Tag Archives: essays

Claudia Rankine’s Just Us

Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation (Penguin 2021)

This is a wonderful book.

Note to Australian (and possibly other non-US) readers: Don’t be put off by the book’s self-description as ‘an American conversation’. It is deeply, intimately USian, but Claudia Rankine’s mind is to be learned from and loved by anyone with a heartbeat. The book’s central question is how people can reach for each other in human ways given the horrors of racism that divide us – and racism isn’t a uniquely US phenomenon.

Note to white readers, especially white male readers: Though these essays are mostly about racism as enacted and mistaken for reality, don’t read them in the spirit of self-lacerating virtue or grudging worthiness. They are exhilarating, challenging, inviting, occasionally funny. Almost every essay is written as part of a conversation. People quoted in the essays (including white men and white women) are given right of reply, adding unexpected perspectives and enriching the conversation wonderfully.

The title is a pun. The first of the book’s two epigraphs is a line from Richard Prior’s stand-up comedy:

You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.

In its original context, which you can see on YouTube, the line could be paraphrased: you look for justice in the criminal justice system but all you find is the targeting of Black people. Rankine’s use implies an additional possible reading: If you want justice, you have to find a way to make us all part of one ‘us’.

The book’s 19 essays and two poems are mostly printed only on the right-hand page of each spread. The left-hand page is sometimes blank, but mostly carries ‘notes and sources’, or images, or fact-checks. When a piece of police brutality is discussed on the recto, the verso might show how it was captured on camera. A general assertion on the right is backed up by statistics on the left. And so on. It’s an inspired design concept.

The opening essay starts with the author preparing to teach a class on whiteness at Yale University. After discussing some of what she asks of her students, the essay takes an interesting turn:

I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege. I imagined myself – a middle-aged black woman – walking up to strangers to do so. Would they react as the police captain in Plainfield, Indiana, did when his female colleague told him during a diversity training session that he benefited from ‘white male privilege’? He became angry and accused her of using a racialised slur against him. (She was placed on paid administrative leave and a reprimand was placed in her file.) Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after white man walk away as if I were mute? Would they think I worked for Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, or Chelsea Handler and just forgot my camera crew? The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to, and though my husband is white, I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage.

(‘liminal spaces 1’, page 19)

So we follow her as she shies away from the challenge a number of times, before finally hitting paydirt. On the way, she slips in a quick introduction to Peggy McIntosh’s popularising of the term ‘white privilege’, noting in passing that she would have preferred ‘white living’ because ‘”privilege” suggested white dominance was tied to economics’. She seamlessly invokes other scholarly and non-scholarly writing (including some excruciating Twitter threads). We hardly notice that we’re being educated as the suspense builds, and as a white male reader I found I had a lot invested in the project as well.

That essay sets the tone. Rankine is after conversation, not confrontation. She aims not to provoke defensiveness or denial but to learn something.

The subject matter of the following essays include revelatory moments in ‘diversity training’ workshops, including the one referred to in the quote above; her marriage; a meditation on Woman with Arm Outstretched, an art photograph by Paul Graham; white supremacist assumptions in the education system, specifically at her daughter’s school; the way different white and black people remember a cross-burning incident in her college days; a dinner party where she gets to be the ‘angry Black woman’ for insisting on the primacy of racism as a factor in Trump’s election; how racism plays out against Latinx and Asian people; and a brilliant discussion prompted by the moment at an all-Black dinner party when a professor asks her what to tell her black female students who bleach their hair blond. The essay on hair has the distinction of being the only essay/conversation where the right-of-reply takes the wind out of Rankine’s sails, when one of the young women under discussion gets to speak.

This book is evidently the third in a trilogy of sorts. Where this book is mainly essays, the earlier two are a mix of poetry and videos, sharing the subtitle An American Lyric. I haven’t seen Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), but I was completely enthralled by Citizen (2014, my blog post here), so I came to Just Us with high expectations. I was not disappointed. The book opens the world up to great possibilities.

To give Rankine the last word, here’s part of the left-hand-page commentary on the final spread:

A friend finished reading the final pages of Just Us and said flatly, there’s no strategy here. No? I asked. Her impatience had to do with a desire for a certain type of action. How to tell her, response is my strategy. …
For some of us, and I include myself here, remaining in the quotidian of disturbance is our way of staying honest until another strategy offers a new pathway, an as-yet-unimagined pathway that allows existing structures to stop replicating. Until then, to forfeit the ability to attempt again, to converse again, to speak with, to question, and to listen to, is to be complicit with the violence of an unchanging structure contending with the aliveness and constant movement of all of us.

And here are the final lines on the right-hand page:

What I know is that an inchoate desire for a future other than the one that seems to be forming our days brings me to a seat around any table to lean forward, to hear, to respond, to await response from any other.

Tell me something, one thing, the thing, tell me that thing.

Sarah Holland-Batt’s Fishing for Lightning

Sarah Holland-Batt, Fishing for Lightning: The spark of poetry (UQP 2021)

Between March 2020 and March 2021 Sarah Holland-Batt had a weekly column about poetry in the Weekend Australian. Each column focused on a recent book of poetry, all but two of them Australian, and was accompanied by a poem from that book. University of Queensland Press has done a great favour to those of us who don’t read The Australian by collecting those columns into this richly engaging book. Here’s how Holland-Batt describes the book:

I offer some suggestions about how to learn to pay attention to poetry and what poets do. In these essays, I am writing for readers who are out of touch with poetry, or who want to learn more about it, and even those who think they hate it, as well as for those who have already found a place for poetry in their lives. Some of these essays focus on opening up and demystifying poetic forms – the elegy, the ode, the sonnet, the villanelle – while others focus on poetic style and techniques. Many also offer some historical context. Poetry is, after all, an ancient art so durable and powerful that it has lasted millennia. Much of what poets do today still connects to prehistoric poetry that was sung and spoken prior to the invention of the written word; where I can, I illuminate those historical links.

That’s pretty much a perfect description. Sarah Holland-Batt has racked up an impressive list of awards and honours as a poet herself and she’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at QUT. While these essays benefit from her broad knowledge of poetry and her love for it, they don’t patronise their readers or leave them eavesdropping at the door of a closed shop conversation – both things that tend to happen in critical writing about contemporary poetry.

Take, for example, the essay first published on 11 July 2020, ‘The Sonnet Sequence: On Keri Glastonbury’, which begins:

In the winter of 1962, stoked by amphetamines, the American poet Ted Berrigan compulsively wandered the streets of Manhattan at all hours, and began writing his first book, The Sonnets: a book length sequence that sings up New York’s Lower East Side in all its grimy, fast-and-loose glory.

The essay spends a lively page on The Sonnets, its role in Berrigan’s subsequent career as a poet, and its status as ‘a touchstone of a poetic generation’. Having deftly evoked this precedent (no need to belabour us with the history of sonnet sequences from Petrarch to Christina Rossetti), it spends roughly two pages on general description of Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets, and rounds off with a page-long reading of one poem, ‘The Pink Flamingo (of Trespass)’: how it exemplifies the preceding generalities, how it is an exception, and how the poem itself works. It ends with an observation that arises from this close (but not too close?) reading:

Like many of the poems in Newcastle Sonnets it leaves you both with the feeling of having been let in on a joke by an insider, but also left slightly on the outer too: like Newcastle itself, as Glastonbury suggests, this is both a comfortable and disorienting place to be.

By the time we reach the poem itself, we are well equipped to read – and enjoy – it.

I picked this essay because I blogged about Newcastle Sonnets (here), and the comparison is instructive. While I hope I communicated my enjoyment of the book, most of my blog post was taken up with its difficulty, with my own sense of being an outsider. Reading Sarah Holland-Batt – on this poem and on any number of others – I realise (again, at last) that reading poetry isn’t about nailing down a clear meaning: not quite understanding, or even being mystified, can be part of the enjoyment.

Anyhow, I can endorse Holland-Batt’s own sentiments: whether you are out of touch with poetry, or want to learn more about it, or think you hate it, or have already found a place for it in your life, I’m pretty sure you could find some joy and light in this book.

Added later: I have one major discontent with the book, namely that there doesn’t appear to be a sequel in the works. I’m pretty sure another 50 new poetry books would be there for the SHB treatment if she were up to it. She could ‘do’ Jennifer Maiden, Adam Aitken, Kit Kelen, Pam Brown, Ouyang Yu … to name just the poets near the top of my To Be Read/To Be Blogged pile.

Zadie Smith’s Intimations

Zadie Smith, Intimations: Six Essays (Penguin 2020)

This tiny book was written in the first half of 2020, when Covid-19 was running wild in New York City, where Zadie Smith teaches creative writing. It comprises six personal essays, which their author describes in her foreword as ‘small by definition, short by necessity’. They are written in the spirit of what she learned from the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: ‘Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.’

It’s a tiny book, but it’s not slight. As I read it, I could feel my personal understanding of the word ‘intimations’ changing to include an element of intimacy. These essays ruminate intimately on life, art and relationships in the middle of a pandemic. The first essay, ‘Peonies’, sets the tone:

Just before I left New York, I found myself in an unexpected position: clinging to the bars of the Jefferson Market Garden looking in. A moment before I’d been on the run as usual, intending to exploit two minutes of time I’d carved out of the forty-five-minute increments into which, back then, I divided my days.

She was transfixed by the sight of a bed of garish tulips, wishing they were peonies. That moment leads into reflections on the concept of a ‘natural woman’, the nature of creativity (‘Planting tulips is creative. … Writing is control’), the ‘global humbling’ that was to happen a few days later, on creativity and submission. She quotes a parable from Kierkegaard about the difference between how we actually are in the world and the stories we tell about ourselves in the world. You can make them peonies in a story, but they are still tulips in the real world. With the lightest of touches, the essay takes us into the deep challenge that April 2020 – ‘an unprecedented April’ – presents to our sense of ourselves.

The second essay ‘The American Exception’, also has a brilliantly enticing first line: ‘He speaks truth so rarely that when you hear it from his own mouth – 29 March 2020 – it has the force of revelation.’ We know exactly who she means. Paradoxically, the truth he spoke is that before that date ‘we didn’t have death’. The essay goes on to justify the paradox beautifully.

All the essays tackle big themes, and do it lightly. The longest, ‘Screengrabs (After Berger, before the virus)’ is the one where the author brings her gifts as a novelist most strongly to bear. I think the Berger in brackets is John Berger, and there may be a reference to his famous quote, in Understanding a Photograph: ‘I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.” The essay offers six portraits, mostly of people peripheral to Smith’s New York life, though one, subtitled ‘An Elder at the 98 Bus Stop’, is someone who has known her since childhood back in London. Each of the portraits has a twist at the end, as the pandemic leads the person to reveal something unexpected about themselves. After the portraits, there’s ‘Postscript: Contempt as a Virus’:

‘The virus doesn’t care about you.’ And likewise with contempt: in the eyes of contempt you don’t even truly rise to the level of the hated object – that would involve a full recognition for your existence.

The brief essay-within-an-essay ranges over racist micro-aggressions, Dominic Cummings’s cavalier violations of Covid restrictions, and, most compellingly, the look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he murdered George Floyd.

I haven’t read anything by Zadie Smith before this. I haven’t even seen White Teeth on TV. I’ve enjoyed her brother Ben Bailey Smith’s occasional stints on the Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, but that’s as close as I’ve got. I brought this book home from the Book(-swapping) Club, and Im very glad to be introduced to this fine writer.

Jennifer Maiden’s Cuckold and the Vampires

Jennifer Maiden, The Cuckold and the Vampires: An essay on some aspects of conservative manipulation of art and literature, including experimental, and the conservatives’ creation of conflict (Quemar Press 2020)

This essay opens with a story about the great Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez:

When Márquez realised that the new avant-garde periodical that was serialising his novel was a project of the CIA, he wrote to his friend, the editor, that he was withdrawing the work and felt like a ‘cuckold’. *

Hence the cuckold in the essay’s title. The titular vampires come from a traditional tale in which a visitor to a village suspects the presence of a vampire, only to discover that all the villagers are vampires. For Márquez, as Maiden spells it out, the ‘betrayal was not confined to that particular incident, but continued to pervade his sense of hope and his sense of self-trust for the rest of his life’.

That opening does three things. First, it provides a striking and incontestable example of reactionary political forces exerting influence and having a destructive effect on creative enterprise. It’s one of many in the essay. Others include the funding of Australia’s Quadrant and the promotion of abstract expressionist art during the Cold War. The body of the essay gives many examples of less tangible kinds of manipulation as well, including the CIA’s Cord Meyer’s injunction to ‘court the compatible left’ – that is, to win leftist and liberal artists and writers over as propagators of the CIA’s positions.

Second, the opening provides a gloss on one of Maiden’s poems, in this case ‘What if all the village were vampires?’ from The Espionage Act (Quemar 2020, my blog post here). It’s one of many such glosses that I expect will make the essay indispensable to scholars of Maiden’s poetry. Several of Maiden’s poems are quoted in part or in full in the body of the essay..

And third, in the manner of its telling, it helps to define the tone and the ideal readership of the essay. Márquez appears without personal names or any orientating descriptors. We are expected to know who Márquez is, or rather which Márquez is meant – the Wikipedia disambiguation entry for ‘Márquez’ lists hundreds of people. It’s an essay for people who are reasonably well read in modern literature and, given that the first page mentions, in passing, the United Fruit massacre, Simón Bolivar and Fidel Castro, they are also reasonably well informed about Latin American (and by implication other) struggles against capitalism.

The essay that follows ranges widely, and sometimes wildly, over the cultural landscape and over the centuries. It covers personal experiences that writers generally don’t talk about in public: books pulped without the author’s permission, outrageous copyright arrangements, duplicity on the part of critics. Many of the stories are told without naming names, but in most of these cases the anonymity is skin deep. There are plenty of AustLit anecdotes, including a personal spin on well known ones such as A D Hope’s famous dismissal of Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, and direct reports of Maiden’s own experience. There are excursions into literary criticism – including of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Henry James. The essay takes issue with some strands of feminism, going back to fifteenth century France for an example of a proto-feminist whose writings served the interests of the ruling class, and is troubled by conservative patronage’s current ‘predilection for ostentatiously supporting Indigenous and Women’s art, often both together’.

One of the essay’s key points is the need to look beyond the ‘microcosm’ to the ‘macrocosm’. The microcosm is the detail of interpersonal relations; the macrocosm is the broad political forces behind the personal interactions. For example, when talking about the early death from substance abuse of John Forbes, an outstanding Australian poet whom Maiden classifies as of the left, she rejects the romantic notion of the self-destructive poet:

The suicidal depression in substance addiction of some left-wing artists … seems to me clearly related to their internalisation of right-wing social pressures to succeed, and an inability to disentangle those pressures from the valuation of their art – and, indeed, their lives. It’s a lethal business. The nature of competition and criticism in capitalist art has the characteristics of a battlefield, and drugs can seem the only method to tolerate it. There appears to the artist no issue of long-term survival, only a short-term negotiation and acceptance of the microcosm. Drugs provide the conflicting comforts of temporary transcendence, tunnel-vision and indifference all at once. They are a short-cut to the creation of the type of intoxicated persona that the Right Wing insists is the hallmark of art. And they also destroy the artist’s own critical faculty, making the artist more dependent on external right-wing critical criteria.

(pages 36–37)

That phrase, ‘It’s a lethal business’, recurs often. The microcosm–macrocosm shift is crucial, Maiden argues, when we look at conflict among artists and writers. How much of it is encouraged, if not confected, by the forces of reaction in order to defang creativity? The essay sails close to just that sort of conflict at times, though even when Maiden is describing how a particular artist or art movement has been used by the right-wing, she generally makes it clear that it’s not the artist or the movement she is criticising.

I doubt if anyone will read this book nodding agreement all the way. I was perplexed by the argument that only right-wingers invoke Marx any more, and though I’m interested to learn that the term ‘conspiracy theory’ was first developed by the right to dismiss concerns abut the assassination of John F Kennedy, I can’t agree that the term isn’t appropriate for, say, Pizzagate and the Great Replacement.

But for anyone who agrees with Jennifer Maiden’s contention that writers and readers who think of themselves as ‘non-political’ are very likely to be conservative or reactionary, this essay is a lively and challenging read. For anyone interested in her poetry and/or the circumstances in which poets have worked and been published in Australia over the last half century, it’s richly informative.


A small gripe: I was desperate for some white space as I read The Cuckold and the Vampires. I need an indent or a half-line space between long paragraphs. I need white space to mark a new phase of an essay-argument. If poetry is quoted at length, I need the actual line breaks rather than slashes to show where they ought to be. My eyes need these occasional rests, and my (ageing) brain works better when my eyes are rested.


The Cuckold and the Vampires is the sixth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Claire Messud’s Kant’s Little Prussian Head

Claire Messud, Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other reasons why I write: An autobiography in essays (W W Norton & Co 2020)

Claire Messud (Wikipedia entry here; her own website here) is primarily a novelist. I haven’t read any of her novels, but this book – a collection of essays of which versions were published between 2002 and 2019 in journals ranging from Vogue to the Kenyon Review – was on offer at our book-swapping Book Club. I’m a bit of a sucker for writers’ writing about writing, and on top of that I was intrigued: Did Kant keep a tiny sculpture of a head on his shelf, and whose head was it?

It turns out this is the first book I’ve read that mentions Covid–19. The introduction, dated April 2020, strikes an optimistic note. Speaking of the climate emergency, life under late capitalism, and the way recent years have been ‘a dark maelstrom’ (which may be code for the Trump presidency), she continues:

This ominous hurtling, the relentless ouroboros that is social media, the destruction of ourselves and our environs – we had come to see it as inevitable, and ourselves as the passive and ineluctable victims of forces beyond our control. Humanity has risked collective despair, than which there is no more certain doom for our planet and ourselves. But even in the past two months, although at the mercy of a ravaging virus, we have discovered that in other ways we aren’t disempowered. Crisis and extremity are by no means to be desired; and their consequences – human and economic both – will be challenging for the foreseeable future. But these extraordinary times have also forced us to slow down, to think collectively, to seek hope, to value the truth, and to celebrate resilience and faith in our fellow human beings.

To find these resources, we may look to the past – to history and to literature – to the vast compendium of recorded human experience, from which we draw wisdom, solace, or, at the least, a sense of recognition.

It might have been harder to hit that note of optimism eight or ten months later in the USA, and harder to assume that the ‘we’ in that passage is universal, or even a majority, but it’s still saying something real.

The book is organised into three parts: ‘Reflections’, which comprises mostly family history, and the self-explanatory ‘Criticism: Books’ and ‘Criticism: Images’. The divide, while clear, isn’t absolute. As Messud says in her Acknowledgments, her ‘family is at the heart of it all’. The three essays on Albert Camus at the start of the second section – on respectively his ‘naive optimism’ during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), a new translation of Camus’ L’Étranger, and Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, which is a response to L’Étranger – take on extra depth and resonance from Messud’s family history. Her father’s family were pied-noirs (Algerian-born French) like Camus, and the first Camus essay begins with a memory of her father as an old man grieving for the country he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager.

I approached the first part cautiously. Other people’s family history provoke one central question: Why should I be interested? Will this family be amusing? Will their stories shed light on my own? Will they open out to some broader understanding of the world? In this case the answer to all three questions is Yes. Claire Messud brings to her stories of her parents and grandparents not only the precise aura of childhood memory, but also an adult grasp of their contexts. She spent a large part of her childhood in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, then moved with her family to Toronto, and from there to the USA. Each move meant a cultural shift, and it’s Kambala Church of England School for Girls in Rose Bay, seen through Messud’s eyes and now ours, that is the weirdest of them:

We had uniforms for summer and for winter. The former was a grey-and-white checked shirtdress, belted, worn with a straw boater banded in grey, with the school crest upon it. The latter was a grey tunic, beneath which we wore white shirts (with Peter Pan collars while at [the junior school] Massie House) and grey-and-gold striped ties (bow ties, with the Peter Pans), and topped by a grey felt hat, again banded with the crest. Grey socks; black oxfords; grey jumpers; grey blazer (with gold piping); grey knickers; grey ribbons (compulsory if your hair touched your collar).

(‘Then’, page 8)

And there’s much more.

The dislocations in the early lives of Messud and her sisters, it turns out, are mild reprises of their parents’ lives. Her father was a pied-noir. His father, a patriotic Frenchman who also loved his native Algeria, took his family to Morocco in 1955. Messud’s father never returned to Algeria, but moved from country to country, and when his guard was down would grieve for the country and language of his childhood. A fierce atheist, when he was dying in a nursing home, he was bullied into taking Communion from a visiting priest, but as the priest was offering the host:

‘Isn’t there someone,’ my father asked me pleadingly, ‘who could do this in French?’

(‘Two Women’, p 45)

Her mother was ‘raised petit-bourgeois and socially aspirant in mid-century Toronto’. The parents met in Oxford, and their first date was at a picnic also attended by Gloria Steinem. Messud’s father’s younger sister, mentally unstable and zealously Catholic (she’s the one who pushed for the deathbed Communion) became part of their life from their marriage in 1957.

The family story is told with generosity to all parties, including the aunt, and extends to the tribulations of Messud’s teenage daughter as she deals with school-age bullying.

Inevitably, some of the essays are less interesting than others: ‘How to be a Better Woman in the Twenty-First Century’ is little more than a listicle, and an account of the author’s two dogs, though funny and heart-rending, is still an essay about dogs.

I’ve been reluctant to read review essays of books I haven’t read ever since Colm Toibìn’s review of On Chesil Beach essentially told the whole plot of that very short book in one full page of the London Review of Books. But I read all the critical essays here. I enjoyed and was enlightened by the one on a book I’ve read – Teju Cole’s Open City (link is to my blog post): I was surprised by a twist at the end; Messud doesn’t mention the twist, but discusses many moments along the way that would have made it less surprising if I’d been paying attention. I’ve seen the movie based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and her discussion of the book brought back the movie’s power. Essays on Jane Bowles, Italo Svevo, Magda Szabó, Rachel Cusk (this one especially), Saul Friendlander, Yaasmine El Rashidi and Valeria Luiselli are all enticing, giving enough information and context to make one want to rush out and get hold of a copy.

The third section comprises catalogue essays on painters Alice Neel and Marlene Dumas, a review of photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still, and finally returns to family with a sweet essay on how she and her children love Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Living as I do with an Emerging Artist, I read the catalogue essays with relevant books open beside me, and could feel my capacity to appreciate art expanding as I read and looked. These essays are enriched by their inclusion in this book. When Messud writes that Marlene Dumas’ Amends, like each of her paintings, ‘has evolved out of a particular combination of autobiography, politics, culture, and the demands of the medium’, she could be describing the book as a whole or in its parts. In her essay on Sally Mann (which also, by the way, makes a telling contribution to current conversations about whether you can appreciate a work of art created by a person of vile character), she could likewise have been describing these essays, a good bit more accurately than the book’s subtitle, when she wrote:

… this memoir is notably neither confessional nor self regarding. Mann, ever the photographer, stays behind her lens, turning her ‘intensely seeing eye’ on the people and the natural world around her. […] We will know Mann by the outline that she leaves, by what touches her and how.

(‘Sally Mann’, p 287)

I didn’t get the writer-writing-about-writing hit I was expecting. The title essay is the only one that explicitly fits the bill – and the title, incidentally, refers to a line in a Thomas Bernhard novel that Kant’s monumental work shrivels down to a legacy of ‘Kant’s little East Prussian head and to a thoroughly amorphous world of night and fog’: to write is to aim to have at least that much legacy.

Vicki Hastrich, Charlotte Wood, Night Fishing on the Weekend with the Book Group

Before the meeting: This month’s designated Book Chooser gave us two books to tide us over the summer break, a collection of memoir essays and a novel. The author of the novel makes a brief appearance in one of the essays, and it’s possible that the novel is set in a version of the locality that is the focus of many of the essays.


Vicki Hastrich, Night Fishing: Stingtrays, Goya and the Singular Life: A Memoir in Essays (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the Meeting: I reserved both books at each of the two libraries I belong to. Night Fishing became available within a day, though I was unable to renew my loan because seven people joined the queue while I was reading it. By contrast, there were 50 and 80 people respectively in the queues for The Weekend, but I was saved by the Emerging Artist, who bought it as a Christmas present to herself.

Night Fishing is a collection of thirteen essays that range from 4 to 34 pages in length. They don’t really amount to a memoir, as the title page claims, but they do have memoir elements. They are personal essays, most of which explore aspects of the waters near Woy Woy, where Vicky Hastrich’s family had a holiday house in her childhood and which she now visits often.

The first essay, ‘The Hole’, is filled with rich childhood memories of the place, and the excitement of rediscovering a favourite fishing spot with her brother. They go out in the author’s much-patched fibre-glass dinghy, the Squid, and are just about to pack up for the day, crowded out by half a dozen fancy, gizmo-laden boats, when she gets a bite:

The rod bent. I pulled the big, slow thing up and Rog got the net. It seesawed, it yawed, it took forever, but finally a dark shape materialised. Rog leant out and the shape nosed serenely into the net, though only its head seemed to fit; simultaneously Rog lifted and in a heavy, dripping arc in it came, landing thickly in the bottom of the boat. A huge flathead. Biggest one we’d ever seen – by a mile. Adrenaline pumping, we whooped and screamed.
 Suck eggs, you plastic heaps! Go the mighty Squid,’ I hollered.
We were grown-ups.

There are many moments like this in the essays. Hastrich’s deep love of that place is infectious, and it’s the best thing about the book – in ‘The Hole’ and ‘From the Deep, It Comes’ (in which Western writer and deep-sea fisher Zane Grey makes a guest appearance). She also writes engagingly about her writing life, including an unfinished colonial gothic novel that seems to haunt her, and about the way her past as a television camera operator affects her way of seeing (both in the same brilliant essay, ‘My Life and the Frame’). There’s a wonderful essay, ‘Amateur Hour at the Broken Heart Welding Shop’, about her grandfather, who was a ‘first-class amateur’ engineer – Hastrich describes herself as an amateur writer.

Less successful for me are the essays that are in effect reports on experiments: going fishing at night with only a non-directional lantern on the dinghy (‘Night Fishing’); taking the dinghy out at low tide to The Hole with a bathyscope (‘The Tomb of Human Curiosity’); filming herself as she sleeps two nights in a row and taking 112 selfies on the day in between (‘Self Portraits’). The contrived set-up of these pieces stops them from quite taking off.


Charlotte Wood, The Weekend (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Three women in their seventies meet at a beach house for a weekend over Christmas, but not to celebrate the holiday. Christmas just seems to be a non-event. None of them has family to celebrate with: Wendy is a widow with alienated adult children, Jude is the long-term mistress (old-fashioned term, but accurate) of a wealthy man who spends the holiday with his family, Adele is a once-famous actress who has become increasingly unemployed, alone in the world, and on the brink of homelessness. Nor have they taken refuge with each other as Waifs and Strays. The beach house belonged to Sylvia, the fourth in their little group of friends, who has died recently. They are there to sort out her stuff and prepare the house for selling – for the benefit of Sylvia’s partner, who has left the country,

We are told that these women have been friends for forty years. We are told they are feminists. But as they arrive at the hut, separately, they barely greet each other. Each is allocated a section of the house to clean up, and they proceed to do it in isolation. No calling out from one room to another – ‘Oh my God, look what she kept!’ ‘What should we do with all these gorgeous clothes?’ ‘That’s my saucepan that she borrowed and never gave back!’ – let alone any shared whingeing about the partner who has skedaddled and left them to do what should be her work. They do think such thoughts, but there’s no commonalty in the task. No sense of solidarity in grief either. And only the sketchiest idea of who the recently deceased woman was apart from the her role in keeping the friendship group together. When the three go for a walk on the beach, no one waits for anyone else but each remains wrapped in her own thoughts.

Not a lot happens in the first two thirds of the book apart from reports on the internal monologues of each of the women, and descriptions of the undignified deterioration of Wendy’s deaf, arthritic, incontinent dog. Towards the end, each of the three is delivered a devastating blow, they stumble into a Christmas midnight mass, and they find some solace and forgiveness with each other, but though there’s a terrific evocation of a storm as the blows are delivered, by then I was past caring.

I was so looking forward to this book, because I loved Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (my blog post here). It can’t just be the subject matter that led me not to like it – I’ve been known to be very interested in women aged 70 or thereabouts, and I was enthralled by Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (blog post here). I think it’s something to do with the way the narrative generally works. To take a passage pretty much at random, here’s Jude after she’s realised that Adele has claimed the best bedroom without any discussion:

She didn’t care about the bedroom at all – she wasn’t fussed by trivia like that – but still, a fleck of disdain formed itself: how had Adele not, in all these years, developed a shred of restraint, of self-discipline? It was how and why she was an actress, Jude supposed. They were all children, the men too, as far as she could tell. She could see the appeal, when you were young, the liberation of it. But what did it mean when you were old? What were you left with, still a child at seventy-two?

(page 75)

This is the kind of writing I meant by ‘we are told’ in the earlier paragraph. It’s shaped as if it’s giving us Jude’s internal monologue. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that no one thinks like that. Take the generalisation about actors. It’s mean and judgmental, and absurd, but that’s not my problem with it: why shouldn’t Jude be meanly, absurdly judgemental? My problem is that the omniscient narrator is giving us a rundown, an abstract, as if the writer has figured out what Jude’s character is, and is giving us little snippets to illustrate it. We’re not inside Jude’s head, which is where we need to be if we’re to get lost in the story. Sadly, this is pretty much how the narrator’s voice works for most of the book. It feels as if these characters created no surprises for their creator. This reader remained generally disengaged.

Many people have said The Weekend was one of their favourite books of 2019: Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers, for example, have both written elegant, well-argued, positive reviews of what’s recognisably the same book but seen through very different lenses from mine. I’m glad, because I don’t want any book to be unloved – well, hardly any book. I’m sorry this one isn’t loved by me.


After the meeting: We met in the carport of our host’s newly purchased and not yet completely habitable house in Balmain with a spectacular view of the Sydney skyline, and had pizza. Once we’d got over the splendour of the setting, and tales of cricket from this summer and summers long past, and one or two fabulous tales of adventure in the city involving weddings and mistaken identity (though not in the same tale), we had an animated discussion of the books.

My sense is that no one was as negative about The Weekend as I am. Where I missed the casual back and forth of old friends, the book’s main proponent said he had read that sort of thing as understood but not part of the book’s focus: that the narrative was interested in the characters’ internal lives. another chap said that the main thing the book did for him was to have him reflect on decades-old relationships that are full of obligation but not much else; in particular, there are people who are nominally his friends but are really his wife’s friends, and if she were to disappear he wold gladly never see them again. He wasn’t saying that the three women in this book were like that, but he certainly read their lack of mutual warmth as having a similar source: Sylvia was the glue that held the group together, and no one was sure it could continue to exist without her. Yet another said he wasn’t fazed by the lack of communal grieving: that had already happened, as he read it, and now each character was withdrawn into her own individual grief.

It’s interesting that my main misgivings – which I’m not sure I even articulated – were addressed from so many fronts.

Night Fishing provoked some interesting discussion. Notably, towards the end of the evening, one chap said he was embarrassed to realise that this was the first thing he’s ever read about a woman fishing. His embarrassment was widely shared, and led to some interesting surmise about fishing and gender: men often fish in order to indulge in reverie, that is to say, be alone and do nothing. Is it the same for women? Or does it tend to be a more practical task for women. Today someone sent us a link to Lyla Foggia’s 1997 book Reel Women: the world of women who fish (link here).

On a more general readerly level, while the word ‘patchy’ evoked some head-nodding, we liked the book. A couple of passages were read out to general approval. One of our younger members said the book tapped into a vein of nostalgia. He didn’t get to enlarge on that thought, and I didn’t get to reply, but I think it’s not exactly nostalgia in these essays: the author revisits a place she loved as a child and explores it in a number of ways as an adult, deepening and enriching her understanding of it, and so of herself.

Someone said that they felt that Night Fishing was written by a person, and The Weekend was written by a writer. Obviously Wood and Hastrich are both writers, but there’s something to what he said. Hastrich describes herself as an amateur, which is a different thing from a dabbler or a learner – it points to the elements of vulnerability and lack of subterfuge that make her writing so attractive. The Weekend is Wood’s sixth novel, and even though I was disappointed in it, I didn’t ever want to give up on it.

One last thing: Charlotte Wood has put up on her podcast The Writer’s Room a wonderful interview with Vikki Hastrich that provides fabulous insights into the kind of beast Night Fishing is. Here’s a link.


Night Fishing and The Weekend are the first two books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Erik Jensen’s Prosperity Gospel

Erik Jensen, The Prosperity Gospe: How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost (Quarterly Essay 74), plus correspondence from QE 75

I approached this Quarterly Essay with reluctance. Did I really need another inside-baseball, after-the-event reading of the tea-leaves about the May federal election? That’s how I felt when the essay came out, and my already-faint enthusiasm has only waned since. But I did read it, three months after the event as has become my custom..

It’s mercifully short. It consists mainly of finely crafted snapshots, mainly of the party leaders in action, from both sides of the election campaign with occasional snippets of commentary, and no sustained argument as such. An essay for the distractible perhaps. Or one that met an impossible deadline, to be published within weeks of the events it deals with. That’s not to say it lacks insight (‘Bill Shorten’s gamble is that you can replace popularity with policy’). But it’s impressionistic rather than discursive, and narrative rather than analytical. It was written on the campaign trail. Bill Shorten gave a generous interview; Scott Morrison refused to be interviewed. There’s no doubt which of the two men emerges as the more likeable, but he is the one who is accorded the most devastating summing-up:

The great truth of Bill Shorten is that he doesn’t know himself. He hasn’t settled his character.

Morrison on the other hand, though his religious belief and his deep commitment to his family are noted, is described in the essay’s final words as ‘a hardman who says everything is simple and some of you will be okay’. Both those summations are beautifully concise, and they’re far from stupid, but neither is justified by the essay that precedes them.

It’s a strange essay, reading sometimes like diary notes from the campaign trail: along with the oft-seen moments like Morrison’s Easter observance, speeches are summarised, mostly without comment; we’re told what books people carry in their luggage; there’s a scattering of off-the-cuff witticisms from staffers; the behaviour of the wives of both candidates is described; sometimes unrelated passers-by are mentioned.

Much of the narrative simply sits on the page, without resonance or further implication that I could discern. An outstanding example is in the account of Morrison emerging from a Healthy Harold igloo (part of a program of health education for children):

Morrison rolls his shoulders when he stands. The tail of his tie not quite to his sternum. He has taken off his jacket: his paunch is oversatisfied and his nipples are erect

(page 48)

This reminded me of a piece by Mungo MacCallum in the Nation Review some time in the early 1970s. Describing Gough Whitlam emerging from a swimming pool, he commented that the honourable gentleman appeared to be very well endowed. That was funny in a transgressively adolescent way, and it chimed with the writer’s clear view that Gough was an attractive big man in other ways as well. Here, the point of mentioning the state of Morrison’s nipples, if there is one, seems to be to tell us that the writer was very close to the action and noticing details, however meaningless. The length of his tie doesn’t even have that, and what does the personification of Morrison’s paunch even mean?

In fact, as a guide to understanding what happened in the election, the essay is eclipsed by the 25 pages of correspondence about the previous Quarterly Essay, Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (my blog post here), which offer a number of interesting and plausible hypotheses about how the progressive-leaning population described so convincingly by Huntley could have delivered the result when it acted as an electorate.

And now perhaps the existence of Jensen’s essay is justified by what turns out to be an excellent correspondence about it at the back of QE 75 (Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work, which I look forward to reading in three months’ time).

Shorten’s speech writer, James Newton, gives an unrepentant insider’s account of Shorten’s campaign, including his now-near-forgotten town hall meetings. Journalist David Marr and scholar Judith Brett offer their analyses. Barry Jones offers the perspective of a grand old man of the ALP. Elizabeth Flux tells us what she learned from being ’employed as a subeditor with a focus on Australian politics’ throughout the campaign, Kristina Keneally writes interestingly about the possible role of religious background. Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson offer historians’ insights. Lawyer Russell Marks gestures towards ‘the deep structures operating through Australia’s political and electoral systems’.

These contributions mostly include evidence that they have read Jensen’s essay. Some of them actually grapple with it, as distinct from using it as a launching pad for their own commentary. Here are some quotes to balance my own underwhelmed response:

James Newton: ‘Instead of wasting words on pseudo-psephology, Erik Jensen gives us telling sketches of the two major-party leaders, their campaigns and the choices Australians faced and made.’

David Marr: ‘The drift of the press is to cut everything short. This guts argument. … The great pleasure of The Prosperity Gospel is to be immersed in the language of the campaign and reconsider the state of politics in this country knowing that what was dismissed as blather in those weeks worked so well on election day.’

Elizabeth Flux: ‘The Prosperity Gospel helped me understand why I found the election result so difficult to come to grips with. It wasn’t that “my team” didn’t win. Or that I liked Shorten more. It’s because it wasn’t a case of one side’s policies winning over the other’s. People were happy to vote for no policies at all, because we’d rather have a strong man selling nothing than a quiet one trying to make changes which he truly believed were for the better.’

Kristina Keneally actually engages critically with the essay, finding it unsatisfying in three areas: ‘First, while Jensen introduces the distinctly different religious foundations for each leader’s policy and political approach, he does not wrestle with what it means that Australia voted for one over the other. … Second, Jensen’s profiles of Morrison and Shorten are incomplete, or at least unbalanced. … Third, he could have explored the role religious affiliation and identity played in the election.’

Patrick Mullins & Matthew Ricketson wonder on paper if people will still go to this essay for insight in the future, say in the lead-up to the 2019 election. They argue (unconvincingly in my opinion) that they should.

Russell Marks laments that while the essay’s subtitle promises an explanation for the election result, ‘Jensen never really expands beyond what is mostly a literary answer.’ He goes on to speak, not quite disparagingly, of political journalists making ‘literary attempts to match leaders’ characters to the nation’s and to find in the intersections why publics endorse one leader and not another’, and then speaks quite disparagingly of ‘armchair psychoanalysis’, though he doesn’t accuse Jensen directly of that.

Tellingly, Jensen’s ‘Response to Correspondents’ ignores them all and makes some observations on what has happened in the months since the election.

Fiona Wright’s World Was Whole

Fiona Wright, The World Was Whole (Giramondo 2018)

[Added later: If you read only one article on this book, I recommend Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s brilliant essay ‘Comfortable and Comforted: The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright’ in Sydney Review of Books (click here) rather than mine. Of course, I’d be happy for you to read both.]

This is Fiona Wright’s second book of personal essays. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year, she said the first book, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes, particularly those brought on by her severe health issues, and this book is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is (still) fragile. It’s a very good description.

The essays are beautifully written, combining personal detail, literary reference and information about the social and historical contexts. They revolve around three main things.

First is the experience of chronic illness. Fiona Wright lives with a rare and complex digestive disorder, which gave rise to behavioural difficulties. Dealings with dietitians, psychologists, hospitals and the mental health system feature prominently, and there’s a revelatory quality to her recounting of the micro-moments she has to negotiate as a person for whom eating is always problematic. One example at random: in ‘Back to Cronulla’ she has a meal with her family to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary, course after course of beautifully plated dishes:

It was beautiful food, truly and terribly wonderful – because for once I actually felt like I was missing out. I was cautious with my meal, aware than any of these dishes might make me throw up, and eventually something did. I left the three-hour-long lunch feeling hungry, and wound tight with anxiety and disappointment. My oldest niece, bored at one point with the meal, had asked her mother, why are we eating so much food for lunch? and all the adults had chuckled, out of the mouths of babes! But oh, I wanted to say, I know exactly what you mean.

(page 41)

The second recurring subject is home, as housing and as locality, home that is never the stable, warm reliable nest of stereotype, but home that is uncomfortable, and sometimes precarious. Born and raised in Sydney’s Western suburbs, Wright now lives in the Inner West, and one of the beauties of the book is the way these places, and others such as Cronulla, come alive on the page. In particular, even while she makes it very clear that she doesn’t feel completely at home in her current suburb of Newtown any more than she did in her childhood suburb, her love for it is tangible, and never more so than in this account of the Newtown Festival:

The street itself was thronged and milling. A beautiful young woman with a shaved head and silver glitter pressed onto her eyelids placed a sticker in the shape of a heart onto my chest. I ran into one of my housemates in the park, an old colleague and then the girlfriend of a woman I used to live with; a little further on, I saw one of the nurses from the hospital, although it took me a moment to place her properly, dressed in denim and wearing jewellery, rather than navy-blue scrubs and a duress alarm.

Later, I met a friend in a café on King Street, and the barista said, we haven’t seen you for a while, and reached for the skim milk before I’d even had a chance to speak. I used to bristle when this happened, when a waiter or bartender asked if (or assumed that) I wanted my usual, it used to embarrass me acutely, because I didn’t want anybody else to recognise how predictable, habitual, routine I could not help but be. It seemed to be a failing and a fault, but in this afternoon, all afternoon, I felt it as a recognition of my place, of my home and my inextricability, almost, within it.

(‘Relaxed, Even Resigned’)

There’s a lot about the joys and tribulations of shared rented houses. ‘Perhaps This One Will Be My Last Share House’ – the title says it all – casts a cool eye on the process of being evicted, finding new housemates and searching for a new house. It’s personal, but it’s worth a hundred newspaper articles about the housing problems facing young people in Sydney (and many other cities).

The third thing, not so much a theme or a subject as a practice, is attention to moments. In the Correspondence section of the current Quarterly Essay, responding to Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss, Fiona Wright has a piece that pretty much starts out:

I am a millennial, and this response will probably seem solipsistic, and it will be fragmentary. It’s not that I can’t help it. It’s not my attention span, my inherent narcissism. I’m just making a point.

A number of the essays here are fragmentary – congeries (a word my high school Latin teacher used to love throwing at us) of moments, observations, eavesdrops, beautifully chosen quotations from other writers. Only an inattentive reader would think they were solipsistic or narcissistic. And they do have a point, though not one that is argued for as if in a debate.

A woman about my age sits at the next café table with someone I take to be her mother, slung beneath a bag as enormous and as orange as a pumpkin. The older woman says to the waitress, I’ve quit sugar so I’ll just have a chocolate croissant.

(‘What It Means for Spring to Come’)

I catch a train into the city, in the late afternoon, and hear a young woman’s voice somewhere behind me: it smells of seaweed in here.

(”The everyday Injuries’)

There are two marvellous travel pieces – Iceland in ‘A Regular Choreography’ and China in ‘Little Heart’ – which combine all three of those features. By its nature, travel imposes extra stress on vulnerable bodies and minds, raises issues of home and belonging, and is disjointed and fragmentary.

The collection’s title, and the title of one of the essays – ‘The world was whole always’ – come from the poem ‘Aubade’ by US poet Louise Glück (click here for the whole poem):

A room with a chair, a window.
A small window, filled with the patterns light makes.
In its emptiness the world 

was whole always, not
a chip of something, with
the self at the centre. 

I stumbled across another of Glück’s poems, ‘Formaggio’ (on a pdf file here), which includes the book’s title, though without the ‘always’ of the essay. It begins:

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

These lines could have served as an epigraph to the whole book. One way or another, the essays are about being shattered, or its aftermath: precarious housing, chronic illness, life away from the security and predictability of the family of origin. The writing is a way of understanding, of knowing what it is.

The book hit a number of personal spots for me: I live on the edge of Newtown and recognise many of the places mentioned; it’s a while ago but I’ve lived in a number of share houses; there’s a discussion of one of the few Chinese poems I’ve tried to engage with intimately (here if you’re interested); and I’ve recently become aware that though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have 12 years to prevent irreversible and calamitous damage, yet I go on pretty much as before, so I was struck by this:

So much of our lives we cannot control, especially in an environment of unspecified global threat, imminent global disaster, increasing workplace uncertainty, but within the boundaries of a home (four brick walls, a fence) we can fixate on the little things, and we can fix them.

This is also exactly how anorexia works.

(‘To Run Away from Home’)

Oh!

The World Was Whole is the twenty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!: and other things that matter (Granta Publications 2016)

I’m one of the many readers who first met Diana Athill’s work near the end of her long career as editor and writer. The title of her 2008 essay collection, Somewhere Towards the End (link is to my blog post), accurately describes the feel of the book. They were lucid ruminations in the shadow of approaching death.

Eight years later when Alive, Alive Oh! was published, death was still imminent, and in fact Diane Athill died in February this year. If we can judge by this book, she was ready to go – not because life had become unbearable, far from it, but because she had achieved a marvellous sense of equanimity in the face of the inevitable.

You may have to be of a certain age and ethnicity to recognise that the book’s title is from the song ‘Molly Malone’. You can see a haunting version by Sinéad O’Connor / Shuhada’ Davitt on YouTube, but be advised that the eerie melancholy of that song doesn’t reflect the tone of Diana Athill’s twelve short memoir-essays. In her Introduction, she writes that somewhere in her seventies she stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being, and after a short period of shock found that very restful:

I had become an Old Woman! And to my surprise, I don’t regret it. In the course of the ninety-seven years through which I have lived I have collected many more images of beautiful places and things than I realised, and now it seems as though they are jostling to float into my mind.

(p 2)

What follows are some memories of that sort to be sure: the first essay is a loving description of her grandparents’ garden – really an estate, where she spent much of her childhood; the second rejects the common view that the post-war 40s and 50s were a dreary time, and tells of the joys of her life as a twenty-something in those years – the swinging 60s, in her experience, were just an extension of her privileged 50s; and third begins with a brilliant description of the beauties of the island of Tobago, and tells how as a young woman there she came to understand that the pleasurable existence of British tourists and expats was built on the many-faceted exploitation of locals. So the book may be full of beautiful places and things, but it also goes to dark places.

The title essay, ‘Alive, Alive Oh!’, comes fourth. I was expecting a celebration of life in one’s nineties (those essays come later). But no, it’s a vivid account of a pregnancy when she was in her 40s, unmarried but in a solid relationship with a married man. I won’t say more about this essay, other than that it’s a narrative full of suspense, and an outcome that is both expected and surprising.

After that, there are short essays on

  • the ‘peculiarly English middle-class technique for dealing with awkward facts … : if something is disagreeable let’s pretend it isn’t there’, and how it played out in her relationship with her mother
  • clothes and similar luxuries including, in her current life, a wheelchair
  • a wartime romance, which she frames by saying that two valuable lessons life has taught her are ‘avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness’ – enough to say that the story she tells, while complex, is not an illustration these lessons
  • favourite books – the ones she lingers on are the letters of Boswell and Byron.

There’s a substantial account of her decision to move into a home for old people (a very posh one, it turns out). This is full of elegant reflections on ageing. For instance:

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. what happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. Iin my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts. A shared sense of humour is necessary, together with some degree of curiosity. Given those, we become for each other wonderfully interesting stories, which arouse genuine concern, admiration and affection.

(p 112)

And this, from the final essay ‘Dead Right’, on the prevailing attitudes to dying among her fellow residents:

Death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now. You might suppose that this would make it more alarming, but judging from what I now see around me, the opposite happens. Being within sight, it has become something for which one ought to prepare. One of the many things I like about my retirement home is the sensible, practical attitude towards death that prevails here. You are asked without embarrassment whether you would rather die here or in a hospital, whether you want to be kept alive whatever happens or would prefer a heart attack, for instance, to be allowed to take its course, and how you wish your body to be disposed of. When a death occurs in the home it is dealt with with the utmost respect – and also with a rather amazing tact in relation to us, the survivors.

(p 159)

When I blogged about Somewhere Towards the End, I said I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. Make that 97.

Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look and November Verse 3

Helen Garner, Everywhere I Look (Text 2016)

1925355365.jpgI’ve recently been surprised to hear a number of people refer to Helen Garner as ‘one of our great writers’. My surprise doesn’t come from disagreement. It’s just that hers isn’t writing that invites one to bow down in the presence of greatness. She’s less a Great Dane (or Grande Dame) making magisterial pronouncements than a terrier who keeps on at her subject until it yields some truth, her truth. She passes judgement often enough, and definitely enough, but not dogmatically, and not looking for a stoush either, but ready in case one comes along. A striking feature of Sotiris Dounoukos’ movie of Joe Cinque’s Consolation is the absence of the book’s persistent questioning – so when the end titles announce that, against the strongly implied judgement of the previous 90 minutes, one of the real-world characters was exonerated by a real-world jury, one tends to simply distrust the movie. When the book calls that verdict into question, you can disagree, but you can’t honestly dismiss it out of hand: the judgement has been honestly, and I would say humbly, worked for. (Perhaps its relevant that some of the harshest critics of Garner’s The First Stone refused to read it, or so I’ve been told.)

One of the pieces in this collection is titled ‘While Not Writing a Book’. That could have been a working title for the collection as a whole. It and a couple of others, including ‘Before Whatever Else Happens’, are presented as excerpts from the writer’s diaries/notebooks: overheard snippets, chance encounters, family moments, brief reflections. Another writer might have called them flash fictions or prose poems. Other pieces are more sustained: the product of a week locked away with CDs of Russell Crowe movies; reviews; sketches from the courts; wonderful pieces on her friendships with Jacob Rosenberg, Tim Winton and Elizabeth Jolly; glimpses of family life with grandchildren and, once, a dog; a revisit to her relationship with her mother; reflections on the ukulele, the ballet, suburban life; and more, enough to keep her readers interested between This House of Grief and whatever big thing may happen next.

Everywhere she looks and listens, from conversations about farting with small children to a teenager who has bashed her newborn baby to death, Garner finds stuff for her mind to grapple with, and she knows how to communicate the grappling with grace and vigour.

And now, because it’s November, a versification of one of the diary entries (see page 85 for the original):

Verse 3: At a conference
Supreme Court Judge and Helen Garner
chatted over tea and dip.
‘My home,’ the judge said to the yarner,
‘was once the scene of Monkey Grip,
your novel, and we’re renovating.’
‘My novel, and some devastating
and elating life. But how
do those old rooms look to you now.’
He listed them: ‘… and one so dinky
my daughter’s desk was there before.
It’s soon a bathroom, nothing more.’
‘The one with wooden shutters?’ Inky
flash from hippie days divine:
‘That tiny room was [humbly] mine.’

AWW2016Everywhere I Look is the twelfth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.