Trooper to the Southern Cross, Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) was born in England of good upper middle class stock. Her father was professor of poetry at Oxford, Rudyard Kipling was a rello and her godfather was JM Barrie. She was tall, good looking and rebellious, married a bi-sexual, professional signer to disoblige her family, as they say, had two sons, divorced him, and near the end of the Great War, married George Thirkell, a captain in the AIF who had served right through from 1914 – Egypt, Gallipoli, France. Thirkell’s family had land in Tasmania, but he was an engineer.

“Early in 1920 the Thirkells returned to Australia aboard the Friedrichsruh, a horrendous voyage when rank-and-file diggers became increasingly assertive. After a sojourn at Hobart, the family settled in suburban Melbourne. In January 1921 a son, Lancelot George, was born. Thirkell’s business activities as a director of a small engineering firm won only modest rewards.” (ADB)

Angela, needing money, began writing satirical essays and short stories. In 1930 she made her second visit home and stayed there. From 1931 on, for 30 years, she published a novel a year, middlebrow stuff set in Trollope’s Barsetshire, which she said she wouldn’t want her friends to read.

Trooper to the Southern Cross (1934) is something else, a fictionalised account of her post-war voyage to Australia, biting in its contempt of incompetent officers and sometimes laugh out loud funny, which was originally published under the male pseudonym Leslie Parker.

The story is written in a chatty tone in the first person, by Major Bowen a doctor in the AIF who had, like Capt Thirkell whom he no doubt represents, served right through the War.

I have always wanted to write the story of the old ‘Rudolstadt’ which took a shipload of Australian troops home after the War, but there were so many reasons against it. At the time we were all very angry, because it isn’t a fair deal to put families on a troopship where there isn’t any dicipline ..

opening lines

Bowen’s background is as the son of a Western District (Victoria) property owning family with whom he has only distant relations. I was impressed by Thirkell’s local knowledge, though I waited until I had finished the book to look up her history. It doesn’t say, but perhaps she travelled a bit during her 10 years in Australia. Bowen talks of his mother cooking for shearers – chops for breakfast, a roast joint for dinner and the shoulder for tea. Do people still eat like that! My grandparents did, and sandwiches for morning and afternoon lunch in between, and tea, tea, tea, and maybe a slice of cake for supper.

Still, that’s only the first few pages, and a couple more to deal with the War. But because Bowen mentions fighting in Egypt (in 1914, though it was actually 1915) before Gallipoli, I had to look that up too (here). The AIF landed in Egypt for training at the end of 1914 and some must have taken part in the defence of the Suez when the Turks attacked from Palestine to retake Egypt from the Brits.

After the Armistice, Bowen takes a position at a hospital in Leeds, meets a girl, Celia, to whom it turns out he is related, marries her and after a year or so the Army tells him he is to be repatriated on the Rudolstadt along with many other officers with their wives and children and hundreds of diggers (troops). He wrangles a decent cabin for himself and Celia. His mate Jerry has a suite for his wife, two children and young nanny, but the junior offices are crammed into small cabins below decks not necessarily with their wives; the diggers are a level further down, and beneath them are the cells for hardened criminals who soon have their jailers bluffed and the keys to the cells chucked overboard.

I don’t have to tell you the plot – they sail to Australia, the men cause a lot of trouble, and despite an incompetent CO and his adjutant, Owen and Jerry with the assistance of a few loyal sergeants, save the day. Repeatedly.

The pleasure of the book is in the humour, a lot of which is the author slyly making fun of her husband (whom she had already left). Here they are on first meeting –

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain they were way out beyond everything. So I asked her if she had read ‘On Our Selection’ … but she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’ so I knew she wasn’t literary.

And here, on wifely duties –

As for Celia, the poor kid didn’t know the first thing about cooking, but she soon got the hang of it, and I can tell you it was good-oh to know there would be a nice hot supper my little missis had cooked, whatever time I got back from the hospital … [he and a mate would] go off somewhere and get a drink and get yarning, and often I’d bring the chap home with me … It was great to walk into our own little sitting room and say “What about some tea, babe?” and introduce her to my pal.

Sometimes I’d take my boots off after supper and Celia would give them a shine for me … She was a great hand at polishing boots, as good as a batman, and it’s a job I’ve never liked somehow.

There’s all that stuff of my father’s and grandfathers’ generations about not swearing in front of women, not even hinting at sex. One bounder shows some officers’ wives a pornographic Indian carving which accidentally ends up overboard. And a great deal of racism about unwashed Egyptians, ‘gyppos’ and Irish Catholics, though the RC chaplain on board shows he’s made of the right stuff.

All in all a fun, nostalgic, read.

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Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross, first pub. 1934. Sun Books (pictured above, right), Melbourne, 1966. 177pp. ex libris J. Terry

see also: Sue/Whispering Gums’ review (here)

The Place on Dalhousie, Melina Marchetta

Talk about getting what you wished for! I wrote a few weeks ago, in comments after Saving Francesca that “I’d be interested to read a Melina Marchetta that covered the next few years, 17,18 through to mid twenties like say Normal People, though perhaps her style would be too gentle.” The Place on Dalhousie is Marchetta’s latest and here is a quote from p.4.

And that’s all it takes. A couple of drinks and she’s back in some strange guy’s room, upstairs at the pub. His calloused fingers find their way between her legs and she realises she’s going to spend another night of her life screwing a guy she doesn’t know. Makes her feel as if she can’t climb out of the bat cave, and the bleakness is smothering.

‘She’ is Rosie, 19 year old daughter of Sicilian immigrants, passing through a central Queensland town (probably based on Theodore, 560 km NW of Brisbane). Her life is a mess. Her mother has died of cancer. Her father who spent years rebuilding the old house ‘on Dalhousie’ in inner western Sydney, has remarried, to Martha, the daughter of German immigrants, and then been killed in a traffic accident. The guy she doesn’t know is Jimmy. They spend the next week or so helping residents deal with a major flood, then go their separate ways.

We move on a couple of years. Martha, forty-ish, is dealing with a stressful job, with being a widow, with a girl upstairs with a screaming baby, with a girl upstairs who won’t talk to her but insists that the house is hers. Her best friend gets her to join a netball team with some of their old class mates, most of whom she has spent the last twenty years avoiding. Marchetta it seems, is big on the bonds formed at school.

Jimmy responds 15 months late to the text informing him he is a father. He is now working on the mines up north, week on, week off. Rosie is not impressed but Jimmy hangs around, couch surfing when he can get down to Sydney, with his own old schoolmates from inner-western Sydney. At some stage my goldfish brain finally catches on – twenty-something Jimmy and Frankie and Tara and so on are the 17 year-olds from Saving Francesca.

Poor Jimmy has to work very hard to convince Rosie he’s worth bothering with.

She holds out the crying kid for Jimmy to take, but he doesn’t.
‘When he gets used to me, maybe,’ he says.
Rosie cradles the sobbing baby, but it doesn’t seem to help. And that’s it for the day. No more talking, just a lot of standing around and soaking in the mess.

Martha has a love interest. She has sex with a football hero/older brother of one of her classmates in the back seat of his (presumably dual cab) ute after a funeral, and two or three times after. Yes, they do have homes, they just seem to have a thing about reliving their, twenty years previous, school days.

The football hero guy is also their netball coach, so that makes one plot line. The ups and downs of Jimmy and Rosie being parents and learning to talk to each other, makes another. Then, we get bits and pieces of the lives of the Saving Francesca crowd (whom I read were also in another novel, The Piper’s Son), and of the Sydney inner-west Italian community to which both Frankie (Francesca) and Rosie belong, so there’s plenty going on.

Rosie joins a new mothers group for support from which she and another couple of misfits (ie. non-Anglos) are shunted, and as they get over their prickliness they form a support group of their own. She starts working in an old people’s home and of course that’s the home where football guy, whom she doesn’t know at that stage, places his father. There’s ongoing background hum about a lost Monaro which eventually stretches concidence even further. But mostly it’s just an easygoing story of people and their lives, intertwined in ways that I as a constant moving-onner find both interesting and a bit unbelievable.

No, it’s not literary fiction – I may finally get a mention in the AWCC General fiction round-up (I think I missed out with Jane Harper and Liane Moriarty) – but nevertheless an interesting step up from the schoolgirls of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.

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Melina Marchetta, The Place on Dalhousie, Penguin Random House, Melbourne, 2019. 277pp.

The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer

I am probably pinching one of WG’s future Monday Musings here but my subject today is What do we do about racial stereotypes in old novels? Theresa Smith who reviews extensively in the area of Australian women’s fiction, recently challenged my liking for Georgette Heyer romances and said that the consensus was that Heyer was a right-wing anti-semite, citing The Grand Sophy as a particular example.

Any excuse to slack off and read another Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy wasn’t on my shelves so I dropped in at (daughter) Gee’s, waved and smiled through the door at my waving and smiling six month old grandson whom, due to Covid and over-cautious governments, I have seen only twice before, and borrowed her battered 1952 2nd edition hardback.

And then I began searching on ‘Georgette Heyer anti-semitism’. The most prominent results were blogs like Smart Bitches Trashy Books (which looks like a fun site) –

So then Sophy takes it upon herself to go confront said Jewish moneylender [Mr Goldhanger]. And then the whole book went to hell.

“…the door was slowly opened to reveal a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer…. His hooded eyes rapidly took in every detail of Sophy’s appearance.”

GOLDHANGER? With a “semitic nose” and the “instinct of his RACE?” Really?! That’s the BEST HEYER could come up with?! A stock character embodying every possible negative stereotype of Jewish people? It was so badly done it was multiply offensive. Not only was I offended personally as, you know, a Jewish person, but I was more offended as a reader as well because IT WAS SO BADLY DONE.

SB Sarah of SBTB, Aug 15, 2011

Biographer Brenda Niall in her review in the SMH of GEORGETTE HEYER: BIOGRAPHY OF A BESTSELLER, by Jennifer Kloester says the same thing, though more temperately –

No one faulted Heyer’s research on Regency manners and idiom, snuffboxes, staging posts, pantaloons and Hessian boots. Although, as Kloester concedes, her characters are essentially 20th-century people in costume, their world of illusion is wittily sustained.

Heyer is not an easy subject for biography, nor an endearing one. She was ferocious about maintaining her privacy and because so much of her life was consumed in her work, there is not a great deal to say. Kloester’s use of family papers reveals a loyal daughter and a generous sister, wife and mother.

The papers also reveal Heyer’s snobbishness about people ”not out of quite one’s own drawer”, and her racism and anti-Semitism.

SMH January 7, 2012

I meant to start this discussion at another place, so let’s go there now. As a radical socialist (syndicalist) I am totally anti-Zionist. Zionism as presently practiced by the government of Israel is Apartheid by another name, a fig leaf to justify the illegal occupation and subjugation of Palestine. Zionists of course conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which is dishonest and a nonsense, but then so are most arguments on the Right.

The problem which I am willing to own is that I am going to argue that money lending and being Jewish were so often regarded as synonymous in the past that their conflation must be unremarkable. Which is not to say that Heyer (1902-1974) is that far in the past, and her depiction of Goldhanger in 1950 – so after the War and after the Holocaust – was probably almost as offensive then as it is now, though far less likely of course to have been contested.

Because Jewishness and Moneylending are so often paired in literature, I looked into it a little and it seems that from the beginning of the Christian Era educated Jews had the advantage of a world-wide (the “world” being you know, Persia say to Gibraltar) system of enforceable law which made banking and trade both profitable and relatively safe (more here). Which is not to say that come the Middle Ages the Church in particular did not also engage in moneylending and perhaps for the same reasons.

But of course the Middle Ages were also famous for the murder and eviction of Jews to enable Christians to avoid paying their debts. And even now, as we too often see, it is always useful to have an Other to blame and vilify for our own mistakes and weaknesses.

A quick read and a quick review: The eponymous ‘Grand Sophy’ is a fine heroine, tall, independent after years travelling Europe with her diplomat father, following Wellington through the Spanish campaign and on to Waterloo. Still only 19, she is foisted onto her aunt while her father goes on a diplomatic mission to Brazil. And there with unfettered access to her father’s money she wreaks havoc amongst her half a dozen cousins.

Heyer’s plots are too complicated to simplify down to a few words, but they always begin with the heroine running into a guy whom she could not possibly like and end with the heroine and the guy heading off to the altar, and so it is here. The incident at the top of this post takes up only a few pages about half-way through as Sophy rescues the second son of the family, actually slightly older than she, from the trap he has fallen into by borrowing to cover gambling debts and being unable to face his father, himself a serious gambler, or his straight-laced older brother.

Heyer was attempting to paint a villain, engaged in fencing stolen goods and lending illegally to minors. By resorting to a stereotype 100 years out of date she was probably giving voice to her own prejudices. But I’m afraid it wasn’t enough for me to find the book unenjoyable. I would have been far more annoyed to encounter caricatures of Black people. Why? I wonder. Perhaps because the Jewish battle, in Australia anyway, seems to me to be just about won.

A wider debate than I have space for here would consider the cases of TS Elliott, and of say Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gone With the Wind. I guess my short answer to the question I asked at the beginning is be aware of the author’s prejudices, but if they are not central to the story, keep going. Reading doesn’t make the author’s prejudices yours. Though not recognising them might.

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Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy, first pub. 1950.

Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

Facts must be faced. I read like a girl. I got home yesterday, after eight 16 hour days of work, which is standard, tired out of my brain, had a shower, a drink, answered the easier emails, picked up a comfort read from the shelf where it had been sitting for the last couple of years, plunged right in, watched a bit of footy, the wrong side was winning, went to bed, read on until the book was finished.

The book? Saving Francesca (2003), as of course you can see, very well written feel-good fiction for teenage girls. And aged truck drivers. Well, aged truck drivers who also read Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables.

Which reminds me, Theresa Smith, in comments on a Whispering Gums post, has set me the task of reading up on Georgette Heyer’s old fashioned rightwingedness and particularly her overt anti-semitism, which I will do, though I must say I am surprised. Is it just the equating of money lending and Jewishness – and I say ‘just’ because that is unavoidable in much older fiction – or is there more? To which I have been oblivious. We will see.

Melina Marchetta (1965- ) was a history/language teacher in a Sydney boys school but is now a full time writer, no doubt following the success of her first book (and movie) Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Saving Francesca was her second and she has since written four or five others including The Piper’s Son (2010) which is apparently based around one of the boys in Saving Francesca.

I read Looking for Alibrandi some years ago, saw the movie on TV, enjoyed them both, was happy to pick up Saving Francesca when I saw it second-hand, to save for a rainy day.

Francesca is 16, starting Year 11 in the first cohort of girls in an inner-Sydney Catholic boys high school. She, Tara, Siobhan, and Justine, all ‘outsiders’, are the only girls from her old school and all her friendship group have gone on to a different school.

This morning my mother didn’t get out of bed.

Opening line

Mother, Mia is a livewire, a feminist, a university lecturer. Robert, husband, father, is laid-back, a builder. They were childhood sweethearts, and lovers it turns out, married young. It’s the sort of family where Francesca and her younger brother lie on their parents’ bed, talking to their mother late into the night while Robert sleeps and snores; where it is unremarkable, a bit gross maybe, to see each other naked.

So Mia not getting out of bed is a big deal, and it goes on for most of Francesca’s Year 11. A year of working out who your friends are – you might think there would be a ‘villain’ amongst the boys, but there’s not. They are just as awkward as the girls. And it slowly becomes apparent that the awkwardest of them have their virtues, hidden behind boy-grossness of course.

I miss … Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”
I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

Slowly, Francesca becomes aware that she and the other outsider girls have formed a friendship group, is surprised again, later in the year, to find that their group includes boys. It’s very well done.

Meanwhile, Mia’s depression is not being named, not being discussed, not being treated. Robert monopolizes Mia, willing her to snap out of it, bewildered when she doesn’t, refusing to discuss her illness with Francesca. But Francesca too is an unreliable narrator here, unaware that her own silence about Mia is making her unwell. As you might expect from a teacher-author, some of the teachers cut Francesca a lot of slack, and she spends days asleep in one teacher’s office. At least that teacher finally gets Francesca to see a counsellor.

Gradually, we see from their reactions – though it is not clear Francesca realizes this – that the other kids are aware of what Francesca is dealing with, and they too cut her some slack.

Only at the end, it comes out that her parents have been keeping a big secret (and I don’t think it’s in character that Mia would). Francesca has a fight with her father …

“You keep her all to yourself. You think you can fix everything by forgetting about it but you just make things worse. It’s all your fault. You’ve kept her sick, because you don’t know how to handle it. Because you’re a weakling. Everyone says you are, and I believe it and Mummy could have done better than you and I don’t know why you don’t fuck off now before you make it worse.”

… runs off, ends up in an outer suburban police station, is picked up by her father, talks to him, sits on her bed talking all night to her friends, the love interest thing is dealt with (I’ve been ignoring it).

It’s fun. Not preachy. Not overwhelmed by ‘issues’. A year in a life with lots of stuff going on, growing up getting done. Inner-western Sydney just lightly pencilled in. A happy-ish, realistic ending. Highly recommended.

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Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca, Penguin, Melbourne, 2003

The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

KSP writes in the preface to the 1963 edition: “Notes for The Pioneers were made in 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland. But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story …”. The novel, her first, was published in 1915 and was a success. Nathan Hobby, whose Prichard biography is at this moment at the printers, has more to say about the book’s origins here.

She goes on: “It grew from the yarns and gossip I heard at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville, and my wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. The Wirree river referred to may be recognised as the Tara, which was an escape route for convicts from Van Dieman’s Land [Tasmania] in the early days.” And hence we may infer that Wirreeford stands in for Yarram.

For the benefit of foreigners, Gippsland is that part of Victoria to the east of Melbourne and south of the Victorian Alps (map, Yarram out to the east, near the coast). It is hilly, damp, fertile and green, home once to enormous eucalypts, their range now greatly restricted by clear felling for farming and timber milling. Though, as I remember from my childhood there, the sandy coastal regions feature mostly scrubby paper barks. South Gippsland is Gunai country, though Prichard doesn’t pay the original inhabitants much attention. The Gunai were dispersed by a series of massacres of which you may read more here.

The Pioneers is historical fiction covering the early days of white settlement, which began, in this area, in the 1840s. Miles Franklin claimed in the 1930s (I can’t locate a source for this statement) that she and Steele Rudd were the progenitors of a uniquely Australian school of fiction dealing with the lives of ordinary families in the Bush, which she distinguishes from the ‘mateship’/Lone Hand/ Bulletin school (Gen 2); from the urban modernism and social realism of the years between the Wars (Gen 3); and from earlier ‘upper class’ novels of bush life, such as those by Henry Kingsley and Ada Cambridge (Gen 1).

I have written before that in the 1970s, John Hirst and Judith Godden posited that the myth of the Independent Bushman/Lone Hand (“the Australian Legend”) had been ameliorated in the 1930s by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth. Miles Franklin was a big part of that, but it is clear that The Pioneers, which predates MF’s re-flowering as a writer of pioneer fiction by a couple of decades, must earn KSP at least co-progenitor status.

That said, The Pioneers is more Robbery Under Arms than All That Swagger, but with an admirable dash of Independent Woman thrown in, and some lovely descriptive prose.

The novel begins with Donald and Mary Cameron making their way inland from ‘Port Southern’ into hilly, forested country. Donald is a Scot and Mary is Welsh. Sticking closely to ethnic stereotypes, Donald is as well known for being tight-fisted and Mary tells stories about fairies. I’m not sure that without the notes we’d know where or when we are. It is clear that the couple are pioneers, squatting on uncleared land in the bush but the nearest we get to locating ourselves is the arrival of escaped convicts from Port Arthur/Hobart Town over the water (though that’s hardly specific as Mary Bryant for instance escaped by boat as far as Jakarta).

A few months later .. A one-roomed hut, built of long, rough-barked saplings, ranged one above the other, and thatched with coarse reddish-brown bark, laid on in slabs, stood on the brow of the hill not far from the dray’s first resting place.

A light under the door indicates a restless night and in the morning Donald emerges with a bundle wrapped in a shawl, his son Davey. Unlike most pioneer families, that’s it for issue and Davey remains an only child.

The convicts above are important because they arrive when Donald is away, but Mary, apparently unafraid, helps them, making of one a friend for life, who when he returns a few years later with his daughter Deidre, becomes the local schoolmaster.

Donald prospers. Davey and Deidre grow up side by side. A little township forms. A bushfire sweeps through while Donald is away (again) and Mary is saved by the Schoolmaster. The pioneer side of the story declines in importance and instead, as we concentrate on the second generation we get into Walter Scott territory with villainous publicans, rival lovers and cattle rustling.

Deidre watched Davey going out of Narrow Valley in dim starlight of the early spring morning, the mob, hustled by Teddy and the dogs, a stream of red and brown and dappled hides before him.

I’ve read a few KSP’s – Working Bullocks, Coonardoo, Haxby’s Circus that I can think of – and I’ve generally found her prose awkward, stilted. That is not the case here. Perhaps as is so often the case, her first book was her best book. The descriptions flow. The action flows. It’s a good story, well told.

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Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, first pub. 1915. Revised edition (pictured) Rigby, 1963. Kindly loaned to me by Lisa/ANZLL.

For other KSP reviews see AWW Gen 2 page (here)

The Farewell Party, Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera (1929-) is, I am sure, best known as the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being which I have read, but a long time ago. The reason the cover of the copy I own, which I bought somewhere, second-hand, a long time ago, doesn’t say “By the author of” etc is that The Farewell Party, published in French and English in 1976, but not, interestingly in the author’s native Czech, is Kundera’s fourth novel and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is his sixth. As a side note, The Farewell Party is apparently now known as The Farewell Waltz.

The setting of The Farewell Party is a rural mountain spa in an unnamed country, presumably Czechoslovakia, and in time, between Dubcek’s Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism in 1989. Kundera went into exile in France in 1975, his Czechoslovak citizenship was revoked in 1979, and he was granted French citizenship in 1981.

So is the story a satire on communism, or indeed a criticism of Czechoslovakia? Maybe, but only very gently, and only if you read through the antics of Dr Skreta, the head of the spa, to a general criticism of Czech bureaucracy. The style of writing I find difficult to describe. It is spare and the author feels distant from his multiple pov protagonists. Reading Ivan Čapovski’s Miles Franklin last month I was reminded of Ana Kavan’s Ice – and that’s about all the ‘modern’ European reading I’ve done in the last few years – and The Farewell Party has the same feel, a sort of remoteness from the action.

During my searches I came across “[this] is Kundera’s most accessible novel”, not necessarily a recommendation, “a comedy in the form of a burlesque”, with apparently “multiple layers that explore themes of love, hatred, and fate”. I wouldn’t be a lit. student (again) for quids.

The story begins at a single point, nurse Ruzena is pregnant, and spirals out from there.

Ruzena had been born in the resort town, both of her parents still lived there, and she wondered whether she would ever manage to escape from that teeming nest of women.

Two months earlier she had slept with the trumpeter, Klima after he performed at the spa. Her workmates urge her to phone him. Klima takes the call during a rehearsal. He offers to ‘arrange’ things. “How do you mean ‘arranged’?” He was at a loss, not daring to call the thing by its real name ..

Ruzena is indignant. Klima is terrified. After years of womanizing this is the call he has always dreaded. His bandmates strategize. In the end they decide he should pretend to be in love with Ruzena. He will divorce his wife and Ruzena will terminate her pregnancy so they can start their lives together afresh. He organizes to drive back to the spa the next day …

… which is his wife’s birthday.

This beautiful lady was afraid of women, and saw them everywhere. She never missed a single one. She knew how to detect them from the tone of Klima’s voice when he greeted her at the door and even from the smell of his clothes.

So when he arrives home with a huge bunch of roses she understands immediately there’s a woman in the case. The damned bureaucrats have decided I’ll have to spend all day tomorrow at a stupid conference about the role of music in the building of socialism, he tells her. She goes along with him. They go to a movie, then home to bed. Finally, she is named: He lay next to Kamila. He knew that he loved her immensely. So ends the First Day.

Second Day. Klima arrives at the spa and goes straight to the rooms of Bartleff, a rich American undergoing the cure. They discuss women, they discuss Ruzena. They are sure that Dr Skreta will perform the abortion.

Dr Skreta has a wildly successful IVF practice. We are gradually made aware that the doctor is in all cases using his own semen. More and more women are having babies with Skreta’s prominent nose.

Days pass. The number of protagonists increases. Jakub, a dissident politician arrives with his ‘ward’. Skreta had some time ago given him a suicide pill in case he couldn’t stand imprisonment. Jakub is on his way to exile. His ‘ward’, Olga wishes to become his mistress.

Skreta persuades Klima to give a free performance with Skreta as his drummer.

Franta, a young local man is stalking Ruzena. It seems they had once been lovers. He believes they should now be married.

Franta was younger than Ruzena, and it was his misfortune to suffer from the inexperience of youth. When he grows up he will become aware of the transitory nature of the world and he will learn that no sooner does one woman disappear from the horizon than a galaxy of other women come into view.

Kamila comes up to the spa thinking to catch Klima out at his ‘free perfomance’, falls in with a film crew, and is almost seduced herself.

Somehow Jakub’s suicide pill gets mixed up with Ruzena’s sedatives.

Ok, perhaps it is a burlesque. A fun read and an interesting read.

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Milan Kundera, The Farewell Party, King Penguin, London, 1976. 184pp. Translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi.

A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

This, to my great surprise, is a guest post from Lou. I didn’t know he was reading Australian fiction, let alone, as he says, Bush Lit. Now all my children have contributed a post.

Lou is a teacher, currently in the Northern Territory. Over the past 15 years he has taught mainly in the working class western suburbs of Melbourne, but also in London, Kenya (where the photo below was taken), Morocco and Malawi.

A Kindness Cup (1974) is set some time in the past in a small country town in Queensland and was “loosely” based by Astley on the massacre at The Leap in 1867.

Lead on, Lou …


I approached this text as a piece of Australian bush lit, as I approached a fresh posting in a rural town in Australia. Should I say ‘Country’? It seems a thing that might be capitalised, and asserted thus, here. A particular context of its own. It is conceptually a long way from anywhere I’ve been at home before. I am extensively familiar neither with the genre or the context. I came to both from a wary but willing second hand acquaintance. As an earnest, highminded and alien teacher, I felt prepared from the outset to take the part of protagonist, Dorahy.

In this story Dorahy, a schoolteacher, has encountered an act of racist brutality. The perpetrators of ‘the incident’ were exonerated and the teacher left town in disgust. This is prelude to a time, much later, when the leading lights of the town are inviting former denizens back to celebrate their success in making something to be proud of.

That Astley engages with race I understood entirely from theaustralianlegend. So I was surprised at how little a part the Black characters played. I recognise the impulse to shirk the challenge of characterisation- I am, as I say, much better prepared to describe the internal life of the white teacher from the city. I recognise the weight of responsibility such a task entails.

In a meeting last week I watched my team leader, a Black woman from a local mob with much the same experience and qualifications as myself, hedge around descriptions that specified race. We were discussing students with problems, or maybe problem students, and race arose as a factor for consideration (the school being 70% Aboriginal, including a mixture of local communities and displaced outsiders). Me being new, and the third teacher being very young, I expect that any particular language or opinion she wished to assert would have been accepted as her right, but she was clearly as careful and awkward as a white professor presenting a lecture on Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, white masks’.

Later in the week, the middle-aged-white-boy school principal, with long experience of working in very remote Aboriginal community schools, led us in consideration of the ‘school opinion survey’. He apologised a lot for the numbers, and launched repeatedly, unabashedly, into direct descriptions (perhaps intending wit, or displaying sympathy) of his experience of the differences between ‘middle class white boys’ and ‘our community kids’.

So Astley’s characters are not black, or brown. Indeed, their racial/cultural/language group origins are unremarked, while the Blacks are consistently identified by their ‘mob’ (conversely: my paternal grandmother, from a generation of Country similar to Astley, might not know the names of any Victorian first-nations, but she could sure as hell tell you who in whichever small town was Anglican, or Methodist, or Catholic). The characters are heartfelt and thickly outlined- the shortness of the text does not provide space for sophistry. Dorahy’s snaggly toothed middle-aged (“youngish” in his own memories) idealist is caught in classroom vignettes, while his bitter, worn-down old man is made clear mostly though his impression on those around him. One imagines Astley, like even the most sympathetic of her townsfolk, finds his long-fermented ardour for recognition a bit on the nose. Lunt, who is brutalised and mutilated in the affair, spends much of the text as a removed, saintly example of the victim. The horror of it lies in that he, too, is white.

Nor, mostly, are Astley’s characters women. It is men who have acted in the affair in question. The one female character who is drawn beyond a few words is Gracie Tilburn, a singer and former town darling. The women are barely active enough to be ‘damned whores or god’s police’, but Tilburn has the character of the former, while her considered regard (or otherwise) for the men about her signals their virtue. She likes ‘young’ Jenner (a good kid from Dorahy’s class, and a blandly successful man in the present day), but wakes up with the villain Buckminster, and derides his chubby thighs (alike to her own), and ushers him out the door with barely concealed loathing (for both self and other). Spoiler: As the text draws to a close she is asked to choose between the (“fat, shapeless, and unheroic to look at”) town hack, Boyd, who (showing “virtue.. in his face or his smile”) has been amoral, except in the end), and the unredeemed, (also unattractive) mass of the status quo (including Buckminster of the unfortunate encounter). I was engaged sufficiently at this point to hope the hack’s smile was virtuous enough to invite a happy ending.

As the arbiter of what is good, Teacher Dorahy is, I assume, an acolyte of Arnold (I’ll let theaustralianlegend check the dates [Headmaster of Rugby 1828-41] ). His mission to enlighten the savage Country-men comes with a book and a burning cane (although he is light on the cane- he shows his disdain for young Buckminster after ‘the incident’ not by whipping him harder, but by declining to whip him at all). His wisdom is punctuated with Greek and Latin (presumably from vitally important texts, “the best of all that has been thought and done by mankind [north of the Mediterranean]”, which I’ll get around to once I’ve mastered the canon of Australian bush literature). The townsfolk show their substance in a hierarchy of economic satisfaction- from the comfortably established, to unlucky (or incompetent) Lunt who can’t find a farm with water, to the poor Blacks. They show their virtue in a willingness to offer charity to those lower on this scale. The best of them do not blame the Blacks for their collectively pitiable condition, nor do they root the Black women (the topic arises several times, and is met with shame or disgust depending on circumstances).

But, perhaps this is not sufficient to judge Astley’s morality. From a distance, the trio of Dorahy, Boyd and Lunt might represent the intelligentsia, the media and the common man. Dorahy speaks of morality, but his manifest actions are only in speaking. Boyd, while afraid to rock the boat, has actively done good (taking in the orphan of the incident), and tries to end his career (albeit with little to lose) on a moral note. Lunt is the victim, but he is also a battler clearly written for greatest sympathy. His character is clearest when, invited to take part in the mob, he declines:

“You’ll warn them?” [he is asked]

“I’ll do whatever I think proper.”

“You’ll regret this,” Buckmaster threatened.

“No. You don’t understand,” Lunt said. “You never regret obeying conscience.”

Lunt indeed suffers for his moral choices, and still manages goodwill – righteous vengeance is never his agenda. Perhaps bush lit writers, like school teachers, sit somewhere between the press and the intelligentsia, and this is an exhortation to yet another lumpen ‘other’ to be better (under our hand). Far from being the ‘common man’, Lunt is exceptional, and perhaps the most unlikely, among a slate of characters that are almost caricatures of the familiar.

Indeed, from the awkward sympathy for the subaltern, to the burning of the free press, this town seems familiar in everything but its buggies and traps. Astley captures the tension between those who would celebrate the past and those who would flay it bare. Her conclusion is a simile for the times as bitter and unleavened as anything by Orwell. Our times or hers, or those of the setting, seems to make little difference.

But to read with the righteous anger of Dorahy is only to find part of the truth. I take it as worthwhile reading, but I also see in the constituency of the Country (and I do not mean Australia, but as defined above) much to redeem it. The problems characterised by the incident are real and ongoing: manifest in my class and my colleagues today, but I meet any number of people trying expressly to find their way through. Many of them are Black. Perhaps a hundred years is just too little time.

A Kindness Cup is a passionate and valuable narrative depiction of an Anglo struggle. It is not the whole story, but a fragment. I had expected Australian bush lit to be a foray into something as distant as green Mars, and instead found myself engaged in one of the most vital discussions of our times.

.

Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, first pub. 1974

see also Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)

A letter from America*

Continuing on from my review of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (2008) my buddy and buddy-reader in America, Melanie/Grab the Lapels has written that she has been forced to DNF.

Hey Bill,

I’m at 27% and I LOATHE this novel. I’m learning less about the way people feel about parenting and children and more about who is sticking their erection in whom, and where. I hoped the tone was just the first character,  but Anouk is basically the same as Hector,  and Harry is no different from them. Women are either weak hippy moms or sluts. I think the author hoped to write strong women, but if you flip the genders of Anouk and her boyfriend, it’s like the author is still writing a cutting male POV with a dopey younger girlfriend. I’m tapping out; the message is aggressively toxic in an exhausting way, and I am fearful I shall hate all of Australia if I keep reading. 

Best, Melanie

So this is what she meant earlier in the week when she commented that reading The Slap made her feel like she “was being pursued by penises”.

When we made the plan to have The Slap read by today we left open what form her response would take, though I was probably inclined towards a guest post. We exchanged some more emails (and feral animal photos). She suggested a conversation. I got her permission to use her letter.

A conversation would have been interesting – it’s a form of post that she and fellow mid westerner and blogger Jackie/Death by Tsundoku occasionally use to great effect in the series #Reading Valdemar they have been buddy reading for the past 15 months – but Melanie’s initial response to The Slap was so visceral that I really wanted to use it upfront.

The following night, she expanded a little …

I was thinking this morning, one of the reasons a book so focused on a man’s relationship with his genitals is boring is because writers often give that man nothing else for personality. I read books that include lots of sex, but when they’re written by women, there are moments between her sexual experiences that give readers a more nuanced character. With Tsiolkas, if his character isn’t with his mistress, he’s with his wife, and if he’s not with his wife he’s asking his son if he thinks black women are sexy, and if he’s not making it weird with his son he’s rubbing his penis on the glass balcony while ogling teen girls. I mean, Jesus. I’m sure there are folks out there debating if only sexual prudes hate this book. But consider this: the only novel I can think of by a woman that is so focused on what the female character’s genitals are doing is Tampa by Alissa Nutting, and that novel is about a pedophile.

One of my young in-laws from one of my marriages was gay, and very noisy about it. One time he introduced his latest lover to us with, “He’s the bitch. I’m on top”. This apparently was important to him and something that he felt his mother and I should know. Melanie’s remarks about Tsiolkas remind me of this. And remind me also that Hector is a paedophile and that in the end an issue – his coming on to his wife’s 17 year old employee – which should surely have meant the end of his marriage, is glossed over.

Is Tsiolkas a sexual writer or an aggressively sexual writer? I’ve read Loaded, Dead Europe and The Slap and now I’m tending towards the latter. Does this maybe result from him being both gay and Greek/Australian?

“I’m a man I say in a deep drawl. And I take it up the arse.” “Of course you do”, she answers, “you’re Greek, we all take it up the arse.”

[From Loaded, and I know, used by me just a few weeks ago.]

So probably ‘yes’. And there you have it. Two views of The Slap, both adverse, from opposite sides of the globe. I won’t stop reading Tsiolkas, just as not liking him doesn’t stop me reading Peter Carey. They are important parts of the Australian literary conversation, with which I struggle to keep up. Or, if you prefer, up with which I struggle ….

.

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008. The US version of the tv series (pictured above) was first shown on NBC, Feb-Apr, 2015.

See Also:
Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (review)
Australian Grunge (here)


*Apologies to Alastair Cooke

The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas (1965 – ) might have started out all rebellious, inner suburban and edgy, but The Slap (2008) has him situated with all he pretends to despise in middle class middlebrow Australian/Melbournian leafy suburban life and writing. The Slap is a waste, a waste of my limited reading time, a waste of his talent.

I will say the worst thing I can about The Slap. It was not written to be read, it was written to be marketed, to generate argument, to generate sales. It is not a novel, just a list of issues wrapped around a thin story. I could say good luck to him. Perhaps he looked at Liane Moriarty’s sales and felt envious. But I expected more.

What are the issues? Corporal punishment, of course, by a person not the child’s parent or teacher; paedophilia; domestic violence; multi-ethnic relationships; homosexuality; abortion; adultery; suburban tedium; they all get a run. Some of them I have opinions about, well all of them really, but not in the context of this review. Interestingly, in light of Loaded, drugs are not an ‘issue’, everyone just takes them.

The story starts with a backyard bbq hosted by Hector and his wife Aisha. Hector is a Greek-Australian public servant, boring as batshit; Aisha, despite her Muslim name, is an Anglo-Indian with her own veterinary practice. Both are fortyish. They live in Northcote, a gentrified northern suburb of Melbourne, not inner and trendy like the adjacent Fitzroy, but more than ok. In fact the only joy of this book is that Tsiolkas knows Melbourne and gets all the suburbs just right.

It was a tacky pokies pub in the middle of nowhere, boganville. Every street looked the same, every house looked the same, everybody looked the same. It was where you came to die. Zombies lived here. He could hear them monotonously tapping away at the machines.

Richie: And as he subsequently ends up at a flat in Whitehorse Rd, he’s presumably talking about the Blackburn Hotel.

At the party are Hector’s cousin Harry a successful mechanic/garage owner who lives in an expensive bayside MacMansion (think Shane Warne); Hector’s parents; Aisha’s brother (who plays no part in the story); Aisha’s besties, Rosie and Anouk, from her schooldays in Perth’s Scarborough Beach; various wives, husbands and children; and two teenagers who are in year 12 together – Connie who works part-time in Aisha’s surgery, and Richie whose mother does likewise. I seem to have left out the token Indigenous guy who with his wife has converted to Islam, they pop up occasionally playing bit-parts.

Rosie and her alcoholic husband have a three year old boy, Hugo, who is still breast-fed and who is totally unrestrained. Hugo when given out at cricket lifts a bat at Harry’s older and larger son Rocco. Harry instinctively smacks him on the bum. The party breaks up in outrage and disbelief. Rosie goes to the police, who lay charges.

The story, being told initially by Hector, is carried forward in turns by most of the people named above, which leads to a lot of unnecessary digression.

Anouk for instance is a screen-writer for what is obviously Neighbours – Tsiolkas even has her driving out to Channel Ten’s outer eastern suburban studios, just across the paddocks from my parents’ first Melbourne house, in Blackburn South – with a younger lover who is an actor in the series.

And so while Hector (40) lech’s over Connie (17); Harry restrains his violence with a mistress in the (working class) western suburbs; Anouk gets pregnant, has an abortion, starts work on the Great Australian Novel; Richie deals with his gayness; Connie chooses a boyfriend and becomes, with Richie, Hugo’s babysitter; Hector’s father deals with being retired and being Greek; Aisha attends a conference in Thailand, gets laid and discovers that apart from still being extremely good looking Hector doesn’t have much going for him; they all take sides, with all the Greeks on Harry’s side and everyone else on Rosie’s. There’s the court case. There’s lots of subsidiary drama, yes I know, all straight out of the Neighbours playbook; and after the best part of a year everyone seems to be no further ahead than they were.

.

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008


Melanie/Grab the Lapels and I read this as a buddy read. She doesn’t review men writers on GTL but she has written to me with her responses and I will put them up in a couple of days (just as soon as I get home). Meanwhile, I have turned off Comments and I hope you will save them up till you have read us both.


See Also:
Bill curates: Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, (Whispering Gums)
Melanie’s response: A letter from America (here)

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

It’s years now since I first read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof-Beam Carpenters, stories he wrote in the 1950s, and in my mind some of the best prose ever written. I was thinking as I planned this review that the most comparable prose is the opening of Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) and so I wonder was there a New York school of writing at this time of which in my general ignorance of US Literature I remain blissfully unaware.

I knew I should read The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and indeed a copy has been prominent in the general disorder of my TBR stacks for some years. This week in iso that I am taking off from work was the opportunity, a remark from Jackie/Death by Tsundoku that she didn’t agree with Catcher being the Great American Novel was the spur, and a review of The Blue Guitar published today (Sun 6 Sept) as I write by Kim/Reading Matters is my inspiration.

Ok, I finished it. I was about two thirds through when I wrote that intro, then Milly came round and sat on the balcony and drank wine and talked to me through the door, Boy, is she a good sort, old Milly. She even brought avo dip and some stuff for later, dhal and a home-made spinach roll. The kids rang, it’s father’s day, and Gee and Oak, who’d taken baby Dingo camping, promised me home delivery pizza for tea, vego and anchovies. I sure wish that’d turn up soon. I’m old, goddammed well over fifty and I eat early.

But no, it’s not the Great American Novel, more an iconic coming of age story, two or three days in the life of a privileged, troubled New York school boy, Holden Caulfield, a junior, year 11 in Oz-speak I think.

I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warnings to start applying myself – especially around mid-terms when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer – but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.

He goes to see a teacher who wishes to wish him goodbye and then back to his room, and his annoying dorm-mates, but late decides he can’t wait the few days till end of term, and heads in to town, worrying all the while about his friend, Jane, who’s been on a date with his room mate, and who he doesn’t mess around with but his room mate never misses so what went on. And all the time he’s thinking about his brother, DB who’s a writer in Hollywood, and his other brother Allie who died, and little sister Phoebe who’s only ten but bright as hell and he just wants to sit down and talk to her.

In a downtown downmarket hotel the elevator guy talks him into having a girl come to his room and he doesn’t feel like it, well ok, he’s still a virgin and she might get him started so he knows what to do when he’s married and all, but when she comes and takes off her dress and sits on his lap, he just wants to talk.

The thing is, most of the time when you’re pretty close to doing it with a girl – a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean – she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell … They tell me to stop, so I stop. I always wish I hadn’t, after I take them home, but I keep doing it anyway.

He goes out again for a drink. He’s under-age but tall, 6’2″, he’s been to all the bars with DB, and sometimes he gets served and sometimes he doesn’t. The next day he checks out, wanders around, almost rings up Jane a half dozen times, takes the very good looking Sally who is keen on him, to the theatre; makes some funny observations about the self-awareness of actors, fights with Sally, drinks, sneaks home late at night to talk to Phoebe, sneaks out again after his parents come home, wakes an old teacher/friend who puts him up …

We get to the ending, which I found heavy handed. All along Caulfield has been talking to us, revealing his pain, his confusion, through his own lack of comprehension at what he is telling us, and on this final night he, and we, must endure a long well-meaning lecture about missed opportunities and all that bullshit we say to kids; as though Salinger lost faith in his own story telling (and what is it with Salinger – who had one, older, sister – and families and dead brothers?) though he pulls it together a bit the following day when Phoebe … (I won’t tell you, in case you’re the one other person in the world who hasn’t read it yet) and winds all up too patly with Holden in care.

This isn’t Salinger’s best prose because the voice is Holden’s, but it’s still pretty damn good.

.

JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, first pub. as a novel, 1951. My edition (with what appears to be the original cover) Little Brown, New York, 1991