Monthly Archives: September 2009

Heat 20: Plain Vanilla Futures

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat #20: Plain Vanilla Futures (Giramondo Publishing Company August 2009)

heatJohn Freeman, of Granta magazine, had an excellent piece in The Australian in July (pretty much the same article as published in the Independent a month earlier, with a little Australian – and Australian – content inserted). The primary function of literary journals, he said:

is to […] promote gross miscegenation, messiness, conflict and disorder; to subvert the market; and to place writers in unexpected places, where they can create an unlikely community of readers. …

It is presumptuous of any literary journal to claim that it has discovered any writers — novelists and poets are hardly nickel deposits, after all — yet a good journal can make it far easier for readers to discover a new writer’s work. It can take a piece of writing, regardless of where it comes from and what unusual shape its story takes, and ask readers to smash into it. For these reasons the ideal reader of a literary journal is one who yearns for the lash of the new, the way a boxer needs to be hit.

I can’t say that I yearn to be lashed by anything, really, but Heat does offer the kind of discomfort John Freeman describes, and I suppose I read it as a kind of homage to the gods of literature. Every issue contains things by writers who are completely new to me. Admittedly some of them are also, to me, almost completely unreadable; but others are sublime. In this issue Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Privacy’ is in the sublime category, though I’m not new to her poetry. And there are a number of pieces that range from completely engrossing to callow, self-indulgent or academic-exercise-ish. I enjoyed and was instructed by Elizabeth Byer’s ‘Peru’s Heartbeat’, an essay on a Peruvian drum. I was glad to learn about Aileen Palmer, daughter of Vance and Netty, and Rosa Cappiello who wrote novels in Italian during her years as an immigrant in Sydney (though I’m deterred from reading the latter’s Oh Lucky Country by the fact that her translator’s article here includes more than one sentence as awkward as this: ‘The Italian original is written in a language that is precise and explicit and yet metaphorically complex, and which sometimes reflects the influence of Neapolitan syntax and lexemes, popular Italian and some elements of the Australian variety of Italian.’)

It’s two translations from the Chinese, though, that got me closest to a lashing and mashing experience, both of them being unsettlingly odd: ‘An Inexperienced World‘ by Sheng Keyi, in which an older woman/writer lusts after a younger man she meets on a train; and ‘1989: My Confession‘ by Ah Jian, which seems to be excerpts from a longer, gossipy account of events among Beijing intellectuals in and around Tian’anmen Square in that year.

Part of each issue these days seems to be devoted the literary equivalent of “The Making Of” pieces: this time Evelyn Juers writes fascinatingly about her recent Giramondo title House of Exile: The life and times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann, blending diverse elements including subtle self-disclosure, intriguing historical snippets, and tourist impressionism.

I share Pavlov Cat’s view that Ivor Indyk is a living national treasure, but the copy-editing of Heat often gives me pause. This issue is no exception: a supercede and at least one faux-gentility (‘a literary prize that enabled my partner and I to…’) have snuck past the editorial defences. Everyone makes mistakes. But there is one genuine puzzlement. In Ah Jian’s piece we read that the writer’s friend Zhao Yueshen wrote ‘about the ancient Greek [sic] poet Virgil’s Georgics‘. That ‘[sic]’ is not mine. It’s in the magazine. So someone – most likely the (uncredited) translator – made a note of Ah Jian’s slip (Virgil was actually Roman), and someone – most likely an editor or a series of editors and proofreaders –  decided to leave it there so the readers would see it as well. It looks as if the editors, being primarily academics, treated the text as if it were something they were quoting in a scholarly paper, distancing themselves from the error but taking care to quote it accurately. But such meticulous respect for the text ends up looking like derision of the author. For the record, I want editors, quietly and without fuss, to correct my stupid mistakes.

Café affects house prices

There was a house auction in our block today In his opening spiel, the auctioneer said that Annandale was the best place in Sydney to buy, the reasons being the wide tre-lined streets, the proximity to public transport and  … the café on the corner.


The thong-wearing (that’s footwear) woman who won the bid at $1.3 million after a heart-stopping $1000 at a time bidding war may or may not have been swayed by Revolver’s existence.

Added on 1 November: At an auction yesterday, much closer to the corner, the auctioneer made much more out of Revolver’s proximity. The fabulous Annandale lifestyle now consists, it seems, of waking up and strolling across the street for a double shot latte. And the house went for a mere $1.6 million.

Dust in my feed

We woke to a weird light in Sydney this morning. As I emptied out kitchen compost into the backyard bin I looked back into the kitchen and it looked astonishingly white and crisp in a tawny world. The car looks as if it’s been on a trip to Bourke. I didn’t take a photo myself, but I’ve just found these in my RSS feed:

7.08 am: Welcome to planet Vulcan (Have phaser will travel)

7.14 am: Obligatory Sydney dust storm photo (Hoyden about town)

8.02 am: Life on Mars (The witty knitter)

8.20 am: Sydney at dawn (Larvatus Prodeo)

Added later: Someone in San Francisco has got a Flickr gallery up already.

Dangerous Days

Ernest Brough, Dangerous Days: A digger’s great escape (Harper Collins 2009)

dangerousWhen I was ten or eleven years old, although I wasn’t at all attracted to the war comics that many of my school companions devoured, I did read, and enjoy, Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse, a POW escape story. It came with parental recommendation (my mother was amused by the POWs’ christening a cow Venus di Milko, or was that a different book?), and seemed to me to be a tale from the distant past. In fact, it was published in 1949, and the events it narrated had happened barely fifteen years before I read it. Ernest Brough’s story, written when he was in his 80s and when the events he recalls were more than sixty years in the past, nonetheless has some of the same qualities that caught this little boy’s imagination way back then.

The book is Ernest Brough’s story of his war experience. He was one of the Rats of Tobruk, and his account of how the war was conducted there almost makes one long for the good old days when the Geneva Conventions were respected. Taken prisoner, he was kept in camps run first by the Italians and then by the Germans, then escaped with two companions. The story of the trio’s privations and difficulties as they made their way from the prison camp in southern Austria, through Slovenia, Croatia and into Bosnia, a good part of the way in the care of Tito’s Partisans, is the book’s compelling read – the larrikin camaraderie of the Australians and New Zealanders in training, in combat and in the POW camp is transmuted into an almost mystical solidarity.

Perhaps more than The Wooden Horse, in fact, the book reminds me of Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life. It’s a tale of survival, told without bitterness but pervaded by a sense of good fortune. And as I like my morals to be explicit, I was grateful for the final chapter, ‘Take it from an Old Bloke’, where he spells out his views on war, peace and life, including this:

War’s a damnable thing. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. The damage runs deep. All those nights for decades afterwards I would lie in bed thinking, I’ve got to get under the wire tonight. or gotta make it to the riverbank. … Most soldiers will bring the war home with them in some form. Some will never forget it; some will die from it, from suicide or alcoholism, years after the guns have packed up and gone home. You see, it’s just not natural for human beings to go out and kill other humans. And that’s what war’s all about.

Revolver unveiled

The corner shop is no longer in the making. Whenever I’ve walked down the street in the days since I’ve been home there have been people inside, sitting at the bench by the window and at the table outside in the sun. Clearly Rod’s understanding of his potential market was sound. I caused a terrible racket by walking past with Nessie on the lead; she remained virtuously silent (I don’t mention the aggressively stiff tail) and let the two little dogs parked at the door go spare with rage that she should exist. This morning for the first time I actually went inside, noting as I did that people were arriving by car to have their breakfast coffee  Naturally, I took a camera.





Perdido Street Station

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station (Pan Macmillan 2000)

perdidoKim Stanley Robinson (you know who he is, right?) is quoted in a recent Guardian, in the context of a spray about the insularity of the Booker Prize judges, that ‘the best British literature of our time’ is science fiction. I can’t say I share his disparagement of historical novels, still enjoying the afterglow of Wolf Hall as I am, but he has a point. Certainly I feel more nourished by Perdido Street Station, a full-on chaotic, phantasmagorical, dystopian, steampunk boy’s-own-adventure-with-interspecies-sex-and-reanimated-cadavers than by any number of sensitive and self-important explorations of guilt, memory and adultery.

It’s very long, and there was a bit towards the end where I wished he would just get on with it, but it sustained me very well through a very long plane trip and subsequent jet lag. I do feel when I read a genre work like this that I’m something of an outsider and can’t tell what’s original to it and what is a common trope. (I recognise echoes of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, for instance, but have no idea whether they are actual references or simply drawing on the same meme pool.) But when it’s done as well as this, that becomes an academic question.

If you’re looking for a long, light, engaging read, I doubt you could find better.

Ma rentrée

Having witnessed the cultural phenomenon of la rentrée in France, in which the populace returns en masse from their vacances, shops open, streets and markets come alive, Paris is reinhabited by  fabulously arrogant Parisien(ne)s, and posters and TV commercials abound recommending ways to make the great return douce or moins chère, having felt just a little of the excitement of all that, I’m facing my own pale shadow, my re-entry. But before girding my loins, here’s a blog post of snippets.

• In Manhattan you can buy eyelash extensions.

• There’s a hamburger place opposite the Port Authority Terminal in New York that boasts that it’s the only one with its name, that it was founded in 2008, and it has served fewer than a billion burgers (so far).

• In Lyon, I was approached in the street by an unkempt man speaking in rapid (and therefore incomprehensible to me) French, holding up a euro coin in one hand and extending his other palm empty to the passers-by. I dipped into my pocket and gave him a couple of coins – it could have been anything from 50 centimes to 2 euro – and walked on. He called after me: ‘Monsieur! C’est pour manger ou pour boire?’ It sounded like a serious question: he was asking me to tell him whether the money was for food or drink. I called back, ‘Pour manger!’ ‘Pas d’alcool?’ he called back, like a little boy making sure his papa was really forbidding something he knew he shouldn’t have. ‘Pas d’alcool, oui,’ I said, then added by way of mitigating this sternness something that probably translates as ‘Me no myself drink any alcohol.’

• I know everyone goes on about the different light in Europe, but when I walked the dog this morning I kept wondering why everything looked so clear, the greens so brilliant and the sky such a sharp blue. Then I realised I was back in Sydney, in spring and this light that the first settlers thought so harsh and unforgiving is for me the light of home.

• A visit to Paris at the end of summer makes it much clearer what all the fuss is about than a visit in March, when all the trees are like dark, mutilated skeletons.

• The Eiffel Tower sparkles all over at 10 o’clock at night.

• M Eiffel built a kilometre long bridge to carry a canal over the Loire at Briare, and it’s a very pretty thing.

• It’s illegal to sell cheese made with unpasteurised milk in Australia, which means we miss out on some fabulous, richly stinky delights.

• In certain lights, the power lines to the southeast of Saint-Gervais (Gard) appear to be supported by an army of Hello Kitty silhouettes coming over the hills.

• One of the main delights of travel for me is being in an environment where the language is different from at home. I get far too much pleasure from deciphering untranslatable puns in shop names, like the bookshops Mona Lisait, or the restaurant (or resto) in Rue Mouffetard that’s called the Mouffe’tôt Mouffe’tard. This delight is just as strong in places where the language is English. In Brooklyn, for instance, a car full of young dreadlocked men drew alongside my taxi with its radio turned up loud, and instead of the undifferentiated bass beat I expected I was treated to a crystal-clear rendition of ‘No Woman No Cry’, and the next day, a car pulled into the street where I was staying and the whole small block was filed with Aretha Franklin. I know that’s not strictly language, but it’s communication.

• The prayer ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ must feel completely different in a place where the custom is to go out each morning and buy just enough fresh bread for that day, from where you buy a sliced loaf on the weekend and eat slightly mouldy toast on Friday.

Jet lag has been intense this time, but I’m feeling almost human this morning after two nights’ sleep. Normal broadcasting may resume shortly.

Really merde

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun (McSweeneys, Hamish Hamilton 2009)

zeitounReading this in the wake of Ronald Wright’s What Is America?, I can’t help but see it as a case study in the dimension of the US that is missing from the land-of-freedom myth. It’s a post-Katrina story: Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a painter, contractor and landlord who had been living and working in New Orleans for 15 years when Katrina struck. His wife and children left before the storm, but he stayed behind to look after their properties, and then stayed on, paddling around in his canoe, helping people to safety, feeding dogs that otherwise would have starved, generally serving God’s purpose (he was and is a devout Muslim). Things go terribly wrong when he encounters the military, and the story takes on the quality of a nightmare.

Dave Eggers displays extraordinary authorial restraint: his narrative is based primarily on the stories as told by Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, and everything is told here from their points of view. There are writerly flourishes in some of the descriptive passages, and it may well be that some of the embedded commentary about George W Bush and FEMA originates with Eggers, but the whole reads as an impressively humble work, the author at the service of his material, at the service of his subjects. All his royalties go to the Zeitoun Foundation, which exists to fund organisations that help people caught up in similar difficulties to the Zeitouns.

The day I finished it, I saw Inglourious Basterds in New York City. The audience laughed cheerfully as the Brad Pitt character did something completely brutal — I couldn’t help but feel that, though he may complicate it with possible alternative readings, Tarantino romanticises, glamorises and eventually in effect endorses exactly the kind of US savagery that laid waste Native American civilisations, the Philippines, Iraq, and led to Guantanamo Bay and Camp Greyhound  in New Orleans.

NY Post geography

On page 14 of today’s New York Post, Jane Campion is quoted: ‘I have a two-room hut in a remote part of New Zealand, the south island, an hour’s drive outside Queensland.’ She clearly drives a very fast amphibian vehicle.
Right! No more painful pseudo tweets from my phone. I get my fixed computer back any hour now.

4.30 am NYC

Because of frequent flier stuff I’m flying home from Paris via New York, while Penny is doing the sensible thing, flying via Hong Kong and getting home 36 hours before me. At least that was the plan. She’s just texted that her Air France plane was leaking oil and has been diverted to Manila. I’m wide awake in the city that never sleeps posting to my clog from my not-an-iPhone. 24 channels, nothing worth watching except a senate enquiry into contractors (ie for profit armies) and moron Girls Gone Wild