The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante

I read My Brilliant Friend (2011), the first of Ferrante’s quartet, The Neapolitan Novels, on the train from Milan to Naples in 2017. Spent a few hours there with my daughter and grandkids as they waited for the ferry to Ischia, and then by taxi and train continued heading south. But still, I like that I am able to imagine bits of The Story of a New Name (2012), the second in the quartet, in the places they occurred.

Ferrante apparently conceived of L’amica geniale as one novel, but chose to publish in four volumes for ease of reading. Certainly she makes no concessions; vol.2 takes off exactly where vol.1 ends, and if you have forgotten all the names and family relationships in the interval between reading 1 and 2, then you must resort to the look-up tables placed at the beginning of vol.2 for that purpose.

A number of you in the comments to my review of My Brilliant Friend said that you were put off by the hype, and the same was/is often said of Sally Rooney and Normal People. But Ferrante and Rooney are both excellent writers, as thoughtful about writing as they are about relationships, and I think this thing about hype leads to them being underrated (no doubt as they laugh all the way to the bank).

Also, I think being made into popular TV series has done both books/series no favours. Separating the stories from the writing reduces them to their ordinary coming of age and romance elements and leads most readers to overlook the literary elements of the writing – to a large extent the Neapolitan novels are a discussion of what it takes to be a writer. Lila and Lenu are two sides of the same coin, brilliance and hard work.

I can’t see Ferrante’s year of birth anywhere, nor her ‘real’ name. There are a couple of hints early on that the author/narrator, Elena Greco, is now in her 60s looking back, but apart from that the action and Elena’s thoughts are in the novel’s present, the late 1960s.

The ‘new name’ of the title is Lila’s married name, at 16, Signora Carracci, the wife of grocery shop owner Stefano. In my review of My Brilliant Friend I wrote that the final scene, their wedding breakfast, leaves us hanging. Stefano is meant to have broken with the feuding and gangsterism of the neighbourhood’s immediate past, but the presence of the Solaro brothers, Marcello and Michele implies that Stefano is beholden to them. As indeed the early chapters of the new book confirm. More, Stefano has given Michele Solaro the shoes designed for her shoemaker family by Lila.

The gentle Stefano Carracci, the grocer, who out of love had wanted to buy the first pair of shoes she had made, vowing that he would keep them forever. Ah, the wonderful moment when, at fifteen, she had felt herself a rich and elegant lady, on the arm of her fiancé, who, all because he loved her, had invested a lot of money in her father and brother’s shoe business: Cerullo shoes.

At 470pp this is not a small book, and at the story-telling level there is always a lot going on. From the very beginning, Lila is constantly at odds with Stefano, swinging wildly between seducing him and denying him sex, apparently defying both her husband and nature by not getting pregnant, and then when a son finally comes, claiming that Stefano is not the father.

Stefano builds a second, new, grocery within the neighbourhood and gets Lila to manage it, which she does unwillingly but well. And he goes into business with the Solaros, with a smart store in the city, which he largely prevents Lila from being involved in, though it is selling Cerullo shoes.

Lenu meanwhile makes her way through the middle and final years of high school. Though they’re often at odds, still Lila uses Stefano’s money to buy Lenu’s schoolbooks and Lenu is able to get a respite from the dreadful poverty of her own parents and younger siblings, by going each afternoon to study in the backroom of the new grocery.

There are a couple of summer interludes on Ischia, firstly with Lenu working as a governess, and then, later, paid by Lila to be with a party of young married neighbourhood women. On the island she runs into the Sarratore family, formerly from the neighbourhood, who have a small house there. Lenu has always had a crush on Nino Sarratore, a brilliant student, a couple of years ahead of her at school. He, it turns out is dating the daughter of her favourite teacher. Lenu thinks she can win him, but Lila is in the way …

Lenu completes high school so successfully that she is offered a scholarship to university in Genoa, and there she does well, gets herself a nice, upper middle class boyfriend, and writes a novel which may be My Brilliant Friend. (Though, unlike Miles Franklin and My Brilliant Career, the neighbours do not read it and do not get offended).

So, in the first place, all the drama in The Story of a New Name is Lila’s. Which Lenu purports to tell, almost first hand, using the clumsy device of Lila’s diaries which are entrusted to her and which she reads and destroys. The underlying story of course is Lenu’s own growth as a woman, as an educated Italian, and as a writer. Lenu is to some extent an ‘unreliable narrator’, at least of her own story, and it seems to me that she overrates Lila’s flashy brilliance, as she underrates herself, her attractiveness, her intelligence, as of course, most young women do.

The underlying, underlying story is of language. I have been fascinated in the past year or so by the Japanese/American An I-Novel, Minae Mizumura, and Jessica Gaitán Johannesson’s How We Are Translated, both about women moving backwards and forwards between languages. Lenu must do the same, between the dialect of the ‘neighbourhood’ – widely spoken throughout Naples – and the formal Italian of her education. When she goes to Genoa she finds she must navigate a third language, colloquial Italian, with which she has apparently had no prior experience. The translator does not attempt to reproduce this, and I wonder if Ferrante herself does.

I enjoyed this story at the relationship level, though I know a lot of you became exasperated with it, but at another level is a very good writer talking about/showing us developing her craft, and at this level it is fascinating.

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Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, first pub. 2012, this edition: Text, Melbourne, 2015. 470pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.


Coincidentally, as I finished writing this, a review appeared in Inside Story of the HBO series of My Brilliant Friend. Jane Godall writes at length about the fidelity of the filming to the story and to Naples, but of course, all the literary element is lost (here).

Near Believing, Alan Wearne

Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021 is a selection of Wearne’s poetry from over his whole career. I bought a copy when I saw it in my local indie bookshop last year, but apparently the official release is a John Hawke “In Conversation With…” at Readings Carlton, 6.30 pm, Wed. 15 February ’23 (here).

I think it would be fair to say that Wearne’s specialty is the verse narrative – novels and long monologues – and that he has developed a particular and recognisable vernacular voice. Here we have selections from each of his novels – Out Here, The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – from other collections and, he says, some new stuff, presumably the last section, under the heading ‘Metropolitan Poems and other poems’, plus an Introduction by Michelle Borzi.

Borzi writes: “The groundnote of Wearne’s vernacular is the audibility of his words and phrases as a movement of conversational sounds and gestures. A kernel of that narrative voice first appeared in two breakthrough poems in his first book Public Relations (1972): ‘Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete” (written in 1967, when he was eighteen [his first year out of high school]) and ‘Warburton 1910’ (written in 1972). He went on to develop that voice in ‘Out Here’ and it has carried forward into all corners of his subsequent work.”

This too was a feat: running for a month
(as rumour had it).
Sprinting in the temple
was nothing less than perfect. Tables knocked,
whips raised and money lost.
He charged them twice

Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete

Borzi, and Martin Duwell, both of whom I have linked to below, quote Wearne as saying his influences are narrative poets from Chaucer to the Victorians, and especially Browning. I assume they mean Robert, and not Elizabeth. Robert Browning’s wikipedia entry says he “was noted for irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings and challenging vocabulary and syntax.” Very Wearne-ish.

Australian vernacular is difficult to get down on paper without descending into parody, and I would like to add, if not as an influence, then at least as a predecessor, CJ Dennis. It is difficult to tell with both Wearne and Dennis whether the slightly forced nature of their expression comes from finding the right phrase in speech that is not naturally theirs, or from the discipline imposed by their respective poetic structures.

Yeh live, yeh love, yeh learn; an’ when yeh come
To square the ledger in some thortful hour,
The everlastin’ answer to the sum
Must allus be, “Where’s the sense in gittin’ sour?”

CJ Dennis: The Mooch o’ Life

Dennis uses shorter words and has a predictable, staccato rhythm. In all his “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” he is attempting a slum/working class argot for the entertainment of a middle class audience. Wearne is often slangy, but it is middle class, suburban slang. And his words are longer, often fitting only awkwardly into his poetic structures, which vary, I’m sure not haphazardly, but let’s say, unpredictably.

Dennis and Wearne are alike in that (in their long pieces) the protagonist speaks directly to the reader. But Wearne fills out his narrative by having more than one speaker, so that we, in the verse novels, see the story from multiple points of view. There is some argument as to whether Wearne’s protagonists have different voices or just different stories to tell. Wearne’s own voice is so strong and so unique that I probably tend towards the latter view.

Alan grew up in Blackburn, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, in the 1950s and 60s, all apple orchards at the end of the War, then weatherboard housing estates, shading quickly to brick and tile, becoming prosperous as all the middle manager fathers rose through the ranks. He went to uni at Monash, an island in the southeastern suburban sea, but seems mostly to have lived in the then student/bohemian inner suburbs of Fitzroy, St Kilda, Carlton. And these locations are at the centre of all his poetry.

The poems and excerpts in this collection are undated, so it is difficult to tell whether his themes have changed over time, or if, as seems more likely, he returns over and over to this heartland of his teens and early adulthood.

But on this afternoon, in a new year
at a new school, whose tiresome Latin motto
you’d like to think might be interpreted as
Making Do With What We’ve Got (which isn’t much)

some things you’re hoping to commence will commence.
And if outside, starting at Holland Road …

A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers

So, in what is presented as a later poem, here we are back again at Blackie South High (in Holland Rd), in the 1960’s – “if only they’d let us wear slacks!” Which brings up another point: that Wearne is just as likely to take the teachers’ point of view. This is evident too in ‘Out Here’, which he says is based on a story told to him by a teacher who had come to Blackburn South from another high school. You get the impression that by the end of his school years he was already being taken seriously as an adult writer.

Let me end with one other longish (25pp) narrative – because that is what I am more comfortable with – ‘Operation Hendrickson’ in which the protagonist Henn is busted for sex with a minor (Henn seems to be 20 and the girl 15). “… And here’s the real equation/their real equation: either she’s sixteen or isn’t./Sure wasn’t./But moral danger? Behind me she held on and/(anyone thought I might look after her?)/just ride and talk.”

Henn has come from a Kildonan (Presbyterian) home to a foster home in Blackburn, and has been in a youth group with the author

Whilst Wearney you needn’t believe because
he’s just making it up for Proper Gander,
his rag: ‘Hey Wearney, write my memoirs
then put them into your Proper Gander!’
In our concert he plays the butler,
who sees it (and I mean it) all.

Over the course of the poem Henn looks back on his mates – just the one speaker, but a different register for each mate – from the perspective of his thirties: the one that went to nearby Burwood Tech, the one that did nasho, what Wearney knows and doesn’t know, circles back to true love, Kim behind him on the bike, the cop

Here though was a plan: she was going to climb
on my machine and we, the Kim ‘n’ Henn Show
would leave it, all of it: dole, debts, cops, folks
and end where we would end. (That’s what I told him,
Wearney, one evening just across the road.)
Then within a month a week,
a jack is telling me: ‘… think you’re something, son?’

‘Wearney’ writes “this warmish winter day in mid-July,/here at the corner of Orchard Grove and Canterbury Road”, two streets down from my Mum’s retirement unit; or “walking north where Punt Road overpasses/Dandenong Road at St Kilda Junction” where I’d eat my lunch when I was on office boy in Prahran, watching the trucks pass underneath; or “Bowater-Scott’s four-to-midnight shift” whose lane off Middleborough Rd I park my truck in when I stay at Mum’s; and so on and so on. Alan Wearne is writing my life, and his life, and the lives of all us boomers who grew up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

I wish I’d made it clearer: Wearne writes men and women equally, though not in ‘Operation Hendrickson’ and the generation before ours, our mothers particularly. Read him. He’s one of a kind, telling the story of his and our time.

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Alan Wearne, Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021, Puncher & Wattman, Newcastle NSW, 2022. 252pp

Cover: detail from Untitled (girl in the mirror), 1985 by Jenny Watson

Other Alan Wearne works reviewed:
Out Here, 1986 (here)
The Nightmarkets, 1986 (here)

See also (reviews much more informed than mine!):
Martin Duwell, Near Believing, Australian Poetry Review, 1 Oct 2022 (here)
Michelle Borzi, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, Southerly (here)

Recitatif, Toni Morrison

North America Project 2022

I should at this point be reviewing Morrison’s Paradise (1998), which I listened to and enjoyed one or two weeks ago. I should in fact be reviewing something else altogether, and have reviewed Paradise last month, but I have dropped behind and my North America project will have to end on eleven books rather than twelve. Not that I haven’t been inspired to go on reading much more Black and First Nations North American Lit. than I have been hitherto.

Paradise will get its review eventually, when I have listened to it again, have time to do it justice, and hopefully, have some material to quote from. So, on to Recitatif.

Recitatif is Toni Morrison’s only published short story, first published in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (1983). The volume I have, pictured above, is a hardback published this year by the Penguin/Random House group, and includes an introductory essay – at 45pp, 8 or 9 pages longer than the story itself – by Zadie Smith, a Black English writer and professor in creative writing at NYU.

The fact that there is only one Morrison short story seems of a piece with with her oeuvre. There are no dashed-off Morrison pieces, no filler novels, no treading water, no exit off the main road. There are eleven novels and one short story, all of which she wrote with specific aims and intentions.

Smith, Introduction

It seems the “aim and intention” of this story was to tell of two girls growing into women, one African American and one white, without specifying which was which. I guess that was the aim, and the intention was to spark debate about how we tell one group of people from another.

I read the story two or three weeks ago, without thinking it might be the focus of my review. So last night I read Smith’s essay and this morning I re-read the story and if I didn’t take actual notes, I at least marked pages I might like to quote from. Smith writes a great deal – it’s interesting and worth reading – about how specific sentences of Recitatif might be read and the difficulty of drawing conclusions from them.

Briefly, two girls, Twyla and Roberta, are placed in a home, St Bonny’s, on the same day, share a room, and are forced by the situation they share to become friends for the four months they remain there. The opening lines of the story are: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” So we understand that the girls are not orphans, but that their mothers are unable to care for them. Then, within a page, Morrison writes: “.. it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race.”

We were eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher … We didn’t like each other much at first, but nobody wanted to play with us because we weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky. We were dumped.

I must say that it was my assumption throughout my first reading that it was Twyla who was black and Roberta who was white, and that this assumption came from their names, and from Twyla being the narrator – in my mind, standing in for the author, who is of course African American, though Smith says that Morrison’s fiction tends not to be autobiographical. Smith also says that most Black readers think it is Twyla who is black, and most white readers think it is Roberta.

One of the problems for (white) foreigners like me is that the cues Morrison uses – names, food, behaviours, suburbs, speech – convey a lot more to Americans than they can possibly to anyone else.

Most of the girls at St Bonny’s were bigger: “put-out girls, scared runaways most of them. Poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us, and mean.” They hung out in the orchard where they played their radios, smoked and danced. And chased off the little girls.

In an incident which in retrospect is central to this story, the kitchen woman, Maggie, who is odd and apparently mute, falls down in the orchard on her way to catch the bus, and no-one helps her get up.

Years later …

I was working behind the counter at the Howard Johnson’s on the Thruway just before the Kingston exit. Not a bad job. Kind of a long ride from Newburgh ..

That is a couple of lines full of race and class cues which mean nothing to me. I should look up every capitalized word. Smith discusses Newburgh at some length. It is apparently a once thriving locality outside New York city, hollowed out by the flight of industry to the south and overseas.

Twyla sees Roberta sitting at a table with two male friends. They speak only briefly. Roberta and the guys are on their way to the ‘Coast’ where one of them has “an appointment with Hendrix”.

Another twelve years later, Twyla is married, still living in Newburgh and bumps into Roberta shopping in a new mall. Roberta, also married, is living nearby in Annandale, “a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives.” This time they are happy to see each other. They reminisce:

Remember Maggie? The day she fell down and those gar girls [gargoyles – the older girls] laughed at her?
Roberta looked up from her salad and stared at me. “Maggie didn’t fall … Those girls pushed her down and tore her clothes.”

Bussing starts, Twyla and Roberta end up on opposing picket lines. They get into an argument:

“Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you’re not. You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was on the ground…” What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn’t black… “Like hell she wasn’t, and you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream.”

The next time, the last time in the story, they meet, Roberta apologizes. She’s no longer sure Maggie was black. The gar girls did the kicking. They, the little girls, were watching, wanting to join in.

So did Morrison want us to enter into a guessing game, which girl is black? I don’t think so. I think she wanted to say that there are other things which join us, separate us. Circumstances. Class. Either way, she tells an amazingly detailed story in just 40 pages.

.

Toni Morrison, Recitatif, first pub. 1983. This edition, with Introduction by Zadie Smith, Chatto & Windus, London, 2022

Voss, Patrick White

Brona’s Books AusReading Month

The 1950s seem to have been a time for introspection about what it means to be an Australian, or rather, how it was that the archetypal Australian had come to be a working man from the bush, independent, resourceful, hard working when necessary, and contemptuous of authority – all attributes which had been freely applied to the soldiers of the Second AIF, now just returned from fighting the Japanese, and before them, to the First AIF, the original ANZACs.

Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties came out in 1954, Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend in 1958 and, between them, Voss, in 1957. Not directly influenced by either, but part of the same discussion and informed by White’s own war service, in the deserts of North Africa.

You can’t write about White without writing about class. White was of the class of whom the working men in the bush were contemptuous, the squattocracy. His family owned large properties throughout NSW; all his adolesence was spent at boarding school and university in England; and during the war he was an intelligence officer in the (British) Royal Air Force.

Yet, it seems his roots as a writer were in Australia and he returned here permanently in 1948. I said in an earlier post that he wrote Voss from his study in inner Sydney, but in fact he and Manoly Laskaris lived on their hobby farm in Castle Hill, on the outskirts of Sydney until 1963 when they moved to, I think, White’s late mother’s house in Centennial Park.

Patrick White was one of the great writers of High Modernism, so Voss is much more about its eponymous hero’s interior, than it is about Australia’s, which in any case White had barely experienced. But I want to write about some other aspects of the novel.

This novel is White’s great contribution to the dominant myth of Australianness, the lone bushman, but he is cognisant also of its limitations. He posits one man against a hostile interior, but that man is a loner only in that he must be the leader; in Voss, crossing Australia is an upper middle class venture, supported by wealthy merchants, with, of the lower classes, only the ex-convict, small-landowner Judd playing an important role; the Australian legend excludes women, the Bulletin‘s version is openly misogynist, yet White has Laura riding alongside Voss, in spirit if not in fact; the mythical Australian bushman of the 1890s on whom all subsequent iterations of the Australian legend are based is white, Anglo. White subverts this by making his hero German, and by making the attempt to include Aboriginal actors and culture.

The bushman of the Australian legend, of say Such is Life, is a complainer, yes, but he is comfortable in the bush, on his own or with companions (‘mates’). Voss is not comfortable, and the bush – often waterless brigalow scrub and desert – sends him mad.

Voss of course is not Ludwig Leichardt and more often during my reading I felt dissonances rather than resonances. So Voss has walked up the NSW North Coast, from Newcastle to Moreton Bay (Brisbane) but Leichardt had also walked (or ridden) from Brisbane to Port Essington (Darwin) which would have revealed to him the nature of much of the country, and in particular that there were no great rivers in the north east quarter of the continent. Leichardt would have been both better prepared than Voss and more competent.

The other aspect of Voss as historical fiction which played on my mind is that White, in the 1950s, knew that the Australian interior was arid and hostile. Even without ever going further north and west, a year as a jackaroo (gentleman station hand) at Walgett would have made that clear! But Leichardt, in the 1840s, would not have known, and may well have believed that around the next corner he would come upon a Lake Baikal, a Great Lakes, or a Mississippi running in some other direction than North East (sailors mapping the mouths of the Ord or Fitzroy Rivers for instance, in the north west, had no reason to believe that they didn’t extend far into the interior).

What I am saying is that White’s description of the geography Voss faced was as accurate as research could make it, but he gives no hint of the beliefs that motivated Voss to set out on a 5,000 km walk into the unkown with a party of just six men (though in the end it is the two Aboriginal men who attach themselves to Voss at the last point of ‘civilisation’, and especially Jackie, who prove themselves the most valuable members of the party).

I have been chatting with Bron about whether Voss is still my number one Great Australian Novel, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not. It is a brilliant novel of its times, and probably still one of the great works of Modernism. But. Early accounts of Australia have Aboriginal people as shadows between the trees, as servants or stockmen (unpaid except for ‘rations’), as missing. Only from the 1920s do writers attempt to bring them into focus – Ion Idriess first, then Xavier Herbert and Eleanor Dark. White does well to treat the Blacks accompanying Voss, Dugald and Jackie, as real people, though of course they are still servants. You might imagine that Thomas Keneally was following on from White in making Jimmie the protagonist of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). White’s accounts of tribal Aboriginal culture are less successful and today wouldn’t be attempted.

Much as I love Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) and the important work of re-imagining first contact in That Deadman Dance (2010), number one must be Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) which is both brilliantly written, and holds the possibility that our acceptance of its truths might lead us forward to a place where we are partners rather than settlers in this country.

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Patrick White, Voss, first pub. 1957. Audiobook from Bolinda, read by Humphrey Bower. 19 hours

The Bond of Wedlock, Rosa Praed

As I write it is Sunday 13 Nov. in Perth. Tomorrow I set out on a trip that will take me away from home for a few weeks. If it works as planned, which is never a given with trucking. I am thinking I will post this on Weds (16th) which is when my post on Rosa Praed’s The Bond Wedlock is scheduled on the AWWC site. By then I will be in Port Hedland and, hopefully, unloaded.

From there I will run empty to Kununurra, in the far north of WA, load two 14m x 3m wide portable huts, road train to Port Augusta and then run the two huts singly to Bendigo (or actually, Elmore) in central Victoria.

When that is done, it is planned that we – there are a number of trucks involved – will return empty to Port Augusta, load two huts each, and road train by the same route in reverse back to Port Hedland. Standard truck width is 2.5m, so we are 0.5m overwidth which is not allowed for road trains on the Nullarbor or south of Port Augusta in SA, hence the single running to Bendigo, and the long way home.

Wednesday: It was a good plan, but as I was driving out the gate Monday afternoon, I got a text saying that Central Victoria was under water and the trip was cancelled. Today I unloaded in Port Hedland, which was pretty non-dry itself, and tomorrow I will go home to Perth with a road train load of oversize tyres.

Running oversize means I get to pull up each evening at sunset, but it also means I usually don’t get to choose a stopover with good phone coverage, so blogging will be limited.


We have covered Rosa Praed (1851-1935) a few times in these pages, not least because our colleague Jess White’s hybrid memoir, Hearing Maud (2019) is at least partly an exploration of Praed’s relationship with her daughter.

My interest in Praed arises from my M.Litt thesis, some years ago, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature. Praed, like a number of Australian women authors of the time – coinciding with suffragism and first wave feminism – wrote heroines who chose to live without marrying, or who, if married, were willing to walk away.

Read on ….

Note that AWWC From the Archives on Friday (18/11) will be “Is marriage a handicap to woman’s ambition?” by M Preston Stanley Vaughan.

Son of a Trickster, Eden Robinson

North America Project 2022

This is my North America read for September, which is running a bit late as I didn’t do much driving and therefore book listening, for a few weeks. But a trip to the Northern Territory has fixed that, and I’ve even made time to write it up.

[I must have written the para above before I loaded for Darwin four or five weeks ago. But four weeks broken down sees me struggling to get something down yet another month later.

I finally got my truck back on Fri 28/10, loaded Sat and unloaded Sun at Banjo Station again. Today, Mon, I am 1,000 km west, in a motel in Derby (in WA that rhymes with Kirby) hopeful of securing a load home in the morning. And yes, I’ve been listening to Son of a Trickster, at last]

Eden Robinson (1968- ) is a Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations woman from British Columbia (on Canada’s west coast). Son of a Trickster (2017) is her third novel, and the first of a trilogy, and the novel is presumably set in country she knows, though I didn’t get the same sense of place that I did from, for instance, Life among the Qallunaat.

What I did get was the excitement I get reading the best Australian Indigenous Lit.

Son of a Trickster is a fast-paced, edgy, coming of age, with a side of Native American magic – Jared is sixteen years old, in year 10 at high school. His mother is a young, sexy, foul mouthed party girl and drug dealer. We see Jared aged 5 with loving parents, but it is soon clear that the father has left, has another family, and that the mother makes some poor choices replacing him.

When the story settles down, at the beginning of year 10, Jared’s mother has lived with and discarded ‘nice’ white guy David, and has taken up with the scary Ritchie. Jared has been adopted by Ritchie’s bull terrier cross, Baby Killer, but now it is old and must be put down.

Jared is living in the basement of his mother’s house, while the bedrooms have been let to tenants to cover the house payments. He does jobs for the old couple next door in return for small amounts of money and big home cooked meals. We discover that the old woman, Mrs Jax, took him in after David attacked Jared, and Jared’s mum nailed David to the floor with a nail gun and had to spend some time ‘dealing with anger management’ in jail.

Because this is year 10, there is a lot of angst over who is popular and who is not. Jared is an outsider, but has some cool as the baker of cookies using medicinal grade marijuana, and as a notable drunk (whose mother holds the best parties). He is also very smart-mouthed which mostly gets him into trouble rather than out of it.

Life for Jared picks up a notch when Mrs Jax’s granddaughter, Sara comes to stay. She is good looking, weird, has her own problems, likes sleeping with Jared, and might be a witch.

As the story progresses, who is and isn’t a witch becomes a serious problem. Jared’s father’s mother is a senior, and very wealthy witch. Jared’s father who lives in the next town over, loses his job. Jared’s step-sister has a baby. Jared sells cookies to help his father pay the rent. Jared’s mother hates Jared’s father and her ex-mother in law. But is Jared’s father Jared’s father?

Sara takes magic mushrooms, though Jared doesn’t, which sets off stuff which results in Jared having a toe eaten off by sea otters.

Another, older, maybe very much older, witch gets Jared to start attending AA, and, consequently, to resume paying attention to his schoolwork. Jared’s mum stops using meth. Sara cuts herself more seriously than usual, and her mother, whom everyone hates, comes to take her home.

The year comes to an end. A lot of this is very YA, but it has undertones both of grunge and of Indigenous.Lit cum Magical Realism which give the novel more heft. I’m expecting the next part of the trilogy to be Normal People meets Gabriel García Márquez. Of course if you’ve read Trickster Drift you’ll know whether or not I’m right, but that’s the direction, by the end, it felt like Robinson was heading.

I loved Son of a Trickster. Up till now the North American Indigenous authors I tried all had a very documentary style. Robinson doesn’t pretend that ‘Indians’ aren’t oppressed by settlers but, if you accept the spirit element, she has written here a sparkling work of normal everyday dysfunctional life.

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Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster, Knopf Canada, 2017. 336pp. Audible version read by Jason Ryll. 9 hrs

The Toucher, Dorothy Hewett

Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002) “was an Australian playwright, poet and author, and a romantic feminist icon. In writing and in her life, Hewett was an experimenter. As her circumstances and beliefs changed, she progressed through different literary styles: modernism, socialist realism, expressionism and avant garde.” I liked that description from wiki, but I must say I would have had ‘Communist’ in between Australian and playwright, and I imagine she would have too.

It’s interesting how many writers of Hewett’s generation (AWW Gen 3, of course) were confirmed Communists, at least for a while, and how many since are just wishy-washy liberals.

Hewett was born in WA, on a prosperous wheat farm. Wiki doesn’t say where, but that it was “cleared by 15 year old Albert Facey” (for non-Australians, author of the hugely popular memoir A Fortunate Life) which I think puts it in the Narrogin region, south east of Perth. When she was 12 her parents moved to the city and Hewett went to PLC (Perth) and on to UWA.

In adulthood Hewett joined the CPA and with them went to the USSR, then under Stalin, and to early Communist China. The protagonist of The Toucher recalls being in a parade in Moscow, with Stalin waving from a balcony.

Hewett had a number of marriages and lived mostly in Perth – on attempting a return to education, she was expelled from Graylands Teachers College for having been married and divorced – till, when she was 50, she moved permanently to Sydney. While she was better known as a playwright and poet, she wrote three novels –
Bobbin’ Up (1959)
The Toucher (1993)
Neap Tide (1999)
and the first volume of her autobiography –
Wild Card: an autobiography, 1923–1958 (1990)

In The Toucher the protagonist, Esther, like Hewett in her later years, is overweight and wheelchair bound, but she has retired to a large house on the ‘French’ River in south-west WA. This fictional location seems to be based on the Frankland River which enters the sea at Walpole, on the south coast, west of Albany (mentioned only obliquely, as “the safest harbour in Australia”).

She sat quite still in her wheelchair in the very centre of the house, the coastline spun out around her, the estuary with its great body of water sliding past to the sea. She had come back three years ago, pulling house, garden and river around her like a cocoon, imagining that one day she could emerge, remade into the outer air. But there had been no healing …

Opening lines

Esther had grown up in this part of the south west, in a hut in the karri (very tall eucalypts) forests where her father painted. Now she has returned, initially with a husband, but is soon a widow; finding herself and her father remembered; the same old fishing families still in their cottages; Maxie Crowe, the bad-boy love of her school days now a decrepit grandfather.

Her carers/housekeeper/handyman are (oldish) husband and wife Clarrie and Fred. Clarrie goes off to another country town to stay with her daughter, initially for the birth of a grandchild, but soon, it appears, indefinitely. Esther’s own children are variously ignoring her and living in other parts of the world.

Into the picture come, first the very young Iris, filling in for Clarrie, then Iris’s boyfriend: “‘Hello’, he said, ‘I’m Billy Crowe.’ They breed like flies, she thought.” Yes, he’s Maxie’s grandson, and just as much a bad boy, skilled at fishing and bushcraft and entirely uneducated.

‘I used to sit next to your grandfather in primary school. You’re a lot like him.’
‘All us Crowes look alike. Can I borrow one of y’ books to take home, one y’ wrote y’self?’
‘I don’t think you’d like them’
He bristled. ‘Why not?’
‘I don’t think they’d be quite your cup of tea.’
‘Because I’m too dumb. That’s what y’ think, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s not that.’
‘Yes it is, but I’m not stupid. I can learn quick. I could find out a lot from y’ if you’d teach me.’
‘What could I teach you?’ she said wearily.
‘Oh, I dunno, about books an’ life an’ that, but you’re too much of a snob, aren’t y’?’

She gives in, gives him some hours of work; lets him drive the Merc; employs him to type the ms of her latest novel, an autofiction of past loves and adulteries; lets him put her in the bath, as Iris watches on helplessly; and so begins a strange love affair, and eventually a murder mystery. Well written, in no style at all really, certainly no hint of the socialist realism of Bobbin’ Up, and some hints that Hewett, or her protagonist at least, is past all that.

For all you who loved Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, a wildly different look at one older woman’s desires and motivations.

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Dorothy Hewett, The Toucher, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1993. 300pp

The Mountain, Drusilla Modjeska

The Mountain is a novel set in Papua New Guinea in the years before and after Independence (from Australia) on 16 Sept., 1975. Modjeska, born in England in 1946, went to PNG with her husband (I think) in the late 1960s, briefly attending the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby, before settling in Sydney in 1971. ‘In 2006 Modjeska was a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, “investigating the interplay of race, gender and the arts in post-colonial Papua New Guinea”‘ (wiki) all of which accords with the scenes and action in this book.

I started listening to an audiobook of The Mountain a couple of months ago, and found the beginning entrancing. But the cds – as is often the case with the Queensland Narrating Service – proved unlistenable and so I was prevented from finishing until I could source a paper version, which of course I now have.

There is a brief Prologue. Jericho, 36, lunching overlooking Sydney Harbour, with Martha who must be mid-50 ish. Martha remembers Jericho, then 5, being brought down the Mountain to her and Rika. Like most opening chapters, you file it away and hope subsequent chapters will make it make sense, though in this case, if you remember it at all, it has no context until much later in the book.

Martha is essentially the author character, but she often takes a back seat, and when the narration is from the point of view of her friends Rika or Laedi, who each have very different backgrounds, it is often difficult to tell them apart.

The core of the novel is that Rika, a young Dutch woman, marries Leonard, a stodgy Oxford anthropologist who accepts a position at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. There she becomes friends with Martha – a young woman from Sydney who had given up her own studies and married her boyfriend, Peter, because he had been offered a job at UPNG “too good to refuse” – and with Laedi, a young, Australian private school educated, coffee coloured ‘hapkas‘ woman, married to another white ademic, Don. And they all live in houses in the university compound, and have a duty to employ locals as servants.

By the time the I gave up on the audiobook, the three young women were engaging in long, personal discussions; were getting to know all the university staff and senior students, in standard university town fashion; and Rika whose view was taking over, was being introduced to Port Moresby and to PNG. All very much, I’m sure, in accord with Modjeska’s own life at that time.

What bothers me, and it bothers me more because Modjeska is now, has long been, a distinguished (Australian) literary academic, is that as more and more Papuan characters are introduced, she purports to write from their point of view. Which is ironic, given that many of them are academic and/or literary, but also unnecessary, patronizing. In a word, it’s appropriation. I wonder what her reasoning is. This is an otherwise excellent novel; written largely out of Modjeska’s own experience; perhaps she feels PNG needs/needed a hurry on to produce its own literature.

Leonard finds Rika, a fine photographer, a job curating old photos in the university library; Martha enrols to complete her BA in English Lit. They get to know, the novel is expanded to include, Papuan men – Jacob, an ambitious law student; Milton, an English student finding his way writing anti-colonial drama; Aaron back from studying overseas. Jacob and Milton are roomies. Aaron and Jacob, both from Fjord country, have ‘history’. Michael Somare, leader of the new Pangu Party, floats in and out of the university. Gough is still in Opposition in Canberra, but Independence is coming.

Leonard goes up ‘the Mountain’ to live there for some months and to get local life and ceremonies down on film. Don is foisted on him by the university, and causes problems. Rika stays behind, is expected to come up later, falls into a relationship with Aaron.

Bark paintings recur throughout – these two are unnamed, just “PNG bark paintings sold at auction” – created by women, given as gifts, used as wall hangings. With no great importance, but symbolizing, I think, links between women on the Mountain and women in Port Moresby.

Rika can’t bear to tell Leonard. Laedi is unhappy with Don, but gets pregnant again. Martha observes. Eventually Rika goes up the Mountain herself, makes important connections with the women there. Don takes a young local as wife, she has a child.

Rika was angry. She was angry with Leonard. She was angry at his patience when she could not let him touch her. She was angry with herself for the night she had given in to him, and to herself, and for the dark pleasure of her double betrayal as Leonard sweated above her. She was angry at the kindness of the hand Leonard rested on her back when she turned from him on their hard sleeping mats. Most of all, she was angry that he had not told her about Don.

A page later, their marriage is over. Rika goes back down the Mountain. Aaron gets a beating from the white men who have been tailing him, observing him. A warning that white women are not for Black men. Leonard eventually goes home to Oxford.

Rika and Aaron get a house, outside the university compound, in the new suburb of Hohola. Soon, and for many years, they are surrounded by friends. Their house has a “shaded verandah where people gathered, crowding around table, or sleeping on the old bed against the wall. Aaron’s kin came from the fjords – no one was turned away. Rika sang as she cooked coconut rice and banana bread, food for many.”

And so begin the middle years, Aaron now working for Somare; Martha and Laedi also living in Hohola, Martha and Peter living largely separate lives; Laedi eventually a single mother with daughters Bili and Daisy.

In the sixth year a hapkas boy is brought down from the Mountain for his education and he effectively becomes if not Bili’s brother then her constant playmate. This is Jericho (not that I remembered the Prologue at the time), and much of the rest of the novel is his story.

For someone who in a lifetime in literature has produced only three novels, Modjeska is a very fine writer. I’m sorry that she did not find a way to tell this story just through Martha’s eyes, or even through Martha and Rika’s, because accounts of PNG life are rare, but they deserve to be told by the Miltons and Laedis and Jerichos who lived them.

And yes, despite myself, I enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it.

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Drusilla Modjeska, The Mountain, Vintage, Sydney, 2012. 426pp. The map, presumably hand-drawn by Modjeska, is taken from the book.

see also my reviews of:
Modjeska’s first novel (set in England), Poppy (1990)
and, from her PhD at UNSW, Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–1945 (1981).

Their Eyes were watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

North America Project 2022

A hurricane is ripping through the night. Three or four African-American workers are huddled in a shack in the Florida Everglades, waiting for the levees holding back the waters to give way, or the roof and the walls shielding them from the crashing rain to disappear. Hurston writes, they were not staring into the dark, “their eyes were watching God”.

I listened to this seminal American novel yesterday (as I write), driving down from Port Hedland, and now I must get my thoughts down on ‘paper’ before they disappear into the ether. Their Eyes were watching God (1937) was Hurston’s second novel. I reviewed her first, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) – a fictionalized account of her father’s life – a couple of years ago, and concluded by hoping that her next would have a female protagonist, and here we are.

I can’t tell you how the novel begins because a lot of it is dialogue and the dialogue is all dialect and it takes a while before you (I) work out what is being said, but once you do it flows. Anyway, the beginning doesn’t matter, it’s mostly just Janie and Phoebe talking, and then we get Janie’s story and Janie grows up and does life and goes away and finally comes back and sits down and talks to Phoebe and we’re back where we started.

What interested me most about the dialogue was why did Hurston choose to write that way. Maybe two thirds of the narrative is carried forward by discussions between the main characters; but more than that, secondary characters and secondary issues are also accorded great chunks of dialogue. Hurston is writing/recording talk for talk’s sake: describing the give and take during card games, or all the teasing the completely peripheral Matt suffers about the way he treats his mule.

It is clear that Hurston is saying ‘I am Black and this is what being Black sounds like’. I can’t tell from my limited American reading how close Hurston is to the beginning of Black American Literature, but she must be pretty close. And she is highly educated; an anthropologist; her chosen field is, I think, poor rural Blacks in the South; she is a poet (and playwright); and you would imagine that she is well-read, thoughtful about Modernism, about innovation in literature to more closely represent Black modes of thought and speech.

Hurston (1891-1960) grew up in the self-governed, all-Black community of Eatonville, Florida. Despite some disruptions, especially to her high school education, she made her way to Howard University, where she got her first degree at age 29, and then to Barnard College at Columbia University.

When Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its zenith, and she soon became one of the writers at its center. Shortly before she entered Barnard, Hurston’s short story “Spunk” was selected for The New Negro, a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays focusing on African and African-American art and literature. In 1926, a group of young black writers including Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, calling themselves the Niggerati, produced a literary magazine called Fire!! that featured many of the young artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Wiki

I haven’t read Langston Hughes, and I know I should. And I really haven’t read much on Hurston, except Melanie/GTL on Hurston’s collections of Southern Black folk stories. But my impression at this point in my reading is that Hurston is a thoughtful and innovative writer; not just writing about Black people, her people; but writing with all the rhythms and poetry of everyday Southern Black speech. The working poor had been making their way into Eng.Lit. over the previous century (starting with North and South?) but I wish the US had a Trove (searchable database of all Australian newspapers) and I could see how critics responded to this overthrowing of all the white, middle class values Eng.Lit. holds so dear.

The story, as distinct from the writing, is of a young rural woman, Janie, brought up by her grandmother when her mother deserts her. It stands out in the story-telling that Janie is a quiet, reserved girl, only slowly, over the space of twenty years growing into assertive, independent womanhood; and that you are not told this, but feel it in her speech as she matures.

I’m sure most of you know the story, those of you educated in America will no doubt have dissected it at length. Briefly, her grandmother, dying, worried how Janie will get on without her, marries her off to an older farmer. The farmer treats Janie as just another useful farm animal (Janie is attractive but sex is rarely even implied, let alone discussed). Janie runs off with another guy, Jody Starks.

Starks takes her to Eatonville where he is soon the store owner, property developer and mayor. Janie is expected to work in the store, which she doesn’t enjoy, but is also expected to be a cut above the townspeople when she would rather be of them.

The years pass. Starks dies leaving Janie well off. A handsome younger conman, Tea Cake, courts her and she goes off with him, happily enduring the ups and downs of his erratic life. They end up picking beans in the Everglades. There’s the hurricane, graphically described. And the novel, as I said, draws to an end with Janie returning to Eatonville.

At this point, two thirds of the way through my North American project, I am finding the First Nations/Indigenous writing flat, relatively unemotional, though the stories are important, and the African-American writing vibrant, full of life and poetry. And yes, I’m generalizing off a very small sample. Hurston, like James Baldwin, doesn’t include white characters in her story, but has them off at a distance, a malevolent other; as when, for instance, white men round up Black men to bury the dead after the hurricane, the whites in coffins and the Blacks in mass graves.

Of course, racism is the common theme of the project, the constant reality of Black and Indigenous life under settler colonialism. So while I am enjoying the writing, I am also feeling less and less certain about what I can do, as a settler, to make a difference (and Albomp embracing Shaq O’Neal to promote the Voice to Parliament doesn’t help).

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Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were watching God, first pub. 1937. Audiobook – Harper Audio, 2004, read by Ruby Dee. 6 hrs 44 min.

The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa

‘Research’ indicates Yoko Ogawa (1962- ) must be one of Japan’s most accomplished writers. Until I picked this book up I hadn’t heard of her, though quite a number of you obviously had, from your comments when you saw I was reading it, no doubt from its shortlisting for the 2020 Booker.

Wikipedia says Ogawa “has published more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction” only some of which have been translated into English (9 maybe). I’m most impressed by her co-writing An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, which sadly doesn’t seem to be one of the ones translated.

My first impression of The Memory Police was that it was both slow and dry, and it may have taken me till halfway to get over that. By the end I was entranced.

Is it Science Fiction? Most of the reviews say it is, and I have very little (ok, no) knowledge of the SF tradition in Japan. It is certainly SF in the way that Murakami is SF; which is to say surreal rather than sciencey. One reviewer draws parallels with 1984 and Brave New World. I guess the Memory Police of the title are a bit Brave New World-ish, but for me the dystopian element was minor.

The basis of the story is that a young woman writer living on one of Japan’s lesser islands, in a small village on the coast, a bus and train ride from the regional centre, is writing a novel about a young woman. We see excerpts from that novel, they are not labelled but are in slightly different type – Courier rather than Times, maybe, and I didn’t pick them up straight away.

The story of the novel we are reading is that things are disappearing, that most people quickly forget what it is that has disappeared, and that those who cannot forget are rounded up and interned by the Memory Police.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. … It took patience to figure out what was gone.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast … I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything.

The young woman’s father, an ornithologist, has died. Her mother, a sculptor, is one of those who don’t forget, she shows the then little girl keepsakes, relics long gone, but then she too is gone, or taken by the Police. Her old nanny dies, and so she is alone in the house, her only friend the old man, the nanny’s husband, who lives in a boat stranded on the beach. A ferryman whose ferry has disappeared.

The story of the novel being written is that a girl is in a class learning to type. Lessons are in a church with a clock tower. She becomes the lover of the young man teaching them. Her voice goes away and she can only speak to him by typing. And then the typewriter seizes up. Her lover takes her up to the room behind the clock, a room full of broken, seized typewriters …

A family, friends of the young woman writer’s parents, are rememberers. They come to her, bringing some of her mother’s sculptures, on their way into hiding.

The editor, R, who is working with her on her novel, also remembers. The old man proposes that they hide him, that she hides him, in a space below her study floor. R comes, leaving behind a wife and baby. Every night she brings him food and pages from her writing. They discuss what has disappeared. Her tries to convince her of the importance of remembering even a small part of what has been lost. Of course she is all he sees and they become close.

Then novels disappear. She gives R her manuscript, which already has no meaning for her, and some books selected almost at random. The townsfolk gather to burn books in great bonfires which burn all night. The library itself is torched.

I followed the arc of the last book as it tumbled through the air – and suddenly I realized that long ago, I had stood at this same window with my father and looked out at a similar sight… “A bird.” I remembered. But this memory, too, was soon erased by the flames, leaving nothing behind but the burning night.

Now she cannot write. But R persuades her to keep trying, to write a word, a line, a sentence.

Disappearances continue. Her novel comes to an end. This novel comes to an end.

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Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, first pub. 1994. Translated from the original Japanese, Stephen Snyder, Vintage, London, 2019. 274pp