Monthly Archives: February 2015

Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer (Atlantic Books 2014)

0857897195After Howard’s End was published, E M Forster began another novel named Arctic Summer, but never finished it. Damon Galgut has co-opted the title for this novel about Forster, appropriately enough given that the book is suffused with a sense of unfulfilled desire and unachieved goals.

Forster is homosexual (his term is ‘minorite’), which for a middle-class Englishman just a few decades after Oscar Wilde’s trial is terrifyingly illegal and paralysingly shameful. A central powerful thread of the novel follows Forster’s agonised path towards an active sexual life and the closely allied quest for intimacy. He has two great loves, neither of them ‘minorites’, and neither of them Englishmen. One, the Indian Masood, rejects his physical advances; the other, Egyptian Mohammed, accommodates what he calls his ‘foolishness’. Forster has other, more compliant sexual partners, but it is with these two men that he forms abiding emotional connections, as each of them reciprocates his love in deeply un-English, heartfelt ways.

The novel is also a story of artistic triumph, an imagining of how Forster came to write his greatest novel, A Passage to India. If I didn’t have other more pressing demands on my time I would now be rereading that novel, which must surely have been changed – enriched, I would guess – by the light shed on it by this one. Damon Galgut inspires trust, partly because he has obviously researched his subject meticulously, and partly because his protagonist’s inner life is so powerfully realised. The story he tells, persuasively, is that Forster’s cross-cultural relationships, with the men he loved and with others in India and Egypt, provided the emotional and dramatic heart of his novel. 

It’s interesting how much this book is in dialogue with others. There are Forster’s books, of course: phrases from and references to A Passage to India  are scattered though it, apparent even to someone whose memory of the book is as vague as mine; Howard’s End and Room with a View crop up, though they’re not named; Forster writes Maurice pretty much as wish fulfilment and shows the manuscript to friends; he has a couple of collections of short pieces published. The richly evocative dedication of Galgut’s novel, ‘To Riyaz Ahmad Mir and to the fourteen years of our friendship’, echoes that of A Passage to India, ‘To Syed Ross Masood and to the seventeen years of our friendship’, surely as elegant an indication of an author’s relationship to his subject as you’re likely to find anywhere.

Forster has significant conversations with other writers: Leonard and Virginia Woolf (the former wanting to publish him, the latter agreeing, not unkindly, when he says he’s not a novelist); Lytton Strachey (who loves Maurice and wants its title changed to Lytton); Edward Carpenter (who gives him a vision of relaxed homosexual intimacy); D H Lawrence (hilariously, dogmatically voluble, and totally heteronormative); and Cavafy (who reads his poems to Forster in Alexandria). Even the raffish character who in the first pages shows Forster some explicit erotic writing (a neat way of showing that Forster’s problem is not simply prudishness) turns out, according to the acknowledgements pages, to be historical.

As well as the intertextuality implied in these encounters, I wanted to put  Arctic Summer on a shelf between Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and a DVD of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: the three of them could have an interesting chat about the Raj, with Galgut’s novel forming some kind of bridge between the horrors portrayed by Ghosh and the movie’s golden-glowing nostalgia. I’d also like to eavesdrop on this book in conversation with Robert Dessaix’s Arabesques: where I found it hard to read Dessaix’s accounts of Oscar Wilde and André Gide’s erotic adventures with much younger men of colour as anything other than sex tourism, Galgut’s version of Forster’s superficially similar experiences reads as complex cross-cultural encounters.

At the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Fair on Sunday there was a Police Department stall in the middle of all the glitter. That evening I went to Belvoir Street to see the supremely silly and sexy The Blue Wizard – billed as ‘the gayest one-man show ever’. I had this book in my bag at both events.

Conrad’s Secret Agent and the Book Group

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907; I read it in a Conrad omnibus from the library)

1conradBefore the meeting: I first read The Secret Agent 40 or so years ago, but all I remembered was a moment when a character hears a sound like a ticking clock and realises after a long paragraph that she is actually hearing blood dripping. That, a dark, clammy London, and a vague sense that the book’s anarchists were nasty, stupid  big-talkers who bore very little resemblance to the anarchists of my acquaintance (except perhaps for the capacity to talk theory).

Rereading it for the book group, I found all those elements still firmly in place. Soon after starting the book, I made the mistake of getting hold of Christopher Hampton’s 1995 film version. I switched off  about half way through the movie, but on the strength of what I saw I’m confident that the virtues of the book didn’t make their way onto the screen – with the exception of Robin Williams’s chilling, uncredited turn as a nihilistic bomb-maker. The Secret Agent is not a spy thriller; Joseph Conrad wasn’t a forerunner of John Le Carre.

The book proceeds largely by a series of conversations: Mr Verloc the eponymous secret agent meets Mr Vladimir of the Russian embassy; the largely self-deluding anarchists of 1880s London discuss political theory; an armchair radical has a beer with the nihilistic bomb-maker; the bomb-maker and a police inspector have a stand-off; the inspector and his superior jostle for the upper hand; the latter seeks the support of a Very Important Politician; Mr Verloc tries to calm his wife after her beloved brother dies dramatically; and so on. Most of the conversations are two-handers; in many of them one participant is virtually silent. The effect ranges from comic when the policemen are playing power games to almost intolerably suspenseful when Verloc is reassuring his wife, completely failing to grasp that her world has been shattered, and that she rightly holds him responsible. Every conversation goes on far longer than could be tolerated by any self-respecting filmmaker (with the possible exception of Louis Malle, who made the superbly garrulous My Dinner with André). Once I relinquished my cinema-trained desire for compression and speed, I was engrossed.

I don’t know that The Secret Agent has much of value to say about anarchism, beyond the observation that some anarchists tend to talk a lot and not do much. Terrorism at the end of the 19th century was a different beast from the terrorism of today, but the book’s central image resonates: when simple-minded Stevie is manipulated by a man he trusts to risk his life, his central motive is compassion for the suffering poor, but his act actually serves as fuel for repressive propaganda. It’s hard not to feel that the young men and women who strap explosives to themselves in the 21st century have a lot in common with him – just insert aggrieved religion in place of simple-mindedness.

The meeting: In the lead-up to the meeting, one chap emailed that if we ever made ‘another ill-thought out decision to read a book like The Secret Agent‘ he’d apply for a transfer to a women’s book group. It looked as if we were going to have a good old stoush. But it turned out that though some of us loved the book, some found it laugh-out-loud funny, and some would prefer to have spent their time on other things, we all at some level enjoyed it. (At this point I should say that I made a number of egregious errors of fact over dinner, and may be completely inaccurate on this matter as well.) There was some happy sharing of favourite sentences.

One guy read us a 2004 review from the New York Times, which made me think that our plan to read a book that dealt with terrorism might have been better served by Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. I guess we’ll save that for another day.

Joan London’s Golden Age

Joan London, The Golden Age (Random House 2014)


There are any number of ways a novel about children with polio could go wrong. There’s sicksploitation, in which the children are reduced to pity objects, their carers to embodiments of a heartless or incompetent medical system, and their parents to hand-wringing bystanders. There’s documentation, in which treatment is described in painful detail, and criticised in the light of what is now known to be effective. There’s advocacy, in which a longish final sequence shows the children, now in their sixties, dealing with post polio syndrome. And I’m sure there are others. Joan London avoids them all in The Golden Age.

When the book opens Frank/Ferenc, a thirteen year old boy, son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, has newly arrived in a polio convalescent home named The Golden Age (a home of that name actually existed in Perth in the 1950s, and the novel draws on the reminiscences of people who were patients there). Frank has already decided his vocation is to be a poet, and he is drawn to Elsa, another patient about his own age. His growing love for Elsa and his development as a poet, both treated with respectful restraint, are delicately intertwined with the story of their rehabilitation and provide the novel’s central narrative thread.

In the other characters, especially Frank’s parents and Sister Olive Penny, the nurse in charge of the home, the moral and emotional world of post-war Perth is brought to life with apparent effortlessness. Even the sketchiest of characters – the gardener, say, or the ex-patient with whom Olive has an unconventional relationship, or the people who live across the road from the Golden Age – are deeply imagined. Big scenes – a piano concert in the quadrangle, the queens’ visit to Perth – unfold naturally and without ever losing sight of the main game.

For me, the emotional heart of the book lies in the relationships between the young people and their parents. Different parents’ emotional reactions to their children’s illness are deftly captured, ranging from scenes of operatic intensity to tiny, deeply intimate gestures. Anyone who has been in hospital or boarding school as a child will recognise the children’s ambivalence about their parents’ visits, as the institution comes to feel more like their real home and they realise that their parents don’t understand their new lives. The final major turning point, which I’m not going to reveal, emerges from the middle of this complexity as a surprise that is also, in the Nero Wolfe sense of the phrase, most satisfactory.

aww-badge-2015This is the second book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

Who to vote for?

We have NSW state elections coming up in a little over a month. I live in the newly created electoral seat of Newtown. If I were to decide my vote purely on the basis of advertising campaigns, there’s no competition.

This is from the Greens candidate, Jenny Leong:

And from the Labor candidate, Penny Sharpe:

Notice that the Greens candidate talks about policy in a range of areas, she talks about the nature of the electorate, and when she talks about herself it’s to tell us about her relevant experience. The Labor ad, on the other hand, is all about personality. Penny Sharpe supports same-sex marriage, and presumably can be counted on to be a staunch ALP member: the ALP as a friendship group rather than a machine. She is liked by her parliamentary colleagues and other friends who use empty words of praise, as friends do. As for the crack about her knowing bus timetables: um, would that have survived into a video about a male candidate?

The Liberal Party is fielding a candidate, Rachael Wheldall, but I couldn’t find a video.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press 2014)

In the current instalment of his regular ‘Critic Watch’ feature in Sydney Review of Books, the formidable Ben Hetherington reflects on the state of poetry criticism in Australia. The article, ‘The Poet Tasters‘, is well worth reading, but I mention it here as an occasion to protest my ignorance. Hetherington says that all the reviewers he discusses seem to have taken ‘the same two courses at university: “British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney” and “Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’”.’ Well, they have left me in their dust: I hadn’t read Heaney, or Larkin, or Ted Hughes-for-adults, before I started blogging, and I barely know how to pronounce L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (though I do know the meaning of ‘poetaster’, which Hetherington had to google).

1555976905One feature of my ignorance is that, deep in my heart, I want poetry to be about something. It’s no disparagement of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that it definitely satisfies that desire: in a word, it’s about racism.  It gets right inside that word and lights it up, makes it ultra-visible, ultra-clear, from death-by-a-thousand-cuts micro-aggressions to brutal murder.

In short pieces – prose poems / flash fictions / case studies – she gives us moments among friends or strangers when racism intrudes, the kind of thing a recent Beyond Blue anti-racism ad called ‘casual racism’; Claudia Rankine is much more incisive with her language than that. These moments are of a kind with the ‘joke’ made by the white MC at last year’s US National Book Awards. Claudia Rankine isn’t interested in stirring up a twitter-storm like the one that followed that remark: she wants something deeper than our outrage or our guilt, she’s trying to understand and invites us to join her.

A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’. By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest, and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.

That mightn’t look like poetry to you, but, what can I say: don’t let category problems put you off. If poetry is about language at its most intense then this book is the thing.

There’s a brilliant essay on Serena Williams’s moments of rage and exuberance on the tennis court, and a number of pieces about well publicised moments of brutal racism and sometimes violent reactions to it. Some of the latter are labelled as scripts ‘for Situation video[s] created in collaboration with John Lucas’. At least some of these videos are on line and well worth seeking out, but the scripts stand alone as prose poems. The one on Zinedine Zidane’s tragic moment at the 2006 World Cup works well on the page: much of it consists of quotations and here the sources are given as they aren’t in the video; and the pages’ illustrations do at least some of the work of the video. But even on a tiny browser window, the video packs an enormous wallop as Rankine reads the poem while those moments on the football field play out in stop motion over 6 minutes. Here’s a link: ‘October 10, 2006 / World Cup‘. As a public service, here are links to two more: ‘February 26, 2112 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin‘, ‘Stop-and-Frisk‘.

The book makes up for being typeset in an unpleasant sans-serif font on shiny paper by being illustrated by a number of brilliant and brilliantly apposite artworks. It has reached a much wider audience than usual for poetry, with more than 40 000 copies sold (though it’s not so easy to get in Australia – Gleebooks ordered my copy in from the US).  It’s in the list of finalists for two of the US National Book Critics Circle Awards – poetry and criticism – the first book to have managed this. There’s coverage of its success on Harriet the Blog.

Guantanamo Diaries

I’m listening to the Guardian Books podcast of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diaries. Slahi was taken prisoner at his home in Mauritania in 2001 and has been held without charge ever since, for most of that time in Camp Echo at Guantanamo Bay. By some kind of miracle his account of torture, interrogation, endless violation of US and international law, and stark inhumanity has been allowed to be published, with 2500 redactions.

In the podcast a number of famous Britishers and USers, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Stanley Tucci, read excerpts of about 10 minutes each.

No one seems to dispute the document’s authenticity, but there’s a lot that’s mysterious about the book. Slahi spoke very little English in 2001, but this is very well written – he talks about his efforts to learn from the guards, but I don’t know how much editorial and translation help he had, and from where. Same for the occasional telling quote from, for example, Benjamin Franklin. The detailed recall of many of the interrogation sessions must include at least some invention, as I can’t imagine he was given pencil and paper, let alone opportunity, to write notes close to the time of the events. And there’s the question of how the manuscript got out: evidently it’s been in the US courts for eight years, but how did it even reach the courts?

As a citizen of the comfortable West, I think it’s pretty much a civic duty to engage with this extraordinary text, to learn at first hand what has been done and continues to be done in the name of freedom.

Mark Danner has an excellent review article in the New York Times.