Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2014

Belomor, by Nicolas Rothwell


The first thing I did when I brought Nicolas Rothwell’s Belomor home from the library was to Google its title.  I skipped the few reviews because I didn’t want to read any of them until after I’d written my own, but I couldn’t make a connection between the image on the front cover and the title.  I was also curious about the frontispiece image of the Belomor Channel.  Where was this book going to take me?

Well, (thanks to the photo credits) I was able to find out that there’s a Byelomorsko–Baltiyskiy Kanal in Russia that was constructed by convict labour in the 1930s between the White Sea and the Baltic.   Under Stalin’s forced labour program, many of these convicts died, though the numbers are disputed.  There was also a brand of Soviet cigarettes called Belomorkanal which was introduced in 1932 to commemorate the building of the canal.  What’s not clear until you view the original image at Photodom is that those shaggy bits are not a beard; the image is of a man whose head is bent upon his filthy hands, and the title of the photograph Belomor Thoughts (Crisis) hints at why he might be in this pose.  I thought that the book designer might have done better to show the whole image not just a bit of it.

Except that as it turns out, the image, the cigarette and the canal are mere fragments in the most fragmented book I have read in a long time.  What’s more, there are so many allusions to people, places and history that were unfamiliar to me, that my brief quest to discover meaning from these images turned out to be emblematic of the frustrating experience of reading this entire book.

Anyway, armed with this information I began reading…

And almost immediately I headed off to Google again!  (Truly, I don’t usually do this! I prefer to read a book, not Google it.)  But Rothwell begins ‘Belomorkanal’, the first of four tenuously linked short stories with more than a mention of a Venetian painter called Bernardo Bellotto.  This 18th century artist painted wild, picturesque valleys in Dresden, and just happened to be nephew to Giovanni Antonio Canal, known to us as Canaletto.  Rothwell makes it clear that Bellotto’s style is significant, and I’d never heard of him, so I just had to Google the contrast between Canaletto’s much-loved landscapes filled with light and colour and Bellotto’s chill and solemn works.   Indeed they are chill and solemn, they’re downright gloomy and therefore IMO emblematic of the mood of the book.

The four separate longish stories are united by a strong sense of male angst.  V S Naipaul got himself in a lot of trouble with The Sisterhood when he claimed that there was a discernable ‘female’ style of writing, but I’ll risk the reverse anyway: Belomor seems a masculine book, not just notable for the near total absence of women, but for its style.  The book is written in a collage of fiction and a heavy preponderance of non-fiction, though I couldn’t confidently say which is which because characters that seem fictional may well be real people.   (If I’m not erudite enough to know who all Rothwell’s allusions are, too bad, I’m not hunting them all down with Google).  There is also what seems to be memoir and reflection; essays mostly on art and history; and long slabs of dialogue.  This dialogue is not IMO conversation.  That is because the characters talk in what socio-linguist Deborah Tannen calls ‘report-talk’ not ‘rapport-talk’.  The reader is overwhelmed by a sense of the characters trying to establish status through the dialogue.  It is hard to resist the impression that the author is doing the same with the text.

There are numerous journeys, quests, and identity issues swirling about, but characters (and the narrator) talk at each other rather than with each other.   They are consumed by their own preoccupations; they are not interested in relationships.  Indeed even when they are companions they seem more often like rivals; and they lecture each other.  It is like being at a dinner party with a consummate bore who uses every brief interjection as an opportunity to launch into another monologue.  Rothwell (see Wikipedia) is an award winning author and a writer of considerable prestige, so presumably this style which I find so alienating is intended.  I, presumably, with my suspicions that Belomor is akin to the Ern Malley hoax, have missed the point.

The line between fiction and non-fiction blurs.  Sometimes the long paragraphs are like slabs out of a history textbook.

These disquieting qualities in Bellotto’s work have gone largely unremarked in our time because of a circumstance that the artist himself could not have foreseen.  His reputation grew; he travelled widely between the court cities of the Saxon kingdom.  The sweeping panoramic views he made during the last years of his life were painted in Warsaw, where he worked for another ruler with an eye to posterity, who commissioned another series of grand vistas, designed to hang in the royal castle.  This idyllic Warsaw, rich in parks and fountains, was destroyed, down to the last building, in the course of World War II: the post-war communist regime, in need of some grand project that might absorb Polish nationalist sentiments, decided to rebuild the capital in the image of the old city, stone by stone, brick by brick.  Bellotto’s paintings were the only systematic blueprint.  They became the model, and secured him a late-dawning international fame: for the documentary precision of his work, which derived from the relentless use of a camera obscura to gudie his hand, allowed the specialist teams of labourers and architects charged with the reconstruction of Warsaw to build a city in his image, and the recreated avenues and palaces of the Polish capital retain in their aspect to this day something of Bellotto’s cool temperament. (p. 6)

I was puzzled by the randomness of the first story but curious enough to progress to the second.   ‘Muratti Ambassador’ is about an art historian called Aby Warburg who becomes ‘disgusted by the established system of art history‘.  He rejects the ‘quiet contemplation of images’ that Betty Churcher describes with such captivating joy.  He wants action.  (Try bungee-jumping, I thought rebelliously, and I hope the rope breaks, because by now I was tired of Rothwell and his pompous characters, but felt I had to press on because this is a Miles Franklin nomination, and people who are smarter than I am about books reckon this one is great).  Anyway, Warburg finds his ‘action’ in the art of indigenous people and hangs out in the Pueblo regions of the US. Here the celestial snake is the key to life as snakes also seem to be in the Northern Territory for a wildlife photographer.  I am tentatively rebellious about this too, because appropriating indigenous totems is offensive in some circles, but I am not really sure whether the wildlife photographer was indigenous or not.  I found this ‘story’ very dense but I lost interest in having to re-read bits of it to clarify things.

(In the course of writing this review I realised that Rothwell is a Big Noise in terms of writing about Aboriginal Art because he writes about it for The Australian.   It would be nice to feel confident that he has respected indigenous protocols in the writing of this book, but the recent controversy generated in The Australian suggests that it would be naïve to make any assumptions one way or the other.  It’s odd how quickly culture wars are resurrected with a change of government, isn’t it?)

Whatever.  It is at this point I must make a confession.  I am also reading Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot.  I’m about half way through. I had started it before Belomor arrived at the library, and of course I was loving it.  Now I know it’s not fair to compare any writer with a Nobel prize-winning author of the stature of Patrick White.  But Rothwell, unless I am mistaken, is trying to write about the same idea in a similar way, i.e. four people linked by their common mystic experience.  But White’s novels show us that metaphysical enlightenment can belong to any of us and can be found in everyday life among everyday things, and his books are full of vivid characters with the mystic elements deriving from their experiences.  In Riders of the Chariot Miss Hare and the Jewish refugee Himmelfarb are real, irresistible people and their stories are compelling in their own right.  Their mystic experiences belong in the novel and they illuminate it.

In Rothwell’s book, these mystic experiences are swamped by the solidity of his prose.  This excerpt is from a very long paragraph where Warburg travels to the Indian hill settlement of Acoma and interprets Indian symbols of the walls of a Christian church:

As his eyes adjusted to the dark of the church interior, and the rhythm of the service bore in on him, he even made out the fork-tongued lightning images Jurino and his son had drawn.  Theory, at this point, came rushing in: surely these emblems were embodiments of knowledge; surely the mind, here, was depicting itself: the steps even spoke of advances, progress, evolution – the forward march of humanity. It was clear.  Man who no longer walks on four limbs can hold his head aloft; standing upright is thus the human act par excellence, the striving of the earthbound towards heaven – and this notion propels Warburg to an unhinging discovery, one that whispers like a secret in his work.  Light draws man: but there is a light beyond the light, there is code beyond all codes – the world of the senses, the wide world that exceeds us will simply not submit.  Its glare annihilates: ‘contemplation of the sky is the grace and curse of humanity.’

As if torn apart by realisations of this nature, Warburg fled the desert: he made his way to California; he dreamed of crossing the Pacific, and pursuing his investigations in Japan- but by the end of March he was back in Arizona, in quest of deeper traces of the pagan past. (p. 56)

Uh, ok… maybe all this rushing about is a commentary on the search for enlightenment in the hurly-burly of the 21st century.  But I felt as if this mystic moment were buried under a rugby scrum.

The third story, ‘Winfield Blue’ (what is it with the cigarettes??) is the story of a young high-flyer in the contemporary art scene called Tony Oliver also in search of himself. Here Rothwell takes us to the Kimberley where Oliver (without knowing it at the time) was seeking the light too.  It is not until years later when (as cultural adviser to the Vietnamese government, I kid you not) he is building a house at China Beach (I kid you not), that he realises that all he was in quest of, was the gleam: the flame inside the light. It was the glow in the country they  [Aboriginal artists at Jirraween] were trying to put down in paint (p. 164)

The fourth story (which is no more of a ‘story’ than the other three) features a woman (wow!)  She’s a film-maker from the old Eastern bloc who introduces a German author called Specht to the narrator, who then sets off on another pilgrimage to learn about Winckelmann (founder of archaeology), Chekhov and John Cage.   This journey concludes with a revelation from Tjampa, who explains his people’s vision of what happens in the afterlife:

We think there’s a white sea at the end of the world: I’ve even seen it, in pictures, in dreams, inside my head – it’s quiet, and cold, and there are clouds over it, clouds of ice; and you have to walk there, by yourself, across the sand.  It’s a hard, long journey: but when you get there, then you see the sun breaking through the clouds, and that white lake gleams, and shines, and looks like fire. (p. 246)

Alas, there was no such illumination for me at the end of my journey through this book.

For reviews which explain better than mine does why this book has been nominated for our most prestigious literary prize, see

PS One of these reviews says that all the chapter headings are names of cigarettes.

PPS I am aghast at the suggestion that Rothwell’s claustrophobic melancholy has anything in common with Gerald Murnane’s exquisite fictions.

If you click the link to Fishpond below, you can also see a swag of laudatory comments, with which I am comprehensively out-of-step.

Author: Nicholas Rothwell
Title: Belomor
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922079749
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: Belomor

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2014

Northern Girls, by Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant


I’ve been keen to read a novel by a female contemporary Chinese author for a while, so I was pleased when I stumbled across Northern Girls at the library.  It’s a novel which was long-listed for the now defunct Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a fresh, lively voice, writing about a slice of life in China that is little known to the West.

I’ve noted before, in the fiction of Ouyang Yu, that Chinese writing can be rather ‘earthy’ and this is certainly true of Northern Girls.  Set in the 1990s as China’s economic development surged, the Northern Girls are young women who leave their villages for the bright lights and apparent freedom of the city where they have to learn to be streetwise very quickly.   It’s an old, old story in a very new setting.

The central character Qian Xiaohong is only sixteen when she is surprised in bed with her brother-in-law and this is the catalyst for her departure, but due to the size of her breasts, she has already acquired a ‘fast’ reputation in the village:

Noticing that her family had a little money, some guys had hopes of becoming Xiaohong’s man.  It was often said that her earliest involvement with the opposite sex came when she was in primary school, first hooking up with boys from the secondary school, and later moving on to the young men of the village.  She brought them home, each leaving his impression on her bed.  Some claimed that, during the summer months, she sometimes did it while out enjoying the cool evening breeze.  She was even known to go at it in broad daylight inside the large culvert at the power plant.  Such was Xiaohong’s reputation, and it rolled over the village in waves. (p. 3)

It is not sleeping around that is scandalous, it is sleeping with her relation that causes a scandal.  As we soon see when Xiaohong gets to the bustling city of Shenzen, sex is a human bodily need, it is discussed in an open, casual way,.  Although a girl’s virginity is a marketable commodity, there is no stigma or guilt attached to premarital sex, even with multiple partners.

This matter-of-fact attitude to sexuality strips the novel of any romantic overtones, and while characters come to care for each other and enjoy affection, it comes without any of the courtship rituals that occur in the West, and none of the characters have what we would recognise as a loving relationship.   What matters to these girls is survival: finding a job, getting the required paperwork, and negotiating the manipulative behaviour of others in the constant quest for betterment.  They also have to learn to harden their hearts, because money is all that matters in the modern city.  There is no time or space for loyalty, integrity or even friendship.  Everything is fractured, displaced, urgent and open to corruption.

Xiaohong soon becomes friend to Sijang, an innocent from the same village.  Their first job is as hair-washers at a salon where extra ‘massages’ can be provided as part of the service, and Xiaohong takes the other girl under her wing to protect her virginity.  Not because there is some mystic or religious significance to virginity but because for Xiaohong, it’s all about self-determination and it should be Sijang’s choice, not something thrust upon her by some manipulative man out to make a profit from her.

Prey to ruthless bosses, jealous wives,  and internecine office politics made more complex by the party machine, Xiaohong seems to weave her way through all kinds of dangers without coming to harm, but this is not the case for her friends.  There is a prostitute who is murdered, an occurrence so common that the police scarcely bother about it; and an unwanted pregnancy which results in a cruel sterilisation which leaves the girl barren, unmarriageable, and prey to a man who only wants to get his hands on the compensation money she is paid.  Keyi’s writing (and the excellent translation) is at its best when conveying the awful reality of China’s intervention in the reproductive lives of women…

All this sounds rather sombre, but Xiaohong is a spirited creature with an irrepressible zest for life.  An incurable optimist and a highly intelligent young woman, she is determined to improve her lot, with study, hard work and a steely determination.  The only thing that holds her back is her gender, symbolised most graphically by breasts which grow to become a burden that literally weighs her down.  These breasts ‘badge’ her as a prostitute, but she refuses to monetise her sexuality in a city where everything is monetised.

A most interesting book.

Also see Mark Staniforth’s review at Eleutherophobia and Matt Todd’s at A Novel Approach.

Author: Sheng Keyi
Title: Northern Girls, Life Goes On
Translated from the Chinese Bei Mei by Shelly Bryant
Publisher: Viking Penguin, 2012
ISBN: 9780670080953
Source: Kingston Library

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 16, 2014

The Abandoned Book, and other perils of book blogging


I recently had the disquieting experience of abandoning a book.  I always find this a horrid experience: some author has spent years of her life working on it, and a publisher has sent it to me expecting me to read and review it, and for one reason or another I just can’t bear to continue reading it.  Irrationally, I feel guilty about this.  In my head I know that that I ought not to feel any compulsion to read an unsolicited book that I really don’t like once I’ve given it 50 pages of my time, time which is very precious to me.   In my heart, I feel so sorry for the author that I cast about for a home for the book.  I leave it on my shelf in case I have a change of heart – where it reproaches me each time I set eyes on it.  Because I know how much debut authors need all the help they can get, and how some of them – in the absence of any attention from the mainstream print reviewers - hope for attention from book bloggers like me.

I read somewhere, I forget where, that we book bloggers are culturally subsidising the publishing industry.  We’re not paid for what we do, and are rarely acknowledged, so I suppose that’s true, though it seems an odd way to describe something so natural and enjoyable as chatting about books online.   I’ve had offers from publishers and publicists to place ads on this blog, which I’ve refused, because I want to keep my independence, but it’s an indication, I suppose, that my little blog has some impact on sales.  If that’s true, I’m pleased, because every sale encourages an author.

For debut authors, usually desperate to gain traction in the shifting sands of publicity, attention is what’s needed, and I was most forcefully reminded of this when I viewed Australian author Kristel Thornell delivering the Neilly Series lecture at the University of Rochester.  She was asked to talk about ‘Emerging’ – the process of becoming a writer, and she describes vividly how difficult it can be to make the transition from being an earnest, private, reticent young writer working alone, to being an author, expected to make publicity appearances in the glare of book launches.  She also talks about how hard it is to get anyone to take any notice of the precious new novel – a novel good enough to be published, and in her case good enough to nominated for the NSW Premier’s Award.   The poignancy of this painfully honest presentation made me very glad that I had not only reviewed Thornell’s novel Night Street but also posted a Sensational Snippet.  I’ve reviewed a lot of debut authors here, as you can see from the tag cloud…

But – back to the abandoned book - the sense of unease, of having left an unknown author floundering in a sea of indifference, makes me ponder, on and off, how to articulate why I didn’t want to finish reading it.  I don’t owe that to the author, but I do owe it to myself to be clear about my reasons.  I once had someone demand a longer explanation for a book I reviewed less than favourably, to which my response was, I’ve already spent quite enough time on this book and don’t intend to revisit it in order to write a comprehensive critique of it.  In that case I was very clear about why I disliked the book and had no problem consigning it to the OpShop.  But I had read that book in its entirety and felt confident that my opinions were justified.  That’s not how anyone can feel about an abandoned book, but the solution can’t be to read it …

So I was very pleased to come across Dorothy Johnston’s thoughts about books written in the present tense, because that was part of the problem. (My pet hate, the child narrator, was the other).  Dorothy is a significant author of eight novels and a judge of this year’s Barbara Jefferis award so her opinion is worth noting.  (See also her article about the fashion for using the present tense even when writing historical novels).

When I was younger I almost never abandoned a book, and even now I do it very rarely because with a lifetime’s experience at choosing books I’m pretty good at selecting ones that I like.  Maybe that’s why abandoning one torments me like this.  What do other readers and book bloggers think?   Do you feel a twinge of guilt about abandoning books?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2014

Notebooks, by Betty Churcher


Cover Art for Notebooks, ISBN: 9780522858426

Betty Churcher AO (b.1931) is well-known to most Australians. As Director of the National Gallery of Australia from 1990 to 1997, she gave us a reason to make repeated weekend visits to Canberra when she brought us wonderful ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, and she taught many of us how to look at art properly in her TV series Take Five and Hidden Treasures. For art-lovers like me who have no academic background in fine arts, her Notebooks are a valuable adjunct to her educational role…

As she explains in the Introduction to the 2011 Notebooks her father deplored education for girls and it was only thanks to a generous headmistress, Miss Craig at Somerville House Brisbane, that her fees were waived and she was able to complete her secondary education.  In her rather endearing self-deprecating style, she then tells how she made her way to London to follow the dream that had sustained her since her first childhood visit to the gallery in Brisbane.

A graduate of the Royal College of Art London, Churcher also holds a Master of Arts from the Courtauld Institute of Art.  For as long as her now failing eyesight held out, she would sketch artworks in the galleries that she visited, and jotted down notes about the paintings, especially if she was hoping to persuade the gallery to lend the artwork for exhibition in Australia.  Selections from these notebooks have now been assembled into books that every art-lover will want to have.  The first Notebooks was published in 2011, and its successor Australian Notebooks has just been released.

You can see examples of Churcher’s sketches and notes on the front cover of the book,  and the book is profusely illustrated with full colour reproductions of the paintings, accompanied by her sketches.  But be warned, immersing yourself in this wonderful book will give you itchy feet and make you long to be in the galleries represented so that you can see for yourself the paintings so lovingly described.

Churcher begins with the National Gallery in London.  The first painting that she discusses is Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream (1655):

Like Shakespeare, Rembrandt can bring us face to face with those endearing aspects of human nature, and in this little painting of Hendrickje bathing we witness the human condition at its most enchanting and vulnerable – and 49-year-old Rembrandt at the height of his powers as a painter of human emotion.

Hendrickje is self-absorbed – she seems not to be aware of us, and wades shin-deep into the water, stepping cautiously, carefully feeling her way for a secure footing on the river bed.  There is a breathtaking tenderness in the way the legs break the surface of the water with a tiny ripple, and against the brisk, muscular impasto of the cotton shift, the small spiral of hair that falls down is infinitely delicate and seductive.

I have written a note to myself as I stood drawing in the National Gallery,  ‘No reproduction captures the look of girlish glee on Hendrickje’s face – it is pure delight – on her part and on the part of Rembrandt who observes’: Rembrandt paints the contentment of another warm body.

And above my drawing of her knees I’ve written, ‘There is a feeling of secret delight – almost illicit delight’. It may be, as Sir Anthony Blunt suggests in Neil McLaren’s catalogue of Dutch paintings in the National Gallery, that she is laughing at what she sees reflected in the water – that she can see beneath her shift, although we can’t.

I’ve also noted that ‘they’re good serviceable knees’.  They’re not the knees of a Greek goddess; they’ve been down scrubbing floors, and trudging to market, but the dark triangle of shadow cast by the hooked-up shift suggests that they’re also alluring in bed. (p.55)

Now, doesn’t that make you want to get on a plane to see for yourself?!  There is nothing like seeing the real thing… I remember a somewhat similar experience when I first saw that famous portrait of Elizabeth 1, the Ditchley portrait which I had only ever seen in reproductions in history books. I was stunned to realise that each of those little coloured dots in the squares on her gown were jewels.  This portrait was as much about the astronomical wealth of the queen as it was about her power, something I did not appreciate until I stood dwarfed before it.  Yes, size does matter!

From the National Gallery in London, Churcher then adds to the itinerary for my next overseas trip with a visit to Kenwood House and the Courtauld; to the Metropolitan in New York; to Le Petit Palais in Paris; to the Prado in Madrid and to the Doria Pamphilj in Rome.  In all these galleries she has favourite paintings which she places in context and describes in fascinating detail.  She shows us that it’s worthwhile reading up on ancient myths and legends in order to fully appreciate the paintings, but what’s most important is to take the time to look properly rather than rush about trying to see everything.  It takes a long time to read this book because it’s important to ‘read’ Churcher’s sketches as well as what she says about the placement of light and shadows, the composition of the paintings, and the patterns of lines and shapes; it’s her sketches that focus the eye where it should be when looking at the reproductions of the paintings in the book.  There are paintings here that I have seen in situ, and I thought I’d looked at them properly, but I never noticed the beggar in The Triumph of Bacchus by Velasquez  or the drink proffered to the Infanta in Las Meninas.  I hope I will know better next time…

I don’t have an iPad, but if I did, I would want to have this book with me in electronic form when travelling.   I don’t find an iPad comfortable to read with – too shiny, not the right shape – but it would be perfect for reading up on the paintings over breakfast or on the tube en route to the gallery, because it could show the full colour illustrations which a Kindle can’t do.

Highly recommended.

Author: Betty Churcher
Title: Notebooks
Publisher: Miegunyah Press (University of Melbourne Publishing)  2011
ISBN: 9780522858426
Source: Kingston Library

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Lisa Hill:

Don’t miss this terrific review of The Great Unknown (edited by Angela Meyer) over at Whispering Gums!

Originally posted on Whispering Gums:

Angela Meyer, The great unknown

Courtesy: Spineless Wonders

The great unknown is a mind-bending collection of short stories which explores, as editor Angela Meyer says, “the unknown, the mysterious, or even just the slightly off.” I was, in fact, expecting more horror, thriller even, which are genres that don’t really interest me, but this collection is not that. There are some truly scary scenes – so if that’s your bag then you’ll appreciate this collection – but many are more subtly mysterious, giving the collection a broader appeal.

There are nineteen stories, most of which are the result of Meyer’s direct invitation to some favourite authors. Six, though, come from the shortlist for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award, 2013, of which Meyer was the judge. The invited authors were given the same brief as that for the competition, which was to write a story inspired by the “fifth dimension”, that is, the world found in shows like

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2014

2014 Kibble and Dobbie Longlists


Behold! Another lot of award longlists, and it’s nice to see that books I’ve admired are here too:)

Kibble Literary Award

Debra Adelaide – Letter to George Clooney (Picador Australia)
Georgia Blain – The Secret Lives of Men (Scribe)  see Karenlee’s Thompson’s guest review
Ashley Hay – The Railwayman’s Wife (Allen & Unwin) see my review
Rachel Hennessy – The Heaven I Swallowed: A Novel (Wakefield Press) see my review
Melissa Lucashenko – Mullumbimby (University of Queensland Press) see my review 
Kristina Olsson – Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir (University of Queensland Press)

Dobbie Literary Award

Sarah Drummond – Salt Story: Of Sea-dogs and Fisherwomen (Freemantle Press) see my review
Fiona McFarlane – The Night Guest (Penguin Group Australia) see my review
Margaret Merrilees – The First Week: A novel (Wakefield Press) see my review
Kate Richards - Madness: A Memoir (Penguin Group Australia)
Inga Simpson – Mr Wigg (Hatchette Australia)
Jill Stark – High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze (Scribe)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers, and many thanks to Karenlee Thompson for her regular contributions to this blog – with her help ANZ LitLovers has reviewed all but two of these notable books!

Find out more about these awards here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2014

Landscape of Desire, by Kevin Rabalais


12173844The history of Australia’s ill-fated exploration parties makes for great reading: whether the author reconstructs the historical record into narrative or recreates it as fiction, these stories can’t help but convey the romance of exploring into the unknown; the beauty and the terror of the remote Australian landscape; the hubris of the explorers and their backers who knew nothing of the network of indigenous Songlines which already mapped the continent; and the poignant tragedy of a lonely death witnessed only by the humiliation of failure and frustrated ambition.   Landscape of Desire now joins my favourites of these stories: Patrick White’s magnificent Voss which is a fictionalisation of  Leichhardt’s doomed venture into the Great Sandy Desert  (see my review) and Sarah Murgatroyd’s brilliant history The Dig Tree which reconstructs Burke and Wills’ disastrous expedition to cross the continent which ended in tragedy at Cooper’s Creek.

Landscape of Desire is a masterly first novel fictionalising this same story.   Ambitious in scope and structure, the book assumes some knowledge of the expedition and its protagonists, introducing multiple narratives that shape events before, during and after the loss of the party, and fracturing the chronology to sustain interest in a story already very well-known.

Rabalais has resisted the temptations of first person narrative, but we hear the perspectives of Burke, the moody and eccentric police inspector-turned-leader of the expedition; and also the stoic surveyor Wills who turns out to have more in common with Burke than either of them knew.  There is the narrative of the sole survivor John King and his sojourn among the Aborigines who saved his life; of William Brahe, haunted by the bad timing of his departure from Cooper’s Creek;  and Alfred Howitt, sent by the exploration committee to investigate the disappearance but who found only King still alive.  And – missing from the heroic version of this doomed expedition that my generation learned at school – there is also the love interest: the young actress Julia Matthews whose mother hopes for more than a policeman as a husband for Julia and who, in this novel, is thus the catalyst for Burke’s efforts to impress her with his heroic venture.  (Unless there is more to the historical record than I know, this is one of a number of imagined aspects of the novel.)

By and large the technique is successful, though Julia’s voice is not as convincing as the others.  She does not, of course, have as significant or as dramatic a part to play.  Hers is a bit part, in the vast amphitheatre of this novel.   But the other characters are very compelling -  they all have so much invested in their enterprise; ambitions offset by the simple kindness and generosity of the indigenous woman Karuwa at home in a landscape that terrifies them all.

Rabalais writes with exquisite consciousness of man defeated by the hostile continent.  He tweaks the facts in order to stress the desert’s victory in an ill-conceived contest:

King looks up to see them approaching, four natives, five.  Back then, at the Gulf, his feet were the first to touch the water.*  He pressed his fingers into the wet sand.  Foam danced on his wrists, its whiteness like a revelation.  This is what he thinks of, now, here, as the men reach out to him.

Those hands he now turns upwards.  He extends his arms, reaches out to the five men  who watch this pale figure who has come to surrender, a white man, orphan of the desert sea.   (p. 55)

* The party never actually reached the Gulf of Carpentaria.  They could not penetrate past the mangrove swamps to the shore.  And it was Burke and Wills only who attempted this last leg of the northward journey, leaving King and Gray behind at Camp 119.    See Wikipedia.

Just one little niggle: stealing cattle in Australia is cattle duffing, not cattle rustling.  Rabalais is an American now living in Australia and could be forgiven for not knowing this, but his publisher should have, and it’s disappointing to see the Australian vernacular not used where it belongs.

I loved this book, but I hesitate a little to recommend it because I know that I drew on The Dig Tree in my reading of it.  I’d like to know if readers unfamiliar with the historical record might have found it a bit confusing in places.

Author: Kevin Rabalais
Title: Landscape of Desire
Publisher: Scribe, 2008
ISBN: 9781921215681
Source: Personal library

Availability

Fishpond: The Landscape of Desire

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2014

2014 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards


I haven’t been able to keep up with the awards lists this year, but I’m on holidays at the moment so here’s the NSW Premier’s Shortlist:

CHRISTINA STEAD PRIZE FOR FICTION

The Secret Lives of Men, Georgia Blain (Scribe Publications), see Karenlee’s Thompson’s guest review
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Random House) Australia), see my review
The Railwayman’s Wife, Ashley Hay (Allen & Unwin), see my review
Questions of Travel, Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin), see my review
Game, Trevor Shearston (Allen & Unwin), my copy of this is on its way so I hope to have a review of it soon
The Swan Book, Alexis Wright (Giramondo Publishing, see my review

GLENDA ADAMS AWARD FOR NEW WRITING

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (Penguin Group (Australia), see my review
Holiday in Cambodia, Laura Jean McKay (Black Inc.)
The First Week, Margaret Merrilees (Wakefield Press), see my review
Letters to the End of Love, Yvette Walker (University of Queensland Press), see Karenlee’s guest review

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers, and many thanks to Karenlee Thompson for her regular contributions to this blog – with her help ANZ LitLovers has reviewed all but two of these notable books!

Find out about awards in the other categories here.

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2014

The Boat, by Clara Salaman


I bought The Boat as an airport novel, and it turned out to be a good choice.  It’s a interesting drama, compellingly constructed with a script-writer’s eye, and I romped through it in next to no time.

It begins with a chilling image.  A young man called Johnny is deliberately scuttling a yacht somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean, destroying all trace of himself and the boat.  The rest of the book unravels the events that have brought him to these desperate moments.

He’s very young, with an even younger wife called Clem, and the pair of them have set off from Britain in search of adventure.  More than a little naive, they have got themselves into a perilous situation in Turkey where not only the criminals but also the police are not to be trusted.  (Which made me wonder, will the Turkish police ever live down that film?)

With the police in hot pursuit they are rescued in the nick of time by Frank and Annie, who are sailing around the Turkish coast on the Little Utopia with their five-year-old daughter Smudge.  Under blue skies and sunshine, the two couples drink, smoke, and philosophise, and far from any tiresome rules and prohibitions, all seems idyllic.

Only of course it’s not.  (Why else would Johnny be adrift on the ocean on his own, eh?)  As the pages whisk by in well-crafted dialogue and strongly visual scenes, we learn the back story of Clem, of Johnny, and – with critical details withheld until late in the novel – also the back story of Frank and Annie.  When Johnny finally works out what’s going on, a reasonably credible alternative is presented to confuse both him and the reader.

The author is, apparently, an actor from the BBC TV series The Bill which I faithfully watched until the scripts began to resemble Days of Our Lives, so I shan’t be surprised if this book makes its way to the screen before long.

Author: Clara Salaman
Title: The Boat
Publisher: Head of Zeus, 2013
ISBN: 9781781855843
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $27.99

Availability

Fishpond: The Boat


13697209The Past Ahead is one of those harrowing books that is hard to read and yet powerful in the questions it raises.  It shines a light on the Rwandan genocide, forcing the reader to confront questions about guilt,  justice and reconciliation.

Two narratives bring executioner and survivor together many years after the horror.  Isaro is the sole surviving member of her family.  As a little girl she was adopted by the French family who witnessed the atrocity, and she has been brought up in France, but in her adolescence she rejected these rescuers and abandoned them.  When the novel begins she has returned to Rwanda to retrieve her memories and – because she feels the world has prematurely ‘moved on’  without justice to the victims – to document the entire genocide.  She plans to interview everyone.

The other narrative is the story of a deaf-mute called Niko, who took part in the massacres.  Isaro is writing his story.

The book begins with a warning:

1. “Dear Stranger, welcome to this narrative. I should warn you that if, before you take one step, you feel the need to perceive the indistinct line that separates fact from fiction, memory from imagination; if logic and meaning mean one and the same thing to you; and lastly, if anticipation is the basis for your interest, you may well find this journey unbearable.”  (p. 1)

A postmodernist style, it seems to me, is eerily appropriate for the telling of this story. It’s called a novel in the introduction by the translator, but while it’s a work of imagination, it bears little resemblance to any form or style of novel that I’ve come across.  It is the character Isaro who writes this introduction, which replaces her first draft which began “Dear Stranger, welcome to this narrative whose only survivor will be you”.  Isaro had felt that her first draft was too violent and so altered it to this more cautious introduction.  But these enigmatic words make more sense to the reader who learns from the back cover that Gatore was born in Rwanda in 1981 and kept a diary during the civil war.  The diary was lost during his escape, and he began writing in an attempt to reassemble the fragments of his memories.  The author is telling us in these opening words that this book reveals truth even if these things never happened exactly as depicted here.

That is why, I think, that Niko is characterised as a deaf-mute, unable to speak for himself.  He represents the silenced voices of the perpetrators of the massacre, people whose only defence can be that they were following orders, though as Gatore shows us, there is more to it than that. But Isaro, trying to record events if not to understand them, could not possibly know Niko’s thoughts any more than she can possibly interview every single survivor, executioner, accomplice, or resistance fighter.  The numbers, as Gatore reminds us repeatedly are too many, and this in itself is the trigger for Isaro’s project: in France she hears a radio report about the legal aftermath of the genocide, still unresolved after so many years, and she cannot bear the detachment of her friends when they learn that the number of prisoners is so enormous and the legal authorities so overloaded that it will take several centuries to hear all the cases. (p. 21)  There is no other way to contemplate the enormity of this catastrophe except through a work of imagination, as signalled by these overt impossibilities by the author.

Niko, an outcast since birth, has withdrawn from his village.  Haunted by the fear that he might have killed his own father as people say he did, he is living in a taboo cave, amongst gorillas.  They teach him compassion when they care for him when he is hurt, and they are the family he no longer has.  Gatore forces the reader to confront the humanity of the killer with a portrait of a scared, damaged and lonely man whose actions were forced upon him.  If he had not killed his first victim he would have been killed himself, and his victim would have died anyway.

170. He keeps his eyes closed while the executions are carried out in front of him, surrendering to a relentless self-interrogation.  Is cruelty born from a kind of instinct that tells you that any form of rebellion will cost you your own life and changes nothing in the situation against which you rebel? Does the instinct of survival justify killing? Is it better to die so as not to kill the other, who must die no matter what? (p. 83)

Having enlisted the reader’s empathy, not least because it is his character Isaro writing these words in carefully numbered fragments, Gatore then presents Niko’s tortured self-analysis: at what point did he start to enjoy his role as leader of a gang that raped, tortured and brutally murdered its victims?

173. What happened next surpassed any horror or cruelty that even the most depraved mind might picture.  Niko’s group murdered as many people as it could, at first following the orders and signals of the leaders, and then simply in competition with each other – “I must have killed at least twenty today, and you?’’ – and, finally, out of habit.  When the job began to feel monotonous to them, it was no longer a matter of just how many victims, but also how they were executed: sliced to pieces, buried after being stoned nearly to death, strung up head down, and countless other ways.  In the evening, to celebrate or to forget the day’s accomplishments, beer or banana wine flowed, and unlimited amounts of skewered meat and grilled corn were consumed until deep into the night. They had to recuperate from today and be fortified for tomorrow.  (p. 84)

Can there be any hope of genuine reconciliation in a situation like this?  Abandoned by the French university who renege on their offer to fund the project, Isaro is befriended by a taxi-driver, and she falls in love.  But in Rwanda, everyone and anyone may be culpable.  Just as Niko is haunted by the possibility that he may have killed his father, Isaro cannot rid herself of the fear that her lover may be the one who killed her family.  These doubts raise the question: does proximity make culpability worse, because after all, every victim was someone’s family.  Should guilt, justice and reconciliation differ depending on relationships?  Logically, if a killer feels more guilt for killing his own father, then he feels less guilt about killing the father of someone else.  Can a survivor forgive the murderer of another’s family but not her own?  Doesn’t that devalue the life of the Other, and isn’t that somehow morally repugnant?  Of course we see that it’s human nature to feel differently about our own, but we do not expect justice to differentiate between them.  But isn’t that exactly what happens when the world says rhetorically ‘But what can you do?’, decides that justice is too hard to deliver, and briskly ‘moves on?

In Rwanda, in post-war Germany, in the aftermath of the Serbian massacres or the genocide in Cambodia, these are not idle philosophical questions.  When the numbers of executioners are beyond the capabilities of the justice system, societies have negotiated some kind of accommodation so that survivors and perpetrators have come to live side-by-side once more.  South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems to have been successful, but who can say at what personal cost for individuals?   Gatore seems to be saying that for some people, it’s more than the human heart can bear.

Author: Gilbert Gatore
Title: The Past Ahead
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager
Publisher: Indiana University Press (French Voices/Global African Voices series) 2012
ISBN: 978025300666
Source: Personal Library, purchased from the Africa Book Club, $19.00

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2014

The Radiant Way, by Margaret Drabble


The Radiant WayI was so sorry to come to the end of Margaret’s Drabble’s magnificent 1987 novel, The Radiant Way!  What cheered me up was the belated discovery that it’s the first of a trilogy, so  A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (1991) went straight onto my wish-list to add to my Margaret Drabble shelf.  I have become very fond of the characters Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, and I want to follow the further adventures of these brilliant women as they negotiate Thatcher’s Britain and their own middle age.

Drabble introduces this trio at a lavish New Year’s Eve party:  Liz is a wealthy Harley Street psychotherapist but this is the first NY Eve party she’s ever thrown.

They have given many parties in their time, but on New Year’s Eve they have always gone out to the gatherings of others – sometimes to several gatherings in the course of the evening, and some years separately, not always meeting even for the magic chimes.  A modern marriage, and some of its twenty-odd years had been more modern than others.  Maybe. Liz reflects (f0r this is what she contemplates, through the oval mirror), maybe this is why they decided to have such a party, this year, at the end of this decade: as a sign that they had weathered so much, and were now entering a new phase?  A phase of tranquillity and knowledge, of acceptance and harmony, when jealousies and rivalries would drop away from them like dead leaves? Well, why not? After twenty-one years, one is allowed a celebration.  Charles will be fifty, she herself is forty-five.  There is a symmetry about this, about their relationship with the clock of the century, that calls for celebration.  (p. 6)

Alas for Liz, the new phase she enters into so abruptly on this night is separation from Charles, who has – to everyone’s astonishment – decided to leave her for Lady Henrietta Latchett.  Dull, neat, and not even young and sexy.  For Liz, the humiliation is comprehensive, not least when she realises that she is almost the last to know.

Looking back, Liz would try to remember the moment at which she had known rather than not known: she would have liked to have thought that she had known always, that there was no moment of shock, that knowledge had lain within her (the all-knowing), that she had never truly been deceived, that at the very worst she had connived at her own deceit.  Surely Ivan’s first sentence of the New Year had alerted her? (Though that would have been late, late, late.) Surely she had taken it as an ill omen?  But no, she had taken it all at face value: from Ivan, of all people, who spread malice as his trade.  She had thought herself exempt.  Slow she had been, unbearably slow, she who could hear many strands of speech at once: trusting she had been, she who had been reared in the bosom of suspicion.  She had thought herself invulnerable.  She had been possessed by pride. (p.39)

So, for Liz, 1980 means learning to live alone, to make decisions about what to do with the over-large Harley Street house where she has her professional rooms as well as her home, to renegotiate her relationships with her three step-sons from Charles’ first wife.  The collapse of her marriage and its certainties coincide with new demands: her strange, difficult mother is ageing, and her sister Shirley who has never left their birthplace Northam is expecting her brilliant, glamorous sister to make a bit more of an effort to engage with the old woman who has tormented them both since they were children.

Liz’s friends are solace, but they have their own adjustments to make too.  Alix,  well-intentioned but naïve, is forced by Thatcherism to confront her own somewhat vague political philosophy.  Like Liz, she graduated from Cambridge, but her career has been desultory.  She has part-time teaching jobs here and there, and at the time the novel opens she’s teaching English in a prison with a progressive program. Her nice husband Brian who’s never abandoned his working-class roots teaches English too, so cuts in education funding and privatisation affect them both.  Alix’s discovery that they’re not in the same place along the political Left continuum makes her very uncomfortable indeed.

And then there’s Esther.  Esther is eccentric.  A dilettante with a highly specialised collection of interests and a complete lack of interest in using her expertise as an art historian to achieve anything with her Cambridge degree.  Her relationships are ambiguous, her friendships exotic.  Esther is obsessive about one of her pot plants,  and she likes to walk the dark streets of London by night, which is not a good idea when there is a serial killer about.

But no, The Radiant Way is not a thriller or a crime novel. (I wouldn’t have read it if it were, I find those genres boring).  The novel is a panorama of the 1980s, which had me captivated from the very first pages.  The comfortable complacency of this confident generation of Cambridge women is systematically explored and challenged by the complexity of city life in a time of powerful political turmoil.   Firmly grounded in its period with cascades of images that took me back to the 1980s each time I opened the book, I had just one moment of incomprehension:

These were the years of inner city riots, of race riots in Brixton and Toxteth, of rising unemployment and riotless gloom: these were the years of a small war in the Falklands (rather a lot of people dead), and of the Falklands Factor in politics: these were the years when a new political party boldly declared that it would attempt to find a way out of the impasse of class conflict: these were the years when strange tattered, vulture-like grey and black false plastic creatures began to perch and cluster in the trees of Britain: these were the years when cast-away fast-food cartons of indeterminate texture and substance proliferated in the streets and front gardens and underpasses and hedgerows of Britain.  (p. 228)

What on earth are those strange tattered, vulture-like grey and black false plastic creatures that Drabble is alluding to??  Help please!

Author: Margaret Drabble
Title: The Radiant Way
Publisher: Penguin, 1987
ISBN: 9780140101683
Source: OpShop find, a $2 bargain!

Availability

Fishpond had two second-hand copies on the day I looked: The Radiant Way

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2014

2014 Miles Franklin Longlist


I had a flat tyre waiting for me when I tried to leave work this afternoon, so I’m late with the news: the Miles Franklin Award longlist has been announced.  There’s a couple I haven’t come across but I’m delighted with the inclusion of the ones I’ve read and reviewed:

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Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Happy reading, everyone!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 2, 2014

New on the TBR from Open Letter Books


Thanks to my mate Stu at Winston’s Dad on Twitter, I found out about a special offer from Open Letter Books – and the books arrived today!

Open Letters Books is  supported by the University of Rochester to publish great works of literature in translation, and their “First 25″ and “First 50″ are complete sets of the first 25 and 50 books discounted by more than 50% for the First 25 set and over 65% for the First 50 set.  The offer includes free shipping, yes, even all the way here to Australia!

Irresistible! Click here to find out more.

The only problem is going to be choosing which ones to read first!

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I’m on the lookout for reviews of these books to help me choose which ones to read first.
So far, I have just one to guide me:

The Pets, by Bragi Olafsson, reviewed by Guy at His Futile Preoccupations

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2014

City Walks, Paris, by Christina Henry De Tessan


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The rest of the plan is still vague, but a few days in Paris is definitely on the itinerary for 2015 if all goes well.  And so it seemed only reasonable to pick up this useful little guide to walking in Paris when I was browsing in Benn’s Books today.

It is such a clever idea: a little box, not much bigger than a cigarette packet, holding 50 cards to slip into a pocket.  Each card has a map on one side, and the text explaining the route and places of interest on the other.   The map details are big enough for the visually challenged like me to read, and by the look of the cards about places I’m already familiar with, there is enough detail to find your way without getting lost.

The text is excellent.  Looking at the card for the Louvre, it includes the Metro stop; cafés to revive flagging feet both before and after, and places of interest to look out for.   There are themed walks too: around chic and gourmet La Madeleine; a glimpse of Paris at its most decadent and luxurious at Place Vendome; old Paris at the Palais Royal and Galerie Vivienne; the museums of the Marais, and (although I’ve now visited Paris three times, lots of places I’ve never heard of but now long to visit.

I would have liked a little more emphasis on literary and artist landmarks, so if anyone knows of a self-guided city walks book for Paris that focusses on those, I’d like to know about it too.

Now all I need to do is save up the fare!

Author: Christina Henry De Tessan
Title: City Walks: Paris, Revised Edition: 50 Adventures on Foot
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2011
ISBN: 9780811874090
Source: Personal library

Availability

Fishpond:  City Walks: Paris, Revised Edition: 50 Adventures on Foot

Or from Benn’s Books Centre Rd Bentleigh, where they also same others in the same series for London and Rome.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 29, 2014

Money, by Emile Zola, translated by Valerie Minogue


Money I was justifiably excited by this new translation of Emile Zola’s novel Money: there are scenes that were excised completely from the prudently self-censored Vizetelly translation which make the characterisation more complex and much more interesting…

Money (L’Argent) was first published in 1891, the eighteenth of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, but fourth in the recommended reading order because it follows logically on from The Kill (La Curée) published almost twenty years before in 1871-2.  It follows the extraordinary career of Aristide Saccard, the youngest son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, a financial wheeler-and-dealer to rival any of the rogues who engineered the recent Global Financial Crisis or the financial scandals of the 1980s.   But this is no simplistic morality tale excoriating the greed of financiers: Saccard is a much more complicated character in Money than he was in The Kill, and speculation with money for all its drawbacks is shown to be essential to the growth and development of nations.

Most interesting of all in this novel is the characterisation of Caroline Hamelin, and this is the character to whom Vizetelly’s prunings do a disservice, because in Minogue’s translation Caroline’s knowledge of Saccard’s flaws is complete.  It’s not just that he has drawn countless innocent vulnerable people into his web of shady dealings, it’s also that he is sexually depraved (by 19th century Parisian standards, that is) and yet she still finds it hard to condemn him.  The man has a magnetism that is irresistible even to the woman who is the moral compass of the novel.  She knows about his lack of restraint, and is compromised by it.

One thing I do like in the Vizetelly version in The Complete Works of Emile Zola on my Kindle is the illustrations.  There is a beaut B&W drawing of the Bourse, the Parisian stock exchange in 1867, showing the room packed with investors shoulder to shoulder and the brokers frantically responding to the calls to buy or sell.  There’s also a plan of the Bourse drawn by Zola as part of his research and a raunchy publicity poster for the novel.  On the other hand, there aren’t any pictures in this new Oxford World Classics edition, but there is a very useful introduction by the translator, who is Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Wales and President of the London Emile Zola Society.  (BTW I was very pleased to see the warning that there were spoilers in this introduction.  That gives the reader the choice to risk them or not).   It is the illustrations in the Vizetelly version, however, which convey the excitement of this novel much better.

It is an exciting novel.  I wasn’t expecting that, after all, banking and finance has to be one of the most boring aspects of our everyday lives if you’re an ordinary person for whom banking means electronic payment of salary, payment of bills, a mortgage, a credit card and the occasional miserly payment of some interest.   But Saccard is an inveterate salesman and when we find him bankrupt and outcast at the beginning of the novel, we can’t help but be lured in by his grand ambitions.  He seizes on and fascinates us with the vision of Georges Hamelin to mount a new crusade in the Middle East, a crusade to restore Christianity to its birthplace with majestic transportation systems of roads, rail and steamships.  For Georges, the vision is religious – he wants to develop the ‘wasted’ lands of the Middle East so that the Pope (under siege in the Papal States from the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel) can move to Jerusalem.  Saccard thinks this is absurd, but he is captivated by the idea of French capital developing ‘idle’ land and bringing ‘civilisation’ to the inhabitants.   He loves to see money moving around, doing something, and achieving great things…

With nothing more than his powers of persuasion, his few remaining contacts and his ability to do a shady deal when he needs to, Saccard sets up his new bank, the Universal.  Along the way he captures the imagination of Paris, attracting investors large and small.  By the time of the Universal Exhibition in 1867 when all the world flocked to Paris, Saccard’s bank has moved to lavish new premises and the share price has reached astronomical proportions.  The reader knows it is doomed to fail, and as the novel moves towards its climax there are portents which illuminate the lives of those destined to be ruined.  There is pathos and schadenfreude in equal measure in Money, and of course there are also those who profit, those who lose but don’t pay their debts, and those who get off scot-free without any apparent sense of guilt as well.

As the rain fell in torrents on Saccard at the beginning of the novel when he was broke and friendless, it falls too in cascades as the denouement at the stock exchange looms.  Zola writes this compelling chapter with all the verve of a battle, because that’s what it is, a battle between the bear market and the bull market, with Saccard fighting for financial survival against compelling odds.  Among the crowd are the strategists and tacticians, prophets of doom and barrackers, loyal supporters and betrayers, and the tension is maintained as the share price goes up and down.  Saccard’s composure almost never falters, and when it does, it is not because of his own fortunes - it is because he sees in the crowd the faces of the humble investors who trusted his word and are depending on him now.

It is this Saccard who challenges the image of the decadent greedy speculator that was dominant in The Kill. This Saccard gives his expertise to help underprivileged children in Princess Orviedo’s foundling homes and hospitals – even though he thinks she’s mad to be deliberately divesting herself of a fortune ill-gotten in speculation by her now dead husband.  This Saccard confronts the rapacious Busch to force him to cancel an egregious debt against the hapless author Jordan; this Saccard weeps when he realises the enormity of the wrong he has done to his natural son and the terrible consequences of that.   It is this combination of good intentions, wild reckless ambition and addiction to making money grow no matter the risk to others, that troubles Caroline – because she finds herself unable to resist him.  Intelligent, sensible, prudent and scrupulously honest, she feels herself complicit in his shady dealings because she can see the benefits too.  Zola shows us that it is indeed Saccard’s bank that has realised Georges’ dream of a thriving transport industry in the Middle East, and the beginnings of development such as the Carmel Silver Mine.  (Today of course, we interpret this development differently, as part of European colonisation and exploitation, with few benefits filtering through to the locals.  But that’s not how anybody looked at it in the 19th century, not even the people in the Middle East who agreed to let them to do it.)

One aspect of this novel will bother modern readers, quite a bit.  Saccard’s rival for pre-eminence is the Jewish banker Gundermann, and there are anti-Semitic references to him in some of Saccard’s tirades.  This is countered a little by Caroline’s mild remonstrance that Jews are no different to anybody else and of course Zola is famous for risking his career in his defence of the Jewish officer Dreyfus, but still, anti-Semitism is always uncomfortable reading.

The translation is generally very good.  I detected a couple of glitches which might have been picked up by an assiduous editor:  a tautologous died ingloriously in Rome without any glory (p. 341) and an incongruous ticked all the right boxes p. 102) but these are easy enough to rectify in future editions.  Overall the text is fluid and reads as if it were not translation at all.   Helpful notes at the back of the book explain references which might otherwise elude readers unfamiliar with events in European history, but as I’ve said above, this translation is the first unabridged edition for more than a century and that is why any reader of Zola in English will be delighted by it.

Perhaps as you find yourself chuckling over the adventures of the Baroness with Sabatini, you too will be tempted to read some parts of Money in both versions to see what else is missing.  For as I know from reading The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore, it wasn’t just salacious material that was censored, though that is bad enough as you can see if you read the Vizetelly version and try to make sense of Victor’s crime.  Zola’s compassionate understanding of the impact on the victim is missing too and I am quite sure that if I look it up I’ll find that his rather endearing concern for other exploited women will be obscured or omitted altogether as well.

Next up in my Zola project is The Dream (La Rêve) but alas there is no modern translation of that one.  If only my French were good enough to read it in the original!  I’m working on it, I’ve translated a short story by Zola but it would take me forever to read a whole novel in French and I’d probably misunderstand parts of it anyway.   I’m hoping that there are other translations of the remaining novels on the way!

Author: Emile Zola
Title: Money
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2014
ISBN: 9780199608379
Source: Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Availability

Fishpond: Money (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at the collaborative blog, The Books of Emile Zola

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