The Devil’s Pool, George Sand

Holbein Plowman
Hans Holbein, The Ploughman (1525)

George Sand (1804-1876) was an influential (female) French writer and feminist, though I have no idea whether she was widely read in English before the C20th (Wiki says The Devil’s Pool was first translated in 1847). I wrote about Sand previously as the subject of Elizabeth Berg’s fictionalized ‘autobiography’, The Dream Lover, and have long had the intention of reading some of her work.

Sand grew up on, and became the owner of, her grandmother’s estate at Nohant in central France (Wiki). Since 1952 the house and gardens have been a museum. The Devil’s Pool (1846) was written relatively late in Sand’s career and refers back to the time of her childhood on the estate, a time which she regards as before modernization, particularly of course before rail made cross-country travel accessible to rural communities.

The novel begins with a contemplation of Holbien’s picture (above) of the devil driving a team of plough-horses, from his series ‘The Dance of Death’.

Shall we look to find the reward of the human beings of to-day in the contemplation of death, and shall we invoke it as the penalty of unrighteousness and the compensation of suffering?

No, henceforth, our business is not with death, but with life. We believe no longer in the nothingness of the grave, nor in safety bought with the price of a forced renunciation; life must be enjoyed in order to be fruitful.

We shall not refuse to artists the right to probe the wounds of society and lay them bare to our eyes; but is the only function of art still to threaten and appall?

We believe that the mission of art is a mission of sentiment and love, that the novel of to-day should take the place of the parable and the fable of early times, and that the artist has a larger and more poetic task than that of suggesting certain prudential and conciliatory measures for the purpose of diminishing the fright caused by his pictures. (The Author to the Reader)

So the story begins:

I had just been looking long and sadly at Holbein’s ploughman, and was walking through the fields, musing on rustic life and the destiny of the husbandman ..

At the other end of the field a fine-looking youth was driving a magnificent team of four pairs of young oxen ..

A child of six or seven years old, lovely as an angel, wearing round his shoulders, over his blouse, a sheepskin that made him look like a little Saint John the Baptist out of a Renaissance picture, was running along in the furrow beside the plough, pricking the flanks of the oxen with a long, light goad but slightly sharpened. The spirited animals quivered under the child’s light touch

These are Germain and his son Petit-Pierre.

So it was that I had before my eyes a picture the reverse of that of Holbein, although the scene was similar. Instead of a wretched old man, a young and active one; instead of a team of weary and emaciated horses, four yoke of robust and fiery oxen; instead of death, a beautiful child; instead of despair and destruction, energy and the possibility of happiness.

On the Librivox recording I heard the author say that she was surprised her work was regarded as ‘revolutionary’ but I can’t find the quote. I think the ‘revolution’ is that she has taken the old genre of Pastoral Romance with its lords and ladies and fairies and replaced them with ordinary peasant folk, and in doing so has written one of the prettiest little love stories I have ever read.

Germain, who is 28, has been some years a widower with 3 children. He lives and works on his father-in-law’s farm, and is I think effectively a partner in the business, along with his late wife’s brother. His father and mother in law have decided that he needs to re-marry, his sister in law is pregnant and they need another woman in the house to manage Germain’s children.

There is an amusing discussion on Germain’s great age and how he needs a sensible and mature wife and not one of the flighty young girls from the village. Father in law has in mind the widowed, childless daughter of a friend, who has a few acres of her own and who lives in a remote village beyond the woods, some ten miles distant. The journey is planned for the following Saturday and Sunday, and a poor widowed neighbour asks Germain to take with him her 16 year old daughter, Marie, who is going to a nearby farm as a shepherdess. On the day, Petit-Pierre inveigles his way into going with them.

I won’t tell you the story of their little trip, and their problems getting through the forest of the Devil’s Pool, but if you can, download the Librivox version, it is an absolute delight listening to Marie talk. She is one of those young women born full of common sense who have so often had to rescue me from my congenital idiocy, and I am more than a little in love with her.

Germain’s ‘intended’ turns out to be a flibbertigibbet and Marie’s employer a lecher and so they return home. All else turns out as you might expect.

 

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George Sand, The Devil’s Pool, first pub. 1846 as La Mare au Diable. Gutenberg English translation here. I listened to a Librivox recording.

Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers has a collaborative blog for George Sand (here) to which this post has been added. Lisa has my father’s copy of La Mare au Diable (I don’t read French) and reviews it over the course of three or four posts, starting (here).

The Flesheaters, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

Flesheaters edited

The Fleasheaters (1972) was David Ireland’s third novel, following a year after his (first of three) Miles Franklin award winning  The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. I couldn’t find the cover above, of the original Angus & Robertson hardback, on the web, so I’ve photographed the copy given to me in 1973 by the Young Bride. It’s hard to imagine now, waiting for the new release of the latest sensational Australian writer, but I used to, for Ireland and Carey particularly, and to a lesser extent, for Tom Keneally.

The setting of The Fleasheaters is Merry Lands, a rooming house in one of those old working class suburbs around Parramatta (Sydney, NSW) where Ireland grew up and worked, and which were the setting also for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe (1976). In fact, the protagonist/narrator, Lee drinks at the Southern Cross, the hotel at the heart of The Glass Canoe.

At the front of the house an old veranda had a curved corrugated iron roof, candy-striped in rust-red and aged-white. S plates held the ends of the brick walls. High up, an attic window had been bricked in … Wisteria climbed up to the half-glassed veranda. Bags flapped further back. Wrought iron lace-work decorated the upper storey.

Brick additions had been made to the stone, timber extensions to the brick, fibrocement additions to the timber, and from fibro down to corrugated iron, hessian, then chaff bags sewn together.

I remember houses like that on The Esplanade in St Kilda, Surrey Hills in Sydney, in the Valley and New Farm in Brisbane, let by the room to derros and workers down on their luck, half-way houses for society’s leftovers, sufferers of congenital poverty and unemployability. All gone now, or gentrified, million dollar mansions.

As with the other two, Ireland builds his ‘story’ by short sketches as Lee is introduced by the landlord O’Grady to his fellow inmates. In fact, it’s possible Ireland wrote the three all together – men at work, men down the pub, and this one, men in a home. It feels like he did, though the characters don’t cross over, or not that I noticed.

Lee lives with Clayton Hercules Emmet who, outside Merry Lands is a lover of women and a dissector of animals; is friends with Scotty, a would-be writer whose ‘room’ is a tree-house; and is an observer of all the others, permanent and temporary, men, women, and couples.

Scotty has the last line of his book – “Far more than when she was naked” – and is waiting for the words preceding to fall into place. Granny Upjohn wears a dog collar and is chained to her kennel. She is viscious and must be sedated for family visits; at night she barks to the Grannys in the other back yards. Fred and Felicity, pensioners, and Granny share one set of dentures between them. Summo works at a nearby industrial plant. A big man, he terrorizes his wife. His employers are already easing him out, so when he loses his hand they put him on light duties, preparatory to making him redundant, to avoid paying compensation. O’Grady uses a half brick to teach his basset to speak. John Luck, fat and ill, goes off to work every morning. He “hasn’t had a day off in fourteen years”. Trouble is, he was put off three months ago.

“O’Grady,” I said, “what can be done for them?”

O’Grady said, “Forget it. They’re incurably poor. You can’t do anything for them. A hundred dollars a week and they’d still be poor. This is the only society we have, the only one we know. It’s a money society. So if they’re poor, they’re inadequate. If they’re inadequate they’re mentally ill, by the definition of our society. Their illness can’t be fixed by effort or dollars.”

As usual, Ireland is contemptuous of women. Joy Luck takes the handyman to bed and when John comes home from ‘work’ he has no choice but to lie beside them. Ann, who bends over in the garden to display her buttocks to passersby, tells her husband she’s been unfaithful, and he shoots her dead. Cicely and her baby live in a ‘room’ under the house made of sheets of corrugated iron tacked to the stumps. “Cicely’s strong point was she was a virgin” – a tattooed virgin with a child, who went out every night looking for men. Crystal, Emmet’s girlfriend who comes to live with them, believes every man should be given whatever he asks of her.

And the title? ‘”We are the ransackers of the planet”, Clayton said. “Progress is the worst flesheater of all. Our existence depends on the death of other organisms and the despoiling of the planet.”‘

When I think about it, David Ireland is probably our first serious post-modernist writer. His works investigate a post-industrial world, ahead of time really given he was writing in the 1970s, seeing not that industry will fail or be off-shored, but that the giant corporations will move away from mass employment as a model, towards automation, as they have, leaving in their wake a vast underclass of people who don’t have, will never have, work. And that society will turn its back on these people.

And he expresses this not through social realism and the politics of the left as was the case between the Wars, nor generally through dystopian near futures as is more often the case now, but through right wing populism and the literary tropes of satire, irony and magic realism, as in the grandmother who must be chained to her kennel; service stations for the bulk-dispensing of  drugs; and culminating of course in Althea, “A Woman of the Future“, mutating into a panther and fleeing Sydney for the Blue Mountains.

Ireland is an important and maybe even,  revolutionary writer. The Flesheaters is not his best work, but it is an interesting one, especially when read in conjunction with The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe, which together provide a snapshot of both our Anglo White-Australian past and our neo-liberal future.

 

David Ireland, The Flesheaters, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1972

see also my other David Ireland posts: –
David Ireland (here)
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (here)
The Glass Canoe (here)
A Woman of the Future (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here)

PS. Another quote:

I had a vision, looking down, of the time in the future when the carbondioxide level in the atmosphere will be so much higher. I felt the increased radiation of the sun, the gradual heating of the earth, the melting of the polar ice-caps, the sea rising a foot a year. And why should I worry? What could anyone do? Industrial production and its constant growth was god. (p. 129)

Yes, we knew 40, 50 years ago that global warming was coming. And we did nothing. Industry, and the corporations that own them, are indeed god.

Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe

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This is a brief history of England in the 1600s –

1603 Elizabeth Tudor dies and the English Crown goes to James VI of Scotland
1605 Gunpowder plot (Guy Fawkes). Failed attempt by Catholics to kill James
1607– English colonies on the east coast of North America
1625 James dies, his son Charles becomes King. Espouses ‘Divine Right of Kings’
1642-1651 Civil War, Parliament vs King
1649 Charles I executed
1651 Charles II deposed, replaced by Parliament under Oliver Cromwell
1660 Restoration. Charles II King again, then his brother James, a Catholic
1665-66 Great Plague. Bubonic plague carried by rats
1666 Great Fire of London destroys the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants (and St Paul’s Cathedral)
1688 James II deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange (see Waverley).

Moll Flanders (1722) purports to be the autobiography of an (unnamed) English woman who after running through any number of husbands, lovers and customers, turns in desperation in her fifties to pickpocketing and shoplifting, and comes to be known by that name. The point being that her life, and therefore Defoe’s story, spans the years 1613-1683, and apart from the English colonies in America, none of the history above is mentioned or even hinted at, which I found disappointing.

The Author’s Preface begins: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances …”

This is surprising given that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, three years earlier, is often credited with being the first English novel, though we know better of course (see for instance my posts Mothers of the Novel and Aphra Benn (1640-1689)). There must have been more going on at this time in the world of fiction than is generally recognised.

It seems novels arose out of drama, but also out of biographies- Benn’s Oroonoko (1688), Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722) are all fictional biographies or autobiographies – and coincided with an increase in literacy in the general population. So for instance, way back here I noted: “In 1696 the Church [in Scotland] ordered the establishment of a ‘school in every parish’, and the result was widespread literacy, which [my Clacher ancestors] evidently shared.”

Of course the other important “first English novel” is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) which I last read nearly 60 years ago. It was my maternal grandfather’s and unless mum still has it, is now lost. The other book of Grandad’s we boys read repeatedly was The Go Getter, a paean to muscular capitalism, which I’m pretty sure B2 has and he’s not letting it go. The importance of Pilgrim’s Progress to Moll Flanders is that Moll goes through cycles of sinning and seeking redemption until finally she is truly contrite and is reformed.

Moll Flanders as a Project Gutenberg/Librivox audiobook, which is how I read it, has a number of readers, mostly unobtrusive, and spans 15 or 20 hours, I forgot to check. I love having books that just go on and on as I ‘work’, but of course that doesn’t suit everyone. We’re at the dawn of the novel here, and there is quite a bit of first I did this, then I did this, but we’re also a century and a bit beyond Shakespeare, so perhaps a bit more drama could have been expected. Still, as lives go, it’s an interesting one, if relatively uninformative about the times.

If you want a proper synopsis I’m sure you can find one, but here is Moll Flanders according to wadholloway. The narrator – and no one in the novel is named – is born to a prostitute in Newgate prison, ends up with a loving foster mother, who trains her in needlework but also, I think, to read. The foster mother runs what is basically a sewing factory. Moll is a favourite and goes to a prosperous local family (in Berkshire, from memory) with two sons and two daughters as companion/servant. When she is of age, the older brother secretly takes her as his fiancee and lover. The younger brother, not knowing this, insists on marrying her. Soon after, he dies and she is a widow. The next husband leaves the country just ahead of his creditors and tells her to treat the marriage as null and void. At some stage she makes her way to London. If you’re wondering about children, she has them off and on throughout but they are all left with other people – even Moll wonders at one stage if this is another way of saying they are taken away and murdered.

I think she works as a genteel prostitute for a while, but the striking thing is just how middle class Moll is – literate, Christian, more often in funds than not. She marries a plantation owner from Virginia, they live happily for some years until, Spoiler Alert, here is the central drama of the novel, she discovers that his mother is also her mother, her husband is her brother. Her husband/brother is willing to overlook this but she insists on separation and returns to England.

Time passes. While waiting for her banker to divorce his ‘harlot’ wife and marry her, she tries living in Lancashire and is there scammed into marrying a con man, with both parties believing the other more well off than is in fact the case. They nevertheless discover a considerable affection for each other and have an enjoyable honeymoon, resulting in a pregnancy which Moll must conceal from the banker. Back in London, she is rescued by a midwife, whom she calls her “governess”, who runs a home for unfortunate women. We learn that children may only be born in a parish which is willing to accept them, which these parish fathers do on the understanding that the Governess will make sure the children are fostered out.

She marries the banker. She’s getting on now, but I think she still has a couple of kids who fail to impinge on the story, or on her life. He loses all their money and dies of shame. She returns to live with the Governess, who now combines midwifery with receiving and pawnbroking. So for a number of years she rebuilds her fortune by stealing lace, cloth and silver until at last she is caught, jailed, tried and sentenced to hang.

In Newgate she turns or returns to religion and her sentence is commuted to transportation. She finds her ‘Lancashire husband’, for many years a successful highwayman, in jail too, and together they are shipped to Virginia, where she has enough money to negotiate their release, and then to Maryland where they establish their own plantation with ‘servants’ – English convicts and African slaves (the only difference being that the convicts were released when they’d served their time).

She locates and visits her son who has taken over his father’s/her brother’s estates, discovers she has inherited plantations from her mother, retires to England and dies prosperous, happy, and virtuous.

If you have the time, read it for yourself. It’s not the bawdy romp we are led to believe. More the life of second generation feminist three centuries ahead of her time.

 

Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, first pub. 1722. Text and audio versions available from Project Gutenberg (here)

 

 

Waverley, Walter Scott

Waverley by Walter Scott — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs ...

My father was an old fashioned man, an Anglophile until he actually went there, in his forties, and discovered he preferred Europe. So, although I was never permitted to read his books, he made sure I had copies of Scott’s Ivanhoe and Waverley from a young age. Now he’s gone, in my study and in my lounge my rude Australians stare across at his hardback, embossed pocket versions of Scott, Dumas, Hazlitt’s Essays etc., etc. with their tiny print and prayer book paper. Though for safety’s sake I’m doing this review from a Penguin paperback, 491pp and still in 8 point maybe. I may go blind.

I think it may be said that Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Walter Scott (1771-1832) were the progenitors of the modern English novel. I’ve been discussing off and on in these pages the writers who came before Austen, and there’s a lot to like in the writing of Fanny Burney (1752-1840), Austen’s immediate predecessor, but Austen’s clear writing and exact descriptions of everyday upper middle-class life, mark a clean break with those who came before her. In the same way, Scott’s historical fiction, in its adherence to known events, the absence of melodrama, and in the easy flow of its plot lines, if not in the actual writing, was a major step forward.

Jane Austen’s first published novel was Sense & Sensibility in 1811, followed by Pride & Prejudice in 1813. Scott began publishing poetry around 1796, and by 1813 he was sufficiently well respected to be offered the position of Poet Laureate (of the UK). Brought up in Edinburgh and on the family estate on the Borders (of Scotland and England) at Sandyknowes, Scott had an abiding interest in Scottish folk history and Waverley (1814), his first novel, is a fictionalised account of the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

Like Austen, Scott the novelist was anonymous – to protect his reputation as a poet he said. In his Introductory to Waverley he  refers to himself as ‘the author of Waverley’, and so he was known until 1829 – by which time he had published 20-odd novels – when he acknowledged what was already well known, with a revised edition of Waverley whose prefaces and introductions amount to 50 pages.

I have written previously on Scott’s view of Austen as a new direction in literature (here and here), and Sue/Whispering Gums has only recently discussed Scott, Waverley and Austen (here), but I would like to set out my own views (not that we differ) before, hopefully, going on to Ivanhoe. Scott wrote in the original Introductory

By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November 1805, I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners …

and goes on at some (excruciating) length to describe the sort of scenes the reader will not find in his work – neither Udolpho, nor “mysterious associations of Rosycrucians and Illuminati”, nor damsels reduced “to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a rout”.

Then in the General Preface to the 1829 edition he says he had initially thought of writing a romance in the style of The Castle of Otranto (the first Gothic novel) but the success of his narrative poem the Lady of the Lake and some local knowledge led him to begin Waverley –

I had been a good deal in the Highlands at a time when they were much less accessible, and much less visited, than they have been of late years, and was acquainted with many of the old warriors of 1745, who were, like most veterans, easily induced to fight their battles over again, for the benefit of a willing listener like myself.

and so the genre of Historical Fiction was born.

The history with which Scott’s readers were familiar is as follows (and if you want dates, look them up). The Stuarts (Stewarts until Mary adopted the French spelling), kings of Scotland became the royal family of England when James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth (Tudor). Parliament and the Stuarts were at loggerheads throughout 1600s, and eventually, in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 Catholic James II was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary, and her husband William of Orange, followed, on William’s death, by Mary’s sister Anne. After which, the Elector of Hanover, some sort of second cousin, was called in from Germany and a string of Georges were King (the last Hanover was Queen Victoria).

Politically, Whigs supported the Hanovers and a constitutional monarchy and Tories were for the restoration of the Stuarts. The novel commences with Edward Waverley’s father, a prominent Whig, and his childless older brother, Sir Everard, a Tory. Edward is Sir Everard’s heir, and is largely brought up by him.

Edward’s father gets him a commission in the army, and he is posted to Scotland, where he takes leave to visit his uncle’s friend, Bradwardine, who has a property in the Lowlands. From there he goes on an excursion to the Highlands, to recover Bradwardine’s milk cows stolen by raiders and then on to Glennaquoich, the home of local chieftan MacIvor. At each stop there is a beautiful girl – Bradwardine’s daughter Rose, the cattle thief’s daughter Alice, and MacIvor’s sister Flora, brought up in the French court, but now living in splendid isolation and praying for the return of the Stuarts. It is Flora Edward falls for but she cannot give him her heart in return as he is an officer in the King’s – her enemy’s – army.

At the end of six weeks incommudicado in Glennaquoich, Edward discovers his father has been disowned by the Whigs,  he has been dismissed from the army as a deserter, and all his family are counted as supporters of Prince Charles Stuart who has landed in Scotland and will shortly march on Edinburgh.

Edward leaves Glennaquoich, and after various injuries and misadventures, is imprisoned, rescued by Highlanders and conveyed to Edinburgh where he swears allegiance to the Pretender. Over the course of a few days Edward is outfitted in MacIvor tartan, meets and is rebuffed by Flora, and finally one late autumn day sets out on the great adventure.

When he had surmounted a small craggy eminence, called St Leonard’s Hill … [the valley below] was occupied by the army of the Highlanders, now in the act of preparing for their march… The sort of complicated medley created by the hasty arrangements of the various clans under their respective banners, for the purpose of getting into the order of march, was in itself a gay and lively spectacle.

The leading men of each clan were well armed with broadsword, target and fusee, to which all added the dirk, and most the steel pistol … But in the lower rank to these, there were found individuals of an inferior description, the common peasantry of the Highland country, who, although they did not allow themselves to be so called … bore nevertheless, the livery of extreme penury, being indifferently accoutred, and worse armed, half naked, stinted in growth, and miserable in aspect.

Disaster isn’t immediate. The English are engaged at Prestons, outside Edinburgh and flee. Charles holds court at Holyrood for some weeks while his forces lay siege to Edinburgh castle. Both Flora and Rose are amongst the ladies of the court. Discussing Romeo and Juliette, Flora makes clear to Edward that he would be sensible to transfer his favours from ‘Rosalind’ to ‘Juliette’.

Edward is an odd hero. He does not much like the trade of soldiering, he enters Charles’ service in a pique, and while he is honour bound not to change back to the English side, it is clear that he wishes to, or rather that he was peacefully back home on the family estate. And the Flora/Rose situation is an analogy for that. Edward is told more than once that he causes problems by not knowing his own mind.

It barely needs saying that things don’t go well for the rebels. However, Edward survives. Scott sets Edward’s history within well-known historical events, but rarely describes much more than Edward’s part in them. And he describes lovingly the countryside and people, whom he obviously knows very well.

I was interested in what languages were spoken. An English officer comments, “the Lowlanders talk a kind of English little better than the Negroes in Jamaica” and Scott generally transliterates this, with footnotes for unfamiliar words. The Highlanders speak Gaelic, and very few of them except the chiefs seem to have any English. But most of Edward’s conversation is with educated men and women and so there is not an awful lot of dialect to endure.

Did I like it? Yes I did. There is not the sheer joy in reading that you get with Austen, and Edward is sometimes more wishy-washy than you’d like, but his story is well, though archaically, told.

 

Walter Scott, Waverley, first pub. 1814. Penguin Popular Classics (pictured), 1994

Bruny, Heather Rose

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [Tas]

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Bruny is a political thriller set a couple of years in the future – after the next US presidential election, which the present incumbent wins, and by which time Rose thinks our own “head of state” will be a king rather than a queen – in little, out of the way Tasmania. As a follow up to The Museum of Modern Love it is, initially at least, a disappointment. How could Heather Rose, the author of one of the finest literary works of this decade, descend to writing a thriller? Money? Maybe, but if so, if I were she, I would have used a different name, kept ‘Heather Rose’ as the literary brand, and used say ‘Robert Galbraith’ for pot-boilers, well that name’s taken, but you get my drift.

But I think rather, that Rose’s ambition might have been to write a literary political thriller, and while I don’t think she quite carried that off, by the end I thought she came a lot closer than I expected, and along the way discussed a lot of interesting politics that doesn’t generally see the light of day in novels. That said, I wasn’t thrilled with the politics of her ending – the idea that it might be a good thing for a cabal of dedicated democrats within the CIA to intervene in Australian politics.

The newspaper reviews almost universally categorise Bruny as political satire: “a literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit”, which is just plain illiterate. Rose’s latest is in fact just one of the many recent works of Australian literary fiction to approach our present state of desperation through Science Fiction – extrapolating from today into an imagined, dire future.

Bruny is the name of a largish island, about 50km long, south of Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, and separated from the mainland (ie. Tasmania) by a narrow channel. It has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents but many Hobart people maintain shacks on the island for weekend getaways. The premise of the novel is that an extravagant suspension bridge, supporting a 6-lane carriageway, is being built to the island with $2bil from the Commonwealth government, ostensibly to bring in more tourists.

The novel begins with terrorists attaching explosives to the supporting pylons and bringing one of them down, before escaping in a sophisticated stealth speedboat. The protagonist, UN conciliation specialist Astrid “Ace” Coleman, is contacted by the Premier of Tasmania, her brother John “JC” Coleman, and the Leader of the Opposition, her sister Maxine “Max” Coleman – yes, a little bit of satire there about Tasmania’s incestuously close population, but that’s where it ends – to come home from New York and smooth over opposition to the damaged bridge being rebuilt in time for the next election.

There’s a lot of character development, not as much as in a novel about relationships, but plenty given that it’s a plot-driven rather than a character driven novel. Astrid Coleman is a divorcee, with two university aged children, after a long, unsatisfactory marriage to a Jamaican man. JC’s wife Stephanie is the perfect political wife, but with hidden depths. Max is single. JC by the way is Liberal and Max Labor. Their parents are both dying but are an interesting presence throughout. There are various slimy political types. Then there’s Dan, bridge foreman and honest Aussie bloke. And there are various Greens and protestors who initially seem important, but mostly fade out as the story proceeds.

The tension, to the extent there is any tension, is to do with the Chinese. To what extent has the $2bil been sourced from China? What are China’s ambitions in and for Tasmania? Entities connected with the Chinese government have been buying up large tracts of farmland and housing. They have paid for Hobart airport to be extended so that fresh milk may be freighted direct to Beijing. The first payoff comes with the announcement that bridge rebuilding will be facilitated by Chinese workers, the thin end of a wedge that permits Australian mines to also import cheap Chinese labour (ignoring that there is already a large iron ore mine in WA, Cape Preston, with its own secluded port facilities, all owned and manned entirely by Chinese). But above all, what is motivating the Tasmanian state government? What’s in it for JC?

I’ve watched the government do deal after deal that’s bad for Tasmanians. Most everything done here in the past hundred years has made future generations poorer. Tasmanians have voted for it, believed in the rhetoric, and called it progress. What does Tasmania have to show for all those lost forests? All the polluted waterways? The overrun national parks and lost wilderness? There are tourists swarming over every last inch of the place. And now we’re going to lose Bruny too. One of the last truly remote, beautiful, liveable places in the world.

The bridge is resurrected. Coleman moves among all the players, calming them down, gathering information. Election day approaches, and with it the official opening of the bridge. The more Coleman learns the less happy she becomes. A hurricane makes its way down the coast …

Along the way Rose gets in digs at unsatisfactory husbands, election funding (non-)disclosure laws, Tasmania’s family-owned gambling monopoly, salmon farming trashing Tasmanian waters, and some words of love for MONA (ironically, funded by a successful poker professional). It’s a good read, but not important, not in the way that The Museum of Modern Love was.

 

Heather Rose, Bruny, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

And that’s Bingo! The books I reviewed for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth were –

Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Result [Vic] (here)
About Canberra [ACT] (here)
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend [NSW] (here)
Jessica Anderson, Tirra Lirra by the River [Qld] (here)
Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing [NT] (here)
Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey [WA] (here)
Peter Goldsworthy, Wish [SA] (here)
Heather Rose, Bruny [Tas]
Keith Cole, Lake Condah Aboriginal Mission [Free] (here)

Wish, Peter Goldsworthy

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [SA]

Wish

Last week Sue/Whispering Gums’ Monday Musings was on the subject of deafness and Australian writing, and the very small number of works dealing with disability. Coincidentally, my next read for #ausreading month was Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish (1995), set in Adelaide, SA, which is on the subject not exactly of deafness but of communication by Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

Goldsworthy is (apparently) a well-known and respected Australian author, though not one of whom I was aware, and the subject of a glowing overview in the Introduction to this Text edition (I wonder what it says about Australian readers’ relation to Text Classics that the publisher gets a much bigger billing than the author or the title). Still, I found Wish uncomfortable reading, too long and boring in parts, and a protagonist who at times made me squirm – which may be my problem and not the book’s!

The protagonist, JJ, is a late 30s guy, living at home again – in Glenelg, on the beach – with his profoundly deaf parents after the failure of his marriage. Though not deaf himself, Auslan had been his first language as a child, and English only his second and not one with which he is ever entirely comfortable. As an adult he makes his living as a teacher of Auslan, mostly to people wishing to converse with deaf friends and relatives.

JJ’s marriage has failed, basically because he’s withdrawn from it, from both his wife and their teenage daughter. It’s not clear why, though it’s at least possible he is emasculated by his wife’s intellect and drive, and also by his discomfort with his own body shape (fat). At the commencement of the novel JJ, who has been away in the US, is offered a teaching job at the Deaf Institute, by a smart-arse who had formerly been his student.

There is a lot of discussion about Auslan throughout, some of it generated by JJ’s difficult relationship with his boss, who is not a native speaker, augmented by frequent sketches of hand positions. One of the features of Auslan is that everyone has an Auslan name, not just a transliteration of their name in English – which in any case can often only be rendered by spelling. So, the boss’s name, behind his back at least, is Miss-the-Point (the sign is a sweeping of one hand over the head, which you would think he might notice).

Another smug, high-beam smile. I had taught Miss-the-Point his first signs, and he wasn’t about to let me forget it. Some debts are too great to repay, let alone forgive.

Miss-the-Point gives JJ the beginners class in which his two best pupils are a 40ish sexy woman and her older husband, a famous animal rights campaigner. They, soon offer JJ part-time work teaching sign to their differently-abled foster daughter.

So the core of the plot is the triangle formed by JJ, the sexy mother and the daughter, for whom, and for only whom, JJ finds himself re-tumescing. The daughter, who is effectively unable to speak, blossoms as she learns sign. Between them, they choose for her the name ‘Wish’ and for the parents, the names ‘Star’ and ‘Saint’. Wish is past puberty and clearly has a crush on JJ. Star isn’t getting it from Saint, and when Saint goes overseas on book tour duty, makes it clear – in fairly humiliating fashion – that she wants it from JJ who has chucked in his job and is staying over. JJ is engrossed by his involvement in Wish’s progress, he thinks.

I slumped over the sink, wobble-kneed, paralysed. Horror at my actions filled me, the hands of sign-shame rose to hide my face. The noise of my coming would surely bring Wish down the stairs. I couldn’t face her; I could barely face myself.

He flees back to Glenelg, whose grey, almost landlocked waters are the only place he feels comfortable with his bulk

The first heart-stopping shock of cold quickly faded, and I felt only a warm glow as I floated beyond the surf line, sole swimmer as far as the eye could see. Less bouyant without my rubber suit, I was still unsinkable, more walrus than man.

Melanie at Grab the Lapels is conducting a one woman campaign against fat shaming in literature, which has certainly made me think more about representations of body shape. In this context it would be interesting to know if Goldsworthy is a) fat; and for that matter, b) fluent in Auslan.

The story takes a science-fictiony turn, a feature of Goldsworthy’s writing apparently, and maybe an early example of mainstream lit. turning to SF for inspiration, but only in the explanation for Wish’s behaviour. JJ returns. Wish refuses all attempts at communication, but when JJ goes to bed, there’s just one wall between them. It’s all getting too close to actual sex between teacher and adolescent student. I stop reading, at p 305 out of 377.

Sorry. If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself.

 

Peter Goldsworthy, Wish, first pub. 1995. This edition Text Classics, Melbourne, 2013

see also: Lisa/ANZLL’s review of Goldsworthy’s memoir His Stupid Boyhood (here)

 

Every Secret Thing, Marie Munkara

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [NT]

8512761

If ever you felt complacent about our decision as whites to live in this country, then read Munkara, who sweeps complacency away by telling familiar stories about ‘good’ settlers and shiftless Blacks from the Black point of view.

Yes we’re here now, but every decision we’ve made – from the early days, during all the Stolen Generations years, through the 1950s and 60s, when I think this linked collection of stories is set, right up to today with the Intervention, the ongoing denial of proper Land Rights, systemic racism in the Police Forces, the diversion of ‘Aboriginal’ monies to bureaucracy and white businesses, policies deliberately aimed at making it impossible for Indigenous communities to be maintained on Country – serves our interests and harms theirs.

Marie Munkara is of Rembarranga, Tiwi and Chinese descent. Born in central Arnhem Land she was sent to Nguiu on the Tiwi Islands at about eighteen months, then down south by Catholic missionaries when she was three. She now lives in Darwin, where she is doing a PhD. Every Secret Thing (2009), which is about a presumably fictional Catholic mission in Arnhem Land, was her first novel.

Munkara doesn’t appear to give out her age, and I haven’t yet read her biographical Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016). But it would be sad if she were the Marigold in these stories, stolen from loving parents, sent away as a baby to be bought up Catholic and trained for service, constantly beaten and raped by her employers, who finally returns to her family only to find she doesn’t fit in.

Over a series of linked and sequential stories we become familiar with the ‘Mission Mob’, the Catholic priests and nuns bringing civilisation and Christianity to ignorant savages; and the Bush Mob, the Indigenous Arnhem Land community who after millennia of relaxed, well fed lives, must be brought to eat flour and sugar instead of fresh meat and bush tucker, to wear clothes in the tropics, and of course to accept the Catholics’ strange pantheon of saints, virgins, spirits and gods instead of their own.

In an allegory for white settlement everywhere, over the lifetime of one generation, the Bush Mob goes from self-sufficiency to despair, disease and dependence. In the end, Pwomiga, one of the senior men, paints himself white and commits suicide to prove there is no life after death –

So began the slow downwards spiral of despair. It wasn’t long before Jerrengkerritirti with his unruly teeth joined Pwomiga because he didn’t want to be in that place any more. And young Seth not long after that. Then the grog came and the winding path of good intentions became a straight bitumen four-laned highway that led even deeper into a world of self-destruction and hopelessness that no-one knew how to fix.

But don’t get me wrong, this is at times a laugh out loud funny book. Munkara is at a loss to explain how these idiots, the Mission Mob, can plonk themselves down in the midst of a happy community, their assertions of superiority accepted or at least tolerated, using their authority to make everyone miserable. But she shows over and over just how ridiculous, how hypocritical they are.

Throughout, there is a surfeit of often good natured sex. The young men and women are at it all the time, two sisters seduce a priest, the priests put the hard word word on the nuns, priests of course take what they want, from girls and from boys, two boys wear their mothers’ dresses and take it wherever they can get it, there is an epidemic of overeating evidenced by the swelling of young womens’ tummies.

In a central series of stories, Caleb seeks a wife. A couple in a nearby mob have an unruly daughter, Juta, pregnant to the boss’s daughter’s fiance. Caleb marries Juta and his family adore their light skinned daughter, Tapalinga.

The mission have responded to the rash of mixed race births by seizing all the babies and sending them to an island mission, the Garden of Eden, to be ‘educated’. Tapalinga, too is taken, reappearing some years later as Marigold, in service since she was seven, flogged and unpaid, “lucky to have the boss fuck her because she was a diseased piece of rubbish that no-one else would want”. The Bishop had told her her mother was “on the streets” and couldn’t support her, but another girl recognizes her and tells her how to find her family. That girl falls into prostitution and dies but Marigold makes her way home only to find that Juta has closed that part of heart to cauterise the pain.

Munkara brings up one or two characters at a time and tells a funny story about them, until you feel you know them all well. But all the time, the Bush Mob is declining, accepting cast off clothes, surrendering their kids to the mission, giving up old ways. It’s a funny book and a sad book, but above all, an essential book.

 

Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing, UQP, Brisbane, 2009

see also:
My review of Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act (here)

On Monday (19/11/2019) Jess White wrote that her work on the Wardandi Massacre (my review) has been included in the updated ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia 1788-1930’ map (here). Research for the map “reveals that at least around 8400 people were killed during 311 massacres that took place between 1788 and 1930. About 97 per cent of those killed were First Nations men, women and children. Stage 3 of the digital map project added 41 massacre sites in WA and 9 more in the NT.”