How We Are Translated, Jessica Gaitán Johannesson

Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) is hard work! Each infintessimal advance in the plot takes soo many words. I needed a break. Grandson Dingo needed books for his first birthday. And once inside the bookshop I couldn’t really not check out new releases. So now I own How We Are Translated and John Kinsella’s short story collection, Pushing Back.

Johannesson “grew up speaking Spanish and Swedish and currently lives primarily in English”. She lives in Bath and the book is set in Edinburgh, about which she writes as though she had lived there too.

I was attracted to the book because it seemed to be in the first place a book about words, about language, about languages, about playing with the way words and meanings change as they slip from one language to another. It is turning out to be a very difficult work to write about, so I will start by answering Melanie’s question up front. Did I like it? Yes I did, Very much.

My question, Is it Literature? is more difficult to answer. At one level, How We Are Translated is ‘just’ a whimsical novel about a bi-lingual young woman dealing with her boyfriend/partner (no one says de facto anymore, though that is the relationship they are in. Is that maybe because ‘living together’ is no longer intended/expected to be permanent?) and with her (odd) job. But at another level the author clearly expects us to look at her writing as well as at her story. In particular the way she counterposes Swedish and English. So, yes, Literature.

After reading the whole book I find I don’t know the protagonists’ names. The author/narrator refers to them as I and you. She I think is Kirsten or Kristin, a Swede five years in Edinburgh, who found her odd employment to see her through uni, but is now two years graduated and still in the same job. He is Brazillian, brown, adopted young by a Scotswoman, who in the last couple of years has trained as a nurse and works for the council as a carer, visiting old people. They live in a flat, on the second or third floor. I see much/all of this in the text, but it bothers me that I look out for it because of the blurb I necessarily read to make the purchase. I hate blurbs. They spoil the reading experience. But how else can you choose?

As the book begins, they have not so much stopped talking, as stopped communicating. It is a difficult time, The Project has commenced, and ‘he’ has responded by insisting on communicating only in Swedish, which he has only just begun to learn. The Project? An unplanned and as yet unconfirmed pregnancy which they may or may not terminate, and about which, the pregnancy and the termination, they both speak obliquely, fearing to bring it out into the open.

I’m looking for quotes. The word Ciarin pops up from time to time. I’ve been ignoring it but perhaps it’s ‘his’ name. I wonder if I’d thought that earlier, some passages would have made more/different sense.

You said you wanted to ‘immerse’ yourself in ‘my language’ to ‘prepare’. ‘For both our sakes,’ you said, which is NOT an answer to why you’re JUST NOT HERE ANYMORE…

By the way, Swedish isn’t going to help you much if your future is within the NHS. And anyway, didn’t you say there was no future?

‘Jag är ledsen,’ you said.

This means ‘I am sad’, though he means it as ‘I am sorry’ which, as we Australians already know from (former Prime Minister) John Howard’s refusal to say ‘I am sorry’ to Aboriginal Australians, can express both sorrow and an acceptance of guilt.

Her ‘odd’ employment is as a Norse woman, Solveig, in an ongoing historical diorama about immigrants to Scotland, in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle. There are 3 or 4 ‘Norse’ – Ida, Solveig’s mother in law played by an Icelandic woman, and Sigurd/Niklas, a Norweigan. At work, they may only speak their ‘home’ language, so Solveig and Ida must communicate via Sigurd who luckily understands both Swedish and Icelandic. Their supervisor, and each ethnic group has a bureaucrat to enforce the rules and advance their interests over the others, Joanne Tarbuck, speaks only English (and schoolgirl French it later transpires) so must communicate with them by gestures, or hold them back for meetings after work.

The other ethnic groups are Lithuanian coal miners, farmers waylaid on their way to America, and Irish dock workers. Towards the end I may have noticed some emigrés from the French Revolution.

The elements of the plot are that the Lithuanians are plotting a rebellion and K won’t go to the doctor to confirm her pregnancy, but increasingly stays up all night worrying and walking the streets. ‘She’ ignores ‘his’ texts, in increasingly good Swedish, but wallows in the emails from their early days.

Mitt nya favoritord:

sköldpadda

Sköld-padda


My new favourite word:

turtle

Shield-toad

K does this quite often, As he tries out a new word she looks at its literal meaning. [I’ve used ‘columns’ for the first time – Emma, how do you do it? – but the Swedish and English won’t line up and I’ve had to switch to Classic block to trick the columns into ending].

The truth of the matter is that you haven’t told me what you think is the right thing to do either, and you think I haven’t noticed that you’re as far from knowing what you want as I am.

From that point of view it’s a touching story, and it comes to a head, sort of, as the Lithuanians mount their rebellion. There are other elements, the use of language of course, K’s relationship with Joanne Tarbuck is a mild satire on bureaucratism, and there’s ‘his’ status as an overseas adoptee which she is more interested than he is, or than he is willing to talk about.

Give it a try. It’s an innovative work, not quite but nearly up to the standard of Normal People, and I hope it features in next year’s awards.

.

Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, How We Are Translated, Scribe, London/Melbourne, 2021. 229pp

Merciless Gods, Christos Tsiolkas

Merciless Gods (2014) is Tsiolkas’s first collection of short fiction. I have been listening to the stories over a couple of months as I had time to kill, the Audible version, read, sadly, by Humphrey Bower whose educated, rounded tones are a very poor match for Tsiolkas’s frequently rough and ethnic protagonists.

Melanie/Grab the Lapels wrote, when she was reading Tsiolkas for the first time (The Slap) that she felt she “was being pursued by penises”. James Ley writes of these stories, “they are notable for their preoccupation with sex and violence, which they frequently bring into uneasy alignment.” (Sydney Review of Books, 1 Sept 2015). I can only say that Christos Tsiolkas writes with his dick.

If you are interested in a proper review, follow the link to Ley. I’ve been listening to these stories over a number of months and barely remember the last few I listened to, let alone the first. I would not have attempted this ‘review’ at all except that one story, Civil War, concerns a young man hitchhiking from Perth, getting lifts with truck drivers across the Nullarbor. Just for you, I am going to have to listen to it again, at my desk, so I can pause it and take notes.

Here’s an admission, discussing this story with Milly over dinner at the Balmoral, she looks it up. Now, days later, I can’t find what she found, a list of chapter headings/story names. Luckily, she gave the story a name, the reading doesn’t (yes it does, I just wasn’t paying attention), and searching on ‘Civil War Tsiolkas’ I find an earlier version published in the Barcelona Review, Issue #86 (here), so suddenly excerpts are a whole lot easier.

I am thinking about God, what it would look like, taste like, smell like. Outside the window of the truck the ochre ocean of the Nullarbor spreads out before me. The massive vehicle I’m travelling in is dwarfed by the grandeur of the prehistoric earth. Its deep guttural snorts, its thundering wheels are no competition for the explosive silence of the desert. God is absent from this landscape. Or rather, God too is eclipsed by the rocks and the dirt, the scrub and sand.

In fact, truck driving is a cocoon, insulating you from the sounds, the smells, even the temperature outside. Your preoccupation, to the extent that you are paying attention, is the road, always the road, what’s ahead – traffic, kangaroos, rest stops – and how your truck is doing. Looking around requires effort.

Nothing can withstand the hold of the desert. The truck driver, over a working life of breathing in this landscape, is also becoming part of it.
‘Don’t you ever get bored by it?’
He laughs loudly and points out to the plain. ‘You can’t get bored by this. I get real fucking bored by this road, by the asphalt and the bloody white lines. But you can’t get bored by this,’ and again he points across the scrub. ‘This land that looks like an atom bomb hit it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’

This is interesting, to me anyway, but is not the point of the story. In Perth, a “white city [living] in fear of the shadows cast by its black inhabitants”, the narrator has had a lover, a young Aboriginal man, who has died of a drug overdose.

I sat next to him and gently pulled out the syringe and took off his T-shirt, wiping away the vomit from around his mouth and chin.
I cried, but I’m still not sure if it was for him or for myself. I had not yet got to know this man who was still so very much a boy. I had been up his arse, I had sucked on his cock, but I knew very little about him. I knew that there was someone I should call: the police? the ambulance?

We move backwards and forwards, from the death and funeral of the young man, to the truck, a truckstop, a meeting of likeminded drivers.

‘People are getting ready … arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.’ He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying.

The drivers are certain that a civil war is coming, that Aboriginal people are being armed “by the Jews”, and that they, we, must be armed to put them down. The truck moves off again, night falls, the narrator dozes, wakes to see a dark shape in front of them, a thump, ‘Sorry, mate, I think I might’ve just hit some pissed coon.’

A week later he’s in Sydney, making a new life.

I will feel safe and I will not question this safety. But occasionally, when a hot wind blows in from the west, I will remember that they are gathering guns in the outback.

Do truck drivers really talk like that, is that what’s going on in the other Australia, the not-Melbourne-Sydney? Maybe. They certainly use that language, and the idea that “The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars” is widespread. But no one imagines that Indigenous people are armed, and hopefully the days of “dispersions” are over.

What really impressed me was not Tsiolkas’s “knowledge” of truck drivers but his self awareness as a white man that these thoughts are not entirely repressed in his own mind, nor in ours. As he leaves the family gathered around a fire in the backyard after the funeral –

And what about you, you bastards? I was thinking. What about you lot? You were family. You should have done something. And now you insult him. You were too busy drinking and getting out of it in your own way. You fucking good-for-nothing lazy black bastards.
I’m ashamed even as I write these words. But it would be more shameful to pretend I did not think them.

I don’t recommend you read Merciless Gods. I don’t even recommend you read ‘Civil War’. Tsiolkas is a fine writer but his endless sex and violence is wearing.

.

Christos Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods, Allen & Unwin, 2014. Audio version Bolinda Books/Audible read by Humphrey Bower.

Such is Life (04), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)

The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.

We resume near the end of Chapter II with Tom visiting an old friend, Rory O’Halloran and his wife and five year old daughter, Mary, who live in a shepherd’s hut in a remote corner of Willandra Station. Tom spends the evening talking to Rory and Mary – Mrs O’Halloran is taciturn, no doubt unused to company. The next morning he accompanies Rory on his rounds, but the sight of a particular tree recalls to Tom’s mind the traveller he saw resting, and who hadn’t after all come up to the house for tucker.

Suddenly a strange misgiving seized me, and I asked involuntarily, “Do you have many swagmen calling round here?”
“Nat six in the coorse o’ the year, ” replied Rory … [who then relates that someone from the station had told him a couple of weeks ago that there was a man blind with sandy blight, making for Ivanhoe “fur till ketch the coach”]
“A found a swag on the fence a week or ten days ago, an’ a man’s tracks at the tank a couple of days afther; an the swag’s there yit ..”

Of course they find the traveller, under the tree, dead that morning, in sight of safety if he could have seen. “Such is life, and such is death.”

AG Mitchell in Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism (1967) writes –

there is an appalling incongruity between the trivial, light-hearted reason for Collins’ checking his natural impulse to speak to the man, and the consequences of his action …

Such is Life abounds in incidents of this kind, on larger and smaller scales; happenings which not only mock the most careful judgement and patient forethought but which twist themselves into stranger shapes than invention could contrive.

Mitchell argues that the underlying thesis of the novel is, What is the nature of Providence? and that this is a question which Furphy is never able to resolve to his own satisfaction. There are, Mitchell says, four “qualities attributed in literature to the spirit or force sustaining and governing the universe in its relationship to man:
Benevolence, Malevolence, Indifference and ‘Sport'”
And the author “represents all four ideas, either explicitly through one of his characters or implicitly through a series of events seen against a background of individual character, motive, responsibility, intention.”

I make Tom’s account of a few hours in the evening and the following morning sound very straightforward, but in between he’s discussing with us the beauty of Mary’s Celtic features –

Mary O’Halloran was perfect Young-Australian … she was a very creature of the phenomena which had environed her own dawning intelligence. She was a child of the wilderness, a dryad among her kindred trees. The long-descended poetry of her nature made the bush vocal with pure gladness of life …

the history of the Celts in Ireland, England and Europe; Rory’s writing – a twenty page treatise titled A Plea for Woman

.. no mere abstract can do justice to the sumptuous phraseology of the work, to its opulence of carefully selected adjective, or to the involved rhetoric which seemed to defeat and set at naught all your petty rules of syntax and prosody.

then there’s Eyre’s expedition along the shores of the Great Australian Bight; American Presidents; the Massacre of Cawnpore; the real location of the garden of Eden. Rory has questions for Tom which he answers off the top of his head: the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (6 miles); Renaissance painters who painted Calgary with a skull at the foot of the Cross (Schoen, Limousin, Durër).

Kerryn Goldsworthy writes in The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000) “Such is Life [is a] sprawling, opaque and very funny novel … at once a late experiment in realism and a very early anticipation of postmodern techniques of fragmentation, allusion, pastiche and authorial self-consciousness.”


The next morning – Tom, at the beginning of this chapter, determines to relate the events not of one week, but of one day of each month. But now: “I have already exceeded the limited exactions of my diary record”.

Swagmen – men walking the backblocks looking for, or avoiding, work. Barbara Baynton, often left on her own (as it happens, nearby-ish and at this time) was understandably terrified of them – see her short story, The Chosen Vessel. A swag is a bedroll, maybe containing as well a change of clothes.

Ivanhoe, NSW – is north west of Willandra, so O’Halloran’s hut would have been on the blind swagman’s way. There must have been a coach service from Wilcannia, north of Ivanhoe, to Hay (map) which is due south and probably on to Deniliquin and Echuca. And no, Ivanhoe’s one place I’ve never been and have always wanted to (if only for the romance of the name).

Sport – As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport (King Lear).

.

Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903

FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).

The book cover at the top is from US publisher Standard Ebooks. Their ebooks are free (here). They say they have made very few changes (eg. Mahomet to Muhammad) but they don’t say if they were working from the “standard” version – Angus & Robertson, 1944 – but from what few checks I made, they appear to be.

Cover image not credited, but appears to be from:
Frederick McCubbin, Down on his Luck, 1889
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia

3 Audiobooks

Journal: 067

Coming over this Easter, from Perth to Melbourne with detours to a mine in Western Australia, a station in western NSW and a farm on Wilsons Prom., I listened to the three novels the old fashioned way, on CD. Why? Because it’s still easy to get them like that from the local library. But I will start my next Audible book ‘soon’. I did try a couple of Borrowbox e-audiobooks but there was a problem with the download.

I wouldn’t have written up these books at all, probably, but there is a problem with my load and I’m held over till tomorrow (Thurs) morning, so I’ve a few hours to kill.

Waiting for Tomorrow (2015) is a novella by Mauritian/French author Natacha Appanah, original title: En attendant demain, translator: Geoffrey Strachan.

This is the first of the three I listened to, so some of my memory cells have been overwritten by subsequent events. Briefly, I enjoyed it. And the author expresses some anger at the treatment of POC, including the use of the term ‘people of colour’, by, in particular, progressive Parisians.

The story moves around a lot, and is told from the POV of all the main characters. Today, Adam is to be released after 5 years and x days in jail. Anita, his wife of Mauritian descent, is waiting for him. Their daughter might be in a coma. Adele is dead. We go back to Adam and Anita meeting, marrying, moving back to Adam’s home town in the provinces (on the Atlantic coast). Adam an architect and mediocre painter; Anita, with a novel in her bottom drawer, getting piecework on the local newspaper. Adam’s annoyance at her ‘wasting her talents’.

Laura is born. Adele enters the story. Another Mauritian, undocumented, working in a bar and as a nanny. She meets Anita, begins living with Anita and Adam. There’s some drama. Adele dies. The ending is suspenseful and satisfying.

Snare (2015) is apparently #1 in the Reykjavik noir trilogy. I’m not sure what its title is in Icelandic but the translator was Quentin Bates. In an Afterword author Lilja Sigurdardottir says that Icelandic is spoken by only 400,000 people and it is important that the language be preserved, but also that it is a privilege to have her work translated into English.

The protagonist of Snare, Sonia, is a mule for drug smugglers, bringing cocaine into Iceland from Denmark and England. The plot is a little fanciful and the action sequences annoying (I’m sure they’re done well, but I don’t like action).

The charm of the novel is in the characterisation. Sonia has left her husband, but has inexplicably put her divorce into the hands of a lawyer friend of her husband’s who puts her into a settlement that gives her no income, no family home, and only one weekend a fortnight access to their son. Sonia is in an on again off again lesbian relationship with Agla, a senior manager in a failing bank, and a workmate of Sonia’s husband.

The quantity of drugs Sonia is expected to transport increases exponentially, a customs officer begins to notice her frequent, short international trips. the son is kidnapped when it looks like Sonia is refusing to continue smuggling. It all comes to a very exciting head. But the personal situations would have been just as interesting without the ‘noir’.

After two similarly aged female protagonists – similar enough that I began to confuse Sonia’s backstory with Anita’s – A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) was a complete change.

A G in M is Russian historical fiction written by an American, Amor Towles, apparently a literary author of some reputation. It is well researched with very many allusions to the great Russian authors. But. Towles is an American and his biases show. Not least in his choice of an ending which of course involves a complete repudiation of the Revolution and of communist society.

Count Alexander Rostov, and aren’t Americans fascinated by titles, is about 20 at the time of the October Revolution (1917). His lands are lost and he narrowly avoids execution only to be condemned to indefinite house arrest in the attics of Moscow’s principal hotel, the Metropol.

Over the course of 40 or 50 years he becomes head waiter in the hotel’s main restaurant and gains a foster daughter, who shares his 10 ft by 10 ft bedroom throughout all her teenage years despite all the other rooms in the attic being unoccupied.

It’s an interesting, if overlong story, but it’s Hist.Fic. and it’s not by a Russian, so I don’t see any point for anyone not a long distance truck driver with endless hours to fill, reading it.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Until I read or re-read Jane Eyre last year all my memories were from the 1943 Orson Welles movie with a young Elizabeth Taylor (above right) as Helen Burns. I didn’t write a review straight away because I was going to discuss it with my family who all seemed to be holding strong views. But then, Covid.

So, I’ve been listening to it again. Unfortunately when my last trip ended I was only up to Jane lying starving at the door of Moor House. But I’ve made some notes, which my family can discuss at our various do’s over the next two weekends – which of course have now passed if you’re reading this.

If you’re reading this, isn’t that a famous way to begin. If you’re reading this, they’ve come to get me, as a concerned friend wrote privately to warn me after I expressed the wish that Kirribili House be bombed. I didn’t mean with the Prime Minister’s family in it, but just as a reaction when I learned it was Scotty from Marketing’s official residence though we pay him to live in and govern from Canberra. I really must learn to be more temperate (in the last few years left to me).

So as I was saying before I chose to interrupt myself, if you’re reading this then Gee, Milly, I and anyone else who joined in, have if not reached a conclusion, then at least have had a say. Here are my notes:


Jane Eyre is apparently the first novel ever to follow the consciousness of a first-person protagonist.

My interest is in the way that Brontë regards employment for young middle class women as natural, and posits that they may prefer to be employed than to be married, or may continue their employment after marriage (see also, The Professor).

Gateshead Hall

JE aged 5-10 is bullied by her 14 yo old cousin John and by her Aunt Reed, whose daughters, Eliza and Georgiana, about Jane’s age, generally follow her (their mother’s) lead. I got the feeling, though it was never anywhere stated, that the danger from John would soon be sexual, and that she was well out of there.

Bessie the nursemaid is short tempered and this obscures from Jane the real affection Bessie has for her.

Jane demonstrates her inner strength (and surprising command of language) by speaking out to her aunt about the unfairness of the way she has been treated.

Lowood Institution

Brocklehurst, the head of Lowood, is a bully and a misogynist (eg. his hatred of curled hair which inflames his lust, which otherwise seems to have had little outlet if he has been restricted to just two offspring, now grown). But after two years at Lowood, he is the last bully Jane has to contend with.

Jane is loved by Helen Burns and by the Superintendent, Miss Temple, although they both leave her. But over the next 8 years, lightly passed over, 6 as star pupil and 2 as teacher, she seems to have gained a healthy (ie. normal) self esteem. Jane already has another friend by the time Helen Burns dies and we may therefore assume she had friends throughout her time at school; but it is still good that Bessie calls on her before she leaves to remind her that she has friends in the wider world.

Thornfield Hall

Jane slots in easily to her role as governess to Adele; and slowly falls in love with her master, Edward Rochester. Brontë the vicar’s daughter seems quite comfortable writing about Rochester’s mistress, the mistress’s various lovers, and Rochester’s subsequent mistresses.

A theme comes to its head here which draws comparison with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and that is Jane’s susceptibility to ghost stories. The shrieks which she assigns to Grace Poole in the room above hers of course don’t help.

Gateshead Hall

Jane comfortably deals with her cousins as their equal, indeed their superior in intellect and moral development. The spoilt and selfish Georgiana goes on to a socially successful marriage (Brontë doesn’t bother drawing a moral from her behaviour); Eliza eschews marriage for the nunnery and a life of contemplation and there too Brontë comments on neither the ‘goodness’ nor the sterility of her choice.

What I am trying to say is that Jane is growing into a self-assured young woman, and that the comparisons with Georgiana and Eliza demonstrate she is probably taking the path that suits her best.

Thornfield Hall

Rochester proposes, Jane accepts, and the marriage is aborted at the altar by the revelation of Rochester’s youthful marriage to the mad Bertha.

There are elements of racism here, in references to Bertha’s mother being ‘Creole’ and also in an earlier instance where Jane unnecessarily refers to ‘Jewish usury’. The madness is portrayed as a moral and perhaps even a racial failing and not as an illness.

Interestingly, Brontë has Jane give serious consideration to becoming Rochester’s mistress and then has her feeling guilty about the pain she is causing R by fleeing.


Spoilers. As I said, my trip ended with Jane prostrate at the door of Moor House. Leaving aside the ‘Gothic’ coincidence of the occupants of the house being her cousins, and this is to some extent a gothic novel, this chapter of Jane’s life is characterised by her ability to support herself as a teacher, and the pressure her cousin St John Rivers puts her under to accompany him to India as his wife and assistant (more bullying?). But Brontë clearly doesn’t intend Jane to be a martyr. She inherits and shares with her cousins a fortune (which as she was a minor, should have been impossible) and returns to Thornfield Hall.

Gee wrote back as soon as she had my notes to say that she thought Brontë lost her nerve in this final section, that Jane Eyre was a potentially great Independent Woman brought down by an inconstant author:

The idea that a young poor friendless woman would be enough for a rich handsome man, simply because he likes her personality is unacceptable to the writer.

My own first thoughts were to compare Brontë and Jane Austen. Snippy Elizabeth Bennet was never going to be other than a rich man’s wife, whereas Jane Eyre, like JA (and almost Ch. Brontë) may well have stayed unmarried. The best comparison for Jane Eyre is Uncle Gardiner. They are both plain, reliable and self-sufficient. Jane is slightly above him in birth and he of course is well above her in wealth.

I am not so unhappy as Gee that Jane chose marriage – I’m a sucker for love stories – though I agree it was unnecessary to make her and Rochester more equal. I envisage Jane going on to a productive life improving the villages around Thornfield and of course, funding and supervising schools.

.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, first pub. 1847.

As you can see, none of us, over the course of two long weekends, looked up from our food and drink long enough to engage in bookish discussions.

Nada, Carmen Laforet

Four years ago next month Milly and I met up with our daughter, Gee and grandchildren in Paris and travelled with them to Avignon where Gee had taken a house for a week. Milly was to stay and help with the kids but my Eurail pass was burning a hole in my pocket so after one night I caught the local train out to the mainline station. Choices! I could go north to Lyon, Paris, Frankfurt; south and east to Marseilles, Nice, Monaco and on into Italy (as we indeed all did at the end of the week); or south and west to Spain – Barcelona and Madrid.

I had already decided on the last, and was reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in readiness. For some reason – I have no French and the ticket sellers had no English – I could only get a ticket to the Spanish border. I paid my €10, and at the border jumped off briefly to pay another €10 for a ticket to Barcelona (which is not how the system is meant to work, but no matter, I was happy).

A couple of more hours and I was there. And I did not want to be. There were thousands of people watching motorbike races in the plaza outside the station and thousands more queuing up all down the street to go into some exhibition or other. I walked around the motorcycle crowd to the ruins above them, back down again to the station and caught the next train to Madrid where I spent the night and a pleasant morning before making my way to Zaragoza and Huesca, on the edge of the country where Orwell saw action, and from there by local transport over the Pyrenees to Toulouse. Milly and I had hoped we might make a more successful visit to Barcelona this year, but it was not to be.

Orwell entered Spain, as I did, from the south of France, in 1936 to join the Trotskyite forces in the coalition fighting to save the left-leaning Second Spanish Republic from General Franco’s Fascist/Monarchist armed takeover. He found Barcelona in a state of Anarchist self-governance

It was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist… All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State …

Nada (1945) is set in Barcelona, in 1940, after the Civil War and with the rest of Europe in the early stages of WW II. A year in the life of Andrea, an orphan country girl who comes up to the city to stay with her once prosperous upper middle class relatives, and attend university. Andrea is largely oblivious of the Civil War which must have been fought all round her as she was growing up, and only mentions it in the context of her two uncles’ – Roman and Juan – uncertain allegiance to the Republican side and their now uncertain tempers.

The family home, a third floor apartment in an once ‘good’ street, is now decrepit and dirty and housing too many people – Grandma, pious Aunt Angustias, Juan and his beautiful lower class wife, Gloria and their baby, the maid and a dog. Roman lives some levels above them in the attic. Food is scarce, the family is almost entirely without income. Juan is a talentless artist. Gloria who must spend hours modelling for him, sells his paintings for their scrap value, and goes down to her sisters’s in the slums to play cards for money, at which she is successful and for which Juan beats her mercilessly and repeatedly. Roman is a fine musician and composer which talents he has always been too lazy to profit by and instead brings in a small income from smuggling. Andrea, when she gains control of her student allowance from her aunt, spends it all at once in the first days of the month then starves through the remaining weeks, Her bird-thin Grandma leaves out portions of her own meals for her for when she gets home, and as she slowly makes friends at university they too conspire to keep her fed. Only the dog eats well.

This is one of those brilliant novels played out entirely in the head of the first person protagonist. Roman attempts to persuade Andrea that the only life of any importance is that of the apartment, where he is the centre of all disruption – attacking Angustias for her ‘secret’ lover whom her father had forbidden her to marry but who was now rich (and married to someone else); attacking Juan for bringing Gloria into the household; and Gloria for her attraction to him (Roman) when he rescued her during the war.

Juan put Gloria in the bath and without taking off her clothes ran the icy shower over her. He brutally held her head so that if she opened her mouth she couldn’t help swallowing water. Meanwhile, turning to us, he shouted:
“All of you back to bed! Nobody has any business here!”
But we didn’t move. My grandmother pleaded:
“For your baby’s sake, for your baby! Calm down Juanito!”

Slowly, Andrea, poor and unfashionably dressed, an outsider at University, is befriended by the beautiful Ena and by some of the arty boys, all of course from well-off families. They come and go in the story over the course of the year as Andrea pays them attention, or not, and as they do other stuff. Ena, is clearly fascinated by Roman, and we live with all Andrea’s reactions to that as the reasons for Ena’s fascination slowly become clear.

I was interested in the Catalan (separatist) side to this, but very little is said. It becomes apparent that the family mostly speak Castillian Spanish and Catalan only to working people. Apparently it was better for Laforet to gloss over the Catalan problem to evade Franco’s censors.

Thank you Pam/Travellin’ Penguin for sending me this. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Carmen Laforet, Nada, first pub.1945. translated by Edith Grossman. Edition read: Vintage 2008. 241pp

Such is Life (03), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)

We’re at Chapter II which begins with Tom giving up on his idea of describing minutely every day of one week and instead determining “to pick out of each consecutive month the 9th day for amplification and comment, keeping not too long in one tune, but a snip and away”. This “transports” us to 9th October 1883 and a hundred miles northward, to Willandra Billabong, real black-soil desert country on the middle reaches of the Lachlan River which in dry times peters out and in flood spreads across country as far west as the Darling.

On the verandah of the Willandra Station men’s quarters an argument breaks out as to whether cattle can smell water. This leads of course to a story, in this case of Tom as a bullocky delivering fencing wire to Willandra two years earlier (his bullocks dying of thirst stood next to water without realizing it was there), and on to a second story of meeting an Irish shepherd at that time whom he had previously known when he (Tom) was a settler in northern Victoria, and thence to a considerable digression on the British fomenting trouble between Irish Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers.

Tom determines to call in on the shepherd again on his way northwards and soon he and his horses are fed and he’s ready to depart –

A few minutes afterward, Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down by means of the exercise with which he habitually opened the day’s work. But this was to be expected in the same spirit as the abusive language of a faithful pastor, It was all in the contract. ..I dare say I might have gradually weaned him from his besetting sin, but I didn’t want to be pestered with people borrowing him.

Travelling through “the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub” which he clearly loves, “painted by nature in its Impressionist mood”, he muses on its virgin state “sheltering little of animal life beyond half-specialised and belated types, anachronistic even to the Aboriginal savage” before running into the Irish shepherd, Rory O’Halloran, some miles from his hut. They travel together until a Rory sees some task to be done and sends Tom on ahead.

A half mile or so from the hut Tom espies a traveller resting under a tree. Etiquette stops him from hailing the traveller who would probably prefer to arrive at the hut after dusk when there was no danger of his having to chop the wood in exchange for a feed. But the author wants us to mark that this was a decisive turning point, and then discourses for some pages, citing Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet to make his point, that an option once taken cannot be reversed and will always have unexpected consequences.

Or put it in allegorical form. The misty expanse of Futurity is radiated with divergent lines of rigid steel; and along one of these lines, with diminishing carbon and sighing exhaust, you travel at schedule speed, At each junction, you switch right or left, and on you go still, up or down the way of your own choosing. But there is no stopping or turning back; and until you have passed the current section there is no divergence, except by voluntary catastrophe. Another junction flashes into sight, and again your choice is made; negligently enough, perhaps, but still with a view to what you consider the greatest good, present or prospective.

So Tom goes on, to meet the unwelcoming Mrs O’Halloran and their five year old daughter, Mary whose fate rings down through the novel.


transports you (saving reverence of our ‘birth stain’)” – A small pun on our origins as transported convicts

as far west as the Darling – The Lachlan nominally runs into the Murrumbidgee but this country is very flat.

Willandra – near present-day Hillston, in the middle of this map, and on the road-train route from Melbourne to North Queensland which I know well.

Willandra Station – have I made it clear that in Australia a ‘station’ is a very large grazing property on unimproved country, running sheep or cattle. Squatters are station owners. The state governments at various times – as late as the 1950s – made the squatters give up portions of their land to Settlers, but the squatters generally managed to hang on to the best watering places; and would sometimes put in Dummies to act as settlers on blocks they wished to retain. In passing, this policy of breaking up stations is why the anger of white commentators towards Zimbabwe’s Mugabe was a total confection. Yes, his execution of the policy was corrupt (or corrupted) but it was a policy common in all settler countries.

Tom, a settler – In 1868 Furphy, his father and brother took up land at Sand Hills between Bendigo and Shepparton but Joseph was unable to make a go of it (see Such is Life (01)).

The Irish question – Tom is presumably English Protestant but the Furphys (as was the shepherd) were Irish Catholics, from Tandragee, County Armagh in 1840.

“Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down” – you might recall, Tom’s horse responded to being remounted by bucking.

Tom in his musings “appears to subscribe to the Terra Nullius theory that completely disregards the long history of the country’s Aboriginal inhabitants, but this is at odds” with Furphy’s own published views. (annotation 66:7)

On re-reading, this is a very slow post, and it reflects the book’s slow build up to the underlying dramas. What I have failed to convey is the amusement derived by the reader from the individual stories as Tom wends his discursive way.

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FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).

Cosmo Cosmolino, Helen Garner

On Melbourne summer mornings the green trams go rolling in stately progress down tunnels thick with leaves: the bright air carries along the avenues their patient chime, the chattering of their wheels.

I might stop my review right there. How Melbourne is Helen Garner!

I should have stopped there. The much praised Cosmo Cosmolino, as far as I was concerned, was almost completely incomprehensible. Not the individual words and sentences, not of course Garner’s always perceptive accounts of Melbourne inner suburban share-house life, but where the hell was she going with it.

My Text edition (not the one pictured – the Text edition has a boring black cover with a few stars) has an Introduction by Melbourne biologist and radio presenter Ramona Koval, which I didn’t read, two short stories – Recording Angel (25pp) and A Vigil (27pp) – and then Cosmo Cosmolino (217pp).

Recording Angel

The narrator is unnamed. Let’s call her Helen. Helen’s friend Patrick lives in Sydney with his wife and son. On a visit Patrick tells Helen he has brain cancer. Helen is devastated.

.. Patrick recited my life like a poem he had learnt by heart; and over the years of our friendship I had come to endure his version without open rebellion ..

They discuss Helen’s friend Ursula who Patrick had filed under ‘Became an Alcoholic and a Prostitute’ and who threw herself under a tram after the death of her daughter. A visit or two later and Helen is at Patrick’s to support Natalie while Patrick undergoes an operation. The night before, they talk and talk. After Patrick comes out of the operation the two women gape “with shock and fear at the foot of the bed” then rush out of the hospital.

A Vigil

Kim was hanging on by a thread, taking pills, waiting endless months for her father to come down from Queensland, pay her uni fees, take her away. Raymond, living with her, or in the same house anyway, uses her

The nightdress was twisted up round her waist and her skin was loose, like old sacking. She had about as much life in her as a half-deflated dummy, but without complaint she opened her legs, and he kept his face turned away, to avoid her breath.

Raymond stays away for four days, at his brother’s in a rooming house in another part of the city. When he comes back he passes Kim’s mother in the street, a man tagging along. Ursula. Kim is dead. He finds her, still in bed, her face flyblown, and rushes back to his brother’s, where Ursula finds him a few days later to drag him to the funeral. And then to be punished.

Cosmo Cosmolino

Janet has an old two storey terrace house that used to be a vibrant share-house. Those years are long gone. She’s been married. The stain is still on the wall from the saucepan of beetroot soup she flung at him as she told him to get out. Now she works from home with a battered typewriter, making a living knocking out short pieces for magazines, the decaying house an albatross around her neck. Over the years she had ..

retreated before chaos, closing doors as she went, leaving timber half-stripped and plaster unpainted, until only in the kitchen was any kind of order maintained.

Maxine “lived in a shed and called herself a carpenter”. For money she did cleaning, ironing, mowing. But the property she lives on is sold, and she is homeless. She ends up at Janet’s, in the shed at the end of the garden.

And there’s a guy, Ray, who is taken in the same day, down from the North where his brother, Alby, has fed him stories of communal living, half naked women, food always on the table in vast quantities. He takes Alby’s old room, upstairs at the back. Is disappointed to discover they buy their food separately, and eat at different times, hurriedly, “in a kitchen corner, or bowed over a newspaper at the white table”.

So far, so Helen Garner. But the story develops a fanastical element. Where did that come from?

Something tells Maxine that she will have a baby. Fathered by Ray.

Janet swallowed. ‘And – Ray does know about this, I suppose?’
‘Perhaps not with his conscious mind, yet,’ said Maxine. ‘That depends on the number of his incarnations.’
‘Sorry?’ said Janet.
‘Oh, everybody,’ said Maxine, ‘at some stage has to do a spell on earth.’…
‘I know it sounds strange at first’ … ‘See – angelic beings aren’t necessarily aware of their status.’

Ray, on the other hand (being a Queenslander) “knows Jesus”. Sure, Garner is making fun of them, but somewhere along the line she buys into it.

Life goes on. Maxine makes a ‘bride’ out of straw and Ray’s best shirt (a doll with magic powers) which assumes an importance I don’t understand. Ray somehow gets a job, saves money, hides a grand at the bottom of his dirty clothes basket. Maxine gets involved with a pyramid scheme for getting rich. ‘Borrows’ Ray’s grand and blows it on the scheme. Alby arrives with a truckload of worthless second-hand furniture. Maxine floats away in a cloud of jonquils.

If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel.

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Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino, first pub. 1992. My edition Text, Melbourne, 2012. 283pp.

Clara Morison, Catherine Helen Spence

Every time I read an excellent book off my own shelves – and it happens surprisingly often – I wonder what took me so long to get to it. I guess, despite Lisa/ANZLL’s glowing review of Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will, I expected Clara Morison to be stodgy. Dear reader, I was wrong.

In my recent review of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor I made some references to Clara Morison but a better comparison would be between Catherine Helen Spence and Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell (1810-1865) was English and grew up in rural Knutsford, Cheshire (see Cranford). Her faith was Unitarian and the young women in her novels are principled and concerned with the poor. Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was born in Scotland and came with her family to Adelaide, South Australia in 1839, when she was 14 and the new colony, famously settled without convicts, was barely begun.

Spence was brought up in the Established Church of Scotland but converted to Unitarianism around 1854. She chose not to marry and while she does not seem to choose that path for her heroines, as Miles Franklin did for instance (50 years later), one of Clara Morison’s cousins, Margaret, does seem to stand in for Spence, with her outspokenness, independence and desire for ongoing education. Interestingly, in her review of Spence’s A Week in the Future (1888) the Resident Judge connects the author’s utopian views back to George Eliot. But I haven’t read/retained enough Eliot to make the connection myself.

This, as you might have guessed, is Clara’s story, told in the third person and mostly, but not always limited to her point of view. Spence is an accomplished writer and the novel whizzes along for all its 400 pages despite a good deal of philosophy. In that sense it’s a very C19th novel and its failure to be ranked with the similar works of Brontë and Gaskell and Eliot is all to do with our (Australian) failure as readers over the past century and a half, not any inherent weakness in the novel itself.

Clara, living in Edinburgh with her father and older sister, Susan, has been educated not so much above her station as above her gender, and has served as her father’s intellectual companion while neglecting to pursue the womanly arts. When he dies, she is left destitute. Her uncle determines that he will retain Susan as governess for his children and that Clara will be sent out to South Australia with a letter of recommendation and £10 in her purse. In Chapter II which “will probably be missed for it only describes a long voyage”, she, aged about 19, sets out from Leith in the autumn of 1850.

Over the course of the novel we get to know quite well an interesting variety of characters. Clara had been born into to that upper stratum of the middle class which is educated and has an independent income. So for her, much of the novel is to do with how she manages with little or no money. Positions as a governess are much harder to find and keep than she, or her uncle expected, and at one stage and I think for more than a year, she is employed as a general servant, by a tolerant lady willing to train her up from complete incompetence.

Of course she is in love with a good man, Mr Russell, who is both patently above her present station and who in any case has a secret fiancee of his own, living with his mother, back home. This fiancee is now 26 and waiting less than patiently for Russell to make his fortune and return. Interestingly, the right age for marriage comes up a few times and it is generally held that a woman is not on the shelf until at least 25.

The other main characters, and there are probably at least a dozen, all depend on their own efforts to maintain or improve their position in society, that is, they must work for their living, and they range from well off businessmen and farmers, and their wives and children, to the lower middle class men in her boarding house who subject her to ‘witticisms’, to the plainly destitute, including an abandoned single mother. And then there are the Elliots, 2 brothers and 3 sisters, all educated, living together just above poverty. Margaret Elliot studying law alongside her brother, not with any hope of ever being able to practice, but simply for the pleasure of the intellectual accomplishment.

The other ‘stream’ of the book is mining. One of the Elliot men and the fiance of one of the sisters work in administration at ‘the Burra’, the prosperous copper mine 100 miles north of Adelaide. But the big problem for Adelaide is that the goldrushes have begun, first at the Turon (Bathurst, NSW) then in neighbouring Victoria, at Mt Alexander (Castlemaine), Bendigo and Ballarat. All the men, the Cornish miners at Burra, the working men, the professionals, the businessmen make plans to sail to Melbourne or simply to walk the intervening and largely unsettled 400 miles.

Spence paints vivid pictures of an Adelaide peopled almost entirely by women, and via letters and conversation, of Melbourne with its wide avenues and dirty, unregulated back lanes; of the goldfields; of daily life when the mail is nearly always lost, when ships can’t sail because they’ve lost their crews; of the SA Police having to provide an escort for gold back to Adelaide to prevent the complete collapse of the South Australian economy.

Spence was later a formidable player in the political sphere, and she was clearly paying attention in the early 1850s. This is an absorbing book and highly recommended.

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Catherine Helen Spence, Clara Morison, first pub. 1854. My edition Seal, 1971 (not the one pictured). 408pp.

see also:
Catherine Helen Spence (ADB)
CHS, A Week in the Future (my review) (the Resident Judge)
CHS, Mr Hogarth’s Will (ANZLL)
S.Magery ed., Ever Yours, C.H. Spence (ANZLL) (ANZLL) (the Resident Judge)

The Professor, Charlotte Brontë

In 1846 and 1854 respectively, two women, both aged about 30, one, English, from Yorkshire, and one, Australian, from Scotland, submitted their first novels for publication. The former, an immature work, was rejected and was only published, posthumously, a decade later. The latter was published immediately and was for a long time regarded as the finest work written in Australia. The two novels, both portraits of and by young, educated women, without money or family support, forced to seek positions abroad as teachers, and which I just happen to be reading simultaneously, are The Professor and Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morrison.

Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre a year after The Professor was rejected and has been famous ever since. Spence was a fine writer, tireless reformer, the mother of Suffragism in Australia, and a champion of women’s rights throughout the Anglosphere, but her writing, being Australian, remains in obscurity.

I implied otherwise above, but Brontë’s protagonist is a young man, William Crimsworth. Though when this novel is later re-written as Villette (1853), the protagonist, a teacher at an academy for young ladies in fictional Villette (Brussels), is once more a woman, Lucy Snowe.

The Professor begins with a letter from Crimsworth to a former Eton schoolmate, never subsequently mentioned, setting the scene for what follows. Basically, Crimsworth is parentless, in the care of two upper class uncles, who offer him, one, a living (that is as a clergyman) and the other, “one of my six cousins, his daughters, all of whom I greatly dislike. I declined both the Church and matrimony.”

Instead he takes a position with his older brother Edward, a wealthy mill-owner, as a clerk, in order to learn about Trade, in the town of X— in —-shire (which is annoying enough to read, but far worse to have repeatedly read to you). The brothers don’t get on; another mill owner, Hunsden takes an interest in William; basically gets him the sack; and recommends that he seek employment in Brussels where he, Hunsden often has business.

The date is nowhere specified except as before railways –

This is Belgium, reader. Look! don’t call the picture a flat or a dull one–it was neither flat nor dull to me when I first beheld it. When I left Ostend on a mild February morning, and found myself on the road to Brussels, nothing could look vapid to me…

I gazed often, and always with delight, from the window of the diligence (these, be it remembered, were not the days of trains and railroads).

Charlotte and Emily Brontë, then aged 26 and 24, went to Brussels as teachers in 1842. Going by what railway history I can discover, Charlotte’s novel must be set in the 1820s. I’m guessing she did this so that she could take her protagonist through a decade or two without ending up in the future.

William Crimsworth, then aged about 20, is recommended to a live-in position in a boys school by a friend of Hunsden’s, and after some months is offered an extra couple of hours teaching per day at the girls school next door. And so, finally, Charlotte can begin to write from her own experience.

..shone on by the full light of the large window, were the occupants of the benches just before me, of whom some were girls of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, some young women from eighteen (as it appeared to me) up to twenty; the most modest attire, the simplest fashion of wearing the hair, were apparent in all; and good features, ruddy, blooming complexions, large and brilliant eyes, forms full, even to solidity, seemed to abound. I did not bear the first view like a stoic; I was dazzled, my eyes fell, and in a voice somewhat too low I murmured, “Prenez vos cahiers de dictee, mesdemoiselles.”

The principal of the girls school, Mlle Reuter, a good looking woman maybe 10 years older than Crimsworth, begins to pay him a lot of attention and he finds himself falling under her spell, a spell which is broken when he overhears her discussing with the principal of the boys school, M. Pelet, their planned marriage. Until he gets on his high horse with Pelet, and he gets on his high horse with nearly everyone eventually, he really is a very immature boy, Crimsworth is often teased by Pelet about Mlle Reuter and asked to compare her attractions with those of the young women in his classes. In fact the author spends a great deal of time (or ink) on the appearance of the girls, while the boys school is quite forgotten.

Crimsworth doesn’t mix much with the female teachers, but is one day asked by Mlle Reuter to include as a pupil in his English classes a young Swiss woman, Mlle Henri, well educated but who due to poverty is forced to teach lace mending – a situation quite analogous as it happens to that of Clara Morison. From this point Mlle Henri gradually takes over the novel. Crimsworth begins to take an interest in her. The aunt who is her only support dies. She’s fired and it is some months before Crimsworth can locate her again. And so we have made our way over the course of a year to Chapter XXV, the last.

Frances Henri is of course likeable, but more importantly she is independent. Charlotte Brontë was 38 before she consented to marry her father’s curate and within 10 months was dead, of complications arising out of her pregnancy. On her return from Brussels she had attempted to open a school with her sisters, but it failed to attract any pupils.

In this last chapter Mlle Henri and Crimsworth marry. They both continue to teach. He earns rather more than she, through his private pupils, so she determines to open a school. With his support. It is successful. After three years she delivers him a son, but just one. And she continues to teach and run the school! Brontë is upending every stereotype of Victorian-era women. Eventually they sell up and return to England and live happily ever after in a big house in —shire, 30 miles from X— and within walking distance of the estate of their good friend Hunsden.

I have Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, which I will try and read this year, and also I will listen to Jane Eyre again and carry out my plan for a family review – a sort of symposium I guess – which Milly and the kids were keen to do before Covid-19 intervened.

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Charlotte Brontë, The Professor, first pub. 1857. My version: Isis, 2019, read by David Thorpe. 10 hrs 40 min.