Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2020

The Glebe Point Road Blues, by Vrasidas Karalis

The Glebe Point Road Blues took me right out of my comfort zone in more ways than one.  It’s a book of combined prose and poetry which recreates the experience of being on Glebe Point Road in Sydney, but it’s a very particular view of that world.

For those of us not familiar with the area, Wikipedia tells us that it’s the main road through the inner city suburb of Sydney, and (unsurprisingly, since it looks a lot like Brunswick in Melbourne) it’s a boutique shopping strip with numerous restaurants and cafés.  We would, therefore, expect it to be populated by moneyed people whose spending habits can support such a plethora of eating options.   We could identify them by their ‘ironic’ clothing, i.e. shapeless, torn or ill-fitting, perhaps with a vintage item from an Opshop, but always worn with something expensive to indicate that the outfit is put together with irony, not thrift.   And we would expect that the cafés would sport one or two or lots more Helen Garner wannabees, writing their PhD-turned memoirs or novels over long slow lattes, probably on an Apple laptop (though perhaps a vintage fountain pen might suit the ambience better.)

Ok, I know, I know, I’m stereotyping in just the same way that city journalists stereotype suburbs as a wasteland full of conformists who tolerate bad coffee.  These journalists never venture out of their own postcode, but they imagine that suburbanites would happily sell their children in order to satisfy ambitions to squeeze into a microscopic inner-city terrace…   I’m afraid I can’t resist poking a bit of fun at these pretensions…

But still, Wikipedia’s image of a road full of boutique cafés and restaurants seems at odds with the people who populate The Glebe Point Blues. You’ve only got to look at the bleak cover design to recognise that.

The author, in an ‘Epilogue on Style’ calls these vignettes of lonely people narrative fragments which are exercises in intuitive realism. 

They don’t intend to present with fidelity, the factual world around us.  Realism can be a misleading concept: often it reduces events or individuals to the particulars which constitute them.  Reality however generates fiction because itself is the most blended form of human activity. (p.149)

Nevertheless, it seems to me, that a writer makes choices when he creates ‘intuitive realism’.  The focus of this work is on melancholy people transiting through, linked most of the time by only the road and the exchanges between an unidentified and oddly-detached narrator who seems to be the only stable person in the book.  He seems a little lofty.  There, but apart.  Interested in his subjects as subjects, not as people in need.  OTOH many of the people he encounters are drunk, or high, or spouting random bits of esoteric mysticism and philosophy that nobody else understands (including me).  Perhaps this breeds a sense of alienation or detachment.

The Glebe Point Blues is not like the fiction of Philip Salom, which introduces the reader to characters who are distinctive and yet familiar; they are every person you’ve ever met who doesn’t quite ‘fit in’, but you don’t care because you like them anyway. (The Returns, BTW, has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin, and rightly so.  I liked it even more than Waiting.)  Karalis’s people act in bizarre ways, but what is even more odd and somewhat distasteful is that no one seems to connect with anyone else.  Kieran, who has mental health problems, for example, reveals that he was searching for a guru, but Sydney’s cult of now and its timeless present moments means he can only remain a broken image.

In ‘The Moment’, the observer reports on a Hungarian Jew expelled from Iraq standing alone under the arches of Sydney University…

Aged seventy or more.  Grey hair, old-fashioned clothes, leather handbag.  He looks around in distress.  Tears are running down his face.
‘Memories.  Memories,’ he whispers.
A thick accent.  Middle Eastern.  Iraqi.  Gentle eyes full of dreams.
‘Nineteen fifty-three or four,’ he continues.  ‘When we fled Iraq.  All Jews were expelled then.  We had to travel through desert, mountains and marshlands to reach Israel.  For months imprisoned in our homes in Baghdad we waited for an escape to anywhere.  But even Zion was not destined for us.  We fled to Australia.’  (p.65)

Like everyone else in this collection he is lonely and melancholic and abandoned to his fate, vanishing forever in the realm of shadows, fleeting impressions and faded graffiti. 

Another Jewish refugee is from Hungary, whose hundreds of books are the only reminder of his presence after he committed suicide.  This motif of books, marginalia, poems and pages left behind after death or disappearance, hints at the hidden person who remains forever unknowable.

Second-hand books are important for the notes of their owners.  The notes and their names.  Especially the Ex Libris.  Their artwork is startling.  From another era, when the book followed the fate and the trajectory of its owner. (p.68)

Karalis is a professor at Sydney University, so it wasn’t surprising to find an academic’s critique of managerialism’s corrupting influence on the life of the mind:

‘You know,’ he replies passionately, ‘during my years here, I cam up with my most significant contribution to pure mathematics.  But unfortunately, I never wrote it down, or found the opportunity to share it, let alone to put it forward as an academic paper.
‘Why not?’
‘How could I do it with so many strategic plans and development models dominating the function of this institution?  I was seduced.  I succumbed.  Intellectual sloth numbed my mind. (p.71)

The tragedy of The Glebe Point Road Blues, is that these are the very people most in need of care and support during the pandemic, and it shows that they’re not very likely to get it, even from people who know them.

BTW to revert to the subject of stereotyping, British people come in for a bit of it in this book.  A professor is cautious, indirect — as befits her British upbringing. A drunk has an annoying British accent, an affected voice distinct over the inspiring cacophony of the pub. I’ll just note here that some of us have British accents that are not an affectation but rather a legacy of childhood and a signifier of a family that we love.  It is just as racist to insult us about it, as it is to insult someone with an accent from anywhere else.  In the circles I move in, people can speak English any way they like, in whatever accent they have, and be treated with respect. So I was surprised to see this kind of unnecessary unpleasantness in print.

Tom Lee (author of the highly amusing Coach Fitz) reviewed it for the SMH.

PS, the next day: I forgot to mention a pleasing bit of synchronicity… I was reading the poems, when I came across this, and made a note of it because I liked the image, if not the sentiment that happiness is often only fleeting:

Often happiness comes as fine needlework
on silk fabric, silver, sleek and slippery.  (p.163)

That very day, on her blog The Bookbinder’s Daughter, Melissa Beck (whose day job is teaching Latin and Ancient Greek) posted about the Three Fates and illuminated the allusion which I had otherwise missed:

In Roman myth the three Fates— Parcae in Latin Moirai in Ancient Greek— are referred to as sisters: Clotho, the youngest, is the spinner of a person’s life thread, Lachesis measures the final thread of life, and the dreaded Atropos cuts the thread of life.  Because of their absolute and unpredictable authority over all life—even Jupiter is subjected to their decisions—they are feared and rarely spoken about except in passing references.

Thanks, Melissa!

Image credit: Glebe Point Road, Wikiedia, by Adam.J.W.C. – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9654301

Author: Vrasidas Karalis
Title: The Glebe Point Road Blues
Cover and book design by Andras Berkes-Brandl
Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2020
ISBN: 9780648523215
Review copy courtesy of Brandl & schlesigner


Responses

  1. Lisa I have to thank you for a laugh-out-loud moment at your description of the types who doubtless frequent Glebe Point Road – horrifyingly true, especially the bit about the Op Shop purchase teamed with something costly, and HG penning her memoirs …but Mosman is even worse, trust me!

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    • LOL I couldn’t help myself…
      (The devil made me do it).

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  2. Oh yes, the accent thing, a very dear friend from England expressed surprise that I was able to teach English in France – “but, your accent” she said. Sigh. I don’t think it was racist, more of that ‘colonial thing’, meanwhile some of the French students said they preferred an American teacher, because they wanted that accent, and others said they prefer a European, because their accent in English is easier to understand than British, American or any other native English speaker. And also, the young male French student who said, ‘I want to get rid of my French accent when I speak English’, never do that I said, the rest of the world find it utterly charming, especially the young women where you are going to, it seems everywhere we go there will some who find an accent irritating and others equally charmed by it.

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    • Alas, here antipathy to the kind of British accent I have, is inverted snobbery. Some people seem to think that it’s an affectation, and that you’re putting it on to give yourself airs and graces. For me, it’s just how I talk, though LOL I did notice that it was always more pronounced after I’d been visiting my mother.
      I did some radio shows with the Spouse every now and again, a while ago now, and I always sound even more British when I’m at a microphone, I can’t help it. One day, someone I thought was a friend who was on air after us, had a grand old time with his partner at the microphone, mocking my accent in a parody. They thought it was hilarious, but it was once too often for me, and I’ve never spoken to him since.
      After all, anyone who knows me and my politics, knows that I don’t have a stately home and hunting dogs…

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  3. This made me laugh. Each year a friend of mine from Port Macquarie and I spend a week in Sydney. As we stay in the reasonably priced old art deco The Great Southern hotel near central station we always make a day to have breakfast on Gleebe Pt Rd. Glee Bookshop and another lovely bookshop (2nd hand) is there which is the main attraction. We run into Uni students mainly, a couple of quirky shopkeepers, quite trendy and parents in expensive cars taking their kids to a large school there. The book descriptions you mention aren’t ones I have encountered. I must pay closer attention. I also know what you mean about denigrating accents. I’ve been told a couple of times if I want to live here (have been here 31 yrs) I need to get rid of my American accent. Right. Makes me laugh….as if. Though while working with a young student in the past as a speech pathologist, his mother thanked me for helping his fluency but wondered how she could get him to stop talking with my accent. We both had a good laugh.

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    • One of my dear neighbours has been here for decades, and gets very indignant if anyone asks if she’s American, but LOL we can still pick it a mile off and we love her for it.
      But I have witnessed a couple of cruel incidents in Europe where people were hassled for being American (Iraq, Afghanistan &c) and that’s just not fair. Individuals (especially when they’re on holiday) don’t represent a class or a country, and they don’t necessarily support the actions that the aggressor is angry about anyway. I don’t know what gets into people that they think it’s ok to be rude to complete strangers, we copped it a lot in New Zealand for being Australian, and it’s put me off ever going back there.
      if I ever go to Sydney, there are two places I want to go to: Reynold’s (MasterChef) Dessert Bar and GleeBooks.

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      • Glee Books is good but the second hand store almost next door has an even more interesting collection. (If still there). Sometimes while travelling in Europe we used to tell people we were Canadian but now stand up for Australia. I grew up in America before it was all so hopelessly awful, like now! No one makes more American jokes than we do. Haha

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        • LOL Occasionally when we’ve encountered Australians behaving badly, we’ve had to lie low and try not to speak in English.

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  4. I love your comments stereotyping Glebe Point Road. You’re not too far from the truth. Two comments from an almost-insider (I lived in Glebe in my 20s, and visit both ends of Glebe Point Road fairly often these days). First, the cover image isn’t so bleak if you know what it is. It’s a piece of sculpture by street artist Will Coles called Laissez Faire, a cement cast that turns up all over the place in the inner west of Sydney, I think of Will as working in the tradition of Arthur Stace who used to s]chalk ‘Eternity’ on the footpaths. My other point is that Sappho’s next door to Gleebooks, is still going strong. I’ll seek out the book.

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    • *chuckle*
      What an interesting piece of sculpture… laissez-faire so that you can walk all over people?
      Sappho’s!
      (I’ve read some of her poetry… Germaine Greer did a session on Sappho at Melbourne Uni’s Great Books series which I attended a few years ago.)

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      • Often the Laissez Faire masks are on a wall, sometimes i groups. I hadn’t thought of them as to be walked on, though that makes sense too. The balaclava suggests to me that so called laissez-faire capitalism is actually a form of robbery. He has many other tiny cement sculptures – a glove inscribed with the word GONE lies beside traffic lights; a shoe with FORGOTTEN; an AK-47 on the wall of a house near us has barrels at both ends. His stuff is usually grim, but in a bracing rather than depressing way.
        I don’t know how Sappho’s got its name. It does, or at least did, have regular poetry readings, but I think they started well after the naming.

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        • We’re starting to get some interesting street art as part of the landscaping of the new railway stations, under the level crossing removal project. But not grim: a new plaza at Mentone has some deck chairs, which the kids love to scramble over.
          I wish we had more sculpture of writers…

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