A letter from America*

Continuing on from my review of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (2008) my buddy and buddy-reader in America, Melanie/Grab the Lapels has written that she has been forced to DNF.

Hey Bill,

I’m at 27% and I LOATHE this novel. I’m learning less about the way people feel about parenting and children and more about who is sticking their erection in whom, and where. I hoped the tone was just the first character,  but Anouk is basically the same as Hector,  and Harry is no different from them. Women are either weak hippy moms or sluts. I think the author hoped to write strong women, but if you flip the genders of Anouk and her boyfriend, it’s like the author is still writing a cutting male POV with a dopey younger girlfriend. I’m tapping out; the message is aggressively toxic in an exhausting way, and I am fearful I shall hate all of Australia if I keep reading. 

Best, Melanie

So this is what she meant earlier in the week when she commented that reading The Slap made her feel like she “was being pursued by penises”.

When we made the plan to have The Slap read by today we left open what form her response would take, though I was probably inclined towards a guest post. We exchanged some more emails (and feral animal photos). She suggested a conversation. I got her permission to use her letter.

A conversation would have been interesting – it’s a form of post that she and fellow mid westerner and blogger Jackie/Death by Tsundoku occasionally use to great effect in the series #Reading Valdemar they have been buddy reading for the past 15 months – but Melanie’s initial response to The Slap was so visceral that I really wanted to use it upfront.

The following night, she expanded a little …

I was thinking this morning, one of the reasons a book so focused on a man’s relationship with his genitals is boring is because writers often give that man nothing else for personality. I read books that include lots of sex, but when they’re written by women, there are moments between her sexual experiences that give readers a more nuanced character. With Tsiolkas, if his character isn’t with his mistress, he’s with his wife, and if he’s not with his wife he’s asking his son if he thinks black women are sexy, and if he’s not making it weird with his son he’s rubbing his penis on the glass balcony while ogling teen girls. I mean, Jesus. I’m sure there are folks out there debating if only sexual prudes hate this book. But consider this: the only novel I can think of by a woman that is so focused on what the female character’s genitals are doing is Tampa by Alissa Nutting, and that novel is about a pedophile.

One of my young in-laws from one of my marriages was gay, and very noisy about it. One time he introduced his latest lover to us with, “He’s the bitch. I’m on top”. This apparently was important to him and something that he felt his mother and I should know. Melanie’s remarks about Tsiolkas remind me of this. And remind me also that Hector is a paedophile and that in the end an issue – his coming on to his wife’s 17 year old employee – which should surely have meant the end of his marriage, is glossed over.

Is Tsiolkas a sexual writer or an aggressively sexual writer? I’ve read Loaded, Dead Europe and The Slap and now I’m tending towards the latter. Does this maybe result from him being both gay and Greek/Australian?

“I’m a man I say in a deep drawl. And I take it up the arse.” “Of course you do”, she answers, “you’re Greek, we all take it up the arse.”

[From Loaded, and I know, used by me just a few weeks ago.]

So probably ‘yes’. And there you have it. Two views of The Slap, both adverse, from opposite sides of the globe. I won’t stop reading Tsiolkas, just as not liking him doesn’t stop me reading Peter Carey. They are important parts of the Australian literary conversation, with which I struggle to keep up. Or, if you prefer, up with which I struggle ….

.

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008. The US version of the tv series (pictured above) was first shown on NBC, Feb-Apr, 2015.

See Also:
Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (review)
Australian Grunge (here)


*Apologies to Alastair Cooke

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

It’s years now since I first read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof-Beam Carpenters, stories he wrote in the 1950s, and in my mind some of the best prose ever written. I was thinking as I planned this review that the most comparable prose is the opening of Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) and so I wonder was there a New York school of writing at this time of which in my general ignorance of US Literature I remain blissfully unaware.

I knew I should read The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and indeed a copy has been prominent in the general disorder of my TBR stacks for some years. This week in iso that I am taking off from work was the opportunity, a remark from Jackie/Death by Tsundoku that she didn’t agree with Catcher being the Great American Novel was the spur, and a review of The Blue Guitar published today (Sun 6 Sept) as I write by Kim/Reading Matters is my inspiration.

Ok, I finished it. I was about two thirds through when I wrote that intro, then Milly came round and sat on the balcony and drank wine and talked to me through the door, Boy, is she a good sort, old Milly. She even brought avo dip and some stuff for later, dhal and a home-made spinach roll. The kids rang, it’s father’s day, and Gee and Oak, who’d taken baby Dingo camping, promised me home delivery pizza for tea, vego and anchovies. I sure wish that’d turn up soon. I’m old, goddammed well over fifty and I eat early.

But no, it’s not the Great American Novel, more an iconic coming of age story, two or three days in the life of a privileged, troubled New York school boy, Holden Caulfield, a junior, year 11 in Oz-speak I think.

I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warnings to start applying myself – especially around mid-terms when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer – but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.

He goes to see a teacher who wishes to wish him goodbye and then back to his room, and his annoying dorm-mates, but late decides he can’t wait the few days till end of term, and heads in to town, worrying all the while about his friend, Jane, who’s been on a date with his room mate, and who he doesn’t mess around with but his room mate never misses so what went on. And all the time he’s thinking about his brother, DB who’s a writer in Hollywood, and his other brother Allie who died, and little sister Phoebe who’s only ten but bright as hell and he just wants to sit down and talk to her.

In a downtown downmarket hotel the elevator guy talks him into having a girl come to his room and he doesn’t feel like it, well ok, he’s still a virgin and she might get him started so he knows what to do when he’s married and all, but when she comes and takes off her dress and sits on his lap, he just wants to talk.

The thing is, most of the time when you’re pretty close to doing it with a girl – a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean – she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell … They tell me to stop, so I stop. I always wish I hadn’t, after I take them home, but I keep doing it anyway.

He goes out again for a drink. He’s under-age but tall, 6’2″, he’s been to all the bars with DB, and sometimes he gets served and sometimes he doesn’t. The next day he checks out, wanders around, almost rings up Jane a half dozen times, takes the very good looking Sally who is keen on him, to the theatre; makes some funny observations about the self-awareness of actors, fights with Sally, drinks, sneaks home late at night to talk to Phoebe, sneaks out again after his parents come home, wakes an old teacher/friend who puts him up …

We get to the ending, which I found heavy handed. All along Caulfield has been talking to us, revealing his pain, his confusion, through his own lack of comprehension at what he is telling us, and on this final night he, and we, must endure a long well-meaning lecture about missed opportunities and all that bullshit we say to kids; as though Salinger lost faith in his own story telling (and what is it with Salinger – who had one, older, sister – and families and dead brothers?) though he pulls it together a bit the following day when Phoebe … (I won’t tell you, in case you’re the one other person in the world who hasn’t read it yet) and winds all up too patly with Holden in care.

This isn’t Salinger’s best prose because the voice is Holden’s, but it’s still pretty damn good.

.

JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, first pub. as a novel, 1951. My edition (with what appears to be the original cover) Little Brown, New York, 1991

A Curious Intimacy, Jessica White

Jess White is an Australian writer, aged 29 when this, her first novel came out in 2007. I hesitate to assign her to a state. She’s now Brisbane, Qld based, was born and raised in rural NSW, and has spent a fair amount of time in WA, where this book is set, researching Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843).

We know Jess well in this corner of the blogosphere from her work with the Australian Women Writers Challenge where she was disability editor (she’s deaf); she and I have been irregular correspondents for a few years though we are yet to be in the same place at the same time for coffee; she has contributed guest posts here (listed below); and I reviewed her most recent work, Hearing Maud, last year.

I didn’t know I had A Curious Intimacy or I would have read it ages ago, but came upon it last week looking for something else in the shelves in the lounge room which mostly house books I’ve had for years, 40 or 50 mostly, plus some of my father’s and even a few of my grandfathers’. It’s inscribed on the flyleaf to my most recent ex-wife for her birthday in 2007. She must have left it behind. The previous year I gave her Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net which described people and situations she knew or knew of, so it was a big success. This one maybe not so much so.

The novel is set in the 1870s apparently, though I’m not sure that is clear from the text, on a partially cleared property near Busselton, 220 km south of Perth, WA. The English took possession of WA in 1829 and the Busselton region, on the south west coast, which is hilly, well watered and heavily forested with giant jarrah, tuart and marri trees, was occupied by white setllers, including the Molloys, in 1832, though European settlement in WA didn’t really take off until the Kalgoorlie/Coolgardie goldrushes in the 1890s.

Ingrid, thirtyish, the narrator, is on a one-woman expedition to collect and illustrate flowers from WA’s south west for a book her father is writing back in Adelaide, SA. She has disembarked at Albany on the south coast and is slowly making her way north with her horse, Thistle. This is the country of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance whose Indigenous hero, Bobby, Ingrid may have bumped into in his old age. In fact Ingrid briefly mentions collecting wildflowers at Esperance, 600 km east of Albany, though I’m guessing she only disembarked there during a stopover rather than riding between the two settlements, which would have been an expedition on its own that might have given her the opportunity of meeting Kim Scott’s (and Claire G. Coleman’s) great grandmother, Benang on the way.

However, the local Indigenous people, the Nyungar, are only lightly touched on in this story, some are servants, and there are still some moving around the bush who call in occasionally for rations, which is I think an accurate representation of how things were at that time (the 1901 census counted just 1,500 Indigenous people in the whole of the South-West (here)).

The scenery, and the flowers particularly, are lovingly and accurately described, so Jess must already have commenced her Georgiana Molloy project which should finally result in an eco-biography next year (2021).

The evening before I’d redrawn my rough illustrations of a lemon-scented Darwinia I’d found on granite outcrop near Albany. It was an odd plant, with a bell-shaped flower head surrounded by red bracts and cupped by sharp leaves. Four long styles extended from the bell like yellow needles.

In the first few pages Ingrid is attacked, escapes, abandons her pack horse, and makes her way to a farm seeking refuge. There she finds a woman of her own age and class, Ellyn, whose husband has been forced by drought to go cattle droving up north, while the farm manager left behind has taken off with all their money, her money really, given on her marriage by her wealthy father back in England. And there she stays.

I thought the writing started out awkwardly, but the author soon hits her stride as Ingrid and Ellyn feel each other out. Ellyn has had a baby which has died, is severely depressed and has behaved irrationally, leading to her being (or feeling) ostracized by her fellows.

Slowly, Ingrid brings Ellyn out of herself and we become familiar with her neighbours, who are all, mostly, understanding and forgiving. Slowly also, we become aware of Ingrid’s backstory. She has come on this adventure to get over the loss (to marriage) of her friend Helena

“Please hold me, Miss Markham”, she [Ellyn] begged. “No one has touched me since Amy died! Oh, how I miss her!” I crawled under the covers and gathered her to me. Her breath blew against my neck and soon I felt awkward; the last person I had held like this had been Helena.

Their relationship grows. Their closest friends in the town help them suppress rumours. The husband returns. Ingrid flees back to Adelaide where she finds Helena has returned from her honeymoon in Europe. Ingrid mixes once more in Adelaide society. I was hoping she would run into if not Catherine Martin who might have been a bit young then at least Catherine Helen Spence and her companion Jeannie Lewis, but that’s not the story Jess is telling (Hey Jess, In all those books that Ingrid and Ellyn shared you might at least have included CHS’s Clara Morrison (1854)).

This is a contemplative, sometimes erotic novel and I greatly enjoyed it.

.

Jessica White, A Curious Intimacy, Viking, Melbourne, 2007. 300pp.

See Also:
“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”: The Single Noongar Claim History (here)
Wardandi Massacre, Wonnerup/Lake Mininup WA, 1841 (here)
Jessica White, Georgiana Molloy: Collector of Seeds and Words (here)
Sister Sorrow, Rosa Praed (Jess White’s review)
The Mysterious Box, Dorothy Cottrell (Jess White’s review)
Hearing Maud, Jessica White (review)


I did all this using the block editor and ok, it wasn’t too bad. The wildflowers, which are photos I’ve taken over the years, from country north of Perth to which Ingrid makes an excursion before leaving WA, I put in just to try out image size, alignment and flowing text. The middle one’s a xmas tree, which comes up in the story.

You can probably see I used quote blocks which aren’t perfect but they’ll do.

The only way I could NOT have text around the cover was to not align it (apparently then it gets no HTML). Once you’ve aligned it you can’t go back – I had to delete one draft and start again.

I struggled to make the cover the ‘featured image’, I selected it 3 or 4 times before it finally appeared in the sidebar.

These last para.s I used a classic block just so I could have a horizontal line above them. I don’t see that line anywhere else.

Sorry for all the whingeing!

The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Ivan Čapovski

That is an odd painting, on the cover, based on a well-known photograph of Miles Franklin in nurses uniform, in Macedonia during WWI, but then this is an odd book. And shockingly for me, it is the book I said the other day that I had begun to write. My first lines (for the nonce) go:

In 2020 I am an old man and Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin is of my great grand parents’ generation, separated from now by gulfs of time, gender and geography. Yet this is me telling her story, imperfectly of course, but if you know my defects perhaps you will recognise the defects in my story telling, will maybe make a clearer picture of Stella/Miles, because of course we all think of her as Miles, than my own words, unmediated can convey.

What are my defects? Well first of all and maybe last, I am as I say an old man, an old white Australian man, and what do old men know of young women, very little. Very little when they were young men, and just as little when they’re old. Though daughters help, and wives and girlfriends. When they’re not grimacing, turning away. Listen to them. You’ll be surprised. I was. And what do old men know of old women? Nothing at all, they’re too busy thinking of young women. Old women pass them by.

As I read, I realise that I know more about MF than does the author, but that he, a Macedonian is of course much better placed to situate Franklin – whom he calls Miles throughout and not Stella as she was almost certainly known – in the complex, indeed Byzantine, geopolitics of Macedonia where she for six months, between July 1917 and Feb. 1918, served as a volunteer with Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Ostrovo.

Čapovski (b. 1936) has Franklin as a nurse, almost at the frontlines of the war, where a bewildering array of Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks and Macedonians are blood enemies from deep in their shared histories. But in fact the SWH unit, under the command of Australian Dr Mary De Garis, was well back from the conflict behind Serbian lines, and Franklin was an orderly, in Stores and assisting the matron (probably because she could type).

Franklin wrote about this period in the extended essay Ne Mari Ništa (It Matters Nothing): Six Months with the Serbs which I am yet to locate, and I wrote about her in Miles Franklin’s War for Anzac Day 2016. What Čapovski has read I can’t be sure. My concern in writing this fiction was how much research it would take. Čapovski seems to have a good if occasionally mistaken general knowledge of Franklin – and total familiarity with Macedonia’s geography and history – and has taken it from there.

You of course want to know how I reconcile my oft stated dislike of Historical Fiction, of WWI Hist.Fic in particular, and of authors with protagonists of the opposite gender, with my intention of writing just such a work. I make no excuses. My model was to have been Brian Matthews’ marvellous Louisa with all my defects, biases and failures of research out in the open for you all to see.

You might also ask how I can bear the errors in Čapovski’s account of Franklin’s life. The answer, I think, is that this Miles Franklin is a fiction just as the Sybylla’s were; just as Justine is in Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (both cases in which the authors gave up writing because they were so often conflated with their protagonists). Čapovski imagines a life for this 38 year old Australian single woman, and the things he gets ‘wrong’ – Franklin’s home being Talbingo, Linda (MF’s sister) dying before MF leaves for America, Franklin working on My Career Goes Bung (in fact the ms was lost until well after the War), and on Up the Country (not started until 1927) – these things don’t impinge on the story. Even Franklin being a frontline nurse instead of a behind the lines orderly is not particularly important. There were a number of Australian women in different roles at Ostrovo and any one of them could have been the protagonist. I’m just pleased that Macedonia remembers that ‘we’ were there.

The author discusses his decision to build his novel around Miles Franklin in an Afterword which I have chosen not to read until after this review is posted.

So what’s the story? In fact, is this a story, or just a cross-section of lives briefly intersecting near the end of the War? More the latter. Franklin arrives at the camp, makes friends with Lina a local girl whose fiancee has been conscripted not once but twice by the various powers vying to incorporate Macedonia. Two men, a poet and a photographer*, once friends, find themselves attached to opposing armies, save each other from death, move on, run into each other again, talk, shoot, end up in adjacent hospital beds. Macedonian villagers are enslaved by the Bulgarians in 1916, by the French and the Serbs in 1917. One young man kills a French officer in a futile attempt to protect his wife and baby, runs, hides, seeks refuge in the hospital at Ostrovo. The War goes on. In the Balkans the war is always going on. MF rests in the summer sun

What did poet EJ Brady who was in love with her, say to her back in 1904? To write about love .. To write about love. Love is like the snake: both conceal venom… She has never had anything against men. She has simply questioned their dominance.

I might have written an interesting novel about Miles Franklin aged 20-40 as I intended, but Čapovski does MF in Macedonia better than I could ever have hoped, because Macedonia and its history is his home territory. Don’t read this novel to learn more about Miles Franklin, but gloss over the minor errors in her back story, and read a fascinating account of a woman writer from the other side of the world observing, swept up in, one more iteration of the ancient conflicts which men have inflicted on each other in these mountains since before recorded history.

 

Ivan Čapovski, The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, Cadmus Press, Melbourne, 2020. 280pp. Published in Macedonia, 2004. Translated by Paul Filev. Cover art by Aleksandar Stankoski. (website).

Further reading:
Miles Franklin page (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
Dianne Bell, Miles Franklin and the Serbs still matter (here)
Australians Working with Scottish Women’s Hospitals, Debbie Robson
The Scottish Women’s Hospitals and Australians talk, Debbie Robson


*The photographer, Jasen Krstanov, says that he is inspired by the Australian writer and war correspondent AG Hales (1860-1936)

There is a GAN, revisited

Voss

I mentioned recently that I had seen Jonathan Franzen named as the Great American Author, on a 2011 Time cover I think, and that has led me to revisit the subject of the Great Australian Novel. There is a GAN was one of my earliest posts, and on re-reading I find there is not much I wish to change, at least not in what I say, but two books I have read since then (April 2015) cry out to be included. So my top 10 Great Australian Novels are now –

Voss (1957), Patrick White

Such is Life (1903), Joseph Furphy

The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright (review)

Benang (1999), Kim Scott (review)

The Pea Pickers (1943), Eve Langley (review)

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead

The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland (review)

An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin (review)

The books I had to make room for were The Swan Book and Benang. Everything Alexis Wright writes is soaringly original, invested with poetry, love of language and Indigenous culture. That is true too of Benang though some of Scott’s other works are more prosaic.

And I’ve included too Eve Langley who in 2015 languished in the long list, not so much for The Pea Pickers, which I love, but for her whole body of work, 4,200 pages, largely unpublished, but samples of which Lucy Frost (ed.) used to produce Wilde Eve.

Dropped out were My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, who when young was an original, inventive, exuberant but still thoughtful writer; Loaded by Chris Tsialkos who I think is only a middle ranking author in middle age when I thought he might be much more; and The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler, a work which I still rank very highly but which perhaps is insufficiently mainstream to be one of the ‘greats’.

Voss clings to top spot. White, I get the feeling, is being treated as less and less relevant, but he was a giant of Modernism, in Australia and in the world. Each of his works on its own has substance and his body of work more so. He teaches us how to write and how to write about Australia. Coincidentally, the Voss cover comes from a SMH article Australia Day 2015: Jason Steger picks his top 10 (here).

Furphy is White’s opposite, a working man, a man of the bush, an autodidact, the author of a single work. And yet what a work! Its fiery, mad prose anticipates James Joyce by a quarter of a century.

Stead, like White has a significant body of substantial work. I’ve named The Man Who Loved Children, though my favourite is the thoroughly American Letty Fox: Her Luck (and I still have a couple of big ones left to read). Looking back at the list I see that I have largely avoided romances – just An Australian Girl at no. 10 – is that prejudice do you think? Perhaps I should have named For Love Alone.

That question applies too to Henry Handel Richardson. The Fortunes trilogy is certainly a fine work and made Richardson’s reputation but Maurice Guest is probably more thoughtful and better written.

The question for Dark is, Is The Timeless Land trilogy a great work or ‘merely’ an important one? It is such a landmark in our acknowledgement of the prior rights of Indigenous people in Australia that it is hard to judge its qualities as literature. But Dark’s qualities as a writer and early modernist were made apparent (to me) when I reviewed Waterway last year.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is another work important for being a landmark. Urban, industrial, postmodern, it marked a step up from pre-War social realism.

Which brings us to one of my favourites, An Australian Girl, a very C19th romance with lots of German and moral philosophy in an Australian setting.

And still I haven’t found room for Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, or as Steger reminds me, Elizabeth Harrower, nor for Peter Carey whose Oscar and Lucinda at least, deserved consideration, nor for another Steger choice Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

I look around my shelves, as I often do, and realise that just as I left out Langley last time, this time I have left out (again!) Gerald Murnane. The post can stay as it is but if I were to pick one of his works it would be Border Districts, an intensely thoughtful work about memory, but again, I haven’t read them all.

The question I have in my mind though, is who among our young, and even not so young writers might challenge for inclusion on this list. Or a different/related question, after The Swan Book what is the best novel so far of the C21st? I’m inclined to say Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. Or is it, like The River Ophelia, too narrowly focussed to be a ‘great’. And do I even read enough new releases to be able to offer an opinion. Probably not!

Drylands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020

2888577.jpg

Thea Astley (1925-2004) was one of Australia’s finest and fiercest writers. We can argue at another time whether she belongs in AWW Gen 3 (1919-1960) or Gen 4 (probably the latter). A Queenslander, her concerns were Queensland’s shocking history of Aboriginal oppression and murders, and women’s rights – in this book, the antediluvian attitude of rural Queensland men to their wives.

Astley never actually lived in central Queensland though she seems to know it pretty well. She grew up in Brisabane, lived for a while in the far north, and she surely knows that long train ride up and down the Queensland coast which appears in this and some other of her books.

Drylands, the small dying town hours west of Rockhampton, which is her nominal subject here, is based on Springsure, an hour south of Emerald (which she calls Red Plains). Years ago when I was road training Melbourne – Townsville, I would cross the NSW-Qld border from Bourke and run up through Roma, Injune, Carnarvon Gorge, Rolleston, Springsure, Emerald and on to Charters Towers (map). Good country, heavily treed through the Carnarvon Gorge, but achingly dry as Astley describes it.

I was through there again last year and I’m not sure that Springsure is as small or as near death as the fictional Drylands, but that’s poetic licence. To make sure we know where she’s talking about she mentions the Madonna on the mount (Virgin Rock) – which, like shapes in clouds, is a bit hard to pick out – and the proximity to Carnarvon Gorge.

No more geography. Drylands (1999) was Astley’s last novel and the fourth of her Miles Franklin winners. For the first couple of chapters I thought she was struggling. She starts with the fictional writer writing this work, the go-to cliche of tired postmodernism,

Thinks: I could begin onceupona or manyyearsago or inadistantcountry. It’s been done. I don’t like it. Or a spot of Calvino clutter – no matter how meticulously brilliant – as if some gabmouth has found a defenceless alienist and vacant couch and is determined, the nerd, to fill the poor bastard in on every nuance of landscape, movement, his reactions thereto …

then more or less flings random words at the page before finally settling into some sort of rhythm. The novel proceeds as a series of interconnected stories featuring Janet typing away upstairs from her dying newsagency; not-Franzi Massig, a whistleblower from the south, forced to adopt another man’s name, who squats in a shack by the creek on the land of failing farmer …; Jim Randler who, memories vivid of his one trip to the coast as a boy, decides to build himself a yacht he can live in; Clem and Joss who own the pub, the Legless Lizard, failing despite determined drinkers fed a constant diet of beer and sports; Paddy Locke, the one woman intellectual centre of the town, and sole occupant of the ladies lounge; Benny Shoforth her determinedly peaceful neighbour who has his house resumed by the mayor …; Howie Briceland whose father had taken the opportunity of his wife’s taking the kids for a holiday to rape the 12 year old Aboriginal maid, before packing her off to a reservation where she had and was promptly separated from her baby  … Benny. And so it goes round and round.

There are other women who appear for just one chapter and are harassed and assaulted by men. Eve, contracted by the government to take writing classes to women in the bush, attracts a stalker; Ro, one of the four women in the class, whose farmer husband regards getting his own lunch out of the fridge as a threat to his manhood, and belts Ro in front of the other women to make his point; Lannie, saddled with a husband who needs his ‘quiet time’ and six footballer sons, who walks out, gets committed, and quite enjoys the peace; Joss, co-owner of the pub, who gets chased out of town by two men, who pursue her to the coast when she finds work there.

Drylands is a severely dysfunctional and dying town. I’m sure Astley intends it as a microcosm of all that is wrong with rural Queensland (although she fails to mention widespread illegal land clearing and water theft). What I suspect is that it is also a ‘microcosm’ of a bigger book. That she was too ambitious in what, at 70 years of age, she set out to do. And so we are left with an unsatisfactory framing device; characters who flit in and out with very little meat on their bones; a minimal plot – people get old, or tired, or worn down, and leave or die, Queensland men are bastards, the town dies.

Shabbiness defeated her. The shop. The Town. The empty street outside in the brightening late morning. And in addition the meaningless quality of her years. The victory would be in leaving.

Astley is a better writer than this. Perhaps her MF in this year was a consolation for her missing out three years earlier with The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow. I check what else was shortlisted and see that Drylands was in fact equal winner with Kim Scott’s Benang. I am gobsmacked. The MF judges’ capacity for timid decisions knows no bounds.

 

Thea Astley, Drylands, Penguin, Melbourne, 1999

 

 

Strong Motion, Johnathan Franzen

Journal: 55

 

Strong Motion Franzen

‘Strong Motion’ is a term associated with earthquakes. Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992), ostensibly an ecological thriller about artificially induced earthquakes, is really a literary work about a relationship, between Louis, 21, unemployed, and Reneé, 29, a post-grad seismologist at Harvard. I don’t know Franzen, I don’t know his place in US or world literature, but I recognise his name and was was willing to give up the 21 plus hours this book – read well by Scott Aille – took: a night through northern Victoria, a day across South Australia, Renmark, Burra, Port Augusta, Ceduna, another night, out across the Nullarbor, and with the morning, on into Western Australia.

Franzen (b. 1959) is a literary novelist, columnist and educator. A quote by one of his students: “He read our stories so closely that he often started class with a rundown of words that were not used quite correctly in stories from that week’s workshop” is amusing as I noted that Franzen had someone waiting for a printer to “divulge” a printout, as if printers knew what they were printing, when he should have used the more prosaic “disgorge”.

My mind wanders. The 1990s were a decade when ecology was the concern and not global warming. In the 1990s in my circle (me, Milly, Lou) it was de rigeur to read Ben Elton who had become famous with a movie about rockets in the Australian desert (Stark) – and yes, I saw every episode of The Young Ones and most of Blackadder, I just didn’t associate them with Elton the novelist. Elton lived for a while in Fremantle and was treated as WA’s most prominent public intellectual, a role now granted to a chancer from the upper classes who lived for years mining mum and dad investors on the stock exchange until one of his gambles paid off spectacularly well and now he is a Boyer lecturer (I cringe for ‘our’ ABC).

My mind wanders to Elton because halfway through Strong Motions the most likeable  protagonist is shot. One of Elton’s books has a protagonist in a wheel chair who just as you are getting fully involved with him is run down and killed and the book goes on without him. I still remember the shock, though nothing else except that the book is set in London.

The ecological thriller part of the book concerns a Boston-based petrochemical and weapons company, Sweeting-Aldren. I immediately think of Dow, indelibly associated with the Vietnam War and napalm (but not as it happens, Boston-based). Louis’ grandfather had been a S-A exec. and on re-marrying had invested his $20 mil fortune in S-A shares which on his death had gone to his new wife. At the beginning of the book Louis goes to visit his step-grandmother only to find she has fallen off her bar stool in a localized earthquake and died. The shares then go to Louis’ mother who shares her good fortune with his sister but not with Louis or with his father, a history professor.

Reneé meanwhile comes to believe that the localized earthquakes being felt in the Boston suburb of Peabody are being caused by S-A pumping toxic waste into a disused very deep (6 miles) well. Louis and Reneé meet and begin to sleep together. I don’t mean to go on with a full account of the plot. Reneé has self-image problems. Reneé says she does not intend to mother Louis, but does. Louis has family problems. Louis has a girl in Texas who has plenty of problems of her own. Louis tells Reneé he loves her. Louis goes off with the other girl. Reneé has an abortion. There’s a whole other sub-plot going on with an anti-abortion Southern Baptist church. The earthquake/villainous chemical company thing comes to a head.

It is all very well done. Louis is the principal protagonist, but Franzen is omniscient and quite happy to look at a given scene from Reneé’s POV and occasionally from someone else’s. No, I don’t think he is as convincing giving Reneé’s POV, especially when she speaks passionately as a women’s libber (or a woman during sex).

I get the impression reading up on Franzen that, despite his appearance on the cover of Time as the ‘Great American Novelist’ (in 2010), he has never really made the transition from really good to ‘great’, and that like many other ‘really good’ novelists before him, in a decade or two he will be forgotten.

Did I like it, Melanie? Yes I did. Though for once I wasn’t really keen on the two protagonists getting/staying together and thought they could have done better with other people.

Now, how am I doing in this time of Covid? For once the rules didn’t change as I was crossing the border. My electronic passes into SA and WA worked fine. To meet SA’s rule about being tested every 7 days, I did a second test in WA before I left and that carried me over, though I saw a sign saying that I could get tested at the border if necessary. I got in to Perth yesterday (Friday) morning and did a test when I finished unloading to meet WA’s 48 hour rule. No result yet. There is talk of WA and SA having the same testing regimen, but probably not in my lifetime.

More importantly, Milly says I can see her once I have my test result. But I still have to wear a mask. Seeing Milly, though still not Gee and the grandkids, probably makes waiting 14 days till I’m clear bearable, but as it happens I have the makings of another load (to Leongatha again) and so should be on my way by Thursday.

 

Johnathan Franzen, Strong Motion, first pub. 1992. Brilliance Audio, 2013, read by Scott Aiello

Recent audiobooks 

Aaron Elkins (M, USA), Deceptive Clarity (1987) – Crime
Kendra Elliot (F, USA), Spiraled (2015) – Crime
Jasper Fforde (M, Eng), Shades of Grey (2009) – SF
Robert Wilson (M, Eng), Capital Punishment (2013) – Crime
Michael Connelly (M, USA), Bloodwork (1998) – Crime
Loren D Estleman (F, USA), Ragtime Cowboys (2014) – Crime/Hist.Fic.
Annie Ernaux (F, Fra), I Remain in Darkness (1999) – Memoir
Robert Pobi (M, USA), American Woman (2014) – Crime
Patti Henry (F, USA), And Then I Found You (2013) – Romance
Fannie Flagg (F, USA), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987/2000) Abridged to 2 hours. I wouldn’t have read it if I’d noticed, but it’s read by the author
Gigi Pandian (F, USA), Pirate Vishnu (2013) – Crime
Peyton Marshall (F, USA), Good House (2014) – SF
Johnathan Franzen (M, USA), Strong Motion (1992)

Currently reading

Thea Astley (F, Aust/Qld), Collected Stories
Thea Astley (F, Aust/Qld), Drylands
Paul Magrs (M, Eng), Exchange

 

 

 

One of the Islands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020

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Early in 1972 the Young Bride and I were in Brisbane after a trip up the east coast with friends in our old Commer van (a pommy Kombi) and we got jobs with Ashtons Circus. I was electrician’s mate and she looked after some Ashton kids during the day and each night ushered in acts in a tutu and a feather. Which is not germane at all, except that four or five years later, after we had broken up, I spent three weeks providing the transport for a Split Enz tour of regional eastern Australia, and of course the two experiences were very similar – waiting off stage for the act(s) to end, then quickly packing up and that night or first thing next morning moving on to the next town.

I haven’t been reading much, or listening to anything interesting, so last night I thought I would read a story from Astley’s Collected Stories (1997) and write it up, as a preliminary for Lisa’s coming ANZLL Thea Astley Week. The volume, substantial at 340pp, is broken into four parts:

1. Stories 1959-76;
2. From Hunting the Wild Pineapple (1979), her first and only other collected short stories;
3. From It’s raining in Mango (1987), one of her later novels;
4. Stories 1981-89.

The stories seem to be all quite short, 5-20pp, and I thought I might read a couple from Part 1 then find one to review from Part 4. But the second story I read, in Part 1, pulled me up short and I want to discuss it. The first story I read was Beachmaster about a very old hippy who insists on, finds happiness in playing the drums and singing scat, badly. The narrator is a young man in a band, as is the narrator in the following story, One of the Islands. Astley went to uni around 1944, became a teacher and then a lecturer, but perhaps she had a secret hankering to be a pop star, though by the 60s when these stories are set she was approaching responsible middle age.

A clever young man drops out of school to become a guitarist, forms a band – and I remember those bands from local dances and school socials: two guitarists, a sax, drums and maybe piano or piano accordion.

So there I was two hundred miles further north, lead guitar for the Overtones and sleeping on the beach between engagements…

The Overtones became quite a hit for that part of the world … and we strummed and blew our way into the heat until we had played every tinpot dance hall up the coast and as far back as the Isa [Mt Isa in far north west Queensland].

Now, one of the reasons I don’t like short stories, is the guy-telling-a-yarn style that many is it only Australians? adopt, and which you can see in the extracts above, and which as far as I remember is not the style of Astley’s novels.

But to get to the nitty gritty

It was in the coastal towns that we first struck the groupies, teenyboppers below the age of dissent with twitching mini skirts over jiggling bottoms …

… oh, I had my share of the girls. It just went on and on. Some of them followed us right through to the ‘Curry [Cloncurry, near Mt Isa], about five of them. I don’t know how they lived – food and things.

One of them, not named, is keen on the narrator

She was frail looking and quite pretty from the waist up, with a shyness I couldn’t associate with her shrieking buddies. but she had these terrible thick legs. I mean really. Like some sort of deformity.

She asks if she can be his girl, but he says nothing, just “Come on. Let’s get you home”. The next night she comes round to the room where the band are packing up to leave. The other guys seize on her, and as the narrator walks out, heading for ‘one of the islands”, she is being raped.

That’s it. That’s the story. I was shocked last night. I’m shocked this morning retelling it.  Yes, there were groupies around the Split Enz tour. Girls, too young to be young women, taking drugs, giving away their bodies, make me sad. Not because I don’t like sex, but because it strikes me as self-degredation.

But Astley ends not with sex, but with rape. I can’t imagine what she was trying to say, let alone why she would choose in 1997 to have the story reprinted.

 

Thea Astley, Collected Stories, UQP, Brisbane, 1997

 

(For those of you left hanging after my last post my Covid-19 test was returned ‘negative’, but Milly won’t go out to dinner with me anyway, though she might come round for a while tomorrow and talk to me through the screen door).

Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford

Cranford (1853) was first published as a series of sketches of life in Knutsford  near Manchester (fictionalised respectively as’Cranford’ and ‘Drumble’), where Eliz. Gaskell (1810-1865) had spent some of her childhood and where she returned, in 1832, on marrying the local Unitarian minister, though they soon moved to Manchester. The sketches, published between 1851 and 1853 in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words, were not originally conceived as a novel and in fact Gaskell was at that time concentrating on Ruth (1853) a much more important though probably less popular work.

The book overall is reminiscent of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1836) in its loosely connected stories and the gentle wit of its narrator. Gaskell’s narrator is a youngish single woman, and the period is some time after the end of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815). Queen Adelaide is mentioned which would make it 1831-37. I don’t mean to say that Mary Smith the narrator is Mrs Gaskell, just that the setting and times were well known to her.

The first two chapters are particularly rambling, and it would be interesting to know if Dickens commissioned them first, and then pressured Gaskell to keep providing more, and if that is how Gaskell ended up writing two books at once. In any case it takes her a while to gain focus but all the little sub-plots are more or less tied together by the end.

The premise of the book is that Mary goes down to Cranford from time to time to stay with Miss Jenkyns and her sister Matty (Mathilda), spinster daughters of the late rector – I was going to use the adjective elderly, but they are in fact in their 50s (late in the novel Matty is 58) – and through them mixes with the genteely poor ladies who make up the bulk of the village’s ‘society’.

Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man .. or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship ..

Most of the women have just one servant and their little economies are explained in some detail. Unlike Jane Austen, the servants are named and given parts to play, in fact the rough and ready Martha who is employed by the Jenkyns’s comes by the end to assume some importance (in the plot). Gaskell’s protagonists in the main are all one stratum down from Austen’s wealthy upper middle class, and she is also more inclined to dip one stratum further, to the upper levels of the trades – the doctor, farmers and so on.

Miss Deborah Jenkyns dies and Miss Matty becomes the central character. Early on she mentions in passing a brother who had joined the navy and of whom the narrator had been unaware.

“And Peter?” asked I

“Oh there was some great war in India – I forget what they call it – and we have never heard of Peter since then.

I made a note that I thought EG had made a mistake, as the information Matty claims she lacks was readily available and widely disseminated in the Navy Lists. Jane Austen, and her characters, used them a decade or two earlier (here). And MST I’m sure must have pored over them for the movements of John Macarthur (a lieutenant in the RN Marines).

It is probably significant that EG’s own brother, John was in the merchant navy, ie. not on the Navy List, with the East India Co. and was lost in 1827.

As I said, there are lots of little plots, the farmer who offered for Miss Matty, but whom she was persuaded by her sister to turn down for being insufficiently genteel; Peter’s loss in India; a travelling magician; a plague of burglars (though nothing actually goes missing); the widow of a Lord who marries beneath her and incurs the wrath of her former sister in law; a banking failure which leaves Miss Matty ruined. But it all comes right in the end.

It’s beyond me to explain Gaskell’s gentle wit, but like Austen she is quite capable of appearing to praise while actually crticising, and that adds to the enjoyment of this peaceful little slice of English village life.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, first pub. 1851-53 in Household Words. My copy Wordsworth Classics, not the Penguin pictured.

see also:
Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis (here)

Normal People, Sally Rooney

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Normal People (2018) is one of those books that ‘everyone’ has read and reviewed. So of course I am late to yet another party, a party I wouldn’t have attended at all except I picked up a copy for $1 at the Red Cross where Milly volunteers. I started reading, and I was hooked.

January 2011 Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell. She’s still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so it’s just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights
Oh, hey, he says.
Come on in.

So from the start, which this is, we see how Rooney means to go on. The principal characters are Marianne and Connell, classmates in the final year of high school – in a smallish town in western Ireland, hillbilly country if you’re from Dublin, though this doesn’t come up for 2 or 3 chapters – outsiders, in different ways, but clearly the two top students. A few lines down we meet Lorraine, Connell’s mother, who cleans for Marianne’s mother a couple of days a week. We see the detail, in this case exactly what items of clothing Marianne is and isn’t wearing, which Kimbofo in her review found obtrusive but which I thought allowed us time to pay proper attention to the action; and of course the absence of quotation marks which I might not have noticed at all except Kim pointed it out. The writing is all in the third person, alternatively from Connell’s POV then from Marianne’s.

The starting position is that Marianne is a bit weird, holds herself aloof from her classmates, doesn’t wear make up, has never been with a boy. While Connell is ‘normal’, captains the school soccer team, hangs with his mates Eric and Rob, has had sex (which he didn’t enjoy), gets hit on by Miss Neary their Economics teacher. Connell, as we have seen, is often at Marianne’s, to drive his mother home, and although they never speak at school, they are friends at least in that small space.

Soon, and almost without preamble they are sleeping together.

The following year when they go up to Trinity College Dublin, Marianne is the ‘normal’ one, outgoing and popular while Connell subsides into loneliness.

Then, a few years later Connell is in a normal relationship with a Helen, a med student, while Marianne is in increasingly abusive relationships with her friend Peggy and Jamie a chinless merchant banker type.

All through, they struggle to maintain their special friendship.

My feeling as a guy reading, and loving, this story was that this was Marianne’s story. Connell, not always but often, felt like a cardboard cutout around which Marianne rose and fell as her backstory was slowly unveiled. I know it’s expected of me to say stuff like this, but Rooney, a woman, is much more perceptive about girls than she is about boys. She knows viscerally the social hierarchy of popularity of girls at schools, but fails to understand the similar hierarchy for boys which flows directly from football, and which the top boys carry forward with them into their real life, as confidence, and often entitlement. A confidence which Connell at Trinity strangely lacks, even allowing for for his rural, working class background.

From the point of that first sex we are rooting, to coin a phrase, for Marianne and Connell to form a permanent relationship. At times they come close then Connell makes a mis-step and Marianne is on her own again. During those intense final months of high school Connell says he loves Marianne but takes the popular girl, Rachel to the end of year Debs. They don’t see each other again until well into term 1 at Trinity. And hook up and break up. And so it goes.

It seems they pretend to each other that they are friends with benefits, and it mostly seems to us that Connell is never sure of Marianne’s feelings for him, and that Marianne would commit if only Connell would.

But all through there is a brittleness to Marianne which we are given clues about, her bullying by her older brother, what she tells Connell about her late father, and then, towards the end of their undergraduate years, her unsuitable relationships, with Jamie who Connell finally sees off, and then Lukas who ..

tells her bad things about herself. It’s hard to know whether Marianne likes to hear those things; she desires to hear them, but she’s conscious by now of being able to desire in some sense what she does not want. The quality of gratification is thin and hard, arriving too quickly and then leaving her sick and shivery. You’re worthless, Lukas likes to tell her. You’re nothing. And she feels like nothing, an absence to be forcibly filled in.

 To put it bluntly, when Marianne is not with Connell she goes out with sadists.

The resolution of this problem, and I think it is resolved, takes all the second half of this fascinating, deeply satisfying and beautifully well written book. I’ve read it twice now, to get this review done, and still I can only hint at how deep it goes in laying out and developing Marianne’s character in particular, but also Connell’s. What I can say is I loved it as much the second time as the first.

 

Sally Rooney, Normal People, Faber & Faber, London, 2018

Other Reviews:
Kim,  Reading Matters (here)
Kate, Booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)