Beautiful graffiti

I live very close to Enmore Park, a geometrically laid out green space that’s beautiful at this time of year. Here’s a little walk I took, along one of the diagonals, though a sandstone arch that’s a monument to colonial selfhood to the corner of the colonial-named Edinburgh Road and Victoria Road, and a reminder that colonisation is still alive and well and harsh.

SWF 2020, Post 10: All fiction

The next five podcasts from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival are all about fiction. My guess is I would have attended one out of five in a non-virtual festival, but my completist compulsion kicked in. The one I would have attended, the 50th session, is about the first book in the festival that I’ve actually read!

In the intro to the fifth session in this blog post, Michael Williams introduces himself without fanfare as the new Artistic Director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I for one welcome our new Melbourne overlord.

Alex Dyson: When It Drops 16 September

This conversation about Alex Dyson’s When It Drops is part of the festival’s YA podcast series. Will Kostakis, YA author himself, does a brilliant job, and Dyson’s experience as a morning radio presenter ensures that teh entertainment quotient is high. We don’t get to the content of the book until the 20 minute mark: before that there’s a lot of very funny chat about the difference between doing a radio show and writing a novel, about the horror of discovering a typo in a freshly published book, about tiny bits of celebrity gossip, about awkward love poetry written by both these men when they were teenagers.

Even then, the conversation doesn’t get stuck in laborious detail about the book’s characters and plot. We learn snippets of Alex Dyson’s life story, and then there’s non-spoilerish discussion of how those snippets relate to the book. At the end, it turns out that Alex Dyson ran for federal parliament last year, and he has some very smart things to say about that.


Nicole Dennis-Benn: Patsy 23 September

Jamaican-born Nicole Dennis-Benn now calls Brooklyn hoome. Her novel Patsy tells the story of a Jamaican woman who leaves her husband and five-year-old daughter for a new life where she can choose how to live, in the USA. In this conversation with Australian journalist and filmmaker Santilla Chingaipe, she lays out some of the issues the novel is responding to. At its heart there’s the question: ‘What do we lose or gain when we choose ourselves as women – especially as women – in society.’

It’s great to hear a clear voice speak about Jamaican society, including aspects of class, colonialism, the importance accorded skin colour, sexism; and about Jamaican Americans in relation to African Americans and others.

My two favourite moments in the conversation are being read to from the novel (always a pleasure, and in this case reassuringly concrete in the context of a conversation bristling with terms like ‘intergenerational trauma’), and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s response to the question, ‘How did Patsy find you?’ The novel started life as a series of letters from the character Patsy to her mother back in Jamaica. Then after a whole year, another voice turned up, a girl navigating a life in Jamaica without her mother:

I realised Patsy’s saying all these things to her mother in these letters, but she’s leaving out a lot of things. She’s leaving out how she’s really doing in America – you know, she was in that one room already in that first draft. But in addition to that, Patsy wasn’t telling me – the author – something: that she left a whole five-year-old daughter behind. … I kind of refused to believe that Patsy would actually do that, because I wanted to like Patsy, I judged Patsy initially when I found that out. But I continued the Dear Mama letters and then, draft two, I trashed that. I was like, ‘You know, Patsy, you gotta tell me the truth.’ And that’s what happened. She ended up revealing a lot more.


Heather Rose: Bruny 30 September

Heather Rose’s novel Bruny, the subject of this conversation, has disappointed friends of mine who loved her earlier novel, The Museum of Modern Love. Worse, one of the more forthright members of my Book Group virtually recoiled in horror when someone mentioned it. So I was tempted to bypass this session. I resisted the temptation.

It’s a conversation between Heather Rose and Suzanne Leal, lawyer, novelist and literary award judge. Perhaps there’s a bit too much information about the novel for anyone intending to read it, but this session managed to shift me from ‘almost certainly not’ to ‘maybe, or I might wait for the movie’. It’s a novel set in the near future when an erratic right-wing president of the USA is midway through a second term and the Chinese Communist Party is becoming more aggressively involved in Australian public life.

There’s some wonderful talk about Heather Rose’s creative process. The main character of Bruny, whom she imagines as played by Charlize Theron, feels to her like an imaginary friend who says and does things she would never dare do herself.A Vietnamese character in a previous book just wouldn’t speak to her until she had read a huge amount about the Vietnam War – and when that character does speak in the novel about her backstory, no reader could guess that the couple of sentences she speaks required so much arduous research.


Favel Parrett: There Was Still Love 7 October

I’ve read Favel Parrett’s earlier books, Past the Shallows (2011) and When the Night Comes (2014). A Czech friend said every Australian should read the subject of this conversation between the author and radio presenter Elizabeth McCarthy, There was Still Love. It’s on my TBR shelf. But I wasn’t keen on the podcast because I’ve heard Favel talk about the book at length on at least one other program, and – quite apart from actual spoilers – too much talk in advance can spoil the reading experience

In the event the conversation wasn’t spoilerish in any sense. They talked about the seeds of the book in Favel’s relationship with her Czech grandparents; her research, especially in her discovery of a cousin who had lived in Prague under Communism – which is the book’s setting, but also in her reading the history of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic under first the Nazis and then the Communists; the process of writing – this is her third novel, and the first that she has played close to her chest until she was confident she had reworked it enough that it didn’t need much rewriting; the book’s reception, including the top editor of Hachette who called to say she loved the manuscript, which Favel half expected no one would publish, and the Czech cousin who first wrote angrily that she had got a detail about food terribly wrong, and then wrote to say that he had cried for days. I’m looking forward to the book.


Mirandi Riwoe: Stone Sky Gold Mountain 14 October

This is a book I’ve read before hearing about it from the SWF. I read Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain, loved it and blogged about it in June (here’s a link).

Here Mirandi Riwoe is in conversation with Rashida Murphy, who introduces herself as a first-generation immigrant woman from India, who is also a writer of novels, short stories, essay and poetry.

Ms Murphy starts out with outrage. Evidently it’s a word that Riwoe used when talking about her novella The Fish Girl, which is a retelling of a Somerset Maugham from the point of view of an Asian woman who appears in the original without a name or much sense of her as a full human being. The novella sounds very interesting, independent of its relationship to Maugham. (I confess to not having read any Maugham stories, but to have been mildly outraged or at least put off by the way he exoticises the tropics in a quote I’ve read somewhere.) Then the conversation moves to the question of some white people’s anger that this year’s Booker Prize didn’t go to Hilary Mantel. Riwoe politely and tactfully resists giving airtime to that point of view: she says that Mantel herself, while understandably disappointed, was gracious about the matter and we all got to know about a swath of writers not from the white mainstream.

The discussion of Stone Sky Gold Mountain is interesting, with an animating tension between the participants, Murphy again seeming to want Riwoe to rebut some (white?) critics while Riwoe seems happy not to define her work in opposition to someone else’s view. She talks interestingly about the book’s ghost elements, about how her research into the North Queensland goldfields transformed the book that she had thought she was writing from a cross-cultural love story into something much more interesting, about books she loved as a younger person. She mentions that Rashida has reviewed Stone Sky Gold Mountain, describing as ‘unflinching’ her accounts of violence against Chinese on the goldfields, and violence against the First Nations people, in which Chinese miners were complicit. She laughs, and says that she flinched a lot.

I was already a fan of Mirandi Riwoe as a writer. I’m relieved to say that she’s an excellent conversationalist as well.

Jenny Blackford’s Girl in the Mirror

Jenny Blackford, The Girl in the Mirror (illustrated by Fiona McDonald, Eagle Books 2019)

In what seems another lifetime, I was professionally immersed for something like 15 years in literature for children of primary school age – the brilliant range of writing arrayed between little children’s picture books and beginners’ chapter books at one end and YA fiction at the other. I haven’t read a lot of it since. The Girl in the Mirror reminds me of what I’m missing.

It’s a time-slip/ghost story: Maddy moves to a new home with her family. As a new girl she has to deal with school-yard politics, and find a way of making herself at home in the new house with its unruly back yard. Her parents, like so many parents in books for this age group – perhaps like so many parents in real life – are oblivious to her struggles, they can’t hear the clattering footsteps of the little-boy ghost on the stairs, and she knows it would be pointless to tell them about Charlotte, the girl from a century earlier, whom she sees in the old-fashioned mirror in her bedroom.

It turns out that Charlotte has problems with a nasty aunt, and that nastiness somehow spills over into the present, threatening the very survival of Maddy’s baby brother. The two girls help each other with their problems, and the ghost of Charlotte’s little brother, already a ghost in her time having died of whooping cough, intervenes cheerfully in Maddy’s life.

With a wonderful lightness of touch, Maddy and Charlotte show each other things about their respective ages: whalebone corsets and skits that end above the knee; the symptoms of whooping cough and the wonders of the Internet.

All that, plus a garden full of poisonous plants, and ominous redback spiders. Which leads me to Fiona McDonald’s illustrations: apart from two full-page ink drawings, most pages have a single tiny redback spider next to the page number. Then at two points in the narrative the illustrations mirror the action, and those spiders multiply and spread up the margins in a delightfully creepy way..


The Girl in the Mirror is the 18th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy of the book is a gift from the author, Full disclosure, in 2009, soon after my tenure as editor came to an end, The School Magazine published a short story, ‘Bertie’, which Jenny Blackford has expanded to become this novel.

Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine

Bonny Cassidy, Chatelaine (Giramondo 2017)


Note: This blog post is not a review of Chatelaine, a book of poems by Bonny Cassidy, a well-regarded poet who leads the Creative Writing Program at RMIT. I’ve written it because of a self-imposed requirement to blog about every book I read. I don’t mean my ruminations to disparage the poetry, and certainly don’t want to discourage anyone else from reading it and enjoying it.


I once did a short course in signed English. Soon after I graduated, a visitor to my workplace showed us a hand-written note, ‘I’m deaf. May I use your photocopier.’ I greeted her confidently with the sign for hello – and was then at a complete loss as she started to chat with great animation while photocopying. I appreciated the eloquence of her signing and her facial expressiveness, and tried to look intelligent, even laughing at an anecdote about – possibly – a mouse. But my pulse raced, I broke out in a sweat, and I failed to understand anything she said, apart from hello and thank you.

My experience reading the poems in Chatelaine was something like that. The analogy isn’t quite accurate, though. If my Auslan had been up to it the deaf woman and I could have had a conversation, whereas I’m pretty sure that these poems are doing something other than invite the reader to a conversation. Here’s a for-instance:

Sink
this warning 
to our gully 
where the emus ram 
walls of uncoupled think. 
Under the easy homes and dread 
stem, drag the noisy secret 
the marble halls.

This reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically nonsense, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’, except that it doesn’t cohere grammatically either.

I needed help. The author’s note that came with my complimentary copy shed some light on what the poems are not doing:

The deceptive narrative of lyric poetry, for me, is reminiscent of mythic narratives of Australian settlement and also myths of femininity. I think this meeting point has something to say about what we believe to be credible, the blur between myth and events

That’s enticing. I like the idea of poetry that does away with deceptive and oppressive narratives. Or at least I thought I did.

The back cover blurb says of the book:

Its voices stalk across time and space inhabiting the genres of riddle, fragment, confession, lyric and ekphrasis, and returning to images of metamorphosis and position.

Again, that sounds exciting, but it didn’t help me read a single poem. Even a couple of poems that the Acknowledgements identify as ekphrastic (that is, responses to other works of art) remain stubbornly enigmatic – and perhaps would have even if the artworks they refer to had been identified.

I found a review by Anne Buchanan-Stewart in Plumwood Mountain (link here). It begins:

Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine is visceral, layered and driven by word constructs in an innovative lexicon of erotic topoi, ready to be open to contemporary interpretative potential – previously unworked.

I found myself echoing Prufrock: ‘I have heard the academic poets singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.’ But I did try to read the whole article. It included this:

– We usually want to understand, interpret, ascribe meaning to a poem and we usually want the words to tell us something, but perhaps it could be different.

– How?

– There is another way to get to the ‘it’ of the poem – through an encounter.  An encounter with the language ‘it’ self and its materiality. We can consciously put aside our search for meaning.

But if language doesn’t have meaning, I almost wept, is it still language? I went back to the book and read on, not trying to ‘understand, interpret, ascribe meaning’ but to ‘encounter’ the poems.

To cut a very long story short, I failed. I really did spend time with these poems. I had glimmerings of something, but I failed to encounter anything in them.

Not every book is meant for every reader. This one, beautifully designed by Harry Williamson for Giramondo, isn’t for me. There’s a sweet quote from ‘Ask’ by the Smiths as an epigraph, which I take as a reproach:

Nature is a language, can't you read?

Julie Janson’s Benevolence

Julie Janson, Benevolence (Magabala Books 2020)

Before the Meeting: Generally, if I read a book about a marginalised group I try to read one by someone from that group soon after. Even though both Truganini (the Book Group’s last title) and The Colony (which I read just before Truganini) are committed to telling colonial history with First Nations perspectives to the fore, they are both written by white/settler women. So I was happy when this book by Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation, was chosen for the Book Group.

Julie Janson has described the novel as ‘a First Nations response to The Secret River by Kate Grenville’:

[The Secret River] is a wonderful book, but I was challenged by the ending where all the Burruberongal Darug people died in a massacre except for one old man. I asked myself the question: if all the Darug died, who were we?

I had researched my (Aboriginal) family history along the Hawkesbury River, and the Darug interpretation of those early days of colonial invasion is entirely different.

(Link to Booktopia interview here)

Benevolence (the title is deeply ironic) tells the story of Muraging, a Burruberongal woman whose parents give her up to a missionary-run school in 1816 when she is very young, in the hope that she will gain resources there to survive in the colonised world. Renamed Mary, she learns to read, write and play the violin, and resists attempts to make her give up on her culture, language and people. She runs away with a handsome young Aboriginal man, and what follows is a picaresque account of her travels, moving back and forth between the two cultures – now living with a group of women who have lost their men to the frontier wars, now a servant to a clergyman with whom she has a consensual sexual relationship that eventually goes very sour, now wandering with her small daughter, a servant again, a disregarded listener to callous conversations about massacre and rape, a speaker of truth to power. She finds occasional kindness and mostly avoids threats of violence and sexual assault. She spends time in prison, is often hungry, loses her daughter, has a second child after having sex with a French man in return for a bag of flour. She never gives up the search for her family and a place where she can live among her people.

It’s a story of navigating the harsh conditions of colonisation. The Aboriginal people and communities that Mary encounters are not pathetic victims, and aren’t romanticised as automatically safe and nurturing, but at the end of the novel, she finds a home in a community of survivors – precarious, under threat, but solid.

Each chapter has a year in its heading title, and most begin with a brief note on what is happening in the colony: in 1826 Darling becomes Governor of the colony; in 1832 Kings School opens in Parramatta; in 1835 Governor Bourke proclaims terra nullius; also in 1835 King William IV recognises the continued rights to land for Aboriginal people in South Australia. These landmarks serve to anchor the narrative in settler history, but most bear little direct relation to Mary’s struggles.

There are many painful scenes with settlers: the unashamedly white supremacist Reverend Masters, the weak Reverend Smythe (her first child’s father), Smythe’s insufferably prim and nasty wife Susan, a military man who forces her to guide him on a punitive expedition that culminates in massacre, and others. These characters are pretty much universally portrayed as weirdly irrational, inconsistent, bullying or pusillanimous, so that their scenes – dinner parties, domestic rows, meetings with Aboriginal warriors – read like hellish phantasmagoria. I haven’t seen any of Julie Janson’s plays, but many of the scenes involving settler characters read like scripts for rough-theatre, agitprop pieces.

To give you a taste, here’s part of the scene where Susan Smythe has caught her husband Henry having sex with Mary, after Susan has set fire to their cornfield and blamed Mary, after Mary has saved Susan’s life, after Henry has told Mary many times that she must leave. Mary is listening from behind a screen:

‘Get rid of her!’ Susan is speaking with a clear high voice. Henry twitches and ruffles his black hair with nervous fingers. He sits by his writing desk and taps his quill. He laughs like men do when confronted by a wronged woman.

‘Must we discuss this now? I am penning a sonnet and working on my native language book,’ says Henry. He dips the quill in ink and examines the tip.

“Sonnet? Are you insane? I shall call the doctor to bleed and purge these dark humours,’ rages Susan.

‘We must buy more quills – make a list … She is just a black servant. Don’t be silly, Susan dearest,’ says Henry.

‘You must choose between rich cream cake and soda bread,’ says Susan.

Mary leans forward to hear his answer. She holds her breath.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, dearest. It was a mistake such as many better man than me have also on occasion made. You must forgive me. I command you to find forgiveness. I am only human,’ says Henry.

‘I have heard about such servants! The other colonial wives have spoken of these creatures!’ says Susan. ‘You are shaming me and have no respect for the sacred promise of our marriage. You are a colonial joke. Everyone is laughing at you – behind your back – at your lack of Christian fidelity or conscience as you preach your pious sermons on the Sabbath. Look at you now, damaged by a violent savage and yet you dare to defy me and you let her stay.’

(Pages 178–179)

Clearly both these people are unhinged. Yet they have life-and-death power over Mary and her daughter.

It’s exhilarating to have stories of early settlement told from a strong, unapologetic Aboriginal point of view that makes no attempt to humanise the invaders.

This is an unsettling book, not only because of its content. Very unsettling for me as a white, middle-class man who has worked for decades as a copy-editor, is a kind of knockabout quality to the text, something that I took at first to be poor proofreading but which is so pervasive that it has become a feature rather than a bug. In these sad times when publishing companies don’t generally have in-house copy-editors, it’s a rare book that has no typos, but this is at a whole other level.

There are moments, like this from page 110, that are impossible to visualise:

Mary sips the tea and smiles with her hands pressed between her thighs.

There are malapropisms – some Aboriginal people are to be punished for their ‘trepidations against settler families’. A tribe in the north-east of Sydney is called the ‘Awakabal’, twice, which is surely a misspelling of ‘Awabakal’. A character is described as Bungaree’s grand-daughter and on the same page as the sister of Bungaree’s son.

I don’t think these errors are deliberate, but whether they survive to the published text through lack of resource or failure of editorial attention they amount to a kind of nose-thumbing. I think of that Audre Lorde quote: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Benevolence uses the colonisers’ tool, the novel, to respond to a ‘wonderful book’ that has erased a people’s survival. There’s a kind of rough justice in that tool being treated with disrespect.


After the meeting: We met in person for the first time in months. At least seven of us were there in person – even making a little physical contact. An eighth had been about to leave his home when a friend and recent contact called to say she was feeling sick, so he did the ‘abundance of caution’ thing and joined us on a screen for as much as he could stand.

It was good to eat together. It was so good to be in a room with other bodies, where cross-currents of conversation were allowed to flow (though that was hard on the virtual participant). Somehow, I think, being physically together made it easier to talk about this book – about the roughness of much of the writing, and the shameful sense most of us shared of having light shone on our ignorance about the realities of colonisation.

Others were – of course – less disturbed than I had been by the typos etcetera. I had hoped someone might have seen Julie Janson’s plays at Belvoir Street, but no one had. Someone mentioned Kim Scott’s books, That Deadman Dance and Taboo (links to my blog posts) as covering similar territory, brilliantly. More than one of us had gone in search of historical information, and reminded us that Samuel Marsden, presumably the inspiration of the novel’s Reverend Masters, was on record as perpetrating some hideous atrocities. We generally acknowledged the heartbreaking difficulty of the task Julie Janson had taken on: to draw on scholarly historical works and stories passed down by generations of survivors, to imagine herself into the life of one person in those terrible times. The general sense was that, for all its flaws, we were glad to have read the book. The Chooser, who was absent because of a non-Covid infection, was thanked in his absence.

And of course, we shared our responses to whatever the President of the United States had done (it was last night and he’s said so much since then!), to the Premier of New South Wales’s self-inflicted damage, to some recondite celebrity gossip (did you know about Bug Beats, a children’s show on Netflix, that has permission to use a whole slew of Beatles songs), to the adventures of some of our offspring, etc. We took a moment to honour the achievement of Victorians in bringing the infection numbers down. The potatoes that our host had out in the oven some time before we all arrived were ready to eat soon after we all left. He sent us a photo on WhatsApp.


Benevolence is the 17th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden, George and Clare, the Malachite and the DIamonds

Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives Five: George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds: a novel in prose and verse (Quemar Press 2018)

George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first met in the 1980s when he was a probation officer in Western Sydney and she was a young woman nearing the end of her prison sentence for murdering three smaller children when she was nine years old. They have since featured in four novels before this one, and in more than 30 poems, going on to become lovers, work together for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience, and most recently have a baby together.*

In this book they set off to Russia to bring home the daughter of a friend who is in thrall to a murderous international operative. The young woman is an arms dealer in her own right, and it’s not at all clear that she wants to be rescued, although she knows her life is in danger.

The book has all the ingredients of a thriller: exotic locations, hacking, deep-state conspiracy, silicon-impregnated diamonds, helicopter rides, glamorous women, worldweary men, and an urgent sense of jeopardy both for the characters and for the whole world of the novel, which is recognisably ours, as conflict rages in Syria, Julian Assange is not yet extracted from the Ecuadorian embassy, and there are wars and the prospect of war from Russia, the Ukraine, the USA, China … There’s quite a bit of sexual tension and actual sex, lots of violence, and a satisfying twist at the end, with bonus explosion.

But if you picked the novel up expecting a straightforward political thriller, you’d be disconcerted. For a start, every second chapter is in verse – verse whose long lines and conversational rhythms may at first be mistaken for prose with unexpected turns of phrase and odd line breaks, but whose precision and visual qualities are anything but prosaic.

Then there are the characters. In their previous adventures, George and Clare have accumulated relationships. We rarely see them without their months-old baby Corbyn, and many of their scenes, even the most violent, are shared with some or all of their entourage: eight-year-old Florence whom they rescued from death in Paris, Florence’s mother Sophie, George’s hacker grandson Idris, a young Russian cop named Kirill and a Saudi agent, Samir. They frequently converse with Clare’s and Quentin’s mothers back in Mt Druitt, as well as a Darug woman, Ruth, behind whom lurks the shady but benign Lithgow Coven. A dog and a cat that were rescued from far-flung places in earlier books still need to be catered for. The memory of the children Clare killed is never far from her mind. Unsurprisingly, every now and then there is a roll call: ‘Present were Clare, Corbyn and I, Idris, Sophie, Florence and Ninel’ (page 30), ‘In a cafe near 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street, I was sitting with Idris, Sophie, Florence, Ninel, Kirill and a Saudi agent called Samir’ (page 106). This is not a tale of a solitary individual hero; none of the characters needs to be told that humans are social animals.

Nor is the book populated by strong, silent types. There’s constant chatter – political gossip, poetry recitals, reminiscences about adventures in previous books, snippets of interesting history, commentary on world affairs, cultural analysis, meditation on moral and ethical issues. Thrillers are often impregnated with right-wing ideology. Not the George and Clare books. I confess that reading the book three years after publication, I’m mystified by many of its contemporary references – but maybe I would have been at the time. George and Clare are extraordinarily well informed, and have inside knowledge of many points of global conflict, thanks in part to their membership of Prisoners of Conscience, and in part to their creator’s extraordinary insight into international politics.

I often feel the impulse to read the start of a novel when I’ve reached the last page. Here’s the start of George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds:

Clare was standing at the window in the saffron orchid, orange orchard light of the Mt Druitt December. She was in a smock-like translucent azure kaftan, and still a bit rounded by her recent pregnancy. She looked as innocent and preoccupied as a Vermeer wife, and was holding a letter to Silkie Roberts from Silkie’s daughter Quentin. This included a new photo of Schmidt and Quentin. Clare showed it to me. Schmidt was thinner since the recent stabbing-attack on him and was grasping Quentin’s shoulder with sharp, skinny, greedy fingers.

Does that make you want to read on? It did me. And it was a fun read.


* You can read my summary of George and Clare’s appearances up to 2016 here.


George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds is the 16th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Proust Progress Report 14: de Charlus on the brink

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 5, La Prisonnière pages 1724–1816

Proust is everywhere. I stumbled across him twice this month – as well as in the three pages I read each morning.

Early in the month, the Emerging Artist and I went to an actual movie theatre to see the delightfully silly multilingual whodunnit The Translators / Les traducteurs. A slim hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu blazoned on its cover plays a key role and (spoiler alert) doesn’t emerge unscathed.

More recently, I attended a zoom event commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of poet Martin Johnston’s untimely death, the launch of a new edition of his poetry, Beautiful Objects. Lex Marinos spoke movingly about his friendship with Martin, and many poets read from Martin’s poetry. A recording has been uploaded (here’s a link). Proust popped up when Kate Lilley read ‘Room 23’, which includes these lines:

Proust, I suppose, once and for all defined
the intermittencies of heart and mind
whereby the gone becomes the never wanted.

It’s a view that the poem goes on to reject, but clearly Martin, whom I revere, felt he had to argue with Proust to write decent poetry about missing his beloved. (Maybe his summary of what Proust defined is correct. I know ‘gone’ is different from ‘absent’, but so far Marcel the narrator broods obsessively about his beloved when she is absent: sometimes it seems, he only wants her when she is gone. But intermittencies is a great word for the way Marcel the narrator’s intense, sustained focus switches constantly and without warning.)

Here’s a tiny bit I loved in this month’s reading:

Celui qui veut entretenir en soi le désir de continuer à vivre et la croyance en quelque chose de plus délicieux que les choses habituelles doit se promener.

(page 1730)

In English:

Anyone who wants to sustain in themselves the desire to go on living and a belief in something more delightful than habitual things, must go for a walk.

Given that Marcel the narrator devotes much time and attention to convoluted overthinking, this dollop of wisdom shines from the page. But, as so often in Proust, that sentence takes an unexpected turn. It goes on: car les rues, les avenues, sont pleines de Déesses / ‘for the streets, the avenues are full of goddesses.’ So perhaps, one thinks, his recommendation wasn’t exercise, fresh air and attention to the environment as a counter to morbid introspection, so much as surveying the field as a counter to morbid jealousy.

So, this month’s action: Marcel is still keeping Albertine his beloved under surveillance. He gets her to agree not to go to a performance at Mme Verdurin’s because he suspects that her Lesbian friends will be there and who knows what she’ll get up to with them? He goes to the performance himself and we are immersed in the complexities of the evening: sexual politics, class politics (the aristocracy are extraordinarily rude to their bourgeois hostess), the music itself (described brilliantly, at great length), the paradox that such sublime music is brought into being by people generally judged to be morally repugnant, and so on.

After the performance, a terrible thing happens. It hasn’t quite played out at the moment where I stopped reading this morning, so I’m living in suspense. M de Charlus, who invited his prestigious but rude friends to Mme Verdurin’s for the recital, spends some time chatting with her about how successful the evening had been, completely unaware that she has taken serious offence. From her point of view he has claimed for himself the prestige that by rights belongs to her as the hostess, and treated her as a lowly functionary. As soon as he moves away, she instructs Brichot, one of her ‘little clan’, to take de Charlus outside so her husband can have a word to the baron’s beautiful young violinist protégé Charlie Morel, to warn him of ‘the abyss that he is heading for’: that is, to unleash the full force of bourgeois anti-homosexual righteousness on the relationship.

Characteristically, the narrator accompanies de Charlus and Brichot and the next few pages are taken up with their conversation, about the rooms they enter, about Marcel’s preoccupation with the notorious Lesbians, about de Charlus’ huge enthusiasm for Charlie’s performance on the violin – and the reader is filled with dread about the vicious devastation being wrought on him back in the main room. I may be slow on the uptake, but it’s only now that I realise just how much Charlie is the emotional centre of the baron’s world, and what a devastating blow in store. Having up to this point seen de Charlus as creepy, conceited, arrogant, manipulative, and even grotesque, I now do a complete about turn. I’m putty in Proust’s hands.

The Marrickville Mattress Minimalist Poet strikes again

I’ve occasionally blogged about poetic gems that turn up on discarded mattresses around Marrickville (here’s a link). I’m not the only one – here’s a link to a post by someone called Therese Trouserzoff.

I can report a new sighting on the Enmore edge of Marrickville, this one signed like two of my previous specimens: ‘C.L’. The poet has moved from lyric celebration of life and art to political satire:

The poem is referring to New South Wales Liberal Party Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s revelations at the Independent Commission Against Corruption that she had been in ‘a close personal relationship’ with a corrupt politician, and had remained close to him after she sacked him from her cabinet. Here’s a link in case you live somewhere completely different.

You might see it as adding to the chorus of prurient outrage, an innerspring vox-pop rubbing salt into the wounds of Gladys’s humiliation. This is the inner west, where Liberal Party supporters aren’t exactly thick on the ground, so you could read it as endorsing the ALP’s opportunistic calls for Gladys’s immediate resignation. But remember, this two-word poem is published on a discarded mattress, as far from a high horse as you can get. In my reading, it offers a finger-wagging sympathy: not, ‘Poor Gladys, you were deceived by a rotter,’ or, ‘Evil Gladys, you turned a blind eye on corruption,’ but, ‘Naughty Gladys, fancy a serious girl like you getting up to something like that!’

We’ll see how it plays out at ICAC over the next couple of days or more. It may be the end of the Berejiklian premiership. And that may be a just and appropriate outcome. But C.L has captured a moment in the saga, and drawn readers’ attention to something so easily lost in this age of political polarisation: our shared human fallibility.

Does anyone know more about C.L? Is there a gallery of their work somewhere? I’d love to know.

A cautionary tale

There hadn’t been any community transmission of Covid-19 in New South Wales for a number of days. The Premier was warning against complacency. In our part of the inner west there were still plenty of masks in evidence, and at the supermarket we politely gave each other wide berths. But the virus is still out there. Here’s a timeline of what happened next in my family (no trigger warning needed):

Sunday 4 October: The Emerging Artist and I had yum cha with four other people. Two people turned up in masks. We all used the hand sanitiser on arrival. When we were seated, in a small private room because that’s what was available, the person in our group who is statistically most likely to have serious illness if she’s infected asked for sanitiser and wiped down the table and her chair. There was some mild eye-rolling. We had a pleasant lunch.

Monday 5 October: With a great sense of liberation and celebration, the Emerging Artist and I had dinner at friends’ house. We ate roast chicken, just four of us, and spent a very pleasant evening catching up on each other’s lives, and laughing a lot.

Tuesday 6 October: One of the people from Sunday’s yum cha – call him Alfredo – spent a couple of hours at his work in close contact with a student, helping her to use some complex equipment. He gave her his mobile number so she could phone for help the next day when she was to use the equipment. Unknown to him (and possibly her), the student’s mother was being tested for Covid while they were meeting.

Wednesday 6 October: The student learned in the morning that her mother had tested positive. She got tested and that night at nine o’clock got word that she too was positive. She immediately phoned Alfredo to let him know. He was the only person she had had contact with at his workplace.

Thursday 7 October: Alfredo drew up a list of everyone he had spent time with at work on Tuesday and since, and told them the story. They got themselves tested and did the self-isolation thing. He also called us early in the morning to let us know.

The Emerging Artist and I were tested late morning – no waiting, friendly people doing the job, and a horrible sensation in the nose. We were grandparenting that day, and as Alfredo had visited our granddaughter and her family on Sunday before the yum cha, we had her tested too – and her parents did it separately. We assumed that Alfredo’s exposure happened after we’d seen him, but no one was absolutely sure who was infected when. All the others from yum cha were also tested, and went into isolation pending results.

On Thursday night, the contact tracers phoned to tell Alfredo that he was regarded as a ‘close contact’, and that he should be tested. He told them he was ahead of them. They said that, as a close contact, even if his test came back negative he was to self-isolate for another ten days and then be tested again. That is to say, it took the contact tracers well over 24 hours to contact him, which I would have thought was time for him to do plenty of spreading if he was infected. They didn’t ever contact us.

Friday 8 October: A little after 6 in the morning, the Emerging Artist and I received text messages saying no trace of Covid was found in our samples or our granddaughter’s. Alfredo, the granddaughter’s parents, and the other Yum Cha-ers got text messages on Friday evening saying they too were negative. Alfredo is still in strict isolation, but the rest of us are back to Sydney-Covid-normal.

It’s sobering to realise that if the timing of those events had been just a little different, this could have been a story to make us roll our eyes in a whole other direction.

Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies

Johka Alharthi, Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth (published in Arabic as Sayyidat al qamar 2010, translation Allen and Unwin 2019)

This book is quite a ride. The first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English, it’s Jokha Alharti’s second novel. According to the Translator’s Introduction, it’s one of ‘ a wave of historical novels that constitutes a major subgenre of fiction in the Arab world’, and ‘has been praised by critics across the Arab world for its fineness of portraiture, its historical depth and subtlety, and its innovative literary structure’.

It tells the story of a couple of intertwined Omani families in the village of al-Awafi over four generations, but its ‘innovative literary structure’, which is at first bamboozling and never becomes straightforward, means that the story isn’t told in anything remotely like a straight chronology. With some exceptions, alternate chapters are narrated by Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman: he drifts in and out of sleep and entertains trance-like memories while travelling on a plane, he ruminates on his complex, pain-filled relationship with his late father, on the state of his marriage and on his children’s life paths. Each of the other chapters focus on a different character: Abdallah’s wife, his daughter, his sisters-in-law, his father-in-law, the slave woman who raised him. With each of these characters, the novel moves off into different directions and to different times. Time collapses and the overwhelming sense is that everything is happening in an imagined present.

Yet the period covered by the narration sees huge social and political change. A recurring image of flimsy buildings being replaced by cement ones becomes emblematic of the changes. Slavery was legal in Oman until 1970, but one of the main characters is irritated or worse when her husband and then her son insist that she and they are no longer slaves – that’s how she thinks of herself and she has made it work for her, including establishing a sexual partnership with her ‘owner’. The situation of women in general is in a state of flux: three sisters negotiate different outcomes in relation to the outgoing custom of arranged marriages; each of them faces down the patriarchy in her own way, though patriarchy stays intact.

The modernity of lab coats, plane trips and celebrity culture jostles with elaborate cursing rituals, offerings to placate djinns, and (no spoiler really) what turns out to be a covert honour killing. Classic Arabic literature has a strong presence – my impression is it wouldn’t be realistic if the characters didn’t recite poetry every now and then, and indeed they do. There’s more than one unsolved murder, although – after some teasing – the reader is left in little doubt about the perpetrators. There are some deeply satisfying twists for better and worse in the many complex marriages and relationships. Especially towards the end, tragedies that have been passed over or heard about at third hand are seen in close-up.

Marilyn Booth’s English is elegant and accessible, and leaves enough Arabic words in place that the reader is always aware that this is a place and a culture he (in my case) knows next to nothing about. There’s a map of the characters at the front, which I needed to consult often.

Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (you can read how the judges described it at that link), which is how it came to be on offer at our Book-swapping Club. I’m glad to have read it.