Category Archives: Book Group

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.


 

The Book Group and Falstaff

When we were discussing possibilities for our next book at the Book Group’s last meeting, one Grouper said he was reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,  and was fascinated by Bloom’s argument that Falstaff, the roistering old man in the Henry IV plays, was one of Shakespeare’s most important creations – ‘a great dream of reality’. He proposed that we read those plays. Perhaps our collective defences were down, but his proposal won the day.

Before the meeting:
Plays are meant for the stage rather than the page. That’s my excuse for not reading them,  but watching two modified versions: the relevant episodes of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (2012, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre), and Orson Welles’s 1965 Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight). The plot, in case you need it, is that Henry IV, who became king through pretty disgusting machinations in Richard II, now fights off rebels and establishes himself as a legitimate ruler. To his chagrin, his son and heir to the crown, Henry, Hal to his friends, lives a dissolute life under the mentorship of a gross, permanently drunk old man, Sir John Falstaff. It’s no spoiler to say that Hal comes good in the end, defeats the rebel Percy Hotspur, who in the king’s eyes has all the qualities Hal lacks, and is finally reconciled with his father and assumes the crown, rejecting his former life and those who were his companions, most notably and dramatically Falstaff

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The Hollow Crown episodes have high production values, with a powerful Falstaff in Simon Russell Beale and a completely charming Tom Hiddleston as Hal. As two of seven episodes in a historical TV series that happens to be largely written by Shakespeare, they necessarily focus on the story of the king (played by Jeremy Irons). There’s a grimy realism to the portrayal of Falstaff and his world, so he comes across as a pathetic drunkard lacking in moral integrity who tries to cover the squalor of his life with witty patter and unconvincing bravado. When Hal insults him (trigger warning: there are a lot of fat jokes), it feels hurtful even at its most playful. Whatever its other strengths, this production is no help in understanding what Harold Bloom was talking about.

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Chimes at Midnight is a huge contrast. It looks as if it was scraped together on the smell of an oily rag – possibly the oily rag that was left after John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Ralph Richardson and Margaret Rutherford had been paid (though who knows, maybe they worked for very little). The sound is at times painfully iffy (lots of post-production dubbing), and the acting and mise-en-scène stagey to the nth degree. But the sheer exuberance of Welles’s Falstaff carries all before it.

I loved it when I saw it in the early 1970s, and I loved it again this week.

At one point, in the tavern/brothel where Hal, Falstaff and their fellow-roisterers hang out, Falstaff proposes a play, in which he will be the king. With a cushion on his head for a crown, and his vast bulk hoisted onto a raised chair, he upbraids Hal for his prodigal ways (anticipating a scene not much later when the real king does the same), and sings the praises of the good Sir John Falstaff. The original audience would have recognised, I remember from my university days, the presence of the traditional Lord of Misrule, a peasant crowned ‘king’ in a midwinter festival so that all normal, staid life gave way to riotous living. Falstaff in his tavern, full of life, big of body, delighting in language (including witty insults hurled at his own head), is a an updating of that tradition: a bright, irresponsible double of the calculating king in his forbidding court where every word is consequential and there is very little joy.

Which made me think of Donald Trump. In Part One Act 2 Scene 4, Falstaff is accused of lying. First he denies it:

What, art thou mad? art thou mad? is not the truth the truth?

Challenged to explain the discrepancies in his story, he shifts the ground. Why should he allow himself to be compelled to explain himself?

What, upon compulsion? ‘Zounds, an I were at the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion. Give you a reason on compulsion! If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.

Then he attacks his accuser:

‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried  neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck —

And at last, confronted with hard evidence, he says he was joking.

In the final scene of the first play, Falstaff claims to have killed Hotspur. When Hal calls him on it, and asserts that he did it himself, Falstaff shakes his head:

Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!

We laugh. He is such an ingenious rogue. When Falstaff says, ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,’ we feel the truth of it, and when at the end of the second play, the newly crowned King Henry V turns to him and says, ‘I know thee not, old man,’ we don’t see the dashed hopes of an unrealistic opportunist (which is pretty much how it comes across in The Hollow Crown) so much as a terrible self-amputation that’s necessary if Hal is to assume political power responsibly. And it is necessary. If Falstaff were to have a position of influence at court, the political system would be in serious trouble.

If only someone could have invented a position of Misrule President, it might have been fun, for a week or so over summer, for a Falstaffian figure who ‘isn’t a politician’ to bully and bluster and joke at the expense of the carefully correct, to make outrageous claims for himself and outrageous threats against other people, to talk of alternative facts and fake news. So long as he did all that with panache we could enjoy the sheer gall of it. We might even laugh at his naughtiness as he robs people blind. For a week or so.

Banish plump Donald and banish all the world. Yes, I get that: we need irreverence. But elect plump Donald and wreck all the world.

The meeting:
Unusually, I came to this meeting with explicit expectations. I wanted to hear more about how Harold Bloom sees Falstaff, and I wanted to hear from a Grouper who has played the role.

It turned out that the latter played Falstaff decades ago in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he said is a romp churned out by Shakespeare on short order at Queen Elizabeth’s request. The Falstaff in that play is a much less interesting creation, though much more sexually active, and attractive. Our actor had interesting things to say about the way Elizabethan audiences were much more sensitive to verbal subtleties than we are – they would go to hear a play, while we go to see one.

As for Bloom, evidently he goes through the usual perceptions of Falstaff one by one and demolishes them. Not a coward. Not a drunk. Not an opportunist. Not a liar, a thief, a scrounger or a knave. Instead, he is a great refuser of cant, a truth-speaker, a person who puts the joy of living and the joy of relationships above all else. I may be misrepresenting, as of course this discussion happened over barbecued sausages and salad and was far from interjection free. But I was unconvinced. However, we were treated to a reading from Part One, Act V Scene 1. The battle (truly horrendous in the Welles movie) is about to start. Falstaff has asked Hal to protect him and been refused, Hal saying, ‘Thou owest God a death.’ Alone on stage, Falstaff ruminates:

calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

It’s wrong, according to Bloom (at third hand), to read this as a roguish rationalisation for cowardice. It is actually a deep challenge to the whole code of conduct built around the concept of honour, a code that accounts for an awful lot of violence and death. I was reminded of Israeli writer Etgar Keret on ABC Radio’s Books and Arts recently saying that when he asked his father what he was proudest of in his life, he said, ‘I have been in the front lines of five wars, and as far as I know I’ve never hurt anyone.’ That’s not dishonourable, but – arguably true also of Falstaff – it stands aside from the demands of honour.

My Trump-as-Falstaff thesis cut only a little bit of ice.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites at the Book Group & November Verse 14

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador 2013)

burial-rites.jpg Before the meeting: This book is based on the real story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, an event that happened in 1830. My knowledge of Iceland, which comes mainly from photographs of stark, beautiful, treeless landscapes and Grímur Hákonarson’s movie Rams, led me to expect that any novel set there would be grim. So a novel culminating an execution could only be more so.

Grim or not, I loved it. I’ve raved about it to people met in the park, and barely restrained myself from reading bits aloud to the Emerging Artist (now known as the Heart Lady, but that’s another story).

At the beginning Agnes, convicted of brutally murdering her employer, is being transferred from one place of imprisonment to another. She is filthy, malodorous and barely able to speak. (Interestingly, her condition at the beginning of the novel bears a striking resemblance to that of the women towards the end of Charlottte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which I imagine was being written at the same time as this.) While awaiting execution, she is sent as a cost-saving measure to live with the family of a local official who lives near the planned place of execution.

The main narrative follows Agnes’ developing relationships with members of the host family: father, mother and two young adult daughters. At first the family are convincingly and reasonably horrified that they will have to share their house with this monster, though right from their first encounter the mother of the household is even more horrified at the way Agnes has been treated. A young trainee clergyman is assigned to attend to Agnes’ spiritual needs. Against the advice and instructions of his superiors, he refrains from preaching sternly at her and instead encourages her to talk to him. Because of the size of their dwelling and the bitter Icelandic winter, the family hear much of what passes between them, and we learn her story along with them. As you’d expect from the set-up, in the process they come to see her not as a monster but as a fellow human – more a servant than a prisoner.

All of that is beautifully done, though the story Agnes tells, a story of love betrayed, is less compelling than the circumstances of its telling. And then there is the narration told direct to the reader from Agnes’ point of view. This is where we learn Agnes’ inner story – the erotic experiences that she can’t speak of, and her emotional life. In these sections Hannah Kent’s writing, never less than elegant elsewhere, is rich and poetic without being hi-falultin, so that I for one was completely drawn in. I don’t remember ever being so caught up by a deft use of similes. Here’s a passage from fairly early on, when Agnes has begun to work again,  trusted to use a scythe:

I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

It’s a good feeling, not quite being in control. Of being gently swung back and forth, until I forget what it is to be still. Like being with Natan in the first months when my heartbeat shuddered through me and I could have died, I was so happy to be desired.

The book’s power has something to do with the strong sense of a particular time and place. The world-building, to borrow a term from SF/F discourse, is extraordinarily convincing. In her acknowledgements, Hannah Kent says she set out to write a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. She has succeeded in spades.

The meeting: As it was the last meeting of the year, we ate at the new (to most of us) Tramsheds in Glebe, and gave each other gift-wrapped books from our shelves. As always in restaurants, the background noise was a dampener in general conversation. But we all enjoyed the book. Someone compared it unfavourably to Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, saying that at times Burial Rites broke free of its early 19th Century Icelandic setting and resorted to tropes from 20th century romance fiction. Specifically, if I understood him correctly, Agnes’s internalised sense of the master–servant relationship vanished too easily and was replaced by an anachronistic expectation of romantic love and fidelity. In general we could see what he meant. Likewise, we all agreed when someone said that it was obvious what was going to happen from the very beginning: the family would soften towards Agnes, and her story as it emerged would reveal either innocence or major extenuating circumstances. Neither of these criticisms dampened the general enthusiasm for the book.

There were some mostly audible, goosebump-inducing readings of passages our Post-it warrior had marked.

Then we cheerfully turned away from the spartan, claustrophobic and bitterly cold world of the novel and enjoyed a meat-heavy meal in a flash new restaurant whose menu names the farms that provide the animals they serve up to their customers.

The verse, my last for this November: 

November Verse 14: The Book Group Chooses What to Read Next
Ben stands and says he must be going:
‘Shall we decide the next book now?’
‘No time for all the to and fro-ing
before you leave,’ says Ian. That’s how
just seven of us made the vital
choice of our next book group title.
Not Watson’s Bush, that’s far too long,
not more Houellebecq, that’s just wrong.
No to Solnits, Coetzee, Gorton.
Steve says, ‘How about Don Juan?
I mean Quixote. That’s a yarn
I’d like to read.’ That one caught on.
And after complex back and forth
we lit on Shakespeare’s Henry Fourth.

AWW2016Burial Rites is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group and Paula Hawkins’s Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (Doubleday 2015)

gott.jpgBefore the meeting:
After A Little Life, the book group decided to take on something light, and someone had heard that The Girl on the Train was an interesting thriller.

I’m not a member of this book’s target audience. I’ve been mildly gripped by psychological thriller movies (Gone Girl say, or any number of Hitchcock movies, or Gaslight, though I haven’t seen that movie, just the play performed by the Innisfail Repertory Society in about 1960) or on TV (I think of The Fall). Men are strong, sympathetic and protective, or are they dangerous and manipulative? Women sense they are in danger, or are they just neurotic messes? A loving husband is caught in a lie about talking to his ex-wife. Should we be disturbed by what happens next:

He smiles at me, shaking his head as he steps towards me, his hands still raised in supplication. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. She wanted to chat in person and I thought it might be best. I’m sorry, OK? We just talked. We met in a crappy coffee shop in Ashbury and talked for twenty minutes – half an hour, tops. OK?’
___He puts his arms around me and pulls me towards his chest. I try to resist him, but he’s stronger than me and anyway he smells great and I don’t want a fight. I want us to be on the same side. ‘I’m sorry,’ he mumbles again, into my hair.
___‘It’s all right,’ I say.

Even on screen these imagined relationships as full of manipulation and lurking threat aren’t my cup of tea. In book form, if this one is any indication, it’s a game a good bit less interesting than Scrabble. I did read the whole book, I suppose it was well done, and I stayed guessing, or at least unsure, until the final revelation, but I didn’t really care, and the main impression I’m left with is of time wasted. Your mileage may vary. The movie is coming out in a month or two – I’ll probably give it a miss.

At the meeting: There were eight of us and everyone had read the whole book, one or two saying that they couldn’t put it down. And while people generally appreciated its tight plotting, and the way information was gradually released to the reader, no one particularly liked it. Those who are more widely read in the genre said it wasn’t a particularly good example. We compared notes on how soon we guessed the ending.

And over chicken and rice and then ice cream we had a terrific conversation about fathers and sons, how boys and young men could do with someone thinking about them in more constructive ways than generally seems to happen these days, about Eton and Queen Victoria’s correspondence, about whether A Little Life is a bildungsroman, about cumquat marmalade, renovations, and the joys of growing old.

Hanya Yanagihara’s Little Life with the Book Group

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Picador 2015)

We keep deciding we’re not going to pick big books for the Book Group, and then we keep picking them. A Little Life runs to 720 pages.

Before the meeting: I’d been warned this was a gruelling read, and I’ll add my own warning: do not read this book if you’re set off by accounts of cruelty, sexual abuse or self-harm.

The ‘little life’ of the title is that of Jude St Francis. His story, which emerges piecemeal throughout the novel, involves systematic sex abuse and physical violence from a very young age until his mid teens. His life turns around, and he finds deep companionship and love, professional success as a lawyer, a family such as he wouldn’t have dreamed  of. But the horrors of the past have left him with serious physical difficulties and a deep sense of his own worthlessness, even grotesquerie. He believes he must hide ‘what he is’ from the people he loves. In his 30s he has his first sexual encounter since the abuse of his childhood, and it leads to unbelievable brutality. From then on, there is a struggle between the demons of the past and the angels of the present, between his belief that somehow he deserves terrible things and the evidence all around him that he is cherished by his friends and adoptive family.

Some readers have seen the book as a kind of suffering porn, particularly in the graphic accounts of self-harm. (The harm inflicted by other people, including sexual harm deliberate and otherwise, is mostly told at a level of abstraction, with an almost fairytale quality.) I know what they mean, but I see it differently. Phrases like ‘mental health’, ‘sex abuse’ and even ‘child sex abuse’ are used a lot these days, and overuse can drain them of some of their meaning. For instance, when discussing the Australian government’s policy on people seeking asylum, leaders of both major parties can discount evidence that the policy results in ‘mental health problems’ and ‘sexual abuse’ for children. The words become political catch-cries, and their human meaning fades. The great strength of A Little Life is that it remorselessly, repetitively, unflinchingly but not (for my money) preachily pounds home the deep damage done to the human spirit by sustained abuse.

I don’t find the stories of abuse completely plausible, and I find the love story/stories saccharine at times. The financial and creative success of all the major characters and their upper-class New York lifestyles may irritate. But it’s a very powerful book. It would be hard to read it thoughtfully and ever again tell someone who had been severely abused to ‘get over it’, or think that there was some easy chemical or behavioural solution. There are moments in the narrative when there seems to be a breakthrough, but again and again we have been misled by hope. I don’t think the book preaches despair [though Hanya Yanigahara sometimes sounds as if that’s what she intends – as in the podcast linked to below], but it does urge us to remember that suffering is a long way from over when its cause is removed, that in some ways the worst that happens to a person isn’t the worst – the worst is not finding a way to recover from it.

A minor point: I’ll sometimes turn to the last page of a book looking for reassurance that things are going to turn out all right. I don’t know if Hanya Yanagihara had people like me in mind, but I can tell you, I hope without giving anything away, that the last paragraph of this book is completely misleading.

When the meeting was postponed because it clashed with the second State of Origin match: One of the chaps flagged that for him the book raises questions of ‘what and why we read’. I listened to the podcast of Hanya Yanigahara’s closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s a brilliant exegesis of her intentions in this novel, but I found myself retrospectively turning against the novel when she said things like:

For anyone who has turned away from a book because it is unbearable I would argue that there is a danger in forsaking a piece of art only because it is unpleasant, because it is destructive. The impulse to do so is human of course, and understandable, but the best that one human can do for another sometimes, the ultimate human act, is to witness, to open our eyes wider and look at what we would rather not, to regard what we think we cannot endure. When we give up seeing, we give up something greater. Once we start limiting what we can tolerate in literature, in art, we also start limiting our ability to see our fellow humans.

This reminded me reactively of the old comedian’s line, delivered in tones of high moral outrage: ‘I don’t want to see violence, incest, torture in films. I get enough of that sort of thing at home.’ That is to say, being a witness for another human being is a very different thing to being a witness for a made-up person.

Then, in another podcast from the festival, Charlotte Wood commented about her novel The Natural Way of Things (currently on my TBR pile):

You couldn’t live in this book as a reader for longer than it is. It’s a short book … It’s important not to leave people in that world for too long. I know there are some big books around at the moment that are very harrowing … and I think, ‘I don’t want to go there as a reader, I don’t want to put people through that.’

The reference to A Little Life was only half-serious, and the audience laughed, but she had a point.

At the meeting: Eventually we met, and it was one of the group’s more intense discussions.

Not everyone had finished the book. There’s nothing unusual about that, but this time the non-finishers all had reasons other than lack of time: one gave up after a mere hundred pages because none of the characters had enough individuality to claim his interest; two gave up close to the two-thirds mark because they realised that they didn’t have to stay trapped in the horrible imaginings of Hanya Yanagihara, and they reported that their lives improved when they closed the book.

Most of us acknowledged the power of the writing, though one said that he remained unmoved (except to anger at being manipulated) even by the graphic descriptions of self harm. Most of us felt that if the book was attempting a portrayal of male friendships, it failed. Shockingly, we realised that we never saw why the other men – friends and adoptive father – were drawn to withholding, self-effacing Jude: surely there was more to it than his beauty?

The most articulate disliker described his sense of being given no room for his own responses: at every turn he was being told how to feel about what he was being shown, and he was being shown only those parts of the characters’ lives that fitted the author’s agenda. Where were the jokes, the casual intimacies, the teasing? And as for sex, in this book it’s about men sticking a sex organ into someone else’s orifice, something you either do or don’t do with (to?) someone, with nothing between those two options, and no place for mutuality or negotiation. Sigh! (We noticed in passing the almost complete absence of women, unless one reads the main characters as really women with a communication disability.)

In short, the book had no passionate defender, but it made a deep impression on most of us.

The Book Group & Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights

Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (Jonathan Cape 2015)

2yrs.jpgSadly (or not – you be the judge), I missed the book group meeting on Wednesday night. Unusually, though, there was a lot of email discussion of the book in the lead-up to the date. Here are annotated excerpts from the emails, with names changed and identifying detail removed:

3 March 1:35 pm, Alphonse:
NEXT BOOK: 
Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: ‘From one of the greatest writers of our time: the most spellbinding, entertaining, wildly imaginative novel of his great career, which blends history and myth with tremendous philosophical depth. A masterful, mesmerising modern tale about worlds dangerously colliding, the monsters that are unleashed when reason recedes, and a beautiful testament to the power of love and humanity in chaotic times.’
NEXT DATE: Wednesday 20 April / 7pm
NEXT VENUE: Bill … we voted last night that the next meeting would be at your place. Hope that’s OK with you and that you are able to join us.

That was all until:

15 Apr 2016 2:45 pm, me:
Hi all
I’m assuming our next meeting is confirmed for Wednesday 20th at Bill’s place, as in Alphonse’s last email.
Sadly I won’t be able to make it. I’m about three-quarters through the book, and mostly enjoying it. (I love the description of Obama on p 127.) I’ve read a number of children’s books dealing with similar subject matter and I’m not sure that this is any more engaging than the best of them. If you’re interested you could have a look for the Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud.

Having now finished Rushdie’s book, I would name Sophie Masson’s Snow, Fire, Sword as a more relevant children’s book: Sophie has supernatural beings from Arabic lore wreak havoc in Indonesia, with an implied parallel to real-world Wahhabism – a scenario not a million miles from Rushdie’s book. Here’s the Obama description I mentioned:

… the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man, eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in word and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who thought of himself as a man of reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon) and colour-blind.

The prospective roll-call began:

15 Apr 4:02 pm, Chrysostom:
Apologies from me too. Am in the bush

15 Apr 5:18 pm, Dionysus:
I’ll be there

And then the opinions started:

15 Apr 10:37 pm, Errol wrote:
I’ll be there, but as a complete bludger I’m afraid. I couldn’t get traction with the book. I tried three times but then I put it down and just couldn’t pick it up again.
Looking forward to other opinions
PS. What’s the address?

17 Apr 8:52 am, Ferdinand:
Same.

17 Apr 10:49 am, Dionysus being a little more forthcoming:
Glad to hear I’m not alone.

That’s three people who couldn’t get past the first few pages. I’m guessing that’s because there’s a lot in those pages about 12th century philosophical debates between Ibn Rushd (known to the West until recently as Averroes, and surely not coincidentally sounding a bit like ‘Rushdie’) and Ghazali (said to be the most influential Islamic scholar since Mohammad), mixed in with a lot of lore about jinn, plus some unconvincing sex. For a book that’s going to feature fairies and magic and levitation and comic book monsters, this beginning is perhaps just a little anxious to establish that the author has a serious underlying theme. Surely Salman could hear his readers muttering, ‘Get on with it!’

Back to the correspondence.

17 Apr 4:52 pm, Graham:
Just back this morning from overseas. So far I am enjoying the book but not finished yet. Has Bill said it’s on for Wed?
I am keen to come but may need to cancel at the last minute.
Keen to hear what people thought of the book

Hmm, enjoying it, but not going to move heaven and earth to talk about it with the comrades. And still no word from Bill.

18 Apr 8:17 am, Harald:
I’m on, got half way so far, with a similar lack of interest. Too much jinnying, to too little purpose.

Was ever a book so unenthusiastically greeted?

For my part, the place where I nearly put the book aside was page 107, well before the halfway mark:

… in Times Square … for a period of time variously described by different witnesses as ‘a few seconds’ and ‘several minutes’, the clothes worn by every man in the square disappeared, leaving them shockingly naked, while the contents of their pockets – cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, masks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips, plastic baggies containing white powder, spliffs, lies, harmonicas, spectacles, bullets, and broken, forgotten hopes – tumbled down to the ground. A few seconds (and maybe minutes) later the clothes reappeared but the nakedness of the men’s revealed possessions, weaknesses and indiscretions unleashed a storm of contradictory emotions, including shame, anger and fear. women ran screaming while the men scrambled for their secrets, which could be put back into their revenant pockets but which, having been revealed, could no longer be concealed.

That’s clever, it’s funny in a number of ways, and nicely written, with a touch of surreal silliness (when did you last see a sexual insecurity lying on the footpath?). But I was overwhelmed with a sense that life is short and Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights is long. Too much jinnying indeed, and if this is part of what the book calls the War of the Worlds, there’s a serious gap between what the book seems to be claiming to be and what it actually is. Oh Salman, Salman, the readers are still muttering. Still, I went in mildly to bat:

18 Apr 8:42 am, me:
I’ll be interested to know if people think his account of the ‘purpose’ towards the end makes up for all the jinnying.

And then things got all organisational.

18 Apr 09:12 am, Alphonse:
So we have:
*   4 apologies
*   3 yes (2 of whom haven’t got far with the book)
*   3 no reply
*   no confirmed venue
Do we reschedule to a new venue next week ?

18 Apr 1:16 pm, Errol (who, remember, hadn’t got past the first couple of pages):
The way I see it, it’s not our fault that Salman Rushdie is a stuffed shirt with funny ideas and a strange way of saying them.
What if we ignore him? How about those of us that are available just go out for a meal on Wednesday night and hang out?

Bill (who hadn’t read the book) finally surfaced from his heavy other commitments to say that his place wasn’t possible this week, and with a little back and forth it was decided to go ahead, in a restaurant, last night. Harald (of the ‘too much jinnying’ comment) said he’d try to finish the book in time, and Jamahl chimed in:

18 Apr 4:40 pm, Jamahl:
I’ve read the book and enjoyed it.
See you at the restaurant.

By now, I was spoiling for a conversation:

19 Apr 11:22 am, me: 
I’m sorry I can’t be there. Apart from the always excellent company, I would have enjoyed advocating for the book. It’s not as if I enjoyed it hugely. I struggled with the start and was tempted to give up at about page 100 (where the jinnery was getting tedious). Also, the sense that Rushdie was doing stuff that many children’s books had been doing for decades made me kind of resentful by proxy
BUT
in the end I was drawn in by the way he expects us to treat Arabic scholars with the same respect as we would western mediaeval ones; and the way he seduces us into seeing the ‘fairy’ world of northern Africa as central, with various more familiar Indian and Greek gods as manifestations of them. There’s a tiny bit where two characters are married at the Auribondo ashram in Pondicherry, by ‘Mother herself’ – an Indian email friend of mine has told me about Mother, who was a huge influence in my friend’s life. I wondered how many other references there were that non-Westerners would pick up on that just float by me. And yet, the book is definitely a novel in the western tradition, even if closer to children’s books and graphic novels than to Bleak House.
That’s my two bits.

Which drew Jamahl out with a perfect counterbalance to my over-seriousness. The book is after all a lot of fun, with goth-girls hurling lightning from their fingers and elderly gardeners floating a couple of millimetres above the ground, and terrible things happening to people’s skin if they tell lies in the presence of a magical baby:

19 Apr 5:06 pm, Jamahl: 
What a fantastic BUT.
Despite the river of references flowing by unnoticed while I read I still enjoyed the book. While I read I would suspend disbelief and wallow in the plasticity of time. There are also moments of ‘couldn’t give a fuck to consequence’ that I wholeheartedly supported.
While as a retiree you may be familiar with these freedoms this book allowed me to drift and swim in them.

No report from the dinner yet.