Category Archives: Book Group

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and the Book Group

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (©2007, Translated Jennifer Crofts 2017, Text Publishing 2017)

flights.jpgBefore the meeting: If I hadn’t been reading this for the Book Group, I would have stopped reading at about page 80. As it won the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, it seems that wiser heads see it differently, but to my mind it consisted of fragments of story interspersed with short, mostly banal reflections on aspects of travel. It was like reading excerpts from a notebook, some of them expanded to a degree.

I did keep going, from a sense of duty to the Group and in the hope that some of the fragmentary narratives might be continued later.

On page 83, it turns out, the narrator is in an airport and encounters a lecture being given on Travel Psychology. A quick Duck-Duck-Go search shows that travel psychology is a real thing, but the discipline by that name in this lecture seems to be Olga Tokarczuk’s invention, and the lecture has every appearance of telling the reader how the book works, that is to say, the lecturer is the character some film critics would call Basil Exposition. The foundational idea of travel psychology, he says, is constellationality:

in life […] it is impossible to build a consistent cause-and-effect course of argument or a narrative with events that succeed each other casuistically and follow from each other. … Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth. […] Human life is comprised of situations. There is, of course, a certain inclination towards the repetition of behaviours. This repetition does not, however, mean that we should succumb in our imaginations to the appearance of any sort of consistent whole.

That is, abandon hope of finding a consistent whole, all ye who enter here.

Some of the stories that follow do allow for development and even resolution, particularly one about seventeenth century anatomists, and another about a woman who steps out of her life to become homeless in Moscow for a time. The most frustratingly curtailed story from early in the book does continue to a resolved state in the last section. But in general, though there’s a salient theme to do with the preservation of human bodies for display purposes, the book fulfils that warning not to expect ‘the appearance of any sort of consistent whole’. I’ve got nothing against constellations or constellationality, but I guess I do like a bit of a consistent whole. I did enjoy some moments, but over all, I’m a long way from being a fan of this book. Sorry!

[A pedantic note: As a lazy blogger, I looked online to see if someone else had quoted from that Travel Psychology lecture, planning to cut and paste. As a recovering proofreader I was interested to see how what I found in the Chicago Review of Books differs from the text in my copy of the book, which is what I’ve quoted from above: the review follows US spelling conventions, omits the word ‘Human’, and has ‘made up of’ rather than the incorrect ‘comprised of’. It looks as if the US editors were more rigorous than the ones responsible for the Text Publishing edition. If I was even more obsessive than I am, I’d hunt out a US edition to see if, for instance, it too misspells ‘minuscule’ or if its translation of ‘quaestio oritur‘ [‘the question arises’]  sticks to the correct literal translation or gives the common but erroneous ‘begs the question’ as in my copy.]

After the meeting: We had a good conversation over spaghetti bolognese, just seven of us. Mostly people enjoyed the book more than I did, but I think I’m right in saying that no one absolutely loved it – I had been hoping it would find an unabashed champion who would make me see what I had missed, but it was not to be. One man in particular found a thematic glue to do with the unpredictability of life, but mostly there was a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. What did emerge in the course of the conversation was the range of stories: none of us could remember one of the episodes singled out for mention on the back cover, but we reminded each other of many moments we had enjoyed.

Given that in one way or another, most of the reflections and narratives in Flights are to do with travel, it was appropriate that the conversation moved on to our own travellers’ tales: two of us had independently visited the bogs of Estonia and a festival in Riga, one had seen wonders in Texas and California, and one had had a transformative experience in Arnhem Land.

The Book Group and Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction

Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018)

murnane.jpgBefore the meeting:
Gerald Murnane has been described as ‘Australia’s most distinguished unread writer’. His most recent novel, Border Districts, is shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Prize. He is the author of seven other novels, two books of essays and a memoir as well as the 20 short fictions in this book, which have previously been gathered in three collections: Velvet Waters (1990), Emerald Blue (1995) and A History of Books (2012).

My introduction to Murnane was ‘The Breathing Author’, an essay published in Heat 3 (New Series) in 2002, in which he portrays himself in such a negative way (‘I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest’) that I felt absolutely no desire to read more.

So when the Designated Book Chooser chose Murnane’s  Collected Short Fiction for our August meeting, I was less than thrilled.

And now I’m grateful to the Book Group for once again taking me places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone. The book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was enthralled – I loved it.

It’s hard to say why I loved it. These fictions (every time you see that word here, I have first typed ‘stories’, and then deleted it and replaced it with ‘fictions’) have no named characters (unless you count the uncle of the main character in the third last story who is given the name Nunkie), they generally have very little action, and it’s sometimes hard to see how they even hold together. They feature an obsessive repetition of words and phrases and constantly draw attention to themselves as something being written. If the word ‘introspection’ didn’t exist it would have to be invented to describe them.

What do they have? Well, the narrator of one of the stories, ‘In Far Fields’, who is described in the story itself as its implied author (that is, I think, he is implied to be Gerald Murnane), describes to a hypothetical student his own approach to creating fictions. He begins by writing a sentence, which is ‘a report of a detail of an image in [his] mind’, an image that ‘was connected by strong feeling to other images in [his] mind’. He then proceeds to write a sentence that is a report of a detail of another image that was connected by feelings to the first image. And then a third image, and so on. This chain of images forms the basis of the story. It becomes complicated after that, but it’s worth quoting a little from near the end of his talk to the hypothetical student:

Before she left my office, I would tell her, as a last piece of advice, that she need not have learned the meaning of every image reported in a piece of fiction before she had finished writing the final draft. Nearly every piece of my fiction, I would tell her, included a report of an image whose connections I did not discover until long after the piece had been finished. Sometimes these connections had not appeared until I was writing a later piece of fiction, and then I would understand that the image in the earlier piece of fiction was connected with an image in the later piece.

I think it’s this sense that the (implied) author is always exploring something that involves deep and not yet understood emotion, not knowing where the writing is taking him, that kept me pretty much spellbound on almost every page of this book. The prose is generally dry, methodical, self-referential, but the analogy that come to my mind is of an archaeological dig in a temple of Aphrodite: meticulous brushing, digging, scraping around objects that speak for themselves of great unruly passion.

One effect of this approach is that no distinction is made in the text between memory and fantasy. Most of the fictions feel autobiographical, but that isn’t the point: the reader is invited/expected to respond to the images and the fiction that connects them without knowing or caring if they come from Murnane’s actual life. Many of the images that the fictions ‘report’ are scenes from rural Victoria, and I expect that readers from that part of the world would feel an extra connection with the writing. Another whole swathe of images relate to the Catholic childhoods and adolescences of the unnamed main characters, and it’s probably these that led me to a deeper emotional engagement.  ‘Pink Lining’ is an example. It begins:

The image that caused me to begin writing this story is an image of a single cloud in a sky filled with heaps or layers of clouds. The single cloud and all the other clouds in the sky are coloured grey, but the single cloud is surrounded by an aureole or nimbus of pink.

It turns out that this image is on a holy card preserved from the narrator’s childhood. Adult, non-believing cynicism having been raised and brushed aside, the image leads to memories of the narrator’s favourite aunt, a pious woman, bedridden since the age of twelve, who taught him a lot about Catholic teachings. The story of the narrator’s relationship to that aunt emerges, and the fiction wanders through other parts of his life, with every now and then a tight focus on the colour of a wall, a pink holy water font, a sky ‘filled with heaps or layers of grey clouds’. Here’s perhaps the most dramatic paragraph (which reports on one of the key images of the piece):

At certain times during the years following his twenty-fifth year, the man who was first mentioned in the second paragraph of this story believed that he had never looked at or touched the naked body of any woman before his twenty-fifth year. At other times during the years just mentioned, the man believed that he had looked at the naked body above the waist of a certain woman during his fifth year. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door mentioned in the previous paragraph, the naked body above the waist of his favourite aunt as she leaned over a dish of white enamel filled with water and on that body two breasts, each with a nipple surrounded by a zone of pink. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the sentence before the sentence mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door just mentioned, the naked body above the waist just mentioned and the dish filled with water just mentioned and on the body the nipples of a girl whose breasts had not yet begun to grow,

The affectless, asperger-ish quality of this is typical of Murnane’s prose. The prim but eloquent silence about what happened when the man was 25, and then the pedantically framed account of what he had seen when he was five (leaving the reader to imagine the emotional content of the experience) have a feel I recognise from my own Catholic childhood: some things simply aren’t meant to be spoken of, especially if sex or the naked human body is involved. (My mother’s response to The Female Eunuch comes to mind: ‘You don’t look over people’s shoulders when they’re brushing their teeth, so why do it with that?’) The result, though, is that moments like this or the final words of this story, which quote a line from a song ‘previously mentioned’, pack a huge punch.

Now that I have actually read this book, I am left wanting more: maybe I should start with Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row. I am immensely grateful, not only to this month’s Designated Book Chooser, but also to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

The meeting:
There were six of us. One of the absentees said on the phone, in a voice affected by a heavy cold, that he thought Murnane used a lot of words to say almost nothing. But those of us who ate the spinach pie and ice creams found a lot to talk about. In fact, we probably stayed with the book more than any other night except maybe Anna Karenina. I wouldn’t say everyone was wild about the book, and only three of us had read all 20 stories (plus one was part way through Border Districts), but we had all engaged with the writing, with Gerald Murnane’s mind (or to be more precise his way of writing about his mind).

One chap came back from a toilet break saying, ‘I’ll give him a hundred percent for slowing time down. I love dance and music that does that, and he’s done it  in writing.’ I think he meant that Murnane’s fiction moves from emotionally charged image to emotionally charged image is something that we all do, but what we do in fractions of a second, he slows down and dissects meticulously.

Someone quoted from a review that said that with Murnane’s writing, what matters is what you find yourself thinking about as you read it. That struck a chord: some of us had found ourselves reflecting on our intensely religious upbringings; others on our connection to the land where we live; others still on the complexities of early adolescent attitudes to sex.

Someone said that even when Murnane is annoying – and at least one person said he’d felt like throwing the book across the room more than once – he’s interesting. Someone said he’s cruel, leading the reader in one direction and then springing a nasty surprise. Others disagreed, reading him as not really caring how the reader responds, but following the logic of his own process. In fact, we generally felt there was a ruthless honesty in his self-exploration.

When someone gave a 30 second version of one of the stories, it produced belly laughs, which for me at least was a revelation, as I hadn’t found the story funny when I read it in its own tempo.

That is to say, I’d recommend these short fictions as an excellent choice for a book group.

 

The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980, Virago 2004 … 2014)

transit.jpgBefore the meeting: Serendipitously, I heard that this book had been chosen for the Book Group’s June meeting just after visiting the wonderful exhibition James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library, which features the actual transit of Venus across the face of the sun in 1769. I enjoyed the exhibition much more than the book.

Sadly, though I’m in awe of The Transit of Venus for its passion and complexity and astonishingly subtle prose, I just couldn’t like it. I feel mean saying so, because it feels like a very personal book – Shirley Hazzard and her protagonist Caroline Bell have a lot of history on common. At the same time, it’s the way the author injects herself constantly into the narrative that alienated me. Though she never actually addresses the reader, as in ‘Reader, I had an adulterous affair with him,’ she regularly winks at us over the characters’ heads – informing us of one’s eventual fate, giving us just the beginnings of sentences whose cliché endings she expects us to know, or commenting with Patrick White–like snobbishness on someone’s snobbery. The prose is studded with literary allusions, not all of them convincingly attributed to the characters, of which I recognised enough to know that I was mostly being cast as an outsider.

Two young Australian women whose parents died in a marine accident are in the care of their martyrish older half-sister, who brings them to England a little after World War Two. The younger sister, Grace, makes a boring marriage and the novel focuses on the complex relationships of Caro/Caroline, the older sister. Caro is loved by a young scientist of working class origins, Edmund Tice, but she falls for a sophisticated playwright, Paul Ivory, who is engaged and then married to a nasty piece of aristocratic work named Tertia. Caro eventually frees herself of Paul’s charms and finds happiness with a wealthy US social justice activist, Adam Vail. Vail’s death years later introduces the final act, in which both Grace and her husband are separately tempted to adultery (it would be a spoiler to tell if either or both succumb), and circumstances bring Caro back to her youthful love triangle, where there are as many revelations as you’d find at the end of an Agatha Christie novel, delivered pretty much in an extended monologue by one of the characters. Then there’s a final scene that, like the ending of The Sopranos, is illusorily inconclusive.

It’s not as soapy as that summary makes it sound, but that’s the bare bones. Here’s a sample of the writing, picked pretty much at random. Caro and Paul are visiting a megalithic site, and Caro is in awe. Then:

Some stones were rounded, some columnar. That was their natural state, unhewn, untooled. Paul Ivory said, ‘Male and female created He them. Even these rocks.’
The presence of Paul offered something like salvation, implying that the human propensity to love, which could never contradict Avebury Circle, might yet make it appear incomplete. Aware of this advantage, Paul awaited the moment when Caro’s silence would be transferred back, intensified, from the place to himself. He was calm, with controlled desire and with the curiosity that is itself an aspect of desire. As yet he and she had merely guessed at each other’s essence, and her show of self-sufficiency had given her some small degree of power over him – power that could only be reversed by an act of possession.
Preliminary uncertainty might be a stimulus, if the outcome was assured.
Caro had a wonderful danger to her, too, that derived not only from the circumstances, but also from her refusal to manipulate them. The danger and the attraction were the same. There was, in addition, her strong, resilient body, strong arms and throat, and her aversion to physical contact. Beyond the pleasure of defying his own circumstances, Paul pursued a further impulse to violate Caroline Bell’s pride or her integrity.

The quote from Genesis is the kind of thing most characters in the book come out with, except that the Bible crops up less than Yeats or eighteenth century London gossip. I’ve recently visited a megalithic site a little like the one in the book (mine was near Évora in Portugal), and while I completely get Caro’s awe, I simply don’t believe in her need for ‘salvation’ or her resulting vulnerability to Paul’s seductive intentions. And all that stuff about essence, power,  possession, uncertainty and violation … well, to me it’s very high-level hooptedoodle. If it’s to your taste or sheds light on the human condition for you, you’ll enjoy this novel a lot more than I did.

But don’t let my comments put you off. When I’d finished the book I read an excellent article about it circulated by a member of the Book Group, ‘Across the Face of the Sun’ by Charlotte Wood in the Sydney Review of Books. It’s an excellent article, though not something you should read before reading the book. She writes:

It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.

Well, there you have it. I’ve read it for the first time.

After the meeting: It was a small meeting, just five of us, of whom four had read the whole book – though one of the completers confessed to skipping slabs of it.

It turned out we’d all responded to the same elements in the writing, but our responses were vastly different. Two of us, neither of whom usually does this, had marked a number of short sentences that had delighted them, and when they read them aloud it turned out that some of them were exactly the kind of thing that had increasingly turned me off the book. Someone said he had laughed out loud at parts that I registered as annoying smart-arsery.

I had read the book as permeated with a kind of expatriate contempt for mid 20th century Australia. Others read it very differently, as challenging English assumptions of cultural inferiority. One chap spoke of visiting Britain as a young man and being surprised to discover that there were people there who had a mental hierarchy of cultural worth, in which he had been given a low place as an Australian. There are a number of moments in The Transit of Venus that challenge that ranking: snobbish Christian Thrale observes silently that the two young women don’t seem to realise that they are just a couple of Australian girls living in rented accommodation.

We made the non-completer leave the room at one stage so we could discuss the ending, something everyone who read the book for the first time needs to do.

Everyone had enjoyed the book more than I had, and though I don’t think anyone thought it was a truly great book, we were unanimous in our awe of it. I certainly had to rethink my own response. Maybe I’ll get to a revelatory second reading some time.

The Transit of Venus is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kim Scott’s Taboo at the Book Group

Kim Scott, Taboo (Macmillan Australia 2017)

taboo.jpegBefore the meeting: Regretfully, I’m short of time to write about Taboo. It’s a very different book from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. That earlier novel engages with the early history of Western Australian colonisation with almost superhuman breadth of sympathy and already has classic status. This one is set in the twenty-first century, and follows a group of Noongar people who are returning to the site of a massacre with the hope of making things right – reestablishing contact with the old people, and with culture and language, and making some kid of reconciliation with the descendants of the perpetrators.

Taboo is based squarely in Kim Scott’s experience as an activist in language reclamation in Western Australia. I’ve just watched a video of a talk he gave on the subject at Melbourne University in 2012, in which he speaks about ‘the responsibility and obligations of being a descendant of the people who first created human society in this part of the world and keep that sense of society alive’. He speaks with modesty, charm, humour, and great power. It is a revelatory 50 minutes. I doubt if he had even started writing Taboo at the time of the talk, but he tells a number of stories that are clearly the inspiration for key episodes in the novel.

The novel doesn’t romanticise its Noongar characters: they have been scarred and in some cases corrupted by their history. They struggle with drug and alcohol issues. But awkwardly, shambolically, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, they find hope in what they can piece together of their heritage. The central character, fifteen year old Tilly, has reconnected with her Noongar father only as a teenager, and in the course of the novel is welcomed into her extended family, who see her as important to their project of returning to the massacre site (she was fostered by the farming family of the place when she was a baby). Her claustrophobic response to their embrace is vividly realised.

Maybe it’s just me (I’ll find out at the meeting), but while the novel has vastly expanded my sense of the world, it’s no masterpiece. There are elements of something like magical realism that are weirdly unsatisfactory, many narrative threads that are started up and never resolved, and an ending that feels like a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to make it all come together.

After the meeting, just a hasty note before I go to bed, because time is a bit short just now: This book sustained conversation like few others, and everyone who had read it had something interesting to say about it.

One man said that it wasn’t like a feature film, but more like the beginning of a television series: we were left wondering what would happen next for just about every character. Another said it was about the importance of stories, that it told many stories that didn’t necessarily connect. As readers we are left in an unsettled state of never really knowing the full story. I don’t think he used the word ‘unsettled’, but we did notice that we are all white men of a certain age, and the way the book made us feel had a lot to do with that. Without really leaving the book, we talked about the prospect of a treaty, about the relative value of symbolic acts, about the different meaning of a sense of place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons.

Another said that he thought the book was about loss, scarring, grief, dislocation, that there was hope, but built on a fragile and fragmented base. Someone disagreed that it was about loss – that it was more about the power of community in the face of loss.

No one else seemed to find the magic realism elements unsatisfactory, and I was in a minority in disliking the ending. One man said he thought it was the best novel written in Australia so far – precisely because its lack of resolution was a true representation of how things stand in the relationship between Aboriginal people and mainstream Australia.

It was our first meeting for the year. Our host prepared a meal that set the bar high. The book led us to focus our minds on things that matter. We enjoyed each other, laughed a lot, and I think I can say we all came out into the night very glad for the gift that Kim Scott has given us in this book.

The Book Group and James Rebanks’ Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life (Penguin 2016)

shepherd.jpegBefore the meeting: A number of the chaps in the group (me included) had been charmed by James Rebanks when they heard him on Australian radio earlier this year. Plus his book is short, always desirable for the Book Group and especially so at this time of year. So this is what we read.

The book is part memoir, part family history, part advocacy for a way of life and a community of people. The early pages frame the conversation neatly: Rebanks tells of teachers who urged him and his fellow students to study hard if they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives on their family’s tiny farms in the inhospitable fells of England’s Lake District, of a teacher who waxed lyrical about the beauty of that same region from the point of view of Romantic poets and those who followed after them, but seemed to regard her students as incapable of understanding such elevated thoughts:

I wanted to tell that teacher that she had it all wrong – tell her that she didn’t really know this place or its people at all. These thoughts took years to become clear, but in a rough childish form I think they were there from the start. I also knew in a crude way that if books define places, then writing books was important, but that we needed books by us and about us. But in that assembly in 1987 I was dumb and thirteen, so I just made a farting noise on my hand. Everyone laughed. She finished and left the stage fuming.

James Rebanks is no longer dumb and thirteen, and though this book rises from the same impulse as that farting noise, I’d be surprised if, when that teacher reads it, she fumes even the tiniest bit. Millions of people visit the Lake District each year for its beauty and simply don’t see that it is a workplace, or have any sense of the accumulated knowledge and connection to country of the people who work there. To them, in a very real sense, Rebanks and his community are invisible. The book doesn’t reprimand or reproach the visitors for their narrow vision. It sets out to show them – I should say us, even though I haven’t been there –  what we have failed to see, and it succeeds brilliantly.

There’s a lot about sheep, about sheep dogs, about grandfathers, fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, about lambing and tupping and death, about fine ewes and tups (a word I’ve previously only known in the rhyme ‘Thomas a Tattamus took two tees / to tie two tups to two tall trees’), about the qualities of different breeds and the way the seasons run the life of the farms. There’s Wordsworth (not as unaware of the farmers as young Rebanks thought) and Beatrix Potter (not as the cranky child-hater I’d read about elsewhere). And there’s a lot about a way of life that is perhaps more than a thousand years old and has survived the depredations of capitalism more or less intact.

In some editions the book is subtitled ‘Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape’. I think that’s a mistake, because its whole purpose is to claim the land back from the idea of it as ‘landscape’, as something to be looked at. It moves in the direction of what I (dimly) understand of the Aboriginal idea of Country – and it’s no surprise that one section is introduced with a quote from Oodgeroo Noonuccal: ‘Let no one say the past is dead. / The past is all around us and within.’

I’ve sometimes thought that I should start a blog post about a book by mentioning how it connects with other recent reading. This would have been a good one to start with: the scene described in this book when the radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl disaster appears is not as intense as those in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, but it’s definitely in the same peasant universe. The account of the obsessive value that some shepherds place on particular breeds of sheep and the agony caused by government slaughter to prevent the spread of disease is gripping in its own right, but also makes an excellent footnote to Grímur Hákonarson’s great movie, Rams.

I expect the book will resonate with anyone who spent their childhood on a farm, whether they dealt with sheep or not. I’m a thoroughly citified seventy-year-old, but the boy who helped decapitate a stillborn calf and pull it out of its mother, while his father held the mother’s head and crooned reassurance to her – that boy came alive again as I read this book.

After the meeting: It was our end of  year meeting in a restaurant, so conversation was fragmented and only about the book for a comparatively brief time. A show of hands indicated we were unanimous in liking the book. One chap felt it was too long (I don’t agree) and repetitive (yes, but I didn’t mind), poorly edited (hmm, I did notice one or two things), but he didn’t want to put it down: it turned out that like me he was brought up on a farm and had no attraction to the work or the way of life, and his father ran sheep, so in a way the book spoke very directly to him.

There was of course some controversy, but it was about the New South Wales government’s intention of pulling down a sports facility that’s less than 20 years old, and about the media treatment of the latest wave of sexual harassment scandals. There was good news from the group member who has been dealing with aggressive prostate cancer, we had a Kris Kringle or used books, and parted wishing each other good things for the end of the year.

The Book Group and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer

Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)

chernobyl.jpegFrom post revolutionary China in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing back to the Russian Revolution in China Miéville’s October, and now forward to post-Soviet Belarus: the book group has lit on a theme.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chernobyl Prayer is essentially a series of monologues about the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I expected it to be a gruelling read, so I rationed it. I worked out how I would need to read seventeen pages a day to finish the book before the Group met, and set that as a schedule. Of course it didn’t work out like that, but it was a good strategy.

As Studs Terkel’s Working did for working people in the USA, or Wendy Loewenstein’s Weevils in the Flour for the 1930s Depression in Australia, this book provides a platform for scores of witnesses who otherwise would be largely ignored or – as a number of Alexievich’s interviewees tell us – treated as specimens. There are peasants and nuclear physicists, loyal Communists and embittered cynics, ancient women and nine year olds, poets, playwrights and journalists. There’s operatic intensity, fatalistic heroism, jokes that are terrible in both meanings of the word. The cultivated and forested land around Chernobyl is lovingly evoked, along with the invisible horror of nuclear radiation. The monologues that pretty much begin and end the book, each titled ‘A lone human voice’, are long, passionate, heartbreaking stories of love and bereavement, one from the widow of a fireman who was among what we now call the first responders, the other from the widow of a clean-up worker who was conscripted for the job six months later.

Here’s an excerpt from the author’s interview with herself early in the book:

This is not a book on Chernobyl, but on the world of Chernobyl. … what I’m concerned with is what I would call the ‘missing history’, the invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time. I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul. A day in the life of ordinary people. Here, though, everything was extraordinary: both the event itself and the people, as they settled into the new space. How many times has art rehearsed the apocalypse, offered different technological versions of doomsday? Now, though, we can be assured that life is infinitely more fantastical. … Chernobyl is a mystery that we have yet to unravel. An undeciphered sign. A mystery, perhaps, for the twenty-first century; a challenge for it. What has become clear is that, besides the challenges of Communism, nationalism and nascent religion which we are living with and dealing with, other challenges lie ahead: challenges more fiendish and all-embracing, although still hidden from view. Yet, after Chernobyl, something had cracked open.

I’ve responded to works by other Nobel Prize laureates with a kind of compliant respect, ‘I can see why this person was given the Nobel Prize, and I guess my horizons have been expanded by reading this book.’ In the case of Chernobyl Prayer I am deeply grateful that the Norwegians brought it to my attention (and to the Book Group for prompting me to read it). In illuminating the ‘missing history’ of Chernobyl, it reminds us of the disasters, past and in the making, that we so easily turn our heads away from: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Maralinga, Fukushima, and the overarching threat of climate change. In this way it is like Maralinga: the An̲angu story by the Yalata Aboriginal Community with Christobel Mattingley, or Yhonnie Scarce’s beautiful and unsettling installation Death Zephyr (click for an image). It would be impossible for a reasonably well informed Australian to read this book, especially the sections dealing with the way political pragmatism trumped the laws of physics, without thinking of the pronouncements on coal from Tony Abbott and his ilk.

The meeting: I hosted the meeting this time. I let people know in advance that I had made an enormous amount of marmalade from our cumquat tree this year. One of the chaps emailed on the weekend, ‘The prospect of marmalade is the only thing getting me through this miserable book!’ Others echoed the sentiment.

It turned out that the conversation was so animated that all thought of marmalade vanished from our minds. It’s a perfect book-club book. There is so much detail that the conversation bounced around from one alarming moment to another, as we reminded each other of what we’d read. We were in awe of the author’s skill in getting such poetry down on the page from her interlocutors’ testimonies.

And now a hasty fourteen lines, written before the group met:

November Verse 3: After reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer
(‘I realise now that terrible things in life happen unspectacularly and naturally‘)
Good Soviets, good peasants trusted
authorities that reassured,
a lifetime’s mental habit rusted
on. To keep that Party Card,
to serve the people, serve the nation,
be not afeared of radiation:
in spring the wood’s still gently green,
roengtens, curies can’t be seen.
We have our own insanity
three decades on: the planet warms,
brings bushfires, catastrophic storms,
but ‘Coal’s good for humanity’
wins votes. With luck in time we’ll learn
so millions more don’t have to burn.

The Book Group and China Miéville’s October

China Miéville, October: The story of the Russian Revolution (Verso 2017)

October

Before the meeting: The Book Group was recently immersed in post-revolutionary China with Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Someone remembered that this year is the centenary of the October Revolution and that China Miéville (whose The City and the City we read a while back) has written a book about it. In a nice piece of symmetry, given that according to the Western calendar the October Revolution happened in November, October is our book for September.

The book is tough going in some ways. The story of Russia from February to October 1917 is bewilderingly complex. A ‘Glossary of Personal Names’ at the back gives brief notes on 55 people who played significant roles. Maps of Petrograd and European Russia offer minimal help with the logistics. The multiplicity of political parties, and factions and committees within those parties, and the ever-shifting relationships between them, have a dizzying effect. Not to mention the fluid allegiances and political positions of the lead players.

But once you realise you don’t have to be on top of every detail, it’s an exhilarating ride. Miéville describes his intention in an introduction:

Though carefully researched – no event or spoken word described here is not recorded in the histories – this book does not attempt to be exhaustive, scholarly or specialist. It is, rather, a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms, Because here it is precisely as a story that I have tried to tell it.

He goes on:

The year 1917 was an epic, a concatenation of adventures, hopes, betrayals, unlikely coincidences, war and intrigue; of bravery and cowardice and foolishness, farce, derring-do, tragedy; of epochal ambition and change, of glaring lights, steel, shadows; of tracks and trains.

It would be hard to find a better description of the book than that.

It tells the story in 10 chapters: ‘The Prehistory of 1917’, then a chapter for each month from February to October, and finally ‘Epilogue: After October’. Inevitably, given that structure, there’s a lot of One Damned Thing After Another. Miéville’s chapter titles help to keep one’s bearings. For example, the central theme in Chapter 3, ‘March: “In So Far As”‘, is the playing out of the decision in March that the Soviet (the organisation representing workers, soldiers and peasants set up after the February Revolution) would not take power itself or be part of the Provisional Government, but would support the Provisional Government ‘in so far as’ (postol’ku-postol’ku) its actions met with the Soviet’s approval. The title of Chapter 4, ‘April: The Prodigal’, signals that we are to keep an eye on Lenin, as this who returns from exile in that month.

Miéville has a good eye for the colourful, telling or absurd moment. My favourite occurs in the most intense moments of October, when a group of officials who support the Provisional Government demand that a member of the Red Guard to let them pass or kill them, making them anti-Bolshevik martyrs. He tells them to go home or he’ll spank them.

And though his language is mostly, appropriately, functional, every now and then there’s something to delight. Alexander Kerensky  addresses the troops in March, and is met with testeria. It took a moment, but I realised that a less gender-conscious writer might have said ‘hysteria’, and I had a new word in my vocabulary.

octobermovie.jpgThe book sent me back to Eisenstein’s 1928 film October (on YouTube here). What to a 2017 reader and film-viewer is history, was living memory to the film’s original audience. The book explicates some episodes. The episode of the Red Guard threatening to spank the officials is a good example: in the absence of dialogue (at least in the version I saw), repeated shots of the handsome young soldier calmly shaking his head ‘No’ would have reminded the 1928 audience of the famous line – for us, it does so only if you’re read it elsewhere. On the other hand, because many of the places that feature in the revolution were virtually unchanged in 1928 the film illustrates the book brilliantly. The role of women, which I suspected Miéville had retrieved for modern sensibilities, features prominently in the movie.

The main difference between the two is probably in the tone, especially in the endings. The movie ends with a sense of a triumphant beginning, the book with a lament for how terribly wrong it all went in the following years, and a muted hope that a just, unexploitative society might yet be possible, that the lessons of the Russian Revolution are yet to be learned.

The meeting: There were six of us, and though not everyone loved the book, it generated a terrific conversation.

One group member said that this is not a book to listen to as an audiobook: the stream of Russian names, the absence of the chapter-heading signposts, the impossibility of flicking back and forth in the text make it almost impossible to follow the story. A couple felt that the writing was pedestrian. We all engaged with the content: not so much ‘this is what a revolution looks like’ as ‘ this is how that one happened’. We lamented the fragmentation of society that makes mass actions like those in this book seem almost surreal, and the way technology has speeded up communication so that paradoxically there is less time for thought, for response, for organising.

Is violence necessary for major social change? Was Stalin inevitable? These questions were not answered, either by the book or by us.

Madeleine Thien and the Book Group Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta 2016)

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Before the meeting: This book tells a story of three generations of a Chinese family in the 20th century. It includes a graphic evocation of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the purge of ‘Rightists’ that preceded it, and an equally graphic account of the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in 1989, as gleaned by a young woman of the Chinese diaspora who was born and brought up in Canada.

I found the first 50 pages hard going, as the different time periods were introduced, with no clear indication of how they were related. But once the several stories were up and running, I was engrossed.

Of the vast amount that has been written about this period in China, I’ve read Han Suyin’s Wind in the Tower, in which the Cultural Revolution is seen as a brilliant strategy to save the revolution from living death, and William Hinton’s Fanshen (1966) and Shenfan (1984), brilliant accounts of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural revolution as they played out in a single village (I saw David Hare’s play of the former at the Pram Factory in Melbourne and then at Belvoir in Sydney). I haven’t read any of the famous memoirs such as Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, so I can’t say how this novel compares to them, but I can say that it makes Han Suyin look like a PR spin merchant, and gets horrifyingly deep under the skin of the kind of events William Hinton describes.

It doesn’t come across as anti Communist propaganda; it’s more a terrible tale of a dream betrayed. Even as people’s lives are being destroyed they stay firm in their belief in the revolution. Partly this is a survival mechanism – if you can say the correct slogans with sincerity your chances are greatly improved. Partly, though, it’s also a result of the power of the Maoist dream. The shattering of that dream as the People’s Army turns on the people in 1989 is among the most heartbreaking writing I’ve ever read.

Like any powerful novel, this one doesn’t let the reader imagine that the events it portrays are safely of another time and place. Call-out culture on the internet these days may not be as savage as the criticism sessions in the Cultural Revolution, but it shares some of its structure of feeling. The power of slogans to block complexity is having devastating effects on lives in Australia – or more precisely offshore from Australia – as I write this. The term ‘climate change’ is being expunged from Donald Trump’s US agencies as surely as ‘counter-revolutionary’ knowledge was erased under Mao. [Added next day: not to mention ‘fire and fury and – frankly – power’.]

I cried a lot.

After the meeting: The conversation stayed with the book for most of the evening, and even when it departed it was still tangentially related.

Not everyone loved the book as much as I did, but I came away from the evening with an enriched appreciation for its complexity. I think it’s true to say that everyone had at least one scene or character that had struck them. A couple of us said we found the descriptions of music didn’t work; someone said that these descriptions were clearly important to the characters, but not really to the reader. One chap said he had got out his recording of Glen Gould playing the Goldberg Variations – the same recording as features in the narrative – and put it on it while he read, and that this had worked brilliantly.

So not only is this a terrific novel to read, but judging by our experience it’s also a terrific book club title.

 

 

The Book Group at Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane (Vintage 2011)

bohane.jpgBefore the Book Group’s meeting: At its last meeting, which I didn’t get to, the Book Group discussed a book about the parlous state of the human species. I imagine this one was chosen as our next title, if not as light relief, then as a source of stylistic delight. It’s a dystopian world, the world of Bohane, a ruthless world of gang warfare on the west coast of Ireland, possibly in some post-catastrophic future – not terribly unlike the world of A Clockwork OrangeThe Threepenny Opera or maybe The Sopranos, for the violence and sexual exploitation, and also for the creative energy in the writing.

Here’s a paragraph picked pretty much at random before I had to return my copy to the library:

Tipping seventy, Ol’ Boy dresses much younger. He wore low-rider strides, high-top boots with the heels clicker’d, a velveteen waistcoat and an old-style yard hat set at a frisky, pimpish angle. Ol’ Boy had connections all over the city – he was the Bohane go-between. He was as comfortable sitting for a powwow in the drawing room of a Beauvista manse as he was making a rendezvous at a Rises flatblock. Divil a bit stirred at the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge. He was on jivey, fist-bumping terms with the suits of the business district – those blithe and lardy boys who worked Endeavour Avenue down in the Bohane New Town – and he could chew the fat equably with the most ignorant of Big Nothin’ spud-aters. The Mannion voicebox was an instrument of wonder. It mimicked precisely the tones and cadence of whoever he was speaking to, while retaining always a warm and reassuring note.

I was enthralled by the language and by the twisting intrigue until the very last movement. Oddly, the last 40 pages fell flat. Maybe Kevin Barry could feel the end approaching and simply didn’t have to stomach to make it happen with the same gusto as everything that had come before.

After the meeting: Well, there was an attempt to drum up some controversy, but in fact we all love loved the linguistic play of this, except for one who just found it hard going, and of course the two out of nine who hadn’t read the book. Some complained that it was just good fun (of a bloodthirsty sort) and didn’t give any hint of how the world had come to such a state, but others (me included) didn’t see why it needed to do that.

We wondered about the geography. Is there any western Ireland city that matches the description of Bohane? One of the better travelled among us said that the Portuguese city of Porto fitted exactly, and others agreed. An interesting possibility, since at least one of the characters (Macu, short for Immaculata) comes from Portugal. In general we liked the regular moments when the narrative stops for a description of what a character is wearing.

After a brief engagement with the book, conversation ranged wide: travellers’ tales, a Rodney Rude joke, one man’s prostate cancer saga (mostly a good luck story), paternal boasting, one empty-nest-after-30+-years announcement, the excellence of The Necks, an impersonation of Bundaberg farmers deciding whether to burn the cane, reports from the Sydney Film Festival (Young MarxAbacus: Small Enough to Jail and Citizen Jane good; Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves to be avoided). And we ate roast chicken and salads – the latecomer missed out on the chickpeas.

The Book Group in an Ian McEwan Nutshell

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape 2016)

1911214330.jpgThe Meeting: This is the first time I’ve been to a Book group meeting without having read even one page of the book that’s up for discussion. The Emerging Artist asked me what excuse I was going to give. I replied haughtily, and a little disingenuously, that I didn’t need an excuse, because the group is about much more than discussing a book.

There’s food, which this time was excellent: our host had taken a day off work to buy ingredients and cook a fabulous Malaysian meal. (He joked that he had thought of making smoothies but decided against it – a joke which I only got a week later when half way through the book.) And there’s bonhomie: we caught up with each other’s lives, relationships, illnesses and other milestones.

We eventually did discuss the book. I gleaned that it is beautifully written, with many sentences that at least one person was compelled to read more than once. A couple of people laughed so hard at some parts they had to put the book down. The plot had to do with Hamlet, but not obviously. The central conceit, that the narrator is a foetus in the last weeks of gestation who knows an awful lot about the world from listening to podcasts, was either amusing (most of the group), richly metaphorical (one person), or one-joke tedious (the main dissenter who, incidentally, says he is an Ian McEwan fan).

I snuck a quick look at a page close to the end, and was enthralled. Here’s the paragraph I read, without spoiler anxiety, because after all it would have been odd for the narrator not to be born at the book’s end:

A slithering moment of waxy, creaking emergence, and here I am, set naked on the kingdom. Like stout Cortez (I remember a poem my father once recited), I’m amazed. I’m looking down, with what wonder and surmise, at the napped surface of the blue bath towel. Blue. I’ve always known, verbally at least, I’ve always been able to infer what’s blue – sea, sky, lapis lazuli, gentians – mere abstractions. Now I have it at last, I own it, and it possesses me. More gorgeous than I dared  believe. That’s just a beginning, at the indigo end of the spectrum.

In the course of the evening someone read a passage that he particularly enjoyed. To my uninformed ear it was a dry if elegantly constructed list of items such as one hears on the news every night, with nothing particularly clever, pleasant or moving about it.

The discussion must have been enticing enough because when the library emailed that a copy had finally become available, I borrowed it.

After the meeting: It turned out that the main challenge for me as a reader was the requirement that I willingly suspend, not so much disbelief, as my sense of late prenatal awareness as an actual thing, one that bears little or no resemblance to the sophisticated rumination, moral discrimination, wine connoisseurship and intense visualisation that characterise the narration here.

Once you are reconciled to the fact that there’s no attempt to imagine an actual foetus’s mental processes, and have set aside any anxiety about the potential damage from the mother’s copious alcohol consumption or vigorously receptive sexual activity, you can pay attention to the story, in which the narrator listens and feels helplessly while his mother (Trudy/Gertrude) and her lover/brother-in-law (Claude/Claudius) plot the death of his father.

Like a number of recent and forthcoming books, though not part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project (Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn will be doing Hamlet for that project), this is a novelistic riff on a Shakespeare play. The names and the incest–murder scenario aren’t all that links it to Hamlet. There are plenty of verbal echoes  – ‘To be’, though not ‘not to be’; ‘Seems, nay tis’, and so on. And Hamlet’s indecisiveness is parallelled in the narrator’s vacillations as he is influenced by his mother’s hormonal fluctuations and his own divided loyalties. The narrator toys with the idea of killing himself, with a literal ‘mortal coil’. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost.

The narrative swings along, and the remarkably well-informed foetus’s reflections are engaging, but I kept wondering if the central conceit was really any more interesting than the one in the movie Look Who’s Talking. In an odd way, it was this rather than the narrative question – would the plotters get away with murder? – that kept me in suspense. In the end, it was a passage very like the one that had so failed to impress me at the meeting that brought the narrative’s metaphorical power home for me. The narrator is well informed, like so many of us in the age of social media, about things he is all but powerless to influence. This helplessly informed state is the novel’s equivalent to Hamlet’s indecisiveness. ‘And always, there are problems closer to hand.’ That sentence, banal as it may seem out of context, is actually a call to action, and it’s what in the end made me love the book, though I still could have done without all the alcohol during pregnancy.