Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2022

The Lion in Love, by Kevin Brophy

Kevin Brophy AO is a poet, novelist, essayist, editor and book reviewer with a very impressive profile at Goodreads. Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne where he lectured in creative writing for twenty years, he is a Life Member at Writers Victoria and has been a judge for the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards four times.  In addition to his published collections, his poems and essays have been anthologised in multiple collections and literary journals, and he was awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry in 2005. He was co-winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay in 2009, his book Creativity, was shortlisted for the NSW Premiers Nonfiction Literary Award in 1999, and his fiction has been short-listed for the Vogel Prize and the Christina Stead award.

The book blurb tells me that his writing has chronicled urban Melbourne, especially the street life of his heartland Brunswick. It is Brunswick which is captured in the cover image of his new collection of short stories, The Lion in Love, published by Finlay Lloyd, a boutique non-profit publisher from Braidwood NSW. which is dedicated to encouraging imaginative and challenging writing, to subtly innovative design and to celebrating the pleasures of print on paper in an electronic age,

Not all of the seventeen stories, however, are set in urban Melbourne.  Demonstrating his range, Brophy’s harrowing ‘Apartment with Balcony’ is about a couple of young men who’ve been friends since school days, making their first foray overseas.  There is a social gulf between them because Herman comes from a wealthy family but the narrator is charmed by his easy grace.

Herman lit up another cigarette and squinted across at me.  He was ugly, though everyone had always loved him.  It had to do with the way he squinted and half-smiled at you, I thought.  He was intelligent too, which in his case meant he was interested in everything.  I don’t know when he did his reading, but art and history and literature were second nature to him.

Herman could afford cigarettes, movies, trips down the Great Ocean Road in his father’s car with stops for expensive fish meals at jetties and wharves along the way.  (p.103)

The dynamics of this relationship are established early in the story, as the narrator looks back on the innocence of youth.

Herman talked about girls mostly, and that was fine with me at that time.  Neither of us really knew any girls but talking about them was almost as good as knowing them.  Herman would tell me which ones had the best legs, which ones would fall for me or for him if we did go up to them and actually talk to them.  He was a dreamer, I guess.  I admired that, because it meant he might one day dream about more serious things, more ambitious things, once we got the talking-about-girls thing out of the way. And he would be okay, we both knew that, because he was from a wealthy-enough family of well-educated parents, uncles, aunts and cousins.  When he was ready for it, the right girl would hook up with him, we both knew that without having to say it.  Whether I would find a girl eventually was a more difficult question.  (pp.103-4)

The attractions of pet-sitting an aunt’s apartment in Amsterdam, for Herman, was freedom.  Both sets of parents are keen for the narrator to tag along too.  Herman’s parents want him accompanied by a responsible friend while the narrator’s parents are hoping that travel would lift his gloomy mood.

I was still thinking about death a lot.  He was still thinking about girls.  He had given me some basic information about Amsterdam on the way over in the plane.  I knew to expect canals everywhere, and to feel lost most of the time because the streets are laid out in circles like the spokes of a bicycle wheel.  I knew about the women in the windows, and that he was going to inspect every one of them before making his choice.  I knew about the cafés, especially the ones painted brown, where smoking dope was supposed to go on.  I expected to smell dope on every corner, but I didn’t.  It was hardly ever apparent. (p.107)

It’s after reading the story to its harrowing end then re-reading it, that the careful construction of its elements becomes apparent.  There is subtle foreshadowing about how this charmed life — with all its insouciance and entitlement — becomes a haunting memory.  The story is only 15 pages long, and yet the characterisation is utterly memorable.

‘The Googly’ is a sombre story about the hazards of ageing:

At work one day his immediate supervisor asked to see him.  His superior was a young man.  How long had it been the case that his superiors had been younger than him?  He felt like a soldier whose old and trusted generals had fallen, and now a new generation of ambitious commanders had occupied the tents, the towers, the positions of strategic importance. He had never been to war.  Why was he thinking like this? Why was his heart jumping like a child let loose inside him? He remembered something his younger brother had said, about the way words scarcely explain us but nevertheless they’re almost all we have.  By the time he had allowed these thoughts to move through him, his superior told him that there was a ‘bottleneck’ in the organizational structure, and that he would have to move aside.  A desk had been assigned to him, over there, and though his wage would remain the same impressive number of dollars, he would no longer be responsible for a whole floor of public servants.  We will find you some projects to work on, don’t worry.

His working life was suddenly without urgency and without importance.

He went home from work that day with everything changed though everything was exactly the same. (p.93-4)

One of the things to notice in this collection, is that it’s a masterclass in paragraphing.  Brophy’s stories have proper paragraphs, of a length that enables the elegant and coherent expansion of ideas.  Although of course the length varies, his paragraphs are often twice the length of those in a novel I have at hand on my desk  That one panders to the notion that long paragraphs are ‘difficult to read’, with paragraphs that rarely exceed 100 words in length.   Brophy’s paragraphs conform to the rule that I was taught, that new paragraphs signal a new idea, as opposed to chopping up the text to cater for a reader’s supposed lack of skill. Imagine how the rhythm of that excerpt would change if ‘By the time’ began a new paragraph, and consider how the impact of those two abrupt sentences would be diminished.

There is a lot to like in this collection, but to my surprise, my favourite is the titular story.  I am so ‘over’ people moaning about the pandemic, I have been dreading the tsunami of pandemic fiction that is about to hit us.  But ‘The Lion in Love’ made me laugh.  The ‘lion’ is a neighbour who lived a couple of houses down from us, and sat on his front verandah most days, on a cushioned wicker chair, reading. He reads thick paperbacks, and shows no sign of anxiety over running out of books to read before the pandemic ran its course. 

And why is he a lion?  Because the hairdressers are all closed during the lockdown!

I recognised him as a lion not just because, like the rest of us, his hair had begun to grow wild (no hairdressers open).  He let his beard grow too, a red beard, until his hair and beard were springing out from around his face.  After a month he was maned as handsomely as any great lion of the wilderness. But it wasn’t just his looks that made him the lion he was, it was—I don’t know how to write this without it seeming exaggerated—it was his lost nobility.  When he spoke to people passing by his house, his voice carried across the street as if making a speech to an audience that had come just to see him scratch himself or turn a page of a book or shake his magnificent hair around his head or even yawn powerfully like a lion remembering a former glorious life on an endless savannah, (p.164)

I remember the embarrassment of lockdown walks with my exercise buddy, neither of us vain but both of us in the habit of being well-groomed. Only the very best of intimate friends were willing to expose our wild and shaggy locks to each other!

Author: Kevin Brophy
Title: The Lion in Love
Publisher: Finlay Lloyd, 2022
ISBN 9780994516572, pbk., 167 pages
Review copy courtesy of Finlay Lloyd


Responses

  1. Oh, this sounds fab. I love the excerpts you have quoted.

    Like

    • I can’t understand why I’ve never come across his work before. I’d like to see if I can find one of his novels.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been highly recommended this book by another writer and have it too. So glad you liked it. Must try to get to it soon.

    Like


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