Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 22, 2021

The Kindness of Birds, by Merlinda Bobis

Merlinda Bobis is an award winning Filipina-Australian writer who these days hails from Canberra.  A prolific author, she writes in Filipino and Bikol, and fortunately for us, also in English.

Amongst her Australian literary awards are

  • 2018 Highly Commended in the ACT Book of the Year for her poetry collection, Accidents of Composition;
  • 2016 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Locust Girl. A Lovesong, see my review;
  • 2013 MUBA: Fish-Hair Woman, see a Sensational Snippet here;
  • 2006 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for Banana Heart Summer; and
  • 2000 Steele Rudd Award for the Best Published Collection of Australian Short Stories: ‘White Turtle’

She has also won a swag of awards in the Philippines and elsewhere.  (See Wikipedia).

The Kindness of Birds is a collection of linked short stories, connected by common characters and the symbolism of birds.  It’s also the first book I’ve read that specifically addresses the pandemic and how kindness has nursed us through the difficult times. This is the blurb:

An oriole sings to a dying father. A bleeding-heart dove saves the day. A crow wakes a woman’s resolve. Owls help a boy endure isolation. Cockatoos attend the laying of the dead. Always there are birds in these linked stories that pay homage to kindness and the kinship among women and the planet. From Australia to the Philippines, across cultures and species, kindness inspires resilience amidst loss and grief. Being together ignites resistance against violence. We pull through in the company of others.

The Covid experience in Australia has been very different to the rest of the world.  But Bobis reminds us that even as we live a life that looks much like normal, our friends may have family far away where things are very different.  Nenita’s family is in the Philippines, where they are in ‘military lockdown.  Top guy says, “Shoot them dead”, those who violate it.’  ‘So different to here,’ sighs her husband Arvis…

‘Of course!’ she snaps. ‘Those who violate the lockdown there are often the most impoverished, desperate to leave their homes to find food for their families.’ (p.141)

(Remember the media furore because a wealthy middle-class young woman on L-plates was fined a token amount for breaching Melbourne’s lockdown because she wanted to practise her driving?)

In ‘Naming the Flowers’, set in 2017, Nenita has returned from burying her father in the Philippines where rituals are different, and the demands of life in Australia meant she had to fly back before the 40th day of his passing, the final celebration that will conclude the mourning ritual.  One of the saddest aspects of Covid around the world is that families have been denied mourning rituals and this is distressing no matter what cultural background they have.

I enjoyed ‘The Sleep of Apples’ in which Nenita travels round Tasmania with her friend Ella.  She goes to places I know, like the Apple Shed museum and the Wooden Boat Centre in the Huon Valley.  This trip, however, is about resolving an awkward relationship with an act of kindness.

There are moments of didacticism which mar the book a little.  Back in 2017 Nenita explains to her mother in the Philippines about Turnbull’s rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart—and her mother responds by noting the recognition of First Peoples in the Philippine Constitution.  And though this dialogue expresses the hurt, disappointment and anger that many people felt about the dismissal of the Statement, the episode registers more as a forced opportunity to teach the (Australian) reader a moral lesson.  The dying woman asks about the call for Australia’s Indigenous People to be recognised in the Constitution:

‘What—they’re not recognised?
‘No, it’s a continuous struggle for them.’
‘Thank God, our IPs here are recognised.’  In 1997 the state recognition and protection of the rights of 14 to 17 million Indigenous Peoples from 110 ethno-linguistic groups were mandated in the Philippine Constitution.’ (p.112)

The conversation goes on to explain about the content of the Statement, and why it’s necessary, and what should be done.  I understand, I think, why this episode is included.  Individual acts of kindness or pity are no substitute for justice or recognition of suffering, and a mother who’s always been interested in politics might possibly be interested in Australian affairs in her last days, but still, it’s an awkward scene…

In ‘Grandma Owl’ we see the difficulty of quarantine.  A grandmother takes her grandson for an extended holiday in her Philippines hometown, and their return is delayed first by a family wedding and then a typhoon.  Having missed two weeks of school, the boy then misses a further two weeks because of quarantine.  The boy understandably is fed up before long, and he wants to see his mother.  (I was a bit surprised to see this story set in self-isolation in the grandmother’s flat—I thought all arrivals had to be in hotel quarantine, especially if there was an infected person on the plane—but perhaps arrangements are different in the ACT?)

The cover design by Deb Snibson is stunning.

Author: Merlinda Bobis
Title: The Kindness of Birds
Cover design by Deb Snibson, MAPG
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781925950304, pbk., 256 pages
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

Chekhov’s Gooseberries by T. Shishmaryova (Wikipedia)

The fifth story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov. It is the second story in Chekhov’s ‘The Little Trilogy’, along with “The Man in the Case” and “About Love“.

Like the gooseberry itself, it’s a somewhat sour little story.  (But sour for a reason.)

Out for a walk, a high school teacher called Burkin and a vet called Ivan Ivanych get caught in the rain, and they take refuge at Alyohin’s.  It’s a working farm with a mill, and Alyohin who looks more like a professor or an artist than a gentleman farmer is pleased to take a break from his labour.  He offers his mud-soaked guests a change of clothes, and since he himself has not had a wash since spring (!) he joins them in the bathing-cabin, turning the water brown, and then after another lathering, it turns dark-blue, the colour of ink.  Ivan promptly dives into the river to cleanse himself and stays there for a good long while. Burkin isn’t bothered by the dirty water, foreshadowing his indifferent response to other murky matters.

Once inside the house, savouring the warmth, the cleanliness, the dry clothes and light footwear, not to mention the pretty chambermaid Pelageya bringing a tray with tea and jam, Ivan Ivanych tells a story.  It’s about his brother Nikolay and his long-held dream to own an estate and to farm gooseberries.

Although not from the landed gentry, these brothers had grown up on a small estate because their father rose from the rank of private to be an officer and a gentleman.  And though they lost their inheritance due to a lawsuit from creditors, Nikolay never lost his yearning to return to the land.  He worked for years as a clerk in a provincial branch of the Treasury and saved assiduously, even marrying an elderly widow he did not love because she had money.  He lived in a miserly way, keeping her half-starved, and he put her money in the bank in his own name. 

Money, like vodka, can do queer things to a man, and it never occurred to him to blame himself for her death.  And then, surprisingly, he used the money to buy unwisely…

Through an agent my brother bought a mortgaged estate of three hundred acres with a house, servants’ quarters, a park, but with no orchard, no gooseberry patch, no duck-pond. There was a stream but the water in it was the colour of coffee, for on one of its banks there was a brickyard and on the other a glue factory.  (p.316)

Undeterred, Nikolay planted his gooseberry bushes, and settled down to the life of a country gentleman. 

Did it make him happy?

Well, yes, but his brother is disgusted with him. He deplores Nikolay’s sloth, his self-indulgence, his pretensions, and the way he has forgotten his own humble beginnings and apes the life of the landed gentry.

Ivan Ivanych has decided opinions about the educated class being drawn to the land:

To retire from the city, from the struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s farm—that’s not life, it is selfishness, it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without works.  Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.  (p.315)

What is he on about??

Well, he’s on about excess, and in particular, about excess at the expense of others.  Chekhov was one of many impatient for reform in Tsarist Russia.  (I think perhaps that you need to see the palaces of St Petersburg for yourself to really understand how extravagant it was and how it failed utterly to make any of the reforms that had taken place in Britain and Europe.  Tsarist Russia was phenomenally wealthy. We visited a palace which was just one of four owned by the Yusopovs. No wonder Chekhov was angry).

Lying awake at night, Ivan Ivanych considers how many happy people there are. He despises their complacency.

Look at life! the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness. hypocrisy, lying— Yet in all the houses and on all the streets there is peace and quiet; of the fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one who would cry out, who would vent his indignation aloud.  We see the people who go to market, eat by day, sleep by night, who babble nonsense, marry, grow old, good-naturedly drag their dead to the cemetery, but we do not see or hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes.  (p.319)

He recognises complacency in himself, and wants to act.  He rails against those who say that reform must wait. He implores the younger Alyohin not to be lulled to sleep and not cease to do good. 

But Ivanych’s story fell on deaf ears.  As calls for reform did so too, elsewhere in Russia…

Why does Saunders include this story in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain?

Does he want his students to think about contemporary complacency about the inequities and injustice of the contemporary world?  Does he draw their attention to this line in the story?

…obviously the happy man is at ease only because the unhappy ones bear their burdens in silence, and if there were not this silence, happiness would be impossible.  (p.319)

Does he want them to break the silence with thoughtful writing that brings attention to the state of things today?  A 21st century version of The Grapes of Wrath perhaps?

Well, no.  He’s not teaching a course in moral philosophy, I guess…

But I am very surprised to see his interpretation of Ivan Ivanych’s pipe and how the smell of it bothers Burkin.  Saunders thinks this is Chekhov depicting Ivan Ivanych’s lack of consideration for others. He, the great moral thinker, says Saunders, hasn’t been ‘good enough’ to clean his pipe.

Isn’t it meant to symbolise that the stench of the misery Ivan Ivanych has been talking about isn’t going to go away? That even though Ivan Ivanych revelled in his swim, cleansing himself of the mud and muck of life, he could not forget it, and neither should we?

Author: Anton Chekhov
Title: ‘Gooseberries’, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders.
Translated from the Russian by Avrahm Yarmolinsky for The Portable Chekhov, Viking Penguin, 1947
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2021, first published 1898 in the August edition of the magazine Russkaya Mysl.
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

BTW Do not be misled by the Penguin Little Black Classics edition of Gooseberries, (ISBN: 9780141397092) which comes with two additional stories.  They may be terrific, they probably are, but they are not the two stories that make up the rest of the trilogy.

Image credit:

By Tatyana Shishmaryova –, Fair use,

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2021

Where the Water Ends, by Zoe Holman

This week—from Sunday 20 June to Saturday 26 June, 2021— is Refugee Week, founded by the Refugee Council of Australia in an effort to raise awareness about issues affecting refugees; to celebrate contributions made by refugees to Australian society; and to promote harmony and a sense of coming together because we all share a common humanity.  Some readers will remember that last year I posted a suggested reading list for Refugee Week and this year I could add two more to the fiction list (links are to my review):

and besides Where the Water Ends, which is the subject of this review, I could also add to the NF list:

As the uncompromising title suggests Where the Water Ends, Seeking refuge in Fortress Europe is a difficult book to read. Written by Australian journalist Zoe Holman it is a devastating portrayal of ‘the refugee problem’ in Europe, informed by personal testimonies that only the most stony-hearted could ignore.

This is the blurb:

Around the world, forced migration doubled in the decade leading up to 2020. At the same time, the borders of the European Union became the world’s deadliest frontier. More than 20,000 people have died or disappeared while attempting to enter the continent since the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

In Where the Water Ends, Zoe Holman traces the story of this frontier from the perspective of migrants from the Middle East to Greece, the cradle of European and ‘western’ civilisation, now itself marginalised within the EU and precariously hosting more than 150,000 refugees.

This is human history in the best sense. Through Holman’s account we see the intricate and complex daily, monthly and yearly challenges of those seeking, within or outside of ‘the system’, a future for themselves and their loved ones.

Where the Water Ends urges us to reflect on the lessons of the past, the isolationist spirit of the present, and the promises and failures of the international institutions and conventions we continue to rely on in our hope for a better future.

It’s the personal stories that reveal the stark misery of people stranded in limbo on the front line in Lesvos, Chios and Samos in Greece, a country still feeling the impact of the Global Financial Crisis and the ensuing austerity measures which of course impacted most heavily on the poor.  Yet even so, in the beginning, a sense of solidarity emerged with people all over Greece making donations and enabling the refugees to continue their onward journey to other countries in Europe.

But as Europe closed its borders like falling dominoes, and official organisations bailed out of the chaos, volunteers took over, and were promptly criticised for being unfair:

‘Buses were coming to take people to camps all over Greece, but we didn’t know what these camps were like,’ Eleni explains.  ‘So when they came to take them to places in nowhere land, I could not tell people to go or not to go because it was their free will.  I was just there to support them.  But when good camps opened in Athens, we started making lists of vulnerable people—women with children, sick people, old people—and based on those lists, buses were loaded with people from the port.’

Some other activists criticised this initiative by Eleni and her fellow volunteers—it was not right to make lists or priorities this person over that person, they said; it was segregation. (p.13)


Then, in 2016, in response to more than a million refugees arriving in Europe, along with mass drownings in the Aegean Sea, the EU negotiated a deal with Turkey to control departures from its coastal cities.  The deal was that ‘irregular arrivals’ to the Greek islands would be deported back to Turkey, in exchange for which, Europe would accept one Syrian refugee for every one that had been deported.  Turkey, which was then struggling to host about three million refugees, most of them fleeing from Syria, would also receive billions of European funds to improve the humanitarian situation for Syrian refugees in Turkey.  The deal was predicated on the belief that Turkey was a safe country, which it has turned out not to be for people deported back to conflict zones including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  And the camps on the Greek Islands turned into detention centres.

I need hardly say that Australia is not in any position to criticise Europe about its treatment of refugees.  What this book does for the Australian reader is to provide a sense of perspective.  When a small Greek island like Lesvos with a population of 27,000 has to deal with an influx of 10,000 asylum-seekers, the Australian preoccupation with keeping small numbers of refugees out seems bizarre.

However, there is one aspect of Australian attitudes to refugees that is largely to our credit.  With the advent of postwar migration, Australia got over an attachment to societal homogeneity a long time ago.  While there are still some rough edges and each new wave of migrants and refugees has triggered some redneck reactions, by and large Australians think of themselves as a multicultural nation and they recognise the contribution that cultural diversity has made.  While the rhetoric may vary, it’s bipartisan national policy too.  But that’s not the case in parts of Europe (or Japan).  They regard an influx of people from some other culture as an attack on their ‘Greekness’.  (Japan, well, words fail me*).  In taking issue with the way politicians use the language of crisis to justify what they do, Holman quotes Maria Doukakarou, coordinator of the Refugee Observatory, a research centre in Mytilene, who points to the issue of Greek identity.  She sees the situation as an opportunity for locals and refugees to integrate:

It is a litmus test for Greece, as she sees it—an opening through which to break free from customary discourses of homogeneity and nationhood.  (p.59)

We islanders here have the image of border keepers, the Digenes Akritas—we are highly praised for our Greekness and bear it at the highest level.’ she says.  ‘Sometimes I think of this concept as generational.  The generation before us internalised the idea, but for the current generation, I don’t know—can we still really afford to think of ourselves in this way?’ (p.60)

There are some lighter moments.  In a conversation about how extremists in the camps are demanding that women cover their hair…

Maybe it’s easier that way, the elder sister proposes—after all, her hair is such a mess these days from the lack of running water.  The two of them went for a coiffure in Turkey before getting on the boat to Lesvos last year, she tells us, to be fresh for their arrival in Europe.  But they got all wet from the sea while crossing and then didn’t have a chance to shower properly for a week.  The salt water interacted with the chemicals in the dye and their hair turned bright orange.  ‘What a disaster!’ she says, wiping away a tear of hilarity and tucking the scarf under her chin. (p.89)

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the issues raised by this book. There are anecdotes about selective empathy and a change in culture towards the problem.  There are stories about volunteers doing the work of governments for years, and burning out from exhaustion and disillusionment.  There are vignettes about people stranded in lives becalmed by a lack of action, by betrayal and by intolerance, xenophobia and sheer human bloody-mindedness.   When I felt exhausted by reading about this, I reminded myself that for people living it, exhaustion is a permanent condition.

I’ll leave the last word to Holman:

I look back down to the sea and wonder about dignity, about the abstract discourse of the right to it, and then about the reality of putting yourself in a mass-produced rubber boat and rendering yourself vulnerable—to smugglers, to water, to military and locals, to whatever set of hands might pull you out of the water or leave you to be washed up.  And I can’t conceive of how to factor dignity into the equation of deficits. (p.99)

*According to Japan’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), refugee status was granted to only 44 out of 10,375 asylum applications in 2019. This translated to an annual recognition rate of 0.42 per cent. Since 2012, the success rate of asylum applications has remained below 1 per cent.  See Rethinking Japan’s refugee and asylum policy (

Author: Zoe Holman
Title: Where the Water Ends, Seeking Refuge in Fortress Europe
Cover design by Peter Long
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2021
ISBN: 9780522876826, pbk., 300 pages
Review copy courtesy of MUP.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 19, 2021

Port Fairy Literary Weekend

I am sooooo excited!

As long as the Covid gods don’t intervene between now and next weekend, I am *actually* *going to* a literary weekend.  A real one, not digital!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thanks to a heads-up from Michelle Scott Tucker who’s presenting a session at the Port Fairy Literary Weekend on the Saturday, I have

  • Priority #1, without which nothing happens, booked a dog sitter
  • Priority #2, found a bed for the night
  • Priority #3, bought the tickets
  • Priority #4, invited The Spouse to find a nice restaurant for dinner on Saturday

This is the guest lineup:

The weekend is organised by the lovely people at Barney’s Books at 37 James Street, Port Fairy, Victoria 3284 phone: 5568 2174.

For those not in the know, Port Fairy is one of the most gorgeous places on the Victorian coast.  I love it all year round, but especially in winter when the waves are wild and the wind is strong but the tourists are somewhere else.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 19, 2021

Book Giveaway winner: Mer, by Samantha Amy Mansell

So, it’s time to draw the giveaway offer from the lovely people at the Grattan Street Press.  There are two winners of the short story collection called Mer, by debut author Samantha Amy Mansell.

This is the blurb:

Set in an ominous underwater world marred by human destruction, the stories in Mer unsettle traditional mermaid mythology – beyond gender, beyond beauty, beyond romance. In her debut collection, Australian author Samantha Amy Mansell weaves a series of evocative tales about vengeance, loss and the right to survive. Mer asks not what, but who, lurks in the deep, depicting the ongoing damage to marine ecology from the viewpoint of the threatened merfolk.

Hayley Singer, a prominent author and academic working in the field of ecofeminism and feminist animal studies, describes Mer as a collection of “watery fables for toxic times”. These bold experimental stories will appeal to readers who are:

  • Concerned with the alarming state of the climate catastrophe. Since 1995, the Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its corals due to climate change. The UN warns that if global temperatures continue rising at the rate they are, 90% of the world’s corals will be wiped out. Mer plunges the reader into the reality of this imminent crisis, describing reefs and oceans that are overfished, littered with plastic, and choking from the ash of raging fires. Evocative and shocking, Mer will force readers to rethink their relationship with the environment.
  • Disenfranchised by traditional gender binaries. Mer challenges the shell-bra-wearing mermaids and singing sirens of popular culture, and instead presents a cast of characters who subvert the traditional ideas of gender in mermaid mythology. In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel must give up her voice to be with her prince. Mer consciously gives back that voice.
  • Interested in experimental literary fiction. Composed of five compelling short stories, Mer comes as “a unique contribution to the terrain of contemporary ecological fiction” (Hayley Singer). It belongs to the Grattan Street Shorts series.

Samantha Amy Mansell is a Sydney-based editor and writer. She is passionate about intersectional feminism, bisexual representation in literature, and creating fantastical worlds. Mer is her first book.

There were six entries for the two copies so the odds were very good:

  1. Sarah Ross
  2. Sue from Whispering Gums
  3. Fay Kennedy
  4. Meredith at MsWriter3
  5. Liz Dorrington
  6. Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large

The numbers went into the random number generator at and up came No 4, and No 2.  Congratulations to Sue and to Meredith:).  I already have Sue’s postal address, but Meredith, you need to contact me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom before next Friday so that I can pass your postal address on to the publishers.

I hope you’re not getting sick of my current preoccupation with Russian short stories!  (I’m nearly finished my current novel, so there’ll be something different soon.)

The fourth story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is Master and Man, by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), first published in 1895. It’s a superb story.

The Russian Winter is a force to be reckoned with, but when there’s business to be done, Vasili Andreevich—who prides himself on being a self-made man—lets nothing stand in his way.  He’s done his duty as a church elder in respect of the fête on the day after St Nicholas’s Day, and he’s impatient to be off.  There’s a parcel of land in Goryachkin that he wants, and he’s been driving a hard bargain but now there are rivals for the grove and he needs to beat them to it.

So as soon as the feast was over, he took seven hundred rubles from his strong box, added to them two thousand three hundred rubles of church money he had in his keeping, so as to make the sum up to three thousand; carefully counted the notes, and having put them into his pocket-book, made haste to start. (p.165)

So we know from the third paragraph that he’s not exactly an honest man, and before long we also learn that he cheats his labourers and they can’t do anything about it.

His companion for the journey is the peasant Nikita.  Vasili’s wife timidly insists on it despite Vasili’s derisive, snappish, patronising response.  Maybe she knows he’s had a vodka or two, and perhaps she thinks Nikita, remorsefully sober now for two months and the only labourer not drunk that day, will be a deterrent to would-be thieves.  But Tolstoy spares us no detail in the contrast between the two men: Vasili has two fur-lined coats one over the other, sturdy boots and gloves, while Nikita has a miserable worn out cloth-coat over a frayed and torn short sheepskin leather gloves and patched felt boots.  This abysmal state of affairs is because on the last day before the fast, he had drunk his coat and leather boots, a disaster which is helping him to keep his vow to stay off the drink.

Still, he gets the sleigh ready and saddles the horse Mukhorty, a good-tempered, medium-sized bay stallion, with whom Nikita keeps up a cheerful chatter, speaking to the horse just as to someone who understood the words he was using. Nikita has flaws, but his affection for this animal establishes the contrast further. Nikita is  a good-natured, easy-going patient man not given to complaining.

He certainly needs that patience.  Vasili is the master, so he takes the reins, and he insists on taking ‘the short way’ although the road through Karamyshevo is better going, and before long as Nikita nods off beside him, Vasili has got himself lost.  It is Nikita who has to get out of the sleigh to feel for the stakes which mark out the road, and it is he who who gets snow into his boots in places where it is knee-deep. It is his common sense that gets them back onto a road, though not the one they wanted, and they end up in Grishkino, four miles from where they want to be.

Do they stop? No, they do not.  Vasili insists that they keep going, the weather worsens, and he once again fails to take note of the way marks and they get lost again, and worse than before.  This time there is no road to be found despite Nikita searching for it in the snow, but once again Nikita saves the day by taking the reins and letting the horse take its own way.  Murkhorty leads them back to Grishkino.

This time, at least, Vasili agrees to take comfort at a welcoming household, which means vodka for Vasili and a long wait for a cup of tea to thaw poor Nikita., bravely sticking to his vow of temperance

But do they stay the night?  No, they do not.  Vasili prides himself on his indefatigable nature, so they set off again. And this leads to several sharp-intake-of-breath moments as the ruthless Russian Winter has its way…

Tolstoy by this time in his life was Christian in his beliefs, and his portrayal of these two men in extremis shows his faith in redemption and resurrection.  It’s a very powerful story which the unexpected ending does nothing to dispel.

This story is available in a Penguin Classics edition with other stories by Tolstoy, ISBN 9780140449624. It has Notes by Paul Foote, and an Introduction by  Hugh McLean but you can probably find it for free at Gutenberg.

Image credit: Tolstoy in 1897, by F. W. Taylor – Public Domain,


Why does Saunders include this story in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain?

Re-reading what I’ve written above, I realised that I did not actually care. But I read him, dutifully, and can tell you that the chapter ‘And yet they drove on’ focuses on ‘causation’ i.e. writing the cause and effect aspects of the story, linking the various facts that contribute to the reader drawing conclusions not just about why something happens but about the characters.  ‘Escalation’—incidents which make the stakes higher—is a technique adds to what we call narrative drive, though he doesn’t use that term.

The next story is another by Chekhov.  It’s called ‘Gooseberries’…

Author: Leo Tolstoy
Title: ‘Master and Man’, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders.
Translated from the Russian by Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude for Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, 1967
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2021, first published in the No.1, 1899, issue of Semya (Family) magazine, Moscow
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Image credit:

Anton Chekhov: By V. Chekhovskii, Moscow – Christie’s, LotFinder: entry 5140875, Public Domain,

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2021

2021 ALS Gold Medal for Australian Literature shortlist

Congratulations to the six authors shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal for Australian Literature—but I haven’t read any of them!

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott, on my TBR

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson, on my #IndigLitWeek TBR

The Adversary by Ronnie Scott

Throat, by Ellen van Neerven,

The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay and

Cadaver Dog by Luke Best


The winner will be announced on 20th July at the triennial Literary Studies Convention.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2021

Now That I See You, by Emma Batchelor (2021 Vogel winner)

If anything in this review raises issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue.

Sometimes, when we enter into a relationship, we don’t really understand that it will change us in ways we didn’t expect.  New parents, for example, at first often don’t fully realise that they haven’t just had to change their lifestyle, but that having a child changes them and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives.  Most of these transformations are No Big Deal; they are the stuff of ordinary life.  Others are more difficult: Amanda Lohrey’s novel Labyrinth, for example, explores the impact on the mother of a man who has committed a heinous crime.  She is devastated by what he did to his victims, yet she still loves him so she wants to support him through his guilt and shame and anguish.  But her life is ruined too, and she has to change her ways of thinking and behaving.  That journey to find some solace is depicted with great empathy, (and the novel has just been shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin Award).

But what if the relationship that brings you joy and comfort and a sense of security alters beyond recognition and makes demands of you that you struggle to adapt to?  That alters everything, that challenges your own sense of self?  In a stunning work of autofiction, ACT author Emma Batchelor has won the 2021 Vogel Prize with her novel Now That I See You, which traces her own real-life journey to come to terms with her partner’s transition from male to female.

Without diminishing the intensity of the transition process for the person undertaking it, what the novel shows is that this transition is very difficult for everyone in the circle of lovers, family and friends.  No one can have sole ownership of its implications.

Narrated in the first-person, the journey is scaffolded through Emma’s journals, emails and letters in a collage of three parts: Us (Discovery; and Aftershock); Them (Build-up; Suspension; and After); and Me (Now; and Possibility).  Each of these three parts begins by revisiting in the third person the earlier stages of their relationship—the awkwardness of first meeting, negotiating those precious first  moments of intimacy and learning to be a couple. Emma and Jess have been together for six years, but the story tells how over 18 months from Jess’s disclosure to transition, the relationship crumbles under the strain and impacts on the mental health of them both.

Emma, who works in theatre management, is almost thirty, and contented in her relationship with Jess.  They share many interests in common, and they are buying a home together.  And then there is an awkwardness between them, and small signs that something is different.  When Jess finally articulates that he feels more comfortable in women’s clothing, Emma thinks she can accommodate this, and they have fun together in private at home.  She shares her clothes and teaches him how to do make-up and how to paint his nails.  She realises that she needs to educate herself about this situation and invests a lot of time in reading up about what it might mean for both of them.  But because he isn’t ready to tell anyone else, it has to be a secret, and it’s not in Emma’s nature to be secretive.  It’s hard for her when she can’t explore with anyone else the doubts she has about herself and how she is handling the discovery that he is not who she thought he was.  And she begins to grieve for the future that isn’t going to be what she expected.

What makes everything harder for her is that she loves him and that she wants to maintain the relationship.  She wants to be his lover and his companion in whatever the future brings.  But he is struggling with decisions and uncertainties too, and neither of them know how to manage the disintegration of their relationship without hurting the other.

It’s hard to read a story so raw and emotional, yet I could not put it down.  Although the author has been careful to avoid telling Jess’s story, one can’t help feeling their mutual pain.  I found myself wondering at Emma’s ability to keep going at work when her mental health was at breaking point.  And yet there’s a cautious sense of optimism that young people are so much more open to gender fluidity and transitions than previous generations have been, and the raw honesty of this book can only help to raise awareness  about it.

There are funny moments too.  Emma gets herself in a tangle with pronouns, and her weakness for animals leads to Mrs Rat doing some persistent nest-building in the garden with predictable results.  Like the author in real life, she is fixated on clothes, especially vintage fashion, and she self-medicates with chilli hot chocolate.  For all her flaws, about which she is ruthlessly open, she is an engaging character.

Now That I See You could have been a painfully narcissistic work, but it’s not.  As Vogel judge Stephen Romei says in the press release, the novel is…

…a masterclass in exploring why and how we become who we are and what that means for the people closest to us.  This is a novel about love—of others and of self—and wants and needs and urges.  The lovers at its centre have their own particular challenges, but deep down they could be any couple.

Author:  Emma Batchelor
Title: Now That I See You
Cover artwork: Oda Valle, design by Sandy Cull
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760879761, pbk., 206 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Time for another title from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die!

The Bridge on the Drina, by Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andrić (1892-1975), is also listed on ‘The World’s Required Reading List at TEDEd‘ compiled from books assigned to students around the world, and I’ve also seen it reviewed at the Global Literature in Libraries blog (where, in 2017, I promised to move it up the TBR where it has been waiting patiently since 2010).

As 1001 Books says, it’s more a chronicle than a novel, organised into vignettes describing the life of the local population in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its transformations over the centuries. It’s also rather a melancholy experience to read it, because the metaphor of the bridge as a symbol of coexistence, as depicted in the front cover image by Wiktor Sadowski, collapses under the weight of recent history.

(I wouldn’t be the only Australian who didn’t know where Bosnia was until the Bosnian War (1992-95) erupted.  But I learned fast.  In the 1990s I taught refugee Bosnian children who had fled dreadful experiences, and long afterwards I was still having to deal with unacceptable hostilities towards them from Serbian children in the playground.)

Mehmed-paša Sokolović (Wikipedia)

The book begins with the building of the bridge during the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, and ends with World War I, when it was partially destroyed.  For three centuries the bridge is cherished by the villagers as a gift of Mehmed-paša Sokolović, the Grand Vezir, a man who—in forced tribute to the Sultan—was taken as a boy from his Christian family, forced to convert to Islam, given a Turkish name, and served three Sultans during his lifetime.  When he rose to great power in the Sultan’s court, he sought to assuage the pain that had never left him, by building a magnificent bridge in his homeland.

The Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina River, ca. 1900

Designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, the bridge was a marvel of engineering and until the funding for it ran out in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, it boasted a caravanserai (a roadside inn) as a focal point for drinking and gossiping.  But the building of it was fraught with tension, and Andrić does not spare the reader the violence that was used on the hapless forced labourers who built it.  Legends of children walled up inside it are remembered along with the gruesome torture and death of a man thought to be a saboteur.

Andrić’s genius lies in his brilliant juxtapositions of humanity at its best and its worst.  There is a story about a man whose high ambitions for his beautiful daughter are compromised by his own vanity.  She, unable to contemplate a marriage beneath her yet unable to defy the father she loves, throws herself off the bridge after the ceremony so that she can be true to herself and yet not humiliate him.

Peasants and shopkeepers alike, can be wily and foolish, diligent and lazy, or clever and ignorant.  They work hard and prosper, or they gamble away everything they have.  There is a great of intemperate drinking, and a general lack of enthusiasm for change.  As the years roll by, they weather new imperial ambitions culminating in the Austro-Hungarian Occupation, accommodating some impositions but struggling with others.

In truth the peasants too found it hard to grow accustomed to the railway.  They made use of it, but could not feel at ease with it and could not understand its ways and habits.  They would come down from the mountains at the first crack of dawn, reaching the town about sunrise, and by the time they reached the first shops they would begin asking everyone they met:

‘Has the machine gone?’

‘By your life and health, neighbour, it has gone long ago,’ the idle shopkeepers lied heartlessly.

‘Really gone?’

‘No matter.  There’ll be another tomorrow.’

They asked everyone without stopping for a moment, hurrying onwards and shouting at their wives and children who lagged behind.

They arrived at the station running.  One of the railwaymen reassured them and told them that they had been misinformed and there were still three good hours before the departure of the train.  Then they recovered their breath and sat down along the walls of the station buildings, took out their breakfasts, ate them, and chatted or dozed, but remained continually alert.  Whenever they heard the whistle of some goods engine they would leap to their feet and bundle up their things together, shouting:

‘Get up! Here comes the machine!’

The station official on the platform cursed them and drove them out again:

‘Didn’t I just tell you that it was more than three hours before the train comes?  What are you rushing for?  Have you taken leave of your senses?’

They went back to their old places and sat down once more, but still suspicious and distrustful. (pp. 213-4)

But though the pages flow easily through the centuries, like an evil thread, the tensions between Christians, Muslims and Jews erupt from time to time.  And the story ends with the assassination of the Crown Prince as the catalyst for the destruction of the bridge, summarised best at Wikipedia:

In June 1914, Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, setting off a chain of events that lead to the outbreak of World War I. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia, and the local authorities begin to incite Višegrad’s non-Serb population against the town’s Serb residents. The bridge with the old road to Sarajevo suddenly regains its importance, as the railway line is not adequate to transport all the materiel and soldiers who are preparing to attack Serbia in the autumn of 1914. Austria-Hungary’s invasion is swiftly repulsed and the Serbians advance across the Drina, prompting the Austro-Hungarians to evacuate Višegrad and destroy portions of the bridge.

The partially destroyed Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, 1915

Ivo Andrić’s Nobel Prize citation reads “for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country”, and indeed, that is just what Andrić does in this unforgettable story.

PS I forgot to say… this book was recommended to me by the late Tom Cunliffe, from A Common Reader.  Tom was a great source of recommendations and there are still books on my TBR, thanks to him.  He was also my source for books to give my late father for birthdays and Christmas, and my father, to whom the Internet remained a wondrous mystery to the end of his life, used to marvel at this unknown man who was so good at helping me to find just the right books.  Vale, Tom, you are sadly missed.

Image credit:

Author: Ivo Andrić
Title: The Bridge on the Drina
Translated by Lovett F. Edwards
Front cover image by Wiktor Sadowski, design by Joan Sommers
Introduction by William H. McNeill
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 1977, first published 1945
ISBN: 9780226020457, pbk., 314 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2021

WA Premier’s Book Awards shortlists

Thanks to Amanda Curtin for the heads-up: these are the  WA Premier’s Book Awards shortlists…

(These are the 2020 awards I think, even though now it’s 2021.)

The Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer ($15,000)

The Premier’s Prize for Writing for Children ($15,000)

  • How to Make a Bird – Written by Meg McKinlay and Illustrated by Matt Ottley (Walker Books Australia)
  • Littlelight by Kelly Canby (Fremantle Press)
  • Shirley Purdie: My Story, Ngaginybe Jarragbe by Shirley Purdie (Magabala Books)
  • Across The Risen Sea by Bren MacDibble (Allen & Unwin)
  • Willy-willy Wagtail: Tales from the Bush Mob by Helen Milroy (Magabala Books)

The Daisy Utemorrah Award for Unpublished Indigenous Junior and YA ($15,000 and a publishing contract with Magabala Books)

  • Home is Calling – Natasha Leslie
  • Dirran – Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler

The Western Australian Writer’s Fellowship ($60,000)

I am glad I’m not on the judging panel for this fellowship… I know the works of four of these five authors and I could not possibly choose between them!

The full press release from the State Library of Western Australia here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2021

Reconstruction: Australia After COVID, by John Edwards

Everything and anything to do with C_19 is a moving feast, so this Penguin Special is both timely and doomed to be out of date in no time.  Still, it’s well worth reading if you care about the state of nation…

According to their About Page, The Lowy Institute is an independent, nonpartisan international policy think tank located in Sydney, Australia. It is Australia’s leading think tank, providing high-quality research and distinctive perspectives on the international trends shaping Australia and the world. John Edwards, author of this paper, is a Senior Fellow with expertise in Australian economic policy; monetary policy; international economics; and banking.  (He’s also an author, publishing a two-volume biography of Australia’s wartime prime minister, John Curtin’s War amongst other things. That one is on The Spouse’s TBR.  Yes, he has one too, nearly as unmanageable as mine.)

Part 1 ‘Before the Pandemic’ begins by revisiting the economic shocks of 2020.  The durability of the long Australian boom was unique amongst wealthy nations.  Nearly two-thirds of Australians had no experience of a recession; almost half were not born or not resident in Australia during the last recession in 1991.  But in 2020 joblessness and government debt soared, and many had to get by on reduced incomes.  And although the alarming early predictions have turned out to be overblown, and there are signs that Australia can regain its former prosperity, there is still a need to reduce unemployment, manage government debt and navigate through the US-China competition in order to sustain our commercial and strategic interests.

Contrary to popular belief, in 2019 mining, farming and manufacturing accounted for only one job in eight.  The other seven were in services. Australia does not depend on mines and farms and factories, but on the quality of the education of its workers, in their access to technology, in their ambitions. Also contrary to popular opinion, is that in 2013 Australian investment offshore exceeded foreign investment in Australia, suggesting that one day Australia’s total assets offshore would exceed foreign-owned assets in Australia. 

By 2019, Australia was busier, better educated, more productive and wealthier.  There were a lot more Australians, and they were more diverse and more engaged in the world beyond Australia. […] With little of the resentment and antagonism evident elsewhere, Australia’s population had become considerably more diverse.  In 2019 migrants from England were still the biggest group of foreign-born living in Australia, but they were nearly matched by migrants from mainland China and India.  (p.13)

However, over the long boom, Australia became less equal, though this decline had been arrested in the decade before C_19, and bad though it is, it’s not as bad as the disparity in comparable countries.  Surprisingly (to me), stagnant wages as an issue are dismissed as not as big as it appeared and probably did not show that owners of capital were appropriating an unfair share of productivity growth.  Edwards assigns the cause of wage stagnation to a ‘productivity slowdown’ already occurring in 2019 in some sectors of the economy.  The reasons were not clear, and they were not uniform across all industries.

The causes of the productivity slowdown were unlikely to include the level or structure of tax in Australia, or the structure of industrial relations, both of which had the same shape in 2019 as they had in the decade before the slowdown. (p.19)

It seems to me that it’s important to know this because the charlatans in government never cease plotting to ‘reform’ these aspects of our economy, and unions are always having to fight them off.  And this is why it’s important to read small, helpful books like this that are in user-friendly language.  We need to know when we are being conned over ‘reforms’ that are not actually going to fix the productivity problem, which is taking place amid a growing trade war with China, in a global economy that is slowing down anyway.

And here’s another interesting thing, in Part 2 ‘The Pandemic’ which covers The Human Cost, The Economic Impact and After the Pandemic:

Much of the discussion of the discord between China and the United States supposed that America was a declining power, soon to be overtaken by China as a rising power.  In important respects these suppositions were wrong.  The United States was not declining, and while China was certainly rising and was already the world’s second biggest national economy, there was not assurance it could overtake the United States — or that it would much matter if it did. (p.38)

As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I read the Australian Foreign Affairs journal which while not alarmist, has a strong focus (as it should) on the state of affairs with China, and somehow, I found this comment from Edwards curiously reassuring.

And here’s an astonishing thing:

Two months before the WHO announced the novel virus, a new Global Health Security Index ranked countries by their preparedness for a major disease outbreak.  Published by a public health unit at Johns Hopkins University and The Economist Intelligence Unit, the index ranked the United States as the best prepared of the 195 nations surveyed.  Given that the United States spent 17% of GDP on health, and was the biggest, richest and most advanced economy in the world, that ranking was as expected.  The United Kingdom with its widely admired National Health Service was number two.  China came in at 51 of the 195 surveyed.  Mali was 147th. (p.35)

The expression ‘egg on their faces’ comes to mind only it’s not funny.  I was in a torment of anxiety about family in the UK.  I felt sick hearing the number of deaths in the US and I don’t even know anybody who lives there.  And as time went by ordinary people like me began to identify the root causes of the catastrophe unfolding in these countries, so I’m not really surprised to see them identified in Edwards’ book:

What really mattered, the world discovered, was not advanced medical care, top quality hospitals or advanced science.  What mattered was the quality of political leadership, prior experience of epidemics, community consent and compliance with unusual restrictions, mass testing, isolation of active cases, social distancing and, if necessary, lockdowns.  What mattered in constraining infections and deaths were simple things, guided by public health science and effected promptly.  (p.56)

(Which is why, IMO, those media outlets trying to sabotage compliance in lockdowns by emphasising minority disaffection, are utterly despicable.  It’s relevant here to note that by January 2021, 1.9 million people had died around the world, and there had been 90 million cases worldwide.)


In Australia, elections have been fought and lost on the issue of government debt, so it’s worth explaining here for the non-economists among us, why using it to enable economic recovery is a smart thing to do.

… so long as the interest rate on government bonds was less than the growth rate of the economy, ‘public debt may have no fiscal cost.’ Any specified level of debt would fall as a share of GDP over time because the growth rate of the debt was the bond rate, which was less than the growth rate of GDP. (p.61)

So when politicians and pundits are trying to score points about this, rate them on whether they are talking about the gap between the interest rate and the growth of the economy which is what determines the ratio of debt to national income, or the total eye-watering amount.  If the latter, either they don’t know what they are talking about, or they do but are hoping you don’t.   And you should judge them accordingly…

The other thing we all need to remember when the media swamps us with Tales of Lockdown Woe, most of the Australian workforce kept working.  The segment of the economy that suffered centred on discretionary retail such as clothing and furniture, local and foreign travel, and sports, entertainment and the arts. Very hard on those working in those sectors, but the often unreported fact is that there was a huge increase in household saving. And unlike falls in household consumption during other recessions caused by financial crises etc, this fall in spending was caused by restrictions in consumer movement.  Which means that the economy bounces back as soon as we start spending those savings again.

However, even though Australia has weathered the pandemic better than anyone had hoped for, unemployment could still be around 6% by the end of 2021, and recovery depends in part on recovery in the countries we trade with.  Again, contrary to what was expected, it was the wealthy countries that suffered the greatest economic damage—the US, UK and Western Europe.

With its opening line most countries are through the worst of the pandemic, Part 3, ‘After the pandemic’ looks a little wobbly now.  Published just three months ago in March, Edwards was not to know about the catastrophic Covid variants worldwide nor that Australia’s vaccination program would be a debacle.  The virus hasn’t finished with us yet.

There is no one to blame because the economic distress was the necessary consequence of curbing the infection.  No nation found a way of suppressing the virus without suppressing economic activity.  If they chose not to suppress the infection, they paid later.  

It seems that the longer the pandemic lasts, the more Australia is going to need very careful economic management based on first principles and not political expedience or adhering to foreign expectations and demands.  Australia has to maintain its juggling act between China and the US.  They may be rivals, but Australia has already made its choices, and long ago.  Our region which includes its largest member China, is the economic community to which we belong, while our choice of the US as defence ally is integral to our territorial independence and freedom of action.  However things play out between them, it is likely that…

… the economic relationship between Australia will deepen in the coming decades as the incomes of hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers reach advanced economy levels.  Higher exports to China will be driven by China’s increasing demand for a more varied and expensive diet, better health care services, competitive funds management, tourism, English language tertiary education, sports and entertainment, and offshore assets.  Australia is well placed to compete in all these markets.  Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, too, will become more integral in a regional economy with China at its core.  Australia’s stance towards the US-China competition must therefore be informed by a recognition that what injures China’s prosperity injures Australia’s prosperity. (p.110)

Unlike in previous downturns, recovery from the economic consequences of the pandemic is mostly attainable.  But what I take from reading this book is that the predictions of a different, fairer kind of economy as a consequence of the pandemic were ‘pie in the sky’.  I remember an ABC reporter confidently predicting that the government would never be able to restore child care fees—and restoration of those fees were one of the first ‘adjustments’ made…

Author: John Edwards
Title: Reconstruction: Australia after COVID, a Lowy Institute Paper
Publisher: Penguin Specials, Penguin Random House, 2021
ISBN: 9781761042775, pbk., 130 pages (not counting Endnotes and Acknowledgements)
Source: personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Sandringham, $12.99


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2021

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

The 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist was announced today.  I’m pleased to see that The Labyrinth is still in the running. 

  • Amnesty by Aravind Adiga, see my review
  • The Rain Heron was Robbie Arnott, on my TBR
  • At the Edge of the Solid World by Daniel Davis Wood
  • The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey see my review
  • Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos
  • The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

Find out more here. I’m off to bed with a book…

Anton Pavlovich Chekov (1860-1904) (Wikipedia)

The third story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is The Darling, by Anton Chekhov.

The Darling is the kind of story that would get a male writer ‘cancelled’ today.  It’s about a woman without a mind of her own.

However, let’s not be hasty.  This woman, who parrots the opinions of the males in her life because she doesn’t have any opinions of her own, is smart enough to be an indispensable part of two husbands’ businesses, in very different fields.  When Olenka marries Kukin, who runs a theatre called The Tivoli, she presided over the box office, looked after things in the summer garden, kept accounts and paid salaries; and her rosy cheeks, the radiance of her sweet artless smile showed now in the box office window, now in the wings of the theatre, now at the buffet. When she marries the timber merchant Pustovalov, he works in the lumberyard until dinnertime, then he went out on business and was replaced by Olenka, who stayed in the office till evening, making out bills and seeing that orders were shipped.  (She masters the vocabulary of lumber too: beam, log, batten, plank, box board, lath, scantling, slab.)

Clearly this adaptable, versatile, hard-working woman is wasted in her third relationship, which is with a married vet.  This means that she can’t be an indispensable helpmeet and her habit of parroting his opinions soon reveals the state of their relationship to everybody.  If ever a story revealed the stupidity of denying women a meaningful place in society where they could enjoy equal rights, The Darling is it.  A copy of this one should be sent to all those patriarchs in the Middle East without delay.

What the story also shows is that, after a long period of mourning, she is suddenly revitalised by the arrival of the vet back in her life, along with wife and son.  Now she attaches herself to the son, smothering him a bit it must be said, but guess what… when she helps him with his schoolwork, she begins the same journey towards education.  And lo! she begins to have a mind of her own.  Just in time, it must also be said, because the son rejects her motherliness, and an empty nest is looming.

Incidentally, the translation is a bit painful in parts.  The word ‘scram’ just doesn’t belong in 19th century Russian fiction.

Why does Saunders include this story in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain?

Well, the previous story featured male protagonists, and In the Cart was more about the miserable life of a schoolteacher in Imperial Russia than about its female protagonist, so perhaps he wanted to say something about the depiction of women in fiction?  He uses only four authors for the seven stories in this book: they are all great writers but they are all male.  Assuming that the course he teaches has to be confined to great Russian writers of the 19th century, I wonder why there is not one by a woman.  Yes, I know, there are no names that spring immediately to mind, but still, Wikipedia has a list of Russian women short story writers that’s long enough to stop me surfing through it to see if any wrote in that era. (I’ve read Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, but that’s a novel.  Not much of her work has been translated and I can’t tell from WP whether any of it is short stories.)

However, I visited the Russian Fiction and Lit catalogue at Columbia University Press to explore further, and found A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt.  Although it’s poetry and prose rather than short stories, I ordered it, resisting—probably only temporarily—some other very enticing titles.  Perhaps Saunders could ask these publishers who specialise in lesser-known Russians if they could help him out? It does look terribly old-fashioned to teach a whole course without any women writers included…

(As with my previous posts, I have written about my response to the story before reading his.  From here on, I’m responding to his chapter ‘A Pattern Story’.)

Hmm.  As the title suggests, Saunders is on about patterns in writing, as in the repetition of events that we recognise in those fairy stories about three sons seeking their fortunes.  (I used to discuss these patterns in storytelling with my Year 1 & 2 library classes, so I hope that for students in the US this is not really a startling revelation).   The Darling, he says has the ‘baseline pattern’: a woman falls in love and that love comes to an end.  This pattern occurs three times with a variation in the fourth time with the boy.  He teaches the story as a brisk little primer on just how much organisation the story form can bear and will reward. He has charts and diagrams to elucidate this.

Saunders is quite confident that the story is not ‘about women’, it’s about a woman who’s an anomaly, he says.  It’s a story, he says, which asks whether her way of loving is positive and exceptional or peculiar and regrettable, a rare, saintly quality or a stunted, obnoxious one. He thinks that the central protagonist could just as easily have been a man who derives his identity from the one he loves.  Really?? *sigh*

Author: Anton Chekhov
Title: ‘The Darling’, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders.
Translated from the Russian by Avrahm Yarmolinsky for The Portable Chekhov, Viking Penguin, 1947
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2021, first published in the No.1, 1899, issue of Semya (Family) magazine, Moscow
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Image credit:

Anton Chekhov: By V. Chekhovskii, Moscow – Christie’s, LotFinder: entry 5140875, Public Domain,

Yakov the Turk Is Singing. The illustration for Singers by Boris Kustodiev. 1908 (Wikipedia)

The second story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (see my review) is ‘The Singers’ by Ivan Turgenev (1818-1893).  It comes from an 1852 collection of short stories called A Sportsman’s Sketches also translated as A Sportsman’s NotebookThe Hunting Sketches and Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.  According to Wikipedia, this collection was a milestone of Russian realism, and it made Turgenev’s name.

When I read Fathers and Sons, I was very taken by the characterisation of the young idealist Bazarov and in the comments below my review you can see where I admired the way Turgenev uses dialogue to differentiate his characters.  There is not much dialogue, however, in this most engaging short story about a singing competition in a remote rural pub.  Instead, it is Turgenev’s powers of description which impel the reader on.

Plunging into the story reproduced in Saunders’ book without an introduction or any context, it’s not immediately obvious who the unnamed narrator is and why he is roaming about in the vicinity of Kolotovka, a small and cheerless village. But within a couple of pages we have learned that he’s an observant outsider, (which is apparently an element of the Russian realist tradition where the narrator is usually an uncommitted observer of the people he meets.)  However, he passes by regularly enough to be acquainted with some of the drinkers at the Cosy Corner pub, and to make some judgements about them.  He’s a gentleman well-educated enough to have ‘readers’ and even if we didn’t have Wikipedia, we could guess that he’s either a journalist or that he’s writing a newsy letter for educated people at home, who’re going to read it en famille as people did in those days.  He explains his reasons for being in such a dismal place by saying that he’s a sportsman who goes everywhere.  Since he’s pursuing this sport alone out in the middle of nowhere this is enough to identify him as a hunter, (though some of us would dispute that shooting animals is any kind of sport.)

Outside, the narrator witnesses an excited exchange between two patrons of the pub.  Booby exhorts Blinker to hurry up because everyone is waiting: there is Yashka the Turk, the Wild Gentleman, and the contractor from Zhizdra.  (The contractor is not named, not even with an intriguing nickname although Russians are past-masters at giving nicknames.) The excitement is because Yashka and the contractor have made a bet: they’ve wagered a quart of beer to see who wins.

So in this remote rural outpost, with nothing to commend it, an extraordinary cultural moment takes place—a singing competition between the local hero and a challenger from a nearby village.  These two men bring the pub to awed silence as they listen with rapt attention. Though the audience consists only of the chubby publican and his sharp-eyed wife; a mysterious but threadbare Tartar, swarthy with a leaden hue; a dissolute former house-serf with no job and no money but has the knack of sponging on others; an enterprising former serf respected for his cunning; and a ragged peasant—they are expert judges of singing.

[The contractor] evidently felt that he was dealing with experts and that was why he simply put his best leg forward, as the saying goes.  And, indeed, in our part of the country people are good judges of singing, and it is not for nothing that the large village of Sergeyevskoye, on the Oryol Highway, is renowned throughout all Russia for its especially agreeable and harmonious singing.

The contractor sang for a long time without arousing any particular enthusiasm in his hearers; he missed the support of a choir; at last, after one particularly successful transition, which made even the Wild Gentleman smile, Booby could not restrain himself and uttered a cry of delight. (p.75)

The sophistication of their appreciation, however, is quickly undercut by crude exclamations of approval, stamping and dancing about. The narrator is wryly amused:

Encouraged by these signs of general satisfaction, the contractor let himself go in good earnest and went off into such flourishes, such tongue-clickings and drummings, such frantic throat play, that when, at last exhausted, pale, and bathed in hot perspiration, he threw himself back and let out a last dying note, a loud burst of general exclamation was the instantaneous response of his audience. (p. 75)

How does Yashka counter this technical prowess?  With a genuine deep passion, and youthfulness and strength and sweetness, and a sort of charmingly careless, mournful grief.  

A warmhearted, truthful Russian soul rang and breathed in it and fairly clutched you by the heart, clutched straight at your Russian heartstrings.  The song expanded and went flowing on.  Yashka was evidently overcome by ecstasy: he was no longer diffident; he gave himself up entirely to his feeling of happiness; his voice no longer trembled—it quivered, but with the barely perceptible inner quivering of passion which pierces like an arrow into the hearer’s soul… (p.77)

The moment dissipates with the last notes of the song and, not wanting to spoil his favourable impression of the moment, the narrator finds a hayloft to sleep away the heat and fatigue.  He is saddened (but obviously not surprised) to find when he wakes at nightfall that the company is dead drunk.

I was charmed by this story, and found myself wishing—even though I’m not fond of short stories as a form—that I knew of more authors of short stories who could offer similar vignettes of Australian life. The only stories I can think of are in collections I really liked: Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox and Stories from Suburban Road; both by T A G Hungerford; and ‘The Kid’, by Katharine Susannah Prichard from 1907.

But I don’t think they would be published today, they’re not ‘edgy’ enough…

Why does Saunders include this story in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain?

(As with my previous post, I wrote about my response to the story before reading his.)

It’s a disappointing chapter.  We have already learned from the Introduction that only the very best of hundreds of applicants get into this course, so I was astonished to see that they were discombobulated by what they and he refer to as digressions.  Did someone in this exalted company really say ‘It’s so slow.  Does Turgenev really have to tell us everything about everyone? 

I hope not.  I hope this is just Saunders adding local colour to his ramblings.  Because ramble he does, ironically in a chapter which includes this:

…if, later, we see that this was all part of the plan—if what seemed a failure of craft turns out to be integral to the story’s meaning (that is, it seems that ‘he meant to do that’)—then all is forgiven… (p.83)

Saunders gives his students an optional assignment to cut the story by 20% so that it’s more like the modern aesthetic.  (Less Turgenev, more Hemingway?) Well, I suppose he’s not teaching them to be readers of 19th century literature, he’s teaching them to write stuff that will get published, and they will have to learn to edit.  But still, the effect would be like a Readers’ Digest version of Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations.  19th century literature has a beauty all its own, and all it takes is a bit of effort to appreciate it.

To be fair, Saunders does acknowledge that the story is about the power of art to move an audience, and that technique isn’t everything.  But really, for him to patronise Turgenev with his ‘forgive the story and all its faults’ while claiming to fall in love with it, just made me cross. That’s a chasm of arrogance as wide as the ravine which centres the story, a story which yawns like a chasm between the wealthy educated people who were reading it, and the simple folk who populate its pages.

Author: Ivan Turgenev
Title: ‘The Singers’, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders.
Translated from the Russian by David Magarshack for First Love and Other Tales, Norton, 1968
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2021, first published in A Sportsman’s Sketches a.k.a. A Sportsman’s NotebookThe Hunting Sketches and Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, 1852
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Image credits: Yakov the Turk Is Singing. The illustration for Singers by Boris Kustodiev. 1908, by Boris Kustodiev – Scanned from: Пищулин Ю.П. (1988) Иван Сергеевич Тургенев. Жизнь. Искусство. Время, Moscow: Советская Россия, p. 155, Public Domain,

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2021

Aflame, by Subhash Jaireth

There are three parts to this slim volume from Subhash Jaireth. The first is a prose piece called ‘Moscow—1974: Oratorio in Two Voices’.  This is a curious title because an oratorio has a large cast of orchestra, choir and soloists, but unlike an opera it’s performed without costumes or scenery.  This prose oratorio seems to be a lament for a very special friendship.

In brief half page episodes, the reader discovers Moscow under the Soviets,  when one could have a casual conversation with someone who had driven his tank all the way to Berlin, when a nurse sharing a photo could reveal that one of the people in it was killed aged 19 by a roadside mine.  Where one might play a violin polonaise by Schubert on a tram and receive a carnation in thanks.  Where Kuznetskii Most, is recalled as the street where Mayakovskii begged the fallen horse to get on its feet.  

Vladimir Mayakovskii, Triumphal Square, Moscow (Source: Izi Travel)*

(Which sends me on a Google search about this futurist poet, discovering a monumental piece of Soviet statuary to Mayakovskii erected despite his conflicted relationship with the Soviets, and probably carved from the rubble of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral demolished by the Soviets in 1931.  (Since rebuilt.  The Spouse and I visited it when we were in Russia in 2012).  I also found an excruciating translation of the poem about the horse!)

Where this couple are afflicted by the same sickness the name of which is ChagallWhere the famous Tsar-Kolokol bell, forever silent, leads one voice to say:

We are damaged like the bell, you say, and point to the large bronzy wound gaping at us without mercy or remorse.

The Gift of Friendship (1906) by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (Wikipedia)

This is a meeting of the minds, such a rare and special phenomenon when it happens… a gift of friendship referenced in an allusion to a painting by the Lithuanian painter, composer and writer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis. This section concludes with a resolution to say no more.

No compulsion to remember or forget.  Let the unsaid remain unasked, untranslated, untouched.

The next part consists of improvisations on the theme of ageing, ignited by Japanese Haiku.  TBH, haiku rarely moves me.  This one, by Kobayashi Issa, is in a piece entitled ‘Ngambri (Black Mountain), Walking with Kobayashi Issa’s Snail:

o snail
ever so slowly climb
Mount Fuji.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it doesn’t strike me as in any way profound that a snail would take a while to climb Japan’s highest mountain.  But Jaireth is a poet and he responds to it with finesse, making something of it that had eluded me: he climbs Black Mountain in Canberra, a mere pimple on a flat landscape yet he walks it slowly, like the way I read a poem I want to love.  He does this too with another seemingly banal haiku in ‘Bardo of Becoming’:

Walk barefoot, he says, my friend, a proud barkindji man.  Walk like mugga, the snake or bunuring, the lizard.  Walk as if you are your feet, and your feet your ears to hear the land whisper to you and your forebears who live in you.  Walk to clear the way for your children to walk hoping in them you’ll find a niche to endure.

I liked ‘Bardo of Dying’ too, for its poignant memory of walking in a crowded bazaar clutching his mother’s hand, a walk replaced as their roles were reversed, now holding her skinny arm helping her walk on the street in the hot summer night watched by an indifferent moon hidden behind dust.  

Despite the allusions that pervade these pieces, they are quintessentially Australian.  ‘Banksia Ericifolia: A Vase’ begins like this:

The banksia, yes, the banksia in the garden is as old as I am, although I am not sure if it feels like me the weight of time sitting like a jokey-gnome whipping me to carry it along for how long only it, the devil, knows.

‘Sarah with Flaming Auburn Hair’ is a poignant vignette evoking one who relies on another to nudge his mind to find the words he has lost his way to. 

Aflame concludes with poetry dedicated to Tibetan monks, alluding to the self-immolation protests against the incorporation of Tibet into China.  These poems begin with anguish that it’s not possible relinquish the hatred, and nightmarish memories rise to a crescendo when the harvest brings soldiers / in lorries with red flags / guns bullets and bombs. He hears his mother’s voice telling him to let go the fear / the fear you fear and / it will set you free /of me and of your / mind muddles / like the muddy water / agitated   anxious   unquiet.

But he can’t let go, he can’t.  And though he chants the Buddhist mantras, and he carves a Buddha praying in silence / to receive just a morsel / of compassion for the soldier, his eyes remain aflame with hate. Like a noose around his neck, his hatred festers and he can’t forgive.   These poems conclude with the horror of self-immolation.

I’m enchanted, BTW, by the logo for the Life Before Man poetry imprint at Gazebo books.  I collect fossils, and I have a trilobite in my collection, and that’s the image for this imprint.  Trilobites had eyes…they had vision.

Author: Subhash Jaireth
Title: Aflame
Cover image: detail from Bait, 2019 by Phil Day
Publisher: Life Before Man, Gazebo Books, 2021
ISBN: 9780648901167, pbk., 134 pages (unnumbered)
Review copy courtesy of the author

Aflame is available from the publisher’s website, here and good bookshops everywhere.

*Image credits:

Illustration of Chekhov’s ‘In the Cart’ by Alexander Petrowitsch Apsit c.1903

Chekhov’s ‘The Schoolmistress’ also translated as ‘In the Cart’ is the first of the stories referenced by author George Saunders in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.  Since I prefer novels, I had never read the Chekhov story but I arced up immediately when I saw that Saunders’ instructions were to read the story a page at a time and reflect on what it is that makes a reader want to continue reading.  Even if I were a student in his course, that is not how I would have read it, approaching it with my mind as a blank slate, as it were.  When I was a university student I had always read the books beforehand during the school holidays.  There was no virtue in this: I was a mother, a full-time teacher, a volunteer at the Surf Life Saving Club and a home renovator, and it was prudent to have read coursework in advance in case Life Got in The Way during the academic year.  (Usually because I was so desperately well-organised, it did not, so I read each book twice, which made me a better, happier student.)

And anyway, that is not how Chekhov wanted anyone to read his story.  Let those who want to write short stories dissect them in this artificial way, (and to be fair, they are the audience for this book), it’s not for me.

I much prefer the title translated as ‘In the Cart’.  Yes, the story is about a lonely schoolmistress and her travails but the entire story takes place as Marya Vassilyevna travels in a cart to collect her meagre salary.  The circular nature of this journey in the cart captures the drudgery of bumping over poor roads that others with money have the capacity to improve, but the journey is going nowhere—just as Marya is going nowhere in a dreary life that she can’t escape.  According to Wikipedia, this story captures the dire state of education in Imperial Russia and the joyless existence of teachers marooned in rural areas.

The highroad was dry, a lovely April sun was shining warmly, but the snow was still lying in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, dark, long, and spiteful, was hardly over; spring had come all of a sudden. But neither the warmth nor the languid transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flocks of birds flying over the huge puddles that were like lakes, nor the marvelous fathomless sky, into which it seemed one would have gone away so joyfully, presented anything new or interesting to Marya Vassilyevna who was sitting in the cart. For thirteen years she had been schoolmistress, and there was no reckoning how many times during all those years she had been to the town for her salary; and whether it were spring as now, or a rainy autumn evening, or winter, it was all the same to her, and she always—invariably—longed for one thing only, to get to the end of her journey as quickly as could be.

She felt as though she had been living in that part of the country for ages and ages, for a hundred years, and it seemed to her that she knew every stone, every tree on the road from the town to her school. Her past was here, her present was here, and she could imagine no other future than the school, the road to the town and back again, and again the school and again the road….

On the way she is overtaken by a neighbouring landowner called Hanov in a carriage with four horses, a man who could very easily spend the money to improve the road, but as his carriage squeezes the cart into the worst of the verge, he isn’t much inconvenienced by it.  He doesn’t take anything seriously.  Although he’s only a landowner, i.e. with no educational expertise, he is an examiner for the exams which cause her so much anxiety.  The previous year he had breezed into her classroom in a most disconcerting way:

This Hanov, a man of forty with a listless expression and a face that showed signs of wear, was beginning to look old, but was still handsome and admired by women. He lived in his big homestead alone, and was not in the service; and people used to say of him that he did nothing at home but walk up and down the room whistling, or play chess with his old footman. People said, too, that he drank heavily. And indeed at the examination the year before the very papers he brought with him smelt of wine and scent. He had been dressed all in new clothes on that occasion, and Marya Vassilyevna thought him very attractive, and all the while she sat beside him she had felt embarrassed. She was accustomed to see frigid and sensible examiners at the school, while this one did not remember a single prayer, or know what to ask questions about, and was exceedingly courteous and delicate, giving nothing but the highest marks.

Like women not just in Imperial Russia but all over the world in that era, Marya sees marriage as her only escape from the misery of her existence.  Any hopes she ever had vanished in her childhood when her parents died, and she is estranged from her brother who ceased correspondence with her some years ago.  That she fantasises briefly about marrying a man as flawed as Honov is a measure of her desperation; but that she dismisses these thoughts about him so easily is also a measure of her wisdom.  It’s not just that it’s socially impossible, it’s also because he’s a fool.

As you can see in the illustration by Alexander Petrowitsch Apsit, where she is pictured having tea in the tavern, she is utterly alone, and would be the subject of ridicule had not Semyon, the driver of the cart, intervened:

A little pock-marked man with a black beard, who was quite drunk, was suddenly surprised by something and began using bad language.
“What are you swearing at, you there?” Semyon, who was sitting some way off, responded angrily. “Don’t you see the young lady?”
“The young lady!” someone mimicked in another corner.
“Swinish crow!”
“We meant nothing…” said the little man in confusion. “I beg your pardon. We pay with our money and the young lady with hers. Good-morning!”
“Good-morning,” answered the schoolmistress.
“And we thank you most feelingly.”
Marya Vassilyevna drank her tea with satisfaction, and she, too, began turning red like the peasants, and fell to thinking again about firewood, about the watchman….
“Stay, old man,” she heard from the next table, “it’s the schoolmistress from Vyazovye…. We know her; she’s a good young lady.”
“She’s all right!”
The swing-door was continually banging, some coming in, others going out. Marya Vassilyevna sat on, thinking all the time of the same things, while the concertina went on playing and playing. The patches of sunshine had been on the floor, then they passed to the counter, to the wall, and disappeared altogether; so by the sun it was past midday. The peasants at the next table were getting ready to go. The little man, somewhat unsteadily, went up to Marya Vassilyevna and held out his hand to her; following his example, the others shook hands, too, at parting, and went out one after another, and the swing-door squeaked and slammed nine times.

It is achingly sad, not least because Marya doesn’t react.  She is used to this kind of taunting, and by turning red like the peasants she becomes one of them, suggesting that her social status has not much further to fall.

So, what does Saunders make of this story?

Well, the most amusing thing he says is this:

One of the features of this page-at-a-time exercise: the better the story, the more curious the reader is to find out what’s going to happen and the more annoying the exercise is. (p.15)

I bet it is!

Anyway, amongst other things, he talks about the call-and-response nature of structure as being more useful to writers than ‘theme’, ‘plot’, ‘character development’:

We might think of structure as simply: an organisational scheme that allows the story to answer a question it has caused its reader to ask.

Me, at the end of the first page: ‘Poor Marya.  I already sort of care about her.  How did she get here?’

Story, in the first paragraph of its second page, ‘Well, she had some bad luck.’ (p.17)

(You either like Saunders’ chatty style, deliberately banal here… or not.  For me, it wears thin after a while and seems like unnecessary padding.)

I think, and not just from this chapter’s placement as first in the book, that this is from early in the course he teaches.  And if you’re an experienced reader, you can quickly move on.

Author: Anton Chekhov
Title: ‘The Schoolmistress’ also translated as ‘In the Cart’ in The Takes of Chekhov, Vol 9
Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett
Publisher: Project Gutenberg, 2006, first published 1897, and (slightly revised) included in Volume 9 of Chekhov’s Collected Works published by Adolf Marks in 1899–1901
Free download here.

Image credit: Illustration by Alexander Petrowitsch Apsit –, Public Domain,

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 12, 2021

Book Giveaway: Mer, by Samantha Amy Mansell

Just in time to cheer readers fed up with a burst of rather bleak weather, comes a generous giveaway offer from the lovely people at the Grattan Street Press.  There are two copies of a short story collection called Mer, by debut author Samantha Amy Mansell up for grabs.

You’ve read about Grattan Street Press here before.  It’s an initiative of the University of Melbourne’s Publishing and Communications program in the School of Culture and Communication.  (I think that’s what we used to call the Faculty of Arts). Grattan Street Press is a start-up trade publisher based in Melbourne, and is staffed by graduate students, who receive hands-on experience of every aspect of the publishing process.  Bill at The Australian Legend has reviewed Ellen Davitt’s Force and Fraud, (1865), republished by Grattan Street in 2017 as part of their Colonial Australian Popular Fiction project to re-publish culturally valuable works that are out of print.  From the same collection, I’ve also got An Australian Girl in London by Louise Mack (2018, first published in1902), on the TBR.

But they also publish contemporary works, such as their most recent release, Mer, by Samantha Amy Mansell.  This is the blurb:

Set in an ominous underwater world marred by human destruction, the stories in Mer unsettle traditional mermaid mythology – beyond gender, beyond beauty, beyond romance. In her debut collection, Australian author Samantha Amy Mansell weaves a series of evocative tales about vengeance, loss and the right to survive. Mer asks not what, but who, lurks in the deep, depicting the ongoing damage to marine ecology from the viewpoint of the threatened merfolk.

Hayley Singer, a prominent author and academic working in the field of ecofeminism and feminist animal studies, describes Mer as a collection of “watery fables for toxic times”. These bold experimental stories will appeal to readers who are:

  • Concerned with the alarming state of the climate catastrophe. Since 1995, the Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its corals due to climate change. The UN warns that if global temperatures continue rising at the rate they are, 90% of the world’s corals will be wiped out. Mer plunges the reader into the reality of this imminent crisis, describing reefs and oceans that are overfished, littered with plastic, and choking from the ash of raging fires. Evocative and shocking, Mer will force readers to rethink their relationship with the environment.
  • Disenfranchised by traditional gender binaries. Mer challenges the shell-bra-wearing mermaids and singing sirens of popular culture, and instead presents a cast of characters who subvert the traditional ideas of gender in mermaid mythology. In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel must give up her voice to be with her prince. Mer consciously gives back that voice.
  • Interested in experimental literary fiction. Composed of five compelling short stories, Mer comes as “a unique contribution to the terrain of contemporary ecological fiction” (Hayley Singer). It belongs to the Grattan Street Shorts series.

Samantha Amy Mansell is a Sydney-based editor and writer. She is passionate about intersectional feminism, bisexual representation in literature, and creating fantastical worlds. Mer is her first book.


Interested? Please add your name to the comments below, and I’ll draw the winners at the end of next week.  All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner. (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met). Your postal address will be forwarded to the publisher who will then send you the book.

Good luck everybody!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 12, 2021

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

Although this book is marketed as a ‘literary masterclass’ derived from George Saunders years of teaching the Russian short story in a creative writing program, I’ve put it into my ‘literary criticism’ category, because that’s how this book is useful to me as a reader.  As the blurb says:

Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.

Everyone’s a book critic these days, but as I discovered early on in my reading life, the more interesting books sometimes use narrative in unfamiliar ways, and the peril lies in making judgements about a book without understanding the writer’s purpose or even recognising the craft.  Saunders’ analysis of the techniques these Russian writers use is particularly useful when it comes to making sense of a work like Gogol’s The Nose.

As you can see from what purports to be my review, I had only a vague idea of what Gogol was on about in his strange tale about Major Kovaliov waking up one morning to find that his nose is missing.  But in the chapter ‘The Door to the Truth Might Be Strangeness, Thoughts on The Nose‘, Saunders begins by interrogating how stories can be true.  A story can seem true because it depicts a world that seems true, with details of weather and wind or aspects of setting.  Or it might be that the sequence of events seems true because characters behave as one might expect them to after certain events take place, such as blaming someone else for getting lost.  But, he reminds us, realism isn’t really real: stories are compressed and exaggerated, with crazy levels of selection and omission and shaping going on.  Nevertheless many writers use what is called ‘consensus reality’, to write stories where things happen roughly as they do in the real world; the mode limits itself to what usually happens, to what’s physically possible.

But a story can also be truthful if it declines consensus reality—if things happen in it that don’t and could never happen in the real world. (p.275)

Even the most bizarre of stories can be truthful if…

…it is truthful in the way that it reacts to itself, in the way it responds to its premise, in the way it proceeds—by how things change within it, the contours of its internal logic, the relationships between its elements. (p.275)

In the case of Gogol’s The Nose, Saunders says, the story feels truthful because the psychological physics of the fictive world are felt to be similar to the psychological physics of our own.  By which he means that it feels psychologically ‘right’.

While I am not likely to use the expression psychological physics of the fictive world in future reviews, I can see exactly what he means in his highly amusing analysis of Gogol’s story.  He notes that the barber Ivan Yakovlevich is dumbfounded when he finds a nose in his breakfast bread, as we would be.  His wife, Praskovya Osipovna, however, is quick to accuse him of cutting it off a client’s face, and yes, we are quick to find someone to blame, aren’t we?  In the real world, Ivan would react by demanding to know why she thinks he would do such a thing, and why would he put it in the dough, and why she didn’t notice it.  But he doesn’t do this in Gogol’s world because he accepts her logic.  If something disastrous has happened, he must be the one who did it. 

Saunders goes on to describe the ensuing sequence of events as Multiple Superimposed Weirdness Syndrome.

Initial weirdness: a nose appears in a loaf of bread. Second-level weirdness: the couple reacts irrationally to the nose’s presence in the bread. Third-level weirdness: because they’ve reacted irrationally, they make an odd plan in response (ditch the nose),  Fourth-level weirdness: Ivan executes the plan badly; he can’t get the job done because he approaches it with too much apprehension and because the world he finds out there is inflected with a slight, ornery hostility toward him: a constant flow of acquaintances and a street thick with policemen, or at least two of them in as many pages.  (p.278)


One more level of weirdness crops up when the narrator tells us that Ivan is a respectable man and then goes on to undercut his own statement.  In other words, The Nose has an unreliable narrator.  And what I would love to have known when I read The Nose for the first time was that it features a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration called skaz. The skaz narrator is uneducated, graceless, and has no idea how to develop an argument.  He rambles and digresses and gives equal weight to the trivial and the important.  So when in my review I wrote that I’d thought I had been reading a draft or a posthumous unfinished story and (as I’m sure you can tell) I was not entirely convinced that Gogol knew what he was doing when he revised his story, I was wrong.  The Nose isn’t vulgar, as those who initially rejected the story thought.  It’s a great writer writing a graceless narrator, who is too convinced of his own smartness to notice the strangeness of the story he’s telling.

(BTW, if by now you have realised that you just have to have read the story, all the stories Saunders dissects are included in translation in the book. The other stories are ‘In the Cart’; ‘Gooseberries’ and ‘The Darling’ by Anton Chekhov; ‘The Singers’ by Ivan Turgenev; ‘Master and Man’ and ‘Aloysha the Pot’ by Leo Tolstoy.)

This skaz tradition challenges the idea that narrators are what we tend to think they are: the disinterested, objective, third-person-omniscient narrator does not exist.

Since all narration is misnarration, Gogol says, let us misnarrate joyfully. (p.280)

Gogol is often described as an absurdist, and so he is, but he’s also a realist in the way that he depicts people not noticing when things are absurd.  Richard Flanagan does the exact same thing in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. His character keeps losing body parts, and nobody notices.  In exactly the same way that we don’t notice the species becoming extinct on our watch and the advent of catastrophic climate change.

There is much more to A Swim in a Pond in the Rain than this.  If you are serious about being a writer, it’s a useful addition to your professional library.  If you’re just a reader like me, I think you’ll love it too.

(The interesting thing for me is that I couldn’t abide George Saunder’s Booker Prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo and abandoned it at 50 pages!)

Author: George Saunders
Title: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life
Publisher:  Bloomsbury, 2021
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


Mebet, by Russian author Alexander Grigorenko, is a parable that interrogates belief in a higher power, set in an exotic location. It takes place in the frozen landscapes of  Siberia, and its central character is a Nenet hunter of the taiga.  (Home to bears and reindeer, the taiga is the forested part of sub Arctic Russia; the tundra is what is often called the frozen wastelands because of the absence of water).

Written in two parts, this short work of fiction tells the story of Mebet, a man so favoured by luck, that he succeeds in everything he does.  Nicknamed ‘The Gods’ Favourite’ because he is impervious to harm or grief, Mebet saunters through life without a care in the world and any respect for the ancient laws and traditions of his clan.  It is not until death beckons that he learns that his luck was indeed due to the favouritism of The Mother, and that other gods are vying for control of his life and death.  (These gods are like Greek gods: capricious, jealous, selfish and utterly unconcerned about the welfare of the creatures they’ve created on Earth).  Part Two takes the form of Mebet’s quest to get back from the realms of the dead to his wife and surviving grandson. With his pride and arrogance chastened by a new understanding and concern for what will befall his family, he undergoes various trials representing the people he has wronged throughout his life.

The book is about Mebet, but although this is a mythic tale and should be read accordingly, many women, I think, will read it with disdain for the way of life depicted. There’s a lot of claptrap at Wikipedia which deplores the impact of Soviet collectivisation destroying the Nenets’ way of life.  Well, there is not much IMO about such traditional cultures worth preserving because they entrench male privilege and hypermasculinity.  Under the Soviets children got an education they’d never had access to before, and women had opportunities denied them in their traditional way of life.  Men suddenly had to do work which they considered beneath them because it was ‘women’s work’, and they felt so miffed about this that they took up heavy drinking as consolation, which meant that jobs offered by the Soviet government mostly went to women.  Reading this at Wikipedia reminded me of the very different take on Soviet collectivisation in Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C Hayden,  Based on the real life experience of the author’s grandmother in Siberia—Zuleikha was unequivocal about the way women had their lives transformed when collectivisation rescued them from lives where they’d had no agency of their own.

Brutality against women is certainly depicted in Mebet.  He kills with impunity in a number of situations, but the decapitation of the One-Eyed Witch is particularly gruesome. But it’s in everyday life that women come off very badly in the culture depicted. The usual method of acquiring a wife is, apparently, to steal one from another clan, and this is okay as long as a suitable bride-price is subsequently handed over.  Mebet’s son feels humiliated because his own attempt at abduction fails and his father has to do it for him, so he rapes his bride.  Getting beaten is part of daily life for women, which is otherwise filled with endless work and hardship.  And while they were probably glad to see the back of such husbands when they disappeared for long periods of time to hunt, this meant for Mebet’s wife that she gave birth alone.  Most of her children died in infancy.  And should her husband get mauled by a bear or die in some other way, then her only option was to hope that some family would take her in as unpaid labour, though her children would only ever be foster-children, with no hope of inheritance or prospects of a good marriage.

Although Part Two has dramatic moments and Mebet does come to realise that heartlessness has a price, there isn’t any indication that a loving and respectful relationship is in the offing for his wife Yadne.

Christopher Culver’s translation seems flawless.  This scene is from just before Mebet’s downfall:

The day was a marvellous one.  The sun shone on the snow.  No wind blew to trouble the world, to blur the clear and distinct shadows, dark-blue, of the trees, the man, his dog, and the defeated bear. Light came pouring down, just as joy flooded into Mebet’s heart.  A thought came to him, a particularly amusing one: to hold the bear feast right there.  For him alone.  There was no need to seek out his peers to arrange wrestling, archery competitions, reindeer races, jumping over sleds, or other silly entertainments.  After all, Mebet had never had true peers even before.  There was no need for esteemed and venerable elders with whom the victorious hunters, triumphantly and in full view of the others, would dine on the bear’s head, for Mebet himself was both hunter and elder.

Let there be, he thought, only three guests, three witnesses: the sun, the taiga and the shadows.  The Gods’ Favourite would perform for them his victory dance, and then he would haul the bear’s head away.  (p.91)

Mebet was interesting reading for its portrayal of a different way of life, but the existential aspects of Part Two seemed a little confused to me.

Author: Alexander Grigorenko
Title: Mebet (Мэбэт)
Cover design by Max Mendor
Translated from the Russian by Christopher Culver
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2020, first published 2013
ISBN: 9781912894901, pbk., 174 pages
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 7, 2021

The Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Henriette Roosenburg

When I was a child, I read The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. I remember it vividly as the story of four children making their way across the ravaged landscapes of postwar Europe to find their parents.  Now, more than half a century later, reading Henriette Roosenburg’s gripping memoir of her postwar journey home to Holland from the Waldheim camp in Germany, I feel the same sense of awe at the human courage and indefatigable quest for home that pervades the book.

First published in 1957, and now reissued by Scribe Publications, The Walls Came Tumbling Down begins with an Introduction to set the context and introduce the four companions who were liberated by the Soviet Army from the Waldheim Concentration Camp in May 1945.  They were three young women who were members of the Dutch resistance, caught by the Gestapo and sentenced to death—Nell; Joke (pronounced Yokuh); the narrator Henriette Roosenburg codenamed ‘Zip’; and Dries, a merchant seaman caught trying to escape to Britain in 1944 and also sentenced to death.  All four were members of the Nacht and Nebel (‘Night and Fog’) group of political prisoners (NNs) who were treated more harshly than any others and whose whereabouts were always obscured in order to magnify the deterrent against resistance.  This Introduction includes a remarkably restrained description of their brutal treatment and the ways in which they managed to communicate despite solitary confinement.  Although at all times Roosenburg understates the horror, the narrative also includes a sobering explanation of the (strictly forbidden) embroidery that they did, using needles stolen when they were forced to mend uniforms and socks for the German army,

From the very beginning, I also managed to hold onto a square linen handkerchief of my father’s that I happened to have when I was caught.  As time went on, this piece of linen became more and more valuable, for as I passed through each prison I embroidered in small characters the name, my cell number, and dates, plus in a half circle around them, the song we associated with that particular jail, and some microscopic drawings of the things that happened to us.  (p.9)

So, for example, when they were at a prison near Aachen in September 1944, ‘Zip’ embroidered a crude drawing of a gun (in field-grey thread pulled out of uniforms I was supposed to mend) to convey the fact that we heard what we thought was Allied gunfire.  

The Introduction concludes with the harrowing ten days when the liberation of the camp was imminent and they did not know if the rumour was true that they would be executed beforehand as ordered by Himmler.  (It was true, and in the dying days of the war that order was indeed carried out in other camps.)

The memoir then begins with the group’s freedom, though it was a circumscribed freedom.  Despite their yearning for home and their desperate anxiety to know the fate of their families, they could not just set off for Holland.  With millions of displaced persons (DPs) and slave labourers throughout Europe, there were constraints against movement, both official and practical.  Transport was chaotic or non-existent; airfields and bridges had been destroyed; and debris blocked roads and river crossings (even if a vehicle or boat could be found).  Because of the Nazi policy of concealing the existence of the NNs, they were all undocumented so they had no identity papers, which were essential when the Allies were keen to round up any Nazis and their sympathisers.  To make matters worse for the Dutch DPs, the Nazi blockade of Holland caused the 1944-45 famine known as the Hongerwinter, and although the Allies were flying mercy missions and organising relief operations, they deferred repatriation until the famine was brought under control.  The camp inmates were also in perilous health and very weak.  With their tormentors gone, camp inmates raided the kitchens and stores in the camp but…

The following days brought the full realisation that, although we were free, the prison was still our only home, and that no arrangements had been made by the conquering armies to take us back to our own homes some four hundred miles away.  It was a cruel disappointment, especially to Nell, who had had visions of flagged Red Cross buses that would drive us triumphantly through a defeated Germany, stopping every two hours or so for succulent meals to be served by humiliated Nazis.

Instead we were left to shift for ourselves. (p.45)

The qualities that made these women of the Resistance invaluable served them well in terms of ‘shifting for themselves’.  ‘Zip’ was resourceful, resilient and optimistic, and she was a quick thinker able to take advantage of whatever opportunities came their way. She had also learned to master her demeanour when deceptions were necessary; she was an accomplished thief; and she had an intolerance for rules.  The solidarity of these prison companions was entrenched: they were loyal to each other though thick and thin, and as they made their way across the blasted landscape where everyone was hungry, they shared everything even when it was desperately little.

Roosenburg is frank about her hatred of Germans but was able to recognise that they were not as individuals all vile perpetrators of evil.  She was also well aware of the threat of Russian rape but recounts numerous examples of their help and kindness.  She also recognises how ‘childlike’ they were: many of the Russian soldiers were illiterate country folk struggling with a Babel of languages in a situation beyond anyone’s experience or comprehension.

The tone of this memoir is upbeat, and surprisingly amusing.  The joy of freedom and her delight in being able to take independent action after their long captivity pervades each chapter. Roosenburg doesn’t labour their sufferings but rather portrays each difficulty as merely a hurdle to be overcome.  She does, however, have brief moments of self-doubt about deceiving kind people or officials who might face disciplinary action for helping them:

…as I settled myself comfortably on the steel springs of my bed, I wondered sleepily whether the captain had really been taken in or whether this had been his way of giving us a chance that he could not officially allow.  Rather regretfully, I decided that the former was more probably true, for he had signed his name and rank and used official stamps, which he would have tried to avoid if he were playing our game.  But my conscience wasn’t strong enough to keep me awake.  I turned over, and in a few minutes was sound asleep.  (p. 237)

The Afterword by Sonja Van ‘t Hof, and translated by Laura Vroomen, goes into more detail about Roosenburg’s life after liberation, her Resistance activities, the success of the memoir and how it came to be forgotten until now.   As she says, the book

…is a thrilling adventure with women in the unexpected leading roles.  It is also a historical document that provides a glimpse of the chaos in Germany immediately after the end of the war. (p.275)

Highly recommended.

About the author, from the Scribe website:

Henriette Roosenburg (1916–1972), known as ‘Zip’, was part of the Dutch resistance during World War II, collecting news for the underground press and helping maintain an escape route for crashed Allied pilots. After being arrested in 1944 and condemned to death, she survived internment in a Gestapo prison in Germany before being liberated by the Russian army in May 1945. After the war, she emigrated to the United States, and started to work for Life Magazine. She wrote the first draft of what would later become The Walls Came Tumbling Down for The New Yorker.

Henriette Roosenburg died aged only 56 in France.  You can read her obituary at the New York Times.

Author: Henriette Roosenburg
Title: The Walls Came Tumbling Down
Afterword by Sonja Van t’ Hof, translated by Laura Vroomen
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2021, first published in 1957
ISBN: 9781922310156, pbk., 304 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Older Posts »