Tag Archives: Novel

The Book Group and Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980, Virago 2004 … 2014)

transit.jpgBefore the meeting: Serendipitously, I heard that this book had been chosen for the Book Group’s June meeting just after visiting the wonderful exhibition James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library, which features the actual transit of Venus across the face of the sun in 1769. I enjoyed the exhibition much more than the book.

Sadly, though I’m in awe of The Transit of Venus for its passion and complexity and astonishingly subtle prose, I just couldn’t like it. I feel mean saying so, because it feels like a very personal book – Shirley Hazzard and her protagonist Caroline Bell have a lot of history on common. At the same time, it’s the way the author injects herself constantly into the narrative that alienated me. Though she never actually addresses the reader, as in ‘Reader, I had an adulterous affair with him,’ she regularly winks at us over the characters’ heads – informing us of one’s eventual fate, giving us just the beginnings of sentences whose cliché endings she expects us to know, or commenting with Patrick White–like snobbishness on someone’s snobbery. The prose is studded with literary allusions, not all of them convincingly attributed to the characters, of which I recognised enough to know that I was mostly being cast as an outsider.

Two young Australian women whose parents died in a marine accident are in the care of their martyrish older half-sister, who brings them to England a little after World War Two. The younger sister, Grace, makes a boring marriage and the novel focuses on the complex relationships of Caro/Caroline, the older sister. Caro is loved by a young scientist of working class origins, Edmund Tice, but she falls for a sophisticated playwright, Paul Ivory, who is engaged and then married to a nasty piece of aristocratic work named Tertia. Caro eventually frees herself of Paul’s charms and finds happiness with a wealthy US social justice activist, Adam Vail. Vail’s death years later introduces the final act, in which both Grace and her husband are separately tempted to adultery (it would be a spoiler to tell if either or both succumb), and circumstances bring Caro back to her youthful love triangle, where there are as many revelations as you’d find at the end of an Agatha Christie novel, delivered pretty much in an extended monologue by one of the characters. Then there’s a final scene that, like the ending of The Sopranos, is illusorily inconclusive.

It’s not as soapy as that summary makes it sound, but that’s the bare bones. Here’s a sample of the writing, picked pretty much at random. Caro and Paul are visiting a megalithic site, and Caro is in awe. Then:

Some stones were rounded, some columnar. That was their natural state, unhewn, untooled. Paul Ivory said, ‘Male and female created He them. Even these rocks.’
The presence of Paul offered something like salvation, implying that the human propensity to love, which could never contradict Avebury Circle, might yet make it appear incomplete. Aware of this advantage, Paul awaited the moment when Caro’s silence would be transferred back, intensified, from the place to himself. He was calm, with controlled desire and with the curiosity that is itself an aspect of desire. As yet he and she had merely guessed at each other’s essence, and her show of self-sufficiency had given her some small degree of power over him – power that could only be reversed by an act of possession.
Preliminary uncertainty might be a stimulus, if the outcome was assured.
Caro had a wonderful danger to her, too, that derived not only from the circumstances, but also from her refusal to manipulate them. The danger and the attraction were the same. There was, in addition, her strong, resilient body, strong arms and throat, and her aversion to physical contact. Beyond the pleasure of defying his own circumstances, Paul pursued a further impulse to violate Caroline Bell’s pride or her integrity.

The quote from Genesis is the kind of thing most characters in the book come out with, except that the Bible crops up less than Yeats or eighteenth century London gossip. I’ve recently visited a megalithic site a little like the one in the book (mine was near Évora in Portugal), and while I completely get Caro’s awe, I simply don’t believe in her need for ‘salvation’ or her resulting vulnerability to Paul’s seductive intentions. And all that stuff about essence, power,  possession, uncertainty and violation … well, to me it’s very high-level hooptedoodle. If it’s to your taste or sheds light on the human condition for you, you’ll enjoy this novel a lot more than I did.

But don’t let my comments put you off. When I’d finished the book I read an excellent article about it circulated by a member of the Book Group, ‘Across the Face of the Sun’ by Charlotte Wood in the Sydney Review of Books. It’s an excellent article, though not something you should read before reading the book. She writes:

It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.

Well, there you have it. I’ve read it for the first time.

After the meeting: It was a small meeting, just five of us, of whom four had read the whole book – though one of the completers confessed to skipping slabs of it.

It turned out we’d all responded to the same elements in the writing, but our responses were vastly different. Two of us, neither of whom usually does this, had marked a number of short sentences that had delighted them, and when they read them aloud it turned out that some of them were exactly the kind of thing that had increasingly turned me off the book. Someone said he had laughed out loud at parts that I registered as annoying smart-arsery.

I had read the book as permeated with a kind of expatriate contempt for mid 20th century Australia. Others read it very differently, as challenging English assumptions of cultural inferiority. One chap spoke of visiting Britain as a young man and being surprised to discover that there were people there who had a mental hierarchy of cultural worth, in which he had been given a low place as an Australian. There are a number of moments in The Transit of Venus that challenge that ranking: snobbish Christian Thrale observes silently that the two young women don’t seem to realise that they are just a couple of Australian girls living in rented accommodation.

We made the non-completer leave the room at one stage so we could discuss the ending, something everyone who read the book for the first time needs to do.

Everyone had enjoyed the book more than I had, and though I don’t think anyone thought it was a truly great book, we were unanimous in our awe of it. I certainly had to rethink my own response. Maybe I’ll get to a revelatory second reading some time.

The Transit of Venus is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Robert Seethaler’s Whole Life

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins (first published in 2014, translation 2015)

life.jpg

‘You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.’

If this slim book is any guide, I really should read more German fiction. It tells the life story of a simple working man in a mountain village. He has moments of quiet joy, and small achievements, and he stumbles. He is brutally treated in his childhood, is a conscript in World War Two and a prisoner of the Soviets long after the war is over, and has his share of violent tragedy. He keeps his integrity and his dignity, and though it’s true that his life is made up of moments, it’s also true that he has a whole life.

I only know about six words in German, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation. But I can say that it read smoothly and is beautiful English prose. The quote at the top isn’t typical: mostly the book’s characters are pretty inarticulate, but this statement was more or less blurted out by the manager of a construction company when he was hiring the protagonist. It could have been a clunky insertion of a thematic statement, but in Seethaler’s (and Collins’s) hands, it is like a magical realist moment where the character momentarily becomes an oracular figure – without causing a ripple in the flow of the narrative.  And the book is full of such joys.

 

Nadeem Aslam’s Golden Legend

Nadeem Aslam, The Golden Legend (Faber & Faber 2017)

legend.jpgThis novel includes the standard disclaimer. It is a work of fiction: not only are all its characters, events and organisations creations of the author, but not even any resemblance to persons, events or organisations is intended.

I’m sure that’s technically correct, but the book’s power derives from the pervasive sense that the Pakistan in which its characters live is at heart an accurate representation of the actual Pakistan, that the terrible world of murderous religious intolerance, both of the Muslim majority against the tiny Christian minority, and of militant Islamists against both Christians and other Muslims, is not too far from reality. Certainly the events that have disastrous impacts on all the main characters have close parallels in the real world: US drone attacks that maim children and worse, sexual violence resulting in death virtually ignored by the authorities, behind the scenes machinations that enable crimes committed by US diplomats to go unpunished, the atrocities committed by Indian military in Kashmir, suicide bombings..

What the book does is make these forces painfully real by showing how they work in the lives of a small group of people. By contrast, there are characters for whom Islam is a sustaining and life affirming force, in particular a gentle imam, who always carries a set of beads in one hand and a bulky ‘book of sins’ in the other. One of the beads gives delight to the children of his village – Christian as well as Muslim – because it contains a tiny image of a holy Muslin shrine and a magnifying lens through which to look at it. And there is a book compiled by the father of one of the characters, nearly a thousand pages long, that is

an acknowledgement and celebration of the countless ideas and thoughts that had travelled over the ages from one part of the planet to another. It outlined and examined how disparate events in the history of the world had influenced each other, the hidden or forgotten contributions that one set of humans had made towards the happiness and knowledge of another. Traditions and histories had always mingled, and nothing in the East or the West was ever pure.

The book is destroyed by a man from the Pakistani military, and the main characters spend the rest of the book reassembling its pages and sewing them back together with gold thread, reading excerpts as they do so. Through this device the horrors of the current sectarianism are interspersed with reminders that, for example, Dante had ‘in all probability’ read of Muhammad’s journey to Paradise and Hell before he wrote The Divine Comedy, and that over centuries the relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim worlds have been mutually respectful, cooperative and productive.

And through all this there’s a love story, a chase, poignant family stories.

Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (Fourth Estate 2002)

belcanto.jpgThe logical book to read after Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty would have been Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. But travellers can’t always be choosers, and Bel Canto was in our luggage.

I knew nothing about the book except the little Ann Patchett said about it in Truth and Beauty, namely that it was her breakthrough book. I hadn’t even read the back cover blurb. If you plan to read it, I recommend that you do likewise. I’ll try to give as little way as possible in this blog post.

As the book opens, a world famous opera singer has just finished singing and, members of the audience believe, her accompanist has risen to kiss her, when all the lights in the room, including candles, are extinguished. The performance is in the home of the vice president of a small unnamed Latin American country, part of a birthday dinner for a Japanese businessman, a prospective investor in the country. The sudden darkness is caused by a group of guerrillas who are there to kidnap the country’s president. A hostage situation ensues.

If, like me, you come to this narrative with a real siege in mind – like the one in Martin Place where two hostages were killed – you may find the subtly comic tone uncomfortable. Luckily, some way into reading the book I watched the first Die Hard movie on TV, and this turned out to be a much better context for my reading experience. Set against Bruce Willis’s heroics and Alan Rickman’s urbane, ruthless villainy, there’s something wonderful about Patchett’s focus on the unheroic, unvillainous, and mostly un-urbane relationships within the besieged building. It’s not exactly a humanised case of multiple Stockholm Syndrome, nor is it a benign reimagining of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, but it has elements of both those, as well as a meditation on the role of art, a multi-dimensional love story, a political tragedy and many other things.

It completely won me over.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage 2013)

wyld.jpgMy copy of All the Birds, Singing announces on the cover that it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2014. As I read the first chapter, which is set in a generic British countryside, I wondered about that prize, given the insistence in past years that the Miles Franklin winner had to be set in Australia. The first paragraph of the second chapter put my questioning to rest:

We are a week from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.

Then, as if Boodarie and the redback aren’t enough to signal that we are now in rural Australia, the next paragraph lays it on thick:

The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it. […] The first stars are bright needles, and in the old Moreton Bay fig that hangs over the tractor shed and drops nuts on the roof while I sleep, a currawong and a white galah are having it out; I can hear the blood-thick bleat of them. A flying fox goes overhead and just like that the smell of the place changes and night has settled in the air.

The novel continues in alternate chapters. On an unnamed British island, the protagonist has a small sheep farm, and someone or something is killing her sheep. In Australia, some years earlier, she is a lone woman shearer, with a dark secret in her past. On the island, she has to deal with a series of men who refuse to take her story of a sheepkiller seriously. In Australia, the telling moves back in time through a series of unfortunate incidents, mostly involving physical and sexual abuse by men.

It’s a good read, but I have to tell you that if, like me, you prefer a book that sets up a mystery to arrive at a solution to that mystery, you will want, like me, to throw this one across the room when you reach the final pages.

All the Birds, Singing is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

China Miéville’s Scar

China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002)

scar.jpgThis was another gift from the Street Library gods. A couple of pages into it, I realised that it was set in the same world as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which I read many years ago. It’s not a sequel. As far as I recall (which I admit isn’t far) no characters have made the transition from the earlier book, but it packs a similar narrative punch and is populated by a similar range of fantastical creatures who engage in the same blend of steampunk science and magic (thaumaturgy) in the same teemingly complex universe (which I hope never gets made into a CGI-based movie).

The story involves an immense sea monster that is tamed and/or drugged into towing on huge chains a pirate city made up of hundreds of lashed-together vessels small and large. It features sentient beings known as the anophelii, whose chronically famished females attack any creature with blood in its veins and suck it dry in seconds, and whose males, whose mouths resemble anal sphincters, live lives of weirdly passive abstraction. It includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.

I read somewhere that a secret of good fantasy writing is to give the reader cool stuff now, and then cooler stuff later – that is, not to have a terrific climax preceded by a hundred pages of so-so build-up. The Scar is profligate with cool stuff.

I could go on, but I’ll finish off with a taste of Miéville’s prose (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that the characters are descending in a tiny deep-sea vehicle):

After uncountable minutes, the darkness outside was momentarily broken, and the crew gasped as time returned to them like an electryc [sic] shock. Some living lamp was passing them by, some tentacular thing that inverted its body with a peristaltic wave, enveloping itself in its luminescent innards and shooting away, its austere glimmer snuffed out.
Chion ignited the lamp at the bathyscaphos’s front. It stuttered on, its phosphorous glow casting a cone of light. They could see its edges as clearly as if they were marble. There was nothing visible in the lamp’s field except a soup of minute detritus, particles that seemed to eddy upward as the Ctenophore plunged. There was nothing to see: no ocean floor, no life, nothing.That crushing emptiness they had illuminated depressed them more profoundly than the darkness. They descended unlit.

The book may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it full of delights.

Rose Tremain’s Restoration

Rose Tremain, Restoration (©1989, Sceptre 1990)

Irestoration.jpg read this book – another gift from strangers by way of our little Street Library – while in London with the Moving Hearts Project, which regular readers will know involves shaping hearts from clay. It was a lovely bit of serendipity that in the first couple of pages the narrator, an anatomy student in the mid 17th century, is ‘forced to contemplate an astounding phenomenon’:

I am encircling a human heart, a living human heart with my hand. I am now, in fact, squeezing it with controlled but not negligible force.

I had been doing the same with a heart of clay just minutes before I read that.

Robert Merivel, the narrator–hero, quits medicine for the pleasures and intrigues of the court of Charles II, where he sees himself as a kind of beloved fool. His fortunes rise, and fall dramatically. He finds himself working with an austere group of Quakers in an insane asylum, and again falls from grace. Merivel is his own worst enemy: his heart is in the right place but another part of his anatomy is too often in the wrong one. The book is often very funny, with moments of tenderness and heartbreak.

I haven’t read Pepys’ journals, but I’m guessing that the book owes quite a lot of its tone and ambience to them. I’m pretty sure that Pepys himself makes a brief unnamed appearance.

I enjoyed the book hugely. It was an extra pleasure to read it in London. I regularly walked around Lambeth and Vauxhall, where Merivel rides his horse through the woods (no woods there now), or beside the Thames as Merivel does. The echoes intensified my enjoyment of both the real and the imagined London. Though it doesn’t snow in the novel as it did in my time there, and there was no plague that I knew of in 2018 London, I was particularly struck by this little moment, which also gives some idea of Merivel’s voice:

I stood still and took my first breath of the city. The scent of the air dod not seem to have been altered by the presence of the plague. What I did notice at once, however, was a strange quietness in the street and beyond it, which was like the quietness of snow. It was as if the city had fallen into a trance, or else become a place that I was not really standing it, but only saw and heard from a long way off.

I gather Merivel is the hero of a second book by Rose Tremain. If it turns up in our Street Library it will be hard to resist.

Kim Scott’s Taboo at the Book Group

Kim Scott, Taboo (Macmillan Australia 2017)

taboo.jpegBefore the meeting: Regretfully, I’m short of time to write about Taboo. It’s a very different book from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance. That earlier novel engages with the early history of Western Australian colonisation with almost superhuman breadth of sympathy and already has classic status. This one is set in the twenty-first century, and follows a group of Noongar people who are returning to the site of a massacre with the hope of making things right – reestablishing contact with the old people, and with culture and language, and making some kid of reconciliation with the descendants of the perpetrators.

Taboo is based squarely in Kim Scott’s experience as an activist in language reclamation in Western Australia. I’ve just watched a video of a talk he gave on the subject at Melbourne University in 2012, in which he speaks about ‘the responsibility and obligations of being a descendant of the people who first created human society in this part of the world and keep that sense of society alive’. He speaks with modesty, charm, humour, and great power. It is a revelatory 50 minutes. I doubt if he had even started writing Taboo at the time of the talk, but he tells a number of stories that are clearly the inspiration for key episodes in the novel.

The novel doesn’t romanticise its Noongar characters: they have been scarred and in some cases corrupted by their history. They struggle with drug and alcohol issues. But awkwardly, shambolically, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, they find hope in what they can piece together of their heritage. The central character, fifteen year old Tilly, has reconnected with her Noongar father only as a teenager, and in the course of the novel is welcomed into her extended family, who see her as important to their project of returning to the massacre site (she was fostered by the farming family of the place when she was a baby). Her claustrophobic response to their embrace is vividly realised.

Maybe it’s just me (I’ll find out at the meeting), but while the novel has vastly expanded my sense of the world, it’s no masterpiece. There are elements of something like magical realism that are weirdly unsatisfactory, many narrative threads that are started up and never resolved, and an ending that feels like a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to make it all come together.

After the meeting, just a hasty note before I go to bed, because time is a bit short just now: This book sustained conversation like few others, and everyone who had read it had something interesting to say about it.

One man said that it wasn’t like a feature film, but more like the beginning of a television series: we were left wondering what would happen next for just about every character. Another said it was about the importance of stories, that it told many stories that didn’t necessarily connect. As readers we are left in an unsettled state of never really knowing the full story. I don’t think he used the word ‘unsettled’, but we did notice that we are all white men of a certain age, and the way the book made us feel had a lot to do with that. Without really leaving the book, we talked about the prospect of a treaty, about the relative value of symbolic acts, about the different meaning of a sense of place for Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons.

Another said that he thought the book was about loss, scarring, grief, dislocation, that there was hope, but built on a fragile and fragmented base. Someone disagreed that it was about loss – that it was more about the power of community in the face of loss.

No one else seemed to find the magic realism elements unsatisfactory, and I was in a minority in disliking the ending. One man said he thought it was the best novel written in Australia so far – precisely because its lack of resolution was a true representation of how things stand in the relationship between Aboriginal people and mainstream Australia.

It was our first meeting for the year. Our host prepared a meal that set the bar high. The book led us to focus our minds on things that matter. We enjoyed each other, laughed a lot, and I think I can say we all came out into the night very glad for the gift that Kim Scott has given us in this book.

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (Head of Zeus 2017)

pachinko.jpegThis novel tells the story of four generations of a Korean family, mainly in Japan, from 1934 to 1989. It’s a painless, pleasurable history lesson. Painless for the reader, that is. The writing is beautifully accessible, the characters eminently ‘relatable’ (even the seducer of the young virgin who sets things going is good at heart), the plot – though predictable in its general shape as family sagas tend to be – furnished with enough interesting twists.

What I’ve taken away from the book is a fleshed-out sense of what it means to be Korean in Japan. You don’t become a Japanese citizen just by being born in Japan. Even if you come from several generations born in Japan, if your parents, grandparents, or further back, came from Korea, you must register as Korean (and choose whether North or South) on your fourteenth birthday. You can be naturalised, but very few manage it. And anti-Korean myths and stereotypes abound. Min Jin Lee explains in a note that the book was thirty years in the making, that she started out with a sense of the Koreans in Japan as ‘historical victims’, but when she had a chance to live in Tokyo for a time (she herself is US born),  she found that the reality was much deeper and more complex. The depth and complexity of the identities and experiences of Korean–Japanese are beautifully and instructively rendered in the novel.

Philip Pullman’s Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage (2017)

dust1.jpegThis is the first book in a promised trilogy, which is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s masterly His Dark Materials trilogy. If you haven’t read the earlier work I wouldn’t start with this one, there is something incomparably delicious in the way the world is revealed in Northern Lights (1995), and I remember how agonising the wait was for the third volume (The Amber Spyglass) after the cosmic cliffhanger ending of the second (The Subtle Knife).

La Belle Sauvage a big thick book, but a surprisingly quick read. Lyra, the main character of earlier/later trilogy, is a baby in grave danger. There are kind nuns and mean nuns, dangerous daemons and sweet daemons (Pullman’s daemons are one of the great inventions of twentieth century children’s literature), a deeply scary villain, a massive natural upheaval, a magical boat (the eponymous Belle Sauvage), and wonderfully engaging lead characters.

The second half of the book lost some of its charm for me as it turned into a kind of Odyssey-lite. But it might be more accurate to say that in the episodic second half, I became aware that I’m not part of the imagined audience. Given the amount of fruity language, and a sex scene that Malcolm, the young protagonist, sees but doesn’t understand, I’m thinking the book is meant primarily for people in their mid teens.

I was reluctant to embark on this trilogy because my To Be Read Pile is towering. But I’m very glad I did because I was in danger of forgetting what pleasure there could be in a good story. It’s a lot of pleasure.


PS on a tiny thing gave me perverse delight
On page 133 Malcolm is talking to his school friend Eric about spies, and suggests that the music reacher, ‘the shortest-tempered person Malcolm had ever known’, might be one:

Eric thought about it. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But she stands out too much. A real spy’d be less conspicuous. Blend in more.’

On the next page, still in the same conversation, Malcolm suggests that Eric pump his father for information about something.

‘Dunno. I could ask him. But I got to be suitable about it. Can’t just come out with a question.’
‘What do you mean, suitable?’
‘You know. Not obvious.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Malcolm. ‘Subtle’ was the word Eric wanted, probably. And he’d probably meant ‘conspicuous’ earlier.

Well, yes, he probably mean ‘conspicuous’ because that’s what he said. Clearly there’s been an unusual proofreading error. Malcolm’s unvoiced comment only makes sense if Eric used a malaprop earlier (‘A real spy’d be less contiguous,’ perhaps). Someone – I’m guessing a proofreader late in the process – corrected the wrong word and then had a moment’s inattention on the next page. Editorial workers all over the world think, ‘There but for the grace of god …’