Rubik, Elizabeth Tan

33846181

Elizabeth Tan is a young woman writer from Perth,WA. She is not a 25 year old pop singer from Malaysia, well I don’t think so anyway. The Brio site says,

In 2015, [Tan] completed her PhD in creative writing at Curtin University. Her thesis investigated the intrusion of science-fictional tropes and iconography onto our current social reality, and the cultural anxieties that this has produced. This practice-led research culminated in her first novel Rubik, published in 2017.

It’s a bit of shame about that PhD, although too common to worry about any more. I like to think of the author as slaving away in a garret [from the old French “guerite”, meaning “watchtower” or “sentry box.”] to get her dreams down on paper, not poring over textbooks to assemble concepts in an order acceptable to her supervisor, and  I’ve written before that I find novels by literature academics often too self-consciously post modern. But not, I’m happy to say, in this case.

One of the great pleasures of reading C21st writing – for me – is the way Science Fiction has leaked into the Lmainstream. Think Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, Claire Coleman, Terra Nullius, and all right, Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Wait, there’s more, Krissy Kneen, Rodney Hall, Georgia Blain, Robert Edeson, Nathan Hobby, and these are just authors that I’ve reviewed.

SF is a way of making sense of the world, and this is a world that needs to be made sense of. Early, 1950s SF fought WWII and the Cold War in space, America to the rescue, a trope laughably referenced recently by President Trump.

In the 1960s and ’70s SF reflected not just psychedelia, experimental writing, the drug culture, different ways of living, though there was lots of that, but also the consequences of nuclear and climate disasters. Sadly the literature was regarded as genre, and to be honest, the purview of nerdish young men. Consequently, great writers like JG Ballard, Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Phillip K Dick received far less attention, as writers, than they deserved.

Mainstream writing proceeded on its way with social realism. Mostly. There were outliers like David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future and Thomas Keneally, A Dutiful Daughter. Postmodernism which had begun in the 1950s as a way of describing and deconstructing writing was by the 1980s merely a fashion in which all literary works had to contain elements of meta fiction. Likewise Magic Realism, interesting in a South American context and later in Indian, African and Indigenous writing, but just a base to touch for Anglos, pointless and handled badly.

So, to Rubik. First, this is a work set unselfconsciously in Perth, not in a descriptive way, you won’t get much of an idea of what Perth is like, but fun to follow for a local as characters flit from Northbridge (inner city arts and restaurant precinct) up and down the Mandurah (south) and Joondalup (north) rail lines.

Rubik is a novel about the intersecting lives of a range of characters, through a series of vignettes, not sequential, and sometimes exploring alternate time lines. Even if you miss some (or most) of the connections, and I’m sure I did, it is immensely enjoyable. In particular, Tan writes likeable characters and I hope in a future novel she takes the opportunity to let us know two or three characters really well.

The eponymous Elena Rubik is knocked down by a car and killed in the first scene but persists in various ways throughout. Her housemate Jules Valentine is asked to stand in for the ‘falling woman’, a widely distributed meme associated with the new in-phone. A little girl is cared for by an octopus/transformer. Peter’s piano teacher disappears and he and his new school friend attempt to find her. Ursula and Penny create mobiles for an exhibition at the Cultural Centre (in Northbridge of course). They fixate on a voice-over man whose cat may exist in alternate universes. Everyone sort of recognises Jules, as she has been the face of the Ampersand product range. Audrey repairs robot birds and insects, which are all we have left. A student newspaper begins pulling some of the strands together. With surprising results.

Some of these strands may be stories on an old fan fiction site of which Ampersand sales people Michael and Bette are or have been members. As was/is Elena.

This is a novel for our neo-liberal times where corporations run by faceless old white men both know and control everything about us. Tan fights back subtly, with satire, with ‘acceptably brown’ characters, with off-hand analyses of the way we submit to being manipulated. I forget who recommended Rubik now, but thank you, I loved it.

 

Elizabeth Tan, Rubik, Brio/Xoum, Sydney, 2017

Advertisements

Ice, Anna Kavan

Ice

“Few novelists match the intensity of her vision,” JG Ballard
“There is nothing else quite like Ice,” Doris Lessing

Ice was first published in 1967 and republished in the Penguin Classics edition above in  2017. The sticker on the back indicates I bought it new though I don’t remember why, perhaps it was those testimonials from two of my all-time favourite writers.

Kavan, born Helen Emily Woods in 1901 (in France to English parents) had a troubled life. Her father suicided when she was 10, her mother married her off to her (mother’s) lover. She began writing in her twenties and published first under her (first) married name Helen Ferguson before legally adopting the name Anna Kavan, and changing her hair from brunette to ice blonde, in 1940. She had multiple hospitalizations for depression and a lifelong heroin addiction (wiki). She has a considerable body of increasingly experimental work to her credit. Ice was the last work published before her death in 1968.

1967 was the year of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Monterey Pop Festival, The Ticket that Exploded, Ballard and Lessing were both established writers, I was a year or so away from university and already started on the edgy science fiction of Phillip K Dick, John Sladek and Robert Sheckley. The USA and the USSR were held back from annihilating each other and us all only by the certainty of MAD.  France was testing nuclear weapons at Mururoa.

This is the context that produced Ice.

The world is coming to an end as nuclear winter leads to walls of ice converging from the poles towards the equator. As individual countries break down into lawlessness our protagonist, a guy, seeks his old love, an ice blonde wraith who is currently living with his rival. In sunshine he makes his way to their retreat in the country. His rival stands back, is condescending. She doesn’t trust him, turns away when he approaches, chooses to stay. As he leaves, snow begins to fall. He knows the girl’s relationship with his rival is abusive.

She goes abroad, or is taken – it feels like from England to Norway, but nowhere, no-one is named. He makes his way by sea to the northern country where the girl is with/being held by the Warden, his rival, the local military commander. Social structures are collapsing as the ice approaches.

The whole short novel, 180pp, a fable Kavan said later in answer to criticisms that it has no plot, is a dream/nightmare as the protagonist braves ice and war to get near Her only to lose out and have to restart as his rival becomes increasingly powerful in regional and then world terms. As with any dream, we proceed in discontinuous fragments. She is consumed by ice, by marauders, is sacrificed to a dragon

Armed men came up, pushed me back, seized her by her frail shoulders. Big tears fell from her eyes like icicles, like diamonds, but I was unmoved. They did not seem to me like real tears. She herself did not seem quite real. She was pale and almost transparent, the victim I used for my own enjoyment in dreams… The men did not wait any longer but hurled her down, her last pathetic scream trailing after her.

As with Ballard, the post-apocalyptic world is just a backdrop for the disintegration of the protagonist. The real theme of the novel is that the woman fears her rescuer, fears most of all that if she trusts him he will let her down. Even when he does at last rescue her, takes her to a Pacific island, she turns away from him, tells him to leave, and when he does, takes that as proof that she must not rely on him. Been there!

The guy leaves, fights a few wars, meets up with his rival, now Supreme General, has a change of heart and fights his way back to Her. The ice has nearly reached the Equator. He persuades her to ‘escape’ with him. There will be no escape.

The point is that the girl is a victim:

Fear was the climate she lived in; if she had ever known kindness it would have been different… All her life she had thought of herself as a foredoomed victim.

Systematic bullying when she was most vulnerable had distorted the structure of her personality, made a victim of her, to be destroyed, either by things or by human beings, people or fjords and forests; it made no difference, in any case she could not escape.

This is Kavan writing out her pain. Ignore the male protagonist, he is not Kavan’s focus, merely the instrument of the girl’s suffering, her suffering. Ignore the SF, Kavan just needed a setting to explore victimhood and nuclear winter was topical. I have not read Kavan before, now I am interested to know if Acker or Ettler did. Kavan seems like a precursor. The results of Googling ‘Anna Kavan Kathy Acker’ suggests that others have had the same thought.

 

Anna Kavan, Ice, Peter Owen, London, 1967, Repub. Penguin, 2016

 

 

 

 

I’m the Driver

Journal: 014

Image result for melbourne exhibition building

I’m the driver. This is my default position in the family. When all else goes wrong I drive. My version of staying in touch. Milly needs dirt for her garden, timber for a renovation, into my ute it goes. Gee buys another bed, ditto. When Psyche left home in year 10, I had too, but we had an agreement, if she rang I’d come and get her, from my place in Carlton – a lovely terrace house in Lygon St, standard mid-life crisis guy-thing – pick her up in the middle of the night in the outer suburbs and deliver her back to her refuge.

Milly doesn’t drive at night so when I can I pick her up, get up at 4.00 am to take her to the airport for work. Whatever it takes. She cooks, I think I come out on top.

Every chance I’ve got, all my life, I’ve driven. Utes and tractors at Granddad’s farm from when I was 12, then more independently at my uncle Allan’s as I got older and went there to work every holidays. I turned 18 at uni, mum and dad paid for lessons with the RACV, and I got my licence at the Melbourne Exhibition Building (above) where we also did our exams. There was a truck driving school nearby in Lygon St (near the bowling green) and I got my semi-trailer licence there too a year later.

I’m not sure now when I decided to be a truck driver. Les, Mum’s youngest brother was mad about trucks and bought his first one when I was 15 or 16. He was only four years older than me and I had always tagged along after him every chance I got. Whenever I hitchhiked, and that was often in the last year of high school and the first year of uni, I would aim to get lifts in trucks, the further the better.

I spent the first half of 1970 ostensibly repeating first year Engineering, but really with the anarchists and SDS working towards the Moratorium. After that there was a Socialist Scholars conference in Sydney and I remember driving home (driving the Premier’s daughter’s little Renault 8) and announcing  that I was dropping out to become a truck driver.

It was ridiculously easy to get a job. My first was in Glen Iris driving a 2 ton Toyota tip truck for a gardening contractor. That lasted a week but I got a proper driving job straight away with Coulsons in West Melbourne, an easy walk from my place in North Melbourne opposite Royal Childrens. The limit for a driver with a car licence was, and is, 3 tons. Coulsons gave me an old Austin that weighed less than that empty but was 8 ton fully loaded, and I was on my way. As soon as I got my semi licence I was promoted to a bigger truck, a Bedford 7 tonner. I remember all my trucks.

I remember all my jobs too and I’ve had a few. After ten weeks at Coulsons I moved on to Sartoris in the hope of getting interstate work, got the push for reading a book when I thought there was nothing to do, did one trip Melb-Bris-Adel-Melb as co-driver, a few weeks with Clive Brothers livestock, got caught speeding, 6 ‘orange’ lights through Ringwood bringing a load of vealers from Lilydale market to the saleyards at Newmarket, then Lou Arthur’s carting to and from the wharf, they had the most amazing old trucks, some dating back to before the War. One of my jobs was carting bagged wheat from the ‘Nylex’ silo near the MCG in a 1950s Bedford. They offered to keep me on when my court case came up and I lost my licence but I’d already decided to use my year off to do first year Arts – Arabic, Philosophy and History & Philosophy of Science with Maths carried over from Engineering.

Late that year I met the Young Bride and she moved in with me and my mate in a terrace house at the rear of the Windsor Hotel. In December she and I bought a Commer van with what little money we had and with another couple to share costs we drove up the coast to Brisbane and moved into a rooming house in New Farm. It was still a few months until I could get my truck licence back. I laid grass on the banks of a new freeway, did spot-welding, was an electrician’s mate in Ashtons Circus, then just on my 21st birthday I was accepted as a journalist cadet.

I worked evenings, four till midnight, writing up world news off the AAP teleprinter, putting my own slant on the Vietnam War, listening to the cricket, Australia were touring England, writing up my own cricket stories. The van had died so I would walk home through the Valley, sometimes calling at the pub to pickup the Young Bride if she had gone for an evening out with our prostitute friends/neighbours. They were big solid girls and made sure young, slight, blonde and pretty YB stayed out of trouble. We had the days to ourselves and would walk around the Valley window shopping. Once I got my licence back I got a job driving an old Commer 8 tonner on the wharves, but: I had a dispute with my employer about overloading; the Federal Police wanted me for non-compliance with the Draft; the newspaper wanted me to work days. I moved on.

To Nambour, 60 miles up the Bruce Highway, driving for Allan Marr, an angry man who’d been a Japanese POW. We were there six months, initially just running down to Brisbane in a furniture van, or out to Caboolture and Maroochydore where they were just starting the canal developments and new houses, but then the big time! An old butterbox ACCO  with a single axle trailer carrying prefabricated house sections and beer (they built the pub before they built the town) from Brisbane to Moranbah, west of Mackay, 600 miles north. YB always came with me, we were flat out at 48mph, we broke down, got stuck in floods, made friends up and down the road, and I was officially a long distance truckie.

Image result for international acco truck history
 ACCO prime mover. I wish mine had looked this smart!

 

Recent audiobooks

Maggie Leffler (F, USA), The Secrets of Flight (2016)
Peter J Bentley (M, USA), Why Shit Happens (2009)

Currently reading

Elizabeth Tan, Rubik
Fanny Burney, Evelina

 

Remembrance, Faith Richmond

Image result for remembrance faith richmond

Faith Richmond is strangely invisible on Google. As best I can gather she is (or was) an illustrator and writer, born in New Zealand in about 1935 and who, as she details in this memoir of her childhood and adolescence, grew up in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne.

I trust the ‘Imprint’ imprint and buy them on sight, it’s a good way of getting hold of Australian classics. I paid $6 for this one, I don’t remember where, carried it with me for a long time as reserve reading, and am sorry that I was disappointed in it. What follows is my best attempt at a fair review.

It’s a pity my father’s not still around, as he too grew up in Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne and at more or less the same time, and he might have enjoyed the recollections. Remembrance is subtitled, though not anywhere prominent, A Daughter’s Story and that is what it is, a story of growing up seen through the prism of the author’s relationship with her parents.

Richmond’s father and mother were hippies before hippies were invented, bohemians maybe although not obviously belonging to any arty community, but definitely non-conforming. Father is a university lecturer, in Philosophy maybe although it’s never made clear; mother is ‘artistic’, a gardener, and an active communist.

Faith has a sister two years older and a baby brother. There is another, older brother, adopted from a ‘shelter for fallen women’ who is mostly ‘away’ – perhaps in a reform school. It is never said why and towards the end of the book, after a long absence, he turns up leading a normal life with a steady job and a young wife.

The story underlying the whole of the book and all of the author’s growing up is that father is manic. In the beginning this is just eccentricity

… sometimes he reminds me of the Charlie Chaplin film we saw. He puts on brightly coloured clothes – once he wore my sister’s yellow tutu from the ballet – and strides around making loud speeches. It seems to be at special times he does these funny things. And it’s not very often. I asked my mother on one occasion if it was his birthday that made him so happy and she looked angry and said his birthday was six months away.

Gradually he begins accepting medication, kicking against its deadening effects, takes to his bed with ‘flu’, becomes unemployable, works gardening jobs for the council, gives one private, failed ‘symposium’, and finally is committed.

I never warm to the author, she holds us at arm’s length though that may not have been her intention. Everything is described but nothing is felt. There is none of that teenage exuberance that illuminates My Brilliant Career for example, and in fact there are similarities with Miles Franklin’s much later My Childhood at Brindabella. Both are written with the  hindsight of older age and in both the child is too knowing and the descriptions too adult.

The older sister has a teacher who encourages her to write, but he has a weakness for flowery prose and the whole family conspire with the budding writer to come up with ever more elaborate phrases for her essays. The problem is that the author herself, unconscious of the irony, writes in exactly this way. So she writes of herself at 11

As I lie there watching the chiaroscuro of quicksilver shadows on the wall beside me, the evening brings to life a day several weeks ago when my father sat reading in the darting shadows of the prunus tree.

In Brisbane they live in Auchenflower near the university, the author attends kindergarten, primary school, the family takes a day trip by train to the beach at Sandgate – the first time I went in a Brisbane train I was locked in! No door handles! you had to lower the sash window and open the door from the outside. They’re different in Queensland. In Canberra they live first in Turner then in a farm house by the fields that became Lake Burley Griffin.

The author attends Canberra High, then when they move to Melbourne, to a little house in Caulfield with a back yard and an orchard, MacRob Girls where she’s unhappy until her father gets her into University High where she is still solitary but at least fits in. Mother takes menial work as father’s income falls off, and the girls too get jobs. There is a lot of description of the War and immediate post-war years but I’m afraid Richmond never really brings it to life. Not for me anyway.

 

Faith Richmond, Remembrance, Wm Collins, Sydney, 1988. Cover picture, Flowerpiece on a Table, Grace Cossington-Smith

 

Driving, Reading, Writing

Journal: 013

LochielMonsta_03-sq

A real journal for a change. It’s Saturday, I’m in Brisbane. Here’s how the week went.

Fri 3 Aug. Home waiting for a load. I get an email from work:

Sorry to be annoying but that’s what women do right?

As you may know, Dragan will be taking a leave of absence  which I know I hear you sigh in the background relieved!  He will be out of contact for approx 2 months on a much needed family holiday.  … myself  and the rest of the team … will be here to assist you.  [new Brisbane manager] didn’t work out and will be finishing this week.

[more in the shape up or ship out vein]

At the end of the day Transport Never Stops!  You have chosen to be a Truck Driver,  enjoy the journey.

I don’t recognise the name but it seems Dragan’s sister is going to whip us all into shape.

Go round to Milly’s for tea. Teenage granddaughter is meant to be there but when she finally phones it’s from Fremantle station. I drive down to pick her up. It’s a late, late meal

Sat 4 Aug. Up early, get a fortnight’s food & clothes together, load the ute. Back to Milly’s. Drive teenage granddaughter back to Freo. She has a 9.00 am start at Maccas. Speak to Dragan, he’s happy with the way I, his only subby, am fitting in, looking forward to summer in Serbia. Run one trailer up to the road train assembly at Northam, 100 km east. No driver to bring up the second, so I do it myself. On way by 4.00 pm.

Sun 5 Aug. Run into my old boss at Norseman BP. Stop for a chat. He runs Adelaide Kalgoorlie Karratha. Leaves the boring stuff, Perth – Goldfields to his drivers.

Mon 6 Aug. Late in the afternoon, road train right into Port Adelaide. The depot where I’m to unload is already shut for the day.

Tue 7 Aug. A long, long day! The gates open at 6.00 but it’s nearly 8.00 before the forkies turn to me. A transport co nearby has a roadtrain load to Bris. I use their depot to break-up. Pick up is from Mt Compass, turns out that’s actually Victor Harbour, 80 km south. Adelaide doesn’t change. South Rd is a freeway at the northern end, but for just 5 km, after that it’s stop lights and city traffic all the way, another brief Motorway section, and then some country hills (McLaren Vale if you’re a wine person). It’s mid afternoon before the first trailer is loaded, if I’m back quick night shift will load the second. Back to the depot, swap trailers, the depot manager promises not to lock up before I’m done. All the way down South Rd again in evening peak hour, load, return to the Port, fuel, hook up, head out. Around Lochiel I’m out of hours, out of energy, bed time. If you’ve read Eve Salis’ Hiam you’ll recognise the Lochiel Tyre Monster.

Wed 8 Aug. Over the Flinders Ranges to Gladstone, Jamestown, Peterborough, villages of limestone cottages a hundred years old right on the road, no front yard, then out onto the moonscape plains Yunta, Coburn, Broken Hill, Wilcannia – the once great Darling just a drain carrying sickly green agricultural run-off, river red gums stranded way up the banks, roots reaching down 20, 30 feet to what little water is left – turn north at Cobar to Bourke, then east again, Brewarrina, Walgett.

Thur 9 Aug. Mooree, Goodiwindi once a great forest all this country, still being cleared, burnt off, laser levelled, irrigated with water stolen from the Darling, Bogan, Barwon, McIntyre Rivers by big agri-business and their lackeys in Federal and State parliaments. Up to Toowoomba, hand rear trailer off to Tony who’s waiting on the road in. Through town and down the Range, 30 kph in low gear, out into the lush Lockyer Valley.  Depot. I’m booked to unload first thing in the morning. BP Rocklea for tea. Over the Gateway Bridge. Park up by the wharves on the north side. Sleep.

Fri 10 Aug. Unload. Back to Depot and mandatory 24 hour break. Write up Jane Austen in the lunchroom. Wash the truck. Do some shopping at Redlands Centre. Have horrible, greasy battered ‘barramundi’ for lunch. Toasted sandwiches and one gin & grapefruit for tea. Jason and some drivers are unloading, reloading trailers till late at night. No-one speaks to me, doesn’t look good.

20180812_125731

Sat. 11 Aug. As expected, no load home. Consider taking a train into town, spending a couple of nights in a hotel, shop for books, eat out. Can’t be bothered. Write up a post on my father, hope that’s out of my system now! You’ll see it soon but I have a couple of others to do first. A guy comes and sits in the lunchroom with me, Bruce, a talker not a reader. He lives in his truck, drug addict children have used up all his money. We make miles across Australia and America through the afternoon as I keep an eye on Hawthorn – Geelong on the laptop. Old high school girlfriend writes to me, she’s been reading my posts. Warn her I’ll write about her, let her choose her own name.

Real time now. I’m off down the pub for tea.

It’s a walk of a kilometre or so, in the gathering dark, down past the marshalling yards. I use the pedestrian bridge at the Redlands station to cross the line, there’s a dozen girls, teens and pre-teens, Aboriginal, white and one Sudanese (I say Sudanese but how would I know really) hanging out. One 11-12 year old has stuff spread out across one step, a make-up kit maybe, I call out to her and she moves it, thanks me politely, cheekily. Redlands is probably an outer suburb of Ipswich rather than Brisbane, poor working class, fibro houses, light industry, the railways, a tired 30s pub appears deserted and I go to the other one, two storey Federation weatherboard with big verandahs. Old style, 1980s say, inside with a TAB and pokies, customers all my age. I have the $6 calamari special and a couple of beers.

Sun 12 Aug. Writing. Reading. Go for a walk.

Tomorrow 6 am I have the truck booked in for a service, and a trailer to load.

 

Recent audiobooks

Rudyard Kipling (M, Eng), The Man Who would be King (1888)
Martin Cruz Smith (M, USA), The Girl from Venice (2016)
Jan Jones (F, Eng), Fair Deception (2008)
Herman Koch (M, Netherlands), Dear Mr M (2014)
Ruth Ware (F, Eng), The Lying Game (2017)
Deanna Sletten (F, USA), Finding Libbie (2016)
Jo Nesbo (M, Swe, Macbeth (2018)
Kate Atkinson (F, Eng), Started Early, Took My Dog (2010)
Lee Child (M, USA), One Shot (2005)
Jane Austen (F, Eng), Sense & Sensibility (1811)

Currently reading

Faith Richmond, Remembrance
Anna Kavan, Ice

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

Brona’s Books: Austen in August

Image result for sense and sensibility audiobook

Some impressions on re-reading (listening to) for the nth time the great Jane Austen.

I don’t remember all the books that were set for English Expression in my matric year – Martin Boyd, A Difficult Young Man; Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh; Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice are the three that stand out. Of the others, there were eleven in all I think, three were American which for confused political reasons I refused to read, and three were Russian which I didn’t read because I wasn’t reading the Americans (I said I was confused). The night before the exam I sat up in bed and re-read P&P just for the pleasure of the love story and I’ve read and re-read Austen ever since.

If you’re wondering, I failed Eng Exp, but seeing as I got firsts in Physics, Chemistry and Pure Maths, Melb Uni Engineering didn’t care, Trinity College didn’t care, and the headmaster of Mudsville High, Mudsville, Western Victoria had an excuse not to make me dux, so everyone was happy (except my father, so win-win all round really).

1. Why do I and so many others read and re-read Austen? I’ve already said I’m a sucker for a classic love story, so that’s no.1; then there’s the precise, spare writing; the sly wit. After that, as we get to know Austen better, some of you will say characters we love. I don’t really, though I have a soft spot for Lydia and Mrs Bennet (In high school I totally identified with Mr Bennet); then there are themes, descriptions, issues – there’s always something.

2. Sense and Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels published, in 1811 when the author was 35. The first draft had been completed as early as 1800 so, under the title Elinor and Marianne, it had circulated amongst her family and friends – effectively been workshopped – for more than a decade. This of course allowed her to refine her language and her plot but also gave her freedom to experiment and, I think, to play up to her audience, to include jokes about pet topics.

3. It is an opinion generally held held and easily supported that the theme of S&S is the advantages of one and the ridiculousness of the other. The cult of sensibility which obtained amongst young women of refinement prevailed from Regency times right up to the turn of the Twentieth Century. It wasn’t just tight corsets making women swoon, it was the idea propagated by novels that the correct response, for a woman, to any adverse turn of affairs was firstly an excess of emotion, and secondly to fall down unconscious. Austen’s earliest long fiction, Love & Freindship (here), is a spoof on young women in novels and this carries over into S&S. It’s interesting that Elinor who throughout the novel is the embodiment of sense, is finally allowed when she learns that her lover is free, to give into sensibility, albeit behind closed doors.

4. I have not seen it discussed elsewhere but we should at least consider S&S as YA. Elinor and Marianne are respectively 19 and 16. Austen repeatedly makes fun of Marianne’s opinions which are fixed in a way that only teenagers’ are. We, the older reader, don’t ever really believe that Marianne won’t grow out of her tremendous distress at the failure of her first love affair. And we feel for Elinor who must deny her own feelings and act beyond her years to support her sister in the physical/emotional absence of their mother.

5. The two principal young men, the sisters’ love interests, both behave very badly, lying directly or by omission about prior commitments. Austen I think lets them both off lightly. Willoughby, whose belated apology is long, tedious and unnecessary to the plot, gets some undeserved sympathy from Elinor – undeserved but believable. I have daughters, I know how they respond to D & Ms. I’m not sure Edward even apologizes, he is freed when Lucy runs off with his brother and promptly rides to claim Elinor whom he had no right making up to in the first place.

6. This reading, by Sarah Badel for the BBC, reflects something I often think about when I’m reading/listening to/watching Austen and that is I think that our own social crawler instincts – our willingness to accept the gentry’s evaluation of ‘nouveaus’ – end up making some characters more vulgar than Austen intended. This dates back at least to the Olivier P&P (movie) where Mrs Bennet is portrayed as out of her depth in ‘polite’ society and Mr Bennet, as shamed and mocking where I think Austen intended him to be amused and tolerant.

All this gets back to class. Walter Scott wrote at the time (here):

… the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard.

To the extent that class analysis is tolerated these days I think that we would grade Austen’s world as ‘upper middle’. Austen did portray a great deal of class mobility, not from the working classes whom she rarely bothers to name (the woman who cares for Marianne when she is ill is “Mrs Jenkins’ maid”), but from the well-off, ordinary middle – people in trade – into the gentry, the idle well-off. That said, I think the Steele sisters, Lucy and Anne, should be seen respectively as grasping and silly rather than lower class.

7. I have not mentioned the funniest and most quoted lines in S&S, as Elinor and Marriane’s sister in law talks their brother down by stages from his original intention to give his sisters a thousand apiece from the money he has inherited from their father, to a general intention to be of assistance to them in finding somewhere else to live; and I’ve probably assumed of my readership a familiarity with Austen which you don’t all have, in which case I apologize and suggest you make up the deficiency immediately.

 

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, first pub. 1811. Audiobook: BBC Audiobooks, 1996, read by Sarah Badel.

Previous Jane Austen posts –
Three Novels, Jane Austen, here
Love and Freindship, here
Jane Austen: Independent Woman, here
Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman, here
Sue at Whispering Gums, here

Dear Mr M, Herman Koch

28186095.jpg

I’m not an ignoramus when it comes to contemporary international literature, but just about, so was not aware of Koch nor his “International bestseller The Dinner” before listening to Dear Mr M last week. It’s an impressive work, my library had a hard copy, so here’s a review.

Herman Koch (1953 – ) is Dutch, has written 9 novels and according to Wikipedia he writes and acts in satirical movies and tv shows. The Dinner appears to have been made into separate Dutch, Italian and US movies, none of which I’ve seen. This novel, his eighth, published as Geachte heer M in 2014, was translated by Sam Garrett. Luke Daniels’ reading was excellent though his strong American accent took some getting used to.

Too many authors since postmodernism became fashionable have responded to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1967) by inserting themselves into their works, by writing about themselves writing about …, by conflating the work being read and the work within the work being read, and so on, all the time crying out “Look. Here I am. I’m not dead” [more’s the pity!]. Dear Mr M as you might have guessed, is such a work and all I can say is it’s very well done. And in any case is not as meta as some reviewers make out.

M is an ageing author, a decade older than Koch probably – I didn’t get the impression it’s a self-portrait, though it probably contains some self-mocking elements – whose best work is behind him. Still, he presses on, writing, giving talks and attending functions whose description adds a comedic element and probably earned him some enemies in what must be the relatively small Dutch literary establishment.

The protagonist, Herman, lives in the apartment below M. In a really effective bit of writing, the author uses the first person when Herman is talking or thinking about himself, the second person when Herman addresses his thoughts to M, and an omniscient third person when other characters are being observed. The most important of these are M himself; M’s young wife; Laura who was Herman’s girlfriend at school; and Jan Landzaat, a history teacher who disappears.

This disappearance leads to Dear Mr M being labelled as ‘mystery’ but I think that is a mistake, this is a literary novel whose subject is writing and being written about. M turns out to have been the author some years earlier of a bestselling ‘true crime’ novel based on the disappearance of Landzaat, in which he posits that the history teacher, who had been briefly Laura’s lover, was murdered by Herman and Laura when he called on them at a remote cottage owned by Laura’s parents, to persuade them (or himself) that he was no longer infatuated.

M is unaware that Herman, forty years later, is now his neighbour, in fact is not sufficiently aware of Herman to recognise him in the street, and is certainly not conscious that Herman is stalking him, or as it turns out, successfully stalking M’s wife to get closer to him.

Unlike most postmodern novels the novel which the author in the novel has written doesn’t become a second stream leaking into the first; instead, we return to the originals, Herman and Laura and their friends and teachers, on whom M’s novel was based and so gradually, and in parallel with Herman’s pursuit of M, we build up to and eventually pass beyond Landzaat’s disappearance.

There is a little joke which the author carries on about Landzaat’s name, based on zaat=seed=semen I think, though the Dutch word for seed seems to be not zaat but zaad. Not important I suppose, but having got this far I just had to look it up.

Herman eventually gets close enough to M to ‘interview’ him about his book. M says he believed the murder of the teacher was spontaneous, but that this wasn’t interesting enough for a work of fiction, so he made it premeditated.

But in your book the idea came up beforehand. And not just after the teacher came by the holiday home.
“It was difficult. I struggled with the motive. Or let me put it another way. I simply couldn’t believe that they would have done it just like that. And of course, just like that wasn’t interesting for a book. In dramatic terms. Dramatically speaking, a murder is better if it’s planned beforehand.”

It is an important factor in the denoument that Herman and his friend David get hold of a cheap 8mm movie camera and use it to make short films of pranks they play on others, including a teacher, and of Herman’s parents who are about to separate, which they edit together into a silent ‘movie’ titled ‘Life before Death’. Herman also films a teacher who has died at his desk and, later, Landzaat before he disappears.

This, the relationships of Herman and Laura and their friends, their antics at school and at Laura’s parents’ cottage, Laura’s seducing and soon after, dumping their history teacher to get Herman’s attention, the teacher’s falling apart, would have been an interesting story even without the metafictional elements. Herman’s pursuit of M (to what end I am even now not sure) and M’s day to day travails as an once-esteemed author, culminating in a fist fight between tuxedoed writing rivals at a gala night – shades of Denmark’s Nobel committee – take it up another notch. Highly recommended.

 

Herman Koch, Dear Mr M, first pub. as Geachte heer M, 2014, translated by Sam Garrett, Picador, London, 2016. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio, read by Luke Daniels, 13 hours.