I’ve been blogging about the online 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival (I almost forgot the apostrophe) most of the year. The Festival is still going on, and its website is listing events to mid-January next year. I’ll keep listening, but I won’t blog any more. Here are links to the Festival podcasts currently on my phone, in case you’d like to check them out.
Secrets and Lies: Donor-Conceived Rights 21 October: Dani Shapiro, USA-based author talks to Australian author Bri Lee about issues raised in her memoir, Inheritance, including those related to children conceived by sperm donation.
Griffith Review 68: Getting On 28 October: Tony Birch, Andrew Stafford and Jane R. Goodall talk with Griffith Review editor, Ashley Hay, about getting older.
In ‘Hotel Golf’ in the current issue of The Monthly, Erik Jensen writes that Helen Garner doubts if many people who attend church actually believe – she thinks that’s a myth maintained by non-religious people.
As a non-believer, I understand how Garner herself can participate in religious services without subscribing to the underpinning beliefs, but surely it’s just a failure of imagination to project that lack of belief onto the other participants. To put that another way, Helen Garner doesn’t seem to have met ‘many people’ like my Catholic mother, or me in my teenage years, or – to get to the point – Maryam Azam, the author of The Hijab Files.
The 29 poems in this small book aren’t religious poems, but they are infused with a religious understanding of the world. Many of them focus on the hijab, and it’s hugely refreshing to hear a clear, nuanced, non-Orientalist voice on the subject, sometimes cheerfully practical (‘A Brief Guide to Hijab Fashion’, ‘Places I’ve Prayed’), sometimes satirical from an unexpected viewpoint (‘Modestique’), sometimes touching on friendly or hostile reactions from non-Muslims (‘The Hobbling Bogan’, ‘Praying at School’), sometimes addressing difficulties with other Muslims (‘Fashion Police’).
To single out one poem, here’s ‘Fajr Inertia’ (the Arabic fajr is explained in the epigraph):
Come to prayer! Come to success! Prayer is better than sleep! FROM THE FAJR ADHAN (DAWN CALL TO PRAYER)
I lie in the knowledge of my failure
the way I lie through my chance at success,
hip sunk into the mattress
blanket over my chin
staring at a yellow flower clock
with a missing plastic cover
that reads six minutes past seven;
twenty-five minutes too late.
The broken gas canister of sleep
slowly clears from my head.
I hide under the covers from
the light invading my room
but I can’t hide the fact
I’ll have to live today outside
of Allah’s protection.
You don’t have to be a devout Muslim to understand this: the emotion isn’t a million miles from how I feel when I missed my pre-breakfast visit to the swimming pool, and realise I’ll have to live the day without that half hour of self-care. Who hasn’t woken up befuddled by a ‘broken gas canister of sleep’? With a gorgeous lack of portentousness, the poem places Allah’s protection in the middle of this commonplace experience.
Helen Garner’s scepticism about other people’s religious belief is probably typical of non-believers in these secular times. The Hijab Files speak back quietly but definitely to challenge that scepticism.
If you’re interested in getting more of a sense of this poet, you could have a look at a short, 5-question interview with her on Liminal magazine, here.
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.
A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):
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.
I’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.’
A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.
Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)
Christina Stead Prize for Fiction Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia) In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing) Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia) The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing) The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia) A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)
UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing) Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia) The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press) An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing) Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia) Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)
Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth) Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury) This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing) The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia) In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin) The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)
Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade) Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo) Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press) Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry) Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo) Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)
Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books) Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin) Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia) The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin) Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia) The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian) The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers) Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia) Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin) The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia) Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)
Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media) Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill) The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway) Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media) Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)
Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press) The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company) Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company) The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre) Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company) Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)
Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company) Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing) Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press) I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin) The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press) Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)
Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.
List 1. Movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):
The Art Student and I gave each of the 50+ movies we saw in 2014 a score out of 5. There was a respectable number of 4s and 4.5s. Here are the seven with a combined score of 9.5 or more, in no particular order:
Disruption (Kelly Nyks & Jared P. Scott): we broke our tacit rule about not including movies we saw on the small screen for this one. It’s a brilliant presentation of the situation we face, made in preparation for the Climate Mobilisation in August, but still powerful and useful.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater). This does miraculous things with filming in real time. The actors actually age as the characters do. Towards the end, someone says, ‘I thought there’d be more,’ and we feel her pain.
Locke (Steven Knight). Another film that does wonders with real time. One man drives in a car through the night, and is spellbinding. The spell is greatly helped by the beauty of Tom Hardy’s voice.
Charlie’s Country, Rolf De Heer’s brilliant collaboration with David Gulpilil is just superb. That it to some extent reflects Gulpilil’s own story gives it a depth of feeling.
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). Nothing much needs to be said, except that this is a wonderful movie.
We saw Citizen Four (Laura Poitras) as part of the DOC NYC film festival. It’s a stunning documentary that plays out like a thriller, complete with grim comic relief, about Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance.
Nick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which we also saw as part of DOC NYC, makes a mockery of most fiction movies about serial killers, and peels back the cover from race relations in the US.
Our worst movie This prize has to go to the only film we walked out of: Woody Allen’s shouty, silly, predictable and unfunny Magic by Moonlight. (To be quite honest, the Art Student predicted the reveal; I just didn’t care.)
List 2. Books
The Art Student’s best five (with comments taken from my notes of a chat about them):
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World: The Art Student particularly loved how convincingly this novel describes the artworks created by its protagonist. [We heard Siri Hustvedt read from The Blazing World to about 30 people in Brooklyn last month. She read beautifully and answered questions generously. Memorably, she told us had found Kierkegaard to be great fun since she first read him as a teenager.]
Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw: a novel of espionage in eastern Europe in the 1930s. Strong on atmosphere and suspense, it manages to tell its story without contriving a catastrophe.
Helen Garner, This House of Grief: Everyone who likes this book seems to give different reasons. The Art Student liked its tight, almost domestic focus on its characters.
James McBride, The Good Lord Bird: a novel about John Brown, the anti-slavery activist, from an African-American point of view.
Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: a fabulous, fabulous book that combines a History 101 of the Peshawar Valley with an account of two extraordinary people, Malala and her father.
I’m not going to list a best five books, but here are six that delighted, challenged and enlightened me, or did that thing of putting into words things I dimly felt or perceived. The images link to my blog entries.
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)
David Malouf, Earth Hour (UQP 2014)
Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)
Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)
Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)
Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)
A note on gender and diversity: The Art Student announced proudly that she had read more books by women than by men (as she usually does). I read 25 by women and 32 by men. Up against recent Viva statistics on literary journals on reviews by women or about women writers, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read 6 books in translation, from Chinese, Japanese, Bengali and Hebrew.
This is the third of Helen Garner’s courtroom books, and it’s a much tougher read than I remember the others being. Maybe that’s because this one involves a man who drove into a dam in a car that also contained his three young sons, and swam free himself. In four court hearings he is committed and tried for murder, appeals successfully against the guilty verdict, and is tried again. The aim of the legal process is to determine his guilt or otherwise. The book would be as relentlessly painful no matter what the jury finally decided.
The book is beautifully written. It’s subtle, sharp and unremitting. It conveys brilliantly the theatre of the court. It’s brave too: Helen Garner doesn’t back off from offering her own readings, her own judgments, of the many courtroom participants – witnesses, lawyers, judges, journalists, family members of the accused and of the dead children, her own young companion Louise, a bumptious school student drop-in, and at the centre of it all the man himself. I found it gruelling, and ultimately very satisfying, even while it pins a huge question mark on the tail of the whole legal system: so much raking through people’s lives and relationships, so many people put through the horrendous ordeal of cross-examination (much worse here, it seems, than in standard TV fare) – surely there must be a better way than this single-minded quest to find where to apportion blame?
It’s probably central to Garner’s power as narrator and her persuasiveness as interpreter that she dramatises her own emotional responses, so that we’re always aware that this is one person’s perspective and that it’s a perspective with flesh on its bones. She constantly reminds us that the court is dealing with profoundly human events – in this case the violent death of three children. I love the following, for example:
Was there a form of madness called court fatigue? It would have mortified me to tell Louise about the crazy magical thinking that filled my waking mind and, at night, my dreams: if only Farquharson could be found not guilty, then the boys would not be dead. Cindy would drive home from the court and find them playing kick-to-kick in the yard, or sprawled in their socks on the couch, absorbed in the cartoon channel. Bailey would run to her with his arms out. They would call for something to eat. She would open the fridge and cheerfully start rattling the pots and pans. I could not wait to get home, to haul my grandsons away from their Lego and their light sabres, to squeeze them in my arms until they squirmed. Young boys! How can such wild, vital creatures die?How can this hilarious sweetness be snuffed out forever?
Moving on to my obligatory November rhyming:
Sonnet No 5: Magical thinking?
What magic could bestow on juries
the power to undo a crime?
Guilt still would be pursued by Furies,
innocence shine forth in time,
but history, by twelve’s decision,
would undergo benign revision –
the dead would live, the maimed be whole,
and peace suffuse the tortured soul.
Real courts, alas, aren’t made for healing.
Wounds heal elsewhere, if at all.
What magic thinking has us call
to public scrutiny dark feeling –
grief, hate, regret, long festered strife?
No verdict can restore a life.
This House of Grief is the eighth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Added 18 June 2015: Helen Garner appeared at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Her riveting talk about her inspirations for This House of Grief was recorded and is available as a podcast.
Having read Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup because it was on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s What’s What List and been sharply impressed, I decided to follow it up with this, which is also on that list. I am in awe of Helen Garner’s non-fiction, a category which for my present purposes includes the novel The Spare Room, but I’ve read very little of her fiction. Monkey Grip, her first novel, read to me like an elegantly processed diary: it was interesting and impressive, but didn’t entice me to read more. So reading The Children’s Bach involved reversing an earlier virtual decision.
I’m not sure my life is much richer for the reversal. Admittedly life was offering some stiff competition for my attention as I read it, what with the wedding, settlement day on our new house and the imminence of Christmas, but the book failed to enthrall me. About two fifths of the way through I was having trouble keeping track of who was related to whom, so I drew a diagram and was astonished to realise there are only ten characters, of whom three are children, yet I had trouble telling them apart. Dexter is the man who shouts a lot, cheerfully. Vicki is the young woman who has come over from Perth to live with her sister and then moved in with Dexter and his family. Which of the more or less indistinguishable women is Dexter’s partner? Who is Poppy again? When they talk about the little guy with the tatts are they referring to the same man who tells his daughter a bedtime story about the Paradise Cafe? Surely the man who is taking Athena out walking isn’t the same man who came into her house the other night and had sex up against the fridge with young Vicki, with whom she is kind of in loco parentis? Luckily, I drew my little chart of relationships and got it all clear before the main events of the book, which involve extra-marital sex (though I’m not sure any of the characters is married, strictly speaking).
I probably missed a lot. For example, I wasn’t sure if the first of two main sex scenes was actually a sex scene until the dying fall of the last sentence, just before one of the characters said something about having to make some phone calls. But even for as undiscerning a reader as I was, the book delivers a moral jolt. Each of the four characters involved in the sex scenes has a completely different take on what the action means: assumptions are challenged, values questioned, tensions left unresolved. There’s no tragedy, no high romantic drama, no ultimate judgement – just people making their way with each other. And beyond that, I think, a documentary impulse in the writing: it aims to tell us about the lives of a certain group of people – perhaps the ‘friends’ the book is dedicated to –
I was looking forward to this book. Kate Jennings and I have a lot in common. We both hail from rural Australia, had diffident but dependable fathers, were skinny when young (she still is), did Arts at Sydney University in the 1960s. We both hate alcohol culture. We’ve both had people with Alzheimer’s in our lives. We were never part of the same set, but had friends in common. We met at least once, when one of those friends had us both to dinner, possibly with ill-conceived match-making intent. (I have only the vaguest memories of that meal, not much more than being pleasantly surprised to find that the formidable Kate was a country girl.) As I’ve mentioned before, I was there for her famous speech to a Vietnam Moratorium crowd on Sydney Uni’s front lawn in 1970, I also vividly recall her tremulous presence at Balmain Poetry Readings in the 70s. Both the front lawn speech and the poem I remember most clearly, ‘Couples‘ (‘couples make me guilty of loneliness, insecurity, or worse still, lack of ambition’), are included in this volume.
Apart from one essay, perhaps in The New Yorker, I didn’t read anything more of Kate’s writing until her 2002 novel about Alzheimer’s and Wall Street, Moral Hazard, her 2008 book about her dogs, Stanley and Sophie, and her recent essays in The Monthly, all of which I enjoyed. Trouble, a selection in lieu of memoir, looked like an opportunity to fill the gaps: how did the rage-filled, nervy radical feminist of the 70s become the consummately urbane, confident New Yorker?
If you’re looking for a review, stop reading now, because I gave up just after the halfway point. Jennings describes herself as prickly and graciously acknowledges that Chris Feik of The Monthly and Quarterly Essay ‘gently moderates [her] frequent immoderation’. But it wasn’t lack of moderation or prickliness that got me down. I diagnose at least a mild case of expat syndrome: I’ve grown older and regret my youthful foolishness, you’ve grown older and have mended your immoral ways, expats have grown older and think they were once foolish and immoral because of the immutable culture of their native land. The essays and interstitial pieces pour scorn on Australian feminists (so trapped in ‘theory’ and waffle), on Australian drunks (so representative of all Australians and so unregenerate), on Australian poets (so caught up in ‘infinitely ridiculous poetry wars’, and while she’s on the subject, one side of those wars is historically ignorant and engages in ‘appallingly damaging’ games of Chinese whispers) and, with no obvious sense of the irony, on the Australian proclivity to pour scorn (her word is derision).
She complains that an essay making sweeping statements about what’s wrong with Australian feminism was ignored (‘Clever tactic to silence criticism’), but since the essay names no names, quotes no quotes, and seems to be broadly ignorant of Australian socialist feminism, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Women Behind Bars and lord knows how much else, I suspect the silence was embarrassed rather than clever. She complains that her poem about Martin Johnston led to disapprobation being heaped on her, and that unnamed persons (a weaselly passive voice implies that it was the entire corpus of Australian poets) referred to her as the ‘execrable Jennings’, but an angry response shouldn’t have surprised her given that the poem virtually accuses unnamed people of taking ghoulish delight in Martin’s slow suicide by alcohol, and if anyone used the phrase ‘execrable Jennings’ in public they managed to keep it hidden from Google. A former lover once threatened to sue her for a portrayal of him which she claims was a caricature that no ordinary readers would give a fig about identifying with any actual person. The story in question, included in this book, seemed to me a nasty piece of work that might as well have conte à clef as a subtitle: you don’t have to be a member of any in crowd to recognise Helen Garner (incidentally one of the people who don’t exist in Jennings’s version of Australian feminism). Poor Kate, always being misunderstood.
I could multiply examples of annoying moments:
The chief characteristic of Australian feminism is a proud combativeness, best illustrated by the refrain of a song popular in the first days of the movement: ‘I’m a shameless hussy and I don’t give a damn.’
It may be nitpicking, but the song, as I remember it and confirmed by 30 seconds of research, goes like this:
We're shameless hussies and we don't give a damn We're loud, we're raucous and we're fighting for our rights for our sex and for fun and we'll win.
Proud combativeness? I would have thought the tone was more like rowdy optimism. And KJ’s slip from plural to singular is surely indicative of something.
By the time I reached page 174 I realised the book wasn’t fun any more. On that page Jennings says a friend ‘complained that he had to keep backtracking to figure out what was going on’ in a detective novel she is enthusiastic about, and I caught myself reading that as a sneer at her friend’s philistinism. Almost certainly it was nothing of the sort, but my cumulative annoyance had reached a level where I was reading with half my mind on the lookout for the next annoying thing. I even started cavilling at an occasional turn of phrase, and that had to be me not Kate, because she writes beautiful, concise prose. This book and I needed some space from each other. I may go back to it, but for now I’m going to read Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. Sorry.
[I posted about this in my old blog in 2008, and am retrieving it to this one because it mentions Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, who died in January, and whose more recent book of essays, Alive, Alive Oh! I plan to blog about soon – JS, 31 March 2019]
As I mentioned last month, I started reading Schulz and Peanuts to check its suitability for a young fan. I’m happy to report that in general it passes with flying colours. A young woman has a termination, and the break-up of ‘Sparky’s’ first marriage is gruelling, but these are both handled with a good bit more tact than you’d find in many YA novels.
Every week, for just months short of 50 years, Charles M Schulz sat at his drawing board to produce six daily strips and a longer Sunday piece. He inked every line himself, and penned in every letter until his final stroke meant that the speech balloons in the very last frames were filled by computer-generated lettering. Peanuts was the most important thing in his life; he hated being away from home, and died the day his last cartoon was published.
This isn’t a tale of heroic physical exploits or grand public gestures, but David Michaelis seems to have interviewed every living soul who had a meaningful connection with his subject, from the psychology student who gave him an impromptu – and effective – counselling session on his agoraphobia at a tennis tournament and never had another conversation with him, to Joyce nee Halvorsen, the main model for Lucy, his first wife and the mother of his many children (one of the best bits of the book could have been titled The First Wife’s Story).
The result is a fascinating, many-faceted portrait of an artist and of a man. Peanuts strips are scattered through the pages, not as decoration but as integral elements of the narrative. Cartooning was not only Schulz’s life work, the fulfilment of a central ambition; it was also, dare I say, a spiritual discipline by which he found perspectives on the difficulties and dilemmas of his life (and the lives around him) that allowed the release of laughter. While Michaelis is very bold (and repetitive) in some of his psychologising, I found his thesis persuasive: that what we common or garden readers received as Schulz’s comic reflections on life in the abstract were often if not always born out of particular moments of pain or joy. Schulz seems to have been an excellent exemplar for Neil Gaiman’s advice on how to deal with trouble: Make good art.
Michaelis places Schulz interestingly in the history of comics – though he barely mentions comic books as opposed to strips, and surely the moral panic in the 1950s epitomised by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (which led to a nun confiscating a Phantom comic from me in Grade Three, and to our teachers’ recommending that we read the boring Catholic comic Topix) had something to do with the runaway success of Schulz’s wholesome creation. It’s surely not entirely coincidence that for a time in the 1940s, before he got his big break, Schulz did lettering for Topix.
[I passed the book on to my young friend, whose mother reports that after dipping into it he said, ‘It’s not all that interesting to me, even if it is to Jonathan. But he reads everything.’ Then, softening the blow, ‘Some of it is pretty good.’]
Place is People is a strange little book, neither an attractive collection of photographs to introduce the suburb to visitors nor a quick historical overview. It’s got elements of both those, but is something more personal and less orderly than either; if it was even more personal, it might have been an extended prose poem, but it isn’t quite that either.
Mary Haire leads walking tours, and the book has something of the serendipitous feel of such tours: here’s a little girl walking to school; let me tell you about a boy that age who went to the same school a hundred years ago. I know more about my suburb’s history having read it; some errors have been corrected, and some tantalising trails laid in my mind: Cardinal Freeman was born here, for instance, and the young woman at the florist’s is a single mother. How can I put those two snippets in the same sentence, you ask? I plead that the book sets a precedent with its gloriously unconcerned potpourri approach to its subject.
Talking at Gleebooks recently, Helen Garner paid tribute to Elmore Leonard’s essay, ‘Ten Rules of Writing‘: she has his sentence, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ on the wall above her desk. In The Spare Room, she has given us a feminine Elmore Leonard story: it’s about the emotional tangles between two women, or at least those tangles provide the language for its telling, but it has the clean lines, the sure forward movement, the lack of hooptedoodle, that give such pleasure in Leonard’s tough-guy narratives from The Tall T to, say, Pagan Babies.
It’s a very quick read, and an intense one. There’s plenty of complexity, some of which I’ve found making itself known to me weeks after finishing the book. For instance, ‘Helen’ the character, who is manifestly a version of Helen the writer, claimed my allegiance and assent to her judgements while I was reading, but has since come to seem much less reliable, much too caught up in her own emotional reactions to be able to give us the full picture (some of which the book gives us in spite of her). It’s a magnificent achievement.
I doubt if David Campbell (1915–1979) is still studied in Eng Lit courses at many Australian unis, but I hope he is fondly remembered and occasionally reread by more than just me. He and Martin Johnston share a posthumous moment in John Forbes’s elegiac ‘Lassù in Cielo’; he cropped up in a footnote in the John Manifold collection I read last month; a recent Poetica featured his correspondence with Douglas Stewart; lines and images from his poems arrive in my mind unbidden from time to time.
Most of the poems in this selection are a strange mixture of the bucolic and the erudite (and just in case I’ve misused those words, I mean rustic and scholarly), and there’s a pleasant music to them. When I read the sequence of twelve twelve-line rhyming poems of ‘Cocky’s Calendar’, I found myself wondering how he managed to pick up his pen again after writing something so wonderful. Back in the early 1970s, in an Aust Lit seminar on this sequence, a student from North America totally didn’t get them: while the rest of us were being drawn into the poetry’s intensely personal relationship with the landscape, he lost patience altogether and said the whole thing read like verse you’d find on a Norman Rockwell calendar. I thought then that he was missing something, and I find I still do. This is the ninth poem, for September:
Now, here and there, against the cold,
The hillsides smoulder into gold
And the stockman riding by
Lifts to the trees a yellow eye.
It's here the couples from the farms
Play in one another's arms
At yes and no – you'd think the trees
Sprang from their felicities.
So may our children grow up strong,
Got while the thrush drew out his song,
And love like you and I when we
Lie beneath the wattle tree.
How about that present tense ‘lie’, eh?
I think the sequence as a whole speaks to me so strongly because of my father. At a family gathering once, another farmer, of a younger generation, said something about the boredom of spending a whole day driving around a paddock in a tractor (this was before the days of air-conditioned tractor cabins and iPods). When my father said mildly that he didn’t get bored, one of my female cousins asked him what he did with his mind when he was out there all day. As he drew breath to answer, my mother came to the rescue by changing the subject (‘Oh Jenny, you know you’ve been asking me about tatting, I have a pattern here I can show you’). Probably to his relief, my father didn’t get to answer the question. I like to think that David Campbell’s contemplative poems, even though his is a sheep property while my father grew sugar cane, provide some version of what my father might have wanted to say back then over tea and scones.
With The Omnivore’s Dilemma I was back to farming, in three categories: industrial, of which I read with a mixture of horror and curiosity; pastoral, which is not synonymous with ‘organic’, but tends to have the virtues claimed for it; and personal, in which the author creates a meal from things he has personally grown, hunted and killed, or foraged. I don’t know that anyone could read this tremendously engaging book without changing the way they think about food. It’s very heartening that it was a New York Times best seller. If you want a quick look at the central part of the book, which deals with ‘intensively managed grazing’ or clever grass farming, here’s a video from Michael Pollan’s recent TED talk:
The book integrates into its narrative any number of lively essays: on the ethics of meat-eating (in which Pollan engages with Peter Singer), the joys of hunting (ditto Ortega y Gasset), attempts at humane design in modern abattoirs (Temple Grandin), the US domestic and international politics of corn (in which he doesn’t discuss the so-called Free Trade Agreements that leave the US free to subsidise its grossly inefficient corn agribusinesses while preventing other nations from continuing with similar protections, but he makes their absurd brutality abundantly clear), on just about anything you can think of that’s related to his central question, ‘What should we have for dinner?’ Some of it is very funny. Some is inspiring. Some horrendous. All of it is engrossing.
I hadn’t read David Campbell’s The Man in the Honeysuckle before. As with Selected Poems, I’m fairly indifferent to the learned bits, mainly translations and imitations from the Russian, but some of the lyrics, especially the Aust Pastoral pieces, are extraordinary. The book was published posthumously, and it’s hard not to read a number of the poems as being poignantly suffused with a sense of death as imminent. ‘Crab’, ‘The Broken Mask’ and the whole ‘With a Blue Dog’ section stand out for me in this first encounter. How’s this:
Wind in Casuarinas
Camped under the she-oaks
With a dog and swag
The woman a white sapling
A straight flame
Blown all ways
And the children off
On their several roads
Lives rounding like river stones
Or washing out in wheel ruts
A high sky over tree and hill
And the clouds taking fire
I am spread out I burn
Yellow and rose – blessing and blest
A still flame in the arms of the she-oaks
Life butting into the world
With five wants and a howl
And shambles out with a blue dog.
I want to put ‘five wants and a howl’ right up there with ‘helpless, naked, piping loud’.
I don’t imagine Elmore Leonard would care much for this Heat. There’s hoptedoodle galore … though generally very high quality hoptedoodle. Ironically, the one article that seem to me to be 90 percent hoptedoodle is by a crime writer whose point seems to be that crime fiction has advantages from being bound to an absence of hoptedoodle (but maybe I was just irritated because her essay on the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction totally ignores the existence of children’s literature and science fiction).
There’s a terrific piece on blogging by Kerryn Goldsworthy, not a hopt or a doodle in sight; a lovely pairing of a story by Eva Sallis (‘Abattoir’) and an essay by Elizabeth Campbell (called ‘Why Little Girls Love Horses’ on the contents page but ‘Envy Worship and Passion’ on its own title page); chiming mentions of the catacombs of Paris, of which I’d never heard, first in one of Jennifer Maiden’s still-intriguing George Jeffreys–Clare Collins poems and then in an engrossing essay by Sarah Knox about researching historical novels, her own and Hilary Mantel’s; and a number of memorable pieces on aspects of migration: Elisabeth Holdsworth’s memoir ‘New Holland’, a short story by Hoa Pham, poems by Ali Alizadeh (on his unborn baby) and Peter Skrzynecki (on his late father). There’s lots more. I’m a happy subscriber.
I understand that it must be a nightmare to copy edit a magazine like this: so many words, so many different voices, so little time. But there are enough lapses to present a significant obstacle to the reader, at least to this one. At one point, havoc is ‘wrecked’; as something wreaks havoc just a few pages later in the same article, it seems likely that the error resulted from an editor’s dependence on a spellchecker rather than ignorance. In the sentence, “The memoir becomes a book about illness to many reviewers; a ‘survivors’ tale; a plumbing of the issue of women’s health, and the continuing masculinist paternalism of the public health system” it looks very much as if the apostrophe after survivors was misunderstood by someone who inserted another before it to make it function as a quote mark; and the comma after health almost derails the sense. I don’t want to go hunting for similar moments, but the erratic comma and absent apostrophe in ‘reconstruction, so redolent of the historian’s duty, and the re-enactors fancy’ just leapt up at me from further down the same page (p 172). This might be just the irritated snitchiness of an underemployed pedant, but in this context it becomes hard to tell if the truly eccentric punctuation in a number of the poems is what the poet intended or the product of editorial inattention.</curmudgeonly grumble>
How could I resist reopening The Branch of Dodona, my only other David Campbell book? This one had pride of place in the bathroom for a week, to allow for contemplative reading in short bursts. Again, it’s his farming poems – in this volume, the ‘Works and Days’ sequence, with its love–hate relationship to sheep – that speak most strongly to me. Even his ‘My Lai’, which I remember him reading at Vietnam Moratorium Readings in another age, works so powerfully because of the farmer-to-peasant solidarity it embodies:
I was milking the cow when a row of tall bamboo Was mowed by rifle fire With my wife and child in the one harvest, And the blue milk spilt and ruined
I’m not sure what the friend had in mind who gave me Diane Athill’s reflections on old age, Somewhere Towards the End, as a present for my 61st birthday. As Ms Athill is almost exactly 30 years older than me and still going strong, I’ll assume she wasn’t hinting it’s time I hang up my spurs.
In terms of my current reading, the book’s matter-of-factness, its almost belligerent steadiness of gaze play as a sober counterpoint to the rage and evasion of The Spare Room: both books generate what Athill calls an ‘addictive excitement of the mind’, and they speak to each other. Ms Athill’s brief reference to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety endorses Sarah Knox’s praise of it in her essay in Heat. The book has in spades a (to me) miraculous quality that I think of as Protestant integrity, a quality also displayed, ineffably, in the manner of my friend J’s leavetaking. I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. She manages to be remarkably cheerful about things usually discussed, if at all, in gloomy mode. One chapter begins, for example (the emphasis is mine):
When you begin discussing old age you come up against reluctance to depress either others or yourself, so you tend to focus on the more agreeable aspects of it: coming to terms with death, the continuing presence of young people, the discovery of new pursuits and so on. But I have to say that a considerable part of my own old time is taken up by doing things or (worse) failing to do things for people older, or if not older, less resistant to age, than myself.
Can’t you just see that paragraph, followed by the word ‘Discuss’, as an exam question on The Spare Room?
Spanish title is La odisea de los giles, which I think means Fools' Odyssey. It's a pleasant enough comedy heist movie. It probably loses a lot in translation. I found myself for the first time ever wondering what an Australian remake would be like.