The Cabuliwallah, Rabindranath Tagore

This post is by way of being a thank you to Brona of This Reading Life. A few days ago she put up a review of a book in the Perveen Mistry murder mystery series which is set in 1920s India, and in the discussion which followed she “highly recommended” I read Rabindranath Tagore.

Not a name I’d ever heard before, so who is he? Brona’s consideration for my ignorance extended to linking to Wikipedia. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was an Indian, a Bengali Brahmin from Calcutta, “a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter … Tagore modernised Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic strictures. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke to topics political and personal.” Ok, enough quoting.

Tagore was well-known world-wide, his works were available in English, and he apparently visited all the world’s (habitable) continents except Australia. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first “non-European” to be so honoured. I wonder if that means the first person not resident in Europe or is just a polite way of saying the first non-white.

Brona’s Perveen Mistry novel was set during the royal tour of India by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) in 1921/22 (another blogger has photographs) and in the context of Ghandi’s ‘passive resistance’ movement. Tagore was apparently a supporter of Independence, but was inclined towards world peace rather than nationalism.

The Cabuliwallah is the first short story from Stories from Tagore (1918) which appears to be an English language reader for Indian students.

The present Indian story-book avoids some at least of these impediments [the unfamiliarity of stories set in England]. The surroundings described in it are those of the students’ everyday life; the sentiments and characters are familiar…

Two of the longest stories in this book—”Master Mashai” and “The Son of Rashmani”—are reproduced in English for the first time. The rest of the stories have been taken, with slight revision, from two English volumes entitled “The Hungry Stones” and “Mashi.” A short paragraph has been added from the original Bengali at the end of the story called “The Postmaster.”

Preface

The Cabuliwallah of the title is an Afghani pedlar, working the streets of Calcutta. He attracts the notice of Mini, the author’s 5 year old daughter, and the author must leave the hero and heroine of the adventure novel he is writing swinging from a rope while he goes out into the street to talk to the pedlar. “I made some small purchases, and a conversation began about Abdurrahman, the Russians, the English, and the Frontier Policy.”

Soon Rahmun (the Cabuliwallah) and Mini are firm friends, to be found at some time every day in conversation. They have a little joke about the phrase “father-in-law’s house” which for a strictly brought up girl, which Mini is not, means the home to which her husband will take her; and which when applied to the pedlar is a slang term for jail.

Sadly, one day the pedlar really is taken off to jail, falsely accused by a customer seeking to avoid their debts. For eight years he is out of the author and his daughter’s thoughts. But at the end of that time he returns, to resume the friendship, only to find it is Mini’s wedding day (at 13!).

She is called, and comes, but is too shy to speak.

I remembered the day when the Cabuliwallah and my Mini had first met, and I felt sad. When she had gone, Rahmun heaved a deep sigh, and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown in this long time, and that he would have to make friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her as he used to know her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these eight years?

The marriage-pipes sounded, and the mild autumn sun streamed round us. But Rahmun sat in the little Calcutta lane, and saw before him the barren mountains of Afghanistan.

This being a reader for schools there is at the end a short list of words to be considered (mostly pointing back to their Latin roots, which gives you some idea of what young Indians were taught. But then I suppose at that time they needed Greek and Latin to get into Oxford and Cambridge).

And at the end of the book there are notes, beginning –

“The Cabuliwallah” is one of the most famous of the Poet’s “Short Stories.” It has been often translated. The present translation is by the late Sister Nivedita, and her simple, vivid style should be noticed by the Indian student reader. It is a good example of modern English, with its short sentences, its careful choice of words, and its luminous clearness of meaning.

Cabuliwallah. A man from Cabul or Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

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Rabindranath Tagore, Stories from Tagore, Macmillan, London, 1918. [Project Gutenberg]

Born in to This, Adam Thompson

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

A number of bloggers have got before me to this short story collection by new (43 year old) Indigenous writer Adam Thompson, a Pakana man from northern Tasmania. Not helped by me leaving it at home on my last trip and so missing Lisa’s ANZLL Indig. Lit. Week.

Brona/This Reading Life aka Brona’s Books writes (here): there are powerful and promising things going on here. Some of his stories pack a serious punch, others creep in quietly under your skin. Either way, it is the diversity of characters, settings and tone that is truly impressive.

Kimbofo/Reading Matters’ take is similar (here): Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it… But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos.

And what does Sue/Whispering Gums, who thought to send me this book, say? (here): … these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian.

I, as Sue knows, am not a short story person. Was giving me this book punishment for something I said or did? Am I going to like all or some of these stories? Am I going to be able to say something different? Great questions. Well done Bill. (That’s an Angus Taylor joke. Angus Taylor is an Angus Taylor joke.).

Ok, the first story, The Old Tin Mine was good. An older Indigenous man taking a group of townie Indigenous boys on a survival camp in country he knows, or thinks he knows, comes unstuck.

The second story is better. What’s going on here? A white guy with a Black employee boasts to him about destroying Aboriginal stone implements, “Hope I’m not offending ya.” And he comes unstuck.

The third is more like it, female protagonist/male author, I’m sure not to like it. Kara is a receptionist with a shitty boss and a shitty job. She goes for a quiet walk in the bush on her afternoon off. Both the people she encounters, and the bush are closely observed

The strangers passed, oblivious to her presence. A middle-aged couple, slim and fit. The man had an odd-shaped but well-clipped beard. The woman wore a designer hiking outfit in retro pastel colours. Kara could tell they weren’t from round here. They held themselves – as did all white mainlanders – with that peculiar, assured air. It made them seem taller and more upright than the locals.

Interestingly, the story harks back to the previous story’s stone tools. As a girl she would go out with her uncle, looking for stone tools, photographing them and recording their location.

The walk turns out to have a destination and a purpose. To take a small revenge on the forestry companies replacing native bush with plantation pines. Oh well, perhaps I’ll dislike the next one.

And I did. Well, I thought it – Invasion Day – an awkward evocation of what it is like to be up the front at a protest march.

We go on .. A man alone on an island off the north coast. His uncle who was staying with him, no longer is. A flash cruiser with five police on board brings him a letter. Which he burns. That’s it.

A very good story, a young couple going camping. Is he her trophy Black boyfriend? He certainly thinks she’s his trophy summer girlfriend

‘I’m so sorry’, you blurt out before I can react…
‘For what?’ …
‘For what my people did to yours.’ Your eyes well up again. ‘You owned all this land and now you have to struggle – like now, just to get a camp on the beach.’ Breaking into a sob, you collapse into me…
If you could see my eyes right now, it would kill you to witness them roll in irritation…
‘It’s not your fault,’ I say.
‘You’re so kind,’ you whisper.

A curate’s egg of a story, Mean Girls, aided by teachers, picking on smart Black girl. An awkward story of a white guy at his black mate’s funeral. Another awkward story, awkward in that the writing is stilted, a man waiting on an island for his mate at sea in a tinny in a storm. A not very convincing story about a man and a gun. A silly story about a doctor being shamed into signing his posh house over to a young Aboriginal woman.

“What’s with these acknowledgement of country speeches that kick off every public event these days? It’s all just words! Where is the action? If you acknowledge that this is Aboriginal land, then bloody well give it back, Don’t just say it, do it!”

Then a clever story about a new (Conservative) government policy – every (white) taxpayer gets a letter from one (Black) person on the dole whom they are “sponsoring”. A touching story about … climate change, fathers and sons, a dead child.

A story that points to a missed opportunity – in my eyes only probably – a Black guy at the beach on Invasion Day, flying an Aboriginal flag kite amongst all the whities in their Australia flag picnic chairs, when the Invasion Day story above has already caused a stir.

And finally, “It all started when I discovered my brother was sleeping with my wife …”

How would I describe Born to This? Not so bitsy as some collections. But still a missed opportunity to write something more cohesive, stories which point back to each other, which are connected not just by a shared geography but by recurring characters and families. With a bit more effort Thompson may have turned out, if not Olive Kitteridge, which revolves around one person, then at least The Turning, which involves an extended community seen from multiple viewpoints (and times).

My other problem is my problem – I don’t like authors who step outside their own POV. But, for all you (strange) readers who don’t mind that, who actually like short stories, what can I say? What they said, ” punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia.

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Adam Thompson, Born in to This, UQP, Brisbane, 2021. 206pp, Cover painting and artwork between stories, Judith-Rose Thomas

Stand Easy

In the late 1950s we were living in Leongatha, a smallish country town in the green hills east of Melbourne, in one of a row of five weatherboard housing commission houses in a gravel street sloping down to a creek and blackberry bushes, and looking across the paddocks to the butter factory on a hill in the distance. At the bottom of the street were the Grimes. Mr Grimes was a returned soldier and at some stage, knowing I was a reader, he gave me his copy of Stand Easy, a collection of stories written and illustrated by soldiers in the Pacific while the War was winding down, and published at the end of 1945.

I read it, memorized it, throughout my childhood and adolescence. It never made me want to become a soldier, rather the reverse really, with the gritty – though not too gritty, this was an official Army publication – realism of its portrayal of Army life. I always try and have a pertinent post for Anzac Day – which, for overseas readers, used to be our day to remember the fallen in all the various wars we have taken part in, mostly at the beck and call of our masters in England and America, but is become increasingly over time a celebration, a day to glorify all things military – and so this year let it be some stories by men who were there.

Gill Wanted It is the story I remember best, because it’s first I suppose. A woman back home unwraps a package, a gold watch with a flexible gold band, in cotton wool in a tobacco tin, and the message “Gill wanted it”, nothing else.

In a tent in Wataivalo (New Britain Is., PNG) some men, Gill, Macey, Freider, Jock, are playing poker. The kitty rises. At eleven quid an officer calls them to come on patrol, just a quick recce job, and the hands are left for their return. “The track through to Eggshell Hill was slippery underfoot and the jungle smelt of rain and closeness.” Just on dusk a Japanese machine gun opens fire on them, the men answer with their Brens and Owens, shutting it down. But Gill is dead. On their return the men declare Gill the winner, top up the kitty, and one of them goes down to the Americans to buy the watch. After all these years, still makes me cry.

Stranger in the Hills is a story about God, or Jesus maybe. A long column of men, on New Britain again, are returning from a three day patrol. “Sometimes when the ceiling of trees broke, the branches parting to frame sky and part of the world that lay beyond this green wall, you could see the blue curtain of rain coming across the valley from the mountain opposite, hanging soft and fine in the air ..”. A machine gun opens up, there’s answering fire, then silence. Only four survivors, one wounded, a bullet in his shoulder. They dress it roughly and make their way into the jungle in the dark. In the morning they have been joined by a man, bearded, long hair, no name, who digs out the bullet and cleans the wound. He leads them to safety then fades away once again into the jungle. The narrator, a war photographer, hastily develops the images he has taken, but of course they show nothing.

I Lie Waiting. This is another that has stuck with me all those years. A man having crashed off the road down an embankment, stuck under his bike, waving, hoping for a truck to pull up. A soldier, home from the War after months in hospital, trying to make a go of things with only one leg. At first, people “look you in the eye, and smile, and you feel pretty good and hero-like. But after a while they forget. I don’t know whether it’s pity, or whether they’re just not game to face the facts.”

Killed in Action. A story from Buna, PNG, in 1942 when it was still held by the Japanese. The narrator, himself shot, is attempting to drag his mate, Mac who was hit in the neck, to safety. They’re out near Japanese lines where no one will find them. During the night Mac dies and the narrator slips in and out of consciousness, to be woken near dawn, by the sounds of a rescue party, a pastor and bearers. Mac has gone as he said he would and guided them back.

And that’s as many God stories as you’ll get out of me in a long time.

There are other stories, funny ones and straight, factual ones. I don’t know what it says about me that these are the ones I have chosen. Cut me some slack, I was only a kid.

The Army (and Navy) produced a number of these books under various names during both the First and Second World Wars. The War in the Pacific ended before this one came out, hence the name Stand Easy. And the last third is taken up with descriptions of the final campaigns as the Australian and US armies pursued the Japanese through the islands to the north.

Thinking about the defeat and subsequent occupation of Japan leads me to thinking that next year I might write an economics post, about how re-financing Germany and Japan after WWII worked so much better than England and France’s imposition of punitive reparations on Germany after WWI.

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The Australian Military Forces, Stand Easy, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1945

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NameArmy No.Author
Gill Wanted ItNX73132Cpl SA Robinson
Stranger in the HillsNX15943Gnr JS Cleary (Jon Cleary?)
I Lie WaitingVX105554Cpl AC Wann
Killed in ActionNX73132Cpl SA Robinson
Coastal AdvanceSX13471Sgt GR Mainwaring
Life on Slater’s KnollNX37175Sgt HF Abbott

Attribution was originally by Army No., but because the War was over, a listing was published at the back of Stand Easy of all the contributors, including in previous years, attaching names to numbers.

see also:
The Conversation, Anzac Day Crowds have Plummeted (here)
Whispering Gums, Writing about the War (here)
Previous Anzac Day posts:
2020 The Black Line (here)
2019 A Day to Remember (here)
2018 Randolph Bourne vs the State (here)
2017 Internee 1/5126 (here)
2016 Miles Franklin’s War (here)
2015 To mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings (here)

Merciless Gods, Christos Tsiolkas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Elizabeth Tan

How many writers am I waiting for their next book? I suppose that should be How many writers are there whose next book I am waiting for? I wonder if I can get that for away from the end. How many writers are there for whose next book I am waiting? It feels like it should be for whom’s. Grammar’s not my strong point.

Elizabeth Tan is the only one I can think of I said I was waiting for (sorry, for whom I said I was waiting) but if you said Kim Scott, Claire Coleman, Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane had a new book out I’d be down the street in a flash – the iso rules for truck drivers in WA permit essential shopping. I wonder who else. There can’t be many.

As it happens the flash was a bit muted for Tan. Smart Ovens has been out about six months.

I could die happy with Tan and Coleman writing (good) Western Australia based SF. I suppose there are others. I wonder what happened to … . DuckDuckGoes “WA SF”. There’s a Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation! With its own radio show!

You might remember Tan’s last (and first) was Rubik, a novel of loosely connected episodes, set in Perth WA, up the surreal end of SF. Smart Ovens is the same but the ‘episodes’ aren’t connected.

A children’s slide ups and runs away; mermaids kept in a restaurant fish tank, in the casino of course, metamorphose, find freedom; long after pens are a thing Ira gives one to a homeless man who scrawls kilometres of ink on the subway walls before stepping in front of a train; Pikelet was born in the Year of the Rabbit after the Year of Unprecedented Ecological Terror, her family moved to New Zealand following the Year of Seven Different Prime Ministers, and she now works at “Eighteen Bells Karaoke Castle, Perth’s premiere karaoke destination, in the heart of the city with a view of Old Swan River”; Tom and Ant are lovers, Tom knows that Ant is a spy but Ant doesn’t; and so the stories go on, lots of them concepts you wouldn’t dream of and yet Tan makes them real, spins them out for 5 or ten pages. In Would You Rather things start to disappear:

What did it look like? A flaw in the morning, a hanging pixel. An iridescent chip in the shape of a rhombus, shimmering in the sky. Unnoticed for days, until all the bicycles lifted up on one wheel, and then the other; turned counter-clockwise in the air, handlebars raised like the antlers of a stag, sliding riders from their seats; floated towards the hole, and then through the hole, and then …

So it’s not just the ideas, it’s the writing; writing and ideas and stories and Perth and young Asian-Australian women and a post eco-apocalyptic future of decay and magic.

And the smart ovens? “After that day at the overpass I was assigned an oven.” That day at the overpass, she of course jumped, and so was assigned an oven for a year to be her friend in the kitchen. With an extra six months if the oven’s end-of-year report was unsatisfactory.

After Neko Oven had been activated for two weeks she [for Neko Oven was programmed with a female voice] sent a recommendation to Biljana to let me return to work…

On my lunchbreak I used the kitchenette microwave to heat up a little plastic container of Neko Oven’s leftovers (some kind of casserole she’d improvised from tinned chick-peas, bacon, and gin) and took it to the food court to eat alone.

When she runs into the guy who chose that overpass, that day, that same minute to jump, they discuss ‘why’.

When people asked ‘How are you?’ did they really mean ‘Why did you?’

Because I was tired.
Because I wanted to die, the same way you might want a drink of water, or want to sleep, or want someone to love you back.

That last is it of course. But with a smart oven life goes on.

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Elizabeth Tan, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, Brio, Sydney, 2020. 244pp.


*The SF book I was thinking of [… Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes. I found it, randomly shelved, when I got home, and he has 12 more, going by ‘images’] involves a young entrepreneur with a bucket of bolts space ship and an android pilot. The name Matt is in there somewhere. I used to know the book’s editor. Fremantle Press. I DDG Fremantle Press, they don’t have SF as one of their genres! They do have a new Dave Warner. One of you is having a crime fiction month soon [Kim/Reading Matters in March], so that’s my book sorted. They’re also still advertising Robert Edeson, so there is at least some SF (here and here). From two or three years ago.

Where on Earth, Ursula Le Guin

If you grew up in the country as I did, then you will know those old-fashioned engagement parties and 21sts, in woolsheds or football clubrooms, trestle tables groaning with savouries and salads and cakes and cakes and cakes catered by the CWA or church women’s guild. My uncle Allan’s 21st was the same, a long table all down the middle verandah of the old farm house, seven year old me in a far corner eating and eating until I had to open all the buttons on my pants, cream cakes and pavlova, fruit cake and mince pies, jelly, trifle, lemon meringue pie and icecream.

And that’s how this collection of short stories by one of the greats of modern fiction struck me. I had to open all my buttons and lean back groaning in the corner. That’s how short story anthologies often strike me. When I open a book I want a meal not a plateful of cakes, and I love cakes.

In a lovely cheerful Introduction Le Guin explains how the two volumes of Selected Stories were chosen:

[First] .. no novellas – even though the novella is my favourite story-form, a lovely length in which you can do just about what a novel does without using all those words.

[Then] .. arbitrary restrictions, [no] stories closely tied to novels … [or] stories forming an integral part of story suites, where the pieces are linked by characters, setting, and chronology, forming an almost-novelistic whole.

So there I was with enough stories, still, to make a book about the size of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

After much more culling, she was down to two volumes, this one, Where on Earth for “mundane” stories, and the second, Outer Space, Inner Lands, mostly for SF, which I will review when that bloated feeling is finally gone.

If you ignore Le Guin for being a writer of genre fiction then that is your loss. She is (or was) both a fine writer technically and maybe the best story teller of the past 60 years. Where else but in SF could she explore the ideas behind Feminism, Environmentalism and Utopianism which were bursting out of her, and which she was so skilled in conveying. Nevertheless, in Where on Earth which while it is not without whimsy, she explores the problems of ordinary people dealing with ordinary people.

[In college] I had been writing realistic stories (bourgeois-USA-1948) because realism was what a serious writer was supposed to write under the rule of modernism ..

But I was soon aware that the ground it offered my particular talent was small and stony. I had to find my way elsewhere.

[The invented Eastern European country] Orsinia was the way, lying between actuality, which was supposed to be the sole subject of fiction, and the limitless realms of the imagination.

So, the first four stories are from Orsinian Tales, sharing a common geography, a backward, barren, mountainous country ruled by a distant Soviet bureaucracy; and sometimes sharing or alluding to characters in other stories (and so of course, breaking one of her own rules, above).

When Konstant Fabbre was hurt in the rockslide in the quarry he was twenty-six years old; his brother [Stefan] was twenty-three; their sister Rosana was thirteen. She was beginning to grow tall and sullen, to weigh upon the earth.

Konstant has saved the life of a deaf fellow worker. The deaf man’s daughter comes into town to care for Konstant. Stefan wants her. Unlike all his fellow townsmen Stefan has been away to school. Eventually he takes a mule and heads across the desert plain and into the mountains, through driving snow, heading for the capital. (Brothers & Sisters).

Stefan and his friend Kasimir travel by train and bus to Kasimir’s home town, for a break. Stefan falls in love with Kasimir’s sister Bruna. Then, Kasimir is shot by the police, Stefan is jailed. (A Week in the Country)

Bruna Fabbre is home, cooking when her daughter comes in from college. Stefan is at his desk at the university. Young people armed with paving stones are facing off with soldiers guarding the palace. The daughter is on the organising committee. Soon, Bruna and Stefan are in the street. (Unlocking the Air)

It seems there is an ‘Orsinian’ novel, Malafrena, of which I was unaware and which I must have.

There are 15 or so subsequent stories, most of which didn’t stick, many fanciful in one way or another, taking a fairytale or perhaps Native American style. Three stories at the end caught my attention. Each proceeds by a series of internal monologues.

A family is staying at the beach house they have long owned on a remote stretch of Oregon coast. We swap backwards and forwards between three women – daughter (uni student), mother (professor) and grandmother (widow) as they re-settle into long established routines, which are disturbed by the arrival of a researcher, a young woman, working on the life of the grandmother’s well known late husband. (Hand, Cup, Shell)

We are ‘inside’ for short periods each of the inhabitants of the tiny rural town of Ether which is notable for moving around when no-one is looking, sometimes settling on the Oregon coast and sometimes on the eastern slopes of the ranges. But it is Edna and her many lovers (and children) over the years who is the real centre of the story (Ether, OR).

Finally, a story made of eight brief stories linked only by the characters in each having the same names and roughly the same power relationship to each other, which Le Guin says arose out of an assignment she once set her students. Try as you may, you cannot make the Stephen or Ann in one story be the same person as the Stephen and Ann in the next (Half Past Four).

Have I made myself clear? Ursula Le Guin was a genius. Not just in writing, or story telling, though she was, but in her up-close observation and descriptions of human behaviour.

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Ursula K Le Guin, Where on Earth: Selected Stories Volume 1, Gollancz, London, 2012. 281pp

see also:
Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed (here)

Grace, Karenlee Thompson

This is me practicing block editing on Karenlee, whose Grace has just been shortlisted for The Scottish Arts Trust Short Story Award 2020 (as notified by Lisa) – Do you like the pop-up menu when you highlight text? Very Word for Windows, but it WON’T GO AWAY.

First I DuckDuckGo “Grace Karenlee Thomson” and select Images. There’s no cover of course so here’s Karenlee booksigning at Stanthorpe. I like my images all the same size – longest dimension 420 – but there’s no sidebar for the dimensions to appear in so I am left guessing. The image sits in the centre of the draft but in the preview is left aligned. Why!

Further searching uncovers that the book being signed is her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe (Lisa’s review) in 2011.

So, Grace. Grace is a clever short story built around the old children’s rhyme

Monday's child is fair of face
Tuesday's child is full of grace
Wednesday's child is full of woe
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Yes, I used a verse block (thankyou Melanie) but if there’s a way of indenting it – always in the top menu in the classic editor – then it’s beyond me. (Though I see that it is automatically indented one character). I preview, and the text for the poem is large typewriter. Can I HTML? Yes. I try deleting part of the code and lose the block. I copy the text into Word (from Wiki), convert it to Calibri and copy it in. As you see, no change.

Press on. Karenlee starts with Wednesday’s child Marika, who works hard at three jobs and dreams of living in the Greek Islands from whence came her family. Thursday’s child is Billy, a vego. Friday, Derek, a father. Each day a new ‘child’, a dozen lines.

Just when you are thinking this is an interesting conceit but is it going anywhere, it does. Tuesday’s child – Grace of course – pulls it all together. Delightful. Read it here (pressing Read More downloads a pdf).

. (what I really want is a blank block to give the appearance of double spacing)

Grace, Karenlee Thompson, 2020

And now Categories and Tags. The left side of the editor is taken up by block options. Go Away! I click the coggy thing, upper right. Blocks go away and now I have a menu on the right. Click Post. Ok, there we are.

One of the Islands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to get to the nitty gritty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thea Astley, Collected Stories, UQP, Brisbane, 1997

 

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

The Cockatoos, Patrick White

Text Publishing — The Cockatoos: Text Classics, book by ...

Patrick White (1912-1990) is an unlikely candidate for the title of Australia’s best writer. Born into a firmly upper class life, he lived as a child in Sydney and on his family’s properties in the Hunter Valley (NSW), he and his sister were brought up by a nanny, and at age 12 he was sent to boarding school in England. He left school early and jackarooed for a couple of years on an uncle’s 28 square mile station in the Snowy Mountains (similar country to and maybe 100 kms SE of Miles Franklin’s families’ properties) before returning to England to study French and German Literature at Cambridge.

When his father died in 1937 White was independently wealthy, living and writing in London and for a while in the US. His first novel, Happy Valley, which he had commenced while jackarooing, was published in 1939. He enlisted in the RAF at the outbreak of WWII and served as an intelligence officer in Egypt, Palestine and Greece during which time he met Manoly Lascaris, a Greek army officer, who became his life partner.

White lived with Lascaris for six years in Cairo before, in 1948, bringing him to live in Australia where they had a hobby farm at Castle Hill on the outskirts of Sydney. Their life as ‘farmers’ formed the background for one of White’s most admired novels (not by me!), his fourth, and the first written in Australia, The Tree of Man (1955). To be clear, Patrick White lived as an Englishman, rather than an Australian, until he was 36.

His fifth and greatest novel, Voss (1957) draws on the life (and death) of the explorer Ludwig Leichardt and also on White’s own time in the outback at another family property near Walgett, NSW. White wrote 13 novels all up and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. The Cockatoos, his second collection of short stories was published in 1974.

I always knew I should read White and attempted, unsuccessfully, The Aunt’s Story (1948) while I was at uni. Some time later I read and enjoyed Voss, and also the David Marr biography, and I read, and wrote about, The Aunt’s Story and The Twyborn Affair (1979) during my (very) mature age M.Litt. I have vague memories of starting others – I own A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and Memoirs of Many in One (1986) and I thought I owned the memoir Flaws in the Glass (1981) but maybe not.

I look up ‘Cockatoos’ in Marr. “So dry were the early months of 1973 that flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew in from the bush to plunder city gardens”. White is correcting proofs of The Eye of the Storm and putting together some stories written over the previous six years. “The latest story is called “The Cockatoos”, [White wrote], and that would be the title of the collection.” He submitted the stories in July and moved on to A Fringe of Leaves which had been lying ten years in a drawer waiting for Mrs Fraser “to recover from the mauling of librettists and composers” (see also: Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt).

Here are the stories and their lengths in pages:
A Woman’s Hand 104
The Full Belly 30
The Night the Prowler 58
Five-Twenty 34
Sicilian Vespers 86
The Cockatoos 59
so you can see why the collection is subtitled ‘Shorter novels and stories’.

Gail Jones in her 10 page introductory essay begins at the same place as I have, Marr’s “So dry were the early months of 1973 …”. She describes White’s work as “the singular project of someone for whom art offered questions, not answers, and an anguishing search for resolution in the irresolute business of being.” After waxing lyrical about The Tree of Man, she writes:

So what of The Cockatoos? Wonderfully broad in setting – the stories take place in Sicily, Greece, Egypt and Australia – they are also typical of White’s fiction in their combination of social comedy, inner quest and revelations of deep wounding. All engage modernist effects and concern melancholy and suffering.

I have read, struggled through, these stories. White’s work has layer on layer of meaning and intertextuality. They are mostly about older couples making do together, and White expresses his usual disgust with women’s bodies and with middle class Australians with deliberately ridiculous names like the Fazackerleys (A Woman’s Hand). The Full Belly is a short re-imagining of Greek life under German occupation, a period White was familiar with from his life with Manoly and the years he spent living in the Greek community in Egypt. The Night the Prowler Jones says strikes a false note. A couple attempt to come to terms with their daughter being raped, the daughter attempts to come to terms with being raped by becoming a sexual predator. This was made into a movie which I haven’t seen.

Let’s look at the final story, The Cockatoos. It’s a story of neighbours, people, middle aged couples mostly, living in the same suburban street, knowing each others’ names but hardly neighbourly. Mr Goodenough wears shorts at the weekend, showing his varicose veins. He and Mrs Goodenough have an only child, Tim, almost nine, who avoids other children, wanders streets and parks on his own. White makes fun of himself:

It bothered the father: what if the boy turned out a nut? or worse, a poof – or artist?

Mrs Davoren and her husband Mick, an Irish airman during the war, live amicably enough in the same house but avoid meeting, communicate through notes. Miss Le Cornu lives alone in the house left her by her parents. Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu both cook tea for Mick who puts on his hat and walks up the street to eat his overcooked steak and bed Miss Le Cornu before wandering home again while Mrs Davoren scrapes the teas she cooks into the bin.

Cockatoos settle on the Davoren’s lawn, are offered food and water until they briefly accept a better offer from Miss Le Cornu. The Davorens bump into each other in a dark corner and briefly reconcile. Figgis, the neighbour everyone dislikes, brings his shotgun into the street, fires at the birds. Mick Davoren wrestles him for the gun, is shot, dies in the arms of Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu, who afterwards sometimes speak. Tim spends a night in the park and beats a crippled cockatoo to death with a branch.

All very Patrick White. I’m sure it all means something.

 

Patrick White, The Cockatoos, first pub. 1973, this ed. Text Classics, 2019, Introduction by Gail Jones

The Babe is Wise, Lyn Harwood ed.

The Babe is Wise

In the bookcase behind the door of my study ar the Viragos I bought years ago as a job lot and am only now getting round to reading. The book at the end stands out or would if I ever shut the door, for being taller than the Viragos and having a pale blue cover. Whether I bought them all at the same time I no longer remember but have come to assume I did. A few nights ago, deciding against The Little Ottleys (for being too long), I pulled out next the pale blue book and discovered it to be an anthology of 31  Australian women’s short stories, published in 1987.

Flicking through, I thought how lovely and young so many of the authors were, and checked their years of birth. Ten to fifteen years before mine. Which brought to mind a discussion I had here or elsewhere with Sue (WG) that the authors of Gen 4, writers of the books which came out when we boomers were young adults, like the musicians we listened to, were not themselves boomers but were born during or just before the War.

Then chasing up a cover photo, I came up with not one but two snippets of history. First, the cover picture is a portrait of Australian author Jean Campbell, painted in 1940 (not 1909 as stated on the title page) by Lina Bryans and now held in the NGV. The title of the painting is The Babe is Wise. The second is from an article by Jean Campbell herself which explains that the painting is named after a novel of that name she wrote in 1939. Incidentally, Campbell is not included in the collection.

Because I see her oft times in our corner of the blogosphere I started with Carmel Bird, Buttercup and Wendy, a cheerful little story about the prettiest girl in Tasmania 1955-59 and how she didn’t marry but made a career and bought a house in Kew (Melbourne) and the discrete part in her life played by her former high school boyfriend –

a boy with ice blue eyes and a very attractive laugh. [They] went together to school dances to which he wore a white sports coat with a pink carnation and she wore an orange skirt beneath which undulated a vast white petticoat edged with rope.

It doesn’t end how you might think.

I’m moving backwards and forwards, selecting randomly. Next is a typical Helen Garner. Her husband leaves, she cries, lives with friends, her daughter bangs her eye, cries “you don’t know how to comfort..”

Robyn Sheiner, a WA woman “with many Aboriginal relatives in the north of the state” imagines herself as an older woman at her sister’s funeral in Broome. The sister has worked all her life as a servant in a convent some distance out of town. The sisters, having a white father, were stolen and handed over to the nuns, and the story reflects on their lives.

Another Aboriginal woman, Kantjuringa (Lallie Lennon) is an Antikirinya woman from northern South Australia. Her story is an extract from her testimony concerning the Maralinga atom bomb tests in the 1950s which were conducted on Aboriginal homelands. She’s just had a baby in the creek bed and these army trucks start going past and “a big war tank – guns sticking out, you know, it was frightening.” A few days later they hear two or three bombs in the distance and see the mushroom clouds, and a few days after that, another bomb, and the smoke is blowing towards them and they and all the trees are covered in dust and soon the kids are getting sick, overheating, the little girls are having fits and the station lady gives them castor oil.

Some of the authors are well known Judith Wright, Kate Grenville, Joan London, Beverly Farmer, Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley. Olga Masters I had to look up – she’s got lots of famous children.  Her little story is of a man, his wife just died, who must marry again before he runs out of dishes and clean bed linen.

I think my favourite was In Defence of Lord Byron by Ilona Palmer, a little mix of life in Melbourne and growing up in Yugoslavia, her school friends going to faraway places to build socialism, “or laying a few railway sleepers and getting pregnant in the process”, as her father put it. A story about her, not “a friend told me”; growing into middle age with her husband; dreaming of a man’s bedroom, realistic, his undies on the floor in the corner; “he did not ask me when he could see me again”; a dream realised, or a dream lost?

Thea Astley’s is a disappointing story of hippy stereotypes. I move on to Jolley, a dense story intermingling school days, nursing days, single-motherhood. An extract I’m guessing from My Father’s Moon published a couple of years later.

 

Lyn Harwood, Bruce Pascoe, Paula White ed.s, The Babe is Wise: Contemporary Stories by Australian Women, Pascoe Publishing, Melbourne, 1987. 313pp.