The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh

9781573225434.jpg

The Sorrow of War (1990) is the fictional memoir of a young North Vietnamese man during and after the – from his point of view – American War. The author, Bào Ninh was actually born in 1952, but his protagonist Kien is 17 in 1965, so four years older, when the war starts and he goes straight from school to the North Vietnam Army. In the novel Kien is a famous novelist, 40 years old, writing The Destiny of Love, a story of the war which keeps getting mixed up with his own recollections of the war years, 1965-75, and the years since.

According to Wikipedia, in 1990 Bào Ninh published a roneoed version (who remembers Gestetners?) of this novel with the title The Destiny of Love after completing a creative writing course. “Soon afterwards Phan Thanh Hao translated it into English and took the manuscript to the British publishers Secker & Warburg. Geoffrey Mulligan, an editor there, commissioned Frank Palmos, an Australian journalist who had reported on the Vietnam War and written about it in his book Ridding the Devils (1990), to write an English version based on the raw translation.” This probably explains why The Sorrow of War sounds as though it were written in English by someone familiar with the war from the US point of view, as we are, rather than just translated.

I’m three years younger than Kien. I went up to university from my country high school in 1969 and was straight away involved in politics. Conscription had been introduced by the Liberal government to build up the army to help the Americans stop the supposed spread of Communism through South-East Asia. In 1971 I would have to register for ‘the ballot’, the lottery that chose 20 year olds to enlist, or face two years jail. As it happens I had no intention of killing the old men of the Liberal party’s enemies, or in helping them relive the glory days of World War II (in which of course very few of them had actually fought).

The first term of 1970 was spent in planning for the Moratorium on May 8. On the day, I marched down Swanston Street at the head of the Melb Uni contingent, bearing the pole for one end of our banner, to join up with the thousands already gathered in the Treasury Gardens. Then we marched out of the gardens and down Bourke Street to the GPO, 100,000 people shoulder to shoulder across the street. From where we were, outside Myers you could see marchers back up the hill all the way to Spring Street.

After the Moratorium was the Socialist Scholar’s conference in Sydney, then a fiery July 4 demo, the second Moratorium in September, which I attended in Brisbane having by then started truck driving, and an afternoon in the cells under the old Magistrates Court for ‘publishing a document’ to incite a breach of the National Service Act – ie. handing out pamphlets. By the end of 1971 I had been served a warrant regarding my failure to register and so moved to Queensland to live, to be out of the way. In December 1972 Labor was elected and the National Service laws were repealed. It was all over, for me anyway. For Kien it was never over.

These ‘war years’ of mine are only a fraction of the ten years Kien loses in the NVA, and then he must spend ten years more, reclaiming and losing again his first and only love Phuong, compulsively writing out the horrors he cannot forget, living with the spirits of the dead and, when this story starts, beginning the post-war years by collecting and bagging the bodies of the MIA’s in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, the battleground where he of all the 27th Battalion, was the only survivor.

Briefly, the novel is framed as a novel being written and then discarded, with the scattered pages recovered, out of order, and given to an editor. A standard writing school trope and hopefully now out of fashion again. But the result is a discontinuous narrative, with Kien fighting; Kien and Phuong graduating from high school, Kien too ‘honourable’ to follow up Phuong’s advances; rapes and battles and massacres; Phuong following Kien to the front; Kien and Phuong trying to live together, and failing, after Kien’s ten year absence.

If Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front remains the preeminent anti-war novel by a soldier on the losing side of WWI, then The Sorrow of War reminds us that winning is no great shakes either for the soldiers doing the actual fighting. But the real clue to reading this book is the ‘battle’ over the titles. It is clear Western readers at least are most interested in the war, but that the author is in fact more concerned with Kien’s failure to love and protect Phuong. The Sorrow of War is a love story that breaks your heart over and over and over again.

This is a stunning book. The only Vietnam War book I have read, or will read probably. I’m only sorry I was unable to get hold of a paper copy to give you some examples of Ninh’s writing

 

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, originally self-published as The Destiny of Love in Vietnamese in 1990. English version, Frank Palmos, Secker & Warburg, London, 1993. Audio version, Trantor, 2015, read by James Langton (no mention in the audio credits of Palmos or any translator)


Lisa at ANZLitLovers discussed The Sorrow of War a couple of years ago (here) and specifically the problem of English language counterfeit copies. This discussion takes a very interesting turn when Frank Palmos, now an Indonesia and Vietnam specialist at UWA (LinkedIn) joins in, at the time and again today (26/08/2017).

Advertisements

Old Blastus of Bandicoot, Miles Franklin

md20942652024.jpg

Miles Franklin was a fine literary stylist as the opening lines to Old Blastus attest:

It was in those days, so lately fled, when horseless carriages were a curiosity beyond the seaboard. Some young bloods had made the journey from Sydney to Melbourne in one as the most enterprising adventure at command following the picturesque performances of the Boer War, and had thereby rendered themselves as glamorous as minor fighter pilots of later years.

However, by 1931 when Old Blastus of Bandicoot came out Franklin was 52 and only just beginning to achieve critical success, as Brent of Bin Bin, after decades in the wilderness. Commercial success was something else, as these were Depression years and in any case British publishers paid a discounted rate for sales in Australia (Franklin’s publisher was Blackwoods of Edinburgh). Old Blastus, the first novel to be published under Franklin’s own name since Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), arose out of one of her many unsuccessful attempts to write and have staged a play in London in the years after the War, and is dedicated “to Annie, May, Leslie, Ethel & Ruby who first heard this story in its original dramatic form”.

Shockingly, my 1945 Australian Pocket Library edition is ‘by Miles Franklin, Author of “Bring the Monkey”, “All that Swagger”, “Joseph Furphy” etc., etc’. No mention of the famous My Brilliant Career! Franklin was prominent in the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Jill Roe writes, “FAW plans to ensure the survival and development of Australian literature when the war [WWII] was over took several forms” including the Australian Pocket Library which had print runs of 25,000 “an astonishing figure”. There is more (here) in this 1946 essay from the University of Toronto Quarterly:

The Commonwealth Literary Fund, since 1908 an active force in furthering the cause of Australian culture, aided by an annual government grant of about $15,000, agreed to underwrite the reprinting of standard, out-of print books, in cheap editions, in order to alleviate the book famine. Arrangements were made with publishers, an Advisory Board selected twenty three initial titles, and in 1944 the first of the reprints began to appear.

The book famine was the result of paper shortages during the War. Other FAW authors to have books published in this series included M. Barnard Eldershaw (The Glass House), and Frank Dalby Davidson (Man Shy).

Despite the silly title – and Franklin’s neologisms while they sometimes add colour, more often act to prevent her writing being taken seriously – Old Blastus is an interesting and often amusing account of farm life in Franklin home territory, the plains south of Goulburn, NSW now home to Canberra, in the first decade of the C20th.

Interestingly, to describe the country she re-uses a phrase from Ten Creeks Run: “Over the nearer rolling widths the spire of Canberra church came to view in its Plain, and Mount Ainslie”, rendering it this time as: “all the way across the rolling treeless plain guarded by its lone English spire, till leaving the shouldered masses of Black Mountain and Ainslie …” And she’s still fussed about her young heroines kissing: “‘Oh, people don’t kiss unless they’re engaged or something deadly,’ laughed Dora, her light words disguising her fluttering pulses.”

The story begins with Old Blastus, William Barry, upset that one of his neighbours has brought back the district’s first automobile after a visit to Sydney. “Nothing had so titillated the neighbourhood since Mabel Barry ‘went wrong'” which is a clue to the reveal at the end. Mabel is Barry’s oldest daughter. She was “thirty-seven and looked forty-five, and thought of nothing but work”. Dora, the Miles Franklin figure, is the younger daughter, verging on 18. “She sang with natural ease and her voice was much admired by those who heard it raised in the tuneful Weatherly melodies.” Of course she rides like the wind, and is sometimes allowed to ride unaccompanied “contrary to custom” into Queanbeyan for singing lessons. In case you haven’t been keeping up, Miles Franklin was both a horsewoman and a singer and so are all her young heroines. The other family members are Mother, and Arthur, a brother ten months or maybe fewer Dora’s junior. And there’s another clue.

Barry lives in a state of feud with his neighbours but Dora is oblivious to what is openly discussed by everyone else, and admires not just the car, but also the car-owner’s son, Ross Lindsey. Dora is restless, her father forbids socialising, she lacks occupation, does not really think she’ll make it as a singer, nor “did she feel capable of writing a book as that other girl, about whom everyone, even the old bushwhackers, made such a fuss” (Miles herself, of course!).

The situation is brought to a head when Ross is injured near the Barry property and has to be put up for a week while he recovers. Barry is forced to be polite to the Lindseys, Mrs Barry entertains hopes of resuming her old friendship with Mrs Lindsey, Dora sees enough of Ross to entertain hopes of her own, Ross’s older sister Kate and Dora’s absent older brother Bob resume contact after a 17 year hiatus, and Mabel begins to see a way for her and Arthur out of their unrelenting, and unpaid, drudgery.

Then follows a bazaar during which Dora sings to Ross’s accompaniment. Dora is a hit and is asked to stay with other young ladies in town. Barry is losing control:

What on earth was he to do? The idea that Dora might be able to hold her own – her own virtue, be safe within her own cleanly courage, did not occur to him. His idea was to guard her by main strength. His previous experience of freedom for daughters had been disastrous.

Dora sneaks off to attend a ball in the Lindsey’s woolshed. Her father catches up with her and drags her home, the old kitchen is in an uproar:

“Father came roaring over to Chesham Park.”
“Chesham Park!”
“With a buggy whip as if I were a slave in a harem.”
“That’s what you will be if you go the ways of harlotry.”
“He called me dreadful bad names before everyone and tried to thrash people with his whip as if he was drunk.”
“I pray God I was not too late. By God if I was …”

Franklin has been painting Old Blastus as all bluster, and although no-one actually gets whipped, Dora does get pushed to the ground. I’m not sure Franklin appreciates just how violent the old man’s behaviour is. None of her other (fictional) fathers is like this but it is possible her model was Steele Rudd’s rambunctious ‘Dad’. She was surely aware, and probably envious, of how financially successful Rudd had been with his ‘Dad and Dave’ books.

Lisa (here) and Sue (here) have been discussing bushfires in their recent reviews of Karenlee Thompson’s Flame Tip: Short Fictions and it’s a bushfire which is the climax of Old Blastus. Barry is obsessive about keeping his land cleared, and ploughing and burning firebreaks. Lindsey is rather less so, with long grass right up to the flash new homestead. The scene in the Barry kitchen is brought to an abrupt end when it becomes known that a fire on the boundary of Lindsey’s Chesham Park, driven by rising winds, threatens to engulf the whole community, though not before Dora finally learns Mabel’s secret.

Franklin’s writing is at its best in her descriptions of the fire and the efforts to control it:

… the fire seemed to carry in the air, or to start of spontaneous combustion, straight towards the Lindsey home paddocks. Flames ran up green gum trees as if they were tinder and sent crashing blazing tops in a vast shower of brands and sparks to set alight hundreds of yards around.

Old Blastus is the hero of the hour. Various love lifes are resolved. The community rope in a visiting Lord to present Barry with a car of his own. Mabel leaves Bandicoot for the first time in 17 years and the family find they miss her.

Old Blastus of Bandicoot was a popular book in its day, and a favourite of my father’s as it happens, probably because Franklin combines her always lively writing with likeable characters and a believable plot, which was not a combination she always achieved.

WP_20170822_10_16_03_Rich

Miles Franklin, Old Blastus of Bandicoot, First pub. 1931. My copy (above) Australian Pocket Library ‘by arrangement with the Commonwealth Literary Fund’, Melbourne, 1945

For a list of all my Miles Franklin reviews and posts go to Miles Franklin Central (here)

Great Australian Girls, Susan Geason

 

9780733307584.jpg

Before you tar and feather me, ‘Girls’ is Geason’s word, not mine, although  she attempts amelioration with ‘and the remarkable women they became’. And how Ned Kelly, or a female Ned Kelly – do they look like woman’s eyes to you too? – got on the cover I am not sure.

This 1999 book is a collection of biographical sketches of Australian women who shared “qualities like courage and determination, the strength to face adversity and obstacles and still fight on.” The idea of course, although Geason does not say so in her short Introduction, is to provide positive role models for girls when our histories, and the daily press, are so full of role models for boys.

As you might expect, the older stories are of more interest to me, some of the later stories might have been articles in the Women’s Weekly.

Mary Reibey (1777-1855) This is the most extensive account I’ve read of Reibey, who vies with Elizabeth Macarthur for the title of Australia’s first businesswoman. Mary was born in Lancashire into a middle class family. Her parents died early on and she was taken in by her grandmother and educated at Blackburn Free Grammar School. When she was 13 her grandmother died and rather than enter an ‘orphanage’ (a parish poor house probably) Mary ran away, stole and attempted to sell a horse, and although for a short while successfully posing as a boy, was eventually transported to New South Wales as a female convict on the Royal Admiral in 1792. Geason says as “part of the Second Fleet” but I think she is wrong about this, and in fact I think she relies too often on her general knowledge instead of looking things up, as for instance when she says “after a fast run across the Pacific … sailed through Sydney Heads”. In fact sailing ships came from England from the other direction, via Cape Town and the Southern Ocean.

On arrival in Sydney Town, Mary wasn’t selected from a line-up of new arrivals as a ‘wife’, but two years later, at age 17 she married Thomas Reibey, a ship’s officer with the East India Company. Reibey became a prominent businessman, firstly as a farmer on the Hawkesbury, then as the owner of small ships servicing his fellows on the Hawkesbury and subsequently the coastal and Pacific Islands trades. Thomas was often away and Mary was active in running the business, as she continued to do after his death in 1811, growing in prosperity and respectability for the next 40 years.

Geason mentions Mary Reibey’s diary, though not in her extensive list of sources, but here it is at the Mitchell (NSW State Library).

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) was born on her parent’s property, Oldbury, in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Her mother, an educated woman, daughter of a barrister, took over the property when her husband died two months after Louisa’s birth. There followed eight years of  moves and disruption, not to mention a disastrous re-marriage to an alcoholic, before Charlotte finally had James Atkinson’s will executed in her favour. The lesson Louisa learned from this was the one preached by many of my other Independent Women: “a woman without money and friends was at the mercy of men. Marriage was not the answer… A woman had to gain the skills and knowledge to earn her own living.” Charlotte before her had been an author – of the first children’s book published in the colony – and an amateur botanist. Louisa took up botany at an early age and at 19 started producing nature notes and drawings for the Sydney Illustrated News, and subsequently as ‘A Voice from the Country’ in the Sydney Morning Herald. With her friend Emma Selkirk she made long excursions into the Blue Mountains searching out new plant species –

On horseback, with their long skirts hiked up like trousers, the two would pick their way up and down steep ravines, through dense forest and undergrowth… One of their favourite haunts was the fern gully at the Kurrajong waterfalls, where they discovered several new ferns.

Sounds like the women in Christina Stead’s story ‘On the Road’ in The Salzburg Tales.

Louisa’s major work was an illustrated Australian natural history. In 1870 she sent the ms to famous botanist Ferdinand von Mueller but it was lost in the upheavals of the Franco-Prussian War. She also wrote a number of novels though Geason mentions only the first, Gertrude the Emigrant (1857).

Finally, aged 35, she married, but died a couple of years later in childbirth.

Mary MacKillop (1842-1909). I’ve been meaning to look into the life of Mary McKillop for a while and by this account she was a lively and determined woman. Leaving aside the nonsense of “Australia’s first saint”, she famously established an independent order of nuns, the Josephites, against the bitter opposition of Australian Catholic bishops.

In 1865 the three older MacKillop girls set off to Penola [north of Mt Gambier, SA] to start their school. Mary was 24, Annie was 17, and Lexie only 15. They started out teaching classes in their cottage and the local church.

In January 1866, by donning a simple black gown, Mary became a nun, the school became the Institute  of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and a new religious order was born. When she died, aged 67, Mary ‘left behind 750 nuns teaching over 12,000 children in Josephite schools in Australia and New Zealand.’

Next up are Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) whom I discussed here, and will treat at length ‘one day’ soon; and Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson (1870-1946) here and ditto.

May Gibbs (1877-1969) was born in England and came to Australia when she was four. Her father attempted to farm poor country north of Adelaide before giving in and moving to Western Australia where he farmed first at Harvey, south of Perth, then at Butler’s swamp which is now the (inner) suburb, Claremont. (I once had a boss, a milkman, who remembered when cows were run on the South Perth foreshore). May had virtually no formal schooling, but at 20 she became a student at the new Art Gallery and then at 23 she enrolled first at the prestigious London art school, the Cope and Nichol, then after a brief interlude back in Perth, at first Chelsea Polytechnic then at Mr Henry Blackburn’s School for Black and White Artists.

Back in Perth again Gibbs found some work as an illustrator (eventually losing out to Ida Rentoul) but it was not until she moved to Sydney with her friend Rene Heames that she found consistent success. Bib and Bub, the gumnut babies grew out of her work illustrating the NSW Primary Reader and School Magazine, before popping up in Ethel Turner’s The Magic Button, then Gibb’s own books, Gum-Nut Babies and Gum-Blossom Babies appeared ‘just in time for Christmas 1916. Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie came out in 1918 and the rest is history*.

There follow Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) who went from farm girl to international opera star to crippled by polio; Nancy Bird (1915-2009) pioneer commercial aviator; Linda McLean (1917- ) who wrote a memoir of her hardships during the Depression, Pumpkin Pie and Faded Sandshoes; Dawn Fraser (1937- ) the great Australian swimmer whose working class background rubbed too many ‘amateur’ swimming officials up the wrong way; Pat O’Shane (1941- ) a Yalanji-Kunjandji woman, ‘Aboriginal activist and magistrate’; Irene Moss/Kwong Chee Wai Lin (1948- ) characterised as ‘a fighter for justice’, the Race Discrimination Commissioner wife of the Chairman of Australia’s most rapacious bank (Alan Moss, Macquarrie Bank); Lorrie Graham (1954- ) photojournalist; Beverley Buckingham (1965- ) one of the best jockeys in Tasmania until the fall in 1998 which rendered her an ‘incomplete quadriplegic’; Heather Tetu (1967- ) trapeze artist graduate of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and an early organizer of circus exchanges with China, left unable to perform  after a fall in 1992; Sonya Hartnett (1968- ) writer, whom I reviewed recently (here); Fiona Coote (1970- ) heart transplant recipient; Louise Sauvage (1973- ) multi gold medal winning wheelchair racer; Rebecca Smart (1976- ) actor, Buster in The Shiralee (1987), and Const. Donna Janevski in The Water Rats since this book came out; Tamara Anna Cislowska (1977- ) child prodigy pianist; Monique Truong (1985- ) girl.

Monique is definitely my favourite of the ‘others’. When she was 11, her parents’ Canley Vale (Sydney, western suburbs) house was broken into by a gang of schoolboys armed with pistols. Unhappy with what was there to steal they took Monique with them, eventually holing up in a Parramatta hotel –

[The leader] grabbed one of the single beds for himself, while Monique and the other boy shared the second one, a pillow between them.

In the morning Monique slipped a note under the door and was soon rescued, physically unharmed. However, as might be expected, she needed counselling and her family moved to Queensland, where they feel safer.

 

Susan Geason, Great Australian Girls, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

*Lisa, ANZLitLovers attended the session ‘The Real May Gibbs’ at the recent Bendigo Writers’ Festival

The Salzburg Tales, Christina Stead

2104153.jpg

The Salzburg Tales (1934) is a collection of often fantastical tales told to each other by a group of visitors to Salzburg, there for “the August Festival, the great event of Salzburg men”, and with spare time during the seven days of the Festival to wander in the woods and pastures outside the town. We know that Stead is a wonderful writer, but the virtuosity of these tales with all their different styles and settings is amazing. And Stead’s daring in making her first published work a take on The Canterbury Tales, one of English literature’s earliest and best-known works, is breathtaking.

The story behind the book is that for some years Stead had been working on, and her partner Bill Blake had been attempting to find a publisher for, Seven Poor Men of Sydney. Eventually Blake came up with Peter Davies – apparently the adopted son of JM Barrie and the model for Peter Pan – who gave her a contract with the condition that she write something else as well, which she did, taking about a year.

When she presented this second work to Peter Davis he said that his company did not like to begin with a book of short stories, to which she replied ‘too bad’. He did however publish The Salzburg Tales first and it was a succès d’estime. (Williams)

We know, in later years at least, that Stead always had two or three manuscripts on the go, and my guess is that that was the case then too. She had already begun on ‘Lovers in Paris’ that was to become her third novel, The Beauties and Furies, and I’m guessing that she had also already begun the stories that make up The Salzburg Tales, enough at least to make an informed pitch to the publisher.

The Canterbury Tales begins with a Prologue which includes portraits of the travellers, and then goes on to the travellers’ tales. The Prologue begins: “When April with his showers sweet with fruit/The drought of March has pierced unto the root/And bathed each vein with liquor that has power/To generate therein and sire the flower …”.

The Salzburg Tales begins also with a Prologue, with the opening lines:

Salzburg, old princely and archiepiscopal city, and its fortress Hohen-Salzburg, lie among the mountains of the Tyrol, in Salzburg Province, in Austria. The river Salzach, swift and yellow from the glaciers and streaming mountain valleys, flows between baroque pleasure-castles standing in glassy lakes, and peasant villages pricked in their vineyards, and winds about to reflect the citadel rising in its forests, single eminence in the plain.

Here is a photo, though with words like that you hardly need it.

springtime-in-salzburg-old-city-810x600.png
Salzburg

Stead, then living in Paris with Blake, had holidayed in Bavaria and Austria in the summer of 1930, spending August in Salzburg for the Mozart Festival. The publishing contract was secured the following April, and Stead:

… sat down in the kitchen of her flat and immediately wrote The Salzburg Tales, one day a story, the next day editing and ‘connective tissue’ … from beginning to end ‘because I’d just come back from Salzburg and was inspired by Mozart, because he has the most marvellously connected and creative brain in the whole world, I think.’ (Williams)

The Prologue is short and is followed by a chapter on The Personages. Stead describes actors and audience entering an open area before the cathedral for a performance of Jedermann (Everyman) which she herself had attended on August 1, 1930, and provides vignettes of all the ‘personages’ who will meet over the following seven days and tell stories for the amusement of their fellows.

According to Williams, many of the characters were based on people Stead knew. The Centenarist, who tells a number of stories, ‘was not pleased to find a copy of himself in print’; though the English Gentleman and the New York Doctor of Medecine were flattered. Bill Blake was the model for the Critic of Music as well as for some of the characters in the stories – Ernest Jordain, a polymath and Isidor, a poor Jewish boy. There is also a Little Old Lady in two of the stories who is probably Bill’s mother Rosa, who was living with them at the time, and with whom Stead had a difficult relationship.

The ‘connective tissue’ of the stories is that a few people gather and call on one or another of their number to tell a story. So, on the first day “a party from the ‘Hotel Austria’ went up into the monastery wood on the Kapuzinerberg in the morning to listen to the bells of the town and rest for some hours on the wooded height” and the Town Councillor tells the first tale, The Marionettist.

The tales themselves are difficult to place in time, most of them have a nineteenth century feel, though every now and again a car or even a television is mentioned. Only right near the end does the 1914-18 War come up, and even then it’s just mentioned in passing. I’m sure you could do a PhD on themes in the stories and their relation to stories in The Canterbury Tales, and for that matter in the Decameron and the Arabian Nights, but it is beyond the scope of this review, and beyond what I could glean out of a single reading (fractured over the past month).

Mostly the stories have the feel of tales being told, rather than the mixture of speech and action which characterises ordinary novel writing, but Stead is very clever at differentiating the tellers’ styles one from another. The tales are from all over. Some probably come from Blake’s Jewish heritage, some involve magic or ghosts, some are straight accounts of small incidents in the teller’s life, and there are two or three in which it gradually becomes apparent that the setting is Australia.

[Two young women mistake their way while walking in the Blue Mountains] They looked down and still saw the rolling ravined bottoms, full of tree-ferns, eucalypts and patches of burnt-out scrub.

“We will follow the same path tomorrow. I have heard of a new path for the descent: we strike off to the left and reach more shortly the Burrogorang Valley; there, where you see a clearing glimmering in the forest.”

Lilias looked down at the night assembling and massing in the gullies. It was there in its cohorts; its sentinels were climbing to the eyries of the cliff, it reconnoitred in the lofty escarpments. It was there in the clefts and scoriations of the precipice: it was running instantly and languorously, with the movement of irresistible floods over the endless sky. (The Schoolteacher’s Tale, On The Road).

If you are at all interested in Christina Stead, or if you are a fan of Angela Carter, say, then read this book. You don’t have to rush, read it one or two tales at a time before you switch out the light at night. I think there are more than a hundred, so it will take a while, but you won’t be disappointed.

 

Christina Stead, The Salzburg Tales, first pub. 1934, My edition Sirius, 1989

I have reviewed Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here) and a number of her novels (click on ‘Stead’ under Tags in the sidebar) but the best place to start is at ANZLitLovers Christina Stead page (here)

Ten Authors I Love to Hate

If I’m listening to old people’s radio and they start playing John Williamson I switch automatically to another station, ditto for Johnny Farnham who as far as I’m concerned will never get over Sadie the Cleaning Lady no matter how often he works himself up to sing tenor for I’m the Voice. And so it is with some authors – I’ve tried them, or haven’t been able to avoid them, and they’ve let me down, and now I can’t stand them.

As for what I mean by ‘authors’ let me be clear: an Author is a name to which is attached a body of work, or to quote Foucault, “an author’s name … performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring a classificatory function. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others.” (What is an Author? (1969), translated by Joseph Harari, (1979)).

I don’t hate these writers, just some (or even all) of the stuff they have written. A distinction which may have been lost on the obituary writer in the Australian who caused a storm when he wrote of the late Colleen McCullough, “Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth.” But let’s get on with it, starting with the author who annoys me most and working down to number ten.

MV5BYmU1YjhmYWYtNDkzZC00ZTM2LWFmZmQtZjFjMDcyZmYxNTBkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTE2Njc5MjE@._V1_UY268_CR12,0,182,268_AL_.jpg

1. Clive James (1939- ) was born in Sydney and moved to London in 1962 where, like his contemporaries Germaine Greer and Rolf Harris, he has been a professional Australian ever since. He is fabulously knowledgeable about History and the Arts, is a minor poet, and has written criticism and fiction. His three volumes of autobiography, starting with Unreliable Memoirs, for which he is best known (as a writer) are mildly amusing and of course by understating, serve only to underline, his considerable intellect. During my M.Litt I had to study his novel The Remake (1987) which he wrote to demonstrate how clever he was about postmodernism. It too is mildly amusing. Leaving aside the embarrassing “Clive James on Television” (1982-88), his borderline racist show about bad television, my big disappointment with James is that he chose not to be a serious author. And he might have been.

2. George Johnston (1912-1970) was born in Melbourne, moved up from lithographer to journalist, and became a well-known war correspondent during WWII. After the war he gave up a prestigious posting in London to live in the Greek islands with his second wife Charmian Clift as full-time novelists. He wasn’t a particularly good writer and in the novels he co-wrote with Clift he supplied the plots and she did the writing. His career finally took off in 1964 with the publication of his fictionalized memoir My Brother Jack, which like its sequel Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) took out the Miles Franklin. It’s a long time since I read them, but I recall them as blokey, boastfull books, and Johnston as a braggart and a loudmouth.

3. Colleen McCullough (1937-2015) was a woman of intelligence – she was a neuroscientist at Yale before ‘retiring’ to full-time writing – and wit. When quizzed one time about her size, she was 5’10”, she quipped at least she had a nice waist and big knockers. What she wasn’t, and I have no idea if she wished to be, was a writer of Literary Fiction. I bought her The Song of Troy (1998) for geology daughter and found it astonishingly badly written – The Illiad meets Mills & Boon. I see she also wrote a Pride and Prejudice spin-off, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, the reviews are so bad I might try and find a copy.

4. Peter Carey (1943- ) is a very good writer, and he has two Bookers and four Miles Franklins to prove it. Up till I was nearly 30 I read only SF and Mad Magazine (which kept me surprisingly up to date with popular film culture). After that I started catching up on what was around me, which was of course the renaissance in Australian film making and a new, post-war generation of Australian writers. And if David Ireland was at the top of that list, then Carey was next. I read his short stories The Fat Man in History (1974), and his novels Bliss (1981) – and saw the movie – Oscar and Lucinda, The Tax Inspector and Illywhacker, in that order. These are probably all the books he wrote in Australia. Illywhacker with its second half descent into magic realism and the fantastical Oscar and Lucinda probably demonstrate the direction of Carey’s thinking, but his move to New York in 1990 seems to have coincided with an ambition to become a ‘world’ writer, which has led to his writing becoming increasingly pretentious, less relevant to Australia, and of little impact in the wider world of literary fiction.

5. Geraldine Brooks (1955- )is a writer of historical fiction, so that’s one strike; while I understand her wish to provide positive representations of women I do not agree with plonking 21st century women in 16th or 17th century situations, so that’s two strikes; and she’s an American who happened to be born in Australia, so that’s three.

6. C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was a popular poet. The Sentimental Bloke (1916), which I like, sold 65,000 copies in its first year. The first problem I have with Dennis is not with him specifically, but with the nature of ‘poetry’ at the turn of the century. Dennis, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and others wrote doggerel to illustrate current stories in newspapers and magazines. Poetry it wasn’t. The second problem is that Dennis filled a spot analogous to that later filled by the cartoonist Pickering, providing daily commentary that was sometimes amusing but always right-wing. The third problem is that in primary school I had to learn the poem that begins “Hey Ho, Hey Ho, the circus is coming to town” and it haunts me still.

7. Linda Jaivin (1955- ) is an American who became an Australian. For that I commend her. She is seriously knowledgeable about China and that is reflected in some of her later fiction. Another tick. What really gets up my nose is that when I was studying Australian Grunge – literature by young writers in the mid to late 1990s – there she was with Eat Me (not a grunge novel at all really) and Rock’n’Roll Babes from Outer Space and yet her bio had her taking part in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. She’s bloody nearly my age! A generation older than the other (reluctant) grungers like Tsialkos, McGahan, Ettler, and carrying on as though she’s one of them.

8. Kate Grenville (1950- ) is probably a good writer who attempted with The Secret River (2005) to reframe the way white Australians think about First Contact. And for that she was drawn into a whirlpool of controversy. Grenville argues furiously against the accusation that she regards herself as a writer of history but I’m afraid I side with Inga Clendinnen who argued that Grenville introduces C21st sensibilities into her account of the early settlement of the Hawkesbury River region.

images

9. Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) is best known these days for Brideshead Revisited (1945), the enormously snobbish story of a gawky university undergraduate in love with his best friend and his best friend’s English Catholic aristocratic family, which I read and was of course tremendously impressed by at the end of my first and only year at Trinity College (Melb.). Strangely, my first Waugh was the biography of English saint, Edmund Campion, given to me at the end of primary school, and probably the first grown-up book I ever read. I’ve since purchased all his fiction, but only Put Out More Flags is any good, the rest is the ravings of a right-wing social climber.

10. Joseph Heller (1923-1999) wrote Catch 22 (1961) for which he will live in our hearts forever. His next novel, Something Happened (1974) is a dark view of life as a successful office worker, containing a shocking twist which I have thought about off and on for 30 or 40 years. I own those two and the next, Good as Gold (1979), which is ok, and his last two Closing Time (1994) and Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (2000). Sadly, whatever it was that he had, he has lost. Closing Time which reprises some of the characters from Catch 22 is derivative and not worth reading. Sad.

There are many others whom I considered for inclusion. Barry Humphries is a snob and a misogynist. I have his ‘comic novel’ Women in the Background (1995) but really, he doesn’t belong in a post about writers. Then there are Australian ‘action thriller writer’, Matthew Reilly, Robert G Barrett, and all those ‘John Williamsons’ of the Akubra romance genre – Judy Nunn, Joy Dettman, … And Ruth Park gets up my nose too, but I’d better stop before I get carried away.

 

The Light Between the Oceans, M.L. Stedman

1334422800000.jpg

Let’s get one thing clear right at the beginning. I found this popular novel turgid and melodramatic. Towards the end of its interminable 10 hours on audiobook I started skipping instead of listening one more time to how unhappy the two mother/protagonists were, and to all the plainly silly plot devices keeping them and the child in close proximity to one another.

Still with me? A brave soldier (officer) returned from the Great War joins the lighthouse service and is assigned to a light on remote Janus Island off the southwest corner of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, hence the title. The officer, Tom Sherbourne, meets and marries a local girl, Isobel, and takes her to live on the island. Shortly after her third miscarriage, a dinghy is cast up on the island carrying a dead man and a live baby girl, a few weeks old. Rather than report this discovery Tom is persuaded by Isobel to keep the baby and for them to raise her as their own.

Spoilers. Only after two years does it become apparent that the baby is in fact that of another local woman, Hannah. And it is another two years after that before Hannah is made aware that her daughter is still alive. Tom is arrested. The baby, now old enough to have her own opinions, is returned to Hannah, who for some reason doesn’t go and live in Perth or Sydney or London, anywhere the child might adjust to her new situation in peace, but stays on instead in the small town where she and her daughter must inevitably run into Isobel. This drags on for hours seemingly while a case is made out against Tom, who has assumed all the blame, until at last some sort of resolution is achieved.

It seems to me that maybe 40 years ago it became fashionable (in Australia) to write about the First World War as an unmitigated horror – which it was – and to discuss soldiers returned from that war as damaged, traumatised. Two books stand out in that regard, David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (1982) which rapidly became the standard ‘text’ on war in schools, and 1915 (1979) by Roger Macdonald. In retrospect I believe these books and the many that followed, including the Light Between the Oceans, were and are code for providing a path towards acceptance for soldiers returned from the illegal and unnecessary Vietnam War, and for understanding what we now call PTSD.

Stedman employs the familiar, indeed worn-out trope of the strong, silent returned soldier unable to speak the horrors he has seen, for Tom, in contrast with Isobel’s once free spirit descending further into despair with each successive miscarriage, to provide a background for their flawed decision making. Whether this essay on moral relativism needed to be set in a work of historical fiction is a moot point. I certainly don’t think Stedman contributes anything new to our understanding of 1920s Western Australia, or to take a wider view, to our understanding of post WWI Australia.

And if you as readers want to know more about children separated from their mothers then maybe you could try Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review), or one of the many other Indigenous accounts of the Stolen Generations. Thousands of Aboriginal children were taken forcibly from their homes and put into institutions and then into service, and to get worked up about one imaginary white child is both an indulgence and insulting. And no, I haven’t forgotten about all the children removed from teenage single mothers right up to the 1960s.

If you’re interested in the setting, there is no Janus Island and indeed, as far as I know, no islands at all 100 miles (160 km) off the southwest coast. The coastal township of the story, Port Partageuse appears to be a composite of the town of Augusta, nearby Cape Leeuwin, which does have a lighthouse (#4 on map), and Point D’Entrecasteaux which is a bit further south.

The Light Between the Oceans has its good points. The characterisations, particularly of Tom and Isobel, are excellent and if the author had decided they should have kept the child, I would have sympathised, instead of running out of patience with them is I eventually did. The descriptions of the rugged island and later of the West Australian bush are also excellent. This is Stedman’s first novel and I would not be surprised to learn it was the product of a creative writing degree – passages of good descriptive writing around an immature plot.

 

M.L. Stedman, The Light Between the Oceans, Random House, Melbourne, 2012. Audio version: AudioGo, 2012, read by Noah Taylor (10 hrs 20 min)

For a contrasting view try Lisa at ANZLitLovers (here)
Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest likes it despite its faults (here)

Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett

20621185.jpg

This is probably the only ‘poem’ I’ll ever write:

Leonards Hill
Underbool
Bonnie Doon
Inverloch
Leongatha
Murrayville
Macarthur
Blackburn South
Colac

The homes of my childhood, Victorian country towns – except for Blackie Sth, a suburb of Melbourne, now leafy, then new red brick and tile. For my father, markers of his progress through the teaching service and into the bureaucracy. For me, constant changes of school, 5 years, 3 years, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, dux of class, class captain, move, repeat, till in 1968 I matriculated with 3 first class honours, a fail in English and a bare pass in Calculus, with a pregnant girlfriend, and an insufficient grounding in mathematics, already heading for a life in trucks, away from supervision and away from people.

This is a book about sons and fathers, and it has set me off. I had a childhood like the boys in this book, church on Sundays, school on weekdays, but otherwise, from the age of six or seven, free to jump on my bike, head off to a mate’s house, or out into the paddocks, to a game of tennis or to swim in the river or at the pool. Mum home cooking, Dad sober. An idyllic childhood. And it makes me angry. I know fathers who came home drunk, fathers who beat their children, fathers whose behaviour in relation to their daughters, and sometimes their sons, was unspeakable. And still I’m angry, about the friends I didn’t keep, about the father I didn’t have, about the second-rate teaching I got at Colac High so he could be District Inspector.

Golden Boys is set in a suburban neighbourhood in an unnamed city in an unspecified year. A middle class suburb of mixed weatherboard and red brick houses. It feels like (Melbourne suburbs) North Blackburn or Clayton or Reservoir in the 1980s with cheaply constructed post-war housing and young families, but it could be anywhere. Strangely, though it’s November it’s too cold for swimming, so maybe it’s Hobart. Everywhere I lived, before heated pools, swimming started at the end of the September school holidays.

The principal actors are Freya, Declan and Sydney Kiley, aged 12, 11, 10; Colt and Bastian Jenson, aged 12 and 9; and two boys from broken or damaged families Avery and Garrick aged 11. And that’s the other problem, two problems really, I have with this story. The boys all knock around together. My brothers are 2, 5 and 7 years younger than me and I would have had to be really desperate to play with even the nearest. At different times Freya and Colt are the same age, then Declan, Syd and Colt are, then Syd and Bastian (who’s a bit of a baby), or Avery and Bastian and so on. It doesn’t ring true.

Spoilers. Which takes us to the second problem. The central focus of this novel is that Rex Jenson buys Colt and Bastian flash toys, a roomful of flash toys, and a swimming pool, in order to entice other boys into his house where he can molest them. Or at least his behaviour can be construed that way, and we are given plenty of hints that he has moved to this neighbourhood because he had to leave his previous one. The secondary focus is on Joe Kiley who comes home drunk on payday and is getting increasingly violent towards his wife and children (there are 3 or 4 more younger ones I haven’t named). Hartnett insists Golden Boys is an adult novel, not YA, but it doesn’t read that way. The POV we get is the kids’, not their parents, and even if it’s not suitable for 12 year olds, the novel appears to me best aimed at, say, 16 year olds.

The Jensons have just moved in. Colt and Declan get on ok and (father) Rex makes clear that all the boys are welcome, not just to knock around on their bikes, but to come in, use the toys, get something to eat.

Declan from early on is uneasy about Jenson’s behaviour, worried that Syd is gravitating towards the toys and more particularly the pool, where Jenson can towel him down, tuck his clothes in. Avery, a parentless boy, almost a street kid, keeps his distance and surprisingly it is the rough boy, Garrick, who is first to complain. He has to tell someone and he tells Declan and Syd:

Without looking at them he says, ‘He wasn’t naked,’ and adds swiftly, ‘Neither was I. he didn’t make me touch his toggle -’

Then he tells them the full story, of him and Avery having a swim in the Jenson’s backyard pool in the evening, with Rex looking on “Making his stupid comments”. Then Avery slips away and Garrick is caught:

‘… he grabs me and, really quick, he tucks my shirt into my jeans. He sticks his finger down the back of my jeans, stuffing my shirt in… He cops a feel of my arse, Declan!’

So Colt finds himself friendless. Again.

There’s other stuff going on. We never completely lose sight of Freya, who persuades herself she’s responsible for her parents’ failing marriage. She also develops a crush on Rex Jenson, and turns to him for help when her father’s violence gets out of control. Rex intervenes, Joe fights back by accusing him: “You’ve been touching my kids”. Rex shrugs it off and that would seem to be that.

Golden Boys is an odd book, dealing with important issues, and Hartnett, as you no doubt know and I had to look up, is an experienced and much awarded author, but I think she got the tone of this one wrong. For adults it should have been much darker, and for YAs it should have been clearer about what they could do. At the end, even if he has to move again, Rex Jenson seems to have not suffered at all.

 

Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys, Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, 2014. Audio version, Bolinda Books, 2015, read by David Vatousios