Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.

The men who read The Man who Loved Children

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (©1940, Penguin Modern Classics 1970)

Someone on the Internet recently described The Man Who Loved Children as one of the greatest novels ever written. Jonathan Franzen has championed it, with the result that it has recently been republished. The copy I’ve just reread is the 1970 paperback of the edition resulting from the book’s being championed by another USian, poet Randal Jarrell. I ‘did’ Christina Stead’s For Love Alone at university, and remember it vividly, but this book, which I read independently of any study requirements, had faded from memory, leaving only a recollection of having loved the book and hated the eponymous Sam Pollitt. So I was glad when the Book Group picked it. Logically we should have picked Seven Poor Men of Sydney or For Love Alone because we were after something to follow on from Delia Falconer’s Sydney and Ruth Park’s Harp in the South, but evidently those of us who’d read this, combined with those who’d read of Franzen’s enthusiasm, swung the vote.

Before the meeting:
For the first 200 or so pages, as we are taken into the Pollitt family, the book is completely engrossing, though far from simply pleasurable. In fact, it’s a bit like being taken into the implacable embrace of a two-headed boa constrictor. Sam and Henny Pollitt must be among the awfullest parents in literature. Sam is a monumental monster, relentlessly garrulous, playing with the language in elaborate baby-talk with his children, lecturing them endlessly on his own peculiar and increasingly repulsive utopian socialism, turning them against each other by vicious teasing and, whenever anyone takes offence, whining that they have hurt his feelings or defied his authority. Manipulative, narcissistic, brutally sexist and convinced of his own goodness, he makes Henny’s life a misery and is surely giving his children material for decades in therapy. But though we feel for her, Henny is hardly an attractive character. Even when she’s not storming and threatening destruction all round in blind, operatic rage, hardly a word comes out of her mouth that isn’t tinged with venom – against Sam, the children, the world. It’s a horror story. In the first half, there’s little sense of movement or plot progression – just an appalling claustrophobic massing of incident. What makes it readable is the language: both Sam and Henny are intensely verbal, she with an embittered satirical phrase for everyone and everything, he with a pyrotechnicon of silly voices and accents, quotations, nicknames, puns.

As the halfway marks approaches, there’s a blessed reprieve when Sam goes off to Malaya for eight months and Sam and Henny are no longer under one roof. We see Sam’s ebullient, insensitive, visionary self-engrossment outside the claustrophobic confines of his family, and recognise in him a buffoonish version of the ‘obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism’ (I’m quoting Wikipedia) of Graham Green’s The Quiet American. Then it’s back to the hothouse, and things get worse. But now at least there’s movement, downstream of course, to an overwrought climax. Astonishingly, for all its gut-wrenching quality, I didn’t remember how the book ended. Perhaps when I was 20 I read it completely as a fantasy construct, whereas now, sadly, I’m prepared to entertain the possibility that monsters such as Sam do exist in our world.

At the meeting:
There were seven of us. Only one had finished the book. I was 70 pages from the end (I hadn’t reached the aforementioned climax – I said I guessed that adolescent Louie left home and Henny either killed herself or didn’t, and the one who had finished said, ‘Worse,’ and was right). One who didn’t come, wrote to say he stopped caring about any of the characters when he heard someone on the Book Show talk about how Christina Stead rewrote the book from a Sydney to a DC and Maryland setting at the bidding of a US publisher (which, incidentally, she did with remarkable thoroughness). One had put the book down at page 72, too irritated with Sam and the language to contemplate going further. Others had struggled to return to it, and it’s very long.

We had a terrific discussion, interspersed with reflections on the negative aspects of ensuite bathrooms, the terrible prospects facing us at the State elections this weekend, initiatives for peace in the Middle East, quiche and ice cream. I think I liked the book more than anyone: what was the point of all this wretched misery, what insight did it offer, someone asked. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do think that almost any paragraph picked at random offers up abundant riches. And it has to mean something that, as I read yesterday on Literati, the book has been included along with The Female Eunuch on at least one university course.

After the meeting:
Last night and today, I finished it. Let me finish by taking up the challenge implied in my comment about ‘any paragraph picked at random’. [Opens at random.] Here’s one. It’s not what I would have chosen, because it’s part of a scene that takes place away from the toxic Pollitt home, but I did say ‘random’. Henny is talking with her sister Hassie and their mother Old Ellen while Louie and Evie, Henny’s two daughters, eavesdrop. Henny has just delivered a self-pitying aria, concluding, ‘Why was I ever born?’

‘It’s too late to ask me that,’ said Old Ellen. ‘But you mightn’t have been.’ She began to laugh. ‘Your old man sent me anonymous letters himself to make me divorce him.’ She rippled with he-hes. ‘I hung on to spite him. I didn’t want him. It’s my only pleasure left.’ She laughed. ‘All I’ve got left is to sit in the sun and watch Barry booze and sometimes give him a kick in the pants. Sit in the sun and watch barflies, huh?’

(Barry is Henny’s alcoholic brother, and after her husband’s death, Old Ellen will indeed be left to look after him.) Out of context, I suppose the most striking thing about this paragraph is the disjunction between Old Ellen’s laughter and the terrible things she is saying. In context, it’s brilliant for what it does with point of view. We are  wrenched from Henny’s self-preoccupation  to the old woman’s misery, from which she has snatched a kind of bitter, self-destructive victory, and in the process Henny receives yet another blow to her sense of self. When you consider that the underlying point of view is that of the eavesdropping children, the paragraph takes on cataclysmic proportions – or would, except that we suspect they have been hearing things like this all their lives, that Old Ellen has been saying this kind of thing to her own daughters for most of theirs. The only person really appalled by her words is the reader – for everyone else it’s just renaming old pain, adding a further numbing twist to old confusion. Someone at the book group said he found it hard to get into the rhythm of the book; someone else said he thought that was because the point of view kept changing, and no one’s story had room to progress without interference. This little paragraph is a small example of that process at work.  And there’s that laughter. Hitler laughed when Ribbentrop gave him a birthday present of an ornate wooden box containing a copy of every treaty he had broken – Old Ellen’s laughter is about as cheering as Hitler’s. The book is full of  laughter and smiles that make the blood run cold.

No  wonder it’s a neglected classic!

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: a novel (Fourth Estate 2010)

There’s no doubt this is a terrific book. It tells the story of one US family through the Bush–Clinton–Bush–Obama years, taking in the bigger picture (the Iraq invasion, environmental despoliation, global warming, technological change …), while giving us sharply realised characters whose lives illuminate the times without ever feeling as if they’re determined by the author’s agenda. The words free, freedom, liberty and so on ring like chimes through the pages suggesting without being glib that a freedom that involves loss of connection – to other people, to the natural world, to one’s own best self – is not worth having. I love the way characters are astonished to find themselves reproducing patterns of behaviour they have hated in their parents, and the way character after character struggles for integrity in a deeply compromised and compromising society.  A sequence in the last seven pages touched some deep place in me that made the whole book sing.

But I was a resistant reader until those last pages. Partly this was a matter of timing – two things had set me up to fight the book every inch of the way.

First: I began reading it with those shocking VIDA pie charts about gender and literary publishing fresh in my mind, knowing that Freedom had been published amid a hype-storm unthinkable for a grown up novel written by a woman. As a result the book had an invisible frame around it announcing it as a privileged book by a privileged author about privileged characters, to read which was an endorsement of white English-speaking middle-class male privilege. This frame was gilded by the experience of reading in public. I regularly read while walking, while waiting in queues, on the bus, a practice that occasionally provokes comment, but only with this book have perfect strangers asked me how I’m enjoying it, and then say what they’ve heard – this happened twice.

The whole book can be read as a criticism of that very privilege, though I only noticed the word once. After I had written the first draught of the previous paragraph I encountered the only non-White characters in the book (apart from a beautiful and talented young woman of Indian heritage, who does have a major role), in this sentence, at a funeral towards the end:

It was only when the service finished that Patty saw the assortment of underprivileged people filling the rear pews, more than a hundred in all, most of them black or Hispanic or otherwise ethnic, in every shape and size, wearing suits and dresses that seemed pretty clearly the best they owned, and sitting with the patient dignity of people who had more regular experience with funerals than she did.

So privilege is explicitly acknowledged, but the people who don’t share it are more or less interchangeable. I’m not saying every book has to have a politically correct diversity in its cast of characters, but in this case I found the lack of it painful and it put me in a fighting mood.

Second: when I was about a hundred pages in, a guest on the Book Show used Freedom as an example of a book that uses electronic social media well, and went on to describe a major turning point of the plot. As a result, for the next 300 pages I noticed the little moments and comments that were building towards that point, so that I registered them as parts of a justifying mechanism rather than as elements of story. Maybe Franzen did his foreshadowing clumsily and mechanically, but it’s more likely that I was reading with a peculiar – spoiled – alertness. (Thanks, Ramona!)