Category Archives: Books

Not a mattress

Mattresses aren’t the only discards that stir the creative impulses in the Inner west. A friend sent me this photograph, taken in a Stanmore lane. I think this work needs to be preserved for the ages.

Ruby Reads 25: Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin, Illustrated S D Schindler, Catwings (Orchard Books 1988)
–––––, Catwings Return (Orchard Books 1989)

Yesterday, Ruby decided that she’d had enough of the pile of books in our living room, and raided the child-height shelf in the second bedroom. She pulled out a boxed set of Roald Dahl, but before she could get too committed to it I reached for the Catwings books. I thought they’d be ‘too old’ for a three-and-a-half-year-old, but I was delighted to be found wrong.

Mrs Jane Tabby was surprised when she gave birth to four kittens with wings, but she didn’t feel the need to find an explanation. Having dismissed the issue of ‘How come?’, the book moves on to the much more interesting question of ‘What then?’

The kittens were born under a dumpster (which I read as ‘skip’ to Ruby) in an alley, and their mother rightly fears for their safety. In addition to the dangers faced by ordinary kittens, they run the extra risk of being abducted by curious or exploitative humans and subjected to at best humiliation and at worst vivisection, though the book tactfully avoids being explicit about the latter. So their mother sends the kittens off into the world by themselves to find a safe place. After a number of adventures, involving injuries and close shaves, and hostility, especially from birds who don’t want cats invading their airspace, they are eventually coaxed into contact with two human children. The last two lines, which I won’t quote here, echoing Leontes’ wonderful line in The Winter’s Tale, ‘O, she’s warm,’ and have almost the same emotional force.

Catwings Return takes up the story just a little later. Two of the kittens – Harriet and James – decide to go back to the city to visit their mother, and there, in a row of buildings that are being demolished, they discover a tiny black kitten, who also has wings but is too young to fly. Alone, filthy, starving and terrified, it can say only two words, a desolate ‘Me’ and a spitting ‘Hate!’ Of course, the older kittens befriend the little one and all three are reunited with their mother before rejoining their siblings. But there is genius in the scenes where Harriet and James calmly, purringly surround the terrified defensive little one with love and reassurance.

The Emerging Artist and I read one book each – no mean feat for the EA, given that she had cataract surgery two days earlier. Occasionally Ruby would want to turn the page before the EA or I had finished reading it, but she never insisted when we said she needed to wait. S D Schindler’s brilliant illustrations held her attention, especially by setting the mostly impossible task of figuring out which kitten was which. But she also remained rapt for the pages without illustration. In the second book, Thelma and Roger are the two kittens who stay behind. Ruby, who had barely met Thelma in its opening pages, kept asking after her all through Harriet and James’s adventures, and was very pleased when she was found safe and happy at the end. Roger didn’t provoke similar concerns – I suspect gender bias.

We only read the books once each, but we had Catwings themed play for some time afterwards: ‘You be the black kitten and say “Hate!” and I’ll purr at you.’

And so the late great Ursula K Le Guin enters the world of another new person. How good is that?

There are three more books in the series, which I will now go in search of.

[I went searching for my other blog posts about UKLG, and found that they hadn’t been transferred from my old, pre-Wordpress blog. So I’m fixing that.]

The Prelude Progress Report 1

William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude, or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind’, in William Wordsworth Selected Poetry, edited, with an Introduction, by Mark Van Doren (Modern Library College Edition 1950), Book First to Book Fourth, line 338.

I’m a month into reading a little of ‘The Prelude’ first thing in the morning, averaging 70 lines a day, now nearing the end of the fourth of 14 ‘books’

Wordsworth began writing the poem in 1799, when he was in his late 20s, and worked on it all his life. It wasn’t published until 1850, soon after his death that year. His own account of the poem’s origins, in the preface to another of his long poems, ‘The Excursion’, includes this:

Several years ago, when the Author retired to his native mountains with the hope of being enabled to construct a literary work that might live, it was a reasonable thing that he should take a review of his own mind, and examine how far Nature and Education had qualified him for such an employment.

As subsidiary to this preparation, he undertook to record, in verse, the origin and progress of his own powers, as far as he was acquainted with them.

(From Wikisource)

So ‘The Prelude’ was intended not so much to stand in its own right, or even to stand as a preparation for a truly great poem, but as subsidiary to that preparation. Which sounds a lot as if he was managing expectations.

The poem itself begins with a seductively straightforward narrative of a time away from the pressures of life in the city – the early 19th century equivalent of a cyber-break. On the first page, my attention was snagged by these lines (13-17):

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way.

It’s hard to miss the echo of the last lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Wordsworth’s echoes imply, cheekily, that his poem aims to take up where Milton’s left off: where Adam and Eve had Providence he has liberty (and though it doesn’t rate an initial cap here, it does a few lines later); his solitude is joyously chosen where theirs was imposed as punishment; and where their wandering is sorrowful and tentative, his is leisurely and unafraid. The poem itself invites us to keep our expectations high.

After that, I haven’t been struck by any strong allusions. There are line that reminds me of the kind of balance and order that I dimly remember being characteristic of non-Romantic poets like Pope, and I can easily get fascinated by the way he pauses in midline and has the sentences flow over the line breaks.

I’m glad I’ve chosen to read just a small amount each day. Mostly I’m carried along by the narrative and his reflections, though sometimes I have to slow right down and reread some lines. I’m always left wanting more, and I never get to the stage where I’m lulled into a kind of trance by the music of the iambic pentameters, not that there’d be anything wrong with that.

Every day’s reading has been pleasurable. In what I imagine is a common experience, I find the poem stirs memories of my own childhood. Not that a North Queensland sugar farm on a hill overlooking the North Johnstone river, with Mount Bartle Frere to the north like a blue cardboard cut-out, has much in common with the humble cottages, the crags and lakes and mist of England’s Lake District. But things are stirred anyhow.

One place where our childhoods echoed each other pretty directly is where the poem celebrates indoor childhood activities. My two sisters and I used to play cards for days on end on the floor of our veranda while tropical rain pelted against the louvres. According to family lore my youngest sister learned arithmetic adding up matches in those early poker games. Here’s Wordsworth on card games:

Oh, with what echoes on the board they fell!
Ironic diamonds,—clubs, hearts, diamonds, spades,
A congregation piteously akin!
Cheap matter offered they to boyish wit,
Those sooty knaves, precipitated down
With scoffs and taunts, like Vulcan out of heaven:
The paramount ace, a moon in her eclipse,
Queens gleaming through their splendour's last decay,
And monarchs surly at the wrongs sustained
By royal visages. Meanwhile abroad
Incessant rain was falling.

So. nearing the end of Book 4, we’ve had his childhood among the beauties and occasional terrors of the Lake District (‘Fair seed-time had my soul’), in company and solitude, his time among the distractions of Cambridge (‘I was the Dreamer, they the Dream’), and his return home on vacation. There’s a wonderful description of the restorative power of a bush walk (‘and restoration came / Like an intruder knocking at the door / Of unacknowledged weariness’), and an epiphany when, returning home in the dawn light after a night of ‘dancing, gaiety, and mirth’ he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the world and: ‘I made no vows, but vows / Were then made for me’.

This morning, bringing a nice roundness to this blog post, I read another reminder that Wordsworth had the great epics somewhere in the background, a lovely example of what I dimly remember from school is called a Homeric simile. The opening ‘As one who’ signals that we’re reading a simile, but it takes 15 lines before we know that the lovingly-described process of looking over the side of a boat is being compared to the exercise of memory:

As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving boat, upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make
Beneath him in the bottom of the deep,
Sees many beauteous sights – weeds, fishes, flowers,
Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more,
Yet often is perplexed and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth
Of the clear flood, from things which there abide
In their true dwelling; now is crossed by gleam
Of his own image, by a sun-beam now,
And wavering motions sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet;
Such pleasant office have we long pursued
Incumbent o'er the surface of past time
With like success, nor often have appeared
Shapes fairer or less doubtfully discerned
Than these to which the Tale, indulgent Friend!
Would now direct thy notice.

‘Incumbent o’er the surface of past time’ – shades of Proust, though Proust never acknowledges how much of what he remembers is actually projection!

Next-door-to-Marrickville mattress poetry

A friend emailed me this photo. It’s not the work of fabulous Marrickville mattress poet C.L. It lacks her (I’m convinced the MMP is a woman) world-weary generosity of spirit and may stray a little into vulgarity, but it’s heartening to see that someone in Newtown is keeping the flame of mattress poetry alive:

Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

Anita Heiss (editor), Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Black Inc 2018)

I’m coming to this book late, but it’s a book that will remain fresh for a long time yet.

It contains 52 essays from First Nations people of Australia. The range of contributors is huge: people from all parts of Australia, urban and remote, from Cape York to the Western Australian wheat belt; some who are household names, some who should be, and some who live quiet lives far from the limelight; people who were strongly connected to culture and community as children and people who discovered they were Aboriginal only in adulthood; old (several contributors were born the same year as me, 1947) and young (one was 13 at the time of publication); sports stars, poets, novelists, classical musicians, prisoners.

Anita Heiss writes in her introduction:

There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.

The attempt succeeds admirably.

I was struck by the sheer number of almost identical incidents in which someone challenges a young person’s Aboriginal identity. Here’s one of them, as told by Keira Jenkins, a Gamilaroi woman from Moree in New South Wales:

I was six years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor in my checked dress, which was slightly too long for me, looking eagerly up at Miss Brown – at least I think that was her name – the first time I had a blow to my sense of identity. We were learning about Aboriginal people and I piped up very proudly.

‘I’m Aboriginal.’ I waved my hand in the air.

‘No, you’re not,’ my friend Alison said. ‘You’re too white to be Aboriginal.’

I don’t remember what happened after that; I just remember feeling ashamed.

(Pages 119–120)

The challenger isn’t always another child. Sometimes it’s an adult in authority, sometimes even another Aboriginal person, but the confident refusal to accept that a child with fair skin can be Aboriginal occurs again and again in almost exactly the same words, never without impact on the child. No wonder Andrew Bolt was taken to court over his 2009 slur against ‘light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal’ (news story here if you don’t know about that): the people bringing the case must have been desperately sick of that pernicious stuff.

The sameness of attacks stands in striking contrast to the tremendous variety of the life stories. I loved reading how eleven-year-old Miranda Tapsell refused to go to an event as Scary Spice just because Scary Spice was brown like her, and risked the ire of her non-Indigenous friend by going as their shared favourite, Baby Spice; how Adam Goodes disobeyed a teacher on a zoo excursion and stared at a gorilla; how Karen Davis, a Mamu–Kuku Yalanji woman who grew up n Far North Queensland in the 1970s and 80s sang songs on long car trips with her family pretty much the way I did with mine in the 1950s.

Some of the stories defy belief. William Russell, who describes himself as ‘a black, fair ex-serviceman with PTSD, blind and with a severe hearing impediment, and a long list of other physical problems from military service’, is a case in point. He tells of a time when his mother, with a babe in arms and four-year-old WIlliam by her side, faced a crowd of drunk, angry white men in the tiny town in Victoria where they had just come to live as the only Aboriginal family. Her grandfather stepped out of the shadows to save the day, naked ‘as always’, painted up in ochre and kaolin, and discharging a shotgun. This was in the 1950s. Hm!

There are tragic stories of the damage done by of colonisation to individuals and communities,featuring alcoholism and addiction; diabetes and diagnoses of mental illness; family violence and dysfunction; premature death. And there are stories of heroic resilience. Tony Birch’s story of his father is a beautifully told study in reversing fortunes. After years of violence and anger, followed by years of medication, electric shock treatment and institutionalisation, he ‘is saved’:

The Aboriginal community of Fitzroy gather around and care for him: men and women who had known him when he was a kid, during the years before any of them were ravaged by the force of racism and exclusion. He moves to the countryside and begins working with young blackfellas in schools. The experience is life-changing, for both my father and his family. I discover, a little to my own surprise, that I love him.

(Page 35)

My copy of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a loan from my Book(-lending) Club. I consider it belongs in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021: it’s edited by a woman, and more than half the contributors are also women. So I’m counting it as the eleventh book I’ve read for the challenge.

This blog post is also a contribution to Indigenous Literature Week hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

Richard Powers’ Overstory

Richard Powers, The Overstory (William Heinemann 2018)

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilised on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

(The Overstory, page 385)

That’s the challenge Richard Powers has taken on: to write a compelling novel about the contest for the world. While I was reading it, the Australian Commonwealth Government was trumpeting the virtues of coal even while the memory of last year’s devastating fires was still fresh and temperatures in Canada reached staggering new heights. You don’t have to be particularly radical or visionary to realise that the climate emergency is upon us and decisive action is needed; but most of us go on, with occasional breaks for demonstrations or lockdowns, more or less business as usual. The Overstory resolutely turns its gaze on the crisis currently facing humanity, focusing on the world’s forests, attempts to protect them, and the catastrophic scale of destruction.

The opening section, ‘Roots’, reads like eight short stories, each more or less complete in itself, and with no obvious similarities or connections between them. It turns out that we are being introduced to the nine main human characters, and the role trees have played in each of their lives. A boy lives on a farm where his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father, have photographed a particular chestnut tree once a month for a century, so that he has a stack of photographs that can be flicked through to show the tree’s growth over that long time. Another boy becomes an early computer nerd, whose life changes dramatically when he falls from high in a tree. A girl is fascinated by what turns out to be a priceless scroll her father has somehow smuggled out of China when he left as a refugee.

In the second and longest section, ‘Trunk’, the main narrative is played out. One character develops a hugely popular and lucrative computer game. Another, who Wikipedia says is modelled on Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, makes world-changing discoveries about how trees communicate with each other. But the dominant thread is about five characters who become part of the ecological movement of the last quarter of the 20th century. There are brilliantly powerful accounts of front-line protests to save the forests of north west USA (of the kind that still continue today, as in Sally Ingleton’s 2020 doco, Wild Things. Avoiding extreme spoilers, I’ll just say that their activism doesn’t end well, and that it ends spectacularly.

The third section, ‘Crown’, is pretty much aftermath. That is, the sense of anticlimax never quite dissipates. Life continues. The activists build new lives. The computer game becomes more complex, more successful, and ultimately less satisfying to its creator. The scientist, whose work was initially ridiculed, is now validated and in demand.

In the fourth, shortest section, ‘Seeds’, the novel’s big question comes into focus. So much damage has been done, such a huge proportion of the earth’s forests has been destroyed, and attempts to prevent further destruction have failed. The damage is either irreparable will need more time to be repaired than we have left: where can we go from here? A number of possibilities are raised – seeds for the future, not all of them including human thriving – but I’m glad to report that the book’s final pages are neither glibly optimistic nor glibly despairing. There is no saying which of the seeds will take root or bear fruit. Trees will survive, but will humanity?

If, like me, you know intellectually how serious the climate emergency is but have trouble really holding that knowledge in your mind and heart, then reading this book will probably bring you closer to facing up to the reality. It is full of passionate love for trees, and for their interconnectedness in forests. I’m not a tree scientist, but my impression is that Richard Powers has immersed himself in the research, then produced his own lyrical, impassioned version, nudging it slightly towards science fiction/fantasy – at times crossing over to mystical communication between trees and humans – but still true to the spirit of the science. Likewise, when Nick and Olivia, now calling themselves Watchman and Maidenhair, spend a year on a platform high up in a threatened redwood, I read it as beautifully realised fiction, but trust that the fiction has solid roots in the realities of those ecological protests.

The Overstory is brimful of ideas: about computer technology, tree science, political organising, the function of art. It’s full of history – in particular of the destruction of the forests of North America by disease and rapacious capitalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries; and of US environmental law, environmental protest movements and, less overtly, land art. It also has nuanced, complex relationships among humans and moments of visceral violence. There are moments of devastating wit, not least the moment towards the end when a Native American perspective is sharply introduced. And all the way through, it rhapsodises about trees, and this, for me, is the engine that keeps the book alive when the plot sometimes loses momentum. Here’s the moment when Nick and Olivia first drive into the redwood forest:

The redwoods knock all words out of them. Nick drives in silence. Even the young trunks are like angels. And when, after a few miles, they pass a monster, sprouting a first upward-sweeping branch forty feet in the air, as thick as most eastern trees, he knows: the word tree must grow up, get real. It’s not the size that throws him, or not just the size. It’s the grooved Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns to the most-swarmed floor – straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.

(Page 211)

When I’d hit Publish on this I went for a walk and as I passed the trees in the park near our place and in the surrounding streets, I realised that the main joy of The Overstory for me was that it reminded me of how much I love trees. There was a time in my early days in Sydney when I couldn’t talk about the trees near my home in North Queensland without tearing up. More recently, when we left our house for an apartment, it was the guava tree and the cumquat tree that I missed most. Again and again in this book, Richard Powers as narrator or through one of his characters gives unabashed expression to what I suppose should be called dendrophilia.

Here’s a eucalypt catching the afternoon light in our park just now, and some of its tree neighbours.

Journal Blitz 8a

I’m chronically behind in reading the journals I subscribe to. I’ve had seven goes at dragging myself up to date by blogging about a batch in one post. But blog entries get unwieldy when they deal with several very different publications, and I wouldn’t blame my readers fro giving up after the first screen or so. So this time, there’s just the one journal:


Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada (editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 1: modern elegy (2020)

At the 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival, poets Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada met with Jacinta Le Plastrier, publisher of the Australian Poetry Journal, on a panel called The Heart Bent for a discussion on ‘the ethics of elegy and writing on and from love’. Jacinta suggested that the panel members put together an issue of the APJ on the theme, and this excellent publication is the result. No one could have guessed that a pandemic would make the theme of elegy – a formal lament for the dead – bitingly relevant.

The journal is divided into four main sections, each wth a foreword by a different editor, a brilliant solution to the question of how to co-edit.

Each of the forewords ruminates on the nature of elegy. Ellen van Neerven invokes the context of the terrible happenings of 2020 – the ravages of country, Indigenous culture and First Nations people in Australia and around the world, and the rising up against racism that followed the deaths of George Floyd and David Dungay. In the thirteen poems she has selected, she says she feels ‘the energies of these pieces and the futures these poet don’t wish to mourn’. David McCooey writes, ‘We all live elegiac lives. Loss is endless, and the things we lose pile up like the debris in the wings of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.’ Felicity Plunkett starts from Denise Riley’s Say something back (2016), a book of poems that centres around the death of the poet’s son, and writes, ‘The question of what the elegy – and, more broadly, the elegiac mode – can and can’t do is one the poems in this anthology approach from different angles, counterpoints in an extensive song.’ Eunice Andrada hopes ‘that through engaging with these elegies, we can widen our collective vocabularies when attempting to offer language to our loss’.

Behrouz Boochani has a special place. His ‘Forgive me my love’, hand-written in Farsi and translated by Moones Mansoubi, stands alone before all four sections. Even if it was drivel it would have justified its place, given his heroic history as a beyond-marginalised Australian writer. But it’s not drivel:

Forgive me, my angel!
I am not able to caress your gentle skin with my fingertips.
But I have a lifelong friendship with sea zephyrs
and those zephyrs strum my nude skin here, in this green hell!

What follows is extraordinarily rich and diverse. Well established writers have beautiful work here: Jennifer Maiden (‘Meteors’, since published in Biological Necessity), Eileen Chong (‘Cycle’, in A Thousand Crimson Blooms), Evelyn Araluen (‘FOR POWER FOR PRAYER FOR PROMISE FOR PEACE’, in Dropbear), Toby Fitch (‘Spleen 2’ in Sydney Spleen, which is on my TBR shelf), Andy Jackson, Sam Wagan Watson, Jordie Albiston, Tricia Dearborn, and more.

There must be something in this collection for all tastes and moods. I want to mention three poems by poets who are new to me.

Winnie Dunn’s ‘God in the Margins’ dramatises three episodes from a young woman’s life involving menstruation, contraception and herpes. They are told in straightforward vernacular, but with footnotes that link to texts from Hebrew, Christian and Muslim scripture. The effect is stunning: hard to demonstrate by quotation, because the thrill of the poem lies in the way the footnotes create a kind of cosmic miasma around the scenes of demotic Western Sydney life.

Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Air: For my parents and all who passed (2018–2020)’ starts with a school music teacher telling students, ‘Open your lungs when you sing’ and contrasts it to her dying parents’ difficulty breathing on their deathbeds. Here’s the poem’s turning point:

Death gags us, or swallows
all the air and never ever
gives it back, but today
walking in Haig Park,

under the cedars, I chance
upon a Chinese woman,

alone she sings with the beat
of a tambourine I hear
before I see, we're trees and trees
apart, socially distanced
but what amplitude her air,
its rise and fall of notes

giving back, giving me back 
a song I cannot understand 
except that it's lament

Perhaps I responded strongly to Elena Gomez’s ‘Death and all his friends’, because I read it just after hearing a review of the movie Fast and Furious 9, but it’s a terrific poem even if you’ve never heard of the franchise. it enacts the way emotions evoked by movies and TV shows – in this case a Fast and Furious movie, an episode of Gray’s Anatomy, and Jurassic Park – can be a vehicle for grief that has nothing to do with the movie. I desperately want to quote the poem’s surprising, brilliant and devastating last four lines, but that really would be a spoiler.

Tucked away at the back of the journal are two related sections: ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ – five poems from an event at the 2019 Melbourne Writers’ Festival (not all by Melbourne poets); and ‘Introducing the Tagelied, the Dawn Song’, a brief essay by Nathan Curnow followed by six poems – by poets including Cate Kennedy and Bella Li – that are either examples of the form or relate to it somehow.

So poetry is thriving in Australia. I’m pretty sure copies of this journal are still available for Australia Poetry.

**A new book**

Exiting news!

If you go to my Publications page, you’ll see a new book of poetry has been added to my list of publications. It’s None of Us Alone, featuring a cover photo of one of the thousands of ceramic hearts created as part of the Emerging Artist’s Connecting Hearts Project.

Unlike my previous books, this one is not self-published. It’s part of Ginninderra Press’s Picaro Poets series edited by Brenda Eldridge. It’s a thing of beauty, a chapbook, containing just 24 poems.

You can buy a copy for just $6 inclusive of postage and handling – just click the button:

Buy Now button

Alternatively you can buy a copy direct from Ginninderra Press website, at this link (and you can browse the rest of the series while you’re there). Buyers from outside Australia can’t purchase from Ginninderra Press.

When the current lockdown is over, perhaps I’ll manage a launch event of some sort, and invite you all.

After Proust, the Prelude?

Now that I’ve finished reading À la recherche du temps perdu, there’s an odd gap in my mornings. (I am aware of having Proust as part of a daily habit, given how much he had to say about the opposition between habit and full consciousness, but reading a couple of pages of his work was a habit all the same.) I want to take on something else.

A conversation last week with a 40ish friend helped me to think about criteria for the next reading project. My friend was raised without religious instruction and, realising that this had left a huge gap in his cultural knowledge, he had decided to read the Bible. Most of the way through Genesis he was disappointed, not only by the tedious begats, but by what he felt was poor storytelling. He singled out the story of Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac as particularly nonsensical. I realised that those stories – Adam and Eve; Noah; Lot’s wife; Abraham, Sara and the angel; Isaac, Leah and Rachel; David dancing naked before the Ark of the Covenant – would seem very different if read cursorily for the first time rather than received with the force of canonicality (if that’s a word) behind them. I want to spend a couple of minutes each morning engaging with a substantial work of literature, not rushing it, not studying it, but letting each small portion settle for a day before I take on the next one.

Homer came to mind: I know people who have spent years reading the Iliad and the Odyssey as a group project. Or James Joyce: All those Bloomsday celebrations can’t be for nothing, and Finnegan’s Wake is at least as daunting as À la recherche. Byron’s Don Juan. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Aeneid (though I did that, 20 lines a day, in my mid 20s, so it would be a repeat). Middlemarch (another repeat, but why take it slow?).The Divina Commedia in Italian. Das Kapital (but not in German). It’s a long list of contenders.

Don’t ask me why because I don’t know, but I’ve decided to read Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. In my time at Sydney University, the emphasis was on close reading. I’m grateful for what I learned in that way, but it meant that we got to read an excerpt from this long poem without being told anything about the poem itself, or encouraged to find out about it for ourselves. In fact, I didn’t know until I looked up the Wikipedia entry just now that Wordsworth began working on it in his late 20s and continued to do so all his life; that it was intended as the introduction to an epic, The Recluse, which he never finished. I believe that the version I’m about to read was published posthumously in 1850, the year Wordsworth died. I don’t expect references to it to crop up in movies, other poems, newspaper articles, the way references to Proust have in the last 22 months, and I’m not ruling out the possibility of abandoning ship, but I’ll start tomorrow morning, a page of blank verse a day, and I’ll blog about how it’s going in a month.

Janice Galloway’s Trick Is to Keep Breathing at the Book Group

Janice Galloway, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989, Vintage Classics 2015)

Before the meeting: When I was about half way through this book, the following exchange happened on WhatsApp:

The Trick Is to Keep Breathing is a possibly-brilliant novel that I, for one, hated.

It’s a first person narration by Joy, a woman who has tipped over the edge into extreme depression and mental disorder when her married lover drowns on a holiday in Spain. At first I thought that my copy of the book, in a Penguin Vintage Classics edition, had been poorly reproduced from old film: the type is mostly dark and slightly blurred, though occasionally, apparently at random, a sentence or two is lighter and clear. There are odd blank spaces as if several lines are missing. And every now and then the margin boasts a word or a column of words, perhaps partly obscured by the gutter or running off the edge of the page. It took a while to realise all this was deliberate, a way of physicalising the state of Joy’s mind, on a continuum with the way the width of the column changes every now and then when Joy relays to us a horoscope or an advertisement from a magazine, or the type switches to italics as, bit by bit, the traumatic event in Spain is revealed.

It must be this typographic play that led the New York Times reviewer quoted on the back cover to write: ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy as rewritten by Sylvia Plath.’ I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, but a bit of unconventional typesetting doesn’t make a Tristram Shandy.

The portrayal of Joy’s unrelenting descent into darkness, starvation and disorder must be what led the judges to award it the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year for 1990. According to the website of ‘mental health charity’ MIND, ‘this well-established literary prize celebrates writing that heightens understanding of mental health issues in all their forms’. Elsewhere, Fay Weldon, a frequent judge, acknowledges that it is a little-known prize, and that ‘”literature” is not what concerns us here, but effectiveness, accessibility, honesty, optimism and helpfulness’. She wrote that in 2011. The judges’ desires were different in 1990, or they read the book differently from me, because I found very little optimism or helpfulness in it, and while Joy’s experience is vividly realised, I don’t think my understanding of anything is heightened.

The novel is a nightmare account of an experience of grief, anguish, disordered thinking, despair, self-starvation. The men in Joy’s life are generally sexually exploitative and/or clueless about her mental state. Her one woman friend has gone to the USA, and that friend’s well-disposed mother offers baked goods as an optimistic panacea. The doctors she encounters are unable to help, and in some cases, callously, don’t even try. If her account of her time in a mental institution is even half accurate, then the system needed to be burned to the ground: but it’s more of a darkly satirical fantasy, almost certainly with some truth but not something you’d trust as an account of anyone’s actual lived experience. For me, and I may be completely idiosyncratic here, the book came across as a kind of mental-illness porn.

At least one member of the group has signalled in advance that he loved the book. I’m open to persuasion, but only by a crack. I expect there will be discussion of the ending, which may be ambiguous, though I’m fairly clear about how I read it. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

After the meeting: Covid–19 brought restrictions to Sydney again on Wednesday, and though we were only six people and could have met legally in someone’s home, we decided to meet online.

Once we got settled in – ‘Hi, I like your beard’ ‘How did the test turn out?’ ‘Are people wearing masks in your part of town?’ – we moved on to a terrific discussion of the book.

Why it was terrific is that two completely incompatible readings of the book were aired, and the proponents of each could see that the other was coherent and justifiable from the text. It was all in how you read the tone. I guess I was at one extreme, reading the tone as something like that of Truffaut’s movie The Story of Adèle H, unremitting misery: Joy is sunk in grief and depression, goes through the motions of daily life and relationships, keeping up appearances but unable to show anyone – friends, former lovers, current sexual predators, co-workers, doctors – the depth of her despair. The chap putting forward the other extreme read it as grimly comic: through her terrible grief, Joy never loses her sense of herself, holding onto what she can of relationships and keeping with her routines as a way of staying in the world, vulnerable to predators but keeping her core self shielded from them, bantering defiantly with the useless doctors. Others were in different points along a spectrum between the two readings. No one else had read the ending as grimly as I had, and when I read the final paragraph to make my point, my opponent offered a completely valid alternative reading. I say ‘opponent’, and at one stage someone thought we were being a bit intolerant of each other, but I really don’t think that was happening: certainly I was delighted by the difference, and my respect for the book ballooned, give that it could sustain such different readings.

There was some talk about the terrible weather in Glasgow, and how what someone from tropical North Queensland (that is, me) might see as unrelentingly grim, might be seen by others (including possibly Janice Galloway) as dourly amusing. We’re reading another Scottish book for our next meeting to put that theory to the test.