaic than I had feared. We follow two CEOs of major corporations who have very contrasting years. One, a woman, long divorced is both competent and moral; the other a guy with a wife who gave up being a lawyer to be his perfect helpmeet, who sleeps with his young women employees, and who has a second family in another city. Interestingly, the guy has a woman chairman of the board who forces him to resolve the two wives thing (Spoiler: they both leave him).

It is my opinion, though without going to the trouble of collecting actual evidence, that US writers shy away from allowing their women too much independence and almost invariably have them, in the end, deferring to men. Prime example: Marge Simpson. Possible exception: Willa Cather.

In my next post, later this week (touch wood), I’ll address Brona’s #AusReadingMonth2020 and also my coming Australian Women Writers, Gen 3 Part II Week (second or third week of Jan. 2021).

Recent audiobooks 

Gene Wolfe (M, USA), The Land Across (2013) – SF (sort of)
Kevin Wignall (M, Eng), The Traitor’s Story (2016)
John Grisham (M, USA), Sycamore Row (2013) – Crime
Jacqueline Winspear (F, Eng), In This Grave Hour (2017) – Crime
Jenny Siller (F, USA), Iced (2000) – Crime
Mark Twain (M, USA), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
Nick Spalding (M, Eng), Love and Sleepless Nights (2012) – Comedy?
Neil White (M, Eng), Next to Die (2013) – Crime
JD Robb (F, USA), Born in Death (2006) – SF/Crime
Edith Wharton (F, USA), A Son at the Front (1923)
Lee Child (M, Eng), A Wanted Man (2012) – Crime
Ben Lieberman (M, USA), Odd Jobs (2013)– Crime. DNF
Petra Durst-Benning (F, Ger), The Glassblower (2014) – Hist.Fic
Gaston Leroux (M, Fra), The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) – Crime
Bradford Morrow (M, USA), The Forgers (2013)– Crime. DNF. Boring
F Herbert, B Ransom (M, USA), The Ascension Factor (1988) – SF
Unknown (M, Eng), Beowulf (700?)
Danielle Steel (F, USA), Power Play (2014)
L Ziepe (F, Eng), The Morning After the Wedding Before (2019) – Comedy
Bruce Porter (M, USA), Snatched (2016)– NonFic.
Mickey Spillane, M Collins (M, USA), King of the Weeds (2014) – Crime
Robert Heinlein (M, USA), Beyond this Horizon (1942)– SF

Currently reading

KS Prichard (F, Aust/Vic), The Pioneers
Melina Marchetta (F, Aust/NSW), Saving Francesca
Melina Marchetta (F, Aust/NSW), The Place on Dalhousie
Georgette Heyer (F, Eng), The Grand Sophy

Recent Purchases

Zorah Neale Hurston (F, USA), Jonah’s Gourd Vine
Elena Ferrante (F, Ita), The Lying Life of Adults
Sally Rooney (F, Eng), Conversations with Friends
Haruki Murakmi (M, Jap), The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
Thomas Pynchon (M, USA), V
Ursula Le Guin (F, USA) The Unreal and the Real Vol.s 1,2

The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer

I am probably pinching one of WG’s future Monday Musings here but my subject today is What do we do about racial stereotypes in old novels? Theresa Smith who reviews extensively in the area of Australian women’s fiction, recently challenged my liking for Georgette Heyer romances and said that the consensus was that Heyer was a right-wing anti-semite, citing The Grand Sophy as a particular example.

Any excuse to slack off and read another Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy wasn’t on my shelves so I dropped in at (daughter) Gee’s, waved and smiled through the door at my waving and smiling six month old grandson whom, due to Covid and over-cautious governments, I have seen only twice before, and borrowed her battered 1952 2nd edition hardback.

And then I began searching on ‘Georgette Heyer anti-semitism’. The most prominent results were blogs like Smart Bitches Trashy Books (which looks like a fun site) –

So then Sophy takes it upon herself to go confront said Jewish moneylender [Mr Goldhanger]. And then the whole book went to hell.

“…the door was slowly opened to reveal a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer…. His hooded eyes rapidly took in every detail of Sophy’s appearance.”

GOLDHANGER? With a “semitic nose” and the “instinct of his RACE?” Really?! That’s the BEST HEYER could come up with?! A stock character embodying every possible negative stereotype of Jewish people? It was so badly done it was multiply offensive. Not only was I offended personally as, you know, a Jewish person, but I was more offended as a reader as well because IT WAS SO BADLY DONE.

SB Sarah of SBTB, Aug 15, 2011

Biographer Brenda Niall in her review in the SMH of GEORGETTE HEYER: BIOGRAPHY OF A BESTSELLER, by Jennifer Kloester says the same thing, though more temperately –

No one faulted Heyer’s research on Regency manners and idiom, snuffboxes, staging posts, pantaloons and Hessian boots. Although, as Kloester concedes, her characters are essentially 20th-century people in costume, their world of illusion is wittily sustained.

Heyer is not an easy subject for biography, nor an endearing one. She was ferocious about maintaining her privacy and because so much of her life was consumed in her work, there is not a great deal to say. Kloester’s use of family papers reveals a loyal daughter and a generous sister, wife and mother.

The papers also reveal Heyer’s snobbishness about people ”not out of quite one’s own drawer”, and her racism and anti-Semitism.

SMH January 7, 2012

I meant to start this discussion at another place, so let’s go there now. As a radical socialist (syndicalist) I am totally anti-Zionist. Zionism as presently practiced by the government of Israel is Apartheid by another name, a fig leaf to justify the illegal occupation and subjugation of Palestine. Zionists of course conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which is dishonest and a nonsense, but then so are most arguments on the Right.

The problem which I am willing to own is that I am going to argue that money lending and being Jewish were so often regarded as synonymous in the past that their conflation must be unremarkable. Which is not to say that Heyer (1902-1974) is that far in the past, and her depiction of Goldhanger in 1950 – so after the War and after the Holocaust – was probably almost as offensive then as it is now, though far less likely of course to have been contested.

Because Jewishness and Moneylending are so often paired in literature, I looked into it a little and it seems that from the beginning of the Christian Era educated Jews had the advantage of a world-wide (the “world” being you know, Persia say to Gibraltar) system of enforceable law which made banking and trade both profitable and relatively safe (more here). Which is not to say that come the Middle Ages the Church in particular did not also engage in moneylending and perhaps for the same reasons.

But of course the Middle Ages were also famous for the murder and eviction of Jews to enable Christians to avoid paying their debts. And even now, as we too often see, it is always useful to have an Other to blame and vilify for our own mistakes and weaknesses.

A quick read and a quick review: The eponymous ‘Grand Sophy’ is a fine heroine, tall, independent after years travelling Europe with her diplomat father, following Wellington through the Spanish campaign and on to Waterloo. Still only 19, she is foisted onto her aunt while her father goes on a diplomatic mission to Brazil. And there with unfettered access to her father’s money she wreaks havoc amongst her half a dozen cousins.

Heyer’s plots are too complicated to simplify down to a few words, but they always begin with the heroine running into a guy whom she could not possibly like and end with the heroine and the guy heading off to the altar, and so it is here. The incident at the top of this post takes up only a few pages about half-way through as Sophy rescues the second son of the family, actually slightly older than she, from the trap he has fallen into by borrowing to cover gambling debts and being unable to face his father, himself a serious gambler, or his straight-laced older brother.

Heyer was attempting to paint a villain, engaged in fencing stolen goods and lending illegally to minors. By resorting to a stereotype 100 years out of date she was probably giving voice to her own prejudices. But I’m afraid it wasn’t enough for me to find the book unenjoyable. I would have been far more annoyed to encounter caricatures of Black people. Why? I wonder. Perhaps because the Jewish battle, in Australia anyway, seems to me to be just about won.

A wider debate than I have space for here would consider the cases of TS Elliott, and of say Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind. I guess my short answer to the question I asked at the beginning is be aware of the author’s prejudices, but if they are not central to the story, keep going. Reading doesn’t make the author’s prejudices yours. Though not recognising them might.

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Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy, first pub. 1950.

Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

Facts must be faced. I read like a girl. I got home yesterday, after eight 16 hour days of work, which is standard, tired out of my brain, had a shower, a drink, answered the easier emails, picked up a comfort read from the shelf where it had been sitting for the last couple of years, plunged right in, watched a bit of footy, the wrong side was winning, went to bed, read on until the book was finished.

The book? Saving Francesca (2003), as of course you can see, very well written feel-good fiction for teenage girls. And aged truck drivers. Well, aged truck drivers who also read Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables.

Which reminds me, Theresa Smith, in comments on a Whispering Gums post, has set me the task of reading up on Georgette Heyer’s old fashioned rightwingedness and particularly her overt anti-semitism, which I will do, though I must say I am surprised. Is it just the equating of money lending and Jewishness – and I say ‘just’ because that is unavoidable in much older fiction – or is there more? To which I have been oblivious. We will see.

Melina Marchetta (1965- ) was a history/language teacher in a Sydney boys school but is now a full time writer, no doubt following the success of her first book (and movie) Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Saving Francesca was her second and she has since written four or five others including The Piper’s Son (2010) which is apparently based around one of the boys in Saving Francesca.

I read Looking for Alibrandi some years ago, saw the movie on TV, enjoyed them both, was happy to pick up Saving Francesca when I saw it second-hand, to save for a rainy day.

Francesca is 16, starting Year 11 in the first cohort of girls in an inner-Sydney Catholic boys high school. She, Tara, Siobhan, and Justine, all ‘outsiders’, are the only girls from her old school and all her friendship group have gone on to a different school.

This morning my mother didn’t get out of bed.

Opening line

Mother, Mia is a livewire, a feminist, a university lecturer. Robert, husband, father, is laid-back, a builder. They were childhood sweethearts, and lovers it turns out, married young. It’s the sort of family where Francesca and her younger brother lie on their parents’ bed, talking to their mother late into the night while Robert sleeps and snores; where it is unremarkable, a bit gross maybe, to see each other naked.

So Mia not getting out of bed is a big deal, and it goes on for most of Francesca’s Year 11. A year of working out who your friends are – you might think there would be a ‘villain’ amongst the boys, but there’s not. They are just as awkward as the girls. And it slowly becomes apparent that the awkwardest of them have their virtues, hidden behind boy-grossness of course.

I miss … Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”
I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

Slowly, Francesca becomes aware that she and the other outsider girls have formed a friendship group, is surprised again, later in the year, to find that their group includes boys. It’s very well done.

Meanwhile, Mia’s depression is not being named, not being discussed, not being treated. Robert monopolizes Mia, willing her to snap out of it, bewildered when she doesn’t, refusing to discuss her illness with Francesca. But Francesca too is an unreliable narrator here, unaware that her own silence about Mia is making her unwell. As you might expect from a teacher-author, some of the teachers cut Francesca a lot of slack, and she spends days asleep in one teacher’s office. At least that teacher finally gets Francesca to see a counsellor.

Gradually, we see from their reactions – though it is not clear Francesca realizes this – that the other kids are aware of what Francesca is dealing with, and they too cut her some slack.

Only at the end, it comes out that her parents have been keeping a big secret (and I don’t think it’s in character that Mia would). Francesca has a fight with her father …

“You keep her all to yourself. You think you can fix everything by forgetting about it but you just make things worse. It’s all your fault. You’ve kept her sick, because you don’t know how to handle it. Because you’re a weakling. Everyone says you are, and I believe it and Mummy could have done better than you and I don’t know why you don’t fuck off now before you make it worse.”

… runs off, ends up in an outer suburban police station, is picked up by her father, talks to him, sits on her bed talking all night to her friends, the love interest thing is dealt with (I’ve been ignoring it).

It’s fun. Not preachy. Not overwhelmed by ‘issues’. A year in a life with lots of stuff going on, growing up getting done. Inner-western Sydney just lightly pencilled in. A happy-ish, realistic ending. Highly recommended.

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Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca, Penguin, Melbourne, 2003

The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

KSP writes in the preface to the 1963 edition: “Notes for The Pioneers were made in 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland. But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story …”. The novel, her first, was published in 1915 and was a success. Nathan Hobby, whose Prichard biography is at this moment at the printers, has more to say about the book’s origins here.

She goes on: “It grew from the yarns and gossip I heard at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville, and my wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. The Wirree river referred to may be recognised as the Tara, which was an escape route for convicts from Van Dieman’s Land [Tasmania] in the early days.” And hence we may infer that Wirreeford stands in for Yarram.

For the benefit of foreigners, Gippsland is that part of Victoria to the east of Melbourne and south of the Victorian Alps (map, Yarram out to the east, near the coast). It is hilly, damp, fertile and green, home once to enormous eucalypts, their range now greatly restricted by clear felling for farming and timber milling. Though, as I remember from my childhood there, the sandy coastal regions feature mostly scrubby paper barks. South Gippsland is Gunai country, though Prichard doesn’t pay the original inhabitants much attention. The Gunai were dispersed by a series of massacres of which you may read more here.

The Pioneers is historical fiction covering the early days of white settlement, which began, in this area, in the 1840s. Miles Franklin claimed in the 1930s (I can’t locate a source for this statement) that she and Steele Rudd were the progenitors of a uniquely Australian school of fiction dealing with the lives of ordinary families in the Bush, which she distinguishes from the ‘mateship’/Lone Hand/ Bulletin school (Gen 2); from the urban modernism and social realism of the years between the Wars (Gen 3); and from earlier ‘upper class’ novels of bush life, such as those by Henry Kingsley and Ada Cambridge (Gen 1).

I have written before that in the 1970s, John Hirst and Judith Godden posited that the myth of the Independent Bushman/Lone Hand (“the Australian Legend”) had been ameliorated in the 1930s by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth. Miles Franklin was a big part of that, but it is clear that The Pioneers, which predates MF’s re-flowering as a writer of pioneer fiction by a couple of decades, must earn KSP at least co-progenitor status.

That said, The Pioneers is more Robbery Under Arms than All That Swagger, but with an admirable dash of Independent Woman thrown in, and some lovely descriptive prose.

The novel begins with Donald and Mary Cameron making their way inland from ‘Port Southern’ into hilly, forested country. Donald is a Scot and Mary is Welsh. Sticking closely to ethnic stereotypes, Donald is as well known for being tight-fisted and Mary tells stories about fairies. I’m not sure that without the notes we’d know where or when we are. It is clear that the couple are pioneers, squatting on uncleared land in the bush but the nearest we get to locating ourselves is the arrival of escaped convicts from Port Arthur/Hobart Town over the water (though that’s hardly specific as Mary Bryant for instance escaped by boat as far as Jakarta).

A few months later .. A one-roomed hut, built of long, rough-barked saplings, ranged one above the other, and thatched with coarse reddish-brown bark, laid on in slabs, stood on the brow of the hill not far from the dray’s first resting place.

A light under the door indicates a restless night and in the morning Donald emerges with a bundle wrapped in a shawl, his son Davey. Unlike most pioneer families, that’s it for issue and Davey remains an only child.

The convicts above are important because they arrive when Donald is away, but Mary, apparently unafraid, helps them, making of one a friend for life, who when he returns a few years later with his daughter Deidre, becomes the local schoolmaster.

Donald prospers. Davey and Deidre grow up side by side. A little township forms. A bushfire sweeps through while Donald is away (again) and Mary is saved by the Schoolmaster. The pioneer side of the story declines in importance and instead, as we concentrate on the second generation we get into Walter Scott territory with villainous publicans, rival lovers and cattle rustling.

Deidre watched Davey going out of Narrow Valley in dim starlight of the early spring morning, the mob, hustled by Teddy and the dogs, a stream of red and brown and dappled hides before him.

I’ve read a few KSP’s – Working Bullocks, Coonardoo, Haxby’s Circus that I can think of – and I’ve generally found her prose awkward, stilted. That is not the case here. Perhaps as is so often the case, her first book was her best book. The descriptions flow. The action flows. It’s a good story, well told.

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Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, first pub. 1915. Revised edition (pictured) Rigby, 1963. Kindly loaned to me by Lisa/ANZLL.

For other KSP reviews see AWW Gen 2 page (here)

The Farewell Party, Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera (1929-) is, I am sure, best known as the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being which I have read, but a long time ago. The reason the cover of the copy I own, which I bought somewhere, second-hand, a long time ago, doesn’t say “By the author of” etc is that The Farewell Party, published in French and English in 1976, but not, interestingly in the author’s native Czech, is Kundera’s fourth novel and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is his sixth. As a side note, The Farewell Party is apparently now known as The Farewell Waltz.

The setting of The Farewell Party is a rural mountain spa in an unnamed country, presumably Czechoslovakia, and in time, between Dubcek’s Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism in 1989. Kundera went into exile in France in 1975, his Czechoslovak citizenship was revoked in 1979, and he was granted French citizenship in 1981.

So is the story a satire on communism, or indeed a criticism of Czechoslovakia? Maybe, but only very gently, and only if you read through the antics of Dr Skreta, the head of the spa, to a general criticism of Czech bureaucracy. The style of writing I find difficult to describe. It is spare and the author feels distant from his multiple pov protagonists. Reading Ivan Čapovski’s Miles Franklin last month I was reminded of Ana Kavan’s Ice – and that’s about all the ‘modern’ European reading I’ve done in the last few years – and The Farewell Party has the same feel, a sort of remoteness from the action.

During my searches I came across “[this] is Kundera’s most accessible novel”, not necessarily a recommendation, “a comedy in the form of a burlesque”, with apparently “multiple layers that explore themes of love, hatred, and fate”. I wouldn’t be a lit. student (again) for quids.

The story begins at a single point, nurse Ruzena is pregnant, and spirals out from there.

Ruzena had been born in the resort town, both of her parents still lived there, and she wondered whether she would ever manage to escape from that teeming nest of women.

Two months earlier she had slept with the trumpeter, Klima after he performed at the spa. Her workmates urge her to phone him. Klima takes the call during a rehearsal. He offers to ‘arrange’ things. “How do you mean ‘arranged’?” He was at a loss, not daring to call the thing by its real name ..

Ruzena is indignant. Klima is terrified. After years of womanizing this is the call he has always dreaded. His bandmates strategize. In the end they decide he should pretend to be in love with Ruzena. He will divorce his wife and Ruzena will terminate her pregnancy so they can start their lives together afresh. He organizes to drive back to the spa the next day …

… which is his wife’s birthday.

This beautiful lady was afraid of women, and saw them everywhere. She never missed a single one. She knew how to detect them from the tone of Klima’s voice when he greeted her at the door and even from the smell of his clothes.

So when he arrives home with a huge bunch of roses she understands immediately there’s a woman in the case. The damned bureaucrats have decided I’ll have to spend all day tomorrow at a stupid conference about the role of music in the building of socialism, he tells her. She goes along with him. They go to a movie, then home to bed. Finally, she is named: He lay next to Kamila. He knew that he loved her immensely. So ends the First Day.

Second Day. Klima arrives at the spa and goes straight to the rooms of Bartleff, a rich American undergoing the cure. They discuss women, they discuss Ruzena. They are sure that Dr Skreta will perform the abortion.

Dr Skreta has a wildly successful IVF practice. We are gradually made aware that the doctor is in all cases using his own semen. More and more women are having babies with Skreta’s prominent nose.

Days pass. The number of protagonists increases. Jakub, a dissident politician arrives with his ‘ward’. Skreta had some time ago given him a suicide pill in case he couldn’t stand imprisonment. Jakub is on his way to exile. His ‘ward’, Olga wishes to become his mistress.

Skreta persuades Klima to give a free performance with Skreta as his drummer.

Franta, a young local man is stalking Ruzena. It seems they had once been lovers. He believes they should now be married.

Franta was younger than Ruzena, and it was his misfortune to suffer from the inexperience of youth. When he grows up he will become aware of the transitory nature of the world and he will learn that no sooner does one woman disappear from the horizon than a galaxy of other women come into view.

Kamila comes up to the spa thinking to catch Klima out at his ‘free perfomance’, falls in with a film crew, and is almost seduced herself.

Somehow Jakub’s suicide pill gets mixed up with Ruzena’s sedatives.

Ok, perhaps it is a burlesque. A fun read and an interesting read.

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Milan Kundera, The Farewell Party, King Penguin, London, 1976. 184pp. Translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi.