[I originally posted this in my old blog on 31 July 2007, but didn’t retrieve it when I moved to the WordPress platform. I’m republishing it now because I’m about to blog about Alexis Wright’s Praiseworthy, and what I wrote about Carpentaria here is true of Praiseworthy as well. Retrieving the post is also a tiny way of having the blog mark Robert Adamson’s death on 16 December last year.]
Robert Adamson, The Goldfinches of Baghdad (Flood Editions 2006)
Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (Giramondo 2006)
Marjane Satrapi, Chicken with Plums (Jonathan Cape 2006)
J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Bloomsbury 2007) (begun)
Harold Bloom’s Best Poems (continuing)
The Goldfinches of Baghdad includes an elegy for Arkie Whitely, thereby providing a smooth segue from the last book I read in June, Another Country, which is dedicated to her. Bob Adamson’s book is published by a US company. Couldn’t he find an Australian publisher? Or does this give him a crack at a larger readership? Or is it just an an example of globalisation with no subtext at all?
The book is in three sections, of which I expect to reread the first two many times. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, or the music that happened to be playing as I read, but these poems, almost all of them featuring birds, the Hawkesbury River and/or fishing by night, just picked me up and took me with them: the word that comes to my mind for the interplay of real birds, the real river and what the poet’s mind makes of them is ‘charming’, as in having magical force. Without a hint of appropriation of Aboriginal stories or images, it seems to me, Adamson manages to create a sense of sacred involvement with his country.
After been immersed, as it were, in whitefella Robert Adamson’s Hawkesbury, it felt quite natural to move on to Carpentaria, which starts with a river. This is from page 2:
Imagine the serpent’s breathing rhythms as the tide flows inland, edging towards the spring waters nestled deep in the gorges of an ancient limestone plateau covered with rattling grasses dried yellow from the prevailing winds. Then with the outward breath, the tide turns and the serpent flows back to its own circulating mass of shallow waters in the giant water basin in the crook of the mainland whose sides separate it from the open sea. To catch this breath in the river you need the patience of one who can spend days doing nothing.
The book is like nothing else I’ve ever read. I suspect that my decades of working as an editor, mainly of things written for children, have set me up for a quite distinctive relationship to it. It matters to me that words are used with their correct meanings (I hate ‘discomfit’ being used to mean ‘make uncomfortable’, for instance), that punctuation and spelling are correct (though I yearn for spelling reform and love George Bernard Shaw’s spelling of ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’ and, truly, am not a rule-bound comma-curmudgeon), and that writing makes syntactical sense (I cringe when ‘none’ is used with a plural verb, but I acknowledge that no meaning is lost and don’t see it as absolutely incorrect). Mixed metaphors, stock phrases, tautologies, inconsistencies, all are guaranteed to turn me off or – if I’m so empowered – to make me reach for the blue pencil. I think of these attitudes as constituting a passion for the language, and of myself in my small way as a defender of its integrity. Well, Carpentaria is like a grenade lobbed into the middle of that way of reading.
It’s a wonderful book, richly poetic (I defy anyone to read it quickly), passionate, and funny. There are extraordinary, surreal set pieces, a stunningly original cast of characters and a plot full of surprising turns. But the most striking thing about it is the language. Alexis Wright has said that she based the narrator’s voice on a conversation she overheard between two old Aboriginal men in the street in Alice Springs. I don’t doubt it. But this isn’t Aboriginal English, or a literary equivalent of it, as the language of Beasts of No Nation suggests an African English. It’s pretty standard English, but as used by someone coming at it from outside: it contains every one of the things that make my editor’s heart shrink and fingers twitch, with the possible exception of the greengrocer’s comma: a dog lies with its belly belly-up; something has ‘flown the coup’. I had been shocked to read Ivor Indyk, redoubtable editor-in-chief of Giramondo, quoted in the newspaper as saying that the manuscript when he first saw it was ‘woolly’. But I now think he was misquoted, or at least misunderstood. He was most likely referring to the peculiar challenge this book must have posed to any copy editor: what in almost any other manuscript would have been errors to be corrected, in this one are integral elements. Here’s a passage, chosen at random:
Initially, on that eventual morning, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the month of November, when Gordie did not play the remembrance bugle, everyone thought: Alright! Something is astray. Something smells mightily funny to me. Although, at first, everyone had thought very little about it. Perhaps Gordie was sick with the summer flu. Nothing to be done about that. Life went on as usual. Desperance was a normal town where even the bugle player had as much right as everyone else to get sick with influenza and stay home in bed. Normal people knew how to tell the time without depending on a clock, or a signal, and had enough decency, unlike the rest of the country, to stand for a minute’s silence in respect of the fallen on the eleventh hour, even without the bugle of the returned, to remind them.
There are some changes that a competent copy editor would make almost automatically to this: change ‘mightily’ to ‘mighty’, delete the comma between ‘returned’ and ‘to remind them’ (this kind of mis-comma-ing is rampant in the book, often rendering the sense very difficult to determine), change ‘on the eleventh hour’ to ‘at the eleventh hour’. One who had slavishly subjected his or her will to the style manual would ruthlessly make other changes: fix the fragments ‘Although … about it’ and ‘Nothing to be done about that’, amend ‘Alright’ to ‘All right’. Someone with an eye for redundancy and consistency would suggest fixes for the contradiction between what ‘everyone thought’ initially and what ‘everyone had thought’ at first; would query the assertion that ‘normal people’ were ‘unlike the rest of the country’; would circle ‘flu’ and ‘influenza’ and the repeated ‘on the eleventh hour’. This tidying up would make the passage read more smoothly, and make its meaning easier to access, but what it would lose is exactly the thing that is so distinctive about the prose: its outsider quality. The narrator loves language. The words come tumbling out, alliterative, onomatopoeic, idiosyncratic … and in some sense out of control.
In one of her many appearances at the Sydney Writers Festival this year, Inga Clendinnen said that whereas essayists invite the reader to come on a companionable walk with them, writers of fiction are always playing Catch Me If You Can. That may be true of some, even most, novelists: they build worlds which they invite us to enter. Reading Carpentaria, one feels that the author is running as hard as anyone else trying to catch up with her own creation. I mean no disrespect when I say that the book is less a raid on, than a prolonged campaign by, the inarticulate. The language is out of control and refuses to be tied down to the rules of ordinary discourse. It might seem that I’m talking about a trivial aspect of the book, and perhaps I am. But I found it profoundly challenging; it invaded my dreams. And the constantly unnerving play with language is a key part of that challenge.
[Added 7 August 2005:
Ivor Indyk was quoted in Thorpe’s Weekly Book Newsletter as saying of Carpentaria:
It was quite an intellectual challenge for me as an editor: there are ungrammatical moments that you wouldn’t want to cut out, even though your training tells you to ‘fix’ them.
Which says elegantly a lot of what I was trying to say.]
Marjane Satrapi’s stark black and white comic strips provided a brief holiday from Alexis Wright’s tumultuous ride. The plot of Chicken with Plums has been unkindly summarised on LibraryThing: ‘a man without his musical instrument is depressed.’ Which is like ‘old man gets dementia’ as a summary for King Lear. It’s a fine romantic tale about true love lost twice over. I’m glad to see that Satrapi can move on from her powerful autobiographical Persepolis, and tell this touching, complex tale so elegantly. (All the same, I’m eager for the English version of Persepolis, tome trois, in which Marjane goes to Austria.)
I continue to make my meditative way through the Harold Bloom anthology, and I’m mostly enjoying it and getting an education. For someone who has a reputation as being a great upholder of the canon of great writers, he’s remarkably idiosyncratic in his selection of ‘the best poems in the English language’, and in his annotations on the selection. I think I already mentioned that he disparages Edgar Alan Poe, but includes a poem or two because he’s so popular. Well, when he gets on to Ezra Pound, our Harold makes no bones about despising the Fascist anti-Semitic montageur, and he takes eight pages ripping into him, followed by one poem, a translation from mediaeval French, included because Pound is an excellent translator. At least that’s why Harold says he included it; it’s pretty darned obvious that the poem’s there because without it he wouldn’t have been able to include his extended anti-Pound bile. Of course the publisher probably came up with the book’s title: Shorter English and United States Poems I Feel Like Anthologising, with Some Notes on Poets I Hate would have been more accurate, but isn’t as catchy.
Given Professor Bloom’s feet of clay, I don’t feel any need at all to defend myself against his judgement on the Harry Potter books: ‘Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? Yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.’ I did, however, have to overcome other sources of reluctance – I’ve not been totally grabbed by what I’ve read of the saga previously; I had an unpleasant exchange of emails with JKR’s agent nearly a decade ago; and I’m moderately disgusted by the way the press piles onto the Potter bandwagon, heaping lazy and ignorant generalised scorn on the extraordinary wealth of other works written for children. But I joined the 35+ million, and bought the children’s edition at the recommended retail price, of which Gleebooks assures me a certain amount will go to the Fred Hollows Indigenous Literacy Program. I wanted to read for myself HOW IT ENDS. I’m half way through it as I upload this, and so far, I have to say, it’s also like no other book I’ve read – in this case because of the constant sense that I’m not just reading a book but taking part in a major cultural event, being just one of millions of people absorbing these very words at roughly this very time. Having found out ten minutes ago what the Deathly Hallows are, I still want to know what happens next.