Some Books

Journal: 037

11001921

Another weekend in Melbourne – I hope it’s only a weekend, oldest granddaughter turns 16 at the end of the week and I’d like to be at the party, back home in Perth. Left the trailers at a truckstop in the northern suburbs and made my way to Mum’s where I can ‘hide’ the prime mover in a light industrial side street.

Mum reads pretty well constantly. Her retirement village has a ‘library’ where residents may leave and borrow books. The ones that caught my attention this weekend were Norman Lindsay’s The Cousin from Fiji (1945), the story of a young woman in the 1890s Ballarat of Lindsay’s boyhood, and given his notorious womanizing, surprisingly sympathetic; A Web of Friendship, Christina Stead’s letters; and Notorious Australian Women (2011) by Kay Saunders.

I read the Charmian Clift chapter in NAW and it was profoundly disappointing – it seems Clift is notorious for being beautiful (on the cover of Pix); getting pregnant at 18 and adopting out her daughter; and, get this, for causing the breakup of her marriage with George Johnston by being the breadwinner while he was ill.

There was no way Mum was going to let me take the Stead with me, but I got to read a couple of letters and I’d like to share with you excerpts from one which illuminates Stead and husband, William Blake’s move from London to New York in 1935, after they’d mostly been living in Paris (biog.). The letter is headed ‘Blech’ (Blake’s parents were German Jewish immigrants) at an address in Brooklyn and is to Nettie Palmer.

I had to begin all over again here, at the very moment I seemed to be getting to know people in London. I don’t know how long I will be here: it looks like a long session [discusses migrating to Canada] … If that works out all right I will in proper time (I believe it is three years) apply for first papers as an American citizen, a status which becomes effective in five years as I understand … It is always possible however that Bill will get tired of America and move again.

Rebecca West has been very generous to me, so have others: I have not found any envy or disparagement in the literary world, although I have found some (or rather, envious silences) amongst middle-class friends with no literary calling.

I only want one thing, I thirst to do something so good that there will be no denying it on anyone’s part.

My new novel, by the way, will disappoint you: it is one of those things that kick round in publishers’ rooms for years, being altered, discussed, proved, approved, until the author has got out of all patience, and the book out of all recognition [The Beauty and the Furies].

… I really put some gristle into Seven Poor Men and my New York friends haven’t even read it [apparently they expected free copies, which she couldn’t afford]. So they pass the fact that I write, up in silence, perhaps feeling slightly injured even; and sit and talk the whole evening about the stock market or what not. It makes me simply furious, not that I expect to be an object of interest, but not ever to be able to talk about literature … it is my own fault for hanging round demnition middle-class circles. I get a lot of fun though, from time to time, out of Bill’s business-friends: they are cheerful, brutal neo-Darwinians (survival of the slickest), complete Marxians (but on the other side of the fence!).

[Christina Stead, 8th Jan. 1936, from RG Geering ed., A Web of Friendship: Selected Letters (1928-1973), Imprint, Sydney, 1992]

I looked up ‘demnition’, a variation on damned, maybe invented by Dickens.

As I type on Mum’s dining room table, there is a silver foil wrapped package on the bench, a fruit cake which Mum has made me for Christmas, though I’ll probably save it for my birthday in March, the last before another big ‘0’. And yes, I brought my washing home. But I did cook dinner, well mine anyway, a vegie frittata, Mum had steak. Tonight (Sun.) we can eat out.

6613956. sy475

If I didn’t constantly listen to audiobooks I would be even more unaware than I am now of what goes on in World Literature. My reading, I’m sure, would revert to SF and classics, mostly Australian. And of course I would miss out on some excellent fiction. Which takes us back to Grab the Lapels, again! Is ‘excellent fiction’ Literary Fiction, and what I prefer, writing for the writing’s sake, something else? Experimental Fiction maybe? I’m not sure. But the Solitude of Prime Numbers (2008) is definitely excellent fiction.

The novel begins as a series of episodes in the lives of various children and it takes a while to pick up the connections. It’s never said, but apparently it’s set in Turin. A child, Alice, gets lost in the fog on a ski slope and has an accident. Mattia suffers at school because his twin sister is ‘odd’. They finally get invited to a birthday party, he abandons her in a park on the way to the party and when he returns she is gone, in the lake maybe, and never found. Alice, is bullied by the flash girls, cronies of Viola, but is finally, seemingly accepted by them. Mattia, a brilliant student, ends up at Alice’s school. There are other students but we hear less and less of them. Alice, who has been left with a permanent limp from her skiing accident, tortures herself by not eating. Mattia tortures himself by stabbing his palms.

Alice forces Mattia to accept her as a friend, but they are never lovers. Mattia goes away to lecture in mathematics in Germany. Alice takes up photography (and gets a very funny revenge on Viola, while taking Viola’s wedding photos).

The delivery of the reader, Luke Daniels, is almost deadpan, but I think that is the way it is written. The story itself is rivetting as you become more and more invested in the two protagonists. Their ‘relationship’ is brought to a head by what might or might not be a sighting of the long dead twin sister. Highly recommended!

Recent audiobooks 

Joseph Conrad (M, Eng), Nostromo (1904) – Lit.Fic
Paolo Giordano (M, Ita), the Solitude of Prime Numbers – Lit.Fic.
PK Dick (M, USA), Our Friends from Frolix 8 (1970) – SF
Andrea Camilleri (M, Ita), The Paper Moon (2005) – Crime
Robin Maxwell (F, Eng), Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007) – Hist.Fic.

Currently reading

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill
Connell & Marsh ed.s, Literature and Globalization
John Kinsella, Hollow Earth
Rosaleen Love, The Total Devotion Machine and other stories

Advertisements

Hollow Earth, John Kinsella

original_9781925760279.jpg

At the risk of losing my (self-allocated) reputation for not reading poetry, John Kinsella  – seen once before in these pages, here: False Claims of Colonial Thieves, Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella – is a Western Australian poet/writer I have been meaning to pay more attention to for some time. He was born in Perth, in 1963; his mother was a poet and his father a mining engineer and later a farm manager. From his writing – I should read Auto (2001), his collection of autobiographical pieces – he seems to have lived in Kalgoorlie and, later Mullewa from whence he attended high school in Geraldton. According to Wikipedia Kinsella is now a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and the author of more than 30 works including 3 novels, now four.

Hollow Earth (2019) is the science fiction novel you might expect from a poet – shades of the centre in Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork. The protagonist, Manfred, a young man, finds ways into a world beneath the surface, Hollow Earth, with humanoid inhabitants, green tinged, of indeterminate or maybe fluid gender, at the same technological level as us on the surface, but keeping largely to themselves. Lives with them for a while before persuading his two friends/lovers Ari and Zest to come with him to the surface where they engage in a drug-laced odyssey (or Aeneid if you know your Virgil which of course I don’t).

The future intrudes from time to time and we see ahead to a Hollow Earth reduced to a colony run by a Big Australian mining company which might as well go flat out now the Earth is f****d anyway.

Looking to the future, when refugees from the surface began filtering through before the final push and consolidation of the Big Miners (and the internment camp for Hollow Earthers and ‘aberrant’ surface dwellers they created), driven from Ireland where they were refugees from conflict in the Middle East… Zest and Ari, who had some influence on their local life enhancement committee, asked Manfred if he’d act as liaison officer to help house and clothe the new arrivals. No, that can’t be correct – this happened after, long after Manfred was in Hollow Earth. But narratives loop, surely, and who can say which ends we’re working with? It’s possible, really, isn’t it?

This narrative loops, for sure! Manfred as a boy digging in the sand (all WA is sand); Manfred in Ireland while his mother searches for extraterrestials; Manfred, Ari and Zest in Ireland, in Perth, in bed, on drugs. Short chapters, a sentence, one, two, three pages. Some poetry, some text, some incomprehensible, some random.

Manfred declared the poet C.J. Brennan [Australian poet Christopher Brennan (1870-1932)] to be a fantasy writer of the ilk of Tolkien. And as he described the world the poet had created, barely analogous to our own, he was laughed off the stage and the door was closed forever on his academic career. But Lilith in succubus scrubs remained to haunt him, to jar his gender aphasia into distressed shadow shapes …

To Sydney where Brennan’s own academic career ended in drunkenness and poverty; to Kimba, South Australia, where a proposed nuclear waste dump closes a portal to Hollow Earth.

They never really get inside the land they describe. Sure, they scape it, these colonial novelists and poets who think they’re decolonising the text, but they skate over the top and appropriate a few sentiments and observations made by others whose land it is …

Back to boyhood, or stories of his boyhood for Zest and Ari, it’s hard to tell; a dangerous father, a frightened mother, an absent father: “three phone calls in three years, then silence”; addiction, rehab, London.

Years pass. Living on the profits of Ari dealing. Hello World, a freudian typo from my one Europe trip, remains closed to them. In Cowtown, USA Zest forms the intention of becoming pregnant and in the intention is the deed. A child will see the way back.

You make it sound like a Messiah, Zest. No, I’m not saying that. Not at all – the baby will be of both worlds, that is all. Axis mundi.

Then Ireland, waiting for the volcano, his original ingress, to open, Manfred picks rocks. Haven’t all the rocks in all the fields in Ireland been picked yet? Ari goes clean. Druggy mates from Freo, clean now too, are living in the desert out from Kal. “Come and join us”. A truckie intervenes.

I read ahead: they will call me eel and monkey, without a thought to the thousands, the tens of thousands of roos and emus and wombats, even camels that have died on my bullbar. And bulls. And cows… You’d think a long-haul truckie with a beer gut wouldn’t care or wouldn’t know. But I have loved trucks since I was a child … We are kin. I was distracted. I was driving fast. I saw the eagle and heard the crows. I wanted to get back to my beginnings.

From there the story peters out. Loved it. Read it.

 

John Kinsella, Hollow Earth, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2019. Cover image, Stephen Kinsella.

see also:
Cristopher Brennan Poems (1913) here

Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, Tasma

Australian Women Writers, Gen 1 (1788-1890)

Uncle Piper

When Uncle Piper came out, in 1888 it was very well received and writers of the time likened Tasma to George Eliot (1819-1880). My own impression was to note the similarities with Elizabeth Gaskell  (1810-1865), maybe because I have read her more, and more recently (here).

The similarities are in the frequent references to church and religion, a questioning tone, though Tasma seems more Agnostic than Dissenter, the predominance of female over male interests, and a general overall seriousness. Some critics mention Jane Austen, but Tasma does not have the great JA’s lightness of touch, or whimsy.

The novel is set in Melbourne, fictional Piper’s Hill is in South Yarra, a rich Melbourne inner eastern suburb; a ship approaching Melbourne; and in ‘Barnesbury’, Malmsbury, a minor gold mining town on the highway (and railway) from Melbourne to Bendigo.  The period is the 1870s when Melbourne was the richest city in the world, following the gold rushes of the 1850s, and before the land boom and recession of the 1890s. The author mentions in passing Europe preparing for war. It is likely Tasma was in Belgium with her mother during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), so maybe she is referring to this or more generally to German expansionism.

Uncle Piper, now in his sixties, had come out from England as a young man, prospered as a butcher and then as a land speculator, and built himself a mansion in extensive gardens, with a tower from which he is able to see across the intervening suburbs of St Kilda and South Melbourne to discern with his telescope ships coming down the Bay from the Heads (map – Piper’s Hill is between Melbourne and St Kilda, beneath the ‘o’ say).

Piper has a son, George by his first marriage, and step daughter, Laura and much younger daughter, Louey by his second. Laura and Louey also have an older brother, a curate in London. Louey’s mother died in childbirth but Piper has promised to raise Laura as his own. Laura in young womanhood, accepts her step father’s support but not his rules and they are at daggers drawn, so when Piper realises George and Laura are in love he is seriously angry.

The cast is extensive and it is difficult to say if any one person is the protagonist, or even if we get to know any of the characters particularly well, though I like Laura, and it is likely she is the character Tasma has drawn to be most like herself. She and George are free thinkers. She is intensely loyal to George. She infuriates her step father by being beautiful, colourfully dressed, and by showing him the most studied indifference (Daughters! Who’d have them!). Laura and George also believe, theoretically anyway, in Free Love, which they discuss at length when Laura refuses to marry George on the grounds that he is not competent to support her if he is disinherited.

Piper’s sister was left behind in England where she married, above her station, Cavendish, an impoverished aristocrat. They have two daughters, the good, handsome Margaret and the thoughtless, impossibly beautiful Sara. They have lived poorly for many years on gifts to Mrs Cavendish from her brother, and at the beginning of the novel are at sea, outside the Heads, emigrants to Australia where Piper can more easily support them. Also on the ship is a curate, the Rev Mr Lydiat, who is of course Laura’s brother, coming out to minister to the colonies after wearing himself out in the slums of London.

The Cavendishes move into their own wing of the Piper mansion and the girls and their mother are introduced to a life of wealth and ease. Margaret though is insistent on supporting herself, and becomes Louey’s governess; Mrs Cavendish is induced to take over the reins of an extensive household; Sara – who has already rejected Mr Lydiat – keeps one eye George, despite his humble birth, and another on the main chance, a title, a return in triumph to Europe; while Mr Cavendish chafes at being supported by ‘a plebian’, talks vaguely of a government job, and researches fanciful family trees. He is clearly a type Tasma has met and doesn’t like (Notice that she occasionally talks directly to the reader).

Mr Cavendish’s aristocratic nature was not devoid of the commonplace tendency I once heard attributed to husbands in general – [that wives are] to be petted and made much of when things are going well, and to be severely knocked about when anything goes wrong.

The plot is simple enough but what Tasma does, brilliantly and in detail, is describe the fluctuations in mood as the various young people form and reform alliances. Mr Lydiat still has hopes of Sara; George has all his hopes, for rescue from debt and marriage to Laura, riding on a horse he has running in the New Years Cup; Mr Piper has every intention of forcing George to marry Sara; Louey is distraught that her family is coming apart; Margaret is headed for spinsterhood while quietly pining after Mr Lydiat.

On the night before he is to take up a position in Barnesbury, Lydiat makes a fool of himself in the conservatory with Sara. Laura decides to go with him to give George and Sara space. There is a day in the sun at the races …

I won’t give too much away, but Louey takes the train to Barnesbury to be with her brother and sister; there’s an accident; all the family except Sara and her father rush to Barnesbury where they are all crowded into one little cottage. There are happy endings during which Tasma very much enjoys herself giving Sara her comeuppance.

Eastern Hill Charles Troedel

My Thomas Nelson edition has as its front cover a Charles Troedel print of Melbourne in the 1860s. I couldn’t locate a copy so have put up this one of Eastern Hill which includes  St Peters, the highest of high Anglican churches, where Mr Piper maintained a pew “and slumbered therein every successive Sunday.”

And I’ll reinclude a picture from my last post just so I can add Tasma’s description

Carlsruhe Hotel

Hotel Carlsruhe c. 1865. Now Lord Admiral House. “The great bluestone public house, designed for a monster hotel, was completed as far as its first story, but as it was never carried any farther, it naturally possesses at the present time a somewhat squat appearance, with a suggestively make-shift roof, and a general air of having been stopped in its growth.”

 

Tasma, Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill, first pub. 1888. My ed. Thomas Nelson, Sydney, 1969. Top picture, reproduction of original frontispiece.

Download pdf version of first ed. (here) The Thos Nelson text is based on the 2nd ed.
Tasma (here)
Whispering Gums’ review (here)

Honour’s Mimic, Charmian Clift

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020

4181RAQdhKL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Princes do but play us; compared to this,/All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’

Clift doesn’t say, but it is clear the setting for Honour’s Mimic (1964) is the Greek island of Kalymnos, just off the coast of Turkey, based on her and George Johnston’s year there in 1954/55, which I wrote about a couple of years ago (here).

The modern town, which was big for the Agean, had grown around the harbour, where the port had been since the beginning, facing south, away from the autumn gales. The black ships for Troy had put out from there, and the galleys for Salamis, and later Saracen pirates had sheltered between those two appalling cliffs that hurtled from air to water.

The story is that the richest (and handsomest) man on the island, Demetrius,  Anglophile, incumbent heir of the sponge merchant business Casopédes & Heirs, has married Millie, the spoilt youngest daughter of English landed gentry, and sometime model and actress, and brought her back with him to the island until his affairs are sufficiently in hand for them to be able set themselves up on an estate in the home counties.

Millie’s older brother’s wife, Kathy, an Australian, recuperating after an ‘accident’ in a speeding car, has come out to spend six months with her sister in law, to see her through her first pregnancy, leaving behind two sons (with their grandparents) and an indifferent husband. So far, so very Mills & Boon.

But after an awkward start, Clift’s knowledge of and love for the Greek islands lifts what might have been an ordinary romance out of the pack. Over and over, the intensity of her love for the islands and for the islanders shines through, but also the intensity of her feelings. Kathy takes a lover. Not Demetrius, though he was certainly willing, but Fotis, a drunken, impoverished sponge diver with a wife and many children, who has had an attack of nerves and is shunned by the other divers.

I was aware that Johnston had accused his wife of taking a lover in his fictionalised autobiography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) and was interested to know how autobiographical Kathy’s affair was. In fact, the lover Johnston ascribes to Clift was an American, on Hydra to which they had moved after the year on Kalymnos, and a few years later when he was away being treated for TB.

He saw it quite clearly now. They had been lovers during his enforced absence in Athens, but since his return they had imposed on themselves a scrupulous morality

Kathy takes a lover is almost the whole of the plot. Kathy propitiates Fotis’ wife; sparks jealousy in Demetrius; immerses herself in the experience of being in a Greek village where Milly tries to live above it; and screws Fotis. Here she goes to meet him

Kathy felt like laughing too, for the joy of the morning and her freedom from pain… She bought bars of chocolate and boxes of turkish delight. Then, without a glance at the warehouse of Casopédes & Heirs, she set out for Epano. A heraldry of children swept her up and up into a smell of thornbush smoke and green soap and a chorus of women’s voices. The roof-tops had picked up a random crop of grasses and rushed viridian down to the viridian harbour where the boats jogged like facetious aunts bent on nursery amusement.

Unfortunately, I think, the author is omniscient. It is true that what we know of the rest of the world is mediated through mostly English writers, and certainly what we knew of the rest of the world in the 1950s, but I would rather Clift had described Fotis, than attempted to describe how he and others were feeling.

It had never been his intention probably. Or never his conscious intention. In fact he had scarcely thought of her being a woman at all … He had the feeling that his act had been utterly sacrilegious, not because of his own appalling temerity in taking her like that: he attached infinitely more superstition to her than to the church which sheltered them.

Coincidentally, the one novel I have read by a Greek writer, Cave of Silence, was also set in the Greek islands off the coast of Turkey, and I probably learned more from Clift.

The job of a sponge diver is to live on a boat for several months at a time, and every day to plunge over the side wearing a spherical divers’ helmet, walk along the seabed fathoms down, harvesting sponges, breathing through a hose back to the boat. Walking on sand, or muddy silt, or through beds of kelp, threatened by sharks, and with the near certainty of eventual death or the loss of function in their legs, for a pay which they squandered in the first few weeks of their months ashore, and with no idea of any other employment.

A life which had continued for centuries and was now, in this generation, coming to an end as natural sponges made way for synthetic. Fotis, as I said, loses his nerve, and will not be selected for future voyages. He and many like him apply to emigrate to Australia, but Australia will not accept unskilled men with large families. In desperation Kathy writes to her father to sponsor Fotis but he … [insert Trumpisms here].

Millie and even Demetrius fade into the background as Kathy and Fotis meet in a ruined Byzantine city in the mountains behind the town, in fields and on the beach until at last they are overtaken by rumours and Kathy must leave Demetrius’ house and for a few happy weeks lives upstairs in a little tavern where Fotis can visit discretely via the back door.

Clift died by her own hand in 1969, in the lead up to the publication of Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing. In his later A Cartload of Clay (1971) the Johnston character (Meredith) discovers his late wife’s journal. I’ve never liked Johnston, and A Cartload of Clay ends with some disgusting stuff about women asking for rape, so I can easily imagine this – Kathy/Charmain’s affair with a ‘Greek lout’ – is the story he was hoping/fearing to find.

Sorry, I got off track. Read this book. It’s not a romance at all but a rivetting character study of an intense few months in one Australian woman’s life.

 

Charmian Clift, Honour’s Mimic, first pub. 1964. My edition Imprint 1989

see also:
Mermaid Singing & Peel Me a Lotus (here)
Kerryn Goldsworthy on Charmian Clift, and Nadia Wheatley’s biography (here)
Fotini Epanomitis, The Mule’s Foal, (here)

Turning the Century, Christopher Lee ed.

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week

4658255.jpg

Among the books sitting unread on the shelves behind me, most of them second-hand acquisitions lost in the mists of time, I have discovered patiently waiting its turn, and months too late for AWW Gen 2 Week, this anthology of Australian 1890s writing edited by Christopher Lee (author of the Henry Lawson biography City Bushman, another on my shelves I’m yet to review).

I see, for the first time ever in my life, a short story/piece by Miles Franklin, plus many, many others. For this review I’ll stick to the women. But first some words from the Introduction.

This new collection of 1890s writing represents the ways in which Australian literature responded to a set of social, cultural, and political problems that were typical of empire and yet richly inflected by local experience.

The predominately British Settler culture was inevitably preoccupied with domesticating the exotic spaces of the ancient continent and writers were imaginative about rethinking their new home and its relation to the Old World.

The emergence of a self-consciously Australian sentiment in the decade preceding Federation [1901] soon became the stuff of legend …

[The Bulletin] was racist, misogynist, socialist and republican … In art and letters it displayed its editor’s preference for forms of Realism compatible with the new journalism … The controversial French realist, Emile Zola, was a significant role model.

Lee also cites William Lane’s The Worker and of course Louisa Lawson’s Dawn as journals which took the workers’ side but were opposed to the Bulletin’s misogyny. Interestingly, Lee claims that chapters espousing socialism were edited out of both Such is Life and Catherine Martin’s An Australian Girl.

The rights of Aborigines were barely considered: “The original inhabitants of the continent were represented throughout the nineteenth century by a set of recurring tropes that justified exploration, invasion and then settlement.”

Miles Franklin: A Governess in the Bush

I droop with disappointment. It’s just an extract from My Brilliant Career. The Mitchell has reams of Franklin’s shorter pieces, won’t someone resurrect them?

Ada Cambridge: Leaving “The Nest”

Cited as “from The Perversity of Human Nature” which is not a novel listed under Ada Cambridge in Wikipedia (here) but which is available from Project Gutenberg (here).

Lexie Brown and her husband have argued and she is sure that he no longer wants her. Over a couple of days she gets her money from the bank, purchases a second class ticket ‘home’, smuggles a suitcase past her servants, packs and leaves. This is very unexpected of Ada Cambridge, and with poor Lexie sobbing in her bunk as the ship pulls away from Williamstown (Melbourne) we can only imagine Robert following post-haste to England, all misunderstandings forgiven. (Now I’ll have to read the whole book).

Louisa Lawson: Marriage Not a Failure

Lawson argues that women must be protected from “free unions” because they will be abandoned by their husbands when they become unattractive in their forties, while men remain vigorous for one or two more decades:

For centuries woman has sighed under the inequalities which beset her in every relation of life as compared with men, but it is only now she is rousing herself to remove them… In a hundred years her economic dependence, which is one of the chief causes of trouble in our present marriage law will have given place to a recognition and accordance of her proper place in the monetary and social relations of the community.

Stirring stuff! Lawson was poorly educated and in her forties herself before she left her husband and the little bush block at Eurunderee to come to the city.

 Mrs EA Chads: Woman’s Opportunities and Home-Influence

I don’t know from whence this nonsense was taken, here’s a sample –

It is useless to deny that there are cruel and neglectful husbands in the world, but it is equally true that there would be far more happy homes if women only used their God-given power of influence in the right direction.

Tasma: Monsieur Caloche

A story of 15 or so pages which may also be found in her collection, A Sydney Sovereign (my review).

This is a difficult story to discuss without entirely giving away the ending, which in any case is foreshadowed almost from the beginning. Tasma only lived in Victoria – in Melbourne and on her first husband’s property at Malmsbury – for 10 or 12 years but her descriptions of country and people are detailed and accurate.

The sparse gum leaves hung as motionless on their branches as if they were waiting to be photographed. Their shadows on the yellowing grass seemed painted into the soil. The sky was as tranquil as the plain below. The smoke from the homestead reared itself aloft in a long thinly drawn column of grey. A morning of heat and repose, when even the sunlight does not frolic, and all nature toasts itself, quietly content.

A slight boy, his delicate features scarred by smallpox, applies at the offices of Bogg & Co. with references from France:

Homme de lettres! It was a stigma that Bogg, of Bogg & Co., could not overlook. As a practical man, a self-made man who had opened up new blocks of country … what could be expected of him in the way of holding out a helping hand to a scribbler … He was probably a ruffianly Communist. The French could not get hold of all the rebels*, and here was one in the outer office of Bogg & Co. coolly waiting for a situation.

Bogg, a bully, instead of giving M Caloche office work, sends him up the country where he unexpectedly distinguishes himself as a horseman. A year later, Blogg making the rounds of his properties, strikes the young man across the breast with his whip …

 

There’s plenty more, apart from the men (men outnumber women 90:24) – a gruesome piece about a young wife on a Victorian station who does battle with her husband’s cook (Chummy); Rosa Praed; an extract from An Australian Girl; more Cambridge; the usual Bayntons; poetry by Louisa Lawson, Louise Mack, Mary Gilmore and others.

 

Christopher Lee ed., Turning the Century: Writing of the 1890s, UQP, Brisbane, 1999

Reviews of quite a few of the works and authors mentioned here can be found on this site’s AWW Gen 1 and Gen 2 pages.


*The uprising known as the Paris Commune took place in the Spring of 1871. Monsieur Caloche was probably written in the late 1870s.

A Season on Earth, Gerald Murnane

42427791._SY475_.jpg

Melanie at Grab The Lapels initiated recently a great debate along the lines of what even IS Literary Fiction. It was fun, and illuminating, to sit in the comment stream as for days the various responses and counter-responses came rolling in. Melanie, and probably the bulk of her readers’ tentative conclusion is, I think, that the Lit.Fic. tag is elitist. Mine is that Lit.Fic is Art, that Lit.Fic writers respond consciously to previous developments in Lit.Fic by expanding what can be said and how it can be said.

However you define it, what Gerald Murnane does is definitely Literary Fiction. I was initially, briefly!, disappointed with A Season on Earth because it starts like, say an Alan Marshall story: I was a boy and this is what I did. I have come to Murnane late and was expecting the deep introspection of his later writing, but A Season on Earth is an early work, only lately – this year – published in full as he wrote it.

What he does is write in intense detail his thoughts and actions as a teenager, at a Catholic boys school in 1950s Melbourne. I was sorry on reading Border Districts that I was unfamiliar with Proust’s Remembrance of Times Lost. I’m sorry now that nor have I read Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Murnane’s protagonist Adrian Sherd gives an almost nightly account of the fantasies – sex with Hollywood film stars – to which he masturbates; his discussions about masturbation with his particular schoolfriends; his fantasy about a girl he travels home on the same train as, without ever speaking to her, which leads to him forsaking masturbation, though not wet dreams, in favour of (imagined) courtship, engagement, marriage and children; the ongoing tension between his sins, actual and imagined, and his commitment to his religion; the problems occasioned by his burgeoning manhood

 Adrian stood for a minute in the middle of his darkened bedroom. He took a few steps forward and then reached down once more to check what was happening beneath his pyjamas. His enemy had consolidated its position still further. Adrian realised he would never escape from the danger of mortal sin. He would always be at the mercy of his own penis …

and finally, by the end of Part 2 (halfway) to his turning his back on his imagined love to begin studying for the priesthood.

The art in Murnane’s writing is that a) you are equally enthralled and amused by Adrian’s convoluted rationalisations; and b) you feel for Adrian as he inches towards understanding in a very Satre-ian way, with each iteration of love-interest/temptation/religious-response.

In Part 3, Adrian spends his matriculation year (year 12) in the junior seminary of the Charleroi order near Blenheim, NSW. Murnane fictionalises all the school, town and suburb names where he lives and studies, but situates them accurately in real locations. So Blenheim is Goulburn – I didn’t try and work out who the ‘Charlerois’ were – his old school was De La Salle in Malvern and so on … Only ‘Accrington’, his home suburb has me beat, though given that it’s south east and not on the Frankston line, I’m guessing Oakleigh or Clayton (map).

This part is a relatively straightforward account of his life and thoughts – he worries that the Charlerois are insufficiently strict or religious – and to be honest I’m not surprised his original publishers, in 1976, cut it out.

He determines to leave the Charlerois and join the Cistercians, a stricter order with a monastery at Yarra Glen, outside Melbourne. But on the train home from Blenheim, he rediscovers and overcomes the temptations of the flesh, and learns this about himself –

He knew now that looking at landscapes and observing their effect on his emotions was what he really wanted for his life’s work … from that moment on he was a poet in search of his ideal landscape.

And so Part 4: Reassured that his new favourite poet, Matthew Arnold had been an inspector of schools he begins employment with the Education Department, in the section reassigning temporary appointments. He’s told, “… we can give them another appointment anywhere in the state. Mind you, we’re supposed to be reasonable. If Ouyen or Sea Lake needs a temp …”. The Holloways by then had put the wilds of Sea Lake, and Underbool, west of Ouyen, three or four years behind them (though we came back, to Murrayville even further west than Underbool).

For a year he dedicates himself to staying aloof from his workmates, to writing an epic poem, first of a hero on imagined distant plains who conquers his desire to commit the solitary sin, which Adrian imagines Catholic women will not understand but will have explained to them by their husbands; then, on the “blissful union of bodies and souls in the sacrament of matrimony”, based entirely on his covert observations of young wives at communion.

Even Adrian realises that this revised epic requires of him some experience of talking to, meeting, courting young women and so he joins the Young Catholics, goes to Cheshire’s bookshop in the city, and generally hangs about looking thoughtful in a way any sensible young woman must notice and appreciate, until at Cheshires he discovers and begins to model himself, on AE Housman, an ascetic, bachelor Don (the inspiration for his later story, A Quieter Place then Clun).

 When the train [to work] reached Flinders Street, Adrian would try to catch the young woman’s eye with a last look full of meaning. It was meant to tell her he was not unappreciative of her interest in him, but he was not free to respond to her as an ordinary young man would have been.

He moves on, toys with nhilism, (imagined) rape in any other language; writing erotic novels (he discovers Henry Miller); monasticism – his ‘cell’ is the shed in his parents’ backyard; and finally, discovers Rimbaud (without I think discovering that Rimbaud was homosexual) and in emulation, at 19, decides to throw over poetry and journey to the ends of the earth somewhere …

 

Gerald Murnane, A Season on Earth, Text, Melbourne, 2019.
Parts 1 and 2 previously published as A Lifetime on Clouds (1976)

Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)
Landscape with Landscape (here)
Border Districts (here)
A Million Windows (here)

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner

A few years ago, when I was just starting out in this business, I listed ten works I thought were contenders for the Great Australian Novel (here). The list holds up pretty well, Voss is still clearly no. 1. I need to make room for Benang and The Swan Book. And The Pea Pickers, I’m not sure what induced me to leave it out back then, I wouldn’t now. The big problem is just how long it is since I have read most of them, more than forty years in some cases, including The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) which I see from the inscription “Happy Birthday, 1973, with lots of love from the Young Bride”, I got almost hot off the press.

It, as it happens, stands up very well to re-reading, though I’m sure I see things I didn’t see first time round, particularly Ireland’s problem with women. As I wrote earlier (here) David Ireland (1927- ) is a generation older than us boomers, he was in his forties before his first work was published and I think had been for most of the preceding years a blue collar worker, notably in the Silverwater (Sydney) oil refinery complex, the setting for this, his second, where he calls the complex ‘Clearwater’, on the ‘Eel’ River (Paramatta Eels football team. Get it?)

With hindsight I can see now that his politics are ‘Hansonite’: nationalistic, pro-worker and anti-union, the cry for help of a worker deep in the bowels of the system, hating the foreign owners who take all the benefit of his labour (all Ireland’s workers are he’s), hating the white collar parasites who have no knowledge of what his work entails, but on whose decisions he depends, hating that his ability to progress or even to remain employed is completely out of his own hands.

All the workers at Clearwater, at the refinery operated by the 100% foreign owned ‘Puroil’, are prisoners, prisoners of the system, bearing deep blue ankle scars genetically inherited from their shackled convict forbears.

… prisoners were allowed to drift jobless to the few large coastal cities from all over Australia as soon as they left school, to choose their place of detention… They weren’t compelled by others to apply to any one place of labour, but they understood that once accepted for detention their boss or commandant had power over them just as great and far more immediate than the government of the country.

‘The Unknown Industrial Prisoner’ is a slogan graffitied overnight on oil storage tanks, is the name of a work fashioned from twisted paper clips, is an artwork of roughly cut and welded metal displayed in a gallery to the loud acclaim of people who have never seen a scrap-metal yard.

The work is divided conventionally into chapters: 1. One Day in a Penal Colony, 2. Termitary [a termite mound housing the shiny bums, overlooking the refinery], 3. The Home Beautiful … But is broken up again into short, named sections of half, one or two pages. I think Ireland prefers (or maybe, is only able) to write this way, in short bursts, so his novels are collages of ideas and stories.

If the novel has a narrative arc at all, it is the actions and reactions of the workers (operators) as Puroil makes a series of blundering upgrades to the refinery to get it to the stage where it will run without operator involvement. The protagonists are the Samurai, a skilled operator and mostly willing worker; and the White Father, who maintains ‘the Home Beautiful’, a few shacks in the mangroves on an island within the refinery boundary, where a beer fridge and six prostitutes on rotation provide the workers with more comforts than they enjoy at home.

They are opposites in that the Samurai believes in the power of a job well-done, where the White Father believes life should be enjoyed right now. Another worker, the Glass Canoe (a name used as the title of a later Ireland novel), represents a third extreme. He is incompetent, but believes that if he works, studies and puts himself forward Puroil will recognise his devotion to the job and raise him to foreman. His decline into madness illustrates the futility of expecting bureaucracies to make rational or even informed decisions. Every decision made by every person within Puroil, except the better operators, and they are never recognised, is driven entirely by self interest.

Is this a post-modern novel? I don’t have enough theory to say. But it is beyond Social Realism. Philosophically it is Absurdist, a demonstration that meaning cannot be found in work, that the bureaucratic workplace is inherently irrational. (Prime Minister) Malcolm famously said at about this time, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”. What he meant, and this is Ireland’s thesis, is “Life isn’t meant to be fair.”

There are dozens of supporting characters – the plant manager, the Wandering Jew, who is kidnapped late in the novel and taken to the Home Beautiful to meet his workers, gets drunk and joins in the dancing; Blue Hills whose wife the Samurai uses, because he can, but she does manage to take a small revenge; Two Pot Screamer, one of two operators writing a book (this book?); the Python, the Black Snake, the Brown Snake, shiny bums with power over the plant operators; and so on.

The operators sleep on the job, are led into dud agreements by the company union, drink, steal, lie or run with the prostitutes (the Sandpiper prefers doing it outside), make informed, ignorant and random adjustments to the plant causing chaos and constant pollution – in addition to the ongoing pollution of river and air that Puroil  pays to keep ‘hidden’.

This is a brilliant book; innovatively written; an insider’s account of the madness of large organizations; an account of modern slavery giving the lie to the myth of the independent, larrikin Australian worker.

 

David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, Angus & Robertson, 1971. My edition, A&R Classics, 1973.

Other reviews:

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
The Glass Canoe (here), Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)