The Pages, Murray Bail

This appears to be a first edition hardback. I have no idea where I got it, the price on the flyleaf says $3.00, so presumably second hand. It might be Lisa’s (she reviewed it in 2009), I’m very remiss at recording where I get books. It’s printed on a lovely thick creamy stock and the pages have been folded and bound without being guillotined. The Pages (2008) was Bail’s next novel after the famous and MF Award winning Eucalyptus (1998) so perhaps Big Things were Expected.

Wikipedia says Bail was born in 1941 in Adelaide, lives in Sydney, and has written 5 novels of which The Pages was the fourth.

Bail’s writing style seems thoughtful, seems to convey thought as it floats along. I can’t generalize too much because it is too long since I read Eucalyptus, but from memory they feel the same. The Pages is the story of a self-taught philosopher, one of three adult, unmarried children who have inherited a sheep station in mid-western NSW. Bail mentions Goolgowi and Merriwagga, which would have them on the Hay plains, black soil country, so flat that the horizon is a perfect semi circle, and not too far from the Murrumbidgee (map).

In fact, I’m “there” right now, making a start on Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life. To the extent that Bail describes the property it feels like country a bit closer to Sydney, on the gentle western slopes of the Great Divide. But you know what a purist I am, and I know what purists you’re not.

The plot, I think there’s a plot, is that Erica, a university philosopher is invited out to the property to study the unpublished writings of Wesley Antill, who has been travelling and studying while his sister and brother, Lindsey and Roger, run the station. Wesley has come home, taken over the old unused shearing shed as his workspace, and has died.

Erica makes the long drive, 600 or 700 km, with her therapist friend Sophie for company. The homestead, and there are many like it still, out in what was once incredibly prosperous merino country, is the usual single story, wide verandahs all round, cavernous central passage, 10 bedrooms, enormous kitchen etc. So there’s plenty of room and they settle in for an indefinite stay.

All these five are late-thirtyish, unattached-ish. Sophie is a type, asking all the standard feely feely questions, in a messy relationship with a married guy, not knowing when to pull back. I think she and Lindsey are there just to bulk out the cast a bit, they don’t contribute much. I am uneasy with the omniscient (male) author being Erica but she is mostly just a device for discussing Wesley. Roger is the strong silent type, almost to the point of parody, and provides a minor love interest for Erica and Sophie to compete over. Wesley is there on and off throughout. We start a new chapter and there we are ‘in’ Wesley, a few years earlier.

Here, Wesley is finding his feet in Kings Cross (Sydney) –

Street people spotted Wesley as a yokel, not only for his red ears and premature crow’s feet, and the tan boots – only missing item being the hat – but also his wide-open gaze of one who had never before seen at close quarters eye-sliding men and women, jittery, and yet matter-of-fact types, flaunting themselves to make a quid – and the wear and tear it takes out on the eye, mouth, skin and sympathies in general.

He gets a room, meets a neighbour sunbathing on the roof, and despite his general yokelness is soon sleeping with her, and even after he leaves Australia, they maintain a relationship. He is also the toy boy of one of his mother’s friends, his mother refusing to live out in the bush and instead maintaining an apartment in an inner-city hotel.

To his sister he wrote, ‘My neighbour next door is like you. I’m trying to work out why exactly. (When I know I’ll let you know.) Is about your size. Don’t screw your nose up! Name is Rosie. She tells me there’s no problem attending lectures at the university. All I do is tag along as if I’m a student too, which of course I am.

I expected Bail to use this work as an excuse to philosophise, which he doesn’t, though there is a good deal on the process of philosophising. Even when Erica finally gets round to Wesley’s papers – spread out on the shearing shed floor and not a mouse poo in sight – they prove to be largely autobiographical.

Wesley moves on to London and then Europe, so that Bail can provide descriptions of place from memory probably, casually accumulating mistresses along the way. Toward the end, one leaves him, he organizes for Rosie to join him, it doesn’t go well and he returns to Australia, to the station on the edge of the outback.

Yes, I enjoyed reading it, it flows nicely, the subsidiary characters are often interesting and we get to know Wesley and to a lesser extent, Erica. Sometimes good writing is worth reading just for its own sake and this is one of those times.

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Murray Bail, The Pages, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008. 199pp.

see also reviews by:
Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Kimbofo/Reading Matters (here)
Sue/Whispering Gums (here)

The Drums Go Bang, Ruth Park & D’Arcy Niland

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

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The Drums Go Bang, a joint memoir of their early married life in Sydney during WWII (which is not mentioned) by writers Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, has been one of my favourite books these last 50 or 60 years (my review). Sue/Whispering Gums has reviewed it for AWW Gen 3 Week


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Volume 1 of Ruth Park’s autobiography, A fence around the cuckoo, … was published in 1992. The drums go bang, written collaboratively by Park and Niland, was published in 1956 and covers the first five or so of these years to just after the publication in 1948 of The harp in the south. Read on …

The Flesheaters, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

Flesheaters edited

The Fleasheaters (1972) was David Ireland’s third novel, following a year after his (first of three) Miles Franklin award winning  The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. I couldn’t find the cover above, of the original Angus & Robertson hardback, on the web, so I’ve photographed the copy given to me in 1973 by the Young Bride. It’s hard to imagine now, waiting for the new release of the latest sensational Australian writer, but I used to, for Ireland and Carey particularly, and to a lesser extent, for Tom Keneally.

The setting of The Fleasheaters is Merry Lands, a rooming house in one of those old working class suburbs around Parramatta (Sydney, NSW) where Ireland grew up and worked, and which were the setting also for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe (1976). In fact, the protagonist/narrator, Lee drinks at the Southern Cross, the hotel at the heart of The Glass Canoe.

At the front of the house an old veranda had a curved corrugated iron roof, candy-striped in rust-red and aged-white. S plates held the ends of the brick walls. High up, an attic window had been bricked in … Wisteria climbed up to the half-glassed veranda. Bags flapped further back. Wrought iron lace-work decorated the upper storey.

Brick additions had been made to the stone, timber extensions to the brick, fibrocement additions to the timber, and from fibro down to corrugated iron, hessian, then chaff bags sewn together.

I remember houses like that on The Esplanade in St Kilda, Surrey Hills in Sydney, in the Valley and New Farm in Brisbane, let by the room to derros and workers down on their luck, half-way houses for society’s leftovers, sufferers of congenital poverty and unemployability. All gone now, or gentrified, million dollar mansions.

As with the other two, Ireland builds his ‘story’ by short sketches as Lee is introduced by the landlord O’Grady to his fellow inmates. In fact, it’s possible Ireland wrote the three all together – men at work, men down the pub, and this one, men in a home. It feels like he did, though the characters don’t cross over, or not that I noticed.

Lee lives with Clayton Hercules Emmet who, outside Merry Lands is a lover of women and a dissector of animals; is friends with Scotty, a would-be writer whose ‘room’ is a tree-house; and is an observer of all the others, permanent and temporary, men, women, and couples.

Scotty has the last line of his book – “Far more than when she was naked” – and is waiting for the words preceding to fall into place. Granny Upjohn wears a dog collar and is chained to her kennel. She is viscious and must be sedated for family visits; at night she barks to the Grannys in the other back yards. Fred and Felicity, pensioners, and Granny share one set of dentures between them. Summo works at a nearby industrial plant. A big man, he terrorizes his wife. His employers are already easing him out, so when he loses his hand they put him on light duties, preparatory to making him redundant, to avoid paying compensation. O’Grady uses a half brick to teach his basset to speak. John Luck, fat and ill, goes off to work every morning. He “hasn’t had a day off in fourteen years”. Trouble is, he was put off three months ago.

“O’Grady,” I said, “what can be done for them?”

O’Grady said, “Forget it. They’re incurably poor. You can’t do anything for them. A hundred dollars a week and they’d still be poor. This is the only society we have, the only one we know. It’s a money society. So if they’re poor, they’re inadequate. If they’re inadequate they’re mentally ill, by the definition of our society. Their illness can’t be fixed by effort or dollars.”

As usual, Ireland is contemptuous of women. Joy Luck takes the handyman to bed and when John comes home from ‘work’ he has no choice but to lie beside them. Ann, who bends over in the garden to display her buttocks to passersby, tells her husband she’s been unfaithful, and he shoots her dead. Cicely and her baby live in a ‘room’ under the house made of sheets of corrugated iron tacked to the stumps. “Cicely’s strong point was she was a virgin” – a tattooed virgin with a child, who went out every night looking for men. Crystal, Emmet’s girlfriend who comes to live with them, believes every man should be given whatever he asks of her.

And the title? ‘”We are the ransackers of the planet”, Clayton said. “Progress is the worst flesheater of all. Our existence depends on the death of other organisms and the despoiling of the planet.”‘

When I think about it, David Ireland is probably our first serious post-modernist writer. His works investigate a post-industrial world, ahead of time really given he was writing in the 1970s, seeing not that industry will fail or be off-shored, but that the giant corporations will move away from mass employment as a model, towards automation, as they have, leaving in their wake a vast underclass of people who don’t have, will never have, work. And that society will turn its back on these people.

And he expresses this not through social realism and the politics of the left as was the case between the Wars, nor generally through dystopian near futures as is more often the case now, but through right wing populism and the literary tropes of satire, irony and magic realism, as in the grandmother who must be chained to her kennel; service stations for the bulk-dispensing of  drugs; and culminating of course in Althea, “A Woman of the Future“, mutating into a panther and fleeing Sydney for the Blue Mountains.

Ireland is an important and maybe even,  revolutionary writer. The Flesheaters is not his best work, but it is an interesting one, especially when read in conjunction with The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe, which together provide a snapshot of both our Anglo White-Australian past and our neo-liberal future.

 

David Ireland, The Flesheaters, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1972

see also my other David Ireland posts: –
David Ireland (here)
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (here)
The Glass Canoe (here)
A Woman of the Future (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here)

PS. Another quote:

I had a vision, looking down, of the time in the future when the carbondioxide level in the atmosphere will be so much higher. I felt the increased radiation of the sun, the gradual heating of the earth, the melting of the polar ice-caps, the sea rising a foot a year. And why should I worry? What could anyone do? Industrial production and its constant growth was god. (p. 129)

Yes, we knew 40, 50 years ago that global warming was coming. And we did nothing. Industry, and the corporations that own them, are indeed god.

The Weekend, Charlotte Wood

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [NSW]

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The Weekend is a novel about three 70ish women cleaning the beach house of their dead friend. And the thing is, I’m within 2 or 3 years of their age and Charlotte Wood (1965-  and looks younger on Facebook) isn’t. Wood no doubt has all or some of mother, mothers-in-law, aunts, friends, colleagues to draw on, and I’m sure she gets women, but I don’t think she gets 70, an opinion I also had about another much lauded novel, Extinctions by Josephine Wilson.

On the other hand, towards the end one of the characters muses:

People thought when you got old you wanted your lost youth, or lost love, or men or sex. But really you wanted work and you wanted money.

Well, she got that right!

I loved The Natural Way of Things and I was ready to love The Weekend, but that’s not the way it has worked out. Wood has a clear, not particularly literary, style of writing which suited TNWoT, with its compelling story line of young women in indefinite detention for being the victims of men they trusted. The Weekend is the story of just three women, at the other end of their adult lives – or so Wood would have us believe though I personally am looking forward, like my parents and grandparents, to a couple more decades of activity – but again without men at this time, and having been with men they should not have trusted as much as they did. It’s a smaller story which needed better writing and character development to carry it off.

The protagonists are Wendy, a public intellectual, Jude, a retired restaurant manager, and Adele, an actress. They all live in Sydney, and the novel opens with them making their separate ways to the fictional community of Bittoes on the Central Coast (the rocky and spectacularly beautiful coast between Sydney and Newcastle, 160 kms north), where their lately deceased long time friend Sylvie had a beach house, which they had often used together and separately, and which they have been asked by Sylvie’s partner, now safely home in Dublin, to clean up for sale.

Wendy lives comfortably off the sales of her erudite books, and plans to write more. She is overweight, and a bit stereotypically, is sloppy in her person and in her housekeeping. She has an old car, which breaks down on the way to Bittoes, and in which she is trapped while “road trains” roar past, while her old dog pisses on her lap. Wendy, now a widow, had been in a loving marriage for many years, and has two children, by an earlier marriage, who appear to blame her for something.

Jude is uptight and bossy and has been the mistress for 40 years of a banker whose principal relationships are with his wife and children and grandchildren. She has no presence other than as a storm cloud around which the others navigate.

Adele, is small with a good body, is still amazingly supple, hasn’t been offered a part for more than a year, is or was in a relationship with another woman, and is also stereotypical in her narcissism and dependence on others.

She would wear black, very simple – or no, charcoal. With some stylish sleeve detail, but fitted so that you could see her figure, which was still really very lovely. People said that to Adele often. You have a lovely figure. Which meant, you have terrific tits. For your age.

I think the author’s intention was to explore the notion of friendship, not a subject to which I have given a great deal of either thought or practice.

The thirties were the age you fell most dangerously in love, Adele had discovered, after the fact. Not with a man or a woman, but with your friends. Lovers back then came and went like the weather … No, it wasn’t lovers but friends – these courageous, shining people – you pursued, romanced with dinners and gifts and weekends away. It was so long ago. Forty years!

Wood appears to confusing my generation with hers. Baby boomers were too busy, and too poor, in their thirties, with partners and children, to be “romancing” friends.

Anyway, the three women spend the long weekend over Christmas, cleaning, or not cleaning, reviewing their lives, being bossed about by Jude, bickering, and briefly, relaxing on the beach. Adele bumps into a rival, more successful older actress at a restaurant and invites her and her 40 ish producer partner to dinner. Where everything comes to a head, including the weather (Wood shows some restraint, and doesn’t throw in a bushfire).

The air was all electricity. They were suspended, Wendy pinned on the couch, Jude and Adele each separate, adrift. None could reach the other. The door was still open and the rain swept in; darkness had swallowed up the room.

Nothing is resolved, the dog doesn’t die. Wendy feels vaguely she must do something to find out what it is that so bothers her children about their upbringing. Adele has no visible means of support for the coming year. Jude we don’t know enough about to care. The late Sylvie, whose absence might have been expected to be the centre of the novel, barley makes a showing. The friendship, having lasted this long only through inertia, would seem to have nowhere to go.

 

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019

Other Reviews:
Kate, booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)