Tag Archives: Charlotte Wood

The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AWW 2016 challenge completed

AWW2016 This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14, which ranged from revelatory and richly entertaining to definitely meant for readers who aren’t me. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble.

Poetry:

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Pam Brown
Missing Up

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

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Antigone Kefala
Fragments

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Novels:

seahearts

Margo Lanagan
Sea Hearts

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Short Fiction:

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Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Memoirs:

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Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):

alli

Lee Whitmore
Ada Louise

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

Essays:

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Laura Tingle
Political Amnesia

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Helen Garner Everywhere I Look

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

I’m signing up for the 2017 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 39 books by men and 31 by women.This includes at least five (the Y: The Last Man series) that were jointly written by a man and a woman.

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

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The verse, my last for this November: 

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

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

Charlotte Wood’s Natural Way of Things

Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin 2015)

nwt.jpgThis book came to me accompanied by the same dire warnings as A Little Life. It’s a very hard read, I was told, whose author subjects her characters – plural this time, and female – to unremitting and implausible suffering.

The warnings were justified, but Charlotte Wood’s book is a very different beast from Hanya Yanigahara’s. Jude St Francis’s sufferings are extreme, the men who inflict them are inscrutable monsters and Jude suffers in isolation despite the best efforts of the people who love him. The young women in Charlotte Wood’s fable are punished, not with reason but with a kind of logic. The hands-on perpetrators are loathsome, but knowable, and at some moments pathetic. The ‘girls’ have mostly been abandoned by people they thought loved them. And where Jude remains passively saintlike in his suffering, hurting no one but himself, the ‘girls’ get nasty, manipulative, even murderous, and we mostly love them for it. Also this book is a lot shorter than the other – it’s not out to test a reader’s stamina.

The Natural Way of Things is a fable involving a group of young women, each of whom turns out to have been caught up in a sexual scandal – an affair with a bishop, rape by a group of footballers, a cruise-ship degradation. They include a politician’s PA, a woman from the army, an elite athlete and a child television star. By going public, or being made public, they have each attracted huge media attention. In a kind of metaphor for the prevalent attitude to such women (see the online comments section about any sex scandal involving a woman), they are imprisoned in an abandoned sheep station in western New South Wales, and consigned to oblivion there with two male guards and a bizarrely incompetent woman who is presumably meant to look after their health.

It’s hard going in the first third of the book as their terrible conditions are revealed. They wear coarse clothes, sleep locked in rooms that resemble dog kennels, have no facilities to wash their clothes or themselves, subsist on a diet of vile yellow muck, and do hard physical labour interspersed with beatings. Their prison is surrounded by a deadly,  high, electrified fence.

But even that early part is not just an enumeration of horrors. Sure, there’s a broken jaw here, a suppurating burn there, but the narrative takes us inside the women’s heads. It traces the gradual shift to a sense of themselves as more elemental, more animal than they have ever imagined. So when the prison’s (but not the fence’s) electricity fails and they realise that they have been completely abandoned by the outside world, the movement – at least for the main characters – is not towards despair so much as towards a new way of being in the world, towards reclaiming their reality as physical beings in a physical universe.

It’s a fable. That is to say, it’s not an account of things that could actually happen. It’s more Mad Max meets Kafka than Orange Is the New Black. Reading it in the wake of the Don Day footage and the release of the Nauru files, I realise it’s not entirely fantastical either – if anything, it’s milder than those grim realities. But it is a fable, with its own visceral reality, and beautifully written. I don’t know if Charlotte Wood was ever sent to boarding school, but some of the writing captures that awful claustrophobia. And I don’t know if she comes from the country, but all through the book the descriptions of the countryside leaven and intensify the desolation of her characters. For example:

In the field they labour, chipping weeds, shovelling gravel, raking. The pile of concrete chunks has gone, the pieces laid out end to end into the distance. The road corridor has been cleared, the hard dry dirt graded with their hands and ancient hoes and rakes. Edges have been dug and sloped to stop erosion. As they scraped and cleared the knee-high grass they have shrieked and dropped their tools and leaped from the slithering path of brown snakes and red-bellied blacks, or the stomping shuffle of the thick-necked, weaving goannas. Bird calls drop from the skies all day long and, taught by Leandra, the bird nerd from the army, they recognise them now: not just the screams of cockatoos and corellas or the squawking lorikeets, but also the floatier melodies of wagtails, butcherbirds, thrushes and kites. At night the mournful, mournful stone curlews cry.

AWW2016The Natural Way of Things is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Hanya Yanagihara’s Little Life with the Book Group

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Picador 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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