Monthly Archives: August 2015

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the Book Group

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-five (1969, Vintage 2000)

1sh5bookBefore the meeting: I was reading while walking the dog outside the local supermarket when a young woman with fashionable piercings and skin art called to me, ‘That’s a good book!’

So it still has currency.

Do I need to tell you that Slaughterhouse-five presents itself, in its first and last chapters, as Vonnegut’s attempt to wrangle into story form his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945? His way of rising to the challenge is to tell a tale of Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the war, who was also in Dresden at that time. I say also because once or twice the authorial voice intrudes to tell us that he was there, that the person who did or said something was ‘the author of this book’.

Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time, which adds an element of quirk while providing an excuse for the narrative to jump all over the place (evidently excuses were needed back in the 60s), and has some vaguely science-fictional adventures, which aren’t fleshed out to any interesting degree, but allow the novel to present a point of view where none of the terrible events it describes really matter, because according to the little green Tralfamadorians who abduct Billy, every moment in time coexists with every other moment, so there’s no point getting upset about any particular moment.

The main event of the book, as announced in the first chapter, is the bombing of Dresden. We read the whole book with growing dread, waiting for it to happen. A lot of that dread depends on our knowing that it’s not an invented atrocity, and a number of historical sources are quoted to chilling effect. We are told that the fire bombing of Dresden is the biggest massacre ever perpetrated in a single day – bigger than Hiroshima, bigger even than the firebombing of Tokyo.

The power of the story doesn’t stand or fall by that claim, but alarm bells went off for me when the authority Vonnegut quotes is David Irving, the most famous of all Holocaust deniers. A quick look on the internet reveals that Irving’s claim, as repeated by Vonnegut, that 135 000 people were killed in Dresden on one night is almost certainly wildly exaggerated. The actual figure is more like 40 000. I’m a bit shocked that Vintage Books didn’t include a note in the 2000 edition that Vonnegut’s source is notoriously unreliable.

The young woman who called out to me may also have done a quick internet search, but if she didn’t she and all the others who are rediscovering this excellent book will be misled.

Still, it’s the book that gave us ‘So it goes’. This phrase occurs after every mention of a death, whether of parasites in a delousing shower or of the citizens of Hiroshima in an extensive self-exculpatory quote from Harry Truman. After a while this feels annoyingly mechanical, but again a little while and it’s tolling like a funeral bell. Evidently some people read the book as endorsing the Tralfamadorian view that there’s no point getting upset about terrible things. In my reading the unremitting ‘So it goes’ reminds us that every life needs to be mourned.

After the meeting: There were six of us, and we met over an excellent meal in Nithik’s Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Rozelle. Half of us were revisiting the book; all of us enjoyed it; one numbered it among the best books we’d read in the group.

We differed about whether Billy’s travelling back and forth in time was really happening or whether he was escaping into fantasy. I thought that was crystal clear: Billy is actually unstuck in time. I don’t think the narrative is all that worried about the mechanics of his unstuckness, but within the story it’s real. Since the ‘author’ is part of the story, I’m happy to accept that the time travel is his escape hatch, that is, a way of writing about Dresden without being overwhelmed. But in Billy’s world, it’s real.Clearly other readings are available.

The question arose of how much the US–Vietnam War is a presence. Billy’s son becomes a Green Beret, and though he hardly appears as a character his heroic–patriotic version of war stands in stark contrast to the version signalled in the book’s subtitle, ‘The Children’s Crusade’, and embodied in Billy’s story. Those of us who read it back then certainly embraced it as part of the anti-war movement and would have been shocked to hear that some people read it as advocating a quietist, fatalistic attitude to the horrors of war. For those who were had just read it for the first time, Vietnam was perhaps not so strong a presence, but nor was it irrelevant to their reading.

David Malouf’s Being There

David Malouf, Being There (Knopf 2014)

1btDavid Malouf could write about the phone book in a way that held his readers rapt. He is a master of what Steven Pinker  (borrowing from Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner) calls the classic style: his readers are invited into conversation with him as he shows us something about the world. He is a brilliant, warm, generous conversationalist; the ‘something’ in this book is the world of art.

Being There is the third collection of Malouf’s writing published by Knopf in 2014 to mark his 80th birthday. Almost half of it is devoted to essays (including reviews, lectures, one-off newspaper columns and catalogue essays) on other people’s creations. Parts II consists of the librettos of two operas, Voss and Mer de Glace. Part III is a playscript, a ‘free version’ of  Euripides’ Hippolytus.

A strong theme in the first part is the importance of our physical presence to the appreciation and enjoyment of art. Malouf articulates this theme most clearly in the 1989 essay that lends its title to the collection. Referring to orchestral music, he writes that after being ‘in love with the perfection of a great performance on record’ we have come back to ‘gloomy old covert halls’, to

share as fellow citizens an experience that is only available on the big city, as unique a product of our civilisation as the skyscraper or the cantilever bridge. An orchestra, in the person of its conductor and each of its ninety to 120 players, performing one of the great works of our heritage, making music, but in an environment that has not been bled of all those elements of noise out of which organised sound arose – the street noises we have just stepped away from, voices in the foyer, the whispers and shuffling before the conductor is quite ready, the slight disturbance of the air that is created by 2000 men and women breathing, even the occasional cough; that substratum of undifferentiated sound against which made music has to assert itself, and against which we bring ourselves to attention. Somehow, to experience the fulness of what music offers we have to be there. Presence is everything.

I love that. My most enjoyable night ever at the opera (not that I’ve been to the opera all that often) is a far cry the one Malouf describes, but I think he would have enjoyed it. It wasn’t in ‘the big city’, but in the Innisfail Shire Hall on a sweltering tropical night in the 1970s. All the windows of the hall were open, so the street noises, though distant, weren’t left behind; and the air in the hall was more than slightly disturbed by hundreds of fans wielded by audience members, who weren’t above an occasional comment. I don’t think anyone considered the performance to be perfection. The costumes looked as if they’d been scrounged from the combined storage rooms of every choral society in north Queensland, and the cast had a similar catch-as-catch-can feel. But from the Grand March from Aida that began proceedings to the final moments of the main event, Bizet’s Carmen, it was exhilarating. It was impossible not to be aware of the physicality of the event – David Malouf’s word ‘presence’ is right on the button.

The sixteen essays of Part I give accounts of Malouf’s presence at, among other places, a ‘happening’ in London in 1965, Barrie Kosky’s much-derided 1995 production of Nabucco (which he defends brilliantly), the Sydney Opera House (‘a single building … providing a city almost overnight with what it lacked, a defining centre’). He responds to the work of architect Glen Murcutt, photographer Bill Henson (long before Kevin Rudd pronounced his work ‘absolutely revolting’), painter William Robinson, and others. He is always interesting.

I haven’t seen Voss or Mer de Glace, and unsurprisingly found the librettos pretty inscrutable. I say ‘unsurprisingly’, because essays in the first part of the book have prepared the ground. Part of Malouf’s point about the importance of presence is the idea that a play, an opera or a piece of music is more than its script or libretto. In ‘Opera’ (1988), he writes:

That what is sung in opera shares with speech the use of words ought not to confuse us into believing that what the music expresses is what is in the words. The music has a drama and a purpose of its own. What it gives voice to, beyond mere social exchange or the expression of highly charged particular emotions – devotion, doubt, desire, jealousy, pity, anger, resolution, triumph, grief – is the spirit in action.

The Hippolytus, commissioned by the Bell Shakespeare Company and first performed in 2002, is a wonderful read, and for my money is a standing reproach to the domesticated versions of the Greeks that have been appearing on Sydney stages in the last few years. I’m sorry to have missed the production – maybe I can live in hope of a revival.

I met David Malouf in the street recently, and he referred to himself as ‘very old’. May we all age so gracefully, and so creatively.

Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (Beacon Press 2002)

0807066095My copy of this book doesn’t have the subtitle it evidently carries in other editions: On Objects and Intimacy. If the subtitle had been there I might have been better prepared for what the book is. What it’s not is a dissertation on the painting it is named after (whose title has been changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters and which can be seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or online here).

The book starts with the painting, or at least with the writer’s having fallen in love with it, and it does discuss it and other still lifes from the period, but it roams far and wide, through memoir about objects and how they – or their memories and representations – can come to embody emotional truths, to lyrical reflections on love, mortality, bereavement and poetry. It ranges through cute childhood memories of bears and boiled lollies, a fortieth birthday in Amsterdam involving visits to the Rijksmuseum, a Gay bathhouse, and a fine Thai restaurant, and wonderful writing about the consolations of art.

I came away from the book liking Mark Doty a lot, and with a sense that my heart had been rendered that much more open to the world.

To give you a taste of the writing, here is a passage that crops up as a digression in a story about a chipped blue and white platter that Doty bought at a sale table when out walking his dog, at a time when his partner was gravely ill:

The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away; the sealed chamber of the pie, held aloft on its raised silver stand, has been opened. Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, its handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refuse perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time.
But there’s the paradox – they are depicted in a moment of being seen, contemplated between the experience of tasting, smelling, devouring; but this depiction places them outside of time, or almost outside of it, in a long, slow process of decay, which is the process of oxidation, of slow chemical transformation … Whatever time may have done to the original fruits, their depiction is now safe from the quick corrosions of local time and subject to the larger, slower, depredations of history.
And thus something of the imperfect, the quickly passing, the morning meal with its immediate pleasures has been imported into the realm of perfection, into the long, impersonal light of centuries.

PS: In the little blog that appears over in the right hand column of this one, I expressed frivolous misgivings as I was starting this book:

It’s a slender volume, published by a Unitarian publishing house. Is it a mattress to catch a falling Protestant and so of little interest to those who had a Catholic childhood?

Will commented:

No, not at all. It’s a lovely book of reflections on the real world as we see it. Painting and memory, seeing and interpreting. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s worth mentioning that Will is a librarian, and so may have a slightly more precise meaning in mind for the word ‘real’ than most of us do (see realia). He was right.

Asia Literary Review 26 & 27

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 26, [Northern] Winter 2014
———————————————————- 27, [Northern] Spring 2015

ALR26How cool is it that there’s a quarterly journal dedicated to literature from Asia that’s either written in English or translated into it? Such a gift to those of us who don’t speak or read any Asian languages!

After a two year hiatus, Asia Literary Review revived in November last year with Issue 26, under new ownership and with a greater focus on its digital platform. Martin Alexander is still editor.

Issue 26 is a feast. Of the many interesting things, let me mention some of the non-fiction:

  • Sister Philomena’s Veil by Kavita Jindal, a memoir of schooldays in a convent in India, which has a similar subcontinental girls-own adventure flavour to Swapna Dutta’s Juneli stories, but takes an altogether darker turn
  • The Secret Happy Life of Uncle Renfeng by Fan Dai, an extraordinary account of a life, which would be satisfying if it was an exemplary tale, and is all the more so when one realises at the end that it’s the story of the writer’s actual uncle
  • Eid in Oghi by Nighat Gandhi, in which the author, described in her bio as ‘a writer, mother, Sufi wanderer and mental health counsellor’, visits a village in dangerously tribal region of Pakistan and comes to know, like and admire the women who are her hosts, so that we too come to line and admire them.

There’s also plenty of fiction and poetry. I particularly enjoyed two dystopian stories, Michael Vatikiotis’ A Case of Penetration and Dipika Mukherjee’s Conjuror of Divinity, though the latter may well be too realistic a tale of the rich and ruthless to be really a dystopia. I also enjoyed Eliza Vitri Handayani’s From Now On Everything Will Be Different, an Indonesian romantic comedy gone wrong.

Among the many poems I was struck by Yong Shu Hoong’s prose poems Tanglin Halt and After the Fire; Kathleen Hellen’s Salmon Said Surrender, which captures a moment when history pushes into the present moment. Justin Hill’s translations of six poems introduced me to T’ang poet Yu Xuanji. I was prompted to go looking for other translations by this, from ‘On a winter’s night I wrote this poem for Wen Ting Yun’:

Shit happens.
I think now I’ve found fulfilment.
Success follows failure follows what?
There’s a third way forward.

I found one by Leonard Ng, here, which translates the same lines as:

Thoughts scattered and released, at last I found fulfilment:
through the emptiness of rise and fall, I saw True Mind.

And I learned again that to really understand a poem in translation you need to read at least one other translation. ‘Thoughts scattered and released’ is almost certainly more literal, but ‘Shit happens’ brings the shrugging of meaning home more sharply. And what if it’s a vulgarity? Yu Xuanji was after all a courtesan.

alr27Issue 27 is, if anything even richer. It has its share of dystopian fiction, this time – perversely – a Singapore buried deep in ice in ‘And Now There Came Both Mist and Snow by Clara Chow, and of strong non-fiction, including:

  • The Sinking City‘ by Bill Tarrant, about Jakarta, which is literally sinking, and a disaster waiting to happen
  • ‘The West Sea Battle’ by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, an account of his debriefing North Korean sailors after a skirmish, trying to persuade them to tell what actually happened rather than the politically desired version
  • Challenging Convention – The Kung Fu Nuns’ by Namgay Zam, about a striking (pun intended) feminist initiative in Nepal and Bhutan.

The fiction includes a number of stories that feel only slightly removed from reportage: Beijing Hospital by Jeremy Tiang, an account of an expat hospital experience; ‘Comfort Woman Eleanor’ by James Tam, an altogether uglier crosscultural encounter that’s particularly telling at the time of Prime Minister Abe’s too-litle-too-late apology for Japan’s wartime atrocities; Phillip Y Kim’s ‘Run’, a family encounter in the midst of the recent Hong Kong demonstrations.

Again, there’s plenty of poetry, including the marvellous, long, elegiac ‘Peng Chau’ by living Chinese poet Zheng Danyi, translated by Luo Hui. According to Wikipedia Peng Chau is a small island near Hong Kong less than one square kilometre in area, ‘known for its small island lifestyle’. Really, I didn’t need to consult Wikipedia, when the poem includes this:

Post office and doctor’s office, one each, police station
and fire station, one each

One laundry shop, called ‘Laundry Shop’
One bakery, called ‘Bakery’
One library, called ‘Library’

Tin Hau Temple, one and only
Mother Dragon Temple, one

Daoist, Buddhist, Catholic Protestant –
one each in peaceful co-existence.

There’s much more, in that poem, and in the journal.

I am grateful to the editors for my complimentary digital subscription, beginning with Issue 26.

Are rules really like bread, meant to be broken?

At the end of my last post, after whingeing about things that slipped past the copy editor, I said I was reaching for ‘a collection of essays by the impeccable David Malouf’ as an antidote. I’ll write about the collection – Being There – in good time, but right now I want to share a lovely bit of rule-smashing from ‘Questions on the Way to an Exhibition’ on page 77. The subject is what happens when we encounter a work of art, whether it’s a piece of sculpture, a poem, a play or novel, a music or dance performance:

Our spirit soars. We are enlightened, made lighter. The old distinction between body and spirit is resolved in us, and at the same time, in losing ourselves so completely in what is outside us, we feel the resolving of a second distinction – between subject and object, I and the world.

That I couldn’t be me, no matter what the syntactical rule says. The I has to be a subject or the whole sentence loses its meaning. The terrible thought struck me that maybe a similar thing is happening when people say ‘between you and I’: the sense is that the person speaking is a subject, not an object. And then comes the dread possibility that I will never again be able to correct, or even secretly curl my lip at, someone who says ‘between you and I’.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Don’t Cry, Tai Lake

Qiu Xiaolong, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake (Minotaur Books 2012)

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I’ve pretty much stopped reading detective novels. Inspector Chen, Chinese poet-detective tempted me back into the genre. There was a promise of insight into the workings of contemporary China, and Chinese poetry ancient and modern, all floating on a light whodunnit froth.

I should have known better. The whodunnit element is flimsy. The poetry feels inserted (though it’s a nice touch that Chen quotes Matthew Arnold as well as verse from ancient dynasties). And any issue of Asia Literary Review offers more insight.

I might still have enjoyed it but, perhaps because had just read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, my internal blue pencil was on the alert, and this book’s copy editor let far too much go by: not anything gross, but far too much tautology of the ‘There was something eerily familiar about the peddler, Chen noticed, thinking he might have seen him somewhere’ kind, and enough examples of words that don’t mean what they’re meant to mean, as in the book’s very last sentence, ‘He wondered if he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ A decent copy editor would surely have suggested ‘onset’ because who can wonder about naps in the middle of any kind of onslaught?

I reached for a collection of essays by the impeccable David Malouf.

Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (Allen Lane 2014)

IMG_1330I love a good argument about punctuation, spelling, syntax or the meaning of words. Does MS Word really allow minuscule to be spelled with two Is? How about the person who wrote to the paper complaining that septic tank should be aseptic tank or at least have an apostrophe to mark the missing letter? What is the difference between ‘my Aunt Mabel’, ‘my aunt Mabel’ and ‘my aunt, Mabel’, and are they all permissible? Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style doesn’t tackle any of these questions, but I reckon he’d be up for the conversation.

For the record, my favourite style guide is Joseph M Williams, Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. Pinker doesn’t attempt that book’s succinct guidance, but he brings a cognitive scientist’s perspective to the subject, and his cool, witty, reasonable approach is a joy. Well, mostly a joy: the middle chapter, ‘The web, the Tree and the String’, explains the intricacies of English syntax in a way that verges on the tedious if you already have a grasp of the subject, and is probably impenetrable if you are looking for enlightenment. Apart from that skippable chapter, the book is rich with insight.

Pinker focuses on the ‘classic style’, in which, he says:

The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. … [P]rose is a window onto the world.

In the classic style, the writer simulates two experiences: showing the reader something and engaging in conversation with the reader. There are plenty of other legitimate styles – Pinker names contemplative, romantic, prophetic, oracular, oratorical, practical, plain, ironic and postmodern – but thankfully this book sticks with just the one, which, Pinker says, is ‘an ideal that can pull writers away from many of their worst habits’.

He identifies a number of those habits, conveniently listed as ‘metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologising, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives’. That’s quite a list and for my money an extremely useful one. It’s characteristic of Pinker’s approach that he warns against memorising it as a list of don’ts – better, he says, to keep in mind the guiding metaphor in the quote above.

There’s a great discussion of incomprehensible prose. Rejecting the popular explanation that much academic and bureaucratic writing is deliberately impenetrable for self-protective or self-promoting reasons, he reaches for the tool known as Hanlon’s Razor: ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ (Hanlon’s Razor was new to me in that form, so I was interested to read more about it in Wikipedia, and delighted to see that Goethe wrote a version of it in 1774.)

The kind of stupidity Pinker has in mind is what economists call the Curse of Knowledge:

a difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

This sounds simple, yet – and here Pinker’s cognitive science background comes into play – psychologists regularly discover more or less the same thing with new names: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, and so on. In the writing context, ‘It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem to obvious to mention, have no way to visualise a scene that to her is as clear as day.’

Pinker has a lot to say about the Curse of Knowledge, and makes some useful suggestions for how to guard against it, but in the end, sadly, there’s no silver bullet to remove the curse. But how good it is to be reminded starkly:

The form in which thoughts occurs to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader.

After an excellent chapter on coherence, which I plan to reread carefully, Pinker gets to the fun bit of any book on style in a final chapter, ‘Telling Right from Wrong’. After a sweet demolition job on the pedants who write to the newspapers (of whom the ‘septic tank man,my example, not Pinker’s, is my favourite), in which he takes apart the Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist myth, he pronounces on a hundred usage issues – mostly what he gives is the current consensus among linguists, but where experts disagree he gives his own best judgement.

This chapter is a proofreader or copy editor’s delight. I’m grateful for his clarity about the subjunctive. I cheer aloud when he, a USer, curls his lip at US punctuation conventions for the end of quotations, or takes issue with rigid rules about that and which, or talks sense about among and between. I want to be in the room with him to argue about datum and data. I’m chastened by his entries on decimate and unique, and my dissatisfaction about fortuitous remains unallayed. While I don’t understand his argument about between you and I, from now on I’ll stop bridling when people say it. You’ll have your own examples.