Tag Archives: non-fiction

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)

qe71.jpg

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.

The Book Group and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer

Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)

chernobyl.jpegFrom post revolutionary China in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing back to the Russian Revolution in China Miéville’s October, and now forward to post-Soviet Belarus: the book group has lit on a theme.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chernobyl Prayer is essentially a series of monologues about the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I expected it to be a gruelling read, so I rationed it. I worked out how I would need to read seventeen pages a day to finish the book before the Group met, and set that as a schedule. Of course it didn’t work out like that, but it was a good strategy.

As Studs Terkel’s Working did for working people in the USA, or Wendy Loewenstein’s Weevils in the Flour for the 1930s Depression in Australia, this book provides a platform for scores of witnesses who otherwise would be largely ignored or – as a number of Alexievich’s interviewees tell us – treated as specimens. There are peasants and nuclear physicists, loyal Communists and embittered cynics, ancient women and nine year olds, poets, playwrights and journalists. There’s operatic intensity, fatalistic heroism, jokes that are terrible in both meanings of the word. The cultivated and forested land around Chernobyl is lovingly evoked, along with the invisible horror of nuclear radiation. The monologues that pretty much begin and end the book, each titled ‘A lone human voice’, are long, passionate, heartbreaking stories of love and bereavement, one from the widow of a fireman who was among what we now call the first responders, the other from the widow of a clean-up worker who was conscripted for the job six months later.

Here’s an excerpt from the author’s interview with herself early in the book:

This is not a book on Chernobyl, but on the world of Chernobyl. … what I’m concerned with is what I would call the ‘missing history’, the invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time. I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul. A day in the life of ordinary people. Here, though, everything was extraordinary: both the event itself and the people, as they settled into the new space. How many times has art rehearsed the apocalypse, offered different technological versions of doomsday? Now, though, we can be assured that life is infinitely more fantastical. … Chernobyl is a mystery that we have yet to unravel. An undeciphered sign. A mystery, perhaps, for the twenty-first century; a challenge for it. What has become clear is that, besides the challenges of Communism, nationalism and nascent religion which we are living with and dealing with, other challenges lie ahead: challenges more fiendish and all-embracing, although still hidden from view. Yet, after Chernobyl, something had cracked open.

I’ve responded to works by other Nobel Prize laureates with a kind of compliant respect, ‘I can see why this person was given the Nobel Prize, and I guess my horizons have been expanded by reading this book.’ In the case of Chernobyl Prayer I am deeply grateful that the Norwegians brought it to my attention (and to the Book Group for prompting me to read it). In illuminating the ‘missing history’ of Chernobyl, it reminds us of the disasters, past and in the making, that we so easily turn our heads away from: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Maralinga, Fukushima, and the overarching threat of climate change. In this way it is like Maralinga: the An̲angu story by the Yalata Aboriginal Community with Christobel Mattingley, or Yhonnie Scarce’s beautiful and unsettling installation Death Zephyr (click for an image). It would be impossible for a reasonably well informed Australian to read this book, especially the sections dealing with the way political pragmatism trumped the laws of physics, without thinking of the pronouncements on coal from Tony Abbott and his ilk.

The meeting: I hosted the meeting this time. I let people know in advance that I had made an enormous amount of marmalade from our cumquat tree this year. One of the chaps emailed on the weekend, ‘The prospect of marmalade is the only thing getting me through this miserable book!’ Others echoed the sentiment.

It turned out that the conversation was so animated that all thought of marmalade vanished from our minds. It’s a perfect book-club book. There is so much detail that the conversation bounced around from one alarming moment to another, as we reminded each other of what we’d read. We were in awe of the author’s skill in getting such poetry down on the page from her interlocutors’ testimonies.

And now a hasty fourteen lines, written before the group met:

November Verse 3: After reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer
(‘I realise now that terrible things in life happen unspectacularly and naturally‘)
Good Soviets, good peasants trusted
authorities that reassured,
a lifetime’s mental habit rusted
on. To keep that Party Card,
to serve the people, serve the nation,
be not afeared of radiation:
in spring the wood’s still gently green,
roengtens, curies can’t be seen.
We have our own insanity
three decades on: the planet warms,
brings bushfires, catastrophic storms,
but ‘Coal’s good for humanity’
wins votes. With luck in time we’ll learn
so millions more don’t have to burn.

T G H Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend & November verse 2

T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (©1969, Giramondo 2015)

horseshoe

The name Strehlow may not be quite well enough known to feature in a pub quiz question about whitefellas in Central Australia, but it comes close. Wikipedia describes Carl Strehlow (1871–1922) as a ‘linguist, anthropologist, genealogist, collector of natural history specimens, missionary and translator’ who ‘served on two Lutheran missions in inland Australia from May 1892 to October 1922, a total of thirty years’. T G H (Ted) Strehlow (1908–1978), his son, spent his childhood on the Hermannsburg Mission and achieved fame as an anthropologist and linguist, especially for his Songs of Central Australia, ‘a monumental study of the ceremonial poetry of the Arrernte’ (Wikipedia again).

Journey to Horseshoe Bend is Ted Strehlow’s account of the last days of his father’s life, when he was fourteen years old. Written four decades after the event, and now reissued by Giramondo more than four decades after first publication, it’s an extraordinary time machine of a book, consisting of at least four distinct strands:

The main narrative: In October 1922 Carl Strehlow, Lutheran pastor of Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia, is extremely ill, and the only chance to get desperately needed medical attention is to take him by horse and buggy to the nearest settlement that can be reached by a doctor in a car. He has dropsy (that is, most of his body is painfully swollen with retained fluid) and suffers terribly from the jolting journey in the intense summer heat. It’s no spoiler to say that he reaches the settlement of Horseshoe Bend, but dies before a doctor can reach him, and the burial ceremony is described in painful detail. His wife Frieda travels with him, and Hezekiel, the Arrernte man who drives the buggy. Their son Theo – referred to in the third person throughout – travels separately on a cruder, even joltier wagon driven by the Arrernte man Titus.

Arrernte stories: As the vehicles move through country, we are told the stories (called ‘myths’) of the ancestral beings who created its features, and some of the pre-settlement history of internecine conflict. It seems unlikely that the fourteen year old Theo would have known all these stories, but he had  grown up among Arrernte people (here called ‘Aranda’ or ‘dark people’) and though he was never initiated he had a deep sense of belonging to the Arrernte and to that country. Certainly the respectful matter of factness of his story=telling has an insider feel to it.

Settler history and anthropology: As the small party travels down the Finke River, they are given hospitality by a number of settlers along the way. Strehlow gives a brief history of each stopping-place, and casts a dispassionate anthropologist’s eye over them, particularly their sexual mores. At least, his tone is dispassionate: it’s hard to imagine that anyone could describe without a quiver of indignation moments like the one where a new white wife arrives and insists that the children who have been borne to her new husband by an Arrernte woman should no longer have his name. Some pages aim to reproduce the language of the settler patriarch of Horseshoe Bend, and even though its full-blown colonialism is certainly not endorsed by the book, a trigger warning for its liberal use of the N word wouldn’t be out of place.

The elder Strehlow’s spiritual struggle: There’s quite a bit of Biblical exegesis, particularly of the Book of Job and Christ’s anguished cry. ‘Thy will be done’, and some bitter reflections on the contrast between institutional religion and the religion of the spirit. Although, as Philip Jones comments in his excellent afterword, Strehlow’s bitter blaming of the Lutheran authorities for his father’s suffering may well be a projection of his own feelings towards his university employers, all the same there’s some profound meditation here.

The younger Strehlow’s coming of age story:  Theo leaves his childhood home for the first time, and his father’s death marks a decisive turning point – he had expected to go to Germany to finish his education, but now he decides he belongs in Australia. In other ways too, the ordeal changes his sense of himself in the world: for the first time he meets with people who are neither Arrernte nor devout European Christian: his journey to Horseshoe Bend is his first encounter with ‘the outside world’. Though the terrible ordeal of the elder Strehlow is made painfully tangible, we are not made privy to the emotional upheaval it must have caused his son.when we are told what is going on in Theo’s mind, it is mostly his response to the country and then in the final pages his decision to stay in Australia.

I don’t suppose anyone would claim that Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a great literary work. Philip Jones’s Afterword describes in some detail how Strehlow resisted his editors’ suggestions on many fronts: the dialogue is generally wooden, the religious reflections repetitive, the recriminations shrill. But I have to say that it has changed – deepened, expanded, transformed – my sense of what it is to be a settler Australian.

I am grateful to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

[Added later: Lisa Hill has an excellent review of this book at ANZ LItLover’s LitBlog]

And now, because it’s November:

November Verse 2:
(riffing on Journey to Horseshoe Bend pages 262–265) 
Lill had three sons and a daughter.
She was the wife of Gus the boss
of Horseshoe Bend. Well, kinda, sorta.
A wife would not have borne the loss
of stolen fair-skinned daughter Millie.
Her sons would have been heirs – that’s Jimmy,
Bert and Sonny, stockman all;
her wife-pride would have had no fall.
But then a girl bride joined the station,
said, ‘Lill’s sons can’t have your name,
so give them hers.’ She had no shame.
A decade later, commendation:
‘I’d not have coped with life up here
without Lill’s help. She’s such a dear.’

 

Clive James’s Poetry Notebook

Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006–2014 (Picador 2014)

1447269128.jpgI bought this book because I felt slightly grubby after reading Play All, Clive James’s book about television. Play All brings James’s wit, clowning, extraordinary recall, clarity of judgement and contrarianism to bear on the object of an addiction – the relatively harmless one to television; this book puts those qualities, minus the clowning, at the service of a passion – his lifelong passion for poetry. The result is much more wholesome. 

The book is a series of short, free-ranging pieces written for the US journal Poetry, linked by very short ‘Interludes’, and bulked out by  equally short pieces published in sources ranging from Quadrant to the Times Literary Supplement, all between 2006 and 2014. The collection is free-ranging, but it’s not directionless. James’s mind has been concentrated wonderfully by being diagnosed with a terminal illness, and though he writes in his introduction that a lifetime of thinking about poetry has not left him with an aesthetic system to convey, in fact a pretty coherent view does emerge. James could almost have been describing this book when he wrote of  a book of Michael Donaghy’s criticism (page 138):

Many of these pieces, undertaken as journeywork at the time but always lavished with the wealth of his knowledge and the best of his judgement, are collected in this book, and it is remarkable how they coalesce into the most articulate possible expression of a unified critical vision.

James’s main thrust is to defend traditional English verse, particularly verse in rhyming stanzas  in iambic pentameter, to defend it and to explain it to an age that he fears has forgotten how to read it. 

You do have to get past his contrarianism. He’s not crude enough to say that the only poetry worth reading is the kind he favours, but sometimes he comes close. There are too many cheap cracks at the influential US poet John Ashbery or at journalists en masse, and a number of characterisations of the whole of Australia as given over to  the orthodoxy that ‘an apprehensible form is thought to be a repressive hangover from the old imperialism’. He says something vaguely positive about Francis Webb, then adds, ‘but Webb was a mental patient.’  He proclaims that Judith Wright wrote only one or two decent poems. And there are one or two breathtakingly ignorant comments on non-poetic matters, probably intended as curmudgeonly rejections of ‘political correctness’.

But once you’ve thrown the book across the room once or twice, there’s a lot to enjoy and learn from. I read it with my phone beside me, and read for the first time many of the poems referred to, from Robert Frost’s ‘The Silken Tent‘ and Louis MacNeice’s ‘Meeting Point‘ to UiAiFanthorpe’s ‘Not My Best Side‘. This might not be a positive quality for readers who are better read or less interested than I am, but for the ignorant but interested it’s terrific. And it’s worth noting that his harsh judgements aren’t limited to ‘informal’ contemporary or near-contemporary poets: he gets stuck into Milton and Alexander Pope, and Ezra Pound emerges as pretty much a grandiloquent phoney.

You wouldn’t go to Clive James for illuminating comment on, say, Jennifer Maiden, Rhyll McMaster or Pam Brown. But he does a brilliant detailed exposition of a poem by Stephen Edgar, and he illuminates with a passion many other poems that he loves, or include a phrase, a line, or a passage he loves. One never doubts that Gerard Manly Hopkins, James McAuley, and a myriad others have won his love, sometimes by a complete poem but often by a single phrase or line. 

He’s concerned, as implied by the US subtitle ‘Reflections on the Intensity of Language’, with the way poetry uses language intensely: with phrases, lines, stanzas, and occasionally whole poems. Writing poetry is all very well, but to write a poem is an achievement. In among his sharp judgements, there is a deep humility about poetry itself: ‘I’m still trying to figure out just how the propulsive energy that drives a line of poetry joins up with the binding energy that holds a poem together.’

As my regular readers will know, I sometimes turn my hand to versifying. I found his discussions of the fruitful tension between metrical forms and conversational rhythms enormously instructive. Uncharacteristically, his prose in these passages becomes a little clogged with technical terms, but I for one was glad of that. And here too his gift for epigram shines through: ‘The only way to hide the tensions of a set form is to perfect it.’

Through it all, there’s a thread of farewell. In this book, James says  things he doesn’t want to die leaving unsaid. But it’s not grim or gloomy. He refers to himself as a beginner as a poet. The book’s final exclamation, ostensibly about how to write as ‘innocently’ as Shakespeare, cries out to be extracted from its immediate context to serve as a description of the book’s project:

Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realise what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.