Monthly Archives: December 2022

Jessica Au’s cold enough for snow

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow (Giramondo 2022)

Cold Enough for Snow won the inaugural Novel Prize in 2020. It’s very short, hardly more than a novella. In it, the narrator, a young woman I guess to be in her late 20s, takes her mother on a holiday to Japan. The two women have lived in different cities for some time and this is a kind of reunion. The recount of their holiday is interspersed with the young woman’s memories of family stories, her transformative university experience, an episode from her sister’s life, and a little about a former boyfriend and her husband. No big stormy scenes, no tears or even really any laughter. The biggest drama of the holiday occurs when the mother believes she has lost her passport then finds it in a zipped compartment of her bag.

Yet it’s hard to put the book down.

What is not said looms large. The narrator tells us early in the book that she invited her mother to come on the trip ‘for reasons [she] could not yet name’. She never does name them, but the question has been raised for the reader.

For most of the book the narrator is insufferably patronising to her mother, making all the decisions, telling her what to do, giving her brief lectures about the art they see, generally explaining the world to her, and – on the occasions when her mother does speak – barely managing to be respectful.

We come to understand that this is a migrant story – the mother came to Australia from Hong Kong and she and her husband made great sacrifices so their daughters could have every advantage. In their turn, the daughters grow up in a different culture, unable to speak their parents’ language, relating to them in mutual incomprehension. In my reading, the narrator is lost between two worlds, having been overwhelmed by the attractions of western culture but not quite at home there. Her mother becomes an enigmatic emblem of the culture she has lost: mostly silent, patient, largely unreadable.

None of this is spelled out. It’s conveyed by something unsettling going on beneath the flat, unemotional surface of the writing. There’s no direct speech. Most characters and most places are unnamed. We are often given details but not the general picture or the way the details connect: it’s as if the narrator is a visitor to the world, interested but largely uncomprehending. It’s a book that cries out for some close reading.

Page 75 is a good example of what I mean. The narrator is remembering a visit to the father of her husband, Laurie (Laurie is one of the few named characters):

Laurie had taken a photo of me standing next to the bright yellow car in a field of green sugarcane. As we drove he pointed out his old high school, the house of a childhood friend, the beaten track where he’d trained and competed as a kid. We stopped at a large lake, which seemed to be an almost perfect circle. Laurie explained that the lake had been formed by a crater, and that no one knew how deep it really was. He’d swum across it many times as a teenager, and once, he and his first girlfriend had borrowed a friend’s canoe and taken a tent and camped at the other side.

(Page 75)

This seems straightforward, but there’s a hint of the uncanny valley about it. As the first sentence focuses on the colours of the photograph (a product, perhaps of the narrator’s studies of visual art), you hardly notice that it places the car in a canefield – the reader almost automatically adjusts the image to place the car on the roadside next to the canefield, but the discrepancy has a subliminal effect. Then there’s the lack of names or sense of place. An Australian reader will know they are in North Queensland, probably driving from Cairns airport through sugarcane country, then up the steep climb to the Atherton Tableland, and stopping at Lake Barrine (or possibly Lake Eacham). Stripping out the names could be a matter of avoiding the colonisers’ language, an oblique acknowledgement of Indigenous ownership. In the immediate context, though, it seems to stem from the narrator’s lack of engagement with the world beyond her immediate relationship. She sees only what Laurie draws to her attention.

Once arrived at their destination, there’s this:

Even though he had not lived there for many years, Laurie moved around with a deep sense of familiarity, the kind that could only come from childhood. He went freely from room to room, picking up objects like he owned them, knowing all the paintings on the walls and where everything was kept. In the spare room, he found a shoebox full of old photos, and showed me one of his fifth birthday party, all the boys dressed up as pirates, hanging off a wooden ship his father had built for them, and that had stayed in the garden for many years.

There is very little description of the rooms or the objects that Laurie picks up. It’s as if the narrator isn’t at home enough in the world to name them, or even perhaps see them. By contrast, Laurie has a place, a piece of country, a house, that are full of memories. Even though he now lives in the unnamed city that has a university and trams, he still has this deeply familiar childhood place, a rootedness – exactly what the narrator lacks. Even after years away from his father, there’s a sense of continuity in the relationship. On the following pages it turns out that the father is an artist and can talk to the narrator about art in a way that her mother simply cannot (though once again we are told nothing of the conversation’s content.

This passage appears toward the end of the book. I chose it because of my arbitrary policy of picking page 75 for a little close reading when I blog about books, but also because I’m a North Queenslander. What’s true of the descriptions here is also true of places in Japan, and in Glebe in Sydney (I think). Jessica Au has given us a tremendously subtle portrait of a second-generation immigrant trying to find her bearings, and perhaps – depending how you read the book’s final moment, which I won’t spoil here – succeeding.

I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Cold Enough for Snow.

Journal Catch-up 16

I’m perpetually behind in my journal reading. Let’s see if my new approach of focusing on page 75 works for journals as well as for books.

Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 4 (Giramondo 2022)

I’m glad Heat is back, and I love the slender elegance of Series 3, but this issue didn’t thrill me. More than the three previous issues, it feels like a sampler: a selection of pieces that are short enough not to be a bother if not to your taste, but to make you want more if they are.

I’m sorry to say that most of them weren’t to my taste this time. In the show-me-more category were:

  • Nine pages of gorgeous photographs from the series ‘Trees and Fences’ by Yanni Florence 
  • Four poems by each of Ella Jeffery and Ella Skilbeck-Porter
  • Amy Leach’s celebration of the unpredictable, ‘Amen to Nonsense’, which is available online.

Page 75 falls part way into the Amy Leach piece. On this page the writer is imagining that the present moment is already in the distant past:

Presidents had succeeded presidents, screeds had succeeded screeds, people trying their damnedest had given way to other people trying their damnedest. Some things are up for grabs, like jobs and dollars and votes, and are worth trying one’s damnedest for, and some things are not, like time and the moon and the stars. The Bible was always saying to ‘lift up your eyes’, maybe because when we lifted our eyes we remembered that not everything was up for grabs. (When they named ages they usually named them after grabbable things, like iron, stone, bronze, information, etc., not ungrabbable things like the moon and the stars.)

This interplay of whimsy and metaphysics moves on to musings on reincarnation, the importance of the notes not played in music, astronomy, and more, arriving at a reformulation of Keats: ‘”Beauty is Nonsense, Nonsense beauty.”– that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ It’s fun and thought-provoking. Sadly, it’s followed by several pages of, well, tediously quirky Glossary. It did leave me wondering about Heat‘s editorial policy: assuming that there are plenty of Australians writing essays at least as interesting as this, why give valuable space to someone with no perceivable Australian connection, whose work, according to her brief bio, is already available in Best American Essays and similar places? Having said that, I’m looking forward to the article by the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck in issue Nº 5.

Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 246 (Autumn 2022)
(Much of the content is online at, and I’ve included links)

The lead essay in this Overland is ‘That’s what drives us to fight’: labour, wilderness and the environment in Australia‘ by Jeff Sparrow. It’s a solid, possibly old-fashioned Marxist account of the relationship between settlers and First Nations people in Australia. It starts with the way some environmentalist rhetoric about preserving ‘wilderness’ erases First Nations history and the resulting question, ‘How can we defend the natural world, while still recognising Indigenous history?’ and proceeds to a discussion of the frontier wars that I can’t recommend strongly enough as a supplement to Rachel Perkins’s epochal television series, The Australian Wars.

There’s a lot else, including two short stories: ‘Home sweet slaughterhouse‘ a interesting take by Greg Page on the defacement of colonial statuary; and ‘New face in the fight against poverty‘ a futuristic satire of brand philanthropy by Andy McQuestin.

Page 75 is the tail end of a 13-page section given over to competition results. The section begins with ‘The labeller‘ by Saraid Taylor, a story of unprincipled opportunism in elite sports, which won the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. (The runners-up are on the Overland web site, here and here.) The Judith Wright Poetry Prize 2021 follows, first with the generous and lucid Judges Report by Toby Fitch, Keri Glastonbury and Grace Yee, then the winner, an excellent prose poem by Ender Baskan titled ‘are you ready poem’, and the two runners-up, one of which, on Page 75, is ‘stones‘ by Lily Rupcic, described well by the judges as ‘a condensed evocation of a mother’s illness and despair’. In the context of a journal most of whose contents have the feel of a battlefield, these sixteen lines offer a still, jewel-like reminder of basic human courage and connection.

Melissa Hardie and Kate Lilley (special issue editors), Southerly 79.3: The Way We Live Now (2022)

Described in the editors’ introduction as a ‘collection of pandemic inspired and pandemic-adjacent writing’, this is a digital issue, available free to download or read online – or, if you’re even more luddite than I am, to print off and read on paper.

It’s a rich 160+ pages, with 30 poems, three short stories, five review articles, and 10 pieces collected under the general heading ‘Essays and Memoirs’. Listed among the poetry on the Contents page is ‘Lost Matchstick Sonnets’, a series of clever and beautiful photos by Catherine Vidler featuring 14 wooden matches – the cover image on the left is part of the series.

Strikingly, all but one of the prose pieces, excluding reviews, were by women or gender non-conforming people.

As usual with me and Southerly, I skimmed some pieces: two pieces in dauntingly academic language, most of the reviews, some poems. If you want to dip in (remember, it’s free to access or download), you’re very likely to find something to delight or enlighten. To name a random few:

  • Claire Aman, ‘If There Are Zebra Finches’ (joint winner of the 2019 David Harold Tribe Award for Fiction), a clear, resonant short story set in an Australian desert
  • Sophia Small, ‘To Autumn Again’, which starts with a group of high school students laughing at extreme emotion in a movie they are being shown at school, and then claws back the ground for intense emotion
  • Eileen Chong, ‘Reason’, a starling evocation of a parent-child relationship over time, in a very few lines
  • Toby Fitch, ‘New Chronic Logics’, complex evocation of lockdown
  • Kate Lilley, ‘Commons, a kind of love poem
  • Beth Spencer, ‘chronic kitty covid city’, a lockdown poem that’s both funny and true (of many of us)
  • Alison Whittaker, ‘the poets are about to lie to you’, a terrific poem about responses to Covid lockdowns, excellent because one suspects that Whittaker is one of the lying poets as well as their denouncer.

Page 75 falls in the middle of the reviews section, on the final page of Vanessa Berry’s ‘From Catastrophe’, a review of Danielle Celermajer’s Summertime, a memoir of the bushfires of 2019–2020. .

Summertime is among those works of environmental life writing that expands the personal across time and space, where the writer is at once the perceiver of her thoughts and world, and a figure through which the reader can access collective feeling, knowledge and accountability. From the experience of the fire summer it sets out a generous and unflinching philosophy, unfolding from the most urgent question of our time: how to sustain life and future for all beings on this earth?

This has the opacity of much academic writing – I don’t know what it means, for example to expand the personal across time and space, though I’m pretty sure I would if I was well enough read in current academic writing – but the second sentence in that quote brings into sharp focus one key element of the way we live now, the challenge created by the climate emergency, and which most of us spend most of our time trying to ignore.

A tiny personal complaint: on page 144 the first name of Indigenous artist Jonathan Jones is misspelled. On behalf of all Jonathans I plead for special attention from proofreaders.

Kathryn Mannix With the End in Mind

Kathryn Mannix, With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial (William Collins 2017)

Kathryn Mannix is a British doctor specialising in palliative care. She brings to this book 40 years’ experience of tending to people who are in the process of dying. Death, she says in her introduction, has become increasingly taboo. The vast improvements in healthcare in the last hundred years

radically changed people’s experiences of illness and offered hope of cure, or at least postponement of dying, that was previously impossible. This triggered a behavioural change that saw the sickest people being rushed into hospital for treatment instead of waiting at home to die.

While these changes have been of immense benefit to countless people, they have changed our sense of what is normal when it comes to dying:

Instead of dying in a dear and familiar room with people we love around us, we now die in ambulances and emergency rooms and intensive care units, our loved ones separated from us by machinery of life preservation.

(Page 2)

It’s time, she says, to talk about dying, and she gets the conversation rolling by telling 30 death stories.

I approached the book with a sense of dread: did I really want to read story after story of people dying? The dread was misplaced. The exemplary nature of the stories is always there, and names etc have been changed to protect people’s privacy in the manner of clinical case studies, but these are compelling stories of recognisably real people facing extreme challenges. There are moments of horror, and moments of enormous relief – more of the latter than of the former, as palliative medicine exists for the sole purpose of relieving suffering ( mental and spiritual pain as much as physical). If I have to die, and if it’s from some other cause than a piano falling from the sky or the long leaching away of dementia, I want Kathryn Mannix or a similar death-midwife to be there to help manage the process.

Early chapters introduce the idea of a recognisable dying pattern. Contrary to the image often presented by movies and so on, panic and terrible pain aren’t part of that pattern. In a number of the book’s stories, a doctor or nurse describes this pattern to someone who is nearing death, or to those at their literal or figurative bedside (‘Look, see what’s happening now,’ they say, quietly). The first description comes when Mannix is in training. A hospital patient with a terminal illness is terrified of dying, and with the patient’s assent, Mannix’s leader describes to her what dying is like. His description takes several pages. Here it is, omitting the specifics of the scene, such as Mannix’s initially shocked reactions and the patient’s increasing relief:

‘What we expect to happen from now on is that you will just be progressively more tired, and you will need longer sleeps, and spend less time awake …
‘As time goes by, we find that people begin to spend more time sleeping, and some of that time they are even more deeply asleep, they slip into a coma. I mean that they are unconscious …
‘So if people are too deeply unconscious to take their medications for part of the day, we will find a different way to give those drugs, to make sure they remain in comfort ….
‘We see people spending more time asleep, and less time awake. Sometimes when they appear to be only asleep, they are actually unconscious, yet when they wake up they tell us they had a good sleep. It seems we don’t notice that we become unconscious. And so, at the very end of life, a person is simply unconscious all of the time. And then their breathing starts to change. Sometimes deep and slow, sometimes shallow and faster, and then, very gently, the breathing slows down, and very gently stops. No sudden rush of pain at the end. No feeling of fading away. No panic. Just very, very peaceful …
‘The important thing to notice is that its not the same as falling asleep. In fact, if you are well enough to feel you need a nap, then you are well enough to wake up again afterwards. Becoming unconscious doesn’t feel like falling asleep. You won’t even notice it happening.’

(Pages 19–20)

That is the guts of the book: both the common pattern and the usefulness of talking explicitly about it. Mannix isn’t prescriptive or doctrinaire. People face their own imminent death and that of loved ones in ways that are particular to each person. There are stories of people who simply don’t want to acknowledge that they are dying, and there are deaths that don’t follow such a peaceful course. One of the most moving stories is the one about Sally, who remains relentlessly optimistic even when it’s evident to everyone around her that she’s dying. The dilemma of the palliative care specialist is captured in a moment when Mannix has tactfully attempted to point out that the dying process has begun, but Sally insists on talking cheerfully about beating her cancer:

This was exactly the same coping style Sally had used of old: downplay the negatives, emphasise the tiniest positives, pretend it will all be fine, make plans for the future. She seemed unaware of her true situation, but a single glance at Andy [her husband] told me that he was fully alert both to the devastation that was unfolding, and to his wife’s inability to contemplate it.

What will happen if I say ‘Hospice’? I wondered. Will she find an excuse? Will she be shocked? Will she dismiss me? Will all her denial come crashing down around her? How on earth do I play this?

(Page 75)

The suspense is genuinely huge. I won’t spoil it except to say that the resolution manages to be respectful, kind and smart – and as in many of these cases it’s arrived at by the grieving family as much as by the professionals.

This is the kind of book that prompts autobiographical reflection, especially if you happen to be older than 70. I’ll spare you my thoughts about my own mortality, but there’s a terrific little section on talking about death to children, that prompted me to try to remember how I was introduced to it. Mannix says that at around the age of seven children understand that death happens to everyone, and a little later that it will even happen to them. I’m pretty sure I knew about death well before I was seven: my father would cut off the heads of chickens with the axe for special occasions, and we routinely sold cattle to the butcher. When one of us little ones cried too long or too loudl, my mother would say, cheerfully, ‘You sound like Paddy the bull. I’ll sell you to the butcher.’ There’s more: by the age of seven (Grade 3 in convent school), I wasn’t particularly worried about death, because I’d known for some years about heaven and hell, and terror of hell made death seem pretty much like a non-event. No doubt that early experience influences my emotional response to the subject of death in ways I’m not aware of, but I do know that I am hugely relieved that, for me as a thinking feeling being, death is the end of life and not a transition to anything.

It’s also a book that makes one wonder about cultural differences. It sure looks as if the NHS ensures that dying people are much better cared for in Britain than in Australia. And it’s hard to imagine this book written in a US context. What on earth would USians do in place of all those cups of tea-and-sympathy? Given what we’re told about healthcare in the US, an equivalent book written there would feature only the affluent, leaving a great silence about the uninsured who are doomed to die without access to Dr Mannix’s palliative care specialist teams?

Michael Galvin’s Ben Book

Michael Galvin, The Ben Book: A Father’s Memoir (Ginninderra Press 2020)

Michael Galvin is a self-described ageing baby boomer, a former academic whose son Benjamin, born in 1984, lived with the disease known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, from which he died when he was 22 years old.

The Ben Book tells their story. A brief introduction says the book was written in the first years after Ben’s death, and some of it was clearly written when grief was raw, but it took more than ten years ‘to be able to face up to its publication’. It is an intensely personal memoir about a relationship, about being a carer as well as a father and a friend, even a best friend. According to the introduction, the book is published with at least two types of reader in mind, those who are ‘involved in the muscular dystrophy community’ and those who have no involvement with the world of disability. I belong in the latter group, so have no comment on the book’s possible reception in the former, except to say I hope people new to that group will find validation and some kind of reassurance in its pages.

For me as an outsider to the world of disability, the book is full of revelations. It doesn’t dwell on the physiology of Ben’s condition, but gives a strikingly dynamic portrait of Ben himself and how he dealt with the progressive weakening and breakdown of his muscles – from a physically active boy, to a teenager who needed a wheelchair to get around but still played wheelchair sports, to a young man who could do almost nothing physical without assistance. There are gruellingly detailed descriptions of the kinds of intimate assistance he needed, exhilarating moments of joy, encounters with able-ism ranging from the irritating to the devastating, and a tactfully vague account of the toll taken on the parents’ marriage and on Ben’s younger, non-disabled sister. At its heart is a loving portrait of a resilient, thoughtful young person, who was discovering new things about the world until the end. The book must have been unbelievably difficult to write. It’s a heroic book about a heroic young man and the heroic family he was born into.

To give you a sense of the writing, I’ll talk about page 75. Ben was 22 years old. He and Michael had been going to a counsellor for some ‘mutually beneficial anger management’. On this day Michael had been ‘overwhelmed with all the sadness [he] felt about Ben’s condition’. He wept and spoke from his heart about how much he loved him and how devastated he would be to lose him. Michael the narrator describes his words as ‘dramatic, self-centred statements’. That’s evidently not how Ben heard them – Galvin tells us that he replied calmly, over and over, ‘I know, Dad.’ When they left the counsellor’s office a significant milestone had been passed – there was to be no more avoiding the imminence of Ben’s death:

We walked aimlessly for an hour or so in the Parklands, saying little, grateful to be alive, and to be together (I speak for myself; I think I speak for him too). I think we noticed every bird that chirruped, on that particular afternoon.

A toilet stop was needed, and there’s a glancing reference to the probability that the toilet is a gay beat – nothing is made of this except the mild comedy of the ‘strange and confusing sight’ that a stranger would have encountered. Then the narrative rests a while on what happened in the counselling session, beginning with a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

Because the question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact.

Galvin often reaches out to literature as a sustaining reference point. As well as this and other quotes from Cormac McCarthy, there are Les Murray’s ‘A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’, Victor Frankel’s From Death Camp to Existentialism, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Joan Didion, Isabel Allende, and more. There is a brief section about the importance of religion, particularly the religion of one’s childhood, but it’s secular literature that’s woven into the texture of the telling to provide perspective and emotional resource. I read this particular quote as a caveat, warning the reader that Galvin may be an unreliable narrator. (Someone once said, and as an Eng Lit academic Galvin knows, all memoir is unreliable.)

Referring to the counselling session, in one of the few moments where he writes about his life before parenthood, Galvin writes:

Ben reacted better than I did when the same things happened to me when I was young. I was a callow fifteen-year-old, about to go to boarding school. For fifteen years, I had been very close to my granddad, a stern man, an unemotional man. The night before I was to leave, I was with him when he burst into tears, and told me how lonely he was going to be when I went away. Until that moment, I don’t think I had given his feelings a moment’s thought. Now I was that old man … When his turn came, Ben showed more empathy and guts than I ever did.

The book is subtitled A father’s memoir. It’s as much Michael’s story as it is Ben’s. This small passage, possibly more than any other, shows us the depth of the father’s admiration for the son, rooted in a sense of his own limitations. It’s a strength of the book that it refrains from generalisiing about courage and disability. Ben isn’t brave and empathetic because of his disability, but he has risen to its challenges with courage and empathy. (I’m reminded that when I briefly had Bell’s palsy some decades ago, the only two people who responded to it with unembarrassed empathy were a small boy who had endured much surgeries because of how his body was at birth, and an older woman with post-polio syndrome.)

On a personal note: I met Michael Galvin when he arrived at that boarding school as a fifteen year old. I was the year ahead of him, a significant difference at that time of life, but we were friends until we both graduated in English at Sydney University. We lost touch soon after that, for nearly 50 years, and only recently renewed contact by email. When he told me about his son and this book, I immediately ordered a copy from Ginninderra Press. I don’t recognise the man in the photo on the cover, and reading the memoir was an uncanny experience: I knew they were the words of a man I knew when we were both young, but they were in the unrecognisable voice of someone who has been through the mill. I’ll give him the last word here:

Writing this account has been driven as much by need as desire. The desperation of a man, getting close to retirement himself, struggling to survive emotionally, his nerves as worn out as old shock absorbers, wanting to make sense of the biggest things in his life … I somehow cling to the crazy idea that, if I can keep Ben alive in words, I might keep him alive, or at least not dead, in other ways.

Well, it turns out that was the second last word. I get the actual last word: The book does keep Ben alive in words, and as a result he lives ‘in other ways’, in the minds of readers, including me.

Aly and Stephens, Uncivil Wars

Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens, Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy (Quarterly Essay 87, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 88

Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens are co-hosts of the ABC radio show and podcast The Minefield, on which they set out to negotiate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life. Their unscripted chats don’t shy away from big words like ‘epistemic’ or ‘teleological’ and refer frequently to philosophers ancient and modern, with occasional insights from the Islamic tradition. There’s usually a guest who has expertise in the topic of the week. There’s banter, an occasional malapropism, and usually – the main source of pleasure for me as a listener – a sense that no one knows quite where the conversation will go. One of the recurring motifs is the importance of thoughtful, deliberative communication, of which the show is a fine example.

Of necessity, in this Quarterly Essay Aly and Stephens speak with one voice – no mutual demurs, no pricking of pomposities, no license to meander. It’s not as much fun as the podcast but, especially when read along with the correspondence in QE88, it’s a stimulating and challenging essay.

The essay begins with a description of much current public conversation:

It is now entirely common for each of the opposing sides of a vociferous debate to consider themselves shamed and silenced, unable to speak without being branded in some malevolent way.

(Page 1)

Their diagnosis is that people on all sides of hot-button topics see the others as acting in bad faith, as tools of oppression, or perhaps as deluded fools – and the debate descends into mutual contempt. It’s not the readiness to be outraged or the short fuse to anger, but contempt that puts an end to any useful dialogue.

The essay then falls into four sections. First, some moral philosophy, which proposes some definitions of contempt and describes recent defences of it as a moral virtue. Second, some history: contempt as the air we breathe as fostered when the great US press barons of the 19th century realised that their profits would grow if their newspapers stirred up emotions, of which contempt was a real winner. Capitalist commodification of emotion reached an extreme with social media, particularly with Twitter’s retweet button and Facebook’s like button, both of which make it possible to broadcast an opinion to the world without any mental effort. Third: how this plays out in politics. The essay distinguishes between ‘thin’ democracy – in which people get to vote and that’s pretty much it – and ‘thick’ democracy, ‘which imagines society as a more dynamic organism where people can have their preferences and interests changed by interactions with others’. This is familiar ground to The Minefield‘s listeners. The final section, titled ‘Democracy as Marriage’, is a call for us to be more attentive to each other, including those with whom we disagree, and perhaps especially those with whom we disagree passionately.

As well as drawing on a wonderfully broad range of cultural touchstones – from Godard’s movie Contempt to George Floyd’s brother Philonise, with Simone Weil and James Baldwin featuring prominently – the essay draws heavily on recent events in the USA, because of its global cultural dominance and because it has gone further down the contempt road and so shows what can happen.

This Quarterly Essay featured in a special edition of the podcast, which originated as a session at the 2022 Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney. You can listen to it here.

I can’t have a closer look at page 75* as there are only 64 pages to the essay. On page 47 (chosen because I was born in 1947 – is that arbitrary enough for you?) the essay is engaging with the argument in favour of ‘upward’ contempt as a way of doing politics. Quoting US philosopher Amy Chua, it argues that ‘to aggregate and compare … the average earning capacity of white and non-white families’ and similar statistics may be useful but it overlooks differences among white people, particularly class:

Many working-class whites clearly felt alienated from the culture and institutions that surrounded them. Few people with any mainstream cultural or political power seemed to take that alienation seriously. It’s easy to imagine that working-class whites felt themselves to be objects of contempt. And in an environment where such emotion can be commodified and turned into profit, someone like Donald Trump was always liable to come along.

The politics of contempt is what enabled the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism. This leads into the beginning of the most interesting section of the essay, four pages in which James Baldwin is invoked. His body of work, the essay asserts, ‘stands as a monument to the refusal of contempt. It is shot through with sensitivity to its danger and warnings of its self-sabotage.’

So that’s page 47.

Leaping ahead to the correspondence in QE 88: it kicks off with a long essay by African-Australian Nyadol Nyuon, which argues with lawyerly precision that Aly and Stephens have missed the main point by apparently assuming an unreal symmetry between social groups struggling against oppression and those who are enforcing it (those are my terms: she is much more specific than that). In particular, she challenges their reading of James Baldwin. It’s a powerful piece of writing, and anyone who reads the original essay ought to read it. And not only it but the seven other thoughtful and not entirely supportive correspondents. And Aly and Stephens’s final reply.

Taken together, this is an inspiring example of serious conversation about real things. People misconstrue each other, but its generally in good faith. There’s an occasional sarcastic gibe, perhaps some defensiveness (if Nyadol Nyuon went after me I’d be a lot more defensive than thee authors, who hold their ground but remain genuinely respectful), some interesting anecdotes that are tangential to the topic, maybe a little self-promotion. But it’s a conversation, rich, thoughtful and mutually attentive.

* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.

José Saramago’s Tale of the Unknown Island

José Saramago, The Tale of the Unknown Island (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, illustrated by Peter Sís 1999)

This is one of those tiny, beautifully designed books that sit at the front of bookshelves offering themselves as last-minute birthday gifts. At least, that’s how I think it came to be sitting on my to-be-read bookshelf for years, possibly decades. I don’t remember who gave it to me, but I’m glad they did.

José Saramago published this very short, parable-like story in 1997 in Portuguese with the title O conto da ilha desconhecida. This version, translated into crystal clear fairy-tale English by Margaret Jill Costa and illustrated by the brilliant children’s illustrator Peter Sís, followed two years later.

In 2017 the story was adapted for the stage by Ellen McDougall and Clare Slater and performed at the Gate theatre in London with the title The Unknown Island (the Guardian‘s enthusiastic review here).

It’s not a children’s book, but it builds on conventions of children’s literature. A man appears at a gate of the king’s castle and asks for a boat. He refuses to be sent away, and the story goes from there. He wants the boat in order to set sail to find the unknown island. Everyone, from the king to the cleaning lady, tells him that there are no more unknown islands, but he persists, first in his request and then, when (not a spoiler really) the king gives him a boat, in persuading other people to help on the quest.

It’s a parable about creativity, or perhaps about scientific enquiry. Certainly it resonates against the kinds of things that reactionary politicians say regularly about university research grants (as in this example from almost exactly a year ago). But it twists and turns, slipping out from under such neat encapsulations. Naive readers like me will be surprised and delighted by how it turns out.

The book was perfect for reading in the sauna, and I read it there in two sessions, both of them with quite a lot of chat eating into potential reading time. Sadly the glue holding my beautiful little book together couldn’t withstand the heat, so now I need to handle it with great care.

For a closer look, I can’t take a snapshot of page 75*, because there are only 51 pages. Assuming that page 75 is usually about a fifth of the way through a novel, I’ll focus instead on pages 10 and 11. Here they are, heat damage and all, at the beginning of the king’s encounter with the man who wants a boat:

Peter Sís’s compass sits in the middle of the left hand page, silently endorsing the man who wants a boat. All his illustrations have a similar simplicity of line, and make similar luxurious use of white space, though some of them, like the cover image above, have a weird, surrealist quality.

This is early in the book. The king has condescended to meet the man at the door for petitions, a door he rarely visits in person, and his discomfort manifests as awkwardness in the only chair available, which belongs to the cleaning woman (who is to feature prominently in the rest of the story).

Characteristically, the narrative isn’t broken up with a paragraph for each speaker, and sometimes the transition from one speaker to another doesn’t even merit a full stop. Commas will do, suggesting that we don’t need to pause over the king’s questions, because the man will answer them easily – whether he is indeed ‘one of those utter madmen’ or not. (He’s not. But though his insistence that unknown islands still exist is impeccably logical, he’s not what any conservative arts fund would consider a sound prospect either.) So on the one hand there’s a fine, childlike simplicity to the narrative, but on the other there’s an unsettling edge to its presentation. That unsettling quality becomes more marked as the story progresses.

José Saramago received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The press release accompanying the announcement described him as a writer ‘who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality’. This little book with its hugely resonant tale is my excellent introduction to his riting.

* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.

Middlemarch: Progress report 2

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 15 to most of chapter 28

Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.

When reading Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness, I kept feeling a Middlemarchian tone: the narrators in both books tell of events that happened in a remote village in living memory but feel as if they are from a different era. Williams’s narrator has a name and a story of his own. We are left to imagine who George Eliot’s narrator might be, though there’s definitely a person there, who is full of opinions, occasionally mentions conversations with her friend, and – if we assume she is a mature woman as Eliot was known to be when the book appeared – has bitter experience of male domination. Both narrators identify themselves as sophisticated and modern, she in metropolitan England, and he in the USA.

This month the intrigues continue among the older and younger generations, the former to do with control of the town’s institutions and the latter to do with affairs of the heart. Dorothea is married to Casaubon but troublingly finds his young cousin Will Ladislaw a more interesting companion in Rome. Rosamond is closing in on Lydgate as a prospective husband. And Fred, the profligate young man, discovers that his failure to keep promises not only harms his reputation but also harms other people.

This morning, the Rosamond–Lydgate story is approaching a defining moment. They have been thrown together when Lydgate comes to attend Rosamond’s brother Fred who has been struck down by typhus. Actually, not quite thrown together: Rosamond has declined to take the recommended course of leaving their house until the danger of infection was past, ostensibly so that she can help her mother tend to Fred, but really so she can see more of Lydgate. After some vividly evoked moments when they become embarrassed at meeting each other’s eyes, they settle into openness and ease with each other. He begins to play at flirting with her, seeing no harm in such a little pleasure. She – admitting it to no one – has visions of marrying him and escaping the suffocating backwater of Middlemarch. After much intricate tracking of the mental processes of each of them, and a scene where Lydgate sees off a chinless young man who he doesn’t even realise is a rival for Rosamond’s affections, today’s read finished with this terrific paragraph, which sums up the state of play, foreshadows the outcome, and ends with a gloriously deflating image:

To Rosamond it seemed as if she and Lydgate were as good as engaged. That they were some time to be engaged had long been an idea in her mind, and ideas, we know, tend to a more solid kind of existence, the necessary materials being at hand. It is true, Lydgate had the counter-idea of remaining unengaged; but this was a mere negative, a shadow cast by other resolves which themselves were capable of shrinking. Circumstance was almost sure to be on the side of Rosamond’s idea, which had a shaping activity and looked through watchful blue eyes, whereas Lydgate’s lay blind and unconcerned as a jelly-fish which gets melted without knowing it.

(pages 312–313)

This is Happiness, Niall Williams and the Book Group

Niall Williams, This Is Happiness (Bloomsbury 2019)

Before the meeting: When we discussed Niall Williams’s History of the Rain in October, a number of people had also read his next book, This Is Happiness. December’s chooser, impressed by their enthusiasm, decided we should all read it.

The book’s first sentence, ‘It had stopped raining’, which sits on a page by itself, is pretty much identical with the final sentence of the earlier book, and the tiny, backward village of Faha in West Ireland is again the setting, but the bulk of the narrative takes place in an earlier period, and there is no obvious reference to the characters or events of History of the Rain. It’s the story of the coming of electricity to the village; a coming of age story of young Noe, who has taken leave of the seminary and is telling the story as an old man in the USA; and a big romantic story of love lost and found by Christy, an older man who befriend Noe.

Page 75* must be one of the book’s few pages that doesn’t mention the absence of rain. It happens in the thick of one of the book’s comic set pieces. It’s not the set piece when the lights go down and the cinema comes alive with amorous grapplings, or the one where Noe goes to the communion rail at Sunday Mass in order to get a good look at the woman Christy left at the altar, or the spectacular one where he is knocked unconscious by a falling electricity pole. On page 75 Noe and Christy are on the first of a number of epic pub crawls.

These pub crawls are as much about music as about alcohol, music performed by men who are shy and nondescript until they start playing, and then are brilliant conduits of a great folk tradition. On this first adventure, when the evening is well under way, Christy startles Noe and everyone else in Craven’s pub by starting to sing:

Not only was Christy singing, he was singing with screwed-up eyes and fists by his side a ballad about love. He was singing it full-throated and full-hearted and before he had reached the second verse it was clear even to Roo the dog that a passionate truth was present in that place. It wasn’t only that this didn’t happen in Craven’s, it was that there was something raw in it, something deeply felt, that was, even to those who had descended blinking into the umbrae and penumbrae of numberless bottles of stout, immediately apparent and made those who first looked now look away.

(page 73)

Christy has come to Faha as a worker in the great electricity project. This episode is our first inkling of his profoundly romantic reason for signing up for the work. Not so obviously, it prepares us for the major role music is to play in Noe’s story. Page 75 itself is a beautiful piece of misdirection. After Christy has sung, Noe writes:

I did the only thing I could do. I went to the counter and got two bottles of stout.

Those bottles are followed by another two, and then another. Greavy the guard arrives and declares that it’s Closing Time (as Noe says, this is one more way in which Faha lags behind the times), but the two of them are incapable of moving. Alcohol-based humour usually leaves me cold, but Niall Williams’s version made me laugh out loud. I suppose the whole book could be read as an extended Irish joke: the villagers have an almost superstitious awe of the one telephone in town, and the coming of electricity has almost cosmic significance for them. If you read the whole book like that, the stereotypical Irish drunkenness in this passage is representative (including the sly invocation of Waiting for Godot):

Getting up proved aspirational. There was the idea of it, quite clear. Unmistakably clear now. There were hands placed on knees for push-off. There was a Right now. There was another when that failed to produce action. A Right so following. And still nothing. Between thought and verb a vacancy, not intended, but not grievous, just gently perplexed, and in that perplex the realisation that Craven’s was not in fact such a bad place at all, was downright comfortable in fact, in fact there were few places on this earth as agreeable. True? Too true. A person could stay here, could stay right here and be quite happy now, quite, for a very long time. What’s your rush? There’s no rush. All the problems of the world could be settled right here.
Will we go so?

I don’t want to minimise the book’s humour. Far from it. But there’s a seriousness to it that page 75 gives no clue of. Christy’s romance is genuinely touching. The villagers’ resistance to the coming of electricity is more than comic: and these villagers are described as custodians of their land, defending an ancient culture under siege by capitalism – without being at all heavy handed, the narrative reminds us that the Irish were the first people to be colonised by the English. The dramatic decline in the Catholic Church’s power since the 1950s is deftly evoked both in Noe’s commentary and in his own story: his turning away from his priestly vocation is a tiny reflection of the ending of Church-domination in Ireland at large.

After the meeting: There were seven of us. Covid–19 and other coronaviruses kept some away, while one or two had better things to do – and one sent video of spectacular drone art over Sydney Harbour.

This was our end-of-year meeting so we had other business besides the book, but it generated quite a bit of discussion. The discussion was unusual in that quite a few of us read out favourite passages. Indeed, two of the absentees sent lists of quotes – it’s that kind of book. One interesting insight was that the narrative as we receive it is created by an old man looking back on a key moment in his youth, making a story out of it, and casting a benevolent glow over the community in which that moment happened.

Other business, besides of course the plentiful food including a splendid pavlova, included a Kris–Kringle book exchange with the usual mixture of cautious delight and polite almost-hidden dismay, and a poetry reading. We were each supposed to bring a poem, and most did, even one of the absentees.

Poems were a nonsense poem by CJ Dennis (‘Triantiwontigongolope’), a poem about climate change (that was me – Kit Kelen’s ‘Parable’), a Thomas Hardy (‘Heredity’), a Robert Frost (‘A Time to Talk’), a poem from Claudia Rankine’s Just Us (‘sound and fury’), and two poems of Australian patriotism that couldn’t have been more different (Sara Mansour’s ‘My Australia‘ – link to her performing it on YouTube – and a poem whose name and creator I don’t remember celebrating the lump in the throat brought on by, for example, Anzac Day). This little reading, including by two people who said they felt awkward reading poetry aloud, left us reeling.

And that was a wrap for the Book Group for 2022.

* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.