Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 18, 2017

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

From disappointment to elation! The 2017 Booker shortlist has its shortcomings (and I found the winner unreadable, abandoning it at page 62) but the inclusion of Elmet has brought a stunning new novelist to our attention. Fiona Mozley, says the blurb

… grew up in York and went to King’s College Cambridge, after which she lived in Buenos Aires and London.  She is studying for a PhD in medieval history.

That awareness of Britain’s long history feeds into a novel that has a very modern preoccupation.

This was where the men met if they wanted work.  There was little to had around here.  The jobs had gone twenty years ago or more.  There was just a couple of warehouses where you could get work shifting boxes into vans.  At Christmas-time there were more boxes and more vans but still not enough.  There were jobs here and there for women: hairdressing jobs, nannying jobs, shop-assistant jobs, cleaning jobs, teaching-assistant jobs if you had an education.  But if you were a man and you wanted odd jobs or seasonal farm work this was where you met.  (p. 151)

All these men are on welfare, but they need these odd jobs because as we all know, the dole is enough to scrape by on, but not enough to cover contingencies, disasters, replacement clothes and household items or the occasional luxury such as a packet of cigarettes or a drink at the pub.  These are the people left behind by globalisation.  The people represented here of necessity live a frugal life and because school has nothing to offer their children, the poverty is intergenerational, and it isolates the young people.

Yes Mozley shows us that in some ways, this life can be rich and satisfying, and that love within families is the keystone…

As the quotation from Ted Hughes tells us at the very beginning of the novel, Elmet is the ancient name of

… the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and originally stretched out over the vale of York… But even into the seventeenth century this narrow cleft and its side-gunnels, under the glaciated moors, were still a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.

Daniel the teenage narrator, his older sister Cathy, and his father live in the house that Daddy has built himself in a copse, one that was coppiced long before they appropriated the land.  I didn’t understand the significance of this until the verb was used again and I took the trouble to look it up. This video shows what it means to coppice a wood and why it matters:

The copse is a metaphor for the cycle of regeneration and home.  There is a beautifully tender scene where Daddy – a giant of man who lives by his fists – insists on moving the woodpile log by log in case there are animals who have made their home under it, and …

Sure enough, Daddy picked up a big old log and a little hedgehog blinked in amazement against the daylight before rolling itself up into a tight ball and presenting its bristles.  Daddy picked up the creature carefully in his massive leathery hands and carried it to safety. (p.168)

Surrounded by nature and living mostly on what the land produces, this family is contented enough.  That is, until the man on whose land their house is built comes by.  This novel wears its politics upfront: all the landowners – and Price is the richest and the meanest of them all – already have more than they could ever need and yet they squeeze the workers mercilessly.  Cause trouble and not only will you never work again, but you – and all your family and connections – will be evicted from the home you have on his land.

The sense of menace grows after Price’s visit.  His sons come by.  They are handsome and smart, and keenly aware that their mere presence is a threat and to Cathy in particular.  Daddy is one of many who’d like to take that man down a peg or two and he sends his children to do a day’s work, to find out what they can.  Against the odds, perhaps because there was some hope in her words, Cathy convinces some of the men to make contact with their father so that a small rebellion can be sparked.

The lawlessness that lies at the heart of this novel is a metaphor for the way the social contract has broken down since privatisation.  It’s a very powerful book.

I thought it was significant that the quotation on the front cover comes not from fellow authors or the usual suspects from the world of book reviewing, but from The Economist:

A quiet explosion of a book.  Exquisite and unforgettable.

Author: Fiona Mozley
Title: Elmet
Publisher: JM Originals, an imprint of John Murray (Hachette), 2017
ISBN: 9781473660540
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: Elmet: Shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2017

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2017

Ellen Van Neerven, and the basic rules of decency

There are reports today that in an extraordinary abuse of social media, Year 12 students from NSW have attacked Indigenous author and Yugambeh woman Ellen Van Neerven on Facebook,  because her poem ‘Mango’ was used in the HSC English exam. They apparently also edited her Wikipedia page with derogatory remarks.

I will not dignify the abuse by repeating it.  What I will assert on behalf of the literary community is that no author, Indigenous or otherwise, should be targeted in this way.  I have seen an article in which students indignantly claim that there was no intent to racially vilify the poet because they didn’t know she was Indigenous.  The students making this claim apparently still think it’s all right to vilify a writer, and to heap abuse on her and her work.   They would like us to feel sorry for them now that they are being called to account.

Ellen Van Neerven is a fine writer who has deservedly won multiple awards including the David Unaipon Award and the NSW Premier’s literary award.  I have reviewed both her short story collection Heat and Light and the collection she edited, Joiner Bay and can recommend these books to readers.  But that is not the point.  Nobody should be using social media to vilify and abuse anybody, in any context.  And when it happens to writers, we in the literary community should be ready to call it out.

To the parents and teachers of these young people, I say that you have failed them.  They are old enough to take responsibility for their contemptible behaviour, but you have failed to teach them basic rules of decency.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2017

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund

With the blurb as a guide, I wouldn’t have spent my hard-earned on Emily Fidlund’s debut novel History of Wolves, but the publisher offered it to me and I thought, why not?

It turned out to be a monumental disappointment.  Not so much in terms of the novel itself – but because it’s shortlisted for the Booker and some part of me still expects the Booker shortlist to deliver something important or significant or memorable or original.  And History of Wolves is not any of those things.  It’s the story of a misfit teenager *yawn* who fails to understand adults *yawn* and finds her own relationships handicapped ever thereafter  *yawn* because she is damaged *yawn* by her experience and lets it control her destiny.  She’s just unlucky she can’t sue someone because of it…

It is Madeline/Linda/Mattie’s misfortune to be raised by ex-hippie parents who are not very interested in her. Her mother thinks she should  be grateful for the beauty that surrounds her in the backwoods part of Minnesota but Linda feels the poverty.  She gets a hard time at school.

Into this loneliness comes a family and Linda becomes a babysitter to the precocious child Paul.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the child dies, and that there is a trial afterwards because this is revealed very early in the novel.  (The chronology chops and changes but surely this is not what the Booker judges thought was original?)  So the reader doesn’t have to be very smart to guess at why there is a trial, especially not when a quotation from Mary Baker Eddy signals it right at the beginning of the book.

Well, there are religious nutters all over the world, but we get to hear more about the American ones because, well, they are American.  And I guess being blamed for not believing in miracles is likely to happen to any hapless sceptic who hangs around with religious nutters. Any reasonably alert reader is going to predict the plot, and has to rely on the somewhat confusing subplots and the lyrical descriptions of nature to find anything worthwhile in this novel.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to read.

Author: Emily Fridlund
Title: History of Wolves
Publisher: Weidelfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Books (Hachette), 2017
ISBN: 9781474602952
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: History of Wolves: Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2017

Finnegans Wake, (Folio Edition) by James Joyce #13 Chapter 12

A quiet Sunday at home is just what’s needed for the next instalment of Finnegans Wake…

Well, if Tindall and Campbell were right about the difficulty of Chapters 10 & 11, I think/hope I might be over the hump. Chapter 12 is much shorter for a start, and this, ‘the Wake at its lightest’  was the first to be published … but although Tindall later declares that the Wake is the funniest book in the world, I note with alarm that on page 213 he expresses his frustration:

But I do not know what to make of the recurrent ‘sycamores’ nor do I give a fig.

Ah well, we press on, but we are a long way from the light-hearted fun and games of chapter one…

The short summary in A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed (by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson) gets me started:

HCE [Earwicker], dreaming on the floor, sees himself as King Mark, cuckolded by young Tristram [a.k.a. Tristan], who sails away with Iseult.  The honeymoon boat is circled by gulls, i.e. the Four Old Men, who regard the vivid event from their four directions.  HCE, broken and exhausted, is no better now than they. (p.20)

The four old men are together ‘Mamalujo’ and separately, the four gospellers, Matt Gregory (Matthew), (Marcus Lyons) Mark, (Lucas Tarpey) Luke and Johnny MacDougal (John).

They were the big four, the four maaster waves of Erin, all listening, four. There was old Matt Gregory and then besides old Matt there was old Marcus Lyons, the four waves, and oftentimes they used to be saying grace together, right enough, bausnabeatha, in Miracle Squeer: here now we are the four of us: old Matt Gregory and old Marcus and old Luke Tarpey: the four of us and sure, thank God, there are no more of us: and, sure now, you wouldn’t go and forget and leave out the other fellow and old Johnny MacDougall: the four of us and no more of us and so now pass the fish for Christ sake, Amen: the way they used to be saying their grace before fish, repeating itself, after the interims of Augusburgh for auld lang syne.

(Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition p.384).

Repetitively, they ramble on about the Celtic tale of the adulterous love between Tristan and Iseult (who of course represent the various multiple characters of FW) and recording Irish sinning in the annals of Irish history.  [Apparently they parody Vico (see my post about Chapter 2) but I have parted company with the Viconian Big Picture and am just trying to come to grips with the narrative, such as it is.]

Signifying a fresh beginning by reversing the usual order, John, who is last in the Bible, comes first, and then Luke, Mark and Matthew, and Joyce as before also uses the imagery of water, but this time it’s the perils of the sea with drownings and wrecks.    He also references Wagner’s Tristan and Iseult, which is lovely to listen to as you read.  Here it is, with Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic:

The illustration for this chapter is gorgeous.  I can’t show it for copyright reasons, but you can see it here on a less fastidious Pinterest page with Tristan and Iseult canoodling in the sailboat, with massive gulls hawking aggressively above them and the Four Old Men looking down from the sky.  The style derives from the Book of Kells and is also rather like those enchanting medieval religious artworks that we see on old altarpieces.

‘Light’ or not, there are parts which are incomprehensible.  Thanks to a warning about the reversals I know that Kram of Llawnroc is Mark of Cornwall; and Wehpen is nephew, a tactful lover. But much of this defeats me:

Where the old conk cruised now croons the yunk. Exeunc throw a darras Kram of Llawnroc, ye gink guy, kirked into yord. Enterest attawonder Wehpen, luftcat revol, fairescapading in his natsirt. Tuesy tumbles. And mild aunt Liza is as loose as her neese. Fulfest withim inbrace behent.

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition (pp. 387-388).

But there are compensations  I liked this little play on the word psychological on p. 396 (Kindle edition):

Could you blame her, we’re saying, for one psocoldlogical moment?

On to Chapter 13 and Part III!


A Reader’s Guide to “Finnegans Wake” by William York Tindall, Syracuse University Press, 1969; and

A Skeleton Key to “Finnegan’s Wake”: James Joyce’s Masterwork Revealed, by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, Collected Works Edition, New World Library, 2005

Finnegans Wake (Modern Classics) read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, Naxos AudioBooks 2009

Finnegans Wake (Penguin Modern Classics), introduction by Seamus Deane, Penguin, 2015.  (I’m using the Kindle edition ASIN B00XX0H95S, just to make quoting easier because typing the text is such a provocation to AutoCorrect).)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2017

A Sea-Chase, by Roger McDonald

Roger McDonald, one of my favourite authors, has a rare ability to transport the reader to unfamiliar worlds.  For me, he did this most notably in When Colts Ran when I found myself in the Outback observing his dissection of contemporary bush masculinity, but I was also transfixed by his depiction of a man sorting out his identity in Shearer’s Cook and by his exploration of loyalty and betrayal in colonial Australia in the Miles Franklin winner The Ballad of Desmond KaleIn A Sea-Chase, his latest novel, the reader discovers the compulsive world of competitive sailing.  It’s very good, very good indeed…

A Sea-Chase is also a love story, but not merely a romance because there are other kinds of love involved.  The central character Judy Compton thinks herself a bystander in her parents’ marriage: Raymond Compton is an idiosyncratic vegetable-grower on marginal land and her mother Dr Elizabeth Darke is a famous geneticist.  Judy questions her mother’s love in particular because her childhood was impacted by Elizabeth’s career, especially when she was palmed off on the Salvos so that her mother could live away from home in the single-women’s quarters at the AGS, do her PhD, go slack on her mothering.

The events of Judy’s childhood, with their handings-over and movings-around, so big in her mind, were episodes in the building of two other lives, just a few brief months long… (p. 52)

McDonald explores the love of long-standing friends too, and a fond spot in the heart for a first love, and how these are sometimes the source of suspicion in new relationships.  And then there is the passion for doing something you love, and separate to that, for some issue that you care about, and how that impacts on relationships.

Judy is a child of the inland, whose concept of the sea is the inland sea that forms when ephemeral rivers burst their banks and flood the vast flat plains of the outback.  But discovering that she was wholly unsuited to a career as a teacher, she found herself in Sydney and captivated as much by the ocean as she is by Wes Bannister, another protégé of Ken Redlynch, a most interesting character whose obsession with flogging his pet invention – a teaching machine – derails a relationship too.  As before in McDonald’s fiction, it’s when a character is alone in remote Australia that insight comes:

It came to Judy from nowhere, into the hot, square Silver Springs hut that night, lit by a hissing Tilley lamp and clicking with night insects, that she was ashamed of Ken’s machines.

She was ashamed that the Ken she admired and revered, who she loved, really, could ever have imagined that the contraptions worked and would be taken on. He shamed her by making her obliged to help him.  She shamed herself by helping him. (p.56)

(Does anyone else remember teaching machines?  I ‘invented’ one myself in the 1970s when I was at Teachers College learning to teach electrical circuits as part of the primary science component.  My contraption was for teaching mental arithmetic and lights flashed if a kid plugged a cord into the correct socket. In those days, we thought children would be excited by it, and indeed, my five-year-old son was, for about a minute.  But hey, I got a High Distinction for it, though that was because my father did the carpentry.  I wish I had a photo of it!)

Judy and Wes are brought together by a love of competitive sailing, but true love runs no more smoothly than the waters of the Tasman Sea.  The story takes us to New Zealand, a setting that’s new for McDonald, I think, though I haven’t read everything he’s published. Not yet, anyway. I still have two more on the TBR…

There are some heart-stopping moments to propel the narrative along, especially if you were paying attention during the 1980s when the Rainbow Warrior set out to stop French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and if you remember any of the ocean rescues of lone sailors.  I’ll leave it to the blurb to have the final word:

A Sea-Chase is a novel that vividly tracks ambition, self-realisation and lasting love, tied up in a sea story.  The idea that nobody who sets off to do something alone – without family, friends, rivals and a pressing duty to the world – ever does so alone, finds beautiful, dramatic expression in Roger McDonald’s tenth, and most surprising novel.

2018 is going to be a difficult year for the awards judges because there are new books from some of our finest writers.  As well as this one, I’ve already reviewed Brian Castro’s Blindness and Rage; Kim Scott’s Taboo; Alec Patric’s Atlantic Black; Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come; and on my TBR jostling for first position are:  Richard Flanagan’s First Person; Alex Miller’s Passage of Love;  and Steven Carroll’s A New England Affair.  (Sofie Laguna who won the MF in 2015 has a new novel too: it’s called The Choke but I disliked One Foot Wrong, and abandoned The Eye of the Sheep, so since the new one apparently covers the same grim territory I know it’s not for me).  But adding to this stellar cast of previous MF winners there are a couple of debut novelists who spring to mind: there is Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman; and also The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh.  No doubt as the awards come closer there will be more discussion about this!

Author: Roger McDonald
Title: A Sea-Chase
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2017
ISBN: 9780143786986
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: A Sea-chase

The publisher’s blurb for this novel goes like this:

Told in short, cinematic bursts, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is gloriously pulpy. Ajo Kawir, a lower-class Javanese teenage boy excited about sex, likes to spy on fellow villagers in flagrante, but one night he ends up witnessing the savage rape of a beautiful crazy woman. Deeply traumatised, he becomes impotent, turns to fighting as a way to vent his frustrations.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash shows Eka Kurniawan in a gritty, comic, pungent mode that fans of Quentin Tarantino will appreciate. But even with its liberal peppering of fights, high-speed car chases, and ladies heaving with desire, the novel continues to explore Kurniawan’s familiar themes of female agency in a violent and corrupt male world.

Clearly, I was out of my comfort zone.  I had to Google Quentin Tarantino because the only thing I knew about him was that he made the sort of films that don’t interest me.  And for those of my readers who are equally disinterested in Hollywood film, this is what I found:

Quentin Jerome Tarantino (b.1963) is an American film director, writer, and actor. His films are characterized by nonlinear storylines, satirical subject matter, an aestheticization of violence, extended scenes of dialogue, ensemble casts consisting of established and lesser-known performers, references to popular culture, soundtracks primarily containing songs and score pieces from the 1960s to the 1980s, and features of neo-noir film. He is widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. (Wikipedia, viewed 12/10/17, lightly edited to get rid of links).

I looked up neo-noir too, and found that it involves the blurring of the lines between good and bad and right and wrong, and a motif of revenge, paranoia, and alienation, among other borrowed ‘sensibilities‘.

Uh huh…

But contrary to expectations, I enjoyed Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash.  While it’s not in the same league as Beauty is a Wound which was nominated for the Man Booker International (see my review) it turned out to be good entertainment and thought-provoking as well.   It’s disconcerting at first to be confronted by such a politically-incorrect view of masculinity: its male characters are preoccupied with sex; they talk about women in a foul way; they value women solely by their appearance; and they see violence as the way to solve problems because you prove that you are a man by fighting.

However, Kurniawan inverts these tropes in unexpected ways.  His central character Ajo Kawir is an ironic twist on masculinity because he’s made impotent by watching male violence against a woman.  And while as an adolescent he tries some grimly humorous ways to restore things to their proper working order, by adulthood he is resigned to his situation and not troubled by it, referring to it as a sleeping bird.  His best friend, whose equipment does work, chooses not to use it out of loyalty to his friend.  For these two, being a man does not mean ‘getting it up’ or treating women with contempt as the other men do.

But these unexpected versions of masculinity – exemplifying sensitivity, empathy, acceptance and loyalty – are not weak.  Ajo Kawir is a feared fighter with a reputation for dealing with thugs, but often chooses not to fight and is respected for it.  His girlfriend Iteung is not a stereotype of femininity either: she takes herself off to martial arts classes and becomes a tough fighter who can not only defend herself but also wreak vengeance for the way she’s been treated.

The narrative romps along, yes, in cinematic bursts, reaching its climax in a dramatic truck chase that was only too realistic.  On my first trip to Indonesia in the early 1990s, we went by taxi to see Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple in central Java.  En route, on a two-lane ‘highway’ with no speed limit, we encountered three trucks facing us, side-by-side.  Only one of them was on the opposite side of the road, the other two were on our side, and we missed them by inches.  I don’t doubt that this sort of thing still happens in the more remote parts of the country…

The abuse of power and the violence on the roads and in the villages is, Kurniawan seems to be saying, deeply embedded in a society that was militarised for so long.  Soldiers who now have nothing to do provide the financial backing for illegal gambling on fights – and they do what they have to do to hush things up when a fight gets out of hand and someone is badly hurt.  And when the justice system fails, characters take matters into their own hands, or rather, pay someone else to deal with it.  Kurniawan also shows us that their view of what justice means can be just as warped as their solutions are.  There is a shocking scene where a businessman wants to hire a thug to dispose of a troublesome woman who is campaigning for better wages – he is so casual about this, it’s horrific.  Yet surprisingly, there is redemption of a sort, for a corrupt businessman.  It’s a not a pessimistic novel.

The unusual title comes from an Indonesian art form: the painting of trucks.  (See some here).

The kid liked looking at the pictures painted on the trucks and the words that went with them – most were a little bawdy and made him smile, and some had religious messages, but out of all the ones he’d seen, he liked the picture and the writing on the truck he was driving best of all.


Ajo Kawir said he’d brought the truck to an art student in Yogyakarta – they’d been introduced by his friend Gecko, who loved to draw and paint.  And the picture, so different from the ones on all the other trucks, was of a bird, sleeping so soundly it looked almost dead.  But what the kid liked best was the motto above the sleeping bird: ‘Vengeance is Mine: All Others Pay Cash.’

Annie Tucker’s translation of  Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas suggests a transactional view of relationships – that they’re either about vengeance or money.  But the words can also be translated as: Like revenge, yearning must be expiated in full, and what’s more, dendam (revenge) can also allude to passionate love.  So there are all kinds of double meanings in this title, and they’re not all about thuggery.

Author: Eka Kurniawan
Title: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas)
Translated by Annie Tucker
Publisher: Text Publishing 2017, first published in 2014 by Gramedia Pustaka Utama
ISBN: 9781925498226
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2017

Author event: Michelle de Kretser at Beaumaris Books

I’m just home from a most enjoyable author event organised by Beaumaris Books…

Michelle de Kretser was guest of honour, and the event was held not at the bookshop but at a café/function venue called Ginger Fox on the South Concourse.  The admission price included not only a copy of De Kretser’s new novel The Life to Come but also a two-course meal, designed, we were told, to complement the food references in the novel!  The arrangement of tables meant that people who came by themselves as I did, could easily enjoy conversation with others so it was all very congenial.

It was interesting to hear about the genesis of the book.  When still a newcomer to living in Sydney, De Kretser was out exploring with her dog when she came across an intriguing house near Cooks River.  She was actually still writing Questions of Travel at the time, but the memory of the house percolated and eventually became the house in the novel.   When she revisited the house recently, she surprised herself by discovering that the house was actually quite nondescript – which shows the power of the novelist’s imagination, eh?

Another aspect of the novel that was unexpected was that when she began writing, she thought that the book would be about George, the university lecturer in Part 1.  But as she wrote she found that Pippa was more interesting and less predictable, so she became the common thread who appears in all five of the sections of the novel.  I have heard authors say this before – that characters take on a life of their own and don’t always behave the way they were expected to…

De Kretser talked at some length about the Canadian author Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize in 2013.  She said that she read Munro’s short stories before she herself became a writer, and enjoyed the way Munro depicted the interior lives of girls and women.  But as a writer, she is fascinated by what Munro does with the structure of her stories.  In short stories of 7000-8000 words, she brings her characters alive often by depicting the same character at three different ages, with the narrative told by different points-of-view.  This allows for depth and layering because readers fill in the gaps themselves.  (And this is how Pippa is presented in The Life to Come: one part of the story is mostly about her, but other characters give their impressions of her in other parts of the novel too).

As I said in my review of The Life to Come,  De Kretser expects her readers to pay attention, and at this event she explained that she is interested in the collision of individual lives with great events, referencing her parents’ experience in being caught up in the end of the British Empire in Sri Lanka and the Ceylonese diaspora.  For me, this is what makes her books so interesting: they’re about people and relationships, but they’re never in a vacuum – world events are always on stage somewhere in the novel.

Something else I liked about this event was that it took place where it did.  Most author events are in the inner city, starting at 6 or 6.30pm so with peak hour traffic or crowded trains they are a pain to get to.  Authors who are willing to put in the time to meet their readers in the suburbs are a rare breed.   If tonight’s event was anything to go by, a warm reception can be guaranteed, and sales of the book were very brisk indeed!




By some fortuitous mistake, I have been sent two copies of the latest Quarterly Essay: Moral Panic 101 by Benjamin Law.

I haven’t read it yet, but it seems like a good idea to do the giveaway now, and you can read Janine’s excellent review of it at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

The usual Giveaway rules apply!


Be in it to win it!  Anyone with an Australian postal address is eligible.  Please indicate your interest in the Comments box below and I’ll select a winner using a random generator round about the middle of next month.

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).

Good luck everybody!

When I picked this up from the New Books shelf at the library, I had no idea what I was getting into – it was a simple case of being attracted by its unusual cover and its Italian title. It turned out to be a kind of novelistic call-to-arms for economic reform, and it’s the first book of just two that have been issued by Melbourne micro publisher, Telephone Publishing.  But it’s a book that made quite a splash: there is an enthusiastic review by Chris Deti at Readings and it was Cameron Woodhead’s Pick of the Week at the SMH.  The reason for this turns out to be that Nanni Balestrini is an author of some considerable literary significance, and although the book is decades old (though only just translated into English) it is right now of political significance too.

All those people who think that Booker shortlistee Lincoln in the Bardo is innovative because it consists of a collage of historical sources, well, no, that technique was done before by Balestrini in this novel nearly half a century ago in 1971.  In the foreword, Franco Berardi explains that Balestrini’s genius lies in the way he has dealt with the tensions between content and form within postwar Italian writing. His content depicts not individuals but rather social classes in turmoil, as manifested in this novel in protests on the streets of the city.  What is unique, Berardi says, is that Balestrini combines this content with a form usually kept separate: his language and style keeps time with the rhythm of the industrial city of this period, and he achieves this by creating a collage from interviews with workers, from flyers and bulletins, and from minutes of workers’ meetings.

Balestrini is the first poet who has never written a single word of his own, because for him words are material to recombine.  The poet’s gesture consists in gathering words from the boundless verbal territory, in arranging their function, their rhythm and therefore their emotional power. (p.xiv)

So much for George Saunders being ‘experimental’, eh?  (And I said so in my review at Goodreads when I abandoned Lincoln in the Bardo, back in August, before ever I read Balestrini.  I had, after all, read Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, who also predates Saunders’ use of the technique in her ‘novels’.)

In Vogliamo Tutto, Balestrini’s technique comes in for a little bit of criticism at Goodreads, which is worth responding to, IMO.  Amongst the enthusiasts for its political message (bear with me, I’m coming to that) a reader complains of repetition of the content, and it is certainly true that there is a great deal of repetition especially in the second part of the book, yes, to the point of tedium.  But Berardi says that this repetition arises from the author’s deliberate process:

…the rhythmic emotion that issues from the flux: surges, retreats, eddies, interruptions, jumps.  Balestrini’s work is all concentrated on the rhythm.  Words are nothing more than blocks of elemental material to collect directly from reality. (p.xiv)

So, ok, what’s this book with its significant form about, and why is it so relevant now? Sonya Jeffrey (who, from inference, I take to be one of the principals at Telephone Publishing though there’s nothing in the book to explain who she is) says in the Introduction that

… of all Balestrini’s novels, Vogliamo Tutto resonates most with the post-war history of migration and work in Australia.  The need to complete this project and publish the book became more pressing as contemporary experiences of work in the global economy made it more relevant than ever.  At the same time the protagonists of Vogliamo Tutto migrated north to find work, tens of thousands of southern Italians were migrating to Australia to work…

They came here to Melbourne to work in the same sort of jobs: the jobs that no one else wanted to do, in textile and footwear factories and in car manufacturing.  And they made the same kind of transition from peasant economy to consumer capitalist economy and they experienced the same discrimination and exploitation.  It’s true as Jeffrey says that Australian cities didn’t erupt into industrial mayhem and violence as they did in postwar Italy, but she thinks that the protagonist of Balestrini’s book is rather like the mythical Aussie larrikin, (what we call a ‘stirrer’) who is indifferent to authority, ambition, and job security.  The difference is that

Balestrini’s protagonist is not an individualist: he recognises what he has in common with others and wants to involve them in his rebellion too. (p.x)

He’s actually, according to the author himself in his preface, a collective character, typifying what he calls the mass worker, who in Italy rose up in defiance of the economic system that replaced the skilled workers of the past with unskilled, interchangeable, mobile workers who worked long, boring, meaningless hours in factories like Fiat and were estranged from any work or professional ethic.  The only reason for them to go to work is to get money so that they can participate in the consumer society and buy things, but because their pay is tied to productivity, and the employer is always demanding more of that, their pay and conditions get squeezed so it’s hard to survive.  The Autonomia Movement was a response to this and it led to massive strikes and violence, but it was different to communism in that it was not led by cadres or workers’ councils, but was a grass roots movement.  In fact, in Vogliamo Tutto, the protagonist is actively hostile to the union movement and the Italian Communist Party.

The narrator is an exaggeration: he has an extreme antipathy to work; he is profligate with what money he has; he manipulates the system and threatens violence to bully his bosses; he takes sick leave when he’s not sick and he wangles redundancies so that he can spend the summer on the beach.  When he’s wasted all his money he couch-surfs at his friends’ places and when he’s worn out his welcome  he disappears into another city while abandoning his debts to them.  He’s not meant to be a solid, upright, decent sort of fellow, he’s a symbol of the corruption of an economy that exploits people and gives them no hope of advancement. His amoral behaviour is a logical response to the way he and thousands like him are treated.

The early chapters are the most interesting.  The reader learns how the narrator’s peasant parents had ambitions for their son and sent him to trade school, only for him to find that the only jobs being generated are for the teachers.  We read about Andrea who came back to the village in fine clothes and money to splash about and how the narrator yearns to have jeans, and money for pizzas and dancing, and maybe even a motor scooter.  And we follow his journey to disillusionment and finally to taking action when he realises that his country’s economy is never going to make it possible for him to have a satisfying life.  What is particularly vivid is the narrator’s description of working on the assembly line, day in and day out and always under pressure to do more.  Reading it, knowing that this life being described is a reality for millions of people in developing countries, churning out cheap consumer goods that we mostly don’t need, in awful working conditions.

While I have to admit that I learned more about what the author was on about from the Introduction, the Foreword and the Preface than I gleaned from the novel, Balestrini’s point in this thought-provoking book is that as automation causes a decline in the number of workers who are needed, why shouldn’t everyone benefit from the wealth that is generated and enjoy freedom from work?  He says in the 2013 preface that a lot of work is actually unnecessary and it’s only created so that money can be distributed.  (Writing in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis though he doesn’t mention it specifically), he notes signs of crisis – overproduction, and the collapse of consumption because of unemployment and poverty.  He says that capitalism is trying to save itself with criminal games of financial speculation. 

I don’t know enough about economics to know if the idealism that underlies this book is viable.  What I do know is that our economy has become less and less fair, and that job insecurity and low wages make it especially hard for young people starting out and older people being retrenched from manufacturing.  But I don’t think this is grounds for disillusionment with democracy; it’s grounds for people around the globe getting involved in the democratic process to develop policies that resolve these problems.

Update, later the same day: In a masterpiece of good timing, the ABC has today republished an article from The Conversation, entitled ‘Whatever happened to the 15-hour work week?

Author:  Nanni Balestrini
Title: Vogliamo  tutto (We Want Everything)
Translated from the Italian by Matt Holden
Publisher: Telephone Publishing Melbourne, 2014, first published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 1971
ISBN: 9780992458706
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Vogliamo Tutto (We Want Everything)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2017

Atlantic Black, by A. S. Patric

Atlantic Black is a book which repays patience.  Don’t start reading it expecting to understand everything that’s going on, it will take its own time for all the pieces to fall into place.

The central premise is this: what happens if a precocious and superficially worldly teenage girl is suddenly all alone with no one to protect or guide her in a disinterested and irresponsible society?  Patric’s microcosm of society is aboard an ocean liner and Katerina is travelling with her mother from Mexico to Europe, when amid the revelry of New Year’s Eve her mother is taken ill and Katerina is free to test out her independence, free from all constraints.

This territory of adolescent risk-taking has already been mined, memorably in Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl, (see my review) where Krauth’s character in her adolescent hubris uses internet technology to encounter the kind of monsters all parents fear.  But Patric has abandoned the interconnected 21st century to show us this adolescent quest for independence at its most elemental.  RMS Aquitania is not a contemporary cruise ship … instead it is an ocean liner suspended wholly in the isolation of the Atlantic Ocean in winter.  The year is the fateful 1939 and the only form of communication is the telegraph, open to passengers only during business hours.  This is not a scenario where Katerina can text or phone her friends and family or chat to them on Facebook, and she has to negotiate her way round a ship full of complete strangers.  Knowing as we do the peril that can befall grown women on cruise ships, this scenario has all the ingredients for disaster, and Katerina has only her own resources and judgement to fall back on…

The strangers she confronts come from all stations of life, including the wealthy leisured class to which Katerina belongs, working people including the staff, and all sorts in between.  Not all of them are benign.

So, we see Katerina oscillate between concern for her erratic mother and her delight in her independence.  Although worried about her mother’s mental health, Katerina relishes her freedom and tests the boundaries by acting like an adult.  There are symbolic changes: she goes about wearing high heels and her mother’s elegant dresses and fur coats; and she signs for meals in the dining room although she doesn’t know how to order because her mother has always done it for her. But there are also behavioural and attitudinal changes: She demands service from staff who are used to treating her as a child under the care of her mother, and she behaves aggressively towards them when they hesitate to do what she wants.  More crucially, she puts herself at risk by going about alone when there are, as always, men who will prey on women who are alone and vulnerable.

Psychologically, Katerina is not worried enough about her mother to respond to a message from her.  Like any teenager she vacillates between lack of confidence and aggressive bravura. She interprets adulthood as ruthless uncaring, but finds herself succumbing to bouts of compassion for others.  Sometimes she is lonely and afraid but she despises the people around her who might otherwise have been of some help to her.  She needs a friend, but is too judgemental to make one – she doesn’t have the adult awareness that everyone is flawed one way or another.

Complicating everything is the sense of carnival.  It’s New Year’s Eve and everyone is in costume and released from their usual inhibitions.  Service from the overworked staff is patchy, and the doctor and nurses in the infirmary are overwhelmed by the mayhem.  People are not just damaged by injuries of one sort or another, some are also psychologically damaged.

And against all this… real life is going on.  There is the impending war that everyone fears, there is the crisis in Katerina’s parents’ relationship, and there is her brother Kornél’s fragile mental health which she learns about from letters withheld by her mother.

The narrative arc comes together to create a sense of impending disaster with a denouement that is both wholly unexpected and devastating, and the prose is brilliant: it chops and changes like the movement of the ocean, sometimes seeming to stall and at other times racing along in overwhelming waves.  (The last time I came across this effect in a novel was in Murray Bail’s The Voyage, a beautiful work of fiction if you can track a copy down).  Readers of Patric’s Miles Franklin-winning novel Black Rock White City with its unnerving graffiti, will recognise a similarly unsettling technique in this one: enigmatic poems and shreds of Biblical texts that build on the sense of malevolence that pervades the novel.

In this excerpt, Katerina is recalling a conversation with her father:

Children hear ghost stories when they are little.  They tell the same ghost stories when they get older, to their own sons and daughters.  There are millions of incredible things in all the mythologies, and every religion still conjures angels and devils.  We spend years of our lives having trouble going to sleep because we worry about those demons and vampires, spectres and ghouls.  As time goes by, we find there are no monsters and no ghosts.  If we have trouble falling asleep at night, it’s not because we’re worried the fantastic will materialise but rather that reality will get harder and more brutal.  (p.225)

Katerina finds herself longing for a simple miracle, perhaps the revival of a vase of dead flowers, as a consolation that the fantastic wasn’t solely a thing of the imagination.  This reader was hoping for a miracle too.

Author: A.S. (Alec) Patric
Title: Atlantic Black
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2017
ISBN: 9780995409828
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from late October, the launch is at Readings in St Kilda on October 26th.

I am behindhand with my reviews, most particularly with Alec Patric’s new novel Atlantic Black which I am very excited about, but I was given a copy of this book today by the author Lynn Smailes, and I just had to share the opening lines which I read over a late lunch in a café in Highett.

Chapter One is titled ‘The Importance of Not Being Earnest’ and it begins like this:

As a baby I was put in a wire cage suspended out of a sixth storey window at the back of our house.  Every morning I was coaxed into the cage, and the window was closed.  I stayed there most of the day.

The cage was made from wire, lined with a plywood roof for protection from rain, and had a plywood floor. I had an unhampered view of the back of surrounding houses as I played with my teddy bears, rag books and building blocks.  Toy soldiers were for indoors only, because they escaped through the bars.  I was never bored.  I never felt caged.  Apart from short breaks for feeding and changing my nappies, I would play in there until I was cleaned up by Nanny at teatime and brought down to be shown off to my parents.  (p.1-2)

This excerpt shows you the value of a really striking opening for a book.  I had seen A Prescribed Life before, and because of the cover I had made the mistake of not being interested in it because I thought the book was about the Royals.  That’s possibly not a marketing mistake: there are plenty of people who find the Royals fascinating rather than an object of disinterested disdain.  Whatever about that, these opening lines smashed my reservations and I’ve now read up to the end of Chapter Two…  and on the strength of that can indeed recommend it as very entertaining.

Fiona Capp at the SMH thought so too, and ABC Radio National’s Richard Fidler made it the subject of one of his Conversations. 

Author: Tony Atkinson, with Lynn Smailes
Title: A Prescribed Life
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2016
Review copy courtesy of the author

Available from Fishpond: A Prescribed Life


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2017

2017 Word by Word National Non-Fiction Festival

Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Now that my life as a retiree is getting into some sort of order, I am finding that I can get to events that I’ve yearned to attend for years.  One of these is the Word by Word National Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong, held from 17-19 November and now in its fourth year and held (mostly) at their striking Library and Heritage Centre, worth visiting just for the architecture.  (Do visit here to see how stunning it is.  This is not just a building, it’s a work of art).

Geelong is only an hour and bit by car from my place, and I could even more easily do it by train but I’m making a weekend of it and staying at the official festival hotel, Rydges, which is walking distance from the venue.  (Or possibly tottering distance after the cocktail party on the opening night).

On Friday there are lots of interesting regional events in lovely places like Torquay and Queenscliff, but I’m on the road that day and will only make it to hear Peter Carey talk about the intersection between fiction and non-fiction in a presentation called A Long Way From Home, which coincidentally is the title of his new book, due out in November so I haven’t set eyes on it yet.

On Saturday I’m going to

  • Please Explain: John Safran and Anna Broinowski on Australia’s transition from left-leaning multiculturalism to the divided landscape in which we now find ourselves (Broinowski was one of the editors of The Honest History Book which I reviewed last week). (No, that was Alison Broinowski, my mistake, thanks to David from the Honest History website for setting me straight on this).
  • The Truth of the Matter: Lee Kofman, Alice Pung, Maria Tumarkin on the topic of Creative non-fiction
  • Watching Out: One of my heroes, barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside QC discussing Watching Out, a successor volume to his best-selling Watching Brief
  • Writing an Icon: Biographer Catharine Lumby with her subject Frank Moorhouse, one of Australia’s most celebrated literary figures (and author of the splendid Edith trilogy, reviewed in part here on this blog).
  • The Great Debate: Fiction is just a fancy word for lying.  (Oh yeah?  We’ll see what they have to say, eh?)

and on Sunday I’m going to

  • The Vandemonian Wars: with Paul Daley and Nick Brodie, about the war fought between the British Empire and the Aboriginal peoples of Van Diemen’s Land
  • Everyday Ethics, Simon Longstaff and with Matthew Sharpe, because I’m interested in everyday philosophy.
  • What to Say, How Much to Tell: Brenda Niall, need I say more?

I shall report on events in due course.  In the meantime, get your tickets here and if you would like to meet up let me know where and when and I will wear my little ANZ LitLovers badge so that you can find me.

Thanks to Tony for permission to reblog this post,… these interviews are so interesting to read!

Messenger's Booker (and more)


It is not often that a poet has two books launched within the space of four months, but Melinda Smith has managed that amazing feat. Published by Pitt Street Poetry, “Goodbye, Cruel” was launched at the Newcastle Writers Festival in April and published by Recent Work Press the collaborative effort, with artist Caren Florance, “Members Only” was released in August this year.

Don’t be misled by the title, “Goodbye, Cruel”, is broken into five sections, and it is only the section “Goodbye, Cruel” that deals with the subject of suicide. The book opens with the playful sparkling imagery of “Tiny Carnivals” and the poem “A never-to-be-repeated spectacle”, promising a breathtaking ride through a circus like world, immediately the following poem brings the images of neon lights to life

At the Neon Museum:
Las Vegas roadside with giant high heel
(after a photograph by Michael Shapiro)

Later, night will eat these…

View original post 2,805 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 5, 2017

Spanish Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Jo Labanyi

Spain is in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment, so I thought it was time to get on with my reading of my latest in the VSI series: Spanish Literature, A Very Short Introduction.  It turned to be even more interesting than I expected it to be because it began by challenging my idea of what Spanish literature is.

Labanyi explains in the introduction why she has organised the material by themes focussing on current critical debates and why, although she gives the historical context its rightful place, she has linked it to issues of interest to contemporary readers.  It’s also a reader-friendly text because she assumes no prior knowledge but rather that readers will be intellectually curious. 

First of all she debunks the common view of Don Quixote and Don Juan as tragic idealists. bent on realising an impossible dream.  Cervantes, she says, unequivocally depicts Don Quixote as mad and a butt of humour.  [Well, at least I got that part right when I read it myself.]  Don Juan, OTOH,

is an example of how not to behave, whose sacrilege in defying God is stressed throughout.  He is also guilty of flouting patriarchal authority, killing the father of one of his female victims – a high ranking nobleman – whose statue drags him to hell.  The Trickster of Seville is a play about blasphemy and disrespect for authority.  (p.2)

These characters were reinvented as tragic idealists in the Romantic period via German theorists and Mozart’s opera.  But for political purposes in the C20th, they were reinvented again, as emblems of a tragically defeated Spain, the characters having the heroic idealism Spain needed but didn’t have in real life in the 1898 war with the USA (when Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.)  In the C20th, Don Quixote and Don Juan were held responsible for the crisis of humanism:

[For the critic Ramiro de Maeztu (1874-1936)] Don Juan represented the destructive egoism into which liberal modernity had degenerated, while Don Quixote embodied a hopelessly unpragmatic altruism.  (p.4)

Other C20th critics interpreted Don Juan as an allegory of aggressive Western individualism; an a symbol of European imperialist expansion, or the fascist superman who forces the (feminised) masses into submission.  [Which just goes to show, IMO, that the book ultimately belongs to its readers, who can and do make of it whatever suits them at the time!]

Labanyi , however, notes that that there is a foreign tendency to idealise – literally ‘romanticise’ – Spanish culture, and another example of this is the notion that Spanish culture is the expression of a tragic, primitive folkloric Spain.  Lorca’s poetry is often read abroad in this way, failing to recognise his modernist tendencies and his homosexuality (which is often associated with the modern city, not the rural tragedies for which he is often known outside Spain).  Labanyi says that Lorca wasn’t writing popular poetry but complex avant-garde works dense with highly sophisticated imagery.  The ideas we might have about a stereotypical backward, rural Spain come both from Franco wanting to use folklore as an expression of the national soul and from Republicans using the ballad tradition for propaganda purposes.  Chapter 2 is not about bullfights, blood and death; instead its focus is the relationship of Spanish literature to modernity. 

In this VSI, Labanyi is avoiding the nationalism frame of reference which so often omits literature that is widely read at the expense of texts that could be used for nation-building. So one of the first things I did was to check the index against the Spanish authors I’ve reviewed, and was pleased to find that yes, I’ve read some of those that get a mention in this VSI.   Apart from Cervantes, there’s Mercè Rodoreda, Javier Cercas, Ildefonso Falcones, and Bernardo Atxaga.

Chapter I is called ‘Multilingualism and porous borders’ and it reframes Spanish literature to include the literature of medieval Iberia, the parts of the peninsula which became Spain in the late 15th century. [Labanyi is very careful about the terminology she uses, to avoid playing into nationalist agendas, perhaps foreseeing the trouble which has been so much in the news lately].  Her point about acknowledging Arabic and Hebrew texts is not to appropriate them but rather

given the possibility, if not desirability, of double cultural allegiance, surely [these writers] should be seen as ‘Spanish’ as well as Arabic or Hebrew, giving full recognition to the border crossings – between languages, between Andalusi city-states, between Muslim and Christian Iberia, between Iberia and North Africa or the Middle East – that mark most of their careers. (p.16)

In other words, it seems to me that she is saying that in a multicultural world, literature can’t be defined by contemporary national borders. Because, after all, in the era before the nation-state, there was no concept of a political unit based on one race, one language and one culture.  That notion did not arise until the beginnings of national unification in the C15th and was clinched politically in the early 18th century and culturally in the late 19th century. The religious homogenisation that went with it was enforced by the Inquisition, and it brought linguistic homogenisation too, offset by cultural contact with Europe and the introduction of Italian humanist ideas into Spain.  But it’s only from the late 19th century

that one can talk of ‘Spanish literature’ as part of an established corpus – one that remains largely intact today, apart from the recent addition of some women writers and the development of separate canons for Spain’s ‘historic’ nationalities’: Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country.  (p. 27)

An issue that arises is, of course, the inclusion or exclusion from those separate canons, of writers who write in Castilian Spanish (the Standard Spanish that we hear on radio and TV, and spoken throughout northern and central Spain).  Some wrote in Castilian Spanish because there was no choice under Franco; some prefer to use it now because writing in Catalan, Galician or Euskara (Basque) limits the readership.  Bestselling Catalan authors like Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind) and Ildefonso Falcones (Cathedral of the Sea and The Hand of Fatima) write in Castilian Spanish, and have an international readership in translations. Apparently there are only about a million speakers of Euskara  [which makes Bernard Atxaga’s decision to write his novel Seven Houses in France in Euskara and then have it translated into Castilian Spanish under his supervision an interesting one, presumably because the translation facilitated its translation into English and other languages].

These decisions seem to have implications that we don’t tend to consider in Australia.  And while we might wrestle with whether we want to count Peter Carey as Australian after he’s been abroad for so long, we don’t have to struggle with the political implications of decisions about whether to include as Spanish literature, the works of those who fled Spain (amongst whom I recognise the name of Mercè Rodoreda) and went into exile under Franco.  These decisions have implications for what Labanyi calls the recuperation process, not least because most of the exiles were intellectuals who wrote significant works.  Reading Labanyi’s summary of how language, publication and performance were suppressed during the 20th century dictatorships goes some way towards understanding the hostilities that we see playing out on our screens at the moment.  It also hints at difficulties that must arise in the process of designing curriculum and university courses…

From this summary of the Introduction and Chapter 1, you can see that it’s well worth getting your own copy of this VSI.  The other chapters are titled:

  • Spanish literature and modernity
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Cultural patrimony, and
  • suggestions for further reading.

I found the chapter on modernity fascinating, with implications for my understanding of modernity in other literatures as well as Spanish.  Labanyi makes the point that varying perceptions of what modernity means and when Spain embraced it, has created a sort of anxiety about being perceived as ‘backward.’  This in turn has created anxiety about whether Spanish authors are imitating foreign models or can be said to be innovative (to the extent that one scholar was accused of manipulating dates so that a foundational Spanish text (Poem of the Cid) could be said to be free of foreign influence. In this chapter I learned about the realist writer Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) whose Fortunata and Jacinta and That Bringas Woman sound interesting but hard to get in English.  (But there is a NYRB translation of Tristana, so I might try that).  I also like the sound of Gold Fever by Narcís Oller (1846-1930) but that’s equally hard to get though I was able to buy The September Revolution for the absurd Kindle price of $1.05.

The chapter also covers two types of fiction in the democratic, ‘normalising’ period.  One is the historical novel, Labanyi mentioning two books I’ve read: The Shadow of the Wind which uses post Civil War Barcelona as an exotic backdrop and The Hand of Fatima) as an example of a well-researched recreation of ethnic, class and gender tensions in medieval Barcelona.  The other type is the novel which takes seriously the ethical duty to remember the Civil War and its atrocities, Labanyi citing Antonio Muñoz Molina’s books which include In the Night of Timeone of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.  There were many recognisable recommendations including (on my wishlist) Alberto Méndez and Dulce Chacón, Javier Marías (on my TBR) and Javier Cercas (1962-)whose Soldiers of Salamis I have read too.  Labanyi however cautions against overdoing it:

That Spanish writers today, to prove their modern democratic credentials, should feel obliged to return to the past is understandable, since politicians and public debate have not done so until very recently.  There is a risk, however, of the current literary obsession with the Civil War creating a culture of victimhood, rather than examining the very modern political lessons of the Spanish Republic.  (p.74)

I was a bit disappointed by the chapter on gender, because its focus on bawdiness and melodrama – no matter how it’s dressed up in feminist interpretations – didn’t interest me at all.  I would have liked to read about the Spanish women authors writing beaut novels comparable with women authors in other cultures.  (I loved Cristina Sanchez-Andrade’s The Winterlings and there must be plenty of others like that.

More interesting was the chapter called ‘Cultural Patrimony’ which was all about the remarkable experiment in delivering mass literacy during the brief Spanish Republic.  (Do watch the video, if you have time, it’s brilliant). I know nothing about this, and the only comparable example I know of was the extraordinary improvement in literacy in post-Independence Indonesia where illiteracy declined from 95% in the 1940s to 40% in 1961, and is now in just over half a century less than 5% despite widespread poverty.  In the VSI, there is a great photo of Lorca wearing his Republican activist overalls with a poster for his travelling theatre company (I found it online here too), and also a captivating photo of a little peasant girl reading a book with such joy on her face, it’s beautiful.  I wonder where she is now…

Film: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)This VSI on Spanish Lit is one of the best ones I’ve read, and I think it’s because of the way Labanyi has organised it around themes.  Next up, (because of my adventures with Tarantino) I’m going to read Film: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Wood!

Author: Jo Labanyi
Title: Spanish Literature, A Very Short Introduction
Series: Oxford Very Short Introductions
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780199208050
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: Spanish Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 5, 2017

Soap – Charlotte Guest PLUS bonus poet interview

Another beaut contribution by permission of Tony at Messenger’s Booker

Messenger's Booker (and more)


Western Australian based writer Charlotte Guest has recently launched her debut poetry collection “Soap”, published by ACT independent publisher Recent Work Press, a small imprint that publish “poetry, short fiction and non fiction, and other short-form textual experiments.” I have a large number of their publications on my shelves so am hoping to get to a few interviews with the poets over the coming months.

With a soft pink cover and the title “Soap” you could be forgiven for thinking this is a collection of indulgence, poems with a “girlie” bent, you would be very far from the truth, these works exploring the end of girlhood, full of sexual tension, and female oppression, male dismissiveness, they are poems buzzing with awareness.

Networking Drinks

‘You see society through old
frames, you are perpetuating that
against which you argue,’
says a confident boy with flushed
capillaries, exalting in this
repartee. ‘No, what…

View original post 1,217 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 5, 2017

2017 Queensland Literary Awards

I admit it, I wish these awards were still called the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards – a name that conferred a certain gravitas, and signalled that the award was part of a national network of literary awards, defining Australia as a country which values books and writing.  Queensland could do with being a bit less miserly too: most of these awards are only worth $10,000, which isn’t enough to give an author much time off from the day job to write.  To put this in context, similar Victorian Premier’s Lit Award winners get $25,000 each at a cost to the tax payer for the prize pool of about $225,000, which is a very small amount in a state budget.  Well done, I say, to those who worked so hard to rescue these awards from oblivion under the Campbell Newman government, but the view from here is that Queensland still doesn’t value books and writing much and isn’t prepared to support its writers with meaningful money.

Anyway, whatever they’re called and whatever the prize is worth, the awards were announced last night and nothing should detract from the recognition that these books and the shortlisted books deserve:

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award

  • The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley (Affirm Press), see my review

The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award

  • Saltwater by Cathy McLennan (UQP)

University of Southern Queensland History Book Award

University of Southern Queensland Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award

  • The Circle and the Equator by Kyra Giorgi (UWA Publishing)

State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award

  • Fragments by Antigone Kefala (Giramondo)

QUT Digital Literature Award

  • Nine Billion Branches by Jason Nelson

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award

  • Mirrored Pieces by Lisa Fuller

Emerging Queensland Writer – Manuscript Award

  • The Killing of Louisa by Janet Lee

Queensland Writers Fellowships

  • Zenobia Frost for Museum of Dwellings
  • Linda Neil for People are Kind
  • Mirandi Riwoe for A Gold Mountain Woman

The Courier Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award

Winner: Saltwater by Cathy McLennan (UQP)

Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Awards

  • Lech Blaine
  • Mindy Gill

Griffith University Children’s Book Award

  • The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler by Lisa Shanahan (Allen & Unwin)

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award

  • Words in Deep Blue  by Cath Crowley (Pan Macmillan)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2017

The Life to Come, by Michelle de Kretser

At different times in our lives, we view the life to come in different ways.  Children and adolescents often yearn for a future where they are ‘grown up’ and can act with independence and agency; young adults with a mixture of confidence and trepidation anticipate a future with adventure or a career, hoping to have or do things that they think will bring satisfaction while also expecting eventually to find a loved one with whom to share their lives.  As the years go by, the anticipated future usually becomes more peopled and expands to include the futures of partners, children and grandchildren, and then, as old age beckons, the anxieties we might have about the future begin to include worrying about the inevitable decline in health, about an adequate retirement income and about a lonely old age as friends and loved ones pass away.  What is certainly true is that life rarely turns out to be the way we expected it to be…

In The Life to Come Michelle de Kretser scrutinises this existential aspect of our lives with wit and aplomb.  Set in Sydney, Paris and briefly in Colombo, the novel traces the lives of diverse futures which intersect over the decades,  contrasting despair and disillusionment with contentment and smug satisfaction.  The author unpacks the eloquent silences that surround us to reveal the issues that we deny, suppress and ignore, exposing our flawed assumptions about other people.  And she is wickedly funny about the role of social media in our lives…

Pippa is a middle-class Australian writer who is confident that when she was famous, Sydney would be obliged to place commemorative plaques outside the houses where she had lived.  But right now she is anxiously waiting on feedback from her agent Gloria:

Pippa checked her email: an invitation from Matt’s mother to lunch on the weekend, a special offer from FragranceNet, nothing from Gloria.  Pippa retweeted @MargaretAtwood urging the donation of books to prisons. She followed every famous writer she could find on Twitter, but so far none of them had followed her back. Someone posted a photo of a dog on a skateboard. @warmstrong linked to a screening of Hotel Monterey.  ‘Chantal Akerman: wonderwoman or wanker? You decide.’  Pippa read a Lydia Davis story on the New Yorker website.  She googled to see if Lydia Davis was on Twitter.  She read a Crikey piece about arts funding, followed a few links and some time later bought a swimsuit.  Her email chimed; it was an overdue reminder from the library.  Anyway, Gloria would call, not email.  Gloria’s voice was always low and exhausted.  Of Pippa’s previous novel, she had whispered, ‘Everyone here really, really loves it.  The scene with the endives is amazing! I’ve never read anything so raw.  It really amazed everyone.  But we ran it through SIMS, our amazing new reader-response software, and it says readers are over the whole French thing. I hope you’re not expecting much in the way of an advance.’

Pippa’s phone rang and she snatched it up. But it was only a former neighbour, so she let it ring out. (p.186)

When the novel opens, Pippa’s boyfriend is George Meshaw, her tutor at university whose response to her effortful work in his tutorial on The Fictive Self was to pity her essay enough to bump up to a Credit at the last moment.  George is a writer too: his first novel is entitled Necessary Suffering (a title he pillaged from a conversation about chickens on page 15).  He’s also a refugee from Melbourne where the brainy girls wore stiff, dark clothes like the inmates of nineteenth-century institutions, with here and there an exhibitionist in grey.

De Kretser has now lived in Sydney long enough to parody the *yawn* competitive cities game, beloved of journalists in search of clickbait:

He had been back in Sydney for four years and still swam gratefully in its impersonal ease.  In Melbourne, where George had lived since he was six, he had wanted to write about modernism in Australian fiction for his PhD.  After some difficulty, a professor who would admit to having once read an Australian novel was found.  At their first meeting, she handed George a reading list made up of French and German philosophers.  When George settled down to read these texts, he discovered something astonishing: the meaning of each word was clear and the meaning of sentences baffled.  Insignificant yet crucial words like ‘however’ and ‘which’ – words whose meaning was surely beyond dispute – had been deployed in ways that made no sense. It was as unnerving as if George had seen a sunset in his east-facing window, and for a while it was as mesmeric as any disturbance to the order of things. When despair threatened, he transferred his scholarship to a university in Sydney.  There, George read novels and books about novels and was wildly happy.  He taught a couple of tutorials to supplement his scholarship. Recently, with his thesis more or less out of the way, he had begun to write a novel at night.  (p.5)

Melbourne thinks, and Sydney just gets on with it?  Hardly.  It’s that un-named ‘university in Sydney’ that gives the game away: it’s not a sandstone or a Group of Eight that’s taken in poor bewildered George and let him do a thesis so relaxed that he’s got time to write a novel too, eh?!

Pippa, who’s no intellectual, complains that she’s the only person her age with an arts degree who hasn’t read Foucault, because part-time work compromised her choices.  She feels patronised by Eva, her eventual mother-in-law – a connoisseur of Waugh and Greene who excuses herself from reading Pippa’s books.

As indeed I might too.

‘I used to try to write beautifully,’ confided Pippa, ‘But now honesty’s what I aim for in my work.’ (p.129)

It wasn’t until I came to the chapter entitled ‘Pippa Passes’ that I twigged: Pippa is a modern-day Rumer Godden (1907-1998), who wrote popular novels of the British Raj but yearned for recognition from the literati.  Godden’s novel Pippa Passes (1994) is a deceptively sentimental coming-of-age novel where a naïvely ambitious young woman learns a hard lesson, becoming older and wiser in the process.

The Life to Come repays close reading, and the author takes no prisoners.  She expects her readers to keep up, and to be conversant with art, music, global politics and history, as well as literature, of course.  And that’s not all: there’s a droll sequence where Cassie seeks to impress Ash (Ashoka) from Sri Lanka with her labour-intensive ‘ethnic’ feast (which he concludes is another kind of displacement scheme elaborated to avoid working on her thesis).  She buys from ‘the Ashfield Tamil’ (who, tellingly never has a name) some ‘muthu sambu’ rice which turns out to have a stench that had been born in a sewer:

Ash took the lid from Cassie’s lifeless fingers and replaced it on the pot.  He opened windows. The gale had died down to a stiff breeze.  Cold air filled the room, spreading rather than dispatching the reek.  One of the candles succumbed to the draught.

Does muthu sambu rice always smell like that?’ asked Cassie.  She sat down – as if an invisible intruder had whacked her behind the knees.

‘How should I know?’ Ash added, ‘I doubt it.’ (p.73)

Ash, whose parents migrated to Australia in the 1970s would have to Google for the answer as I did.  This theme of Australians making assumptions about migrants and refugees has cropped up in De Kretser’s wry fiction before, and she has fun inverting it when Pippa goes to Paris and meets up with Céleste, a translator who’s having an affair with Sabine, married with children and every bit as diffident about her lover as the stereotypical man having a ‘bit on the side’.  Céleste, who’s from Perth, enjoys living in a poky apartment doing work that she loves, and yearns to be a ‘real’ Françoise.  She resents Pippa blundering around expecting everyone to be nice because she’s Australian…

But Céleste is no fool.  There are intellectual and social gulfs between her and Sabine, and whereas Sabine expresses her opinions thoughtlessly (and not just on the topic of French-Algerian history) Céleste prudently keeps her more sensitive rebuttals to herself).  Their relationship has to be squeezed into le cinq à sept (the hours between five and seven, when Sabine’s husband Bernard thinks she’s having an English lesson) so there was no time for sex and talk.  A great deal went unsaid. But Céleste knows that she’ll be sacrificed for Sabine’s children, and beside her sleeping lover on a rare night together, she thinks of the empty frightening years ahead.  In the last poignant chapter the reader sees just what this can mean for Bunty and Christobel, while Pippa blunders on, blithe and insouciant except in her innermost thoughts which she is quick to banish.

There is so much more to this splendid novel but – just for fun – I’ll end with this delicious excerpt from a scene where Céleste is teaching the teenage Djamila English using those inane Facebook quizzes that litter our daily feeds:

Céleste and Djamila were determining whether Céleste was a Healer, an Analyst, an Adventurer or a Commander.  Djamila read out:’ “Which statement describes you best? (a) People say you are inflexible; (b) You are happy being the centre of attention; (c) Your home environment is very tidy.” ‘ As Céleste hesitated, ‘The answer is (a),’ said Djamila. ‘C’est évident.’  (p. 168)

Oh… ouch!

Author: Michelle de Kretser
Title: The Life to Come
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN: 9781760296568
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: The Life to Come

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2017

Blessed are the Dead, by Malla Nunn

I’m not much interested in detective novels, but I make an exception for Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper Mystery series because the novels are a blend of crime fiction with historical fiction set in the apartheid era in South Africa.  As I said in my review of A Beautiful Place to Die,  this series is

… much more than genre fiction.  It reminded me of the best of Graham Greene in the way that the novel explores how context and culture impact on crime and justice, and how survival in an intransigently corrupt society involves an existential struggle between integrity and resignation to the inevitable.

Set in the 1950s i.e. before the British Dominion known as the Union of South Africa became a republic in 1960, the series consists of

  1. A Beautiful Place to Die, see my review
  2. Let the Dead Die, read but not reviewed because I couldn’t renew the book at the library and *smacks forehead* then forgot about it
  3. Blessed are the Dead (also published as Silent Valley)
  4. Present Darkness (on the TBR)

Blessed are the Dead again features Detective Sergeant Emmanual Cooper and his sidekick Zulu Detective Constable Shabalala out in the backblocks miles from Durban.  High up in the Drakensberg Mountains, the land is farmed by people who live in a strict hierarchy based on colour and ethnicity backed up by legalised racial discrimination.  The wealthy White English and the dirt poor White Afrikaaners treat each other with mutual disdain but they both consider themselves superior to Jews who have survived the Holocaust and the dispossessed Zulus who live in the kraals and cling to traditional ways.

Cooper and Shabalala are sent to sort out the murder of the beautiful Amahle because the local police won’t do it; both the black and white communities have secrets to hide but Chief Matebula wants vengeance because he’s been deprived of the bride price he would have got for his daughter Amahle’s arranged marriage.  The cause of death is strange but the local doctor won’t do the post-mortem.  It’s odd that Cooper’s boss Van Niekerk wants the matter investigated anyway since black deaths don’t matter much in apartheid South Africa, but he succumbs to political pressure before long and pulls the duo off the case.  All this is vaguely reminiscent of another series I quite like (because it’s set in Venice)… Donna Leon’s crime novels feature Commissario Guido Brunetti similarly hamstrung in his investigations because of Venetian corruption, but it’s the attention to black/white relations that sets the Emmanuel Cooper books apart.

Nunn’s observations have the ring of authenticity and they are made without the least hint of didacticism and without compromising the credibility of the plot or characterisation.  In this scene Karin, the impoverished Afrikaner daughter of a Boer Pioneer family, is ‘assisting the police with enquiries’ at her farm. Cooper has introduced himself and his Detective Constable (who is wearing a suit and leather shoes and probably earns more than she does) but Karin’s assumption of superiority negates his authority:

Karin drew a rudimentary map, picked it up by one corner and gave it to Emmanuel.  Then she lifted the full hessian bag and shoved it in Shabalala’s direction, saying in perfect Zulu, “Boy, take this meat to the hut behind the big barn and give it to the workmen.  Tell them it’s springbok for the evening pot. Go. Quick.”

Shabalala grabbed the heavy sack, speechless.  Karin crossed the stoep with a crunch of boots and said over her shoulder in English, “I’ll get Cyrus.”

Emmanuel and Shabalala remained rooted to the spot, stunned by the command and by the faultless Zulu used to issue it.  Karin did not speak the “kitchen kaffir” used by whites to give basic orders to their servants.  Her inflection and pronunciation were perfect.  With eyes closed she’d be mistaken for a native.

“Hiya…” Shabalala made a sound of grudging admiration. “I will go, Sergeant.  The workmen will be waiting for their food.”

He held the dripping sack away from his suit and made for the stoep. A native policeman was still subservient to a white woman.  (p.104)

In a dozen ways Malla Nunn reveals the casual and institutionalised racism that underpinned South African society in that era.  These entertaining novels are excellent for raising awareness of the way people of colour are routinely treated, and not just in South Africa…

I featured Malla Nunn in Meet an Aussie Author back in 2014, and I believe she has another novel in the pipeline:).

Author: Malla Nunn
Title: Blessed are the Dead (also published as Silent Valley)
Publisher: Xoum Publishing Australia, 2017, first published 2012 by Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 9781925143713
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Blessed Are the Dead and you can also get it as an audiobook, read by Humphrey Bower: Blessed Are the Dead

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2017

P(oe)Ms – Dave Drayton PLUS bonus poet interview

Another post about poetry today, this one by permission from Messenger’s Booker and More, thanks Tony!

Messenger's Booker (and more)


On January 1st, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was established and since then we have had twenty-nine Prime Ministers, starting with Edmund Barton, with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull the current incumbent.

Kanganoulipian poet Dave Drayton has used the twenty-nine Prime Ministers as the backbone of his new collection of poems, “P(oe)Ms”. Each of the Prime Minister’s names anagrammatically make up the poems about their era at the head of Australian politics.

All of the classic Australian references are contained here, riding on a sheep’s back, gambling on horses, and the political moments are captured using the constraint of anagrams, of the leader’s names, to present an historical document of our country.

Robert James Lee Hawke

Smash a beer O Robert
Set the hawk to “walk”
Smash a beer O Robert
A wet beak breaks the talk

This is a small section of the nineteen-line poem dedicated to Bob…

View original post 1,739 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2017

The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde

Wilde in the dock, from The Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

As Australia trudges through the sordid process of conducting a government sponsored poll of popular opinion on gay marriage, I read a collection of Oscar Wilde’s poems in a collection titled after his most famous poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.  The circumstances of Wilde’s imprisonment are well known, but they are a salutary reminder that homosexual law reform in Australia has been slow in coming and that living among us there are people who have been convicted and punished under archaic laws inherited from Britain.  (It is only recently that the Andrews government in Victoria has passed legislation to expunge these old convictions). Wilde’s poem also reminds us that there are still too many places around the world where it is perilous to have same-sex relationships.

The collection contains many gems showing us a different side of Wilde.  These are not the arch, witty, satirical words of the man who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest.  These poems show Wilde in a reflective mood, and often religious in tone: it’s a pity that none of them are dated in the freebie Kindle edition I read.  I can quote them here because they are well out of copyright.

Sonnet On Hearing The Dies Irae Sung In The Sistine Chapel

[The Dies Irae has been set to exquisite music by Verdi and Mozart, and having gazed awestruck at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while surrounded shoulder-to-shoulder by other tourists, I can only dream about listening to the Dies Irae or any other hymn in the chapel as it was intended to be used.  But Wilde in this poem is foreshadowing the doubt about the overemphasis on judgement, fear and despair at the expense of faith and hope in the Dies Irae which led to it being expunged from the Roman Catholic liturgy as part of the Vatican II reforms, more than half a century later.]

Sonnet On Hearing The Dies Irae Sung In The Sistine Chapel

Nay, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
Teach me more clearly of Thy life and love
Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
The hillside vines dear memories of Thee bring:
A bird at evening flying to its nest
Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.
Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,
And the fields echo to the gleaner’s song,
Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.

Then there’s this ode to Milton, which is strangely prescient in a post Brexit world.

To Milton

Milton!  I think thy spirit hath passed away
From these white cliffs and high-embattled towers;
This gorgeous fiery-coloured world of ours
Seems fallen into ashes dull and grey,
And the age changed unto a mimic play
Wherein we waste our else too-crowded hours:
For all our pomp and pageantry and powers
We are but fit to delve the common clay,
Seeing this little isle on which we stand,
This England, this sea-lion of the sea,
By ignorant demagogues is held in fee,
Who love her not: Dear God! is this the land
Which bare a triple empire in her hand
When Cromwell spake the word Democracy!

And this, on the sordid business of collecting the private papers of others:

On The Sale By Auction Of Keats’ Love Letters

These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant’s price.
I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.
Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?

Some of the poems now seem flowery to the modern eye, especially the last one in the collection.  It’s called ‘Ravenna’, and it was apparently a Newdigate prize poem recited in the Sheldonian Theatre Oxford June 26th, 1878.  But the masterpiece that is the Ballad of Reading Gaol retains its power and readers will recognise its most famous stanzas below, aching with compassion for a fellow prisoner who was hanged for the murder of his wife:

from: The Ballad Of Reading Gaol

(In memoriam C. T. W. Sometime trooper of the Royal Horse Guards obiit H.M. prison, Reading, Berkshire July 7, 1896)

I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
‘That fellow’s got to swing.’

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

This poem is not read as a justification for violence against women but as a condemnation of capital punishment:

There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain’s heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.

That same chaplain is part of the dehumanising apparatus of judicial killing:

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
They did not even toll
A requiem that might have brought
Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
And hid him in a hole.

They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
And gave him to the flies:
They mocked the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
In which their convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonoured grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.

Wilde also calls for prison reform, a plea that still falls on deaf ears today:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds,
Bloom well in prison-air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

With midnight always in one’s heart,
And twilight in one’s cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
With soul and body marred.

All quotations from the poems above come from The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. It has no other publication details except that it was transcribed by David Price, email  I probably downloaded the copy from Project Gutenberg or as a freebie from Amazon, but I can’t tell at this distance from when I acquired it.

And just because I found it at Wikipedia when I was looking for an image of Wilde, here is an excerpt from De Profundis

When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else – the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.


From the depths indeed…

Wilde wrote that in 1897 as he languished in poverty, squalor and ill-health after his release from prison.  He lived in exile in France, living under the name of Sebastian Melmoth (after St Sebastian).  He died in 1900.



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