Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome (paper)

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (Giramondo 2017)

metronomepaper.jpegI don’t have anything new to say about The Metronome since I posted about the ebook version in January, and sadly I missed the launch at Gleebooks on the weekend because I had to be somewhere else. But for the same of completeness, this is a short post to tell my readers the book is now out in the world, launched by Robert Adamson at Gleebooks on 26 March 2017. There are photos of the event on the Quemar Press website, and here’s a video of Jennifer Maiden reading ‘Mary Rose’ from the book:

One of the many things I love
about Gen Y is that they’re ready to accept
transgender in anything, as if Caitlyn Jenner
was the best fan fiction ever.

The Book Group in an Ian McEwan Nutshell

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape 2016)

1911214330.jpgThe Meeting: This is the first time I’ve been to a Book group meeting without having read even one page of the book that’s up for discussion. The Emerging Artist asked me what excuse I was going to give. I replied haughtily, and a little disingenuously, that I didn’t need an excuse, because the group is about much more than discussing a book.

There’s food, which this time was excellent: our host had taken a day off work to buy ingredients and cook a fabulous Malaysian meal. (He joked that he had thought of making smoothies but decided against it – a joke which I only got a week later when half way through the book.) And there’s bonhomie: we caught up with each other’s lives, relationships, illnesses and other milestones.

We eventually did discuss the book. I gleaned that it is beautifully written, with many sentences that at least one person was compelled to read more than once. A couple of people laughed so hard at some parts they had to put the book down. The plot had to do with Hamlet, but not obviously. The central conceit, that the narrator is a foetus in the last weeks of gestation who knows an awful lot about the world from listening to podcasts, was either amusing (most of the group), richly metaphorical (one person), or one-joke tedious (the main dissenter who, incidentally, says he is an Ian McEwan fan).

I snuck a quick look at a page close to the end, and was enthralled. Here’s the paragraph I read, without spoiler anxiety, because after all it would have been odd for the narrator not to be born at the book’s end:

A slithering moment of waxy, creaking emergence, and here I am, set naked on the kingdom. Like stout Cortez (I remember a poem my father once recited), I’m amazed. I’m looking down, with what wonder and surmise, at the napped surface of the blue bath towel. Blue. I’ve always known, verbally at least, I’ve always been able to infer what’s blue – sea, sky, lapis lazuli, gentians – mere abstractions. Now I have it at last, I own it, and it possesses me. More gorgeous than I dared  believe. That’s just a beginning, at the indigo end of the spectrum.

In the course of the evening someone read a passage that he particularly enjoyed. To my uninformed ear it was a dry if elegantly constructed list of items such as one hears on the news every night, with nothing particularly clever, pleasant or moving about it.

The discussion must have been enticing enough because when the library emailed that a copy had finally become available, I borrowed it.

After the meeting: It turned out that the main challenge for me as a reader was the requirement that I willingly suspend, not so much disbelief, as my sense of late prenatal awareness as an actual thing, one that bears little or no resemblance to the sophisticated rumination, moral discrimination, wine connoisseurship and intense visualisation that characterise the narration here.

Once you are reconciled to the fact that there’s no attempt to imagine an actual foetus’s mental processes, and have set aside any anxiety about the potential damage from the mother’s copious alcohol consumption or vigorously receptive sexual activity, you can pay attention to the story, in which the narrator listens and feels helplessly while his mother (Trudy/Gertrude) and her lover/brother-in-law (Claude/Claudius) plot the death of his father.

Like a number of recent and forthcoming books, though not part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project (Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn will be doing Hamlet for that project), this is a novelistic riff on a Shakespeare play. The names and the incest–murder scenario aren’t all that links it to Hamlet. There are plenty of verbal echoes  – ‘To be’, though not ‘not to be’; ‘Seems, nay tis’, and so on. And Hamlet’s indecisiveness is parallelled in the narrator’s vacillations as he is influenced by his mother’s hormonal fluctuations and his own divided loyalties. The narrator toys with the idea of killing himself, with a literal ‘mortal coil’. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost.

The narrative swings along, and the remarkably well-informed foetus’s reflections are engaging, but I kept wondering if the central conceit was really any more interesting than the one in the movie Look Who’s Talking. In an odd way, it was this rather than the narrative question – would the plotters get away with murder? – that kept me in suspense. In the end, it was a passage very like the one that had so failed to impress me at the meeting that brought the narrative’s metaphorical power home for me. The narrator is well informed, like so many of us in the age of social media, about things he is all but powerless to influence. This helplessly informed state is the novel’s equivalent to Hamlet’s indecisiveness. ‘And always, there are problems closer to hand.’ That sentence, banal as it may seem out of context, is actually a call to action, and it’s what in the end made me love the book, though I still could have done without all the alcohol during pregnancy.


 

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race (Hachette Australia 2016)

haterace.jpgI finished reading The Hate Race on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated in Australia as Harmony Day, and this year the day on which the Turnbull government put forward legislation intended to make it legal to insult, offend or humiliate someone on the basis of their race.

As a result, soon after finishing the book I read Adam Liaw’s Twitter thread being ‘a bit frank about race’ (well worth reading), and some of the painful contributions to the thread #FreedomofSpeech initiated by Benjamin Law. These read almost as continuations of the book, placing it as part of a vast, continuing, necessary conversation. The connection became explicit when Benjamin Law tweeted a recommendation to ‘read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir of growing up black in Australia. Utter punch in the guts’. And it’s true that Clarke’s book gives devastating heft to the abstractions ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’.

But it would be a mistake to think of The Hate Race as an extended tweet about racism, whether micro-agressive, casual, everyday, or viciously intentional. It’s a beautifully written memoir about growing up as an Caribbean–African-heritage girl in suburban Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Its focus on racism gives it power and coherence, but doesn’t stop it from being very funny in places and heartbreaking in others, from having a satisfying (and surprising) overall narrative arc, and any number of story-telling pleasures along the way. The narrator tells us again and again that she is making a story out of her experience. ‘This is how it happened,’ goes her refrain, ‘or what’s a story for.’

There’s a wonderful tale involving Cabbage Patch Kids, and Maxine’s time on the debating team in high school is a source of complex humour. There are stories of teenage love, of intellectual adventure, of defiance, smart-arsery and righteousness. I expect that anyone who has been to school in Australia will recognise the truth of the playground politics.

There’s one passage I’m tempted to quote as most vividly transcending the extended-tweet form and exemplifying the book’s complex honesty – for those who’ve read it, I’m thinking of the ‘incident with Baghita Singh’ from Chapter 19. But I’ll avoid spoilers. Here’s a taste, from Chapter 7, of the world as seen by little Maxine, one of many such tiny gems:

I have only one memory of entering a church with my mother. In it, I am about four years old. We are walking, my mother and I, along Wrights road on the way home from preschool, when the heavens unexpectedly open. Sheets of freezing rain pour down on us. Umbrella-less, we huddle under the small awning of the nearby white-painted timber Anglican church. But the rain seems to be chasing us, curving in under the church awning in piercing darts, as if directing us into the arms of the Lord.
—–When my mother eases open the heavy wooden church door, rows of polished pews with plush red cushioning reveal themselves. Light streams through the pretty stained-glass windows.
—–‘What is this place?’ I am breathless with awe. ‘It looks like the inside of a Pizza Hut restaurant.’

At about the halfway point, I was filled with vicarious terror for the people whose names are named: Carlita Allen, Maxine’s vicious nemesis from the first day of preschool; Mrs Kingsley, the preschool teacher who smilingly refused to believe that a little black girl’s father could be a mathematician; Mrs Hird, who turned a deaf ear to racist taunts and objected furiously to the use of the word racism;  the vile bullies Derek Healey and Greg Adams; all the abusive children and adolescents, the obtuse or collusive teachers. It was a relief to read in the acknowledgements that all names apart from the author’s have been changed. But I do hope that Carlita and Greg and Derek and the rest read the book and are inspired to do some hard thinking. As a white man, I’ve been pushed to face at least bystander behaviour on my part. Perhaps even John Howard and Pauline Hanson, offstage characters whose names are not changed, might have their worlds expanded if they open these pages.

aww2017.jpgThe Hate Race is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Southerly 76/2

David Brooks and guest editor Andy Jackson (editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 2 2016: Writing Disability

southerly762.jpgThe term ‘disability’ covers a vast range of experience: body shapes that differ from the norm, impaired bodily function, chronic pain, chronic disease, learning difficulties, the autism spectrum, conditions labelled ‘mental illness’, combinations of those and more. It’s an obvious point, and perhaps only in an academic context would you invoke a French theorist to make it, as in this passage from Andy Jackson and David Brooke’s essay ‘Ramps and the Stair’ in this Southerly:

Derrida tells us that we should not, when talking about animals, use the word animal. It is an umbrella term, an intellectual violence. We should say cat, we should say horse, we should say mouse. […] ‘Disability’, then, an umbrella term? an intellectual violence? There are as many forms of disability as there are things a non-disabled person might be able to do. The term effaces even as it tries to draw attention.*

But with or without Derrida, cats, mice and horses, this Southerly focuses on disability. The contents are listed according to kind of writing – essays, poetry, short fiction etc (you can see the online version here). They could as easily have been listed according to kind of disability. Here’s a partial list:

Degenerative disease:

  • An intensely personal obituary by Bruce Pascoe for Gillian Mears, best known as the author of Foal’s Bread who died of  multiple sclerosis last year
  • Koraly Dimitriadis, ‘The Recipe’, an exuberant short fiction in which a Greek family deals with a matriarch’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease

Cerebral palsy:

  • Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, ‘Permanent Problems’, a memoir, self described as ‘ a story about identity and anxiety, about rude questions and boring answers … a story I can’t grow out of, even as I grow up’, followed by  ‘life prep (dear able bodied partner)’, a brief, caustic lyric on the same theme

Chronic illness:

  • Heather Taylor Johnson, ‘Trying to Talk about Ménières Disease’, a poem (a fourfold haibun?) that vividly captures devastating encounters with a medical practitioner

Blindness / visual impairment:

  • Ben Stubbs, ‘A Different View’, in which the author, a travel writer, is taken on a blindfold walk through the streets of Adelaide by a blind activist/educator, almost as good (or bad) as being there

Deafness:

  • Amanda Tink, ‘Deafness: a Key to Lawson’s Writing’ reminds us that Henry Lawson was deaf, and argues that his disability lay at the base of his commitment to social justice. (I do wonder if Ms Tink has thought much about the influence of Henry’s feminist mother and his class background)
  • Jessica White, ‘A Great Many Capital Foreign Things’, a memoir about her own experience as a deaf person, including her time researching colonial novelist Rosa Praed’s daughter Maud, who was deaf.

Autism spectrum:

  • Darcy Hill, ‘Disjointed Words’, a revelatory personal essay recounting a couple of hours in the life of an autistic university student
  • Jessica Clements: ‘Theories of LIght’, a fiction in which a boy with Aspergers (though it’s not named) begins school. It opens a gentle door for readers unfamiliar with the territory

Chronic pain:

  • Josephine Taylor, ‘Mark My Words’, the most scholarly piece in the journal (with four pages of ‘works cited’), about vulvodynia, a condition of chronic unexplained vulval pain. I’m not drawn to writing that quotes the likes of Lacan or the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and parts of this essay are hard going, but as it’s rooted in, and animated by, the writer’s quest to come to terms with more than fifteen years of acute pain, it’s hard to turn away

Mobility impairment:

  • Michèle Saint-Yves, ‘The Inner Shepherd’, a spectacular story in which a character takes 12 pages to sit up in bed in the morning, bringing extraordinary self-discipline to the task.

‘Mental Illness’:

  • Liana Joy Christensen, ‘Before They fall’, a memoir that pays pained tribute to a friend who lived with mental chaos.: ‘He could not help being ill; I could not help writing.’

Intellectual disability:

  • The cover is by Fulli Andrinopoulos, represented by Arts Project Australia, whose website declares that it insists ‘that intellectually disabled artists’ work be presented in a professional manner and that artists are accorded the same dignity and respect as their non-disabled peers’.

Not easily categorised:

  • Elisabeth Holdsworth, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams, the friends of our youth and 83 seconds’ ranges widely over stillborn babies, misdiagnosed back injury, childhood epilepsy, survival of Dachau – friendship, grief, solidarity, courage …

I would have been satisfied with this richly diverse reading experience, and then the short reviews section sprung a pleasant surprise on me in Michael Sharkey’s review of David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice. This book is an elegy to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who lectured at Sydney University and was a mentor and friend to Musgrave and Sharkey. Though I wouldn’t presume to claim him as a friend, he was one of the three most inspiring, and dare I say loveable, teachers I had at university (the others were Elisabeth Hervic, of the French Department, and David Malouf). The review send me to Gleebooks to buy a copy of the book, but the real delight was in Sharkey’s departures from the business of reviewing to note down some of his own memories of Bill:

Bill Maidment received that sort of admiration and affection from several generations of students and fellow teachers. He represents a world now gone, when an Air Force radio operator, journalist, plein-air geographer and adventurer, forensic critic, collector of Australian folklore and arcane Renaissance knowledge, and brilliant lecturer could exist in one person, and hold a packed lecture theatre in such thrall that the listeners erupted in applause not only at the end of lectures but sometimes following a bravura exegesis.


  • Because my WordPress format doesn’t distinguish italicised text in quotes, I’ve used purple for words that are italicised in the original. I’ve also altered punctuation slightly to follow Australian conventions.

Tom Keneally’s Crimes of the Father

Tom Keneally, Crimes of the Father (Vintage 2016)

crimes.jpgPerhaps a novel is just what’s needed after the news cycle has rolled on, to keep our minds and hearts alive to painful issues such as child sexual abuse in religious institutions. That, it seems to me, is the need The Crimes of the Father aims to fill.

It’s a stranger-comes-to-town story. Father Frank Docherty was stripped of his priestly role by the Sydney Cardinal in the early 1970s because his politics were contrary to the prelate’s conservatism. As a member of a religious Order, he found a new life in Canada as a priest and academic psychologist, and came to specialise in cases of clerical child abuse. In 1996 he returns to Sydney to address a conference, and finds himself embroiled as adviser and advocate with not one but two people who were abused as children by a Monsignor of the diocese who also happens to be the brother of a woman he has loved, chastely, for more than 20 years.

There are lectures, legal arguments, and excursions into the history of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of Vatican Two. Tom Keneally has clearly done conscientious research, and in that sense is trustworthy. But at about the midpoint I was muttering, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and three quarters of the way through, ‘Write what you know!’ I just didn’t believe in Frank Docherty’s inner life, or that of the accused abuser or the abuse survivors. The dialogue rarely sounds like conversation. The narrative feels like a survey of the literature, a tableau where you might reasonably expect a drama.

Though Keneally’s skill as a story teller is powerful enough that I kept reading, it’s the brief preface, in which he writes about his own relationship to the Catholic Church, that delivers the strongest emotional punch. The rest is too schematic, the characters too much at arm’s length, the action too often described rather than enacted. And as our hero flies off into the sunrise, the necessary final twist is a convenient deus ex machina.

Perhaps because I had just read Kim Mahood’s brilliant Position Doubtful, this unengaged quality struck me with particular force in the section where Sarah, a survivor of sexual abuse who has temporarily become Sister Constance, spends time on a remote Aboriginal community. She visits the outstation of a man called Douglas (‘that was his European name, anyhow’), with some of his relatives. Here are the first paragraphs of her visit:

Douglas was reserved but welcoming. His habitation, an elegantly constructed lean-to, lay at the foot of a ridge in which the entire range of umber and yellow rocks were exhibited. His wife was profoundly black and limpid-eyed, and there was just her and him there – the kids were learning white-fella stuff in Cairns, he told them. He had a kerosene refrigerator and a telephone that hung on a pole and ran off solar panels. He was a man of past, present and future.
—-The relatives sat about on a rug in front of the lean-to and spoke in their language – part guttural, with some sounds like bird calls – her ignorance about which  Constance had never felt more acutely than at this moment. The host, his wife and his relatives drank tea from enamel mugs. A stranger at the feast, she did too.

And that’s as vividly as we ever get to see Douglas and his unnamed wife and relatives. Of course, they’re incidental characters (and I should mention that ‘their language’ has been previously identified as Guugu Timithirr), but the writing is not completely untypical. It might work as a film script, because the actors would flesh it out, but there’s not much flesh in the written form.

Compare this from the Author’s Note:

At an immature age I chose to study for the priesthood. and I would like to put on record my thanks for the more generous and open-handed aspects of that training. It was not, however, an education designed to encourage a callow young man to achieve full maturity as a sentient and generous male adult. I was too innocent to understand that the education to make me a celibate strayed easily into stereotyping half of my species – women – as a perilous massed threat to priestly purity; or that the attendant emotional dwarfing could create, encourage or license the young men whose abusive tendencies are mourned in this novel.

I so wanted to read the novel that this seems to promise. But I was disappointed: those young men make no appearance except as manipulators lifted straight from Keneally’s evidently punctilious research. No light is shed on their motivations as individual, breathing human beings. And the same is only slightly less true of the survivors.

From my 70th birthday party

The party to celebrate my 70th birthday on Friday was, among other things, a kind of talent show: people sang, recited poetry, did classroom activities, sketched, knitted socks and conducted a blindfold taste test. (I make no bones about hating eggplant, baba ghanouj excepted, and one of my sons blindfolded me and offered me five variants of the loathsome stuff: I’m glad to report I hated them all, sight unseen.)

Most of the splendid creations were very much of the moment, but I have Tristan White’s permission to share this, which his mother read in his absence.

From Chifley to Turnbull – 70 Years of PMs

In seventy years you’ve seen many a prime minister,
the great and the average and the downright sinister.
You probably remember them but if you’re out of the loop,
let me flash back so that you can recoup.

You were born under pipe-toting Benedict Chifley,
who had his time up by far too swiftly.
The Bathurst train driver, the ‘Light on the Hill‘,
a ‘fine Aussie‘ that Labor cherish still.

Then began a Liberal fraternity,
twenty-three years was about an eternity.
For sixteen Robert Menzies took up the rein,
winning eight elections in his own name.
British to the bootstraps! English to the eye!’
And he’d love the Queen till the day he’d die.

Sir Bob finally stood down to give Harold Holt way,
to follow the lead of LBJ.
He added a new set of coins to the mix
on the fourteenth of February sixty-six.
But just as his second anniversary neared,
he went for a dip and then disappeared.
We looked for him all across the seas,
and theorised some conspiracies,
but we knew before long that his prospects were grim,
so we instead had a swimming pool named after him.

The Liberals then voted in Senator Gorton,
but just three years later they chose to deport him.

Billy McMahon had failed to impress
except for the crack in his wife Sonia’s dress.
It was definitely Time in ‘seventy-two,
the men and women of Aus needed something brand new.

Free healthcare and uni; conscription was off!
For all this and more, we can warmly thank Gough.
But things then began to go downhill from there:
the block of supply; the Loans Affair,
and on November eleventh, well may we say,
that Australia had its craziest day.
The Governor-General had Whitlam dismissed,
Kerr’s cur came in being booed, scoffed and hissed.

Yet he nonetheless won the coming election
giving Gough and his crowd a wholehearted rejection.
Despite being unloved, we kept Fraser empowered
for two more terms, with his Treasurer Howard.
Life is delightful, but not meant to be easy!
he said, making us all feel a little bit queasy.

But in eighty-three when Labor’s hope was but fadin’
they drafted in Hawke to replace Bill Hayden.
He carried the party up out of the fog
though it could have been won by a drover’s dog.
I take total responsibility,‘ wept Fraser,
as though his toughness had been cut with a razor.

Hawky, who was branded the Messiah by some,
claimed a ‘boss who sacks someone today is a bum!
The dollar was floated, we’d be reconciled,
And ‘a life in poverty would be had by no child!
He gave Labor four wins in rapid succession
but we then had to have, of course, the recession.

Bob had forged a great partnership with his Treasurer Keating,
though leadership tensions had now started heating.
After challenging once Keating said, ‘Let me be plain:
I had one shot in the locker. I won’t fire again!’

But just six months later, our leader was Paul,
whose ninety-three victory was the sweetest of all.
His ‘big picture’ vision went to the front of the screen:
Get a new flag! Get rid of the queen!’
He had a caustic tongue and declared, ‘Holy moley!
I’m going to do John Hewson slowly!
Mr. Mediocrity will never get us;
it’s like being flogged with a warm piece of lettuce!
He’s like a lizard on a rock – alive but looking dead.
Scumbags! Corporate crooks! Rust buckets!‘ he said.

But Redfern and the speech to the unknown soldier,
and Mabo and APEC and super were much bolder.
‘We excluded and murdered without asking,’ said he,
how would I feel were this done to me?’
He may have seemed arrogant but he wasn’t a coward,
though was hit out with baseball bats for Honest John Howard.

I won’t say sorry! No way will there be,
never ever!‘ he said, to a GST.
‘We’ve been welcoming to all who have travelled our way,
but we will decide who’s invited to stay.’
He followed George W. Bush into war
and acknowledged that some of his promises were non-core.

In twenty-oh-seven things eventually soured
with the WorkChoices bill, and it tore apart Howard.
We loudly responded when he did not retreat;
we threw out his party and he lost his own seat!

‘I’m Kevin,’ he said, ‘and I’m just here to help.’
‘I’m going to ensure an equal share of the wealth.’
He got us through the GFC but then
he was out of the picture by twenty-ten.

When Gillard took over we didn’t know what to say,
being told that a ‘Good government was losing its way,
but we’re going to move forward with all that we’ve got:
our seventy-two, Greens, Windsor, Oakeshott.’

She got through plenty that was a success,
BN, Gonski, the NDIS.
But there was one pledge that did not succeed:
There will be no carbon tax under my lead!
The press was hostile and tried to defame:
Ju-liar!’ ‘Ditch the witch!’ ‘Her dad died of shame!

But enough was enough and her attack unfurled
with a blistering speech that went ‘round the world.
‘Misogyny and sexism, I’m not a fan!
But I will not be lectured on it by this man!
If he wants to see it, he needs a mirror!’
For a long fifteen minutes Abbott seemed to fear her.
An easy three years and three days it was not,
but as the first lady up there she gave her best shot.

Rudd said through the chorus of faceless men,
I’m a man of my word! I won’t challenge again!
But he nonetheless managed a brief resurrection
before we kicked the mob out at the ‘thirteen election.

‘We’ll do what we say! These are the facts!
We’ll stop the boats! End the waste! Get rid of the tax!
No cuts to health or your uni degree!
No cuts to the SBS or ABC!
Polling day is soon! We need more supporters!
Remember, I’m the guy with the not-bad looking daughters!

But it wasn’t long before we saw his team drift,
because the ‘gospel truth’ statements were only those on a script.
I’ll shirtfront Vlad Putin! You bet you are!
But that infamous threat was little more than a spar.
Housewives do the ironing!’ The onion. The wink.
The suppository of wisdom!’ Did he even think?
Canadia!’ ‘Those visually awful wind farms!’
And the ‘nothing but bush‘ remark that had natives in arms.

But it wasn’t just Abbott who seemed way too cocky;
it ran through his cabinet to Treasurer Hockey,
the man being caught out chomping cigars.
Entitlement’s over! The poor don’t have cars!
Get a good job that pays you good money!’
If it weren’t so sad, it would just be plain funny.

We woke up on Aus Day to a terrible fright
to hear that Prince Philip had been made a knight
a ‘friendless decision‘, a captain’s call,
the beginning of Abbott’s dramatic downfall.
His ‘near death experience’ was survived, he would say,
On the pledge that ‘good government will now start today.’
But the Speaker, we then found out, chartered a chopper.
After three weeks of agony he was then forced to drop her.

A week short of the poll to be held in Canning
we found out what Mal and his allies were planning.
We’re not like Labor!’ Tone was heard griping,
‘But I’ll give Turnbull no undermining, wrecking or sniping!’
Mal swore that Bill Shorten would be easy to beat,
yet his Jobs and Growth mantra held him just by one seat.

It’s been hard to be PM for innovation
with scandals and Trump and a resurgent One Nation.
He claims to be strong, but it’s not the same story
as the failed plebiscite or the deflection of Cory.
Mr. Harbourside Mansion then went on a rant,
Calling Shorten a ‘parasite and sycophant‘.
How is renewable energy on a roll
when his treasurer comes in with a big lump of coal?

So now with a party divided and split
and Abbott looking for a big direct hit,
will Malcolm make it past twenty nineteen?
The jury’s still out and that’s yet to be seen.
But for now that’s the end of my little rhyme,
so let’s just enjoy this most exciting time.

Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful

Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: Mapping landscapes and memories (Text 2016)

pd.jpgSome time in 1997, Kim Mahood was chatting with the mother of the young manager of the Tanami Downs cattle station in the Northern Territory. A fragment of that conversation made it into this book:

– I love this country, she said. People don’t understand. There aren’t words to describe it.

One way of reading Position Doubtful is as Mahood’s attempt to find ways of communicating her love of that country, not  in any easy sense, but as the complex engagement of one who ‘feels an almost cellular affinity to a place that has been constructed by a different cultural imagination’: she spent her late childhood and early teenage years in ‘a tract of country that extends across the Tanami Desert to the edge of the East Kimberley’ and has been returning to it now for twenty years.

Though Mahood writes beautifully, words aren’t her only means of communication. Among other things the book describes a number of art projects that grapple with her relationship to the country. As well as her own works, and more interesting than them in the telling, are her collaborations with artist Pam Lofts on surreal photographic works involving high heels and a rowboat in the desert; and with people – mostly women – from Aboriginal communities to create large maps annotated with Indigenous and non-Indigenous place names, the names of people, history and Dreaming stories. The book’s first paragraphs invite us to think of the book as just such a map – ‘position doubtful’ is an annotation from an old map of the desert, a term that satellite technology has rendered obsolete, though it retains its power here to describe ‘the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it’.

To engage with the land is to engage with the people who live there, so the book includes riveting accounts of cross-cultural relationships, in which Mahood has a ‘position doubtful’ status as insider–outsider: she’s not Aboriginal, but people who know her acknowledge that she is from that place. Sometimes the old women expect her to know things and she has to consult her GPS device surreptitiously so as not to disappoint them. Her half-in-half-out status gives a vivid intimacy to her descriptions of life at the Balgo Art Centre and the tiny community of Mulan, her accounts of a number of mapping projects, the Canning Stock Route Art Project, an archaeological expedition with (among others) Mike Smith, author of The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts.

This is not a drop-in account of life in remote Australia. It’s in part a memoir about friendship, including a number of bereavements, in part a reflection on an artistic practice, in part a record of Aboriginal testimony. Some of the interactions with Aboriginal women are so intense – some funny, others tragic – that it’s a relief to read towards the end that Mahood read large parts of the book to people at Mulan:

I face the assembled group with my manuscript.
– I’ve been working with you for a long time, I say. I’ve written down your stories, I’ve mapped your country with you, I’ve made a radio program, I’ve helped to write books about you and for you. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to tell my side of the story.
I read everything I think might offend or upset people. Bessie is not sure about the moment on the Canning Stock Route trip when we all say we stink, but the others laugh and tell her that it’s really funny. Many of the people in the room are not literate, but the context, the animation I bring to the reading, the knowledge people have of the events and places, transcends the barrier of language….
When I stop reading they demand more. Seeing themselves through my eyes is a beguiling novelty. The ancient authority of storytelling maintains its power to captivate.

It maintains that power for me too. I think this book will engross anyone who grew up in rural Australia, and especially, I imagine, in desert regions knowing traditional Aboriginal people. It will grip anyone interested in Western Desert art, or the question of how to live awarely as a non-Indigenous Australian My one sorrow is that almost all of the reproductions of art works in the paperback edition are too small and muddy to be of much use. The book cries out for an edition with larger, full-colour illustrations.

aww2017.jpgPosition Doubtful is the third book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Cavafy for the first time

C P Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Chatto & Windus 1990)

0701136626.jpg Constantine P Cavafy (Kavafis/Kavaphes) is one of the many literary giants I haven’t read. This relatively slender volume offered a way to put that right.

Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He published little poetry while alive, mainly printing poems off privately and giving copies to friends and visitors. Though he spoke fluent English and other languages, he wrote poetry only in Greek. E M Forster was impressed: the two men’s meetings are beautifully imagined in Damon Galgut’s novel Arctic Summer. Cavafy’s quiet reputation in the literary world was solid by the time he died and grew hugely after that. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novel Justine (1957) introduced him to a wide Anglophone readership. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Alexandra Leaving’ is a loose rendering of Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Martin Johnston, the most awesome intellectual of my university days in the early 1970s, referred to him, along with Borges, Seferis, Berryman and others who didn’t turn up on the Eng Lit course.

You can see why I’ve felt there was a Cavafy-shaped gap in my education.

And now there isn’t, though I think this is poetry you’d need to read in the original Greek to really read it. And you’d need to know a lot more of the history of Alexandria, from ancient times to modern decadence, to enjoy it. And it might help if nostalgia for a real or imagined youthful homoeroticism was your thing.

There are some wonderful poems: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Ithaka‘ are justly famous. And there are plenty of incidental pleasures. Of the poems set in the ancient world, ‘The footsteps’, which may have had satirical resonances in the early 1900s, certainly does in 2017:

Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep –
callous, happy, peaceful,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigour of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restless the household deities!
The little gods tremble
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and, faint with dear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.

The place where I engaged most with Cavafy is where the poetry deals with the struggle between Christian and pagan moralities. He comes down pretty clearly on the side of the pagans, th0ugh Julian the Apostate doesn’t fare much better than the grey, repressive Christian authorities. Read in that context, the many poems about young men with beautiful lips that have performed or might perform forbidden or shameful deeds come to seem less deadeningly masturbatorial. And it was one of those poems, it turns out, that Martin Johnston included in his 1973 book, Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation, three years before the first edition of the book I’m discussing.

Because I can’t read Greek, and felt underwhelmed by the language of this poetry, I did a little triangulation, comparing Martin’s ‘On a Ship’ (MJ), Keeley and Sherrard’s ‘On Board Ship‘ (K&S) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘Aboard the Ship‘ (DM). If anyone thought translation was a straightforward business, they’d surely be prompted to think again by those three titles, all faithful translations but each different from the others. When I ran the original ‘Του πλοίου‘ through Google translate, it gave a fifth version: ‘Ship’s’.

You can look up all but Martin’s at the links. Here’s his translation:

On a Ship
It looks like him, certainly, this small
pencil depiction of him.

Executed quickly, on the ship’s deck,
one magical afternoon,
with the Ionian sea all round us.

It looks like him. But I remember him more beautiful.
he was sensuous to the utmost,
and that illuminated his expression.
He seems more beautiful to me
now that my soul must call him out of time.

Out of time. All these things are very old,
the sketch and the ship and the afternoon.

Though the translations differ as much as their titles, only a handful of words seem to have been troublesome:

  • MJ’s ‘more beautiful’ is ‘better looking’ in K&S and ‘handsomer’ in DM. Each of the translators seems to have chosen a different position in the gender politics of the word. Google Translate opted out, giving ’emorfo’.
  • Where MJ has ‘sensuous to the utmost’, K&S have ‘almost pathologically sensitive’, and one suspects that while ‘pathological’ might be fine in Greek it’s in a wrong register in Engish. DM has, ‘To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was.’ And K&S had a second go at it: their online version has ‘sensitive almost to the point of illness’. It does seem that MJ was squibbing it to avoid any reference to illness, and ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensitive’ may have been simply wrong.. Google Translate offers ‘disease was a beautician’.
  • MJ’s ‘my soul must call him out of time’ compares well with DM’s ‘my soul recalls him, out of Time’, because ‘recall’ in English has lost all sense of summoning, and that does seem to be needed, as K&S have ‘my soul brings him back, out of Time’.

Comparing these translations, and Don Paterson’s looser ‘The Boat‘ (‘more handsome’, ‘so much the sensualist’, ‘my heart calls him / from so long ago’), is a way of staying with the poem long enough for it to sink in a little, to feel the care for language that has gone into it, and to catch the whiff the memento mori that emanates from it. Maybe (of course?) this will be so of much more in this book if I come back to them.

 

Ramapada Chowdhury’s Second Encounter

Ramapada Chowdhury, Second Encounter (Je Jekhane Danriye 1972, translation by Swapna Dutta,  Niyogi Books 2016)

9385285440.jpgIt’s easy for English-speaking readers to forget that a vast amount of writing exists in the world independent of the English language: neither written in English nor translated into it. In India, I’m told, there are a number of languages in which novels can find much greater audiences than the one we Anglophones arrogantly assume to be universal.

Bengali is one of those languages. It’s the language of the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and we Anglophones are fortunate enough to have had at lest some of their work translated for us. (Satyajit Ray was one of the names my oldest brother used to conjure up the great world of Culture when he came home from his first term at University – along with Tolstoy, Tchaikowsky and Kurosawa.)

jejakhanedanriye.jpgRamapada Chowdhury’s 1972 novella Je Jekhane Danriye is a gem that would have remained invisible to non-Bengali readers if Swapna Dutta’s love for it hadn’t led her to make it available to us. A film version was released in 1974, but there’s very little information about it on IMDB. The poster for the film seriously misrepresents the book.

It’s a story of young love revisited: two people, each married with a child, meet up again after a twenty-year separation. In their teenage years they had lived near each other and developed a mutual infatuation, which was never consummated in so much as a direct exchange of words. Each of them has cherished the thrilling memory and found solace in it in the midst of humdrum reality, and now it seems a spark has been reignited.

But this is not a Mills and Boon romance. The emotional weight of the book hangs on the question of what twenty years can mean in a person’s life. Not only do individuals mature and make choices, but social mores change: while twenty years previously young people could only gaze raptly at each other from their restricted lives, the current teenagers roam the countryside together day and night. Both main characters agonise over the meaning of their rekindled feelings, for themselves, for each other, for their spouses, and for their children (who are engaged in a teenage romance of their own).

By serendipity, I’ve been reading the poems of C P Cavafy at the same time as Second Encounter. I plan to write a little bit about Cavafy in a couple of days, but for now I just want to refer to the many poems in which a fifty year old man looks back yearningly to objects of desire from his 20s. Cavafy’s poems never test nostalgic desire against any kind of reality. He would probably have rejected Second Encounter‘s meditations as appallingly anti-romantic, but I can’t help feeling he might have been a happier human if he had read it and taken its wisdom on board.

In case you’re interested in learning more: I came across a documentary on Ramapada Chowdhury on YouTube, made, I think, by one of his grandchildren. Now in his 90s, he mentions this little book, which the English subtitles call Where One Stands, and says that it was influenced by ‘One Day after 20 Years’, a poem by Bengali poet Jibanananda Das (there’s a poem at that link called ‘After 25 Years’, which may be the one he means).

Halldór Laxness’s Independent People

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)

ip.jpgMy Book Group read Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites – set in Iceland in 1830 – in November. A number of friends said I should read Independent People by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, a book beside which Burial Rites looked shallow. It took a while for IP to become available from the library, and it’s a long book, but at last  I’ve read it.

Let me deal with the Hannah Kent comparison first: to say that a novel isn’t as good as Independent People is like saying a play isn’t as good as King Lear, or a science fiction movie pales beside Bladerunner. The book is monumental. Everything I have ever heard or read about Iceland is in its pages: the landscape, the banking system, the poetry, the weather and the sheep – mainly terrible weather and diseased or starving sheep. Grímur Hákonarson’s wonderful movie Rams could have been a postscript. The current dominance of Iceland’s conservative Independence Party suggests that the book’s satirical probing of the notion of independence is as relevant now as it ever was.

The protagonist, Bjartur, having worked for a relatively rich farmer for eighteen years, has managed to get possession of a small, unpromising and possibly cursed piece of land. He moves in with his bride, and lives a life of unremitting labour and deprivation, refusing all help in the name of independence. It’s not giving too much away to say that things go badly for him in every conceivable way, and he – inspired by the heroes of the sagas – struggles on, defiant and misanthropic. Humans and animals die hearbreakingly, some of the latter at his hand, and some of the former as a direct result of his obduracy or as a result of their resistance to it. Whenever a glimmer of hope shines through the blizzard of Bjartur’s life, the reader braces for the moment when he will sabotage it. And when prosperity comes to Iceland thanks to the First World War, it’s only a matter of time before all is once again grim.

The book was published about the same time as Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, the once much loved collection of stories about families struggling on small farms in Australia. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the way Rudd’s Dad and Dave face adversity together, with naive, cheerful resilience.

For all its grimness, the book is a delight. Bjartur is an unforgettable character. So are the young woman unlucky enough to be married off to him, and their daughter, and his youngest son, Nonni, who I read as representing the author’s point of view (not to give too much away, he escapes and we glean that his new life in America is relatively OK). There are wonderful minor characters, of whom my favourite is the Bailiff’s wife, described as pope-like, presumably with plump Pope Leo X in mind, who ceaselessly spouts romantic nonsense about the joys of rural poverty. I also love the chorus of small farmers who meet regularly and amidst their main talk of sheep disease and weather, pronounce on economics, politics and metaphysics.

The writing is wonderful. As a child of the town with the highest annual rainfall in Australia, I loved this passage (not least for the way it makes us understand that a woman wouldn’t have to be neurotic, as she is described in the last sentence, to be miserable in that place):

Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling – rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.

There’s a lot that’s quotable, though not much that would find its way onto inspirational wall hangings. Some typical aphorisms:

Come what may and go what may, a man always has the memories of his dogs. Of these at least no one can deprive him.

The life of man is so short that ordinary people simply cannot afford to be born.

What does it matter if a man has to live in a little mud hut all his life when his life, if you can really call it a life, is so short?

The most unpleasant feature of midwinter is not its darkness. More unpleasant still, perhaps, is that it should never grow dark enough for one to forget the endlessness of which it is a symbol.

I could go on.

I just want to say a little bit about the translation. Evidently it took J A Thompson eight years to write the English version, and he did it in consultation with Haldór Laxness. The translation has a strong voice of its own, an assurance that means the tone is always absolutely clear – as in that ‘neurotic’ in the passage above. It’s a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. I was happy to find a 2014 English-language MA dissertation for the University of Iceland, The Creative Translator: Creativity and Originality in J.A. Thompson’s Translation of Halldór Laxness’ Sjálfstætt fólk by Abigail Charlotte Cooper (PDF here), that discusses some of the issues.