Tag Archives: Novel

Middlemarch: Progress report 3

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 28 to partway through chapter 35

Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.

This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. In Claire Potter’s book Acanthus there’s a short poem ‘Middlemarch in the Kitchen’. I don’t think the poem says anything about Middlemarch specifically – it just happens to be the book the poet is reading in the lighted kitchen, instead of the grass and the trees’. But it’s a little sign that Middlemarch is everywhere.

I have been away fro home since the last week of December, and I didn’t bring my borrowed copy of Middlemarch away with me, as it would have risked damage to this beautiful object.

The parts I did read since my last progress report told mainly of the death of Peter Featherstone and the general disappointment generated by his will. In the younger generation, Lydgate has proposed to Rosamond, not without a degree of manipulation on her part; Fred has not benefited from his uncle’s death and so all hope of marriage to Mary seems lost; Dorothea is unhappily resigned to a life of misery with Mr Casaubon, but Will is back in town. Intrigue and hypocrisy continue to be the order of the day among their elders. George Eliot’s pleasure in her creations continues to shine in every sentence.

Here’s something from the last page I read before packing for Victoria. Mrs Bulstrode, has raised the subject of her niece Rosamond’s betrothal to Lydgate – having a vague sense that this inappropriate match is partly due to her ostentatiously pious husband having given Lydgate a boost in the town’s social life:

‘I am sure we are bound to pray for that thoughtless girl – brought up as she has been,’ said Mrs Bulstrode, wishing to rouse her husband’s feelings.
‘Truly, my dear,’ said Mr Bulstrode, assentingly. ‘Those who are not of this world can do little else to arrest the errors of the obstinately worldly. That is what we must accustom ourselves to recognise with regard to your brother’s family. I could have wished that Mr Lydgate had not entered into such a union; but my relations with him are limited to that use of his gifts for God’s purposes which is taught us by the divine government under each dispensation.’
Mrs Bulstrode said no more, attributing some dissatisfaction which she felt to her own want of spirituality. She believed that her husband was one of those men whose memoirs should be written when they died.

(page 397)

‘Those who are not of this world,’ he says, meaning himself, who is of course one of the wealthiest men in town and much given to power games. And we know that ‘the use of his gifts for God’s purposes’ refers to Bulstrode’s having installed Lydgate as the only chaplain in the new hospital, thereby excluding any clergyman who might be critical of Bulstrode, The reader wants to give him a good shaking.

Maybe George Eliot’s irony is a little heavy, but I just love that ‘assentingly’: Bulstrode doesn’t have to disagree with his wife in order to reject outright her implied request for an intervention. Mrs Bulstrode’s backing off is one of GE’s myriad examples what we now call internalised sexism – but in case you’re inclined to think her belief, all evidence to the contrary, in her husband’s spiritual superiority is a mere comic invention, I remind you that just this morning former Australian Prime Minister was quoted as describing the recently deceased George Pell as ‘a saint of our time’.

Jessica Au’s cold enough for snow

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow (Giramondo 2022)

Cold Enough for Snow won the inaugural Novel Prize in 2020. It’s very short, hardly more than a novella. In it, the narrator, a young woman I guess to be in her late 20s, takes her mother on a holiday to Japan. The two women have lived in different cities for some time and this is a kind of reunion. The recount of their holiday is interspersed with the young woman’s memories of family stories, her transformative university experience, an episode from her sister’s life, and a little about a former boyfriend and her husband. No big stormy scenes, no tears or even really any laughter. The biggest drama of the holiday occurs when the mother believes she has lost her passport then finds it in a zipped compartment of her bag.

Yet it’s hard to put the book down.

What is not said looms large. The narrator tells us early in the book that she invited her mother to come on the trip ‘for reasons [she] could not yet name’. She never does name them, but the question has been raised for the reader.

For most of the book the narrator is insufferably patronising to her mother, making all the decisions, telling her what to do, giving her brief lectures about the art they see, generally explaining the world to her, and – on the occasions when her mother does speak – barely managing to be respectful.

We come to understand that this is a migrant story – the mother came to Australia from Hong Kong and she and her husband made great sacrifices so their daughters could have every advantage. In their turn, the daughters grow up in a different culture, unable to speak their parents’ language, relating to them in mutual incomprehension. In my reading, the narrator is lost between two worlds, having been overwhelmed by the attractions of western culture but not quite at home there. Her mother becomes an enigmatic emblem of the culture she has lost: mostly silent, patient, largely unreadable.

None of this is spelled out. It’s conveyed by something unsettling going on beneath the flat, unemotional surface of the writing. There’s no direct speech. Most characters and most places are unnamed. We are often given details but not the general picture or the way the details connect: it’s as if the narrator is a visitor to the world, interested but largely uncomprehending. It’s a book that cries out for some close reading.

Page 75 is a good example of what I mean. The narrator is remembering a visit to the father of her husband, Laurie (Laurie is one of the few named characters):

Laurie had taken a photo of me standing next to the bright yellow car in a field of green sugarcane. As we drove he pointed out his old high school, the house of a childhood friend, the beaten track where he’d trained and competed as a kid. We stopped at a large lake, which seemed to be an almost perfect circle. Laurie explained that the lake had been formed by a crater, and that no one knew how deep it really was. He’d swum across it many times as a teenager, and once, he and his first girlfriend had borrowed a friend’s canoe and taken a tent and camped at the other side.

(Page 75)

This seems straightforward, but there’s a hint of the uncanny valley about it. As the first sentence focuses on the colours of the photograph (a product, perhaps of the narrator’s studies of visual art), you hardly notice that it places the car in a canefield – the reader almost automatically adjusts the image to place the car on the roadside next to the canefield, but the discrepancy has a subliminal effect. Then there’s the lack of names or sense of place. An Australian reader will know they are in North Queensland, probably driving from Cairns airport through sugarcane country, then up the steep climb to the Atherton Tableland, and stopping at Lake Barrine (or possibly Lake Eacham). Stripping out the names could be a matter of avoiding the colonisers’ language, an oblique acknowledgement of Indigenous ownership. In the immediate context, though, it seems to stem from the narrator’s lack of engagement with the world beyond her immediate relationship. She sees only what Laurie draws to her attention.

Once arrived at their destination, there’s this:

Even though he had not lived there for many years, Laurie moved around with a deep sense of familiarity, the kind that could only come from childhood. He went freely from room to room, picking up objects like he owned them, knowing all the paintings on the walls and where everything was kept. In the spare room, he found a shoebox full of old photos, and showed me one of his fifth birthday party, all the boys dressed up as pirates, hanging off a wooden ship his father had built for them, and that had stayed in the garden for many years.

There is very little description of the rooms or the objects that Laurie picks up. It’s as if the narrator isn’t at home enough in the world to name them, or even perhaps see them. By contrast, Laurie has a place, a piece of country, a house, that are full of memories. Even though he now lives in the unnamed city that has a university and trams, he still has this deeply familiar childhood place, a rootedness – exactly what the narrator lacks. Even after years away from his father, there’s a sense of continuity in the relationship. On the following pages it turns out that the father is an artist and can talk to the narrator about art in a way that her mother simply cannot (though once again we are told nothing of the conversation’s content.

This passage appears toward the end of the book. I chose it because of my arbitrary policy of picking page 75 for a little close reading when I blog about books, but also because I’m a North Queenslander. What’s true of the descriptions here is also true of places in Japan, and in Glebe in Sydney (I think). Jessica Au has given us a tremendously subtle portrait of a second-generation immigrant trying to find her bearings, and perhaps – depending how you read the book’s final moment, which I won’t spoil here – succeeding.

I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Cold Enough for Snow.

Middlemarch: Progress report 2

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 15 to most of chapter 28

Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.

When reading Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness, I kept feeling a Middlemarchian tone: the narrators in both books tell of events that happened in a remote village in living memory but feel as if they are from a different era. Williams’s narrator has a name and a story of his own. We are left to imagine who George Eliot’s narrator might be, though there’s definitely a person there, who is full of opinions, occasionally mentions conversations with her friend, and – if we assume she is a mature woman as Eliot was known to be when the book appeared – has bitter experience of male domination. Both narrators identify themselves as sophisticated and modern, she in metropolitan England, and he in the USA.

This month the intrigues continue among the older and younger generations, the former to do with control of the town’s institutions and the latter to do with affairs of the heart. Dorothea is married to Casaubon but troublingly finds his young cousin Will Ladislaw a more interesting companion in Rome. Rosamond is closing in on Lydgate as a prospective husband. And Fred, the profligate young man, discovers that his failure to keep promises not only harms his reputation but also harms other people.

This morning, the Rosamond–Lydgate story is approaching a defining moment. They have been thrown together when Lydgate comes to attend Rosamond’s brother Fred who has been struck down by typhus. Actually, not quite thrown together: Rosamond has declined to take the recommended course of leaving their house until the danger of infection was past, ostensibly so that she can help her mother tend to Fred, but really so she can see more of Lydgate. After some vividly evoked moments when they become embarrassed at meeting each other’s eyes, they settle into openness and ease with each other. He begins to play at flirting with her, seeing no harm in such a little pleasure. She – admitting it to no one – has visions of marrying him and escaping the suffocating backwater of Middlemarch. After much intricate tracking of the mental processes of each of them, and a scene where Lydgate sees off a chinless young man who he doesn’t even realise is a rival for Rosamond’s affections, today’s read finished with this terrific paragraph, which sums up the state of play, foreshadows the outcome, and ends with a gloriously deflating image:

To Rosamond it seemed as if she and Lydgate were as good as engaged. That they were some time to be engaged had long been an idea in her mind, and ideas, we know, tend to a more solid kind of existence, the necessary materials being at hand. It is true, Lydgate had the counter-idea of remaining unengaged; but this was a mere negative, a shadow cast by other resolves which themselves were capable of shrinking. Circumstance was almost sure to be on the side of Rosamond’s idea, which had a shaping activity and looked through watchful blue eyes, whereas Lydgate’s lay blind and unconcerned as a jelly-fish which gets melted without knowing it.

(pages 312–313)

This is Happiness, Niall Williams and the Book Group

Niall Williams, This Is Happiness (Bloomsbury 2019)

Before the meeting: When we discussed Niall Williams’s History of the Rain in October, a number of people had also read his next book, This Is Happiness. December’s chooser, impressed by their enthusiasm, decided we should all read it.

The book’s first sentence, ‘It had stopped raining’, which sits on a page by itself, is pretty much identical with the final sentence of the earlier book, and the tiny, backward village of Faha in West Ireland is again the setting, but the bulk of the narrative takes place in an earlier period, and there is no obvious reference to the characters or events of History of the Rain. It’s the story of the coming of electricity to the village; a coming of age story of young Noe, who has taken leave of the seminary and is telling the story as an old man in the USA; and a big romantic story of love lost and found by Christy, an older man who befriend Noe.

Page 75* must be one of the book’s few pages that doesn’t mention the absence of rain. It happens in the thick of one of the book’s comic set pieces. It’s not the set piece when the lights go down and the cinema comes alive with amorous grapplings, or the one where Noe goes to the communion rail at Sunday Mass in order to get a good look at the woman Christy left at the altar, or the spectacular one where he is knocked unconscious by a falling electricity pole. On page 75 Noe and Christy are on the first of a number of epic pub crawls.

These pub crawls are as much about music as about alcohol, music performed by men who are shy and nondescript until they start playing, and then are brilliant conduits of a great folk tradition. On this first adventure, when the evening is well under way, Christy startles Noe and everyone else in Craven’s pub by starting to sing:

Not only was Christy singing, he was singing with screwed-up eyes and fists by his side a ballad about love. He was singing it full-throated and full-hearted and before he had reached the second verse it was clear even to Roo the dog that a passionate truth was present in that place. It wasn’t only that this didn’t happen in Craven’s, it was that there was something raw in it, something deeply felt, that was, even to those who had descended blinking into the umbrae and penumbrae of numberless bottles of stout, immediately apparent and made those who first looked now look away.

(page 73)

Christy has come to Faha as a worker in the great electricity project. This episode is our first inkling of his profoundly romantic reason for signing up for the work. Not so obviously, it prepares us for the major role music is to play in Noe’s story. Page 75 itself is a beautiful piece of misdirection. After Christy has sung, Noe writes:

I did the only thing I could do. I went to the counter and got two bottles of stout.

Those bottles are followed by another two, and then another. Greavy the guard arrives and declares that it’s Closing Time (as Noe says, this is one more way in which Faha lags behind the times), but the two of them are incapable of moving. Alcohol-based humour usually leaves me cold, but Niall Williams’s version made me laugh out loud. I suppose the whole book could be read as an extended Irish joke: the villagers have an almost superstitious awe of the one telephone in town, and the coming of electricity has almost cosmic significance for them. If you read the whole book like that, the stereotypical Irish drunkenness in this passage is representative (including the sly invocation of Waiting for Godot):

Getting up proved aspirational. There was the idea of it, quite clear. Unmistakably clear now. There were hands placed on knees for push-off. There was a Right now. There was another when that failed to produce action. A Right so following. And still nothing. Between thought and verb a vacancy, not intended, but not grievous, just gently perplexed, and in that perplex the realisation that Craven’s was not in fact such a bad place at all, was downright comfortable in fact, in fact there were few places on this earth as agreeable. True? Too true. A person could stay here, could stay right here and be quite happy now, quite, for a very long time. What’s your rush? There’s no rush. All the problems of the world could be settled right here.
Will we go so?

I don’t want to minimise the book’s humour. Far from it. But there’s a seriousness to it that page 75 gives no clue of. Christy’s romance is genuinely touching. The villagers’ resistance to the coming of electricity is more than comic: and these villagers are described as custodians of their land, defending an ancient culture under siege by capitalism – without being at all heavy handed, the narrative reminds us that the Irish were the first people to be colonised by the English. The dramatic decline in the Catholic Church’s power since the 1950s is deftly evoked both in Noe’s commentary and in his own story: his turning away from his priestly vocation is a tiny reflection of the ending of Church-domination in Ireland at large.

After the meeting: There were seven of us. Covid–19 and other coronaviruses kept some away, while one or two had better things to do – and one sent video of spectacular drone art over Sydney Harbour.

This was our end-of-year meeting so we had other business besides the book, but it generated quite a bit of discussion. The discussion was unusual in that quite a few of us read out favourite passages. Indeed, two of the absentees sent lists of quotes – it’s that kind of book. One interesting insight was that the narrative as we receive it is created by an old man looking back on a key moment in his youth, making a story out of it, and casting a benevolent glow over the community in which that moment happened.

Other business, besides of course the plentiful food including a splendid pavlova, included a Kris–Kringle book exchange with the usual mixture of cautious delight and polite almost-hidden dismay, and a poetry reading. We were each supposed to bring a poem, and most did, even one of the absentees.

Poems were a nonsense poem by CJ Dennis (‘Triantiwontigongolope’), a poem about climate change (that was me – Kit Kelen’s ‘Parable’), a Thomas Hardy (‘Heredity’), a Robert Frost (‘A Time to Talk’), a poem from Claudia Rankine’s Just Us (‘sound and fury’), and two poems of Australian patriotism that couldn’t have been more different (Sara Mansour’s ‘My Australia‘ – link to her performing it on YouTube – and a poem whose name and creator I don’t remember celebrating the lump in the throat brought on by, for example, Anzac Day). This little reading, including by two people who said they felt awkward reading poetry aloud, left us reeling.

And that was a wrap for the Book Group for 2022.

* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.

Middlemarch: Progress report 1

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), pages 1–162

I had read just eight pages of Middlemarch, two mornings’ worth, squinting through sleep bleared eyes, when a kind friend lent me her copy, a beautiful two-volume edition from a German publishing house that is set in type that will demand less effort than the on I picked up from Gould’s bookshop.

In other reading this month, when the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Lessons reads the novel written by his estranged wife, he finds to his chagrin that it is brilliant, and includes ‘high-flying digressions offered up to the ghost of George Eliot’ (page 243).

So far, it’s not so much high-flying digressions as sharp authorial observations on the side that are delighting me. For instance, in the first scene where the gorgeous, privileged Rosamond Price and plain, less privileged Mary Garth have a scene together, there’s this brief excursion into the abstract:

Plainness has peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase.

(Page 130)

Part of the pleasure of this kind of thing is that it’s ironic. The narrator goes on to attribute to Mary the ‘vice’ of speaking with a satiric edge, a quality the narrator herself has in spades. There’s always a sense of the narrator as a character here, one who has a lot in common with George Eliot herself. In this example, it’s hard not to read the comment as springing in part from Eliot’s own experience of being seen as plain (‘horse-faced’, I dimly remember). The novel’s opening words, ‘To my dear husband’, affirm that George Eliot is a woman, and I guess she could assume that the English reading public knew who she was.

When I read Middlemarch in 1968, it was as part of an exhilarating immersion in literary classics. In the little notebook where I listed the books I read, it appears on the same page Racine’s Phèdre, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, and books by Pinter, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, Descartes and Rabelais. So reading it now, with that tsunami well in the past and without my 20-year-old predisposition to awe, is like meeting it for the first time.

I’m pretty sure I picked up on the ironic tone back then, but I doubt if I understood that the affectionate mockery of the idealistic heroine Dorothea and her pragmatic sister Celia, of gorgeous Rosamond and her flibbertigibbet brother Fred, and of ‘plain’, sarcastic Mary all has to do with their youth. The narrator is in love with their lack of world-weariness, and I’m in love with them too, as I doubt I was the first time around, however much I loved the book.

Mind you, I’ve read to the Emerging Artist a couple of passages that gave me joy. She responded to the first with a noncommittal noise, and to the second, ‘Now I know I was right not to read past the first page.’ So it’s not a book for all tastes.

So far, Dorothea has committed herself to marry the dried up old stick, Mr Casaubon. Youngish Dr Lydgate has arrived in the area full of reforming zeal. Rosamond, whose beauty no man could resist, is determined to marry someone from outsides Middlemarch and Lydgate is a likely prospect. Fred is in love with Mary, who has been his friend since childhood. The older generation is rife with intrigue to do with religious intolerance, political ambition, greed, and owning-class pretensions. So far, it’s a frothy comedy of manners as told by an immensely erudite and morally serious narrator.

This morning, there was some dialogue worthy of Oscar Wilde. Mary is responding to Fred’s proposal of marriage, which we understand has been made many times before::

‘If l did love you, I would not marry you: I would certainly not promise ever to marry you.’
‘I think that is quite wicked, Mary. If you love me, you ought to promise to marry me.’
‘On the contrary, I think it would be wicked in me to marry you even if I did love you.’
‘You mean, just as I am, without any means of maintaining a wife. Of course: I am but three-and-twenty.’
‘In that last point you will alter. But I am not so sure of any other alteration. My father says an idle man ought not to exist, much less, be married.’
‘Then I am to blow my brains out?’
‘No; on the whole I should think you would do better to pass your examination.’

(Page 162)

I hope they end up living happily together, rich or poor. I know their love’s path will not be smooth, any more than that of any of the other potential love matches.

Ian McEwan’s Lessons: page 75

Ian McEwan, Lessons (Jonathan Cape 2022)

This is a tentative experiment in a different way (for me) of blogging about books: take page 75 and write whatever comes to mind about it. After my next birthday, if I keep this up, I’ll take page 76.

Page 75 of Lessons would probably have a red line drawn through it by someone turning writing a film script. It’s mainly a minor character’s backstory.

By this stage of the novel, the main character, Roland Baines, has been abandoned by his wife, Alissa, with no warning and no real word of explanation, leaving him to care for their infant son. He has received a couple of postcards from European addresses, the most recent saying she is about to visit her parents in Germany. Page 75 begins with his wondering why she is visiting her parents and imagining that if she tells them what she has done, ‘the row would be like no other’. McEwan delivers on this tease later when Roland hears the mother’s account of that row, which is quite different from what he imagines. Later still, that account is confirmed by Alissa herself.

The rest of the page begins the back story of Alissa’s mother, Jane: born in 1920, educated in a grammar school, and by the end of the page nursing literary ambitions working as a part-time typist at Cyril Connolly’s prestigious literary magazine Horizon (a real magazine):

She later told her son-in-law that she was seated in an invisible comer and given the dullest correspondence. She wasn’t beautiful or well connected and socially adroit like many of the young women who passed through the office. Reasonably enough, Connolly barely noticed her but occasionally she was in the presence of literary gods. She saw, or thought she saw, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and a woman who may well have been Virginia Woolf. But, as Roland knew, Woolf had been dead for two years and Huxley was living in California.

There are many passages like this in the book: passages that fill us in on someone’s background, or summarise a novel or (in one case) a children’s picture book. As here, the writing keeps the main narrative in sight: we’re getting Jane’s story, but it’s as told to Roland, and commented on by him. There are plenty of dramatic scenes in the novel – Roland visits Berlin as the wall is coming down; he has a weird physical struggle with a conservative politician in the wilds of Scotland; in his 70s, he confronts a woman who sexually abused him as a 14 year old – but even in undramatic passages like this, there’s plenty of complexity to hold a reader’s interest. There’s also a version of one of the novel’s recurring motifs: a life lived in the shadow of fame.

The novel tells the story of Roland’s life, from early childhood in Libya, his time at boarding school where he has a deeply troubling sexual experience with his piano teacher, through years of drifting, his shortlived marriage to Alissa, single parenthood, some years of happiness in a new relationship, to old age. His early promise as a pianist is blighted by the early quasi-consensual sexual abuse: that and his abandonment by Alissa are the two intimate experiences that shape his life. The Suez crisis, the Cuban crisis, the building and fall of the Berlin wall, Brexit and Covid 19: each of these also has a direct impact. The novel is immensely satisfying as the story of an ordinary life that covers, as it happens, almost exactly the same period as my own. I feel as if I know Roland.

Rereading page 75 makes me realise that his story also functions as a conduit for other stories, mostly stories of women: his mother, the piano teacher, Alissa, Alissa’s mother Jane, Daphne who is a good friend and confidante in the early chapters and later become much more, and finally, briefly, his granddaughter Stefanie. Each of these stories can be seen as holding lessons for Roland, and for us, or at least they can be seen as posing questions: about adults’ responsibility to young people in their care, about complex issues of consent, about how to face death, about the competing demands of art and personal relationships, about ways to assess success and failure. Not that it’s didactic. When Roland reads Tomi Ungerer’s Flix to his granddaughter, he tries to make it a teaching moment by asking her if the story ‘is trying to tell us something about people’:

She looked at him blankly. ‘Don’t be silly, Opa. It’s about cats and dogs.’
He saw her point. A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson. That could be for later.

(Page 481-482)

Lessons is a good tale, or a whole entwined mass of good tales. One of them is the tale of a man who is offered many lessons and learns some of them. If there is one overarching lesson, it’s that the more you know about someone’s life, the less easy it is to make a sharp moral judgement.

Niall Williams’s History of the Rain and the Book Group

Niall Williams, History of the Rain (Bloomsbury 2014)

Before the meeting: I fell in love with this book at the first paragraph:

The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. It was not that he thought this world beyond saving, although in darkness I suppose there was some of that, but rather that he imagined there must be a finer one where God corrected His mistakes and men and women lived in the second draft of Creation and did not know despair.

That’s nineteen-year-old Ruth Swain, whose mother is a MacCarroll, writing from her sickbed in a book-filled room at the top of a house in the tiny Irish village of Faha, where it has been raining for centuries.

Ruth has inherited her father’s vast library and her head is filled with the books she has read while sick, especially the novels of Dickens. As she tells us the story of her family – her grandparents Irish and English, her mother Mary, her father Virgil and her twin brother Aeneas whom everyone calls Aeny – her prose bristles with references to those books, usually taking the intertextuality to a comic extreme by naming the book’s publisher, date of publication, and its number on her father’s shelves. Her style, as she is told by a schoolteacher who visits her, is ‘a bit Extreme’:

I am that anachronism, a book-reader, and from this my writing has developed Eccentric Superabundance of Style, Alarming Borrowings, Erratic Fluctuations, and I Must lose my tendency to Capitalisation.

Her narrative is indeed eccentric, alarming, erratic, and overflowing with Irish charm. I totally believed in her – so much so that when I reached the Acknowledgements at the end of the story and read Niall Williams speaking in his own voice it was like coming down to earth with a thud.

Ruth’s father is a poet. We don’t get to read a single line written by him, but – in striking contrast to the poet mother in Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother (my blog post here) – we have total confidence in his creative process. Here’s a little of the description of the moment when he first begins to create poems, when he is ‘brimming’ after the birth of his children:

There were no words at first. At first there was a kind of beat and hum that was in his blood or in the river and he discovered how somewhere in his inner ear, a pulsing of its own, a kind of pre-language that at first he wasn’t even aware he was sounding. It was release. It was where the brimming spilled, in sound. To say he hummed is not right. Because you’ll suppose a tune or tunefulness and there was none, just a dull droning inside him.

(Page 262)

As well as a multitude of writers, Ruth’s head is filled with the people of Faha, their malapropisms, their idiosyncrasies, their all-knowingness. Possibly because I spent my childhood in the Irish-Catholic diaspora of North Queensland, I didn’t recoil from what you might see as sentimentality in their portrayal, but was delighted by their comic energy. Take this, for example, from the moment when the newborn twins are being baptised in river water in the kitchen of their home:

Everyone closed in around us, everyone wanted to see. It was as if our story was already being told and was moving the hearts of Faha, making people think These two will need help, for right then there was an opening of shirt buttons, a rummaging in handbags, in wallets and coat pockets, a general flurry of rooting about, and then, as the river water was being scooped from the bucket, into our swaddling on the kitchen floor came assorted Miraculous Medals, rosary beads, Memorial cards, brown and blue and green scapulars of various antiquity (and body odour), two Padre Pios, two Pope John Pauls, one Little Flower, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Patron-of-the-Missions card, several (because we had been Lost & Found) Saint Anthonys, one Saint Teresa of Ávila, Patron of Headache Sufferers, and from the handbag of Margaret Crowe a sort of crouched-down Lionel Messi-looking Saint Francis of Assisi, all of them well-worn and used and in our first moments in this world falling around Aeney and I now like holy human rain.

(Page 269)

The only reference in that list I had to google is Lionel Messi. All the rest is vintage irish-Catholic. I was so enchanted I barely noticed that horrible ‘Aeney and I’ at the end.

I laughed out loud. I inflicted passages on my long-suffering partner. I cried, though not at the sad bits, which were the only place where the book’s hold on me slackened a little. No, it was when Ruth relents for a moment and lets her awkward and consistently rebuffed suitor wash her hair.

After the meeting: Our host gave us an excellent Irish stew and roast potatoes, which were supplemented by a salad, pastizzi from Newtown and various cheeses, chocolates and ice creams brought by the rest of us.

Not everyone had finished the book; one was still waiting for it to arrive at his local bookshop. Not everyone loved it as much as I did. But we had an animate discussion of the what-about-that-bit variety, and I wasn’t the only one who had been prompted to read sections aloud, as much for the reader’s pleasure as for the listener’s. We all had the impression that the listeners, in this case, enjoyed the experience.

I wasn’t the only one to have wept at the hair-washing incident.

Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother

Edwina Preston, Bad Art Mother (Wakefield Press 2022)

Owen’s mother is a poet, pretty much unrecognised in her lifetime. His father runs a restaurant, plus a charity that feeds the homeless, plus an art gallery. His guardians (it’s complicated!) are a successful, wealthy poet and his meek wife who has a knack for ikebana. The most reliable adult in his life is an aunt, a nurse who makes no claims to creativity. In most of his childhood O-yo, as he is affectionately known, rotates among the three households, each its own version of life on planet Melbourne in the 1960s.

The backbone of Bad Art Mother is Owen’s story of his childhood, culminating in the events surrounding the launch of his mother’s only book of poetry. He branches out into two other periods: the moment in the mid 1980s when his mother’s poetry is rediscovered by a feminist publisher, and his comfortable and uneventful life in the present, partnered up with the feminist publisher. Every now and then Owen’s narrative is supplemented by a batch of letters from his mother to her sister that make us privy to the mother’s inner life and to scenes that unfold in Owen’s absence.

So there are two unreliable narrators: one is a child who doesn’t understand the complexities of the adult world (though he does understand more than the adults realise), the other a woman who is increasingly unhappy, self-preoccupied and in denial about her alcohol abuse – though she can be scarifyingly honest about her own appalling behaviour. As readers we’re invited to keep our wits about us, to read between the lines.

I wanted to know what would happen to every one of the novel’s characters, and each of the women in young O-yo’s life offers a different perspective on how to succeed artistically or otherwise under patriarchy (there is a cheerful Lesbian couple), but it’s Veda Gray, poet and Bad Art Mother, whose story provides the narrative spring.

Even though you might expect that young O-yo is most at risk, Veda is really the only character who is in jeopardy. It’s the 60s. Society is getting ready for Germaine Greer and, separately, the beginnings of Women’s Liberation. Veda has read a book by an unnamed American feminist, whom we take to be Betty Friedan, but she is unable to take up the cudgels on her own behalf. She increasingly seems to spend her days at home, drinking, spending less time writing poetry than complaining about the difficulty of being a poet. Somehow she gets a contract with a small press to publish a collection of her poems, but publication, on which her survival seems to depend, is repeatedly postponed. We know it will happen, but we know from a flashforward on the opening page that something will go wrong. There is very real suspense, and the story moves along at a cracking pace to a dramatic climax.

But there are disturbing cross currents .


For example, there’s this moment early on. Veda is writing to her sister about her conversations with Mr Parish who, we have been told, dislikes abstract art and, presumably, modernist poetry:

We have had several lively debates, such as Ern Malley, that old chestnut, where I find him a harsh critic of MacAuley and Stuart.

(page 35)

Veda misspells both James McAuley’s and Harold Stewart’s surnames, even while claiming a bored familiarity with the Ern Malley affair. Not only that, but she seems to be under the impression that McAuley and Stewart were modernist poets of the sort Parish would abhor, whereas they are militantly on his side, and his harsh criticiism would surely have been for Max Harris, who published the poems.

At first I took these and a scattering of similar ‘mistakes’ for authorial errors that slipped past the copy editor and proofreader, but as I read on I began to think they were indications of Veda’s radical unreliability. We only ever see one of her poems, about which more in a moment. When she’s young, she does ‘second-rate readings in second-rate rooms with second-rate poets’ before giving up because she isn’t getting anywhere, and she receives many rejections from Meanjin. As time goes by though, there are no more attempts to find readers. She has no apparent contact with other poets, except the egregious Mr Parish. She quotes none of her poetry to her sister, the only correspondent we know about. She seems to be unaware that other Australian women poets exist. She does the extremely unrealistic thing of submitting a sheaf of poems to a publishing house and then resenting it when they say they need more to make a book-sized collection.

The real story being hinted at here is that Veda set out to be a poet, but gave up, partly because of sexism but probably because she wasn’t willing to work at it in a sustained way, and wasn’t much good. She settled to a life of posing as a poet (the word ‘posing’ occurs a lot), while sinking into alcoholic chaos, blaming everyone but herself for her lack of success. When, improbably, the book is about to be published, she decides to strike a blow against the establishment by [SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT] altering its opening sonnet so that the first letters of each line spell out a fourteen-letter obscenity. The world comes crashing down around her: the book is pulped, her career as a poet is finished, and her life is over.

An end note informs the reader of the famous occasion when Gwen Harwood slipped a similar sonnet past the editor of the Bulletin in 1961, and quotes from a letter Harwood wrote to a friend. There are two ways of reading this, depending whether you think Gwen Harwood’s exists in the world of the novel. If she doesn’t, then the incident has been transposed – unconvincingly to my mind – to a decade later. If she does, then Veda’s stunt is a mere imitation of a notorious scandal. I’m leaning to the latter reading, partly because the Ern Malley hoax exists so why not Gwen Harwood as well, and partly because Veda’s sonnet is clumsy and stodgy. If it’s typical of her poetry, her rediscovery in the mid 1980s starts to look like a bit of opportunistic pretend-feminist marketing rather than the equivalent of, say, the rediscovery of Lesbia Harford at about the same time.

So this is a book with a hidden narrative, like the cross-dressing story in Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life. The title of the book doesn’t signify an art-mother who is bad, but a mother who makes bad art. Veda’s story is even more tragic than it seems at first.

The Book Group and George Haddad’s Losing Face

George Haddad, Losing Face (UQP 2022)

Before the meeting: This book is part of the wealth of interesting new writing to come from culturally complex Western Sydney over recent decades. I’ve blogged about some of it, including poetry by Maryam Hazam, Eunice Andrada and Sara M Saleh, and fiction by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman, Felicity Castagna and Suneeta Peres da Costa. I have mentioned George Haddad at least once in this blog, for his short story ‘Broken Zippers‘ in Overland 237. This is his first novel.

Joey is in his late teenage years, part of a Christian Lebanese community in Western Sydney, working in a supermarket and pretty aimless. He’s friendly with Emma, who (I think) is an ‘Aussie’, which in this context means of British or Irish heritage. Joey’s Aussie father has been absent for most of his life. He gets on well with his mother, and their mostly amiable bickering is a key pleasure in the first chapters. Joey’s younger brother occasionally looks up from his phone to join the conversation. Tayta Elaine, Joey’s grandmother and the family matriarch, completes the portrait of a warm, supportive, noisy family.

Trouble starts for Joey elsewhere. He goes to a music festival with Emma, his best friend Kyri, and Boxer, who’s a bit of a bully from school days. The drug-infused euphoria of that event takes a dark turn when Boxer and Emma start to make out, but the real trouble comes a couple of weeks later when Joey and Kyri again go out with Boxer and an even worse bully: the four of them pick up a young woman, Lisa, on the train, drugs are involved, and they sexually assault her. What had been charming and engaging sketch of life in a particular community now coheres into a narrative charged with moral jeopardy.

The story is plainly told. In particular, the story of what happens with Lisa is given without evasive language. Joey is not a witness to the worst parts of what happens, and we are given all the mitigating circumstances, but we do see how he participated in precise detail, including the moment soon after the event when he apologises and she acknowledges his apology. But she goes to the police the next day, and Joey and the others are charged sexual offences. Joey’s friends’ and family’s disappointment and anger leave him isolated, and the approaching trial becomes the focus of the narrative. As readers we see a lot of nuance, but though we feel for Joey, the question of accountability hangs heavy over the story – so that the outcome of the trial becomes a secondary consideration. It’s beautifully done.

Meanwhile, Tayta Elaine’s story unrolls in alternate chapters. Apart from being a widowed matriarch, she is addicted to gambling, and much of her sections is taken up with her internal self-negotiations in which she justifies feeding far too much of her pension into poker machines and committing mild frauds to stay afloat. These sections are much less convincing. I feel they were there as necessary ballast to Joey’s story: his generation isn’t the only one to be morally compromised. But this narrative doesn’t grab with nearly the same force.

While thinking about this blog post, I read a short review of the book by Bri Lee in The Monthly. My impression that she is uncomfortable at being asked to empathise at all with a character involved in sexual violence, but she’s too polite to repudiate the project outright:

Joey believes his part in the crime wasn’t as bad as others. What’s often excruciating for a post-MeToo reader is to try to divine whether or not the author believes in outdated ideas or if it’s just the characters who do. Losing Face walks this very old tightrope: what is the difference between re-presenting the problem and actually critiquing the problem?

This is quite misleading. It’s not just Joey who sees his ‘part in the crime’ that way. Lisa doesn’t want him charged, and police charge him with a lesser crime. This is not to say he’s blameless or that he sees himself as blameless. He’s racked with guilt and doesn’t know what to do. There’s very little resource around for him. Bri Lee concludes her review, ‘Elaine is looking at herself in the mirror at the end of the book. Joey is not.’ We must have read different books. In my reading Elaine has gone even further down the path of addiction and bad stuff has happened to her, but she has little or no insight into her own responsibility for her misadventures (not that we blame her, given her tragic back story): she sees only that men are bastards. Joey, by contrast, has decided to change his life.

I hope it’s not a spoiler to give you part of the book’s final conversation between Joey and Tayta. If a mirror is involved, Tayta may be holding it up, but it’s Joey who is looking at himself:

‘I tell you something, Joey. Deep in the mind, any man from all time, no matter what they like to fuck – women, other men, goats – deep in the mind, they still believe woman is weaker than man.’

She stood up. Joey was empty.

She walked towards the garden and kicked with her slipper at a weed growing from a crack in the concrete until it dislodged. ‘And this is why that shit happen to the young girl in the car park with you and them kleb.’ She sounded like she was swallowing her tears. She bent over, picked up the weed and flung it into the garden. ‘And this is why, all around the world, men always doing shit to women in car parks.’

Joey’s anxiety had indeed lifted like magic earlier, and it turned like magic too.

(Page 256)

Just before the meeting I reread the book’s Prologue, which I had forgotten. It’s in the form of an Arab folktale about a terrorising djinn who agrees to leave the women of a camp alone if they gave her the manhood of all their boys. The women do so, and when the little boys grow up, they don’t grow beards, have no gusto for work and must be led, confused, through the desert.

I went into the meeting wondering what to make of that, and wondering what anyone else had made of Bri Lee’s review.

The meeting: This was the first time many of us had been together in person for a long time. We marvelled at the excellence of the bring-a-plate meal, and the luxury of sitting maskless around a table to eat it.

It took us a while to get to Losing Face. Our host was fresh from a battle with a government department in his local area, and there was much experience-based lamentation about bureaucracies. I was able to relay some wise words passed on to me by an employee of that department who had heard it from an old man when he was young: ‘Always remember that the department has no heart to break and no arse to kick.’

We all liked the book. In the process of discussing it, we came to appreciate the way our sympathies and expectations were managed. At first, the sexual assault scene feels like a nasty incident that may well turn out to be one of a sequence. Joey does his best to reassure himself that he’s a decent person, and as we go along with him, or not, we’re uneasy about the moral universe of the novel. When the police knock on Joey’s door it comes as a surprise, and we’re ambivalent: we’re apprehensive for Joey, who has our sympathy, but relieved that this is not going to be a novel in which the main character descends into callous depravity.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but will say that for such a short novel, Losing Face includes a lot of complexity about moral responsibility and the workings of the law. I’d forgotten some of the surprise twists of the legal proceedings.

Joey’s Aussie father – who turns up when Joey is in trouble – struck a chord with our gathering of mostly Aussie-fathers. A little paradoxically, the Western Sydney setting felt familiar and somehow comfortable to us inner-western Sydney types. There’s a queer dimension to the story, which someone felt was a bit tacked on, but someone with relevant experience said his gaydar went off very early in the book. Someone asked, ‘What will Joey do next?’ and we realised that the ending is wide open. I think we all felt that he’s in the process of changing his life, that he’s not going to just shrug off the whole episode, but we had a number of scenarios.

This month’s Chooser was one of the two who couldn’t make it to the meeting. Sadly he had to bask remotely in the glory of having chosen well.

Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind

Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind (Bloomsbury 2020)

Just a quick post about this one.

A white middle-class family from Brooklyn – father, mother, teenage boy and younger teenage girl – move into an isolated, luxurious AirBnB place on Long Island. (How do we know they’re white? There are a number of tells apart from their immersion in US materialism – they refer casually to slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans in ways that would be astonishing in the mouths of people of colour or Indigenous people.)

They stock up with luxury holiday supplies and are just settling in on the first night, revelling in the fantasy that this fancy place is theirs, enjoying the delicious discomfort of not being able to check work emails because they have no coverage or WiFi, and generally wallowing in the first night of their vacation while a storm rages outside, when a knock at the door strikes terror into their hearts.

Their visitors are an older African-American couple. We know they’re Black because we see them through the holidayers’ eyes, and that’s the first thing they see. Our heroes’ initial worry that this is some kind of home invasion are dispelled when they are told, and eventually believe, that the visitors are the respectable upper middle-class AirBnB hosts.

The terror never quite dissipates, but its focus shifts. The narrative proceeds painfully slowly. There are weird signs and omens – hundreds of deer in the woods, a dozen flamingoes in the swimming pool, an unexplained noise loud enough to crack the glass in windows. The characters spend most of the novel in various states of unknowing.

It’s like one of those horror movies where there’s a slow build-up until finally the horror is revealed – except in this case we don’t arrive at the inevitably disappointing moment where we see the horror face to face. It’s probably eccentric of me, but I think of Hart Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage, where the protagonist has no idea what’s going on in the war in general but can only see what’s going on in his immediate vicinity. In that case, the readers have a wider perspective because we know some of the history. In this one, the narrator breaks the fourth wall with increasing frequency to give broad-brushstroke information about what is happening back home in Brooklyn or somewhere in Florida. We still don’t know the exact nature of the disaster unfolding in the wider world, but we do know the cause of the mysterious noise and – the narrator seems to imply – if we’ve been paying attention to events in real life we should be able to guess what’s happening.

If The Red Badge of Courage is too far-fetched a comparison, how about Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. In that movie, the guests can’t go home from a bourgeois dinner party. In this novel they could theoretically leave, and they make a number of sallies forth, but – no spoilers here – there’s an overwhelming sense that these six people are stuck with each other.

The opening pages moved almost unbearably slowly with their attention to the detail of the white mother’s shopping excursion. And once the full complement of characters is present, the conversation tends to repeat. But something in this obsessive listing of brand names and constant return to a handful of observations was generates a cumulative sense of dread, and for me at least it pays off brilliantly as things come closer to boiling point.

Once again, I’m grateful to our Book(-swapping) Club for taking me out of my comfort zone.