Monthly Archives: August 2020

Ali Alizadeh’s Towards the End

Ali Alizadeh, Towards the End (Giramondo Poets 2020)

I’m a fan of Ali Alizadeh’s writing – poetry, criticism and fiction. (You can see the many blog posts where I’ve mentioned him at least briefly here.) One of the things I like and admire is his, well, grumpy refusal to conform to expectations. At one Sydney Writers’ Festival when an audience member asked, one immigrant person of colour to another, about the difficulty of writing when one is from a marginalised group, he memorably replied: ‘If someone came here from Mars and looked at us, they’d say, “You all look the same to me. Get over it.”’

The grumpiness is well to the fore in Towards the End, at least on first reading. The title doesn’t refer to any individual’s imminent death, but towards an end much bigger than that. The world is in terrible shape, and this poetry doesn’t hold out much hope for it to survive as we know it, or waste a lot of time dressing its despair and rage in pretty tropes and figures.

The book opens glumly enough with ‘The Singer’, in which the speaker, caught in time between his father ‘crying out the lyrics of an old Persian dirge’ and his son ‘singing Humpty Dumpty, a melody / he screams out in the absence / of my song’, doesn’t sing but writes as a way of enacting ‘the presence of unsung words’. This is followed by a number of similarly dejected poems – regretting the way his once-revolutionary grandparents had become banal and dull when he knew them (‘Saga’); expressing disillusionment with poetry (‘Destinal’ and ‘Merri Creek’) and academia (‘Fred’, ‘The Academy’ and ‘Fetish Commodity’). I don’t want to give the wrong impression: glum is not the same as lifeless of humourless. In ‘Fred’, for instance, a bureaucrat is speaking about ‘desirable outcomes’ etc when the speaker’s thoughts drift off to another bald man. If we’re expecting the remembered contrast to be something from the poet’s Iranian past – a contrast he has drawn in earlier poems – it’s a bit of a jolt instead to have an image from a disssolute youth in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley:

Fred, accountant by day, gothic masochist
in spiky dog collar and that
memorable leather underwear

The glumness takes on a broader scope with ‘Public Mourning’, where the speaker’s discontent with his academic employment (‘whoring my mind’) is juxtaposed with the news that a sheikh has drowned in a lake in Morocco (presumably Ahmed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2010). And from then on the book is mainly a multi-faceted conversation about what poetry can be in the age of late Capitalism, callous treatment of people seeking asylum, murderous family violence, commodification and worse of animals, consumerism, corporate activism and ‘the stinking, condemned / mausoleum of the American Dream’. Marx is quoted, and one poem (‘I ❤ (this) Life?’) reads as a quick rundown on parts of marxist economics. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin have an argument (in ‘The Point’). Tony Abbott makes a brief appearance, in ‘Election Announced’, as ‘the Aussie theocrat / retributivist in speedos’ and ‘the odious Monk’.

Towards the end, there’s a move towards hope that somehow we will rise collectively against this dehumanising and destructive state of things, in the long poem (notice the question mark) ‘Hope?’. This is how that poem ends:

An event
looms on the horizon
____of our very greatest

____expectation. Don't be afraid
________ comrade. The Revolution

________ never ended. Were
________ the governor of our prison

________ to huff, open
________ fire __  at us, would we

____________ not 
____________ come together

____________ again? I think

____________ we would. I think
____________ we will

____________ resume history.
____________ I think there's hope

Then, as a final moment of what might be nostalgia or maybe a gloriously defiant assertion against the odds, a new translation of the great left-wing anthem, ‘The Internationale’, all 12 verses.

It turns out, on second and subsequent readings, the poetry doesn’t seem so grumpy after all. It’s a mind at work, fighting for clarity and against demeaning structures of feeling, sometimes witty, often enraged, argumentative or didactic, but alive and refusing easy resolutions.

I’m grateful to the Giramondo Publishing Company for my copy of Towards the End.

The Book Group and Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (Viking 2006)

When the Book Group met by zoom on 28 July, I had been away from home for a week or so, and my copy of the book had arrived after I left and was sitting in my mail box for five days, attracting the attention of snails. I had managed to read just five pages of a friend’s copy by the time we all logged in. I’m usually one of the swats who has read the whole book, so it was an interesting experience to come to the discussion in almost total ignorance.

At the meeting: We didn’t spend a lot of time catching up on one another’s lives, and spent no time at all eating and drinking. Once we’d managed to get ten of us on the screen (the sole absentee said he was too immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light to think about any other book), this book held our attention for pretty much the whole two hours.

Let’s see.

One chap said he found the book unreadable. He kept going back to his large-print library copy with good intentions and then falling asleep: he could tell that the young protagonist was enduring terrible things but just couldn’t feel anything for him or for any of the characters. When he said he gave up at about page 116, another chap said, ‘Ah well, I felt pretty much the same until page 108 and then it just took off.’ He then gave a spirited account of the book as a study in bad parenting: the protagonist, a young boy in Gaddafi’s Libya, feels a huge obligation to look after his mother, and for a child to feel that way his parents must have failed in their responsibilities. In this case, the mother was an alcoholic (in Muslim-dominant Libya!) and the father was some kind of half-baked revolutionary who went and got himself arrested and beaten up.

And we were off.

You can’t blame the parents when the society under Gaddafi was so dire. The book is a study in how an oppressive regime infiltrates and corrupts people’s minds and relationships, including those of parents and children. A good bit of the discussion was about how the boy exploits moments when he has the power to do harm, betraying in one example the only friend he has outside his family.

Someone who had read Hisham Matar’s The Return (which I also have – blog post at this link) spoke interestingly about the relationship between that memoir and this novel: the memoir deals with Matar’s permanent loss of his father by abduction when he was 19, and his attempt over years to find out what happened to him; the novel, written years earlier, returns the father, even though damaged, to a much younger son after just a few weeks, as if Matar wrote the novel to to explore what might have happened in his own life if things had gone differently.

After the meeting: I’d expected to sit in on the meeting, enjoy making contact, hear people’s news, laugh at their jokes, and then move on. I didn’t get much news, except that the window for commenting on the egregious plans for misspending billions of dollars on the Australian War Memorial was to close on 31 July, but the rest was as expected, except for the moving on: I decided that I had to read the book after all.

Life and other books got in the way but now at last I’ve read it, and even though the Group’s discussion had been full of spoilers, I was unprepared for the book’s the impact. It’s a tremendously powerful portrait of a woman’s experience of a virulent form of male domination, as seen through the eyes of her nine-year-old son Suleiman, who is in the process of being ‘trained’ to be such a man. True, she’s a terrible mother in many ways – but we discover that she was in effect trafficked by her family when she was fourteen years old, and got pregnant soon after as a result of marital rape, all socially condoned. Your heart breaks for the mother, the son and the father, all three.

Almost equally powerful is the account of what happened to dissidents under the Gaddafi regime, including Suleiman’s father and his friends. Confessions and executions are shown in television, and Hisham Matar doesn’t let us look away from the hideous emotional and physical detail. The nine year old sees and hears everything. He knows when he is being lied to, but understands very little of the politics. There’s a terrifying moment when he is about to give damning evidence of his father’s anti-Gaddafi activities to a manipulative member of the goon squad, oops, I mean the Revolutionary Committee, which creates a visceral sense of the deeply corrupting effects the regime has on even the most intimate relationships.

At a Sydney Writers Festival a couple of month’s after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Hisham Matar was on a panel entitled ‘Resist!’ with three US women writers. Referring his childhood years living under the Gaddafi regime, he said it was important to honour complexity, otherwise those who resist allow themselves to be defined by that which they are resisting. That could sound like a counsel of moderation. Among other things, this novel demonstrates that you can honour complexity, hate injustice with a passion, and write beautiful prose, all in the same book.

SWF 2020, Post 6

The Sydney Writers’ Festival didn’t happen this year, and it’s still happening now. I’ve now attended 30 sessions/podcasts, which is a lot more than I would have managed at an IRL festival. Here another five sessions featuring writers by whom I’ve never read a book, but who knows what the future may bring?

Julia Gillard: Women and Leadership 12 July

Julia Gillard is in conversation with journalist Jacqueline Maley. I’ve got nothing against events where Julia Gillard is the subject of uncritical feminist adulation, but I’m glad to report that this is not one of them. It’s part of JG’s promotional tour for Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, which she co-authored with development economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The combination of Okonjo-Iweala’s scholarship and Gillard’s political heft gained access for extensive face-to-face interviews with an extraordinary cast of characters:

  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018
  • Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018 
  • Joyce Banda, President of Malawi from 2012 to 2014
  • Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway since 2013
  • Theresa May, who needs no description for my readers
  • Jacinda Ardern, likewise with knobs on
  • Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank since November 2019, one of two interviewees who has not been a president or prime minister of a nation
  • Hillary Clinton, the other one who has never been president or prime minister, but was included for obvious reasons

Rather than giving the interviewees a chapter each, the book is structured around themes, and – according to this discussion – finds remarkable but not entirely unexpected similarities in the obstacles and difficulties faced by these women leaders in such a range of cultures, whether they are of the right or the left of politics.

Here’s a little from towards the end of the conversation:

I was conscious after I finished being prime minister that polls were showing that women were looking at my experiences and saying they were less likely to go into politics. So all of this work in the years since has been my answer to that. The message from me to those women and girls I want to be, ‘Go for it. Absolutely go for it. We need women in politics. If you’ve got a passion for change there’s no better way of pursuing it than politics. Get right in there.’ But I do feel I have to put the next sentence: ‘Get right in there, and understand it.’ This book with Ngozi is one attempt to help women understand what they’re likely to face. The more light that gets shone on those issues the more I hope that they shrivel and go away, but they’re only going to do that if we talk about them. You will see at the end of this book a message from me and Ngozi that says in capital letters, ‘GO FOR IT!’ and then we say, ‘Yes, we are shouting.’

It’s a great shame that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wasn’t part of this podcast. Her co-authorship of the book is fully acknowledged, and Gillard speaks of her with obvious affection and respect, but hers is a painful absence..


Flocks and Fakes: The dark arts of online deception 14 July

The subtitle of this session really says it all. On the internet no one can tell you’re a dog. Or a fantasist on a dating site. Or an authoritarian politician peddling nostalgia in place of policy.

Rebecca Giggs does a nice job of chairing this conversation with Stephanie Wood, author of the memoir Fake: A startling true story of love in a world of liars, cheats, narcissists, fantasists and phonies, and Soviet-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the war against reality. You can tell from those subtitles that the books cover ground that has become alarmingly familiar to us over recent decades.

Stephanie Woods tells an excruciating personal story of being taken in by a man on a dating site, made vulnerable to him by what Rebecca Griggs calls ‘patriarchal propaganda’. Peter Pomerantsev discusses the way political discourse has moved from Enlightenment values to dreams of restoring imagined past grandeurs. Even when the Soviets lied, they claimed to be about creating a better society. Now Putin, Trump and Bolsinaro, however different they may be in other respects, are all big on nostalgia.

It’s good to hear smart people coming to grips with one of the nightmares of our time.


Layla F. Saad: Me and White Supremacy 16 July

A conversation about another nightmare of our times: racism and white supremacy

According to the Festival website:

In 2018, Layla F. Saad ran a 28-day Instagram challenge under the hashtag #MeAndWhiteSupremacy, designed to encourage those with white privilege to unflinchingly examine their complicity in upholding an oppressive power system. The challenge catalysed an awakening for thousands and led to the publication of Layla’s Me and White Supremacy, ‘an indispensable resource for white people who want to challenge white supremacy but don’t know where to begin’ (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).

In this session, Layla F. Saad talks to NITV’s Rachael Hocking. It’s a sign of our bruising times that a substantial part of the conversation at the beginning is devoted to the difficulties of being expected to do the emotional and intellectual labour of educating white people about racism, and settlers about Indigenous issues. They talked about ‘performative allyship’, which Layla F Saad described as a common though not necessarily the best first step; about ‘allyship fatigue’; about self care for activists; about the need to see the struggle against racism as something that takes longterm commitment, more than a single lifetime; about the white saviour syndrome; about the challenge of talking to one’s children about racism as the dominant paradigm of the world without implanting discouragement. Perhaps the heart of the talk is this:

The reason why we have the world that we have right now is that white people largely aren’t used to having conversations about race because white privilege means they do not have to.

This comment on the current upsurge of Black Live Matter activism struck home for me:

When this protest took off, it’s because of Black deaths. It’s taken off because it was captured on video … And the parading of Black trauma, the parading of Black deaths is what gets some white people to be able to open their eyes. And it’s like, ‘No you should care because our life matters. Our joy should matter to you, not just our pain. You shouldn’t have to see Black people dying again and again and again and again to think, “Hm, maybe I should learn about this, maybe I should think about this.”‘


David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue 16 July

The closest I’ve come to reading one of David Mitchell’s novels is enjoying his namesake’s performances on Would I Lie to You?

Here he talks to the wonderful Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, and it’s a lot of fun.

I loved the moment right at the beginning when Williams called Mitchell’s latest book, Utopia Avenue, a rip-snorter. Mitchell hadn’t heard the word and asked if it was a Australianism or a Williamsism. Brilliantly prompted, he talks about the book’s genesis and his process in a very alive way. For example, in developing one character, he says: ‘You use the cliche. You turn the cliche inside out, and then you work out how to make that a real character.’

The other moment that gave me particular joy was when Mitchell spoke of his invention, the Iwath. An Iwath (IWasThere) is the kind of detail from a scene you would only know if you had been there, or at least one that creates that illusion. To make fiction seem real, you need to include at least three Iwaths a page – any more than that and it starts to feel over-researched or over-detailed, any less and it feels like something taken from Wikipedia. (That’s from memory – I recommend listening to the whole conversation to get his exact meaning. He also talked about the encapsulator. This is a moment in a work of art that in some way contains the whole thing: the overture to an opera, a self-portrait included in the painting of a crowd scene; the Book of Psalms in the Bible. He gave examples from his own work, but they sailed right past me as an eavesdropper.

I imagine this witty conversation will give great pleasure to fans of David Mitchell and especially of this book. It’s also fun for people like me who know nothing.


Bart van Es: The Cut Out Girl 11 August

A striking thing about this podcast is the shock of hearing the sounds of a live audience. It turns out it’s not from the Festival proper, but from an event at City Recital Hall on 2 March 2020, just before we all stopped going anywhere in groups. 

Bart van Es, a professor of English at Oxford University, was born in the Netherlands. This book grew from his curiosity about photographs of a young woman who lived with his parents when they were young and had been estranged from the family for decades. She was Lien de Jong, a young Jewish girl whom his grandparents sheltered from the Nazis and who returned to live with the family after the war.

In this conversation with the fabulous Sarah Kanowski from ABC Radio’s Conversations, Bart van Es tells how he tracked Lien down. On first meeting, she grilled him abut his personal life, his beliefs, and his motives for seeking her out, and then decided on the spot to talk to him – he hadn’t even brought a notebook to that meeting, but they improvised and that was the start of many hours of conversation that gave him the basis for his book, The Cut Out Girl.

Two things stood out from the story he tells. One, horrifically, a family that played a key part in saving Lien from the Nazi were committed anti-semites in their own way, and while they were harbouring Lien they also subjected her to terrible privations and turned a blind eye to sexual abuse. Two, in writing this story, van Es had to face some very uncomfortable truths abut his own family, but in doing so he enabled some extraordinary healing to happen.

Laurie Duggan’s Homer Street

Laurie Duggan, Homer Street (Giramondo Poets 2020)

Homer Street‘s back cover tells us that Laurie Duggan is ‘celebrated for his acute observations of everyday life and his minimalist style’. If you understand everyday life to include engagement with works of art and connections with other poets, that’s a pretty full description of the poems in this book. All it leaves out is the pleasure offered to the reader on every page.

Each of the book’s three sections is made up of short poems, one as short as three words counting the title. The first set of poems are based in England where the poet lived for many years, the second are back in Melbourne and then Sydney, where he now lives, and the third are poems in response to works of visual art and sculpture. They include verbal snapshots, haikus and haiku-like poems, puns, evocations of places and moments, poems that read like a visual artist’s notes for a painting – all of them, with one exception, remarkable for their brevity. (The exception is ‘Six notes for John Forbes’, almost expansive enough to be called a letter, affectionately addressed to Duggan’s poet friend, who died in 1998.)

Duggan has two long-running sequences of poems on the go, ‘Blue Hills’, named for the ABC radio serial that ran from 1949 to 1976, and ‘Allotments’, probably named for those individual vegetable patches in English towns. Both series, the Australian and the English, have been gathered into books: The Collected Blue Hills by Puncher & Wattmann in 2012, and Allotments by Fewer and Fewer Press in 2011. Those collections, it turns out, weren’t definitive: both series live on in Homer Street, ‘Allotments 101–125’ and ‘Blue Hills 76–110’. There is a third sequence of short poems, ‘Homer Street’ – named for the street in an inner western suburb of Sydney, presumably Duggan’s current address. And I guess the book’s third section, ‘Afterimages’, could be seen as a fourth sequence, though it doesn’t have the same strong sense of place(s) as the others

In writing about these poems I decided to take my cue from the blurb, and googled (actually duck-duck-goed) minimalism and poetry. What I found on a Pen and the Pad was to the point:

Minimalist poetry does not rely on story or narrative; it is as concise as possible and seeks to convey meaning while eliminating any unnecessary words. Minimalist poems do not seek to set scenes, introduce characters or provide descriptions of specific actions or events.

The site goes on to talk about typographic devices and other things that aren’t so relevant, and the examples that it gives make minimalism seem, if not dull, then certainly a bit clever-dicky highbrow and esoteric. By contrast, Duggan’s poetry generally has a genial, inclusive feel. Even when I had to look things up, it felt more of a pleasure than a chore. For example, here’s a complete poem:

Arcimboldo

She's apples

Incomprehensible until you remember/discover that Arcimboldo is the 16th century Italian painter who did portraits made up of fruit and vegetables, this isn’t profound, but it’s fun, and companionable: reading it, you feel that you could have been with Duggan in a museum when he muttered this as an aside in front of a painting.

The book’s title – Homer Street – is itself a kind of minimalist poem. It could be every poet’s address, just down the road from where the playwrights live, on Shakespeare Avenue. And it reflects ironically on Duggan’s poetry: The Odyssey it’s not, though maybe, just maybe, ‘Blue Hills’ and ‘Allotments’ can be seen as developing an epic quality as they accumulate over the decades. Many drops to turn a mill.

Usually when I blog about poetry books I spend time on a single poem. Many of these poems relate to places near where I live. In fact, yesterday I drove the length of Homer Street and admired the view Duggan evokes. But I’ll choose elsewhere. The first poem in the book, ‘A Preface’, is not only a good example of a Duggan poem, it also reflects on the kind of poetry he writes.

A Preface / Songs of myself / the Americans sing // no sense / of insignificance // 'you're not there' / said Basil / Brooklyn 1992 // he was right

I just love this. Perhaps unnecessarily, I’ll walk through my reading of it – though first I must mention how beautifully it sounds. There’s not a word or syllable out of place.

It’s certainly concise, and doesn’t waste any words giving context or explanation. Nine lines including the title. The first four lines, in two couplets, make a statement about American poetry; the next three lines quote an American on Duggan’s work; the last line is his response.

The title invites us to read the poem as an introduction to the book, an indication of what kind of poetry to expect.

The first line echoes the title of one of Walt Whitman’s best known poems. ‘Song of Myself’, Wikipedia tells us, ‘has been credited as “representing the core of Whitman’s poetic vision”.’ The opening couplet suggests that singing of oneself represents a core practice of ‘the Americans’, which in this context probably means specifically US poets, but perhaps something more general in US culture: the individual is paramount, and self-promotion is a necessary and pervasive virtue.

The beautiful double negative of the second couplet – ‘no sense / of insignificance’ – suggests a criticism. It’s one thing to be aware of one’s own significance. It’s quite another to have no sense of one’s own insignificance. This is wide open to interpretation. At least, that’s what I tell myself, but I can’t get past my own train of thought that it sets off: something in Australian culture, or at least the part of it where I live, tends to be self-effacing, self-mocking, self-deprecating. Last night on the TV news, for example, Mark Rapley, who had wrestled a great white shark to make it let go of his wife’s leg, made no claims to heroism: ‘When you see the mother of your child, and your support, everything that’s who you are, you just react.’ And there are hundreds of examples of firefighters who respond with similar ‘sense of insignificance’ when asked about heroic acts – not that their actions lack significance, but they deflect any attention to themselves. This quality could be called humility, or a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself. It’s not always a positive thing – the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is another aspect of the same thing. But it’s real, and ‘sense /of insignificance’ is a terrific way of describing it.

I read that second couplet as saying that, for good or ill, ‘the Americans’ lack a quality that, by implication, perhaps the speaker-poet possesses.

We then switch to the quote from ‘Basil’. I don’t suppose it matters who Basil is, beyond what we know and can deduce from the poem: he’s a man from Brooklyn, probably a poet, and his line ‘you’re not there’ is quoted as a response to what has just been said about US poets, presumably including him: We may go on about ourselves, but you’re not there in your poems at all.

And Duggan agrees. Or at least, the speaker of the poem does. It’s worth noticing the exact words. Not ‘I agree’, but the impersonal ‘he was right’. Right here in this poem, Basil’s description is accurate. And the same is true for almost everything in this book (‘Six notes for John Forbes’ is again an exception). Flipping through the pages, I see place after place where something is seen or heard, and the position or movement of the observer is to be deduced by a kind of triangulation. In ‘Allotment 110’ a track ‘marked / by broken branches / traverses Redhill Wood / to the pheasant farm’; ‘Blue Hills 77’ has ‘at night the clatter of freight trucks / on the Bankstown line’. Nowhere in the sequence ‘Homer Street’ are we told that the speaker/poet lives there. It’s like a person with camera: we see what the camera sees, and can tell where the photographer/cinematographer is, but never see the actual person.

‘A Preface’ holds up this quality as distinctively un-American, perhaps hinting that it’s distinctively Australian.

So who is ‘Basil’? In the age of Google and Duck Duck Go such questions can be answered. Searching Basil, poet, Brooklyn gave me Basil King (link is to his Wikipedia page), painter and poet, whose ongoing project Learning To Draw/A History, sounds eerily similar to Duggan’s long-term sequences, though King’s work, I gather, is telling his life story, very much songs of himself. An article by Laurie Duggan is cited on King’s Wikipedia page, and on King’s own website I discovered that King did the cover image for Duggan’s Allotments, which he reviewed, describing the poems beautifully:

Portable.  Almost invisible.  They reflect, replay, compress and then call a reader back to think again.

(http://www.blog.basilking.net/new-laurie-duggan-chapbook-with-cover-by-baz-published/)

So Basil is a real person, a friend it would seem. The inclusion of the date clarifies that a real utterance is being remembered. ‘A Preface’ is, among other things, part of a friendship: two poets talking to each other about their work. If the line had gone, ‘said Basil King’, or even if there had been an explanatory note, the web-searching would have been marginally easier, but the tone of the poem would have changed: it would have become a learned allusion, or a bit of name-dropping, rather than a report on a conversation. And yet, for all that, Duggan isn’t there except as the recorder.


I first met Laurie Duggan’s poetry when I was a postgrad Eng Lit student at Sydney University in the early 1970s. His was an amiable, wry, self-deprecatory voice among the young poets who read to us in those heady days. I’ll spare you my own boomer recollections, but you might be interested to read Laurie’s, in his contribution to the webpage commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Martin Johnston, perhaps the most erudite of those young poets. Here’s a link to the webpage, and a link to Laurie’s contribution.

You might also be interested in my blog post about his New and Selected Poems 1971–1993 (at this link).


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my complimentary copy of Homer Street.

Proust Progress Report 12: Beginning La Prisonnière

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): the last pages of Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe, and the beginning of Book 5, La Prisonnière

This is my twelfth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu. That means I’ve been at it for a whole year – and no end in sight.

Towards the end of Sodome et Gomorrhe, the narrator was about to dump Albertine because she was boring and no longer attractive. Then she told him something about herself that made him conclude she was Lesbian, and he immediately pivoted to decide to marry her. Now, in the early pages of the fifth book, La prisonnière / The Captive, she is living with him in his family home in Paris (in separate but adjacent rooms, with a stern rule that she is not to interrupt his privacy unbidden), and he is obsessively keeping tabs on her, in case she even exchanges glances with ‘the kind of woman I don’t like’.

Thanks to the Emerging Artist, I’ve currently had extracts from Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do read aloud to me. That book’s descriptions of coercive control could have the narrator’s relationship to Albertine in mind. À la recherche is looking less and less like a beautiful exploration of a luminous inner life, and more like something much uglier.

I had a 16-day holiday from Proust this month – we were away and À la recherche du temps perdu was too bulky to take along. But it does seem that once you’ve embarked on this book, it crops up regularly. Apart from the Jess Hill book, there was this from the Observer‘s Everyman Crossword Nº 3852 (link here):

Get rid of creative Frenchman! Get rid of Pierre Renoir for starters! (4)

More to the point, a friend told me about Anne Carson’s brilliant (and very funny) poem The Albertine Workout. The poem relates mainly to La Prisonnière, and it makes me expect that my repugnance at some of the narrator’s behaviour is only going to increase as I read on. His current imprisonment of Albertine, it seems, intensifies and keeps up for this whole 300+ pages.

But I am reading on, still in awe of Proust’s extraordinary sentences. Take this, which I read this morning:

Les brimborions de la parure causaient à Albertine de grands plaisirs. Je ne savais pas me refuser de lui en faire chaque jour un nouveau. Et chaque fois qu’elle m’avait parlé avec ravissement d’une écharpe, d’une étole, d’une ombrelle, que par la fenêtre, ou en passant dans la cour, de ses yeux qui distinguaient si vite tout ce qui se rapportait à l’élégance, elle avait vues au cou, sur les épaules, à la main de Mme de Guermantes, sachant que le goût naturellement difficile de la jeune fille (encore affiné par les leçons d’élégance que lui avait été la conversation d’Elstir) ne serait nullement satisfait par quelque simple à peu près, même d’une jolie chose, qui la remplace aux yeux du vulgaire, mais en diffère entièrement, j’allais en secret me faire expliquer par la duchesse où, comment, sur quel modèle, avait été confectionné ce qui avait plu à Albertine, comment je devais procéder pour obtenir exactement cela, en quoi consistait le secret du faiseur, le charme (ce qu’Albertine appelait « le chic », « le genre ») de sa manière, le nom précis – la beauté de la matière ayant son importance – et la qualité des étoffes dont je devais demander qu’on se servît.

You can read C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation below*, but I find that reading a translation is no substitute for untangling the flow of Proust’s sentences for myself. Here, after two simple sentences, the rest is just one complex sentence. Here’s the skeleton of that third sentence:

And every time she had spoken to me of something she’d seen the duchess wearing, knowing that she would accept no imitations, I would go and have the duchess tell me everything about the thing that had pleased Albertine, and how I could obtain the exact same thing.

That skeleton, to mix my metaphors, sends out sparks in many directions. There’s the wonderful word brimborions to start with. I had to look up a couple of dictionaries, but it almost doesn’t matter what brimborions de la parure means, it sounds so great. I’d translate it as ‘fripperies’ rather than Moncrieff’s more respectful ‘any sort of finery’, though I’m sure he had his reasons. There are lists – of bimborions, the parts of the body they adorn, the kinds of information needed to replicate the object of desire. There are parentheses – one to remind the reader of Albertine’s history from two books earlier, one to say how her vocabulary differs from the narrator’s, probably in ways that identify her as young and fashionable. There’s a hint of Proust’s abiding theme of snobisme, in a phrase distinguishing Albertine and himself from the vulgaire – hard to beat Moncrieff’s ‘the common herd’. And it doesn’t have one of Proust’s brilliant similes, where in the middle of a description of a frivolous dinner party, one finds oneself thinking of classical art, or contemporary medical science, or power politics.

I don’t know how a fluent French reader would go, but I enjoy the concentration it takes to keep track of all that.

A similar thing happens on a larger scale. For instance, that paragraph is itself something of a detour from the main flow of the narrative, or perhaps a return from a detour, it’s sometimes hard to tell. The narrator has been enjoying the glorious freedom of an Albertine-free day while she is out with one of his spies, and as the day come to an end he goes to ask Mme Guermantes for some choses de toilette for her. He then digresses for some narky comments on Mme Guermantes’ pretensions to poverty and reflections on the way he always sees her as bearing the invisible trappings of her aristocratic status. Then, after commenting that it’s as miraculous that he should speak to this etherial beauty about practical matters as it is that we should use a miraculous device like a telephone to order an ice cream, he switches to talk of brimborions and we are back with the story. Reading three pages a day, I’m pretty pleased with myself that I can keep track even as well as I do.


* Albertine delighted in any sort of finery. I could not deny myself the pleasure of giving her some new trifle every day. And whenever she had spoken to me with rapture of a scarf, a stole, a sunshade which, from the window or as they passed one another in the courtyard, her eyes that so quickly distinguished anything smart, had seen round the throat, over the shoulders, in the hand of Mme de Guermantes, knowing how the girl’s naturally fastidious taste (refined still further by the lessons in elegance of attire which Elstir’s conversation had been to her) would not be at all satisfied by any mere substitute, even of a pretty thing, such as fills its place in the eyes of the common herd, but differs from it entirely, I went in secret to make the Duchess explain to me where, how, from what model the article had been created that had taken Albertine’s fancy, how I should set about to obtain one exactly similar, in what the creator’s secret, the charm (what Albertine called the ‘chic‘ the ‘style’) of his manner, the precise name – the beauty of the material being of importance also – and quality of the stuffs that I was to insist upon their using.

The Falls, Johns River

[10 August 2020: I originally uploaded this post on 13 October 2004. Last night, the Emerging Artist and I stayed at the current incarnation of the Falls. As you’d expect, it’s moved on. Mary White has died, but has left a marvellous legacy. The Falls Forest Retreat (web address unchanged from 14 years ago) is a lovely place to spend a night, and even more so to spend a weekend and go on walks in the convenanted bushland.]

A couple of months ago when I was looking on the WWW for places to stay on this break, I came across The Falls Forest Retreat. I’d been led to it by a smaller notice that indicated it was a gay-friendly nudist site, but the prospect of hanging about with a lot of naked people wasn’t what enticed me to click on the link. In fact, it seems that I didn’t even mention the site to Penny at the time, probably because of that, plus a whiff of (for want of a better word) eco-hucksterism. But as we were driving up the coast on Saturday, I remembered it and suggested that we leave the main road at Johns River and drop in at The Falls, possibly to stay the night.

The reason for my suggestion, and for Penny’s alacrity in taking it up, lies some 35 years in the past, when The Falls was a farm that had seen better days, at the foot of a small volcanic cone, incorporating many acres of bushland, a waterfall, a huge fig tree, cow paddocks covered in bracken, a decrepit orchard and a sad farmhouse.

About that time, Mollie had a vision. (In case anyone comes in late, Mollie is my mother-in-law, now in a nursing home with dementia.) She had been a quixotic environmentalist for decades – she boycotted the first supermarket in Adelaide in the early 1950s for selling environmentally harmful pink toilet paper. When she was in her early 50s, her husband Ron had been pretty much sacked from his job as general manager of a large insurance company (a new, hard-edged managerial style was to be introduced), and was running a consultancy with Mollie as secretarial worker – which both of them found frustrating. With quite a lot of organising experience behind her thanks to her involvement in the anti-Vietnam-war movement, and a head full of ideas about organic gardening and environmental responsibility, Mollie decided to go for a bigger life. She set her heart on establishing a sustainable community somewhere in the country. She and Ron joined forces with a number of other couples – initially similarly well-off people in their 50s who had been with them in the anti-War movement – to build a commune. When they responded to the ad for The Falls, they fell in love at first sight, and the project was under way.

When I met Penny in 1976, she would refer to her parents as early-retiree hippies living on a geriatric commune. (They were probably about the age that Penny and I are now, but I won’t dwell on that.) We were still in our first flush of low-serotonin euphoria – that is to say, newly fallen in love – when I first met the parents: Mollie in compost-stained overalls and Ron coming in on the tractor from an afternoon slashing bracken. By that time, the buildings were pretty much complete. There was a communal building, The Roundhouse, with a large kitchen, a pool table and a sunken triangular conversation pit in front of an ample fireplace; and six units for the participating couples. Not all of them were occupied yet, and Penny and I slept on a mattress on the bare cement floor of one of them. They had a huge vegetable garden – Mollie was passionate about mulching. There were bees, chickens, ducks, a paddock of agisted cattle, newly planted fruit trees, plus bracken and lantana to slash and rocks to be cleared from the paddocks. Visiting members of the younger generation were expected to lend a hand. We were also expected to join in bush-walking, skinny-dipping, tea-drinking with the elders. The place was magic.

Over the next years, the saga of The Falls formed part of the backdrop as Penny and I were setting up our life together. On their visits to Sydney, Mollie and Ron would regale us with tales, of the joys certainly (a visitor from China praised them for keeping the outside pit toilet, the ‘Loo with a View’ looking up the mountain, as well as the septic system, quoting Chairman Mao’s dictum about walking on two legs), but also of the anguishes of their life. There were now six participating couples, each living with a degree of independence, but all involved in the communal enterprise. Ron and Mollie’s previous experience in variations of the nuclear family hadn’t prepared them for the inevitable politics of regular decision making meetings, and the different, often conflicting, ideas of what the place was all about. The other participants were: Mike and Toby, formerly of New York, he retired from work in advertising, she a graphic designer who would have liked to be an opera singer; Phil and Bill, Quakers with a passion for the environment; John and Anita, shopkeepers from nearby Taree who were attracted by the idea of communal living; Jack and Carol, farmers who liked the idea of working towards retirement by farming with a group; and Beryl, the only single person, a magnificent eccentric who seemed to see it as an intellectual adventure.

So there was Mollie, completely inexperienced in country ways, pushing for organic gardening, in fierce argument with Jack who understood how to make a farm work and had little respect for her high-falutin’ ideas; there was Toby singing arias to the cows when there was Work To Be Done; there was someone having an affair with somebody in town and the spouse going predictably nuts; there was Bill insisting on everything being ideologically pure, and Mike adamant about the need to be laid back. Mollie was often distraught about being accused of guilt-tripping. Someone left, and a new couple arrived, ten years younger than the others, the woman a Communist activist from Melbourne, fiercely intolerant of the middle-class muddling-through she met there. And through it all affable, tolerant Ron acted like a social leaven, a warp to Mollie’s earnest weft, a reminder that they all liked each other. I’ve got no doubt he was as dedicated to the place as Mollie was, but in a way I think he loved it for what it was while she loved it for what it could become.

When Ron had a stroke in 1979, it was a disaster. Partly paralysed and with his vision affected, he could no longer do his share of the work, and nor could he fill his crucial peacemaking function because he became irritable and depressed. After some months, Ron and Mollie sold their share and moved away, disappointed and at least a little bitter. The commune lasted only a few years after that, and the property was soon sold, with some unpleasantness about the divvying up of the profits. On her wall in the nursing home, Mollie has an image of one of the units that a friend painted from a photograph. And apart from occasional vague whispers, I knew nothing about it until I saw that web site earlier this year, claiming a history as a resort going back to 1910, and touting the set of a long-forgotten television series as one of its attractions.

So on Saturday night, as John w Howard was being voted in as Prime Minister yet again, Penny and I drove down the gravel road to The Falls 2004-style, with muted expectations. The impact was almost physical as we drove through the gate, around the huge fig tree and up the sweep of drive through recently mowed lawn, past the sculptural rocks that (I think) had been dragged to their present position as one of The Men’s projects, and up to the farmhouse. The ancient lemon tree near the house was gone, the garden had shrunk, but the roundhouse, the units, the sheds, the lay of the land, were all familiar.

MjlfNjA0Nl8w

As we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a vigorous, white-haired woman who turned out to be the owner, Mary E. White. She shuddered when I told her of the nudist-friendly reference. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Someone said it would be suitable for a nudist resort because it’s right at the end of the road, but I couldn’t bear the thought of those naked bottoms sitting on my furniture.’ Though she didn’t say so, I believe that the web site is as it was when she bought the property 12 months ago – she has been much too busy to attend to it. She has covenanted the part of the property that is under bush, which is a way of protecting it from future development. She has spent the last year, helped by a son, uncovering the old gardens, ridding the property once more of lantana and bracken, establishing a new vegetable garden and chicken run, converting to a bore water supply (which made it necessary to dig up and replace all the pipes laid by Mollie’s generation of builders). The result is that where we had half-expected to find a more or less cynical commercial enterprise, we found the place as if uncannily preserved. Ron and Mollie’s unit had the same light fittings, the same tiles, the same built-in cupboards. The stone walls built by Ron and The Men were as they had been – a result of hundreds of hours work rooting out lantana, but the effect was as if time had stood still. The books on the Roundhouse shelves had the same eclectic feel – much about conservation, but also what you’d expect from a reader born in the 1920s.

Mary said that over these 12 months of hard work, suddenly in this new place after living in the same house in the northern suburbs of Sydney for decades, she has felt that she was living in someone else’s dream. It’s hard to resist the idea that the dream was Mollie’s. An extraordinary number of factors make her an ideal heir to Mollie’s dream: she is close to 80, just a little younger than Mollie; she is a passionate environmentalist, palaeo-botanist to be precise; what’s more, her family home was in Balgowlah, a couple of blocks from where Mollie and Ron lived 50 years ago. Her aim is to have the place functioning as an environmental education and conference centre, and she’s well on the way: 40 people from National Parks and Wildlife are arriving for a conference/ meeting in the near future. Once things are settled, she plans to get back to her writing: she is the author of many books, mainly on the history of the Australian environment,  the most recent covering the last 5 billion years.

It was an emotional visit for Penny and me. Meeting Mary was a total delight, and she was equally delighted to hear what Penny could tell her of the history of the place. We went for walks in the evening and again in the morning – to the Falls themselves, and the beautiful Cascades, and yes, past the relics of the set of the forgotten TV series. I don’t think Mollie’s Alzheimer’s would let her understand what we were talking about if we tried to tell her, but it’s deeply gratifying that her baton has been passed on, not down the generations, but to someone of her own generation eminently fitted by passion and expertise to take it.

MjlfNjA0N18w
The Cascades, where the communards went skinny-dipping
falls
The eponymous Falls

Apart from anything else, it’s good to be reminded that elections aren’t everything. (Mary, incidentally, told us a story about John Howard being a true gentleman once when she was struggling with luggage at an airport. Perhaps that’s an omen …)

Tara June Winch’s Yield

Tara June Winch, The Yield (Hamish Hamilton 2019)

The Yield won the 2020 Miles Franklin Award, making Tara June Winch the fourth First Nations writer to win it, all of them this century. The Miles Franklin is awarded each year to a novel ‘which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases’. It’s not that ‘phases’ of Australian life that include First Nations people have been comprehensively ignored by other winners, but it’s heartening that Kim Scott (twice), Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and now Tara June Winch have received this recognition. To echo Tara June Winch in an interview with Stephanie Convery in the Guardian (at this link), ‘It’s just about bloody time, you know?’

Ellen van Neerven, in a review in the Australian Book Review, describes The Yield as a ‘returning novel’. Like Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip it begins with a woman returning to her childhood home on the occasion of a death and re-engaging with her family’s internal politics and its history of dealing with colonisation. In this case a thirty-year-old Wiradjuri woman, August Gondiwindi, comes home after years London to the fictional New South Wales town of Massacre Plains on learning of the death of her grandfather, Poppy Albert. The painful business of picking up the threads of family life in a time of grief, facing the unfinished business that led her to leave in the first place, is made even more gruelling by the discovery that her family home is about to be destroyed by a mining company.

What makes this book stand out is that the way this story is interlaced with two other stories, each told in the first person. Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf writes a long letter to the British Society of Ethnography on 2nd August 1915, and ‘Poppy’ Albert Gondiwindi writes an annotated partial dictionary of the Wiradjuri language. The former, an Author’s Note informs us, is derived from the writings of an actual missionary who founded and ran a mission; the latter draws on the work of Dr Stan Grant Snr and linguist John Rudder, particularly The New Wiradjuri Dictionary.

As the novel progresses, with a chapter for each of these narratives, the three timelines play off against each other. The well-meaning missionary’s account of colonial violence against Wiradjuri people, and his resistance to it, is seen from a different perspective when the present day characters muse about whether he was actually a good man, or whether he was, for all his good intentions, part of the oppressive system. Though Albert tells us in the brief opening chapter what he is trying to do in compiling his dictionary, we only understand his intentions properly when we’re well into August’s timeline, and her hunt for the document becomes a key part of her story.

Contrary to what you might expect, Albert Gondawindi’s dictionary chapters are where the book really takes hold. It’s much more than a list of words and meanings. Through it, Albert (and Tara June) sets out to communicate his cultural perspective on many things, to tell parts of his personal story, and parts of the history of his place. In among the definitions, he tells the terrible story behind the disappearance of August’s much-loved sister, and he tells dark secrets of his own life. He shines through as a brilliant character, and his prose is clear and strong – with none of the awkwardness of Greenleaf’s second-language English (Greenleaf/Grünblatt hailed from what was then Prussia), or the occasional strained lyricism of August’s narrator. He has the novel’s first and last words. Here’s the opening:

I was born on Ngurambang – can you hear it? – Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words. Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language – because that is the way to all time, to time travel!

‘Can you hear it?’ The novel ends, pretty much, ‘Say it!’

The book tells harrowing tales of colonial paternalism, genocidal violence, lateral violence, ruthless capitalism, cultural theft, betrayal: and running through it, every third chapter, is an extraordinary proclamation of survival – a language survives, and with it a world – and a challenge: ‘Can you hear it? Say it.’


The Yield is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writer’s Challenge.


Full disclosure: Opening the book to a map with the word Nurambang written across it in big letters struck a strong chord in me, as the short film I wrote with my son Alex Ryan, which he directed, came to be called Ngurrumbang. You can watch it on Vimeo here.