Tag Archives: Novel

Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Mirandi Riwoe, Stone Sky Gold Mountain (University of Queensland Press 2020)

There are precious few books set in North Queensland. This is one. Its first epigraph is a quote from Taam Sze Pui, whose Innisfail department store, known as See Poy’s, was still going strong in my 1950s childhood, dominating the street corner opposite the gate to King George V Memorial Park. In honour of that epigraph, I’ve just retrieved from oblivion a couple of earlier posts that referred to Taam Sze Pui, here and here. It reads:

To search for gold was like trying to catch the moon at the bottom of the sea.

So Mirandi Riwoe had me at the epigraph. She kept me with her story-telling. A young Chinese woman Ying and her brother Lai Yue have come to the Palmer River goldfields in North Queensland in the mid 19th century, intending to return home when they have accumulated enough wealth to save their mother from poverty and buy their siblings back from servitude. Their story unfolds in triplets, each comprising a chapter from Ying’s point of view, a second from Lai Yue’s, and a third from the point of view of Meriem, a young white woman who is the maid to a sex worker in Maytown, a settlement close to the goldfield.

The book is firmly within an Australian tradition. There are echoes of Henry Handel Richardson in the descriptions of goldfields hardships; of Joseph Furphy in the woman disguised as a boy to survive in the harsh male world; of Henry Lawson in the man going quietly desperately mad in a lonely shepherd’s hut; of Barbara Baynton in the brutal violence endured by Meriem’s employer. But that tradition expands before our eyes as Chinese characters take centre stage, dealing with harsh oppression as well as the generally harsh conditions, escaping into an opium haze, negotiating issues around language and names (‘Jimmy’ or ‘Wui Hing’), reaching tentatively and sometimes tenderly across the racial divide, communing with the ghosts of those left behind, balancing the yearning for home against the appeal of the freedoms in the new land.

The Chinese characters are not absolved of complicity in the violent dispossession of First Nations people, and I was relieved when the possibility of romance was raised only to be sorrowfully dismissed. The story moves along so smoothly that you hardly notice how much of this is new in an Australian historical novel, and how much you trust that it’s underpinned by solid research.

Thanks, Mirandi Riwoe, for adding so elegantly to the slender stock of books about the place I came from.


Stone Sky Gold Mountain is the eleventh book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

My Brilliant Friend at the Book Group

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions 2012)
Elena Ferrante, L’amica geniale (e-book, Edizioni e/o 2011)

Before the Book Group meeting: This month’s Chooser nominated My Brilliant Friend in response to an interest in translation expressed at our last meeting (about Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk, blog post here). Given the years of buzz about Elena Ferrante and her series The Neapolitan Novels, it’s amazing that none of us had read this until now. This was a chance to find out what the fuss was about.

As I imagine everyone knows, this is the story of the friendship between two girls in a poor neighbourhood of Naples, starting when they are both in the first year of primary school and ending at the marriage of one of them. Though there is a kind of resolution at the end, this is clearly the first instalment of a long story, and a brief prologue in which the sixty-something narrator speaks to the forty-year-old son of her friend offers tantalising hints about where the narrative will go.

The narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter. Her friend is Lila Cerullo, whose father is a shoe repairer. From the beginning, Lila is unpredictable, moody, a little dangerous, and, well, brilliant. Elena is more conventional, is in awe of Lila, and is also, in a more socially-approved way, brilliant. They both do well at school, until Lila drops out because she is needed at home, but then it turns out that Lila is keeping up with what Elena is learning by borrowing books from a library: she gives Elena hints about how to translate from Greek that help her excel in the classroom.

Elena is constantly in competition with Lila, now happy to know she is ahead of her (in schoolwork, in having her periods), now wretched when Lila excels (in her grasp of school subjects she is learning from books, in her attractiveness to men). It’s a striking rendition of a friendship that includes intense affection, resentment, irritation, envy and devotion.

The social environment of post-war Naples is graphically realised. Though the city is on the coast, the little girls have never seen the sea, and when they decide to go there the adventure comes to nothing. There’s a marvellous scene when a group of teenagers decide to visit a posh part of town, and it’s like being on another planet. In the coming of age process, Elena gradually learns about history – about Fascism, the war and war profiteering. At the very end of the novel, she’s sixteen years old and realises that if she starts to read newspapers and journals, beyond the novels that are all she has read until then, she will learn about how the world works.

I enjoyed the novel, but am successfully quelling any urge to get hold of the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name / Storia del nuovo cognome.

I bought a digital copy in the original Italian, so as to put at least some attention to the translation.

My high school Latin teacher once wrote ‘Good attempt’ on a translation of mine, and then was at pains to explain that this was high praise. All anyone can do is attempt to translate: it’s impossible to find an exact equivalent in one language for something written in another. ‘Traduttore traditore,’ he said, ‘Translator, traitor.’ I can’t comment on the accuracy of Ann Goldstein’s translation. I can see that her frequent run-on sentences are faithful to the original, for example, but I have no idea whether they are as irritating in Italian as they are in English.

One thing that snagged my attention is the title. In Italian it’s L’amica geniale, literally The brilliant friend. Why the change from the to my, I wondered, especially as the only time the phrase occurs in the book it’s used by Lila to describe the narrator. The Italian title leaves room for either of the friends to be the brilliant one. The English, sadly in my opinion, removes any ambiguity.

The other thing that struck me is a kind of clunkiness in the English –adverbs in an unusual order, and other places where the language doesn’t feel like that of a native English speaker. I was surprised to discover not only that Ann Goldstein is an English speaker, but that she learned Italian as an adult and works for The New Yorker, which is notoriously sticklerish for correct American English usage.

Look at this, the death of Don Achille, who was a kind of Godfather figure to the neighbourhood:

He was in the kitchen, and had just opened the window to let in the rain-freshened air. He had got up from bed to do so, interrupting his nap. He had on worn blue pajamas, and on his feet only socks of a yellowish color, blackened at the heels. As soon as he opened the window a gust of rain struck his face and someone plunged a knife into the right side of his neck, halfway between the jaw and the clavicle.

(Page 83)

Something about that last sentence felt awkward and anticlimactic on first reading. I read on, of course, but some corner of my mind marked the place. Just now, I looked up the Italian:

Era in cucina, aveva appena aperto la finestra per far entrare l’aria fresca della poggia. S’era alzato dal letto apposta, interrompendo la controra. Indossava un pigiama celeste molto usurato, ai piedi aveva solo calzini d’un colore gialliccio annerito ai calcagni. Appena aprì la finestra gli arrivò in faccia uno sbuffo di poggia e sul late destro del collo, proprio a mezza strada tra la mandibola e la clavicola, un colpo di coltello.

The first two sentences are straightforward (though ‘had on worn blue pyjamas’ is clumsy – why not ‘was wearing threadbare pyjamas’?). They establish a mundane domestic setting for the shock that is to come. But then the translation makes three choices in the final sentence that diminish that shock. First, why translate clavicola with the technical ‘clavicle’ rather than the everyday ‘collarbone’, especially when, thankfully, mandibola becomes ‘jaw’ rather than ‘mandible’? Second, the Italian language’s flexibility with word order allows the action to become apparent only in the last three words of the sentence (colpo di cotello = ‘knife-blow’), an effect lost in translation. Third, while the structure of the Italian sentence pairs the knife-blow with the gust of rain – so two things came at Don Achille through the window, one mundane and the other deadly – the English introduces ‘someone’ and ruins the parallel. Something like this would be truer to the original:

As soon as he opened the window, there came a gust of rain to his face, and to the right side of his neck, halfway between jaw and collarbone, a knife-blow.

My impression is that a lot of the translation is like that: sometimes keeping too close to the Italian rather than using a more natural English equivalent, sometimes departing too far from the Italian and losing rhetorical or dramatic effects.

I’m starting to sound like Brother Gerard, my Latin and French teacher from nearly 60 years ago. So, even though I cherish his memory, I guess that means it’s time to stop.

After the meeting: There was a brief online debate about whether we should meet in person or on screens, Screens won out, for now.

My NBN connection isn’t robust enough for zoom meeting in the evening, and I ended up joining the meeting on my phone. Next time I’ll do it on the computer using the phone’s hotspot to connect, but this time that didn’t want to work either, so I spent the two hours squinting at four faces at a time out of the eleven participants, and I expect my hand-held image wobbled annoyingly. But I won’t complain about zoom: it brought us the lovely moment when one chap said he had a son and a daughter, and a young face joined his on the screen, saying ‘I’m the daughter!’

Most of the chaps, many sporting scrappy Corona beards, loved the book. My complaints about clunkiness and quibbles about the translation were mostly received without sympathy. The simple solution to discontent with translation from Italian, I was told, was not to know Italian.

I was the second least enthusiastic. The least enthusiastic remained silent for a long time, and then, when prompted, said he had only kept reading out of love for the rest of us. He also said that as he listened to the discussion, he could see why he should have enjoyed the book, which is pretty much how I felt. I enjoyed it, but I never got invested in it. Others got really involved: remembering the politics of their own childhood communities, reflecting on male violence, recalling their own visits to Naples, being swept along by the story and experiencing shocks of recognition, even – at least one chap said – falling in love with Lila.

More than one had started reading the second book, and next meeting’s Chooser said he’ll be nominating the fourth book. I’m hoping it was a joke-threat.

Proust Progress Report 10:

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

I’ve now been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for ten months. One unexpected feature of this project is that Proust and this work keep turning up elsewhere. It’s happened least twice this month.

First, on a recent episode of the ABC’s Conversations podcast, the guest Maira Kalman told Sarah Kanowski about a ‘Proust group’ – eight people who read the whole of ‘Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time‘ over seven years, a year for each volume. They read 50 pages a month, and met monthly to discuss and read aloud to each other:

It put the world in order in all of its madness, and such beauty that it was incomprehensible.

The group has moved on to other things, but will return to Proust because ‘it’s not a good thing not to have him in your life’. You can listen to the whole Conversation at this link (the Proust discussion is at about 2:30 minutes).

Then, in the latest season of the US policier Bosch, the Haitian crime boss is seen reading a suspiciously slender hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu emblazoned on its cover.

I’m reading quite a bit faster than Ms Kalman’s group, though I’m evidently enjoying it a lot less than them. And since I read it in the morning before getting out of bed, I don’t get to flaunt it as a sign that I’m more than just another evil thug.

There’s still a lot about the politics of salons, dinners and at-homes, still a lot about unconventional sexual practices, which I’ve just realised might be meant to be read with an ooh-la-la inflexion, still a lot of laboriously explained wordplay, still a lot of rhapsodic descriptions of scenery. There’s also still a lot that’s left brilliantly unsaid, much silliness, an occasional flash of self-mockery, and then observation that cuts right to the reader’s heart.

There are shocking moments, too. For example, in the middle of some gossip about the aggressively vulgar Mme Verdurin there’s this, about a Princess who had taken up her cause with people of high society (le monde):

Elle avait même prononcé son nom au cours d’une visite de condoléances qu’elle avait faite à Mme Swann après la mort du mari de celle-ci, et lui avait demandé si elle les connaissait. 

She had even mentioned her name [that is, Mme Verdurin’s name] in the course of a visit of condolence which she had paid to Mme. Swann after the death of her husband, and had asked whether she knew them [the Verdurins]. 

Unless I’ve missed something, that throwaway line is the first – and, so far, the only – mention of the death of Swann, who has been so significant in the narrator’s life and whose mortal illness has been achingly observed earlier in the book. Blink and you miss it.

And then, in the midst of an interminable recount of a dinner party, where conversations overlap and intersect like in an Altman movie, the narrator will rhapsodise about a beautiful sunset, will take a letter from his pocket and criticise the quirks of its writer, of will plunge without warning into melancholy reflections on lost loves of youth, like this one which reminds us sharply that the narrator is in terrible health, looking back at the events he describes, and also reminds us of his frankness about sexual maters (sorry, it’s a bit long):

On peut quelquefois retrouver un être, mais non abolir le temps. Tout cela jusqu’au jour imprévu et triste comme une nuit d’hiver, où on ne cherche plus cette jeune fille-là, ni aucune autre, où trouver vous effraierait même. Car on ne se sent plus assez d’attraits pour plaire, ni de force pour aimer. Non pas bien entendu qu’on soit, au sens propre du mot, impuissant. Et quant à aimer, on aimerait plus que jamais. Mais on sent que c’est une trop grande entreprise pour le peu de forces qu’on garde. Le repos éternel a déjà mis des intervalles où l’on ne peut sortir, ni parler. Mettre un pied sur la marche qu’il faut, c’est une réussite comme de ne pas manquer le saut périlleux. Être vu dans cet état par une jeune fille qu’on aime, même si l’on a gardé son visage et tous ses cheveux blonds de jeune homme ! On ne peut plus assumer la fatigue de se mettre au pas de la jeunesse. Tant pis si le désir charnel redouble au lieu de s’amortir ! On fait venir pour lui une femme à qui l’on ne se souciera pas de plaire, qui ne partagera qu’un soir votre couche et qu’on ne reverra jamais.

(page 1422)

 We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time. And so on until the unforeseen day, gloomy as a winter night, when we no longer seek for that girl, or for any other, when to find her would actually frighten us. For we no longer feel that we have sufficient attraction to appeal to her, or strength to love her. Not, of course, that we are, in the strict sense of the word, impotent. And as for loving, we should love her more than ever. But we feel that it is too big an undertaking for the little strength that we have left. Eternal rest has already fixed intervals where we can neither make a move or speak. To set a foot on the necessary step is an achievement like not missing the perilous leap. To be seen in such a state by a girl we love, even if we have kept the features and all the golden locks of our youth! We can no longer undertake the strain of keeping pace with youth. All the worse if our carnal desire increases instead of failing! We procure for it a woman whom we need make no effort to attract, who will share our couch for one night only and whom we shall never see again.

I’m finally just gong with the flow as I read this book, and just today realised that I look forward to my daily 20 minutes or so. I’ve also started looking up some of the unfamiliar words. Sometimes it turns out that the general meaning had been obvious even if the English word hadn’t leapt to mind; at other times, the dictionary translation of a word is no help at all. When aa boy is described as coqueluche de toutes les dames, I could tell from the context that it meant he was the darling of all the ladies, which sure enough is how Moncrieff translates it. But the dictionary tells me that coqueluche is whooping cough. I do my best attempt at a Gallic shrug and read on.

Other times, the dictionary is more fun. As in these from the last week or so, pretty much all in the context of a Thursday evening chez Mme Verdurin:

  • gourgandine hussy
  • gredin crook, wrongdoer
  • astucieusement slickly, diplomatically
  • escarmouche skirmish
  • débandade stampede

That’s it until next month.

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate 2020)

Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed. biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age.

(Page 65)

This is the third novel in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy: my blog posts of the first two are here and here. When the first novel was published in 2009, the idea of Donald Trump as President of the USA was a barely-remembered joke from Back to the Future II (1989). Yet now that we’ve reached the third volume her portrait of Henry VIII as a flashy, erratic, concupiscent, self-serving despot has taken on sharp contemporary relevance. Henry had more wives than Donald. and treated them a lot worse, but on the other hand he believed in God and his sense of his own importance, for good or ill, was bound up with that belief.

How we could wish for a principled, pragmatic and effective Thomas Cromwell in the White House of our own crooked age!

Somewhere – or Nowhere, perhaps – there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name.

(Page 435)

Ten years ago I thought of Thomas More as a saint, a model of integrity and courage, and Cromwell as corrupt, venal and murderous wielder of power. Now I think of the former as a vicious, misogynistic ideologue, and Cromwell as a basically decent man who, though not above murderous vengefulness, wasn’t afraid to get shit on his shoes or dirt on his hands in order to preserve social order and peace.

What to say about this huge (882 pages) book?

It’s beautifully written: someone told me his partner was reading a couple of pages of it to him each night, and I can see what a joy that would be.

It’s meticulously researched: it’s five decades since I studied Reformation History, so I’m no judge on its accuracy, but every time I checked a detail it turned out to be there in the record.

It’s spellbinding: even though you know in advance – or could do – that the main character is executed at the order of the king he serves and whose favour he enjoys, that conclusion seems both impossible and inevitable as events move inexorably towards it.

Though the resonances with Donald Trump’s presidency are strong, the book isn’t a thinly- or even thickly-veiled analogy for our times. One feels at every moment that Hilary Mantel has steeped her imagination in the England of the late 1530s. The food, the clothes, the specifics of patriarchy, the religious complexities, the lurking presence of the plague: all come startlingly alive. The bewildering array of characters that my generation of Australians learnt about in school – Henry VIII and his six wives, Thomas More, Cromwell himself, the bishops Cranmer, Pole and Latimer – are here as scheming and schemed against, sweet-talking, threatening, manoeuvring and grasping for survival, and in the middle of it all somewhere grappling with matters of principle.

I learned about the English Reformation from a Catholic perspective, and my childhood contempt for a clergy who modified their doctrines to suit the whims of a lusty king wasn’t changed much by my university studies. But this book, while it leaves me with even less respect for Henry, has given me a profound respect and admiration for the champions of the gospel around him.

In one reading, patriarchy remains intact and unchallenged in this book. There is no hint that both of Henry’s daughters would one day rule England – though women, including Mary, cold cause terrible trouble by marrying against the king’s wishes. Women are seen largely as pawns in the dangerous game of royal succession: will this one please the ageing king enough for him to ‘do the deed’, will she get pregnant, will the child be a boy, will the boy survive childhood? But there are hints that elsewhere women can have different kinds of power. Some women inspire the heretics and papists who rise up against Henry. Thomas’s witnessing a Lollard woman burned at the stake is one of the formative horrors of his childhood. And in the short chapter in which Jane Seymour gives birth to a son the narration moves away from Thomas’s point of view, and we are taken for a moment into a whole different world. Here not only do women have significant agency, but also the lore and wisdom inextricably bound up with the old Catholic religion comes into its own. Our sympathies are thoroughly with Cromwell the protestant, but Mantel’s imagination transcends anything like one-sided advocacy. A short quotation may help show what I mean:

When Mary gave birth to her Saviour and ours, did she suffer as other mothers do? The divines have sundry opinions, but women think she did. They think she shared their queasy, trembling hours, even though she was a virgin when she conceived, a virgin when she carried: even a virgin when redemption burst out of her, in an unholy gush of fluids. Afterwards, Mary was sealed up again, caulked tight against man’s incursions. And yet she became the fountain from which the whole world drinks. She protects against plague, and teaches the hard-hearted how to feel, the dry-eyed to drop a tear. She pities the sailor tossed on the salt wave, and saves even thieves and fornicators from punishment. She comes to us when we have only an hour to live, to warn us to say our prayers.
But all over England virgins are crumbling. Our Lady of Ipswich must go down. Our Lady of Walsingham, which we call Falsingham, must be taken away in a cart. Our Lady of Worcester is stripped of her coat and her silver shoes. The vessels containing her breast-milk are smashed, and found to contain chalk. And where her eyes move, and weep tears of blood, we know now that the blood is animal blood and her eyes are worked on wires.

From behind the papist virgin with her silver shoes there creeps another woman, poor, her feet bare and calloused, her swarthy face plastered with the dust of the road. Her belly is heavy with salvation and the weight drags and makes her back ache. When night comes she draws warmth not from ermine or sable but from the hide and hair of farm animals, as she squats among them in the straw; she suffers the first pangs of labour on a night of cutting cold, under a sky pierced by white stars.

(page 508, 510)

I finished this book with a sense of having witnessed a miracle.

Oh one last thing: earlier in the trilogy, Hilary Mantel got stuck into Thomas More and made Robert Bolt’s Man for all Seasons into a villain for our times, in this book Thomas Becket, the martyr hero of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral gets a similarly persuasive demotion. Is nothing sacred? I cry. To which Hilary Mantel apparently responds in the negative.

Proust Progress Report 9:

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

I’ve been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for nine months now. Part way through this month, I decided to reduce my daily quota of five pages. Three pages were fun, and then the next two were a slog. So I’m now aiming for three pages a day, and expect to be reading Proust – still mostly without a dictionary and still with limited comprehension – well into 2021.

At about page 1320 I nearly threw in the towel – exasperated by the interminable salons and garden parties, the meticulous charting of the rivalries of various duchesses, princesses and other ladies, the intrigues of the idle rich and their shifting allegiances related to the Dreyfus case and antisemitism. If I wanted to read something in French, maybe I should shift to Montaigne … or Jules Verne, where something happens.

Then the narrator goes for a second time to the seaside resort of Balbec, and after an encounter with the manager whose malapropisms amuse him enormously and are carefully explained, he is knocked sideways by memories of his beloved grandmother, who was his companion on his earlier visit. He feels her loss intensely, and is stupefied by grief. Worse, a number of people – workers at the hotel, his mother, his servant Françoise – tell him of sacrifices his grandmother was making for him at a time when he was oblivious to her suffering. This whole section is just brilliant. Though Proust is as much the meticulous analyst of emotional processes as ever, here it feels like vivisection.

And then we’re back with tales of lust and disgust and linguistic oddities. The early parts of this book dealt with the world of Sodom, of male homosexuality. At Balbec, in the part I’m now reading, the narrator becomes obsessed with Gomorrah, the world of Lesbians In particular, he suspects Albertine of Sapphic desires. So far, there’s nothing more graphic than public kissing, tittering and indecent shouts:

elles passèrent enlacées, ne cessant de s’embrasser, et … poussèrent des gloussements, des rires, des cris indécents.

(page 1397)

This must be the kind of thing that gave French literature a reputation for being as good as pornographic in the early 20th century.

I the middle of all this there are a couple of pages where the narrator tells us about a couple of sisters from the country who are employed as messengers by a wealthy woman at the hotel. Having somehow – he doesn’t explain how – struck up a friendship with them, he gives us a blow by blow account of a conversation in his bedroom one morning where they mock him mercilessly. My impression is that a native French speaker would find great joy in their rustic language, but I enjoyed it a lot without that advantage. These two women, Céleste and Marie, are full of vitality and have no respect at all for the narrator’s poor health, social ambitions or writerly distinction. There have been other moments where Proust has taken the mickey, but this one shines.

I’m soldiering on.

The Book Group zooming with Hwang Sok-yong At Dusk

Hwang Sok-yong, At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Scribe 2018)

Before the meeting: One of the many things I love about my Book Group is that a couple of chaps can be counted on, when it’s their turn to choose our book, to send us Somewhere Else. We’ve read challenging books from Indonesia, India, Japan, Poland, Russia .. the list could go on. This month, we’re in South Korea.

Like many novels these days, this one tells two separate stories in alternating chapters, and the links between the stories become apparent only towards the end. The reader is quietly tantalised by hints at the connection, and there are red herrings.

The protagonist of the first narrative strand, Park Minwoo, is a successful male architect nearing retirement age, who has been part of ruthless slum clearance projects and aesthetically hideous urban development. My reading was partly informed and enriched by knowing that I was in the virtual company of architects, a builder and a heritage consultant in the Group, but the ethical issues didn’t need that kind of help. Minwoo has our sympathy: the bulk of his story is taken up with his childhood in the slums, and his escape to a more affluent life through study and patronage; and with the way his childhood friends and, especially, sweetheart remained behind, mostly forgotten by him – until, in the opening paragraph of the book, a young woman hands him a slip of paper with a name and a phone number and the past comes back.

The other story, told in the first person, features Jung Woohee, a young woman who is scraping a living working the graveyard shift in a convenience store in order to pursue her ambition to become a playwright. She is befriended by a man slightly older than her, named Kim Minwoo. I was struggling with the Korean personal names and place names, and at about the time that we learned his name I went back to the start to draw up a list of characters and places: yes, there are two Minwoos, but the mother of Kim Winmoo laughs at the idea of any connection between the son of a poor single mother and a famous architect.

I know next to nothing about South Korean history and culture. Duck Duck Go was my friend, especially in Minwoo’s story, which includes passing references to a coup, martial law and a massacre – all background to his rising fortunes. And I recognised motifs from of Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite – I don’t think there’s any influence or borrowing in either direction, just that the movie and the book are about the same world: Woohee lives in a basement apartment like that of the poor family in that film; and like the daughter of the poor family, Minwoo earns some cash by tutoring the initially unresponsive son of a wealthy family.

The thematic relationship between the two narratives is powerful, particularly as embodied in the two Minwoos. One has become successful through projects that have destroyed communities but has been able to turn his back on the human suffering; the other has been led by poverty and need to be part of an eviction squad on just that kind of project. It’s an amazing achievement of the novel that we continue to see these characters as human and deserving our compassion, even while we see the horror of their actions. We take no joy from the fact that things don’t end well for either of them.

I think I’m missing something in the way the two narratives connect at the end. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that it felt like a twist that lacked any pay-off at all. Possibly something is being said about generational cultural shift, or the role of the artist (is Woohee a representative of the novelist?), and maybe there’s something about gender, but it sailed past me. I’m looking forward to talking about it to a lot of little faces on my computer screen.

A word about the translation: Sora Kim-Russell manages to give us a very readable text in natural, flowing English, while at the same time not pretending that this is anything but a Korean story. Take this little passage from Minwoo’s childhood visit to the home of his poorer friend Jaemyung:

Their mother ladled up bowls of sujebi that she’d cooked in a large pot, while Myosoon carried the bowls from the kitchen to the table. Once Myosoon and their mother were seated at the end of the table, dinner began. Instead of the usual firm dough torn by hand, their sujebi was made with a runny dough that was scraped with a pair of chopsticks into a pot of boiling water; as you ate it, the dough flakes turned soggy and loose until you were basically eating flour porridge. The flour must have been of poor quality to begin with, as it was yellowish in colour, and the broth wasn’t made from beef or anchovy stock but was just plain water with a little soy sauce and sliced squash. It barely qualified as sujebi.

(page 56-57)

There’s a lot of explanation embedded in that passage that – I’m guessing – wouldn’t be necessary for a Korean reader, but the ignorant reader (such as me) is neither patronised nor mystified. Sujebi isn’t translated for us, nor is it italicised to mark it as ‘foreign’; but we are told what the yellowish hue of the dough signifies about the flour. I just looked Sora Kim-Russell and see that she’s won awards. I concur with the judges.

After the meeting: I felt our last meeting, our first on zoom, was like an EngLit seminar, by which I think I meant less convivial as well as less chaotic than our Book Group meetings usually are. If Wednesday’s meeting was seminarish, it was only to the good, because we had a wonderfully rich, and enriching, conversation about the book. This may have been helped by the unobtrusive labour of one group member who earns his living largely as a facilitator. In the past he has been mocked for his pleas that we have one conversation at a time. This week, no one mocked, and I think we all silently appreciated the way he made sure everyone had a fair bite of the conversational apple. So, apart from the chap who was called away because his daughter cut her hand badly (she’s OK now), it was a smooth and unchaotic event.

My hope that the architects etc would shed extra light on the book was dashed. Pretty much with one voice they said that the architecture was there as a metaphor (or metonym, maybe: the subject was the modernisation of Korea, and architecture was a way of talking about that.

One chap had read the book twice, and a number of us thought that was a smart move. It’s a short book, but there are many layers: the portrait of Korea, the romance, the interplay of the two narrative strands, and so on. Someone had given the book to a friend to read because he wanted to discuss it before we met. The friend described it as unsentimentally elegiac, a phrase that struck a chord in the group: Author Hwang does tell of a lost past, without romanticising it.

There was an interesting discussion of the ending, which I won’t even attempt to summarise here, partly because that would be spoileristic.

And as well as that, the important business of the evening: hearing about how we are all faring in these Covid–19 times. Some are busier than ever with their jobs, some suddenly out of work, some missing contact with their family, some living in uncustomary closeness with theirs, one man needing advice on a barber for a much-needed haircut, and so on. Have I =said I love my book group? Then I’ll say it again. (Also, someone mentioned my blog, so I have to be nice about them in case they turn up to read it!)

Proust Progress Report 8: The Cities of the Plain

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): The last 100 pages of Book 3, Le côté de Guermantes, seconde partie, and the first 80 pages of Book 4, Sodom et Gomorrhe

I’m reading À la recherche du temps perdu five pages a day, mostly without a dictionary and therefore with limited comprehension. Currently, as I’m making my way through seemingly endless accounts of more or less random encounters at a range of social events, I’m quite enjoying it moment by moment, but if there’s a forest I can’t see it for the trees.

The main thing in the pages that I’ve read this month is that M de Charlus has come into the foreground. He’s the close relative of the dazzling Oriane de Guermantes who visited the narrator’s bedroom at Balbec in the second volume, and creepily stroked his chin the next day (as I mentioned in my third progress report, here).

In Le côté de Guermantes, the narrator is invited to M. de Charlus’ home late at night, where he is taken completely by surprise by an angry tirade. Thinking the M. de Charlus is accusing him of slandering him, the narrator swears that he has never said anything that could have offended him. What follows, though deranged, is a fabulous model for how to respond to a faux apology of the ‘I apologise for any offence my remarks may unintentionally have given’ kind:

— Et qui vous dit que j’en suis offensé?» s’écria-t-il avec fureur … «Pensez-vous qu’il soit à votre portée de m’offenser? Vous ne savez donc pas à qui vous parlez? Croyez-vous que la salive envenimée de cinq cents petits bonshommes de vos amis, juchés les uns sur les autres, arriverait à baver seulement jusqu’à mes augustes orteils?»

(Page 1173)

In English (from this link, with one or two changes by me):

‘And who told you I am offended?’ he screamed in fury … ‘Do you suppose that it is within your power to offend me? So you do not know to whom you are speaking? Do you imagine that the envenomed spittle of five hundred little gentlemen like you and your friends heaped one upon another would manage to slobber even as high as my august toes.’

Sodome et Gomorrhe (usually called The Cities of the Plain in English, primly avoiding the suggestion of sodomy, though that suggestion is clearly intended by Proust) gets off to a riveting, though still Proustily longwinded, start with a revelation about M. de Charlus. A 21st century reader will have gathered, or at least suspected, that M. de Charlus is homosexual well before now. But it comes as a revelation to our narrator when he sees him in an erotic encounter – well, he hears the heavy-duty erotic bit through a wall; what he sees is a weird bit of strutting and flouncing that precedes it.

After this revelatory moment, Proust goes off on a mini-essay about homosexuality. Apart from conflating homosexuality and gender fluidity, his reflections about the psychic damage done by the need for secrecy has aged amazingly well. He draws a parallel to Jews and antisemitism: in both cases it’s possible to ‘pass’ and man do. He describes the way internalised oppression can lead men (so far he’s talking almost entirely about men) who are in the closet to penalise and exclude anyone who is openly gay. While it’s not clear whether he thinks Zionism is a good idea, he’s emphatically against the idea of a movement to rebuild Sodom as a homeland for ‘Sodomites’, because:

Or, à peine arrivés, les sodomistes quitteraient la ville pour ne pas avoir l’air d’en être, prendraient femme, entretiendraient des maîtresses dans d’autres cités où ils trouveraient d’ailleurs toutes les distractions convenables. Ils n’iraient à Sodome que les jours de suprême nécessité, quand leur ville serait vide, par ces temps où la faim fait sortir le loup du bois, c’est-à-dire que tout se passerait en somme comme à Londres, à Berlin, à Rome, à Pétrograd ou à Paris.

In English:

For, no sooner had they arrived than the Sodomites would leave the town so as not to have the appearance of belonging to it, would take wives, keep mistresses in other cities where they would find, incidentally, every diversion that appealed to them. They would go to Sodom only on days of supreme necessity, when their own town was empty, in the times when hunger drives the wolf from the woods; in other words, everything would go on very much as it does to-day in London, Berlin, Rome, Petrograd or Paris.

That gives you some idea of the delicate path he treads between serious and interesting analysis and satirical barbs.

But then he goes to another party and we’re back on the subject of the glittering high society that he partly despises and mostly is entranced by. In his newly illuminated state, he notices and remarks wickedly on a number of homoerotic currents. For instance, M. de Charlus makes a big fuss of the woman who is his brother-in-law’s latest mistress, even though everyone would expect him to snub her. The reason for this unexpected behaviour is not, as the narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup, back in town for the evening, is convinced, because his uncle Palamède is a womaniser, but because, as the narrator has told us, the woman in question has two strikingly beautiful sons, whose beauty is reflected in their mother’s.

There’s more. There’s lots more. There are amusingly vicious character sketches, lyrical descriptive passages, surprising asides about the nature of memory, insights into human folly sharp observations about Dreyfusards and antisemitism and, just once so far, a direct address to the reader who the narrator (correctly) assumes wants him to cut to the chase and get on with the story. I’m once again reassured by Clive James’s remark that having read À la recherche in French he then read it in English to find out what he’d read.

The Book Group and Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe (Fourth Estate 2018)

Before the meeting: This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, most obviously because it happened online, with participants spread from Bondi to Balmain, and less obviously because it’s the first time a book has been chosen that I’ve already read.

So for my pre-meeting take on the book, I’ll just point you to this link, and limit myself to saying that I enjoyed the book, and risked a visit to the supermarket to buy a bottle of sarsaparilla to flourish at the zoom screen.

After the meeting: As you would expect, we spent time checking how we were all going in our separate households. One of us reported the death of a friend in England. One made only a brief appearance because he is a health worker and exhausted, as well as putting himself at risk as an essential worker. Another has been working very long hours as his business adjusts to having most people working from home and he spends many hours every day in online meetings, which, he says, may actually be more productive than in-person meetings, but are exhausting. Several of us, me included, reported intergenerational tensions as people variously worried that others weren’t taking enough care or were annoyed by other people’s worry. A number spoke of the odd sense of having a relaxing time to do gardening and sit about and read, while outside – where you’re not allowed to go – terrible things are happening. I got the impression that many of us are addicted to Covid-19 news. There were no jokes.

We did get to the book. Without food to share or the possibility of fragmenting into small incidental conversations the whole thing was a lot less fun than we’re used to. It felt almost like an Eng Lit seminar – not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that. Most of us enjoyed the book. One chap said that generally if a book hasn’t grabbed him by page 72 he gives up on it; this book took until page 272, but then he decided to go with it and really had a good time. Some didn’t care much for the longish expository opening. (I think they were referring to the evocation of Brisbane suburbs, which I loved.) Another felt that the magic realism elements were the least successful, and I think we can look forward to an excellent film.

Philip Pullman's Secret Commonwealth

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth (David Fickling Books 2019)

This is the fifth book featuring Philip Pullman’s wonderful Lyra Silvertongue (or Belacqua, take your pick). There was the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I loved to pieces, and which gave rise to a play, a movie and now, I’ve just discovered, a television series (click here for the IMDB entry). Then there was a small book, Lyra’s Oxford, which I missed. And now a second trilogy, The Book of Dust, of which the first book, La Belle Sauvage, was a prequel to the first trilogy and featured Lyla as a baby. The Secret Commonwealth leaps forward a couple of decades, and features events that take place some years after the end of the first trilogy, when Lyra is a twenty-year-old university student.

I wasn’t swept away by La Belle Sauvage (my blog post here). At least in the second part, it felt like a lot of colour and movement and not much interesting by way of plot or character development. The Secret Commonwealth is back on track. At the beginning, Lyla, now a student at Oxford, is at odds with her daemon Pantaleimon. For those who came in late (which I really don’t recommend: start with Northern Lights aka The Golden Compass), in this world a daemon is an animal who is somehow part of a human being. Daemons have names, they change shape frequently when their human is young but settle into a permanent creature around puberty. A daemon generally represents some essential element of its human’s character. To be separated from your daemon is extremely distressing, and most people don’t believe it is possible. To be quarrelling with him or her, as Lyla is when this book begins, is deeply disturbing.

So we’re off to a complex start. Lyla’s difficulty with Panteleimon is central to her personal life, but there are huge issues to deal with in the rest of the world. A version of the Catholic Church wields tremendous power, and though we are more or less in the present day it’s as if the Inquisition is alive and well. Organised religion, militant atheism, postmodern truthysim, religiously inspired terrorism all feature, in a plot of almost Le-Carré-esque complexity as we follow the separate adventures of Lyla, Pantaleimon and Malcolm Polstead, who is in undeclared love with Lyla, all of them being pursued by a fantasy version of the surveillance state.

Where His Dark Materials was intended primarily for a pre-teen or young teenage readership, this is definitely for older readers. I didn’t feel like an intruder as a 73 year old, but that’s not exactly what I mean. There’s some fruity swearing, and there’s one powerful scene of sexually-motivated violence that take it right out of the children’s section into the YA.

I remember how agonising it was to wait for the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy – would Will really kill the Authority, and since the Authority seemed to be a name for the Judaeo-Christian God, what would that mean? The Secret Commonwealth, like all good second books in trilogies, also ends with a cliffhanger. Will the characters find each other, will they discover the secret behind the Men from the Mountains, fundamentalist terrorists, will Lyra escape the men who have tracked her down to the deserted village in southern Turkey, will the world be saved? But this time, without in any way implying that the book didn’t have me in its thrall the whole time, I can wait.

Proust Progress Report 7: more about the Guermantes

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Le côté de Guermantes, seconde partie (originally published as a separate volume in 1921)

I’ve just realised with a shock that it’s time for my monthly Proust Progress Report.

A month ago I ended my post with the hope that the plot, such as it is, might move along soon. The opening page of the first chapter of Le côté de Guermantes Part Two offers hope, beginning with a plot summary:

Maladie de ma grand-mère. – Maladie de Bergotte.
Le duc et le médecin. – Déclin de ma grand-mère. – Sa mort.

In English:

My grandmother’s illness. – Bergotte’s illness.
The duke and the doctor. – My grandmother’s decline. – Her death.

What follows is a moving account of the final illness and death of the narrator’s beloved grandmother. Proust’s sharp, satirical edge is still there in his accounts of the various doctors and visitors of the sick. In particular, this intensely felt episode doesn’t overshadow completely the main concern of this book (or two books, depending on how you count them), which is the narrator’s relationships with the aristocratic Guermantes family and his acerbic commentary on them.

Albertine, with whom he fell into unrequited love in the second book but who no longer tugs at his heartstrings, turns up when he’s sick with grief and it seems she is now in love with him. I may have misinterpreted Proust’s opaque narrative at this point, but I think they have it off, and remain completely at cross purposes about what it means. The plot is definitely thickening.

But then we move on to the main game, and the forward impetus is lost. The duchess Mme de Guermantes, Oriane, with whom the narrator has also been in unrequited love and who also no longer pulls at his heartstrings – invites him to dinner. The plot of the next 100 pages or so can be summarised as: the narrator goes to dinner with a bunch of aristocrats.

The narrator is pretty much a fly on the wall. Every now and then someone speaks to him and he gets a word in edgewise, but he gives us a meticulous, detailed account of the witty, snarky conversation, so that the various personalities emerge sharply. Embedded in the narrative are essays on aspects of the culture and politics of the salons and of the aristocratic class.

When the narrator arrives at the Guermantes home – which is just across the courtyard from his own, though separated by a great social distance – he is greeted by the duke himself, who happily grants him his wish to be left alone in a room with some paintings by the great Elstir. When he tears himself away from the paintings (having given us a richly evocative analysis of them) he realises an hour has passed. A servant takes him to where the other guests are waiting to start dinner. The duke, aware as are all the guests that the narrator has the lowest status of anyone in the room, is at great pains not to make him feel he has inconvenienced anyone. So even though they have all been waiting to eat for at least forty minutes, he makes a point of introducing him to everyone individually, beginning with the Princess, the noblest person in the room. Only after a decent interval does he signal diffidently to the servants to announce dinner.

That tiny sequence is the occasion for a complex meditation on what you might call noblesse oblige, though that’s not a phrase Proust uses. These people who are in the highest social rank will never make a point of their status. In fact the way they demonstrate their superiority is by treating their inferiors (that is to say, just about everyone) with elaborate deference. It’s hard to explain the pleasure given by this essay – and a number of others, such as one on Oriane’s wit and social eminence. It’s something to do with paradox, and the tension between the infectious enthusiasm that Proust has for these people and his clear-eyed perception that they lead largely idle and trivial lives, and generally have appalling politics. And it’s laid out in sentences that you can get lost in, and then miraculously found again.

I’ve still got about a hundred pages of this book to go. The narrator has an appointment to meet the creepy M Charlus – Oriane’s brother – once he can make his excuses from the dinner, and that appointment hangs over the glittering dinner like a livid storm cloud. The title of next volume is Sodome et Gomorrhe, which raises the possibility that things are going to get a lot spicier.