#aww2019 and #aww2020

This is my round up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

I read a total of 38 books by Australian women writers, well over the goal of ten that I’d set for myself. They ranged from Alexis Wright’s 640 page many-voiced Tracker to picture books with fewer than 100 words, and included:

  • 19 books for very young children
  • 8 books of poetry
  • 2 novels (only 2!)
  • 6 memoir/biography/history/essay/creative non-fiction
  • 2 books that mixed genres (one poems and recipes, the other a novella and essays)
  • 1 short book of art criticism

Three books were written by Indigenous Australian women. None were translated from languages other than English. The list doesn’t include journals.

You can see my blog entries on them at this link.

Now I’m signing up for another year, at the Franklin level, which means I aim to read and review 10 books by Australian women in 2020.

On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year altogether. Not counting journals or children’s picture books, I read:

  • 30 by women
  • 29 by men

I read four books in translation (two from French, one each from Japanese and German), and two in their original French.

November verse 14: Guests for dinner

Tonight guests are coming for dinner. I probably should be working, but my final November verse must be finished. I was intending to write about tiramisu and salmon with miso, but the verse got the bit between its teeth.

November verse 14: Guests for dinner
Once when people came to dinner
Dad's job was to kill a chook
or two, pluck them, remove inner
bits, then give to Mum, the cook.
We kids would watch with fascination:
first the neat decapitation,
the bloody, headless honour lap
with throat that clucks and wings that flap,
and then the steaming pile of feathers,
puckered pores in naked skin,
a cold-eyed head thrown in the bin.
Tonight as dinner comes together,
I can't help feel a kind of shame
that nothing in it had a name.

November verse 13: Clothes at the Metro

With one and half days of November left and two stanzas to reach my goal of 14, I went to the local shopping centre to buy stuff and find inspiration. This is what I got:

November verse 12: Clothes at the Metro 
One wears a hijab bearing witness
modest Islam is her path,
one a T promoting Fitness
at the local gym. No dearth
of mercenary and smart-arse slogans
worn by hipsters and by bogans,
calls to arms, despair or sex
stretched across their breasts or pecs.
One says, 'SATAN IS MY DADDY',
one 'CU <small> in the</> NT',
another 'I'M THE REASON WHY
WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS.' He's a baddy.
'THE FUTURE'S FEMALE' 'I <HEART> <BAND>'
I wear a giant ampersand.

Here is the actual ampersand T-shirt:

November verse 12: Waiting for the NBN technician

November verse 12: Waiting for the NBN technician
at my son's newly purchased (but not new) flat
It worked for two weeks then it didn't,
so he called his ISP.
Now he's at work but he was bidden
be here between eight and three* 
today to meet their roving techie
when they come to have a recce
and with any luck repair
the fault that's kept him off the air,
so here I sit, just waiting, waiting,
all else cancelled, in his flat
surrounded by his life still packed
in cardboard boxes, meditating,
making rhymes. Outside, the wind
raged like a god avenging sin.**

* They actually said between 10 and 12, but you know, rhyme! And then at 12, when my son called TPG – remember that company name – they said that for technical reasons which they didn’t disclose the technician wasn’t going to come. Evidently this technical reason didn’t turn up until it was too late to text my son as promised and save me a couple of hours twiddling my thumbs.

** I changed the last two lines when I heard on the news that the wind I had observed had cause enormous destruction i other parts of town.

November verse 11: Sleepless-ish

I was going to call this ‘Lines written between three in the morning and dawn, but I only managed three lines in that time span.

November verse 11: 
I mostly have no trouble sleeping –
drop a hat, I'll hit the hay,
so much so, I struggle keeping
open eyes at movies, plays
and lectures. When I go to ballet
I nod from first to final plié.
So if I wake at half past three
with leg cramps or anxiety,
I walk about, might drink some water,
best of all, engage my mind:
recite some verse, and then I find
it's just five lines before I've caught a
zed or two; perhaps compose
lines, like this ... and here I snooze.

November verse 10: Wiggle and Jiggle at the Library

November verse 10: Wiggle and Jiggle at the Library
For Scott Morrison
We're here to sing and dance and jiggle,
mums, a dad and sundry grands,
toddlers primed with twinkle-twinkle,
row-row, incy-wincy hands.
'Welcome all, here's bells and shakers.
Let's go where the songs will take us.
We'll have great fun this afternoon
though sadly I can't hold a tune.'
That was no lie. She sang with gusto,
high and low but always wrong,
We tried and failed to sing along
fell silent on that all-day bus. To
sing together lifts the heart
but badly led, song falls apart.

November verse 9: Sauna soliloquy continued

Yesterday’s stanza (November verse 8) covered a tiny part of a one -sided conversation in a sauna in Newtown. Here’s another tiny part, with some inventions and alterations for the sake of rhyme and metre.

November verse 9: Sauna soliloquy (continued)
Newtown: students and their tutors
protest, join the Student Strikes!
Activists on their computers
save the whales by riding bikes.
Feminazi hashtag metoo.
Greens cause fires by burn-off veto.
Sorry, politics! Let's just sweat.
I've got to do five minutes yet.
I've decided not to marry
unless the right one comes along
or better, two – tell me I'm wrong.
Happy, that's me, just like Larry.
Newtown's where I'm born and bred.
I could try Adelaide instead.

November verse 8:

Mostly in a sauna it’s 15 minutes of relative silence. Occasionally someone talks virtually without interruption for the whole time, sometimes with a slightly creepy edge to it..

November verse 8: Monologue in the sauna
My friends these days are all eclectic,
gay, straight, bi and trans,
younger than me. I've a hectic
lifestyle. I raged at a dance
party until three this morning
(I'm here to sweat it out, sauna-ing),
another one till three tonight.
At 50, some say that's not right.
I don't like my own generation,
married, settled, one-track minds:
school and soccer, notes they've signed.
I long for sweet asphyxiation.
And you, you're married? Husband, wife?
Grandchild? What a wasted life.

November Verse 7 & Proust Progress Report 3

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), première partie, ‘Autour de Mme Swann’

I have a project to read five pages a day of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu until I finish it, probably in a year or two. This month I’ve pretty much kept to my quota, and finished the first part of the second novel. The traditional English title of this volume is Within a Budding Grove, which, at least on the surface, is less enigmatic than the literal translation of the French, In the Shade of the Girls in Flower. The unnamed narrator has a couple of conversations with distinguished men who offer perspectives on his goals to become a writer; he falls in love for the first time and is deeply impressed by the mother of the object of his infatuation. His age is never specified, but my guess is that he progresses in these pages from about 14 to his early 20s.

I was chatting about this project with someone who read À la recherche in English with a friend over 5 years: they met every six weeks or so to discuss the book. She described it as an early masterpiece of queer culture. Well, that’s not true of the part that I’ve read, unless my French is even worse than I think it is. In what I’ve read this month the male narrator recalls his infatuation with Gilberte, the daughter of M Swann and his wife Odette, the cocotte of the first book. There’s just one explicitly sexual moment, but it happens quickly and the narrator, who elsewhere spends pages drawing out the implications of a tiny gesture, moves on quickly saying that he didn’t have time to savour the moment (‘savour’ is my translation for ‘goûter’, rather than ‘analyse’ in the Moncrieff version – which I looked up because I wasn’t sure what had happened). He also mentions, without dwelling on it, that he goes to brothels quite a lot, and he’s pretty fascinated by Odette herself. So heterosexuality seems to be all the go for our sickly, introspective, writerly narrator.

I’m still glad I’m reading it in French. My attention is held at the sentence level, rather than, say, skimming for the story, and at sentence level Proust is captivating. He can be extraordinarily complex, with plenty of inversions that are OK in French but wouldn’t be in English, lots of subjunctives, and and a sometimes bewildering use of pronouns. Yet whenever I’ve taken the time to sort out a sentence, the structure always holds up. Another feature I’ve come to love in an awestruck way is his use of similes. (Maybe I’ll give examples in my next post.) My attitude to the prolonged accounts of emotional twists and turns has changed. I read Swann’s jealous torments over Odette in the first book as comedy. Reading the narrator’s quite similar torment over Gilberte, I found myself remembering what it was like to be in my mid 20s and insecurely in love, and being profoundly glad not to be there any more. That is to say, I’m now invested in these unbelievably privileged, self-regarding characters.

For my seventh November Verse, I set myself the task of versifying a passage from this month’s Proust. One challenge was to find one that would fit into just 14 lines of verse. I settled on this, early in the long demise of the narrator’s relationship with Gilberte:

Le 1er janvier sonna toutes ses heures sans qu’arrivât cette lettre de Gilberte. Et comme j’en reçus quelques-unes de voeux tardifs ou retardés par l’encombrement des courriers à ces dates-là, le 3 et le 4 janvier, j’espérais encore, de moins en moins pourtant. Les jours qui suivirent, je pleurai beaucoup. Certes cela tenait à ce qu’ayant été moins sincère que je ne l’avais cru quand j’avais renoncé à Gilberte, j’avais gardé cet espoir d’une lettre d’elle pour la nouvelle année. Et le voyant épuisé avant que j’eusse eu le temps de me précautionner d’un autre, je souffrais comme un malade qui a vidé sa fiole de morphine sans en avoir sous la main une seconde. 

(page 483)

You can read the Moncrieff translation at this link. Allons-y!

November Verse 7: From Proust
Jan 1 chimed each hour so fleeting.
Gilberte's letter did not show.
Others came with seasons greetings
posted late, delivered slow,
so on Jan 3 I was still hoping,
Jan 4, my hope was downward-sloping.
The next days I wept a lot.*
I know: less sincere than I'd thought
when I'd claimed to have surrendered
my great love. My secret hope
was dashed and gone. I could not cope,
like one in pain or on a bender
who's used up his or her last fix
and now has nothing, nada, nix

* That line may sound very non-Proustian, but – unlike the rest of the stanza – it’s much closer to a literal translation than Moncrieff flowery ‘Upon the days that followed I gazed through a mist of tears.’

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know at the Book Group, plus November Verse 6

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Penguin Random House 2018)

Before the meeting: I was going to say that this book does what it says on the tin – that is, it tells about the three fathers of famous Protestant Irish writers named in the subtitle. But it doesn’t come good on the implication of the main title – which is a slight variation on a phrase used to describe the poet Byron by Lady Caroline Lamb, and which has been used as a title for a number of works since, including a play about Byron by Australian Ron Blair. Neither Byron nor Byronic heroics are to be found in these pages. Nor, really, are any of the three men all that mad, all that bad, or all that dangerous.

Three of the book’s four chapters were given as lectures at a university in Atlanta Georgia in November 2017. I imagine the lectures were riveting. I don’t know this for sure, but it looks to me as if Colm Tóibín has added an introduction and padded out the lectures in a bit of a rush job.

So: there’s plenty of interesting information about the three men and their roles in their sons’ lives and works.

The chapter on William Wilde is framed by Tóibín’s account of a five-hour reading he gave of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in the Reading Gaol prison cell where Wilde wrote it. A striking thing about De Profundis, he writes, is that while it honours Wilde’s mother it barely mentions his father. Nonetheless, Tóibín argues, William Wilde was a big influence on Oscar. And a striking picture of the man emerges, gleaned from contemporary accounts and biographies. My takeaway from this chapter, however, is the desire to see Paul Capsis reading from De Profundis in Woolloomooloo – seven of us from the group are planning to do so.

John B Yeats didn’t get on with his famous son. The elder Yeats was a failed artist – he had trouble finishing paintings, and even his masterpiece, a self-portrait he spent years on, remained incomplete at his death. He was an amazing letter-writer, which we know because his correspondents kept his letters, and many of them have been published, and republished. Among the letters he wrote to William, there’s one that Tóibín quotes advising him to turn away from the mystical path he was taking. In his later years, and this is where the chapter comes fully alive, he wrote frank, passionate love letters from New York to Rosa Butts in Ireland, a woman he may or may not have ever had physical intimacy with. She and he had agreed to burn their letters once they had read them: he kept his part of the agreement, but she did us a favour and reneged.

John Stanislaus Joyce had the dubious honour of being written about by two of his sons, Stanislaus and James. Stanislaus’s books, My Brother’s Keeper and The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, make it clear that he was a terrible husband and father: drunk, improvident, at times cruel. The main thrust of his chapter is an exploration of how Joyce in his fiction managed to combine ‘the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fulness, and indeed its pain and misery’. If ever I reread Ulysses my reading will be richer thanks to this chapter.

A key question about a book like this is whether it engages the interest of a reader who doesn’t have a prior commitment to the subject. I’m moderately interested in all three of these writers: not the Wilde of De Profundis so much as the one who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, who doesn’t really get a look in; the Yeats who wrote ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’; and the Joyce who, as my eldest brother told my father when he was 19 and I was 10, wrote a ‘dirty dirty‘ book called Ulysses. I enjoyed a lot of it, but there’s a lot that I found dull. In particular, the Introduction, which might have offered some basis for general interest, takes the reader on a stroll, pedestrian in both senses, through Dublin streets, telling us how the Wildes, the Yeatses and the Joyces were sometimes neighbours, or not, how their lives intersected (‘Yeats’s grandparents and his father knew Oscar Wilde’s parents’), and how other poets and writers since have lived in or near those places.

I’ve no doubt that Colm Toíbín has a deeply felt interest in these three men. Not a Protestant himself as far as I know, perhaps he is fascinated by the eminence of these Protestant writers and their fathers in mostly-Catholic Ireland. But the book fails to communicate to me why I should be interested. In particular, it may be that Toíbin’s heart just wasn’t in the process of expanding his three lectures to a 205 page book. The lectures were published in the London Review of Books (and are available online here, here and here). I expect they make excellent reading.


After the meeting:

I was nearly two hours late for our meeting. Ice creams were being eaten when I made my entrance. Though there was a feeble attempt to convince me that everyone else had completely loved the book it didn’t take long to elicit an elegant summary of the discussion so far: the book was mostly dull and unengaging with some excellent bits. Most of the discussion had been about people’s relationships with their own fathers and, where possible, sons. I was very sorry to have missed that conversation, though the remnants of it that followed my arrival were terrific: an extraordinary tall traveller’s tale about one chap’s father shouting him and his brother to dubious treats in Bangkok; unspectacular but treasured moments of play; how different generations express affection among males.

About the book: about half of us studied literature in some way at university a long time ago. If the book was marginally interesting to us, it was substantially less so to the others, and fewer than usual bothered to read to the end. One man, who is deeply cultured in other respects, didn’t know the circumstances of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, knowledge that Tóibín assumes in his readers; and I’m pretty sure someone said they’d never heard of W B Yeats (though he’s now tempted to seek out Yeats Senior’s letters).


And because it’s November, here are 14 rhyming lines. I went searching on my bookshelves for anything on the fathers of famous Australian writers, and found this little anecdote in Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass (Jonathan Cape 1981, page 5).

November Verse 6: 
Patrick White, when just a laddy,
felt his penis growing hard.
There's something odd, he told his daddy.
Daddy reddened, hummed and haaed,
and said, 'Step out' – the passing glimmer
of a smile told the young swimmer
all was well. At that same age
a first poet stepped onto the stage
of Paddy's life. Face like a wrinkled,
sooty lemon, driest kind
of gent, the Banjo paid no mind
to Patrick. But those first notes tinkled:
first ripples on great passion's tide
delivered at his father's side.