Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2012

Street to Street, by Brian Castro #BookReview

2013 Miles Franklin

2013 Miles Franklin Award

Street to StreetI enjoy two kinds of holiday reading.   Long lazy days call for undemanding books that can be easily devoured, but they also allow for challenging books, the kind of books that require concentration and time to reflect i.e. time that I don’t always have during term time.

Street by Street by Brian Castro, is one of such books.  It’s only 149 pages long but it would do this thought-provoking novella a disservice to imply that it’s a quick and easy book to read.  The blurb says that it’s a ‘comic-tragic enactment of the anxieties of the writing life’ ostensibly using the life of Sydney poet Christopher Brennan (1870-1932)  as its focus.

Australian poetry is not my forte and if I’ve ever read any of Brennan’s poems, it would have been at school or university and I don’t remember them.  So the interest for me lay in why Castro has chosen to create a fictional mirror-image of Brennan in the form of his would-be biographer called Brendan Costa.  (CB and BC, see?)

What do they have in common?  Well, they’re both failures, who fail because Australian mediocrity and anti-intellectualism makes it so.  I’ll quote from the press release so as not to misrepresent the author:

To survive as a literary writer is difficult enough anywhere, but in Australia is well-nigh impossible.  A lack of appreciation for style, the failure to elevate language, the absence of reverence for eloquence, have all combined to a realist vernacular struggling in parochial fashion to make a mark in the vast Anglophonic sphere.

I wanted to write about failure.  In particular, about the way literature had been, and is viewed in Australia as encompassing both failure and redemption.  Yet redemption is hardly ever forthcoming in the face of a widespread and pragmatic belief in progress. 

If you are reluctantly nodding in agreement, then Street by Street is your kind of book.

I’m amused by Castro’s portrayal of Costa’s travails at work.  To his own surprise he picks up a job as an academic.

Students attending his course, [Patrick] White and Australia: Neglect and Nation Building, dwindled to eight loyal youngsters.  They sat in the back row of the huge lecture theatre and fiddled with their mobile phones.  They were not the brightest, he noted when he counted them, but they took copious notes on their iPads.  Maybe they were porn surfing or dealing with their thousand friends on Facebook.  Lost worlds circled his words; they formed a micro-halo behind his brow and the inevitable falsity of thought without feeling generated an odour of disinfectant from the lectern and the microphone.  He was teaching, but the university thrived not on that, but on the Meeting.  The Meeting was the seat of power.  (p. 63)

Oh dear, poor Costa.  He is no good at relationships, he drinks too much, and (unforgiveable sin!) he doesn’t read his email.  The university doesn’t think much of the work he would like to do in a cabin in the Blue Mountains with only a bottle for company.

‘It was not productive, was neither teaching nor learning, and writing poetry which few would read was terribly selfish, indulgent, promiscuous and downright destructive of higher education’.  (p. 62)

So they schedule the Meeting for lecture times when he can’t get there, where others in the department try to ditch White from the curriculum and offload their workloads.  (‘I don’t suppose he could teach Extimacy and Post-Colonial Desire? p. 64′)

I didn’t think anyone could rival David Lodge’s Small World  for taking the mickey out of university life, but Castro has a wicked pen:

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor believes in ‘student experience’.  Just what that was, Costa didn’t know.  University was where students had most of their experiences, outside the curriculum, like having sex, discovering languages, taking drugs, getting drunk.  Only now they probably did things like vomiting while having group sex, speaking in tongues while shooting up.  Multi-tasking. (p. 66)

This sequence about how the trendy babble of student empowerment is used for power plays involving grants and workload distribution is hilarious.   His colleague ‘the Labrador’ knows how to play the game: ‘Literature’, he said, ‘is about what is popular.  Popular is getting through adversity’.  (p. 66).

Adversity aplenty waits for Costa.  On the night he learns he has to teach Old Norse (to whom, I wonder?) he drowns his sorrows at the pub with an hilarious game of intellectual ping-pong where he and ‘the Labrador’ gang up on a humorless colleague who takes all discussion in deadly earnest.  He is guided home afterwards by his senile dog Dante, where one woman’s email tells him it’s all over and another woman’s answer-phone message spells change of a different kind.  His invention of a relationship ‘made not only in heaven but by literature‘ (p. 89) is about to be tested.

But Castro (one of my nominees for Australia’s next Nobel Prize) is not just taking droll pot-shots about the vacuity of universities that have never recovered their gravitas since the so-called Dawkins Revolution*.   Costa is both out-of-his-depth and well above it because for all his self-inflicted flaws he represents the lost world of scholarship that values style, elevated language and pure eloquence that Castro mourns.  His mirror-image Brennan is the same, floundering around trying to do life when really he should have been an Oxford Don back in the days of eccentrics like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Except, of course, that Castro’s whole point is that there is no place in Australia, then or now, for minds like that.  We value cultural diversity but not intellectual diversity.

We’re also not very good at detecting irony, not when it comes to the sanctified First World War.  Brennan, having left home to get some peace and quiet, finds himself in 1914 disbarred from sleeping in his sanctuary i.e. his room at the university.  This is for ‘security reasons’, he is told.  (The war, of course, is thousands of kilometres away in Europe).   He is, however, able to break into his own house in Mosman, undetected by anyone, where his German mother-in-law rules the roost and (to get rid of him again) is able with impunity to sell and buy much further away in Newport.  From there it takes hours for Brennan to get to the university so he has to take a hotel in the city during the week…

Castro’s fiction (or what I’ve read of it)  is playful, and here he plays with the narration too.  The third person narration segues between Costa’s messy life and Brennan’s, and an occasional intrusive first person narration commenting on the mirroring between the two. This narrator is someone who ‘knows’ Costa, someone who is also a fictional creation.  He takes a back seat for much of the novella, so that when he turned up again at the end of the book I had lost the thread of who this narrator was.  It was the ‘mean and lonely backyards, choko vines and the infinitude of dank lives‘ (‘street to street‘ in Balmain but 80 years apart on p. 20 and p. 131) that made me smack my forehead with the belated realisation that dogs are man’s best and most loyal friends.

Sam van Sweden, at Little Girl with a Big Pen, found resonances with the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges but it is so long since I read any Borges that I didn’t pick that up.  With Castro, re-reading is always rewarding because there are always more discoveries to make.  (Here, like Costa,  a-hem, I am  forming thoughts in the subjunctive mood).   The dog is called Dante for a reason and the cover is a fiery red so I suspect there is more than the quotation from Canto xxxiv to think about – but *blush* I still haven’t read The Inferno so that is for another day…

*Would you believe that one of our universities which shall remain nameless, is setting Jasper Jones (!) as required reading for all its undergraduates in 2013?  Yes, not just students of literature (is JJ literature?  really?) but medicine and engineering and history too.  My heart aches for them…

Author: Brian Castro
Title: Street to Street
Publisher: Giramondo Shorts, 2012
ISBN: 9781920882952
Source: review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Availabiity
Fishpond: Street to Street
Or direct from Giramondo


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa, I’ve yet to sample BC (Castro, that is!)… and I keep reading your Nobel proclamations about him so I best remedy that. Which would you suggest I read first? John

    • Oh dear, that’s a tough call! My favourite so far is The Bath Fugues, but The Garden Book was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and won the Qld Premier’s Lit Award as well. I read that before I started blogging and so *sly smile* it would be nice if you read that one so that there would be an online review of it…

  2. A great review. I know of Brian Castro but would like to know him better, because your review revealed him as something of a satirist, someone almost non-existent from the often portentous Australian literary scene. And, through Castro, you manage to emphasise an attitude that permeates not only the arts but everything Oz. If you are not a sportsperson in Australia you are like a refugee on life-raft, who will be exiled to somewhere worse than Coventry for life.
    As a poet, I can empathise with Castro unconditionally. Australians don’t want or need culture.

    • *chuckle* I feel your pain, Ken.
      But you know, it’s not that bad. Surveys show that more Australians read books and go to concerts than go to watch sport. Our mainstream media pretends otherwise because sport is a form of entertainment now inextricably linked to commerce, and the advertising dollar rules. All that money-making depends on people believing that liking sport is a vital aspect of Australian identity. (Remember John Howard’s absurd inclusion of a question about Bradman in the Citizenship Test?)
      The blogosphere allows space for other voices that are suppressed by the mainstream media’s preoccupation with Big Sport. Your blog, mine, and all the others assert the view that there is more to Australian culture than testosterone!

      • Yes, Lisa. But what do they read? If the remaining tawdry retail venues are any guide, it’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, cook books, ghosted biographies of dissolute rock idols and sensational fiction. You won’t find the last of the quality fiction writers, such as DeLillo and McEwan – or the classics.

        Classical music has also disappeared. As a child I was entranced by Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, the theme music for a radio serial. Commercial radio featured arias on Dick Fair’s Amateur Hour and the ABC had John Cargher’s singers of renown for many years. ABC classic FM is dying – and remember the ABC TV arts program Dalton demolished?
        It all began with ‘Rock Around the Clock’.

        • Ken, you’re in the wrong bookshops! Are you from Melbourne? Lurk with like-minded souls in Readings, or Readers’ Feast, or Top Titles in Brighton, or my favourite Benn’s Books in Bentleigh. Seek out the best of the 2nd-hand bookshops like Diversity Books in Mentone or the one in Hampton St, I can’t remember its name.

          Yes, I feel sad that today’s ‘music’ fobs listeners off with vocalists who can’t actually sing and many kids don’t ever hear really beautiful voices, but we must not despair. People always say that the audience for opera is dying but The Ring Cycle, coming to Melbourne in 2013 was sold out even before subscribers like me got home from work to read that the tickets were on sale.

          I miss Singers of Reknown too, it was part of my Sunday mornings for ages and its replacement is too, too awful for early morning when my tolerance is low, but the fact that ABC FM survives as a dedicated channel, with strong competition from 3PBS FM, is testament to the fact that there are lots of music lovers out there.

          • You are right, Lisa. I should have mentioned Readings, where I do buy a lot of books and DVDs – but a lot of the best bookshops have disappeared. I don’t live near any of those you mentioned, but I would also add Amazon UK, which is relatively cheap to ship, in comparison with Amazon US and Book World UK, for people like me.
            Again, you are right about continuing interest amongst an elite, and I am not necessarily referring to the affluent. I do know kids are being taught to play musical instruments – but mainly outside the classroom. Correct me if I’m wrong, but only the private schools, such as Scotch College, are able to create orchestras or string ensembles.
            Government schools have rock bands.
            I would suggest most kids are not interested, mainly because they don’t get the opportunity – and where do you start? Some would take to it immediately, but most would not, unless it was expertly taught.
            The two classical music channels do an enormous job for classical music lovers, but wouldn’t without government subsidies, or donations in the case of 3MBSFM.
            The music lovers are out there, but are they a dying race? Perhaps!
            I wish I had your optimism.

            • Maybe poets are just not meant to be optimists LOL …

              • I am an optimist because I have to be, otherwise I couldn’t write poetry.

  3. […] Street to Street (2012) […]


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