Tag Archives: The Book Show

The Book Group and That Deadman Dance

Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance (Picador 2010)

Having enjoyed the movie Red Dog in spite of its erasure of Aboriginal people from the Pilbara, I was glad to turn to the Book Group’s pick of the month for a bit of counterpoint. Sadly, I turned to it too late to finish it before the group met over soup, bread and cheese on 17 August. So here we are, reversing the usual order of my Book Group posts: first the meeting and then the book.

The meeting:
We had a good turn-up, and more than half had read the whole book. All but one of us were big fans, and the dissenter – who was about a third of the way through – was prepared to keep an open mind. I’d read only 110 pages or so myself, but at that point was finding it exhilarating. Discussion was animated, emphatic, mostly good humoured.  I won’t try to summarise beyond saying that there was a shared sense that the novel made us see the British settlement of Western Australia with fresh eyes. Also the whaling industry, but I hadn’t read to that point, so tried not to listen. I had read the short chapter where a convict who has been speared by Noongars in payback for wrongs done by someone else – though smarting with the injustice, he understands that it’s necessary for the whites to accept the payback without further retaliation if there is to be peace in the small settlement. In terms of the plot, he feels like a powder keg waiting to explode, but I love Kim Scott’s open hearted portrayal of him as a complex individual (as opposed, say, to the equivalent lower-class ‘bad whites’ of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River). No one would engage with me on this line of discussion because they didn’t want to give the plot away – true gentlemen every one.

The subject of Red Dog was raised, and those who’d seen it were even less impressed than I was, regarding the praise lavished on it by Margaret, David and Julie as symptomatic of misguided and misleading advocacy for the local product. We had brief but sharp differences of opinion about The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) and The Riders (Tim Winton), and some disparagement of The Unknown Terrorist (Richard Flanagan) and the literal minded TV adaptation of Cloud Street (Winton again).

I came away looking forward to the rest of the book.

After the meeting:
I took nearly two more weeks to finish, but that’s no reflection on the book. (See previous post for partial explanation of my reduced reading time.) While I was reading it I  heard on a podcast of the Book Show that Melbourne University currently doesn’t offer a course in Australian literature – one enterprising student has organised monthly lectures by poets and others who are willing to talk for free (apparently without input of any kind from the academic staff!). One justification for this state of affairs is that students in general think Aus Lit is boring, conservative and ‘white’, so the course wouldn’t be popular enough to justify itself. I guess this is what happens when the profit motive holds sway in education. But, stepping down from my media-generated-outrage soapbox, I’d have to concede that That Deadman Dance does make some other much-praised Aust fic look fairly timid and vanilla. It tackles the same general area as Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers: the first, hopeful contact between Aboriginal Australians and white invaders and the seeds of the subsequent tragic genocidal history. Where  Clendinnen wrote history, excavating the journals of early settlers in Sydney to reconstruct a hypothetical account from the point of view of the Indigenous Australians, Kim Scott tells what his narrator calls a ‘simple story of Bobby and his few friends’ about the settlement in south west Western Australia, confidently taking us into the minds of black and white, young and old, male and female. I’d be surprised if he hadn’t read the Clendinnen book, but it’s very much its own work: joyful, funny, superhumanly broad in its sympathies, challenging, vivid and in the end heartbreaking.

The central story tells of Wabalanginy/Bobby, a  Noongar man born after the arrival of  whites, who finds friendship among the new arrivals, studies them, at times acts as an intermediary, is virtually adopted into a white family but remains firmly connected with his Noongar community. He’s a brilliant character – admired as a clever mimic by the whites and held in awe for his artistry in song and dance by the Noongars. His engagement with both cultures is enacted beautifully: a number of times we’re taken inside his way of perceiving and responding to the world in wonderfully lyrical writing.

At one stage, the desecration of a grave is described as ‘deliberate and careless all at once’, a phrase that resonates like a gong through the last, darkening chapters, when the logic of capitalism and colonialism asserts itself, and we gradually lose any sense of the inner lives of the settlers as they become more completely incomprehensible to Bobby and appear to forget the almost reasonable relationships of the recent past: deliberate and careless, intentional and oblivious.

Maybe one day even the hallowed halls of Melbourne University will encourage its students to read this, and other books that will help them wrap their imaginations around the history they inherit.

Cate Kennedy’s taste of river water

Cate Kennedy, The Taste of River Water (Scribe 2011)

When Cate Kennedy read, marvellously, from this book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she described her poems as meditations through narrative, and that’s a nice description. Her poems generally have a narrative thread, whether it’s the story of the woman who wins second prize in a photography competition in ‘8 x 10 colour enlargements $16.50‘ or the moving hand of a baby at the breast in ‘Dawn service’.

Mostly this is no-frills poetry: very little by way of formal rhyme schemes, and even less prosodic adventure – no clever enjambement, uncanny syntax, esoteric allusion. Almost universally, the cadences and imagery are those of conversation, sometimes intensely intimate but always intelligent, generous and emotionally engaged. There’s an attention to fleeting moments, to things easily overlooked: a tight smile, a gesture accidentally caught on camera, a detail from a larger narrative, a parent’s childhood memory, a tiny act of wanton cruelty. These become the subject for meditation, their meanings explored. Many of the poems can be read as reflections on art and communication, though the immediate subjects range from the laying of a brick path to being caught in a rip, and include a locust plague coming to the city, a little girl dancing in a square of sunlight, or the auction of the contents of a deconsecrated church.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that the sixteen poems in the second section of this book constitute what Frank Moorhouse used to call a discontinuous narrative: each poem stands alone, but there are lines, even words (a throat-tightening ‘again’ in ‘Thank you’, for instance) that gain tremendous force from their place in the sequence. Although it’s in many ways a very different beast, I was reminded of Sarah Gibson’s wonderful short lyric film The Hundredth Room.

Cate Kennedy read some of the poems and chatted with Ramona Koval on the Book Show on 19 May. It’s worth a listen, but be warned that the conversation reveals quite a lot about Section 2. Not that there’s a twist to the tale or anything of the sort – but there’s something to be said for letting a narrative reveal itself to you rather than approaching it with foreknowledge.

Rereading Francis Webb

Francis Webb, Collected Poems (Angus & Robertson 1969)
Toby Davidson (ed.), Collected Poems: Francis Webb (UWA Publications 2011)

I reach for Francis Webb’s poetry fairly regularly – mainly the same handful of late poems. After listening to pieces about him on the Book Show and Poetica (parts One and Two), both on the ABC, having wept at the superb readings on the latter and been stung by Geoff Page’s describing the poetry as defective on the former, I decided to re-read the whole book. I started out on my 1969 edition, with its copious pencilled annotations by twenty-something me, but about a third of the way in I bought a copy of the new edition and switched to that. One learned person, according to my faint pencil notes, wrote that ‘reading Francis Webb is like wrestling with an angel’. No one would disagree that wrestling is involved: just decoding the syntax can be a challenge in many of these poems, then there are compacted metaphors, elusive rhyme schemes, buried religious references, and an expectation that the reader will be as alarmingly erudite as the poet. Just have a look, say, at the first lines of ‘Stendhal’:

Italy, and a nom de plume – better than in the van
Of France defeated: his clean scarlet brain
Must work in a pure detachment over man
Who was nothing without his D.R.O.s again.
Love, hate, ambition mustered at his bugle,
Sorties of good and evil were in vain.
With watchful eye and towerings of the eagle
He must disarm the priests, immobilize pain.

To which I admit I don’t have much more to say than ‘Huh?’

The angel part is harder to describe – the exciting part, that makes you feel you’ve been through the wringer, but that the world is somehow clearer, richer and more harshly beautiful because of it. He writes about sunsets, fog and wind as if they contain all the deepest struggles of the cosmos.

If you haven’t read any of Webb’s work, I recommend you start with the relatively straightforward ‘Five Days Old’. My mother, no lover of difficult language, wrote to me in a 1972 letter: ‘”Five Days Old” is sweet. I have to concentrate to read poetry so I haven’t read the others yet.’ More ambitiously, you might try the two sequences, Eyre All Alone and Ward Two. (If you’ve got plenty of time, I recommend reading Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Exploration as interesting in itself, but also, as my pencilled notes remind me, because it sheds interesting light on Webb’s poem, which at some points comes close to paraphrasing passages from it.) I’d skip the radio plays about Hitler (Birthday, this one was broadcast on the BBC in 1955), the Holy Grail (The Chalice), the anthropogenic end of the world (The Ghost of the Cock) and the man who invented electroconvulsive therapy (Electric).

One of the things that I loved about Webb’s poetry from the start is that it’s work. You can feel the labour of getting the words down, squeezing meaning onto the page, into the shape of the poem. Even at his most difficult, he is working at communication, never being difficult for its own sake.

Forty years ago I went searching for the first publication of his early poems, and found one or two that hadn’t been collected, and others that had been substantially edited on the way to being collected. The former and one or two of the latter are in the new collection, but my favourite example of revision isn’t. Here are the first three stanzas of ‘The Day of the Statue’, in which fishermen catch an ancient statue in their nets, as they appear in both Collected Poems:

You look for prodigies leaning on the sill of storm,
Or loose in the yellow gap at a candle’s end,
But here was patience: fishermen out on the bay,
Work and silence inching with the minute-hand.

Moored in a lulled spinny of sun and shadow,
With an impotent tremor in the sails, the ketch nosed down
To the long lunge of the swell, rose dripping, gasping
As if with eagerness to suck in air again.

And the men, snug in this casual pediment of time,
Their gestures grouped and restricted and interlocking,
Felt the haul stubborn to their hands, an eye-tooth wrenched
From the iron gums of the sea-bed, shuddering and aching.

Compare the first five stanzas of the version published in the Bulletin on 8 October 1947, when Webb was 22 years old:

You look for prodigies leaning on the sill of a storm
Or loitering about the wake of a snuffed-out light;
But such things are apt, as you know, on these days of full sunshine
To be quietly pocketed or else shoved clean out of sight.

Certainly, three fishermen out on the bay
And the shaping of a miracle are rarely aligned,
History bells hours only, clock on the walls of speeches:
Work and silence tick unnoticed with the second-hand.

Moored to drifting banks of sun and shadow,
With an impotent tremor in the sails, the ketch nosed down,
plunged to the bowsprit in the swell, rose dripping, gasping
As if with eagerness to suck in air again.

And the men grouped snugly in this leeward pediment of time,
With their slow gestures of toil, felt a curious lagging in the strands
Of their sunken net, as if parallel action under the water
Passed on a sort of nerveless shock to the hands.

Your touch on a net-load of fish short-circuits life:
The cargo is arteries stabbed in their element and shaking,
But this haul yielded stubbornly like an eye-tooth wrenched
From the iron jaws of the sea-bed, shuddering and aching.

I love the way he pared those stanzas down, even at the risk of making his meaning harder to grasp. And the revisions towards the end of the poem are even more telling. The last stanza changed from

Beauty comes baleful as a skull, comes riven from the sea:
Well to consider the mortal, the native token
Before you polish, incise – before you replace
What that bronze arm once clutched that time has broken.


There were some to roll back the heavy stone of the sea;
There was none to ponder the mortal, the living token.
But later, men polished, incised, established at last
What that raised hand once clutched and years had broken.

With great economy, the resurrection of Christ is invoked, and the contrast between the practicalities of dragging up the statue and understanding it is conveyed as a further piece of narrative rather than in a slightly priggish address from the author.

Ramona Koval said she’d never heard of Francis Webb. That’s a great shame. The Sydney Writers’ Festival has a session on ‘The Lost Poetry of Francis Webb’. I’m assuming that phrase refers to his whole body of work rather than to the handful of previously uncollected poems that begin and end Toby Davidson’s collection. I plan to be there.

In which I go on a bit about buying two books

I happened to be in Glebe this morning, and as I had earned a little bit of money last weekend I allowed myself to yield to the allure of the bookshops.

First, the secondhand poetry shelves of Sappho’s beckoned. There were a number of tempting morsels – enough to make me think that a Sydney poetry lover had recently died or radically downsized. There was a book of Philip Martin’s, inscribed in a shaky hand  that suggested he had already embarked on the disease that was eventually to kill him; Adamson’s Waving to Hart Crane signed ‘affectionately Bob’. But the one I bought was a selection of Stevie Smith’s poems. When I worked at Currency Press, our Editor in Chief Phillip Parsons impressed me hugely by reciting the last page of Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper, and I became a fan on the spot (of Phillip, yes, but also of Stevie Smith). I recently saw a copy of her slected poems on a friend’s bookshelf – I took it down, and behold it was inscribed on the inside cover as a birthday present to a different close friend – a birthday present from me. The birthday girl later denied all knowledge of having given the book away, so I was left with a nagging sense that one or other of my dear friends was a book thief, a liar or an ingrate. Somehow when I saw this book in Sappho’s today – same selection, different cover – it seemed that buying it would make everything all right again. So I bought it.

Oh I am a cat that likes to
Gallop about doing good.

And then next door to Gleebooks. I’d listened to Poetica’s excellent two part broadcast on France Webb recently, heard Geoff Page deliver a  lukewarm account of him on the Book Show (Maybe you need more than one poetry reviewer, Ramona! But I don’t need to say much, as commenter named Junius has given you the rounds of the kitchen on this one.) and been prompted to open up my 1969 Collected Poems. This is one of my favourite books – I mean the actual battered, slightly foxed object on my shelf, which I love because I spent quite a bit of intensive time with it in my mid 20s. I was planning on writing an MA thesis on Webb’s poetry. It didn’t happen, but I did a bit of work that left its traces in the margins of my copy (as well as in a little exercise book in which I pasted photocopies of poems by Webb that had been published but not collected). His explorer poems sent me off to read the published journals of Leichhardt, Sturt, Grey and Edward John Eyre. My book has notes on when and where poems were first published, textual variations and any annotations, and occasionally there’s a commentary from me. For example, in ‘Leichhardt in Theatre’, just before the explorer’s party is attacked by the people whose land they have invaded, the poem goes:

————————————Gilbert, the naturalist,
is planting some precious flowers that he has found,
Cradles them in his hands like diamonds

There’s a pencilled note in the margin:

This indicates he had probably not read the Journal – Gilbert was learning to plat (sic)

Presumably it was Leichhardt who misspelled ‘plait’. I imagine these notes would annoy anyone else, but they fill me with an affection for my younger self.

But back to the visit to Gleebooks. On the display table in the poetry section was the new Collected Poems, published by UWA Publishing and edited by Toby Davidson. I flipped it open and had to buy it. Not only does it include the poems I had found in my postgraduate days, plus more. It also promises to correct errors Webb had noted in the 1969 edition (his notes evidently came to light in the 1980s). Am I doomed to read with both books open – one for the poetry and the other for young Jonathan’s occasional comment?

I thought you’d like to know.

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: a novel (Fourth Estate 2010)

There’s no doubt this is a terrific book. It tells the story of one US family through the Bush–Clinton–Bush–Obama years, taking in the bigger picture (the Iraq invasion, environmental despoliation, global warming, technological change …), while giving us sharply realised characters whose lives illuminate the times without ever feeling as if they’re determined by the author’s agenda. The words free, freedom, liberty and so on ring like chimes through the pages suggesting without being glib that a freedom that involves loss of connection – to other people, to the natural world, to one’s own best self – is not worth having. I love the way characters are astonished to find themselves reproducing patterns of behaviour they have hated in their parents, and the way character after character struggles for integrity in a deeply compromised and compromising society.  A sequence in the last seven pages touched some deep place in me that made the whole book sing.

But I was a resistant reader until those last pages. Partly this was a matter of timing – two things had set me up to fight the book every inch of the way.

First: I began reading it with those shocking VIDA pie charts about gender and literary publishing fresh in my mind, knowing that Freedom had been published amid a hype-storm unthinkable for a grown up novel written by a woman. As a result the book had an invisible frame around it announcing it as a privileged book by a privileged author about privileged characters, to read which was an endorsement of white English-speaking middle-class male privilege. This frame was gilded by the experience of reading in public. I regularly read while walking, while waiting in queues, on the bus, a practice that occasionally provokes comment, but only with this book have perfect strangers asked me how I’m enjoying it, and then say what they’ve heard – this happened twice.

The whole book can be read as a criticism of that very privilege, though I only noticed the word once. After I had written the first draught of the previous paragraph I encountered the only non-White characters in the book (apart from a beautiful and talented young woman of Indian heritage, who does have a major role), in this sentence, at a funeral towards the end:

It was only when the service finished that Patty saw the assortment of underprivileged people filling the rear pews, more than a hundred in all, most of them black or Hispanic or otherwise ethnic, in every shape and size, wearing suits and dresses that seemed pretty clearly the best they owned, and sitting with the patient dignity of people who had more regular experience with funerals than she did.

So privilege is explicitly acknowledged, but the people who don’t share it are more or less interchangeable. I’m not saying every book has to have a politically correct diversity in its cast of characters, but in this case I found the lack of it painful and it put me in a fighting mood.

Second: when I was about a hundred pages in, a guest on the Book Show used Freedom as an example of a book that uses electronic social media well, and went on to describe a major turning point of the plot. As a result, for the next 300 pages I noticed the little moments and comments that were building towards that point, so that I registered them as parts of a justifying mechanism rather than as elements of story. Maybe Franzen did his foreshadowing clumsily and mechanically, but it’s more likely that I was reading with a peculiar – spoiled – alertness. (Thanks, Ramona!)

Heat death … resurrection not ruled out *UPDATED*

Ivor Indyk (ed.), Heat 24: That’s it, for now … (Giramondo January 2011)

After 14 years, Heat is to appear no more in book form. In this final issue Ivor Indyk, the editor and publisher, departs from his usual practice and speaks to us, explaining the reasons for his decision and sketching some possibilities for an electronic afterlife. (He spoke again to Ramona Koval on the Book Show.) The sad economic reality is that as a 240 page book, Heat is a monster to produce several times a year and then to distribute and warehouse. The community of people who are glad of its existence is much larger than the journal’s market – the people who buy it, and so contribute to its viability. As I’ve subscribed for ten years and written blog entries (I don’t really think of them as reviews), I have a twinge of smug virtue mixed with my sorrow: like, ‘It’s not my fault!’ I don’t know that I’ve ever felt part of a Heat community – too middlebrow, too whitebread, too shy – but it hasn’t been a purely economic relationship. I’ll miss this regular dose of austere high culture, and emergent/experimental/cosmopolitan writing.

Some of the culture in this final issue is incontestably high. Adrian Martin’s article, ‘Devastation’, after a wonderful anecdote about a working class man’s response to Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, goes on to discuss the films of Maurice Pialat. I’m a keen and frequent filmgoer, but I had to check with Google to be sure the article wasn’t a spoof and Pialat a comic invention – an archetypally grim French auteur whom Martin praises for daring to have sitting and standing characters in the same shot, and compares to a number of other auteurs I hadn’t heard of. It’s not a spoof: it’s the kind of article that sheds enough light on its subject to reveal the dark vastness of its reader’s ignorance. By way of  contrast, Andrew Riemer’s brilliantly erudite ‘Four Glimpses of the Zeitgeist’ takes one gently by the hand and illuminates a web of connections joining Freud, Mahler, Riemer’s ancestors, conductor Bruno Walter, His Master’s Voice records, Hitler, playwright Thomas Bernhard and others, all converging in a Viennese theatre in 2010. Jeffrey Poacher’s reflection on the poetry of Peter Porter , who died last year, is likewise kind to general readers without, I hope, boring those who know Porter’s poetry well.

Cosmopolitanism is alive and well, particularly n Andreas Campomar’s ‘Uruguay Made Me’, a discussion of Eduardo Galeano in the context of his native Uruguay that makes me want – need – to read Galeano.

There’s plenty of emerging/experimental work too, mainly in the poetry. I was happy to see two typographically adventurous poems by Patrick Jones, who commented critically on this blog a while back.

But I don’t want to get hung up on classification. There’s a terrific poem by Adam Aitken dedicated to Susan Schultz – both Adam and Susan have graced my comments section recently. Ali Alizadeh and Jennifer Maiden are in fine form. Alan Wearne does some Gilbertian editorialising on the current move to form an Australian peak industry body for poetry. Amanda Simons interviews Antigone Kefala on her writing practice: Kefala says that, for her, writing and speaking are two completely different forms, and it’s delightful to encounter the conversational Antigone here alongside two characteristically non-conversational poems (there’s that austere high culture again).

I was struck by two examples of things a book you hold in your hand can do that a boundless (the word is from Ivor Indyk’s editorial) electronic creation can’t. In Nicholas Jose’s ‘What Love Tells Me’ a recently widowed man and his young son attend a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony where the ‘blasting and pummelling and smashing’ music opens them up to emotional resolution and communication. The story is moving in its own right, but it gains an extra fizz from the fact that 150 pages earlier Andrew Riemer has been telling us something of what Mahler’s music (though not this precise symphony) meant at the time it was written. In my mind at least, that mental connection is made possible by the weight of the book in my hand

The other moment is a theatrical coup in Gillian Mears’ ‘Fairy Death’. This memoir begins with a title page: a right-hand page that’s blank except for the title and a brief note on the author. When you turn over, expecting the story to begin on the verso, you find instead a striking image of what seems to be a dress-shop mannequin with a crack or join around its middle, arranged on a bed and photographed from above. The figure’s face makes you realise that it’s actually a live, extraordinarily thin woman, that what looked like a join is a string tied around her waist and attached to what you now recognise as a red balloon in the photo’s foreground. The photo, taken by Vincent Lord Long, is of the author, and her mannequin-like thinness is the result of advanced multiple sclerosis. The article is in part an account of how it came to be taken. Though the memoir is astonishingly powerful, addressing (with what in another context would be Way Too Much Information) the effects of MS on the author’s sexuality, the act of turning the first page onto that image creates extraordinary poignancy – which I don’t believe could happen in an electronic form.

One perhaps minor advantage of ceasing to exist as a physical object is that proofreading and even copy editing can continue after publication. Heat 24 is far from egregious in that department – apart from a miniscule (which is a special case as the Microsoft spellchecker ignorantly allows it), I was plunged into confusion and irritation by only one editing error, which I won’t bore you with. It looks as if the presumably underpaid copy editor had enough time and/or other resource to do an excellent job on this issue, so he can go out with his head held high.

Just to be half clever, here’s the last stanza of John Shaw Neilson’s ‘The Poor Poor Country’, slightly altered:

The New Year came with Heat and thirst and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go;
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

Update 1 March 2011:

Over at Adam in (), Adam Aitken was kind enough to link to this page, and he asked me a question. I tried three times to respond in his comments section but for some reason my comments wouldn’t stick, so I’ll have go here.


Jonathan, I don’t know why you see yourself as “whitebread”. Are HEAT writers “brownbread”? I won’t miss the so-called austerity of HEAT, as I feel on the contrary that HEAT would sometimes verge on the too rich, too dense side of things (by virtue of each issue being such a fat book).

Well, Adam, I’m not sure where I picked up the term ‘whitebread’, but my (now former) suburb, Annandale, got described that way by some of my more hip friends. They meant that the people of the suburb were the kind who ate only white, preferably sliced and packaged bread, remaining ignorant of or uninterested in the existence of pumpernickel, sourdough, ciabatta and challah, let alone pita, roti and naan. So my implication was Heat writers (and anyone else who belongs to its community) can come from anywhere in that vast world of different breads (quite a few of which are actually white, come to think of it).  I have never read an issue of Heat without having my horizons extended, and I was amusing myself by saying that in a self-deprecatory way.

I agree with you on the richness and density of Heat. It’s been admirably austere in the sense that it would never have given us a review of the latest Oprah recommendation or blockbuster movie, and in a different way I’ve thought of Ivor Indyk’s editorial silence as austere. In this final issue he speaks to us, but presents it as asking our indulgence. I for one would have happily indulged him in this way many times over.

End of update

LoSoRhyMo 11: My mistress eyes like all the sun

A word of explanation: on the Book Show last week, John Tranter described the process of writing Starlight, his most recent book. He fed Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal into a computer’s translating program, and took the resulting gibberish as the first draft of a hundred sonnets. Rather than invite comparison by doing anything with Baudelaire, I took an English sonnet, and got Google to translate it from English to Russian to Catalan to Malay to Basque, etc, through about 15 languages, then back at last into English. Astonishingly, some whole phrases endured, but it would be fair enough to say I arrived at gibberish. Then I tortured that into scannable rhyme (though not reason).

Sonnet 11: Sorry, Bill!
My mistress eyes, like all, the sun,
likes the red coral on his lips.
The snow is white. Why same breast (one)?
You have the power, you have black pips.
I’ve seen pink damask, red and white,
but not the roses in her cheeks,
some perfumes, yes, and oh all right,
instead of true love, what she seeks.
I liked to hear his voice, but know
The Sound of Music was more fun.
I will not see a goddess, no!
Lady, in fields the string has run.
At that time, Lord, I was strange love.
Compare! Reject! It’s false. Now shove!

The Book Group and The City and the City

China Miéville, The City and the City (Macmillan 2009)

Before the Book Group meets:
We decided to read some science fiction. Rather than opting for someone’s idea of a classic (Asimov, Heinlein, early Gibson or Stephenson) we decided to pick something current. I’d loved China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and heard interesting things about The City and the City – among other things it had been nominated for a Hugo [and now has tied with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for Best Novel]. I suggested we take it on, and the suggestion carried the day.

So I was suffering a mild case suggester’s anxiety when I started reading. What response would the book get from Groupers who’ve read even less science fiction than I have? Would the meticulous world-building strike them as so much tedious scenery-painting? Would they see the elegant police procedural plot as something from a by-the-numbers TV show, the characters as two-dimensional, the tantalising central conceit the equivalent of a one-joke comedy? I’m pleased to report that after a while I stopped caring and was absorbed in the book’s world and its story.

The City and the City is hard to write about because it really is an extended exploration of a single conceit. I would infinitely prefer to have had it revealed  to me by the narrative itself, and don’t want to have a hand in spoiling it for anyone else. In a Book Show interview, Miéville went as far as saying that the story is set in two cities that share an unusual relationship to each other, which is true but doesn’t give anything away. Not until the end of the first chapter is there any hint that the world, or at least the cities, of the book are in some sense science fictional/fantastic. I would love to know how a reader who wasn’t forewarned would understand that first jarring moment, and how long it would take to grasp the full situation. Of course, in one sense, the full situation isn’t clear until the very last pages: as in Kafka and Raymond Chandler, to whom Miéville acknowledges indebtedness, the narrative at one level concerns itself with solving a single crime, but it also unfolds the deeper political realities of the world of the novel.

Pushing the spoiler envelope just a little, I had an insight into the book when out walking recently with the Art-Student. As we approached a small group boys riding their scooters in the street, one of the boys momentarily lost control and wheeled directly into our path. He pulled up short and called over his shoulder to his friends, ‘I’ll try that again.’ He had carefully avoided hitting us, but otherwise acted as if we dog-walking old people weren’t even there. He had ‘unseen’ us. Then I remembered noticing on my last visit to Cairns that though there were plenty of Aboriginal people in the streets, the non-Aboriginal people generally behaved as if they weren’t there, and vice versa – another case of mutual unseeing. The City and the City takes this common phenomenon to impossible extremes, and much of the joy of the book lies in how consistently and thoroughly he has imagined it. Miéville succeeds to the extent that every now and then a reference to the world as we know it – to Coke, or Madonna, or a Google search – brings one up short: oh, this is all happening in the world as I know it! The climactic point of the story consists of four people walking briskly down a street in close physical proximity – and it’s totally thrilling, not just because one of them is carrying a gun. That’s all I’m saying.

After the meeting:
It was a small meeting, but all of us had enjoyed the book. The group meeting had been postponed for six weeks or so, so quite a bit of time had passed since most of us had read the book. And even though in the intervening weeks one had reread it and another had read Perdido Street Station, our memories weren’t generally fresh enough to generate much detailed discussion. I needn’t have worried about the appeal of the world building: everyone enjoyed it. And my curiosity about how the setup was revealed to the unspoiled reader was gratified: the consensus seemed to be that the odd word (‘crosshatched’) created a sense of unease, enough to alert rather than alarm, and there was pleasure as more of the workings of the cities was revealed, until one felt (several times over), ‘Ah, now I get it!’

Heat 23, Overland 200 and Asia LR 17

The ‘dead white male’ critique of Western Civ […] did not lead, as many of us had hoped, to a new internationalism, but rather to a new form of nationalism that emphasised hyphenated Americans. Chinese-Americans and Chicanos were now part of  the intellectual universe, which was fine as far as it went, but Chinese and Mexicans were still excluded. Multiculturalism was, and is, not very multicultural at all.
(Eliot Weinberger, ‘The Post-National Writer’ in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale)

I’ve just read three literary journals whose roots lie respectively in a rejection of Australian xenophobia, in Communism with its commitment to internationalism and in a mission to publish Asian writing in English. Although we don’t do hyphens in quite the same way as the US, it seems reasonable to see how these journals stack up against Weinberger’s complaint.

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat 23: Two to Go (September 2010)

This issue of Heat is atypical in not including any work in translation. Multicultural themes are addressed, but very little attention is paid to the world beyond our shores. There’s not even any travel writing, unless you count Vanessa Berry’s ‘Dark Tourism: Three Graveyard Tales’, in which the author visits two graves and strolls in a London cemetery (in a piece that might have been more accurately titled ‘Mildly Crepuscular Travels with my Mum’).

Turkish born, ethnically Greek Melburnian Dmetri Kakmi’s ‘Salam Cafe and the Great Burqa Debate’ might seem to fit Weinberger’s description of Clayton’s multiculturalism pretty well – a non-Muslim man joins the argument about what Muslim women should or shouldn’t be allowed or made to wear. But he puts the lie to that pigeonholing by acting as a conduit for Muslim points of view, drawing on his childhood memories of Turkey and his time as a student in Istanbul, and discussing burqa-related artworks by Muslims Shadi Ghadirian (a woman) and Kader Attia (a man, whose ‘Kasbah’ was shown in this year’s Sydney Biennale).

Weinberger’s aspersions might also seem to apply to Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s story, ‘The Hat Dance’, the piece that comes closest to the kind of hyphenation he dislikes. But this account of a dust-up in an extended family living in Western Sydney is so gloriously exuberant only some kind of Diversity Bean-counter could fail to relish it.

Of course, Heat doesn’t claim to fill a hypothetical Diversity Quota in every issue, and there’s no reason it should. Its characteristic approach to fostering diversity is by presenting crosscultural encounters, an approach I’m fairly sure Weinberger would approve of. Kakmi’s piece is an example of that approach. So is Michael Atherton’s portrait of Harry (christened Charalambos) Vatiliotis, who lives in the Sydney suburb of Croydon and makes classical violins in the manner of Stradivere, each one a unique work of art. Cassi Plate quotes from letters of Costas Tachtis, Greek novelist who lived for some years in Australia, and his friend Carl Plate, an Australian artist: ‘The letters,’ she writes, ‘take us into a cosmopolitan world within the heart of what is often assumed to be parochial 1950s Sydney.’ Maybe cosmopolitanism is a better word than diversity for the thing that Heat does so well.

Cosmopolitanism can incorporate voices from elsewhere, and also bring a sharp eye to bear on the local, as Peter Doyle’s fascinating ‘Bashful City: Sydney’s Covert Criminality‘ does to photographs from the archives of Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum.  It can also include intensely place-specific writing like  Mark Tredinnick’s review of  Judith Beveridge’s most recent book of poetry, in which, incidentally, he compares her to a shark and a Philip Marlowe thug, and convincingly means both as compliments.

I do worry about Heat‘s copy editing and proof reading. There’s curiousity, practicing (though correct Australian usage practises elsewhere), an umbilical chord. Someone is heard cluttering in his garage. In Robert Adamson’s delicately poised ‘The Coriander Fields of Long Bay Penitentiary’, a with is repeated over a line break – I know it’s poetry, but that’s just a mistake. One article has this near the beginning: ‘It is one of the great dividers between the civilised among us: those of impeccable taste.’ I wasn’t interested enough in the article’s subject – taxidermy – to endure whatever came after that.

Jeff* Sparrow (editor), Overland 200 (Spring 2010)

The first issues of Overland, published in 1954,carried the slogan ‘Temper democratic; Bias, Australian’, hardly a promise of cultural diversity or cosmopolitanism. But as a project of the mainly Communist Realist Writers’ Group, the journal had a commitment to internationalism. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of that in this anniversary issue, unless you count a deference to Europe and the US. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that: for instance, Alison Croggon’s ‘How Australian Is It?‘ talks with her characteristic clarity and generosity about the way much of our theatre has opened out to the world, freed from constricting preoccupations with national identity but distinctively Australian all the same. On the other hand, when Clive Hamilton characterises the Australian as an agent of ‘the Republicans’ war on climate science’, he implies – perhaps intentionally – that in this matter Australia is humiliatingly no more than an arena in which US battles are being fought. There’s a fair whack of ‘theory’**, enough to create a gnawing sense of Australia as a site for the application of theory developed elsewhere – no sign of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory here. (The most theory-rich piece, Alwyn Crawford’s ‘Permanent Daylight‘, which deals with the intimate connection between capitalism and anorexia, is nevertheless compelling reading because of a ballast of passionate personal testimony.) Christos Tsiolkas is the Literary Big Gun of this issue, with a short story about the market in European art, but I found it unreadable (that is to say, I couldn’t tell what the story was trying to do, whether it was a spoof or something else very dull). There’s no non-European voice, and little interest in non-European culture: one piece, by a non-Muslim, quoting no Muslim voices, uses the Western burqa debate as a springboard for theoretical reflections on the visibility or otherwise of women in the West; Jacinda Woodhead gives us an attractive profile of Melbourne rapper-comedians Fear of a Brown Planet (there’s a wonderful YouTube clip of one of them here); Kabul is mentioned in one article, but it’s in a quote from an organisation aimed at creating a market for US cosmetics there.

So Weinberger’s kind of internationalism isn’t overwhelmingly evident in Overland. The three outstanding pieces, in fact, aren’t even particularly multicultural. Chris Graham does a demolition job on Noel Pearson in ‘Telling whites what they want to hear‘. Graphic novelist Bruce Mutard re-tells a story from Overland 1: the story is ‘Nine O’clock Finish’ by John Morrison, a marvellous socialist realist writer, and the resulting 8-page comic is to weep. Janette Turner Hospital’s short story ‘Weird People’ is a tour de force centred on the captain of a tourist boat that takes mainly US tourists out to look at humpback whales off the coast of New South Wales – I suppose it could be read as a protest against our cultural client-state identity.

In Overland, though less so than in Heat, proofreading is a worry: ‘haute bourgeois’, the Communications Minster, and at least one article written in an academic style that apparently defeated all attempts to wrangle it into English.

* In a classic example of Mruphy’s law, when I first put this up, I misspelled Mr Sparrow’s first name – immediately after whingeing about someone else’s poor copy editing. I’ve fixed it now
**  Writers referred to include Ariel Levy (North American liberal feminist), Nina Power (British philosopher and feminist), Mark Fisher (British cultural theorist), Guy Debord (French theorist), Sheila Rowbotham (British feminist historian), Edward Said (the exception that tests the rule and finds that it holds up), Naomi Baron (US linguistics professor).


Stephen McCarty(editor), Asia Literary Review 17 ([Northern] Autumn 2010)

It’s a telling confirmation of Weinberger’s generalisation that the ALR’s web page header reads ‘Asia Literary Review – Asian American writing’, apparently promising US-ers that they can read it without danger of encountering anything genuinely foreign. Happily, it’s a false promise.

From the beginning, there’s no doubt that we’ve left the leisurely contemplation of anti-grand abstractions far behind. US-expat journalist Robbie Corey Boulet kicks off with a report on the first case tried – in 2009! –  by the tribunal set up to deal with ‘those most responsible’ for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. Itself a fine combination of court-reporting, historical background and interviews with people still looking for answers about their murdered relatives, it is followed a few items later by a suite of poems by Peauladd Huy whose parents were murdered by that regime and who now lives in the USA. And it finds a grim echo at the end of the journal, in an excerpt from Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, which draws on archival sources to explore the terror and violence of the Great Leap Forward (‘at least 45 million people worked, starved or beaten to death’). There are other pairings, including a story and a photo essay about floods in the Philippines. A good bit of the ALR probably amounts to armchair dark tourism – much stronger medicine than the piece wearing that label in Heat.  The one actual piece of travel writing – about Mount Merapi, a Javan volcano –  has enough disastrous loss of life for the darkest tourist sensibilities.

There aren’t many laughs, but there’s plenty of wit and imagination: ‘Youth-in-Asia‘,  a story set in Korea by Canadian Ron Schafrick, delivers on its punning title; Priya Basil’s ‘Losing Their Religion‘ is a quietly entertaining memoir of religious conversion and un-conversion that spans three continents; GB Prabhat’s ‘The Silencer‘ gives us a clever inversion of  celebrity stalking.

There is no Australian presence, apart from two full-page ads, for the Melbourne Writers Festival (featuring a Hokusai wave) and Heat (‘Australia’s only international literary journal’) respectively.  Insert your own ironic comment.

One sentence leaps out to meet my eye.  Jonathan Watts, an English journalist, moved from Korea to Beijing in 2003. His interviewer James Kidd tells us:

The signs of conspicuous pollution made an immediate impression: a keen runner, Watts found himself wheezing after a short jog; a father, he was alarmed when his two daughters were not allowed outside during breaks at their Beijing school. It was China that taught him to fear for the future of the planet.

I’m not sure I can afford to keep up my subscriptions to all three of these journals. I was thinking of letting my subscription to Asia Literary Review lapse – but it’s teaching me to think in terms of the whole planet

Bony Emily?

Adrian Hyland, Diamond Dove (©2006, Text Publishing 2010)

Detective Napoleon Bonaparte, known as ‘Bony’, had one white and one Aboriginal parent. He appeared in most of the 29 novels written by Arthur Upfield between 1922 and 1996 (the last being finished by other people and published two years after Upfield’s death). Upfield was a bushman himself, who knew what he was talking about when he described life in the outback, and the books’ respectful approach to Aboriginal lore probably played a role over the years in softening mainstream Australian culture’s dismissive racism. My cane-farmer father was a fan. I have read only one of the novels, and that was many years ago, but its title alone – The Bone is Pointed – indicates how the books have dated, how their inevitable racism now stands out and may well overshadow their virtues. If I remember correctly, Aboriginal culture was essentialised (part of Bony’s nature, in tension with his white nature) and generalised (no distinctions are made among the many different Aboriginal cultures and languages).

Adrian Hyand’s Emily Tempest books, of which Diamond Dove (Moonlight Downs in the US and Outback Bastard in Germany) is the first, have a similar set-up. Emily, the university educated daughter of a traditional Aboriginal woman and a white man, belongs like Bony in both worlds and in neither. But we’re definitely in the 21st century: Emily’s mother comes from a particular people, the fictional Wantiya mob, and Emily herself grew up as a kind of foster daughter to the similarly fictional Warlpuju mob; there are Native Title land claims, unscrupulous miners, post-Papunya-Tula art, and complex sexual scenarios.

This is genre fiction. Where else would you find a passage like this:

A maniac, it seemed then, was the only logical solution,and a convenient maniac was what we had in the turbulent, rolling-eyed Blakie. Everything pointed to the crazy bastard. it had to be him.
Why, then, was I beginning to feel the first little pricks of doubt?

The only possible answer to that question is, ‘Because you’re in a detective story, Emily.’ That is to say, we’re not being asked to take this book seriously as a work of social or political analysis. It’s meant to be fun, and it is. Emily herself is gutsy, witty in a hardboiled way, the most engaging detective hero I’ve encountered in a long time.

Talking on The Book Show recently on the occasion of her 90th birthday, P D James reflected on the murder mystery novel:

The classical detective story is … popular in times of anxiety, times of strife, times of war and dangers of war, times of depression. That’s when its comfort is so necessary because at these times one can feel that there are problems facing communities, facing countries, facing the world generally, which really are insoluble, however much money and however much effort you pour into them. Here you have a form of popular fiction with a puzzle at its heart and by the end of the book it will be solved, not by divine intervention or good luck but by a human being, by courage and perseverance and intelligence. So it rather confirms our belief, which I still think we have, that we live in a rational and moral universe.

These remarks could hardly be more apposite. Adrian Hyland has given us a classic detective story set in the midst of the strife, anxiety and apparent insolubility of the continuing dispossession and disadvantage of Australian Aboriginal people. He lets aspects of that dire situation be seen, but offers us the comfort of a puzzle, which is solved, exactly as the Dame says, by courage and perseverance and intelligence. Hyland thanks ‘the Indigenous people of Central Australia’ in the acknowledgements, but makes it clear that his Aboriginal characters belong to a fictional language group and live in fictional country. He doesn’t claim to have anyone’s permission to tell his stories, but then Emily is is not an insider to Warlpuju culture, so there are no secrets being revealed. Hyland is a middle-aged white man who writes in the voice of a young Aboriginal woman. I know I’m another middle-aged white man, so my opinion may need to be taken with a dose of salt, but I think he’s done brilliantly.

A second Emily Tempest novel, Gunshot Road, was published earlier this year. My recommender of detective books says it’s even better.