Enduring LegaciesI didn’t intend to add to the ink spilt over this year’s Anzac Centenary, but I just have to share these words from the current Griffith Review, which I bought last week at the History Writers’ Festival held at Readers’ Feast Bookstore.   There is much wise and thoughtful writing in this issue, and editors Julianne Schultz and Peter Cochrane deserve congratulations for sourcing diverse perspectives and original thinking about so many different aspects of military history.

Amongst many fine pieces of writing, it was Cory Taylor’s brief memoir, ‘Claiming the Dead’ which arrested my attention with her words about the Cowra cemetery.  She relates how, at the time of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese diplomats negotiated for the gathering together of all Japanese who had died on Australian soil either during their internment or during the Cowra breakout.   It was agreed that the Japanese government would contribute to the upkeep of the graves, and the remains of the civilian internees would be brought for reburial to Cowra from various camps in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.  Taylor, visiting the cemetery decades later for the unveiling of an interpretive board, reflects on the way Japanese who had been working in Australia for most of their lives were rounded up and incarcerated for the duration of the war, and how some died in internment – far away from their homes in Darwin Broome, New Caledonia, Mackay and Sydney.

It has been half a century since the Tokyo Olympics .  I don’t imagine the Cowra Cemetery has changed much in that time.  Certainly, the war graves appear to be exempt from the normal signs of age and neglect that give the cemetery for the ordinary citizens of Cowra its special melancholy.  The ordinary cemetery is a reminder of the democratic nature of peacetime death.  Babies who died a hundred years ago are buried in little, crumbling fenced allotments next to octogenarians who died last year.  Some of the dead lie beneath unadorned slabs of concrete; others beneath elaborate and expensive granite monuments, daubed with gold lettering; still others beneath marble angels frozen in mid-flight.  There is nothing fair or uniform about ordinary graves.  In this they are a reflection of the unfairness and boundless variety that exists among the living.

Not so with military graves.  Fenced off in their own paddock, the graves of the war dead at Cowra illustrate an order – something fixed and immutable.  The races are separated.  The victors are quarantined from the vanquished.  The dead are buried in straight rows with identical headstones to mark the graves.  The lawns surrounding the headstones are lush and neatly trimmed.  Banished are the wild grasses and weeds that flourish in the surrounding countryside.  But for the telltale gum trees, we might be somewhere in Europe, on one of the countless battlefields where millions of soldiers are buried in similar fashion and where the global style of military memorials was presumably forged. That civilians are buried in among the soldiers at Cowra makes their deaths seem inevitable – part of the military order.  It would seem that even in death these pearl divers and laundrymen, cane cutters and shopkeepers remain interned, cut off from the general population, denied ordinariness even in the afterlife.

There are 234 Japanese POWs buried at Cowra, and 300 who were internees or members of the Japanese airforce who were shot down in raids.   I have been to the Cowra Memorial Gardens, twice, but I did not know this…

Cory Taylor is the award-winning author of My Beautiful Enemy, which I reviewed a year or so ago.

Editors: Julianne Schultz and Peter Cochrane
Title: Enduring Legacies, Griffith Review 48
Publisher: Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182807
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readers’ Feast, $ 27.99

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2015

Kylie Tennant, a life, by Jane Grant


Ride on StrangerKylie Tennant (1912-1988) is famous in my mind for the extraordinary method of research for her Depression novels, so as soon as I saw this biography in the local book bargain shop, I knew I had to have it.  Many of us know her work from the ABC TV adaptation (2005) of Ride On Stranger (1943) and I have read The Battlers (1941) but this biography shows that Tennant was a prolific author who wrote in many genres and was also a noted reviewer of Australian literature.

Kylie Tennant a LifeThe biography was commissioned by the National Library of Australia as the second in its An Australian Life series.  Drawing on papers held in the NLA, this series includes biographies of authors such as Alan Moorehead and Daisy Bates, but if there are others in the series they didn’t come up in the search I did at the NLA bookshop.  It’s a pity if there aren’t any more, because I can think of dozens of Australian authors who merit a brief, capable biography like this one, if not more than that.

Today’s young authors, many of whom have the resources of a university behind the PhD that guides their first novel, would perhaps recoil in dismay at Tennant’s methods.  The daughter of a middle-class family, she was nonetheless denied university education by her conservative father, and it was an uncle who paid her first term fees at Sydney University in 1931.  But (like many of today’s young students) Tennant could not manage both part-time work (as a copywriter) and also the rigours of study, and she abandoned her course.  Nevertheless she was determined to write, and so in 1932 (aged 20) she set out to walk the 600 miles from Sydney to Coonabarabran in northern NSW, ostensibly in response to an invitation to visit the friend who would become her husband, Lewis Rodd.  What she said later was that she had wanted to find out all she could about the unemployed men on the track who (sometimes with their families) were searching for work in what was the worst year of the Depression.  As you can see in my review of The Battlers what she did was what they did: camping out; being moved on and out of towns that didn’t want them; doing without; going hungry and getting sick.  She was also sometimes in real danger, including from an attempted rape. But right from the very beginning she was a writer of social conscience: she wrote her novels with the express intention of wanting to change public opinion about the injustices she saw.

Well, she married Rodd, six days after she arrived in Coonabarabran, and began a creative partnership with him that guided her literary career.  Rodd was seven years older than she was, and a teacher, and (notwithstanding the shabby little entry about him at Wikipedia) it was he who helped her plan the research she needed for her novels, edited them, and typed them all up for publication.  These plans for research were meticulous, but you begin to realise just how risky these methods were when you see what it was that she needed to experience for a novel such as Tell Morning This (1967, though first published in abridged form as The Joyful Condemned in 1953).

Tell Morning This is about a girl called Rene who is deemed to be in moral danger by the Department of Moral Rehabilitation and under constant surveillance.   Set during the war, the novel explores the irony of a society eroding personal freedom and punishing people for refusing to conform to a prescriptive moral code at the very time that a war is being fought to defend democracy and human rights.

Tennant immersed herself in the life of her delinquent female character, visiting pubs, brothels, nightclubs, reformatory schools, working in a jam factory and again living in the seedier quarters of the city.  In an article written during this period, Tennant credited Rodd with planning her research:

‘I can see now,’ my husband said, ‘you will need to go to gaol.’  He had just written down on the list of my plans:-‘Fortnight in jam factory, fortnight as barmaid’, and he methodically wrote underneath:- ‘one week in gaol.’ I was pleased he had made it a week. He was quite capable of writing down ‘one month’.  (p.64)

She had to stage a stunt to get herself into gaol, and the authorities were not best pleased when she finally revealed her identity: she was lucky to escape without being charged with being a public nuisance.

After failing to persuade the Commissioner of Police to let her voluntarily spend a week in gaol, Tennant took matters into her own hands.  Her performance as a drunken prostitute, however, was politely ignored by the police and she was forced to resort to abuse.  This misdemeanour brought Tennant one night in the lockup but refusing to give her name landed her a week in Parramatta Gaol.  At the end of the week, the still silent Tennant was moved to the psychiatric facility, the Reception House.  It was not until after she was summoned before the Lunacy Tribunal, and in real danger of being committed, that she finally revealed her identity. (p. 64)

Allowing for the fact that Tennant was often ironic about personal matters as a way of concealing a deeply felt reticence, her papers reveal just how much time she spent away from her husband.  They had made, she said, an agreement not to have children because it would inhibit her career as a writer, but Grant suggests that this was not wholly a joint decision, and that Tennant enjoyed her times away from Rodd.  Sometimes in the reading of this biography I felt that there was more to explore in the relationship, but that the biographer was treading carefully because of Rodd’s tragic history as a suicidal depressive.  I’ll ask the question here: was Rodd a controlling father figure displacing the father who had failed to support Tennant’s intellectual ambition, or was he a man whose severe mental illness made him difficult to live with, so that the research was a form of much needed respite from the illness, not the man? Perhaps it was both…

But there are also elements of their partnership that hint at other possible causes for friction.  They had very different family backgrounds: Rodd was raised by his widowed mother in the slums of Surry Hills and it was an education department studentship which enabled his elevation to teaching.   Tennant came from an English migrant-made-good background and went to a private school in Manly; and although through her ambition to write she came to know at first-hand what poverty was like, her interest in socialism and her brief flirtation with communism derived (at least in part) from rebellion against her father and his ‘respectable’ plans for her.

There were also religious differences  – though late in life he lost his faith in response to the brutal murder of his son Bim, Rodd was a devout member of the High Church of England while Tennant (although she converted to marry Rodd) had had an unorthodox religious upbringing.  Grant says that while in adulthood Tennant rejected Christian Science, she retained some aspects of its philosophy that disease had its origins in the mind and could only be cured through spiritual healing and that her early interest in psychiatry might also be read as a secular interpretation of this religion.  (p.16) I wonder whether these beliefs impacted on how she coped with marriage to a man – and tragically eventually also a son – who suffered from serious mental illness.  

But perhaps also there were unacknowledged professional rivalries:

Rodd also had ambitions to write and in middle age would produce biographies of his father and Reverend  John Hope, although he never achieved either the popularity or the acclaim of his wife. Other factors that went beyond talent contributed to Tennant’s success.  Her fictional subjects of the common man and woman had enormous appeal to a society that aspired to egalitarian ideals … Rodd’s more esoteric interests appealed to a far smaller market.  He also lacked the desire to seek the spotlight.  It might be suggested that Tennant’s fearless pursuit of adventure and flair for self-publicity played their part in her success as a writer. (p.10)

And maybe the labour of editing and typing her work inhibited his writing?  There were times when he was unable to work himself (was there sick leave for teachers back then?) and the money she brought in from writing was needed.    Certainly after the suicide attempt which left him disabled and forced his retirement, it was Tennant’s writing that paid the mortgage.  Perhaps he made a strategic decision to help keep the financial boat afloat in the only way he could …

I remain curious about Tennant’s eventual motherhood after 14 years of marriage.  She had two children, Benison and Bim.  She wasn’t the first author to assert that children inhibit the careers of female authors – I remember reading in Anne Chisolm’s biography,  Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life (1998) that Godden said so unequivocally in terms that must have really hurt her children’s feelings, especially the last unwanted one who turned up late in her reproductive life when she thought she was finally free.  Tennant wasn’t just away from home when she was doing her research, she also took time out from being a respectable schoolteacher’s wife to write in her various hideaways – and she had a surprising number of these including a place that she bought with Elizabeth Harrower in the Blue Mountains.   As Grant acknowledges in the introduction,  Tennant’s sole surviving child Benison Todd shared what at times must have been painful memories but what’s not recorded in this biography is much about what kind of mother she was.  We can only infer it.  (To be fair, Grant’s brief from the NLA was to write a short biography. The biography is only 129 pages of a 156 page book, and I read it in a single sitting.)

To fully understand what Grant has to say about Tennant’s rejection of modernism I would need to read more of Tennant’s fiction –  a daunting task because she wrote ten novels.  Grant says that Rodd’s preference for 19th century authors such as Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope  influenced her literary preferences and her style, and she was indignant when reviewers of her work alluded to John Steinbeck (whose novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is arguably the most famous of Depression novels).   Rejecting modernism, while it did not hamper her friendship with Patrick White, eventually made her writing unfashionable – but there was more to it than this, I think.  I am remembering Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin (see my review), in which she comments that Franklin never repeated the success of her early work because she lacked the education and mentoring that could have guided writing that instead became fossilised.  (That’s my word for it, not Roe’s). While both Franklin and Tennant had gifts of characterisation based on real life and their reportage was adept and incisive, and Tennant went on being published though Franklin had much more limited success, their publication difficulties were not because they were women, it seems to have been because they were writing picaresque novels that did not explore personal feelings, as did the novels of Ruth Park, Eleanor Dark, and Eve Langley.

Grant suggests that Tennant felt that Langley’s 1943 novel The Pea Pickers was an intrusion on her territory, but it ‘s what she quotes from one of Tennant’s letters that’s illuminating:

I admit that the general tone of it is not to my taste. … Eve Langley and I differ on the importance of the subjective as against the objective facts.  I have always avoided subjective writing like debt or scandal.  Eve Langley quite obviously thinks that the personal reactions to a situation are what count.  She may be right. It is very interesting to read someone else dealing with the same subject as yourself.  … Mark you, I think Eve Langley has more colour than I have, but again she does not fear long descriptions.  I am always afraid of boring people. (p.59)

Roe says that Franklin might better have been suited to journalism if opportunities had been different for women in those days; maybe this was true of Tennant too because her tendency to overcrowd her novels with characters and incidents may, in part, have arisen from her fear of being unable to sustain the reader’s interest in a focussed study of her central characters. (p.60)

Whatever the case, Tennant eventually realised that she could make more money writing reviews of other people ‘s books… not an option open to many these days!

Author: Jane Grant
Title: Kylie Tennant: a life
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2006
ISBN: 9780642276179
Source: personal library, purchased from local bargain bookstore, $10

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 24, 2015

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley


Coming RainStephen Daisley’s second novel, Coming Rain, is a brutal book in many ways; it’s grounded in the harsh reality of harsh country and the harsh people who live in it.

Just recently there has been an animal welfare campaign featuring shocking injuries done to sheep being shorn.  It’s drawn a swift response from rural communities claiming that sheep are too valuable to be damaged in the way that’s depicted.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between – after all, despite her best efforts, a hairdresser occasionally accidentally cuts a child who won’t keep still.  Perhaps it’s inevitable with very sharp scissors and uncooperative wriggling children.  The difference, I suppose, is that a hairdresser can’t do whatever it takes to keep a kid still.  Still, Daisley’s depiction of what it can take to keep a sheep still, isn’t pretty.  This author’s bio includes working on sheep and cattle stations so presumably he writes from experience.  (But there’s nothing in the novel to suggest that what he depicts is universal practice, or contemporary practice either.  The novel is set in the middle of last century, if Wikipedia is right about the date that Evening Peal won the Melbourne Cup.  Let’s not have any arguments about livestock welfare here, ok?)

There are two narratives in Coming Rain.  There’s the story of Lew McCleod and his substitute father Painter taking seasonal work on a WA sheep station; and there’s the story of a pregnant dingo encroaching into human territory.  They’re not parallel narratives though they seem so for much of the book: farmers don’t muck about when it comes to dingoes raiding their stock.   Yet there is a tenderness about the way Daisley brings this dingo to life:

The dingo stood and felt the giddiness, the ground whirling before her.  She waited until it stopped.  Took three steps, again waited.  She needed to hunt and this need was as great as that to mate and to suckle; it was if she breathed.  Without glancing back at the young dog she put her nose to the ground and at first walked, then trotted into the long yellow grass.  Soon she was invisible.

As her mother had taught her to hunt she now hunted.  Mostly it was patience and listening. Stilling to become as the moving land, the earth, the smoke bush.  Yate trees and gimlet, salmon gums, ghost and white gums wandoo.  The hushing of her heart and quiet breathing and to wait and then to attack.  Nothing else.  It was nearly dark, but not to her.  (p. 137)

The scene where she nurses the injured dog from the yate valley clan, an impossible and dangerous confederation, hated to death by her and those of her remembered pack is beautiful.  An insight into animal behaviour that’s more real than any of those cute and sentimental videos that litter Facebook these days.

There is also a simplicity about the dingo narrative that contrasts painfully with the complex narrative of the humans.  For the dingo, survival in the harsh environment is elemental.  Companionship for a pack animal transcends old rivalries.  But the long-standing relationship of Lew and Painter is tested when Lew finds a woman that he loves, and the relationship between father and daughter shows just how claims to patriarchal ownership of a woman’s destiny can masquerade as love.

It is brilliantly done.  As with Traitor which won the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and the NSW Premier’s Award for New Writing (see my review) Daisley’s prose draws both beauty and brutality.  And there is real mastery in the way this author sets a scene: Here is Lew trespassing from the shearers’ shed into a class in which he does not belong:

Threads of the rainstorm hung in the air the next morning and a double rainbow formed to the west.  The brilliant arcs began to widen and fade and after a few minutes both of them had gone.

Lew had risen early, showered and dressed.  He watched the rainbows from the kitchen window and drank tea.  Ate toast and Jimmy’s cumquat jam for breakfast and looked at his watch three times before he left.

The old homestead was built of local honey-coloured stone and the hardwood timber jarra-djarraly. The stones had been taken from the Daybreak Springs formations.  Lime masonry cement mixed in a dry creek bed near the house.  The roof was of terracotta tiles, the old Cordoba thigh tiles carted up from Fremantle docks.  Took two weeks.  Bullock carts then, camels too sometimes in the summer, they said.

As he approached the house, he could see the wide, dark verandas with canvas deck chairs and old tables.  Pile of books and the pages of abandoned newspapers lifting in the breeze.  Iron filigree: circle and star, fleurs-de-lis, lathe-finished veranda posts and dressed lintels.  Five palm trees in a row and green lawns.

Along the west wall, windows large and low enough for a man to step into and out of.  Akubra hats, an oilskin Driza-bone coat and two coiled stockwhips hanging from hooks next to a door.  There was a snaffle bridle and below that a stockhorse saddle. Four tennis racquets on another set of hooks against the ancient honey stones.  Wisteria vines coming into full summer leaf and shivering, they had claimed a southern hip and an ancient jacaranda in the front yard, startling against the blue sky, the mauve November flowers. Some had fallen onto the red gravel driveway.  (p. 172)

You can smell John Drysdale’s  old money, can’t you?  Daisley demolishes the myth of Australian egalitarianism in this novel, but he also evokes a new world where the old certainties have to give way.  Chinese Jimmy is a deft piece of characterisation: like that of the other characters his dialogue is terse, but the racist mockery is undeserved.  If there is a hero in this novel it might be Jimmy…

There is graphic violence in Coming Rain but there is also deep respect for the Australian bush, its people and the work they do in the harsh environment.  The occasional use of indigenous language pays homage to the dispossessed, though one character’s flip comment about shooting dingoes is a visceral reminder that nothing in this landscape was relinquished without brutality.  This is a novel to make you think, and wonder about a world that few of us will ever know …

Amanda Curtin interviewed Stephen Daisley at Looking Up, Looking Down, and there are two of Stephen’s favourite passages there too.

Author: Stephen Daisley
Title: Coming Rain
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922182029
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Availability

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Or direct from Text and good bookshops everywhere.

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 22, 2015

The Slap, by Roger McDonald


Fire.  Even when we live in cities, as most of us do, Australians fear fire.  Our legends of fire don’t feature a Promethean gift: the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation tell how Crow stole fire from the Seven Karatgurk Women and in a subsequent melee he was burned to black by the bushfire he started.

2003 Canberra Bushfires

2003 Canberra Bushfires, source Wikipedia (public domain)

Australians know that fire is essential for the regeneration and management of the bush, but our history of cataclysmic bushfires causing shocking loss of life breeds a healthy respect for fire.  An uncontrollable bushfire is not something we can ignore, not even in our cities far from conflagrations in the Dandenongs, the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, the Adelaide Hills or on Mt Wellington.  Our skies become a dull, angry red; the winds bring the smoke and we taste the ash; we dig deep into our pockets to help out the victims; and we don’t forget about them afterwards.   Our bushfires come into our suburbs too, and an urban conflagration like the Great Fire of London seems not just the stuff of dystopian fiction or cli-fi.

Yet every year there are reports that some of these fires are deliberately started.  In disbelief we learn that someone fascinated by fire has caused the destruction, and sometimes, loss of life.  And then there is a silence: these cases never seem to make it to court, and in our hearts we know that the perpetrator is a child, or an adult with a childlike mind.  Someone not able to take responsibility for what they have done; someone the legal system treats with compassion.  There is not much that we can do other than be vigilant.

The Slap Roger McDonald’s brilliant fifth novel The Slap (1996) is the story of a child fascinated by fire.  The slap of the title is the life-giving blow delivered to Tanner Hatton Finch when he stops breathing on his baptismal day, but this gift of life brings damnation.  This perverse Faustian bargain doesn’t bring Tanner knowledge, wealth or power, only a diabolical ability to survive.

He has an awful childhood.  The baptismal seizure was thought to have been triggered by Tanner having licked some poison, strychnine for the rabbits perhaps, and it wrecks his guts.  Painfully thin, and always in pain, he fails to thrive yet runs wild on his parents’ property.  Artists distracted by alcohol and episodes of mental illness, September and Maurie Finch have no idea how to manage a boy obsessed by fire and by the explosives too carelessly stored by the workers building the Snowy Mountain Hydro scheme.  But other adults try:

The wind changed direction and the fire ran fast. It caught sheep, scorched them, sent them bleating.  It licked across swamps where it seemed there was nothing to burn but where flames rose, an orange wall with streamers of black. Smoke parted, sheep lay in paddocks legs out stiff, their hides smoking. Then Joseph acted and was glimpsed beating flame with wet potato sacks and calling for willow branches to be cut and brought to him.  Flaying left and right he arrived at where the boy sat hunched on a dam wall with a cigarette lighter clenched in his fingers.

Get to your feet, he said, prising the lighter from the boy’s hand and hurling it into the dam.  I’ll teach you to play with fire.

Maurie sat in the cab of the water wagon witnessing a blow to his son’s head, saying nothing more in relation to the matter, doing nothing in relation to his old friend Joseph going as insane as he was, doing nothing in relation to the fire or in the world except to regard its passing parade with a winsome half smile, smoke playing in his hair like worms.

Joseph struck the boy again with a hard, flat hand, pursued him along the dam wall and down the other side to the khaki dam water, belting without a responding whimper, without complaint, with only a tightlipped struggle as the boy hunched away from the hand and stepped in water.

Somebody has to do this, Joseph roared, grabbing the boy by the neck and pushing him into the dam, yelling, Drown for all I care, drown.

It was Ruby who pulled the boy from the creamy clay.  Ruby who wrapped her arms around him stilling his paroxysms and muscle cramps.  Ruby who stuffed her handkerchief into his mouth while it ran with blood, while his bowels ran too, they wouldn’t stop, they were a tap, a gusher. (p. 32)

Ruby Amos is Tanner’s only friend.  Joseph’s daughter, she finds respite from his Old Testament proscriptions in her adventures with the boy.  They run wild together in the bush, playing word games and dreaming of strange places.  Only she seems safe from his lies, his cheating and his thefts.  Only she seems to know what’s in his head, or when it doesn’t matter.  But she is three years older than he is, and the time comes when she takes an interest in another boy instead.  This abandonment is the catalyst for a terrible tragedy which lands Tanner behind bars with his file marked ‘never to be released’.

But there is redemption for Tanner, and though the motives of some characters remain suspect, perhaps also for the society that intended to throw away the key.  The novel spans the fifty years from 1954 in two parts, named ‘Blast’ and ‘Litter’ and the world it creates moves on from the deceptively simple certainties of the rural fifties to the emerging depopulation of the bush and its desolate decaying houses, a theme also explored by McDonald in When Colts Ran. From the misfit parents to the creepy Doctor Bawley McIntosh and the enigmatic painter Ernie Grogan, the characterisation is vivid, even for the bit players like Mrs Tate, endlessly cooking meals that are never eaten, keeping Tanner alive with toast soldiers and soft boiled eggs while his mother bleats uselessly into her wineglass.

Though it pays dividends, The Slap is a demanding book.  The third person narration moves backwards and forwards in time, with short, one page italicised digressions into the past and the future between episodes and sequences that are sometimes as long and complex as chapters.  This patchwork of characters and events requires careful reading and a good memory.  Sometimes I re-read episodes for the sheer pleasure of McDonald’s prose, but at other times it was to find the connections in the plot.  That’s not a criticism; it’s how the book is meant to be and it’s appropriate.  No one’s life is a seamless coherent sequential narrative, and that’s especially true for the tragic life of Tanner Hatton Finch.

But lest you think that The Slap is a soul-destroying catalogue of misery, I’ll finish up with one of many droll conversations that reveal McDonald’s deep familiarity with country people.  Tanner is tucked up in his dressing-gown at night, listening to the men talking:

Could be snow tonight.

You think so?

Dark this early, it’s a surefire sign.

Sleet at the most, said Joseph stubbornly.

His father walked to the window, defeated by a few casual words, and stood slightly stooped looking out into the dark.  He tapped on the glass with the back of his hand.

It’s black out there.

Tanner watched the man Terry Spriggs lit by firelight as he squatted on the fender.

I agree with Maurie there.  Snow.  Bloody cold. It would freeze the proverbials off the proverbial brass monkey.

Pinpoints of sweat dotted his forehead.  He clutched a glass of scotch and soda, almost dipping his nose in it.

I needed this.  Cheers. Here’s lead in your pencil.

September came into the room and he struggled to his feet.

Missus Hatton, ah, Finch?

You must be?

Terry Spriggs, the one and only.

They had known each other by sight for years but it was a convention of country life not to be acknowledged.  (p.166)

Author: Roger McDonald
Title: The Slap
Publisher: Picador (Pan MacMillan), 1996
ISBN: 0330358405 / 9780330358408
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books.

Availability

The Slap is long out of print, but Brotherhood Books always has a few of Roger McDonald’s titles, and there’s always the library…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2015

The Profilist, by Adrian Mitchell


The ProfilistThere’s a certain synchronicity about finishing this book today, the very day on which I attended the History Writers’ Festival at Readers’ Feast, where one of the topics under discussion was the issue of historical truth.  Because this novel, The Profilist, is a splendid example of playing with the historical truth to tell a riveting story, the story of our fledgling nation, through the observant eyes of an artist.  This novel brings history alive…

Samuel Thomas Gill was a real-life English artist who migrated to Australia in 1839 with his parents and siblings, and you can read all about him at the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online.   You can also see dozens of his goldfields landscapes if you do an image search using his name.  What Adrian Mitchell has so cleverly done is to imagine the voice of a character called Ethan Dibble who’s a man ‘very like’ Samuel Gill.  He travels to the same places, he paints the same scenes, he suffers very similar setbacks in his life, and he dies the same undignified death on the steps of the Melbourne Post Office.  But where the real Samuel Gill’s legacy comprises wonderful sketches, lithographs and watercolours of life in the new Australian colonies, the imaginary Ethan Dibble’s droll observations form a journal that is a delight to read, each chapter introduced by a relevant painting from Gill’s oeuvre.

Here is he is, writing about the races in Adelaide:

And most of the crowd, in between the actual races, circulates about the refreshment booths and the dancing pavilions. This race meeting is after all held in the New Year heat, with the sun not only brilliant but relentless; and truth to say there is more time between the races than in the actual racing. In fact it might be more accurate to say that the taking of refreshments throughout the afternoon, when the day has arrived at its highest temperature, is the primary activity, punctuated by a race or two.  the Nobs of course has their drinks brought to them by waiters, a different sort of steward.

Mr Fisher, a leader in all matters to do with horse racing, is much in evidence on occasions like this.  He is no longer the mayor.  Governor Grey has scuttled Adelaide’s brief experiment with local authority.  He could see how well Mr Fisher enjoyed the status and was not going to encourage an old Company hand.   You can imagine Mr Fisher is not well pleased with Government House. But that does not inhibit him from dressing up to the nines.  As so there they all are, up in the box seat, and it is like the old days, with the Government party all in a coterie, and the Company loyalists all somewhat askance, and yet to look at them you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them.  The Nobs and the Snobs, two sides of the same golden guinea. (p. 78)

While in South Australia Dibble – like the real Samuel Gill – travels into the Flinders Ranges with the explorer Mr H (John Horrocks) and a camel called Goliath, and similarly he witnesses Horrocks accidentally shoot himself.  While they wait for help he has nothing to do but look about him, and he begins his discovery of the Australian landscape.  A place of dancing mirages, those shadows of silhouettes.  And the Australian light fascinates him: a strange feature out there, of light consuming itself.  And more than that:

Here the world was all before us.  It was all endless horizon, fully around us in every direction.  As far as I recall, you get no such horizon in England, no horizon at all.  You are always enclosed by a valley, or a forest, or a fold of hills or something  That makes for a limited field of vision, comfortable for us to strut our brief hour in, no doubt. Out in the Australian inland – an apt incongruity of expression – the world is a very much larger space, so big as to pay no attention to us at all… (p.104)

Fate didn’t favour either the fictional Dibble or his real-life counterpart, and both made a prudent exit to the Victorian goldfields.  Dibble’s distinctive voice records the chaotic scenes in Melbourne, the drudgery of the trip to the goldfields, the diversity of the canvas towns, the success and the failures of the diggers, and their battles over licence fees culminating in the Eureka Stockade.  His folio of pictures brings success, so much so that a fraudster named Flock takes advantage of him and appropriates some of his work.  His sorrows are alleviated somewhat by falling for a woman called Elizabeth… and to preserve their reputations, since they are ‘handfasted’ rather than legally wed, it seems prudent to do a bunk to Sydney.

But that doesn’t work out either, and Dibble returns to Melbourne, only to find that Marvellous Melbourne isn’t interested in the goldfields any more, even though the gold is the source of its wealth.

Adrian Mitchell is the author-historian of three works of non-fiction, two of them reviewed on this blog, but in this novel he has made a smooth transition to fiction.  In tracing Dibble’s decline into drink, sickness and poverty, he has maintained the self-deprecating humour of his character, without a trace of maudlin or melancholy.  As we read on we become aware of Dibble’s inevitable fate, but his final days are marked by the friendship of a good-hearted sculptor called George which ameliorates the tragedy somewhat.

Oh dear, I hope I haven’t given the wrong impression.  Despite Dibble’s travails, this is not a sad book, far from it.   The Profilist is a sparkling, witty novel, telling a history we all know (or jolly well should know!) and peopled with a parade of historical figures ranging from Marcus Clarke to Ned Kelly and Sir Redmond Barry.  Dibble is an incurable optimist, with a knack for observing foibles and folly as well as the progress of the colonies towards wealth and stability.

Like an old wheelbarrow Fortune’s squeaky wheel trundles on, if you give it a big enough heave.  But it proceeds as if under protest.

The colony has been plodding at a lumbering pace, and yet at every turn its luck builds.  the difficult years have been followed by a succession of bumper crops, and now the farmers strut about the streets like so many turkey cocks.  They ram their beefy fists into their pockets and glare triumphantly at the passing throng, and jingle their coins. Their waistcoats strain across their bellies, their flat straw hats are tilted back.  They have become wealthy men in just a few years.  The common joke is that wheat is growing out of their ears, though what I observe in fact is a sport of vigorous wiry hairs in the same locality.  (p. 111)

It’s a delightful book.  Sasha Grishin at the SMH enjoyed it too.

Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: The Profilist
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053454
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Availability

Fishpond: The Profilist: A Novel
Or direct from Wakefield Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 18, 2015

2015 History Writers’ Festival


I’m just back home from a great day at the History Writers’ Festival held at Readers’ Feast.

I attended two sessions:

Stories of War, History in Fiction, in which authors Steven Carroll and Robert Gott discussed with chair Angela Savage, the thorny issue of how much responsibility an author of historical fiction has to maintain historical veracity, and how much freedom is there to invent.  Both authors agreed that the facts ought to be right, but, well, sometimes they’re inconvenient.  Steven Carroll said, for instance that in writing The Gift of Speed it was important to be accurate about the cricket matches that frame the story, but that when he wrote The Art of the Engine Driver he needed a dramatic event for his conclusion and ‘the ‘Spirit of Progress’ never was involved in a major accident so he had to make one up.  Robert Gott, who writes crime novels set in the 40s, has found that his book’s retelling of an urban myth to reflect the truth of events upset some readers who would rather believe in the myth.   Sometimes also, the significance of an event is falsified, making it more important than it was at the time, as it is in one of Gott’s books which magnifies the importance of a fringe far-group during WW2 far beyond its real significance at the time.  This was a really interesting session, and it reminded me that I have Steven Carroll’s book A World of Other People on my TBR and I ought not to be denying myself the pleasure of reading it.

The other session Enduring Legacies, was chaired by Julianne Schultz, editor of The Griffith Review with guests Clare Wright, Ross McMullin and Jenny Hocking, all distinguished authors in their own right as well as contributors to the latest edition, Enduring Legacies.   This session sent me straight to the Readers’ Feast shelves afterwards: I would have bought all four books except that I already had Clare Wright’s Forgotten Rebels of Eureka anyway. (See my review). I bought McMullin’s Farewell Dear People; Hocking’s Gough Whitlam, His Time (Vol 2 of the Whitlam biography, I already had Vol 1); and of course the Griffith Review too, which I started reading on the train home.  I liked this session because I like a good stoush (as long as it’s intellectually rigorous).  The discussion began with the interesting proposition that ‘acts of national forgetfulness are an act of national aggression’, by which Clare Wright meant that forgetfulness is not necessarily benign.   While we are awash with Anzac remembrances at the moment, we are not hearing about the 100,000 people who marched in the streets against the war, and there is a collective hush about the two conscription referenda that divided the nation.  Ross McMullin mounted a persuasive argument that that when we buy the argument that Gallipoli made Australia a nation, we are wilfully choosing to forget that Australia had an impressive international reputation as a progressive nation before WW1.   Jenny Hocking reminded us that Whitlam’s progressive policies were profoundly influenced by his war service in the Pacific, shaping his geopolitical focus and his commitment to international bodies like the UN.   Not everyone in the audience agreed, which made it good fun…

There are other beaut sessions tomorrow so if you are in Melbourne, check out the festival website or call Readers’Feast on 9662 4699!

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2015

The Strays, by Emily Bitto


The Strays

It was Glen Hunting who brought my attention to Emily Bitto’s debut novel when we were commenting on the Miles Franklin longlist, and so I owe my discovery of this terrific book to him – thank you, Glen!

I love books involving art and artists, but this one has a slightly different twist to it.  In fact, it reminded me a little of Gillian Slovo’s memoir of her parents’ role in the apartheid struggle in Every Secret Thing (1997).  Slovo’s mother was the activist Ruth First who was assassinated by the South African security forces; her father was Joe Slovo who was imprisoned and then lived in exile until negotiations began to end the apartheid era. Gillian Slovo grew up knowing always that she and her siblings came second to political commitment.  In Bitto’s novel, the children of avant-garde painter Evan Trentham and his bohemian wife Helena, always come second to art…

Is there a difference between being an idealist serving a noble cause at the expense of your children, and being a bohemian doing the same thing in the service of art?  Perhaps not to the children… but that’s a question for book groups to argue about, eh?

Set in the Depression years and afterwards, the story is narrated by Lily, the observant, sensitive young friend of Eva, the middle child of Evan and Helena.  Lily is captivated by the exotic elements of Eva’s home life: the freedom; the absence of routines; and the careless attitude to school and homework and rules.  She compares the casual makeshift elegance and easy-going atmosphere of the Trenthan home with the placid conservatism of her less wealthy parents, and finds them wanting.  She achieves her dream when difficult circumstances at home allow her to move in and live with the Trenthams for a while, and she believes that she is part of their world, the emerging world of modernist art in Australia.

It’s impossible not to associate The Strays with the real-life history of Sunday and John Reed at Heide.  The Reeds were great patrons of the modernist art movement in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and personal and professional relationships amongst the Heide Circle were notable for being unorthodox.  The main characters in The Strays play a similar role as patrons and advocates for modernism, and their home on what was then the outskirts of Melbourne sounds a lot like Heidi in ambience.  Bitto writes with great skill about the artworks and their significance but she has also been careful to rein in the flamboyance of Evan and Helena so that they remain authentic:

‘Having you all around, ‘ Evan gestured to Ugo, Jerome and Maria, ‘has filled me with a very uncharacteristic sense of community.

‘I’m glad,’ said Maria.

‘Helena’s noticed a change in me, haven’t you, my love?’

Helena nodded.  ‘Much less grumpy.’

‘Can’t say I’ve noticed that,’ said Bea.  Helena shot her a look.

‘Hush, progeny,’ said Evan.  He clinked his glass again.  ‘Order, order.’

‘Just get to the point, Evan,’ said Helena.

Patrick and Vera were exchanging perplexed glances.

‘Yes, alright.’ Evan gulped his wine. ‘Helena and I see an opportunity.  To squander her family fortune.  To take advantage of what we have here.  This house.  This refuge from the tyrannies of the world. Nothing would please me more than to share this refuge with like-minded compatriots.  Why should I be the only b—– to be allowed the luxury to absent myself from my civic duty, from interaction with the frankly asinine majority, to closet myself away and not give a bandicoot’s a— about what anyone else thinks or does or claims I should be thinking or doing, especially of the petty… f——petty concerns of the art market.  As you know, I’m far from a capitalist, but I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed reaping the benefits of capitalism. And one of the benefits, and I’m not unaware of the irony of the situation, is getting away from the capitalists.  The b——- who try to tell me my labour’s not worth anything in the exchange market unless I’m producing something like cars or shoes or cheese -‘

‘Oh god, Evan,’ Helena cut in.  ‘You’re ranting.’

Evan eyed her with irritation. ‘In short, then, my darling…’.  He sat up straighter in his chair and cleared his throat.  ‘Helena and I would like to invite you all to come and live with us here.  We’d love to take in a few more strays, and we invite you all to quit your jobs and join our commune. Work and live side by side.  So we can all thumb our noses at the rest of the world.’  (p. 88)

Now while I’m not entirely convinced that middle-class men of the 30s, bohemian though they be, used in front of women and children the kind of language that I have obscured above (in the interests of this being a family friendly blog used also by students at secondary schools) –  I like the way this dialogue is structured, to undercut the pomposity of Evans without losing his sincerity.  That’s skilful writing, IMO.

Lily, observing all this, is excited because it offers the prospect of a place there for her too, but she is not to know then the price that the children paid for this unorthodox household.  She does observe, however, that the littlest one, Heloise, is almost always in untended tears, and that housekeeping is a secondary concern.  The Trenthams are not short of money, but their children are often hungry because no one has remembered to shop or cook for them.  Indeed they seem so often to forget that they have progeny at all, that the children have to shift for themselves.  Houseguest Lily sleeps on the floor, without enough bedding to keep her warm.    There is a grubbiness about the house and a lack of organisation, and although Lily has come to despise her mother’s preoccupation with order and routine, she still has the occasional doubt.

As does the reader when one of the artists wants the children to pose for him.

The doubts grow greater when one of the young artists finds the nubile daughters ‘interesting’.  Artistic ambition is a complex issue and it’s not always easy to be clear about when moral boundaries have been crossed.  Artistic rivalry rears its head too, and loyalties are tested when the protégé outstrips the patron.

The Strays is an exceptionally good debut novel which deserves its nomination in the Dobbie Awards.  I’m glad I’m not on the judging panel because I’d be hard pressed to choose between this one and Christine Piper’s After Darkness.  (I haven’t read the other two, Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke and Sideshow by Nicole Smith.  No doubt they would make choosing even more difficult).

Author: Emily Bitto
Title: The Strays
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781922213211
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2015

Meet an Aussie Author: Wendy Scarfe


Scarfe, Wendy

It’s barely a month since I finished reading Wendy Scarfe’s terrific novel Hunger Town and here we are with the news that the book has been long-listed for the $30,000 Kibble Award – and in eminent company too! (See my post about the 2015 longlist here).

Hunger Town was the first book I had read by this prolific author, and I was curious to learn more about her.   I dashed off an email to Wakefield Press (who were very excited about the longlisting as well) asking if Wendy could be persuaded to participate in Meet an Aussie Author – and here she is!

1.  I was born at Henley Beach in Adelaide. My father’s family were all South Australian but I grew up in Melbourne, went to school there and to Melbourne University.

2.  When I was a child I wrote poetry, mostly about nature.

3.  The persons who encouraged me to write were my parents, the author Eric Lambert and my husband. I was inspired by the American writers of the 1930s-40s who tackled the great social issues –Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck. I learned my writing skills from the classics.

4.  I write in a spare bedroom with a desk and a the view from the window of the river estuary and the sea. In the past when our 4 children were home I wrote on the kitchen table.

5.  I write in the mornings when I’m fresh and do more boring things like housework when I’m tired. I rarely try to write at night but when ideas come to me I get up and write them down because I’ll have forgotten them by the morning.

6.  Research is essential. I do a great deal but in writing a novel I always integrate the research into the text so it doesn’t seem to be stuck on.

7.  I keep my published work in a separate bookcase in the lounge room.

8.  On the day my first book was published in 1967, my husband and I shared our excitement at our joint publication. It came from London, was entitled A Mouthful of Petals, and concurrently had a lengthy AGE review by Nancy Cato: ‘Hungry Children eat Flowers’.

9.  At the moment I’m relaxing from the past five years of work on my new novel Hunger Town.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea I go for a walk or a swim. When I’m stuck for a word I use my Thesaurus. Initially I write the manuscript by hand in biro in exercise books. On the page opposite my writing I have a collection of synonyms and brief reminders of ideas. I regard computers as a necessary evil.

Wendy has a large body of work in her own right, but she also has co-written a number of books with her husband, Allen Scarfe.  Her work includes:

Poetry

  • Shadow and Flowers

Novels

  • The Lotus Throne
  • Laura, My Alter Ego
  • The Day They Shot Edward
  • Miranda
  • Fishing For Strawberries
  • Jerusha Braddon Painter
  • An Original Talent
  • Hunger Town (see my review)

Non-fiction, with Allan Scarfe

  • A Mouthful of Petals: the story of an Indian village
  • Tiger on a Rein: Report on the Bihar famine
  • JP His Biography
  • All That Grief: Migrant recollections of Greek resistance to fascism 1941-9
  • Taste for Carnage: Alex Sheppard, a portrait 1913-97

And there are more, as you can see at Wikipedia!

Wendy’s career has been built around teaching and writing, but she has also brought up a family of four children.  She has lived in England and India (where she and Allan ran an experimental rural school), and when she retired from teaching she completed a B.Litt. in Classical and Near Eastern Studies.  What an amazing life of achievement, eh?

Find out more about Wendy and Allan at their website.

Buy her book at Fishpond: Hunger Town: A Novel
or direct from Wakefield Press
and good bookstores everywhere.


L'Assommoir L’Assommoir, variously translated as The Dram Shop, The Gin Palace, Drunk and Drunkard is said to be Zola’s masterpiece.  Well, I haven’t read all of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, this is no. 13 in the recommended reading order so I have seven left to enjoy, but I can certainly attest to the brilliance of this one…

L’Assommoir is overwhelming.  Like the very best of Dickens, it tells the story of an underclass with respect and compassion and it leaves its readers emotionally bereft.  Its central character Gervaise begins the novel with such hope, and she rises to make a success of her humble life, only to stumble on a downward trajectory that can have no other resolution than degradation.  Oxford Worlds’ Classics have compounded the melancholy with a superb portrait by Edgar Degas on the front cover.  This image becomes quite haunting as you read…

The Rougon-Maquart novels are not a family saga, but Gervaise’s place in the family of Antoine Maquart serves to emphasise her tragedy.  Her sister Lisa lives barely a mile away, confidently running a charcuterie and living a bourgeois lifestyle.  But she might as well be on the other side of the planet: Gervaise’s life is a world away and their paths never cross.  Would Lisa have rescued Gervaise if she knew about her circumstances?  If you’ve read The Belly of Paris you know the answer to that question.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The fatal mistakes Gervaise makes begin early: she’s only fourteen when she has her first child by her feckless lover Lantier, and when they run away to Paris together in hope of a better life, he spends his way through a small inheritance and then abandons her and the two young boys.  It is typical of his moral cowardice that he leaves it to the older boy, Claude, to bring her the room key that signals his departure, that she is hard at work in the laundry when she finds out in this humiliating way, and that he had insisted that very morning that she pawn her shawl and her chemises, money which he has now used for his new adventure.  To compound Gervaise’s misery, he has dumped her for Adèle, sister of Virginie, one of the other washerwomen, and a degrading cat-fight ensues over this worthless man.  But as the novel progresses, Zola uses both Virginie and Lantier to show Gervaise’s fatal apathy when she lets them both back into her life later on.

Zola’s characters are all marked by his view that human destiny is formed by heredity, environment and their place in time.  Gervaise’s fatal flaw is her easy-going nature: she likes to please others and it’s easier to go along with the milieu that surrounds her.

Her only weakness … was being very soft-hearted, liking everybody, getting desperately fond of people who then put her through endless misery.  So, when she loved a man, she wasn’t interested in all that nonsense, what she dreamt of was simply living together happily ever after. (p. 38)

Her dreams are not ambitious; what she wants is

to be able to get on with her work, always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, bring up her children properly, not to be beaten, and die in her own bed. (p.421)

If only.  Consigned to the seedy parts of Paris at the time when Haussmanisation was impacting on working-class communities and industrialisation was replacing artisanship, Gervaise supports her boys as a washerwoman and eventually – not without some reluctance – marries Coupeau, a teetotaller with a steady job as a roofer.  Despite their good intentions they get into debt with the cost of their marriage because of their desire to put on a good show for their friends, but with hard work, a prudent lifestyle and offloading the older boy to an apprenticeship in Plassans, they recover financially,  and begin saving towards Gervaise’s dream of running her own laundry.  But destiny steps in when Coupeau has a fall from a roof and can’t work for a very long time.  This has two fatal effects: Coupeau gets used to idleness and Gervaise has to use all her savings to support the family (which has now grown to include their daughter Nana).

One of Gervaise’s friends is the gentle giant, Goujet, a blacksmth.  He loves Gervaise with a quiet passion, and he and his mother offer a loan that enables Gervaise to fulfil her dream.  She moves her family out of their dingy rooms to a place of warmth and light, where she sets up her laundry to general acclaim.  Industrious and careful, she is excellent at her work and everybody except her jealous in-laws admires her.

But Zola has structured the novel so that this success is the high point of Gervaise’s life, and portents of her future are already there.  Coupeau fills his idle hours by boozing with his layabout friends, and lovely little Nana who might have been a support to her mother later in life, is running wild.  The friends who admire and like Gervaise are also only too ready to listen to malicious gossip about her from her sister-in-law Madame Lorilleaux, and they’re also only too ready to encourage a lavish lifestyle that Gervaise can’t really afford because she has a loan to pay back to the Goujets.

It is heartbreaking to read about the downfall of this wonderful character.   I suspect that it’s impossible to read L’Assommoir without becoming very fond of Gervaise.  But apparently, (according to the introduction by Robert Lethbridge), Zola’s novel didn’t please anybody.  Although it was a contemporary bestseller, conservatives didn’t like its dangerous socialist message and thought it proved that the working-class wasn’t fit to vote, and progressives were angry that it showed the underclass as feckless and irresponsible.  But when we read it today we can see that Zola has rightly depicted some fundamental truths: that the underclass has the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children as anyone else, but that their precarious finances make them vulnerable to life events which can plunge them into disaster from which there can be no return.  Zola could not have written this novel the way he did, had there been a safety net to tide the family over Coupeau’s injury, and workers’ compensation for his inability to get back to work.

But there was no safety net, and Gervaise (like everyone else) likes the Good Life, and it’s just too easy to let loan payments slide and to spend more than she’s got on a splendid celebration of her name day.  And it’s on that fateful day, depicted in a magnificent set piece by Zola, that Lantier slithers back into her life.  Coupeau, who’s a bit pickled, goes outside to tell Lantier to stop hanging about and upsetting Gervaise, but he ends up bringing him inside to join the feast.  This is partly because Coupeau is a terrible judge of character at the best of times, and partly because Lantier is a master salesman of his tawdry product, that is, himself.  It doesn’t take long for him to ingratiate himself so thoroughly that he moves in, starts interfering in the laundry and bossing about the family, and takes turns with Coupeau to beat Gervaise whenever the mood takes them.   Not only that, but Lantier also sabotages Coupeau’s unenthusiastic efforts to get back to work …

Needless to say, you can’t go on sprees and work as well. So, after Lantier joined the household, Coupeau, who already hardly raised a finger, got so that he didn’t so much as touch his tools. When, fed up with not earning, he did find himself a job, his mate would track him down at work and tease him mercilessly on seeing him hanging from a knotted rope like a ham that was being smoked; he’d shout to him to come down and have a quick one.  That settled it, the roofer would walk off the job and start a binge that went on for days, for weeks. First rate, those binges were a general inspection of all the bars in the neighbourhood, the morning’s boozing slept off at lunchtime and resurrected in the evening; round after round of rotgut stretching into the night like Chinese lanterns at a party, until the last candle and the last glass were consumed. (p. 257)

Squalor descends and at first Gervaise does little but shrug her shoulders in resignation.  She didn’t run after her man; indeed if she caught sight of him in a bar she’d go the long way round so as not to make him angry.  (p.266) But the time comes when she thinks she may as well join the men in a drink, and then – despite her kind heart and good intentions – it’s all downhill from there.  Lantier is after her, and after her business, and everything he does conspires to bring Gervaise down so that he and Virginie can have their revenge.

All the characters, one way or another, symbolise the values in conflict: industriousness, diligence, cleanliness and self-control versus idleness, laziness, filth and self-indulgence.  But the one who prefigures Gervaise’s own sordid downfall is an innocent.  Lalie Bijard, the child who becomes mother to the other small children after her alcoholic father beats his wife to death, does not – unlike Gervaise – have any choices at all.  Her final moments are classic 19th century sentimentality, but no less powerful for that:

Gervaise, meanwhile, was trying her best not to burst into tears. She reached out with her hands, wanting to comfort Lalie, and as the ragged sheet was slipping off she pulled it right down, intending to remake the bed. The poor little body of the dying child was thus exposed. Lord Jesus, what a heart-rending, pitiable sight!  The stones themselves would have wept.  Lalie was quite naked, with only the remnants of a bodice round her shoulders to serve as a nightgown; yes, quite naked, the nakedness of a martyr, bleeding and tortured.  There was no longer any flesh on her, her bones poked through her skin.  From her ribs to her thighs thin purple weals reached down, where the whip’s bite had left its vivid imprint.  A blue-black bruise circled her left arm, as if the jaws of a vice had crushed this delicate limb, no thicker than a matchstick.  On her right leg, there was a gash that hadn’t healed, some nasty wound that must have reopened each morning as she hurried round doing her chores.  She was nothing but a bruise from head to toe.  Oh what butchery of childhood – that dear little chick crushed under a man’s heavy foot; what infamy –  that feeblest of creatures dying under the burden of such a cross! People in churches venerate martyred virgins whose naked flesh is not so pure.  Gervaise had crouched down again, forgetting to pull up the sheet, overcome by the sight of this pitiful nothing, lying there sunk into the bed, as with trembling lips, she tried to say a prayer.

‘Please, Madame Coupeau…’ whispered the child.

In her great modesty, and full of shame for her father’s sake, she was trying to pull up the sheet with her short little arms.  Bijard stood there stupidly, staring at the corpse he was responsible for, and rolling his head about slowly like an animal that’s bothered by something.  (p. 401)

It’s not possible to read this without thinking of today’s little children brutalised by their own parents: Chloe Valentine, Daniel Valerio and the anonymous ones still suffering unchecked abuse.  Alcohol used to excess, and now the use of illicit drugs too, still combine with community indifference to allow these things to happen.  Gervaise, notwithstanding her tears and prayers, leaves the surviving small children to their fate.  Zola shocked his readers with L’Assommoir and it seems tragic that in the 21st century we still rely on shocking media stories to force action in this area of need.  (If you have time, do read ‘Child abuse and the media’ by Chris Goddard and Bernadette J. Saunders (2001) on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website – it makes it clear that it is media coverage prompting public outrage that gets action on family violence).

Given its sordid subject-matter, why is L’Assommoir the favourite Zola novel of so many?  I think it’s because of the brilliant way this novel is structured to make the reader care about the central, lovable character of Gervaise.  The novel’s realism captures the environment in which this humble woman rises to success and then stumbles into tragedy.  Instead of judgemental moralising, Zola depicts the pathos of her fall with careful observations that show her helplessness to save herself or anybody else.

Well, what next, to surpass this masterpiece of Zola’s? It’s L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece), the story of Gervaise’s son Claude, the struggling artist in Paris.  I’m going to love that one, I’m sure, because I always enjoys novels about artists.

Author: Émile Zola
Title: L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop)
Translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon
Publisher: OUP (Oxford University Press) (Oxford World’s Classics series), 2009
ISBN: 9780199538683
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Availability

Do yourself a favour: do not read the freebie editions that you can download: Zola used 19th century vulgar colloquial slang for much of the dialogue, which will either be sanitised or excised from the freebies, or incomprehensible if you try to read the original in French.  This title is notorious for being very difficult to translate for contemporary readers. I recommend this translation by Margaret Mauldon (which also has a comprehensive introduction about all kinds of aspects that I haven’t covered here i.e. the politics of the era and the symbolism), but the OUP edition is (of course) the only one I’ve read. However, whatever you choose, make sure that it is a recent translation, uncensored and with annotations that explain the geography of the novel; the significance of the ribald songs and slang; and the cunning way that Zola made allusions to politics in ways that evaded trouble at a time when there was savage repression of any political critique.

Fishpond: L’Assommoir (Oxford World’s Classics)

Cross-posted at The Books of Emile Zola, where you can also find a plot summary if so minded.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 13, 2015

A Descant for Gossips, by Thea Astley


A Descant for GossipsThe title page of my battered 1983 copy of A Descant for Gossips tells me that it was formerly the property of schoolgirls Emma from 10NR and Marianne from 10MM – whose teachers presumably chose it as a set text because the novel shows the brutal power of teenage bullying.  But while I ached with compassion for poor, plain, lonely 14-year old Vinny, it was her teacher Helen Striebel who stole my heart, and it was her sad resignation to the power of small-town gossip that resonates with me still.

When kids bully, or they stand by as a supportive audience for the bully, they do it without really knowing the consequences.  How can they, with their limited experience of life and immature capacities for empathy?   It is up to the family and the school to teach young people about those potentially tragic consequences, and in the adolescent absence of maturity or concern for others, it’s the adults’ responsibility to monitor behaviour and provide swift, effective responses whenever bullying takes place.

But adults purveying gossip as they masquerade behind self-righteousness know full well what they are doing, and they delight in it anyway.  When Thea Astley (1925-2004) wrote this marvellous book way back in 1960, she would not have dreamed of today’s sordid celebrity culture and its spiteful gossip, justified by its readers as harmless fun because they think its victims are rich, offstage, and ‘asked for it’ anyway by becoming famous.  What Astley did know, and has depicted in her trademark incisive style in A Descant for Gossips, is the viciousness of small-town gossip.  It is a searing experience, reading this book, but if I had my way, it would be a set text for adults everywhere.

(Fortunately, UQP is reissuing A Descant for Gossips which has been out of print for ages, so it’s going to be much easier for me to implement my decree if ever I get to run the country for five minutes or so.)

The kind of country town where the story takes place is as recognisable now as it was in the sixties:

Cruciform, the two main streets had as their pivotal point the school, both primary and secondary sections, and martyred along the town’s four limbs were a score of shops and business premises and three times as many houses.  There were other roads leading out to the mountain district around Cootharabah and there was the road that curled in across the Mary Valley, but over all the deathly stillness and quiet of that first yawn of near summer shimmered above the scrub box and the tallow trees.  Spring paraphrased itself with shoots from sap rising in the hoop-pine forests to the west and the piccabeen palms and sand cypresses to the east; but here, centred in hills, valleyed below Bundarra, hammer-hitting the hard blue sky, there were only the new pastures, the sprawling paddocks of Rhodes and paspalum, green-squared between township and forest.  What there was of spring in the lack-lyricism of the summer opening was known in seascaped detail to the black swans and cranes fifteen miles away over the water-acres of Cooroibah, but not to Gungee, and not to Vinny Lalor now moving through the motionless morning to her personal crucifixion at the town’s heart.  (p.2)

For Ginny, the daily walk to school warrants the allusion to the Stations of the Cross.  She has always been rejected by the group, and they make her life a misery.  She has never done anything to deserve this; it’s just how it is.

It seems that in the mob there is frequently the one shunned or suspect or unlovely in some very simple and irremediable way.  And in this case it was Vinny.  She was not a pretty child or even a particularly clever one.  She was thin, pale, and red-headed.  Her eyes were a peculiarly light grey and like her mouth they were nearly always unsmiling.  But then she had little reason to smile.

Vinny has always been the last to get a turn at skipping and hopscotch or to be chosen for the rounders team.  Her chief tormentor Pearl Warburton has perfected the art of the whisper accompanied by a meaningful slight movement away.  Aided and abetted by Betty Klee, she is expert at passing notes which Mr Moller sees but does not intercept.  Vinny has never recovered socially from her mother’s well-meaning attempt at a birthday party, a party which revealed the family’s poverty to her vicious class-mates even more than her let-down hems had already done.    No one on playground duty can save her from the patronising remarks and the cruel laughter that seems to be her eternal fate.

But two teachers make Vinny’s life almost tolerable.  Middle-aged Mr Moller, world-weary and somewhat cynical, teaches English literature, while Mrs Striebel, a young widow, teaches maths.  Neither of them take much notice of Vinny until she hands in an essay that illuminates her bleak life, and Moller – who’s impressed by it – reads the essay to Helen.  Pity provokes an impulsive gesture, and Helen ends up taking Vinny to her sister’s in Brisbane for a weekend cultural jaunt, with transport provided by Moller, who has a car.

This trip becomes the catalyst for these teachers’ romantic relationship to develop.  They are like-minded souls adrift in a narrow-minded town, and apart from their shared cultural values, they are also honest and tolerant in a way that is unique among the pettiness that surrounds them.   In a small town, of course, the affair must be kept discreet: Moller is married, and his wife is a pitiful invalid with a terminal illness.  Teachers are expected to be respectable.

Astley dissects the inevitable discovery with sharp wit.  Naïve about their relationship, Vinny nonetheless tries to protect the lovers from the crass graffiti that litters the school-ground.  Findlay the principal responds with pompous morality; the middle-class wives respond with viperous glee.

‘Put that phone down, Cecily.  It’s time for the news.’
‘Just a minute, Freda.  What was that, Garth?’
‘I said put the damn phone down.’
‘Garth’s getting mad, darling.  I’ll see you tomorrow. ‘Bye.’
‘Happy?’ he asked.  ‘Busy spreading it round?’ (p.238)

What is remarkable to me about this novel is the economy with which Astley makes the reader feels Helen Striebel’s pain. The book is only 260 pages long, and the circumstances of the affair decree that the lovers spend very little time together.  Yet it is impossible not to know the depths of Helen’s love for Moller:

Her back was to the sun, her face in shadow, but Moller’s burned in the late extravagance of light coming from the western sky.  She squeezed his hand in return and briefly placed her other hand over his. ‘Mckeith is watching us fascinated through the signal-room window,’ she said, and turned finally from him.

She was late coming to the dining-room that night, having spent more time than usual exploring the possibilities of dress, examining her face with a new consciousness that comes to the lover and the loved. (p.162)

Times and mores have changed, but judgemental people still gossip and that gossip can still cause enormous harm.  I doubt if anyone could read the last page of this novel and not be horrified.

Author: Thea Astley
Title: A Descant for Gossips
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 1983 (the same year that ABC TV produced a mini-series based on the book.  I wish I could find  copy to watch it.)
ISBN: 070221843x
Source: Personal library, OpShop find.

A Descant for Gossips UQP reissueAvailability

UQP has just released a reissue of this title in their UQP Modern Classics series, ISBN 9780702253553.  There are some great titles in this series, and so far, they’re all by women!

You can buy a copy at Fishpond: A Descant for Gossips (UQP Modern Classics), direct from UQP  or any good bookstore.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2015

2015 Kibble and Dobbie Longlists


Once again the Kibble and Dobbie longlists have brought attention to some excellent books!

The nominations for the $30,000 Kibble prize for an established woman author include:

The nominations for the $5000 Dobbie prize for a first-time published author include:

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2015

Trio, by Geraldine Wooller


Trio

I am in two minds about Trio, the fourth novel of Western Australian author, Geraldine Wooller.  On the one hand it is a wise and thoughtful depiction of the bonds of friendship over many decades, but on the other, it is a novel that lacks narrative drive.  It’s rather like eavesdropping on a café conversation; enjoyable enough, but there’s no great impetus to stay and listen to the end of it.

But I stayed with it, interested enough in the lives of the characters, enjoying the nostalgia, and chuckling in recognition at the pontificating about aspects of modern life.

The trio comprises Celia, Marcia and Mickey who become friends in London in the 1960s.  All three want to work in the theatre industry but only ever succeed on its margins.  Celia (the Australian) is a set designer; Marcia (who’s English) is an actor; and Mickey (from Ireland) is a director.  Their friendship is close, and it sometimes involves sex, but it’s not a menage-a-trois and it’s not a competition between the two women for the man.  No, in this novel the betrayal that really hurts is a failure to pass on contact details so that a possible job is missed…

Over five decades the three move between the UK, Italy and Perth, and Celia and Marcia take up other work while Mickey struggles on with drink for solace.  But their only long-term relationships are with each other, and even that suffers the strain of estrangement towards the end of their lives.  Theirs is not the rock-solid friendship that endures all: it’s messy, fragile and desultory.  Told mostly through the perspective of the women, the novel is at its best in depicting the interior lives of its characters: the thoughts unexpressed; the doubts; the debates of conscience; and the regrets.  There are lovely allusions to plays, books and music that permeate the characters’ lives, and there are also asides that place events firmly in their era, as when Mickey bemoans Margaret Thatcher’s changes to dole eligibility so that theatre people could no longer rely on it between jobs.

Trio is a quiet, reflective work that feels autobiographical in origin.  Some snippets made me wonder, was this a preoccupation of the character, or the author?

In the late afternoon of the next day, she left her house to buy a couple of food items.  Putting on a coat she noticed two buttons missing: must attend to that.  There was a mercer’s not far away where they sold all kinds of old-fashioned things, where women customers and staff murmured about wool thickness and alternative types of stitch, in voices one only heard now in this kind of store.  She could think of no other place where this kind of quiet exchange took place, certainly not libraries any more, where people did talk if they felt like it and no one checked them. Though most visitors were now sitting in front of a wretched computer, clicking and pressing buttons. (p. 169)

I have my suspicions…

Other reviews are at the SMH and Readings.

Update: 20/4/15 Thanks to the author for the correction, the trio meet in the 1960s, not the 70s as I had previously written.  And no, she says, it’s not autobiographical.

Author: Geraldine Wooller
Title: Trio
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2015
ISBN: 9781921924781
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Availability

Fishpond: Trio
Or direct from Transit Lounge where there are also book group notes.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2015

The Melbourne Prize 2015 (forthcoming)


One of my favourite literary prizes is the Melbourne Prize.  Unlike other prizes, the Melbourne Prize rotates between three creative endeavours in a three-year cycle, which are:

  • the Melbourne Prize for Urban Sculpture (awarded last year, 2014, the 10th anniversary of the prize),
  • the Melbourne Prize for Literature, (to be awarded later this year, 2015) and
  • the Melbourne Prize for Music (to be awarded next year, 2016).

Each annual Melbourne Prize is valued around $100,000, depending on the range of prize categories in each sector.

An initiative of Executive Director and Founder Simon Warrender, the Melbourne Prize Trust was established in 2004.   It was launched following the unveiling of the children’s garden precinct at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and the commissioning of The Magic Pudding sculpture, by Louis Lauman, in 2000.  Click here to see it, it’s no 18 on page 2.) (You can buy a limited edition bronze miniature if you have spare cash.  All proceeds support the Trust ).

The Trust is a not-for-profit cultural organisation which provides financial, career development, travel and exhibition opportunities for Victorian writers, musicians and sculptors, via the annual Melbourne Prize.   It’s funded by cross-sector public, private and corporate partnerships, and donations from small donors like me (which is how I got to know Simon).  It’s a community investment that directly benefits Victorian arts.

Every year during the prize season when there are the inevitable disappointments that this or that personal favourite has been overlooked, I sometimes wonder if the judges were aware of the alternatives.  The Melbourne Prize gets round this by convening a high profile judging panel each year so that leaders in each sector are exposed to a broad range of artistic talent.  This not only enriches the pool of judges so that there are more of them with expertise, it also gives artists the opportunity to profile their work to eminent professionals in their field.

The prize recognises and rewards excellence and artistic talent, inspiring creative development and enriching public life.  It develops our abundant creative resources and showcases this talent to the public. This enhances Melbourne’s reputation as a cultural capital and centre of opportunity for artists.  Yes, of course I am going to brag about Melbourne being a City of Literature…

Melbourne as a City of Literature

In 2008 Melbourne was designated a City of Literature along with Norwich, Edinburgh, Iowa City, Reykjavik, Krakow and Dublin, all cities where literature plays a central role in the urban environment.  With its valuable literary award under the banner of Melbourne, the Melbourne Prize for Literature 2015 adds to the range of literary activities here, including the Premier’s Literary Awards; the Melbourne Writers Festival at Federation Square; and a plethora of other literary festivals across the state.  (For some odd reason the Wheeler Centre doesn’t maintain its own calendar of our LitFests so organisers have to add their festivals to it themselves, which is a bit clunky.  However there is what looks like a comprehensive list at Writers Victoria ).   These various literary initiatives in Victoria raise awareness of our immense local literary talent and strengthen our position as a place of opportunity for writers locally, nationally and on an international basis.

The Melbourne Prize

Melbourne Prize cataloguesThe prizes cover a range of career stages, and each culminates in a free public two-week exhibition of finalists’ work at Federation Square each November, plus the main prize presentations at Deakin Edge in November.  The Trust prints a free exhibition catalogue for the public during the event and for the finalists to retain as a record.   The Civic Choice Award enables the public and visitors to the exhibition to vote for their favourite, which in 2015 will be a writer, who has the chance to win $5,000.

Now in its fourth cycle, the annual Melbourne Prize has an eminent alumni and has made significant funds and opportunities available to Victorian artists.   You can find out about previous winners of the Music and Sculpture Prizes at the Trust’s website.  Past recipients of the Literature Prize include:

Recipients of the Best Writing Award were

Winners of the Civic Choice Award were

  • 2012: Tony Birch, Blood (University of Queensland Press, 2011)
  • 2009: Amra Pajalic, The Good Daughter (Text Publishing, 2009)
  • 2006: Henry von Doussa, The Park Bench (Thompson Walker, 2005)

(Click the links to see my reviews &c)

The 2015 Melbourne Prize

The Prize and Award offering this year will be similar to past years with one addition.  As part of continuing the 10th anniversary celebration of the annual Melbourne Prize, a significant new award will be offered, details of which will be released in May, along with the entry form.

The judging panel in 2015 will follow the same strategy as 2012 and will include five esteemed figures in the literary sector. (The 2012 judges were Mark Rubbo OAM, Professor Brian Matthews, Hannie Rayson, Christos Tsiolkas and Michael Williams).

Federation Square will again be the site of the finalists exhibition in November to showcase the outcome of the competition.  Who will the nominees be?  Take a guess from my list of Authors from Victoria but remember, they’re only the ones I’ve reviewed on this blog, so feel free to suggest others.

Currently, one can register interest to receive information on the 2015 program when it becomes available by visiting http://www.melbourneprize.org.  The Prize is open to Victorian residents only.

So, what will that significant new award be??   The existing categories are

  • the Melbourne Prize for Literature: for a body of work (in any genre) that has made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life
  • the Best Writing Award
  • the Civic Choice award (where we get to vote for our favourite).

We have to wait till May to find out, but in the meantime we can guess, eh?

I’m hoping for a Biographers’ award (and I’d nominate Brenda Niall).  What about you?  Please add your suggestions in comments below.

To whet your appetite for this prestigious prize, here are some photos from the 2012 Melbourne Prize.  All photos courtesy of Leisa Hunt Photography.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Many thanks to Simon Warrender for his input to the preparation of this article.

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 5, 2015

The Return, by Silvia Kwon


The Return

It’s only a day or two since I was moaning about how I wanted to read stories of rural Australia that tackled the big issues of farm inheritance and the depopulation of the bush, and it turns out that I had one on my shelves anyway!

There is more to The Return, however, than those two issues.  It is a stylishly constructed novel which draws together themes of redemption and reconciliation.  Merna, married to Frank who is still nurturing post-Burma Railway feelings of hatred towards the Japanese, performs the role of woman-as-mediator when, in the 1960s, their only son brings his Japanese bride into their home.

The prologue, set on ‘the line’ in Burma in 1944 when Frank loses another mate to the brutality of the Japanese, sets the scene for the reader to understand his enduring hatred.  The writing suffers by comparison with Richard Flanagan’s powerful evocation of this same situation in his Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (see my review and a Sensational Snippet) but I suspect that will be true for most writers who tackle the representation of that horror.  Flanagan, writing at the peak of his powers with his father’s experience on ‘the line’ to inspire him, has achieved a singular greatness in his novel, impossible to emulate.  Still, leaving aside the choice of second-person narration in The Return’s prologue which was IMO a mistake that risks banality, Kwon offers her own insight:

You catch the eye of a young Japanese soldier and the intensity of his gaze chills you in the fetid air.  The young man’s contempt is a silent weapon and you are unprepared for this otherness. You signed up to fight the enemy but spend all of the war observing him, getting to know the darkness of his soul.  What you see and learn – you realise – is no good to anyone. (p. xiv)

The man who comes back to Merna is a ruin.  Always reticent anyway, he retreats into impregnable silences and his wife learns to adjust to a dour and emotionally unavailable man.  Like others suffering post-traumatic stress, he has nightmares that frighten his wife, and he takes solace in alcohol and episodes of complete unavailability, in his case vanishing into the bush for two or three harrowing days.   This has its impact on Paul, the son born after Frank’s departure for war, and like many, he doesn’t want to return from the bright lights of the city after he finishes engineering at university.  His choice of employer, however, has major ramifications.  He tests Frank’s hatred for all things Japanese by working for Toyota.

Like many parents in rural Australia, Frank and Merna both hope for Paul’s return to take over the farm, but the pain of their son’s choice to follow a different path is exacerbated by Frank’s hatred for Japan.  And when Frank brings his Japanese bride home to meet his parents, the (fictional) small town of Metatung reacts with predictable racism.   Wisely, Kwon does not harp on this, choosing instead to write her narrative entirely from Merna’s perspective and leaving the empathetic reader to imagine the depths of Miko’s devastated response.

So, like Merna, the reader sees Paul’s consoling arm around his wife; we hear her quiet sobs through the bedroom door; we note the stilted dinner conversations where Frank ignores Miko; we observe her retreats to the vegetable garden to avoid him and we witness her brave attempts to assimilate by learning to bake scones and drink English tea.  But Merna is on her own journey too: she has spent almost twenty years in stoic resignation with no hope of recovering the Frank she used to love.  She does not share his hatred, but she respects his right to have it.  She knows by name the losses of people in town whose sons and husbands died in the Pacific War, and she does not sit in moral judgement on their reaction even though she knows that Miko was orphaned by the war.

Torn between Frank’s implacability and what she initially sees as Paul’s provocative lack of sensitivity, Merna has no alternative but to try to build bridges between them.  It takes her a long time to realise that the defiance with which she meets the racism of the town is what’s needed to break through Frank’s attitude as well.  Merna is a carefully-wrought, beautifully complex character representing the dilemmas of post-war life.

I look forward to this author’s further explorations of Australian life in her next novel.

Author: Silvia Kwon
Title: The Return
Publisher: Hachette, 2014
ISBN:
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Availability

Fishpond: The Return

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2015

Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar


Vanessa and Her SisterI really, really enjoyed this book, and was sorry to come to its end.  It is a fictionalisation of the life of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and her sister Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) between 1905 and 1912, and I wanted to know what happened next.

Well, I know, of course, what happened next.  The war; Vanessa becoming a noted avant-garde artist; the founding of the Hogarth Press; and Virginia becoming a famous writer and her suicide.  But I wanted to read about all that from Vanessa’s point-of-view and savour her further voyage of self-discovery; and to relish this author’s delicious prose and startling imagery, so apt for a novel mostly narrated by a visual artist.  (The novel is a pastiche: there are also ‘telegrams’, ‘postcards’ and the occasional brief letter by other characters, but it is Vanessa’s narration that carries the book).

Fortunately for me, and for most other readers who are intrigued by the devoted, gifted sisters who defied convention, expertise in the oeuvre of Virginia Woolf is not required.  I’ve read eight of Woolf’s novels but (with the exception of Orlando reviewed here on my blog) that was so long ago I am not tempted even to write a brief review at GoodReads; and I have the Victoria Glendinning bio of Leonard Woolf, but I haven’t read it yet.  So I read Vanessa and her Sister as I think most people would, on its own terms, and I enjoyed it very much.

The novel begins when the Stephen sisters have set up house with their brother Thoby and Adrian in pre-war Bloomsbury.   Their parents are dead, and with their glittering circle of Cambridge friends, they are deliberately flouting convention.  In what must have been a nightmare for servants used to routine, friends drop in at any time, and they stay till the small hours of the morning.  They abandon conventions of dressing for dinner (which was probably a relief for the servants, less laundry), and – it seems droll now that this was noteworthy – they were careless about the gender balance of their guests. But they are not nonchalant about all this: they expect to be noticed.

… we are a surprising company.  For all our confidence, only Morgan [E.M. Forster] has done anything of any note in the outside world.  The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential and have so far not left deep footprints. But together we carry a brackish air of importance.  As if we are doing something worthy in the world.  Maybe how we live our lives is the grand experiment?  Mixing company, throwing out customs, using first names, waiting to marry, ignoring the rules, and choosing what to care about.  Is that why we matter? Or perhaps Miss Warre-Cornish [the fiancée of one of their circle] is right and we do not matter in the least. (p. 90)

Well, history showed that Miss Warre-Cornish was wrong.  They did matter, and not just because they heralded a relaxation of stuffy conventions.  But this novel stops short of any of the triumphs to come: Virginia is still trying to get book reviews accepted and does not begin writing her first novel until 1910; Lytton Strachey is unpublished; Leonard Woolf is a civil servant far away in Ceylon; Maynard Keynes is still not sure of what he wants to do; and Vanessa is admiring post-impressionist artworks but is yet to find her own style.

And for all her delight in unconventionality, Vanessa is pondering her own unmarried status.  At 26, she doesn’t want to risk spinsterhood and she hasn’t found the right man.  She feels responsible for Virginia too, likewise unattached at 23.  Any potential marriage of these stars of the coterie is also of keen interest to the men (mostly gay or bi) because the suitor must fit in.  ‘Postcards’ and ‘letters’ between Lytton and Leonard and others show their anxiety that the brilliant, artistic atmosphere of the Bloomsbury Set should not be sabotaged.

Against her better judgement, Vanessa falls in love.  She shares a love of art with Clive Bell, and she decides to marry him.  And that’s when Virginia’s possessiveness veers into dangerous territory.  She is an unstable personality, and at the time of this novel had already had one episode of mental illness (now thought to be bipolar disorder).  She goes after Clive, when what she really wants is Vanessa who has always been her touchstone but now seems to be abandoning her.  And Clive, for his part, is jealous of the baby that arrives within a year of the marriage…

Priya Parmar juggles Vanessa’s experience of tragedy and betrayal with her optimism, her pragmatism, and her changing sense of self.  The novel shows how trying it can be to live with a sister’s caprice, and how hard it is to vanquish bitterness.  But she also shows the impregnable bond between the sisters: Vanessa loves Virginia dearly, and feels responsible for her.  She makes decisions to protect herself, but when the crisis comes, she cares for Virginia despite the hurt.

Other aspects of the novel still resonate today.  Vanessa’s unexpected delight in motherhood is balanced by her discovery that small babies don’t fit in sparkling intellectual circles.

Elsie [the nurse] had a toothache so I left her here and took Julian to visit Virginia.  It was awful.  I held him and rocked him and bounced him, but he still fussed, and Virginia soon adopted a martyred expression. I walked him in slow blunt squares around the room. Virginia said I was making her dizzy.  Fortunately Clive called in for me and told Virginia amusing stories that gave her the opportunity to make witty and incisive observations.

I was left undisturbed to cope with Julian.  When he is uncomfortable I cannot keep my thoughts on the spinning conversational plates.  They get tossed my way and I let them crash to the ground. Finally Clive put me in a cab.  Best I went home alone.  Julian’s crying unsettles him anyway.  (p.169)

Vanessa is, of course, of that privileged class to have servants and a private income.  She has a nurse for the child, and she continues to paint.  They travel extensively, they make trips to the countryside and they are out and about in the cultural milieu of Edwardian England.  And so in the course of events she discovers that the man who became an advocate of modern art in Britain, Roger Fry, admires her painting, and that they share other attributes too…

All this is more or less common knowledge amongst devotees of the Bloomsbury Group, but Parmar brings it alive with a sensibility that is both authentic and contemporary.  Ignore the ludicrous cover design: trust me, Vanessa and Her Sister is not a soppy historical romance, it’s a wise, thoughtful, sparkling rendition of a life too often subsumed by the profile of others.

Author: Priya Parmar
Title: Vanessa and Her Sister
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2015
ISBN: 9781408850213
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ

Availability

Fishpond: Vanessa and Her Sister

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