Monthly Archives: October 2013

Fry’s Falen’s Pushkin’s Onegin

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1833, translated by James E Falen 1990, narrated by Stephen Fry 2013, Digital October Publishing House)

1eoThis audio book is sheer delight. James E Falen’s verse is fluid, witty, full of charm. Stephen Fry’s reading is superb – unfolding the pleasures of the language with the same infectious relish he brings to his role of BBC game-show host.

Vladimir Nabokov said it was impossible to translate Eugene Onegin into verse that kept the rhyme scheme or the  ‘bloom’ of the original. I know about 3 words of Russian, so I’m in no position to argue, but I’m going to assume that Falen’s attempt approaches the impossible, and  that the poem I’ve just had read to me is essentially Pushkin’s. I now agree with the quasi-mother-in-law who told me in my 20s that reading Pushkin was one of life’s great joys.

I mainly listened to it while driving around the city, which means that for the first couple of hours of it I was negotiating traffic with a slack-jawed grin. Incredibly, the cheerful, witty urbanity of the first parts – where the death of a rich uncle, the ennui of endless Moscow balls, a dilettante’s reading habits, and the passion of a young man who today would be called an emerging poet are all subjects of light, ironic banter – gradually yields to a more serious tone. By the end, the sprightly ‘Onegin stanza’ – shorter lines than Shakespeare, lots of feminine rhymes – has proved suitable for telling of calamity, betrayal and despair. It’s a much smaller story than Anna Karenina, but I’ve got no doubt that Tolstoy knew it well and expected his readers to have read it, and I bet scholarly papers have been written about the relationship between the two works.

I’ve done a tiny bit of research about the translation: Stephen Saperstein Frug’s blog, Eugene Onegin in English Translation, quotes 10 versions of the first stanza, including the one from Charles H. Johnston’s 1977 translation, which inspired Vikram Seth to write The Golden Gate. I’m very glad to have met Onegin in James E Falen’s version, but I recommend Frug’s site if you’re planning to read the poem and shopping around among Englishings. (Nabokov’s version of the first stanza, which ostentatiously avoids trying to sound like verse, manages not to read like English either.)

What Maisie and the Book Group Knew

What Maisie Knew, Henry James (1897, this Kindle edition based on Echo Library Large Print Edition 2006)

1_wmkBefore the meeting: When I read Henry James at university (Portrait of a Lady in first year and What Maisie Knew some time later), quite a bit of it went right over my head. I loved the prose, but the worlds of his novels were a long way from the North Queensland pragmatism and Catholic piety that I had been brought up with. Perhaps now, more than forty years of secular urban life under my belt, I’d have more luck. After all, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s movie adaptation just about tore my heart out a few weeks ago, and Kate Lilley’s poem ‘Maisily’ moved me simply by listing the adverbs from the book.

The Kindle edition gets right down to business – cover, title page, table of contents, and then, without so much as a chapter heading:

The litigation seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child. The father, who, though bespattered from head to foot, had made good his case, was, in pursuance of this triumph, appointed to keep her: it was not so much that the mother’s character had been more absolutely damaged as that the brilliancy of a lady’s complexion (and this lady’s, in court, was immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots.

We’re thrown right into the middle of a story, everything in plain sight, embedded in metaphor and sarcasm. This can’t be read fast, and once you know that by this stage of his life James dictated his novels, it can’t be read without the mental image of a portly gentleman pacing the room enjoying the sound of the sentences as they roll out from his mouth.

And it continues as it has begun: rich, sonorous, intricate sentences that tell a story of child neglect from the point of view of the child, but with no attempt to tell it as a child would: instead, we are asked to explore the great complexity of this little girl’s perceptions of the adult world and her strategies for dealing with it, in language that is at times as baffling to the reader as that world is to her.

I enjoyed the book, but I can’t pretend that I always understood what was going on in that adult world. Specifically, in the last movement Maisie – now well past the age of six that she remains in the movie – has to make a decision about her living arrangements in a context where the adults clearly share an understanding of the issues and believe incorrectly that Maisie does too. James seems to expect his readers to have the insider’s view as well. But times have changed, and the reference point of the culture have shifted so much that I at least could only follow the broadest outlines of what F R Leavis calls the ‘moral squalor’ of the adult world. The governess Mrs Wix, who is possibly meant to be a kind of moral centre of gravity (and who is not there in the movie) wins out in the end, and I think we’re meant to see this as a triumph of good over evil, but I completely couldn’t see why Maisie’s rejection of Mrs Beale, who has always defended and loved her, should be seen as a good thing (though who can tell when the air is so thick with irony?).

By telling the story from Maisie’s point of view, the novel throws into question the whole concept of moral squalor, if that refers primarily to sexual behaviour: what Maisie doesn’t get is all the sexual stuff, so being a kept man or a loose woman or a gold-digger or someone who pays for sex, as various characters appear to be, matters not at all, whereas loyalty, patience, kindness, generosity and their absence are what count.

F R Leavis thought very highly of this novel, which is probably why it was set for us to study at Sydney University in the 1970s. I don’t know that it’s a book I’ll be in a hurry to reread, though many of James’s sentences merit many re-readings.

After the meeting: Words like ‘loathing’ kept cropping in emails leading up to last night’s dinner. However, it was hard to feel loathing for anything much, as we sat outside eating barbecued chicken and sausages on a balmy, mosquito-free Sydney spring evening, as darkness brought an end to a day that had been predicted to be full of bushfire horror but had instead been one where the volunteer rural fire service could be justifiably proud of having averted disaster by strategic backburning the day before.

There were six of us. A couple had been travelling, and shared travellers’ tales. One had been living in Darwin and told spectacular yarns of Territory life. Some of us had been to the theatre and had stories to tell from there as well – one involving a smart phone that played Beatles tunes as background to the drama until an actor politely asked the blithely unaware owner of said phone to turn it off. It was a warm, convivial evening.

We did talk about the book, happily and with minimal rancour. Only one of us – me – had read the whole thing. Only one of the others said he planned to finish it. I may have been the only one who found the sentences fascinating rather than perversely complex. As we were going home, we clapped eyes on the paperback that one chap was holding, and several of us had difficulty reconciling the slimness of the paperback with the size of the book we felt we had read on our various electronic devices.

Ngurrumbang BIFF

The Brisbane International Film Festival unveiled its program today, and if you search for ‘Australian Shorts’ on the BIFF site you get a listing of all the movies shown in the two Australian Shorts sessions.  Ngurrumbang is in the second session, screening at 2 pm on Sunday 24 November.


A bit of Baudelaire

As my November sonnet binge approaches, I apparently feel the need to limber up.

Among our dog Nessie’s amusing quirks is her terror of holes covered by grids. A couple of years ago, I was delighted when she sniffed warily at such a hole and had her terror justified when the darkness just beneath the grid turned out into a hissing cat. That gave rise to this:

She looks down
Wherever Nessie goes she takes her fear
of what might lie beneath the solid ground.
She doesn’t shrink from cliffs, she’ll gladly bound
down hillsides, but she comes all over queer
when asked to walk on grids that cover holes –
no matter if mere centimetres deep.
She turns to stone, responds to no controls
as one afraid of dreams recoils from sleep.

At times, off leash, ears pointing, she will dare,
tout pleine de vague horreur, and so so slow,
creep to the edge and, fascinated, stare
at unseen demons, the nothing-space below.

Today, green eyes stared back from an abyss,
and scared her silly with a black cat’s hiss.

A special prize if you noticed the references to Baudelaire’s poem Le Gouffre, itself referring back to Blaise Pascal’s existential terror. Now it’s not as if I’ve been abyss-obsessed myself, but I was thinking about Baudelaire’s poem recently and spent a couple of hours doing a version of it. My reading of the last line seems to be the opposite of everyone else’s, but maybe I’m the only one in step. Here it is:

The abyss
Pascal travelled with his own abyss.
Poor Blaise! all’s horror: deeds, desires, dreams,
and words! My nape too feels the screams
of bristles at the breath of Fear’s soft kiss.
Above, below, all round, on banks, in streams,
in silence, in great captivating space …
my night’s a wall for God’s hand to deface
with take-no-prisoners spray, where nightmare teems.

I fear my sleep, a door that opens wide
to formless horror on who knows what tide.
Infinity is every window’s view.

My heart, forever dizzy for a fall,
yearns for a void, for numbness over all.
Ah! Not to leave what’s solid, two plus two.

The sky today

Bushfires have been threatening, and worse than threatening, a number of rural communities in New South Wales. The sky over Sydney was grim, as the many photos posted on social media attested. Embers have been falling on the surf at Bondi and Narrabeen, and in our dog’s water bowl here in Marrickville. It’s only mid October.

If bush fires can start early, so can my sonnets.

Here in Sydney, mid October,
the sky is blanketed in smoke.
Springtime bush fires strike a sober
note – this climate change, no joke,
is promising a nasty summer.
It’s crap, says PM Abbott. Bummer!
Though left-wing Nature now attacks
he’ll still repeal the carbon tax.
A hundred homes and more are burning
but he has promises to keep
to Murdoch, Rinehart, Pell. The sleep
of Reason brings forth monsters. Turning
profits will decide our fate
unless … unless … it’s not too late

Re-reading Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986, Vintage International 1991)

I don’t do very much re-reading, at least not of whole books. This one was an ambush.

The copious notes in John Tranter’s Vagabond Press chapbook Ten Sonnets quote Wikipedia’s entry on the Onegin stanza, so called because Pushkin used it in his novel Eugene Onegin:

The work was mostly written in verses of iambic tetrameter with the rhyme scheme “aBaBccDDeFFeGG”, where the lowercase letters represent feminine endings (i.e., with an additional unstressed syllable) and the uppercase representing masculine ending (i.e. stressed on the final syllable).

That sent me looking for Vikram Seth’s novel in Onegin stanzas. Though it was this book that had launched my own excursion into sonnet land, and I had written and blogged quite a number of sonnets (for which, by the way, I don’t claim any great distinction) of what I thought was the Onegin variety, I had missed the crucial bit about the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ endings (the quote marks are in deference to the Art Student’s objection to the gendered terminology). I went to see if Seth observed the aBaBccDD etc rhyme scheme, and indeed he did: each stanza has three feminine rhymes and four masculine, the feminine coming first in each of three configurations. That might sound awfully technical, but once you notice it you realise it accounts for the wonderful flow of the verse narrative – the feminine endings send the reader’s mind forward the way serifs in a typeface send the eye to the next letter, and the masculine endings have a kind of exclamatory effect, not necessarily stopping the flow but hitting a strong beat.

It’s a wonderfully seductive rhythm, and it had me in its grip again. I read whole slabs out loud to the Art Student as she was cooking dinner, and she who claims not to like poetry said, ‘It sounds as if he had a good time writing that.’

The narrative deals with relationships among a group of 20-somethings in San Francisco in 1980–81, with something of the feel of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (written a decade earlier), but with significant differences. It’s the Reagan era: the threat of nuclear war forms a backdrop, which comes to the foreground in some heated arguments that threaten to destroy friendships, and at an anti-war rally where one of the speeches runs for close to 20 stanzas.  There’s a wonderful ill-tempered cat named Charlemagne, and some serio-comic conflict around religion and homosexuality (I don’t know how comic it was meant to be, but it made me laugh as well as rage). It’s not all froth and bubble by a long shot: there are birth and death, seasonal rhythms and harsh disruptions, silly spats and deeply wounding fights.

In one of the book’s few self-referential moments, Seth reflects on his chosen form, discusses both the use of feminine rhymes and the tetrameter (four beats to the line rather than the five beats used by Shakespeare). He then goes on:

Reader, enough of this apology;
But spare me if I think it best,
Before I tether my monology,
To take a stanza to suggest
You spend some unfilled day of leisure
By that original spring of pleasure:
Sweet-watered, fluent, clear, light, blithe
(This homage merely pays a tithe
Of what in joy and inspiration
It gave me once and does not cease
To give me) – Pushkin’s masterpiece
In Johnston’s luminous translation:
Eugene Onegin – like champagne
Its effervescence stirs my brain.

When I read The Golden Gate the first time I contemplated moving on to Les Murray’s verse novels, one of which is told in sonnets. I will read them one day, but they aren’t a natural successor to this novel. I have now downloaded an audio book of Eugene Onegin, in which Stephen Fry reads James E. Falen’s translation – not that of Sir Charles Johnston, which Vikram Seth so loved. It may be a while before I have ‘an unfilled day of leisure’ in which to listen to its 4 hours and 21 minutes, but I’m looking forward to it.

Sonnet for the doomed figs on the south-west corner of Enmore Park

November’s nearly here and with it my personal challenge of writing 14 sonnets in the month. Thanks to the rise in global temperature, Sydney’s jacarandas are flowering early: in a spirit of solidarity with them and other tress, here’s an early sonnet, inspired by a sign in Enmore Park:


Improvement works are scheduled to commence
in our park soon, and if spring rains allow
will be complete by New Year’s Day. Immense
dark witness figs, gnarled amputees, are now
assessed as low performers or high risks
against criteria on Council’s disks.
They’re ugly, idle, falling bits could kill
a child or dog, and that’s a lawyer’s thrill.

This great construction project will proceed.
Remove, chop, mulch, rope off and rectify
by chainsaw, shredder, backhoe and the sigh
of paperwork. It’s progress. Figs don’t bleed.
Dear residents, though patience may be strained,
the park’s geometry must be maintained.

Ngurrumbang at Seminci

We just heard last night that next weekend Ngurrumbang is being shown at Seminci – the Semana Internacional de Cine de Valladolid – in the fabulously named Teatro Zorrilla at half past four on Saturday 19 October and again at 7 o’clock the next day. It’s screening with Bart Van den Bempt’s 82 Days in April. This may be our little movie’s only European screening, so if you plan to be in northern Spain in nine or ten days time, add this to your calendar.

In case you haven’t heard of the Valladolid Festival, here’s a sentence or two from its web site:

Reivindicamos más que nunca el cine intimista, el cine hecho con pocos medios pero con dignidad, ambición y verdad. Ahora que peligra la presencia de ese tipo de cine en las salas, porque se cierran o porque los empresarios prefieren no correr riesgos con la taquilla, reivindicamos un cine que sirva para algo más que para entretener.

Or in English:

Today more than ever we advocate intimate films made on scanty budgets, yet full of dignity, ambition and truth. Now that the theatrical distribution of this kind of cinema is under threat (either because movie theatres are closing down or because the film business is reluctant take risks at the box-office), we firmly support motion pictures that do more than entertain.

Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia

Cordwainer Smith, Norstrilia (Ballantine Books, 1975, 1978)

1norstriliaNorstrilia is on a number of impressive lists, including Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time, David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, The Classics of Science Fiction. It has been on my ever-growing and much-neglected SFF TBR pile for years.

Cordwainer Smith was a pseudonym of US author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, who under his own name was Sun Yat Sen’s godson, an expert in psychological warfare and an adviser to the US military in a number of  combats up to but not including Vietnam. He wrote quite a lot of science fiction (can you tell I’ve looked up Wikipedia?) of which this is his only novel, but many if not all of his short stories and novellas are set in the same universe as Norstrilia – and they leave tantalising traces in the narrative here, such as a number of references to the much feared but never explained Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, or the likewise never explained ‘underhuman’ saint D’joan.

‘Norstrilia’ is of course a corruption of ‘North Australia’: the story begins and ends on the planet of Old North Australia 15 thousand or more years from now. The Norstrilians are fabulously rich but deliberately simple people, presumably based on the impressions Australians made on Linebarger when he spent six months in Canberra in the 1950s. The Norstrilians’ wealth comes from giant sheep, not from wool but from the by-product of a sickness that has infected all the flocks … But I’m not giving a story outline. Suffice it to say that the book is very funny, and full of bizarre inventions – such as a lethal sparrow the size of a football, or beings known as underhumans who are basically animals genetically engineered to have human intelligence and other qualities, or the more or less self-explanatory Department Store of Heart’s Desires, or a future Earth where illness and enmity have had to be artificially reinvented to stop humans from going extinct from boredom. Some of the inventions are of the ooh-he-thought-of-that-in-1964 variety (the novel was first published as two separate stories in the 1960s) , such as in this exchange:

‘What’s postage?’ said the Lord Redlady, really puzzled.
‘Payments on messages.’
‘But you do that with thumbprints or eyeprints!’
‘No,’ said Rod, ‘I mean paper ones.’
‘Paper messages?’ said the Lord Redlady, looking as though someone had mentioned grass battleships, hairless sheep, solid cast-iron women, or something else equally improbable. ‘Paper messages?’ he repeated, and then he laughed, quite charmingly. ‘Oh!’ he said, with a tone of secret discovery, ‘You mean antiquities …?’

There are computer networks, videophones and CCTV. There’s cheerful female-to-male transition (anatomical details passed over in discreet silence). The plot hinges on spectacular manipulation of the global financial markets, though as this is fantasy there is no crash. There’s a totally gorgeous cat underhuman, named (according to the internets) after Linebarger’s own cat. At one point the hero has to restrain himself from running to kiss his computer – a moment imagined 40 years before the iPhone was invented. And there’s a revolutionary movement motivated, almost certainly without deliberate reference to Che, by love both for the oppressed and the oppressor.

It’s a rollicking read, rarely a dull moment, that reminds me of why I love genre fiction.

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann 2013)


This book seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing. The current Southerly focuses on ‘Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, with particular attention to Asian Australian (or Asian-Australian, or Asian/Australian etc) work. The recent OzAsia Festival in Adelaide included a two-day OzAsia on Page component which featured ‘significant and contemporary Asian and Australian voices’. Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series is looking formidably good.

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate gathering of poets than those collected between these covers, not just in nationality or ethnicity (‘Asia’ is a big and varied place, and there seems to be someone here from just about every part of it except, interestingly, Japan), but in just about every other conceivable way as well. The poetry ranges from work with the exuberance and directness of Spoken Word to compressed, elliptical, allusive capital-L Literary offerings. It’s the poets who are Asian Australian, not necessarily the poetry, so though there are poems of the pain of loss of home and culture (I was going to say ‘nostalgia’, but that’s a word that no longer conveys any sense of real pain), poems that explicitly deal with or enact cultural duality or hybridity, poems about multicultural relationships, poems that tackle white racism head-on, and poems exploring questions of cultural identity, there are also poems that don’t do any of those things.

There is a brief introductory essay from each of the three editors. Adam Aitken outlines and celebrates the extraordinary range of voices and attitudes in the anthology, and the range of possibilities in the term ‘Asian Australian’ itself. Kim Cheng Boey focuses on the experience of migration:

Home is never a given, for first-generation migrants, and continues to be a complex issue for subsequent generations. Being beneficiaries of two or more cultures, and entangled in a complex web of affiliations and attachments, they are wary of identity politics and monolithic formations.

Michelle Cahill points out the anthology’s significance in bringing greater visibility to Asian Australian women poets, who experience ‘the double exile of migration and mediation of patriarchal terrain, so inimical to the female psyche’. Seventeen of the 37 poets in this collection are women, and very few Asian Australian women have been included in any previous anthologies.

All three introductory essays are worth reading, and they give invaluable guidance to the poetry. But in the end, it’s the poetry you pay for – and I’m happy to report that I was immersed in this book for days, being dragged from one engaged mind to another. Christopher Cyrill, whom I have previously known as the events organiser at Gleebooks who always spoke too softly when introducing people, here turns out to have a clear, strong, brilliantly modulated voice in the extract from his prose poem novella Quaternion (and that’s me saying it who hates extracts and doesn’t much care for prose poems). Andy Quan’s ‘Is This?’ is a brilliant abstraction of the moment of anticipation on meeting a new person. Omar Musa contemplates buying a pair of shoes and redefines the notion of choice. I finally get to read Kim Cheng Boey’s ‘Stamp Collecting’, which I’ve heard him read at festivals and loved, and his ‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’ – what can I say? Eileen Chong is here, with some of the finest poems from ‘Burning Rice’. I was about to read Debbie Lim’s ‘How to Grow Feet of Golden Lotus’ aloud to a friend and then realised I wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone who didn’t have plenty of time to recover. Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Covenant’ (‘after you bomb my town / I’ll take you fishing / or kite-flying or both’) conveys the poignancy (another word that has lost its hard meaning) of peace for a defeated people. Jaya Savige’s ‘Circular Breathing’ could hardly be more mainstream Australian, a kind of version of Les Murray’s ‘Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’ set it in Europe and acknowledging Indigenous Australia (with only the barest allusion to Asia, but who’s counting?). Louise Ho’s ‘A Veteran Talking’ is a killer poem, a chilling, hard, dry killer. I’m glad Adam Aitken included a decent, brilliantly varied selection of his own work.

Please don’t let this book be seen as a marginal anthology of poems by the marginalised. It’s a fabulous collection and belongs at the centre of our culture.