Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

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Parable of the Sower (1988) is deeply American SF, all guns and God. Well SF when it was written anyway, 3 decades ago, but now just another story of the US’s decline into hell in a handbasket. Trump, and McConnell’s GOP, too busy harvesting the spoils thrown up by the collapse of the once, recently great empire to offer leadership.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006), a Black American woman, is one of the greats of science fiction writing, deeply thoughtful about race, gender, and class, though not as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

In Parable of the Sower she posits the rise of a new religion, with the slogan “God is change”, and a young black female messiah, against the background of climate induced chaos as America falls back into the unregulated capitalism of mass unemployment, zero social services, corrupt police, and indentured slavery, not to mention roving packs of drug crazed pyromaniacs and walled, armed enclaves in the suburbs.

And I say ‘background’ because though economic and social collapse is central to the story there is not the clear economic analysis of the book’s forbears, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack London’ s The Iron Heel and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Instead, Butler focuses on what a new religion might look like, what sort of God would make sense of the ever-present danger and disorder of ordinary people’s lives.

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

I don’t suppose only Americans substitute religion for logical economic analysis, though it feels like it sometimes, and the best of them, as here, make their way back to anarcho-syndicalism – that is, self government and equal opportunity – with some sort of synthesis of the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and a non-interfering God which seems to offer them comfort without causing us much harm.

Lauren, 13 when she starts telling her story, has already begun discovering not inventing the religion she calls Earthseed with a God it is up to us to shape. She, her college teacher parents and younger brothers live with four or five other families in a walled enclave in the suburbs on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Throughout the city and by implication, throughout the country, any unprotected building is occupied and ransacked by the masses of unemployed. Gasoline fuelled vehicles are a thing of the past, the internet is mostly down, schools are closed as it becomes too dangerous to leave the enclave, water is scarce and dirty, food is expensive and must be supplemented by home gardens and orchards. Police, fire brigades, ambulances must be paid to attend, are always late and often turn on the people who called them.

With no chance of a college education or employment, Lauren, already sexually active, faces a future of early marriage, constant child-bearing, crowded accommodation and grinding poverty. The father, a Baptist minister, trains the children of his community to shoot and organizes sentries but it is all for nought. By the time Lauren is 18 one brother has joined the gangs and been killed, the father has disappeared, and the enclave is overrun, ransacked, women and children raped, her mother and remaining brothers murdered.

She escapes with Harry (white), a childhood friend and Zahra (black), a wife sold into polygamous marriage by her prostitute mother. And so they join the long trek north, up the west coast to Canada, with tens of thousands of others, preyed on and preying on each other, slowly accumulating a few companions they can trust, children and parents with children.

The danger, shootings and deaths are a given in this brand of dystopian SF, but well done anyway. And the characters and relationships of the protagonists are filled out in a way not generally managed by the writers of boy-SF derived from war and wild west pulp fiction.

Among the people who accumulate in her train is an older black man, Bankole, to whom Lauren, though travelling as a boy, is attracted. They slowly become lovers and he, though sceptical of the religion Lauren is weaving around her little band, offers to lead them to 300 acres of remote farmland he owns in the mountains above San Francisco.

There they find the farm buildings all burnt and the bones of Bankole’s sister and her children in the ashes. And there with seemingly reliable ground water and arable land, remote from the worst of the marauders, they decide to stay. But that, as is always the case with SF, is another story, Parable of the Talents.

Perhaps to make her story more ess-eff-y, Butler gives Lauren and a couple of the lesser characters the ‘talent’, handicap really, of being able to feel the pain of others, so that if Lauren shoots someone she must die, or feel like she is dying, with them. But what is much more interesting is the feeling which people have, at least while they still have jobs and houses, until quite late in the story that this failure of the state is temporary, that after the next election or the one after, life will return to normal.

You get this feeling from America today. That the GOP, captured by the billionaires’ Tea Party, will be stopped from wrecking civilised governance, that the engineered failures of health, education and social security systems, the headlong rush to climate catastrophe, the hollowing out of the middle classes will all be reversed by a Blue Wave in November, when the opposite is clearly true. The Democrats are as captured by Big Money as the GOP; the South is already lost; the American dream is headed for nightmare as SF writers have been fortelling for decades.

 

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, 4W8W, New York, 1988 (first ed. cover)


*Origin “Going to hell in a handbasket”
The phrase originated in the USA in the mid 19th century and the first print record is in I. Winslow Ayer’s account of events of the American Civil War “The Great North-Western Conspiracy”, 1865  (theidioms.com)

The suggested origin I liked best was being lowered down a gold mine shaft in a basket, which would have been quite common during the gold rushes from the 1840s on.

Setting Out

Journal: 050

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I’m setting out on this post with no clear idea of where it will end up. It’s Sunday 6.46 am and in a few hours I am setting out on another trip to Melbourne (from Perth WA if you’re new here). Yesterday I was planning to go half empty but a truck came up on Loadshift, I tendered my usual price, within 15 minutes I had the job, within 3 hours the truck was loaded and back in the yard (my mate’s back paddock).

Today, I’ll run that trailer ‘up the hill’ to the assembly area on the highway south, go back for the other two, and head down to Esperance, 800 km away on the south coast, to load scrap steel. Then it’s off across the Nullarbor, to the northern outskirts of Adelaide, then for the first time as a road train in my old home state, across the north west corner of Victoria and down the river, on the NSW side, to Echuca (map). Break up, run one trailer into Melbourne, then the other two to Wodonga where the steel is remade in an electric arc furnace. Which should put me empty in Melbourne Friday too late to load out.

Sue (WG), who is flat out getting her elderly parents settled in new nursing accommodation (I think at 90 and 100 it’s safe to say elderly), says I should cherish my mother while I have her, so I guess it’s out to mum’s for the weekend.

If you follow Whispering Gums, and doesn’t everyone, you’ll see she’s running a series called Bill Curates, which is me choosing representative posts from her back catalogue – I’ve made my way so far from May to June 2009 – picking out items to repost. Lots of fun for very little effort. A good way, as Karen/Booker Talk suggested in her excellent A to Z of Blogging, of revisiting material not seen by most of her followers, and a good way too of keeping Whispering Gums ticking over while Sue is so busy.

I have to write Journals because I read so little, even when I have “days off”, which mostly involves moving trucks and trailers from one spot to another to get them repaired or serviced or new tyres, or a paint job and new guards (mudguards) as with the trailer immediately behind my ute in the picture above, white and light blue is going to be my new colour scheme, not to mention keeping my bookwork up to date, though none of that explains why I read only a few pages in the evening, catch up on the news, solve a killer sudoku and am fast asleep by 10pm.

Remember, four months ago, when ‘the news’ was that the Australian government was doing nothing about climate change, then bushfires across half the continent made even the Liberal Party aware that climate change was here now, and just when we thought something might happen Covid-19 wiped everything else off the front pages and the Morrison (and Trump) governments took the opportunity to begin sabotaging every remaining climate initiative they could think of, and now the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has wiped Covid-19 off the front pages, except for the relatives of 110,000 people killed by Trump’s willful negligence, but of course it couldn’t happen here. Except it does.

“there’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. I mean, Australia is a fair country … I mean, Australia is not the United States.” [Prime Minister Morrison]

African Americans make up 12% of the adult population, but 33% of the US prison population; in Australia the ratio for Indigenous people is 3% of the population and 29% of the prisoners. [Greg Jericho, Guardian Australia, 7 June 2020]

Do the maths. Black Australians are FOUR times more likely to be jailed than Black Americans and TEN times more likely to be jailed than white Australians.

Since 1991 and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 432 Indigenous people in prison or in the hands of police have died and not one person has been convicted of any offence in connection with those deaths.

That is the Australia we live in, whether we set out to achieve it or not, an Australia founded on the murder of its original inhabitants, as I have attempted to document, and in which those murders continue today, unpunished.

 

Remember: Indigenous Literature Week (July 5-12, 2020) on ANZLitlovers

 

Recent audiobooks 

Stephanie Laurens (F, Aus), Four in Hand (1993) – Romance
as far as I can tell, Laurens has lived in England for a long time, but she does have some reviews on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database. I should contribute another.
Janet Evanovich (F, USA), Seven Up (2001) – Crime
Camilla Lackberg (F, Swe), The Lost Boy (2013) – Crime
Anne McCaffery (F, USA), Damia (1992) – SF
Susan Choi (F, USA), The Foreign Student (1998)
Blake Crouch (M, USA), Good Behaviour (2016) – DNF
Belinda Alexandra (F, Aus), Silver Wattle (2007) – DNF

Currently reading

Patrick White, The Cockatoos
Majorie Barnard, Miles Franklin
Flannery O’Connor, Complete Stories
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (I just bought it, I hope I start reading it)

 

The Foreign Student, Susan Choi

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Susan Choi, born 1969, is an American novelist who had a Korean father and a (presumably white American) Jewish mother. The Foreign Student (1998), her first novel, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction. Choi did her MFA at Cornell, and going by the dates, the novel was her Masters project. I tell you all that to provide context for what I want to say about the book, the audiobook version of which, read by Daniel Isaac, I listened to last week.

Further context is provided by the recent murder of Black American George Floyd in police custody and the ensuing riots. And if you wonder what my opinion is about them, then I think that setting fire to Minneapolis Police Headquarters is the least that the protesters should have done.

The Foreign Student is a discussion of race and ethnicity in the US masquerading as gentle, historical fiction, with a good, old-fashioned eternal triangle. The setting is the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, which Wikipedia assures me is a real place, in 1955-56. As you most likely know, I dislike historical fiction and one of the reasons is that feeling of the writer being in the now and writing of a period which is not-now. Choi amazingly avoids that feeling altogether. This is a novel which feels as though it was written in 1956.

And so we get to race. This is a novel which feels as though it was written in 1956 by a Southerner. As you can imagine, all the domestic staff at Sewanee are Black and they are invariably and without qualification referred to as ‘boys’. If you have been following along with Melanie/GTL’s Flannery O’Connor short stories series you will know what I mean about that feeling of privileged whites only slowly coming to grips with the early days of desegregation.

I read/discuss US novels about race to help get a handle on racism in Australia. The George Floyd riots have generated an impassioned response to the it-couldn’t-happen-here crowd with a reminder of our own disgraceful record of Black deaths in custody, including the “I can’t breathe” death of David Dungay. It seems to me though that the tremendous problem of anti-Black racism in America overshadows the disadvantaged position of First Nations’ peoples, while in Australia the two problems are of course combined.

The Foreign Student begins with a young Korean man being dropped off by his taxi at the beginning of the long uphill driveway to Sewanee and being picked up by a good looking young white woman in a little yellow open-top British sports car (I’m only guessing a 1954 MG).
1954 MG TF Right Hand Drive Roadster | Beverly Hills Car Club
The two are Chang (Chuck) Anh, 24 and Katherine Monroe, 28. Katherine lives in the house in Sewanee left to her by her father and which her parents gave up forever years earlier when Katherine, then 14, began an affair with her father’s best friend professor Charles Addison.

Chuck has been accepted at Sewanee as an international student on full scholarship; Addison, in his late fifties, is still at Sewanee, his career having stalled, his affair with Katherine having been renewed, is slowly moving towards marriage; Katherine never made it to college, has returned to Sewanee after years away, and now leads a pointless existence running errands for friends in her little yellow roadster.

Katherine and Chuck slowly become interested in each other and Addison is left more and more by the wayside. Which is all you need to know about the romance side. It would be interesting to know how much of Chuck’s story is Choi’s father’s story. Choi uses Chuck’s being Korean as a sort of bridge between Black and White. So that Chuck as a student is White and his attempts to communicate with the servants are knocked back. When Chuck is the only student staying on over summer it is organized for him to eat in the servants’ dining room, but he is so uncomfortable about being seated separately and waited on that he takes (and makes) all further meals in his room. But later, when he must be punished for a breach of the rules, he is treated by the Administration as colored and given a job in the kitchen where he is at last able to be friends with the staff.

For a short while that same summer he has a job with a bookbinder in Chicago where interestingly he is generally treated as Japanese, which language he speaks. Throughout the novel we work our way through Chuck’s back story, his father a professor in Seoul collaborating cooperating with the Japanese occupation when he was a child and then the dark years of the Korean War, communist occupation of Seoul (twice) and the corrupt US-supported dictatorship of Syngman Rhee. Chuck variously works as a translator for US Intelligence and is imprisoned and tortured by his own government.

Choi grew up in Texas and went to university at Yale and Cornell, so this is not home territory for her. If her father did attend the University of the South that would be interesting, but even if he did not, setting her story there enables us to contrast the experience of being Korean in America with that of being Black in America without having to paint it on with a trowel. Highly recommended.

 

Susan Choi, The Foreign Student, first pub. 1998. Blackstone Audio 2019, read by Daniel K Isaac

Flannery O’Connor

Journal: 048

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I seem to be using the Covid-19 crisis for remedial US.Lit. First Willa Cather, now Flannery O’Connor, courtesy of another read-along, this time with Melanie from Grab the Lapels. (I’m not reading the biography pictured, but Melanie is). O’Connor, who lived a short life, from 1925 to 1964, in Georgia in the US South, wrote two novels and 32 short stories. Her style is said to be Southern Gothic, informed by Catholicism (Wiki). As I am forced to say increasingly often, I had never heard of her.

Melanie is planning to read The Complete Stories, a prizewinning anthology put together after O’Connor’s death and to put up reviews over four consecutive Tuesdays (Wednesdays in Australia) from May 12th. I have located some of the stories online (here) but I imagine more readable copies are obtainable at the usual sites.

I have already read one story, The Barber (so-so) but I love it that the Catholic O’Connor was the originator of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” which was reversed to such great effect by Mae West. OK, I got lost in DuckDuckGo search there for a while. A Good Man etc dates back to at least a 1918 (I think) song by Eddie Green sung here by Bessie Smith.

As a non-reader of short stories I find I am reading three short story collections simultaneously, to get them over with maybe, Flannery O’Connor, Patrick White’s Cockatoos and an Australian women’s collection called The Babe is Wise. I guess at least I can get to the end of a story before I swap books. I struggle to read novels simultaneously because the stories get tangled in my head.

It has been fascinating following the different responses to Covid-19 amongst bloggers. All of us I think stopped reading/writing in shock when we realised that this was not just another SARS, dangerous but remote, but the real deal, our lives being shut down and the world economy with it. Most of us have fired up again, not just in Australia where the first wave has largely passed us by and we in the middle class have jobs and savings to tide us over, but around the world where it is much more likely that you know people who have been affected.

I am doubly or triply unaffected in that as a truck driver I am not required to stay home, so that I am both out and earning my usual income, and I routinely spend a week or two between jobs at home anyway, reading and writing. But still I find myself singularly unproductive. Today is Saturday. I got in from Darwin last Friday. There’re plenty of jobs on the Loadshift site. I should be on my way to Melbourne.

Of course I blame Anzac Day. Long weekends are fine if you’re loaded but a pain when you’re not, just one fewer day to get stuff done. (I’ve left You Tube running since I fired up Bessie Smith and we’ve progressed through Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, George Thorogood. Now that’s real music. Keep your Mozart, WG).

On the way down from Darwin the truck computer was reporting a fault which I managed to work around (the usual way. By switching the truck off and restarting). I had it looked at while I was waiting to unload Friday. No luck. Took it back Tues. “It must be electrical”, the mechanic said. Electrician, Weds. “It must be the computer”. Volvo squeezed me in Thurs night. They’d replace the whole system if you let them, but I held them down to replacing the Ad Blue pump. Seems to have worked. Meanwhile, another workshop had my back trailer for a service which devolved into new brakes and bearings. I got it back 5.00pm Friday. I have the hint of a load of scrap metal today but no-one’s answering the phone. Looks like Monday.

It’s ages since I had reviews written up in advance of a trip. I should have something for Tues, but Thurs/Fri? Don’t like your chances.

WA is one of the states that have expanded allowable gatherings to ten people. I’ve been down to Gee’s to hold the new baby, and to play with the two who were babies just yesterday, interrupted Lou giving them home schooling (not for Covid-19 but because the school has whooping cough. Life goes on!). Took Milly out to dinner. No, restaurants aren’t open yet. We got Indian take-away – happy to have us drop in with Uber gouging 35% for delivery – a fine Pinot Grigio, and sat on my balcony admiring the sunset over the river.

Where has all my reading/writing time gone? Compulsively reading newspapers and political newsletters mostly. Love Guy Rundle in Crikey. Miss Helen Razer. Where are you Helen? Totally enjoying the Palmer Report’s ongoing take-down of the mentally deficient criminal rapist murderer con artist in the White House. Stay Safe!

 

 

 

 

 

My Ántonia, Willa Cather

***My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918) | Bean's Book Blog ...

Well, I’ve read the three now and I’m clear The Song of the Lark is my favourite. Clear too that while they each cover the life of one strong woman, over the same period, 1880-1910, in more or less the same small part of America’s western prairies, they barely constitute a ‘trilogy’.

My Ántonia (1918) is ostensibly the story of Ántonia Shimerda, the daughter of a Bohemian family come to take up newly opened farmland near (fictional) Black Hawk, Nebraska, in the same uncultivated red grass prairie country as O Pioneers!, where Cather grew up. But this one is hardly a novel at all, nor even the story of Ántonia, but rather Cather’s autobiography very lightly fictionalised as the memoir of one of her schoolmates, Jim Burden.

As one blogger I came across wrote: “For a book about Ántonia, there was very little of Ántonia – not enough for me to build a picture of her personality.” She also wrote: Verdict: Ahem. Sorry. Boring. which is harsh, but not that far off the mark.

The story is framed in a brief Introduction where the author recounts running into Burden and the two agree to write what they remember of

a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom both of us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

Though in the end it is only Burden’s account we hear.

Encyclopaedia Britannica says: At age 9 [1883] Cather moved with her family from Virginia to frontier Nebraska, where from age 10 she lived in the village of Red Cloud. There she grew up among the immigrants from Europe—Swedes, Bohemians, Russians, and Germans—who were breaking the land on the Great Plains.

Cather in the guise of Jim Burden writes: I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in [Black Hawk] Nebraska.

Jim travels in the care of farm worker Jake, and on the train with them is a family of Bohemians who get off at the same stop, and who as it happens are taking up the property next door to Jim’s grandfather’s.

ON SUNDAY MORNING Otto Fuchs [the other farm worker] was to drive us over to make the acquaintance of our new Bohemian neighbours. We were taking them some provisions, as they had come to live on a wild place where there was no garden or chicken-house, and very little broken land.

And so Jim meets Ántonia, a few years his elder, and they become firm friends running free across the prairie whenever there is no work. The Shimerdas live in what is little more than a hole in the ground. The father a furrier and musician back home, has no aptitude for farm work, which is increasingly left to Ántonia’s older brother, Ambrosch.

Antonia had opinions about everything, and she was soon able to make them known. Almost every day she came running across the prairie to have her reading lesson with me… [and] to help grandmother in the kitchen and to learn about cooking and housekeeping.

Jim himself does very little farm work, just the chooks and the milking, consistent with him just being Cather in pants.

Cather’s descriptions of the plains and its people are what has made these books live for so long, but the first two and especially The Song of The Lark have a dramatic intensity that My Ántonia lacks altogether. It simply drifts along, first I did this, then I did that.

Though, for the first year and especially that brutal first winter, it’s nearly all we did this, we did that as the Burdens help the Shimerdas survive. Jim starts school, then as Cather’s family did, the Burdens move into town. Mr Shimerda has died, and there is more physical and emotional distance between the friends, especially as Ántonia, Tony now, takes on more outside work both for her brother and for their neighbours.

Since winter I had seen very little of Antonia. She was out in the fields from sunup until sundown. If I rode over to see her where she was ploughing, she stopped at the end of a row to chat for a moment, then gripped her plough-handles, clucked to her team, and waded on down the furrow, making me feel that she was now grown up and had no time for me.

There is very little discussion of the fact that Ántonia at 15 or 16 must have had very different interests to 11, 12 year old Jim. He – who remains a bachelor throughout, as Cather herself stayed unmarried – is clearly romantically interested in her but not so much she in him. In fact the relationship is only believable if you turn Jim back to what he really was, an infatuated schoolgirl.

In town the Burdens’ next door neighbours, the Harlings, a big prosperous family, come into the story and eventually Ántonia comes to work for them as housekeeper, leading the story in a new direction, the doings of Ántonia and her friends, collectively ‘the Hired Girls’, young migrant women not too proud to work in service to support the farms of their families. Those girls, Tony, Lena, Tiny, the Marys are free to go out in the evenings, to listen to music and dance, and Jim is often out his bedroom window to join them.

Life goes on, all the interest is in the detail and the descriptions. Jim goes to College in Lincoln, as did Cather. Lena comes to town as a dressmaker and the two often go to the theatre together. One performance is of a Dumas play related to La Traviata. This is of course La Dame aux Camélias (Camille in American)

The actress who played Marguerite was even then old-fashioned, though historic. She had been a member of Daly’s famous New York company, and afterward a ‘star’

Research points to this having been not Sarah Bernhardt, my first guess, but her predecessor Clara Morris.

We hear Ántonia has gone off to marry her sweetheart, a railway man, but she is soon back, pregnant, hidden away on the farm. We finally catch up with her 20 years later, happy, married to a fellow countryman, a farmer’s wife with a dozen children.

Read it, the descriptions are wonderful. If I describe it as America’s A Fortunate Life, then Australians at least will know what I mean.

 

Willa Cather, My Ántonia, first pub. 1918.

see also:

Liz, Adventures in reading, running and working from home,
My Ántonia Readalong (here)
O Pioneers! (here)
The Song of the Lark (here)

Song of the Lark, Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark (1915), the second in Cather’s ‘Prairie’ trilogy is set, initially at least, in Colorado, the adjoining state to the south and west of Nebraska, the setting of the first, and further into the high country I guess, in a little railway town she names Moonstone, in desert country of wind blown sandhills, not country I’d ever heard of before in relation to Colorado.

Winter was long in coming that year. Throughout October the days were bathed in sunlight and the air was clear as crystal. The town kept its cheerful summer aspect, the desert glistened with light, the sand hills every day went through magical changes of color. The scarlet sage bloomed late in the front yards, the cottonwood leaves were bright gold long before they fell, and it was not until November that the green on the tamarisks began to cloud and fade. There was a flurry of snow about Thanksgiving, and then December came on warm and clear.

Thea the heroine, 11 years old when we meet her, is a flaxen haired ‘Swede’, one of seven children, her father, Kronberg a Methodist* pastor in a town of Swedes, Germans and American Baptists, though there is unusually for the times this far north a Mexican enclave too. There seems no connection with O Pioneers! except that Mrs Kronberg has a farm in Nebraska, from her father, on which she has tenants.


Right now I am at the half way mark of the book. I opened the file for this review as I began to read because it is so easy to copy quotes across from Project Gutenberg and not have to go back looking for them. From what some of you say I could do that with an e-reader too, but I don’t. Thea has grown through six years of country town life, closely described, taken music lessons from a drunken old German who has eventually had to leave town, left school a year early to teach piano, and now a railwayman in his thirties who has planned to marry Thea since she was 11 has died and in his will left her $600 for her education in music, not in nearby Denver, but in Chicago.

There Thea has found a home with a German widow and her widowed daughter, and a teacher in Harsanyi, a young married Hungarian. Thea is very intelligent, very uneducated, and immensely determined. Harsnayi, himself a talented performer, who has been teaching her piano for some months has only just discovered that Thea sings soprano in the church choir, and he and I have had tears in our eyes for a whole chapter as he slowly realises just how wonderful, and how untrained, is her voice.

A kind of happiness vibrated in her voice. Harsanyi noticed how much and how unhesitatingly she changed her delivery of the whole song, the first part as well as the last. He had often noticed that she could not think a thing out in passages. Until she saw it as a whole, she wandered like a blind man surrounded by torments. After she once had her “revelation,” after she got the idea that to her—not always to him—explained everything, then she went forward rapidly.

So I do not know yet how this novel is going to work out. O Pioneers! was the story of two impossible loves, with its background Alexandra’s growth as a woman and businesswoman. At this stage Song of the Lark has no story at all but is a character study of an independent young woman, set against the characters of her mother in particular, and her father, and the men in her community who are her only friends.


I never use all the quotes I mark, but I’ll share this one because I think we Australian boomers who’ve grown up with waves of migration will sympathize. In Moonstone Thea is friends with a Mexican singer, Johnny, who has just told Thea and her brother Gunner that some Mexicans keep snakes in the house to kill rats and mice:

“They call him the house snake. They keep a little mat for him by the fire, and at night he curl up there and sit with the family, just as friendly!”

Gunner sniffed with disgust. “Well, I think that’s a dirty Mexican way to keep house; so there!”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps,” he muttered. A Mexican learns to dive below insults or soar above them, after he crosses the border.

There is another resonance for Australians and that is, right at this time, Miles Franklin a country girl who had dreamed of a career as an opera singer until her voice was ruined by poor training, is living and working in Chicago and singing in church and union choirs.

https://historylink101.com/art/JulesBreton/images/498099.jpgThe Song of the Lark, 1884, Jules Breton

Thea begins to find her way round Chicago, to the museum where she falls in love with this painting, to concerts, learns to deal with tramcars, crowded streets, dirt, hostile winds off the lake. Harsanyi knows his limitations and passes her on to Bowers, less sympathetic, but the best teacher of voice. After a year Thea begins to understand her own power.

Home for the summer holidays she attends a dance in the Mexican quarter which becomes an impromptu concert. Her old German friends nearby are wakened by the singing

There was silence for a few moments. Then the guitar sounded fiercely, and several male voices began the sextette from “Lucia.” Johnny’s reedy tenor they knew well, and the bricklayer’s big, opaque barytone; the others might be anybody over there—just Mexican voices. Then at the appointed, at the acute, moment, the soprano voice, like a fountain jet, shot up into the light. “HORCH! HORCH!” the old people whispered, both at once.

Thea’s older sister and brothers are disgusted with her for mixing with ‘that kind’ and she knows that this is no longer her home.

In the second half of the novel Thea is a woman, enormously talented and determined, taking that step, or those steps, from student to the edge of stardom. You wonder who Cather was up close to, to be able to write with such detail. It doesn’t have the dramatic power of Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest, but it does have very nearly as much music. There is a man in Thea’s life, Fred, the musically-inclined son of a beer baron, and early on she goes away with him, to his ranch in Navajo country, lovingly described, then to Mexico, outside of this novel so to speak, where she learns what we already know, that Fred is married. Her time as a student and young singer in Germany is also outside the story and we rejoin her in New York, where she is just beginning to be a success, where she is still friends with Fred and where she is joined by the very first of her admirers and supporters, Doctor Archie from Moonstone.

Much as I am hypnotised by Cather’s powers of description, I wondered for a long time where this novel was going. But Thea as a country girl of unusual gifts, and Thea as a young star are in the end each so fully realised, and each is so important to the understanding of the other, that I don’t regret a single word (and I hope you don’t either of this very long review).

 

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, first pub. 1915. Painting by Jules Breton in The Art Institute Chicago (here). Cover painting on the Penguin edition, no I don’t know either.

see also:

O Pioneers! (here)
My Ántonia (coming)


*I don’t know how Rev. Kronberg ended up in a Methodist church. He came from the Swedish community in Minnesota and remembered enough Swedish to be able to minister to his countrymen in a little community outside Moonstone. His friend Larsen in Chicago to whom he sends Thea is a minister in the Swedish Reform Church.

O Pioneers! Willa Cather

O Pioneers! - Wikipedia

Liz Dexter of Adventures in Reading etc. is holding a read-along of Cather’s My Ántonia which she has set for 13-19 April (2020, just in case you’re reading this some other year) so I decided to make use of my unlimited self-isolation free time to read and review the whole trilogy –

O Pioneers! (1913)
The Song of the Lark (1915)
My Ántonia (1918)

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia but grew up in Nebraska, frontier country on the high plains, where her father unsuccessfully attempted to farm in the early days of settlement for 18 months before moving into town and becoming a real estate agent. Willa’s mother had been a teacher, and Willa after starting school late, went on through high school to university (Nebraska-Lincoln). That would have been around 1890. University for women in Britain and Australia began in 1881, it would be interesting to know when women were first accepted into university in the US. Cather initially intended to be a doctor but soon dropped science and did a BA in English. She went on to make a career in magazine journalism though she taught Algebra and English for a while in high school.

There is some discussion of her sexuality. My understanding is that very few women declared themselves to be lesbian at that time, even, perhaps especially, those who lived together as did Cather and her friend Edith Lewis. (Sylvia Martin discusses this in Passionate Friends). I raise it because Alexandra, the central character of O Pioneers!, is the closest I’ve come to an Independent Woman in (old) American Literature.

Cather’s first novel was Alexander’s Bridge (1912), a Librivox recording of which which I began listening to last year but I couldn’t stand one of the readers. O Pioneers! was her second. The versions I am reading of this and the subsequent two are from Project Gutenberg. None of them seems very long, novella length really, but I can’t tell for sure.

O Pioneers! is divided into five parts spread over a couple of decades. All the most important characters are introduced almost in the first scene.

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain.

A little ‘Swede’ boy maybe five years old in a coat and flannel dress is sitting in the street crying. His kitten is up a telegraph pole and won’t come down. His sister, 17 or 18, “a tall, strong girl [who] walked rapidly and resolutely” calls on their neighbour’s son, three or so years younger than she, for help. And so we meet Emil, Alexandra and Carl. Carl goes off to harness Alexandra’s horses and Emil wanders into the saloon to play with a “city child .. dressed in what was then called the “Kate Greenaway” manner, and her red cashmere frock, gathered full from the yoke, came almost to the floor. This, with her poke bonnet, gave her the look of a quaint little woman”. This is Marie, a Bohemian (Czech), aged 8 or 9.

The different national backgrounds of the settlers are in themselves fascinating. There are communities of protestant Swedes – Alexandra herself remembers when her father worked in a shipyard in Sweden – and Catholic French. The Bohemians, of whom there are only a few in this area, are also Catholic. We had very little of this in Australia, pockets of Scots and Irish of course, Germans in South Australia, and Chinese left over from the goldrushes who took up market gardening. As with Australian wheat-sheep country, the standard block size appears to be one square mile, 640 acres.

Alexandra, Carl and Emil return through the snow to their respective parents’ farms. Alexandra’s father is dying and he charges her with the ongoing management of the farm, for her and her and her hard-working but less bright teenage brothers.

Carl’s father can’t manage the harsh conditions and takes his family back to civilisation (Chicago or Pittsburgh). Alexandra takes stock of how earlier settlers did down on the river and persuades her brothers to mortgage their first property, which their father had managed to pay off before he died, and to begin buying up properties and to adapt their farming to the conditions.

Years later, Emil has gone through school and on to college. His two brothers are married and the property holdings have been split in three, between them and Alexandra. They are all prosperous thanks to Alexandra’s innovations.

IT is sixteen years since John Bergson died. His wife now lies beside him, and the white shaft that marks their graves gleams across the wheat-fields. Could he rise from beneath it, he would not know the country under which he has been asleep. The shaggy coat of the prairie, which they lifted to make him a bed, has vanished forever. From the Norwegian graveyard one looks out over a vast checker-board, marked off in squares of wheat and corn; light and dark, dark and light. Telephone wires hum along the white roads, which always run at right angles.

Alexandra still unmarried, has built herself a substantial homestead, and still writes to Carl. Marie lovely and vivacious, has married a surly fellow countryman, and they have bought Carl’s father’s old property, next door to Alexandra. Marie is about Alexandra’s only close friend.

Carl comes back for an extended visit. Alexandra is fronted by her farmer brothers who are concerned that she might marry him and not leave her property to their children

“The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title. If anything goes wrong, it’s the men that are held responsible… We worked in the fields to pay for the first land you bought, and whatever’s come out of it has got to be kept in the family.”

Alexandra breaks with them. Carl goes away gold prospecting in the Yukon. Emil is in love with Marie, and goes off to Mexico. He comes back and it all ends calamitously.

Cather’s writing is exquisite, you can feel the ice in winter and hear the birds sing in summer. You really feel for Alexandra, growing older and lonelier. I hope the next two books are as good.

 

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, first pub. 1913

see also:

The Song of the Lark (coming)
My Ántonia (coming)

Junky, William Burroughs

Image result for junky burroughs

William Burroughs (1914-1997) has been one of my favourite writers since university days – half a century ago now – and I have a row of his books, The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, Nova Express … maybe 7 or 8 of the 18 he wrote. Though it’s a long time since I read any of them. It’s hard to say what the appeal is, what the appeal is of Beat/Punk/Grunge writing generally. It must be something to do with life being lived at the rawest level. With writing to match. I haven’t studied much modern literature but I can see a lineage stretching back through Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence and James Joyce (and no doubt Virginia Woolfe, but I haven’t read enough to say).

Junky which I came across recently in a second-hand shop was Burroughs’ first. He was relatively old when it came out, nearly 40, and half a generation older than Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Kerouac (1922-1969), the other principal members of the Beat Generation, who had famously got together at New York City’s Columbia University in 1944.

Ginsberg writes in the Introduction that by the 50s he and Burroughs were corresponding regularly. Burroughs began including chapters of Junky and at one stage Ginsberg, who was living with his parents after a spell in a mental institution, was carting round to potential publishers both Junky and Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, which became On the Road, the Beat Generation’s seminal text.

By chance, my companion from NY State Psychiatric Institute, Carl Solomon, was given a job by his uncle, Mr AA Wyn of Ace Books… He distrusted the vagabond romanticism of Burroughs & Kerouac

and then there was the dread Narcotics Bureau which was rumoured to make arrests even for the discussion of drug taking – at a time when some states were making ‘being a drug addict’ a jailable offence, as Burroughs discusses in this book – but finally Junky (or Junkie) came out, hedged about with medical disclaimers and a Preface explaining Burroughs’ “distinguished family background”, which I presume is the Prologue with which this edition begins:

I was born in 1914 in a solid, three-story, brick house in a large Midwest city … I remember the lamp-lighter lighting the gas streetlights and the huge, black, shiny Lincoln and drives in the park on Sunday.

Junky is the story of ten years in ‘William Lee’s’ life, or rather the story of ten years of taking drugs, of being a heroin addict. His children, his wife are barely mentioned. Of his encounters with boys, with which others of his works are saturated, we see very little. Partly maybe because H he says, destroys the sex drive, and partly because he wished this to be purely an account of drug addiction. To the best of his ability, the protagonist of this work is Junk.

It is possible to detatch yourself from most pain – injury to teeth, eyes, and genitals present special difficulties – so that the pain is experienced as neutral excitation. From junk sickness there seems to be no escape. Junk sickness is the reverse side of junk kick. The kick of junk is that you have to have it. Junkies run on junk time and junk metabolism. They are subject to junk climate. They are warmed and chilled by junk. The kick of junk is living under junk conditions. You cannot escape from junk sickness any more than you can escape from junk kick after a shot.

This is the tone throughout. We are all familiar with the exaggerations of American comedians acting drunk, with the unreadable prose hippies use to render ‘being high’, but Burrough’s approach is the opposite. Junky is a straightforward, unadorned account of the everyday experience of being controlled by the desire for junk.

I have learned the junk equation. Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.

Is there a story? Sort of. Burroughs finished school, studied Eng.Lit., bummed around Europe during the Depression, living off his trust fund. He’s called up when the US enters WWII but “cops out on his nut-house record”. And about this time he’s introduced to drugs and the story begins. From the beginning he is involved in fencing stolen goods and dealing. Later, he turns to rolling sleeping drunks and stealing their wallets. He does not say if his trust monies ran out or if his family attempt to ‘recover’ him. He does not mention meeting a wife, but there she is, late in the book, their house being searched and them both being arrested.

He goes on junk, mixes with fellow addicts and low level dealers, learns the strategies for survival, in downtown New York, in New Orleans, briefly in a farming community in Texas where he owns property, and then, escaping while on bail, Mexico. Endures weeks of junk sickness to come off junk. Goes back on. Repeat. Repeat. By the end, the US has replaced one Prohibition with another which will morph in our time into The War on Drugs. Returning home seems out of the question. William Lee considers moving on to the South American drug yage which may facilitate telepathy.

 

William S Burroughs, Junky, Penguin, 1977. Original & unexpurgated for the first time. Introduction by Allen Ginsberg. First published as Junkie by William Lee, Ace Books, New York, 1953

see also:
Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity (review)
Author Interview, Justine Ettler (here)
Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia (review)
Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (review)

In a moment of synchronicity this came up in a Grab the Lapels comment stream just as I was wrapping up. “… one of the lead scholars on Burroughs’s work; he is also a quirky dude named Davis Schneiderman.”
http://www.davisschneiderman.com/scholarship/

New York, Lily Brett

I’ve been down to Fremantle to see Kim (ReadingMatters) for coffee and beer a couple of times since she moved back to Australia. We have a connection, the obvious one, that we follow each other’s blogs, and the less obvious, that we are in WA and our parents are in Victoria. Last time, she gave me this book.

Lily Brett lives in Manhattan and her father, at the time of writing, in Melbourne, so that’s a connection too. Though I’m sure Kim gave me the book because she knows I enjoyed Lola Bensky.

New York is a slim volume of pieces, some trite, some whimsical, some sad, all the same length, around two and a half pages, maybe a thousand words, that feel like newspaper columns, casual, personal and beautifully crafted. Brett writes of Geoffrey, the man who cuts her hair:

This man is crucial to me. My hair is curly. it’s not easy to get curls to aim themselves in whimsical directions and attractive angles. To make curls look carefree requires a skilful hairdreser,

She might be writing about her writing.

The pieces, only tied together in that they are observations arising from Brett’s having lived in downtown New York for many years, all have the same rhythm so that if you read them one after another it begins to feel like the rise and fall of breathing.

A quick introductory sentence: “I feel bad about living so far away from my father”. A little story about something she sees or is feeling: “I worry that he is lonely in Australia. He is eighty-four. Most of his friends are dead.” A side-step into the general: “In New York, elderly parents are sometimes seen as a storage problem.” Then back to the particular:

I work at home. It would be impossible for me to concentrate with my father in the apartment. “Would Grandpa really disturb you?” my younger daughter, who’d love her grandfather to live in New York, asked me.

“He’d drive me nuts, very quickly,” I said. I paused. “I don’t want to ever hear you talking like that about me,” I said to her.

And a little sting in the tail:

“You won’t,” she said, “I’ll say it out of your hearing.”

Lily Brett, it is clear, writes always about Lily Brett. I’m not complaining. The best writing comes from deep within as the writer wrestles with his or her demons.  Look at DH Lawrence, Sartre, Gerald Murnane, Kim Scott. The problems their protagonists deal with are the problems they deal with. Writers who imagine themselves into situations, famously Lionel Shriver, or say, Peter Carey, may write very well, but they are mere story-tellers compared with the greats.

The great problem Brett’s writing revolves about is that her family was murdered by the Nazis before she was born. That she is alone in the world, not just an only child, born in 1946 in the shadow of Auschwitz, but without uncles and aunts, cousins or grandparents; her own parents often remote; her loving, ordinary husband and children never enough.

This is a light work, indeed Lola Bensky is a light work, but Brett’s New York is not the New York of Friends or even of Seinfeld. We are seeing through the eyes of a woman who feels every day the absence of family. She loves New York, is anxious when she is away, describes lovingly the everyday experiences of walking, shopping, apartment living, getting her hair cut. But this is also the New York where people take dogs to work because they can’t make connections with people; where Brett can’t offer to help the homeless couple living nearby because she might become involved; where Brett’s acquaintances don’t know her children, and her children don’t know them; where there is no-one who knows her father. A world where no-one has ever met, where she has never met, was never able to meet, her wider family.

I wonder if she writes of herself, or versions of herself, so that we can know her, so that she can feel known. Or known and not known. She tells a friend her father is worried about a prostate op. making him impotent.

“Well he’s certainly had his fair share of sex,” she says. I am surprised. She doesn’t know my father. I realise she is confusing my father with the father in my novels.

Maybe I am confusing the author with the Lily in these stories. But I don’t think so.

Brett, as a new New Yorker from Australia, tries very hard to fit in,

Trying to be American can be exhausting. I’ve practiced perkiness until I’m blue in the face. And still perkiness eludes me. It’s not my natural condition. Nor is friendliness …

She has speeded up her speech and ‘tried to tone down my Australian vowels’. Kim’s years in London have noticeably rounded hers, but I gather she’s doing lots of homework in her local (Clancy’s) and will soon be as nasal again as the rest of us.

 

Lily Brett, New York, Picador, Sydney, 2001

Kim’s review (here)

Little Women, mostly

Journal: 034

Book Cover

You guys all grew up reading Little Women I’m sure. Milly did, and Gee says that she and Psyche did, though I don’t remember giving it to them, but I didn’t. No sisters, no copy in the house. So I read/listened to it for the first time just a week or so ago and thought the first sentence of my review was going to be “I couldn’t find a way into reviewing this book which you all know by heart – no trucks!” BUT. In Part II, Chapter 23* a distressed Jo steps out into traffic without looking, into the path of a … truck. I pictured a costermonger’s barrow

Image result for costermonger barrow

though Websters suggests any “strong horse-drawn or automotive vehicle for hauling” so I’m not sure what Alcott intended.

*I wrote ‘2/23 truck’ on the back of my hand because that is my notebook when I am driving, but Ch 23 is actually in Part I, and now I can’t find the quote.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote Little Women in two parts, which came out in 1868 and 1869. It is generally regarded as fictionalised autobiography and as a novel for children. I’m sure most of you read it at around 12 or 13 but it seems to me to be directed more at young women getting ready for adulthood and marriage.

At the beginning of the novel Mr March, father of the little women of the title, is away at the American Civil War, as a chaplain (on the Union side) so the year is around 1862. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter came out in 1850, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first, Mary Barton, was published in 1848, all of Jane Austen’s had been out for 30 or 40 years, but the two works which Alcott has Jo reading are The Vicar of Wakefield (secretly, for amusement, when she’s meant to be reading sermons to her wealthy, aged aunt) and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, both dating from the previous century. I wish just one author would write, “I rushed down to the bookshop for the latest xxx”, Dickens maybe, who was then at the height of his popularity. Of course the work which is central to Little Women is the older again Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (1678), another “first novel written in English” (here).

There is of course nothing I can tell you about the book itself. I found it a bit preachy but am used to that strain of Christian duty in books of that time; and I probably preferred Anne of Green Gables (1908, I hadn’t remembered it was so ‘recent’). I would though like to say a little about ‘the Independent Woman’. Jo speaks at length about the advantages of being unmarried and of course she famously refuses to marry the boy next door. Alcott herself remained unmarried, supporting herself as a governess and writer (her family’s connections with Thoreau, Emerson, the Underground Railroad are fascinating (wiki) and I would like to read more).

“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poor Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it, solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it. Well, I needn’t be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner, and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it, but…” and there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.

Americans, it seems to me, are afraid of independent women and even strong characters like Marge Simpson and Roseanne eventually bow down to their husbands, so I was disappointed but not surprised when Alcott not only married Jo off to the older Bhaer but made Bhaer, not Jo, the principal of Jo’s school.

At nine they stopped work and sung as usual

Project Gutenberg has a generously illustrated version (here). The illustration above is “At nine they stopped work and sung as usual”, by Frank T Merrill (here).

That’s a scrappy review, I know, but I wanted to say something about it. Now I am listening to Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot which is a fiction about an amateur Flaubert biographer – really just an excuse for talking about Flaubert, and about what we can say about writers – which I am finding both interesting and enjoyable, and about which I might write a similarly scrappy review. If I get time. And there’s the rub. I’m stuck in Melbourne. Again. After only one day home in Perth. Here, mum is in hospital after a hip replacement (she’s quite well thank you, though tired). B3 is down to see after her and picks me up from the truckstop in Dandenong each day when it’s clear there’ll be no work, and drives me up to mum’s hospital (Knox).

Meanwhile, back in Perth it’s all happening. Kim (Reading Matters) has just come from London to live and work; Nathan Hobby has handed in his PhD thesis* and is now facing the world as “full-time parent, part-time writer, part-time librarian”; and Jess White is visiting us for the launch of Hearing Maud. Hopefully I will shortly catch up with them all.

see also: Melanie/GTL’s recent post on US women’s comedy (here)

Recent audiobooks 

Katharina Hagena (F, Ger), The Taste of Apple Seeds (2013)
JD Robb (F, USA), Brotherhood in Death (2016)
JD Robb (F, USA), Apprentice in Death (2016)
Truman Capote (M, USA), The Grass Harp (1945)
Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom (M, USA), The Ascension Factor (2012)
Ann Barker (F, Eng), Ruined (2009)
Ben Bova (M, USA), Moonrise (1996)
Louisa M Alcott (F, USA), Little Women (1868)
Lisa Jackson (F, USA), Innocent by Association (1986) DNF – I stopped reading this book, and would advise you to never read this author, when the heroine was kidnapped and fell in love with her abductor. Why women authors advocate violence as a way of winning women is beyond me (in my own defence, I was expecting a crime thriller not a modern bodice ripper).

Currently reading

Eleanor Dark, Waterway


*Nathan Hobby: 100 word version of my thesis, sounding more scholarly than it is in reality: ‘Astir With Great Things’ is a biography of the early life to 1919 of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), an Australian writer and political activist. Critically engaging with Prichard’s autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, the thesis builds a fuller account of her early life with archival material. The thesis narrates Prichard’s literary development and the writing of The Pioneers and Black Opal. Exploring Prichard’s political radicalisation against the backdrop of World War One, the thesis also considers the intertwining of Prichard’s personal life with writing and politics, including the effects of her father’s suicide and her brother’s death in the war.