Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2019

Author event: Emily Goddard at Parkdale Library

I don’t review theatre on this blog, but I’m very interested in the process of creating it, so I was pleased to be able to attend an author event at the Parkdale Branch of the Kingston Library Service today.

Emily Goddard is the writer, performer and co-devisor of a remarkable play called This is Eden, and, thanks to my good friend Mairi Neil,  I will be seeing Goddard in performance later this month at the Kingston Arts Centre.  (We were told this afternoon that there were only five tickets left to this performance, but there are tickets available for the Frankston performance, and maybe others too, see here for tour dates.)

Today at the library Goddard talked about the genesis of this play, which the website tells us is…

…a dark, humorous and provocative anti-bonnet drama inspired by the rebellion and resistance of the female convicts of Van Diemen’s Land.  Using the French clowning technique of Bouffon, where outcasts ridicule and provoke those in power, Goddard and Dee tread a fine line between the grotesque and charming to bring to life an extraordinary tale of rebellion and survival that has conveniently escaped our nation’s history lesson.

The talk began with an Acknowledgement of Country, which also recognised that the story of Tasmanian women convicts is only a part of a terrible era in our history which included the genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines.

Goddard then went on to explain that she had never really been very interested in Australian history as it was taught at school, and she confessed that she’d only joined her mother on a genealogical quest in Tasmania because she’d just broken up with a boyfriend.  But as she retraced her grandmother Sarah Ford’s footsteps at the Cascades Female factory in Hobart, and heard about what she had endured, she began to think about ways this story could be brought to life in performance.

Emily is a 2010 graduate of Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris, a theatre school which teaches a style of performance called Bouffon,  which mocks those in power using grotesque satire. It seemed appropriate for dramatising the stories of the women, because they used mockery to rebel against the system.  As Goddard explained, they had plenty to rebel against.

Like many of the women transported to Tasmania, Goddard’s grandmother was a victim of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.  She was born in 1816 in Gloucester, one of six children whose father was hanged for horse-stealing.  Her brother was transported after a second offence of theft, but did not survive the ill-fated voyage of the George III in 1835, in which 133 lives were lost. Sarah and her sister followed in 1836, both convicted for stealing, and transported for seven years because it was a second offence.

Based on their behaviour en route, on arrival women were sorted into 3rd class (i.e. incorrigibles) who were given back-breaking hard labour and reduced rations, 2nd class prisoners who were on probation and expected to work their way up to 1st class so that they could be assigned to work somewhere in the colony.  Where they were sent was the luck of the draw, and many absconded from cruelty and abuse, or to be with their lovers, or were sent back to the factory because they were pregnant which was a punishable crime. (These women had to work all through their pregnancies, and then look after their own and other babies.  There was a very high infant mortality rate, higher than the rest of the population.)

The women coped with their circumstances with grim humour. There was  group called the Flash Mob which led attacks on those in authority, and performed skits that mocked the ruling classes.  Unsurprisingly no scripts survive, but the dates and content of these plays is known from the outraged reports about them.  One of those mocked in This is Eden is the Reverend Bedford a.k.a. Holy Willie, who was in charge of moral standards in the colony but had no theological training.  He was married, but was notorious for taking advantage of the women.

Goddard also explained that she hoped the play would have a wider resonance than its historical purpose, because there are parallels with the inhumane treatment of refugees. She talked about how transportation, despite the campaign against it by free settlers, offered the opportunity for a new life to the disadvantaged.  Sarah Ford married, and as an emancipist, moved to Collingwood in Melbourne, raised a family and died aged 76 in 1892.  Despite the horrors of the factory, like many others, this convict built a new life with reasonably positive outcomes.  Goddard likened these circumstances to those of modern refugees, reviled and ill-treated, subjected to great prejudice and feeling shame which makes them want to hide their stories.  She hopes that knowing more about our convict past might change our national attitudes…

PS Last week The Spouse and I went to the Southbank Theatre to see the smash-hit comedy Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui, which I reviewed during Indigenous Literature Week in July.  If you get the opportunity to see this play, don’t miss it, it is wickedly funny, and great entertainment with a subversive message about not taking identity politics too seriously.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2019

Paris Savages, by Katherine Johnson

I reserved this impressive book at the library about a month ago after I read Jennifer’s review at Goodreads and was not disappointed.  (Jennifer blogs at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large). It’s a remarkable book.

It brought three other books to mind: Jane Sullivan’s Little People which is a novel about people of short stature touring as exhibits (see my review here); Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders which exposes the morbid curiosity that lies behind not just the freak shows of the 19th century but also those contemporary ‘human interest’ stories that feature disabled people (see my review here); and Anouk Ride’s The Grand Experiment which I read before I started this blog.  A non-fiction account of real events and based on thorough research, The Grand Experiment is a different kind of Stolen Generations story, in which two young Nyungar boys were taken to Italy by a Benedictine monk from the New Norcia Monastery in WA, to become monks themselves.  They went, apparently, with parental permission, and the plan was well-intentioned, the monks hoping to offer education and opportunities the boys could not have had on the mission. They met the Pope and other notables, but the extent of the education they purportedly received is dubious since neither left a written record. Conaci died in Europe, and Dirimera died soon after returning to Australia.

 

Paris Savages explores themes which arose from my reading of those three books.  To what extent could ‘exhibits’ in a human zoo have any agency over the way they were represented, when the entire exercise was based on ambitions the participants did not share? In what ways could they be said to have given informed consent? How could they possibly have known what they were in for? Johnson’s novel, based on thorough research, depicts the cultural shock that Anouk Ride discussed, and with the same difficulties: the documentary record is scanty, and there is no record at all of the Indigenous point-of-view.  The author’s note at the beginning of the book explains how she resolved this issue:

According to a retrospective on the subject in Paris in 2012, worldwide, between 1800 and 1958, over a billion spectators attended such acts, marvelling at more than 35,000 individuals, significantly influencing view on ‘race’.

That latter date astonished me. These offensive forms of mass entertainment can’t be consigned to the 19th century.  They were still occurring during my childhood.

Johnson then refers the readers to the Afterword to see her sources, and then goes on to say…

Paris Savages builds on these scant records to envisage the story of Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera, Badtjala/Butchulla people from K’gari (Fraser Island).  Rather than assuming Aboriginal viewpoints, the story is told through fictional characters related in the novel to the German engineer Louis Müller, who is known to have transported the group to Europe. (p.ix)

Johnson’s achievement is to expose the human cost of Müller’s ‘scientific’ ambitions.  Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera agree to go because the Badtjala people are in decline after the massacres which accompany being dispossessed from their land, and Bonny hopes to be able to bring their plight to Queen Victoria’s personal attention so that she will intervene.  The plan is that they will travel to England after being exhibited in Europe, and nobody disabuses them of the improbability of such a meeting.  By narrating the story mostly from the point of view of Müller’s teenage daughter Hilda, Johnson shows the journey from naïveté to full awareness of betrayal.  Müller always caves in to unconscionable exploitation of the people in his care, not just because he is under financial pressure because of the costs involved, but also because he shares the prevailing pseudo-scientific ideas of the German entrepreneurs and the scientists they use to justify what they are doing.

Some of the episodes in this novel are really harrowing.  Apart from the indignity of being housed in accommodation that meant they were always, always on show, and being forced to be ‘authentic’ which meant they were only supposed to speak Badtjala when in fact Bonny could speak German well, the process of constantly measuring their bodies and facial features also included having plaster casts made for display.  Johnson depicts this claustrophobic experience in all its horror.  Hilda is a close observer of all these events and she tries as best she can to intervene, handicapped by her distress at her father’s betrayals of the ideals he seemed to have shared with Hilda’s dead mother, and also by the dissonance in her own identity.  On the island of K’gari, she was independent and autonomous.  In Germany she is constrained by ideas about how young women should behave, and any assertiveness on behalf of her Badtjala friends is frowned upon.  As mutual feelings of attraction develop between Hilda and Bonny, she also finds herself constrained by the prevailing racism: it seems to be acceptable for a European man to be attracted to Dorondera, but the idea of a European woman being attracted to Bonny is shocking.

Like The Grand Experiment, Paris Savages is a different slant on Stolen Generations.  These three Badtjala people had their lives stolen by false promises and betrayals.  Johnson’s novel brings this shameful episode to life in a way that readers won’t forget.

See also Theresa Smith’s review.

Author: Katherine Johnson
Title: Paris Savages
Publisher: Ventura Press, 2019, 352 pages
ISBN: 9781925384703
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond:Paris Savages

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2019

2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize shortlists

The shortlists for the 2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes have been announced. Thanks to @BplusPNews for sharing this news:

Tasmania Book Prize for the best book with Tasmanian content in any genre ($25,000)

Margaret Scott Prize for the best book by a Tasmanian writer ($5000)

  • Conglomerate by Ben Walter, (A Published Event)
  • Flames by Robbie Arnott, (Text Publishing), see my review
  • Star-crossed by Minnie Darke, (Michael Joseph) (I think this is actually by Danielle Wood, writing romance.  But I can’t open the paywalled newspaper article that just shows its opening lines from a Google search.  See Theresa Smith’s review).
  • The Curious Life of Krill: A conservation story from the bottom of the world by Stephen Nicol, (Island Press), see the description at Island Press.

 

University of Tasmania Prize for the best unpublished literary work by an emerging Tasmanian writer ($5000)

  • ‘The People’s Park’ by Stephenie Cahalan
  • ‘The Signal Line’ by Brendan Colley
  • ‘The Clinking’ by Susie Greenhill

Tasmanian young writer’s fellowship

  • Priscilla Beck
  • Sam George-Allen
  • Hannah Warwarek.

Voting for the People’s Choice Awards is also now open.

True to form, this prize has unearthed some books that haven’t had much exposure.  So…

I’m posting the description of Island Story: Tasmania in object and text from Goodreads, because its title makes it sound like an academic text about postmodernism.  And it’s not that at all!

A handsome full-colour book pairing unique items from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery with selections of original writing about the southern island.
Indigenous dispossession, a cruel penal history, gay-rights battles; exceptional landscapes, unusual wildlife, environmental activism; colonial architecture, arts and crafts, a thriving creative scene—all are part of the story of Tasmania. And they find their expression in the unparalleled collection of Hobart’s TMAG.
In Island Story, Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood select almost sixty representative TMAG objects: from shell necklaces to a convict cowl, colonial scrimshaw to a thylacine pincushion, contemporary photography to a film star’s travelling case. Each is matched to texts old and new, by writers as diverse as Anthony Trollope, Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Helene Chung, Jim Everett, Heather Rose and Ben Walter.
This is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the island everyone is talking about.

PS I can’t find out anything about Conglomerate but I’ve contacted A Published Event for more information.

The winners will be announced on 5 December.  For more information see their website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2019

The Unknown Judith Wright, by Georgina Arnott

Settle back with a nice cup of coffee and something to nibble on: this is a long post, but the book deserves it.

Judith Wright (1915-2000) was an award-winning and much-loved Australian poet, author, environmental activist and campaigner for Aboriginal land rights.  In my battered copy of The 1972 Penguin Book of Australian Verse edited by Harry Heseltine editor, she is described as

…one of the few writers to enjoy unchallenged pre-eminence in contemporary Australian poetry.  Since the appearance of her first book, The Moving Image, in 1946, she has been recognised, both at home and abroad, as a poet of great accomplishments.  Born in the New England area of New South wales, for may years she lived with her family at Mt Tamborine, Queensland. (p.15)

At the time Heseltine was writing, Judith Wright was almost sixty, and living in a bush shack outside Canberra.

I bought Georgina Arnott’s  bio of Judith Wright at the Williamstown Literary Festival in 2017 to complement Fiona Capp’s My Blood’s Country: In the footsteps of Judith Wright, which I reviewed here.  There are also other books about her life, notably South of My Days (1998) by Veronica Brady, and there is also her autobiography Half a Lifetime (Text Publishing, 2001).  But as Arnott explained at the festival, these works don’t adequately interrogate the contradictions in Judith Wright’s life.  Her parents weren’t just wealthy pastoralists, they were from the squattocracy, and the mythology about their lives and achievements shaped the poet’s life more than she wanted to acknowledge.

This is the blurb from Fishpond:

Judith Wright (1915-2000) remains a giant figure within Australian art, culture and politics. Her 1946 collection of poetry, The Moving Image, revolutionised Australian poetry. She helped to establish the modern Australian environmental movement and was a key player in early campaigns for Aboriginal land rights. A friend and confidante of artists, writers, scholars, activists and policy makers – she remains an inspiration to many. And yet, as Georgina Arnott is able to show in this major new work, the biographical picture we have had of this renowned poet-activist has been very much a partial one. This book presents a more human figure than we have previously seen, and concentrates on Wright’s younger years. New material allows us to hear, directly, thrillingly, the feisty voice of a young Judith Wright and forces us to reconsider the woman we thought we knew.

The biographical picture we have had isn’t just a partial one, it’s also somewhat skewed by taking for granted what Wright had to say about herself, particularly with regard to the influence of her parents.  Drawing on her autobiographical writings, biographers have tended to take at face value that her early life in a wealthy pastoral family served only as a launching pad for rebellion.  Arnott’s research shows that this is not the whole picture. In particular, Arnott’s thesis is that Wright didn’t fully acknowledge that her family was complicit in the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous people from the land that became the Hunter Valley, nor that her university years had influenced her thinking.

Along the way, I learned some interesting aspects of history. The early chapters of The Unknown Judith Wright are an interesting introduction to squatter history in New South Wales, and the domestic sphere in particular:

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the home increasingly figured as a private sphere governed by women.  In her account of the ideology informing the architecture of the modern Australian home, Kerreen Reiger describes the early century, middle-class ideal of ‘a peaceful home in which a clear-cut sexual division of labour existed between husband and wife [and where the] children were orderly, “well-governed”‘.  In the Wright household Ethel [Judith’s mother] spent almost her entire time inside the house and Phillip spent most of his time outside it, including at Country Party meetings.  This Judith registered to the extent that all of her childhood memories were arranged accordingly.  ‘I find it all falls into inside and outside for me.  Inside was women…My brothers used to follow the male side,’ which I always thought of internally as the outside.’ (p.78)

The etiquette for the squattocracy meant that Ethel had a lonely time when she became chronically ill.

Though Ethel lived amongst many people, including male and female servants, and farmers on small neighbouring plots, none were considered appropriate social companions.  Her social milieu was made up of large land-owning families of New South Wales and Queensland who were, by dint of their land, set at great distances apart from each other.  Judith observed that ‘one of the chief factors in the loneliness of the women of the “New England aristocracy’ was just this refusal to admit any outsider even to afternoon tea.” She explained, “my mother spent much of her time in solitude. It was not done to talk to the house “girls” and a housewife who was not well enough to do much work about the hosue or in the garden was doubly isolated.” (p.77-78)

For reasons I don’t need to explain, I don’t usually have much sympathy for pastoralists, but this image of a sick woman marooned for years in loneliness by the snobberies of her class is poignant.

And then there was the impact on Judith: then as now, it was expected that the female child of the family would adopt a nurturing role to care for her ailing mother.  Judith resented this, and then she felt guilty about her resentment…

Arnott explores Wright’s lack of acknowledgement of her university years in depth.  Most of us who’ve been to university—at least in the Arts faculty—would acknowledge, I am sure, that our lecturers and the people we met, influenced us in various ways.  But Judith Wright apparently denied that she was influenced by her academic studies at all.  Arnott’s investigations into this part of Judith’s life covers two whole chapters called ‘The Shaping of an Intellect’ and ‘Campus Literary Discussion’, which contradict the view of her biographer Veronica Brady in South of My Days (1998) that Judith’s innate abilities led her to critique conservative aspects of her university curriculum.  Arnott writes that there is scant evidence that Judith did question it. Brady’s claim is not supported by an examination of the university course Judith was taking or by a close reading of her early poetry.  Of course, by the time Judith came to write her autobiography Judith’s own interests lay in social change rather than in lectures that took place fifty years before.  But though the point is made politely, Arnott notes that Brady’s depiction of Judith’s lecturers relies almost completely on Judith’s unchecked recollections. [1] And what Brady failed to unearth (or to acknowledge?) was that the subject Judith failed was Australian history, because she didn’t sit the exam.

Why not? Well, it was taught by Professor Stephen Roberts whose field of research presented an unflattering analysis of inequality within early colonial society and the rapacious behaviour of squatter families like Judith’s.  (His stance was not at all commensurate with Judith’s 1959 history The Generations of Men.) Likewise, Judith’s antipathy towards Roberts later expressed itself in a misleading representation of his treatment of Aborigines in his books.  Like most historians of the period he was remiss, but he did acknowledge that the land was occupied rather than terra nullius, and that the Aborigines did not cede their sovereignty.   I think that a contemporary author fictionalising Judith Wright’s life could write a very interesting chapter about this hostility to Stephen Roberts!

What was also interesting to me in the chapter called ‘Becoming Modern’ was that Judith was very quickly transplanted from her lodgings outside the university into the University of Sydney’s Women’s College, after her father deputed a friend to investigate her risqué living arrangements. Apparently, in 1934, when Wright was admitted to university, it was unusual for women to live by themselves, and the university imposed restrictions on its students’ living arrangements:

…stating that ‘no student shall be allowed to attend the lectures of classes of the university unless he dwells’ with a parent or guardian, a relative who has been approved by the University, in an educational establishment such as a college, or in a boarding house licensed by the university.  Judith was probably risking her place at the University by staying at the Glebe house. (p.114)

Can you imagine any university trying to control student living arrangements these days??

What’s more, it appears that Judith’s admission may have been partly due to her parents’ money and influence.  The College at that time, under the Principal Susannah Williams, was trying to transition from being a social conduit which enabled the children of wealthy families to meet, to an atmosphere of ‘intellectual enquiry’. But it was an uphill battle to reduce the number of unmatriculated female student admissions and to insist that residents had to pass their university subjects. Judith, when she was forced by her father into the respectable environment of the college, had neither matriculated nor passed all her subjects, and it’s not clear why she was admitted there in the first place.   However, Arnott’s research into Wright’ academic record shows that she became a more serious student in her final two years due in part to the mentorship of the incoming new Principal Camilla Wedgwood. [Why the ADB has a photo of Wedgwood in uniform when her war service was only a year of a life full of other much more significant achievements I do not know.]

The main part of this book explores the ways in which Judith engaged (if at all) with radical ideas at university, how she was changed intellectually by her time there, and ultimately whether she was ‘born’ or ‘made’.  In ‘A Very Model Student’ Arnott explores the differences between her research into the roles women had at the student newspaper Honi Soit and Judith’s not entirely warranted scorn for the limited opportunities that were there. Of course it was not progressive by today’s standards, but that it published both feminist and patriarchal views wasn’t acknowledged by Wright, writing her autobiography many years later, and she was not as powerless as she made out because in 1936 she was a committee member of The Arts Journal. 

The idea that she spent years working on the newspaper with no recognition is an overreach. (p.135)

I was also very interested in the chapter which explored the university curriculum because it offers insight into Australia’s cultural history.  Judith was a student during the development of modernism and the emergence of nationalism in Australian literature, and Arnott’s thorough research shows that her time at Sydney University gave her access to what were then élite ideas about what Australian literature could be.

The chapter which analyses early anonymous poems and those with pseudonyms is an indication of how exhaustive Arnott’s research was.  Arnott’s analysis shows that some of Judith’s writing in this period mocked those less well-off or less sophisticated than she was.  There are possible reasons for this: not wanting to appear too earnest, or wanting to fit in, or even intended as sarcasm or parody.  A teenage poem, ‘A Call to Arms’ was described by Veronica Brady as ‘for once’ succumbing to imperial feeling, but the identification of an anonymous ‘Poem 2’ shows that ‘A Call to Arms’ was not the sole poem on this theme.  Rather, it extends the notion of public duty and self-sacrifice in war service to include settler hardships.  It’s obvious why Judith might not have wanted to revisit these early written pieces when she was older and lionised for her left-wing attitudes.  The point is that the image most of us have of Judith Wright and her politics is not the whole story.

This a more scholarly version of Wright’s life than Fiona Capp’s My Blood’s Country I’ve read, and there’s a lot to take in, but it’s an intriguing adjunct to what I’ve read before. For me, it raises once again the thorny issues surrounding whether it’s ever actually possible to condense a life within the pages of a book, and how much of an autobiography can ever really be ‘true’.

[1] To be fair to Veronica Brady, in an undated article at the NLA, she acknowledged that

Truth in biography – and even more in autobiography on which I rely a good deal – is not synonymous with mere fact.

If the 2019 VCE literature text list is any guide, students don’t read Wright’s poetry these days, but you can read some of her poems here.

For another review see John Kinsella at the SMH.

Author: Georgina Arnott
Title: The Unknown Judith Wright
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2016, 293 pages
ISBN: 9781742588216
Source: Personal library, purchased at the 2017 Williamstown Literary Festival, $30

Available from Fishpond: The Unknown Judith Wright

Well, it’s not often I get to read the work of a Nobel Prize winning author the day after she is awarded the prize!

I subscribe to a site called Words without Borders, a source of very interesting writing from all sort of sources.  Today, their newsletter contained a short story by Olga Tokarczuk, familiar to many readers for her novel Drive Your Plow [sic] Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones or House of Day, House of Night which was shortlisted for the IMPAC Literary Award.  But #FailingToKeepUp I haven’t read either of these, so I was pleased to have a chance to catch up a little bit…

The Knight is a short story by Olga Tokarczuk and translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft.  This is the blurb from Words without Borders:

Olga Tokarczuk, who first appeared in our pages in 2005 with an excerpt from her wrenching tale of wartime survival, Final Stories, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. She then returned in 2008 with this short story, “The Knight,” translated by Jennifer Croft. Tokarczuk’s explorations of relationships under pressure, whether political or internal, combine a keen sense of character with a sure hand at narrative to capture the essence of humanity. As a couple’s alienation plays out over a chessboard, Tokarczuk’s deft portrayal of feints and attacks maps a marriage at stalemate.

The opening lines with that single word ‘snatched’ show the reader where the story is going from the outset:

At first she tried struggling with the locks, but they were obviously not in sync, because when she managed to turn the key in one of them, the other stayed locked—and vice versa. The wind came in gusts off the sea, winding her wool scarf around her face. Finally he set down both bags in the driveway and snatched the keys out of her hand. He managed to get the door open immediately.

Next thing, he’s ticking her off for sweeping the sand off the deck. He has decided they won’t be using it at that time of the year, and he has decided that he’s the one who gets to decide, and he’s the one who gets to tell her what she should be doing.

He puts the TV on immediately, and she protests and wants to say something else as well—but she doesn’t.

Though the reader’s sympathies lie with the woman because we know more about her inner thoughts, she annoys him too.  He hates it when she smokes, and he doesn’t say anythng.  Because though their marriage is stale, and their irritability levels are high, there’s enough good will to try and make their first night at the beach house a good one, so they don’t risk the second bottle of wine and they play chess. She lets him win, and he knows she let him.  They decide to play a more serious game, one that might last for days…

In 6000+ words, the story plays out over their walks on the beach, the loss of the knight from the chessboard, and their inconclusive night together in bed.  Their mutual hostilities have causes big and small, but the most telling, I thought, was her dislike of the way he photographs her all the time, objectifying her and not really seeing her as a person.

There’s not much in this story to show why Tokarczuk is a Nobel laureate.  #DuckingForCover Stories of marriages bad, mad or sad, are a bit of yawn IMO, and they’re all much like each other.  The Nobel citation reads ‘for a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.’ I’m not entirely sure that I know what that means, but one day when I get round to reading one of her books, I might find out!

If you would like to read The Knight too, follow this link to Words without Borders (and subscribe to their site while you’re at it).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2019

2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist

The 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist was announced last month but I didn’t get round to posting about it here, and now the announcement of the winners is upon us!

Here are the books in contention:

Fiction
A Stolen Season, by Rodney Hall (my review)
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (my review)
Saudade by Suneeta Peres da Costa (my review)
Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Non-fiction
A Certain Light: A memoir of family, loss and hope, by Cynthia Banham
Rusted off: Why Country Australia is fed up, by Gabrielle Chan
Half the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964, by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell
The Arsonist: A mind on fire, by Chloe Hooper (my review)
Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin (see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums)

Australian history
Deep time dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia, by Billy Griffiths
Dancing in Shadows: Histories of Nyungar performance, by Anna Haebich
The Land of Deams: How Australians won their freedom, 1788-1860, by David Kemp
The Bible in Australia: A cultural history, by Meredith Lake
You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world, by Clare Wright (my review)

Poetry
Sun Music by Judith Beveridge
Click Here for What We Do by Pam Brown
Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury
Viva the Real by Jill Jones
Blakwork by Alison Whitaker

Young Adult
Between Us by Clare Atkins
The Things That Will Not Stand by Michael Gerard Bauer
Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee
The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot
Cicada by Shaun Tan

For Children’s Literature nominees, see the award website.

The winners will be announced on October 23rd.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2019

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Readers with long memories may recall that I heard Andrew Sean Greer speak at the Auckland Writers Festival in May and decided there and then that I would read his Pulitzer prize winning book.  I didn’t buy it then, because I had a suitcase full of books by NZ authors, and I didn’t buy it when I got home because I’d rather spend my money on Australian authors who haven’t won a prize that guarantees best sellerdom all over the world. (Did you know that the Pulitzer winners only get a mingy US$15,000? But the fame must be priceless.)

Anyway, the popularity of Less explains why I have waited all these months for my turn with the book from the library…

To be honest, I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about.  It’s amusing, as Greer was at the festival, but a mild and not particularly witty satire about a middle-aged man’s sorrows just didn’t engage me much.  I mainly kept reading it to offset a really demanding book that I couldn’t make myself read at bedtime, (more about that in due course) but I wouldn’t have cared much if I’d run out of library time, and already I can’t remember much of the episodic plot.

I had my one-and-only laugh-out-loud moment on page 103…

Arthur Less is a mid-list author who has wangled his way into assorted literary commitments around the world in order to avoid the patronising judgements that accompany attending, or not attending, the marriage of Freddy, who used to be his lover.  So Less has a gig in Germany as a guest lecturer at the ‘Liberated University’ because (he thinks) he speaks fluent German.  He has dusted off a writing course he had given at a Jesuit college in California and put the entire syllabus through a computer translation and called it Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein.  And instead of the expected three students, he finds the classroom overflowing with 130 students.

‘I am your Mr Professor.’

He is not.  Unaware of the enormous difference between the German Professor and Dozent, the former being a rank achieved only through decades of internment in the academic prison, the latter a mere parolee, Less has given himself a promotion.

‘And now, I am sorry, I must kill most of you.’

With this startling announcement, [LH: Remember, he is American, where they have A Lot Of Guns and Don’t Hesitate to Use Them] he proceeds to weed out any students who are not registered in the Global Linguistics and Literature Department. (p.103)

Less is pleasant, light-hearted reading, and it makes a change to read a gay love story that isn’t a melancholy tragedy. (Actually, it’s rare to read any book, these days, that isn’t angst-ridden).  But it doesn’t strike me as great literature.  I’ve read about a quarter of the Pulitzer winners from Saul Bellow to Annie Proulx and more, but Less IMO isn’t in the same league as the ones I’ve reviewed on this blog:

But then the Pulitzer has always seemed to me to be an uneven prize.  All prizes can be, but I’ve had too many disappointments with it to take much notice of it. I liked Less, but I find it hard to believe that it was the most impressive book of its year.  FWIW it wasn’t included in The Best 20 novels of 2017 at Harper’s Bazaar.

However, Simon at Stuck in a Book has recently read it, and he liked it a lot.  See here.

Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Title: Less
Publisher: Abacus, an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group (Hachette UK), 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9780349143590
Source: Kingston Library

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2019

Rosa, Memories With Licence – a template for other writers?

“Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.” So says writing teacher Mairi Neil in this enthusiastic review…

Up the Creek with a pen ...

rosa front cover.jpg

It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.

The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially since the book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.

However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.

A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2019

Book Review: Rosa: Memories With Licence by Ros Collins

A perceptive review of a book written by one of my dearest friends!

Theresa Smith Writes

Rosa: Memories With Licence…

About the Book:

As British as Earl Grey tea, ‘Rosa’ has spent most of her life in Melbourne. Her children and grandchildren are all Australian-born, as was Alan, her writer husband. But Rosa is hesitant about an unconditional commitment to Vegemite, mateship and the ANZAC legend; she remains a perennial migrant, often amused by her memories, here presented with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.

Her family’s history is nearer to Dickens than the shtetls of Eastern Europe; Rosa herself recalls Dunkirk and the Blitz. Beyond the conservatism of 1950s London that she escaped, Rosa flings open the windows and doors to invite the reader into her Anglo-Australian-Jewish family. She refrains from delving into deep psychological examinations of what it means to be an only child, an only grandchild, a reluctant Jewish teenager, and muse to a man whose terrible childhood scarred him for life…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2019

2019 Voss Literary Prize longlist

The longlist for the 2019 Voss Literary Prize has been announced., and I’ve read more than half of them.

The longlisted titles are:

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Launched in 2014, the Voss Literary Prize is dedicated to the memory of historian Vivian Robert Le Vaux Voss. Last year’s winner was Bram Presser for The Book of Dirt.

For more information about the Voss Literary Prize prize, please see here.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Wikipedia Commons*)

A most interesting report popped into my inbox this morning.  The following comes from a report into the reading behaviour of New Zealanders, and it uses an interesting methodology.  Instead of using what people could recall of their reading, they texted survey participants to see what they were reading at that time. 

Clearly, the research participants were comfortable using a phone to receive the texts.  (It would be no good for me, all my friends know that I hate the phone and for preference, don’t have it anywhere near me. I am unlikely to see their texts until I charge the phone at night.  If it’s urgent, send me an email.)

The research process captures all that other reading that we do. For example, in the last hour this morning, I’ve read 28 emails; read four blog posts; read an article at The Conversation and this report; and haven’t read the news.

I have highlighted in bold, the findings that seem unexpected or worrying.

My thanks go to Melissa Wastney, Communication and Engagement Manager, at Read NZ Te Pou Muramura for permission to quote this press release:

New Zealanders spend half their waking lives online, are flicking between multiple texts at any given time, and are less likely to engage in long text, a new study shows.

Reading in a Digital Age, a unique insight into New Zealanders’ reading behaviour, has been released by Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly New Zealand Book Council)Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly New Zealand Book Council).

Unlike previous studies of our reading habits, this research was in part experiential and involved texting participants at various points across the day and week to monitor what they were reading at that moment in time. Previous studies have relied solely on what people have been able to recall of their reading behaviour.

The study found that at any point in time, two thirds of us are reading something and of those who are reading, 70% are reading online. We are most likely to be reading our emails, news websites or our social media feeds.

This online reading usually involves skimming and switching between different texts and devices at the same time. 53% of those surveyed said they usually skipped over long text when reading online.

44% said they found it harder to read long and challenging content than they did in the past. This is especially true of those aged 25-54 and tertiary qualified New Zealanders.

However, a third say they are reading more now than ever before because of the availability of content and ease and enjoyment of switching between formats.

Older New Zealanders, especially women, are still reading books for pleasure. The research concludes that online reading is displacing book reading, though not replacing it.

Read NZ CEO Jo Cribb says the organisation wanted to follow its previous research reports with a more in-depth look at online reading to better understand what people were actually doing.

“While we know much about our book reading habits, we also know that on average we spend half our waking life online. We wanted to learn more about what and how we are reading on our devices,” she says.

“The good news is that reading is such an important part of New Zealanders’ lives. But it is concerning that we’re finding it harder to read long and challenging content online than we might have in the past.

“We’re excited to release this research and share the challenges and opportunities it presents. We hope it will start a broader conversation about the importance of reading, and especially reading longer text,” says Jo.

Reading in the Digital Age was delivered for Read NZ Te Pou Muramura by Research First Ltd. A copy of the full report can be downloaded here.

One of the key messages in the full report is that much of this ‘reading’ does not reach the level of engagement that has been shown to provide the benefits associated with reading longer form pieces.  I think we knew that already, but in confirming it with research, the full report goes on to say this:

The argument that time spent online or with digital devices potentially undermines (rather than simply displaces) longer form reading is based on what all the time online does to our brains. In particular, the move to engaging with material through ‘continuous partial attention’ means an increase in ‘cognitive impatience’. This leads to the loss of what Professor Maryanne Wolf has called ‘deep reading’ – the kind of reading that requires the reader’s complete attention to understand the thoughts on the page. This lack of engagement means opportunities to develop the brain circuitry needed for deep reading are absent, which may also affect the ability to engage in deep reflection and original thought. Or, as Professor Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzilla put it, this change in reading behaviour might:

Short-circuit the development of slower, more cognitively demanding comprehensive processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking. If such truncated development occurs, we may be spawning a culture so inured to sound bites and thought bits that it fosters neither critical analysis nor contemplative processes in its members.

That is a very scary thought…

What do you think? 

Here’s a couple of little polls, of no research validity whatsoever because anyone still reading this post is by definition a reader of long texts:

Dare I ask… do you detect more shallow thinking among the people you connect with?

To read more about the effects of screen reading, see research here.

About Read NZ Te Pou Muramura

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura changed its name from the NZ Book Council in 2019.  It is Aotearoa’s only national agency dedicated to reading, seeking to build a nation of readers leading to social, cultural and economic wellbeing.

*Image credit:

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard – National Gallery of Art., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=130064

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2019

Field of Poppies, by Carmel Bird

I was really looking forward to reading Carmel Bird’s latest novel, and I am pleased to say that it does not disappoint!

The voice in this latest novel from one of our best-loved writers is just like one of my dearest friends.  Chatty, discursive, and intelligent; knowledgeable about the history of the world and sensitive to its contemporary woes; warm, witty and kind.  But reading Field of Poppies is not just like a long, leisurely intimate conversation with someone whose wisdom I treasure, it’s also a perfect expression of the zeitgeist.  (And if you want any confirmation of that, check out Australia Talks at ABC Online, to see the issues that are bothering other Australians).

The narrator is Marsali Swift, an older woman who is an irrepressible optimist reluctantly coming to terms with unpleasant truths.  The 20th century was a dreadful century, but the 21st may even be worse.  And there is no hiding from it.  Marsali, a retired interior designer, and her husband William, still working part-time as a doctor, made a tree-change to the (fictional) town of Muckleton in Victoria’s goldfields region, but the world found them there anyway.

Eureka Tower (Wikipedia)

Two events, she tells us right at the beginning, have propelled them back to urban life in the Eureka Tower in Melbourne.  Their Muckleton house was robbed while they were on a jaunt to hear La Traviata at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, and a woman called Alice Dooley has vanished.  As it happens, most of their eccentric possessions were recovered from the robbery, but Marsali still feels that her rural idyll has been violated.  Her sense of security is shattered, partly because she has to face up to the fact that her sense of community is a myth. Robbery isn’t just something that happens in the city, and what makes it worse is that in the countryside, it’s committed by people that you know.

And while Alice was only an acquaintance, an eccentric divorcée who lived alone in the former matrimonial home and played a very valuable violin in a community musical group, Marsali feels her disappearance keenly. It is a sign that evil has come to Muckleton which in their retirement was meant to be a refuge from the meanness of city life.  Marsali (though she’s not religious) suggests a prayer vigil, and the community organises it, but Alice’s disappearance remains an open wound.

Though of course the rest of the world has moved on.  Alice’s Ex, Eamon takes over the house and begins renovations.  [Remember Jon McGregor’s achingly sad Reservoir 13, about how the world moves on after a tragic unexplained disappearance?]

Marsali’s one consolation is her book-group.  It’s called Mirrabooka (!) and not only has Marsali has been with it for ages, she still drives up to Muckleton for its gatherings.  Like most women her age, Marsali has a strong bond with her female friends and their shared experiences mean a lot to her.  They read serious books, (with intentions to read Proust one day), but since the disappearance of Alice, their choices always seem to come round to stories of vanished women as in Picnic at Hanging Rock and Alice in Wonderland.  Their conversations often return to Alice Dooley and her disappearance; through gossip Marsali learns that blood and hair were found on Alice’s fridge handle.  Now in her vivid imagination she keeps seeing Alice with a head wound.

There are three parts to the novel: The Robbery, The Disappearance, and The Mine, which changes life for everyone in Muckleton.

What William and I quickly came to realise was that the road would also cut right across the back boundary of our property at Listowel.  Not exactly on our land, but along the lower edge of it, so that there would never be any peace again.  Not ever.  There would be constant traffic to and from the Soo.  It takes unimaginable energy and wild commotion to destroy forests.  Noise carried fast and far out there.  It jolted and bothered and rattled the windowpanes.  It rattled us.  Seven years of blissful musical peace and harmony and silvery silence, and then first the groans and roars of the making of the road, to be followed by the constant grinding of the traffic.  Back and forth. Day and Night.  The secrets of midnight penetrated by the blinding searchlights of the trucks.  Not to mention the dust.  We hadn’t thought about the dust that would forever fly towards us on the wind, would settle all across the garden, all over everything and right into the house itself. Dust all over everything.  It was fine and gritty and somehow sinister.  I often remembered the asbestos flakes falling like snow on the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz. That was the dust that woke up Dorothy and her friends; this was the dust that had awakened us.  One day I had a kind of vision of the garden all coated and choking in pale yellow dust, and I suddenly found myself sitting alone under the chestnut tree weeping tears of despair, looking up at Listowel in great sadness. (p.159)

[This is exactly how I feel about the people behind us building a double-storey monstrosity of concrete that blocks the sunrise that we used to see through our French windows.  Something that we loved has been taken from us, and it’s gone forever.]

Yet even as Marsali mourns the loss of her rural idyll, she is conscious of perspective and privilege:

When you put this abandonment of our soft velvet existence, with its poppy field and its lovely fossils in the very stones of the house, up against the lives of starving people driven from their homes by war and famine, our journey from Muckleton to Melbourne begins to look absurd and trivial. (p.161)

That’s it, isn’t it? We feel we ought not to complain, but still…

A word about the book.  Bucking the trend to near-universal publication in paperback, Transit Lounge is producing some of its new titles in beautiful hardback copies.  Alec Patric’s The Butcherbird Stories was in hardback, (see my review); so is another new release called The Sea and Us (on my TBR) from Stella short-listee Catherine de Saint-Phalle; and so is Field of Poppies. It has buttercup yellow boards, burgundy endpapers with a design reminiscent of Victorian wallpaper and a reproduction of Monet’s Field of Poppies (as referenced in the novel), and a lush dustjacket as you can see above. At $29.99 RRP, this hardback edition isn’t any more expensive than the retail price of most of the paperbacks we see. And it is just perfect for this extravagantly textured novel, gently satirising the way we focus on ourselves and our own lives while everything is falling apart and the planet is in deep trouble.

Image credit:

Author: Carmel Bird
Title:Field of Poppies
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781925760392
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond (from November 1st): Field of Poppies and direct from Transit Lounge (where there are also reading group notes) and good bookshops everywhere.

Some of the choices in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die baffle me. The book, the Introduction by Peter Boxall tells us, is supposed to be a guide to books that are landmarks in the story of the novel, a long and rambling affair, full of surprising turns, and unlikely subplots.  So yes, you get a bit of everything and fair enough too.

But…

Jennifer Byrne in the Preface to the Australian edition warns us against being book snobs, and I try not to be, in the case of genre fiction, but why are there four titles by Dashiell Hammett? I mean, once you’ve grasped that this author is more or less synonymous with the change in the detective story from the master detective versus impenetrable crime novel to a more ‘everyday’ approach, what else do this author’s four titles represent in the way of a landmark? I’ve read the yada-yada for the other three titles (The Glass Key, The Thin Man and Red Harvest, and all I can glean is that Red Harvest (1929) was the first hard-boiled detective novel; The Glass Key (1931) helps to establish the genre; and The Thin Man (1932) is different because it features a married couple with a vibrant social life instead of the mythical solitaries of conventional noir investigation thus suggesting that corruption is everywhere in America.

Well, too bad, it’s going to be only 998 books that I’m going to read before I die, because I am not going to read another one of these Hammetts. One is quite enough.  (And it’s very annoying when you consider that those three surplus books could have been replaced by any number of beaut books that they couldn’t find room for,  broadening the scope to include more novels from outside the US and UK, gosh, maybe even something from Australia, eh?) (I still find it surprising that Jennifer Byrne didn’t stick her hand up and say, ‘Hey, there are a couple of other Australian authors besides Patrick White that you might want to include?’)

Anyway…

The Spouse has seen the film starring Humphrey Bogart, and I bet everyone else has too, but I haven’t.  I only hope they did a better job of the twists and turns in the plot than the book, because I knew before I was half way through that—

SPOILER ALERT

—the item worth killing people for wasn’t going to be the real thing.

And I am really bad at working out whodunnit in Midsumma Murders, Death in Paradise, Vera, and the Father Brown Mysteries which I watch sometimes when I’m doing the ironing. So anyone even moderately competent at identifying whodunnits will work it out long before I did.

So why did I read it?  #SheepishExpression: Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. are hosting the 1930s book club, and I didn’t have anything published in 1930 on the TBR, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and reserve a 1930s library book that was also in 1001 Books. Cakes and Ale came in immediately, and I loved it, (see here) and then The Maltese Falcon and I hate to waste my library’s time so I felt I had to read it too.

I should stop whinging.  It only took a few hours to read.  And now I have only 640 637 books to go.

Author: Dashiell Hammett
Title: The Maltese Falcon
Publisher: Gale Greengage Publishing, 2009, first published 1929
ISBN: 9781597228985, large print edition so it’s 346 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 4, 2019

Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham

Given my poor track record, no one is more surprised than me that I have finished my book on time for the 1930s Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. I didn’t have anything published in 1930 that I hadn’t already read on the shelves at home, and I was not expecting my library to come up trumps so quickly. But here I am, delighted by my luck at discovering Cakes and Ale, said to be the favourite book of W. Somerset Maugham…

Maugham (1894-1965) was safely settled in the south of France when the storm broke over this book.  Cakes and Ale is a piercing satire of British literary circles, and features (apparently) very recognisable portraits of authors Thomas Hardy, and Maugham’s erstwhile friend Horace Walpole.  The Introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare gossips about these and other correspondences, but really, the pleasure in reading this novel for contemporary readers comes from Maugham’s self-awareness of his own adolescent snobberies; from the satirical depiction of literary circles and their modus operandi; and from the wonderful portrait of Rosie Driffield which foreshadows the rise of independent women free from the stuffy constraints of prevailing social and sexual mores.

Narrated by the author William Ashenden, Cakes and Ale tells the story of fellow-author Alroy Kear’s efforts to write a biography of the recently deceased Edward Driffield.  Urged on by Driffield’s legacy-building widow, the second Mrs Driffield, Alroy wants to plunder Ashenden’s memories of the Driffields from his days in Blackstable.  The first Mrs Driffield was a barmaid, so Alroy is interested in some salacious revelations, but not intending to include them.  What he is hoping to find for his ‘dignified’ bio is the reason why Driffield wrote his best work while with her, and not so much with the second wife who managed his career (and him). The book is structured so that Ashenden can trawl his schoolboy memories of Rosie and his eventual undergraduate affair with her—without revealing how much of any of this is to be disclosed to Alroy.

There are many lough-out-loud moments in Cakes and Ale. Alroy is soon revealed to have had a literary career that could have served as a model for other aspiring writers: Ashenden can think of no other among his contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.  Which like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax [a wheatgerm dietary supplement, presumably for constipation] might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon.  Alroy has taken the advice of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) who said that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains.  Ashenden’s scorn for Alroy is obvious:

If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle. (p.9)

Note the order in the next excerpt, of Ashenden’s list of notables for Alroy to have courted.  Royalty comes second last, indicating Alroy’s laborious climb up the ladder rather than being born to high rank. There is, sneers Ashenden, something captivating about the jauntiness with which in his early novels he handles viceroys, ambassadors, prime ministers, royalties, and great ladies.  Ashenden puts this down to Alroy’s luck in having a parent who made many sacrifices to provide so costly an education and used his Colonial Office contacts to inveigle Alroy into a job as a tutor in society. Ashenden (Maugham’s alter ego) does a fine line in patronising commentary, skewering here not just his victim but also fashions in literary taste.  Note also the way he uses the diminutive Roy here:

I always think it a pity that, fashion having decided that the doings of the aristocracy are no longer a proper subject for serious fiction, Roy, always keenly sensitive to the tendency of the age, should in his later novels have confined himself to the spiritual conflicts of solicitors, chartered accountants, and produce brokers.  He does not move in these circles with his old assurance. (p.10)

Much later on in the book, when Ashenden claims to be embarrassed by his reflections about losing his virginity to Rosie, he says he wishes he hadn’t chosen to use first person in this book.  He then goes onto to deliver a serve to his contemporary Evelyn Waugh (1906-1966):

A little while ago I read in the Evening Standard an article by Mr Evelyn Waugh in the course of which he remarked that to write novels in the first person was a contemptible practice.  I wish he had explained why, but he merely threw out the statement with just the same take-it-or-leave-it casualness as Euclid used when he made his celebrated observation about parallel straight lines.  I was much concerned, and forthwith asked Alroy Kear (who reads everything, even the books he writes prefaces for) to recommend to me some works on the art of fiction.  On his advice I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by Mr. E.M. Forster, from which I learned the only way to write novels was like Mr. E.M. Forster; then I read The Structure of the Novel by Mr Edwin Muir, from which I learned nothing at all.  In none of them could I discover anything to the point at issue.  All the same I can find one reason why certain novelists, such as Defoe, Sterne, Thackeray, Dickens, Emily Brontë, and Proust, well known in their day but now doubtless forgotten, have used the method that Mr Evelyn Waugh reprehends. (p.140)

Reflecting that as they age, authors become more conscious of—and write about—the unreasonableness of human beings instead of more important things, Ashenden suggests that it is evidently more sensible to occupy yourself with the coherent, substantial, and significant creatures of fiction than with the irrational and shadowy figures of real life.  [This is, of course, exactly what Maugham is doing here, though he apparently denied any allusions to the figures of real life that he lampoons in Cakes and Ale.]

Sometimes the novelist feels himself like God and is prepared to tell you everything about his characters; sometimes, however, he does not; and then he tells you not everything that is to be known about them but the little he knows himself; and since as we grow older we feel ourselves less and less like God I should not be surprised to learn that with advancing years the novelist grows less and less inclined to describe more than his own experience had given him. The first person singular is a very useful device for this limited purpose.(p.141)

I loved this book, and I recommend it to all aspiring authors, for the reasons so cogently explained by 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:

[When] Ashenden refuses to countenance Kear’s proposal to write a biography with all the objectionable details left out, [what is at stake] are questions about literary value, the marketing of authors, modern advertising, the cult of the public personality, and the transient nature of literary reputations. (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 2006 edition, p.346)

Amd it was written 90-odd years ago in 1930!

That beautiful cover image is by Finn C-Notmann.

Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Title: Cakes and Ale
Introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare
Publisher: Vintage, 2000, 193 pages, first published 1930
ISBN: 9780099282778
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Cakes And Ale

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2019

The Valley, by Steve Hawke

I bought The Valley on a whim, lured partly by a cover promising a masterfully told epic of the Kimberley and partly because Hawke was an Australian author who’d fallen under my radar.

Though the novel tells the story of successive generations (and includes a family tree), it’s a misnomer to call it a family saga.  It’s structured in a more imaginative way, travelling backwards and forwards across a century that began at a time when the Kimberley was a lawless place and still operated by its own rules in the middle of the 20th century:

Two Bob’s annual pilgrimage always started with a visit to Bertie Ahmad’s camp in Derby.  Bertie had closed down his trading post that catered to the drovers and prospectors and other battlers of an era that had all but disappeared.  But the shopfront had only ever been a part of his business.  He was a go-to man for the bushmen of the Kimberley hinterland with goods of dubious provenance—a station manager doing a little business on the side, or a countryman who had mysteriously come into possession of some item of value.

Billy was no longer up to the trek through the Leopolds to Halls Creek, but still managed to coax a little gold from his secret reef.  Bertie, in retirement on his block behind the meatworks, was happy to receive a visitor like Two Bob, and exchange a stack of grubby notes for some gold flakes.  Money in hand, Two Bob would head up to Elders at a quiet time the next day, load up with stores then head back up the Gibb River Road. (p.96)

You can tell from that excerpt that Two Bob doesn’t want to draw any attention to his journey back to his father Billy Noakes’ refuge in a secret valley.  Billy and Bessie fled there in 1916 after a murder, and they’ve never left.  While their sons Bob (a.k.a Janga and Hamlet) and Two Bob (a.k.a Wajarri and Othello) left as adolescents to make their way in the wider world, their daughter Sarah is too spooked ever to leave.   Billy and Bessie don’t even see their grandchild Milly until Two Bob’s wife Marj is in hospital with diabetes, so Two Bob grasps the opportunity to take her to the valley.  Even Marj doesn’t know of its existence.

Decades later Milly’s adolescent son Dancer falls foul of a bikie gang, and needs to scarper from Broome.  At the same time, his uncle’s funeral brings an ageing Two Bob into town after years with no contact.  He needs help back at Highlands Station, which is in danger of going under.  As Dancer sets off with his father Andy to Highlands station in the back of beyond, he feels uneasy because he has so many unanswered questions about his family, especially the disappearance of his mother when he was only a year old.  But the outback begins to work its magic:

There’s something about the sensation of rolling like a road train down this thin strip of bitumen that helps him deal with the unease that he feels.

The bush is changing.  There are more boabs on either side of the road.  Then they float down a gentle descent and plough along the road’s furrow through what seems a limitless, almost treeless plain dotted with a city of dun-brown anthills.  There is a faint shimmer of the ranges ahead.  It’s a landscape too old and wondrous to concern itself with his problems. (p71)

It isn’t long before Two Bob’s other agenda emerges: he wants to take Andy and Dancer into the valley…

Hawke’s intimate knowledge of the Kimberley and its people derives from his own venture into the area when he was 19.  His profile at the front of the book tells us that was captivated by the country, the history and the people and he stayed for fifteen years working for Aboriginal communities and organisations. Though he now lives in the hills outside Perth he still continues his strong association with the Kimberley, returning most years. Time in this book is only occasionally mentioned by year but more often by landmark events: the persisting fear of light-skinned Indigenous children being stolen; a station-owner decamping to enlist in WW2; the achievement of equal wages in the cattle industry; and the emergence of Land Councils as it becomes possible for Indigenous people to reclaim ownership of traditional lands.  Only later in the book when the arrival of Telecom towers enables phone, fax and TV, are there references to popular music to date the arrival of our own time.

The chronology isn’t linear, conveying both a sense of timelessness and the way that all the characters have to piece together the stories that have shaped them from the past. At times it can be challenging to work out what’s going on but in the end it’s better just to surrender to not knowing until it is—as it is for the characters themselves—judged that the time is right for you to know.

I found it captivating that there could still be places like The Valley that remain wholly off the grid.  But Hawke doesn’t present the place as a romantic hideaway.  It begins as a fortress for a warrior resisting the new way of life brought by European settlement, but with Marralam’s death it becomes more of a refuge from a justice system that could imperil all the members of the family.  As the generations pass through it, the valley becomes a place to escape from into the wider world of opportunities and a prison for those who remain behind, too scared to leave it.

When checking out Fremantle Press, I discovered that Hawke also has a new book called Out of Time. He is also the author of a play about the Bunuba resistance fighter called Jandamarra. Do click the link, the ABC report includes footage of the breathtaking Kimberley area hosting rehearsals for the play’s transition to an choral work to be performed at the Sydney Opera House.

Author: Steve Hawke
Title: The Valley
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2018, 256 pages
ISBN: 9781925591187
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $27.99

Available from Fishpond: The Valley

Alerted by her biographer Nathan Hobby to the 50th anniversary of the death of Australia’s ‘world famous revolutionary authoress’ Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), I’ve commemorated the event by reading one of her short stories at Trove.  Published in The Bulletin (Vol 28, No 1405, 17 Jan 1907) ‘The Kid’ is a gothic bush story, and Nathan thinks it’s the best of her early work. 

In 2000 words, KSP tells the poignant story of an unloved child, nameless and deprived of all consolation.  She conveys the child’s life through the characterisation of her parents: The Kid’s only friend, a young stockman called Ben, tells the parson that McDonald, her father is a brute, and that her stepmother Leeze hates her.  Too often Ben has seen her driving cows on the range in every weather —storms, mists, snow—barefoot, and red an’ blue with cold, drenched and hungry. He has sheltered her in his rudimentary way when she has come to him covered in bruises.  He has fed her, and let her sleep by the fire, troubled by the way that she didn’t cry as children usually do.

Now it is Ben who sounds the alert when the Kid goes missing.  She had come to him, deeply troubled when Leeze’s babe had died. In the grinding harshness of her life, this baby was her sole solace,  as she lavished on it the love she had never had herself:

The Kid learned how to make him chuckle and crow, make his eyes twinkle up and the soft cheeks dimple. She often stole him away when she was minding cows on the hills. Hours long, they frolicked together in the bush of the hills and in the long meadowy paddocks. She crooned him to sleep with wild unmusical lulling tones, lavishing love and tenderness on the neglected thing—the love and tenderness, savage and untaught, that is instinct.

She is too young and ignorant to know what death is, but she knows what their time together meant to both of them:

“They deaded him!” said the Kid obstinately; “’n’ if his inside’s gone away, so’s there ain’t only the outside of ’im left, ’e can’t go rollin’ in the grass when the daisies is out. ’E can t pluck the gold-tops, or go after the cows with me; ’n’ he liked it! ”

“Oh !” she wailed, bitterly, “ ‘n’ ‘e liked it. ’E pulled me ’air, ’n’ I seed the peepin’ black eyes of ’im in the grass ! We’d be squallin’ ’nd yellin’ all the day ; ’n’ I’d take ’im home poddy-back. They sha’n’t put ’im in a hole ‘n’ cover ’im up with dirt.”

She had overheard the parents arguing about the burial.  She fled to Ben with the body, anxious about God’s plans for the dead baby because the parson has told her that God gets ’em.

“Y’re a pag’n, Kid ! ” he said. “ ’E don’t want yer babe till he’s dead. Folks have been stuffin’ yer with bogey-yarns—ter scare yer, I reck’n.” He paused in the afternoon sunshine, sat on his leg a moment, and swept the heavy sweat from his forehead.

“When a man’s dead, something that was him goes. The outside’s the same. Something inside of him is taken away. The rest’s most-ways what’s called a mystery! That’s a bit to scare yer, too. It’s like gettin’ bushed in a fog, Kid, to think about. You go along with the first man that says ’e cen put yer ou the right track. The red-haired parson says, when a man dies, if e sings ’n’ prays, ’e goes straight to is happy home in ’eaven. Father Shaunessy says ’e camps a bit, this side in Purgat’ry. His friends mostly say e goes to Hell straight. There’s another gent what says ’e don’t go ’t all, says ’e stays in the earth n rots, ’n’ that’s all. Go fast, go slow, go anyhow, ’n’ don’t go’t all—there’s some as says that’s what happens when yer die.”

The Kid kept her arm tight clasped about the red-flannel shawl. She pressed it to her. Her thought of it was too intense to follow Ben’s theological preamble.

It’s only when Ben realises what she is holding in her arms that it dawns on him that her questions are more than theoretical.  In his alarm, he tries to tell her a comforting lie about parents that he knows are not at all like ‘most people’.

“ But I say, Kid, when folks die they’ve got to be buried, whether they go to heaven or where, said Ben with dawning comprehension in his eyes.

“If y’ babe’s dead,” he said slowly and with many stoppings. He was rough and simple, this youth of the backwoods. His eyes covered the waif with a clear glance of fellowship and sympathy. They divined the pitiful love and ignorance, the unreasoning human, passionate pain through which the child was laboring. “If y’ babe’s dead,” he said, slowly, “ likely they’ll be good to ’im. ’E was a little ’un, yer know, ’n’ ’n most people’s good to little ’uns.”

The Kid’s conversation with Ben about God, and Ben’s simple explanations prompted me to ask Nathan if KSP had any religious belief.  This was his reply:

During her father’s depression when “The Kid” was written, she was still trying to hold onto her Anglican faith, despite many doubts. Her father was very devout, and she would pray with him and promise to believe in God if he would cure him.  She dates her confirmed atheism from his death [by suicide] in June 1907.

I wonder what the Bulletin’s readers thought when they read this story.  It was a different era, of course, but child protection services began to develop in the 1890s amid greater awareness of abuses.  This story from 1907 may have been KSP’s way of demonstrating that children in isolated rural areas—where 95% of Australians lived and worked in the early twentieth century—were especially vulnerable.

To find out more about KSP and to be among the first to know when Nathan’s biography is finished, follow him @nathanhobby or his blog Nathan Hobby, a Biographer in Perth

Source: 1880, The Bulletin John Haynes and J.F. Archibald, Sydney, N.S.W viewed 30 September 2019 http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-637733699.  Read ‘The Kid’ for yourself here. Links to another short stories are at Nathan’s blog here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2019

2019 Queensland Literary Awards shortlist announced

The 2019 Queensland Literary Awards shortlist has been announced. Thanks to Michelle Vecchio from Shout Communications for the press release and the image collection.

The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award – $15,000
• Bodies of Men (Hachette) by Nigel Featherstone, see my review
• Too Much Lip (UQP) by Melissa Lucashenko, see my review
• Shell (Scribner) by Kristina Olsson, see my review
• Exploded View (Text) by Carrie Tiffany, see my review
• Daughter of Bad Times (Allen & Unwin) by Rohan Wilson, see my review

University of Southern Queensland History Book Award – $10,000
• From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got Compulsory Voting (Text) by Judith Brett, see my review
• An Unconventional Wife: The Life of Julia Sorrell Arnold (Scribe) by Mary Hoban
• Kindred: A Cradle Mountain Love Story (MUP) by Kate Legge
• A New History of the Irish in Australia (NewSouth) by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall
• You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World (Text) by Clare Wright, see my review

University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection – $10,000
• Zebra: And Other Stories (Pan Macmillan) by Debra Adelaide, see my review
• The True Colour of the Sea (Penguin Random House) by Robert Drewe, see my review
• The Drover’s Wives (Brio) by Ryan O’Neill

Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance – $25,000
• The Night Dragon (UQP) by Matthew Condon
• Boy Swallows Universe (HarperCollins) by Trent Dalton
• Meditations with Passing Water (Rabbit) by Jake Goetz
• Wintering (Text) by Krissy Kneen
• Too Much Lip (UQP) by Melissa Lucashenko, see my review

The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award – $10,000
• Boy Swallows Universe (HarperCollins) by Trent Dalton
• Requiem with Yellow Butterflies: A Memoir (UWA Publishing) by James Halford
• Wintering (Text) by Krissy Kneen
• Too Much Lip (UQP) by Melissa Lucashenko, see my review
• Brisbane’s Greek Cafes: A Million Malted Milks (Teacup) by Toni Risson
• Charles Ulm (Allen & Unwin) by Rick Searle
• Adani, Following its Dirty Footsteps (Spinifex) by Lindsay Simpson (I don’t understand why this one isn’t among the awards for a work of state significance!)
• Daughter of Bad Times (Allen & Unwin) by Rohan Wilson, see my review

Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award – two awards of $12,500 each
• Ella Jeffery
• Emily O’Grady
• Ellen van Neerven
• Yen-Rong Wong

The University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award – $15,000
• Dr Space Junk vs The Universe: Archaeology and the Future (NewSouth) by Alice Gorman
• An Unconventional Wife: The Life of Julia Sorrell Arnold (Scribe) by Mary Hoban
• Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature (Text) by Stuart Kells
• The Eastern Curlew (Affirm) by Harry Saddler
• Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (HarperCollins) by Christina Thompson

Griffith University Children’s Book Award – $15,000
• Leave Taking (UQP) by Lorraine Marwood
• Black Cockatoo (Magabala) by Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler
• The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars (Allen & Unwin) by Jaclyn Moriarty
• His Name was Walter (HarperCollins) by Emily Rodda
• Chalk Boy (Allen & Unwin) by Margaret Wild and Mandy Ord

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award – $15,000
• Small Spaces (Walker) by Sarah Epstein
• How It Feels to Float (Pan Macmillan) by Helena Fox
• Lenny’s Book of Everything (Allen & Unwin) by Karen Foxlee
• The Bogan Mondrian (UQP) by Steven Herrick
• Catching Teller Crow (Allen & Unwin) by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection – $10,000
• Hot Take (Hunter) by Liam Ferney
• Newcastle Sonnets (Giramondo) by Keri Glastonbury
• That Sight (Cordite) by Marjon Mossammaparast
• The Lost Arabs (UQP) by Omar Sakr
• Blakwork (Magabala) by Alison Whittaker

QUT Digital Literature Award – $15,000
• V[R]ignettes by Mez Breeze
• Gothic Body, in Two Parts by Eda Gunaydin
• Psychometric Researches by Benjamin Laird
• ITERATION – Part 3/Chapter 3 by CB Mako and MJ Flamiano
• The Wonders of Lost Trajectories by Jason Nelson

David Unaipon Award for an Emerging Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Writer – $15,000
Eligible entrants will receive author development activities through State Library including mentorship, editorial advice, and guidance on opportunities, pathways and artistic development, in consultation with the Award partners, Copyright Agency Cultural Fund and University of Queensland Press. [The shortlisted writers haven’t been named yet.]

Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer – $15,000
• Little Birds by Sue Goldstiver
• The Still Point of Being by Karen Hollands
• Apparitions by Jack Lio
• Henry Hamlet’s Heart by Rhiannon Ratcliffe Wilde

It’s disappointing to see that the prize money is still as stingy as it was last year. The total prize pool $253,500 up by $3,500 from last year. A quarter of a million dollars is chicken feed in a state budget. If the Premier really meant it when she said “Queensland has incredible home-grown writers and literary talent and I’m proud to continue championing their achievements through these awards which my government has proudly supported since 2015,” then it’s high time those authors were eligible for some decent prize money that could really make a difference to whether they have time to write or not.

For more information: Queensland-literary-awards

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2019

Blood Kin, by Ceridwen Dovey

Blood Kin (2007) is the hugely impressive debut novel of Sydney author Ceridwen Dovey, whose fiction I discovered when I recently read and reviewed In the Garden of the Fugitives (2018). And it’s not just me who’s impressed: Blood Kin was published in 15 countries, and shortlisted for the 2007 Dylan Thomas Prize.  Dovey was also selected for the 2009 US National Book Foundation’s ‘5 under 35’ honours list, and the Wall Street Journal named her as one of their ‘artists to watch.’  I see also from Dovey’s website that Blood Kin has been adapted for stage in Germany and I’m not surprised.  It would make an excellent film too.

Set in an unnamed country which hints at Latin America, Blood Kin is about power, and how even a small taste of it arouses the worst human instincts.  The book (an economical 185 pages) is in three parts, narrated in first person by six unnamed characters:

  • Part I: the three men taken into custody after a coup: the President’s portraitist; the President’s barber; and the President’s chef;
  • Part II: three women connected with the three men (in ways more than they know): the barber’s brother’s fiancée; the chef’s daughter; and the portraitist’s wife;
  • Part III: the aftermath: the barber; the portraitist and finally the chef.

The three men take to their detention in different ways, depending on the power they can wield.  The new Commander shows his power by treating them well: he has plans for them all. So, surprisingly, they share the luxury of the guestrooms of the President’s Summer Residence, and though the food is rudimentary they are fed twice daily.

But the terror of the coup is obvious: the sous-chef was shot because he tried to escape.  The chef, however, adapts quickly to cooking gourmet delicacies for the Commander who has taken over.  Even in this situation the chef  has power: of course they can search him for dangerous implements and they can supervise his cooking, but just as he knows how to prevent food poisoning he knows how to cause it too, undetected…

The barber has reason to support the coup because his brother was shot under the President’s regime.  He had, in fact, inveigled his way into the President’s employ to avenge his brother.  Barbers, after all, with their scissors and razors, have every man they serve temporarily in their power… but this one creates trust by insinuating a little sensuality into what is an intimate procedure.  He wanted to lull the President into a false sense of security but each day he could not find the will to slit his throat.

Both the chef and the barber can only exercise their power at some risk to themselves.

The portraitist saw the President’s bodyguards shot.  They simply crumpled where they stood, like puppets a child has lost interest in.  He is distraught because he has been separated from his pregnant wife and, powerless to protect her, he is not even allowed to see her.  But even he has power, though it’s of a different kind:

I know that a portrait is one of the trappings of power, that each one I painted increased the President’s control by a fraction; that the image of him, freshly rendered in oils, hanging in Parliament, had some value outside of itself, that it strengthened his legitimacy, and it will do the same for this man sitting before me.  (p.78)

The connections between these three and the women are revealed in the women’s narration.  They are less pragmatic, more willing to take risks, and also more judgemental.  The barber’s brother’s fiancée, for instance, thinks he is a traitor because he didn’t take the opportunity to kill the President.  All three of them have power too, but no one should spoil this meticulously crafted plot by revealing how they exercise it.

Other reviews are at Book Forum (where you can also see a startlingly different cover image of the book).

Author: Ceridwen Dovey
Title: Blood Kin
Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia, 2015, 185 pages, first published by Atlantic Books 2007.
ISBN: 9780143573470
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:Blood Kin $20.45

Max Havelaar, subtitled The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, is the famous book that shamed the Dutch government into reforming the system of forced cultivation imposed on its colonial possessions in the Dutch East Indies.  Indirectly, it also led to Indonesian independence in 1945, because the reforms also included educational opportunities—leading to the development of an Indonesian elite, a national language and anti-colonial ambitions.  The only other book that I know that had a similar impact is Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) by José Rizal, translated by Harold Augenbraum, a novel which forged the independence movement in the Philippines.  Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote the Introduction to my edition, called Max Havelaarearthshaking‘ and (according to Wikipedia) ‘the book that killed colonialism.’

Multituli is Latin for ‘I have suffered greatly’ and it is the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker (1920-1887). While this book purports to be a work of fiction and much of it is, it is also an autobiographical account derived from Dekker’s experiences in the Dutch East Indies, from which he returned ignominiously after 17 years in the colonial service.  His attempts at reform of the atrocious treatment of the peasants had failed and on his return to the Netherlands he wrote this book to draw attention to the abuses he had tried to ameliorate.  (Also, it must be said, the book is a justification for his actions and an attempt to salvage a reputation he did not deserve).  Dekker’s ‘Comments and Clarifications’ to the 1875 edition convey his frustration and anger over the lack of reform, but he was not to know the influence his book would ultimately have.

First published in 1860, first translated into English in 1868, not translated into Indonesian until 1972, and now in a new edition translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay for the NYRB, Max Havelaar is a much more lively book than I had expected it to be. It’s structured as a book-within-a-book, framed by the fatuous observations of an Amsterdam coffee broker called Drystubble, (Batavus Droogstoppel), a name intended to arouse mockery.  Self-important, self-aggrandising and fulsomely patronising, this hypocrite prides himself on outsmarting his rivals and graciously growing his business through the hard work of people poorer than himself.  Into his hands comes a manuscript written by an author too poor to publish it.  He begins to read it almost by accident, and then decides to steal it, to publish the bits useful to himself.  He doesn’t do the work of editing himself: he hires Ernest Stern, the son of his best customer, in order to forestall his custom going to a cheaper rival.

The story proper begins in Java with the arrival of the new Assistant Registrar in Lebak. Max Havelaar emerges from a gruelling carriage ride over terrible roads with his wife Tina and small son Max, to be welcomed by various members of the colonial bureaucracy and their spineless Javanese collaborators from the aristocracy.  In a satirical tone the narrator explains beforehand how the colony is administered, making it clear that the entire system is designed to maximise profits from exports to the Netherlands, and that it causes extensive famines throughout the fertile lands of Java.  And, perhaps worst of all, by buying off the aristocrats, the system also ensures corruption to enable a luxurious lifestyle for the Adipati and his Dutch overlords while stifling any complaints or attempts to ameliorate the suffering of the peasants. (This is why Pramoedya Ananta Toer is so scathing about the Javanese aristocracy in his Buru Quartet).

Forced cultivation meant that the peasants had to grow coffee or spices instead of rice, and Max Havelaar is not as dopey as his superiors had assumed him to be.  The very first day after the stultifying formalities of welcome, he gives a speech to all the chiefs of Lebak that makes it clear that things are going to be different.  He says he is pleased to be working in such a poor place because there is so much to be done, and in the usual flattering style with which these people are usually addressed, he warns them that from now onward under his administration there will be justice instead of the usual obfuscation.

But Max has flaws.  He is in debt because of his impulsive generosity to those worse off than him (as well as to those pretending to be). His wife Tina is infatuated with him and interprets everything he does as noble, and though the stereotype of the Dutch housewife was an excellent manager of her household, Tina has no way of ensuring frugality while they pay off their debts.  And she makes no complaint about that.

Max thinks that since they are in a remote area his expenses will be small and their fortunes will be restored.  The reader can see from the outset that this is not going to happen, and also that the narrator’s admiration for Havelaar’s ambitions for reform is tinged with sardonic acknowledgement that his superiors and the local bigwigs will frustrate it. Max was chivalrous and brave, but, like the original Don Quixote, he often wasted his valour tilting at windmills. (p.73)

There are stories within stories in this novel.  At dinner with Verbrugge and Duclari, they tell stories over coffee.  (Tina can’t provide a dessert from her kitchen).  Max tells a story about a man’s endless discontent, always wanting more so that an angel granting his wishes elevates him to a king, the sun, clouds, and a rock, culminating in a return to labouring and being content at last.  This is a story about the desire for power, and it concludes by demonstrating the power of the labouring peasant, if only he realises it.

Havelaar then goes on (in a rather roundabout way) to tell the story of his demotion to the Lebak district. He stole a turkey from General Vandamme in Padang, where no one would help him after he was suspended and he was literally penniless. His suspension was over a technicality: his accounts weren’t in order because he’d been too busy quelling an uprising that could have ignited further unrest in Aceh (which the Dutch had just subdued).  He admits that his oversight of accounts was wanting, but it was very common when other local matters were a priority and everyone understood this.  Administrators were given leeway to sort it out and to repay the money themselves if need be.  But General Vandamme made an exception of Havelaar…

The real reason Vandamme suspended Havelaar was to prevent him from making enquiries about a missing child born in dubious circumstances (which incriminated Vandamme). First he sent Havelaar off on a job out of his area of responsibility, letting Havelaar think that this was an honour possibly leading to promotion.  It was of course intended as a bribe to curtail Havelaar’s investigation into the missing child.  That ruse having failed, Vandamme removed Havelaar from Natal so that he couldn’t attend to the accounts and fix them up. It’s no coincidence that this transfer takes place the very day after Havelaar mentions that as head of the police he’s looking into the disappearance.

And that’s not the only instance of Vandamme’s ambitions leading to corruption.  (Vandamme, BTW, is the name of a notorious French general under Napoleon).

Havelaar is, alas, naïve.  The reason why nothing is ever done in Lebak to relieve poverty and famine, is because everyone in the chain of command likes to report that all is well, right up to the colonial government reporting to their masters in Amsterdam.  The ludicrous statistics sent about there being more rice in Java than there could possibly be, reminded me of Yan Lianke’s The Four Books which reveals how production targets were inflated to appease Mao.  But the acrid tone of this critique reveals Dekker’s bitterness about his own career:

It is almost always unpleasant to bring bad tidings, and it seems that some trace of the unpleasantness of such tidings always clings to the man whose unhappy task it is to deliver them. While this alone might lead some people, against their better judgement, to deny the existence of some inopportune fact, how much greater the temptation when you run the risk not merely of incurring the disfavour that is the messenger’s inevitable fate, but of actually being regarded of the cause of the unfortunate situation you are duty bound to disclose. (p.185)

As the novel makes its way towards its conclusion, the fatuous critique of Drystubble (when he realises  what his protégé Sterne has done with this inflammatory text) fails to offset the bitterness of Dekker’s account.  He is unable to control himself, and reveals himself as the author of the polemic.  The Comments and Clarifications, and Notes which follow the end of the novel only serve to reinforce his anger and frustration.

Highly recommended as a masterpiece of colonialism critique.

Simon reviewed it too, at Tredynas Days.

The cover image is by Raden Saleh, and it’s called Merapi Volcano, Eruption at Night, 1865, courtesy of Naturalis Biodiversity Centre Leiden.   (Merapi is the active volcano that brooded over Universitas Gadjah Madah when I was in Yogyakarta studying Indonesian there in 1996, two years after it erupted killing 27 people.)

Author: Multatuli, pen-name of Eduard Douwes Dekker
Title:  Max Havelaar, or The Coffee Auction Houses of the Dutch Trading Company
Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke and David McKay
Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Publisher: NYRB Classics (New York Review Books), 2019, 289 pages extended to 355 pages with Comments and Clarifications, Notes and a Glossary.  First published in 1860.
ISBN: 9781681372624
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $22.90

Available from Fishpond: Max Havelaar

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2019

Maybe the Horse Will Talk, by Elliot Perlman

As you know if you’ve read his Meet an Aussie Author profile, Elliot Perlman is one of my all-time favourite authors.  No other author that I know of has so consistently been able to combine social critique and an exploration of the human condition, within novels that are unputdownable.

As an added bonus, Perlman’s latest novel Maybe the Horse Will Talk is set in Melbourne, in the streets and alleyways of our corporate jungle, our bars and cafés, and even in Hawthorn’s tree-lined streets and manicured gardens where it is said that people tend not to die because they’re already in heaven.

Maybe the Horse Will Talk is the story of lawyer Stephen Maserov, who is absolutely terrified of losing the job he hates.  Bound by the mortgage on the family home, (from which his wife Eleanor has evicted him because he’s never home anyway) he—like every other lawyer employed by Freely Savage Carter Blanche (!)— lives in fear of the regular staff culls and the inevitability of losing his job.    And so it is that when he stumbles upon a risky opportunity to stave off looming unemployment, he abandons caution and walks an extraordinary tightrope, while the senior partners sabotage him at every turn.

Maserov wangles himself into secondment in the office of a major client called Torrent Industries, where his more than somewhat awkward task is to make the claims of sexual harassment go away.  Maserov is an ethical man so this (to put it mildly) puts him in a bind.

This issue gives Perlman an opportunity to articulate the problem of sexual harassment with forensic precision.  The value of this is that men are going to be reading this book and getting the message that (a) sexual harassment is morally wrong and (b) it’s stupid for any business to risk its reputation and the cost of litigation.  Jessica, Maserov’s colleague at Torrent Industries is being harassed by a senior colleague called Frank Cardigan, and she needs Maserov to stay behind after work to be nearby in case of trouble.  ‘Trouble’, she knows, has already been very serious indeed for other women, but Maserov has a crucial meeting with one of the sexual assault victims so he can’t help that night.  And he sees beyond her usual office hours corporate demeanour that she is genuinely frightened.  When he gently asks her about it, she acknowledges that while the corporate workplace delivers all kinds of fear because of the way power operates, there’s a whole additional level of terror and disequilibrium that most men never really understand.  

A woman in the workplace has her clothes discussed by her male colleagues, her appearance, her body shape, changes in her body shape, her reaction to sexual innuendo, to off-colour jokes about sex, unwanted, unasked-for flirting and her reaction to that, fear of casual bodily contact all the way along the continuum, offers to trade sexual favours for career advancement and the consequences of rejecting them, blackmail and every conceivable permutation of sexual harassment and assault all the way down the line to rape.  There’s no overtime, no salary, no perks of the job that make any of that worthwhile. (p.114)

Jessica, who works in HR, wants to introduce policies and programs to redress the endemic sexual harassment at Torrent Industries, but she needs the CEO to recognise that it’s going to cost him money and reputational damage if he doesn’t.  It’s this problem—not the one that he’s been hired to settle—that Maserov wants to resolve, for Jessica and all the other women in the office, as well as the ones who’ve left because of their experiences.  (It made him feel sick to read their statements about what was done to them in this workplace.) His quandary is that his temporary reprieve from unemployment depends on him maintaining the status quo for the CEO—who is well aware of the behaviour of his male employees and isn’t interested in preventing further assaults, only in making the existing claims go away.  For Maserov, keeping his job is about more than paying the mortgage: any hope he has of saving his marriage depends on him keeping the family home.

If you’re wondering about the strange title, it’s explained by a story that Maserov tells his little boy at bedtime.  (Evicted from the family home he may be, but he still comes every night to bath the  kids and put them to bed.  Maserov worries about many things but he thinks that, theoretically anyway, many disasters such as unemployment and economic humiliation are reversible.  But your children not remembering your being around, not loving you, that’s irreversible.)  In the story he tells to Beanie, a jester about to be sacked by his king buys himself time by promising the impossible— and anything can happen in a year…

Well, in a masterpiece of deft plotting, Perlman resolves Maserov’s predicaments while delivering a fast-paced comic novel that while offering a lawyer as hero, skewers the legal profession, corporate corruption, the posturing with the Law Institute Journal, and a-hem, even elements of the publishing industry and their oh-so predictable book-club books! There are so many delicious scenes that I just had to share them with The Spouse over breakfast, and he chortled too.

For those who’ve only read Perlman’s previous novel The Street Sweeper (see my review) it may come as a surprise to discover that Maybe the Horse Will Talk is often laugh-out-loud funny. I loved his characterisation of Maserov’s colleagues in the legal profession because I myself have had occasion to meet some like Fleur Werd-Gelding, born ready to attack:

She had absorbed the overwork mania of the WeWork generation and its celebration of her indentured exploitation by the partnership. She was strikingly attractive with blue eyes and thick lustrous hair the colour of cruelty. And she was no slouch intellectually. She had a razor-sharp mind that smothered self-doubt before it gestated and this, along with a relentless need to succeed, led to a first-class honours degree. She had grown up around floodlit infinity pools, wineries, cattle stations the size of Luxembourg and beach houses bequeathed to her parents and their cousins by previous generations of Werds and Geldings. She had gone to an all-girl private school like her mother and her mother’s mother before her and, like them, she was expected to breed with a slightly older boy from the brother school and to share her genes with his in return for a share of his properties, shares and trust fund annuities. (p.109)

Highly recommended.

That clever cover design is by Alex Ross.

Update, the next day #Synchronicity! The Guardian has just published Elliot Perlman’s address to the Australian Booksellers Conference in June: Workers feel more stress and anxiety than ever before. We need to talk about this. 

Author: Elliot Perlman
Title: Maybe the Horse Will Talk
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2019, 331 pages
ISBN: 9780143781493
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: Maybe the Horse Will Talk

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