Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 21, 2014

Demons, by Wayne Macauley

An interesting title, eh?  This is Wayne Macauley’s fourth satire – perhaps not in the same league as The Cook (see my review) – but nonetheless an ambitious book in its intent and execution.

Like The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, the novel is framed around the idea of storytelling.  A group of friends set off for a weekend away at a coastal hideaway somewhere along the Great Ocean Road: they’ve left their phones and other techno-toys at home but have brought a plentiful supply of booze and the makings of comfort-food meals.  Macauley brings his characters together on a cold Winter weekend where the old friends’ plan is to reconnect with each other by telling each other stories.

Yes, it’s to be a talkfest.  This is the generation that came to adulthood in the long shadow of the Baby Boomers.  Before long they have a roaring fire going, but really they don’t need it.  It may be  bitterly cold outside but this lot generates enough hot air all by themselves.

The novel takes a while to get going.  There are seven characters to be introduced and some argy-bargy to sort out: who sleeps where, will the stories have titles and so on.  A lot of this is banal, and the writing is rather plain.

Megan and Evan took the main bedroom, with the view of the sea.  The other rooms were down the hallway past the bathroom with the view up through the trees.  The latecomers got the bedroom downstairs.  After everyone had unloaded their stuff and dropped the bags of food and drink in a row on the kitchen floor, Megan suggested a walk.  The dark was coming down.  She and Lauren, then Leon and Hannah, put on their hats and coats and scarves.  Put the meat in the fridge! said Lauren from the bottom of the stairs.

Evan found the cooler bag with the beer in it and twisted the top off two.  Are you into this? he said.  Adam put his beer on the bench and started unpacking the meat. I reckon we should have themes, said Evan, like politics or the environment or technology or love or something, otherwise everyone’s just going to rabbit on about any old crap.  We should write down half-a-dozen and put them in a hat then someone chooses one and we tell stories about that.  Then, it we’ve got the energy, we choose another one later.

They unloaded the shopping and went into the living room.  It was warm in there now.  At one end was a big set of windows and a sliding glass door that opened onto the balcony that looked out over the treetops to the sea. Two couches, four big armchairs and in the centre a low table of sea-worn timber with a stack of magazines and picture books on it.  (p. 4)

Truth be told, this kind of pared-back writing puts me in mind of assessing student work.  Year 5 or 6?  Perhaps Year 7?  Pedestrian vocabulary;  a grammatical clanger (everyone i.e. singular, talking a plural possessive i.e. their); too-casual expressions (stuff, any old crap); no punctuation to signal speech, and an almost complete absence of adjectives to create atmosphere.  Big is used twice in the same paragraph – but ah! there is also sea-worn – the one word that signals that Macauley has written in this pedestrian style for a purpose.  It’s still a pain to read, IMO, but it serves to draw the reader’s attention to the adolescent nature of these middle-aged adults.

Eventually a story-telling stick (a piece of driftwood) is produced and Lauren begins her tale, Woman Killed by a Falling Man. 

Depending on your taste for short stories, these stories within a story will hold your attention or not.  They are, of course, linked by Macauley’s design, and they have a confessional significance not immediately apparent to the listeners.  The reader is less naïve, because (quite apart from the hints in the back-cover-blurb) the behaviour of the characters sends small signals too.  The revelation when it comes is therefore not much of a surprise, and although the dénouement executed by the interloper is unexpected, it’s a bit of an anti-climax.  Macauley is more interested in drawing attention to how this generation responds to it.  Make a fuss because it makes you feel good to let your anger out?  Or move on, because it’s nicer for everybody if you do?  The response is, crucially, not about morality or ethics.  It’s about personal satisfaction.

The character who best exemplifies this facile attitude is Marshall.  The back story isn’t revealed until the end of the novel, but Marshall explains that his late arrival and the absence of his wife Jackie is because her brother has committed suicide.   He, however, has decided to come down anyway.  By any standard this is selfish behaviour, to abandon a wife in this situation.  It doesn’t conform to social niceties either.  It’s a spectacular example of individual desire trumping every other consideration.  Marshall has also reneged on the terms of the weekend contract by bringing his teenage daughter, because she wanted to come, reinforcing other anecdotes that show this generation failing parenthood because it’s too hard.

At times Demons seems more like a lament for a lost generation than a satire.

There’s something a bit sad about us, isn’t there? said Adam.  Us? said Lauren.  I mean, how we’ve only ever danced across the surface, had everything our own way, free education, free dole, no wars, no revolutions.  We’ve not lived to the limit of human experience, we’ve moved in a little circle.  We’ve looked out for ourselves, not others, and if we do make some big magnanimous gesture there’s always something a bit calculating about it. Even when we’re listening to another person’s cares and woes, aren’t we actually thinking about ourselves?

Stop talking, she said, and she rolled over and pulled the covers up to her chin.  We’re pragmatists, said Adam, idealism’s not our thing. No, said Lauren.

Adam lay listening to the sea. (p. 81)

Only one of the characters stays sober.  Leon, Megan’s younger brother, is a recovering alcoholic who had beaten the grog with naturopathy, meditation and yoga and the cure had clung to him almost as persistently as the disease.  He tells a story about a public servant turned radical activist, exemplifying the death of idealism and the growth of expediency.  Through mash-ups of Chekhovian drama these radicals try to sell their message to the self-satisfied bourgeoisie who will not listen: as if up in the sky, the sound of a broken string. (p. 101).

Leon mourns these winds of change:

Nothing changes anything, said Leon. They all looked at him.  The power’s elsewhere, he said, always has been – but no one knows where elsewhere is.  It might have been the politicians once, a long time ago.  Writers and artists once had power to change things.  People say it’s business now, global corporations, the media, the new media – but I don’t believe that either.  They’re powerless too, they’re chasing an idea of power that even they know is elsewhere.  People power? Nah. I don’t believe it; no left-winger can believe it after what’s happened to Soviet Russia.  Maybe that’s power’s natural property, said Leon, to coagulate, concentrate.  Stalin.  Mao.  Pol Pot. Mugabe.  The excitable energy and goodwill of the people, that great maelstrom of peopleness, all that fantastic fire is eventually distilled into a single despot.  Maybe by its very nature power can’t be a spread out thing. And that was the trouble, for someone like me, a journalist with a conscience: no one changed anything unless he or she was lucky enough to be the one who became a despot, the right person in the right place at the right time in whom all that power was held.  So no, Megan, or Adam, sorry, stories change nothing. (p. 157)

This pseudo-nihilism might just have well have been delivered with a glass of Heathcote shiraz in hand – it oozes self-pity.  Of course the stories are told with Macauley’s trademark absurdity, culminating in Adam’s story Home which riffs on the selfishness of childlessness, but as prophets, these characters are too shallow to be taken seriously, and drunk or not, they know that themselves.  Like Dostoevsky who in Demons a.k.a. The Possessed critiqued both the radicals and the conservatives, Macauley savages the ideologies of his generation by satirising their disillusionment and discontent.

It’s a departure in style from his previous novels: more black, rather sour.

But interesting!

Author: Wayne Macauley
Title: Demons
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922147363
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: Demons
Or direct from Text Publishing

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2014

A Million Windows, by Gerald Murnane

A Million Windows I found reading the latest book by Gerald Murnane even more challenging than usual, and yet it was impossible to abandon it.  In A Million Windows he once again dissects the meaning and process of writing fiction, dredging from memory the books he has read or written; the girls he has imagined (or maybe met); the dreamy landscapes of what might be outer-suburban Melbourne; and the thoughts and dictates of the personage in this work of fiction, who seems like a first-person narrator and may perhaps be a bit like the author (but is most certainly not a character).  But it is not easy reading.

For a start, there is an implied expectation that the reader will be familiar with all of the author’s previous books.  Well, when Murnane draws on his own previous published works of fiction, the allusions may seem like old friends if you have read those books.  But if one title or another (in my case, Barley Patch) still rests unread on the TBR,  you too may be occasionally flummoxed (in my case, by an allusion to Torfrida) – unless you cheat like I did and consult Google.

But I do not believe that Gerald Murnane writes to be deliberately obscure.  And while (certainly in this book) he expects a lot of his readers, nor do I think that he wishes his readership to be an exclusive scholarly clique.   To the contrary, he goes out of his way to explain himself and the conceptual framework that underlies his fiction and I think that he would be well pleased to find readers such as myself muddling through, as best they can.   I suspect that some of what seem like provocations to the reader in A Million Windows are intended as a spur to arouse stubborn persistence…

My previous experiences reading Murnane meant that I was not expecting to understand everything on the page.   With his demanding fiction, it’s a case of read on, and pieces will (mostly) fall into place.  But still, it is disconcerting to learn that reading what Murnane calls ‘considered narration’ entitles me to nothing more than to suppose that the narrator of the paragraphs was alive at the time when they were written and felt urged to report certain matters. (p.15)  Later on,  the narrator/the voice of this work reminds us that he is under no obligation to do anything other than report what’s in the mind of the person of the narrator of the fiction (p.159) and that to be deserving to be called the implied reader we must be worthy of the trust placed in us by the writer of ‘true fiction’.  (p. 185)

Early on, this narrator refers to ‘undiscerning readers’, and how they may misinterpret what lies within these pages.  Discerning readers are reassured that falsehoods included in his paragraph about ‘a Swede’s film’ (i.e. Ingmar Bergman’s) were

… allowed into the text for the sake of the undiscerning reader, who might have found tedious a strictly accurate account of what is reported there.   (p. 5)

The undiscerning readers being patronised here, you see, expect more in the way of narrative conventions.  They are inclined to imagine images of actual-seeming persons, whereas a discerning reader knows that they have no existence in the world.  Undiscerning readers may expect to like, or at least identify with the characters.  This, apparently is a grievous error for

a true work of art in no way depends for its justification on its seeming connections with the place that many call the real world and I call the visible world. (p.4)

This warning comes in the context of prose that swirls around and seems to play games with the reader, and I suspect that I am not the only reader who will be reminded of Italo Calvino.  Alas, making this connection this puts me straight into the company of undiscerning readers, where I did not want to be.  I like Murnane, I’ve liked everything I’ve read of his fiction even when I didn’t fully comprehend it.  I was quite discomfited by being placed in this clearly undesirable camp!

What’s more, this somewhat confronting label has the effect of creating an awkward tension between the narrator/voice of this fiction and the reader.  It felt mildly confrontational.  I expect that this sense of being judged will make most readers try, as I did, not to disappoint, but despite my efforts, yes, there were times when this personage blithely corrected my wayward interpretations with what seemed like very little tact.  If like me you had thought yourself a reasonably discerning reader, you may well find A Million Windows rather chastening.

It was especially discomfiting to write, as I did in my reading journal, that I must be en garde as in a chess game where a better player than me is placing his pieces in a series of moves behind which lies a strategy I have yet to discern only to turn the page and find Murnane describing Calvino

as someone for whom writer and reader are opposed to one another as the players on either side of a chessboard are opposed. Even the undiscerning reader of this fiction of mine should have understood by now that I, the narrator, would dread to feel that we were separated even by these sentences.  (p.33)

Oh dear.

So.  You have been warned.  I am an undiscerning reader and probably ought not share my undiscerning thoughts about A Million Windows.  But I’m going to anyway because I was fascinated by it and despite the rather bossy narrator telling me how not to read the book, I liked reading it so much, I read it twice.  Perhaps on cue, I had become stubbornly determined to engage with it.

I was amused by the narrator’s adventures with ‘narratology’.  There was a time when he thought that writing fiction was a craft that he should strive to improve.   Long before the days of buying books online he came across a book ‘reviewed respectfully’ in the TLS and, thinking he was obliged to be aware of the sorts of fiction being published in distant countries, he ordered it from overseas.  It was by a respected German scholar (who? who was it??) and was full of charts and diagrams to do with narrative styles, which alas made him inclined to scoff because it put him in mind of some or another inscrutable calendar or sky-map from a civilisation long since vanished.   Indeed, preferring the work of an American professor, he forgot all about this diagram until writing this book, and at first had thought he might refer to it to

startle the undiscerning reader who believes that a work of fiction contains little more than reports of so-called characters, of what these characters do and say and think, and of the scenery, so to call it, in the background. (p. 51)

But on reflection, he (the narrator) considered the other writers of fiction in the house of two or, perhaps, three storeys where much of the action, so to call it, of this work of fiction takes place.   They (i.e. not you or I, but rather the fictional personages of this book) may find their own work susceptible to the sort of analysis that had given rise to the diagram.  Now, I don’t know about anyone else, I find this idea of baiting the undiscerning reader just a tad provocative – and even more so to lump the fictional personages of this book in with them!

Punctuated by an assortment of narratives about persons who have featured in Murnane’s previous works of fiction, the narrator goes on to pontificate about plot, character, setting and so on, and will neatly invert any ideas the (undiscerning) reader might yet have clung on to about these aspects of fiction.  You can’t have any of those when you read Murnane.  The Murnane reading experience is not like that.  The compensation is that it is intellectually daring, enjoyably exasperating, and occasionally droll.

(You also have to get used to very long, somewhat pedantic sentences with multiple clauses.  One that I noticed on page 47 is 27 lines long).

Although I had read A History of Books I was still intrigued to see how confined Murnane’s the narrator’s reading interests seem to be.  The voice is that of one of the most interesting and exciting contemporary authors, considered to be Australia’s next most likely Nobel winner, and yet he eschews all kinds of contemporary writing because he doesn’t trust the narrative techniques.  The book will be cast aside, for example,  if it features dialogue because it’s purporting to be a film script.   He is especially scornful about stream of consciousness as a technique, calling it ‘posturing’  in the case of Mario Vargas Llosa.  He likes Thomas Hardy, for example, because the narrator seems like someone older and wiser, telling you what to make of it – what to conclude, or what to feel.  And Dickens can be admired because he can direct the actions of his fictional personages (i.e. there can be a plot!) but writers of what he calls ‘true fiction’ lack something needed to do that:

On the rare occasions when we discuss authors such as Charles Dickens, we seem to agree that we lack for something that writers of fiction seemed formerly to possess.  And yet, if we have lost something, so to speak, we have also gained something.  We may be unable to exercise control over our fictional personages the sort of control that Dickens and others exercised over their characters, but we are able to turn that same lack of control to our advantage and to learn from our own subject-matter, so to call it, in somewhat the same way that our readers are presumed to learn from our writing. (p.128)

As you could tell from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last weekend, Murnane’s House of Fiction with its million windows (a metaphor derived from Henry James) comprises many different wings, for writers of different genres.   There is a wing where residents are accorded respect in proportion to the tens of thousands of copies of their books sold or the number of their books adapted for film or even the number of literary prizes awarded them, and while there is some contact between the poets and the exclusive (but necessarily small) wing where the narrator creates his ‘true fiction’, the reader does not need to be told that the narrator eschews contact with these best-selling prize winners and the writers of romance!

Murnane’s preoccupation with girls surfaces often in A Million Windows.  (There is a kind of narrative thread that runs through the book, but I hesitate to call it a story).  I was rather charmed by the narrator’s surprise that girls don’t understand his oblique behaviour.  In adolescence he strikes up an awkward acquaintance with a girl on the train, but she offends him by asking an idle question about how he refers to cinema: movies, pictures or films?  Somehow she should have known that he could not sustain a relationship with a girl who cares about cinema.  Indeed, he feels a mild resentment that to get to know girls there has to be the burden of ‘going out’ with them – he would much rather withdraw and write.  Without any word or overt sign from him, this girl should have understood that her interest in cinema was the reason why he abandoned conversation with her after that.  He was puzzled and hurt when he saw in a ‘Dear Dorothy’ letter in a newspaper that seemed to apply to this incident and to judge him harshly for it.  And he remains utterly convinced that she still thinks of him, as he thinks of her decades later.

I enjoyed this interview with Giromondo’s publisher Ivor Indyk, but I think it’s probably best savoured after reading the book, whereas an audio interview at ABC RN with Michael Cathcart is a useful introduction or companion as you read.

For much more erudite thoughts than mine about A Million Windows, see Peter Craven in the SMH, Emmett Stinson at the Sydney Review, and, if you’re really keen,  K. Thomas Kahn’s at The Quarterly Conversation.  And while I don’t usually care for the anonymous reviews at The Saturday Paper,  I refer you to this one because I was a little relieved to find that I was not alone in thinking some of Murnane’s positions somewhat combative.  Still, I can’t help but find the book exhilarating to read, and I find the stated writing ambition compelling.  What he wants to do is to call into being a narrator more knowledgeable and trustworthy than a personage such as myself, the narrator of this book. He wants it to be a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design (p. 68)

This ambition is based on a desire for trust between writer and reader, and even though I feel I have failed to meet Murnane’s exacting standards, I hope I have conveyed some of my delight in tackling this book.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A Million Windows
Publisher: Giramondo, 2014
ISBN: 9781922146533
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Fishpond: A Million Windows
Or direct from Giramondo.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2014

Sensational Snippets: A Million Windows, by Gerald Murnane

A Million WindowsI am on my second reading of Gerald Murnane’s new book, A Million Windows – and I can’t resist sharing this marvellous metaphor for poetry…

Imagine, if you will,  a ‘house of fiction’ harbouring many writers, who seem to have corralled themselves into different wings of the house.  In one wing no one ‘owns to’ being a poet, but in the adjacent wing there are former poets, who made the transition to writing prose when the ‘winds of fashion’ arose and there ceased to be a craze for ‘declaiming poems in public places’ to ‘cleanse the world’.  These former poets are evasive about the motives for their transition, and the narrator is a bit scornful about them since their poetry was ‘no more than badly punctuated prose arranged in lines of arbitrary length’.

But, there is one former poet who explains his motives thus:

He likens poetry to whisky or gin and prose to beer, which is his only drink.  He says the amount of alcohol in a given volume of beer constitutes a sort of perfect proportion or golden mean whereas whisky and other spirits are akin to poisons, with a potency out of all proportion to their volume.  Poets, he says, are distillers while we writers of prose are brewers, and he strives while he writes to turn out sentence after sentence the meaning of which will keep his reader in a heightened state of awareness for hour after hour whereas the poet that he had once wanted to be might have had his reader fall forward, before long, to the table, seeing double after a surfeit of metaphors.  (p. 109)

*chuckle* I know just what he means.  I’m reading Sappho at the moment, in preparation for my next Masterclass at Melbourne University, where Germaine Greer is the lecturer.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A Million Windows
Publisher: Giramondo, 2014
ISBN: 9781922146533
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Fishpond: A Million Windows
Or direct from Giramondo.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2014

A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn

A Beautiful Place to Die (Bolinda Audio)A Beautiful Place to Die (book)I am indebted to Marilyn Brady for her recommendation to read Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die.  Not being interested in crime fiction, I most certainly would have missed reading it if not for Marilyn’s enticing review, and that would have been a pity because A Beautiful Place to Die is much more than genre fiction.  It reminded me of the best of Graham Greene in the way that the novel explores how context and culture impact on crime and justice, and how survival in an intransigently corrupt society involves an existential struggle between integrity and resignation to the inevitable.

I bought a copy of the book not long after reading Marilyn’s review but it was still biding its time on the TBR when I saw it available as an audio book at the library.  Truth be told, although the title and author seemed vaguely familiar I forgot that I had the book at home, and didn’t find it until after I had finished the audio-book and I was *blush* shelving some other new acquisitions on the N shelf.  I am not at all sorry that I made this mistake, because I think this is a rare example of the audio-book being a better way to ‘read’ the book.

Humphrey Bower is a remarkable narrator: I have enjoyed many of his readings before, but this one is astonishingly good.  In the course of this novel Bower has to convey a multiplicity of accents because A Beautiful Place to Die is set in South Africa.  In Jacob’s Creek deep in Boer Country near the Mozambique border where the story takes place, there are Boer-Afrikaners, Zulu, ‘British’ South African, German-Jewish and Indian accents, and Bower convincingly recreates them all.  I couldn’t fault it.

Set in the early 1950s when apartheid was becoming rigidly institutionalised through legislation, Detective Inspector Emmanuel Cooper is sent by his ambitious boss Van Niekerk to investigate the murder of Captain Willem Pretorius, the well-respected Afrikaner  local police officer who rules Jacob’s Creek with more authority than his position entitles him to.  Cooper barely has time to interview Pretorius’s thuggish sons before the Security Branch arrive with their own agenda, which is to locate a likely ‘Communist’ suspect who can be beaten up in order to extract a confession.  (I invite anyone who thinks this unlikely to remember Steve Biko, and to note the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, see #123).

Cooper isn’t interested in a quick ‘Case Closed’ but he gets sidelined anyway.  The Security Branch ‘boys’ fob him off with an apparently unrelated investigation into a series of sexual assaults against ‘coloured’ girls.  One of the discomfiting aspects of this novel is the way that people are classified according to colour.  In my world, which is multicultural Melbourne, we simply don’t notice these differences, and we think that people who do notice these differences are a bit odd or perhaps limited in experience, or (less tolerantly) that they are racist.   Skin colour here in my city is simply part of the social background.  But Nunn’s novel forces the reader to confront the apartheid-era social and political reality of differences in skin colour with labels such as ‘coloured girls’, ‘Old Jew’, ‘whites’, ‘kaffirs’ and ‘blacks’.   More than that, she shows how these labels defined people’s lives.  A ‘coloured’ girl could not refuse an advance from a white man.  A Zulu such as Constable Shabalala, no matter how competent, could not aspire to promotion in the police force.  ‘Whites’ could expect preferential treatment in all things, and ‘Black’ victims of crime could not expect justice or even much in the way of an investigation.

The book is intricately plotted, with enough red herrings to make it interesting, but the real interest lies in Cooper’s dilemma.  Hamstrung on all sides by the racial code and its political manifestations, he is interested only in a truth that involves illicit desire infringing the new Immorality Act and other laws besides.    Way out in the middle of nowhere and working alone, he is vulnerable to all kinds of intimidation including physical violence, and he has to decide – at the cost of his own safety – where he belongs in the struggle.

It’s a remarkable book, one which has made me want to explore more of this most interesting author’s work.

Author: Malla Nunn
Title: A Beautiful Place to Die
Publisher: Bolinda Audio Books, 2009
ISBN: 9781742333564
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Fishpond: A Beautiful Place to Die (audiobook) or A Beautiful Place to Die (print)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2014

The Cupboard Under the Stairs, by George Turner

The Cupboard Under the Stairs

It’s only a few years ago that the literary world was abuzz with the news that both David Lodge and Colm Tóibín were publishing books fictionalising the life of Henry James – in the same year (2005).  Lodge’s went by the name of Author, Author, while Tóibín’s was called The Master. Tóibín’s (which I read and found brilliant) was shortlisted for the Booker; and it won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and a heap of other prizes as well.  David Lodge has written about how he was gutted when he learned about the untimely coincidence, and because I admired Lodge’s skill as a witty satirist in The Campus Trilogy, I’ve always felt a tad guilty about not having read Author, Author.

I wonder if George Turner (1916-1997) gnashed his teeth too when his novel The Cupboard Under the Stairs hit the bookstands in the same year as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  I think they were both ground-breaking novels in their day: both novels explore how society fears mental illness and institutionalises people who are not ‘normal’.  Both novels redefine what ‘normal’ might be.  But while Turner’s was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Award in 1962 (along with Thea Astley’s The Well-dressed Explorer), it was Kesey’s that went on to be an international best-seller and was made into a film…

In contrast to Kesey’s blunt, direct narrative style, The Cupboard Under the Stairs has elements of modernism.  As you can see from the quotations below, Turner used short, simple sentences, often juxtaposed without any obvious connection so that readers must discern the implied connections for themselves, and there are also unconventional uses of metaphor.   As you’d expect in a novel about mental illness it features psychoanalysis (occasionally straying into somewhat evangelical tone).  The narrative is discontinuous and there are multiple narrative points of view

The title is an allusion to the fear of the bogyman.  When Maxon the Superintendent at the experimental facility at Kilkalla is interviewed by the journalist Julia Shaw, he confronts the stereotypes head-on.  After baiting her a bit, he asked her what she was expecting of Kilkalla:

‘Well then… A rambling castle of a place, thick blue-stone walls, sunken windows, cold stone staircases, locked doors.’  She faltered.  ‘But some of the old places do look like that from the outside.’

He took up the tale.  ‘Male attendants like wrestlers and nurses with muscles and chopping-block chins. Swiftly silenced screams in distant corridors.’

He felt she was more discomfited than need be, and her laugh was short and social.  ‘Not quite that.  One tries to keep with the times but these old ideas linger, like the bogyman in the cupboard under the stairs.’

Her speech trailed, caught up in processes unspoken.  Maxon studied her abstraction.  Trying to deal intellectually with a thing her emotions reject. (p. 31)

Maxon has intuited correctly.  Julie has an hysterical fear of mental illness, due to a childhood fear of her Aunt Willa.

‘… She was insane, but nobody admits it.  They took her away and she’s dead and I’m glad of it, because she was insane.  Do you think I don’t remember?  Muttering and patting and pinching.  She kissed me and slapped my face and giggled.  She was dirty, she couldn’t control herself, she stank.  And her hands, always over you, grubs. You dare!

She clapped her hands to her head, gasping.

Her mother said, ‘Stop screaming, girl,’ and caught a spear of hatred from her daughter’s eyes.  ‘Your Aunt Willa was unbalanced, but that is for some a part of being alive.’

‘I can’t bear insanity.  It’s a filthy thing – unnatural and degrading and filthy.’ (p.11)

It is Harry White’s misfortune to belong in the same small town of Treelake, and it is to Treelake that he returns when after six years as a voluntary patient at Kalkilla he is ready to take control of his life again.  He was mixed up with two women, neither of them at all nice.  He married Gwen, who took advantage of his illness to rip off his share of the farm, but he was in love with Julia, who slept with him even on the night before she married Leo.  By the time of Harry’s return Leo is long dead, but Harry was always wondered about the paternity of Julia’s precocious daughter Ellen (now aged eleven).  When he mistakes Julia’s mask of courtesy for friendship and asks about the child, she can no longer control her phobia and attacks him savagely with a knife.   She makes extraordinary claims about the threat that Harry poses and accuses him of trying to rape her.  Julia’s characterisation is not a very subtle way for Turner to show that someone who is seriously disturbed is out in the community and holding down a job as a journalist while Harry who only ever suffered from depression brought on by survivor guilt can’t live down the undeserved stigma as a ‘mental patient’.   But hyperbole is also one of the characteristics of modernism, eh?

Had the fledgling feminist movement come across Turner’s novel in the early 1960s, I suspect that the characterisation of Guinevere a.k.a. Guinea may well have attracted a bit of flak.  Guinea rents the other half of Julia’s house, and has adopted a mannish persona and taken up a career to compensate for her inability to ‘get a man’.  When Harry staggers out onto the lawn bleeding copiously from Julia’s frenzied attack, it is Guinea who rescues him, and although he had planned that his first woman after six year’s abstinence was going to be ‘something really special’, he is able to overlook Guinea’s plainness because he finds himself attracted to her straightforward, comfortable persona.  The next day (I kid you not) he lectures her about losing some weight and making an effort with her clothes.  And yes, she does, in George Turner’s world, she falls in love with him.  (The author redeems himself a little towards the end of the novel in this respect, but in case you ever decide to read this novel, I shall not reveal quite how this is done).

The evangelical tone goes into overdrive with the characterisation of Jimmy, whose stoic championing of Harry leads even to the break-up of his relationship because he won’t  tolerate prejudice against mental illness.  He makes a huge social and financial investment in Harry, which would be questionable in any circumstances with a near-stranger.  But Turner was trying to make the point that a man ought to be able to make a fresh start without having all his attempts sabotaged by ignorance and fear.  Back in the 1960s, that was an idea that had a long way to go before gaining any kind of acceptance.

You can read more about George Turner at Middlemiss.

Author: George Turner
Title: The Cupboard Under the Stairs
Publisher: Cassell, 1962 (First Edition)
Source: Personal Miles Franklin winners collection, purchased via BibliOz.


Out of print, try your library or Brotherhood Books.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2014

A Stairway to Paradise, by Madeleine St John

A Stairway to Paradise A Stairway to Paradise (1999) was the fourth and final novel of Madeleine St John (1941-2006), the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (with The Essence of the Thing, see my review).   At 192 pages, it’s only a short novel and I romped through it in an evening, enjoying St John’s wit and perception as she depicts the interior lives of characters caught in the ‘eternal triangle’.

But in the cold hard light of morning, it seems a slight piece of work, of interest more for the poignancy of its autobiographical elements than for anything important it might have to say about the human condition.   Two very nice blokes, one beautiful woman adopting a lofty moral position rather than break up a marriage – having read Helen Trinca’s biography of St John I found it hard to avoid the conclusion that this is the fantasy version of St John’s failed relationships.

Andrew is a very nice man, fresh from a failed marriage.  (One wonders why his wife dumped him, since he’s so nice).  At a party with his friend Alex, he meets the stunningly beautiful Barbara (domestic goddess, good with children, no uppity career to be accommodated).  Alex drives her home from the party where she conspicuously does not invite the men in.  Her airy dismissal, however, is no obstacle because the lift home has provided both men with her address.  This allows Andrew to pursue balm for his wounded heart, and Alex to restore an adulterous relationship that she had called off some time before.  They do not know that they are in competition for the same woman.

There is no doubt about who is in control here.  The lovely Barbara’s moral compass precludes an affair with Alex, though since that is where her heart lies, Andrew doesn’t stand a chance.   The plot twists and turns around Alex’s pompous unwillingness to break up his own loveless marriage ‘for the sake of the children’, a stance at odds with the way society has moved on to accommodate divorce in this period of time.  Reading between the lines, Alex is as concerned about carving up his posh house, purchased so prudently before the property book, as he is about his children.  He doesn’t want the expense of running two households, so he would rather wait out his youngest child’s childhood with an affair on the side.  But for Barbara, the deceitful alternative would destroy the purity of their love.

We’ve heard all this before, eh? Barbara’s Australian friend (with an execrable accent that makes her sound, in this most pseudo-British of books, like a Cockney) laughs off Barbara’s retelling of it.  The concluding scene representing the children’s attitude towards their parents’ marriage serves only to expose how little St John really knew about children, also in evidence in  SuperNanny Barbara’s skill at making brats behave and learn their middle-class table manners.  Though of course Barbara is not a Nanny, she’s a temporary au-pair, so much more socially acceptable in St John’s world.   (Really, St John’s snobbery is excruciating).

Read it for the crisp wit and an evocation of middle-class London life at the turn of the century, but don’t expect much more than that.

Author: Madeleine St John
Title: A Stairway to Paradise
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656118
Source: loan from my good friend, Jenny S – thanks, Jenny:)


Fishpond (UK edition): A Stairway to Paradise
Or direct from Text Publishing

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 6, 2014

Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola, translated by Andrew Rothwell

3862390 As regular readers know, I’m working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Maquart cycle in the recommended reading order, so The Sin of Father Mouret  should be my next Zola  However,  I’m waiting on my preferred translation to come from a second-hand bookshop in America, so I decided to read Thérèse Raquin in the meantime.  (This early novel of Zola’s has the added advantage of being listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, a reading project that I have sadly neglected this year.)

Publicity for Therese Raquin 1867 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Publicity for Therese Raquin 1867 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Published in 1867, Thérèse Raquin was Zola’s first big success, and judging by the publicity promising splendides illustrations presumably as racy the one on the poster, the good folk of Paris were under no illusions about the novel.  Sales were helped along, no doubt, by outraged criticism in Le Figaro by ‘Ferragus’ who called it ‘putrid literature’.   According to the introduction by Andrew Rothwell, the translator of this new edition from Oxford World’s Classics, Ferragus was the nom de plume of author Louis Ulbach and there is some suspicion that Zola put him up to it so that he could generate further interest in the novel by writing a rebuttal.  (All publicity is good publicity, eh?)  For the good folk of the 21st century, however, inured as we are to unhealthy preoccupation with lust, corpses and decay, Thérèse Raquin isn’t regarded as disgusting and immoral … and … an outrage against good taste.  Rather, it’s regarded as a milestone in the development of Zola’s ambitions to use fiction to comment on society.

In 1001 Books it’s included – although it is not the best of Emile Zola’s novels – because

it is precisely the properties of uncertainty and of extravagance that make Thérèse Raquin a significant novel.  In it we see one of the most important novelists of the nineteenth century struggling with his form, seeking not without desperation, to transform the novel into the social scalpel he so devoutly believed it could be. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die,  2006 edition, p. 163)

All well and good, but how does it read on its own terms?  Well, it limps a little towards the end, but it’s still a powerful evocation of the psychological effects of guilt.  Like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment it explores the mental anguish arising from murder, showing how the adulterous couple Thérèse and Laurent can never realise the happiness they hoped for because they are tormented by guilt.

Zola paints their claustrophobic mental state in a gloomy, morbid Paris.  The Raquins live in an apartment above their haberdashery in a narrow, dark arcade, paved with yellowish flagstones, worn, uneven, permanently exuding an acrid-smelling damp and covered by a right-angled glass roof black with grime.  It gets a pallid light in summer, but on foul winter days or foggy mornings, the glass casts nothing but darkness on the sticky flags beneath, a vile and murky darkness. (p. 7) The central characters are held captive in this dingy atmosphere with only a few other equally lugubrious settings: the murky Seine, where the murder takes place; Laurent’s dismal workplace and grubby studio; and most repulsive of all, the morgue.

There are very few characters – only old Mrs Raquin; her doomed son Camille; her niece Thérèse and her opportunistic lover Laurent; and the Thursday night visitors to the house:  Grivet, an ancient employee who works with Camille; and the dim-witted police commissioner Michaud, his son Olivier and daughter-in-law Suzanne. (Oh yes, there is also the Raquins’ cat called François, which is imbued with vengeful behaviours by Laurent.  But I thought it just behaved like a typical cat.)  Consistent with Zola’s beliefs about temperament defining behaviour, the adulterous couple behave as their smouldering amoral passions dictate, and they do not change, which tests the tension and the realism that the novel aims to achieve.  The reader knows that they are doomed, it’s just a question of how Zola resolves their fate.

The novel works despite its limitations because Zola is such a brilliant wordsmith.  He elicits a sense of shocked awe in the reader when Laurent and Thérèse hatch their plans.  Laurent’s obsessive visits to the morgue are revolting.  Camille’s constant presence in the couple’s fateful marriage is palpable, and the horror of old Mrs Raquin’s impotent discovery of their duplicity is unforgettable.

Thérèse Raquin is gripping reading, all the more so because for all its flaws it heralds Zola’s mastery of the French Naturalist Movement.

Not to be missed!

Author: Émile Zola
Title: Thérèse Raquin
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, OUP (Oxford University Press), 2008
ISBN: 9780199536856
Source: review copy courtesy of OUP

Cross-posted at The Books of Emile Zola


Fishpond: Therese Raquin (Oxford World’s Classics)
Or direct from OUP.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 5, 2014

‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ by Bill Gammage

Lisa Hill:

This is an excellent review by Janine Rizetti, make sure you check out her review of Dark Emu too.

Originally posted on The Resident Judge of Port Phillip:


Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia

384 p. 2011

I was aware, while reading this book, that I was reading what could turn out to be one of the really big books in Australian history: a book that changes the received understanding of Australian settlement,eventually rippling out beyond historians to politicians and the media to finally become part of the way we see ourselves and our country.  Maybe.

Gammage’s argument is that, instead of being marginal hunter-gatherers, ‘people’- for that is the terminology he has chosen to distinguish aborigines from ‘newcomers’- farmed prior to 1788.  They were not farmers, which is a lifestyle; but they did farm – the activity of tending and shaping landscape.  They developed what he calls a ‘template’ of landscape, a mosaic comprising open pasture with few trees,  strips of scrub and stubby trees, other plains, then clearly delineated forest.  It…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2014

The Family Men, by Catherine Harris

Way back in 2010, when I reviewed Catherine Harris’s debut collection of short stories, I wrote this:

Harris is interested in how people ‘misbehave’ and the internal struggle between the good and the bad self, and her settings in the workplace provide wry opportunities for duality.

And I also expressed my fervent hope that she would one day express her dexterity in subverting reader expectations in a novel.

Never did I imagine that she would subvert my expectations as she has!

The Family Man, you see, is a splendid novel that explores misbehaviour on a grand scale and offers an intense study of internal moral conflict  – but the workplace Harris exposes is the world of football!

I admit it, my heart sank.  I am So Not Interested in football that I have a pair of ear-rings from the Anti Football League – which I never wear because they would remind me of football.  But as some readers may remember, I have reviewed a couple of other books involving sport.  Yes, I read Ron Elliot’s Spinner; and Chinaman the Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka.  I’ve also read The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll, though that was before this blog. Ok, they were about cricket not football but these games are basically the same, men running about in pursuit of a ball, and still I enjoyed these novels.  I enjoyed them for precisely the same reason that I liked The Family Men – because they weren’t really about sport at all.

The Family Men tackles the ugly celebrity culture that protects appalling behaviour by high profile sportsmen.  Harry Furey is football royalty: his father was a champion, and so is his brother who revels in the superstar status that goes with football dynasties.  But Harry is not like his brother, he doesn’t take easily to the adulation, and he’s not comfortable with the loyalty that’s demanded of him, not when that loyalty means keeping quiet about things that bother him.   The trouble is, he does love to play footy.

What is clear to him, and has always been clear to him, is that ‘play’ is all he has ever wanted to do.  It has never been about anything else.  Not the attention nor the accolades, the false gods of statistics and popularity contests (winning the Best and Fairest three years running, tallying his weekly Brownlow votes, narcissistic displays of showmanship); his is an unvarnished vocation.  Pure. Unbred. He lives and breathes football.  (p.29)

The novel is written entirely from Harry’s perspective, interspersed with the naïve thoughts of an un-named girl.  This girl hovers in the reader’s consciousness throughout the novel, just as she hovers in Harry’s.  The club can mandate the mantra what happens at Sportsman’s Night stays at Sportsman’s Night as much as it likes, but Harry can’t get this girl out of his head.  Nightmares torment him.  Anxiety torments the reader.  Did he, or didn’t this young man sexually assault this girl, rape her or gang bang her?  He doesn’t know, and neither do we because booze and drugs and issues of consent muddy the waters.

Harry is a complex character, nice enough for readers to feel uncomfortable about judging him too harshly, sufficiently careless of his would-be girlfriend for readers to be antagonised by the way he uses women.  Fat, foolish Rosie dreams of glamorous dresses on the award ceremony’s catwalk.  She fantasises about being by Harry’s side as the paparazzi trail him.  *snort* That’s not part of Harry’s plan:

They sit through nearly two hours of The Devil Wears Prada.  Ladies choice. The girls’ rapt faces flickering before Anne Hathaway’s simpering attempts to impress her vicious boss, played by Meryl Streep, while he and Pete and Pete’s mate, Chris, wait it out (junk time), such is the price of consensual sex.  (p. 185) 

Consensual sex with a young woman who’s infatuated not with Harry but by the glamour that surrounds a celebrity sportsman, is one thing.  But the reader knows how young the un-named girl is, though Harry doesn’t.  He can see how young she is, but that aspect of so-called consensual sex doesn’t enter his head.

What else would Harry have told her if he could have, aside from ‘Go home’?  ‘Get out while you can’? He’s not sure.  And who’s to say she would have listened anyway?  She may have been perfectly happy doing what she was doing.  Wasn’t that always the comeback, that it was the individual’s right to choose?  Who was he to judge her lifestyle, to interfere?  That’s what Jack would have said, he was pretty sure of it.  And Eddy.  And Laurie.  And Matt.  And probably his dad too, or at least he would have back when he was still playing.  Harry was the one with the problem.  Harry was the one with the issue.  And maybe they were right.  Maybe what happened with the girl didn’t matter.  And what he’d done didn’t matter either.  It was simply a question of perspective, a decision to be made, his choice to press reset and everything would return to normal.  (p. 93)

I haven’t read Anna Krein’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (also published by Black Inc) but I’ve read the reviews.  Catherine Harris has used fiction to traverse similar territory, and this excerpt exemplifies the pressures coming to bear on this young man.  In his family, and in the broader ‘football family’, his doubts are out-of-step with the norm, a norm which is at variance with the values of our society but which is brushed under the carpet because of the celebrity manhood of its perpetrators.

There is much, much more to this novel than I have outlined here, (I haven’t even mentioned what goes on with his father!) and I think it would make a great choice for discussion groups.

PS  Hint: if you make a note of the Stonnington ‘untitled’ Literary Festival dates in your diary,  you can join the conversation.

Author: Catherine Harris
Title: The Family Men
Publisher: Black Inc, 2014
ISBN: 9781863956833
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author.


Fishpond: The Family Men
Or direct from Black Inc (including eBooks)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 3, 2014

Hergesheimer in the Present Tense, by Morris Lurie

Hergesheimer in the Present Tense

I really liked this unusual book.

Morris Lurie’s Hergesheimer in the Present Tense defies easy categorisation.  The media release calls it short stories, while the book-cover calls it a sort-of novel.  It consists of 30 vignettes featuring a cantankerous old author who’s at war with his publisher, his ageing typewriter, his would-be lover Valerie, and, well, the world in general.

It’s such a clever title!  It is indeed the present that makes Hergesheimer tense.    While there are many amusing moments in the book, there are poignant moments too, and a sense that Hergesheimer is losing the battle to keep up with the modern world.  It’s moving too fast for him, and the values by which he’s lived his life don’t seem to matter to people any more.

Hergesheimer’s life as a writer is full of trials and tribulation because the world of publishing is not the gentlemanly pursuit that it used to be.  While on the one had he has to pursue one publisher for his missing royalties, on the other he has to hawk a manuscript around all over Melbourne trying to find someone who’ll take it – and he can’t quite believe that this is happening to him, an established writer of note!  What’s worse, when he tackles a plagiarist, he gets short thrift.  Though tone is wry, there’s a serious point being made here about the modern attitude to intellectual property:

These are famous footsteps I’m treading in here, he lets you know.

For instance?

For instance, your thieving Mr Shakespeare, to select an example, common knowledge he wasn’t one to leave a good storyline alone.

Oh, I see, growing your flowers in another man’s plot?

Hey, that’s good, cries the plagiarist.  Mind if I use it?

Which, even if you do, even if you did, no difference , it’s already scribbled into the handy notebook no self-respecting plagiarist is ever without. (p.125)

Hergesheimer’s not comfortable with the expectation that these days writers are expected to ‘perform’.   He gets sent on publicity events that test his patience to the limit, and he’s peeved by the celebrity status accorded to more popular authors that he obviously thinks are not worthy of such acclaim.  Having stumbled into writing some successful books for children, he has to go on the schools’ circuit where his jokes fall flat and he gets ticked off by an eight-year-old for not having love in his story.

Actually, Hergesheimer doesn’t seem to have much love in his life.  His marriage failed, he doesn’t seem to get on with his son, and his daughter died.  (This last, sadly, is an autobiographical element in the book.  See my review of To Light Attained.)  The girlfriend Valerie shocks him sometimes with her casual attitude to his old friends, and he’s embarrassed by her overt displays of public passion.  No, it doesn’t look as if that relationship is going anywhere…

Indeed, his most long-lasting relationships are with things.  He flees his marriage in a twenty-four-year-old car… … that nice green that was popular with bathrooms just after the war .  Yes, it’s old but he’s fond of it and he doesn’t like the idea of selling it to avoid paying tax.

The chapter entitled ‘Hergesheimer Embraces the New Technology’ is laugh-out-loud funny, but it also shows us that Hergesheimer can’t even rely on his trusty typewriter anymore:

Show me a man without tantrums and I’ll show you a man without blood.  Hergesheimer, that most gentle of souls, peacefully writing a tender memoir of cloudless and blissful childhood days, mistypes the word malfeasance for the seventh time in a rotten row, rips the ruined page from his cursed machine with such sudden savagery that whoops a vital perspex part snaps and shoots broken forever from the pale green Swiss made Hermes 3000 manual typewriter for forty and more stalwart years his trusty tool.

Or can it be glued?

Hergesheimer has inherited his father’s fingers.

Don’t even try.

His telephone book discloses typewriter repairs in some remotest of far-flung suburb.  Hergesheimer flying there at once.

‘Vot bad luck!’ says to him the Polish technician who opens the door.  ‘A skip of such machines I sent to the tip exactly last wick.’

His framed and displayed foreign diploma of typewriter technicianship notwithstanding, he is now with television aerials, he tells Hergesheimer, somehow simultaneously proud and sad, well, what can you do, you have to move with the times.

‘Bot perhaps,’ he says.

Hergesheimer, could he come back possibly tomorrow?  he’ll manufacture for him a replacement, should be the solution, no?

‘Could you make it two?’ Hergesheimer suggests, holding up fingers.  ‘You know, a spare?’  (p.168)

Hergesheimer in the Present Tense is a glimpse into the life of a n older man who seems beset by difficulties large and small, but it’s not depressing because of the droll style and the self-deprecating humour.    And I love the Yiddish sentence constructions – this is the English that I heard all around me when I was child growing up in Caulfield, and it brings back memories of the nicest neighbours I ever had.

Check out the review at the SMH too.

Author: Morris Lurie
Title: Hergesheimer in the Present Tense
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2014
ISBN: 9781925000337
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers


Fishpond: Hergesheimer in the Present Tense
Or direct from Hybrid Publishers

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 1, 2014

Book Giveaway winner: The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly

Random Org no 2Number 2: you are the winner!  Yes, Janine, that’s you:)

As promised, this is the draw for my spare copy of Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders.  If you haven’t already read my enthusiastic review, click here, and you can read a Sensational Snippet too.

This is the blurb from Affirm Press:

What happens when three otherwise normal people undergo radical medical treatments that make them international curiosities? They become wonders. Leon has a small visible mechanical heart; Kathryn has been cured of a rare genetic disorder but is now covered in curly black wool; while performance artist Christos has metal wings implanted into his back. Brought together by a canny entrepreneur, ‘The Wonders’ are transformed into a glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first-century freak show. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger. Challenging our ideas about celebrity, disability and the value of human life, The Wonders is a boldly inventive, acute and moving novel from one of Australia’s finest authors.

Janine, I already have your postal address,  so the book will be delivered to you very soon:)

Commiserations to those who missed out, but remember, you can buy a copy from Fishpond: The Wonders or good book stores everywhere.

Wolf among WolvesWolf Among Wolves is the fourth novel that I have read by Hans Fallada.  It was his sixth book, published in 1938 just before the outbreak of World War II.   It follows on from Fallada’s attempts to deflect unwelcome attention from the Nazis by writing children’s stories and other non-political material, and because it is a critique of the chaotic Weimar Republic, Goebbels was very pleased with it.  Unfortunately for Fallada, far from deflecting Nazi attention, the success of this brilliant novel encouraged them to commission anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi works, and before long he capitulated to Nazi intimidation, earning him trenchant criticism from the likes of Thomas Mann who fled Germany rather than submit.

Although he later showed great courage by writing The Drinker while in gaol (see my review) and redeemed his reputation with Alone in Berlin (see my review) Fallada was vulnerable to intimidation because of his mental illness and drug addiction.  He made numerous suicide attempts, and his unstable situation was exacerbated by his failed relationships, his ambiguous sexuality and of course by the onset of a brutal war.  Yet it was these very vulnerabilities which make his writing so powerful.  The authenticity of Wolf Among Wolves derives from Fallada’s own experience of weakness and folly, and of living in a society that was crumbling.

Wolf Among Wolves is completely absorbing.  It’s nearly 800 pages long but it’s one of those books that make you want to drop everything else until you’ve finished reading it.  Uncompromisingly realistic, it is written in what is called the New Objectivity  style:

The New Objectivity … is a term used to characterize the attitude of public life in Weimar Germany as well as the art, literature, music, and architecture created to adapt to it. Rather than some goal of philosophical objectivity, it was meant to imply a turn towards practical engagement with the world—an all-business attitude, understood by Germans as intrinsically American: “The Neue Sachlichkeit is Americanism, cult of the objective, the hard fact, the predilection for functional work, professional conscientiousness, and usefulness.” (Wikipedia)

Not unlike the great classic Russian novels in the way that it depicts domestic concerns on a sprawling canvas, Wolf Among Wolves is a love story, a coming-of-age story and a story of flawed personalities struggling to cope in a society which was in economic and moral chaos.  The love story is thwarted by the characters’ ignorance of themselves and each other,  by their mutual immaturity and by the society which is crumbling all around them.

It’s not just that monstrous inflation makes money worthless, though the impact of that is graphic, it’s that the fundamental values are distorted too.

‘So many people are running away from their jobs,’ went on Studmann. ‘To work, to do anything at all, has suddenly become idiotic. As long as people received a fixed tangible value at the end of the week or the month, even the most boring office job had some reason.  But the fall of the mark has opened their eyes. Why do we live? they suddenly ask.  Why are we doing anything? Anything at all? They don’t see why they should work merely to be paid in a few worthless scraps of paper.  (p. 235)

For Wolfgang Pagel, a compulsive gambler in Berlin, there is no point in working because any money earned is devalued daily.  The purchase of anything is always a race against the clock because the money you have may be enough to buy a loaf of bread in the morning, but not enough in the afternoon.  By the end of the novel the reader has become almost more conscious of this than some of the characters are, taking on the anxiety that they should be feeling about the diminishing value of hard-won money.  Because the devaluations are inexorable: there is no time to dawdle about, to be indecisive,  to have a quarrel or do anything else that delays using your money, especially when it’s needed to bail someone out of gaol or to pay rent on a lease with a merciless default clause.

The economic and moral nihilism spreads outwards from Berlin like a cancer.  In the countryside people ask to be paid in sacks of grain rather than money, but small-scale thieving has been replaced by unabashed thefts that threaten the viability of farming.  The old forester Kniebusch becomes afraid to walk the paths, because everyone’s a timber thief, and poachers don’t play by the ‘rules’ any more.  The bucolic serenity of rural life is upended when Von Prackwitz can’t hire labourers and his manager Studmann has to engage a prison detail to harvest his crops.  And it’s not just escapees making everyone feel afraid – there’s a putsch being planned and a shady amoral Lieutenant working for the overthrow of the government catches the eye of Prackwitz’s silly fifteen-year-old daughter…

The story begins with two seemingly unconnected narratives – in Berlin, and on the farm at Neulohe – and because there are so many characters it can be somewhat confusing when some of the minor characters seem to disappear and then resurface later.  But the main characters are unforgettable, and the narrative trajectory never falters..

The central character is Wolfgang Pagel, a chronic gambler who is living in a moral vacuum with his girlfriend Petra.  When the story begins these two barely know each other – they have merely drifted into each other’s company.  She is blinded by an inchoate love, and he uses her loving acceptance to mask the reality of their abject poverty.  Petra has no family at all while Wolf’s mother is a judgemental termagant who rejects Petra as ‘unsuitable’.  Frau Pagel represents middle-class Berlin deluding itself that there is no fundamental change: she cherishes her delusions about her only son and she clings to the customs of the social class he has so comprehensively abandoned.

Wolf and Petra have been surviving between wins at roulette by pawning her clothes, but things go awry when the pawnbroker calls a halt.  Wolf takes off into the countryside to borrow money from an old friend, leaving Petra with (literally) nothing to wear but an overcoat.  When Wolf doesn’t come back she makes her way onto the street where, hallucinating from hunger, she is noticed by a good-hearted policeman.  A chain of events leads not only to her imprisonment but also to a grave misunderstanding between Petra and Wolf.  He has his first moment of truth when he realises how badly he has let her down.

It is Wolf’s good fortune to run into old army comrades, by whose agency he ends up on the farm at Neulohe.  (This is not the first time in literature that rural life has been the salvation of a dubious character!)  Von Prackwitz has been in Berlin trying unsuccessfully to hire labourers for the harvest, and Von Studmann has just lost his hotel job under bizarre circumstances.  Prackwitz, a hot-tempered and impulsive man, hires them both although neither knows the first things about farming, but they turn out to be valuable assets in his battle against his greedy and manipulative father-in-law.

Back in Berlin, Petra has a stroke of good luck too.  In gaol, she meets Ma Krupass who needs someone to help her out while she does her six-month sentence.  More importantly, she talks sound good sense to Petra, whose naïveté has been painful.  So while Wolf is coming of age in Neulohe, Petra is growing up fast in Berlin.

But like any good story-teller, Fallada creates a plot with many twists and turns to keep the reader guessing about whether the couple can ever be reunited.  Wolf has to contend with a mad employer, dangerous criminals on the loose, and the leader of the insurgency who thinks that his desired ends justify any means, but he also has to contend with his doubts about Petra and his own self-doubt.  For her part, Petra has to decide whether Wolf is worth the risk.

It’s a wonderful story, that offers much to think about as well.  If you haven’t read it, add it to your wishlist, you won’t be disappointed!

Author: Hans Fallada
Title: Wolf Among Wolves, first published as Wolf Unter Wolfen, 1937
Translated from the German by Philip Owns, with Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs
Publisher: Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2013
ISBN: 9781922070302
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Fishpond: Wolf Among Wolves

Or direct from Scribe

Some weeks ago when I reviewed Meredith McKinney’s new translation of The Wild Goose by Mori Ogai, the publisher, Finlay Lloyd, also sent me a collection of short stories called Six by Canberran author John Clanchy.  This now gives me the opportunity to introduce a new guest reviewer and her review of this collection.

20579002Mairi neilMairi Neil believes stories make the world go round. Fascinated by life’s quirks, she indulges her love of words to explore where we fit in that world.  She founded and still coordinates the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, and she has edited and published eight anthologies of their poetry and prose, enabling some of her most talented authors to go on to prize-winning publication elsewhere.  She also teaches writing at three community houses: Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Godfrey Street Bentleigh and Longbeach Place Chelsea.

Mairi has stories and poetry in  the Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies plus poetry, short stories and memoir in other anthologies, newspapers, magazines and online.   A writer who loves challenges, she adapted one of her short stories to become a ten minute play performed in the City of Kingston’s Write Up festival last year.  (I was there, in the audience!)

Her most recent writing was included in an anthology called Seasons of Our Lives: Autumn).   Her Masters degree from Swinburne has led her into scriptwriting and many of us are hoping that her passion for telling women’s stories will soon make into onto the screen.  (ABC TV, are you listening?)

Writing reviews is also a new venture for Mairi!  Here is her review:

Six (john Clanchy)Six is a collection of short stories, or tales as the author John Clanchy prefers to call them. However, with one of the stories near novella length at 18,000 words, these tales are longer than expected if you read literary magazines and anthologies. By not restricting himself to the average word limit, Clanchy is able to develop characters to the depth expected in novels. We learn more of their backstory and gain a deeper understanding of motivations for their behaviour and reasons for the particular conflict they face. Readers have more than a glimpse of another world as they engage with characters at moments of change in their lives.

Short stories suit my lifestyle and when well-written, they display all the techniques of a craft I love, in a shorter time than it takes to read a novel. Every 10-15 minutes, I visit somewhere different to stretch my imagination, extend my knowledge or challenge my assumptions about life. John Clanchy’s latest book does this, and more, with – as the blurb advises –  ‘humour, insight and compassion’. No surprise, of course, because Clanchy is a prize winning author and foundation director of the Graduate Teaching Program at ANU.

These Six new tales explore loss and grief as well as self-inflicted emotional pain, family relationships, marital breakdown, sibling rivalry, community values, morality and ethics. Along the way Clanchy challenges notions of gender, fidelity, race and loyalty. In an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald, he said the tales in Six were “Reflections on mortality,…I am now seventy after all!” Certainly, the exploration of the human condition in these stories has the maturity of someone who has indeed lived life and observed people in a variety of situations.

For me, some tales worked better than others because they were about relationships and situations I could identify easily. This is the subjective nature of fiction critique –– we are drawn into worlds we either like or dislike, characters we can recognise, feel empathy or sympathy for, or don’t want to know! In Clanchy’s own words:

 I’m interested in the psychological dramatisation of moments of shift, of crisis, in the life of an individual or in partnerships, or in family or social settings. Where small moments have enormous consequences. The ripple effect. Something’s shifted, a crack has opened. I don’t mean apocalyptic events, but a death or a sickness or a betrayal. Or it could be a perception. Or a spiritual moment. A friendship dying off, or a new one forming and life is different after that.

Every story in Six has merit and is memorable and I appreciate the recognisably Australian settings of universal themes.

If I had to choose a favourite it would be Slow Burn an entertaining tale that had me laughing aloud –– a rarity in a world where so much of the fiction mirrors grim reality. I won’t reveal the storyline, but encourage people to invest in a copy of Six and be entertained by an accomplished Australian author.

Clanchy has also authored some novels, so I’m going to track them down once I’ve made a bit more of a dent in the TBR.

Thank you Mairi, for sharing your expertise in short story here at ANZ LitLovers!

Author: John Clanchy
Title: Six
Publisher: Finlay Lloyd, 2014
ISBN: 9780987592934
Source: Review copy courtesy of Finlay Lloyd


Direct from Finlay Lloyd

and from all good bookstores.





Takolander-frontcover-214x300Poetry, as regular readers of this blog know, is outside my field of expertise, so I don’t review it.  I am very grateful to my good friend Karenlee Thompson for sharing her insights about Maria Takolander’s latest collection, published by Giramondo.

Good things come, as the saying goes, in small packages.

The End of the World is a precise and economical collection of poems by Maria Takolander presented in a neat little 78 page paperback. It’s Takolander’s third poetry collection, following on from Narcissism (2005) and Ghostly Subjects (2009).

Takolander’s poems are excruciatingly daring, despite some every-day domestic subjects.

The first two poems ‘Unborn’ and ‘Post-partum’ are linked in exactly the sense that the titles suggest.  Poetry can often seem inaccessible but I was instantly seduced by the recognizable in the surreal animal-ness of these poems about motherhood.

The very first stanza (Morning Sickness) of the first poem (Unborn) is a tour de force. A newly pregnant woman dreams of a sow giving birth to a litter. ‘…their lids were serene,/as if eyes did not exist, and their ears were closed/to the sound of their own not screaming…’ The two other stanzas ‘Ultrasound’ and ‘Foetal Movement’ continue the pregnancy journey.  What modern-day mother (or father) wouldn’t relate to seeing the first grainy pictures of their baby: ‘As I watch you shadow box with sourness, radiance and din,/the sources of which you must fear like a medieval Christian,/.’ It’s all here in these two poems: the joy, the blood, the recognition, the pain and violence. Every word perfectly precise, perfectly descriptive, perfect.

The motherhood theme continues in this collection (which Takolander has dedicated to her son) and, in ‘Night Feed’, the baby is a ‘time traveller at my breast’.  Once again, the poet is tapping in to the universal experience through the deeply personal for haven’t we all wondered where babies have been, what knowledge they are coveting, what their slot is in time and their place in relation to ourselves?

As two little girls in their pyjamas navigate the aftermath of violence in ‘Domestic’, we are confronted with the interior of a broken TV which looks ‘bereft’, and the mess of a broken pot plant with its soil and roots and shards of terracotta littering the room ‘as if Triffids had escaped.’

The collection unfolds naturally, from the deeply personal (a woman’s body, a mother and a baby, a family broken) outward to the wider world of alien surrounds and different countries, wars and dead relatives, to Stalin and convicts.

The hotel room of the first poem in Section two with its beige bed cover that ‘has been ironed of dreams’ is a place ‘furnished by sanity’. Once again, so accessible, so recognizable is this room, even when painted in the language of the poet.

‘Missing in Action’ is about men lost in wars, a grandmother ‘dead soon after she got an electric stove’, others who succumbed to alcohol and, poignantly:

Three other uncles: heart attacks – possibly euphemistic.                 (Pictures of those men, modest and blank faced,                 Suggest something already buried.)

Part three begins with ‘Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Anthropologist’ and as I read the following…

                4 rapists, sparkly-eyed.                 6 prostitutes, furnished thickly with hair.                 3 thin-lipped murderers.

…I realised that I was, rather macabrely, almost singing it a-la ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’.

‘Charcot’s Patients’ brings together the historic and the contemporary with a fine dose of black humour, ending with:

Years later – with Charcot posthumously celebrated                 as the founder of Charcot’s disease –                 the Salpetriere hospital in Paris receives the body of Princess Diana, freshly deranged and photographed.  

The final poems use a kind of reverse anthropomorphism to highlight the foibles of the human animal.  Some bizarre imagery emerges from donkeys sitting at a plastic table watching the sunset, a goat dropping a fishing line from the jetty and then throwing a tantrum, and a spectator-pig watching a collection of animals playing sport.

After reviewing Takolander’s first collection of short stories and now this collection of poems, I had formed an imaginary view of her (in that way we tend to do when we’ve spoken to someone via phone numerous times over a period).  And, as is often the way, my picture was just about as far from the reality as it was possible to get.  I expected something haunted and hardened behind dark eyes.  Rather (as Google reveals) she looks soft and innocent, the girl-next-door in a Doris Day mode and most unlike a writer of such deep bleakness and violence.  That’s not to suggest that there’s not some light and laughter here between the lines but it is that kind of underbelly power that forms the lasting impression for me.


© Karenlee Thompson

Karen Lee ThompsonKarenlee Thompson is an author and an occasional reviewer for The Australian and was featured on Meet an Aussie Author in 2011.  Her debut novel 8 States of Catastrophe is reviewed on the ANZ LitLovers blog here.  Karen blogs at Karenlee Thompson.

Karen has also noted that the publication of this collection of poems was assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council. And she further comments that a couple of poet friends of hers sense some irony in the fact that many of these poems have previously appeared in esteemed publications while exceptional works of unknown poets languish – without funding – in bottom drawers. A subject worth debating perhaps.

This prompted me to take a quick look at my pile of books for review, because, as a reader rather than a writer, I had never taken any notice of funding issues.  I discovered that five books on the pile were supported by the Australian Council for the Arts, and one was supported by Arts Victoria.  All of them were previously published authors but a sample of six isn’t big enough to draw any conclusions.   So  I took a look at their guidelines and noted that:

  • the council is in transition to reforms which will create a new grants structure and an increase the diversity and breadth of peers who assess the applications
  • ‘reform’ and ‘increased flexibility’ is usually politician-code for less money, but the AC has actually had an increase in funding.  (Yes, I was very surprised too).
  • there are always more applicants than the available funding can support
  • they distinguish between what they call ‘Mid-list writers’ and ‘New work’ but their criteria to choose between applicants for funding within these categories isn’t specified.  (Or if it is, I couldn’t find it).

All, this leaves me none the wiser about the fairness or otherwise of AC funding, but I think it’s a miracle that grants for anybody have survived because market-driven bean counters usually do their best to get rid them!

Thanks, Karenlee, for once again sharing your expertise in reviewing!

Cross-posted at Karenlee Thompson

Author: Maria Takolander
Title: The End of the World.
Giramondo Publishing Company, 2014.
ISBN 9781922146519
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2014

The Betrayal, by Liam Davison

3636431 The Betrayal is the last of Liam Davison’s four novels, and I was expecting it to be the best but I was a bit disappointed by it.  Like his other novels it is grounded in the concept of what Maria Tumarkin calls Traumascapes,  but character seems more important in this book and the novel doesn’t have that powerful sense of an Australian past permeating the present that worked so well in The White Woman and Soundings, and in The Velodrome to a lesser extent.

The Betrayal centres on a character called Judith Maloney, and she’s as dreary as her name.  She is preoccupied by the past, and it seems to have expressed itself in chronic pain, for which she seeks treatment from a charismatic quack at a spa in country Victoria.  (Based, I suspect, on Hepburn Springs, but none too flattering about its waters!) Here she vacillates between doubts about the quackery and submitting to the empathetic charm of ‘Dr’ Menadue, with a letter from her estranged daughter Louise acting as a catalyst for her to start sorting herself out.

The reasons for Judith’s misery are not entirely convincing.  In a village in France in 1967, she witnesses the aftermath of a crime.  Traumatised by this, she comes back to Australia and marries Alan, a prosaic real estate agent and developer.  She despises his occupation in a seventies anti-development kind of way, making sarcastic remarks to the friends and potential clients that flock around him and taking grim delight when a section of the bluff near his development plans falls off into the sea.   She doesn’t conceal her disdain.

He erected the first of the period homes to go up along the beach – a colonial reproduction with verandahs and authentic fittings.  Everything about it was clean and new.  It wasn’t the idea of the past he disliked as much as the age of things that had been there.  Before long, the whole of Cairo Road was studded with period reproductions – colonial homes, Victorian cottages, Edwardian, Georgian, a neo-classic mansion, a French chateau in miniature – each of them authentic in its own fabricated way.  Each of them built without regard for what stood beside it.  It was like a dislocated theme park, Judith thought.  She was appalled by it.  She half-expected her neighbours to appear in costume at their doors.

‘Why would you want to build a house like this?’ she asked him.

But she could see it wasn’t just the house.  It was heritage colours and picket fences.  It was David Austin roses.

‘It’s living history,’ he said.  ‘People feel comforted by the past.’

‘As long as it’s new,’ she said. (p.85)

The marriage also has to contend with her mysterious pain:

Judith could not have told Alan’s acquaintances where her pain had come from, even if she had wanted.  She was reluctant even to refer to it as pain.  Discomfort perhaps, though at times not even that.  It was more a guarded vulnerability with which she lived, as though she were always on the verge of pain.  The potential for it hummed about her.  At times she brushed against it or stroked it with her fingers, just to reassure herself that it was there.  And it always was.  Anything spontaneous, she knew, would push her into it – a misplaced foot, a momentary lapse in concentration, a sudden jerking of the head – and it would claim her.  She would be dragged to a place that was already part of her.  And she would hurt.

It had started before she met Alan.  Something had tightened inside of her when she had returned from France.  She had felt her hips and shoulders slowly draw towards each other, as though she were closing like a trap. It will pass, she had thought.  Each morning she bent against it, prising her body open to face the day.  But it didn’t pass. It stayed. Despite the dull resistance she offered it at first, it would not leave.  It was part of her  –  something buried that would hump towards the surface each day as if to day Remember. Remember.  And she could not forget, no matter how hard she tried.  (p. 86)

The mutual contempt of a toxic marriage expresses itself in insults. He cracks vindictive jokes about her pain, as if it were an interloper that must be fed and made comfortable.  He labels her St Jude and suggests that her pain is her penance for marrying him.  But she refuses to acknowledge the hurt feelings because it would break some bond between them and reveal a weakness in herself.  So she limps around the house after he’s gone to work, blaming his resentment about her pain and festering contempt for his affairs and scornful jealousy about his self-confidence.  This tedious bitterness may test the patience of some readers; it certainly tested mine.

When Alan has had enough, he leaves, their twelve-year-old daughter Louise going willingly with him.  And although the author has built a convincing portrait of a neurotic woman obsessed by her own inchoate needs, it seems rather odd that this severs all contact between mother and daughter until the arrival of The Letter when Louise is an adult.  There’s no satisfactory explanation for why this should be so.

What is gradually revealed is the trigger that set Judith on her self-destructive path.  So the novel takes us back to Vaucluse on the Côte d’Azur reconstructing the day of the murder of a child at the famous fountain.  On an impulse Judith has travelled there to teach English, boarding with a rather odd woman with singularly repellent culinary experiments and even more disgusting eating habits.  (Davison seems determined to sully France’s reputation for gastronomy with this character!)  Judith becomes intrigued by Paul Leriche, a stall-holder at the local market, a ‘man of mystery’ who seems to attract her and repel her in equal measure.  It is this quasi-relationship that leads to her blundering into a past that is still raw.

1967, when this part of the novel takes place, is only twenty years after World War II.  A war that seems remote and unreal to an Australian girl in her twenties, but still very much within living memory in areas where the German Occupation made itself felt and the Resistance exacted a terrible vengeance after the Germans had gone.  In Vaucluse, the past bleeds into the present but Judith is too preoccupied with her own concerns to read the signs…

Part of the problem with the novel, it seems to me, is that Judith is in need of redemption, but the rapprochement between mother and daughter has nothing to do with the French traumascape, and it feels like an afterthought, a conclusion that doesn’t resolve anything.  But it’s also not clear to me what the author was trying to achieve with this novel.  Having written in The White Woman and Soundings such exquisite novels whose landscapes reveal traumatic events embedded in Australia’s history, Davison seems disconnected from the landscape in France, writing more as a perplexed observer than as an author with a profound understanding of the place where he belongs.

I have been puzzled about why an author of such talent as Davison published no more novels after this one in 1999.  He wrote non-fiction, and short stories, but in the fifteen years before his death in 2014 there was no more long fiction.  Now that I have read The Betrayal I wonder about its reception in the marketplace and whether it perhaps attracted discouraging reviews.  (I can’t find any online).  I also can’t help wondering whether there is an unpublished manuscript amongst his effects…

Liam Davison and his wife Frankie were killed when their plane, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, was shot down over disputed territory in Ukraine, and all lives were lost.  This review is the last in my personal tribute to Davison, an author who I came to know only because of the tragic circumstances of his death.  You can find the rest of my reviews of his fiction oeuvre here.

Author: Liam Davison
Title: The Betrayal
Publisher: Viking (Penguin), 1999
ISBN: 9780670886524
Source: Personal copy purchased from Graygate Books, Millicent, S.A. via AbeBooks

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