Bring the Monkey, Miles Franklin

Bring the Monkey by Miles Franklin (English) Paperback ...

Miles Franklin, whose champion I am meant to be, is sometimes a terrible writer and this is one of those occasions. She tries very hard to be ‘cute and succeeds only in being annoying. This was a stage she went through and she (largely) got over it.

From the end of her ‘enthusiastic beginner’ stage which saw all her best writing and ended with Some Everyday Folk and Dawn in 1909 when she was already 30, to the beginning of her straight ‘bush realism’ phase which begins with the first Brent of Bin Bin novel 20 years later, Franklin had only one novel published, The Net of Circumstance (1915) by Mr & Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau, which sank without a trace, and a mountain of unpublished plays and novels.

Over that period, which of course includes her service in the First World War (here), Franklin experimented with her style, beginning with On Dearborn Street, written around 1915 and not published until 1981 and ending with two ‘Mayfair’ drawing room comedies written in the 1920s. They were Merlin of the Empire published as Prelude to Waking by Brent of Bin Bin in 1950, and Bring the Monkey published in 1933 after the success of the first three Brent of Bin Bin novels and the relative success of Old Blastus of Bandicoot (1931) under her own name.

I would like to have said more about the gestation of Bring the Monkey but my reference library is home and I am not, though I might still update this review at a later date for my own satisfaction if for no one else’s.

The Miles Franklin character is Ercildoun Carrington (Gerald Murnane too is fascinated by the name Ercildoun – see Border Districts), a thirtyish middle class woman who moves into the flat of her elegant best friend, Zarl Osterley, to help care for her new monkey, Percy Macacus Rhesus y Osterley. This business with names just goes on and on. Zarl is invited to a house party at Tattingwood Hall in Supersnoring, by Lady Tattingwood the second wife of Swithwulf George Cedd St. Erconwald Spillbeans, the sixteenth Baron Tattingwood, to see a movie made by Tattingwood’s second son, Cedd Spillbeams starring the platinum blonde American actress Ydonea Zaltuffrie.

Ydonea – which is a really tiring name to keep in your mind, I mostly thought of her as Oneday – is heavily bejewelled courtesy of an Indian Maharajah. Her retinue consists of her mother; Mammy her Black maid, who affects a southern accent; 3 Pinkerton men to guard the jewels; and Yusuf, an Indian chauffeur (late in the story E admits that Yusuf is Hindu and that it is racist to call him Yusuf, which is the generic (Muslim) name for all Ydonea’s Indian chauffeurs).

E, who is the narrator, goes down to Supersnoring as Zarl’s “dago maid” in charge of Percy. As do Zarl’s friend Jimmy who is Ydonea’s pilot, and another man, the strong silent type, whom we only know as the Elephant Hunter.

Before she became Lady Tattingwood, Clarice, an heiress in soap, whose fortune was needed to keep the Hall going, had had an affair with WWI hero Captain Cecil Stopworth MC resulting in a daughter who is being brought up by Stopworth’s mother. By the time of this story, which is set around 1930, Stopworth is a senior policeman in Scotland Yard.

It is germane to the story that Zarl is given the room adjoining Lady Tattingwood’s, E sleeps on a camp stretcher next to Zarl, and Stopworth, who still carries a flame for Lady T, and is supposedly down to guard Y’s jewellery, is given the next adjoining room.

There’s lots going on, and the build up takes far too long. MF probably wished to demonstrate that she was smarter than the average detective fiction writer, but if so she failed. There is a little of the Independent Woman theme – Zarl enjoys romances, but not marriage, and makes her way as assistant to explorers and scientists in out of the way places – and a bit, not too much as there is in On Dearborn Street, about women remaining pure. The platinum haired Ydonea is portrayed as no dumb blonde when it comes to managing her business of being a bankable, newsworthy celebrity.

There’s a lot about how popular the monkey is; Tattingwood makes E an indecent proposal and is stuck with a pin for his troubles; there’s a film screening during which some diamonds go missing; Jimmy also goes missing; lots of guests are out and about that night due to problems with the lobster salad; some of them see a ghost; Stopworth is murdered; Lady T last seen crossing Zarl’s room to her former lover’s door is found in a coma in Lord T’s dressing room with a broken arm; someone throws a dagger in the dark at the place where E’s camp stretcher should be; Yusuf goes missing; Jimmy sends a telegram to say he has gone on a round the world flight in Ydonea’s plane, financed by the sale of one of Ydonea’s diamonds.

Neither E nor the police solve the mystery of the other missing diamond, nor the murder. In the last few pages there is a confession including to a death we weren’t even thinking about. I must admit the second half held me much more than the first.

 

Miles Franklin, Bring the Monkey, first pub. 1933. Available on Project Gutenberg Australia here

see Mile Franklin page (here)


The cover at the top is from … I didn’t write it down, but someone taking advantage of it being out of copyright no doubt. That below is as close as I could get to the original. And “Illustrated by Norman Lindsay”!

Is this Lindsay do you think? From Gutenberg which is meant to be the first edition.

Bring The Monkey. by  MILES FRANKLIN - First Edition - from Time Booksellers (SKU: 98877)

Sydney, The Endeavour Press, (1933). . First Edition; 8vo; pp. 248; numerous b/w illustrations throughout; original red cloth, title lettered in black on spine and front, spine faded, previous owner’s inscription to front free endpaper, minor browning to endpapers, otherwise a very good copy. Illustrated by Norman Lindsay.

Biblio: AU$115.00 (here)

My Ántonia, Willa Cather

***My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918) | Bean's Book Blog ...

Well, I’ve read the three now and I’m clear The Song of the Lark is my favourite. Clear too that while they each cover the life of one strong woman, over the same period, 1880-1910, in more or less the same small part of America’s western prairies, they barely constitute a ‘trilogy’.

My Ántonia (1918) is ostensibly the story of Ántonia Shimerda, the daughter of a Bohemian family come to take up newly opened farmland near (fictional) Black Hawk, Nebraska, in the same uncultivated red grass prairie country as O Pioneers!, where Cather grew up. But this one is hardly a novel at all, nor even the story of Ántonia, but rather Cather’s autobiography very lightly fictionalised as the memoir of one of her schoolmates, Jim Burden.

As one blogger I came across wrote: “For a book about Ántonia, there was very little of Ántonia – not enough for me to build a picture of her personality.” She also wrote: Verdict: Ahem. Sorry. Boring. which is harsh, but not that far off the mark.

The story is framed in a brief Introduction where the author recounts running into Burden and the two agree to write what they remember of

a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom both of us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

Though in the end it is only Burden’s account we hear.

Encyclopaedia Britannica says: At age 9 [1883] Cather moved with her family from Virginia to frontier Nebraska, where from age 10 she lived in the village of Red Cloud. There she grew up among the immigrants from Europe—Swedes, Bohemians, Russians, and Germans—who were breaking the land on the Great Plains.

Cather in the guise of Jim Burden writes: I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in [Black Hawk] Nebraska.

Jim travels in the care of farm worker Jake, and on the train with them is a family of Bohemians who get off at the same stop, and who as it happens are taking up the property next door to Jim’s grandfather’s.

ON SUNDAY MORNING Otto Fuchs [the other farm worker] was to drive us over to make the acquaintance of our new Bohemian neighbours. We were taking them some provisions, as they had come to live on a wild place where there was no garden or chicken-house, and very little broken land.

And so Jim meets Ántonia, a few years his elder, and they become firm friends running free across the prairie whenever there is no work. The Shimerdas live in what is little more than a hole in the ground. The father a furrier and musician back home, has no aptitude for farm work, which is increasingly left to Ántonia’s older brother, Ambrosch.

Antonia had opinions about everything, and she was soon able to make them known. Almost every day she came running across the prairie to have her reading lesson with me… [and] to help grandmother in the kitchen and to learn about cooking and housekeeping.

Jim himself does very little farm work, just the chooks and the milking, consistent with him just being Cather in pants.

Cather’s descriptions of the plains and its people are what has made these books live for so long, but the first two and especially The Song of The Lark have a dramatic intensity that My Ántonia lacks altogether. It simply drifts along, first I did this, then I did that.

Though, for the first year and especially that brutal first winter, it’s nearly all we did this, we did that as the Burdens help the Shimerdas survive. Jim starts school, then as Cather’s family did, the Burdens move into town. Mr Shimerda has died, and there is more physical and emotional distance between the friends, especially as Ántonia, Tony now, takes on more outside work both for her brother and for their neighbours.

Since winter I had seen very little of Antonia. She was out in the fields from sunup until sundown. If I rode over to see her where she was ploughing, she stopped at the end of a row to chat for a moment, then gripped her plough-handles, clucked to her team, and waded on down the furrow, making me feel that she was now grown up and had no time for me.

There is very little discussion of the fact that Ántonia at 15 or 16 must have had very different interests to 11, 12 year old Jim. He – who remains a bachelor throughout, as Cather herself stayed unmarried – is clearly romantically interested in her but not so much she in him. In fact the relationship is only believable if you turn Jim back to what he really was, an infatuated schoolgirl.

In town the Burdens’ next door neighbours, the Harlings, a big prosperous family, come into the story and eventually Ántonia comes to work for them as housekeeper, leading the story in a new direction, the doings of Ántonia and her friends, collectively ‘the Hired Girls’, young migrant women not too proud to work in service to support the farms of their families. Those girls, Tony, Lena, Tiny, the Marys are free to go out in the evenings, to listen to music and dance, and Jim is often out his bedroom window to join them.

Life goes on, all the interest is in the detail and the descriptions. Jim goes to College in Lincoln, as did Cather. Lena comes to town as a dressmaker and the two often go to the theatre together. One performance is of a Dumas play related to La Traviata. This is of course La Dame aux Camélias (Camille in American)

The actress who played Marguerite was even then old-fashioned, though historic. She had been a member of Daly’s famous New York company, and afterward a ‘star’

Research points to this having been not Sarah Bernhardt, my first guess, but her predecessor Clara Morris.

We hear Ántonia has gone off to marry her sweetheart, a railway man, but she is soon back, pregnant, hidden away on the farm. We finally catch up with her 20 years later, happy, married to a fellow countryman, a farmer’s wife with a dozen children.

Read it, the descriptions are wonderful. If I describe it as America’s A Fortunate Life, then Australians at least will know what I mean.

 

Willa Cather, My Ántonia, first pub. 1918.

see also:

Liz, Adventures in reading, running and working from home,
My Ántonia Readalong (here)
O Pioneers! (here)
The Song of the Lark (here)

Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

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Miles Franklin Award: read the list of winners and weep. Too Much Lip is not a bad book. Once it got going somewhere after the halfway mark, it even had me interested. But the year’s “novel of the highest literary merit”? What a joke. I have no doubt it was given the award by ABC-quality middle of the road, politically correct judges for exactly the same reason as they awarded The Hand that Signed the Paper, to show how cool they were. They were hip with right wing East Europeans back then – and only back-tracked when the right winger turned out to be an Anglo – and they’re hip with lippy Black women now.

Did the judges who gave Lucashenko last year’s prize even read Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth?  Of course they didn’t. They were in too much of a hurry to get back to the latest Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver. The Miles Franklin sad to say has become a reward for story telling and mediocre writing. Look no further than 2014 when Evie Wyld’s All The Birds Singing won ahead of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book which may well be the great Australian novel of the century.

So, Melissa Lucashenko is not literary in the way that Murnane, Wright or Kim Scott are, and she’s not satirical in the way that Marie Munkara is. But she tells a story. She is a Bundjalung woman of the NSW north coast, as is her protagonist Kerry Salter, and the patois in which the book is written is presumably the usual langauge of that people, though I’m guessing Lucashenko is an educated woman, as the patois sometimes feels a bit forced.

At the beginning of the novel, Kerry Salter, a 30ish Aboriginal woman, and her partner in crime and love, Allie have robbed a bank in Qld. Kerry escaped but Allie was arrested and gaoled. Allie feels abandoned and declares the relationship over. Kerry on a stolen Harley Davidson, with a backpack full of money, heads over the border to her family’s country in the hinterland of NSW’s north coast beaches.

Revving the throttle, she looked straight in front of her, down a long gravel driveway to the house that jack shit built. It huddled beneath the spreading arms of a large leopard tree. Same old fibro walls. Same old roof with rust creeping into a few more panels each wet season,

In the house are Kerry’s mother Pretty Mary, a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken, once a fine athlete, now an unemployed drunk, prone to unpredictable violence; his anorexic, teenage son Donny, who lives mostly in his computer games; Pop, her grandfather, dying now, a former Golden Gloves boxer and farm worker for the Nunnes, the original white settlers; and Elvis, their old dog. Kerry has other siblings, Black Superman a gay civil servant in Sydney, and Donna who went missing aged 16 20 years earlier and who has never been found. And there are various Uncles, Aunties and cousins in the surrounding towns.

There’s a silly plot: Jim Buckley the local real estate developer and mayor, sees the backpack on the back of Kerry’s bike and takes it for himself. Kerry stays on at her mother’s but despite being stoney broke makes very little attempt to get it back. There’s the central plot: Buckley has rezoned land he owns so that a prison can be built on it. The land for the prison is adjacent to a bend in the river and an island that has always been regarded by the Salters as their own. The race is on to get the surrounding land recognised under Native Title law or to get Buckley indicted for corruption before clearing commences. And there’s a parallel plot, Martina has been transferred from Sydney to work in Buckley’s real estate office. Martina was ambitious and successful in Sydney, but there’s another reason she’s unhappy to be transferred up north.

And of course there’s a love interest plot. Steve, a former shy, skinny schoolmate of Kerry’s now has the whole six-pack thing and is back in town to open a gym. Kerry, who forgets that she prefers women, and Martina, both get the hots for him.

This all takes a while to pull together, and there’s other stuff, a friendly local cop, the bogan white family next door, Pop’s funeral, Pretty Mary’s fortune telling. The novel gathers strength in the second half as the various plots come together, and as the effects of past traumas, White on Black, Black on Black, are seen to play out.

I have no doubt that the detail of Aboriginal lives lived on the outskirts of town, and the language used to express it, is authentic, but that doesn’t make it literary. In the end, Too Much Lip is not much more than just another middle of the road small town family drama.

 

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip, UQP, Brisbane, 2018

Other (more positive) Reviews:
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)

Song of the Lark, Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark (1915), the second in Cather’s ‘Prairie’ trilogy is set, initially at least, in Colorado, the adjoining state to the south and west of Nebraska, the setting of the first, and further into the high country I guess, in a little railway town she names Moonstone, in desert country of wind blown sandhills, not country I’d ever heard of before in relation to Colorado.

Winter was long in coming that year. Throughout October the days were bathed in sunlight and the air was clear as crystal. The town kept its cheerful summer aspect, the desert glistened with light, the sand hills every day went through magical changes of color. The scarlet sage bloomed late in the front yards, the cottonwood leaves were bright gold long before they fell, and it was not until November that the green on the tamarisks began to cloud and fade. There was a flurry of snow about Thanksgiving, and then December came on warm and clear.

Thea the heroine, 11 years old when we meet her, is a flaxen haired ‘Swede’, one of seven children, her father, Kronberg a Methodist* pastor in a town of Swedes, Germans and American Baptists, though there is unusually for the times this far north a Mexican enclave too. There seems no connection with O Pioneers! except that Mrs Kronberg has a farm in Nebraska, from her father, on which she has tenants.


Right now I am at the half way mark of the book. I opened the file for this review as I began to read because it is so easy to copy quotes across from Project Gutenberg and not have to go back looking for them. From what some of you say I could do that with an e-reader too, but I don’t. Thea has grown through six years of country town life, closely described, taken music lessons from a drunken old German who has eventually had to leave town, left school a year early to teach piano, and now a railwayman in his thirties who has planned to marry Thea since she was 11 has died and in his will left her $600 for her education in music, not in nearby Denver, but in Chicago.

There Thea has found a home with a German widow and her widowed daughter, and a teacher in Harsanyi, a young married Hungarian. Thea is very intelligent, very uneducated, and immensely determined. Harsnayi, himself a talented performer, who has been teaching her piano for some months has only just discovered that Thea sings soprano in the church choir, and he and I have had tears in our eyes for a whole chapter as he slowly realises just how wonderful, and how untrained, is her voice.

A kind of happiness vibrated in her voice. Harsanyi noticed how much and how unhesitatingly she changed her delivery of the whole song, the first part as well as the last. He had often noticed that she could not think a thing out in passages. Until she saw it as a whole, she wandered like a blind man surrounded by torments. After she once had her “revelation,” after she got the idea that to her—not always to him—explained everything, then she went forward rapidly.

So I do not know yet how this novel is going to work out. O Pioneers! was the story of two impossible loves, with its background Alexandra’s growth as a woman and businesswoman. At this stage Song of the Lark has no story at all but is a character study of an independent young woman, set against the characters of her mother in particular, and her father, and the men in her community who are her only friends.


I never use all the quotes I mark, but I’ll share this one because I think we Australian boomers who’ve grown up with waves of migration will sympathize. In Moonstone Thea is friends with a Mexican singer, Johnny, who has just told Thea and her brother Gunner that some Mexicans keep snakes in the house to kill rats and mice:

“They call him the house snake. They keep a little mat for him by the fire, and at night he curl up there and sit with the family, just as friendly!”

Gunner sniffed with disgust. “Well, I think that’s a dirty Mexican way to keep house; so there!”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps,” he muttered. A Mexican learns to dive below insults or soar above them, after he crosses the border.

There is another resonance for Australians and that is, right at this time, Miles Franklin a country girl who had dreamed of a career as an opera singer until her voice was ruined by poor training, is living and working in Chicago and singing in church and union choirs.

https://historylink101.com/art/JulesBreton/images/498099.jpgThe Song of the Lark, 1884, Jules Breton

Thea begins to find her way round Chicago, to the museum where she falls in love with this painting, to concerts, learns to deal with tramcars, crowded streets, dirt, hostile winds off the lake. Harsanyi knows his limitations and passes her on to Bowers, less sympathetic, but the best teacher of voice. After a year Thea begins to understand her own power.

Home for the summer holidays she attends a dance in the Mexican quarter which becomes an impromptu concert. Her old German friends nearby are wakened by the singing

There was silence for a few moments. Then the guitar sounded fiercely, and several male voices began the sextette from “Lucia.” Johnny’s reedy tenor they knew well, and the bricklayer’s big, opaque barytone; the others might be anybody over there—just Mexican voices. Then at the appointed, at the acute, moment, the soprano voice, like a fountain jet, shot up into the light. “HORCH! HORCH!” the old people whispered, both at once.

Thea’s older sister and brothers are disgusted with her for mixing with ‘that kind’ and she knows that this is no longer her home.

In the second half of the novel Thea is a woman, enormously talented and determined, taking that step, or those steps, from student to the edge of stardom. You wonder who Cather was up close to, to be able to write with such detail. It doesn’t have the dramatic power of Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest, but it does have very nearly as much music. There is a man in Thea’s life, Fred, the musically-inclined son of a beer baron, and early on she goes away with him, to his ranch in Navajo country, lovingly described, then to Mexico, outside of this novel so to speak, where she learns what we already know, that Fred is married. Her time as a student and young singer in Germany is also outside the story and we rejoin her in New York, where she is just beginning to be a success, where she is still friends with Fred and where she is joined by the very first of her admirers and supporters, Doctor Archie from Moonstone.

Much as I am hypnotised by Cather’s powers of description, I wondered for a long time where this novel was going. But Thea as a country girl of unusual gifts, and Thea as a young star are in the end each so fully realised, and each is so important to the understanding of the other, that I don’t regret a single word (and I hope you don’t either of this very long review).

 

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, first pub. 1915. Painting by Jules Breton in The Art Institute Chicago (here). Cover painting on the Penguin edition, no I don’t know either.

see also:

O Pioneers! (here)
My Ántonia (coming)


*I don’t know how Rev. Kronberg ended up in a Methodist church. He came from the Swedish community in Minnesota and remembered enough Swedish to be able to minister to his countrymen in a little community outside Moonstone. His friend Larsen in Chicago to whom he sends Thea is a minister in the Swedish Reform Church.

O Pioneers! Willa Cather

O Pioneers! - Wikipedia

Liz Dexter of Adventures in Reading etc. is holding a read-along of Cather’s My Ántonia which she has set for 13-19 April (2020, just in case you’re reading this some other year) so I decided to make use of my unlimited self-isolation free time to read and review the whole trilogy –

O Pioneers! (1913)
The Song of the Lark (1915)
My Ántonia (1918)

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia but grew up in Nebraska, frontier country on the high plains, where her father unsuccessfully attempted to farm in the early days of settlement for 18 months before moving into town and becoming a real estate agent. Willa’s mother had been a teacher, and Willa after starting school late, went on through high school to university (Nebraska-Lincoln). That would have been around 1890. University for women in Britain and Australia began in 1881, it would be interesting to know when women were first accepted into university in the US. Cather initially intended to be a doctor but soon dropped science and did a BA in English. She went on to make a career in magazine journalism though she taught Algebra and English for a while in high school.

There is some discussion of her sexuality. My understanding is that very few women declared themselves to be lesbian at that time, even, perhaps especially, those who lived together as did Cather and her friend Edith Lewis. (Sylvia Martin discusses this in Passionate Friends). I raise it because Alexandra, the central character of O Pioneers!, is the closest I’ve come to an Independent Woman in (old) American Literature.

Cather’s first novel was Alexander’s Bridge (1912), a Librivox recording of which which I began listening to last year but I couldn’t stand one of the readers. O Pioneers! was her second. The versions I am reading of this and the subsequent two are from Project Gutenberg. None of them seems very long, novella length really, but I can’t tell for sure.

O Pioneers! is divided into five parts spread over a couple of decades. All the most important characters are introduced almost in the first scene.

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain.

A little ‘Swede’ boy maybe five years old in a coat and flannel dress is sitting in the street crying. His kitten is up a telegraph pole and won’t come down. His sister, 17 or 18, “a tall, strong girl [who] walked rapidly and resolutely” calls on their neighbour’s son, three or so years younger than she, for help. And so we meet Emil, Alexandra and Carl. Carl goes off to harness Alexandra’s horses and Emil wanders into the saloon to play with a “city child .. dressed in what was then called the “Kate Greenaway” manner, and her red cashmere frock, gathered full from the yoke, came almost to the floor. This, with her poke bonnet, gave her the look of a quaint little woman”. This is Marie, a Bohemian (Czech), aged 8 or 9.

The different national backgrounds of the settlers are in themselves fascinating. There are communities of protestant Swedes – Alexandra herself remembers when her father worked in a shipyard in Sweden – and Catholic French. The Bohemians, of whom there are only a few in this area, are also Catholic. We had very little of this in Australia, pockets of Scots and Irish of course, Germans in South Australia, and Chinese left over from the goldrushes who took up market gardening. As with Australian wheat-sheep country, the standard block size appears to be one square mile, 640 acres.

Alexandra, Carl and Emil return through the snow to their respective parents’ farms. Alexandra’s father is dying and he charges her with the ongoing management of the farm, for her and her and her hard-working but less bright teenage brothers.

Carl’s father can’t manage the harsh conditions and takes his family back to civilisation (Chicago or Pittsburgh). Alexandra takes stock of how earlier settlers did down on the river and persuades her brothers to mortgage their first property, which their father had managed to pay off before he died, and to begin buying up properties and to adapt their farming to the conditions.

Years later, Emil has gone through school and on to college. His two brothers are married and the property holdings have been split in three, between them and Alexandra. They are all prosperous thanks to Alexandra’s innovations.

IT is sixteen years since John Bergson died. His wife now lies beside him, and the white shaft that marks their graves gleams across the wheat-fields. Could he rise from beneath it, he would not know the country under which he has been asleep. The shaggy coat of the prairie, which they lifted to make him a bed, has vanished forever. From the Norwegian graveyard one looks out over a vast checker-board, marked off in squares of wheat and corn; light and dark, dark and light. Telephone wires hum along the white roads, which always run at right angles.

Alexandra still unmarried, has built herself a substantial homestead, and still writes to Carl. Marie lovely and vivacious, has married a surly fellow countryman, and they have bought Carl’s father’s old property, next door to Alexandra. Marie is about Alexandra’s only close friend.

Carl comes back for an extended visit. Alexandra is fronted by her farmer brothers who are concerned that she might marry him and not leave her property to their children

“The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title. If anything goes wrong, it’s the men that are held responsible… We worked in the fields to pay for the first land you bought, and whatever’s come out of it has got to be kept in the family.”

Alexandra breaks with them. Carl goes away gold prospecting in the Yukon. Emil is in love with Marie, and goes off to Mexico. He comes back and it all ends calamitously.

Cather’s writing is exquisite, you can feel the ice in winter and hear the birds sing in summer. You really feel for Alexandra, growing older and lonelier. I hope the next two books are as good.

 

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, first pub. 1913

see also:

The Song of the Lark (coming)
My Ántonia (coming)

Wizard of the Crow, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938- ) is a Kenyan who was imprisoned for a year in 1977 for staging a play seen as subversive, and has since lived in the West, first in Britain then in the US, as an author and academic (Wiki). Wizard of the Crow (2006), his seventh novel, was written in Kikuyu, which he grew up speaking, and translated into English by the author, though the characters in the novel apparently speak Swahili, the official language of most East African countries. When they switch to English the author generally says so, but also puts the phrase in italics. Occasionally (not very often) the author leaves some language untranslated.

Wizard of the Crow is a long way outside my normal reading, and is also enormous, 760pp, divided into six books and lots of short chapters, so let me make it clear at the outset that I enjoyed it, not unreservedly, but a lot, to the extent that some nights I found it unputdownable.

Set in the fictional African dictatorship of the Free Republic of Aburĩria, a former British colony, the novel is an allegory for how we all think the worst African countries are run, but contains within it some interesting though limited character development around Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, the young man and woman who together are the Wizard of the Crow. The style is one might say a mixture of absurdism, African spiritualism and magic realism, but without the poetry of the best Nigerians.

The author speaks, declaims to us really, from on high, an omniscient observer and commentator, though some passages are carried by another narrator, AG, the policeman who initiates the myth of the Wizard of the Crow which Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra feel bound to carry on, as a sort of hiding in plain sight.

The President of Aburĩria is Ruler and his principal, rival lieutenants are Machokali and Sikiokuu, who respectively have had their eyes and ears grotesquely enhanced the better to see and hear Ruler’s enemies. And a lot, too much maybe, of the book is their sycophancy to Ruler and their scheming to get the better of each other. And yet late in the book Machokali is disappeared and Sikokuu demoted so that they play no part in the ending.

Out in the real world, Kamĩtĩ has been fruitlessly seeking work in the capital, Eldares, for three years after returning from India with degrees in Business, when he applies at the offices of Tajirika’s construction company. Tajirika goes through the motions of giving him an interview, but only in order to humiliate him by getting him to prove his proficiency in English by reading the sign saying ‘No Vacancies’. Nyawĩra, Tajirika’s secretary speaks kindly to Kamĩtĩ. He goes off, is caught up in a demo, he and another protestor are pursued by the policeman AG, who loses them on the plain outside town where, he believes, they turn into a single spirit. The second protestor turns out to be Nyawĩra who takes Kamĩtĩ home. They know the policeman is close, so Kamĩtĩ puts up a sign saying Wizard of the Crow to frighten him off.

“I knew they were not thieves; they were devils, djinns of the prairie, sent by the Wizard of the Crow to trick me to death. Woe unto me! I am now bewitched.

And so the legend is born with AG spreading it through all the bars. Belief in the legend delivers its own efficacy, and soon the Wizard is being blamed or given credit for every miraculous occurrence.

Machokali comes up with a great building project to enhance the prestige of Ruler and Aburĩria, which will need to be financed by the Global Bank. Tajirika, Machokali’s protege, is made chairman of the building committee. Within hours a line of businessmen wishing to pay him bribes has formed up outside Tajirika’s office. Nyawĩra needs help to deal with them all but when she takes down the No Vacancies sign another queue of would-be employees forms. By morning both queues are apparently endless.

Queuing mania spreads throughout the country. The underground resistance of which Nyawĩra is secretly a part repurposes the queues into protest marches converging on the capital. Sikiokuu’s protegy, Kaniũrũ, leader of the youth wing and Nyawĩra’s ex husband is made Chairman of the committee to investigate queuing.

Ruler and Machokali go to New York to seek an audience with the directors of Global Bank. Ruler gets ill and inflates like a balloon. Tajirika gets ill with white-ache, overcome by the desire to be white, powerful and wealthy. His wife Vinjinia and Nyawĩra have him ‘cured’ by the Wizard of the Crow. Various people are detained for questioning or fed to crocodiles. Nyawĩra is blamed for the queuing and becomes a wanted criminal. Eventually it becomes apparent that only the Wizard of the Crow can locate her.

When Tajirika recovers he is suspicious of Vinjinia’s success at running the business and eventually gives her a beating. She goes to the Wizard of the Crow for help and Tajirika is kidnapped by women and beaten in return. Ruler learns of this and is fearful that men’s right to rule their wives is being usurped.

The rumors that Aburĩrian women were up in arms against their husbands, which later spread to all corners of the country, had origins in Kaniũrũ’s investigations. Despite the fact that he had been instructed to do it secretly, Kaniũrũ decided that this scandal was all he need to strip Tajirika of dignity and manhood.

On his return from the US, Ruler admires the skill with which Tajirika and Kaniũrũ have been accumulating bribes and makes them his principal advisors, though both are eventually outsmarted by their wives. Ruler abandons his grandiose building project and adopts the semblance of democracy to placate Western bankers – who are very keen to make sure he does not adopt the real thing. Throughout, Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra are becoming a couple but are often apart.

There’s lots more! All along wa Thiong’o is satirising the subservience of African states to the West, Global Bank’s opposition to Keynesianism, and the complete absence of morals in the African ruling class. Women are generally shown as the only bearers of common sense, while the church acts as a refuge. There is a dichotomy between Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, who personify respectively buddhism and marxism, which is partly but not fully explored.

Narrative tension is provided by the development of the relationship between Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, by the way the myth of the Wizard of the Crow gathers steam, and partly I guess, by the changing political dynamic. I suppose there are other books as ambitious in scope, but not many.

 

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow, Anchor Books, New York, 2006

Batchelor NT (2)

Journal: 046

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Last night’s tea. I actually don’t eat much in the evenings except when I’m out, so the pizza -roasted root veg – and the pinot grigio were mostly for today.

I’ve just finished speaking to the local police and I’m not allowed to move, “where you start your isolation is where you finish your isolation”, so I’m here, at this very pleasant motel in Batchelor, for another week.

The good news is Lou is on his twelfth day and is showing no symptoms. He says you can look up each individual flight and check whether any one on board has tested positive, and to date no one on his flight in has.

I keep an eye on, Ok, I follow obsessively, the website which lists trucking jobs and there doesn’t seem to have been much fall off in work. Though there also seems to be very little work out of Darwin. There was one beaut load came up on the first day, Mt Isa to Perth. I put in a high price, but without success. Since then, nothing. I’m staying up here because Psyche wants family on hand when she has an op later in the month. Once she’s ok I’ll grab a part load and head for parts east, west or south. Though I hope I’ll be back.

This week I have been eating mostly what I had in the truck fridge and tuckerbox, porridge for breakfast, salad, egg, tuna for lunch. Now I’m down to rice crackers and cheese, I’ll either have to eat room service or get Psyche to ferry down supplies: fruit, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, brown bread. It’s only 100 km. I asked the police could I take the truck for a (short) run, particularly for the sake of the battery, but no, that’s banned too. This afternoon or tomorrow I’ll fire it up and let it run for a while where it stands like Ferdinand the bull, smelling the flowers.

You saw that I finished and posted a review of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. I saw in an earlier post that I was going to listen to her Night and Day, but if I did it didn’t stick. Now I’m reading a Kenyan book Lou brought me, Wizard of the Crow by Ngúgí Wa Thiong’o, 750 pages and fascinating. A review will follow.

The lethargy brought on by the shock of the Covid-19 crisis seems to have passed and I’m reading and writing as I usually do in the gaps between jobs. I do a little bit of exercise and walk for half an hour in what is basically a park around the motel, or along the road, though even towards dusk the weather up here is still hot and humid. I should read Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip next but instead I have already downloaded the three novels of Willa Cather’s Pioneer trilogy and plan to read the first two in preparation for Liz Dexter’s readalong of My Antonia.

Three bloggers seem actually to have been fired up by the crisis to the extent of writing daily posts for our amusement and edification:

Mairi Neil, Up the Creek with a Pen …, Mairi up till recently was taking creative writing classes and now she is giving what are effectively free workshops (with astonishingly long posts!). This, I think, is Day 1: Ease the Anxiety and Boredom of Isolation or Insulation with Creative Writing (here).

Pam, Travellin’ Penguin is writing 30 Days hath April’s Books (here); and

Karen, BookerTalk, is writing about the process of blogging in Blogging from A – Z (here)

That’s it from me today. I don’t often write short posts, but I have books to read, nowhere to go, no one to see (and wine to drink). I’ll let you know when I’m bored enough to turn on the tele (hint: not in this lifetime).