Monthly Archives: August 2009

Girl 2

Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006, English translation 2009)


I apologise for not listing the translator’s name – I left the book in the Paris Bercy train station so can’t check on such things. It was gripping enough, and I plan to read the third book in the trilogy; I did see the three books, in French, with much more appropriate covers than the English editions’, in a shop window in Lyon (yes, I read the book while travelling). The French title of this one translates as something like The girl who dreamed of a jar of petrol and a match.

I wish Stieg Larsson had lived to see his book through the editing process. I think they would have benefited — less repetition, perhaps, a less plodding pace. But even though I’m not as entranced by Lisbeth Salander as Stieg evidently was, this was a very good train and hotel read. A comedown after Anna Karenina, but then what wouldn’t have been?

My next blog post will be about walking in the Loire Valley.

The train has left the station

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenin (1873-1877, translated by Rosemary Edmonds 1957, 1978)

anna002 What with cleaning the house, travel, conference, broken computer and jet lag, this has taken me longer to read than it normally would have. It’s wonderful wonderful – funny, confronting, deeply instructive. At times I felt as if Tolstoy wrote the book to explain the society of his time to readers who wouldn’t be born for at least 70 years (the situation of women, the conditions of the peasants …). I knew in advance that this was a book about a woman who throws herself under a train, and expected it to have a bit of A Doll’s House about it. I didn’t expect it to have elements of P G Wodehouse twittiness at one extreme and almost Joycean internal monologue at another. And is there a bit of proto-Wittgenstein (‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent’ ) in Levin’s decision to renounce argument in the last chapter? And how about those similes! (Just in case you’re reading this and haven’t read the book: maybe half a dozen times, at intense moments in the narrative, a character’s mental state is explained through a simile, and each time it’s just brilliant.)

Why didn’t anyone tell me? I may have to set aside time for War and Peace sooner than I’d planned. (I’ve been told I should have read it first, because it’s not as grim. Oh well …)

Travel despatch 3

We’re now in the tiny village of St-Gervais just outside Bagnol-sur-Cèze to the north west of Avignon. Driving hereabouts is no longer a white knuckle experience, though there’s still quite a bit of adrenaline pumping around every time we make a left turn. (My adrenaline is entirely that of a passenger – Penny does all the driving.) We’re having fun being tourists, enjoying the tolerance and even kindness of the French as we mangle their beautiful language. I’ve reached the heights of being able to tell when I’m being corrected, as in when I asked for ‘un glace vanille’, the man behind the counter replied, ‘Vous en voulez une.’

I’ve just uploaded our photos so far to Facebook — pretty much unculled and no captions yet: the Eiffel Tower, the Musée du Quai Branly, views from the Aqueduc des Arts, Provençal markets, Nimes, the Théàtre Antique in Orange. I would have put them somewhere more accessible, but I don’t remember passwords for those places and mon ordinateur à moi, where they are stored, is navré.

One fabulously unnerving scene didn’t make it to a photograph. To avoid misunderstanding I should preface my description of it by telling you that in my childhood whenever my family came home after dark, my mother and sisters would go inside and line up at the lav, while my father, my brothers and I would relieve ourselves on the grass beside the garage, making frothy patches in the moonlight. So it’s not surprising I’m charmed by some of the spectacles of public urination that we’ve encountered here – a man and his small son peeing through a car park fence into a field, for instance, strikes me as a sociable, environmentally responsible act, and the two women standing near the car didn’t seem to mind the wait. I do discriminate. Like most people, I find the stench in some Parisian parks appalling. Today in Orange we saw something else entirely.

We were strolling along, enjoying the feel of the narrow street when a car pulled up just in front of us. A stout middle-aged man stepped out of it, crossed the street, and walked  briskly into a garage that happened to have an open door. As he pulled the door shut behind him, he was unzipping his fly and before we were out of earshot we heard the splash of piss. I looked back before going around the next corner, and sure enough he came back out into the street, hopped in his car and drove off.

If ever you move to France and live in a village, don’t forget to close your garage door.

Travel despatch 2

I know I should be telling about my travels — how there are almost as many psychics awnings out on the streets of Manhattan as there are Starbucks, and that’s a hell of a lot, how I’ve met three women (an Australian, a Scot and an Englishwoman) who go to Las Vegas once a year or so, how Paris is fabulous, not least for its peches plates — but my time on my host’s computer is limited, and as soon as I sit at her keyboard my mind goes to my computer troubles.

There was a splendid moment of hope when the CEO of MacMD (or similarly named enterprise, tucked away on the 12th floor of a building on West 35th Street Manhattan) told me he could replace my screen for only $450 US, and do it in time for me to catch my plane. That hope was dashed when I turned up four hours later: he hadn’t realised it had to be an LED screen. He could still do it, for £600, but not before I had to leave. So I reclaimed my poor damaged ordinateur, and pretty much as soon as I arrived in Paris (where free WiFi seems to be ubiquitous) took it to a promising place in the Marais.

‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ I asked. ‘Pas du tout,’ said the jeune homme behind the counter, then added when I showed him my screen, now even more alarming than the image I posted the other day, ‘But I don’t need to speak English to understand what your problem is.’ He said that in French, but I caught his drift with complete confidence. He told me it would cost €1050.

I protested, in what seems to have been comprehensible French, that the guy in New York had said he could do it for 600 dollars, less than a third of the price. In civil and unmistakable French he gave the universal response to such protests: ‘Well, take it there then.’ And you know, even though it means relying on the kindness of friends and the availability of cybercafes for the whole month we’re in France, that’s what I intend to do.

Speaking of the availability of cybercafes, would you believe there are no internet kiosks in the International Terminal at JFK? Not even paid ones! I asked and was told I could join something called the Galileo Club at $50 a day, which would enable me to log on. Yet the poor oppressed people of the United States continue to believe that they have the highest standard of living in the world.

Paris is beautiful. My attempts to speak French have been laughed at, but not in a nasty way. Many people are away for the summer, so the streets are comfortably uncrowded. It’s our second day and we’ve already been to two museums, eaten excellent Israeli kebabs, and figured out what to say in order to get coffee that’s up to Sydney standards (that’s not for me, but for my addicted companion). Soon I’ll have grieved sufficiently over my laptop to be able to give you proper traveller’s tales. Au revoir for now

A tragic image

Since I couldn’t get to sleep, Here’s a phone snap of my tragically damaged MacBook screen: 17082009

Appropriately enough, the current desktop picture seems to be a snap taken from the rim of the volcano on Vulcano. one of the Aeolian Islands.

Travel Despatch 1

I’ve been in the US for five days, and here I am at three in the morning wide awake . The conference was so busy, my hours there were so odd, and I got so little ultraviolet on the back of my knees that there seems to have been no impact on my jetlag at all. I arrived in Manhattan yesterday at six in the evening, had checked into a (relatively) cheap hotel room on West 45th Street by eight, went to a nearby food outlet where I paid by the pound for some rice and chicken and watched a nice man on CNN  saying that racism exists in the US and is being deployed vigorously in the healthcare debate, and came back to the hotel expecting to sleep like a stone for 10 hours. At 12.30 I snapped awake, my body saying things like, ‘It’s two in the afternoon, you lazy sod, let’s walk the dog!’ If only I’d been this lively at 8.30 I might have gone to see some largely naked actors reciting Leaves of Grass or done something similarly appropriate.

I don’t now what to tell you. There are squirrels in Connecticut, though I didn’t get out in the warm summer sun to see them until the end of the conference. An old friend there told me there was a TV ad for an insurance company that always reminded him of me — and lo, just before the nice anti-racist man came on CNN last night, there was the ad in question. The insurance company is called something like Geico, and the ad features a talking gecko. I couldn’t hear what he was saying (the anti-racist man had subtitles), but I was shocked to see what my old friend meant: apart from the Australian accent, and leaving aside the cute voice, the lizard attributes and the Jiminy Cricket gestures, the little green creature was unnervingly like me when I’m enjoying a bit of craic.

Apart from that little moment, everything here seems just a little bigger than necessary, and the Theatre Theater  District is dazzling: the Scottish restaurant on 42nd Street would have done a Busby Berkeley premiere proud.

My Mac’s screen is broken. I dropped it and next time I turned it on, there was a beautiful abstract design obscuring two thirds of the screen. I can still ue it, but there are ominous signs that even that remaining third is about to die. When daylight comes I’ll set out on what I expect to be a fruitless search for someone who will repair it before I have to  fly to Paris at 5 pm. Wish me luck!

OK, back to bed and Anna Karenina. Sadly it’s far too interesting so far to be a reliable soporific — I’m at the two thirds point, Anna and Vronsky are in Venice where things aren’t looking too good, and Levin and Kitty are discovering that the joys of marriage are quite other than they’d imagined. The fact that I’m reading it after the Book Group discussion only intensifies the weird sense that I’m reading for the first time something that I’ve known reasonably well for years — like meeting a good friend’s old friend.

Next time I write I expect I’ll be  France. It’s not a hard life.


I’m getting up scarily early tomorrow to catch a plane, but I couldn’t go to bed without a quick note about this evening. Penny and I and quite a few other people were extras in the film Alex is making as part of his year-long director’s course at AFTRS. That’s the Australian Film Television and Radio School. We spent hours standing around being bored, and minutes sitting in front of the camera – at least I was sitting, pretending to eat disgusting noodles, while Penny had a more upright role, wearing an anti-infection mask. I loved seeing – and being a small part of –  the well-oiled machinery of a film shoot in action, and I especially loved seeing the way the two actors, in the midst of so much noise and busyness, managed to make something happen between them. All this happened beneath the roar of the Expressway in Pyrmont, close to the city. I took a number of blurry photos with my phone camera. No time for more – here is Alex with actor Richard Green (of Boxing Day fame), a masked Penny, Alex in a variety of directorial  moments (including one with Anna Lise Phillips with an umbrella – did I mention it rained a fair bit? Anna Lise lent me her hoodie), and the disgusting noodles.

I’ll miss the big event!

On Wednesday morning I catch a plane to the US. I’ll be attending a conference in Connecticut over next weekend and then flying on to meet up with Penny in Paris. We plan to spend a month together in France, visiting friends in Paris for a couple of days, then spending a week in a small village near Avignon, enjoying a home exchange, a week walking from Orléans to Gien with Sentiers de France, a week in another home exchange at La Grande Motte, near Montpelier, and another couple of days in Paris. I’m taking the computer, and it’s possible I’ll find the time and inclination to blog. Then again, maybe not.

Meanwhile, exciting things will be happening on the home front:



Yes, the unbearably long wait is almost over, and I’m going to be somewhere in rural France on the day of the grand opening. I hope some of my readers will manage to turn up and send me a photo or two …

I did print out all my entries about the saga a couple of weeks back and leave them under the shop door.  A few days later, I was nearly bumped into by Rod while out with the dog. He came bursting out of the side door, bright orange ear muffs on his head and an arm full of timber offcuts. ‘Jonathan?’ he said. I was impressed, because although we’ve chatted regularly I didn’t think we’d exchanged names. He recognised me from my gravatar (over on the right). He invited me in for a sneak preview. I didn’t have a camera with me, but I can tell you it’s not a bland space. My first impression was of a Japanese feel – one wall features a large manga-type image with graffiti tags, there’s a lot of wood, and an eclectic array of chairs, stools and benches, some of them upholstered in gorgeous fabric from Tokyo or thereabouts. There’s a chandelier and a miscellany of elegant lamps. It’s not a huge space, but somehow it manages to have a number of discrete parts to it – a counter, a wooden benchtop, tables. It’s a folie, a labour of love, an adventure. At the end of the month it becomes a café.

Right! Back to the cleaning.

Comfort reading

Martin Johnston, The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap (Hale and Iremonger 1984)

typewriter003I treasure my memories of Martin Johnston from when we were both in our mid 20s. I was an Eng Lit student, he was a poet – an intense, chain-smoking, introverted writer of largely incomprehensible but manifestly learned poetry. I was in awe. But not just awe: I loved hearing him read – it was like being taken to a different part of the brain. I don’t think I grasped the depth of feelings in the poems back then, dealing as many of them did, opaquely, with the death of his parents.

This book dates from well after those student days, but Martin’s voice is still vividly recognisable. Many of the poems remain impenetrable to me, but that doesn’t seem to matter any more. The pleasure is the main thing. There’s probably a profound reflection on poetry to be made here, something about it being important to take care what you read when young because those poems do to your brain what a magnet does when it strokes a lump of iron: they configure the molecules to be receptive to a particular kind of input.

That is to say, even though Martin’s poetry is austere, erudite, uncompromising, as I read it now I experience the joy and comfort of greeting an old friend. According to a despatch by John Tranter from the Poetry Wars (the 68ers vs the rest?), Les Murray said to Martin of the long sequence ‘To the innate island’: ‘It’s wonderfully rich, evocative and vivacious, but I fear you’ve left the poetry out.’ I have profound respect for Les Murray, especially since he accepted one of my poems for publication in Quadrant, but I can’t see that he’s right. Here’s the opening of the sequence (which admittedly reads a little =differently now in these post LOLcats days:

The small grey cat in the yard has a knack for the punctuational,
Confronted with unfamiliar yoghurt, it curls
bristling into a fluid query, later ingratiates
itself into tactful receding aposiopesis towards the garbage bag,
illuminated exclamation over the yellow light
of a butterfly to be slapped and broken, lays out evenings
in commas at the window, sentences from Proust
lapping to night where all cats are grey.

See what I mean? ‘Aposiopesis’? But if there’s no poetry in it, I’m easily conned.

Les voies d’Anubis

Tim Powers, Les voies d’Anubis (J’ai Lu 1986; translated by Gérard Lebec from ‘l’americain’, original title The Anubis Gates)

2290020117When this turned up on BookMooch en français I decided to seize the chance to brush up my French at the same time as crossing an Apollo Award winner off my TBR list. The plan worked out excellent well. The novel is a fabulously over the top fantasy, like an extended episode of Doctor Who, only there’s no Doctor to help out when the quantum mechanical (or in fact magical) time travel to the England of Coleridge and Byron, and beyond, goes horribly wrong. Or it could be likened to a Cairo Jim adventure with an organisation very like the Old Relics Society and a time-travelling Eng Lit scholar cum pseudo-werewolf in place of Geoffrey McSkimming’s poet-archaeologist: it’s got Egyptian gods, animated statues, history mysteries, but sadly no animal companions. It’s a vastly inventive, rip-roaring picaresque adventure, with a lovely array of grotesque villains, some almost Shakespearean crossdressing, and much derring-do.

Reading it in translation reintroduced me to the childhood pleasures of incomplete comprehension, guessing meaning from the context, sometimes with a fair degree of confidence, occasionally looking a word up, every now and then having a word’s meaning emerge into clarity with repeated appearances, and even – once in a while – knowing what a word means without knowing the English for it (I had to look up embarcadère, for instance, to translate it as landing stage, but I knew what structure it referred to without benefit of dictionary).  I could just about feel my neurons reconfiguring.

The other pleasure came from pace: I was forced to read slowly, so slowly that by the time I’d finished the prologue and the first chapter, I felt as if I’d read a whole book, so in effect I got four or more books for the price of one. This effect was helped, of course, by the episodic structure.

I probably missed a lot, though I did laugh out loud more than once, which means I got at least some of the jokes, and that’s supposed to be the hardest thing when you’re reading in a language you’re not fluent in. In fact, there was at least one joke that might easily have been tailor-made for my situation: a character says at one point ‘Psaume en chemise sans cote de quarte?’ and I wracked my brains (‘Psalm in shirt on side of quad?’ Really?), only to be relieved five lines later when the character articulates carefully, ‘Sauté en mille six cent quatre-vingt-quatre’ (‘Jumped to 1684?’ which is simply reiterating incredulously what someone else has just said). [I just Looked Inside This Book at Amazon, and found that the original poorly articulated line was ‘Jutmoop sidskeen eftee door?’, gibberish which I don’t think would create the same puzzlement in someone who knew English as well as I know French.]

If this had been a ‘serious’ literary work and I’d enjoyed it this much, I’d probably feel that I ought now to read it in the original. While I now have Tim Powers on my list of authors to look out for, I’m happy with one reading of this, happy to recommend it as a constantly surprising and delighting romp either in French or in English.