Tag Archives: Novel

November Verse 5 and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

November verse 5: Letter to my Mother

Dear Mum, I won't write you a novel.
Barely fourteen rhyming lines
I'll manage. No space to unravel
the half a century that twined
our lives. Perhaps I know you better
now than when your weekly letters
filled me in on family news.
I wish that you could know me too,
that you could look down from some heaven,
hear the words I wish I'd said,
see the tears I should have shed
back then, take thanks for all you've given.
The grave is deaf and blind and still.
What we didn't say, we never will.

This is prompted by a marvellous book, a very different letter to a very different mother:

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape 2019)

The protagonist narrator of this novel, known to his intimates as Little Dog, is a Vietnamese-American Gay man, and this is his portrait of the artist as a very young man. The text is cast as a letter addressed to his mother. He tells her the story of his childhood, including quite a bit of abuse he suffered at her hands and his understanding that that abuse was part of the aftermath of the US-Vietnam war. He tells of his relationship with his grandmother, her mother, and what he knows of her love story with a US serviceman. And he relates his teenage experiences of sex. Given the sometimes excruciating detail about young gay male sex (excruciating both physically and in its turbulent emotional ambivalence), clearly this is not a letter he really expects his mother to read.

Ocean Vuong has won big prizes for his poetry, and parts of this book read as prose poetry. I don’t mean that some parts of it defy any attempt to extract a simple prose meaning, though there are a couple of moments like that. I mean, among other things, some images, as of buffalo running over a cliff or monarch butterflies making their vast annual journeys or Tiger Woods putting in an appearance, do a lot of work. And there are rhapsodic sections that don’t bother with conventional sentence structures, but take the reader with them in not bothering. For example, there are six pages in which Little Dog, sings (that’s the only word for it) about Trevor, the first object of his troubled but reciprocated desire. Here’s a little of it:

Trevor going fifty through his daddy’s wheatfield. Who jams all his fries into a Whopper and chews with both feet on the gas. Your eyes closed, riding shotgun, the wheat a yellow confetti.

Three freckles on his nose.

Three periods to a boy-sentence.

Trevor Burger King over McDonald’s ’cause the smell of smoke on beef makes it real.

The Vietnam War, growing up Gay and Vietnamese in working-class Hartford, Connecticut, the ravages of the OxyContin epidemic, dementia: the book deals with difficult and sometimes tragic lives. But the writing is sharp and rich and, in the end, celebratory.

My favourite scene is the one where Little Dog comes out to his mother in a Dunkin’ Donuts: ‘I don’t like girls.’ The conversation that follows is not astonishingly original (‘Are you going to wear a dress now?’ ‘They’ll kill you, you know that.’ ‘When did all this start. I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy.’ But then:

When I thought it was over, that I’d done my unloading, you said, pushing your coffee aside, ‘Now I have something to tell you.’

My jaw clenched. This was not supposed to be an equal exchange, not a trade. I nodded as you spoke, feigning willingness.

‘You have an older brother.’ You swept your hair out of your eyes, unblinking. ‘But he’s dead.’

And a whole terrible part of his mother’s life is revealed to him. So I need to modify my description of the book as a portrait of the artist as a young man: it’s a portrait that includes an extraordinary openness to the generations that gave rise to the young man.

Julie Janson’s Benevolence

Julie Janson, Benevolence (Magabala Books 2020)

Before the Meeting: Generally, if I read a book about a marginalised group I try to read one by someone from that group soon after. Even though both Truganini (the Book Group’s last title) and The Colony (which I read just before Truganini) are committed to telling colonial history with First Nations perspectives to the fore, they are both written by white/settler women. So I was happy when this book by Julie Janson, a Burruberongal woman of the Darug Aboriginal Nation, was chosen for the Book Group.

Julie Janson has described the novel as ‘a First Nations response to The Secret River by Kate Grenville’:

[The Secret River] is a wonderful book, but I was challenged by the ending where all the Burruberongal Darug people died in a massacre except for one old man. I asked myself the question: if all the Darug died, who were we?

I had researched my (Aboriginal) family history along the Hawkesbury River, and the Darug interpretation of those early days of colonial invasion is entirely different.

(Link to Booktopia interview here)

Benevolence (the title is deeply ironic) tells the story of Muraging, a Burruberongal woman whose parents give her up to a missionary-run school in 1816 when she is very young, in the hope that she will gain resources there to survive in the colonised world. Renamed Mary, she learns to read, write and play the violin, and resists attempts to make her give up on her culture, language and people. She runs away with a handsome young Aboriginal man, and what follows is a picaresque account of her travels, moving back and forth between the two cultures – now living with a group of women who have lost their men to the frontier wars, now a servant to a clergyman with whom she has a consensual sexual relationship that eventually goes very sour, now wandering with her small daughter, a servant again, a disregarded listener to callous conversations about massacre and rape, a speaker of truth to power. She finds occasional kindness and mostly avoids threats of violence and sexual assault. She spends time in prison, is often hungry, loses her daughter, has a second child after having sex with a French man in return for a bag of flour. She never gives up the search for her family and a place where she can live among her people.

It’s a story of navigating the harsh conditions of colonisation. The Aboriginal people and communities that Mary encounters are not pathetic victims, and aren’t romanticised as automatically safe and nurturing, but at the end of the novel, she finds a home in a community of survivors – precarious, under threat, but solid.

Each chapter has a year in its heading title, and most begin with a brief note on what is happening in the colony: in 1826 Darling becomes Governor of the colony; in 1832 Kings School opens in Parramatta; in 1835 Governor Bourke proclaims terra nullius; also in 1835 King William IV recognises the continued rights to land for Aboriginal people in South Australia. These landmarks serve to anchor the narrative in settler history, but most bear little direct relation to Mary’s struggles.

There are many painful scenes with settlers: the unashamedly white supremacist Reverend Masters, the weak Reverend Smythe (her first child’s father), Smythe’s insufferably prim and nasty wife Susan, a military man who forces her to guide him on a punitive expedition that culminates in massacre, and others. These characters are pretty much universally portrayed as weirdly irrational, inconsistent, bullying or pusillanimous, so that their scenes – dinner parties, domestic rows, meetings with Aboriginal warriors – read like hellish phantasmagoria. I haven’t seen any of Julie Janson’s plays, but many of the scenes involving settler characters read like scripts for rough-theatre, agitprop pieces.

To give you a taste, here’s part of the scene where Susan Smythe has caught her husband Henry having sex with Mary, after Susan has set fire to their cornfield and blamed Mary, after Mary has saved Susan’s life, after Henry has told Mary many times that she must leave. Mary is listening from behind a screen:

‘Get rid of her!’ Susan is speaking with a clear high voice. Henry twitches and ruffles his black hair with nervous fingers. He sits by his writing desk and taps his quill. He laughs like men do when confronted by a wronged woman.

‘Must we discuss this now? I am penning a sonnet and working on my native language book,’ says Henry. He dips the quill in ink and examines the tip.

“Sonnet? Are you insane? I shall call the doctor to bleed and purge these dark humours,’ rages Susan.

‘We must buy more quills – make a list … She is just a black servant. Don’t be silly, Susan dearest,’ says Henry.

‘You must choose between rich cream cake and soda bread,’ says Susan.

Mary leans forward to hear his answer. She holds her breath.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, dearest. It was a mistake such as many better man than me have also on occasion made. You must forgive me. I command you to find forgiveness. I am only human,’ says Henry.

‘I have heard about such servants! The other colonial wives have spoken of these creatures!’ says Susan. ‘You are shaming me and have no respect for the sacred promise of our marriage. You are a colonial joke. Everyone is laughing at you – behind your back – at your lack of Christian fidelity or conscience as you preach your pious sermons on the Sabbath. Look at you now, damaged by a violent savage and yet you dare to defy me and you let her stay.’

(Pages 178–179)

Clearly both these people are unhinged. Yet they have life-and-death power over Mary and her daughter.

It’s exhilarating to have stories of early settlement told from a strong, unapologetic Aboriginal point of view that makes no attempt to humanise the invaders.

This is an unsettling book, not only because of its content. Very unsettling for me as a white, middle-class man who has worked for decades as a copy-editor, is a kind of knockabout quality to the text, something that I took at first to be poor proofreading but which is so pervasive that it has become a feature rather than a bug. In these sad times when publishing companies don’t generally have in-house copy-editors, it’s a rare book that has no typos, but this is at a whole other level.

There are moments, like this from page 110, that are impossible to visualise:

Mary sips the tea and smiles with her hands pressed between her thighs.

There are malapropisms – some Aboriginal people are to be punished for their ‘trepidations against settler families’. A tribe in the north-east of Sydney is called the ‘Awakabal’, twice, which is surely a misspelling of ‘Awabakal’. A character is described as Bungaree’s grand-daughter and on the same page as the sister of Bungaree’s son.

I don’t think these errors are deliberate, but whether they survive to the published text through lack of resource or failure of editorial attention they amount to a kind of nose-thumbing. I think of that Audre Lorde quote: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Benevolence uses the colonisers’ tool, the novel, to respond to a ‘wonderful book’ that has erased a people’s survival. There’s a kind of rough justice in that tool being treated with disrespect.


After the meeting: We met in person for the first time in months. At least seven of us were there in person – even making a little physical contact. An eighth had been about to leave his home when a friend and recent contact called to say she was feeling sick, so he did the ‘abundance of caution’ thing and joined us on a screen for as much as he could stand.

It was good to eat together. It was so good to be in a room with other bodies, where cross-currents of conversation were allowed to flow (though that was hard on the virtual participant). Somehow, I think, being physically together made it easier to talk about this book – about the roughness of much of the writing, and the shameful sense most of us shared of having light shone on our ignorance about the realities of colonisation.

Others were – of course – less disturbed than I had been by the typos etcetera. I had hoped someone might have seen Julie Janson’s plays at Belvoir Street, but no one had. Someone mentioned Kim Scott’s books, That Deadman Dance and Taboo (links to my blog posts) as covering similar territory, brilliantly. More than one of us had gone in search of historical information, and reminded us that Samuel Marsden, presumably the inspiration of the novel’s Reverend Masters, was on record as perpetrating some hideous atrocities. We generally acknowledged the heartbreaking difficulty of the task Julie Janson had taken on: to draw on scholarly historical works and stories passed down by generations of survivors, to imagine herself into the life of one person in those terrible times. The general sense was that, for all its flaws, we were glad to have read the book. The Chooser, who was absent because of a non-Covid infection, was thanked in his absence.

And of course, we shared our responses to whatever the President of the United States had done (it was last night and he’s said so much since then!), to the Premier of New South Wales’s self-inflicted damage, to some recondite celebrity gossip (did you know about Bug Beats, a children’s show on Netflix, that has permission to use a whole slew of Beatles songs), to the adventures of some of our offspring, etc. We took a moment to honour the achievement of Victorians in bringing the infection numbers down. The potatoes that our host had out in the oven some time before we all arrived were ready to eat soon after we all left. He sent us a photo on WhatsApp.


Benevolence is the 17th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jennifer Maiden, George and Clare, the Malachite and the DIamonds

Jennifer Maiden, Play With Knives Five: George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds: a novel in prose and verse (Quemar Press 2018)

George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first met in the 1980s when he was a probation officer in Western Sydney and she was a young woman nearing the end of her prison sentence for murdering three smaller children when she was nine years old. They have since featured in four novels before this one, and in more than 30 poems, going on to become lovers, work together for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience, and most recently have a baby together.*

In this book they set off to Russia to bring home the daughter of a friend who is in thrall to a murderous international operative. The young woman is an arms dealer in her own right, and it’s not at all clear that she wants to be rescued, although she knows her life is in danger.

The book has all the ingredients of a thriller: exotic locations, hacking, deep-state conspiracy, silicon-impregnated diamonds, helicopter rides, glamorous women, worldweary men, and an urgent sense of jeopardy both for the characters and for the whole world of the novel, which is recognisably ours, as conflict rages in Syria, Julian Assange is not yet extracted from the Ecuadorian embassy, and there are wars and the prospect of war from Russia, the Ukraine, the USA, China … There’s quite a bit of sexual tension and actual sex, lots of violence, and a satisfying twist at the end, with bonus explosion.

But if you picked the novel up expecting a straightforward political thriller, you’d be disconcerted. For a start, every second chapter is in verse – verse whose long lines and conversational rhythms may at first be mistaken for prose with unexpected turns of phrase and odd line breaks, but whose precision and visual qualities are anything but prosaic.

Then there are the characters. In their previous adventures, George and Clare have accumulated relationships. We rarely see them without their months-old baby Corbyn, and many of their scenes, even the most violent, are shared with some or all of their entourage: eight-year-old Florence whom they rescued from death in Paris, Florence’s mother Sophie, George’s hacker grandson Idris, a young Russian cop named Kirill and a Saudi agent, Samir. They frequently converse with Clare’s and Quentin’s mothers back in Mt Druitt, as well as a Darug woman, Ruth, behind whom lurks the shady but benign Lithgow Coven. A dog and a cat that were rescued from far-flung places in earlier books still need to be catered for. The memory of the children Clare killed is never far from her mind. Unsurprisingly, every now and then there is a roll call: ‘Present were Clare, Corbyn and I, Idris, Sophie, Florence and Ninel’ (page 30), ‘In a cafe near 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street, I was sitting with Idris, Sophie, Florence, Ninel, Kirill and a Saudi agent called Samir’ (page 106). This is not a tale of a solitary individual hero; none of the characters needs to be told that humans are social animals.

Nor is the book populated by strong, silent types. There’s constant chatter – political gossip, poetry recitals, reminiscences about adventures in previous books, snippets of interesting history, commentary on world affairs, cultural analysis, meditation on moral and ethical issues. Thrillers are often impregnated with right-wing ideology. Not the George and Clare books. I confess that reading the book three years after publication, I’m mystified by many of its contemporary references – but maybe I would have been at the time. George and Clare are extraordinarily well informed, and have inside knowledge of many points of global conflict, thanks in part to their membership of Prisoners of Conscience, and in part to their creator’s extraordinary insight into international politics.

I often feel the impulse to read the start of a novel when I’ve reached the last page. Here’s the start of George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds:

Clare was standing at the window in the saffron orchid, orange orchard light of the Mt Druitt December. She was in a smock-like translucent azure kaftan, and still a bit rounded by her recent pregnancy. She looked as innocent and preoccupied as a Vermeer wife, and was holding a letter to Silkie Roberts from Silkie’s daughter Quentin. This included a new photo of Schmidt and Quentin. Clare showed it to me. Schmidt was thinner since the recent stabbing-attack on him and was grasping Quentin’s shoulder with sharp, skinny, greedy fingers.

Does that make you want to read on? It did me. And it was a fun read.


* You can read my summary of George and Clare’s appearances up to 2016 here.


George and Clare, the Malachite and the Diamonds is the 16th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Proust Progress Report 14: de Charlus on the brink

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 5, La Prisonnière pages 1724–1816

Proust is everywhere. I stumbled across him twice this month – as well as in the three pages I read each morning.

Early in the month, the Emerging Artist and I went to an actual movie theatre to see the delightfully silly multilingual whodunnit The Translators / Les traducteurs. A slim hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu blazoned on its cover plays a key role and (spoiler alert) doesn’t emerge unscathed.

More recently, I attended a zoom event commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of poet Martin Johnston’s untimely death, the launch of a new edition of his poetry, Beautiful Objects. Lex Marinos spoke movingly about his friendship with Martin, and many poets read from Martin’s poetry. A recording has been uploaded (here’s a link). Proust popped up when Kate Lilley read ‘Room 23’, which includes these lines:

Proust, I suppose, once and for all defined
the intermittencies of heart and mind
whereby the gone becomes the never wanted.

It’s a view that the poem goes on to reject, but clearly Martin, whom I revere, felt he had to argue with Proust to write decent poetry about missing his beloved. (Maybe his summary of what Proust defined is correct. I know ‘gone’ is different from ‘absent’, but so far Marcel the narrator broods obsessively about his beloved when she is absent: sometimes it seems, he only wants her when she is gone. But intermittencies is a great word for the way Marcel the narrator’s intense, sustained focus switches constantly and without warning.)

Here’s a tiny bit I loved in this month’s reading:

Celui qui veut entretenir en soi le désir de continuer à vivre et la croyance en quelque chose de plus délicieux que les choses habituelles doit se promener.

(page 1730)

In English:

Anyone who wants to sustain in themselves the desire to go on living and a belief in something more delightful than habitual things, must go for a walk.

Given that Marcel the narrator devotes much time and attention to convoluted overthinking, this dollop of wisdom shines from the page. But, as so often in Proust, that sentence takes an unexpected turn. It goes on: car les rues, les avenues, sont pleines de Déesses / ‘for the streets, the avenues are full of goddesses.’ So perhaps, one thinks, his recommendation wasn’t exercise, fresh air and attention to the environment as a counter to morbid introspection, so much as surveying the field as a counter to morbid jealousy.

So, this month’s action: Marcel is still keeping Albertine his beloved under surveillance. He gets her to agree not to go to a performance at Mme Verdurin’s because he suspects that her Lesbian friends will be there and who knows what she’ll get up to with them? He goes to the performance himself and we are immersed in the complexities of the evening: sexual politics, class politics (the aristocracy are extraordinarily rude to their bourgeois hostess), the music itself (described brilliantly, at great length), the paradox that such sublime music is brought into being by people generally judged to be morally repugnant, and so on.

After the performance, a terrible thing happens. It hasn’t quite played out at the moment where I stopped reading this morning, so I’m living in suspense. M de Charlus, who invited his prestigious but rude friends to Mme Verdurin’s for the recital, spends some time chatting with her about how successful the evening had been, completely unaware that she has taken serious offence. From her point of view he has claimed for himself the prestige that by rights belongs to her as the hostess, and treated her as a lowly functionary. As soon as he moves away, she instructs Brichot, one of her ‘little clan’, to take de Charlus outside so her husband can have a word to the baron’s beautiful young violinist protégé Charlie Morel, to warn him of ‘the abyss that he is heading for’: that is, to unleash the full force of bourgeois anti-homosexual righteousness on the relationship.

Characteristically, the narrator accompanies de Charlus and Brichot and the next few pages are taken up with their conversation, about the rooms they enter, about Marcel’s preoccupation with the notorious Lesbians, about de Charlus’ huge enthusiasm for Charlie’s performance on the violin – and the reader is filled with dread about the vicious devastation being wrought on him back in the main room. I may be slow on the uptake, but it’s only now that I realise just how much Charlie is the emotional centre of the baron’s world, and what a devastating blow in store. Having up to this point seen de Charlus as creepy, conceited, arrogant, manipulative, and even grotesque, I now do a complete about turn. I’m putty in Proust’s hands.

Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies

Johka Alharthi, Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth (published in Arabic as Sayyidat al qamar 2010, translation Allen and Unwin 2019)

This book is quite a ride. The first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English, it’s Jokha Alharti’s second novel. According to the Translator’s Introduction, it’s one of ‘ a wave of historical novels that constitutes a major subgenre of fiction in the Arab world’, and ‘has been praised by critics across the Arab world for its fineness of portraiture, its historical depth and subtlety, and its innovative literary structure’.

It tells the story of a couple of intertwined Omani families in the village of al-Awafi over four generations, but its ‘innovative literary structure’, which is at first bamboozling and never becomes straightforward, means that the story isn’t told in anything remotely like a straight chronology. With some exceptions, alternate chapters are narrated by Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman: he drifts in and out of sleep and entertains trance-like memories while travelling on a plane, he ruminates on his complex, pain-filled relationship with his late father, on the state of his marriage and on his children’s life paths. Each of the other chapters focus on a different character: Abdallah’s wife, his daughter, his sisters-in-law, his father-in-law, the slave woman who raised him. With each of these characters, the novel moves off into different directions and to different times. Time collapses and the overwhelming sense is that everything is happening in an imagined present.

Yet the period covered by the narration sees huge social and political change. A recurring image of flimsy buildings being replaced by cement ones becomes emblematic of the changes. Slavery was legal in Oman until 1970, but one of the main characters is irritated or worse when her husband and then her son insist that she and they are no longer slaves – that’s how she thinks of herself and she has made it work for her, including establishing a sexual partnership with her ‘owner’. The situation of women in general is in a state of flux: three sisters negotiate different outcomes in relation to the outgoing custom of arranged marriages; each of them faces down the patriarchy in her own way, though patriarchy stays intact.

The modernity of lab coats, plane trips and celebrity culture jostles with elaborate cursing rituals, offerings to placate djinns, and (no spoiler really) what turns out to be a covert honour killing. Classic Arabic literature has a strong presence – my impression is it wouldn’t be realistic if the characters didn’t recite poetry every now and then, and indeed they do. There’s more than one unsolved murder, although – after some teasing – the reader is left in little doubt about the perpetrators. There are some deeply satisfying twists for better and worse in the many complex marriages and relationships. Especially towards the end, tragedies that have been passed over or heard about at third hand are seen in close-up.

Marilyn Booth’s English is elegant and accessible, and leaves enough Arabic words in place that the reader is always aware that this is a place and a culture he (in my case) knows next to nothing about. There’s a map of the characters at the front, which I needed to consult often.

Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (you can read how the judges described it at that link), which is how it came to be on offer at our Book-swapping Club. I’m glad to have read it.

Proust Progress Report 13: La Prisonnière continue

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 5, La Prisonnière pages 1630–1723

This is my thirteenth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu: 1723 pages read and 677 to go! I’m bearing up much better than my copy of the book, as seen on the left. I mostly read my three pages in bed in the morning, so the damage has been caused by ordinary wear and tear, not by any gross mistreatment.

A lot happens in this month’s reading. Here are some highlights, not necessarily in order. The violinist Morel continues to be an opportunistic scoundrel. Marcel (as the narrator has now been named, twice) listens to the sounds of the street in the early morning (those are lovely pages). He contemplates sending a dairymaid on an errand but changes his mind. He watches Albertine as she sleeps, and creepily drapes her unconscious arm around his neck. He watches her wake up. He takes us through his own process of waking up from a dream. He ruminates on the relationship between love, obsession (not his word) and jealousy. He talks Albertine out of going somewhere where he fears she might meet other Lesbians, and then realises that he has let her go to a performance by a notorious Lesbian. He plays the piano. He opens Albertine’s chemise and looks at her naked body:

Les deux petits seins haut remontés étaient si ronds qu’ils avaient moins l’air de faire partie intégrante de son corps que d’y avoir mûri comme deux fruits ; et son ventre (dissimulant la place qui chez l’homme s’enlaidit comme du crampon resté fiché dans une statue descellée) se refermait, à la jonction des cuisses, par deux valves d’une courbe aussi assoupie, aussi reposante, aussi claustrale que celle de l’horizon quand le soleil a disparu.

(Page 1661)

This is about as erotic as La recherche gets. But wait, I asked, wasn’t Proust Gay, or at least bisexual? What weirdness is this about men’s bodies? I looked up Scott Moncrieff’s translation. And there it is:

Her two little upstanding breasts were so round that they seemed not so much to be an integral part of her body as to have ripened there like two pieces of fruit; and her belly (concealing the place where a man’s is marred as though by an iron clamp left sticking in a statue that has been taken down from its niche) was closed, at the junction of her thighs, by two valves of a curve as hushed, as reposeful, as cloistral as that of the horizon after the sun has set.

This translation even softens the meaning a bit – I would have thought s’enlaidit was ‘becomes ugly’ rather than ‘is marred’.

Increasingly I understand why, at the end of fifteen years, when Clive James had finished reading this work in French, he needed to read an English translation so he’d know what he’d read.

The Book Group and Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (Viking 2006)

When the Book Group met by zoom on 28 July, I had been away from home for a week or so, and my copy of the book had arrived after I left and was sitting in my mail box for five days, attracting the attention of snails. I had managed to read just five pages of a friend’s copy by the time we all logged in. I’m usually one of the swats who has read the whole book, so it was an interesting experience to come to the discussion in almost total ignorance.

At the meeting: We didn’t spend a lot of time catching up on one another’s lives, and spent no time at all eating and drinking. Once we’d managed to get ten of us on the screen (the sole absentee said he was too immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light to think about any other book), this book held our attention for pretty much the whole two hours.

Let’s see.

One chap said he found the book unreadable. He kept going back to his large-print library copy with good intentions and then falling asleep: he could tell that the young protagonist was enduring terrible things but just couldn’t feel anything for him or for any of the characters. When he said he gave up at about page 116, another chap said, ‘Ah well, I felt pretty much the same until page 108 and then it just took off.’ He then gave a spirited account of the book as a study in bad parenting: the protagonist, a young boy in Gaddafi’s Libya, feels a huge obligation to look after his mother, and for a child to feel that way his parents must have failed in their responsibilities. In this case, the mother was an alcoholic (in Muslim-dominant Libya!) and the father was some kind of half-baked revolutionary who went and got himself arrested and beaten up.

And we were off.

You can’t blame the parents when the society under Gaddafi was so dire. The book is a study in how an oppressive regime infiltrates and corrupts people’s minds and relationships, including those of parents and children. A good bit of the discussion was about how the boy exploits moments when he has the power to do harm, betraying in one example the only friend he has outside his family.

Someone who had read Hisham Matar’s The Return (which I also have – blog post at this link) spoke interestingly about the relationship between that memoir and this novel: the memoir deals with Matar’s permanent loss of his father by abduction when he was 19, and his attempt over years to find out what happened to him; the novel, written years earlier, returns the father, even though damaged, to a much younger son after just a few weeks, as if Matar wrote the novel to to explore what might have happened in his own life if things had gone differently.

After the meeting: I’d expected to sit in on the meeting, enjoy making contact, hear people’s news, laugh at their jokes, and then move on. I didn’t get much news, except that the window for commenting on the egregious plans for misspending billions of dollars on the Australian War Memorial was to close on 31 July, but the rest was as expected, except for the moving on: I decided that I had to read the book after all.

Life and other books got in the way but now at last I’ve read it, and even though the Group’s discussion had been full of spoilers, I was unprepared for the book’s the impact. It’s a tremendously powerful portrait of a woman’s experience of a virulent form of male domination, as seen through the eyes of her nine-year-old son Suleiman, who is in the process of being ‘trained’ to be such a man. True, she’s a terrible mother in many ways – but we discover that she was in effect trafficked by her family when she was fourteen years old, and got pregnant soon after as a result of marital rape, all socially condoned. Your heart breaks for the mother, the son and the father, all three.

Almost equally powerful is the account of what happened to dissidents under the Gaddafi regime, including Suleiman’s father and his friends. Confessions and executions are shown in television, and Hisham Matar doesn’t let us look away from the hideous emotional and physical detail. The nine year old sees and hears everything. He knows when he is being lied to, but understands very little of the politics. There’s a terrifying moment when he is about to give damning evidence of his father’s anti-Gaddafi activities to a manipulative member of the goon squad, oops, I mean the Revolutionary Committee, which creates a visceral sense of the deeply corrupting effects the regime has on even the most intimate relationships.

At a Sydney Writers Festival a couple of month’s after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Hisham Matar was on a panel entitled ‘Resist!’ with three US women writers. Referring his childhood years living under the Gaddafi regime, he said it was important to honour complexity, otherwise those who resist allow themselves to be defined by that which they are resisting. That could sound like a counsel of moderation. Among other things, this novel demonstrates that you can honour complexity, hate injustice with a passion, and write beautiful prose, all in the same book.

Proust Progress Report 12: Beginning La Prisonnière

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): the last pages of Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe, and the beginning of Book 5, La Prisonnière

This is my twelfth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu. That means I’ve been at it for a whole year – and no end in sight.

Towards the end of Sodome et Gomorrhe, the narrator was about to dump Albertine because she was boring and no longer attractive. Then she told him something about herself that made him conclude she was Lesbian, and he immediately pivoted to decide to marry her. Now, in the early pages of the fifth book, La prisonnière / The Captive, she is living with him in his family home in Paris (in separate but adjacent rooms, with a stern rule that she is not to interrupt his privacy unbidden), and he is obsessively keeping tabs on her, in case she even exchanges glances with ‘the kind of woman I don’t like’.

Thanks to the Emerging Artist, I’ve currently had extracts from Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do read aloud to me. That book’s descriptions of coercive control could have the narrator’s relationship to Albertine in mind. À la recherche is looking less and less like a beautiful exploration of a luminous inner life, and more like something much uglier.

I had a 16-day holiday from Proust this month – we were away and À la recherche du temps perdu was too bulky to take along. But it does seem that once you’ve embarked on this book, it crops up regularly. Apart from the Jess Hill book, there was this from the Observer‘s Everyman Crossword Nº 3852 (link here):

Get rid of creative Frenchman! Get rid of Pierre Renoir for starters! (4)

More to the point, a friend told me about Anne Carson’s brilliant (and very funny) poem The Albertine Workout. The poem relates mainly to La Prisonnière, and it makes me expect that my repugnance at some of the narrator’s behaviour is only going to increase as I read on. His current imprisonment of Albertine, it seems, intensifies and keeps up for this whole 300+ pages.

But I am reading on, still in awe of Proust’s extraordinary sentences. Take this, which I read this morning:

Les brimborions de la parure causaient à Albertine de grands plaisirs. Je ne savais pas me refuser de lui en faire chaque jour un nouveau. Et chaque fois qu’elle m’avait parlé avec ravissement d’une écharpe, d’une étole, d’une ombrelle, que par la fenêtre, ou en passant dans la cour, de ses yeux qui distinguaient si vite tout ce qui se rapportait à l’élégance, elle avait vues au cou, sur les épaules, à la main de Mme de Guermantes, sachant que le goût naturellement difficile de la jeune fille (encore affiné par les leçons d’élégance que lui avait été la conversation d’Elstir) ne serait nullement satisfait par quelque simple à peu près, même d’une jolie chose, qui la remplace aux yeux du vulgaire, mais en diffère entièrement, j’allais en secret me faire expliquer par la duchesse où, comment, sur quel modèle, avait été confectionné ce qui avait plu à Albertine, comment je devais procéder pour obtenir exactement cela, en quoi consistait le secret du faiseur, le charme (ce qu’Albertine appelait « le chic », « le genre ») de sa manière, le nom précis – la beauté de la matière ayant son importance – et la qualité des étoffes dont je devais demander qu’on se servît.

You can read C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation below*, but I find that reading a translation is no substitute for untangling the flow of Proust’s sentences for myself. Here, after two simple sentences, the rest is just one complex sentence. Here’s the skeleton of that third sentence:

And every time she had spoken to me of something she’d seen the duchess wearing, knowing that she would accept no imitations, I would go and have the duchess tell me everything about the thing that had pleased Albertine, and how I could obtain the exact same thing.

That skeleton, to mix my metaphors, sends out sparks in many directions. There’s the wonderful word brimborions to start with. I had to look up a couple of dictionaries, but it almost doesn’t matter what brimborions de la parure means, it sounds so great. I’d translate it as ‘fripperies’ rather than Moncrieff’s more respectful ‘any sort of finery’, though I’m sure he had his reasons. There are lists – of bimborions, the parts of the body they adorn, the kinds of information needed to replicate the object of desire. There are parentheses – one to remind the reader of Albertine’s history from two books earlier, one to say how her vocabulary differs from the narrator’s, probably in ways that identify her as young and fashionable. There’s a hint of Proust’s abiding theme of snobisme, in a phrase distinguishing Albertine and himself from the vulgaire – hard to beat Moncrieff’s ‘the common herd’. And it doesn’t have one of Proust’s brilliant similes, where in the middle of a description of a frivolous dinner party, one finds oneself thinking of classical art, or contemporary medical science, or power politics.

I don’t know how a fluent French reader would go, but I enjoy the concentration it takes to keep track of all that.

A similar thing happens on a larger scale. For instance, that paragraph is itself something of a detour from the main flow of the narrative, or perhaps a return from a detour, it’s sometimes hard to tell. The narrator has been enjoying the glorious freedom of an Albertine-free day while she is out with one of his spies, and as the day come to an end he goes to ask Mme Guermantes for some choses de toilette for her. He then digresses for some narky comments on Mme Guermantes’ pretensions to poverty and reflections on the way he always sees her as bearing the invisible trappings of her aristocratic status. Then, after commenting that it’s as miraculous that he should speak to this etherial beauty about practical matters as it is that we should use a miraculous device like a telephone to order an ice cream, he switches to talk of brimborions and we are back with the story. Reading three pages a day, I’m pretty pleased with myself that I can keep track even as well as I do.


* Albertine delighted in any sort of finery. I could not deny myself the pleasure of giving her some new trifle every day. And whenever she had spoken to me with rapture of a scarf, a stole, a sunshade which, from the window or as they passed one another in the courtyard, her eyes that so quickly distinguished anything smart, had seen round the throat, over the shoulders, in the hand of Mme de Guermantes, knowing how the girl’s naturally fastidious taste (refined still further by the lessons in elegance of attire which Elstir’s conversation had been to her) would not be at all satisfied by any mere substitute, even of a pretty thing, such as fills its place in the eyes of the common herd, but differs from it entirely, I went in secret to make the Duchess explain to me where, how, from what model the article had been created that had taken Albertine’s fancy, how I should set about to obtain one exactly similar, in what the creator’s secret, the charm (what Albertine called the ‘chic‘ the ‘style’) of his manner, the precise name – the beauty of the material being of importance also – and quality of the stuffs that I was to insist upon their using.

William Gibson’s Agency

William Gibson, Agency (Viking 2020)

It’s more than a decade since I’ve read any William Gibson. Picking him up again has been a joy.

The book starts in San Francisco, in roughly our time. Verity Jane, our hero, has just come out of a period of hiding away from the tabloids after breaking up with a celebrity tech billionaire, and has got a job testing a cool new device. The device consists of a headset and glasses: when she puts them on, she is immediately in contact with an entity who identifies herself as Eunice, who sees through the glasses, has a great line of patter and a vast store of knowledge whose origin she herself doesn’t know. Eunice is pretty bossy. She shields her conversations with Verity from the surveillance of the company that owns her, amasses a fortune by playing on the internet, and has soon organised a network of agents who know her only as Verity’s PA. As the story develops we realise that this is a world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, and Brexit didn’t happen, but things aren’t all roses: there’s a threat of imminent nuclear war over an incident in Turkey. Eunice is a miraculous new form of AI who may be on track to prevent the nuclear disaster.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, a group of characters in a weird, technologically advanced future (implanted phones, invisible flying driverless cars, animated tattoos, and un-described things with names like stub, peri, controller) go about their lives looking after babies and getting by in a society dominated by a group called the klept, with ‘the pandemics’ and ‘the jackpot’ mentioned as major past events. These characters are taking a godlike interest in Verity and Eunice.

That’s the set-up. It’s all told with an infectious delight in detailed invention,

Paragraph by paragraph, it’s witty, surprising, and inventive. The stakes are high, the humour is sly. The unexplained technologies and relationships are tantalising. As far as I was concerned nothing could go wrong.

And, though for great slabs there was a lot of colour and movement that didn’t amount to much, and some bits were complete nonsense, I loved every moment.

I was enthralled by Gibson’s first three books of dazzling and often incomprehensible science fiction, the Sprawl trilogy – Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). I was less thrilled by the Bridge trilogy, which came next – Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). I read the first two books of the Blue Ant trilogy – Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), and didn’t bother with Zero History (2010). These six books are also science fiction, but set in a time and on a planet very like ours with technology not that different from ours, with a lot of virtual reality, location-based art and social media.

It turns out that Agency, a birthday present from a friend, is the sequel to Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral. If I’d read that book, the not completely unpleasant disorientation I felt in the first half of this one might have been mitigated, though – this being William Gibson – maybe not. I’m attached to these characters and to these (spoiler alert) bifurcating time lines. The Peripheral and whatever comes next are now on my to-be-read list.

Proust Progress Report 11: Luminous something of the inner life

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe, to near the end of Chapitre III

As I emerge from my eleventh month reading À la recherche, references to Proust crop up regularly, from crossword clues to conversations in bookshops. (Yay! Bookshops are here again, at least for now.) This month, in a podcast from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival, someone spoke of ‘the luminous beauty of the inner life that Proust expresses so well’. Even though I have no desire to be in a Proust discussion group, I’m glad to have at least that much discussion: a throwaway line to bounce off. The novelist who said it has clearly read a different À la recherche from the one I think I’m reading.

I may wrong, as I’m mostly skipping words I don’t know, but my Proust is a meticulous, and longwinded, dissector of social behaviour, who pays minute attention to the workings of memory and the idiosyncrasies of language. He sometimes gets luminous when describing plants, young women, paintings or sunsets, but it’s the politics of the inner life rather than its beauty that exercises him.

I feel as if I’m finally getting the hang of the book. The narrator is remembering temps perdu, which means both ‘forgotten time’ and ‘wasted time’. In the first book, Proust makes a distinction between two kinds of memory: those that make up the narratives we tell about ourselves and the spontaneous, unbidden memories that are apparently trivial, but carry an emotional charge. When the narrator goes on in excruciating detail about dinner party conversation, he’s capturing a flood of detailed memories without sifting for significance. In the middle of a dramatic story he tells us that the lift operator coughed on him – and the reader has no way of knowing if this will turn out to be a key plot point or an aside that goes nowhere. Certainly things that I thought were passing observations in the earlier books turn out to have been laying the grounds for incidents in this one – someone makes a joke about an absent person’s name in Du côté de chez Swann, and that person turns up in Sodome et Gomorrhe, to have the joke repeated in a different, more explicit form; Albertine has taken three books to emerge as a significant character; and so on.

In Sodome et Gomorrhe, the baron de Charlus, develops from being a creepy minor character to the focus for Proust’s extended meditations on the nature of homosexuality, to a focus for biting observations about bourgeois titillation, to a pathetic, almost tragic sufferer from unrequited love. The other development in what I take to be the through line of the narrative is the narrator’s developing relationship with Albertine (which I gather is based on Proust’s relationship IRL with his male chauffeur, Alfred). It’s getting ugly: the narrator claims not to love her, but in effect to be in lust with her, and is intensely jealous, doing all he can to stop her from being out of his sight for even a moment with other men or women (he suspects she is lesbian). It’s deeply unpleasant, and I hope to be reading Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do in tandem with later books in the sequence.

The last page I read (page 1583) is a good example of much of the above: a social interaction observed at close quarters, then analysed for its broader significance. It’s part of a long section in which the narrator and Albertine are travelling regularly on the local train at Balbec, the place on the coast where they and many Parisians spend their summer. Among the many encounters that take place on these trips he and Albertine are chatting with the aristocratic Saint-Loup, a matter for some anxiety since Albertine has previously commented (innocently?) on Saint-Loup attractiveness, when the narrator’s old friend Bloch turns up and asks him to come chat to Bloch senior, who is waiting in a carriage nearby. The narrator’s absurd jealousy makes him unwilling to leave Albertine and Saint-Loup alone even for a couple of minutes, and he refuses. Bloch assumes that he does so because of snobbery – Saint-Loup is an aristocrat, while Bloch is not only bourgeois but a Jew. The narrator doesn’t clear up the misunderstanding because the truth is too humiliating. Bloch takes grave offence and that is the end of their friendship. There follows almost a page of reflections, teasing out the detailed politics of the incident. Here’s a taste:

Et d’ailleurs même sans expliquer à Bloch, puisque je ne le pouvais pas, la raison pour laquelle je ne l’avais pas accompagné, si je l’avais prié de ne pas être froissé je n’aurais fait que redoubler ce froissement en montrant que je m’en étais aperçu. Il n’y avait rien à faire qu’à s’incliner devant ce fatum qui avait voulu que la présence d’Albertine m’empêchât de le reconduire et qu’il pût croire que c’était au contraire celle de gens brillants, laquelle, l’eussent-ils été cent fois plus, n’aurait eu pour effet que de me faire occuper exclusivement de Bloch et réserver pour lui toute ma politesse. Il suffit de la sorte qu’accidentellement, absurdement, un incident (ici la mise en présence d’Albertine et de Saint-Loup) s’interpose entre deux destinées dont les lignes convergeaient l’une vers l’autre pour qu’elles soient déviées, s’écartent de plus en plus et ne se rapprochent jamais. Et il y a des amitiés plus belles que celle de Bloch pour moi, qui se sont trouvées détruites, sans que l’auteur involontaire de la brouille ait jamais pu expliquer au brouillé ce qui sans doute eût guéri son amour-propre et ramené sa sympathie fuyante.

In English, mainly from Moncrieff’s translation, of which incidentally I am now completely in awe, given the complex way Proust plays with the French language – though not so much in this bit:

Besides, even without my explaining to Bloch, since I could not, my reason for not going with him, if I had begged him not to be angry with me, I should only have increased his anger by shewing him that I had observed it. There was nothing to be done but to bow before the decree of fate which had willed that Albertine’s presence should prevent me from accompanying him, and that he should suppose that it was on the contrary the presence of people of distinction, the only effect of which, had they been a hundred times more distinguished, would have been to make me devote my attention exclusively to Bloch and reserve all my civility for him. It is sufficient that accidentally, absurdly, an incident (in this case the presence together of Albertine and Saint-Loup) be interposed between two destinies whose lines were converging towards one another, for them to be separated, to stretch farther and farther apart, and never come close again. And there are friendships more precious than Bloch’s was to me which have been destroyed without the unintentional author of the offence having any opportunity to explain to the offended party what would no doubt have healed the injury to his self-esteem and called back his fugitive affection.

For my first several months with Proust, I read this sort of thing as comedy. I suppose I still do, but I used to find it ridiculously obsessive, whereas now I read it almost as if Proust is looking at our species, himself included, under a completely unsentimental magnifying glass, and capturing a terrible pathos in the process.

Another week and I’ll have finished Sodome et Gomorrhe, and be on to Volume 5, La Prisonnière, which I’m told a world expert on Proust has described as the one volume of the novel that a time-pressed reader may safely and entirely skip. Wish me luck.