Just Above My Head, James Baldwin

North America Project 2022

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the great novelists I’m sure. But for reasons of my own I didn’t read Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) for my matric (year 12), and though I did read many years ago, and still own, Giovanni’s Room (1956) I didn’t like it. They were his first two novels. I’ve now listened to Just Above My Head (1979), his sixth and last and thought it a work of genius.

I wrote that introduction a few weeks ago, so over the last couple of days, on my way down from North Queensland, I’ve listened again, and liked it just as much. The novel is ostensibly the story of a gay Black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, as told by his older brother, Hall.

Hall, himself, at the beginning of the fifth and final ‘book’, says something like “I set out to write a poem of praise for my brother, and inevitably I wrote about myself.” What I think Baldwin wanted, and succeeded in doing, was to spell out to the world the condition of the Black man at this time in America by focusing on two closely connected pairs of siblings – Hall and Arthur, Julia and Jimmy, growing up in Harlem but whose parents have come up from the South – mostly through the eyes of Hall, but sometimes through Arthur’s eyes using the device “he later told me”.

Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Daniel saw the stone that was rolled into Babylon
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Tearing down the kingdom of this world!

As a reader I would have skipped this and gone straight to the beginning of the text, which would have been a mistake. Baldwin has infused the whole novel with driving rhythms, taken from gospel singing and gospel preaching. There is a lot of music in this book, discussed and quoted. Hall says at one point, “Look for the beat. And look for the beat underneath.”

A while ago, I wrote that Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Christina Stead’s Letty Fox (1946) appeared to indicate that there was a New York school of writing in the 1940s and 50s characterised by an unstoppable flow of words. Baldwin appears to be of this school, and to have taken it to a new level. Whole sections of the novel aren’t descriptions of speech and action at all, but bursts of words, reinforced by repetition, setting an atmosphere.

The damn’d blood burst, first through the nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.

And so the book begins, with a hymn and with Arthur’s death, alone in the basement toilet of a pub in London.

Hall is writing from the perspective of a couple of years later. He is settled, with a wife and teenage children. They are visiting Julia, who was once his lover. Jimmy, Julia’s little brother and Arthur’s lover for the 14 years up to his death, walks in and is welcomed home. Julia gets out a photo albumn and so the whole story is told in Book 1, and Books 2,3,4,5 are enhancements, reinforcement, repetition.

I wish, wish, wish I had the book beside me on this truckstop table. It deserves a much more detailed – and loving – treatment than I am able to give it here. As I have implied, it is a mighty work of poetry, 20 hours or so, which is of course a credit to the reader, Kevin Kenerly, who interprets, sustains it over that considerable time, interestingly, playing down the song lyrics quoted and playing up the rhythms and variations in force of Baldwin’s writing.

We go back 30 odd years, to the late 1940s, Hall and Arthur are with their parents at a church service to see Julia, a child prodigy, preach, and Arthur sing. Hall’s father, a pianist, plays accompaniment. Julia’s father, a spiv, reads the lesson.

“Amen”, said Julia. “Now that was David talking. You all know who David was? David wrote these psalms and I believe they was put to music in the olden times and the people just sang and made a joyful noise unto the Lord with the psalms. This is David talking, and you know who David was? Well David went out one day looking for this wicked giant … You all still don’t know who David was? David was a shepherd boy, he fed the hungry sheep! I hear some of you saying, Who was this David? tell me more about this David! Well David was a king …”

The two families go back to the Montana’s apartment for dinner and so we become engrossed in their lives. Julia’s mother dies. Jimmy is sent down south to his grandmother. Julia stays, is her father’s support. Arthur and his friends form a Gospel singing group, tour down south. Hall is called up to fight in Korea. We don’t follow him, all the action remains in New York and in the South.

Julia is beaten senseless by her father. Julia preaches her last service with Arthur once again singing. Julia falls out of the story for a while, living quietly with Jimmy and her grandmother, reappears in New York as a model as Hall gets home from Korea.

Every Black person is described in the degrees and shades of their colour. Until near the end, when Arthur has a white lover in Paris, there are no white people in the story at all, other than Klanners down South.

The terror, the danger, for Black people, Northerners, of even driving through the South is visceral. There are rapes and murders. But all along the focus is on the central four. Arthur tours, sings within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, some of their friends go off to join Malcolm X, but the focus is tight, we are not told about the movement, or about racism. We feel it.

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James Baldwin, Just above my Head, first pub. 1979. Audiobook: Blackstone, 2016, read by Kevin Kenerly. 21 hours

see also these reviews from Emma/Book around the Corner:
Go Tell it on the Mountain (here) “Interesting, but difficult to read”
Giovanni’s Room (here) “Another Baldwin masterpiece”
Going to meet the Man (here) “A Must Read”
If Beale Street Could Talk (here) “A Must Read”
A Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou (here) “An ode to James Baldwin”

Out Here, Alan Wearne

I know, the top half of the cover photo is warped. Blame my phone. But to the best of my memory, that house, just around the corner from Mum’s retirement village, is the one the Wearne’s lived in when I was at school in Blackburn South (Melbourne) and where I would occasionally deliver the newspaper when I worked at Pentland’s newsagency in Canterbury Rd, putting the rounds together for the paperboys at 5.00 in the morning.

Alan was a couple of years ahead of me, in his little arty clique, but I was good friends with his brother, so knew him to say hello to, saw him occasionally later on as we made our separate ways through uni.

Out Here (1976) is Alan Wearne’s first verse novel. The Nightmarkets followed 10 years later (when Out Here was reissued and I’m guessing, revised) and after that The Lovemakers (2001,4). He has other titles, collections of verse, I think, some of which I own. I recently saw a new title, Near Believing (2022) in the bookshop, and bought it, but it’s just a best-of of old stuff, so I thought why not go back to the source.

Out Here is one story from multiple points of view. Brett Viney, 17, has stabbed himself in the stomach in the school toilets and nine people around him have a say. The first is Lucy Martinson, deputy principal [From memory, our headmaster at Blackie South was Mr Martindale, and his deputy, whose name I don’t remember, was a woman at of around 70]: “I viewed the eddies of the Viney maelstrom.”

Some small crisis; at once
with bandages, the ambulance completed,
I rang adults: Brett’s mother and father, home
and, as they say, ranting.

In the staff room a teacher tells her “Viney seemed attached to/young Tracey Izzard. Tell her?/Before rumours, it would be best,/you know how women …”

Brett’s parents, Marian and Russell, have just broken up. Alan is quite clever, both at giving them different voices, and in showing through their inner monologues, and that’s what each section is, how Brett is only one of, and probably not even their main concern. First Marian: “I held to Russ,/had kids not opinions”

O Brett, son, we were, are crazy for
playthings, and pocket money, but
your father and I, until recently, held,
we tried. Try and care Brett. Care.

So, to my son’s Tracey: she has a long
pale neck, slight ginger hair and
this unnerving abundance, poise.

Then Russell, on the road to stay with his “has-been brother: ex-league-star and slob” [‘league’=NSW, so he’s heading interstate]: “Could say: ‘You did a fool thing,/call him mate, the stock/ ageing man response to/ sonny Brett”; but then goes back to thinking about his girlfriend Cheryl, and good times past with Marian.

Segue to Cheryl: “Calls me Chezz, too often now/ and I join his his school at times/ knowing they want to touch me up,/men, ten, fifteen years older, wishing/and hoping”. She’s told about Brett, but Russell leaving his wife is her big chance, her only thought to grab it with both hands. “You know, I’ve many men/Miss Cheryl Browne’s had many men,/but this is the, what, first starring role.”

We go on to Marian’s father, a millionaire house builder living in an expensive bayside suburb, and then Marian’s ‘commo’ younger sister; all of the voices reflecting not so much on why Brett may have harmed himself but on their own relationships and interrelationships.

Nothing halts, when Brett took out
the blade, lives continued, parents
kept their spar and interchange
boiling: the rest, I, his
sister and brother, you Tracey, stood
not knowing.

Tracey and then Brett follow, and I am still not clear what Brett was upset about – his parents, Tracey, life? Is that deliberate, or is it just me? Tracey suggests that Brett was depressed, “the Viney gloom”, and that she had had to take a week off during term, which may have led to: “I suppose pregnancy rumours/ have flung my name and Brett’s/ around the school.”

She turns to her father:

You know what I like, liked the best
apart from being with Brett, you know?
Dad’s greenhouse, Saturday morning.
Where we’ve talked about Brett
and Mum, her delicate problems ..

Brett speaks from some time in the future, from another suburb: “My childhood terminated hunched up/ in Martinson’s office, bleeding,/ it seems so long ago and/ such a mess.” He remembers his family visiting him in hospital – “no never ‘how could you do this to us etc’/never that, rather a wallow/ that they enjoyed their blame.”

And finally Mr Izzard, Tracey’s father: “I may be asked to, as were, round off/ though don’t expect some he did this,/she said that, happy ever after slice.” Though, perhaps he does: “O Tracey, it’s all right/ everything is going to be, all right.”

My feeling, having read and reread and written this far is that Out Here is not a novel (or novella), so much as a suite of voices telling a story, no not even a story, and certainly not Brett’s story which is largely lost in the voices washing over it, but a feeling for parenting in 1970s suburbia. Which is interesting, as Alan grew up in 1950s and 60s suburbia, matriculating in 1966. And The Nightmarkets which he wrote next, is definitely the story of his, my, generation, the boys made to go to war – or jail – in 1968,69,70.

I read Alan Wearne because he, his subjects are familiar. But I like his poetry too, that slightly awkward mixture of poetic rhythm and vernacular is both unique and reminiscent of CJ Dennis and AB Paterson – but without the galloping ryhmes!

The last lines of Miss Martinson’s, section, the ‘Miss’ is mine, but none of our teachers was ever ‘Lucy’, are perfect:

‘But why Brett (isn’t it?) why?’
Oh his shrug and oh just, just
mucking around with a knife.

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Alan Wearne, Out Here, first pub. 1976. This edition, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle NSW, 1986. 50pp

see also my reviews:
Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets (here)
CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (here)

Shikasta, Doris Lessing

Shikasta’s full title is “Re Planet 5, Shikasta, Personal psychological historical documents relating to the visit by Johor (George Sherban), Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days”.

Shikasta is Earth, which for eons was bathed in goodness by the system known as Canopus, but the forces of Shammat (Satan) became ascendant and Shikasta descended into squalor and misery, which Johor, who is immortal, as we were once also, witnesses and reports back on until the Last Days, World War III.

Let me be clear at the outset, that yes, this is a very Old Testament view of the world, but it is not religious in the way that CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is for instance.

That said, Lessing has dead people lining up in Zone 6 (Purgatory?) to return to the land of the living. Johor himself passes backwards and forwards through Zone 6 to go home to/return from Canopus; the last time not as himself, but choosing to be reborn as George Sherban, who grows to become something approaching the new Messiah at the End of Days.

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is one of the greats. I have loved everything of hers that I have read. The big question is how much of it have I understood? Wikipedia says that her fiction “is commonly divided into three distinct phases”: Communist (1944-56), Psychological (1956-69) and Sufism (1970s). I have no way of knowing if this is correct. In any case, Lessing continued writing up till 2007 (when she was 88).

Shikasta (1979) marks a change in her output to encompass Science Fiction, a step which as you can imagine put a lot of literary noses out of joint. It is a dense work and very difficult to read – maybe I should have first read the Short Introduction to Sufism – and yet I also found it difficult to put down.

The text mainly takes the form of reports back to Canopus of the decline in the ‘natives’ (us) over eons. But the ‘agents’, mostly Johor, tell stories with enough detail and personality in them to hold our interest.

One envoy describes Noah’s flood: “Well before the inundation the Davidic tribe was on safe ground … in the area that is the subject of this report, the rain continued for nearly two months… It was necessary to make a ‘pact’ with them that this visitation of the Gods would not occur again.” And then his next report begins –

Since my last visit, twenty-one cities have been established in the old flood areas… Trade flourishes between the cities and as far as the eastern areas of the main landmass, its Northwest fringes, the northern parts of Southern Continent 1, the isolated Northern Continent.

It helps to have a map or a globe – for most of the novel you have to make your own connections between the ‘reports’ and the world as we know it. So, the ‘Northwest fringes’ is Europe, Southern Continent 1 is Africa (I don’t think Australia is ever mentioned) and the ‘isolated Northern Continent’ is North America.

The first third of the novel describes our decline – from the idyllic, at one with nature to grubby, desperate townspeople – and the increasing influence of Shammat, in mostly general terms. The next third is vignettes of people, Individuals One through Eight, in the aftermath of WWII. Some become terrorists or criminals. Eight is a servant girl, abandoned by the family to whom she had given herself.

Such a female, often to the detriment of her own children, whom she may even have to abandon, may be the prop, the stay, the support, the nourishment of an entire family, and perhaps for all her life. For her working life, for such a servant may be turned out in old age without any more than what she came with. Yet she may have been the bond that held the family together.

Which reflects, I think, Lessing’s upbringing in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

The last third is easier reading, the story of George Sherban, Johor reborn, told mostly by his sister, as he grows and is educated through childhood, to become leader of the world’s young people – as the Chinese become the master race – culminating in the trial of the White Race for their crimes against the Dark Races, before hundreds of delegates in an ancient ampitheatre in Greece

All of the second night’s session was taken up by representatives from South America, young men and women from the Indian tribes. Thirty of them. Several were wasted with disease…

The indictment was even more powerful than that of the Indian from the United States, because the events described were more recent. Some of the victims stood before us . . .

The incursion of Europe into South America. The conquest of brilliant civilizations through rapacity, greed, guile, trickery. The savagery of Christianity. The subjection of the Indians. The introduction of Black people from Africa, the slave trade.

This is an astonishing work, a largely successful attempt by a great writer to create an allegory of the whole of human history in one novel. Subsequently expanded to the five books of the Canopus in Argos series.

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Doris Lessing, Shikasta, first pub. Jonathan Cape, London, 1979 (My edition, pictured, HarperCollins, 2002). 448pp.

The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

North America Project 2022

This is an area in which I am a novice, so we’ll start at the beginning. Louise Erdrich (1954 -) “is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians [known as Métis in Canada], a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa)” from North Dakota (map)(Wiki).

The Métis are of mixed Indigenous and French (‘Voyageur’) ancestry, becoming a distinct group by the mid-19th century, during the fur trade era. I touched on this during my review of RM Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders, which is set in the 1840s in the Canadian states over the border from North Dakota.

Erdrich is of course a successful and well-known author, who has written 18 or so novels, seemingly all set in one or two fictional North Dakota Indigenous communities. The Plague of Doves (2008) is the first of three in the ‘Justice trilogy’ – the other two are The Round House (2012) and LaRose (2016).

Let’s get ‘the plague of doves’ out of the way. The novel consists of a series of stories over the space of a hundred or so years, told by four present-day narrators. So we begin with Evelina, the central character, telling her 100 year old grandfather, Mooshum’s story of when he was an altar boy for his Catholic priest step-brother. The town was blanketed in doves which ate everything and which the townspeople would trap, shoot, eat until they were sick of them.

The doves of this legend are Passenger Pigeons “which migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 billion, and possibly up to 5 billion.” They are now extinct.

Mooshum then 12 or 13, runs off with his best friend, a girl, into the badlands, where they find a protector and after some years marry and return home. When the novel begins Mooshum is a widower living with Evelina’s family and Evelina is a teenager.

The stories which Mooshum, and his brother, Shamengwa, tell Evelina and Evelina’s ‘present-day’ story all slowly reveal connections, this is after all a relatively small community. So Evelina’s ‘boyfriend’ in primary school is Corwin Peace, who fades in and out of the narrative as Evelina becomes an adult, but for instance he is saved from juvenile delinquency by Shamengwa who teaches him to play the violin (and the violin has its own, complicated story).

The story around which all other stories revolve occurred when Mooshum was young. A white farming family is slaughtered. Mooshum and some friends are first on the scene a couple of days later. They discover a baby has survived and they give it some milk. Elements in the white community get up a lynching party and three men/boys with Moochum are hanged but he is spared.

Evelina then has to deal with the fact that her favourite teacher at the convent school is the niece of two men in the lynching party.

The second narrator, the Judge, first tells the story of the founding of the town, Pluto, which is on land illegally carved out of an Indian reservation; and then his story begins to run into Evelina’s as he and Evelina’s aunt become lovers and then husband and wife.

The third narrator, Marn Wolde’s story appears disconnected for a while. She runs off from home with a preacher, Billy Peace and they build up a following elsewhere. But eventually they are back in Pluto, and Billy establishes his congregation on her family land. When that relationship comes to a bloody end we find Marn and Evelina working in the same diner.

I probably have some of this out of order, as I no longer have access to the book which I listened to first on the way over to Melbourne and then again on the way home (and loved it both times).

The fourth and final narrator is Dr. Cordelia Lochren, who it turns out is the baby who survived the massacre. Though somewhere in there, Evelina gets at least one more go as she drops out of college, begins working in the state mental institution, where she has a breakdown and becomes a voluntary inmate. Until Corwin comes to visit her and they walk out together.

I was happiest with The Plague of Doves as Evelina’s coming of age, some of the other stuff I found distracting. But Erdrich obviously intends it to be more. Many readers seem to see the murder and lynching as central – that the main story is of how 80 years later a whole community still revolves around the family killed, the lynchers and the lynched.

What strikes me most is what a middle-class book this is. These are college educated towns people, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors. This is not a bad thing, but it is a long way from the fiery, underclass fiction of Marie Munkara say. But as in Munkara, there is a simmering sense of underlying injustice, of isolation from the outside, white world; and also of the links, of parentage, of action, acknowledged and unacknowledged, between members of the community, white and Indigenous.

Erdrich’s writing doesn’t fire me up. From that point of view I much preferred last month’s Nalo Hopkinson. But she writes a complex, involving story which I really must read again, and its sequels.

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Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 2008. Harper Audio read by Kathleen McInerney, Peter Francis James. 11 hours.

Upcoming books for North America Project 2022
May: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
June: Zora Neale Thurston, Their Eyes were watching God

Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda (2013) is not a novel about swimming, as seems to be everyone’s first impression, so much as a novel where swimming, being a swimmer, is a way in to discussing Melbourne’s secret shame – class.

However, swimming, getting to world class, takes up a fair amount of space, which is interesting as I have seen nothing to indicate Tsiolkas was a competitive swimmer. Tsiolkas (1965- ) was a student at Blackburn High (in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs) where two of my kids went (I went to Blackburn South High) and if he swam would have been a member of my old club, Nunawading and maybe have been coached by my former teammate and coach, Leigh Nugent.

In fact some of the things Tsiolkas says about swimming – ‘touching the wall’, losing track of the line on the bottom of the pool, thinking (my head did almost nothing but count laps (and complain about oxygen deprivation) when I swam) – make me wonder if he just “imagined himself” into his protagonist, Danny.

Danny is the oldest son of working class parents – Scottish-Australian interstate truck driver father and Greek-Australian mother – living in Reservoir, a northern suburb of working class Anglos and new migrants; streets of small, identical three bedroom brick and tile houses put up by the Housing Commission in the 1950s and 60s.

The guts of the novel is that, based on his swimming, he wins a scholarship to attend one of the big Private boys schools, probably based on Scotch College going by the coloured blazer and the location on the river.

The first piece of advice the Coach ever gave Danny was not about swimming, not about his strokes, not about his breathing, not about how he could improve his dive or his turns. All of that would come later. He would never forget that first piece of advice.

The squad had just finished training and Danny was standing shivering off to one side. The other guys all knew each other; they had been destined to be friends from the time they were embryos in their mothers’ wombs, when their fathers had entered their names on the list to attend Cunts College.

First week of term, February 1994

The advice? “You are not friends, you are competitors.” Don’t take shit from them. Give it back. Hurt them before they hurt you.

At school he is teased and ostracized, but over the years makes his way in to the in-crowd via his victories in swimming and his ‘psycho’ response to being provoked. Scotch is the school rich Presbyterians send their sons to. Fathers are judges, politicians, leaders in business and medicine. Mothers are society ladies, big on committees and entertaining.

Most middle Australians live in a fantasy “classless” society, unaware of the 10% above them pulling all the levers, keeping apart, speaking in mock British accents (and yes, I had one for a while, at Trinity); dismissive of ‘bogans’, tradespeople who work harder and often earn more than they do; and completely blind to the plight of the underclass of generationally welfare dependent.

Danny finds himself in a school for boys training to be bosses, whose parents are the bosses the rest of us work for, where arrogance is a given and self-doubt is rare. Of course Australians cut sporting heroes a lot of slack, and so there is a path for him to achieve acceptance.

The storyline chops about, beginning with Danny, 30ish, ex-swimmer, ex-con it turns out, in Glasgow, his relationship with his lover coming to an end; and making its way through all the episodes in his life that brought him to this point. It works well.

We see Danny, as a swimmer, quickly the best swimmer in his squad, rise through states, nationals, Pan-Pacs; we see him floundering in the social side of school life, with his mates, his mates’ mothers and sisters; a scholarship boy in the upper class suburbs of Toorak and Portsea; But more interesting are the family dynamics, his ongoing friendship with Demet, a Turkish-Australian girl from his old life, his sense of entitlement at home, his father’s resentment, his mother’s conciliating.

This is a big book, over 500 pages, and although Melbourne and class, and I guess competitive swimming are the glue which hold it together, it is the relationships which make it compelling – with Martin, at different times his biggest tormentor and best friend; with Demet; with Luke, his unlikely swottish schoolfriend; with his brother and sister; his parents of course (his father seems to get rather more days at home than the one day a week allowed most long distance drivers); with his mother’s Adelaide-based family, introduced late in the book; with his lovers.

Tsiolkas still writes with his dick too often for my taste, seems compelled to put his protagonists’ sex lives in your face, but it’s not happening all the time here, which is a relief, and for once the protagonist is anti-recreational drugs. As you might expect of me, I find it odd that he has written a coming-of-age for a protagonist who is in no way himself – no, I’m sure there’s bits of him in there – but he knows his Melbourne, someone had to write about class sooner or later, and he does it well, and of course his father is a (mostly convincing) truck driver running Melbourne – Perth, so I think I liked it.

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Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013. 513pp

see also other Tsiolkas posts:
Australian Grunge (here)
Merciless Gods (here)
The Slap (here)
A Letter from America – Melanie’s take on The Slap (here)

My Career Goes Bung, Miles Franklin

April’s post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge reprises a post I wrote years ago and which only Melanie read. Until years later anyway when I was admonished by ‘Azzurosky’ for claiming Sybylla’s older admirer, ‘Goring Hardy’ was based on Banjo Paterson, but on reflection that is a claim by which I stand.

This week I have been on holiday in Bendigo for mum’s 90th birthday – which went very well, thank you – and now I am in Melbourne loading for home. I must say holidaying with family doesn’t seem to leave any more time for blogging, than does working.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

Making the case that My Career Goes Bung, far from being a ‘sequel’, is the ‘frame’ through which Franklin wishes us to re-view her adolescent masterpiece My Brilliant Career. Read on … (my apologies to the early birds who got this far and discovered I’d forgotten to provide the link).

Autofiction

Don’t worry, this is not a lesson, I just want to think out loud a bit about why fiction which may or may not be a direct transcribing of the author’s journals is my favourite type of writing. My starting point will be Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I have just read – or re-reread, a lot of the situations seemed familiar – but where will we go from there? Rooney’s other works, An I-Novel, Miles Franklin, Eve Langley, Jane Austen (why not?).

Even before going on I realise I’ve left out Justine Ettler and her discomfort with the reception of The River Ophelia, paralleling Franklin’s discomfort with the reception of My Brilliant Career 90 odd years earlier, and with the same consequence. Sales were suspended.

Let’s say autofiction is a work where the author bases her – I seem to have only offered female examples – protagonist on herself but puts her in situations which the reader cannot know are real or fictional. By all means improve or dispute my definition, but that is where I’m starting.

The way the term is used tends to be unstable, which makes sense for a genre that blends fiction and what may appear to be fact into an unstable compound

New York literary critic Christian Lorentzen, 2018 (Wiki)

And the reason I like autofiction so much is: writers whose objective is to be writers don’t bother with too much story-telling, they just put themselves on the page with all the skill they can muster; the protagonist subjects herself to intense introspection; the writer is writing what she knows, no energy is spent on invention (where this leaves my other love, Science Fiction is a question for another day).

Sally Rooney (1991- ) has now released three works: Conversations with Friends (2017), Normal People (2018), Beautiful World, Where are You (2021). In Conversations Rooney takes her third year at uni (Trinity College, Dublin) and explores friendship, sex and love through the protagonist, Frances, her friend and lover, Bobbi, and an affair with the married, older actor Nick. I’m guessing she uses an ‘affair’ because she wishes to avoid the clumsiness of young love/first sex, though this is the first time Frances has had sex with a man.

Normal People I’ve lent to someone, my daughter probably, but basically Rooney offers an alternative coming-of-age (to Conversations), starting at the end of high school with Marianne and Connell, taking them to Trinity College, and then taking Marianne through some masochistic relationships without ever losing sight of Connell. One day a literary biography well tell us (or my grandchildren more likely) what truths, or not, this is based on.

Beautiful World, Where are You reads like a transcription of Rooney’s diary now she is a wildly successful writer, though no doubt she has just taken her present position and around that woven four different ways of dealing with being 30.

Minae Mizumura (1951- ) is a Japanese-American writer whose An I-Novel (1995) is mostly the thirtyish Minae and her sister Nanae talking on the phone about their life in America wishing they were in Japan. The I-novel is a Japanese form of autofiction dating back at least to the early 1900s. Of the novelists I’ve named only Mizumura and Justine Ettler used their own names for their protagonists, which for some (not me) is a necessary part of autofiction.

Justine Ettler (1965- ) wrote Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996) and then The River Ophelia (1995), though you can see they were published in reverse order. Marilyn is a straight autofiction first novel, but The River Ophelia is an astonishing exploration of Justine’s subjection to sadism. Ettler became so upset about the assumption that it was autobiography that she stopped both books being sold (see my interview with her).

Miles Franklin (1879-1954) wrote My Brilliant Career (1901) when she was a teenager, probably writing chapters and reading them out to amuse her friends as she describes in her subsequent works. Sybylla is Miles and Possum Gully is Thornford, the small farming community near Canberra (then a village) where she grew up, but the story is just a story, or sequence of stories, as Miles who was very prudish, imagines ‘love’ or more often the disagreeableness of ‘love’, and caricatures her family and fellows without thought for their reactions on seeing themselves in print.

Following MBC’s success, at least with everyone who didn’t know her, Miles wrote two follow-ups, The End of My Career (1902) and On the Outside Track (1903) both re-presenting the same ‘facts’ but framing MBC as a spoof autobiography written by a fictional author who just happened to have the same name, Sybylla Melvyn, as the protagonist of the new work. Very postmodern when Modernism had hardly got under way. Sadly, both were refused publication, and so Miles withdrew MBC from sale “until ten years after her death”.

The End was subsequently revised and published as My Career Goes Bung (1946) – more in my next post on the Australian Women Writers Challenge (13 Apr.) – and On the Outside Track was re-written as Cockatoos (1954), the best of her autobiographical works in my opinion, to fit in with the Brent of Bin Bin series (which is based on generations of Miles’ mother’s family).

Eve Langley (1904-1974), probably the most lyrical Australian author ever, wished to live in the Bush as a character out of a Henry Lawson story, and so she and her sister ‘Blue’ famously adopted men’s clothing and went out into eastern Victoria as itinerant farm workers. Eve kept a journal for every year and when, in dire straits in New Zealand during WWII she heard of the upcoming Prior Prize she wrote up her first journal as a novel, The Pea Pickers (1942), the story of a woman wanting the love of a man but determined to preserve her independence. One of Australia’s great novels won one third of first place, £100, promptly spent by her husband.

Her second journal became White Topee (1954) and the New Zealand journals (no.s 6 -12) were edited down by Lucy Frost from about 3,000pp to the 300 page and tremendously sad Wilde Eve (1999).

Ok, we’re nearly at the end and it’s reading a bit (a lot) like a lesson. Sorry. Let’s consider Jane Austen (1775-1817). I’ve loved Austen’s writing all my adult life. She doesn’t exactly write autofiction, and her works, brilliantly written of course, are not introspective. But I suspect that her first work, Love and Freindship, and also Sense and Sensibility, arose out of her time at boarding school, 1785-86. Silly girls telling each other stories of ‘love’. Pride and Prejudice is clearly Jane and (older sister) Cassandra given the romances that life (or their own preferences) denied them; the Austen parents lampooned affectionately as Mr and Mrs Bennet, and love sought, found, withdrawn etc. Then as Jane matures so do her heroines.

Re-reading, as you must when you’re your own editor and proofreader, suggests this conclusion: that earlier and many current writers, eg. Rooney, base characters on themselves, but that autofiction is the self-conscious placing of a character representing the author into a fictional setting, resulting in a close interrogation of the author’s character.

A Room Called Earth, Madeleine Ryan

Last year I kept a list in the back of my diary of books I thought I should buy following your reviews. There’s forty or fifty books there, with your names beside them, and I can see I have bought maybe six – and one of those, Nada, was a cheat because Pam/Travellin’ Penguin mailed me her copy. But, from The Burglar who counted the Spoons (Emma) to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (Lou) to The Country of Ice Cream Star (Melanie) to Benevolence (Kim) there’s posts worth of missed opportunities which I hope I will one day get to.

I assumed that A Room Called Earth (2020) which I see by the inscription I bought Milly for her birthday last year would be amongst them. But it’s not, so I can’t say who has reviewed it before me. Milly said she hasn’t had a chance to read it yet because our granddaughter, Ms 18, who had been living with her, kept it in her room and read it at least three times in probably the same number of months (in preference to the Perth based SF I gave her for christmas and whose name I forget).

And so we get to ‘the spectrum’. It is debatable whether Ms 18 is on it, she certainly has her problems but she is dealing with those quietly and sensibly (for an 18 year old). The point is that the author is, and Ms 18 clearly identified with aspects of her protagonist – as we do.

The publicity around this book directs us to an article Ryan wrote for the New York Times, ‘Dear Parents: Your Child with Autism is Perfect‘.

Children with autism are wired to express themselves truthfully regardless of the social consequences. This is powerful, and anything powerful needs to be handled with care. Your child needs your protection, because feathers will be ruffled and feelings will get hurt. People’s elaborate facades and carefully woven lies won’t survive the scrutiny of an autistic mind or the unfiltered nature of its emotions. This is a positive thing, even if it’s inconvenient and difficult.

NYT 2 Jul 2020

The novel is 24 hours in the life of a young woman, in her mid twenties, getting ready for, going to, experiencing a party, coming home, waking up. A party in Melbourne, though the city and the suburbs, like the young woman, are unnamed. Is she “on the spectrum”? I’m sure she doesn’t say. Once again it is to be inferred from the slightly off-centre way she observes and behaves.

I forget now how I got to the NYT article, though the first line on the inside cover, “A brilliant debut from a neurodiverse author”, was presumably a hint to check out Ryan’s bio. But importantly the protagonist is not the stereotypical over-logical genius of the Rosie novels or Big Bang Theory because A Room Called Earth is what I’m always asking for, a story written by someone who is or has been there.

Connection with my own species has been difficult. I’m more at ease with the animal part of myself than the human part of myself. I feel at peace when I’m with Porkchop [her cat]. I have no concern about what he might or might not be thinking, or what might or might not happen next.

And so we follow her inner monologue, choosing clothes, how to put up her hair, reflecting on ex-boyfriends, life, the universe, her father.

It only slowly becomes apparent that her parents are dead, that she lives alone in the enormous mansion they have left her in Melbourne’s most expensive suburb. Oh yes, and it’s Christmas Eve. I read this some time ago and I’m skip reading to bring myself back up to – well not ‘speed’ but anyway something less than sloth.

The chapters are all short, two or three pages, and don’t take us forward at any great pace. By chapter 9 we are showered, standing contemplatively before a mirror, and wondering about nailpolish colour. By chapter 17 we have arrived at the party and are drinking our own vodka from our own martini glass, and thinking about drugs (which she doesn’t ‘do’.)

One time I went to a doctor … about something completely unrelated to anything medical and she asked me if I was taking prescription medication … antidepressants, perhaps? I tried to explain to her that I don’t feel comfortable having my feelings meddled with.

Ms 18 exactly!

We go for a walk, the suburbs feel familiar, inner-suburban terraces, return, stand around alone, she’s a lot more comfortable standing on her own at a party than I ever was, talk, meet a guy.

When people ask me what I ‘do’, I often say that I’m an alchemist, because it seems to me the most honest label to put on all the things I don’t want to be labelled as. It makes sense to me. Although it wouldn’t to my dad. I’m always conscious of what would or wouldn’t make sense to my dad. He’s like an inbuilt judicial system, governing my every move, and thought, and feeling, and choice.

The plot makes its way through the 24 hrs. The inner monologue is much more ‘coming of age’, much more Ms 18’s age, than the mid twenties age implied by her previous experiences. Is this part of her ‘being on the spectrum’? I can’t say. But it is an engrossing work and well worth reading, for grandfathers as well as granddaughters.

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Madeleine Ryan, A Room Called Earth, Scribe, Melbourne, 2021. 287pp.


Interestingly, the first Like for this post was from Actually Autistic Bloggers. I haven’t checked them out but the link takes you to their list of (self-identified, I think) autistic bloggers

Girl with a Monkey, Thea Astley

Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born in Brisbane, where she attended a Catholic girls school, got a BA at University of Queensland and studied to be a teacher. Let’s say that takes her to 1946. In 1948 she married and moved to Sydney, where she taught high school. Yet nearly all her fiction is set in coastal towns and cities north of Brisbane. Girl with a Monkey (1958), her first, is set entirely in Townsville.

I assume she, as does Elsie, her protagonist, spent a year or two teaching ‘up north’. The Oxford Companion says she “taught in schools in Queensland and NSW until 1967”, so that’s a start. It also says “Astley’s first novel appeared a decade before women writers began to make a large impact on Australian writing ..” I’m not sure where that leaves Prichard, Stead, Dark, Tennant, Cusack et al, nor for that matter Miles Franklin and Henry Handel Richardson.

I have other reference books but they have nothing to add and none of my seven Thea Astleys contains more than the briefest bio. So let’s guess that Astley, like Elsie, taught primary school for two terms in Townsville and then spent at least the remainder of the year (1947, “today I am twenty two”) in a three teacher school south of Gympie (around 100 miles north of Brisbane).

River gasped and sucked lazily at sugar barges somewhere behind the broad street and shops, river that curled tightly in through the mangroves and on out past its artificial breakwater limbs to the warm reef waters. Cootharinga, its ugly granite escarpments sharp with sun and shadow, threatened the sprawling acolyte at its foot. From the silent and empty footpaths haze curled up under the tin awnings, lifting with it some coolness from the day …

Townsville, well into the tropics, is of course hot – ranging from pleasantly warm in winter to hot, steamy and frequently wet in summer – and Astley captures that feeling well, with a flow of words demonstrating the attention she has given to Modernism, and her mastery of it. We none of us talk much about Patrick White, but he was a big influence on Astley and she appears to have sought both friendship and mentoring from him.

In his early years White was not much regarded. His third and fourth novels, An Aunt’s Story (1948) and The Tree of Man (1955) were acclaimed in the US and UK but it was not until Voss (1957) that he was widely noticed at home. Presumably by then Astley was well into Girl with a Monkey whose origins most likely begin in her 1947 or 48 writing journal. I wonder if there is a literary biography.

To me, despite the location, it doesn’t feel a lot like Astley’s later works, but then I haven’t read them all. In fact the book it most reminds me of is Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). There is the rush of words, the same focus on one young person over one short period; but third person rather than first, and without the slanginess, in fact Elsie is superficially at least, rather proper; but a similar commitment to understanding the ambivalent feelings both Holden and Elsie have about sex.

What the novel does is take us through Elsie’s last day in Townsville, from waking in her hotel room – a passage really with doors at either end against which she has stacked her luggage, chairs to keep out inquisitive men in the night – through breakfast; a walk down to the railway station to buy a ticket on the late train south; visits in the suburbs to say goodbye, pickup her things; to her old school for her books; lunch with an ex boyfriend, Jon; an unwelcome encounter with her current boyfriend, Harry, who knows in his angry heart he too is ex; tea with a school teacher friend; a last minute rush to catch the train; to unsuccessfully evade Harry.

That’s it, just a novella, but full of thought and description; little jumps back to other significant days; mysteries that remain mysteries, her distance from ‘home’, a birthday telegram torn into scraps; her catholicism, fervent at school, now fading, but present still in her virginity, in her assessment of men, boyfriends only as potential husbands.

Jon admits “tearfully” to having once visited the brothel, but drunk and against his will. Elsie is bitter not at his visit but at his weakness, wishing –

That I could see you striding strongly to your damnation in the tiny cottages at Rising Sun. That you should have no one and nothing to blame for your sin. That you could achieve sin and contrition and penance entirely on your own.
She felt, as all women do even in the earliest years of puberty, a cold and fully developed maturity that frightened her.

Harry is stronger, but rough, a ditch digger, with nevertheless the implication that there is more to him – maybe like many working class men he never got the education he deserved. All the summaries start ‘Elsie was lonely …’ but that’s not right, she takes up with Harry because there’s no pretence, because she has held herself on a tight rein for years – you suspect she spent her university years living at home and going to Mass. As with Miles Franklin’s heroines before her, you can feel Elsie holding herself out then pulling back.

Harry’s strength of purpose, his potential for violence frightens her. In fact the suitcases against her hotel door are symbolic of her belief that the potential for violence in all men – perhaps not without reason – frightens her, but she is nevertheless determined to remain in control.

An excellent, thoughtful novel, both in its writing and in its probing of the author’s inner life as she, for a year or two anyway, begins to experience independent womanhood.

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Thea Astley, Girl with a Monkey, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1958. 144pp.

Thank you to Sue (WG) for sending me her copy, hard to get now, but available from Allen & Unwin’s A&U House of Books print on demand division. I found the print quality perfectly readable, not too small (and at the other extreme, I dislike books with ‘YA’ typefaces) and if the margins were minimal then I’m not a marginalia-ist in any case.

See my AWW Gen 4 page and Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page for more reviews.

Gertrude the Emigrant, Louisa Atkinson

You probably already know I now have two gigs, having accepted an offer from Elizabeth Lhuede and Sue/Whispering Gums to join them at the Australian Women Writers Challenge which in its new format is publishing weekly, every Wednesday morning, a range of reviews, essays and stories about/by early Australian women writers.

My first post for them is a review of Australia’s ‘first’ novel, by one definition at least. Clara Morison (1854) by Catherine Helen Spence which came out three years earlier has a much better claim; and Mary Grimstone, who was briefly in Tasmania, wrote a couple of novels in the 1830s that have no claim at all. And then there’s Quintus Servinton (1831) by Henry Savery.

I hope you will all follow us. I’m sure you will enjoy the journey. And if you think you might like to contribute a review or essay contact me at theaustralianlegend@gmail.com.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

The ‘first’ Australian novel is contested, but Gertrude the Emigrant: A Tale of Colonial Life (1857) is the first novel whose author was born in Australia. Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) was born on her parent’s property, Oldbury, in the region of Sutton Forest, NSW around 100 kms south west of Sydney in the Southern Highlands. This seems to be the setting for Gertrude though Louisa was mostly brought up in Sydney and was living at Kurrajong, further north, in the Blue Mountains when she wrote this in her twenties. Read on …