Tag Archives: non-fiction

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know at the Book Group, plus November Verse 6

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Penguin Random House 2018)

Before the meeting: I was going to say that this book does what it says on the tin – that is, it tells about the three fathers of famous Protestant Irish writers named in the subtitle. But it doesn’t come good on the implication of the main title – which is a slight variation on a phrase used to describe the poet Byron by Lady Caroline Lamb, and which has been used as a title for a number of works since, including a play about Byron by Australian Ron Blair. Neither Byron nor Byronic heroics are to be found in these pages. Nor, really, are any of the three men all that mad, all that bad, or all that dangerous.

Three of the book’s four chapters were given as lectures at a university in Atlanta Georgia in November 2017. I imagine the lectures were riveting. I don’t know this for sure, but it looks to me as if Colm Tóibín has added an introduction and padded out the lectures in a bit of a rush job.

So: there’s plenty of interesting information about the three men and their roles in their sons’ lives and works.

The chapter on William Wilde is framed by Tóibín’s account of a five-hour reading he gave of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in the Reading Gaol prison cell where Wilde wrote it. A striking thing about De Profundis, he writes, is that while it honours Wilde’s mother it barely mentions his father. Nonetheless, Tóibín argues, William Wilde was a big influence on Oscar. And a striking picture of the man emerges, gleaned from contemporary accounts and biographies. My takeaway from this chapter, however, is the desire to see Paul Capsis reading from De Profundis in Woolloomooloo – seven of us from the group are planning to do so.

John B Yeats didn’t get on with his famous son. The elder Yeats was a failed artist – he had trouble finishing paintings, and even his masterpiece, a self-portrait he spent years on, remained incomplete at his death. He was an amazing letter-writer, which we know because his correspondents kept his letters, and many of them have been published, and republished. Among the letters he wrote to William, there’s one that Tóibín quotes advising him to turn away from the mystical path he was taking. In his later years, and this is where the chapter comes fully alive, he wrote frank, passionate love letters from New York to Rosa Butts in Ireland, a woman he may or may not have ever had physical intimacy with. She and he had agreed to burn their letters once they had read them: he kept his part of the agreement, but she did us a favour and reneged.

John Stanislaus Joyce had the dubious honour of being written about by two of his sons, Stanislaus and James. Stanislaus’s books, My Brother’s Keeper and The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, make it clear that he was a terrible husband and father: drunk, improvident, at times cruel. The main thrust of his chapter is an exploration of how Joyce in his fiction managed to combine ‘the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fulness, and indeed its pain and misery’. If ever I reread Ulysses my reading will be richer thanks to this chapter.

A key question about a book like this is whether it engages the interest of a reader who doesn’t have a prior commitment to the subject. I’m moderately interested in all three of these writers: not the Wilde of De Profundis so much as the one who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, who doesn’t really get a look in; the Yeats who wrote ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’; and the Joyce who, as my eldest brother told my father when he was 19 and I was 10, wrote a ‘dirty dirty‘ book called Ulysses. I enjoyed a lot of it, but there’s a lot that I found dull. In particular, the Introduction, which might have offered some basis for general interest, takes the reader on a stroll, pedestrian in both senses, through Dublin streets, telling us how the Wildes, the Yeatses and the Joyces were sometimes neighbours, or not, how their lives intersected (‘Yeats’s grandparents and his father knew Oscar Wilde’s parents’), and how other poets and writers since have lived in or near those places.

I’ve no doubt that Colm Toíbín has a deeply felt interest in these three men. Not a Protestant himself as far as I know, perhaps he is fascinated by the eminence of these Protestant writers and their fathers in mostly-Catholic Ireland. But the book fails to communicate to me why I should be interested. In particular, it may be that Toíbin’s heart just wasn’t in the process of expanding his three lectures to a 205 page book. The lectures were published in the London Review of Books (and are available online here, here and here). I expect they make excellent reading.


After the meeting:

I was nearly two hours late for our meeting. Ice creams were being eaten when I made my entrance. Though there was a feeble attempt to convince me that everyone else had completely loved the book it didn’t take long to elicit an elegant summary of the discussion so far: the book was mostly dull and unengaging with some excellent bits. Most of the discussion had been about people’s relationships with their own fathers and, where possible, sons. I was very sorry to have missed that conversation, though the remnants of it that followed my arrival were terrific: an extraordinary tall traveller’s tale about one chap’s father shouting him and his brother to dubious treats in Bangkok; unspectacular but treasured moments of play; how different generations express affection among males.

About the book: about half of us studied literature in some way at university a long time ago. If the book was marginally interesting to us, it was substantially less so to the others, and fewer than usual bothered to read to the end. One man, who is deeply cultured in other respects, didn’t know the circumstances of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, knowledge that Tóibín assumes in his readers; and I’m pretty sure someone said they’d never heard of W B Yeats (though he’s now tempted to seek out Yeats Senior’s letters).


And because it’s November, here are 14 rhyming lines. I went searching on my bookshelves for anything on the fathers of famous Australian writers, and found this little anecdote in Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass (Jonathan Cape 1981, page 5).

November Verse 6: 
Patrick White, when just a laddy,
felt his penis growing hard.
There's something odd, he told his daddy.
Daddy reddened, hummed and haaed,
and said, 'Step out' – the passing glimmer
of a smile told the young swimmer
all was well. At that same age
a first poet stepped onto the stage
of Paddy's life. Face like a wrinkled,
sooty lemon, driest kind
of gent, the Banjo paid no mind
to Patrick. But those first notes tinkled:
first ripples on great passion's tide
delivered at his father's side.

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father (2018, translated from French by Lorin Stein, New Directions 2019)

It was purely fortuitous that I read this book immediately after Susan Hill’s Black Sheep, but they make a beautiful pair. Arthur, one of the sons of the mining family in Black Sheep, disappears overnight, and only we and his youngest brother Ted know that he has escaped rather than met with disaster. Édouard Louis is a young Gay man who has escaped from the working-class conditions that have destroyed his father’s life. It’s as if it calls out to that book: ‘This is what it’s like inside your story!’

The opening sentences of Who Killed My Father – notice the absence of a question mark, also a feature of the French title Qui a tué mon père – says a lot:

When asked what the word racism means to her, the American scholar Ruth Gilmore has said that racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death.

The same definition holds with regard to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class – to social and political oppression of all kinds.

This is not an agony memoir, a whining portrait of a father who made his Gay son’s life a misery. Along with a certain amount of intellectual heft (Ruth Gilmores is not the only scholar to illuminate the narrative),

In all but the first couple of pages, Édouard Louis speaks to his father, who is still alive at the time of writing, presenting him (and, of course, us) with a mosaic of memories from which emerges a picture of how the father’s ‘male privilege’ and ‘hatred of homosexuality’ affected the son, but also the constricting and distorting effect they have had on the father:

Masculinity – don’t act like a girl, don’t be a faggot – meant that you dropped out as fast as you could to show everyone you were strong, as soon as you could to show you were rebellious, and so, as far as I can tell, constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money. Hatred of homosexuality = poverty.

(page 35)

It’s a passionate, painful, complex monologue, full of rage and frustration, reaching a kind of climax when the teenaged son deliberately provokes a near-murderous family row, and in the end it’s a love letter.

There’s a turn about 20 pages from the end. The father is critically injured in an industrial accident. Though he sufferers severe pain from the injury, policies brought in by the governments of Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron ensure that he doesn’t receive the help he needs but must continue in demeaning and damaging work. ‘Why do we never name these names?’ the words just about scream from the page.

The Wikipedia entry on Édouard Louis describes this book (on 9 October 2019) as a novel. I think that’s just plain wrong. I’d be astonished if the author’s father doesn’t read it and recognise every word as real – and find in it a difficult joy.

Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam

Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city (Doubleday 2013, Little Brown 2014)

Russell Shorto is a USer who lived in Amsterdam from 2006 to 2013. This book is something of a love letter to the city that was his adopted home for those years, and a salute to others who have lived there and contributed to the life of the city – Amsterdammers as a whole as well as a number of extraordinary individuals from Renaissance scholar Erasmus and early Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza, to Rembrandt and (briefly) Van Gogh, to Anne Frank (who needs no label) and Roel van Duijn (founder of the Provo movement in the 1960s).

It’s a history built around the central notion that because of its origins as a city built on land reclaimed from water by collective effort and owned individually by its citizens, Amsterdam has always had a strong ethos that values the individual while expecting a degree of cooperation. He contrasts this version of liberalism, both economic and social, with the stark individualism of the US version of liberalism.

Entwined with this concept is the theme of tolerance. Amsterdam’s tolerance, which has been a hallmark of the city for centuries, isn’t necessarily a principled moral stand, but has a stubborn pragmatism to it. When the Holy Roman Emperor issues a ruling that certain unorthodox religious practices were to be outlawed and punished, the Amsterdam authorities imposed punishments like compelling miscreants to process down the main street carrying candles. In our own time, marijuana is illegal in the Netherlands, but the uniquely Dutch concept of gedogen, illegal but tolerated, means that Amsterdam is studded with coffee shops (not to be mistaken for cafes) where you can smoke pot at leisure in a regulated, tax-paying environment.

Shorto doesn’t shy away from the terrible aspects of the Amsterdam story: it’s the city that loosed the notion of a share market on the world; the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded there, to create vast wealth for the city and nation at the expense of devastation at an unbelievable scale in the colonised lands.

The writing is lively and genuinely illuminating. I came away from it having learned a lot about things I already knew a little, and a lot more about things I was ignorant of. I loved reading Erasmus at university decades ago =, for instance, but knew nothing of his troubled childhood. All I have of Spinoza is a line from a Martin Johnston poem (‘Spinoza scratched the core of light’): I’ve got a lot more now. Rembrandt has become a rounded character. The standard history of feudal, mediaeval Europe, has become much more complex in my mind now that I know how differently the Low Countries were organised. I no longer think of the boy who put his finger in the dyke as a Dutch story: it’s an individualistic US story that makes no sense to the Dutch.

And so on.

One thing that stood out for me was the story of the Social Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, or SER). This was formed in 1950, as part of the Dutch recovery from World War Two and, Shorto writes, ‘has been a feature of the Dutch landscape ever since’:

There is no equivalent of it in the American, British, or most other systems. It is a panel comprising three groups: labour leaders, industry leaders, and experts appointed by the government. On a given topic, the panellists will consult with their constituencies, then convene as a group and hash out the issue until they reach unanimous agreement on how it should be handled. Then they lay their finding before the government. Alexander Rinnooy Kan was the head of the SER from 2006 to 2012. He told me that the government almost always adopts the SER’s position because “it’s not just the position of the members of the council, but of all of their constituencies, whether employers or trade union members. That equals 80 percent of the economy.’

(page 280)

Well, ain’t that a model that allows for a degree of serious deliberation that seems to be missing from our polarised and point-scoring politics in Australia just now (and not just Australia)! Imagine if we had something like that to address issues such as global warming, offshore detention of people seeking asylum, or even an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley n Search of America (Penguin 1962)

Before the meeting: Neither of the two libraries I belong to had a copy of this, and my local bricks-and-mortar bookshop took a couple of weeks to get it in. But my impression that it was an obscure enthusiasm of this month’s Book Chooser was modified when a young woman behind the counter, seeing it in my hands, said cheerfully, ‘I’ve got a red poodle.’ I realised the Charley of the book’s title must be a dog, so I smiled, and she went on, ‘His name is Steinbeck.’

The book was published in 1962, the year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s an account of a road trip he took in late 1960, in a truck with an odd little house on its back that he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He describes the countryside he drives through and devotes very little ink to the cities. He recounts conversations and draws conclusions, but if one was looking for a coherent journalistic ‘narrative’ one would look in vain.

The election that made John F Kennedy president happened during the course of his travels, and is mentioned in passing, mainly to say that people generally aren’t talking about it. The Cold War is raging and there’s a pervasive anxiety about nuclear weapons. The US War in Vietnam has not yet happened. State troops haven’t killed university students. Richard Nixon hasn’t disgraced the presidency. Oral contraceptives have arrived but not so you’d notice, and the sexual revolution is over the horizon. The women’s liberation movement may be fermenting, but the news hasn’t reached Steinbeck: for the most part he converses with men, women are either relatives or monsters of one kind or another, and his version of masculinity is unreconstructed US warrior-macho. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing in the southern states, but until he reaches New Orleans in the second last section, there’s no African American voice. That section turns out to be brilliant, rising to visceral disgust and rage in its account of the Cheerleaders, the women who led the harassment of small children in the desegregation of schools in the south, and its account of his brief encounter with a young man who supported them.

Until that chapter, the book felt to me like a museum piece, its humour quaint rather than funny (Charley ceremoniously salutes a lot of trees), its charm decidedly of a bygone era. For my taste, it was a case of too late, too soon: too late to be current, too soon to be historical. The Book Chooser this month is an actor, and there’s a splendid encounter with an actor in North Dakota, one of the very few people who are accorded a reasonably rounded portrait.

Having recently read Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes, I had an eye out for embedded aphorisms. Here are a couple I noted:

It is the nature of a man as he grows older, a small bridge in time, to protest against change, particularly change for the better.

(page 83)

Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.

(page 121)

It is strange and perhaps fortunate that when one’s time comes nearer one’s interest in it flags as death becomes a fact rather than a pageantry.

(page 157)

The edition I read has an Introduction by Jay Parisi and notes for further reading. What with the Sydney Writers’ Festival and other distractions, I didn’t get a chance to read them.

After the meeting: Over an excellent dinner of pea soup cooked to an Ottolenghi recipe using fresh peas and spaghetti vongole with some prawns tossed in, followed by Messina gelato, we had a terrific evening, even though two people hadn’t managed to get hold of the book.

My impression is that others enjoyed it much more than I did, and by the end of the evening I thought more highly of it than I had, Someone read out a passage about small towns becoming antique-shop strips and what had seemed laboured humour was revealed as beautifully crafted sentences foreshadowing the whole fake heritage thing that afflicts many small country towns these days. Other readers enjoyed the dog much more than I did, and his account of waste and environmental degradation had impressed. It turned out to be a book full of interesting bits that give pleasure when recalled in conversation: the description of Montana, a hilarious encounter with bureaucracy at the Canadian border, the Cheerleaders of course, and the list goes on. There was some disagreement over the personality of Steinbeck as projected in the book: a preening boaster about his masculinity or a decent, serious man? Others had read the introduction, and were able to place the book in the context of the rest of Steinbeck’s life: there’s palaver at the beginning of the book about how he felt removed from the America he was writing about and this was an attempt to reconnect, which was more serious than I ha rad it to be – contemporary critics were saying that his writing at that time of his life lacked the power of his earlier stuff, written when he was living geographically close to the people he wrote about. A number of guys had gone to visit places from last month’s book.

Someone else had loved The Chaperone, which I thought was basically a telemovie. Someone had been in New York (in this group it seems that every meeting someone has been to New York) and bought their copy of the book at the fabled Stand Bookstore in Manhattan. I seem to be the only one who had made it to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which happened about 200 metre from where we met. Excellent books and forthcoming theatre productions were promoted. We had an impassioned conversation abut Israel – Folau, not the state – and resolved the issue of hate speech, freedom of speech, workplace responsibilities and the status of Australian Rugby Union when compared to New Zealand’s.

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001–2011

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year 2001–2011 (2013, translation by Katy Derbyshire, Seagull Books, 2017)

In 1960 the Moscow newspaper Izvestia invited a number of writers, including East German Christa Wolf, to describe one day in their lives, 27 September that year, as precisely as possible. Christa Wolf accepted the invitation and found the project so interesting that she did the same for that date every year for the rest of her life.

She didn’t necessarily intend this writing for publication, but at the turn of the century she decided to compile the 41 pieces into a book, saying in her preface (reprinted at the start of this book):

I see it as a kind of professional obligation to publish them. Our most recent history seems to be at risk of being reduced, even now, to easily manageable formulae. Perhaps messages like these can play a part in keeping opinions on what has happened in flux, re-examining prejudices, dismantling hardened views, recognising our own experiences and gaining more trust in them, allowing unfamiliar circumstances a little closer to ourselves.

That book is a compendium of detailed accounts of a single day for each year, coming very close to the primary classroom concept of a ‘recount’ as opposed to a shaped ‘narrative’, beginning in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall was built, ending long after the unification of Germany, and traversing on the way the massive social and political changes of the 1960s to 90s, as well as huge changes in Wolf’s personal life.

The book I’ve just read is not so much a sequel as an addendum. The German original, titled Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert (literally One Day a Year in the New Century) was published in 2013, nearly two years after Wolf’s death in December 2011. The changes it charts are not as momentous, at least not on the world stage – at the personal level these pages are overwhelmingly aware of the approach of death – but nor is it as dauntingly huge.

I found the book fascinating. Each day is full of detail: the dream from which Wolf wakens, a list of newspaper headlines, the meals her husband prepares, crime shows on television, her current reading, her current writing project, gossip, calls on her to appear in the media, invitations to gallery openings (most of which go straight to the bin), news from her family (one of her daughters has a birthday on 28 September, so family always looms large), reflections on the big events of the day (German elections seem to happen in September), correspondence. It’s not that all these things are presented as of equal value: Wolf knows that her reflections on, say, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, will be more interesting to her possible readers (including her future self) than what she had for lunch. But there’s a wonderful sense of the broad sweep of history enmeshed in the minutiae of life as each entry ‘interrogates the bejesus’ out of its day (the phrase is from Phillipa McGuinness’s The Year that Everything Changed, which did for the year 2001 what Wolf does for her days – the link is to my blog post).

I imagine that every reader will find her or his own personal points of connection. Here are some of mine.

On 9/11, the perspective of a former East Berliner stands as something of a challenge these days to those who urge the primacy of ‘western civilisation’:

Why did it seem to me – precisely sixteen days ago it was – as though those two towers were crashing directly into the empty centre of our civilisation, the alleged target of the attack? Everyone appeared to know what our civilisation is. […] So it’s Greek philosophy, the monotheistic religions, the Enlightenment’s belief in reason … And what if they had all lost their effectualness in the Occident under the ‘terror of the economy’ and lived on only as a chimera inside us? And have not more and more people sensed that this civilisation of ours is hollowed out and empty?

(page 11)

(Incidentally, that ‘the Occident’ makes me wish I could read German so I’d know if it was Wolf or the translator Katy Derbyshire who decided to use it rather than the more usual ‘the West’. Given the general ease of the English elsewhere, I’m assuming it was Wolf: she tends to use ‘the West’ to mean West Germany, and Katy Derbyshire has honoured her usage.)

In the period covered by this book, Wolf completed the only other book by her that I’ve read: City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud. That book deals in part with a moment in 1985 when it was revealed that she had been an informant for the Stasi – something she had completely forgotten. There are some interesting footnotes to that book – she mentions in passing the difficulty of writing it, of dealing with editorial changes and then, in 2010, readers’ responses. This passage makes me resolve to tell writers when their work means something to me:

Then a quite long, intense letter from a woman from Berlin, prompted by City of Angels, which she calls a ‘captivating and liberating’ text. My books, she writes, have accompanied her for more than half her life (people often tell me that now). She goes on to thank me for staying ‘in this part of the country’ […] I could cite more of this letter, which is typical of a large number of letters I’ve received since City of Angels. More from the East – but not only from there – more women than men, more older than very young people. Testaments of personal concern, which push aside my doubts over whether I ought to have published the book in this form.

(page 145)

The book is probably an example of ‘late style’, as discussed in Edward Said’s On Late Style, a book that failed to impress me much when I read it last year, but which seems to be relevant to almost everything I’ve read since. Like Said’s book, this one was published posthumously. Unlike his, it’s explicit about the writer’s physical condition. This moment from 2007 strikes a chord with me, though the pain in my joints is a trivial shadow of hers:

From the living room window I see a young blonde woman walking past, in a white jacket and black trousers; I watch enviously as she walks without effort, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

I console myself – when I was her age I could do that too.

(page 110)

The final entry – just two pages of notes she managed to scribble two months before she died – is an extraordinary testimony to her dedication to the life of the mind, and to this task in particular: among the notations about the struggle to find a position for sleeping that won’t be in pain, her medication, difficulties with eating and going to the toilet, she mentions her reading:

I read a few pages of [Estela Canto’s] relationship to Borges, which Ellen sent me. Didn’t know B. was infertile – for mental reasons, not least due to his domineering mother.

(p 149)

In the middle of it all, there’s always something new to learn.

I don’t suppose this book is everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes me glad to belong to species that has included such an individual.

Alexis Wright’s Tracker

Alexis Wright, Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth (Giramondo 2017)

This is a book of yarns. I’ll start this blog post with one of them.

In the mid 1990s at the Gulf of Carpentaria, Murrandoo Yanner was involved in negotiations with Ian Williams, the general manager of a major mining company. Recently introduced Native Title legislation required that the mining company negotiate with traditional owners about plans for a zinc mine. One of the issues under discussion was the proposed mine’s proximity to sacred sites in the Lawn Hills–Boodjamulla National Park. The Queensland Premier, Wayne Goss, had given assurances about the National Park, but word was that he had reneged. Just before Yanner’s scheduled meeting with Williams, Tracker Tilmouth suggested a strategy for using the meeting, where there would be no government representative, to influence the government. Here’s Yanner’s account of what happened:

So we go through hours of negotiations and I hear [Tracker] suddenly cough, bloody when I least expected it – it was in something interesting that I wanted to listen to, so I go, Ian, by the way, what happened with Lawn Hills National Park? Do you know if Goss has gazetted it yet? There was a big silence, and things were going so well and Williams did not want to tell me, and then he said, Actually he made a decision not to. And Tracker, I was still trying to get him to play bad cop but he had me play it, and when Williams tells me that I jump up and I bang the table. Tracker made me do all this, and bang the table. He had said: Make it bloody genuine or they won’t believe you. They have seen a lot of blokes put acts on. So I bang the table and say, Fucking ridiculous, you can’t trust you bastards. I told you, Tracker, you can’t trust these bastards. I go outside and Tracker told me the next part later. I jump in my car and do big figure eights and spinning gravel, and off I go swearing. Ian Williams shits himself and the mob too because everything was going so great, and he says, Oh! Well! Shit what are we going to do? Tracker says, This is what you do. State parliament was sitting that day and he says, Ring Gossy now, get him out of parliament for a second. Boom, boom, boom.

And bugger me, there is a historical fact. If you go to the transcript or Hansard or whatever of the state parliament, you’ll see it was gazetted that afternoon, late afternoon, that day. That very day Goss got pulled out of parliament, got spoken to on the phone from Burketown by Ian Williams, and went straight back into parliament and gazetted it after publicly saying he wouldn’t. And I was blown away, not just the fact that it was done, but the fact that they really do run the state government at times, and that his mad trick worked.

(Pages 207–208)

If that doesn’t grab your attention, then you’d probably be impervious to the charms of this book.

Tracker Tilmouth was a member of the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children. The picture that emerges from this book is of a big thinker, a man of entrepreneurial spirit, committed to the project of establishing economic independence to the Aboriginal peoples of central and northern. He was a significant figure in the history of the Central Land Council, and enormously influential beyond there. He came close to standing for the Australian Senate as a member of the ALP, and had friendly and mutually respectful relationships with Bob Katter. His sense of humour was legendary, and not always diplomatic (when he met Jenny Macklin for the first time shortly after she had failed to end the Intervention in the Northern Territory, he called her ‘Genocide Jenny’), but he was a frequent presence in Parliament House in Canberra, and regularly visited the United Nations in New York. He could rub people up the wrong way, and the book doesn’t completely dispel the charges of misogyny, but the overwhelming impression created here is that he was a great Australian.

The book includes a photo of the front page of Murdoch’s NT News for 13 March 2015: a photo of the man himself with the huge headline ‘TERRITORY FAREWELLS ‘TRACKER” and nothing else except a line across the bottom about football.

Alexis Wright has done a brilliant job of capturing dozens of voices (all chosen by Tracker himself) and organising them: Tracker’s own voice, the voices of his brothers, of Aboriginal people who worked with him or benefited from his wisdom, of whitefellas who fell under his sway, of politicians, pastoralists, mine managers. There are some glaring absences – people whose names occur often, but whose stories would probably take a very different hue. I’ll mention only Tony Abbott, but not all these absences are whitefellas.

Having learned to be suspicious of hagiographies, I asked a friend who had lived in the Northern Territory for decades what he thought of the book. He hadn’t read it, but he said, ‘I know some whitefellas who worked with him, and they worshipped him.’

The result is not a biography: the first chapter gives wonderful accounts of his childhood on Croker Island Mission, where his ‘house mother’ Lois Bartram read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country to the children, but, though his wife Kathy is mentioned often, she remains hardly more than a name – there is no account of how they met or of their wedding. What we do get is a compelling mosaic portrait.

Alexis Wright’s own voice is heard only in her Introduction, that is if you leave aside the couple of instances where one of her questions makes it onto the page. Some people have found the introduction hard going; at least one person I know gave up on the book part way through it. I think the reason is that Wright struggles to justify her decision not to write a conventional biography, and to somehow summarise something that the book itself demonstrates cannot be easily summarised.

The book’s longest section (more than 150 pages), ‘The Vision Splendid’, is dominated by the voice of Tracker himself spelling out his analysis of the situation of Aboriginal peoples, arguing about priorities, lamenting the lack of unity among Aboriginal leadership (while being harsh about other Aboriginal leaders), mapping out future directions. I imagine it would repay careful rereading, but it assumes so much prior knowledge (and my ignorance was only partly countered by Alexis Wright’s occasional footnotes) and spins off in so many directions – like the rest of the book, it captures the feel of the spoken word, of a mind that is thinking, revising, repeating, contradicting itself as it goes – that it is hard to follow.

But that’s not even a complaint. I became increasingly aware of my own whiteness as I read this extraordinarily generous, multifaceted book – at times hilarious, at times tragic, at times profound. As a whitefella, my response is overwhelmingly to be grateful.

Added later: I recommend Kathy Gollan’s review at Newtown Review of Books, which gives a much fuller sense of the book than my blog post, and uses quotation brilliantly.

Tracker is the first book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am very grateful to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

The Book Group on Edward Said’s Late Style

Edward Said, On Late Style (Bloomsbury Revelations 2006)

Before the meeting: The Book Group recently changed its system for choosing books: instead of a chaotic argy-bargy at the end of each meeting, we now take turns to be the Autocratic Book Selector. I’m pretty sure On Late Style, like earlier floats of In Search of Lost Time and something by Heidegger, wouldn’t have made it through the argy-bargy system. But here we are. It’s a short book, but disproportionately demanding.

On 25 September 2003, Edward Said, best known for his books  Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, and for his advocacy of the Palestinian people, announced over breakfast that the next major project he would concentrate on was Late Style, and that it would be finished in December. He died that morning, and what we have is compiled from what his widow Miriam Said describes in her Foreword as ‘a tremendous amount of material’ he had already written – essays, articles, lecture notes. It’s almost certainly not the book Said himself would have submitted to the publisher, but Edward Wood, who did the main work of ‘putting it all together without losing Edward’s voice’, to quote Miriam Said again, assures us in his Introduction that the ‘words are all Said’s own’.

If you’ve read any of Said’s work you won’t be surprised to hear that his notion of ‘late style’ is complex. Deriving in some way from Theodor Adorno‘s writings about Beethoven’s late works, it doesn’t mean simply a style someone has in their work when they are old and/or near death. It includes that, but there is also a lack of resolution, of coherence. Adorno’s term is ‘catastrophic’. Shakespeare didn’t have a late style in this sense: in his late plays major conflicts and dilemmas are resolved or magically transcended. But I’d say Leonard Cohen did in his final album, You want It Darker, and Bob Dylan too, in choosing to perform Sinatra classics.

Said doesn’t discuss Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. His examples are the late Beethoven, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavelier, Mozart’s Cosí Fan Tutte, Lampedusa’s novel and Visconti’s movie The Leopard, Thomas Mann’s novella and Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, a clutch of 20th century operas that use 18th century settings and conventions, Jean Genet, and pianist Glen Gould, with brief discussions of Cavafy and Euripides.  I’ve been to maybe three operas in my life, Cosí not among them; I have a CD of Glen Gould but I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to it. That is, musically  I’m close to illiterate. I have read the Mann novella and some of Cavafy’s poems; and I’ve seen Visconti’s The Leopard, and also his Death in Venice  (which doesn’t rate a mention here). But none of that helped much.

For me, reading the book was like listening in on a conversation among very clever people about something I know almost nothing about. The main conversationalists are Edward Said himself and Adorno. Said wrestles to interpret Adorno’s dense and opaque prose, and then argues with him. A score of other critics turn up as well, always treated with courtesy, sometimes as authorities, but more often to be politely rebutted. For example, after quoting film critic Pauline Kael on Burt Lancaster’s performance in The Leopard, Said writes:

I think we can feel her enthusiasm for Lancaster’s quite noble performance without really accepting any of this at all.

I did read the whole book, and found a lot to enjoy. His discussion of Così Fan Tutte is fascinating, his comparisons of the different versions of The Leopard and Death in Venice likewise. His personal anecdotes about Genet are wonderful, and his reflections on Genet’s non-Orientalist love for the Palestinians are very rich. There are sentences worth lingering over to let their implications settle in, like these:

Identity is what we impose on ourselves through our lives as social, political, and even spiritual beings. The logic of culture and of families doubles the strength of identity, which to someone like Genet – who was a victim of the identity forced on him by his delinquency, his isolation, and his transgressive talents and delights – is something to be resolutely opposed.

In the end, though, I can’t say I followed Said’s argument. The closest I could find to a summary is this, and it’s worth quoting at some length, both for what it says about the artists and for what it implies about possibilities for ageing in general:

Each of the figures I have discussed here makes of lateness or untimeliness, and a vulnerable maturity, a platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity, at the same time that each … has a lifetime of technical effort and preparation. Adorno, Strauss, Lampedusa and Visconti – like Glenn Gould and Jean Genet – play off the great totalising codes of twentieth-century culture and cultural diffusion: the music business, publishing, film, journalism. The one thing that is difficult to find in their work is embarrassment, even though they are egregiously self-confident and supreme technicians. It is as if having achieved age, they want none of its supposed serenity or maturity, or any of its amiability or official ingratiation. Yet in none of them is mortality denied or evaded, but keeps coming back as the theme of death which undermines and strangely elevates their uses of language and the aesthetic.

The meeting: A couple of days before the meeting, interspersed among arrangements for food, were some comments on the book: 

First Chap: I’m an apology on Wednesday night. The company I will miss, discussion of the book I won’t. I found it very difficult to be reminded of how much I don’t know (again). 

Second Chap: I am not very far into the book as yet (hoping for time tonight)  but understand your sentiments … I thought I was very knowledgable about Beethoven … but apparently not.

Third Chap: I’ll bring a late style potato bake

Fourth Chap: I am intrigued to see that. Is it the sort of dish you make for people when you don’t give a f#@k anymore? 

We met over a barbecue and exchanged gift-wrapped books. We spent quite a lot of time on On Late Style, even though it faced stiff competition as a topic of conversation: big news about a guilty verdict that the media couldn’t tell us about, but one of us knew someone who knew someone who had been in the courtroom; one member was absent because his daughter was being honoured for a  remarkable achievement; another had very recently become a grandfather; and of course there was food, and Christmas.

Only a couple of us made it all the way through the book. At least one of the non-finishers was actually angry with it – it’s as if it promised to shed light and provoke thought on the stage of life and career that many of us in the group are entering, that is, the late stage, but then failed to deliver anything coherent. None of us know enough about music, in particular opera, to engage with Said’s arguments. He would like someone else, say Alain de Bouton, to write a version the book Said might have written using this material if he had lived to do it.

In short, this one is strictly for the Said fans.

Laura Tingle’s Follow the Leader

Laura Tingle, Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman (Quarterly Essay 71, Black Inc 2018)

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Follow the Leader is Laura Tingle’s third Quarterly Essay, a third instalment in a loose trilogy. Great Expectations (QE 46 2012) dealt with Australian expectations of government, Political Amnesia (QE 60 2016) with failing institutional memory, and now Follow the Leader with political leadership in the modern world (links are to my blog posts). ‘For,’ Laura Tingle writes, ‘whatever our expectations of government, whatever the state of our institutions and institutional memory, it is leadership that helps to settle those things, and change them.’

She might have added that the ills of political leadership looms large in the age of Trump, Duterte, Putin, Rudd–Gillard–Rudd–Shorten and Abbott–Turnbull–Dutton–Morrison.

The tagline on Laura Tingle’s website is ‘Reporting on politics from Canberra’. This essay is very high level reporting, and not just about Canberra, offering incisive accounts of political developments in the years since Howard’s prime ministership and invoking the insights of  historians, political scientists, politicians (from Kim Beazley to Barack Obama), speechwriters, military leaders, philosophers, other journalists and more.

The essay takes a key idea from Ronald Heifetz’s 1994 book Leadership Without Easy Answers that ‘leadership, power and formal authority too often get confused and need to be carefully distinguished’, and offers his definition of leadership as ‘helping a community embrace change’ as a touchstone against which to judge the functioning of our elected leaders. (incidentally, her account of Heifetz’s discussion of Lyndon Johnson’s  handling of the US war in Vietnnam – big fail – and Civil Rights – big win – is enlightening.)

The reality is that elected leaders in Australia and elsewhere are much more committed to their own survival in office, treating their rivals as enemies or pushing their ideological agendas as ‘would-be strong men’ (I love the way that phrase punctures postures) than to leading in the Heifetz sense, and in the face of global warming, mass displacement of people, stunning unequal distribution of wealth, and increasingly dangerous  international politics, that is just plain terrifying. Laura Tingle gives an account of how we have come to this dire situation, and perhaps reassuringly sketches alternatives, mainly in the leadership style of Angela Merkel, who is masterly at building consensus, and giving her opponents room that allows compromise.

I’ll give Laura Tingle the final word in this sketchy account of the essay. Her closing words, which I wish could appear in letters of fire over the entrance to parliament House (notice the eleg:

We need our leaders to be wary of simple solutions built on scapegoating and hatred, and to resist succumbing to those who relentlessly conjure up reasons for  intolerance. We should expect our leaders to help rebuild the national debate and protect other voices within it. We should be looking for strong leaders to follow, not a strongman.

Follow the Leader is the sixteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Czesław Miłosz’s Captive Mind

Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, translated from the Polish by Jane Zielonko (1953, 1981, Penguin Modern Classics 2010)

milosz.jpgThis book was very popular among anti-Communists during the ColdWar, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a powerful critique of Stalinism. But it’s a long way from attacking Marxism or proclaiming the joys of capitalism.

It’s a classic of 20th century Polish literature, whose author went on to to a long and distinguished career as a poet, winning the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, described in the citation as one ‘who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts’.

I found the book riveting, not just as a product of its historical moment, though I have come away from it knowing a lot more about the history of Poland in the first half of the 20th century, but for the light it sheds on the way social conditions can inhibit, distort, compromise, undermine, confine, even determine the minds of even the most serious intellectuals. There’s an anatomy of the ways people can pay lip service while holding onto their own beliefs (a phenomenon he calls ‘Ketman’), which includes this:

Just as theologians in periods of strict orthodoxy expressed their views in the rigorous language of the Church, so the writers of the people’s democracies make use of an accepted special style, terminology and linguistic ritual. What is important is not what someone said but what he wanted to say, disguising his thought by removing a comma, inserting an ‘and’, establishing this rather than another sequence in the problems discussed. Unless one has lived there one cannot know how many titanic battles are being fought, how the heroes of Ketman are falling, what this warfare is being waged over. Obviously, people caught up in this daily struggle are rather contemptuous of their compatriot political émigrés. A surgeon cannot consider a butcher his equal in dexterity; just so a Pole, Czech or Hungarian practised in the art of dissimulation smiles when he learns that someone in the emigration has called him a traitor (or a swine) at the very moment when this traitor (or swine) is engaged in a match of philosophical chess on whose outcome the fate of fifteen laboratories or ateliers depends. They do not know how one pays – those abroad do not know. They do not know what one buys, and at what price.

The bulk of the book is taken up with four heartbreaking case studies of writers/ intellectuals and the prices they paid, either for trying to maintain their integrity within the system or by becoming its agents  – he calls them Alpha, Beta, Lambda and Delta, but Wikipedia identifies them as real people. Though he is sometimes scathing about their choices, he doesn’t see it as a matter of individual morality:

Whoever reads the pubic statements of [these four writers] might say that they sold themselves. The truth is, however, more involved. These men are, more or less consciously, victims of a historic situation. Consciousness does not help them to shed their bonds; on the contrary, it forges them. At the very best, it can offer them the delights of Ketman as a consolation. Never before has there been such enslavement through consciousness as in the twentieth century. Even my generation was still taught that reason frees men. … In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit.

I found it hard to read this book without deep unease, not just about totalitarianism or the admirable people I have known who were Stalinists back in the day. True, in Australia people aren’t generally sent to labour camps if they criticise the government or depart from the generally accepted mode of conversation. But I found myself thinking of our own government’s recent banning of Chelsea Manning, and of the constant barrage of propaganda for consumerism and individualism generated by our media, of the way there can be night after night of coverage of the terrible drought in New South Wales just now with never a mention of climate change.

Die Gedanken sind frei. Thinking is free, but not as free as we like to think.

Two quick reads

Ian McPhedran, The Smack Track: Inside the Navy’s war : chasing down drug smugglers, pirates and terrorists (HarperCollinsAustralia 2017)
Dervla McTiernan, The Rúin (HarperCollinsAustralia 2018)

rúinsmackThis blog post is an exercise in completism. I read The Rúin and The Smack Track last year but didn’t blog about them at the time for reasons I won’t go into. I want to make up for that omission, if briefly.

The Rúin is an excellent thriller/detective yarn set in Ireland, the debut novel of Dervla McTiernan, an Ireland-born writer who lives in Perth. An author’s note explains that the book’s title can be read in English, or can be given it’s Irish meaning: ‘In Irish, Rúin means something hidden, a mystery, or a secret, but the word also has a long history as a term of endearment.’  And that pretty much sums up the feel of the book: there’s a mystery to be solved – two murders decades apart – and a story of family love and commitment to be uncovered along with much darker secrets. It’s fast moving, and satisfyingly complex. The Galway setting is vividly real. I’m surprised it hasn’t been snapped up for a television series.

A second book featuring McTiernan’s garda Cormac Reilly is promised for March next year. I expect it will have me breaking once again my general resolution not to read crime novels.

The Smack Track makes me think of Trotsky’s warning: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’ I was the boy in my primary school class who wasn’t interested in war comics. I was never into model war planes. I was a conscientious objector to the draft at the time of Australia’s military involvement in Vietnam. Ian McPhedran, by contrast, worked as a defence writer for The Australian for nearly twenty years. He has written six books, including this one, about aspects of the Australian armed forces, and has had extensive experience of being embedded with the military. Just the writer to help me out of my comfort zone.

This book isn’t about combat, but about the RAN’s extraordinary work disrupting the drug trade off the east coast of Africa. It includes first hand accounts of intercepts, including dramatic accounts of the dangers faced by the sailors on these missions. McPhedran, writing as an embedded writer, doesn’t swagger. If anything, he mocks his ‘landlubber’ status. His respect and appreciation for the men and women whose work he observes up close is contagious.

As I read The Rúin in 2017 I’m not including it as part of the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. But it’s an excellent addition to the list of books written by Australian women, so I’ll mention it on the AWWC site anyhow.

I’m grateful to HarperCollinsAustralia for my copies of both books.