Category Archives: Books

Journal Blitz 5

I guess I’ll never be up to date with the journals I subscribe to. This is my fifth catch-up blog post, and I’m still reading things about a year after publication. Here they are: one from a university, one from the left, one from an organisation of poets and one from an island.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor) and George Kouvaros (guest editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 2 2018: The Lives of Others (2019)

This issue of Southerly, the back cover tells us, ‘is concerned with the debts and obligations that accompany the passing of the generations’, a way of saying that it has a theme of family – personal reminiscence, family history, lines of cultural genealogy.

Here are some of my highlights.

In ‘The Other Life’, guest editor George Kouvaros explores his childhood feelings about a photo of a cousin about his own age who stayed in Greece when Kouvaros’ family moved to Australia. He builds fascinatingly around the notion, borrowed from Marsha Gressen, that migrants are often haunted by a sense of a double life: the one they are living and the one they would have had if they stayed.

Brendan Ryan’s memoir ‘John Forbes in Carlton’ paints a vivid picture of Forbes (dobbed ‘God on a bicycle’ by a Melbourne wit ) as mentor, and is a sweet account of how the creative baton was passed down the generations.. It would have gone well as a chapter in Homage to John Forbes, edited by Ken Bolton in 2002. I’m a fan of both Forbes and Ryan (blog posts, here, here, here and here), but I don’t think you’d need to be to find joy in the essay.

Maria Griffin’s ‘Benjamin’ is a poignant, elegiac meditation on death and extinction. Her immediate subjects are her younger brother, who died aged 32, and the Thylacine / Tasmanian tiger. With a light but dagger-sharp touch she allows the subject to broaden to include the climate emergency. (One small cavil: she imagines Australia during the last ice age as covered with sheets of ice, whereas – correct me if I’m wrong – the archaeological evidence suggests that, though bitterly cold, it was covered in dust.)

Meera Atkinson’s fiction ‘Necropolis Drive’ makes brilliant and powerful use of archival material – her protagonist is researching the history of women incarcerated as insane in colonial times, and correspondence from the NSW Government State Archives and Letters leap from her pages to grab the reader by the throat.

Sharryn Ryan’s memoir ‘The Miracle’ is as powerful a story of growing up with an emotionally unstable mother as you’re likely to read anywhere. Its story of wildness is told with extraordinary restraint, and all the more effective and affecting for it.

Katherine Maher’s ‘One of Your Family’ reads as a fragment from a much broader piece of research. It approaches the issue of the Stolen Generations with a narrow focus, discussing a four-minute video of one Thupi Warra man’s response to Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. Maher tells us that this is one of 25 videos of this nature held in the State Library of Queensland. ‘I’m not sure,’ her essay concludes, ‘how to truly hear the history he tells.’ Essays like hers help the rest of us clean out our ears.

Three reviews inspired me to do some rereading, and re-savouring: Naomi Riddle on Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior (my blog post here; I think Wright is funnier than Naomi Riddle seems to); Peter Kirkpatrick on Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes (my post here) and Brigitta Olubas on Sarah Day’s Towards Light (my post here).


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 235 (Winter 2019)

This is the eighteenth and last issue of Overland edited by Jacinda Woodhead. The woman on the cover isn’t her, but a ‘friend and fellow anti-fascist organiser’ of the guest artist Tia Kass. Still, that woman’s confident fist isn’t a bad emblem for Woodhead’s – and Overland‘s – work.

I don’t usually read editorials, let alone quote from them, but as this was Jacinda Woodhead’s farewell, I made an exception (link here). She asks, ‘So what is a left-wing literary magazine today?’, and replies in part:

Now more than ever, we need projects like Overland: we may not always agree with the positions and experiments published in its pages, but it’s critical to build spaces where collective alternatives, where collective futures can be articulated.

I subscribe to Overland to support the building of such a space. Then I read it because it generally includes news and thinking that I don’t easily get elsewhere. Here’s how the journal starts (with links to the articles online):

In ‘La mina no se cierra’, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick walks one of the variants of the Camino de Santiago in Spain (definitely not the walk with guides advertised in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that costs $25 thousand a head). The essay’s title – Spanish for ‘The mine will not close’ – is from graffiti she saw in Asturias referring to a major struggle early last decade. The graffiti, and the history that gave rise to it, is a springboard to rich and complex reflections on the current move against coal mines in Australia and the need for a just transition to renewables.

In ‘On grief’, regular columnist Tony Birch, as always, avoids grand rhetorical statements and takes us briefly into his own recent experience of bereavement.

Restorying care’, a PEN essay by Ellen van Neerven writes about the struggle of many First Nations people to ‘feel heard or tell our story’ in the health system. A brief quote:

Data is used to build, and claim, story. Recently, the term ‘data sovereignty’ has been used to describe mob’s sovereign right to their own data: all data should be subject to the laws and governance structures within the Indigenous Nation where it is collected. This data should be accessible to the community. Unfortunately we are a long way from that.

Then there are nine pages of poetry, including ‘Report on Norman – after Vigan’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (the title is mysterious to me, but the poem itself is terrific), ‘Walis tingting’ by Ivy Alvarez (which finds poetry in a Philippine palm-leaf broom), and ‘The hymen diaries’ by Eileen Chong (a set of four short poems that stands up on its own, but becomes much richer when seen alongside the stunning works of art it references – by Katie Griesar, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy and Juana Francés).

But I won’t go on listing the whole contents. Here are some of the rest:

  • The gunboat nation in a lifeboat world’, by Scott Robinson, subtitled ‘On the militarisation of climate change’, wins my prize for the most telling metaphor in a title
  • Alison Croggon ruminates ‘On art‘ in times of crisis like ours
  • Giacomo Lichtner celebrates Primo Levi’s hundredth birth year by singling out ten fragments of If This Is A Man, in ‘One hundred years of Primo Levi
  • There are five short stories, of which the one that stands out most for me is Jem Tyley-Miller’s ‘The island’, which imagines a surreal solution to the refugee crisis involving those vast collections of garbage in the ocean
  • The most natural thing’ by Natalie Kon-yu is a peer-reviewed personal essay that introduced me to the parthood model of pregnancy, as opposed to the container model
  • Enza Gandolfo’s ‘Making & shaping’. which would have fitted nicely into the Southerly‘s theme, is a moving meditation on her mother’s crocheting artistry and  her own changing understanding of it
  • and regular columnist Giovanni Tiso strikes an intimate note in ‘On not moving to Australia‘, linking his decision to stay in New Zealand because he has two children who live with autism with Australia harsh rules for New Zealanders who come here, and it’s even harsher treatment of some refugees.

Yvette Holt and Magan Magan (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 7 (2019)

This is Australian Poetry Inc’s seventh annual anthology of members’ poetry. In the words of one of its editors, it hosts ‘a focus on poets heralding from the Northern Territory, from the Top End, Western Desert, Utopia, Barkly, and of course Central Australia’. Those poets aren’t corralled into a special section, but take their place alongside others, including some whose books have won prestigious prizes. There are plenty of First Nations voices, including some writing from in prison and some who are household names. A fair number of the poems come from the Spoken Word milieu. It’s a beautifully democratic, diverse collection.

Having said that, I’m reluctant to single any individuals out. I’ll just quote some lines from a handful of poems that deal with fire, drought and flood, perhaps surprisingly many given that this anthology was published well before the current bushfire season,.

Kaye Aldenhoven’s ‘Cleaning the Country – April in Kakadu’ is about fire as a benign tool for land management:

Cool Dry season wind shifts the wind chimes
sending clear bell sounds out over fire-cleared land.
On the tongue the metallic smell of yesterday's smoke.
In the burnt area
an invisible wind spirit
raises puffs of dust as she sweeps ashes of grass.

Kelly Lee Hickey, ‘Notes from a Heatwave’, captures the lassitude of hot dry weather in five short stanzas:

All the nests are abandoned.
The pea chick dies
in my hands.

Peter Mitchell, ‘Forgotten Sparks’, recalls a 1968 bushfire:

We were surrounded by tongues, the speech of flames: shouts,
clamour and argument. Their babble charged our homes.

Fiona Dorrell’s heartbreaking image from a drought, ‘Forty Horses at Santa  Teresa’:

One horse lies down
crosses and tucks its legs
up close to its body.
Others stretch heads back in dirt
almost smelling of algae
and sieve hot air through
yellow spade teeth.

Not quite on topic is Michele Seminara’s ‘Family Tree’, which laments the loss of a tree that has been part of her life since childhood:

They amputate the limbs
to make it easier to fell; 
I know that feeling.

Vern Field (managing editor), Island 157 (2019)

I don’t have a subscription to Island, whose web site describes it as ‘celebrating ideas, writing and culture from our base in Hobart, Tasmania’ since 1979. I bought this issue because it features a poem by Jennifer Maiden (who isn’t from Tasmania).

Compared with the other journals in this post, Island is a lavish affair, with full page colour illustrations and advertisements for theatre events.

It’s a good read, with a preponderance of items that are excerpts from longer works (from Favel Parrett’s There was Still Love, which I intend to read; from a graphic novel, Islands and Ships by Joshua Santospirito, author of The Long Weekend in Alice Springs (my blog post here); from a lecture by Sharon Rider, which introduced me to some basics of Kant’s philosophy), and author’s notes on works in progress (Laura Elizabeth Woollett doing research on Norfolk Island; two separate accounts of artist and writer visits to Iceland; Rohan Wilson musing on the ethics of setting a climate-change (‘cli-fi’) novel in the Maldives).

Burnt Out’ by Liz Evans is a tale of not losing her home to bushfire in the 2018–2019 summer. Though the experience she describes is harrowing, it feels oddly tranquil when read in the aftermath of the recent mammoth fires, as it places the fire events in the context of the writer’s London background and is illustrated by gorgeously dramatic photographs.

There are short stories, of which Anne Casey’s comedy of teenage errors set in a cake shop, ‘What I’d Do If I Was in Charge’, stands out.

Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Pollock, Whiteley and the Critic: Seven Layers‘ isn’t the only poem, but it’s the one that spoke most strongly to me. (Perhaps I should have listed it as one of the excerpts above, as it’s included in Maiden’s The Espionage Act recently published by Quemar Press.) It’s one of her imaginary dialogues: the two painters of the title and an art critic stand in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, and their conversation ranges over an early self portrait by Brett Whiteley (I looked it up, it’s real, there’s an article on it here), the CIA’s program to back abstract expressionism as a counter to social realism, the effect this had on Pollock’s art and life … As is generally the case with Jennifer Maiden’s dialogues, it works as a strangely surreal encounter among recognisable characters, with a strong undertow of not-quite-pindownable meaning.

Thanks for reading this far. It’s not the last of my journal catch-up posts …

Proust Progress Report 6: halfway through the third book

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

Exactly six months into reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and I’m halfway through the third volume. I have now finished the first part of Le côté de Guermantes, which was originally published separately.

If you’re looking for sizzling action, this book isn’t for you. The narrator has dinner with the military friends of his friend de Saint-Loup and is fascinated by military theory. He meets de Saint-Loup’s mistress, whom everyone except de Saint-Loup knows is a prostitute. He attends a salon where people are variously snobbish, uncouth, bien-pensant, antisemitic, evasively diplomatic and pretentious. He goes for a walk with the extremely creepy and probably predatory M de Charlus. At home, he finds his beloved grandmother is sick.He goes out for a walk with her and she has a heart attack.

Much of it is wryly funny, and there is one belly laugh. At least, I laughed out loud when after about twenty pages in which the narrator is a fly on the wall at the salon, the object of his infatuation who has not deigned to utter a single word to him when introduced, finally – after the narrator’s dear friend Robert de Saint-Loup whispers in her ear – turns to him and says, ‘Comment allez-vous?‘ Your mileage may vary.

I think of Proust as the Anti-Twitter: no proposition goes unquestioned, one’s immediate interpretation of a word or action is more likely than not to turn into its opposite when subjected to sustained, complex explication. No one ever gives a straight answer to a question. We know that Proust and his narrator are dreyfusards*, and the anti-dreyfusard characters are mocked mercilessly, but there’s no sign of Twitter’s door-slamming outrage. And yet Patrick Alexander, author of a guide to Proust, is rewriting In Search of Lost Time (in English) as a series of tweets. Sadly, my computer wouldn’t go far enough back in his Twitter timeline to give me his version of what I’ve just read, so I can’t tell whether he’s making a point of the impossibility of the project.

It turns out, though, that skimming @ProustTweet‘s timeline gave me hope that the endless conversations in this volume are about to give way to something a little more active. The account of grand-mère’s heart attack holds out that promise as well: it happens offstage while the narrator is paying attention to a silly conversation between the ‘marquise’ who attends the public toilets and a caretaker of the gardens they are visiting. The important things, it seems to be suggested, happen when the narrative is engaged elsewhere.


* Proust assumes that his readers are familiar with the Dreyfus Affair, which Wikipedia informs me divided the republic from 1894 to 1906. In essence a Jewish army officer was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for treason, and even when evidence of his innocence came to light the high-ranking office who had actually committed the treason was found not guilty and Dreyfus was again, against the evidence went to prison. In Proust, and I assume in the actual world, conservative, Catholic, antisemitic people of the upper classes tended to be antidreyfusards.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Everything I Don't Remember

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Everything I don’t remember(2015, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, audio book read by Jack Hawkins, Bolinda 2016)

I’d pretty much given up on audio books (see here and here), but the Emerging Artist is less prone to burning bridges than I am, and she borrowed two from the library for a longish drive on the weekend. We listened to Everything I Don’t Remember, all seven hours of it, and I’m once again open to the medium.

A young man named Samuel has died in a car crash, probably deliberately, and a writer is interviewing people who were close to him to find out how they make sense of his death. It settles down to three main interviewees: Samuel’s best friend Vandad, a woman not-quite-lover Panther, and Laide, the lover he broke up with a little before his death. Their narratives, sometimes expanded by scenes imagined by the writer, are interwoven, filling one another’s gaps, contradicting one another, commenting – often harshly and unfairly – on the others’ roles in Samuel’s life and death.

Samuel’s impending death provides a central narrative thread, but the book sends out tendrils into very interesting parts of Swedish society. There’s a brilliantly cinematic moment when a recorded tourist commentary on Stockholm plays on while the people hearing it are experiencing a very different version of that city – which is the version where the main action of the novel plays out, populated by artists, low-level public servants and community workers, struggling members of the gig economy, petty criminals, refugees, most of them, like Jonas Hassen Khemiri himself who has a Tunisian father, of African or West Asian heritage.

Some of the time as we listened we were driving through bush that is just beginning to put out new shoots of recovery from bushfire. In spite of the competition from the real world, the world of the novel kept us engaged (though we had to turn it off every so often to let the surrounding devastation sink in).

There are some meta elements. One of the interviewees tells the writer not to attempt to write Samuel in the first person because he can never know what was in Samuel’s mind. The reader (at least this reader) agrees, and the whole weight of the novel seems to lie behind the advice. Then, in the next section, Samuel’s internal monologue appears for the first time. And in the last ten minutes or so the writer explains to us why he undertook the project. These, and similar moments, may be just clever bits of mise-en-abîme (you know: the camera draws back and you realise you’re looking at a picture within a picture within a picture, ad infinitum), but I read them as moving the narrative beyond journalistic enquiry to something more emotionally engaged – and thereFore more emotionally engaging.

The Bolinda packaging doesn’t mention a translator. I found Rachel Willson-Broyles’s name online in connection with the English print edition, and assume that the smooth, elegant English on these discs is hers. And reader Jack Hawkins is a master at speaking to the microphone intimately, so that it almost feels as if the narrative is unfolding inside the listener’s head, while at the same time he manages the extraordinary feat of always, or almost always, being clear which of several voices is speaking at any given time.

Bernhard Schlink's Weekend

Bernhard Schlink, The Weekend, translated by Shaun Whiteside (2008, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2010)

A group of friends in their 50s meet for a weekend in a grand, but dilapidated house in the German countryside, the first time they’ve all been together in decades. The occasion for their reunion is Jörg’s release from gaol where he has been serving a sentence for acts of terrorism – including four murders – back in the 1970s. The others had been members or sympathisers of the leftist group he had belonged to, but hadn’t been part of the violence.

As well as Jörg, there are Henner, now a journalist, Ilse, a school teacher, Ulrich who owns a string of dental laboratories, and Karin, a bishop, plus Jörg’s protective older Christiane. Ulrich and Karin’s spouses are also there, as well as Ulrich’s young-adult daughter. Margareta, Christiane’s friend who part-owns and lives in the house where they meet, Andreas, Jörg’s long-time lawyer, and Marko, a younger man Jörg has invited at the last minute complete the cast – until a surprise extra guest turns up on Saturday evening (about whom I won’t say anything).

This is a novel by Bernhard Schlink, who writes fine, complex essays on political-cultural issues (my blog post about his Guilt about the Past here), and as you’d expect these eleven, and then twelve, characters aren’t left to talk about the weather. Christiane has organised the weekend to help Jörg make the transition to civilian life. Marko, to the disapproval of everyone else, especially Andreas the lawyer, urgently wants Jörg to become a leader of the revived leftist group. Others, particularly Ulrich, want him to face the reality of his crimes. The conversation ranges – what happens to the dreams of youth, its ideals, loves and resentments? what has become of the leftist, political terrorism of the 70s, and how is it different from the terrorism of al-Qaeda? if you murdered bystanders ‘for the cause’, how do you see that thirty years later, especially if the cause has failed? (Since finishing the book I met the concept of moral injury, which is what happens when someone, usually a soldier, realises they have done terrible things towards what they thought were good ends, but the ends have been revealed as immoral: that concept looms large here, without the term.)

But the debating is rooted in the context of these real lives. There’s some tears, some sex, some humiliation, some wonderful intergenerational conflict, some sweet tenderness, and two surprises that I should have seen coming but didn’t. Ilse, the quiet one, has started writing a story that plays as a kind of counterpoint to the main narrative. In it, another member of their group, Jan, lives on after faking his own suicide to commit more terrorist acts; she has to imagine how to show the mental life of a man who – like Jörg – lives for decades in prison. In the end she decides to have him die, and does it in a way that I read as symbolising how that brand of leftist terrorism came to an end.

It’s a short book. I enjoyed it. It made me think.

Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu (©2014, Magabala Press 2018)

tl;dr: ‘We are at the beginning – not the end – of understanding pre-colonial history’ (Dark Emu, page 60)

I gather that this book has recently been attacked by one of those pretend journalists who like misrepresent people and arguments and then condemn them. I gather that there’s a mostly anonymous website devoted to pointing out the book’s errors (though there are also people with names who have checked all its references and found them accurate). I gather that Bruce Pascoe has been accused of pretending to be Aboriginal for monetary gain, an accusation that has been amplified by one of the very few members of the Australian Parliament who boycotted Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations (and that the Australian Federal Police have dismissed the accusation out of hand).

So I gathered the book itself from my To Be Read shelf, and having read it I can do no better to address the attackers than this recent tweet:

I’m grateful to Andrew Bolt and Co for spurring me to actually read the book. It had joined Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres (1981) and Bill Gammage’s The Greatest Estate on Earth (2012) on my Should-Read list because – all three being books whose contents you think you know by osmosis – it offered a radically revised story of the Australian land before and after 1788. Rolls is a poet farmer whose book was hard to find when I was looking for it 30 years ago (it was republished in 2011), and I’d been told by someone that Gammage’s book is essential reading but ‘the most boring book I’ve ever read’. I expected Dark Emu to be like that: a pleasureless duty read. But The Australian and Andrew Bolt made me think there was probably more to it than that.

And there is.

It’s lively and accessible, full of astonishing facts and a scattering of beautiful and/or intriguing illustrations. Pascoe’s central thesis is that the observations of early European explorers and settlers, and more recently the findings of archaeologists, palaeontologists and so on, give a very different picture of pre-settlement Australia from the one that still prevails in our mainstream culture. This is partly because the assumptions and agendas of the early observers led them to interpret what they saw in ways that now seem bizarre, even laugh-out-loud funny if not for the devastating consequences; and partly because so little attention is paid to those accounts by historians, and the mainstream pays so little attention to recent research findings.

It’s also a shaming book. In my early 20s I read the journals of most of the explorers that Pascoe cites: Sturt, Mitchell, Giles, Grey. I certainly read the descriptions of clay-roofed buildings big enough for 40 people, of fish traps and park-like landscapes, of cheerful gatherings of large numbers of people in places where the explorers could find no food to sustain them. But if these descriptions contradicted my received version of Aboriginal people as nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in primitive humpies – and they did – I can’t say that I had any shock of recognition. When the explorers described these substantial dwellings as hovels, I didn’t recognise the dissonance. I wasn’t thick enough to miss the arrogance that drips from many of the explorers’ pages (Giles has a wonderfully poetic passage lamenting the way Aboriginal people will be replaced by a race more favoured by God – that is, his own race). But those aren’t generally the passages that Pascoe highlights: he’s much more generous than that, treating his sources with respect and sympathy, even as he challenges his readers to see past colonialist prejudices.

Pascoe gives example after example from the early observers to illustrate his argument that Aboriginal people all over this continent were more than ‘simple’ hunter-gatherers; that many of their practices on land and water amount to farming; that they had substantial dwellings, some of stone; that they had a sophisticated understanding of the natural world and skills and technology to make use of it, while ensuring its wellbeing. And he pulls off the small miracle of keeping it interesting. (I do confess that, having got my head around just some of the archaeological terms when I read Mike Smith’s The Archaeology of Australian Deserts – blog post here – I missed phrases like the Last Glacial Maximum.) And then there’s the reason that some people attack the book, mostly I suspect without reading it, and the reason that it’s more than just a fascinating piece of historical revisionism: it offers a broad swell of argument that it’s untenable to think of Australian history as having begun in 1788, or 1770, or 1606. This is how the book ends, and I’m happy to end this blog post this way too (note his use of ‘we’ in the first sentences):

It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry, we refuse to say thanks. Should we ever decide to say thanks, the next step on a moral nation’s agenda is to ensure that every Australian acknowledges the history and insists that, as we are all Australians, we should have the opportunity to share the education, health and employment of that country on equal terms. Many will say that equality is insufficient to account for the loss of the land, but in our current predicament it is not a bad place to start.

The start of that journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Ed Brubaker's Bad Weekend etc

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Jacob Phillips, Bad Weekend  (Image 2019)
––––––, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies (Image 2018)

Scanning my shelves after reading Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend (blog post to come when the Book Group meets), I decided to stick with the title and read a couple of the quality comics I was given for Christmas presents (Bernhard Schlink’s The Weekend possibly to come).

These two handsome stand-alone books (‘novellas’) are spin-offs from the Criminal series of comics created between 2006 and 2012 by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Sean Phillips (art). According to Wikipedia, ‘The series is a meditation on the clichés of the crime genre while remaining realistic and believable. That description is pretty accurate for these two books.

Bad Weekend is set in the world of comic artists. The narrator is charged with being the minder for a cantankerous, sexist, drunken old man who has been invited to a convention to receive a major award – because he is also an artist of genius. The narrator has been the old man’s assistant years earlier, and has been specifically asked for by him on this occasion. It turns out (of course) that the old man is completely uninterested in the award, but wants the young man’s help in finding some priceless original artwork that has been stolen from him. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, the art has a slightly surreal noir feel to it (surreal because of the costumed convention-goers, noir because of the dark world of art theft and intrigue). There’s a nice twist at the end, which probably would have been obvious to anyone who wasn’t, like me, just along for the ride. I should add that the ride involves genuine pathos as we discover the causes of the old man’s vileness.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies should surely win a Most Provocative Title award. It turns out that like Bad Weekend this novella has a fairly straightforward plot involving criminal intrigue. A young woman with a heavy drug habit is sent to an expensive rehab clinic, but has no intention of getting clean. She sets her sights on a handsome young man and persuades him to run away with her from the clinic and from the constraints of their lives. She is, as she says, a bad influence. But there are hints that she is much worse than that  – and these hints are realised. It’s pulp.

The present-time narrative, mostly in full colour, is intercut with the young woman’s back story in moody monochrome, in particular the way, after her mother died, possibly of an overdose, she became fascinated by singers and pop stars who were heroin users. For me, the effect was a reinstatement of parts of famous lives that have been quietly erased or glossed over (David Bowie, John Lennon, Jean-Paul Sartre), and an attention to details of lives I knew very little about (Billie Holliday, Gram Parsons). So it’s pulp, but there’s plenty of nutritious stuff there.

Proust Progress Report 5: Beginning the third volume

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): finished À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), deuxième partie, ‘Nom de pays: le pays’; began Le côté de Guermantes (1020–1921), première partie.

As promised in my last report, I am now well under way in the third book, English title The Guermantes Way.

The last 60 pages of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs got quite sexy, with our poor narrator being sadly disappointed in what he had thought was going to be a long-yearned-for erotic rendezvous, in a way that not even his ingenious rationalisations could make less humiliating. But he bounced back and finished the book in good spirits.

There’s a scene in that book where an older man visits our narrator’s bedroom at night, lends him a book and paces about as if expecting something. The only way I can make sense of the scene is that the older man is hoping for a sexual encounter but goes away disappointed – to all of which the narrator is oblivious. Since absolutely no sexual overture is explicit it made me wonder how much I miss that goes unsaid elsewhere. And as I type those words I realise that the narrator’s disappointment in Albertine’s bedroom (mentioned in the previous paragraph) becomes even funnier in the light of his own unwitting rejection of the older gentleman. Incidentally, one of the common phrases in the book, is ‘à mon/son insu‘, which I guess translates as ‘unwittingly’.

I had thought that in this monthly report I’d write about whatever I happened to have just read. But what I’ve just read is two pages in which the narrator’s aristocratic army-officer friend Robert de Saint-Loup expands on the idea that there is an aesthetic side to the art of war, so maybe I’ll go back a bit.

On New Year’s Eve, in one of those conversations people who see each other once a year ask each other what we’ve been doing, I said I’m reading Proust. Behold, my interlocutor had read Swann’s Way with his book group, and has a friend who has read the whole of À la recherche in English and is now reading it in French. He quoted that friend as saying that in Proust what is not said matters more than what is said – a paradox, given that so much is said. There’s a marvellous moment in my reading since that conversation that exemplifies the point.

The narrator has gone to visit Robert de Saint-Loup at his garrison in the hope of procuring an introduction to Saint-Loup’s beautiful aunt, the object of the narrator’s stalkerish infatuation, the duchess de Guermantes. As it turns out, de Saint-Loup invites the narrator to stay with him in his quarters at the garrison. Over dinner, the narrator recognises a striking family likeness between his friend and his friend’s aunt. The emotional force of this recognition must have shown in his face because:

Robert, sans en connaître les causes, était touché de mon attendrissement.

https://ebooks-bnr.com/ebooks/html/proust_a_la_recherche_du_temps_perdu_3_cote_guermantes.htm

In English:

Robert, unaware of its cause, was touched by my show of affection.

From http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300411h.html, modified by me.

Things move on from there:

Celui-ci d’ailleurs s’augmentait du bien-être causé par la chaleur du feu et par le vin de Champagne qui faisait perler en même temps des gouttes de sueur à mon front et des larmes à mes yeux ; il arrosait des perdreaux ; je les mangeais avec l’émerveillement d’un profane, de quelque sorte qu’il soit, quand il trouve dans une certaine vie qu’il ne connaissait pas ce qu’il avait cru qu’elle excluait (par exemple d’un libre penseur faisant un dîner exquis dans un presbytère).

In English:

My affection was moreover increased by the comfortable heat of the fire and by the champagne which at the same time brought beads of sweat to my brow and tears to my eyes; it washed down the partridges; I ate mine in a state of wonder like some sort of profane person who finds in a form of life with which he is not familiar what he has supposed that form of life to exclude—the wonder, for instance, of a free-thinker who sits down to an exquisitely cooked dinner in a presbytery.

So far so good: during an extended tête-à-tête in his friend’s room, the narrator looks at his friend with an expression that properly would be directed to the women he is infatuated with. He sees that his friend mistakenly thinks the tender look is meant for him. The narrator is filled with a sense of wellbeing, is experiencing delights such as he had never imagined. What could happen next? Well:

Et le lendemain matin en m’éveillant, j’allai jeter par la fenêtre de Saint-Loup qui, située fort haut, donnait sur tout le pays, un regard de curiosité pour faire la connaissance de ma voisine, la campagne, que je n’avais pas pu apercevoir la veille, parce que j’étais arrivé trop tard, à l’heure où elle dormait déjà dans la nuit. 

In English:

And next morning, when I awoke, I went to cast from Saint-Loup’s window, which being at a great height overlooked the whole countryside, a curious look to make the acquaintance of my new neighbour, the landscape which I had not been able to distinguish the day before, having arrived too late, at an hour when it was already sleeping in the night.

So we’ll never know what happened between all those feelings of growing intimacy and waking up next morning. I won’t quote any more of this passage, as there’s an extended description of the neighbouring hill. But the narrator is filled with a new joy as the day progresses, and begins to visit Saint-Loup in his room regularly, and when Saint-Loup and he dine with Saint-Loup’s friends, they hang on each other’s words shamelessly – and our weedy, literary narrator becomes fascinated with the world of military manoeuvres and military history, the world of Saint-Loup.

What would I have thought of all this if I hadn’t been told that what’s unsaid is more important that what is said, and that this book is a classic queer masterpiece? Pretty much what I make of it now, I expect.

In a month’s time I expect to have finished the première partie of Le côté de Guermantes, and I’ll tell you if our narrator ever does get to meet the duchess … and if he cares.

Audio Books, sadly

When the Emerging Artist and I were much younger, I used to read to her on long car trips. For quite a while now, my voice has given out after an alarmingly short time, and we have turned to other entertainments. Audio books we’ve enjoyed are Magda Szubanski’s reading of her memoir Reckoning, and Bruce Kerr and Helen Morse’s reading of Donald and Myfanwy Horne’s Dying: A Memoir, though we only listened to half of the latter. We couldn’t stand David Tredinnick’s actorly reading of Tim Winton’s Island Home, though we could tell the book itself was interesting.

This blog post reports on two more experiments on Audio books on car drives from Sydney to Aireys Inlet in Victoria.


Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason, Saga Land (2017, audible.com 2018)

This is an introduction to the Icelandic sagas embedded in a travel book. It includes Kári Gíslason’s personal story of claiming his Icelandic identity – he was born in Iceland to an Australian mother, but his Icelandic father wasn’t acknowledged on his birth certificate, or at all until he went looking for him as a young adult. It also tells about the friendship between travelling companions Fidler and Gíslason. They wrote alternate chapters and each reads his own chapters in the audio book.

I loved the tellings of the Icelandic sagas – both for their own sakes and for the light they cast on books like Independent People and movies like Rams, and TV shows like Trapped. A year later, my mind has indelibly retained a chilling moment from one of the sagas where a woman exacts revenge for what would now be called an act of domestic violence. And Fidler and Gíslason were excellent company.

Either my ageing ears or our feeble car radio meant that Richard Fidler’s tendency to fade away at the end of sentences made his sections of the book hard to follow at times. But this was a minor blemish compared to readers of other books (see below).

Our car trip, in January last year, ended before the book did, and I didn’t blog about it immediately because I intended to read the rest of it to myself. But as more than a year has now passed, I have to admit that I’ll never get around to it. That is to say, it was a pleasant, instructive read, but not compelling enough to make me go to any trouble to finish it.


Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Bolinda Publishing 2011, read by David Tredinnick)

In spite of my having wanted to throw Evie Wyld’s more recent novel All the Birds, Singing across the room, we’d both enjoyed it enough to expect to enjoy this.

We didn’t. In spite of the pleasures provided to this North Queensland boy by a sugarcane-field setting, we gave up after three of the ten discs, partly because its two narrative strands were going to meet in fairly predictable ways, partly because in one of them the characters felts utterly contrived, especially a weirdly taciturn little girl, and partly because David Tredinnick’s ‘do the police in different voices’, though probably objectively excellent, got on our nerves. For my taste, his reading injects too much actorly interpretation between the writing and me, and I find myself fighting with him over the characters when I’d rather be lost in the story.

We shifted to podcasts – Kermode and Mayo’s film reviews and This American Life. Maybe if I go blind I’ll reconcile myself to audio books, and I’m not ruling out getting another one from the library if we do that drive again. But for now, I’m not an audio book fan.

Elizabeth Strout's Olive, Again

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again (Viking 2019)

This is a sequel to Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I haven’t read that book, but I did see and love Lisa Cholodenko’s 2014 miniseries starring Frances McDormand (my tiny blog post here).

Olive Kitteridge is a retired math(s) teacher in the small Maine town of Crosby. The book’s thirteen chapters form what Frank Moorhouse used to call a discontinuous narrative – sometimes Olive is front and centre, so that we see everything through her eyes; sometimes she makes a tiny, almost inconsequential appearance in the lives of other local characters, and we catch glimpses, usually unflattering, of how they see her.

Olive is a large, socially awkward woman who can be shockingly unaware of the needs of other people: when her son and his wife come on a visit from New York City with their four children, including a small baby, she doesn’t think to buy milk and realises only when they are all there that she has only two chairs in her kitchen. The flip side of that quality is that she speaks her truth unsparingly – without malice, but without care for the effect of her words. As trivial example, at a display of work by local artists she loudly proclaims that it’s all crap. She tells a grieving widower that his recently deceased wife once called her a cunt – and Olive is a woman who hates swearing.

Yet amid all the wreckage of her life, she has a wonderful integrity and an ability to learn from painful interactions. To at least some people she’s loveable; to some she’s an inspiration. When she needs home nursing help she bluntly challenges the racism of one carer but wins her affection anyhow, and her similarly blunt interrogation of a Somali-heritage nurse wins her as well.

In the brief Acknowledgments, Elizabeth Strout mentions ‘cultural differences between New York City and Maine’, which makes me think that perhaps Olive is meant as a kind of incarnation of the spirit of Maine – plain-spoken, honest, taciturn as opposed to New York’s sophistication. I do wonder if Olive might be on the spectrum, but really that’s not what matters: she lives on the page as completely her own woman, warts – plenty of warts – and all.

If the book is reaching for anything other than a portrait of a woman (definitely not a lady) who came to Elizabeth Strout fully made, maybe its an approach to life, a philosophy, that’s summed up in a statement made by another character who is dealing with bereavement (there’s a lot of death, suffering and infidelity in this book, as well as love, tolerance and surprising moments of joy):

‘I’ve thought about this a lot. A lot. And here is the – well , the phrase I’ve come up with, I mean just for myself, but this is he phrase that goes through my head. I think our job – maybe even our duty – is to – ‘ Her voice became calm, adultlike. ‘To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.’

(p 115–116)

Very much in her own way, Olive has grace.

John Le Carré's Agent Running in the Field

John Le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (Viking 2019)

Ever since I saw Richard Burton in The Spy who Came in from the Cold on a double bill with Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death in Cairns in 1966, I’ve been a fan of movies based on John Le Carré’s novels. The novels themselves not so much, though Le Carré’s prose is always lucid, his plots brilliantly intricate, and his characters satisfyingly compromised. My main memory of the last Carré novel I read, The Honourable Schoolboy, was frequently falling asleep over it. All those betrayals and counter-betrayals, the polite British ruthlessness, the tradecraft and codewords, work brilliantly for me on the screen, but on the page require too much labour for too little return.

Then someone gave me Agent Running in the Field as a Christmas present., with the admonition that I need to read something that’s just fun instead of all the heavy stuff that’s been my diet lately (their words not mine).

I enjoyed it. It’s short, and comparatively simple, another spy on the brink of retirement pulled back into active status by chance occurrences and bureaucratic imperatives. Here’s how it starts:

Our meeting was not contrived. Not by me, not by Ed, not by any of the hidden hands supposedly pulling at his strings. I was not targeted. Ed was not put up to it. we were neither covertly nor aggressively observed.

A challenge to a game of badminton follows, and then the game itself. We know from those first sentences that the game is completely innocent, but that it will not always seem so. Le Carré is brilliant at giving us enough information that we can leap to our own conclusions, which often turn out to be right. He makes his readers feel smart, so long as we don’t lose concentration.

Le Carré is nearly 90 years old, and has given his characters permission to rant about the state of things – Trumpism, Brexit, and to a lesser extent Big Pharma – in gloriously extreme language.

My gift-giver was right. This is perfect for reading on lazy summer days.