Tag Archives: Alice Oswald

Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton 2018)

Pat Barker is one of the great war novelists. Mostly she has written about the wars of the 20th century, most notably in her Regeneration trilogy. The Silence of the Girls goes back to the first war story in western literature, and tackles the Trojan War. She’s not the first to do so: in recent years, David Malouf’s novel Ransom focuses on the episode where King Priam begs Achilles to hand over the corpse of his son, Hector, and Alice Oswald’s stunning book of poetry Memorial  excavates the Iliad, consisting mainly of translations of the death scenes. The Silence of the Girls tells Achilles’ part of the story, mostly from the point of view of his trophy slave Briseis.

Some readers have complained that though the book sets out to tell the story of the women, whose voices are unheard in the original text, the men’s stories are still central and much more interesting than the women’s. I don’t see it that way. I think the book sets out to tell the story of Achilles, bringing to bear Briseis’ perspective as a non-combatant who is generally regarded as a prize rather than as fully human. I don’t think Pat Barker sets out to subvert the tale of Achilles’ heroics and passions so much as to contextualise them and enrich our understanding of them.

There are a couple of pages in The Silence of the Girls describing the deaths of individuals at Achilles’ hands that I would have assumed were Pat Barker’s invention if I hadn’t read Alice Oswald’s filleted translation (yes, I haven’t actually read the Iliad): the original makes the brutality of warfare viscerally explicit. What Barker does add is Briseis’ imaginings of how the slain men’s mothers must have seen them as children. The book asks, and sets out to answer, not so much the plaintive question, ‘What about the women?’ as the much more interesting ones, ‘Where were the women and what did they think about it all?’

The result is brilliant. I cried a lot.

Best of 2014 in 3 lists

List 1. Movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

The Art Student and I gave each of the 50+ movies we saw in 2014 a score out of 5. There was a respectable number of 4s and 4.5s. Here are the seven with a combined score of 9.5 or more, in no particular order:

17_dDisruption (Kelly Nyks & Jared P. Scott): we broke our tacit rule about not including movies we saw on the small screen for this one. It’s a brilliant presentation of the situation we face, made in preparation for the Climate Mobilisation in August, but still powerful and useful.

17_bhBoyhood (Richard Linklater). This does miraculous things with filming in real time. The actors actually age as the characters do. Towards the end, someone says, ‘I thought there’d be more,’ and we feel her pain.

17_L Locke (Steven Knight). Another film that does wonders with real time. One man drives in a car through the night, and is spellbinding. The spell is greatly helped by the beauty of Tom Hardy’s voice.

14_CCCharlie’s Country, Rolf De Heer’s brilliant collaboration with David Gulpilil is just superb. That it to some extent reflects Gulpilil’s own story gives it a depth of feeling.

12y12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). Nothing much needs to be said, except that this is a wonderful movie.

17_c4We saw Citizen Four (Laura Poitras) as part of the DOC NYC film festival. It’s a stunning documentary that plays out like a thriller, complete with grim comic relief, about Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance.

tgsNick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which we also saw as part of DOC NYC, makes a mockery of most fiction movies about serial killers, and peels back the cover from race relations in the US.

Our worst movie
This prize has to go to the only film we walked out of: Woody Allen’s shouty, silly, predictable and unfunny Magic by Moonlight. (To be quite honest, the Art Student predicted the reveal; I just didn’t care.)

List 2. Books

The Art Student’s best five (with comments taken from my notes of a chat about them):

144477963XSiri Hustvedt, The Blazing World: The Art Student particularly loved how convincingly this novel describes the artworks created by its protagonist. [We heard Siri Hustvedt read from The Blazing World to about 30 people in Brooklyn last month. She read beautifully and answered questions generously. Memorably, she told us had found Kierkegaard to be great fun since she first read him as a teenager.]

1400066026Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw: a novel of espionage in eastern Europe in the 1930s. Strong on atmosphere and suspense, it manages to tell its story without contriving a catastrophe.

Helen Garner, This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (Text 2014)Helen Garner, This House of Grief: Everyone who likes this book seems to give different reasons. The Art Student liked its tight, almost domestic focus on its characters.

1594486344James McBride, The Good Lord Bird: a novel about John Brown, the anti-slavery activist, from an African-American point of view.

0316322407Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: a fabulous, fabulous book that combines a History 101 of the Peshawar Valley with an account of two extraordinary people, Malala and her father.

I’m not going to list a best five books, but here are six that delighted, challenged and enlightened me, or did that thing of putting into words things I dimly felt or perceived. The images link to my blog entries.

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

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David Malouf, Earth Hour (UQP 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

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Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)

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Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

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Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

A note on gender and diversity: The Art Student announced proudly that she had read more books by women than by men (as she usually does). I read 25 by women and 32 by men. Up against recent Viva statistics on literary journals on reviews by women or about women writers, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read 6 books in translation, from Chinese, Japanese, Bengali and Hebrew.

List 3. Best ‘Me Fail I Fly!’–related headline:

5ip

Onward to 2015!

Alice Oswald’s Memorial

Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)

0571274161Introducing his translation of The Divine Comedy, Clive James reminded us that it wasn’t just a story, but a poem. In creating her ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, Alice Oswald leaves the story out altogether. In a way, that makes the book a perfect companion to the Marvel comics Iliad (though I may be unfair in assuming that Marvel just tells the story: comics have come a long way since I was an avid reader of Classics Illustrated comics).

So what is left of Homer’s epic of the Trojan War if you take out the narrative? The short answer is: a powerful lament / memorial for the slain, interspersed with lyrical evocations of the natural world, Homer’s similes cut loose from the things they refer to. The whole poem is presented here, the author tells us in her introduction, as ‘a kind of oral cemetery’: where you would expect to find a table of contents there are eight pages of single names, in capital letters, one name to a page, so by the time you reach the first poem, which begins

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus __Iton __Peteleus __Antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushing out clawing her face

it’s as if you’ve already been strolling among the tombs. What follows, page after page, is heartbreaking and beautiful, like the AIDS quilt. Every war should have its narrative stripped away like this.

Actually, that’s all I want to say.

Alice Oswald won the Warwick Prize for Memorial last year. She read the final section of the book at the award presentation. You can watch it here. You don’t have to worry about spoilers: everyone named in capital letters dies.