This tiny book was written in the first half of 2020, when Covid-19 was running wild in New York City, where Zadie Smith teaches creative writing. It comprises six personal essays, which their author describes in her foreword as ‘small by definition, short by necessity’. They are written in the spirit of what she learned from the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: ‘Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.’
It’s a tiny book, but it’s not slight. As I read it, I could feel my personal understanding of the word ‘intimations’ changing to include an element of intimacy. These essays ruminate intimately on life, art and relationships in the middle of a pandemic. The first essay, ‘Peonies’, sets the tone:
Just before I left New York, I found myself in an unexpected position: clinging to the bars of the Jefferson Market Garden looking in. A moment before I’d been on the run as usual, intending to exploit two minutes of time I’d carved out of the forty-five-minute increments into, which back, then I divided my days.
She was transfixed by the sight of a bed of garish tulips, wishing they were peonies. That moment leads into reflections on the concept of a ‘natural woman’, the nature of creativity (‘Planting tulips is creative. … Writing is control’), the ‘global humbling’ that was to happen a few days later, on creativity and submission. She quotes a parable from Kierkegaard about the difference between how we actually are in the world and the stories we tell about ourselves in the world. You can make them peonies in a story, but they are still tulips in the real world. With the lightest of touches, the essay takes us into the deep challenge that April 2020 – ‘an unprecedented April’ – presents to our sense of ourselves.
The second essay ‘The American Exception’, also has a brilliantly enticing first line: ‘He speaks truth so rarely that when you hear it from his own mouth – 29 March 2020 – it has the force of revelation.’ We know exactly who she means. Paradoxically, the truth he spoke is that before that date ‘we didn’t have death’. The essay goes on to justify the paradox beautifully.
All the essays tackle big themes, and do it lightly. The longest, ‘Screengrabs (After Berger, before the virus)’ is the one where the author brings her gifts as a novelist most strongly to bear. I think the Berger in brackets is John Berger, and there may be a reference to his famous quote, in Understanding a Photograph: ‘I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.” The essay offers six portraits, mostly of people peripheral to Smith’s New York life, though one, subtitled ‘An Elder at the 98 Bust Stop’, is someone who has known her since childhood back in London. Each of the portraits has a twist at the end, as the pandemic leads the person to reveal something unexpected about themselves. After the portraits, there’s ‘Postscript: Contempt as a Virus’:
‘The virus doesn’t care about you.’ And likewise with contempt: in the eyes of contempt you don’t even truly rise to the level of the hated object – that would involve a full recognition for your existence.
The brief essay-within-an-essay ranges over racist micro-aggressions, Dominic Cummings’s cavalier violations of Covid restrictions, and, most compellingly, the look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he murdered George Floyd.
I haven’t read anything by Zadie Smith before this. I haven’t even seen White Teeth on TV. I’ve enjoyed her brother Ben Bailey Smith’s occasional stints on the Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, but that’s as close as I’ve got. I brought this book home from the Book(-swapping) Club, and Im very glad to be introduced to this fine writer.
It’s 1985. Durga’s relationship comes to an end when her lover returns to his wife. She leaves her job as a maths lecturer in a Canadian university and takes her wounded heart back to her native Malaysia where she gets a job at a university in Kuala Lumpur. When the novel opens she has left KL for Diwali to visit her cantankerous grandmother in the village of Kuala Lipis where she grew up. A gift of fireworks goes badly awry, the roads are shut by floods, she stays in the village much longer than expected, and while she’s there confronts the ghosts – fragile monsters – of her past.
In alternating chapters we read the story of Mary, Durga’s grandmother: her childhood, her experience of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the Malayan Emergency, her relationship with her daughter Francesca, who was Durga’s mother.
The two narratives come together in the climactic final chapters. Durga makes some deeply disturbing discoveries about her family history, and the great miasma of stories that she grew up with are resolved into some kind of reality.
Throughout, there’s a contrast between Durga’s world view and her grandmother’s. Durga is thoroughly westernised, and loves the world of mathematical exactness and consistency. Her grandmother is a wild woman who tells stories that differ with each telling. Durga finds herself being drawn back into her childhood world of ghosts and half-truths.
I’m glad I read this book. The characters, especially the grandmother in the present time, feel real, and there are rich insights into Malaysian traditional culture and history. (The university in Kuala Lumpur is an offstage presence that tries to pull Durga back to westernised, mathematical reality, but without a lot of success.) But it didn’t sweep me away. It was as if I could always feel the work that was going into the writing – a symptom of this is the occasional reflection on mathematical concepts. These feel like scaffolding the helped the writer create the work, but needed either to be more fully integrated or designated as darlings to be killed.
I’m coming to this book late, but it’s a book that will remain fresh for a long time yet.
It contains 52 essays from First Nations people of Australia. The range of contributors is huge: people from all parts of Australia, urban and remote, from Cape York to the Western Australian wheat belt; some who are household names, some who should be, and some who live quiet lives far from the limelight; people who were strongly connected to culture and community as children and people who discovered they were Aboriginal only in adulthood; old (several contributors were born the same year as me, 1947) and young (one was 13 at the time of publication); sports stars, poets, novelists, classical musicians, prisoners.
Anita Heiss writes in her introduction:
There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.
The attempt succeeds admirably.
I was struck by the sheer number of almost identical incidents in which someone challenges a young person’s Aboriginal identity. Here’s one of them, as told by Keira Jenkins, a Gamilaroi woman from Moree in New South Wales:
I was six years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor in my checked dress, which was slightly too long for me, looking eagerly up at Miss Brown – at least I think that was her name – the first time I had a blow to my sense of identity. We were learning about Aboriginal people and I piped up very proudly.
‘I’m Aboriginal.’ I waved my hand in the air.
‘No, you’re not,’ my friend Alison said. ‘You’re too white to be Aboriginal.’
I don’t remember what happened after that; I just remember feeling ashamed.
The challenger isn’t always another child. Sometimes it’s an adult in authority, sometimes even another Aboriginal person, but the confident refusal to accept that a child with fair skin can be Aboriginal occurs again and again in almost exactly the same words, never without impact on the child. No wonder Andrew Bolt was taken to court over his 2009 slur against ‘light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal’ (news story here if you don’t know about that): the people bringing the case must have been desperately sick of that pernicious stuff.
The sameness of attacks stands in striking contrast to the tremendous variety of the life stories. I loved reading how eleven-year-old Miranda Tapsell refused to go to an event as Scary Spice just because Scary Spice was brown like her, and risked the ire of her non-Indigenous friend by going as their shared favourite, Baby Spice; how Adam Goodes disobeyed a teacher on a zoo excursion and stared at a gorilla; how Karen Davis, a Mamu–Kuku Yalanji woman who grew up n Far North Queensland in the 1970s and 80s sang songs on long car trips with her family pretty much the way I did with mine in the 1950s.
Some of the stories defy belief. William Russell, who describes himself as ‘a black, fair ex-serviceman with PTSD, blind and with a severe hearing impediment, and a long list of other physical problems from military service’, is a case in point. He tells of a time when his mother, with a babe in arms and four-year-old WIlliam by her side, faced a crowd of drunk, angry white men in the tiny town in Victoria where they had just come to live as the only Aboriginal family. Her grandfather stepped out of the shadows to save the day, naked ‘as always’, painted up in ochre and kaolin, and discharging a shotgun. This was in the 1950s. Hm!
There are tragic stories of the damage done by of colonisation to individuals and communities,featuring alcoholism and addiction; diabetes and diagnoses of mental illness; family violence and dysfunction; premature death. And there are stories of heroic resilience. Tony Birch’s story of his father is a beautifully told study in reversing fortunes. After years of violence and anger, followed by years of medication, electric shock treatment and institutionalisation, he ‘is saved’:
The Aboriginal community of Fitzroy gather around and care for him: men and women who had known him when he was a kid, during the years before any of them were ravaged by the force of racism and exclusion. He moves to the countryside and begins working with young blackfellas in schools. The experience is life-changing, for both my father and his family. I discover, a little to my own surprise, that I love him.
My copy of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a loan from my Book(-lending) Club. I consider it belongs in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021: it’s edited by a woman, and more than half the contributors are also women. So I’m counting it as the eleventh book I’ve read for the challenge.
Claire Messud (Wikipedia entry here; her own website here) is primarily a novelist. I haven’t read any of her novels, but this book – a collection of essays of which versions were published between 2002 and 2019 in journals ranging from Vogue to the Kenyon Review – was on offer at our book-swapping Book Club. I’m a bit of a sucker for writers’ writing about writing, and on top of that I was intrigued: Did Kant keep a tiny sculpture of a head on his shelf, and whose head was it?
It turns out this is the first book I’ve read that mentions Covid–19. The introduction, dated April 2020, strikes an optimistic note. Speaking of the climate emergency, life under late capitalism, and the way recent years have been ‘a dark maelstrom’ (which may be code for the Trump presidency), she continues:
This ominous hurtling, the relentless ouroboros that is social media, the destruction of ourselves and our environs – we had come to see it as inevitable, and ourselves as the passive and ineluctable victims of forces beyond our control. Humanity has risked collective despair, than which there is no more certain doom for our planet and ourselves. But even in the past two months, although at the mercy of a ravaging virus, we have discovered that in other ways we aren’t disempowered. Crisis and extremity are by no means to be desired; and their consequences – human and economic both – will be challenging for the foreseeable future. But these extraordinary times have also forced us to slow down, to think collectively, to seek hope, to value the truth, and to celebrate resilience and faith in our fellow human beings.
To find these resources, we may look to the past – to history and to literature – to the vast compendium of recorded human experience, from which we draw wisdom, solace, or, at the least, a sense of recognition.
It might have been harder to hit that note of optimism eight or ten months later in the USA, and harder to assume that the ‘we’ in that passage is universal, or even a majority, but it’s still saying something real.
The book is organised into three parts: ‘Reflections’, which comprises mostly family history, and the self-explanatory ‘Criticism: Books’ and ‘Criticism: Images’. The divide, while clear, isn’t absolute. As Messud says in her Acknowledgments, her ‘family is at the heart of it all’. The three essays on Albert Camus at the start of the second section – on respectively his ‘naive optimism’ during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), a new translation of Camus’ L’Étranger, and Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, which is a response to L’Étranger – take on extra depth and resonance from Messud’s family history. Her father’s family were pied-noirs (Algerian-born French) like Camus, and the first Camus essay begins with a memory of her father as an old man grieving for the country he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager.
I approached the first part cautiously. Other people’s family history provoke one central question: Why should I be interested? Will this family be amusing? Will their stories shed light on my own? Will they open out to some broader understanding of the world? In this case the answer to all three questions is Yes. Claire Messud brings to her stories of her parents and grandparents not only the precise aura of childhood memory, but also an adult grasp of their contexts. She spent a large part of her childhood in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, then moved with her family to Toronto, and from there to the USA. Each move meant a cultural shift, and it’s Kambala Church of England School for Girls in Rose Bay, seen through Messud’s eyes and now ours, that is the weirdest of them:
We had uniforms for summer and for winter. The former was a grey-and-white checked shirtdress, belted, worn with a straw boater banded in grey, with the school crest upon it. The latter was a grey tunic, beneath which we wore white shirts (with Peter Pan collars while at [the junior school] Massie House) and grey-and-gold striped ties (bow ties, with the Peter Pans), and topped by a grey felt hat, again banded with the crest. Grey socks; black oxfords; grey jumpers; grey blazer (with gold piping); grey knickers; grey ribbons (compulsory if your hair touched your collar).
(‘Then’, page 8)
And there’s much more.
The dislocations in the early lives of Messud and her sisters, it turns out, are mild reprises of their parents’ lives. Her father was a pied-noir. His father, a patriotic Frenchman who also loved his native Algeria, took his family to Morocco in 1955. Messud’s father never returned to Algeria, but moved from country to country, and when his guard was down would grieve for the country and language of his childhood. A fierce atheist, when he was dying in a nursing home, he was bullied into taking Communion from a visiting priest, but as the priest was offering the host:
‘Isn’t there someone,’ my father asked me pleadingly, ‘who could do this in French?’
(‘Two Women’, p 45)
Her mother was ‘raised petit-bourgeois and socially aspirant in mid-century Toronto’. The parents met in Oxford, and their first date was at a picnic also attended by Gloria Steinem. Messud’s father’s younger sister, mentally unstable and zealously Catholic (she’s the one who pushed for the deathbed Communion) became part of their life from their marriage in 1957.
The family story is told with generosity to all parties, including the aunt, and extends to the tribulations of Messud’s teenage daughter as she deals with school-age bullying.
Inevitably, some of the essays are less interesting than others: ‘How to be a Better Woman in the Twenty-First Century’ is little more than a listicle, and an account of the author’s two dogs, though funny and heart-rending, is still an essay about dogs.
I’ve been reluctant to read review essays of books I haven’t read ever since Colm Toibìn’s review of On Chesil Beach essentially told the whole plot of that very short book in one full page of the London Review of Books. But I read all the critical essays here. I enjoyed and was enlightened by the one on a book I’ve read – Teju Cole’s Open City (link is to my blog post): I was surprised by a twist at the end; Messud doesn’t mention the twist, but discusses many moments along the way that would have made it less surprising if I’d been paying attention. I’ve seen the movie based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and her discussion of the book brought back the movie’s power. Essays on Jane Bowles, Italo Svevo, Magda Szabó, Rachel Cusk (this one especially), Saul Friendlander, Yaasmine El Rashidi and Valeria Luiselli are all enticing, giving enough information and context to make one want to rush out and get hold of a copy.
The third section comprises catalogue essays on painters Alice Neel and Marlene Dumas, a review of photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still, and finally returns to family with a sweet essay on how she and her children love Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Living as I do with an Emerging Artist, I read the catalogue essays with relevant books open beside me, and could feel my capacity to appreciate art expanding as I read and looked. These essays are enriched by their inclusion in this book. When Messud writes that Marlene Dumas’ Amends, like each of her paintings, ‘has evolved out of a particular combination of autobiography, politics, culture, and the demands of the medium’, she could be describing the book as a whole or in its parts. In her essay on Sally Mann (which also, by the way, makes a telling contribution to current conversations about whether you can appreciate a work of art created by a person of vile character), she could likewise have been describing these essays, a good bit more accurately than the book’s subtitle, when she wrote:
… this memoir is notably neither confessional nor self regarding. Mann, ever the photographer, stays behind her lens, turning her ‘intensely seeing eye’ on the people and the natural world around her. […] We will know Mann by the outline that she leaves, by what touches her and how.
(‘Sally Mann’, p 287)
I didn’t get the writer-writing-about-writing hit I was expecting. The title essay is the only one that explicitly fits the bill – and the title, incidentally, refers to a line in a Thomas Bernhard novel that Kant’s monumental work shrivels down to a legacy of ‘Kant’s little East Prussian head and to a thoroughly amorphous world of night and fog’: to write is to aim to have at least that much legacy.
November verse 5: Letter to my Mother
Dear Mum, I won't write you a novel.
Barely fourteen rhyming lines
I'll manage. No space to unravel
the half a century that twined
our lives. Perhaps I know you better
now than when your weekly letters
filled me in on family news.
I wish that you could know me too,
that you could look down from some heaven,
hear the words I wish I'd said,
see the tears I should have shed
back then, take thanks for all you've given.
The grave is deaf and blind and still.
What we didn't say, we never will.
This is prompted by a marvellous book, a very different letter to a very different mother:
The protagonist narrator of this novel, known to his intimates as Little Dog, is a Vietnamese-American Gay man, and this is his portrait of the artist as a very young man. The text is cast as a letter addressed to his mother. He tells her the story of his childhood, including quite a bit of abuse he suffered at her hands and his understanding that that abuse was part of the aftermath of the US-Vietnam war. He tells of his relationship with his grandmother, her mother, and what he knows of her love story with a US serviceman. And he relates his teenage experiences of sex. Given the sometimes excruciating detail about young gay male sex (excruciating both physically and in its turbulent emotional ambivalence), clearly this is not a letter he really expects his mother to read.
Ocean Vuong has won big prizes for his poetry, and parts of this book read as prose poetry. I don’t mean that some parts of it defy any attempt to extract a simple prose meaning, though there are a couple of moments like that. I mean, among other things, some images, as of buffalo running over a cliff or monarch butterflies making their vast annual journeys or Tiger Woods putting in an appearance, do a lot of work. And there are rhapsodic sections that don’t bother with conventional sentence structures, but take the reader with them in not bothering. For example, there are six pages in which Little Dog, sings (that’s the only word for it) about Trevor, the first object of his troubled but reciprocated desire. Here’s a little of it:
Trevor going fifty through his daddy’s wheatfield. Who jams all his fries into a Whopper and chews with both feet on the gas. Your eyes closed, riding shotgun, the wheat a yellow confetti.
Three freckles on his nose.
Three periods to a boy-sentence.
Trevor Burger King over McDonald’s ’cause the smell of smoke on beef makes it real.
The Vietnam War, growing up Gay and Vietnamese in working-class Hartford, Connecticut, the ravages of the OxyContin epidemic, dementia: the book deals with difficult and sometimes tragic lives. But the writing is sharp and rich and, in the end, celebratory.
My favourite scene is the one where Little Dog comes out to his mother in a Dunkin’ Donuts: ‘I don’t like girls.’ The conversation that follows is not astonishingly original (‘Are you going to wear a dress now?’ ‘They’ll kill you, you know that.’ ‘When did all this start. I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy.’ But then:
When I thought it was over, that I’d done my unloading, you said, pushing your coffee aside, ‘Now I have something to tell you.’
My jaw clenched. This was not supposed to be an equal exchange, not a trade. I nodded as you spoke, feigning willingness.
‘You have an older brother.’ You swept your hair out of your eyes, unblinking. ‘But he’s dead.’
And a whole terrible part of his mother’s life is revealed to him. So I need to modify my description of the book as a portrait of the artist as a young man: it’s a portrait that includes an extraordinary openness to the generations that gave rise to the young man.
Johka Alharthi, Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth (published in Arabic as Sayyidat al qamar 2010, translation Allen and Unwin 2019)
This book is quite a ride. The first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English, it’s Jokha Alharti’s second novel. According to the Translator’s Introduction, it’s one of ‘ a wave of historical novels that constitutes a major subgenre of fiction in the Arab world’, and ‘has been praised by critics across the Arab world for its fineness of portraiture, its historical depth and subtlety, and its innovative literary structure’.
It tells the story of a couple of intertwined Omani families in the village of al-Awafi over four generations, but its ‘innovative literary structure’, which is at first bamboozling and never becomes straightforward, means that the story isn’t told in anything remotely like a straight chronology. With some exceptions, alternate chapters are narrated by Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman: he drifts in and out of sleep and entertains trance-like memories while travelling on a plane, he ruminates on his complex, pain-filled relationship with his late father, on the state of his marriage and on his children’s life paths. Each of the other chapters focus on a different character: Abdallah’s wife, his daughter, his sisters-in-law, his father-in-law, the slave woman who raised him. With each of these characters, the novel moves off into different directions and to different times. Time collapses and the overwhelming sense is that everything is happening in an imagined present.
Yet the period covered by the narration sees huge social and political change. A recurring image of flimsy buildings being replaced by cement ones becomes emblematic of the changes. Slavery was legal in Oman until 1970, but one of the main characters is irritated or worse when her husband and then her son insist that she and they are no longer slaves – that’s how she thinks of herself and she has made it work for her, including establishing a sexual partnership with her ‘owner’. The situation of women in general is in a state of flux: three sisters negotiate different outcomes in relation to the outgoing custom of arranged marriages; each of them faces down the patriarchy in her own way, though patriarchy stays intact.
The modernity of lab coats, plane trips and celebrity culture jostles with elaborate cursing rituals, offerings to placate djinns, and (no spoiler really) what turns out to be a covert honour killing. Classic Arabic literature has a strong presence – my impression is it wouldn’t be realistic if the characters didn’t recite poetry every now and then, and indeed they do. There’s more than one unsolved murder, although – after some teasing – the reader is left in little doubt about the perpetrators. There are some deeply satisfying twists for better and worse in the many complex marriages and relationships. Especially towards the end, tragedies that have been passed over or heard about at third hand are seen in close-up.
Marilyn Booth’s English is elegant and accessible, and leaves enough Arabic words in place that the reader is always aware that this is a place and a culture he (in my case) knows next to nothing about. There’s a map of the characters at the front, which I needed to consult often.
Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (you can read how the judges described it at that link), which is how it came to be on offer at our Book-swapping Club. I’m glad to have read it.
I hadn’t read the Psalms, or any book from the Bible, since my seven years in a Catholic religious order in the 60s and early 70s. I used to love belting them out in the chapel several times a day, especially the complaining bits, the bloodthirsty bits and the bits that celebrate the natural world. They were choral spoken-word poetry of my late teenage years, a place where I could put words to feelings I hardly knew I had.
When this book turned up on offer at our Book-swapping Club, I liked the idea of revisiting that experience.
Alas, Robert Alter didn’t do his translating with me in mind. His version is concerned with precision of meaning, and not at all interested in rendering the poetry, the music of the language. These Psalms were barely recognisable.
A recent YouTube experience illustrates what I mean about Alter’s translation. Sister Nicole Trahan, talking on camera about racism in the US Catholic Church (link here), starts brilliantly with Psalm 55 verses 13–15:
If an enemy had reviled me,
that I could bear.
If my foe had viewed me with contempt,
from that I could hide.
But it was you, my other self,
my comrade and friend,
you whose company I enjoyed
at whose side I walked in the house of God.
Here’s how Robert Alter translates those verses:
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him.
But you, a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we shared good counsel
in the house of our God in elation we walked.
They both are clearly translating the same text, yet the meaning of Sister Nicole’s version is clear, it has a musical flow and it packs an emotional punch, while Alter’s version is dry and needs a footnote to clarify its meaning:*
Were it a known enemy showing hostility, the speaker would have found a way to bear the insult, but it is his intimate friend who has turned against him.
I eventually realised that Alter is not even trying to render the Psalms into memorable (or prayable) English. This is a book for the scholars and exegetes, not for poetry readers or, I imagine, the devout. Neither a scholar nor an exegete, I gave up on it.
But my appetite for revisiting the Psalms had been whetted. I dug out my tattered, dusty copy of the Jerusalem Bible (1966), which employed a ‘team of collaborators in translation and literary revision’ that included J R R Tolkien, James McAuley and Robert Speight. From here on my quotes are from that version unless I say otherwise.
The first thing I want to say is that pundits who cherry-pick the Holy Qur’an for quotes advocating violence should read the Psalms and chill.
Again and again, especially in the early Psalms, the speaker calls on God to destroy his enemies, as if his God is not much more than a secret super-weapon. I guess that’s where a bit of historical imagination comes in handy: you can read this book as a record of the developing notion of what ‘God’ is. Early on, it’s as if every tribe has its own god or gods, and Yahweh is the one belonging to the Hebrews. Gradually, the emphasis changes from, ‘God, smite my enemies,’ to ‘God defend me,’ and ‘God, let my enemies come to see your greatness.’ Morality comes into it: “God, I will obey your law,’ ‘I beg your forgiveness for my wrongdoing.’ They never give up bathing a just person’s feet in the blood of the unjust (58:11), or celebrating the way God heaps up corpses (110:5) but there’s an increasingly clear assertion of an incllusive monotheism: other gods are just lumps of wood or metal, but Yahweh is the creator of the universe. There’s history, wisdom, complaint, repentance, celebration: it’s a rich collection.
The Psalms are full of quotations: ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ ‘Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,’ ‘A mighty fortress is my God.’ So there’s a lot that’s reassuringly familiar in them. But reading all 150 from start to finish, whether in Alter’s dryness version, the Jerusalem Bible’s lyricism, or the King James sonority, confronted me not only with their violent us-and-them-ism, but also with the absence of any sense of God in my own mind.
I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people of faith, and when I participate in religious observances I usually find a pragmatic way of paying more than lip service. I can be grateful for my blessings, repent my failings, commit to the things that matter, wonder at the splendours of the universe, acknowledge precarity and interdependence, make acts of faith, hope and love. I can rejoice in the story of the escape from Egypt, love the story of heroic, imperfect, pious King David and lament the destruction of the temple. I can do all that without a need for a supreme being. I can take part in a Mass or a Seder or a sundown prayer without feeling any need to assert my non-belief. But reading the Psalms, I find it hard to get past my outsider status.
My custom with books of poetry is to talk about one poem in some detail. I’m picking number 137, because Boney M:
The song, which I can listen to on hard rotation, was written by T. Mcnaughton, George Reyam, Frank Farian and Brent Dowe, and draws on Psalm 137 verses 1–4 and Psalm 19 verse 14. It absolutely captures the power of the first four verses of this Psalm. Spoiler alert: the Psalm has 9 verses and takes some dark turns after verse 4.
PSALM 137 **
Ballad of the exiles
Beside the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
at the memory of Zion,
leaving our harps
hanging on the poplars there.
For we had been asked
to sing to our captors,
to entertain those who had carried us off:
‘Sing,’ they said,
‘some hymns of Zion.’
How could we sing
one of Yahweh’s hymns
in a pagan country?
The heading, ‘Ballad of the exiles’ is a little gloss by the translators. In the first half of the 6th century BCE a large number of people were taken captive from Judaea and taken to Babylon, for an exile that lasted half a century. This was a key event in the history of the Jewish people, and played an important part in the development of Judaism. This Psalm is framed as a song from that time. Its pining for home has struck a chord in the hearts of exiled people for millennia. It makes one think of African-heritage people enslaved in the USA being expected to entertain their oppressors. Or, since I’ve recently read Grace Karsken’s The Colony, ceremony and payback conducted by Eora people in what is now Sydney’s Hyde Park being treated as entertainment by the early colonisers. And it’s open to rich metaphorical reading about commodification of culture: how can I make authentic art for a marketplace?
Jerusalem, if I forget you,
may my right hand wither!
May I never speak again,
if I forget you!
If I do not count Jerusalem
the greatest of my joys!
Moving beyond the verses used in the Rastafarian song, these lines are framed as a kind of self-curse, but behind the curse there’s a feeling that if the speaker were to lose all connection to their home, their spiritual and cultural base, they would lose their ability to function in some crucial way. This is something like what many First Nations people say about the importance of country: on country you can feel a wholeness, a peace, a strength that you can’t feel anywhere else. So far, this is a powerfully resonant song/poem about the pain of exile
what the Sons of Edom did
on the day of Jerusalem,
how they said,
‘Down with her!
Raze her to the ground!’
Then, a sudden change of tone. The captors have asked for an entertaining bit of exotica. Here is the song of Zion that the singer can actually sing. As I write this it occurs to me that to imagine it being sung in response to the captors’ command, but in a language the captors don’t understand, so there’s an element of subversive joy in this as well as heartfelt cry to Yahweh. The singer recalls the harm that has been done to their people, and then ups the ante:
Destructive Daughter of Babel,
a blessing on the man who treats you
as you have treated us,
a blessing on him who takes and dashes
your babies against the rock!
This is directly addressed to the captors. This may once have been meant literally, and if so it’s just monstrous: other people’s violence is wicked, but baby-murder is fine if I or my allies do it. And when I started writing about this Psalm that’s how I read it. But you know, now I think it’s funny: ‘You want me to sing you one of my cute songs. OK, here’s one about the temple and a little baby.’ Then a cheerful tune is struck up. Maybe the Babylonians recognise the word for blessing that occurs twice towards the end. At the last line the performers and Hebrew listeners smile broadly, and their Babylonian listeners follow their cue and also smile broadly.
There’s no way the end of this poem can be read as a pious, morally improving text. Alter’s note says it’s morally unjustifiable, but we should take the terrible circumstances into account. Maybe, though, if you assume that the Psalmist had a sense of humour, the moral unjustifiability is the whole point: this is deliberately outrageous, wicked humour. In the unlikely, er, inconceivable, event that I had to give a sermon based on it, I’d talk about how when we say we want to hear the voices of oppressed people, we need to be prepared to hear things we really don’t like.
I’m not saying that all the psalms can be read as edgy comedy. Sadly, far from it. But I happen to have lit on one that makes me, and possibly you, remember that these songs/poems/hymn were written by people with complex minds – some for liturgical purposes, some to teach history and morality, some to allow the expression of emotion, some as theatre.
* Not to flog a dead horse, but here are a couple of other translations of those same verses from the Bibles on my bookshelves, each with its own clarity, grace and power. First the King James Version: For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.
The Jerusalem Bible: Were it an enemy who insulted me, I could put up with that; had a rival got the better of me, I could hide from him. But you, a man of my own rank, a colleague and a friend, to whom sweet conversation bound me in the house of God!
** If you’re really interested in comparative translations, here are two other translations. First the King James Version: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
Robert Alter: By Babylon’s streams there we sat, oh we wept, when we recalled Zion. On the poplars there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors had asked of us words of song, and our plunderers – rejoicing: ‘Sing us from Zion’s songs.’ How can we sing a song of the LORD on foreign soil? Should I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not recall you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy. Recall, O LORD, the Edomites, on the day of Jerusalem, saying: ‘Raze it, raze it, to its foundation!’ Daughter of Babylon the Despoiler happy who pays you back in kind, for what you did to us. Happy who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock.
Before the meeting: It was my turn to choose the book. I was tossing up between Truganini, about which I’d heard a terrific podcast from the Sydney Writers’ Festival (here’s a link to my blog post), and See what You Made Me Do, the Stella Prize winner. When I put it to the group there was an overwhelming preference for Truganini’s journey through the apocalypse over Jess Hill’s exploration of abusive men. If we thought this would be less gruelling we were probably wrong.
Truganini is known to non-Indigenous Australian popular history as ‘the last Tasmanian’. That’s rubbish of course. There are still many Indigenous Tasmanians alive and kicking. But Truganini’s life is better documented than any of the survivors of genocide in Tasmania, and she has become, as Cassandra Pybus says in her Preface, ‘an international icon for extinction’. The mythologising began almost as soon as she died, and she has been seen ‘through the prism of colonial imperative: a rueful backward glance at the last tragic victim of an inexorable historical process’. In this book, Pybus sets out ‘to redirect the lens to find the woman behind the myth’.
Pybus’s main historical source is the writings of George Augustus Robinson. To quote the Preface again, ‘Truganini and her companions are only available to us through the gaze of pompous, partisan, acquisitive, self-aggrandising men who controlled and directed the context of what they described’. I’m grateful that Cassandra Pybus did the hard yakka of extracting a story line from such sources, reading them so we don’t have to.
In the 1820s, the Aboriginal clans of south-east Tasmania (Van Diemens Land as it then was) were all but wiped out by massacre and disease. Truganini belonged to the Nuenonne clan, whose country included Bruny Island. When George Augustus Robinson, fired by missionary fervour and ambition to be seen as a man of significance, set out to rescue the surviving First Nations people from the violence of the colony, Truganini, her father and some friends accepted his protection and became his guides and later his agents in persuading people from other clans to come under his protection.
For five years the band trudged through forests, over mountains, across streams. Truganini had terribly swollen legs, possibly as a result of syphilis she had contracted from sealers who had abducted her early in life, but she was an adept diver for seafood, and she and the other women in the group were the only ones who could swim, so were often called on to pull rafts across icy rivers. For the most part, Pybus tells the story straight without commenting, for instance, on the moral dilemmas involved in persuading resisting warriors to surrender to Robinson rather than face deadly violence elsewhere, as at the hands of John Batman, who emerges from these pages as a ruthless, brutal slaver.
The result of all these rounding-up missions is that, whatever promises Robinson might have made, people were sent to virtual island prisons, mainly on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where the death toll were horrifying. what started out as a ‘friendly mission’ became the coup de grâce of a genocidal program.
After being taken to Port Phillip on the mainland where Robinson hoped they might again play an intermediary role, Truganini and her companions were conclusively dumped by Robinson. He simply turned away from them and never mentioned them in his journals again.
Truganini and her companionos, including a husband and a close woman friend, were settled in Oyster Cover on the east coast of Tasmania, from where they would go on hunting excursions to Bruny Island and elsewhere. One by one, her companions died. With extraordinary restraint, Pybus simply tells us that their deaths were unrecorded. She doesn’t have to spell out the callous disregard of the colonial establishment. Truganini, the sole survivor, spent her last years in the care of John Dandridge and his wife (unnamed) in Hobart. Dandridge would take her across to Bruny Island, so that she could still walk in her own country. To the end, she cared for country, and slept on the floor rather than the coloniser’s bed.
For all the horrors that were inflicted on this extraordinary woman and her people, the one that comes across with most poignancy in this narrative comes right at the end. As people die, the scientific establishment waits like vultures for their skeletons. Graves are dug up, newly dead bodies are decapitated, collections of skulls are sent to England. Truganini herself expressed her terror at having this done to her own remains, and asked Dandridge to scatter her ashes in the channel between Bruny Island and the main island of Tasmania. But he died before her, and her body was buried, dug up and later exhibited in the Tasmanian Museum – until 1947! After a long legal battle by Tasmanian Aborigines, the Museum allowed the skeleton to be cremated, and her ashes were scattered according to her wishes on 30 April 1976, a few days short of the centenary of her death.
And then there are the illustrations. Truganini, her warrior husband Wooredy, the great leader Mannalargenna and others challenge our gaze in portraits painted by Thomas Bock in 1835. There are photographs too, perhaps taken with ethnographic intentions, but when Truganini looks at you from a photo taken by Charles Woolley in 1866 (here’s a link), she isn’t offering herself as an object. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jakelin Troy said, referring to the fact that Truganini walked about Bruny Island in old age:
I’m sure she was making the point that this was still her country and that she’s there, and even if they didn’t think deeply about the fact that it was her family’s country, I think that in reality you can’t avoid that that’s what it is.
It’s hard to look at Truganini in these portraits and not feel that she’s making a similar point: she is still herself, and even if the photographer, the curators, the scientists, the colonial historians don’t think deeply about the fact, she challenges us to acknowledge that she is a human being. As she tells us in a final chapter, Cassandra Pybus has reasons to take that challenge personally: her ancestor received a grant to part of Truganini’s country, and in her childhood she heard stories of the old Aboriginal woman who walked about the family’s property. This book is a powerful, humble and devastating response to the challenge.
After the meeting: We’re still meeting on zoom, probably not for the last time. This book generated a very interesting discussion among us white middle-aged and older men. Some were less enthusiastic about it than others. The negatives first.
One man had studied George Augustus Robinson on the 1980s, particularly the collection of his papers published in 1966, The Friendly Mission. He had approached this book with high hopes, but found that it didn’t add much by way of new perspectives or insights – despite its intention of focusing on Truganini, it largely stayed with Robinson.
Another, who read this just after Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (my blog post here), was disappointed that neither Truganini nor Robinson, or really any of the other characters, emerged as fully rounded characters. There was precious little exploration of motivations or emotional responses. Maybe, he said, you can’t expect that of history: this might be excellent history but it’s not much chop as literature.
Someone who agreed with that latter point said that the question for him was, if that is so, then how come the book held his attention the whole time, when he usually gave up on history books after 15 pages? Someone said that the subject commands our attention, as this is a story that cuts through to our souls as settler Australians. I think that’s true, but I also think the book is well written, and the failure to flesh out the characters is a strength: Pybus doesn’t speculate or invent, but largely leaves us to join the dots. As someone said, it’s fairly clear that for Truganini and her companions, Robinson’s offer of protection was their best bet for survival.
Challenging the notion that the writing was generally flat and factual, someone read a short passage about Truganini’s father, Manganerer who had encountered convict mutineers:
These men abducted his wife and sailed away with her to New Zealand, then on to Japan and China. Hastily constructing a sturdy ocean-going canoe, Manganerer had attempted to follow them but had been blown far out into the Southern Ocean. His son had died and he himself was half dead from dehydration when he was found by a whaling ship.
The tragedy was almost too much for this proud man to bear. He had endured the murder of his first wife and the abduction of his two older daughters by the intruders, and now they had taken his second wife. His only son was dead and his remaining daughter had abandoned him for the whaling station. His distress was compounded when he discovered that in his absence almost all of his clan had succumbed to disease, as had all but one of the people visiting from Port Davey, who were under his protection.
There was a moment’s silence on the zoom space. With such a litany of horrors – and this is early in the book, the worst devastation comes towards the end – there’s not a lot of need for further authorial commentary.
One man took up the cudgels on Robinson’s behalf. He said he felt protective of him. Yes, he took on the role of ‘Protector of Aborigines’ out of a kind of opportunism, and yes, his ventures finished off the ‘extirpation’ that the notorious Black Line failed to achieve. But he had a huge inner struggle. At some level he recognised and respected the humanity and the cultural strength of the people in his care (there are scenes n the book where he eats and sings and dances with them). But he was blinded by his belief system and could only at rare moments acknowledge what he was actually doing. And – I think I’m quoting correctly – isn’t that blindness something that we all have?
I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration that the book had us staring into the abyss of our nation’s foundation story. Today, someone is offering to send us all bumper stickers in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Short stories don’t sell. At least, I believe that’s the prevailing wisdom among publishers. That’s probably why this excellent collection of short stories – or more accurately three short stories and two novellas – has been marketed as a novel. Still, if that’s what it takes to draw readers in, then why not?
All the stories happen in India, though they are five different Indias. An expat returns from the USA with his seven-year-old son, and takes him to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri; another expat, this one from England, visits his parents and gets to know their cook; a man from a poor village goes on the road with a dancing bear; a girl from another poor village is sent off to a life of domestic servitude in ever bigger and further away cities, while her best friend joins the Maoist guerrillas; a man suffering from asbestosis does dangerous construction work in a city far from his home village.
All the protagonists are dislocated. Some of them turn up as minor characters in another’s story: the bear man is the twin brother of the man with asbestosis, and both of them, having left home intending to send money back, have left their wives and children to fend for themselves. The cook in the second story has it in for another servant, who turns out to the the girl in the fourth story.
These are grim stories. The first starts out like a mini-travelogue, though one with a dark cloud over it, and ends with devastating heartbreak; in the second, what might have been a piece of food-tourism comes hard up against the desperation of the poor; and in the rest, the harsh inequalities of class destroy people’s lives. There’s a Reading Group Guide up the back of my copy, which I skimmed. These notes insist that this is a novel with a brilliant structure. Perhaps they’re referring to the way the stories are ordered as a descent into ever more desperate situations.
It’s a grim book, and a beautifully written one. There’s some romance, some intrigue, some terrible domestic violence and cruelty to animals, but also kindness and a glimmering promise that things might improve.
I’ve read it during the Great Covid–19 Lockdown, and am writing this with cold symptoms waiting in strict isolation for the results of a Covid test [test came back negative about six hours after I wrote that]. Without wanting to trivialise the situation of the character, here’s a passage that seems to speak to my current situation and may give you a feel for the writing, and also a sense of the irony in the book’s title. Milly, the protagonist, is working as a maid in Mumbai, and her employers have forbidden her to leave the apartment block:
It was not that she needed to go out – where would, could, she go, in this endless city, without knowing anyone? – but something so fundamental denied is that thing made disproportionately enormous, consuming, and she began to think of herself as a caged bird, defined by the fact of nothing except its imprisonment …
She experienced a new feeling, at night, of the kitchen walls inching forward slowly from all four sides to crush her, lying in the middle. Their hut in the village had been tiny and eight of them had to sleep together, huddled, but she had never thought of that as small. Besides, there was always the great open outside – fields, forests, groves, river bank. The idea of space of something small or big, something that could be reduced, had never occurred to her, not even on the train, in the general compartment so dense with people that the air had sometimes felt too thick to breathe. not even in that battery-cage had the thought ever crossed her mind that ‘this is too small’. Now, in a Mumbai flat bigger than any house she had ever known, she felt trapped and squeezed.
Sound at all familiar?
My copy of A State of Freedom is a loan from my book-swapping club.
This is the fifth book featuring Philip Pullman’s wonderful Lyra Silvertongue (or Belacqua, take your pick). There was the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I loved to pieces, and which gave rise to a play, a movie and now, I’ve just discovered, a television series (click here for the IMDB entry). Then there was a small book, Lyra’s Oxford, which I missed. And now a second trilogy, The Book of Dust, of which the first book, La Belle Sauvage, was a prequel to the first trilogy and featured Lyla as a baby. The Secret Commonwealth leaps forward a couple of decades, and features events that take place some years after the end of the first trilogy, when Lyra is a twenty-year-old university student.
I wasn’t swept away by La Belle Sauvage (my blog post here). At least in the second part, it felt like a lot of colour and movement and not much interesting by way of plot or character development. The Secret Commonwealth is back on track. At the beginning, Lyla, now a student at Oxford, is at odds with her daemon Pantaleimon. For those who came in late (which I really don’t recommend: start with Northern Lights aka The Golden Compass), in this world a daemon is an animal who is somehow part of a human being. Daemons have names, they change shape frequently when their human is young but settle into a permanent creature around puberty. A daemon generally represents some essential element of its human’s character. To be separated from your daemon is extremely distressing, and most people don’t believe it is possible. To be quarrelling with him or her, as Lyla is when this book begins, is deeply disturbing.
So we’re off to a complex start. Lyla’s difficulty with Panteleimon is central to her personal life, but there are huge issues to deal with in the rest of the world. A version of the Catholic Church wields tremendous power, and though we are more or less in the present day it’s as if the Inquisition is alive and well. Organised religion, militant atheism, postmodern truthysim, religiously inspired terrorism all feature, in a plot of almost Le-Carré-esque complexity as we follow the separate adventures of Lyla, Pantaleimon and Malcolm Polstead, who is in undeclared love with Lyla, all of them being pursued by a fantasy version of the surveillance state.
Where His Dark Materials was intended primarily for a pre-teen or young teenage readership, this is definitely for older readers. I didn’t feel like an intruder as a 73 year old, but that’s not exactly what I mean. There’s some fruity swearing, and there’s one powerful scene of sexually-motivated violence that take it right out of the children’s section into the YA.
I remember how agonising it was to wait for the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy – would Will really kill the Authority, and since the Authority seemed to be a name for the Judaeo-Christian God, what would that mean? The Secret Commonwealth, like all good second books in trilogies, also ends with a cliffhanger. Will the characters find each other, will they discover the secret behind the Men from the Mountains, fundamentalist terrorists, will Lyra escape the men who have tracked her down to the deserted village in southern Turkey, will the world be saved? But this time, without in any way implying that the book didn’t have me in its thrall the whole time, I can wait.
I read a couple of the essays in this when they first appeared in the Weekend Australian, and was delighted to receive the book as a Christmas gift. I hope it will make me less ignorant about contemporary Australian poetry.
Sidney Poitier is still a commanding presence on this story of a teacher who wins over a room full of recalcitrant students. The students are pretty harmless by today's movie standards, and mostly unconvincing. I didn't know it was directed by an Australian, and didn't remember how blatantly was addressed to a US audience. But watching it was […]