Books I read in May [2007]

[Originally published in May 2007 in my defunct and inaccessible earlier blog. I’ve retrieved it because a friend was looking for information on Jeff Sparrow’s book.]

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 13: Harper’s Gold (finished)
Jeff Sparrow, Communism, a Love Story (Melbourne University Press 2007)
Jackie French & Peter Sheehan, Rotters and Squatters (Scholastic Press 2007)
Frank O’Hara, Selected Poems (finished)
Susanne Chauvel Carlsson, Pitcairn: Island at the edge of time (Central Queensland University Press 2000)
John Tranter, Urban Myths: 210 poems (University of Queensland Press 2007) (started)

heat13Heat was, as always, a solid read. And as always it’s a bit of a puzzle how the title was arrived at: in this case it’s a phrase from one of the stories, with no obvious overarching thematic relevance. But it doesn’t matter. Even if there is no theme that makes the book hang together, the pieces in this issue, as in others, are free to resonate with, echo and comment on one another, so that the whole is pleasingly more than the accretion of its parts — and I did read and enjoy this issue cover to cover.

Beverley Farmer visits her former husband’s village in Greece in ‘The House on Rebirth Street’ (dropping a few too many untranslated Greek words for my comfort); Greece brings some respite to the heroine of Stephen Edgar‘s pseudo ghost story in verse, ‘The Deppites’. There are a number of nostalgic visits to family homes, and frequent references to migration.

Nostalgia for religious belief bubbles to the surface in a number of pieces. Gillian Mears is visited by the rumtitum rhythms of Edward Lear’s ‘Pelican Chorus‘ as she’s wheeled in, near death, to the operating theatre; Felicity Plunkett‘s wonderful sequence of poems ‘The Negative Cutter: An Introduction to Editing’, also deals with surgery, playing with a cinematic metaphor; Mark Rappaport, documentary film maker, has fun riffing on his connections to Catherine Deneuve, as fan and appalling collaborator. I love all this.

When I edited a literary magazine not so very long ago, it was regularly proposed to us that each issue should be organised around a Theme. Just as regularly, I resisted the proposal, as it seemed to me that it was based in a misunderstanding of what kind of creature a literary magazine is. My pleasure in Heat confirms me in my belief. Instead of corseting, regimentation, control, there is a sense of organic relationship, of many minds independently but harmoniously making story, or seeking truth, or singing, or doing whatever it is that literature does.

communismIn his introduction to Communism: A Love Story, Jeff Sparrow writes:

Communism provided an alternative. It was, in many ways, the alternative, the most important indicator that society could be remade. Between 1917 and 1989, its star shone bright and its star shone dim, but its continuing sparkle in the political firmament allowed millions to believe in a world beyond the free market. Even those who despised communism felt that while it existed, change – whether they wanted it or not – was a possibility.

Today, that feeling is gone.

The book is a biography of Guido Baracchi, a well-heeled, literate bohemian and committed Marxist/Communist who lived from 1887 to 1975, described by Stuart Macintyre as ‘the knight errant of Australian communism’. He’s a terrific subject for biography: he worked for the cause in Weimar Germany and the 1930s Soviet Union; he had intense relationships with a number of poets and playwrights (Lesbia Harford, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Betty Roland), each of whose accounts this biography has drawn on; he was widely read and wrote a lot himself, also supplying a wealth of material to his biographer.

I was telling some friends about the book, and one woman was prompted to talk of her youthful romance with a son of a leading Communist family: when they were about to go out on a date, he would say, ‘Let’s stay home tonight – the old coms are coming around and there’ll be lots of tales.’ I suspect Jeff Sparrow had a background something like that, because while this book meticulously cites its written sources (discreetly, up the back, not interfering with the flow of the narrative), and doesn’t hang back from quoting T S Eliot and James Joyce to good effect, it’s also bursting at the seams with ‘tales’, with the lore of Australian Communism: clever ploys, bastardry, romance, betrayal, nobility (like Guido’s wife Neura’s principled reaction to the news that he had taken up with another woman, from which she seems never to have wavered), tragedy (which is too pallid a word for what Stalin and Stalinism did to the hopes of the world). You can almost hear the stories being told with suitable embellishment at a smoke-wreathed kitchen table far into the night.

As the story unfolds, what today is called the mainstream media is relegated to commenting from the sidelines: for example, during the travails of the tiny Australian Marxist movement of the early 20s, bitterly divided within itself, devoting most of its energies to self-education, and discouraged at the prospect of ever being effective, we learn that Prime Minister Bruce gets headlines by accusing the Labor Party of pandering to Bolshevism, and succeeds at a stroke ‘in elevating communism into a public issue in a way that the communists themselves found impossible’. Sadly, the MSM version has become received wisdom, and a whole dimension of our history has been largely forgotten. Those who deplore ‘black-armband history’ would no doubt equally deplore this, perhaps as ‘red-tie history’. I can’t recommend it enough – for that worthy reason, but also because it is a ripping good read, another example of history written with the verve and imaginative force that some think is the exclusive domain of the novel.

An extra pleasure of the book for me was encountering a number of people I have actually met: Betty Roland, the Currency Methuen edition of whose play The Touch of Silk I edited in 1974; Eric Aarons, ‘the young branch secretary’ who banned Guido from lecturing in 1939, whom I met as a gentle old man, a sculptor and caretaker of a workshop site (and whose own memoir What’s Left sits on my bookshelf unread); Nick Origlass, Trotskyist, who seems to have used the long boring speech as a weapon just as consistently in youth as in age; Bob Gould, shambolic bookshop proprietor, who appears here as a fiery youth; a friend’s mother gets a guernsey as one of two students who defied pressure to reject Guido’s teaching in 1939. And a final personal note: one of my dearest friends and teachers, a US communist in the 30s and 40s, still preserved his hatred for Trotskyism intact 40 years after leaving the party; I wonder what he would make of Jeff Sparrow’s implied contention that it was the Trotskyists who kept the flame of communism burning clearest during Stalin’s era.

rottersRotters and Squatters is the third in the Fair Dinkum Histories series, and takes the story of the Australian colonies from 1820 to 1850. I’ve already raved about this series. Consider it raved about again. They’re children’s books, but only a bizarre age-based separatist mentality would prevent an adult from enjoying them. Maybe you need an appreciation of juvenile humour to enjoy the deliberately appalling puns in some of Peter Sheehan’s cartoon illustrations, but this book communicates without condescension or chalk-dust or scatology, and strikes a wholly attractive balance between the general and the particular, the comic and the very serious, the personal and the (discreet cough) political.

Like the previous books in the series, it doesn’t attempt sanitised ‘balance’: no doubt it will irk the haters of black-armband or red-tie history. I reckon the series, and this book as part of it, makes a significant contribution to historical writing about Australia, not least by being a quick read with an occasional laugh-out-loud moment. One of several idiosyncratic reasons for my enjoying it is that its short Recommended Reading list includes just one book by an explorer: Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions of Discovery, the subject of my aborted MA thesis in the 1970s, which in my opinion richly deserves its recommendation here. (If my thesis supervisor – you know who you are! – is still alive and reads this, I’d like my copy back, please).

0394719735 After a break, I went back to the Frank O’Hara. I still don’t think it’s my cup of tea, but I decided to read the poems as play – instead of puzzling over what he means by an obscurity, I’ll just take it that it’s there because it’s what popped into his head and sounded cool – or in some way captured the emotion of the moment. And I decided not to worry about his name-dropping and hi-falutin’ allusions. In other words, I stopped trying to understand what was going on and just let it flow. No doubt I missed a lot – because of his hurling words at the page like Jackson Pollock creating a painting, and because of the references and allusions that went past me – but I also enjoyed a lot. There are some outright reader-friendly bits like this piece of New-York patriotism from ‘Meditations in an Emergency’:

I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.

I gather he’s as hip as ever: people even use phrases from his poems as novel titles.

pitcairn I read the Pitcairn book in preparation for an editing job (which seems, alas, to have fallen by the wayside – in Pitkern, it es ay los’ bawl). Susanne Chauvel Carlsson is the daughter of Charles and Elsa Chauvel. Her interest in Pitcairn Island grew from her parents’ relationship with the island, beginning with their 1932 visit to film parts of In the Wake of the Bounty. The book is a mix of fascinating potted history, family lore, personal reminiscence and observation, and travel log.

People who read the newspapers more carefully than I do, and that’s probably most people, may already know a lot of the Pitcairn story, but even if I’m coming in late, I’m compelled to say the story is riveting. Pitcairn was settled in 1790 by a party of Bounty mutineers led by Fletcher Christian and accompanied by a number of Polynesians: nine mutineers, six Tahitian men, nine Polynesian women (all but one of them from Tahiti) and one baby girl. The first decade was rough, with quite a bit of drunken rioting and mayhem (ears bitten off and so on), murder, a suspicious suicide. After a failed escape attempt, some of the women murdered the remaining Tahitian men. By 1800 the population comprised one man, the mutineer Aleck Smith (who later changed his name to John Adams); ten women (I don’t know where the extra one came from – the book is plagued with such inconsistencies ); and about 23 children. It was another eight years before the Pitcairners had any contact with the outside world, and isolation has been a major factor in the Island’s cultural, economic, linguistic and political development ever since.

It’s a story that reads like a lost-in-space fiction: the language developed as a mixture of rough English and Tahitian; the religion grew from the one semi-literate man’s determination to read and then communicate to the women and children what he found in the Bounty‘s bible. Susanne Carlsson makes no bones about having fallen in love with the place and the people – it’s one of those unfathomable complexities that the object of her affection has also been the site of a history of sexual assault and of sanctioned sexual practices that in most other places would be condemned as paedophilia.

All that news was bad enough already. It becomes much worse when you’ve read accounts of these people playing a cheerfully innovative version of cricket (you have to innovate when your total population is about 50), sharing out Christmas presents in the town square, praying in their Seventh-day Adventist chapel, rowing longboats out to meet the still infrequent visiting ship. I imagine we’ll never know whether the evidently widespread sexual abuse has been there from the beginning or whether it is a symptom of the recent breakdown of the stern religious glue that held the community together.

Oh, and this book had an excellent addition to the Little Known Facts file: in 1838, when the Pitcairners persuaded a visiting Royal Navy ship’s captain ‘to draw up a constitution and code of laws suitable to their needs’, Pitcairn became the first place where women had the right to vote, 46 years ahead of South Australia.

Baby Boomer Reminiscence Alert. Skip to the end if BBRs drive you nuts.

0702235571

(OK, they’ve gone, but I’ll assume I’m not talking only to myself.) Back in the early 70s there were a lot of poetry readings in Sydney: there were Moratorium readings, Balmain readings, Sydney University Great Hall readings; at the 1972 Aquarius Festival in Canberra, the year before the much more famous Nimbin Aquarius Festival, there were a number of serious group poetry readings. I was a keen poetry-goer in those days. There were dramatic moments: Roland Robinson once shouted something like ‘This is muck!’ during a Chris Wallace Crabbe poem that began ‘To f**k is to move through grooves of time’. The dignified cadences of A D Hope shared the stage with the precision of Dave Malouf, the raffishness of Bob Adamson, the heady intellectualism of Martin Johnston, the drugged waifishness of Michael Dransfield, the hypnotic incantations of Les A. Murray … and so on. If I remember correctly, John Tranter was a regular at these events, but for some reason I’ve never really got his poems: back then, and on my occasional attempts to read him since, I found them intriguing but it felt as if they existed in a thicket of references and allusions and associations that were outside my experience. I thought of him as a poet’s poet.

Afflicted as I am with an indefensible, irrational and unfillable greed to know and read everything, I used one of my 60th birthday vouchers to buy Urban Myths, which includes selections from his previous books dating back to 2000. I’m now about a third of the way through it. Those early poems are still intriguing but almost completely opaque. It’s not just the allusiveness; in some way that’s hard to articulate, I can’t hear a human voice in the poems, even one I don’t understand. I’m pleased to report that we’re getting on much better by page 80: I’ve laughed, I’ve been close to tears, I’ve reread some poems a number of times until I feel I understand them, because they promised to repay the effort. The book won the NSW Premiers Literary Award for poetry a couple of nights ago. John read the poem that opens the book, ‘After Hölderlin’, and I couldn’t remember what my problem was. That poem is dated 2002 in Urban Myths, so I’m expecting the best as I read on.

2 responses to “Books I read in May [2007]

  1. Agree absolutely on Heat. Sustained me in its two hard-copy incarnations during many years in Japan – and it was that very non-thematic arrangement of pieces which transported me in all directions – and I would generally write to Ivor to tell him my thoughts – always positive. Ivor was one of my teachers (including Leonie KRAMER and Jim TULIP, Peter KIRKPATRICK – even a guest lecture from Michael WILDING – in 1984 – when I returned to UoSydney undertake English/Australian Literature III.

    Jeff Sparrow’s book not available on-line for download – damn!

    And I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist (sic – not Seventh Day Adventist) – so Desmond DOSS – the subject of Mel GIBSON’s “Hacksaw Ridge” and the entire story of Pitcairn – and Norfolk Island – to which a huge number moved from Pitcairn in the mid-19th century – a move granted to them by Queen Victoria – was also therefore well-known – as was of course the innocence of Lindy CHAMBERLAIN – the press stories were so bizarrely dreadfully ill-informed – there could be no other assumption. By the way – I think your date 1900 should be 1800, no? Jim

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  2. Thanks, Jim. I’ve corrected those errors. Ivor was the year behind me at SU – much talked about as a brilliant student.

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